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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Worth its Weight

42399199_10217288540435649_4388915926028779520_nSilver has always been my metal of choice. Simple. Elegant. Affordable.

Filigree silver jewelry, in my mind, was an Art Deco style that was popular in the early 1900s. I never gave the light, airy, lacy look much thought. It seemed dated. Old.

In Ecuador, filigree jewelry, both silver and gold, IS old. And my mind has been forever changed.

Known as filigrana in Spanish, filigree is a metal work formed of gold or silver threads, united and soldered with delicate perfection. Interestingly, filigrana also refers to a transparent mark or mark made on paper, like a watermark.

In Chordeleg, a mountain village just 30 miles from my home in Cuenca, craftspeople have certainly made their mark, although a more permanent one, with filigree jewelry.

On a recent trip with Polylepsis Tours, my friends and I spent time visiting the silver shops of Chordeleg. There we met Flavio Jara, whose family has crafted precious metals into intricate wearable designs for several generations. He began learning the trade at age 12, 50 years ago.

With a flourish of his hand, Flavio invited us into his workshop. It is a neatly organized, quiet, but busy place behind his shop, El Puerta Del Sol. He is ready for his guests, having fashioned a sort of mini tour by way of a sectioned wooden box. Each box displays silver in its various forms, from raw cylinders to finely crafted finished pieces.

He stands, motioning us to a rustic steel machine where all filigree is birthed, he says. When his father began creating jewelry 80 years ago, Flavio explains, he used a small iron plate in which various holes had been drilled. The jeweler pulled the soft silver – or gold – wire through the holes at random, guessing at the diminishing sizes until the strand was as fine as he could get it. Now Flavio uses a steel draw plate with carefully calibrated holes, each marked in tiny measurements. The difference – and speed – in which a piece can be created is… well it can’t be compared, he says, throwing his hands in the air and laughing.

While the calibrated holes make for more precise measurements, the silver – or gold – still is perfected the old fashioned way. Flavio gives us an opportunity to pull threads through the plates, with a pair of pliers. It is harder than it looks!

In his demonstration box, Flavio shows us the frame he will use for the threads of silver he has just created. Thicker pieces of silver or gold are bent until the desired shape is achieved. The jeweler then curls, twists or tightly winds silver into shapes that are gently placed inside the framework and flash soldered into place.

Some pieces require a zig zag. Flavio proudly cradles the palm-size machine invented by his father 30 years ago. Until then, the zig zag pattern required painstaking measurements and careful handmade bends in the wire. Now, he runs the wire through his father’s invention and “Mira!” he says, gleefully pointing out the bent thread emerging from the tiny machine. The zig zag is created in moments.

I watch his large fingers expertly twist a tiny circle and drop it into its frame. I am amazed he does not fumble. Deftly moving tiny pieces of silver from one piece to the next, he proudly demonstrates what will be a finished piece. He points to a flower – which will become a brooch. He beams, delighted at our astonishment when he explains it will be made of 220 pieces of handcrafted silver filigree.

DSC_0567The demonstration over, Flavio answers a few questions, then invites us into his sparkling store. Half museum, half retail operation, the artwork and jewelry are mesmerizing. There is an intricately built evening bag graced with a tiny hummingbird. In the window is a collection of vehicles – a plane, a motorcycle, and an ancient buggy. Now armed with the knowledge of creating filigree, we can’t take our eyes off of the complex works.

We linger over the showcase of candonga earrings – the traditional chandelier-type earrings popular in this culture. Even the light poles in this charming town boast oversize candongas! We make our selections from the hundreds of earrings and rings, all weighed for the price, and none costing us more than $18.

We emerge into the sunlight with treasure more precious for the experience of watching gifted hands create, than for its physical beauty. We will never look at filigree the same.

Birthing Music

DSC_0432I played guitar for a season, long ago.

Then, I looked at my Epiphone as a tool to accompany my not-so-special voice that favored 60s ballads and 70s love songs. Recently, I learned the guitar can be a vessel full of life and character, crafted with purpose, precision and love.

On the road to the popular tourist villages of Gualaceo and Chordeleg, there is a small community called San Bartolome. It is cradled in the green grasslands between high Andean mountain peaks. For more than 100 years, it has been the birthplace of a guitar-making industry.

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DSC_0403Even the main plaza bears testimony to a rich heritage. Mosaic fountains are adorned with iron sculptures of guitars, each a hand-crafted piece of art different from the next.

On a tour with Polylepis Tours, my friends and I stopped along the roadside at a small casita with an open air workshop. It is the home of Guitarras Uyaguari. There, Jose Homero Uyaguari and other family members spend their days crafting some of the best guitars in Ecuador.

Today, he greets us with a wide grin and carefully shoves aside the intricate mosaic he is designing with roughened, dye-stained hands.

“Welcome,” he says in Spanish, throwing his arms open wide.

He asks if we would like a tour, and an explanation of the guitar-making process.

We huddle around the rough-hewn desk. At one end, a worker tightens strings on an otherwise finished instrument. The occasional screech screech of the strings being pulled taut punctuates Uyaguari’s words as he describes the centuries-old process of creating musical instruments.

First, woods are carefully selected depending on the size, use and expected cost of the instrument. Many of the guitar bodies are made from Ecuadorian hardwoods like Nogal and Guayacan, or fruit trees like the Capulì. Other woods, like white pine, are imported from Canada for high-end guitars.

Uyaguari is a third-generation guitar-maker. Of the roughly 10 guitar-makers left in the San Bartolome area, about half are brothers, sons and uncles yoked to the Uyaguari name. They use templates to cut the bodies of the guitars, but the rest is guided by years of handed-down tradition and experience.

Uyaguari picks up several razor-thin wood shavings to show us how they are dyed and glued together. When multiple layers are dry, he carefully cuts tiny pieces with an aging box knife. Instantly creating multicolored, handmade wooden beads, he drops them into the intricate design around the sound hole of a guitar.

I am mesmerized as I watch his aged, work-hardened fingers push the bits of color around the table. He moves two together, and then pushes them apart to insert another shape, a different color. His pride radiates, even in a demonstration. The work is painstaking, but yields original mini masterpieces beyond compare.

He shows us different woods, heavier and stronger, used for the fingerboards. Cow bone is most often used for the frets. Chonta, a dark wood from a palm, is traditionally used for the neck. It is hard, almost stone like, and is known for its durability. He grins, and knocks loudly on a piece he holds out to us.

“Duro. Muy duro,” he says, nodding his head.DSC_0450

On both sides of us, men keep working. One has finished stringing his guitar and is hanging it up. Another has extended a guitar at the end of his reach, eyeballing the neck of the piece, a self-satisfied smile indicating he has done good work.DSC_0433

Uyaguari points us toward his “showroom,’ to examine the finished products. In this second room, guitars are hanging in neat rows. Some are wrapped against the elements but most hang in the open air of the dusty room.

Today’s selections range from $60 to $1,000. They include classical guitars and their smaller cousins, the requinto, a smaller, higher-pitched instrument. There are Venezuelan four-string cuatros as well as the traditional Latin American 10-string charangos.

The cuatro sometimes has a viola-like shape, but most resemble a small to mid-sized classical guitar. The cuatro, which means four in Spanish, evolved from the Portuguese cavaquinho which has four strings. Modern cuatros often have more than four strings.

The charango is a small Andean stringed instrument within the lute family. Just over two feet long, it was traditionally made with an armadillo shell. Many guitar-makers have exchanged the shell for wood, believing it to be a better resonator of sound.

He shows us a delicately carved and brightly painted toucan on a charango made entirely of wood. We pass it, almost reverently, between us, tracing the grooved pattern with appreciation.DSC_0460

We admire the wide variety of woods, the gleaming, jewel-like patterns surrounding the sound holes, the flaring shapes of some of the guitar necks and the bowl shaped-backs of others.

One guitar after another is more beautiful than the last. They hang silent, waiting for willing fingers to urge a unique sound from deep within the wooden bowels of the instrument.

Uyaguari is cradling a guitar across his chest. He silently strums, but no sound emanates because he is barely stroking the strings. I point to his hands and ask him to play for us.DSC_0467

He doesn’t play guitars, he says. He just births them.

“How do you know they are good? How do you know that the sound is perfect?” I ask.

“Because I made them,” he says simply. The light literally twinkles in his eyes.

 

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.

 

 

 

Coloring the Coast

There’s a tiny town on the Pacific coast of Ecuador poised to fulfill big dreams.

The big dream was seeded by Shell Spivey, a former banker who emigrated to Ecuador eight years ago from Arkansas. He and his wife, Marsha, a CPA, moved with plans to live in a beautiful, tranquil country by the water.

They found La Entrada, “The Entrance,” a sleepy fishing village of 850 inhabitants, a handful of restaurants and no hotels. Villa de los Suenos was born. The Spivey’s bed and breakfast, House of Dreams, is highly ranked on Trip Advisor and popular with expats. With just five rooms and a casita – all with ocean views, the Villa offers an intimate, personal experience. Breakfast is complimented with local bakery delicacies served with an expansive ocean view that never ends.

But this story is about something bigger than the Spiveys retirement plan. It’s about an American couple giving back to the community that welcomed them. It’s about two people making a difference in a fishing village that ekes out its subsistence dependent on Mother Nature. It’s about leaving a place better than you found it.

After launching their B&B, the Spiveys immersed themselves in the community. They volunteer at the orphanage, where Christmas now is a bonanza. Marsha helps shepherd little ones through a ballet class, then helps out in choir. Both spend time and funds to aid senior citizens. The Spiveys even formed a support group, the Friends of La Entrada, as a grassroots effort for expats to sponsor projects in health care, education and other basic needs.

They tackled their first major community project, the rebuilding of the town’s Catholic Church, with hours of research and planning to create the region’s first destination wedding chapel. With a beautiful white chapel featuring an exterior wall of floor-to-ceiling glass highlighting spectacular ocean views, the Spiveys were confident renters would flock to La Entrada.

“After the government took over the project, they told us there was not enough money to build the glass wall that would allow the Pacific Ocean to be the church’s backdrop.

Shell told them the glass could not be eliminated,” Marsha recalled. “He asked an interpreter to tell the contractor, ‘God wants the front wall to be glass.’ The contractor looked down and got quiet. Then he said ‘Then God can come up with the $15,000.’ ”

Marsha said her husband negotiated the price down to $12,000 and launched a crowd funding campaign. The funds were raised just in time to pay for the glass.

While work continues to expand and equip the church, which has already hosted weddings and other celebrations, the Spiveys turned their attention to the town.

That big dream Shell had? It is to colorize the tiny town’s 128 buildings. Then, muralists from throughout the country will be invited in to produce as many as 50 murals. By brightly painting the town, Marsha explains, La Entrada will become a one-of-a-kind tourist destination. Travelers will want to see the beautiful artwork, spend some money, and maybe stay awhile.

It hasn’t been an easy process. Some buildings are in such disrepair they must be torn down. Other residents must replace bamboo walls with concrete. All exterior walls are first plastered, and then painted in vivid colors with contrasting trim. Only then are volunteer artists invited in to paint murals. Homeowners must agree to the makeovers, then to help protect the artwork. Painters of 23 murals so far committed to return to maintain the murals, which are virtually unprotected in the harsh seaside elements.

All of those improvements come at a cost. Some has been raised by the Spiveys and some provided through donations and discounts on paint by Sherwin Williams and Unidas in Ecuador. Unidas was the first to donate the paint and a group of community representatives picked the most colorful complementing colors from their color charts.

Homeowners choose from the varied pallet of colors, but cannot paint their homes the same color as their neighbors. Homeowners provide the labor, so patience is sometimes key, and some require more convincing than others that ALL sides of their home must be repaired and painted. Some wanted to paint the street front and be done. But in some cases, the backs of homes overlook the main streets, Marsha says. She points to the side of second-story adobe wall. That WILL be painted, she says with determination.

In addition to the colorization of the town, plans call for new restaurants, stone ovens on the town square for cooking street food, and artisan shops. La Entrada already is home to at least two artisans, a jewelry designer and a painter/sculptor. The jeweler, Armando Asuncion, also serves as the community president. Asuncion’s workshop also serves as a school for aspiring jewelry makers. Well-respected for his trade and leadership, Asuncion is a spectacular role model at 26.

The painter, Darwin Ruiz, specializes in bright acrylics of ocean life and Ecuadorian natives. His whimsical sculptures are built of car parts and other found mechanical pieces. The Spiveys are hoping to work with the Ministry of Tourism in Ecuador to help provide training and workshops for residents interested in learning artisan trades.

The community’s vice president, Benito Pincay left La Entrada at 16 to earn his culinary diploma in Guayaquil. He became a pastry chef and worked 12 years for four top hotels in Guayaquil then returned to his hometown to establish a now well-known bakery. With two other locations on the coast, Benito’s Bakery brings customers from cities three hours way looking for his delicious cakes and pineapple turnovers. I can speak with authority here – my chocolate birthday cake was divine and the pineapple treats were breakfast favorites.

It is exciting to think a return visit next year may reveal a flourishing small town that is self-sufficient in providing for the needs of its 15 fishing families. In a place where few children expect to complete their education, much less go on to college, the dream of American expats could mean huge opportunities for the next generation.

As dreams go, this one is tangible and achievable. As Yoko Ono said, “a dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

Tale of the Whales

Humpback whales deserve their own blog.

I’ve been a scuba diver more than 30 years and have yet to encounter a whale underwater. On my honeymoon 35 years ago, Mike and I were treated to an occasional tail flip by the North Pacific Humpback and sperm whales off the coast of Maui. That was thrilling enough; until my visit to Puerto Lopez on the Ecuadorian coast.

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Photo not credited but taken from a Puerto Lopez tourism site. My dream scuba trip one day!

From June until September, as many as 2,600 Southern Humpback whales arrive in the 70-degree Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. They have traveled three to four months over 4,000 miles from the frigid waters of Antarctica in search of warmer waters in which to mate or to birth calves. The humpbacks that feed in Antarctic waters and travel north to breed off Ecuador, Colombia and Panama make the longest confirmed migration of any mammal. The whales travel that far because young calves cannot survive cold waters until they develop sufficient fat. The calves typically nurse 6 to 10 months, but within three or four they are ready to travel back to Antarctica.

Mike and I were on the coast to enjoy a stay at Villa de los Suenos in La Entrada, a secluded bed and breakfast run by expats Marsha and Shell Spivey. Whale-watching is offered as a daily activity option and was my primary purpose for making the trip. In nearby Puerto Lopez, you can grab a tour on any number of small boats for about $25. After motoring 30 to 45 minutes out into the blue ocean, you may encounter one to as many as eight whales swimming in a pod. The tours last about two hours, with boat captains following spouting whales at a respectable distance.

We begin to look for blowholes – which, by the way, are not water, but the whale’s exhalation released into lower-pressure, colder atmosphere, condensing into water vapor. That white splash you see from a distance can also be caused by water resting on top of the blowhole.DSC_0492

Our tour guide takes opportunities between whale spotting to educate us. We learn the humpbacks are baleens, which, like the blue and gray whales, have two spouts on their heads. These Southern Humpbacks from Antarctica are generally more light-colored than their Hawaiian cousins, the North Pacific Humpback. A third variety, called the North Atlantic Humpback, has mainly white flippers in contrast to the other two types, which have darker colored upper flippers. All have bumpy heads, nodes called tubercles, which are used in a sensory capacity, much like a cat’s whiskers.

We spot a pod of gracefully lumbering, curved black backs at the surface. Humpbacks are named for the manner in which their curved backs arch when they leap above the water. These are magnificent creatures! Adults are 40 to 50 feet long and weigh almost 80,000 pounds. Their fins alone extend up to 15 feet.

The males sing to attract the females and slap the water with their fins. I nearly jumped out of my skin when, facing the opposite direction, everyone pointed behind me as a giant whale was just diving back into the water and slapping his tail.

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Photo of a lifetime! Not taken by me, and not credited by local tourism agency.

Being that the reporter’s blood still flows within me, I wanted to learn more. I read about the Humboldt Current, which is largely credited with the humpback whales’ migratory path from Antarctica to the South American coastline. The Humboldt runs near the coast of Ecuador, stirring up the plankton and krill humpbacks and dolphins thrive on. An adult whale can consume up to 3,000 pounds a day!

The Humboldt also is the reason the coastal areas from Chile to Peru produce a fifth of the world’s fish.  Interestingly, scientists believe the changing climate is changing the current and the ecosystems that depend upon it.

DSC_0526The Humboldt Current is already stressed by the El Nino and la Nina events and is producing the most significant minimum oxygen zone in any of the world’s oceans. The oxygen free water under the surface forces the fish to live closer to the surface where they can breathe, but as fish and other organisms die, they fall to the sea bed where they simply are deposited in sediments rather than being part of the food chain. It is thought that the impact of the changing climate is causing the minimum oxygen zone to expand, and for this part of the ocean to become more acidic.

Without getting too technical, there are climate changes and currents that are largely dependent on a delicate balance of cold and warm air and water.  If the Earth warms too much, it’s possible that certain currents could collapse entirely, new research says. That would mean frigid winters for countries along the North Atlantic, expansion of the sea ice in the Greenland, Iceland, and Norwegian seas, and a shift in rainfall across the world.

Meanwhile in Antarctica – which happens to be my next adventure this winter – is melting three times faster than it was just ten years ago, shedding 200 billion tons of ice into the oceans every year. The World Wildlife Fund says warmer ocean temperatures and melting sea ice in the polar regions may jeopardize the ecology of the Arctic and Antarctic feeding grounds of many large whales. The bowhead, narwhal, and beluga, which live in Arctic waters year-round, are in particular danger.

Climate changes, depletion in the ozone layer and the related rise in UV radiation may also lead to a fall in the population of krill, a primary food source for many marine species, including these spectacular whales off the coast of Ecuador.

I’m captivated by these gentle giants slowly rising and falling with the waves. I feel honored to indulge in an afternoon in their presence, knowing that, ultimately, we may be responsible for their destruction.DSC_0564

The guide leans over to tell me individual whales can be identified. Their flukes are distinctive compared with any other whale species; the black and white markings and scalloped edges are as unique as a human fingerprint, allowing experts to name thousands of individuals around the world. The wavy edged flukes are raised during dives, enabling researchers to keep track of individual whales from year to year.

Silently, I entertain myself by naming a few that persist in swimming near our boat.

Who knows? Maybe that pod of seven that so easily enthralled me in Ecuador will see me again in Antarctica when I get there in November. Hmmmmm.