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.
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
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.
“Ciao mi reyna,” I whisper, gently kissing her soft, powdered cheek. Cecilia Toral’s long, slender fingers grasp my hand. Her sparkling gray eyes find mine, and we share an unspoken regret at parting. She purses her rose-lipsticked lips.
“Hasta luego,” she answers, pulling me in for a hug.
Our group had just spent nearly two hours under the spell of one of Cuenca’s reigning matriarchs. Toral has lived all 72 years of her life in one spot – a majestic mansion on Calle Larga, one of Cuenca’s busiest avenues.
Most of us have passed by the elaborately decorated stucco home. A few of us may have stopped in the “Sumaglia Folklor Antiguedades” – an antique shop on the ground floor. Even fewer have paid $2 and continued up the stairs to inspect one of Cuenca’s most famous patrimonial homes.
While Toral has preserved every inch of her portion of the 120-year-old family home as it was, she is saddened it is no longer intact. Half of the home – where Toral was born – was handed down another side of the family that sold it off in 1952. Still, the 42 rooms under her care are a time machine. The home is one of the best-known hanging houses along La Barranca, facing the Tomebamba River.
Toral receives our group in a sitting room like a queen, as her attendants silently slip away. She is simply dressed, wearing black pants, a turquoise sweater and gray suede shoes. She wears no jewelry. Bits of gray frame her elegantly styled red hair, and as she speaks, she absently shoves a wisp behind her ear with a single, manicured nail.
The matriarch comes from a long line of local “royalty.” Her relatives include Cuenca founder Remigio Crespo. Her father was accountant Homero Moscoso and Adolfo Vázquez Moreno was her great grandfather. On her mother’s side, her great-grandfather was a senator and her grandfather was a banker.
She sweeps a delicate hand across the room, pointing out antiques and artifacts from long ago. She is particularly proud of the tin walls and ceilings imported from Germany in the mid-1800s, when the house was built.
The home was furnished by her grandparents from countries all over the world. We admire German tile work and furniture from France and Austria. The original handmade glass, blemishes and bubbles intact, grace most windows. Delicate chandeliers from Holland are original, although retrofitted for electricity. French wallpaper adorns some walls; an Ecuadorian mural is splashed across another. There are 19th century trunks pushed under elegant tables, all used for family travel years ago.
Every piece has a story and Toral is eager to share her past.
Briefly married in 1973 to a man from Holland, Toral recalls meeting her husband-to-be. She was 33 and working in the family antique shop on the ground floor off Calle Larga. Her father introduced her to the dashing archaeologist who flew around the world to various digs. It was love at first sight, she assures us with twinkling eyes. He was generous and loving, and they married after knowing each other for only six months. Sadly, he died soon after in an airplane accident in the Himalayas.
Toral ran the antique shop for 40 years. A majority of the items were from her father’s collection of archeological treasures. She inherited four rooms full of these, although she never understood them. In the late ’60s, she also studied the business of museums. She directed the Las Conceptas museum and also El Centro de Reconversión in Cuenca.
She lives alone and rarely has visitors, although she still has a sister, as well as a daughter and two grandchildren. Her only brother died at 64 of lung cancer.
Someone asks if she has visited the United States. In a soft voice, she begins naming the states she has seen – in English. She also speaks a little Italian, she says, and that reminds her of her first trip to Europe.
For a moment, you glimpse the 20-something girl she must have been, courageous, outgoing and maybe, a tiny bit mischievous. In a group of more than a dozen friends, Toral traveled through Italy. She dressed as a chola Cuencana, she says, grinning, and even purchased a wig with two braids in Italy to complete the look. She received her first kiss in Italy, met Pope Paul VI and opened “four boxes” of champagne along the way, she adds.
She is ready for a reprieve and waves us into the dining room to explore on our own. She reminds us to look at the carved chest from Holland that once held all the family’s silver. The murals in the room are not that old, she says, painted in the 1920s.
Toral is already seated in the ornate living room overlooking Calle Larga when our group makes it there. The walls feature gold leaf floral patterns and the ceiling is clad with brass plates. There are dolls and nativities, paintings and mirrors, 19th century furniture and an old English rug, all filling the air with a sort of reverence.
“Our home was built during the Republican period of architecture,” Toral says, referring to the period between 1860 and 1940. “People were tired of Spanish influence” and sought out French and other European touches.
She describes the original French curtains, delicately framing the windows, and points out a crystal chandelier from Venice. It is original too, she says, “but of course we converted it from candles to electricity.”
Cuenca did not receive electricity until 1910. But the family’s home was among the first to gain service.
She remembers cooking being done on a wood stove and taking baths in a tub brought from France. Along with the family, four servants lived in the home, and several more came in during the day. The only animals in the house were dogs, and a photo of her favorite – Oso – holds a prominent place among the framed family photographs.
Our group prepares to leave – at least twice – but is quickly drawn into a new tale. Toral sits erect, seemingly energized by her inquisitive guests as she holds court.
“I don’t go out very much,” she acknowledges, “but I love El Mercado,” she says of the Calle Larga institution just down the street. She enjoys the corvina – without sauce – and just a tiny bit of wine. Her eyes are gleaming as she holds up two fingers to demonstrate how much she will drink.
“Any more than that, and I would be…Oh!” she laughs, shaking her head and throwing both hands up into the air
The queen embarks on a mini-lesson on how to enjoy wine. She holds an unseen glass and her thin hand flutters above it, guiding an imaginary aroma toward her nose. She takes a sip, then another. “Drink it slowly, and eat appetizers. Never toss it back,” she says.
Someone asks what her favorite experience has been and she doesn’t miss a beat.
“Traveling. I have always been friendly and very curious.”
Another question is posed by our tour leader.
“How many boyfriends have you had?”
She grins at the man’s naïve impertinence. “That’s a question you don’t ask.”
We all laugh and Toral giggles. It seems like a good time to end our visit. We all rise reluctantly.
I can’t help myself. “Ciao mi reyna,” I whisper. Hasta pronto. Until we meet again.
When I was a kid, I would race home after school to our 100-year-old country farmhouse.
Throwing on old clothes, I would hurry to the stables behind our house in search of my favorite horse, Cissy, a tall, red thoroughbred. Sometimes I would take time to saddle her, but more often than not, we would head out into the plowed fields with me riding bareback.
In those days, we were surrounded by onions and cotton, but few homes. It was a peaceful escape from the busy world. Exhilaration surged through my bones as Cissy and I raced against the hot El Paso winds in peace and freedom.
When I threw a leg over a saddle at Rancho Patococha not long ago, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover that old sensation. The uncontrolled grin spread across my face as I shifted to allow Pato, the caretaker, to adjust my stirrup. The spirited polo pony beneath me was stomping the ground, ready to hit the trail.
Rancho Patachocha is a jewel hidden among the Andean mountains less than an hour from Cuenca. Operated by Santiago Malo and his family, the ranch offers occasional weekend rides for just $50. The price includes transportation to and from Cuenca, a two-hour ride, and lunch.
Groups are accompanied by two experienced riders and the ride conforms to the riders’ abilities. With three other experienced horsewomen, I recently made the trip deep into the mountainside with high expectations.
Just when we were beginning to wonder how we would navigate the winding, dirt road if the seasonal rains came, we turned into a driveway. We were awed by the sprawling, charming ranch house before us.
Piling out of the car, we shuffled on to the wide, open verandah. Rockers, sofas and comfortably padded chairs beckoned to us. Slumping down into the nearest spot we could only gasp at the beautiful vista. Horses were snorting nearby, ready to ride; cloud-tipped mountaintops beckoned on the horizon; and the peaceful quiet settled over us like a warm, alpaca blanket.
Inside, we were offered coffee, tea and a restroom break. A collection of cowboy hats was laid out for our choosing.
Back outside, our host, Santiago’s son Sebastian, and Pato, matched us to our horses. They adjusted our equipment, snapped a group photo, and we were off.
We headed through the mountains on a dirt road. Seemingly never-ending, the road wound several miles into lush, fertile landscapes, miles away from traffic and population.
The horses sauntered through the hushed countryside. Occasionally, we encountered smiling residents working their fields or tending their houses. Once a pack of dogs disturbed our solitude, but the ponies were left unfazed. We took a shortcut up a mountainside through a lovely wooded grove. We paused at lookouts over unendingly verdant valleys. We chatted and we marveled – in silence – at the gift of unblemished nature.
We were fortunate to have Sebastian as our guide. He shared memories of growing up on horses and his current passion for rodeo riding. A former bull rider, he now is more interested in roping and steer wrestling. He hopes to gather interest for local rodeos soon.
The family also is active in polo. The horses we ride are well-tended, spirited polo ponies. The ranch is home to more than a dozen, as well as several young foals.
Two hours later, we returned to the ranch house. We were tired, but pleasantly satisfied as if we had just finished a delicious meal. My horse, ironically named Amy – the same as my little sister – had done all she could to revive some of the best memories of my life.
Yes, we all had a case of the “short legs” upon return. There is something about riding a horse that makes you feel like you have lost half your height when you slide off. I noticed pain in places I never experienced as a young girl, riding bareback in the Southwest. OK, it’s true that I am three times older than that young girl now, but still…
Horseback riding is a highly physical activity. And, just like spending an intensive day at the gym, it can leave you with sore, achy muscles.
“Anything where you are keeping yourself from being bounced off is going to primarily use your core and your legs,” explained Kelly Turner, a certified personal trainer and fitness journalist. “Riding a horse supports core strength, which includes your abs, lower back, and obliques. In order to ride well, or comfortably, the rider must keep her core engaged, thus protecting the spine and keeping herself upright.
“Because you hold your position for an extended period of time, rather than having constant motion like you would in the gym, riding becomes an isometric workout. After 30 or so minutes of riding, your legs will be burning just the same as they would on leg day,” Turner said.
This is especially true for experienced riders whose horse is trotting or running, where Turner explained you’ll find yourself in a perpetual squatting position, working the glutes.
“As you bend the knees to absorb the impact of the horse’s steps, you are pulsing the muscles.”
Your thighs get one heck of a burn during a ride, too. Just the squeeze required to keep yourself perched in the saddle will awaken every ounce of thigh strength you possess. “Pinching your legs together to put pressure on the horse to increase the speed or just to keep yourself mounted is also going to target the inner thighs,” explained Turner.
Of course basic control of the horse also calls on arms and shoulders. Whether you are vigilant in keeping the horse focused on the path ahead, or reacting to his sudden urge to drop his nose and munch some grass, you are in for an upper body workout too.
I’m thinking about the workout as we drop into our familiar places on the porch and sip a beer. We pause long enough to regain our surface legs and take some time to inspect Pato’s tack room. And man, does Rancho Patococha have a tack room.
Rows of saddles lines the walls – both Western and English. Bridles are neatly hung at the ready nearby. We are told the equipment has been collected from around the world, South American and North America to England. Of course there are polo sticks and helmets there as well for the family’s use.
It is time for lunch and we are joined by Sebastian’s family. Surprised at our appetites, we enjoy sandwiches, fresh cheeses from the family’s dairy farm and meats, olives and dips. Everything tastes just that much better in high altitude after a brisk ride!
The time comes to leave this idyllic setting. Our bodies are sore, our stomachs full and our souls are singing. It was an incredible journey. I will be back.
For information on horseback riding, contact Jane at email@example.com 097 907 2087 or find Rancho Patococha on Facebook.
The young child reached up to take the hand of her prim, high-heeled grandmother. It was lunchtime when the pair strolled through the Mexican-style plaza at the heart of El Paso, Texas. The girl was captivated by the looming trees and ornate, wrought-iron benches. People in all stages of life surrounded them, chatting animatedly and admiring the pool at the center of the park.
That same girl, now in the last third of her life, recently strolled through a new plaza. This time, it was a South American-styled, modern marketplace in the historic El Centro of Cuenca, Ecuador.
The years between the two experiences melted away.
As the same one who enjoyed both central public squares, I was thrilled when our neighborhood San Francisco Plaza was reopened Jan. 29. Despite the consistent, unrelenting rain, several hundred Cuencanos and a few expats turned out for the dedication.
The president of Ecuador was rumored to attend, but instead sent an emissary to brave the torrents of rain. Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera was there, presiding proudly over his newly completed project.
The spacious, clean plaza is about three blocks from our apartment complex. It is bounded by Calles Padre Aguirre, Presidente Cordova, General Torres and San Francisco.
The rain wasn’t about to let up, so it was on with the show. Luckily we got there early enough to snag two seats under the giant canvas covering erected for the event. Still, hundreds pressed in around the edges, trying to escape the constant drizzle.
Reconstruction began on the plaza about three months before we moved to Ecuador, in August 2017. The central gathering spot, believed to be more than 450 years old, was reconstructed for about $1.4 million. Other renovations to nearby streets and buildings, and the addition of benches and plants, increased the project to about $4 million.
One section of the reconstructed Padre Aguirre Street, between Juan Jaramillo and Sucre, is expected to become pedestrian-only,
Since the 1700s, San Francisco Plaza has been a center of commerce. Most years it served as a lively market featuring produce from country farms and goods provided by city dwellers.
Photos from the collection of Cuenca Municipality
Its history is breathtaking. Like the fabled cat, San Francisco Plaza has had more than nine lives as a stage for theater presentations, a city bus station, a coal yard, carnival grounds, a children’s playground, and a designated site for governmental public announcements.
After the battles that briefly established Cuenca as an independent country in 1820, dozens of enemy soldiers and local traitors went to the gallows in the plaza. Later, common criminals were executed there before firing squads.
Photo from Cuenca Municipality
San Francisco then became a general market for everything from fireworks and guns to real shrunken heads. It was also home to Cuenca’s first gas station.
Strangely enough, an architectural “window” has been left open in the new plaza over a portion of the cobble stoned street believed to be part of that gas station.
City leaders have been working on various plans to renovate the plaza since 1956. Most recently, a plan in 2010 failed after vendors and city leaders could not agree on the design. In 2016, Mayor Cabrera got the votes he needed to proceed.
Although vendors finally approved the design, some remain unsatisfied with certain regulations. One rule requires them to consolidate sales with members of their immediate families. That stipulation whittled an expected 132 merchants down to 96, each of whom leases space for about $160 a month.
But the merchants’ units are a vast improvement over the various shacks offered before. Made of steel and wood, they can be securely closed at night. Each unit features eight to 10 vendors, and all have high visibility, encircling the square.
Another bone of contention had been the day workers who routinely met at the corner of Padre Aguirre and Presidente Cordova to offer their services. They are no longer allowed to “loiter” in the square.
The workers have held sit-ins and continue to protest the change. But the government remains firm that they will be relocated to the Feria Libre area of town. They have been assigned to the Casa del Oberro, an area that generally houses craftsmen in construction, plumbing, and carpentry. The workers have protested, claiming they are unable to get work at the site and that there are only spaces for 60 of the more than 300 available workers.
Various complaints aside, the plaza is beautiful. It is wide and flat, with plenty of room for future festivals, celebrations and indigenous dancing. A giant “Cuenca” sign offers opportunities for memorable photos.
For me, the key element is the accessible, dancing water fountain in the center of the plaza. It features a colored light show at night and is encircled by a concrete seating area.
This is where the children will be making memories. Just like that little girl did, the one I used to be.
I’m not sure when the holy Three Kings Day became the biblical-turned-satirical Day of Innocents, but in Cuenca, January 6 has become that.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for my first “Day of Innocents Parade,” also known locally as “The Parade of Masquerades.” But wearing a unicorn headband to stand next to a family that included a clown, Snow White and another unicorn, I knew it would be fun.
First, a little background.
I grew up on the border of Mexico where January 6 meant celebrations, religious parades, masses and the “rosca” cake. Parades on the theme celebrated the arrival of the three wise men into Jerusalem to visit Jesus at his birth. Also called the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6 recognizes the end of the Christmas season, the 12th night.
In Mexico, colorful costumes denoted kings, as well as Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Religious ceremonies cited the story from the bible. Then families gathered for neighborhood celebrations featuring the round cake with a tiny plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever received the piece of cake with the baby in it was responsible for the celebration the next year.
There exists a Holy Innocents Day – also known as Childermas, and Feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s a holiday that falls on different days in the Western and Eastern Christian churches. In Western churches, it is celebrated on December 28 and in Eastern churches, it is celebrated on December 29.
The holiday commemorates the massacre of children by King Herod as he was attempting to kill baby Jesus. The story of Herod is told in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 2:1-18. Herod, king of Judea, was unpopular and always feared being overthrown or killed. The bible says Eastern astrologers asked Herod about the birth of the “king of the Jews.” He sent them to find Jesus and to report back, but they were warned by an angel to return home by another route. In anger, Herod ordered that all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be put to death.
In Cuenca, the two traditional holidays merged 38 years ago, spitting out a unique, carnival-like celebration that more closely resembles Halloween – with a touch of April Fool’s Day.
While one of the 28 units in our parade faithfully depicted the heart-rending edict of King Herod, none of the others were religious, or remotely serious. Said to be among the largest Day of Innocents parades in the country, this year’s floats ranged from political commentary on the Odebrecht scandal that involved off-shore bank accounts to social themes such as protection of wildlife.
The winning float was “Ecuador Post-Apocalyptic,” created by students and faculty at the University of Azuay. The elaborate four-car float was a commentary on the endangered environment with costumes inspired by the movie Mad Max.
And, of course, there were the Gringos. For the first time, expats were granted a permit to march in a local parade. The idea was hatched by Ned Flottman, a former Dallasite and, ironically, a high school buddy of one of my college roommates.
Ned dreamed up the “The Old Gringo Cuenca Appreciation and Kazoo Marching Band.” Ecuadorians were charmed by the kazoos and the costumed characters that happily interacted with the thousands of spectators along the street.
We were thrilled by Bolivian indigenous dancers as well as a scantily clad and high-flying dance troupe. The Planet of the Flowers, resembling Planet of the Apes, brought gorillas that passed out hamburgers made of foam (still haven’t figured that one out.) There were two “marching bands” featuring oversized and out-of-step participants.
Everywhere, children were laughing and adults were cheering. It was a remarkable, inclusive event.
Finally, I should note that this crazy, family friendly and very interactive parade is organized by two local groups. The Amistad – or Friendship – Club and… the National Union of Journalists. Odd bedfellows for sponsorship of this mixed-up parade, but there it is. In reading the rules set out by these partners for the parade, I came across this: “The use of live animals, advertising of any kind and the use of alcoholic beverages are prohibited.
“It is forbidden to use words that violate the honor and dignity of the people, the mockery and scenes that ridicule and denigrate women. In addition each delegation must be escorted by clowns and security personnel.”
The leader of his Achuar community, a revered elder in full regalia, was chuckling. Having met him earlier in the evening, I was enchanted. Sumpa introduced himself to me as I was admiring tables of beautiful handicrafts at a benefit for the Achuar foundation, IKIAM, and Cuenca’s Hogar de Esperanza, in their Minka restaurant.
The Achuar are one of Ecuador’s 14 indigenous nationalities. They existed relatively unknown, deep in the Amazon rainforest, until the 1960s. It was then a few missionaries entered the territory, promoting Catholicism and making the Achuar aware of other forms of development.
In the early 1990s, as outside interest in the indigenous group grew, the Achuar began to further organize themselves to protect their land and their interests. They formed the United Achuar Nation. They united in their decision to keep their land free from natural resource development, such as logging, mining, and oil.
The Achuar are a “dream people,” and their dreams warned them of the dangers of the Western World’s thirst for oil. Estimates of their dwindling population range from 6,000 to 10,000.
Tonight, Sumpa is dressed as if he was at home, thousands of miles away, in the wetter lowlands of the Amazon rainforest, east of the Ecuadorian Andes, near the Peruvian border. Granted, Cuenca’s cooler weather encouraged a layering under his traditional dress. Still he looked every bit the authority.
According to the event organizers, shamans are honored for their knowledge and their connection to nature. They serve their communities by attending to people who have illnesses or are experiencing problems in their lives.
His weathered face gave him a fierceness, accentuated by the black chevron markings on his cheeks and nose. A vibrant head ring of yellow, black and red feathers from three native birds, called a tawasap, crowned his graying head. He wore a wrap, called an itip, covering his lower body from wait to feet. His simple cotton shirt provided a canvas for crisscrossed white, black and red beads and seeds, and the intricate beaded turquoise pendant around his neck.
Sumpa was perched on a chair in the middle of the room, watching the performance of his countrymen who were dramatizing a tale of the hummingbird. The story involved a hardworking man and his lazy brothers and a father, portrayed by Sumpa, who lived with two beautiful daughters.
The Achuar women are, at the very least, beautiful. With long, black straight hair and bright eyes, they have drawn circles on their cheeks to indicate they are the keeper of the family. Some have added stars to represent strength. Two of them wear braided belts with seeds that shake as they walk.
The complicated fable – presented in the Achuar dialect – involved trickery, men turning into birds and women turning into frogs. While the drama was entertaining, Sumpa’s unmitigated joy watching the silly antics of the actors was infectious. I clapped as much for him at the play’s end, as I did for the rest of the cast.
But the evening produced a somber message as well.
The Achuar’s spokesman, Napoleon, or Napo, was in Cuenca to educate. It took the group 11 hours in a canoe and eight more on a bus to reach their destination. Born in the Amazon, he grew up with a dream of creating a force to fight for the survival of the rainforest. Now, serving as the president of Fundacion IKIAM, it is what he does.
Napo is dressed similarly to the Shaman, without the beaded adornments. His face markings are slightly different, with inky black design on his chin emphasizing the seriousness of his demeanor. At 26, he is an accomplished speaker of multiple languages and is passionate about his homeland.
While Ecuador currently is reducing the amount of oil drilling it is conducting in the rich southeast Amazon, the new president of Brazil produces a grave threat, Napo said. The newly elected hard-right Jair Bolsonaro has promised to roll back protections of the rainforest and the rights of indigenous people in Amazonia.
“Twenty percent of the oxygen we breathe around the world comes from the rainforest,” Napo said. More than half of the world’s estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests and one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin.
He stops to give us a mini science lesson, explaining the relationship of the rainforest to carbon dioxide.
While humans continue to pump massive amounts of CO2 into the air by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, a major driver for climate change. Under natural conditions, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorb it, then turn it into oxygen which is released back into the air. Without the rainforest, Napo explains, the greenhouse effect becomes more significant and climate changes will increase.
“If we lose the rainforest, we lose everything, wisdom, knowledge, culture…our lives,” Napo says. “It is our market, pharmacy, ferreteria (hardware store) and origin of life.”
His companions are nodding in agreement. I look at them and wonder, again, at the grand plan that placed me in a privileged home in El Paso, Texas, and located this passionate group in the wilds of the Amazon. I think about my passions for the border, for a reasonable and humanitarian answer for immigration, for the protection of women and children.
Napo and his neighbors are worried about their livelihood, their future, the global climate and health. We have the same hearts, the same drive for change, and the same fears. We live in different worlds, but share universal concerns.
“I was born in the rainforest. I feel the rainforest in my brain and in my spirit. Please protect the rainforest for our generation,” Napo says.
My heart aches for him and the future of the next generations. Yes. We have the same passions.
I remember sunlight streaming through the windows.
Bright beams of light punctuated the rippling threads under my mother’s hands as she shoved a wooden shuttle through her loom. Her feet frantically pumped pedals below, trying to keep up. Her face always was a study in concentration, her bright blue eyes twinkling as she blissfully focused on the design growing out of her imagination.
She wasn’t a professional weaver. My mother was a hobbyist who fell in love with table machines and handmade looms of twisted driftwood or circular quilting frames. She graduated quickly to bigger projects and invested in a complicated floor loom. The joy that consumed her when she discovered weaving is something I will never forget. It was handmade art. It was escapism. It was creativity. It was imagination gone wild, as she wove in bones, shells, wooden fragments and even a horseshoe.
This creative period didn’t last long. But it lasted long enough to gift each of her older children with a Christmas treasure and to create a few pieces for her walls. Then the huge floor loom stood empty, gathering dust for many years until it finally was sold.
For a moment, I again saw my mom’s twinkling eyes as I entered La Casa de la Makana about 30 minutes from Cuenca, Ecuador. Ana Maria Ulloa greeted us with a warm smile and gleaming brown eyes. She drew us inside her home and workshop, housed in a large adobe building that is a highlight on most artisan tours from Cuenca to Chordeleg and Gualaceo.
Ana Maria shares the home with her husband, José Jiménez, and various family members. All contribute to the family’s fame as the Royal Ikat weavers, rivaling any of those in Asia.
It is hard to know where to look first. The two-story rustic building is a museum – giving voice to hundreds of iron artifacts, wooden objects, pictures and memorabilia hanging on the walls. There is evidence of weaving – looms, bound threads, vats of dye – in every corner.
Before starting the tour, I am drawn toward the ratcheting sound of what I know to be a floor loom. I peek around a dusty corner to see a young man slinging a shuttle back and forth. In my mind’s eye, I imagine my mother sitting there, her excitement palpable as the beautifully designed material cascades into her lap.
I am called back to the present, where the ever-charming Ana Maria shows us the process of weaving the sheep’s wool into threads. A young woman nearby has been transported elsewhere, rhythmically winding threads around a loom, oblivious to any visitors. Ana guides us across the dirt floor to the dye station, where large clay pots hide a surprising variety of color. The family uses natural ingredients, she says, ranging from insects and worms to walnuts, a wide variety of plants and even rocks to create their radiant palette.
With weathered, practiced hands, Ana Maria expertly crushes cochineals between her fingers. The dried insects are the source of her deepest red dye. With the addition of lime juice, the dye turns brown. She reaches behind a pot to pinch a bit of baking soda and sprinkles it into the brown dye. The liquid abruptly changes into a vivid purple. Her eyes twinkle at our amazement. The corners of her mouth turn up slightly in the satisfaction of having performed magic.
She waves her hand toward a nearby wooden staircase, inviting us to the witness the next stage of the weaving process.
Upstairs, José takes over. He uses a smaller version of the floor loom, called a back loom. Nimbly dropping onto a worn cushion, he straps on a belt attached to the threads of the loom. He leans back, adjusts the belt around his lower back, and wiggles back and forth until he finds the right position. He begins. Throwing the large shuttle in and out of the design, he simultaneously pulls individual threads up and slams them tightly down to create a seamless Ikat pattern.
Ikat refers to an Indonesian style of woven material that is tie-dyed before weaving. The technique was brought to Europe by Dutch traders in Southeast Asia and to South America by Spanish explorers. Ikat patterns can be precise or, more commonly, hazy or blurred looking, depending on how the weaver uses the threads in the loom.
Jose’s family has practiced this traditional weaving for generations, he says, and he himself learned from his grandmother. One seemingly ancient piece holds a place of honor on the wall. It is over 150 years old and was woven by his great-grandmother. It features the seal of Ecuador and intricate hummingbirds. Sadly, there are few families who still weave as his does, he tells us, entirely by hand.
We watch in silent admiration as he works. After a time, he points to Ana Maria, who has taken up a position at a table where she is knotting the fringe. The elderly woman’s nimble hands work so quickly we cannot see the threads slip into knots until she has moved on. She grins. She is comfortable with her skills.
We finish our visit in the small retail shop. Brilliantly hued shawls and ponchos hang on both sides of the room. Vivid scarves and multi-colored purses are neatly stacked on wooden tables. Ana Maria hurries to dress each of us in one of her creations, smiling with satisfaction. She knows at least one of us cannot resist taking home some of her beautiful work.
We don’t disappoint her. We make our selections and head for the door with our treasures. Again, Ecuador has charmed me with the talents, skills and uniqueness of her people.
As we leave La Casa de la Makana, I turn back to see Ana Maria, already at work on her loom.
Then, I looked at my Epiphone as a tool to accompany my not-so-special voice that favored 60s ballads and 70s love songs. Recently, I learned the guitar can be a vessel full of life and character, crafted with purpose, precision and love.
On the road to the popular tourist villages of Gualaceo and Chordeleg, there is a small community called San Bartolome. It is cradled in the green grasslands between high Andean mountain peaks. For more than 100 years, it has been the birthplace of a guitar-making industry.
Even the main plaza bears testimony to a rich heritage. Mosaic fountains are adorned with iron sculptures of guitars, each a hand-crafted piece of art different from the next.
On a tour with Polylepis Tours, my friends and I stopped along the roadside at a small casita with an open air workshop. It is the home of Guitarras Uyaguari. There, Jose Homero Uyaguari and other family members spend their days crafting some of the best guitars in Ecuador.
Today, he greets us with a wide grin and carefully shoves aside the intricate mosaic he is designing with roughened, dye-stained hands.
“Welcome,” he says in Spanish, throwing his arms open wide.
He asks if we would like a tour, and an explanation of the guitar-making process.
We huddle around the rough-hewn desk. At one end, a worker tightens strings on an otherwise finished instrument. The occasional screech screech of the strings being pulled taut punctuates Uyaguari’s words as he describes the centuries-old process of creating musical instruments.
First, woods are carefully selected depending on the size, use and expected cost of the instrument. Many of the guitar bodies are made from Ecuadorian hardwoods like Nogal and Guayacan, or fruit trees like the Capulì. Other woods, like white pine, are imported from Canada for high-end guitars.
Uyaguari is a third-generation guitar-maker. Of the roughly 10 guitar-makers left in the San Bartolome area, about half are brothers, sons and uncles yoked to the Uyaguari name. They use templates to cut the bodies of the guitars, but the rest is guided by years of handed-down tradition and experience.
Uyaguari picks up several razor-thin wood shavings to show us how they are dyed and glued together. When multiple layers are dry, he carefully cuts tiny pieces with an aging box knife. Instantly creating multicolored, handmade wooden beads, he drops them into the intricate design around the sound hole of a guitar.
I am mesmerized as I watch his aged, work-hardened fingers push the bits of color around the table. He moves two together, and then pushes them apart to insert another shape, a different color. His pride radiates, even in a demonstration. The work is painstaking, but yields original mini masterpieces beyond compare.
He shows us different woods, heavier and stronger, used for the fingerboards. Cow bone is most often used for the frets. Chonta, a dark wood from a palm, is traditionally used for the neck. It is hard, almost stone like, and is known for its durability. He grins, and knocks loudly on a piece he holds out to us.
“Duro. Muy duro,” he says, nodding his head.
On both sides of us, men keep working. One has finished stringing his guitar and is hanging it up. Another has extended a guitar at the end of his reach, eyeballing the neck of the piece, a self-satisfied smile indicating he has done good work.
Uyaguari points us toward his “showroom,’ to examine the finished products. In this second room, guitars are hanging in neat rows. Some are wrapped against the elements but most hang in the open air of the dusty room.
Today’s selections range from $60 to $1,000. They include classical guitars and their smaller cousins, the requinto, a smaller, higher-pitched instrument. There are Venezuelan four-string cuatros as well as the traditional Latin American 10-string charangos.
The cuatro sometimes has a viola-like shape, but most resemble a small to mid-sized classical guitar. The cuatro, which means four in Spanish, evolved from the Portuguese cavaquinho which has four strings. Modern cuatros often have more than four strings.
The charango is a small Andean stringed instrument within the lute family. Just over two feet long, it was traditionally made with an armadillo shell. Many guitar-makers have exchanged the shell for wood, believing it to be a better resonator of sound.
He shows us a delicately carved and brightly painted toucan on a charango made entirely of wood. We pass it, almost reverently, between us, tracing the grooved pattern with appreciation.
We admire the wide variety of woods, the gleaming, jewel-like patterns surrounding the sound holes, the flaring shapes of some of the guitar necks and the bowl shaped-backs of others.
One guitar after another is more beautiful than the last. They hang silent, waiting for willing fingers to urge a unique sound from deep within the wooden bowels of the instrument.
Uyaguari is cradling a guitar across his chest. He silently strums, but no sound emanates because he is barely stroking the strings. I point to his hands and ask him to play for us.
He doesn’t play guitars, he says. He just births them.
“How do you know they are good? How do you know that the sound is perfect?” I ask.
“Because I made them,” he says simply. The light literally twinkles in his eyes.
In the last three decades, Russia has had multiple leaders. It has reconstituted itself into the Russian Federation, still the largest country in the world, losing 15 former states to independence. With Moscow on top of my husband’s bucket list, it made sense that we make a slight detour from a recent trip to Scandinavia to check it out. The changes have been massive since 1985.
Mike and Laurie at Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral
When I visited Moscow in the early 1980s, my mother and I came as members of the first People to People women in business delegation. We were among more than 30 women from throughout the U.S. We came from all walks of life, varied backgrounds and a majority of the states. I was a newspaper journalist and my mother a small business owner. Our task was to meet with business women in Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg. We were to exchange ideas about the status of women in the workplace. All of us had prepared speeches, most of which were met by polite applause and unreadable faces. To this day, I am not certain if our American ideas were laughable in the face of Communism or if the Soviet women were simply acknowledging the presence of the dark-suited officials “escorting” our delegation from meeting to meeting.
The USSR had just boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as payback for our withdrawal in 1980. Officials of the U.S. and Soviet Union had resumed arms control talks. American student Samantha Smith, who famously wrote Soviet chief Yuri Andropov requesting peace and subsequently was invited to visit the USSR, had recently died in a tragic plane crash at the age of 13. Konstantin Chernenko also had passed away, passing the baton as general secretary of the communist party to Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was busy ushering in the final stages of the Soviet Union as its last supreme leader, soon to give way to Boris Yeltsin as president of the independent Russian state. (Yeltsin would go on to resign in 1999, handing the post to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who went on to win the 2000 presidential election and has remained in power since.)
The Moscow of 2018 bears little resemblance to the bleak, drab city of the 1980s. It is a bustling metropolis void of the somber, downcast faces I remember and empty of the legions of armed soldiers visible on every corner. As honored guests we still were consumed with the knowledge that we were being watched by – and sometimes accompanied by – the KGB. Now they are called the federal security service. There is a scarcity of armed officers anywhere, let alone Red Square. And the Kremlin is open to visitors six days a week.
Diorama shows layout of the Kremlin Palace and Gardens
Locals say life is better, freer, though there are still issues. They refer to the era of iron-fisted control – the 70 years leading to the dissolution of Russia in 1991 – as The Soviet Era, capital letters sliding off their tongues accompanied by looks of distaste akin to acknowledging a bad smell. One woman reminds me of the only hotel reserved for foreign visitors, where our delegation was housed; the two-star Intourist hotel in the center of Moscow. I remember my mom being entertained about the “postage stamp” towels and barrack-like beds. Ironically, it stood next door to the historic National Hotel where my husband and I stayed on our recent visit. The Intourist was imploded nearly 20 years ago to make way for a modern Ritz-Carlton. The National was nationalized in 1917 and proclaimed the “First House” of the Soviets. It later became a residence of the Bolshevik government, and many key communist leaders lived there, included Vladimir Lenin.
National Hotel on left, Intourist on right.
In 1985 there was one “approved” store to shop in that did not have shortages of consumer goods – the renowned ГУМ (GUM) department store on Red Square. This excursion was the only time we were unescorted, but I imagine the store was well-covered by cameras and security police. Mom and I scrambled to find a few trinkets to take home, mainly the traditional nesting Matryoshka dolls and beautifully painted black lacquer boxes. Clerks used a wooden-beaded abacus to add our purchases, and looked at one another in amusement when the foreigners asked to buy the abacus as well. GUM still exists today, seemingly untouched on the outside, but inside has evolved into a haven for high-end shoppers seeking Gucci, Saint Laurent and Givenchy. After the Soviet Era, GUM was privatized and in 2005 was purchased by a Russian luxury goods operator. As a private shopping mall, it was renamed in such a fashion that it could maintain its old abbreviation and thus still be called GUM. However, the first word Gosudarstvennyi (‘state’) has been replaced with Glavnyi (‘main’), so that GUM is now an abbreviation for “Main Universal Store”.
ГУМ (GUM) department store on Red Square
St Petersburg was still Leningrad when our women’s delegation visited. It was renamed in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Kiev, I remember my mother and me stealing away from the group to have dinner at the home of a local writer. His daughter had been among the Soviet delegation. She had been singled out by a dark-suite, sun glassed man for a “talk” as we moved within the group from one location to another. Her father, a charming, middle-aged man, asked me to smuggle out a manuscript. I confess that I declined. I wasn’t sure my mother was prepared to pay the price for the reckless acts of her rebellious daughter. Since then, Kiev has become part of the independent country of Ukraine. We didn’t make it to Kiev on this trip, but now, wandering the streets of modern Moscow, I wondered if the independence of the Ukraine brought him freedom to publish.
We laugh as we pass by Moscow’s centrally located McDonald’s, considered a high point of our tour route. The tour guide pulls over, frantically flipping pages in a book of collected photographs. She beams broadly as she comes to a black and white photo. It is of the McDonald’s, the first in the country, the day it opened in 1990. She pointed to the serpentine stream of people – more than 30,000 – and tells us she and her father waited all day to enter the store then bought one of everything on the menu.
FILE– In this Wednesday, Jan. 31, 1990, file photo, hundreds of people line up around the first McDonald’s restaurant in the Soviet Union at Moscow’s Pushkin Square, on its opening day. McDonald’s will expand by 45 outlets in Russia by the end of this year, CEO James Skinner said Monday as the company marked the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first landmark restaurant under Soviet rule in 1990. The expansion will bring the number of McDonald’s in Russia to 290.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
Later we pass the site of what was the largest swimming pool in Moscow when I visited three decades ago. Now it is the site of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. At the turn of the 19th century, the cathedral’s smaller predecessor stood on the same site. In the 1930’s the Soviet government was in the midst of its doctrine of state atheism, a period of government-sponsored programs of forced conversion to atheism conducted by the Communists. While most organized religions were never outlawed, religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and religion was ridiculed while atheism was propagated in schools. Although personal expressions of religious faith were not explicitly banned, there was a social stigma, and it was generally considered unacceptable for members of certain professions (teachers, state bureaucrats, soldiers) to be openly religious. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests, while many others were imprisoned or exiled. Most seminaries were closed, and the publication of most religious material was prohibited.
Moscow Pool on left, modern-day Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on right
In 1931, the cathedral was blown up and construction started on what was to be a gigantic “Palace of the Soviets.” By 1941 only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence prior to World War I. The soviet high-rise was never built, as the project was abandoned due to a lack of funds, problems with flooding from the nearby Moscow River and the outbreak of war. The flooded foundation hole remained until Nikita Khrushchev ordered it transformed into the largest open air swimming pool in the world. The Moscow Pool, as I knew it, existed until 1994. Under Gorbachev, the decision was made to rebuild the cathedral on the site and the modern-day Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was consecrated in 2000.
Though much of the old “Soviet Era” has slipped away, there clearly remains a Communist regime in charge of the country’s political system and human rights management (including LGBT rights and media freedom). In particular, such organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say Russia still have inordinate restrictions over the political rights and civil liberties of its citizens. Freedom House, an international organization funded by the United States, ranks Russia as “not free,” citing “carefully engineered elections” and “absence” of debate. Russian authorities, of course, dispute the claims, calling Freedom House reports “prefabricated” and alleging that human rights issues have been turned into a political weapon in particular by the United States.
Meanwhile, there is the issue of Russian interference in the U.S. elections. It surprises me that the tour guide looks to the left, then the right before answering my query. “As long as Russia is Russia, the United States will be of interest,” she says slyly. It is the end of the conversation.
I end my reverie, coming back to 2018. Moscow is busy, colorful and full of life. It disappoints my European-born husband, who expected the Russia of my past. But inwardly I am thrilled for the country’s inhabitants who finally are tasting at least some of the freedoms we all take for granted.
By far the world’s largest country, Russia covers nearly twice the territory of Canada. It extends across the whole of northern Asia and the eastern third of Europe, spanning 11 time zones and incorporating a great range of environments and land forms. We have been treated to a miniscule experience of modern-day Russia and there is no way to know how representative it is.
Still, we savor the moment. It is a vibrant country, filled with fascinating, complex people. But make no mistake, Russia remains under Communist rule. It has the fifth largest army in the world, the largest tank force and stockpile of nuclear weapons, the second largest fleet off ballistic missile submarines and the only modern strategic bomber force outside of the United States.
Russia has not won my heart. It is not likely I will ever return.
Ten months ago, I was lonely. I was the stranger in a strange land. Not only had I left a comfortable life in a comfortable town, but I left some of my most precious “possessions” thousands of miles away – long-term, dependable, heart connections with women.
Today I find myself blessed beyond measure. I am in the company of women from all walks of life. I have found friendships to feed that gnawing hunger for female companionship only women understand.
Women. We are remarkable. We are resilient. We make each other laugh and hold each other when we cry. We are the backbone of our families, the often unseen foundation of our communities. Together, we share an enviable, unbreakable and irreplaceable bond.
Recently, I listened to women introduce themselves during an art class. Only one or two of us were practicing artists. They detailed their former lives as accountants, lawyers, business owners and Montessori teachers. They shared bits of history from divorces to long-term first marriages, loads of grandchildren to parents of pets. Each had come to the class with a sense of adventure and enthusiasm for learning. And though unspoken, there was the understanding we had in common – we were seeking the company of women.
In two other gatherings there were tears, the outpouring of life’s stresses, the emptying of emotions that would bewilder the opposite sex. And most of us were strangers. It prompted me to think about and research that most unique of all bonds – the connections between women.
In 2002, the University of California Los Angeles unveiled a landmark study about friendship among women. The study suggested that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women.
Author Gale Berkowitz interviewed the study’s authors.
“Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” said Laura Cousino Klein, one of the authors and a Pennsylvania State University professor. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.
Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.”
“In fact,” Klein said, “it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the “fight or flight” response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, because testosterone – which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress – seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it.”
It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion developed through the UCLA study may explain why women consistently outlive men, wrote Berkowitz. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.
Berkowitz cited one study in which, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60 percent.
I am reminded of a C.S. Lewis quote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.
The Harvard study also looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse. Researchers found that those women who had a close friend confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.
If those studies aren’t convicting, consider one published In Industrial Psychiatry, called “Loneliness, Depression and Sociability in Old Age.”
“There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that psychological and sociological factors have a significant influence on how well individuals age,” according to researchers Archana Singh and Nishi Misra. That’s shown clearly in 2017 research led by William Chopik of Michigan State University who showed in surveys taken by about 280,000 people that “valuing friendships was related to better functioning, particularly among older adults,” and that “only strain from friendships predicted more chronic illnesses over a six-year period.”
The studies go on. The more I read, the sadder I am for the choices I made when caring for my mother in the last years of her life. She taught me how to make friends and how to nurture them. She was warm, loyal and always available – sometimes to a fault – to others. Yet this friend of friends, my mother, died absent all of them except for one faithful woman who put everything aside weekly to make time to visit her.
I know now, as I enter the last third of my life, I should have done more to bring friendships to my mother. Until I got there myself, I did not realize how isolated, alone and lonely a woman can feel without her girlfriends. For that, I will always be profoundly sorry. For the rest of us, I hope, there is time to ensure that mistake is not compounded.
A professor at Stanford University, then the head of psychiatry, once said, “One of the best things that a man can do for his health is to be married to a woman. Whereas, for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health is to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends.”
So there it is. Make time, girlfriends. And live longer.