ecuador

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Headed south from Quito today to visit the towns of Saquisilí and Pujilí. We were in search of handicrafts mainly, but since there´s literally almost zero info on the internet about market days, we arrived in Saquisilí to find the crafts market only takes place on Thursdays. As is the usual routine most everywhere when we headed out into Ecuador´s unknown, we arrive at whatever town we´ve chosen to go to, and just starting asking…”Where is the market?” or “Where can we find ____” fill in the blank-whatever it might be we’re looking for. Usually this leads to some interesting diversions….”go two blocks and turn left, it’s nearby.” Or “just keep going straight, you’ll be there soon,” which could mean anywhere from two minutes to 30 minutes or more. Does nearby and in 30 minutes mean near on a bicycle, a donkey, a horse, on foot, or by car? You can never tell, since country people’s definition of time and distance are often measured in units that we city people would rarely consider-or maybe even they are units we don’t know about!

Since there was nothing going in Saquisilí, we headed on to Pujilí. Both towns, by the way, are just a few miles north of the city of Latacunga, the first major city on the Panamerican highway you reach when heading south from Quito. In Pujilí, the open air market was on, one of the largest markets I´ve seen in South America and a spectacle in its own right. Measuring probably two football fields and of course spilling out into the adjacent streets, the market offers up Ecuador’s bounty from all over the country…tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruits, bell peppers, swiss chard, various types of potatoes and bananas. As well, there were all sorts of cooking going on…llapingachos (a potato cake colored with annatto or achiote) and cooked in lard and served with fried pork aka fritada, stews with crab and other seafood, cebiches, tripe, and other local dishes. Not just foods but pirated CDs of any kind, cheap trinkets, hair pins, nail clippers, and ever other type of junk from China are available. On one street a man with the voice and earnestness of street-corner preacher offered up a cure for every type of ailment, for the prostate, stomach, liver, arthritis, indigestion, while a crowd of people gathered around.

Market in Pujilí

Pujilí Market I really enjoyed seeing these obviously hand-crafted lollipops for sale, being carried around in a hand-made basket!

Candies in Pujilí

Already the obvious tourist no matter how much I might have tried to blend in (I didn’t try and even if I had it wouldn’t have worked), I carried my camera at torso height and shot pictures surreptitiously as best as I could, and managed to get a few good ones shown below. At one point we stopped to see two parakeets sitting atop a  wooden box with small drawers filled with different colored papers.

I had never seen this before-you pay the woman fifty cents, she asks you “Married? Single? Divorced?” and then picks up one of the birds and commands it to peck your hand, then speaks to it in all earnestness and utter seriousness telling the bird your condition and then ordering it back to the box. The bird then goes to one of the small drawers open in the box, and through its divine power picks up your “horoscope” or fortune, she plucks it from the bird’s beak and passes it on to you. When we first stopped, and I raised my camera, she covered the birds and said no pictures. On our return pass, we stopped and paid her and I took a few good shots while she wasn’t paying much attention.

Fortune Telling BIrd

On the return we stopped at Hosteria La Cienega for lunch, a 300 year old Hacienda with decent food and gardens.You can feel the oldness in the place, and there´s often a cool breeze and a spooky, haunted sort of empty feeling about the place. My Mother-in-law won´t stay there…says it´s too creepy! Maybe it´s the “Burundanga” trees all over, from which scopolamine can be removed, that makes you feel weird!

Burundanga-Scopolamine Tree

Hosteria Pinsaqui

There are also a lot of nice antiques on display inside, with great lighting.

Hosteria Pinsaqui

While some Asian products are available in major supermarkets here in Quito, there is still a dearth. And regularly, products will run out and you may not see them back on the shelves again for months. This irks me when I have a basic staple item-like Dijon Mustard-and it suddenly disappears. At the same time, it gets me motivated to make my own.

Scallions, napa cabbage, bok choy, and many other asian greens are not usually available in the market. But if you go to the open air markets in Quito, there are usually at least one or two Asian shops carrying these items and many more. Hoisin Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Soy Sauce, Sriracha and many other ingredients are readily available, including many types of Asian noodles as well. Often, the owners of these shops don’t even speak any Spanish, but may have an employee or two that does.

Last week I found the local shop carries wonton wrappers, hand made in the shop. Two kinds, one for frying and one for dumplings, were available. As well, fresh tofu, sesame oil and miso are available as well. It’s easy to think, upon first glance, that Quito is lacking in variety-but if you know where to look, you can find it.

After years of contemplating and examining what exactly is “local,”  specifically in relation to chocolate, I came to realize there is a big paradox going on here. As well, I have concluded that people who really and truly consider themselves hardcore “locavores”  in countries that are more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator wouldn’t eat chocolate at all. But they do, and that’s why this matters, at least a little bit! If you truly insisted on being a locavore, say, eating foods that originated from only within a 100 mile radius from your home,  then you’d have to give up a lot. In fact, many of us  might evens starve as many urban areas in the US are far larger than the agricultural space within a 100 mile radius around them can support. That aside, let’s continue with the matter at hand.

Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion, through my analysis of the issues regarding “locally”-made chocolate, that if you’re not local, it  does not help sell chocolate in the US. That’s why we closed up Aequare. I do think  that if we had had a store in the US, a mere geographical presence, a physical location, to sell from and to tell our story from, it would have helped our sales tremendously and may be made our story viable. But putting up a website these days, doing some marketing, and getting favorable blog reviews is just not enough. If you don’t have a massive marketing budget, most websites are akin to a billboard in the desert-hardly anyone can see it, let alone find it-and if they do, they’re  most likely to just keep on driving by.

It really comes down to this; do you want to spend your money on a product that is helping with local employment, contributing to economic activity in your backyard/neighborhood/town? Or, in the model we were trying to implement, would you rather support the “local” economy in a developing country, where the need for increased economic activity, livelihoods, and incomes is probably far greater than in your own backyard? The latter is just not compelling enough of a story for the average consumer.

Specifically, our aim was to produce chocolate in the country of origin, thereby helping create economic activity  in the local economy, while at the same time also contributing to economic activity in the country of sale…We wanted to add value in the country of origin-one of the major issues facing developing countries like Ecuador is that while resource rich, most of those resources, in the form of commodities, are shipped out of the country before being processed, and thus most of the added value is added in the developed world. Making this complicated concept clear to our customers eluded us and probably completed eluded most consumers, and simply never got through.

The average consumer has a much easier time and is much more willing to immediately buy into the “Fair Trade” “Organic” or “RF Alliance” label immediately, rather than the whole idea of direct trade, “value added”  in the country of origin (a way too academic idea, I think, for most consumers, and one that requires too much explanation), which was the Aequare story. Another big problem is that unfortunately, I think many consumers in the US and Europe, for whatever reasons, associate FT or Organic or RF Alliance with premium quality, which is not the case at all, and the products are sometimese even inferior in taste and quality to conventionally grown products.

Is it better to by a chocolate product produced in the US, with chocolate made most likely made from either a US or European-based multinational, who buys beans on the international commodities market and then ships them to whatever country for processing? BTW, I have seen “Swiss” labeled chocolates, sold by Albert Uster, now being made in South Korea! And where was the chocolate processed? It is just this distorted, crazy movement of materials from one place to another that we were trying to avoid.

Another issue regarding local, and in our case, “single origin” as in only from Ecuador, and for that matter, only from some specific farms in Ecuador, is that there is little to no regulation (at least that I know of, please advise if I’m mistaken) about calling your chocolate product “single origin.” So you might have a bar with 70%, 60%, or even less beans from a single origin being mixed with beans from other parts of the world, and not even know it. Who controls this? Who regulates? It’s basically up to the manufacturer to prove where the beans in their “single origin” chocolate are coming from…if they can.

I think the best anyone can do, especially when it comes to chocolate, is to try and source as much of their materials for their final products (including packaging and services such as advertising, marketing, copywriting, etc) from nearby sources. But with the Internet, it’s hard to say if all this effort for local somehow has lost a great deal of meaning…

I put together this brief video a few weeks ago about our other business, The Cocoa Pod. We had no idea this item would be such a hit and just by chance it´s really begun to garner interest. We take fresh cocoa pods (aka cacao pods), have them sun-dried and carefully cared for, and finally gently rubbed and polished. They are a beautiful item and can be used in chocolate shops, homes, coffee shops, etc.

Four months ago now we moved out of Cumbaya, Quito´s suburban middle and upper class suburb, for cheaper digs. While we were getting a good deal on our house compared to rents in the area, the house was plagued with constant problems-leaky toilets, dysfunctional water heater, peeling paint, etc-as well as expensive maintenance for the garden and cistern. Our gardener, at $30 a visit, was reasonably economical, but we also had to stay home Saturdays which were his only available day. To hire another gardener who would come during the week, the going rate was at least $50. At two visits a month, it adds up no matter what.

Tumbaco, just down the road about another 5 miles past Cumbaya, is still a pretty typical Ecuadorian small town, with fewer of the higher costs associated with Cumbaya. It´s inhabited by mostly locals, as well as being popular with Europeans, especially Swiss and Germans. Our rent dropped nearly in half, to $750 a month for a 3 BR home with a nice yard for the kids. We live in a small development of only six homes-these housing developments of  just a few homes are popping up more and more in Tumbaco where land is still cheap, and I wouldn´t be surprised if another 10 to 15 years Tumbaco´s land prices also increase substantially as well as rents.

We have cows just outside the gates, roosters and dogs too. There are no sounds of traffic and the nights are nearly silent. Water costs are much cheaper here-our bill has dropped from nearly $35 a month to around $5. I guess rates here are still based on agricultural and not urban usage, so that´s a big savings.  Our condo fee for the development is nearly double what it was in Cumbaya at $160 monthly, but this includes a gardener, cistern maintenance, and a watchman on duty every day during daylight hours.

The location adds on another ten to fifteen minutes to our commute to Quito, but the tranquility of the place and lower costs are priceless. It´s also even warmer than Cumbaya, as the elevation is a few hundred feet lower. Since our development is a small community, it´s safe for our kids to play out in the street in front of the house, and it was easy for them to make friends with neighbors´ kids right away. So if you´re looking to relocate with access to Quito, but want lower costs as well as proximity to most of the private schools that serve Quito, Tumbaco is a great option worth a close look.

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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>

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