in print: national geographic traveller

These are just a few of the things that I love: Latin America, photography, travel, nature, and culture.  They all came together for an article I recently did for National Geographic Traveller (UK).  The issue is dedicated to South America, and the photos come from Ecuador and Colombia.  It was great fun to relive some of my trips to these countries as I looked for images that speak to some of the iconic places to visit and things to do when visiting there.  It’s on newsstands now, so if you find yourself in the UK, pick up a copy!  For the rest of you, here’s a peek at the layout.

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the cost of what is lost (in translation)

When was the last time you thought about language? Being able to communicate with others we encounter is of critical importance on any given day.  Language itself, however, is not something many of us consider outside the realms of academics or literature until we are beyond the boundaries of our own tongue. Travelers often have to rely on hand gestures, humility, and faith that messages are understood when in a foreign place. This is something I was recently reminded of at a Vietnamese train station. I was able to find the right train but have no idea what details were lost in the process of seeking directions. The lack of understanding is compounded when you’re not only dealing with a different tongue but also a different alphabet.  When visiting a foreign country, learning the requisite “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Please,” and “Where is the toilet?” is very important but will only get you so far. (Though I have seen how stumbling through “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese before Tet is sure to bring a smile to local faces. Small efforts almost always bring great rewards.) Yes, a certain level of misunderstanding is to be expected in travel.

No parking? Do not enter? When traveling to Cambodia, where the alphabet is different, I was not only not able to read the signs but could not sound them out to ask others what they meant either. It is a humbling experience. Thankfully helpful people exist all over the world, so I was able to get by without being able to read the signs.

No parking? Do not enter? When traveling to Cambodia, where the alphabet is different, I was not only not able to read the signs but could not sound the words out to ask others what they meant either. It is a humbling experience. Thankfully helpful people exist all over the world, so I was able to get by without being able to read the signs.

Our world is encapsulated in an intricate web of words that has shaped our history and defines our present existence. One of the grave consequences of the age of globalization is the loss of languages in cultures worldwide. How do people navigate the language differences within a community or home as a modern language becomes the dominant one? It’s not just the ability to have a discussion that dies with this decline. There is also a disconnect from heritage and environment that is at some point irreparable.

While none of us are immune, indigenous peoples run the greatest risk of this loss as they become more connected with roads, devices, and the lure of cities for building a different life for their youth. Thankfully there are people dedicated to the importance of words and who are working to preserve some of these languages and the deeper meanings that are connected to them.

A young Waorani girl outside her home in Guiyero. She will no doubt see many changes to her village and way of life as she grows.

A young Waorani girl outside her home in Guiyero. She will no doubt see many changes to her village and way of life as she grows.

The Yasuní region of Ecuador is a region undergoing rapid change. The Waorani that live there are varied in their level of contact with the outside world. Some are completely isolated from modern culture, living as they have for centuries. On the other side of the spectrum are the villages along the “Via Auca,” an oil road built in the 1950’s that brought with it modern conveniences, medical care, industrialized foods, and eventually, tourism. Between these two extremes, there are communities working on the transition that is sure to come. Last summer I visited three of these villages, Guiyero, Ganketapare, and Timpoka, that lie along a road built in the 1990’s. The way of life in these villages is a hybrid, though mostly traditional one. Spanish is widely spoken but is freely interchanged with the native Wao Tededo. Hunting is done with guns as well as blowguns and spears. Western clothes and cell phones are a reality. Tourism is certainly on its way but has not yet arrived. This is a tremendous time of transition and opportunity for the Waorani people.

The Waorani village of Guiyero, like the culture itself is evolving. Traditional straw structures stand next to more modern buildings.

The Waorani village of Guiyero, like the culture itself is evolving. Traditional straw structures stand next to modern buildings.

I was in this area with Megan Westervelt who has been working with the Waorani since August 2014. With cameras on loan from Ohio University, she has provided these communities with a visual voice. As she teaches them about composition and some basic technical aspects of photography, she also talks of how to tell a story about their lives through images. During my short visit, people from the communities met with us daily to work with the cameras and look at photos. Nods and chatter filled the room as they talked about the different stories they could tell. Our discussions with the group centered around parts of their lives that may seem mundane or normal to them but are unique to their culture. (The challenge of showing “normal” moments in a way that is interesting is one that many a photographer has faced.) The resulting images were soulful and intimate. Megan and these communities compiled the images, and with the support of several groups in Ecuador and a successful Kickstarter campaign, they were showcased in Wao Mimo: Yasuní Bajo el Lente Waorani, an exhibit that traveled to Quito and Coca last fall.

Megan Westervelt talks to a group of Waorani about elements in a photo essay. She has encouraged these communities to tell their stories through photography as a way to share their unique ways of life and to bring in the transition they are experiencing consciously.

Megan Westervelt talks to a group of Waorani about elements in a photo essay. She has encouraged these communities to tell their stories through photography as a way to share their unique ways of life with others.

During the time that Megan has worked with the communities in the Yasuní, she has fostered relationships with the Waorani, not only taking on the role of teacher and advocate, but of friend.

During the time that Megan has worked with the communities in the Yasuní, she has fostered relationships with the Waorani, not only taking on the role of teacher and advocate, but of friend.

While we were visiting the communities in the Yasuní, I met Marleen Haboud, a professor of linguistics from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) and director of Oralidad Modernidad. She works with minority groups to help them to preserve and revitalize their native language. The projects she’s involved with are multi-faceted and include mapping changes in language over generations as they evolve from the native tongue, to Quechua, and eventually Spanish. In some homes she has met families where grandparents have no way to communicate with their grandchildren because there are three distinct languages spoken. Verbal understanding lost in three generations…under one roof. It is a tragic byproduct of progress.

Marleen Haboud and Juan Carlos Armejos talk to a group of Waorani about the work that she has done with other tribes in Ecuador.

Marleen Haboud and Juan Carlos Armijos talk to a group of Waorani about the work that she has done with other tribes in Ecuador.

Wampi Humberto Ahua, a Waorani elder and the leader of the community,  tells a story about hunting to the group. These stories are filmed so they can be translated and eventually become material for animated films that will be given back to the community.

Wampi Humberto Ahua, a Waorani elder and the leader of the community, tells a story about hunting to the group. These stories are filmed so they can be translated and eventually become material for animated films that will be given back to the community.

Marleen’s work extends beyond words. She works with the stories told in these cultures in an effort to preserve heritage along with language. One facet of the work, Así Dicen Mis Abuelos (So my Grandparents Say), is a collaboration with her filmmaker daughter. I was able to witness the beginning of this process in action. Dozens of Waorani gathered in a room. Elders in the community were asked to come forward and tell a story. As they talked, they inevitably became animated while everyone watched and listened, gathered on the floor and in chairs around them. Marleen and her team filmed the storytelling. As I listened to words I could not understand, my mind pictured stories like these being told in villages for centuries, around campfires or while doing daily tasks. With the plotlines fresh in their minds, the Waorani gathered in groups to illustrate the stories. It is very important for Marleen to know what aspects of the stories look like visually for each tribe she works with. On this particular day, one man’s story was about hunting with a blow gun. Without the drawings to accompany the words, it would be difficult to know exactly what Waorani darts and blowguns look like, a key detail in getting the story right. With the recordings and illustrations in tow, Marleen and her daughter work with representatives from the villages to help with translation. The final products include animated films and books depicting the story in Wao Tededo (in this case) with Spanish subtitles. These resources are given back to the communities and serve as an invaluable tool for educating their children in both the content of the stories and the language. The beauty of this exercise was not just in what was being produced but also in the spirit of community and sharing that grew as people from several generations talked, drew, and laughed together.

After elders told their stories, Omaca Gloria Irumenga and others in the room began to draw them.  These illustrations are valuable tools to help Marleen produce resources to give back to the community in the form of animated films.

After elders told their stories, Omaca Gloria Irumenga joined others in the room drawing their interpretations of the tales. These illustrations are valuable tools to help Marleen produce resources to give back to the community in the form of animated films.

I could write multiple posts about the work that both Megan and Marleen are doing in Ecuador. What I witnessed was only a few short days, a small glimpse into labors of passion that no doubt will continue for the span of their lifetimes. They certainly have huge challenges ahead, but I believe their impact is taking root in these villages as young and old take pride in who they are, where they come from, and the importance of keeping some of that heritage alive.

It is clear that the intentions of these two women are not to keep the modern world away from the Waorani. Often when I travel with groups of tourists to indigenous villages, comments arise about how strange it is that the people there have cell phones or TVs. Isn’t it natural that these luxuries would be attractive to them? Dismay that people enjoy modern conveniences because of the quaint or romanticized images we, as travelers from first-world countries, have in our minds about their culture is short-sighted and self-centered. Expecting them to stay as they have been historically is no different than wanting to put them behind glass, on a shelf in a museum, frozen in time. No, the goal in these projects is rather helping the Waorani to recognize their uniqueness, with their language and their ways of life, while their communities welcome the 21st under their own terms.

Preserving culture by giving people voices through the arts: photography and drawing are two ways that Megan and Marleen are working with the Waorani to tell their story.

Preserving culture by giving people voices through the arts: photography and drawing are two ways that Megan and Marleen are working with the Waorani to tell their story. Carolina Ahua’s (L) photographs were included in the Wao Mimo exhibit in Quito and Coca. Wampi Humberto Ahua (R) draws a detail of the darts he mentioned in the story he shared with the group.

In the months since my visit to the Yasuní, ideas about language and culture have swirled in my mind. (I hesitate even now, putting words to this since much of it is at best half-baked.) I’ve visited with members from Haida (Haida Gwaii, British Columbia) and Tlingit (Alaska) tribes who are going to great lengths to learn the tongue of their ancestors and carry on the knowledge that has long been known in their culture. Friends who work with Native Americans have told me of the gravity in elders’ voices as they describe all that is lost when words are lost. In one tribe, an elder explained that a tree might be “tree’ in English, but in their native tongue there are numerous words used, each that carries a significant meaning associated with its role in the environment.  All of that meaning disappears when “tree” is used instead.

For centuries, the people of Haida Gwaii have spread knowledge through stories.  These originated in nature and were told through art.  Today, Linda Tollas (L) helped design the Spirit Lake Trail and educates visitors in regards to native use of the forests, for food and medicine.  (R) Christian White continues his family's heritage of telling stories through art, included totem poles.

For centuries, the people of Haida Gwaii have spread knowledge through stories.  These originated in nature and were told through art.  Today, Linda Tollas (L), who helped design the Spirit Lake Trail near Queen Charlotte City, educates visitors in regards to native use of the forests, for food and medicine.  Christian White (R) continues his family’s heritage of telling stories through art in Old Masset.

We don’t have to look to another group of people to see the ramifications of this concept. Every year, words are officially added and removed from dictionaries as they become relevant or obscure in modern culture. Last year in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, MP3 player and blog were added while heron and mistletoe were removed.  While a children’s dictionary is not an official lexicon, it does speak to where we are headed. Aside from pocket groups, how many in my generation understand the words associated with growing, harvesting, and canning food, darning socks, or sewing, much less how to put them to use? How many in the next generation will know how to read a map or cook without a microwave?  Our world is rapidly changing, and as it does, the way in which we relate to each other is morphing too. Are we taking the time to think about what parts of our own culture are worth holding onto in the process of our evolution? Who are the Megan’s and Marleen’s speaking out for all of us?

yasuní

Thick clouds hung low over the canopy at sunrise but did not diminish the view from the observation tower.

Thick clouds hung low over the canopy at sunrise but did not diminish the view from the observation tower.

It’s not easy to get to the Yasuní National Park in northeastern Ecuador. Usually it takes ~8 hours to drive from Quito to Pompeya, take a water taxi across the Napo River, and drive the final hour and a half down a mostly unpaved road to the Estación Científica Yasuní. There are times though, like during my recent visit, where this trip takes two days. Three routes link Ecuador’s capital city with one of the world’s most diverse natural treasures. When I was traveling to the Yasuní, two of the three were closed due to landslides, causing our long detour. Just a few days after my arrival there, all three routes would be blocked, leaving air travel as the only way to get from one to the other.

While my trip was long and tiring, it seemed appropriate. Shouldn’t the jungle that is the most biologically diverse place on our planet and the home of several untouched tribes be a challenge to access? Isn’t its remoteness why it is still as rich in resources as it is, for now?

The Yasuní Research Station sits on the bank of the Tiputini River.

La Estación Científica Yasuní sits on the bank of the Tiputini River.

Tourism has been a reality in parts of the Yasuní for years, but that is not the area that I was going to.  The road we traveled on was cut through undeveloped forest in the 1990’s. While it’s primarily an active oilfield road (a complicated topic for another day), it also links a small number of Waorani villages and provides access to a few research stations, including where we stayed.  The other travelers that I met were an international mix of researchers either working with the Waorani communities or on biological studies in the jungle.

The road that cuts through the Waorani village of Guiyero was built in the 1990s.

The road that cuts through the Waorani village of Guiyero was built in the 1990s.

A semi-domesticated tapir would at times come through the research station with her offspring.

A semi-domesticated tapir at times comes through the research station, as she did with her calves during my visit.

I was traveling with Megan Westervelt, a fellow photographer that I met in 2008 at the beginning of her photographic journey. Since then she has blossomed as a photographer and fallen in love with Ecuadorian culture. Last year she earned a Fulbright Grant to investigate conservation efforts in the Yasuní. As she spent more time in the area her focus shifted toward the people that she met living there. Her current project, and the reason for my visit, involves teaching interested Waorani communities photography so that they can tell their stories, and preserve their heritage, while modernization works its quick magic on their culture right before their eyes. My experience with this project will be featured in an upcoming post. For now, the jungle.

There’s nothing like the sounds of a tropical rainforest. By day the air is filled with insect- and birdsong. Night sweeps in, and a crescendo is reached as the symphony of insects and frogs take center stage. I could have laid in a hammock and soaked up those sounds for days.

I loved the graceful shapes of the rainforest, including this undulating species of Bauhinia and the delicate dangling nests of the oropendola that hung from many trees.

I loved the graceful shapes of the rainforest, including this undulating species of Bauhinia and the delicate dangling nests of the oropendola that hung from many trees.

Even though I was there to work on a specific project, I was able to make it out into the jungle on a few outings. Early one morning I met a local Waorani guide, Gabo, to hike up to an observation tower to watch the sunrise. The world was dark and quiet as we ascended God-only-knows how many rungs up a metal ladder to the top of the canopy. There we waited, and the jungle, like clockwork, came alive. Gabo named off the bird, sapo and monkey calls as they chimed in. Being an active hunter for his family (with a blowgun for monkeys and a lance for larger animals), Gabo began to call the monkeys, to which they immediately responded. So when he asked if I wanted to go looking for them, of course I said yes. Within minutes we were bushwhacking through the jungle. It didn’t take long for him to come to a tree where nocturnal monkeys were asleep at the top, and which he woke up to make sure I’d seen them. We had to look a little more for the others. Something would cause Gabo to stop, listen, and sometimes make a call, before deciding which direction to walk. Before we made it back to the main road, we had found three different species of monkeys. Our last stop was under a tree where hundreds of squirrel monkeys scurried overhead.

Squirrel monkeys (locally called payasos) scurried in huge numbers along branches, sometimes taking giant leaps between trees.

Squirrel monkeys (locally called payasos) scurried in huge numbers along branches, sometimes taking giant leaps between trees.

Gabo would frequently pause to listen and call to monkeys as he tracked them.

Gabo would frequently pause to listen and call to monkeys as he tracked them.

A few days later, a small group of us went out for a day on the Tiputini River. Any visit to this area of Ecuador should be seen from a boat. And there’s no substitute for having the expert eyes of locals on board with you. I still have no idea how Nonge and German saw some of what they spotted during our trip on the river. The biggest surprise was the well-hidden sleeping green anaconda that German spotted as we were speeding upriver. In order to get a good look, we tied our very long and narrow boat to a tree upriver and drifted back. Nonge, in the back, held on to the limb the snake was coiled around. I had lean out of the boat a bit on the opposite side because we were too close for my lens to focus. Needless to say, this was much closer than I’d ever expected to be near one of these large snakes in the wild! Watching it gracefully wrapped around the tree limb naturally birthed questions about where the head was. In response, Nonge began to shake the limb and splash water on the snake to try to give us an answer. As much as I would have loved to have seen the face of that snake, I was relieved that it kept sleeping.  The torrential rains that came every day unleashed on us as we made our final stretch back to the research station.

A green anaconda sleeps on a branch overhanging the Tiputini River.

A green anaconda sleeps on a branch overhanging the Tiputini River.

Nonge does his best to outrun an approaching storm on the Tiputini River. We were drenched by the end of our outing, but happy nonetheless.

Nonge does his best to outrun an approaching storm on the Tiputini River. We were drenched by the end of our outing, but happy nonetheless.

Being that close to one of the world’s longest snakes, hearing stories about researchers being struck by vipers and swarmed by insects while sampling, and seeing an hours-old jaguar print the size of a man’s hand as we walked through the dense forest, were just some of the reminders of how dangerous tropical rainforests can be. Thankfully just like any other wild place, for those willing to venture out into them, the beauty of it all is powerful enough to transform any fear into a deep, raw, and intoxicating respect.

The ivory-billed Aracari was one of the many incredible birds I saw.

The ivory-billed Aracari, a relative to toucans, was one of the many incredible birds I saw during my short visit to the Yasuní.

 

 

 

nightlights

Northern Lights, Ketchikan, Alaska, May 2015, on the National Geographic Sea Lion

Northern Lights, Ketchikan, Alaska, May 2015, on the National Geographic Sea Lion

At the bookends of the Northern Hemisphere,
Two ships sail through calm waters,
Different voyages exploring two of Earth’s numerous natural treasures.
Two nights, almost exactly a month apart, open with clear starry skies.
Yes, stars do produce a spectacular celestial show on their own,
But on these two nights, they were but a prelude for what was to come.
In the darkness, a light…
Not the moon, nor the wish-inspiring path of a shooting star.
In the north, colliding particles in the atmosphere birth tiny bursts of light
Creating dancing ribbons of green and red over the lights of Ketchikan.
On the Equator, hot molten earth bursts from a volcano,
Its red flow producing a glowing ribbon of its own over the land.
Displays like these don’t last forever.
As clouds roll in, the sun rises, and lava hardens into a cold blackness,
The shows come to a close.
But they live on, painted in their fleeting splendor,
Forever on display in the depths of my memory.

Eruption of Wolf Volcano, Galapagos Islands, June 2015, on the National Geographic Endeavour

Eruption of Wolf Volcano, Galapagos Islands, June 2015, on the National Geographic Endeavour

the actions of many

There are numerous reasons that the Galapagos is one of the exceptional places on this planet. One of them of course, is the wildlife. It is impossible to not be in awe of the multitude of animals that we encounter every week.

Common dolphins swim alongside the ship early one morning.

Common dolphins swim alongside the ship early one morning.

Marine iguanas warm themselves on the lava flow of Fernandina Island.

Marine iguanas warm themselves on the lava flow of Fernandina Island.

During nesting season, numerous marine iguanas prepare burrows in the sand in which to lay their eggs on Fernandina Island.

During nesting season, numerous marine iguanas prepare burrows in the sand in which to lay their eggs on Fernandina Island.

Nests of Pacific green sea turtles dot the upper beach on Isabela Island.

Nests of Pacific green sea turtles dot the upper beach on Isabela Island.

But the animals are only part of the experience here. There is an incredible team of people on board the National Geographic Endeavour that make each expedition a success. It is a pleasure to work with people who have such passion for the place that they call home.

Zodiac drivers wait for to take groups back to the ship after an outing on Fernandina Island.

Staff members wait for to take groups back to the ship after an outing on Fernandina Island.

Zodiac drivers like Nelson take groups from the ship to the islands and back every day.

Zodiac drivers like Nelson take groups from the ship to the islands and back every day.

Aura Banda, a naturalist on the Endeavour speaks to a group of passengers on Rabida Island.

Aura Banda, a naturalist on the Endeavour speaks to a group of passengers on Rabida Island.

Greg Arenea (l) and Fernando Sanchez (r) are two of the gifted naturalists on board the Endeavour.

Greg Aranea (l) and Fernando Sanchez (r) are two of the gifted naturalists on board the Endeavour.

There are moments where I laugh out loud as I think about how fortunate I am to know these islands, animals, and people as well as I do. Yes, it is hard work. The days are long, and I am often exhausted on the return flight home. However, in the midst of it all, as sun sinks over the horizon, I breathe in gratitude for the gift of each day and for all that contributed to making it special.

The sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, ending another beautiful day in the Galapagos.

The sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, ending another beautiful day in the Galapagos.

a rare opportunity

It is not often that I get to visit people who pass before my camera after our session together.  In 2011, I photographed a young Ecuadorian artist at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market as a part of the Mentor to Market program that supports first time artists at the market.  Maria Balvina Contento is part of La Mega Cooperativa Artenisal de los Saraguros in Saraguro, Ecuador.  Numerous indigenous women from that area make stunning jewelry for exporting to the US through markets in Santa Fe and Dallas.  They are particularly known for their beaded necklaces.  Each year a different woman represents the group at these markets; Maria was the first artist to make the journey from the cooperative.

    Maria attended the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in 2011 where she showcased the jewelery made by the La Mega Women's Cooperative in Saraguro, Ecuador.

Maria attended the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in 2011 where she showcased the jewelery made by La Mega Cooperativa in Saraguro, Ecuador.

When I began planning my extended stay in Cuenca, a visit to Saraguro was quickly added to the list.  Since our photo shoot in Santa Fe, I have been in contact with Linda, the woman who translates for the ladies at the markets, via email, visits at the markets in more recent years, and one surprise visit when we were by chance at adjacent gates in the Quito airport.  Needless to say, it did not take long for me to be in touch with Maria in Saraguro once I told Linda that I was in the area.  Likewise, it didn’t take long for Maria to insist that I not stay in a local hostel but spend the night in her home with her family.

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The view from Maria’s home is beautiful in all directions.

Saraguro is a small village south of Cuenca.  Throughout Ecuador you will find women in traditional dress, but here they were in the majority.  Women wear wool skirts and shawls secured with beautiful silver pins over brightly colored shirts.  Of course they are wearing the necklaces for which they are well known.  Some women wore multiples of them.  There are two styles of hats…short brimmed wool hats and lighter weight ones that are painted with a Holstein cow print under the brim.  Many of the men wear modern clothes, jeans with button down shirts and tennis shoes, but there were lots that still held on to their traditional wardrobe of dark cropped pants, ponchos and short brimmed hats.  The landscape, like much of this country, is breathtaking.  Since my time in the area was short, I was not able to spend much time at all in town and will have to save that for my next visit.  Shortly after my arrival, Maria’s husband, Juventino (Juvi) picked me up and took me to Kiskinchir, the indigenous community outside of Saraguro, where they live and where I spent most of my time while in the area.

    Maria's nephew, Juan Carlos (8) stands in front of an outbuilding in which meat is dried and food is cooked over a wood burning fire.

Maria’s nephew, Juan Carlos (8) stands in front of an outbuilding in which meat is dried and food is cooked over a wood burning fire.

As soon as I was introduced to the family, Maria and Juvi’s two children, neice and nephew, it was time to start cooking dinner.  I quickly found out that I would be eating my words…and cuy…again.  Maria took me to an outdoor building where a fire was burning and began preparing the cuy.  Juvi came in and asked if I’d like to go with him to feed the guinea pigs.  When he opened the door to an outbuilding, I did not see the dozen or so that I’d seen at Isaura’s house before.  There were 100s of them…380 to be exact.  Juvi raises as sells them out of his home to the local population.  It’s been one of their business ventures (he also drives a taxi in addition to Maria’s work with the cooperative) for the last two years and so far, has gone well.  For the record, my second experience eating cuy was a delight.  The meat was tender and between the six of us, we split one guinea pig, so the portions were very manageable. I found out later after the six year old was given the head for dinner, that it is common for the younger children to eat his part of the animal.  Again, I was thankful that wasn’t my job, but have no doubt that it is flavorful.

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Maria cooks cuy for dinner as Juan Carlos watches and occasionally fans the flames.

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Guinea pigs are separated by sex and age in numerous corrals and cages. These animals serve as a source for food and income.

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Maria’s son, Marc Anthony (17) feeds the guinea pigs grasses grown on site.

The family does not eat cuy as regularly as some Ecuadorians do, but only a few times a month.  Most of their diet consists of vegetables and of course, rice.  They are able to almost completely eat of their land.  Maria told me that she buys sugar, flour, oil, rice, cheese, and sometimes, onions.  They don’t have the wide variety fruit trees that I’ve seen elsewhere, and we didn’t have fruit during my visit, except for tomate de arbol (tree tomato) juice.  Vegetables however grow wildly around the house, as do flowers that are used in the horchata (aromatic tea, not the rice based drink from Mexico) that I have come to love during my weeks in Ecuador.  Sheep, chickens, rabbits, geese, a dog and a few cats round out the cast of characters on this plot of land with an incredible view.  The adjacent fields are not planted with corn but alfalfa and other grains that feed the animals.

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Vegetables grow in dense high diversity plots just steps away from the kitchen door.

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Sheep and rabbits provide meat for the family, while chickens and geese provide eggs. None of the eggs are eaten cooked, but blended raw into smoothies.

Each day begins and ends with chores, and like many families living off the land, it is a finely tuned schedule on which they operate that begins before the day’s first light and ends well after the sun has set. On Sunday morning, while Juvi and Marc Anthony fed the animals, Maria, Erika and the kids prepared another traditional Ecuadorian food item  for breakfast, cheese empenadas. It was a hours-long process but was worth the wait when we all sat down to the golden brown slightly sweet treats.

Josefa (6, left), Erika (14, middle), and Juan Carlos separate dough into balls for empenadas.

Josefa (6, left), Erika (14, middle), and Juan Carlos separate dough into balls for empenadas.

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The empanadas are filled with cheese and sealed before they are fried.

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Breakfast consisted of crispy yet chewy empanadas (right) and tea made from many of the herbs and flowers from the garden (left).

Before I left, Maria and Juvi took me into town to meet the president of La Mega Cooperativa.  As we were leaving the house, Maria asked if I would like to wear some of her clothes into town.  I did not know what to say, other than “yes.”  As Maria wrapped skirts and belts around me, Erika braided my hair.  Everyone approved of the change, despite my tennis shoes and bare head. (Since I stand about a foot taller than the women from this area, there was no chance of fitting into either their shoes or hats.)   After the quick visit at the cooperative’s office, we headed up to the Inca baños, a sacred Incan site just outside town that was used for purification purposes.  It was not a long hike, but it was straight up in weather where I would have been comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt.  As I followed Maria up the trail, a deep respect for the women who go everywhere in the traditional clothes here quickly developed, because it was HOT in two wool skirts, a long sleeved shirt, wool shawl and very heavy beaded necklace!

    This cave that was used during sacred rituals by the Incas was a steep hike above the town. I came to appreciate first hand the discomfort that women in Saraguro experience while living out their lives in their very beautiful, and very hot, clothes.

This cave that was used during sacred rituals by the Incas was a steep hike above the town. I came to appreciate first hand the discomfort that women, like Maria, in Saraguro experience while living out their lives in their very beautiful, and very hot, clothes.

My glimpse into Maria’s world was oh, so brief, but was one of the highlights of my time in Ecuador. They were very generous with their space, their time and their lives.  I stayed up late visiting with Juvi and Maria after dinner talking about how things are done in their community versus how they are done in the US.  Topics ranged from politics to marriage customs.  During the morning, I visited with the kids, who ranged in age from 6 to 17 and had all kinds of questions about what my life was like, ranging from favorite subjects in school to world travel.  I do hope to take them up on their offer to come back for another visit and stay longer.  This visit only made me want to know these people and this place better.

    Once the morning chores are finished, Juan Carlos and Marc Anthony play volleyball on the front patio.

Once the morning chores are finished, Juan Carlos and Marc Anthony play volleyball on the front patio.

degrees of separation

We’ve all heard that there are supposedly six degrees of separation between people in today’s world.  With the global economy and social structure that we have, the world is quickly becoming smaller as our relationships become more and more intertwined.  Recently I began to think about the increasing degrees of separation between many of us and the food that we find on our plates daily.  Becoming more connected to my food has been a constant goal for the last few years (though is admittedly difficult while living on the road).  My time in southern Ecuador has brought a heightened appreciation for those who truly are living in close relationships with their food sources.  Here in many cases there may only be one or two degrees of separation between a person and where their food comes from, if any at all, and none of it goes to waste.

Women sale vegetables at the outdoor Sunday market in Gualaceo.

Women sell vegetables at the outdoor Sunday market in Gualaceo.

Every Sunday in the small village of Gualaceo, people from surrounding villages flock to the large market to buy their provisions for the week. Hundreds of people weaved through the umbrella lined outdoor market shopping for vegetables.  Inside were permanent booths filled with potatoes, herbs, and fruit.  Both women and men carried large sacks of produce on their necks or tied to their backs as they left the market.  The variety here was incredible.  South America hasn’t seen the consequences of seed patenting and the subsidizing of crops that the US has.  As a result, there are still numerous varieties of corn and potatoes readily available.  When I asked one vendor how many different types of potatoes she sold, she quickly pointed out the 10 that she sold in her small booth.  I’ve had the pleasure of trying several of them and the flavors and textures are as varied as their shapes and colors.

The variety of potatoes (left) and corn (right) at the Gualaceo market was incredible.

There is a great variety of potatoes (left) and corn (right) available in the Gualaceo market, and throughout South America.

A short walk away is another market that, while you can still buy some meats and produce, is mostly dedicated to cooked foods.  This is THE place in town to eat lunch. Gualaceo is well known for its tortillas.  These cheese stuffed pancakes are either de maiz (corn flour), de choclo (a different type of corn, coarsely ground), or integral (wheat).  The tortillas de choclo may be one of the best things I’ve tasted in the last year.  They are the perfect combination salty and sweet with a wonderful texture. Upstairs, two to three dozen whole chanchos (roasted pigs), lined the balcony.  Outside women sat around small fires cooking cuy (guinea pig).  While we watched this process for a while, we opted for the pork.  As we drove out of town we passed street-side cafes where these same typical meat and tortilla dishes were being served to locals in the surrounding towns.

Gualaceo is known for its tortillas, which are made of wheat or corn and are stuffed with cheese.

Gualaceo is known for its tortillas, which are made of wheat or corn and are stuffed with cheese.

Our lunch of roasted pig, is a typical Ecuadorian meal.

Our lunch of roasted pig, is a typical meal in the mountainous regions of Ecuador.

Cuy is something that I have wanted to try since my first visit to Ecuador in 2003.  At the same time, it’s something that I have never been brave enough to order.  While I never had a guinea pig as a pet growing up, they still seem to belong in a pet store and not roasting over a fire in my mind.  It’s a delicacy here, and is actually quite expensive.  The cuy at the Gualaceo market cost $12 each.  Restaurants in Cuenca sell them for $30. The cost coupled with the fact that it’s a lot of food have been my “excuses” for not trying it to this point.

A woman cooks cuy outside the Gualaceo market.

A woman cooks cuy outside the Gualaceo market.

One of the benefits of living with a family here is that I get to share in their daily life.  The weekend following my trip to Gualaceo, we went to a friend’s home for lunch.  They were hosting a large feast that evening and had butchered a pig and lots of chickens.  Due to some family obligations, we weren’t able to attend the evening festivities but joined Isaura and her family for lunch.  My initial understanding was that we too would be eating roasted pig, but I quickly discovered that it was another sort of “pig” we’d be having.  We were greeted upon our arrival by a couple, cooking cuy over coals in a wheelbarrow in their front yard.  It takes about an hour to cook them, so I had plenty of time to prepare myself mentally for the meal.

Isaura lives in a compound with her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces.  They grow almost everything that they need.  In just a few small acres they had fields of corn and wheat.  Their fences were densely planted raspberries, peach and other fruit trees.  Gardens beside their homes provided vegetables and medicinal herbs.  Chickens roamed freely, while the pigs were housed by the cornfields, and the guinea pigs were kept in a section of the crawl space of one of the homes.

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Isaura and her niece, Estefania, process chickens for the evening’s festivities, while her mother supervises.

The meal was large and starch heavy, as Ecuadorian lunches are.  Chicken and rice soup was followed by cuy with potatoes and rice.  The first few bites were difficult psychologically, but the flavor was good.  I was thankful that I wasn’t handed a plate that included a head.  The toddler next to me, Nati, gnawed on the head of one of the guinea pigs with the same voracity with which I ate ribs when I was not much older than that.  And much like ribs, you eat cuy with your hands, and finish by the licking your fingers clean.  After lunch, we drank cane liquor mixed with sweetened herbal tea, which is supposed to help with digestion after a heavy meal like this one. The only things that were not produced on Isaura’s land that we ate that day were the rice and liquor.  It was very satisfying, and I was thankful that my cuy experience was homegrown and not from a market or restaurant.  I was also happy to be able to mark it off my to-do list because as much as I enjoyed the meal, it was not something I felt the need to doing again.

Isaura lives in a compound with her family, including her two nieces, Estefania and Nati (left).  She prepared a typical lunch of roasted cuy with rice and potatoes (right).

Isaura lives in a compound with her family, including her two nieces, Estefania and Nati (left). She prepared a typical lunch of roasted cuy with rice and potatoes (right).

Whole roasted animals are a common sight here, especially at roadside restaurants. Seeing them one after the other, day after day, can be a little uncomfortable, as can eating directly from one of them.  I am someone who values using as much of an animal as possible and am often looking for different ways to use as many parts of the deer that I harvest as I can.  So, being a hunter who is involved in every part of the process from pasture to plate, I didn’t understand where this discomfort might be coming from.  Then I realized that all this meat, in the market, in the cafes, on the plate next to mine, still had their faces.  The vast majority of meat, aside from fish, we buy in markets in the States come nicely packaged in cuts, or in the case of chickens, with their heads and feet removed.  Not everyone can raise animals at their home and have access to freshly harvested meat.  But if we had more faces in our markets, would we think more about where this food comes from? Would it register that it took a life to bring this nourishment to our plates?  Would we hesitate before we threw out pounds of leftovers every day?  Would we try to eat as much of the animal as possible, so that next to none of it went to waste? If there were fewer degrees of separation between us and our food, would we appreciate more the daily miracle that a huge portion of our health comes directly from plants and animals that are tended by human hands?  Would we realize that real food does not come from the box and jar lined supermarket but from fields and pastures, and in an ideal world, from our own backyards?

Isaura's home, as many houses in this area, is surrounded by fields of corn and gardens where the majority of their food is produced.

Isaura’s home, like most houses in this area, is surrounded by fields of vegetables and animals that provide the majority of their family’s food.