Mashpi y Guaycuyacu

"If every once in a while you don't think 'What have I gotten myself into?',
 then you are not doing it right."   - Roland Gau

The Land of Pterodactyls Claiming to be Mosquitoes

 So, at the recommendation go one of my professors, I decided to visit an organic farm that cultivates hundreds of varietals of tropical fruits! First off  etting there. The farm is located in a secluded part of the rainforest about five hours away from Quito, so it was time for more buses. You could actually tell how far away you were from the city by the passengers, when they change from carrying MP3 players to carrying chickens. A little over half way we came to a small town where we needed to change over to another bus. Trick was finding the new bus stop, because it was definitely not obvious. So, instead of standing there with a bewildered look plastered on our faces, we decided to sit down at a table for lunch. Better to be confused sitting down with food in your mouth rather than the alternative. After finishing a delicious lunch of rice and chicken, our hostess was kind enough to lead us to a remote bench which apparently was our point of departure. Eventually a rickety bus tumbled along that would eventually take us to our final destination: Reserva Rio Guaycuyacu.

We walked up a forested path to the small cabin were we would stay the next few nights. The last light of the setting sun was dying out, so the open air terrace glowed brightly from within the dark forest canopy, and the sounds of chopping and dinner preparations greeted us before anything else. Jim, our host, greeted us with a big smile saying, "You finally made it!" Behind him poped out three other faces. Mary Jo,  one of our companions who went ahead of us, and two French students completing a biological landscape internship with Jim as a part of their requirements for their university. Our first night was basically just getting acclimated to our new, very small living space. There was a separate dorm with beds, bed I wasn't having any of that after one of the French students told me they had found a tarantula earlier that day. NO WAY. So so so so so very happy I brought a hammock (Tarantulas can't climb! Haha!).  Dinner was composed pretty much of what we expected. Fruit. As was breakfast, lunch and dinner the next two days after that. Though I will hand it to Jim, after 27 years of living in the rainforest he has quite a few creative recipes! But me being a carnivore that wasn't going to last long. 

Our first real day was basically an introduction to the farm. Jim owns about twenty hectares in total, which has been cordened off into separate plots used for either specific varieties or different agriculture techniques. For example, in one plot he uses kudzu (not the evil Chinese kind back home that could grow on death itself unscathed) to keep other nutrient stealing undergrowth to a minimum allowing more to reach the actual trees, while in another plot he was instead allowing all of the natural herbs and grasses grow unhindered.  We spent most of the morning getting the lay of the reserve, learning the different varietals, and harvesting ripe fruits. We also were shown the location site where Jim's new house was being built at a bit higher elevation due to impending flooding caused by the creation of a new hydroelectric dam a few miles up river. Funny thing is, if I lived in the same place for over 25 years there would be tons of tweaks I would like to make to the layout, but not Jim. The house under construction was an exact replica of the old one. In the afternoon we were given free time to laze in hammocks and read something from Jim's quite extensive librarie. While my pile of reading materials initially consisted of old national geographic magazines and a tattered copy of Lord of the Rings, Jim came out with a small book that he said might interest us. It was a short autobiography written by his daughter about her childhood, growing up in the middle of the rainforest away from the complications of the world. As a layed in the hammock reading about the small every day adventures that unfolded in the lush green world around here my surroundings began to take on a new light. 

The next day we had some new visitors. Their names were Augustina and Vale, and they had apparently come to retrieve us. Instead of spending an extended stay at the cabin with Jim, we were instead to be transferred over to a local chocolate farm where we would complete the rest of our stay. Augustinais from Costa Rica and her husband Alejandro from Ecudor and Vale from Germany togeather started this small chocolate farm in the middle of the rainforest. We were at first a bit unsettled, as we hadn't yet truly delved into the work of the fruit farm, but were not at all disappointed once we reached the chocolate chateau. I say chateau because the farm was huge by Ecuadorean standards, and not enclosed by ever growing foliage. The first day we arrived just in time for lunch, which consisted of stir fried vegetables, rice, and beans. I love fruit, but my diet sorely missed the greens! After which we recieved a tour of the farm and the chocolate making facilities, and had a swim in the nearby river. Oh! And we got to meet the other members of e family! The illustrious black feline, Sibu, named after the Costa Rican god of cacao, and the hyper active black lab named mamba. Ah, and a piglet named chocolatia! The easy goings of the first day left us unprepared for the work that was to come the next. 
On the second day we awoke at about 7am for a short break feast, and were then handed baskets and shears. Today was harvest day. Actually, every fifteen days there was a harvest day, and we just happend to show up at the opportune moment. The farm contained 4 plots, each plot housing approximately 100 cacao trees, and our job today was to harvest the ripe cacao fruit of three of these plots. This consisted of walking line by line of trees, slightly peeling the outer most layer of fruits that seemed viable, clipping and stacking into the baskets on our back. On average we got 3-4 fruits ready for harvest per tree. Augustina and on of the farm hands stayed at the center of the plot, where they would await us to bring them our harvested fruits, and then they would proceed to open the shells with a machete and dig out the seeds inside. The seeds were all covered in this fleshy, sweet outer coating that you could eat as well! In the end, to harvest all three plots took about 4 hours. But we weren't done just yet. Next was to transfer all of the seeds to collecting bags so we could drain out the cacao juice (super duper delicious!), and the transfer what had to be about 200lbs of seeds to the wooden fermenter.  They would stay in the fermenter for about three days, being tured twice a day and have the temperature recorded. Without any additional hearing, the fermentation process reached 55°C! Other than occasionally turning the sun drying cacao seeds for. The previous batch to prevent molds from forming, we were done for the day. Our afternoon was free for swimming and lounging in hammocks.  It was during the lounging that we discovered the dangers of mosquitoes, for by the end of the day my anckles we absolutly covered in bites! 

If we thought that the hard work was over after the first day we were sorely mistaken, as the next day was machete work. We headed out once again to the fields, this time with Alejandro. The cacao trees are planted in straight lines, with every other row transitioning from eucalyptus trees to cacao trees. Our job was to cut down the fairly large eucalyptus and use the branches as natural fertilizer around the bottoms of the cacao. I being the boy among girls, was given the machete. As hard as the work was, it was somehow satisfying actually. I grew up in farm country, so I was used to this kind of work (just ask my father!). But apparently four years of city livin at e university had mad my once calloused hands grow soft, so within five minutes I had huge blisters showing up! Luckily I came to South America with a full med kit! Ha! We worked for about four hours before lunch, and then another two after that. Even then we only managed to finish one plot! 
Day three was a bit easier, as it was Sunday and our hosts were firm believers in the day of rest! So today only two hours of work in the plots! Instead of working with the cacao today, we instead took to tending to the neighboring plot of banana trees! Again, more machete work. These trees grow in clumps, so We had to go  clump by clump and cut down any decaying leaves from the trees as well as the trees themselves when more than three trees were found in one clump. This was all to make sure the proper nutrients we being diverted to fruit production. Banana trees being very watery with soft bark, the work was quite easy and went quickly. The downside was that the water that leaked out of cut leaves smelled super rancid, and you couldn't help getting it on you. Plus timy insects living in the trees would fall down on you creating rashes. For lunch we were in for a special treat! A Peruvian family potluck! Augustina's parents and cousins divided to pay us a visit, and brough us the gift of meat!! I tried to help out in the kitchen a bit, but the ladies chased me away, so instead I sat in a hammock and watched as they boiled chicken in a broth made of the miel of the cacao were had harvested earlier over the fire. Needless to say it was absolutly delicious! 

My last day at the farm turned out to be a real treat! I was enlisted to work inside the chocoateria, the very air conditioned chocoateria. Though it wasn't sitting there eating chocolate to make sure it was good (as I hoped). Because this was still a small operation, most of the more had to be done by hand. That meant grating huge blocks of chocolate into fine powder to later be turned into workable chocolate, slicing dried fruit into fine pieces to be put inside some of the flavored chocolate, and separating the dried cacao beans from their shells using a high speed air machine (which didn't really work so you had to do it by hand in the end). We were even tasked with the packaging of the chocolate. So in the end we stayed with the entire process, from picking the cacao to packaging for shipment! I also got some insight as to the difficulties organic farms face at recieved the credit isn't to be able to out the word [ORGANIC] on their lable. It's a really involved process that can take years of inspections and paperwork! That night it was my turn to cook dinner, as we were on a rotating schedule, so it was up to me to create a masterpiece out of the various vegetables in the fridge. I will try to recall the recipe for you:

Alex's Rainforest Volcano!
What you will need: Black beans (pre soaked), 1/2 Eggplant, 1/2 zucchini, 3-4 tomatoes, 2-3 onions, Pepper, salt, brown sugar, Brown rice

So, first start cooking the brown rice. If you don't know how, wiki it! When the rice is nearly done you will start the rest of the doing, but you can start prep while waiting. Slice up the zucchini, eggplant and 2 onions and set aside in a bowl for later. Next, slice up the tomatoes as fine as possible along with the remaining onion and throw in a saucepan. While it begins to cook, grind up around two tablespoons of pepper (your own discretion) and throw n with a bit of salt and three spoons of brown sugar. Stir until boiling, then set aside. This is your sauce.  Nowxtart on the vegetables. Add the contents of your prep bowl to a frying pan and begin to sauté until soft. Once at this point throw in your ore soaked black beans and cook for 5-10 minutes stirring every minute Nd adding in a bit of salt for flavor. Once ready remove from heat. To serve, first make a bed of rice on the plate. Next add a middle layer of the vegetable mix. Last add ample amount of the tomato sauce to the top. You now have a volcano. 

The next morning it was time for me to head back to quito, which turned out to be pretty interesting. I had to be at the front gate at 7am to hop on an open air ranchero to take me back to San Pedro where I would get a bus to quito. I was the only gringo on the bus, and sat next to locals heading off to work and children heading to school. The cool morning breeze and the luch scenery that passed gave me a beatiful close to my past two weeks working on the farm.


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