In ISIS Holes

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A few months ago, I was able to go into one of the cities held by ISIS for two years in the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul.

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It took a complex set of negotiations to get in and pass through about five checkpoints held by different groups. There was an Iraqi Army checkpoint. There was a Peshmerga checkpoint. Then there were three various Christian militia checkpoints, including the militia who held the town.

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Once in the city, the devastation left behind by the ISIS fighters was clear.

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Crumpled buildings, charred roofs, broken glass.

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But mostly, decimated ancient Chaldean churches.

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The Christian communities in this part of Iraq have histories dating back to the first century. Many of the Chaldeans speak Syriac, an ancient language similar to Aramaic.

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Now their churches, formerly filled with marble and glass, are in ruins.

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Every cross was torn from every roof or steeple.

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Ceilings were blackened, saints defaced.

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The sanctuaries are filled with trash and rubble.

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The ISIS fighters apparently used this church courtyard for target practice. Its floor was littered with bullet casings and store mannequins stood in as targets.

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On the way out, we stopped at a monastery. It caught our eye because ISIS had removed the ornate wrought iron cross from the dome of the monastery and dragged it up the hill behind.

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When Christian militia retook the monastery earlier this year, they put up a simple wooden cross on the hill overlooking the site.

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Inside the monastery, the militia soldiers now guarding the building showed us the escape tunnels ISIS fighter had dug into the building and its grounds.

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One of the men motioned me into the tunnel, and I followed him in the winding darkness along the tunnel floor.

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We came up to a metal door, which led into the monastery. Then we turned and went another way, and we popped out on the other side of the hill, looking toward Mosul itself. We could hear the sound of the bomber jets overhead, as the Iraqi army battled ISIS for control of the city.

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Today, ISIS is nearly driven out of Mosul, and some of those who were driven out of their homes are planning to return. There’s little to return to, though. No water or electricity. No businesses or schools. Empty husks of homes, stripped of anything of value.

I don’t know how this story ends. But I hope that it some day comes to restoration.

Where to Shop: Quito

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Now, if you’re doing the full-blown Ecuador tour, you should go to Otavalo. It’s about an hour north of Quito, and it really is the centuries-old marketplace for the indigenous people.

The central square is lined with booths with artisans selling just about everything under the sun. On some weekdays, there is livestock and fruits and vegetables. But all the time, you’ll find all the scarves and handicrafts to satiate your soul. Be sure you bargain; they start at the tourist price. You can get there by bus or private car.

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But imagine you’re on a really tight schedule, or you don’t want to take the time to go out to Otavalo. Then, my friends, Quito has you covered with the Mariscal market. The city built market stalls on a small city block downtown, off Amazonas street, the main shopping/business drag. You can get there by trolley, bus or taxi.

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Mariscal market is all of tourist-loving Otavalo plus a few inauthentic girls dressed in indigenous-wear selling organic chocolate. But who cares?

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This time, I loaded up on colorful blankets, a poncho for my daughter, a flag, a traditional gold necklace, some jewelry for friends and probably more things I forgot. In the past, it’s been watercolors, scarves, more jewelry and leather goods.

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There’s also ceramics, wooden artifacts and plenty of tchotchkes.
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Make sure you tell everyone that the so-called “Panama hats” are really made in Ecuador. Seriously, check the label. They were popularized by men digging the Panama canal, and so got their name. But these babies are Ecuador-made.

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This girl sold me my necklace. I asked all the vendors for their best price, and she not only gave me a discount, she left her stall to go get the exact style I wanted from somewhere else. There it is to the right; she’s wearing a similar one in the traditional style.

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The legit Otavalan vendors drive in from their homes outside the city with all their goods. The Otavalan people are born entrepreneurs. I’ve see them all over the world, from Sweden to my little podunk Oklahoma town. And they always have those sweaters and blankets and purses, handmade in Ecuador using ancient techniques and Ecuadorian wool and alpaca.

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Let me give you an idea of prices:

-$10-20 for a handmade necklace

-$5 for an Ecuador flag

-$20 for a queen size wool blanket

-$25 for a 11×14 watercolor

-$8 for a scarf

Obviously, barter with them for the best price, but don’t be rude.

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I bought a blanket from this sweet lady, and she really wanted me to take more. That top photo of her is also now enlarged on a canvas and hanging in my living room above my fireplace. Every time I sit on the couch and study her face, it makes me happy to have a little bit of Ecuador in my home, through her shining eyes and high cheekbones.

In the Jungle

The last week of December, we surprised my mom with a very personal trip to the tiny jungle town –where I was born– that she hadn’t been back to in 17 years. The trip had been planned for months, and we relished keeping the secret from her.

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One of my sister’s friends even spilled the beans right in front of her, but we managed to mostly ignore what she said and my mom didn’t put the pieces together.

My dad and a friend had planned a gathering of many of the people they’d worked with all those years ago, and we arranged to stay in house you might recognize if you’ve seen End of the Spear.

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I had a lot of childhood memories of playing in that house, especially when it was raining. The screened in porch is just as amazing, but the traffic outside is not. The sleepy jungle town of my youth now has a paved portion of the Panamerican Highway running right through town.

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Pro travel tip: earplugs. I almost always sleep with them when I’m traveling. They’re helpful for traffic, barking dogs (looking at you, Turkey), roosters (Indonesia), the 5 a.m. call to prayer (Egypt), and snoring roommates (Cuba!) They’re also useful when jet-lagged husband starts snoring.

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Some of my fondest childhood memories are of running around on the base property, making various forts and clubs with my two buddies, Jonathan and David. So it was cute to see the kids run off to do the same.

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There’s the house I grew up in.

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We headed straight for the hanger.

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I took my first steps out on that tarmac, learned to roller skate and fished for guppies in that drainage ditch.

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We had to recreate a photo from 1983 taken with my dad’s sister’s kids and us. The 2017 version has my sister’s and my kids in it. They look just as sweaty and flushed as we did in 1983. Some things never change.

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My dad was jazzed to show his grandkids around.

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And they were just as jazzed about the airplanes.

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Then while he and my husband hung around the hangar, we took the kids on a trip down memory lane.

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We passed my elementary school.

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And crossed the bridge that led to my best friend, Bekah’s house.

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Where I also dropped my super-expensive custom earplugs, and where my friend, Norma climbed down and rescued them.

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There used to be just two ways across the river; today there are four.

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Uphill both ways, snow, etc.

[Shell in a synopsis: 5,000 feet of altitude. 25 feet of rain per year. 100% humidity, all the time.]

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Then we hoofed it back to the hangar for our flight.

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There’s the Pastaza River basin as it passes by Shell.

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There’s downtown Shell.

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There’s the old swimming hole, which got washed away by rains just a few days after we were there.

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There’s the soccer field, the hospital, my friend Bekah’s old house and our friends the Williams’s house.

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My kids loved it when pilot Dan did some “fun flying:” turning the nose up until we went weightless, coasting, sharp turns, etc. He kept it light for the sake of the kids, but I’ve heard stories of the barrel rolls my dad used to do.

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We enjoyed dinner with some old friends before heading down to put the kids to bed.

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Meanwhile, about 20 people my parents worked with gathered in the living room to share memories. It was fun to see their faces, most with a few more wrinkles and gray hairs, some a little wider around the middle.

And with those few connections made, it was time to head back up the road to Quito.

Taffy Town

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When I was a kid, we spent many a long weekend in the town of Baños, which lies under the shadow of one of Ecuador’s active volcanoes, Tungurahua. It was probably one of the only towns near us with a tourist industry to speak of at the time. Ecotourism wasn’t a thing yet, and Ecuador’s jungle region remained undeveloped.

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When we met my grandparents there, we’d sometimes stay in a stuffy guesthouse called Gertrude’s. The waitress wore a French maid-esque black dress, frilly white apron and starched white cap. I didn’t like the food, probably because there was always a soup course, and my parents were always stressed out that my sister and I were being too loud or too wild for the old, staid owners.

My dad LOVED to joke about how the sign for the pool was missing a ‘p’, because “there’s no ‘p’ in the pool!”

It’s still not funny.

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Later, we often stayed at the Sangáy, a typical hotel with a pool, tennis courts and a billiards table. The Sangáy was near the hill overlooking the town and the waterfall that trains down its flank. Here’s where the town gets its name: the Baths. There’s a big public pool at the base of that waterfall.

In the 80s, Baños was a quiet town with an ice cream place, a sugar cane industry, a zoo, and a few adventurous German backpackers.

These days, it’s transformed itself into a eco-paradise with a side of spa-town. I was super surprised when I visited in 2008 to see the zip lines, rafting, mountain biking etc., etc., etc., places with locations along the road outside of town, and offices lining the main streets in town. Every hotel offers a spa, and every block offers quaint little restaurants.

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Swing at the edge of the world. We didn’t make this one, but my sister was there a couple of weeks ago. Photo courtesy of Kelley.

All that to say, if you are visiting Ecuador for the first time, please make Baños one of your stops. There’s something for everyone.

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We didn’t have much time there this time around. We stopped for coffee and a wiggle break atone of the many parks on the way down to the jungle.

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We intended to spend a little more time on the way back, but then this happened:

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Car sick.

I think.

And I’m sorry it happened to him, because he felt miserable, but it was hilarious having to rush to the public restroom on the plaza, scrounge for change to buy toilet paper, then have him throw up again when he came out, right into some lady’s trash can. I’m so glad I took a picture. #heartlessmom

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We popped into this Catholic church on the square that has been beautifully restored since I was there last. It’s attached to a museum and has a section on the side where people donate their crutches and other artifacts after being “healed” by using the church’s holy water.

I remember being in that church as a kid and watching a priest with a bucket at the front. Desperate people waved cash above their heads, which he deftly collected before sprinkling them with water from the bucket. They hoped for a miracle, he gave them tap water and false promises.

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Sadly, I was unable to introduce my kids to Baños’ greatest attraction for me as a kid: the promise of a warm, sickeningly sweet lump of sugar cane taffy.

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I don’t know why, but Baños is Taffy Town. Nearly every shop has a worn smooth piece of wood mounted to the door frame, where a young man strains to stretch the golden strands of taffy before quickly looping it back over the hook for another pull. For a little bit of change, he’ll break you off a piece and wrap it in colored wax paper, so you can gum it all day as you explore the shops.

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Or, you know, window shop.

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Or pet puppies.

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As a kid, I loved that stuff. (The taffy, not the puppies.) And my mom would always complain about how bad it was for my teeth. But my dad would sneak me a couple of hundred sucres (RIP old currency) so I could get some.

They also sold sugar cane juice on the street corners by the bus station. And little bags of freshly cut and peeled sugar cane that I loved to gnaw on.

Hmmm. In writing this, I’m suddenly realizing I exposed my children to none of this. Our fru fru lunch in a trendy coffee shop with boutique coffee from an eco farm and a trickling fountain in the corner did not expose my children to any of these glories.

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We also had to skip the zoo, which since my childhood has been transformed from a sad little spot at the top of the town to a somewhat magnificent animal sanctuary on the side of one of the ravines overlooking the river. You can literally watch the condors (Ecuador’s national bird, with a wingspan of 25 feet) soar.

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You’ll also make friends with the monkeys, jaguars, toucans and Ecuador’s most famous residents (apart from Julian Asange, I guess): the Galápagos turtle.

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When I was a kid, these roamed free in the dirt-packed center of the zoo. For a small fee, you could sit on its back, and a “trainer” would coax the turtle forward by stringing it along with a piece of pineapple. Unbelievably cruel, I’m certain, but very fun to say you’ve ridden a turtle. Today, the turtles are safely behind a fence, and no pineapple inducements are allowed.

Make Baños a part of your Ecuador itinerary. There’s plenty of lodging, and definitely look into all the adventure tourism options around. And I suppose you could spend a little spa time, as well. There are tons of things to see, do and experience.