Cebolla Excursion: Interrupting Farm Life in Ecuador

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The grand road-side entrance to a farm with corn crops. Manabi, Ecuador.

From time to time we are inclined to take a journey between our village and the next, to gaze at the wandering expanse of farmlands and rural life. Although the scenery is unique to this province, the route often reminds us of those that we frequently came across between the small towns of the rural Midwest back in the USA. To some, it isn’t much to see the rolling acreage that fills the gaps between civilizations, but for us it’s a glimpse at simplicity that is infinitely appealing. We may not be the farming type, but we are country folks at heart.  We appreciate the clean, sweeping fields of seeds tucked neatly beneath the soil; the scent of a fresh, raw life; and the warm, glowing faces of the people who call the land their home.

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One worker paced through the onions, spraying each plant with the solution from the tank on his back.

On many warm afternoons, we have idled past the perfectly combed rows of crops and pondered what was growing there. We would squint our eyes and sniff the air, trying to decipher the unfamiliar green, tentacles dancing in the breeze. On our last venture past, my husband made an abrupt turn onto the bumpy, dirt road that snakes through the fields. I peered at him from beneath my glasses, as I quietly glanced sidelong at the handful of men working in the field.

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Perfectly manicured rows of onion tentacles!

I knew exactly what he was up to, but I nervously clutched my camera as I listened to the sound of a creaky, old truck roll up behind us. I held my breath, waiting for a string of profanities and a machete to poke out from the dusty window, expecting this farmer to object to our intrusion upon his land. Instead, we were greeted by a toothy smile beaming from a sun wrinkled face peering beneath a faded, old hat. He didn’t say much at all, but a few warm words rolled from his tongue, as he opened his arms to the air, in a gesture of welcome and amusement.

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Red onion fields between palm tress and dry mountains.

My husband nudged me from the car, prodding me to explore, while he and the kids watched from the car. I just stood there for a moment, awkward and shy as ever, and still a little nervous over our trespassing. A few yards away, the engine of the farm truck rumbled to stop, and I was suddenly engulfed in the silence of the landscape and nearly knocked to my knees with the undeniable scent of onions.  The farmer stood nearby, rummaging through a sack on the ground, glanced up at me and once again motioned me to come for a closer look. I nearly tripped over my own toes, and I think he noticed my nervousness, for he smiled a bit before he turned and trudged off in the opposite direction.

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Purple (red) onions emerging from the soil.

I began to explore the parcel, making notes of the simple irrigation system, the lack of tractors and machinery, and of just a few men tiptoeing through the crops. It appeared to be a small operation, just a tiny, family farm, likely supplying purple onions and green peppers to the surrounding communities.

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A few of the workers were bent over the small plants, apparently weeding or pruning, and another was gliding between the empty spaces, spraying mist from a blue pack on his back. Step by step, plant by plant, into the endless green abyss. As I watched, I recalled an article I had read earlier, about the use of organic pesticides in Ecuador, with concoctions made of garlic and mint to keep the pests at bay. I couldn’t help but wonder if those were the ingredients inside the tank. Then, I noted the apparent boundaries set by the dry mountainside and the towering palm trees, with only barbed wire lining the farthest edge along the highway.

As I turned to head back to my family, I noticed a smaller field of neglected drooping plants. I knelt to peer beneath the leaves to see small bulbs of ripening green peppers.  The farmer watched me from afar, and trotted over to the open window of the car, explaining to my husband, that these peppers were not fit for consumption. We didn’t quite understand why, as there weren’t any apparent pests, and nothing other than the lackluster leaves, to give indication of a problem. Either way, it was interesting to see the sense of pride, even a tinge of embarrassment, as the farmer felt obliged to explain any imperfection that was previously unnoticed by me.

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A humble bamboo hut for the quiet nights on the hacienda.

I followed the tracks in the powdery farm path, back to where my family waited. As my husband continued to chat, I snapped a few more photos, of the raised bamboo building that seemed to serve as hearth to the overseer. A quaint hut nestled next to a banana tree, with hammocks dangling from the palapa eaves, appeared to be the perfect place for reprieve to the laborers. Their bicycles leaning against the beams, tell the story of a rural life much removed from the cornfields of Iowa. I couldn’t tell you, if it’s better or harder, or even comparable, but there is no doubt about it, we are a long way from home and a world away from modern. But, something about it is simple and peaceful and rewarding, and I’m so glad we stopped by to intrude on the daily life of cropping in Ecuador.

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Rural areas and onion fields from beneath the banana tree.Manabi, Ecuador.
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Employee parking??

Typical Food of Coastal Ecuador

13775560_787974821339600_6097005661915790504_nWe’ve had to eat out a bit more than normal lately, since I’ve been ailed. Luckily, it is very affordable and very convenient to do so, as long you understand the when and where. Most restaurants are not open during the day, unless it is the weekend. Otherwise, lunch time hours are pretty hit or miss. Most people can’t even be found in the afternoon, as Latins of all ages take their siesta/nap-time very seriously! Usually if we want we to eat out during the week, we plan on after 4 pm. Some restaurants don’t open until as late as 7 pm. It is a very laid back atmosphere, everyone is welcome as you are. It’s never a problem if you don’t have shoes on, or if you have the dogs along, or even if they know you and you forgot your wallet. I always find it charming, that it is fairly typical to be served your food on a fancy china plate at a plastic table 🙂 Many of the restaurants are set up on a patio, the sidewalk, or even right in the street. They are usually just a humble extension of the restaurant owner’s own home. The ambiance that this creates is one of genuinity, as you come to realize that you may be experiencing the service of several family members and even several generations. 13680638_787974808006268_1029424106744154356_nIt feels much like what we call a family style restaurant in The States. Typical dishes in this province include rice and pantecones (a type of fried plaintain). You will usually get both with just about any meal you order. If you order soup, you’ll probably get chifles, which are a plaintain chip. Fish and seafood are very commonly eaten both here and throughout the entire country of Ecuador. You can also get chicken, or pork, and less often beef. But the meat here is different and takes some getting used to. Mostly organic and free range livestock means leaner, tougher meat but great flavor.
13882268_787974798006269_3233342824472979069_nThis bowl is Ceviche, it is a mixture of seafoods that are “cooked” in a lime juice broth. It is not hot, but is served chilled or at room temperature. The are many variations of this soup, it’s fun to try them all and compare. It was served with patecones.
The other 2 photos are of mixed rice dishes, one is with every imaginable fish included, the other is with a white fish and calamari (octopus). They are served with cooked Maduro, a type of sweet banana that needs to be cooked for consumption.
We forgot to take a photo, but we also tried swordfish, which was unbelievable. Probably among one of the best fish dishes I have ever had. And yes, the kids eat this stuff, too. We don’t tell them it’s fish, and they gobble it right up! 😀

Ecuador’s Sardine Festival

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1st Annual Sardine Festival of San Clemente, Ecuador

Festival de Pinchagua

Saturday, August 13, was the first annual Festival de Pinchagua in the Manabi province of Ecuador. This event was organized by the Board of Tourism to increase visitor traffic to areas affected by the devastating earthquake that occurred earlier in the year. As residents of San Clemente, this is the first public event or holiday, that we have seen being observed since our move to the village almost 4 months ago. We were thrilled for the activity, and it was fun, just for one day, to see a couple thousand people in the streets of this typically quiet fishing area.

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Non-Food Vendors were selling toys, bubbles, jewelry, and hats.
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A street vendor, walking on foot selling inflatable toys.

The town center was full of lively activity, the streets lined with food tents, historical presentations, vendors on foot, and of course, the public. Soon after our arrival, we watched as a few determined men attempted to blow up a larger than life inflatable beer bottle. In my humble opinion, it was the epitome of ego at its finest. The obstrocity had no place being pinched between the power lines, a street blocking stage, and hundreds of bystanders. But, none the less, by sheer determination, the men finally wedged it up onto the opposite side of the street.

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The monsterous Cervesa!

We tugged our children through the crowds, curious to see what there was to be discovered around each corner. While, there were 2 tents that displayed historically important antiques, all else was related to food, beer and music. There is no such thing as an open container law here, and the legal drinking age seems of little importance. Kids can drink alcohol at the age of 18 in this country, but the coming of age milestone, lacks the stigma that it does in the states. I’ve never seen a police officer checking someone’s ID or issue a breathalyzer. Drinking or not drinking does seem to be of great significance and nobody really pays much attention to who is legal and who is not. Still, we haven’t come across many rowdy over-indulgers in our time here.  Even in the wee hours of the morning, we have occasionally been woken up by music that is far too loud for 3 am, but harmless none the less.  We once heard that the worst the party goers do, is try to steal chickens in the middle of the night! It is incredible how a culture is affected when something like drinking alcohol isn’t viewed as forbidden or taboo.

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Tents and people in the streets at San Clemente’s 1st Annual Pichagau Festival

There were far too many food tents, to consider trying each different sardine dish, or even to consider eating at two. Each tent was competing against the others for an award as the best pinchagua or sardine dish in the village. For awhile we wandered through canopies covering the tables, eyeing the plates in front of the customers, and sniffing at the air. It was hard to decide which plate to pick, especially when I’d never had sardines before. I let my husband do the selecting, while subtly reminding him that myself and our young children (age 2 and 4) would be partaking as well. Even after almost a half a year in Ecuador, I still get squeamish when it comes to fish. I have no valid reason for my hesitation, as I’ve always loved fish. But, then again, it’s something of a different circumstance here, as fish is almost always served with the bones still in. Actually, many times the skin still intact too, and dare I say, I’ve seen more fish heads staring back at me, than I care to remember. So, naturally, when I hear “fish dish”, I know that I will have to forgo my first visual impression, and dig right in, knowing that the taste will far exceed the appearance. This is a tough thing to do, when you’ve spent you’re entire life in America, the land of skinned, de-boned, and dyed everything. But, as strange as it may seem, I have definitely learned that in a place like this, you can’t and shouldn’t judge food by its appearance.

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Yum! Pinchagua Hornada with Plaintain Chips!

All of that being said; I didn’t even look at the food that my husband chose, until it was steaming beneath my nose. At first glance, it really wasn’t that bad. It easily could have been mistaken for shredded pork. And then I peered closer, and saw the undeniable metallic shine of sardine skin…and tiny white bones! I watched my husband scarf in his first few bites, one after the other, with no pause between. He exclaimed, “I think you’ll all love it, babe! It tastes just like Tuna!” I hate to admit it, but I did not believe him at all, and even let him give each kid a bite, before I trusted his taste buds.  So then I ate it, and to me, it tasted just like Chili. I don’t know how it’s possible, but the skin and bones were virtually not existent in every bite. Yes, I could see them, but I couldn’t taste or feel them.  Apparently, the skin is thin and the bones are soft, and even if I tried, I couldn’t notice them. The dish passed the test for the kids too, as they ate right alongside us, not even noticing what I expected them to spit out.

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The lovely ladies who made our lunch at the Barrio Norte Orfrece

After lunch, we spent some time perusing the tents and stands, even listening in on a fascinating account of antique Ecuadorian kitchen equipment, given by a woman sporting a traditional Manibitan festival dress.  As we departed from the tent, the music was just starting up again, after a brief pause. Ecuadorians like their music, and they like it loud, really loud. Like, blast away any thoughts floating in your brain, and forget the concept of conversation, kind of loud. Sometimes at night, we can hear the music from the local Discotek at our house, at least half a mile away. It streams in the windows so clearly, that it’s hard to believe we don’t have a teenager blaring a stereo downstairs. So, as our toddler bobbed his drowsy head against my shoulder, we figured, this was as good of a time as any, to make our departure.

Just as we turned to leave, the speakers cut out, leaving the singer standing center stage with a voice that couldn’t carry. Next to the stage, the larger than life beer bottle slowly drifted sideways as it began to slump without air. We looked around at the scene and chuckled, what a terrible time for one of the village’s customary power outages. They happen at least once a week, usually only lasting a few seconds to a few hours. We didn’t think much of it, and figured it was just a good excuse for an afternoon siesta.

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Waiting for Raspados, a typical hand shaved iced treat.

We trudged home beneath the baking mid day sun, talking just the way our parents once did, about how the kids had way too much sugar for one day. But, really what was the harm in a little indulgence? How could we say no the towering pink clouds of cotton candy

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Fully stocked Cotton Candy vendors, ready for a busy day!

soaking up the salty air? Or to the rainbow syrup drenched snow cones that misted us with their hand shaved ice as they were being made? And while talking about indulgences, we may as well include the overpriced blowing bubbles that would be dumped out on the street before nightfall.

After all, this is stuff memories are made of, the icons of summer-time and vacation, and childhood.  And lucky for us, these are the symbols of our first festival in Ecuador, and the markers of our first year abroad.

Note:  (FYI: by over-priced, I mean, by Ecuadorian standards. The entire day full of events for all four of us, cost  just $26).