The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
<Larry: Again in this page, there is almost no hardcore sailing content. Our loyal sailing audience may want to wait for our Panama edition. Until then, hugs, kisses, and don’t let the deck fall overboard.>
Larry described his summer activities in our last missive so I (Susan) thought I should start this round with a short description of my summer activities.
Obviously we were not together. I wanted to spend time with John in New York City (he lives there) and Larry had a long list of maintenance activities for the boat (some of which were described in our last missive) so we made the choice to go in different directions for the summer months. We arrived in Ecuador on May 10th, and by the 25th or so I was on my way north. I went to NYC via Miami and Southern California. This allowed me to see my doctor and dentist for a yearly check up as well as my Southern and Northern California friends. It was very pleasant to be in California once again, not only enjoying the very peasant weather but renewing friendships and commiserating over the slow death of the redevelopment programs, though much physical progress is very evident. What’s the saying? “All good things must come to an end”? Well, we will see!
When I decided to stay for the summer in NYC I looked around for a house-sitting job. I had heard of such things but was not so sure they really existed. I mean, with doormen galore and building security, do New Yorkers still want someone to watch the house from the inside while they reside in the countryside away from the simmering hot streets of Manhattan? Well, through a well-connected cousin of mine who has Wellesley links I was overjoyed to find a house-sitting situation with absolutely no responsibility with a lovely, fascinating couple who had lived for 25 years in a magnificent two-story apartment on Central Park West but spent the summer out of the city on the Hudson River. The apartment has ten rooms with a view that I call the “Spruce Goose” look. Do you remember when you first saw the Spruce Goose <Larry: Howard Hughes’ enormous seaplane> inside the Long Beach facility? As soon as you saw it you said “Wow,” right? Well, that is what I did when I entered this apartment. The apartment was not elegant, but rather comfortable and homey, with formally decorated library, living and dining rooms. The view of the Park and the skyline of the East Side of the City was fantastic, even magnificent at night. I spent many an afternoon lying on the couch absorbing the view and a good book. Being a house-sitter for the summer was a tremendous gift. It allowed me the freedom to spend time with my son without the disruption of dealing with living arrangements.
New York is not one of my favorite places. In the summer it is hot and humid. NYC weather was not so different from Costa Rica, though it does rain much harder in Costa Rica. The City is filled with persnickety people who seem somewhat downtrodden and rude. I missed the eye contact and usual greeting of passersby that is so common in Central America and Mexico. There is grit in the air that lands on window sills and a tremendous number of dogs who do not hesitate to casually use the sidewalks and parks for their purposes. The subways are grimy, humid, and in poor repair.
On the good side, the subway trains run on time and frequently. With the help of my son and lots of practice the subways were the way to travel through the City. The City was remarkably free of trash and graffiti. Street islands were often full with well tended plants and flowers. The police were all over the place. Thanks to private management, Central Park is thriving and well-maintained. Much residential high-rise construction is going on; there is no sign of a construction slowdown yet and the demand for million-dollar one bedroom apartments seems endless. The rental market has tightened from last year, which may be a signal that the home ownership market may be slowing somewhat. It will be interesting to watch NYC and of course California for these shifts over the next year or so.
John and I had a wonderful time together. I was able to help him move to a quiet, pleasant neighborhood on the East Side after a year-plus of living around Times Square and 42nd Street, which he found rough and very commercial. We went to concerts, plays, parks, and restaurants together and spent time exploring Newport, Rhode Island and Doylestown, Pennsylvania (where I grew up). We were often able to have dinner together at his apartment or mine with cooking responsibilities shared when schedules allowed. I was able to see family in Maine and Virginia. So the summer worked out well for all of us. But by the end of August it was time to return to Ecuador where my husband waited patiently <Larry: NOT!> for me.
Once back on Moira it was time to explore Ecuador. We started with a trip to Quito, the capital and second largest city. The largest city is Guayaquil, about 3 million people, a seaport on the Guayas river about two and a half hours away from our boat by bus. Larry had become acquainted with this city while doing his boat projects and I had seen some of it while traveling back and forth to the States from the boat.
Before we get to Quito, a little background on Ecuador may be in order. Larry and I have discovered the CIA World Fact Book during our travels. It has a wealth of information and helps us make factual comparisons of the countries we are visiting. A quick statistical comparison might help you gain a perspective: Ecuador, Costa Rica, EL Salvador and Mexico.
From our travels and visual inspections of the countryside, our sense is that Ecuador is more prosperous and has a better infrastructure than El Salvador and Costa Rica, but is a step down from Mexico, especially once you get into the rural areas. I have commented before on the lousy infrastructure we generally found in Costa Rica. The disparity among these countries in quality of infrastructure is impossible to explain based on the statistics we have, so I fall back on speculating about the political leadership’s apparent lack of economic capability to improve things, particularly the roads, or their inability or unwillingness to control corruption. We have heard from business folks in Ecuador that commercial enterprises experience much more governmental corruption in Ecuador than Costa Rica, though we have not been bothered by low-level officials attempting to extract bribes from us. Larry was once hustled for a 10-cent regalo (gift) by a guard at the local hospital (which we pass every day on the way to the grocery store) but a “No, gracias” took care of that.
Ecuador is a relatively small territory of 109,483 square miles and is ranked one of the 17 most biologically diverse countries in the world. That biodiversity comes from the barrier formed by the Andes mountains, running from north to south; the country’s location on the Equator, which puts Ecuador in one of the warmest regions of the world; and the influence of two oceanographic phenomena: the warm and humid current that flows from the North and the cold and dry Humboldt current which comes from the South. <Larry: Barriers such as the Andes prevent migration. Migration permits mixing, which permits competition, which causes elimination, which destroys diversity. 550 miles of ocean gave the Galapagos a barrier that permitted the development of unique species.> As mentioned in the previous installment, Ecuador has been rated by International Living Magazine as having the best climate in the world. We came to Ecuador not only to see something of South America but also to escape the heat, humidity, and hurricanes of the Central American coast.
National politics are a mystery to us so far, but with some help of the locals we are slowing grasping that a working democracy exists, with spasms of chaos thrown in regularly. The presidential election as well as many local elections are to be held this October. Even though the Constitution allows each president 4 years to make his mark (one term only), since 1996 there have been five presidents. In that 10-year period there have been several national strikes, mostly in reaction to a president badly failing in office. The devaluation of the sucre and the eventual “dollarization” of the economy with a switch to the dollar as the official currency caused prices to go up but has successfully stabilized the economy. <Larry: The “free trade agreement” treaties are a hotly divisive issue here, as they are in Central America.> What happens most often is that the president is caught with a hand in the national till, or some other type of scandal seriously inflames the electorate. The president resigns or the national congress throws him out, declaring the president unfit and the office vacant. Watching the election process has been fascinating. While we were in the Galápagos, one of the leading contenders for president (Dale Correa) came for a visit, stayed in the B&B we were in and gave a vigorous political speech on the local malecon (waterfront). Good speaker but he sounded like he was going hoarse. He seems to have no obvious political “baggage” and is not aligned with any of the traditional parties with their respective poor histories.
The local and national bureaucrats must have the capability to act while the parade of presidents shuffles past, because it is very apparent in the country at large that some one is paying attention. Things seem to happen and the country appears prosperous with lots of physical construction. <Larry: Of course things happen. In a corrupt government, graft often takes the form of low-level bureaucrats taking a “cut of the action.” The more action, the more cut. Of course, it means that whatever gets done, gets done more expensively, more slowly, or with poorer quality.>
Ecuadorians mostly travel by bus. The government has invested heavily in the bus system, similarly to Mexico. Intracity buses tend to be old but reliable. There is no air-conditioning but because of the climate, in most areas of the country AC is not needed, nor is a heating system. Buses are generally cheap. We could ride all over La Libertad (by the marina) for 30 cents. Intercity busses cost about $1-2 per hour of travel. The busses are in good condition but not air-conditioned. There are usually terrible movies so we now bring our headphones to deaden the noise. Intercity busses have a baños (very small toilet ) but I would almost dare anyone to use it while the bus is moving. The bus service is generally frequent and there are generally several buses throughout the day to each destination. It appears that the government builds the terminals and then leases space to the bus lines. The bus lines compete fiercely for customers. Many have young men promoting the particular bus line to passengers as they reach the terminal. Once under way the buses often stop to pick up passengers by the roadside but also to allow vendors to get on the bus to sell everything from empanadas (like small Cornish pastries) and chifles (long, thin “chips” of plantain) to Coke and ice cold water to the passengers. <Larry: The vendors often do their peddling while the bus is in motion. They stay on the bus until its next stop, perhaps 20 minutes later, where they catch the next bus traveling in the opposite direction. Upon returning to their starting point, they reload and repeat.> All in all it is a very good system and moves the vast majority of the population through out the country. We usually take the bus, not only because it is vastly cheaper but also it seems somehow more authentic.
When it came time to go home, rather than take the 9-hour bus ride on the leg from Quito to Guayaquil, we chose to fly on the very modern and competent TAME <Larry: pronounced “TAH-may”> Airline, the Ecuadorian national airline. There are modern airports and three very good, modern, efficient airlines, the best known being TAME, originally organized as a project of the Ecuadorian Air Force. Modern airports exist in Guayaquil and Quito, with a new airport planned for Quito and now under construction (estimated cost, $500 million) to be opened in 2009. Our travels so far by air suggest that the air infrastructure is over-invested and will be for years. I suspect that no more than 10% of the population not counting gringos take to the air for travel. <Larry: We were told that the existing airport is “over capacity,” though it looked positively sleepy to me. Maybe another pork-barrel project?>
We arrived in Quito about 7pm having taken the bus from Guayaquil, a 9-hour trip <Larry: …following an early-morning 3-hour bus trip from La Libertad to Guayaquil, making: yup, 12 hours, plus. The first-class buses in Ecuador show movies, usually American shoot-em-up’s overdubbed in Spanish and played at high volume. Long bus trips show multiple shoot-em-up’s. We got three on this ride, including one nearly incomprehensible Japanese eco-terrorist flick.>.
Quito means “middle of the earth” in the ancient language of Ecuadorian Indians. Quito is the only place on the planet where the equator crosses over highlands; in other areas of the world the equator crosses oceans and jungles. Three major volcanoes surround the city giving it the drama of spectacular views on clear days. The city sits at 9,184 feet above sea level. Wherever I walked up hill (there are a lot of hills in this city) I was short of breath and tired but I never came down with full altitude sickness, which had bothered me on top of the big island of Hawaii and going through Lassen National Park in California.
Like many other places in Central and South America, the Spaniards conquered this area of the world as part of finishing off the Inca empire. The result was disastrous for the indigenous people and their culture. In dubious exchange the locals were left with well-planned cities, beautiful architecture (particularly churches), and an emphasis on arts and music, which the Spanish taught and passed on to those indigenous peoples who survived.
The city divides naturally into three areas: the Old (colonial) Town, the New Town, and the area in-between. The city itself sits in the bottom of a long canyon. <Larry: Subsequent development has climbed up the walls of the main canyon and its tributaries. Getting in to, out of, or anywhere outside of the main city usually involved a taxi or bus ride which climbed out of the main canyon, along a narrow ridgeline, and down into an adjacent canyon. This deeply-channeled terrain would be a terrible place to try and conduct a military campaign. Coming into Quito reminded me of driving in the Western Sierras: the bus wound along the bottom of a narrow gorge, the road following a few yards from the river which formed the gorge.>
The infrastructure of the city is in good shape. Roads, plazas, curbs are in good shape and kept repaired. The transit system of the city is new, featuring sharp, new, colorful buses.
The Old Town is the center of government, including the Palace, built by the Spaniards in 1534, and now the seat of the executive branch and home to the President of the Republic. The government Palace is like a combination of Capitol Hill and the White House in the States. The entrance to the Palace is guarded by colorfully-dressed soldiers complete with sword and scabbard; inside the Spanish influence is clearly visible in the lovely fountains and patios with half-pointed arches. The Palace forms one side of Independence Plaza. The other sides of the Plaza represent the other ruling powers: city hall, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Cathedral. While today the church and state are legally separate, many Ecuadorians have told us that in a country that is 95% catholic, the State pays close attention to the Church’s desires.
Independence Plaza is also home to demonstrations <Larry: think of the “reflecting pool” area opposite the White House>. As such the plaza is swarming with soldiers, always well-armed and carrying rectangular Lexan riot shields as protection against rocks thrown by demonstrators. A large water-cannon truck sits permanently in one corner of the square. Soldiers/police close the Plaza if a demonstration is scheduled, with temporary barriers erected at all the entrances to the Plaza <Larry: so the demonstrators go into the square and “demonstrate” in splendid isolation>. You can look at the demonstration from afar but you can not join in or hear clearly what the demonstration may be about. On our first visit to the Plaza a demonstration was in progress, and we were stopped at the edge of the Plaza by the barriers. On our second visit, all was quiet and the Plaza was full of residents, vendors, and tourists.
The Old Town is a “protected area.” Demolition is generally prohibited and buildings are limited to three stories. Retail shops define the ground levels, which create lots of activity and color. Shops are small, maybe 10 feet in width, and no more than 20 feet in depth. While the plazas are full of activity and color, they lack the color of many of the Mexican colonial cities we have seem. The drabness may be due to the building materials. The Old Town is mostly concrete block, with the oldest buildings being adobe. The concrete block is seldom finished on the outside except in the more commercial areas of the city, so there is an off-white look to the city.
The most beautiful plaza of the city, Plaza San Francisco, is defined by the Cathedral San Francisco, which is the largest religious complex in the Americas, with over 8,670 acres, including a convent with six interior plazas. The church is Baroque style inside with a beautiful coffered ceiling covered in gold, Moorish-style ornamentation, and gloomy religious paintings by famous artists of the time of its construction (1534 to 1585). The church is exquisite, with more gold than many other churches we have seen so far on our trip. To help preserve it, the church is more a museum than a working church, though it is often used for concerts and special services. Adjacent to the church is the San Francisco museum which includes full-length portraits of every archbishop since the church opened, as well as many examples of the clothing and paraphernalia of the bishops. Mixed in is the religious art collection of the church as well as many pieces of furniture from various colonial eras.
We saw several museums operated by the central government. Of particular note are the Central Bank Museum with its collection of gold and precious artifacts and the Museo de la Cuidad with its impressive anthropological exhibits of the city’s history. In each museum, the detail of the exhibits was impressive, the interpretive placards were usually in both Spanish and English, and the displays were well done, complete, and informative.
The New Town was constructed to create a place for construction of new buildings, particularly high-rise, which are prohibited in the Old Town area. New Town is a modern, thriving place with lots of color, retail, many different hotels, “happening” bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. The commercial areas are surrounded by residential areas, many of which are high-rise, with beautiful views of the city or the volcanoes.
The New Town area hosts many art galleries and handicraft shops. Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), a famous Ecuadorian artist, amassed a major art collection, including pre-Columbian, colonial and modern pieces. <Larry: “Colonial” art here means gory depictions of Christ and miscellaneous Saints being done to death in inventive ways, some of which undoubtedly inspired, or were inspired by, the Inquisition and the Conquistadors, which depictions were incongruously leavened with sculptures of Seraphim and Cherubim. Nuts.> Shortly before his death, Guayasamín gave his collections to the city of Quito, along with a mansion in which to house them. Much of Guayasamín’s modern collection reminded me of early Picasso. Both Larry and I were taken by the work of Guayasamín and someday we may go back to purchase some of the beautiful lithographs that would not fit on Moira. Under the heading of “the sincerest form of robbery,” replicas or knockoffs of the art of Guayasamín can be found in many galleries and shops throughout Ecuador.
The in-between section of the city is where we where we stayed, in a B&B called Hotel Café Cultura. A pleasant former mansion converted to a hotel, it was appealing and comfortable, with two fireplaces blazing the night we got there, and many Tuscan-style murals of angels and flowers on the walls and ceilings <Larry: and with a pretty decent restaurant, too>.
We enjoyed several excellent meals in Quito. There is a varied choice of sophisticated food…everything from good sushi, French, Chinese <Larry: a significant Chinese population in Quito>, Thai, and pizza, to tipico Ecuadorian. Quito has a varied cultural life. There is a very modern, lovely, national theatre, the September calendar of which was busy with broad choices of jazz, classical music, chamber music, gospel singing, Shakespeare, comedy and repertory theatre.
We enjoyed Quito, but it is a big city with many urban problems. Tour books and hotel staff warn one not to venture out of doors at night unless using a taxi, even for two-block hops. We were careful, and took taxis at night, but never felt physically threatened. There are signs of poverty and some begging, though there were no signs of homeless people living on the street as we have seen in California and Costa Rica. There are slums of shacks outside the city where those in severe poverty live. Many of these shacks are without electricity, running water, or sewage. <Larry: Cooking gas (propane) is not a utility in any of the cities we have visited south of San Diego. Trucks and pedal-powered tricycles make the rounds of the neighborhoods with 15-kilo tanks for exchange.> We were told that higher locations in the city do not get a price-premium as in many areas of the world, because the higher locations on the mountain, i.e. those with a better view, usually have less reliable utilities like water and electricity: services do not go uphill as well as they might in other countries. However, the slums around Quito are not as depressed as the slums around Mexico City, even given the vast differences in populations. We did see government buildings with offices for senior pensions, worker disability, and public health. It is not clear what other support programs for the poor exist. Public education is compulsory and free through junior high. Parents must provide uniforms, books, and supplies. School buses in Quito were new and solidly built and the school properties we saw looked clean and generally well-maintained.
Part of the amazing diversity of Ecuador is revealed in the sudden transition from the high ridges of the Andes, where Quito is located, to the rainforest of the Oriente, which is the Amazon basin of Ecuador, via two airplane hops of about 45 minutes each.
We left from Quito airport in a 19-passenger prop-jet, stopping in Puyo to refuel and pick up a number of Achuar Indians, who own and inhabit the southern oriente. At the end of the second hop, we landed near the village of Kapawi <Larry: every Achuar village of any size has a dirt airstrip>, located by the Rio Pastaza, about 10 miles from the Peruvian border, and took an outboard-powered canoe to the Kapawi Lodge. The lodge, with 20 cabins built around a lagoon near the river, is a well-respected ecotourism project built by Ecuador-based Canodros. Achuars own the land and lease it to Canodros, who built the lodge, the support facilities and all the trails. Canodros will deed all the improvements in first-class condition to the Achuar in 2011. Part of the deal is that the Achuar are being trained by Canodros to manage the lodge without outside help. It all seems to be working. We spent four days, three nights there with two other couples. This is a slow season, although we were told that the lodge would be close to full for the following two weeks.
We went out each morning in an outboard-powered canoe with a Colombian naturalist and an Achuar guide to view the river’s birds, insects, mammals, and reptiles. We started the canoe ride at 6:15am after a cup of café, returning at 8:30 for breakfast. After breakfast we went out again at 9:30am for a jungle hike (easy), coming back to the lodge for lunch. One day we had lunch in the jungle. Afternoon and evening we either walked through the jungle or did a canoe trip up or down the river. While it all reminded me of Girl Scout camp with a husband in tow, it was fascinating and educational.
This lodge is located in the Amazon Basin which extends across Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. This is thick, serious jungle with heavy vegetation, and with large vines hanging from the trees of the jungle much like you might imagine from all those Tarzan movies we have all seen. Our guides told us that the Amazon Basin is botanically similar throughout, but the indigenous populations and wildlife change with location. We saw and heard a remarkable collection of birds, including colorful parrots, toucans, vultures, terns, plovers, kingfishers and many more. This a birds-lover’s paradise. Unfortunately for our guide few of the group were sufficiently-experienced bird-watchers to appreciate the rarity of some of the birds seen but we all appreciated the beauty and quantity of the birds we saw. We saw an amazing assortment of plants, insects, monkeys, alligators, snakes and fish.
One of the more unusual experiences was our contact with the Achuar Indians. The Indians are a stone age culture whose first contact with the Western world was in the 1970’s when the government allowed some missionaries access to the Indians. Some of the missionaries were far-sighted enough not to try to Europeanize the Indians. As a result they now have a written language, better health care and a strong commitment as a group to defend their lifestyle and their indigenous homeland. They are a rugged people who are fiercely independent and self-governing,
This attitude is particularly noticeable with regard to the oil industry. While the northern oriente is well-developed with roads, tourist sites for viewing the jungle, and aggressive oil exploitation of the area, the south oriente is undeveloped, without roads or oil development. It appears that while the government has sold exploration rights to several oil companies (the government owns all mineral rights, per the constitution), the Achuar own the land itself, and the oil companies have not figured out how to make a deal with the Achuar. When an oil company tries to do drilling without the cooperation of the Achuar, the people attempting the exploration at the local level are kidnapped by the Indians until the oil company withdraws. The government has no will to use the army to violently contest the matter with the Achuar because they are, after all, Ecuadorians <Larry: and it would look sort of bad in the international press, don’t you know?>.
Our Achuar guide (“Jorge,” pictured above) spends about four weeks on duty as a guide then goes home to his wife and four kids for about three weeks. He must walk three days through the jungle to reach his family’s village. He had no desire to move his family to more “modern” surroundings even though he was familiar with the modern world by virtue of his work as a guide. He speaks both Achuar and Spanish. He is learning English as a lodge employee in training to become a principal guide of the lodge.
The Achuar believe in the spirit of the jungle as taught to them by a series of myths and rituals passed down for generations among their people. These rituals include the appropriate use of hallucinogenic drugs from forest plants that are used by the Achuar males to reach out to the spirit of the jungle and bring that spirit to the Achuar’s own soul. This process is used to seek a personal vision of life's journey or a solution to some vexing problem for the Achuar man. The individual must immediately share the vision privately with the shaman, who validates it, or rejects it as false <Larry: Interestingly, it is forbidden to share the vision with other Achuar until it comes true! The visions prompted by the drug are so horrific that there doesn’t seem to be any problem with what we would call “abuse.” In fact, we were told that the drug is sometimes used as a punishment for unruly adolescents.>
The typical Achuar hut is house is elliptical, without walls, and built of wood, bamboo, lianas and palm leaves. Its size depends on the wealth of the owner and the number of wives and children he has. The space inside is divided into a “female” end (about 2/3 of the hut) and a “male” end. Beds are low wooden platforms in the female end. Cooking is done over a wood fire in the female end of the house. Toilet functions and sex are performed in the jungle. Laundry is done in the nearby river. There were blankets stacked in one of the bed areas and a boom box on a platform in the male end of the hut. There was a pump in the center of the village to provide water.
Each village has a chacra (communal field) which is used to grow produce such as bananas, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, hot chiles, manioc, palms and countless medicinal, narcotic, and other useful plants. The chacra is used for about three years until the soil is exhausted. Then another is organized in the virgin jungle through “slash and burn cultivation.” <Larry: One of the lessons is that, in spite of the exuberant growth, the soil in the jungle is very thin and poor in nutrients. Growth occurs only because the cycle is closed: nutrients from dead plants are immediately recycled by insects and fungi and made available to the next generation. We were told that attempts to farm in jungle soil remove nutrients from the cycle, quickly exhaust the soil, and are almost invariably failures.>
Led by Jorge, the six of us were permitted to visit the home of an Achuar chief one afternoon during our stay. <Larry: What follows will sound rather like the Polynesian “kava ceremony,” but the purpose is quite different. The Achuar ceremony dates from the recent time of great intertribal wars, when your visitor could very well be part of a war party there to kill you and shrink your head. The ceremony was a structured way to determine the visitor’s intentions. It was, in effect, an interrogation. The chief’s hut was perhaps 30’ by 60’.> Prior to entering the home of the chief each of us greeted the chief by saying win jai which is a greeting in Achuar asking permission to enter his home. <Larry: We were seated in the male end of the house, it being strictly forbidden for any male outside the family to enter the female end. Traditional Achuar men are quite jealous, and one is not supposed to look directly at the face a married woman.> The wife of the chief served each of us a bowl of manioc beer <Larry: a signal that we had been provisionally accepted> which, after half a bowl, gives a little rush. Then the chief and Jorge greeted each other and exchanged tribal gossip in the Achuar language for 10 to 15 minutes. We were later told that much of the discussion was about a recent tribal meeting to map strategy regarding the oil companies.
We were each then required by the chief to introduce ourselves and to tell him about ourselves, including why we came to this area of Ecuador. The chief then introduced himself. He shared with us that he was uneducated (never had the opportunity), made his living through making handicrafts (mostly combs, blowguns and such), was sending his children to the local school, and was interested in the world beyond his river. He thought he was about 50 because the missionaries had decided he was 20 when they came to his village originally. Prior to the missionaries there was no written language or concept of “year” <Larry: they had the concept of “cycles,” e.g., it is now time for the fruiting of the mango tree, but the fact that such cycles occur every 365.25 days was simply unimportant to them>. During all of this time, the chief was taking an occasional sip of manioc beer, and actively working with his hands to weave a comb for trade, one of the male’s responsibilities in addition to hunting and fishing. The women of the family and neighbors quietly worked in female end of the hut, around the cooking fire, tending to the numerous children <Larry: and working on “women’s crafts,” primarily pottery and weaving>.
After our introductions, in which Larry and I described our sailing life, the chief asked questions of each visitor. <Larry: This is what he gets out of the deal: a glimpse into a world beyond his own.> This was obviously a man of intelligence with an inquiring mind, curious about the world around him. Of Larry and me he asked several questions:
He also wanted to know of all of us why we had so few children. This was a man who was working on producing his 12th child. The idea of population control is not commonly embraced by the Achuar and the expense of having children was not his experience. <Larry: In fact, quite the opposite. The Achuar seem to have a strategy to reproduce as fast as possible, in order to make their population too considerable for the Ecuadorian government to consider taking on by force.> The cost of educating his children was a problem to him because, when our Columbian guide asked the chief would like as a “thank you” gift, the chief said that he would like a knife, and pencils, pens, and note paper for his kids in school. <Larry: He also wanted to know how he could grow a beard. The Achuar men have little facial hair, and our host related that Achuar women find men with beards very sexy.>
The ceremony continued with guests asking questions of the chief. His favorite foods (my question to him) were cooked animal guts <Larry: the Achuar do not eat the flesh of animals, only their intestines> wrapped in banana leaf, and the cigar-sized grubs found in palm trees.
The ceremony concluded with us being accepted into his village, provided that we obeyed the niceties of Achuar social behavior. The chief was not willing to let us take his picture but permitted us to take pictures of the outside of his house with our group of six in front.
Health care for the Achuar is principally done through the use of drugs they gather from the forest. These drugs are known to the family or the local shaman. Jorge took us on a forest walk, pointing out and allowing us to taste numerous remedies found in the forest. One important drug is the quinine tree, the bark of which produces the remedy for malaria still in common use throughout Central America (and taken as a prophylactic by your authors). He showed us other plants used as remedies for stomach aches, colds, skin rashes and sores, and severe cuts. If the family or shaman can’t fix what ails you there is now the opportunity to fly to Puyo by air to seek modern medical care. However the flight is very expensive (around $300), which usually consumes all the resources of the family or tribe. The Lodge helps families when they can and the Achuar nation has invested in a small plane which can give access to medical care. However, there is no trend to seek medical care outside of the village. Death at what we would consider an “early age” is not rare.
Unlike Brazil and Costa Rica, Ecuador has no relationships with drug companies to explore the jungle for remedies to disease and to exploit these possible remedied into new drugs. Apparently, the Ecuadorian government has been unable to work out the partnerships to share the proceeds from drug development and sale. Some type of solution is apparently on the back burner, but we were told that because of past problems with drug companies who did not want to treat Ecuador fairly the work is not given much priority.
At the end of our stay we retraced our path and returned to Quito. After a night’s rest at Café Cultura we were off by bus to the northern Andes highlands and the market town of Otavalo. Otavalo is a small city of about 50,000 inhabitants. It lies at 8,300 feet above sea level and enjoys a lovely spring-like climate year-round. Two volcanoes, Imbabura (15,115ft) and Cotacachi (16,200ft) are nearby companions to the city, with beautiful lakes and many trails on the rugged sides of these mountains.
Otavalo has some of the most famous markets in Ecuador. We found four operating markets, two of which run every day.
The first market was the everyday “fresh market,” similar to any mercado in any sizeable town south of San Diego, where one could buy produce, meat, poultry, miscellaneous small hardware (e.g., pots and pans), etc.
The second market was the everyday crafts/souvenirs market. Textiles, leather and alpaca wool garments were the primary offerings. The prices were usually negotiable if you showed clear intent to leave unless the price was right. At the first vendor selling textiles, the work and colors were so lovely that I kept feeling and looking while the owner talked encouragingly about the quality and price. Three cloths (table runners or shawls) were ten dollars. While touching the cloth I offered $8 for three. The vendor assured me that was impossible so I produced the $10. The next vendor was selling beautiful alpaca sweaters for men. He held them up for my inspection and said they were only $45 each. I thought the sweaters worth every penny of that but I walked away after thanking him graciously. He brought the sweater that I liked with him and send “How about $10?” I said “Yes, thank you” and paid up. It was hard to stop at one sweater at that price but storage issues on the boat constrain me. (The actual conversation was in Spanish. Though I said little because of my un poco Español I could understand most of what he said to me.) So I learned about negotiating in the market place. The quality and beauty of these handmade products were extraordinary. We were almost alone roaming through the market. The usual influx of gringos and other tourists occurs on Saturdays, so very few other gringos, and no locals other than the vendors, were around on this Friday. There was no evidence that locals use the regular craft market.
The third market was the “animal market”, held on Saturdays just outside of town in the early morning, in a 2-3 acre enclosure alongside the Pan-American highway. Anyone with an animal to sell larger than a rooster (sold at the regular food market) brought the animal to the market area and stood around until someone bought it or arranged a trade. No auction was evident, but the controlled chaos seemed to work as we saw lots of animals coming and going, most of them protesting the whole experience.
The fourth market was a much bigger version of the gringo craft market that occurred every day. This market also occurred only on Saturday, and filled most of the streets surrounding the gringo craft market. Offerings included vegetables, grains, and meats, farm implements, and crafts/souvenirs from vendors who did not participate in the daily craft market. This market was well-attended by the locals. It was their market day and included lots of food offerings, both at restaurants and many street vendors. By midday, busses were coming into the bus station bearing many locals from other close-by towns and the usual influx of tourists come for the day from Quito.
Our base this time was the Hacienda Pinsaqui, constructed in 1790. The family who owned the hacienda for over a hundred years were locally well-known horse-breeders and riders. They provided the use of the hacienda as a quiet place for visiting dignitaries, and as a result, some significant Ecuadorian history took place here. The important treaty between Peru and Ecuador that stopped most of rancor between the two countries in the mid 1940’s was signed there, and Simón Bolivar slept there. The hacienda is a lovely place to stay while exploring the northern Andes. It has a chapel once used by the family in residence and many common rooms with comfortable furniture. There were large fireplaces in the common rooms that the staff would light for us while we enjoyed a long afternoon. The manager of the hacienda knew we liked to try local foods so he offered to have the chef prepare roasted guinea pig (cuy), a local favorite, for us <Larry: special order, two days advance notice>. It was tasty enough, but we decided it was much like eating quail: too much work for too little meat. Luckily for us, the chef added potatoes and veggies to the cuy and then we ordered dessert. But no more cuy for us.
As fascinating as the Otavalo markets were, the small towns around Otavalo had market places of their own, each specializing in different products. Agato is well known for weaving. One of Ecuador’s most famous weavers, Miguel Andrango, assisted by his daughter, Luz Mariawho, is an expert in embroidery designs. His son-in-law, Humberto Romero, runs the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop from his home. This family makes traditional weavings on backstrap looms using handspun wool and natural dyes and products. Almost all other weavers use the upright Spanish loom and or chemical dyes. While the Agato textiles are somewhat more expensive than others, the color and quality are also of better quality.
While exploring Agato and Otavalo, we saw that both men and women wore distinctive peasant clothing. The women <Larry: above the age of maybe 8 years> wore long, black skirts with a white under-skirt, and beautifully embroidered blouses with a rounded neckline, topped with a bright shawl which was usually filled with baby on the woman’s back. The prosperity of the family was often made evident by the number and quality of the gold necklaces that these women wore. Traditional men wore trousers with a dark poncho and a very distinctive black hat <Larry: though jeans, T-shirts, and Nike’s were much more in evidence, particularly among the young men>. We saw no signs that this was a tourist ploy, but strictly a manifestation of a culture of great strength and endurance. This has been the dress in this area for hundreds of years.
We wandered through Cotacachi, a town known for its leather work. Stores are strung out along the main street 10 de Agosto where most any type of leather good can be found except the “North Beach Leather” type of clothing. <Larry: 95% of the offerings were jackets and handbags.> This town is set up to appeal to the typical tourist and of course the town and the country are 95% Catholic, so the “North Beach Leather” stuff wouldn’t play. The town had decorated the street with colorful and festive street lights, patterned side walks, pretty, well maintained plazas and street furniture that matches. Many signs which had been hand-decorated and hand-made added some ambience. Someone in the city or business district was paying attention and the town looked and felt prosperous. Leather must be a very good business.
The entire Otavalo area, including Agato and Cotacachi, felt prosperous. There were many houses under construction, usually two stories with eclectic and colorful decorations on the front of the house. The per capita GDP of $4,300 did not seem to be the case here. <Larry: On the other hand, we did see a group of over a dozen men and women doing laundry in a stream, which indicates that these folks, at least, did not have running water in their houses.>
Driving west some 18km. from Cotacachi, we reached Laguna de Cuicocha, an ancient, eroded volcanic crater famous for a deep lake found within the crater. This lake is on the southern flank of Volcán Cotacachi and was a beautiful sight. We were at 8500ft. with cold winds coming off of the mountain, but it was a bright sunny day. Birds and flowers, including Andean orchids, were all over the place. The lake was large, with three islands in it that could be seen up-close from a small tourist boat. A completely-finished visitor center was closed and looked like it had been abandoned. <Larry: The name Cuicocha comes from cuy, or “guinea pig,” from the fanciful resemblance of one of the islands in the lake to the rodent. See our remarks above about eating cuy.>
To finish up our visit to this area we took the morning bus to Ibarra, the largest town in the vicinity, with 140,000 residents. It is supposedly a lovely colonial town but we found it to be run-of-the-mill, and dreary. It did have a very famous and good ice cream parlor, Heladeria Rosalia Suarez founded by Rosalia Suarez in 1897 when she was 17 years old. Her family continues with a thriving business: there must have been 35 people outside waiting for ice cream.
We took the bus back to Quito, picking it up right in front of Hacienda Pinsaqui, and then took TAME air back to Guayaquil as reported earlier. From there we took a bus (2½ hours) to La Libertad, where Moira was moored at the Puerto Lucia Yacht Club. We stayed a few days on the boat relaxing and doing boat projects and then took off for the Galapagos Islands.
Write to us! We love to hear from our readers--send us an email. On the next page (which will open in a new window or tab) you'll type in a couple of puzzle words and click "Reveal email address," then just click on our email address to open your regular email program and write us a note. (If we're at sea, our reply may be delayed.)
This free script provided by