Saturday, February 20, 2010


Our friend Gladys told us that when she was a girl (she's now in her 50s) Carnaval basically began on Christmas Day. Things have changed a bit since then, but Mia and Nikki have been playing Carnaval (that's what they say here - 'jugar Carnaval") with the neighbors and their school friends for at least a month.

In most of Ecuador, "playing Carnaval" means throwing water balloons, shooting squirt guns, and even throwing buckets of water at each other. The real Carnaval plays itself out on the streets with water balloons and buckets of water at strangers. And it is not just a game for kids. Xavier and Karla, college students and siblings who live in our building, have been having a water balloon war with the neighboring pre-adolescent boys for the past week. Last week, they loaded up two large wash basins with water balloons, put them in the back of their friend's pick-up, and headed into town. Maria, our landlady, has been taking her grandkids (our neighbors) and our girls out for a drive around the City to throw water balloons at strangers. During these drives, she has been known to take a balloon or two and toss them out the driver's window. There are rules (according to Nikki) - no throwing at people in suits, or old people or babies.

(Debby) I "played carnaval" with the ladies from my aerobics class about 3 weeks ago. We all went out to someone's "quinta" (house in the country), roasted some pig, drank some canelazo (grain alcohol, sugar cane and cinnamon stick), played cards, danced and then got each other totally soaked with water balloons, the hose, and buckets of water. No one was spared. Fortunately, I knew to bring a change of clothes and the sun was out soit was a blast getting soaked. Mia and Nikki sat in a pick up truck watching the ladies go wild. We played musical chairs and each loser got a bucket of water on her head. The winner got 4!! it was a great girl's day (Don was at the beach with his surfer friend Ron).

Even walking around Cuenca, we were hit with water balloons well before Carnaval actually happened. Mostly, we'd get hit on Friday and Saturday nights by teenagers and college students out on a drive with their car full of water balloons. It's all good fun and no one is allowed to get bothered. Mostly, they missed us so we really didn't ever get soaked. Mia and Nikki were so into it and I think they want to bring Carnaval back to Seattle. Somehow, I can't see Seattlelites being into getting doused with water when it's 40 and rainy.....

A completely different type of Carnaval celebration is held in the small City of Ambato. The Fiesta de la Fruta y de las Flores is held in February, culminating on Carnaval weekend. We arrived in Ambato on Friday night so we could be in town on Saturday morning for the Blessing of the Fruits and Flowers a the main Cathedral. Every year they create a mural, which covers the entire front of the Cathedral, made entirely out of fruits, flowers and bread. This year's mural included tomatoes, pears, leaves, capuli (a small brown fruit), beans, eucalyptus seed pods, and many, many flowers of all colors. The park in front of the Cathedral was packed, and the park continued to be a hub of activity all day long. After the benediction, we went to a few museums and exhibits, including the mausoleum of Juan Montalvo, a native son of Ambato whose 19th century "liberal" writings on human rights earned him the scorn of the country's clergy. We saw a cool exhibit of paintings by Cuban artists in homage to the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. We also saw a beautiful flower exhibit in an old building along with numerous rooms of paintings. We even got our picture in the local paper (Nikki is hiding behind me)!

We ended the day at a restaurant on Ave. Cevallos - the main drag. Our guide book says that Ambato is a sleepy town, but it sure wakes up for this festival. The street is the main route of the parade on Sunday, and already on Sat. evening most of the curb space is reserved with chairs and benches. Traffic is at a virtual standstill as cars cruise up and down the block. Numerous cars (presumably from out of town, since Ambateños don't celebrate Carnaval in this way) have children in the back, spraying Karioca (a watered down, foamy, shaving cream-type substance) out of a can at passing pedestrians and unsuspecting motorists driving the other way!

Sunday was parade day. We had been staying at the house of an aunt of the daughter-in-law of Jaime and Rita, and for the parade we went with Monica to her mother's house, which is on Cevallos, the parade route. Someone in the family erected bleachers on the sidewalk, with about six banks of seats, for family and friends, and this is where we watched the parade. Before the parade started, the street was so full that I didn't know where everyone would go once the parade began - there wasn't any room on the sidewalks! I was fascinated to watch the pre-parade, not only of spectators, but also of vendors selling everything anyone could need.

The parade itself was pretty impressive, sort of like the Rose parade in Pasadena, in that all the floats were made up of only fruits and flowers. Interspersed with the floats were marchers and dancers in traditional costumes, all from the area around Ambato. After the parade, we went back to Monica's house for lunch, but the street filled with all the spectators, mostly armed with Karioka. We all went to a local park with a swimming pool (like every pool we've been in in Ecuador, no lifeguards, no rules, and this one had the twist of a waterslide emptying into the shallow end of the pool). For dinner, we went back to Cevallos, which was going stronger than ever with Carnaval revelers with Karioca. We gave in and bought each of the girls a can, and they were so psyched. Debby and I stayed 20 feet behind them to avoid the crossfire, and I wish our camera battery hadn't died, because the look of sheer joy on their faces as they engaged in battles with other Karioka-toting kids (and grown-ups) was something to behold. We returned to Monica's house around 9:30, and Debby and I went out for Valentine's Day to see Elvis Crespo, a Puerto Rican merengue star who was giving an outdoor concert in Ambato that night. When we returned from the concert around 1:00 am, Cevallos was still going strong - street concerts and impromptu karioka battles!

Monday morning we loaded up the rental car and headed south to the pueblo of Guaranda. This town is famous for its Carnaval celebrations, but in Ambato I'd come to understand that this means they throw not only water, but flour, eggs, oil, tomatoes - pretty much everything. We had no reservations for a place to stay, and the hotel prices in Guaranda for Carnaval were super high, so our "plan" was to go to the nearby town of Salinas, and find a place to stay there, and go into Guaranda for a visit.

The road from Ambato to Guaranda is spectacular, our book says it is the highest paved road in Ecuador, topping out at over 4,000 meters (13,000 ft). It's barren but beautiful, and it also passes very close to the Chimborazo volcano, which is the highest in Ecuador, at about 20,700 feet. Although it was relatively cloudy on our drive, we did get some peekaboo views of the flanks and even the snow-covered top (yes, there really is snow at the ecuator!)

On the road up to Salinas, we saw many faces covered with flour, so we kept moving, rolling up our windows when necessary to avoid threatening buckets of water! As the road winds up the valley to Salinas, we were all struck by the beauty - it's a little like Switzerland, with the green pastures and cows.

The town of Salinas, at 11,650 feet, is set at the base of 3 steep cliffs, and many of the houses climb up the sides of the hills. We were happy to find a hotel room, and given the relatively mild nature of the Carnaval celebration (dancing and a band in the main town plaza, only minimal water bucket throwing, and not at tourists), we decided to sty here and skip Guaranda.

We were struck by the relative prosperity of the town, and the presence of many young men (conspicuously empty from many rural areas near Cuenca - they've all gone to the States.) The town is a center of many types of production: cheese, chocolates, sweaters, dried mushrooms, to name the main ones, and almost all of it is produced and sold through cooperatives. We learned some of the history from talking with a local at a pizzeria (run by a Spaniard and a Quiteña - that's another story). The town was originally all part of an hacienda, like most of rural Ecuador, and the residents worked for the hacienda owner, which meant mining salt (hence the town's name - "sal" is salt in Spanish). A photograph of the town from this period shows that all the homes were "chozas," small adobe huts covered with thatch roofs. Shortly after the Agrarian Reform of the early 70's, the first cooperative was formed for producing cheese, and it involved not just the town itself, but also many surrounding villages. The model spread to other industries, and the cooperative is now involved in giving loans to start up businesses and even for young people to study abroad!.

Tuesday morning, we went for a short hike up the cliffs above town, and headed out around noon, passing the southern flank of Chimborazo on the way. We stopped for the night in the town of Alausí, which is the starting point for one of the few remaining segments of the Ecuadorian national railway. A short run down the stretch called the "Devil's nose" is maintained for tourists. But the trip that Wed. morning was already sold out, so we just headed home after breakfast, happy that we all arrived safely back from a great vacation.

Monday, February 8, 2010


Our last trip to the coast,with our friends from Seattle, was spent mostly in and around Puerto Lopez. I've been wanting to come back to the coast, and I remembered that our friend Ron mentioned that he came to Montañita almost every month to go surfing. So I hitched a ride with him this month, and found myself in the surfing mecca of Ecuador. Our ride down from the sierra was mostly in the rain, and it was raining when we finally arrived here on Sat. afternoon. Ron took right to the water, and I wandered around the beautiful beach.

Montañita is a small town, that is seriously on the Gringo trail, and there are lots of young, hippie and surfer type tourists. But on the weekend, there are also a much larger group of Ecuadorians who visit, and pickup soccer games on the beach far outnumber the foreign surfers. I decided against taking a surfing lesson - I just won't have enough opportunities in my life to surf to make it worthwhile learning. So I just indulged in the other activity for which Montañita is famous - chillin' out.

This meant that I was able to meet a lot of travelers with interesting stories. While contemplating a tide pool, I met a Peruvian journalist, a woman traveling alone - a relatively rare occurrence amongst folks in this part of the world. I also met a group of "Porteños" (people from Buenos Aires) drinking their afternoon "mate" on the beach. (I've seen a lot of Argentinians here, and they all seem to travel with their mate, including the apparatus to drink it - a thermos of hot water, a cup stuffed with the tea, and a special metal straw which strains the tea as they drink it. I had my MP3 player with me when I met this group of 20 somethings, and I'm proud to say that not only did I have some hip Latin music with me that they knew (Gotan Project, Amigos Invisibles), I also had some hip Latin music that they didn't know (Federico Aubele), but liked, and I also turned them on to Michael Franti, Ozomatli, and some others!

I did not bring my camera with me on this trip, but no one would believe the pictures of the sunset, even if I did have any to post. In the west, they sky was on fire as the clouds arrayed themselves like a proscenium arch,reaching towards the beach, softly glowing orange as the sun left the stage. 180 degrees away, a double rainbow filled the jungle behind the town. As the light lingered, a lamp from a fishing boat took the place of the sun on the horizon, set in front of a small dark cloud at the edge, and by the time the sky was completely dark, it was joined by lamps from more than a dozen other boats.

Ok, so I didn't just chill out. On Sunday and Tuesday mornings, I also went for a run on the beach. The beach is flat and wide - ideal for running. (And coming from almost 9,000 feet above see level, I felt practically bionic as I ran!) From the north point, near where we stayed, to the south point is, I guess, about 2 miles. Just a beach run at the equator, but on my way I passed a small herd of cattle lounging on the sand; the center of Montañita, still not awake after what was no doubt a long night of partying (attested to by the Venezuelans in the room next door, who got back around 5:00 am); and two groups harvesting shrimp larvae. Shrimp is a huge part of the Ecuadorian economy - one of the top five sources of foreign exchange. I had seen this scene before, but I didn't know what it was. From a distance, one sees a line of about 15 - 20 people, arrayed somewhat equidistantly, all leaning slightly away from the ocean, as if blown by the breeze, like the trees on the nearby point. You need to get much closer to see the line they are pulling. The people are all locals: shorter, brown-skinned, men mostly, but also women and children, all dressed in a wet collection of old T-shirts and shorts. The line they are pulling extends into the sea, attached to the net, which is about 4' tall by I don't know how long. Although I didn't get to see them pull the whole net out, I know that once it is on the sand, they all fall to picking out the larvae, which are transferred to tanks, to grow to harvestable shrimp in about 5 months.

And after my Tuesday run? Well, a quick splash in the water, a shower, breakfast, and ... oh, let's see. How about back to the tidepools! Unlike the first time I visited (when I met the Peruvian journalist), the tide was coming in this time. These tide pools are really pretty spectacular - they are at the base of a steep, 50' tall cliff, which is clearly wave eroded, strata are visible up to the top. At the base, where it meets the ocean, the rock appears to be lava: pockmarked with holes and sharp edges. At the first pool I visited, I noticed that the anemones were all wide open, and I thought that the high tide is like sunlight for them: it nourishes them with fresh stuff to eat. This contrasted with my visit to the pool at low tide, when the anemones were all closed up. At low tide I also remember noticing that some of the small fish were very aggressive, defending their "territory" against other fish. I commented to the Peruvian that I wondered if it was because there wasn't much left to eat, given that the pool hadn't been refreshed for a while. My observation of the anemones makes me think my first idea on this had some merit. (Perhaps someone with some knowledge of marine biology can clue me in.)

After paying a little too much attention to the tide pool, and not enough to the tide (i.e., I got hammered by an incoming wave!), I started to wonder to what extent the incoming tide "clears out the neighborhood." But my eye caught on a fairly large (3") crab climbing the rock just above the waterline. Numerous strong waves didn't even phase him. And the fish - although I can't be certain they were the same ones I saw before and after the incoming crashing waves, I did see them swim in and out of little caves under the waterline, so they probably can be considered at least semi-permanent residents.

Eventually, hunger and the sun brought me back to the beach, and here are just a few notes and observations:
- For lunch, I ate (again) ceviche from a cart on the beach. I love ceviche at the beach, and it's probably the only place I ever eat it. In Montañita, there are a bunch of ceviche vendors, all pushing a similar looking cart. The front looks like the bow of a white boat with red trim, and it is attached to the frame, drive train and rear wheel of a bike. I asked the vendor if they were all part of a chain or what, and he told me that they all belonged to a 14 member cooperative. Each member buys their own food supplies, but the carts were given to them by the local government a few years ago. Additionally, the cooperative has a marketing agreement with a local "embutido" (processed meat) company, and their logo is on the red and white umbrella above the cart. They hope to replace "Gustadina" with Coca Cola, or some other top-flight sponsor when the current agreement expires.

- There are many beach dogs roaming the beach. They are kind of a mix of a playful, people friendly dog, and a feral street dog. But one of these animals, came up to me while I was sitting on the beach, eating my ceviche, and took off with my water bottle! He clearly wanted me to play fetch with him with it. This may have just been a ploy to get my lunch, but I wasn't going to take the bait. Eventually, he tired of me, and dug a hole in the sand into which he deposited my bottle. (Not that I would have wanted it back anyway!)

- This just in from the Fashion Desk: Butt cheeks are back on the beach. This is not the full-on (anal) floss of yesteryear, nor the siren-like string bikinis of years gone by, but rather a stylishly cut designer slab. Some critics have referred to this as the "mullet" of bikinis, since from the front they are surprisingly conventional, but from the back... it's Business Time! On the other side of the divide, the stylish Beach Boy this year is sporting... baggies. I'm not exactly complaining, but what's going on here? My guess is that those bikini bottoms were designed by (and for) some pudgy dude (in baggies) who averts his eye when Minnie Mouse comes walking towards him. Now, he can contemplate the waves like a regular sophisticate until the proper moment, and then..., it's a front row ticket to King Lear!

- Speaking of bikinis and baggies.... It sure seems that a high percentage of short, dark-haired Ecuadorian surfing instructors are walking back from the lesson with a tall blond student on their arm....

Yeah.... I could get used to life on the beach....