From the moment I walked off the plane to get my baggage in Quito, I was out of breath and a little light headed. At 9000 feet, Quito does funny things to a guy used to living at sea level. It wasn’t long before we came back to a more familiar altitude. After sleeping just four hours at the hotel, we hopped an early morning flight down south to Ecuador’s Loja (low-ha) region.


On this most recent assignment with Heifer, Loja’s airport was the starting point for Christian and me on our journey west toward the Peruvian border. In just an hour’s flight from Quito we landed in a beautiful valley in the Andes Mountains. After taking some breakfast in Catamayo, we set out for an 8 hour drive to the border – five of which hurdled us through bumpy, unpaved backroads that gradually spiraled down the mountains into dry scrub forest.


The destination was a village called Hacienda Vieja, which straddles the border with Peru. Because of the remote locations of homes we visited on this trip, we were able to stay with the families that I photographed and that Christian interviewed. Below, Celia (left) and Monfilo (right), our first hosts, in their kitchen. We stayed in their home for two nights, along with an annoyingly gregarious rooster who seemed not to know the difference between 2AM and sunup.


I much prefer staying in houses and foregoing a regular shower or fancy dinner in order to witness the daily lives of my subjects. The lack of amenities and occasional discomforts are more than made up for in the experience of living life much as it existed in the States 100 years ago. Below, a portrait of Celia and Monfilo made during their younger years hangs on a wall in their home.


Some five hours of winding mountain road away from the nearest town with a market or fueling station, Hacienda Vieja relies on its own means to survive. Farmers here grow what they need to feed their families and use donkeys as the primary means of transport. Unlike many NGOs who operate in areas that are easily accessible, Heifer makes it a point to change the lives of those in hard to reach places as well.


With an average life expectancy of 75 years, Ecuadorians’ longevity exceeds that of most developing countries. Above, Felipa Sarango, is a venerable 107 years old. Unlike the elderly of Ecuador’s cities, she has seen little change in her town throughout her lifetime. While most young people move to urban areas to seek a life outside of farming, the successes of Heifer’s agricultural programs in Hacienda Vieja have helped to keep some of them around.


I wish I were fluent in Spanish, or Castillano, as it’s called down here. I’m thinking of returning to Latin America in the slow time after Christmas to take some lessons. Photographing in Ecuador was a bit more difficult than other places I’ve visited. Usually Christian & I are each provided with an interpreter, but on this trip only one person assisted us both.


As Christian does the writing, it was more important for him to make use of our interpreter, leaving me to pantomime direction where my Spanish skills failed me. Sam, our interpreter (below, left) was an interesting and hardworking gentleman. An American who has lived in Loja for over 30 years, he married an Ecuadorian woman and they’ve raised their children here.


It seems on nearly every excursion I make into the developing world some sort of animal, insect or even human attempts to get the best of me. In the past year I’ve been bitten by a dog in China, contracted Dengue Fever from mosquitoes in Haiti, hacked in the arm by machete-wielding thieves in Kenya and mobbed by monstrous fire ants in Zambia.


Yes, I can genuinely say that I’ve had ants in my pants; and it’s not pretty. Unfortunately, these experiences tend to bolster many an American’s perceptions about the “third world,” and make it appear a more precarious destination than it is. Perhaps the reality is that I’m simply accident prone. I had come to expect some sort of incident upon venturing this time into South America.

In reading up about Ecuador prior to my trip, I found out that there are many a species of poisonous snake that inhabit the trees and tall grass of rural areas. I immediately thought, as bite-prone as I am, a snake bite would get me this time around. Nothing quite so dramatic was to be my fate. As it happened, I awoke in the middle of an otherwise peaceful night itching all over. Crawling out of my mosquito net with my flashlight, I fumbled through my bag for my insect repellent, sprayed myself and the foam mattress where I slept.


By the time I awoke the next morning I was covered in what looked like chicken pocks. Some sort of insect had made a feast of me the night before and left me scratching through the next week. In addition, I would break out in itchy, burning hives on my legs and arms daily for a couple hours before they would subside again. Upon arriving at my next portal to the world wide web I searched through the Wikipedia articles on bed bugs, bubonic plague and the various pock-producing diseases outlined in the heath-risks section of my Lonely Planet Ecuador guide.

If my wiki-diagnosis is accurate, I had fallen prey to a case of fleas-in-the-bed and a subsequent allergic reaction, common throughout much of South America. I should have guessed. After a series of anti-histamine creams and pills, where I again had to use a mixture of Spanish and sign language to communicate with the pharmacist, I seem to be doing fine. As I write this entry in Lima, almost two weeks after the incident, I’ve been hive-free for two days.


From the border, the trip continued back through the towns of Alta Vega and Mangahurquillo, where we stopped along the way further documenting the lives of Heifer project participants. Above, Maria Cacay-Merizalde and Amadeo Cayay-Rodriguez on their farm in the foothills of the Andes. Below, phone booths in the town of Alamor.


The sun was setting over the Rio Zamora on our flight from Loja to Quito, but the trip was not even half completed. We had spent just five days in Ecuador. The next day we’d have part of the day to rest in Quito before flying down to Lima in the afternoon. We’d continue our work throughout Peru for another week.


Stay tuned for Peru…


Copyright 2008 Jake Lyell Photography