Breakfast in Topeka

May 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

Geocache,, Illinois, Missouri, St. Louis, MO, IL, road trip, Grace Stainback, Kansas

Naughty, and nothing.


We passed through Kansas City right when twilight hit, and something about the lighting and the way the highway curved around the city made it seem like a mirage. One moment it lay before us, and then we curved under its belly, spat up out the other side, and it was gone from our rearview mirror. We spent the night in Topeka, the capital of Kansas, and hardly anything happened other than an extremely positive experience with the breakfast maître d. This guy was just classic, incredible small-town kindness. He had seen so little, and yet his evaluation of his experience on this planet made it just as valuable as a globe-trotter or an entrepreneur. We got into a chat with him as we were getting up to leave; that is, we stood politely while he rattled away about everything, and nothing. He concluded, somewhat out of the blue, with “Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve lived a lot of years and I’ve come to discover that being nice just don’t cost anything at all. At the end of a day when I’ve been damn near nice the entire day, I’ll check, and all my money is still right there. It sure is expensive being angry all the time, though.”

So simple, and albeit, a slightly incongruent metaphor, so very true.

We looked for two caches in Topeka and only found one. The first one (“A Little Ol’ Dabble at the Dibble“) was planted by someone who worked in the Bank of America building overlooking the location of the cache, on a street corner. We couldn’t find this bugger ANYWHERE, and it was even more irking for me because I could imagine the dude looking down on us from his desk like some kind of micromanaging Geocache CEO, or GeoGod, or whatever. The second was easy, and the description contained a teary-eyed tribute to the brave law enforcement officers of Kansas.

The real action cropped up once we got on the road. We were crusing along 1-70 in the Kansas plains, and somewhere in between Nowhere and the roadside attraction for the World’s Largest Prairie Dog, I pulled off at a rest stop. I checked my GPS just out of curiosity, and discovered a Grandaddy of all geocaches– one that contains trackables, or little trinkets that people register with the Geocaching Web site. These things get swapped all over the world, hopping from geocache to geocache, and you can take them with you down the line to continue their little adventure. I picked up one that has been slowly making its way from Germany since 2007, aptly named “Niederrhein 2007 Geocoin”.

You can check out where it has been here.. but as of now it’s hanging out in Utah with me🙂

Geocaching: Cordele, The Sequel

May 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

In Georgia, we spent the night in the town of Cordele, which also happens to be the watermelon capital of the world. Ironically, I have spent the night in Cordele before, when my friend’s car broke down on the way to Asheville, NC for Moogfest. I didn’t realize this until we had already pulled off and ended up checking into the exact same hotel that my friends and I slept in a couple years back. Equal parts serendipitous and creepy, considering the fact that we had likened our desolate late-night experience in the Cordele service station to that of a scene in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”., Geocache, Georgia, GA, Cordele, USA, road trip, Grace Stainback

What other delights does Cordele have to offer, you ask, outside of creepy auto yards and watermelons? Well, we asked the same question ourselves, and discovered that the cultural offerings consisted of a Titan 1 missile, erected smack dab adjacent to the highway and the neighborhood Krystal restaurant:

It’s a good thing they noted the Krystal in the Wikipedia, for curious travelers that would want to check that out, too. Which we did, before Geocaching the next day. And lo and behold, there was the legendary Krystal.

#4 “The Queen Has Gas” Cordele, GA

We were bemused about the name of this one, until we pulled up to a service station that has both a Dairy Queen and gas pumps.. OK. From this point on, the compass on my application has been giving me major grief, sending me 20 feet in one direction, only to direct me back the way I came, and so forth on a blind goose chase. We trotted around a grassy area next to the service station until Naughty wised up and found the cache underneath a light fixture.

Our new friend really dug that. And so we were off.. peace, love and watermelons.

Geocaching in Florida

May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Surprise! I’m driving cross country from Jupiter, FL to my new home in Portland, OR. It’s difficult to go much further without leaving the continent, and my mother never misses an opportunity to remind me of this fact. Despite (or, perhaps because of) this impending distance, Nancy has agreed to accompany me on the first leg of my journey up until Colorado. Even though she won’t admit it, I know she just really wanted to fly the coop as well., Geocache, Road Trip, 2013, Jupiter, Florida, Gainesville, FL, Gators.Although I already thoroughly enjoy having “Naughty” around, we’ve decided to make the trip more interesting by incorporating Geocache hunts into some of our stops. If you’re new to the Geocaching concept, it is basically an international, all-inclusive scavenger hunt. People plant small containers, or “caches”, in random locations all over the world, then post the precise coordinates of the cache, as well as hints as to how to find it, online. Anybody that wants to can create their own cache, or seek out others and log their discoveries.

Anyways, we thought it fitting to make a few hunts in Jupiter to get the ball rolling. I also had doubts that Naughty would figure out how to use the mobile application right away, and I wanted to take a few test runs before we got out on the trail… but oh, how wrong I was about that one.

Well, what to say about Jupiter? Unlike further south, you can still park at the beach for free. Also, several buildings are named after Burt Reynolds, our most famous export. I moved there when I was 7, and have watched it transform from a sleepy beach town you could bike around into a miniature Boca Raton. I still maintain it’s the last frontier between the typical minimalist “southern” flavor of the state of Florida and the mad-cap land of excess and chonga that is So-Fla… which, alas, has won over my heart against every fiber of my willpower.

Burt Reynolds, Jupiter, Florida, FL, Geocaching, Road Trip, 2013

Jupiter’s claim to phame!

#1 “Island Way Bridge”, Jupiter, FL

Our first stop was under a waterway bridge that I have been over (in a car) under (in a boat), and off (jumping) throughout my youth. Of all the times I’ve traversed it, however, I’ve never actually crawled around under it… but Geocaching has a way of engaging you with your surroundings in ways that you never have before. We crawled up under the scraggly rocks, scuttling around like crabs, and found the cache pretty easily- a small round plastic container nestled right into the rocks. Mind you, Geocaches can be made of anything– from an official-looking tool box, like the one pictured above, to a piece of piping, to a magnet stuck stuck on an electric pole.

#2 “Tanah Keeta”, Jupiter, FL

This is a Boy’s Scout camp near my parents’ house that I have also frequented over the years; I’ve wakeboarded in the river behind the camp; gone to take pictures during its off-season months, when hundreds of vultures take up roost in the drained pool pit; and a couple years back, Christy and I biked over and tried to break into the climbing wall (unsuccessfully). We were a little dubious about this cache because once we parked next to the entrance sign, where the coordinates led, we saw that there was construction going on in the area. Still, we poked around for a little while, and after 10 minutes or so Naughty discovered her first cache. This one was a toughie- a medicine bottle covered with camouflage tape, nestled into a pile of leaves on the ground.

This marked a turning point in our adventure, because as of the time I am writing this, I haven’t found a single cache- Naughty has been scooping them up first every time. She may not be the most tech-savvy, but once she gets out in the field she’s a real Girl Scout. So much for thinking I had to be the Geocaching point person.


#3 “Natty Light… a college favorite” Gainesville, FL

On Day 1, I insisted that we stop in Gainesville to look for a cache. It felt right to re-visit UF before embarking on this journey, starting a new chapter in my life and all of that. While the sentiments were all in place, our drop-in on the ol’ alma mater didn’t exactly go as planned because we couldn’t find the cache anywhere.

We chose this specific cache out of many, many hidden at UF, because it was relatively close to the highway and the name seemed a fitting descriptor of my experience at the big bad football state school. It started out well.. we were led over into a section of the agriculture park, into a natural lab area. The hint read “When given the option to go left or right, be original!”, and we duly trudged straight into the brush when we encountered a fork in the trail. We tramped around the wooded area that the coordinates marked, but other than about 262835 spiders (and their webs) in our hair, we didn’t come across any cache. Ironically, not far from the coordinates we discovered a can of Natty Light… we assumed that this was also a reference to the cache’s title, but we didn’t discover anything close by. Lame.

At this point, we realized that the standard downpour was imminent (any Gator who has spent a summer in Gainesville is well aware of the mandatory 4 p.m.ish monsoon each and every day throughout May), so we had to bail on caching in Gainesville. And thus I left Gainesville for what will surely be a very long time, in a similar fashion to how I left after graduation: with the sentiment that it was quite fun, too short, and I probably could have accomplished a lot more if I had applied myself.

book nerdism: “Love in the Time of Cholera”

September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

While I was traveling in Colombia this summer, I found it fitting to pick up a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, one of the most celebrated of Colombian writers. Love in the Time of Cholera won a Nobel Prize, it’s about the Caribbean coast, it has a movie adaptation starring Javier Bardem, and that’s pretty much all I needed to know right there.

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, books, novels, book review, travel, Colombia, psychological literature, historical fiction, romantic novel, South America, Anaïs Nin, Picture of Dorian Gray, Jacques Lacan. I’ve been putting off writing about this book because I haven’t been sure what to say about it. It’s definitely not for everyone. Its stoic, wimpy, painstakingly-shy and hopelessly love-blind principal character would not appeal to the average ‘Merican man. I have to admit that I am a closet romantic myself, and there were some points when even I would sigh to myself and think, “Goddammit, dude, just get over it already. She’s just not that into you.” The funny part is, though, is that despite several hundred pages of frustration over Florentino Ariza’s seemingly hopeless situation, the reader is all wrong. He does get his lady in the end, at the ripe age of 72, no less, but he does get her. Gabriel García Márquez is definitely a well-versed in the ebb and flow of romance, and it shines through in this unlikely- highly unlikely– love story.

Love in the Time of Cholera is also an excellent historical piece, placing you in the churning waters of the early 20th-century Caribbean with its scandal, its sex, its voodoo magic. I cannot even imagine the degree of research Márquez undertook to get everything just right in this book, from the precise type of cloth used in a rich woman’s undergarments and where to buy it, to the names of specific ships floating in and out the Cartagena harbor at certain points of each year.

What’s more, its psychologically on point. I took a Psychological Approaches to Literature class at UF, in which we read and studied the likes of Anaïs Nin, a Freudian psyschologist/writer who documented and analyzed decades of her life in vividly honest journals. I wrote my semester paper on The Picture of Dorian Gray, comparing it to psychological ideas popularized by Jacques Lacan. It was a fascinating class in that it showed how literature can be used to paint detailed portraits of an individual’s psyche as the principal plot line. “Plot” doesn’t always have to be synonymous with “action”, as the modern American cinema would have you believe. “Person” can mean “plot” as well. Love in the Time of Cholera would have been perfect for this course, because you come to know the two principal characters- and doomed lovers- so incisively well, for better and for worse, that following them through the course of their lives becomes the literal “bloodline” of the book.

 Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, books, novels, book review, travel, Colombia, psychological literature, historical fiction, romantic novel, South America, Anaïs Nin, Picture of Dorian Gray, Jacques Lacan. In conclusion: I’m not even sure where this book belongs on a shelf, although I found it in plain old boring “Fiction”. This just doesn’t seem to capture the complexity of the novel. It could easily be placed under “Historical Fiction” or “Psychological Fiction” or “Doomed Romance Fiction”.. to be precise. Another conclusion: don’t just go watch the movie. You won’t get it and you will think that the movie sucks (although Bardem makes a very satisfying Florentino Ariza). This is something that must be read to be understood.

Below, a few passages of many that I marked because a) they are beautifully written and b) they show how Marquez subtly dug inside each character to reveal  truths not just about their psyche, but the human condition in general.

“Years later, reviewing the chronicle of those days, Dr. Juvenal Urbino confirmed that his father’s methodology had been more charitable than scientific and, in many ways, contrary to reason, so that in large measure it had fostered the voraciousness of the plague. He confirmed this with the passion of sons whom life has turned, little by little, into the fathers of their fathers, and for the first time he regretted not having stood with his father in the solitude of his errors.”

“It was also [Fermina Daza’s] nature that caused her letters to avoid emotional pitfalls, and confine themselves to relating the events of her daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log. In reality they were distracted letters, intended to keep the coals alive without putting her hand in the fire, while Florentino Ariza burned himself alive with every line.”

“Uncle Leo XII was angry with him because of the manner in which he had thrown away the good position of telegraph operator in Villa de Leyva, but he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

Nicotiana rustica

July 17, 2012 § 7 Comments

June, July, 2012, travel, South America, Ecuador, Colombia, Quito, Tumbaco, sweat lodge, San Pedro cactus, mescaline, nicotiana rustica, North America, shaman, shamanism, zumo de tobacco, workaway,

a typical sweat lodge. the stones are drawn from the fire and placed inside in a pit.

Last week at our workaway, our hosts invited us to a Native American sweat lodge, hosted by one of their friends, who is a practicing shaman, every two weeks on the full and new moon. This experience, other than the time we deluded ourselves into thinking we got kidnapped in the Amazon (another tale for another time) stands out as one of the craziest– and most interesting– experiences of this trip so far.

One of the Native Americans’ traditional uses of the sweat lodge was a means to purify themselves of the White Man’s influences– alcohol, disease, and so on. Kinda the same way we use saunas to “detox” now. They also took it as a moment to adjourn and connect with nature’s spirits in a pushing-the-mind-and-body-to-its-limits kind of way (a bit beyond its limits, in my case). As I read somewhere since the experience, “Native American medicine hurts first, feels good later.”

Basically, the sweat lodge consisted of about 12 Ecuadorians and ourselves, adorned only in underwear or cloth sarongs, curled up together on the ground in a homemade tent shrouded in heavy blankets, chanting and singing while one by one giant volcanic stones were transfered from the belly of a giant campfire into a round earthen pit in the center of the tent. Each time a stone was placed, a woman would sprinkle herbs over the rock, which would hiss and douse us all in a heavy perfumed smoke and everyone would cry “Ajo!” and go about sweeping the smoke all over their bodies.

Groups of stones were added at four divided intervals, which broke up the sweat lodge into 4 different sessions: Earth, Water, Wind and Fire. At the beginning of these intervals, a variety of things would happen- during one, we all had the opportunity to speak a bit about our purpose for being at the ritual, our hopes, worries, and so on; during another, we were offered a glass of brewed San Pedro cactus, or Echinopsis pachanoi, which contains mescaline and is often utilized by shamans in Ecuador. ok.

During all of this time the new stones would make the tent increasingly hotter, a dry, stifling heat that sent the sweat glands into auto-flood-pilot from minute one. However, this slow, steady heat at the beginning of each interval was nothing. The conclusion of each of the 4 sessions consisted of nothing less than a group freak-out: Hand drums and shakers would be passed around, and beat-heavy songs and chants would break out that Christy and I would attempt to keep up with in Spanish, while one man continuously poured water over the hissing stones and everybody shrieked and whistled and writhed around.

Anyone that has ever been in the dry, wooden sauna thing at a spa and flicked some water on the stones just for fun to hear the hissing sound and see a little smoke has absolutely no flicker of an understanding of what this experience was like. I could barely pull air in through my nose or mouth it was so hot. At some points I was certain that my skin was going to catch on fire. Every time, in the pitch darkness, when I heard the sharp hiss of more water being doused over the stones, my heart would tighten because I knew in 5 seconds another brick wall of stifling, smoky heat was going to crumble over my body. I can’t breathe. I’m going to faint. I’m going to die. Each time, just as these thoughts were beginning to run through my head, and the group had reached a ferverous crescendo of freak-out, the interval would be over and our ritual guide would open a blanket flap and let cool air pour in.

Crawling out of the tent at the conclusion of the ritual into a burst of sudden cold air, with a totally clear sky peppered with stars and a giant full moon, in conjunction with the San Pedro cactus and the herb fumes and the intense gratitude your body felt for the change in temperature was an extremely trippy and exhilirating moment for me.

June, July, 2012, travel, South America, Ecuador, Colombia, Quito, Tumbaco, sweat lodge, San Pedro cactus, mescaline, nicotiana rustica, North America, shaman, shamanism, zumo de tobacco, workaway,

a sweat lodge back in the day

Aside from this most basic explanation, there were a lot more tiny details and a lot of amazing things said by wonderful people that made this whole experience so special. The next day, I sat at my computer for several hours sipping whisky (it was July 4 and I was most certainly celebrating from afar) and writing out a several-page, detailed account of the entire thing from start to finish but it is entirely too long, boring and personal to put on the Internet. So I want to share just one aspect about it in more detail that I had never really known much about, which is taking a liquid-based tobacco through the nose. That’s the more formal way of saying that we snorted a bunch of tobacco juice.

Right when we first got to the house a woman seated on the ground, wrapped up in a big vibrant Alpaca poncho, offered us a bowl of dark liquid with a spoon in it, and asked, “Quieres tobacco?” Ruben, the host of the sweat lodge and official master of ceremonies, saw “D’oh?” written all over our faces and explained that a common part of the Native American ritual of sweat lodges is to take tobacco nasally before, during and after the ceremony. The brown liquid contained tobacco and some root that they explained was indigenous to North America, or as they put it, “su pais” (your country).

So, straight to the dome the tobacco liquid went. You just take the spoon full of liquid and pour some into your palm, and suck up your nostrils. It hurts. You feel it immediately, searing in between your eyes, but in a good way, if this is your sort of thing. I can’t deny that I enjoyed it, a nicotine high unlike any I’ve ever experienced. We all continued to take the tobacco nasally throughout the entire experience.

Apparently it is part of Native American tradition to snort tobacco, or to “drink it through the nose” as people have worded it online. They revered nicotiana rustica and shamans would use it to cleanse, center themselves and, given enough, enter a mild state of trance.

June, July, 2012, travel, South America, Ecuador, Colombia, Quito, Tumbaco, sweat lodge, San Pedro cactus, mescaline, nicotiana rustica, North America, shaman, shamanism, zumo de tobacco, workaway,

nicotiana rustica

Learning all this suff about Native American culture had me thinking alot about how most of us North Americans are so totally out of touch with the traditions of our territorial prededessors, the ones that knew all about our dwelling before it was ever the Mighty USA. Our ideas about so many things are radically different, particularly attitudes towards substances like tobacco or mescaline (revered and used in moderation in Native American cultures, abused/frowned upon and illegal, respectively, in the modern USA). When we look at the same mountains, the same exact scenery as the people before us, we see different things. We have a completely different perception and relationship to the land beneath our feet that we inherited from these people.

The sweat lodge experience was so cool that I spent the following day ruminating about how annoying my culture is, and how we’re so lame, etc etc etc. But then, this thought process reminded me of a conversation I had with Ruben few months back. I was, as I had many a times before, lamenting the USA’s “lack of a culture.” I’m so envious of you, and the places we visit, I would always say, because they are so culturally rich. You are so lucky to have such a feeling of vivid cultural identity, flavor and tradition.

But Grace, Ruben said to me, the cultures that were created long ago are interesting, but everything about the USA is the culture of what’s happening now. It’s the nuclear center of pop culture, with the American cinema, and the tech revolution, and innovation in sustainability. It’s exciting for you, to be a part of the culture that the entire world looks to and revolves around.

Sometimes he just makes so much sense.

So, love it or hate it, out with the tobacco snorting and in with the techy gadgets- this is the  culture of the now, and it’s all ours.

book nerdism: The Hand-Sculpted House

July 5, 2012 § 19 Comments

Christy and I have been at a workaway project for the past two weeks in Tumbaco, Ecuador, just east of Quito. We’re living with room and board and in exchange we spend about 5 hours per day on a construction site, where our hosts are building a home made of a super-sustainable material called cob.

There was a coffee table-type book about it sitting next to my bed so I’ve been reading through it and enlightening myself deeper on the subject when I’m not too tired at night (which is actually not often, because the work is physically draining for a suburban American younglady like myself, who isn´t well accustomoned to the woes of manual labor).

The Hand-Sculpted House, Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linda Smiley, Oregon cob, sustainable building, sustainable architecture, cob house,, Ecuador, Quito, travel, July 2012

where we’re working on a cob house. Yes, I am actually complaining about how hard it is to lug bricks all over this completely gorgeous setting

The Hand-Sculpted House turned out to be much more than a coffee table book and actually quite philosophical at that. Aside from practical how-to’s on creating a cob home from start to finish, one author in particular delves a lot into the cultural, emotional, cosmological significance of the ways we can, but don’t often choose to, shelter ourselves.

First of all, cob: it’s composed of sand, soil, straw and water, which, as I’ve learned, actually makes a super durable, thermal building material. And it’s cheap as hell. Besides cheap, the coolest part about it in my opinion is that it builds best in curved, organic shapes, so not only can you design a super cool, unique habitat, it’s actually recommended to do so.

The Hand-Sculpted House, Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linda Smiley, Oregon cob, sustainable building, sustainable architecture,  cob house,, Ecuador, Quito, travel, July 2012

a few examples from the book how designing with cob differs from typical building materials, allowing for more organic design

So the authors of the book, as well as my appassionato Italian hosts, really trip out on the concept of these radically deisgned homes “growing directly out of the earth”, with materials that came from and will return to the ground without doing any damage to the environment.

cob houses are all cozy-like inside because they’re made from natural materials

The book also goes over how to build your home more sensitive to the earth, particularly, more “cosmically aware” in their terms. When you design yourself, you can use a basic knowledge of the earth’s tilt and spin for both practical functions (such as using the angle of the midday winter sun to store warmth in your home using passive solar heating) and nerdy astrological touches (such as  building a skylight through which you can always see the North Star, which never moves).

The Hand-Sculpted House, Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linda Smiley, Oregon cob, sustainable building, sustainable architecture, cob house,, Ecuador, Quito, travel, July 2012

an example the book provides on how to design your house according to the movement of the sun

Arguably the principle author and voice of the book, this builder-permaculture-architect guru Ianto Evans covers the “philosophy” and design behind building a cob-based house. He spends a lot of time commenting on how, over time, we have lost the connection between ourselves and our man-made environment, particularly the homes where we spend arguably half of our lives.

He makes the point, which I’ve never really even considered before, that when an architect/builder/construction crew is absentmindedly putting together their 9,282nd home, which is comparable to or exactly the same as the homes that came before it, they aren’t giving a single backthought as to whom will be calling this building “home”, “habitat”, “safe place”, and what particular functions or designs it could provide to suit a particular person’s needs, whims, or aesthetics. And this isn’t their fault. We’ve come to accept this sort of thing, as our homes to impersonal rectangles boxes that all look just the same. Like that annoying theme song from Weeds that has been cycling through my head since I´ve started writing about this.

The Hand-Sculpted House, Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linda Smiley, Oregon cob, sustainable building, sustainable architecture, cob house,, Ecuador, Quito, travel, July 2012

An example of an interior cob cottage. You can intuitively build your own living space into the walls (basically for free) to suit your exact tastes

Ianto says, as is the case in most books about sustainability, that industrialism and consumerism is to blame. We had it right in the olden days before excess materials were made available to us, and most 2nd or 3rd world nations still rely on the tried and true principles the rest of us have forgotten.

Case in point:  in some developing nations, people continue to build homes so as to orient the front door or window facing the rising morning sun, capturing its warmth and also providing a natural, beautiful alarm clock. Ianto noted that old farmhouses in Wales (his homeland) were built the same way. However, after 1850 the houses abruptly face in haphazard directions, due to industrially manufactured bricks made available by the dawn of railroads. Progress is fine and well, but why throw away all the useful- and sustainable- principles mankind used to get by on just fine in the past?

The Hand-Sculpted House, Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linda Smiley, Oregon cob, sustainable building, sustainable architecture, cob house,, Ecuador, Quito, travel, July 2012

This cob house not only has a cool design, it is probably facing the direction of the rising sun like in the good old days

Like this one, a lot of the great points Ianto makes aren’t starry-eyed, tree-hugging cooing about communing once again with nature (although he does do that as well); he just has a lot of common sense. He points out how, in pursuit of progress, builders have forgotten about the practicality of our ancestors. They must have been doing a few things right to get by for that long.

There was a sidebar about steel roofs in Kenya that I really liked:

In Kenya, right on the equator, we encountered an entire village newly rebuilt, completely of corrugated steel: roofs, walls, room dividers. This, in a region noted for its exquisitely built circular earthen homes. We stopped the truck, seeking an explanation, and as always a little crowd gathered under the vertical sun. Why, we asked, were they opting for a material that in the tropics lasts only a few years, is freezing cold at night and an oven in the daytime?

The answer surprised us all. They wanted to be modern and knew how people like ourselves lived in other countries. “In America where you live, is it not correct that everybody can afford a metal house?”

Somehow the word had gotten out that U.S. houses are made of corrugated tin. Maybe a villager saw a movie about about Alabama in the 1930s; who knows? Not wanting to look as if they were backward, these people had been misled into abandoning their traditions for an imported material they will spend a lifetime to pay for.

“Yes,” one woman agreed, in that flawless pedantic British School English only Africans can speak, “it is utterly true that the houses are too hot, and additionally we have considerable difficulty conducting conversations when the rain comes, but this is the price of Progress.”

Flipping through The Hand-Sculpted House, and spending time at this workaway, has been a bit of a revelation for me because I’ve never given much thought to the roof over my head in this manner or realized how easy it is to create such a unique living space. That just isn’t “the way we do things” anymore. But if you think about it, once you’re settled down and in a place for good, you’re stuck with it- you are going to pass the majority of your human experience there.  I know I’ve got a long time (and a lot of shitty apartments) ahead of me before I can even consider getting picky with my living situation. However, it was an interesting read, just to shake up my idea of what “home” or “dwelling” even means, and to think of all the possibilities there are to make it not only more sustainable, but more an extension of you rather than just a box full of your crap.

cholas cuencanas

June 27, 2012 § 4 Comments

Hello there from Ecuador!! Christy and I have been out of Spanish classes/Cuenca for about a week now, and although I’ve got much to share concerning Ecuadorian life and our myriad adventures through mountain peak and jungle thicket, literally, I’m struggling to find time here. So for now while I’ve got the chance, I want to give a little shout out to all the little ladies of Cuenca. These women are really too freaking cute and I miss seeing them around the streets since we’ve left.

The women here have retained an extremely visual cultural dress far longer than their male counterparts, and pretty much all urban folk of Ecuador in general. Upon disembarking in Cuenca from our first bus ride (a 6-hour joy from Guayaquil, aka “the armpit of the Galapagos” according to Kurt Vonnegut), Christy immediately pointed out the female cuencana uniform: emroidered, splashy colored skirt, woven poncho or cardigan, blocky white hat, long braids. That’s it. They’re all wearing it. More often than not, the woman will have a strip of fabric tied around her back within which they support gargantuan amounts of corn, or textiles, or babies. There isn’t much of a market for backpacks here as traditionally the blanket-turned-backpack has always worked very well for them and it doensn’t seem they will switch it up anytime soon.

The story behind all this: These women are called cholas cuencanas, which is actually a slur word in most other parts of the world. Cholo/a in the United States is a term for gangster (apparently), and in Andean regions it is used as a term for indigenous folks who pretend to be a mestizo, or a person of mixed Spanish-indigenous descent (Not sure why that’s an insult or why it’s important to be Spanish but that’s besides). However, these women have retained the name as a source of cultural pride, and is characterized by their schmancy outfits which consist of the following as key ingredients:

ecuador, cuenca, women, cholas cuencanas, travel, grace stainback

a chola cuencana catching a little snooze

pollera: this is the knee length, brightly colored skirt that Christy and I have decided would look hideous on us however is suited perfectly for the Ecuadorians’ characteristic stocky character. The varied hem embroidery can identify which community a woman is from. Apparently, these skirts can cost well into the hundred(s), but I think that’s the gringo price and that the cholas cuencanas either a) make it themselves or b) has an aunt/godmother/second cousin’s friend that makes it.

chola hat: it looks very similar to a Panama hat (which, FYI, is from Cuenca, Ecuador, not Panama), but it’s painted with white paint to become much more sturdy and typically has a large black band.

paño: this is a woven, fringed shawl, like a poncho. Sometimes this is switched up for a cardigan for more hum drum days in the market. This paño is the most prized and culturally interesting of the items and I will tell you why.

We received some very interesting information about these ponchos from Carlos, our super Spanish teacher. Apparently, a traditional way for a man to propose to a woman in many subcultures of Ecuador (not just in Cuenca) is simply to tear off her poncho. Poncho successfully torn off= official proposal. Carlos told us that if the woman accepts, which she usually does, that’s it- they’re considered bound for life. This information was met with a substantial amount of horror from Christy and I.

Now, if she does not accept, I’m thinking it’s probably pretty awkward getting that prized poncho back. Because of this, Carlos said, women invest in quality, duro clasps for their pochos to make sure those babies stay on tight. The clasps are actually beautiful and quite expensive. When the young woman gets hitched, it’s usually protocol that the husband buys her a brand new clasp for her poncho.

In yet another Ecuadorian sect it gets even more bizarre. The [I regretfully cannot remember the name of this clan] is known for their particularly beautiful women. As these girls are coming of age (aka ready to get married), they dye strands of their long hair a bright blue shade to signify that they are ripe for the taking. Sounds great for guys, right? However, men take particular care to keep their distance from these pretty ladies, because interacting with one of these girls too much, or even standing next to her for too long is considered a nonverbal marriage proposal. You don’t even have to rip a poncho or anything. Standing next one someone on a bus could suddenly become a sickly, permanent twist of fate! This knowledge morsel was even more horrifying for Christy and I, given that the woman doesn’t have very much say in selecting her mate at all. If it were me, I would simply never stand in one place longer than 2 minutes Energizer bunny style.

For now we are shaking off the jungle dust in Quito, about to start a workaway project a bit east of the city. Out hosts actually created a blog about the project we’ll be working on, you can check it out here!

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