Finally In Ecuador

Dancers in the Paso Del Nino Parade, one of the largest parades in South America. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

We have arrived! We’ve made it to Cuenca, Ecuador by way of van, ship, bus, plane and taxi. By now we have been on the move for four weeks to reach our goal of visiting my husband’s cousin, Noel, and his wife, Christine.

The first thing the Magees did after they welcomed us, was to show us through their fourth floor, three-bedroom condo with its large windows that overlooked the city of over 300,000 and pointed out where they lived on the large maps that hung on the wall in the hallway, outside our bedroom.

They had us moving almost from the moment we arrived. We started out with a walk to an area where vendors were selling handcrafted and manufactured items from beneath a long row of pop-up canopies. Fred bought ice cream that was scooped from a metal pan that sat atop a pan of ice. He chose mora, which is a type of blackberry that tastes similar to a loganberry.

From there we walked along the Tomebamba River, crossing it twice. Lights formed in the shape of fish, frogs and aquatic creatures were interspersed among rows of blue “waves” hung across the river. These were purchased a few years ago from another city and put up before the Christmas holiday, along with some new additions, with most having been hung over the city’s four rivers.

Even though our relatives have a car at their Rochester, New York home, they have none in Ecuador, which was the case of most of the city-dwellers for a few reasons. Public transportation is plentiful and inexpensive with a ride on a bus costing 30 cents, but students and senior citizens ride for half-price. Taxis are readily available and less costly than in the States. Our hosts prefer to walk a few miles each day to help maintain good health. Automobiles are expensive to purchase, therefore those who have them usually drive small, older cars. Financing was difficult to obtain, but this has changed in recent years, creating more traffic. Some of the streets have been changed from two-way to one-way to make traversing them easier.

The rivers of Cuenca are decorated with lights for the Christmas holidays. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

The next day, Christmas Eve Day, we took a cab several blocks to see Pase Del Nino or Passing of the Child Parade. It is said that this parade is one of the largest in South America. Vendors sold drinks, popcorn, fried plantains, fruit-flavored gelatin and umbrellas, due to the threat of rain. Many people carried small dolls dressed in various outfits, representing Baby Jesus. Our hosts were disappointed that this year’s parade was not well-patrolled. Spectators were walking in the parade route, rather than behind the fences. Some of the marchers had to walk in single file in order to pass through.

We decided to move on because the parade was moving very slowly, with lulls between units. We came to a free public restroom where two people were selling lengths of toilet paper for 20 cents each. Our guides took us through a meat market, where there was no refrigeration and the forms of meat were unlike what we’ve seen in the United States, such as shrink-wrapped whole piglets, pig’s heads and guinea pigs. We soon learned that Cuy or guinea pig is a common item on restaurant menus. They are roasted whole with the finished product resembling a cooked rat. I inquired and was told they do not taste like chicken.

Once we were back on the street, we came upon a bakery operating in a very small space, narrow and not very deep, but soon found that that is the way many businesses are set up. Most have overhead doors that roll up and down, much like a garage door, but narrower than one car width. We bought some chocolate-filled buns for 30 cents each.

From there, we were led to a section of artisan shops, where we purchased some brightly-colored bracelets made from tagua nuts. The tagua nut grows on a slow-growing palm tree found in northern South America. The tagua palm displays fronds that shoot up from the ground, with no trunk visible for many years. It takes about 35 to 40 years for a trunk to reach a height of seven feet. Large fibrous clusters, weighing about 25 pounds, form beneath the fronds. The cluster consists of tightly packed woody fruits, each containing four to nine seeds.

These seeds are about the shape and size of a hen’s egg. The seed contains a liquid that congeals to a gelatin, which if dried for a period of one to three months, hardens into a white substance that resembles ivory. The dried nut is peeled, sliced, dyed and polished.

A tagua nut that has had the end removed exposing the white ivory-like interior. It will be peeled, sliced, dyed and polished for jewelry. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Years ago, the tagua nut was used to make buttons before plastic took over the industry. Now buttons made from the nut are found only on the highest quality clothing. Jewelry, reeds for wind instruments, umbrella handles, piano keys and chess pieces are made from the tagua “ivory.”

We attended a service at the International Church, where Noel serves as the choir director, that evening. As we were walking back to the apartment, my spouse reminded me it was Christmas Eve, which was quite different from that which we are accustomed. We could hear popping sounds in the distance as people lit firecrackers. This continued, on and off, into the wee hours.

We started Christmas Day with a walk along the Yanuncay River on a wide path used by walkers, joggers, bikers and people walking their dogs. Many eucalyptus trees, which were brought from Australia and which require much water, grew along the river. We passed an area where exercise equipment was installed for public use.

Later that day, as we walked about one and one tenth mile to a new restaurant where reservations had been made for a turkey dinner, we passed under the remains of Puente Roto or Broken Bridge, a bridge that was washed away by a flood that occurred in 1850, just ten years after it was built. The remaining section was sandblasted recently, leaving an attractive stone structure held up by arches. My memory of the restaurant was more about the unobstructed view into the street-level window of the restroom than the Christmas dinner we were served. A sign instructing restroom visitors to place used toilet paper in the covered receptacle was prominently displayed on the wall, as was the case in all public restrooms, but the toilet paper was free!

After we left the restaurant, we passed high walls made of stone, block, brick and cement defining property boundaries. Some walls had ridges across the top while others had shards of glass and broken bottles protruding from them to discourage intruders. Nearly every wall had been painted with graffiti and was interrupted by an overhead door.

This large cluster, weighing about twenty-five pounds consists of fruits that contain egg-sized seeds. The seeds are dried for up to three months and then they are peeled, sliced, dyed and polished for use in jewelry-making and other products. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

We entered a new bakery that was much more spacious than the others we’d seen the day before. Even though the building was more attractive and larger, the prices were less expensive with fruit-filled rolls priced at just 20 cents each and cookies at 10 cents. My mind couldn’t comprehend how they could stay in business for more than a week with this pricing and because they were located next to another bakery.

Our last stop was to buy cherries out of the hatchback of a twenty-year old car. It appeared that the mother had just given a Christmas gift to the son and two daughters she had brought with her. The young boy was holding a modest plastic car. Each girl waited until their mother was done with the sale to unwrap their gift. At that moment I was wishing I had a few of the toys my grandchildren’s parents give to Goodwill each year because of uninterest or an overabundance.

When we returned to the apartment we called our kids to wish them a Merry Christmas, using the Magee’s satellite phone which is connected to their Rochester, New York number.

To be continued.

Bracelets made from tagua nuts. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Colorful broken bottles are embedded in cement on top of a wall to discourage trespassers. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland