Thursday, October 9, 2014

'Old Friends' in Ecuador

I went back to my stomping grounds of origin in April to visit Bob, my lifelong best friend.  Bob's hometown of Luverne, Minnesota is one of those Norwegian-Lutheran you betcha kind of towns.  We had a great time reminiscing about those very early years growing up together in Iowa.  As youngsters we hunted pigeons and squirrels with Daisy BB guns and slingshots.  We rode pigs. We shot down German ME 109's with broomsticks from an old horse watering tank.  We watched Twilight  Zone and Thriller huddled together in living black and white.

Bob's brother Terry was in eighth grade when Bob and I were in fourth.  One day I got myself sideways with some eighth grade bullies on the school bus.  Terry, one of the smallest eighth graders intervened on my behalf.  To this day Terry doesn't remember it, but I do.  He was just looking out for his little brother's best friend.  That's the way it was, brothers looking out for brothers.

Then there's Bob's mom, Grace.  When Bob and I were growing up Grace always managed to feed her family (and me) well in spite of some tough family times.  I never knew they were having tough times because Grace was always sweet, kind, smiling and laughing.  Her sweetness and grace never faltered.

Bob's mom, Grace, was widowed twice before she and my dad got connected.  After my mom died, my Dad was pretty lost.  That is, until my Dad and Grace had a cup of coffee together one day.  In their eighties they made a really handsome couple on their honeymoon cruise.  Grace is widowed a third time now that Dad has passed.   43 years after Bob and I claimed each other as blood brothers we became step brothers too.  Life has many twists.  At 94 Grace still smiles and laughs a lot without ever really hearing the punchline.

I was really excited to see Ecuador, my home, through Bob's Minnesota eyes.  He'd never been to South America before.  He'd been all over Europe while in the army years ago.  Ecuador is not Europe.  Ecuador is not the US either and really doesn't want to be.  That is hard for many American expats to understand, and even harder for two week visitors.  I had my job cut out for me if I was going to impress Bob with the Ecuador that you can't see, the heart, spirit, and culture of the Andes.

A ride up and down dark twisting mountain roads from the Quito airport at 2 in the morning after your luggage has been lost is no way to start a visit to any foreign country.   Bob was my mule for a new computer that was in that lost bag along with his clothes.   It was a good thing we wear the same 32 x 32 jeans.   Somehow losing that bag with my computer and Bob's clothes just didn't seem like such a big loss to us.   Bob was with me safe and sound and he could wear my clothes.   No real loss.  Our priorities were right.  Our patience with the Friendly Skies paid off when the bag arrived two days later at Parque Matriz in Cotacachi.

The morning after Bob's arrival we toured Rachel's and my yard.  It was important to me that his first daylight impression of Ecuador was warm, sunny, and colorful.  God provided as He always seems to.

Bob soon learned that as a displaced Iowa farmer I had to have my hands dirty with great regularity.

We walked the concrete paths around Yanapamba and met some of the neighbors.

Later Bob went up on the terrace and looked out at the mountains around us.  Mt. Cotacachi had just a dusting of snow that day.

And taita (father) Imbabura was just being his regal self.

We sat together that morning on one of my crude benches and the same song jumped into our heads at once as if on cue and we laughed as we sang a once popular Paul Simon ballad:

"Old Friends"

Old friends,
Sat on their park bench
Like bookends.
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the 'round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends.

Old friends.
Winter companions,
The old men
Lost in their overcoats,
Waiting for the sunset.
The sounds of the city,
Sifting through trees,
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends

Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Old friends,
Memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fear...

Paul Simon

I know Paul Simon had homeless old guys in Central Park in mind when he wrote that song.  Bob was wearing sneakers that day but I was clearly convicted with my round toe high top farmer shoes.  We aren't 70 yet either, but it's much closer than it used to be.

I figured Bob needed some good rest after that United Airlines chicken coop flight from Houston to Quito so we were pretty laid back for a couple days.   Rachel, my Mexican Train partner was in the US.   I figured I could make Bob an easy surrogate domino victim.  We played on the terrace.

Then I remembered how competition brings out Bob's dark side.

Some things never change.

Touring around Imbabura

A few days later we started testing Bob's flatlander lungs.  We rode bicycles uphill to Quiroga from Yanapamba and rented a pickup to take us up the mountain to the volcano lake known as Lago Cuicocha.  We figured even old guys could could ride bikes down hill to 8000 feet again.  Bob did great!   We had lunch up there at the volcano lake and I discovered what became a common theme during Bob's stay:  I didn't have my memory card in my camera or my head.     Old friends......

Bob and I returned to Lago Cuicocha with our friendly taxi driver Jairo a couple days later.  This time I surely would remember my camera's memory card.  Not!  It was a good thing Jairo had his phone camera with him.  Looking down on Lago Quicocha with Mt. Cotacachi lurking in the background would have been a terrible miss.

There are many other-worldly scenes close to Cotacachi and they never diminish in their impact on me.  To share some of these places with Bob was at the top of my bucket list.

Jairo's uncle owns this house high on the ridge overlooking Quicocha.  His uncle lives in Quito but this makes for an incredibly private retreat.

We walked from Jairo's uncle's home along the ridge and marveled that such a place could still be privately owned.

The rest of the day Jairo took us to some of the other local attractions.

The hike from the village of Peguche to Cascada de Peguche winds through the woods and you are rewarded for your effort when you finally reach the falls.

We took the well groomed tourist's path back to Peguche.  This is a wonderful family provincial park where locals propose marriage, tent camp, and picnic.  There is almost always a soccer ball being kicked around somewhere.  People from all over the world are regular visitors as are the locals.  That's what makes it fun.

When we returned to Peguche the first people we saw is a typical scene in every Ecuadorian village.  There is almost always 3 to 4 generations of family sitting, walking, playing, or working together.  Here is the female side of an indigenous crafting family.  The grandmother directs traffic for her daughters (one quite shy) and her grand daughter that can't wait to make something colorful some day herself.

The next leg of our day tour was a little rugged.  I think it aged Jairo's taxi about four years in an afternoon.  The cobblestone road to Lago Mojanda can be brutal on anything less than a Humvee.   It is tough on passengers too.  Again, Bob was up to the task.

I told Bob things would look a little different once we're outside of Otavalo.  It didn't really take that long.  Sometimes the past is the present in Ecuador.  Sometimes you just have to love it.

Bob's farmer friends in Minnesota have GPS guided tractors and combines.  I'm sure that he will be telling them that such new fangled equipment would stand little chance on the slopes of the Andes.

It was still warm at ten thousand feet that day.  T shirts worked just fine.

Mojanda lake is at twelve thousand feet.  It was a little chilly.  We had a full day going from Cotacachi to the ridge at lago Cuicocha to cascada de Peguche to the Otavalo market to Mojanda lake and back to Cotacachi.  Bob survived a tough day of cobblestone roads in a taxi.  It would be good preparation for the Intag.  More on that later.

Bob had been taking chemotherapy for many weeks.  Chemo is tough but Bob is tougher.  He told his doctors he needed some time off to go to Ecuador.  The time off has made Bob regain his strength, his taste, and his stamina.  Bob took his chances coming to a foreign country where he'd be tooling around above the clouds on a bicycle.

An Afternoon at Hotel Primitivo

We had some good times on our kick back days too.

If you will look closely at Bob's demeanor you will see a face that is ready to exact some competitive revenge on his brother who bested him with dominoes.

Bob was a convincing winner with the stick.  It's obvious he's been in way too many pool halls.

After one small beer apiece Bob and I started yakking with the owner, Luis.  Luis grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador and has lived in other Latin American countries.  He also lived in Florida which many also consider to be a Latin American country.  Louis bought this marvelously well kept secret hotel many years back.  He has retained the hotel's motif,  Hotel Primativo which is also its name.   Only recently has he really started to develop its potential.  One great vision he has is to build a zip line across the Rio Ambi which lies directly below the windows of his restaurant.  When Bob and I had our one small beer we looked out at the amazing potential that lay in front of us.

Directly out our window was a thousand foot drop to the winding Ambi below.  Luis continued his dialogue.

Bob and I salivated on the idea that we could run this zip line.  Cotacachi would become a destination for thrill seekers from around the world.  Imagine zipping across this expanse while looking up to the face of Imbabura?

On the other side of the gorge lays a pristine horse pasture whose owner also happens to have a small herd of horses.  From that pasture, guided tours could take you deep into the gorge you just zipped across.  Sound fun?  You could also opt for a return zip to Hotel Primitivo to a point somewhat below the point you started from.

This is just in planning stages but if you are reading this and want to become Luis' partner, there's an opportunity here.   I'd be glad to get you introduced.  Otherwise, just come stay at his hotel and see all this for yourself.

Hotel Primitivo has become a bit of a gringo hangout for special occasions.  There are many local wedding parties and celebrations here.  At two in the afternoon on a weekday it is empty except for pool sharks.

Luis' son Alexander has a degree from the university in Ibarra in tourism and restaurant management.

He fixed us a little something to go with our pool game and that one little beer.

The neatest thing is that Hotel Primitivo is a very short walk from Yanapamba, much closer than walking to town.  I think Rachel and I will go there much more often after she returns from the states.

Bob and I tried to keep a balance between him having a restful vacation and having a bucket list micro tour of the country I've come to love.  Looking through Bob's 'Minnesota eyes' in the first week was revealing to me. Bob and I see the same things, but come to some different conclusions about what we see.  I believe that we must both be correct.  It is our attitude that carries our mind's eye photos of every experience.   With discussion,  reflection, and ample time swinging in the backyard hammocks our attitudes seemed to merge in week two.  I've been retired 4 years and Bob has only recently partially pulled the plug.    Retirement can be wonderful or painful depending on your attitude.  We all still need a passion for what we do and even for what we don't have to do.   If you have a passion for your work, why not work?  If you have a passion to experience life without a need for financial reward, why not retire?

Bible study

Bob and I agree on the important things about life and death.  We both believe in one very important Book.

On Sunday Roger and Glennda invited us to share in that Book.  We also had Roger and Glennda's to die for, sinfully delicious,  and politically incorrect breakfast.  That's why we needed a good dose of the Word and a rigorous walk back to Yanapamba after the carb-fest.  I just wouldn't have it any other way.    Bob already knew that he has brothers and sisters all over the world.

Bob in Recovery

Either Bob was on some miracle drug or his recovery from chemo poisoning was amazing.  I kept telling him to slow down when we went on walks.  'You're at 8000 feet for crying out loud' I huffed.  Then there was that bicycle trip to Quiroga and up to Cuicocha.  We had to cycle up 'The Hill' into Cotacachi.  I take great pride in zipping up that hill when many younger locals walk their bikes.  Bob was on my six the whole way.  He seemed bent on making sure I knew we could go anywhere together.

Bob said everything tasted like metal while on chemo back in Minnesota.  Don't ask me how he knew what metal tasted like but legend has it that he ate nails when he was a high school wrestler.

The mountain air must have resolved a few of those issues.  It didn't matter what I put in front of Bob to eat.  It was gone.  We ate meat-laden pizzas smothered with cheese, roast pork, chicken, dozens of fruits and vegetables and he seldom went to bed without a Jim-sized portion of popcorn.  That would be the five dollar bag at the theater with butter of course.  Breakfast was usually syrup with french toast or pancakes and eggs and some form of protein.  Just getting a little exercise at 8000 feet seems to give one an eat-anything license.

Otavalo Market

On one of our days 'off ' we went to the indigenous textile market in Otavalo.  Bob's children and grand children better not look at the pictures below because you may get an idea what you are getting for Christmas this year.

One of Bob's grand daughters loves ducks.  This warm duck cap will do the trick.

I had to step back about twenty steps and laugh out loud when I heard my dear Dutchman friend speaking in English trying to outfox this Otavalo native speaking in Quichua.  These market people all speak Quichua as their first language.  They speak Spanish with great fluency too, English not so much.  One thing they have down though is numbers, dollars and cents in almost every language on earth.  Most Dutchmen meet their match when dealing.

 What Bob took away in margin Maria got back in volume.  Everybody was happy.


Bob and I had some days playing frisbie, going for walks, playing Mexican train, watching war movies and playing tug of war with Dodger.  Most days at home included hammock time.  Any time of the day or night was a legal hammock hour.  Bob learned the art of easy entry and exit on these sublime articles of hedonism.  Dodger had to rouse him after a two hour snooze.  I told Bob that he needed to bring a hammock back to Minnesota.  He said the mosquitoes would haul him away or he'd get buried in snow.  How quickly I've forgotten.

The Intag

Now rough road-tested and rested, Bob said he was ready for the Intag.  Good thing.  My friend Flick (first name Bob, not to be confused) was ready to take us on another great tour.  Lee Wright would be our guide, Flick the driver, and the rest of us would be the riding section.  The road will be a smooth and enjoyable ride in another year (as seen in the photo below).  It's only half done.

The scenery en route to Lee's farm is awesome.  We were often driving above the clouds.

During the first part of our trip, Mt. Cotacachi was quietly showing her face.

We would take a different road on our return and would see yet another entirely different face of Mt. Cotacachi.

Wherever you look....grandeur and eerie silence

Sometimes the road gets a little worse before it get's better.

Traffic can back up for a half hour or more.

By the time we arrived at Lee's coffee plantation we were ready to stretch our legs.

Lee's coffee plants are looking wonderful.  They are only in their second year and already have a fine harvest of coffee beans nearing  readiness.  Lee planted trees and bananas strategically to shade the coffee plants.  They like the partial shade best.

At the base of Lee's coffee farm is Rio Cristo Bamba.  Rio Cristo Bamba flows into Rio Intag just a short distance away.   Rio Intag is one of the top whitewater sporting rivers in Ecuador.

Although Rio Cristo Bamba is not known for it's whitewater rafting, it has some trout and affords Lee's neighbors the opportunity to have a small panela processing plant.  Panela is sugar cane.

This Swiss Family Robinson-esque contraption is a bit crude, but very effective.  The owners engage the flow of the river to drive the mill which in turn does all sorts of mechanical processes in making the finished product.

A small hydro-electric plant powers the lights (see the two dangling wires attached to the generator).

Lee's neighbor across the river grows granadilla.

Lee said his neighbor welcomes a select few vecinos y amigos to sample his wonderful fruit.

OK, we were a little bad....just like those teenager watermelon days.

Whenever you get about five guys together, you are out in the wilderness and there's a granadilla orchard just across a swinging bridge, what are you going to do?

The granadilla is my favorite fruit in Ecuador.  The insides look like frog eggs but they have the most delicious flavor in the world, next to popcorn of course.  

The granadillas just whetted our appetite.  Let's go to Nangulvi for lunch!

There are two ways back to Cotacachi from Cuellaje.  Lee took us via Nangulvi and Otavalo on the way home.  I remember the first time out in the Intag I really felt like I was an interactive player in Lord of the Rings.  I kept expecting Gandalf to step out on the road at any moment.

I have very fond memories of Nangulvi.  Rachel and I have bathed in their thermal pools.  We also spent the night in a cabin nearby.  The main restaurant is very good when they are open for business.  That is the trick.

Behind the restaurant is the river

They must have run out of trout because there was no lunch that day.  We pressed on.

It seems like every time we got out to take a stretch break there was a natural feature right in front of you.

The road home was no picnic.  There were almost constant pot holes and ruts.  Then we started meeting the trucks taking lime or some other kind of rock to the nearby concrete plant.  Between  a little choking and being bounced like popcorn we got a little fatigued.

Then the rutty nightmare became smooth asphalt, the skies cleared and out came Mt. Cotacachi.

As the sun started to set, the photo ops became almost impossible for my $125 camera to absorb.  You could never replicate with a photo what we felt.

We got back to Yanapamba and I fixed us a quick supper before Flick and Peter headed back north to their hacienda.  We were all bushed but knew that we had done something very special together.  

Peter is a professional photographer.  Peter's artful photography includes several Ecuador folders which is attached if you will click this link:

There are several photos in Peter's Flickr site that were taken on this trip.  Peter used to work for USA Today and he got these cameras at a deep discount that you could trade for a car.  I can't get my $125 Canon to do what his big ass camera can do.  You are a great photographer Peter!

Bob and I had a couple days to relax after our trip to the Intag.  Much of that time was in a hammock or walking down the road with Dodger.  We had never traveled farther than forty miles from Yanapamba except for the trip to the Quito airport.  Bob had seen about a thousandth of Ecuador.

It will be my year to visit Bob and our families in the Midwest next year, God willing.  I still love the Midwest, just not in winter.

God willing, Bob will come back to see us again in two years  There is much more to see and much more to say.