New on Sidetracked:

Handmade Adventures

Seeking a Tactile Connection with Adventure and Nature
Words & Photos: Marcela Restrepo and Michael Dammer

Our hands. The extended version of our creative mind. The branches stemming from our core are able to carry, create, and produce. There is something instinctive, something ancestral, in converting a piece of raw material into a utilitarian craft that tells a story and then becomes a tool.

Our hand-built home nestled in the Ecuadorian Andes is filled with various crafts ranging from leather to wood, to clay and fabric – they shape the tapestry of our lives. Amid these objects is a long wooden spoon carved from fine Aliso wood that still murmurs the tale that gave birth to this story.

Maybe it was by some uncanny accumulation of fortunate circumstances that our paths crossed. Michael was born on a farm in the outskirts of Quito: a wild child raised amongst Andean summits, a herd of brown Swiss cows, beaten-down bikes, and toys carved from chaparro bush. With his brothers and other local children, they were the offspring of adventure. This intertwined upbringing of the rural world with a sense of self-reliance and playful freedom was the cornerstone to the more than four decades of expedition life, explorations, and an intuitive bridge with nature.

Marcela was raised in a different jungle. A free-spirited child, she was born in the land of Colombia’s Macondo, the mythical village featured in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. In this land of magical realism the angst of a 60-year internal war has displaced and scarred millions. Having had to abandon Medellín at eight years old, Marcela and her family arrived in Ecuador – which felt like a safe haven with a rich traditional culture, surrounded by friendly access to mountains and rivers. This land became the base for a life in pursuit of self-sufficiency and outdoor adventures.

For both of us, growing up in South America offered a rich awakening into the diversity of its landscape and culture. Surrounded by a banquet of craftsmanship, much of this culture is still connected to the primal force of making stuff – very different to buying stuff. This approach brings a change in paradigm. Connecting to the things we use enhances their value. Understanding the energy needed for a certain material to exist, as well as the time and space required to craft it, brings us a step closer to our roots.

It was back in 2005 when we first met around a fire. Michael was about to embark on a three-week expedition with an eclectic group of local indigenous and international students. The goal was to connect the Andean highlands to the Pacific coast through ancestral trails. Call it an instinct or a sprout of the moment, but it was during those first five minutes of conversation that a question from Michael laid the first stepping stone: ‘I’m about to leave on a big expedition… you want to come?’ With a surprisingly impulsive ‘Sure’ from Marcela, the first rendezvous was established. Three days of preparations followed. We dehydrated pounds of food, processed cheese, granola, and traditional zero-waste snacks, packed some heavy rucksacks, and embarked on a three-week self-sustained expedition from the Andes to the coast of Ecuador. We thought it was a splendid first date.

This foundation set us off on a journey of constant learning in search of a simpler and more intentional life. Connecting to the immensity of nature through handmade adventures has been the backbone of years of expeditions together. It gives us strength to witness a student crafting his own knife before heading to the mountains, or to see our children start to grapple with the consequences of a wounded finger while carelessly whittling a stick around the fire. Whether it is for a personal expedition, a family adventure, or taking a group of students into the wilderness, we have discovered that the ritual of preparation – especially in the form of handwork – is as valuable as time spent out in the field.

It must have been around day 10 of our initial expedition. We walked relentlessly for more than 10 hours, and had been without water for most of the day. In the last two days we had descended over 1,000m along an ancient trail, locally known as a Culunco – a pre-Incan commerce trail used centuries ago to transport goods between regions. The group was getting tired. Motivation had begun to wane, and we were worried about our water situation. It was around 8.00pm when finally the thick cloud-forest jungle opened up. In a tiny clearing stood a small hut. Who would dare to live on this hostile and remote ridge?

Connecting to the things we use enhances their value. Understanding the energy needed for a certain material to exist, as well as the time and space required to craft it, brings us a step closer to our roots.

Initially the place looked abandoned, but as we got closer we began to see signs of life. A knock on the door confirmed that we were not alone. ‘Come in!’ a voice called from inside. An elderly man with a black wool hat (which had a big hole right on top of it) opened the door. Shrunken by the years – and, probably, by the weight of his stories – the man introduced himself as Don Jose Rafael Leon Mesa. He was clearly fascinated by our presence. When we politely asked for directions to a source of water and permission to pitch our tents in his little clearing, he happily agreed to give us shelter, but explained with a shrug that water was only available an hour down the ridge at this time of year. He kindly offered to share with us a few gallons he had fetched earlier in the day. Relieved, and overwhelmed by his hospitality and warmth, we cooked by the fire and spent the rest of the night carving spoons out of Aliso wood that he insisted we use for that purpose.

Many spoons and many years later, we often come across artefacts that narrate such tales. And now, with two growing and hungry boys, we find ourselves halfway through a six-day adventure, using this little token to stir soup made from dehydrated goodies from the farm. Our children – Koru almost eight, Antu four years old – often ask us to repeat these chronicles.

Looking around our house as Marcela reads another chapter of Roald Dahl’s Matilda by the fire, you can spot both boys using old modified sweater sleeves as hats. There are bikes fitted with handmade frame bags. And the old Aliso spoon is accompanied by several colleagues of different sizes and shapes.

The ongoing affair of humans and wilderness has always been there. From hunter gatherers to scientists and explorers, going out into nature has always been part of our essence. Throughout the years we´ve seen how adventure has turned into another fast food. The commodities of our modern world are starting to take away some of the most precious gifts of outdoor activities – and these gifts are not only found in faraway lands, but also in the methodical pace of the preparations that precede any expedition. These stories are best told by simple tools that define the simplicity of handmade adventures. The gratitude towards small gestures, noble materials, and the sense of interconnectedness is a reminder of how little we really need and how much we can create with our own hands.

Marcela, Michael, Koru, and Antu ride bikes, explore high mountains, and make a living on a sustainable organic farm.