Tuesday, January 23, 2018

December 26

Alli and Manimal continued their early morning dates. He gets up at 6 and she's been reading I Samuel and Winnie the Pooh to buy the rest of us more sleep. I got up at 7 and let Alli snooze a bit more. Hamish slept until 8. But then we quickly got dressed and got a cab south, out of the city to go horseback riding at Centro Ecuestra Bellavista.

Again I used technology, making sure to have our maps downloaded. I double-checked the address of the place we were headed, and for good measure, took a snapshot showing the phone number and address. I glanced at the google map route. It was a little surprising... it said the trip would take about 45 minutes, that seemed right from what I'd read... the place we were going appeared to be just off the Pan-American highway, but google maps had us turn off a good bit earlier and take some other roads.
See? But whatever, google knows things. Probably, you can''t actually get there right off the Pan-American highway. Even if it's unnecessary it's probably just driving around in some neighborhood... We just grabbed a regular taxi and told him where we wanted to go, and as was often the case, he was happy to let my GPS do the guiding. Well, Google misled us big time. What you can't see in that map is elevation changes or road condition changes. We got off the main road, onto lesser traveled roads, lesser traveled roads, dirt roads, washed out dirt roads, up and over mountains. It was a little nerve wracking. However, our taxi driver seemed totally unbothered by this, as if it was almost normal (remember this is a Cuenca city taxi driver who I've taken well out into the country on a horse-cart path). There was one point where we came over a hill and approached an area that was pretty washed out, and he paused and made a sort of "umm.. ?" sound. I said "is this okay?" "esta bien?" He kind of surveyed it and shrugged, smiled, "Sí", and just carefully navigated through. Well, we follow that road all the way to the end-- to the Pan-American highway, where it becomes clear that the 30-minute over-mountain pass was not required, oops. Furthermore, we had not found our destination. We looked, we thought, and finally I called the horse place using my phone (this wasn't something I'd pre-paid for, so a little extra cost), then I handed the phone to our driver. Surprisingly, and I really don't know why once realizing how we were right at the correct place, he drove north, turned around, drove south, back past the place... then we called again... finally we turned back onto the road we had been on prior, coming from the highway, and the signage easily pointed us there.
Additionally, there was a little miscommunication with the horse place, well, sort of. We'd made reservations for 10 a.m., but apparently another family came in without reservations at about 9:30, and he kinda thought they were us. He didn't realize we were different people until we called from the taxi. He apologized and said they'd be on their way back. The taxi waited a few minutes until someone else was there to meet us, and I paid him about 4x the fare for his inconvenience (still not a lot), even though he really still seemed unbothered by it all.
We were led into a sort of covered arena with a sitting area at one end, where we were given some juice and a big bowl of chips to snack on until everyone got back, and we probably hung out an hour or so for them to get back.

We wandered around the grounds a bit also and visited some horses in their stalls.
Once the group returned, our horses were prepared for us very quickly, and we all mounted up.
Our host, Sebastian, apologized again and said he would like to give us a free lunch, which we accepted happily. Alli had ridden horses before, but somewhere on the order of 20+ years ago. I'm pretty sure I'd never been on an actual horse, and the kids definitely had not. But it was very chill. The kids were thrilled, and each got their own horse. Hamish rode Alaska, a 4-year-old.
The Manimal got the easiest one of all, Lento Rodriguez (lazy Rodriguez), aged 12. 
My horse was Mote Pillo (a breakfast hominy and eggs dish), 8 years old, and Alli was on Hulk, the 10 year old big guy.
Both of the kids horses were tied up a bit different at their mouths so they wouldn't try to eat along the way. Manimal's horse was also led by Sebastian holding a rope.
Sebastian said from the start that we would start Manimal off riding, but if he got tired or uncomfortable, they would ride together. We were all given just a quick set of instructions-- basically pull left to go left, right to go right, pull back to stop, and kind of kissy-kissy noise and maybe a little kick to make them go. And then we just walked along out into the mountainous countryside.
We weren't supposed to let the horses stop and eat, but...
Hamish was in total control of her horse.
Sebastian's son rode along with us, as well as a teenaged boy who said he just came out there to ride almost every day.
The scenery was wonderful and the kids had a great time.
Manimal serenaded us for much of the ride.
Sebastian told us after the ride he did not expect Manimal to last, but he sure did! He was brave of horseback riding! We were only out for an hour, but it was a good start. Lunch was also good.
The kids ate happily and then played with Sebastian's kids until our ride arrived, taking us straight up the highway home.
Manimal fell asleep in the cab, but transferred to the bed easily. He only woke up and cried a little that he wanted to go horseback riding.
After a short nap, we caught a cab to our dinner plans: Taco Tuesday at a local craft brewery.
It was a chill place, started by two Americans from Hawaii: just home-brewed beer on tap and US-style tacos: $1 each.
We all ate our fill and then walked next door for ice cream. As we were leaving, a family sat next to us, and we learned that they were from South Carolina. We chatted while the bar tried to get us a cab in the rain. The dad graduated my year and played football at Clemson. They were spending a year in Cuenca just to see and do something different, and their two girls were learning Spanish of course. Pretty neat. Finally we hailed a taxi and got ourselves home.

December 27
Our last day in Cuenca and Ecuador. However, our flight out wasn't until 7 p.m., so we still needed to fill one more day. The gray and rainy day again placed some limits on our options. Alli and I also really felt the effects of our horseback rides (stiff backs and obliques), and maybe those $1 tacos weren't the ideal thing to eat the day before we flew out... We went to the Museo Pumapungo, which is free and has more exhibits exploring native cultures.
It was fun, this time, to see some of the native dress, and each time the kids would excitedly say "we saw that in the parade!"
There's also some decent ruins out back, which the reviews all indicated were worth visiting if you weren't going to make the trip to Ingapirca-- which is nicer, but still nothing compared to Machu Picchu of Peru.
The ruins aren't super exciting, but they also have a really nice gardens exhibit down a hill.
The ruins look much cooler from down there too.
And there's llamas.
They were all tied up, grazing. Quite surprisingly to me, there were no signs about how to pet/not get near them. But their behavior as we approached did not give me courage. I think we still saw someone else walk up to one and pet it as we were leaving.
There was a bird exhibit we spent a little time at, and then we grabbed a taxi back over to Parque Calderon. We were really hoping the hat salesmen would come out as the clouds parted.
But no dice.

We grabbed lunch at a place on the square that was recommended, Raymipampa. So-so food. Once ordered, I took the opportunity to run some postcards we'd purchased over to the post office. This whole effort was somewhat insane. First off, postcards were nearly nonexistent in Ecuador. When we found them, they were either a) $2.00+ each, or b) horrendously ugly. Like as if nobody there understood the concept. Let's put an old, black and white picture of a random corner on a card and call it good? Luckily a shop near the markets in Quito actually had some decent cards for a decent price. I'd asked there about postage, and she told me I'd need to go to a post office. This hung over us for the rest of the trip. I asked at the grocery store in Cuenca. I talked to about 3 different people. I consulted my Spanish-English dictionary. I gesticulated. It was kind of like they had never heard of a) mail (correo), b) stamps (estampilla!), or c) the post office. I asked the neighbors in our building, and they said yes, there is a post office, where you'll need to go, but nobody uses mail here. It's just terribly inefficient. Expect your postcard to take 3 months to arrive. I was okay with that last part. So, during lunch, I ran about 3 blocks over to the post office. This was a weekday around noon. There were two windows open, one for receiving packages, one for mailing them. There were 2 people in line in front of me. ~20 minutes later I reached the window and asked for stamps to mail postcards. $2.30 each to mail them, but, bad news, they were out of stamps. That's right... they sort of ran out of stamps at the only post office in this town. But, he said he might be able to make something work. He literally pulled out a cardboard box-- you know that one at grandma's house with all the old polaroids?-- with old stamps in different denominations. He sold me a couple of $2.00 stamps, however many $0.30 stamps I needed, and then the remainder I needed in $1 stamps. Thus, for about 4 of my postcards, I had to use 3 stamps to mail them. You must be somewhat creative to get 3 stamps on a postcard that also contains address information and some brief correspondence. Then, because this was the only location from which to mail something, I had to sit down and lick each of these stamps and affix them before I could hand them back. For everyone who's ever said anything bad about the United States Postal Service, take it back.
That said, I am pleased to report, that today, less than one month from the date of mailing, our postcard arrived!
Once I returned to lunch, of course everyone's food was pretty well gone, so I scarfed some, and we headed back to our apartment.
We spent Manimal's naptime packing our bags and cleaning and then headed for the airport. The neighbors all came out to see us off and even sent us with cookies.
Yet again, our flight was delayed by about an hour. We should have had about 2 hours of layover in Quito. We ended up with closer to 1, but we still had no trouble making the final flight out-- ultimately leaving at 12:30 a.m. Kids slept pretty well on the flight. Alli and I only snoozed a little and watched movies. Mercifully, taco-related issues were not a factor for flights.
Atlanta re-entry to the US was possibly the worst part of the whole trip, which is sad. We arrived at 5:30 in the morning, but immigration was packed. Hamish was doing well, despite how tired she was, but Manimal was definitely not happy about it all and would have preferred to sleep in someone's arms. The US, unlike other countries, is not known for noticing families with overtired infants and giving any special privilege. Immigration has gone to using kiosks, that you wait in line to reach, so that they can scan your passports and print out a little piece of paper, which you can carry to the next line to reach a border control agent (it used to be that you'd just wait in one line and the agent would handle all of this... We see no improvement). However, my passport would not scan. We finally got someone's attention, who tried multiple times without success and ultimately told us to just proceed. We asked her why they changed the system so, and she said they were going paperless. Alli held up the printout of our passport pictures with a quizzical look. Admittedly, we no longer have to fill out by hand a form for each person flying, but the system needs work. Singapore, this is an opportunity to miss you. After waiting in another line we finally saw someone who processed us through (and cared none about the machine issue). Then of course you must pick up your bags, proceed through customs (another line), and take your bags to another Delta representative so they can get on your next flight. Then you walk, then you ride the subway, and finally you'll be at your new terminal to wait a few more hours for the final flight home.
On a positive note, we were able to get some Bojangle's chicken biscuits for breakfast. And we got into those cookies sent with us:
Finally, one more short flight and we were in Nashville. Ben picked us up with our minivan. Very nice, especially considering that we returned to a temperature hovering around 6 degrees Fahrenheit. We came home to a gloriously clean house, and the children were so happy to be back in their safe space, rediscovering all of their things.

So, it seems like a few summary notes of our trip might be warranted.
First, before I go further, it's worth noting what's been left out prior. It's good to know the words for men and women, because pictures are not always clear on bathrooms:
Seriously, doesn't that facial expression imply some uncertainty?
Second, we are of course getting asked a lot: "did you have fun? how was it?" and that answer requires some nuance. Yes we had fun, and we are glad we did it. It really went well, big picture. We are thankful in so many ways that we were able to take this trip and for many many mercies along the way. However, at this stage with the kids, my general feeling is not like one of old where you return from a place kind of changed and exhilarated by the experience. Instead, it is a feeling of accomplishment. I think it was good for our family. We did it! We took our family to Ecuador, we went deep into the rain forest, we climbed to 13,000 feet, we ate weevil larva, we managed to converse in Spanish on many occasions, we didn't get pickpocketed, we slept in 4 different locations, we only had minor traveling sicknesses, we stood on the equator, we went horseback riding in the Andes, we drank coca tea and tried different exotic fruits. It probably goes without saying, however, that it wasn't all pure fun or relaxation. There was complaining; there was trying to keep the kids content in taxi rides, planes, and boats with books, storytelling (the adventures of Hamish and Manimal), drawing pads, and game books; there were reminders about not flushing the toilet paper and not using the tap water to brush your teeth; there was concern about bullet ants and tropical diseases and whether that fruit at the market was likely to make us sick. There's some of that constant weighing what this trip could be like as a couple-- quiet time when we want it, more adventure as we desired, probably a good bit more hiking in national forests and such, less time sitting at playgrounds. There's definitely less observed and absorbed when we always need to keep an eye on the kids and redirect them.

But ultimately, we feel triumphant.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

December 24

We got up and got moving for the big parade. I didn't say before, but our home exchangers actually introduced us to 3 different couples who all checked in on us... generally they'd hear us coming down the stairs and come out and chat a bit on our way out. We got some good advice about where to go for the parade. We were asked if we would like to be in the parade by Shiloh's owners, and I answered "well yes, of course our kids would like to be in the parade... but I don't know that *we* want them to be in the parade." There was a directive to hold on a minute, and reindeer antlers were suddenly proffered. I guess at that point we had our ticket into the parade.
It seems like a little back story on the parade makes sense now.
The Pase del Niño Viajero (passing of the traveling child) is an interesting story... with some variations in their telling. However, this seems mostly supported: "The centerpiece of Cuenca's parade is an 1823 sculpture of the infant Jesus that was commissioned by Cuencan Josefa Heredia from an unknown artist. When the sculpture came into the possession of Cuenca Monsignor Miguel Cordero Crespo more than a century later, the Monsignor took it to the Holy Land (apparently where it visited Jesus' birthplace and was baptized in the Jordan river) and Rome in 1961, where it was blessed by Pope John XXIII. After the journey and the anointment, the statue became known as Niño Viajero, or Traveling Child, and has been the parade's main attraction ever since." Elsewhere I read that this is a 500-year-old tradition introduced by the Spanish, but I can't seem to find other stories (other parades in other countries), just this specific one in Cuenca. It's also apparently bigger than just Dec 24. "the Pase del Niño celebration is a three-month-long activity, beginning the first Sunday after Advent and continuing to Carnival in early March. The tradition also includes Novenas, nine consecutive nights of song, food and prayer, celebrated in homes and churches." Furthermore, several other cities will bring their own Christ-child statue. At this point, the centerpiece statue starts its tour in the church of the Heart of Jesus and ends in the church of Carmen de la Asunción. I'm honestly not sure when in the parade this took place; we did not see it. However, music and such kicks off at 9, with the parade officially beginning at 10 a.m. and lasting ~6 hours. I didn't read about much meaning or symbolism behind the parade; it's just a big celebratory event: "Jesus has come!" I suppose, "Let's remember". Anyway, when we reshuffled our dates to Christmas season and read about the parade in Cuenca, we thought being there for Christmas would be a good plan. We weren't disappointed with this choice.
We walked that same ~1 mile to the edge of downtown, and much closer than that, we began to pass cars, floats, and lots and lots of people getting into their costumes. We were also passed by many riders on horses (we'd already seen several ride by first thing in the morning from our apartment window.)

The floats, the costumes, all of it was pretty crazy. Cars were covered with all manner of shimmer, candy, food, roasted pigs, teddy bears, Christ statues, and more.

There were more vendors of course (we snagged some fried balls of dough), some good-smelling food-
decked out horses
and more kid-cars
We were warned sternly by the neighbors that the pickpockets would be out in force, and in general, I was feeling like I didn't want to be in an overly crowded place trying to keep up with everyone and make sure nobody got to my wallet. I wasn't sure we wouldn't kind of watch from a distance for a few minutes and then head somewhere else. But it was really chill. Where we first walked up was crowded and we were standing behind several people. However, this was not the kind of parade with barricades. This was the kind of parade where people freely joined in sometimes, crossed between dancers, etc. When there was a slight break in action, we crossed the street, walked half a block, and found a seat on the curb front row to enjoy the show for a good while.
(trust me, the kids had more fun than this picture lets on, and cup explanation forthcoming)
As for the pickpockets, early on there were a few teenagers that appeared to be casing us, but they moved along, and all of our belongings came through fine.

The parade was a ton of fun.
There was just wave after wave of dancers, dressed in many many different varieties of traditional dress, with music accompaniment, people in all sorts of costumes.
It should also be noted that there were big military trucks handing out chicha-- which is sort of a corn-based beer. However, we tried some-- it was very sweet, kind of funky (like a fresh wild fermentation)-- and felt no effects despite some indications that it could be very strong (it also didn't taste very strong). Furthermore, everyone was drinking it. Really young children. I don't know where you find official information on this sort of thing, but our analysis says they must have stopped actually handing out alcohol and that now it is the non-alcoholic version. Thinking it was alcoholic, it was kind of funny to see the scene of so many parade participants (like the man dressed as a priest) downing their chicha.
There was just so much going on that I think a slew of pictures and videos is the best we can do.

Do you get the gist?

We got to the real parade a little after 10, missing the very beginning. I think we sat and watched for a good hour and a half, and we only saw a few of the first trucks/floats go by
Alli and I would have stayed for all of it, but the kidlets began issuing demands for food (despite that they were handed out candy during the parade!) So we left the parade route and walked to Cafe Nucallacta for lunch. Of course the Manimal requested some carrying on the way, and I complied. By the time we arrived he was out:
But despite efforts there was no way to keep him asleep.
Alli and I both had the wet burrito, as it was highly recommended, and we enjoyed. Soon we were on our way back home for nap.
After naptime, we went to pretty much the closest restaurant we could get to- a little middle Eastern place, where we had good pitas, hummus, and something like Shwarma. We weren't up for much else that night.
Actually Shiloh's owners had invited us for a drink. We initially planned to swing by for a short visit with the kids, but they were overactive and overtired at dinner, so we put them to bed, set up a baby monitor with our phones (first time we've used that in ~2 years!) and went downstairs for more visiting. Very interesting to visit with these different expats who all travel quite a bit, and so nice that they were eager to hear what brought us to Cuenca and share their drinks and reindeer antlers.


December 25. Christmas
We were up and did our usual for breakfast- a smattering of toast, jelly, apple slices. I may have even cooked some eggs.
Eventually we reminded the kids of their stockings. The Manimal's went over wonderfully; he loved everything. Hamish wondered why she didn’t get any of the slightly creepy fake Hello Kitty that was for sale, but eventually worked it out.
Alli and I didn't really participate as it turned out... I put the chocolate beer I bought for myself in mine, and Alli put the manger scene she got for herself in hers...

The upstairs wine-sharing neighbors invited us up for brunch, where they provided a little extra feeling that it was Christmas with some cinnamon rolls, mimosas, and more kinder eggs for the kids.
We hung out a while, but then needed to leave because we'd made other brunch reservations at a restaurant downtown. However, after leaving and getting back to our place, Alli and I both decided we really weren't hungry or much interested in going. So we just laid low and let the kids enjoy free time.
We snacked on some of the better cheese I'd purchased at the supermarket (not an easy find there) along with noni fruit paste (it tastes like blue cheese... interesting...), crackers, and such. We eventually put "Small One" on TV. Then we put Manimal down for nap, and me and little girl walked over to the the giant, local market. We made two successful river crossings sans bridge this time, and only on the way back across did we each get a good foot in the river. Hamish stated "I’m so excited to tell my class all the things I did without anyone helping me, like crossing that river”.
The market was interesting, but really large, and really local-- no touristy things whatsoever. It was also Christmas day, and I have no idea how representative it was of normal. One would think not very, yet we were told that Christmas day is treated less as a holiday; the parade on Christmas eve kind of takes all the attention. Anyway, a lot more fruit, meat, seafood, and just regular clothing stalls. Hamish was interested in it all, but only up to a point, and we left without buying anything.

We returned right as Manimal woke up, and then I cooked us dinner for the night—ravioli—and packed a picnic backpack. We took a cab to Parque Calderon, but most everything was closed (none of those hat sellers :-( 
We walked along the river to Parque de Madre to have our picnic, but it was much cooler in the wind and out of the sun. We played and ate on a bench, but didn’t stay as long as we’d expected because of the chill.
It was a nice little park though, and the kids once again enjoyed running around some.

We came home and did another movie night: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The pirate accents and seafaring lingo was challenging though, and there were lots and lots of questions as we tried to calm everyone down and get them to sleep in anticipation of the next day's adventures...