Saturday, October 31, 2009

What happens in Ecuador on Halloween?

The day that in the States we celebrate as Halloween, here in Ecuador we celebrate as the Day of the Dead. Traditionally, people gather together and drink a special juice called Colada Morada made with fruits and all sorts of spices, and drunk alongside a special kind of bread called Guaguas de Pan (meaning "bread babies" and literally being in the shape of babies.)
Our family spent the afternoon with an long-time friend, Fabiola (pictured below holding a photo of her and her late husband).

After a very big meal, consisting of a lot of meat and juice that tasted a lot like Tang, we got a tour of the awesome back yard. I thought I'd take the opportunity to get pictures of some of the plants new to my world:
Above: can you find the guanabana fruit? The insides are white with black seeds, and can be made into a super tasty juice.

Grapes! The technique I am trying to show above is an arbor over a patio made from barbed wire strung between the roof and tall metal poles. Below, some pretty sweet blue grapes growing on wire hung horizontally along the garden wall.

Below is a very sweet tasting pepper, that seems to me more like a type of cucumber. The flowers however, are just like those on a typical pepper plant.
Below is the chicken range. The roosters were allowed to roam freely, but their chickens and their oh-so-cute and oh-so-elusive chicks were in here. It's not terribly clear, but there are plastic bags hanging around the fenced ceiling and sides to shoo away other birds that like to come in and share the chicken food.Along with the things mentioned above, there were tangy tangerines growing on short plentiful trees, an avocado tree, a long berry bush, cabbage, herbs, and other typical garden plants. It was wonderful to see such an abundance in a backyard after seeing so much cement most of the time. I was especially fond of the large bush of brilliant boganvillea out front and the super cute little dog that accompanied us everywhere.

A Birth Story


Charito: on-call doula, over fifty, extremely knowledgeable, a little bossy, my best mentor at the clinic.

Olga: doula, around forty, very kind, only comes into the clinic a couple times a week.

Cecilia: mother, thirty-six, strong and warm.

Dr. Alarcón: head doctor and director of the clinic, around fifty, jovial.

When I arrived, I found Charito and others in the cafeteria just finishing up lunch. They immediately hurried me along with them upstairs, as a woman was in advanced labor with her third baby. Generally, but not always, labors get shorter with each baby, so they were getting prepared for a fast birth.

Cecilia was laboring hard on a birth ball when Charito, Olga, and I entered. Her husband was smiling with great crinkles by his eyes, supporting her through contractions by rubbing her lower back and holding her hands.

It was not long before she started needing to push and Charito encouraged her to go ahead and do that. The resident came in to ask some questions between contractions, until it was clear the Cecilia was pushing on each one. We left the room so she could change into a gown. I learned that she had been laboring since 6am this morning.

At the Clinica La Primavera, one of the doulas´ favorite things to give the dad[1] to do is to write down the start, end time, and intensity of each of his partner’s contractions on a clipboard. For some dads, this is great because it gives them a place and a job in the birth room where otherwise they would be feeling left out and useless. However, in some cases it gets in the way of their ability to be as supportive and present to their partner as they would like or feel the need to be. I cringed a little when Olga scolded Cecilia’s husband for not doing this job when he was being a great birth-partner.

Cecilia stopped to pee on the way from her room to the massage room. Once we got there though, we only stayed for two contractions. The resident did an internal exam[2] to find that the baby’s head was well on its way, and suggested we move to the tub room.

In the tub, Cecilia changed positions three times. She started in a vertical squat holding onto the cloth hanging from the ceiling, moved to partially sitting with her back against the tub wall with her knees bent, and finally gave birth to her third baby (second girl) on her hands and knees. Approximately fifteen minutes later, Dr. Alarcón helped deliver the placenta under water.

The move from the tub to the room was much smoother than others I have seen, though there was a moment right after Cecilia got out of the tub when she began shivering hard. We covered her in extra blankets and Charito told her to breathe slowly through her nose. Cecilia soon relaxed, and was gently rolled to her room, with her husband at her side with their new baby in his arms.

[1] Some women do not come with a significant other and are often accompanied by other family members. In these cases, I’ve observed that usually a male relative is given this job as his only job, or it is not done consistently, filled out by the doula, the mother/mother-in-law, or sister (who are also providing labor support).

[2] One of the things I like about this clinic is their commitment to keeping births as un-invasive as they know how. This includes no or only one internal exam, no IVs, and well-spaced relaxed baby heart monitoring.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

La Clinica La Primavera

Of the many thrilling things I've had the opportunity to do here in Ecuador, one has been to work as a doula in a small birthing clinic outside of Quito city in a town called Cumbaya. The clinic is unusual for its commitment to natural birth and labor support, and because it specializes in water birth. In the U.S. this is unusual. In Ecuador outside of the upper-middle class and wealthy, it's virtually unheard of.

The majority of women in Ecuador give birth in a super de-humanized hospital birth environment these days, though from what I understand, these births only became the norm in the past half-century. Before, as is still the case in rural Indigenous communities, all births were at home and attended by a midwife ("partera" in Spanish).

Though there are no midwives at the Clinica La Primavera, the head doctor (Diego Alarcon), residents, nurses, and doulas all practice in ways similar to nurse-midwifery in the States. Part of it comes from the culture, where there is always time to ask a person's name, how they are feeling, how their family is, where they're from, what they'd like. As my taxi driver informed me this afternoon, in our relatively inevitable discussion about the difference between the U.S. and Ecuador, Ecuadorians look after a person's heart and soul. His impression was that Americans look out for a person's physical appearance and monetary success. Dr. Alarcon lives up to Ecuadorian expectations, being incredibly committed to peaceful, joyful, healthy patient care.

However, as in every medical institution that I have visited, there are things that could be improved. I believe that from within a certain perspective, it can be extremely difficult to identify hypocrisies and harmful behaviors. I will soon follow this post with some birth stories in hopes of showing you what I mean.

Interested in this clinic? Check out their website at:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I am sorry for the pause between posts. I am happy to report that it has been due to a full and fascinating couple of weeks.

The weekend that followed Sam's and my encounter with the water protest, my family and my god-brother piled into our tiny car and took off for the coast. The ride was a little under six hours, and through many different climates and micro-climates. We started out in the high mountain terrain, with long bleached grasses, hearty low-to-the-ground flowers, pine and eucalyptus trees, and strong mosses. As we went down to lower altitudes, we went through lush grassy lands, past teak wood and palm oil plantations, down bumpy roads lined with living-fences of lechera trees, arriving eventually in the low flat lands dotted with shrimp ponds.

We arrived in Atacames, a large town right on the beach, tucked into a cove with a point that stuck its bleached rocks out into the immense blue-green stretch of ocean. The coast of Ecuador is totally different from the mountains. The Spanish spoken is faster and tends to lose important consonants, there are no ponchos and fedoras (the typical dress in the mountains), and many more people our height and taller. The streets were full of vendors selling jewelry made of local woods and nuts, ceviche and chips, fresh fruit juices, and sunglasses. Reggeaton music rhythmically shook the strings of shells that hung from almost every open-faced restaurant walls. It was hot and the sun was bright despite the thin layer of clouds, and sand quickly permeated everything in the car.

Some friends had lent us an apartment right outside the town, where you could look out the wide windows over the fan palms and the bright pink hibiscus flowers and see the fishing boats bobbing out past the waves. The swimming felt great, though the waves weren't quite big enough for good body-surfing, and the wet sand felt nice between my toes. It was easy to fall asleep that first night, I think my body really enjoyed the extra oxygen having become accustomed to the thin air up in Quito.

The next day-Saturday-my little brother Caleb woke up and put on his bright yellow Ecuador soccer jersey. Ecuador was playing Uruguay to go to the World Cup. All day people got ready for this game. Men walked around wearing Ecuadorian flags like capes, tiny children ran around in full Ecuadorian uniforms. Women wore red, yellow, and blue themed outfits. People were gathered around TVs at every store, bar, restaurant, porch, and hotel long before the game began, watching the stadium in Quito fill (ironically, that stadium is practically right next door to our house) and listening to pro-Ecuador rally songs.

Tragically, right before the game began, my brother, dad, and Edison (my god brother) had decided to go swimming and Edison had been bit by a sea monster. Well, not really a sea monster, a certain poison-spined fish that tends to hang out around beaches eating trash. My mom and I had gone for a walk down the beach, and when we returned the poor guy was in some pain. My dad had talked to some of the locals who had oo-ed and informed him that this was a very painful thing, and we should go to the clinic in town pronto. Being interested in all things clinic-related, I accompanied Edison and my dad into town and on a short wild-goose chase to find the place that had been recommended.

The doctor and a nurse were the only people there, and they were watching the game. Even the streets were empty. Edison probably got the fastest help in the history of Ecuadorian healthcare. The doctor injected some local anesthetic and used his thumb and forefinger to press out the dark venom. He then gave Edison a shot of antibiotic and a prescription for some more, encouraged him to take a pain-killer, and not to eat shrimp, colored beverages, pork, and other seemingly random items. He told him to eat fresh veggies, fruit, and drink a whole lot of water. My dad's theory which seems the most plausible for this advice, was that this was the doctor's best method for getting people to eat healthy.

Fortunately, because of this stunningly fast service, Edison (who was very preoccupied at this point) only missed half of the game, and it was especially alright because the only goals scored happened in the second half. My mom and Caleb had found a great place to watch the game at a hotel while we were gone and we joined them and watched it while drinking sweet watermelon juice.

That night it was quiet in Atacames. Ecuador had lost, in the very last second of the game.

The next day, we took the two hour drive to Mompiche, another beach known for bigger waves. Momphiche was everything I loved about Atacames without all the commercialism. We spent the day enjoying the clear water, examining a moon-scape of coral, collecting interesting shells, and speculating about the large dark brown clay deposits seemingly randomly scattered around the beach. We think that the area was once a Mangrove Swamp, judging from the few remaining trees and shrimp pools. The clay was rich with other organic material, and felt nice to roll in my palm.

After a nice meal of fishy things, rice, and Fanta, and one more dip in the sea, we headed back on the long dirt road to Atacames. In the morning, the boys jumped in the water one last time, before we piled everything back into the car and began our journey back to Quito. We went a different way this time, and in between naps got glimpses of Colombia, rolling green hills and lush valleys, wide bare mountainsides, and paramo lands. We swerved around big potholes, debris from little landslides, and slow moving trucks, and arrived in Ibarra to drop off Edison to find it cool and drizzling. By the time we got to Quito it was pouring. In our absence, the rainy season had begun.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Monday's adventure part II

After the botanical gardens, Sam and I decided to go on a nice outing to the old part of town. It was sunny and hot, and we admired the old Spanish architecture as we made our way from the ecovia station up to the central square. To our surprise, the square was full. Not only was it full, but it was full of people with flags and spears, face paint, and riot gear.

Curious, we stuck around to find out what was going on. It turns out that the protesters were several hundred of the indigenous population who had come from everywhere from the jungle (oriente) to the Cayambe area. They had come to stand in front of the building in which Correa (the president) and several other political leaders were discussing a law about the privatization of water. The protesters were there to demonstrate their strong opposition to it, and planned to stick around as long as it took for a decision to be reached.

The riot police and army soldiers, overwhelming in numbers, mostly stood around bored or chatted with the protesters. This is not to say that the protesters were calm-there was continuos chanting, some poster burnings, a few spear shakings, and once some guys tried to climb up the building. However, it seemed pretty clear to everyone, despite the large numbers of the crowd and the copious weaponry of the police and soldiers, that this was not going to be a violent episode. The idea was just to make enough noise and commotion that Correa, in a conference room above with frosted windows, would hear and be reminded of the people's opinions.

It started to rain half-way through the afternoon,
and as people moved beneath trees and trash bags,
the police put on their helmets and used their shields as umbrellas.
We hung out (had some interesting conversations with some of the riot police and a few of the protesters) until late evening. The meeting had ended, but no one was coming out to announce the decision and the crowd was starting to move in a more agitated way. As it got dark and the decorative lights came on up on the church balconies, we took our leave. According to the newspaper (El Comercio) the next day the politicians did come to an agreeable decision in the end.

Monday's adventure part I

On Monday, Sam and I started our adventures by going to the Quito Botanical Gardens in the Parque Carolina with my Grandad, Gene. The Botanical Garden was split up into 7 different parts covering all the climates of Ecuador: wet lands, cloud forests, paramo, desert/cactus environment, cool and hot climate orchids, summer flowers, and cultivated crops.above is an orchid from the hot-climate green house and below are some cacti labeled "seat of the mother-in-law"

Above are some of the typical paramo grasses and below is a crop of quinoa almost ready for harvest.

Above are some of the many beautiful nightshade flowers that lined the paths, and below is a tree fern about to uncurl. They claimed that these plants are older than the dinosaurs.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

El Panecillo

El Panecillo is a giant mound (panecillo means "little loaf") in the middle of the capital city topped by a giant statue of the Virgin of Quito standing on an alligator. Or maybe it's an octopus? with a dog head? an eel? It's supposed to be a serpent.
The Virgin of Quito is the guardian and protector of the city.For a small sum, you can go inside the statue, and climb up the stairs out to the top. Each floor inside is decked out like a museum, so you can also check out how the statue was put together (in 1975)

and see some beautiful stain glass windows depicting other guardian saints.

And the view from the top was extraordinary.
You could see a whole lot of the city!Also, you can barely see, in the right-hand corner there are telephone wires and an old burnt tree covered in scraps of colorful cloth. People love to fly kites from up here, and the pretty rags waving about in the wind are actually unlucky remains.