Monday, March 27, 2006


The Panama Hat Factory

Panama hats do not come from Panama. All Panama hats are made in Ecuador. They are individually hand-woven from a fiber called toquilla. Toquilla fiber hats have been made in Ecuador for centuries. The Incas made hats from toquilla. They became known as "Panama Hats" when the workers building the Panama Canal wore these hats as protection against the sun. Teddy Roosevelt popularized the Panama Hat in the United States when he was photographed wearing one as he inspected the construction of the Panama canal.

Down a narrow alley way, off a busy street in Cuenca, we found one of several hat factories. We were cordially greeted and taken on a tour of the small factory where our guide showed us the steps in producing a fine Panama hat.

He showed us samples of the toquilla fiber and how some hats are very finely woven of thin strips of the fiber and less expensive hats are woven from thicker fibers. A form is used to weave the crown around to ensure that it will be even and the correct size.

After the hat is woven into a generic form it is bleached to the typical white color and then pressed over a form to give it one of several distinctive shapes.

Notice the metal forms that the hats are shaped by.

This is the press that is used for shaping the hat.

Panama hats range in price from about $30 up to hundreds of dollars for a finely woven hat. The best hats can be rolled up and folded and packed in a suitcase with no damage to the fiber.

Friday, March 24, 2006


A Day in the campo

After the big new year's eve celebration everyone was moving slowly the next morning, but the plan was to load up the family and a lot of food and go spend the day at the Molina's house in the country. Cayo's brother, Pedro, has the only car, so most of us rode out in taxis. The house is less than an hour outside of Cuenca in a peaceful setting of hills, a stream, flowers and Eucalyptus trees.

Unlike the city houses, the country house has a big yard with grass and plenty of places to relax, both inside and on the porch.
The hammock proved to be a popular spot. Even the dogs managed a nap in the hammock with Eliana.

Lobo struck a meditative pose in the hammock.

Chela, of course, prepared a huge meal. Cayo fixed ceviche with shrimp—delicious! Everyone found a spot to doze or watch the kids play in the yard.

Pedro's little boy, also named Pedro, seemed to especially enjoy the sunshine and open space and delighted us by being as adorable as only a 2-year-old can be.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


A little history of the Ano Viejo burning

Cayo's brother, Pedro, told us that the Ecuadorean custom of burning Ano Viejo figures on New Years Eve originated many years ago with a malaria epidemic near the coast. Apparently, in an effort to contain the epidemic, the citizens in the affected areas were asked to burn their clothing and household linens. This coincided with the end of the year and the connection was quickly made, that the burning could represent an end to the ills of the old year and a clean beginning for the new. Over time the custom continued and evolved into the figures representing the old year.

I don't know if this story is true, but sounds plausible. (though I don't know that burning the clothing would have any effect on the spread of malaria) It does seem that this is a uniquely Ecuadorean custom. I love the idea and found it both fun and festive and, at some level, contemplative and quite cathartic.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Lobito y Maria Jose

Little Lobo, who you saw in an earlier post in the mask, is the source of a growing collection of cute stories. When we first met him three years ago, he was five. He, his mother Eliana, and his sister Maria Jose live with his grandparents - Cesar and Chela (Cayo's parents). We were visiting their house for the first time and Lobo was rather fascinated with us. He kept bringing us various objects to show. At dinner, he left and returned with a large watermelon, which he wanted us to have. Of course, we had to refuse so we wound up with some of his school artwork.

On new years day, Emily and I went with Eliana and Lobo to get his new Christmas bike. We took his old bike to a neighbor to give to their child, then on to the bike shop to retrieve his new one. On the way back, Lobo rode his bike. We stopped at a school yard, where he proceeded to show off for some other kids. Unfortunately, the bike got the best of him. His finger became entangled in the brake handle as the two separated and resulted in a trip to the emergency room to repair his finger. He spent the rest of the day and evening with a huge bandage on his finger. He was pretty brave. I don't think it was his first encounter with pain. The first photo shows him trying a circus act. The second one was taken just as he was falling.

The other Lobo theme throughout the New Years holiday was that he had a very loose tooth that was driving him (and everyone else) crazy. He couldn't leave it alone. Andy and Cayo kept wanting to tie a string between the tooth and a doorknob and shut the door. But Lobo didn't want any of that. Besides, if he actually lost the tooth, he would relinquish much of the attention he could get by wiggling and turning it. Finally, sometime on New Year's eve, his mom tired of the drama and grabbed Lobo by the head and yanked it out.

Here is a picture of the two of them following the crime. He is not really in anguish, just posing for the picture. He is sort of a drama king.

Lobo's sister, Maria Jose, is a sweet girl of about 14. She is very patient with her brother, despite his efforts to irritate her. She is an outstanding salsa dancer and she loves her dog. Her grandma, Chela, is teaching her to play chess. I played a few games with her. She is pretty good, but I found myself letting her win sometimes. I hope she doesn't read this.

I have enjoyed spending time with both of these kids. They are being raised by their extended family and they are the recipients of much love. On New Year's day, they tried to teach me a card game. MJ's english is pretty good and Lobo knows a few words. We had fun.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Ringing out the old year

After wandering around Cuenca to see the Ano Viejo displays, we ended up back at the Molina's for New Year's Eve. The family began to gather. At one point, Cayo's brother Pedro arrived with the family's Ano Viejo figure. Many of the figures we had seen around town were made by stuffing old clothes with sawdust, but the figure Pedro brought in was made of papier mache and was a dapper fellow dressed in suit and tie. His face was that of a singer who I was not familiar with. It was never really clear to me why he was the personality chosen, except that Emily said that his music was played a lot at the cafe Pedro owns and Ellie works at. Maybe they were tired of hearing him and were putting an end to it by burning his effigy. Maybe it was an acknowledgement of how much they liked the music. I wasn't sure, but he was definitely a smart-looking Ano Viejo and early in the evening I had a little dance with him.

Around 10:30 we gathered in the diningroom for a big dinner. You can see the tamales we had made earlier, set out as our appetizer course. They were followed by soup, roast pork, potatoes, avocados, salad, broccoli, corn and dessert of preserved figs and confections.

As midnight approached, Chela hustled everyone away from the table and out into the street with our figure.

As the new year approached, the figure was set on fire and everyone gathered around to watch it burn. We could see similar fires up and down the street and there was music and fireworks as well.

At the stroke of midnight Chela circulated with a bowl of grapes and urged everyone to quickly eat 12 grapes to ensure good luck in the new year. As the fire burned down, everyone took turns jumping over it, signifying leaving the old year behind and jumping into the new.

Little Lobo appeared dressed like the widow of the old year, another custom carried out by children, and went around begging for coins.

Once the fire burned out, we went back in the house for dancing. Emily and Cayo, on the left, love to dance together and are fun to watch. Even Andy, who had earlier declared he did not dance, was up dancing with Cayo's sister, Paola. The party was still in full swing an hour or so later, when we headed back to our hotel. The next morning the streets were littered with the burned remains of many, many Ano Viejos.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


The Masks

I wanted to add more regarding the Año Viejo Masks.

As Terry said, they are for sale on almost every street corner and they vary considerably in quality. I think most people buy a mask instead of making one. They are not very expensive and many are made to represent celebrities. You can buy an entire dummy with mask, but many folks just buy the mask separately and make their own body to put it on.

On the left is a typical display of masks for sale. And below is another example of how they are used on dummies.

Cayo's sister, Eliana, bought a mask for her son, Wolfgang. Now, there will be more posts later regarding this precocious lad, but I must tell you the story of his name. He was named after a German priest who is a friend of the family. His nickname is Lobo. Get it? Anyway everyone calls him Lobo or Lobito.

The first photo below is of Lobo in the mask. Behind him are his mother, Cayo, and Emily. The second picture is of Terry trying on the mask. I don't think this mask is a caricature of anyone in particular. I think it just appealed to Eliana and Lobo.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Old Year/ New Year in Cuenca

As Ray mentioned, the celebration of what we call "New Year's" seems to be more about the old year, or "ano viejo", in Ecuador. As we walked around Cuenca on New Year's Eve day we saw ano viejo displays going up all over town. These mostly depict events of the past year and people who were in the news in the past year, emphasis being on anything scandalous or controversial.

The yellow banners indicate that there was a competition being held for these large displays, but there were also many small displays on balconies and in doorways of businesses and homes. Most families buy or make an ano viejo figure, that represents the old year. These are displayed during the day and burned at midnight on New Year's Eve. We also saw ano viejo figures displayed on cars and taxis and many people in masks around town.

Probably the most common ano viejo figure this year represented Lucio Gutierrez, the former president of Ecuador who was ousted earlier in the year and fled the country in a helicopter. His rather large nose made for some wicked caricatures, like the fellow on the motorcycle in his Lucio mask.

Even the new Pope made an appearance.

This one shows Gutierrez in his helicopter and the grim reaper pointing to a boat labeled "Coyote Titanic" which refers to a tragic event last year when a group of Ecuadoreans, who were paying to be smuggled, illegally, to the United States drowned. The crew saw that the boat was sinking and made a hasty departure in the life boats, leaving all the passengers with no way to escape or stay afloat.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Paso del Ninos

In Ecuador, they don't celebrate the New Year as much as the demise of the old one. In fact, they talk about the holiday as Ano Viejo (old year). Saturday was New Years Eve.

Terry and I rose before Andy and decided to go across town to the Molina's house to see Emily and Cayo and Cayo's family. We started walking and when we got to Parque Calderon there were a bunch of people getting ready for a parade. We learned later that it is called Paso del Ninos, or the children's parade.

As you can see from these pictures, there were lots of children dressed in fancy costumes. The boys had painted mustaches and beards. There were also horses loaded down with complex collections of food and decorations. There was probably quite a lot of symbolism that escaped us. The people were very friendly and loved to have their pictures taken. We hung around for awhile but didn't stay for the actual parade. We found a taxi to take us to the Molina's house.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Posada del Angel, Cuenca

We have stayed at Posada del Angel in Cuenca several times and we like it very much. It is well-located in the center of Colonial Cuenca in a restored Colonial house.

Like so many of the Colonial buildings it is built around a central courtyard, now the lobby, and covered by a big skylight.

The sun pours in and bathes the interior in sunlight and warmth. Along the balconies are seating areas with comfy chairs and lots of reading materials. Breakfast is served in the sunny breakfast room.

You can step out onto your outside balcony and watch the traffic on the cobblestoned streets or the city coming to life first thing in the morning. Ray caught this fellow dozing on his balcony in the next building.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Visiting Nubia

When we first got to Cuenca, we went to visit Nubia, a friend of Emily's. When Emily first worked in Ecuador in 1999, she rented a room at the home of Nubia, her brother Pedro, and her mother Gerardina. They are the nicest people and they treated Emily with great kindness and support. Pedro is now married and lives in San Diego and his mother has retired and moved out of the city to a country home. Nubia and her family and Pedro attended Emily's wedding in Quito last May and we got to spend some time with them. Nubia was pregnant at that time, so we were excited about this visit to see the new baby.

Nubia, and her husband Diego, have a son who is about 2 years old, I think. He is extremely photogenic, as you can see in the picture with his Mom. His name is Pedro, after his uncle. A friend of the family, Erika, was visiting and we enjoyed talking with her about her work in the jungle. I remember her from when we visited their family in 1999.

Terry and Emily helped Nubia make lunch which was carrot soup. While they were cooking, Andy and I entertained Pedro and the baby. We had a fun time cooking, eating, and visiting. Cayo wasn't with us. He had to work and flew to Cuenca on a later flight than us. Diego came home for lunch so we got to see him also.

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