‘The Traditional Way’

Traveling The Panama Canal Part 13

Workmen clean mud, rocks and a boulder from the roadway after a landslide in the Andes Mountains between Cuenca and Guayaquil, Ecuador. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

During our 22 days in Ecuador, 15 of those in Cuenca, we were able to visit many artisan shops, thanks to Noel and Christine, my husband’s cousin and his wife. One of those visits was with Chris to a shop that made Panama hats. They originated in Ecuador, but were wrongly named Panama hats for various reasons. One is because many Americans were first exposed to them when traveling through Panama.

We first saw the brimmed straw hats being sold at a port in Santa Marta, Colombia. They were very inexpensive and poorly made with the wrong material. A true Panama hat can cost more than $3,000, but that is not the norm. Most start under $100. The traditional hat is made from fibers from the toquilla palm. The fiber is very narrow and tightly woven. The tighter the weave, the higher the amount on the price tag. Although not as popular, the fiber can be crocheted, as well as woven.

After the hats are woven and blocked, they are bleached. The grassy fringe is then trimmed and a decorative band is added. From beginning to end, a Panama hat passes though the hands of several craftsmen. The finished product is light-weight and flexible and may be rolled to carry in a pocket.

For our last outing in Cuenca we visited a chocolate shop, where chocolate had been produced since 1942. We were not permitted to take pictures, but I did put a few notes in my phone. Fatima, the founder’s daughter, showed us around the artisan business. We were fortunate to have Christine along to interpret. She had been raised as a missionary’s kid who spent many years in South America, so her Spanish is impeccable.

Fatima’s father, a devout Catholic, named her after the Shrine of Fatima. He had made several gold and silver items for the church. His daughter has followed the traditional way of making chocolate by taking the product from cacao to pure dark chocolate, ready for baking, candy-making or hot chocolate. Everything is done by hand. Because of following this tradition, it is very time-consuming and labor intense.

A woman trims Panama hats before adding the hat bands. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

The cacao beans are brought in 150-pound bags from several locations along the coast. They are weighed, cleaned and sorted, where dirt and pebbles are removed by hand, a very tedious process. The goal is to have no imperfections. The beans are very aromatic before roasting. The roasting process takes 40 to 60 minutes. The man who is in charge of this process has done this for many years and can tell when the beans have reached the proper amount of time in the roaster by the way they smell. Each variety of chocolate creates a different aroma.

A belt-driven system takes the chocolate from nibs to liquid. A young man in a stooped position, reaches into a bucket of the pure, bitter, dark chocolate and drops small mounds, weighing approximately 20 grams each, onto a plastic sheet. After the mounds are firm, they are divided and put into plastic bags to sell. One kiss-shaped mound makes one liter of hot chocolate. Some of the chocolate is molded into flats for breaking off small pieces in order to make a smaller batch of hot chocolate or other recipes. The molded chocolate is sold from the store, as it is too fragile for shipping to outlets. The product is sold within Ecuador, with the majority purchased by tourists.

Fatima pointed out that their chocolate is very healthy due to the purity, unlike some manufacturers, who mix it with flour or oil to stretch it to make more money from the product.

The business employs eight. Fatima has kept her promise to her father to let a few very poor ladies work on Mondays.

After our tour of the factory, we were taken to a street that was almost solely-dedicated to jewelry stores. I continued my effort to find a replacement for the yellow and white gold filigree cross my husband had given me when we were first married and that I had lost in the Jamestown area three to four years ago, but was unsuccessful.

Presses used to block Panama hats. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

We had lunch in a restaurant, owned by an American, that specializes in chocolate.

The chocolate balsamic dressing on my spinach salad was very good.

Some of the things I noticed while visiting Cuenca, other than the many I have mentioned, were bottles of Cola and Pola which is a combination of cola and beer and the new city buses that were just beginning to make an appearance while we were there, that emitted less fumes than the old ones. Other observations were the many vehicles with strobe-like brake lights and plentiful car alarms which went off at all hours. I also couldn’t miss the roses, which sold for three dollars per dozen, including delivery.

We were picked up at 7 a.m. on January 8 by Javier Carmona, the driver who had brought us from Guayaquil three weeks earlier. We were returning to Guayaquil in an effort to visit the herb farm and distillery owned by Young Living Essential Oils that had been closed for the holidays when we were briefly in the city on our way from Santiago, Chile. We weren’t sure if this was going to work out, due to an extended holiday closing. If not, we had been told this was the least interesting city of the three largest cities in Ecuador, which we would be visiting, Cuenca, Guayaquil and Quito.

The return three-hour drive through the Andes Mountains was similar to the last one we had taken over the curvy road, fog, fog and more fog. There were two differences, we were descending from 8,400 feet to 13 feet. We may have, once again, missed the beautiful views, but it was still an enjoyable ride with our friendly, knowledgeable driver, who could have driven the road with his eyes closed. Well, not exactly, even though he acted like he could by the way he took the curves.

Pure dark chocolate for making beverages or baked goods. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

It had rained the night before and as we encountered the first of many areas where dirt and stones had washed onto the roadway, we learned from Javier that it was to be expected after the rain. Occasionally, we came upon a large rock. There was no netting to hold it back like in the United States. Drivers drove around it, like the pedestrians walked around all of the holes and obstacles on the sidewalks of Cuenca, as mentioned in last week’s installment.

Javier admitted the inevitable, that, on occasion, cars had been hit by falling debris. What I didn’t realize was down the road we would come upon a true landslide. Again, Javier told us it was expected after a rain. The road was covered with dirt and a several large rocks, as well as a very large boulder. There were a few pieces of heavy equipment pushing dirt and rocks off the road. Oncoming traffic was backed up, but our driver was able to get through, although he stopped so we could get a few pictures and a video.

If this had been our homeland, some serious chain link fencing would have covered the hillside, the hill would have been cut back or the road would have been built out a few feet away from it and some serious “CAUTION WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS” signs would have been posted with flashing red lights.

Again, Javier said vehicles had been hit, resulting in a few deaths. No big deal to Ecuadorians. He also told of a time when his journey had been extended by a few hours, when he had to make his way through winding, sideroads in order to get to Guayaquil. It sounded like the unmarked detour I mentioned in last week’s installment, on steroids.

When we arrived at Macaw Hostel, where Christine had made our reservation, we were greeted by the young lady at the desk and a maintenance man who brought each of us, including the driver, a glass of guava juice. The glasses of juice served in Ecuador are always at least eight-ounces, not like the little 4-ounce glasses in the States.

Panama hats originated in Ecuador. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Our room was nice, but once again, I was rocked by the lack of privacy with the top two panels of an eight-panel bathroom door being made of glass.

Much to my disappointment, I learned there would be no tours at the herb farm and distillery the next day, the reason for our return to Guayaquil, due to thick mud in the roads.

We walked to the mall located a couple of blocks from the Macaw, to find something to eat. I found it interesting that a salad listed on a menu at one of the small restaurants was called “Anderson.” On our second trip around the food court, we met Eduardo, a Cuencan man who has traveled to the U.S. and who likes to brush-up on his English when the opportunity presents itself. He encouraged us to get the same traditional dish he was having and even offered us a bite. I settled for yellow rice, beans, chicken and fried plantains.

After our meal, we stopped at Mega Maxi, the mall’s version of Super Wal-Mart. I thought of Mike and Frank on American Pickers as soon as I saw a turquoise and white Italian Vespa scooter made into a glass-topped table in the front of the store. We looked around a bit. I wondered how the colorful varieties of shelled beans, peeled garlic and peeled onions in the produce section did not dry out without their protective outer layer. As always, the oddities displayed at the meat counter, that is odd by our standards, amused us. My spouse bought what he deemed a necessary item, a bag of candy. When we arrived at the cashiers’ stations at the front of the store, we realized why the bag of candy was small. The check-out aisles were about 15-inches wide. The customer had to remain svelte to enter sideways and there was no place for shopping carts, which were unloaded before entering the narrow space. We walked around the neighborhood for a few minutes and then headed back to the Macaw.

To be continued.

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