Category Archives: Ecuador 2013

Last Few Days in Ecuador … Once Again A Tourist!

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Taking a few days to hang out as a tourist before flying home. I am staying in the charming historical center of Quito, at yet another restored old mansion, in yet another World UNESCO heritage site!! …. this one has belonged to the Gangotena family for the past hundred years. There was a major fire that just about destroyed the whole house in the early 1900’s. It required a complete restoration … a team of Italian architects and craftsman were hired … easy to tell from the Italian arches and pillars everywhere, not to mention fountains πŸ™‚ I woke up this morning (around 4:30 am … thankfully I had crashed early πŸ™‚ to loud music blaring in front of the hotel …. the hotel overlooks the wide sweeping cobblestone Plaza San Francisco, backed by the mountainous backdrop of Volcan Pichincha. A stunning location! There was a running marathon starting up!! I listened for a few hours, dozing fitfully on and off and finally around 6:30, realizing sleep was impossible, joined everyone in the square, a minute’s walk from my room … some 13 and 20 km runners had already finished … there were 13, 20, 40, and 60 km runs organized!! Apparently a yearly event in Quito … seems wherever I hang my hat in Ecuador, I bump into these yearly festivals or events unawares … it was a pleasant sight that greeted me in the square … those finished their shorter runs, were participating in a warm down exercise class, which I also joined in on πŸ™‚ Not a bad wake up call after all πŸ™‚ … loved walking these old streets today … totally exhilarating to get some exercise and sunshine in after the last few weeks where it just never seemed to work out time wise … this cobbly town is just fabulous!! … street musicians and entertainers on every block! …. it is Sunday! ….. even managed to sit down to mass at one point in the Monasterio de San Francisco, Quito’s largest colonial structure and a convenient few steps from Gangotena πŸ™‚ ….. love the Andean Indigenous flute music best … I was in heaven, strolling here and there all day, music following me everywhere …. could not have asked for a more delightful day to finish my time here in Ecuador!

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Grand Finale

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I will surely miss this troop at Center One! The Tias put on a good party for us today … dressed up as skeletons, (something meaningful to Ecuadorian folks apparently) and did an interpretive song and dance in our honour …. they had a good fun day preparing, while we all went about our various chores of the day, feeling just a tad sad that it was our last day at the center. Our Barney Song was well received, both versions, but especially our Spanish one πŸ™‚ … and we managed to get the children to smile if not exactly laugh out loud!! Fundac’s Elvita and the Tias presented us with lovely homemade thank you cards and decorative dough art work which Calderon is known for … someone cranked up the speakers and the dancing got underway! We jived and jimmied and generally let loose, having fun with the staff and children. Emotional day … and we were all somewhat subdued on the drive back to Sol de Quito.

Maggie thought we would enjoy Ronda Street in old town, for a different kind of dinner for our last together as a group ….. known for it’s streetside cafe hopping, live music, buskers and general party atmosphere …. a lively place certainly, on a Friday night …. giant cheese empanadas and beer at one place, fish stews, salads, washed down with canelazo, a local hot spiced berry and white corn liqueur drink at another … guitar, flute music and singing accompanied our dinner stops … a fitting end to our time together … emotional goodbyes and off to bed … exhausting, fulfilling weeks now behind us. Neal and Suzanne leave in the early morning for Banos Hot Springs for three days before heading back to San Francisco, Tom and Kate for home in Atlanta, Georgia, and I, to old town Quito for my last two days in Quito. Hasta Luego and much love to everyone but especially the Tias and children of Calderon ….

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Last few days in Calderon .. Reflecting on Ecuador

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It is with mixed feelings I approach the last few days of my time in Ecuador … as well as the end of a three week volunteering odyssey in Calderon.

I left the comforts of home and stepped into the unknown yet again on May 20, not always clear where my journey in Ecuador would take me. I made a conscious decision three years ago when I embarked on my first Global Volunteer post, that I would ‘wing things’ more in life … plot, plan and even research less, linger longer, embrace surprises, allow a new country to reveal itself at a more leisurely pace …. at times this philosophy has landed me in hot water and I have had to tread quickly to beat the heat …. fortunately, not too often πŸ™‚ In fact, for the most part, the only portions of my travels I prebook anymore, are the Global Volunteer postings!

My explorations took me from the stunning surreal landscape and wildlife of the enchanted GalΓ‘pagos Islands to 17th century churches, monasteries, restored mansions, haciendas, photogenic plazas, architectural colonial treasures, cobbly streets of Quito, Cuenca (both Unesco World Heritage Sites), to the small pastoral village of Zuleta, and on to the lively leather capital of Ecuador .. Cotacachi where by chance, I was able to participate (well, jostled by the mob is more like it!:) in a yearly Indigenous Heritage Festival that went on non stop for three days …. a bizarre parade of hundreds of male Indigenous Otavalenos dressed in cowboyish costumes, marching and chanting for hours and hours at a time, every day of the three days! The women and children followed on the sidelines, passing water or juice or worse … the local corn hooch, to their men.

Onwards to Calderon … an adventure of a different ilk … service.

Working with the ladies of FUNDAC, Elvita, Pilar, Marguerite, our host Maggie, my fellow tias Ruby, Karina, Norma, Gaby, Alexandra, Diana and Roxana has been a pleasure and I shall surely miss them when I am back in Canada. We have grown into friendship despite a huge language barrier.
….. and the children …. oh my ….. no surprise they have woven themselves into the fabric of my heart. I never quite get used to saying goodbye to the little ones on these missions.

Last year in Romania, it was particularly difficult to hug and kiss the kids when it came time to leave … little orphans, all of them, who face the bleakness of two converted rooms in a hospital wing and staff far too burdened with work to have much energy or time to tend to them in the evenings after dinner …. no siblings, parents or friends … just a cold crib and silent cries finish their days, every day. The Global hosts do their best but desperately need a steady stream of volunteers to help provide love and care for these children
The scenario and circumstances for the children of Calderon could not be more different … poverty and its limitations is a huge issue here certainly, and that is why we are here helping out …. but the children all have mothers at home, and some fathers as well, who love them dearly … this is very apparent as I observe when children are picked up every afternoon. They all appear well cared for and loved …. this makes all the difference in the world when it comes time to say goodbye tomorrow …

We are a small team, Suzanne, Neal, Tom, Katie and I and work well together, finding our rhythm as the days passed. This morning as we drove to work, Neal, ever the entertainer, entertained us with his newest musical instrument, the Peruvian charango, as we practiced our ‘Barney Song’ for tomorrow’s goodbye festivities to honour the staff of Fundac, all the Tias and children. Neal is also a bit of a ham as it turns out, albeit a musically and otherwise very talented ham! He had me in stitches this morning with his Elvis renditions!

Thursday held its own special poignancy …. Suzanne, Katie and I handled the day to day care of the children as usual. Tom was completing his various carpentry work on shelving with Oscar, a local volunteer … Neal, enjoying his time in the kitchen with Olga, Marisol and Elisa. There was a special kind of gentleness in the air as I went about my daily duties of play, puzzle time, feeding the babies lunch, washing a million hands, combing hair, tieing endless shoelaces and oh yes, wiping noses! I know the children sensed something, having undoubtedly gone through this many times with the coming and going of volunteers, so those little hands lingered longer, holding mine, just a little tighter.

Neal, our group ‘professor’, and I, his humble assistant, finished off our final English class for the tias. They improved immeasurably since our first class together … my Spanish improved in the process!

The drive home ….. (yes, cozy Sol de Quito has started to feel like home and indeed was one, not too long ago …. seems like everywhere I hang my hat in Ecuador, was once someone’s home, now converted into small hotels!!) ….. provided opportunity for another rehearsal for our planned performance tomorrow at the farewell celebration …. as Neal played, the rest of us sang (in Spanish and English) and laughed our way home, amusing Pilar who was driving and Maggie no end! We enjoyed a delicioso dinner at the hotel, sharing travel and life stories … funny how bonding sometimes just sneaks up on you, unawares and one day, you realize you have become friends. Perhaps time to let go of reflections and head to bed … an emotional day beckons tomorrow.

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Graduation Day!

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Friday was a totally unexpected fun-filled day for us all …. volunteers, Tias, the children, their siblings and parents alike! Ecuadorians love a good party and what better excuse than ‘graduation day’ for the five year olds moving up to kindergarten in the fall! We worked all week on the completion and decorating of the booklets showcasing the children’s work over the year. Friday morning was spent decorating the walls with paper flower garlands and a blue and white balloon archway for the grads to walk through! The staff cleaned and scrubbed the center spotless! … we helped set up rows of chairs and by 2 pm, the place was buzzing!! … the children were dressed to the nines in their Sunday best, the parents much the same … not sure if many of the children’s dads were there, (most are single moms at the center) but a male presence certainly was … grandpas and uncles perhaps … it was a lovely spectacle of celebration … a photographer was hired and took pictures of the children, wearing red capes and hats, receiving their ‘diplomas’ from their various Tias … red and white must have been the colours of the day, as all the Tias wore white pants with red tops for the occasion as well … rather sweet. Ecuadorians are quite conscious of appearances, and good grooming, clean tidy clothes are the norm, regardless of economic status !! ….. the only sloppiness came from the volunteers, as we were all dressed in our work clothes, not fully aware how big an event this day was going to be when we left our hotel in the morning. We helped serve cake and juice after the ceremony and joined in, dancing with the kids, the Tias, each other! …. we topped the day further by enjoying an awesome dinner at Hermosa Rooftop Restaurant in old town … complete with that stunning ambiance of cathedrals and twinkling lights surrounding us. My second time there and hopefully not my last before I fly home … I could sit there absorbing that view time and time again!! Another great day and week in Ecuador!

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Week Two Volunteer Post

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The week flew by in a sea of emotionally happy exhaustion … I was in bed most nights and asleep before nine! With what little energy was left, I briefly check email and facebook postings …. keep up with the local news about flood relief, clean up in Calgary and all areas affected and make sure my family were safe and sound … my head hits the pillow before my iPad flickers off …

We are a small group for this two week period and are working at Fundac Center One, a building in the center of the Calderon produce and fish market! … our walk meanders through the produce stalls to the building gate … unusual, charming and sometimes stinky from the fish stalls, but certainly an original location!

Neal and Suzanne from the San Francisco area, Tom and his 14 hear old daughter Katie from Atlanta, Georgia make up my team. We are up early for breakfast, morning meetings and on the road by 8 for the 30 to 40 minute commute from Quito to Calderon which is its own separate town but feels more like a suburb of Quito. From the moment we walk through the door, we are set to work … Neal helping three Tias (the women are all called Tias, including us, which translates to ‘Auntie’) with cooking in the kitchen, Tom helping a local contractor build storage and book shelves for the Center, and Kate, Suzanne and I opt for working with the children. We are all assigned a classroom with three and four year olds …. mine is with Tia Ruby who does not speak a word of English! As the week wore on, Ruby and I learned to communicate reasonably well, despite my slow growth vocabulary ….. a cheat sheet and running often to Maggie or Neal for translation helped πŸ™‚ … Neal just happens to be a teacher with a primarily Latino student base back in California and if not quite as fluent as Maggie in Spanish, good enough!! Such a blessing for our group!

I adore my kids … all apparently are on the lower rung of the economic ladder and primarily from single parent, ie. mom homes … Most live and support their families on minimum wage or less ($10 a day is the norm) …. our help is beyond welcome! Together, Fundac, the government and Global Volunteers, all help to feed and care for their children while the moms struggle through on work at low paid jobs. It is a bleak existence in many respects, although Maggie says extended family help when they can. Because the two centers are funded and supported by Fundac in partnership with the government, the cost per child to the parent is only $12.00 a month …. still, most months, half of them cannot even pay that and have to scramble to get the money together.

The Center feeds the children unbelievably well on a budget of less than a dollar a day per child! Somewhat easy to do in Ecuador, as produce is unbelievably reasonable … A bag of 40 mandarin oranges are currently selling for one dollar in the market!! A dollar a day covers a breakfast corn or bread dish, a piece of fresh fruit for mid morning snack, a lunch of freshly made corn, bean, quinoa or vegetable soup, followed by a second course of a rice or corn dish with veggies, beans, egg or meat mixed in, washed down with a freshly squeezed glass of juice and every day it is a different fresh juice! One of my daily duties is to help Tia Norma feed the one year olds still in high chairs ….. there are about eight or nine on any given day. I am a bit of a goof ball and enjoy this part of my day … I have some of the babies laughing more often than not at my silly feeding antics … the Tias are adamant that all food is finished to the last drop, as they know most of the children may not eat this well at home … It is a form of kindness but I have a slight aversion to force feeding 😦 … hence my antics … I would rather they be laughing or at least smiling as I spoon in food, than crying … it works!! Right after their lunch, the kids all go down for a one to two hour nap, at which point we are free to walk to a local Calderon restaurant for our own lunch, which inevitably includes a starter course of soup … very Ecuadorian, this soup thing … getting used to it.

In the afternoon, after their naps, (space is at a premium and the children nap 5 or 6 to a bed … will share a few pictures I took of the few remaining nappers … most were awake) after we got back from our lunch one day … these children are so sweet, my heart just swells) … a ‘colada’ is served when they wake up (it is a quinoa or corn mash smoothie which the kids all love)!!! Corn is a staple food source in Ecuador and it is a rare meal that does not have some form of corn served with it. Driving anywhere in the countryside, corn fields are everywhere!

It is things like a whole chicken, canned or dried foods, soaps, shampoos, toilet paper, kleenex, diaper wipes and really, any paper products, that are priced roughly the same as they are in Canada, and hence totally unaffordable for any of the families whose children attend these government funded child centres. Global Volunteers have done much here in the past fifteen years, from tiling the concrete floors, painting walls, decorating with wall decals, building tables, beds, chairs, shelves …. just a ton of stuff and that is all in addition to the work we do with the children!! The tias ration toilet paper and kleenex. The liquid soaps are watered down considerably. After the last two weeks, I am thinking this is good thing …. we are so wasteful in North America. I will try and share my day with pictures …

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Inti Raymi … Cotacachi

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A pleasant half hour drive from the town site is the active Laguna de Cuicocha (Guinea Pig Lake) at the base of Cotacachi Volcano! …… steam bubbles to the surface at regular intervals from this active underwater volcano …….. the fresh air was superb after Quito’s polluted air!! I took the little tour boat for a half hour lookabout, savouring the moist fresh air and the lush green volcanic scenery. To my complete surprise, a small group of high schoolers on a field trip from Quito, broke out in song as we left the shore …. the theme song from Titanic in flawless, albeit Spanish accented, English!! What a delight and totally enhanced the boat experience!! Celine Dion would have been proud of the bunch πŸ™‚ …. good friendly fun group of kids … however, despite knowing all the words to the song, could not converse in English with me at all! …. lots of giggles and smiles though, mostly at my meager Spanish πŸ™‚ !! Maybe they were too shy … singing as a group is way easier for communication πŸ™‚ … I loved it …. the song is still one of my favourites and I tear up every time I hear it.

Clemenia and Eufemia from the hotel encouraged me to take in the annual indigenous celebration in the center of town today … called ‘Inti Raymi’ …. It is an ancestral celebration exclusive to the Otavalenos of this region and coincides with the crop harvest … I had been to Otavalo some weeks ago for their weekly animal market … there are hundreds of thousands of Otavalenos in this Northern Highlands region of the country … they are the most industrious and successful of the more than twenty different indigenous groups within Ecuador … In total, indigeneous people make up roughly 25 percent of Ecuador’s 14 million people. They pretty much dress as they have for hundreds of years in these rural towns of Ecuador ….. Only the hand embroidery on the ladies’ blouses may have become brighter with new colourful threading available and upon closer inspection, (ever the skeptic, I am snoopy that way :)) … some of the embroidery may be done on machines now rather than by hand. The women wear dark skirts with white embroidered blouses and black sandals …. the men, white pants, blue ponchos and white sandals ….

It was a quiet scene when I arrived in the town square shortly after breakfast, but within half an hour, a steady stream of male dancers, dressed up in rather strange cowboyish costumes, topped off with huge black hats, fill the main street. It is quite the explosion of color and sound for a normally quiet small town …… hundreds dancing down the main street …… more of a rhythmic marching stomp than a dance really, and accompanied by a repetitive chant …. this will apparently go on for several hours!!! … wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends are all here, passing water, pop, juices to their men …. It would appear to me, after watching and walking about for the past three hours, that a frenzy is taking hold of the dancers …. it also occurs to me that something stronger than water and juices are being consumed!! At this point, I opt to take my leave and head back to Mirage for lunch ….

Unfortunately, as is the case with far too many indigenous people around the globe, much drinking of the homemade hooch variety is a sad reality …… in Ecuador it is ‘chicha’ …. a fermented corn liquor … police holding shields are scattered everywhere … they are needed for later this afternoon when fighting breaks out …. it apparently always does with all the drinking going on … (Last year three died and dozens were hospitalized during the festivities, hence the heavy police presence this year) ….. I noticed many glassy eyed, staggering, indigenous cowboys as I walked back, wildly swinging leather riding crops with hard metal based handles …. these will end up as fighting tools later in the afternoon. At one point, I was jostled about as I accidentally got in the way of the dancers … I was busy taking pictures and was not aware that the dancers had abruptly changed direction and before I knew it, I was jostled and wedged against a wall … causing me a minor moment of panic … drunk mobs are not something to reason with! TIme to vamoose and celebrate the remainder of Inti Raymi with a nice lunch and a massage back at the hotel πŸ™‚

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Back to Rural Life … Cotacachi!

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I bid hasta luego to Quito for five days and head north two hours to the ‘City of Peace’ … Cotacachi, home to just over 10,000 which includes a good number of gringos as the Ecuadorians call us, drawn here undoubtedly by the clean Andean air, beautiful scenery and general tranquil ambiance. The town is known for it’s leather work, judging by the number of shops lining the main street, selling belts, boots, shoes, luggage, coats …. just ‘leather’ everything!! Market day is Sunday and Saturday so will have to snoop out the shops before I head back to Quito … I join up with a small group of Americans arrive late Saturday and we are back with the children Monday morning.

Richard, Global’s contact in Quito drives me to this paradise on the outskirts of Cotacachi, Mirage Garden Resort and Spa, now in it’s 28th year of business …. A small garden setting that feels like a village of it’s own … I am the sole guest!! There are twenty some rooms scattered about on roughly two or three acres of land … an oldish Inn in a charming setting … the resident peacocks peek through the window, several varieties of hummingbirds flitter nearby, as I enjoy my breakfast … very cool! I may forever be spoiled to ever even contemplate staying in larger hotels … These converted old homes and haciendas, bed and breakfast inns are where it is at to set the stage to learn about the culture of a country.

Richard was a delight as a driving companion and fortunately for me, very interested, fully engaged and knowledgeable about the politics of his country. I added much to my information base as we chatted and drove along through the always stunning Andean countryside. By all accounts, President, Rafael Correa Delgado has done much good during his six years in power. He has basically revolutionized the government of his country ….. everyone now has health coverage, old age pensions, free schooling and uniforms for all children, less corruption by far (just a few weeks ago, he closed down a credit union accused of money laundering ….. the top people in charge of this bank are currently in jail, awaiting trial) …. he is, without a doubt, a socialist … loved by the poor, tolerated by the middle class, reviled by the rich …… what else is new :)?? He is a bit of an arrogant authoritarian, but perhaps not the worst quality to have in a leader of a developing nation … I weigh all the information I gather and feel his good deeds balance out the negative characteristics … I had watched him give an acceptance speech (in Spanish, of course) on TV, a few days after my arrival in Ecuador … He had just won another term on May 24 … very charismatic, handsome and seemingly authentically genuine about wanting to do good for his country (a former professor of economics …. perhaps we in the western world should start hiring profs instead of lawyers to run our show)…. just a cursory first impression. Everyone, regardless of whether they like him or not, agree that he is good for the country for now …

Arriving at Mirage was like stepping into serenity … I literally have the place to myself … indulged in an awesome Ecuadorian style shamanistic healing ritual and massage yesterday …. it was other worldly in it’s entirety!! Cotacachi is magical! I had enjoyed a morning walk in the hillsides earlier …. I am totally in my happy place here in this pastoral rural setting ….

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Week one done … The American Family flies home!

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An exhausting week of painting and child care came to an end … I was distracted regularly by news of the flooding disaster striking my city and province …. the worst disaster in our history, as it turned out!! I could not help feeling I should be back home helping with the extensive recovery work …. It will take years to rebuild Calgary, High River, Canmore, Kananaskis, Bragg Creek and other areas …. but a commitment is a commitment and so I remain. My family and our homes are all untouched by the flooding which helped with my decision to remain here but so many others are in need of help … it feels so surreal to be away at such a time …. sigh, my heart is torn … back to Ecuador …..

Fundac President Elvita and her team of ‘Tias’ put on a performance of indigenous song and dance for our group as a thank you for our work this week. Varinda choreographed our own contribution … The Hokey Pokey and The Chicken Dance, which had the children, the Tias and even us, laughing at our exaggerated antics …. a good day all in all …. the painting is complete, thanks in large part to Ken our organizer and painter extraordinaire, right down to detailed touch ups and trims, the children well loved, well held by Blair, Jake and I, well fed, well played with (the soccer balls we purchased for the Centres came to good use!!), thanks to the young men in our group … yes, mission accomplished for week one with Global Volunteers!

Our farewell dinner at the Hermosa rooftop restaurant in old town Quito was superb! The circular view, spectacular! …. hundreds of twinkling city lights, well lit cathedrals, the royal palace, all helped create a stunning back drop for our evening dining pleasure! Good fun time was had by all …. Ciao, Americans!

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Family Day Celebrations

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Maggie Bjorklund, our vivacious young Global host and leader, (holding large wooden spoon in pictures below) has been guiding us along as we meander through the ins and outs of local life in Quito, Ecuador. She is a wealth of knowledge, having lived here for ten years. Maggie speaks fluent Spanish, so helpful for our group, given so few speak English in Ecuador. The ‘Tias’ (Aunties) who run the child centres speak no English whatsoever … Maggie is always on hand for translations and is also teaching us Spanish during the morning commute to Calderon ..

Saturday, we took a mid day break from the painting to join in on the Centre’s yearly, Family Day Celebrations. There was singing, dancing, fun contests of all sorts, a mariachi band, a full grilled luncheon for the children and their parents …. lots of celebrating and good times for everyone. Our group of fifteen formed part of the audience πŸ™‚ but we also joined in for some salsa dancing. Great day …. hard to get back to work painting after that, but paint we did, until the job was done!

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Hometown Disaster Mingles With Volunteer Post

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I have been so busy these past five days with the volunteer posting that I have barely made it to a wifi zone to check emails. My little hotel in Quito does have wifi, but frustratingly intermittent and when I finally did get coverage, to discover the havoc that Mother Nature has wrecked on Calgary, I was left almost winded with shock! Unbelievably devastating for my home town. My husband, son and brother-in-law all seem to have survived and our homes and business sites are intact, but many thousands were not so fortunate. It will take a monumental effort to clean up our wee city on the Bow, which at the moment, is a raging torrent of water flow! I cannot comprehend how much is involved to bring our city back to some form of normalcy. My blog posting has taken a bit of a hiatus due to my inability to even form a sentence at the end of days … totally exhausted and my head hits the pillow shortly after dinner ….

The American family of 14 arrived safe, sound and travel weary last Wednesday … all from Manhattan and Boston areas … as high powered, and competitive a family as I have ever met!! …. they left me reeling. They are here only for a week and man, did they get moving with our first assignment …. the painting of the Fundac funded Child Centre. With military precision, one was voted foreman, assigning all tasks, observing what we were best at, shifting us around as needed and away we flew! After three and a half days, the work is almost complete!!! Brian could have used this team of hard workers on the hotel!! Maybe I will suggest they head to Calgary for the flood clean up …. they would have it done within a week!!

This is the 15th trip they have done together as a family, but their first volunteer posting together …. Apparently, the idea for the family excursions started as a celebration for whichever child of the family was graduating from high school that year. The graduate got to chose the destination country for the celebration. This years marks their last child to graduate (four siblings, spouses and offspring) … They are thinking up ways to handle from here on in … I imagine, given this family’s ‘can do’ attitude, they will have that sewn up in no time!

The children at the Centre are lovely … I have fallen in love with them all … no surprise there :). Since we have finished our first task of painting the Centre, I imagine next week we will be working more with the children. A few pictures to share of our first days … Firstly our small familyish hotel, Sol de Quito, around the Centre, mostly of painting but did catch Steve, Matt and Colin having a bit of a rest πŸ™‚ walking to lunch as a group down a dusty road, children napping in the afternoon (several to a bed!!) and some random shots. I am a ‘good’ tired these days πŸ™‚

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La Nariz del Diablo

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Nariz del Diablo, known in English as The Devil’s Nose, is a rather touristic (as it turned out, much to my disappointment) train ride up a steep 765m mountain cliff of solid rock … built in the 1900’s and starts it’s hour and a half return ride from the tiny town of Alausi … not anywhere near as thrilling as the literature reports but a stunning scenic experience nonetheless … this country continues to surprise, it is just so beautiful! … stopped at the Inca ruins at Ingapirca on the way back to Cuenca … It is Ecuador’s mini Macchu Piccu and best preserved archaeological site, set in open fields with grazing Ilamas and the rather charming little town of Ingapirca in the background. The site was originally used as an observatory by the indigenous Canari people of the area. Had a nice lunch at the Posada in town with an Argentine couple and my English speaking guide for the day, Adrian … again, a delightful surprise as his English was excellent! We had a great conversation on the two hour drive to the train …. and again, I learned much about life in Ecuador … hard to do unless one really gets to know a country’s people. It is very difficult to get by without semi fluent Spanish or have someone available for translation. Only the hotel staff speak English at all and even among those, not all of them by any stretch …. sometimes the random stranger on the street surprises and might understand a bit, but they are far and few between … Tourism is still very new to this country, hence why English is so rare …. I wish I had researched and taken some Spanish classes in Calgary prior to coming ….. I am too accustomed to the Mexican culture where tourism has existed for decades, allowing the locals to understand and speak English quite well ….. oh well, live and learn errr…. rather, do the research, which just happens to be a weakness of mine πŸ™‚ ….. should be fun next week, communicating with children who speak little or no English at all … my Spanish should start to improve considerably …….. Si!!

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Colonial Cuenca

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What an easygoing place for quiet reflection and meditation … I am holed up at the lovely Mansion Alcazar, yet another homey, lovingly restored old house in Ecuador, in yet another World Heritage Site city, Cuenca. I am surrounded by peaceful gardens, humming with hummingbirds and step out from the front door of this beyond charming 12 room Inn, into the cobbly streets and balconied apartments of old town Cuenca. There is a church seemingly around every bend, and I wander in, often sitting a spell in quiet contemplation if not exactly prayer πŸ™‚ … some days, I go in to escape the rain which has not let up since I arrived Sunday night but it is not heavy rain and the downpour only lasts a few hours in the mornings … afternoons are usually clear and I explore the various museums, churches, coffee cafes and restaurants; Tiestos is my favourite …. the best food in town!

The Panama Hat Museum presented some interesting history and I decide on the spot, to buy a few hats from the museum shop! … For over a century, Ecuador has endured the world mistakenly crediting another country with it’s most famous export! The work involved in making these hats is quite arduous, from harvesting, to drying, to splitting the fronds … the prep work takes days, before the fine art of weaving can even begin! …. Cuenca happens to be the Center for the Panama hat trade. To an Ecuadorian, the hat is known simply as ‘sombrero de paja toquilla’ … (toquilla straw hat) or to hat connoisseurs, a Montecristi! The origin of the misnomer dates back to 1800’s when Spanish entrepreneurs began exporting these beautifully hand crafted hats via Panama. During the 19th century, workers on the Panama Canal wore these hats to protect themselves from the tropical sun ….. and when U.S. President Roosevelt wore one, well, all this helped equate the Ecuadorian hat with Panama. I shall rename my hat to honour the people who grow, harvest and weave them …. The Ecuador Hat!

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Hasta Luego Hacienda Zuleta

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Sad to leave this bucolic location and the many varied and interesting people I have met both in this little village of Zuleta, and the guests at the hacienda …. Fernando and his aunt Marcela, the amazing staff .. all of them! …. the local people from town and although no one spoke English, we communicated in very limited basic Spanish daily ….. I miss their smiles and friendly waves already … sometimes the best communication tools …. throughout the week there were two different American families … Hans from Switzerland … a road bum like me, he has taken six months off from life in Zurich “to live his life” as he aptly put it, exploring South America, Dick a global tourism consultant from the Netherlands, working with Fernando on the development of his various hacienda properties, Lucia from England, a journalist with London’s Financial Times is doing an article on Ecuador for the paper, a sweet Ecuadorian couple from Quito celebrating a 9th wedding anniversary, a large extended family of fellow Canadians from Vancouver and the Okanagan …… intrepid adventurers all! I have discovered over the years, it is not your usual tourist who ventures into the back roads of any country! The conversations around dinner are fascinating and I love how everyone willingly shares their lives, adventures and travels …..

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Otavalo Market Day

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Otavalo has hosted a weekly market for perhaps hundreds of years. A colourful, open air market where vendors hawk anything from handmade crafts to carpets, woven scarves, shawls, clothing and all manner of trinkets. The animal market is not a sight for the squeamish …… screaming piglets, bags of chickens and guinea pigs, cows, goats, sheep, horses … all for the trading or purchase. Guinea pigs roasted on a spit are an Ecuadorian favourite! My favourite were the cute little puppies which I knew would not turn up in a soup or grilled as they are in Vietnam!!! I was tempted to bring one back to the ranch πŸ™‚

The Indigena people of Otavalo wear traditional clothing, taking great pride in their appearance. Women wear white floral embroidered blouses, long wool skirts and head cloths, black canvas sandals and gold coloured beads …. the men, felt hats, blue ponchos, white pants and white sandals, with hair braided down their backs …. they are the Kichwa indigenous people of the region, and the most commercially successful of the twenty or so different indigenous peoples within Ecuador. The market was certainly evidence of that!

The ‘road’ to Otavalo was a different story …. More like a goat path on some stretches … and in parts, we had to wait ten minutes while logs were removed from the road so we could pass … yes, the back roads of far flung Ecuador πŸ™‚

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The Back Roads of Ecuador

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My home for the next week is the sixteenth century Hacienda Zuleta, a two thousand acre working farm, three hours north west of Quito set in unbelievably beautiful rolling pasture land, surrounded by forest and protected areas of native primary forest, high in the Andes Mountains. Like Quito, it sits close to 10,000 feet about sea level … huff and puff … This area is well known for it’s roses and they are everywhere!! Two dozen beautiful yellow roses were in my room upon check-in and as the days passed, were changed for red roses. Beautiful!

Hacienda Zuleta is the home of former Ecuador President, Galo Plaza Lasso (1948 – 1952) and both his father and grandfather before him, who were also Presidents of early Ecuador …. a Presidential family dynasty!!

The hacienda now belongs to Galo’s five daughters, Elsa, Luz, Rosario, Marcela and Margarita and to his only son, Galo. Fernando Polanco, a grandson of Galo Lasso, is now the general manager of Hacienda Zuleta … all in the family! The hacienda is a veritable history course about the Lasso family. Original artwork, embroidered linens, table cloths and curtains, antique furniture, family photos and travel curios are in every room. The hacienda guests and sometimes visiting family members, sit down for meals on the same table used by the Lasso family for a hundred years. Fernando shares stories of large family dinners when he was a little boy …. the table has leaves allowing 32 to sit comfortably in the dining room if need be. It is extraordinary, enjoying our meals in this historic dining room, at this old table …. the wood is well worn, smooth and beautiful.

In the late 1600’s the Bishop of Zuleta and his descendants initially owned the property for the first hundred years or so, followed by the wealthy Gangotena family of Quito for another hundred years ….. The Lasso family took it over sometime in the 1890’s and it would appear, will remain in the hands of this very large, distinguished, patrician family, for generations to come. It has been my pleasure to enjoy some meals with Fernando and his Aunt Marcela who drives from Quito regularly to check on the cows. There was a very lively discussion over lunch yesterday (‘Latin passionate’ … reminded me of political discussions around the Webb family Sunday dinner table on occasion πŸ™‚ … when Fernando’s cousin, Aunt Marcela and a family friend joined the hacienda guests … most of the conversation revolved around the business side of running the hacienda …. one becomes a member of the family here quickly … I even threw my two cents of opinion into the Latin mix πŸ™‚

The hacienda produces 6,000 litres of milk daily, processed mainly into cheese and yogurt, sold to local small communities in the area, as well as in Quito. Hundreds of cows, dozens of horses and around 2,000 sheep roam the pastures … land is also cultivated for vegetables and grains … corn and potatoes are staples everywhere in Ecuador. Everything served in their restaurant is grown on the land and is most definitely organic and delicious! I have spent the last two days, walking the land, exploring it’s many meadows with the family dog, Fido, happily following me, or rather leading the way :).

I hiked to the family condor rehabilitation Centre yesterday, which is manned by volunteers from Europe at the moment, but volunteers come from all over throughout the year …. Ecuador’s condor population dropped to fewer than 60 in the country in recent history …. the Lasso family is hoping to remedy the drastic drop in numbers with this facility.

I am totally in love with Ecuador; it’s gentle, friendly, courteous, kind people, it’s amazing and varied scenery, it’s food, it’s wild life. Every morning here at Hacienda Zuleta, during my morning walks, I pay my regards to the cows and horses! I love this farm!!!

Ecuador is the smallest and most accessible of the Andean countries and is one of the most bio diverse on the planet! They are 14 million strong, and self sustaining …. a country that cannot even remotely be called ‘third world anything’ anymore, but is very much a rapidly developing nation. They have a growing tourist industry, oil, beef, every vegetable one can think of, fruits of all sorts, roses they export, and a million other products I continue to learn about as I explore! In a space smaller than Italy, or the same size as Colorado, surprising and dramatic changes of scenery are frequent ….. much of Ecuador is off the beaten track and and truly an adventure for the senses. I am flat out humbled by it’s beauty and it’s people.

It remains one of the delights of travel for me, that I can land in a country, knowing little about it beyond the odd historical reference via books or a nature show perhaps and discover a whole amazing country full of gifts to share. Travel continues to open up a wondrous world. There is nothing like physically walking a country, inhaling it’s scent, tasting it’s food, laughing and sharing stories and histories with it’s people, swimming it’s oceans, observing it’s wildlife! My natural born wanderlust continues to be fertilized …

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Playful sea lions

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I love these pictures, not just because of the colours, which are lovely in themselves, but because it is such a delight to watch the playful nature of two entirely different species, the sea lions and turtle in their natural habitat, not stuck in a zoo or aquarium, in a space way too small and confining …. but playing in what nature has carved out for them …. in this natural tidal pool cavern, where when they tired of play, could swim out to the vast ocean. These juvenile sea lions and turtle played together much like children anywhere … one could just feel their smiles as they swam around, through, behind, over each other … almost like a game of tag …

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Fantastical GalΓ‘pagos Islands

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How to capture on a simple blog, the most peaceful five days of my life … Quite simply, I am ill equipped to do so! … and, despite a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast this morning, which did not even begin to rival the cooking skills of Louis, our chef on board the Ocean Spray, I remain in culture shock, back here in Quito. To quote my favourite singers, Deva Premal and her mate, Miten, “there is so much magnificence, in the ocean” … on both land and sea but it was the quiet, that surreal other worldly quiet and stillness, that left me moved the most … the wind the waves, the birds the sea lions … no words that would do the ambiance justice. Just know that it was magnificent.

It is the giant tortoise that gave GalΓ‘pagos it’s name … they live happily up to 150 years on both a large reserve in the rainforest island of Santa Cruz and other islands in the highlands and volcanoes … apparently 11 species live in this archipelago that is the GalΓ‘pagos. I would need to spend months here to see even a fraction of the wild life …. five days was a delightful intro. Our guide, Xavier said he has been to the Galapagos frequently and sees something new always as he walks the paths. There are thousands of birds, 19 seabird species that breed here, seven are endemic. The frigate was particularly visible everywhere we went, with it’s unusual mating ritual, whereby he blows up a huge flap of lose bright red skin that sits under his chin, flaps his extensive wing mass several times, while perched on a bush … this continues until a female flies by, is interested enough to pick the dude and mate.

The cute little blue footed boobies … booby is derived from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, meaning ‘clown’ …. with their own unusual and quite funny mating ritual of prancing and dancing, showing off their turquoise feet, opening their wings wide, pointing at the sky with their beaks … males whistle and females honk! It is all about survival on these far flung, primarily wind swept, arid, volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, 900 plus kms from mainland Ecuador. There are some lush forests in the highlands of some islands and Santa Cruz has a rainforest but dry landscape is the norm.

Most of the wildlife is fearless due to the lack of predators and one can calmly and safely walk by a blissful doe eyed resting sea lion, giant tortoise, any kind of bird, (in fact they are on the trails and one has to cautiously walk around them in order to avoid stepping on them!), marine iguanas, which are the planet’s only bathing lizard wander freely over rocky formations! … skittish Sally Lightfoot crabs with their bright orange shell and turquoise underbelly are literally everywhere clinging to seaside rocks … Nazca booby, pelicans, blue herons, red footed booby, GalΓ‘pagos penguin, the only penguin living north of the equator, lizards of every description, slithering here and there … even managed to site a few short eared owls, well camouflaged in the rocks …

It is a beautiful quiet serene place to observe life at it’s most basic … procreation and survival are pretty much it! Humans remain the islands’ greatest threat and challenge …. Limits are in place for numbers allowed on the islands, but still, I felt almost as though I should sweep my footprints as I left. Intrusion into the natural order of life in the Galapagos, no matter how cruel it may seem, as nature often is …. is strictly forbidden and severely fined …. a year ago, a kind gentleman who could not leave a tiny turtle struggling on it’s back, trying to right itself, stepped off the trails and turned it over …. upon leaving the island, he was pulled over and fined $3000 and could have been jailed …. the laws are strict. There is a huge educational component for all visitors … the naturalist guides who take us to these wild remote islands do an amazing job teaching in a kind, gentle, yet firm manner. Xavier was a lovely lovely man and taught us all so much … I was with a group of 12 others on a small catamaran capable of holding up to 16 guests plus 10 crew members. We came from everywhere …. another veritable mini UN ….. United States, Germany, Belgium, England and the crew from various parts of Ecuador and me, the token Canadian. Hopefully we did not leave a huge negative impact on the islands … may my pictures tell of the experience better than my words …..

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Slowly embracing Ecuador …

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My pitiable twenty words of Spanish … includes numbers πŸ™‚ ) …… are not nearly enough to see me through communicating in Ecuador!! I must remedy this and perhaps that will happen naturally as I move about the country! I mistakenly thought that since the year 2000, when the US$ became the legal currency in Ecuador, great strides in bilingualism would be the result …. not so! I have struggled all week ….. silly me, left my Spanish/English purse size cheat guide at home … Imagine my total delight and dismay this morning, on day six, to be greeted by my driver/guide, who spoke unbelievably good English … young Ricardo! …… after a week of communicating in some weird mixture of sign language and my pathetic Spanish … I almost cried in relief at Ricardo’s opening comment …. “Nice to meet you Mrs. Webb” …. My typical opener all week of …. “Hola, Buenos Dias, Como sta?” (communication halted about there) turned to ….. “oh my God … you speak English”?? …. Ricardo laughed … which set the tone for the rest of our day together … A delightfully cheerful companion and full of entertaining stories on the history of his country! I am constantly amazed and oh boy, so thankful for the people that cross my path in the course of my travels. At times, I am left speechless in wonder! Not only did Ricardo have excellent English, he taught beginner classes at university for a few years! Of all his friends and family, including his fiancΓ©, he stands alone as the only one, not only fluent in English but the only one who speaks it at all! … he regularly encourages them but has thus far been unsuccessful. An ambitious young man, he has enrolled in further studies to perfect his English further ..

We drove through lush green jungly terrain for a few hours to arrive in the hippy vibe small town of Mindo …. Judging by the age and gear of the scattering of tourists on the streets and cafes, most were here to set off on adventures in extreme sports and climbing expeditions …. this tiny town, set in a fairy tale moist cloud forest would appear to be the start off point … walked through a butterfly research Center, watching colourful hummingbirds and butterflies flitter about, explored the few streets that make up this charming ramshackle town, checking out a chocolate “factory” nearby … had no idea these beans were encased in a shell resembling a papaya!! … dozens of cocoa beans in one big pod …. Although reluctant at first, as I rarely enjoy a desert other than fruit, I felt it rude not to at least sample the gracious gift from the young man who took Ricardo and I through the life cycle of the cocoa bean …. It was a delicious and smooth 95% pure chocolate brownie, flavoured with a just a hint of chilli pepper … this country may yet turn me into a lover of chocolate ….

Of course I found my requisite church … A small intimate little building … only one in town as far as I could tell.

Stopped enroute back to Quito, at the purported location of the equator (Ecuador actually derived its name from the location of the equator, researched by Finnish scientists in the 1800’s who determined Ecuador to be the prime spot to measure the bulge of the equator ….. fascinating ….. who knew?…. Finnish scientists?? … really?? …. love learning these tidbits of info as I travel along πŸ™‚ … rumour has it that the actual and bulge of the (not a literal bulge :), equator “line” is a few hundred meters from this spot, in a deep ravine on land owned by the indigenous people of the region … military GPS has tagged it so …. regardless of the rumour, I enjoyed my stint, straddling the equator, watching water drain clock and counter clockwise … a harmless and fun tourist attraction!

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Quito … old town, new town

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My lungs kicked in on day two in Quito! … deciding 9,500 feet above sea level was just fine (Calgary sits at slightly over 3,000) … I strapped on my trusty tevas and huffed and puffed along the cobbly streets of old town Quito, exhilarated to be exploring after a lay low day … San Francisco has nothing on this hillside city perched high in the Andes Mountains! Can’t say this is my favourite city in the world exactly but it is a great start off point for exploring parts of the very diverse geography of Ecuador … I am currently in cruise mode as I take in the lay of the land, adjusting for altitude … rushing has never been my forte at any rate … After a good solid hour of scaling cobbly uphills and downhills, I found a comfy cafe perch in the old town square, to people watch, inhaling the atmosphere of the country, enjoying a coffee, served with chocolates that were delicious!! Apparently Ecuador is known for the exceptional quality of their coffees and chocolates … will be testing that theory as I explore. I lingered even longer, later in the afternoon, at Casa Gangotena in the main old town square, enjoying the ambiance, sipping a smooth Malbec and savouring the tastiest barley mushroom risotto ever! There are magnificent cathedrals (thanks to the early Jesuit missionaries) seemingly around every corner …. I walk into some of them and sit awhile ….. something I have always enjoyed doing, whatever country I find myself in …. I enjoy the peace within …. the main Quito Basilica is an architectural marvel!! …. churches for some reason, seem to be, more often than not, on hillsides, or accessible only by walking a million stairs! Maybe the religious powers of their time, when building these churches wanted their congregation out of breath and happy to rest awhile …. πŸ™‚ It is apparent that the early Jesuits did their job well…. Catholicism is a powerful force in South America in general and certainly seems to be the case in Ecuador! …..

In 1978 Quito was declared the First UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered the largest and best preserved historic Centre in the Americas! The lovely Casa Gangotena, is a newly restored historic mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco and has been included in the city’s cultural heritage inventory. In recent history, the wealthy Ecuador Gangotena family turned their mansion into a 31 room “Inn” ….. it was almost destroyed by fire in the early 1900’s and rebuilt and restored to it’s former glory by a team from Italy … I decided, after my amazing lunch, to book my last two nights in Quito in July, at this fabulous place! It is the large pinkish building in the square.

Did I mention I have not seen a tourist in two days?? The pictures of the town squares are virtually empty of people …. just handfuls of local folk, peddling their wares, lots of pigeons and me ….. except when school lets out and kids flood the streets …… decked out in their various school uniforms.

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