On the crowded little bus to Salinas, I was buttonholed by an excitable seventeen-year-old called Byron. He had never heard of the English Romantic poet, and he wasn’t too sure where Ireland was, but he was very proud of Salinas. I shared my fried chicken and he told me about his plans to go back there once he finished studying business administration in Guaranda. Already, he went back on weekends and worked as a guide. His mother worked in the village restaurant, and his father in the yarn co-operative, spinning thread from llama and alpaca.
In the early 1970s, an Italian Salesian priest called Fr. Antonio Polo was posted to the parish of Salinas. The village was ragged even by Ecuadorian standards, but Fr. Polo, it seems, was a gung-ho liberation theologian, interested in the material as well as the spiritual needs of his people. Several of his early projects failed, but then he got a successful cheese-making operation going with the help of a Swiss dairy expert. Salinas cheese, proclaiming ‘Swiss Technology’ on the labels, is now famous throughout Ecuador, and it’s not bad; imitation Port Salut and Havarti. Now campesinos for miles around bring their milk to the Salinas dairy, and the whey by-product is used for raising pigs. They’ve rigged special v-shaped wooden saddles for mules, donkeys, and even llamas, which carry two small churns apiece. As well as cheese, the dairy co-operative makes butter, condensed milk, and passable slabs of chocolate a notch above Hershey’s curdled horrors. They farm trout and make sausages. A reforestation project led to another by-product—boletus mushrooms—which they dry and sell nationally. Everything is marketed under the colorful label: ‘Salinerito: Proud to make quality products’. In yet another co-op, they make weavings and garments from the llama and alpaca wool that Byron’s Dad works on.
There’s a little tourist office now, though not many gringos pass through yet. My very comfortable hotel had mainly Ecuadorian guests, including a delegation of Peace Corps trainers scouting locations for the latest batch of volunteers. (I told them about my Peace Corps trainer friend’s horror stories. Once when she was posted in Mongolia they sent her a shipment of vegetarians for placement in a country that lives on mutton gristle and fermented mare’s milk. They agreed gravely that vegetarians were a problem.)
Fr. Polo is still the parish priest here, and the smaller villages in the parish are trying hard to be part of the success. In Chazo Juan, a one-mule town two thousand meters down the sierra, they make jam from tropical fruit and proclaim their mozzarella and provolone. There is a lot to be proud of in this hard-working, dignified community, where the greeting is ‘Buenos dias’ rather than the ‘¡Regáleme!’ (‘Give me a present!’) I’ve heard in similar-sized villages until now. Best of all, the town seems to be full of Byrons—dynamic young people who don’t want to be in Quito or Queens.
Salinas, oddly, looks exactly like Co. Tipperary. It rains constantly on sodden green hills, and people bundle up in shapeless fleeces and anoraks on their way to the creamery. Sleek little Friesians (Holsteins) ruminate on the slopes. I went there to start another camping trip, but for two days all I did was sample local offerings, stare out at the drizzle, and watch Saddam’s statue topple on CNN. Like Ireland, Salinas is beautiful, but damp and cold enough to snuff out all my drive. Unlike me, the locals are equipped with moral Gore-tex, and I’m glad.