Author Archives: Chris

An Ecuadorian mapping story – Part3

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:

Photo of cajas from our first hike

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.

Happy trails!

Tagged , , ,

An Ecuadorian mapping story – Part2

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???

Tagged , , ,

An Ecuadorian mapping story – Part1

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.

Playa Los Frailes

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???

Tagged , , ,

Ecuador – months 3 and 4 in photos

Second batch of photos from our time in Ecuador. I should state that these photos are only one (small) part of our time here, it’s the “fun/travel part”. Most of our time was spent working and living at the Casa Hogar (an orphanage). But when we got the chance to escape for a day or two, we grabbed it and tried to do short visits to nearby places. These are just a slice of our time in the country, we certainly haven’t spent our time travelling around (unfortunately).
I realise I’m way overdue for this post as we are well into month 6… We just came back from a great trip around the country with two very dear friends who came all the way from Europe to say hola and see Ecuador (photos to be posted in the coming weeks). There has been quite a big shift in our situation here as we no longer live at the orphanage (more on that later). We’ve just found a little studio in a town called Cuenca and we’ll be there for the remaining 6 weeks we have before going back to France.

Ecuador – our first 2 months in photos

Running

I didn’t  run once in the entire time Ann and I were in the Philippines. There were two reasons for this.  First, I’m pretty sure people would have taken photos of me while running and I would have ended up on the local newspaper frontpage under the title “Tallest person in the Philippines seen running!” It was impossible to do anything anywhere without standing out due to being super tall and a foreigner, so going out for a run would be an invitation to attract tons of attention. I would not have been surprised if groups of childrens started running behing me, rocky style ;). I see running as a kind of mediation for me, and I prefer to be able to run in quieter places where I can focus on the moment without too many distractions around.. The other reason was the heat. Basically anytime after 5.30am the temperature would have made it  pretty unpleasant to run. Of course this is something that I would have got used to if I went running regularly but due to reason #1 above, I didn’t. I really missed running during that year. I had built up good habits with running and cycling in my last five years in London and I knew that not exercising at all for year would result in me losing the little fitness I had when I left. When we came back to Europe, both Ann and I were eager to get out and go for a run and it’s one of the first thing we did. That first run was painful and (at most) 10 minutes… but it felt great.

I’ve been trying to run regularly since, aiming for twice sometimes three times a weeks. I kept running as much possible throughout the last winter – something that I didn’t do in London. Running has taken quite an important place in my schedule since coming back to France. I don’t have a set time when I go run though I prefer the morning, and so it’s been more about going to run when I can rather than trying to stick to a schedule. I often complain about not having enough time to do things I want to do outside of work. I recently realised that I tended to see running as an activity that was taking time away from something else I wanted to do or should have been doing. But in the last month or so that perception has changed, and I realised that, actually, I do enjoy running very much and I’m quite happy to spend time doing it. I’m not sure why I had the idea that running was something I was sort of forcing myself to do rather than something I was enjoying.

This year was the 31st edition of my hometown annual 15K race which traditionally takes place on the 1st of May. It was also the first time I participated in it (and finished it).

Last year I remember I was working on the day and as I was looking out our window I could see the runners passing by on the street below, I thought “I should have signed up. I should be running right now, not working in front of a computer working.” This year I signed up on the day registrations opened and made sure I wouldn’t be away on a work trip that week (the 1st was a Wednesday). I did considered pulling out as during the preceding weeks I had picked up a little knee injury and I didn’t get the chance to run much as I was away for work on couple of occasions. Also the morning of the race, it was cold, grey and rain was coming down hard (a small “river” had formed on the street where 4 hours later the race was suppose to take place). It was not encouraging and I wasn’t really “feeling it”. But the weather changed in a spectacular fashion and by the time the starting gun went off it was beautiful blue sky and sunshine all around. It was really perfect conditions to run in and collective mood was firmly up. It was a great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The winner of the race finished in 43:48 (Kitumai Kennedy from Kenya) and the first woman in 50:22 (Mekasha Waganesh from Ethiopia). They passed me when I was on my second lap (the race has three laps)… It was quite a sight to see them whiz by, it looked like their were not running but gliding. Very impressive, and beautiful in a way. I finished in 1:15:26. Not too bad and a timeI was aiming for so I’m very happy with that.

I don’t know whether I’ll go running more from now on following this little mental shift, and that’s not important anyway, but it’s good to now run with this new state of mind.

IMAG1248

Street is still wet from the rain but the emerging sun is taking care of that

Street is still wet from the rain but the emerging sun is taking care of that

IMAG1255

Tagged , , ,