Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ecuador Book in Progress

While living in Colombia for a number of years, I self-published nine photo books on that country. Now I’m working on a photo book on Ecuador.
Colombia is one of the most stunningly beautiful and varied countries in the world, and I explored that country’s every wild corner. But to do that you need much off-road travel and time.
Ecuador is much smaller and not as varied, but has over Colombia the advantage that its own beautiful sites are all easily accessible. From Quito, the Spanish colonial capital and Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site, you can drive to snowcapped Andean Mountains, Pacific Ocean beaches, the Amazon rain forest, and Indian villages and markets within a few hours. That explains why I like to teach photographic seminars and safaris in that country.
 I will dedicate my next few posts to give an idea of that wonderful country, starting today with photographs of the Otavalo Indians, who live in and around the towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi, a two-hour drive north of Quito.

A few decades ago, many Otavalo Indians were still attached to sprawling lands of haciendas as serfs. Or they drudged under hard masters, weaving from dawn to dusk in sweat shops, as their forebears had done since Spanish colonial times. They had been renowned weavers since before Inca times.

Today the Otavalo Indians are free, and their tradition of hard work and cooperation, their weaving skills, and their business acumen, have turned them into Ecuador’s most prosperous Indians. Those of my pictures that show them walking barefoot date from before that recent prosperity. Their textile market has long been world famous, attracting throngs of international tourists. Some of the more enterprising Otavalo Indians are now selling their textiles and gripping Andean music overseas. I have seen them in New York, Dusseldorf, and Paris.

The Otavalo raise sheep, and their textiles used to be made exclusively from the wool of their herds. But as sales exploded, and there was no longer enough wool around to satisfy the demand, the weavers also started using artificial fibers.

Living on rich volcanic soil, the Otavalo were always farmers too. But their focus is now mainly on exploiting tourism in every possible way. With hand-woven and knit textiles, handicraft, music, and even with food and beds, all in lovely surroundings. Under no pressure to change their ways, as other Indians are, Otavalo Indians have proudly retained their way of dressing, even when overseas.

Domestic chores still take much of the women’s time.

The Otavalo are devout Catholic, who lose no opportunity to celebrate Catholic festive days besides several Saints’ days.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Amazon: Eden or Green Hell? It’s our Choice

Of all the many hundreds of children I have photographed around the world, those of the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon rain forest may well be the happiest and freest. They had no toys but for those they built themselves. Only the boys built them, and they were mostly bows and arrows. The children’s games copied their parents’ activities, though on a smaller scale. They learned by watching.

The boys hunted small game and fished. The girls painted each other with roucou or baked tiny manioc flat breads instead of the pancakes-sized ones their mothers prepared. All the kids climbed trees to pick wild fruits. They also climbed the tall posts of their yanos, or communal houses, pretending to flee from jaguars, played by other kids. They played many games and never got bored. They lived in a world of their own where I never saw adults intervene.

Boys and girls mimicked the presentation dances that a clan offers on arriving at a neighboring yano when invited to share in a harvest in the form of a plantain, or manioc, or peach palm soup. The boys rolled in mud or plunged down from high branches into the Tootobi River. Boys and girls occasionally played war too, but always in good humor. Never did I see a child beat another or even shout at one. On the contrary, the bigger children always cared for the younger ones.

The Yanomami had dogs, and they treated them well. The kids' pets included the young progeny of the animals their fathers had hunted for food--monkeys, sloths, opossums, parrots, and other colorful birds. Those animals would remain pets and die of old age, never to be eaten.

The children under four accompanied their mothers to the forest gardens. An older child sometimes followed them to watch over the younger sibling while the mother dug out manioc, slashed down plantain or bananas, used a long stick to bring down some papayas, or hacked wood for the fire. The younger children also went along on gathering expeditions. On those, several women joined to hunt frogs, sweet-water crabs, termites, grubs, or mushrooms.

The surrounding forest was like you would imagine the biblical Garden of Eden. It was nothing like the Green Hell of some authors. Unless, perhaps, you had wandered through it, lost and hungry for weeks, fearing you would die there alone, like a wounded animal, unable ever to find your way out of it. This happens, of course, But the Indians never get lost in the forest. And they live very comfortably in it, working only an average of two and a half hours a day. I lived comfortably in it myself while in their company.

That was a long time ago. Since then, the Yanomami have seen their land invaded by heavily armed gold miners who have polluted the rivers with mercury and caused many deaths by spreading diseases against which the Indians had no natural defenses. In that way, the Amazon could indeed become a green hell, as it once was, when Indians were enslaved by rubber barons.

For more pictures of Yanomami children, please go to, click on Galleries, and then click on the picture of a Yanomami girl at the bottom of the screen. Clicking on the picture of a Yanomami woman at the top of the screen will open to you the world of the whole Yanomami society.