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Saturday, October 14, 2023

Walking in the Steps of our Grandfather in Ecuador

We just returned from an adventure-filled trip to Ecuador and Panama -- two destinations not likely to be high on any list of top places to visit in the world. But these countries hold special prominence for the Kingsbury family, so with my brother Tony, sister Kathy and her husband Tom, Don and I planned this adventure together to trace my paternal grandfather's steps of 100 years ago.
In 1904, our granddad, Augustus Kingsbury, was hired as a civil engineer to work on the Panama Canal project. We know little about his job and how he spent his time on the project, but we do know that he stayed in Panama until 1923, working there long after the canal was open and functioning. And we know, from his own words, that he spent a lot of time exploring the region:
It has been my lot in my 20 and more years’ experience in Latin America to traverse and know great stretches of almost uninhabited and unexplored territory. I have taken scientific expeditions into the vastness of the Central American jungles. I have participated in hunting parties throughout Panama and other districts. I have traveled up and down Central and South America and I have learned a great deal about jungle life and at times, I like to get as far from civilization as possible
In 1923 Granddad was approached by two gentleman, H. B. Dinwiddie and Rev. George Simmonds working for the Christian Missionary Alliance and the Pioneer Missionary Society, to serve as outfitter and guide for an expedition down the Amazon for the purpose of locating and classifying indigenous people.
Left to right: Kingsbury, Simmonds, Dinwiddie

The expedition took four months, starting in Ecuador and ending, miraculously, in Brooklyn, New York, 8500+ miles later. According to Granddad's records from the trip down the Amazon and its tributaries [w]e traveled approximately 400 miles by train, 90 miles on mule back, 600 miles afoot, 1,000 miles in canoes, 500 miles on a wood burning launch, 200 miles by raft and 2,200 miles by river steamer. The length and breadth of this expedition is something that few would attempt today; let alone one hundred years ago without modern technology like motor boats, GPS locating devices, and dehydrated foods.

The expedition began for Granddad in Panama where he took a ship accompanied by two women, his aunt, Miss Fannie Kingsbury, and a school teacher friend of hers. 

We left Cristobal, the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, August 25, and arrived at Buenaventura (Ecuador) two days later. Buenaventura is a typical west coast town, dirty and squalid, without pavements or sewers or buildings of consequence. Our stay there was short and we were glad to leave. We arrived at the mouth of the river Guayas three days after leaving Buenaventura and after several hours journey up the river arrived at Guayaquil. It is the largest city in Ecuador and one of the greatest sea ports of the west coast. 

One cannot help wonder if Granddad was in awe of the Panama Canal, which he helped build, as he traversed from Atlantic to Pacific at the beginning of his journey. From Guayaquil, the small group boarded the amazing and famous G&Q railroad to travel the 300 miles to Quito.
Leaving Guayaquil we crossed the river to Duran, the terminus of the Guayaquil and Quito railroad, on the first lap of our journey into the Andes. The Guayaquil and Quito (G&Q) railroad is one of the most remarkable railways in the world. It runs directly into the heart of the Andes Mountains and one of the most mountainous districts in South America. It crosses several high ranges, at one place at the height of more than 12,200 feet. The track clings for miles along the walls of deep canyons or along the sides of great precipices. It crosses roaring mountain torrents over high bridges, it winds its tortuous way back and forth up the mountain sides.  

Granddad, a civil engineer, marveled for several paragraphs about the wonders of the G&Q Railroad, which he made known was built by Americans. He said, It stands today and always will stand as one of the most remarkable feats of railway engineering in the world, a monument to the genius of the American railway engineer. Unfortunately, Granddad's prediction for the future proved too optimistic. This greatest of achievements has fallen into disrepair and was closed down by the Ecuadorian government in 2020 so we were not able to experience a ride on the G&Q first hand. 

When the train pulled into Quito, Granddad Kingsbury was met by Dinwiddie and Simmonds. His journal includes no further comments about his aunt and her friend so we have no idea what adventure those two embarked on themselves. Almost immediately, Granddad was thrown into the business of outfitting the expedition and preparing for its departure.

We stayed in Quito for a week and here the serious work of our journey began. Dinwiddie had brought from New York, 12 cases of preserved foods, camera supplies, surgical instruments and other articles. I had apparatus for preserving skins and museum specimens, surgical instruments and a vermin proof tent and cots. We had an arrangement of nested utensils and a miscellaneous assortment of other articles. We bought trade goods and blankets and such other things as we needed.

And their expedition was on the move! We left Quito for Ambato, the real start of the expedition, on September 12 and retraced our steps about 100 miles over the Guayaquil and Quito railroad. We had made arrangements for a pack train to take us over the first 90 miles of our long trip eastward to Mera, as far as we could go by mule.

Granddad on the right with his hand on a mule.

From Ambato the mule team headed southeast to Baños. Along the way the team encountered a suspension bridge where they had to blindfold the mules before they would walk across it. Baños, was a small community of 2500 people at the time and home to natural thermal hot springs. Next stop was Mera, a small, squalid community of 12 or 13 huts, where it rains every day of the year, with the exception of ten. It was situated on a bluff overlooking a river. Travel would be by boat or canoe for the rest of the journey. The next day two teams were sent out to explore two rivers, the Napo and the Puya. Puya [the community] is situated on the river of that name at the edge of one of the wildest and least known territories in the world, the Ecuadorian Oriente. Ultimately we think the Puya River was selected (now Puyo), but the documents contain some confusing comments so we can't be certain which river they were on. From this tributary, the trip down the Amazon had begun. 

After considerable difficulty we rented three dugout canoes, about 20 feet in length and manned by three men each. They were large enough to carry our gear without difficulty. Imagine going down the Amazon in such a low slung canoe. Granddad mentioned that the boat spilled over several times. (We all laughed at his use of the word "rented" when referring to the canoes, as if they planned to return them!)

From this point forward the story doesn't pay as much attention to place names (if any were known then) but focuses on the indigenous people and the flora and fauna encountered along the way. Granddad witnessed hunters using curare darts to fell a tapir, took a photo of shrunken heads, and worried about alligators and piranhas. At one point on the trip he noted the Amazon must have been over ten to fifteen miles wide. Nothing was written in his account about the missionary aspect of the trip, but we assume Dinwiddie and Simmonds collected information for potential future mission efforts. Eventually the men boarded a freighter on Nov. 25th perhaps as far as one thousand miles up the Amazon River and were transported back to Brooklyn, New York, getting home on Dec. 24, 1923.

Augustus Kingsbury was originally from Connecticut. After returning home he spent some time on a speaking tour about his South American adventures in public settings such as libraries and churches. On a later train trip heading west, he met the woman who would become my grandmother and they moved to Oregon. My dad was the third of six children born to Augustus and Anna Kingsbury. While working on the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in 1936, Granddad Kingsbury died from injuries sustained in a workplace accident. My father was only seven years old at the time. Because my dad and all his siblings were so young when their father died, none of them knew much about the Amazon expedition until much later in life when Aunt Fannie, Dad's oldest sister named for Augustus' favorite aunt, connected with Rev. Simmonds who was able to fill in many of the holes in the story. And a copy of the document "EXPLORATION IN THE EQUADORIAN ORIENTE AND UPPER AMAZON, As told by Augustus H. Kingsbury and written by Max Schafer" was secured and passed around the family to read and treasure. All the quotes in this post come from this article.

As the 100-year anniversary of the expedition approached, my brother Tony and his son Andrew talked about making a trip to Ecuador to try to retrace some of our grandfather's steps. Tony made it clear that anyone in the family was welcome to join them. I didn't commit to the project until March as did my sister Kathy. Our youngest sister, Grace, is a teacher so she couldn't take time away from work for the trip. Our cousin Robin was interested in joining us, but her mother Betty (Dad's only living sibling) is quite aged and the timing was not right to leave her. In the end, Andrew also couldn't make the trip due to work. That left three 'Kingsbury kids' (Tony, Kathy, and me, Anne) and two of our spouses (Tom and Don) ready to make the trip. Our goal was to walk where Granddad walked, to see what he may have seen, to try to experience a little of what he encountered along the way. We knew we wanted to see the Panama Canal up close and to visit the Ecuadorian cities of Quito, Baños, Mera, and Puya, since they were all mentioned in the document. We hoped to take a boat ride on a tributary of the Amazon. We also hoped to ride on the amazing G&Q railroad, which we didn't know was no longer running when we began making our plans. Kathy, who is a master trip planner, arranged tours that would allow us to see a lot of the country and have a variety of experiences in both Ecuador and Panama. We chose a late September start date to coincide with the dates of the original expedition.

Photo credit: T. Kingsbury

We began our version of the adventure in Quito, Ecuador. Granddad mentioned in his notes that Quito is a city in a great valley, scooped saucer-like out of the mountains that surrounded it. What he didn't mention was that it is situated at an elevation of over 9000 feet. We all live at relatively low elevations (400-1500 feet) so the elevation of Quito was quite a shock to our systems. As we climbed the hill to 'The Basilica of the National Vow' not far from our hotel, I felt like I was climbing a mountain not just walking up a hill, panting and wheezing as I stopped to rest half way up. The basilica was built in 1883 so we are sure our grandfather saw it, even if he didn't visit, since this church holds a prominent spot in the city.

Photo credit: D. Bennett

As we explored Quito on September 26th we stumbled upon an elaborate and somber ceremony celebrating Ecuadorian Flag Day. Ecuador was part of Gran Columbia (The Republic of Columbia) after gaining independence from Spain in 1820, separating in 1830 and settling on its current flag on September 26, 1860. Granddad may not have experienced a grand ceremony like we did for Flag Day, but he certainly saw the same Ecuadorian flag we saw.

Photo credit: T. Buhler

Our first Ecuadorian tour was to the Mindo Cloud Forest. While there we fed hummingbirds, hiked to a beautiful waterfall, visited a butterfly farm, and experienced the process of artisan chocolate making from cocoa nuts on the tree to the finished bars on the shelf. It was a wonderful and exhausting day.

Photo credit: T. Kingsbury

The second day of touring involved a trip to the Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi is one of the highest mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes. It is also an active volcano. For this reason, even if we were physically capable, we were not allowed to climb to the rim, only to the base camp. Before we drove to the parking area on the mountain (volcano) we stopped at a shop and drank a cup of coca tea to give us energy for the climb. Yes, that coca! We drank coca tea (a drink new to us), while the men on Granddad's expedition consumed an odd drink made from fermented manioc called chicha. We drank much of the chicha, especially on the march and we found it to be a very refreshing food. The elevation at the parking lot for Cotopaxi was 15,000 feet and the base camp was above 16,500 feet. No amount of coca tea was going to help Kathy and I up the mountain at that elevation. We made it to the edge of the parking lot before returning to the van. Tony, Don, and Tom made the attempt, but only Tom got all the way to the base camp. Later that day we saw some disused train tracks, which made us think of the G&Q railroad. That's when we learned the line was no longer running. Who knows if the tracks we saw were for that particular route or not, but we claimed them as if they were.

Tony and I posing with a real alpaca at Quilatoa.

Don and Tom making their way up Quilatoa on mules.

The next day we visited Quilatoa Lake, a natural lake created by a volcanic eruption ages ago. The hike from the rim down into the caldera was steep, but our guide assured us that mules would bring us back up. This time all three Kingsburys opted out but Don and Tom were gung-ho for the adventure. They were pretty happy when the mules came along so they didn't have to climb out of the caldera themselves. I made the connection earlier about Granddad's experience with mules. Earlier in the day we visited the home of an indigenous family and learned a bit about their lifestyle. We ended the day in Baños, even spending time in the thermal baths that Granddad mentioned. It was a surreal experience joining a multitude of Ecuadorians in a series of pools filled with hot, hotter, or hottest water. It seemed like we were the only 'foreigners' there.

We began the next day with the guys all trying an Ecuadorian delicacy: roasted guinea pig. After our morning visit to the popular market in Baños, we were back on the road heading toward Amazonia. We stopped for an opportunity to see a waterfall up close by traveling on a rickety cable car across the river valley. It reminded me of how Granddad put blindfolds on the mules when they encountered a rickety bridge. We all clung to whatever we could grab hold of and closed our eyes to keep out the fear of falling. After we were back on terra firma, we posed for a photo overlooking the river valley, wondering if the men stood on the exact same spot 100 years earlier as they contemplated which river was best to begin their navigation toward the mighty Amazon. All of us reflected later how meaningful this moment was to us.

Animals of the Amazonia region which may have been seen by members of the expedition. We saw them at the Bioparque Yana-Cocha.

Our host, Fabio, with the chocolate sauce we made. Ready to eat with fresh fruit nicely arranged. Photo credit: D. Bennett

Our special dinner after we arrived at the Sinchi Warmi eco lodge in Amazonia.
Special treats: yucca fries and plantain chips.

After the animal park our guide drove us to an eco lodge in the jungle of the Amazonia region. We now were down to practically sea level. After a night spent in huts under mosquito nets listening to monkeys in the background, we spent the next day learning about the region. We took an early morning bird watching tour on an Amazonian lagoon, made our own chocolate sauce from scratch (and ate it), and enjoyed watching indigenous children at play. I know we were all disappointed we never got on a boat on a river which was a tributary of the Amazon, but it was terribly nice of our tour guide to work in a canoe trip around the lagoon.
On the lagoon bird-watching trip. Without binoculars, almost all the birds we saw looked small and black, even the flock of parakeets that flew overhead. We also saw glimpses of woolly and spider monkeys. Photo credit: D. Bennett

After we left Amazonia we had a long trip back to Quito, with several high mountain passes in our way. The highest of those passes had an elevation of over 12,000 feet. All of us wearing Fitbits got lots of steps we never took that day. I call them jiggle steps. I got more than 10,000 jiggle steps just riding in the van as our driver did his best to avoid potholes and washed out spots in the road. Tony and I both started feeling pretty cruddy during the trip, thinking it was the curvy road and sudden elevation change. Later we found out it was something else -- COVID. But we didn't figure that out until two days later. By then we were in Panama on the second leg of the adventure.

Panama City plaza.

Our flight to Panama City was short. We arrived mid-morning and fortunately were able to check into our hotel early. After a quick lunch of a Cubano sandwich at a cafe next door and a short rest, we started our afternoon tour of the city. Our guide took us to see the 'old quarter' in the historic district of Panama City which is a UNESCO Heritage and Cultural Site. The architecture dates back to the 1600s which features a colorful plaza and buildings in the Spanish style.

We went to the Milaflores Locks next. These are the Panama Canal locks closest to Panama City and to the Pacific Ocean. They are also the locks that Granddad mentioned in his journals. After watching an IMAX movie about the history and construction of the canal, we went outside and watched several huge ships make their way through the locks. We could have stood there longer but the light was waning and the visitor center was preparing to close. It was all so interesting and moving, thinking that our grandfather had something to do with their construction.

The F & F Building in Panama City. Photo credit: A. Bennett

Hotel roof top pool. Photo credit: D. Bennett

By the time we got back to our hotel, it was clear most of us didn't feel quite right. Tony and I had sore throats, Don had trouble breathing in Quito the night before, Tom didn't have his normal level of energy. After getting back to our room we took COVID tests. Sure enough, both Don and I were positive. We called the others. Tony and Tom also tested positive. Only Kathy remained negative. The next day she went on our scheduled tour alone. Tom rested in his room while Tony, Don, and I took a short walk around the new part of town, marveling at the building in the shape of a screw and later spent time in the roof top swimming pool. We also made a plan for the next day, the last day of our big adventure. We decided we would rent a car and take ourselves on a tour to see the canal without putting someone at risk of getting the virus from us.

Our captain's name was Fernando. Photo credit: D. Bennett

A view from our little boat of the tankers we got near. On the Gatun Lake/Chagres River, part of the lock, river/lake, lock system of the canal. Photo credit: T. Buhler/A. Bennett

Tony rented a car and we drove a dock at Gamboa where we could hire a boat (and captain) to take us out into the Panama Canal. There we were, safely in a small boat not too far from some rather huge ships. We saw monkeys and crocodiles, too. It was easily one of the most fun and spontaneous things we did on our whole trip. That evening we had a yummy dinner at a Panamanian restaurant to conclude our adventure.

This trip to Ecuador and Panama was a 'bucket list' experience because it allowed us to connect with a grandfather we never knew aside from this family story of his time building the canal and adventures in Ecuador and the Amazon. We know our journey was much easier with 21st century conveniences -- air travel, air conditioned vans, mobile phones, and hotels with WiFi -- but the varied landscapes of Ecuador and the marvel of the Panama Canal were no less impressive. We also had wonderful hosts and tour guides at every stop who gifted us with generous hospitality and warmth of spirit, reminding us that God's love and care is ever present in people all over the world.  

-Anne and Don Bennett

Post script:
  • To my siblings: Tony, thanks for dreaming up this adventure. Kathy, thanks for doing most of the leg work in planning our trip. Grace, every day of the trip we missed you and wished you were with us. At one point we thought we should make a photo cut out of your face so you could be a part of every group picture. 
  • To my cousins: We hope that our trip serves as a catalyst for you to make a similar one in the future. Though none of us knew or even met Granddad it was such a joy to feel connected to him in this way. If you are interested in planning such a trip we are willing to share our travel template and any wisdom/advice to make your planning easier. Start with the document of Granddad's trip, If you don't have, or can't find a copy of it, email/call/Facebook message one of us and we'll send it to you. Next, contact Robin who has done extensive research on Augustus Kingsbury through Ancestry.com. She shared a ton of info with Kathy on a recent visit. Share this post with your children. Help them connect to their past. And help us spread the word to cousins we've lost touch with: Dick, Kevin, Phil, Shelley, Jill, Wendy, Tim, and Richard and Marvin's children/grandchildren. Robin, share this post with your mom, Aunt Betty. She is the only living person who knew Augustus Kingsbury in the flesh. I hope she finds a moment of joy in the remembrances.
  • To our children and nieces/nephews: Why not plan a cousin trip together to Ecuador and Panama? Andrew was part of the original dreaming about the trip, Carly and Bobby/Kaylyn are excellent trip planners. Make it an event. Learn more about your heritage. There were many activities that we avoided due to our age and stage. Taking teenage kids on this trip would be a blast.
  • To Dad, may you rest in peace: Kathy and I both brought you with us to Ecuador and Panama. She wore her blue "Dad" necklace and I wore the white butterfly earrings. We know you would have loved the adventure and we thought about you every day, every step we took to learn more about your father. We felt your spirit with us.

A few more photo collages:
In the Amazon region outside our huts, on the bird-watching/lagoon trip, making chocolate, and happy children.

Images taken in a boat on Lake Gatun/ Panama Canal.

Memorable moments: on the rickety cable car going over a river in the rain; wearing headgear we found with the Mera town name sculpture; the guys flashing 'chulla vida' sign under a waterfall; a bird that wouldn't leave Tony alone; eating roasted guinea pig; a parrot who wouldn't stop screaming "Hola!"; and the moon over the Amazon jungle.

More memorable moments: With an indigenous family; our guide, Irene, giving us a lesson about Ecuadorian fruit; Don and Tom made it to the bottom of the caldera; Kathy and Anne 💖; The Panama sign. We made our poor tour guide go through a lot of trouble to get to this sign for the photo. By the time we got to it, it was dark outside!

We saw a sloth in the wild in Panama! We also figured out that there is a baby sloth attached to the mama. It was an event of great excitement in us and we spent hours debating the baby/no baby aspect since the photos were all so bad!!!


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