Friday, April 30, 2010

The Valdivians

My day was devoted to La Casa Alabada. I lingered this time, reading every bit of information, listening to the audioguide, and spending an hour on a computer learning about each pre-columbian culture, their origins, economy and artistic styles. It took all day, but I was entertained every moment, and spent more time with each piece of art.

The Valdivians were not the first culture in Ecuador, but were known to be the first civilization to settle and develop an agriculture based economy. They were the first South American group to use ceramics. The archeologists who discovered the Valdivians suggested that they may have had a relationship or had contact with people living in Japan during the same period, because some of their pottery is similar, but that is not the current belief. The Valdivian society was complex and well organized and their stonework and ceramic figures are unique in Ecuador.

They worshipped women, young, old, mothers and pregnant women. Each small ceramic female figure has a characteristic hairstyle and dress, but they are faceless and most likely ritual fertility objects. Hundreds and hundreds of these small figures were found along the Ecuadorian coastal lowlands where the Valdivians lived.

I find their stonework even more interesting, quite abstract and very beautiful. There are all sorts of meanings suggested as explanations for the lines and shapes and proportions, but I believe there are all sorts of interpretations possible, and perhaps it was simply their view of aesthetics that motivated the Valdivian artists.

I spent just as much time with each major pre-columbian culture as I did with the Valdivians, and managed to spend a good five hours in the museum. I spent a long time in a dark room with a computer, learning about each cultural group, so that someone came looking for me. I am not sure if they thought I had been hurt or perhaps that I had stolen something, but I was relieved that they were watching; there were so few visitors during the time I was there, so I was alone most of the time, free to take my time and appreciate every part of the collection.

I look forward to visiting the coast and exploring the Valdivian archeological sites. That will be added to my list of what must be done before we leave!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Casa Alabada

On my first day back in Quito, I could not wait to return to the Centro Historico. I dragged Eric away from his computer and did not have an agenda, but found myself walking up the hill to the Plaza San Fransisco and to the Casa Alabado. It was finally open (I have tried to enter several times now), although it still appeared to be unprepared for many visitors. My impression is that they are still working out glitches and getting organized. The building is beautiful, an old renovated colonial home built in 1671 (an 'alabado' or prayer is inscribed on the lintel of the front door), with a stunning collection of pre-columbian figures, each one exquisite examples of Valdivian, Machalilla, Chorrera, Bahia, Jama-Coaque, La Tolita, Guangala, Panzaleo, Napo, ManteƱa-Guancavilca sculpture and ceramics. It is remarkable that works from each culture are unique and clearly differentiated from those of another culture, and that I am usually able to identify the origin of each work of art ( I have spent many hours in museums and I teach a class each year in January about the art and history of pre-columbian Ecuadorians).

This is a private collection. I wonder how these pieces were found and put together and where they were kept before the museum was conceived. I have visited every collection of pre-columbian art in the city, and this one is remarkable. Eric and I did not have much time to linger (we had stopped for coffee and for lunch along the way and had to be back by 3:45 to meet Maya'a bus), so we whizzed through, appreciating the technological aids (touch screen computers with information in several rooms with special sound units designed to project just in the area around the touch screen pad) and amazed by the art. I am determined to return tomorrow for another visit; I plan to take my time and use the audioguide and look more carefully and closely at the pieces.

It was a wonderful reintroduction to Ecuador.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Traveling Home

BWI Waiting Area #1

I like the 'journey' part of travel, whether by air, train or sea. Once through security at the airport (which is never fun, but then I do not expect to enjoy it), I find a place to sit and pull out my laptop or kindle (I like technology, but am not very adept with technological matter), or wander through the shops and invariably find a magazine to read. I was at the airport far too early today, but that made the process at the Delta kisoks and baggage line and security relaxing and of course because I was there with lots of time to spare, everything went very quickly (it is always slow when I am late!).

There were many seats available in the waiting areas, and I found a quiet place to read until my plane was ready to board. At the airport in Quito, Wifi is free and I think that makes alot of sense. It is not free at BWI or Atlanta, so I managed without internet for most of the day, except when I used my skype account to ask Eric to pick me up; I did not want to risk the trip home with two huge bags (full of clothes for children, which I will bring to CENIT) and three computers in my backpack (we bought computers for Gustavo and Mateo, the son of a friend of mine).

I had chosen the exit row, so had lots of space, and listened to the man in front of me 'sell' his iPad to the person sitting across the aisle from him. He was clearly very enthusiastic, but I did not need his commentary to be convinced (it is on my list of absolute must-haves when I am working again and have money in the bank!). Atlanta airport was a breeze, and I had more than enough time to wander to my gate and find a smoothie to drink and another magazine to read and wait a little more. I saw a man sitting near me get an upgrade to first class, and I wondered whether I could make that happen, but it was a passing thought and I did not bother to check, since I knew my exit row seat was good enough, and I had not paid for my ticket anyway (or maybe I did pay in a roundabout way, since I used all my frequent flyer miles). The plane was not full and I had my little space to myself. I am still as excited as a child when I see the private little television screens in the seats; I watched almost three whole movies during the five hour flight, and would have watched more had there been more time. It was easy to ignore the turbulence almost all the way through the flight. I did not talk to anyone, it was as if I was in my little bubble, quite oblivious to the world around me.

I was nervous at Immigration, concerned about my status and three computers in my backpack, but again, both Immigration and Customs were a breeze, and I was relieved to see both Eric and Maya waiting for me at the exit. Maya appeared to have grown a bit in the week that I was gone, and I realized how much I had missed her and how good it felt to be home again. Home is where your family is, so Quito is home, and I am home.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Food Issues

Baltimore is Full of Flowers

As a child, my travel memories were often tied up with the food experiences we had, and of course, food memories still identify places I have visited and stayed in. I have been enjoying my favourite foods in Baltimore this past week. The 'Ambassador' has the best Indian food in town, and a lovely outside terrace location. I have never tried Indian food in Ecuador, in fact I have not ever tried to look for Indian food; I am far more interested in eating local Ecuadorian fare, so other than 'shwarma', which is very popular in our neighbourhood around Republica del Salvador, and one or two sushi dinners (there is a restaurant called 'Sushi' and another named 'Noe', both excellent!) I have not been particularly adventuresome. There is one Ecuadorian restaurant that I know of in Baltimore, and we have had several student dinners there (months after the intersession course we run), but the food is not quite right, and unfortunately often inedible.

I do miss a good hamburger in Quito, so hamburgers are a must in Baltimore, and Julien and I had juicy thick mouthwatering cheeseburgers ( with blue cheese) at Miss Shirley's (my daughter Tara's favourite diner, so we never miss it when she is in town) one day. The best hamburger joint in Quito is supposed to be 'Hamburgers Rusty' on Shyris,; we found 'Rusty' taking orders when we visited last week, but the hamburgers were not to my taste. Eric and I tried multitiered burgers at a place in the Mariscal, where layers can be pork, beef, chicken and other, and hamburgers come in one, two, four, or more layers; I had also heard an Eucadorian rave about them, but they were not quite right either. I do believe that hamburgers are a meal uniquely American, and it makes no sense to order it anywhere else.

Crabcakes (uniquely Baltimorean) were on the menu at 7West, a new bistro near my office, where I met with my office partner Sharon. I am not sure I would even try crabcakes in Quito, although there are many good shrimp dishes (my favourite is ceviche) and seafood restaurants. 7West serves hearty tapas dishes, but the best tapas place in Baltimore is Teatro Tapas next to the Charles Theatre, where I have many memories of jugs of sangria and tasty dishes and where Emily and I celebrated my last night in Baltimore. I rarely drink wine in Ecuador; because of the import tax, wine is horribly overpriced. I took advantage of wonderful wine in Baltimore, reasonably priced and always a good addition to a meal. Wine is not part of the Ecuadorian tradition; they love their beer and chicha in places (it is offered with a meal of cuy, or guinea pig), and their freshly squeezed juices are to die for, but wine is not a customary addition to a meal. I do not believe any grapes are grown for wine in Ecuador, which seems surprising, because I am sure the topography and the weather could work for wine in places, but I may be wrong.

I am addicted to coffee, and although Ecuador grows great coffee, again there is no true coffee tradition and if coffee is offered it is either powdered Nescafe (which is not really coffee) or slowly dripped coffee that tastes a little overcooked or over roasted. There are a few food coffee shops in Quito, but none are close to my home or along the routes I ordinarily take, so I drink what is available, but always miss a glorious cup of espresso. Of course, I enjoyed coffee at Starbucks at locations along every route I took in Baltimore. I was amazed how many baristas remembered me and my particular drink! I walked the 20 minutes to the Starbucks on St Pauls every morning, but entered every familiar coffee shop I walked by to stock up on caffeine before returning to Quito. I drank alot of tea at Emily's house, and plan to continue that habit in Quito (where tea is inexpensive) , at least for the next few months.

I wondered what foods I ought to buy to bring back to Quito, and the only thing I absolutely cannot find at Megamaxi is real Maple Syrup, so Emily gave me a bottle, which I wrapped in many layers of Ziplock bags, and I hope it will survive the trip without running all over my clothes. Eric asked for baking soda, which I am told is in the cleaning section of Megamaxi or Supermaxi and not in the baking section, but I have never seen it, and always use baking powder instead, without destroying the recipe.

In truth, almost every kind of food is available in Quito, so I did not feel compelled to buy any special foods in Baltimore. If Ben and Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch Ice cream could survive the trip, it would surely be in my suitcase tomorrow. I look forward to all the wonderful fruits and vegetables to choose from when I return to Quito, and I want to be more adventuresome in my cooking and try all the dishes I have not tasted....and I have only a few weeks to try them all. I am in the habit of cooking at home in Quito, partly because I enjoy cooking anyway, but I also believed that cooking myself would prevent negative food experiences, but perhaps I ought to widen my horizons and try new things.

Returning to Quito in relative good health (I have restrictions but they are not excessive) gives me new opportunities to explore more, see more, experience more; I am very excited to be flying back tomorrow!

View Next Door!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Dog Visit

The best part of today was my visit to see Elmer, who appears happy and energetic and very very plump. I loved watching his tail madly wagging and his unending wish for acknowledgment and attention. I have missed having a dog in my life.

The most uncomfortable part of my day made me want to run back to Quito and hide. Our renters have bought a new home and want to break their lease and not pay their rent. Appealing to their sense of decency and honesty does not appear to be working. I spoke to friends and colleagues and real estate agents and the advice is consistent, which is that I must contact a lawyer and pursue this legally, which feels adversarial and threatening. I avoided calling the three names on my list of lawyers until later in the day when none were available, which forces me to take care of this during my last day before I return to Ecuador.

I realize that part of what makes my stay in Ecuador so appealing is that I have been living in an alternate universe. I have not been faced with the daily challenges of work and business and contracts. My focus has been on the beauty and culture and adventure of the country (not oblivious to the significant problems) and perhaps not working and not having money has made my life simpler and calmer. A visit to Baltimore forces me to face the dishonesty of our renters and my former secretary and of course Goldman Sachs and the entire financial industry!

And so I want to return to Quito and keep living my simple life. It has taken time, but I feel that I have figured out how to live there. When I first arrived, I felt threatened and insecure; somehow with time and experience, especially with learning the language, I feel more confident and less of a stranger. I will appreciate these last few weeks in my adopted country.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mist and Rain

I found myself absolutely delighted with today. I stayed up late (I am confused about the time so I read until 3 in the morning, a guilty pleasure which would not be possible with my usual 6 AM alarm to get Maya ready for school) and woke up late. It had been raining through the night, which reminded me of the jungle, where so often my night time lullaby is the rain. Of course, here in Baltimore, it was cold and gray, and not a bit of sunshine shone through.

Emily and I went grocery shopping at Whole Foods, which was usually too expensive for me when I lived in Baltimore, but the produce is gorgeous, and I spent my time looking for fruits from Ecuador. I found Mexican mangos, but little else that looked remotely Ecuadorian. Whole Foods is a welcoming sort of place to shop, nothing like Megamaxi or the local fruit stand in Quito, but better than any other choices in Baltimore. I wonder what foods I will miss when I leave Ecuador. Definitely popcorn, which tastes better in Ecuador than anywhere else.

I walked to the Starbucks near Johns Hopkins University again for coffee (can't get enough good coffee!) and a glorious visit to Barnes and Noble. I miss English books in Quito. Although there are English sections in Libri Mundi and a few English bookstores, choice is always limited. I have a irresistible attraction to crisp new books. I found titles on the shelves that looked interesting and put them on my kindle, and met with Sandi and Sarah to catch up and discuss school choices for Maya. There is a Montessori charter school that several of Maya's friends go to, but it has a 600 person waiting list. Sandi is a schoolteacher and knows many of the teachers at Maya's former school and reassured me about grade 5 instruction. In Quito, Maya has been in grade 5 this year, but would return to grade 5 in Baltimore. Grade 5 in Quito is grade 4 here, so the transfer should not be too confusing. Sarah made suggestions for books to buy Maya, which now fill half of my suitcase and may be too heavy to carry without paying duty. In Quito, Maya reads the same books over and over again and I feel I must relieve her and bring her new material. The ten books or so that I have bought will be inhaled in a week!

I like walking through the fog and mist. I wandered again to Peabody to pick up information for Maya and check on any performances for the afternoon, and then walked up Charles Street back to Johns Hopkins and Emily's house. I think I walked ten miles in the rain and the mist and as it was getting dark, Emily and Nathan got worried and drove the car to look for me. It feels good to walk, and I like not driving around. I would never have thought of walking these long distances when I lived here before, but having walked all over in Quito, it is a new experience to see Baltimore from this perspective. The city is very walkable, although there are some parts that feel a little unsafe, it was Sunday today and when I saw crowds of people, they were coming out of church. I never realized how many churches there are in Baltimore. They are on every corner walking down St Paul's and up Charles Street. I had never paid much attention before, but not that I am on my feet, I see so much more.

I came home just in time. The moment I stepped in the house, the heavens opened up and thunder and lightning and buckets of water fell out of the sky.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Not Ready to Leave

Nymph Near Peabody

Having a few days to acclimatize to Baltimore is a good thing. I want the transition back to our former home to be as smooth as possible. I am most worried about Maya, who is finally adjusting to her school in Quito and finding her place there. Her language skills are improving and she is more and more comfortable. It does not feel right at all to leave just as she is feeling at home in her school and her environment. When I returned to her old school in Baltimore, I realized that it was not right for her at all; it was never a good fit for her anyway, and now that I have experienced a very different method of teaching which suits her so much better, it makes it more difficult to return.

Other than the school issue, moving back to Baltimore does not feel overwhelming. My office has been well taken care of and when I start working again in August, I will have familiar patients, helpful colleagues, and a good system in place which I will not have too much trouble adjusting to. There are welcoming friends and acquaintances and places, so that I feel that we belong here, that it is our home. I had a wonderful day visiting with friends and returned to Peabody where I began organizing Maya's music and dance classes for the summer. Once again it felt so good to feel welcome and part of a place. I felt so lucky when I wandered into a concert hall to listen to an amazing soprano student recital.

Yet, I do not want to leave Quito, where I have started to feel at home. I am not done there yet, I need more time. I feel entirely unready to leave, wanting to hang on, stay longer, find some sort of excuse or project or reason to sign on for another year or more. Eric too has often said he has finally started on his work in earnest, and leaving in two months is simply too soon. We have no choice in the matter, too many obligations, expectations, plans in place. But if we could stay......

Mount Vernon Square