Bear Tracking in Pucara

Picture it, verdant cloudforest covered Andean mountains, a couple communities of about 10 houses bus rides away from each other, some extraordinary rural people who grow a LOT of beans and corn, and a couple Andean (Spectacled) Bears running around with radio collars on.  Drape orchids over all of that, with a topping of paramo and the volcano Cotacachi watching over everything.  The people, the place, the work, it was all spectacular.

This is all true despite my initial hesitations about Tim and I sharing a single bed in a dorm room with all the other volunteers, the mice in the kitchen, and the number of sick people that hung out in the kitchen, sneezing.  For the first few days Tim and I were sure we were going to die out there. 

But the Intag region is a funny place, where the view from the kitchen table is quietly breathtaking each morning.  We got into a rhythm of waking up to Celia cookin up the grub; tortillas or eggs or fresh bread. All of us would scramble around to get water, lunch and the radio equipment in order, and, when we heard the distant rumble, run for the ¨9am¨ bus that came any where between 8:20 and 9:15.  The local guide Alberto would join us on the bus or at the house in the morning and we set off on the day´s hike.  None were particularly long, some are along one of the three dirt roads around, some through the forest or along a ridge, some are straight up a hill.  By straight up a hill I mean you can sit and slide on the way down.  We´d return in the afternoon, and Celia would be cooking up dinner, almost always beans and rice, mashed potatoes for special occasions.  Delicious always.

We went camping up to the paramo, this cool environment high up the sides of volcanoes, Cotocachi in this case, where these tall grasses predominate. It looks sorta like the Windows XP default desktop, but these hills are gold, and when you walk or ride a horse through them, it looks like your floating.  We spent the first night up in the paramo, so much closer to the stars, and spent the next day watching an Andean Condor family soar overhead.  They´re an endangered bird with a 3 meter wingspan, to see them in the wild is a real treat.  At some point the mom Condor was so close overhead we hear the wind rustling her feathers.  The following night we spent in a cloudforest, in the midst of what David called the Enchanted Forest for all the moss, bromiliads and orchids on everything.  Orchids hit me in the head, a few times, and you can't help but step on the fallen ones, there´s too many.  That morning Esther, David and I got up at 5:30 to watch the sunrise, turned out the sun was directly behind the volcano so we had till about 9:30 to see the sun actually peek over.  Spent the morning chatting about life, philosophy, and watching the morning wash over that untouched cloudforest valley, where we saw the Condors the day before. It was a great four hours.

One weekend a the nearby town of Santa Rosa held their annual fiesta and Ms. Santa Rosa contest.  So fun, even if a bit weird that the winner (of the three contestants) was a pre-pubescent girl.  Tim passed out around 11, a co-volunteer Lucy and I eventually made it home around 7am, David didn´t make it home for another day and a half.  It was a great party.

Then the new volunteers showed up, and the place just got better.  We left an amazing community of people out there.  The permanent people are fantastic in too many ways to count, but the volunteers that showed up half way through our stay were something else.  

As soon as they showed up we took a break from just bear listening and  started helping out some locals with their farming a bit more often.  On those days we walked, listened for bears, did a few hours of farming, which included picking beans, whacking beans, chopping up earth, and hauling logs up mountain sides,  then we walked back to our house.  But we´d pick blackberries, ride horses, or chat with a nun in rubber boots and a baseball cap on the way.  And we´d return well after dark, sweating buckets and sore beyond compare.  We´d be joking all day, and have a few beers at night, it was great.

One camping trip we took to move a bear cage I found myself in front of a wall just over my height, with the only hand-foot hold just taken out by the guy in front of my (thnx Jamie :-), Samuel reached down with his left hand and *picked me up* by the hand over the wall.  Naturally Samuel had three heavy pieces of bear cage tied to his back and a machete in his right hand.  Among the five gringos, we managed only about three pieces of bear cage between us.  We started the hike along a river dripping water and plants all over the place and covered in moss.  Then, since Ecuadorians were cutting the trail and carrying most of the heavy cage, we headed straight up hill, through bamboo.  At some point we realized we´d forgotten a part of the cage, and one of the Ecuadorians ran back down the hill to retrieve it.  Holy holy.  Maybe you had to have been there, hot, out of breath, slapping mosquitoes, and hanging on by your toenails to the side of the mountain to appreciate that.

We all went to Otavalo the weekend of my birthday, had a great dinner and some drinks.  When we returned we had a 6 or 7 course Sunday Dinner with surprise balloons, a cake and a great card. Tim mentioned that at my last birthday party my friends had plastered every available surface with boy-band magazine pictures.  He seemed happy to both recall that and appreciative of the change.

Actually, here´s a run down of all those fantastic people.  Gita, the ever knowledgeable lady from New Zealand who taught me to make blackberry jam.  Have a live chicken you want to eat?  She knows what to do, all the tips for how to easily defeather it and what it´s liver looks like.   Amy, the lady that reminded me a bit of my girlfriends at home with a great sense of humor.  Somehow though, she was able to always look great in the middle of sweaty days and nights of camping.  Jamie, who is Amy´s other half, is a great bloke from Newcastle, where the beer comes from, with predilection for soccer and grand Sunday Dinners.  Tim and I would like to think the Jamie and Amy are the more cultured British version of ourselves, but we know we´d be foolin no one. Mark, another English bloke who broke free from the banking industry to apply his talents to sodoku puzzles, bear tracking and late night beery conversations. Dale, the South African guy who provoked probably the most intelligent conversations we had, is changing the world one conversation at a time.  Geoff, the canadian that, on Pub Quiz night at the house, made sure we were all up on our canadian geography and government. Then there´s the permanent staff of Celia who came with her kids to make the food and take care of things.  So kind, always a smile and her kids were fantastic for a game of soccer or tickles or just being led around by a 2 year old and having her explain what she saw.  Alberto, I never saw so much as slip on a trail (the rest of us did some involuntary sitting down regularly), he´s got a great smile and knows all the orchids, he´s so friendly and always knows when someone needs a break for air or water.  David, another English bloke who´s in charge of the project, always has an open mind, soft heart and ready hand.  He´s so admirably unselfish, he´s been out there working for the bears for three years now and getting some great work done. Love all of them.

Now we´re planning a quick trip to the Orient of Ecuador to take in some Tropical Rainforest in the Amazon.  Directly after we´ll finally leave Ecuador, though I think I could spend another 3 months here and not see the same thing twice.  But we´re headed for Peru! To meet up with our friend Danielle!  We´ll all be volunteering for a month at two different lodges outside of the town of Puerto Maldonado.  The first is at the Piedras Biodiversity Station, the second is called the Explorer's Lodge. I´ll finally get to see the Colpas, those clay salt licks the macaws gather in the mornings.  Can´t wait...

The organization we volunteered for and the webpage of some co-volunteers

More pics of Bear Camp

The day we left, the volunteers picked up a signal from the cage we helped move.  The following morning at 3am they left for a grueling hike up and back in one day (they´ll hurt for a Loong time from that) to tranquilize the bear, take measurements, fit it with a radio collar and get outta there before it wakes up a half hour later. 

Tim and a local Red Sox fan

All of us will silly expressions

After a minga of bean picking. See that pile of beans behind us?

Picking oranges on one of our hikes.

Paramo hike, where's the trail??

The little 2 year old Maria, and her cousin Marjorie

One our way back from moving the Bear Cage

The Bear House, with it's resident Pig.

The trail up to the bear cage.

The view from the house