On Ecuador’s Cochapamba

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Early last year, I found myself standing alone on a brisk morning, on a nearly deserted street downtown.  I was surprised by how empty the street was, as Calle Tarqui is a major bus route through Cuenca’s center.  The street is one of the few that provides access to downtown from the city’s newer section, and the layer of black soot covering the street’s crumbling, once-stately buildings reveals the burden of heavy traffic it has endured, even at times when there’s nothing going on.

So what was I doing on a melancholic avenue, so early and devoid of people?  I was awaiting a ride up to a small community far outside of Cuenca, although I had no idea at the time precisely where I was about to be taken, or that I would soon be blessed with high mountain scenery like this:

All I knew, as I peeked into cobblestone patios through keyholes and cracks in dilapidated wooden doors, was that soon a curly-haired professor would emerge onto the scene and give me a ride to an undisclosed indigenous village.  Or at least, that was what I was hoping, as the minutes ticked by.

At the time, I was attending an indigenous culture class at the University of Cuenca, with a few of my friends and coworkers at CEDEI.  Our teacher, Julio, was as knowledgeable as he was vague about certain details the rest of us considered important.  We all knew that he was full of valuable information, but all the same we often left class wondering exactly what we had learned that day.  Was it that, as teachers ourselves, we came with heads full of pedagogical hangups that blocked us from fully absorbing all that was presented to us with open hearts?  I’ll chalk it up to something like that.

For truly, our teacher presented a vast amount of information about Ecuador’s many indigenous groups, which left me scribbling constantly in my notebook to take it all down.

In addition to university survey-level lecturing for initiates like us, he also presented to us videos which ranged in scope from indigenous political rallies to illustrations of Andean cosmovision.  Most intriguing for us, we were also promised some field trips, where we would visit communities and experience the life and culture there firsthand.

The first such expedition, prior to the one I hoped to embark upon that day on Calle Tarqui, is probably what was filling my head with doubt as I waited.  One day in class, we were told that there would be an indigenous dance celebration in Cuenca’s Coliseum, and we were invited.  Well, that day, I showed up a little late, and my classmates had already ventured into the Coliseum before I arrived.  As it turned out, there was no indigenous dancing to be seen, but rather some sort of big Christian prayer event.  That was fine and all, but decidedly different than what we had come for.  Repeated calls to Julio’s cell phone left us consistently with his voice mail, and after some time hanging around outside, we called it quits and went for smoothies.

What would unfold for me this morning then, as I loitered about and watched the traffic begin to roll inexorably onto Calle Tarqui?  Not even my classmates had shown up yet.  Had I missed something?  A text message from Eric indicated they were on their way.  And then, moments later, Julio rolled by in the passenger seat of a white pickup truck with an extended cab.  Behind the wheel was another Ecuadorian, and the backseat had just enough room for myself and my two other companions for the day.  Minutes later, the two said companions Eric and Eva walked over, and we were on our way!

And yet still, we weren’t sure where we were going.  Julio, engaged primarily in conversation with the driver, was decidedly short with his responses to our many questions about the day’s events.  We drove up and out of town, through Sayausí, then, through Cajas.  Time went on as our backseat conversation rambled from one topic to the next.  We crossed the continental divide, and began the stomach-churning descent towards the coast.  We were on the road to Guayaquil, but how far would we go?  Would we be visiting a coastal indigenous community?  That sounded interesting.  But we began speculating just how and when we’d be getting back, if that were the case.  Thoughts of my wife, pregnant and indulging of my absence that day, began to fill my head as we wound our way further and further down.

But then, still many miles and vertical meters from the coast, the truck pulled off the highway and began wheeling up a dirt road.  The landscape, still high up and much like Cajas in its windswept, shrubby mountain way, reminded me over and over of northern New Mexico with every similar type of vegetation or scenic vista I saw.  This new road carried us far up, regaining much if not all of the altitude we’d lost.  For several miles there were no houses, nor farms, just wild páramo landscape.  Then we began to notice a house here and there, and then more, until we had entered the community of Cochapamba.

What you see pictured here could be considered Cochapamba’s center.  Indeed, this smattering of adobe buildings, the church, and schoolhouse shown in front of the few tall trees, comprises the densest portion of human habitation for miles and miles.

To compare a community like Cochapamba and another indigenous community which I’ve mentioned here, Ñamarín, reveals many dramatic differences.  One of the more obvious ones, due to its remote and inhospitable location in the often frigid páramo, is size.  Miles up an unforgiving dirt road where buses are unlikely to pass with any frequency, Cochapamba finds itself at a degree of isolation you don’t often encounter, especially within a few hours of a major city like Cuenca.  But then, Cuenca didn’t have paved roads leading to it until the 1960’s.

Far from being a perfect system, Ecuador’s government has nevertheless attempted to guarantee that even remote communities like this one have access to education.

While there, we were asked to speak to a group of students, who ranged in age from 8-16 or so.  Their teacher was a young lady from Cuenca who was tasked with coming to teach in Cochapamba on weekends.  She was paying her dues as a beginning teacher, like most teachers in the public school system, by teaching for some time in rural communities.

While most teachers ultimately choose to come to the city once their level of experience permits it, this system ensures that these communities do not go forgotten, and that their young people have the opportunity to at least a basic education.  It also harnesses the youthful enthusiasm that the young teacher here embodied, and that beginning teachers the world around always seem to have.

My wife’s parents, also teachers, spent years working in such communities as well.  Nancy’s formative years consisted of life in various small communities as remote as Cochapamba, although ranging from cold, high altitude locations to much lower, tropical ones near the coast.  Her parents are full of stories from those times, like riding on horseback in order to arrive at a rural community in the mountains, where they would live for the next several months.  For their part, they have both chosen to remain involved with education in rural communities, with Nancy’s mother still working as an elementary teacher at a school not far from Cuenca, and her father going frequently to supervise schools in another community two hours from town.

Also owing to the extreme altitude and climate, the people of Cochapamba will always be limited in what kinds of agricultural products they can produce, as well.  With the prevailing temperatures at such an altitude, potatoes are and probably always will be a primary crop for the people here, for example.   While there, however, we met a man named Walter, who was something of an informal leader for the community.  He spoke to us of a funded project to expand the size and scope of the community’s agricultural production, and took us on a tour of what they were working on.

Here, we were shown the linchpin to any serious agricultural project, the irrigation system.  This simple reservoir, consisting of a small basin lined with waterproof plastic, is fed by a small pipe tapping a natural spring.  This provides water security in times of drought, for crops and people alike.  This kind of grassroots waterworks project goes a long way in demonstrating the simplicity and integration of a community agricultural project.

At the other end of the pipe, you can see one of the places where that water goes.  Once collected into a clean, man-made pond, the water can then be funneled into any number of hoses running to various sections of planted land.  What once ran down the hill untapped can now by harnessed to irrigate a wide spread of fields.

Since the pool is uphill and the fields down, gravity is the only force needed to get the water where it’s needed, and the turn of a valve is the only human input necessary to turn it off and on.  A simple, inexpensive and effective irrigation system, indeed.

Of course, not only people and plants are counting on a reliable source of water:

Water is also important for home construction.  As in many traditional communities in the Andes and throughout much of Latin America, adobe is a common building material.  As you may know, adobe consists of three primary, plentiful ingredients: earth, straw, and water.  These are mixed together, formed into bricks, and allowed to dry before being laid into the walls of buildings, like this one:

Here we’ve got at least two generations of buildings coexisting, the older one not quite having given way to the newer.

But of course, one of the most important recipients for Cochapamba’s water are the plants.  In the foreground is a plot with a variety of medicinal herbs.  Walking the perimeter is Walter in the lead, with Eric and Eva trailing dutifully in line.  In the background, a planted grove of pine trees.

Here we can see at least two forces at work.  One, the medicinal herbs, is a relevant consideration for a community so far from the city and associated medical care.  I’ve found Ecuadorians in general – even city dwellers – to be more knowledgeable about herbal remedies than your average person from the US, for example.  But in a rural community like this one, where modern medical care is a rare event, most likely reserved for true emergencies, this kind of garden is a sort of insurance policy.

The other force, a plantation of pine trees, provides a source of lumber not only for this community but potentially for sale to other communities as well, as Walter explained.  Yet again, a significant agricultural addition to the more traditional staple food crops one would expect a community like this one to be coaxing forth from the land.

In this case, a controversial one as well.  Páramo, an ecosystem existing only at high, equatorial altitudes, provides a unique habitat often surrounded completely by warmer systems below.  As such, páramo climates like this one harbor a high level of endemic plant and animal species, which are suppressed by the acid content in the bed of needles quickly built up around the base of introduced pine.

Such an artificial transformation of the native landscape has effects not just on the wildlife, but on people as well.  One of the important qualities of páramo vegetation is the regulatory effect it has on the watershed.  In an area with intermittent rain, the local flora has the ability to absorb and retain moisture like a sponge, and then release it at an astonishingly consistent rate despite the fluctuating level of precipitation.  This has clear effects on groundwater levels in times of drought, and flooding of rivers in times of high rain.  It also prevents erosion on steep slopes due to runoff.  Pine trees do not share these qualities, and out-compete local flora in the ecosystem.

In small scales like this one, perhaps we’re not talking about big changes.  But further down towards Cuenca, one can see massive swaths of hillsides completely given over to tidy rows of pine trees obviously planted by human hands.  That ambitious project is consuming large portions of natural habitat, and has predictable consequences locally and further downstream.  Walter, throughout his description of his community’s project, gave great attention to the concept of sustainable production.  Let’s hope that future generations take that idea equally to heart.

Some very reassuring evidence that they will is embodied in Walter’s home:

A beautifully handmade adobe building, Walter’s home has dedicated space for high school-level education within the community.  Here, Walter conducts classes and hosts outside teachers for the young people in the community, taking the government-funded schooling a step further.

Pictured here with another teacher from Cuenca, Walter was inviting us to speak with a small group about our impressions of the community and some insights that we could share from our own.  An appropriate topic, given the title written on the sign in the corner: Intercultural, Bilingual High School, La Paz.

While we spoke with Walter, his colleague, and their students, his family was busily preparing lunch downstairs in the kitchen, where we joined them:

And so we shared a meal and conversation with the kind and eager people of Cochapamba.  After visiting a community like this, and then pulling out in a truck back down the long, winding dirt road that leads to the long, winding highway far below, it becomes clear that such a visit is a special occasion.  A true opportunity to share what you have with people from another place.  Walter, as an articulate spokesman for his community, demonstrated this with his smile and his invitations for us to contribute, to learn, and he hoped, to return someday.

For our part as fleeting visitors, I hope that my recollection of our visit to Cochapamba, more than a year later, will in some way show the appreciation I have for these people living simply and humbly, close to the Earth.  And, in lieu of a second visit still unrealized, may these words and photos, shared with you, represent a return to that beautiful, high mountain place in my mind, if not in person.

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