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Hola from Guayaquil & Cotocachi, Ecuador

This update was originally drafted in mid August, 2009.

Hola chicas y chicos!

Ecuador – Guayaquil
–  I went on a spontaneous road trip to see a free concert featuring Cuban legend Silvio Rodriquez with my friend Fanny. I met Fanny while volunteering at Punta Blanca for Fundacion Arena. We had a blast. This concert was one of the best I have ever been to. People between 20 and 60 filled the huge stadium, every one of them but me singing along to every song (I had just heard this music for the first time the week before , just before deciding to go to the concert). The crowd absolutely loved every moment. You can see it on their faces in my pics. At times they almost drowned out the performers, everyone just singing their hearts out. This concert was put on by the Ecuadorian government to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of independence from Spain, and all the musicians that played were top notch.

I really liked Guayaquil. More than I expected to. It felt less dangerous than Quito, and was much more modern. I kept getting told that people consider this city the Miami of South America. We met a young cab driver who became our personal chauffeur and tour guide for the whole weekend, so we saw a lot of the best Guayquil had to offer in a short period of time. The black market was particularly interesting. Thousands of pirated movies, computer software, music cds and more, openly sold in a market that spanned city blocks (pirating is not illegal in Ecuador, and is a thriving business).
Ecuador – Cotacachi and area -
I was here for a week for a travel writing and photography workshop. Every afternoon we went on really interesting outings to see things in the surrounding area.

One indigenous village has developed eco-friendly, self-sustaining ways to live, including using the Agavi Cactus in ways you may never have thought possible. They scrape out the fibres of the thick fleshy leaves and pound, coil, braid and weave them into surprisingly comfortable sandals. Who knew you could walk on cacti without pain. In fact, it was quite pleasant and cushy soft. You can use the foamy liquid that gets squeezed out of the leaves for industrial strength cleaner. With practice, you can also snap off the sharp spines at the tips of the agavi leaves leaving a long strand intact, using it as a natural needle and thread. If you roll the fibers enough to separate out a thin one, you can use it as dental floss. According to our tour guide, a group of Canadian dentists who visited earlier in the year went back and did tests and said these fibers are stronger than synthetic dental floss and just as flexible.

Another village we visited specializes in wood working and restoration work. One workshop we visited really captured my interest, so I took a ton of photos. They are famous for their painting and follow traditions of the Cusco School of Art, one of the most famous artesanal traditions in South America. In fact, this workshop has been around since that time (1680s) and had artesans taught by the most famous artists of the Cusco School. While we were there we saw restoration work being done on items for the Louvre and some of the most important churches in Europe. It was such a shock to see such intricate and gorgeous works of art in such a humble, dusty and jam packed place. A far cry from the pristine museum setting these pieces usually were housed in.

We saw all stages of their woodworking, including making glass eyes in planks of wood, and how they paint with gold leaf. Some of the statues looked so alive I caught myself excusing myself if I bumped into them, and I kept expecting one of them to burst into tears at any moment. They also had created a lot of modern art pieces, randomly stuffed into the spare spots on the walls between antiques. Some carvings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus looked like Dali and Picasso had just been in the room working on them.

Another village we visited specialized in making musical instruments. Apparently Ecuadorian instruments, especially guitars, are sought after by people from around the world for their high quality craftsmanship and because they are made with rare wood you can’t find anywhere else.
The house we visited was run by a family that had a long tradition of making panflutes out of bamboo, guitars out of wood and sometimes armadillo shells, rattles out of goats hooves and even full sized harps.

While we watched the eldest son whipped together a bamboo panflute in 7 minutes (I timed him) and played us a tune that sounded like it came froma professionally crafted instrument. It was hard to believe this flute had just been made moments before from cuts made to bamboo sticks picked upfrom the floor, corded string and a bit of thread. Then the family put on a concert for us, the daughters dancing and the sons playing drums, guitars and flutes, which was really impressive.
We were also treated to a dance by one of the leading professional dancers of Ecuador back at our luxurious hotel. Traditional Ecuadorian dance as he performed it reminded me of a cross between male belly dancing and ballet. Very graceful but strong, with a lot of raised arms and sweeping motions.

We didn’t suffer much of the usual traveling discomforts while taking this workshop course. The hotels we stayed in were all 4 or 5 star, and we had our own tour bus. The food was tasty and catered to the North American palate, with a lot of salads and vegetables and recognizable meat dishes like hamburgers, steak sandwiches and panfried trout.

When they served up traditional dishes, they did it with a North American twist, such as using quinoa (an ancient grain) in cakes (the locals don’t eat cake). Local favorites were served up with  such elegance and in such fancy dishes that even the least adventurous among those on the trip (a retired farmer from Conneticut) tried everything. When dished out of silver tureens with elegant ladels and eaten using  fine linen and classy cutlery, I guess it’s easier to try new and exotic things. One dish we had quite often was ceviche (raw, chopped fish marinated in lime juice and cilantro, in a tomato-sweet onion sauce), served with a side of hot Choclo (huge kernals from giant corn cobs that don’t pop when heated in oil, instead developing a nutty flavour) and popcorn. Even the BBQ’d cuy (guinea pig) served up one night looked enticing, with the tiny bodies perfectly and symetrically cut and laid out on a silver platter in tidy rows, like cornish game hens served at a banquet.

The crowning feast was the farewell dinner, held at a local 5 star spa resort, La Mirage. There were five courses in all. The third course arrived with great aplomb, with a team of white gloved waiters descending on each table in turn, at a ratio of one waiter per person being served. Each waiter carried a carved wooden box. The tinny, tinkling sound of  ’music box dancer’ tune grew louder as they neared. They placed a box in front of each person and lifted the lid, revealing a tiny plate with a scoop of salmon pate and home made crackers inside.People oohh and ahhed. The food was absolutely delcious, I have to say. I don’t know how the head chef made time to come out to each table to ask how the dishes were. It was one of the most elaborate and classiest meals I have ever had.

Earlier in the week we had spent an afternoon of indulgence at this spa resort, La Mirage, getting various massage treatments. The massage packages were based around themes, like the lavendar or algae treatments. I was tempted by the chocolate massage, but decided I preferred to eat it, not be rubbed down with it. Some of the massage packages featured rituals like the Eqyptian massage and the Shamanic massage. Each massage had its own special room complete with a fireplace and a whirlpool tub.

I ended up picking the Shamanic massage, but I don’t think I would have picked this one if I had known what would happen in advance. Like the ritual cleansing shaman ceremony we participated in the following day, there was a lot of chanting, spitting of alcohol, shaking of eggs, blowing of cigarette smoke, and getting whacked with clutches of  thorny brambles. I didn’t feel particularly cleansed, rather the opposite. At least the rest of the massage, involving a relaxing whirlpool soak in a rose petal tubful of hot water and a massage on a normal massage table using typical massage techniques, was nice and rejuvenating.

While I really enjoyed the afternoon outings and activities planned for us as part of this travel writing and photography course, what I like best was the hour of instruction each day from the professional travel writer  and photographer , including detailed instructions on using a program called LightRoom.

Next stop: Quito, Ecuador.

Bye for now,


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