Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ecuador reflections

We've been home 24 hours and already our busy life has resumed. I want to record some final thoughts before we put this vacation behind us.

Casa Quinde

Our Last Laundry

We spent our final day in Quito. We met up with Lynne and Sean, our home exchange partners, at their very nice apartment in the city. We went to the old city with Lynne, enjoyed a late afternoon snack and then a dinner before calling a taxi for the airport. Though the variety and pace of things in Quito were interesting, Art and I reaffirmed our opinion that we really prefer smaller towns and rural areas when we're traveling.

The physical beauty of the area where we stayed is comparable to any other lovely places we've seen: Hawaii, Iceland, New England, our own Pacific Northwest. The green seems greener, though, in Ecuador. And perhaps because the number of tourists we saw was smaller, Imbabura province seemed more rare and special. We could have taken a picture of the volcano every morning from our back yard, and each photo would have been different - different cloud formation, different light.

It seemed to me like the area should be filled with tourists. I suppose that's not the case because "Ecuador" doesn't rise to the top of places people want to visit. But for those of us who go there, the memories rise right up.

I've long been in favor of the education of women as the best way for a region to improve its lot. But I always thought of "education" as high school and college. Not as elementary school. I realize that a person can be smart and practical, but if they have no education - or a poor one - their knowledge of the world can be extraordinarily limited. I met a woman, for instance, who thought the Ecuadorian volcanoes were caused by the use of too many plastic bags. I make assumptions about what's common knowledge. And I think we should teach everyone. But then I wonder. Does it matter? If a person is able to get by, how much do they need to know? How much should they know?

Poverty is sometimes measured by annual income. If a family is living on $5,000 a year, but they have a plot of land on which they grow their own food, and they have a cow and a pig and some chickens, and they live with family members, are they poor? Where I live, if money disappeared one day, we'd be in a world of hurt. We grow only a small part of our own food, and we rely upon a sophisticated infrastructure for our heat and electricity - which we think of as necessities - and we live in small nuclear families. But in Ecuador and elsewhere, money is used for only some of their needs. They are more self reliant. And they are accustomed to less. We had fires in two fireplaces in our casa because comfort for us was a temperature of at least 62 degrees. But that's our cultural preference. If we wore layers those fires wouldn't be necessary. Even so, though, we had to maintain the fires in the evening. That required us to be more mindful than setting the thermostat on our central gas heating at home.

We ate fresh local fruits and vegetables in Ecuador. Yesterday Art went to our local supermarket and brought home three peppers. Each was a different color and was bright and shiny. I knew those peppers had been grown somewhere very far from Brier, Washington and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to reach us. Somehow they didn't seem as real as the ones we picked up last week at the mercado in San Pablo. And the pot roast I had for dinner tonight grew in a styrofoam package, not on a recently butchered cow.

I think Ecuador has about 14 million people - very small compared to the U.S. We can get just about anything we want here. But I think about the difference between what we want and what we need, and I wonder.

We're so glad we spent three weeks in Ecuador. We learned a lot more than Spanish.

If you're interested in spending some time where we did, you can rent the casa at

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Last day in San Pablo

I hung up the laundry this morning as soon as it stopped drizzling. We leave tomorrow morning, and tonight we pack. If the clothes aren't dry by late afternoon, I'll ask Venancia to take them to the lavanderia. I'll say, "Venancia, las ropas, a seca, por favor," and she'll understand what I mean and fit the walk across the grounds and back into her schedule for the day.

I went to the wi-fi place at Hacienda Cusin and ran into five frustrated American tourists. They'd just finished a three-week guided tour of Peru and Ecuador, including the Galapagos, and they decided to stay here an extra day after their group broke up. There are rose plantations nearby, and they went on a tour. The tour was entirely in Spanish, and they learned at the end that the fee for a 15-minute tour was $15 a person. They were short on cash and the people at the plantation locked them in until they could come up with the money! One of the men climbed the fence and made his way back to Cusin's Reception. He complained about their treatment, saying that neither Cusin nor the plantation had told them about the cost before the tour.

I thought about guided tours. We've been on some ourselves, and they have their advantages. Nearly everything is taken care of, and, if in a foreign country, guides on the tour speak the native language. On the other hand, reliance upon a guide can be detrimental once the group tour ends. The frustrated Americans hadn't had to pick up Spanish words as they became necessary. They hadn't had to figure anything out. Had it been me, after 18 days on my own here, my first question would have been "cuanto cuesta"? Probably spelled wrong, but I've used it and I understand when the other person tells me how much the cost will be. I've learned to ask first. Without a tour guide.

We took our last walk into San Pablo this afternoon. We were looking for a taxi to take us to a weaver's shop. No taxis. Carnivale this weekend. We figured we weren't supposed to see the weaver. I said, "I've spent enough money." We stepped into our favorite panaderia and bought two cookies. We told the young proprietor we're leaving tomorrow. He asked how long we have been here and we said 18 days. All in Spanish. His was good, mine not so much, but good enough. We found a tienda that was open and bought bagged milk and Trident gum. Milk in a bag or a box seems normal to us now. We said "buenos tardes" to the dozen or so people we passed, and they returned the greeting.

We've invited Venancia to join us for dinner tonight. She'll fix a soup using the chicken breasts we have left in the refrigerator, plus the giblets and broth from our chicken dinner on Saturday. We'll give her a $40 tip for 14 days of service to us out of the last 18 days. For washing our sheets and towels, vacuuming, cleaning up the kitchen, cooking our meals, correcting our Spanish and laying our evening fires.

San Pablo has been our third restful place this winter. We spent ten warm, sunny days on the Big Island of Hawaii in December. We'd been there before; the best part was the company, for three days, of our daughter and son-in-law. We spent 14 cool, sunny days in Sedona and three warm, sunny days in Tucson in January. We'd been to Sedona before; the best part was the seven short hikes we took. And discovering a place to spend two months next winter, in Tucson, was very good.

We've spent 18 mild days in San Pablo. We've never been here before. We don't speak the language. We don't have our cell phones. But we have explored every other day or so and grown to love the area. I read five books: The Time Traveler's Wife, the Memory Keeper's Daughter, Water for Elephants, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Under The Dome. Art has read as many. We have slept listening to outdoor sounds and listened to a CD course on personal growth.

When we left Seattle on February 1 I was feeling discouraged by physical issues: the long, slow healing process of a back injury, difficulty seeing well enough to drive at night, and ear issues causing mild dizziness. I was feeling limited in the amount and kind of exercise I was getting and by the way my nighttime schedule was changing because of the driving issue. My concerns weighed on my mind.

In the last 18 days I've gotten just the right exercise - walking and hiking and maneuvering in the cobblestones in the streets and walkways. I've been home every night, reading or talking to Art. I haven't been in traffic, with the glare of headlghts, to bother my vision. I was given some exercises before we left home that have significantly helped my ears. I feel good now. I've had time to get away from myself! And now I'm looking forward to cataract surgery sometime in the next couple of months - and also to the longer light that's coming to the Pacific Northwest, and the resumption of my evening schedule.

Being in San Pablo has been exactly what I needed. I feel refreshed and ready to go home, taking my restored self along.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Parque Condor

We found a taxi to take us to the condor park today. It's located, amidst panoramic views, at 9184 feet on top of a hill about seven miles from Hacienda Cusin. The park displays rescued birds of prey, owls, and several magnificent condors, and highlights their importance in the ecosystem.

The taxi driver spoke rapid, enthusiastic, incomprehensible Spanish. Something about no taxis could go to the park, so we would take his truck instead. He backed the taxi to the curb half a block away and escorted us to a pickup truck. I had a momentary flash of uneasiness as I watched us leave the grid, possibly be kidnapped and never heard from again. Just momentary, though, as I climbed into the back seat. The driver, Juan, took the back roads to the park, passing through villages we hadn't seen yet, then climbing hills on rutted or cobblestone roads. Narrow roads. With drop-offs. Talking on his cellphone. However, we did get to our destination. I realized that taxis would have a hard time with going in the back way. Juan told us he would wait for us and there would be no extra charge. He said most people aren't in the park for more than 45 minutes.

The condor park is a labor of love. Simple, with good habitats for the rescued birds, clean. An English-speaking proprietor - I'm thinking South African from his accent - introduced us to the place, and then we walked through a small museum and then the various habitats. At 11:30 a.m. the proprietor held a demonstration with about eight birds, including one eagle in a free-flight demonstration. The bird disappeared for 15 minutes and then returned to the man's gloved hand. I could tell the man loved the birds. And they all returned to him. My only regret is that all the signs and explanations were only in Spanish.

Juan was snoozing in his pickup when we got back to the parking lot. Our drive home was partly on the Pan American Highway since he needed to stop for gas. There's a festival going on in Otavalo this weekend, so the traffic was heavy and the traffic light was out. I suspect that's why we went the back roads on the way to the park. We paid Juan $8 for the ride to the park, and $10 for the ride home because of the length of time he'd waited for us while we walked the park and viewed the demonstration.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Outing to Ibarra and San Antonio

Ibarra is a larger city about 40 minutes north of San Pablo. Virginia's taxi driver, Carlos, picked the three of us up at 9:30 a.m. Virginia had a dental appointment so Art and I were encouraged to visit the Parque de Calderon and the city museum. As we disembarked Virginia said, "Just go straight and you will find the park. The museum is one street over." We went straight, and straight some more, until we hit a T intersection in a noncommercial neighborhood. We asked directions from three different people and ended up at the Parque de Calderon. I should say it was about 15 degrees warmer in Ibarra, and sunny. By the time we arrived at the Parqe de Calderon I was overheated and hypoglycemic. I grabbed a handful of almonds and shared an an apple with Art. We visited the museum -- lots of pre-Columbian stuff (with English translations included!) and an exhibit about the labor strikes of 1910-- with an eager, non-English-speaking guide accompanying us. Once back at the park, we watched groups of dancers inwhat looked like a competition as we baked in the heat radiating upward from the concrete plaza. I should say I baked; Art does just fine in heat.

Virginia finally joined us and told us we were in the wrong place. And we were. We had gone to exactly the place she had told us, but the right place had a different name!

After a leisurely lunch in a cafe where the proprietors streamed an American country-western station on the Internet, we hailed a taxi and went to the Ibarra mall. Found the SuperMaxi grocery store and stocked up on the meat we'll need between now (Thursday) and next Tuesday, when we leave for Quito. Also found a large box of tissue, which I'd been unable to find anywhere else, and replenished the laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, butter and salad dressing we've used.

On the way home we stopped in San Antonio, known for its woodcarvers. We watched a man using a chain saw on a tree trunk to sculpt a statue of the monseignor of San Antonio, who had died recently.

I found a simple three-piece indigenous nativity set for $8. It will be a great reminder of our trip.

We were approached by a student from the university, who is studying tourism and had an assignment to interview a tourist. She had to speak English, and so did I. Art took our picture and I told one of the student's friends I'd be posting it to my blog. I provided my email address and said if they would send me an email I would direct them to my blog. One of the students wants to continue to correspond. I've done that before, with young people in West Virginia, Turkey, and Viet Nam.

We got back to San Pablo at 6:00 p.m. Venancia was preparing our dinner and making fresh fruit juice. All the laundry had been brought in. It was good to be home!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Walk to the Rinconada

We took another two-mile walk this morning, to the back of the valley near our casa.

Ecuador is a major exporter of roses. In our area there are numerous rose plantations. Here's a departing one of them, loaded up for the market.

The local road was muddy, but we found a dry path for about a mile before we had to turn around. The weather was threatening and the road ahead of us would have required boots.

On our way back we met a woman walking with her five cows. I asked if I could take one picture of her (puedo tomar una photo, por favor?) [for those of you who speak Spanish, don't tell me if I said something really awful or totally incomprehensible] and she said yes, for a dollar!

I'm going to keep working on my Rosetta Stone Spanish course. It's five parts, with four sections in each part. I only got to part 2, section 2 before we came to Ecuador, and it has been marginally adequate for buying things we need and getting around. But there's a woman named Aida - she's the wife of the driver who brought us to San Pablo from Quito - and she's been friendly. I would like to speak Spanish well enough to communicate with her. She'd make a good friend, I think, if we come back here again. We saw Aida yesterday, and she gave us a flower for Valentine's Day. We set it in the sun and it blossomed for us.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A walk in the San Pablo hills

The walk this morning -- our first -- was two miles or less, but beautiful. We met a woman on the road. We saw our first egret (or maybe an ibis) keeping company with a cow. We found an overgrown house and blackberries in February! Art met a pig and her baby in a front yard.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ecuador: it's feeling like home

I woke up twice last night, stewing over how to get to Cotacachi today. It's the small city where high quality leather goods are made, and I'd decided to replace my cheap synthetic laptop carrier with something a little more durable. Cotacachi is also where a lot of ex-pats have settled recently. I have a friend who plans to move there this summer.

We could take a taxi from our front door for $8 to $10 each way, or we could take the bus from the San Pablo plaza to Otovalo and then transfer to the Cotacachi bus for $1 each way. We took the bus. It took nearly an hour to go the 23 miles between here and there, but the buses were a visual feast. On the San Pablo to Otovalo leg we saw couples with babies, women headed to market and men to work. Three quarters of them were indigenous, dressed traditionally; the rest were mestizo (mixed indigenous and European from several centuries ago). Between Otovalo and Cotacachi there were few indigenous, mostly mestizo in Western dress and several English and Italian speakers. And the scenery is unmatched anywhere I have traveled in the world.

We walked the "leather street" and I found my new laptop case. Leather, with the right dimensions and pockets, I paid $68 in the second shop I visited. Then I stopped looking, because I didn't want to know what else I might have chosen, or what different prices I might have paid. The street reminded me of Italy. These weren't little native shops; they had sophisticated window displays and their display areas were artfully done. It was clear to me that more than a few non-Ecuadorians live in this place and are influencing the growth and culture of Cotacachi. We had lunch in a place that could have been in Italy or Mexico, and thought our spaghetti with shrimp was excellent and inexpensive, I found myself thinking almost wistfully about the local flavor of San Pablo and even Otovalo.

Of course we stand out on the buses; I have gray hair and am wearing a large-brimmed hat, while everyone else has black hair and wears traditional headgear or nothing. Still, they are courteous to us. We feel comfortable in their midst.

And now that we're back at Casa Quinde, I'm thinking about wandering over to the garden to pick some vegetables for dinner - or maybe walking to a tienda for an ice cream sandwich.

It's feeling like home here, but we're leaving a week from tomorrow. Already?

You should hear my Spanish! It's terrible. But my vocabulary increases every day. Somehow I'm making myself understood.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ecuador observations

Though the Sierra (Andes highlands) is a popular tourist destination, we're not running into throngs of Americans as we do when we travel in Europe. Today, at the Saturday market in Otovalo, we may have seen 40 people not from this area. At a cafe we talked with a couple from Fairbanks who are traveling independently. And at the Hacienda Cusin we saw a tour group of perhaps 15 people arrive yesterday. Maybe we would see more in Quito or one of the other big cities. But so far, not too many here.

In our walks in the town of San Pablo and Otovalo, we watch the people. They look content. Women carry their babies on their backs. Couples walk together; sometimes the woman is traditionally dressed and the man is wearing jeans and a jacket. Many of the men wear their hair long, in braids down their back. Teenage girls walk arm in arm; teenage boys walk with their arms slung around each other's shoulders. Mothers nurse their babies while walking on the street. All of it seems quite natural, but different from where we live.

We have run into a few beggars; they're mostly old women. No cardboard signs on offramps here! We sometimes give a dollar to the beggar, as it is clear they are in need.

Most of the people we've met do not speak any English. Our new friend Virginia is a bit more fluent than we are, so outings with her are easier for us than otherwise. I have been able to make myself understood, though, when necessary.

Where we are, we haven't run into true poverty. Homes may be simple. Many people have a single light bulb in their homes and no hot water. But the living conditions look clean.

I get no sense of Estados Unidos wanna-be's. And though this area participates in tourism, they would survive without it. I don't get the same feeling as I do in, say Puerta Vallarta, that we're being pandered to or taken advantage of. The people here are friendly and living their lives.

From the reading I've done, the Ecuadorian government has had a number of changes in the last ten years, with some corruption. I think that's pretty typical of Latin America throughout its history, though. And other places in the world!

Our housekeeper, Venancia, has a second grade education. She's been fortunate to find work mostly with foreigners, who treat her well. I have heard that some Ecuadorians who have servants treat them very badly; it's part of the social structure that has been in place here for generations.

We have most of the comforts of home where we are staying. There's no central heat, but the year-round temperatures range from lows of 50 at night to highs in the 60s, so the fireplace serves us fine. Every five days or so we order a five-gallon jug of water. We have to be careful to clean vegetables. And we have to pay attention on what we're running low on, because if it's not available in San Pablo, we have to plan for a bus or a taxi to Otovalo (15 minutes by taxi) or Ibarra (45 minutes). For example, right now we're low on milk and eggs. That's a five-minute walk into the village. But we also need meat - all we have left is a two-pound tube of ground beef - and meat that's safe for us to eat is not available in San Pablo. We've got a trip to Ibarra planned for Wednesday with Virginia. If we are careful we can make it until then. Still, the convenience factor is something we're noticing as a difference.

Most days it has been sunny in the morning, but it's been quite cloudy and we've had a couple of rainy days since we got here. Apparently this winter is unusually cool and wet. And this morning there was snow on the peak of Imbabura - quite uncommon, I hear.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Otavalo Saturday market

The animal market opens at 8 a.m. We went there first. It was very crowded. Many of the animals were angry or afraid. Some of it was hard to look at. I can see why people become vegetarians.

The Otavalo Saturday market was a walk away. I bought a hat and bread and sweetbreads and some Fair Trade woven items.

Here's my pictorial essay for the day.