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A Snake Hunting Doctor

Today we woke up to the sound of birds singing at El Quetzel Restaurante, Hostyeria and Café y Chocolate in Mindo, Ecuador. Mindo is in the heart of the Rainforest in the northern hemisphere of Ecuador and for the past five years, the Audubon Society has named Mindo as the best place to birdwatch – in the world.

I got up early to SKYPE with my family and this time, sitting at the computer, I was visited by what I am almost certain was a baby scorpion. It’s becoming a bit of a theme now – me being the person who is coming in contact with venomous insects and otherwise.

After another delicious meal, of pancakes with chocolate syrup (derived naturally from the moisture that is lost during the fermentation process) and strong coffee, Don Victor, the farmer who cares for the gardens met with us to share some of the history of this pretty village. Victor shared that 20 years ago, one man in the community decided to pursue tourism. The funny thing about it is that most folks thought he was lazy. However, after some success, the townspeople recognized the value in attracting tourists – and the positive impact it was having on their village.

So, they began creating the infrastructure that would support tourism. And people from all over the world contributed at one time or another. The native people learned recycling and composting techniques from American people and slowly, they created a community that truly embraces tourists.

Victor then took us on a tour of the gardens behind our hostel and pointed a variety of medicinal herbs and plants that they grow and use in cooking and in chocolate. One tree in particular, the Guava is host to the Bromelia– a beautiful red blossom stalk that is home to a very poisonous family of tree frogs. In the past, the indigenous people used the venom from these frogs on the ends of their spears and arrows – to stun their prey.

We also tasted the Stevia plant (think the sugar substitute Truvia) and Ducamada, a herb that should be eaten before breakfast and is thought to help prevent cancer. Frank (our wonderful traveling partner) from Mindo Chocolates shared that they intend to blend this herb into a chocolate bar.

Frank continued our tour of their chocolate manufacturing process and I was amazed to see many household items that had been retrofitted for the purpose of grinding and processing cacao. For example: an old industrial blender was powering a homemade cacao-grinding machine. The process was a great example of bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate making. Currently, Mindo’s chocolate nibs are available at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.

At lunch, we had the opportunity to taste some of Mindo’s raw cacao product – combining the paste with chili peppers (grown in their gardens) and sugar to taste. It was muy deliciouso.

Our next stop was a 15-acre cacao farm in Puerto Quito, owned and operated by Dr. Pedro Sabedra. Deeper into the rainforest we went and as we traveled just 45 minutes, it got hot. Not just hot. Hot and wet.

GoBe gang with our friend Pedro (the Snake Hunter)

Sabedra is a doctor by trade (working one day a week in Quito) but he’s a natural preservationist at heart. The good doctor’s energy is palatable and contagious. Not only that, the guy can handle a (very sharp) machete. Our group, accompanied by two large snake-sniffing German Shepard’s followed him on a rough path (hand-cut by machete) into the rainforest.

As soon as we ducked under the canopy of trees, it was like we had entered another place and time. All around us was dark, lush and green. The path we walked on was a bed of cacao leaves, teeming with spiders – which I decided to ignore. As we rounded the first curve, we came upon a bamboo tree the size of a two-story building. The stalks were easily larger than the circumference of my two hands and I could see that some had recently been cut. When I asked Pedro how he had harvested the giant bamboo – he smiled and told me “with a machete.”

Pedro’s approach to farming is much different from what we have seen previously. His trees are some of the oldest in Ecuador (one tree was 40 years old) and he prefers to leave the grove wild – allowing the native plants to grow and provide rich nutrients to his trees.

I asked Pedro about snakes (culebra’s) and he laughed and said that he had recently killed two. They were at his house now and “did I want to eat them?” WOW. A doctor-turned-snake-hunter.

Third deadliest snake in the world (X)

We finished our walk through the farm and headed up to Pedro’s house where (as promised) he pulled out two dead snakes – a male and a female. Turns out these weren’t your average run-of-the mill snakes – they were X (ex-eh’s) – categorized as the third most deadly snakes in the world (behind the Mamba and Cobra). In true conservationist style, Pedro shared that he would not have killed the snakes but they had gotten too close to his house. In fact, awhile back he captured a python weighing hundreds of pounds that he planned to release, saving it from certain death at the hands of one of the neighboring farms. But when he returned to the container that housed the snake – it was gone.

Our visit to Pedro’s was delightful. He reminded me of the importance of the earth and all it’s creatures – even the venomous ones. And how simply we could all live – with much less at the same time – having much, much more.


Did Someone Say Colaborativo?

Today we had the opportunity to visit the community-based co-operative that was developed by the Padre. The Gruppo Salinas project is truly amazing. Within walking distance are a cheesery (specializing in delicious, aged cheeses), a soy-based bread and cookie manufacturer, a cacao manufacturing facility (where the beans are roasted, hulled and ground into various chocolate products), a mushroom packaging facility, an herb distillery, and a textile plant.  The thing that unites all of these businesses is that they are operated by local indigenous people – who also share in the profits.

Juliette, Jody and Anita with Padre

The cheesery is supported by 70 manufacturing plants throughout Ecuador. Victor (our guide) shared that in order to meet the demands of full-distribution abroad (to North America) they would need to grow to about 300 plants. The standards for production of every one of these products are very high. Every product is produced by hand with the greatest care and it is clear that there is a lot of pride in the success and development of the co-operative. It was also very telling to see local people shopping at both the cheese and chocolate shops. In Quito (and many other cities), it’s a much different story (as Jeff Stern confirmed) – the lack of collaboration and willingness to share information is evident.

There were several times today when I felt like I had landed on the planet Colaborativo. I have never witnessed an entire community coming together – economically – to benefit the whole. It really is a beautiful thing.

Gruppo Salinas is also an excellent example of the power of experiential marketing. Victor’s tour of each facility was calculated and efficient: first, we toured the various areas where the process was happening. Then we were taken to a retail store front to shop – and in the case of the cacao manufacturer, we were even guided through a “cacao museum.” 

After a full day of learning and shopping, our next appointment was with the local credit union to learn more about how they lend and whether or not they provide microfinancing. We met with Hugo Toalombo, the President (the Head Heffe) of Cooperative de Ahorro Y Credito. Hugo also happens to be the President of Grouppo Salinas. Like everyone else we met today, Hugo was completely transparent sharing openly that to-date about 80% of funds they are lending are microloans. And the majority are loaned to women.

A funny thing happened on our way back to the hostel – our friend Anita ran into a man who had just attended a meeting with the Padre. So we followed him up to a dimly lit kitchen and wound up having a wonderful conversation with he and his partner (a lovely woman who is fluent in Italian).

Our motley crew (Jody, DC and I, three Caucasians from the states, Anita, a local coastal woman, Jenny an Ecuadorian who lives in New York) caught the Padre’s attention and as we sat, he wondered out loud how we all came to be together?

We shared bread, cheese and coffee and I found myself floating away listening to the musicality of foreign languages as to my right: DC engaged in an Italian conversation and on my left: Jody spoke with the Padre in Spanish. It was surreal. I felt an extreme amount of gratitude not nly to be present, but to be in the presence of a great and visionary leader.

We ended our stay in Salinas in style by taking over a local disco-tech. Just when Grandma Gail didn’t think our travels would get any more interesting – they did. It was a great way to celebrate our departure and thank the locals for their hospitality.

An Exciting Trip to A Mountain Town

This morning we were awakened (again) by our friendly rooster. Funny thing about our friend, he continues to crow until each one of us makes an appearance. Today we bid Samuel goodbye but Anita is accompanying us to Salinas de Guarando.

We started the trip by stopping by Samuel’s chocolate shop in Quevedo. We each bought chocolate bars to take home and we picked up some cacao for Miriam to use when we make truffles with her in a couple of days.

Tasting Jenny's favorite fish soup (ensevollado) in Quevedo

While we were in Quevedo, Jenny treated us each to her favorite local dish “fish soup.” It was a stew containing albacore, potatoes and a delicious broth. We ate and waited at a mechanic while the horn on our van was repaired.

Traveling without a horn is dangerous business in South America. It’s the complete opposite from places like Kauai where horn-honking frowned upon. Here the horn seems to be an extension of the driver’s hand – like the steering wheel itself – warning oncoming busses that we intend to pass – regardless of who is in the “right.”

While we were parked, Anita took the opportunity to administer a tetanus shot to Joni. A wise choice considering her machete injury. She will have quite the story to tell the doctor in the states who removes her stitches. So we traveled from the tropics back into the mountains. The drive took about ten hours but the scenery was magnificent and we found ways to amuse ourselves even when we took a “shortcut.” And weren’t quite sure if it was all that short.

As we continued on our way, the tropical heat gave way to an arid mountain climate. Joni has been our resident bug-attractor and even in the confines of the van, she didn’t disappoint. She was bitten by a lot of bugs out in the field yesterday and today, as we drove along, it appeared that her bites were becoming worse. Fernando (our fearless driver) heard this and quickly pulled over. Joni applied some more bug spray but Fernando insisted that she also put fresh lime on her bites. It came as no surprise to me that almost instantly, this natural remedy worked. I am told that the Ecuadorian people believe in natural remedies versus traditional western medicine. Recalling my episode of Incan Revenge last year – and the oregano tea that was provided – I am a believer.

So, after a long (but never boring) drive, we arrived in Salinas de Gauranda just in time for dinner. Together, we enjoyed a fine meal of chicken soup, fried rice, pork chop, salad and tea. After dinner we were honored to meet one of the founding fathers (literally, an Italian priest) Padre Antonio Polo of the Salnias de Guaranda community enterprise.

The Padre has a magnetic personality. He speaks quickly and his speech pattern is mesmerizing. It reminded me a lot of when I heard Frank Abagnale (the con-man that the movie Catch Me If You Can was based on). His voice was musical and the history he shared with us was astounding.

Thirty years ago, a Bishop sent he and a group of priests to work on a community-based project. This eventually led to the Italian brotherhood purchasing the salt mines (land and mineral rights) from the Patrones (people in power) and ultimately freeing the indigenous people who were enslaved. Father said that once the land was purchased and the people were free – they began to work as one to formulate a plan related to helping develop a co-operative that would support the entire community.

A Swiss gentleman came to visit and loved the area so much that he helped teach the people how to make queso (cheese) which has become the number one product that is distributed and sold by the co-operative throughout Ecuador. Since that time, the co-op has expanded into chocolate, textiles, coffee and carnivores (meat/sausage).

The Padre stressed that the community works as one – with the same intent: to work hard together and earn a fair wage. He indicated that none of this would be possible if the people were not like-minded. This co-op model isn’t new however, the approach is refreshing. Instead of a “take no prisoners” model, almost all of their distribution is focused on Ecuador. And to that end, they opened four retail operations, that funnel even more touristas.

They are also planning festivals related to each product that they currently market – to engage the local youth and increase tourist interest. The Padre is a beautifully humble soul. A person who throughout the course of our dialogue continued to remind us that he wasn’t the “expert” and the sense I got was that he sees himself as a conduit of sorts. The person who, along with a group of thoughtful priests many years ago combined his divine abilities and resources to help one small mountain town succeed. This collaborative approach appears to be a consistent theme among the entrepreneurs that we have met. It’s an approach I think we could all learn a lot from.

Somebody is Going to Lose an Eye…or A Finger?

After the ten-hour trip yesterday, we all slept soundly and were woken by the crowing of a rooster. I had forgotten about these guys (they woke us last time too) so promptly at 6AM, the rooster started “rooostering.” Funny thing about roosters, they don’t really care how late you got to sleep the night before – and this guy was relentless. In fact, I am pretty certain that when he heard us start waking, he planted himself directly under our window and continued with his crow-alert.

Joni before the machete injury

None of us minded. We gathered again at Samuel and Anita’s house for a delicious breakfast with an egg, fresh fruit, a small corn cake and some really great coffee.

After fueling up, Samuel shared a little of his history in the cacao business and his thoughts about the super cacao tree. In his previous life, Samuel’s training as a Nestle agronomics expert have come in handily helping him with the science behind the farming. As part of his proprietary fermenting process, he pre-dries his cacao. Interestingly, this is not a process that any other producers practice. This encourages the fermentation process and actually, when it’s finished, the bean tastes like dark chocolate. Most of us think that the roasting process is what “finishes” the product but in actuality, this pre-drying process (au natural if you will) produces a result that is truly deliciouso.

Interestingly to me, there are many parallels between giving birth and harvesting cacao. In fact a lot of the same language is used. The internal membrane surrounding the seeds is called the “placenta” and Samuel shared that the moment the pod is cut away from the tree, an enzymatic change begins to take place. It’s a living thing after all – and it requires nutrients, care, and a whole lotta love before it arrives in our local grocery store in it’s final form.

We drove to an area of the plantation where we were taught to harvest cacao. It’s done with machetes (sharp) and

Cacao beans pre-drying at the Orecao Plantation (Samuel's casa)

there is a technique that is quite precise. Joni stepped forward bravely to handle the machete and none of us was too worried as she is an excellent cook and knows her way around a knife. She started slicing and at one point the machete slipped and cut her thumb deeply but in true Joni style – she didn’t want to quit before she had conquered the cacaco pod.

Samuel’s lovely wife Anita (who just so happens to be in nursing school) stitched her thumb back together (three stitches) and when we came back to check on her – she was ready to go again. That’s Joni. She doesn’t quit. Ever. And she certainly was not going to let a machete get the best of her.

Then Samuel put is to work in the farm. We pruned cacao trees, carefully removing what he calls “suckers” or small shoots that steal nutrients from the trees. Our two female guides Lola and Mercedes helped educate us on the proper way to prune the foliage. Mercedes apparently has an extra sensory perception and can smell snakes (culebras). So, we felt certain that the forested area we were trekking into was snake-free.

Samuel’s plantation is home to some 112,000 trees and the top leaves also have to be pruned twice a year to allow the sun to shine directly into the tree. This takes about three months time. Although he is harvesting throughout the year, next month will be the time that Samuel and his team (35 strong) harvest the majority of the cacao that his trees produce.

We finished a full day of cacao education 101 by learning about the grafting process. No one in Ecuador is currently grafting trees and Samuel is only doing it for research and development purposes. If the super cacao tree is truly going to become the ultimate chocolate machine, he’ll have the knowledge to graft this variety to his trees and produce even more quality cacao.

DC’s Bananas

Today we left Quito  and headed for Samuels. We planned to meet him in a small mountain town at the market. We got started a little later than we had planned and this combined with a slightly wrong turn extended our travel into the evening.

We drove along the Pan American highway (this road goes all the way to Argentina) and took in some of the most beautiful scenery. Bright green mesas and plateaus. Gardens of all types. And indigenous people in their native dress – bright pink ponchos, long skirts, golden necklaces topped off with smart fedoras.

Samuel and his lovely wife Anita were waiting for us just outside of the Zumbahua market (about 10,000 feet above sea level) and by the time we arrived (after 1 o’clock) the market was beginning to close down. After quickly exchanging hugs and kisses with our friends, we walked through and bought some food. DC purchased a mixed bag of bananas. They were all about half the size of what we know as a banana and their colors varied. The first tasted like a cross between an apple and a banana. And once we all had one taste, we wanted more. So, DC’s bag of bananas was compromised – and thoroughly enjoyed. I think he got away with uno banana.

We meet our friends Samuel and Anita at the Zumhahua Market

We continued our travels up into the Andes to Lake Quilotoa, a beautiful volcanic crater we had planned to see. We passed through a kind of “toll booth” and drove a bit farther to a thoughtfully planned artisan market a stones throw from the crater.

Down to just one of DC’s bananas (none of us wanted to be “responsible” for eating the last one) – we were all grateful to see Anita laying out a delicious picnic as we tumbled out of the van. Tuna fish sandwiches, cheese, crusty bread and cured meat that was produced in Salinas, the next town we are planning to visit.

The crater reminded me of an alpine lake. A long windy trail leads down (an incline of well over 1,000 feet) and according to the German couple we encountered who were just completing it, it takes about two hours (round-trip) to hike down-and-back. There is also the option of hiking around the crater – which is a seven-hour round trip.

After a quick bite, we were on the road again heading for Quevedo and Samuel’s farm. We started our descent into the Amazon River basin and the air began to change immediately from arid and cool to sweet and heady. I was reminded of the contrast between the variety of climates in Ecuador, and was once again seduced by the sights and smells of the tropics.

It had been raining on and off throughout the trip and this time, I stuck my head out the window and let the rain drench me as we drove. I was struck by thinking about all that I was taking in with my eyes – and how it’s a much different thing to take in your experiences with your eyes and your heart. At that moment, descending into the tropics of the rainforest, I felt it. In my heart.

We turned into Samuel and Anita’s drive and after bottoming out a number of times, I am pretty certain our driver Fernando was glad when we opted to hop out and walk. We traversed the last ¼ mile through the grove of cacao trees, to Samuels casa with the van behind us – lighting the way.

Anita had prepared a delicious meal (chicken stew) for our group and we shared a lot of laughs and headed off to bed.

Looking forward to tomorrow – harvesting cacao, pruning the trees and discussing the difference between the CCN-51 variety of cacao and the Tradicional that Samuel cultivates.

Off to the fields

As we motor through the rainy Andes Central Cordillera, navigating washed out roads and switchback after switchback, I know we’re in good hands
with our gentle but stalwart driver, Fernando. Today we’ll visit
one of the highest peaks in the Northern Andes Range, Cotopaxi:
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotopaxi And then it’s off to learn
about the informal economy of Ecuador, largely an indigenous one,
at the Zumbahua market where you can purchase a llama (adult for
$40, baby for $20) and a quintal of potatoes for less than $.20. In
the afternoon we’ll visit a cacao collection station with our good
buddy, and cacao industry rogue, Samuel. He’s an ex-Nestle
agricultural scientist who, after leaving his post there, purchased
a poorly performing R&D coffee farm from Nestle only to
return it to viability and sell it back to them later for a
substantial profit. Samuel is the undisputed genius behind the
preservación and propagation of Ecuador’s Nacional cacao species,
purported as a much higher quality (although lower-yielding)
variety than the newly dominate hybrid species CCN–51.

A Very Chocolatey Education

Wow. What a day. After arriving well after 11PM last night, we started the day bright and early in Quito, the capital city. Miriam met us after breakfast for a quick hola and at the same time Frank from Mindo Chocolates (mindochocolate.com/) also joined our group.

After breakfast, we talked a little bit about what the day would bring and while we were visiting, Guy (pronounced Gi) a sign maker from Montreal decided our group looked like fun and since his friends hadn’t arrived from LA, he asked to join us on our travels.

GoBe Girls (Juliette and Jody) with Jeff Stern

We started the day with a chocolate tasting with our friend – Jeff Stern a super chocolatier and owner of Gianduja Chocolate (Irresistible – check him out at giandujachocolate.com). Jeff filled us in on the evolution of the cacao tree and how in the past two months the first group of “super cacao” trees has produced. These trees yield much more and the taste and aroma is superior. There is currently only one plantation that is producing – and they already have an enormous amount of demand – which is expected to grow.

We sampled cacao and Jeff’s dark chocolate-covered golden berries (a lot like gogi berries). The combination of tart and sweet was amazing. The dehydrated berries taste like a cross between an apricot and a cranberry. Deliciouso.

After lunch, we met with Jose Valdivieso, the Director of Conservacion & Desarrollo (Conservation & Development). The mission of this organization is to fight poverty. They specialize in providing support and education to 40,000 cacao producers in Ecuador (there are about 130,000). Jose spoke at length about the introduction of the super cacao variety, which from his perspective will be a great thing for the cacao industry. Currently, Ecuador produces only 2-3% of the world’s yield, but it is considered the highest quality. Over the next several years, he expects demand to exceed production.

Jose is doing excellent work. He (and 300 other people associated with his organization) are continually working to create synergies and opportunities that will expand Ecuador’s growing agri-tourism market.

There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between Michigan and Ecuador. The most significant being the reliance on agriculture as an economic stimulator. And then there is the constant struggle of producers/farmers who in addition to knowing the best possible way to coax the most out of their land, must also think about the end-result and focus on growing their businesses and becoming sustainable.

Ecuadorians are incredibly optimistic and entrepreneurial people. I think Frank from Mindo put it best this morning when he said: “People always ask me how come you guys are always happy? And I say, because we eat chocolate.”

That’s one way of looking at it.

Tomorrow we travel south to see our friend Samuel VonRutte (aka the chocolate purist). He operates a plantation and grows 250 acres of the highest-quality tradicional cacao. His chocolate is superior in taste (we’ll be bringing some back for sure) and surrounded by all that chocolate, you can imagine, Samuel is one happy guy.