Thursday, January 30, 2014


Ancient Egyptian art is one of the oldest art forms in the world and one of the most distinctive.  The art is drawn on a two-dimensional scale, and the people and objects tend to be drawn in profile.  There’s very little shading or any acknowledgement of depth.  They also utilized what’s called tiered space: where objects that are supposedly in the distance are placed higher than objects in the forefront. Sometimes people are drawn with the heads of animals that symbolize gods. 

In other arts, gold is a very important material that was used. The ancient Egyptians believed gold was a gift from the gods and that it was virtually indestructible for that reason.  However, at that time, payment for goods and services were done on the barter system – you got paid in food and clothes, so gold didn’t have much of a monetary value at all.  It was used for a variety of projects, from jewelry to sculptures, and masks.  Gold was either mined from surface mines, which are considered state monopolies in Egypt, or was panned from the river.  Actually, Egypt really didn’t produce that much gold, probably around one ton, and most of it went to the royalty.

Because of the influences from the Arab world, there are many Arab-inspired and Islam-inspired buildings throughout the country.  These buildings also tend to be geometrically and mathematically designed. The arts scene now reflects many of the arts movements throughout the world, and you can find Egyptian artists of all mediums, from painting and sculpture to modern techniques using digital arts and other contemporary styles. Egyptians are very tech savvy and use the Internet and social media to promote their art as well. 

The ancient Egyptians were the first people to develop paper from papyrus, thus giving us the book.  Their writing system, hieroglyphics, is one of the first alphabets to emerge.  Some of the more well-known books from this early period are Story of Sihune, Westcar Papyrus, and the Book of the Dead.  Early Egyptian literature usually fell into three categories: autobiographies, informative literature, and myths/stories. Many of the Coptic works were also held in libraries in Alexandria. By the eighth century, Muslim Arabs had taken control of the area and Arabic became the language most written in. They borrowed Egyptian folk tales and many of them were included in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights).

By the time the 19th and 20th centuries came along, Egypt went through a sort of Renaissance movement that hit all of the arts, not just literature. One of the most important writers to emerge from this time is Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz has published 34 novels and over 350 short stories, and his works often delve into existentialism. He was also the first Egyptian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (And I think his photo makes him look a little like Jack Nicholson.)  The novel that is often considered as the first Egyptian novel and Islamic novel is Zaynab, written by Muhammad Husayn Haykal in 1914.  It not only dealt with issues such as the relationships between men and women, but also with the relationships between laborers and plantation owners and was set entirely in Egypt. The novel was also the basis of Egypt’s first silent film of the same name that was produced in 1925. 

Naguib Mahfouz
Jack Nicholson
Up next: music and dance

Monday, January 27, 2014


Christmas (January 7): It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, but the date coincides with the Orthodox and/or Coptic calendar.  During the advent season that leads up to Christmas (from Nov 25 – Jan 6), most people eat a vegan diet. On Christmas Eve, they have a special Christmas service at church starting around 10 pm and going until about midnight.  Some services last much longer. On Christmas Day, people spend time with their families and friends, eating a lavish meal of everything they fasted from for the past 43 days.  There is a certain type of Christmas treat called kahk, which is like a sweet biscuit, and children will sometimes leave these for Baba Noël (Santa) as they wait for him to come through their windows and leave presents.  Even though only about 10% of the population is Christian, it's also celebrated by everyone who enjoys the Christmas treats sold in stores and use the day as a secular holiday. 

Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (varies, January/February): Also called Mawlid.  In Egypt, the term Mawlid is also used for birthdays of Sufi saints as well.  Celebrations usually last a week, filled with prayer and some people use it as a day for fasting. However, at the end of the festival, it’s celebrated with a feast of food and is known for its variety of sweets.  A type of small elaborately dressed doll is given as gifts as well for Mawlid. 

National Police Day / 2011 Revolution Day (January 25):  This holiday is celebrated in reminiscence of when Egyptian police refused British demands to hand over their weapons and exit the police station in 1952.  Fifty police officers were killed and more were injured in these clashes.  This holiday was set in place to honor those that were killed. Protesters used this day in 2011 to start the 2011 Revolution to address issues of police brutality and other issues. 

Orthodox Easter (varies, April): This holiday essentially celebrates the Easter holiday for the same reason as non-Orthodox Christians do, however it’s celebrated on the Coptic calendar. For most Copts, fasting on a vegan diet lasts for the entire 55-day Lent period. Easter Mass is almost always attended, and the afternoon is spent eating lavish meals and visiting with family and friends. However, in recent years, there have been many clashes between the Muslims and Christians in Egypt and the Easter sermons have been addressing the hope for peace.

Sinai Liberation Day (April 25):  This holiday commemorates the withdrawal of the last Israeli troops from the town of Taba on the Sinai Peninsula. Most people spend the day visiting zoos and parks, taking strolls along the Nile, or visiting historic places to study about Egyptian history. 

Labour Day (May 1): Labour Day is a day for celebrating the worker and addressing labor issues.  2011 was the first year that there was a Labour Day with independent unions.  Several of the issues at the heart of the 2011 Revolution were labor related.  Egyptian laborers are demanding the establishment of a minimum wage, unemployment rights, and other issues. 

Eid al-Fitr (varies, July): Eid al-Fitr is the celebration that falls at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.  The day usually starts off with a small snack or light meal, and then followed by prayers and a grand extravagant meal in the evening.  Children will normally get gifts and new clothes especially for the holiday.  Children will also receive a small sum of money used to spend on the Eid festivities. It’s a time for families to spend together, usually at parks, zoos, amusement parks, museums, etc. 

Revolution Day (July 23): This holiday commemorates the Revolution of 1952.  A group of clandestine revolutionaries called the Free Officers Movement started the military coup.  Common activities for this day often include military parades and nationalistic themed city celebrations. This is the biggest secular holiday in Egypt.

Eid al-Adha (varies, October): At the end of the annual Hajj in which many Muslims travel to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) for special prayers. But there are many people who do not or are not able to make the trip.  However, there are three days of celebrations for the Eid, also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice. This celebration has its basis in the sacrifice that Abraham faced in killing his own child for God but was reprieved at the last minute.  One common tradition is to slaughter an animal (usually a cow, sheep, or goat) and keep 1/3 of the meat for yourself, giving 1/3 to your family, and offering 1/3 to charity or to the poor. 

Armed Forces Day (October 6):  On this day, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel to regain the Sinai Peninsula in 1973, which is the beginning of the October War (or sometimes called the Yom Kippur War). 

Islamic New Year/Muharram (varies, October): It celebrates the beginning of the Islamic calendar, and some people celebrate it the entire first month.  Since Egyptian Muslims are primarily Sunni, I read that Sunni Muslims celebrate Muharram as the victory of Moses over the Egyptian Pharaohs (which I don’t understand why Egypt is mostly Sunni and they celebrate Moses’ victory over their own kings. Maybe someone can explain this to me.)  Many people do fast on this day, and for Sunnis, this is a day of celebration.  Other than these things, it’s more of a quiet holiday, not really one with many celebratory traditions.

Other holidays that are celebrated yet businesses and government offices generally remain open include the following: New Year’s Day (January 1), Sportsman’s Day (March 3), Mother’s Day (March 21), Evacuation Day (celebrating when British forces finally left Egypt, June 18), Flooding of the Nile (August 15), Egyptian Naval Day (celebrating the sinking of an Israeli destroyer in 1967, October 21), Suez Day (celebrates the resistance of Egyptians in Suez during the October War, October 24), Victory Day (celebrates the end of Tripartite Aggression in 1956, December 23). 

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, January 26, 2014


As an elementary student growing up, Ancient Egypt was always a frequent social studies lesson in school.  Writing our name as best we can in hieroglyphics, making representations of the pyramids, and studying about King Tut were done over and over again. And it was years later when I learned about the Library of Alexandria – it was the largest library of the ancient world and was destroyed after a series of fires. Built under Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, it contained the Temple of the Muses (or Museion, after which the word museum comes from).  It wasn’t until 2003 when the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was erected on the site of the original. 

Egypt lies on the Mediterranean Sea in northeastern Africa.  It also includes the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula.  The Sahara Desert covers the vast majority of the country.  Looking south, the Nile River runs from the Mediterranean Sea all the way through Sudan and its capital of Khartoum where it splits into the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile continues to meander its way through South Sudan’s capital of Juba and dumps into Lake Albert on the Uganda-Democratic Republic of the Congo border.  The Blue Nile winds its way eastward and ends in the Ethiopian countryside at Lake Tana. The river is considered the longest river in the world, and the entire river system (including tributaries) touches 11 countries. The Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt created Lake Nassar in the 1960s. And even though I always think of the river flowing southward, it actually flows north and dumps out into the Mediterranean Sea (rivers flow from high areas to low areas). In Egypt, there are very few towns and cities that are not near the Nile or the Mediterranean. 

The Ancient Egyptians called the land Kemet, meaning “black land” and referring to the fertile land of the Nile River.  Some linguists think the name came from “home of the ka (soul) of Ptah” from a variation of the ancient name for the city of Memphis, the capital of the Egyptian empire. Other linguists think it came from Latin and Greek translations, possibly meaning “below the Aegean.”  Of course early Egyptian society is considered one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. And it also played its roles in Biblical stories. The ancient Pharaohs were some of the most famous kings (and queens) in history: Menes, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II.  The Egyptian religion is the first to utilize monotheism (only having one main god).  Later the Greeks came in under the rule of Ptolemy who established himself as Pharaoh and this reign ended with the death of Cleopatra VII. The Romans took their opportunity to invade the country, and of course, the Persians and the Ottomans both took their turns at trying to take over, as well as the French under the rule of Napoleon.  Finally, an Albanian military commander named Muhammad Ali Pasha under the control of the Ottoman Empire expelled the French and ruled the country.  In 1914 just before WWI, Egypt was placed under a protectorate of Britain, but gained its own independence in 1922.  The early years were somewhat unstable and British presence remained for nearly three more decades. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt was involved in several military conflicts, including ones involving Suez Canal and Yemen.  Even up to today, changes of power and the fact that people are standing up for inequalities, corruption, police brutality, unemployment, inflation, rising food prices and other issues have led to many revolts in recent years, most notably in 2011.

The capital city is Cairo, a city in almost every sense is the epitome of a modern city.   Home to many universities, opera houses, numerous museums, shopping from low-end to high-end, international film festivals, world-class sporting venues, and like it’s sister city New York, a 24-hour city. It’s the largest metropolitan area in Africa and the Arab world, and the 16th largest urban area in the world (although some statistics put it tenth). 

Egypt mainly depends on agriculture, media and communications, petroleum, natural gas, and tourism for its economic stability.  It also relies on aid from the United States. Other sources come from the money sent back from people working abroad and from the revenues from the Suez Canal, thought to be the most important waterway in the Middle East, connecting the Mediterranean (and Europe) to the Red Sea (and Africa and the Middle East).  Egypt also relies on tourism to its famous historical and religious sites. 

Suez Canal

About 90% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, and Islam is considered the state religion.  And because of this, the country follows Sharia Law, or law that is based on the Islamic religion.  There’s also a small number of Shi’a Muslims as well. There are even a number of people who practice Salafi Islam: a strict, puritanical, über-conservative sect of Muslims. Cairo is known as the “city of 1000 minarets,” the towering spires protruding from mosques and almost always topped with a crown of some sort.  There is minority of Christians in Egypt as well, most of whom belong to the Coptic Church, and others Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other various denominations.  Apparently, Egypt only recognizes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as acceptable religions to put on your ID card, so if you’re anything else, like Bahá’í or atheist, it’s a major problem and has involved persecution in the past.

The official language is Modern Standard Arabic.  However, there are several varieties of Arabic that are spoken in Egypt, namely Egyptian Arabic, Sa’idi Arabic, Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic, and Sudanese Arabic.  I imagine and hope that these are closely related and generally mutually understandable, but I know extremely little about the Arabic language except I think it’s a language that would be easier to learn if I had a teacher, as opposed to learning on my own.  Other Middle Eastern, Nubian, Berber, Afro-Asiatic, and Coptic languages are also spoken in other areas. Popular foreign languages learned in school are English, German, French, and Italian. 

Ancient Egyptians did a lot of firsts and had a lot of cool facts in their history. They first created paper from papyrus.  One of the oldest papers on mathematics was written by an Egyptian scholar. Their writing system, hieroglyphics, consists of 700 different characters and none of them are vowels, which is why we will never know exactly how it was pronounced.  (With the help of the Rosetta Stone, we were able to make a huge headway in translating what the hieroglyphics were.)  They also loved bread and regularly drank beer (a plus, for me).  The ancient Egyptians were the first ones to develop the 365-day calendar divided into twelve months based on their need to be able to predict when the Nile flooded, and they also invented clocks.  Some scholars believed the ancient Egyptians were the first to use sutures to close a wound.  They were also the first people to keep cattle.  And not to mention all of the procedures and traditions around mummification, burial, and pyramid building.  The workers who built the pyramids were well fed, had their own villages, and well compensated. The Greeks, who would often throw unwanted baby girls outside to die, found it unbelievable that the Egyptians considered all children (males AND females) blessings. I find it incredible that if a culture has all of this to offer, how could anyone call them unskilled and antiquated? I’m really excited to delve into the modern culture and its arts and see what else it has to offer.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, January 19, 2014


These past two weeks have been crazy bad. First we suffered through a polar vortex, which gave us temperatures around -13ºF and wind chills around -35ºF.  Indianapolis Public Schools were closed for the whole week – which never happens! I couldn’t make it in to work for two days, and then the roads were terrible. Ice ridges caused cars to slide all over and the snow reached about 11” where we were.  Then after I make it through that ordeal, I got really sick and found out that I’m going to need surgery to remove large uterine fibroids. Great. I’m just glad that my appetite sort of came back, because my recipes for Ecuadorian food sound amazing. 

As creepy as these are, my kids added their own flair.

The bread we are making is called guaguas de pan, or “bread babies.”  It’s more or less a sweet bread in the shape of a swaddled baby.  It’s most commonly eaten at the Ecuadorian Day of the Dead festival, along with a spiced berry “smoothie” that is boiled down and served either hot or cold. I was going to make this recipe, but these fibroids have sucked the energy out of me. I’ll save it for another day perhaps.  I didn’t have all of the ingredients anyway. So, this bread recipe starts out sprinkling my yeast onto a ½ cup of warm milk, then whisking in a ½ cup of flour until it’s creamy, leaving it to sit for an hour. After that, I added in the eggs, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, butter, and remaining flour and knead it until it becomes elastic.  Then I let it sit for about an hour and a half.  After rolling it out to about an inch thick, I cut out the guagua shape and laid it on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet to let them sit for another 15 minutes. I brushed each piece with egg yolks before putting them into the oven for about 15-20 minutes.  And after they cooled completely, we got out my cookie decorating kit that I got for Christmas last year, lost it, found it, and have never used yet and decorated them. What an experience, but the kids loved it.  I thought they tasted like a sweet biscuit (and it was layered almost like one), but with the icing on it, it wasn’t overpoweringly sweet.  They were really good. My son just licked the icing off. 

Fancy schmancy shrimp. I'm going to have to bring this to a pitch-in and impress everyone.
The main dish is shrimp ceviche.  To make it is fairly easy.  I used already cooked shrimp and made sure I took the tails off.  Then I mixed the shrimp, some red onion, some tomatoes, lime juice, orange juice, a little ketchup, some cilantro, a little salt, and some pepper.  I mixed this up and put it in the refrigerator before serving it. It tasted something like shrimp cocktail, but my husband didn’t like how the ketchup and the lime juice mixed.  He thought it had too pungent of an aftertaste.  But I liked it. And of course, the kids complained about the red onions. 

Still think I can improve on this.

And to go with this, I also made baked plantains with cheese.  This fairly easy recipe called to peel and cut the plantains in half, rub them with oil, and bake them for about 30 minutes at 400ºF.  After this time, I turned them (well, I made my husband do it) and left them in for another 15 minutes or so.  Once I removed them, I carefully cut a slit down the middle (and I made him do this part too) and filled it with queso blanco.  The recipe actually called for mozzarella, but my daughter has now all of a sudden decided she doesn’t like mozzarella. So, I after I placed a thin slice of cheese in the plantain, I put it back in the oven (after turning off the heat) for about five minutes. It can be served with or without hot sauce – we opted for the no hot sauce option.  I thought the plantains tasted like a bland potato, and the queso blanco didn’t add much flavor. Perhaps I should’ve gone for the mozzarella anyway.

This would be a super awesome meal if it were warmer outside. 
For me, this was a meal made out of sheer determination.  Because I don’t have the energy I used to have, I definitely needed help with this one. It became a family-contributed meal. And I think those are the best kinds. My appetite was also kind of wonky, so I could only eat kid-size portions of what I made. My husband had to help make the slits in the plantains so I could put the cheese in it, not to mention reaching all of the things that put on the high shelves.  The kids helped to ice the bread babies.  But I’m hoping these are the things my kids will remember as they get older. 

Up next:  Egypt


The most popular form of traditional music is called Pasillo, often considered the national style of music. It’s also brought in the use of a lot of European music as well, such as the waltz.  However, each village and town added its own flair and styles to it. In its waltz form, it’s generally is accompanied by guitars, mandolins, other string instruments, as well as the rondin and other types of flutes, like the rondador (a type of panflute). There is also a dance that’s associated with this as well.

The Pasacalle is a form of dance, related to the genre known as passacaglia, characterized by an ostinato bass line (one that generally repeats the motif at the same pitch).  Yarabi is another type of traditional music that is characterized as being sentimental and is one of the more popular styles in Ecuador. There are two types of Afro-Ecuadorian music. The first type is called marimba because of its reliance and usage of the marimba in their music (one of my favorite instruments).  The other type is called bomba, a fast-paced style using guitars, the guira, and sometimes bongo drums.

I found a few popular musicians from Ecuador on Spotify.  One that I found was Daniela Guzmán.  She’s a pop musician who’s quite popular. I like some of her music. The first track on her self-titled album is probably the best in my opinion. 

Another musician I found is called Fabrikante who mixes beat box with a cappella vocal harmonies. I'm actually not quite sure if it's a group or if it's just one guy who re-records his own voice over multiple layers. It’s kind of cool and innovative, which is probably why I like it.  I can definitely tell some African influences here in places.  The album I was listening to is called “Memoria y Profecía de Doña Petita Pontón.” This video is a little weird though.  

Up next: the food

Friday, January 17, 2014


Ecuadorians come from many places. Many are of European heritage, namely Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Lebanon is you extend a little further.  And there are many who are of an African heritage as well, about 10% or so.  But the majority of people are of Amerindian descent or some kind of mix of Amerindian and something else.  And all of these backgrounds have their influence on Ecuadorian arts. Regardless of their back ground bright colors are universal.

Quichua peoples in the Sierra region of the country are well known for their paintings on sheepskin canvases.  The people of Tigua were especially known for this.  They were also known for their highly-decorated painted masks and drums.  Their painting styles are characterized by their bright colors and geometric shapes, although commonly painted scenes include the countryside, everyday life, festivals, religious themes. Common landmarks are also notable objects portrayed in art, such as the volcano Cotopaxi, which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.  Nowadays, you can find their work all over, and especially in the touristy areas. 

Literature in Ecuador is mainly written in Spanish.  One of the early writers to emerge from colonial Quito is Eugenio Espejo.  People found his works inspiring when it came to the fight for independence from Spain.  Horacio Hidrovo Velásquez from Manabí is another novelist and poet whose works have been made into a few films.

Eugenio Espejo
However, there is one city in central Ecuador, which is the home to three writers: the city of San Juan de Ambato.  It became known as the “City of Three Juanes.”  Juan Montalvo (prominent outspoken liberal, at odds with the government so much, he was exiled several times. He founded several literary and political magazines, and was an enemy of writer Juan León Mera), Juan León Mera (essayist, politician, painter, he was famous for his novel Cumandá and for writing the words to the Ecuadorian National Hymn), and Juan Benigno Vela (received his law degree, was friends with Simón Bolívar and Juan Montalvo.  He was quite active in the political scene, but also wrote for political newspapers, as well as wrote the constitution and several other public law documents.  He died blind and deaf.).

Up next: music and dance

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


New Year’s Day (January 1):  On New Year’s Day, people still are partying far into the early hours of the morning.  The streets are quiet, a drastic change from the revelries of the night before.  Almost all of the businesses are closed and few people are out.  Of course, if I were out partying until the sun came up, I’d crash too. 

Maundy Thursday / Good Friday (varies):  Special Maundy Thursday services are held at church, and some people participate in the washing of the feet.  People in Quito will often visit the churches in the historical district.  A large colorful procession is the main event on Good Friday.  Some people carry heavy crosses along the way.  A special Good Friday mass in held, and people make a special meal made of 12 different grains and codfish to signify the 12 disciples of Jesus.  While many countries view Holy Saturday with graveness, Ecuador approaches it as a day of glorious celebration. Easter is also a day of celebration, beginning with services at church and following with a special luncheon and hunting for Easter eggs. 

Sorry, but the pointy hoods are creepy.  Like a purple KKK. With abs.  
International Worker’s Day (May 1):  This day celebrates the worker and is often used as a day for addressing current labor issues and labor achievements.  Ecuador has about 123,000 refugees from Colombia, escaping the violence in that country.  It’s also a stop in the drug trafficking trade, and there are some reports of child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking. 

The Battle of Pichincha (May 24): This battle was the last battle that took place when Ecuador was fighting for its independence from Spain.  It happened on a volcano called Pichincha, about 3500 meters (11500 feet) above sea level.  School kids will often participate in local parades and sometimes the military joins in as well.  The kids with the highest grades will often carry the flag during the procession.  This holiday tends to be centered around celebrating Ecuador’s history and displaying national pride. 

The Birthday of Simón Bolívar (July 24): Simón Bolívar is the military leader who is the one responsible for winning the independence for not only Ecuador, but also for Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru.  He’s often characterized as a national hero. There are often military parades and school parades with brightly colored traditional wear, complete with brass bands and dancing and waving flags.

Declaration of Independence of Quito (August 10):  Quito is where the independence for their country started. This was the day when people decided enough was enough.  It came at a time when Napoleon had invaded Spain and overtook the throne. Ecuadorians more of less took advantage of Spain’s instability, and over the next year, there were several battles, but eventually they did officially declare their independence.  Generally, the celebrations last most of the month of August, and include music concerts, parades, cultural displays, and local festivals. 

Independence of Guayaquil (October 9): This is the day that a group of patriots in Guayaquil overtook a military base just after midnight and detained some of the high-level commanders until dawn and then signed their declaration of independence.  Guayaquil is now a center for arts and culture and nicknamed “The Pearl of the Pacific.”  The city pretty much has a citywide party and everyone’s invited!

Flag Day (October 31): This is a day in honor of the Ecuadorian flag.  Flags are displayed from people’s homes and businesses all around. 

All Soul’s Day (November 2): This holiday blends religious beliefs with traditional beliefs.  It’s kind of similar to the Day of the Dead festival that takes place in other Latin countries where people honor those who have passed on before us.  It’s a common day to visit graves, do any maintenance, refresh flowers, etc.  One tradition is to make a sweet bread called guaguas de pan, or bread babies (which we will be making later).  These pieces of bread are shaped like a swaddled baby and decorated with icing.  It’s almost always accompanied by a purple drink called colada.  It’s like a smoothie mix of various fruits and sometimes sweet peppers and a variety of other ingredients.  (I’m attempting to make this as well).

Independence of Cuenca (November 3): Primarily celebrated in Cuenca, this holiday celebrates the declaration of independence by the City of Cuenca.  Basically, the whole town shuts down and has one big party.  Schools and business close, music and dancing fill the streets, local food vendors serve savory treats, and arts and crafts are displayed and sold.

Foundation of Quito (December 6):  Also known as Fiestas de Quito, it’s a week-long party celebrating the founding of the city of Quito.  There are many activities and events going on all week, ending on December 6.  Some of the common festivities and events include bullfighting, parades, music concerts, block parties, flamenco dancing, marching bands, fireworks, and many people ride what’s called a Chiva, which is kind of an open bus with a band. 

Christmas Day (December 25): Christmas in Ecuador is a month-long celebration. Nativity scenes are put up everywhere.  Many people take part in novenas: public gatherings of prayers, hymns, and poetry, and it’s followed by hot chocolate and cookies (yes, hot chocolate in summer).  Christmas Eve is usually spent having an elaborate dinner with family, complete with stuffed turkey or chicken, rice with cheese, salads, local fruits, and of course wine.  Parents usually leave the children’s presents at the foot of their beds, and Christmas Day is spent giving gifts with family and friends. 

New Year’s Eve (December 31):  One tradition in Ecuador on New Year’s Eve is to get rid of the bad things. Some people will make scarecrow-like dolls in the likeness of people they don’t like (I have a few in mind) or notable people, and then at the stroke of midnight, everyone burns them.  Another tradition some men do is to dress up like women and beg for beer money.  (Kids will also dress up and beg for candy.)  Beer is a must-have for any New Year’s festivities.  Many people wear masks and attend parties, some of them held as street parties – and of course, fireworks are lit off at midnight. 

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, January 12, 2014


In 1835, Captain Robert FitzRoy navigated the HMS Beagle out into the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of Ecuador to the Galápagos Islands. And on his ship was the famous naturalist Charles Darwin.  It was here that his observations in finding that certain birds and tortoises differed between the islands.  Much of his research here was included in his infamous work On the Origin of Species. (Fascinating book – I read it several years ago.)  Those tortoises, by the way, are the largest living species of tortoise in the world. 

This one named Harriet (which also happens to be my other name) lived to be 176 years old. 
Ecuador itself lies in the northwest corner of South America, surrounded by Columbia to the north, Peru to the south and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.  The Andes Mountains run through the center of the country, separating the coastal regions and highlands in the west from the Amazon Rainforest regions in the east.  Ecuador gets its name from its location about a ¼ of a degree south of the equator.

Ecuador has a wide variety of climates: from temperate and dry in the Andes Mountains, to subtropical on the coastal and rainforest regions.  These vast changes in climate also contribute to a wide variety of flora and fauna as well.  Ecuador is considered one of the 17 countries who has the largest biodiversity – and per square kilometer, Ecuador has the most.  Because of its location close to the equator, the sun rises and sets pretty much the same time year round – around 6am and 6pm, give or take about a half-hour.

 The earliest inhabitants were the Incas.  They were actually several different tribes that came together from various areas of Central and South America.  While their cultures were similar, they all spoke different languages.  Compared with some of the nomadic tribes of the Amazon, the Incas developed into a hunting, fishing, farming, and gathering society.  The Spanish arrived, led by Francisco Pizarro, and tried to convert the Incas to Christianity, but that didn’t go over well.  Pizarro and his crew ransacked, pillaged, and burned down the town and killed many of the people.  Of course, the Spaniards also brought their own European diseases for which the Incas didn’t have any immunity to, causing a high number of deaths during the first years after colonization.  The city of Quito became an administrative city for Spain, later for the Viceroyalty of Peru and then for the Viceroyalty of New Grenada.  They did manage to break free from Spain and joined Simón Bolívar’s Gran Colombia.  In 1830, they broke away again and became its own independent country.  There was a lot of economic instability in the first years, and the government changed hands several times. But they did manage to abolish slavery in 1851.  At the end of the 1800s and lasting into the 20th century, Ecuador engaged in several fights over land and other issues with Peru.  Even up until recently, border disputes and fighting between Ecuador and Peru continued, and in 2010, Peru shut its border with Ecuador. 

The capital city is Quito, or more formally San Francisco de Quito.  It’s considered the highest capital city in the world that houses the administrative, legislative, and judicial branches of the government.  (As opposed to the capitals of Bolivia, who splits those branches between the two cities.)  While Quito is the capital city, it’s not the largest city in Ecuador; that honor goes to the coastal city and cultural hotspot of Guayaquil.  Quito’s historic center is one of the best-preserved and least-altered cultural centers in the world.  It was also declared as the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1978. 

Ecuador’s economy has more or less risen consistently since 2000.  That was the year that Ecuador adopted the US Dollar as their legal tender, abandoning the sucre.  Even though there were some rocky times, especially during the global economic crisis of 2008, it seems to have recovered: unemployment was around 4.8% in 2012, and the extreme poverty rate went from around 40% in 2001 to around 17.4% in 2011.  Crude petroleum accounts for about 46% of Ecuador’s exports.  They’re also a major exporting country of bananas and plantains, flowers, and cocoa, as well as shrimp, sugar cane, rice, cotton, corn, palm, and coffee. 

 In Ecuador, about 8% of the people don’t have a religion (atheists and agnostics). Of those who do, about 80% of them are Roman Catholic, 11% are Protestants, 1% is Jehovah’s Witnesses, and about 7% are other religions (mainly Buddhist, Jewish, Bahá’í, Muslim, and Mormon).  In some rural areas, indigenous religions may be practiced side-by-side along with Catholicism. 

The official language is Spanish, and it’s the language that most Ecuadorians speak.  However, a large number of them also speak Amerindian languages, the largest being Quichua, part of the Quechua group of languages. 

The New York Times published their “52 Places to Go in 2014” recently, and Ecuador came in #7.  Their recently refurbished train called Tren Crucero is proving to be a new and awe-inspiring way to see the country.  It starts in Quito and winds its way through the Andes Mountains and past volcanoes to the city of Guayaquil.  Cotopaxi National Park is also a popular side trip for great opportunities to see a lot of the local wildlife.  I think Ecuador would make a great trip, and perhaps, one day I can make it down there. 

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