30 July 2009


This was a fantastic week in every way. We were in Quito until Sunday for the end of project festivities, and then on Sunday afternoon several of us headed south east to the town of Baños. While the word baños does mean "bathrooms," this town came to be called such because of the volcanic hot springs within and around the town. Baños is a stone's throw from the Tungurahua volcano, an extremely active volcano that you can occasionally hear rumbling while walking around the area.

On Sunday we took it easy, arriving after sunset to find our hostel and get settled in. Monday we decided to jump off a bridge. This wasn't just some dinky bridge, either-- it was 45 meters down to the river below, with sheer cliffs on each side. Of course, we had a rope so that we wouldn't fall all the way to the water. The folks that brought us to the bridge had a little iron platform that they fitted over one side of the bridge which we stood on, the rope went under the bridge and on the other side was a man holding the end of the rope, watching for when we jumped off so that he would know to hold on tight. On the count of three, you let yourself fall and tumble through the air, watching the mountains and the town and the river and the bridge swirl around you as you try to remember to breathe, and after a few seconds the rope catches and you swing across to the other side, back and forth like a pendulum as they lower you to one of the cliffs below to unhook yourself. I am extremely afraid of heights, but I am so glad I did this. It was one of the most thrilling experiences I've had so far. After 6:00 Monday night, we went to the hot springs and soaked in the steaming hot mineral baths for a couple hours to relax and soothe our souls.

Tuesday we decided to go white water rafting. Our guides drove us out about 45 minutes further east of Baños into the beginnings of the Amazon rainforest, with greenery all around us-- new types of trees and flowers, and we even saw monkeys (real wild monkeys!) jumping through the trees along the road. We went down to the Pastaza River, went over rafting safety basics, and hit the water. I was expecting more rapids and more near-death experiences based on the experiences of friends of mine that had gone before me, but even without that it was a great time. At the beginning of the trip we were still in mountains, with cliffs along the river going straight up 40 or 50 meters, waterfalls pouring in every once in a while. At one point we went close to one of these waterfalls but not underneath it, our guide mentioning that sometimes rocks fall from these cliffs. Sur enough, several minutes later right after steering away from one of these walls, we heard a huge splash as a boulder weighing nearly as much as a small car crashed into the river, directly in front of the other boat full of our friends. Nobody was hurt though, so it was okay. As we continued down the river, the mountains stopped and we were out of the sierra and into the flat land of the Amazon. the jungle spread out around us and it was fantastic-- we hadn't seen so much flat land since we'd been at home. After rafting, we drove on back to Baños and went to the hot springs again that evening.

Yesterday, my Ecuadorian friend Ave and I decided to climb the mountain between Baños and Tungurahua to catch a glimpse of that famous volcano for which the province is named. Usually the hike takes about an hour, according to Ave and others who have done it before, but we were determined. Even though it was very steep at times and I have flatlander gringo lungs, we made it to the top in a little over a half hour. When we arrived at the summit to the one wooden bench left there for those tired hikers who decided not to rent a truck or four-wheeler to take the road up, the volcano was completely covered with clouds. We sat up there for 3 hours, talking and starting to learn Quichua, and finally the clouds broke right at the top of Tungurahua and we got to see its peak. There's always a reason for sticking around, right? The peak hid once again after only a minute, and by that time it was starting to get dark and we had a ways to hike down that would be very difficult at night, so we headed down. We were exhausted and called it an early night, heading back to Quito today.

Tomorrow, Matt and I meet with Chumillos to finalize excavation plans, hoping to start work Monday. This vacation was exactly what I needed beforehand, though, a great break full of new exciting experiences, some of which I had to sign my life away for... but all of which were worth it.

25 July 2009

My address!

So, I have an official address now. I'm not sure exactly how mail gets delivered to Cangahua, so maybe if you send something send a postcard first and I'll let you know if it works, but here it is:

Micah Smith
054 Gonzales Suarez y Espejo
Cangahua - Cayambe

So give it a shot, will ya? This will be my address until I leave December 15. Mail takes a couple weeks to get here, so don't expect an immediate response. That's all for now.

24 July 2009

Field school is over


No more students, no more having to enforce rules or try to find ways to get people to work. From here on out it's just Matt, the local workers we hire for whichever site we're working, and myself. This is going to be fantastic. I'm in Quito now, but not without a hiccup. We had arranged for two buses to pick us up from our digs up in Cangahua and the Hacienda and bring us to Quito, paid them part of their fee in advance, and were waiting for our 11:00 pick up, having packed and mentally prepared ourselves to leave. Around 10 or 10:15 I find out that the buses decided not to come. They said that if we paid them an extra $160, they'd find 2 more buses to come instead a couple hours later, and then they'd refund the first $100 on Tuesday. Almost everyone's gone by Tuesday, this doesn't work. We paid them to drive us, not to call us with 45 minutes to spare and say they wouldn't show up. So I called Anibal, the bus driver I know best, and asked him to stand by in case these jokers didn't come through. Sure enough, they didn't, but Anibal and I are pals, so he picked up the slack and called a friend of his with another bus and off we went. Now we're in Quito and I had a wonderfully hot shower and stayed in it until the hot water ran out. I haven't felt this good in weeks, and most of the dirt is out of my hands now. I get the feeling, though, that these hands won't be fully clean until a few weeks after I get back to the States. Small price to pay, I guess.

This week was pretty much entirely made up of closing everything down; we closed all of our units, finished all of our maps, and finished almost every single thing that needed done in the lab. I am fairly sure this is the least behind the lab has been in the 3 years I've been a part of this project. Well done.

Wednesday, Matt, Oscar, a couple others and myself went to the Chumillos community to get formal permission to dig on the fortress Quitoloma. The project has a long history with this community, so the meeting went well-- other meetings might be significantly more difficult. In exchange for letting us work there, the community wants us to stay at least several nights in their community, help them update security around the site (they've turned it into a tourist destination, selling tickets and handing out maps and whatnot), help with some other aesthetic improvements, and teach the local children some English. We will likely be able to do many, if not all, of these things, we have another meeting with them on Thursday to hash out the details. These stipulations, of course, are in addition to hiring community members to help with the excavation. I'll pass on the details of our negotiations once we define them.

I think that's about all there is to update about right now, I'm in Quito until Sunday when several of us will be taking a quick vacation to Baños, a city with hot springs and white water rafting and some other fun, mind-clearing activities. It will be exactly what I need before getting back to the grind stone.

Hope all's well, talk to you soon.

20 July 2009

Weekend adventure

I don't even know where to begin this time. So much has happened that I haven't written about and there's no way to catch up, so I'll just start with recent occurrences. First, like I mentioned before, we had a gal doing GPR on the pyramid where I was working. She found the corners of the structure, which was very helpful, and also found a ... something. We couldn't tell what it was from the image, just that there was something there, so I opened a unit there on Friday. I haven't been back since they started finding something other than just plain soil, but I hear there is a sloping layer of stones that may or may not be covering something. I'll let you know more when I know.

Yesterday was the day most of the project went to Oyacachi, where they have hot springs and trout farms. I've been there twice, so I decided to help out in the lab cleaning artifacts. When I got there, though, I found out a handful of other folks were going up to Imbabura, the next state to the north, to see some interesting sites, and the guy I was going to help in the lab and I decided to tag along. We piled into the back of the pickup truck and took off, going first to the city of Ibarra to see an Inka bath house being excavated by a woman by the name of Tamara Bray. The site is fantastic. Beautiful Inka stonework floors and walls that fit together perfectly without mortar, drainage and canal systems that feed water into the middle and take it back out again, baffled stairways into the middle area... I asked if I could work with her, but then remembered I already have a job for the rest of the year. We went and got Chinese food afterwards, called chifa, and at that lunch I found out that it is absolutely legal to drink while riding in the back of a pickup truck, which we use as taxis. We grabbed some beers and headed out to the next site.

We continued north to the Lake of Blood, or Lago Yahuarcocha, the place where the Inka finally defeated the Caranqui people after years of fighting. They slaughtered the Caranqui on the shores of the lake and pushed their bodies into the water, all 20,000 or so of them. The lake turned red with their blood. Now, you can rent a swan paddle boat or ride four-wheelers on the shore or ride in a tour bus shaped like a caterpillar. Above the lake are some tolas, similar to the pyramid which I was excavating. On the road up, we passed 3 signs in a row saying entry to this road was prohibited, that it was private property. One of the other staff members commented as we continued anyway that it wasn't really private property until there was a barbed wire fence blocking the road. A minute later, we came to a barbed wire fence blocking the road. The Ecuadorian with us opened it and went onto the land to the house to find the owner and ask to look at his pyramids, but nobody was home. Apparently in Ecuador, people don't mind so much if you're just walking around on their land, and aren't likely to come out bearing a shotgun asking questions later, so we looked at the tolas and went on our way, pulling the wire back behind us.

We also went to a Caranqui fortress above the same lake, and wound our way back to the Pichincha state and home to Cangahua through tiny towns off the highways where we might find more tolas... but couldn't. One of these towns was having a fiesta on their main street so we had to take a detour, but this town also had large, foot-wide trenches going across several of the roads. Instead of covering an area of them with concrete like most towns around here do, they instead filled certain areas with rocks kind of sort of where tires might go if a vehicle were trying to cross them. Needless to say, this is not an area high in automobile traffic. But we made it, the truck stayed intact, and we are better off for it.

Today I'm in Cayambe, I took a student to the clinic to get a tetanus shot and helped the cooks get money for grocery shopping. Now I should go back and probably help at the lab for a bit. I'll write again soon.

Oh, but lastly: Last night I finalized the arrangements for my apartment for the rest of my time here. It's above a store that sells candies, grains, shampoo, beer and liquor, and other whozits that we'll need tons of. Matt (the guy I'll b working with) and I will each have our own bedrooms, there's a living space, a small lab/artifact storage space, a deck, and a roof... and on the roof is our bathroom and kitchen. We move in at the end of this week but then I think we're taking a several-day vacation, but afterwards I'll try to get pictures of the place up. It's costing us $150/month total, including all utilities and the landlord family doing our laundry. Pretty good, huh? Anyway, just wanted to update you on that. I'm excited. Plus, if anyone decides to visit, we have a place for you to stay.

16 July 2009


Sorry it's been so long since the last update, I've been extremely busy. I don't have much time to write now, so this will be brief.

All is well here; the fiestas are over so Cangahua is back to the quiet mountain town that I'm used to. I've moved to a new site for excavations, too. I'm now at the Loma Sandoval, where there was a pre-Inka flat-top pyramid on a man's land that he buried with a bulldozer to protect it. We have found one corner of the structure and the steps on its east and south sides, and we are hoping to somehow get a look at the top of the pyramid before excavations end this weekend/the beginning of next week. Lastly, today we had a grad student from Denver at the site to do Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), and initially it looked like we had some interesting findings. She as analyzing the data as I type.

Well, I should go because I have to drive everyone back to Cangahua for dinner, so I'll write more later. Hope all's fantastic back home.

06 July 2009

Weekend festivities, a new type of structure.

My arms got sunburned today and I just scratched it and that hurt.

Otherwise, things here are fantastic. This weekend included visits to Otavalo and Cochasqui, and of course the 4th of July. Otavalo is the famous market town of Ecuador, where local handicrafts such as alpaca sweaters and scarves, knock-off paintings, stone carvings, hats, and nearly anything else a tourist could possibly want are on sale for a flexible price. This year, instead of sticking to the mostly tourist area of the market, some of the students and I ventured uphill to the local area. Up here, where we were the only gringos in sight, we could buy remote controls, underwear, dvds, harmonicas, cameras, sewing machines, fresh fruit, fish, chicken, pig... the mainstays of local life. The smells of the fruits thankfully overpowered those of the fish, and it was a great new experience to see the part of the market not meant to sell tourist swag meant for nothing but to advertise to your friends where you´ve been.

That night Cangahua had another gathering in the town square, in part to celebrate the 4th of July for us and to make us feel at home. It started with music playing and the expectation that folks would start dancing around the square in traditional Ecuadorian dancing circles resembling the horah, but many of the students and staff were bashful and waited for some of the locals to start the dancing. As soon as the emcee offered a free box of wine to the group with the largest circle, however, a wave of archaeologists poured off of the stairs and into an enthusiastic double-ring of merriment. We won several. Later, the town erected a tower of fireworks that would break every health and safety code known to America and lit it for all to admire and run away from. The tower was a 30-foot tall square steel structure with a hundred different fireworks all around it supported by a single steel pole. One man's job was to stand underneath and rotate the darn thing. They lit the fuse at the bottom and different fireworks would go off in turn, each lighting the next as the display moved around and around and higher and higher. Some would just shoot sparks, some would whistle, others would spin. Maybe on purpose, some shot into the crowd and bounced around while everyone would cheer or dive out of the way, depending on their level of inebriation. Once the fire reached the top there was a grand finale of the fireworks we know and love that shoot into the air and explode in bright colors and loud booms. Happy Independence Day.

As far as excavations go, I have a really cool unit going right now. We started it last week at the same site where I've been digging this whole time, but it is different from every other unit that has been started. Up until now, the floor of every structure that we have excavated on Molino Loma has been stone covered in either plaster or pumice. The floor in this structure, however, had neither; instead, the stones are arranged in lines that compartmentalize the floor, and in each section is a different type and color of ash. Today we decided to go deeper into one of these sections and found a ton of carbon, mostly burned wood that looks from the way it is laid out to be roots. Along with this we have found several pieces of burned and unburned pottery and lots of blackened cangahua, the name of the volcanic building material used by local folks. There are all kinds of interpretations as to what this could mean-- multiple occupations? a storage building for something different than the other structures? Who knows! I'll keep you updated as to our conclusions.

Well, I'm hungry as hell right now, so I'm going to grab a snack to hold me off until dinner. Hope all is well where you are and to hear from you soon.