Friday, February 27, 2015

one more day

After a fun night on the town with Quito's finest band of chefs and web developers, discussing apps for discovering underground parties and street art and holes in the wall and whether cows are subject to the Coriolus effect, I left for the airport at dawn. 

¿Hablas Español? the agent asked. Half-asleep I nodded but missed the context of what she described. Cinco estrellas? (Five stars.) It turned out Aero Mexico was looking for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a hotel in Quito, transfers, and a free round trip ticket to South America. 

I hesitated for about three seconds, wondering if I could reach my happy house sitters. With one more day, I could go to Otavalo or up the TeleferiQo or to Guápulo, and try a few of the restaurants I'd just heard about. 

Please, I said, dreaming. Pick me. 

They put me on a list along with a bunch of other hopefuls. Eventually they called my name (pick me! a Skymiles member for a million years) only to say they'd had enough no shows, and I would be leaving in half an hour as planned. 

Only yesterday I was feeling homesick, nesting at La Casa Amarilla between sightseeing, slowly reengaging with the life I left behind three weeks ago. It feels like I've been away much longer. More than two months since I watched  dolphins frolic on Carmel Beach at sunset New Year's Day. 

When I bought my ticket to Ecuador over Christmas I had not yet quit my job or trained for a half marathon. I wanted change, to regain my balance, my sense of equanimity. And where better than at the center of the world: 0 0 0, mas o menos.

Turns out I'm a terrible hiker, not that that stopped me. I learned just enough about Ecuadorean history and politics (Crudo Ecuador) and birding to be dangerous. Despite compliments from taxi drivers, my Spanish vocabulary is voluminous but grammar atrocious. Altitude makes me babble and stumble. And yet…

Drop me in the Andes, hot pink hair and all, and I made marvelous friends and, after a few missteps, found my way. 

I like to think traveling brings out the best in me. I know this isn't always true. 

But there's no substitute for leaving home with a passport, ATM card, and a smartphone for resetting the dial and remembering who you really are. 

Ama la vida. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

patrimonia, matriarchy, y arte

I asked Jenny why La Casa Amarilla says Ofelia. 
It was her grandmother's house, and in that era, it was traditional to name a house after the señora who lived there. 
My sunny room is chartreuse. 
For many years a language school, today the B&B is filled with bright colors and  Ecuadorean art. 
Small sweet dogs too. This one is in my lap. 
Yesterday Moni took me to the Central Bank's collection of pre-Colombian and largely pre-Incan artifacts to catch me up on 3000 years of Ecuadorean history, from the earliest work in the Americas with precious metals to sophisticated pottery and sculpture. 
These funerary vases were only recently discovered. I was struck by how little I knew of Ecuadorean history, perhaps because they were marked less by war and devastation and less by colonial exploitation than many nearby countries. 
After breakfast I headed to the top of the  hills to visit the Guayasimin museum. 
Pictures aren't permitted inside the museum, but Oswaldo Guayasamin was Ecuador's most important modern painter and sculptor. 
He lived 80 years, and worked with Rivera and Siguieros. The giant dome depicting starving men and women praying for freedom reminded me of Guernica but also of Siquiros' Cabanas del Gobierno dome in Guadalajara.  
I loved the bright uniforms of these giggly schoolchildren on a field trip. 
His portraits are extraordinary as was his collection of art and the studio where he worked and entertained heads of state. 
Afterward I treated myself to lunch at Quito's hottest new restaurant Urko, which delivers a modernist locavore take on Ecuadorean cuisine. 
The special of the day was frittada with pork marinated for two days in passionfruit and accompanied by roasted mashua (indigenous tubers similar to sweet potatoes) and crunchy toasted quinoa. 
The chocolate pot du creme was so good that I'd come back to Ecuador just for another spoonful. 
And this definitely wins most artful washroom in Quito. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

mas cafe

Yesterday, my last day at Maqui Pucuna, featured a tour of their shade-grown organic coffee production.
Arabica trees are part of the conservation project, attracting birds and endangered spectacled bears and providing a low impact way for local communities to support themselves. 
Rodrigo and Rebeca worked with other local farmers in the region, developing the Choco Andino corridor in the north of Ecuador. 
Coffee trees produce their first crop in 2–3 years. 
Berries ripen to a deep crimson. 
The fruit is delicious, and tastes nothing like coffee. 
We each picked a small bucket and brought them to this coffee pitter, which separates pulp from the seed. 

After pulping Rodrigo washed the seeds. They're left to ferment for about a day. 
And then placed on drying racks for up to ten days until they reach the desired humidity. 
They look like little peanuts and still don't smell like coffee. 
The outer shell is then removed, producing gray–green beans, which are  roasted in Quito. 
I roast mine in a fry pan, though you can use a toaster oven. You roast them until they crack, and another layer of peel comes off. Then you grind them. 
Now comes the best part: 
We slurped two different coffees for contrast, at a variety of temperatures as the cupping cooled. Maqui Pucuna's coffee is earthy and balanced, with the sweetness typical of coffee from Guatemala. 
I can't wait to try mine at home.

colors of colibri

Sunday supper: You've probably figured out by now I'm not much of a birder. 
The language of birding often strikes me as unnecessarily obscure: buff-throated saltagers and lanceloted monklets. And as a night owl, I find the pre-dawn hours obscene. 
But it's hard not to be charmed by the constant whir of wings, 
the territorial fights,
the curved beaks, and saturated colors of tiny hummingbirds. 
We counted more than 40 types of birds in my visit to magical Maqui Pucuna preserve, from broad-billed motmots to choco toucans. And many other ferns, flowers, and mariposas (butterflies) that flourish in the rich volcanic soil. 
Tomorrow I return to civilization, to the sounds of cars and dogs and people instead of the rushing river. 
Instead of counting butterflies, I'll be shopping for souvenirs and learning about the history of the city in museums and churches. 
Thank goodness this place will still be here: reclaimed, protected, unspoiled. 
Nesting for generations to come. 

Sunday morning

Sunday dawn:  A pair of torrent ducks played in the river. 
We set off uphill on a misty morning. 
We heard more birds than spotted them, but it was hard to complain. 
These begonias were at a house owned by a British family. 
Arsenio spotted two arasari toucans playing in the trees in the distance. 
We saw another choco toucan too and lots of smaller birds including one with a bright blue collar and a small brown hawk. 
But the best sight awaited us after a breakfast of quimbolitos, corn and wheat treats steamed in banana leaves: 
a gorgeous motmot in the tree beside the river.