Cobbing at the Middle of the Earth

QUITO, TUMBACO & LA MITAD DEL MUNDO, ECUADOR: September 22-30

Steve: Leaving the safety and comfort of our CouchSurfer in Guayaquil we embarked on an eight hour bus ride north to the capital city of Quito, a sprawling metropolis that is as known for its high altitudes as its pickpockets. Our bus ride was pretty relaxing, save for the movie choices made by the ayudante (bus helper)—with ladies old enough to be my grandmother I was surprised to have seen so much violence, sex and horror on what is virtually public transportation. (Leah: I chose to curl in a fetal position in my seat watching the bus pass rice fields, cowboys and houses on stilts instead of partaking of the demon wolves, naked ladies and brain splatter constantly on the screen.) Uncomfortable bus ride aside, we made it to the main bus terminal in Quito right on time. For safety’s sake we then took a taxi to the connecting terminal (although we would later find that Quito’s intercity public transport is cheap, efficient and—as far as we’re concerned—safe) and hopped a bus that would take us to Tumbaco, an up-and-coming suburb of Quito and home of our WorkAway hosts Francesco, Cecilia, and their nearly-three-year-old son Rumi.

When we arrived we were welcomed by sharing dinner with (8 months pregnant) Cecilia and Rumi (his given name is Bruno but they call him Rumi which means “stone” in Quechua, the local indigenous dialect), as well as meeting Katerina, their boisterous 1-yr-old yellow lab. Francesco—who has a doctorate in biophysics—spent the evening with a local shaman in a natural hallucinogenic-aided ritual similar to the peyote spirituals practiced in the States. We learned that after working with several Italian-based United Nation organizations Cecilia was given the option to relocate to either Ecuador or Burkina Faso, and Ecuador it was. Considering the low cost of living in this country, the couple was able to save quite a bit of money and purchase property in the rural yet conveniently located town of Tumbaco. This brings me to the WorkAway task at hand: Francesco and Cecilia have been working with a nationally-renowned architect to build their own custom and environmentally-responsible cob house. Our first na├»ve impression was that the house was constructed using corn cob since that is what the word “cob” conjured in our uninformed minds. It turns out that cob is a relatively old practice of combining straw, earth, sand and water to create a building medium with the consistency of concrete in a much more ecological fashion (click here for a link from a previous WorkAwayer that stayed at the same site…this explains the philosophy behind cob construction quite well).

Our typical work day consisted of leaving the volunteer flat (which was adjacent to the family’s current rented house) around 8:45 and riding with Francesco about 10 minutes to the work site which was in a much more rural area of Tumbaco. Once there we would get to work under the instruction of Oscar, a hardworking young man who also happened to be the foreman Adolfo’s son. Most days included at least one round of cob preparation—we would hand mix about 12 wheelbarrows of sand and dirt, add water and straw, and shovel, pick and dance the mixture into uniformity. This cob could then be used to hand form anything from walls or furniture, the latter of which we did most of the week. It was amazing to see the progress that happened in the five days that we actually worked at the site—this picture from our host’s Flickr site shows us working in the kitchen which was close to being finished by the time we left. We usually broke for lunch from 12:30-1 p.m. and ended our day at 3 p.m. (the crew started at 8:00 a.m. and wrapped up at 4:30 p.m.), although we often stayed longer to finish a task we had started. (Leah: At the end of the day we also had to walk home, which took about an hour and allowed us to amble past rolly polly puppies, giant trench construction sites and local women tending their cows. The most telling for me was how loose my clothing became after only a week—we literally worked our butts off. (Steve: I should probably also add that we were adjusting to Quito’s 9,000’+ elevation!))

From a physical standpoint the work was fairly hard, especially for a couple of Americans who have been sitting at desks for the past several years (all the shoveling and wheelbarrowing took me back to the construction laborer jobs that were demanding even when I was a teenager), however it wasn’t hard to muster the strength to power through each day. The Ecuadorian work crew was great and seeing immediate results made for a very motivating job site. In fact one of the most personally rewarding aspects of the job was the other workers—of all the things that I’ve done in my life, I never thought I would be working side by side with a bunch of random Ecuadorians (Leah: and using a compost toilet at a construction site to boot, which consisted of a bucket under a toilet seat where you do your business and then throw in a handful of sawdust afterward). Who would have thought that on this immense planet our paths would one day cross? To put the sentiment in perspective, upon leaving on our last Friday a worker named Jose said to me “I will see you again one day, in heaven.” God willing, that thought couldn’t be more true.

Leah: Another aspect of our work at this site consisted of getting to know the other WorkAwayers, which was easily facilitated by our superb living conditions. We all shared two walk-through bedrooms (i.e. lacking in doors), a kitchen and dining area. Our hosts purchased our vegetarian-based food and we were in charge of cooking all our own meals (this also meant that we had to prepare the following day’s lunch the evening before). We met David first, a 23-yr-old from Colorado who had also attended CU. His mom, an Ecuadorian, left David and his dad land in Tumbaco upon her death and after a series of unfortunate events, he had recently decided to change his life for the better and wanted to move to Ecuador and build a cob house. Then there was Vincent, a 19-yr-old Frenchman who left formal education at the age of 15 and has been living abroad and learning languages and organic farming practices in several countries since then (he can also speak English, Spanish and Italian---grrr.) His family owns a vineyard near Avignon and he’ll soon be returning there to work in the business. The cast of characters wrapped up with David and Sara, two Spaniards who were only there our last few days. She was a trained photographer and he was a history teacher; they had also lived in London for a few years and whipped up a delectable tortilla espanola one night. We were quite the motley crew and got to know quite a bit about each other, our travels and life views while building, walking and living together.

Steve: On our days off—that being the Sunday before and the Saturday after the workweek—we made our way into Quito for sightseeing and general exploration. As I mentioned earlier, we found that it was fairly easy and cheap to get around the city via walking and the public transportation system. We visited several of the city’s hundred plus churches including the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the Church of Santo Domingo and La Compania de Jesus, the latter of which we don’t have any pictures seeing as how cameras are forbidden. The interior of this immense place of worship is almost entirely covered in intricate bas reliefs that are finished with gold leaf. This church elicited mixed feelings for me; at once the sense of awe and wonder was combined with a loathing of excess and a feeling I couldn’t shake that lives must have been sacrificed for this structure to have come into existence. Definitely some things for this Catholic to ponder.

One of the most breathtaking views was from El Panecillo (literally “the little bread loaf”) where we looked out over the city alongside the La Virgen de Quito, a 135-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary that is seemingly visible from everywhere in the city. We took a cab to the top of the hill since the guidebook and most people noted that the way to the top could be dangerous due to violent muggings. It turns out that the hill was the site of a massive downhill BMX race and probably one of the safest places to be in the city that day. All in all it was probably better since the stairs looked quite formidable.

The Saturday after the workweek also included a visit to La Mitad del Mundo, the monument located at what was believed to be the exact location of the equator. Modern GPS technology has since proven that the real location is several hundred meters away in the nearby hills but that didn’t spoil our fun straddling the dividing line between the northern and southern hemispheres (Leah: in fact, we were total nerds about it and I apologize in advance for some of the ridiculous pictures we took). This small carnival of a city featured a local Andean dance exhibition and wandering llamas, as well as various souvenir shops and restaurants. We packed our lunch for the day so I didn’t get to try the mouthwatering delicacy known as cuy—spit-roasted guinea pig—but don’t you worry, if I don’t try it in Ecuador it will be sampled in Peru (dare anyone?). On our visit to the middle of the earth I even got to meet one of Ecuador’s finest, Bruce the police dog. I didn’t ask but I’m pretty sure ol’ Bruce didn’t get his start in South America…

Leah: I had a blast here and as I told Steve, my happiness level was sustained the entire way through in a way that it hasn’t been before. We worked hard alongside locals and travelers while enjoying majestic valley views, we were able to cook for ourselves, we got our dog fix (puppies and crazy Katerina) and were supported by a wonderful host family on top of it all (I pretty much loved Rumi and wanted to take his adorably blended Italian/Spanish-speaking self home). To top it off, I learned so much about sustainable building practices and love the idea of building and/or owning a similar house in the future (I told Steve I’d put down roots if I could have a cob house—who doesn’t want to use a machete to shape your furniture). My hands are still calloused and chapped and my cuticles refuse to give up the last vestiges of embedded dirt no matter how hard I scrub, but my spirit is still airborne—I was in heaven.

CLICK HERE AND HERE FOR QUITO PICS AND HERE FOR TUMBACO.

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F.S. October 10, 2012 at 7:14 AM

Hi guys!
It has already been a couple of thousand miles ago for both of us since we met in Panama City's hostel. Finally we found time to explore your website, and to read the special mention of our illness; fortunately we managed to shake off all parasites :)
Currently we are about halfway Colombia. Our original travel plan has been fouled up completely by the pleasantly of this country. We like it so much that we decided to stay a few weeks more.
Not sure if our paths will still cross somewhere, as you are getting too far ahead of us :)
Our blog can be found on www.franksalet.nl
For now go and enjoy your travels and please let us know if you arrive in the Netherlands too.
Saludo!
Frank & Femke

Leah October 12, 2012 at 3:48 PM

Hi Frank and Femke!

Thanks for checking in; we're glad to hear you're parasite free and loving Columbia. We're in Ecuador for a few more days and simply love it here- it's our favorite country so far. We'll definitely keep tabs on your blog and if we find ourselves in the Netherlands we'll definitely let you know if we don't see you before then.

Buen viaje!

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