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Published: October 25th 2020
CiCi's Secret Spot
Shana's garden is much more lush and overgrown than mine. CiCi always finds a soft, green patch for relaxing.
Greetings from Baños de Agua Santa, Tungurahua, Ecuador! As things are starting to open up, I've been getting out a bit more and seeing a few friends. I've continued to attend yoga classes faithfully three mornings a week. It has been SO important for me to have this time JUST for me. My body feels strong, my spine, hips and shoulders are virtually pain-free. The deep, rythmic breathing is an exercise that I carry into all aspects of daily life. My instructor was supposed to move back to Perú, but for me it's been a silver lining that Peruvian borders have remained closed. SO - she ended up staying in Ecuador two months longer than planned, for which I have benefitted greatly.
Now it's definite - Adriana is leaving in two weeks and I am gearing up to become consistent with my own personal yoga practice at home. I know it will take commitment and ongoing motivation, but I hope that acknowledging its many benefits will help me to embrace this challenge. I plan to put on a mix of Deva Premal's chants and require myself to stay down on the mat
Maricarmen came down from Quito for a visit and we ate Italian food on the outdoor terrace of Bella Italia.
through them all! Also, I may continue to meet up once or twice a week with the other two people who have been taking the class. We'll see how it works with my classmate leading the sessions. I've really enjoyed Adri as my teacher, and was glad I had the chance to invite her and her Argentine partner, Martin, over for lunch one day.
We had a weekend visit from Maricarmen, Shana's friend from Quito who has been promising to move down here to help her out. Mari had not seen Shana in a number of months and was stunned by her physical and mental decline. I've been seeing Shana's dementia progress day by day (which is heartbreaking enough) and I've grown used to helping her out as her mobility and physical capabilities decrease, but it was a shock to Mari to experience it after a long absence. The reality of Shana's diminished capacities struck Mari hard and catapulted her into action to finally make the commitment move down here permanently. This will be a huge relief for me, allowing for a major shift in the rhythm of my days. I
I finally got to meet Fabian and Hilda's med student son, Jonathon. He is borrowing an old laptop of mine because his finally died after multiple repairs.
have been Shana's sole cargiver for the past 7 months -- it's not a job for the faint of heart. I am grateful to Mari for stepping up and will gladly take over from time to time to 'spell' her from the responsibility.
I have continued to find jobs both at my house and at Shana's for my workers, Fabian and Hilda; in the garden, painting, tiling, bricking up a garden wall, cleaning out our bodega storerooms, & house-sitting / pet-sitting during our two excursions out of town (keep reading for details). They are such kind, humble, hardworking people and really want to work as much as possible. Their son, Jonathon, is currently in his 4th year of medical school, doing all of his studies online. His laptop died and I am loaning him an old one I had stored in a closet. I wanted to meet this dedicated young man, so I invited him and his parents for breakfast one day. He took an hour out of his rigorous study schedule to come meet his benefactress. A lovely young man, he is quite serious and clearly highly motivated.
Spring Roll Prep
I love to stage all of the varied ingredients that will be rolled up in a soft rice wrapper. I´ve just about run out! Will need to bring some back from the states.
I continue to enjoy being creative in the kitchen, so I invited friends Flo and Karl to join me and Shana for an Asian-inspired lunch and Scrabble afternoon. It's fun to assemble a variety of fillings for rice-wrapper spring rolls. We placed our two deluxe Scrabble boards side by side, trading partners after each game. Before this virus even emerged, I had designed the perfect well-ventilated, COVID-friendly dining room with sliding glass doors that open on two sides, a high window on the third wall and open to the kitchen area. It has wonderful light & endless possiblities for temperature and breeze control! I enjoy entertaining and now have the perfect place to do so.
One Sunday I took a solo excursion, driving over the mountains to Riobamba where my adopted sister Beatriz lives. I wanted to congratulate her in person on the completion of her master's degree - she studied online via the University of Salamanca in Spain. Also, I had been collecting some secondhand clothing that I wanted to deliver to her. A friend who moved down from the states lost a
Two boards, switching partners, fun afternoon...and a yummy Asian-inspired lunch.
lot of weight during his first year in Ecuador and Beatriz's husband has been putting on weight, and as luck would have it Billy's hand-me-down jeans fit Juan perfectly! Beatriz had recently gone down to the coast to visit her parents during school holidays. She was eager to cook me a delicious lunch of sea bass that her father had caught. She even sent me home with some freshly made ceviche to share with Shana.
When I drive alone I used to listen to audiobooks on an IPod, but recently I've become enamoried of Podcasts, especially now that I've learned how easy it is to download them onto my Iphone and listen to them right off the phone. So far my favorites are A Way With Words (duh!), The Moth (great human interest stories) and NPR's Throughlines (following a current topic or trend back through history). If you know of other podcasts you think I might enjoy, please list them in the comments. So, I'm driving along, wrapped up in a story and I turn onto a city street and BAM, the enormous snow-capped summit of Chimborazo looms at the top
Drove to Riobamba to visit Beatriz, turned a corner and this was the view at the end of the street! Chimbo is the highest peak in Ecuador & due to the equator's bulge the furthest point from the earth's core; closest to the sun.
of the road, practically filling my windshield! Stunning!! Chimbo is massive; not only is it the highest Andean mountain in Ecuador, it's also the furthest point from the earth's core. Since it sits nearly on the equator, the bulge of the planet makes Taita Chimbo's peak the closest point to the sun.
Shana just celebrated her 50th anniversary of living in Ecuador. We joke that she was the very first gringa in the country!! In all of her five decades here, she had never been down south to Cuenca (also known as the Jewel of the Andes). Our good friends Carol and Pam had recently moved there -They'd been urging us to come down and visit them...so we decided to go! I arranged for Fabian and Hilda to stay at Shana's house to take care of the LuLus (Shana's little poochies, Lupe and Lucy) and do some gardening and cleaning work while they were there.
Sisters Carol and Pam had moved to Cuenca the day before the country shut down for quarantine, making it hard for them to start socializing and meeting
Cuenca from Above
A beautiful, well-restored colonial city, the jewel of the Andes located six hours south of Baños.
folks. Cuenca has a huge North American Expat population and I have a number of good friends who live there, so I was eager to put them in contact with some nice folks. I was also eager to show Shana around this beautifully restored colonial city and one of the reasons we decided to rent a walker before we left Baños was so she could get around more easily and enjoy the parks and plazas.
CiCi, Shana and I set off early one Sunday morning for the six-hour drive to Cuenca. Carol used to be CiCi's dogsitter so she insisted we bring her along. CiCi is a great traveller - she loves to go for long rides. Just after the two hour mark of our journey I started to see a lot of powdery dust along the roadside. It seemed to increase as we headed south, the oncoming trucks kicking up clouds of it and blinding me for a few moments. Along the steep cliffside climbs there are usually spectacular views but today, just a greyish scrim. It wasn't until we stopped at a gas station that we learned of Sangay Volcano's pre-dawn
Up the road towards Carol & Pam's place this spot in the river has become the local laundromat.
eruption that day. We were driving right in the path of the ashfall! The air and the road were super ashy for about an hour and a half and then we seem to have passed through the worst of it. Shana and I enjoyed listening to the Podcasts and it made the ride seem to go faster. I was glad that her auditory skills were sharp enough to follow along...she doesn't do so well on the phone, so I didn't know how talk radio would be.
I know my way pretty well around the historical downtown area of Cuenca, having been there at least a dozen times to collect donations for our Volunteer Library's secondhand shop. However, Carol and Pam have rented a big house about 20 minutes from the city center, so I called on Mrs.Google Maps to guide us to the shopping center where Carol would meet us and lead us the rest of the way. We climbed up and up, stopping at an overlook to get a glimpse of the red-roofed city below. It ends up that their neighborhood is 1,000 feet higher than the city, and quite
At Parque Calderón this arupo tree was in full bloom!
a bit colder!
We followed Carol onward to their place, passing by a small waterfall with a shallow pool at its base where dozens of women gather to wash clothes. We turned off of the main road and kept going until arriving at their beautiful complex, complete with glassed-in swimming pool and gatehouse. CiCi loves to ride in the truck, but she was so overjoyed to be able to romp and play with her doggie friends Molly and Nina in their big, fenced-in yard. After an initial stand-off, CiCi learned to behave nicely with the two cats (Chloe and Zoe - no one can really tell them apart so they just call them both Kitty).
There were a few things I really wanted to do while in Cuenca. I was glad to be able to introduce Pam and Carol to some of my friends who live there. We met Nancy and Chuck for brunch one day at an outdoor restaurant along the river. Another day Julia invited us to a socially-distanced luncheon at her place. She was sad that I wouldn't be staying with her this
Ahh!! Spa day with the gals in Baños de Cuenca was a great adventure!
time, but she gladly welcomed us into her beautiful new condo. She had place settings spread out so there were three gals at the big dining room table, and three of us on the sofa eating at the coffee table. The sliding glass doors to her terrace were open wide to allow for a steady breeze.
On one of my previous visits to Cuenca, I had introduced Julia to Jane, whom I met because she was a California neighbor of a former teaching colleague of mine. (Susan and I worked together in Malaysia 25 years ago!) Since then Julia and Jane have become good friends and volunteer together to support indigenous artisans, helping them market their handicrafts. Jane came along to the luncheon and it was a great group of gals, the oldtimers sharing ideas and information about life in Cuenca with the newcomers.
Riding up to Julia's 6th floor condo we pondered why there was a styrofoam square studded with broken toothpicks right beside the elevator controls. I figured it out when I saw a small plastic cup hanging alongside it.
Baños de Cuenca
A luxurious day at the posh Piedra de Agua spa just outside Cuenca.
The idea was to avoid touching the elevator buttons with your fingers by using, and then discarding the toothpick pieces. Very clever! There are also signs everywhere reminding people to socially distance, always wear a mask and wash hands frequently and properly. One evening we met up with Regina, another friend whom I had already put in contact with the gals (so they had already met). We had reservations for dinner and a movie at a beautifully remodeled, high-ceilinged restaurant in an old church building. The number of diners was restricted to just twelve and the food was exquisite. We all enjoyed the film, Little Miss Sunshine - perfect feel-good viewing! A fun time with great company...a fabulous evening was had by all!
One of the things that I really wanted to do while in Cuenca was to revisit the Artesa Pottery Factory (designs by Vega). On a previous visit I had spent hours in their "dents and dings" seconds room, coming away with mugs, saucers and other beautiful goodies. The colors and patterns are mouthwateringly delicious. Alas, we arrived at the factory only to learn that they had not yet
We got the two-for-one thermal springs special treatment!
opened to the public. No factory tours and their showroom & seconds room were locked up tight. Boo Hoo!
As consolation (and since I wouldn't be spending money on more plates and dishes that I don't really need) we splurged for the two-for-one Wednesday Spa Deal at Piedra de Agua, the fancy new hot springs complex I'd been wanting to visit. We made the short drive to Baños de Cuenca, not to be confused with Baños de Agua Santa where I live (also known as "big Baños" to the expats living in Cuenca). What the two towns have in common is access to natural thermal mineral springs and therefore, a number of spas and pool complexes. We were going top of the line, reserved for the three hour subterranean mud bath circuit at the poshest place in town. Our series of treatments usually costs $60 (very dear by Ecuadorian standards) but for us that day it was just $30 each (which is still quite an indulgence on my budget).
The first hint that it was going to be a challenging day was
Luxuriating in the underground warm springs.
the expression on the receptionist's face when she saw us arrive with Shana and her walker. It soon became clear that the walker would be of no use here! A lot of the walking was on uneven rocky terrain, stairs cut into the stone, but NO railings anywhere. I was truly grateful for Pam and Carol's help getting Shana down to the subterranean grotto, in and out of the various pools, and back up and out of the underground spa area. It was rather dark underground which further hindered Shana's already failing sight. Walking down steps was frightening for her...she couldn't see where she was going and she felt very unstable.
First we lounged in a reddish brown mud warm water pool, slathering the slimy goo all over ourselves and each other. This was followed by a warmer pool with pale blue mud to apply. After rinsing that off we had an exfoliating coffee scrub which we showered off, all in dimly lit underground caverns. On to the really hot pool with a cold plunge beside it. AH! I love the effect that the contrasting tempratures has on the skin. Exhilarating!
The brown mud pool was followed by a blue mud pool, then a coffee scrub.
From there we went to the steam boxes - just the head sticking out and you adjust the amount of steam with a lever. Eucalyptus branches under the seat send up fragrant sinus release. We were shown the sensory deprivation tank area -- not advisable for anyone claustrophobic, not included in our 2-for-1 spa package deal, and incredibly expensive to boot. I tried tanking a few times during my early 20's when I lived in Tucson...a very interesting experience. A final cold shower to close the pores and then the long, arduous climb back up and out of the subterranean grotto. Shana had to lean so heavily on me that all of my muscles were sore the next day...even after soaking in the hot baths!
Our last stop at the spa was the outdoor warm and hot pools. As we lounged in the water, fancy juices were served to us floating on little surfboards. Very cute! We soaked and talked and laughed and relaxed. In spite of Shana's mobility challenges, we all had a lovely day. Famished, we stopped for empanadas on the little town square
Our fancy juices were floated out to us on mini-surfboards. Too cute!
nearby. At the restaurant they handed us each a plastic bag to store our mask while we were eating...nice touch but a waste of plastic! During the past months the amount of disposable carryout packaging has increased exponentially. On the rare occasions in Baños when we order in I provide the restaurant with big plastic tupperware containers the day before so we won't be creating so much waste.
One of the things that most seduced Carol and Pam to rent their house on the outskirts of Cuenca was the lovely glassed-in swimming pool area. There's even a little waterfall splashing down into the pool. What the gals didn't count on was how cold the weather would be would be most of the time plus the fact that it took 24 hrs and 5 big butane gas tanks to heat the pool enough to swim comfortably. I don't mind cooler water so I managed to enjoy solo swims before it was fully heated and as the warm water was cooling. Pam has done a ton of work in the garden and it's a lovely place for dogs to romp and play.
Outdoor Mineral Pools
Contrasting Hot and Cold...ahh!!
It was a great visit with the the gals, but it was really hard too. Taking Shana out of her familiar environment at this stage in her decline meant that she was VERY disoriented and needed LOTS of help...even dressing and bathing. I am grateful to Pam and Carol for stepping up and helping me help her. We went shopping one day to some handicraft villages and Shana mostly waited in the car for us. I found her getting so panicked any time there was a step down, and I realized that so much of it had to do with her failing sight. Three years ago she was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, one more severe than the other. I see her struggling to see the Scrabble letters and often when I point something out when we're driving she just can't see it at all. Her daughter promised to come up with the money for the surgery but has been dragging her feet (for THREE years). It was time to finally give up on the daughter completely and take action.
My former housemate Mark used the services of
Carol & Pam's Pool
A highlight of our visit ! Heated up warm enough to enjoy in Cuenca's chilly climate.
a foundation called Vista Para Todos (Sight for All). Our friend Vicky helped him as a medical interpreter, and since she'd recently been through the process with him, Vicky was a HUGE help in walking us through all the steps. Occasionally the foundation offers free cataract surgery campai, but at this juncture they could not be sure if/when in 2021 there would be a campaign. SO, we opted for a private surgery through the same foundation for a reduced price which would almost be covered by the remains of Shana's stimulus check (she had already used almost half of it for home repairs!).
On the way up to Quito we stopped at the roadside basket market near the Latacunga overpass. I confess, I am a "baskaholic" -- what's not to love about something that's functional, natural, beautiful and hand-crafted? We found just what Shana was looking for...a three level storage basket for her gardening supplies. Arriving in Quito, we checked into my favorite little hostel, Posada de Maple, located on a quiet tree-lined street. Since Quito is still on driving restrictions I am only permitted to drive Mon-Wed-Fri so upon arrival I just
Shana and I stopped en route to Quito to buy some baskets (I'm a baskaholic!) but alas, they were stolen from the tarp-covered truckbed while I was parked in the city.
parked the truck for the week. I was offered a place right around the corner at another hostel.I felt unsure about this arrangement since the length of my truck required leaving the gate partway open, with just a chain across the back bumper. In the end my doubts were confirmed because Shana's new basket was stolen from under my truckbed's tarp.
I had a visit from three of my goddaughters at the hostel in Quito. Virtual learning is a mighty challenge for kids of meager means. The two youngest, Blanca and Cristina (grades 8 and 10) were sharing a borrowed cell phone for their lessons, but then their schedules changed so that they had to receive classes during the same hours. In addition, the phone's battery swelled so it would not close, making it not function at all. What's more, there is no internet coverage where their family is squatting in a cardboard shack on the outskirts of Quito, so they have to put in a $5 card every week to buy cellular credit to access ZOOM. Mama Julia to the rescue (that's me). I gave them $20 to replace the battery, $80
Twelve years ago I stood in as Godmother for the baptism of Cristina (L) and Blanca (R). I got to meet Mayra's new baby, Iker (named for a Spanish footballer - a common Basque name).
to buy another cell phone and $40 more to cover a month of cell credit for both phones. It's really just a drop in the bucket, but it's what I could do at the moment. Virtual learning widens the gap between the haves and the have nots, that's for sure! The girls came with their older sister, Esther Mayra who is just finishing a college degree in Marketing...the first in her family to go to university. She got pregnant in her last year of studies and I got to meet her baby boy, Iker (apparently he is named after a Basque soccer player).
Tues, Wed, and Thurs of that week Shana and I took taxis to the Eye Clinic and waited and waited for the myriad of pre-surgical exams she needed. Tues was the optometry exam, the first meeting with the surgeon, and a cardiology appt which was disastrous. Shana has a dread fear of needles and as the doctor was suctioning on the EKG leads, Shana leapt up in terror screaming, "Is he going to poke me?" As a result of Quito's high altitude (almost 10,000 ft), her panicked reaction and, as
Major downtown intersections with long traffic signals all have street performers (el Circo del Semáforo). These two were amazing. Hugging during the red lights.
we later discovered having forgotten to take her meds for two days, her heart rate registered at 145 (gulp!) The doctor, a lovely white-haired man who understood how important this surgery was, agreed to see Shana again on Thurs suggesting we double up her arrhythmia meds and have her rest a lot. The cardiologist referred to Shana as the Queen of England and said she looked like his auntie.
So grateful for all of Vicky's help, directing us where we had to go next, waiting in lines to pay for each of the exams so I could stay with Shana. The cashier for each department was always on a different floor than the exam...and there was just one tiny 4-person elevator servicing the busy 8-story clinic building. Vicky is a spry gal, older than I am, running up and down the stairs. Everyone wears masks, there's an alcohol gel dispenser every time you turn around, a big X on every other chair to social distance, but it still felt to me like a lot of people in small, enclosed spaces. I always looked for spots near open windows, opened them if they were
Lupe, CiCi, and Lucy hanging out together while Shana and I hang out together!
closed, tried to keep Shana calm and comfortable.
The next day I had to get Shana moving early in the morning and into a taxi so she could have a fasting blood test done. From there we took a challenging three block walk to a cafe for breakfast. Shana did really well with her walker on the relatively smooth sidewalks. We paused for a rest at the intersection of Amazonas y Orellana, Shana making full use of the fold-down seat on her walker. We sat through several red lights, enjoying the "Circo del Semáforo" -- the Traffic Light Circus. This adagio acrobatic couple was just delightful, so talented and graceful. Each time the light turned red they'd cuddle and hug on the grassy median strip. While Shana enjoyed a ham and cheese croissant and a cappuchino I trotted over to the Iñaquito market a few blocks further. There's a great Asian shop there with outstanding aceite de ajonjolí (toasted sesame oil). Also in the main market a few of the potato vendors also sell real yams (orange sweet potatoes - camote amarillo). Through the years I've learned where to find these less common
Lupe & Lucy
Shana with the LuLus on her new wooden deck. It creates a beautiful space at the entrance to her home.
Thursday was the opthamalogical exam with fancy machines and a sonagram of the back of the eyeball. Each waiting patient was with 3 or 4 family members, all of us in a small windowless waiting area. Several times the opthamologist came out to announce that she wouldn't continue with exams until family members went out to the downstairs waiting room...so they congregated on the stairwell! I left Shana seated on her walker (nice high seat, easy up and down with the handles) and went back to remind the cardiologist that we were coming again today. I made sure he saw me and told him the Queen of England would be up soon.
We waited while the cardiólogo saw all of the patients with appointments before calling us in for a follow-up. During our wait I led Shana thru some deep breathing exercises, some calming visualizations -- anything to make sure her heart rate was within range this time....and....IT WAS! She clocked in at 85, still high but passable for the doc to sign off on the go-ahead for surgery. My commitment to walk Shana through
Edge of the Deck
We filled the gap between the new wood deck and the garden ferns with beach stones and shells. It looks like a rocky creek.
this part of the surgery process was finished! The next morning we all met for brunch at Annie's and loaded up my car with furniture gifted to me and Mari by friends who moved back to US at the start of quarantine. I handed Shana off to Maricarmen who has taken over walking her through the surgery and follow-ups. All went fine with her cataract removal she and Mari will be back in Baños next week.
So, I've been home for over a week, falling into a new rhythm without my daily lunch and Scrabble with Shana. Here's an example of a typical day during this past week: morning mental massage of Words With Friends with a fruit and yogurt smoothie, CiCi for a short walk over to Shana's to feed the LuLus, yoga class, catch up on email and facebook, long walk with CiCi in the foothills of the volcano, up to the hot springs for swimming/water aerobics/soaking, home for a leisurely shower, hang in my rooftop terrace hammock reading (I just unearthed first edit copy of the novel I wrote 10 yrs ago, am actually enjoying rereading it -- more or
I found the plant holder in Chordeleg - a handicraft town just outside Cuenca. Ecuagenera breeds rare orchids and I got the plants there.
less able to turn off my self-critical editor brain), perhaps doing a bit of writing on this blog entry (it's taken me the better part of a week to complete it this month!), maybe watch a film or a documentary (If you haven't seen David Attenborough's, A Life on Our Planet please do)
I'm really hoping I'll be able to visit my brother in Baltimore next month...so far lots of cancelled flights and rebookings, COVID fear and panic...I've had all kinds of responses from friends and family regarding what they think about my choosing to travel by air right now. I fully believe that each person has to find their own level of comfort, their own way of coping with the uncertainties of the world we are currently living in...for my part I think it's time to seek careful normalcy-- whatever that may mean to any given individual. Having broken out of 7 months of relative lockdown, the two week-long excursions described here really did my soul a world of good...even though they were each stressful in their own way. I am grateful to be healthy and I hope that everyone reading this
A "Tired" Peacock
Creative tire swings and plant holders and more! I especially loved this colorful guy!
is fine as well.
Scroll all the way to the end for more photos, including my volcano neighbor, Mama Tungurahua. She surprises and amazes me each day with her ever-changing beauty!
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