Hard-Work, Humanity and El Último Hielero

The morning after returning home from my six-week study abroad program in Ecuador, I woke up, walked downstairs and poured myself a glass of water with ice. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until I sat down and became aware of the high-pitched clinking of the ice against the glass. I put down the glass and stared at the half-circles of ice as they bobbed on the surface, thinking about what they meant and where they came from.

During my six weeks in Ecuador this summer, I took classes at a university in Quito and traveled around the country with roughly 30 other Georgetown students. I met a lot of really interesting people and got a glimpse into worlds and lifestyles that are decisively different from my own. Through it all, I was stunned by the natural beauty of the country, which spans from the Pacific coast across the Andes Mountains to the Amazon rainforest in the east. During one of my favorite experiences of the trip, our tour guide Rodrigo led us in our climb of Chimborazo, a dormant volcano and the highest point in Ecuador, some 20,000 feet above sea level. We climbed about two- thirds of the way up the mountain, trudging at a snail’s pace and stopping every 20 feet to catch our breath in the oxygen-thin air, while Rodrigo chuckled softly behind us.

A few days later, Rodrigo welcomed us to his home, a simple ranch in the foothills of the Andes on which he raises alpacas and guinea pigs. After giving a tour of his property, Rodrigo brought us inside and showed us a documentary that he helped produce entitled “El último hielero” (The Last Ice Merchant). The film depicts the everyday work of a short, elderly indigenous man named Baltazar who harvests ice from the peak of Chimborazo and sells it in the town below. This is how ice has been collected for generations in the surrounding indigenous communities. The natural Chimborazo ice is said to be the best and sweetest of all ice. Two or three times a week, Baltazar leads a donkey up the mountain, hacks off giant blocks of ice with an ice pick and uses the donkey to haul them back down the mountain. His family members and members of the community who are interviewed in the film lament their changing way of life and that professions like the hielero are dying out. They admit that it is much cheaper to just buy factory-made ice and many have sought out alternative jobs, as the hard work has very little value today. Baltazar is the only one left in his family community who still harvests ice from Chimborazo.

Watching this film and observing the lifestyle of the campañeros of Ecuador made me aware of how much I take for granted in my everyday life. Over the course of our trip, we visited various small shops and factories and witnessed how different products were made. In today’s society, speed and quantity are valued above everything and mass production is the norm. But in each of the old-fashioned procedures we saw in Ecuador, the labor, care and skill of the craftsman is evident in the quality of the product. Making a textile involves the laborious process of fashioning thread from plant fibers, dyeing the thread with naturally extracted colors and weaving textiles one thread at a time. Making a Panama hat requires harvesting tortuga straw, painstakingly splitting the fronds by thumbnail and weaving the fronds together, followed by a long process of treating and pressing the hat before it becomes the finished product. By witnessing these processes, I came to the realization that I had never made something with my hands that required such skill and patience. I imagined the pride and satisfaction I would feel upon completing such a project. It occurred to me that the process by which we make something is just as important as the product itself. I comprehended that something made with painstaking care and patience is not only of a higher quality, but also possesses more intrinsic value on a human scale.

The experience as a whole has prompted me to rethink how I value things in my life. I feel I understand better now the reasons why people value hand-made clothes or locally grown produce. With my senses more acute to materialism, I will try to be more conscious of the materials I buy. The old-fashioned processes by which things are made and acquired can help to preserve our culture and preserve the humanity inherent in the product, whether it be a woven tapestry, a Panama hat or a block of ice.


Daniel Sheehan is a junior in the College.

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