This morning I hiked Volcan Cotacachi with Milton who has been our guide on other treks. At 4 am we made the two hour drive up to the trailhead and started out in the early morning light…in the clouds. In the clouds is where we remained almost the whole time. Thankfully I could see the plants which changed dramatically from velvety grasses to strange alien formations which seem more at home on a coral reef. After two and half hours of moving up through the mist and with the breathing getting progressively harder, we reached our destination at 15,550 feet. This was roughly 700 feet below the peak which we didn’t have the equipment or life insurance to attempt. After a few more photos and pieces of chocolate we made our way back down through the clouds.
Our experience with Inti Raymi began with innocence and ended with beauty. In the middle there was dancing, blood, tear gas and death.
Maybe I should start before our beginning.
This Quechua ‘Festival of the Sun’ has its roots in Incan times and is celebrated by indigenous communities in Ecuador and Peru – and as far as I know, in any place up and down these Andes where the Inca’s traditions persist. For the Inca, it was the primary festival of the year, done during the time of year they mark as the change of seasons and to honor their most important god, Inti. In Peru, I read, they sacrifice animals as an offering to the god of harvest. The more blood – the better the harvest. It is a belief held by the indigenous communities around Cotacachi as well, but the blood spilt here each year does not come from animals. Again, I am ahead of myself.
The information I have on this specific Inti Raymi is gleaned from conversations with the people who participate in it and/or have lived here for years and watched it unfold time and again. It spans two weeks of events that begin with the men doing a midnight ritual cleansing in surrounding streams and waterfalls, a day of children dancing at each corner of the square in circles (honoring all the stages of the sun), two weekends of men marching to the square then dancing and chanting sun circles and/or fighting, and ending with a day of just the women dancing around each corner of the plaza as well.
The main event, without question, is the men. The (mostly younger) men of the surrounding communities drink until the line of reason is long forgotten, dress up in large black hats and chaps covered in goat hair with some wielding conch shells or flutes while the majority take various tools of battle from whips to ‘fake’ guns to stones. They then head off “to take” the center square, marching and whistling and rhythmically chanting past the small army of riot police called in each year for this festival. The riot police do what they can but each Inti Raymi brings tragedy. Last year a little girl was trampled, the year before that, a man stoned to death. Most of the fighting breaks out when one community moves on to the next corner and the group already there refuses to move on as well. Although, it must also be said that there is a palpable energy from the thousands of spectators that flock to this event that seems to radiate the desire for an outburst of aggression, which makes this whole festival that much more complicated to explain.
Calera is the community most known for its strength in these enactments, and the story I was told is that there has been “bad blood” between them and the neighboring town of Quiroga since forever ago when La Calera stole a sacred bull from Quiroga and ate it – to double the offence. This year’s main battle was between Calera, who stepped in to defend the smaller community of Santa Marta, who had had a member shot by someone from Cuicocha. So apparently there’s enough bad blood to go around for other rivalries to sprout up as well. Enough to cause at least two deaths and countless serious injuries still to be tallied.
Now, before I have you too worked up about this festival, and La Calera in particular, I need to make a few other points. These few days of violence are bookended by an entire year of near perfect peacefulness. I’ve mentioned in other posts how drawn Bo and I were to this area of Ecuador BECAUSE of the peacefulness and beauty of the indigenous populations that stood in stark contrast to every other area we’d toured. And the idea of setting aside one day, or set of days, when everyone agrees to get out their grievances for the year and everyone knows that is what they are getting themselves into if they participate, isn’t unique to Inti Raymi or Cotacachi. Takanakuy is one fesitval (on Christmas Day!) in Peru that has similar precepts with similar rest-of-the-year peace success, albiet no one is allowed to fight to the death on that one.
Also, the two closest local friends we’ve made here: Luis, who has tirelessly answered every question, helped with every outing, and who we sat next to just days ago at the preschool graduation watching his daughter and our son sing together; and Rodrigo, who has befriended Bo more than anyone else we’ve met, sharing beers and talking shop and family and life into the wee hours on more than one occasion and whose wife and two sweet children shared our first Chachimbiro outing with us. And all their friends that adopted us by association and stepped in to help or play or visit from time to time…all Calera. All people we trust, admire, and respect. Rodrigo spoke at length with Bo about how much he hoped the violence would not escalate this year, from what I could tell he does everything he can to focus his community on the ritual and the music and the dancing and the culture of Inti Raymi as opposed to bloodletting. The violence may be systemic, but it is not everyone’s desire.
Which is why, we were happy to see that the enormous group unloading and camping out across the street from our apartment on the onset of Inti Raymi turned out to be La Calera, the community we knew the best. Bo went down a number of times and caught a great video of Rodrigo getting the group energized with music and marching before ever heading out to the street, he even danced a few circles with them just under our window. It’s also why, after being told that as long as you went during the daytime you were safe, I joined the masses and followed La Calera on their march to La Matriz (Cotacachi’s central plaza) early Friday afternoon.
And now I know what tear gas is like.
As it turns out, that Friday afternoon’s march was the most violent of this year’s events. Even four blocks away the wind had carried some of the tear gas into our apartment and Bo quickly got the boys into their room and away from its sting. Although Vaughn felt some minor effects of what he called, “spicy nose gas” they were all safe. Many many that day were not.
I was at the back of the march, taking pictures and grinning with the adorable children dressed up to mimic their fathers when the first shot of gas was fired and the screaming and the running began. I turned and ran as well and managed to squeeze behind the closing gate of a parking lot just as my eyes began to stream and my throat and nose to burn. There were 7 of us hiding there, one of which was a young Afro-Ecuadorian girl who’d been hit full force by the gas and whose beautiful black face was splotched and red. She ran in and grabbed a water hose dousing her face and crying while the older men there ran to pull the hose away as water actually makes the affects of tear gas worse. Instead the men herded us under a tarp-covered shed in the corner and began passing out cigarettes. Taking deep inhales and then blowing directly into the children’s faces (there was another young boy there) or blowing into their shirts and sticking the children’s heads in their shirt to breathe in the smoke. I don’t understand why, but it did help, and so I gratefully accepted the cigarette, sat next to the girl who’d gotten it the worst and had no idea where her parents were, and blew smoke directly into her face. Over and over again. The fighting in the square had only gotten worse, which meant we had to withstand wave after wave of newly released gas choking us, making my young companion whimper each time we felt a new one come on.
Eventually, the waves stopped coming and with a few awkward smiles and farewells, we decided to try our way out from the shed. Stepping back onto the street I saw men being carried away by their sisters and wives. I saw a lot of blood – on the street, on people’s clothes, on people’s bodies. Ambulances raced by, women cried and ran. And then about a block from home I saw a cotton candy vender selling his wares to a family of spectators up on their balcony above the street. I think that is when I started to run. I made it back to an immensely relieved husband and sons contentedly watching a movie behind the closed door of their room. Safe. I don’t know what else to say about that day.
Soon it was Sunday and the women came out in their finely embroidered gowns and danced the same circles as all the dancers before them, but accompanied by the lilting tunes of an Andean flute and the giggles of their daughters. Gracefully swishing their skirts while smiling at the sky.
And then it was over, as quietly as it had begun.
We’ve included some video links throughout this post and a slideshow of some of the events is posted at the bottom to give you a sense of what my words cannot.
It is impossible to end this post with a clear point, because I don’t have one. Bo and I are still trying to reconcile the images and sounds and smells of the last couple weeks, with no real conclusion.
We are curious though, what do you think?
Dear Vaughn and Luke,
You Did It!! We’re curious what you will remember from this time in your lives, curious if you’ll think this stint of school in Ecuador was worth it. As you look back on it, please take into consideration what your dad and I saw…
We saw our two precious boys, who have come along on this adventure without any idea what exactly it was, trust us enough to let us drop you into two different schools where you knew no one, understood nothing, and asked you to go back into that situation every day for months. And you did. You went to school everyday not knowing what anyone was saying, trying so hard to keep up, to understand, to learn a new language, even just parts of a new language. You both made new friends and defended yourselves against bullies. You got back up and you got back up and you got back up and you got back up – and it worked! It mattered! You play together now in a mix of languages, one of which you didn’t even know existed just a few short months ago. You can’t walk down the streets here without one kid or another calling out your names and asking you to play. People who didn’t know what to make of you at the beginning now like you, love you, and try to seek you out. You’ve grown stronger and smarter, more kind and more brilliant in our eyes every moment of this process and we pray that you’ll come to see yourselves that way as well. We cannot imagine being more proud of any completed school year you will do, thank you for seeing it through to the end and giving it your all the whole time! You are the bravest people we know.
We love you Vaughn and Luke, de todos los tiempos y con todo nuestro corazón.
Mom and Dad
Vaughn’s first moments home from his last day- off went the uniform and on came a big smile and proud thumb’s up!
Vaughn’s first day of summer break, enjoying a neighboring school’s last day parade.
Luke’s Graduation Videos:
With only a couple weeks left in Cotacachi, time is starting to move fast and it’s packed with huge events like the boys finishing the hardest school year I pray they ever have, Inti Raymi’s fanfare- and fear, and the Cotacachi anniversary celebration. Amidst all of it though, one thing we all agreed HAD to be done one more time before we left was a return visit to Parque Cóndor just outside of Otavalo. It is a non-profit refuge for birds of all kinds and plays host to two Andean Condors, which is the national bird of Ecuador and the BIGGEST we have ever seen! Birds that can be rehabilitated are released back into the wild, those that cannot are treated like kings in this high Andean paradise and some even treat visitors to see them in flight up close and personal during one of 2 exhibitions a day, 11:30 and 2:30 –not to be missed if you’re planning a trip up there.
It was our first visit to Parque Cóndor back in February when we were just scouting out this area that really flipped the switch in our hearts to choose this as our home for our time spent in Ecuador. Volcán Imbabura, that we see out our window from the apartment, seems so close from there with steep green pastures and fields that defy modern agricultural practices. And from the park’s high vantage point you can look out over Lago San Pablo, into the bustling market town of Otavalo, and even, we now know, down into Cotacachi’s green valley. It was a joy to return to this special spot and soak up its tranquillity one more time…
Jamie and the boys worked very hard to create this amazing Father’s Day gift. I liked it so much I had to share it with you all. God, I love my little family and thank you Jamie for making it all work!
One year ago life was pretty good.
It was early summer in Crested Butte. The boys were enjoying the long warm days and time with friends and family, Jamie was looking forward to her cousin’s wedding and to doing another show, I was getting in biking shape and work was as good as it had been in years. Things were all right and the plan was to keep building our lives more or less like we had been.
But, plans change.
Under the surface of our relatively steady lives, and maybe in part because of our relatively steady lives, there were the makings for some major change. In fact, within six months, we would announce that we were going to leave all that we knew: friends, family, home, work, toys, favorite activities and even our dog, to live a different life in a different land, at least for a while. There was a unique window of opportunity that might not come again to follow this dream and to be closer to each other in a new way.
We had thought hard about making this change and done what seemed like a lot of research on the logistics. The plan was to start in Ecuador, travel around, find a place we liked, live there for six months and then travel to other parts of South America for another 8-12 months. We looked at our finances and estimated that if we could live on a very lean budget (1/3 of our monthly budget in the US), that we could make our family sabbatical last for 18 months. After our “down time” in Ecuador, we hoped to visit and spend weeks and months in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. With that as the plan, we were off!
But, plans change.
In the ensuing weeks and months, we learned a few things. While Jamie and I are willing to put ourselves through some crazy stuff, we have limits when it comes to our boys. We now realize that although it’s possible to live on 1/3 of our previous US budget, it’s not preferable. We still like to eat good meat and sleep in quiet, “undank” rooms with a low chance of bug infestation. We’ve used many resources to aid us along, but there is no “Lonely Planet” type manuel of instructions that addresses our family-with-young-kids-on-a-prolonged-family-sabbatical demographic. We are writing our guidebook as we go. So yes, we have learned how to live with less, but we’ve also learned to appreciate who we are and what we want!
Usually, what we want when we are thousands of miles away from home with our young boys costs more money than we budgeted, sometimes by a lot. In fact, on top of our newly defined culinary and lodging sensibilities, we have also determined that more than eight hours on a bus with our boys is a recipe for disaster; one of us is likely to crack, or at least throw up. Alas, the alternative of flying from country to country also turns out to be much more expensive than we’d read! The result of these lessons and other now better understood realities is that it is time to change our plans again.
We will be leaving Ecuador in a few weeks, which is about a month sooner than we’d thought, and heading to the Caribbean coast of Colombia for a few weeks. From there, we hope to make it down to Peru for some more time in the Andes and then onto Argentina for some trains, good steak and wine just as their spring arrives. It seems then that Bolivia, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay have been placed back into the some day maybe category again. After all this, roughly 6 months from now, we plan to be back in Crested Butte gearing up for a great and very snowy winter.
But, plans change.
And that’s okay with us. The point was never the plan, the point was, and remains, to follow this dream and grow closer to each other while we do. Which, as it turns out, makes for one really good plan; one that hasn’t changed.
A love that only grew into being because our eldest child LOVES trains. In fact, it is possible that the conversation [announcement] about picking up and moving to South America for a year may have involved some assurances [bribes] in the form of promised train rides. Now that we’ve finally kept good on that…um…promise, Bo and I are both wondering what took us so long. It was incredible. Stunning scenery, beautiful people, music, dancing, warm breezes and a heart-stoppingly pure smile on Vaughn’s face that followed him into his sleep.
We went to buy our tickets at an unusually beautiful depot in Ibarra just before 8am because we believed the train to be leaving at 8:30. Our info on that was wrong, which of course never happens to us here, and the train didn’t leave until 10:45*; and the tickets to the standard train were sold out already so we ended up buying seats on the “Truck-Train” instead. As far as I can tell that is just a single train car with a truck facade and it fortunately still met with Vaughn’s approval, thankfully then helping us to bring one of Luke’s big interests into the day as well!
We walked across the street to the several city blocks conglomeration of ramshackle tin-roofed booths that make up the Ibarra mercado in search of breakfast and distraction. Wow. That sensory experience alone could have been enough aventura for one day, but 10:30 found us back at the depot watching Vaughn bounce on his toes with excitement as the train backed into our track and began loading. The ride itself lasted about 2 hours and ended in the small rural town of Salinas which is a climate and culture so far removed from the Ecuador we know here in Cotacachi we felt we had to have traveled much farther than that amount of time could have allowed. That place is probably the poorest we have seen here in Ecuador, but the town is SPOTLESS and it’s people have a smile and dignity that we were so drawn to and humbled by. Salinas means “Salt Land” and it’s occupants are Afro-Ecuadorians that have been salt and sugar-cane farmers for generations. We were greeted with performances of their traditional music and dance, taken on a tour of a salt-mine, given a demonstration of just how one gets table salt from dirt, shown to the town’s only restaurant for almuerzo, and then loaded back on to the train for a sunset ride home.
This is a post that really needs more pictures than words, so here ya go!
*For our Ecuadorian friends wanting to take this trip: Buy your tickets a day or two ahead of time if you want the standard train ride, either in person or you can try online here, the cost for either train is the same, $15.00 for adults and $7.50 for kids.
“Do you like go a Baños con mi family this night?”
“Si, si! But necesito to check with Jamie before I do no bueno!”
“Honey, is it okay if I go?”
“Claro! Have the best time!”
With this quick Spanglish exchange between our landlord’s son, Giovanni, me and Jamie, I was headed to Baños, Ecuador the next morning at 2 am with 43 indigenous Cotacacheños on a private bus!
While I was clearly the much whiter, taller, stepchild of this group, they were wonderfully kind, welcoming and fun. It was an adventure filled with double takes, new and mostly delicious food and monkeys! Speaking of monkeys, below is my 1 minute documentary I made using iMovie to shine a light on the tough life these monkeys lead:
Here’s a sample of the some of the sights (wish I could add the smells too!):
When I talk with friends and family back home, the most common question is: “So…what is it you do with your time?” The short answer is that we spend most days working with injured jungle monkeys, writing poetry in the native Quechua language and breathing in the mist of waterfalls. On good days we do all three at the same time.
Yea, right. The truth is the things of normal daily existence seem to take up a lot of our time. Just cooking, cleaning up, getting the boys to and from school, doing extra school lessons with the boys, grocery shopping, running errands, finding ways for the boys to burn energy and relaxing a bit can take up whole days. Some of these daily to-dos are made more challenging simply because they are done in a foreign language and culture. For example, the idea of one-stop-shopping is so far-fetched as to be laughable. Just today I tried to buy superglue to repair one of Luke’s toys. The quest for one simple items involved numerous half understood conversations, visiting four different stores and walking two or three miles all around town. When I reached the much discussed store, it was closed for some unknown reason.
Entertaining and educating the boys, it seems me, also takes more time than it did back home (I say it “seems to me” because I might just be realizing now how much work it took Jamie the past six years!). There is the extra time for the English and math lessons which we anticipated, but man do I miss sending them to the family room to play with their numerous toys or to the yard to run in the grass and dig in the dirt. Here in our apartment the “family room” and “back yard” are the same thing, which is the space right next to our desk. It’s where I hooked up my Rip 60 exercise equipment so I could get…well ripped!. Although I have only used it maybe four times in nearly two months, the boys spin and swing on it for hours on end. Thank God for Rip 60. Here’s a short video of Luke building his core strength!
Even with these new challenges we do have more free time than we used to. A lot more. I’m not working and that frees up countless hours. The boys are in school five mornings a week. Also, we have a wonderful lady named Elena who comes to help around the house three mornings a week. We pay her twice the going rate, but I’m still amazed at how much we get for so little. This extra time allows Jamie and me to split the family responsibilities and chores pretty equally. We have settled into a nice routine where we have a date on Tuesday mornings, family adventures on Saturdays and where we take turns with the boys in the afternoon allowing focused attention on them from each parent and large chucks of open time for the other person.
With the extra time I am doing more yoga and trying to learn to meditate, but not trying too hard or that defeats the purpose…I think. I’ve taken up running, which is much less fun and more painful than biking. I read more than I used to and watch less TV. The extent of our TV comes from the pirated $1 DVDs of recent American movies and TV shows sold out of ubiquitous little stores (which also somehow have selections of cheap Oakley sunglasses and Converse All Star shoes?). We go for long meandering walks through the countryside and these walks may be my favorite thing about where we live.
We study Spanish a lot; or maybe more accurately, I study some and then watch Jamie study Spanish more. Last, I’ve also found a surprising number of ways to stay busy without actually doing much which boils down to either spending hours on sites like reddit.com or taking naps bookended by games like tetris on my iPad.
So how do I feel about how I’m spending my time? Pretty good actually. The main reason is that I get a lot more time with Luke, Vaughn and Jamie. We’ve spent the last 88 days together. At first, it was a bit much for me to be around the boys almost all of the time, but after maybe week three or four it started to feel normal and a never-before-seen casual comfort set in. Daddy being around was no longer just for evenings and weekends. Much of our time here is spent doing unspectacular things like riding a bus or eating a meal but what a blessing to be able to enjoy and just be in these moments with my family. Back home I was often too busy or preoccupied to simply enjoy just hanging out with my boys.
And that touches on the second reason why I’m okay with how our time is going: namely, it is a great chance to practice taking each moment as it comes. After settling into this sabbatical thing, I’m now a bit less focused than I was back home on making sure every moment is productive and aimed at some big goal. Paradoxically, when it is time for me to focus on something or respond to a surprise, I often have more energy to do it. When it is time to just chill out and have a beer at lunch I do that with a bit less guilt. Put differently, it seems I have slightly more patience with reality, whatever it happens to be, because I’m not trying to impose my will it with the same intensity.
Don’t get my wrong; I’m no zen master here (I don’t think they drink rum) and life is not a continual flow of pure bliss. This place often overwhelms me to the point that I just feel like hiding. I still want and even need a routine, to-do lists and goals to stay on track, but it is fun to see some changes showing up in how we spend our time and how we see the world. It makes me feel okay about putting my wife, children and self through all of this.
We are blessed to be able to have this unique time away to get closer to each other and practice living in the moment. Often I wonder what it will be like when we return to normal life. Then after wondering a bit, worry sneaks in as I contemplate the stress of moving back, jump-starting our careers and rebuilding our lives. But then I remind myself that those are challenges for another day, they are months and even years away, so for now I just need to figure out where to get some superglue.