Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Catching Up

We’ve been going, going, and going.  So fast I haven’t had time to sit down at the computer and write about it all. 
I’ll try to get down the meat and potatoes of our last couple weeks now.

We arrived in Otavalo by bus on a Thursday evening.  The town is situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by high volcanoes and green rolling mountains.  On the bus ride in you pass a huge blue mountain lake surrounded by small houses, farms and hotels.  The small family farms spread across the valley floor and wrap up around the hillsides like a great patchwork quilt.  The checkerboard pattern of varying browns and greens are dotted with small white farmhouses along the way.  All around the town are high peaks of extinct volcanoes- so many I can’t keep them all straight- Imbarura, Cotacachi and Cayambe.   Also at the base of the town is the big hillside of Pucará.  Over the course of our four days in Otavalo the huge looming mountains looked different each day.  Sometimes they were flanked in clouds with the sun casting dramatic shadows below.  Other times they were clear and striking in their enormous size.   Just as I write, Pucará, along with the rest of the sky, has disappeared into a gray thick mist. Hermosa.

We checked into a small hotel in town.  It was decorated in classic Andean style with colorful weavings hanging on the clean white-washed walls and numerous plants sprouting from cloth baskets.  Friday morning we set out walking through town after a breakfast of quinoa pancakes, honey-sweetened oatmeal overflowing with fruit, and empanadas with marmalade.  We took a taxi to las Cascadas de Peguche, the waterfall just a fifteen-minute ride up into the hills from town.  Arriving at the small indigenous village of Peguche, it was a drastic change from the tight cobblestone streets and numbers of people walking around Otavalo.  We hiked to the falls and just across from the river we found a beautiful campground.  It was one of the most unique camping spots we’ve ever seen. Tents were meant to be set-up on top of flat-topped cement pyramids.  There were also thatched roof cabins with no more than a dirt floor but perfect as a shelter from the cold of a night at such high elevation.  Although we had no intention of camping here in Ecuador, I think if we had the right gear Danny would have set it all up on the spot.  The grove of trees reminded me of a northern California forest- immensely tall waving pines.  It was beautiful to say the least.

Our next stop was the Parque Condor, a wildlife refuge for birds of prey.  We watched flight demonstrations for lots of different kinds of birds, all at the refuge because they were mishandled or abused early on and unable to fly and/or hunt for themselves.  There were condors, many different types of hawks, eagles, and owls.  The highlight of the afternoon for our kids was when Harper and Cal got to put on the handler’s leather glove and let a small hawk perch on their arm.  Danny and I however thought the views from the park, set up high on a hilltop, were even better than the birds. 

Our kids have been waking up obscenely early so getting up to go to the Otavalo animal market was not a problem for us.  The kids were up looking out the window at 6am, watching all the Otavaleños walk along the Pan-American Highway leading horses, pigs, and cows.  We joined in on the walk to the market, careful of where we stepped along the way.  As we walked through the crowds, people were selling all kinds of animals.  There were pens of guinea pigs, puppies, piglets, and chicks.  The cows and sheep had their own area where men and women dressed mostly in their indigenous clothing sized up the animals and did the negotiations.  The pigs were mainly in some sort of long path the width of a driveway and as long as soccer field.  They were all on makeshift rope leashes and most of the pigs calmly walked along with their handlers waiting to greet the next prospective buyer.  Occasionally there was a pig that was upset and unwilling; those were the ones squealing and digging in their heels in protest. 

We all felt a little claustrophobic because of the big crowd of people and animals, especially walking down what we termed, “Pig Alley.”  Because we had no animals to buy or sell, we also felt a little out of place, but it was definitely an experience we won’t forget.  It was great to see the reality of our food chain, a way that it has been done for so many hundreds of years.  After Harper and I witnessed a man buying a pig and I said that his family was probably going to have bacon soon, Cal (pretty astutely) wondered, “Where do we get our bacon?”  We had lengthy conversations the next few days about where our food comes from and it is these experiences that Danny and I hoped to open our kids’ eyes to this year traveling.   It was another one of those times we asked ourselves, who needs kindergarten?

Some of Harper’s thoughts on the market:  “It was good because there were animals there that I like, like chickies and bunnies.  There were also cows and pigs.  They were there for people to buy and eat.  Something surprising was when we came down the little hill we barely knew where to go because there was such a crowd of people.  The crowd was also full of pigs! It was Pig Alley!  Pigs on rope leashes, grunting, bonking their dirty noses into to people, like mama and me.  We felt a little happy and a little nervous, kind of like we wanted to get out of there!  It made us nervous to be in such a tight spot with all those pigs and people.  The other people didn’t seem to be upset or worried at all.  They were used to it.”

Later that day we visited the textile market in town.  There were rows and rows of vendors selling all kinds of beautiful weavings, blankets, hats, clothing, etc. The stalls of the merchants were so close to together and we all wandered around awestruck by all the artisans’ crafts.  It was overwhelming with all the different vendors asking us to “compra aqui!” (Buy here) but we had fun talking to many them about their work, while our kids showed off their blue eyes (a big hit down here!)  While we shopped, Cal liked trying on the hats and he eventually settled on an orange knit alpaca hat.  Harper could barely be pulled away from the jewelry and the dolls.  We did a little Christmas shopping and the kids got to pick out a couple things.  I think the best part really was the stop at the Shenandoah Pie shop afterwards those.  The mora pie (raspberry) was outstanding. 

Saturday afternoon we had lunch and visited with Anibal’s family.  (Anibal lives in Carbondale and is Danny’s cousin Laurie’s husband.)  He grew up in Otavalo and today we got to see his childhood home.  We had lunch at his sister Anita’s house and also visited with Anita’s husband and her daughter, Jazmin.  They keep four beehives in the back of their property and we all got to sample the honey.  It was so sweet and the kids kept asking for more comb to suck on.  They also had a patch of raspberries and Harper and Cal happily cleaned them out of all the ripe ones.  Our lunch was vegetarian (just in case we were vegan like Laurie!) and it was delicious.  I haven’t yet, but I am going to email Jazmin for the ají recipe they served because it was like nothing else we’ve had in Ecuador yet.   

After lunch we went to Anibal’s sister Nieve’s house and met her and Anibal’s brother.  We also met his mother, who is seriously the smallest lady we have ever seen!  She seemed only a foot or so taller than Harper, but she commanded such respect with her striking eyes and sharp features.  Cal was having kind of a rough afternoon so he and I ended up walking up and down their street a bit, but Danny and Harper got to talk with the family and compare notes on Camilo, Laurie and Anibal.  It was a really nice afternoon. 

That evening we moved into a cabin way up high on the mountainside overlooking Otavalo.  It was on the top of a high hill with pastures of horses, llamas, and a baby cow.  With all of the traveling and sightseeing the days prior our kids needed some downtime and this was the place to spend it.  Our cabin had a wood-burning stove that made the place feel so cozy.  The meals were vegetarian and fresh, they served oatmeal for breakfast, and the coffee was strong and hot.  Everyone was happy!  The kids played with a family of six kids that lived just below the lodge we stayed at.  We also went for a hike to an old equatorial marker from a French exploration in the 1700s. 

It was really nice just to take it easy at our cabin at the lodge.  Danny and I didn’t realize how important it was for our kids to have a couple days just running around and doing a whole lot of nothing, but Harper and Cal were beaming from ear to ear the whole time here.  It is good to remember these moments when we are dragging them through bus stations, crowded city streets, or just basically pushing Harper and Cal past their limits.  We know it, but we needed the reminder that building in some downtime is just as important as seeing the sights. 

We left Otavalo on Monday afternoon, slept at our hostel in Quito that night and Tuesday we flew to Manta to catch a taxi back to Bahia de Caraquez.  It was late in the afternoon, so we went out to eat in town and happened to run into our friends from Berkley we met our first week at the farm.  It was great to catch up with them and see their apartment (they are living in Bahia for the year.)  The kids played together- Harper and Andrea with the dress-up clothes and Cal and Caden with the cars.  The grown-ups got to catch up and Alison, Dale and Danny and I compared our “traveling in Ecuador with kids” notes and stories. 

Shari and John got in late that night so we had to wait to see them until the next morning.  Harper went running open-arms to Shari and gave her a big huge hug.  Cal was a little more reserved but has since warmed up and has really enjoyed being around his aunt and uncle.  On Wednesday we traveled together to the Rio Muchacho farm and it was great to get back.  Driving in up the dirt road, bouncing around in the back of the pickup truck we felt like we had only been gone a day or two.  Harper couldn’t wait to show Shari and John everything we learned here prior and having them here has really cemented the experience for us so much.

I am running out of steam so I will write more about Rio Muchacho with Shari and John soon!

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