Our Story Pt. 2: The Ascent
The journey certainly held up to its legendary claims. The 5 times I’ve embarked on it now, the hike in has never gotten any easier or lost any of its mythical quality. An approximate 38 kms. ascending through jungle, fording several raging rivers and 2 mountain passes, the highest reaching over 4000m. On that first trip in it rained as hard as I’d ever seen it for the full 11 hours it took us.
As our jet-lagged party stumbled our way along the ridges of dense and shrubby grassland the esoteric, wispy clouds engulfed us for hours at a time, then, would occasionally open a disorienting window to the towering blackened stone cliffs above us: home to the great condors and hanging all around the invisible trail through thin air that leads to Piñán.
We were ascending, our first ascent into this range of the Northern Andes we’d heard about only as local lore. Francis, Veronique, Meghan- the Cloud Forest Coffee crew- and myself.
Our guide Luis Alfredo met us above the last farms and villages, where the foothills turn to mountains, the forests to steep, rocky crags. It would be years before I ever saw him drop below these altitudes. We got to know him very well over that hike. Since he was the only one with breath to spare, it gave him a chance to share his story. Louis was born and grew up in these mountains, but unlike others from Piñán was given the opportunity to get involved with guiding and tourism. He is Piñán's only guide and has since been elected President of the community. He’s also become my closest friend there. I’ve come to see him as a bridge for the community. Making outside connections, bringing in visitors, making the trek out monthly and busing over province to make meetings with me and government officials, and finding odd work to make a living on the side. His look often reflects this level of responsibility he’s taken on and I’ve grown to respect him deeply. Over that hike he told us about the community’s present struggles and troubled history, the story I’ve come to learn so well.
Founded sometime over 3 or 400 years ago as for the indigenous people of those mountains, Piñán was the settlement of the indentured workers who laboured through colonial times on the vast Spanish Piñán ranch- a hacienda. That ranch still exists in its entirety and generations later is owned by the same colonial family. Indentured work is now illegal in Ecuador, but in the true colonial tradition the people of Piñán were never granted any of the land surrounding their homes, or compensated for their hundreds of years of labour. They have the rights to the footprint that their houses sit on and little more- and they’ve had to fight for that right, as well. A tiny hamlet of adobe huts islanded by approximately 750,000 hectares of inhospitable mountains and jungle with next to no land to farm or graze animals. Some families have been able to acquire farmland, mostly 5 hours or so walk outside of the community, off of the ranch property. Others leave for months at a time to work in towns in the lowlands to make just enough for their families to subsist. More and more families have been leaving due to such arduous living.
Arriving brought an impression that won’t ever be forgotten as we descended on soaked and stiffened legs into this community in the clouds. Visible first from an opening in the high pass, an expansive valley opened up before us, lush green, rushing with water and completely hidden by peaks and storm clouds from every direction.
As we entered through that antique wooden gateway that marks the communities boundary it felt as though we were passing into a corner of the world that time had truly forgotten. Crumbling huts of adobe and straw were arranged in crowded configurations to fit as many lodgings as possible onto the higher banked grounds. The building’s walls, eroded by storms and the alpine winds expose the simplicity of the woven reeds, which poke through like ribs forming their internal structure. The straw roofs, dark and matted with tar patches from the years of smoke, which now billowed through the entire surface to join the low-hanging clouds, seeping through from the kitchen fires which every house kept burning inside their one main room.
The river which snaked all throughout these clusters of homes at the centre of the village was swollen and coursing from the rains, carving into the mud escarpments over which the houses stood. Everywhere on its banks and balanced on the log brides straddling the river the villagers were active and nimble, snagging and hoisting out fish and firewood that were washing downstream.
Feeling the cold breeze that cut through this valley and our soaked clothes, we carried our gear the final distance over some aging planks spanning the fast-moving water and finally arrived, perhaps with not a step left in us at the community lodging, or Albergue where we’d be staying.
We spent our next day in the community, enjoying the sun that had broken through. The whole alpine valley, lined by soft grassy coloured peaks and the village sitting at its centre was in front of us like a panorama. We were brought to see the elementary schoolhouse and meet the students and got coaxed into teaching an impromptu English class. There were 2 ongoing classes for the 86 kids of varying ages and two teachers to tackle the whole affair. Just that year had they been able to offer up to sixth grade because of the arrival of a new teacher, but that, unfortunately would be last year of their education available to them.
The teachers, Luis Cacuanga and Miguel Chavez seemed right at home in the community. Although, both were bundled in down jackets, to one with a thick wool scarf and the latter with a toque pulled down almost over his eyes, they were both well humoured, laid back and had great rapport with the kids. Both Luis and Miguel are from nearby villages in the foothills and make the trek into Piñán twice weekly! Home for the weekend to see the family. Paradoxically, rural teachers in Ecuador tend to be payed significantly less than the urban cohort.
As we hung around, visited and received visitors, further conversations taught us that that the matter of schooling was a point of great concern to many of the parents and leaders of the community. Fausto Rodriguez, the community president at the time later told me that it feels as though their community has been “the most forgotten”. The hardships they face even in these modern times were going unnoticed and if their children couldn’t find an opportunity for change, he is afraid of the future the entire community will soon be facing.
I’ve gotten to know Fausto as a very insightful individual. A listener and a thinker who was bringing a strong vision for change to the community. In his years of youth, him his brother, Luis and a couple of other villagers had tried to obtain a high-school education. They left the community together, tried to find jobs, and rooms to rent, tried to catch up with the city curriculum and learn to live a city life. The experience was hard and unfruitful, but left the villagers with some important insights on the way forward for their community their education, their development would have to happen there, in Piñán.
His words and what we experienced that week resounded with me. As we said our goodbyes I found myself promising them I would be coming back, with a hope that I’d be able to help them in some way. I said this with full intention, but without any idea as to the direction that it would take my life and the impact it could make on theirs.
This was the trip that sparked the initiative. We are now fully committed in our project to build a high school with Piñán and ensure that their community has access to complete education and career development opportunities.
I wasn’t the only one impacted by the experience. This was also how our partnership with Cloud Forest Coffee began, as an ongoing fundraiser for the school in Piñán.
Now you know the story, a two-part story. You know that every bag of Cloud Forest Coffee bought through our organization supports two communities in dire need and two initiatives working toward change. These were two stories of communities with a vision, and just needing some outside support, and with some support they will be able to build a better future for themselves.