Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Isla de la Plata, Poor Man’s Galapagos:

Early in the morning after sailing all night from Bahia de Caraquez, Kamaya pulled into a small cove off of a large island. Later, Kai and I woke up. We were greeted by some friendly hawksbill sea turtles and everyone swam with them.

Then we had breakfast, played with the stuffed animals ‘til noon, had lunch, and continued playing. The sparkly white bear was having a chariot race with a rabbit called Duckshoes, a gray colored whale, and Stormy, a husky puppy from Alaska.

At 4:30 or 5, after all the tour boats left the island, we went on shore to take a hike, up from the beach into the hills, where we supposedly would see blue and red footed boobies. We only saw the blue ones. But we did see a rare mammal. It happened like this.

Kai ran ahead and Oma, my mom and I trailed behind. We rounded the corner and walked towards the bush up ahead. There, a strange animal was lurking. I recognized it at once, the majestic, Ecuadorian Soccer Frigate, standing on two red legs with a yellow belly. The head was that of a human, the grey forelegs were like hands. The body was four feet tall in length. I pointed this out to Oma. This mammal is called Ecuadorian for the yellow belly dotted with blue and red (the same colors as Ecuador’s flag), Soccer for the rounding fur which may resemble a ball and Frigate for the red legs whose thighs can puff up. The Ecuadorian Soccer Frigate does NOT have any feathers. And then it charged. Talons outstretched. I jumped aside. The young ESF (Ecuadorian Soccer Frigate) was probably about as old as my brother Kai. I had a pet ESF at the boat. I was thinking about training this for the better while walking. I did train it. Then it ran away as we climbed the steps. I blinked and it looked like a human, then regular again. Bye little ESF.

The steps went on forever. There were 2 sets of stairs. Each seemed like they had 100 steps. Finally, there was a resting spot at a fork. One side went up a hill the other went up slowly in the opposite direction. We went for the gradual path. At first it was steep, until the path rounded out to almost flat. We heard a honking sort of quacking noise, and some squawking, and whistling. Everything except the whistling is from the females. The males are smaller and appear to have smaller eyes than the females. We continued walking up the path. Thankfully, it had no stairs. Eventually we saw some blue footed boobies. The boobies squawked and whistled to one another. Their blue feet patting the ground as the boobies waddled. They would offer sticks and twigs to their partner. Occasionally the male would sky-point. As shown in this video.

The path led us to a clearing where many birds were nested. They squawked and whistled to one another and sky pointed etc. my mom and I stopped to take a video and some pictures. The group returned to the beach and walked to the dinghy. We pushed off shore and rowed to Kamaya. The next day we would go to see the other birds, but not now.

Take the quiz. Which of these pictures shows an ESF?

Is it this one- Choice A?

Or this one - Choice B?

This one - Choice C?

Or this one - Choice D?

How about this one - Choice E?

Maybe this one - Choice F?

Perhaps this - Choice G?

Or this animal - Choice H?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Exploring Ecuador

By Oma (Ruth's Momma Myra)

It seems like a long time ago and yesterday that Ruth fetched me (the Oma) from Guayaquil airport at 1:00 am on October 21st and took me to their hotel where Maya awoke to greet me with huge hugs. After a good, but short sleep on the bottom bunk, I awoke to the realization of being part of the Kamaya family. Our exploration of Ecuador with Oma began.

The morning started with a walk along Guayaquil’s magnificent Malecon which weaves along the waterfront for many miles peppered with stores, restaurants, exotic gardens, children’s playgrounds for Maya and Kai and adult playgrounds for Tim and Ruth. The excitement of the moment was a sizeable and very noisy demonstration by university students and teachers who (as we were told) protested the new law requiring teachers to take a test. The young man working at our hotel's reception questioned why the students joined in the protest as he, a student himself, felt that teachers needed standards.

With some nine pieces of baggage divided between the five of us, we boarded a bus for Banos. Along the way, our bus stopped at lots of little towns where “hawkers” boarded selling a variety of goods from banana chips to ice cream. The ride being longer than anticipated - and the Kamaya passengers getting itchy to run around, demanded an overnight stop at Riobamba for a traditional dinner, a good night’s sleep and - why not see another little town? We lucked into a small trade show of Ecuadorian products held in the local community auditorium - the major event of the town.

Enough of the local transportation, we splurged on a taxi to take us directly to Banos - a friendly vacation town, staying at Posada Marquez Inn in the town center. Ruth, Tim and Maya rented bicycles to investigate the town while Kai and Oma donned helmets and zoomed all over in a sort of doon buggy with a very loud horn and a maximum speed of 9 miles per hour. Kai honked the horn, moved the turn signals and advised “Floor it, Oma.”

Banos - as its name signifies, is known for its springs and baths - so we took a ride on horses up the volcano to a bubbly spring - the nob on the saddle might be for a lasso, but for me it was to hold on to for dear life.

From Banos to Quito where we stayed in the historical Old Town on Saturday night with its classic square, surrounded by churches, government buildings, shops, and hotels and people going in all different directions. Saturday night is holiday and wedding time with open horse carriages, beaming brides, and folk dancing in the plaza. The following day, we met up with Pilar, Kai’s Spanish teacher from his old school in Hood River.

Pilar is Ecuadorian and moved back here last year. She and her family introduced us to the local drink, Candelaza which is now our all time favorite. Pilar graciously invited the five of us to stay at her home and we had a grand dinner with her husband Eddy, daughter, Manuela and younger twins, Gabriel and Paula.

From Quito we bussed to Otavalo - the weaving town where the women wear traditional long black skirts and embroidered white blouses and they tot babies on their backs as they work away.

Atop a hill we visited a Condor Preserve run by a Dutch falconer who has Andean condors (they have the biggest wingspan of all birds),

and hawks, falcons, eagles and even a relative of Hedwig, the snowy owl in Harry Potter.

Back on a local bus to Cotopachi, the leather town with a hundred shops lining the main streets and all showcasing different leather jackets. I bought a leather jacket from a man who gets ideas for his patterns from the internet. We also stopped in Peguche to find Jose Cotopachi (again a local bus - we’re getting good at this) supposedly one of the finest weavers in Ecuador. Walking on the streets to Jose’s studio, we could hear the loud hum of the electric looms that have taken over the town. Jose weaves the old fashioned way, by hand, and he showed us how he makes the natural dyes, red comes from a little bug (the cochineal) that lives on the cactus plant.

The bug is squished into a natural red color:

From Otavalo by taxi to Quito airport and a 40 minute airplane ride was better than a twelve hour bus ride to our home to Bahia de Caraquez - where we were warmly welcomed by everyone in Puerto Amistad.

A few days at home to celebrate Halloween (Maya and Kai trick or treated by going boat to boat in the anchorage - pretty neat?) and to prepare Kamaya for our wild upwind sail to Isla de la Plata - the poor man’s Galapagos. We had the island to ourselves and the blue footed boobies loved us as they showed us the proper way to court a mate (Nate are you taking notes?) -- show off your blue feet, pick up a stick, and if all is going well, then point to the sky with a melodic whistle.

Tomorrow we sail to Manta where Oma finally gets a shower in preparation for her plane ride home. She is very sad to leave - and will be back on Kamaya soon. Besides, we have to continue rating all the ice cream stores.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Visit with the Cañari People

We recently went to Cuenca to see what many deem the most beautiful colonial city in all of South America. Cuenca is famous for its straw hats so we visited the hat factories,

...and went to the famous museum at the Banco Central which has real shrunken heads. Yes, that’s right, the Shuar Indians living in the Amazon perfected the shrunken head method. They also shrink a sloth’s head as a boy’s coming of age ceremony. We had the best carnivorous meal of my life at a small restaurant called Tiestos and we had ice cream at some of the best sweeteries in town.

But Tim and I have learned that our kids travel best when they do something. Museums, restaurants and shopping are not their forte. At our hotel, I noticed a brochure that advertised living with the Cañari people who have been in Southern Ecuador for more than 3000 years, even before the Incas ruled the area. Just 20 minutes outside of Cuenca, the group offered horsebackriding, organic food and claimed it would be the best cultural experience of one's life. We could learn about their medicinal plants and even stay the night. Why not? Cuenca shuts down on Sunday since most people leave town to enjoy the gorgeous countryside.

At 9:00 am the next morning, Jaime picked us up from our comfortable hotel. He had a warm smile and seemed like a nice young man. We all jumped in his taxi and drove to the outskirts of Cuenca. As we made our way 15 kilometers south to the town of Parcoloma, I was expecting to see adobe homes and Cañari people wandering around the hillside; instead I saw mini mansions, much like those in suburban California. Jaime explained that many of the homes were built by Ecuadorians living in the states and they had sent money home to their families. He told us that most families have relatives in either Spain or the United States and that many of the homes are vacant.

We drove down a dirt path and pulled into the driveway of Kushi Waira, which means “sweet wind” in Quichua. Sixteen year old Maria, wearing her traditional red skirt, welcomed us into their adobe home. She served Tim and I a warm welcome tea laced with potent sugar cane alcohol. We also ate a breakfast mixed with mote (cooked corn), eggs and cilantro.

After breakfast, we walked up the steep hill behind their home, breathing hard since we were at about 12,000 feet altitude. We went inside the forest and Jaime showed us the various medicinal plants that his family uses to cure all sorts of ailments from plain old colds to kidney stones. "These plants have helped my 93 year old grandmother remain strong and healthy," Jaime told us. At the top of the hill, Jaime took us to the place where he and his father had built a treehouse. The view from the treehouse showed the green mountains and the infamous Inca trail where its possible to walk all the way to Peru.

Up here on the hill, we met up with Jaime’s neice, Divna, and his nephew, Wilmer, who brought a horse for the kids to ride. Together they looked like Hansel and Gretl from Grimm’s fairy tales. Hardworking Divna carried a basket full of food which she handed to Jaime. The two spread out a long, narrow tablecloth on the ground and began preparing our “Pampamesa” or earth table.

Hail fell from the sky leaving marble-sized ice on the ground which the kids ran around to catch. Apparently, it rarely hails. We huddled underneath the shelter to begin our meal. Jaime poured cooked corn right on the linen, next came the beans, potatoes and home-made cheese. This is a typical festive meal, Jaime explained. There were no plates just the big pile of food spread elegantly along a common tablecloth. We each were handed a wooden spoon (though the Cañari traditionally eat with their fingers) and we spooned up the food, enjoying the food, tasty hot tea while the hail bounced around us.

For dinner, Jaime wanted to serve us Cuy (guinea pig) their favorite meal. We had visited their guinea pigs caged on the hill and I just wasn't eager to indulge in a culinary adventure.

Moreover, I had a very smart and lovely Guinea Pig growing up, so we opted out of Cuy. Instead, Tim suggested, tortillas. Little did we know that meant grinding the corn on the 200 year old stone and then passing it through the finer grinder for several times before cooking the tortillas in the open fire inside the kitchen.

I helped Jaime’s mother, Maria Luce in the kitchen which was separate from the main house and was also made of adobe. Maria had a number of different pots boiling at once. Her kitchen had running water and a propane burner, but Maria also liked to cook on the open fire in the corner of the room. Kai and Wilmer played with the fire while Maya and Divna drew pictures and Maria and I babbled away in Spanish.

In the early morning, Tim and I rose at 6 to help Maria milk cows. We walked about one mile up the hill and over the Inca trail to the family's cows. Since there were no fences, the cows were tethered to a stake in the ground. There were two calves. Maria let one of the calves free and it moved its wobbly legs as fast as it could to its mother, sucking quickly as if this was his last meal. That helped the cow let down its milk and Maria showed us how to milk the cow.

Tim and I only succeeded in getting a little milk to squeeze out of the tit, whereas expert Maria easily milked two teats at a time, with the milk rushing into the pail. Altogether we had 8 liters of milk to carry back to the milkman who buys the milk for 32 cents a liter and sells it for twice that.

Momma Maria taught Kai how to spin wool.

Just as we were getting ready to leave and head back to civilization, Kai went to say good-bye to the puppy and kitten that he had been playing with ...

and then --- I’m not sure what possessed him -- he turned to the side of the adobe building and held his hand out to pet a bigger dog. Suddenly there was barking, snarling and Kai ran back to us. He bravely held back his tears, pulled up his shorts and showed us the dog bite which was on his right inner thigh.

Immediately, Maria came out with alcohol to clean the wound. Kai said this stung more and later we learned that the Cañari traditionally use alcohol on all wounds. Tim and I had visions of a rabid dog and having to go through the litany of required shots. The family assured us that the government has a program that vaccinates the dogs in the area. We looked at the certification, but it didn’t add up. So we headed to the local doctor where for $15, we got Kai properly cleaned up and for another $15 we purchased antibiotics as a precautionary measure. The Doctor instructed us to stay in touch with Jaime who should monitor the dog for two weeks to make sure it wasn’t foaming at its mouth. It's been more than two weeks and fortunately we have clean bill of health.

In retrospect, was this the "cultural experience of our life?" It was interesting to be part of Jaime's family and to get a glimpse at the Cañari life. I'll always remember cooking with Momma Maria and at one point in the evening I had to do a double take and pinch myself as I thought for a moment I was in one of the museum's display of life thousands of years ago. Indeed, the 24 hours was definitely unforgettable; we just wished that it had ended on a better note.

Looking Back

It took me more than seven years to turn our blog into a hard covered bound book. At first, I was leery of wrapping up our adventure because...