To Ecuador and Back: “Una visita relámpago”

Dear Friends: With travel companion Annie Tucker (an avid Portland birder), I made a “lightning visit” to Ecuador from February 22 – March 8. Twenty-two hours going and 22 hours coming, through Portland-Miami-Quito-Cuenca-Quito-Dallas/FW-Portland. Result: I’ve vowed not to do that route again. For the future, despite all the bad press Guayaquil’s gotten lately (more on that later) – landing there is so much easier. This is how Michael and I plan to travel in May/June (more on that later too).

It was disheartening indeed to see what the world news has done to Ecuador’s tourism – which plummeted to near zero after the first sensational reports. In fact, the violence has been limited to gangs in overcrowded prisons and a few coastal cities where the drug trade has fanned crime. (It would be like reading about violence in Chicago and deciding not to visit New York or Los Angeles.) But in rural mountainous areas such as Cañar, and urban cities such as Quito and Cuenca, daily life continues as usual, quietly hectic but secure. Only the tourists are missing, which is a great shame for Ecuador is such a lovely and easy country to explore and tourism has become so important to its economy. I just read that in 2019 it employed around 270,000 people, representing around 3.7% of total employment in the country. Even so, tourism has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels,

Crater Lake Quilotoa, which Michael and I visited years ago.

But back to our trip. Coming off the plane in Quito, I was slammed by the 9,350 ft. altitude and dehydration from the many hours sitting on planes. To recover and wait for our next flight to Cuenca, we walked across the street to an open-air terrace of the new airport. Stepping through the glass doors, Annie heard her first Ecuador birdsong: the beautiful trill of the russet-collared sparrow. Go here to listen: https://xeno-canto.org/274469

This homely little bird is very familiar to us in Cañar. It feeds mainly on seeds, herbs, and grains, of which we have plenty. And its song is described by most sources as “the sweetest and most musical” of any sparrow. This was the first of 77 birds that Annie would spot/record during our 10-day visit, of which 64 were new to her.

From Quito, we flew straight to Cuenca. At the end of our killer travel day, we checked into a small hotel and went out for bowls of ramen in nearby Plaza San Sebastian. The servings were huge, and as we gave up, exhausted and ready to go back to our hotel, an elderly street musician wandered into the tiny cafe, strumming a beat-up guitar. He zeroed right in on us, and our table, and asked if he could finish our ramen. Gladly! He also eyed the beer still in my hand, but I shook my head, “No, this is mine and well deserved.”

After three days of rest and recovery in Cuenca (8400 ft ahhhhh…), my friend Susana K. drove us to Cañar, bringing along Leonora, her employee, who, she said, wanted to help us clean and open the house. Welcome! Michael and I had left Cañar in June 2023, planning to come back as usual in December, so the house had been empty for nearly eight months. One purpose of my trip was to reconnect with and pay those who help us take care of the place – the gardener, our compadres who plant the backfield, our comadre who pays our monthly expenses, and for me to pay the land and irrigation taxes. Within a couple of hours of arriving on a beautiful warm day, we four women had removed the shutters, hooked up the gas for hot water and cooking, cleaned the kitchen, living/dining room, two bedrooms, baths, my studio – and made the beds.

 

Women Should Rule the World!” is the title of this sequence. During the next few days, Annie and I also filled the fountain and got the pump running (with a couple of calls to Michael), made kindling, built the daily fire, and cooked several meals  (well, Annie did). When the Lewis & Clark students arrived on Friday the house looked lived in. Then, exactly one week later, on a marathon day, Annie and I closed up the house again – a bit like dismantling a movie set.

Other than the house affairs, I’d come to Ecuador for two projects: my annual job coordinating the 3-day visit of the Lewis & Clark College students to Cañar to experience something of the indigenous culture. The highlight is always visiting Mama Michi for a dramatic limpieza, complete with herbs and nettles, fire, and a little bit of brimstone (incense).

My other project is a book of the photos of Cañar town photographer, Rigoberto Navas, whose glass plate and early celluloid negatives I’ve spent years printing in my darkroom. After several exhibits and related projects, the photographs are finally coming together in a book to be published in June 2024 by the Catholic University of Cuenca. I was surprised on a Sunday visit to Ingapirca with the students to see a display of panels of images from the book. I think I was informed of the project y in October, while Michael was in the hospital, but I’d completely forgotten.

 

Meanwhile, Annie upped her count with more birding adventures in Cañar “hotspots.” We were able to visit one of these together, Chorocopte Lake. The taxi driver took such a long route to get there (around the outside of the green in the sketch below), that I wouldn’t let Annie go all the way around the lake as I was worried about the dark clouds and the long walk back. I later regretted it, as we came across an old woman who without a word pointed to another route down (the dotted line through the green) and we were home in an hour. (The birds in the sketch, by the way, are: Andean duck, Great thrush. Carunculated caracara, and Hooded siskin.) In the photo below, Annie is watching a pair of carunculated caracaras – say that fast a couple of times!

 

And now, back in Portland, after the sun and exhilaration of the Andes, I feared more winter. But today, March 15, the Ides of March bring- not a bad omen – but very good weather at last. Walking to my library today I came across this poem by Emily Dickinson, posted in a front yard. I share the first stanza, along with some spring-promising flowers.

 

To finish – Michael and I plan to spend May/June in Cañar to test out how he does at the altitude. If all goes well, we will return as usual in December for six months. I’ll plan a chronicle during that visit. Meanwhile, I love hearing from all of you and – again – I promise a book club report next time!

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14 thoughts on “To Ecuador and Back: “Una visita relámpago”

  1. Lovely update, Judy, so rich in birds and photos. I very much appreciated your poem ending. Our spring is vacillating already, from sun, crocuses and snowdrops to a blizzard yesterday. May the sun shine again as I prune the orchard on Devan’s farm.
    Best to you and Michael.
    Donald

  2. Judy,

    It is always so wonderful to get your updates from Canar and your updates on getting your house set up, taking care of those who take care of the house, identifying birds, introducing the Lewis and Clark students to Canar, your photo projects, bird photos and so much more. I am impressed by your passion and stamina.

    I hope Michael is feeling better for your May, June trip.

    Meanwhile working through local NGOs to promote traditional Guatemalan savings circles in New Bedford and Lynn in Mass. Its working well with each group of twenty saving $100 per week with each getting a $2,000 payout over the twenty week cycle. Much simpler than savings groups.

    Abrazos y saludos,

    Jeff

  3. Judy, you embody the indefatigable energy and curiosity of the world traveler. Enduring long plane flights and hitting the ground running is without compare. It’s not recommended for lesser sorts. Your writing and painting really enliven the country’s cultural diversity and natural beauty. I especially loved your descriptions of how a group of very capable women opened the house. And the Emily Dickinson poem was great. It’s one I haven’t read before.

  4. Thank you Judy for your wonderful report from your quick trip to Ecuador. Best to you and Michael. Poppy

  5. Nice to see sweet Susana in these pictures – and read all about the birds. I remember sparrows being the main soundtrack to your place in Cañar. The Navas panels are fantastic!

  6. I miss adventure, and misadventure. I am glad you and Annie had such a lovely trip and that you had an opportunity to focus your journaling skill on birds, a worthy pursuit!

  7. So lovely to hear your news Judy. The adventure of your life continues and I always love to read about it…hope the spring trip goes well and look forward to your next missive. xxx

  8. You and Annie are the most intrepid travelers. Women, indeed, RULE! Loved seeing the photos of all the birds she logged and the women who gathered to revive your home for the visit.

    Looking forward to bookclub gathering next! xo Nancy

  9. Judy,
    Thanks so much for allowing me to be your companion on this adventure. I just want to say to all, JUDY IS AMAZING! I learned so much and really had a unique experience.
    In Cañar, I never stopped enjoying hearing people come by at the gate and call out for you and Michael.
    On our walk from Chorocopte Lake , we ran into both old and young Cañari who clearly appreciate all you do.
    It was especially gratifying to meet the Canari graduates, in particular, Maria who was the director (?) for the hostel in Sisid. As the Lewis and Clark group, and I walked, in the rain, through the mountains in Sangay Cullebrillas (15,000 ft) to reach part of the Inca trail, I kept looking at Maria, in her traditional dress and sandals, carrying the big jug of water as if she were walking down the street! Maria was a wonderful guide and host.

  10. I was so glad to see you again Judy and meet Annie, a wonderful woman. We had been missing you and Michael and hoped you would come back. Both of us now connected not only by years of friendship but by our projects with the Catholic U. in Cuenca, your Navas book and my Luis Cordero Museum. Big kiss dear, Alex Kennedy

  11. Wonderful chronicle, Judy! Thank you!And hope you and Michael have a great return trip in May. Hugs from Minnesota!

  12. Gracias por tus Crónicas Judy. Abrazos a Michael. Los apreciamos mucho en Costa Rica.

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