A Father’s Reflections

Written by Pat Heitz for our travel blog 

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Patrick Heitz, Aimee’s Father Huacachina, Peru

Aimee & Leo have decided to take a break from the life that their parents have shown them. They have left their jobs and will be traveling South America for 6 months, and I don’t think it is necessarily a bad idea.

South America has always been on my bucket list and time is passing. Aimee convinced me to meet them in Lima Peru, where we could take the Gringo Trail and end in Machu Picchu. I bought the ticket.

A week before I was to leave a most unusual and disturbing thing happened to me. Chris, my son, and two of my grandchildren spent the night with me. All that day I experienced a strange sensation of fullness in my ears, and I thought they were plugged up. I started taking cold tablets but they didn’t help.

Sunday morning Chris and the kids got up early to eat breakfast and hike at Clifty Falls State Park in Madison. Not necessarily ranking at the top of the grandparent list, I was quite surprised when my strong willed 2-year-old granddaughter refused to go and said she wanted to stay with me. We made breakfast, played, and took a walk in the neighborhood. I noticed when she called for me I could not tell what room she was in. On our walk I couldn’t distinguish where the traffic was coming from. I was becoming concerned.

I called Lisa, an ER nurse, and she said what I experienced was a fairly common problem. She said the ears can become compacted with wax and that irrigation normally helps. We irrigated my ears for 2 days until they were raw. A lot of wax came out but still I could not hear out of my right ear. I called my son, a family practice doctor in Chicago, who said I should take steroids and make an appointment with an ENT specialist just in case.

No one ever likes to hear a medical person say “just in case.” I arranged for a steroid shot and found an ENT appointment in Columbus explaining I was to leave the country soon. I made the appointment just in case, assuming my hearing would return promptly and the appointment would be cancelled.

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Backpacking with Leonity Ica, Peru

Later I Googled sudden hearing loss in one ear and I didn’t like what I discovered. There is a rare condition called Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, SSHL. With this condition hearing loss occurs in a matter of hours and is accompanied with Tinnitus (ringing and odd sounds in the ear). I had been feeling a sensation of wind blowing in my ears while I was hearing deep voices. Later the voices changed to bells which was much less disturbing because they reminded me of the alter bells that Father Meny had us ring years ago as altar boys. SSHL only affects about one in 10,000 people and is considered a medical emergency. The odds of recovery are not great; the accepted treatment is with steroids. Treatment started 7 days after onset makes recovery increasingly less likely.

 

I went to the ENT appointment even though I have a high medical deductible. I accepted that it would cost me a fortune to do nothing else but remove deep seated ear wax that was blocking my ear canal. It really didn’t matter though because when I went to Peru, I wanted to hear.

The first requirement for the exam was an auditory test. Of course when they called my name, I looked in the wrong direction in response. The test results showed some hearing loss at certain pitch levels in my good ear. We agreed it was most likely caused by working around loud equipment without proper hearing protection. I was unsure what to think when the audiologist said I would probably have the same hearing loss in my bad ear if I could hear out of it. Yes, I flunked the test in my bad ear. I think I got one word right and I believe the word was baseball.

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All three of us enjoying Lima, Peru

Making the best of the situation I told myself wearing a hearing aid wouldn’t be so bad. Well it turns out that was not an option. As I understand it the problem is in the wiring from the ear drum to the brain. Information is not being processed correctly and a hearing aid would only magnify noises that my brain could not understand.

I had a long wait in the exam room so I researched more on my phone. When the Nurse Practitioner Specialist came in I already knew I had won the lottery and I was probably screwed. Lindsay Cool, who actually is not cool anymore only because she recently got married, explained everything to me that I had already read about. She said it was great that I had received a steroid shot and that we would follow up with strong oral steroids and a steroid shot directly in the ear. The shot in the ear didn’t hurt even though I read it would be extremely painful.

Lindsay said statistically the odds of recovery were 30% but not to pay any attention to the numbers. Yea right, I thought. You’re talking to a lottery winner! She said the cause was usually idiopathic, (unknown causes), my new word for that day, but we would take blood tests. We would also schedule an MRI of the head to see if anything was affecting the auditory nerve. I remember thinking that the MRI shouldn’t be necessary because any of my children could tell her I had nothing in my head.

I told her about my trip to Peru that I would be canceling. Surprisingly she said no, I was not to cancel it. My next appointment would be in a month, the blood test results would not be back, and an MRI has to have insurance approvals. I believe that was her polite ways of saying suck it up and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Put on your big boy pants leave here and live your life.

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Waiting on Dad’s Arrival Lima, Peru

I decided I was still going on my trip. Peru was going to meet one jacked up, hard of hearing, Southern Indiana Americano.

Traveling the Gringo Trail and admiring the beauty of the Peruvian landscape, one long bus trip follows another, and I had plenty of time to reflect on life. I realized that I was learning to turn my good ear to those who are talking while watching their lips as they speak.  I admit that I cling to hopes of spontaneous recovery which is known to happen in some cases.  After all, my Mom has said prayers to Saint Jude, and I have put in a few well-thought-out words on my own behalf to the man upstairs. Still whatever happens, I know that I will look on life differently.

Taking a break from writing I look out the bus window as we climb into the mountains.  Our bus is passing slower trucks loaded with heavy cargo on this unkempt two lane highway. The driver seems to have little regard for the traffic coming down the mountain in the other lane.  As I turn away from this game of chicken, it becomes clear that the desert has slowing been turning to green. I realize that this has been a good trip. It has reminded me that nothing in life remains the same. We must live life to its fullness and never waste a single day.  Life is a gift that demands to be faced strongly, and we must absorb every morsel it chooses to give us no matter which of our senses we must use.

On the bus, we are approaching Lake Titicaca, which is the world’s highest navigable body of water and a destination on the Trail.  There we plan on visiting people who live on islands and huts that are made of nothing but the reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake.

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The Uros Floating Islands Lake Titicaca, Peru

Suddenly my concentration is disturbed.  A baby in the seat directly behind me lets out a deafening shrill; it is one of the most pleasing sounds that I have ever heard.  It vibrates clearly in my bad ear.

Finally, our long journey comes to an end in Aguas Calientes, a small remote village at the base of Machu Picchu, and I believe I have arrived in Never Never Land.  Before dawn with flashlights in hand we join a group of backpackers who are mostly in their twenties and hike up the mountainside.  Most people however chose not to rough it and take buses that crisscross back and forth up to the ruins.  But no matter which way you choose to arrive, there awaits a majestic view of a long lost culture and more mountains to climb.

My hearing has continued to improve which is probably a result of the early steroid treatment but maybe the high altitude and exertion of the climb has had something to do with my improvement.  However, I prefer to believe that the magic of this mountaintop and the spiritual warmth that lives in this place has enhanced my healing.   Walking the ruins I sense the living presence of those who have walked these trails before me, and it reinforces my belief that after death there is still life.

This is Patrick Henry Heitz, Aimee’s father.  Thank you for lending me your ear.

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Early Mornings and Cold Showers

Farm Stay – Sept 4 – 17, 2016

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When we decided to travel in South America for six months we knew we’d have to do volunteer work (and we wanted to volunteer) to make the $$ stretch for 6 months. Yet, I was less than enthused about a full month on a farm. Leontiy found a place where we could work on an organic farm and then work in the café which sells the farm’s coffee, chocolate, fruits, and vegetables. We booked our first stay, planning two weeks on the farm in the Andes and two weeks in the café in Quito.

Leontiy found the farm through WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It is a loose network of national organizations that facilitate placement of volunteers on organic farms.

The farm or La finca is located in Northern Ecuador. After a challenging journey on our first day (see Leo’s early post), we made it to an idyllic setting. Beautiful doesn’t begin to cover it. The farm was very different from the flat cornfields of southern Indiana. This is a farm in the mountains, so the fields were on the mountain sides. The views were like scenes from a dream.

People don’t realize how remote remote can be. Here, we went as far north as Ecuadorian  paved roads could take us and then we went on the dirt roads. If you look on google maps, it just shows that you are in the middle of Andes near nothing. It was actually very comical to us later (not that we knew how remote it was while we were there as we had zero contact with the outside world.)

“Roughing it”

I wasn’t sure how I would react to farm work. I am not exactly what you call an outdoorsy person, but we wanted an adventure. This is what we got. There was no internet and no cell service. We couldn’t contact our families for 5 days because we didn’t know how to get a message out. We had to hike over a mile up hill to a small hotel that had internet sometimes, when it was a good day. We did get online, however, and I had many messages from worried family members.

We stayed in a “cabin” which was three stories. On the top was our open air kitchen. The main floor was a single room complete with 4 bunk beds (happy honeymoon!). And on the bottom was the open air bathroom. The shower was a sink head located over the toilet. The water which ran from it was cold or colder. The cabin was heated by sunlight and the cooled by nighttime.

My first shower on the farm was barely a splash. Actually I stood next to the water and would just bend my head over so only the smallest part of me could get wet. This approach worked well until I started to smell. BAD. So eventually over two weeks I developed a system for actually showering. Never forget the importance of quick dry shower sandals. They are a life saver. The best time to shower was right after lunch when it was the hottest time of day and the sun shines in the bathroom. It was a bit warmer that way.

Cooking

Part of the farm stay was making our own meals. We were equipped with large barrels of pasta, rice, flour, beans, oats, and panella (cane sugar). We were brought some fresh vegetables and eggs once a week, and we could take coffee from the farmhouse. We could also pick fresh fruit off the trees including bananas, papayas, plantains, oranges, and lemons. I had no idea lemons could come in so many colors!

 

In the kitchen, we had 2 mugs, 3 glasses, 2 plates, a coffee “sock,” a few utensils, and some pots and pans. We had a two burner gas stove that you had to light with a candle, quiet carefully. Once or twice I almost took off my eyebrows. The kitchen had a light to allow cooking in the evening time, but you couldn’t do that because the light would attract bugs.  With no screens to keep the bugs out, they DESCENDED ON YOU AT NIGHT. By 7PM every night we would lock ourselves in the bedroom (where we could close the window to keep bugs out). One day we had no power so had no light inside our cabin after the sun set.  Another day we ran out of gas for the stove. It was definitely remote.

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What did we eat you may wonder? Well we ate rice, pasta, beans and fresh veggies. We had no cheese, milk, sweets or fried foods. No bread. So it was basically a diet. We did learn to make pancakes toward the end of week 2 and that was a godsend. On our last day I wanted to make pancakes to bring with us on the bus. I wanted to finish, so kept cooking after darkness set in. I had TWO HUGE BEETLES FLY INTO THE BATTER to meet their death. Better in the batter than in my face which is also where they were trying to go. On the bug topic, wow there were critters of all shapes and sizes, day or night.

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Trying to get dinner prepared before the sun sets and the bugs come

The Work

We worked every day of the week form 7:30AM-12:30PM. The first week we worked on cacao trees. This a fruit tree and the seeds are used to make chocolate. In September, the trees were at the grooming stage. These trees have large full leaves. However, if the tree is too full it discourages fruit growth. Therefore we had to prune the trees of their leaves. We took all the leaves from the trees except for the leaves at the very tip of each branch. I was thrilled this involved little effort, but it was tedious.

We worked with Ines during week one. She was a sweet woman who had worked on the farm for 9 years.  She was kind and a good source of information about the area. She showed us how the chocolate beans dry before they are roasted, but we didn’t get a chance to actually roast any. The last day Leo got to trim brush with a machete. He was literally ecstatic to do this as I watched in terror.

On week two, we worked with Olga. With her we worked on pruning coffee trees and planting yucca. Coffee trees are much more delicate than cocao. While we basically did the same thing as with the cocao trees, we had to work with these trees very carefully. Each leaf had to be cut individually with scissors. You couldn’t just clear a whole branch with your hand.  This was even more tedious.

The days working with yucca really were the hardest! We had to rake and clear brush. Then dig holes and shove yucca branches in the ground. Yucca is a potato-like root vegetable. It grows into a small tree. When the plant is ready, you pull up the branch and one or two yucca roots are at the bottom. Then, you can cut up the branches of the used plants to grow more plants. Each of these will grow again as there are seeds in the branches. I was so sore after these two days I could hardly move.

Excursions: Mindo and Miradona

One of the great things about the volunteer work on the farm is that your weekend is free. We had one weekend in between our 2 weeks of work and we took advantage of it.

First, we traveled to a town in the cloud forest:  Mindo. Mindo was gorgeous. It is well known to tourists for its landscapes and adventure sports. Plus it was surprisingly only an hour bus ride for us. When we got to the Mindo stop, we were on a mountain top. However, Mindo was in a valley between two peaks. We didn’t see another bus so we decided to start walking. 20 minutes later we began to realize our mistake. It was much farther than we anticipated. Lucky for us, a pickup truck stopped and we got to hop in the back. This wasn’t our first nor our last trip in the back of truck. The trip was only 15 minutes at that point.

Once we arrived in town, we were met by a very cute main street and a Saturday market. We walked around and decided to go zip lining early (but not too early) to optimize our chances for good weather. The mornings in the cloud forest start with clouds. By mid morning the heat disperses the clouds until they descend again, sometimes with rain, in the afternoon. This is also how it was at the farm.

We booked our zip lining trip. We were in a group with two other American tourists. They were friendly and just as adventurous/slightly incredulous as we were. When we climbed up the mountain with our gear to start our tour, I was beyond nervous. We then spent about 2 hours zipping between mountains and over valleys. Each time I was terrified. I mean shaking but it was worth it. All of this for only $15.

On Sunday that weekend we caught a ride to Miradona. These are waterfalls up in the hills near our farm in Guanabana. The entrance is located about halfway on the road between Pacto and Guanabana.  We got a ride in a “taxi” and made it to the base of the falls. We were accompanied by Julia, a fellow volunteer from Germany. We started hiking to the falls just as the rain started to pour. Back luck. We kept going anyway to get to the swimming area of the falls. It was still beautiful despite the weather and the cold. We thought hell, we’re already wet. So we got in the water in our suits. I predictably fell twice on the slippery rocks which you had to climb down to enter the water. It was not safe and I wiped out. Leo thought I was a goner but thankfully I didn’t hit my head. The water was freezing! Once we left the water, the sun came out and we warmed ourselves at a local watering hole near the start of the river. The owner was an odd dude, but it seemed to be a good place for a beer.

We hiked from Miradona into Pacto to check out the Sunday market. Pacto was the closest town to us. The town was bustling despite its small size. We loaded up on some bread and beer and then watched some of a volley match. Volleyball is huge here. It’s a bit different than in the US. The ball they use is harder and doesn’t have much bounce. We saw Olga in town and caught a ride back to the farm on the bed of her truck.

Takeaways

We very much enjoyed our time at the farm. After a week, I realized why the farm’s owner doesn’t provide the volunteers with TV or internet. It’s so you really experience rural Ecuador, in its beauty, how it’s meant to be seen. You could lay in the hammock with a book or just take in the landscape. As the days pasted, I longed for civilization less and less. I really saw Guanabana’s town (10 homes) and its people. I lived like a local for a while. I thought maybe we should stay longer… but then I had a dream about chocolate chip cookies.  The next day I nursed 100 mosquito bites. Two weeks was plenty.

-A

This Site Can’t Be Reached

 

Written 9 September 2016.

20160909_142753We made our way to the hotel for a few cold drinks and internet.  It is about a mile uphill from our Finca.  Unfortunately only half of our goals were met. The internet was actually worse than the internet available to NGO observers in Guantanamo Bay.  Not much worse, but worse. *This should explain why we were so hard to reach those first few weeks. https://gitmoobserver.com/category/leontiy-korolev/

Machetes and Rats

Written 7 September 2016

Today, I woke up at 5 am and tried to kill a mouse with a machete.  No suerte.  Later, I learned that “el rato es muy rapido”.  Anyways, it turned out I would be using the machete a lot today as I spent 5 hours cutting through brush to clear out a path to the remaining Cocao trees.  I have been pruning those damn trees for the past few days, so the machete was an excellent change of pace.  El machete is muy divertido…en este situation.

Aimee and I again had lunch with Inez (one of the two workers Mateo hires to work the farm).  It sounded like Aimee got some good information about “Mindo”, a town we plan on visiting Saturday. (We will add a separate page on the website solely for pictures of the places we visit so we don’t bore everyone’s facebook, and so that we can add pictures in a more timely manner.) I tried my best to ask Inez to tell me about a town called Pacto. Pacto is a very small town near Guanabana, the village where we are staying these two weeks.  Pacto is actually about a 2 hour walk from Guanabana.  Although it is the closest town to Guanabana, good luck finding both of those on google maps.  We would like to walk there to see some of the country side, but there are just way too many stray dogs all over the place and we did not take the rabies shotS.  Thankfully there is a bus that takes about 20 minutes, although that bus stop is about a half hour walk from our Finca/estate.

Most of the people that live in Pacto work on Fincas similar to the one we are working/living on.  They work on the farms all year long, during Ecuador’s “seasons”; there are two seasons, rainy and summer. The Pactonians get to work via bus, motorcycle,  or the back of a pick-up truck. Inez may have joked that many of the women drive the motorcycles so they can leave without the men.  Most people work Monday through Friday, some work on Saturdays.  Almost no one works Sundays, at least on the Fincas.

I think I learned that Pacto has no attorneys although one comes from Quito on Sundays.  Pacto has a large market on Sunday afternoons. I imagine that is why the attorney shows up, the market gives him access to many potential clients.  Inez made it seem like much of the attorney’s work deals with property sales and property disputes, which arise regularly between the Fincas. Aimee and I will try to talk to the attorney when we go to the Market on Sunday (we did not).

The center of town has a park and a covered “stadium” used for soccer, volleyball, and festivals such as “Dia de Pacto”.  The streets around the stadium and park have various small stores and restaurants.  However, the non residential area is no more than a block deep; the residential area does not extend much further.

LK

Lost in Translation-The First Work Day

Written 5 September 2016

Monday was our first full day in Ecuador, it was also our first day of “work”.  We went to the fields at 7:30 am with Inez.  Inez is a woman who lives in Pacto, and works on Mateo’s farm; she does not speak English. Aimee and I decided we would not speak any English during working hours, 7:30 – 12:30. In otherwords, Aimee would not be providing real time translation.  Keep that in mind as you read through some of these posts.  If they are mostly written by Leontiy, like this post, and mention anything that deals with Inez, or anything at all, chances are they contain a depiction of events or statements at a 25% accuracy.

Anyways, Inez said we would be “pruning” Cocao plants for the rest of the work week. Many of the branches could be pruned by sliding your hand down the main branch, ripping off the smaller branches and leaves.  The others had to be cut.

After what seemed like hours of work, Aimee and I, in Spanish, convinced each other it must have been well past noon.  We based this conviction on the location of the sun, as well as the heat, thirst, and hunger.  After talking to Inez, Aimee told me it was only “diez y media”…gringos.

It was hot, and there were bugs everywhere, but the landscape was stunning. img_0143Ecuador has one of the most diverse and dense biota in the world. The diversity was on full display the first morning.  We saw bugs of all sorts, sizes, and colors: brown and orange tarantula looking things, snakes, camouflaged praying mantes, bees, white slugs, and various other red, yellow, and blue insects.

Neither of us are huge fans of bugs, to say the least.  However, Inez didn’t seem to mind that those things were all over her, so what the hell.  We later asked her what some of these bugs were called.  She said it didn’t matter, especially because none of them were poisonous.  She did mention to stay away from trees with some large white things on them.  Maybe she said “slugs”, but she definitely said that they could jump on you and suck your face off.

Honestly, I had zero idea as to the meaning of most of her words, but if I saw anything white, I stayed away. There are probably entire cultures that could have benefited from similar advice.

LK

 

 

Finding La Finca del Gringo “Don” Mateo

Written 4 September 2016.

We are spending the first two weeks of our trip working on a farm in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador. The farm is in a village called Guanabana, near a town called Pacto.  The estate, “la finca,” we are staying on is owned by an American who now lives in Ecuador with his family.  We have not met him or talked to him, but we have exchanged a few emails.  The following is an email he sent explaining how to get to the farm:

“Take Metrobus (blue) from La Marín to the North. The last stop is “Ofelia”.  At that station … ask for busees to Pacto.  On Sundays they leave every hour before noon.  … That Bus will drop you off directly in Pacto which is crowded on Sundays.  Find church one blocks from bus station…you cannot miss it.  At bottom of the church on the street are taxis…pick up trucks.  Just ask for one and tell them you want “Finca de Don Mateo”.  If they do not know … again… get them to bring you to the town of Guanbana.  There… anyone know how to get ot our farm…”

Predictably, we didn’t follow those directions exactly, but we did eventually get to the pick up truck taxis at the bottom of the church. Our driver did not know “La Finca de Don Mateo,” neither did the first few people we encountered on the way to Guanabana.  The driver has also never heard of “Guanbana” as the town is “Guanabana,” named after an Ecuadorian fruit.  The driver’s exchanges with the residents became shorter as we drove deeper into “the village” or up a dusty road into the Andean mountains.  At first,our driver was asking those we encountered if they knew the Finca de Don Mateo, then the Finca de Mateo, then Finca de Americano and finally, as he started to run out of patience, he asked about “Gringo Mateo”. “Gringo Mateo” did the trick.  Mateo was not at la Finca, but we were greeted by Jack, a volunteer from England.  Jack left for Quito the following morning.

We later found out we overpaid for our “taxi”;  a mistake we will surely make again and again throughout this trip. In any case, our adventure begins.

–A & L