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.

Paper Trails

classThere’s nothing like the feel of goosh in your hands.

You know. Water plus something gooshy. In my case, pulp for making paper. It takes me back to the good ole Girl Scout days. Mud pies. Glue and flour figures. Clay. Handmade paper.

I recently spent three days with Kimberley Wood, who runs Papel a Mano in Cuenca, Ecuador. An artist with 27 years’ experience, she came to Ecuador from Minnesota in 2012. She is painstakingly patient with six beginners as we play with the goosh.

First we learn how to make the goosh. Lucky for us, Kimberley and her husband, Tom, did the hard work before we arrived. Today they are working with abaca fiber, from a relative of the banana plant. Kimberley also uses other fibers, such as pineapple leaves, and 100 percent cotton tee shirts.

The fibers are soaked overnight, and then boiled in a cleanser such as soda ash or lye, for about three hours. The pieces and fibers are rinsed. The mix is dumped into a giant metal masticator. OK, it’s really called a Hollander beater, but that doesn’t sound near as interesting does it? The beater does its work for three to eight hours, depending on the properties you want the fiber to have.

Finally, we get to play. We put the pulp in water and catch it into handheld screens. With just the right shake you can make it artist-worthy thin. But even if it’s thicker than you like, the later stage of pressing gets it back to size. The thin paper is artistically beautiful on its own, but it is a bear to scrape off its drying rack! More on that to come.

Next is mastering “the roll.” Placing the screen down on a piece of felt, you quickly roll it away from you, leaving a thin slice of rectangular shaped pulp on the felt to dry. The pulp sheets are covered by another piece of felt until you have completed the number of sheets you want. Or, the teacher tells you “your tray is next!” in that kindly, knowing voice. My partner and I definitely got carried away.

The trays of felt-separated sheets of fiber are placed into a 10-ton press. Tom, known as Mr. Paper, takes on this job. The press is used to squeeze out excess water. I ask how he knows when to stop. He invites me to feel the pressure on the lever myself. “That’s perfect,” he says. I shrug. I have no clue what that means.

I ask how long he leaves the pulp in the press. It’s his turn to shrug. “As long as it takes.” He grins. Tom clearly is the master of the press. It reminds me of my mother’s cooking instructions: “Cook until done,” or “Cook in a hot oven.” This job is one you have to do a few times to appreciate.

For these eager newbies, the wait is about 15 minutes. The press is released and we carry the boards of still-wet fiber into the living room where windows abound.

Back to feeling like a kid. Now we “paint” the individual sheets on to windows to dry. Clearly, there is no paint. We use the dampness of the sheets to secure them to the window. Again, I am transported back to childhood. I am 6 years old and my mom is painting her room purple. My older brother is helping, but my mother has not invited me. I beg to be of use. Of course, mom says innocently. She gets a little tray of paint and a small brush and leads me to a wall – behind where the dresser will be. I am happy. She is happy. And I didn’t figure out her ploy until much later, when it was too late to complain.

But back to paper-making. We are through for the day and leave our treasures to dry overnight.

On the second day, we carefully peel the papers from the window. Many of mine are too thin and tear, living bits of paper on the windows. Those that survive are reserved for projects we will learn to make later. A few of them are coated with a chemical compound to be used for the next technique – marbling.

We experiment with new sheets of pulp, wandering through the garden to find flowers and leaves. Placing them in a nifty microwave dryer, we have perfectly preserved specimens to drop onto the pulp in 45 seconds. We begin the pressing process again.

But wait. There’s color to add!

Dyes added to the vats of pulp are sucked into the fibers in varying hues. Don’t like the hue? Add more of the same – or a different shade entirely. And mixing colors? We were all over that. Dipping corners into one vat, we delighted in submerging opposite corners into another vat.

 

Gathering the pre-treated sheets from yesterday, we take them outside to learn a new way of using color. Marbling is the process of dropping color directly into a gel mix, swirling it and dropping treated paper onto the surface. Waiting seconds until the paper is coated, you peel it off. Voila!  A surprise of color and random design delights your eyes.

While all this fantastic paper is drying, we play with the pulp. Pulp can be pressed into molds. Put a little in, squeeze the water out and tap it with a dry paper towel. Push more pulp into the mold, squeeze the water out and tap it dry. Repeat until the mold is full. These take longer to dry, but turn into fun, three dimensional objects d’art. We also used pulp to make paper bowls. Cover a strainer with a piece of rayon or silk and pour the leftover solution through. When the bowl dries, you turn the strainer over and pop it out. Wow!

Of course at Kimberley’s, the last option for leftover pulp is the living art installation on the side of their house. Visitors are invited to pitch a handful of pulp onto the brick wall, where it melds with dozens of other globs and colors left by previous contributors. I’m not sure I would recommend that for just any paper-maker, but it works for Papel a Mano!

Class ends with a day full of project ideas. A tiny handmade Chinese food to-go box sits on one table. Three or four examples of handmade books, some hand sewn and others bound, lay on another. A third tabletop is bursting with pencils and pens and scissors and glue. There are bags of ribbons and sacks of buttons. We can make collages and art to hang. It is overwhelming.

Our star pupil, Nancy, already is on her second project as I stare at my handmade papers. Students are scurrying around me, measuring and cutting, selecting materials, sorting through papers. All are on a mission.

Again, I am transported to Girl Scouts. I remember girls collapsing in giggles on the floor, pulling out materials of all kinds and creating whatever came to mind. The giggling of my mature workshop mates brings me back. I’d better get busy. Nancy is on her fourth project and I have yet to begin.

I dig in. The papers are beautiful. The projects creative. I’ve discovered a new poultice for my aching creative soul. I may not be an exceptional artist, but the therapy is worth its weight in gold.

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Not Just Another Party

In a culture filled with tradition and festivals, Cuencanos go all out to celebrate Corpus Christi.

The Christian festival is one of thanksgiving, tracing its history to the 1500s through Spanish heritage to its indigenous roots. Hundreds of years ago, Incans showed their appreciation for a good harvest by celebrating the mythological Incan goddess Pacchamama, or Mother Earth, and sun god Inti. Somewhere along the way, the Roman Catholic Church redefined the festival to be one that recognizes the belief that during Mass, bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Corpus Christi is Latin for the body of Christ. Many Cuencanos celebrate both aspects of the festival.

Current-day Corpus Christi takes place 60 days after Easter and generally lasts a week. In Cuenca, where celebrations centered around our central Parque Calderon, vendors and merchants extended the festival two additional days by pitching in for additional fireworks displays. Roads around the park are closed to traffic nightly and hundreds of people pour into the streets.

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According to the Cuenca Office of Tourism, the commemoration of Corpus Christi begins with a proclamation in the streets that ends at the Cathedral de La Inmaculada, also known as the New Cathedral. Here the liturgy is solemnized, followed by a presentation in the streets of the first burning castle, or tower of fireworks. Devotees are given the opportunity to worship at the blessed display inside the Cathedral. The Sacred Host, or consecrated communion bread, remains on display for seven nights and seven dawns. For this the festival is also known as “Septenario,” where “sept” refers to seven.

The family-friendly atmosphere is punctuated with human statues, clowns and homemade carnival games. Vendors hawk everything from whistles and LED toys to handmade bracelets and tiny toy animals. The highlight, of course, is the famous candy produced specifically for this festival. At least 125 tents lined the park on all sides, each displaying mounds of colorful sweets more spectacular than the first.

While the delicacies are beautiful, the selection is overwhelming. How can you possibly decide? For a few dollars, you can take basket and pick and choose to your heart’s content. Of course, you may have to fight swarms of honey bees to get to the products you want. The longer the festival goes on, the more the industrious little bees are drawn to the sugar-laden tables. According to the tourism office, sweets were first distributed by Spanish noble women as gifts to those who lived nearby their homes. They were also given to women in convents and to the Cholas, the indigenous women known by their embroidered and sequined skirts, and became a means to prove participation in the Septenario. Eventually, the recipes slipped out into the general population and today, families take great pride in their own concoctions of candies.

Each night features new folkloric dancers and traditional music. I never cease to be amazed at the agility of Cuencano dancers who navigate the uneven cobblestone streets with ease. Each dance tells a story and is almost always accompanied by props, such as Ecuadorian hats, baskets, flowers, scarves or crates. Most nights, military bands perform as well.

Corpus Christi ends with a procession from the New Cathedral, spilling out hundreds of parishioners who leave rose petals strewn in their wake. In a solemn march around the plaza, onlookers join the parade behind the priest and his contingent. Then comes the grand finale – the burning of the castles. Handmade towers of bamboo, some stretching as high as 40 feet, are placed in the street. The towers are artistically decorated and strategically adorned with swirling pinwheel pyrotechnics, dazzling giant sparklers and colorful rockets timed to go off in rapid succession. The burning of the castles, signifying the end of that night’s celebration, is sponsored by church congregations, civic organizations or individual families.

I was surprised by the location of the opening night’s incendiary display. Fireworks were attached to every window, atop the roof and along the front of the alabaster and marble New Cathedral. The church isn’t that old, having opened in 1975, but it took nearly 100 years to build it. And it’s quite possibly the most recognizable Cuenca landmark, with its trio of domes covered by brilliant blue Czechoslovakian tiles. It was with a bit of fear and awe that I watched as sparks flew off the church. Thankfully, there was no need for the firemen who stood at the ready.

On another night, bystanders angling for the front-row view of the burning towers pressed against some of the police warning tapes until they broke. People crowded to within 20 feet of the burning displays while officers tried in vain to push them back. Again I was reminded of a major difference between Ecuador and the United States. You don’t sue anyone if you get hurt here. It is your responsibility not to get hurt and, if you do, there is no one to blame. Shockingly, a mother standing near me sent her 8–year-old son repeatedly under the tape to stand next to an exploding tower.

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As the sparks of the last tower burned out, this year’s celebration of Corpus Christi came to an end. Well, you still hear fireworks. But this town is like that.  Cuencanos love a good light show. The louder, the better.

 

 

How This Story Began…

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

The question split the silence.

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

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

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

We longed for a change of scenery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were home.

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Nabón’s Hidden Treasures

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

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

The main square of Nabón and the village church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurie and Mike inside the Nabón Orquideareo.

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

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

Some of the exotic varieties of orchids in the garden.

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

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Mountaintop view over Nabón.

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