Archive for the 'Ecuador' Category

Authentic Ecuadorian Viche

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A typical viche from Manabi

This is the true, original recipe for shrimp “Viche”, a superlative seafood soup found only in the Ecuadorian province of Manabi, on the Pacific coast of South America. Although this version uses fresh shrimp, it is also made with crab, fish and mixed seafood. The ingredients are all easily obtainable in most supermarkets, except for the peanut paste. I have been told that unsweetened, organic peanut butter makes a decent substitute, and will undoubtably give it a try when I run out of the packages of paste I brought back from Ecuador run out.

I have been carrying this recipe around in the leather jacket of my Nook ebook reader since I wrote it down, while observing minutely my sister-in-law prepare a full family shrimp viche for 20 on Mother’s Day, 2011. We were in my mother-in-law’s house in Chone, a dusty river-run agricultural city in Manabi, and the place was full of siblings and cousins and significant others. In the morning a gang of us went to the local Sunday open market for the shrimp and fresh vegetables. At about 11 we started to cook.

This shot of the market was taken with my iPod camera.

Since then the recipe, scrawled on an unlined sheet of spiral notebook paper, somehow still unstained, traveled tucked into the Nook, up the coast to Guayaquil, back to Boston for a two-week family emergency, then back to Ecuador for a tour of the provincial beaches, back again to Guayaquil and then Boston, and finally across the Atlantic to London, where I have finally fished it out of its leather-bound nook and set about transcribing it below, for posterity.

Somewhere on this hard drive are the photos I took that day, of the family and the preparation of the viche. Hopefully bu the time anyone reads this, they will be below. Enjoy.

Here are the carrots, corn, lima beans and green beans

Ingredients (20 servings)

1 medium carrot

1 cup lima beans

2 ears sweet corn

1 cup green beans

4 large stalks green onions

1.5 cups achocha (a cucumber-like veggie, “stuffing cucumber” in England-foto below)

1.5 cups sweet potato (cubed)

1.5 cups white cabbage

2 cups yucca (peeled and boiled)

2 platanos (mature – i.e. yellow – cooking bananas)

4 platanos (immature -i.e. green – cooking bananas) (pre-boil 20 minutes)

4 packets peanut paste (can substitute unsweetened peanut butter)

1 head garlic

2 lbs fresh shrimp (or crab, fish, clams, etc.)

1 large head purple onion

1 green pepper

black pepper to taste

achoite paste  

(Achote paste is a derivative of the achiote trees of tropical regions of the Americas, used to produce a yellow to orange food coloring and also as a flavoring. Its scent is described as “slightly peppery with a hint ofnutmeg” and flavor as “slightly nutty, sweet and peppery”)

Two lovely nieces filled out the kitchen crew

Preparation:

1) Boil a large pot of water (the only one we have big enough was a lobster pot). As it heats add the green pepper, purple and green onions, and the garlic, from a garlic press.

Sold in small packets, use organic, unsweetened peanut butter as a substitute

2) Mix the boiled green platano with 2 packets of the peanut paste (about 8 tablespoons if using peanut butter) and mush them together by hand. Make round balls about the size of big marbles. Set aside.

 

3. Add the corn to the pot, cutting each ear into four or five pieces or pucks with kernels attached.

 

4. Clean and de-vein the shrimp while the pot boils (20 minutes)

5. Scoop the green onions OUT of the pot and discard. Leave the other vegetables in

This is the cabbage, sweet potato and achocha

6. Add the achocha (zucchini as a possible substitute), the sweet potato, and the cabbage

 

7. Withdraw and set aside 1.5 cups of the broth to mix later with the rest of the peanut paste

8. After another 20 minutes on a low boil, add the mature platano cut in disks, and the yucca, cut in 3 or 4 inch pieces, like fat french fries

 

9. In a blender, mix the rest of the peanut paste (2-3 packets or 8-12 tablespoons of peanut butter) with the 1.5 cups of broth you separated earlier. Blend until smooth.

Mushing up the platano and peanut paste

10. When pot returns to a boil after step 8, add the balls of green platano you made in step 2, and the shrimp

 

11. When the pot returns to a boil after step 10, add the rest of the

This show the size and number of platano/peanut balls

peanut sauce and broth from the blender

12. Bring to a final full boil for one minute.

13. Season with parsley of cilantro, serve. Enjoy.

Manta Diary 3: Why are we here?

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Ah, Manta. A jewel by the sea, combining (almost) all that I love about modern South America: an alternative reality to the Northern half of the continent, retaining that unique American robust and irreverent forward motion yet somehow sedate, private, moving at its own rate and rhythm, and forever painted in the icy pastels of the Inca decendants and the sandy sons of the Mantas and Valdivians, and the teeming textures of the Amazonian Shuar.

Of course, as a beach town, it carries most the heritage of the early coastal civilizations, which survived on the bounty of the sea. Near here emerged the proto-civilization, the first of the great native American cultures, the Valdivia (1000 BC). And right here where I am writing these lines, a couple of hundred meters from the Pacific coastline practically smack dab (less than one degree south) on the equator, for 2000 years, from 500 BC to 1500 AD, the Manta culture and its huge capital city, featured, according to Pizarro, wide avenues, majestic temples, grand plazas and monumental statues. They were fishing these waters and turning their catch into cebiche before Christ recruited the fishermen of Galilee.

The “almost” in the first line refers to the limited influence here of the other major group of cultures that emerged in South America – in one of the most spectacular and otherworldly environments on the planet, the Andes Mountains. I did most of my admittedly unconsumated “academic” research in that challenging and rarified ecosystem. Whole human civilizations evolved and thrived at over 3 miles above sea level. Even at those altitudes it is a rich and varied ecosystem at these equatorial latitudes, much more so than the cold, austere Himalayas, the only higher mountains in the world, due to the Andes straddling the planets bulging midriff where there’s more oxygen at 16,000 feet than in the northern latitudes. There is agriculture, hunting and grazing at altitudes where Tibet is a frozen wasteland.

But if I miss the Andean wonderland, I can get on a bus and in 4 hours be within sight of active, snow-capped volcanoes.

About the third great South American ecosystem – the Amazon river basin – we can only say it’s a nice place to visit, but a green hell to live in, although we have never actually done so. We never quite got past the humidity and the bugs, so we don’t miss it much.

Manta itself is a bustling, diverse and growing urban area,. In fact, according to the latest census it is the fastest growing city in Ecuador. Current population about 300,000, it is centered around one of the best deep-water ports on the Pacific coast of South America. Its economy is built on three pillars: shipping, fishing and tourism. The fishing fleet consists of everything from small trolling launches and sport fishing boats to large vessels that stay at sea weeks at a time and include refrigeration and processing capacity. Manta is known (according to the bright metal monument featuring the humongous 30-foot, shiny blue and green fish located in the middle of a traffic roundabout in front of the Yacht Club) as the “Tuna Capital”. It doesn’t say capital of what; province, country, continent or world.

The shipping running in and out of Manta port consists of imports from North America (west coast ports), Asia (principally China), and Brazil (shipped through the Panama Canal, since even today, 160 years after the transcontinental railroad transformed North America, there is no way to get cargo across South America by land). The exports are mostly based on the fishing industry (canned tuna, fishmeal, frozen filets) or the large agricultural sector of the local Manabi province economy (platano, coffee, cacao, peanuts, pineapples, yucca, citrus and cattle).

The port is big business, and may someday provide direct access to the Pacific markets for the abundant produce of the Amazon, that dream is decades away and right now it is suffering from an excellent example of the inbred inefficiencies that keep capitalism from flexing its velvet deathgrip around the throat of local life down here. The harbor itself is optimal, deep, clear and calm. But the infrastructure built around it, mechanized wharfs, high volume loaders, cranes, power grid components, are somewhat less than state-of-the-art and often in need of attention.

A few years ago a big Japanese multinational which specializes, among other things, in upgrading and operating world-class ports was on the verge of signing a long-term contract to invest in and administer the Port of Manta. The whole process had taken the better part of a decade to develop, between initial studies, impact statements, community outreach, the final proposal, financing negotiations, political maneuvering, amendments and back-room “bargaining” (payoffs). At the last minute there was a political (always political) blowup that blocked the signing. Two competing power groups which both had to sign on to the agreement, and who had agreed to set aside their differences, had experienced a renewal of hostilities, the theories of the cause of which were many and varied, my favorite being an insult at a “Quinceanero” (Sweet 15) party. The Japanese, aghast at their complete lack of control over or even understanding of the cultural complexities underlying financial operations (and everything else) in Ecuador, politely withdrew.

And now the Manta port is losing contracts to arch-rival Guayaquil (think Boston – New York, about the same distance down a coast a lot further south and on the other side of the continent). The older, recalcitrant machinery in Manta takes longer to load and unload a big cargo ship, and in that business time, especially time in port, is money. Guayaquil, at 3 million the biggest city in Ecuador, is more efficient.

Tourism is the most recent revenue stream to hit the big time. It has gotten really active during the last 15 years or so, both with upwardly mobile Ecuadorians and foreigners, mostly from North America and Europe, due to it’s great location on the coast, year-round temperatures of between 72-84 and ample supply of hotels and restaurants at the high, mid and low end of the tourist spectrum.

Increasingly, Manta as well as Ecuador in general, is becoming a popular location for ex-patriot retirement. I shouldn’t carp, belonging to the demographic myself, but I am a bit embarrassed by the increasing hordes of horny elderly white guys gimping around town escorting younger-looking Latina women. A popular web site, International Living, has been touting Ecuador as a retirement destination due to its high standard and low cost of living (“Live well on half your social security payment”), but a lot of these geeks showing up are utterly unprepared for real life South America, no Spanish, never lived outside of Nebraska, and I don’t know if I fear more for them or their effect on the local scene. Certainly, nothing good can come of it.

On top of the tourists arriving by land, Manta is one of the obligatory stops for several big cruise lines. These mega liners, with a couple of thousand pasty skinned retirees aboard, take advantage of the deep-water port, inexpensive prices and gringo-friendly natives to spend 12-16 hours in town, during which most of the passengers disembark and go to the Bat Beach, eat at one of the 16 seafood restaurants thereon, hit the Supermarket for snacks and liquor they can’t get on board, hit the Fybeca Pharmacy for diarrhea or constipation pills, or pharmaceuticals available by prescription only at home, zoom out to Monticristi, home of the “real” original Panama hats a few kilometers down the road, hang at the local bars and try to pick up local girls or guys, but what can you do if you’re 80 and your ship leaves in 3 hours? Then they head back to their cabins and weigh anchor for Callao, Peru or Easter Island.

When the cruise ships are in town a battalion of Oltavolan Indians come down from their mountain redoubt and set up an extensive native market in the Manta Civic Plaza, an open-air event space where the modest Manta downtown runs up against the beach. The Oltavolans are the Israelites of the Native American tribes, wandering Jews dedicated to commerce and textiles. They are innate capitalists and have constructed a world-wide tribal network distributing all varieties of Andean folk artifacts. They fell into this role due to their mastery of modern textile production techniques and their successful modification of same to traditional Andean weaving and embroidering techniques. This is what originally brought me to Oltavolo, studying the textile industry, 38 years ago, just when they started to realize that there’s a big market out there. Today you see the Oltavolans in their typical white pajama pants and bright blue ponchos everywhere: New York, LA, New Orleans, Paris, London, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, wherever. They, and their fellow travelers the Andean flute bands, managed by a similar Native American mafia, are ubiquitous, now an element of the transnational zeitgeist.

They arrive, synchronized with the cruise ships, in the backs of 3 or 4 heavy trucks, 50 to 60 Indians and a Macy’s worth of wool sweaters, cotton embroidered shirts, wood and stone and tagua vegetable ivory carvings, woven ponchos, belts, shawls, hammocks, jewelry of all sorts, from silver and semiprecious stones, seashell, coral, Monicristi Panama hats, pornographic peace pipes, oil paintings and watercolors, blankets and rugs, coffee from the Galapogos Islands, mittens and scarves (here on the 80F beach), bags, purses and wallets, wool and alpaca pillows, guitar straps, hats, T-shirts, keychains, and fake original archeological relics.

Their trucks usually pull in at 4 am and by 7 the native market is open for business. The cruise passengers cycle through all day – there isn’t room in the Plaza for them to come all at once. I’m sure the Oltavolans have determined the exact optimal flow of tourists to maximize overall sales. At sunset, they load what’s left into the trucks, climb in back to sleep atop the soft bales of fine fabrics, and head back up into the mountains.

In the four months from January to April, high cruise season, this year Manta will receive 12 ships with a total of 16,900 passengers. Every time one arrives, they drop over $200,000 during their 8-hour visits to the city. Taxi drivers, restaurant owners, beer sellers, dance partners, everyone benefits. To insure their safety, when the ships come to town the police cancel normal leaves and flood the designated tourist areas with patrols.

Personally, I like Manta, and have chosen it as a provisional retirement destination for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a real, modern city, and I am pretty much a city guy. Sure, I love nature, and some of my most vivid memories are of mountaintops and waterfalls. But after a few days in the deep country I get bored silly, and start longing for lattes, exhaust fumes and increased dietary options. After a week I’m ready to hitchhike 80 miles to the nearest honky-tonk or store with a radio and a cold beer.

Manta, on the other hand, has a population of about 300,000, and all the things that make a city livable for me: modern shopping malls, many fine restaurants, major league sports teams (OK, only soccer, but I like soccer), a tennis club which deigns to have me as a member, a multiplex movie theater, an Apple Store, two newspapers and several universities, book stores and stationary shops, the best of which is the Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro of Manta (ULEAM). Eloy Alfaro was a Manabita native who led a revolution, served as President twice in the 19th century, and was eventually arrested and executed after a subsequent revolution.

But more important than the infrastructure are the people; friendly, open, hard-working but knowing how to relax and enjoy life. And they actually like Americans, as individuals at least although they aren’t particular fans of our government lately. They all seemingly have been to the States, have a relative living in the States, or are planning on going to the States soon.

Me, I’m glad to be here. Everything I used to miss from home when I was first traveling through South America 30 years ago can be found now. My computer has the New York Times and the Boston Globe hours before my delivered copy used to show up on the doorstep. My Nook has a bookstore full of books all of which are on my “must read” list. My cell phone can reach anyone I may want to talk to anywhere. The local SuperMaxi supermarket has Hunts Spaghetti Sauce, low-fat, lactose free milk, and Haagen Daaz Dulce de Leche ice cream, plus fresh-squeezed OJ and real fruits and vegetables, as opposed to the ersatz replacements modern agro-industry foist off on the gringos these days.

Plus, Manta is the ultimate service economy. If you’ve got a bit of gelt and patience, just about everything comes to you. On the beach you rent a recliner in the shade for a dollar all day, and ambulatory vendors come by with beer, coconut water, ice cream, stewed chicken, single cigarettes, candy, pastries and reading material. A farmer’s market comes to your door several times a day as ambition agriculturists hire big trucks filled to the beams with bunches of green platanos and yellow bananas, mountains of pineapples, coconuts, oranges and ears of corn. As previously described, an entire Andean market comes to town every time a cruise ship pulls in.

It is a magical moment in Manta these days; the city is poised for a major expansion. Every time I go to the supermarket, even when there are no cruise ships in town, there seem to be more white haired retirees in Bermuda shorts and grungy surfers in designer shades. The Canadian real estate company Remax has just started turning over the first houses in their 1200 lot development down the coast on a stretch of virgin beach. There is a zest in the air, the scent of fresh money and ambition, sure to lead to less than completely relaxing results. Our hope is that the size and varied economic backbone of the city and province will partially inure them to the crass commercialism that generally accompanies such robust growth.

But enough. Norma is calling me to make the toughest decision of the day – where to have lunch. Williams apparently has cheese noodle soup and chicken breast with lentils as the special (+ salad, flan and passion fruit juice for $3.50), and we haven’t been there for a while. More later

The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Queen of the Highway

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Although not a big country, Ecuador features sizable sections of the three main ecosystems found in South America: the dry coastal plain, the towering Andes mountains, and the vast Amazon jungle.  The roads connecting these environments are among the most spectacular and challenging in the world. Often amazing feats of engineering featuring stunning views and landscapes, they are also poorly maintained and policed.

Last month, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, December 24, bus #57 belonging to the cooperative Reina del Camino (Queen of the Highway), on a regular route down from the highlands capital of Quito (9,200 feet above sea level) to San Isidro near the coast, went over a precipice near La Crespa in Manabi Province.  It plummeted 150 meters (480 feet) rolled over several times and came to rest at the bottom of a deep ravine. 40 passengers were killed, most instantly, although several lingered in local hospitals for a few days. 11 of the dead were children.

In the days following the accident various damning details came to light. The brakes of the bus were found to be defective, and the vehicle itself had not been inspected in over a year.  The driver of record was at home in his apartment in Quito, and the driver in fact was carrying two separate sets of identity papers, neither of which belonged to him. The driver, also killed in the crash, had had his own license suspended twice, and a subsequent investigation revealed that the transportation cooperative “Reina del Camino” was not only aware of the fact, but had facilitated his obtaining the false ID and license.

Furthermore, the deadly toll of 40 dead and 43 injured stood in stark violation of the listed legal capacity for the vehicle, which was 44 passengers.  This is a widespread practice in Ecuador, where busses are the main mode of transportation for poor and middle class families without private cars or money to pay airfares, even when flights exist. The busses, older models often purchased cheap from Greyhound and other foreign companies when they are retired from service in the first world, leave the terminals full of seated passengers who have paid full price for a paper ticket in the bus line’s office at the bus station.  The money for these tickets stays in the office, and goes into the company coffers.

But the underpaid drivers and loaders also feel entitled to a piece of the pie, and so as soon as the bus clears the area around the terminal they start picking up additional roadside passengers who pay a reduced rate to stand in the aisles or crouch on the roofs hidden under tarps. The one time we were actually kidnapped, riding north on the Panamerican Highway in coastal Peru, by the Movimento Revolucionario Tuopac Amaru, we were driven off the road and into the desert where armed thugs started strip searching all of the passengers. Lying face down in the sand with our hand behind our heads, we were surprised to hear stifled cries coming from the baggage compartments under the bus we had been riding on for 14 hours.  The gunmen had discovered an entire family of 7 riding behind the suitcases and trunks.

The money from these “informal” passengers goes directly into the pockets of the driver and his assistant.  The practice is tolerated because it supposedly holds down ticket prices (one can pay approximately 50% extra for “Executive Service” busses which don’t stop between stations to pick up extra passengers), but it results in uncomfortable and dangerous crowding of regular units like bus #57.

Finally, for frosting on the cake, the drivers themselves are seriously abused, overworked and quite often inebriated.  It is not unusual for a driver, who sometimes but not always is also the owner of the vehicle, to finish an 8 to 10 hour run from the coast up to the mountains by polishing off 3 or 4 big beers while they empty and reload his bus, and then climbing aboard to drive it back to its point of origin, where one of his families anxiously awaits. Bus drivers in Ecuador are almost exclusively male and famous for separately maintaining 2 or 3 women and their respective progeny.

The drinking used to bother me the most.  Back in my wild youth as an anthropologist and adventurer of the region, riding these rickety rockets up and down the spine of the Andes, we would make an effort to personally interview the drivers of these long-haul, overnight death traps before boarding.  We were primarily performing field sobriety tests, and on more than one occasion, deterred by the stink of cheap liquor or an unfocused gaze, we would opt for a later departure.  We tended to favor busses with priests or nuns aboard, on the theory that the drivers would at least be reminded of eternal consequences of losing their grip.

As tragic as the accident itself was, the resulting scandal was a paragon of the inimitable combination of high drama and farce so typical of Latin American politics. The President of the Republic, never one to pass up a chance to garner good press, made an immediate visit to the hospital where the majority of the injured were interred, promising remuneration and retribution.  The remuneration took the form of an immediate payout by the insurance company that carried the Reina’s policy, for the kingly sum of $4,850 for each fatality, and lesser sums for the injured.  The retribution became apparent the following week when the Minister of Transportation, citing the unlicensed driver, false documentation, gross overloading and lack of vehicle inspection, closed down the Reina, cancelling their license to operate and ordering all 130 of their busses off the road.

This was a major blow, not just to the 2,000 employees of the company (drivers, loaders, mechanics, station workers, officials) and their families, but also to the citizenry of Manabi, one of Ecuador’s largest provinces.  For many smaller towns and roadside knots of humanity, the Reina was the only game in town, the only way to get students to school, patients to hospitals, goods to market or lovers to assignations.

The company had been formed almost 50 years ago by a small group of mechanics in the agricultural center of Chone, my wife’s hometown.  Her uncle came up with the name.  They started with a half–dozen “chivas”, which are a sort of home made bus, basically wooden benches with a roof built on the platform of old flatbed trucks.  They plied the dusty, muddy, rocky unpaved roads of Manabi, uniting cow towns and haciendas, fruit farms and regional markets, forgotten, isolated hamlets and growing regional centers.

The first declaration of the Minister of Transportation after the accident was the temporary cancellation of the Reina’s license, until all of the 130 vehicles were inspected, the drivers took a special course in bus driving technology and passed vision, health and psychological tests, and the owner of each vehicle posted a special $1,000 bond as surety against future mishaps.  Of course, the universal opinion in Manabi was that this was a $130,000 bonus for the Minister of Transportation whose term in office, like that of all government ministers in Ecuador, was limited by graft, scandal and political expediency.

A week later, however, the Minister was trumped by the President, who announced with redolent indignation that the closure would be permanent, and that he would shortly begin the process of “redistributing” the routes formerly served by the Reina to other cooperatives. Clearly, a process itself assured to generate another hefty and continuing stream of off-the-books revenue. The candidates for the routes started lining up immediately.

But the officials and investors behind the Reina were not about to take this lying down.  They had resources of their own, and 50 years of entrenchment in the establishment of the province.  Think of a league of small-town Latin-style teamsters from Texas.  They immediately availed themselves of a time-honored tradition of Ecuadorian justice – judge shopping.  When a power bloc like this needs relief from executive persecution, they start going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking to find or motivate a sympathetic judge to issue an injunction.

The fact that the one they found was an unknown woman recently appointed to the Children’s and Family Court surprised and shocked no one except possibly me.  Her only possible apparent connection to the case seemed to be that 11 of the fatalities were children, but in these parts a court order is a court order, and her order was to let the Reina loose again.

A classic confrontation of constitution powers, Ecuadorian style!  The executive branch orders the busses off the roads, and the judicial overrules.  Money was moving between private bank accounts and campaign funds like a high-stakes three card Monte at an agricultural state fair.  The federal police threatened to stop the busses and arrest the drivers.  The provincial patrols vowed to enforce the judge’s order, and escort the busses if necessary.

Of course, like 99% of the confrontations in this South American theme park of a country, it was all show.  No shots were fired, but the posturing was world-class and the rhetoric stirring.  The current compromise has 80 of the 130 busses back in circulation while the back-room bartering and bribing continues.  Stay tuned for updates, and choose “executive service” if it’s an option.

Manta Diary post 2

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This morning it was still dark outside when I awoke to the sound of a downpour on a tin roof next door, and the smell of a fresh rain rinsing off the dry dust that habitually covers this sunny resort on the Pacific coast of South America. My surprise was mingled with disappointment – no tennis today!

It almost never rains in Manta. Honestly; in what must now be a cumulative year in this bustling port city, this is only the second time I can remember it really raining. Some fortuitous combination of coastline and wind patterns insures that, even in the rainy season, even when farmers in nearby towns like Portoviejo, Jipijapa (pronounced “Hippy-hoppa” to my continuing delight) or Chone are dancing with delight under a tropical deluge, Manta normally remains dry and sunny.

Actually, it was rather nice to see a real rain for a change, in part to contrast it with the repeated blunt blows from a vengeful Mother Nature currently flaying New England. Rain is romantic, and as I could clearly see on an early morning drive to get the papers, the trees and plants were happy. But I had a date to play doubles at the tennis club with the usual suspects plus a US Navy SeaBee stationed on a cruiser, the USNRV “Swift”, anchored in Manta Bay while its engineering battalion assists in the construction of an elementary school in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town.

So stuck at home for a while (local experts predict a cessation of the showers by 10 am) let me describe a couple of moral and karmic dilemmas we had to face yesterday, as an example of the magical thinking which makes the Southern half of America different from the North, and may help explain why we feel so at home here.

Yesterday, Thursday, I was on my own, as Norma was off to Portoviejo to visit Mariana, the eldest of her 8 brothers and sisters, leaving shortly after I returned from the tennis club around 9. Although she said she might be back by lunchtime I knew it would be closer to dinnertime; when these siblings get together it’s a non-stop gabfest for days at a time.  Unfortunately, Norma is the only one of her sibs who is currently on speaking terms with absolutely everyone else in the family, and since our arrival last week the apartment has been the site of a series of family summits as the sisters, cousins, aunts and more distant connections stop by singly or in groups, for Latin-style family schmoozing.  At least for one day, the coffee klatch would be held in Portoviejo rather than in our living room.

So, unencumbered by social or familial responsibilities, I decided to take a walk, maybe check out this new Chinese restaurant people were talking about, since Norma didn’t like Chifa, which is what South Americans call Chinese food. First stop – our “wall safe”, which consists of a slim linen document bag hanging from a nail in the wall underneath a mounted poster of Albert Einstein and containing our passports and cash stash.  Hopefully, the local “pillos” (thieves) don’t read my blog

But, surprise, surprise, the cupboard was bare.  The stash of fresh US ATM twenties was exhausted after about two weeks in country, more or less as expected, and so the next stop had to be the local Banco Pacifico ATM, conveniently located on the way to the Chifa.

Keys, wallet, cellphone, battered Elmore Lenard paperback (I love my new Nook so much I have determined to read it only in the comfort and safety of the apartment, never risking it out on the Latin street), check, check, check. Out the door and left at the corner, heading uphill towards the local “Strip” of bars, restaurants, clubs and trendy shops, rather than downhill to the beach.

I had walked less than two blocks when I heard and saw a singular thing. As a well-dressed young man walking in the opposite direction, down the hill, passed me by I heard  a distinct ‘thok’ sound of something falling to the ground.  I turned, and there in the street, perched on the rim of a pothole, maybe ten feet from where I stood, was a dull bronzed dollar coin.

Ecuador, as you may or may not realize, after repeated devaluations and hyperinflation, caused by a chronic inability to lay off the inorganic generation of boatloads of banknotes, had abandoned its national currency, the Sucre, and adopted good ole American greenbacks as their only money.  The big bronze dollar coins which people in the States seem so reluctant to adopt, have become ubiquitous in Ecuador, leading me to suspect that as one of the reasons they are so hard to find up North.

Anyway, it was obvious that the teenager had dropped the dollar, and I started doing the mental gymnastics necessary to determine my best course of action.  How much did he need the money? He looked well dressed, but maybe he was on his way to a low-paying job.  I had zero cash myself, but I was on my way to extract dinero from the international financial web. Did finders, keepers apply in a situation like this?

My mental acuity must be slowing down, because before I could run down the ramifications the kid was around a corner and out of sight. So I picked up the dollar and continued my ruminations as I walked. Upon reflection, I decided that a dollar found was not a dollar earned, and that the potential negative karmic effect of appropriating the funds far outweighed the brief feeling of “lucky me” one experiences on finding loose money on the street.

So, I decided, on my way back to the apartment, after my Chinese luncheon, I would carefully place the dollar back where I found it. Although the chances it would return to the teenager who dropped it were miniscule, someone else who hadn’t had the chance to identify it rightful owner would find it and potentially benefit from the “found money” juju.

By this time (I think slowly these days) I was nearly at the bank.  The equatorial sun was beating down like a photonic bludgeon as I slipped into the tiny, air-conditioned ATM vestibule. Fed my card into the machine. The screen announced “Su tarjeta no puede ser leido” (Can’t read this card).  Three times, same result. No money, no chance, no recourse.  Except, of course, to walk across the plaza to the Banco de Producto ATM inside the Super-Maxi supermarket.

This time the machine managed to read my card, and accepted my PIN, but when I asked it for $200 it reported “No se puede efectuar este transacion” (Can’t complete the transaction). Tried it again, same result.

By now, I was freaking out. What if the card has gotten demagnetized somehow, how will I get a replacement, and what will I live on in the meantime? What if somebody at one of the other places down here I’ve used the card, had stolen the password and cleaned out my account? We began rifling through the nefarious possibilities.

Almost instantly, I figured out what was going on, and what I needed to do about it.  It was the bad mojo negative karma o  the illicit dollar, burning a hole in my pocket! I touched it nervously with my figures, moved it from my right front pocket (positive energy) to my left (negative) and made a beeline for the street where I had collected it.

On the way I held the offending coin tightly in my left hand and tried to focus all of the negative energy in my body into it.  Arriving back on the corner in question I located the pothole and, after glancing around to insure I was not in anyone’s sights, lay the dollar back where I had picked it up, near as I could figure.

Straightening up, I didn’t feet anything special, but headed to the last remaining ATM in the neighborhood, between the Velboni market on the corner of the Strip and “Velvet Gourmet”, a cake and sweets shop next door.  Normally we eschew this machine, as it is outdoors and frequently out of order, but at that point I was desperate and broke.  Any port in a storm.

Of course, our karmic conscience cleansed, it worked like a charm, first time, read the card and spit out the cash, just like an ATM is supposed to do. Heaving a sigh of relief we reset our sights for the restaurant, which proved to be decent but unspectacular.  South American Chinese seemingly haven’t gotten the hang of Hot’n Sour Soup yet. The Won Tons were decent, though.

On the way home we were confronted with another confusing set of circumstances. At the supermarket where we stopped for flowers, cheese and fresh-squeezed orange juice, we made two discoveries. We still aren’t sure which was the good news, good luck, and which was the bad.

The first was the discovery that Supermaxi now stocked Hagen Das ice cream, specifically “Dulce de Leche” flavor, to which we had become seriously addicted back in Watertown where it was available cheap at the local Target within walking distance of our place. Actually, we had been rather glad that distance had reduced that craving to a fond memory, but now here it was, staring us in the face, and at an inflated price almost twice what it cost back home.  Good news or bad? We’ll figure that out later, we thought as we tossed one in the shopping chart.

The second discovery, upon returning home, eating a third of the pint and sticking the rest in the tiny freezer area of our glorified dorm-room refrigerator, was that the poor machine didn’t generate enough coldness to keep ice cream in a solid state.  I discovered this through a sticky coating of sweet liquid caramel which had flowed down from the erstwhile “feezer” to cover everything in the front half of the refrigerator and the floor below.  Good luck or bad? We’re still trying to figure that one out.

Such are the trials and travails of life on the beach in Manta, Ecuador. Moral conundrums, karmic puzzles, idle speculation. Stay tuned.

Dowbrigade South Online Again

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After a week on the road, we are setting up shop in a lovely little apartment, three blocks from the beach in the midsized city (pop. 200,000) of Manta, Ecuador. We should be reachable here for the next 5 months, before returning to Boston for the summer and fall semesters, back at work. Meanwhile, we have been disconnected from the internet, both by choice and necessity, as we wound our way down here.

Ah, the electric liberation of being off the grid. No phone, no internet, no TV – just life, raw and real and unmitigated by digital diffusion, LCD screens or cybernetic connections. The eyes open wider, the symphony of sounds unblocked by earbuds or surround-sound, the hours stretch and multiply without the distraction of hundreds of channels of cable nothingness or the endlessly fascinating time sink offered by the Internet. Time to savor the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of raw reality.

After a week of this au natural existence we found ourselves bored to tears, and venturing forth from our new nest above the Bat Beach (Playa Muracielgo) yesterday we unlocked and reregistered our trusty Blackberry, installed a telephone landline into the apartment, bought a big flatscreen TV, leeched a Cable TV signal from some out-of-town neighbors, and borrowed a USB dongle putting the MacBook back onto the information superhighway. We’re baaack! New digits to follow.

There are drawbacks to our current situation, but I can’t think of what they are. I’m sure with the passage of time they will rear their ugly little heads; Manta is not Paradise. But, as I always say, yeah, I wouldn’t mind going to Paradise, but I’m not dying to get in.

Today I got up at 6, as usual. It’s been a long time since I could sleep past 7; generally when the sun comes up, so do I. Most mornings in Manta I get picked up about 10 minutes later to go play tennis at the Umiña Tennis Club, 5 minutes from our apartment.

The gang I usually play with, including Miguel Camino, architect and ex-husband of one of Norma’s cousin, our host and landlord and good buddy, Jorge Zambrano, the Mayor, actually ex-mayor after 12 years now retired to fun the family agricultural supply business and develop scads of prime real estate he somehow acquired during his time in office, Medrano Mora the Rector of the big local university and other early risers. They like to get to the club at dawn both because it’s the coolest time of day, which at 1 degree south latitude is important, and because they want to shower and get to their offices by nine. The level of tennis is off the charts – there are so many great players at this club that sometimes I despair of being able to hang on the courts. They usually give me to the strongest player as a partner, as a sort of handicap. But playing above one’s level is the best way to improve at anything. I know it sounds exhausting, but actually two hours of tennis in the morning imparts energy that lasts all day long. Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I usually head for home after tennis for a nap.

Actually, this trip I’ve discovered another gang who show up a bit later – Byron the lawyer, Don Nelson, who works in the Port Authority, Pedro “The Tower” (6’1” is considered tall down here) and several others, a little older, about my age, and either retired or otherwise freed from the necessity of showing up at an office at any specific time. Today I played an exhausting singles match with Byron, who ended up winning 9-7, then I swan laps in the new pool for half an hour, and finished with a relaxing set of doubles with the whole gang.

The fact that this gang doesn’t show up until 7:30 or 8 (they still like to get their tennis in before the sun gets too high in the sky) means that on a day like today I got to read the New York Times and the Boston Globe early over a liquid breakfast of my favorite coffee (Flor de Manabi, from Loja), orange juice and a local liquid multivitamin.

After tennis, on the way back to the apartment, I stopped at the SuperMaxi supermarket for a copy of “El Universo”, the dean of Ecuadorian journalism, a pretty decent rag out of Guayaquil, the motor of the national economy about three hours south of here, and a liter of fresh-squeezed orange juice. They have a humongous squeezing machine in back of the deli counter – they feed in baskets of local oranges cut in half and fill the bottles by hand. I am drinking at least a liter a day; Norma claims my urine is going to start crystallizing from ascorbic acid, but I probably won’t catch cold.

Back home by a little after ten, I tried to make a few calls to the states on the free setup I have working on my laptop – combining Google voice (my number is 617-800-9948) with Cisco’s Virtual Private Network software to fool the internet into thinking I am on the Boston University campus. However, the call quality, which last night was quite acceptable (I spoke to my Mom and Gabe and a few others) was considerably worse in the morning, so I gave up on that and started writing this message. I will have to experiment with calling at different times of day to see when the quality is best. Also, I hope to have a faster, DSL connection to the internet up and running next week, so I can get away from this damn dongle. Hopefully this will be a bit faster as well.

In a couple of hours, Norma and I are planning to wander down to the Bat Beach, and walk down the Malecon to the Manta Yacht Club, where there is supposed to be some sort of a Gastronomic Championship, sponsored by the Ecuadorian-American Chamber of Commerce, featuring representatives of the ten best restaurants in Manta as well as the Gastronomy department at the local university in some kind of Criolla Cookoff. We don’t hang much at the Yacht Club, most of its members are ex-Navy or scions of upper-upper-crust Latifundista families. Not my kind of people, generally, but the cookoff offers an opportunity to avoid the big question of most days in Manta, which is in which of the dozens of excellent nearby restaurants to have lunch, traditionally the biggest meal in the Latinamerican day. Seafood or barbeque? Salad and fruit juice or fried shrimp and beer? Decisions, decisions.

Then tonight I am looking forward to seeing the Jets and Colts on my new TV. It’s on ESPN down here, a little grainy but definitely watchable. Not sure who to root for, I guess the Colts cause if they win we get the worst team in the playoffs next week, although it would be enjoyable to see the Pats destroy the Jets again.

No, Manta is not paradise. There are problems and inconveniences and ornery people and incompetent officials, just like everywhere else. Sometimes the electricity goes out. All of the restaurants on Bat Beach signed some sort of blood oath, in return for free Pepsi refrigerated servers, not so sell Coca-cola. Norma has diarrhea from eating a cebiche in Tarqui, the “bad” part of town (the Lonely Planet guide book notes that Tarqui features the cheapest hotels in town, but if you stay in one better take a taxi home after dark) – in fact, street snatch and grabs are common enough that we remove all rings, watches and other jewelry before going out, carry a minimum of cash and never flash laptops or iPods on the street. But given these precautions I feel pretty safe and in fact have yet to be a victim of this kind of crime in Ecuador, unlike in the USA.

Stay tuned for more updates

High in the Andes, Time Stops

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When one returns to a city after 33 years, one expects some changes and surprises. When the Dowbrigade pulled into scenic Cuenca, Ecuador after a spectacular 3-hour van ride up into the Andes Mountains from Guayaquil, the biggest surprise was that it looked and felt absolutely the same as it had on our last visit here, in 1977.

That visit was admittedly a little rushed. It was during our brief, spectacularly unsuccessful career as an import-export magnate between college and graduate school, trying to turn our nascent anthropological expertise into a profitable business venture.

We had glommed onto the intensely handcrafted Panama Hats of Cuenca as our ticket to magnate status.  Contrary to popular belief, the authentic Panama Hats come from Ecuador, not Panama, many of them from the sprawling fabrica of Humberto Ortega y Hijos in Cuenca.

We had somehow convinced Señor Ortega that despite our hippy accouterments and bastard Spanish we were capable of representing his line in the United States, and got him to sign an actual contract declaring the Dowbrigade as his exclusive North American distributor for a period of two years.

The hats were magnificent. Woven underwater so that the straw strands were flexible and firm, the tightened when dried into a smooth, fabric-like softness. With wire brims, a variety of colors and crowns, and styles for both men a women, they couldn’t miss.  The most expensive models came rolled up in their own sliding-lid balsa wood boxes.

With the backing of a gullible Harvard Buildings and Grounds employee who invested most of his savings, we booked a booth at the big deal New York Gift Fair the week before Christmas, where the buyers for all of the chains and deparment stores commit to stock for their summer sales lines.
We ordered a dozen each of the 15 styles we thought would be the most popular, and printed up stationary and order forms for the expected flood of orders.

A week before the big show in NYC the samples still hadn’t come. In a panic we called the factory in Cuenca. Yes, the hats were there, ready to be shipped. Why hadn’t they shipped them already? One of the Ortega sons had just gotten married, and they shut down the factory for a week.

“Don’t send them now,” we screamed into the phone, “we’ll come get them!” And so we bought a quick roundtrip ticket from New York to Ecuador, arriving back in New York the morning of the opening of the gift show.

We remember walking the streets of midtown Manhattan the day the flight left.  It was Christmas week, there was no snow on the ground but you could smell it in the air, the store windows were surreal winter wonderlands and people rushed by burdened by packages and trailed by scarves and small children.

18 hours later we were high in the Andes, waiting in a tiny two-table coffee shop for the Ortega offices to open so we could grab our hats and rush back to Manhattan. It was a surreal juxtaposition, the kind of cultural dissonance that we lived for, an unmoored state of being when expectations are upset, the unusual becomes normal, and consciousness gets a chance to rise above and between the ley lines of world views.

We got the same feeling yesterday, as we walked among the tiny storefronts and churches and plazas of the aged center of this Colonial city (a UN Patrimony of Humanity site). Perhaps not as strongly, and hopefully leading to a more productive conslusion, for although we arrived at the gift fair 33 years ago with our hats intact, we sold not a single one at the show.

For all of our expertise, we discovered in ourself an absolute lack of salesmanship or business sense. After a year in the business the only hats we had sold were a few we hawked sitting on the street in Harvard Square the following summer trying to raise enough cash for lunch and a beer. We would arrive at about ten and set a museum-worthy Andean weaving on the sidewalk in front of the long defunct Harvard Trust bank, arranging the sombreros in neat piles in anticipation of having to quickly relocate at the whim of the Cambridge Police Department. Most days we met our quota of 2 or 3 hats well before noon, giving us plenty of time to select a watering hole for the rest of the day. That fall we decided to move on and go to grad school. So much for entrepreneurship.

But now, 33 years later, here we were back in Cuenca. We were hit by a wave of the same cultural dissonance – yesterday morning, we thought, we were in Manhattan, and in a blink of the eye, a different world.

Some things never change, and it appears that Cuenca is one of them.  Upon checking into the Hotel Macondo (Wi-fi and breakfast included, $18) we were handed a xeroxed sheet titled, in English and Spanish “For your security” and reading, in part:

‘A New Form of Robbery

In general, in the City Center and the Plaza Calderon (in front of the Cathedral) we have been experiencing a new form of robbery. Thieves bump into tourists, spilling mustard or mayonnaise or any liquid on them.  Then, feigning embarrassment, they try to help the tourist clean their clothes.  Instead, they pick their pockets and run.”

What new form of robbery? We’d be willing to bet our passport that this method of robbery has been common since the ancient Greek Agora three thousand years ago. We were relieved of our passport and billfold by just this technique 25 years ago in Chimbote, Peru.

Forewarned and forearmed we wandered the steets of this historic old city. The sense of familiararity was overwhelming. Not only did it seem familiar, we felt completely at home. The city blocks were dense and busy, but the individual stores, packed 20 to a block, were completely different than what one would find in a typical American city. A tiny TV-electronics repair shop crammed with old CRTs and lose curcuit boards, not a flatscreen in sight, and the elderly technician seated on a wooden stool peering through retro magnifying goggles as he soldered a piece into place. A dingy two-chair barber shop with a yellowing poster in the window displaying 12 head shots of the most popular cuts of the day, the day being, as far as we could tell, frozen somewhere in the 1960′s. A six-foot purple dinosaur – yes it was Barney – standing guard outside a store that sells party supplies and piñatas and rents costumes for childrens birthdays. Cuenca, we thought, where old Barney costumes go to die.

The stores themselves are tiny and cave-like, no more than 15-20 feet wide and the same deep. However, one of the things we love about Andean urban architecture is the mystery of what goes on in the middle of each city block, since these shallow stores only ring the circumference leaving the hidden heart of each a riddle.  Some of the stores, an occasional residence, or a hotel like the Macondo feature back passages that open into mazes of corridors and storerooms, beautiful gardens and patios, entire other covert enterprises or luxurious family mansions.

Eventually, we wandered into the infamous Plaza Calderon and Cuenca’s main tourist attraction, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción. We have been repeatedly told that upon its completion, in the 1880s, it was the largest cathedral in South America, and although we kind of doubt that, it is undeniably huge. According to Wikipedia:

“Its towers are truncated due to a calculation error of the architect. If they had been raised to their planned height, the foundation of this church to the Immaculate Concepcion, would not have been able to bear the weight. In spite of the architect’s immense mistake, the New Cathedral of Cuenca is a monumental work of faith that began to be built in 1880. It is in Neo-Gothic style, and its blue and white domes have become a symbol for the city. Its facade is made of alabaster and local marble, while the floor is covered with pink marble, brought from Carrara (Italy).When the Cathedral was first constructed 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants could fit.”

No more. Cuenca is now a city of almost half a million. When we wandered into the Cathedral yesterday, the several hundred worshipers were swallowed up in the vast vaulted spaces and numerous nooks, alcoves and secondary shrines. The magnificant gilded altar gleamed in the distance, a couple of football fields away down the axis of the enourmous central area. Between the door and the altar, itself at least 60 or 70 feet high of twisted golden columns there are six separate worship areas on each side of the central hall, each the side of a normal American church, and each with its own shrines, pews, confessionals religious art and iconography and votive candle stands.

It was late afternoon; crespular light filtered through the
stained glass and round windows around the bases of the three huge blue domes that formed the poles of the roof. There was a smell of insence, votive
candles, flowers and floor wax the components of which varied with intensity
from alcove to alcove.

If the interior could hold 9,000 of the faithful is seemed vast and empty with only 2 or 3 percent of that number. The main altar, with the fantasmagorical golden columns reaching for the sky like an angel’s four-poster, was dark and mostly roped off; set aside for holidays or other mass ceremonies. Only two of the 12 side chapels were occupied. In one, a white-robed preist was leading a congregation of a couple of hundred in a series of chants which we assumed were either in Latin or Quechua, the native American language, since we couldn’t decipher a single word.

Not being familiar with the Catholic liturgy in any language, we have no idea what they were doing, but it sounded like a call and response format, and with our eyes closed and the droning voices echoing off the vaulted ceiling and assorted architectural recesses it could almost have been “OOmmmmm padi hummm”.

The cogregants were all of Native American stock, mixed over the centuries with European and Asian imports but easily categorized by dress and behavior and degree of acculturation. The “Town Indians” were mestisized, a word we just invented to verbalize the term “Mestizo”, an individual of mixed Native American and European heritage. They dressed pretty much like city folk around the world: button-down and T-shirts, belted pants, socks and shoes, maybe a sweatshirt or jacket. The “Country Indians” were dressed in their traditional garb; men in blue pants with sewn-in string ties and white shirts covered by ponchos, women in multiple puffy blue ankle-length skirts, frilly white blouses, multiple strings of tiny beads whose color, number and arrangement carry as many messages as gang signs and colors, and peculiar feathered, banded hats which identify their home village, marital status and other secret data beyond the imaginings of this amateur anthropologist.

Another way to tell them apart is their haircuts: the country folk all, men and women, have waist length jet black hair, tied in a single braid and hanging down their backs. The city folk had a healthy variety of modern cuts and do’s, in and out of fashion, kempt or unkempt but all the same black, straight hair.

They were standing and swaying, chanting their hearts out, supplicating and singing praising the Lord. They paid no heed to the Gringo in their midst. Indeed, we seemed to be the only tourist in the entire Cathedral.

The only other niche being used was right next door, the last remaining alcove between the chanters and the darkened main stage. There, a tiny skinny middle-aged Japanese teacher was leading a group of 13 uniformed school-girls into the first two rows of pews facing a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary.

The teacher spoke to a Nun of similar stature, dressed in a simple gray habit. They could have been sisters.  We imagined the teacher had been a novice in her youth who had abandoned the nunnery to pursue an ill-fated romance with a long-gone Galan, and now dedicated all her energies to her students.

The girls looked to be 12 or 13, and showed none of the coltish exuberance common to groups of girls or boys at that age.  In fact, they were all kneeling in front to a statue of the Virgin Mary, standing in a striking blue silk gown on an alter of her own on the left side of the alcove. The girls were speaking or praying in voices which were swallowed up by the cavernous space before they could reach our ears.

The tiny nun walked off into the shadows in the wings of the main altar, far from the main pulpit and gilded tower. A minute later she was back carrying what appeared to be a two-foot-long test tube of translucent glass shining in the dim light. It appeared to be half-full of some silvery liquid. What, we wondered, is that? Some arcane Papist ritual we have never seen before, or some melding of indigenous superstition and Catholic worship?

As the nun carefully places the glass cylinder on the floor next to the statue of the Virgin, we finally made out that it was a simple glass flower holder. We noticed for the first time, a few meters behind the girls, a slightly older, taller young woman carrying a full bouquet of pink roses.

The students finished their prayers and moved back into the first two rows of pews facing the Virgin.  The teacher took the roses from the tall girl and carefully distributed them, one to each of the 13 students. After the last student had a rose, there was one left over.  The teacher gently handed it back to the tall girl, who refused to take it. The teacher leaned over and spoke softly into the tall girls ear. She shook her head but stood her ground. Her hands were in her pockets. She wouldn’t take the rose. The teacher seemed to sign and turned back to her charges.

One by one, the girls got up, approached the Virgin, knelt, crossed themselves, seemed to say a short prayer, placed her single pink rose in the vase the nun had placed on the floor, and returned to her seat.

The teacher gave the last rose to the first girl, who got to go through the whole routine again, whether as prize or punishment we haven’t a clue. Meanwhile, the chanting in the next alcove over had given way to rousing hymn singing, although again, the 30 or 40 voices were lost in the echoing reaches of the gigantic Cathedral.

After surreptitiously taking a few snapshots we walked out into the Cuenca twilight.  The Plaza Calderon, outside the church, was full of people hurrying home or enjoying the evening. Two doors down we found a classic Ecuadorian high-class restaurant with an Andean air of faded elegance, a small coterie of obvious regulars and a smattering of tourists. We ordered a fried fresh mountain trout, a local specialty, with french fries, rice (always), a salad we stayed away from, a Papaya milkshake (for the stomach) and a cold Club, the local premium beer (very good, German family brewery). The bill – $6.70.

From there, back to the wified Hotel Macondo to catch up on correspondence and the news, and see if we can get out of the Medical Pavilion in Bioshock on the Macbook. Killing time in the most marvelous way while waiting for Norma. Thus ends our first day in the Andes.

See some slides of the Cathedral and the wedding.

A Frog in our Throat

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A FROG that constantly changes colour is being worshipped as a GOD in India.
Hundreds of curious followers flock to Reji Kumar’s home every day to pray and ask for miracles.

Now one of the country’s top zoologists plans to study the rainbow frog. But Reji, 35, who keeps the creature in a glass bottle after finding it while out watering plants, is afraid it might CROAK first.

He said: “My one problem is that this frog does not appear to eat. I keep trying to feed it but it doesn’t eat anything. I don’t know what else to give it.”

The frog was a dazzling WHITE colour when Reji, from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, first spotted it.

Then it changed to YELLOW and had gone GREY by the time he got it home.

Lift worker Reji added: “By night the frog was dark yellow, and then it became transparent so you could see its internal organs.

“It seemed like a miracle to me that this frog had so many different coats. So now people come to see him and pray to him.”

Professor Oommen V. Oommen from India’s Kerala University, said it was not uncommon for animals to change colour.

He explained: “Frogs do change colour to scare away predators.

“But from what I have heard, the frog at Kumar’s place changes colour so frequently it is a bit unusual. I will collect it for study.”

From the Sun (London) June 8, 2009

Boy, that Professor Oommen V. Oommen sounds like quite the card, or a Melvillian divorce proceeding. We hope he never finds the Dowbrigade “a bit unusual”. On the topic of worshiping frogs, we seem to remember spending time among a tribe in the Upper Rio Napo region of the Ecuadorian Amazon that did just that, although their frogs only changed color after being licked…..

Santa Norma Blesses Us All

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Norma Moreira with a calabash Nativity scene, from her native Ecuador, among the dozens of creches she has collected from around the world.

This Christmas, Norma Moreira and her husband are sharing their home with 45 wise men.

Moreira, who immigrated to the United States from Ecuador in 1996, has been acquiring Nativity scenes for the past two decades. With her collection now standing at 58 (15 of which contain the three wise men), images of a cluttered storefront might come to mind. But when you consider that some figures are not much larger than a fingernail, it’s easy to understand how Moreira is able to comfortably share her Watertown home with all those creches.

from the Boston Globe, Christmas Day 2008

Merry Christmas, everyone! We couldn’t be prouder of our lovely and loving wife who today was profiled in a feature in the Boston Globe.  This story began as a blog posting on Dowbrigade News two years ago. A few weeks ago, Norma suggested I submit it to the Globe. Her collection has grown in the past two years, and they jumped on it like dogs on a meat wagon.

Let the record show that the Dowbrigade considers himself the luckiest man in the world for having found the perfect wife for his problematic personality.

From the Eruption Zone

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Boy, have we ever gotten behind in our postings. But, thats what vacations are for, we guess. Currently in Baños, Ecuador, nested in the skirts of Mt. Tunguragua, an active vocano which is currently acting up; booming and smoking and spraying mile-high plumes of smoke into the air. We have been told that if we hear sirens, its time to evacuate. My, it seems the explosions are getting closer and closer together. Theres one every few minutes now.

Almost 8 pm on New Years Eve. Weve managed to upload a few pictures from the eruption zone. Enjoy the party. Happy New Year everyone.

Baños photo album

Dowbrigade Back on the Beat

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It’s finally over, the semester that wouldn’t end. It started, if memory serves, on May 29, with a class of Business Professionals meeting in a weird wired classroom near the Business School, and ended this afternoon with a farewell lunch in a Thai joint a half-mile down Comm Ave.

Over the intervening 28 weeks, motivated by encroaching poverty, the Dowbrigade has been a veritable didactic machine. Calling in favors, leaning on management, volunteering for suicide missions, we loaded up our schedule with a hodgepodge of assignments, different departments, ad hoc electives and an eclectic collection of tutorees including personages of whom we dare not reminisce lest we run afoul of one of several foreign intelligence organizations.

Many times during the tough stretches, doing the dirty work in the academic trenches of American Higher Education, teaching three-a-days and getting home so tired we didn’t make it through the news, stacks of papers to correct so high we can’t see the TV behind them, the flat tire in the rain skipping lunch between classes to meet the man, mornings we could barely drag our sorry carcass out of bed, one thought kept us going. That thought – right now. The present moment. Looking back in stunned satisfaction, having run the gauntlet of placement, syllabus, midterm, term papers, finals, evaluations again and again till our head hurt. And now – We Are There.

So what do we have planned for the next six weeks, until the “Spring” semester starts up in the dog days of January? For the next few days, as little as possible, allowing the engine to cool down and the steam to dissipate. Then, the things we always like to do when our time is our own; read, eat, blog, learn new stuff, laugh, enjoy family, get lost and try to find our way home, get into trouble and try to find a way out. No travel on the schedule so far; last year we spent Christmas in the Andes and New Year on the Beach, and the year before Norma Yvonne was with her Mom in Ecuador, so this year we plan to spend the holidays together, at home, with a tree decorated, stockings hung, and family mustered. Hoping for a silent night and Peace on Earth. Fat chance.

At any rate, a chance to rest up and recharge our batteries after an exhausting though exhilarating run of close encounters of a classroom kind.

Actually, we should probably be ashamed of ourselves. Here we are whining about how hard we have to work, when compared to three-fourths of the people on the planet we live a life of unimaginable luxury and sloth. Why, compared to a Burmese peasant toiling endlessly in some rice paddy, or a Guatemalan Indian spending 70 hours a week in some firetrap factory carving cat scratchers for sale in Targets across America, or any one of millions of incarcerated souls forgotten by the outside world, working hard every day just to stay alive, and sane, the Dowbrigade is a pampered prince in a pleasure palace.

Besides, we’ve lived long enough to know by now that whenever things seems most placid, restful and blessedly boring, cacophonous chaos is right around the corner. Stay tuned….

Real Hot Baths

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QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano is
emitting its loudest and most frequent explosions since it rumbled back
to life nearly seven years ago after eight decades of inactivity, scientists
said.

The volcano registered 133 explosions of vapor and gas between Wednesday
and Friday, Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute reported.

"It has been rumbling constantly in the last six years, always registering
explosions, emitting ash," he told The Associated Press.

"What’s happening now is that since May 10, we have had times in which
there are 10 explosions per hour, booms so powerful that they broke some
windows in sectors like Cusua," a village on the western slopes
of the volcano, Yepes added.

Residents say the thunderous explosions have not been so loud since 1999,
Yepes said.
In October of that year, the volcano spewed huge columns of ash into
the air, forcing the evacuation of 17,000 residents of Ba