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Train, Interrupted

Posted on 19 November 2015 (0)
Quito in Blue

Quito in Blue

The Tren Crucero tour was three nights and four days of travel, but we decided to skip the fourth day yesterday. Instead, we stayed in Quito, switching from the big, impressive Hotel Quito room included in the tour to the more personable and cozy Hotel Reina Isabel, where we have stayed several other times during our month in Ecuador.

I loved the first three days of Tren Crucero, but the Cotopaxi eruption in August resulted in a change in the itinerary that necessitated lots more bus riding between times on the train itself. On the last bus ride, day before yesterday, a two-hour slog from the gigantic Nevado Roses plantation to Quito, my legs were restless and I was jumping out of my skin. If we had stayed with the tour yesterday, we would have been on the bus six hours and on a different train in the Otavalo area for just three. That didn’t appeal to us.

By comparison, a full day in Quito to prepare for this morning’s depature was just right. We took a taxi from Hotel Quito to the Oswaldo Guayasamin Museum. He is Ecuador’s most famous painter. His work is passionate and fiercely tuned to the plight of the oppressed. I bought a print of his rendering of Quito, showing the surrounding mountains in blue. I also bought a black and white t-shirt of a painting he did of a guitarist, to remind me that several times this trip I have felt promptings to return to regular guitar practice when I return to the States.

Darlene and Deb visited shops near the hotel, and I spent a few hours at a good coffee shop recommended by Margaret of Ali Shungu, The Magic Bean. It began raining steadily yesterday afternoon, so my Panama hat got wet as I walked the four blocks to the hotel to get my rain jacket. The ATMs here have worked about half the time, but I was able to make a last withdrawal across the street at Bank Guayaquil. Then supper, then my usual fitful sleep before a long flight, and here I am now at the desk in the outer room of the suite, catching up with impressions of Ecuador with a Styrofoam cup of weak coffee from the hotel lobby and not enough sleep to write more than a blur of the past 24 hours of travel.

To conclude with more about Tren Crucero, I can heartily recommend the trip for train buffs, especially sometime in the future when the Cotopaxi alert is lifted and the train can resume its normal route between Quito and Guayaquil. The tour staff were phenomenal, making sure 50 people ended up where we were supposed to be at each juncture in the journey. Our fellow guests were an interesting lot, including a group of about 20 people mainly from Canada who have been traveling together for years. We met an engaging couple who spend half the year in Colorado and half in the Caribbean, Bob and Althea Turner, and enjoyed hanging out with them and a Swiss pair, Francoise and Charles, at dinners. Plus Sandra from Germany, my multi-lingual tablemate on the train. You get to know strangers quickly when you travel on a tour, which is generally a plus.

Next up: breakfast buffet at Reina Isabel, featuring their very clever orange-squeezing machine where you feed the oranges into the top, and fresh juice dribbles down into your glass. Perfecto!

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Zee Devil´s Nose

Posted on 17 November 2015 (0)
Our stop before ascending the nose-shaped mountain in the background.

Our stop before ascending the nose-shaped mountain in the background.

I love it when something exceeds expectations, especially ones that result from lots of hype. That was the case yesterday with a section of track on our Tren Crucero tour of Ecuador. It is named the Devil’s Nose, because the mountain looks like a huge nose, and it was clearly a devil of a job to carve track up its sheer face in the early part of the last century.

There is a Z in Devil’s Nose, because that’s the design of the train’s progress up the mountain. It goes forward, then the track is switched and the train backs up the middle line of the Z. After another switch of the tracks, the train proceeds forward on its way, continuously climbing into the Andean highlands of Ecuador.

Views from the left side of the train as it climbed the nose were beautiful and dizzying. You looked hundreds of feet down at the river we had been following until the ascent, and you could see the track, as if it were my old Lionel train set’s in the living room, looking perfect and new. Our guide on the train said 4,000 Jamaican workers were brought in to build the track through the mountains, and half of them died during the project.

We stopped a couple of places during yesterday’s 12 hours of travel by train. If I was grumpy about the lack of sleeper cars on the first day, yesterday cured me of that. This train ride is one for the ages, and if you have to sleep in hotels along the way, you won’t mind, if you love trains as much as I do. The scenery is simply breathtaking. At one point we could see a plume of dark ash rising from the Tunguragua volcano. Scenes out the big windows alternated between mountains, valleys, and colorful towns where the arrival of the train prompted curious waves from residents, returned by the travelers.

Dining room of the hacienda.

Dining room of the hacienda.

The only complaint we have about our hotel for this stop is that we will not have much time enjoying its antique charms. It is the Hacienda Andaluza in Riobamba. The rooms have antique bells outside them, as doorbells. There were red rose petals on the white bedspreads when we checked in last night. The dining room and lobby is full of antique knicknacks–typerwiters, agricultural tools, cash registers, musical instruments, and faded tapestries on the walls. Fat rabbits live in the big central courtyard, and this morning I am writing by a toasty real-wood fire in a fireplace. The buffet offered strong coffee at 5 am with a bowl of chocolate powder that you could dip into with a spoon to sweeten your cup.

Our two blue buses will return us this morning to the Riobamba station, leaving the hacienda at 7 a.m. As the red and black train chugs along at a stately speed, a team of motorcycle riders accompanies us. They zip from one crossing to the other, to make sure drivers or people leading llamas make no mistakes in judging when it is safe to cross. The motorcycle guys have white helmets, walkie talkies and maybe guns. Sometimes they ride beside us on the road standing up on the posts of their cycles, evidence of how much fun they’re having perhaps.

It would be easy to put together a tour highlighting the extremes of wealth and poverty in most countries, including the U.S. We are certainly seeing that disparity here in Ecuador. In a single day, we had dinner at this elegant hacienda after visiting an indigenous agricultural community outside Colta, where the manual work looks very hard to this pampered observer. I saw an old woman carrying a heavy sack of something on her back, wrapped around her shoulders by straps. I would guess she was 80 years old or so. She stepped carefully, with a limp, and I watched with respect as she made her way slowly down a street. After supper here at Andaluza, we were serenaded by four musicians playing guitar, mandolin, traditional flutes, and drums.




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All Aboard Tren Crucero

Posted on 16 November 2015 (0)

imageYesterday at the Duran station outside Guayaquil we boarded a bright red train pulled by a steam engine, the beginning of a four-day exploration of Ecuador via Tren Crucero.

Darlene, Deb and I were assigned seats in Car 1, a jewel of a space featuring friendly little face sculptures smiling at us over the windows, decorated with swirling design around them in gold paint. The train moved very slowly, and I was distracted for the first ride by an enlightening chat with my table mate, a woman from Germany traveling in Ecuador for the month. Her pearl, offered at no extra cost, was her utter freedom from Internet entanglements, even though she has an apparently responsible position with a unit of Fiat, selling trucks in Munich. She does not check text or email on weekends or when she is in Ecuador for a month. People don’t expect her to, because she has been consistent in her habits online. I was inspired to try yet again to maintain some sort of balance to my Internet habit when we return to Boston.

The observation lounge at the rear of the train.

The observation lounge at the rear of the train.

We sat in comfortable upholstered chairs with curved wooden legs and arms, looking at the countryside through huge windows framed by red curtains. Coffee and drinks were served, along with snacks. I never made it to the elegant lounge car at the back of the train, where there were wicker couches and a platform at the back where you could have made speeches like Harry Truman on his whistlestop campaign tour in 1948.

At Yaguachi, 22 kilometers from Duran, we got off the train and watched the steam engine be replaced by a diesel electric locomotive, also bright red. It was hot and humid at 15 meters elevation. Back on the train, it was a relief to return to air conditioned comfort and a tasty treat with plaintains.

I love the train, a project for tourists of the Ecuadorian government, and the enthusiasm of the staff and guides. But I have to warn fellow train buffs that this is not your Orient Express fantasy featuring a snug berth in a sleeper car. Your bags go from hotel to hotel by bus, and sleeping is not done to the rocking of the train and the clickety clack of the track. Ecuador is making the most of a train line that at one time connected Guayaquil to Quito but is now restored only in limited stretches.

That meant we switched from our bright red train to bright blue buses in order to travel to lunch at the Hacienda La Danesa in Naranjito. The estate was purchased 150 years ago by a Danish immigrant whose great-grandson met us at the entrance with a warm welcome. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Louisiana in Baton Rouge and a master’s degree in tourism at Melborne. I asked at lunch if he has lots of ideas for growing the hacienda’s tourism business that older family members are nervous about, and he said oh yes. He’s on track though, with providing excellent accommodations for day travelers like the 50 of us who arrived for lunch and demonstrations of chocolate making and cow milking.

I am typing in the near dark in a corner of the dining area while the staff prepares breakfast at D’Franco Hosteria in Bucay. I hear rain outside and the banging of pots in the kitchen. We leave early by bus to be reunited with our red train in our assigned seats. Today’s track will include the famous Devil’s Nose climb up a steep slope in the Andes.

Darlene and Deb walk to the chocolate demonstration.

Darlene and Deb walk to the chocolate demonstration.

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Hats Off to Cuenca

Posted on 15 November 2015 (1)
Efrain, my Panama hat salesman, and me. Photo by Lenny Charnoff.

Efrain, my Panama hat salesman, and me. Photo by Lenny Charnoff.

I had not planned to buy one of the Panama hats that are everywhere in Ecuador. My classic Tilly canvas hat is more sensible for travel, because you can crush it into your suitcase on a day when you’re not wearing it.

But when we stopped at a hat factory and store in Cuenca the other day, it was clear that I would walk out with a nice new Panama hat, made at the store by the same family for decades. Part of the reason was the pursuasive good spirits of Efrain, the fellow who attended to me in the store.

I initially picked out a hat with a bright red band that Darlene clearly did not like. She preferred one that Efraim picked out that cost $10 more, $30. It had an understated brown band. I tried to get Efrain to weigh in on the side of the red band, but he was wise enough to stay out of it. In the end, I liked the finer weave of the more expensive hat, and the brown band looked right.

Efrain also helped my hat fit my head by taking me down the street to introduce me to Fanny, his hair stylist. She cut my hair for $3 and I gave her a $2 tip. When I first indicated that fitting a hat might be a challenge, Efrain had offered to cut my hair at the shop, indicating a guy sitting in the back with scissors, cutting straw. For a moment I thought he was serious, before the big grin appeared. Nice one.

I returned the next day with my Cuenca expat friend Lenny Charnoff, who took a great photo of me and Efrain.

We are now in Guayaquil, about to be picked up for a short ride to the Duran train station to begin Tren Crucero, a four-day tour of Ecuador on several trains, some of them antiques. All aboard!

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Cuenca Calling

Posted on 13 November 2015 (0)


Yesterday we toured Cuenca, a city of about 400,000 and lots of Colonial architecture, in a yellow double-decker bus. Mountains rise on all sides, and red tile roofs paint a pretty picture as you look out over the city.

Our hotel is an old home converted for guests and run by the original owners, the Ordonez family. It is just a few blocks from a major park and square. I can assure you an Apple Watch will not unlock the door of your room here. Instead, each has a 100-year-old key that you turn in perplexing motions to lock or unlock your room. Instead of numbers, the rooms have names; ours are Carmen and Letitia.

Breakfast is on the first floor of a two-story atrium, and the stairs are of creaky old beautiful wood. One downside is that you can hear everything in the building. When I walked–softly, I thought–to my writing area this morning I drew the frowning attention of Maria, the Ordonez family member who checked us in Wednesday night, who informed me that “we have other guests sleeping.” Trying to fall asleep early last night we heard voices in the dining area that sounded as if they were on the next pillow. In my mind, this is a small price to pay for the venerable ambiance and fantastic location of the hotel.

In a few minutes my Internet buddy and namesake Lenny Charnoff will pick us up for what he called the 55-cent tour of Cuenca this morning. His wife Sharon is a quilter, so Darlene may have a chance to compare notes with her. Lenny recommended Casa Ordonez and has been very helpful pointing us toward a good experience in the city where he and his wife have lived since moving from the U.S. four and a half years ago. I am very interested to learn more about the expat experience, in case Donald Trump somehow ends up president of my country.

Darlene and Deb's guide to Cuenca, Andre.

Darlene and Deb’s guide to Cuenca, Andre.

Our guide on the city bus tour, Andre, agreed to give a private tour of the area to Darlene and Deb yesterday afternoon. He was a U.S. exchange student in Pittsburgh when he was in high school, so his English is excellent. They had a terrific time, and Darlene tried on one of the surprisingly heavy velvet skirts we’ve seen indiginous women wearing in Ecuador. She deemed it unflattering in the bulk it added around the waist, which is apparently considered sensuous here.

It was a shock Wednesday to leave the utter tranquility and safety of Ali Shungru resort in Otavalo and land at the Cuenca airport at about 7:30 p.m.We hailed a cab after having difficulty figuring out which lane outside the airport they used to pick up passengers, and the ride in to the central part of the city made clear we had underestimated how big a place it is. The hotel appeared to be a mysterious place on a narrow street, and by the time Deb tried to get her room open with the ancient key she was muttering about how soon we might relocate to “a real hotel.” We’ve since come to appreciate the unique features of Casa Ordonez and have figured out the keys, so I’m very glad we had a chance to stay here. By the way, the price is very reasonable, about $50 a night per room, given the location and good services–excellent breakfast included, comfortable beds, plenty of hot water, and decent Internet.

Lenny will be here soon to tell us all about the real Cuenca from an expat’s point of view. Onward!

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The Master Weaver’s Tale

Posted on 11 November 2015 (0)

Miguel Andrango outside his home workshop in Otavalo, Ecuador

We visited the home and workshop of Miguel Andrango, 81, described as Ecuador’s master weaver, on Monday November 9, 2015. Senor Andrango welcomed us with a few words of English and many smiles. He walked us through the process of cleaning, preparing, and dyeing wool for spinning into thread and then handweaving into fabric using a backstrap loom, technology in use for thousands of years.

His workshop had bare concrete walls and a floor of large, rough bricks covered at one spot by a woven straw mat. He sat on a bench beside baskets of raw wool and scraped the wool between two handheld carding tools. The scratchy sound was rhythmic and calming, punctuated by birds singing outside. He checked the wool and added a bit more, then continued carding. Andrango then moved to a long spinning wheel in use since his great-grandfather’s time. Prepared wool in a basket was drawn up to a rod where it was twisted into yarn when he gently began the spinning by pulling a wire, then accelerating the motion by turning a large wheel at the other end, about 20 feet away from where the yarn was collected. At full speed, the yarn formed in a blur from the rough feed of the wool from the basket.

In bearing, energy, and humility Miguel Andrango brought to my mind a little old Zen master, a teacher of life as well as weaving. As he walked back and forth between the big turning wheel of the spinner to where the raw wool was drawn onto the spindle, he appeared to forget that three tourists from the U.S. were watching him. His hands and eyes were all on the machine and the material. There was something so practiced, so flawless about his movements that he seemed to disappear into them, and so did we.

Miguel Andrango and his dog bidding us farewell after our visit to his studio in Agato, outside Otavalo.

Out in the courtyard of his home and workshop, he showed us where he hangs wool to dry after dyeing with natural substances like walnuts and seeds. He is no more than five feet tall, and he smiled as he pointed to the clothesline, saying it was low enough for him to reach. He wore a black fedora hat, turtleneck shirt and a frayed light denim jacket. His straw sandals were homemade.

Yes, there was a gift shop, and we were eager to find items to purchase, in support of Andrango’s craft and for remembering our visit. In our enthusiasm, we made some incorrect assumptions about what we were buying. A handsome sweater that I bought, which I thought he had made himself, turned out to be an import from Peru, and Darlene’s colorful wool bag is from Bolivia. But I’m confident that the coarse guitar strap that I purchased was made by Miguel Andrango in his workshop, or perhaps by someone else in his family. The confusion was entirely ours; our host made no representations, in English or Spanish, that all of the work on sale had been made in his shop.

It’s difficult to explain the effect that visiting Miguel Andrango had on Darlene, Deb and me. His age and size were probably part of it, but the main source was the kindness of his smile. He greeted us as if we were the first people who had ever found his workshop on a hill outside Otavalo in the Andes of Ecuador, as if he had been waiting for us for a long time. There was nothing tired or bored about his demeanor. He was lit up with years of creating beautiful things the way they have been created for thousands of years.

We hear his family is involved in the work now, perhaps bending it toward more commercial focus. But it seems clear that when he is gone a way of weaving will be gone with him. This makes us very glad we had a chance to meet him and to appreciate his craft in person.



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Morning Notes from Mindo

Posted on 08 November 2015 (0)


We leave Mindo today for Otavalo after three days of leisurely exploration. I left a rave review of our home here (in photo above), Sisakuna Lodge, at TripAdvisor. It is a collection of five high-peaked, two-story cabins and one brick-colored, rounded structure that reminds me of Santa Fe. A woman named Amada manages Sisakuna, and I believe her father owns it. They began building the compound, lush with plants, flowers, and birds, five years ago, and it has been open for two years. From our cabins, we were able to walk everywhere in Mindo but we did take a $3 taxi ride back from the butterfly pavillion, which was about a half-hour’s walk up a steep dirt road.

Avenue Quito is the main street, and in the evening it is a wonder of combined transportation. The cobblestoned street fills with kids, dogs, chickens, bicycles, motorcycles–and yes–a few cars, pickup trucks and an occasional bus. At dinner the other night we saw three pickup trucks drive by, horns honking and kids in soccer uniforms in the back cheering and waving flags. Someone must have had a good game.

Our bird-watching trip starting at 6 a.m. yesterday morning with Alex Luna, who moved here 15 years ago from another city in Ecuador. He introduced us to several varieties of tucan and other colorful birds, as well as to the role digital technology plays in bird-watching these days. I remember my Aunt Edna heading out with a small pair of binoculars and a small field guide book on her bird-watching walks decades ago. Alex arrived with a cannon-sized Pentax scope with 20 power magnification, a green laser pointer to show us where to look in the trees, and a Sony smartphone filled with thousands of bird calls. He used the phone once in a while to call a particular bird toward us, but sometimes they flew away instead. Alex also loaned us each powerful Swarovski binoculars, made in Austria.

Alex Luna, our birder guide in Mindo, and Darlene on yesterday's walk.

Alex Luna, our birder guide in Mindo, and Darlene on yesterday’s walk.

Mindo is a small town in the cloud forest northwest of the capital, Quito. The population is about 3,000. We saw just one other set of tourists from the U.S., a couple from California with a four-year-old daughter named Shiva. Mindo gets many Ecuadorian visitors, including a couple I just met here in the dining pavillion, Natalie and Sebastian and their one-year-old, Sara. They met in Montreal, where Natalie is from, and moved back to the Quito area, where Sebastian is from, three years ago. We ran into a group of about 20 students from Norway at the pizza place where we had supper one night.  They were traveling the world for a year, and their next stop is China. The next morning they showed up at the Rio Mindo, putting on life jackets for a tubing ride down the river. I’ve had a chance to practice my French with two groups of visitors from France. So it’s a varied collection of tourists that makes its way to Mindo.

This was a good place to settle in after the intense tour of the Gallapagos. This morning a driver will pick us up for the three-hour ride to Otavalo and the Ali Shungu eco resort, which sounds like an amazing place at higher elevation. Reviews often point out that the woodstoves in the cabins are kept fired up against the chilly mountain air.


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Gallapagos Gallery

Posted on 07 November 2015 (0)
Taken by Deb on the island of Floreana on October 29, 2015.

Taken by Deb at Punta Cormorant on the island of Floreana on October 29, 2015.


On a rainy afternoon here in Mindo, I am catching up with some favorite photos taken during our visit last week to the Galapagos.

We 13 Overseas Adventure Travel passengers navigated to and from our ship, the Carina, in two dinghies, called pongas.

We 13 Overseas Adventure Travel passengers navigated to and from our ship, the Carina, in two dinghies, called pongas.


At Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana we continued a tradition begun in the 1700s, of leaving and picking up mail for delivery all over the world. Our guide, Roberto, opens a bag of postcards left by other visitors.

At Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana we continued a tradition begun in the 1700s, of leaving and picking up mail for delivery all over the world. Our guide, Roberto, opens a bag of postcards left by other visitors.


Jerry from Delaware checks postcards at Post Office Bay, looking for one to deliver back home.

Jerry from Delaware checks postcards at Post Office Bay, looking for one to deliver back home.


Blue-footed boobies were in abundance during a ponga trip on the coast of Santa Cruz island.

Blue-footed boobies were in abundance during a ponga trip on the coast of Santa Cruz island.


Deb and Darlene on Santa Cruz Island.

Deb and Darlene on Santa Cruz Island.

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Raised by Sea Lions on Espagnola

Posted on 31 October 2015 (0)


Now it can be told: I was raised by sea lions. Or at least it felt that way yesterday at Gardner Bay beach on Espagnola in the Galapagos. I sat for about 40 minutes with nine sea lions napping in the late afternoon, long enough to learn a little about their ways.

There were eight pair of sea lions, snuggled into each other, and one baby about two weeks old dozing by himself. This seemed odd, because a pushy pup, maybe two years old, was greedily nursing the whole time. He’d switch between two tiny teats frequently, close enough that I could hear the little sucking sounds. When mama shifted her position, her offspring would bark out a rebuke till he was able to establish a new hold. At dinner aboard Carina (visible in the background of the photo), our guide Roberto said the baby probably wouldn’t make it if there was an older sea lion still nursing.

As nap time continued, a big black sea lion, the beach master, patroled his kingdom. He swam along the coral white-sand beach, raising his head above the water to bark out reminders of his authority. At one point I saw a young sea lion moving very quickly away from the water, up the beach. Instead of the usual labored swaying back and forth on flippers great for swimming but lousy for walking, this guy was nearly trotting. Then I spotted the beach master racing out of the water after him, which explained the first guy’s speed. The boss didn’t waste much energy on this display of dominance, and the younger sea lion kept going.

In a few minutes, I noticed the younger one was covered with sand, walking slowly some distance away from the group I was with. I returned to my study, and within a few more minutes, I realized he was rolling like a rolling pin along the sand within a foot or two of where I sat. Using this tricky approach, he ended up joining two of the female sea lions, who did not seem offended by his arrival.

I’m a guy who likes to follow the rules, whether they be nature’s or the highway patrol. I assumed the beach master must have great hearing or smell and would quickly detect the intruder, but it seemed the ruse had worked. Part of me wanted to alert the master. “He’s over here! He rolled back like a rolling pin and he’s snuggled up against one of your harem!”

When I shared my impressions of the incident with Roberto, he confirmed that it was a likely scenario: a young male challenging the beach master without risking an all-out battle.

Lest this all sound too Disney-like, I will confess to being appalled by the number of flies that attended my sea lion confab. They swarmed the eyes and mouths of everyone there, including me, so sea lion and human were constantly bastting the pests away. I asked Roberto if there is any symbiotic usefulness to the flies, and he said no, they are simply parasites. Except that when a sea lion is cut in a fight, the flies deposit an acid than can help heal them. This seems like a small benefit in return for constant harrassment. The seals even in their sleep were swatting away flies with their flippers and twitches of their brown skin.

Last night, back in our cabin on the Carina, I heard sea lion barking nearby and assumed one was playing in the water next to the boat. I stepped out in my boxers with my iPhone at 3:45 a.m., planning to record the sounds for this week’s podcast. I looked down in the water and saw no sea lions and figured I’d missed my chance. Suddenly I spotted movement on the blue deck, in front of the cabin next to ours. Two large sea lions scampered toward the stern and disappeared into the dark. I wasn’t dressed properly to pursue them, so I went back to bed. This morning on my walk to the Sun Deck, I noticed that the crew had curled a rubber mat on the steps from the stern, no doubt to inhibit the arrival of more unpaid guests.

We have also encountered sea lions on our snorkeling expeditions. They do seem to actually play with human swimmers. Roberto, who swims like a sea lion himself, heads down toward the sand in twirling motions that cause sea lions to mimic his movements. I can’t do those moves, but I’ve still been close enough in the water to get a visceral sense of the playfulness of these creatures.

My tutorial yesterday at Gardner Bay left me delighted, maybe more playful myself. I am certainly more appreciative of screens, clothes, and insect repellant.

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Scenes from the Sunday Market in Coca, Ecuador

Posted on 27 October 2015 (0)





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