November 2006

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Flying from Buenos Aires to Quito went smoothly. I had a stop in Columbia that  turned out to be a great window shopping experience as the airport there has some spectacular stores.  Meeting my daughter at the Quito airport and hopping in a cab happened so fast I did not have time to notice much. But when the cab driver dropped us off at the bus terminal, we were assailed by a flurry of young men yelling city names. The buses are privately owned so they try to attract as many passengers as possible. We finally heard “Riobamba” and followed a man to the bus. I understood that it was important to let him know that we were actually going all the way to the terminal so that he would put my suitcase in the appropriate bin and it would not get dropped off to the side of the road somewhere along the way. He would keep hustling for customers all along the way, often times hanging out the door yelling Riombamba! Sometimes he would jump out…and run after the bus to hop back on. It is a wonder they do not all get killed…

We got on without being asked to pay which worried me somewhat but it was more important to find seats. (The helper would go through the bus later to collect the fares) It was a fancy bus with swags of red velvet curtains on the windows and a big TV screen at the front of the bus. We sat down and watched as the helper (as I got to call him) gathered more passengers. Some of them were very colorful. I got my first glimpse at regional costumes…colorful skirts and shawls, little hats, baby slings…Every few minutes someone would get on to sell something, usually food or drink but occasionally jewelry or other non comestible items. This continued even after the bus was moving. These salespeople would hop on and stay on the bus until the following stop, then hop off and presumably take a ride back in the opposite direction. Some just walked down the aisle offering their wares, others would address the crowd first. Sometimes they talked of totally unrelated topics and it was a challenge to guess what they were selling. Sometimes they would put the object in your hands, and you had to hold on to it until they came back to either collect the money or take the object back… Once the bus was out of the city, the TV got turned on, at the highest sound setting. I snoozed through some of it but remember opening my eyes to a very gory scene…and wondering how could they play something like that with children on board but obviously I was the only one concerned by this. I can describe all this now in a casual manner but that first ride was full of mystery and surprises for me. We rode many more buses during my stay as the bus system is very efficient in Ecuador and the main means of transport. It seemed that the shorter the ride the messier the bus.  On the ride to Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the world) the bus was so full that people were literally on top of each other…on other rides it was the smell that was hard to take…or the brusque stops…but it was always an adventure! On one occasion I saw people loading live chickens through a window!

After a four-hour ride, we finally made it to Riobamba. It was late, it was pouring…we rushed home and went to bed.

The next morning, I was on my own to explore the city. I mapped out an itinerary that included a museum located in a nice colonial house. When I got there I started up the nice formal staircase when suddenly a hoard of young children came barreling down the stairs. They were cute but very dirty…they were accompanied by teachers who kept reminding them to be polite. So each and everyone stopped to shake my hand…the whole thing lasted several minutes. Later, when I exited the museum I got caught in a whirlwind of sounds and colors as there was a parade going on. It was to celebrate bilingual education (Quechua which is the local dialect and Spanish) so every village that has a bilingual school was represented. Most of them had some kind of musical instruments and danced along. Sometimes one of the participants would be in a makeshift bull costume and would play catch with other dancers. I later learnt this was called…for reasons I have yet to understand some participants carried chickens hanging from a wood dowel. 

At times during my trip it seemed to me that almost every woman of child bearing age was carrying a child on her back…but after a while I realized that when the baby was not on their back it was usually because it was in the front, nursing.

Needless to say the birthrate is very high in Ecuador, it is the most densely populated country in South America. Speaking of babies I was amused to learn that men who help their wives with caring for a child is made fun of by other men who call him: “hombre mandarina” (which means mandarin man….a fruit….). This is a very macho country, which explains, in part, why so many organizations are trying to teach Ecuadorian women about their rights and help them to assert themselves. It is a bit shocking at times to watch a couple walking along a road, the woman carrying enormous bags on her back while the man walks besides her empty handed.


During my stay I visited some pretty villages, such as Guano, that still has parts of an old monastery standing and a museum that boasts a mummified priest found inside the walls.


But the one experience that will stay with me forever is a visit to the weekly market of Guamote. This is not a tourist activity. I would estimate that out of the approximately 2000 people there, there were no more than 6 gringos (us included). This market occupies the entire village and welcomes people from surrounding villages who come in a trade or purchase what they need in terms of clothing, house ware, food and live animals. Needless to say the live animal business was the most fascinating for me. I saw women dragging pigs, sheep or cows up hilly streets to bring them to the livestock pen.


The one animal that is hard to watch being cooked is the guinea pig, yet it is a delicacy over there. They are called “cuy” (pronounced Q E which probably refers to the noise they make). You could see the big jute bags full of them move and then someone would dip in and extract a nice furry caramel and white guinea pig for everyone to admire….and buy.


 Another staple of Ecuadorian cuisine is the pig, They roast them on street corners…Every morning as I came down there would be a nice golden one sprawled on the coals…its snout resting on the rim…by noon  all that was left was the carcass…and in the evening there would be a big pot of another dish made with the left over meat.

In Argentina there were several varieties of potatoes, in Ecuador it is the corn family that is everywhere.

This particular variety resembles a cross between popcorn and peanuts… It was lovely with a hot drink called “Canelleta” made with wine and cinnamon.


Another market we visited in Ottavalo was totally the opposite as it was an arts and crafts fair, obviously held for tourists.

The costumes were, again, very colorful…. The headgear varies but the little black sandals are a staple.


A lot of women wear ribbons tied around their braids with or without a hat. It is such a lovely sigh that it is the theme of many weavings.


Another adornment that is very popular are necklaces made of strands and strands of tiny yellow beads.


I found Ecuador to be a colorful country with colorful people, it stands to reason that their art is also a blast of colors!


Riobamba itself is a nice town. Mountains surround it. And just like in Argentina, people use their rooftops for laundry, but also to keep small animals such as chicken, rabbits and guinea pigs. When I went up there a man was getting the last chicken out of the coop and took it down to his apartment...Guess what they were having for dinner?

I had trouble with pollution...but when a nearby volcano spurts ashes it is apparently a lot worse.

I don’t know what this tree is called but it was just too pretty to pass up.


This mural depicting some important episodes of the country’s history (Simon Bolivar is the man in uniform) and this church were next to each other on top of a hill.

We returned to Quito for a few days at the end of my stay. Quito is the capital and is located slightly north of the center of the country. Had I had more time I could have gone west toward the beaches along Pacific Ocean or south towards the Amazonian jungle. Both areas are well worth a visit.

Quito is at 2850 m above sea level. Mountains surround it, some of them snow covered volcanoes.  We rode a gondola to the top (4100 m) of the closest one. We timed our ride so as to see the city by daylight, to watch the sun set and then to go back down after nightfall. It was breathtaking, so much so that there is an oxygen bar at the top.  The clouds rolled in as the sun was going down...

While in Quito we stayed in a very nice hotel in the Old Town. It was called Hotel San Francisco. It  is built around an inner courtyard and is very picturesque.


The Lonely Planet guide said about it that it had continuous hot water...I was curious as to what that meant until I experimented it (or the lack of it) first hand. On our first night there I was thrilled to be able to have a hot shower and wash my hair. I turned the water on, it was lovely! strong jets of steamy water! I got my hair wet, poured the shampoo and worked up a nice big lather. Then the water stopped, suddenly, with no warning, it was gone! Not even a trickle. I waited, shivering while my daughter went to inquire. The news was not good. They did not know when it  would come back but hopefully we should have water by morning! I had no choice but to  wrap my head  in a towel and go to bed...When I woke up in the morning and looked at myself in the mirror, I could have scared a witch! It was so bad. I quickly checked the water and jumped back in the shower to start the hair washing all over.

Every day we would walk by this church with incredibly old wood doors.


Speaking of churches, we visited two famous ones. The first is the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus. I could not photograph the interior but lets just say it is the most gilded church I have ever seen. Seven tons of gold were used to decorate it. Needless to say it is very ornate, yet not unpleasant to look at. Some of the paintings are a bit strange though.


The other church is the Quito Cathedral and can be seen from far  as it is huge and perched on top of a hill.  The insides is surprisingly bare save for the stained glass windows and this small chapel, which reminded me of the church inside the citadel in Budapest.


Our last excursion was to “La mitad del Mundo” (the middle of the world), which is where the Equator runs.

There is an official monument with statues of all the men who contributed to establishing the location of the Equator, it is big tourist set up...


But not far from there is a small privately owned museum that is a lot more interesting. First of all they claim that they are on the exact Equator line as determined by a GPS  system. It does not matter to me as it was an enchanting place set in  pretty landscaped gardens .


There were several buildings and displays that illustrated the ways of life of the past. Our guide was full of  legends and beliefs. One of them was amusing: it seems that although people lived in houses they never had intercourse in bed. It had to be done outside on the ground to be in contact with the mother earth  who was also the fertility goddess. We were shown shrunken heads and the technique used to make them. We got to try blowing in a long tube to shoot a “poisonous” dart. We saw fishing gear, hunting weapons but what was equally interesting were the experiments that illustrated the various changes of gravity on either side of the Equator. I do not possess the knowledge or the vocabulary to explain it but the most talked about phenomenon is the water swirling phenomenon. In the northern hemisphere water always turns in a counterclockwise direction while in the southern hemisphere is turns clockwise. Our guide filled a tub with water and pulled the plug directly over the Equator line, then south of it and then north and sure enough the water drained straight down when on the line and clockwise when the tub was placed south of the Equator and counterclockwise when placed north of it.

There was another experiment with balancing an egg that I did not fully understand, another that had to do with waking a straight line with your eyes closed over the Equator, and yet another with trying to resist someone pushing down on your extended arms.

This concludes my story about latitude 0.00. I loved my experience and would be ready to go back tomorrow, better prepared this time. This trip gave me the opportunity to see the kind of life my daughter has down there and I must  say I have a deep admiration both for the work that she does and for the way she has adapted to the living conditions. Hats off to you Kiddo! I am very proud of you!