I flew back from France to Istanbul on Monday. It was difficult to leave this time; I’ve not been back since January. Then I wasn’t quite sure how long it would be before I got back to visit, but I figured it would only be a couple of months. This time, for a number of reasons, I left quite sure I wouldn’t be back until December.
But as I got off the bus from the airport and started making my way back to my flat, the streets of Istanbul – of Kadiköy more specifically – infected me as they always do with a sense of welcome and calm…this very big city that feels like so many small towns squeezed – sometimes uncomfortably – tightly together. It was late and I was tired. A 15 minute walk is nothing too terrible, but I was weighed down with the fatigue of a 14 hour journey and 50lb (23kg) of luggage on my back.
Still, there was a gentle breeze at my back coming in off the sea, the seagulls were painting their lovely white streaks across the night sky, and the streets bustled with folks going and coming or sitting on the terrace drinking tea and smoking shisha, and within minutes I found the familiar spring to my step. In spite of the distance between C and I, in spite of the distance separating me from the plateaus and volcanoes of the Haute Loire that make my spirit sing: enough was right with the world. Things would be okay.
As the weeks have passed since my last post, I’ve pondered what to write about on so many occasions. Discussing the political situation here is off limits – that’s part of working in humanitarian aid. While it goes without saying that everybody’s got opinions about the political context unfolding around them, we’re expected to keep those feelings to ourselves in the interests of addressing the beneficiaries we’re serving, directly or indirectly (in my case at this moment in time, it’s very much the latter). In any case, it’s not the best time in history for amateur pundits to philosophize publicly about the powers that be in just any country. Particularly this one.
I could certainly talk about my work, but the truth is that while it feels very important and exciting to me, it’s not very sexy and wouldn’t really thrill my gentle readers. More often than not, it’s a bit of a pickle even to get the people I work with excited about it.
This country and this city are extraordinary, but I still don’t feel any air of authority to opine about it, and the wonderful and terrible little quirks we saw every day in the Philippines aren’t here so much – except politically, and for that I refer you back to my first paragraph.
The distance between C and I is necessary, but it’s suffocating…I know it’s temporary, but keeping this struggle to myself has become one way of coping with it…life sometimes simply is what it is, and when a difficult thing is sure to pass, my survival instincts at present are telling me just to get on with it (though a few more months into this might bring a different perspective).
However, living alone leaves me time I never had before to explore how I use my time, and one of the things I’ve found myself doing quite a lot is suffering the shock of what feels like a world gone absolutely fucking insane.
I can’t believe so much time has passed since last I wrote something here, and the truth is that I think I’ve forgotten how to do this thing properly. Squeezing the last few months into a single post that doesn’t bore my remaining gentle readers to tears is going to be a little tricky…
Last I wrote I hadn’t yet stepped foot in this extraordinary place…and now it’s been 3 months. Man, that went fast.
And of course there are lots of good reasons – I was finishing a translation and had started a very challenging and inspiring new job (more on that later), and was negotiating moving to a new country sans my best friend and partner in crime for the first time ever (more on that too…).
All excuses aside, let this serve as a humble collection of my first impressions of this newish chapter of my life.
So if you’ve been following along (here and here) on this brief and exciting account of my mapping adventures in Ecuador, you’ll be on the edge of your seat by now (Was he able to pull it off?), or at the end of your rope (Get on with it already!). In any case, it has been a pleasure sharing the experience with you… Now the good part:
Everything about Cajas National Park in Ecuador was surprising. The first time I visited, we left Cuenca by bus on a day that was perhaps a little grey, but unremarkable in terms of weather. Coming off the bus we were greeted by freezing cold gusts of wind and a landscape that for me resembled nothing more than Scotland. How could that be? This planet is a strange and wonderful place. There is some sort of strange ecological kinship between the latitude of Scotland and the altitude of Cajas. As soon as she got off the bus, our friend who lived in Scotland for several years said, “It looks just like Scotland.”
Side-by-side pics of Cajas and Scotland
My first hike, Ruta 3 aka Valle de Quinuas (~6.5km (~4 miles), highest point 4136m (13569 ft), 2h40min), wasn’t too hard. I was accompanied by Park Ranger Luis Aucapiña. It should be noted that these park rangers seemed to know the trails better than I know the route from my bedroom to the kitchen, and they are really fit. Even though some of them were 10 and even 20 years my senior, they could have run circles around me all day long.
On Friday I hiked Ruta 6, Encuentro con el Valle de la Burines (~6.5 km (~4 miles), highest point 4088m (13412 ft), 2h10m) with Park Ranger Ramiro Carpio. Day two was about the same in terms of difficulty, except this route had a couple of really steep hills. I got to cross paths with the last two hikes I would do, but I wasn’t feeling too hot at the end.
I’d picked up some kind of gastro-intestinal virus at some point, probably before I even started hiking. By Saturday morning I was really sick, and feeling pretty grateful that we couldn’t hike during the week because I’d never have been able. I rested up through Wednesday and went for a couple of gentle runs on Thursday and Friday so I’d be relatively ready for Saturday. But Saturday was a lot different.
We hiked Ruta 7, Camino del Inka y las Lagunas Mayores (~18km (~11.2 miles), highest point 4038m (13248 ft), 4h30m). Senior Park Ranger Agustín Ordoñez does not mess around — at 56 he was the picture of health, and after nearly 30 years working in the park, he seemed literally unfazed by hikes that knocked me for a loop. I’d guess he measures just over 1.5m (5’) tall, and as has been previously mentioned, I’m quite a bit taller than that. Still, I had to rush to keep up, and with the slippery, muddy paths, it was quite challenging to do so. He’s also clearly dedicated to his work — I’m pretty sure he worked his weekend just to make this happen.
Ruta 8, La Gran Osohuaycu (~16.5 km (~10.2 miles), highest point 4075m (13369 ft), 4h30m), is meant to be about 13.5 km (~8.3 miles), but getting to the trailhead is almost 3 km(~1.9 miles), so it was more like 16.5 km (~10.2 miles). This last hike was by far the hardest, and to make matters worse, it had rained all night and rained on us all day. Visibility was awful because of the fog — I honestly lost Agustín a few times…dude’s fast.
So there you have it! For those of you data nerds out there, I’ll follow this up with a more in-depth exploration of how I went about all of it. This project wasn’t just about making beautiful trails in Ecuador safer for travellers like me, though that was certainly part of it. As we all know, digital mapping has so many advantages, and making that data open and accessible can literally save lives, particularly in disaster-prone areas.
Huge thanks to ETAPA (particularly to Sr. Agustín Ordoñez, Sr. Luis Aucapiña and Sr. Ramiro Carpio the park rangers who guided me on the trails so that I could focus on making sure the traces where recorded correctly, and so that I didn’t not get lost in the mountains at 4000m in rainy/foggy conditions ;)) Thank you also to Ing. Ricardo Goercke and Ing. Alexandra Parra, coordinator and sponsor respectively for the project on the ETAPA side). Many thanks also to Ryan Branciforte and Jereme Monteau at Trailhead Labs for their guidance and support in helping to make this happen.
For those of you who read my last post, you’ll know I’m a big guy. More specifically, I’m 6’7” (201 cm). I love to travel, and I’ve spent time in the Philippines, Morocco, and Central America, and I could go on for days about all the things that make travelling while tall particularly interesting. One fun fact: I can’t buy clothes in most of these countries. Go figure, there’s not much demand for a 36” inseam in Manila. And there’s not much demand for a pair of US size 13 (47 EU) hiking boots in Ecuador. Which is why when I lost mine in a frenzied rush to get on a bus, I was gutted.
I was coordinating the digital mapping of one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen — Cajas National Park in Ecuador — and everything was more or less lined up. Trailhead Labs was keen for the specification they contributed to via Code for America to be put to good use outside the US. ETAPA, the organization that oversees the running of Cajas, was excited to have their trails digitally mapped on an open source platform. And I was so excited to go out with the park rangers and see these awesome trails firsthand. But I had no boots. And I had more than a week of traveling with my friends before I could even begin to find a solution.
We were on a bus heading from Puerto Lopez to Cuenca after having spent 4 tranquilo days in Ayampe. One of my friends suggested we call the hostel where we’d stayed, but that seemed ridiculous — the guy with whom we’d hitched a ride was well on his way to Quito by now, and would only realize he had a pair of enormous boots in the back of his truck when he was too far for it to make any difference.
I decided to be proactive. There was no way I was going to find boots my size in Ecuador, so I called my mother-in-law in Texas to let her know I’d be ordering some boots to have them sent to her right away. That was the 2nd of September, 2 days after I’d lost mine. With a lot of luck, they’d arrive on time for my tentative start date of the 14th, but the post in Ecuador can be tricky so my fingers were firmly crossed.
Meanwhile, I had new problems. There were a number of small fires in Cajas, which meant that the park rangers who would have been my guides were tied up in sorting out those issues. But after nearly six months in Ecuador, I knew that things generally move a little more slowly than I’m used to in Europe, and the best bet is generally to sit tight, and things sort themselves out. An American we knew who’d been working in Ecuador for years suggested I post an ad on GringoPost.com, an online forum for American expats living in Cuenca, to see if anybody had my shoe size and could loan me a pair of boots. Since there was as yet no sign of the boots I’d ordered, and as I needed to be ready to go as soon as the fires let up, I thought I’d give it a go.
I posted a request on the 14th. Over the course of the next few days, I had 10 replies. I guess that speaks to the number of Americans in Cuenca, or the size of their feet, or the extent of their generosity, or all of the above. In any case, I figured that problem was sorted out, but wished I hadn’t invested in new boots that I still wasn’t sure would arrive on time.
Then the weirdest thing happened: I got an email from Sandra the owner of La Iguana, the hostel we’d stayed at in Ayampe: Chris, I have your shoes!
I couldn’t believe it. Turns out that the guy who gave us a ride had been staying at Punta Finca, a hotel/restaurant that had the most amazing sunset view and where, consequently, we had a meal (great food!) with our friends while staying there. The server, Mariscal, was really cool, so we invited him for drinks at ours the next night. Our Good Samaritan must have, upon realizing my shoes were in his truck, turned around to bring them back to our only point of reference: Ayampe. When he described me to Mariscal, of course he knew who I was — suffice it to say there aren’t many people my height in Ecuador. So Mariscal got in touch with La Iguana so they could get in touch with me. And as luck would have it, one of his neighbors was heading to Cuenca to visit family a few days later, ergo I got my boots back! Which was awesome, because I still hadn’t gotten the boots I’d ordered. But I also hadn’t heard back from ETAPA. The fires continued to burn, and as the days passed, I started to wonder if I would be able to do the walks at all.
There are a total of eight rutas, which are the longer trails, and I’d only done one. The plan was to do the remaining seven, which ranged from just over 5 km to 18 km in length. I was really hoping to have a full two weeks in which to do them, particularly as I was sure some of them were going to kick my arse, so to speak. It was now the 5th of October, and we had flights back to France booked for the 21st. Time had begun to run out.
On the 6th I headed down to the ETAPA offices to see if I could meet with someone face to face to move forward. I was keen to have the opportunity to carry out the project — I’d already invested a bit of time and money in just being in town and ready to go, not to mention the boots I’d ordered (that still hadn’t arrived!), as well as a pair of mud boots they’d advised me to get for the walks. I suddenly had more shoes than I knew what to do with, and their presence in our flat only added to my anxiety — all these boots had to be for something!
But ETAPA, as previously mentioned, has a lot on their plate. They’re responsible for everything from potable water to telecommunications, and couldn’t meet with me. Time was really of the essence at this point. I knew they wanted to be a part of this — they had made that very clear from the outset. So I sent an email that afternoon underlining the importance of haste.
The next morning I got an email with a full schedule. We wouldn’t be able to do all of the hikes — the whole team was on training for the week that followed, but because Sr. Agustín Ordoñez, the lead ranger, was willing to work on his weekend, we’d get through at least four of them, which would mean five out of the eight.
Ruta 3, Valle de Quinuas (Valley of the Quinuas), would be the next day.
Stay tuned for more of my mapping adventures…coming up next: The project actually starts…or does it???
Note: This is a 3 part story. The hiking and mapping was done by me and the story written by Ann. It was first published on medium here, here and here.
This is the story of how some maps that needed to be digitalized came to be so, and how I contributed to the process. And while that process sounds like a straightforward, all-in-a-day’s type of work, the experience was anything but. This is a story not only of maps, but also of cross continental networking, lost and miraculously found footwear, rugged and extraordinary landscapes, and also maps.
It’s probably best to start at the beginning, and as it happens, the beginning of this story takes place far, far from Cajas National Park, in the heart of the magical beast that is NYC at the UN Headquarters, admittedly one of the coolest venues at which I’ve attended a conference. It was there, at State of the Map US 2015 that, whilst standing in line for a cup of joe, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jereme Monteau of Trailhead Labs about the exciting work they’ve been doing. But bear with me — we’ll come right back to Jereme. First, let’s get back to Ecuador.
We were actually in the country for a very different project: volunteering for 6 months in an orphanage for Une Option de Plus, a Franco-Ecuadorian organization that provides resources, sometimes in their human form, to grassroots projects all over the country. We were based not far from what turned out to be a spectacular national park spanning 285 square kilometers and peaking at 4450 meters in altitude. I’d been mapping interesting trails on Open Street Maps for a while by then, and as it became clear that the trail I took with my partner, Ann, that day wasn’t particularly well-marked, it seemed natural to start mapping it. A few days later, it occurred to me that this massive park had several trails that needed to be mapped, and it would be awesome to make that data open and available to all. And the Open Trails specification, one of the brainchildren of Code for America, was the perfect technology for bringing a larger project along those lines to fruition.
A couple of days enquiring at various offices in nearby Cuenca eventually brought me to ETAPA, a municipal enterprise responsible for a variety of needful things, like potable water and telecommunications in the area. They also run operations at Cajas, and they were keen on the idea of participating in an open data innovation in a meaningful way, so after conferring with Jereme by email (I told you we’d get back to him), we were on our way. ETAPA would provide me with a park ranger who’d serve as my guide, and we’d knock out the walks in a week or two.
But before I could get started, I had the trip of a lifetime planned out with Ann and two of our best friends. We were bussing our way across Ecuador, from the volcanic Sierra to the white, sandy coasts, back up to Cuenca, and then into the Amazonian Oriente. Ecuador didn’t disappoint: it is visually stunning and incredibly heterogeneous. Even in the same part of the country, within 5 minutes’ drive the landscape can change drastically from green and lush to auburn and barren, and the cultures that inhabit the various regions are no exception to that rule, though there is without a doubt some things distinctly “Ecuador” about all of it and all of them.
It was our last day on the coast before heading back to the Sierra. We were leaving Ayampe, a sleepy, paradisiacal village to which I’d been before with Ann, and with which we were in love (not least because of Cabanas la Iguana, where we stayed both times). We needed to get to Puerto Lopez for an early-ish bus heading to Cuenca. Buses and taxis regularly head up the Ruta del Sol, so getting to the nearby Puerto Lopez wasn’t too much of a worry, but after half an hour had passed, we started to think we’d miss our bus inland. We later found out there was a parade on in one of the towns between, hence the lack of traffic from where we were to where we needed to be, but without any other option, we hitched a ride with a guy heading our way in his truck. We dumped all our bags in the bed of his truck and jumped in, explaining our situation. He was really nice and didn’t mind at all — he had the tranquility of the recently vacationed about him, and told us he was heading home that day to Quito. We arrived on time for our bus by the skin of our teeth, and as I threw out backpacks to my cohorts, they rushed off to get on the bus.
We’d loaded our packs onto the compartment below and were pulling out of the station when it hit me: I’d forgotten my boots. Normally they were hooked to my pack by a carabiner, but I’d detached them for some unknown reason, and now they were on their way to Quito. I’m a big guy, and my feet are no exception. I knew my US 13 (EU 47) boots would be of no use to any of our Ecuadorian Good Samaritan’s mates back home, and worse yet, I knew I couldn’t possibly hope to find a pair that would fit me in Ecuador.
The first of many obstacles had presented itself, but I was up for the challenge.
Stay tuned for more of my mapping adventures…coming up next: Did he hike barefoot? Did he even hike at all???