Chillin´ with Mama and Papa Ruiz

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Wednesday, February 16, 2005

After spending a night in Quito post-Carnaval, we left for Otavalo, located north of Quito. Otavalo is one of the most famous destinations in Ecuador - and all of South America really - due to its huge Saturday market. The indigenous communities in Otavalo and the surrounding villages are among the most prosperous in the world (so says our guidebook) due to their weavings. You see their sweaters, scarves, hats and wall hangings all over the world (Kalamazoo, too). Due to this success, you see an interesting mix of people who have maintained pretty traditional lifestyles, as well as young people in souped up cars and trendy clothes.

In addition to its general tourist appeal, we decided to go to Otavalo to take advantage of an opportunity to stay in one of the nearby villages in the house of Mary Mazei and Felix Ruiz. Mary teaches at Lincoln, where Jeff used to teach, and is married to Felix, who is originally from one of the nearby villages (Peguche). They have a house next door to his parentsī (Mama and Papa Ruiz) where they spend time in the summer with their kids. They graciously offered us the use of their house, which gave us the opportunity to spend some time looking around the area and getting a good feel for everyday life in the area beyond the Saturday market.

Peguche is a friendly, quiet village on a hillside with cobblestone streets, lots of chickens and cows, and you frequently hear the sound of weaving looms churning inside of houses. Mary and Felixīs house has a beautiful garden out front and a simple, but comfortable interior. The largest part of the house was the kitchen, which suited us fine, since we were looking forward to the opportunity to cook. Mama and Papa Ruiz live right next door - practically adjacent - and live a very traditional lifestyle. They have lots of chickens, a few pigs (one of them bought while we were there - more on that later), a couple of cows, two dogs, two cats and three cuy (guinea pigs, which are eaten in South America). Their house has a dirt floor and Mama cooks over a fire. The main language in this part of Ecuador (which is heavily indigenous) is Quechua, but they both speak some Spanish. We spent a lot of time talking to Mama Ruiz, particularly - Jeff and Allison in broken Spanish and Mama in a combination of Quechua and Spanish (we call it Quechspanol - like Spanglish). We got about half of what she said, most of the time... Maybe practice for when we are in countries where we donīt understand anything... We also saw a lot of their son Rafael (Felixīs brother), who lives nearby with his family and was very helpful to us. We enjoyed spending time with all of them greatly.

We spent a total of a week in the greater Otavalo area and took a few good day trips. On Friday we went to the Cascada (waterfall) de Peguche, located fairly close to where we were staying. The waterfall is located in a pretty large area of protected land that has lots of good trails to the falls and then up the rest of the (steep) hillside. It is a common side attraction for people visiting the Saturday market, and we managed to pick the day that about 400 Ecuadorian kids ranging in age from about 10 to 16 were visiting the falls from other parts of the area. It was sort of a free for all. Kids jumping in the water under the falls in all of their clothes and shoes, a few almost being washed away. Kids drinking orange pop from 3 liter bottles and eating candy, screaming down paths. Not the typical American field trip experience, though probably almost every kidīs dream. We werenīt totally sure where the teachers were. I think we saw two the whole time. Anyway, we saw the falls, and then started climbing up the paths to the top of the park. It was fun - there were lots of branching paths to pick from, a log to cross to get over a narrow gap over the beginning of the falls, good views of the villages in the valley below, and the further we climbed, the fewer the kids. We ended up going all the way to the top, where we found a cobblestone road that led back to Peguche and some of the smaller villages nearby. We walked around for a bit admiring cows (see photo) and pigs.

Saturday we went to the market, which actually has at least three distinct sections - artisan, produce and animal. On Friday, we talked to Mama Ruiz for awhile and she invited us to come with her to the animal market early Saturday morning. Like we said - we didnīt understand everything she said, but we were pretty sure she said we were leaving at 6am and that we were bringing her chickens and pig to sell. So, we were up before the sun and waited for her to knock.

6am, no Mama.

7am, no Mama.

Around that time, we decided that maybe we misunderstood her Friday and that she was just telling us her plans. So, we decided to lie back down for an hour or so and then go to the animal market later (also, it was raining pretty hard and we werenīt really feeling like going out at the moment anyway). Not surprisingly, in a way, at 7:30, Mama knocked and gave us the sign to head out. We got going, without any animals. As we left, she was motioning towards the rain and then gesturing angrily towards some chickens. We werenīt really sure what happened to Plan A, but we think the rain put the kibosh on her desire to sell the animals and leave at 6am.

The three of us walked into town (probably about a mile and a half - Mama is pretty spry for her age) and made a few stops before the animal market. First, we stopped at what we call Chicken Street, where there are people lined up and down the block with their chickens. Some squawking in bags, others on the sidewalk with their legs tied, others under peopleīs arms, and others being carried upside down by their ankles (do chickens have ankles and, if so, could they sprain them? hmmm...) Lots of hard bargaining going on, and Mama left empty-handed. This time.

After that we walked through the artisans' market where Mama greeted some of her friends, and then we finally ended up at the animal market. We felt sort of bad for asking Mama to take us there. We realized pretty quickly that the reason that she didnīt want to go as earlier planned was because the rain had turned the animal market into a muddy mess - and it wasnīt all mud. Mama dresses in traditional Otavaleņo clothes (blue skirt, pretty embroidered white blouse, red beaded bracelet and gold beads around her neck) and doesnīt wear shoes around the house. She wore traditional shoes to the market, though, which are more like slippers in our US experience, which immediately got covered in goo and became impossible to wear. Like many others she opted to go barefoot in the market for better traction. So, we took a look around and I think Mama realized that it might be the right day to get a good deal on a pig, on account of the fact that the animal market was almost over for the day and the rain had kept a lot of prospective buyers away. Mama drove a hard bargain and after waiting patiently for quite awhile, she finally got somebody to cave and accept her price of $16. After some scrambling to get her change (nobody ever seems to have change ready), Mama dragged the squealing pig (which we named Spots) across the highway and then into a pickup-for-hire, which brought us all home, with Jeff, Allison and Spots flying in the wind in back (Mama tried to get in the back, but we insisted she get in front with the driver).

After a nap, we headed back to the artisansī market for a little shopping. It was fun. There are lots of stalls and interesting things to look at. Hard to seriously window-shop, though, as the sellers are pretty experienced in pushing anything you look at into your hand and giving a list of reasons why you could need it. But given the lack of excess space in our packs and the high cost of shipping stuff home, we opted not to buy much.

On Sunday we went to Laguna Cuicocha, located in a national park about 30 minutes north of Otavalo. The laguna is a crater lake in an extinct volcano. It is a beautiful blue color and has two interesting islands. The water is over 400 feet deep and has no fish (or so said the guide we overheard leading a couple of people around). The laguna makes for a good visit because there is an 8 km path all of the way around the lake (almost). It was a good day, though much more strenuous than we expected. It seemed like there was double the amount uphill as downhill and it is all at around 3,000 meters above sea level. Weīve acclimatized somewhat to the high altitudes, but we arenīt pros yet. But the whole scene was beautiful, as you can see from the photos.

We spent a few more days in Peguche, not doing much to report, and left for Quito this morning. Unexpectedly, but in some ways not surprisingly, we entered Quito to find that pro- and anti-government protests going on, which means that parts of the city were almost cut off. We had an interesting taxi ride from the bus station in nearly standstill traffic, part of it in poorly ventilated tunnels... So, we might be leaving town tomorrow morning for an area a few hours south of Quito, or maybe we will be stuck here another day or two (nobody is sure if there will be buses out of town tomorrow, but they seem hopeful). In the meantime, we are doing a little checking into prices for tours of the Galapagos Islands... No decision yet on whether we are going or not.
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