EXPEDITIONS; With Clouds as Neighbors: Family Retreat in the Andes



Published: August 10, 2000

FRIENDS are envious when they hear that my wife and I have built a family retreat in the Ecuadorian Andes, with two mature orange trees in the yard and flocks of parrots flying by.

The house is located in an ''un-Provence'' called Zona de Intag, a rural county that tends more toward fried yucca than white truffle omelets. We call it a weekend house because it takes three days to travel there by plane, bus, horse and foot from New York. The final leg is a muddy path that meanders past sugar cane fields and clusters of orchids until it reaches our house, where we live in 19th-century style, without electricity or plumbing other than a spring-fed garden hose connected to a sink.

''When can we expect you?'' we ask friends. Suddenly their calendars are full.

This two-bedroom paradise sits about 6,000 feet up, at the edge of a private cloud-forest reserve several hours' drive northwest of Otavalo, a small town on the Pan-American Highway that's famous for its Indian market. Cloud forests are basically high-altitude rain forests, and this one has more variety of plant life per acre than the Amazon basin.

We decided to build here five years after first visiting the 1,235-acre reserve, called La Florida, in 1993. During our visit, my wife stumbled across a decrepit board-and-batten house at the edge of the woods, with orchids growing from the roof tiles and faded murals of volcanoes on the exterior walls. We later rented the house for $75 a month. It was so isolated that days could pass without anyone walking by on the trail. We adapted well, hauling supplies on horseback, raising food and reading by candlelight. We stayed for nine months, returning to New York when my wife became pregnant with our first daughter.

Since then, we've visited the area many times, staying in a cabin at La Florida that is owned by Carlos Zorrilla, a Cuban expatriate, and Sandy Statz, his wife, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Three years ago we tried, and failed, to persuade our old landlord to sell us the board-and-batten house. So we asked Mr. Zorrilla and Ms. Statz if we could build a new one on a particularly beautiful parcel they owned, high above a tumbling river. The terms: We would pay for the construction and use it twice a year for monthlong family vacations; they would supply the land and look after the place, and earn money by renting it out to the scientists and students who sometimes visit the preserve.

Mr. Zorrilla is a founder of a local grass-roots group that successfully persuaded Mitsubishi to cancel a huge copper mine that could have ruined the area. Right now, they are battling the World Bank on other mining projects and helping locals establish organic coffee farms.

Given all the environmental pressures facing the area, Mr. Zorrilla urged us to build the house using as many sustainable materials as possible. So we chose the most renewable resource available: mud, packed onto lath and coated with plaster, in a local method called barreque. We began by drawing a simple layout, and the plans never progressed far beyond that initial scribble.

At our first meeting, Elias Imbaquingo, a respected local builder, calculated our expenses, including the cost of hauling 3,000 clay roof tiles down from the road on horseback, at 40 tiles a horse. The tiles would arrive at the trail head on a truck from Otavalo, as would the windows and eucalyptus floor planks.

For the support beams, Mr. Imbaquingo felled alder and cypress that Mr. Zorrilla had planted years before. I doubt that any North American builder would attempt to fabricate a house today using just handpowered tools and muscle, as Mr. Imbaquingo did. He even built his ladder on site. When he found a bent nail on the ground, he'd pound it straight and stick it in his pocket.

Since he lived an hour away over steep mountain trails, Mr. Imbaquingo and his three-man crew brought their own cook -- usually Mrs. Imbaquingo, with a baby in a sling on her back -- to prepare hot meals. They often stayed for days at a time, sleeping in a vacant house nearby, and sometimes they'd disappear for several weeks, in the universal contractors' tradition. After about nine months, Mr. Imbaquingo called the local men together for a minga, a communal work-and-party tradition that dates from Inca times.

Thirty-seven men showed up, and a few woman carrying pots of corn, fried pork, rice and vegetable soup. Bottles of the fiery local rum called trago made the rounds, along with vodka, beer, wine and a mild Andean brew called chicha, made from wheat and raw sugar and spiked with spit to get the fermentation going. The men mixed horse manure with fresh dirt to give it grip and tossed the gooey lumps onto the lath. After a skim coat of plaster, Mr. Imbaquingo painted the walls white.

Then he arranged the roof tiles, dug the outhouse and set up the solar-heated shower. The living-dining room soars up about 16 feet to the roof. The bedrooms have woven grass ceilings. Since it rarely goes below 60 degrees, most of our days are spent on the large porch.

I visited three times during the two-year construction process, trusting the details to Mr. Zorrilla and Ms. Statz. The house, roughly 900 square feet, was completed this spring and cost $5,000. Beds, tables and hammocks, some made locally from knotty guava wood, cost an additional $500.

This spring, my daughter Bolivia, now 4, and I traveled to see our new house. My wife was pregnant and chose to stay at home with our other daughter, Violet, who had a bad case of the terrible 2's.

I was astonished at how comfortable the house felt, with its high ceilings and expansive porch. The days passed with walks, games and expeditions to gather oranges, bananas and strawberries from Mr. Zorrilla's gardens. The only machines we ever heard were old-time farm tools, like the gas-powered presses used to extract sugar cane juice, which we drank warm, mixed with juice from fresh-picked lemons the size of softballs. Since our trip was too short to haul in cooking supplies, we ate with the Zorrilla family. Once again we were part of a culture in which people killed what little meat they ate (Bolivia enjoyed seeing the chicken head in her bowl of soup), wore clothes for protection rather than fashion, and worked for subsistence, not status.

During each visit to the area I learn more, and become more rooted. I have a godson there, named after me, and many close friends who sometimes laugh at my ignorance of the world -- their world. At La Florida, some trees bleed red sap, and the equatorial night skies offer constellations from both hemispheres. Each evening after we looked at the stars, I would read ''Madeline'' aloud on the porch before Bolivia went to bed to the sounds of crickets and frogs. Though it was late May, and almost the close of the nine-month rainy season, heavy showers fell most days. Toward the end of our stay, the rain loosened landslides that closed the only two roads out of La Florida, leaving us stranded. This had never happened during previous visits.

Mr. Zorrilla had recently run a phone line to his solar-powered computer. But the rain knocked the service out. I'd never felt so isolated, nor so peaceful. I plopped into a hammock while Bolivia picked grass to feed chickens.

Friends say they'd be afraid to be so far from doctors -- the nearest good hospital is five hours away and there's no such thing as MediVac. If you fell and broke your back while trying to locate the outhouse in the dark, you would have to be carried on horseback to the ancient Land Rover that Mr. Zorrilla keeps near the road.

Reasonable or not, I have chosen not to dwell on the potential for disaster, just as we don't obsess over the infectious deer ticks at our summer home on Shelter Island, or the deadly mosquitoes buzzing around Manhattan. That's not to suggest we aren't prudent, especially when it comes to our kids (future visits will include our son, Beckett, who was born three weeks ago). We carry medicine and reassure ourselves that Mr. Zorrilla and Ms. Statz have raised two healthy boys, 9 and 11, by relying on good sense and their collection of antibiotics and medical guidebooks.

Still, this easy-going philosophy was severely tested the day the roads finally opened and I hired a truck to take me and Bolivia up the mountains toward the 21st century and home. At about 10,000 feet, a fresh mudslide blocked the road. I chose to carry Bolivia across the 70-yard-wide slide to a bus rather than spend the night in the truck with no food or water. About 20 yards in, I sank to my thighs in the mud.

To move, I had to set Bolivia on top of the mud in front of me, and then struggle to free my legs enough to step toward her. Around me, people were stuck and yelling for help.

To the left, a cliff dropped sharply away from where the road had been. I heard water trickling and realized the slide was unstable. A young woman screamed: ''It's happening again! It's coming!''

Adrenaline made me charge to solid ground, Bolivia crying in my arms. We boarded the bus, and soon we were headed to a dry hotel. I was so frightened that I doubted I would ever take my children there again.

But my terror has faded with the passing days, and Bolivia has shown no signs of distress. This week, she asked hopefully when we would return to the house in the forest so she could swing in the hammocks.

A month ago, I would have replied, ''We'll see.'' But this time we told her we might travel there for an old-fashioned Christmas. I can't decide whether our vacation home is the source of my tranquillity or an emblem of my insanity. Perhaps it's both.