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Exploring Ecuador

Traveling The Panama Canal Part 10

One of one thousand species of orchids grown at Ecuagenera Orchid Farm. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

The fourth floor apartment that my husband’s cousin and his wife owned in Cuenca, Ecuador had huge windows in every room. Nearly every time I looked out over the third largest city in the South American country, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before, but I found myself looking for three familiar sights every time I looked out our bedroom window. The first was the large Catedral Nueva, located many blocks away, with three blue domes that could be seen by day, but glowed like Delft Blue porcelain at night. The exterior of the church, whose official name is Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion, which is commonly called New Cathedral, is nearing the end of renovations. Illumination of the domes was added just days before we arrived.

Another place my eyes were drawn was the small house below our window, which had a garden and a few trees. A few years ago, a small, long, one story building was added to the lot for housing extended family or so it appeared. A narrow steel door opening onto an alleyway located between two buildings was the only entrance to the property from the street. The owners must take everything in and out through this narrow passageway, including groceries and the building materials used for recent renovations.

The third thing I saw through that window was an occasional passing jet that appeared to be very close to our building when arriving or departing from the local airport. I might add, there were no ladies’ undergarments hanging from the wings as I discussed in an earlier installment (See Traveling The Panama Canal Part 7).

We had seen fireworks being sold in parks and on street corners every time we left the condo during the Christmas holiday and had been told to expect the sky to be lit up on New Year’s Eve and it was so. Fireworks were set off here and there a few minutes before midnight, but from twelve o’clock until 12:35 AM the entire sky was one big, magnificent display. The Magee’s had invited friends from the lower floors to view from their high, corner apartment. It was hard to decide which direction had the best action, so people were moving from the back bedroom to the living room until they found what they deemed the best vantage point. I preferred watching from the side where the blue domes could be seen and thought it was especially cool when someone shot them off from in front of or behind the domes. It was like Disney World on steroids. Snapping and popping could be heard, on and off, for a few hours after the big light show.

During the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, along with the sale of fireworks, there were tables and tarps covered with masks of all descriptions. Most were similar to the basic Halloween masks sold in this country in the 50s and 60s, with the majority being generic, unknown faces but some were of more current cartoon characters or public figures. Oftentimes, there were dummies made of stuffed clothing sold near the masks. The purpose of the two items was another New Year’s Eve tradition when masks were put on the dummies. Bad memories that had occurred during the year, such as sickness, divorce or anything unpleasant were written on pieces of paper that were put in the pockets of the mock person and then set ablaze on New Year’s Eve. Between these fires and the abundant fireworks, the night sky became a smoky haze.

Dried cochineal insects are used to make red dye. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

It was no wonder I kept forgetting the season/month we were in as we were experiencing 60 to 70 degree temperatures, with July Fourth and Halloween-like activities taking place.

Before we had ever arrived at her door, Christine Magee had arranged for a driver to take us out for the day on our sixth full day in Cuenca. The English-speaking driver sent his cousin, Walter, who wasn’t fluent, in his place. Chris gave Walter instructions as to where he should take us.

We headed north in Walter’s car, making a left turn after about 20 miles, onto a road that wound through the Andes Mountains. Our first stop was in Gualaceo at La Casa de la Makana, a family-owned weaving business. Twenty-five year old Monica Jimenez Ulloa, the fifth generation to work at the business, gave us a tour of the rustic workshop.

We watched as two or three women were weaving shawls. As she pointed to and agave plant that was growing inside the factory, she told how the fibers were removed from this kind of plant and used to wrap the white threads before they were dyed, making designs. We were then taken to an area where ten or twelve clay pots held organic pigment used in the dying process. Walnuts are added to water to make brown dye and tree lichen makes yellow and beige. Blue dye comes from indigo, which is ordered from Mexico and Asia. A mineral rock makes gray and black and dried cochineal insects, which live in cacti, are used to make a red dye. After an item is dyed, it takes a day or two to dry. The dying process may take from four days to six months, depending on which dyes are used. Knotting fringe for a piece can take from 15 days to 6 months, depending on how elaborate it is.

As soon as I saw the infinity scarves in the sales area, I knew I had to buy one for my friend, Kim. It was difficult deciding which one would be best, but I chose a black and white one that I thought she could wear with more things than the ones that had been dyed with bright colors. Knowing I was making a mistake as I pointed out some men’s ties to my husband, who owns at least 75, I was surprised when he said we needed to get one for Kim’s husband, Chuck, who is not only our friend, but the pastor of our church. Fred chose one that was black and gray with a slight touch of red. I was especially excited when our purchases were placed in a bag that was made from hand-woven sheep’s wool and had been hand-embroidered with the business’ information, like a reusable business card.

Brightly colored scarves and shawls are hand-made starting from weaving the threads to making the dyes at La Casa de la Makana. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

When we left the weavers, Walter drove a short distance to the Ecuagenera Orchid Farm, where 1,000 species are grown. The company as a whole grows 4,200 pure species and 1,500 hybrids. They have the highest level of propagation of Ecuadorian and other South American species and create novel hybrids as well, with the goal of producing orchids with colors and shapes that will be desirable in the worldwide marketplace. Ecuador is the world capital of orchids, home of 14 percent of the world’s 30,000 orchid species.

The process entails selecting parent plants, hand pollination, sowing seeds in glass flasks in sterile laboratory conditions, removing the seedling and transplanting, a process that takes about five years to a mature, flowering orchid. They also hybridize calla lilys for color only. The company’s main mission has been to preserve an extensive orchid collection of native species collected by Padre Angel Andreetta, who with his missionary work, started collecting a wide variety of Ecuadorian orchid species in the 1950s, because this had not been done before.

Paul, our guide, took us through the adaptation room where the plants must adapt to the climate after being kept in the artificial temperature and light of the lab. We saw tiny orchids that were just large enough to be seen with the naked eye, orchids that smelled like chocolate, orchids that bloomed for days and others that bloomed for weeks. The Dracula orchids resemble monkey faces. Some of the adult or mother plants are 35 to 40 years old.

From Gualaceo, we had lunch and then continued to Chordeleg where we saw dozens of jewelry shops and could see silversmiths working in some of them. I purchased a silver llama, a sturdy chain on which to wear it and a small llama wrapped in brightly-colored thread for my neighbor, who loves any small trinket from another country. We looked in nearly every shop for a gold filigree cross, in an effort to replace the one made of yellow and white gold my husband had given me when we were first married. Sadly, I lost it in Jamestown a few years ago.

Walter bartered on my behalf with a young sales girl over the price of a small bag I purchased in which to hold my camera. We were wishing he had done that when we bought the more expensive jewelry purchase, but were amused to see him in action, even if we only saved a couple dollars.

Christine had suggested our driver take us to another town where Panama hats were made, but we opted to go to Cojitambo and then home since we had already been out for seven and a half hours.

The climb up Cojitambo in the little Hyundai was interesting and a little hairy. The first three-fourths was driven on a paved road past many houses, small farms and through a village. Even though the drive took us around many sharp curves, we felt safe. The last quarter was on a winding, washed out one lane dirt road with a few wider areas where hikers had left their cars. There were many hairpin curves due to the steep climb, Walter had no problem piloting his little car around them. As we were coming away from a sharp turn and had climbed nearly to the next, a small sport utility vehicle came down the mountain toward us. The driver held firm until our little Hyundai backed down, at times with the brakes locked, wheels not turning, but sliding backwards on the loose gravel roadway.

The view from the 10,400 foot mountain was magnificent, but a little dreary since the sun was not shining. I finally put on the sweater that had been my traveling companion since we left our hosts’ apartment that morning. After walking around a bit, we headed back to Cuenca.

To be continued.

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