Poco a poco. Little by little. Along with “siga no mas,” this seems to be the Ecuadorian knee jerk placatory reaction to most situations. For me, an American, born of a German mother, descended from Prussian generals, it is a source of hair loss. Another thing happens that is un-be-lievable. Poco a poco, says somebody. I smile politely, choking off a rabid scream.

However, I need to be kind. This is not my country; I am a guest here. I will be reasonable and understanding. Poco a poco is actually similar to my mother’s family motto: festina lente. Slowly but well. Festina is a cognate to English fast; not rapid, but secure, as in “hold fast to that which is good.” In general Ecuadorian construction guys work fast, and sometimes well, as in any country.  What really drives me mad is the bureacracy. Burrocracia.

However, I don’t need to be a fool. Need to sign off so I can call my lawyer to see if she followed through on the permit for the bodega which was supposed to be included with the permit for the casita for which I paid the $250 bribe two months ago.


El Ganado

Ganado means cattle. Everybody’s pride and joy, beautiful source of milk, quesillo cheese, cow dung, meat,  leather, and methane.  For these quick, wary, surefooted little black criollo cattle, these mountains are turned from flowering forests to brown hills reminiscent of Southern California, crisscrossed to incredible heights with the small diagonal paths of grazers. The rainfall during the dry season doesn’t support enough grass for cattle, so the ground cover is eaten to nubs and the ground dries out.dry mountains

Not many new trees can grow under these conditions besides the latex-leafed wild figs, and the desert tolerant Ceibo, whose thorns protect the main stem, The wild fig, called a Higeron, grows to massive dimensions with sufficient water. Its trunk becomes enormous and convoluted, and bromeliads and orchids perch on its branches. The foliage is dark and oily looking, and right now fat round fruit are plopping from on high. They have seeds like a domestic fig, but are tough and downy, and I don’t thing they are edible for humans. The Ceibo is also called a Kapok, and has large red fruits that are filled with kapok fiber, like cotton. They have large, pretty white flowers and swollen, thorny trunks. The best tree we have on our land is a ceibo, and I hope to have a sort of dais around it to sit and enjoy the shade. Down the bank on the land adjacent ours is a big higeron, with pink cattleyas in its top and a meliponga hive in its trunk. What’s a meliponga?  It’s a stingless honeybee, tiny and delicate, but that is another story.


These huge brown mountainsides put me in mind of Jean Giono’s L’Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres, a short story about a shepherd who reforested a region in Provence. It’s a wonderful story, and he gave it away for free, so it would spread. You can read it in 40 different languages. The point is that trees, or their lack, can change not only an ecosystem but the whole feeling of a place, -and how the people feel who live there. Ecuador’s incredibly generous climate can grow pretty much anything, but introduced species like cattle and hogs, as Hawaiians can testify, change things. Our branch of the valley, here in Uchima de San Pedro and Santorum, has a strong little river flowing through it, and evidence of numerous dried up springs all over the mountainsides. We have dug a well by the river, and are putting in tubing to pump water up to two 2500 liter tanks to act as our primary source of water for drinking, washing, and watering the gardens we are planning.

The semicircular step is the author's very first effort in stone....
The semicircular step is the author’s very first effort in stone….

When we first bought the place, we put in a vivo, which is a living fence made by alternating three slender fence posts of a tree that will root where it is set into the ground with a strong post that will eventually rot. It took Francelin about two weeks. He put in Porotilios, which are a leguminous tree that has slender red trumpet-like flowers and bright red seeds that are used for jewelry. Hummingbirds love them and while they are generally kept hacked back, my friend Ruth says they are good for orchids. Also Francelin put in one Ciruela shoot, which covers itself with tart, juicy red fruits the size of olives.  Since the vivo has been in place, and no cows or donkeys could graze, the chileno grass has grown up thickly.  During the dry season, it looks to me like a Wyeth painting.img_20160921_150927

Instead the cows thunder happily down the trench we had dug by a bulldozer to bury the water tubes. Of course there was one delay after another so they have had plenty of time to enjoy it. As I and Francelin have spent weeks picking out rocks and stones and dumping soft earth over the rocks we couldn’t get out, so that when we bury them they won’t be pierced, the trench is nice and soft. They seem to enjoy it, although they occasionally hook at the side of the trench with their curved horns, just for devilment, scattering piles of stones onto the clean sand. As they leap in and out of the trench the sides collapse and hours of careful work are undone, Our neighbors put up a barrier of branches, but the cows went up the mountain and around.  I was so mad I ate a hamburger. They were much more flavorful than most American beef I have had. So I had another one. Recently Francelin made a more elaborate barrier, so as we glued the tubes today I am hoping it will be effective.cows

The cows didn’t come in last night, but they may have been at a funeral. Cattle generally run semi free, and while one usually sees an old man driving a few cattle along road, one also sometimes sees a few cattle on their own. The law is apparently that if a driver hits an animal it is his fault, unless the animal was attended by an owner. Then it is the owner’s fault. This would seem to lead to hit and run on the one hand, and hiding in a ditch on the other.  Perhaps I have it mixed up. A few days ago a cow was struck by a doctor driving to Santorum. It appears the owners showed up and collected the cow’s remains. My friend lent them an empty dog food bag, which they washed and returned. There were a lot of broken plastic bits from the car and several explosions of cow dung on the road.

real milk
real milk

I’m not trying to condemn cattle raising in Ecuador entirely. In fact, in wetter areas, Ecuador looks a lot like Switzerland,  with the dairy capacity to match. Closer to Loja, where it rains a lot more, the mountains are as green as ours should be. There are a lot more trees, come to think of it. The rain produces year round thick, lush grass, and cattle showing characteristics of Holstein, Zebu, Brown Swiss, and Jersey dot the mountainsides. While milk here is generally sold in ultra-pasteurized plastic bags, unrefrigerated, we get ours from a lady who sells fresh raw milk every morning from the dairy up in Mollepamba. Fresh and warm, it is quite sweet. Later after I chill it and the cream has risen, I skim some off for cooking, and we drink a cup or two of the cold, creamy milk before scalding the rest for yogurt. Once the yogurt is firm, I drain it to make it thicker, boil the whey to separate out the remaining solids for cheese spreads, and save the clarified whey for my friend’s dogs. I am not a real cheese maker, but I do love cheese. So far Ecuador’s cheeses are simple, fresh, and tart. They are good, but, well, I miss France.pretty sunset

Different Strokes

Interesting new tip: If you tell somebody something in Ecuador, like, “I want to order 200 roof tiles, so please make them for me,” or, “since this Saturday we weren’t able to get the electric hooked up because the door fabricator was working for a bigger fish and couldn’t get to our project, we will need to wait for next Saturday when you will be available, so be ready for sure,” you were just blowing smoke. In order for them to believe you and plan to do what you said you would pay them to do, you have to call every three days to reassure them that you meant it.

I think this is just a way of being polite in case the person happens to flake out. Or perhaps risk aversion. In case I really didn’t mean it, it would be better not to make the tiles and waste the mud and the work. Although I do think one could sell them. It is mysterious. And people don’t like to waste their minutes verifying. Although I do think the money they would earn could offset that. In a way, it is nice, because if I suddenly forget all the things I need to do, I can rest assured that nobody cares.

La Burrocracia

Welcome to my life. Or my badass fantasy, where I swagger in and out of Ecuador’s Byzantine municipal rabbit warrens and leave my evil tormentors flummoxed. But recently they beat me. I paid more than an Ecuadorian. A fat gringo bribe. I’m not sure whom to blame.

The government is hurting for money, either because of the earthquake, or some economic crisis, or general inefficiency. Or perhaps they have gotten clever, since this past year has seen an explosion of permits and fines. Building permits were once unknown, but now you need a permit to build a chicken house. Some people still refuse to believe it, and plow ahead without permits. Years later your neighbor files a denuncio and the inspectors arrive with their clipboards, fanged and salivating. My husband felt I was a bootlicker for being so compliant, but I just wanted to save money and stress. Ha! However my friend is facing three to six thousand in fines, depending on how clever her lawyer is, for having built a permaculture farm without permits. She asked about seven people before proceeding and they all told her there was no problem because she was out in the country. They told us the same thing, but it isn’t true.

Here goes the saga. There is obra menor and obra mayor. Obra menor is 36 sq m or less and requires a photo of the site, a sketch, a letter of request with certain information about yourself and about the materials, and of course a copy of your identification and your deed. And $30. Obra mayor needs a pile of diagrams, architect’s signature, water statement, etc. I don’t know the cost of that yet but I was told about $300 to city hall alone. I did go and get some of the foundational documents for that, which was about 4 trips to the municipio and two weeks, but very little money. Everyone is free with advice- first I went to the junta parochial in San Pedro, and the clerk told me to go to the administration at the Vilcabamba town hall. There Milton gave me a list of requirements, which I checked off and put in a file, which has to be blue, and I rode the mountain highways to Loja again. At the municipio I went to window 12 and paid my $2.50 to get my request letter validated, and then I went off to file it at the archivo general. The lady in front of me and the man behind me both got the rubber stamp, but I got sent to Centro Historico on the fourth floor of Bloque B. There a large lady in a pants suit told me that would be $250. And if it were obra mayor it would be $1000. So each of my obra menor permits, one for my toolshed and one for my tiny house, would be $250. She was ready to take $500 from me then and there. I thanked her and went right over to my lawyer, a tough little Ecuadorian woman who talks rapid Spanish legalese but generally in the past has taken care of things cheaply, occasionally under the table. “Is it because of my little white face?” I asked her.

Si, mija, no te preoccupe. ” She said she would take care of it for ten bucks. I left triumphant. Many people I told about it said I should file a denuncio. Even stealing one dollar is cause for dismissal from a government job.  But when I called the next week, all was not well. I was indeed supposed to pay the $250, and it was for an architect to make a sketch, which I had already made on Sketchup and printed out neatly. I explained this, but she said that honestly if I didn’t pay it, they would get all kinds of pretexts together and make me do a soil study or a topographical plan, so it was faster and cheaper to just pay up. When I picked up the paperwork a week later, there was no receipt for the $250 and no new sketch. Has she betrayed me? Pilsener time.

This little angel sits on my lawyer's bookshelf
This little angel sits on my lawyer’s bookshelf

La Luz Chapter Two: The Fun Begins

After a few weeks and a  down payment, the day came when a small white truck, three guys, a roll of wire, and a 10KW transformer came out to the property. Jorge the foreman lopped off a leafy branch and threw it in the road 50 meters back; an Ecuadorian hazard triangle. Angel, who we decided was the best risk because if he fell off the pole he could fly, climbed the pole by sticking his rubber boots into holes in the concrete pole. As he neared the top he created steps by pushing short pieces of rebar through small holes in the post. Then he put on a safety harness. attached a pulley, and with shouts of direction and encouragement from below, began hauling up of the transformer. We all hossed on the rope and up it slowly swung.

Once there, Angel fastened it in place and began to connect it. Jorge kept up a constant stream or advice and correction that might have made me think Angel had never been up a pole before. “The big one, no, hell what are you doing! The other one, on the other side! That’s it, that one, no, hell,,,,,goddammit,” Coming from the family I come from, I stood there and watched and grinned. Finally it was time to flip the switch back on, and Jorge was having a little fun. “Ready?” he yelled from 200 meters off.

“No, not yet!”

“Ok, ready? I’m flipping it now ok?”

“NO, not yet! I’m NOT ready!”

“OK here goes!” Angel was scrambling and Jorge was chuckling to himself. I took them to lunch. Ecuadorian working man’s lunch: mountain of rice, a bit of yucca, a small piece of roast chicken, two spoonfuls of salad, and a jug of horchata to share. A bowl of limes and a dish of picante sauce. Three bucks.dscn3186

The following week they came back with wire, a post, a small ladder, and a bag of cement. With a baretta; a long heavy metal bar with a chisel at one end, they dug a 80cm deep hole in the rocks, and poured in dry cement and river sand, mixed with rocks, around the 6 m pole, then dumped a jerry can of water on it.dscn3117 Then after lunch they began trying to throw a rock with a rope tied to it across the river. Eventually it caught on a guaba branch overhanging the river, so Jorge climbed up into the tree and started hacking branches with his machete to open a way to throw it into the river so Angel could wade across with it. I slid 30 feet down the bank to watch, imagining snakes, but found an old orange tree I didn’t know we had. While I was on the river bank watching and sucking an orange, they worked it out and started hacking at another guaba tree on the other side of the river, which belonged to my neighbor’s bird sanctuary.dscn3184 I went around and held the rope until they could get the line tied on and haul it across. If it dipped into the river, it would pull hard, so you had to keep the tension up. I stood there a long time so when they reappeared I joshed that they had been over there having a siesta and drinking beers. Then they proceeded to lean their short ladder against the pole sitting in wet cement to climb up and put on the part they hadn’t put on before. The ladder was too short so they went to chop down some faique trees; horrible thorny acacias that require a permit from the Department of the Ambiente to cut.dscn3108 I finally got them to notice a nearby pile of branches and they tied them to the ladder to make it longer. It wobbled  and the pole sagged, but after all the malarkey they finally straightened it back up and attached the breaker box. We all went home rejoicing. Everybody was picking on Angel, disclosing his woman problems to the gringa. The following Monday he showed up at the door with some buddies who wanted to give me a high estimate on a well, but they were drinking on a Monday morning so I declined.dscn3111

La Luz- Chapter 1: Demoras and Skullduggery

We bought our place without water or power. We were such innocents. We had no idea they couldn’t just stick a meter on the pole outside our property and hook us right up. When we went out to our property with a certain charming contractor the first time, he assured us it would be about $2500 to get the electric up.  However, during subsequent conversations, the amount increased to $5000 and then $7000. During the last conversation, I suddenly thought to ask him how much a water tank would cost . When he quoted me five hundred dollars more than what I knew was the price of a good 2500 liter tank, I thanked him politely. I couldn’t blame him. He has four kids and we are walking ATMs.

I decided that Ecuadorians went to the power company, EERSA, the Empresa Electrica Regional del Sur America, so I found out where it was and we went down there with a copy of our escritura, the deed to our property. Nothing happens without exhaustive papers. They said they would send out inspectors next week. After three weeks I went back and sweetly asked when that might happen. The boss man, a cheerful little man with elegantly styled hair and bleached teeth, promised the very next day, which happened to be a Friday, at 4:30. I had my doubts but I stood out there in the rain, a personification of a country song, and of course they didn’t come. Monday at 8 am I walked into the office with a woeful look on my face. “What happened?” said I plaintively, “I was worried something happened to you. I waited for hours in the rain, but you never came.”

Lots of exclamations, wrong phone number, etc. “When can they come?” I chirped. “There’s a truck right out there. I could go with those guys right now and show them where it is.”

“Oh… but senora they aren’t going directly. They have another job to go to first. It will be a long time.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” said I, hopping cheerily into the truck. “I have nothing to do today. I can wait.”

There was nothing they could do. I rode around merrily chatting with Camilo and Fausto until they were done with their other work, and then we went out to the property and waded out through the thorn trees to the place closest to the electrical lines. By this time I thought they were on my side. “Bad news,” they said. “You are going to need a transformer. Maybe $7500.”

“Really?” ya think?

“Well, maybe $7000. Look, we’ll get you an appointment with our boss tomorrow morning. He will hook you up.”

So the next day, there I sat with cheerful Edy of the white choppers. “Bad news,” he said, “you are going to need a transformer.”

“Oh dear. We are in no shape for that. What will my husband say? How much?” I wrung my hands.

“Probably $3500,” he said with furrowed brow.

I exclaimed over the amount, and asked him to recommend an engineer, knowing he had a lista approbada. He said as a big favor he would send me to the guy who had the best prices. He also recommended I buy plumbing supplies from his cousin, so I wrote down the name and number. (I did eventually buy PVC tubes from her, and must remember to tell him next time I have to pay a light bill.) We parted and I contacted the engineer.

Lenin, who turned out to be a good buddy of Edy’s, came out to Vilcabamba in his nice SUV and we rode out to the property. He was pleasant and prosperous looking so I was nervous. “Wow,” he said,”you have a lot of rocks.” We walked around and he said he could do it for $2000. We shook hands. He sent me a proposal for $2500, I asked him about it, and he reduced to to $2200, which was $200 more than our Ecuadorian neighbor paid. I felt that was fair, us being gringos.


El Pozo

I am riding down the Cucanama road to the property, and the taxista is scolding me. He was hoping to sell me a piece of riverbank property that his cousin owns. He wondered if we wanted a fine big house with a swimming pool, and if we could hire his nephew.  “Ai no,” I lamented, my husband doesn’t listen to me. It is “pura piedra, sin luz, sin agua, sin casa, sin nada! Es un faical.”

Water is life. There is nothing possible without water. You can’t drink, eat, plant, wash, or mix cement. That is all. And we are right next to the burbling Vilcabamba river. There were several possibilities: a hose from a mountain spring on the other side of the highway, a spring up the mountainside next to us, a couple miles of hose from the Santorum municipal water supply, or a groundwater well by the river.

The lady whose land we would have to petition a water concession on,  in order to run a hose over -or under- the highway, said the water was bad. She said it killed all her plants. This seemed highly improbable; it was more likely she didn’t want us sharing her spring. We decided to finesse that option as a lot of trouble and engendering bad will.

I asked our neighbors’ foreman about the cluster of medium sized trees on the mountainside which indicated a possible vertiente.  He said he doubted it was reliable water, but would check, so he scrambled up there and verified that indeed, even with dynamite, it was likely to be insufficient, especially during dry season.

The idea of paying for water and running a couple miles of rubber hose from Santorum did not appeal to us, even if we ran it along the river and it stayed cool. I am now glad we didn’t, since apparently the water runs out every time there is a holiday and the visiting Lojanos fill their swimming pools.

We decided a well 50m from the river would provide abundant water that was at least filtered through sand and earth, giving us water that is clean enough for washing and cooking. Our Berkey filter will provide drinking water for the time being, and we can get the well water tested in Loja. There had been a neglected sewage treatment plant and we are downstream from Vilcabamba, but apparently that was rebuilt and there are now fish in the river. I think  that type of contamination is biological and can be filtered out.

There are two kinds of well-digging; a narrow hole drilled down to a great depth by machine, or a shallow hole dug by shovels or an earthmover, which is $20 an hour here. As we were digging by the river, we expected to hit water before 2 meters. We hit it at 1m 50.  The maestros I talked to encouraged me to buy huge cement rings, which would have cost about  $1200. Our friend Jim, a Canadian engineer, had been using plastic culvert tubing, which is a 6 meter corrugated tube, twin walled, 80 cm across, and said it was much simpler than stacking huge, heavy, and possibly fragile cement rings. We found a maestro who had used one before, and I was able to locate a tube in Loja for $570. Maestro Fredy perforated the bottom 3 meters of it with 2 inch holes, and then Jim and I told him to put more in the bottom 2 meters. I was worried I was offending Fredy, as he did mention that it wasn’t his first well, but I said it was my first well and I was nervous.


The bulldozer dug the hole incredibly fast, and Francelin and I started pulling head sized rocks out of the piles and putting them aside. The idea was to put a base of large rocks up the first 2 meters of the perforated tube, sort of like a bulb at the bottom of a thermometer, and then cover that with a layer of gravel, and then backfill the whole thing. As the hole got deeper we kept a gasoline water pump suctioning out the water, since it is a lot like digging a hole at the beach- the sides keep falling in and if the water is high, it sloshes the sides down and soon the edges also fall in, making the hole bigger and bigger. Our operator accidentally damaged the pump hose and tore off the filter, so the pump clogged with stones and quit.

The operator has to be very careful not to damage the hose that is keeping the water level low.

Various suggestions were made- a trip to Loja to buy a new filter head while everybody sat around, a phone call to the owner of the pump so see if he had another, or stopping work for the day. Fredy decided to look in his shed and found a light bulb protector that he had soldered which worked just fine. However while this was being worked out the well filled up and the operator continued to dig, which caused the water to slosh against the sides. This caused the sides to collapse and the hole to increase vastly in size, sort of like when you are digging a hole in the sand by the ocean.  Eventually we were back in business, but there was a lot to dig out. If I had to do it again, I would be ready with extra hose parts, would nag the operator to be careful, and if the pump were not working I would ask the operator to stop digging and do something else.  It became increasingly difficult to get any deeper, so at barely 5 meters we called it good and put in the pipe.

well construction

Rocks and Stones

The oldest of four daughters, I had always been in a way my father’s son, bracing boards, fetching hammers. Still, I annoyed my father by not always being on the ball; playing with shavings, he always said. I remember the beautiful fragrant ribbons of wood that spilled out the top of his plane. My father was an expert woodworker and used antique hand planes. There is no comparison between the loud, vibrating machine planes spitting out little scrunchy chips and the graceful, heavy wooden ones.  It was impossible not to bend the long, curling strips around my fingers and marvel at the satiny grain of the wood. He did masonry too, but in Maryland we only used bricks and mortar. It never caught my imagination the way that his woodworking did. I know something about construction, but in Ecuador it’s a whole different deal.  Materials are different, builders have to be more inventive, and here in the mountains, there are rocks.

Stone here is divided into mountain rock, piedra de montana,  sharp edged and blue/brown/orange, and river rock, piedra del rio, soft and blue, white, and gray, with occasional cream or dark red. On a clear day the Vilcabamba river ripples over its bed of pretty stones, but the washes of sand and stones along its banks remind you of the days when the mountain rains swell it to a wild, muddy torrent. On days like that you can actually hear the stones rolling down the riverbed. Rocks weighing more than a man roll down the river. At night it is almost a frightening sound, and at first I was afraid for our bridge. Eventually I realized that only water was pushing against the concrete wings of the span, and went back to marveling. I had never really made the connection that that was how stones got those soft edges, but as a child I had a rock tumbler. It was a rubber barrel on rollers. We put in grit and rocks, and in a few weeks the rocks became smooth pebbles.  It is the same thing.

The shapes of the river stone vary greatly, but not as much as you would think; I guess certain rocks split in certain ways, and that lends itself to forms. The blue stone seems to have a slatelike grain, so it makes natural cobblestones, smooth and warm to the touch, and flat round pebbles that fit comfortably in your hand and when clean have a satiny grain. The pure  white quartz seems to form round shapes that can be bulbous or have tiny cavities with little crystals in them. Then there are white and gray granite stones that are rougher in the hand, and many shades of slate. I walk around picking them up and sorting them into piles as if by some atavistic instinct.

The idea of stone walls, stone paths, and stone foundations captured me. As I walked around the property picking up these rounded stones with the tactile beauty of beach pebbles, I began to envision patterns, and began to sort them into piles. These will be good for corners, these will be good for edges, these will be good facing for a wall, and these just have a wonderful shape to put somewhere to please the eye. Ecuadorians save the white round rocks for paths, and gringos save them because the purported positive energy of quartz. I made a small pile of big flat satiny blue stones to make…something.

Letters home


Perhaps adding some of my letters home here would be a good way to give an impression of daily life.

November 10, 2016

We continue. I have been working pretty hard and am a bit sore, picking up rocks and putting them down, mixing cement, raking sharp rocks out of the trench where the pvc tubes will lie, but things move slowly. The pumphouse is up, roofed, and parged, and I have found an amazing ladrillera in Malacatos who will make me the rustic roof tiles for 25 cents apiece. I watched him cleaning the edges on drying bricks with a knife, which a boy was making by hand in wooden molds. Amazingly clean and pretty. Baked in old brick kilns. Got to figure out how to write an article on this without destroying it. So I ordered 200 tiles, 18 to a sq m, but may order more if we decide how many we need for the bodega. I suppose they will blacken,  but that is sort of what happens. Stephen is really big on powerwashing……

The maestro who is making the metal door has been really busy…, so looks like we won’t be able to take advantage of our electrician’s only availability this Saturday. It’s the whole flow chart deal- door, then pump, then electricity, then connecting riego tubes and tanks, assuming we have the trench padded with soft earth either via buckets and shovels or by machine scoop, and assuming we can test the joint seals as we move up the road. The trench has to be closed so the machina can advance up the road, which skirts the edge of the mountain and is now impossible to navigate due to the giant trench up the middle. I know now that I was correct to suggest Francelin dig the trench by hand over the past month. There was buttloads of time and he would have made a tidy little slit in the ground rather than this Middle Eastern warfare. Anyway. Feel like it isn’t my fault since this is my first project of this sort. My guys claim all kinds of experience, but it would be rude, I suppose, to point out that they should have thought of this or of that. As my brother in law says, your head is not just a place to keep your hat.