I don’t tend to think much about where my food comes from. A hot dog is a hot dog, and that is all. (Stop with the talk of pig intestines and cow lips in a blender.)
If you asked me where to find chocolate, for instance, I’d say, “Second aisle. Grab me a Kit Kat, please.”
So, when I heard that I was going with my big sister and mom on a ME to WE Trip to the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, I never once thought, “Great, I finally get to see where chocolate originates.” I didn’t know.
Nevertheless, there we were, stepping off a bus that had taken us over the Andes mountains and jumping into a motorized canoe that would take us up the Napo River toward ME to WE’s Minga Lodge. From motion sickness to sea sickness in seven short hours.
The next seven days in the Amazon would prove just as disorienting, but also mind-expanding, as I experienced many new things. I blew a dart (minus poison) through a hollowed-out pole, saw a tarantula, hunted unsuccessfully for a boa constrictor, met a real-life shaman (he blew tobacco smoke on me, cleansing my spirit), played Foosball with my Kichwa guides and made my own chocolate bar with real cacao that was plucked from a tree. Who knew?
I also witnessed my mother doing some pretty strange things, like demonstrate face yoga—don’t ask, and don’t even try to picture it. Somehow, she’s even more embarrassing in South America. Most important, I got to spend uninterrupted time with my sister, Cleo, because in the jungle there are no bedroom doors she can slam in my face.
Our journey begins. Fair warning: There will be talk about chocolate and frog licking.
The time I carried my sister
We arrived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and headed to the exact equator, marked with a line of bricks at a tourist attraction, where people can’t walk in a straight line with their eyes closed. (Hey, readers in the Northern Hemisphere, don’t try this at home.) We were told this is due to forces pulling you toward each hemisphere. My sister was her usual grumpy self, just the way I remember her from before she left home in Grade 11 to train with Canada’s national gymnastics team and then attend the University of Toronto, where she now studies engineering. I’m in Grade 11 in Ottawa.
I was hoping this trip would be a chance to chum it up, but so far, she was scowling and wearing noise-cancelling ear buds to block everything out, including me. She did become animated when there was a chance for Instagram perfection, or an opportunity to do a handstand.
You better believe me when I say she took every chance to catapult through a frame. And the equator was the perfect backdrop. See photo for evidence.
After all the aerobics, Cleo eventually sprained her ankle falling off a single step at Minga Lodge. For a couple of days, I carried her around on my back, or in my arms, like she was my child. #Sisterlove.
Later, however, she volunteered to show her “talent” to win a team competition during a game day. I watched as she did about 20 cartwheels and walkovers in a row for an audience, her ankle wrapped and swollen. You can imagine how I felt, having carried her around for the past several days, including to the competition. But I digress.
¿Es seguro lamer a esa rana? Can I lick that frog?
On our first evening at Minga Lodge, we went on a nighttime walk looking for creatures. Hunting for the bugs we would avoid at home became a vacation-worthy activity. The jungle was damp, steamy and smelled like something rotting. Strange calls and the sounds of scurrying creatures surrounded us. I was counting on hearing my sister scream—she hates spiders. But, instead, it was my mother who embarrassed me.
When our jungle guide, Carlos, pointed out the first luminescent frog (there were several), Mom was filled with questions about frog licking. Apparently, she’d watched Homer Simpson lick toads and go on bizarre trips and needed to know more. Carlos explained that instead, frog licking could kill you. Frogs don’t poop, but instead expel toxins through their skin. These are the same toxins used to poison blow dart guns.
Google says that of the 170 poison-dart frogs, Ecuador is home to 55 unique species. My mom asked how to say, “Can I lick that frog,” in Spanish and Kichwa. I think the jungle guides put her on a watch list after that.
We spent three building sessions in the village of Kanambu, a canoe and bus ride away from Minga Lodge. We were helping build a water filtration project that will give 400 people in that community access to clean water. The project will take about three months to complete, with dozens of volunteers like us, plus the muscle of community members, who will show up when a minga is called.
In the Kichwa language, minga means the coming together to work for the greater good. In WE lore it’s apparently mythical, with mingas being called routinely in Toronto to move boxes or do mass mailings, so it was interesting to see it’s a real thing.
WE has worked in Ecuador since the late 1990s, and in this region for four years, and has built several schools, another water filtration project nearby, helped female artisans find work making jewellery and formed a girls’ empowerment club, among other things.
The taste of chocolate
To get our mouths watering, one of our hosts, Ryan Kern (the ME to WE Ecuador Program Manager), served up a tasting menu of fine chocolates from around the world. He explained that the finest chocolate actually originated in Ecuador, from the fino de aroma bean. When tasting chocolate, Ryan encouraged us to smell it, rub it between our fingers and listen to the sound quality of the “snap” when we broke off a piece to taste. The more snap, the darker the chocolate. Instead of just gobbling it down, we put squares from different locales in our mouths and let it melt.
It turns out that ME to WE’s milk chocolate was the best of the batch, and that’s not just my opinion. Two years in a row it’s won gold in the Ecuador chocolate awards.
All of this sampling was a precursor for our visit the next day to WE’s Agriculture Learning Centre, across the river, where local farmers come to learn how to improve the cultivation of cacao so they can increase their yield, find a market and then earn more money to support their families. The centre had just opened, and we were the first group to make chocolate there.
Cacao is super weird looking
After seeing a cacao pod at the WE Agriculture Learning Centre I was shocked. I don’t know how to explain where I thought chocolate came from before, but I definitely did not know that it came from these weird-looking yellow pods that hang off trees.
I got to touch these pods and eat the fruit around the beans. We also learned how hard farmers have to work to turn these pods into the chocolate we enjoy back home.
Learning to make chocolate
My sister and I finally got the chance to make our own chocolate.
We sorted through the beans, ground them and got to make our customized chocolate bars.
I used the ME to WE chocolate mold to my advantage and made four different squares. For one, I mixed chocolate with coconut; in another, I stirred in rainbow sprinkles; I embedded cookie crumbles in the third; and the last one had cinnamon.
To add sweetness, I sprinkled sugar all over the top—until I realized that it was salt, and it was too late to start all over. I like to think I invented salted-cookie-crumble chocolate.
My sister poured spoonfuls of coconut and sprinkles all over her squares and mixed it in with a spoon, while licking the mixture off in between stirs. Did I mention she is also addicted to candy?
I remember looking at her, thinking how kinda weird and funny she is, and was so glad we were on this trip together.
While decorating our chocolate masterpieces, it occurred to my sister and I that if we did not make a square for our mom, who was on a different field trip that day and who loves chocolate more than anyone you will ever meet, she would be jealous and maybe steal ours. We quickly found an empty square in the ME to WE mold and grabbed coconut, which she also loves. We dumped spoonfuls of coconut shreds in her chocolate and stirred and stirred until it was mom-worthy. We looked at each other with a sigh of relief. Incident avoided.
Near the end of our trip, we caught word that our chocolates would be arriving at dinner. I was nervous to see whether or not my salt-infused chocolate would be edible.
We had to share our highlight of the day—a trip ritual—in exchange for our personalized envelopes of chocolate. My highlight was getting a chance to meet so many interesting people, like Sandra Morocho, who helps manage programs in the Amazon and knows everything about the area’s people, traditions and stories. She made me think about my place in the world and how important it is to be connected to nature, which surrounds you in the Amazon.
Highlight shared, chocolate envelope handed over, I snapped a photo of fancy chocolate wrapping before tasting. It was actually really good.
Our mom was just happy that we’d thought of her.
Throughout our journey to Ecuador, we had lots of laughs, some cat fights and some juicy gossip to share about our separate lives back home. I am so glad I shared this journey with my mom and sister.
With files, photos and videos from Shelley (mom), Cleo (sister) and others on the ME to WE Trip.