The Road To Ecuador

vcxa8286I never made it to Vilcabamba. When the shuttle stopped in Loja, the voice in my head, my guide through life, said, “Get off here.” I did and the moment I walked through the town entrance, I fell in love with the city. I was under the castle’s spell. While walking from one end to the other, I decided to say here for the night rather than continue on to Vilcabamba. Another great thing about travel, changing plans in midstream when where you are, feels like the place you need to be.

I followed the streets according to my interest in the names and saw two men working outside a hotel. I asked about a room for the night. After a brief conversation, I asked the owner, if he knew of any apartments for rent in town. He showed me two of his in the final phase of completion on the top of the hotel. He offered for me to stay in one for the same price as the hotel room. I was concerned about the noise from the disco and took him up on his offer as a trial run for a possible future rental. When the music woke me around midnight, I thought of the wonderful times I had dancing with a group from the school on Friday and the salsa lessons I took at the school during the week. Any apartment in the area would still be affected by the sound as music was all over town. In my head, I danced myself back to sleep.

So, while looking for a hotel room, I found an apartment on the edge of El Centro. It is on the top floor of a four story disco/bar (The Mills) which is opened on Friday and Saturday nights. From the outside it looks like a modern version of the Taj Mahal and would not have grabbed my interest at all, visually, as a place to live. Rather over done for my taste, modern and trendy, but as fate would have it, I saw the inside first. Otherwise I would not have stopped.

One of my favorite poets, Charles Bukowski, recommends all writers live above a bar. The more rough and tumble the better. So, it appears this is my chosen fate. Now I have a place to land when I return. From the roof top, I have a 360 degree view of the city and the mountains. Climbing the eighty stairs to my apartment a few times a day will keep me in shape. Legs don’t fail me now.

This morning I visited the various open markets in town. Fruits, familiar and unknown, filled the makeshift stalls. Salted fish piled high. Beans of every size and variation one might imagine. I stopped in the main square and listened to the Marine Band Concert, saw men and women on horseback parade around the town and kids playing jump rope and using a loading ramp as a sliding board. This is a town of happy people. I am happy here. This is where I am supposed to be, and for now at least, Loja is home.

Happy New Year From Ecuador

B4C0A454-579E-47EC-B306-E76CD25BDF24In Ecuador they celebrate the new year by burning effigies and dressing up with costumes and masks. The most popular costume is young men dressing as old women akin to Mardi Gras and Halloween in the US. The effigies are made from cardboard and paper mâché. They are then dressed in old clothes and placed in doorways and in front of businesses throughout the city.

The effigy dolls or “munecos” all wait patiently to be burned at midnight. Some are as tall as fifteen feet. The celebration is a smaller version of the Burning Man celebration in the United States. I would wager this is where the concept of the burning man came from. The muneocs are sometimes made of political figures or people you do not like but most buy dolls of cartoon characters to burn if they have no enemies. The dolls are filled with sawdust and fire crackers and are burned in the streets at midnight or before once the partying gets started. The term “años viejos” is used to represent the old year. The burning of the munecos is representative of burning the bad and misfortune of the previous year.

Another tradition, I learned rather embarrassingly at the market today. You are to wear yellow underwear if you want prosperity and money to come into your life and red if you want to bring sex and love into your life. So when the young lady at the market asked me “qué color vas vestida?” following a conversation she had with the lady in front of me at which I laughed. I responded in my best broken Spanish, “No uso ropa interior de color.” She started laughing out loud and told the other checkout people what I said. Then they and the customers within earshot all started laughing and pointing to that crazy gringo in the checkout lane. Well, at least I will be remembered now whenever I go to the SuperMaxi market.

It is early in the afternoon and the celebrations have already started.The fireworks are going off. The dogs are going crazy and the music can be heard all across town. I can’t wait for the burning of the munecos to start. I hope I can stay up till  midnight.

“Feliz Años Viejo”



Living In A Different World

Roasted Guinea Pigs Are A Delicacy*

* Known in the local Kichwa language as cuy, the furry little creatures are flattened and roasted whole over an open fire. You won’t find them on every restaurant menu in Quito.

This is a premium priced specialty dish served in only a handful of the capital’s eateries and in the countryside. A whole roasted guinea pig costs about $20-$25. It has a gamey flavor not unlike rabbit and is usually served with potatoes and corn.

Cuy are so highly prized that a mating pair is considered a valuable wedding present in the countryside.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans.” We have all heard that expression and for most of my travels I have made it a practice to sample the local flavours as much as possible. Snails (escargot) in Paris, snake in Hong Kong, and crawdads in New Orleans, but I could not bring myself to sample cuy while visiting Chuquiribamba a few weeks ago. Just looking at the locals roasting these rat looking creatures was almost enough to make me puke. I was only able to watch long enough to take a picture. From my perspective it was still a rat, or at best a creature used in lab experiments, or as household pets. I therefore declined the invitation to do as the locals and dine on one of the delicacies of Ecuador. I am sure this was my loss but I can live with that decision.

I suppose my western sensitivities came into play. It was for this reason that the Chinese, during the last Summer Olympics, had all vendors banned from displaying cats and dogs from their meat racks near the events. We have become not only a culture of food (animal) sensitivities, but we have also gain consideration for those from different cultures.

The locals laugh when they saw my expression to the cuy and offered me a free sample. As I lifted the gift to my mouth I looked at the guinea pig roasting on the barbecue and remembered my childhood pet, Squeaky. “Never name an animal you may one day have to eat,” my Aunt Baby Sis used to say. She was right. I thanked the bearer of the gift, returned it, and walked away to their laughter at the silly gringo.

*Reference Credit: 11 Things To Know Before Visiting Ecuador

Why Ecuador?

Why Ecuador? My first conscious exposure to Ecuador came in August of 2012, when the small South American country granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. I thought at the time how brave of this small nation to stand up against the larger and more powerful nations of the world including England and the United States. Ecuador denied their demands for extradition “to protect Assange’s rights,” their Foreign Minister Patiño stated.

It was another two years before Ecuador again became a part of my conscious thought. As much as I loved my living situation in Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu in Fiji, it had become too expensive to continue to live there due to having to leave the island every four months to meet immigration requirements. My attempts to acquire residency all failed and my bank account was not large enough to remain. After an immigration official told me I would not be able to stay on my tourist visa much longer and with the coming election of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, I knew residency on the island would become more difficult to obtain. It was time to consider leaving.

I sought a country where my retirement would be enough for me to live on without having to return to work. I also wanted someplace warm but not tropical. After considering the available options, my choice was Ecuador. I consumed as much information about the country as I could. My primary concern was if at my age I could learn the language well enough to engage in meaningful conversation. So in November of 2014, I enrolled in the Simon Bolivar Spanish School in Cuenca. Ten days to explore the language and country which would soon become my home. It was through this program that I had correspondence with Sofia Valdivieso, the program director for Simon Bolivar. Her positive encouragement and abundant love of her country was infectious. It was through her influence that I first fell in love with Ecuador even before I arrived.

Ecuador has its problems like any developing nation. The economy here has suffered with the drop in oil prices. It neighbors are also suffering with the economic crises as well as political dictatorships. Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa is planning to run for a third term in defiance of the Constitution he has sworn to protect which limits the office to two terms. The economic divide between the rich and poor is widening, and the basic freedoms of the populous are being reduced or taken away entirely in some cases by a president who seeks greater, unchallenged power. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So, why am I still here? Why Ecuador? I am here because Ecuador is the only country I have lived in (United States, Canada, Fiji, and Switzerland) or visited (too many to name) which is concerned with promoting “the principle of universal citizenship and free movement.” Those are huge ideals for such a small country. Another reason for my being here is that as a Black man who has lived for sixty plus years in America, I am 99.9% positive I will not be shot, beaten, or accosted while walking the streets of Ecuador simple for being Black. I can not say the same for any city in America.

To Be Continued…

A Hotel Citizen

“I am a hotel citizen.” It has been nine months since I moved to the fifth floor of the Hostal Los Molinos (Hostal The Mills) in Loja, Ecuador. It was my initial intension to use this location only as a landing base for my permanent return last December until a more suitable living arrangement could be found, but I am still here. I thought the disco music on Friday and Saturday nights, or the barking German shepherd outside my bedroom window, or the numerous calls of the neighborhood rosters before sunrise would quickly drive me to find a different residence, but I am still here. I live in one of two apartments on the rooftop. It is peaceful here because it is the highest building in the area. There are 80 steps to my floor which I climb three to four times a day as there are no elevators in most of the residential buildings in Loja.

The apartment next to me has been vacant since I moved here in December but a couple from the US will be moving in the beginning of September. I believe he is retired and she teaches at the English School and has offered to help my with my Spanish.

Having an apartment in a hotel is a bit different for me because I am use to being isolated in my living arrangements. In Fiji, I lived on an plot of land one hundred yards from the ocean. In California, a small casita invisible to the rest of the world behind the main dwelling. Years ago when I imagined my retirement, I thought of the possibility of living in a residential hotel but the image in my mind was in a city like New York or San Francisco and the hotel had a doorman who would greet me upon each exit and return.

There are some advantages to living in a hotel. One advantage of living where I do is the fabulous 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains. Also, I did not have to purchase furniture or appliances, and all utilities, cable, and internet wifi are included. For a person like myself who gets itchy feet every three to five years, a hotel is a good choice. Although now that I have residency here, at least Ecuador will be home for a while. I have learned to put in earplugs before the music starts in the disco so the loud music is not much of a problem. Sometimes if I wake up, I’ll go down to the bar for a drink or read. It is a very young crowd and reminds me of my disco days except everyone here does the salsa.

I am a bit of a curiosity to the young adults who come to dance at the disco. They think I am someone important because the hotel staff treats me so well. I leave by a special door that takes me to the stairway and back up to my rooftop apartment. The rooftops in Loja are used as extended rooms by the families to keep the pets and/or chickens, and to hang laundry out to dry. On holidays and weekends many of the families have BQ’s on the neighborhood rooftops.

In Ecuador the children live in the family home until they marry and often even after they are married. It is very family orientated here, often two or three family segments live in the same home. So, by living in a hotel, I have become part of an extended family. The employees are very friendly and attend to me as a family member. We speak different languages but that barrier has not hindered our relationship. Perhaps this is the reason more than any other I am still here.