You are reading the first blog I have written in nearly two years. And that is because I am conducting my first on-the-ground assignment in nearly two years.
Flying out of Atlanta, headed south, I sat next to a charming Ecuadorian grandmother. (I, by the way, am a charming American grandfather.) She kept trying unsuccessfully to turn off the flashlight on her cell phone by pushing the volume button. Looked a bit like me until my kids showed me how. I made the mistake of offering assistance. So, she opened her phone and shared a pic of her 105 year-old father who still runs the family chocolate factory. Also her two children, including the doctor in Baltimore performing a kidney transplant – – somewhat gruesome and certainly a violation of HIPA. Next her four attractive grandchildren. I smiled and nodded but did not subject her to my family tree. Then I fell asleep, waking several hours later in Quito, the second highest capital city in the world, at 9,350 feet. Second only to ____. (Answer at bottom)
I suspect some of you may think I am taking a risk by traveling to a developing country during the pandemic. Well, life itself is a risk…but here are the facts:
- Fully vaccinated: Ecuador 66%. USA 60%.
- Ecuador’s per capita death rate from Covid is 20% lower than the USA.
- Mask wearing is omnipresent. Over 90% of people walking in the street wear a mask. Even motorcyclists speeding along with a robust breeze in their face wear a mask.
- So I feel at least as safe here as I do at home. And don’t even get me started on Florida and Texas.
- And I passed my Covid test arriving and departing.
My assignment is in far southern Ecuador near the border with Peru. I have been asked to assist APECAEL with marketing and branding. APECAEL is an acronym for a much too long name of the non-profit association that represents 45 coffee growers. I have struggled to get them to consider another name that customers would associate with coffee as opposed to random letters. And to compound my challenge they also hoped to use the APECAEL brand name for the organic fertilizer they sell to coffee farmers. My hunch is that branding one’s coffee and fertilizer with the same name is not a good idea. Fortunately, after two weeks of working together, we have settled on the idea of creating one sub brand for coffee and a separate sub brand for fertilizer. So, progress achieved.
Working with a coffee growers association allowed me to observe the multi-step process of turning red coffee cherries (yes, that is what they are called) into roasted and delicious ground organic coffee. This observation included visiting one farmer’s finca that clung to a steep mountainside 6,000 feet high. The 1,000 foot climb, bottom to top of the farm, at that altitude, provided me with my workout for the day. And the next. The association hopes to attract eco-tourists to their steep slope side farms after Covid finally departs.
I am working in the small town of Vilcabamba. This rural Andean town has become somewhat known for the increased longevity of its population. The town’s motto is “Donde el tiempo se detiene y la vida se alarga,” meaning: “Where time stands still and life lengthens.” On one of the many hiking trails around town is a sign featuring a local celebrity who claims to be 127 years old. I did not meet him so no chance to check his birth certificate. But I do feel older already.
Such longevity claims draw a range of people with alternative lifestyles. There are quite a number of North Americans, many of whom seem to be aging hippies: grey ponytails, tie die shirts, harem pants, scraggly beards. Also many younger hippies: non-grey ponytails, tie die shirts, harem pants, scraggly beards. Sorry if I am showing my partialities.
After my assignments in far off locations I am regularly asked about the food. Cuy is a popular dish here in the Andes. For those of you too lazy to look up the translation, I will help: guinea pig. Sort of like dining on your family pet. Cuy tastes a bit like rabbit, also sort of like dining on your family pet. (And both are furry rodents.) If you are not into pet dining, you can try tamales (similar to the Mexican dish), ceviche, toasted corn kernels, empanadas verdes (made with plantain flour instead of wheat flour.) This cuisine pretty much suits me.
And to top it off, I am returning home with a gift of one pound of locally grown organic coffee. Please stop by for a cup when you are in my neighborhood. The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post: La Paz, Bolivia 11,942 feet high.