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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Spectacle that is "El Pase del Niño Viajero"

Warning!  Photo heavy blog!!! You may wonder about the quality of my photos on this one, but the crowds were so thick it was impossible to get a clear shot.  Sometimes it's hard to tell the participants from the audience.  If people look exhausted, we were on the final block of the parade route, so some of the little ones were tuckered right out.

El Pase del Niño Viajero (or "the passage of the travelling child") is an epic parade (at least in Cuenca), that takes place on December 24th.  Its planning takes months, or so we're told and the result can only be described similar to trying to herd cats, and I honestly mean that in a good way. In the end, it is the perfect reflection of Ecuadorian life.

Ecuadorian crowd control...use scarves...and dance while doing it!

One of multiple "Virgins", "Josephs" and "Magi"
Occasionally, they would throw in Santa for good measure.

Dig the dollar store dusters as helmet plumes!
 How so you might ask?  It seems to have few hard and fast rules, personal space is not considered and safety is blatantly disregarded.  In summation, it's totally refreshing, jubilant and unapologetically, well, Ecuadorian.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Facial hair sucks, Mom!

Groove to the music.

The shades make the outfit.

Who knew you played accordions in heaven?

Musicians or decide

This float actually had good visibility through its windshield

Indigenous costumes that are familiar around Cuenca's streets

Completely pooped...but still adorable

"Are we there yet?"
We actually have two folders of photos, as we went to the parade fairly early on in the day and spent a couple of hours then came home, ate lunch and went back to the festivities for another couple of hours.  When we left, the parade was still going strong.  (It started around 9:30 in the morning and we came home around 4:30, just to give you an idea of how extensive this endeavour actually is!)

Food laden floats

Living Nativity Scene

Okay, this is the FRONT of the car.

You can just make out the liquor bottles that adorned floats that also held small unaccompanied children

One of the many icons carried in the parade

More dancers
We were grateful when the shadow of the new cathedral started falling over us, as the sun was scorching, but it played havoc with my photos.  My camera is being very difficult and wants to flash in the daylight and flash at night, but not flash in dimly lit restaurants.  There must be something over the light sensor.  I can only imagine how hot and tired the people actually walking in the parade were come the end.  

These poor guys had fur covered chaps! Muy Calor!

The kids here are beautiful

This was 1 of 3 photos I took as the band was huge!

You've seen it before, but it's worthy of another look...nothing delays progess.

The parade isn't just to show off your cute kids...why not get dressed up, too?

One of the fancier floats, you can see more coming up behind

So hot!

Rudolph, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus - on bikes...couldn't resist.

I couldn't get a picture of any of the floats that were throwing bags of candy to the crowds.  They were swarmed as soon as people realized what they were up to.  I'm not talking little bags of candy either, some were the size of soft balls and others were twice that size.  I guess the only down side is that not everyone (especially the kids) gets sweets.  It seemed to me that the taller you were the more likely you were to score a bag of goodies.

That was our first Pase del Nino Viajero, and we were light weights. I know a lot of people would have tried to see the whole thing, but between the sun, diesel fumes and basic hunger, we had to take a break in the middle.

We can't wait for the New Years festivity where the locals burn effigies of themselves (& others) to cast off the unwanted things from the prior year and start the new year fresh.  I'm sure the fire department here, can't wait.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Wish for All of You.

Dearest Family, Friends and Kindred Hearts,

Ron and I would like to wish you the very best for the holidays, no matter how you choose to celebrate, or even if you choose not to celebrate!  This is the time of year when family seems that much further away, but love seems so much stronger and my heart feels full with gratitude for being able to live this life.  (Despite the craziness, fear and unpredictability that it brings.)

Ecuador has Beautiful Children.

New Age Shepherd

Rudolph Leading Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus...
it makes sense here.

Pudgy Cheeked Angel

We miss all of you and send you all the love possible from here to there.  This is our first Christmas outside of Canada and it has been, at times, lonely and exciting and has taught us things we never expected to learn.

For those of you who have not experienced the open hearted, givingness (I'm making it a word!) of the Ecuadorian people, I can say only this...we have much to learn from them.  I have never been embraced (literally) so genuinely by strangers or felt that their benedictions have been so honestly given.

I hope one day that you can say the same of us.  That our hearts and prayers were freely and joyously given to you and that, in some small way, it was better to have known either, or both, of us than not.  May you encounter kindness in the upcoming year, find generosity and acceptance and may you be happy.

We wish you a very Merry Christmas (feliz navidad) and a happy 2014 (un feliz y prospero ano neuvo)

Note the drawn on beard!
Hot enough for the fire dept. to hose kids down with water!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Paute, Ecuador - A Christmas Mission

Amidst the craziness that most of us experience as part of Christmas, Ron and I suited up to play elves in the town of Paute (pronounced POW-tay) about 45 minutes outside of Cuenca.  We were fortunate enough to be some of the volunteers included in one of the major holiday deliveries through Hearts of Gold Foundation, a non-profit agency here in Cuenca. (I've also written an article for them on their website.) This was our very first trip out of Cuenca since we arrived!  We were quite excited to go.

The trip to Paute was quite beautiful.  We passed through a region that is well known for growing flowers and you could see green houses and fields stretching out to the foothills.  Babies breath seemed the most prevalent crop at this time of year.  I'd love to take time to tour some of the farms sometime in the future.

Getting on the bus

Countryside of Azuay Prefecture
We planned on visiting a school for mentally challenged children and a home for abandoned elders to deliver gifts.  En route we stopped once to look at a project that was spear headed by Hearts of Gold.

The house on the left is a new build, with solid cement construction and luxuries like windows.  The building you see on the right is the residents' current home and also operates as their place of business.  They operate a small store out of the front of the shack.  As you can see, the new building has a nice weatherproof roof, much more space and offers far more security.  It was evident that the matriarch was thrilled with the progress of her new home.  

We arrived at the school and began to unpack the bus.  As soon as we stepped onto the school grounds we were rushed by enthusiastic children, all eager to give us hugs and kisses of greeting.  Even the parents and teachers were visibly excited to see us and greeted us with traditional cheek kisses and words of welcome.  Before we started giving out presents and food, the staff invited us to go out back of the school for a "celebration".  We spent a good hour dancing and clapping with all the children in their courtyard.  They were tireless, but we ended our fiesta with a rousing "Gangnam Style" ...yes, it has made it all the way to Paute, Ecuador!  Then our fun truly began.  We handed out food hampers to the mother's who waited with quiet anticipation and then gave stuffed animals to the students and bags of sweets to all the children which included the students and many of their siblings.

One of the students proudly showing off some of their Christmas arts & crafts made from reclaimed objects.

The start of the "fiesta"...I was too busy dancing to take more pictures.
One mother was moved to tears and gave a very emotional speech thanking Hearts of Gold for their good work.  Of course, we were also offered refreshments, as hospitality is not overlooked no matter how little people have. We left through a phalanx of mothers, wanting to kiss, hug and thank was very very moving...I don't know if I can explain it and I can feel myself tearing up as I write.

Between the emotions, dancing and hot sun, we were all tired, so we took a lunch break and stopped at a Parradilla (Argentinian style barbeque) for lunch.  The restaurant is not yet open, but they allowed us to use their property for our break.  The mother is a volunteer at the abandoned elders home and generously opened her doors to us. (She actually housed many of the elders, while the residency was being built.)  Valley Farms Butchers is a lovely stop, with gorgeous grounds, a swimming pool and delicious and unique treats.  (We had canned green apricots, a local specialty, which were delicious!) They also offered up some very tasty strawberry ice-cream, which was perfect on a hot afternoon. (Another display of hospitality.) Can you believe that I didn't even think of taking pictures of the property???  I do have one of the apricots.

Well sated and partially rested we took the short trip to the old folks home.  We were more prepared, but the enthusiastic greeting was still heart rending.  Another fiesta ensued, with much dancing, this time to more traditional music and the residents danced us off our feet.  Even Ron got in to the action! (He said I was allowed to post his photo!)

Cutting a rug...the stuffed critters we gave as gifts are on the table.

Overview of most of the gang "gettin' down"
You might think it odd, to give elderly people stuffed toys, but they really enjoyed them.  They act as an additional pillow to prop up sore feet or stabilize aching backs and can also be hugged and chatted to in times of need.  One lady kept asking "Porque no bailan?" (Why aren't they dancing?) as the heat in the atrium soared and the day took it's toll on us weak gringos!  I did my best to keep up and slept like the dead last night.  We took time to stop and chat to each resident before we left and they pleaded for us to return.  I don't think they get a lot of visitors, as their own families are either gone or have abandoned them.  Of course, we were given gifts before we left, even though these lovely people have so little.  Mind boggling.

I was reminded that its not what we have that brings us happiness, but what lives in our hearts.  I started out the day thinking about how great it would be to do something for the people in need and I wound up getting so much more in return that my heart can't hold a single extra thing.  This is the Ecuador that I wanted to become a part of and Ron and I have been blessed to have experienced it so soon. (As I listen to "Van Diemen's Land" by U2...if you don't know it, look it's about the struggle for rights and hope.)

More countryside

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas, the Price of Milk & More

You may wonder what one thing has to do with the other - milk and Christmas and to be honest, I can't be certain, but it seems that some staple items might increase with the advent of the holiday season.

The brand of milk we normally buy disappeared a couple of weeks ago only to be replaced with a more expensive cousin. (I'm only talking a five cent difference, so I can't really complain all that much). Imagine our joy when we saw our old brand of milk back on the shelves and then imagine the... Well, let's call it shock, when we realized that it was the same price as the cousin. We buy 3-4 liters of milk a week and spent some time testing quality and comparing it with price to determine our preferred choice. I'm sure we'll survive the 20 cent a week hike and we'll be interested to see if prices go down after the holidays. (See below for a list of grocery items and their costs.)

Our Milk of Choice...was 74 79

Christmas has come slowly to Cuenca, at least from my perspective. They just finished decorating the streets last week and the stores, hotels and restaurants seem to be completing their final Christmas touches with hardly any time to spare.  (Strange when I'm used to seeing Christmas stuff before Halloween is even over...bless  consumerism!)

This lack of Christmas inundation has made us almost forget that the holidays will soon be upon us...well, that and the 23 degree weather...not exactly reminiscent of Christmas.  We're actually contemplating not bothering with the whole thing...oh we'll go see the Christmas parade and probably enjoy a nice dinner, but with less than two weeks to go, it seems silly to think about decorating. As Ron is fond of saying the holidays are about being grateful for what we have and appreciating all our friends and family.

Anyhow, as promised here are a few items and their costs, if you're curious:

Loaf of bread (sliced): $1.85
Bakery style bread goes by weight at Supermaxi, but averages $2.50 or so depending on the type
OJ (1 litre) : $1.59
High quality chocolate bar: $2.52 (70% cocoa)
Coffee (high octane): $3.95 (1 lb. tax excluded)
1 litre wine (tetra pack): $5.05 (exc. tax)
   Now before you go turning up your nose, this actually 1/2 decent wine, we prefer the Clos brand, it's better than some of the less expensive bottles of wine
Butter (250g): $1.72 (tax exc.)
Peanut Butter (500g): $5.88
Honey (250mL): $1.50 at the mercados (Supermaxi is more expensive)
Cereal: $3.03 (Corn Flakes) $5.25 (Fitness - a version of bran flakes) tax exc.
Pilsner (Brand of Ecuadorian beer) 500mL: $1.00 plus 50 cent deposit at local tiendas, you can find it cheaper if you buy a crate.  The deposit is a one time payment as long as you return the bottles to the vendor in exchange for full bottles.
Bananas (10): $1 from the mercado
Lettuce: 75 cents (mercado)
Zucchini: 50 cents (mercado)
Potatoes (1 beach bucket): $1 (can be more of less depending on type of potato...Ecuador has over 200 varieties of potatoes) at the mercado
Apples (@ 1 lb.): $1 (mercado)
Pineapple: $1 - $1.50 depending on size and ripeness (mercado)
Tomatoes (@ 1 lb): $1 (mercado)

We also bought 1.5lbs of albacore tune for $3.50
225g of shrimp for $3.63...this was peeled and cleaned

Things to note...unlike North America, it doesn't always pay to buy the larger product.  Sometimes smaller packages are actually a better savings.  Supermaxi is very helpful as they break almost everything down by weight or unit, making it easy to see which is more cost effective.  It's hard for me to buy two small packages of bouillon cubes instead of one big one...but the two cost less than the one, so what's a girl to do?

That's it for now.  Wishing all of you the very best of the holidays, however you celebrate (or, as in our case...don't).  May the new year bring you joy and happiness.  (I won't say success, too, because we just can't have everything, can we?)