Category Archives: Photography

Amazon Rainforest in Photos

Our family recently spent about two weeks exploring the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador. We had a spectacular time exploring the regions of the Rainforest in the Pastaza and Napo provinces.

We stayed with an indigenous family in a bamboo hut, at a lodge with monkeys on our private balcony, and at a bed n breakfast in one of the bigger cities of the Amazon outskirts. The experiences were diverse, complete, and spectacular! Continue reading Amazon Rainforest in Photos

Bulls and Ballet: The Art of Bullfighting in Ecuador

Bulls and Ballet

We took our seats on the dusty concrete bleachers, dead center from the opening gates where the bull escapes. Despite the line of onlookers that circled around the building: the wide, round stadium echoed with emptiness. A few steps from us, empanadas and french-fries sizzled in fresh grease. The steam rose to pool beneath the rainbow striped umbrella that mimicked a beach ball. A young girl tugging her toddler behind her, trotted in front of us waving around plastic squares in Easter colors. Rain ponchos for $1. We looked up to looming gray clouds quickly stealing away the brilliant afternoon sunshine.

A few more people trickled in. Families with young kids, grandmothers in wheelchairs, Andean cowboys in full attire, and far too many men dangling half empty beer bottles. And one delightful young lady, a splash of vibrant color against the faded red paint of the bull ring enclosure. My eyes were on her, as were the eyes of everyone around. Most of the onlookers knew who she was, but I was in total oblivion. Her sparkling, traditional attire seemed out of place to me. A white crocheted top and billowing skirts didn’t immediately seem like they belonged at an event similar to a rodeo.

Our daughter was intrigued as well, and gave me reports of her entering and exiting, as I sat next to her fiddling with my camera. Finally, she disappeared for good and we didn’t give it any further thought. The crowd had filled in a bit, but not quite how I had expected. Still, the other patrons were fascinating and we were content watching the antics of all sorts of interesting characters. A few young kids dangled themselves above the entrance gate, as if they were the bait for the bull we were anticipating. A fancier group filled in a covered section of the bleachers. Many of them wore fedoras and carried red roses in the front pockets of their fancy lapels. Apparently, these were the booth seats, chairs that cost a few bucks more. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if they arrived at the wrong venue.

Vendors continued to infiltrate the arena, poking their way past our feet as they flapped around all sorts of things for sale. Toys and umbrellas, cotton candy, jello, cooked beans, candy and plastic tops. A man in fancy chaps and pressed white shirt entered the ring on a stunning brown horse. But, they only entered a few steps and then backed out again. This repeated several times before he retreated. And at last, a hint that the show might begin. A trumpeting sort of music and a rumble through the crowd.

A brilliant white horse and a handsome young rider galloped to the center, and took a loop around. The rider wore a cream-colored fedora that matched his alpaca chaps and a heavy chocolate poncho that glided behind him as he made his rounds. He tipped his hat at each section of the crowd before returning to the middle and striking a pose, elegantly frozen in time. The length of the pause was calculated exactly, ending seconds before the onlookers began to stir. The music took an upbeat and in pranced the doll of a girl we had glanced earlier.

 

Her feet pranced around, creating a cloud of dust beneath the colorful skirts and up to her beaming cheeks. After a little solo dance, she was greeted by the boy on the horse. Just when he seemed like he might hop down and join her, the horse began to dance. Like nothing I have ever seen before. The rider all but disappeared, as the girl and the horse embarked on the courtship dance of all courtship dances. The horse pranced and bowed, even kneeling before her. His white mane floating through the air in perfect rhythm with her swirling skirts. It was the best ballet one could have ever imagine, right there in the center of a dusty bull ring.

The performance was completely captivating and had the entire crowd entranced. Without a single word spoken, the couple and the horse told a story comparable to the best fairytales we all know. Romance and chivalry, hope and mystery, music and dance. And then the show ended leaving the arena blanketed in a mood I hadn’t expected to engulf us in a bull ring.

But, this was just the precursor, not the main event all. Quickly, I remembered what we were here to see. Having second thoughts on witnessing brutality after romance, I asked my husband to confirm for me: would we be seeing a bull getting killed? Apparently, my thoughts were not alone and my anxieties were right on que. My husband told me the crowd had been caught in a cloud of murmurs, discussing my very concerns. With the right information, I settled my nervous feet. There would be no blood shed here today.

The city of Cayambe had recently passed an ordinance by public vote, to cease the practice that leads to the death of the bull. In fact, most of Ecuador has since made a similar decision. Today, there are only two places in the country where the traditional bull fighting ‘til death is still legally allowed. With the news, our fascination grew. We were excited to witness whatever the new practice would include. Thrilled to understand that this culture has found a way to preserve an ancient way of life while recognizing the concerns of a more modern society.

 

Anticipations grew with the rumblings of the crowd. And as usual, the delay to the main event was much longer than it should be. But, finally, we were signaled by a row of men entering the ring prepared with all of their appropriate attire.  Riding boots and moletas, and their own sort of uniforms. The bullfighters took their positions, and the arena anxiously waited for the first big bull. Finally, we heard the hooves clamoring for the gate and the wood came swinging open.

The audience was first stunned to silence and then erupted into a roaring fit of laughter. The bull was scarcely bigger than a calf. But, then, so was the bullfighter. After the cackles subsided, the rumors floated through the stands and trickled back to us. The first round of fighters were a set of juniors, kids marked as rookies in learning the art of bullfighting. Therefore, it seemed fair enough that the little men were paired with little bulls. With the new information, the show was rather fascinating. Understanding that this group of youngsters had practiced in earnest to be awarded a slot in the show. And for a practice that is quickly disappearing, it is always encouraging to see youngsters fighting to preserve their heritage.

After the kids had completed, the crowd came to their feet and threw out their roses and fedoras onto the dusty ring. It was mock celebration of sorts, to boost the egos of the emerging bullfighters. Of course, the fighters were instantly embarrassed by the clapping and antics…as most of the ruckus came from their own sister and mothers!

Soon after, the ring was occupied by a man on a horse and a larger bull. This was more of an official event and the mood was a bit more somber. Prior to the no-kill rules, this activity would be marked by an ending that resulted in either the death of the bull or the death of the horse, possibly even both. Thankfully in this case, the rider did not carry a true sword and the bull’s horns had the tips removed to prevent puncture to the horse. The sword was marked with chalk, and the rider would aim at the bull to leave the mark that would signify a wound. The bull did occasionally connect with the horse, aiming for painted X’s that would indicate a kill shot.

Incredibly, the “Fake kill” did not seem to dampen the spirit of the sport. In fact, I’m sure much of the crowd was honestly relieved to not witness any sudden brutality to either of the majestic animals. Without the worry of such travesty, it was much easier to comprehend the details of the sport. Just like any sports, the event is full of details, rules, and practicalities. Although, without a commentator, we relied on the audience a bit for play by plays of the more complicated bits.

Our children enjoyed the festivities every bit as much as Carlos and I. They even whined when we decide to leave early to beat the exiting crowds. The experience was so much different than I expected, and I am constantly reminded of how much the media influenced my expectations. It was quite enjoyable and artistic, even respectable. I never imagined so much drama and artistry would be present. I feel lucky to have been given a viewpoint that allowed me to appreciate and understand the cultural significance.

From this opportunity, I know, that the art must be preserved. It would be a great tragedy to suffer the loss of such a beautiful past time. I am proud of the Ecuadorians, for finding a way to recognize the conflicts with modern society. And we are so pleased to have been a part of this ritual. What an accomplishment to have preserved a country’s heritage while being sensitive to the viewpoints of a more modern society.

 

Historical Quito in Photos

The Historical District of Quito, Ecuador.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Quito Basilica

Old Town Quito

Interested in more about Quito? Read our travel story: Romanced by the Basilica.

Want to know more about how we travel full-time? Read more on our Travel Lifestyle.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read our blog! We really appreciate your likes, comments, and shares as a way of supporting our journey!


Theatrical Street Performances

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The images that I captured from the festivals over the weekend are not everything that I was hoping for. The event was beautiful and captivating, but I simply was not prepared for the shooting conditions. I can’t help it but to explain that I am just a novice at photography and I still have so, so much to learn. Action and low light conditions are not something I have much experience with, and certainly not in combination. But, I am now more determined than ever to learn the techniques.

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This is a slideshow I created of the performers from the evening event. There was a beautiful blend of modern dance, traditional dance, and cultural music.The mood was different than the last street festival we attended, and I came to understand why. Most of these performers were not local and had traveled great distances to be here. In addition, it was the first time they had performed on the street. The dancers typically perform in a theatrical setting. So, it’s completely understandable why their nerves and giggles were hard to contain.They were just nervous! For us, the combination of professionalism and naivete were charming. We enjoyed every moment of their performances as well as the “behind the scenes” antics we were so fortunate to see.

132  062 055 200    The Fire Dance was one of our favorite performers, amazing that she never got scorched.                                                                                                                                                                 108

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Exploring a Secret Beach on Ecuador's Central Coast

La Boca is a place just a few miles south of where we live in San Clemente, Ecuador. We love to take a journey to this little secret beach that lies in the crook of the San Jacinto River and the Pacific Ocean. While only miles away, we feel like we have been transported to another world. These sandy shores snuggle up right against a mangrove forest, that lends home to thousands of shorebirds, including a large number of the Great White Egret.

We typically seek out this beach at low tide, when the swirling river and ocean tides leave behind a moon-like landscape and water filled jumping craters. We love to hop across these tiny temporary islands, pretending like we are astronauts jumping on the moon. And when we come across an ideal tide pool, we huddle in together to bask in  nature’s hot tubs. Once we are refreshed, we go on a shell and creature hunt, to see who can find the best sea treasures.

It’s easy to lose track of time in this masterpiece of sea and sand, and it’s essential to bring water and a snack to survive an afternoon in the area’s forgotten beach. Part of the charm, are the relative lack of tourists, vendors, restaurants, and vehicles. Although there are a select few desirable homes in the area, and the occasional ice cream man; one can not be guaranteed any respite from the blistering sun.

Due to it’s remote area and unique mix of sea and salt water, some interesting observations and dwellers can be found here, not excluding a few rare and coveted large seashells.

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Rippled Sand and Tide Pools at The Boca Beach.
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Hopping on the “Moon”.
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Exploring the Tide Pools
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The kids admiring a Great White Egret up close.
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The Mangrove Forest and a bamboo hut for bird watching.
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An out of place Autumn leaf brought in by the sea. The sparkling black swirled  cocoa colored sand.
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It’s no problem to bring the whole family along, toddlers and pup alike!
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The winner of the beach find: A mostly intact, ripe coconut…”Mom, Can we eat this?!”

The Softer Side of Bullfighting

After six months of traipsing through the crushed shell beaches of Manabi, we decided it was high time to a catch a glimpse of life above sea level. We packed up the bikinis and board shorts to trade them in for dusty, creased jeans and our favorite leather boots.  We tossed our kids, and our bags into the back of a Jeep and said goodbye to the sun kissed streets of San Clemente. It was quite a journey up the mountains, to get from the rolling sea to 12,000 feet; high above the colonial city of Quito. We lazily climbed through the quiet villages and snaking roads, peering out the windows in awe of waterfalls and landslides that dot the jungled mountainside.

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Our daughter loving her warm outerlayers of fuzzy  Alpaca wool gear.

We stopped at the indigenous artisanal market in the capitol city, to gear up for life in the Antisana volcanic region. Our final destination would be at home on the range, in the El Quinto ranchlands. Up there the air is clear and the atmosphere serene, but the UV rays and wind are unforgiving, in this country close to the sun. Surprisingly, it doesn’t snow, but the fickle weather means preparing for three seasons in a moment’s notice. As is true of anywhere in Ecuador, the only way to survive is to dress in layers. And so we did, dress ourselves with the Chagras in mind. The Chagras are the cattlemen of the Andes, and the Antisanas, too. The high altitude cowboys have learned to live and love the elements after centuries in the thin air countryside. There was nothing else to do but to take our ques from the experienced roamers, and to load up on many layers of alpaca wool clothing made by the indigenous.

It was a strange thing to us, to buy heavy socks and scarves, and stocking hats too, but to completely dismiss the need for a heavy winter coat. With raised eyebrows in doubt, we exited the marketplace with our cold weather accessories and thick, hooded sweaters for our trip to the heights.  Just a few moments beyond the outskirts of the city of two and half a million people, civilization quickly gave way to rolling landscapes and cobblestone streets.

Quiet came over us as we were engulfed by a new kind of beauty, a different angle on the splendor of Ecuador. The pollution of lights and sound drifted behind us and we were instantly transported to life in a different place and time. The highlands were draped in a quilt of farmlands and lovely dirt roads, speckled with livestock; divine running, horses and broad, Brahma bulls.

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The tail end of a genuine bull run!

Just before we tumbled up to the gates of the ranch, our guide pulled his truck to the side of the narrow, bumpy lane, and dared us to peer over the barbed wire fence. The doors of our 4X4 creaked open and we peered down from the sky, over mountains and valleys of lava rock; strange alien-like deposits from the Antisana some thousand years ago. As we pondered a time when the angry innards of the earth exploded over the lands, we bumped along the rural acres home to the grasslands that house the herds we came to see. The hundred heads that live here are shrouded in history and culture, and most recently in debate and controversy. This ranch is home to the breeders and bloodline of the Spanish fighting bull, a tradition five hundred years deep in Ecuador.

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Views of the El Quinto Ranch. Over 2,000 acres of roaming lands are home to the bulls.

 

We came to see and be seen, by the angry, adrenaline filled, fighting bull. The Roman family breeders have been in business for 40 years, with three living generations still practicing the art of capote and muleta passing. But, here, heritage is not required, and anyone can learn the honor of bullfighting, as taught by the ranch’s team of toreros, otherwise known as bullfighters.

My husband for one; took up on the adventure, in a quest to understand and immerse in the culture of bullfighting. Carlos was invited to participate in the training of the bullfighters and the bravery testing of a bull. In this practice, the bulls are not injured or killed, but rather they were enticed to show the signs of nobility, valor, and might, requirements for breeding the fighting bulls. The bulls that show the right stuff are further prepared for passing on their bloodline, but those that lack in the desired attributes are returned to a life of grazing and lazing in the Andes sun.

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Practice makes perfect, before taming the bull!

Early in the afternoon, the trainers and participants gathered in the wide circle of the bull ring to practice the graceful sweeps of their capes. The kids and I tucked ourselves into the sun drenched strands of knee high hay, growing between the faded red slats of the wooden corral. We basked in the scent of evergreens and eucalyptus as we savored the hugs of our fuzzy, wool sweaters. It was a little piece of heaven, to peek at our father and husband through the blades of the countryside as he danced with his borrowed moleta. Without the presence of the not-yet-summoned bull, we were free to imagine the animal’s place in the ring, and to gaze at the empty stands above our heads.

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The kids waiting in the bleachers, to see their first Bull Fight.

Not too long later, we left our huddle to find a place in the bleachers, where the midday rays blasted us with their presence. We couldn’t get rid of our jackets and mittens fast enough, tossing them in the dust beneath our boots as the show began. Our four year old daughter crouched beneath the front barrier, peering between the cracks in the boards. She was desperate to watch, but overcome by trepidation as the wild bull frantically rooting around in the field below. Our younger son fell silent as he peaked from behind my shoulders.

The small crowd of onlookers bustled around to get the best view and out of the sudden heat. A few poured some liquor, as the celebratory event commenced, and others passed around bags of candy as if celebrating at a holiday party.

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My husband (in the middle) and two other bullfighters, safe from the bull from behind the burladero.

With our eyes to the participants, we watched as the bullfighters glided into the ring, one by one. Most took their places behind the burladero, a guarding wall at the edges of the ring that offers protection from the bull. And finally the first one was chosen to begin the taunting of the bull. He took his turn, showed his tricks, and flapped the cape from to the side, above the bull’s head, and then behind his hips again.

And then one after the other, the trainees took their turns, stepping in and out as instructed, some succeeding and some struggling to present their old or newfound expertise.  I have no place to critique, as a first time viewer, safe in my seat; but I’m sure of one thing, it took a certain dose of bravery for any of them to put themselves in front of a bull.

Though there were a few close calls, most of the interactions were little more than near encounters between man and monster. But, near the middle of the show, there was an occurrence when the bull mastered the taunting man; sending him clear to the ground. The seconds felt like hours as the bullfighters emerged from every corner of the ring, flapping their capotes to distract the angered animal from the downed participant.

I snapped out of my stupor, to grab my camera, preparing to shoot my first tragedy.  Just as I focused my lens, I caught sight of my husband… racing front and center, his first time in front of the bull. I bit my lip as I waited, hoping the worst wouldn’t happen. I envisioned scenes not from the present, but of men getting gored from movies on TV. Luckily nothing like that happened, and the bull trotted off in the opposite direction, leaving my husband and the others the chance to escape to the other end.

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One man down, but rescued by the antics of the others. My Husband (in the white shirt) puts himself right in the sights of the bull!!

But, it wasn’t over yet. The bull snorted and kicked and tried to get at them from behind their safety net. He ran a couple of laps before simmering down, and then the games resumed. Apparently he was deemed mad enough, as the cowboys removed him from the ring, excusing him for the remainder of the fights.

A second bull came in, and much of the same repeated, each of the men taking turns testing the temperament of the fresh, horned animal.  I saw from the sidelines, my husband removing his leather Andes hat and laying it to the side. I knew it was his time, as he slid from behind the burladero, creeping gracefully into the sights of the bull. He whipped his muleta around, flashing the blood red color, while enticing the animal to come a little closer. I was startled by its reaction, barreling through the cape, and getting a little too close for comfort. I cringed as I eyed the horns, watching them narrowly pass by the jeaned thighs of my husband.

But, Carlos was quick on his feet, and the kids cheered Daddy on, as he escaped danger time and time again. Then, just as quick as it began, it was over, and my hubby exited the performance, unscathed by the experience. Head held high, he looked up at me and nodded with his best Marlboro man wink as he stepped out of view.

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I couldn’t resist getting this shot of my Marbloro Man.

The sun shrugged off its warmth shortly after, but long before darkness fell over the ranch. We pulled the wool back up over our ears, as we trudged up the hill and past the pastures. In the evening hours, we sat around the wood burning fireplace in cow hide chairs, tossing around stories about the excitement of the day. We sipped coffee and cocoa as we admired the posters on the walls, those that told the tales of bullfighters and matadors from the decades before. The kids laughed and squealed with echoes through the old, brick walls.

Just as all cowboys must do, we finally retreated for the night, to a corner room far from the heat. We giggled as we breathed the cool, mountain air from the nostrils of our sun burnt noses.

The kids scurried across the cold, tiled floor and into a bed, fitted with nearly ten piled blankets. We doubled our socks and pulled our sweaters over our jammies, before digging our toes under the heavy, wool layers.

As the softness of the night came over the room, I listened to the calm, shallow breathing of slumbering children. I heard a couple of thuds from the outer walls of our room, and peered into the dark trying to make sense of it. From the un-curtained panes, I saw the moon glowing across the mane of the mare that sleeps behind the house.  She pushed her nose against the glass and left steam on the window, before turning in dismissal with a clop clop on the dirt.

I couldn’t help but wonder if her rider normally slept there, but was absent that night. I asked my husband if he agreed, but the only response was silence, as all of my cowboys had fallen asleep. I imagined living there, and leaving a bale of hale at the foot of the bed, of opening the window to let the horse stick her snout in.

Eventually I drifted off too, reminiscing on day one of the best vacation that had ever been.

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A stunning mare taking in the views from the mountainside.

 

 

 

 

Entranced by the Rio Muchacho

 

Our Visit to a Sustainable Organic Ranch.

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Our children, exploring barefoot on the ranch.

When our family looks for day trips and travel excursions, we do so with two young children in mind. Our children are small, just 2 and 4 years old.  Family friendly activities are important for the pleasure of each of us, yet we strive to find unique and adventurous attractions. Life in Ecuador is a bit different in terms of tourism resources. Unless you want to hit the big tourist traps, there are not a lot of resources for off the beaten path type destinations. The locations are certainly here, but it takes a lot of digging and prodding, and reliance on locals to find out about lesser known locales.

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Peeling cocoa beans in preparation for chocolate making.

Recently we set out to find an attraction in a rural setting, with plenty of interest for both us and the kids alike. This was the first of such an outing for us, in Ecuador, and we really had absolutely no idea what to expect.  The ranch was not a recommendation from friends, but was a place that I stumbled across online quite awhile back. It was indeed a bit tricky to find, but the temporary disorientation through the rural landscape of Manabi was both charming and well worth the effort.

Rio Mucho is an organic ranch located just inland from Canoa, on a heavily wooded expanse of several hundred acres. It’s a bit of an oasis for the weary traveler, a respite from the hustle and bustle of the cities and tourist sites. This charming sustainable farm is a must-see for the eco traveler, vegan traveler, traveling families, and anyone who might be looking for an in-depth look at the lifestyle of rural Ecuador. The ranch provides affordable day trips, overnight packages with sleeping accommodations and incredible farm to table food experiences.

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Farm-to-Table lunch experience.

We had such a wonderful day full of adventures and unique insights about sustainable living and life, that it’s hard to believe it all happened in just one day.  We embarked on a day trip nearly a month ago, and our kids still have not stopped talking about it. I never imagined that the day’s activities would be as child friendly as they were, the ranch went above and beyond the call of duty, to ensure that the day as was memorable for our children, as it as for us. Quite honestly, we can hardly wait to return again.

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Jumping on a sustainable playground.

Upon our arrival, the owner and tour guide led us into the ranch’s communal area, an outdoor space with sustainable play equipment, hammocks floating from the trees, a bamboo playhouse, gardens, and the most fabulous open to the elements kitchen and dining room I have ever seen. It felt like home from the moment we stepped within the gates, and we were instantly captivated by the nonchalance, accept-you-as-you-are vibe that envelops the grounds. Children and backpackers, ranch hands, and free range animals flitted about the place, like butterflies freed from captivity into a humble reserve. It is a peaceful place, with little rigor or regard for schedules and itinerary. The ideal circumstances for our little ones, a place welcome to explore at will, yet with the potential to invite more depth at just a moment’s notice.

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Feeding the pigs!

And so we did, we sat back and relaxed, and watched as the kids devoured every ounce of the setting. As our kids tumbled through the tire obstacles and climbed up the dangling ropes of an epic tree swing, our host graciously brought us the best coffee in the world! Served up in a shell from the seed of the matè tree, the black roasted coffee is grown and ground right there on the premises of the ranch. The land was formerly used as a coffee plantation in the heyday of the region’s trade, but experienced a quick and tragic decline as the neighboring country of Columbia stole the limelight some thirty or more years ago. Abandoned but not dismantled, many of the coffee bushes still thrive on the forest floor, beneath the towering native trees that have since claimed the land.

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The freshest cup of Joe anyone could ask for!

As we neared the bottom of our matè cups, we contemplated an extended walk through a meandering dirt road with several trickling river crossings. Our host mentioned that while the walk wasn’t strenuous, with toddlers, it could take upwards of an hour to explore and return. Luckily for us, since our move to Ecuador, our kids have been subjected to walking several miles every day. We knew it wouldn’t be a big deal, and we were sure it would be worth it when we learned that it would reward us with the opportunity to view a majestic, old fig tree. The walk was charming, and we were delighted when several of the resident children begged to hop along with us on our hike.

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Big leaves in the forest!

Our youngest (just 2 years old) squealed with excitement as he learned that he was about to embark on his first journey through the spooky forest; a real live jungle indeed! Oh, but it was so much more! Prior to the first river crossing, we were advised to remove our shoes or risk get them wet.  At first, our children declined and opted to be carried across the trickle via Daddy, while I tiptoed behind. But then they saw how the local kids fared, running barefoot through the slippery rocks and beyond, through the dirt road, and even right into the forest. From then on it became a challenge for them, to see just how far they could get along with their bare soles smacking against the earth.

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Going over the first river crossing.

We crawled through barbed wire, hopped around cow patties, and stepped on the stones past several rushing streams. All before climbing up a hilly, densely wooded terrain with scarcely a path to follow. We brushed branches from our faces, and spiders from our toes, and quite suddenly found ourselves beneath the spindly trunk of nothing less than a fairy-tale tree. The whole lot of us spent a good amount of time there, at the base of this majesty, admiring the sheer size and mesmerizing green color of the trunk and branches. We poked sticks into the crannies and peered inside the crooks, seeking whatever it was to be sought. And then, we climbed!  First my husband to the top, then each child a little way up, and then, finally me. From the second my toes pinched onto the slippery bark, I channeled my inner youth, and sped to the lofty first nook, as if I were my eight year old tree climbing self, all over again. I beamed down at my family, feeling the grin spread across my chin. I felt like a fairy up there, tiny and agile, and magical up in that fabulous fig tree.

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Tangled inside a 150 year old fig tree.

We trotted the long, winding path all the way back to the base of the ranch, arriving just in time for lunch. Hungry, thirsty, and ready for respite, we piled onto the long wood, picnic tables beneath a palapa shelter. We were thrilled to find company there, several backpackers and ranch hands, all gathering together for a midday break. It was fabulous and fascinating to make small talk with these travelers from all corners of the earth. For the most part, they were wanderers seeking ecotourism and vegan travel destinations. I’d never even considered the existence of either! The conversation was unique and like-minded and we were so inspired by the numerous women solo travelers. We gobbled up the delectable organic, farm fresh offerings on the table, and anticipated the upcoming tour of the inner workings of the ranch.

Not long after our children jumped from the benches, they engaged in pretend ranch life among the other kids in the bamboo play hut. We had to yet to see this much independence in them, and we cherished the moments of their freedom, allowing them to explore and imagine to their fullest capabilities. Awhile later, we got the call for feeding time, the hour devoted to serving the livestock. Our children, still barefoot, traipsed through the maze that led us through pig pens, a hen composting site, guinea pig apartments, and even a worm garden. They were thrilled to get their hands dirty, mashing up the sloth for the organic pigs, a meal of oats and molasses! Giggles were incessant as they bravely pushed their buckets full of muck into the mangers. Then, they happily chased the hens past their prospective hiding places beneath hibiscus plants and banana trees. We trotted through the garden-like encampment for the livestock, as my husband stayed behind to get educated on the system used by the ranch to create their own propane gas.

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Pigs at Rio Muchacho Organic Ranch are fed oats and molasses.

When we exited from the working side of the property, we stopped to stroke a saddled horse, patiently waiting for some afternoon riders. As we whispered our promises to spend more time stroking her, we caught wind of a communal activity happening back at the kitchen site. Our tour guide mentioned that it was nearly time to begin making chocolate, and would we like to participate. For us, it was a unanimous vote established in a nanosecond. All four of us are perfectly willing to devour as much chocolate as you will let us, and we’d been waiting for the perfect opportunity to indulge in the infamous Ecuadorian chocolate.

The ranch cook started the preparations by establishing hot coals from a midday bonfire. Then we watched as whole, raw cocoa beans were added to a wooden skillet, and set to rest over the searing embers. Each of us took turns tossing the beans around, eager to be immersed in the intoxicating aroma of roasting cacao. It smells like everything you imagine it should, in one fell sweep. The scent is of love and richness, of holidays and home, of ice cream syrup and brownies, of childhood and romance. Imagine the darkest, sweetest chocolate you’ve ever tasted; and then multiply it times a million. And that is just the scent of it; there are no words for the actual experience of eating it.

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Cacao beans roasting on the open fire.

After the careful dance of tossing the beans about, without burning or spilling them, we had to endure the agony of waiting for them to cool. The steaming bowl was set aside, to collect the passing breeze. We all vied for the spot closest to the waft, each of us hoping to be the one to taste the first edible piece. But, alas, there was much more to it than that. Once the pieces were deemed touchable, all of us gathered at the table to peel the shells, much like the way one frees peanuts from their skins. A pain staking, time-consuming task; of patience and perseverance to not be the one who pops some in her mouth. Then, back to the kitchen they went, to be ground up into a fine dust much like coffee, into what most of us know as cocoa powder.  And simple as can be, after all that complexity, the Cook poured it into a pot with nothing more than a heavy dose of sugar and big splash of milk. We watched as the pot bubbled and gurgled, and then thickened to resemble the best of any brownie mixes. And then it was finally ladled out and dalloped over freshly cut papaya, served to us steaming in individual wooden bowls. It was impossible to wait another second, to avoid getting burnt by the steaming goop. But, burnt lips and tongues aside, the chocolate was divine, incomparable to anything existent in the modern, processed world.  I’m sure it would be absolutely impossible to replicate a taste so rich and fresh and genuine. I’ll be the first to tell you; chocolate will never be the same.

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My husband holding the cocoa powder that he pulverized with a hand grinder.

In the midst of the roasting, and peeling, and boiling, it seemed that several hours went by. And in those moments we allowed ourselves and our children to get lost in time. We had little concept of the minutes or the parts of the day. The whole experience was so natural, warm and inviting, we had the feeling as if we’d been there a hundred times before.  It was something like meeting old friends in new places, a strange familiarity between folks that have similar souls. We even rode the horse, as if she was our own, taking turns climbing aboard the sleek, soft saddle. Happily letting her lead us down that windy rural road. Our kids have little exposure or experience with horses, and often show strong signs of hesitation. But, on that day, each jumped on with ease, as if reuniting with an old friend.

Every moment of the day was incomparable to any other experience we’ve had thus far in Ecuador. We felt so genuinely appreciated and welcome, that it was quite hard to return home. We found ourselves fumbling and fidgeting as the sun began to fall, signaling the end of our time at the ranch. We inquired about camping, and even considered looking further into the accommodations. But, in the end, we climbed back into our truck, with promises to each other to make our return soon. As we bumped down the long lane back to the highway, our little ones drifted off to dreamland with happiness and dirt smeared on their faces. A sure sign of a successful day!

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Horse Back Riding for the first time!

Reflections: Half a Year Abroad

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A mirror image of the sun, on the beach of San Clemente, Manabi, Ecuador.
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A row of painted bamboo huts just outside of San Clemente, Manabi, Ecuador. They serve as restaurants on the weekends.
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Fishing boats on the beach at high tide in San Clemente, Manabi, Ecuador.

We recently surpassed our 6 month anniversary as “Expats” to Ecuador. Sometimes people ask us, if it is what we thought it would be. To be completely honest, I really didn’t have too many expectations or thoughts on what I thought living in different country would be like. I was mainly focusing on arriving and surviving that initial culture shock that I was sure was inevitable. That first month here, was no doubt terrifying, and culture shock is definitely a very, real thing. The rest of the time has just been a whirlwind, as we moved from place to place, scraped through a lot of illness, and of course survived an earthquake. The earthquake was a remarkable event to say the least, but I’m certain that the soul reaching effects that it had on us, would have been the same if we had experienced in anywhere in the world at any time in our lives. We have mostly moved on from that, although we still experience the rattle of aftershocks, at least once every few weeks. They are normal now, and usually warrant little more reaction, than as if we were in a severe thunderstorm warning back in The States.
Material life, possessions, and modern life are definitely the biggest changes. But, it’s interesting how after just a few shorts months, the importance of those conveniences have little bearing on our existence. After the initial startle of life without things that we think we need, it’s incredible to realize how much we don’t need them at all. In the first weeks and months, it felt a lot like being transported back in time, and we had to go through some mental evaluations of our own to understand what we do and do not need. Life felt very old-fashioned and it took a few tricks of the brain to learn to cope with the things we could no longer expect, after leaving a more modern life behind. I suppose the quickest way to come to terms with these elements of life, is to simply not have them. At first it seemed like, every time I turned around, there was something I wanted or needed, and couldn’t find it. Sometimes we just didn’t know where to look, and other times, they just weren’t available. Other times we have found a desired item, only to realize that the price was so exorbitant that it was not reasonable to pay. The funny part is that now, just six months later, I can’t even remember what any of those so-called necessities were.
At the place we live now, we do have a very basic and somewhat primitive washing machine, but no dryer and no dishwasher. We do not have hot running water; we only receive hot water through the shower that is heated by propane. In our village, there are not any modern grocery stores, only small shops, most of which only have enough refrigeration to cool beverages. Milk, eggs, butter, and the like are not kept cold here, and are bought straight off the shelf at room temperature. We are not able to just walk in and grab a pound of hamburger or package of pork shops. Meat must be ordered, and usually takes a few days or even a week to get it. But, it comes straight from the source, never refrigerated or frozen, and usually just processed before it arrives at our door. We can find basic produce anywhere in town at any time, we just simply take a stroll to hunt down the produce truck. Many of the shops also carry the very basic produce for cooking needs, like onions, potatoes, and carrots. But, for the most part, we just wait until Thursday..or Friday..or Saturday, for when our regular produce truck decides makes a stop on our street.
Social life is vastly different for the kids and I, as we still struggle with the language, which is indeed a huge barrier to making friendships. But, we keep trying, although the process is much slower than I would like. Despite this, it feels like we’ve settled in now, and I’m hopeful that the simple calming of our spirits through a time of such great change, will be the trick to absorbing the language. The relative social isolation has been a great thing for us in reality, and has only brought our family closer than before. We have bonded in ways that I am eternally grateful for, and I’m confident that it is a long-term benefit.
So, with a few minor or perhaps major adjustments, life continues on just as life does in any other corner of the world. The seasons change, the kids grow, we do the laundry and clean the bathrooms, just like we always did before. We still run to the market at the last second for milk, or bread, or rice. Sometimes we get bored, grumble about the weather, and wonder why our house is always a mess. We struggle with outings due to our dogs, and are constantly trying to figure out how to do anything with them…and without them. Most of the time we just wing it, and they are not problem anywhere we go, as long it’s an outdoors excursion. Sometimes they get in dog fights, or disappear for a while, but they always come back, and no harm is done. They even go with us to restaurants a lot, because most of them have outdoor seating, and no seems to mind.
So, we are still us, the same hillbilly folks that got married in the mud in Iowa, but a bit improved I think. 😀

 

A featured article for the  Daily Photo Challenge: Mirror