Navidad y Año Nuevo: Holidays in Ecuador

img_3059All of us grew up with different traditions around the end-of-year holidays. Since we moved to South America, we have adopted some of the traditions of our new home in Ecuador. This year we have had the pleasure of sharing the holidays and those traditions with a new friend, Christine, who is visiting from the U.S.

Two of the traditions we have come to love most are the International Chorale Concert and the Pase del Niño. Every year during Christmas week, the Cuenca International Chorale presents a free concert in the Old Cathedral in El Centro. The singers come from all over the world, but all live in Cuenca now. The selections range from traditional Christmas carols to works in Spanish, French, and several other languages, and the concert concludes with the entire audience joining together to light candles and sing Christmas carols in both English and Spanish.

img_3144Christmas Eve begins with the fantastic parade called Pase del Niño. It lasts seven or eight hours, with music, dancing, colorful costumes, and every segment of Ecuadorian society represented. One major aspect of the parade is the carrying of the Christ Child through the streets. Replicas of the Baby have often been handed down for generations, and families dress in costumes representing the Holy Family and other characters from the Nativity story. Additionally, one can also see Papa Noel (Santa Claus) walking with the Holy Family, and who’s to say that’s not how it really happened?

After opening gifts at home on Christmas morning, we enjoyed a wonderful brunch with friends. One of the beautiful parts of being in Ecuador is that we come from different traditions and different belief systems, and yet we find common ground and community here.

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Between  Christmas and New Year’s, we shared with Christine some of our favorite places in and around Cuenca. We took a city tour, visited the Panama hat museum (Panama hats are made in Ecuador, not in Panama!), and dined on cuy (guinea pig), an Ecuadorian delicacy. We also took a day trip into the mountains around Cuenca, where we marveled at the beauty of the Virgin of the Mist Church in Biblian, which is built into the side of the mountain. img_3233

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We met an incredible 87-year old woman named Rosita, who has been making hats all her life. In her younger days, she could make a hat in a day. Now it takes her three, but it is fascinating to watch her work. We capped off the day with a visit to the ruins of Ingapirca, the best-preserved archeological site in the country, representing both the moon-worshiping Cañari and the sun-worshiping Incas.

 

 

img_3280As New Year’s Eve approached, we–along with the rest of the world–prepared to greet a new year. In Ecuador, we let go of the old and welcome the new by burning effigies called monigotes, masked figures whose pockets and bodies are stuffed with slips of paper representing the things we wish to release. The monigotes are set on fire, and tradition says that each person jumps over the burning monigote three times. Although it sounds simple, we discovered that our monigote was wearing non-flammable clothing and was stuffed with both cardboard and plastic. Getting it to flame was something of a challenge. We laughed about the fact that letting go is sometimes a difficult process, and that change sometimes comes slowly. However, we persevered until our monigote was a pile of ash in the street.50d9a7ec-a260-4a65-87e4-30a08d01728e

img_7222As midnight approached, we were standing on our terrace watching the fireworks. Below us, about twenty members of our landlord’s family gathered to celebrate. They saw us standing on the terrace and invited us down to join their monigote celebration. Each family member had a monigote, and the bodies were piled in the street. They knew the trick of getting the fire started, and before long their effigies were blazing in the middle of the street. They shared a glass of wine with us and even invited us to a midnight supper, and although we declined the meal, since we had already eaten, we enjoyed celebrating with them.Their generosity was a testimony to the graciousness of the Ecuadorian people.

We share one more sweet tradition with you. On New Year’s Eve, each person is to eat twelve grapes, and make a wish for each grape. We were gathered with friends, and as we shared our wishes, we discovered that we were so content we had little to wish for–for ourselves. Most of our wishes were for a kinder, gentler, more loving world, and that we might be instruments of bringing this change about. We wish for less anger, more dialogue; fewer tweets, more conversation; less duality, more harmony; a deeper understanding that we are all us, and there is no them.

And so we come to this new year, wishing the same for you. May your days be filled with grace and generosity, and your hearts be filled with love. Always love.

Happy New Year. Feliz Año Nuevo.

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Pam & Penny

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Lomo, Vino, And New Adventures

Since we moved to South America a little over a year ago, we have done a lot of traveling, but until last month, we had not seen much of  our new hemisphere.  On November 30, we set out with our friends, Bob and Stefani, to visit Chile and Argentina. img_2478

Our fimg_2495irst stop was Santiago, Chile, a bustling city full of wonderful mercados, interesting sights, and some of the best seafood we have ever tasted.  While in Santiago, we visited one of the homes of Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and learned how his death ushered in the revolution against the Communist regime in Chile.
We rode a tram to the top of San Cristobal to visit the statue of the Virgin and to take in the panoramic view of the city.  One day we took a lovely drive out through the countryside to visit one of the local wineries and sample their fare.

 

img_2671From Santiago, we flew to Buenos Aires, a city we both fell in love with.  We visited La Boca, on the riverfront, enjoying the colorful buildings, shops, and restaurants.  We sat at a sidewalk cafe, sipping a cold beer, while listening to live tango music and watching dancers on the street.  It was magical!

 

 

We walked through the Recoleta Cemetery where Eva Peron is buried and visited  Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, where she gave her famous speech from the balcony. We sat at small cafes and had cafe con leche and medialunas, small croissants with honey.  It felt like heaven.

img_2743The highlight of Buenos Aires for us was experiencing the Mothers’ March in Plaza De Mayo.  In 1976, 30,000 protestors against the Communist government simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.  Since that time, surviving family members and supporters have marched every Thursday afternoon, vowing never to forget.  They carry pictures of their family members and read out their names.  It was, for us, incredibly moving.

img_2936From Buenos Aires we went to the smaller city of Mendoza, known primarily for the wine produced in the area’s 400 plus wineries.  On the first day we took a trip up into the mountains, near the Chilean border, and saw breathtaking snow-capped mountains, reminiscent of the Alps.  On another day we visited two wineries in the area–a large one and a small family winery.  We much preferred the smaller of the two, although we learned  a lot about the process of making wine at both places.

img_2798In Mendoza, we feasted on the famous Argentinian beef, lomo fino.  It was the best beef we have ever had, tender and cooked to perfection.  And, of course, there was always a good bottle of wine to go along with the beef!  Our friend, Stefani, chose the wine each night and did an excellent job!

 

 

We returned home to Cuenca in time to welcome our friend, Christine, who has come from San Francisco to share the holidays with us.  In the midst of this special season, we wish all of our friends and family love, joy, and peace.  Shalom!

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Rollin’ On The River

There is nothing quite as exhilarating as traveling to a part of the world you’ve never seen before.  So much to learn and experience; so many ways to have your eyes and heart opened.

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We just returned from a 15-day trip to Eastern Europe, six countries whose history, culture, and people were completely new to us.  We began our trip with an 11-hour flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Amsterdam and then on to Prague.  In Prague we spent three days exploring this capital of The Czech Republic.  From the magnificent square with its fascinating astronomical clock to the fortress at the top of the hill overlooking the city, we were in awe of the beauty and the history of this lovely place.  By day or by night the magic of Prague captured us and made us certain that we would someday return.

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But on this trip, there was so much yet to come.  We traveledIMG_1556 by train from Prague to Budapest, Hungary, where we began a 12-day cruise on the Danube River.  In Budapest we visited the Jewish Quarter and were reminded of the atrocities of the Holocaust.  We met Ruth Braun who had been in the camps at age 12.  She survived while many did not.  On the bank of the river near our ship was a monument consisting of 60 pairs of bronze shoes, a memorial to the Jewish men, women and children who had been  roused at daybreak, marched to the river’s edge, shot and dropped into the waters of the Danube.  We wept at the horror of it all.

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In Vukovar, Croatia, during the Croatian war for independence in the early 1990s, the fighting was fierce and the devastation was visible everywhere.  During the battle the water tower was hit with shells and rockets over 600 times. . .and still stands, wounded but proud.  This town, the first major European town entirely destroyed since the Second World War, would not cower before the Serbian attacks.  Even the scarred buildings bloom as a testimony to the spirit of its people.

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In Serbia, we  visited the lovely town of NovIMG_1676i Sad, the center of Serbian culture, a city called the Serbian Athens.  As we strolled through the city square, Penny commented, “I never thought I would say this, but Serbia would be a lovely place to live.”  At the very least, we will be returning to Novi Sad to spend more time.

 

IMG_1869We spent a day sailing on the Danube, with Romania on the north and Serbia on the south.  This 83-mile stretch of river is called the Iron Gates.  As we rounded a bend in the river, we came upon the statue of King Decebalus, a 130-ft high IMG_1879statue, the tallest rock sculpture in Europe, carved into the rocky cliff.  We were fascinated as our ship went through two systems of locks, enabling us to continue our journey.

 

 

VIMG_1961idin, Bulgaria was our next stop.  We wandered through a medieval fortress called the Baba Vida, constructed in the 10th century.  While in Vidin we visited an 18th century mosque, notable for its minaret which is topped with a heart rather than a crescent.

 

 

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Bulgaria also offered us a lovely day in the towns of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi.  A highlight of this day was a visit to the Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel.  The walls of the church are covered with colorful frescoes depicting 3500 figures.  While there we were treated to a concert by four choir members.  It was a moving and deeply spiritual moment in our journey.

Our last day on the Danube took us to the port of ConsIMG_2253tanta, Romania, the largest port on the Black Sea.  According to legend this is where Jason and the Argonauts landed after finding the Golden Fleece.  There we visited St. Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Roman ruins just outside.  Again, we were awed by the beauty and  antiquity.  We ended our day with our feet in the Black Sea.

 

Our trip concluded in Bucharest, Romania.  Along our journey we met amazing people. . .some have become friends, some provided us with glimpses into life in Eastern Europe, and some made us realize again that there are heroes all around us.

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New Life, New Love

Yapa.

Pronounced Yah-pah.

In Ecuador, you hear the word a lot—in the mercados, in local tiendas, in the panaderias. It’s a Quechua word that means “a little something extra,” a bonus, an unexpected gift. A couple of buns thrown in for free when you buy two loaves of bread.  A potato or two. A few extra shrimp. More than you bargained for. And always given with a smile.

After losing Rags three weeks ago, we knew we would honor our promise to him to love another animal because of all he meant to our lives. Our plan had been to wait a while, simply to give ourselves time to grieve our loss. However, a friend of ours told us an interesting story: When she moved to Ecuador, she had to leave her beloved dog behind. She asked that dog to send her another canine companion, trusting that it would be the right dog at the right time. That struck a chord with us, and so a week ago Friday, Pam asked Rags to send us the dog he wanted us to rescue. We did not expect an immediate answer.

But that Friday night, Pam dreamed that she walked into the living room and saw a dog sitting on the sofa. At first she thought it was Rags, but it was not. Then, on Saturday morning at a monthly bazaar, we had a chance encounter with a local dog trainer. Pam told him about losing Rags, and he said, “I have a dog that may be right for you.” He sent pictures, and we arranged to meet.

It was love at first sight. She was many of the things we said we were not looking for in another dog: We didn’t want another black dog. We wanted one a little smaller than Rags. We wanted a male. And yet…IMG_1225

Here she was. Black as night, knee high, 24 pounds, with a face as sweet as any you’ve ever seen. There was no doubt Rags had sent us this dog. In many ways she looks a little like Rags, and yet she is her own girl, with her own personality. It almost feels as if Rags has coached her on how to live with us. Because we feel that she is a bonus, a gift from Rags, we’ve called her Yapa.

Our friend Barbara said it well: The veil between the worlds is thin, and when we need it most, love comes to us from the other side. Love in the form of a Yapa.

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A Life Well Lived

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Life is filled with hellos and good-byes.  This morning we said good-bye to our beloved Rags.  It was the right time and the right thing to do, and yet our hearts are broken.

 

 

Rags was a prince among puppies, and he never let us forget it.  From his early days he had an attitude and he wasn’t afraid to use it.  He lived his life with the unwavering belief that as he loved all living creatures, so all living creatures loved him in return.  And as far as we could tell, he was right.

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Rags was quick to let us know if he wanted or needed something.  Mainly what he seemed to want was to just be with us, to share in whatever we were doing.  Going for walks, working in the garden, playing in the river, hiking in the woods, vacationing at the beach.

 

 

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But the biggest adventure of all was traveling with us to Ecuador.  From room service at the Atlanta Hilton to a first class seat with his own American Airlines blanket to his own chariot at the Guayaquil airport, Rags knew he deserved the best and usually got it.

 

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For all the changes in his life, Rags adjusted well.  He became a city dog, strutting along the streets of his new barrio, spending hours in the neighborhood parks, making friends along the way.  Even toward the end when Pam had to carry him much of the way to and from the parks, he relished being there, watching the children play, rolling in the grass, soaking up life with the equatorial sun.

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Rags was, above all, a lover.  He loved people, other animals, and life itself.  His belief that everyone was delighted to see him brought a smile from even the most reticent people.  He was a charmer.  As his grandmother said, “He made you love him.”

 

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As Rags’ joints degenerated,  he had to come to grips with his own limitations.  He was always a trooper, but the pain began to weigh on his spirit as well as his body.  We did everything we could to alleviate his pain, but a cure was not to be.  Thankfully, his last two days were filled with hours in the grass, organic roasted chicken to eat, and as much love as his heart could hold.

As we bid him farewell, we offer him into the arms of Love.  He will always live in our hearts, for we will always find him in the beauty and joy of life.  Sweet sleep, dear Rags.  Well lived, well loved.  We are grateful to have shared the journey.

DSCN8919In Memory of Rags
February 22, 2006 – July 9, 2016

 

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Jungle Boogie

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For the first time since moving to Ecuador we took a trip this past week to explore a part of our new country. We traveled with a group of about 30 people through the Andes into the jungle.  It was like visiting a different world.

 

IMG_0629On our first day in the area we drove to a small Shuar village.  There we were warmly greeted by the tribal chief and other tribe members with ritual dancing and ceremonial face painting for all of us.  We hiked a short distance up into the jungle to their sacred waterfall.  One of the tribesmen performed a ritual to honor the spirit of the waterfall and ask permission to enter the waters.   We were then invited to enter the pool and bathe in the waters.  Though many of our group chose not to get in the water, Pam and a few others swam underneath the sacred falls.  An experience of a lifetime.

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Once back in the village, we were treated to tribal dancing before bidding farewell to the Shuar people.

 

 

 

 

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On the second day of our journey we visited an amazing natural formation, a labyrinth of standing stones high in the forest.  The fossilized sea shells in the massive stones gave testimony to the fact that this area was once part of the ocean floor.

 

 

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The jungle harbors many mysteries, an amazing diversity of flora and fauna that have provided food and medicines for its dwellers for centuries. The strenuous hike up to the labyrinth and the treacherous journey down tested Penny’s limits, but she came through it all with a smile.

 

 

IMG_0778IMG_0781Our third and final day took us to an organic farm where we saw coffee and cacao growing.  We trooped through the pouring rain to learn about the growing of coffee and cacao plants.  The coffee is harvested by hand every 15 days.  We had never seen raw cacao.  We picked some to take back for hot chocolate and discovered how luscious fresh cocoa could be.

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After a delicious lunch, we  boarded our bus for the trek back through the Andes.  Until dark overtook us, we were mesmerized by the wonder of these ancient mountains. This may have been our first exploration of other parts of our adopted nation; it will certainly not be our last.

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Semana Santa

One of the things we most enjoy about our life in Cuenca is learning new customs, a new language (slowly!), and new traditions.  Our first Holy Week in Ecuador has introduced us to some customs that we have learned to embrace.  Rather than individual services in individual churches, the entire community participates in centuries-old rituals.

IMG_0060In Ecuador most holidays include special food, recipes handed down from one generation to another.  In and of itself, that is not so different from the traditions we all grew up with. What differs are the recipes.  For Semana Santa (Holy Week) Ecuadorians serve a delicious concoction called La Fanesca.  This tradition hails from Italy and Sicily, came to Spain through the conquistadors, and thus to Ecuador, Columbia, and Peru.

Although the exact IMG_0107recipe varies according to region, the main ingredients of this delectable soup are milk, salted codfish, seven types of grains, two species of corn, innumerable types of beans, several kinds of squash, peppers, cheese, peanuts, and boiled eggs.  We make no claim that this is a complete list of the ingredients!  If it sounds complex, we freely admit that we did not attempt this at home, but left it to professionals and enjoyed our meal in a lovely restaurant.

 

As with holidays in all places, ordinary life goes on.  We make room for special events even as we continue to shop in the mercados, paint the kitchen and dining room, walk along the river with Rags, and spend time with friends.  Life is rich indeed.IMG_0040IMG_0059

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0503On Maundy Thursday we laced up our walking shoes and participated in another Ecuadorian tradition of Holy Week.  We joined countless Ecuadorians on a trek around the city to visit and pray in seven churches.  This was not an organized group outing; rather it was a highly individual and private ritual done publicly with many others.  IMG_0078We began our pilgrimage at La Iglesia de Todos Santos, one of our favorite places in Cuenca.  Whether from the outside or the inside, this place touches our hearts, and so it seemed a good place to begin.

IMG_0093From Todos Santos we next went to Iglesia de las Conceptas, then onward to Iglesia de San Franscisco and Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion.  In El Centro, across from Parque Calderon, we spent time in the New Cathedral, the largest and most elaborate church in Cuenca.  We stopped in Iglesia de Santo Domingo before concluding our journey in the beautiful Iglesia de San Blas.   IMG_0118IMG_0095

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven churches, three miles, many prayers, a journey deeper into our own souls.

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