Our six-week road trip across the United States ended on February 28,2016 at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. David, Katherine and I had criss-crossed the country, visiting family and friends from the California coast to Florida. We packed and repacked eight jumbo suitcases and three carry-ons, paid the hefty excess baggage fee and boarded Jet Blue for Quito, Ecuador. We disembarked at 11 pm to a fairly empty airport.We made our way through customs, hassle-free. Amid a crowd of eager drivers, we found our two assigned taxi drivers who took us to the Airport Suites where we spent two nights adjusting to the altitude and our new life.
Not-so-bright and early the second morning, Patricio our driver arrived to transport us across the country to our new home, Cuenca. (The not-so-bright refers to the time, not our driver!) We saw little of the volcanoes we passed through the Avenue of the Volcanes as fog and rain obliterated most of the high peaks.
But what we did see was beautiful.
Deep greens, crystal clear streams and beautiful skies. Dairy cattle grazing precariously on high Andean slopes. Families tending crops squeezed onto steeply-pitched fields. Colorful hats and skirts popping against a crazy-quilt landscape. Pint-sized brown-skinned children walking alone, close to the highway, heading for school without a care in the world.
We pulled up in front of our new home at 5:00 pm (our new landlord said he’d wait no later than 5:30) and unloaded the truck. Carrying even one small bag up 13 steps had me winded. The altitude would take some adjusting for me. David and Katherine moved with apparent ease.
From that first day at our Air B&B rental next to the Tomebamba River,we have moved twice in this year. Not unusual for expats who settle here. Someone said to expect to move 3-4 times before you find the place that totally suits you. We’re lucky. I think we’ve found our casa after numero dos.
Learning to live without a car was difficult for me. I missed jumping behind the wheel and taking off for who knows where. Katherine missed that too. I also longed for greasy Mexican food (my Atlanta friends know what I mean) and Crunchy Peanut Butter. David missed–nothing. He felt immediately at home and settled in without a moment of remorse. His two female companions–not so much.
Tears and despair have been frequent guests in our home here in Ecuador. Despite feeling we made the right move, I’ve questioned our decision because of Katherine’s unhappiness. But we were right. Over the months, she has found her place, made some friends, created a space for herself and now calls Ecuador home. She likes it…she really, really likes it. She’s shot up and thinned down. She’s developed into a young woman full of fun and ideas. She knows more spanish than she lets on. She has begun impersonating her old parents with amazing accuracy. Have I told you how much I love this daughter of ours?
We were planning to visit the US this summer but those plans have been postponed. Maybe next spring. Or summer. Time will tell. It feels too soon to return to the old home.
So what do I love about this place that has won our hearts?
Not in any order of importance, I love…
- no constant bombardment of advertising and marketing of things to buy
- family-oriented culture
- constant spring-like weather–cool in the morning, sunny during the day, cool again in the evening
- stress-free zone. i do not have to face the traffic (it’s horrible) nor do i have to make a commute. i have no work that must be done. some days it is fun to do nothing.
- history around every corner
- rivers running through the city, count them…four
- rubbing shoulders with indigenous men and women who keep their native dress and customs in the 21st century and fit right in
- the woman who started cleaning our house and who has become a dear friend that makes me laugh
- gringo-frequented establishments that satisfy an occasional need for familiar foods and conversation
- a culture of creativity and a cast of characters who make each and every day more interesting
- hummingbirds of all sizes
- gorgeous flowers that bloom in our front yard–no thanks to me
- a day view from our bedroom window on a cloudy morning.
today is ending up the long weekend of Carnaval (not sure of the correct spelling as I’ve seen it so many ways). unlike Rio or New Orleans, Cuenca celebrates not with parades but with spray foam, water balloons and string foam. i haven’t gone out much. but Katherine has had a ball! the city has been “at battle” for days. many people having the time of their lives. quite a few expats complaining about the unrest. such is life. a good dose of a water gun and spray foam from a stranger isn’t such a bad way to celebrate.
all is well for the Thornton-Vander Plaats in Cuenca, Ecuador. it’s been a good year. looking forward to many more. and remember friends and blog readers…our door is always open–except when string foam is being sprayed.
Seven days on the coast of Ecuador had us relaxed, well-fed and ready to return to our home in Cuenca. Our week-long holiday in the pueblo de Ayampe was delightful, despite
the fact that I fell down a flight of rough wooden stairs, slamming my back onto the edge of the concrete landing. OUCH! A bruise, roughly the size of Rhode Island, and a bruised tail bone doth make for difficult sitting and walking. Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt more.
Our stay at La Nirvana allowed us to meet some very interesting people. The family in the rooms next to us said goodbye to their kith and kin in Moscow 18 months ago. Alex, Dena and four-year old Krishna began their trip when Dena was 32 weeks pregnant. She gave birth to Rama in Malta where they remained for four months. Then they visited the United States (Arkansas and Texas), on to Mexico and now Ecuador. Next stops, Peru, Argentina and Chile. In a year or so they will end up in India where they plan to live permanently. Alex is an avid student of Sanskrit and is working on translating ancient texts. I marvel at Dena’s stamina –to give birth on the road and keep on traveling.
Two new guests arrived a couple of nights prior to our leaving, a 20-something couple from the Netherlands. On our last night David and I went to the Italian restaurant next door (Katherine was exhausted from swimming all day) and listened to three local musicians while we dined on delicious pasta with fresh camarones from the sea. Dessert? I believe the best cheesecake I’ve had in my life.
We, along with 25 or so folks hailing from Germany, Argentina, North America, Ecuador (of course) and a number of other countries enjoyed a concert of classic rock and blues. The bass guitarist is an orthopedist in the US who said, “Enough!” and moved his wife and two sons to Ayampe a few months ago. Jerry, the lead singer, is a 62-year old expat who has lived all over the world. Think Eric Clapton with salt and pepper pony tail dressed in faded jeans and baseball cap. The third member of the group arrived 45 minutes after the concert began. It’s something he’s known for. This young Ecuadorian architect-turned-full time surfer doesn’t live by the clock. Apologies were made, jokes cracked, he graced the room with a smile and the concert resumed with a fuller, richer sound.
Ocean breezes made their way through the bamboo-constructed, open-air restaurant. Great food, excellent music, lovely weather and a very relaxed, congenial crowd. An evening doesn’t get any better than that. It seems everyone can get along when politics aren’t involved.
David and I felt a strong pull to this remote village and the supremely tranquil life the residents enjoy. Even Katherine had said earlier in the day, “I want to live here.” We wondered.
Jerry sat and talked with us between sets. David and he were old pals–having visited for an hour or so that afternoon. David had gone to inspect the house that trash built. Jerry was just finishing up his home constructed of bottles and other materials he had picked up along 53 miles of highway. Glass bottles filled with sand formed the walls of his home. Thatched roof and airy bamboo upstairs made the eco-friendly house fit right into the landscape. Unique, creative, environmentally friendly and spacious. And the ground floor would soon be for rent. Very appealing, we thought… until he told us he’s killed a few deadly vipers around his home. His bottle house overlooks the beach but also backs up to the jungle. Our interest faded.
Ayampe sits just off the Route of the Sun, or Ruta del Sol, with the Pacific Ocean on the west and rain-forested mountains on the east. The fishing village rests in the middle of a micro-climate where the rainforest comes down to the ocean. (Thus, Jerry who lives just outside the village proper is frequented by various types of snakes and occasional puma.)
The climate found here is unique to the southern Ecuador beach coast. It no doubt contributes to making Ayampe home to some of the best surfing in Ecuador.
And there is a lot of surfing. The deeply tanned bodies, sun-bleached hair, bare feet and surf boards are everywhere.
Our hosts, a young couple from southeastern US, moved to Ayampe specifically for the waves. The woman’s love for cooking and her husband’s passion for surfing has resulted in Nirvana, a welcoming place for travelers. A small hotel just getting its feet wet offers barebone facilities for wave-addicted travelers. Soon Christine will soon be offering southern food three hours a day (11-1 only) just a few feet off the beach.
A number of establishments have set their hours to accommodate peak surfing hours. Priorities are, it seems, catching waves first, earning a living second.
We left early on a drizzly Sunday morning, fully relaxed and eager to see our home again in the city. We arrived just before dark to the ubiquitous car alarms going off, diesel-belching buses, an occasional street dog barking and cheers from the crowd at the weekly volleyball games a few doors from our home. Ah, the noise of Cuenca. We missed you.
Cuenca offers people more than enough opportunities to stay as busy as they like. I am beginning to think I’m too busy. I take Spanish three days a week, am in two writing groups and a contemplative spirituality group. Plus I have a standing appointment every Tuesday. Enough, I say! Enough!
But it is all good.
Katherine has stayed quite busy this summer with inline skating classes every morning along with two different Spanish classes, which occupies a significant part of her Mondays thru Fridays. She collapses on the weekend–says she needs her alone time. We hardly see her Saturday and Sunday. And the great news is, we hardly hear complaints about how miserable she is. I believe she’s found her groove in Ecuador. It also helps that she’s also found a new friend, Jessie. For the time being, all is well at Ricardo Darquea Granda 2-104.
School starts the first week of September and she will be entering 7th grade. She skipped a grade here but will also be going through grade 13. We haven’t told her that yet.
David stays busy hoofing it all over the sprawling city. He returns from his long treks and marks the city map with yellow highlighter. The web of yellow grows by the day. I believe he is seeing more of the city than many native Cuencanos have. Our taxi-driver friend, Miquel, says David ‘s knowledge of our city is pretty impressive.
My morning Spanish class ended last week and, to wrap it up, we took a day trip to a small mountain village, Gonzol, about 3.5 hours north of here. David and Katherine accompanied me, Katherine being the only child among 40 retirees. She was a trooper.
This agricultural community works hard to raise corn, barley, wheat and other crops on the steep slopes of the Andes. They work cooperatively, helping each other plant and bring in the crops. Farmers come together for a minga when crops are ready to be harvested. Once the work is completed, a feast is held to celebrate. People depend on each much more in communities like this. The village coop has even purchased two trucks to carry crops for all its members to market.
As a way of supplementing their income (the average earnings per family in Gonzol is $500 a year), the residents are hoping to create business ventures to benefit the entire town. The first idea in the works is to provide tourists with an opportunity to see Inca ruins, experience life in a small village and enjoy the grandeur of the Andes.
Our class was the “test” run for the villagers. We were greeted with big smiles and a hot traditional fermented drink as we got off the bus. ( I opted for café.) After a brief introduction, four men accompanied us in small groups on the hike up the mountains to the ruins.
Our entourage quickly grew in number as a few children joined in the parade. Then two of three older boys riding horses passed us ear-to-ear grins. A nursing mother with infant appeared. And a wizened cowboy dressed in tiger-trimmed leather jacket regaled us with stories. In español, of course.
We visited the site of very recently discovered Inca ruins. Well, many did. I didn’t quite make. Another woman and I opted to rest on the trail and talk with Katherine about the Kardashians, conspiracy theories and the Illuminati. We met the group on their way down and headed back to town for lunch.
After our almuerzo of chicken soup, queso,maize and habas (fava beans), we were introduced to various activities of the villagers. Three elderly women, wrinkled and bent with gnarled fingers and dusty black bowlers demonstrated crushing barley with stones and spinning wool by hand.
I left this tiny, struggling community with a deep appreciation for the hard work and determination of the Cañari people, along with their warmth and kindness. We all left
being called “sisters and brothers” and “family” by our hosts. What an amazing experience.
A remarkable day. One filled with breathtaking vistas, gentle people, warm smiles, gentle breezes and a warm sun.
I commented to my new friend Anna (whom Katherine really likes) as we were hiking along, high in the Andes on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, “This is my life. This is not a vacation. I am walking towards new Inca ruins with friends from all over the world and this is my life.”
Amazing. Simply amazing.
At this moment in time, I am not particularly fond of children.
I’ve dealt with this sentiment before, but not to this level of severity. In fact, prior to us welcoming Katherine into our lives, I was known as someone who did not tolerate children especially well.
A good friend, Johanna, said she thought seriously of organizing an intervention when David and I announced we were adopting.
No doubt Jesus would have had sat me down and had a good talk with me, too, as I’ve never much suffered children to come unto me.
But that was BK (before Katherine). She burst into our life holding her head up high right from the day she was born. This energetic, creative, dramatic, beautiful child breathes so much life into a room and into my life.
A dear friend Julie calls her an old soul. Godmother Paula delights in her antics. And me, I often marvel at the utterly delightful creation of Katherine Marida (petita) (tenacious) Thornton-Vander Plaats.
She’s as headstrong as can be. She far surpasses the level of stubbornness possessed by both her father and me and that says a lot. She’s funny. Insightful. Quick. She possesses a tremendous concern about fairness. Her heart is big, her laugh is delightful.
I cherish my daughter and I am finding it very hard to like the children who are not kind to her.
I want them to go away.
I want to meet them in a dark alley and scare the bejeezus out of them.
And I want to take my daughter away from the hurt and hardship they inflict on her at school.
I was lucky. I never felt bullied. I had friends all through school…friends I could depend on. On occasion I felt betrayed by girls I cared about. I remember losing a few friendships in high school and being confused. Why did they no longer want to be with me? What was wrong? I felt a loss and a sense of betrayal. But no cruel words were every spoken to me nor did anyone every hit me and ostracize me.
That is happening to my daughter now and I want to scream. I want to scratch. I want to pick up the little monsters and fling them into a dark abyss. I want to yell at mothers and fathers who somehow teach their children that it’s ok to call children names, act superior, bully, push and punch other children because they can.
So you could say it’s been a rough morning in our household.
I woke to Katherine saying (again) she didn’t want to school. Third day this week. It’s day five. She blurted out the whole series of events from yesterday. A boy who was her friend has now hit her, bit her, jabbed her with a pen, threw water on her hair (it’s just been straightened so this is a big deal, trust me) and twisted her arm. Two other girls made fun of her for not understanding Spanish. Katherine had spoken a Spanish word or two and one of the girls said, “Oh, look, she can learn.”
As a full figured woman in a small figure world, I know what it feels like to have comments made about you and to you. But I’m an adult. I can let it roll off me and decide whether to let it hurt or not. Not so easy for an 11-year old in a new culture, new country, new home, with a new language. Her desire to have friends and fit in is pretty intense. And she feels excluded. Ostracized. And put upon.
My mother bear blossomed this morning. David called a taxi and Katherine and I headed off for school, Katherine feeling somewhat stronger to have a mama bear growling on her behalf. We arrived and were able to meet with the school psychologist immediately. School hadn’t yet begun.
Katherine sat quietly while I talked. The counselor was gracious. And surprised. The boy in question is one of the best behaved in the school. The girls….ah, the girls. Sixth grade brings out the worst in girls, she said. Not right. Not acceptable. They will be talked to immediately. The boy will too. Then Katherine will be called back in. Then I will meet with the psychologist for a more indepth meeting. I felt she listened. I felt she understood Katherine’s pain. I feel something positive will be done about it.
And I feel fairly certain I won’t have to box some mothers’ and fathers’ ears. Literally and figuratively.
How do parents do it? How do you maneuver around this minefield of raising children without having your heart broken and your anger burning when cruel, unkind, unnecessary things happen to the one you’d give your life for?
I thought it would be different here. I felt in a family-oriented, slower-paced, less materialistic world that children would be kinder.
Katherine is not perfect. I know that. But her imperfections don’t fall in the area of hurting others. Intentionally. Cruelly.
How did Jesus Christ and other great peace-makers walk this earth and turn the other cheek? They didn’t have kids, that’s how. No, I don’t mean that. But Christ, and for that matter, Buddha, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth and all the other gentle yet powerful leaders in history —how did they walk with strength and power and also gentleness?
All I want to do is howl. Scratch. Defend. Protect. Soften the blows and kiss the wounds. I don’t want my daughter out in the world. I don’t want her dealing with these things that I have no “control” over (ha! there is no control!).
There are no pretty photos in this blog today folks. I feel nothing pretty. I want to be strong for Katherine and show her safety and comfort and a place to be herself –surrounded with love and acceptance.
Dear friends, new friends, family and mothers and fathers. Please share your advice. I want to charge into that school yard on a white horse and slay the pre-teen dragons.
But what of charity? What of forgiveness? What of tolerance?
And how do I best prepare my wonderful daughter for the harsh realities of life without her losing her very big,.kind heart?
i’ve made a life for myself with words. from the first poem i penned in second grade about puppies to selling some of the world’s most comfortable shoes. through all those years i had teachers, editors, account people, clients even clients’ wives telling me how to make my copy better. and on occasion they were right.
but now, i am the arbiter of what goes down word-wise on this site. so…no capital letters. plenty of dashes, ellipses and commas used wherever and whenever i choose. grammar rules be gone.
expect to read more of the adventures of the Thornton-Vander Plaats as we move to South America and discover a new heaven on earth. go with us as we say so long to the Big Dipper and hola! to the Southern Cross. you’ll learn more about the joys of scaling back and living with less, the challenges of learning a new language after 60, the exhaustion of keeping up with a high-energy 11-year old and ultimately finding out more about the meaning of life in the Andes.
glad you’re here. share our adventure.