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 haciendasantamarta@gmail.com. For more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com

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.