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We Are Flying Solo

September 20, 2010

Day 2.2: I'm Riiiiiiiding In The Rain

Each day we ride, Gaspar and Tostado lead the way.  Then myself, mum, and Anna fall in line behind.  Bringing up the rear is Christian, a chagra (Andean cowboy), riding a bright dun Criollo/Columbian Paso cross who gaits along smoothly.  This afternoon, we are only doing a short loop of a couple of hours so everyone can get to know their horses.  After lining up five horses to cross the PanAm Highway (holy logging trucks, batman!), I follow Tostado as we climb up cobblestone streets into a village, heading for the slopes of Imbabura.

We picnic in a eucalypt grove around 3,000 meters high after picking our way through the fields and huts of the village. The horses catch a nap as we toss our chicken bones to the hungry dogs who miraculously turn up at the unpacking of saddle bags.

Here, Gaspar and Christian are readying a scrumptious lunch while we have just discovered the tasty treat that is salty banana chips. In the US, our banana chips are tough and sweet; these are much more resemblant (is that a word?) of potato chips!  After lunch though, a sudden freezing cold rain blows in and we discover a new miracle in the saddlebags -- giant ponchos!  Little Capuli would rather turn his tail to the wind and wait out the storm, but we must get down off the mountain before the mud becomes too slick for the horses.  Luckily, it's a short journey back to Hacienda Pinsaqui and warm drinks!

After a hot shower, I wander out behind the main building to explore the acres of garden paths.  It comes with its own baby llamas!!!

Just say awwwww! The gardens themselves were lovely, full of unique blooms. Ecuador, with its equatorial climate, is big business for commercial flower companies. Huge greenhouses are everywhere because apparently, flowers will bloom all year 'round here, which then can be shipped all over the world. Here's a funky datura, who has a hallucinogenic aroma (I tested it, but I was apparently immune. Maybe I should have stood there longer.).

There were lots of other lovely things to look at in the fading light.

As the clouds crept up the volcano Cotacachi, the light disappeared and it was time to make my way to the evening reception. There was a bar hidden in a cellar, bedecked with horse show ribbons (the hacienda's owner was a successful breeder of Arabians and jumping horses). We chased the chill away with a welcome drink made of sugar cane and cinnamon steeped for a day, then topped off with sugar cane liquor. That was followed by a shot of anise liquor that made my entire body tingle all the way to my fingertips. So it must be good.

Then, a group of musicians entertained us with the traditional music of the Andean highlands. It had a unique, wild, and joyful flavour to it, even though I didn't understand what the songs were about (damn my pathetic Spanish). Note the young boy who is deeply intent on shaking that rhythm egg JUST RIGHT.

By this point, I was liquor-warm and dog-tired. After a beautiful pork fritata, I managed to slither under my (400) blankets (old houses are freezing!) with my new bestest friend: Mr. Hot Water Bottle who awaited me faithfully with his foot-warming goodness. Tomorrow: we would cross Imbabura to the Zuleta valley!

September 19, 2010

Day 2.1: Hacienda Pinsaqui. And Horses!

Otavalo market was a lesson in variety.  I saw one wizened woman crouched in a doorway, proferring a live guinea pig (they are a staple meat there, called cuy) by the neck.  The unfortunate brown creature hung from her fist with dull eyes, resigned to its fate.  Around a corner was this poster (left).  Yes, it is an announcement for an international conference on the commercial production of guinea pigs.  I was most amused by the long list of "Dr.'s" listed as speakers -- I would love to say I had a doctorate in guinea pig farming.  Alas, I never did get to see a guinea pig ranch -- perhaps their cutting horses are tabby cats!

The landscape had changed dramatically since leaving Quito. In the environs of the city, concrete houses were crammed into every available space. Now, the landscape had begun to open around Otavalo, nestled next to a lake and the volcanic presence of Imbabura.


Looking toward Imbabura and the town of Otavalo:

Up to now, human development has oft resembled a war zone, no patch of land untouched by hard-scrabble subsistence living. Half-finished, crude buildings of cinderblocks with untrimmed rebar protruding six feet into the air haunt the landscape. Cattle are tethered by their horns to metal stakes hammered into the ground to forage on stubble and ribby dogs slink around corners.

So it's a blow to pull off the PanAmerican Highway into green lawns, hydrangeas, and an exquisitely maintained 18th century hacienda (ranch). It sprawls long and low, seemingly going on forever. I am spun back and forth between guilt and wonder. Heavy oak doors are painted a deep, rich blue and our room key looks like it unlocks someone's dungeon cell.

And it's finally time to meet the horses! I am about to burst from excitement as we change and then hustle down the path to the designated paddock. They are already awaiting us and watch curiously as we are briefed on the rules.

I am introduced to Capuli, a dark bay youngster (only 5 years old) with a gentle face and small fuzzy ears. He is mostly Criollo, which is the native breed of tough little horses who work at South America's extremes, and he has a little Spanish horse thrown in somewhere. He is also best friends with Tostado, who our guide Gaspar will be riding, which means that I must bend to the will of the horses and stay up front.  It's hard to take a picture of a horse when you are standing uphill, so here's the little guy with some crazy camera distortion!

Mum was matched up with a sturdy little roan named Antares (yes, after my favourite star!).  He was an excellent horse, always taking care of his person with patient experience.  Doesn't she look excited (apparently dorky grins of glee do not run in the family)!?

And Anna, the lovely Finnish girl who made up the third member of our group, started out with Gitano, who completed the colour spectrum with his white coat (although we later learned he loved to turn himself brown with cowpies and mud).  And yes, she thwarted the Helmet Nazi and wore a hat!!  The Finns are brave and hardy souls...  Doesn't Gitano look excited too!?

At last, it was time to RIDE!!!

September 17, 2010

Day 2: The Faces of Otavalo

The Otavalo market is the largest in South America and it's where we ended up after about two hours of driving north of Quito on Saturday. A large part of the market is just the same mass produced stuff repeated about 400 times for silly tourists, but along the outer edge you see the food stalls that the locals frequent. Most interesting to me was watching people, as per usual.

In Ecuador, you generally have two ethnicities: (1) the indigenous people and (2) mestizos, who are of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent. Most indigenous folks maintain the traditional dress of their culture. I will let their faces speak for themselves.

These women are tiny -- they came up to about my hip bone.  Some older women were begging for coins with plastic bowls.  Many people in Ecuador are subsistence farmers, scratching a living out of the land as best they can.  As in many places where poverty abounds, women do much of the hard labour here, carrying massive bundles in a piece of cloth tied around their torsos.

Tables were covered in every kind of fruit and vegetable you could imagine.  And many I couldn't.  Here, our guide, Gaspar, haggles for a bag of large beans.

Chicken anyone?  Another interesting phenomenon was the sale of pork -- pigs were roasted whole and then presented in varying poses, often with celery or carrots stuck in their ears and mouths.  Sometimes, they even shared a macabre smile.

September 14, 2010

I Must Interject...

Because today, I am very happy and very very sad.

Very happy because the saddle fitter worked on Solo's saddles for two hours yesterday and they feel better.  We also jump schooled tonight and I actually remembered to use David's tips from our last jumping lesson and Solo jumped very well. 

Very very sad because yesterday, our BO's lovely young Thoroughbred, Ben, colicked and went into the clinic in a lot of pain. Early yesterday evening, he was put down. I had a feeling he wouldn't be coming back when I saw him yesterday; I stopped next to my truck, turned around, and walked up the hill to rub his face and give him a pat before he left. Now I'm glad I did. We will miss his charming face and curious inquiries into every barn activity. At only 4.5 years old, he was bursting with potential and enthusiasm and had an excellent mind for work and life.

Go out and hug all your ponies -- I am constantly reminded that each day with our special partners is a wonderful gift and not a single one of those days is a guarantee. Cherish every minute and take the time to just enjoy their friendship. Even the toughest athletes among them are such fragile creatures when the ugly colic monster rears its head. All we can do is try to stuff ourselves so full of their love that it will carry us through...

September 13, 2010

Day 1: Arrival!

*cue dramatic opening music*

We left Miami about half past four on Friday the 3rd and hopped across the gulf and the isthmus of Panama to curl south into Quito.

Long river deltas reach silt fingers into the Gulf beyond Miami and clouds hover over salty marsh systems. Before we got to Panama, though, the sun set in a blaze of fire over the wing and I didn't get to spy on that skinny little country from above.

Quito welcomed us around 7:30 pm (Ecuador is on Central US time); a long string of lights nestled between two strings of mountains. First impressions: I am a pale giant. And the first thing I see as I step of the plane is a person wearing a pair of pale blue crocs. It appears tastelessness and a penchant for ugly shoes is a global phenomenon.

Gloria meets us after we pass through customs and fills us in on life in Quito, the capital city which is her home. Traffic is typical of Latin America; signs are merely for decorative purposes and horns are used more often than brake pedals. "Passing lane" means any lane into which your vehicle will fit, whether or not you can actually see oncoming trucks. There are trams and buses at $0.25 a fare, but not enough to carry the bulging population with no room to expand within the narrow valley.

Gloria tells us that there are no jobs here in Ecuador and many have chosen to go to Spain to work. Children stayed behind, living with relatives or even on their own as parents struggled to make a living an ocean away. However, the European markets have fallen as well, especially in construction, and now there is no work there either. The government of Ecuador has offered incentives for workers to return home, allowing them to bring any goods they have acquired, including vehicles, and many are cashing in on this offer.

Our van finally (and somehow safely!) arrives at Cafe Cultura, our hotel nestled in a garden in Old Town, a section of Quito that dates back to the 16th century. As the gates are unlocked and we walk in, I stagger back with mouth open. I am sure I heard the porter giggle as I breathe, "Holy crap," unable to contain myself.  Everything is beautiful.  It is all frescoes and creaking wood floors and balconies and a Taj Majal room with gauzy curtains and a claw-foot tub and candlelight.  We eat dinner in a candlelit hush, feeling like we are in a church, afraid to breathe too loudly and break the spell.

The white doors lead to the library, where lilies set in front of a fireplace. The candlelit angel fresco flew above the fireplace in the dining room.

Our room:

Tomorrow:  we transfer to Otavalo and the adventure truly begins!!