Devil’s Backbone

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As we drove past it, I inadvertently gasped. There it was, jutting out the hill and scraping the sky like a claw.

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It turns out the Devil’s Backbone was just next to our Airbnb. We didn’t have much time, but we made time to hike it.

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I was hoping to scale the rocks, but it turns out they’re too fragile. So we were limited to the trail that winds around beside this incredible rock formation.

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The only time we had was on a gray rainy morning, and since I’m the queen of not being prepared for weather, We started out the hike with trash bag rain gear. Because we’re classy.

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And that’s why these are all iphone photos: I wasn’t willing to haul my SLR out into the drizzle.

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It was a great, easy hike with the kids (though they whined plenty), and I could have gone much longer.

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But we had to rush back, since we were late for lunch at the Silver Grill.

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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.