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 🙂 I woke up this morning (around 4:30 am … thankfully I had crashed early 🙂 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 🙂 Not a bad wake up call after all 🙂 … 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 🙂 ….. 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!
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 🙂 … 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 ….
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 🙂 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 Galápagos 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.
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!
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 🙂 … 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 …
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 🙂 …. 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 🙂 !! Maybe they were too shy … singing as a group is way easier for communication 🙂 … 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 🙂
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 ….
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!
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 🙂 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!