Monday, June 19, 2017

Quito Layover Tour


I recently had a twelve hour layover in Quito, Ecuador's capital and second largest city. My initial plans were to read while at the Quito airport and not much else. My imagination had this layover seeming to last a very long twelve hours.

Instead of staying at the airport, I decided to go on a six hour tour with Tours Around Quito. With my flight arriving around Noon, the tour would take me right up to a few minutes before the 6:30 sunset.

Quito Airport Arrival

Gustavo Tupiza, who owns Tours Around Quito with his wife, Elizabeth, picked me up from the airport and we headed straight to the historic district, Centro Histórico.

It happened to be May 24, a national holiday, and the day of the presidential inauguration. We had to get into and out of the historic area before it closed to vehicle traffic at 4:00 for inauguration festivities. After parking, we began our walking tour on Calle la Ronda, a street that comes alive at night.
La Ronda Street in Quito
The cobblestone streets and pedestrian walkways meander between buildings constructed over several centuries.

Independence Square

Our first stop was Independence Square, where the presidential palace, Carondelet Palace, is located. Setup was underway for the festivities beginning in a few hours. Many folks had already staked out seating for the evening activities.
Independence Square with the presidential palace in background
Inset: Police patrols on foot and Segways
It struck me that, while there was a visible police presence, no one entering the area was searched nor funneled through metal detectors. I have never attended a presidential inauguration celebration in the US but I imagine that the attendees area all searched on their way into the area.

La Iglesía de la Compañía de Jesús

Gustavo explained that next we were going a short walk away to visit one of his childhood churches. The church exterior was stone with a massive wooden, gold inlaid door. Entering the church, The Church of the Society of Jesus in English, I paid a guest entrance fee and was told no photography of any kind was allowed inside.
La Iglesía de la Compañía de Jesús exterior
Inset: Entrance door
Shockingly beautiful, most of the interior of the church is made of gold. There are large original paintings on every interior pillar. Click here and here to see photos of the interior.

Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco

A few blocks away, the buildings of the Church, Convent, and Plaza of St. Francis cover three hectares and took nearly 150 years to complete, beginning in 1534. The plaza on this day was frequented by families feeding pigeons and friends chatting.
Church and Convent of St. Francis from the plaza
Again, no photography was allowed inside the church but you can click here for a photo. The church houses a 30 cm wooden sculpture of the beloved Virgin of Quito (1734) in the vestibule.

Virgin of Quito Statue

We left the historic district and drove up El Panecillo Hill to the base of the worlds largest replica of the Virgin of Quito, which can be seen from city.
Virgin of Quito Statue on El Panecillo hill overlooking Quito
(Click on photo to enlarge)
She overlooks the city and from her vantage point, you can clearly see where the historical district ends and the financial district begins. The buildings in the financial district are taller and newer.
View of Quito from the base of the statue
Historic district in foreground, financial district behind

Middle of the World Monument

Our next stops were devoted to the equator.

In 1936, a monument was built on the equator to celebrate the "middle of the world." The current 100 foot high monument replaced the original in 1979. What the builders did not know then was that when GPS technology was developed and used, the actual equator was a few hundred feet from the monument.
Middle of the World Monument

Intiñan Museum

If you want to visit the actual equator, head to the nearby Intiñan Museum, a privately owned park where 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds is found with a well calibrated GPS device. There, you can balance an egg on a nail, attempt to walk a straight line with the north and south hemispheres pulling you in each direction, and a few other activities that are fun for kids and adults alike.
Balancing an egg on a nail at the equator
Intiñan's exhibits include reproductions of some Amazon region vegetation and homes, an explanation of the head shrinking practice (with an actual shrunken head on display) and a solar museum.


I highly recommend Tours Around Quito. Gustavo is fully bilingual and provides day trips as well as muti-day tours around Ecuador. Making my tour even better was Gustavo's narration throughout the day. He is a history buff and loves sharing his knowledge with clients.

This was the perfect way to spend the time during my layover.

Have you ever taken a guided tour?

Monday, June 12, 2017

You've Got (No) Mail!

“I've always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.”
― Robert Michael Pyle, Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place 

Millions of people order products online every day simply by entering their address and payment information. Perhaps you are one of them. I used to be.

What would you do if you did not have home mail delivery or a post office box? I know the answer because I have neither. I can't order products online and have them delivered to my home. There is an upside to this...

I receive no junk mail! In fact, I receive no mail at all. Home mail delivery is not a standard practice here.

Ecuador does have a national postal system. A few years ago, they even assigned postal codes throughout the country.

Mail arrives in large cities daily and in smaller towns regularly. For example, it arrives in Puerto López every Wednesday.
Historic mailbox in Puerto López
Not in operation
People do send and receive packages, it just is not as simple as it was in the US.

Chasing packages
One Wednesday, I was chatting with a neighbor. The whole time, her son scanned the traffic in town. Mid-conversation, he yelled "mail truck!" My friend cut off our conversation and raced into town.
Friend's son watched for the mail truck from up here
She had been waiting for a package and missed the mail truck the previous two weeks. The sender had addressed it to "Her name, Puerto López, Manabí Province." The mail truck drove into and out of town with the package until she flagged it down during it's rounds.

Sending packages
Many people use buses to transport packages. Let's say Maria in Guayaquil wants to send a package to Emily in Puerto López several hours away. Maria takes the package to the Guayaquil bus terminal and pays them to transport it. Emily goes to the Puerto López bus terminal and picks up her package.

There are a few private company options, too. Servientrega has offices in many towns, including Puerto López. We have sent documents within Ecuador through Servientrega.

DHL has offices in larger cities. We have never used DHL in Ecuador but a few friends have.

Outgoing letters
The nearest post office to Puerto López is over an hour away. Some hotels will take mail, as long as it is stamped. Buying stamps is another story.

If you have the correct postage, you can simply look for an outgoing mailbox. I once dropped some postcards into one of these and they were delivered in the US a few weeks later.
Outgoing mailbox
Bills and bank statementsWhat about bills? I go to the electric company each month and pay the bill. They tell me what is owed. It is the same with other utilities. Some utilities will accept automatic payments from a bank account but not all.

Our bank provides online bank statements, available for only six months. Forget to download statements for seven months? Too bad, you are now missing a bank statement.

International mail
When we moved to Ecuador in 2013, we had heard about people never receiving packages. Others told us about import customs fees higher than the value of the product. We waited until those stories diminished before trying it ourselves.

Two years into living in Ecuador, we wanted to receive a package from the United States. A local restaurant allowed us to use their address, which looked a lot like this:

Restaurant Name
Diagonally across from the fire department
Presidential Avenue and First Street
Puerto López, Manabí, Ecuador

Six weeks after the package was sent, we had it in our hands. Our package was within strict import guidelines so we only had to pay a $1 fee. Since that success, we have received a few pieces of mail at the restaurant.

I sometimes see something online I would like and think how nice it would be to order it and have it arrive at my home. Overall though, I do not miss receiving home mail delivery all that much. Especially junk mail.

What would you miss most if you did not have home mail delivery?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Living History - Agua Blanca

Ecotourism: Tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. 
-- Oxford Living Dictionaries

Agua Blanca is a friendly historic community five minutes northeast of Puerto López. Some residents are direct descendants of the Manteño civilization, who lived here between 800 and 1532 A.D.

Community members keep their history alive with their lifestyle. They enjoy sharing their history with the public via tourism and a full time archaeology project in which anyone can participate. I wrote about my digging day here.

The small community has several hundred residents and several thousand goats. The goats wander around everywhere except crop fields, where they are fenced out, and inside buildings.
Goats can go anywhere except where crops are grown
Agua Blanca was one of the first Ecuadorian coastal communities to embrace ecotourism in the 1980's.

A $5 tourist entrance fee is the primary income source for the community. The fee includes entrance to a museum, a guided two hour tour, the sulfur laguna, and many areas you can explore on your own. Horseback rides, massages, archaeology dig participation, and other add-ons can be arranged as desired for additional fees.

The guided tour begins in the town center, featuring a church, museum, restaurant, and general store. The museum is full of historical artifacts and placards in English and Spanish. Portraits of living direct descendants are on the walls. When my mom and I toured, our guide was one of the descendants.
Museum is full of artifacts and informational placards
Photos of living descendants on top
Knives, hunting, fishing, and cooking tools are on display. Jars are filled with fermenting insects, lizards and snakes. Urns contain bones arranged as they were found after their second burial. Bodies were buried and ceremonially dug up later. The bones were placed into urns, often with other loved ones, and re-buried.
Remains of two adults in a broken burial urn
The tour then goes through the countryside, meandering alongside fields, pigs, chickens, goats, and archaeology sites. Guides stop to point out crops, homes, birds, nests, dens, and creatures as you go.

Hand farmed fields produce the community's vegetables and fruits. Bee keeping produces honey, sold on-site.
Home surrounded by fruit trees and vegetables
As the tour comes to a close, the volcanic spring-fed sulfur laguna comes into view. Cups of good-for-your-skin sulfuric mud await. Smear the mud on your body and face then hang out watching hummingbirds and butterflies while it dries.

A soak in the warm sulfur laguna pool to soak up more skin nutrients is next. Then an outdoor shower to rinse off any remaining mud and skin is left feeling baby soft and smooth for days.
Soaking in the sulfur laguna
Massages available with prior arrangement are enjoyed next to the laguna. Across the road from the laguna are restaurants featuring empanadas, corviches, juice and beer.
Restaurant by sulfur laguna
A short walk brings you back to the village center. If you did not eat at the laguna, the restaurant here serves highly recommended goat stew.

If you are not driving, I recommend taking a taxi to Agua Blanca, then have them pick you up several hours later. Otherwise a 5 minute bus ride from Puerto López followed by a 5 km (3 mile) walk in the sun takes you from to the main road to the village center.

Would you smear sulfur rich mud on your body and soak in the laguna?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Cuenca's Seven Acre Market - Feria Libre

"Wherever possible, I like to use home-grown or locally produced ingredients."
-- Mary Berry

Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site for its beautiful historic buildings. Ecuador's third largest city, Cuenca is 2500 meters (8200 feet) high in the Andes mountains. With tourists focused on architecture, it is easy for them to miss what could be a highlight of their trip.

In my opinion, the Feria Libre seven acre market is a must see. People travel from miles around to buy and sell goods. It even has it's own bus terminal. Buyers know this is where they will find the lowest prices. Entrepreneurs rent space knowing good products will move quickly.

While it is open every day, Saturdays and Wednesdays are the busiest. More people come those days, knowing the most products are available. Vibrant colors and numerous aromas fill the senses from all around.

The produce sections encompass areas surrounding the building exterior as well as large areas within them.
Neatly arranged produce at an indoor vendor
The vibrant produce colors are eye-catching in every display.
Vibrant colors at an outdoor vendor
Some vendors specialize in one product, like this potato vendor...
Potato vendor
And this banana vendor.
Most have a wide variety.
Produce everywhere
Interspersed throughout the market are flower vendors.
Local woman buying flowers
There are beef, pork, and poultry areas. All kinds of sausages are for sale. Fresh fish from local streams and seafood driven up from the coast are available. We were surprised that the seafood was priced almost the same as on the coast.
Fresh fish and seafood
An outdoor section hosts live animals for sale. They include chickens, guinea pigs, crabs, bunnies, puppies, kittens and parrots. The chickens pictured below lay colorful eggs (inset), which the vendor had for sale as well.
Chickens and their eggs, both for sale
Live crabs from the coast are sold near the outdoor live animal area, not the indoor seafood area.
Live crabs for sale
I almost don't want to tell you that guinea pigs are not pets in Ecuador. They are food. I have not tried them. The puppies, kittens, and parrots ARE pets.
Guinea pigs for sale
Back inside, many bulk products are for sale including spices, beans, grains, and corns. Cooking oils, honey, flour, sugars, coffee, and chocolate.
Various corns and beans
Several types of homemade pastas are available.
Bulk pasta
Another huge section has household goods, clothing, and shoes. Haircuts are also provided near this area.
Clothing, cookware, plastics, shoes
Woven baskets, fans, and shopping bags are mixed with wooden utensils and pottery since this vendor sells them all.
It is not easy keeping baskets neatly displayed
If one needs some nourishment, there are food counters with a variety of soups, juices and quick foods.
Food counter
Near the main entrance / exit, many vendors call out the price for the items they are currently carrying. Heard on this day: "five avocados, one dollar" and "three tomatoes, fifty cents."

Tomato vendor in center of photo
Exit into the parking lot and find vendors selling baskets of items that you might have missed inside.
Feria Libre parking lot vendors
Many people come to Cuenca for the historic architecture. I recommend a trip to Feria Libre as well.

Is there a local market near you where entrepreneurs sell their products?

Friday, May 26, 2017

#WATWB - Clean Drinking Water

This is my first post for the We Are The World Blogfest, which occurs on the last Friday of every month.

I chose a story I wrote about a man providing clean drinking water to thousands in coastal Ecuador.

A few weeks after the April 16, 2016 7.8 Ecuador earthquake, Tennessee pastor Gary Vance arrived in Puerto López. He had a suitcase full of water filters and a plan - provide clean drinking water for those who needed it.
Installed water filter post-earthquake, Ecuador
Photo courtesy of Gary Vance
Gary has made six trips to Ecuador since the earthquake, spent 88 days in country, delivered 1000 filters, and documented over 5000 people who have gained filtered water.

Update since the original story
Gary is now Ecuador on his seventh trip since the earthquake. This time, he brought two scientists from the University of North Alabama. They are testing water for any dangerous compounds to ensure that the installed filters are working as expected.
Dr. Amanda Coffman and her husband Derrick in Ecuador testing water
Photo courtesy of Gary Vance
Gary is proof that one man can make a huge difference in people's lives!  I encourage you to visit his Tears2Water charity to learn more. Like Tears2Water on Facebook for real-time updates and additional photos.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

We Are The World Blogfest

I will be participating in the We Are The World Blogfest on the last Friday of each month.

What is the #WATWB?
Social media and news in recent times has been filled with hate and negativity. Just as you cannot fight darkness, only light lamps, Hate and Negativity cannot be fought. You need to bring Love and Positivity forward instead.

If you’re tired of negativity and strife on blogs and social media, check out the We Are the World Blogfest!

I bring to you the We Are the World Blogfest, along with these fabulous co-hosts:
Belinda Witzenhausen, Carol Walsh, Chrissie Parker, Damyanti Biswas, Eric Lahti, Kate Powell, Lynn Hallbrooks, Mary Giese, Michelle Wallace, Peter Nena, Roshan Radhakrishnan, Simon Falk, Susan Scott, Sylvia Stein, Sylvia McGrath , Inderpreet Kaur Uppal

“We Are the World Blogfest” seeks to promote positive news. There are many cases of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world.

We will link to charities supported by the co-hosts, and you could choose to donate to some of them or add links to local charities you support, so we could all chip in to a good cause if we like.

Let us flood social media with peace and love, and “In Darkness, Be Light.” The first post for We Are The World Blogfest was on the 31st March 2017.

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.
2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity, and brotherhood. Something like this news, about a man who only fosters terminally ill children.
3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.
4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.
5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.
6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rain in the Classroom

"We get rained on while sitting at our desks."
-- Augustine, high school student in Puerto López

A friend asked if we could help a Puerto López student, Augustine, with his leaky classroom roof.

Augustine gave us a school tour and explained the issue - students unlucky enough to sit under holes in the roof get wet during rains. They remove their books so they don't ruin them. Government funding was not available because the school was slated to be replaced.
Roof in need of repair
I wondered how could anyone learn in that environment.
Augustine and his classmates had been working on the roof issue for some time. They lobbied their parents. Each family contributed $3 toward the cause and could afford no more. The students bought new roofing material, planning to patch the roof themselves.
Roofing material on the floor waiting for an installation expert
They had no roofing expertise. None of their families had construction experience. These were fishing families. If it were a leaking boat or damaged fishing net, they might be the right people. But this was neither.

The students spent a Saturday trying to figure out how to fix the roof. They stood on the roof and stood on the ground. They held up the material and set it back down. Finally, they went home. They were stuck.

The students viewed Augustine as their leader because he was the oldest. By far. As a 24 year old 10th grader, he was their adult representative as well as their classmate. The school trusted him enough that he had keys to the school gate and the classroom.

After he completed 9th grade, Augustine's father fell ill. Augustine quit school to take his father's place as the family's primary wage earner. Years later when he was healthy, the father insisted the son finish his education.

It was now Augustine's responsibility to find someone to help with the roof. He talked to several construction experts. The lowest quote he obtained was for two roofers working two full days. He dreaded telling his classmates they couldn't afford the roof repairs.

He mentioned his frustration to our mutual friend, who recruited us and two other couples to help. We hired Angel, a construction expert we knew who said it would take no more than one day as long as Augustine helped.
Angel and Augustine on the classroom roof
Angel, Augustine, my husband and I spent a morning repairing the roof. We used the materials Augustine and his classmates had purchased. Once the materials were installed, some cracks remained in the old roofing material. Angel ran to town and bought silicone caulk and a caulking gun.
Angel on plank demonstrating how to caulk
Angel demonstrated how to caulk, then Augustine sealed cracks to prevent new leaks.
Augustine perfecting his caulking technique
The total bill for us and the other couples was $27. That's $9 per couple to provide students a dry classroom.

Augustine was thankful that Angel allowed him to be his shadow. Angel was thankful that Augustine was willing to learn anything that involved heights and wobbly planks. We and the other couples who hired Angel were thankful that Augustine mentioned this issue to our friend.

Everyone involved was proud of Augustine and impressed that he was getting his education and setting a great example.

How does this classroom differ from the ones you had?