Monday, November 16, 2009


Thursday evening, my family piled into the car and drove from Quito south to Riobamba. It was cloudy on that ride, and it was as if we were in any other part of the world, one would have no idea that some of the biggest mountains in the world loomed above us only miles away.
We woke up early and drove all morning down to Cuenca. The day was clear and warm, and the views enormous. Patchwork hill after town-dotted valley led us along their curved roads the whole way, and we were fortunate to arrive in the city with some daylight left.
After a stint to see about extending our visas, we tucked our things away in our beautiful old hostel, and went exploring. I especially enjoyed the old architecture; the brick and adobe buildings with pealing or weathered paint leaning in slightly over the narrow cobblestone roads were just what I love the most about old towns.
There is clearly a heavy Spanish influence in the town's decorative carvings and building design (above and below), but the people in and around the small city are very Ecuadorian, and it was not unusual to see Indigenous dress (colorful skirts, white fedora hats, long-braided hair, and ponchos) right alongside neatly put-together outfits of the latest Quito fashions.
The next day, we visited the big museum in the old Banco Central, which was full of interesting history of the city and Ecuador in general. There were gorgeous artifacts, detailed descriptions of the spiritual life and ceremonies of the early inhabitants (including the shrinking of heads, elaborate dances, and oral histories told in the form of poems), depictions of dress, artisan works, and building techniques, and finally a explanation and map of an Incan ruin which was located right behind the museum. We of course went out to take a look.
The ruins were mostly rebuilt, but it was neat to walk around in them anyway. We found later that you could see them from quite a distance.
That evening, we went up to a high hill on the south side of the city, and watched the sun set as the lights sparkled on below. (It was from this spot that you could see the ruins.) We noticed that unlike other cities in Ecuador, this one had very few high-rise buildings, and almost all the roofs were still red-tiled. The city has been well preserved as its own entity, functioning somewhat autonomously from the central Ecuadorian government due to its location in the south, and possibly also due to its success at supporting itself. (Perhaps because of the four rivers which run right through it.)
It was a lovely place to visit for a weekend.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


My dad, brother, and I got up early on Saturday morning and drove north to the town Pijal to meet up with our friends the Lechons for a day trip up the mountain Imbabura. The five of us piled into their four-wheel drive pickup truck and after a harrowing trip along rutted and rugged dirt and cobblestone roads, parked it at the base of our chosen trail.
We lucked out and chose a beautiful day for the trip. Almost the whole time, we had fabulous clear views.
Above: Imbabura's crater, standing at over 4,000 meters
Below: Two of our many breath-taking views of the mountain Cayambe to the east. (My brother Caleb took this first picture from up on a higher ridge, can you find me and my dad?)

We didn't summit, but we got pretty high. We had a tasty picnic lunch and then practically ran down the steep mountainside. Before we drove home to Quito, we took a detour and drove up to see the lake Mojanda, near the base of the mountain Mojanda. It was especially beautiful to be there around sunset, and the water was so calm. The place radiated tranquility.
Below: Here we all are at the end of our day. From left to right: Caleb (my brother), Jens (my dad), Me, Edison, and (his dad) Alfonzo.
Below: Here's the view of Imbabura at sunset that saw us off on our way home.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Joyce Padilla's Garden

Joyce Padilla has been a friend of my grandparents for a looong time. She is the grandmother of my friend Jamela, who is the daughter of my father's friend Angie.

Joyce and Angie live in Quito, on a nice piece of land up in the faldas (the skirts) of the mountain Pichincha. Behind Joyce's house, she has a beautifully laid out garden which is beginning to come to life as the rains have started to come (if infrequently.) About once a week, my grandfather and I go over and do exciting dirt-filled projects.
Above, Joyce is planting parsley in the semi-shade of the tree that grows from the middle of the garden. She told us (my grandfather and me) that the tree was once a post showing the corner of a bed row, and that it just began to grow. She liked it, and left it there. One of the wonders of gardening in this climate is that everything grows, and it grows all the time. It is no strange thing here that someone stuck a mostly-dead stick in the ground and it grew to be a good sized tree. Growing in this marvelous garden are two beds of pinto beans (in the right-hand side of the picture above) and two beds of zapallo verde (in the left-hand side of the picture above.)
Zapallo verde is a big squash that looks a lot like a watermelon but tastes a lot like a summer squash.
There are also several trees on the edges covered in taxo vines (below.)
Taxo is a yellow fruit with black seeds that can be a little sour but makes a decent juice.

Pictured below (on the left-hand side) is a half-bed of rhubarb, one of the three beds, which is doing really well and will in the near future be turned into such tasty things as rhubarb wine and possibly pies. Also growing in this corner are several different types of herbs. What can't be seen is to the left of the rhubarb where my grandad has started a "natives bed" with jicama (a sweet edible root) baby transplants and as of today another root plant that closely resembles a nasturtium. To the left of that bed are some small newly transplanted volunteer tomatoes.
A large part of gardening is taking care of the soil. One of the best ways to do this is to compost "waste" and turn it into rich fertilizer. Below is a picture of the giant pile my grandad and I made, layering mostly dry carbonaceous materials (weeds and grasses) with soil and then wetting it down. Today, we began working on digging a hole for a new compost pile. This compost will be mostly household food waste from the Padillas, such as eggshells, banana peals, moldy left-overs, etc.
But before we could dig, we had to clear the space of all the extremely vivacious grasses and weeds. One of the most common grasses here, which is actually native to Kenya and was brought over by cattle ranchers (and quickly took over native local varieties), is called kikuyu grass. It is terribly hearty, extremely exploratory, and somewhat of a pain to clear out. Below, I am holding a mat of it that my grandad tore up, which was growing over the cement edge of the garden wall.
When we left late in the morning, we had cleared the space and begun to dig an approximately four foot by three foot hole. Some of the soil seemed to be quite rich, and we took it over in wheelbarrow loads to a new squash bed, and used it to widen the bed so that the squash could stretch out. The rest of the dirt we are using to fill in the old compost hole, which was abandoned after an avocado pit took root and grew into a very healthy nice young tree right in the middle. In this hole we layered the copious amount of pulled-up grass with dirt as we had on the compost pile, until it was almost level with the ground.
I love working at Joyce's because it has allowed me to get to know Ecuador in a different way. I have been able to notice details like the different smell of the soil and the speed at which seeds germinate in a way that I might not have otherwise. I have been able to take a close look at new plants and insects, and feel the tremendous proximity of the sun on my back. Not to mention learn all sorts of history and botany from Joyce and my grandad.

Thursday Part Three

The last place we went before heading home was a hospital in Otavalo. Otavalo is a town famous for its artisan markets, and it is beautifully set by a lake at the base of the mountain Imbabura. It also is home to quite a few progressive movements, one of which being "vertical births." This hospital, which in most other respects is a typical hospital in a developing country, provides the option for a woman to give birth in a more natural environment, with the ability to move around and labor in any position she wants. Neither this hospital nor the one in Cotacachi have yet incorporated the use of doulas into their practices, but they are still quite progressive in comparison to many in this country.
Above is a photo of the sign above the natural birthing room in the hospital. I believe it literally translates to "Culturally Appropriate Birth" with the Kichwa language translation beneath the Spanish. (We also found this in the clinic in Cotacachi, where the majority of the signs had titles in Spanish and Kichwa.)
These are two pictures from inside the birthing room. The dim lights, wood paneling, and soft cloths are much nicer alternatives to the stark and starched norm of the average hospital birthing room.
Above: a hanging rope to support upright squatting labor, wall bars wrapped in colorful cloth for support, and a low bed
Below: wood birthing stool

This trip was fascinating and full of new information, interesting and beautiful sights, and new friends. I am extremely thankful to my grandmother, Helen (above, left), and Nieves (above, right) for helping plan and organize this experience and for accompanying me and providing extra tidbits and wisdom. I am also incredibly thankful to my grandfather, Gene, who drove us and is always teaching me new things about every new environment we enter together.

Thursday Part Two

Next, we drove through Cotacachi, past some old haciendas, to Santa Rosa - my grandparents' old farm that they owned with Pablo and Nieves. They sold it about 15 years ago, and it has been split into several pieces, but standing where we did, it still looked quite splendid.
Across a deep quebrada and a low valley you could see the mountain Imbabura (above) wearing a skirt of clouds.
Like the farms outside of Riobamba, this one had water ways that wound around, with crossways that could be shut off allowing the water to be directed elsewhere for a while.

The farm was producing all sorts of beautiful things, from grapes (below), to plums and herbs, to guinea pigs and cows, to potatoes and tangerines.

Below you can see the potato field being plowed/weeded by a pair of oxen lead by two men. (Did you know that "janta" means team of oxen in Spanish?) There was also a woman with them, coming along behind, perhaps picking up disturbed potatoes.

To the far left in the above photo, perhaps it is hard to tell, but there are a whole bunch of greenhouses. This area of Ecuador has a very good climate for growing flowers which are mainly exported all around the world.

Thursday Part One

Quite early yesterday morning, I met my grandparents and Nieves on the corner outside my house, hopped in the car and headed out north of Quito to Cotacachi. We were fortunate at that early hour to have a splendid view of the snow-capped mountain Cayambe, and then as we neared our destination a panorama of smaller (though here, that is still quite large) green mountains and crooked quebradas. It was a beautiful ride, which culminated in our arrival in the beautiful old town around 8am. We wound around some cobble stone roads, past a school and little shops, and found our way to the little hospital at which we’d made our appointment.

There were already some people there, mostly just waiting around in the grass outside or in the large waiting rooms. In comparison to my experience of clinics/hospitals in Burkina Faso and Bangladesh, where more than an hour before doctors arrived there were usually crowds of people squatting out front, I felt it all to be quite calm and organized. However, I immediately noticed the familiar anti-septic smell of scrubbed concrete hospital floors and heavily bleached tile surfaces that I have come to associate specifically with rural health care facilities and that tends to always put me (and others I believe) in a mild state of anxiety or discomfort.

The doctor Audrey García, a young Columbian in her eighth month of pregnancy, kindly gave us over an hour of her time to explain a little about the health care system in the area, their particular program (especially around obstetrics), and their vision. She also gave us a short tour to check out the new birthing room for “vertical births,” the typical birthing room, and one of the labor rooms (in which we met two of the hospital’s obstetricians.) After the tour, we also had the opportunity to meet the gynecologist who is also the surgeon who performs c-sections.

Above: La Doctora is showing us how the wall bars work in their new birthing room.

What interested us in this clinic, and why we drove a couple hours to come take a look at it, is that it is known for trying to provide a mixture of Western (Oxidental) and Traditional healthcare practices. In terms of labor and delivery, this means that they are working with local midwives (training - especially around danger signs in pregnancy and birth- and encouraging them to refer women with complicated pregnancies to the hospital), providing in-hospital care that takes local practices into account (such as bringing the placenta home), and building a new birthing room next to the super "modern" delivery room that allows for what they are calling "vertical births" or labors and deliveries not confined to a table and stirrups.
Among the many interesting things that Doctora García told us is that the area they are responsible for is quite large (around 19,000 km with a population of 49,092 people) and diverse with a high Indigenous population (around 37%). Though the government is trying to centralize healthcare, in Cotacachi they have been doing such a decent job that the government has let them remain somewhat in charge of themselves. One of the things that they are doing especially well is sending out medical staff into the field, or doing something similar to mobile clinics.
She finished her mini-lecture by explaining that discrimination and prejudice are their biggest obstacles. To be truly successful at providing good care, everyone will have to overcome their prejudices and trust each other (for example, the Indigenous have expressed a fear that their ways will be stolen from them). I'll end with a quote from her that she said as part of this explanation:
"They are not dirty. They don't have water. It is hard to bathe without water. We have hot water. If they have water at all, it is cold. It is complicated and difficult to bathe with cold water."

Monday, November 2, 2009


Today and tomorrow are holidays here in Ecuador, and so we used this free day to go see one of Ecuador bigger mountains - Antisana. The land around the base is privately owned by one big hacienda, so we had to get special permission to come in. However, probably because of the limited access nature of the place, the road was in great condition and the wildlife abundant. Antisana sits in the parramo, a great expanse of wet grasslands that is both extremely diverse and important to Ecuador. As I understand it, most of Ecuador's water comes from the water reserves of the parramo lands (and as a result of this ever-growing dependence, there are many problems conserving and protecting it.)
Above is the bottom of the mountain Antisana (and my little brother, Caleb, running around on the squishy plain.) We got only a couple full-view sightings of the immense mountain, but we were fortunate to have those, as the area is well-known for its rain and heavy clouds. Below is an abandoned hut and behind it what we speculated to be a re-planting of parramo grass in an effort to keep the hillside from further erosion.
The incredible distances we could see were mind boggling. It was hard to believe how far away a hill was until you started walking toward it and it never got much closer. The strange and beautiful patterns of plants and cloud shadows coupled with the undulating motion of the tall grasses in the winds continually gave me the impression of being at the bottom of the sea.
Below are some of the cool plants we were walking through and past and on: