Category: Culture

:: good friday procession ::

We weren’t really prepared for the intense demonstrations of faith that are an integral part of the Good Friday procession in Quito.  We had heard that the procession is an enormous event.  All through the streets of the Centro Historico, thousands of people slowly march in front of the enormous glass enclosed figure of Jesus del Gran Poder, a representation of Jesus carrying his cross on the way to being crucified.  The procession in Quito is one of the largest in the world and hundreds of churches send their penitents to take part.

It is a little overwhelming to see the commitment that these people undertake.  Each group will have one, or more, ‘Jesus’ carrying a cross, with a crown of thorns, and invariably with chained ankles.  Some of these crosses are enormous tree trunks or telephone poles and require assistants to help lift it on and off the shoulder each time there is a stop in the procession – which occurs frequently.  Barefoot, over cobbled streets, and up and down the hills of Quito – this is a show of faith that is to be respected regardless of your religious leanings.

Sprinkled in are people walking with cacti crosses strapped to their bare backs, complete with their blood dripping down. Arms tied out to form a cross, the physical pain to the shoulders must be intense.  Women and children take part, with many of the women playing the role of Veronica – the woman who gave Jesus a cloth to wipe his face on his procession to be crucified.  For the rest of the marchers, they are dressed in purple robes and tall pointed hoods and walk silently throughout.  Bands play religious music and help inspire the marchers.

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All in all it was an amazing experience, but we decided not to wait the requisite hours to see Jesus del Gran Poder – especially since we had three kiddos under the age of 9 with us!  It was another great reminder of how lucky we are in the foreign service to have these chances to see cultural events up close and in person.

:: cosy cusin ::

A hacienda conjures up grandiose historical context.  The mind wanders to rolling country estates with horse-riding nobility and a grand house with Spanish ceramic tiles.  You can find this type of hacienda in Ecuador, but nestled below the glowering peak of Volcan Imbabura is a different type of hacienda.

At Hacienda Cusin you can wander through towering trees, past llamas languidly chewing on grass, and hole up with a good book in front of a roaring fire.  Sure the horses are there as well, but Cusin is a cosier feeling hacienda.

Reconstructed after decades of disrepair, the owners have recreated a historical feeling amongst the cobblestoned pathways.  First established in 1602 by a powerful Spanish family, Cusin maintained an expansive presence along the valleys on the eastern end of Lago San Pablo near Otavalo.  At its peak, it controlled over 100,000 acres, all but redistributed following land reforms in the mid-20th century.  Now it is home to quaint rooms with fireplaces spread amongst the main house and several out buildings.

The rooms each have a unique character, but it is the gardens and newly built monastery that have the most character. Trees draped with moss and bromeliads provide a canopy for various hummingbird inducing flowers.  The friendly little group of llamas ignore most visitors – except when they get close enough for a kiss from my wife!

And the monastery – which we first thought was refurbished, but later learned was actually completely built from scratch in the 1990s – offers surprises behind a myriad of doors.  Hand carved columns, handmade furniture, a chapel and beautiful altar, and even a secret door, the monastery is a fabulous place to explore!  And if you are lucky to get a sunny day, the view from the top of the tower, accessed through the secret door (if you can find it!) is stunning.

If you haven’t explored enough, then check out their little farm.  They have a few horses, ducks, chickens, cuy and once we discovered a huge bee’s nest.  They can organize horse riding adventures, or else you can just watch the baby chicks wander around and look for their elusive rabbits.

And when you’re tired of that, check out their squash court, fusbol table, ping pong table, and several movie rooms. WiFi is free in the common areas, or disconnect on a garden bench or in front of the fire in your room.

Hacienda Cusin is friendly and welcoming and we all love going there – even Mosa who plays with the property’s dog Terry.  The staff know us, especially Piper, and treat us like familiar friends.  They know of Piper’s propensity for soup in the evenings, her tendency to fall asleep at the table soon thereafter and her desire to find the llamas!

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Any old ramshackle house with Spanish ceramic tiles and some gardens can call itself a hacienda, but it takes a special feel to make such a place feel like home – Hacienda Cusin is just such a place.  Thanks Hacienda Cusin for the great experience for us and our guests, each and every time we go.

:: more adventures on the farm ::

Oh the stories the locals will have of the time the gringos came and dug a ditch!  We returned to the wonderful hospitality of Elisa’s family farm recently and could not sit idly by when there was work to be done.  We thought that we would be doing normal farm tasks like our last visit, but there were larger projects to tackle.

Unbeknownst to us, or Elisa, her family was responsible for helping on a community project the weekend we were there. Called a minga, each family in the community is required to assist in completing a project necessary in the area.  In this case, the minga involved digging a ditch for a new water pipe.  Elisa’s family had 20 meters of ditch to dig and so we went with picks and shovels and lent our not so skilled, or calloused, hands.

It was good to offer a hand to the hard working and remarkably friendly family and though they protested that we should be relaxing on our weekend, I think they were quite pleased to have our help.  We dug our piece of the ditch whilst people complained about where they had to work and how far it really was and how deep as well.  We contended with a rickety pick-axe that repeatedly broke off in the hard soil and a different water pipe running diagonally across our ditch, but we got there in the end!

One thing we were really keen to experience was seeing the whole cuy making process.  Yes, cuy is guinea pig, but it is a special meal for families in this part of Ecuador and we were honoured to have the chance to enjoy it with everyone. Mamachula – the matriarch of the family – did much of the initial preparing while we were out digging our ditch.  But we saw the remnants when we got back – intestines and blood and other bits that they would no doubt use somehow.

Once prepared, the cuy were tied onto long spits and placed on the braai – which was a gift from us all the way from Lesotho. They use the tips of aloe plants for puncturing the skin to ensure they don’t explode from the heat and leeks to brush oil onto the skin.  It is a long process with lots of turning, but we enjoyed sitting and talking with Elisa’s sisters and brothers and her dad, Papachulo – the patriach.  The final product was delicious – served with potatoes, rice and a peanut sauce.

Piper was once more the star of the weekend with everyone amazed at how much she had grown in ten months.  She was speaking up a storm and stole ‘mamachula’s’ heart once more!  She also decided to name the new farm cat ‘pescado’ – so they now have a cat named fish!

Beyond our unexpected community service we helped plant maize, choclo, and beans in the family field.  We picked capuli – cherry like fruits that make a wonderful drink – from a towering tree.  And we cleared out several large aloe plants for a new ‘driveway’ to Elisa’s brother’s house.  It was refreshing to be back in the campo under the commanding view of Cotopaxi and have the opportunity to give a little back to Elisa and her family for everything she does for us.  Piper had a blast romping in the fields with Mosa and Kevin – one of Elisa’s nephews.

We also had the chance to briefly go to the flower farm that we had helped last time by weeding seedlings.  They have expanded from one greenhouse to five and the flowers are absolutely stunning!  Competition is fierce though so the family has to consider changing crop to make it worthwhile.

It is not an easy life in the campo, but the quiet hospitality and earnest nature of all made us once again feel at home.  We will miss the opportunity to go back, but know that any future visit to Ecuador will see us welcomed back with open arms!  Thank you Familia Maigua for always opening your home and your hearts to us.  We will truly miss you.

:: fiesta de la luz ::

Every year thousands of people descend on the Centro Historico in Quito to enjoy the choreography of lights that is the Fiesta de la Luz Quito (Quito Festival of Lights).  For one week, several historical buildings get their facades lit up with a vivid array of lights. Sometimes there are just various colours and other times it is an entire light show displaying animals, machinery, and people.

It is a rather intense experience as any conception of personal space must quickly be left behind.  There are gazillions of people trying to go in every direction with the expected mixture of tourists, hawkers, and thieves.  Travel with minimal possessions and literally keep your hands on the ones that you bring!  Due to that unfortunate byproduct of this event, we only brought our small camera, but hopefully the pictures and short video still do the National Basilica and National Theatre justice.

Thanks to our friends for the lovely dinner beforehand, and the company wandering around the chaos.  It was a wonderfully memorable evening.

:: baños ::

There is something in the water in Baños, a small town in the middle of Ecuador.  Some people will tell you it is holy.  Others say that it has minerals that lead to better health.  Others don’t care about the water because they are too busy throwing themselves off bridges, swinging over cliff edges, and ziplining across river gorges, and quite frankly the water wouldn’t help them even if it did have magic properties!

Nestled in a peaceful river valley and guarded by the 5,000 metre high, and rather active, Tungurahua Volcano, Baños is a destination with a little bit of everything.  It is a common stopping point on the backpackers circuit, but it also attracts lots of local Ecuadorians for the spa baths and laid-back attitude.  It is a place that can tempt someone to visit for three days and then never leave – as evidenced by many of the hostel and restaurant owners!

With our 14 month old Piper in tow, thereby limiting the amount of white water rafting and mountain biking we could do, we opted to go for a lovely hike along the fields and hillsides overlooking Rio Pastaza.  We were hoping that Tungurahua would show itself, but it remained mysterious and shrouded in the clouds.

We wandered along a winding path up into the small fields and rampant plant life of the area.  The moisture that comes up out of the Amazon region and the lower altitudes makes the whole region from Ambato to Baños a prime fruit and vegetable growing territory.  We saw lots of tomate de arbol trees, also known as tomarillo (a fruit commonly made into juice here), maracuyas,  or passionfruit in English, (another fruit that makes an even better juice), and normal tomatoes as well.

In fact, we had a lovely little exchange with a family harvesting their tomatoes as they stood on the other side of the small river valley from their greenhouses.  They were using a tarabita – a small metal cart that hangs off of a metal cable operated by a pulley system.  Using this simple mechanised transportation system saved this family hours of hauling wooden crates of tomatoes down and then back up the steep slopes of the river gorge.  Cora helped to unload a few crates, gaining bemused looks from the family which was clearly not used to gringas moving their tomato harvest!  We exchanged a couple of cereal bars for fresh tomatoes – so good we enjoyed them right there as we hiked!

Back in Baños we wandered into churches and past cafes.  We saw a small local festival, admired the local graffiti and watched people at the ubiquitous candy shops pulling the equivalent of taffy in the doorways.  It was odd to see so many of these shops all offering their version of the same thing and literally standing mere feet from each other as they pulled long strings of the light brown sticky substances off of pegs.  Wrap and pull, wrap and pull, and at some point determine it is ready!

An unexpected find was a classic Italian trattoria, owned by a native Italian!  Carpe Diem had fantastic handmade pastas and a casual setting away from the main area of town that made it perfect for us.  We are not huge connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, but this was truly wonderful home style cooking.

A common outing from town is to hire bikes and ride the road down the river valley heading towards the jungle.  Along this road are a series of waterfalls, the most famous of which is El Pailon del Diablo or Devil’s Cauldron.  This thunderous waterfall carves its way through a narrow gorge to dramatic effect.  To truly experience it, you can walk down into the river gorge on a fairly well built path and then slink your way under and around rocks to stand virtually under the flow (bring a change of clothes).  It is loud, wet, and intense but well worth the effort to get so close to a true spectacle of nature.

A trip to Baños wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the baños, the thermal baths.  The main baths were in the centre of town at the base of a waterfall.  We opted to go as night fell to experience these magical waters under the stars.  Every afternoon they empty the pools and refill them from the source so we were treated to a lovely clean and hot thermal bath. Though we arrived early, soon the baths were full of people enjoying their warmth and healing.  It was a great experience seeing people of all walks of life relaxing and enjoying the waters.

Our home away from home for the couple of nights was La Casa Verde.  Set a couple of kilometres outside the city centre and right along the river, it is a quiet oasis with a very eco-friendly approach.  The hospitality from Sharon and Steven, the temporary managers, was phenomenal.  These two took a hiatus from teaching in international schools to slow down a bit and try their hand at running an eco hostel.  They did a fantastic job and had great insights on the area.  Strangely the actual owners intended to hold a lottery to ‘auction’ off the place.  For one dollar you could enter and they would pull out a winner, who would soon become the new owners.  Tempting as it was to pack it all in and move to Baños – we decided to skip the opportunity.  The world is just too big to settle down in one place quite yet, but Baños was a lovely place to experience!

:: island getaway ::

Sometimes you just have to go to the beach and get away from it all.  Of course we aren’t very sit in the sun all day type of people, so our beach holiday destination still had mountains to hike, fish to snorkel with, local markets to explore and very limited time on the beach!

With massive changes on the horizon for us, we decided to abscond from the ever shorter, colder days in Maseru and head to the island nation of Mauritius.  Situated in the Indian Ocean, about 1000 kilometres east of Madagascar, the island is almost completely ringed by coral reefs.  Its history is long and complex, giving rise to English as the official language in Parliament, French as the de facto language and Hinduism as its most common religion.  It is a colourful country, small enough to visit just about everywhere in two weeks, but enchanting enough to make you want to stay a lifetime!

It is hard to describe the variety of such a small place.  Driving out along the southern coast, the road slices through sugar cane fields that tower over the top of your car.  Here the sea and coastline are a little fiercer than elsewhere, due to the limited reef system and influence of the Southern Ocean.  If you head south from Mauritius there is nothing until Antarctica.  Elsewhere on the island’s coast, calm bays and coves sparkle with turquoise waters, perfect for snorkelling.  And then there is the mountainous interior, with deep gorges and waterfalls tumbling into the forest below.

It isn’t just the natural beauty either.  From the bustling central market in Port Louis to the simple food and vegetable markets in the small towns and villages, there is life and colour everywhere.  Hindu shrines and small churches are nestled down alleyways hemmed in by rock walls.  There is a peaceful reverie about the island, but also an undercurrent of energy long cultivated through the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius is home to quite a few artisanal merchants including the Mauritius Glass Gallery.  There we watched them make little glass penguins (a favourite of Cora’s), bowls, glasses and all sorts of other objects.  The teams worked amazingly quickly, yet each worker had a certain artistic flair and unique style.  It was mesmerising to watch the molten liquid be formed and shaped with relative ease by these skilled artisans, and the end products were stunning.

Meanwhile, set on the coffee and sugar cane covered slopes in between the stunning Le Morne Peninsula and the Black River Gorge, the Rhumerie de Chamarel offers wonderfully produced rums in a tranquil setting.  Feeling more like a hacienda with a gorgeous mountainous backdrop, it was a relaxing place to try a few rums and learn more about their process from growing the sugar cane to bottling – all done within a few hundred metres of the main tasting room.  Much like the glass company, a few samples may very well have wound up in our luggage home!

Mauritus is truly an island that can give a traveller the most luxurious, cloistered stay if they desire.  Yet there are little gems to be found everywhere if one is willing to explore a little, like magical late afternoon light filtering through a quiet grove of trees situated atop thirty metre high cliffs on the south coast.  Or the tunnel-esque trail in Black Gorges National Park that occasionally opened up to views over much of the western side of the island.  Being who we are, we explored what we could.

We snorkelled in Blue Bay Marine Reserve in the southeast coast and swam amongst wonderful schools of fish and calm, peaceful waters.  We took a catamaran trip that treated us to wonderfully unique coral outcroppings, a plenty of dolphin sightings and a lovely Mauritian lunch aboard.  We also were able to snorkel right next to the coral wall, which offered another fine array of fish.  Unfortunately our underwater camera died so regrettably we don’t have any photos of these lovely local underwater wonders.

Though we used our rental car to get around the island quite a bit, we also took advantage of the bikes available at our resort and went on a guided bike ride with one of the staff up through the sugar cane fields and into the nearest little village for their Tuesday morning market.  It was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the different kinds of sugar cane and to sample wonderful local street food and Mauritian spices.

Not far from Chamarel is the rather unique little tourist site of the Seven Coloured Earths.  Here a patch of exposed earth is coloured like a rainbow, or tie-dyed shirt.  Due to the chemicals present in this one random spot, the colours occur completely naturally and do not seem to fade through rain or sun.  The colours are a completely natural phenomenon, created as basaltic lava was converted to clay minerals.  Nothing grows here in this small patch of coloured earth so what remains is a unique corner of coloured earth that often features in popular nature and photography magazines.

On a cloudy, rainy day we drove through the heart of the island, up past the enormous Hindu shrine and holy lake of Ganga Talao and on towards the more populated northwestern part of the island.  We made it to the capital of Port Louis, and wandered around the central market, sampling more street food.  Though certainly not as busy as many world capitals, it was still wholly refreshing to depart and head back down along the coast and towards our home away from home.

The resort we stayed at was a special treat, a kind of splurge before our little one comes into our lives.  Spoilt with amazing meals, luxurious pools, a secluded beach front and water and land sports, we could have easily stayed on the grounds all week.  We had a room as far away from the main reception and restaurant buildings as possible and the walks along the winding pathways were unhurried and perfect for spotting lizards, birds or new flowers.  Swimming under the towering palm trees to the edge of the main pool you could throw your arms up onto the ledge and look out at the waves crashing on the reef wall.  An herb and vegetable garden was used to provide daily speicalties in the restaurant and a small ‘rum shack’ sat off on its own, perfect for a pre-dinner drink.

The flora and fauna on the grounds, and the island in general, were particularly were stunning.  Flowers grew in all shapes and sizes.  The moisture rich environment let trees grow tall and leaves broad.  And then there were small surprises, like the tiny fern leaves that would crumple up when touched.  Birds and lizards were always prevalent and even a monkey or two could be glimpsed in the trees.

At the end of each day we were treated to a different and often dramatic sunset, with the light across the bay and over the distant mountains changing dramatically and filtered through the ocean’s spray.  It was always the perfect way to relax in the late afternoon.

We didn’t really know exactly what to expect from this holiday, but it was truly magical and the perfect way to re-charge, re-connect and prepare for the massive changes ahead with our little moeti on the way.  Thanks Mauritius for the perfect little island adventure and escape!

:: sands of time ::

Nature is unrelenting.  Wind, sun and sand never stop their detrimental efforts to erode, erase and retake space humans have altered.  Sometimes we only see the after effects centuries later and can’t fully comprehend the process of nature’s will.  But sometimes, we can have an audience with the power of Mother Nature and see exactly how she works her magic.  Kolmanskop is such a place. 

Not far from the Namibian coastal town of Luderitz, Kolmanskop is an old mining town, once home to wealthy diamond miners and the families of the mine workers.  It was built during the German colonial era and therefore has the architectural and cultural influences of Germany, including a ballroom, theatre, skittle alley and casino.  

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Today the clapboard houses and buildings are being inexorably overwhelmed by the sands of the desert surrounding it.  Everything from the grand mansions to the tiny row houses of the workers have sand, wind and sun damage.  Walls have holes, floors have caved in and sand dunes reach up to ceilings. 

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It is a surreal experience to walk into a room through a perfectly normal doorway, albeit a little worse for wear, and see a slopping pile of sand filling up one whole corner of the space.  There are even reminders of the life left behind, with bathtubs, bed frames and other pieces of everyday life left scattered through the ruined houses. 

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For us it was a dream to wander through these unique spaces and take photos of changing light, shifting sands and fading colours on pock marked walls.  Neither of us have a lot of experience with locations of decaying manmade structures like this, and it was truly magical to spend a whole morning investigating this mesmerising location.