Monday, April 4, 2011

Contrasting Casas

Life is peculiar sometimes.  One can have very contrasting experiences in the same day and not know what the implications of that contrast are.  These experiences happened to us when we were visiting near Latacunga.  We were on our way to Quito, and we decided to break up the drive by stopping overnight at the Hacienda La Cienega (close to Cotopaxi Volcano) and traveling from there to Laguna Quilotoa (a lake in the collapsed volcano).  On the way back to the hacienda, we had the opportunity to visit a home of an indigenous family.  Thus our contrast.

The hacienda dates from the 17th century and has volcanic stone walls that are two meters thick with elegantly furnished rooms.  The owing family has had notable Ecuadorian patriots, and the hacienda has had many notable guests including past presidents of Ecuador. Other well known guests were Charles Marie de la Condamine (French geographer and metric advocate) and Alexander von Humboldt (German naturalist who studied Cotopaxi and for whom the Humboldt current is named). The first Eucalyptus trees introduced into Ecuador were grown on this hacienda.  Visitors cannot help feeling awe at the many-splendid rooms and the grounds surrounding the hacienda.

By contrast, the indigenous home we visited has a straw roof and is basically one room with a dirt floor.  The family consisted of the parents and six children, and all slept together in the corner on straw. The other corner housed guinea pigs used for “cuy,” an Ecuadorian meal delicacy.  There is no electricity in the house, and no windows with the light coming from the large front opening and one candle.  Cooking is done with the aid of a two-burner propane stove.  A field of onions is outside the house and there were free ranging chickens, cats and dog.  Visitors cannot help feeling awe at the one room home. 

Our guide was very careful in cautioning us not to feel sorry or judgmental about the indigenous family as he pointed out that they appear to be very happy.   So we don’t take any lessons away from our visits to the two homes – but we do note the contrast.

Since this blog posting is public it may be appropriate to mention that we paid the indigenous family to take photographs and that not all the homes of those local people are of that nature.
View of the lane from the front entrance to the hacienda that is lined with giant Eucalyptus trees.

Front entrance to Hacienda La Cienega.

Area that was used for lunches

One table in the area used for the evening meals.

Very comfortable passageway.

Another view of the elegant furnishings.

Interior garden inside the quadrangle building.
Exquisitely carved doors lead into the hacienda chapel.

Distant view of indigenous home.  We did not realize this was a house.

Two sons of the home and the entrance to the house.

The matriarch of the home and her son. Her husband was not home when we visited.
View of the cooking area which had an appetizing odor.

Andean potatoes along with a stew.

A hearty pepper sauce.

A "quail like" bird in the cage with sleeping mats against the wall.
Of course, cuy (guinea pigs) were being raised in the home.

Far corner in the house that would have been used for sleeping.

Two more children of the house.

The field of onions next to the house.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Tilling the fields in the Andes

Agriculture in the Andean Mountains certainly has challenges, and one of them is tilling the fields.  Occasionally, one sees a tractor (but rarely), and I assume that the owner has made known that there is a “tractor for hire.”  But a tractor cannot access all the fields that one sees.  A helicopter could access all the fields, but not a tractor, and a tractor simply cannot be used in the slopes on which many of the fields are located (see pics below).

 Part of the answer to the question can be seen with the wooden ox driven plows that we saw displayed at two disparate places (see pics) and we actually captured such a plow in use just outside of Cañar (see pic and videos).  However, the final answer,  I believe, is seen at the local market place.  

The “spades” or “hoes” (not sure what to call them) are what are used to till the soil.   At one time I saw five people working closely together in a row, methodically chopping the soil, each with their “spade”, and thus systematically tilling the soil.  My only thought is: “that is hard work”  (see pics of others tilling the soil.)
Near Saraguro we hiked for nearly an hour on trails that were cliff side and only for one person, but when we arrived at one of the peaks - there was a farmer's hut and a corn field!
Near Alausi we were amazed at the pathwork of fields on steep slopes.
Near Quilotoa we say a smilar patchwork of fields on steep slopes
We started looking for tractors and tillage equipment - they are there - but not many of them
The mural at our bed-and-breakfast in Saraguro caught our attention with this plow
At the same B-and-B they had such a plow mounted on the wall  - Joe inspects.
At the weaver's place in Bulcay - there was a similar plow.
As we approached Cañar we saw farmers with two bullocks and we stopped.  They were plowing.

Julie rejects a $5 hoe at the Cuenca market - Harold agrees.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gringo Gatherings in Cuenca: Inca Bar, DiBacco's, Zoe's, and CA Kitchen

Cuenca is unique as a gringo retirement community because it has a reasonably cohesive group of gringos, made cohesive by three social events a week. Everyone attends these weekly gatherings off and on, and the events have become a wonderful means of interaction with old-timers and newbies. Everyone is friendly, and people move around and chat with each night’s attendees, ranging from 30 to 50 people per event. Common questions are:

Where are you from? Gringos here hail mostly from CA, FL, Las Vegas, and Texas, with a smattering of people from other states (we met three Minnesotans). There are also some Brits and Aussies tossed in for dialectical flavor, as well as a large number of Canadians.

Where are you living? Much discussion revolves around what apartments are available for rent, what houses are available for sale (realtors are most often in attendance, as well as an individual who can help with financing), the advantages and disadvantages or various locations around the city, the advantages of buying versus renting, etc.

How long will you be here? Are you permanent or temporary? Some people have been here for several years, others a year or so, and some (like us) fly in for a few months. There is also a significant number of attendees who are here for a week or two, just checking out the place. If you plan to become permanent, people will help tremendously with ways to go about getting your cedulla, etc.

What events are going on this week? The gringo gatherings also are a great place to learn about what’s going on in and around the city.

Where are you traveling to? The group does significant traveling, and people are always sharing information about places they are going, travel agents, hassles, etc.

So, if you are heading to Cuenca, remember these questions, and head for the gringo events. We should also mention that several of the gringos are teaching English at local schools (in some cases for pay and in some cases volunteering), and gringos are also volunteering and helping families in need in the area. “Gringo Bingo” started recently, after the Tuesday night social gathering, with all the proceeds going to help people in the area.

These Gringo Gatherings are held at three different locations in town, but one other location has also become a popular hangout: Sundays at 1:00 at Inca Bar, Tuesdays at 5:00 at DiBacco, and Fridays at 5:00 at Zoe’s. The other popular hangout is the California Kitchen, owned by George and Carol Evans from CA, and although nothing formal is set up there, gringos hang out there quite often.

Inca Bar -- Sundays at 1:00

Inca Bar -- Sundays at 1:00

Some of the back room crowd 
Some people watch TV too 
 DeBacco's-- Tuesdays at 5:00
Harold -- ready to head in to DiBacco's for our "swan song" evening

The owner who has spent considerable time living in NYC

DiBacco's before the gringos arrive 

after they arrive
Can you tell what questions these gringos are asking each other? 

Zoes' -- 5:00 on Fridays

If you look carefully at this picture, you will see both Joe and Sharon Wieners -- ex-pats for a week!
Good times are always had by all! 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Full steam ahead on Spanish at the Carolina Bookstore

One of the activities that has taken up much of our time these 3 months is heading to the Carolina Bookstore to talk with friends and to attend Spanish classes (Harold, 5 times a week for an hour each; Julie, twice a week for one and a half hours). No, we are not fluent, but we can get along and read a newspaper (dictionary in hand).

Carolina Bookstore on Hermano Miguel and Calle Larga
First, a bit about the Carolina Bookstore, owned by Carol and Lee, a couple who hail from North Carolina. Lee was a college English professor, who left the profession to head to Cuenca with his wife Carol. When asked why they named it “The Carolina Bookstore,” their response was that it sounded better than “Tarheel Bookstore.” The Bookstore is a hangout for gringos, especially new ones, because Carol and Lee know most everything about the area. People go to them for help on finding apartments, houses, where to eat, etc.
The bookstore is also a hangout for people learning Spanish. Before and after classes, gringo language learners will sit around the table downstairs, have coffee (offered free), chat, hook up to computers, read the Miami Herald or the El Mercurio, and talk about Spanish and events in Cuenca and the surrounding area.
Harold checking out local events in the local paper, El Mercurio before his Spanish class starts
Harold and Bill, his classmate, chatting before class
 Spanish lessons are offered in the classrooms upstairs, with Lee himself teaching several classes, and with Sonia, a young Ecuadorian woman teaching others. Sonia was our teacher, and she is fabulous.
our classroom

Harold and Sonia, his wonderful teacher

Harold, Bill and Sonia ready to work 

Julie and Sonia before their last class

Deborah and Gil with Sonia, right before their class starts, along with Julie, who is in the corner taking the picture!  The four of them had great fun together in class, and Deborah and Gil have become good friends.  

We have also vowed to become fluent by next year – wherever we go
(and we expect it will be to a Spanish-speaking location).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Alausi and the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo)

Riding the Ecuadorean Railway while sitting atop the passenger cars is an oft-told travel adventure – alas not any longer.  Apparently, a severe accident occurred, so riding on top of the cars is no longer allowed.  However, we decided to take the train anyway, even if we had to sit inside (well, we probably aren’t good candidates for sitting on the top of a train car anyway).  We went with friends Gil and Deborah to see the fabled Devil’s Nose where the rails make a major ascent into the Andes from the lowlands of Guayaquil along a canyon wall.   So off we went on the Pan-American highway to the north of Cuenca to the town of Alausi where this tourist train departs to the bottom of the mountain and then returns. 
The mountain side does not allow room for the train to make a “U-turn,” so the construction engineers built two switch-backs where the train reverses direction by going into a “dead end” and then “backing out” and continuing in the desired direction by having the train going “backwards.”  The route along the mountain side is a cliff looking downwards and a cliff looking upwards (both directions are scary!).  Clearly, the initial effort to make this route was monumental, and the guide told about the enormous loss of life (mostly Jamaican laborers) in doing so – 4000 workers apparently.  

The railroad eventually reached Quito in 1908.   El Niño in 1997 and 1998 extensively damaged the Ecuadorean railroad network along with overall neglect, so the network is only utilized in pieces such as the tourist ride out of Alausi, which happily has just been refurbished.  A long-range effort is in place to refurbish the entire network. Obviously, the railroad does not have the economic impact that it once did for Ecuador as good roads and airports are now the conduits for people and freight; however, the trip highlighted the audacious effort needed to make life better. 

 We enjoyed the trip to Alausi (scenic Andean views), enjoyed Alausi (we toured the market and plaza – Harold almost bought a hat, but his head is too big), and enjoyed the train ride (amazing what people can and will do).
The edge of the road is a good avenue for livestock

Even the hogs are well behaved on the road

A view driving into Alausi
The fields are everywhere and at extreme slopes
Statue of Saint Peter (Alausi was founded on Saint Peter's holy day and the name of Alausi was first officially "San Pedro de Alausi")

Our railroad car - note the facilities on top of the car. The view from on top would have been exhilarating.

All aboard!
The diesel engine that could.
A view down into the river at the bottom of the canyon
The wall of the canyon
Our destination at Sibambe with the new train station
Dancers who entertained us - nonstop!
Space is a premium at the bottom of the canyon - and so there were a few steps to the interpretive center and snack bar.
We all made it back safely.