Antarctica – World of its Own

DSC_0722The silence was deafening.

Our first morning in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, I peered out at rugged, forbidding mountain peaks capped with snow. My wide eyes were met by visions of ages-old glaciers looming large; deep crevices winking steely blue eyes and ice crackling all around. Antarctica. Truly, the frozen continent.

Breathing deeply, I inhaled the fresh, crisp air that knows no detectable pollution. I listened to the silence. The quiet was overwhelming. Broken only by an occasional chirp of the “super birds” that live on this lonely planet, the silence embraced me, alone in this majesty. I was the only soul standing on the frozen deck of our expedition ship.

It was never on my bucket list. Or any list.

Antarctica was some far off notion, a passionate dream my mom had and never realized. But, my adventurous daughter found a group of like-minded women on Facebook called Girls Love Travel and Antarctica became a reality. For both of us.

Antarctica-Map-With-Countries-Simply-Simple-With-Antarctica-Map-With-Countries-830x1024For 12 days we lived aboard Oceanwide Expedition’s M/V Ortellius in glacial polar waters. The ship – small at 123 passengers – was warm. Outside, temperatures averaged between 32 and 37 F, but the winds of 11 to 31 mph made it feel colder.

Even now, I am filled with wonder and awe that this land exists on the same planet that I live on. Having left noise, pollution, people, cars, and busyness, I was blanketed in a net of quiet beauty beyond my imagination.

I didn’t expect to see rocks. Yet there, they were, craggy mountaintops lining the shore. I did expect to see penguins. And they overwhelmed us, by the thousands, in their curious community groups. I did not expect to fall in love with this no-man’s land that the majority of the world’s population will never see. Yet I did.

DSC_0731Getting there isn’t easy, whether you come from the United States or Ecuador. A full day’s travel with an overnight brings you to the southernmost tip of South America: Ushuaia, Argentina.  We had two days there, but others tacked on time at the end of the cruise, which I highly recommend.

Ushuaia is a small town of 68,000 people. It has many attractions of its own, primarily involving trekking in national parks, a main street for shopping, good restaurants and comfortable hotels. Passing through security will make you smile: a quick glance at a paper that indicates you are a passenger on Ortellius, and a short unescorted walk down the pier with a detour through an empty security station featuring silent screeners.

Once on board, you are quickly shown to your cabin.

381X250_tw_windowThe 53 cabins range from a superior double with two windows to four bunks with a porthole. The beds are comfortable and the bathrooms have ample storage.

The ship is a tough icebreaker that offers little in the way of entertainment except for a common lounge/bar area and extra seating on the top deck for the few days warm enough to enjoy it. But this isn’t one of those cruises you take to be entertained aboard the ship. Weather dependent, we were looking forward to mountaineering, kayaking, snow-shoeing, hiking and camping on the continent.

DSC_0285 (2)The route to Antarctica is as arduous by sea as it is by air. You float through the beautiful Beagle Channel where you can spot the elusive Magellanic penguins. You can sometimes see Fin and Humpback whales, and there are always flocks of Giant and Cape petrels soaring across the sky from one side of the ship to the other.

Then it’s time to batten down the hatches. Drake’s Passage famously becomes Drake’s Shake – the world’s worst amusement ride – or, if you are lucky, Drake’s Lake. Our crossing was somewhere in the middle. Armed with seasick bands, Dramamine, lavender oil and, finally, giving into scopolamine patches, we made it.

Drake’s Passage is named for the famous British explorer and sea captain, Francis Drake. After he lost a ship sailing the west coast of South America, he proved the existence of a convergence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the Southern Seas. What makes the Drake Passage so infamously rough is the fact that currents at this latitude meet no resistance from any landmass.

We spent the next two days preparing for landfall. When we could leave our beds and staterooms without being tossed from wall to wall, we attended lectures on birds, mammals and photography. And because introduced organisms are a significant problem in Antarctica, we attended a “Vacuum Party” literally vacuuming our clothes, boots and parkas.

Finally through the Passage, we awoke on the third day to chunks of ice floating lazily past the ship. We even saw a huge mesa-like iceberg that seemed miles long and clearly had floated miles from its host. Antarctica’s surface, of which we would see only a tiny fraction, is about the size of the United States and Mexico put together.

Interestingly, it is governed by a treaty signed by more than 30 nations. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in December of 1959, but wasn’t in force until June 1961. The treaty established Antarctica as a zone of peace and science. There is no official language, capital or currency.

Our first Zodiac cruise took us into Orne Harbor, home of the only known colonies of Chinstrap penguins. We spotted blue-eyed cormorants, snow petrels, snowy sheathbills, and Antarctic shags and terns. We were thrilled by Weddell seals, skuas and humpback whales. We viewed endangered species like the grey-headed albatross and the fin whale.

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46485856_10157948386743626_5609345894097879040_oThe next zodiacs took us to Cuverville Island to seen Gentoo penguins. And boy! Did we see Gentoo penguins!

DSC_0528Thousands of penguins lined the shore and stretched as far back into the snowy mountains as we could see. We scattered, carefully crossing over the penguin highways and finding spots to sit. Time stood still as we watched the penguins play, fight, mate, swim and slide through the snow. They seemed just as interested in the bundled humans as we were in them, as they marched down the smooth ice highways, unafraid of the strangers so captivated by their antics.

The next five days were filled with exhilarating – and sometimes frustrating – challenges, as well as unforgettable experiences. We survived engine trouble and massive ice floes, storms and heavy fogs. Some days, all activities were cancelled, and we spent time marveling at the quiet beauty around us; the only ship within miles.

We visited research stations – the Argentinian Brown and Britain’s Port Lockroy. There are more than 40 permanent research stations on Antarctica, belonging to 30 nations. Antarctica has no indigenous inhabitants or permanent residents. On average, the larger research stations house 1,000 to 4,000 people, depending on the seasons.

DSC_0810I tried sports I had never experienced in my six decades and found I loved mountaineering and snow shoeing. I passed on the polar plunge and delighted in kayaking with my daughter.

Our final night on land was a camping adventure. Having hurt my wrist, I was little help to my industrious offspring as she prepared our site for both of us. The staff picked Leith Point, a flat cape jutting out from a steep mountain into crystal blue water. We dragged our equipment onshore from the zodiacs and pulled them through knee deep snow to our designated spots. There, we dug grave-like trenches in the snow, packing the excess around the edges to protect us from the wind.

We were given three sleeping bags each to stuff inside one other, the outside a waterproof covering to protect the bags from moisture and to cover our exposed faces. There was little sleep, especially since dusky daylight lasted throughout the overnight hours.

I loved the quiet, the expanse of stars with zero competition from earthly light pollution, and even the curious penguins that wandered through the campsite. But most of us were already up, packed, and ready to get back to the ship before the promised 6 a.m. wakeup call. It was an experience for the memory banks, but not one I need to do again!

With the ship heading back to Argentina, we were able to visit Deception Island. This famous underground volcano resembles a large donut with a bite taken out of one side. The 1800-foot opening is where small ships enter the flooded caldera. Still active, its last eruption was between 1967 and 1970.

The island once was home to a British Antarctic Survey base. No longer operational, the buildings remain, as well as those belonging to the Hector Whaling Factory that operated between 1906 and 1931. We trudged in deep snow around the abandoned buildings, eerily emanating a sense of historical tragedy and triumph.

Before clambering aboard the last zodiac ride of the trip, we even found time to have snowball fights and pose for human penguin pictures.

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To take our minds off the approaching Drake’s Passage, the ship planned presentations and exchanges of photos.

By far the most interesting was a discussion on ice.

Antarctica comprises over 84 percent of the world’s ice. Greenland has just 12 percent, with the remaining percentage located in other polar regions. What we see at the surface is about one-seventh to one-tenth of what lies below the water. We learned ice has names, like the bergy bits that glide through the water and growlers, larger chunks of floating ice.

And why is ice important? Because 75 percent of our fresh water storage is in ice. It is the climate engine of the earth. From 1979 through 1992, researchers saw a significant loss of ice in the arctic regions and a surprising small increase in the Antarctic, which was seasonal. Still, researchers find that, overall, peninsular ice is shrinking and the continental ice shelf is melting away.

Surprisingly, Antarctica is considered the driest of all continents and the largest desert on earth. I still could not wrap my head around that, being surrounded by glacial waters, mounds of snow and craggy mountain of ice. But my chapped lips and dry sinuses certainly attested to the fact!

With an uneventful docking and long flight home, I had time to process the experience. Back at home, I was asked many times to describe it. I found I couldn’t. Not really. I used words like surreal. Spectacular. Majestic. Phenomenal. Peaceful. Serene.

I could go on and on. Suffice to say, if you can go, don’t miss the opportunity. It is unlike any experience you will ever have.

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The Art of Life

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Who knew weaving was pure poetry of the soul?

Monica Malo Piedra did. And soon, the rest of us at IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon understood as well.

The renowned Ecuadorian artist and CIDAP award winner recently took a group of weaving newbies on a spellbinding anthropological and history journey. It’s safe to say; those in attendance will never look at a square of fabric or brilliant tapestry the same again.

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The native Cuencana has been creating fabric masterpieces for more than 30 years. She learned first, from her mother, who taught herself to shear sheep and researched designs from magazines to incorporate into weavings.

But Monica wanted to create her own designs. She began to teach herself, experimenting with materials and observing others. Eventually she moved into the jungle where she spent five years embracing the history and talent of the Schuar people.

“It was like my soul connected with their weaving,” she said, through translator and host Berenice Cárdenas, a local art historian and curator.

In the jungle, Monica had a woodworker create her first loom of four simple sticks. She learned new ways to weave and began experimenting with colors. A Uruguayan

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Monica Malo Piedra

professor later taught her loom weaving techniques and she began to “play,” she said.

Monica read constantly. She absorbed all she could about techniques, fabrics and dyes, and found herself drawn to history and anthropology. She deeply believed that to understand and create textiles, she had to understand the indigenous people’s history, and their way of living and thinking first.

For the next 15 years, she lived a simple life in Susadel. She began to work with the women of the community, many of whom had given up the skill of weaving to men. While the women gathered and prepared the materials from animals and plants, it was primarily the men who were using the threads to create woven textiles.

“I needed to recover the ancient memories,” she said, by reminding the women of their pre-Colombian roots.

Still, the collective self-esteem of the women of the village was so low; it took time to convince them to experiment with the threads they created. Soon, the older women were recounting history, remembering their grandparents, recalling childhood incidents and sharing their histories with each other. Young women joined the group and even men participated.

“It was very interesting to see what the women did in their weaving. Houses, flowers, domestic things, encrypted in ancient symbols, began to emerge through their memories,” she said. “The men created condors, large animals, donkeys, all images they worked with in daily life.”

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The project blossomed as Monica and a friend raised money for looms and hosted workshops to share techniques.

“It was an empowering process for the women,” she recalled.

Monica continued her mission when she left Susadel and moved to Riobamba. There she created weaving groups of all ages of women who were “recovering their essence” through their work.

For the next hour, Monica taught us about plants and insects that produce vibrant dyes. She educated us about how lunar phases and water affect plants to such a degree that the same hue is rarely replicated. We learned the differences between threads woven of the hair of llama, alpaca, vicuña, and even bats. We found that, with keen observation, we could identify the heritage of any indigenous group simply by the woven clothing they wore.

Ultimately, she said, textiles are not just a piece of cloth.

“When you see a tactile piece, look beyond the image, colors and fabric,” she said. “Think about the raising of the animals or plants that produced the thread.”

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Consider the relationship of the work to what surrounded the artist, she said. For instance, an evening star to a Navajo weaving friend was the North Star, but that same celestial sight is Venus to Ecuadorian artists who do not have the same night sky.

As a young girl, a wise man told her: “Those who know how to weave know the art of life.” She never fully understood that sentiment, Monica said, until she spent years among indigenous populations absorbing their craft.

“The yarn – the warp – is like a house without structure. The weaving creates the strength of the structure. And, like life, you can change it, take it apart, and rebuild it,” she said.

Part historian, part anthropologist, and all artist, Monica ended her presentation with a poetic philosophy. Clearly, for Monica, weaving is a metaphor for life.

“Words are threads wove between human beings,” she said. “Society is an immense fabric made from the need for communication, equal reception and solidarity among individuals.”

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Monica’s new gallery is expected to open mid-month in the San Sebastian neighborhood. IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon features a wide range of art-related talks and presentations each Friday at 10:30 a.m. IdiomArt is in El Centro, at Presidente Cordova 1-77 between Manuel Vega and Miguel Angel Estrella. Art Salons are $10 and reservations are not required. Contact studio@idiomart.net for more information.

Queen of Cuenca

I couldn’t help myself.

“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.

dsc_0284Our 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.

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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.

dsc_0217The 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.”

Of course.

Cuenca did not receive electricity until 1910. But the family’s home was among the first to gain service.

dsc_0272She 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.

dsc_0275Someone 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.”

dsc_0310We 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.dsc_0308

Horses, Me and the Andes

 

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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.

DSC_0627Inside, 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.

DSC_0580The 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.

DSC_0604We 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.

DSC_0608Yes, 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.

I decided to do a little research on the exercise of horseback riding. Here’s some interesting information I found from the blog https://enell.com/blogs/blog/5-reasons-horseback-riding-really-is-a-workout.

“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!

DSC_0634The 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.

DSC_0637For information on horseback riding, contact Jane at laureles108@protonmail.com 097 907 2087 or find Rancho Patococha on Facebook.

Ecuador’s Secret Garden

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We have found the Secret Garden – Ecuadorian style.

The Orchards of Macarena, “La Macarena Jardin Botanico,” is a 12-acre tropical paradise in Guachapala, outside of Cuenca. The gardens are private, born of a dream of Carlos Julio Meneses in 2006.

f35440640Julio was a young architect who had a vision of a garden that educated Ecuadorians to the wildly diverse foliage growing in their state. Unfortunately, he died four years ago, at the age of 52, before the dream was completely realized.

The dream lives on in his brother, Manuel Meneses, who runs the gardens almost single-handedly.

Manuel is concerned.

“There is no one interested in taking over,” he said, in Spanish. “My brother’s children are studying in the United States, my older brother is a doctor, and my sister has rheumatoid arthritis.”

“If I die, I do not know what will happen to this place,” he says, his eyes losing their luster at the thought.

He sweeps his hands across the horizon, indicating the vast greenery in front of him.

“But I have hope. I will find someone. I am looking.”

The brothers clearly shared more than a passion for plants. Before he died, Julio dedicated a corner of the gardens to his younger brother. It is called Refugio Manungo, a Refuge for Manuel, whose “pet” name is Manungo.

“It is a special place of peace,” he says.

We are honored to visit the gardens on a tour with Sole Riquetti de Gould, owner of La Yunta Restaurant. She is well-known for her “slice of life” visits in Cuenca and its surroundings. In fact, her experiences have become so popular; she created Tours La Yunta to formalize the business.

Today’s visit involves a three-hour walk around the lush, verdant gardens. While there are a few flowers, mostly orchids, the crown jewels are the magnificent trees. There are thousands of them. Manuel tells us there are 500 species of plants on the property, to include the national trees of many countries, such as the U.S. and Canada.

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Manuel takes his role as caretaker – and educator – very seriously.

“Ecuador is bio diverse – number six among countries around the world. But Ecuadorians don’t study it. They don’t care. We are trying to change that,” he says.

He points out Ecuador’s national tree, which he calls the “Quina” and asks if any of us are familiar with it. It is one of the most important trees in the world, he adds.

Officially known as Cinchona pubescens, the Quina is used in the treatment of yellow fever and malaria. It is better known to English-speakers as quinine.

To our delight, Miguel enters storytelling mode. He, shoves his glasses onto his nose, and nonchalantly drops one hand into a vest pocket. He launches into what will be the first, of many, tales we hear throughout the tour.

Essentially, the curative properties of quinine were discovered in the 1640s by a Jesuit priest visiting Loja. The priest found that indigenous people were treating various fevers with juice from tree bark.

According to legend, the priest took the medicine to Peru. There, the Countess of Chinchón – the wife of Luis Jerónimo de Cabrera, the Viceroy of Peru – was near death. The priest gave her the quinine and saved her life. The tree was then named in honor of the Countess.

There are many trees, and a story for every tree.

“What tree do you see in the Rotary Plaza?” Manuel asks, his eyes sparking. It’s a trick question.

When no one answers correctly, he says the only tree you see is the “Aliso” (alder) which is the wood used for artisan works. It is the most common wood used for furniture due to its flexibility, he says.

The “rope tree” is the Araucana – Chile’s national pine tree. The gardens have three of the six varieties that exist, Manuel says proudly.

We pass a black laurel tree and Manuel stops to hug it before continuing.

“This is our sign of respect between two living beings,” he says. The laurel, once widely used in construction, was endangered. But the advent of metal stud use in buildings has created time for them to repopulate.

My favorite species is the Dragon’s Blood tree, called Sangre de Dragon. There are slashes in the tall gray trunk as far as I can see.

“People are no longer able to use this one,” he says, protectively stroking the trunk.

The cuts in the wood cause a red liquid to ooze out. Collected in jars, it is popularly used – still – to cure stomach issues and to heal cuts and abrasions.

There are willows, which contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. The Alcanfor tree produces camphor, which relieves pain and reduces itching. It has also been used to treat fungal infections, warts, cold sores, hemorrhoids, and osteoarthritis.

We see the Guayusa, used to make naturally caffeinated herbal teas to treat bone pain and the frightening “borrachero” shrub that yields seeds known to lead to hallucinations and lack of free will. There are more recognizable plants, such as aloe, coffee and sugar cane.

There are surprises throughout Ecuador’s Secret Garden. Benches are tucked into dense foliage, and a turn of the path reveals an occasional grass-thatched hut. There is even a Huaca Canari tumba, a Canari tomb in which the bodies were buried standing up.

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Manuel stops at one of many sculptures we have passed along the pristine woodland paths. This one is a rooster on top of a massive rock.

Time for another story.

“Eighty to 90 years ago, when Guachapala was a small town, there was an apuesto – a good-looking young man – who attracted all the girls,” Manuel begins. The man was so envied; he caused problems, so the town sent him away. No matter where the young man went, the same thing happened.

The young man finally found a giant rock and lived there alone. A few friends would bring food to “El Gallo Macho” as he was known by then, roughly translated to the “Cock of the Walk” for the English speakers.

One day the friends found him dead. As they stood there, they were infused with the dead man’s energy. The friends then became the “El Gallo Machos” of the town.

Manuel points to the rooster on top of the rock.

“So whoever is seeking a spouse must climb onto the rooster on top of the rock to inherit his good energy,” he says. We laugh, and move on, while a few momentarily contemplate the climb.

f36435712Our final stop is for some guayusa tea and a sandwich in the old homestead. Beautiful murals are painted on walls, and the underside of a staircase. One room is filled with the antique collections I have come to expect in patrimonial homes. There are rocks and fossils, toys and old boots. Everything is carefully identified and labeled.

Outside, there is a fantasy filled playhouse for the family’s grandchildren and a small chapel.

Inside the chapel, we find the garden’s namesake. Manuel’s father brought home a painting from Spain called the Virgin of La Macarena. He built the chapel to honor her. La Macarena is hung opposite the family’s other treasure, a 180-year-old representation of the Virgin Rosario.

As we leave the Secret Garden, Manuel pulls me aside to show me his personal retreat. He points out a sign posted nearby. It is a quote by Lin Yutang.

“Half of the beauty depends on the landscape and the other half of the man who looks at it.”

f37892096It is clear, as we leave this imaginative paradise behind, that both Manuel, and his brother before him, are those men. They looked at – and cherished – the beauty of the landscape.

f37961472The garden is only open to schools for educational tours. Public visits can be arranged through La Yunta Tours. Contact Sole at +593 98 945 6551 or layuntatiendaycocina@gmail.com

San Francisco Plaza Enters New Era

dsc_0009The 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.

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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.

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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.

dsc_0011Another 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.

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Roses are NOT Just Red

All these years, it has been yellow roses. Always.

Thirty-six years later I come to find out it is the white lilac or purple rose I should have been getting from my husband. Yellow signifies friendship and joy. But the purple, ah, enchantment and love at first sight!

dsc_0299They have all three gorgeous hues at Trebol Roses in the tiny village of La Carmela, near Nazon-Biblian, just 45 minutes from Cuenca. In fact, they have every shade you can imagine in 25 varieties flourishing over 30 acres.

A group of us recently toured the farm, just weeks before Valentine’s Day. Workers had two million stems to deliver within three weeks. That explains the frenzied pace in one of the 18 greenhouses we visited.

DSC_0239.JPGWomen – and they are primarily women due to their gentle touch – each are assigned 20 flower beds. They are responsible for the health, care and feeding of blooms within those beds. At just the right time, blooms are selected for cutting – itself a learned talent.

I watched, mesmerized, as women deftly plucked certain blooms, snipped the stems and rolled them into dozens. There is an art – the product of long experience – to finding the rose that is not yet open, but will be fresh and ready to blossom at exactly the right time after reaching the consumer.

The cut flowers are wrapped and packed onto a hand-pulled trolley to get them from greenhouse to receiving room without damage. There, the stems are plunged into nutrient-filled water barrels for up to three hours until they can be processed.

Moving barrels of roses to the main floor, they are assigned stations. There, women are surrounded by shelves where they classify the blooms according to color and stem length. The sorters scarcely looked up as I passed by, intent on their work. The roses flew out of the barrels and into their proper places as the women categorized by feel and a quick glance.

Then, the roses are carefully and protectively packaged for shipping and moved into cold storage. Each package of 25 stems receives a unique barcode that allows Trebol to traces the roses all the way back through handlers to the bed it came from.

Susy and Rosana Malo, a delightful pair of Ecuadorian sisters who are fourth generation business owners, were our hosts for the day. And yes, Rosana sometimes shortens her name to Rosy, an irony not lost on any of us.

dsc_0230Rosana explained that the family business began as a Panama hat export business in 1910. A few years later, her grandparents introduced dairy cows to the land. Susy and her husband now run the 100-year-old dairy farm while Rosana and her husband direct the rose plantation, founded on just two acres in 1997.

The dairy farm has 300 cows that are milked twice a day, producing 2,000 liters, mostly sold through a Guayaquil factory under the Toni brand name. There’s a nice symbiosis to the farms as the cow manure is an important element in fertilizer for the roses.

It was Rosana’s idea to start the rose farm. She had a lot of persuading to do, especially when it came to the men in the family.

“I had to convince them that it was going to work. I asked for just two acres to start,” she said. “Even my husband thought it was a crazy idea.”

Still, they gave in to the “experiment” and Rosana took a year to learn the business. She hired 30 workers to start.

Now, business is booming. Ecuador has a perfect climate for roses with four seasons in a day. Ecuador generally enjoys 12 hours of sunlight, with the sun passing at just the right angle to encourage straight stem growth. The water is pure, scientifically rated the best in Ecuador.

dsc_0253The workers are like family; Rosana told us, as many of them grew up together, playing in the fields and attending the same school. About 150 people work the farm year-round, with another 50 hired on during peak seasons like Valentine’s Day.

Their loyalty is evident. They are working almost 16 hours a day to meet the Valentine’s Day demand. In return, the family provides the workers with transportation to and from their homes, snacks, meals and even vitamins. Rosana grimaced as she entered an area where lively salsa music is playing. “And whatever music they need to encourage working, they get,” she said, smiling.

During peak periods like January, Trebol roses emerge from the farm every evening in two refrigerated trucks bound for Quito. Buyers can send or receive roses by ordering directly from the farm and they are delivered by FedEx in just five days. By going directly from the farm to consumers, the roses enjoy a vase life of as long as 15 days, Rosana said. That compares to the four or five days roses normally last if they are bought from “middlemen” such as florists or other distributors.

Also of note, the company contributes a portion from all sales to Community Charities through social projects locally.  The owners are committed to helping the less fortunate residents in their area and both are regular volunteers in Cuenca’s soup kitchen operated by expat Bob Higgins.

So here is the burning question. Why is there no scent on a farm full of millions of roses?

“The freshest roses have no scent,” Rosana explained. “If you smell a scent, it means the roses are decaying and will have a short vase life.”

Fifty percent of the farm’s production is the popular “Freedom” red rose. Rose names are international based on established varieties. This particular crop is being babied through production with tiny brown sacks covering the buds.

“The buds need more warmth to grow larger,” she said.

dsc_0259By the way, there are no black roses. What might sometimes be referred to as a black rose is actually a dark red rose. Only one variety can be successfully dyed, a pinkish rose called Mondial. We saw beautiful examples of this process in the multicolor stems named Rainbow Tinted Roses.

The United States and Canada are the farm’s biggest markets. Russia is a close third. The Russians like the Iguazu, with long stems up to 40 cm, for its large blossom and long stems.

“Roses are a cultural tradition in Russia,” Rosana said. “With nine to ten months of cold winter, it is important to have color inside the home. And they know their roses!”

Rosana’s favorite is the High & Magic rose. It has a deep, bright color and a longer vase life at 25 days than most varieties. And what do you give the owner of a 20-acre rose farm for special occasions? “A trip to Europe?” she offered, with a laugh.

high and magicAs if the educational tour is not enough, the sisters invited our group into their beautiful hacienda for a delicious lunch. Susy also happens to be trained in the culinary arts. She used the opportunity to demonstrate her considerable cooking skills and to give a quick class in grilling vegetables.

After the delicious meal, our group has time for a quick tour of the hacienda and substantial gardens. It is time to leave the peaceful, rolling countryside.

Most of us took roses with us, as if to prolong the experience. Trebol Roses is, after all, a slice of heaven, just a short drive away.

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The next rose farm tour is a special one on February 12 at 10 AM. Find out more at http://www.ecuadordirectroses.com or Ecuador Direct Roses on Facebook. Ecuador contact is Karla at 0969041385 or karla@ecuadordirectroses.com International calls are taken at 805-259-3630.

Tale of Two Holidays

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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.

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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.”

Oh Cuenca! What a treasure you are!

Shared Visions

The Shaman made me laugh.

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.

DSC_0778The 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.

DSC_0751According 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.

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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.

DSC_0740While 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.”

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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.

DSC_0725“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.

Weaving Memories

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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.

DSC_0643DSC_0683Ana 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.

DSC_0652I 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.

DSC_0659Ikat 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.

Her eyes are twinkling.

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