Seeing the world, one country at the time

Kicking Back in Quito

Guayaquil to Quito, (Lars’ Worst Day)
We took the super executive bus for eight dollars each. It was the best Ecuador had to offer yet it was terrible, but what can you expect at that price? It was similar to Bolivian buses, but didn’t break down. The scenery outside our windows was lush. That always surprises me because I’m used to the barren, Peruvian desert coast, which is only next door. Many stops and eight hours later, we arrived in Quito. Quito lies at an altitude of 2,808 meters (9,213 feet), so it takes some getting used to. It’s hard to breathe and any exertion is felt. I went to call our family friends, the Pablos, with whom we would be staying.

During the five minutes I was gone, Lars’ professional Canon camera was stolen. We were in SHOCK and complete denial. We kept looking for it around the bus station, as if we may have gone and left it in the toilet or a rat might have run off with it. It’s silly, but that’s how you act. You are so incredulous that it could happen to you. Those thieves are lightning fast! We went to the police station around the block, where we found an Italian with the same problem. While one policewoman sat knitting, the other typed up meticulous notes while I interpreted and choked back tears of frustration. Miguel Angel Pablo and his daughter Stephanie came to pick us up. That helped us to feel more secure. Thank goodness we had friends to stay with. This was the second time we were able to stay with friends after disaster struck (the first time was when my diaries and notebooks were stolen on our way to visit Helene). Now Lars had to deal with the fact that he wouldn’t be able to shoot photos for the next two months, one of which would be spent in Brazil for Carnival.

Sunday is Market Day
Miguel Angel and Stephanie took us on a shopping trip north of Quito. Johanna Pablo, Miguel Angel’s wife, was on a retreat all weekend. The first stop was Otovalo, famous for textiles, arts and crafts. What struck me most were the indigenous people dressed in beautiful, elegant outfits reminiscent of Karen tribespeople in northern Thailand: dark blue pin-striped wool wraparounds, a sash around their waist, white embroidered blouses sometimes covered with a blue shawl, bright gold, red and orange beaded necklaces wrapped tightly around their necks, and cloth sandals. They were often bedecked in a triangular scarf or if uncovered, had their braid wrapped in a colored ribbon. The men were dressed in white shirts, a dark vest, a blue poncho and calf-length knickers, with a braid hanging down below a fedora. Their dress is traditional; the women’s dress resembling Inca dress and the man’s braid from pre-Inca times. The tradition is so strong that men in military service need not cut their braid. They were beautifully dressed, neat and well-groomed. They were also tiny; short and skinny, unlike the indigenous people in Peru. I felt like I was in Lilliputt land. Refreshingly, the whole city was clean. Even though it wasn’t market day, there were lots of stalls in the main plaza, where we bargained for a few choice souvenirs.

From there we drove to Cotocachi and had a delicious light lunch before browsing in all the incredible leather stores for which it is renowned. The prices were even better than in Argentina. I WISHED I could shop! Living out of a backpack imposes some very finite limitations on shopping. It was quality merchandise and they had every color and style you could hope for. Having seen enough leather goods to last us a decade, the four of us headed to Ibarra, the city of wood carvings. Store upon store featured wooden baubles and religious sculptures, furniture and tableware. They sold many pieces en masse, but also had exclusive and impressive pieces. They spanned the spectrum from statues of Jesus to a seven foot alligator (at a measly $1,400). Lars liked the crocodile, but we couldn’t imagine carting it on our backs around Brazil. I wasn’t even able to lift it by myself. Our last stop was at Lago San Pablo, a lake next to a volcano. A beautiful location that a German has exploited to our advantage, with a gorgeous lakefront restaurant and Alpine-style cabins. It was Germanic in neatness and pastoral beauty. A man in a totora (reed) boat paddled by as we had our afternoon snack. We arrived back to town after winding slowly through the mountains, which were lush and green. Johanna was home to greet us. I hadn’t seen the Pablos in fifteen years, so there was a lot to cover.
It’s a Case of the Mondays
It’s cold here! We were lucky with the weather, which made it hot for a few hours. Evenings here are spent trying to find warmth. Johanna equipped us with a heating pad. We stopped to get flowers on the road below the apartment. After being solicited at high volume by several people, we approached an old lady precisely because she didn’t. She sold us a lovely bouquet and recounted an assault at gunpoint the day before. She’d been held to the ground by several thieves for $30. It’s terrible and it happens a lot here. We definitely are not the only ones. At least nobody has hurt or threatened us with weapons. Later, a friend called to say where we could potentially go to find and recover Lars’ camera (buy it back) on the black market, but we wouldn’t be allowed to go, so we had to find an Ecuadorian. It just seemed too spooky and who could we send?!

“Middle Earth"
Due to a citywide water project, involving fixing some water tubes outside the city, they’re actually cutting of the city’s water. Welcome to the 3rd world! Our building’s water supply would be turned off at nine am, so we had to shower before then. The Cordovezes, old friends of the family, picked us up to go sightseeing. I hadn’t seen them since I was four and didn’t recognize them, but they welcomed me with such warm hugs that I felt like a long-lost daughter. Mr. Cordovez, “Agucho”, always a businessman, was dressed in an elegant suit and had his white hair pomaded back and his quintessential moustache combed. He has a dry wit; half joking, half-sarcasm. He made me laugh. Mrs. Cordovez, Victoria, was so sweet and talkative and perfectly coordinated and elegant. She gave me a bracelet with Catholic charms of the Virgin Mary, the Baby Jesus and San Benito, to look after me and keep me safe during my travels.

They drove us to the Mitad del Mundo, or Equator, where a 30-year old picture of my Dad holding a shovel was taken. I’d wanted to come here ever since I saw that photo and my Dad told me that that was in the middle of the world, where the northern and southern hemispheres meet. The Cordovezes had taken him there as well. The decision to make this the center of the world was taken by scientists who came to Ecuador on a Geodesic Mission which measured the meridian arc dividing the world into two hemispheres. The monument is built on the 0 longitude, 0 latitude mark that they measured. Mr. Cordovez paid for our photos to be taken and bought us a certificate of our visit, which we all signed. We went inside the actual monument to see the view from the top and visit the complete anthropological exhibit of all the varied cultures living in Ecuador. It was pretty fascinating. I had no idea that Ecuador had so much diversity, from the isolated African runaway slave colony in coastal Esmeraldas, to the elegant Otovalo Indians in the highlands near Quito, to the Amazon’s murderous head-shrinking Achuar Indians and the Tsachilas Indians or "Colorados", with their bright red hair.

Despite the history of the monument and its acclaimed exactness at the globe’s center, there is a newer museum next door called the Museo Solar Inti Raymi, that claims to lie on the actual center of the world (Scout’s honor!), measured by today’s modern GPS. It was down a dirt road and I felt bad taking our elegant hosts there. But it was worth it and Lars loved it. The museum was authentic and interactive. Not only do they have the “real” equatorial line, but they have an open-air cultural museum. Our first stop was in a reconstructed 300-year old kitchen, which had a ceiling black from smoke. The guide explained how the people used to live, cook and dry food. In the corner they kept guinea pigs (so cute!) until it was time to eat them, or use them in religious ceremonies to diagnose illness or to cleanse someone possessed of the evil eye.

From there we went into a typical home, where the family slept together in one bed until the kids turned twelve and got their own rooms. Outside we saw a tomb, a different shape than those in Peru, but with the same concept of burying the dead with their belongings. Only here, they buried the wives alive and they know this because they have found signs of struggle. Lovely. How come the women always have to sacrifice themselves?! Lars got to blow a blow dart. He was the only one to hit the target on the first try. It was three meters long and wasn’t difficult to use. These darts are only effective up to fifteen meters and are used to kill enemies and get food (monkeys) down from trees. Two kinds of powders are used in the darts to immobilize the prey. One is a sedative and the other a lethal poison made from frogs.

We also saw an exhibition of Ecuadorian oddities; scary reptiles, including a boa constrictor and an anaconda, which grows up to fifteen meters (49 feet), and shrunken heads. Listening to a graphic explanation (with illustrations) of how heads are shrunk and why, I was thankful I hadn’t eaten yet. The Ashuar clan of the Jivaro tribe became famous for their practice of shrinking and preserving human heads. A shrunken head taken in battle by the Ashuar was called a tsantsa. It was a trophy, like today’s rodeo buckle or World Cup or Olympic gold medal. Before sports trophies came human trophies. This practice goes back thousands of years. In biblical times, David brought back the head of Goliath. Now there are laws against that so we make our trophies out of inanimate materials.

We continued down to their Equatorial line to observe sun dials and perform a couple of curious experiments. One involved balancing an egg on a nail, which is much easier on the Equator (though not having much experience in this, I can’t say). Lars had no trouble, but I just couldn’t do it. Second, we watched water drain out of a sink on the equator (straight down), in the southern hemisphere (clockwise) and in the northern hemisphere (strong counter-clockwise.) In the north even hurricanes turn counter-clockwise and cyclones, in the south, turn clockwise. That is pretty wild. Third, our guide tested our muscular resistance on the Equator, then in both hemispheres. Supposedly we are weaker on the Equator, for magnetic reasons. I had NO resistance, but Lars had plenty, which prompted the guide to tell him he is strong, a fact that boosted his ego a tad too much. We also weigh around a kilo less on the equator and we’re meant to have better balance. Neither gravity nor the centrifugal force of each hemisphere are as strong.

By the time we were done with our tours it was almost three and too late, they thought, to go for lunch at their country club, the Quito Tennis and Golf Club – El Candado, as planned. Luckily the club restaurant was open and Mr. Cordovez, obviously popular and well-known made a smooth entrance, hob-nobbing with the waiters and director of the club who was having lunch there. His countenance was plastered on the foyer walls in a photo collage. It was all very formal and elegant and Lars asked me “is this how you grew up?” Not quite. This club costs $80 thousand dollars to join and $250 a month in membership fees. That’s a lot of money anywhere, and especially in Ecuador. Not everyone can get in. The food was delicious and we enjoyed our meal, especially all the shrimp and popcorn, a typical appetizer in Ecuador.

The Cordovezes are from established Ecuadorian families. Her great great grandfather was Juan Pablo Arenas, one of the liberators of the country. He was from Riobamba, a vacation spot for noblemen that is said to be the only city with blue blood. They talked about their friendship with my parents and how they came to visit us in Lima in our apartment, which is when I first met them and played with their daughter Margarita. Mr. Cordovez reminisced about how affectionate I had been when I was little and how my eyes took up half my face. It was fun to hear, as I have no recollection of this and always thought of myself as painfully shy. They were there for the big earthquake in 1976, which lasted more than two minutes. They recounted how while everything shook and fell around us, our nanny was praying and confessing her sins out loud. What a sight that must have been to behold.

Museum Field Trip
Victoria Cordovez picked us up to visit the Museo del Banco Central, which combines archaeology and art. The museum overall is very well done and has English translations and professional glass etchings with maps, text and art (Peru could learn something from them on museum display). It seems trivial, but when you see lots of museums, you notice these things and appreciate them. They played native music on the first floor, had a well-preserved mummy and models of different stages of social and cultural development.

The museum follows artistic expression from the pre-Columbian cultures to today. I loved the former, spending an hour looking at pottery and amazed once again at how many ancient cultures Ecuador had and how different they were from Peru’s. Their pottery is often very detailed and good and features more mythological figures, while their erotic art is more romantic. Some had a nuance of Asian influence like the fanged jaguar that resembled a dragon or lion. The Incas also conquered Ecuador up to Quito for their empire and in the displays I saw Incan pieces, which I recognized. The Incas were only there 70 years and brought Peruvians up to Quito and Quitenos down to Peru, to separate cultures, break their power base and prevent rebellion. That is how the great warrior tribe of the Canaris ended up in Peru. Their name jumped out at me from a display case, because my cousin, who is half Peruvian, has the last name Canari. If she had lived back then, she might have been a warrior princess.

They had a gold room, which was really impressive but not as good as Peru’s. There isn’t much gold left in Ecuador after the Spaniards came and exchanged it all for cheapo mirrors. The Incas, thinking that their souls were trapped in the mirrors that the Spaniards brought, wanted to keep them. Before then, they had used obsidian polished stones as mirrors. Why they didn’t think the Obsidian and even still water also captured their souls, I don’t know.

The second floor exhibits religious art by some very popular, famous artists from the quiteno school (at the time of the Spaniards). These display a lot more blood than what Lutherans are used to. Lars seemed a bit shocked. There were a lot of saints, depictions of Christ and of the Virgin Mary and lavish “pan de oro”, or gold leaf. One painting that made an impression rendered Jesus milking his heart and the blood squirting into a sheep’s mouth. Hmmm. From there we went up to the modern art hall, but even the most scandalous pieces didn’t affect us as much as the blood-thirsty sheep.

We returned to the Pablos for lunch to say goodbye to Stephanie, who just got married and is moving back to El Salvador with her husband. Lars wasn’t feeling well, so he stayed in bed and rested. That night I went out for dinner with Helene, who was in town on assignment with the Embassy. She was living in luxury at the Swissotel. I remember those days… Lucky girl. It was funny to hear about embassy life again; it hasn’t changed much since I worked in that field way back when. Helene will make a good diplomat.

Quito Antiguo, a live history lesson
Having grown up in Quito, Victoria Cordovez was the perfect guide through quaint Old Quito with its narrow streets. The downtown is less stately and imposing than Lima’s. It has more of a community feeling, perhaps owing to the fact of Victoria’s familiarity with it. She pointed out her grandfather’s house, which had taken up a whole city block and is now separated into sections. Her family had lived close by. We passed by her school and La Merced church, where we visited first, was where her family had worshipped. I found it pretty, although it could be considered gaudy with all its pink and white frosting. The décor included volumes of pan de oro and paintings representing the eruptions of the Pichincha volcano, which looms over Quito. One massive eruption left the sky black for three days. Legend says that the virgin now gracing the altar was found on the volcano.

From there, we walked to the church of San Francisco. Crossing the street on the way, we almost got run over by a paraplegic man rolling on a custom-made wagon. We couldn’t help but stare when we noted that he seemed cut off above the waist. Using rubber tipped handles he propelled himself forward as he careened down the road. The noise he made and the bright red and yellow clothes he wore alerted us to his presence. We couldn’t figure out how he could even be alive in his condition. We passed the “popular” mall Centro Comercial Ipiales before reaching the large and pleasant plaza of the church of San Francisco. The church itself was very dark and half covered with scaffolding due to renovations. The ambiance was somber, as Mass was underway. Both entering and leaving I snapped at the shoeshine boys who came close to Lars. With the robberies and all this talk about safety, I was on edge. You get paranoid about being robbed when everyone keeps recounting horror stories and warns you constantly to be careful.

From there we went to another small church, el Sagrario, where Victoria’s grandmother was baptized in the 1800’s. It is located next to the Cathedral, which was closed. We traversed the plaza de la Independencia where a monument stands to the heroes of the independence, then strolled to the Metropolitan Museum. Inside we had an interesting tour on the history of the city, the advent of the printing press, the French scientists who measured the equator and the Picota, a pillar used by the Spanish to mete out punishment. We saw religious paintings and portraits including some of the first indigenous doctor Eugenio Espejo, also a revolutionary. Posing in their quarters were lifelike wax figures of the Jesuit priests who had originally lived in the building when it was a monastery, before the Spaniards expulsed them from Ecuador.

It had subsequently been a jail for revolutionaries who had tried to gain independence. These Spanish citizens, unhappy at the usurpation of the throne by the French, began organizing local juntas loyal to King Ferdinand of Spain. They were all well-educated and successful men; nobles and landholders who created a Junta, refusing to recognize the colonial authorities. Victoria’s great great grandfather, Juan Pablo Arenas, was one of them. His name is etched on the monument we had just seen in the plaza.

On August 10, 1809, the junta carried out the first serious revolt against established rule, but they actually seized power from the local representatives of Joseph Bonaparte in the name of King Ferdinand. Thus, this early revolt against colonial rule (one of the first in Spanish America) was, paradoxically, an expression of loyalty to the Spanish king. These men were soon arrested by colonial troops sent from Lima. Although the Junta was defeated, they are considered the first patriots and are honored as such. After the Battle of Pichincha, official independence from Spain was declared on May 24, 1822, with the “Grito de la Independencia” (Shout of Independence), but the country became a part of the Gran Republica de Colombia for the next eight years. It was not until they seceded that the Republic of Ecuador, named after its location on the Equator, was established.

Finally, they led us to the basement jail, which was what Victoria came to see. There a guide explained what had happened on the 10th of August 1809, when the imprisoned revolutionaries were massacred. It was surreal. The events of that night were reconstructed to show the bloody scene, complete with wax figures. “There at the back is your tartarabuelo” the guide informed us. Her great great grandfather lay face down in a pool of blood and I wondered how she felt, seeing her blood relative displayed so grotesquely in his last moments, for everyone to gawk at. I thought she might feel proud but she replied “I feel bad for them, for all they suffered. They were educated men – doctors and lawyers, and one was killed in front of his wife and daughter, who were visiting.”

Afterward, we drove to their home to have lunch with Margarita and her family at their home. It was fun to see her again. I recognized her big smile from long ago. I hadn’t seen her since I was four, when I had wanted to be just like her because I thought she was so beautiful - and she still is. For appetizers they served us fresh strawberry juice and empanadas de morocho (corn tortilla empanadas), which we couldn’t just eat one of (or five, for that matter). They had made them especially for me, after remembering that my Dad ate them like they were going out of style. They said I eat like he did. It runs in the family. We met the family and sat down for lunch, a splendid first course of avocado soup, popcorn and chulpi tostado (grilled corn which tastes like Cornuts). The appetizers were followed by the main meal, bean salad and roasted pork loin, wrapped up with apple pie and ice cream. We said our goodbyes, not knowing that we would be meeting again within a month, when their help would be our saving grace in getting out of the country and making our flight back to the US.

Quito to Sao Paulo
Up at an ungodly hour to catch our flight, we were most grateful to Johanna for preparing us breakfast and to Miguel Angel for driving us to the airport, where he waited a long time with us until we were checked in. I felt bad that he was doing so much for us, but relieved he was there when we had a scare with the airline people. They asked us for our Yellow Fever shots and I had no idea where they were, or even if I had them. I thought they had been stolen with my backpack, and they told us we couldn’t leave the country without them. To our huge relief we finally found them. We said our farewells and started our long journey. Our flight was so delayed that at our first stop in Panama City we had to run to make our transfer flight to Sao Paulo. We were so excited to go to Brazil.