What a weekend that was!

Hey folks!  Sitting down with my morning cup of joe reflecting on an amazing retreat we just returned from in Quilotoa.  Resting about 14,000 feet above sea level, this amazing crater lake was formed about 800 years ago after the collapse of a volcano and expands about 2 miles at its widest.

Arriving Saturday midday, we spent the afternoon huddled around the wood stove with cups of tea for our group discussion on changes in our programs after the holiday vacations and the cultural differences we have encountered so far here in Ecuador.  After a lengthy but quality conversation and dinner, we retired to our room for a good nights rest.

Sunday morning we filled our bellies with a hearty breakfast and set off for the lake.  Only about a half-hour descent, we "chilled" on the beach below as the wind whipped the cold through the valley, taking photos, skipping rocks, and enjoying the natural beauty of the area.  Going down was the easy part, going up is another thing.  After completing the ascent back to the hostal, we packed our bags and heading off for our next hike of the day.  Completing the trek from Quilotoa to Chugchilan took us about 5 hours, with an hour detour (maybe my fault..) and stopping for PB&J and tuna sandwiches.  The 10.25 km hike took us high on the ridge of the crater, dropping us down through the sandpits, into another small village where we purchased lollipops and continued our journey.  Feeling the burn of the workout and sun at this point, we thought we were closing in on our destination. Wrong.  With another 6.5 km to go we strolled the main road, the only road, to our next descent.  Squeezing our bodies through tight corridors of rock and sand, we dropped another thousand feet or so into the valley below.  Meeting an nice family who offered Joey and myself some pineapple soda, we continued onward, and upward.  Seeing Chugchilan atop the valley walls seemed like an insurmountable task.  Crossing the bridge below and up through the fields of the locals' farms, we finally returned to civilization.  Walking through the town of Chugchilan was short, but not in terms of sights.  Families were out in the streets, grills were fired up with chicken and plantains, Ecuavolley (their version of volleyball which consists of three players to a team with rules somewhat similar to the original sport); the streets were alive with all 30 families that make up the entire village.  Exhausted but feeling accomplished, we enjoyed our dinners and retreated to our rooms for some much needed rest.
With all this adventure and sight-seeing, you would think that we were done.  Little did we know that one of the most enjoyable, or at least memorable experiences would consist of a milk truck.  The only transportation out of town from Chugchilan, besides the 4 am bus, is a small truck that drives the mountain roads collecting milk from the locals.  Jamming ten of us into the back along with the workers and other travelers, space was tight but we all seemed to be enjoying it.  Getting a little bored, I decided to help out and be part of the crew.  Riding fireman style on the back bumper my job was to run and collect the milk containers, measure the volume, hand it over to the worker who would then fill up the large barrels of fresh cow juice.  The other guys decided to participate too.  Before you knew it, we had three Americans riding rear bumper, hopping off and scrambling to find the containers which were either hidden on bank ledges, hanging from some apparatus, or just sitting there on the side of the road.  What a way to travel and to be part of the whole experience.  Laughter filled the back of the truck regardless of our sore, tired muscles.  We loved the milk guys so much, we decided to stay on until the next town where we would be connecting via bus back to home base. 

Exhausted? Yes. Sore? For sure.  Feeling accomplished and enriched by all these experiences? Most definitely.  This week we are closing down the library, finalizing our semester with a good library cleaning, writing up quarterly reports, program meetings, etc.  Secret Santa is tonight and we will be saying bye to most of the group as they return stateside for the holidays with friends and family.  Joey and myself are staying in Ecuador, traveling to Colombia and making the most out of our time here in South America.  One of our group members will not be returning come the new year.  Sarah will be returning home and continuing her passion for non-profit work.  We will miss her for her translating skills and huge contributions to the Small Business Development program, as well as for her love of reggaeton and dancing.

Check back in with us later this week.  All the best to everyone who has been following us throughout the year.  Have a safe and happy holiday break!