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Sisters since 1963

Jan Hearne • Mar 19, 2012 at 8:40 AM

Johnson City has formed three Sister City relationships, but its friendship with Guaranda, Ecuador, is the longest-running and most active.

Since the fall of 1963, when then-mayor May Ross McDowell and the mayor of Guaranda established the Sister City alliance, people from the two towns have been learning from each other.

Guaranda is almost due South from Johnson City, sharing its time zone during the winter. Located in the Andes Mountains at an elevation of about 8,800 feet, Guaranda has a mild climate, neither too hot nor too cold. Because it is just south of the equator, it never freezes, allowing Guarandans to grow apples, roses and oranges year-round.

Dr. Tim McDowell, a member of the Sister Cities program, botanist and assistant professor of biological studies at East Tennessee State University, has traveled to Guaranda with his students.

“The town is quite wonderful,” he said. “It’s a market town and provincial capital. They have three large markets so people from all over the countryside bring in their produce and people come from all over the countryside to buy produce, dry goods and tools.”

The markets are bright with the color of fresh fruit like bananas, mangos and tangerines and the native dress of the Quechua, who make up about 70 percent of the population. Both men and women wear hats, and the hats are distinctive for each province, McDowell said.

The area is also known for its Carnival masks — Guaranda hosts the largest pre-Lenten Carnival in Ecuador — and the white liquor Pajaro Azul.

Theresa McGarry, also a Sister Cities member and a linguist at ETSU, taught English at the State of Bolivar University in Guaranda for several weeks in 2006. She is just one of several educators who have benefited from the exchange between State of Bolivar University and ETSU. Currently Dr. Jerome Mwyinyelle of ETSU is teaching in Guaranda.

“Quillen School of Medicine has sent medical students and nursing students to the field clinics and to State of Bolivar University,” McDowell said. There they are able to study and treat diseases they wouldn’t normally encounter in the United States.

Though Guaranda’s average income is lower than Johnson City’s, McDowell said Guarandans do not lack the basics.

“The State of Bolivar is among the poorest states of Ecuador,” he said. “But I think there’s a good level of basic provision for people. It’s a country where the people have good health care and good diets in general. There’s a national health care system there.”

In Ecuador, the price of gas, bread, rice and bus travel are all subsidized. “The price of gas is fixed at a certain price,” McDowell said. “Rolls are always 10 cents across Ecuador.” Bus travel is inexpensive, and the bus transit system is extensive.

More than 10 years ago, Ecuador adopted the American dollar as its national currency, sparing visitors from Johnson City confusing currency conversions.

Meals are hearty in Guaranda with a soup course at lunch and dinner. Because of the high elevation, farmers grow a maize, potatoes, cabbage and wheat. Guinea pigs, called cuy, are roasted on a stick. “Cuy is considered a celebration food,” McDowell said.

The town itself is named after a Quechua warrior named Guaranga, who turned back the Spanish conquistadors when they first made their way into Ecuador.

“The Spanish came back some years later with much greater force and overwhelmed Guaranga, but he has been the hero the town identifies with,” McDowell said, adding the town has erected a statue honoring Guaranga.

On most days, snow-capped Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador and the second highest mountain in South America, can be seen from Guaranda, which is 30 miles from the foot of the mountain. At 20,800 feet, Chimborazo is far higher than Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern United States at 6,684 feet, and the air in Guaranda more rarefied.

In Ecuador, McDowell, said, everyone has a cell phone and Internet is widely available in Internet shops, so Guarandans are connected to the wider world not only through their exchanges with Johnson City but also through technology.

“Over the years, the Sister Cities program has sustained activity with Guaranda more and longer than any other Sister City,” McDowell said. “It has been passed along like a relay baton among groups and people throughout the years.”

The relationship was formed to promote friendship and understanding, but it has proved to be much more, enriching the lives and cultures of both towns for nearly 50 years.

The Sister Cities program meets the second Thursday of each month in downtown Johnson City. For more information or to become a member, call Doug Carter, president, at 926-9193.

Reach Jan Hearne at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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