It’s a question asked often…by Ecuadorians and expats alike, “Why did you move here…what’s your story?” The answers vary from reduced living expenses, access to fresh (and different!) fruits and vegetables sometimes at a fraction of the cost you have been used to, the experience of a different culture, a sense of adventure and reminders, just maybe, of another simpler life perhaps from your own childhood. I wanted these experiences–living in another country, not just visiting as a “turista,” and I’ve longed for this for some time. Every time I meet people who had “spent their junior year abroad,” or something similar, I had a curiosity about hearing their stories… and still do.
Along with a closer look at the culture and customs comes an awareness of how things are often similar to my own childhood growing up in New Jersey. Peddlers, for example, routinely came through our neighborhoods with fresh fruits and vegetables, or even fresh fish, and “sang out” their presence. Each had a distinct voice and a unique cadence. Families came to buy, and as children, we were happy to be involved.
My grandma, not one to resist bargaining, would have a round or two of negotiations with them! It had to be similar to her own experience growing up in Italy, I think now. It seems the last vestiges of this concept, in the states anyway, are the street vendors selling hot dogs or chestnuts (in the winter in NY…another childhood memory) and ice cream, a version of “The Good Humor Man,” and always a welcome summer treat.
Here in Ecuador, though, many vendors are still everywhere, everyday announcing their presence in your neighborhood, sometimes arriving in their pick up trucks but sometimes on foot or with little pull or bicycle wagons…selling everything from fruits & vegetables to brooms and, yes, helado (ice cream). Sometimes the announcements are even pre-recorded. Gas tanks, too, are announced, but this time with a distinct beeping of the horn, and it’s unmistakable. It can be a welcoming sound, especially if you don’t have central gas and are “running out of tanks” for your household!
Another recent story I learned from my Spanish teacher (another reason to keep up with lessons!) has to do with a special soup (la sopa) served only during the time of year of Semana Santa (Holy Week) before Easter Sunday. Basically, “el plato sagrado de Ecuador” (sacred meal) is a union of the indigenous and religious traditions.
Some families and restaurants (I had this in El Mesón Español in el Centro) serve this very delicious (muy rico) sopa called “Fanesca” prepared with a long list of ingredients that is very time consuming to prepare. Because of the many ingredients, including a pumpkin-like squash, col (cabbage), maduros (plantains) and various spices, Fanesca actually means “a mix of many things” (“es una mezcla de muchas cosas”).
Fewer people make it than in the past, however, and I’m told some of the newer generation have never themselves prepared it. But even esta sopa has a story as the twelve different grains, some indigenous, represent the 12 Apostles and bacalao seco (dried cod) represents Christ. Were it not for this Spanish lesson on culture, customs and food, I might have missed it altogether, and this would have not been a story to miss!
Another long-standing story is about Vilcabamba, a village in the south of Ecuador in Loja Province, about a 4.5 hour ride south of Cuenca. Sitting at 5,000 ft (1524 meters) this Andean village of about 1,000 people in the village itself and 4,000 in the surrounding valley is home to a number of expats. The Incas referred to this area as “Sacred Valley” and Vilcabamba, a Quechuan word, is often called “the Valley of Longevity” for the number of centenarians living there…is it the clean water and air (soft breezes and sweet smelling) and the tranquility? It is not known if the actual number of centenarians is fact or exaggeration, but the legend persists and probably for good reason…it is a beautiful place with magical light, sounds of birds not heard in Cuenca, and probably many of untold stories still.
Wait around long enough, the saying goes in Colorado, and the weather is likely to change. In Ecuador wait around long enough and there is likely to be a celebration with fireworks, music, dancing and even parades. San Valentino (Valentine’s Day) was a surprise, though. Starting at midnight until 1:30 in the morning, young men “serenaded” their novias…sweethearts (or sweethearts to be, we can suppose) in the calles (streets) of the neighborhood singing along to recorded romantic music and a sound system for a concert! After a while, they moved their equipment in pick up trucks to the next calle, and they still could be heard in the distance. It put a smile on my face to catch their enthusiasm for serenading! Yes, they have good voices!
February also was “Carnaval” (Mardi Gras in the states, signaling the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the 40 days of Lent). It was pretty tamed down in Cuenca, I understand, with mostly adolescents attracting each others’ attention with water balloons, confetti, and spray cans of foam. And the same scenario played out within their own families. Yes, they aim well, and this, too, put a smile on my face.
But maybe the biggest smile is in the day to day life of learning the culture and the language while getting things done! Prior to a visit to a tienda (store) that sells fabric, I searched online for the word “sheets” (for bedding material) only to be surprised by the quizzical look of the shop attendants. The word I used was for sheets of paper (hojas) not fabric (sábanas) which I learned by calling a friend who quickly explained the confusion and gave me the right word choice. Yes, it takes time (and a village)!
And I love how the simple things at a bus stop (parada) can bring a smile to the faces of strangers and allow for connections. It’s the rainy season now…and at times when I see someone waiting without an umbrella, I will share mine with them! It allows for an instant connection, and another chance to practice my Spanish with a stranger and learn something new yet again.
All these experiences are reminders for me of a sense of place with perhaps the beauty of this country, yes, the size of Colorado or Nevada, simply amazing. When I first moved to Colorado many years ago, some people said that after a while, I wouldn’t notice the mountains. That never happened. And there is not a day here that I don’t notice the Cajas and their beauty, sometimes soft with lots of greenery after a rainfall, and sometimes more dramatic as with a sunset. Yes, they are reminders of a sense of place as much as anything else.
December, 2016: One of the biggest and most colorful celebrations of the year is Pase del Niño, a Christmas Eve Pageant held all day long through the streets of Cuenca. With its colors, indigenous dress of all kinds, and everyone participating…babies, grandparents, horses and sheep it is not to be missed I was told soon after I arrived this past summer!
The event is named for a Christ Child Statue, El Nino Viajero (Traveler) that was brought from Rome to Ecuador. Many Christ Child statues of all kinds are then walked through the streets of El Centro (The Center of Cuenca) with marching bands, dancers, and people eager to have you take their pictures! This is how they spend their Noche Buena (Christmas Eve).
But a week before, individual families have their own Pase del Niño, and it is to one of these I was invited! They walk and have floats through their own neighborhoods (barrios) as well. Months before my Ecuadorian neighbors (vecinos) told me I would be invited by their family, and there were 150 of them present that day ranging in age from 6 months to 92! They all attend (and I, the only gringa!)
Speaking of dress, I became “La Chola Cuencana” with some of the other women as you will see in the photos below! It is an indigenous dress from the province of Azuay of which Cuenca is a part. The pollera (skirt) is very special and heavy because of the hand beading. The blusa (blouse) is white and has a lovely hand embroidery. The chal (shawl) is only worn for El Pase; typically, another shawl is worn other days. The sombrero (hat) is special, too, as it is decorated with cinta con perla (ribbon with pearls) and a lazo (braid) that hangs down the back. The alpargatas (espadrille shoes) match the outfit.
And all this I learned from my vecinos (when I went to rent the outfit for the day at a store in walking distance from my home) and my Spanish instructor in my weekly lessons! It is also another reason I enjoy living in an area where there are more Equatorianos! After El Pase the family has a big feast of hornado (roast pig) papas (potatoes) arroz (rice) and mote (corn) and the passing around of chicha, a fermented drink made from corn and other grains and even roots like yucca!
January, 2017: On New Year’s Eve. I got to participate with an Ecuadorian family at midnight in the burning of effigies that look a lot like scarecrows stuffed with newspaper and dressed in old clothes. Masks are sold to add a final touch to your effigy. It is a ritual performed throughout South America and Cuenca participates whole heartedly with fireworks galore, also! The burning of effigies that you buy or make (I bought one shown in one of the photos below) releases “los años viejos” (the old years) and any bad you wish to release of the past to be ready to welcome the new.
A Happy, Healthy, Prosperous New Year 2017 to All of You!
Festival de Luces
photos Linda Sorrento c. 2016
Cuenca, Ecuador, has almost continuous celebrations from November through January–and I am about to experience them all! Tres de Noviembre (the Third of November) is the joyous celebration of Cuenca’s Independence Day…think 4th of July and art festivals combined for a 5 day celebration of talented artisans, food, music, and, yes, daily fireworks! Many of the streets fly the city flag of Cuenca for a month, and streets like Tres de Noviembre are named after significant events. Some people living here say it is one of their favorite holidays of the year.
El Festival de Luces (Festival of Lights) is one of the most beautiful of events to start the Christmas season. This year it was held in Santo Domingo Plaza in el Centro (the center of town). The collage captures the luminarias and the placement of them into beautiful shapes (and even words) outside the church. It’s also a time for song…the children first and then later a marching band and chamber music.It is a several hour event with families and friends talking or getting acquainted and taking photos.
May your holidays be filled with peace, joy, and the love of friends and family.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and A Happy, Healthy New Year!
“Buen provecho” strangers in restaurants here remark as they quickly pass your table in a restaurant, “Enjoy Your Meal!” It’s a customary greeting, with friends and strangers alike, in this South American country the size of Colorado. It’s also one of the many “sorpresas” or surprises in this small country that has such variety: beaches, mountains, the headwaters of the Amazon, and the unique Galapagos Islands.
Ten years ago, I visited here and was struck by the beauty of the landscape. This past July I moved here…with 4 suitcases…to fulfill a long-held dream of living in and not just visiting, another country. It is a wonderful choice. On the equator, from which the country gets its name, it is forever spring in Cuenca, a lovely Old World Colonial City that sits at a little over 8,000 feet in the Andes, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The weather and the experiences seem to suit me: I’m immersing myself in Spanish language classes, and while it’s true that the locals appreciate any efforts made at communicating in their language, I know the experience will be richer the more I learn. There are so many things to do here –free symphony concerts, music with performers visiting from all over the world, artisan centers, classes of all kinds, and a strong expat community that is both welcoming and supportive. There are a lot of treasures to discover here, and I expect the adventure is a central part of the experience of it all.
Here are some photos of the hikes I’ve taken…from the local walks through small villages with a chance to have almuerzo (lunch) and meet the local Ecuadorian and indigenous people to the beauty of one of the most popular National Parks, El Cajas, in the Southern Sierras.
Todo Bien! (All is Well!)
From an email to Friends from Bhutan, April, 2008
Kuzugampola (Hello in Bhutanese) Friends!
Ever since I saw a PBS special on Bhutan (The Land of the Thunder Dragon) some years ago, I wanted to visit here. It is a magical place, often called the last Shangri La, for the beauty of its mountains and valleys. Often it looks like a story book picture! It’s about the size of Switzerland and about a half million people. Apparently, they said they were a million so they could get into the UN, but then, given their sense of humor (truly!) and that census counts are not accurate…Bhutan is nestled between China and India and has four climate zones, from cold in the Himalayan north to tropical in the very south. We were in the central, temperate region. It was lovely spring-like weather.
We had a 9 hour ride on the “Lateral Road” the only road in the country. We started in Paro where the airport is (two planes blessed by their monks called Druk (Dragon) Air). We arrived in Thimpu, the only capital without a traffic light…I have a photo of the one police officer directing traffic. They tried a traffic light (yes, one) and didn’t like it so they got rid of it!
The feel of this country is unbelievable…wonderfully friendly and hospitable people with the men dressed in traditional “ghos” a komono-type outfit and the women in long skirts of beautiful hand woven fabric. The Bhutanese are a handsome people! You may have seen the news on Bhutan’s recent elections as they moved to a constitutional monarchy. It is an interesting time for Bhutan, this Buddhist Kingdom coming into the 21st Century. Their new King, who at 27 is as revered as his father, will be coronated this year. The King’s Father is married to 4 sisters (apparently, one said no!) But having more than one wife or husband is not uncommon in Bhutan.
(Note: In fact the King is now 31, the youngest reigning King, and was just married in 2011. The new Queen, a commoner and 21 years old, is as beautiful as he is handsome!)
Today is our last day (of 11) in Bhutan (internet was not always available on the trip) and did they ever save the best for last! We hiked to Tiger’s Nest Monastery
nestled on the edge of a cliff. It is a trip that, like Mecca, they would like the Buddhists here to do at least once in their lifetime. It is about a 3 hour hike up and is a beautiful one on a good trail with lots of steps in places. Several beautiful viewing points as the rhododendrun are in bloom. Set with the the prayer flags, it is a stunning setting.
I got the Lonely Planet Bhutan book (there weren’t many to choose from when I went I 2008, but I found it a good choice. Check around and see what you like). It gave a good history of Buddhism, I thought.
I went with a company in Boulder called Asia Transpacific Journeys.
Several books I’d recommend are:
So Close to Heaven, The Vanishing Kingdoms of the Himalayas, by Barbara Crossette–lots of history and will give you some context. Great writer.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth, a Journey into Bhutan, Jamie Zeppa; a Canadian who taught in Bhutan and then married one of her students. The marriage didn’t last, but the story of her experiences being in the culture is interesting.
Treasures of the Thunder Dragon by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Whangchuck who was one of the previous Queens–travelogue and memoir. I got a library copy. I loved this book, too.
The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (daily life and rituals from a woman’s perspective)
The Geography of Bliss, c. 2008. One more book that has a chapter on Bhutan and is just a great travel read. It’s written by NPR Correspondent, Eric Weiner:
A few DVDs:
Travellers & Magicians (Jamie Zeppa’s (see book above) Bhutanese husband is one of the actors.
The Cup (about Bhutanese monks and soccer)
I loved Tiger’s Nest (Taktshang). Do not be discouraged by guidebooks that say it is difficult. It isn’t. There is a path all along the way with lots of people.
Make sure you get to a Festival…anywhere. They are worth seeing and have a good blend of the sacred and the profane. Great photo opps, too.There is one main road that goes across the country and some of the highlights are: Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, and Trongsa. The architecture is lovely as are the people. Happy Travels. If you go to Bhutan, enjoy—I know you will. If you decide to arm chair travel this one, these books and DVDs should be a good start!
PS One book I read several years after my trip: It’s called Married to Bhutan, How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do” and Found Bliss, by Linda Leaming, a published writer, who apparently is mentioned in the Geography of Bliss book. She talks a lot about the culture and places. So it’s very thoughtful and chock-full of well-written information. The author lives there now (she’s American).