I’ve eaten way too many avocados, worked with the horses nearly every day in the past couple of weeks, and experienced another broken heart. All are good things though; some will show up as good things later than others.
I’m writing this from Machala, a coastal town in Ecuador. I left the farm a few days ago with the intention to just drive West until I hit the ocean. From there, I would need to make a decision. I would either wait out the Peru border closure and continue driving South, or I would drive North to Guayaquil and buy a flight to Santiago, put Savannah in a warehouse for a bit before I could return, and continue my trip. More on that later…
Back to the farm – I worked a lot. The good kind of work where you go to bed at the end of the day feeling like you’ve earned it. The exchange we agreed on was 2 hours of work per day for me to have a safe place to sleep. But with how farm work goes, there’s always more to do. I’d guess I put in between 5 and 8 hours of work per day. Usually this started with 2-3 hours of gardening work in the morning. Sometimes weeding, sometimes planting, sometimes harvesting. I used a barreton (long, heavy, pointed stake), to spear holes into the ground and stick in some plant cuttings or vines for ground cover. I harvested white carrots, which I’ve never had before until Pearl put them into a thick, delicious soup for our lunch. I bonded with the dogs, who became my new pals and hung out with me at the van. I totally shared my dinners with them though, so they were easy friends to make.
After gardening, I’d head down to my camp and cook up some lunch. This ended up being my biggest meal of the day. After eating some fried veg, I’d rest for a bit, then head up to meet Pearl with the horses. Our afternoons were spent either grooming, training, or riding the horses. I was part time photographer while we rode, taking photos of Pearl with her horses. When the horses were up on the mountain for the night, they’d come down with burrs in their manes and tails so we would have a grooming/girl chat session cleaning them up. She bought some clippers to trim their hooves, and I showed her how I was taught as a kid to trim hooves. Of course, nervous at first and hoping I remembered how to do this, I was conservative with how much hoof I cut off. But then the muscle memory came back and soon I was barely thinking as I used the rasp to round off the hooves after I clipped them. Her farrier (hoof guy) charges her $20 per horse and she bought these clippers for $60. They paid for themselves within the first day we used them, and now she knows how to trim hooves too!
Pearl was keen on training Luna herself, so when we would ride together, she would take Luna (the Palomino) and I would ride the older horse, named Chicory. Luna seemed to trust Pearl 100% and it reminded me of the bond I had with my horse, Raven. One ride specifically showed me this bond. We had a great ride down the dirt road into town, then up another valley next to the one where Pearl’s family lives, then down to the river. From here, Pearl knew of a trail along the river that looped back to the valley where her farm was. I had biked along a trail on the opposite side of the river with her kids (when my farm duties were extended to babysitting duties) and remembered some wooden bridges. I asked her if there were any on this trail and if they were strong enough for a horse – she said they were, so we moved ahead. The wooden bridges over creeks and ditches weren’t very high off the ground but the wood planks were thin and spaced apart. We usually got off and led the horses across them. We had made it nearly to the end of the trail where there was one more wooden bridge/ramp. I got off Chicory and led her up. It had been raining the last few days and the wood was damp. Pearl followed on Luna and I witnessed one of the most terrifying horseback riding experiences I could imagine. Luna is a bit heavier than old Chicory and she slipped halfway up the ramp. She fell to her knees as Pearl used the handrail to get off as quickly as she could, while Luna continued to slip. Eventually she slid sideways, and the bridge gave way, wood snapped, and a whole lot of horse came crashing through the boards. Luckily, it wasn’t very high off the ground and when Luna landed on her feet, she was about chest deep in the broken bridge. With Pearl off her back, and safe now, she soothed Luna and guided her back down off the bridge. Most horses would have freaked in that situation and somehow no one really got hurt. The horse could have easily broken a leg or gotten stabbed by a rusty nail. I learned not to trust the bridges in Ecuador, and I felt a bit responsible for not speaking up more when I had a bad feeling about those bridges. There were no hard feelings though and all horses and humans were alright after.
We took a trip South of the valley to hang with the kids at a private pond with another couple. I met Collier and Jamie, and their son JC, on a warm day that felt like a perfect pond day. I swam with the kids for a bit in the icy water and also enjoyed some adult talk. Collier and Jamie used to live in Colorado so we had a lot to chat about. They gave me a tour of the farm they were renting a room at, while building their own farm on land they had just bought a few miles South. I filled my backpack with delicious red mangos, oranges, grapefruit, and lime from the orchard! Collier and Jamie drove a VW van to Ecuador from the states and never left. I could see the draw to the valley.
For a few days in the last couple of weeks, the air was thick with smoke. At first, we thought a neighbor was burning land, but the air hung heavy and thick for miles. It turns out, a volcano erupted North of Vilcabamba, but, also, wind was blowing dust in from Peru! It was a really strange, smoggy few days that reminded me of wildfire season in Washington.
Pearl had given me a hat to use and one night I got creative and constructed a band for it made from leather scraps she had given me. I was pretty pleased with outcome, and sad when she asked for that hat back after I’ve been living in it for the past couple of weeks. But all things have their timing, and I probably wouldn’t have worn it off the farm, so it’s better it stays.
On timing, Andre and I decided together that it didn’t make sense to continue our relationship. We are thankful for the time we had together and feel lucky that we had a year of adventuring and traveling and loving each other. Sometimes the hardest “no” is the one that is the closest to a “yes”, but our timing hindered the yes. My last week at the farm was feeling all of the emotions that come with a breakup and leaning into the farm life to help me through it. Pearl took me out to dinner that night and we ventured into a shop that sold the most beautiful shawls. I didn’t need much encouragement from her, only a little, to buy this stunning golden shawl with a rainbow across the center. It felt like a cloak of protection and bravery on this next chapter of solitude.
A few days later, Pearl and I took a bike trip out to look at some horses she was hoping to help sell. We took a couple of mountain bikes down into town, then across the highway to another valley. There I was exposed to what local horse business is like. As a kid, I studied flash cards of horse breeds – why? Because I was weird… and I made my sister study them too! Anyway, a few breeds on the flashcards that I never thought I’d see in real life were “Peruvian Paso” and “Paso Fino.” It turns out that these are the horse breeds that most of the horses are here! So this guy we met breeds Pasos and the mares (female horses) are basically breeding machines from 2 years old until they die. It was really sad to see 8 year old mares look decades older as their spines and ribs jutted out of their hide. Pearl wants to save them all, and I know she has a good heart, but realistically these horses are doomed. It was really sad, and very eye opening.
Our last day together, Pearl and I worked on her kitchen. With her partner and kids away for vacation, we had the farm to ourselves. She blasted Florence and the Machine on her speaker while I sanded old wood off her cabinet and repainted it. We shared a bottle of white wine and bonded over our need of independence (on Valentine’s Day). We have some stark, different points of view on a lot of big topics, but the fact that we can discuss them together and be honest allowed a friendship to form.
I happened to decide to leave on the rainiest day yet in Vilcabamba. My van was stuck for hours just trying to get out of my campsite and down the road, but we made it happen. I finally mastered the Ecuadorian greeting/farewell gesture of a simultaneous kiss on the cheek with Pearl when we said our goodbyes. Before, I had always been too early or too late with the kiss sound part. It felt good to properly say bye, and I do think we will continue being good friends.
From there, the story is just driving across the mountains to the sea. With the rainy season, some parts of the road were washed out and I could see evidence of mudslides. But soon I had made it Machala. That first night, I was abruptly woken up by the police at around 2 AM to move. Not ideal, I decided for the next couple of nights to pay for a hotel and store Savannah safely in a garage.
I just got word today that the Peru/Ecuador border will open. I had actually nearly given up and headed North to Guayaquil. About 20 minutes out of town, my check engine light came on, so I decided to return to Machala and get it checked. They couldn’t find a problem with it (which isn’t super helpful) but the mechanic I was chatting with told me the borders would open today (Friday). Then I saw the article. Hopefully it was just a random glitch with Savannah and she’s ready to make a long haul down to Chile. We’ve got a lot of land to cover.
Updated map of campsites, here!