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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

Music in Cuenca

House music concert in Cuenca, Ecuador

There is an amazing variety of music talent in Cuenca, most of which you can listen to free.  It is often hard to choose between competing performances, and there are more performances than we can realistically attend each week.  It has been awhile since I have mentioned that fact in this blog, so I thought it was time to remind readers of the variety available.  This week, there was another free symphony, which we missed.  There were also several musicians playing rock, jazz, or pop, or oldies in several restaurants around town -- all either free, or with cover fees of $5 or less, many which are listed on Itur's website, Cuyker.com.

The first free concert we did attend this week was with Karen Kennedy who performed at Teatro La Casa de la Cultura, shown above.  Karen was a professional opera singer, performing around the world, including New York city, before settling with her family in Cuenca.  We have heard her perform several times over the past years, and usually try to attend when we hear of her being scheduled.  We understand that she has scheduled performances in Germany and Holland next month. She was joined on stage by Cosié Aquirre Saula on piano, and Santiago Zumbana on violin.

As always, the performance was magnificent.  Unusually though, we were the only gringos in the audience.  The large theater hall was about 70% full, and everyone appeared to be Ecuadorian.  This performance was not advertised in the English speaking forums, so probably most of them were not aware of her performance.

Karen Kennedy in music concert in Cuenca, Ecuador

Colibri Conciertos has been putting on "house concerts" for the past 10 months.  These are usually held in private homes somewhere in Cuenca.  Tonight there was such a free concert (however donations are requested to support the musicians) at Mansión Alcázar, a first class hotel here in Cuenca.  As usual, this concert was sold-out (you do need to sign-up quickly due to limited seating) within the first 3 hours after it was announced.

There were four musicians performing tonight.  Daniel Brito Acosta played the piano, Carlos Andrade the violin, and Eddie Jumbo the cello, and Sandra Echeverri was the soprano vocalist.  All the musicians were beyond superb.  The string work by Carlos and Eddie were amazing to watch, as well as listen to. Sandra's voice is pure and sweet, and is some of the best classical singing I have heard.  Always the expert, piano music of Daniel tied the rest together.

At the end, there was a raucous and lengthy standing ovation from everyone in the audience.  Very well deserved.  Next time you hear of a "house concert" in town, jump in and sign up instantly.  If you wait to have your coffee, you will be too late and will find yourself on the waiting list...

ACT Does It Again – “Talking With…”

Live Theater ACT Cuenca Ecuador - Talking With

Last night we attended another expat community theater performance with A.C.T. Theater here in Cuenca. The show was "Talking With..." and consisted of monologues by 11 women, each with a completely independent story.  Each woman was in crisis in her life, and -- to be honest -- I expected a bit of a dark downer theater experience.  Instead, these women each brought humor to their personal crisis moments of their life.  There were definitely moments to be considered deeply, but the presentation kept the audience laughing... allowing the deeper thoughts to subtly intrude, while enjoying the antics of each actress.

Live Theater ACT Cuenca Ecuador - Talking With

Each gringa actress presented a wildly different woman in crisis.  They varied from a bored housewife escaping to Oz while doing routine housework (my personal favorite), to a woman 23 hours in labor for a child already expected to be "challenged," to a homeless woman dreaming of living in McDonald's (another favorite of mine), to a snake charmer concerned with her loss of faith in gawd, and a host of others too numerous to mention here.

Live Theater ACT Cuenca Ecuador - Talking With Cast

The cast originally expected to give a single performance, but the (English-speaking) expat audience wanted more, so a second performance was created, which we managed to get tickets for.  The first performance was totally sold out, and the second was nearly so.  Next time you hear of an ACT performance, be sure to jump at the chance for tickets, as we have been awed by how much new creative talent there is in Cuenca.  We have been to all their shows so far, and can attest that even those that seem "dark and foreboding" in the initial description are interesting, and yes, fun. Kudos to Deana Culp, the director, and the entire expat cast.

Puerto López 3 – The Malecón and People Watching

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 construction

The last two days, I have described our trip to Puerto Lopez, first with the whales and then with the fishermen.  I will wrap up describing the trip with other images of interest from our four day trip to the coast.

The malecón on Puerto Lopez has been under construction for a couple years.  Work stopped for nearly a year when the government ran out of money (largely due to the drop in oil prices -- what is good for the American consumer can sometimes hurt developing countries like Ecuador).  Everything is back in full swing though, and there were crews working along the entire stretch of unfinished work.  As a side note, the remaining construction is all a fair distance from Hostería Mandala, where we stayed, so we did not have any disturbance.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 fishing nets

In the afternoon, after the fishing boats were all emptied, it was time to repair the nets.  This is a daily effort, always trying to keep the nets in optimal condition.  Also, any holes allow part of the catch to escape, which hurts the success of the fishing crew.  This is hard work, but I never saw anyone grumbling. Instead, they use this time to mend the nets and socialize with friends.  As hard as they work, they always seem to have a smile on their face, and a friendly wave and glance to a passing tourist.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 people

I will finish with a random collection of images from the coast.  Kids playing soccer (or fútbol, as they call it here), ice cream vendors (delicious and made right there on the mobile cart!), a fisherman barbecuing in his wood boat, a boat repairman, families enjoying the beach and, of course,  chimpers.

That completes this trip, but you can be sure we will be back for more in the future!

Puerto López 2 – Fishermen

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 birds attacking fishing boats

Yesterday I described the whale watching trip and Isla de la Plata. Our favorite activity in Puerto López though is to photograph the fishermen as they come in with their daily  catch. Peak activity is between 8AM and 11AM....  As you approach the stretch of beach near the wharf where the fishermen come in, there is no doubt that everything is in a full frenzy -- the sky is filled with birds circling and diving, hoping for an easy meal.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 birds attacking fishermen runners

The real show is seen as you get closer though.  There are crews of people who fill plastic bins with fish, then run up the beach to the waiting ice trucks and weighing stations.  Over that 100 foot run, the pelicans and frigatebirds dive at the bins, trying to extract fish for a quick meal.  Each time the bird succeeds, the bin is a little lighter, and the weighing station will reward the fishermen with a little less money.  Therefore, many of them work in pairs, with one person carrying the bin, and a second person waving away the birds.

When we were here in 2012, the bins were totally open topped, and the birds got a substantial feast.  Since then, the fishermen have learned to place a burlap tarp over the bin, making it harder for the birds to attain their prize.  The birds have learned how to hover, pull back the tarp and grab a fish anyway though, as seen in the upper left image.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 sharks and manta rays

Larger sea life was dragged onto the beach to be prepared for market, with no concern for bird thieves due to the size of the fish. Three boats brought in sharks, and one butcher worked through all of them, cutting off fins first, then gutting the fish and cutting the balance into trunks that would be turned into steaks.  One boat brought in half a dozen manta rays, piling them on the beach.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 fish and fishermen vendors

When most of the boats had arrived and been emptied, the focus moved higher on the beach.  Some fishermen filled the bottom of small boats with their catch, selling it to local residents who would buy one fish or a string of them, presumably for their family dinner.  Fish were segregated, and available for purchase directly as-caught.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 fish preparation

There were also several dozen people scaling, fileting, and otherwise preparing fish for you to cook.  It was obvious these people had done this a long time, as their practiced hands almost blurred as they worked through huge piles of fish.

Puerto López 1 – Whale Watching

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 Sunset

Last week we rented a car from CuencaCarShare and drove to Puerto López, a small fishing village on the coast of Ecuador, with two friends.  We stayed at Hostería Mandala, just as we did on our first trip to this area in 2012. They have added some new deluxe suites, which we stayed in.  The Colibrí suite was quiet, spacious, comfortable and came with a fridge.

As we approached Puerto López, the cloud cover became pretty thick, and we figured there would be no sunset. At the beach, we realized that the clouds didn't quite reach the horizon, so we grabbed our cameras and rushed to find something interesting for the foreground.  There was only about a 5 minute window when the sun dropped out of clouds before it went below the horizon, during which time we got the above images.  Good thing too, because the next few days became solid overcast by about 3PM each day, and we never again saw any hint of another sunset.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 whales

This is peak whale watching season along the coast of Ecuador, so we took a boat trip along with about 15 passengers, and saw several whales surface, and two that breached.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 island Isla Plata blue footed boobies

Our boat tour also included a stop at Isla de la Plata, the island off the coast commonly referred to as "The Poor Man's Galapagos," because it is so close and inexpensive to reach.  If you enjoy wildlife up-close, you can't pass up a chance to visit here.  The island teams with Blue Footed Boobies.  At this time of year, the eggs are hatching, and we saw dozens of birds, both male and female, trade off sitting on the eggs, and many others with their newly hatched chicks.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador 2016 island Isla La Plata Frigate Birds

The other predominant species on the island is the Galapagos Frigatebird, with wingspans of 7'+.  We had hoped for some good images with the males puffing out their large red pouches, used to attract a mate.  Though there were a few, they tended to be in the midst of heavily branched bushes. The mating season began a couple of months earlier, when the frigates were more active.

Waterfall Moving From Still Image

Waterfall Moving Image From Still - Iceland

You may have noticed that a couple recent blogs have had moving images in them (symphony and magic as examples). These are animated GIF images that I have been experimenting with. Both those were made starting with videos that I shot during the event. With some masking magic, I am able to obtain a moving image where only one portion is moving in the frame, and which can played in a loop on a browser without requiring you to press a 'start' button.

Yesterday I discovered a new trick in Photoshop that I think is rather cool, and which I may use now and then in the future too.  In the image above, I had a single still image (no movie involved) from a waterfall in Iceland we visited in 2014.  The basic trick is to select regions that are wanted to move, transform them in Photoshop along the desired path, then animate the result.  A bit of cleanup masking, and the waterfall here is the result of my first attempt.

It turns out that Diako Mardanbegi figured out how to create Photoshop actions that make this even easier.  Check it out if you like to play with Photoshop.

Elements of Magic

Juan Gonzoliez Magic Show Cuenca Ecuador Cuchura Magica

There was a restaurant in El Centro that we enjoyed, called Magica Cuchara, or "The Magic Spoon."  It was owned by a very talented local magician, Juan Estrella, who is a member of the exclusive Magic Circle of international magicians.  Juan also performs around the world, and in many places in the United States.  When you dined there (and the food was enough to bring you in), the owner would often show up unannounced and perform table magic right in front of you.  It was always amazing, and we would spend the rest of our meal trying to figure out how he did that!

Unfortunately,  the restaurant is right on the Transvia path, which means the street has been torn up and almost unreachable for more than a year.  Juan had to close the restaurant... but like the magic Phoenix, it has been reborn as a weekly magic theater.

The Magic Spoon is now a theater each Thursday night, alternating between Spanish and English presentations.  Juan intends to have each of the 23 magicians from his Cuenca Magic Association perform at the new theater.  He also hopes to open the restaurant again next year, after the Transvia rail system is operational, and business returns to Gran Colombia (the street of his theater cum restaurant).

Last night, we went there for the English performance by Juan Gonzolas.  His English patter was a bit stilted at times, though he was easily understandable.  His first tricks looked rather clumsy (intentionally, as it turned out), only to then end with a flourish that left you wondering "How did he do that??!"

This show was called "Elements", and had a series of tricks based on the elements of traditional Chinese beliefs.  You can see above where he is lighting a series of envelopes on fire, each of which you think may have a $20 bill in it.  After all are burned, he has the audience participant open his hands, unfold the empty envelope in his hand -- only to see the $20 bill there.

The magic is all "close up," with a tiny theater seating only about 40 people (we were in the first row). He was never more than 6 feet from us, and most of his tricks involved someone from the audience right at the table with him.  As far as I know, nobody in the audience figured out how he did any of his magic.

Definitely a fun evening, and one we will be repeating when future magicians come to this theater.

Juan Gonzoliez Magic Show Cuenca Ecuador Cuchura Magica

Ecuadorean Cooking School

san isidro cooking school Cuenca Ecuador -- classroom

We spent a full day last week at a cooking school here in Cuenca.  Unfortunately, I got rather sick shortly afterwards (sore throat, etc -- not related to the school) and my brain went offline for most of the past week.  I am only now getting around to writing about the experience.

The class was at the San Isidro institute, a local cooking college where many of the best chefs in Cuenca restaurants learned their trade.  It was organized by the Cuenca Expat Magazine, a relatively new magazine that has organized  trips for expats to experience unique places around Ecuador.

We opened with a tour of the facilities, where we came across a class of children learning to make pastries (bottom row), as well as college students preparing our lunch (middle right).  We then spent about an hour in the classroom (upper right and middle left) where we learned something about the different cuisines of Ecuador's four regions (coastal, Andes, Amazon and Galapagos), and then some initial directions relating to the meal we would make that afternoon.

san isidro cooking school Cuenca Ecuador -- eating

After classroom time, we went out for school Final Exam.  That is, the students had prepared lunch for us, and our grade of their taste, presentation, texture, and service was part of the student's final grade for the semester.  Each student was required to create his own personal dish, based upon the lessons of their most recent semester of training.  As such, every table had a different meal, and there was no menu to choose from.

We ate outside, where it was a bit cool (this was late July in Cuenca after all, close into August, which is out coldest month).  The meals were pieces of art (middle and lower left are examples from our table) that were almost a shame to eat.  The taste and presentation of each course would feel right at home in an expensive 5-star restaurant.  My only regret was that these were not courses we could return to have again in the future.

After lunch, and just before we entered the kitchen for our own cooking lesson, we got together for a group shot (lower right).

san isidro cooking school Cuenca Ecuador --

We then entered into the teaching kitchen to prepare our own meals.  We learned to make plantain and cheese empanadas.  We then made "seco de chivo" (a goat stew).  Goat tends to be a rather tough meat, but the recipe and directions we were given resulted in a very tasty and tender meal -- one that will find its way into my home cookbook.

With every class, we learn something new, like how to chop onions without crying (by freezing them 15 minutes prior), as well as why knives are shaped a certain way. This was the first experience with San Isidro cooking school. Though there were a few rough edges, it is pretty clear this is something we will attend again next month, for the second session.

Manabi Earthquake Relief

Cuenca Ecuador Festival for Earthquake Victims of Manabi Solidaridad

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Ecuador on April 16, 2016.  We were in Istanbul, Turkey at the time. The couple that was staying in our Cuenca, Ecuador apartment said they could feel it, though we were 180 miles from the epicenter.  More than 650 people were killed in the quake.  200 schools and thousands of homes were also destroyed.  There was an immediate international relief effort, with over 13,000 police and military mobilized to help those affected.

Though the quake has moved off the front page, with other world events taking the focus on other parts of the world, there continues to be charity events held throughout Ecuador.  Today was one such, called Solidaridad con la Gente de Manabi (Solidarity with the people of Manabi).  The upper right poster was for a Concierto por las Victimas del Terremoto (Concert for the Victims of the Earthquake), which was held in May (while we were still in Turkey).

Cuenca Ecuador Festival for Earthquake Victims of Manabi Solidaridad

The fair was held across the street from Parque Calderon, in the center of Cuenca. The San Luis Seminary courtyard only recently opened again to the public.  It had been closed since a major fire on August 15, 2012.  The view of the New Cathedral (though built in 1885, that is still the name it is best known as) is spectacular, as seen in the upper left image.  The highlight of the festival was the unveiling of a special tent for temporary housing for those who lost their home (upper right image) designed by Peter Dudar and an architect.  Though small, the tent is cleverly made using umbrella material, PVC, rebar and recycled bicycle spokes to provide protection from the sun and heat on the coast, as well as provide ventilation. Designed to sleep 4, it was large enough to fit 35 dancers the night before.  Each tent costs $150 to produce, and the charity is attempting to raise enough money for 1000 tents.

Cuenca Ecuador Festival for Earthquake Victims of Manabi Solidaridad

As always, families with kids enjoyed the day at Parque Calderon across the street.


Belated 4th of July Symphony

American Symphony Music in Cuenca Ecuador

As we have noted before, the symphonies in Cuenca are always free, and in this case, jointly sponsored by the US Consulate and the Ministry of Culture .  Tonight was a special  performance of "Portrait of Lincoln"  celebrating 240 years of independence in the United States, featuring all American composers and music, with the Cuenca Symphony directed by American conductor Jeffrey Sean Dokken, from West Virginia.  Music was from composers Aaron Copland, George Whitefield Chadwick, and ending with John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" march.

The program opened with the US Consulate General Patricia Fietz speaking, in both English and Spanish, about the ties between Ecuador and the US.  She said this same program was given earlier in both Guayaquil (where the US Consulate is located) and Loja, and they decided to also bring it here to Cuenca.  Also featured was the renown solo violinist from Guayaquil, Jorge Saade.

After the concert, we walked home, and passed by the gallery of Miguel Illescas (located on Calle Larga close to the Pumapungo Theater), and in our opinion the finest gallery in Cuenca.  Miguel is a locally well known metal sculptor,  and when we saw that he was open, we decided to drop in to see what was new.  To our surprise, he was having an ad hoc reception for the symphony guests in his gallery, since the conductor had stopped in earlier that evening prior to the performance. Later, a number of attendees from the symphony, orchestra members, the Consulate General, all stopped in for some wine and h'ordeuvres.  We continue to drool over his works.  As usual, we saw several more we would love to have, and came home looking for places to put them. To top off the evening, we explored a new sushi restaurant enroute home. Such is our life in Cuenca, which provides continuing surprises for us.

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