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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Nabón’s Hidden Treasures

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

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

The main square of Nabón and the village church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurie and Mike inside the Nabón Orquideareo.

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

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

Some of the exotic varieties of orchids in the garden.

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

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Mountaintop view over Nabón.

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

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

DSC_0373Laurie Paternoster and Mike Churchman in Nabon, Ecuador.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Chinita Vintimilla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Real Labor Day

Labor Day will never be the same in my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good day.

 

 

Celebration …and Mourning

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Cuenca is Old!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Chapter

And so it begins…

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

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

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

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

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

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