Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Training trials in Ecuador

My first run in Pesillo, a small farming village in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador, lasted just six minutes before the steady incline and high altitude had left me gasping for breath and my legs burning. It took several weeks of perseverance before I could just about complete a 5-mile loop of the valley without stopping. More on that here. When I moved on to a 4,500 dairy farm, I had high hopes my new lodgings would provide the perfect base for off-road running. Sadly, sludge so deep it slopped over the rim of my welly boots soon put pay to that idea. I was forced to take to the tarmac.

Vía Selva Alegre is a far cry from the cobbled tracks and family smallholdings of Pesillo. A wide, winding thoroughfare, it is lined with monstrous haciendas, each stretching several kilometres in length. The main traffic - a handful of vehicles every half hour - consists of enormous heavy goods trucks that to and fro between the farms, and local buses that follow a timetable consistent only in its unpredictability. The road slaloms through the hills at a steady but punishing gradient, wending its way gradually upwards for 3-4km before it eventually plateaus. Here, at the highest point, the haciendas are dispersed with a collection of very basic houses, each with a small backyard and a handful of animals. These lots are tiny in comparison to the farms here, but they undoubtedly enjoy some of the best views one could ask for.

On almost all of my runs along Vía Selva Alegre, I was accompanied by two of the farm's dogs - a fiercely loyal German Shepherd called Marca and her young protege, a black puppy called Valiente. An endearing pair, both would trot as close to my heels as physically possible. Sandwiched tightly between them, it's a miracle we didn't all trip and tumble when accelerating down the hill.

In fact, I soon learnt it was much safer running with my doggy escort than than venturing out without them - it turns out the canine residents of the local houses take their guarding duties very seriously. One Sunday, as I reached the highest point of my run, a black Pitbull charged into the road and sunk his fangs into my knee, leaving a nasty gash. Needless to say, I haven't gone back since. In fact, I now have the perfect excuse not to reach the top of the hill! Sadly, I'm also now terrified of any dog that happens to bark as I pass, and have even started to carry defensive ammunition with me (storing pebbles in my leggings and carrying a stick) if I know I'll have to pass a canine guard.

Running here in Ecuador certainly has its ups and downs, but I do have an incentive to keep at it. In October, I got a ballot place in the London Marathon. It's not ideal timing - I'll be travelling for the duration of the training period. Yet, having entered several years running and never yet been successful, it seems too good an opportunity to miss. With an uncertain few weeks ahead, I've no idea if I'll make it to the start line in April. But if I do, I just hope the trials and tribulations of my sporadic training in Ecuador will be enough to see me through the 26 miles to the finish!

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Masterclass in Ecuadorean Equitation

I've worked at livery stables, dealers yards, polo clubs and trail ride ranches, but it's fair to say I've never experienced anything quite like Hacienda Pambasinchi. So far, it's been a crash course in dealing with horses en masse. We have 80 here, divided into two herds and rotated around different pastures across an expansive 4,500 hectares. I've quickly learnt just how fast 80 horses can mow a field of long, lush grass to its yellowy roots - it makes for a lot of work shifting fence lines across vast swathes of farmland to ensure they have fresh grazing.

Despite the abundance of pasture, most days all the horses are rounded up to be fed and watered. Heaving 40kg bags of alfalfa through knee-deep sludge, spreading it across the five feeding troughs and topping each with a bucket of thick, sticky molasses decanted from an enormous metal vat, is a trial that has to be repeated at least three times to ensure no one is left hungry - the whole procedurecan take the best part of a day.

Any time left is spent working the 20 resident stallions. And Vinicio, the twenty-four-year-old Quechuan in charge here, has a unique technique to ensure no one is left out. First, he herds them all to the bubble-shaped ménage next to the coral where, in order to get in, all the horses have to jump a line of barrels about three foot high. The arena features a steep, in-built hill to one side, and the work begins by cantering all 20 horses together in circles up and over this hill at least ten times on each rein. However effective it is as a warm up, when they thunder past you at close range - a chaotic jumble of legs, tails and splattered mud - it can be quite unnerving! Subsequently, in groups of two or three, the horses are sent five or six times over a jump, before being allowed back into the main coral where their friends are waiting.

It's certainly not a style of training I'm familiar with, but it seems to yield results - as became evident when I rode the next day.  My horse, Myway, was superficially very scraggly. About 16'1hh, he had a fluffy coat marked with various scratches from the rough and tumble of the herd, and an endearing face covered in brown stickiness from the feed troughs. Following Vinicio's instructions, I didn't groom him or pick out his feet, just chose one of the three creaking English saddles from the store room and tacked him up - one size fits all apparently.

I wasn't expecting much as we squelched down the muddy track to the ménage. But, after just five minutes of riding, I knew that this scruffy four-year-old was a seriously classy horse in disguise. He glided around the arena with floaty, elevated paces, bending easily around the tight turns and sharp changes of rein that the small, bubble-shaped space made necessary. Just as round, collected and powerful in canter as he was in walk and trot, there's no doubt he'd easily cruise through affiliated dressage. In fact, his evident quality made wonder why on earth they had a rookie like me schooling him... but rather than question it, I just enjoyed the ride!

My next horse, a three-year-old stallion, was less successful. A striking charcoal grey called Martillo, he hadn't quite mastered the notion of going forwards. After a few hapless attempts to complete a full circle of the arena in trot, I was exhausted. It was a sharp bump back to reality when compared with the Ferrari I had been sitting on before.

Yet despite this particular stallion's confusion under saddle, it's obvious that the horses here are beautifully bred and produced - which says something about Vinicio's 'en-masse' training method. And I expect that, within a year, Martillo will be just as elegant Myway. Whether or not I have anything to do with that remains to be seen...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Ecuadorean Dairy Farm

Just this week, I began a new job at a hacienda near Otavalo, a merchant town home to one of Ecuador's oldest markets. Compared with the small farming community I experienced in Pesillo, where each family has just a handful of animals, this is a dairy farm on an industrial scale.

The milking pens are the first thing you see on entering the hacienda. Twice daily the cows dutifully file into the courtyard and spread themselves out along the feed sheds, presenting a long line of bottoms as they feast on fresh alfafa. Then, they are shuffled into the milking parlour, where men in yellow, plastic overalls supervise machines that drain their udders in a matter of moments. It's a slick, professional routine that ticks over with clockwork regularity and never seems to change pace.

My bedroom is right next door to the pens, meaning I am very much up to speed with the milking timetable. Every morning at 3am, as I toss and turn in my wobbly, creaky bunk bed , the cows are harangued into the courtyard with cries of "siga siga vaca", and "vamos carajo" - noisy encouragement that I'm not convinced is entirely necessary given that, every time I've watched, the cows have walked obediently from pasture to pen without batting an eyelid.

The whole affair is repeated at 3pm. If I time it right, I can rush down and give one of the workers a plastic jug that, within seconds, will be full to the brim with warm, frothy milk - enough to last until the next afternoon's milking session. Already, that jug of milk has become a dietary staple for me. You see, the kitchen consists of a bench, a cupboard, and a two-ring electric stove. There's no fridge or running water, and dishes have to be washed in the tiny basin in the bathroom. It makes cooking anything more complicated than porridge quite a chore!

There are over 500 cows here, so there's no shortage of milk. And, as the hacienda boasts over 4,000 hectares of land, there's certainly ample grass for them to eat. In fact, the grounds are so vast they allow for multiple crops of sweetcorn and oats, as well as plentiful grazing for 65 horses.

Sadly, I've yet to work much with the horses here. My arrival was unfortunately timed and has coincided with torrential and persistent rain - the likes of which makes a wet day in Snowdonia look pedestrian. And, given the mud is already dangerously close to the top of my welly boots, I think it'll be a while before it dries out enough to start. However, in a window of fair weather today, I did manage to squeeze in a short ride on one of the stallions, a four year old that proved to be much better behaved than most of the cavalry blacks I am lucky enough to ride back home. With another 20 stallions, 45 mares and numerous foals just waiting to be played with, I'm praying the weather clears up soon!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

El Sargento

Cesar makes an entrance every time he arrives at la finca. Pausing in his stride a moment, he raises both his arms high above his head, looks around and grins broadly as if basking in the applause of an expectant crowd. "Estoy aquí," (I'm here). He's been working at la finca most days this week, and regularity certainly hasn't diminished his style. If anything, his appearance each day has become every day more grandiose.

Cesar is one of the chagras (Ecuadorean horsemen) who regularly joins the team at la finca to help prepare for the six-day trail rides - a monumental task that involves packing enough food, equipment and first aid to see 12 horses and ten riders through six days of adventure and all four seasons. I had been nervous about working with him - warned he would cut corners and slack off - but I needn't have worried. The first thing he said to me was "Yo trabajo, tu descanses," (I work so you can rest), and he has remained true to his word.

Small and round-faced, with a broad smile and a cheeky twinkle in his eye, Cesar is hard-working, efficient and cheerful. No matter how much work there is to get through, he remains implacably calm and relaxed. "Tranquila señorita", has become his catchphrase, repeated every time I try to plan ahead. It turns out he has been working these trail rides for over eight years, and so is well-versed in the extraordinary amount of paraphernalia involved. He certainly looks the part. At home, he wears jeans and a gillet, but when riding, he dons full-length, fur-fronted leather chaps, a thick, red and white woollen poncho and a broad-rimmed hat.

Yet this is just one of his jobs. At home, he has ten horses of his own that he uses to take Ecuadorean tourists on trail rides. He also milks his own cows every day and looks after the bulls at the local hacienda. Unbelievably, this is meant to be his retirement. Prior to all this, he spent 18 years in the Ecuadorean army - perhaps that explains why he can work such long hours and still be smiling. He also credits the army with his domestic skills. He always insists on doing the washing up and, if given half a chance, will light the fire in my bedroom to make sure I'm "calentita" (warm). Is it any wonder that after a day working with him I began to salute him as "El Sargento"?

*   *   *

Cesar is just one of the lovely local Ecuadoreans I have been lucky enough to meet. There's also Clemencia, who lives at the top of la finca and is full of smiles whenever we pass. For a dollar, she'll milk her cow and hand you over a bucket of fresh milk - something I'm yet to acquire a taste for. When she heard my housemate was ill, her whole family appeared on our doorstep armed with a little bottle of decongestant drops. I'm not sure that sort of neighbourly concern survives in London!

And then there's Kevin, the 17-year-old lorry driver. He manoeuvres the truck with the calm confidence of an old hand, and simply chuckled when he told me he's too young to have a driving licence. And there's Viktor, the happy-go-lucky chofer who gave up his lunch break to help me shift weighty water pipes and then drove me to town for groceries.

The charm, wit, concern and kindness of locals like Clemencia, Kevin and Victor - not to mention El Sargento - has been a highlight of my few weeks in Pesillo, Ecuador. Soon to be moving on, I only hope to meet similarly good-natured locals at my next stop.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Living in the Clouds

For the past few weeks, I've been living in the hills above Pesillo. It's a tiny farming community in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador, up at 3,000m and an hour and a half from the nearest town. Charged with looking after the herd of 14 horses and the resident border collie, there's been little time to explore any further than I can ride on horseback. Fortunately, I haven't felt much need to. The valleys are vast. You can ride for hours and still cover new ground. And their expansive beauty is breathtaking, no matter how many times you see it and no matter what the weather does.
Some days it's like living in a cloud - the air wet with tiny droplets of rain that shroud the valley in a misty haze. Waves of this feathery-light wisp will swirl through the hills all day, interspersed with fleeting glimpses of blue sky and bright sunshine - the translucent colours of rainbows arching over the valley are a regular sight. In the wetness of the clouds, it's easy to forget the hills are overlooked by the monstrous Volcán Cayambe. When it does appear, a brilliant ice white crag looming in the distance, it looks starkly out of place against the lush, rolling farmlands.
Though riding is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy the scenery, with most of the herd resting after a six-day tour, I've had no choice but to don my trainers and explore it on foot. Turning right out of la finca you can do a 5.5 mile loop of the valley. It's an undulating circuit that climbs over 700ft on a mixture of ankle-twisting cobbles and slippery, muddy tracks - and includes a constant assault by ferocious-sounding dogs that chase you past their property. It was an ambitious start for my first run at altitude and, needless to say, it took several attempts before I completed it without stopping. The locals undoubtedly think I'm completely bonkers - a red-faced "gringita" needlessly puffing her way up the cobbles in a laboured jog that's slower than walking pace. But, by and large, they seem to accept me. I get the odd smile and wave, or friendly honk from a passing truck.

On my most recent venture, la finca's elderly collie, Guapa, decided to join me. Ignoring my repeated instructions of "Quédate aquí " (Stay here), she snuck out of the gates after me, keeping a discrete distance behind. I didn't realise she was in tow until the battle cries of the first batch of guard dogs crescendoed to unprecedented levels. Terrified she'd be mauled by the neighbours or get lost, I spent most of the run glancing nervously over my shoulder and calling her on. But I needn't have worried. Despite remaining largely out of sight - about 70m behind me on a bendy track - she faithfully followed me the whole way. I stopped to wait for her on the home straight as she bowled towards me, ears flapping and tongue lolling as if smiling broadly. It's fair to say she finished much more strongly than I did.

Clearly, four legs are better than two. I should stick to the horses!