Still Wandering

Vagabond. My new favorite word. 

I never knew at this, last third of my life, I would be a vagabond. Not only that, but I that I would personify all three phases of the word: noun, adjective AND verb. 

I am The Vagabond – a person who wanders from place to place without a home or a job. I am a vagabond wanderer, having no settled home. And I am vagabonding – wandering about. 

My husband and I left our Cuenca home in mid-February for a month-long trip through Argentina and Chile. We packed for an experience comprised mostly of hiking, took minimal toiletries, and two books. We left things normally packed for trips to the United States, like U.S. driver’s licenses, U.S. medical insurance cards and computer drives. 

Who knew our idyllic vacation would be cut short by a worldwide virus?  

With less than 48 hours’ notice, we were told to return to Ecuador, or the borders would be closed. With flights strained and then cancelled, we struggled to make our way home from Chile. I was down with a sinus infection, so not much help to my husband and my daughter, both frantically working phones and schedules. 

Caught between being ill at an airport already on high alert for Covid-19, hoping our flight would make it to Quito, and taking a direct flight to Texas, we opted for the latter. 

On March 15, we landed in Houston, and instantly became vagabonds. 

My daughter and son-in-law graciously housed us in quarantine for the first 10 weeks.  

Then, my husband got the news that a nationally recognized orthopedic surgeon would evaluate him for an ankle replacement if we could get to Denver. After several cancelled flights due to the spreading virus, we elected to drive. That led to our first night in a hotel in the coronavirus era. Armed with Clorox wipes and gloves, I cleansed everything in the room before allowing my husband in. 

The next day, we checked into a Denver hotel. Same routine. Then to the doctor, where full precautions were in place. After the appointment, we drove to our rustic cabin (read no phone, no TV or internet) in New Mexico, and the next day landed at our son’s home in El Paso, Texas. There, we quarantined nearly two weeks before returning to Dallas. 

Mike was accepted for surgery and scheduled for June 26. We collected most of our belongings (still traveling with the same three suitcases we left home with) and left behind two bags packed for our optimistic return to Ecuador. 

After his successful ankle implant, Mike and I spent two weeks in an Airbnb in the Denver area to recuperate. It was someone else’s home, so it got the Paternoster cleansing treatment. But we were happy to have two weeks in one place. 

The expense and separation from family prompted a move back to El Paso, this time to our son’s vacant rental home.  Simple, clean and bright, it was furnished only with a double bed, a single bed, a table for four, one leather recliner and one outdoor patio recliner. Sparse, for sure, but all we needed.  

We settled in. I even started a 1,000-piece puzzle. 

Then came the news that my son’s live-in girlfriend might have been exposed to Covid-19. She is a speech pathologist employed in a nursing facility. Twenty-five patients and one co-worker had tested positive. My son, planning to drive to Denver with us for the last medical appointment, needed a place to quarantine. So once again, we moved on. 

One more Airbnb, with the Paternoster cleansing routine, in the El Paso countryside. 

One more trip to Denver and one more Airbnb in the mountains. 

One more trip to our rustic cabin, void of Wi-Fi, radio, television and telephone, for final recuperation and physical therapy. 

From March through August: eight homes, five hotel rooms. 

On August 14, Ecuador’s current state of emergency proclamation will be extended or lifted. Under current conditions, it is difficult, though not impossible, to get to Cuenca. But lifting the order would be helpful. Of course, the pendulum could swing in the opposite direction, with the President electing to close the borders again. 

At least until September, we remain, vagabonds. 

Then. Maybe. Home. 

Launching History

Thom Bauer/Reuters

Tears streamed down my face as I watched SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket take off this afternoon from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

I am steeped in emotion.  

Thankful that all went as planned, I praise God and scientists for the two men safely in orbit. My son and daughter and I are trading joyful texts, each of us glued to the coverage in our respective cities.  

I embrace a glimmer of pride for the agencies that have persevered in space travel, despite the retraction of financial support on a national level. I feel immense relief, not only for the astronauts and their families, but for my daughter’s sister-in-law, a member of Crew Dragon, whose entire career has been devoted to the spacecraft’s success. 

As a child, I saw every televised, manned launch in the mid- to late 60s, curled up on a couch next to my mother and brother. Sometimes she woke us from a sound sleep in the dark of night, carrying us into the living room for each momentous occasion. 

I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of space travel when I was an adolescent. But as the years rolled by, I gained an appreciation, fascination and deep respect for the U.S. space program. 

Saturday, after nine years of being grounded, our country soared again. Together with NASA, SpaceX launched astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on their journey to the International Space Station. The mission marks the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 that humans will fly to the space station from U.S. soil. The mission’s first launch attempt on Wednesday, May 27 was scrubbed due to weather conditions.  

But Saturday was perfect. 

As the two men barrel toward their ultimate destination, I remember my mother’s face, lit up with excitement as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969. I hear my brother’s rapid-fire questions bombarding her with the confidence that she had all the answers. It was the day before her 42nd birthday, and we pretended it was part of our planned celebration. Later, I cross-stitched a replica of the landing for her, a gift she treasured until her death.  

Ironically, today’s launch occurred at Cape Canaveral’s Pad 39A, called Cape Kennedy in the 60s, the site from which Apollo 11 launched to the moon. It also hosted 82 of the 135 space shuttle launches, including the first and final ones. 

Today’s mission also brought home memories to my husband. At 19, he was gifted enough to work with astronauts at NASA on several Apollo flights. His claim to fame still is the design of the antennae on the backpacks worn by the astronauts on the moon. He watched today’s crystal-clear video of the rocket and closeups of the astronauts, marveling at the difference in the grainy black-and-white footage of early space flights. 

Watching today’s footage and considering the human cargo, I thought also of my daughter, who, at 10, thought she would be an astronaut. When I was offered an opportunity to take her to the NASA space center outside of Houston for a personalized visit, I jumped at the chance. There she met my friend, former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. 

Bonnie is a veteran of five space flights, having logged more than 50 days in space. She served as a mission specialist on a Challenger mission in 1985, and on a Columbia shuttle in 1990. She was the Payload Commander in 1992, 1995 and 1998.  

Bonnie had Megan enthralled within minutes of meeting. One of her most memorable contributions to my daughter’s space education was when she gave her a private tour of a Shuttle mockup. She let Megan see for herself that astronauts could, in fact, use a toilet in space.  

But I watched my child’s space dream evaporate the moment Bonnie told her that books were not allowed in space. They would take up valuable space, she told Megan, and besides, astronauts did not have time to read! Megan’s books were carried with her like an extra appendage and, at that time, there were no audio books. Just like that, the idea of becoming an astronaut was obliterated. 

Still, my family’s love affair with all things space has continued over the years, but from afar. Today’s success rekindled the sweetness of hope in the future, in a time when life seems especially challenging. 

Not only has private enterprise attained what so many said was impossible, but it has gone further in a quest to reclaim resources. Shortly after the astronauts made it to orbit, SpaceX celebrated its second achievement of the day – landing the Falcon 9 booster’s first stage on the SpaceX drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, waiting patiently in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Today’s historic launch was exhilarating. I am overwhelmed to have witnessed it. I pray for a successful completion of the mission, and many more to come. 

I just wish my mom and brother had been alive, curled up on the couch with me, to witness it. 

Thom Bauer/Reuters

Lessons From a Strike

Idyllic doesn’t mean immune.

The past two years have been the most peaceful, calm and stressless of my life. But for the first time in my experience, reliance on public transportation literally brought my life to a standstill.

Last Thursday, transit unions statewide responded to Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno’s austerity policies with a statewide strike. The policies, enacted in response to the International Monetary Fund’s requirements for economic belt-tightening in exchange for billions of dollars in loans, increased the cost of gasoline and diesel to record levels almost overnight.

In response, transportation unions across the country called for a work stoppage. Thousands of taxis and buses were idled, or left blocking major streets.

Lesson #1. The strike reminded me, even in paradise, isyllic does not mean immune. The snake exists. I no longer feel insulated or untouchable, but more aware and educated. Not a bad lesson for anyone, anywhere.

Lesson #2. I live in a walkable city, but the vast majority of Cuencanos are dependent on public transportation. Like no city I have lived in, a transportation strike affects every resident. Even if you are blessed with a car in Ecuador, you have nowhere to go. If streets aren’t blocked, your favorite restaurant is closed because its employees could not get to work. The pharmacy remains shuttered, if not for the same reason, then for fear of looting. Garbage accumulates as drivers wait for roads to be cleared. Regularly scheduled events – for us, a breakfast, a dinner and an evening concert – were cancelled out of an abundance of caution. We now have a gas shortage because delivery trucks cannot cross barricades across major roads.

Lesson #3. Freedom of speech is taken literally here. We talk a good game in the U.S., but there is blatant censorship and rules attempting to dictate when and where we speak. Surprisingly, there is little recrimination in the U.S. for libel without costly court battles. In Ecuador, there is an immediate legal response that most often sides against the perpetrator.

Lesson #4. Demonstrations are a regular, healthy part of life. There is unspoken respect between marchers and authority figures and there are no barriers to public protests such as applying for permits. The first day of the transit strike was an exception to the status quo, when a small group of young rabble-rousers chose to bring stones and paintballs to the party. That led to a disintegration of respect – and dilution of the message – as police lobbed tear gas throughout the city.

The second day of the strike saw more peaceful protests. Students sitting in the streets, hands and backpacks raised to signal their harmonious intentions, were met with silent watchfulness from officers stationed at barricades.

We had the weekend off, with a return of transportation and “normal” activities. However access to Cuenca from most every point in the state is impeded by blockades set up by the indigenous residents of Ecuador. The blockades also are preventing travel and the delivery of such staples as food and gasoline.

Lesson #5. Responsibility is an individual commitment. Many of us stayed home. Most expats will not feel the weight of new and pending economic reforms other than a pinch on coin purses when paying for public transportation or gas. But we are not exempt. As guest citizens, we have a responsibility to peacefully engage in the discussion without inserting ourselves into violent actions. We all want to preserve Ecuador as the tranquil retreat we have grown to love.

Lesson #6. Tear gas is serious stuff.

Having been caught off guard by approaching demonstrators during a lunch date, I was surprised by a sudden increase in violence.

It was my first encounter with tear gas, which was fascinating to a writer, but brutal as a human. My burning eyes filled with tears, uncontrolled as they spilled down my cheeks. My nose burned with more ferocity than any horseradish I ever tasted. My throat was scorched by an abrasion I had no way of soothing. Worse, my face burned. I never knew the chemicals settling onto my exposed skin could cause a stinging sensation akin to a first-degree sunburn.

My friend and I were holed up in a favorite small restaurant. We were unaware the block had become the center of violence until the smell of tear gas crept through the small eatery entrance. The restaurateurs were experts. They herded us into the kitchen, at the back of the restaurant, where the tear gas had not permeated. They boiled herbs – including lemon grass – and put the steamy concoctions between us on the table.

As the demonstrators and police clashed outside, the restaurateurs dropped metal shutters across the entrance and sealed us in. The gas passed, and we were able to enjoy our lunch.

When it was time to go, the restaurant owner somberly shook his head. The metal shutter covering the door would not be lifted. The conflict gained new life just outside and tear gas, again, was leaking into the restaurant. He herded us back into the kitchen, replaced the boiling herbs and served us a glass of wine.

Finally, we got approval to escape through a side entrance.

The eatery owner smiled at us, handed us a cloth to cover our noses and mouths, and said, “Run!”

We laughed, thinking he was overreacting, and stepped out into the bright sunshine. We looked left, toward home, and saw advancing demonstrators, so we turned right. There, ahead of us, were police in riot gear, stretched shoulder-to-shoulder across the road, armed with tear gas cannons. Behind us, protesters started throwing rocks. Ahead of us, police raised their shields and tear gas. We ran!

That was the only time I felt anxious – an insecurity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a battle that was not mine. As we rounded a corner to safety, I thought about the peaceful, informative climate change march just three weeks ago. Unlike that tranquil demonstration, this message of concern for economic well-being was disintegrating into violence perpetuated by a small gang who had more interest in divisive action than advocating for policy change.

Lesson #7. Cuenca is resilient. Two days later, all was business as usual. The sounds of braking buses and honking taxis filled the air. The sun was shining and the lingering smoke had drifted away. Conversations conveyed concerns for the future, but spread into sports and gossip and other news of the day.

The students came back, but this time, to help authorities clean up the streets that had been damaged by demonstrators the days before.

Without a doubt, something has changed. Transportation union leaders have vowed to maintain the fight despite President Moreno’s insistence he will not back down. The country is lurching into a new period of unpopular austerity measures and inevitable changes in the economy. The indigenous peoples throughout the country continue to block roads and march on the capital.

Our local supermarkets are looking like U.S. stores in advance of approaching hurricanes. Lines are growing in search of gas, which most of us use for cooking and heating water.

About 200 people wait in line to fill canisters with gas. Photo by El Mercurio

There is a lot of uncertainty about how long the unrest will last statewide. There are many issues to resolve and no clear path to compromise.

I have to believe the people of Ecuador, who have inspired and enlightened me for two years, will find a quick resolution. I am keeping the faith.

Coffee Cupping in Chaucha

Here’s a mixed metaphor for you – I’ve learned to stop and smell the coffee.

Normally I would smell the roses, but last week I had an opportunity to experience a “coffee cupping” at my new favorite daytrip destination – Hacienda Santa Marta in San Gabriel de Chaucha.

Coffee cupping, or cup tasting, is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. It allows tasters to compare and contrast coffees against each other, giving a better understanding of each coffee.

In the cupping process, coffees are scored for characteristics ranging from fragrance and flavor to aftertaste, acidity and mouthfeel.

Mouthfeel? Is that even a word? As we worked our way through various samples, we considered whether the coffee tasted buttery, creamy, smooth, rich, velvety, watery, oily, dry, chalky, rough, astringent, or metallic. THAT is mouthfeel.

Martha and Tony Camp led a group of Cuencano visitors through Coffee 101. The owners of Hacienda Santa Marta grow coffee on their 200-acre plantation, as well as sugarcane, orchids and enough fruits and vegetables to make trendy farm-to-table enthusiasts drool.

The couple, formerly from West Virginia, bought the hacienda nearly a decade ago. They have restored it to its more than 150-year-old splendor and recently began offering tours to educate visitors to the rich heritage of its indigenous Ecuadorians.

On this tour, we compared three varieties of unnamed coffees. We learned the proper way to slurp and spit, then ranked each with a mind-boggling lists of adjectives.

I’ve never thought of coffee as floral. But there it was. We heard a lot of votes for chocolate. Some went for fruity. And hidy. What the heck is hidy?

The best coffee is not necessarily those with the darkest grounds. And strong or bold are simplistic terms only drinkers use. Specialty coffees have so many variables affecting their taste it is “mind boggling,” Martha explains. The origin of the coffee, processing at origin, storage, and roasting techniques change the flavor.

And brewing – don’t even get her started. Coffee changes with water temperatures, the length of time the water is in contact with the coffee, the amount of coffee used and, of course, the type of device used to brew the coffee.

After smelling, tasting, sipping, and spitting, we voted. The majority found number two to be the winner – Hacienda Santa Maria’s own blend! Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world.

Unfortunately, Ecuador cannot compete in the lucrative coffee market. Martha told us thatcoffee crops are both labor intensive and a global commodity. Labor laws and high minimum wage standards in Ecuador mean that it cannot compete with the rest of the world, especially the growing number of producers for specialty coffee in Southeast Asia and some African nations where labor is inexpensive.

After the cupping, we tour the crops, where we learned how to determine the maturity of beans and how they are picked from the trees. In the greenhouse we saw drying racks for coffee beans and rows of neatly potted coffee plant seedlings waiting to be transplanted in outside fields. We learned about grinding and roasting in special clay pots over an open fire.

Our tour ended with another delicious meal prepared by Martha, showcasing a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits from the hacienda’s gardens. And, of course, delicious coffee.

It’s a three-hour, rugged drive each way between the Hacienda and Cuenca, but spectacular scenery keeps you spellbound along the way. The property has boundless trails leading down to the Rio Malacatos, where we tried our hand at gold panning, and stretching west to a series of accessible waterfalls.

The Camps’ next tours focus on the “campesino life,” offering glimpse into 100-year-old traditional life on the farm. Visitors will meet local artists and residents, taste foods prepared on a fogon, examine the components of traditional dress, learn Quichwa words, and hear local legends. Transportation is included.

By the way. Hidy? I had to search through a number of dictionaries online but finally got the gist. The adjective. Hidy is rarely used and means of or pertaining to hides. In coffee, it means having a characteristic leathery taste.

Contact the Camps at, or, for more information, see the website at

Cotopaxi Calls

I’m a mountain girl. I guess that’s why I ended up in the Andes of Ecuador.

When I had the opportunity to visit Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second tallest active volcano at 19,347 feet, (the first is Chimborazo), I grabbed it. I’m a hiker, but not a mountain climber, so this first visit was to check out the lay of the land.

Cotopaxi is one of the most beautiful sites in Ecuador. Its nearly perfect cone is perennially snowcapped. Often, people flying into Quito can see it peeking above the clouds. On clear, sunny days, Quiteños can see it from many vantage points on the ground. Its name is believed to come from the indigenous Quechua language meaning “neck of the moon.”

Time out for a quick geology lesson.

Cotopaxi is among the most powerful of four volcano categories. It’s a stratovolcano, (or composite volcano) composed of layers of hardened lava, tephra, and volcanic ash. These volcanoes are characterized by a steep profile and periodic, explosive eruptions. The lava that flows from them is highly viscous, and cools and hardens before spreading very far. The three other types are cinder cones, shield volcanoes and lava domes.

Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times, resulting in the creation of numerous valleys formed by mudflows around the volcano. It’s the world’s fifth highest active volcano. The last eruption lasted from August 2015 to January 2016. The park was closed to climbing until the fall of that year.

Just 31 miles south of Quito, Cotopaxi is the centerpiece of its own national park.

Our family of five was taken there by Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring (our favored driver anytime we visit Quito). Our first stop was Limpiopungo (clean door) laguna, at the foot of the extinct Rumiñahui volcano. Ruminahui – Stone Face, named after the last indigenous warrior to resist the Spanish invasion – towers 15,489 feet within the park. There is an easy hiking path around the lake with spots to stop and observe the wildlife. We were lucky to see a number of birds, including the liplig, Andean ducks and coots.

Back in the car over washboard dirt roads, we left the lagoon just in time to see some wild ponies leisurely feeding on the vast, open grassland. Next stop: Hosteria Tambopaxi, the only hotel inside Cotopaxi National Park. The hotel has a great restaurant, rooms and camping areas. But we came for the horseback riding.

Tambopaxi offers guided rides of two to eight hours across the páramo – the alpine, treeless plateau at the foot of Cotopaxi. Though we were between rain showers and promised more precipitation, we were all in. Once saddled and on our way, we had time to enjoy the vast rocky landscape, pitted with lava and multi layered sedimentary rock.

The ride was well worth our time, on well-mannered and able horses matched to our abilities.

Once back at the stable, with the skies threatening to split once again, we headed for the restaurant. There we were treated to a variety of delicious dishes, including maracuya, or passion fruit, chicken, and herb-crusted trucha, or trout.

Finally, it was time to drive to the summit trailhead. With the parking area at 14, 760 feet, the air was noticeably thinner – and colder. The trail leads to the José Ribas refuge, just another 1,000 feet higher. Also known as “base camp,” the refuge is just an hour’s walk, but at that altitude can be challenging. Mountain climbers seeking to summit the peak often overnight at the refuge before tackling the ascent.

If you can catch Cotopaxi on a sunny day, the view from this point is staggering. Seemingly still rising miles above you, it is ethereal. Its peak seems painted white, so picturesquely snow-capped it looks like a luscious desert. There are always clouds, but if you wait long enough, they move quickly to give peeks and glimpses that astound.

Cotopaxi is well worth a visit, and easy to get to on public transportation or by taxi. Buses between Quito’s southern Quitumbe terminal and Latacunga can drop you off in Machachi ($1.50, 1 hour) which is the city closest to the park or directly at the intersection to the park entrance. Buses also stop at this intersection to come back to Quito or Latacunga.

Of course, since there is no public transportation within the park, you’ll need to hire a taxi. Instead, take my recommendation and hire the English-speaking guides from EcuaTouring.

Don’t miss it!

Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring may be reached at +593 995198944, and

Experiencing Real Ecuador

An ooey, gooey mess dripped from finger to finger. I had to act quickly, performing delicate hand acrobatics, to prevent the sugary confection from falling on the ground. But I was in heaven.

Or, more correctly, I was back in El Paso, Texas, just six years old. I was standing on a chair in the kitchen, with my mom and brother, laughing as we pulled taffy between us. Literally, a sweet memory!

Now, I was at Hacienda Santa Marta, deep in the breathtaking Cajas National Park nestled in the Andes of Ecuador. A guest of Martha and Tony Camp, I was on a sugar cane harvest tour, savoring every moment.

The road to the Hacienda is not for the feint-of-heart. Something like Disneyland’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” it includes two hours on mountainous, rocky dirt roads. But on arrival, you forget the journey to embrace – with all your senses – the goal.

Hacienda Santa Marta is perched high on a mountainside overlooking verdant green valleys pocked with fluffy white clouds. As far as the eye can see are flowers, fruit trees, and the greenest of trees, all covered by an intangible blanket of peace.

Fragrances range from blooming flowers to the citrusy bite of the shot of mapanagua the 153 proof white rum distilled from sugar cane, laced with lemon juice. The feel of the woody, peeled sugar cane in your hands contrasts the subdued sweetness we sucked into our mouths.

The Camps came to Ecuador 10 years ago in search of a dream. He wanted orchids in the cloud forest. She wanted a colonial house.

They found both in an abandoned 1800s plantation in San Gabriel de Chaucha. Historically known for its Trago, or white rum, the plantation is far off the beaten path. Ironically, it was christened with the same name as its owner – Marta – hundreds of years ago.

No one is sure how it got its name, but Martha comes from the Bible, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. According to the Hacienda’s website, the siblings were among those persecuted as followers of Jesus Christ in the first century AD. The trio was set adrift on the Mediterranean Sea without paddles and finally made landfall in Southern France.

“They debarked in a small village that was being tormented by a fire-breathing dragon that torched their crops and land. The people huddled inside their homes in fear of the dragon,” the website reports. “Martha, with the power of the Holy Spirit, slew the dragon and set free the citizens to return to prosperity and fullness of life. Martha is the only female dragon slayer in history. She is also the patron saint of homemaking and housekeeping.”

The Camps spent three long years restoring the Santa Marta Hacienda to its glory. And restored it is. The couple rebuilt and created additions with handmade adobe bricks, sun-dried on site. Forgoing modern farming implements, the field workers use machetes to harvest cane, the solitary fire-tender slowly stirs sugar mixtures in a giant copper kettle and yoked bulls stamp endlessly in a circle to grind the sugar cane. 

The Hacienda produces a variety of sugar cane products: guarapo (cane juice), chicha (fermented cane juice similar to beer), miel de cana (cane syrup, and panela (natural brown sugar).

Our tour left Cuenca at 7 a.m., winding through the Cajas along the back roads. Arriving at the Hacienda a couple of hours later, we were met by Martha’s beaming smile and a taste test of sugary-based drinks and liqueurs. Afterward, we tried our hands at the machete and learned how the cane is replanted from a simple whittled stalk.

One volunteer fed cane into a central cylinder while another encouraged the bulls, used as draft animals, to power the grinder.

We were amazed by the ancient-looking, ragtag still that delivers a stream of alcohol via a cane chute.

Then we were called back to the main house to enjoy a gourmet lunch created by Martha using the vegetables, fruits and meat of her own lands.

The unique excursions are $60 and include transportation from Cuenca. The Camps are planning additional excursions soon.

Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world. The Camps’ next tours focus on their coffee crops. Visitors will have taste tests, experience picking coffee, learn about processing techniques, enjoy a gourmet lunch and relax in the orchid garden. Tours return to Cuenca at 7 p.m.

Soon, the Camps hope to offer a hike through their cloud forest in search of orchids. Tony has identified more than 100 species already. He will lead hikers along an ancient Canari road, past stunning waterfalls, and close to a local sacred site. After a picnic on the shore of the Rio Malacatos, the hike returns through the cloud forest on a mission to spot local birds.

Another planned tour will focus on artisanal cheese making. Visitors will enjoy a refreshing batido or leche de tigre and an opportunity to milk a cow. They may participate in the cheese making process and sample a variety of cheeses, before enjoying the traditional gourmet lunch.

For those wanting to extend their adventure, the Camps offer overnight accommodations. They have two guest rooms for rent, ranging from $20 to $40 nightly, with discounts for extended stays. Meals are extra.

The Camps currently have limited space available for a Sept. 20 coffee tour. Contact them at For more information, see the website at

Sharing the Ocean

There is nothing quite like swimming in tandem with a gentle sea creature almost four times your size.

Snorkling is usually a solitary, calming ocean sport. You gently paddle where you want to go, letting the currents carry you over what you want to see. When an unexpected 20-foot whale shark crossed my line of vision while snorkeling recently, I literally gasped underwater.

I raised my head to check my bearings and clear my snorkel. Then I started swimming. I swam faster than I had in all my life.

Delighted to be wearing a top-quality pair of strong fins, I was able to keep up with the seemingly mythical creature next to me. Nearly matching him stroke for stroke, I wanted to reach out and touch his glistening, bumpy skin. I didn’t, because near the Isla de Mujeres off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, whale sharks are fiercely protected.

Whale sharks are filter feeding carpet sharks, the largest species of any fish. Unlike whales, sharks are not mammals. The whale shark carries its name due to its massive size, which can be as long as 40 feet.

They pose no predatory threat as their diets are composed of plankton and small fish. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t beware of these creatures. His powerful tail, the one our boat captain warned us to beware of, slapped my son on the shoulder and he felt it!

The whale shark’s skin general is dark gray, with a white belly. It is polka-dotted, with pale gray or white spots and stripes that serve as unique identifiers. The fish has five sets of working gills.

Frankly, it was the whale shark’s head that intrigued me most.

Unlike most of its cousins, the whale shark has a round, flat head. The mouth is at the front of the face, instead of underneath.

Would I have been so calm watching that yawning mouth come toward me if we had not just been educated about their diet? Inside the nearly five-foot-wide mouth are as many as 350 rows of tiny teeth, constantly filtering tiny particles of food.

In Cancun, you can snorkel with the whale sharks for a fee. My children and two of their friends joined me in a recent, exhilarating excursion.

The whales come to the same spot about an hour off the coast every single year. How they know they are home in the middle of the ocean, I’ll never know. They come for the abundant krill in the warm waters, then move on to the next destination to mate or give birth.

As a scuba diver for more than 30 years, I long for underwater encounters like these. After 100s of dives, my stories revolve around a handful of favorites: the time I gingerly held a pregnant male seahorse; the cave that became a nightmare as 10 divers crowded in and panicked, stirring up silt; the lurking sharks circling us in the Blue Hole; the whirling dervish of barracuda spinning like a cyclone in Malaysia.

Now, I add the whale sharks of Mexico to the list. Technically, they don’t belong on my diving experience tally, but what the heck. I didn’t even have to strap on my  weighty gear or sink far below the surface to be thrilled.

And what a thrill it was.

My El Paso


Downtown El Paso looking toward the mountains in Juarez, Mexico

You tell yourself it can happen anywhere. But when it does happen, you can’t contain your shock.

My hometown just became the site of one of the 10 worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

El Paso, Texas was a sleepy, international community for most of my life. As a child, we freely walked or drove across the bridges from El Paso into Juarez, Mexico for shopping, visiting friends and eating great food. That changed, in later years, as the increase in drug traffic made crossing dangerous. Drug wars prevented many of us from enjoying the multi-cultural village that had become a cross-border international community. And now, of course, it is all about controlling immigration.

On Saturday, Aug. 3, a hate-filled young man from North Texas walked into El Paso’s mid-city Walmart and shot to kill. According to a published manifesto the FBI has attributed to the shooter, he was fueled by a hatred for Hispanics. We may never know if he researched the most likely spots to find a high percentage of Hispanics, but that mall is an El Paso favorite among Mexican shoppers. He succeeded in gunning down 22 individuals. Another two dozen were hospitalized or treated for injuries, while authorities have confessed some victims illegally in the U.S. may have left the scene, fearful of being deported.

Not my town. Not El Paso, Texas, ranked the safest city in the country the past three years. I can’t begin to tell you the gamut of emotions I have felt. And the pride I have felt as the residents of my former town rally together.

We don’t know all the victims’ names yet. By the grace of God, my family members are not among them. My best friend’s daughter was barricaded inside the restaurant she worked in – safe – until the all clear was given. My daughter’s best friend’s husband was a first responder. Former journalism colleagues sweated out the hot sun until the story was told, and one was forced to seek medical treatment for the heat.

A number of friends shop in that Walmart, some of whom noted they had been in just a day earlier or neglected to go on Saturday as planned.

Other friends stood in hours’ long lines to give blood, lines that stretched around the building until organizers had to appeal to potential givers to stay home. Local funeral homes – Martin, San Jose and Perches – are absorbing all costs associated with burying victims in support of their families.

67582172_10217527713298935_7581264975688105984_nThose are the things I do know. What I don’t know is how to deal with the aftermath. El Paso has joined a new fraternity, ranked on a national list we never aspired to.

I don’t have the answers, but there has to be a conversation about the sanctity of life. This conversation – between lawmakers who CAN do something – must lead to action. I don’t agree with those advocating for action as a replacement for prayers. I do believe continued prayer is crucial WHILE legislators take action.

kate gannon

photo by Kate Gannon

I do not understand racism. I cannot fathom xenophobia – the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners. Our country has strayed far from the innocence of my youth, when I played happily in the modest home of a cotton picker’s daughter and later developed a relationship with a black journalist who could not be closer to me than by own sisters. I fear for my grandchildren, who are inheriting a world of fear and hate.

So I continue to pray, because it is all I can do at the moment. Meanwhile, we try to find ways to channel our anger and helplessness into a positive outcome. There are many already stepping out to lead the charge.

My friend and former pastor Ellen Fenter posted this in the aftermath of the shooting:

Step into the light.
Embrace reality.
Live lives of courage and commitment and clarity.
Stand against the darkness and call it what it is.
Free your hearts from a political and economic agenda that imitates safety but welcomes demagoguery and hate.
Fuel yourself on love and understanding and goodness by entering the fray and serving in the trenches of otherness.

Manuel Oliver, father of Joaquin, one of the 17 high school students massacred last year in Parkland, had his own words of advice. He just happened to be in El Paso on the day of the mass shooting.

“In the next 10 days you will find teddy bears, crosses and balloons, then people forget. Don’t let this happen,” Oliver said. “This will never be the same city again, I can tell you that.”

Richard Wiles, sheriff of El Paso County, agreed.

“This Anglo man came here to kill Hispanics. I’m outraged and you should be too. This entire nation should be outraged,” Wiles said.

“In this day and age, with all the serious issues we face, we are still confronted with people who will kill another for the sole reason of the color of their skin.

57e94faf3e904.image“It’s time to rise up and hold our representatives accountable at all levels. I want representatives who will stand up against racism. Who will stand up and support the diversity of our nation and our state. Who will stand up for a strong criminal justice system that holds criminals responsible and keeps violent individuals locked up and off our streets. Who support robust community mental health services. Who support keeping guns out of the hands of people who are just waiting for an opportunity to kill others,’ Wiles said.

My extended family is split on this issue. Many protect the second amendment as a sacred right, refusing to consider any change that might weaken it, in their eyes. Others, including me, believe changes are imperative.

It took a year and a half to enact a federal ban on bump stocks after the mass killings in Las Vegas. With pressure on legislators, we could begin with a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Background checks should be required for all gun purchases. If the voting public would push back against the powerful gun lobby, we could develop stricter government tracking of weapons used in crimes and improvements to the collection and sharing of data between law enforcement agencies.

According to the FBI, the racist El Paso shooter left a manifesto claiming his massacre was a “response to the Hispanic invasion.” It accuses the Democratic Party of “pandering to the Hispanic voting bloc,” and expresses his contempt for “race mixing” and supports “sending them back.”

That last comment reminded me of a conversation I had with a privileged family member after I moved my two small children to El Paso in the mid-90s. She asked me about my adolescent daughter’s choice to go to a public, rather than private, school. “Aren’t you afraid she will date a Mexican?” the family member asked. I was floored at her blatant xenophobia, but all I could say is that there was a good chance she would, and that I would look forward to meeting him.

Education has to begin now, at home, with our children. We can’t afford to raise another generation that includes fear-mongering, racist citizens. And while I am fully in favor of increasing funding and access to mental health nationwide, we need to separate the issues. As a recent Internet meme said, “Racism is NOT a mental disorder; it is a conscious decision to hate.”

We have an opportunity to put aside hate. We have a responsibility to do it now. Start by speaking up and voting. And yes, don’t forget to pray.


Birth of a Living Museum

Walking into the Museo Viviente Otavalango in Otavalo, I heard voices.

We had not been greeted and there was no one there. But the voices of workers who once toiled in what was the San Pedro textile factory were loud and clear. The past emanated from the corners of the silent rooms. Footsteps of artisans hurrying to work made the old wooden floors creak once again, echoing my own.

My friend and I found the Museo by accident. Quite literally. We had been looking for it, but the “ten minute walk” promised by the tourist office in town had turned into 30 and it was nowhere in sight. On Google maps, the museo is on “Unnamed Street.” Big help. We found a friendly local woman who offered to lead us. Then we bumped into a man and young boy who pointed us in the opposite direction.

Finally, we found it. Another couple was just getting into a taxi when we arrived, leaving us the only visitors on the property.

What a property. The 200-year-old shell of the former textile factory still stands. Only one of the three large buildings is still empty. Woven between them are tiny homes of some of those who have vowed to preserve the ancient culture of the Quechua.DSC_0102DSC_0094

DSC_0116We were soon met by José René Zambrano Cachimuel, the president of The Otavalango Living Museum. As a young man, René worked in the same the buildings now housing the museum. It is because of René, and his determined wife Luzmila, that the dilapidated factory has been preserved, and the museum created.

Years after working there, curiosity took him back to the factory where he found it in ruins. There was very little left, and most of the furniture and antique looms had been stolen. René began the several years’ process of rallying support for an indigenous center. He ever coerced his wife into writing the president of Ecuador to ask for his support. That letter led to the president soliciting a bank to loan funds to the project.

In 2011, a company of twenty Quechuas, also known as Kichwas for their language, from Otavalo became the first indigenous owners of La Fabrica San Pedro. Together they fed the dream promoted by René and Luzmila, joining to find and preserve artifacts and ancient stories.

The Otavalango Living Museum is an interactive classroom, showcasing traditional games, dances, and ancestral tales. Groups schedule meetings in the renovated classroom and teachers offer regular classes in the Kichwa language.

DSC_0111My friend, Carol, and I were a captive audience. We marveled at the talents of seamstresses who create elaborate costumes. René explained the traditional Otavalan clothing that began with two versions before the Spaniards arrived and two more after they occupied the land.

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We learned about ceremonial weddings during which the couple remains on their knees. They are blessed by herbs and antique artifacts, and the event ends with the woman braiding the man’s long, black hair.

There are masks and traditional costumes used for celebrations blessing the sun, moon and earth. René playfully dons one mask and takes a few steps, leaving us all laughing.

We hover over the display of Kichwa burials. We are enthralled with the tiny casket surrounded by toys. It’s part of the Incan culture passed down that encourages those left behind to populate the burial ground of loved ones with the things they will need in the next life.

DSC_0132René does his best to make the displays come alive. There is another man in the weaving room, who begins spinning yarn as we enter. It isn’t enough for our tour guide who drops to the ground to operate a back strap weaving loom.

Our private tour ends and our senses are full. We are so thankful we chose the museum as our last stop in Otavalo.  René’s passion is infectious; he found converts in both of us.

Museo Viviente Otavalango is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s important to call ahead at (593)062.903.879, especially if you come with a group, to ensure an English-speaking guide. Advance notice also gives René an opportunity to gather members of the community to set up live demonstrations.

Admission is just $5. The official address is Vía Antigua a Quiroga #1230. But just ask for the Antigua Fábrica San Pedro. The Museo Viviente Otavalo hasn’t quite stuck – yet.

ContactMuseo Viviente Otavalango at or

Falling for Peguche

DSC_0041I chose the path that got us lost.

And once we found the grand entrance, it was a challenging admission to make.

Nonetheless, we had lots of laughs and a grand adventure finding the Las Cascadas de Peguche, tucked into the foothills of the Imbaburu volcano in Otavalo, Ecuador.

My buddy Carol is a good sport. She followed me dutifully. We skated down slippery, muddy slopes. We tiptoed across barely-there wooden bridges. When we lost all signage, we confidently walked the animal paths along the edges of the mountain.

The unmistakable roar of cascading water led us there. Frothy foam and churning liquid is spell-binding. Falling from 50 feet through the jungle foliage into the Peguche River, the scene was all the more mesmerizing.

It was well worth the walk – and the detour!

DSC_0036Peguche is one of many waterfalls throughout Ecuador. But it holds three distinctions: It’s found inside one of the most beautiful forests of northern Ecuador, it’s easily accessed from the main road through Otavalo, and it’s an indigenous ceremonial site.

Inside a 40-acre protected forest known as Bosque Protector Cascada de Peguche, the falls can be reached in 20 minutes. That assumes you go through the front gate. There is no charge, but donations are accepted inside the interpretive center. The waterfalls  originate at the foothills of the volcano, at the northern tip of San Pablo Lake, about two and a half miles south of Otavalo.

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Peguche is considered a sacred place in the indigenous culture because of the native people’s relationship to nature. Villagers from throughout the region visit the falls to perform purification rituals in the days before Inti Raymi. Inti Raymi is an Incan-based celebration of the sun and harvest, traditionally set for June 24.

Like many ancient sites, the falls are also the stuff of legends.

We rested outside a cave leading behind the falls, but neither of us had any interest in, or equipment for, crawling through the mud into the inky blackness. Later I heard one of many folktales: There is a cauldron of gold guarded by two black dogs deep inside the cave. The devil sits next to the cauldron, according to the legend, holding a plate of sand. The falling water washes away the sand in the plate, little by little, until the plate is empty. At that point, the devil snatches the soul of whoever has entered the waterfall at the same moment.

No problem there. We weren’t in the purification mood. And while the mist felt rejuvenating, the icy cold water was not appealing.

Hikers in the area need to look pat the ever-present, shameful graffiti, to appreciate the forest foliage and an abundance of birds. While we didn’t see most of them, I’m told the lush vegetation houses doves, owls, Quindes, hummingbirds, reptiles, frogs and various other species.

We passed through a Quichua community on the way to the falls (or on the way out for those who follow signage). We were a bit early for business, but the villagers living there are dedicated craftsmen. Still weaving in the traditional ways, they produce blankets, ponchos, bags and other textiles. They offer photos with a fully outfitted llama for a price and refreshments in a small café.

There is public transportation available in Otavalo to get to the waterfalls at Parque Central Simon Bolivar. Buses leave every 20 minutes from there. Taxis are readily available and charge about $3 one way.

If you are planning your trip from Quito, there are buses from the main station every 5 to 10 minutes. The Terminal de Buses de Carcelen is on the north side of Quito. The two-hour ride costs about $3.

Just a reminder. Look for the main entrance. You can still have the adventure but maybe a little less stress.peguche-entrance