70: Best Birthday of All

Posted on September 18, 2015 by Kevin Ward | 0 comments

Turning 70 has probably never been better than it was for me this year. Vincent arranged through AirBnB for a weekend in Cotacachi, the leather-working center of Ecuador. The ads sounded marvelous--an Ecuadorian family looking for guests who want to experience not only the climate but the culture and cooking (all organic food) of Ecuador. If anything, they understated their welcome. Before we even got there, they had offered to make a special dinner on the 8th and bake a birthday cake. They said they were eagerly expecting us. That, too, was an understatement. We felt unbelievably dear to them before we even got there.

Vincent began celebrating on Thursday, bringing home the most beautiful flower arrangement (it has lasted until the 16th). A dozen roses, red and white, anthurium, bird-of-paradise, sunflowers, carnations, red ti plant, tall grasses, goldenrod, alstroemeria, some flowers whose stems and sepals look like carnations, but whose blossoms look like clusters of green feathers, tall papyrus leaves, and tiny white asters. I have been enjoying them immensely for a good long time. The roses don't droop!

We took a taxi from Otavalo on the Friday afternoon before, and the taxista was very as they say here--listo. It means ready, but it also means smart, practical, capable, a go-to person. We had the neighborhood--Turucu--and the general idea was that it was near a chapel. Our taxista was from Otavalo and didn't know too much about Cotacachi, but he called his dispatcher and off we went. It was different from the taxi rides you get in the U.S. (cheaper--a lot cheaper) inasmuch as when we got near the place the dispatcher told him to go, the driver stopped a couple of times and asked the oldest-looking person he could find where this family lived. Imagine trying to find someone like that in the U.S., where most people haven't the faintest idea who their neighbors are!

When we arrived, they were baking bread in a big brick oven in their courtyard. Half a dozen dogs milled around in a friendly way. One of them we took to calling the "rasta dog," because he had long, long dreadlocks hanging from his ears. The bread they had made by hand, in the old way, the children--theirs and the neighbors'--had formed the bread into shapes. They had also roasted some pork called "cuero" or leather. They were both delicious, hot and juicy. We hadn't known we were hungry before, but we polished off quite a lot of this "snack." They showed us to our room and we were delighted to discover that there were no stairs, and that our windows overlooked their sizable fruit, flower and vegetable garden, and on the other side, the volcano Cotopaxi. Hanging in front of our door and right beside (nearly IN) the garden were two comfy hammocks. Wow! we thought to ourselves, this is magnificent. I forgot to mention that the $15 per person per night included breakfast and dinner. I did mention the home cooking though.

Our hosts Patricia and Rumiñahui are both excellent cooks. She belongs to a group of women who are practicing and promoting organic gardening. We had homemade bread (from the week's baking) and fruit in the mornings (we had the choice of eggs from their flock of chickens, but preferred this). Lunches were extra ($3 each), and consisted of meat, rice, and fresh vegetables from their garden. The shrimp dinner on Saturday night was incredible. I longed to lick my fingers, but it wouldn't have been polite, I think--no one else was. I've never eaten shrimp with the shell on (it's quite messy with a lot of fingerwork involved), but I think I would have eaten these hanging upside down from a rope if I'd had to.

We met a couple from France who were staying there, very friendly. Her parents were originally from Spain, so her Spanish was excellent, and she had some English, too, which she enjoyed practicing with us. As they were leaving, they were asked to sign the wall where all the departing guests get to voice their sentiments.

Wall, you said? That's right, two whole walls of their dining room are painted with large trees. Everyone who stays has the opportunity to write what they wish, mostly very grateful wishes for the family. On the opposite wall is another tree listing the children, parents and grandparents. Each child had a nickname, from youngest to oldest: Sami (princesa), Malki (loco), Yarina (amable), Yauri (alegre). Patricia was creativa, and Rumi was soñador (dreamer). Their 19-year-old son Yauri is the artist who painted the walls and did some other very interesting and sometimes beautiful work throughout the house--portraits, dreamscapes, etc. He is very talented in my opinion, but not receiving any income from his art--he's working in Quito, but not as an artist.

We walked the roughly 3/4 mile to the town center on Saturday morning, passing many sights, both interesting and beautiful, and the inevitable wandering dogs. In this country town, we also saw many pigs, cows and horses grazing in the fields.  We met the wife of an artisan we know in the leather market (Cotacachi is world-famous for its leather goods) and bought a poncho from her. At noon, we walked back. After lunch, Patricia brought a plate to an elderly gentleman who was working in their fields where they raise potatoes, habas (fava beans) and some other things. He was trying to hold a roll of barbed wire at the same time and dropped the plate upside down in the dirt. That was sad for all of us, because we had pictured his satisfaction eating that delicious food that we had just had, but the dogs who had followed us truly enjoyed it. (The bowl of soup was better protected, so he didn't have to go completely hungry.) Besides dogs, they also raise pigs, cows, horses, chickens, dogs and cats. We had fun playing with the latter. Vincent asked why the puppies were kept on the roof. Patricia's smiling reply was, they are traviésos. (Scamps.) They proved it the next day by overturning some potted plants on the patio and making a big mess.

It is amazing to us over and over to see these animals all living amicably side by side. So much for the law of the jungle. Dogs here in general don't chase chickens (or cats) or cows. They are not on leashes either. Many of them chase cars and cyclists, but many others just look placidly at passersby without barking or threatening. We don't understand why the differences exist--aggressive, barking, chasing or peaceful, calm and moderately friendly--but none of them has a leash.

On Saturday afternoon, Rumi asked if we wanted to go for a drive to see Lake Cuicocha. This was very kind of him--not in the brochure at all--and we had wanted to see it again. When we were here in 2011, it was just beautiful. It is the caldera of a dormant volcano filled with water. In some spots, you can see the (formerly hot) gases escaping in clusters of bubbles. The place he drove us to was very high above the lake, so you could see the whole thing, including the islands in the center. It seemed we were at the very top of the world, looking out at the chain of volcanoes, dormant and active, that form the backbone of Ecuador. Years ago, someone planted several small stands of pine and others of eucalyptus, which is omnipresent in this part of the country. It was so uplifting to see all the green! No billboards, no highways, no apartment blocks, office buildings, factories or stores, just lovely vistas for 360 degrees. We could see the dots in the valley that represented Otavalo, where we are currently living.

We then drove to visit family of Patricia and Rumi and from there went up the hill on a steep dirt road to find one of the puppies, who apparently had run home to his mother as soon as he realized where he was. Here we had a real treat. There was a tiny family enclave on the side of the hill by the road. We walked down to it and met a young relative and an incredibly ancient-looking couple who stood beside their house. Rumi wanted us to see how houses used to be made before Europeans came. The house owned by the couple was newer--it had a thatched roof and concrete block walls. He said that was not as warm. The other house was also thatched but made with adobe--mud with layers of bamboo, just like a cake. This one is warmer in the winter, Rumi said. The couple were gracious to let us photograph them beside their house, and their smiles were very broad when Vincent showed them the picture afterwards. Afterwards, we drove back to Cotacachi through Otavalo, listening to Vivaldi in the car (that was surreal in a way, as we most often here have heard Andean music and contemporary rock on the radio). Rumi loves classical violin. And we both love Vivaldi.

We stopped at a tiny shop in a tiny town for ice cream. The chocolate variety that I chose was very yummy. We felt replete, totally relaxed and even pampered well before the shrimp dinner. They really made every effort to celebrate my birthday, even though the day before I had been a stranger. Rumi even played his violin for my supper--"feliz cumpleaños," and everyone sang. Gratitude was my constant emotional state for this birthday.

 I spent a lot of time that weekend listening to the live stream from the conference which is the culmination of the transformational nine-month course I have been taking. That was energizing and encouraging. I also decided that at 70, I am not descending the proverbial "hill," rather getting ready to make the biggest contribution I can to the world. On Friday night I began getting e-mails from all over the world wishing me a happy birthday. It had a tremendous impact on me, how many people wish me well. I realized I know hundreds of very kind people, which is a gift beyond my wildest dreams. Saturday the trickle became a torrent. I was overwhelmed with kindness. I got funny cards from a friend and from the office of Minga and a sweet one from my former sister-in-law. She had the idea of scanning and e-mailing the card, which had never occurred to me is possible.

On Sunday, Patricia asked would we like to see something very special that happens in Cotacachi only one time a year on this weekend. Of course we said yes, so we walked together to the town plaza to see Muyu Raymi, which is a féria de semillas, or festival of seeds. This has been going on since antiquity (which is why it has the indigenous name), but is growing in importance because of the need for healthier gardening, without pesticides, chemicals or GMOs. It was astonishing. That's the best I can describe it. In one corner of the plaza, they had an indigenous ceremony to offer thanks to the Creator for all the gifts of the earth--a harvest festival. But one feature is unique in my experience--people exchange their seeds. There are competitions for the various types of seeds, especially maíz, or corn. The ones that get the prizes are the most sought after. The table where they were displayed was thickly surrounded with people several layers deep.

The beauty of this festival is hard to describe--so glad Vincent took pictures. In the main square, they had laid out a traditional offering--fruits, flowers, vegetables, seeds of all kinds, laid out in a beautiful geometric pattern. An old woman chanted in Quichua (the language of indigenous Ecuadoreans, predating the Spanish by centuries), a group chanted and sang, and the old women went around the circle that had gathered to watch sprinkling water on the crowd. It was very similar to some of the ceremonies at St. Nicholas in that regard. Afterwards, groups gathered to play music, sing and dance.

We also milled around the square, looking at exhibits and seeing the incredible display of seeds lining the streets. It reminded us of Holy Week in Guatemala, when the pavements are decorated with gorgeous mosaics of seeds, dyed corn meal and flower petals. The native women (mostly) also lined the streets, sitting or squatting, talking to each other and arranging the displays.

Patricia introduced us to several of her friends, one of whom is a herbalist. She had published a small book explaining the medicinal value of many native plants, and they chatted together for quite some time while Vincent took photos. We tasted some improbable dishes (some of them involving insects) and got food for Patricia's brother and father at some of the cooking stalls. Then we walked home in leisurely fashion. She made us a nice lunch at home and after spending a bit more time in the hammocks and then the garden, learning some more about plants, we took a taxi to Otavalo.

The pace of life in Cotacachi is so tranquil, so lovely. We walked, ate, spent time playing with the kittens and viewing the garden and smelling the citrus blossoms. I felt like a happy little flower, slowly opening in the warmth of the sun. In the midst of this were beautiful meditations on the power of life to heal and renew itself. I felt my soul expanding as if it would fly. Vincent kept encouraging me to remember that I am loved. All the Facebook posts and e-mails and phone calls helped. I was pretty buoyant by the end of the evening. I really feel called to use the gifts I have been given to share the beauty of the earth and all its creatures, human and not, and to help people connect with the love and unity that is their birthright on this planet. The book Transcendent Joy is just the beginning. To live expanded, to know I have a place and a purpose, that others value me (thank you, Anne, for the reminder) as I value them, that was the real gift of this birthday, the best birthday ever. Thank you, God, thank you all..

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