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salinas

I am lured to Salinas by the promise of chocolate but what I discover there is far sweeter.

I arrive, damp and extremely hungry, at the awkward hour of 6.45AM, after an uncomfortable night spent in a unprepossessing roadside campsite. Ecuadorans are not early risers and so nothing at all is open in the village and only a couple of women have embarked on the daily task of sweeping the pavement in front of their houses and shops.

I am struggling with icy numb fingers to lock my bike to a post in order to investigate the potential an upstairs cafeteria. I fumble futilely with the stiff sticky wheels of my weather beaten combination lock – the numbers of which have long since faded into illegibility – and curse loudly.

“Are you alright?” an elderly bearded man on the other side of the street inquires. “No!” I snap back, “I’m not. I’m cold and tired and hungry.” “So, would you like to come to my house for a cup of coffee?”

I am slightly abashed by my ungraciousness but I don’t hesitate to abandon the bike to its fate with the cable looped around the wheel in a way I hope will be sufficient deterrent to potential thieves and follow the man upstairs into a warm kitchen filled with people. An abundance of bread, jam, fruit is on the table. The coffee is instant, so I opt for tea, beggars can be choosers, after all.

Introductions take place. My host is Padre Antonio Polo, another Italian Catholic priest, who has made his home here in Salinas, Ecuador, for the last 40 years. There is a young Italian woman who has come to develop a project involving creating systems of clean drinking water in remote communities. Some of the other young women are students from these remote communities who live in the house while they complete their studies.

Gabriella, a young Italian volunteer, offers to show me around the village. In addition to electing to be my guide, she has a baby in her care for the morning, and so the three of us set off together.

On the wall of the chocolate factory, which also houses a cafe and a community hall, a photo of the village in the 70s shows a collection of simple thatched structures. They might have a certain rustic character that could possible be read as more charming than the modern concrete block which has replaced them if you ignore the fact that in these shelters more than 50% of children died before the age of five and people lived in abject poverty.

The only remaining original structure nestles up against the chocolate factory.

Salinas' name and its original dubious fortunes arose from salt that bubbles out of the earth which the villagers collected and traded as far away at Otavalo.

Salt is still mined by a few of the older local women but most people have turned to more profitable and less onerous pursuits...

...and the difference this has made to the village is tangible.

Like any hungry cyclist, I was lured to Salinas by the promise of chocolate but I quickly discover that that is just the start of what is on offer here. There are cooperative enterprises ranging from cheese and sausage making, the production of alpaca and llama wool yarn, the collection and drying of edible mushrooms, making essential oils and producing natural remedies with them based on traditional knowledge of the local plants, creating handmade knitted and crochetted items of clothing, amongst others.

The success of these endeavours is manifest. I recognise the packages of dried mushrooms as the same brand as the ones in my food pannier which I bought at a supermarket in Tumbaco and the cheeses are also widely available throughout Ecuador.

The hand knitted shawls, ponchos, gloves, hats, scarves, sweaters, cardigans and hats use the highest quality materials and are genuinely stylish, decidedly not the kind of mass produced ‘ethnic’ clothing that can be purchased without variation in any tourist destination in the world or the similarly generic – despite the indubitable fact of ‘artisanal’ involvement – items of ‘handicraft’ peddled by dead eyed dread-locked hippies that reveal themselves as a serious consumer mistake as soon as the purchaser leaves the backpacker hostel circuit. If I wasn’t an aspiring lightweighter, travelling on a bicycle, I would have walked away with a pile of things from here.

These cooperative enterprises employ over 2000 people in the area and have been responsible for a change in the village’s fortunes that has transformed the lives of its inhabitants and expanded their options beyond a stark choice between rural poverty or urban migration.

...

The yarn factory is...

...where....

... the raw alpaca and llama wool...

... is turned into...

... a whole range of colourful goodies.

The new village square, currently under construction, is one of the fruits of Salinas current prosperity.

I am also in Salinas for the inauguration of the new Credit Cooperative which aims to extend the micro-finance lending that is one of the mainstays of development in the village. The text on the glass door reads "Together we sow trust."

Padre Antonio Polo has lived in Salinas since the 70s. While clearly the transformation of the village over the decades has been the work of many many people, it is also obvious that the Padre is an inspirational force. I feel genuinely privileged to meet him and quite humbled to be welcomed so warmly and spontaneously into his home. My time in Padre Antonio’s presence makes me contemplate the nature and awesome power of human kindness – how simple and how exceptional it is. And how it can change the world.

Padre Antonio Polo.

Village life.

...

Much as I would like to stay and to learn more about what is going on in Salinas after a day is it time to clean up my muddy bike and continue on my way.

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