Ecuador

What I ate in Ecuador!

The pride of the coast: fresh ceviche!

The pride of the coast: fresh ceviche!

For a rather small country, Ecuador has a boatload of different cuisines.

Fried trout -- a lunch tipico!

Fried trout — a lunch tipico!

On the coast, you’re pretty much eating fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m not kidding.

Breakfast of champions!

Fish & plantains ..Breakfast of champions!

Our most memorable meal was a croquette of plantain-encrusted fish, served to us in the middle of the ocean – complete with cold beer and hot, fresh coffee that were all handed over the bow.

Ecuadorian take-out!

Ecuadorian take-out!

Unfortunately, I can’t report on the crab and clam scene that was readily available on the coast since I don’t really eat those shellfish – and yes, I do realize that makes me a food moron. Sorry…

Pata de mule -- or mule's foot clam -- really HUGE!

Pata de Mula — or mule’s foot clam — really HUGE!

In the Sierra Highlands, it was pure vegetable heaven – with legumes, rice and greens served up in plain or extraordinary style.

Every lunch starts with sopa .. this one was lentil.

Every lunch starts with sopa .. this one was lentil…

...followed by this!

…followed by this gorgeous melange!

The most delicious meal we had was a staggering breakfast of eggs, papaya, queso, frijoles, cassava, coffee, juice, tomatoes, cucumbers and corn muffins at the family house where we stayed overnight. Homemade food is always the sweetest.cassava breakfast

But I have to say, the dazzling array in the Ambato Mercado on the last day of my travels for Heifer was some of the most beautiful food I’ve seen all year. turnip

From tree tomatoes (a taste cross between oranges and tomatoes)…Tree Tomatoes

…to cane sugar …Cane sugar…to ever-present maize…Corn Mix…it was a sensory overload…parsnips…always offered with a smile.

Fingers flying through the fava beans!

Fingers flying through the fava beans!

So … ¡Buen provecho! (good appetite)… Adios, sweet Ecuador…"ice cream"

And Happy New Year!!

Categories: Ecuador, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

Two Gorgeous Farms & One Heavenly Market

bee on blossomIn my last two days in my last country in this incredible year of travel with Heifer, (sob!) we visited Ambato, a market town south of Cotopaxi, about 2 hours from Quito, Ecuador. After the bone-dry forest of Vega Alta, it was like dipping my eyeballs into a green misty pool — how delicious! land

It made me remember why I’m going to miss these countries so achingly much – and introduced me to yet another awesome Heifer partner: PACAT, an agro-ecological association that’s been working with indigenous farmers here for over 12 years to help  them increase their production, income, and food sovereignty.

Gloria & Lizbeth Pomaquiasa on their land.

Gloria & Lizbeth Pomaquiasa on their land.

PACAT is boots on the ground – running 34 different community groups in 9 counties with 508 families to help them commercialize their agriculture, livestock, fish and cuy ventures. These are small farmers growing on plots of just 1 to 2 acres… but PACAT is no small-thinking organization. pacat market

With Heifer’s help (financial and advisory),PACAT has hired a doctoral student to analyze the market to determine what sells best (they’ve narrowed it to 70 items), what people want that they’re not getting, as well as consumer buying patterns and preferences. They encourage farmers to use their ancestral traditions and to farm organically – for the health of the producer and the consumer.

Yes, they're organic!

Yep, they’re organic!

And when you see agro-ecology in action, it’s simply fantastic. We visited Jorge and Sonja Chonato’s farm in the Low Sierra (at 2000 meters), where temperatures are moderate and lots of crops flourish –citrus

…and Gloria & Francisco Pomaquiasa’s farm in the Alta Sierra (at 4000 meters) where it’s cold, windy and challenging to grow much besides cabbage, potatoes and root crops.Patas

Jorge and Sonja’s farm, at a lower altitude, had about 80 products in full flourish – and because agro-ecological farmers are “very curious always trying new things, grafting, experimenting, seeing what works,” the creativity was amazing!

Jorge's growing 4 different varieties of babaco - and I'd never even heard of babaco!

Jorge’s growing 4 different varieties of babaco fruit – and I’ve never even heard of babaco!

I saw produce and trees I recognized, and dozens of fruits and vegetables I’d never seen before. Jorge just got 2 new milk cows from Heifer, and he was ecstatic… more manure to grow things! His children were healthy and engaged in their farming, his wife was unbelievably organized and capable, and their spirits were so buoyant, they couldn’t wait to show us all the success they’d had.

Jorge Chonato - one happy farmer!

Jorge Chonato – one talented, happy farmer!

By the time we got up to Gloria & Francisco’s farm, it was almost dusk but the family was still working in the fields, hurrying to harvest the crops they’d take to market the next day.

Francisco Pomaquiasa. 20- year PACAT member.

Francisco Pomaquiasa, a 20- year PACAT member.

Francisco has been part of the Atahulpa Association of PACAT farmers here for 20 years  (since he was 20) and like most farmers who’ve had Heifer trainings, his crops are now diversified and chemical-free.Gloria's farmDespite the biting wind, the heads of cabbage, peas, radishes and turnips were gorgeous – and the family was equally proud of the 100 cuy (guinea pigs) they’d raised from Heifer’s gift of 60 cuy last year (they’ve already sold 60 males at $10 each and passed along the original gift).

cuy

Almost too cute to eat … almost!

Five year-old Lizbeth was an expert packer of lettuce, carefully wedging the last head in the yellow market box, her little hands red with the cold, but her eyes dancing with excitement. Market Day was almost here!

What a good helper!!

What a good helper!!

We arrived at Ambato Market the next day at 5 am, in time to see the farmers come in with their wares (some live 2-3 hours away)…truck loaded

… and to watch the first shoppers trickle in at 6 am.

The frenzy begins..

The frenzy begins..

Heifer/PACAT farmers all work under the same banner and wear distinctive aqua jackets so people can recognize the farmers whose meat, produce and fruit are known to be chemical-free and luscious … the bee’s knees!

So beautiful! And GREEN.

carrots

Maize

radishes

Inkaberries

Last call for berries!

Last call for berries!

By 8:30 am, all the good stuff was all gone and the farmers were packing up their wares.But first, Lizbeth would get a sweet reward  - Lizbeth with treat

…and then her family would pocket their $80 of income and go back home and start farming again.family at work

That’s the way it goes all over the developing world — and at this time of year when we’re swimming in abundance & relaxing, it’s good to remember that for a billion people around the planet, it’s hard work just to eat every day. farmer's daughter

And they are so grateful for the little help they receive…Gloria

– so THANK YOU!

Categories: Agriculture, Ecuador, Farming, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Viva Vega Alta!

big ceiba

The mighty ceiba tree is not supposed to be blooming.. but the climate is changing.

On Day 3 of my trip to Ecuador, we drove up from the watery coastal towns of El Oro province to spend the night in Loja Province, in the crackly dry forest town of Vega Alta on the very border of Peru. The environmental contrast was stark, particularly as this was the very end of the dry season and every blade of grass seemed dry as kindling.

sink

Water, water — almost nowhere, barely enough to drink.

 Our host family, headed by Rosanna Apollo, is part of 26 families (most of them related) that live in this sparsely populated town where land is plentiful and cheap, and goats outnumber people by about 30 to 1. young goat Rosanna and her granddaughter Cecilia cooked us a beautiful lunch…

Simple .. and sensational.

  …then we walked to her brother Santos’s house and up, up, up through the dry forest to see the town water supply and irrigation well that Heifer has helped to provide.

The Santos boys walking through the dry forest.

The Santos boys walking through the dry forest.

The challenge in Vega Alta is water, pure and simple. These woods used to boast millions of hardwood trees, before agricultural clear-cutting and burning stripped the mountainsides up to the very summits.

(You can see the burning hillside on the left.)

(You can see the burning hillside on the right.)

Heifer’s agro-ecological project in Loja will include training 600 families to cope with ever-diminishing water supplies by undertaking irrigation projects, planting trees, diversifying crops, and managing soil moisture with crop rotation, organic fertilizer and mulching.

cleraing the pipe

Santos’s son Alexis clears the irrigation pipe.

Caritas Allemagne, a Catholic charity, built the big irrigation system that provides metered water for 60 Vega Alta families from a source 13 km away, but it’s the small irrigation pump that Heifer invested in and 60-year old Santos put in himself that has created a small garden of Eden here.irrigation star

Santos showed us papaya, lime, lemons, sour oranges, cacao, coffee, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, beans, bananas, guavas, peppers, passionfruit, achiote, and yucca that were all thriving under the soft rain of sprinklers from his Heifer irrigation pump.

Achiote, also called the "lipstick tree" produces seeds that are used in food coloring.

Achiote, also called the “lipstick tree,” produces seeds that are used in food coloring and flavoring.

With irrigation and the manure from his goats, Santos has increased his farm’s production by 300%  –and that’s no small potatoes.

fresh papaya

Heifer’s Leonardo Mendieta samples the luscious papaya.

As the dry forests across Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador grow ever drier and water grows ever more precious, Heifer irrigation & agro-ecology and Heifer livestock may well make the difference between children here eating .. or not. Alexis, Darling & goats

That night, after we ate a beautiful meal of vegetables and fruit, (but went without a shower because there was no way we were going to use more water), I had my computer open to show everybody their photos, and Rosanna and her family began looking over my shoulder at the photos of farmers around the world. Rosanna & parrot

They were so intrigued to see the crops people were growing in Haiti, in Cameroon and in Vietnam (it seems everybody, everywhere grows cassava)…cassava!

… and they could see that they were hardly the only poor people working hard in the world. They asked a hundred questions about the people they saw in my photos…

They all liked her face .. and her hat... and her giant Black Tiger Shrimp!

They all loved Trinh from Vietnam — her smile, her hat… and her giant Black Tiger Shrimp!

…and once again I cursed myself for being such a language laggard, and thanked heaven (and Heifer) for Michelle, my awesome translator. As we fell asleep that night on their beds they’d generously offered us, we prayed we wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the black night to use the dry latrine out back (another Heifer innovation!) and that their pet parrot would clam up until dawn. aw geeOur prayers were answered! And in the morning– after a beautiful breakfast that was 10 times what we could eat –

corn cakes…the hardest thing was saying goodbye.bye bye

But I know these folks in Vega Alta are in good hands with Heifer folks like Leonardo Mendieta to look out for them.

Arcela (Rosanna & Santos's sister), Leonardo and her baby goats.

Arcela (Rosanna & Santos’s sister), Leonardo, and her baby goats.

And I’ll just pray the rains will come.

Miguel Santos - my hearthrob!

Miguel Santos – my hearthrob!

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL … AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!

Categories: Agriculture, Ecuador, Environment, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Love & Hope in the Mangroves.

what crab on my shoulder ?In every trip I’ve been on this extraordinary year with Heifer, there comes at least one moment when I think … I cannot believe I get to be here.

In Ecuador, that moment came as I was gliding through the mangroves off the coast of Puerto Bolivar as pink flamingoes flamed up from the overhanging trees. flamingoes

In the back of the boat, the women put down the sewing they’d been doing while bouncing through the waves on the rough ride over…sewing on water

…and fired up the big Colombian cigars they’d tucked into their hats, in preparation for getting off the boat and getting down to business of hunting crabs.

ready to crab

The cigars are for pleasure, but they also act as mosquito repellent.

In this coastal community where all life revolves around the water, hunting Ecuador’s sweet red crabs is traditionally women’s work, although the entire extended family is pretty much involved now. Children start hunting when they’re 6 or 7, and they quickly learn the drill. Using a long rebar pole, you find a hole that looks promising, insert your pole and then your arm as far as it can go, and try to get a crab to hook on.

going down for a crab

 Once it’s hooked, you pull the crab up, put it in your sack if it’s a male (you can’t take a female) and move on. boy w crab

 The first crab catch of the day is the lucky one (or the third); a good haul is 5-7 crabs; and in the boat on the way back, they’ll be strung up and go live to the market…red crab line

….where a string of 12 will bring $10 (of which the intermediary will get about half).

Rosa stringing her catch.

Rosa stringing her catch.

Crabs abound here in the mangroves – they eat the mangrove leaves and flourish – but today there are far fewer mangrove swamps (they’ve been developed into shrimp farms or dried out from industrial pollution) and far fewer crabs. beauty

So Amor y Esperanza, the 80-member group of shellfish hunters here, is out to keep their ancestral way of living, while they make the most of their daily haul – with Heifers help.

Started by the indomitable Rosa Santos, her husband and their 7 children, Amor Y Esperanza has a modern-day plan for success: to sell the seafood in a restaurant I call the No-Name Café (for obvious reasons) and to package and sell the crab/clam/calamari and fish they’ve processed in fresh & frozen packets out of a retail store next door.

The remarkable Rosa Sanchez, founder of Amor Y Esperanza.

The remarkable Rosa Santos, founder of Amor Y Esperanza.

Rosa is 57 and had a rough childhood with an abusive father, but her own family is as closely knit and tight as a pair of crab claws. She’s become an outspoken advocate for the health of the mangroves that have decreased by 70% in her lifetime, and Amor Y Esperanza has been responsible for reforesting hundreds of acres of mangroves, as well as advocating for stricter pollution controls on the banana plantations and shrimp farms that release crab-killing toxins into the ocean.

A brave little mangrove sets its roots in the ocean.

A brave little Amor Y Esperanza-planted mangrove sets its roots in the ocean.

Rosa’s dream is to achieve independence for all of Machala’s crab, clam and fishermen from the intermediaries who chomp into their profits and carry most of their loans (essentially turning the fishermen into modern-day sharecroppers). She’s already received grants from the local government to outfit AYE’s store (refrigerator, freezers, food prep tables and equipment) and help from Heifer to open the Café, but she’s hardly stopping there.

Amor Y Esperanza in action on land - where it's a spanking clean operation!

Amor Y Esperanza in action on land – where it’s a spanking clean operation!

For this woman who spends 25 days a month plucking the biggest, reddest, sweetest crabs in Ecuador out of thigh-deep mud with a cigar between her teeth and a serene smile on her face – then comes home to work to save her beloved mangroves …smiling Rosa… well, I seriously wouldn’t put any kind of alchemy beyond her.

Let's hear it for Rosa!

Let’s hear it for Rosa!

Categories: Ecuador, Environment, Food, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Fishing against the tide.

rough fishingIn the rough-and-tumble port city of Machala on the southwest coast of Ecuador, the tides come in and the men… like their fathers and grandfathers before them… go out to sea.grandpa

About 5000 fishermen live and work in Machala and most of them are small, artisanal fishermen. They go out in pairs, in brightly-painted boats with about 4000 feet of net, and they fish the 8 miles of protected water that is legally reserved for non-industrial fishing.throwing out

It’s hard work. The nets are heavy even before they are water-logged, and the men will generally let them out and pull them back in four or five times a day. The Machala fishermen are looking for corvina (sea bass) bagre (catfish) and robalo (bass) but there’s no doubt that there are far less fish – and far fewer species of fish– in the ocean these days.

Smaller catch... fewer fish

Smaller catch… fewer fish

In fact, 85% of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at capacity or are in decline—which is not sustainable by any calculation. “Todos menos,” (“Everything is less”) a town fisherman describes it succinctly.fish on floor

On a good day, two men can pull in $100 to $150 worth of fish – but $50 immediately goes to the intermediaries who sell 85% of all the fish in the Ecuadorian market. Heifer’s project in Machala, begun last year with a 26-family co-op, is working to enable those families to sell directly to customers without the intermediaries –with a new dock, ramp, and restaurant where the women can sell fresh fish, prepared fish, ceviche and their famous fried plantains.

You can never stop their hands from moving -- specially when they're shredding plantains!

You can never stop these women’s hands from moving — specially when they’re shredding plantains!

The new Heifer dock is  a visible, beautiful sign of progress and the community is proud as a pelican about it.new dock

As male-oriented as the fishing world is, it’s the women of Machala who are fiercely political, organized and focused on change. “We used to feel impotent, but now we know we can break the chain of the intermediaries,” said Rosa Lopez, who started the women’s group Movimiento de Mujeres de El Oro in 2003.

Along with a community banking program, she also established the Clean Food program to support Machala’s artisanal fishing & food sovereignty rights – then last year, went on to start the Coast to Sierra pipeline, bringing fresh fish by truck from Machala to the protein-starved Highlands families living three hours inland – and bringing fruit, vegetables and legumes in the empty trucks back to the produce-poor coast.greens

Women from Machala have taught their Highland cousins to clean, cook and love the fish – while they are improving their own nutrition with produce from the interior.

It’s a win/win effort improving both nutrition and income in both communities– and the best part is, the people doing the hard work are reaping the profits. “We have our own scales so we won’t get cheated, and we determine our own prices,” said Luis proudly.

Negotiating with the intermediaries is never a good part of the job.

Negotiating with the intermediaries is never easy — or pleasant.

Fishing is dangerous work and this close-knit community has learned to look out for each other, to protect themselves from thieving, piracy and even from the giant industrial boats that can take up to 100 tons of sea bass in one sweep through these fishermen’s protected waters.

It's hard to compete with gigantic factory ships in these small vessels.

It’s hard to compete with gigantic factory ships in these small vessels.

But the Heifer project’s investment in a spanking new dock has made them feel empowered and special.

the group

What a group!

“People can see the progress we’ve made and they’re going to be following our example of activism and cooperation,” adds Rosa. “I’m sure of it.”

A life on the water.

At home on the water in Machala.

I’m sure of it, too!

Categories: Ecuador, Environment, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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