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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

National Strike — Cuenca Style

Ecuadorian president Correa has had an unprecedented 84% approval rating in his country until recently.  He has improved education on many fronts, reduced crime in every category, improved infrastructure, and generally been a very positive, and thus popular, president.  With his political party having an overwhelming majority in Congress, he can push through almost any new law he wishes.  Unfortunately, he is also seen as brash and egocentric, and has often been accused of feeling that he alone, knows what is best for the country.  As a result, he tried to push through several unpopular laws earlier this year, and his popularity has fallen below 50% for the first time since he was elected in 2007.

For the past couple weeks, some groups have warned there would be general strike today. This would centered in the three largest cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and here in Cuenca. Protests have always been peaceful in the past few years in Cuenca, so I decided to go see for myself.

What I observed was a peaceful march through the streets of Cuenca Centro.  While protesters carried banners and shouted slogans, police maintained a loose barricade to clear all traffic on their route, and to assure that no trouble occurred. Though there were reports of small problems after dark, I did not witness any trouble at all.

Parque Calderon is in the center of Cuenca Centro, and is always an active place.  Today, the government set up booths from apparently every ministry in the government, where people could get information on what help the government could provide. The "Cocinas de Induccion" booth in the middle-left image above, was giving people information on how to convert their kitchen cook tops from propane to electricity, and explaining the subsidies that are available to help the poor make the change.  Other booths were similarly helping Ecudorians understand the importance of their environment, how the new 911 system works, and even teaching children to play chess.  There was also a stage on the corner of the park for musicians, but there weren't any playing in the couple of hours I spent there.

Hornado, or roasted pig, is a favorite Ecuadorian lunch meal, and booths were set up for that too.  People crowded the food booths, where I had a large pig lunch with more food than I could eat -- for $3.00.  There were also some teenage boys practicing break-dancing in the rotunda. Parents took turns handing their children to the mounted police (lower right image), so they could take photographs of their kids on horseback.

Overall, the atmosphere was more like a festival than a protest, which is clearly what the government wanted to project.

Here is a short clip showing the marchers going down a street in Centro.

[Recipe] Tuscan Chicken

We eat a lot of chicken in Ecuador.  It is cheap, plentiful, and can be used in so many dishes that it becomes the go-to meal, both for quickie "what do I make tonight?" meals and for guests.  This is a recipe I first saw in The Wanderlust Kitchen web site, and have slightly modified for our tastes and the high altitude here in Cuenca.

We made it tonight for some Ecuadorian guests, and it was a hit with them as much as it has become a home favorite.  Best to serve over rice, or as our friends suggested, with bread.

Tuscan Chicken
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
A one pot chicken meal that can be made in large batches. Left-overs are still delicious the next day.
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 lb chicken breast and/or thighs, skinless boneless
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp thyme
  • ½ white onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 oz mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cup stewed tomatoes
  • 1 (15 oz) can Red Beans, drained
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Cook chicken in a large skillet, browning for 3 minutes on each side.
  2. Remove chicken and set aside.
  3. Melt the butter in the pan. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  4. Add the onion and jalepenos and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, and stewed tomatoes. Sauté for 2 more minutes. Stir in the spices, beans, and sugar.
  5. Transfer the chicken back to the pan and spoon some of the sauce over top of the chicken. Cook, covered, on the stove top until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is bubbling, about ten minutes. Return the mushrooms to the pan.
  6. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
  7. Serve hot with rice or bread.


[Recipe] Coconut Balls

Coconut Balls

I read lots of food blogs, and often come up with recipe ideas from them.  I usually make a recipe three or four times before I decide I have it tweaked to my satisfaction, and certainly before I decide it is delicious enough, and easy enough, for adding to my blog.  In the last several months, I have started following a young couple with particular interest.  They create some of the most interesting -- and usually easy -- recipes I have seen for awhile.  Many of those I end up using essentially unchanged, because they work so well.

The web site is PinchOfYum.  If you like to cook, you really should start following this couple.  Today's recipe comes from them, with only a few small changes.  I have made this as appetizers for a couple of parties at our house recently, and it has been a huge hit.  It will start being a standard we take to pot luck dinners in the future now too.

[Recipe] Coconut Balls
Recipe type: Appetizer
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 12
  • 2½ cups flaked coconut
  • ¼ cup coconut oil, melted
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • a pinch of salt
  • 4 ounces white or dark fountain chocolate for topping
  1. Pulse the coconut in a blender or food processor until they are small shreds. Set aside about ¼ cup of the mixture.
  2. Mix the coconut oil, honey, vanilla, and salt. Stir in the coconut from step one.
  3. Form the mixture into small balls by squeezing until a ball forms. There will be a little bit of excess oil - that's okay.
  4. Once you have the balls formed, refrigerate for 1 hour or so until they are firm. Remove from refrigerator, and improve shape of each ball, as they are now firmer and more easily formed.
  5. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the coconut and stir constantly for a few minutes until the coconut is lightly browned.
  6. Melt the chocolate for a minute or so in the microwave. Stir it until it's smooth. Dip each coconut ball in the chocolate and remove, letting excess chocolate drip off. Place on baking sheet and top with the toasted coconut from step five.
  7. Refrigerate to set the chocolate.


Cañar Mercado and Biblián Church

After going to the Cañar animal market, we went into town to the main mercado for some people watching. According to Alberto (our driver for the day), most of the younger generation left the city to find work in the United States or Spain, so you mostly find older Cañari people in this town of 225,000. On Sundays, Cañar comes to life with several markets, from the indoor central mercado to the smaller potato market.

Every local mercado in Ecuador is interesting, and this one in Cañar was no different.

After leaving the Cañar mercado, and having lunch, we traveled to Biblián, on our way back to Cuenca.  Biblián is the capital city of the Cañar canton of Ecuador, with a population a little over 20,000.  According to Alberto (our driver for the day), most of the original inhabitants of this city have left the country, a statement supported by Wikipedia.

Our last stop of the day was at the Santuario de la Virgen del Rocío. This church sits high on a hill overlooking the city.  You must then climb a series of very steep steps up to the church itself, giving you a tremendous overview of the valley city below.  This is very close to Incapirca, an Inca ruins that is a popular tourist stop.  We were the only gringos visiting the church though, being out of the way, and less known.

Cañar People and Murals

Yesterday we went to the Cañar animal market, and I created the first part of the report of that trip, talking about the various animals for sale.  Today I want to show some of the people that were there at the market.

Top left above is Alberto, Evelyn's art instructor and our driver for the day.  Middle-left is Maite, his wife, and one of my cooking instructors.  The others are people attending the market, either to sell their animals, or to purchase them.

Babysitters are rare in Ecuador, as are strollers.  When mothers go about their business, they bring their children with them.  If they are young enough, they are typically tied in a cloth and strapped to the mother's back.  Though you will occasionally see fathers with older children in tow, it is almost always the mother that carries the infants until they are old enough to walk on their own.

Along the periphery of the main animal market were vendors selling dry goods and food.  Some put a meager assortment of goods on a small tarp.  Others just draped their ropes out in a colorful array, so that those who bought a new animal could properly lead their purchase away.  One woman (lower left) just piled hundreds of shoes on the back of her car, while one enterprising man (upper right) emptied a large van onto tables and had a loudspeaker blasting his sales pitch for all to hear.  The vendor bottom-center above was selling wooden plows.  They don't look like they would last very long in plowing fields, but he had plenty of people asking about them, and I saw at least two sales.

As we were driving out of town, we came across a long stretch with interesting murals.  I have posted a couple of blogs about the murals in Cuenca, so thought I would show that they exist in other towns of Ecuador too.

Cañar Animal Market

Two and half years ago, in November 2012, we attempted to visit the animal market in Cañar, which is 70 km NE of Cuenca at 10,400 ft elevation, and  is supposed to be the largest such market in Southern Ecuador.  Unfortunately, our driver that day did not understand what we wanted, and by the time we got there (around noon), the market was closed.  Today we finally went back, and this time, it was a success.

The weather looked like rain was imminent all morning, but it stayed dry, allowing us to roam freely with our cameras to capture the unfolding scene.  This is a market where farmers come to sell their animals.  Some buyers are other farmers, here to purchase stock for their farms. Others are butchers, here to buy animals ready for your table.

As you enter the market area, the first thing you see are pigs.  Hundreds of pigs.  From piglets that make you think of pets, up to 200+ pound monsters that remind you more of horses.  The smaller pigs are often forced to go where the buyer wants by pulling on one leg, while the larger ones require a lot more muscle and teamwork.  While waiting for sale, most of the pigs are quiet and patiently standing.  Once a sale is made, and the pig is hauled off to the new owner, the oinks pierce the air, and sound an awful lot like they are squealing "NNNNOOOOO!!!!" :)

We observed many transactions, as buyers were shoving money into the vendors hands and yelling "ochenta dólaress…ochenta dólares" ($80) for some of the piglets, and "doscientos cincuenta dólares" ($250) for some of the larger pigs. With lots of cash on hand, there was lots of haggling and transactions taking place. When the purchase was completed, you could see small piglets stuffed into sacks and carried out on the backs of some of the indigenous women. Larger animals were lead out with new colorful rope harnesses, while other animals were loaded into pick up trucks.

As you move further through the market, you come to an area where cattle are being sold. Some of these will become beef on your table, but most are dairy cattle.  They are less noisy than the pigs, but are big enough and crowded enough to make photography difficult.

The last animal area of this market has sheep.  Some farmers come with a single sheep to sell, while others have a couple dozen, usually tied together head to head, to keep them docile and stationary.  Some buyers want to flip the sheep on its back to fully inspect before buying, and before loading them on their truck for return to their new farm.

This was a photographically rich day, and there is a lot more to tell and show.  We will  break this into a two or three blogs to cover it all.  Stay tuned tomorrow!

Excited About Potatoes

In our Spanish class, one of the people said she overheard two women talking excitedly about papa.  It was papa this, and papa that.  She knew just enough Spanish to know that 'papa' is Spanish for potato, and she couldn't figure out why these women were so excited about potatoes?

Only later did she realize that the Pope is also called Papa in Ecuador. The Pope is in Guayaquil giving mass to over 1 million people today, and will give mass tomorrow in Quito. This is such a Big Deal in this country that the president has declared today and tomorrow as holidays.

Today, Evelyn was walking near Parque Calderon (the park in the center of town, about 4 blocks from our apartment) when she saw what she thought was a cardboard image of the Pope... until he started walking!  Sure enough, a man was in a Pope costume, complete with cardboard image of the Pope's face on top.

Argentina Gallery Added

We have finally completed editing the photos from our trip to Argentina a couple months ago, and have added them to our photo gallery.  You can access this, and other trip photos by pressing the "Travel" menu on the top of this screen, then choosing the "Argentina" tab on the screen that comes up.

Or you can just use this link and click here.

Symphonic Fly Fishing

I have fished exactly once in my life, in the 1970's using lures on the Deschutes river in Oregon.  There is a story behind that one episode, but that would be a diversion here.  For the last couple years in Cuenca, I have heard periodically about a local fishing guide that teaches fly fishing.  I have toyed with the idea of trying this, and today finally took the plunge and went fishing with James Drummondo of Fintastic Adventures de Ecuador.

He picked me up at a park about 5 blocks from our home at 8:00.  One other man was given the class as a Father's Day gift and joined us.  We then drove up to Dos Chorreras sport fishing lake, which is what they called stocked trout lakes here.  You pay $1.50 to enter (which was included in Fintastic's fee), are not allowed to throw any fish back, and pay $2.20 per pound on the fish you catch.

We spent the first hour in the restaurant, where James taught us about the poles, tackle and flies use for fishing. We then went out to the stocked lake, where he demonstrated proper casting methods, and we cast the line sans hook for a few minutes (that is James demonstrated middle-left above).  We were then ready to install the flies and start actually fishing.  I thought his demonstration of how to attach the fly was so clear that I could do it myself.  After two failed tries though, I let him attach mine... :)

Within a few minutes I had caught my first 2 pound trout (center image).  Another 20 minutes and I landed a 3 pounder (that is James holding my second trout middle-right).  I figured two fish was my limit, so I returned to the restaurant to wait while Jerry caught one. (It was very cold, occasionally misting, and pretty windy all day up there at 11,200 ft in the Cajas!)

When everyone was happy with their take, we let the owner clean them for us.  Tonight I baked the first of the two fish for our dinner.

If you have ever wanted to learn how to fly fish, I highly recommend Fintastic. James did an excellent job of teaching the basics, and has good equipment.  He also has more advanced classes for those that already know the basics.  For myself, it will probably be another 30 years before I go fishing again though.  Personally I don't find the throwing of a line repeatedly to catch something I could purchase at the local mercado to be as calming as some people do...

I have commented several times on the amount of free music available in Cuenca.  Tonight launched the Cuenca Opera Fest 2015, with a free performance by the University of Azuay symphony and chorus.  Stephanie (the daughter of Evelyn's Spanish tutor, whom we have mentioned several times) was in the chorus (top row, left in the images above), so we decided to go.  They were playing at a theater about 3 blocks from our home, which makes it particularly easy to attend.

The theater was packed, with the last few arrivals forced to stand in the back.  This symphony is much smaller than the professional Cuenca symphony we have also heard several times (also free), but they had a very nice performance. There were also four opera singers that came on singly, in pairs, and as a group for various songs.

All in all, a rather long, but pleasant day in Cuenca, Ecuador...

Corpus Christi Fireworks

Today was the first day of Corpus Christi.  It began with a procession, which I wrote about in a separate blog entry. Tonight was the opening day fireworks.  There will be fireworks and castles every night for seven days.  Fireworks in Cuenca are nothing like in the States, where you must keep a "safe distance."  Here you can get as close as you want.  Fireworks explode overhead, with sparks streaming down on you.  I made the mistake of wearing a nylon down jacket last year, and it was destroyed by those falling sparks.  I now always wear an inexpensive cotton jacket when going to these events!

We'll talk a bit more about "castles" further down, but the above photo shows one such castle.  The man has stepped about 2 feet in front of this fireworks-laden structure and asked for his picture to be taken by a friend.  I am standing no more than four feet from him, so maybe six feet from the structure myself, while taking a series of photographs.  You can see how the sparks hit his head and bounce off, as they are doing on the ground.  When this structure was burned out, my jacket and camera were filled with white "fireworks corpses!" :)

The fireworks and castles are set off at irregular intervals, based on nothing more than the person with the match deciding "this is a good time."  There is the needed time to construct the castles -- bamboo structures with four or five levels of fireworks -- but other fireworks go off almost at random.  The audience is patient though, and hundreds crowd the square waiting for the next ignition.

When the fireworks start, they only last a few seconds.  A minute is a rather long burst.  However, these bursts continue until nearly midnight at random intervals.  Again, the timing is no more than the guy with the match deciding he wants to launch one now.  After we got home, the fireworks continued off and on, so I put my camera in our living room window, and shot the two images above where the church domes can also be seen.  For the others, I was pointing straight up, then dropping the lens quickly so the lens would not be covered in falling sparks.

The castles are the fireworks highlight, and what draws us to the park, instead of just sitting in our warm home and watching from the window.  Some builders will have the entire castle fire at once, while others fire one level at a time, to stretch out how long the structure lasts.  They have fountains, spinners, whistlers, and are fun to stand a couple feet from and watch the world explode around you!

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