Thursday, February 27, 2014

Letters from the Equator, 3 - Ecuador

         Felt hats and swimming iguanas                              
(earlier Equator entries can be found in the archive, right, in Dec.,  2013 and in Feb., 2014 ) 

                     Quito - Blinding white peaks - snow in August, in the tropics - form the spine of the Andes, marked by burned out volcanic cones, some still hot, and massive green slopes sweeping down to the city of Quito. The city sits on a high plateau just a few miles south of the equator; at 9,000 feet above sea level it is the second highest capital on earth, bested only by La Paz.
          I was staying, appropriately, at the Hotel los Alpes, an interlude from The Sound of Music with Spanish furniture and alpine scenes on the walls. I felt the need to download some impressions but couldn't because the battery packs for my laptop were flat and the entire city for the moment was without electricity. That left walking.
      The altitude and the pollution hit me as soon as I hit the bricks, the busses shoehorned with Quitenos heaving and blowing smoke. Quito's old section reminded me of New Orleans's French Quarter, with hills: gorgeous narrow streets, stucco in bright oranges and pastel greens and blues, heavy doors and wrought iron balconies linking the present with the colonial past.
      Many of the citizens of the capital of the only country named for the fateful line of demarcation passing through it - the equator -wore suits and ties or dresses, when most cities seem to have been taken over by stretch pants and jeans.                                           

     Inside the Presidential Palace, facing Independence Plaza and the monument dedicated to the overthrow of the Spanish on August 10, 1809, was a mural, or so I had read, depicting the first descent of the Amazon in 1541 by Francisco de Orellana, in search of gold. Since Ecuador's presidents retain the quaint habit of actually using their palaces, entrance was not assured.
       The guards wore crisp fatigue green and carried silver swords; they asked why I wanted to see the mural. Because I had been to the Amazon, much of which rises on the other side of the mountains bumping up against their city. Ahh. Orellana's descent gave Ecuador claim to more land than it now possessed. Might I, a writer, not find fault with something in the mural,
and write about it, and possibly discredit Orellana's descent? 
      That it had occurred four-and-a-half centuries ago made no difference. Peru had seized half of Ecuador in 1941 - yesterday - and the Ecuadorians beat back another attempted seizure of the disputed territories earlier this year. I had stumbled into the middle of a war that had been going on for half a century, at least.
      I happily settled for a visit to the house once occupied by Mariscal Antonio Jose de Sucre, hero of the battle of Pichincha in 1822, against the royalists, and the man for whom the currency was named. (The fact that it took 2,600 sucres to make one dollar bothered no patriots.) Now a museum, this corner residence - dark beams and whitewashed walls, muzzleloaders and sabers, flags, heavy Spanish furniture, and worn tiles, a mixture of opulence and economy - reflected the past better than the portraits of Sucre and Simon Bolivar. Latin artists invariably make their heroes look more like Pre-Raphaelite poets than fighters. Bolivar, the idealistic liberator of Venezuela in 1819, dreamed of uniting the disparate elements of the continent into a proto-democracy, Gran Colombia. He failed, though not entirely. 
     Lots of churches. After going into three or four I started to get depressed. Not the religion, the gloom, so alien to the equatorial light on this high plateau, where in another month, at the equinox, it would cast no shadow at all. The most intricate contrivance of the human imagination and artifice is found in Quito's most famous cathedral, part of the Monastery of San Francisco started the year the city was founded, 1534, damaged often by earthquakes but always repaired. The baroque carvings on the altar and the intricate gold leaf ceiling made me feel like I was inside a Faberge egg. 
     I had dinner in the hotel with three other Americans: Mike, an old hand in the Americas who worked for the Agency for International Development; Adrianne, an education specialist in Quito to teach teachers; and Lois, an unabashed sightseer on her way to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador's main draw. Conversation turned to the ethics of eco-tourism. Tourism brought in about $100 million a year, roughly what shrimping produced, second only to oil, and most of those tourists are bound for Darwin country. I had seen the more self-conscious along the Avenida Amazonas in Eddie Bauer hats and safari shirts with tabs for holding up the rolled sleeves, as if that was the only way to see cross-billed finches and swimming iguanas. In some cases the equation of tourist and shrimp makes sense.
       That night I read from Love in the Time of Cholera and went to sleep under a blanket, when only two nights before, in the same latitude, I had sweated under the lapping blades of a fan on the bank of the Rio Ariau, in the heart of the Amazonia.
       I met Nestor, the owner of a lovingly maintained Chevy, and we headed for the mountains and a town called Otavalo, his hometown and the site of Ecuador's big Indian market. Many descendants of the peaceful Quitas who preceded and eventually fell to the Incas, Ecuador's Indians today have their own little fincas on the broad terraces of magnificent mountains, where they grow corn, beans, potatoes, and barley. Some joined agricultural co-ops but most remain independent. I saw men and women walking the road in blankets and felt hats, survivors of the Conquest, which they more or less shrugged off. In the cities they constitute Ecuador's so-called underclass.
       Nestor whipped out a map of the disputed territories that showed the border before 1941. He proudly proclaimed that the Peruvian army was composed of "monkeys" who had been defeated by the Ecuadorians, who had Indian soldiers who knew the terrain. I was firmly on Ecuador's side in this dispute, knowing little about it but having seen how much of this beautiful, dry, cool country, elbowed by giants, had been taken by Peru. Imagine the Canadians invading the United States and claiming everything north of Tulsa.
We stopped at Guachala, 80 kilometers outside Quito, to view the funky equatorial market there. Nestor moved a crate of empty pop bottles for the photograph of this somewhat less than historic place, being a typically proud Ecuadorian and something of a homeboy. Otavalo was close by, not in the shadow of volcanoes but with much of its available air space taken up by green and blue, the equatorial colors.
      The Indians in the plaza sold, in addition to some cotton and wool garments, the synthetics that have come to dominate most of the planet's native markets. If relentless modernization bothered them any more than the Conquest had, they didn't show it, eating stewed corn and talking, Nestor told me, of the fine weather before the rains came.                                                  
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
My newly released e- and on-demand books at: