The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A thousand children’s choirs? Happy days in Cotacachi

The two-week workshop to train public and middle-school music teachers to organise and direct children’s choirs ha been, from our point-of-view, a great success. We leave behind a small group of new friends who seem fired up and ready to start choirs.

As usual, we are not quite sure when we arrive in Cotacachi Monday a week ago just what is expected of us. We are exhausted from working hard on careening and painting Vilisar in Bahia as well as from the nine-hour, overnight bus from Bahia back up to Quito. “Reina del Camino” (aka “Queen of the Road”) bus-line supplies a vehicle that is prehistoric, hard-sprung, cramped, noisy, stinking of diesel exhaust, hot, stuffy and packed full of squirming families and carry-on (carrion) baggage. Our own bags go into the rear luggage compartment – thank goodness, since there are no overhead racks inside and, as it is, I wind up holding my jacket, our travel provisions and my mis-shapen Panama hat on my sweating lap all night. We arrive in Quito’s “Terminal Terrestre” at the pre-dawn hour of 0400, the baggage covered in a heavy layer of road dust, our eyes bleary and our legs stiff. The advantages to the red-eye trip, on the other hand, are: there is no music; there are no Bruce Willis or Claude van Damme macho-movies; and, you save the cost of a hotel room. I was able to sleep fitfully as the bus pounded over the unpaved three hours of torn-up rural highway up to Santo Domingo del Colorado (roughly, quaintly and no doubt incorrectly translated by me into English as “Saint Sunday-Coloured-Red”).

In Quito, we hang around trying not to fall asleep in a really grubby bus-station café until we can catch a bus north to Otavalo and Cotacachi. We fall for one of the bus-company hawkers and barkers seeking passengers who says the Tulcan bus stops in Cotacachi. It actually stops a few kilometres outside of town and we have to hire a taxi to take us to the LOCAL Terminal Terrestre where Diego said he would be waiting from 0900. This turns out to be ‘Latin time’. After sitting in the sun for two hours Diego finally shows up and whisks us in another taxi to his house on the outskirts of the little town. No word or explanation for his lateness. I am so bleary-eyed by this time that I can hardly imagine that we shall be able to manage our first session later that day.

The house belonged to his now-deceased grandparents. It is Diego who has organised this workshop. We also meet Nadia, a twenty-five-year-old friend of the family who teaches Spanish and English at a private school in Ambato, and who will be acting as translator for the workshop. Before collapsing into bed for an hour of sleep, we discuss what the workshop is actually meant to accomplish. Like the other workshops we have conducted in Riobamba and Quito, the reality is a little different from the anticipation. But, flexible as ever, we agree on a scheme and hit the sack for an hour.

Arriving at the Museo de Cultura, a “colonial” building which once housed the Cotacachi town hall, we meet Carmen, the Museo directrix, and are shown the wonderful long recital room where the workshop is to be held. The walls and ceilings are covered in trompe de l’oeil paintings to imitate marble and other decorative items. The walls also have large oil paintings of notable Ecuadorians – the ever-present Bolivar, (‘El Libertor’), for example, and Mariscal Sucre along with paintings and photographs of some local heroes. The two largest paintings at the front are of two cardinal-archbishops. The one on the right scowls fiercely at us from under dark eyebrows. The guy on the left, in full red outfit and a spectacular lace surplice, is wearing eye-glasses that are crooked and a toothy smile that seems to be a testimony to his orthodontist or the dental tech who made his partial. Fortunately there is a piano though it is woefully out of tune.

There is a lot of milling about when the participants show up at 1500. Our Spanish, of course, is still far from adequate, and we are mentally a little slow after our last few days. The gist of the confabulation is that:

a) it is summer and the teachers do not get paid in these months and therefore they cannot afford it at present;
b) for those who do in fact want to take part now, it would be better to telescope the two-week seminar (with a daily two-hour session in the afternoon) into one week (i.e. with two-hours sessions in both the morning and the afternoon); while
c) the remainder of the coalition-of-the-willing would take the seminar in its original form in September when we come back.

Re a): We sympathise.
Re b): Fine with us
Re c): It would be nice if somebody would ask us if we even want to come back, indeed if we are able to do so.

In the end, we wind up with six participants for this one-week intensive course. The one girl and five guys are all graduates of the normal school of music teachers and are in their early to mid-twenties. They are all musicians of one sort or another and, in addition to their school-teaching activities (ranging from a nursery school for retarded children to grade school to middle-school adolescents), all appear to be busy playing in a concert band, being instrumentalists and/or singers in cool Latin groups or singing solo with one group or another. They are all musical and some are natural conductors while others are wary and timid to be out front.

In addition to actually learning the physical motions of conducting and how to handle the job whilst on the podium, we put together several lectures about getting (mainly but not exclusively) children’s choirs started and how to manage them once they are operating. They perhaps do not yet realise it, but the non-musical aspects of a choir are almost more demanding than actually conducting.

There is apparently no music or choir-singing in Ecuadorian public schools (private schools are a different matter) although Cotacachi and Otavalo seem to have a lot of music going on. They are both small enough to get a lot of support locally if the people want to. By comparison to other towns and cities we have visited in Ecuador, both communities here seem better off economically, and the people (especially including the majority indigenous populations) seem more upbeat and self-confident rather than shy and beaten-down. All those musicians you see playing panpipes on city streets around Europe, after all, come not from Peru but from Otavalo and region. In fact, one of our participants turns out to have spent three years from the age of seventeen travelling around Germany playing the ‘siku’ (somewhat like panpipes) with a group of his landsmen. He speaks German and English quite well, which is a big help during the seminar.

At the end of the week we are tired but have really enjoyed our stay here. The participants have made excellent progress as conductors and all are fired up to get something started. We have made some new friends and hope that the first few of the thousand children’s choirs needed in Ecuador will have been founded soon.

There is certainly no lack of music in this Andean country. What is missing from the viewpoint of outsiders like ourselves is:

a) a lot of experience with large choral groups (including the discipline involved to achieve a focussed, well-tuned and blended sound); and perhaps,
b) experience with the great choral works.

It is a point worth discussing whether a choir in Ecuador needs to be dealing with Mozart, Bach and Brahms. But, as Zoltan Kodaly wrote, children should be singing the greatest and best music possible. Yes, you should start with your national treasury of folk songs: Ecuador can call on a huge reservoir of local music and there is the whole of Latin American musical resources to tap as well. There were and are composers and arrangers in plenty too: we used some of the songs and arrangements in the conducting class and have come to love them. But no choir can go wrong by singing Bach and Brahms. It will be up to the various conductors to find a focus for his or her choir, to find a hearing for his music.

On the Friday, we started and finished our day’s work early so the participants could take us for a picnic up at the ‘laguna’ in the volcano crater on Mount Cotacachi, an active volcano. Of course, it is not erupting at the moment like Tungurahua several hundred kilometres to the south near Riobamba. But it is classified as ‘active’ and gaseous bubbles come up from the bottomless lake. The place is a national park and it is beautiful. And then again on Saturday, they invited us for ‘plato tipico’ - in this case ‘Carne Colorado’ (beef strips marinated in some sort of red plant (betel) juice and therefore, like the tooth-cardinal and Santa Domingo, coloured red. We left Cotachochi wanting to return and wishing all the best to the aspiring conductors.

Back aboard Vilisar

Since the course in Cotacachi was telescoped into one week, we now have two weeks before we need to be in Machala. We decide to head down to the Vilisar in Bahia de Caraquez. On Saturday afternoon, after our meal of Carne Colorado, we travel by local bus for twenty minutes over to Otavalo where we are to hear Diego’s group (in which two of the course participants also play or sing). In the internet café we run into Katie and Jim Coolbaugh from S/V Asylum in Bahia. Katie is a cellist and in the course of their travels to Otavalo, tried to track us down in Cotacachi to see what was happening. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. But here we all are and they come to the concert too, which, as it turns out, is in their hotel. We meet them briefly on Sunday morning again for a coffee when we are passing through the bus station on the way to Quito.

By Sunday afternoon late we are back in our old room at Hostal Toxa in Calle Mariscal Foch, New-Town Quito. The aim is to get our visas extended the next morning (something that is done totally politely. hassle-free and at a total cost of 20 cents for the photocopies of our passports: we are all set now to stay in Ecuador until 19 November 2006). While we are in town we take in ‘Pirates of Caribbean II’: ‘Don’t miss it if you can!’ as someone once said in damning praise. A high-budget bore. The steak dinner we had at a little Argentine restaurant in Mariscal, on the other hand, is the best steak I can remember ever eating. It was our 6th wedding anniversary so we thought we deserved it. Before leaving to catch the 1300 bus on Tuesday down to Bahia we also had a terrific breakfast at the Mango Tree Café, my favourite café in Ecuador.

By contrast to the red-eye drive up to Quito ten days earlier, the bus back down is only half-full and we spread out. It is also air-conditioned and the driver is careful on the mountain roads back down to the coast. And- wonder of wonders! - there are no movies, no Claude van Damme, no Bruce Willis, no rape, pillage and mayhem! Even the recorded music is kept at a low volume. What is the Ecuador coming to?

But the final half of the trip is very slow and very rough since it is over an endless construction site. Even the parts that have been completed are curvy and not particularly fast. The road itself is concrete now where it is finished. But no bridges or tunnels have been built and the road basically follows the old route, snaking through the high hills of the coastal region.

We arrive in muggy Bahia an hour late and in light rain to find no one to take us out to the Vilisar. We usually leave the dinghy up on deck so are dependent upon someone to run us out. But instead we find a room at a local hostal –another one of those five-dollar, wooden-slat beds that make you feel like you have slept on the pavement. But it is a bed and the room is clean and dry. The next morning one of the other cruisers runs us out to the boat and we start washing down the decks of the ash from the Tungarahua eruption hundreds of miles away.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Quito, Ecuador, 21 August 06

Dear ....:

Sounds like you have had a good summertime break up in the northern climes. It appears you have been reading my blogs. I have not actually done much writing recently: laptop acting up; competiton with Kathy who is proofreading online a lot (and keeping us afloat financially). Being in Ecuador and being so actively involved with the places and people we are meeting would also require a new book every week!

Moreover, I was also asked to submit some articles to a small progressive newspaper in Canada. Researching and writing them has also eaten up time. (Once the article is approved for publication, I shall post it on the blog as well: it's about the large exodus of Ecuadorians from the country and now headed for the USA, Canada, and the European Union. Other articles will be on Free Trade for the Americas and 'trade liberalisation' and the relative efficiencies of small farms versus mega farms. They are all related topics.)

We have just finished renewing our tourist visas for another 90 days, a totally painless and costless activity at the Ecuadorian Migracion office here in Quito. Now we have nearly two weeks before we head to Machala in the south for another workshop. We had originally thought of sailing there aboard Vilisar (who BTW looks great with her new bottom red/brown bottom paint, raised waterline and freshly-white topsides). But the repairs are still outstanding and she is not at all ready for putting to sea. We will head back down to Bahia tomorrow on the afternoon bus and get the repairs started.

This time I do not feel intimidated by the repairs. The tidal grid was stressful more in advance than in reality: even though it did look a bit dodgy for a few minutes, I do not think she was ever really in danger except to her pride and paintwork. A spreader cracked when the mast leaned against the fence. It was a yellow-cedar spreader made on a float in the pouring rain at Meyers Chuck, Alaska, in 2002. Jerry, a shipwright from Alaska, here aboard S/V Moonsong, thinks yellow cedar ain't great for spreaders. I have to take the metal plates off each side of the mast at spreader level anyway. The plates hold the base of the spreaders and there are two tangs on each side for the lower shrouds. One of those tangs ripped off on the way to Bahia from the Galapagos so I was intending to replace them anyway. I guess the constant going to windward took its toll finally. There is apparently a first-class stainless fabricator locally that everyone swears by. There is also a carpentry shop right across from Puerto Amistad. I shall get spreaders made of lorel (spelling?), the same lightweight, knot and split-free tropical wood that I had the 8-foot dinghy oars made of. The oars cost $12 each (unpainted) so I do not expect the spreaders to cost much. When I have all the shrouds and stays loosened I shall also slush them properly (done last time in British Columbia by tying up to a fixed government dock in Comox while the tide was out and painting them using a roller attached to a boat poll). I shall also at the first opportunity replace the bare galvanised forestays with stainless; I cannot keep them rustfree no matter how much I keep at it with linseed oil or paint and I am heartily tired of having rust-stained headsails. The other big job will be to replace the tab from the Cap Horn windvane steering that somehow came loose whilst at sea and, much worse, chafed all unnoticed through the retaining bungee. This happened at roughly the same time as Vilisar was sailing along with the starboard aft lower shroud lying on the deck in the dark and the bobstay dangling free from the tip of the bowsprit. Vilisar was so nicely balanced that she continued to sail beautifully to windward for at least several hours after the shroud was down and who knows how long after the bobstay and windvane tab were 'hors de combat'. Good girl! I shall have the stainless guy and the carpenter make up a new tab - very likely a lot cheaper and more convenent than paying $200 for a new tab to be sent through customs from Montreal. The combination of Kathy bringing in a bit of extra money each month, the low cost of having quite reasonably good work done even in a little town like Bahia and more self-confidence about the jobs (after all, after five years, some of these jobs are now repeats) is a great boon. I may also have someone younger and more agile than I am to help me with the rigging work.

You asked about bottom paint. I bought four-litre cans of Hempel self-polishing paint for US$55 a can. A gallon of thinner cost about $13. I added some biocide stuff as well. Vilisar is about 35 feet at the waterline including out-hung rudder: try as they might, the painters were unable to get more than just under three gallons onto her in the time alloted.

Manta is good for paints: there is a big paint store quite near the waterfront and devoted mainly to marine users. There a big fishing fleet there as well. The harbour is a jam-up of fishing boats, some huge longliners but most largish coastal boats. Huge wooden boats are being built in traditional fashion right on the beach there. Amazing to see! For topside paint I used local-brand outdoor glossy enamel. The paint store had Hempel white topside paint for $30 a (Latin American) gallon but the paintstore guy thought the local 'Condor' brand paint was just as good at $10 a gallon. It looks good at least. I stick to pure white and touch up between paint jobs. No colour matching needed.

Teardrop zincs and 1.25-inch shaft zincs are defintely not available here. Bring what you need with you from the States, Canada or possibly Mexico (though we found the prices in La Paz and San Carlos over the top). Fortunately my Canadian friend brought a handful of shaft zincs with him to La Paz last year. Even more amazing, the zincs I put on last year are still in good nick! The shaft zinc is perfect, one teardrop zinc is partially devoured and the other (the one on the iron keel) is perfect. Just goes to show that you should stay out of marinas: when we were moored in Shoreline Marina in Long Beach, CA, I was changing all three zincs at least quarterly. A really hot place! Of course, the Rio Chone estuary where we are anchored is brackish thanks to the strong flow of fresh water coming down from the Andes. That inhibits electrolysis and, with currents of up to 5 knots, the self-polishing paint ought to come into its own.

Certainly the old bottom paint, though getting thin, looked pretty good when we hauled Vilisar out two weeks ago. I shall tell Puerto Amistad not to bother cleaning her for a few months to see how things work out. I hate to see the new sloughing paint get scraped off unnecessarily. The really big problem in the anchorage is the gunge on your anchor chain. After two months there, we could hardly get the chain over the bow rollers for the accummulation of barnacles, clams, weed etc. Incredible. It would be an argument for using a mooring buoy ($150 monthly including dinghy dock fees, showers; anchored boats pay $1.50 daily for dinghy docking, showers). (BTW, several of the boaters have been taking their anchor chains over to Manta to have them regalvanised. They are all quite content with the work and the price was very low: I think about half of the $0.85 per foot that I paid in Vernon, CA two years ago but don't quote me on that).

Must go now. This turned out to be quite long. Hope it helps if you decide to sail to Bahia. Ecuador is great and the facilities at Puerto Amistad are cheap and safe, the weather temperate and untheatening, the country fascinating. What else can you ask for?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Otavalo, Ecuador, 19 August 06

Back in Otavalo for the day

We were here in Otavalo with Toni and William for a week a couple of months ago now. Otavalo is famous for its weekly textile market. Cotacochi, 15 miles away, is where we have spent the last week giving a conducting seminar to music teachers. We are in the north, two hours from the Columbian border, surrounded by more-or-less active volcanoes (though none so active as Tungurahua in the central Sierras where we were also for two weeks just as the eruptions started six seeks ago.)

We will head back to Vilisar mid week after a stop in Quito to renew our visas and see if we can get the computer laptop fixed (screen has burned out). Can't keep up with my blogging by using internet cafes.

Recent work on Vilisar

We had Vilisar up on the beach and leaned against a wall last week to have her bottom painted. Every one of the cruisers must have come to watch. The Canadians seemed blasé but the California sailors were more interested; maybe they have not seen this before. The first day we went in before daylight. As the water was going down a panga went through throwing up a wash and Vilisar rolled against the wall. It looked pretty precarious since she was out a little farther perhaps than was good for her. She wound up hanging her mast against a wire fence and an electricity line. A little cosmetic damage to the fence and Vilisar's mast but otherwise all right. Anyway, the bottom is done for another year or two. I was worried about teredo-worm damage ever since we backed over a rock in Mexico. But everything looked just fine. I even managed to buy the same paint in Ecuador for $55 a gallon that I paid $135 for in Mexico and the USA. It meant we could hire some guys to help us.

When I get back to the boat I have a bunch of repairs to make including replacing the spreaders with better wood (carpentry and wood is really cheap here too) and replace the metal plates on the mast that hold the inside of the spreaders. The tang on one plate tore right off while we were going to windward on the way from San Cristobal to Bahia. Metal fatigue, I reckon. The lower aft starboard shroud fell to the deck in the night. On top of this, the tab for the windvane steering broke off at some point during the trip and disappeared (not sure when) and the bobstay chain also snapped from corrosion; I had intended to replace it in Bahia. That's fixed now too. None of these events seemed to bother Vilisar who kept going in a straight line for God knows how long after each event. Even the cumulative effect did not seem to bother her terribly.

I had a pair of long oars (8 feet) made at a carpentry shop in Bahia ($24 the pair; I told you carpentry work is cheap here) and will paint them and finish them when I get back too. About time to paint the dinghy again too. So, as usual lots of work. We get brand-new batteries when we get back so we hope we shall finally be able to use electric lights and listen to CD's again. The alternator works now and the solar panels will be checked over. There is not actually that much sun in Bahia; although it is on the ecuator, it is usually overcast at this time of year because of the Humboldt Current. Not too hot, thankfully, but not enough sun to keep the batteries up without occasionally running the engine. Finally, we had long patches put on both the mainsail and staysail covers so that their lives have been extended for a couple of years at a low price. We are having a new cover made for the jibsail.

Vilisar is now thirty-three years old. Although sound of lung (i.e. hull, superstructure, galvanised rigging, mast and, I think her diesel engine), her other systems - electrical, sails, covers, etc. - are getting pretty old and need replacement. The tropical sun over the last two years has been really hard on things. Our next big purchase will be new sails, I hope before we head to the South Pacific next spring.

Teaching teachers in Cotacochi

We concluded our week-long workshop with six music teachers of the elementary and middle school level. The workshop was intended to be two weeks but, given that it was summer break and the people were free all day, it was decided to telescope it into one week. The five guys and one girl were all in their twenties and good musicians. They however have no experience in conducting and want to get childrens and adult choirs started (part of the plan to get a thousand childrens choirs started in Ecuador). They made fabulous progress in the week. We also gave small talks on other aspects of starting and managing choirs of all sorts including choir discipline, learning new music, (free) music resources, etc. etc. They don’t know it yet, but conducting will be the smallest part of what they do as choir leaders. Most of the time goes to raising money, smoozing with parents, preparing programmes, admin details like concert venues, instrumentalists, etc. Latin Americans are very, very lax about time usage, attendance, punctuality. Nice as they all are, after living in anal Germany, this drives us crazy since we often have to repeat things in the class for those who drift in up to 90 minutes late or do not show up at all and not so much as an apology let alone a by-your-leave. As choir leaders they will have to deal with that problem themselves. As I kept trying to tell them, the single most important success factor for any choir is rehearsal time. If singers are not present at all or come late, that’s wasted time and will frustrate their goals.

The participants, as I said, were really nice. They invited us to a picnic up at the volcanic-crater lake on Mount Cotacochi. We were not at the summit by a long shot but we were still at probably 4,000 metres. The lake in unfathomable and bubbles with gas in the middle. Cotacochi is an active volcano from that point of view though it has not erupted in the lifetime of these kids.

Today they also took us out to lunch on carne Colorado, i.e. ‘red meat’, beef strips marinated in betel juice. Despite what you are thinking it tasted great. After lunch we moved to Otavalo where some of them are playing a gig this afternoon in the marketplace. Geovanny is also helping Kathleen buy a ‘siku’ (double-rowed Andean pipes) for her to take to Germany with her after Christmas. Here you go straight to the instrument maker and tell him what you want. He said he would have it ready in an hour. While she goes to pick it up I sit here in the internet café. Jim and Katie from S/V Asylum back in Bahia walk in. They had been in Cotacochi looking for us yesterday while we were at the lake.

It has been a rather tiring but entirely fun week. When we arrived we still were not entirely clear what the group expected of us. As it turned out they wanted conducting and a lot of other information for getting a children's choir started. We now have a syllabus that we can use elsewhere.

Each of the workshops we have done in Ecuador (there have been four now) have been entirely different: the first one was coaching a semi-new choir of semi-or complete beginners, the second was for professional conductors in Quito; parallel to that we taught voice technique to amateur choir singers along with some conservatory students; and finally, we taught music teachers how to get choirs started and how to conduct. In a couple of weeks we travel to Machala in the banana-belt south of Guayaquil. We shall see if there is something new there too.

Our plans are still unclear after October. We could sail to Panama in Vilisar, assuming all the work has been completed. Or we could leave her in Bahia and travel overland to other countries. We might be invited to five workshops there too. Kathleen will be in Germany for two months right after Christmas to do a music gig in Frankfurt. Not yet sure what I shall be doing. We still sort of have French Polynesia on the agenda for April or May next year. But everything remains vague. Clearly Latin America is rubbing off on us.