Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Christmas Vacation

It's been a while since we've posted, so here's a long one covering quite a few topics. Still, I think it's interesting:

New Year's Eve
Just after Christmas, "monigotes" and "mascaras" began to appear. Monigotes are life-sized "dummies" made of a shirt and pants, stuffed with newspaper and given form with corrugated cardboard. Mascaras are paper maché masks, painted to resemble political, cultural or sometimes fictional characters. Popular masks included Paul Granda (mayor of Cuenca), Rafael Correa (the President), Fabricio Correa (his brother, who has been embroiled in controversy over some shady road contracts he had with the state), Michael Jackson and others.

These figures, once the mask is attached, and perhaps some other personal touches are added, are commonly known as "Años Viejos" (Old Years) and are burned on the 31st. Many are displayed during the day at residences or businesses, and may represent personal characteristics or things that happened during the year that the burner hopes to be rid of in the new year. Along with these pre-purchased "Años Viejos," many people also make their own. In fact, there is a competition amongst neighborhoods, where entire scenes are created out of these figures. I don't know who won, but some of the more interesting themes we saw included a boxing match and a wrestling match between the president and his brother, a "Thriller" motif, various references to the "Communication Law" currently being debated in the congress, which many feel impinges on freedom of speech, and one which poked fun at the new Cuenca logo of "Todo Un Mundo" ("A Whole World") turning it into "Todo un mundo de Baches" - A Whole World of Potholes.


In the afternoon on the 31st, Nikki bought a kid-sized monigote and a Michael Jackson mask, added a paper bow-tie, and we ignited it at midnight. We decided that the monigote would represent Debby´s brother, David, who had a pretty serious ligament tear that ruined his whole summer and fall. We burned Uncle David in hopes that he´d have a better year next year and that he´d be able to fully exercise and come to the Adirondacks for the Heath annual gathering in August. We really missed seeing him before we left for Ecuador last summer. (The flame retardant polyester pants took a while to catch, and didn't smell too good when they did, but....) Michael/David was joined by hundreds of others on our street, throughout Cuenca, and all of Ecuador, I'm told. We saw many people running around the block with a suitcase, hoping to insure a year of travel, and others jumping over their burning Old Years for extra luck.

Oh yeah, like millions of Ecuadorans, we all wore yellow underwear to ensure a lucky 2010. According to superstition here, yellow undies bring good luck, red bring love and green bring hope.

Another New Year´s Eve tradition, brought from Spain, is eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Of course we did that as well and thought of our amigas madrileñas, Merche, Paloma and our half gringa- madrileña friend Kelli!

Noche Buena and Christmas Day
Christmas Eve is one of the most important religious celebrations of the year. Preparations begin in November, or earlier, and at the kids´ school, Nikki's class began rehearsals for their Christmas chorus. They had 3 performances in December, and they all dressed as elves, green satin pants, red turtlenecks, and white knit hats (which they dutifully turned in after each performance, to be redistributed for the next performance, likely to a different elf. Luckily, no lice sitings yet!) Performed at malls to an audience of mostly parents, it was awfully cute! We were really impressed with Nikki - she learned 14 new songs by heart!

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Outside of the school world, celebrating Jesus' birth starts becoming public on the 15th, with "novenas," gatherings of family and friends to recite some prayers and ask for help for those in need (those in prison and kids in hospitals were most commonly heard at the novenas we attended). We were honored to be asked to participate with Jaime and Rita and their family, and we attended the first 2 novenas. Also during this period, we witnessed a few "Pase de Niños" or processions in which a group of families or parishioners walk through the streets, behind a decorated car, truck, horse or float, with small children, beautifully clothed in heavily embroidered and bejeweled white robes. These neighborhood "pases" culminate on the 24th with the "Pase de Niño Viajero" thru the streets of the historic center.



This big procession lasts from about 10:00 to 3:00 pm, and is mostly made up of three types of participating groups. Some are on flatbed trucks, representing biblical scenes surrounding the birth. Others are "bailantes de Tucumán" or what we´d call maypole dancers, in which one person carries a pole, about 12 feet tall, from which hang about 15 to 20 colorful ribbons, each attached to a dancer. The dancers do intricate weaving steps, braiding and unbraiding the ribbons around the pole.

The final group consists of an exquisitely clothed child, astride a horse or donkey, who is also covered with a jeweled robe. Additionally, this horse-cloth is also covered with strings of food, both natural and packaged, toys and sometimes money. Following the animal and rider are groups of native dancers, in traditional clothes, often lead by a completely masked dancer, like what we saw in Chunchi. We watched the procession for a couple of hours, and on our way to lunch, we passed a small plaza where many of the groups who had finished the parade were having lunch. We learned that all the bounty which adorned the horse is later shared by all in the group.

The procession gets its name from the fact that it is opened (or closed, depending on who you ask - we didn't see it) by a group carrying the "Niño Viajero," a baby Jesus statue which "traveled" ("travel" in Spanish is "viajar") to Bethlehem (or Rome) by a Cuencan bishop, many years ago.

The evening of the 24th we spent with Jaime and Rita and their kids and grandkids. We had a secret Santa gift exchange, and received a visit from Papa Noel, bearing gifts for the kids. We ate a huge traditional Turkey dinner at about 10:00 pm, extremely late for a family that typically eats only a small sandwich for "dinner" around 7:30. After dinner, Papa Jaime joyfully distributed bags of animal crackers and sweets to the kids.

Our family turned in shortly before midnight, but on Christmas morning, we awoke to a small pile of gifts under our small, borrowed, artificial tree. (Special thanks to our friend, Santa Susan, who brought down two extra bags of goodies from home, giving some important volume to our Christmas! We were SOOO excited to get Vermont maple syrup and Vermont sharp cheddar cheeses from Aunt Karen, as well as some Trader Joe´s treats like chocolate covered almonds and dried mangoes.. Susan also lugged down about 40 books for the kids.) Around noon, we headed down to our friend Gladys' penthouse (Gladys is Jaime's cousin, who spent about 14 years in new jersey) for a Christmas Day dinner with our visiting Seattle friends.

No Friends Like Home Friends
On Dec. 12, our friends Don & Susan, their kids Ian and Meghan; and Kelli & Alex, and their kids Miles and Lydia arrived in Quito. We've known Don and Susan since Ian and Mia started kindergarten together. Kelli and Alex joined our group of friends a few years later, when Miles started school with the siblings of some other members or our original kindergarten parent gang. We've all been looking forward to their visit for a long time. After they spent a week exploring the north part of Ecuador, we met them at the coast. We rented a 12 person van, picked up our girls at 111:00 am, immediately after they finished their last exam, and drove to meet them at the Azuluna hotel near Puerto Rico.

We spent the 1st day chillin' at the beautiful, long, wide beach across the street from the hotel, where, unfortunately, Nikki (and to a lesser extent, Mia) got a pretty good sunburn, which "colored" the rest of the trip for Nikki. (I think the pain of the burn was compounded by the fact that this group, although she has spent a lot of time with them, has never really been "her" gang, as she has no classmates in it.) We had planned to go to Isla de la Plata on day 2, but a number of kids had been sick the night before, so we changed plans, and most of the group went to the indigenous community of Agua Blanca, while Nikki and I spent the day in Puerto Lopez. Puerto Lopez is a sweet, small, authentic fishing village, with a few low-key tourist amenities, like restaurants and hotels. We watched some boats unload: piles of small fish carried by the dripping boxful from the boat to waiting trucks, which took them away to be baked and ground into fish meal for animal feed. Watching the frigate birds and pelicans dive and scavenge for scraps was like being inside a scene from National Geographic.

On day 3, we finally made it out to Isla de la Plata - the "poor man's Galapagos." An hour and a half boat ride brought us to the island, where half our group took the 4 km trail to view blue-footed boobies, white-beaked (?) boobies and sea lions, while the other half took the 7 km trail, and saw red footed boobies instead of sea lions. All the boobies were nesting, so we saw the females, sitting atop an egg or two, inside a circle defined by the boobie-poop she'd kick out from the center. We saw a few newly hatched boobies, protected by mom as well. The island is pretty harsh - no water or shade to speak of, only a few low-growing, grassy shrubs. We finished our trip to the island with a bit of snorkeling, then the 1.5 hour ride back to Puerto Lopez. We arrived in time to watch another fishing boat unload, this time in the crisp late afternoon light.

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Day 4 had Ian, Miles, Mia and Don F went 4-wheeling on the beach at Olón, while the rest of us explored the pristine beach of Los Frailes. Dinner at an Italian restaurant and a late night skinny dip closed out a great day!

The ride back to Cuenca was a long one, because of 1) a wrong turn off the highway, which resulted in a fleeting, but interesting view of the "guasmos," or slums of Guayaquil, where we saw people living in bamboo and plastic huts, and begging by the side of the six-lane, divided highway, 2) a potty break with the A/C running, which lead to a dead battery, and the subsequent purchase of battery cables (no one seems to carry them!), which allowed us all to witness a pedestrian funeral precession thru the gas station parking lot to the nearby cemetery, and 3) the fact that hauling 12 people and their luggage from sea level to 12,500 feet in the fog, and then down to Cuenca (8,500 feet) is just not as fast as moving four people the other direction! Anyway, we made it in time for the Christmas eve described above.

On one of their last days in town, eight of us went hiking in Cajas Nat. Park, about 45 minutes from Cuenca. This was Debby and my third visit, and our best yet. All the kids did a great job hiking the 4 km trail, and the variety of peaks, lakes, flowers and rivers was spectacular!



Our friends left on the 30th, and we were all sad to see them go, but grateful for their visit.



Saraguro
New Year's Day we packed up our bags for a trip to the small town of Saraguro, about 3 1/2 hours south of Cuenca. When we got there, we discovered that the circus was in town, and we decided to go. The circus was a typical small town affair - Debby and I had both seen similar ones during our Central American travels. This was a 5 or 6 person show: 2 clowns, 2 acrobats, a magician/hypnotist/escape artist, and a woman who cooked popcorn, sold and collected tickets, and starred in some of the karaoke skits (actually, all the performers had multiple roles). Only about 50 people were in the audience - this was the 3rd to last day of a three-week run. I was pulled from the audience to help tie a rope around the escape artist's knees - he escaped. Go figure.

On Saturday, we look around town a bit, then went for a hike to "Baños de Inca" a few kilometers out of town. This was a beautiful but hot hike up to a small waterfall and some caves.

Saraguro is a small, rural, largely indigenous town of about 5000 (?). It reminded both Debby and me of Guatemala. The men wear below-the-knee length, black trousers, (when we got into town Nikki says ¨hey, why is everyone wearing capris" ???) and the women wear a white blouse, black, full-length skirts, heavily beaded necklaces that cover their blouses from shoulder to shoulder, and a black shawl, held together in front by a heavy metal pin, with a large, flat, sun-shaped top. (Although beautiful, the asking price of about $60 for one of these "topos" was too steep for me.) The men and women also wear hats, but not the panama style hats that are seen in Cuenca, but more of a back, felt, Swiss style, or else a wide-brimmed white hat, with large black spots on the underside.



Sunday is market day, and we visited the animal market, but decided against buying any cows, horses, pigs or sheep. We did buy a number of scarves, earrings, and bracelets, and some beautiful weavings from some Peruvians who travel up form Cuzco, Peru (a trip of one week!) two times a year to sell in the Saraguro market.

It has been a very full vacation, but we are all happy to be back to our routine: school for the girls, coffee and long mornings reading the paper for Debby and me. We're already planning our next trip!

We hope that all who read this had a wonderful holiday season, and that 2010 had an auspicious beginning, and proves to be a great year for all of us!

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