Nov 25, 2005

Fear and Loathing in Tumianuma

Good God man, we can't stop here... this is cow country!
Howling at the moon

It all started innocently enough. After a long bout of rapid fire destinations the MacAllen Brothers were weary of constant motion and wanted to settle in somewhere for a little while. We found a small organic farm in southern Ecuador to work, so we headed there trying not to distort our experience by imagining what it´d be like.

This turned out to be entirely unneccesary.
We couldn´t possibly have imagined what we´d find.

Although weary of hard travelling we weren´t looking for luxury. We were prepared for a lack of internet, phones, electricity and even running water. We were prepared for work, blisters, sweat, a bit of blood, and the occasional insect bite. Mostly, we were prepared for life, just for a moment, to settle down and wash over us undisturbed like a spring over a rock. We weren't in any way prepared for what was to come.

On our way to the farm we stopped at the nearby "big" town, Vilcabamba, for directions to the farm and meet a friend of the farms owner. Instead, we met the owner, Susan, and the rollercoaster ride began. She was having some serious health problems, hadn´t been to the farm in over a week but had plenty to share with us. Only eight years Ecuadorian, she is already very much a pillar within the local community and her respected words are very much in demand.

She was generous with those words in the hour or so we had in town with her. She explained with an open heart: life, her situation, some local politics and the workings of the farm. There was a lot of information, more than we thought we needed at the time: From how to get water from stream to the kitchen, the fact that her dopey english sheep dog was charming, but had a tendency to jump up on people, and likely would bite a person for approaching his food bowl, the neccesity of keeping the neighbors cows off the farm, to the sad story of an awkward local boy who sometimes came by to sell her wild animals he´d otherwise kill. We absorbed what we could, confident that the other volunteer already on the farm would show us the lay of the land, so to speak.

Just before we boarded the last daylight bus to Tumianuma, Hans, a bearded and grizzled old German expatriate of some twenty five years shows up con burro (with donkey), and a small siberian husky named Barbie in Tow. The dog, it turned out, lives on the farm, had followed Hans in to town and needed to go back home. Eager to please, we were happy to take the dog on the bus with us despite the instructions: "...No, people do it all the time. I mean, they'll tell you that you can't get on, and everyone will hate you but... I mean... y'all speak spanish, right?... Just tell 'em: 'no es brava, no es brava.'" Sweet, makin' friends already!

One of us managed Barbie,who ended up proving herself to be one of the coolest dogs this earth has seen, and the other wrestled a great big sack of sawdust and we both carried full packs and supplies for the week. Upon getting off the bus we had a worryingly long handwritten directions to follow up the footpath that were hard to read in the setting sun. After only one severely wrong turn, we eventually found ourselves, late, well after dark, on what we'd hoped was Susan's farm. It had everything it was supposed to have. The right gate, the right number of houses, the right number of dogs (once we got there), it even had the right key in the right place to open the doors. What it failed to have on it... was a single solitary person to tell us what the fuck we were doing in the middle of the Ecudorian mountain jungle!

Tyler surrounded by a thicket heavy with black rasperries

It turns out that the other inhabitant had gone a bit stir crazy after having spent most of a week alone on the farm. Likely, our busses crossed paths as he made his way out.

Unexpected as our situation was we did arrive in a slice of Eden. It is beautiful there; nestled in a valley the Andes stare down at you from every angle. The heavy flavorful fruit barely clings to the branches, just waiting for an open mouth to appear beneath. The farm is bounded on one side by a burbling creek to bring a cool splash to the dry equatorial heat of day as well as a soft cadence to the crisp, black night air.

We had brought in a big bottle of aged four year Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum, with which to break the ice and maintain some days of merriment with the other volunteers. The sun had set by the time we got there, so we cracked open the bottle for a sip or two while we figured out the music. A solar panel provided a battery with a charge to keep Susans music (and we love you Susan, but so much has happened in music since the reign of Bonnie Tyler)pumping all night long. Sitting on the peaceful porch, listening big haired Divas we casually talked and sipped from the bottle.

Somehow, that night, the bottle emptied. And it was a big bottle. We were very, very drunk, and quite unsure of our impending future (and that future could only be discribed using that word). Of course the sun sets at six thirty, and its black by seven, so all night long is anywhere between eight thirty and two thirty. All I know is that night lasted one bottle and the following morning lasted somewhere around a month.

Hmmm... next morning Tyler awakes to a bad taste and a rare moment of sentience... he's on a fruit farm... there is fruit EVERYWHERE! Micah, at this point fails to bridge the first of Tylers morning achievements and continues to blow funky odors into his pillow. Alone, hungover, stumbling, and stupid, Tyler trips around a farm stuffing every non-leaf hanging object into his mouth. Including some rather horrible ones. In fact, almost exclusively horrible ones, as even good fruit needs to be ripe. Hair disheveled, stumbling, hungover, baggy-eyed, spitting and cursing... Tyler crafts his first impression for the three men hired to do some work on the farm. Disarmed and lost in the jungle, Tyler had lost the capability for clear speech, especially spanish speech, especially heavily accented ecuadorian highlands spanish speech.

He fumbled back to Micah who was happy to acknowledge that it was time to wake up before drifting (actually, in his state, more like plummeting) back into drooly slumber. Knowing the universal language of men, Tyler seeks to redeem himself before the guys by throwing all of his gusto into the work they were doing. As if thrusting a lampa (small, flat, ecuadorian shovel)into the ground especially furiously makes up for the fact that he lacks the grace, coordination, strength and knowledge to do the job properly. This is about when Micah shows up. Sick, aching, confused and feeling even more out of place than Tyler (who seemed at this point to him, to be entertaining these new men with some kind of shovel dance.) He asks Tyler how he can join the dance, thus only being equally awkwardly out of place.

The Guys prove themselves to be more than just patient but generous and humble as well, taking a genuine interest and I daresay, a liking to the brothers. In the following days, Madardo (Enisons father, and the oldest, and wisest of the buch) even went so far as to share serenades with Tyler, who sang for him in return (including an embarassingly abridged version of the national Anthem).

The guys even demonstrated the preparation of the dogs food. You see, Rocky, the charming albiet dopey English sheepdog, proved to live up to only two of these three things. He is an English Sheepdog, he is dopey as hell... and he is a son of a bitch. He likes to charge your legs to try and knock you down. He likes to snap at you, but fortunately can't see past his own bangs well enough to catch you (if you're quick). He may not intend to be so frusterating but he´s as stupid as a box of hammers so can´t learn anything different.


Although an impolite an obnoxious dog to humans he´s a terror to Barbie, a sweet and affectionate dog with little to prove. When let off his chain the much larger Rocky bounds after Barbie, pounces on her and bites her throat until she squeals in pain. Understanding, of course, that this is how dogs play we let them be for a while. Barbies constant yelping, however, soon clued us in to the fact that only Rocky was playing. She would roll over on her back, communicating in dog language clear enough that even we could understand it that she was submissive, beaten, and that Rocky was the Alpha dog. Rocky, oblivious, stood over her proudly until she moved (as in, slightly moves her head) he would pounce on her again. He´d bite her neck or face, and drag her all over the farm like some pitiful, terrified, whining prize. We tried to ignore them, but as 'torture Barbie' was the only game that Rocky played while off his leash he didn´t stay off for long.

Not only a bastard he is also a picky eater, and eats a lot. The food takes at least an hour to two every day to prepare, and requires, among other things, hacking up a half of a horse face with a machete. Not to mention leaving the next days, the remaining quarter horse-face on a line hanging above the path between kitchen and house. That quarter, I should add, was the quarter with an eyeball and was exceptionally horrid. It was nice at least to know that something (festering, stinking and insect infested as it was), was keeping an eye on things around the place.
Despite generally loving most living things, particularly dogs, the MacAllen brothers had little for Rocky. Nor, it seems, did any one else. Even the sweet, nonviolent, vegetarian Susan debated whether or not she should simply kill the dog. His life, unbeknownst to him, was hanging on the slim thread of her offering to take care of him when his former master died and her aversion to killing a helpless beast.

But, despite Rocky, we managed pretty well. Things were going well... until our food ran out.

We headed into Vilcabamba to meet with Susan and find out any news. We knew she'd planned to leave town to the care of a friend that coming weekend and we didn't want to miss our chance to speak with the woman whose farm we were attempting to run. We found her, and she was flat out shocked to see that we were still hanging in there. She advised us wisely again, answered our questions, and although we'd arranged to cut our stay a bit shorter she helped prepare us for a second round. This included a piece of paper full of a potpourri of sorts, grown and harvested especially to aid the processes of creativity for some house designs we were doing. We'd already picked up another bottle of rum and Hans, the German expat, had lovingly donated a bottle of "vino de caña" to the cause. We were almost there, and took one more short stop on the internet to do ten minutes of research on some of the "other" things growing around the farm before we mounted the bus.

Roughly halfway through the path (which we now knew, being rugged Ecuadorian farmers, like the back of our hands) we discovered the final bit of supplies. Slicing off an ample section of San Pedro cactus, our journey into Las Vega... I mean Finka Ecuador, begins.

San Pedro Cactus

Our "suitcase" was a backpack (we are mochilleros after all), filled with one bottle of rum, one bottle sugar wine, a hefty packet of pipe fodder and a sizable chunk of mescalaneous cactus.

We had the farm to ourselves that weekend, as the guys wouldn't return 'til monday. The morning began in the usual way, with chores, and planning the remainder of the weekends endeavors. The next several hours went to despining, peeling, cutting and boiling the cactus. Its amazing that a pressure cooker filled with boiling psychotropes is, in fact, a pot filled with magic stars.

What happens when you Boil stars?  Magic!

An hour and a half later, as we danced, spun webs with our fingers, and worked out kung fu which surely would have inspired the awe of Jet Li to say the least... we got a visitor. It seems only appropriate, of course, for us to undergo this spiritual quest with a local Brujo, a sort of Native American Medicine man versed in the land and the arts. While busy counting my fingers I looked up and my eyes met the gaze of a quiet young man as he stepped out from between the molecules of air (or perhaps it was between the trees). Bearing a quiet demeaner that gave away no level as to the power of his mystical body or his willingness to use a wicked looking slingshot he sized me up.

Upon my introduction of myself our guide quietly slurred out a string of apparently unconnected words which had no meaning whatsoever to me. Surely this was the language of the spirits, and far beyond anything I could understand. I responded ridiculously, by informing our guide that I am a friend of Susans and am keeping an eye on her farm. To this, he responded in true spirit fashion, smiling, nodding his head for an unbearably uncomfortable amount time before he spoke in the language of men so I could understand.
"Hay Vacas." ("There are cows.")
I pondered the metaphysical significance of this phrase at this critical juncture in my life for a moment. And then we heard a rustling and turned around to see two huge cows lumbering through the farm, trampling fruit and eating berry bushes.

Cows breaking in to the farm

Although not entirely certain they were real we both did remember that one of the few directives Susan gave us was to keep the cows off of the farm. Peaceful cud chewing cows don´t usually instill fear in the hearts of men. But when those men both happen to be exoticly inebriated, lost on a farm in an foriegn land suddenly they notice exactly how much bigger a cow is than a man. And then, to be charged with the task of making the cows go where, clearly, they don´t want to was daunting to say the least.
This... was when the fear set in.
The MacAllen boys set out with sticks and noisy things and got to whoopin' at the cows. The cows took leisurely circles about the farm, exercising great caution to trample every bit of the valuable plant life, while maintaining a spiralling route deeper onto the land. Our guide, whose unearthly powers of awkwardness, and social gracelessness made his presence absolutely unbearable, chose to aid his earthly companions by adding a gentle chuckling to their noisemaking efforts. I think Wayne from Waynes World Two said it best as he spoke to his spiritual guide... "Thanks a pantload, chet."

After some time, and much futile effort, Our guide (lets just call him "Carlos", he looked like a Carlos.) Brought out his terrible slingshot, and stones began whistling by our heads. We reacted exactly as you would had you been in our situation (which you likely would not, not having the legendary MacAllen proclivity for getting into outrageously foolish situations). We panicked. It was just before we filled our respective pants with poop (an hour and a half from a laundry) that we realized the whizzing stones were finding the cows, who were moving off the property at an exponentially increasing rate of travel. After surprisingly little (but considerably impressive) effort, Carlos was closing the gate behind the beasts, with the brothers panting and spluttering behind. For a full five minutes, we exuded gratitude and awe in the direction of the young spirit, which seemed he seemed to enjoy treating us with a kind of distant, and undistracted indifference.

Upon returning to the farm or spirit guide stood in front of us. We rallied our spanish to make polite conversation, and he´d answer either in incomprehensible single syllables or not at all. Instead, he just stood staring at us blankly. After a while we surmised who he might be based on a story Susan had told us. Apparently there is a local boy, a son of a handicapped (mentally retarded)woman, who never stepped foot out of the valley, nor recieved any education from anyone. Being intelligent himself, he spent his twenty years or so learning every bit of the goings on of the valley but not more than moments learning anything about social interaction. Especially not with tripping, high and likely drunk foreigners.

It took roughly twenty minutes (or a week, we were far from keeping track of time) for the respect of Carlos' feat to wear down to first the fear that he'd inspired, then the general discomfort that his presence demanded. Carlos, to his credit, responded to the terrible awkwardness of staring silence that crushed the molecules of air surrounding us in the only way he knew how. He expressionlessly, and silently sat and waited. All the while taking extreme caution to never reveal what it might have been that he was waiting for. And thus, after a while, the MacAllen duo found other things to occupy the remainder of the afternoon. Micah found a book on gnomes, and lost himself in the story of this oft-neglected species.

The Gnome book.  Quite possibly the best book, ever.

Tyler chose the path of self punishment and disciplined work to purge the guilt that accompanied his inability to handle, or in fact even comprehend the situation which filled his lungs and compressed his heart. He scoured and scrubbed the kitchen, taking care to find all of the old pots, pans and cookie sheets which needed attention.

As the sun settled behind the mountains, and threatened its total withdrawl from the Ecuadorian sky, our guide abruptly stood, as if only having just then taken notice of the awkwardly quiet, quiet air between us all. Carefully crafting spanish word we understood... he informed us, simply, that he was leaving. We each debated thanking him for forcing us to pay agonizing microscopic attention to every fraction of every second across a several hour span of hallucinogenic confused mayhem... but decided that the communication probably wouldn't bridge the grand canyonesque chasm formed by our insufficient spanish and his... well, I don't know... perhaps, total lack of interest in communicating whatsoever.

As it stood, we said our "thank you's", "Nice to have met you's", and "see you later's". To which he answered by silently walking away.

For about five minutes we each sat silently. Micah in a hammock and Tyler in a torn canvas sling chair, each probing the inside of his cheek or lip with his tongue. Both with one eyebrow slightly arched and fingering a very shaggy beard. The pressure in the air whistled away; much as our pressure cooker had spilt out its foggy burden before we sipped its cactussy tea. Tyler turned to Micah and said...

"What the hell just happened to us?"

The question still stands.

The fear disappated, and the night chill sinking in, the boys bedded down for the night. We had a long day coming. Sunday was spent fulfilling all of the promises we had made by finishing all the jobs we had started. That night while packing bags and writing notes we both realized what a wonderful time we´d had despite the adventure. Or rather because of the adventure. We found ourselves to be profoundly grateful to Susan, her generous community of friends, the farm, Ecuador, and even our awkward spiritual guide. Wanting always to leave places a little better than we found them we debated what we could do above and beyond what we were asked that would leave a positive effect on this place which treated us amazingly well. Despite the chaos of the whole week in the wilderness, we could honestly think of only one thing that wasn´t perfect about the whole experience. And as ironic as it would sound, we realised that there was one simple thing we could do to make things genuinely better...

Tyler hacking away with his machete
...kill Rocky

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