Rain or climb?

Did we already say that Cuenca is at 8,350’? After a few weeks here, we felt nearly acclimatized, but we knew we weren’t quite there yet. How could we tell?

Every day the online weather forecast showed rain clouds for that day and for all the days that followed. We’re now used to having some rain every day for a brief time, but it’s wildly unpredictable as to when. So, as we set off on our usual stroll along the Tomebamba River, we looked up occasionally monitoring the darkening clouds. Soon? Maybe in a half hour…

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We’d get easily distracted by any number of things – and one of them is art.

We walked for some time with more frequent glances up to the sky. Finally, we knew it was time to head back to our AirBnB.

We crossed the bridge and looked ahead. 75 steps up (but who’s counting?).

We crossed the bridge and looked ahead. 75 steps up (but who’s counting?).

THIS was the moment when we could tell that we were at 8,350’ elevation. We were out of breath and need to stop after a dozen steps to rest.

How thoughtful to have artwork on the walls for us to admire (as we made our slow ascent). We took the opportunity to pause often and admire the work.

How thoughtful to have artwork on the walls for us to admire (as we made our slow ascent). We took the opportunity to pause often and admire the work.

The art was complex, and, since it was on both sides, we know we missed a lot.   We’ll have to go back again to see the rest. Maybe we’ll go down the stairs next.

The art was complex, and, since it was on both sides, we know we missed a lot.   We’ll have to go back again to see the rest. Maybe we’ll go down the stairs next.

A little boy had been watching us from the top. We imagine that he knew we were foreigners as we had ascended so slowly.

A little boy had been watching us from the top. We imagine that he knew we were foreigners as we had ascended so slowly.

We didn’t have far to go once we reached the street and the rain had held off.

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That left just enough time to duck into the corner ice cream shop. $1 for a vanilla cone with sprinkles.

We sat in our AirBnB and watched the rain as Beth finished her ice cream cone.

 

May 2016

 

 

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Challenge yourself

We asked ourselves, “Why settle for staying in the same place, taking the same walk every day, living a routine life?” Yes, we could have done that until we drew our last breaths…But… It’s not over till it’s over. We saw so many opportunities ahead of us. Our decision was made: why not see the world? Why not challenge ourselves? We could meet new people, continue learning, and go places we never dreamed were possible for us to visit.

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A week in the Galapagos Islands with experienced guides was high on our list of things to do for many years. We can hardly believe it happened!

Planning complex travel to foreign places these last four years has been a huge – but rewarding – challenge. The funny thing is that it pales in comparison to our latest challenge, learning a foreign language in our senior years.

We studied languages in school (so many years ago, that too few words are remembered). We realized that if we planned to stay in South America for 7+ months, we really should try to learn some Spanish. We thought, maybe learn a few words and phrases. Later we realized that we could take classes once we got to our first Spanish-speaking country, Ecuador.

We talked about our expectations. Joe wanted to have conversations with people. Beth hoped to use anything she learned to “get by” – ordering in a restaurant, shopping in a market, catching a train.

We started Duolingo a year ago and have faithfully studied online every day – day-in and day-out. Now that we are in Cuenca, Ecuador, we started classes at the highly recommended Yanapuma Spanish School, a nonprofit organization.

One of our excellent teachers, Sol, at the Yanapuma Spanish School, eased us into a lengthy conversation (for us!) on day 1.

One of our excellent teachers, Sol, at the Yanapuma Spanish School, eased us into a lengthy conversation (for us!) on day 1.

Our vocabulary is still pre-school level. We struggle with speaking. OK, you’re now asking yourself, “Why are they bothering?” Because… It’s not over till it’s over. Slow as it is and, sometimes, painful as it is, we have improved and learned a lot in a year. Why not keep going?

At Yamapuma Spanish School, we’re learning with a fun session on getting to know names and tastes of fruits in the market.

At Yamapuma Spanish School, we’re learning with a fun session on getting to know names and tastes of fruits in the market.

Excellence will only come with a commitment to improvement. It’s something to think about no matter what your age.

 

May 2016

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The Final Decision

For us, making a big decision (for us) requires information, thought, and discussion. We’d been talking about buying a Panama hat for Joe for the last year (yes, the whole year) as we planned our trip to Ecuador. Now the time had come. We’d done our research online and visited several stores in Cuenca, looking at hats. We’d discussed logistics and how much we could (or should) spend.

So, here’s what we did. We walked back to Homero Ortega on a Saturday morning to find the perfect hats for Joe.

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Joe bought a $28 classic Panama hat for travel. The weight and fit were better than he had hoped for a handmade hat of lower quality.

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We think the look of the Panama hat is so much better looking than this one, his current travel hat, purchased 3 years ago at the airport in Kyoto, Japan.

We decided that Joe would also buy a second hat of much better quality (and, of course, higher price).   This hat is the one he had always wanted. It was beautiful and light – a true pleasure to wear. We had this one shipped back to the U.S. where our son, Joshua, will find a good place to store it. That hat will not go on long trips with us (where the danger of damage or loss is too great) but will be saved for future use walking about town back in the US.

And Beth decided her 20+ year old Tilley hat is still fine for hiking trips, but this style Panama hat suited her. She had the store change the hatband from black to grey, and then it was perfect.

And Beth decided her 20+ year old Tilley hat is still fine for hiking trips, but this style Panama hat suited her. She had the store change the hatband from black to grey, and then it was perfect.

So, you may wonder, what do Ecuadorians from Cuenca wear on their heads?

Felt hats are popular for traditionalists like this mother and daughter.

Felt hats are popular for traditionalists like this mother and daughter.

The hat, embroidered skirt, long braids, and carrying a load on your back captures perfectly the look of many older women we see on the street.

The hat, embroidered skirt, long braids, and carrying a load on her back captures perfectly the look of many older women we see on the street.

This woman had a true sense of style and carried off the look beautifully with her imposing Panama hat.

This woman had a true sense of style and carried off the look beautifully with her imposing Panama hat.

What a pleasure it is to know the art and craftsmanship that went into our handmade hats. We wear them every day. These will be the souvenirs of Ecuador that we’ll be enjoying and using for years to come.

 

 

May 2016

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The real deal

Joe loves hats. He wears one every day. His walking-around hat is one he picked up in the Kyoto airport at the start of our round-the-world trip 3 years ago. For cooler days, he purchased a beret in Barcelona. But the hat he has always desired above all others is a good Panama hat.

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Everyone looks great in a Panama hat. Photo taken at Homero Ortega.

When we decided to travel in Ecuador, we came upon a blog post about Panama hats. Who knew that Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador and were popularized when workers on the Panama Canal used them a century ago? Also, we didn’t realize that the craft of making Panama hats is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. That was all we needed to know. Now, we had a new mission for our time in Ecuador: find the long-desired Panama hat.

We did our homework. We read informative websites and visited nearby shops. Then we headed to Homero Ortega in Cuenca for a visit to check out their museum display. Visitors are welcomed and given a free tour. Ours was in English. Importantly, we felt no pressure to buy a hat.

The guide showed us a higher quality hat to better understand the weaves per square inch and uniform weaving. The finest hat might have up to 3,000 weaves per square inch.

The guide showed us a higher quality, still unfinished hat to better understand the weaves per square inch and uniform weaving. The finest hat might have up to 3,000 weaves per square inch.

The straw used in the hats is grown in Ecuador, washed and dried. Ecuador Panama hats are all hand woven. Weaving takes anywhere from a few days to many weeks, but a truly fine hat could take up to 8 months.   Makers of the finished product, like Homero Ortega, buy the unfinished hats from local weavers.

Upon delivery from the weaver, the rough hat is washed.

Upon delivery from the weaver, the rough hat is washed.

Each hat is washed twice and dried. This process takes about two weeks. If the entire hat is to be colored, the dying happens at this stage.

Each hat is washed twice and dried. This process takes about two weeks. If the entire hat is to be colored, the dying happens at this stage.

Hats are blocked by placing them in a mold and a hot, hydraulic press turns them into the desired shape.

Hats are blocked by placing them in a mold and a hot, hydraulic press turns them into the desired shape.

Hats are trimmed at the edges and then put through a water and glue bath before heat is applied.

A fabric band or other decorative touches are sewn on the hat.

A fabric band or other decorative touches are sewn on the hat.

While we were focused on the men’s classically styled hats, we noted that Homero Ortega makes 85 different hat styles, 500 hats every day, and not all look like the classic “Panama hat”. We also saw woven bags and a finely woven wedding dress (amazing!).

While we were focused on the men’s classically styled hats, we noted that Homero Ortega makes 85 different hat styles, 500 hats every day, and not all look like the classic “Panama hat”. We also saw woven bags and a finely woven wedding dress (amazing!).

This is truly a work of art!

This is truly a work of art!

With so many choices, Joe had a lot to think about.

… to be continued in “The Final Decision”

 

 

April 2016

 

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Plane or bus?

When you love to travel, the next destination is already occupying your thoughts. In your mind, you’ve leapt forward and are already on your way, wondering what it’ll be like, what to pack, anticipating problems getting there… And this is how it was for us. We had planned a beautiful month on the coast of Ecuador in Canoa. We imagined ourselves already there, studying Spanish and enjoying the beach. We came so close…

Two days before we were to take the bus to Canoa – with the beach and Spanish lessons waiting for us – an earthquake destroyed 90% of the town. We couldn’t believe the immense tragedy for so many people on the coast.

Now, we had no choice but to very sadly leave the beach dreams behind and make new plans. We settled on Cuenca, an historic city, a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site. We decided it would be a worthy replacement.

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We searched internet sites to find the best way to get there. Many folks favored flying or taking small vans. At $8, the bus sounded fine to us.

As soon as we left Guayaquil and were in open country, we pulled out our cameras.

As soon as we left the city of Guayaquil and were in open country, we pulled out our cameras.

The bus stopped periodically and usually a man would hop on selling food and drinks, getting dropped off at the next stop. This time the bus pulled over at the crab vendor’s stand. The crabs were still squirming, and we wondered if people on the bus ever bought the crabs, and what do they do with them during the ride?

The bus stopped periodically and usually a man would hop on selling food and drinks, getting dropped off at the next stop. This time the bus pulled over at the crab vendor’s stand. The crabs were still squirming, and we wondered if people on the bus ever bought the crabs, and what do they do with them during the ride?

Overcast skies turned to rainy weather with low visibility as the bus climbed steadily up the mountain. Higher and higher the bus climbed until the sun and blue skies appeared through the fog and rain. The bus had climbed above the low rain clouds. We were probably at 2,130 m. (7,000’) elevation when this photo was taken.

Overcast skies turned to rainy weather with low visibility as the bus climbed steadily up the mountain. Higher and higher the bus climbed until the sun and blue skies appeared through the fog and rain. The bus had climbed above the low rain clouds. We were probably at 2,130 m. (7,000’) elevation when this photo was taken.

The mountains were now in view, and Joe took out his iPhone to check the altitude: over 3,350 m. (11,000’).

The mountains were now in view, and Joe took out his iPhone to check the altitude: over 3,350 m. (11,000’).

The highest point, according to his iPhone, was along this stretch of road – 4,050 m. (13,300’).  

The highest point, according to his iPhone, was along this stretch of road in Cajas National Park – 4,050 m. (13,300’).

The descent to the outskirts of Cuenca (2,440 m (8,300’)) happened quickly.

The descent to the outskirts of Cuenca (2,440 m (8,300’)) happened quickly.

We gathered up our bags and prepared for our arrival. No matter how a traveler gets to a destination, every step is a new adventure. “Welcome to Cuenca,” we said to ourselves as we stepped off the bus.

 

 

April 2016

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Charles Darwin’s finches

Somehow, many millions of years ago, a finch arrived on the Galapagos Islands. Did it float on a raft of greenery and logs from the mainland? This was long before a boat would have carried it across the thousand miles from the South America mainland.

The finch spread to the other islands of the Galapagos over time. To survive on each island, the finch adapted over many generations to the conditions, particularly the food sources that were available. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was based in large part on the finches he observed on the Galapagos Islands.

In a handy guidebook that we took along, “Birds, Mammals, and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands” by Andy Swash and Rob Still, photos of the finches were spread out over 4 pages, and they looked a lot alike – except for their beaks. There are 13 Darwin finches currently on the islands and 13 different beaks.

The authors, and our guides, warned of great problems in identifying many of these birds. Still, it would be interesting to see how far we could get in trying to identify the finches we were able to photograph. The photos were not always very good, but we hoped good enough for our identification purposes. To guide novice birdwatchers (like us), a chart in the guidebook showed a profile of all the finches’ bills to help with identification.

Finch, sharp-beaked (young juv)

Our guide excitedly pointed to this very young sharp-beaked ground finch on Genovesa Island. These finches eat seeds usually, but on two other islands, Darwin and Wolf, have used their beaks to stab boobies and drink their blood. Their nickname has become “vampire” finch.

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Only 4 finch species are found on Genovesa Island, including the warbler finch. Its thinner beak is good for probing for insects.

The beak on this male bird indicates it might be a large cactus finch. The beak works well for eating parts of the prickly-pear cactus.

The beak on this male bird indicates it might be a large cactus finch. The beak works well for eating parts of the prickly-pear cactus.

Santa Cruz Island is home to 9 species of Darwin finches. That makes it much more difficult to identify the birds we saw there. 3 of those species are uncommon, so we assumed that we could concentrate on the other 6.

We think this is a male cactus finch, but is it a small or medium? They are different species, and both quite common on Santa Cruz Island.

We think this is a male cactus finch, but is it a small or medium? They are different species, and both quite common on Santa Cruz Island.

his female small ground finch’s beak is refined for eating small seeds and parasites from tortoises and iguanas.

This female small ground finch’s beak is refined for eating small seeds and parasites from tortoises and iguanas.

The Darwin finches are only found on the Galapagos Islands.   They continue to change over time and continue to be a source of curiosity and wonder to all who see them.

One last note: In reading about the Darwin finches, it has been determined that they are not really “true finches” after all. Their closest relative in the bird family is a tanager. Who knew?

 

April 2016

 

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Expectation vs Reality

We never thought this trip would happen for us, but it did. No matter how much we read about the islands, the animals, and birds, our expectations didn’t prepare us for the reality of the surprisingly diverse and wonderful adventure in Paradise.

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We always thought of beaches when we thought of the Galapagos Islands, but who could have imagined snorkeling from the red beach of Rabida Island?

Galapagos is more than beaches. We drove up into the green highlands of Santa Cruz Island to see the giant tortoises.

Galapagos is more than beaches. We drove up into the green highlands of Santa Cruz Island to see the giant tortoises.

We chose Ecoventura for their itinerary and excellent guides. In 7 days we visited 7 islands where we saw marine life and breeding colonies of birds; visited the giant Galapagos tortoises; walked, snorkeled, kayaked, and even visited mangrove inlets in pangas (small boats).

We split into 2 groups on outings with 9 or 10 people for each guide.

We split into 2 groups on outings with 9 or 10 people for each guide.

The pangas squeezed through the mangroves. In one spot, sea lions rested on low branches of the mangrove trees just over the water.

The pangas squeezed through the mangroves. In one spot, sea lions rested on low branches of the mangrove trees just over the water.

When we looked down into the water, we saw golden cownose rays (photo), green sea turtles, and Galapagos penguins.

When we looked down into the water, we saw golden cownose rays (photo), green sea turtles, and Galapagos penguins.

Our guide, Ivan, did more than name what we were seeing, he gave us information.

Our guide, Ivan, did more than name what we were seeing, he gave us information and taught a few of us the finer points of snorkeling.

Our guide, Jose, explained the context to better understand the ecology of the islands.

Our guide, Jose, explained the context to better understand the ecology of the islands.

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One night we were treated to a concert in honor of fellow passengers, John and Jane, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Our guides magically transformed into rock stars. Musical instruments were guitar, teaspoons, and plastic water bottles filled with rice. Everyone danced.

We were surprised how different each island was from the others. Birds and reptiles vary from island to island. Tortoises can only be seen on half of the islands. The sharp-beaked ground finch is found only on Fernandina and Santiago Islands.

A helpful reference book, “Birds, Mammals, and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands” by Andy Swash and Rob Still, helped us keep track of the many things we were seeing, including where to find them.

Despite all the research and preparation that we did before the trip, we found ourselves surprised at all the many unexpected wonders.

 

April 2016

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