Sunday, December 07, 2014

Trading Turkey for Guinea Pig: Thanksgiving in Ecuador

Since our dear friend Marty is not in St. Thomas this Thanksgiving, we decided to take a year off from our annual Thanksgiving trip to St. Thomas. We traded turkey at the beach for guinea pig in the mountains and visited our compadres in Morochos, Ecuador instead.

The whole family met us at the airport with roses
Steph and Sisa on the ride back to Morochos
Craig and Tayanta on the ride back to Morochos
The whole family took the 2 hour ride from their village to the new Quito airport to pick us up on Thanksgiving afternoon. They always dress the kids in traditional clothes when they go into the city, so it was adorable to see 6-year-old Sisa, 4-year-old Yupanqui, and 2 1/2-year-old Tayanta dressed in their traditional outfits, waiting for us with 2 bouquets of roses. The kids' mom Aida was there, as well as her dad Antonio and his wife Rosa.
Antonio and Yupanqui provide music while Sisa and Tayanta dance
We drove back to the house, where we immediately noticed the new addition: a 4-month-old baby cow. We were greeted by Max, their friendly old dog, as well as Chipi. the new kitten. We got settled into the adorable casita that they built for us (with a bedroom and a bathroom with a hot water heater - heavenly on chilly mountain mornings) and then joined the family in the main house. Antonio, who works professionally in a traditional Andean band called Chaski √Ďan, got out his violin and played a tune while Yupanqui accompanied him on the recorder.  Sisa and Tayanta joined hands and danced. Antonio then gave Yupanqui and Sisa a chance to try the violin.

Before we knew it, dinner was ready. The family knew that today was a holiday in the United States, so they prepared something very special: cuy (guinea pig). This is a traditional Andean food which is eaten on special occasions. We had eaten it at Sisa and Yupanqui's baptisms, and during the village's 76th anniversary celebration this past May. This was a guinea pig that they had raised and prepared themselves, and we were very honored that they prepared something so special in our honor.

Craig plays with Tayanta and Yupanqui while Rosa crotchets hats
Sisa with Chipi the kitten

Yupanqui, Sisa, and Steph
This was the first time in which our visit did not coincide with a special occasion within the family or the community. It was a peaceful, relaxing few days in a very beautiful location. Most of the days were sunny, and the sun was warm. It was cool when the sun was behind a cloud or when it got dark for the evening. We enjoyed seeing how much the kids had grown. Sisa, at only 6 years old, is the eldest child. She helps the adults with chores and sets a good example for her younger siblings. She enjoys school and is doing well.

Yupanqui is now 4, and he is a little chatterbox. He is an active and sweet little boy. He has a good attention span for doing activities. He does not especially like preschool, but he is learning in spite of himself.

Perhaps the greatest transformation we saw after 6 months away was in the youngest, 2 1/2 year old Tayanta. She prefers to be called "Mi Nena" ("My Baby", a nickname coined by Yupanqui when she was just an infant). She was completely blind from birth to 6 months, at which time she had her first surgery which restored her sight. Since then she has had a second surgery, and has a pair of thick glasses which, as a two year old, she seldom tolerates. But despite still being nearsighted, she obviously sees well enough to get around. She is at the age when babies sometimes have stranger anxiety. But not so with her. She literally welcomed us with open arms, giving hugs and kisses and sitting on our laps as often as our godchildren Sisa and Yupanqui. She talks often and sings happily. What a little miracle she is!

Rosa prepares to dispatch the rooster
We had purchased some baby chicks for the family back in May. They have since grown into 5 chickens and two roosters. Rosa dispatched of the two roosters during our stay. It is difficult to see an animal killed, but as meat-eaters we feel that it is our moral responsibilty to come to terms with it. We must acknowledge that an animal gives its life for our sustenance, and we are very grateful. The roosters provided some deliciously fresh chicken soup, as well as legs, thighs, breasts, and feet (which Tayanta especially enjoyed). Nothing was wasted, as entrails were fed to the kitten.

The view behind the homestead
Tayanta, Steph, Sisa, and Yupanqui walking to church
Tayanta and Aida walking to chirch
Antonio's mother, known as Abuelita, though she is actually the great-grandmother of the little ones, was always around, tending to the cows during the day, and cooking over her fire in the fireshed in the evenings. She only speaks Kichwa, so we are unable to communicate beyond smiles and waves, but she is always cheerful and makes us feel very welcome.

Abuelita tending the fire
Antonio practices the sax
Vaquita, the 4-month-old baby cow
Yupanqui and Sisa
Steph and Tayanta selfie
One adorable anecdote about Tayanta: We were eating breakfast and Tayanta sneezed. I said, "Salud". the Spanish equivalent of "Bless you," literally "Health." This is the same expression used for "Cheers." Tayanta heard me say this and immediately held her glass of juice up in the air, and repeated "Salud!"
Craig plays with Sisa and Yupanqui
Knowing that Craig has Multiple Sclerosis, the family used traditional natural medicine to try to improve his condition. They applied a natural balm to his left knee and massaged it. They said that the knee felt "cold". Then for three nights in a row, they wrapped his left knee with aliso leaves while he slept, with instructions to wash it in hot water in the morning. Then the discarded leaves were to be burned in the fire. On the final night, they put boiling water into a plastic tub which contained leaves. They had Craig sit with his feet above the water on a little stool. They then wrapped his legs in a  blanket and he sat there in his mini-sauna for 6 minutes. They then removed the blanket, stirred up the leaves, replaced the blanket , and had him sit there for a few more minutes before bathing his knee in the water. That night, they wrapped his knee with different leaves.  His knee felt great by the end of the trip! They also provided him with medicinal tea when they noticed that his right hand was a little bit unstable. They are always looking out for us!

When Yupaqui was having stomach troubles, they prepared a medicinal tea for him and Antonio gently rubbed a smooth volcanic stone over his stomach to take away the bad energy.

Saying goodbye to Rosa, Sisa, Abuelita, and Yupanqui
On the day that we left, Tayanta had an appointment with an eye doctor in Quito for a check-up, and to schedule her third and final surgery within the next few months. Because of this, Aida, Tayanta, and Antonio rode with us in the van. Sisa ran home from school at 10 o'clock to say goodbye to us. It was difficult to say goodbye to Rosa, Sisa, Yupanqui, and Abuelita at the house. Sisa and Yupanqui were a bit standoffish as they were upset that we were leaving.

Saying goodbye to Tayanta, Aida, and Antonio at the airport
We really enjoyed getting to spend quality time with the family, playing with the kids, soaking up the beautiful pastoral mountain scenery, eating the delicious food that Rosa and Aida prepared, and sleeping soundly in our comfortable little casita. It was an excellent Thanksgiving, and we give thanks for our extended "family" in Morochos!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

China 2014

We had an awesome trip to China in October!

Since Blogger sites are not available in China, and we want our new Chinese friends to be able to see our photos and journal entries, I am not going to spend a whole lot of time writing this trip up on the blog. I will focus on getting the web site updated, since it can be accessed in China.

So here are some of the photos and descriptions that we have posted on Facebook, and be on the lookout for updates to our main site soon!

Back from an amazing trip to China with Myths and Mountains, Inc. We had an unheard of 4 straight days of blue skies and sun in Beijing! The people were absolutely wonderful, the sights were fascinating, the food was delicious, and we loved our city guide Alice!

Temple of Heaven
Tienanmen Square, decorated with a giant flower basket to celebrate National Day

Beiguanfang Hutong, Beijing
An historical neighborhood featuring narrow alleyways and traditional houses with shared courtyard space
Approaching the Forbidden City
Forbidden City

Enjoying the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. We took a ski lift up to the Wall, hiked from tower 4 to 24 and back, and then took a toboggan (alpine slide) back down.
Summer Palace
Cool graffiti art at funky, industrial art enclave 798 in Beijing, The whole place felt rather subversive, and wasn't what we expected to find in China. Really fun pop art installations and interesting gallery space in decommissioned factories.
Sunset through the Bird's Nest (Beijing National Stadium)
Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing, where we sampled deep fried starfish and scorpions,
The scorpions were a yummy fried treat
The starfish not so much. Like Samantha Brown said in one of her China travel shows when she tried this, I felt like a demented fairy godmother.
Sunrise over the Shijia Hutong in Beijing, taken from our hotel room at the charming and lovely Red Wall Garden.
Saying goodbye to our awesome friend and city guide Alice before flying south to Guizhou.
Leg two of our China trip brought us to the southern province of Guizhou. We flew from Beijing to Guiyang., where we met our phenomenal guide Wang Jun and our friendly driver Mr. Zhou. We spent two nights at the lovely Hotel Sheraton Guiyang.

Jiaxiu Tower was originally built during the Ming Dynasty in 1598. No intellectuals from Guizhou had ever ranked first in the scholarly examinations which took place in China. The tower was built as a place for the intellectuals to get together and study. After its construction, Guizhou produced two number one scholars.

In front of the huge Mao Tse Tung statue in the People's Park in Guiyang. It's one of the few Mao statues left standing in China.

Stage shaped like lusheng flutes in he public square in Guiyang (across the street from the Mao statue)

Qingyan Ancient Village is a walled city originally built in 1378. At one point it was a garrison where 300,000 troops were stationed to squash a minority rebellion. Now it has been restored for tourism, and contains many interesting shops and restaurants. The architecture was quite beautiful, and we enjoyed exploring, shopping, and eating lunch.

Shrine at Qingyan Ancient Village

Wang Jun was able to arrange a visit to a local family's home, so that we could learn more about how modern Chinese people live in Guiyang. Seven and a half year old Sara and her mother and grandparents were lovely hosts, and were quite hospitable to us. Sara even played the piano for us! We are very grateful to them for opening up their home and family to us. We really enjoyed meeting them
Our next stop in China was Kaili, also in the southern province of Guizhou. This is an area where many ethnic minority tribes live. There are 56 ethnicities in China. The Han Chinese make up 93% of the population, and the other 55 ethnicities make up the remaining 7%. A lot of the tribes in this area specialize in various very detailed embroidery techniques.

Our driver Mr. Zhou and our guide Wang Jun eating lunch in Kaili 

Burial mound and traditional house in Shiqing Village, where the Small Horn Miao practice silk felt (applique) embroidery.

The square next to our hotel in Kaili. There are lots of activities set up for children here, They can drive around in little motorized cars and bikes, play in sandboxes and bouncy houses, and ride small amusement rides. And at night lots of people get together to do group exercises and ballroom dancing. We spent a lot of time here and everyone was very friendly and curious about us, as this province doesn't get many American visitors.

Miao couple in Weng Xiang Village who demonstrated their amazingly intricate folded embroidery techniques. The lady showed us the festival clothes she had made for herself, which was made of 800,000 folded silk triangles! They also showed us the yellow silk cocoons that they use to make the silk.

Folded embroidery, Weng Xiang Village

Kaili Sunday Market

Hiking to Matang village

A Geija woman demonstrates wax-resist batik. She melts a mixture of paraffin and bees wax, and then uses a tool made of copper and bamboo to draw intricate freehand designs on cloth. She will then dip the cloth into indigo dye. When it is done, she will melt off the wax, and the fabric under where the wax had been will show through as white. She gave me a lesson and let me try, and it was very difficult!
Langde Village was the first minority village to open to western tourism in 1980. They maintain their traditional building style, with houses made of fir trees. The village was founded in the 14th century. The oldest house standing today is 200 years old. This village was one of 2 places in Guizhou to host the Olympic torch relay in 2008

Yang Da Lu's residence in Langde Village. He was a leader in the Miao rebellion (the uprising at the Incense Pot mountain) and is revered by the people of the village.
Here we are at Xu's Embroidery Boutique, where Mrs. Yong (center), an embroidery expert, gave us a fabulous lecture and demonstration of many of the local embroidery techniques. We enjoyed looking at her collection.

Mrs. Yong's prized 200 year old jacket made with the thread splitting embroidery technique. One strand of silk thread is split into 13 separate strands! It was incredible!

On the bridge at Zhenyuan Ancient Town

Zhenyuan Ancient Town, a 1600 year old ancient village surrounded by a river. This is now a popular holiday destination for Chinese tourists. It is gorgeous

Zhenyuan Ancient Town now houses lots of interesting shops and restaurants

Everything is lit very beautifully at night at Zhenyuan Ancient Town. It cycles through various colors, and the reflections in the river are amazing
Zhenyuan Ancient Town: this is a 600 year old temple complex built into the mountainside caves. It is very unique because there are three religions represented in one complex: Budddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

China Part 4:  We drove for approximately 4 hours to get from Kaili to Libo, where there is a UNESCO World Heritage site called Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot. It is a beautiful area where you can hike on nice paths to view rivers, gorges, waterfalls, karst mountain peaks, 19th century bridges, and wildlife. It is an area populated by the Yao ethnicity.

Craig at the Da Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot
Turquoise-colored river and small waterfalls at the Da Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot

Steph at the Da Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot

Craig and some inebriated newfound friends that we met while eating dinner in Libo. They were all extremely friendly and took dozens of photos with us on their smartphones. The gentlemen on the far right and second from the left were staying at the same hotel as us. and joined us for breakfast the following morning.

Traditional dancing at the Yao village

Granaries in the Yao village, elevated to keep the grain away from rats
Xiao Qi Kong ("Small Seven-hole Bridge") at World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot.

Marshes in the Xiao Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot

Craig at Crouching Dragon Pond, in the Xiao Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot
Craig and Wang Jun on the shuttle bus at the Xiao Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot
Kids in the park across from the Sanli Hotel in Libo. A movie was being played on a huge TV screen, people were doing group exercises to music, and there was a bouncy house and sandbox for the kids. These kids were so excited to have their photo taken that a security guard even came over to see what all of the ruckus was about. D'oh!!!

China Part 5 w/ Myths and Mountains, Inc.

This portion of the trip focused on the Dong ethnicity. Up until 400 years ago, the Dong were miscategorized as a subgroup of the Miao. Since then, they have been identified as their own unique culture. The Dong are known for their weaving.They dye cloth in indigo for coloring, then stiffen it using either pigs' blood or steamed buffalo skin and buffalo blood. They then use egg whites to make it shiny.The result is a tough black material which feels a little bit like an animal hide.
Their architecture is well-known for their roofed bridges (called "wind and rain" bridges there, or what we would know as a "covered bridge" in New England) and drum towers. Drum towers traditionally housed a drum at their apex to warn of invasion or announce important news. The drum tower was a meeting place. There was a fire inside and 4 fir tree trunk columns in the middle to represent the seasons and 12 on the perimeter to represent the months, Men would meet here to socialize and play chess, and courtships would happen here as well.

The Dong also perform extraordinary polyphonic singing along with traditional dances.

Zhaoxing Dong Village
Tang An Dong Village
Ma'an Dong Village

Drum tower and wind and rain bridge in Zhaoxing Dong Village

This is the largest Dong village in China - 1000 households and around 6000 inhabitants.

There are 5 drum towers and wind and rain bridges in the old section of town. These structures are around 200 years old. In the old days, each belonged to a different clan.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

The traditional architecture of Zhaoxing Dong Village — in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

A man with his horse in Zhaoxing Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Polyphonic singing at the Dong cultural show at Zhaoxing Dong Village. Singers frim this village won an international singing contest in Paris!
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

With one of the performers from the Dong cultural show at Zhaoxing Dong Village
Entrance to Zhaoxing Dong Village lit up at night

Drum Tower, Tang An Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Tang An Dong Village, which had beautiful views of rice terraces.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Little girl helps her mother and grandfather in the fields in Tang An Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge outside of Ma'an Dong Village

The largest wind and rain bridge in China. It is over 64 meters long, and was built in 1916 spanning the Linxi River.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Dong Cultural Show in Ma'an Dong Village
Men and women in traditional dress play lusheng flutes.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Village men constructing a new drum tower out of fir in Ma'an Dong Village. A mixture of age-old and modern techniques. Having come from families with an interest in woodworking, we found this fascinating to watch.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Drum tower in Ma'an Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Locals teach Craig to play a lusheng flute in the in Ma'an Dong Village drum tower — in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

China Part 6 w/ Myths and Mountains, Inc.

Our guide Wang Jun told us that this would be our most difficult day yet. We would need to hike halfway up a mountain to get to our hotel, and then continue up to the summit for a view of the famous Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

We were a bit nervous, as he said it was steep, and the weather was warm. Craig had been doing great so far on this trip in spite of his MS, and we wanted to it to stay that way.
Wang Jun also warned us that there was a high probability that we might not see anything. The valleys get fogged in and the last 2 times he brought clients in, they hiked to the top and were unable to see anything through the fog.

But our luck held out once again! We were pleasantly surprised by the trail. We were expecting to have to slog up steep rice terraces similar to what we had done in Vietnam. But there were actually stone stairs that went the entire way up to the summit. It was steep at times, and the sun was warm, but there was shade from various hotels, shops, and restaurants which lined the paths.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at the hotel. That wasn't so bad! We checked into the lovely Starwish Hotel, got settled, and then walked the remainder of the way up to the summit.
The weather was beautiful, sunny, and clear, so we had a perfect view down to the 400-year-old rice terraces. We spent some time up there enjoying the view and eating ice cream. We met a family of Chinese tourists (mother, father, daughter, and grandmother).

At the summit admiring the 400-year-old rice terraces — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

Rice terraces viewed from the summit — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

Rice terraces viewed from the summit — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.
As we were hiking back down to the hotel. the mother and grandmother were renting some Miao traditional clothing and having their photos taken in front of the beautiful backdrop of the rice terraces, They called to me to join them, which I did. A woman dressed me in a metal headdress and traditional long skirt and blouse. The photographer positioned me in different poses, and I felt like a model. It was a lot of fun. Craig took some photos, but I also bought a few photos that the photographer had taken. They printed them out for me and laminated them.

Striking a pose wearing traditional Miao clothing in front of the rice terraces — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

Being photographed in traditional Miao clothing with my new friends — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

The next morning we hiked up to the summit one final time. It was another clear day and we were able to enjoy the gorgeous view once again. After that, we spent our final afternoon and evening in Guizhou at the Hot Spring Hotel. The hotel had a beautifully landscaped area outside with stone pools of varying temperatures. It was incredibly relaxing. We spent some time enjoying the hot springs in the afternoon. Craig was very careful not to overheat, so as not to aggravate his MS at the very end of the trip. We didn't go into the hottest pools, and he made sure to get out every so often when he was getting too warm.

Craig enjoying the hot spring at the Hot Spring Hotel
— at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.
Then we had a farewell dinner with Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou at the hotel restaurant. Wang Jun had brought a bottle of GRETA WALL [sic] cabernet. Soon the entire lazy susan on the table was filled with food - enough for a banquet. Wang was feeling relieved that he had succeeded in his self-imposed challenge to never repeat a dish in our time with him, and had gone all out. It was bittersweet to have our time with them come to an end. We had all had so much fun together, and we vowed to return!

Farewell banquet with Mr. Zhao and Wang Jun — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

After dinner, Craig and I took a final dip in the hot springs before a short night of sleep (we had to get up at 5 a.m. the next morning for our flight to Beijing).

China 2014: Final Installment w/ Myths and Mountains, Inc.

We said goodbye to our most excellent guide Wang Jun and safe, reliable, and friendly driver Mr. Zhao at the Guilin airport. We had grown very close with them in the past couple of weeks, and it was bittersweet to say goodbye.

Saying goodbye to Wang Jun at the Guilin Airport — at Guilin Airport.

Saying goodbye to Mr. Zhao at the Guilin Airport — at Guilin Airport.
Before boarding our flight to Beijing, we met professional basketball player Hassan Adams in the airport. Extremely friendly and humble guy.

Professional basketball player Hassan Adams was in Guilin for a tournament. He used to play for the NBA and now plays in Venezuela. He was one of the only other Americans we saw at Guilin airport, and we had a nice chat. Since several Chinese people had wanted pictures with me because I was so much taller than they were, I told Hassan that I wanted a photo with him to prove that I met someone taller than me in China. When Craig got our picture together, many Chinese passengers rushed over to snap photos of us with their cell phones as well. — at Guilin Airport.

It would be our final night in China, and a city guide would be meeting us at the airport and taking us to dinner. As we exited the airport, facing right into a bright wall of windows, we could see a silhouette waving furiously. It was Alice! She hadn't been our scheduled guide, but when that guide wasn't able to make it, Alice happily substituted for her. It was so nice to see her and to be able to tell her about our adventures in the south.

We went back to the Red Wall Garden Hotel, checked in, and then headed out to our farewell dinner. The restaurant was usually 30 minutes from the hotel, but the rush hour traffic meant that it took us almost 2 hours to get there. But when we arrived, it was well worth the wait!
The Bai Family Restaurant is amazing! The staff are dressed in Qing Dynasty clothing and their goal is to make you feel like an emperor / empress during your meal. We had many attendants waiting on us, and we ate in a fancy private compartment on their beautiful, lantern-lit grounds. The dinner was fantastic:

We are greeted as we arrive at the Bai Family Restaurant — in Beijing, China.
We had incredibly tender veal morsels served with scallions, a very flavorful donkey stew (our first time eating donkey), bean greens, which Alice said she grew up with on her family's farm in Inner Mongolia, taro with blueberry sauce, imperial cakes, egg fried rice, kung pao chicken, and white fungi soup with dates.

Dinner at the Bai Family Restaurant, where servers dress in Qing Dynasty garb and treat you like royalty! — in Beijing, China.
After enjoying a lovely meal with Alice, we walked around the grounds taking some photos, and then drove back to the hotel.

Alice and Craig with the staff of the Bai Family Restaurant — in Beijing, China.
A woman with a red paper lantern escorts guests onto the Bai Family Restaurant's gorgeous property — in Beijing, China.
Bai Family Restaurant gardens — in Beijing, China.
The next morning, a guide named Karen brought us to the airport. Our non-stop flight on Hainan Airlines' 787 Dreamliner left Beijing at 2:15 p.m. and arrived in Boston at 2:45 p.m. the same day. On my watch, only half an hour had elapsed, but we had flown for 12.5 hours! Good old International Date Line! That will mess with your brain!

Crossing the International Date Line! We arrived in Boston 30 minutes after we left China, although the flight was 12.5 hours long.
— at International Date Line.

It was a fantastic trip, and we are so grateful to Myths and Mountains and all of their colleagues in China for making it possible! The whole trip was so easy, smooth, and convenient, we plan to return to China very soon to see Wang Jun again and to hit some of the other tourist highlights that we didn't get to see this time (pandas, terra cotta warriors, Yangtze River cruise). Affordable non-stop flights make it very convenient!