Bulls and Ballet

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.

 

Worshiping the Incan Sun

Worshiping the Incan Sun

The fabric rises from her feet, sweeping in an arc that bleeds colors through the soft air. She swirls with the grace of a Broadway ballerina. Her braid bounces against her back in contrast with the impeccable canvas of her embroidered top. The tip of her hair sweeps across a beaded belt, stroking the glistening glass like the fine bristles of a painter’s brush. She is art in motion, and she is the geisha of the Andes; if there were such a thing. She is not a princess, or even royalty, but she is a Quechua indigenous lady. Along with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of her kind, on this day she dances through the adoquin streets in tune with the sounds of the Inti Raymi Festival in Cayambe, Ecuador.

History of Inti Raymi

Inti is the Goddess of the Sun, as celebrated by the Quechua tradition as long ago as the 15th century. The Quechua indigenous are direct descendants of the Inca, and today still make up as many as 2.5 Million people in Ecuador. Incredibly, the ancient culture and civilization survived the brutality and slavery that engulfed the nation when the lands were infiltrated by the Spanish conquistadors.

Many of the costumes that adorn these colorful people were influenced by the fabrics, dyes, and jewelry that arrived in the country with the Spaniards. The attire is not reserved for holidays and celebrations, but is still worn every day. If beauty ever meets function, the subculture has figured it out. These multi-generational families spend all their time adorned in the artisanal masterpieces, even as they work the fields in their traditional agricultural lifestyle.

For this festival, the Quechua and the residents of Cayambe are worshiping Inti (the Quechua Sun Goddess) in accordance with Winter Solstice. This is the shortest day of the year, and for countries south of the Equator like Ecuador, is it Winter during June and July. The celebration is also in associated with the Incan New Year. The first celebration of its kind was held in 1412 and went on for 9 days. It was signified by dances, parades, feasts, and animal sacrifices. The peoples believed that the festival would ensure a good crop season in the coming Spring.

The City of Cayambe

The city of Cayambe is located in Central Northern Ecuador and rests at the feet of the Volcano she is named after. The peak stretches 19,000 feet to the sky and claims the title of the closest point to both the sun and the moon on the entire planet. Because of its equatorial location, Cayambe is the tallest peak from the center of the earth. Yet, somehow her relevance has been missed and she shyly waits in the shadows of Everest to one day claim her crown. She is also the only point on the equator cloaked in a sparkling white crown of permanent snow. The Volcano has been inactive since 1786 and is a favorite scale of knowledgeable mountain climbers.

The People

The seemingly quiet and shy people of Cayambe, live a humble and productive life. Most of the population carries on the authentic existence of their ancestors mixed with the modern teachings of the agriculture industry. The area is known for its fresh flower plantations, dairy farming, and lumber industry. Outside of festival time, the women and children are often hesitant and skeptical towards my camera. But, during the Inti Raymi, their pride shone through and I was fascinated to meet another side of their personality.

One after the other, cheeks glowing like Cabernet; women, girls, and children batted their lashes and billowed their skirts. Babies stopped mid-blink and studied my face, then onto my camera, and finally to my own children at my feet. The men and boys mostly ignored me completely, entranced by their elders and entirely caught up in the festivities. The tribe leaders were obvious, commanding the attention of both their followers and the crowds. They chanted, sang, and bellowed through the streets in their native tongue.

The Experience

The artistry of it all was overwhelming, my mind and eyes swirled with the kaleidoscope displayed before me. In the first moments, I couldn’t decide where to focus my lens. The vibrant skirts, the prancing feet, the embroidery on the shirts. The feathers in the fedoras, the bells on the vests, or the stunning leather chaps. Finally, I let myself be pulled in by the faces and succumbed to the rhythm of the chaos. Even if the contact was only through the glass, my experience was highly personal and through my photos I felt like I met each of them.

For hours, the parade carried on beneath the beaming historic buildings. As if the characters in the play were not strong enough, the backdrop offered a fierce competition. Evocative, crackling storefronts framed the quaint town square in the beaming afternoon light. The adoquin stone streets played their own verse in time with the flutes and guitars; tapping toes and clopping horses. The scents of the city clashed together in a blend of moonshine, boiling cinnamon figs, horse manure, fried meats, and corn drinks.

I left Cayambe that day, feeling satisfied that I had truly experienced am important culture. This is not a widely publicized event, it has not been obliterated by tourism, or altered to please onlookers. This day was authentic and raw. We only saw one other family that appeared to be foreigners, and I was the only novice person obviously taking photographs. We felt lucky and honored to have been a part of it; enamored to have experienced an insider’s perspective on life and culture in Ecuador.

 

Romanced by the Basilica

Romanced by the BasilicaTip toe, hip hop, scramble to and fro over the willy, nilly hand paved stone roads. Over the hills and beneath the shadows of the Basilica, through the historical streets of Quito we roam. Peering through the peep holes through the castle-like walls and counting over a hundred as up the stairs we go. Standing near the tops of the steeples and hiding behind the pillars that support the bell towers, we feel as small as ever. Why is that in places grand and old, we can’t fight the compulsion to whisper? Even though the closest bystanders are farther away than the other side of a lake?

The kids pull on my fingers, begging me to let them experiment with echoes….just one time. Just one tiny scream into the wonderful, hollow abyss. I admit it, I too would love to yodel at the top of my lungs. To listen to the reverberation bounce from arch to arch, ceiling to floor, window to door, and from the pews to the pulpit. I wonder to myself just how high they would have to scream before the intricate stained glass would shatter and shower around us.

I hush them once more, but secretly cherish the sound of their tiny footsteps clack clacking through the isles and halls. I smile at the vibrant, pink balloon bopping above their heads in the dark, cool rooms. I guide their shoes behind mine, as I lean against a pillar to poke my lens at the priest. He isn’t saying anything but I feel his eyes pierce through the concrete and shame me for my disrespectfulness. I quickly shove the kids back, guiding them in the opposite direction.

They free themselves through a side door, flinging themselves in the courtyard where their grandmother is waiting there. I nod to their Daddy as I slip back inside to capture a few more shots in solitude. I take a seat on a nearby pew, letting my eyes swirl around me in search of the perfect angle. When I’m sure no one is looking, I slide myself onto the floor and lay my head against the cold, clammy marble floors. I understand from within that there is no way to capture this imagery in a photograph. I am just a novice, but like any artist would…I take a moment to imprint this scene in a place just for me, before raising my camera and creating a photograph for inspiration.

 

The rest of the afternoon is a colorful blur of historical buildings, charming parks, and colorful homes decorated in Spanish tiles and miniature balconies. It is easy to forget that this piece of old world imagery belongs to the dirty, bustling third world city of Quito. In my mind, I imagine a Sunday afternoon scene of men in suits sitting on park benches and women in fancy dresses twirling umbrellas above the stone palette streets. And then I think back even further, to the Incan civilization that claimed this place in what seems like a world of time before us.

As the day comes to a close the children are amused with chasing pigeons through the courtyard beneath the great San Francisco Cathedral. A street-clown flirts with our kids and beguiles my husband into accepting his end-of-the-day flowers. Two wilted sunflowers and a stunning, red Ecuadorian rose later, we head down the alley for ice cream and empanadas.

We say goodnight to the city before the streets start to twinkle, and we say thank you to Old Quito for romancing us with this part of her story. Once and for all, against all odds, we have fallen in love with the enemy. These country folks have finally surrendered to the sweeter side of the city.

Read Our Last Travel Story: Raindrops on Roses.

 

Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on roses and little pink noses. Rubber boots in muddy puddles and fingerprints on foggy windows. Misty mountains and soggy meadows. Dashing between cloud splashes! Hot tea while counting the drips from pine needles. Giggling beneath the nylon eaves of our new family tent. Eating pancakes in bed, on top of sleeping bags and squished dollies. These are some of my favorite memories!The last few weeks have consisted of long, wet days dotted with the occasional splurge of sun. Ecuador seems to have forgotten that the rainy season ended 7 weeks ago. There is no point in trying to out-drive it, the rains are dancing everywhere. One day we heard that the entire continent was glowering under one massive rain cloud. It was probably true.

Normally one would think that rain wouldn’t be that much fun, especially with the mindset of camping and over-landing as the main goal of a satisfactory life. When the days get weary, we take the extra time to snuggle in longer and closer. And when we emerge, we find a new world to discover. In the wilderness, the rain changes everything. The sound of the river, the feel of the grass, and the glow of the trees and plants.The mountains cast an eerie glow over the valley, as the mist hangs in the air where the curtains of rain hung before. The waters below the banks thud and roll, making thunderous echoes between the canyons. The sounds are reminiscent of angry, ocean tides when the storms sneak into shore. The birds are quiet, as if exhausted from nights on end of relentless downpours. The flowers glisten with gemstones, twinkling from afar when branches of sunlight split through the lingering clouds and land on the hovering rain drops.We are intrigued and we venture out to capture the secrets of the forest after the storm. Leaves great and creatures small beckon to us from behind the vibrant colors of a freshly painted scene. Ecuador never disappoints in her passion with displaying every imaginable color of the rainbow. But, even so the rains wipe the slate clean and reveal nature in a new light- just as it happens with restored historical paintings.

We delighted in an hour of meandering up a picturesque grass and dirt lane. A path framed by flowers and forest, mountains and river. Crosses made from window panes and a perfectly rustic garden gnome. This is the road that breaks us from civilization and deposits us into our current destination. Just far enough from others for us to cherish the silence of life in the forest. Yet, close enough to dip our toes in when we miss it a little bit.

This is the part of traveling where checks and balances come in. It would be easy to say that we never want to see the hustle and bustle of tourist destinations. But, there would be a lot to be missed if we adopted an attitude like this. We do want to see and do many things in the nearby by Baños, Ecuador. The sense of adventure and appreciation for the outdoors is what lured us here. But, to stay in a hotel or even a hostel can sometimes be a damper for us. We like to be away from the cities, but to trickle back in as we like. To not be overwhelmed with a heavy dose, but to soak it in bit by bit.                                                                                                                                                                                 Places like this are more than ideal, maybe even perfection for our family. There is so much to do, absorb and explore. Off we go to unveil more of it!

**This post is from our stay at Abby’s Hideaway, Lligua, Ecuador.

Sand and Sun in the Amazon

Nose to the sky, feet in the sand. I sink my toes into the silky, powder of the river banks. We sit beneath dancing leaves that cast a kaleidoscope of shadows and light across our cozy embankment. The air is heavenly. Not warm enough to invite a sweat, yet not cool enough to be bothered by the shade.

Big, billowing clouds tower high above the horizon and smooth ribbons of water ripple through the currents below. Icy blue streaks peak at the ridges of the soft, olive blankets; revealing the secret of the chilly, river waters. Two channels weave together, twisting and churning at the center, cutting beaches and cliffs at the edges before finally succumbing to their intended unity. As far as the eye can see, only greens and blues highlighted by the sands and clouds.

Butter colored butterflies dance on the breeze and taunt our dog with tickles on the nose. Like the old dog he is, Joey lets out a long sigh and rolls over with his belly to the trees. There could be worse things in life than to be bothered by butterflies on a deserted beach. The other, with the eternal puppy spirit, leaps gleefully across the beach spraying sand, water, and slobber across every last grain. Dante, with a sparkle in his eye and the wind in his ears, has no intention of a lazy, beach day. The children are huddled together digging pits in the sinfully soft sand, begging Daddy to tuck them in up to their chins.

This little haven is a spectacular place on the outskirts of the Amazon Rain-forest in Ecuador, at an establishment known as the Playa la Union. It is a campground, virtually deserted on the weekdays such as it was on our visit. Easily accessible by highway, yet fully tucked into the dense, jungle foliage. The beach is an oasis, with the feel of a deserted island. We spent much of the day pretending we were the likes of the Swiss Family Robinson. Rolling around in the sand, squealing in the exhilarating waters, and dangling from the trees in our favorite hammocks.

When the clouds above us swirled with darkening colors, we raced to our campsite for respite from the looming rains. But, they hung overhead in resistance to let us explore the foresty side of our outdoor abode. We spent the afternoon looking for patterns and shapes in nature, amazed and inspired by all that we could find in the moments as we lingered. The tangled roots of bank-side trees, stretching to the water one way and to the hills the other. Speckled with the flat, smooth rocks of the river and the scattered leaves of the canopy. The stripes of the banana tree leaves and the magnificent purple bloom of the impending fruit. The strange raised polka dots clinging to the undersides of massive, unknown leaves. An army of ants carefully climbing the trunk of an orange tree, methodically avoiding the vibrant green hoops of moss that decorated the bark. And finally, the water color splashes across the psychedelic bark of the guayaba tree.

As the evening wore on, the skies glittered with diamonds. The grasses lit up with the soft, flickering glow of fire flies. Our children closed their eyes to the rhythms of the bonfire and the hum of the frogs.

My hubby and I sat up together at the foot of the bed, feet kicking together over the edge of the tailgate. We whispered above the chatter of the river, dreaming of places yet to venture until the air turned cooler and the skies clouded over once more. We crawled inside, hands stretched across the slumbering lumps between us, giggling quietly as the first drops tinkled against the tin roof umbrellas outside.

 

 

A Girl & A Goat

She runs through the meadows, tangles flying everywhere, pink rubber boots clomping along the animal trail; calling to her friend “Jaccckkkkk! Jackkkk! I’m here!!” She wraps her arms around his thick, white neck and tucks a tiny blue blossom into the fur atop his head. He promptly shakes it off and nuzzles his head under her arms, looking for the sweet sugary drink she carries in a large, metal pail. She giggles with the jangle, jangle of his bell as he trots a circle around her heels; tangling his rope between her ankles.

“Everyone says he stinks, but I think he smells like flowers and molasses,” she explains. “And he’s not soft like the babies, but his fur is still as white and clean as the clouds, even though he lives in the wilderness.” Then she returns her attention back to him, roaring with laughter as he rears up on his hind legs to reach his favorite leaves up in a nearby tree. “You silly goat! You think you are squirrel in the trees or a bucking horse in the rodeo. But, you are just a goat!”

These types of exchanges have been going on for several weeks now, during the extent of our farm stay at an agro-eco farm in Ecuador. We have learned about the loving ways to care for goats, through herding and corralling, petting, milking, and overall loving. The kids have relished in the opportunity to take some responsibilities for the animals. From this experience, they will know no other way, than to truly appreciate a goat.

The goats come in every size, shape, color, and temperament. Babies, yearlings, mamas, grandmas, and finally the billy. There are a few very cute, cuddly babies and a few real beauties in the females. Our children genuinely love taking them out to pasture in the morning, taking them sweet water in the afternoons, and then herding them back home again with the bell just before nightfall. Each of them have enjoyed milking the mothers and prepping the pens for the youngsters. They don’t particularly like the milk or the goat cheese either, acquired tastes I suppose. They have pet the goats like cats and carried the babies around like puppies. For the most part, the animals don’t seem to mind one bit. I would have guessed that their favorites would be the babies, and that is pretty much true for our three-year-old son. But, for our daughter, she is infatuated with the billy! She even seems to have traded in her life-long love of cows in exchange for one hundred percent affection for Jack.

She tells me she is in love with him, even though she doesn’t know what that means. She says she wants to frame a photo of them together to carry along on all our travels. She says that she will remember him forever. Maybe she will. We never know what our kids will take away from travel, from nature, or from a spectacular farm that infiltrated our lives for several weeks in 2017. We don’t know what she will do with the knowledge or love that she has gained. But, we know that she is happy and thriving. She is having experiences that we alone could not have provided. Learning and living, practicing and doing, touching, feeling, believing. Understanding.

  The confidence and compassion she has gained are astounding. She is a little girl growing up in the world. And we are so proud to be her parents, feeling confident that we have found the pillars of the right learning environment for her. So thankful for the present and so eager for the future.

Rainbows of the Forest

The leaves crackle beneath our feet as we soar through the forest, arms outstretched in mimic of the butterfly. We don’t run but we glide over the gnarled roots that trace their history over our path. Our eyes float to the trees in search of every color of the rainbow. Glimpses of the glass blue sky and chalky, white clouds peek out at us between the gaps in the canopy. The trees come alive in our quest and we are not disappointed with the rainbow the forests has to offer.

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The perfect pink of a baby slipper blinks at us from a hibiscus flower dangling by one fine strand of cob-webbing. We watch it twirl in the breeze like a meticulously placed trinket dripping from nature’s own chandelier. A shock of red splashes across the expanse of one thousand hues of green. Tiny dots clumped together among shiny, emerald leaves. We pick a few berries and pop them into our mouths to enjoy the splendor of a freshly picked coffee bean.

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Fresh picked Coffee Beans

And then, the distinctive thud of fruit falling from the heights, toppling through the branches, and landing on the forest floor. We turn on our heels to catch the blur of a ripe orange rolling down the bank towards the river. The kids giggle over the prospect of the orange thunking a fish on the head while swimming obliviously downstream. As we pause for the chatter, I watch the tiny fingers of our oldest one wrap around the thin trunk of a young tree. She is silent as her fingers trace over the plum colored leaves of this young tree, following along the line of a vibrant magenta vein.

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The kids and a purple & pink tree

Her younger brother flits about in the background, hands to the sky trying to catch the dash of cobalt blue coasting on the wind. We join him in this chase to capture what seems to be a rather talented dragonfly. Through the twirls and swirls and flips, the creature finally comes to rest on a perfect green leaf above carpets of mint and oregano. But, it isn’t a dragonfly at all, and we are all thrilled beyond measure to know that we are viewing the renowned Glass Wing Butterfly! It is a majestic as it sounds, with wings as clear as crystal. The vibrant blue is not visible from its resting position, in lieu of nature’s carefully planned camouflage. Just like chasing a fairy through the forest, only for it to disappear the moment it lands close enough to catch it. She taunts us with her magic until we can find her no more.

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The Glass Wing Butterfly

The wonder of the forest doesn’t cease from there, and we find ourselves below a massive tree who has been tricked into believing autumn has come. Slowly and delicately, leaves of gold and amber drift from the heavens like delicate ribbons being shed from a young girl’s hair. We stand delighted and in awe as they trickle past our noses and outstretched hands.

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Along the edges of a carefully worn path, emerge the colors of pink, orange, and yellow, all mushed together like the smudge of a painter’s brush. Tiny, little flowers that cause a smile to broaden my husband’s face.  His fingers pluck the delicate blooms as he dopples them over the heads of our children in a kaleidoscope shower. They delight in the moment, as much for a glimpse of their Daddy’s youth as for the love the of Tupirosa.

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Tupirosa

Three times over we discover all of the colors of the rainbow, through the birds and the flowers, the leaves and the fruits. And we must negotiate the full range of colors, to include more obvious hues of nature like gray, brown, black, and white. We soon recognize, just as we did with green, that all of the colors of the forest come in hundreds of hues.

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Flowering Trees

The rushing chocolate of the river after it rains does not compare to the bark of the avocado tree, or to the hull of the kukui nut. The black spikes of the “bad caterpillar” are not quite the same as the charcoal feathers of the free range chickens or of the brindle stripes in our dog’s fur. The vanilla colored butterfly is quite contrary to the white blooms of the citrus blossom and cream hue of wild mushrooms. The deep transparent gray that cloaks the ground in shadows of the trees is nothing comparable to the smooth, round stones that support the bamboo bridge.

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Frosty looking mushrooms on the humid, forest floor.

We trot “home”, knowing that we have discovered only the first layer of the forest. Dreaming of what lies beyond and what we must discover tomorrow. Still sunny papayas to gather, crimson peppers to pinch, and taro root to dig. White tilapia to catch, fire flies to capture, and bird songs to follow.

For now and forever we shall be, children of the trees.

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Orange Blossoms

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A vibrant spider with a stunning yellow web.
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The Dutchman’s Slipper

*This story is part of our experience during our stay at Neverland Farm near Vilcabamba, Ecuador. You can read more about about our adventures here.

Water is Life

Some entrances in life are grand. Such transition points often make for some rather notable experiences and substantial memories. This story would one of those that starts in such a manner.

We spent most of the morning bustling around the picturesque mountain village of Vilcabamba. The cobblestone streets, flowering town square, Thomas Kincade worthy church, and quirky hippie storefronts pulled me in from the first glimpse. The Spanish tile roofs against set against the lush mountain backdrop and the artists in the street make this place feel like somewhere out of story book. The bustle and disappointment of Cuenca slowly seeped from our veins as Vilcabamba lifted our spirits in one long, sigh.

This place was much more of what we are looking for when we travel. We try to appreciate cities, but have yet to succeed with that. But, small villages hidden in the countryside often seep with nostalgic lifestyles that keep us smiling. Even so, we love to actually get out and into rural life. And so Vilcabamba was really more of resting place before heading out in the wild yonder.

We filled the truck with provisions to last us for the coming weeks, mostly cellar foods to haul back with us to the agro eco farm next on our route. The kids and I even stopped to sip on a mid-morning snack at the local juice bar while my husband and our host finished up on last-minute preparations. We piled into the car full of rejuvenation and anticipation for the journey ahead. We all chit chatted nonchalantly about friendships and vibes and travel in general. We talked about the weather and the rains, and the crazy landslides destroying roadsides countrywide.

20170510_123439Our host and now friend; laid out before us her carefully chosen words about the path to our destination. We giggled with excitement over the prospect of a what sounded like a noteworthy off-road experience. We chase after these type of adventures, dream of these very journeys. Secret trails to off-beat locations, over grown roads to lesser known places, humble dwellings that prove humans can live in harmony with nature.

The outskirts of the lovely village thinned out through the countryside and the highway melted into tiny, unknown townships that hug the tropical mountainside. We came to the official reality of rural Ecuador, with the onset of a tiny, rugged bridge that gleamed red in the vibrant, green landscape. A charming bridge indeed, like those that are constructed for toy trains in the miniature displays as seen in replica museums. Like those that we dream up in the routes of historical romance novels.

Only it was real, passing beneath our wheels with the rails only an arms-width away and above the rushing Piscobamba. Thick, heavy palm trees pressed their branches to the frame like swords raised in salute as we crossed the moat to Neverland. The river roared beneath us and a mud road met us shortly after on the other side.

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We careened to and fro, dancing with Nature as we begged her not to toss us down the cliff-side below. Her retaliation against civilization is clear. Like muddy toes sticking out in the road, entire hillsides have spilled onto the obvious intrusion of asphalt and concrete. Her rivers passed across our trail, like fingers raking away the path in a last effort to keep the masses out. The roads were nothing less than treacherous, and the scenery beautiful beyond description.  Most of us have no inclination whatsoever that places like this exist.

The suspense of our arrival was intense and on many occasions I had to advert my eyes, unsure of a safe place to focus my energies. Trust in my husband was my only saving grace. If it had been any other driver, I’m certain I would have aborted the mission. But, like any good trek, the journey was just the beginning.

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Three river crossing and numerous landslide areas later, we found ourselves in the basin of a Chirusco Valley. This valley is near an area associated with Vilcabamba known as the Valley of Longevity. In the lands that we were aiming for, there is a creek known as the Condor Huana which is a tributary of the Piscobamba. In recent months during the rainy season, the area has seen more rainfall than it has in the past 20 years. This caused a tremendous amount of water to collect outside of the riverbeds. The final part of the route to the Neverland Farm was not accessible by car during our visit.

For us, entering on foot only added to the adventure and put us in sync with the surroundings. Arriving to our destination on foot only added to the splendor of our entrance. We feel that it was a stroke of luck on our part and we enjoyed every moment of the hike from the car to the farm.

The kids were delighted to squish through the terrain in their rubber boots and the dogs were eager as always to make the first discoveries ahead of us. We passed along the Condor Huana Creek and were instantly aware of its power, presence, and prevalence over life here.

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There is a sign that is posted in great abundance all over Ecuador, anytime that civilization collides with the rivers. It reads “La Agua es Vida” and is often paired with a message about pollution awareness. The words quite literally and simply mean “Water is Life”. Of course we all understand the value of water to every living thing. But, to see it like this, is a whole different revelation. To enter the natural world where the significance is in your face and under your feet, means something else entirely. Life around Neverland Farm revolves utterly and completely around the water. Not just the river, but the rains dictate even the most minute details of survival in this mostly off-the-grid place. You cannot forget, not even for a second, that nature rules here and the Queen of the scene is the water.

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The whole pack of us crossed on foot over a man-made bamboo bridge secured over the river. At least for now, this is the only the vein that connects the farm to the homestead and essentially the rest of the world. After the bridge, we passed through a dirt path into the thick forest of a natural and eclectic grove. Still too many fruits and herbal trees for me to remember, but among them are citrus, coffee, macadamia nut, avocado, cacao, mango, and passion fruit.

Then we came to a clearing where the establishments are. Right in the center is a large, covered communal outdoor table. From that heart of the compound are several, small rustic buildings. One of them will be our house during our stay here. It is a one room, loft style wood plank house with no fancy stuff. Screens on the lower windows and chicken wire on the loft windows. No glass, nothing frivolous, no furniture beyond a bed frame and a table. Only the essentials. We have electricity via solar energy and internet from satellite. There is no running water in this home, which would be the reason it is essentially considered a bunk house. The toilet, showers, and kitchen are all separate from the house. The water is abundant and is the first drinkable faucet water we have encountered in Ecuador. It of course, comes from the mountain stream.

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We are only two nights into the experience and we have gained nothing but respect, appreciation, and admiration for this way of life. The harmony with the earth is undeniable. Tonight as I write, only the hum of the river fills the air outside our windows. My husband, children, and dogs are all lost in slumberland; exhausted from a full day of farm life.  Up with the sun and down with it too, I never imagined that our rowdy crew could be asleep by 7:30 at night. Herding cows, milking goats, feeding rabbits, carrying molasses water to the animals in the meadows, baking bread, making banana vinegar, collecting fruits and produce. All home cooked meals and drinks. Doing dishes under the trees and hanging clothes from the eaves.

It feels like we live in a different century here where life takes on a completely new perspective. There is no rush to life, but there is a lot of purpose to it. This is an existence where no chore is too big, no need too small. Where time is not a limit but an opportunity. Where here is more than a place, but is actually everywhere. Nothing is yours and everything is ours; including things, space, and responsibilities.

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Living takes on whole new dimension that reflects solely on achievements and accomplishments towards the greater whole. Not just towards the humans either. Towards the animals, the sky, and the land. Towards breakfast, lunch, and dinner and all of the many, many precious moments in between them.

I can’t help but reflect on society and family culture as a whole and wonder how the world has gone so far astray. This is where peace and harmony are at. In days spent with your family, with every moment full of purpose but never one second in a hurry. Nights spent in reflection of the significance of every tiny action.

This is where serenity comes from. When the day is done and you rest with a sense of pride and wonder, with the absolute confidence that not a single minute was wasted. A full life is not a busy one, but a balanced one. Time spent together and independent. Time spent being productive with moments cherished together. Time as a reflection of a collection of beautiful moments. Not a reflection of a life ticking by and all the things that were not done or have gone wrong.

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Life is infinitely beautiful if we have even the slightest clue what to do with it. Life is not bad and horrible, debilitating or degrading. Life is exactly what we make of it, and absolutely not a single ounce of it is anything more or less than that. It all comes down to choices and priorities. A whole lot of awareness and just a tiny bit of willingness to explore something other than what you know.

Life is still majestic, wonderful and full of possibilities. Life is still waiting for us to discover the potential lurking in all of us. This is what our children need. To know, to understand, to see and live. To believe that life can be anything that they want it to be.

Restrictions and boundaries and expectations are limitations from our society. But, we can make the choice to be free of them. We can teach our children not be dictated by them. We can still claim a life that is all our own, one that is wild and free and full of individuality.

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*If you are interested in a stay at the Neverland Farm, they are now accepting reservations. The farm is located in the Vilcabamba parish of Southern Ecuador and is accessible by private vehicle or via hiking route. You can contact the owner, Tina, via the Facebook page.

Trees for the Soul

The highway disappeared behind us in the rear view mirror as we puttered down the route towards our future. The concept of leaving behind nothing and heading towards nowhere in particular is just a freeing as I imagined it would be. This doesn’t feel like vacation, not even one bit. It doesn’t feel like moving either, not even remotely close. This is a new emotion and I think it must be something like liberation.

The world looks a whole lot different when destinations and dates don’t come in to play. Suddenly, every turn is our home and every face is our neighbor. No place too near or too far, too soon or too late to dream of. Nothing too strange or unfamiliar. All of it is ours for as long or short, and as deeply or surface level as we want it to be.

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We have headed south from San Clemente winding our wheels through the beautiful mountainside roads that hug the cliffs hanging over the Pacific. We drift through the quaint salty villages, picturesque ports, and coastal countryside of central Ecuador. We pause to peak down the alleyways that lead to the sea, and to buy local breads baking in the breeze. As charming as can be, but our pores are aching for something different after being soaked in ocean mists for the past year and more. For this, our souls resist the allure of endless miles of deserted beaches that beckon to the travelers passing through. We are clearly craving something with a new horizon.

Just a few hours later, we veer east rather than west, to follow our hearts into the lush, green jungles of the Dos Mangas forests. Barely off the coastal highway, we find ourselves transported to an entirely new dimension. After a quick swerve onto an unkempt dirt road, we plummet down the hillside and right on through an unruly creek spilling onto the road. Then up again and into the thick, green everything.

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We pull into a clearing next to a carefully planned fire ring, a massive picnic table, and wonderfully, quirky wooden stools and delightfully strewn about. All around towering trees full of flowers for fruits among nuts scattered on the ground. We park our truck next to a cozy cottage delicately tucked into wild flowering bushes and rows of papaya trees heavy with produce. The air is thick with the scent a medicinal plant the locals called Meringa. The forest floor is blanketed with the dancing patterns of light and shade as they vie for their turn to penetrate through the trees.

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The air is warm in a comforting sort of way, devoid of the sticky heat of summer, and laced with blissful ribbons of cool breeze that lift the fingers of the branches. The blissful wilderness was inviting to us all. Paws and footprints scattered quickly through the trees as our kids and dogs emerged from the caravan we call Magma. My love and me, stood motionless, overcome by the serenity of the forest. Leaves gracefully dripped from the sky and swirled in the air around us. We breathed in the cleansing air that tickled our nose and the tips of our hair. It felt like the ideal place to call home…for the days ahead.

This is where we have spent the first days of our adventure. The first week of our life as a full time traveling family. We have eaten birthday cake at that divine table beneath the canopy, climbed ladders to pick ripe papayas, and chased butterflies through the trunks of the forest. We have indulged in play like no other beneath the wonder of the trees. Mud pies and grass salads, and flower teas. Bonfires for fairies and our wee ones, too. Butterflies like stained glass windows, caterpillars from fairy tales, and bowling and bulls eye with dozens of dropped nuts. Fruit made from passion and plants made from ancient medicine. Games made with sticks, lost ropes, and hopping toads. Mornings on a tree swing and afternoons in the creek.

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After just one stop, childhood and puppydom have been revived once more. We have found a place where play and laughter still live. Here our children have rediscovered play and our dogs have claimed their roaming freedom. It is everything all of them deserve, in a place where trees heal the soul in ways like soup heals the cold. In these moments we find the simplicity that beckons us to a happier way of life. It is from remote places that we find the tranquility to allow the silence of our worldly duties. Here, we find a calmness that has been calling for years untold. Let our journey officially begin! 

 

The Last Drop of Ordinary

The final moments of this life close in on us like the last curtain. Heavily collapsing through the air with a murky cloud of dust left hanging in the air. Our obligations to this life linger for a moment in the aftermath. But, ultimately they break apart and dissolve into infinity; as if they were never there.

The world is quiet and our audience holds their applause, stunned by the closing act. In the far back of the theatre of our life; one significant pair of hands applauds in a delayed yet firm approval. And then one more supporter surfaces, a gray-haired soul seated at the corner of the first row. She smiles sweetly at me as tears streak the soft, peach apples of her powdered cheeks.

In these days, we definitively say goodbye to ordinary once and for all. We turn our backs on the best laid plans of our parents, societies, and governments. We kick up dust in a mockery of all things intended for us. We stand up against regiment, order, and judgment. We say “No” to a lackluster life of corporate ladders and white, picket fences.

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We grasp the fingers of our young and tug the collars of our canines. We walk alone into the wild unknown to live a purposeful life built from the pillars of retaliation. It is now or never that we take our lives back and that we claim the destiny that is the right of us all. We choose freedom and a revolutionary life.

From here, we will roam, we will wander; we will pave the path that society stole from us long ago. We defy the need for a formal education, a career, and a homestead. From here, we drift with the currents of the earth, the music of the winds, and among the souls of nomads.

We turn the key one last time; leave the stoop with a fond farewell. We kiss goodbye the house that resembles the last drop of an ordinary life. From here on out, we will claim the ultimate prize as wanderers of the world.

Imagine the adventures that await us, the stories untold, the memories we will hold. All of them are the contents of dreams that whisper in the ears of us all. They are premonitions of a beautiful life that we stopped aiming for long ago.  But, the glimmer of wonder is still there, twinkling from afar; enticing the willful wanderers to come and explore.

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When did we stop listening to the buzz of the bees and the hum of the stream? When did it occur that we embraced blinking streetlights and rumbling traffic in their place? When did we stop hearing the hints from within? To get out ,to disconnect, to breathe in the air of an undisturbed place…

Was it when we cluttered our lives with instant messages and online notifications? Or was it our over-filled schedules and over-ambitious aspirations? Was it all of it? Have we all been doing life all wrong?

There is still time to be rescued, still room to reverse everything that doesn’t mean anything. Don’t judge us, question us, belittle us; ridicule us. There is room enough for everyone. Virtually, literally, figuratively, in any way you like. Come along with us. Come and escape.

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