Adventure in the Andes 2 December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes 2, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
Tags: adlai stevenson, aguaje, alicia yanez, amazon rainforest, casa cultura, Ecuador, ecuador art, ecuador culture, ecuador travel, gerard coffey, ivanonate, quito, ramon piaguaje, roger hollander, secoya, simon zavala, ulises estrella, universidad andina, winsor and newton, Wycliffe Bible
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(Now Carmen and I, having returned to our home in Playas, set off to launch “Aguaje” in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, an amazing city that runs lengthwise along a broad valley high in the Andes Cordillera. I first visited Quito in the summer of 1961, when I was on a three month “deputation,” sponsored by my Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, to spend time with missionaries from the Wycliffe Bible Translators (Summer Institute of Linguistics) in the Ecuadorian Amazonian rainforest. I was traveling with a classmate, Bev Carson, and we spent some days in Quito both on our way in and out of the jungle.
Our landing at the Quito airport early that summer was unforgettable. By coincidence right next to us on the tarmac was a United States Air Force plane from which descended no one less that Adlai Stevenson, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He would have been on a good will tour to promote JFK’s Peace Corps. In those days, one did not taxi up and deplane into a terminal, but rather descended from the aircraft’s stairs directly on to the tarmac and then walked into the modest terminal building. So we literally almost touched elbows with Stevenson, who, a two time loser of the U.S. presidency to Dwight Eisenhower, had been a political idol of mine. Those were the days, unlike today, when there were liberals at high levels in the Democratic Party of which one could be proud.
In 1961 Quito was little more than the historic old city surrounded by a few modern buildings. We stayed with a missionary family well on the outskirts of town, and for a “sucre” (a U.S. nickel) one could take a collectivo into the center to walk around the historic old town that had been founded in 1534. The missionaries lived in a bungalow down the road from a soccer stadium. It was about a 20 minute bus ride to get downtown. I have to mention that these missionaries told us with a wry smile about good folks back in their home churches who send them C.A.R.E. packages that included used (!) tea bags. That part of town today is completely integrated into the urban sprawl that is today’s Quito, and which fills the entire valley. There was absolutely no way in 2000 that I could identify where I had been in 1961.
Today (2008) Quito boasts a population of just over 2.1 million. It could not have been one tenth that size in 1961. The city’s history pre-dates the Conquest by several centuries. Its origins date back to the first millennium when the Quitu tribe occupied the area and eventually formed a commercial center. The Quitu were conquered by the Caras tribe, who founded the Kingdom of Quito about 980. In 1462 the Incas conquered the Kingdom of Quito. In1533, Rumiñahui, an Inca war general, burned the city to prevent the Spanish from taking it, thereby destroying any traces of the ancient prehispanic city.
Quito is a city from which almost anywhere within it there is a dramatic vista of mountains. In 1961 it was amazing to see how farmers had terraced and cultivated right up the mountains at steep inclinations. I saw little of that on my current visit. This letter was e-mailed to family and friends in July of 2000.)
One doesn’t realize how lacking is Guayaquil until one arrives in Quito. It lies in a long north/south valley surrounded by snow capped mountains and active (!) volcanoes. The city is about 9,300 feet above sea level. People who live on the coast complain about how public resources are unevenly distributed in favor of the capital, and this appears to be justifiable just from the obvious differences in the infrastructure (in Quito the streets are cleaner, well paved, and mostly free of pot holes, and there are many parks and well landscaped public places, all of which Guayaquil lacks).
Although Guayaquil is considered to be the economic generator of the country, one finds in Quito more signs of prosperity and wealth (narcodollars?) and fewer (but enough) signs of abject poverty.
The Casa de la Cultura in Quito (government financed cultural center) was much larger, architecturally superior (as in Cuenca) and better staffed than is the one in Guayaquil. We had a greater audience for the presentation of “Aguaje” on July 6, and as in Cuenca and Guayaquil the reception of both the poetry and artwork was marvelous.
In Quito we stayed with Alicia Ortega, a friend of Carmen who is a native of Guayaquil and who is Professor of Letters at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. Alicia specializes in the city in literature, and she published a book from her masters thesis on the subject of urban graffiti (a subject, as you Torontonians know, that is close to my heart). Alicia is a single parent with a super precocious nine year old daughter, Alejandra (nine going on thirty, as they say), who glommed onto me as do so many children here who lack a father figure in their lives (Alejandra’s father is a musician who studied in Russia and now lives in Spain with a new family – he is expected to visit Ecuador next month and see his daughter for the first time since she was an infant, a fact which has produced a high degree of expectancy and anxiety in Alejandra).
We had only planned a week in Quito, but Alicia and Alejandra more or less kidnapped us (we were not that unwilling) to spend a second week there. Quito is more spread out and hillier than Guayaquil, and a combination of the nine hour bus ride from Guayaquil and the first days of moving about was a strain on my back, so having a second week to rest up, spend time with folks and get around a bit more was most welcome.
Highlights of our time in the capital:
1) getting to know Alicia and Alejandra
2) getting together to party with friends of Alicia, including the
Managing Editor of Quito’s major daily newspaper, a very charismatic actress, and an Argentinean theater director who lives in Spain and was invited to Ecuador to direct a play in Quito.
3) spending time with Gerard Coffey, an environmental activist with whom I had worked in Toronto. His Toronto group was helping to fund an Ecuadorian group (Acción Ecológia) which brought him here to visit several years ago, and he ended up marrying one of the leaders of the group, Cecilia Cherrez. We had dinner with them at their home one evening, and on another occasion Gerard, who is British by birth, took me to an English Pub (!) in Quito where I downed two pints of genuine European style dark ale (this alone perhaps made the entire trip worthwhile). Gerard and Cecilia are intimately involved with the political movements here, and they were amongst the Indigenous people, campesinos and rebel army officers who took control of the Congress on January 21. They are in the process of trying to establish an alternative weekly newspaper, which is badly needed here (Gerard asked me to communicate that modest monetary contributions would be most welcome). Gerard is also an artist, who, inspired by my example, has taken up the work again. He recently exhibited in Quito drawings he had done at Central Tech in Toronto, and is developing a technique of making prints from raw potatoes!
4) a visit with Alicia Yanez, Ecuador’s finest woman novelist and a long time friend of Carmen. She is a delightful, iconoclastic and liberated woman in her early 70′s, and we had lunch at her home with her son, who is an actor. She loaned me a hardback copy of her one novel translated in English (Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City, Northwestern University Press), which, thanks to the second week, I had time to read.
5) visits with the two writers who had participated in the book presentation, Ivan Oñate and Simon Zavala. Both are recognized literary figures in Ecuador, the latter is also a lawyer, and it was he who wrote and delivered an essay on my artwork.
6) Ulises Estrella is a poet who is also the director of cinegraphic arts at the Casa de la Cutura. He took us on a tour of old Quito, and he also invited us to participate in a poetry workshop he coordinates, where Carmen was treated like a superstar.
7) a visit to the Municipal Museum to view an exhibit of the art of Ramón Piaguaje, the Secoya Indian from Ecuador who won the overall first prize in the Winsor and Newton international art competition. He was supposed to be there, but was unable to make it. The woman who coordinated the Ecuador aspect of the competition told of how it took nearly two months to find Ramón in the jungle to inform him of his success and to arrange for his trip to London to receive his prize from Diana’s ex-husband. I had hoped to meet Ramón because I had spent a couple of weeks with his people in the jungle in 1961, a few years before he was born. But I met a nephew of his who gave me the Secoya e-mail address!
8) visits with cousins of Carmen, Lupe and Patricia. Lupe’s current companion is an advisor to the Izquierda Democrática (Democratic Left) political party, which is more centrist than left. An ex-general, Paco Moncayo, who was an ID congressman and who supported the Indigenous uprising on January 21, was elected in May as Mayor of Quito with a huge majority. Patricia’s husband is a doctor who specializes in natural healing techniques. All very nice people.
9) a visit with Monica, a high school buddy of Carmen whom she hadn’t seen in over twenty years. We had dinner (seafood paella, yummmm) with her and her husband and three daughters. Jorge is an executive with Tesalia, which is a company that owns naturals springs and bottle and sell Tesalia (non-carbonated) and Guitig (carbonated) spring water. Sort of the Perrier of Ecuador.
10) I have been informally invited to exhibit now at the Casa de la Cultura in Quito as well as Cuenca. If I choose to follow up either or both invitations, I expect they will be confirmed and I will be kept busy at my easel for some time.
11) last but not least, the food, of course. I had one of the best chicken tamales ever and empanadas made of morocho, a local variety of maize (corn) that is large grained and white.
We returned to Guayaquil on Saturday accompanied by Alicia and Alejandra, and spent the night with them at Alicia’s parents’ house there. On Sunday we all took the bus to Playas, but unfortunately they could spend only one day with us as Alicia’s father took ill, and she needed to get back to Guayaquil.
I head back to Guayaquil tomorrow in hopes of picking up my t(rusty) 84 Chevy Trooper, which for nearly three months now has been getting a body overhaul and paint job (the body shop man, and that is a euphemism since there is no shop, he works on the street in front of his house, replaces the rusted out parts of the body, piece by piece, soldering on new metal – the cost is next to nothing by N. American standards (two hundred bucks), but I should end up having a like new body — on the car, that is).