Friday, 13 June 2014

Ecuador - flower arranging and things



Tom and Lucy were to be married at the Hacienda Guachala, which is near Cayambe (at the foot of another volcano).
Cayambe (the volcano) is the third-highest mountain in Ecuador at 5790m, it has a permanent snow cap and it sits almost directly on the equator. A point on its southern slope (at 4690m) is the highest point on the equator and the only place on the equator with permanent snow cover.
It last erupted in 1786, so no need to worry too much about the wedding being disrupted.
We set off for the hacienda in a car laden with bags, people, booze, flower-arranging foam and delphiniums. It was a beautiful morning.
The Hacienda Guachala, which was built in the 16th century, was the largest, richest hacienda in Ecuador and would have been a major building block in the Spanish governance/control of the area. At one time, all the useful surrounding land would have belonged to the estate - just like a massive country house in England. There's a saying in Ecuador: "I didn't ask for a Guachala," which equates to our: "I'm not asking you for the earth."
Central courtyard of the hacienda with the chapel at the end.
In its heyday, it would have "employed" hundreds of people and the main industry was wool and weaving; they produced the raw materials and the finished product. It's quite different now; just like an English stately home, it has lost most of its land and is now quite a sleepy place, decaying gently. There's a short video tour here.
Mintaka the Akita stifles a yawn - this is one laid-back dog.
Lucy chose it because she knows the son-in-law of the current owner, a chap called Christoble Cobo, who lives at the hacienda with his wife Gabriela Boniface, their two young daughters and a very large Japanese Akita dog called Mintaka (named after the most westerly of the three stars in Orion’s Belt). Lucy knows Christoble from her days as a folk dancer and, as a result of that friendship, she and Tom were able to pretty much get the use of the whole of the hacienda for the weekend. The main business of the place is as a hotel and restaurant, but it's not massively busy. Gabriela has a small business producing jars of something called Agave Honey, which is made from sap produced by agave plants. I nursed an agave through two English winters before it gave up its struggle for life, but here they grow everywhere. The “honey” is a natural sweetener and is supposed to be very good for you.
You approach Hacienda Guachala through acres and acres of poly-tunnels which are growing flowers, mainly roses (which is one of Ecuador's principal export products). Then you're aware of large mud walls (ancient adobe brick) which surround the old estate before turning off down a drive flanked with massive eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus woods surround the hacienda and the trees are enormous. Eucalyptus are native to Australia, of course, and were introduced into Ecuador in the 19th Century. They have thrived, they can be seen everywhere, and they're particularly splendid at Guachala.
I have likened the hacienda to an English country estate, but the buildings are far more functional, reflecting its commercial purpose and the fact that it's a colonial building. I guess I should compare it more directly to something like a large sugar plantation in Jamaica than a stately home. It is all single storey, apart from the house where Christoble and Gabriela live, and built in a U-shape with a large cobbled courtyard in the centre. The base of the U contains the main buildings, kitchen, dining rooms, bars, swimming pool (a more modern addition) and the two arms would once have been offices for the estate, but are now bedrooms and a large games room.
At the end of one arm is the old chapel where the wedding would be held and the open end of the U leads out into another open space flanked by a newer chapel, bedrooms, which were once stables, and walled gardens. It's a lovely atmospheric place, one of those buildings where its history is exuded like the delicate scent of a wild rose.
In the centre of the courtyard, there's a fountain and, in one corner, is a wood-fired oven and grill. This is where the wedding breakfast of fresh tuna would be cooked next day.
We chose rooms looking out into the main courtyard and they were equally atmospheric. The plumbing really needs ripping out and replacing, but hot water eventually arrives and I managed to fix the toilet flusher (as the son of a plumber ought to be able to do). Outside the room was a verandah running all the way round the buildings surrounding the central square, and immediately outside was a large shrub with familiar-looking flowers. It was a massive poinsettia (the same as we buy at Christmas) but this was seven feet high. Bougainvillea grow everywhere and are a real splash of colour. Like the poinsettia, the flowers are fairly small and the colour is provided by large, showy bracts behind the flower.
The best part about the place (for the wedding) was the old chapel. This was one of the first buildings to be erected on the site (in the late 16th century). It's no longer used/consecrated, but it is incredibly atmospheric. There are large frescos on the wall, much damaged, but you can still make out sections of them. The least damaged is a judgment day scene with the usual fire and pain being inflicted upon the sinners. There's also a representation possibly of St Francis with wild animals and the representations of the animals are most interesting, obviously painted by someone who'd never seen a David Attenborough documentary.
Fresco on the wall of the old chapel - it's judgment time!
The majority of Lucy's family are not religious, but her aunt (Carlos' sister) does have an interest in paganism and she had been there with a shaman the day before to "cleanse" the site of evil or unhelpful spirits. Later, there was some discussions that they hadn't got them all - the dog and a very cheeky cat were thought to be possessed by ghosts because they were not afraid of the fire or fireworks on Saturday night. The cat was very hard-faced (as a hungry cat often is), while Mintaka was a very chilled-out dog. In my experience, a 15-stone dog doesn't need to be afraid of anything, least of all a few bangers.
Our job for Friday was to clean (dirt not spirits) and prepare the chapel and also decorate the place with flowers. In England, flowers are a major expense (you can easily pay £1,000), but here flowers are almost given away. We had hundreds of roses bought from the local grower, also gypsophila and delphiniums. Fifty or so calla lilies has been picked at the hacienda (they grow everywhere) and these had just been left for in the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.
The chapel was swept, we carried 50 or so chairs across (Margaret managed to strain her back, which excused her from chair-carrying duty and also secured her the front seat of the car for the rest of the holiday) and put on cushion covers which Lucy had hired in Quito (it's amazing how organised women can become when it's their wedding).
Once that was done, we drove to Cayambe for lunch at a fish and chip shop run by an English couple (I know, it's bizarre). As it happened, they were away, but we had fish and chips (a very passable attempt at English fish and chips) and, feeling rather full, we set about the flower arranging.
I've seen flowers prepared for quite a few weddings, including Sam's, and I know how much work it takes, so I was a little worried about how we were going to produce table decorations and decorate the church in an afternoon. It turns out you just need a bloke in charge (well that and an enthusiastic band of helpers - plus hundreds of flowers).
The table decorations were hemispheric domes of roses with added foliage. Tom put one together and we then got a production line going, with my sister and I cutting the roses to length and Lucy's three sisters putting them together. Tom worked on the altar displays (tall creations of roses and delphiniums) with the sisters, while Lucy and I worked on rose garlands for the altar rail. Once we'd strung the Oasis sausages in place, it was just a long slog of cutting roses to size - hundreds of them - and sticking them in.
Lucy was chief sticker-in and I was her assistant. Christoble and Gabriela's two daughters joined in and became rose trimmers and passers for the afternoon. Every time you needed a rose, there was a little Ecuadorian girl handing you one. I thought they'd get fed up and wander off, but they stuck at it all afternoon.
I have to say, we all did a really good job and the place looked fantastic. Tom (who is a natural flower arranger) and his production line got so carried away with the altar flowers, there were enough arrangements for all the windowsills and, finally, we filled the fount with calla lilies (left). It was quite dark at the rear of the church, so Tom and I put candles at the back of the fount, which provided a fantastic effect on the flowers. I was staggered how quickly it all came together and how well everyone worked together.
In the evening we sat on the verandah and drank wine. Lucy's dad brought food back and we enjoyed cheese and mushroom sandwiches - not a combination I've had before, but a popular one in Ecuador. The hacienda, which is atmospheric in the daytime, is magical at night. The wind was quite strong and it rustled the dry leaves of the eucalyptus trees so that it sounded like waves breaking against a pebble beach. Next day the wedding.
The flower arrangers ...
Prototype display comes together and (below)
one of the finished arrangements.