This collection of images was made in Ecuador during the terrifying, confusing and somehow wonderful first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was traveling with my camper through Colombia in the weeks leading up to lockdown and crossed into Ecuador the day the government closed the country’s borders. I had heard rumors of a two-week mandated quarantine and planned on spending it in Quito, parked in my old friend Diego’s outdoor mechanic shop, where I’d spent months fixing a broken engine of a different vehicle from a trip years before.

I lived in Ecuador as a child and spent much of my 20s returning to visit friends and develop my photographic eye documenting the country’s natural and cultural diversity, which continues to be a source of inspiration in my photographic work. Crossing the border into Ecuador during such an uncertain time felt a little bit like coming home to a familiar and safe place.

Within hours of arriving at Diego’s shop, the Cabrera family, customers of his, kindly invited me to spend the next few days on their dairy farm in the surrounding mountains—a much more appealing living environment than the cold, grey, oily mechanic shop in the heart of the city.

It didn’t take long for the realization to set in that this quarantine would last much longer than two weeks. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, was becoming a hotspot for the virus. COVID was moving through the crowded, humid port city at a rate so rapid that bodies were left on the streets outside people’s homes. We watched this alongside ominous daily reports and graphs illustrating the virus’s breakneck spread across the country.

Ecuador, like so many countries across the globe, shut down. Most businesses weren’t allowed to open, it became illegal to drive unless the government granted you a special permit, and supermarkets were instantly emptied.

After a few weeks of no income and no way to pay rent, Diego, his wife Susi and three young children, Barbara (6), Rebeca (3) and Ramon (1) were forced out of their apartment in Quito. By keeping to back roads to avoid the curfew-enforcing police, they made their way up into the foothills of the Cotopaxi volcano, to a small plot of land they called “Achupalla,” belonging to Diego’s family, a few short kilometers from the Cabreras, where I had now spent nearly an entire month.

Shortly after Diego and Susi arrived, I moved onto their property and lived in my camper, parked next to their small, one-bedroom cottage. Their cabin was heated by a wood-burning stove and had barely enough room for two adults, let alone three children. But what the property lacked in amenities, it made up for in fresh air, open space, a few cows, llamas, and beehives.

I was a stranger to Diego and Susi’s two youngest children, Rebeca and Ramon, who weren’t yet born the last time I’d spent any time with the family. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the children to warm up to me, thanks to my camper, which to them was a strange and cool fort on wheels. It was a weird mobile treehouse they would run to first thing in the morning to steal Oreos from or run crying to, waking me up with stories of how their parents had done them wrong or how a sibling had stolen a precious toy.

We swam in the cold water of a small stream that cut through the property and drank fresh goat milk every morning. We traded use of our (spotty) Wi-Fi signal for our neighbor’s vegetables. We celebrated each other’s birthdays with homemade moonshine and home-baked cakes made with the few ingredients we could find at the hole-in-the-wall tienda down the road. We learned about milking goats and cows, raising livestock, and gardening.

Quito felt further away each day, despite the pandemic. We had found a slice of paradise in the foothills of Cotopaxi and we all knew it. I photographed our experience, and developed the images in my camper, roll by roll, as a means of passing the time, coping personally with the compounding worry for family and friends, and creating a record of this unique period of our lives. I had developed film out of my camper as I traveled the Americas for years, but this was different. Now the photographic process felt therapeutic, meditative, and kept me occupied in a way that I especially needed then.

I was in Ecuador for three months before international flights reopened and I was able to return to my hometown of Minneapolis, MN, where protests and riots were erupting in the wake of George Floyd’s recent murder. As I write this, my camper remains in Ecuador, nearly two years after crossing into the country. While it was possible to fly in and out of Ecuador, the government kept its land borders closed to its neighboring countries, making it impossible to retrieve my camper.

Diego, Susi and their children stayed up on the mountain property for only a few weeks after I left. Ecuadorian businesses were slowly allowed to reopen under strict regulation, and while the country remained paralyzed by driving restrictions and curfews, Diego and Susi’s economic situation meant their return to the city and to work was imminent.

Months later, with the support of National Geographic, I returned for a few weeks to continue documenting Diego and his family’s experience throughout the pandemic and their transition back to life in the city. The images I made during my return are a stark contrast to those that I’d made while living on the farm. Concrete walls lined with barbed-wire and broken glass replaced the trees and streams that surrounded us in the mountains. Time with the kids was replaced with loaded schedules, long days and the stress of making up for lost income. COVID was no longer just something we read about online, it was in the streets and all around us. The return to the city was difficult, but it showed us what the pandemic had given us during that special time quarantined in the mountains.

These images are a memento to those months we shared, as well as a contribution to the global narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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