16 August 2008

Pichincha climb

Well, I´m almost home. Tonight is my last night, and at 4 am I will catch a taxi to the airport and start on my way. I only have 2 layovers, and they´re only 1 hour each, so this should be an easy trip [assuming none of my flights are delayed... cross your fingers for me?] I´ve spent the last week in Quito with some other stragglers from the project, and it has been great.

Tuesday, one of the students, Laurie, and I decided it´d be fun to climb a mountain. We didn´t feel like being cold, so we chose one of the shorter ones to climb that only went up to 4900 meters. The snow line doesn´t start until 5000, so we were in the clear. We took the TelefériQo, the gondola up part of the mountain, up above Quito to the lookouts where all the non-hiking tourists stop, and then took a trail up the ridge toward the Pichincha volcano´s craggy top. Every 10 minutes of walking proved noticeably harder to breathe, but luckily we were already fairly acclimatized from our oh-so-rigorous field school experience. The summit was hidden behind forboding clouds, and as we climbed higher and higher we found ourselves surrounded by swirling clouds that grew darker and darker. A group of French hikers passed us going back saying that it was about to rain and we should probably turn back. I know what it looks like when it´s about to rain, and this was not it, so Laurie and I kept on trekking.

As we looked down at the mountains below us, we noticed strange dotted terrace-looking things, hundreds of them, built along the contours of the mountains. These peaked our archaeological interests-- what if they were ancient Inka agricultural terraces? But we´d come to climb the mountain and gosh darnit we were going to get to the top.

We kept ascending, took a break to eat my leftover beef fried rice for lunch, and surveyed our options. The clouds had cleared just enough at that point for us to see the peak we were aiming for and notice that it was surrounded by a sheer rock wall, one that we would need special equipment to climb. We estimated our elevation to be at about 4500 meters at that point, halfway between the start point and the inaccessible summit, and figured this would be a great time to find out what the heck those darn terrace things were.

There were two main sets of them. To get to one, we´d have to go down a 75-degree-ish slope for 100 meters into a ravine, then back up a similar grade on the other side. To get to the other set, we could take a leisurely stroll down a shallow valley and just go on to the other side where they were all waiting for us to investigate. It was a hard choice, but we went the valley way.

This hike took us over so many types of plants that I´d never seen before, it felt like we were on another planet. Some of these plants looked like they belonged in a coral reef, not on top of the Andes. The valley leads directly to the crater of the Pichincha volcano, so maybe the lava flowing through there in previous years had something to do with the strange flora. Either way, we traipsed through the coral planet, on to the mini-evergreen trees planet, and into the utopian soft green mounded moss planet. We crossed a stream that desperately needed a bridge, crossed more moss that built itself up in ridiculous, not-very-sturdy mounds and finally arrived at the features we had assumed were terraces. They weren´t. They were hundreds and hundreds of trenches that we estimated at about a half-meter wide and 5-6 meters long, with walls far too straight and nice in soft soil to be ancient. Laurie and I puzzled over them for a while, then went to the church being constructed near the top of the TelefériQo to ask a local what the hell we found.

We found a fellow mosying around the roads up there, and I asked if he knew what these were. At first, he said they were very rare. I told him there were hundreds of them. Then he said they were Inka, and I essentially told him he was full of shit. Then he finally gave in and told us the not very exciting story:

About 8 years ago, the water management department got workers from the Chimborazo community to come up and dig lots and lots of trenches. That way, when it rained, they would fill up and slowly release the rain water into the groundwater and streams up at the top, and that would then go into a big canal that provided water for Quito down below. These trenches would also help keep the valley with the awesome extraterrestrial plants from flooding and killing all of those awesome plants. That´s it. Then he told us lots of foreigners tend to think they´re Inka tombs [they´re only a half meter by 6 meters... were the Inka crazy noodle people??] or agricultural terraces [guilty... until I saw them up close], and a lot of folks go looking in them for gold. Then he told us a little about Quito´s hostory, blah blah, you get the idea.

Other than that, I´ve just been eating cheap and walking around Quito. I´m out of money, but I can get any full meal I want here for $3 or less. It´s spectacular. Quito´s a great city, but I´m eager to get back to Chicago and start working again and seeing all the folks around there. I hope all is well with all of you, and I´ll be seeing you very very soon.

11 August 2008

Oh, PS... I missed the beginning of whatever the hell's happening with Russia and Georgia. wtf?


Well, I'm in Quito again. Yesterday was Independence Day, but the parties we heard about being in Old Town last night were not there in any way whatsoever. We took cabs over there and got out and there were something like 6 other people outside in that entire area. But the architecture was beautiful and we took a nighttime walk through the colonial part of the capital and saw HUGE churches and government buildings and it was neat. Then we came back to the Mariscal, where we're staying, and had far-too-expensive beers and went to bed.

Seriously, the beer:
Up in Cangahua, where we'd been this whole time, a beer that is roughly 24 ounces costs 70 cents on its own, or you can get a case of 12 of them for $8. Here, you can spend $1.50 or $2 on a 12 ouncer! It's ridiculous! And I made the mistake of ordering a Corona with dinner here one night, and it cost $2.87. Ludicrous. Dang it's gonna hurt to go back to US prices.

Saturday night I danced my ass off, and less Ecuadorians were staring dumbfoundedly than last time I danced in Quito. The nice way one of my friends characterized my dancing was by saying I have "lots of 'signature moves'." She's kind.

And holy shit the rain just started to come pouring down. I thought it'd gotten darker out, and was just looking up to check on the cloud situation, and then BAM! Rain. Crazy.

So, uh. Everyone's leaving. I don't leave til the 17th, and several other staff members are staying, too. I was thinking of going to Banos, but they're not going til the weekend and my flight is out at 7 am on Sunday, so that won't work for me. It's okay, I haven't been to a single damn museum in this city yet, so I'll probably remedy that pretty soon.

Okay, if I find any adventures I'll let you know promptly. Hope all is well, I'll be seeing you soon!

06 August 2008

In brief:

-Last night was one of the staff member´s going away party. I drank and sang and danced.
-Sunday I went to hot springs and it was warm.
-Saturday I went to Otavalo market town, and when I bought the Spanish vs. Inka chess set I refrained from saying that we already know who wins [unlike last year].
-Friday they found an old burial site under a hundred-something-year-old house recently demolished, and we got the remains to study. We have at least 6 skulls and tons of other bones.
-Sunday, for dinner, I had guinea pig. It actually did taste a bit like chicken.
-The project ends on Friday, and I´ll probably be fairly drunk through Monday since Saturday we have a goodbye fiesta with an open bar and Sunday is Ecuadorian Independence Day. Woo.

That´s all for now, adios.

30 July 2008

Excavating the Hacienda Pitaná

It's been a while since I've found internet, sorry about that. I've gotten a couple calls asking if I'm alive, and I am, so hello!

The watchtower excavations ended, we filled in our units, and I pleaded with the project director to send our team somewhere else, somewhere where we may be able to pull artifacts from the ground. He obliged, and we went to the grounds of the former Hacienda Pitaná, a half-hour walk up the road from the still-running Hacienda Guachalá. This site was surveyed and first excavated last year, with each unit turning up pounds and pounds of ancient cultural material. This year was no different. On one day last week, we excavated 400 pottery sherds, some of which were larger than my hand [and I have amazingly gigantic hands, in case you hadn't noticed]. We found tons of obsidian, stone tools, some really pretty minerals that probably just happened to be there, and what turnde out to be parts of several skeletons... but likely llama or alpaca skeletons, rather than human. We figured that one out when we pulled out a 3-inch-long tooth, and figured humans probably hadn't evolved that much in the past 600 or so years.

The students were excited to finally be finding stuff, especially when the bones started stacking up. Yesterday we finally got down to bedrock at the end of the day, with a couple piles of interesting things stacked up on top of it; large pieces of pottery, hunks of obsidian, the usual. Unfortunately, when we came in this morning to draw it all and take the photos, anarchist vandals had come in during the night and smashed much of it, carving the anarchist symbol into the bedrock at the bottom of our unit. Unfortunately, that symbol is now a part of all of the official photos of the end of our unit. But it did make the map of the unit easier to draw...

This weekend was a free weekend, and it was wonderful. Friday night was spent in Quito. We went to see the Dark Knight, which was of course spectacular, and celebrated one of the students' birthday. The next morning we set out bright and early to catch a bus west to Mindo, in the cloud forest. It's beautiful there; we could wear shorts and sandals! After checking in to our hostels (I ended up in the same room as I stayed in last year, and the owners remembered me because they lived in Chicago for fifteen years) and grabbing a quick lunch, several of us headed up a mountain to the ziplines. For $10, we flew down 10 cables hung a hundred metres over the forest canopy, held on by only a caribiner. I don't know how to spell that word. Anyway, that took a couple hours, and at the end it started to rain. This wasn't rain like we have in the paramo where we're staying, where you have to put on a couple extra layers and find a way to shield yourself from the howling wind; instead, it was a wonderful trpoical rain pouring down on us in the back of our pickup truck taxi as we sang the theme songs from Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones flying up one-and-a-half lane dirt jungle roads trying to avoid the oncoming traffic. We finally made it up to the trail leading to one of the dozens of waterfalls in these mountains and tried not to slide down the entire mud trail. After 20 minutes of grasping onto trees and passers-by for support, we crossed a small log bridge, followed the rover and came upon a large log house on stilts. The folks who lived there came down and showed us two paths: one to see the waterfall, and another to a cliff off of which to jump.

I'm afraid of heights, and we'll leave that at that. Luckily for me, next to the 30-something-foot drop was a pleasant looking water slide, which I opted for. As I settled my bottom into the water streaming down it, the guide told me to be very careful and slow myself down until the green line painted on the side ended. If I didn't, he said, I'd probably careen off the side and smash into the rocks below, promptly ending the mobile part of my life [at the very least]. So I took it slow until the green warning line ended, let myself go, the slide twisted around and all of a sudden... I was in midair! This was not exactly what I signed up for. As I free-fell toward the dark water, hoping I was aimed correctly into the 10-foot-wide canyon, I realized it would be a good idea to hold my breath. I held it just in time, hit the water, felt my feet on the rocks below and pushed myself back to the surface. The water was so cold I could hardly catch my breath, but I found enough to get myself to the shallow water downstream and watched my comrades tremoring with fear at the top of the cliff, seemingly unaware of the less terrifying slide option right behind them. Ah well, their loss.

The next day we went to a butterfly farm, saw those, and returned to Cangahua. I got sick Sunday night, throwing up more violently than I ever remember, but am perfectly healthy now and have been avoiding lab work for long enough. I should get back, I suppose, but I hope all is well where you are. I'll be back in a bit less than 3 weeks now, so hold tight! I'll write again when I get the chance.

20 July 2008

"Watchtower" excavations

This past week, my team and I worked at a site that I helped find last year that we tentatively labeled an Inka watchtower. It had a couple associated walls of Inka construction and a platform at the top. So Monday morning we hiked on up there with our tools and laid out 3 units, each 1x2 meters, arranged in a checker pattern. This allowed us to see a 6-meter-long profile and a 2-meter-wide profile with half the work. Yeah, I know, we're brilliant.

The thing is, in the entire week we found 4 artifacts. Two fairly nice pieces of obsidian, and two most likely modern bones near the top. That was it. Obviously that says something about the nature of the site, but for students itching to dig up amazing Inka artifacts like bright golden llamas or battle gear it was a bit of a disappointment. After our frustration with the site mounted each day, a survey team from the project working the valley below came up and found a complimentary wall on the other side of the ravine on which our site sits. The mountain used to be a huge source of water for the folks below, with water careening down its face during rainy times. One possibility of what this structure was could be a water control device to control that potentially destructive force. The way the walls below the platform where we were excavating are set up could have been a small canal, too, which would mean that the structure not only partially dammed the rushing water, but also channeled it to somewhere more desireable. The other possibility is that we just didn't go down far enough... but whatever. If they want to investigate further, they can recruit another team for it.

I guess what all that means is that we were at what is likely a valuable site, but it was disappointing for students on their first dig to find nothing totally awesome to keep them motivated. But that's okay, we finished our work by Friday and now get to go somewhere better.

Otherwise, I spent this week living at the Hacienda, where our lab is and our tools and all that. It's super swanky, and there are hot showers with water pressure and dear lord is that amazing. These showers are better than mine back home! It's ridiculous! The staff is taking week-long shifts down here, and mine is up tonight so it's back to Cangahua, the casa comunal, and showers of ice. But that's okay, I like it better up there in general. I like being in a town around Ecuadorian as opposed to an isolated hotel with other groups of gringos and Europeans.

This keyboard is sticky, and very tiring to type on. I guess that's most of the news I have at this point, so I'll cut this off here and return when I have more to say.

Keep me updated with any recent news from back home... McCain and Romney? Did I hear correctly?

15 July 2008

Cock- and bull-fights.

I was just looking back at my previous e-mails and realized that I entered the country code wrong for my phone number, giving 001... which is the US. So here goes another try:


That... should do it.

As far as what´s been going on, not much. Two days ago we started teaching the students how to do excavations, lay out units, select an area to dig, draw maps and catalog artifacts. My team is great overall, but the two lovebirds I mentioned from the hike had an issue yesterday when the fella found out the lady has a boyfriend back home. He sat and drank in his room listening to Purple Rain. He´s over it now, though, and is in high spirits once again.

My team´s unit started out with finding some plastic tubing [not very exciting], continued with finding a one sucre coin from 1978 [more exciting], and finished yesterday afternoon and this morning with lots of charcoal and animal bones and a fire pit made of mud and bricks. Ours was also the only unit in the area with red soil, which may or may not be partly a result of the burning that went on there. These training sites are being done at the Hacienda Guachala, and because of this they are likely from the colonial period and later. We didn´t find some ancient Inka cooking pit, but it is still neat and great for the students.

Last night the town of Cangahua officially invited the project staff and students to a cock fight being held in the Casa del Pueblo. Some students declined to go citing animal cruelty or sour stomachs, but I didn´t want to offend my hosts. Several of us were a bit nervous, not especially keen on seeing a rooster die in a fight, but we went anyway. We waited for 3 hours after showing up 2 hours late [welcome to Ecuador time!], watching perplexedly as 15 tiny Ecuadorian men waved roosters around in the air, argued with each other and asked one of our tallest gringos to change a light bulb.

Eventually, they settled on two contestants that were of similar size, taped razors onto their talons and let them loose. One rooster weighed more than the other, so the agreement was that if the fight lasted 15 minutes it would be declared a draw.

The fight commenced, hats were thrown and curses were shouted. The contestants jumped around and flapped their wings for several minutes, and after about 13 minutes one succumbed and put its head down, and the victor strutted around, knowing himself to be the cock of the walk. But the clock kept running, and when 15 minutes were up and one of the roosters was not dead, the judge declared the fight a draw and nobody won any money. A huge argument followed, yelling and throwing things, and I left because it was about midnight and I had to be up for breakfast at 7.

This weekend was Cangahua's Inti Raymi festival, the ancient festival of the summer solstice that lasts for weeks around these parts. The plaza fills with dancers, there are parades filled with local bands and dance groups and rose plantation representatives, and our project even had a spot in the parade. And, of course, there are the bullfights. I may have talked about these bullfights with you before, but in case you aren't familiar, these puebloan bullfights are not quite what you'd expect if you're familiar with the Spanish or Mexican version. Around here, anyone in town drunk enough to brave the beast hops into the bull ring with a cape or t-shirt or rag and runs away from the raging bull let loose into the ring. Another important fact: the bulls are not killed. ...generally. They gather several bulls from the country side, bring them down in a truck, and let one out at a time. When one bull gets tired, they wrangle it and let a new one out.

Shoot, I can't finish now. Have to go do work. But I will finish sometime, I promise, and I'll talk to you all soon.

09 July 2008

4th of July

Woah, I forgot to post about what we did on the 4th of July in Quito. As I predicted, we drank heavily and several more students and staff arrived, so we decided to go to this swank club called Bungalow 6. It's one of those places I usually avoid, with a line out front and a bouncer who lifts the chain when he feels like letting a couple people in. Ladies were free, and guys had a $4 cover that included the first drink. I'm generally staunchly against bars that require cover, but it was going to be fun so I went anyway.

The bouncer let in all the girls from our group and then held out all of the guys, and after a minute asked for ID. We showed him, and he let one guy in who was from New Zealand, and left the rest of us outside for another minute, and we were very confused. Then he opened the chain, said Happy 4th of July, and let us in without cover! Only the New Zealander had to pay, which is why he was let in alone. He's sitting next to me right now, and I'm sure he's still totally bitter about it.

As soon as we got in there, it was officially dancing time. I had a blast, especially cause I didn't spend a dime. I didn't want any more drinks, I just danced around with everybody. If you know me at all you know that I don't know how/strongly dislike to dance, but it was exciting and I did my jumping dance and the hoe-down to the hip-hop type music that was playing, and all the Ecuadorians were looking at me like I was retarted but the folks I was with minded slightly less. So that was great. Haven't been dancing since, but I'm sure it'll happen sometime and I have a dedicated dance partner because of that night and .. yeah that's about it.


Finishing the hike, and addressing the call for photos.

I left you having crossed a perilous bridge in our search for a path that hadn't been washed out. Once safely across, our group began following a trail up the mountain toward a fortress that had been excavated a few years ago. This was one of the relatively few non-Inka fortress found in the area, called Pucaracito. We made our way up to the fortress, saw the thrice-reinforced defencive walls on the outside of it, and then the group split. Two of the students were tired and one of them had a crush on one of the tired girls [they're so going to hook up], so they and Sam walked down to the road and took a bus the rest of the way to the Hacienda. I knew we were fairly close, so I offered to guide the rest of my students the rest of the way, and they agreed.

We walked along the old road that ran along the side of the fortress until it ended at another unexpected cliff, and I changed our course to follow the descending ridge of the mountain. We walked through what used to be an agricultural field, an area of wildflowers, and a grove of nicely spread eucalyptus trees until we found another path leading down to the valley below.

This path grew narrower and narrower as we entered a more and more tropical atmosphere, walking under more types of trees than the evergreen and eucalyptus that had dominated the hike before, ferns growing along the side of the path, and insects buzzing around us. As we approached the river we had so carefully crossed before, we entered a tiny village where the only road was less than three feet wide and bounded on both sides by six-foot mud walls. Dogs sensed our presence and lept on top of the walls to defend their fields from our grubby hands, and we followed the road down to a small bridge put together haphazardly with a pair of logs and some irregularly cut pieces of plywood.

On the other side, we went through another 25 yards of Amazonian wilderness and into a town with a road going through it wide enough for a car to drive on. We later found this town to be Guachala, the same one that lies next to the Hacienda which we'd been trying to reach for hours. Walking down the road we were greeted by a handful of chicks running through yards, pigs lounging under agave plants, a horse, several sheep, and a couple of playful children trying to find their way onto the roof of their house. Once we made it through the town, the road we were on connected to the main road up to Cangahua, and we followed it the 50 remaining yards to the driveway of the Hacienda.

As we walked into the courtyard, voice after voice rang out, "Micah's here!" "He made it!" I hadn't realized, but the hike had taken us just over 5 hours, meaning we averaged about 1 mph on our hike. One of the groups made it in 2.5 hours, but ours was by far the most interesting, having identified 2 new archaeological sites, visited one of the defensive fortresses in the area, crossed some really fun bridges and survived it all beyond all odds! Needless to say, everyone was totally jealous.

Unfortunately, though, I've been sick since that night when we watched 10,000 BC in the casa comunal. I'm convinced it's the ridiculous amounts of historical inaccuracies in that movie that has made me ill. Watching something like that with a group of archaeologists is absolutely the best way to watch it... unless you want to believe what you're seeing.

I'm trying to upload some photos, but you have no idea how frustratingly slow the internet connection is here. I've gotten 5 photos up on facebook in the last hour, it's horrible. And the internet cable keeps coming unplugged, which ruins everything. So here's the link to what I have gotten to work, don't be surprised if there are only 5 there. Yeesh. A facebook album!

But I suppose I should be getting back to work now, since I was only on the computer to download some anti-virus updates so I could do "actual work"... but again, I hope all is well with you, and I will write again when I can.

07 July 2008

Hatun adventure!

Today was one hell of a day. Sam, the director, had this idea to have groups of students with their staff members walk from our town, Cangahua, down to the Hacienda Guachalá... a several-mile walk that, supposedly, was to be entirely downhill. The stipulation: we couldn´t use the road. We were one map short of the number of groups, and of course, I ended up with the short straw. Sam and myself served as our group´s map, and we decided to take the high road out of Cangahua to the top of the near mountain to ensure our continued downhill trek from then on. We also wanted to bring the students by the Inka watchtower we stumbled onto last year. We started out by finding a new archaeological site, a likely pre-Inka settlement with surface scatter of pottery sherds and obsidian and some possible terracing leading down to the river. About a hundred meters away, we found another small site with colonial pottery pieces and ceramic roof tiles.

We continued hiking along the ridge, around some farmland and an abandoned bullfight ring, through a small eucalyptus forest and found our first hiccup in the form of a huge gorge. Our gut decision was right, and we found the beginning of it and avoided falling down into it only to climb back up.

On the other side, we found more footpaths that led us to a small farm, where we introduced ourselves and verified that we were walking the right direction. They said yes, to follow the road up the hill. The road promptly ended at a sharp drop off. Unable to find a way out that didn´t involve backtracking a mile or so, we went down the side of the mountain in search of trails. After two false trails and having to slide down a patch of dirt on my butt that was too crumbly to walk on, we finally came across an old abandoned road. The road led us to another path, which took us down below the forest to face another mountain across a small river.

We noticed another of our groups across the gorge and called out to them to make sure that our path actually went somewhere, but they shouted back that it was washed out, but that there was a bridge at the bottom of the mountain to our left. We made our way down and found the bridge they described, held up by two logs, with a decent-sized hole at one end, and with a 20-30 foot drop before hitting the river. Left with no other choice, we crossed safely, documented the damn thing with photos to prove what we´d done, and moved on.

I´m sorry to leave you hanging like this, but dinner starts soon and I refuse to miss it. I´ll continue the story as soon as I can.
Hope all is well back at home.

04 July 2008

Phone number!

Okay, so I have my own cell phone here as I mentioned before, and if you get really really lonesome and long to hear my voice, or if there´s something I really need to know immediately, you can give it a ring and I´ll probably answer it or something. Anyway, here it is:


I don´t think I have voicemail set up yet... and the answering service may be in Spanish when I do, but stick with it and it´ll work out splendidly.

Oh, and if that number doesn´t work, try adding a 0 before the 9, making the number 001-593-09-575-8041.

Looks complicated, but that´s just because there´s a 6-digit country code, unlike us spoiled Americans with only 3 digits.


Same ol´

Last night was the inaugural drinking time of the reunited staff members. Six of us have arrived already, and we went last night and got a liter or so of our favorite rum and celebrated our return, gossiped about the students we´ve met already, and drank. It was awesome. The hostel is great, there was a drum circle/sing-along until 3 or so with the Israelis and Chileans that showed up.

We were going to take the cable car up the mountain this morning, but it was cloudy and nobody actually wanted to get up at 7:30 to get there since we were still slightly sauced...

Anyway. Nothing interesting has happened yet, except that it´s the 4th of July (Happy Independence Day!) and I´m celebrating by being independent of the USA, and we will drink heavily in celebration of this tonight. I just happened to have internet access, and figured I´d put something here.


03 July 2008

Hello, Quito!

¡Estoy aquí!

I got to Quito safe and sound. I also bought a temporary cell phont in case of emergencies, but forgot to bring the number with me to this internet cafe... I´ll let you know when I figure out what the heck it is.

The flights were thankfully uneventful and I rested well, and met up with some other staff members and students who already arrived and we´re enjoying Quito and our hostel. The hostel where we´re staying is made up entirely of people from our project and Israelis, and I´ve been very pleased so far how much of both my Spanish and Hebrew has come back to me in just the couple hours we´ve been here.

I should go now, though; one of the other staff members and I are about to go pick up a student from the airport.

I´ll write again when I can, hope all is well back in the States


29 June 2008


Hello, all.

So, at the suggestion of a friend or two, I've started this travel-blog-y thing. It's link-to-able, and doesn't require any letting me know beforehand to read what I'm up to in Ecuador this year. I will still be sending out e-mails to those who have requested them... but this is here, too, because I'm a fan of overkill.

Anyhow. Quickly: it's at "micahloma" because loma is a term for hill, and this will [hopefully] become a MOUNTAIN of tales of adventure. Also because I tried to get the project to name a site after me last year with the name Micahloma and they didn't, and here is my sweet revenge.

Take that, Yogaloma [so named because it's likely the future site of a yoga studio... my name is much better].

I leave Tuesday for LA, and Wednesday night/technically Thursday morning for Ecuador. Awesome.