Sunday, 25 July 2010


For so long on this trip, Ecuador had seemed such a distant prospect that I had in no way wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to South America for the first time in my life.  The Rough Guide to Ecuador I had bought in California came out in my last days in Miami (and having now sampled The Rough Guide to India and Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – though their idea of a shoestring is certainly not mine – I can confirm that I much prefer Rough Guides.  Nonetheless, all guidebooks frequently make me wonder whether I am visiting the same planet as the one described in their pages).

I read that Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, at 2800 metres up the Andes (second only to Lhasa in Tibet, I am assuming), that the point furthest from the centre of the Earth is not the top of Mount Everest in Nepal, but the tip of the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador (because of the way the Earth bulges at the equator).  My continual packing and unpacking was beginning to wear on me (made all the more lengthy as I worked out the storage quirks of a new rucksack) and these little snippets of information injected a much needed thrill of anticipation into my next destination. 
I liked the circle of mountains, beginning my journey in the Himalayas and drawing it to its close (for now) in the Andes.  I liked the fact that I was going back to the equator, where I had spent some searingly memorable years as a child.  And I liked the fact that I was going to be speaking Spanish (or attempting to), that the unfamiliarity would shift.  Now I would recognise the script of street signs (not always or even often the case in Asia) but their language would be unfamiliar. 
unfamiliar equatorial mountain tree in the courtyard of Quito's library

Ecuador was to be more organised than my other arrivals. I was being met by the organisation that co-ordinates a volunteer project I was participating in, an agency of sorts. They would meet me at the airport and provide me with a host family in Quito and three meals a day for a week, and then help me move on (for a fee, of course). I had thought that being in a homestay might give me a good insight and introduction to Quito and Ecuador, as well as providing some Spanish lessons. What I didn’t realise was that the homestay was actually a forty minute bus ride outside Quito (and that the bus stop was a brisk twenty minute walk away), and that the three meals a day basically meant my least favourite polystyrene-white-bread and coffee at breakfast (perhaps with a bit of fruit), that those same ingredients were what was available to me to make my packed lunch, and that dinner was generally pretty basic and not always very appetising. 

We house guests lived in a slightly grubby annex to the main house. My first night there was another Lucy’s last. She was on her way back home to Cardiff after a month or so volunteering in an orphanage. I was deeply thankful she was there to give directions on buses, laundry, internet, shops, all those useful essentials. The rest of the week I had to myself, which was a bit quiet at times, but suited me fine.

In the end, I only had three Spanish lessons in all, as the son who gave them to me was graduating that week and festivities were in order. He was following his father’s footsteps into the military and at sixteen, embodied a few teenage stereotypes I found frankly irritating: texting and phoning on his mobile while supposedly teaching, and resentful assumptions about how much money I have. “Tu tienes plata” was a favourite catch-phrase. All from a middle class boy whose family are adding to their apparently comfortable income with some rather overpriced and under-serviced foreigners’ accommodation and whose house contains more mod-cons and gadgets than any flat I’ve ever lived in. But there you go. We all make our choices. If he and his family chose to sell their house, they could probably do a lot more travelling than my budget allows. When I’ve pointed out this choice to various people along the way, they’ve looked at me slightly aghast. But we all make our choices, and the choice I made, to swap home for travel, is a choice open to many people I’ve met who complain they can’t afford to travel. What they can’t afford is to keep their home and to travel. And neither could I. I’m not saying everyone should make the choice I have, but there’s no point envying or resenting those who’ve chosen differently.

Of course, this was happening at exactly the time my budget was giving me cause for concern and I spent much of the week working out how I was to juggle it. In one of those pleasant contrasts the universe likes to offer me up, proving not all teenagers are a pain in the nether regions, the son’s friend who co-taught two of my classes was a pleasant and polite lad, off to study medicine.

I was quite competent at Spanish at school, but that was a very long time ago. When I was twenty-two, I had a plan to travel South America and did a month’s intensive classes. I ended up dancing instead and not using my improved Spanish at all. Many years later, my Spanish is at best rudimentary and my grasp of grammar and conjugations only sufficient to know that what I am saying is hopelessly incorrect. I often find myself perfectly able to ask a simple question but rather baffled by the answer. It’s taught me a lot of empathy for all those people around Asia who looked blankly at my English. The bar in Quito seems to be pretty low for gringos, as people would frequently comment on how well I speak Spanish.
Really, I don’t. If I understand a quarter of what’s being said to me, it is a very, very, very good day.

There was some confusion over my volunteering project. The whole point of choosing Ecuador as a destination in the first place, many months ago now, was an affordable local marine conservation project which was to involve diving and various other exciting things. I looked into similar offered by UK-based NGOs, which were demanding the equivalent of my annual budget for about four months. So Ecuador it was.

Only, some time before I left Cambodia, I received an email from my Ecuadorian volunteer co-ordinators saying that the project was no longer available. Apparently it was the quiet time of year and the various sea creatures were off somewhere else. I found myself wishing they had told me this months previously and disappointedly set about choosing from the alternatives, none of which really appealed. Having sent my mask, snorkel and coral-protecting diving booties back to Europe (which cost me a severe pang), I arrived in Ecuador only to be told that the marine conservation project, albeit a scaled-down version, was available after all. All the other possibilities required long bus rides at the weekend and possible overnight stays in distant towns in order to access any kind of internet. I didn’t feel this was helpful in the last weeks of my trip, when I would be needing to organise my re-entry into Europe and job-hunting. So, after umming and ahhhing and stressing over budgets, I finally decided that there’s no point receiving messages in meditation if you don’t listen to them. At which point, I stopped worrying, the finances fell into place and all was decided. At the end of my week in Quito, I was off to the coast to make some small attempt to save turtles, hammerhead sharks and manta rays.

Meanwhile, Quito was to be explored, and once I got my head around the bus system and the rather confusing layout of the backstreets of the old town, I had a grand old time visiting beautiful Spanish colonial plazas and churches. I also spent an intriguing afternoon at the Bicentenario, so-called because its opening in 2009 marked two hundred years of Ecuadorian independence. It houses the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo, which is a wonderful conversion from an old military hospital. The current displays are rather sparse but beautifully done, and I finally got to make use of my Birkbeck student card (still miraculously valid) and so entry was only a dollar.

Some of Old Quito on a rare sunny day: 

The Museo del Banco Central, in La Casa de la Cultura, is a fabulous museum. Sadly, the gold room was shut, so I only got to see one of the beaten gold Indian head dresses that live there. However, the archaeological room is huge and really well-organised with a lot of information about the various civilisations that passed through the different regions of Ecuador. Yogis amongst you may be interested to know that I saw at least four terracotta figurines in passable yoga poses (siddhasana, dandasana, urdhva dhanurasana , tadasana among them) and if you really push it, I’m sure you could decode a couple of mudras too. There is some argument over the age of hatha yoga (the physical practice of yoga). Some people argue that figurines from the Indus Valley Civilization show it to be thousands of years old. Others, perhaps less romantic and more pragmatic, point out that, in a culture where everyone sits on the floor, a figure of someone sitting cross-legged is not an indication of meditation in the lotus position. Anyway, these Ecuadorian figures are at least as old as the Indus Valley images, so perhaps someone would like to posit a new theory that yoga in fact originated in the Andes.

They share other similarities, namely an appetite for sacrifice, though I’m not sure ancient Vedic societies went in for the human variety, which most of the old Ecuadorian cultures figured seemed to practise. In the century before the Spanish conquistadores arrived, the Incas came up from Peru and took over most of Ecuador. To be perfectly honest, the local population doesn’t seem to have fared much better under them than under the later Spanish colonisation. Whole communities were moved by the Incas from their ancestral lands as political stratagem, the Inca language was imposed so efficiently that its descendants are still the languages spoken by most Indian communities in Ecuador, and virtually all productive industry was nationalised in a quasi-Stalinist manner. It was interesting to see the pots and utensils of the time, bereft of the imaginative exuberance that had gone before and utterly uniform in shape and pattern. Then the Spanish arrived for genocide and quasi-slavery. All very cheerful. But beautiful displays.

The other room open was that of Colonial Art. Lots of sado-masochistic Catholic imagery greeted me, with a particular penchant for blood and gore. I’m guessing the local population had plenty of first-hand inspiration.

Much more fun was the fantastically camp La Compania church. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, and I doubt anyway that a photograph could possibly do justice to the staggering glitter within. The inside is covered with a reputed seven tonnes of gold leaf. The whole church is an exuberant twinkling gold, completely astonishing. It also has lots of pictures of the fun parts of the Bible that don’t usually get featured (Jonah and the whale) and a grizzly depiction of hell with graphic detail of the various tortures awaiting the different categories of sinners. Perhaps this was done to strike fear into the hearts of unconverted native Indians with their nature gods, but I couldn’t help thinking a lot of the sins mentioned (greed, cruelty, murder, theft) applied pretty tightly to the Catholic conquistadores.

Here is the top of La Compania from the church of San Francisco, across the plaza of the same name:

I was told I must visit Otavalo, a small town “only two hours” outside Quito that hosts the biggest market in South America. What I wasn’t told was that it would take me two and a half hours and four buses to cross Quito from my homestay to the bus terminal from whence the bus to Otavalo departed. It was exhausting, but I managed it in one day, even if I spent nine of my thirteen hour trip on or waiting for various buses.

I have a weakness for lovely woollen products (alpaca and cashmere are particular favourites; Otavalo is full of alpaca) and silver. Otavalo was to be my undoing. I did all my Christmas shopping for next December, spent double what I’d intended and now plan to go back with an empty suitcase in my last week travelling through Ecuador. Only this time I’ll stay the night. It turned out to be a great plan to go on Friday, when many of the stalls are already set up for Saturday market day but very few of the shoppers had yet arrived. The Plaza de Ponchos was packed full of stalls, and you can buy things for a few dollars that would cost at least ten times more in Europe or north America. Beautiful and lots of fun.
Here’s the lady who sold me some of my Christmas presents, made by her family:


And here’s the view from the bus back to Quito:

Now I’m down from the mountains and in Puerto Lopez (also known as Puerto Lodo, “Port Mud”, for good reason). But more on marine conservation in an equatorial Pacific rainy season next time.

From Lucy, with love x

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