Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Unforgettable by Design



Smith School designed by John M. Johansen in 1969

            “You want to go WHERE?” my two sisters and I asked our mother when she suggested another girl’s trip.  “You could choose anywhere. Paris is nice this time of year!  Why Columbus, Indiana??” “But it’s been my dream to go there,” she insisted.  Truly we’d follow her anywhere and so the four of us drove from Indianapolis through miles of corn fields to this town of 45,000.

            “Everyone has their arm around someone,” my sister Lila noticed as we dined at Henry’s Social Club.  This was our first indication that Columbus was realizing the dream of one of its benefactors, J. Irwin Miller who said “What is built reflects what a city thinks of itself and what it hopes to be”. What he wanted Columbus to be and what it has become is an improbable architectural Mecca that has fostered a creative, friendly community.  As the CEO of Cummins Engine, he initiated a program to pay architects’ fees resulting in a city full of celebrated designs by notables such as Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, and I.M. Pei.
North Christian Church
      Beginning in 1957, Cummins Engine’s largesse spurred the development of over 80 buildings, landscapes and public works or art by internationally known designers.  Mr. Miller wanted buildings that were “not monuments to architect’s egos,” but would instead transform the texture of the resident’s daily lives.  Today almost 20 unique schools whose designs were inspired by such things as gerbil runs, silos, farmhouses, a tannery and bridges are the cornerstone of the town’s modernist designs.  “Mediocrity is expe  nsive,” Mr. Miller decreed.
A fire station
 If you take one of the very popular bus tours as we did, you can see several of the iconic buildings in town including The North Christian Church designed by Eero Saarinen.  His soaring design is built around a spire “because the spire is a marvelous symbol of reaching upward to God,” he said. An oculus at the top focuses dramatic light onto the communion table.  A massive pipe organ is a sculptural centerpiece. Famous artists such as Chihuly, Henry Moore and Martin Beach have added sculptures to parks and gathering places that contrast with the covered bridges that dot the area.
 
      Functional, striking designs even include several fire stations and the AT&T Switching
Station designed in 1978 by Paul Kennon. Its huge primary colored “organ pipes” are not only a colorful accent, they are part of the HVAC system and have become an iconic image of the city’s modern architecture. Cummins’ corporate headquarters which takes up several downtown blocks is a zigzag design in a park-like setting conceived by Kevin Roche and landscape designer Jack Curtis. It features cast-in-place octagonal concrete columns with infilled precast concrete spandrels and narrow windows to provide noise and sun control, innovations when it was designed in 1984.

Jonathan Nesci
       Jonathan Nesci who is an internationally known furniture designer moved to Columbus in 2009.  “I felt like I could really work from anywhere, and the thought of my kids getting a chance to grow up in a place like Columbus was and continues to be very appealing,” he said.  “It’s energizing to see the Henry Moore sculpture at different times of day and catch a different view of an Eero Saarinen project…I feel very fortunate to get to interact with these places on a regular basis.”  In 2017 he became the curator for Exhibit Columbus, an annual celebration of architecture, art, design and community that alternates programming between symposium years and exhibit years.  He walked us down Washington Street to highlight some of the 15
temporary site-responsive installations which were designed by artists chosen from five international galleries he’d invited to “spark new conversations about the power of design”.  Outside the Rogers Library we climbed atop the massive wooden sculpture Conversation Plinth and then explored the wigwam-inspired construction Wiikiaami that undulated down a walkway. Along the sidewalk, he pointed out discrete interconnected seats, aptly named Pause, placed intermittently to offer a place to stop and get a new perspective.  Snarkitecture was designed to attract children down a fun-filled alley and a popular colored fiber maze made by high school students drew in pedestrians.  “I wanted the designers to dig deep into the city’s incredible design and cultural history and make a design that would allow visitors and residents alike to see Columbus in a new way.”
        
    Vision and investment have had  big payoffs.  Economic vitality has followed:  stores report a three-fold sales increase during Exhibit Columbus.  The downtown is revitalized and sprawl contained.  Visitors fill tours year round. Columbus’s motto “Unexpected, Unforgettable” is apt. And so, as usual, mom was right.  Columbus is a dream destination. As Jonathan Nesci says, “Architecture and design can make a difference and are doing so here.  That’s really powerful.”




If You Go:

Exhibit Columbus National Symposia will be held Sept. 26 to 29, 2018: www.exhibitcolumbus.org

Plan an architectural visit or tour: https://columbus.in.us/







Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Wild Horses Couldn’t Keep Me Away






      Snubs, cultural differences and misunderstandings are the back stories of Cumberland Island and St. Marys Georgia. The misguided Seal sisters for example were just waving their handkerchiefs good-bye as the Yankees finally abandoned the occupation of their town. Captain Higginson, the commanding officer, saw it differently. “They’re sending a signal to the Confederates to return,” he thought. So he made a U-turn and burned down the town. Oops. In 1814, the British Vice Admiral William Cochran invited anyone who wanted to leave the country to board his ship. Hundreds of slaves went to live a free life in Bermuda and Nova Scotia. Aaron Burr expected a friendly reception 
from Catherine Green Miller on Cumberland Island. But “She could not receive as a guest one whose hands were “crimsoned” with (Hamilton’s) blood,” according to author Elizabeth Ellet. She left him stranded. And then there was the shocking case of Thomas Carnegie being snubbed by the Millionaire’s Club. He and his brother Andrew seemed like naturals for the exclusive group of rich industrialists that summered on Jekyll Island in the 1880’s. But the Carnegies were too nouveau riche for the group somehow. So they did what nouveau riche millionaires do: they bought a large portion of nearby Cumberland Island where their descendants still own vacation mansions today. 
      Today, St. Marys prides itself on being one of the safest small towns in America. It’s full of Victorian houses and 35 churches bordering a quiet coastline. After watching the short film “Simple Pleasure of Small Town America” at the Visitor’s Center, we took the handy self-guided walking tour leaflet to stroll to picturesque parks, a cemetery and historic buildings. The park has free bike fixing tools. Light hearted signs remind visitors: “Practice Civility Every Day” “Stupidity is not a handicap. Park somewhere Else!” Several B&B’s offer charming overnight stays for the 60,000 people a year who visit Cumberland Island National Seashore. Our Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara room at 
Goodbread House featured a huge bathroom and beaucoup memorabilia. The porch swing on the sunny porch was especially nice. At Spencer House Inn, where guests have been hosted since 1872, the breakfast buffet and packed lunches fueled us bountifully for our bike riding on Cumberland.
      “It’s like a time warp. I can just see the buggies and horses,” Babs Kall, another day tripper,
remarked as we docked after a 45 minute ferry ride. Those heading to the upscale Greyfield Inn on the island take a private launch. There are no stores and limited drinking water on its 18 miles. Trash must be hauled off. Campers schlepped bungee-corded wagons of gear a half mile to the closest beach campground. Some folks rented beach cruiser bikes. Some picnicked. Once on the dirt trails, we had to keep stopping to admire the wild horses that nonchalantly grazed along the path. But we kept our distance as the ranger had warned. 
 We cruised past the still-occupied Stafford House with peacocks strutting behind tabby walls topped with animal skulls and a private plane landing in the yard. After about an hour and a half, we came to Plum Orchard built for the Carnegies’ son George and his wife in 1898 and donated to the National Park Foundation in 1971. Tours of the Georgian Revival house are available. Fifteen minutes south of the dock are the ruins of Dungeness. It’s a shell today after being gutted by fire in 1959, reputed set by a poacher. But when Catherine Green Miller built it in 1800, it featured 6-foot thick walls, 16 fireplaces, a pool, golf course and room for 200 servants. Gala parties and extravagance filled the house until the Depression when the family abandoned it to decay.

      Turning some of the island from a refuge for the rich into a National Seashore was a long, complicated process. It took years of wrangling, lawyering, politics and acts of Congress. The efforts continue. A new debate began last year when the Camden County Planning Commission approved a hardship variance that would allow construction of a 10-home subdivision on the federally protected island. Environmental groups and local citizens have been engaged in a contentious process to balance property rights and conservation. Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys Earthkeepers, was quoted in the Brunswick News: “I believe that there is a middle-ground and that if the NPS, the environmental organizations, and the property owners come to a position of accord and unity, the future of the Island will be secured.” The group is working towards an agreement that respects mutual interests and lasts for over 100 years. Being among the carefully regulated number of visitors to come to this special place is an experience to value and must be protected.






If You Go:

Goodbread House: www.goodbreadhouse.com

Spencer House Inn: www.spencerhouseinn.com

Ferry reservations: www.cumberlandislandferrycom

Camping reservations: www.recreation.gov

For history of the National Park Service on the island: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/cuis/dilsaver/chap3.pdf




Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Woman Behind the Songs: Quiana Parler of Ranky Tanky




            Quiana Parler was 7 years old when she started voice lessons with the renowned June Bonner.  “Sing your ass off no matter the audience.” June told her.  “I wish I could say ‘thank-you’ now,” Quiana says. So would local and international audiences.  “I’ve always been a singer; I’ve never had a 9-to-5. I didn’t go to my prom; I was doing the show.” She sang in church growing up in Harleyville and at the College of Charleston where she caught the attention of Quentin Baxter and Tommy Gill.  They recruited her to sing at the Charleston Music Hall when she was only 15 years old. She met Carlton Singleton there when she performed in “Serenade”.  “Quiana was polished,” he says. “She’s the perfect blend of raw talent, polished talent and professional coaching.  She knows how to breathe.  She knows how to go operatic, she knows when to go church; she knows when to go pop.  She can switch on and off and make it sound effortless.” Since then, she’s performed at the Music Hall over 30 times. “Her energy is amazing. Her voice and talent are amazing,” said Charles Carmody who manages the venue. A measure of fame followed when Quiana finished near the top in the 2003 season of American Idol.  For the next ten years she toured with contest winners Clay Aiken and Ruben Stoddard.  It’s a hard life.  “I’m a full time mom when I’m home,” Quiana says while describing the patchwork of care she arranged for her son.  Her popular wedding band kept her in town sometimes but she describes becoming aware of a “hard-to-reach itch”.  “I felt I was supposed to be doing something more.” So she decided to be still and wait for it to come to her.  About a week later, Clay Ross called with an idea for Ranky Tanky.  
            It’s a little surprising that Clay, the only white member of the quintet, had the vision to take Gullah church music, play songs, chants and spirituals and juice them up with global rhythms and jazz.  Quiana wasn’t familiar with the repertoire since she’d grown up inland. Carlton Singleton, Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton “thought the idea was lame because the music was so familiar.  They’d been doing it all their lives,” Quiana remembers.  But now she says, “We just want to spread the culture.  It’s a beautiful culture.  We had no idea that this style of music and Gullah culture would put us on NPR!” During that interview with Terry Gross, Clay described the music’s appeal:  “I think…these songs bring people in touch with their suffering that is just the common thread of all humanity.   And everybody deals with that… these songs allow us to get close to that in a safe space, and to share that together and commune with one another around that.  And it’s just powerful and beautiful.”  
            They’ve struck a chord with audiences even if, as Quiana laughs, most people have never heard of Gullah.  “They call it goulash or something.”   It was her first trip abroad when they began their European tour with an 18 hour flight from California.  As the audience in the Czech Republic chanted their name and hollered for an encore, “It hit me that we were onto something here,” she remembers.  “It’s because of the rhythm.  People can feel that we’re coming from a good place.  You give off good energy, you get good energy back,” she said.  Rave reviews followed the band’s performance at the 2016 globalFEST in New York:  “The biggest surprise of globalFEST, Ranky Tanky proved that exotic music can be both unfamiliar enough to be surprising, and yet familiar enough to provoke swinging hips and nodding heads.” (Paste Magazine).  “Combining revered Gullah kinship with a jazz sensibility, Ranky Tanky accentuates the spirituality connected to the ring shouts and praise houses, proposing a modern rendition of their ancestral music.” (All About Jazz).  Their debut album, released on the Music Alliance label in October 2017, has risen to the top of the Billboard and ITunes charts and was one of the best reviewed albums of the year.
         
   So does Quiana feel successful?  “It’s a blessing to do what I love my entire life.  Music chose me.  Success has always been a goal but fame is not success.  Longevity is success.  I define my success as being able to pay the bills.”  She’s especially grateful to the community that has helped nurture her talent. “Now I understand that this is what I’ve been meant to be: music with a purpose. We want to thank Charleston for their support.  To be part of Spoleto and to sell out is amazing.  I’m so excited for what’s ahead for Ranky Tanky.”
For More Information
Tour dates:  www.rankytanky.com
The Spoleto performance is June 2 at the Cistern



Thursday, April 26, 2018

A visit to Freewoods Farm : The Only African-American Living History Site in the U.S.



            “If you’ve ever had a desire to be a stripper in Myrtle Beach, you can come here,” O’Neal Smalls joked as he introduced us to Freewoods Farm.  They always need more hands to strip sugar cane stalks, he explained.  At this 40-acre living farm museum, sugar cane juice is extracted using mule-power and then boiled in a huge kettle to make their sought-after cane syrup.  It’s part of the farm’s comprehensive educational program depicting life on African American farms during the 100 years after the Civil War.  My husband and I stopped in the Burgess community on our way to Myrtle Beach.  During the short tour we learned how the version of African American history we’d been taught had been edited.  For example, the promise our government made to redistribute land to the freed slaves during Reconstruction was an unfulfilled promise.   “This is the symbolic 40 acres that they didn’t get.  We even have two mules.” Mr. Smalls went on to explain: “The big issue was ‘what are you going to do with 4 million freed slaves’?”  Many of them were illiterate and in a hostile   Thousands followed Sherman’s troops desperately hoping to acquire land as plantation owners were driven out.  Meanwhile, Lincoln was “dithering” on his promise as Mr. Smalls described it.   More government waffling resulted in laws to facilitate Black ownership followed by other laws to repossess the land.  The Southern Homestead Act offered a way for freed slaves to buy land at prices often beyond their reach.  Opportunities for economic advancement were missed.  Disenfranchisement and poverty resulted.   
environment.

           We learned that after the Civil War, over 80% of the freed slaves became farmers.  Some acquired land, some were sharecroppers.  In the 1860’s, freed slaves began to settle in the Burgess community.  By the third generation, the area was completely Black.  In the early 20th century Julius Rosenwald, influenced by Booker T. Washington, used the money he’d earned as a founder of Sears Roebuck to build over 5,000 schools for African American children, including one here.  As a result, over one-third of the country’s African American children at the time were educated at a Rosenwald school which contributed to significant gains in literacy.
            Freewoods Farm began in 2001.  It is the only living history farm devoted to recognizing and perpetuating the contributions of African-American farmers in the U.S..  Joel Schor, a Department of Agriculture historian who has extensively studied African American history said of the project, “Freewoods could make a valuable contribution to the history of Agriculture, and to the history of Black Americans, by carefully studying the agricultural activities and practices during these years.”  The project began by creating ditches and swells to provide drainage and irrigation using the system developed by post-Civil War farmers.   They planted acres of pumpkins, potatoes, peanuts and corn.  They learned the traditional way to make lime to feed the crops.  They also raise pigs and chickens. 
All of this farming is done without the use of modern machines except when neighbors lend a hand.  Doing things the historic way is part of the mission.  Joel Shor says that there’s a valuable lesson here to “…do more with what little one has.” Today they have a large market building where neighbors join them to sell produce as well as a livestock barn, grain barn, caretaker home and kettle shed. A 100-year old farmhouse has been restored and staged with interesting historic artifacts.  An outhouse, built from a Sears catalog kit, is on sight as well as a smokehouse.  Their grand vision includes a “Main Street” lined with buildings rented to tenants like a community theater, shops and cafes to represent the nerve center of the post-Civil War era.  But the main goal is education.  Events commemorating Emancipation Day and Black History Month impart information to large numbers of visitors.  A curriculum for school children about daily farm activities is being developed by Clemson University.   Field trips and summer camps for children are in the works.  With the millions of visitors to the area, the project also has potential as a business catalyst.  “Freewoods is ideal because it will contribute to a prideful replica of Black history; while at the same time creating jobs…” wrote Douglas Glasgow of the National Urban League.  Joseph McNutt of the Horry County Council sees it as a strategy for racial harmony:  “One of the interesting aspects of Freewoods Farm is that it will focus on the contributions and creativity of African American farmers rather than the more common issues of exploitative treatment.  This focus alone could advance race relations.” 
      For our small group of tourists though, it was like eating a plateful of nourishing fresh vegetables before the sugar overdose of Myrtle Beach. As Billy Williams, another in our group said, “We wish that our children understood this history. This is our country’s history, everybody should come.”

If You go

www.freewoodsfarm.com: Attend an event or email them to arrange a visit. 








Thursday, March 8, 2018

Our Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day






            The morning began with frantic and panic, the top two ways you don’t want to feel when you start a trip.  In the interest of marital harmony, I won’t recount the reasons but suffice it to say that we were running quite late for the early morning flight. Our misadventure had begun when my husband Mark surprised and delighted me with his wild idea to dash down to Fort Lauderdale to see a Shakira concert. I was enthusiastic about a stadium full of twerking fans and fiery Latin pop music. It totally played into my oft-repeated adage that if you’re not the oldest one in the room, you’re not where the fun is. A light drizzle didn’t help our timing in the predawn dash to the airport. But Jet Blue begrudgingly allowed our bag to be checked with a large sticker marked “LATE” which seemed to predict it not arriving. We raced to the security line.  Just as it was about to be our turn, I asked Mark, “where is your backpack?”  It was in the car.  Acres away.  Good thing he’s a runner. Our tickets said that the gate was going to close in 3 minutes and I was still standing in line alone when Mark breathlessly sprinted up.  Polite Charlestonians allowed us to apologize our way to the front of the security line; we got through with the required hassle, ran to the gate as they were calling our names on the loudspeaker and, PHEW, they let us on.  Not a good start.  After the requisite wifely rehash, I practiced some Lamaze breathing and when we landed about an hour later my pulse was almost normal.
            The rest of the day proceeded as delightfully as planned.  We explored the “Venice of America” on a lovely boat cruise and checked into our charming Air BnB in Lauderdale by the Sea. By that evening we were glamorously adorned.  All panic and frantic had blown away on the ocean breezes.  I had feathers in my hair, a sparkly dress; Mark was in a flashy t-shirt he’d bought especially for the occasion. Cocktails in hand, we waited for our UBER driver on the patio.  “Here’s a toast to Shakira,” I said, “Our muse for the fabulous evening ahead.” Our friendly driver was amused as we chided each other and recounted our day. We talked about his new (legal) marijuana related enterprise, marital harmony, rock and roll. By the time we finished the 45 minute drive, we’d bonded and he was excited for us as we approached the huge BB&T center where 20,000 music fans were expected. But as we pulled off the highway into the parking area we were shocked to find that we were the only ones there! A scrawled sign blithely informed us “Shakira Concert Postponed”.  What??? How could everyone have known this but us?  Ticketmaster had my email address.

             Groans and incredulity followed.  Our driver felt so sorry for us.  He scrambled to conjure up a Plan B and dropped us off at a crowded bar within walking distance to our cottage where our sparkle and glitter clashed with our moods and the blue-jeaned crowd.  We told our story to anyone who would listen over the volume of the local rock band which, thankfully, did not play any Shakira. 
            The next day we regrouped.  “I’m going to wear that dress again tonight and we’re going to go find a place to dance where we’re the oldest ones in the room. That’s what we came for and that’s what we’re going to do!”  I insisted. “That’s the spirit!” my ever-willing partner rejoined.  Scouring the local events paper, I cross referenced a nearby dance club with a Youtube video of the band playing that night.  It looked promising.  Glamorously dressed once again, filled with expectation, we optimistically headed out.
            The dance club was above an Italian Restaurant.  From the entryway we could hear the band and it sounded pretty good in a wedding band sort of way.  “Time to get down and get funky!” I shouted as we climbed the stairs to discover that, no, we were not the oldest ones in the room.  In fact we were among the youngest!  A couple of men crept to their tables with walkers.  Dancing couples leaned heavily on each other as they slowly swayed despite the backbeat.  Not a twerker for miles.   What could we do but dance anyway? And have a few drinks.

            So my glittery dress is hanging disconsolately in my closet, waiting for the next opportunity to be the oldest ones in the room.  I’m not giving up on that mantra.  But next time, not with Shakira. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Connecting Cultures through Music


             My family of friends often says that we raised our kids at the LEAF Festival. Over the decades these twice-a-year treks to Black Mt. N.C. have been a musical balm; a time-out with a soundtrack ranging from banjos to balalaikas. It was there that we first heard an African rock ‘n roll band and the doors to world music opened.  But it is only recently that I learned about the opportunities to visit the ten countries where LEAF International works with culture keepers to keep alive the musical traditions that are in danger of disappearing due to globalization. 
Bequia kids come to LEAF. 
         Projects often begin with a spark from LEAF’s visionary leader Jennifer Pickering.  In 2006, she visited Bequia and asked someone “How many kids on this island are learning the local steel pan tradition?”  She was told there was only one: the governor’s daughter.  Jennifer found local musicians who were willing to be teaching artists and partners to make steel pans. Now they’ve taught over 70 children.  Impressed by the success, the local government donated a building so the program can expand.
         
            Unlike the approach many organizations take when serving abroad, LEAF collaborates with existing community initiatives.  “All LEAF International programs are carried out in partnership with already existing, local organizations where we work collaboratively to set up traditional music and dance programs. While LEAF International acts as a catalyst to create and support the programs, these programs are not ours: rather, they are community-owned and community-led....”
Jairo and his drum. 
Learning the rhythms at Jairo's family's home. 
      About a dozen of us, including three adventurous children, visited the program in Costa Rica where LEAF works with the indigenous Bri Bri.  Previously only three people in the community held knowledge of the drumming tradition.  Jairo, whose grandfather had been a drum maker, was selling trinkets to tourists.  With LEAF’s help Jairo is now hewing drums from logs and covering them with snake skin.  We visited him and his family in their conical thatched hut and learned some of the dances and rhythms just as his dozens of students do each week.“I feel like I am making a positive difference in my community through this program because it is like building a bridge between the young and the elders.”  

            At the May and October festivals, LEAF brings young students and their teachers from the partner countries to perform at the festival and in school auditoriums in Asheville.  It’s often their first time out of their countries; their first time to meet children from the U.S and international musicians. It’s a peak experience that has lasting impact on them.   “My favorite moment at the festival was every moment,” said Brian Linus, a LEAF International Tanzania student. “We now have friends in Haiti, Malawi, America and many other countries.  This was my dream and it has come true.”  
             In October 2007 Jean Paul Samputu performed at LEAF with the Mizero Children of Rwanda.  I was awestruck by his message of reconciliation coming from a man whose country had endured unimaginable genocide.  In fact many of the children in the troupe were orphaned.  David Kwizera was one.  “I was born in 1989, in
The Mizero Children of Rwanda.
Gisenyi. I grew up without my parents. I was living with an older woman who I considered was my grandmother. She found me abandoned in a field. When I was 10, thieves invaded our house, took our belongings and killed my Grandmother. Left with no family, I ended up living on the streets. Life on the street was tough. I ended up in Kigali. I was lucky to meet with LEAF International who has helped me get music and dance training and accommodations.” LEAF has helped the troupe of formerly homeless orphans move into a house and gain musicianship. They even tour internationally. “We dream to have work, and when we can sustain ourselves, we wish to take in other kids from the streets.  We want to empower other kids the way that we were empowered.  We will work hard to help the youth of Rwanda,” David said.
The teaching center in Guatemala. 
  “Your traditions are very important.  It’s like you forget who you are if you don’t know your traditions,” says Bois Bris a teaching artist in  Haiti.  When you meet the culture keepers and their students you feel the powerful way that music connects us to our past, to each other and to the world. Three trips are planned in 2018 accompanied by LEAF staff and teaching artists:  Jan. 30 to Feb. 4 to Guatemala, in July to Haiti and later in the year to Costa Rica.  You’ll come home inspired like this Rwandan student who said, “The music has changed us.  We now feel proud and have hope. Through music and performances, we are example students to the rest of our community and our country.”
 
All photos provided by LEAF.      

Find out more here: 


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Home Sweet Homestay



             Apropos of the connectivity of our world today, I booked a home stay with a Quechua family in Ecuador through Airbnb. From my first-world home on Sullivan’s Island, it seemed like a soft adventure for solo travel and a good way to practice speaking Spanish. Especially for $10 a night. But as I rambled into the dark countryside in a cab that kept stopping to ask directions, I became concerned. 
Especially when my cabbie gave up.  He hailed another driver and directed me to “Get in his cab. Maybe he can find it.”  I was  dropped off at a steep rock staircase.   On a boulder, the words Loma Wasi and “welcome” in three languages were scrawled in chipped paint.  I bolstered my courage and schlepped my suitcase up the stairs. “Hola,” I called as I entered the courtyard full of hanging laundry.   Puppies scampered underfoot.  A tarp covered with corn husks covered the ground.  Mercedes, the family matriarch, greeted me as she fed stalks into a smoky fireplace and mixed dough to make tortillas. Diana, her daughter, was grinding roasted pumpkin seeds with a mortar and pestle to make a sauce for purple potatoes.  I offered to help and soon we all sat around the dinner table:  a family of 4 visiting from Quebec, a volunteer from Toronto and the five family members.
My comfortable room.
            After dinner, they showed me to my room.  I had a comfortable bed, a private bathroom with a flush toilet and a shower with occasional hot water.  The silhouette of Imbabura Volcano filled my window, the town’s lights far below.  Piles of finely woven Ecuadorian blankets covered the bed.  Although it was July, I needed them all.  There was even strong Wi-Fi.  But that night, loud skittering sounds from inside my ceiling made me pull the blankets over my head.  “I may leave early,” I wrote in my journal.  “I draw the line at rats.”    
       But the next day I mellowed. Andy, the volunteer, admonished me about the rats “That’s life on a farm!”  The family entranced me.  They never stopped working.  They swept the dusty courtyard, did washtubs full of laundry by hand and tended animals. Making breakfast involved picking fruit to juice, milking the cow for coffee, gathering eggs for omelets and (if it was the right weekday) hiking up the hill to the neighbors to get fresh bread. Then it was time to start dinner. One day Andy was tasked with moving big boulders from the garden, putting them in a wheelbarrow and dumping them across the yard.  As he began, Mercedes filled a burlap sack with boulders and slung it heavily over her shoulder.  “Isn’t there something easier you can do today Mercedes?” he asked her.  But she kept on.
             Mario, the patriarch, was proud of his youthful travels to Europe with his pan flute band and his ability to cure diseases through shamanic ceremonies involving guinea pigs. A box of the squealers was in the backyard awaiting roasting on special occasions.  On a particularly clear day he took us up the hill to see Cotacachi Volcano.  It’s said that the snow on its peak means that the mountain had sex with Imbabura Volcano.  “Don’t go in that ravine at night,” he pointed out along the route, “there is bad energy there.” He told us about a guy who followed a blond gringa and went missing for fifteen days.  Phantoms roam the mountainsides. 
Bricks in process.
            The surrounding community of Tunibamba builds bricks. Along the one-hour walk into the nearest town, I saw several pits from which clay has been excavated.  Cows are yoked together to stomp and mix the ingredients. Then blocks are cut, often by families including children, and left to dry in the sun.  Occasional trucks grunt up the hill to carry them away.  But at Loma Wasi, they had begun this home stay enterprise instead.  An English speaking relative made them a slick website and took care of the bookings.   His responsiveness was much better than the lackadaisical approach I found at many tourist offices in the country.  Appreciative comments by visitors from around the world attest to their success. 
I spread a little tattoo love.
            We were mutually curious.  Mercedes and I discovered that we were both grandmothers about the same age.  “Tell me about your animals,” she asked.  “I have none,” I replied which left her wondering if I was really as rich as she supposed. One night in a bit of exuberance fueled by a little rum another visitor had brought, I instigated a dance session toUptown Funk.  Diana was so amused, she videoed it and showed it to the neighbors.

            I was glad I had bucked up and had such an authentic experience. “This is a crazy special opportunity to see a different world,” I wrote in my journal.   Isn’t that the goal of traveling?

If You Go: