Russia – Then and Now

 

It has been 33 years since I stood in Red Square.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

In the Company of Women

IMG_1987Ten 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.

 

 

 

How This Story Began…

cuenca-ecuador“What do you think about Ecuador?’

The question split the silence.

My husband was intently reading an e-mail about a promotional trip to the coast of the South American country.

We had talked about leaving the United States for months. No, years. First, my husband considered pursuing his Belgian heritage by claiming citizenship. We ruled that out as a costly venture for our next act. He pondered various Caribbean islands with attractive retirement plans. We visited a few, but none beckoned to us.

With our mutual love of Latin America, we also were drawn to Costa Rica, Panama, and perhaps Brazil.

We longed for a change of scenery.

We lived in the same house in El Paso, Texas, for almost 20 years. It was now too large and silent. The children were gone. Our pets had passed away. Worse, we lost the last of eight relatives in six months – an entire generation – to a variety of diseases.

Retiring to an exciting new, affordable locale was an attractive idea. Putting adventure and wonder back into our lives as we entered the Golden Years was even more compelling.

“Sure! Why not? When do we leave?” I asked brightly.

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It was time. I had just crossed over the 60 mark and my husband was entering his seventh decade.  Our careers had been long, fruitful and rewarding. We launched a son into a house-flipping business and helped a daughter and her husband buy their first house. We no longer were tied to our Southwest Texas home by responsibility or routine.

We booked the promotional trip to the coast of Ecuador. Sandwiched between Peru and Venezuela, Ecuador never was on our radar. It’s one of those countries you rarely hear about. This may explain why it also is one of the most quiet and peaceful – tranquilo – as the natives often say.

Straddling the equator on South America’s west coast, Ecuador is a diverse land. The coast contains the country’s most fertile lands, producing bananas for Dole and Chiquita, and roses for worldwide export. The highlands feature snow-capped peaks as high as 20,549 feet and most of Ecuador’s volcanoes. El Oriente, or the Amazon, is composed primarily of huge national parks and native reservations, and features the largest preserves of petroleum in the country. Ecuador also includes the Galapagos Islands, the UNESCO world heritage natural site 620 miles west of the mainland in the Pacific.

Ecuador is a country of more than 16 million people, governed by democratically elected president Lenin Moreno. Shot in 1998 in a robbery attempt, the wheelchair-bound president was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for his advocacy for people with disabilities. When he assumed office in May 2017, Moreno became the world’s only currently serving head of state in a wheelchair.

Ecuador is beautiful. Its coastal hamlet, Salinas, was a tempting slice of life. The variety of affordable homes – from apartments to haciendas – was astounding. The ocean-front properties were priced well below our expectations, each offering seductive views of the Pacific Ocean. Near the promenade, dolphins and sea lions frolicked. In season, migratory humpback whales are a breath-taking sight. Ecuadorians were kind and helpful, curious about the new Gringos in town. But it was hot. It didn’t feel like home.

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We spent days traveling from Salinas to a variety of smaller beachside communities. Montanita is the party town. Traveling back in time to the late 60s and early 70s, we were transported by the boisterous atmosphere, good food and late-night partying. There was sunlight and clean beaches and laughter. But it wasn’t home.

900x600-ecuador-montanita-streetQuieter enclaves, like Punta Blanca and Olon north of Salinas, beckoned to us. We considered a quiet duplex near Santa Domingo, with a patio surveying the glittering ocean. Was it too remote? Without a car we would be confined to walking dirt roads and waiting for lumbering local buses. It was too quiet. It wasn’t home.

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My husband and I were blessed with multiple happy addresses in our life together. Careers and opportunity drove us to four cities in 33 years, where we found comfort and safety in seven different homes. Each time we moved, we happened on a house or apartment that just felt right. Our homes were comfortable and welcoming, exuding warmth to visitors and providing the safety and comfort in which our family thrived.

Slightly discouraged, we made plans to head back to Texas. Someone suggested we stop off in Cuenca, Ecuador’s historic UNESCO World Heritage Site located high in the Andes Mountains. Not crazy about the altitude – 8200 feet – and the average 68 degree weather, I was apprehensive.

Cuenca is enchanting. Designated a historic site for its 16th and 17th century era Spanish colonial architecture, the town has a population of almost 400,000. Predominantly Spanish-speakers, we were pleasantly surprised a few attempt English.

Making our way to our hotel, we dropped our suitcases and headed out for a walk. Visiting the gorgeous green grounds of the Pumapungo Museum, we got a sense of the city’s Incan history. We learned that Panama hats are actually from Ecuador in the world-famous Homero Ortega factory. At Mirador de Turi, we experienced breath-taking vistas of the city’s Spanish, red-tiled roofs.

The second day, we discovered the central park, Parque Calderon. There, we joined sun-bronzed old men chatting on benches and velvet-skirted women selling their wares from baskets skillfully balanced on their heads.

Soaking up the dazzling sunshine and diverse culture, we sat in silence. We gazed at the brilliant blue domes of the spectacular new cathedral, completed after 90 years in 1975. Turning, we could see the “old” cathedral opposite us, a captivating stone church built in 1567.

Laughing children chased homemade tops across the crumbling, cobblestoned paths. Pungent smells wafted through the air: Freshly baked bread and garlic from restaurants blended with aromatic roses at the nearby flower market. Around us, the explosive tolling of ancient church bells shattered the quiet.

Reaching across to the sun-splashed bench to one another, we grasped hands.

We were home.

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Nabón’s Hidden Treasures

Mike had no interest in a tour that included a stop to admire antique dresses.

What we didn’t know is that these dresses were no ordinary antiques.

The main square of Nabón and the village church.

We were touring Nabón, a small canton about 71 kilometers, or 44 miles, southwest of Cuenca. We had already admired the centuries-old millhouse and spent a memorable lunch at Laura’s Casa y Arte, better known as “Chinita’s Wonderland.” Now we were stopping in town to admire the unusual plaza filled with architecturally shaped trees, visiting the nearby church in Charqui and exploring a local orchid farm.

A mountainous chain of peaks just over 9,800 feet above sea level surround the lush green village of Nabón canton. Less than 13 years ago, the town was declared a National Cultural Heritage. The Ministry of Education and Culture that awarded the title cited the area’s unique, rustic landscapes and historically based roots as the seat of pre-Hispanic societies. Indigenous roots are still present in most of the canton, such as the Chunazana, Shiña, and Rañas, who still speak their indigenous languages.

Nabón also is home to archaeological remains of settlements for the Cañari and Inca. During the Inca Empire, Nabón became Tambo (Place of Rest), as a stop of the chasquis, Peruvian messengers who ran with messages and information from Ecuador to Cusco in Peru.

Predominantly Catholic, the canton houses several churches that honor patron saints. In the 120-year-old Charqui Capilla, we are introduced to the Virgen Del Rosario, a title given the mother of Jesus. The church is a living museum, housing the most important of the hundreds of intricately sewn gowns used to adorn the Virgin Mary and the baby she holds during annual festivities. Other smaller communities nearby also serve as storage houses for the dresses. The gowns are changed weekly, with the exception of the 40 days leading to Easter when the Virgen is stowed away.DSC_0369.JPG

The 120-year-old Charqui Capilla where the Virgen’s dresses are stored.

The tradition of providing the antique dresses began in 1949. A family, known as the prioste, is selected to prepare a celebration for the village. The main religious celebration is celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary on the last Sunday of May or the first Sunday of June. The prioste, along with the parish priest, is charge of the organization and celebration itself, including contracting for fireworks, providing games, dances and other cultural events

The family also is charged with creating a dress for the Virgen. In the early days, the dress was created by the family members, painstakingly sewn by hand, each bead and sequin carefully placed and stitched in place. The tradition continues today, although most families contract the work.

Some of the dozens of handmade gowns hanging inside the church.

Surprisingly, these intricate and priceless dresses are hung throughout the church. Some, including the oldest one, are placed on benches near the altar. Others are stuffed into an old wooden wardrobe at the rear of the church. All are available for handling. They range from velvets to satins, adorned with beads, sequins and complex lace designs. It is an honor to be chosen, our guide tells us, and a challenge to create the next beautiful gown.

Somewhat chastened and very much in awe of local tradition, we left the church and headed for the orchid farm.

Laurie and Mike inside the Nabón Orquideareo.

The Nabón Orquideareo is a small, thatched roof building housing more than 200 species of orchids. The architecture of the Botanical Garden “Orquideario” maintains ancestral values, which is why its construction is composed of typical materials from the village, such as quarry stone, wood, straw, and reeds.

Visitors are invited to stroll among the gorgeous blooms, each more delightful than the next. One thing we have come to love about Ecuador is its appreciation for these fragile flowers. With its location on the equator and temperate conditions year-round, Ecuador is a perfect place to grow orchids.

Some of the exotic varieties of orchids in the garden.

We finish the tour with a trek to the mountaintop above the orchid farm. The views are breathtakingly beautiful. On one side of the mountain, the village of Nabón sprawls lazily from one end to the other, as far as the eye can see. On the backside of the mountain, a more pastoral scene emerges, farming plots dotting the landscape into the valley.

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Mountaintop view over Nabón.

It is another successful foray into Ecuadorian living for us. Even if Mike didn’t think he was interested in antique dresses.

Exploring Nabon: The Last Great Stone Mill and “Chinita” in Wonderland

DSC_0373Laurie Paternoster and Mike Churchman in Nabon, Ecuador.

Nabon, Ecuador, is a quiet village just 70 kilometers from Cuenca, where history and fantasy meet.

High in the Andes Mountains, in a bowl surrounded by 9,000 foot peaks, Nabon offers a quiet, simple life.  A small canton of about 16,000 people, it is known as a “matriarchal village,” as most of its male inhabitants historically have left to find jobs in bigger cities, returning home after weeks or months away.

Like most Ecuadorian towns, the square is the central meeting spot fronted by a historical church. On a recent trip organized by local businesswoman Sole Riquetti de Gould, we met colorful residents, explored a historical mill and had lunch at a secluded mountaintop home that challenged the imagination.

So how historical can a grist mill get? Try 400 years! The old mill house is known for producing sweet flour that is used to make some of the best-tasting tortillas around. And it’s run by a pair of 80-somethings.

1. Las Hermanas Maldonado. 2. Power source for mill. 3. The 400-year-old millhouse.

Known as Las Hermanas Maldonado, the sisters are the last of the family that has run the mill since 1618. Like their ancestors before them, the sisters ground grains carried in from the nearby road into flour. With no direct descendants to run the mill, they worry about its future. It is the last watermill-powered stone mill in Ecuador.

For now, a lone young woman traipses the 700 meters from the main highway with loads of grain. She opens the gate from the nearby fast-running stream and urges the lumbering mill into action. Millstones come in pairs. The base stone is stationary. Above the base stone is the turning runner stone that actually does the grinding. Grain is fed by gravity from above down between the stones where it is ground. The flour exits the stones from the sides where it is gathered up and bagged.

Once again I am entranced with this country’s age. Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in the early United States. But the first recorded North American gristmill wasn’t built until 1621, in Jamestown, Virginia. There are still operating grist mills in at least 30 states.

The sisters walk gingerly around the old millhouse, showing us where the water flows from the stream directly under the mill. They apologize for not opening the gates to show us the aging millstones at work. The sisters say they are too old now, afraid of falling or getting hurt. They take us to their nearby hacienda where we sit and visit. Soon, it is time to leave the idyllic setting and move on to our next adventure.

 

1. Mike examines the grain shoot. 2. Water turns the wheel under the millhouse. 3. An ancient wheel.

That adventure is lunch in Fantasyland. In fact, it is known as Laura’s Casa y Arte, but it might as well be known as “Chinita in Wonderland.”

The owner of Laura’s Casa, Chinita Vintimilla, is a bundle of energy.DSC_0406

Chinita Vintimilla

Five years ago, Chinita and her husband decided to leave the noise, bustle and vehicle-polluted streets of Cuenca for the peace and quiet of the Andes Mountains. There they found seven acres of green, fertile land ready to receive her vision.

That vision is a playful approach to life. Their home, shop and assorted out buildings are decorated with found objects and others lovingly handmade. Every tree boasts a secret surprise, from heavily planted wooden planters to tinkling mobiles singing in the breeze. And they are no ordinary planters and mobiles. Look closely to find miniature figures tucked among the greenery. The mobiles might be made of utensils, shock absorbers or even keys, depending on the artists’ whim.

Laura’s Casa y Arte, with two of the whimsical touches on the grounds.

And whimsical she is. Strong and seemingly serious, Chinita’s weathered face creases into smiles when visitors compliment her handiwork. “It keeps me busy” she says brightly.

Visitors are welcome in her fairyland daily from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. For $1, you can stroll throughout the property to your heart’s content. Then, there is a possibility of a delicious meal – in our case an incredibly hearty chicken soup with a variety of homemade sauces. To top it off, we enjoy luscious ice cream, with an apple fritter and chocolate sauce.

We walk through the garden, past the massive wall of nesting pigeons and under the low-hanging, flowering arch to a sitting area overlooking the mountains. From that point, we see the Chasqui tambo, or meeting point, in the distance. We hear about the Nabon area’s importance as a communications crossroads for Peruvian runners hundreds of years ago. These runners, called “chasquis,” were the messengers of the Inca Empire. Agile, highly trained and physically fit, they were in charge of carrying the quipus, messages and gifts up to 240 kilometers per day through the chasquis relay system. Quipus were devices carried by the runners and consisted of a main cord, with attached varicolored, knotted cords. They were used by the ancient Peruvians for calculating and relaying stories or information. DSC_0374.JPG

The tambo is the bump in the mountain, center of photo.

The tambo we can see in the distance is a high mountain featuring a large concave rock peak. The relay station was one of many along the South American route used for the chasquis to stop at and transfer messages to the next chasqui. There were different sizes and levels of tambos and each one was assigned a different use. The use of the tambo – such as meeting place or shelter – depended on what route it was on and who was allowed to use it, but the majority of them were just to pass the messages along.

We leave the sitting area to explore the grounds. Just beyond the lookout point is a tot-sized table set for imaginary tea time. The trees are filled with whimsical bird feeders and plant holders. Nearby, there is a door ajar, leading into a round hut. It beckons the visitor to explore. Inside are hundreds of dolls – all types, materials, colors and sizes – whose clothing, and sometimes bodies, all are handmade by Chinita. There is still more to see.

Above and below, features found at Laura’s Casa y Arte.

Outside there are rock-paved pathways, plants of every description, handmade critters tucked among the shadows and hand-carved benches strategically placed at viewpoints. Even the fencing appears artistically arranged, using rough cut wood poles at odd angles.

Finding our way back to the main house, we are struck by the assortment of iron implements tacked to the walls. Inside the randomly attached buildings, every corner is filled. Antiques are stacked high on shelves and in corners, hand-crafted keepsakes strewn across tables and inside cupboards. Old, musty books fill shelves above and racks of toys crowd shelves below. Everything is for sale.

There is a small chapel, too, its doors flung open to visitors. Inside, with space enough for a few, there is an altar and a place to pray. There are dogs and ducks and chickens and roosters vying for attention and mingling underfoot. Chinita’s home is charming. Her world is enticing. The experience is one that should not be missed.

When our eyes have taken in as much as our stomachs, it is time to go. It seems fitting that, as Chinita waves goodbye, there is a giant rainbow spreading across the sky. We found the pot of gold.

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The Real Labor Day

Labor Day will never be the same in my mind.

Having celebrated my share of three-day weekends as an expected September vacation, it was refreshing – and educational – to understand for the first time what the day is all about. In Ecuador, and throughout most of the world the recognition of workers falls on May 1. Only Canada and the United States celebrate Labor Day the first Monday in September.

Known as the International Day of the Worker, or May Day, millions of workers marched in parades worldwide. In some places, violence marred the message. But most countries, including Ecuador, celebrated the day in peace, amid passionate pleas for better working conditions, solidarity and equality in the workforce.

Interestingly, this worldwide recognition is rooted in U.S. history. Some accounts report that American union leaders were calling for a recognized “Labor Day” as early as 1882. In 1886, Chicago workers began a general strike on May 1, primarily calling for an eight-hour workday. Working conditions were deplorable at the time, with workers putting in as many as 16 hours of work a day for little pay. Three days into the strike, a bomb was thrown into the crowd and the police responded with gunfire. In the ensuing bedlam, at least eight officers and protesters were killed. Hundreds of individuals were injured. A police round-up netted hundreds of labor leaders and sympathizers, with four being executed by hanging. The bomber who instigated the riot was never identified. Known as the Haymarket Affair, the event was commemorated by leaders of The International Socialist Conference who, meeting in Paris in 1889, chose May 1 as the official Labor Day.

While that meeting kicked off the worldwide recognition of Labor Day, many states in the U.S. had already begun celebrations of their own. Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to recognize Labor Day as an official public holiday in 1887. Then U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared it an official national holiday in 1896, though many states had followed Oregon’s lead and scheduled festivities such as ticker-tape parades and carnivals.

In Cuenca, several thousand workers participated in parades in the historic city center. I was impressed with the variety of workers represented – construction workers, city employees, teachers, transportation providers, electrical workers and more. Each group was designated by their hardhats, caps or brightly colored shirts. Most carried signs or banners lambasting the country’s social security system and pointing to needed changes in Ecuador’s labor laws. After marching several blocks into Cuenca’s main square, Parque Calderon, the groups disbursed to listen to rousing speeches from a platform on the edge of the park.

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As the leader of the teachers unions spoke, my thoughts were carried back into the United States where teachers are demanding the same rights. In states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, teachers are demanding higher pay, which has not kept up with inflation or comparable professional jobs. Just as important, teachers and unions are demanding a greater investment in the country’s education in general. It is appalling to see classrooms that are woefully under-equipped to prepare our students for competition in a worldwide economy. I am a bit passionate about that. In Ecuador, teacher unions are fighting for those key points as well as to protect and increase pensions for retired teachers.DSC_0592

While emotions ran high during the impassioned speeches to the crowd, there were no disturbances. To ensure a peaceful day, Ecuadorian authorities were out in full force on foot, on bicycles, in cars and on horseback.

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By mid-day, most of the crowds had dissolved, undoubtedly returning to their homes to enjoy the rest of the enforced day of rest.

Except for the “blue people,” as they are known around town. They are the legions of men and women dressed from head to toe in turquoise blue. They work day – and night – to sweep away the day’s debris and to ensure that early morning brings washed sidewalks in a town where dogs run wild, the constant attention paid to sidewalks is much appreciated.

I stopped to talk to one of the “blue people” in the park. While it was a mandated holiday announced by Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, the blue people were still hard at work.

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I could see she was smiling by looking at the sparkle in her eyes. I could not see the rest of her face, covered by a bandanna to prevent inhaling dust and fumes.

“Yes, it is a holiday,” she acknowledged. “But if I don’t clean the park today, who will?”

Then she pointed to a young boy playing nearby. “And because the schools are closed, I am fortunate to have my son with me today. It is a good day.”

As I walked away to enjoy my own holiday plans, I looked back. She waved, and continued sweeping.

It was a good day.

 

 

Celebration …and Mourning

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Cuenca is Old!

We just celebrated the 461st year of the founding of Cuenca, Ecuador. And I used to think my hometown of El Paso, Texas, was old! Basing El Paso’s founding on the establishment of its first military outpost, the city was created in 1854. That was just nine years after the entire state of Texas was formed.

April 12 marks Cuenca’s founding as a Spanish city in 1557, but historians say the community of current-day Cuenca was established by the Cañari more than 4,000 years ago. The Cañari called the city Guapondeleg, and the Incas, who overthrew the Cañari and reigned for 75 years, dubbed it Tomebamba.

Being in town for my first foundation celebration was a treat. The weeklong festivities ranged from parades and demonstrations to concerts and fireworks. And oh man, does Cuenca love a parade!

Just shy of six months residency in this quaint, colonial town, I have seen more parades than I saw in my lifetime in El Paso. And that Texas city’s annual Sun Bowl parade is a pretty big deal.

Here, parades are generally marching bands, folkloric dancers and an occasional float that consists of a decorated truck or trailer. Every high school and college has a band, and all of them march. The bands are predominantly made up of drummers, with a scattering of horns thrown in. While band members generally wear sensible shoes, it was a first for me to see so many female marchers in short skirts and sky-high heels. In a town known for cobblestone streets, broken pavement and unrepaired potholes, these marchers got my vote for courage and dedication.

The most fun parade was the “Night of Lanterns” in the downtown historic district. Preschools throughout the region sent their youngest marchers dressed in yellow or red, the colors of Cuenca’s flag. These tiny Cuencanas carried handmade lanterns or torches, many featuring lit candles. With thousands of onlookers, and despite the rows of parents escorting the children on each side of the street, I could not help but feel anxious until each reached the finish line and adults extinguished their flames.

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Still, the most heart-stopping moment came as a tiny band of dancers began their choreographed routine. Suddenly, a boy of four or five entered the scene. He was wearing a dappled black and white, cardboard cow on his head. The crowd cheered as he danced in and around the tiny dancers. Then someone – as hard as it was to believe – LIT fireworks on the top of the cow “hat” the child was wearing. Within seconds, his head appeared to be ablaze and he continued his merry dance.

All kinds of thoughts ran through my head, not the least of which was that this would never have happened in the U.S. But almost daily, I am reminded I no longer live in the U.S. I stood silently, praying that someone would soon put an end to this spectacle. After what seemed like forever, they did. And the parade went on.

Cuenca was dressed up for its birthday, as it does each time the locals celebrate a holiday. More than 400 flags were hung along downtown streets and at the entrance to the city. Special lighting, again in the city’s colors, was used to showcase Cuenca’s most important buildings such as government offices and cathedrals.

We had multiple vendor fairs throughout the city, outdoor concerts, dozens of street food carts offering a wide array of tasty local treats, and even a “cuy fair,’ celebrating the local delicacy – guinea pig.

The celebration was ramping up on Friday, which marked the official holiday with the closing of offices and schools. That was when Cuenca city officials announced that all government-sponsored events would be cancelled in honor of three Ecuadorians murdered by drug traffickers in southern Colombia. The cancellations followed an announcement by Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno of a four-day mourning period for the victims.

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The two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver were abducted March 26 in Ecuador, near the Colombian border. The team was covering recent attacks on Ecuadorian soldiers by suspected drug traffickers in the area. The drug cartel known as the Óliver Sinisterra Front has taken credit for the kidnapping and murders.

Cuenca seems a world away from Colombia. In reality, we are less than 450 miles from our shared border by car. Granted, that drive would probably take twice as long as it does in the states due to mountainous routes and hazardous roadways. The country of Ecuador is itself small, a little more than half the size of the big state of Texas.

As evidenced by its birthday celebration and by its president’s remarkable response to the loss of human life, Ecuador does things in a BIG way. For this former Texan, that says a lot.

Pop-Up Christmas

And I Worried About Being Away From “Home” For The Holidays…

Christmas is my favorite time of year. The sights, sounds, smells and events of the happy holiday have always excited me. As the years passed, I grew disenchanted with the commercialism and constant barrage of pre-sales, last-chance campaigns and “you gotta have it” pitches.

This year’s Christmas started out as an uncertain holiday for me, as it will be the first December 25th I haven’t spent with my precious children. I fixed that by moving our celebration to the day after, when they will join me in Cuenca. But I wasn’t sure how to build the spirit thousands of miles away from all that is familiar. I needn’t have worried!

People in Ecuador are primarily Roman Catholic; which accounts for about 94 percent of the population. That took care of my need for a spiritual connection right away. While I am not Catholic, the true spirit of the season comes first here, with no hint of crass commercialism. There are some 52 churches in Cuenca, with each celebrating the season in its own way. Because of that, I discovered I was in a city that celebrated with what I called “pop-up Christmas.”

On a daily walk, I sometimes found that turning a corner meant waiting for a parade to pass. Cutting through the town plaza might lead me to a sudden holiday musical performance. Strolling past churches often meant participating in a spirited fiesta.

Not once have I felt like an outsider. Cuencanos have been welcoming, kind and generous. Expats are swept into local joyful celebrations as quickly as anyone else.

The city is into Christmas decorations, but there are few Christmas trees in homes. High school students I work with in after school English classes tell me they celebrate Santa Claus with gifts, but stockings are generally not a holiday fixture. It’s about Baby Jesus, they tell me. It is his day. Wow. I can’t even remember the last time I heard that in my Texas hometown.

In fact, Jesus is such a part of the holiday celebration, that daily parades take place in his honor, almost in rehearsal for THE parade on Dec. 24.

The smaller parades include floats and costumed children, horses and musicians, colorfully dressed dancers and always, a symbol or representation of the Christ child. All the neighborhoods present their own parades, as do neighborhoods throughout Ecuador. Then, each of them will join the 8- to 9-hour street parade composed of tens of thousands of celebrants known as Pase del Niño on Christmas Eve.

There are many other things going on, of course. The river is brightly lit with multicolored bulbs and quaint figures of fish, angels and sledders; a wonderful place for evening walks. Nearby plazas add more and more decorations as Christmas draws nears and vendors are outdoing themselves to present beautifully crafted sweets and chicha, the local holiday drink.

So I’m looking forward to my first Christmas in Ecuador with joy, now, and anticipation. And wait, I just found out that while the Christmas Eve parade is the main event, it actually kicks off three months of celebrations, continuing through Carnaval in February.

Whew! Better buckle my seat belt!

 

 

 

Going, Going, Gone!

WEIGHING BAGSSo it happened.

We packed up our five bags, two carry-ons and two personal articles, and left our home of 23 years to move to Cuenca, Ecuador. Full disclosure – I left two suitcases with each of my children for delivery later.

We planned to take four suitcases and a carryon each. Well, my husband did.

How do you outfit a brand new home in another country taking only four suitcases? I was lucky that my kids were coming to see me for Thanksgiving and New Year’s. They each got two suitcases to bring.

So I happily set about packing my favorite pans, new silverware, and comfy warm down comforters. Bang. I hit 70 pounds in each of four bags within days. Near tears, I told my husband I would have to leave most of my clothing at home. He relented and offered to pay the stiff $150 fee for a fifth.

THAT was a blessing and a curse. I got some favorite sweaters and jeans in, but also threw in some extras not on the original list. Boom. Seventy pounds just like that.

I looked at my remaining pile. My robe. My favorite short boots. A pair of jeans that fit. (All those clothes I had brilliantly taken and left on earlier trips? Now a size too big due to my recent weight loss!) A pair of leggings that were an everyday staple. A favorite shirt. A bulky sweater. My warmest jacket – a puffy parka – and a new warm scarf gifted me by my sister.

No problem. I would layer them all and just wear them, I thought. My husband quickly pulled the robe from the list of possibilities and wrapped his computer monitor with it. We found a place to stash the jeans and the boots would stay home this time.

The next morning at 4:30, I was dressed in layers. I was the only one in two airports dressed for the dead of winter.

My carry-on was a veritable treasure trove of potential bomb making materials. I had a set of portable phones and a base unit, a router, a Roku, two cell phones, a computer keyboard and mouse, several power cords, Bluetooth headphones, batteries, multiple chargers, an IPad and a camera. I still managed to squeeze in a few little items like a book, some underclothes and a clean shirt and sweater. (Yes. My clothes have been lost many times!)

We were so busy packing, organizing and leaving instructions, that we scarcely had time to feel sadness. Only on the plane did I feel the pangs of leaving my best friends, familiarity and security.

Other than a 24-hour flight delay in New York, the move-in was smooth. A driver met us at the airport and helped us with the embarrassingly large cargo. Our apartment isn’t ready, so we spread out between a rented condo, a small office and our future home. Try finding that special bottle of seasoning you carefully included, or those few precious T-shirts you didn’t think you would need when belongings are spread between three locations! It’s great for health, though, as we walk 10 blocks between each location.

Our first days have been packed with activity. With children visiting for Thanksgiving, sightseeing and enjoying their help for moving and cleaning tasks. Organizing utilities, cable and HOA fees in English is hard enough, but in Spanish it has been a challenge.

So far, so good. We have found lots of locals to be friendly and helpful. We even found a great English-speaking doctor and hospital, quite unintended as one child endured a food poisioning episode.

As I look out my windows to take in the breath-taking beauty of the Cajas National Park on one side and the Andes on the other, I feel at peace. For now, I have found home.

Next Chapter

And so it begins…

I have a HUGE calendar spread out on my kitchen counter. It details the next eight weeks of our lives as we prepare for a move to Ecuador. Wait. What?

Yep. Mike has being dreaming of a move south – somewhere in Latin America – for several years. The timing was right. The country was right. God opened all the doors and we are walking through.

Although we started planning more than a year ago, it is just recently we entered a countdown. All the pieces fell together and it is finally time to pull the trigger for our first long-term stay.

So the calendar is full of pink and green ink; my way of detailing who is doing what and when. There are Xs and check marks and blacked out blobs, but all in all, we are progressing. We have gathered all the required documents for temporary residency and shipped them off to their respective places. We have compiled a list of must-haves to stash in our suitcases as we decide what goes into storage, what goes with us and what goes… somewhere else. And yes, peanut butter is a must-have!

We expect to return several times in the next year as we sell off properties, sever business links and visit family.  So, as they say, nothing is permanent. We view this as an adventure. A logical step for the next phase of our radically changed lives. We are looking forward to this new chapter with excitement, enthusiasm and a bit of trepidation.

My mom – and many others – are whispering in my ear that it is my time to write again. I’m dipping a toe in here. I hope you will join me for the ride!