Monday, January 6, 2020

Andalucia Spain: A History of Conquest

Andalucia, Spain: Sevilla and Granada

The dry plains of Andalucia reminded me of New Mexico where I grew up.  I could imagine how recognizable this semi-desert terrain felt to the Spanish conquistadors from Seville and Granada when finding themselves far away from their homeland across a vast ocean, they were comforted by a familiarity in their new surroundings: plains dotted with agave, yucca and cactus, mountains shimmering off in the distance and a life-sustaining river guiding them North.

As they made their way across the deserts of Mexico up into the Rio Grande valley these stalwart adventurers were driven by Glory, God and Gold.  Their greed inflamed them and their passion kept drawing them farther and farther afield in search of the magical, mythical city of Cibola where their superhuman efforts would be rewarded on this earth.

The legion of padres that accompanied the Conquistadors were on a new Crusade to convert the resident savages to Christianity. Both conquistadors and missionaries were aglow with the recent Christian triumphs over the opposing Moorish Islamic faith that had so just been scourged from their homeland by their Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel.  After seven centuries of rule in what is today southern Spain, the Moors were driven back to their African homeland.

It is the modern-day Spanish cities of Seville and Granada that we explored on this trip. Andalucia embodies the ancient struggle between Christian and Islamic faiths. The differences are reflected in their history, culture, art, architecture, people, and lifestyle.  Yet today one finds a melding of both these divergent world views lives deeply rooted in the soul of the people.

As elsewhere throughout the world the practice of superimposition, layering and building your iconic religious monuments atop those of the vanquished, is what makes the architecture here so rich.
Great Christian Cathedral in Sevilla

Ghirlada Tower left by the Islamic Moors

Bells in the Ghirlada Tower

Thus we have the classic religious superimposition at the great Cathedral in Sevilla where Ferdinand and Isabelle held court and conquered in the name of Christianity. When the Moors were pushed out of Spain the church started building a monument to their victory and Christian religious glory in the great Cathedral right on top of the previous Moorish mosque.  As the Giralda Tower was the tower the Islamic musseins did their high pitched entreaty several times a day calling the faithful to prayer.  The musseins built the tower so they could ride a mule up the circular tower path to the top.  The Catholic Church decided to leave the Ghirlada Tower an exquisite piece of architecture, a monumental 25 story structure and use it as the Cathedral's bell tower.  So you have the fusion of Christian and Islamic faith at the great Catedral in Sevilla.  

Geometric crosses in part of the gold ceiling in the Cathedral

Because the original art is often incorporated into the newer building you see this rich intertwining of cultures.  Yet two more divergent art and architectural styles would be hard to find. The icon rich cathedrals and churches of Christianity are gilded with the riches of the gold mined in the Spanish colonies. Saints and the visages of Jesus, Mary and the Holy Family are draped in gold and embued with a depth of suffering that is of this world and can only be relieved by the safe passage to heaven in the world beyond.  Heaven forbid you fail to live a Christian life and perish forever in the fires of hell or perhaps get stuck in limbo for eternity.

Gold covered altar of the Cathedral
The massive amount of gold and wealth the Church acquired from the Spanish colonies is on display here in Sevilla.  Because the Spanish did not want to have to defend a port city on the Atlantic from marauders trying to steal this gold, they held it inland in Sevilla where the boats could come up a river and the river could be defense with towers built on both sides of the Guadalquivir River and a chain that could be pulled taut to stop any hostile ships with ill marauding intentions.  One of those towers still stands on the river in Sevilla and it used to be where the wealth of the colonies was first stored before being dispensed to the Crown treasury and the Church coffers.
Saints deified in gold

Sevilla Cathedral Main Altar

One of the towers that protected the Guadalquivir River in Seville where gold was stored.

Santa Maria prototype of ship Columbus sailed on. These were SMALL ships. 
One of many Gold Crowns encrusted with gems
Cathedral Gardens from the top of the Giralda Tower

The Islamic art of the Moors is as devoid of icons as Christianity is rich with them. Islam art and architecture features script from the Koran and the mesmerizing designs of repeated patterns that draw the eye, soothe the mind and lift the soul.  Symmetry and geometric designs are taken to artistic heights unparalleled.

The Alcazar is the Moorish Fortress built near the Cathedral in Sevilla that was the home of the Moorish King until Ferdinand and Isabel dispelled him in their 1492 conquest.  The beautiful and rich detail of the carved marble and sandstone is jawdropping.    

The courtyards consist of one royal arch after another and exquisite geometric and repeating patterns. The enclosed courtyards are created with peaceful gardens and water features.  

My favorite photograph from the Alcazar was taken in the underground pools that the Moors used for bathing. The women could go to these baths and not be bothered or exposed to men.  They had a rigorous schedule when men and women could  bathe and luxuriate in the peaceful environs.


Washington Irving was one of the first American to go to Granada and live in the sequestered town quarters of the Alhambra during the 1800s.  Thus his writing of the book The Alhambra.  The town sits atop a town of tradesmen and villagers and was built as a Moorish fortress to show the power and presence of the rulers and their Islamic faith. The artwork within is truly spectacular and speaks to the artistry of the Islamic craftsmen and artists.

Exquisite carvings in marble and plaster adorn the ceilings and walls of the Alhambra

Symmetrical Gardens  and fountains offer respite from the  heat

The Alhambra is truly an impressive city and fortress within high impregnable walls. It includes the amazing Palace of the Nazrids  (the Emir's house), beautiful symmetrical gardens, villagers/caretakers' homes and all the resources needed in case it was necessary to close it off from attackers.

Thus it is hard to imagine that Isabel and Ferdinand's troops successfully evicted the resident Moorish Emir finally in January 1492. Internal fighting and lack of leadership from the new emir Boabdil weakened the Moors.  Boabdil had once been a vassal of Ferdinand and Isabel's (trying to play both sides) until he could no longer do so. The Christian victory called the Reconquista ended this 10-year war with the desperate Moorish emirs economically strangulating the local Granadans with taxes and the dominance of advanced Spanish bombards and cannon artillery. Queen Isabella of Castile was the source of most of the funds and artillery and Ferdinand of Aragon contributed warships as well as some funds. She clearly dominated in this conquest and visited the battlefields often supporting the troops. This victory cemented the Ferdinand and Isabel union and combined the Castile and Aragon regions under their kingship.

This Catholic victory and expulsion of the Moors joined the regions of Castile (Isabel) and Granada
(Ferdinand) and most of southern Andalusia. It serendipitously occurred just in time to have Isabel and  Ferdinand no longer involved in an expensive war so they could take a financial bet on an Italian Christopher Columbus.

Columbus proposed to find a Western route to the Indies. The Queen and King turned him down the first time but after some of their advisors convinced them that they had little to lose and a lot to gain they agreed to his journey.  The details are set forth in their agreement the Capitulation of Santa Fe which allowed that Italian Columbus would sail under the title of Admiral of the Sea in the name of Spain. It further stipulated he was to be granted one-tenth of the riches from the explorations.  Columbus' tomb in the Cathedral in Sevilla, as well as the Carrara marble tombs of Ferdinand and Isabel in a chapel next to the great  Cathedral in Granada are huge tourist attractions.

Their bet paid off in untold riches and plunder from the discovery of the West Indies and later the bloody Spanish conquest of much of South America. The riches of plundered gold poured into the Towers of Sevilla where Ferdinand and Isabel held court.  Sevilla was chosen as a strategic location to hold the riches of the New World.  It was not on the Atlantic coastline which would leave it open to marauders, but was further inland and could be defended by two towers built with a heavy chain that linked them. The chain could be pulled up to deter admittance of any ships to the city and the riches held there could more easily be defended.

Gold Ceiling of the Cathedral in Seville

                          One of the Towers protecting Sevilla and the riches stored there still stands.

Bodegas and Bull Fights

While we did not see any bullfights when in Spain, we were regular frequenters of their many bodegas ( bars and restaurants).  We were there long enough to develop some favorites and even be recognized by the camareros (waiters) and bartenders.  The wonderful energy of the neighborhood bodega and its bar and restaurant with seating usually both outside and inside make them the social center of every hood in Spain.  They are places to enjoy the conviviality of friendship or just hang out and while away part of the day/night.

The waiters are professionals and proudly serve both local regulars and the abundance of tourists who frequent these leisurely hangouts.  We had a favorite bodega just at the top of our street where our AirBnb was and made it a habit to get there daily.  Of course wine/beer is served instead of water and it is always accompanied by tapas, the small appetizer size plates Andalucia is famous four.  

Famous fighting bulls decorate the walls of a favorite bodega

Bar Estrella Restaurant at the end of our street in old Sevill
Making friends with the waiters and bartenders

The bullring was empty so why not?

The Tommie Tippy cup took a tour of Sevilla


It would not have been a visit to southern Spain without enjoying the beauty of the Flamenco dance which embodies the heritage of joy, angst, rhythm, music, sweat, sensuous flirtation and color that typifies the history of these peoples.  Put yourself here as a young romantic in search of love or even as a woman caring for a passel of children, a laborer in the fields or just some local trying to make a living and feed the family.   All appreciated this vigorous and sensual dance of the paisanos.  

The depth of feeling that the Flamenco dancers both men and women portray in their rhythmic dance is powerful and the voices that sing the music are both sorrow-filled and resonantly joyful in turn.  I enjoyed the Flamenco as the true musical and dance heritage of this amazing country.  It takes years of practice and dedication and the dancers and musicians become life long friends in their pursuit of this passion.  The dancers at the Flamenco performance we saw, also stopped at the local Bar Estrella before their performances so one got a feeling of how Flamenco is woven into the fabric of their lives:  Work, dance, eat, drink, play, enjoy friends and do it all over again.  We should take their lead on this.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Ecuador and the Galapagos: Tierra Madre

BOLDERBoomers Travelogue: Ecuador and the Galapagos- March April 2019 

Pachamama (Mother Earth) has been honored by the indigenous people of this country for centuries, long before the Incas tried to subdue and subjugate them into their empire, and long before the Spanish came to disrupt their lives and enslave them. The land is fertile and yields a great abundance of grains, fruits, and fish. The equatorial position of Ecuador delivers year-round harvests whether you are an Andean farmer or a Pacific coastal dweller. 

        The indigenous people, being generally peaceful, have yielded to the multiple invaders and continue to thrive despite their various oppressors. They appear to adapt and take what they can use from the invaders while still adhering to their own traditions and values that honor the earth. The majority of people live a simple life honoring the cycles of the moon, the seasons and the various tribal and Christian holidays.  
Inca Sun God in Gold 
This guy has a spirit guide to accompany 
his ayahuasca journey.

This simple little effigy reminded us of our grandson.

Thoughtful or Sinister?
Mr. Personality

Various sexual positions of pre-Incan clay figurines 

     Life here moves at a steady, easy pace without the hectic necessity of checking your cell phone every few minutes. Most people, in fact, do not use cell phones even though internet connections are fairly common in the cities.  The taxi drivers are very adept at 
WhatsApp and their phones bring them business, but personal exchanges and the press of flesh in monetary transactions are more common among the locals.  Tourists are generally expected to pay cash outside of the big cities and the smaller the town, the more likely you will need to speak at least some Spanish to get around and be understood. 

Happy Incan
Mother and child


Church and convent in Quito
Beautiful wood carving of Spanish angel

What one notices as you visit the pre-Incan ruins here is the layered imposition of various conquerors’ traditions and faith on the indigenous people. At Ingapirca, an Andean, pre-Inca ruin outside of Cuenca, you see the foundations of rough stonework built by the local Canari people. But layered above appears the much finer precise stonework of the Incas who when unable to conquer this matrilineal Canari society chose instead to marry in their patrilineal values and both societies flourished. 

That was, of course, until the Spanish came with their religious zealotry and thirst for Incan gold. Along with enslaving the people, they superimposed their churches and Christian religious values and traditions on them in an effort to save souls while working bodies to death. 

Gold  everywhere in the older cathedrals shows the wealth that was here for the Spanish to claim

The Catholic church has had over 500 years to imprint the minds and hearts of the Ecuadoreans with or without their volition.  Untold tons of gold were mined from the depths of dark cold holes in the earth in Ecuador and Peru by slave labor and sent back to Spain.  Many ships were sunk before arriving in Spain and their treasures are still found by divers in the seas.  Today Catholicism as a religion practiced by the people is more diversified with many other forms of Christianity being accepted and practiced.


The People and Marketplaces of Ecuador

Today what survives is a polyglot of tribes spread out in the countryside and mountains, living a largely agrarian lifestyle, around the three large Ecuadorian cities: Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, in that order.  Of the 70 million people who live in Ecuador, the majority live outside these cities, work the land or engage in small enterprises that feed their families.   

The indigenous tribal peoples dressed in all their colorful handmade clothing are best seen at the markets that occur almost every day of the week. The big markets have set days where more folks come into the city.  We visited Otovalo and say both the handicrafts and vegetables being sold as well as the luncheon carts set up to feed the crowds of indigenous folks and their buyers.  The women wear colorful white embroidered blouses with full skirts that sport a pattern signifying their village around the hem.  This is topped off by a rounded fedora type hat not as large as those in Bolivia but still useful.

Marketplace color is everywhere

Men typically wear Western clothes except when they are working the streets in Quito for tourism.
The roasted pig in the market place was excellent.  We had our lunch here served with hominy, potato cakes, and a Fanta (because you can't get Diet Coke in most of Ecuador). One does not lack for starches in the menus. Getting fresh vegetables and salads is more challenging.  

Vegetables, beans, grains, quinoa, chia, maize, hominy, peas and all types of potatoes are brought in from the countryside and sold in the markets along with craftwork made by hand from the villages and mountain tribes.

     The glass beadwork displayed on this table replaces the gold beads that adorned the necks of the Incan women and are now only displayed in museums.  

An enormous amount of wool sheared from sheep, alpacas, and llamas is turned into blankets, shawls, serapes, scarves and tote bags.  All these colorful items are available in the stalls of the sellers at every market throughout the country.  The current generation of tribal women still do all the weaving and sewing, but it is likely that this too will die out with the next generations who won't have the time or find it worth their while to learn these crafts. 

The Galapagos 

Upon reflection, this 10 days in the Galapagos was the highpoint of our Ecuador trip.

Nazca booby

These islands sprinkled 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador are a huge tourists draw.  Made famous by Darwin for his discoveries on the origin of the species and how animals evolve and adapt to their environment, they are like no other place on earth.   Unlike elsewhere, the wildlife having had little predation, have no reason to be afraid of humans and continue to go on with their lives largely ignoring you. One does not have to sneak up on them to get a photo or view them at a distance from binoculars because they appear to generally care less whether you are 2 meters of 200 away.  

Aptly named red-footed booby

Booby with chick nesting in tree
And what a plethora of unusual wildlife there is.  The red-footed booby sits perched in its tree and builds their nest there where you can literally walk up to it.   The blue-footed boobies nest on the ground and protect their eggs until they hatch. Nasca boobies have the lack of colored feet of this type of bird but seem to be more prevalent. The frigate birds with their puffed-up red chests calling out to mates like a throbbing heart, sharks, dolphins, an abundance of fish, sea lions, land and sea iguanas, tortoises and turtles, owls, hawks, pelicans and a wealth of finches and other bird species found nowhere else. All have adapted to these dry desert-like environs and the surround seas offshore.  
Booby chicks are so fluffy

Like most young, the chicks are soft and cuddly but I wouldn't want to test the patience of these birds. And forget the cuddling as the naturalists are very rigorous in adhering to the National Park rules about sensitivity to the wildlife, thankfully.  

      The naturalist we had on our 5-day cruise of the islands was actually named Darwin at birth.  He was one of the most conscientious and knowledgable people about the flora, fauna, climate, birds, fish and land and sea animals in the Galapagos.  Having a great naturalist and being on a small vessel (16 person catamaran) really makes the experience in the Galapagos. These islands are soon to suffer the issue of being over-loved by tourists as has happened in other parts of the world where a place becomes too popular.  Thus the naturalists are only allowed to take around a dozen people inland on a hike/explore at a time and must keep to designated paths.  Most non-populated islands are only accessible with a naturalists' accompaniment.
Talk about puffed up-Male frigate bird's colorful mating ritual

Land tortoises

  The cruise ships that ply the waters between islands have replaced the former pirates and seamen who came here for tortoises for meat and to find freshwater to fill their boats so they could carry on. Our tourist predation with cameras has just replaced the survivalist predation of the seamen who used to carry off hundreds of tortoises and store them alive in the ship’s hold.  One turtle was found to have survived two years in this man-made hell hole before being slaughtered for its meat. 

Land Tortoises like this live over 100 years here.

Turtle eggs are being collected and protected from predation so that they have a chance to grow to adult size.  Scientific Breeding Centers on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal are trying to help the sea turtles as well as the land tortoises.  We watched a heron feed on several newly hatched sea turtles. It ate 5 baby turtles while we watched before it was full and flew off.  The heron is just one of the many natural predators the sea turtles have here and elsewhere in the world.

Baby land tortoises growing in captivity

Both visiting The Darwin Center and having read Darwin's works The Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of the Species and also Humboldt and The Invention of Nature (Wulf) really helped me appreciate in great detail what an amazing discovery and expansion of scientific knowledge these naturalists came upon in their exploration of South America and the Galapagos. Also how instrumental Humboldt and then Darwin were in changing the scientific paradigm in the mid-1800s.

The heat and generally hostile environment make one appreciate the superhuman effort Darwin exhibited during his travels hiking across these islands, collecting specimens and recording his findings in countless journals.  All this was done in the same daily-worn woolen clothes and salt-rimmed leather boots. In the equatorial 90-degree heat, he sweated out the elements while traveling overland covered with lava rocks that would test a person’s wherewithal no matter their physical acumen. 

Additionally, while onboard the Beagle and sharing the young Captain’s room, Darwin spent most of his time miserably seasick.  Thus it was a reprieve for him to get off the ship and wander the land without the necessity of sea legs and needing to wretch regularly.  In the 5 years, he traveled on the Beagle he only spent about a year and a half actually on board, finding land so much more appealing for discovery.   

One can’t help but think how he and the Beagle's Captain Fitzroy ever figured out the timing of when and where to meet up without cell phones and electronic messaging, nor the certainty of travel through mountains and jungles on Indian trails instead of the Pan American highway.  But meet up they did as Darwin traveled overland in almost every state in South America whilst Fitzroy sailed his boat to the next port. 

The discoveries that Darwin made in his travels are humbling for later generations to consider given the circumstances of science and travel at the time.  We left the catamaran with a naturalist guide for 1.5-2 hours twice a day and were exhausted and thankful to come back to air-conditioned cabin rooms and meals prepared by a kitchen staff three times a day.  Imagine the deprivations and challenges Darwin faced.

We also have the benefit of science and modern medicine to help us through seasickness and various maladies of the intestinal tract when our gut biome disagrees with a new diet.  We slather ourselves in sunscreen SPF 30+ and wear wide-brimmed sun hats and long sleeve sun coverage offered by elite recreational clothing brands.  Nightly we consider it a challenge to rinse out and wash our sweat-drenched clothes.   

Nazca Booby
The joy of seeing birds and animals in their natural environment unafraid of humans is worth the journey alone. Wildlife has justifiably come to fear us as we have systematically wiped out so many different species.  The Galapagos wildlife innocently trusts in the tourist adhering to the National Park rules and giving them space. It is amazing to be able to walk up at a respectful distance to red-footed boobies nesting in a tree, or blue-footed boobies protecting a precious egg on the ground and not frighten them away. 

The same goes for seals lounging in the sand and sun on the beach or land and sea iguanas splayed across rocks sunning themselves. Thankfully, the whole area now exists within the protection of Galapagos National Park rules limiting human predation to photos.  Even the cruise ships are not allowed to fish in the Island waters so as not to threaten the delicate balance.  They must buy their fish at the ports on the few islands that are inhabited from the fishermen who are licensed with limitations on their catch. 

The equatorial heat and the isolated nature of these islands have created a unique ecosystem with birds, animals and sea life not found elsewhere.  

Prehistoric looking iguana sunning

Pelicans await their part of the catch at the port in San Cristobal

Sea lions sunning on a remote beach

Iguana fits right into its island camouflage

Large iguanas roam the beaches seeking shade.
When you see the size of the island of Santa Cruz and its small but growing local population you appreciate how easy it would be to upset the delicate balance of nature with the growth of civilization here. Tourism has brought many people here that live in the port towns that serve an ever-growing number of Galapagos tourists.  

      Availability of freshwater, a precious resource, is being challenged by the growing needs of the island's population not to mention the increase in the number of tourists. The bane of human existence and one of our worst waste hazards, plastic, is not seen on the beaches which remain amazingly clean.  But plastic is still used and sold in the water and soda bottles in the port towns.  It makes you feel the necessity to drink beer because you are certain it comes in a glass bottle which will be recycled.

The only thing that keeps travel and tourism in check on the Galapagos is the cost to get there from the mainland and the cost to be there to cruise among the dozen different islands.  

     We rarely do cruises but this was definitely the place to do a cruise.  We went on a 5 day, 4 night, 16 people ( 8 cabins) catamaran with a 10 person crew. It was the perfect size boat to feel the intimacy of the islands without overwhelming a place when you docked by an island.  We used skiffs to go ashore for wet landings often in places that did not allow the boat docking close to the island.  

     The snorkeling was excellent.  We saw giant schools of fish. While there are really no coral reefs here the deepwater lends itself to a huge variety of fish.  We swam with porpoises and turtles and on one snorkel by Kicker Rock I was swimming along and a large hammerhead shark cruised below me.  Luckily I didn't know enough at the time to be frightened or emit fear pheromones so it was just another great thing to see.
Skiff taking tourists ashore with guide

Tortuga Bay- Beautiful pristine beach
We spent 3 days before the cruise in Santa Cruz Island before getting on the catamaran and hung out on the island and went to Tortuga Bay Beach.  It was the cleanest most pristine beach I have been on. Fine sugar like white sand and waves.N o plastics or flotsam.

After getting off the boat in San Cristobal at the end of the cruise we also spent 3 days here at an Air BnB going to their Science Center and just taking in island life. 

People were generally laid back and you could walk everyplace you wanted to go.  The taxis which take you to beaches were all Toyota trucks and the fares were all $1.   

Rob conversing with a  Nazca booby

Crabs on lava beach sand

 Cuenca and Vilcabamba-Traveling South

Holy Week: Semana Santa
Today is Holy Friday the day of the crucifixion and death of Christ.  The celebrations of Semana Santa, Holy Week, all lead up to this pivotal devotional event. We started the week by attending a symphonic orchestra with four choral groups singing Verdi’s Requiem Mass in the old Cathedral in Cuenca on the Sunday night we arrived there.  A total of 200 musicians with a lead soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone and tenor played and sung the chords of this devotional homage to the dead.  As a girl in our church choir, I also sang the requiem in Latin for funerals in the parish. Kyrie Eleison, "Lord have mercy." This chant is the most uplifting part of a very sorrow-filled piece of music. Death and the loss of a loved one, the emotion so difficult to expressis personified in this Requiem opera. 

  Wherever we traveled we saw the Christian traditions of Holy Week are celebrated. For Holy Week most of the churches and towns had elaborate performances, parades, and  flower bedecked platforms built to carry statues of the crucified Christ through the streets. 

     The Ecuadorean Catholics seem to weave this centerpiece of faith and devotion into their everyday lives as the warp of making a living, with the weft of the joys of love and family. And life goes on each day a new trial and a new joy if one stops to appreciate and find it. 

View from Podocarpus National Park looking toward Vilcabamba

Awoke to sounds of roosters crowing, chickens scratching, and a plethora of birds and morning doves calling in the Andean highlands above Vilcabamba. We are staying at Madre Tierra Hotel and Spa, an oasis of greenery set up on the mountainside overlooking the adjacent Podocarpus National Park ranges, a fitting place for Easter celebrations of renewal and Earth Day which follows.  The Vilcabamba valley below and the verdant mountains beyond, stretch into the vastness of the Sierra of Podocarpus National ParkThe morning air carries a breath of mist from low hanging clouds, nourishing the earth with dew and the fragrance of flowers. 

       The Vilcabamba valley is known for the secrets of longevity as its ancients are said to live up to 120 years. The agreeable mountainous environs produce healthy plants, vegetables and fruits. The gentle nature of its people reflects lifestyle that has provided a wealth of natural abundance drawn from the earth and appreciated by the natives. 

     Outsiders have found this valley of longevity and heralded its unusual environs and benefits bringing aging hippies with their bead and jewelry work, hopeful small town entrepreneurs to open hostals, restaurants, cafes, and expats looking to live the good life and perhaps cash in on a few extra years or decades while doing so.  

     We jumped in a shared Toyota taxi heading to town and met an elderly peace activist from Amherst who had just bequeathed his entire forty file cabinets of letters and life’s work to the library at Amherst.  We sat at the corner boulangerie and had cinnamon rolls and coffee talking to a South Carolina retiree accompanied by his dog. He moved here seven years ago to live out his days, which from the sounds of his multiple surgeries may not offer the hoped-for longevity. We watched locals jump out of trucks and cars to greet each other, the small-town camaraderie was apparent. In the plaza, market tents are loaded with beads and macrame jewelry, herbs, salves and ointments from local plants for healing and pain relief, sold by resident hippies who are trying to cobble together a living from their low to no expectations lifestyle.   

     The locals seem to have coalesced into a variety of social groups all living in seeming harmony. First, there are the true indigenous locals who farm the land and have small ranchos with horses and cattle in the mountains; then the Hispanic/mestizo city locals who have small businesses from mini-mercados to restaurant and cafĂ© shops, with of course the obligatory bars and ferreterias (hardware stores) mixed in. In addition to these businesses, a mini assortment of professionals is represented by teachers, doctors, taxi drivers, clergy, tradesmen, musicians. Laborers build and support the many hostels and enterprises that represent the valley’s growth. Everyone seems to know each other and their patterns of interaction are as deeply furrowed as the dirt roads. 

     Then you have the ex-Pats who seemingly fall into various communities largely based on enterprise. The retirees, of course, are trying to maintain a lifestyle on their life savings, some with more, some with far less.  They are depending on their willingness to integrate a blessing or a scourge for the locals.  Many are adrift in their new homes and find community with other ex-pats their only social mooring.   

The entrepreneurs have come often with means to build and shape their future in this town having built hotels and spas like Madre Tierra where we are staying and restaurants and coffee shops to compete with the locals. They bring long term employment to the locals and represent dedicated longevity to a dream of living a simpler lifestyle than the rat race at home. Their hope is to build and support the tourist population that will come finding this mountainous haven of longevity appealing and stay long enough to garner some of their riches from them.  

     Finally, there are the new and old hippie expats who find the elusive simple lifestyle appealing. Some stick around because they appreciate the abundance of weed, ayahuascachaliponga, chacrunamushrooms and other hallucinogenic enablers a mind-expanding draw, and the temperate environs hospitable to long term lassitude.  

     Layer in the peripatetic tourist who comes for short stay to see what the Valley of Longevity has to offer. Most are in too big a hurry to slow down and appreciate the pace of life around them as they tick off their TripAdvisor To-Dos and move onto the next place to fit in as many sights as possible in their 2-3 week itinerary. 

Madre Tierra (Mother Earth)

The rain hits the hard shell corrugated plastic of the green painted roof over our bungalow at Madre Tierra Resort. It protects better than the traditional woven straw or palm leaves that once served as roofing.  Tap, tap…then plunk, plunk, it accelerates as the clouds burst forth with their afternoon abundance of showers coating everything with an ionic freshness and moisture. 
Grey clouds settle in and the air and plants are awash in the rain as I swing idly in the hammock under our porch savoring these last days in Ecuador. We have covered a fair amount of Ecuador at a very leisurely pace in our month here. We have the luxury of not needing to be back to a job or answering to the exigencies of a schedule. Thus our time here has included many hammocks, park benches and multiple cups of coffee at restaurants or lunches and dinners relaxing playing gin rummy. The pace has allowed us to travel, rest and relax, sightsee, have conversations with the locals and learn more of what their lives are about.  Given all our travels in Central and South America, I still prefer to travel over the more sedentary life of most ex-Pats.  With reflections on home, it is always a joy to go back to the Rockies, nestle my head against their foothills at night before dropping off to sleep and play there while planning our next trip.
Tierra Madre Resort restaurant

Lots of time to enjoy the hammock and mountain air

Vilcabamba a lovely remote mountainous place