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Adventure in the Andes December 29, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
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(An e-mail letter sent to family and friends in June of 2000 that describes our first visit to the lovely city of Cuenca, often referred to as the cultural capital of the country.  Cuenca, a city of some 400,000 is Ecuador’s third largest, is located in the Andes cordillera southeast of Guayaquil.

 

The city’s cobblestone streets, towering cathedrals, and marble and whitewashed buildings give it a colonial air. The city’s history is well preserved, earning Cuenca the honor of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site.

 

According to studies and archeological discoveries, the origins of the first inhabitants go back to the year 8060 BC in the Cave of Chopsi. They were hunters, hunting everything the Paramo (neotropical ecosystem) offered them, and also nomads moving from one place to other. Tools like arrows and spears, found throughout the Andean alley are signs of the beginning of this culture. Their presence dates back to approximately 5585 BC.  The modern city was founded in 1557 by the Spanish explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos.

 

The occasion of our visit was the presentation of Carmen’s book of poetry, “Aguaje,” which I had illustrated. Along with the typical Ecuadorian book launching where the work is analyzed by eminent literary figures, there was a slide show of my illustrations.  The illustrations appear in black and white in the book, but for the purpose of the various launchings (Guayaquil and Quito in addition to Cuenca), I had worked for several months to create paintings and different forms of print art – silk screen, wood cut, linoleum, and colography – based upon the drawings.  Only in Guayaquil were the originals of these works displayed.)

 

We were to return to Cuenca the following year for another exhibition of my art work in the main gallery of the city’s Casa de la Cultura.) 

 

Here is more than you ever wanted to know about our week in the Sierra.

 

We left Playas for Guayaquil on Saturday, planning to run some errands there and leave for Cuenca on Monday.  When we arrived at the bus terminal in Guayaquil and inquired about transportation to Cuenca, we were reminded that a two day strike was planned for Monday and Tuesday, and, that if we wanted to get to Cuenca before Wednesday, we had better travel the next day, i.e., Sunday (the strike was organized by the organization of Indigenous evangelicals in protest of the government’s dollarization policy and a recent 80% increase in the price of gasoline — when Indigenous groups go on strike here they effectively block highways, if you can call them that, between major cities.  A major nationwide general strike is scheduled for June15/16 organized by a wide coalition of labor and community organizations).

 

So, on Saturday, we cut short or plans in Guayaquil and visited our car (84 Chevy Trooper) to check on its progress.  It is having its rotted out body largely replaced and painted.  This will take about six weeks.  Our body shop man doesn’t actually have a shop, he works on the street in front of his house — keeps the overhead down.  He welds sheet metal pieces to the car where the metal is rusted out, will be replacing maybe 50 or 60 percent of the entire body.  It will be nice, when the job is finished, to be able to travel without the road visiting us from below.  It will also be nice to be able to close and lock the doors.

 

We took a noon bus to Cuenca on Monday.  Cuenca, I am guessing, lies about 150 miles southeast of Guayaquil – check your maps – and is about a four hour trek from GQ (3 1/2 on the return as there is more descending than climbing).  The bus line we chose takes the most direct route which involves a rather steep ascent in to the Sierra.  We travel from the coastal plain into the tropical highlands and finally into the heart of the Andes cordillera.  The two lane highway is in good condition for the most part, but there are a few sections that were totally washed out by El Niño and others that were destroyed by landslides.  Even though this was nearly two years ago, repairs are still not complete, government officials too busy carrying suitcases full of money to Miami to bother with such trifles.

 

The only nervous moment occurred when we were climbing a steep grade where there was only a single unpaved lane in one of the damaged areas.  Before we could regain the two lane highway we met oncoming traffic and had to back down to where we entered into one lane.  I had a sudden religious conversion and successfully prayed for the bus’ brakes to be in good condition.  With only about a meter of earth between the highway and the abyss, this is no time to be picky about one’s atheism.

 

The climb must have taken us to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level before we descended into the valley wherein lies the ancient city of Cuenca at about 8,000 feet.  It is Ecuador’s third largest city, considered to be the “cultural capital” of the country, with a population, I am guessing again, of about a half million.  It is certainly the most beautiful city I have seen by far, sort of like Quito but without the urban sprawl.  The architecture is mostly Spanish Colonial, lots of churches, tile roof houses, narrow cobblestone streets in the old part of town.  From where we stayed it was about a ten minute walk to the center of the old city, we crossed the Tomebamba River, about fifteen meters wide, and climbed about thirty meters of steps up the steep escarpment to reach the level of the old city.  Along that escarpment, overlooking the river, are some incredibly beautiful homes.

 

Where we stayed (the long version): Carmen was raised in Machala a tropical city near the border with Peru.  Her father was a much respected banker there and was close friends with a wealthy rancher who had nine children, some of whom were Carmen’s age.  This family has a vacation home in Cuenca, and this is where we stayed.  Imagine a two story home that would not be out of place in Rosedale or Brentwood on about a half acre of tropical landscape, large enough to house a family of eleven, ideally located a stone’s throw from the heart of the city.

 

The house is tended to by Maria, an employee of the family who was brought from Machala fifteen years ago for that purpose.  She lives there with her two children (no father in the picture, surprise, surprise), Carlos, who is in his final year of university, studying business administration, and Patricia, who is in her final year of high school and also wants to go into BizAd.  A very pleasant family.  Maria is warm and intelligent, and has a flourishing business as a seamstress on the side (the owner family, however, is thinking of selling the house, and she worries about what will happen to her).  I think that Maria and family appreciated that we treated them as people, not servants (which is what they are accustomed to), took meals with them and shared in the kitchen chores (I taught all three of them to make pancakes, oatmeal cookies and homentashen — Patricia now plans to bake cookies and sell them at school).

 

The Climate: similar to that of Quito, a sort of perpetual spring.  The temperature can rise as high as 23C (mid to high 70sF) and go well below 10C (50F) at night.  Days are characterized by instability.  When the sun is out and the sky is clear; it is like the most beautiful spring day imaginable.  But the clouds come and go, sometimes bringing rain this time of the year, and in a matter of minutes it can go from short sleeves to jacket weather.  I am told that it never snows in the valley but there are sometimes sleet storms.

 

Most homes, including the one we stayed in, have no heating systems.  It never quite warms up from the cold nights, and one always needs to be wearing a sweater indoors.  At night it can really feel cold as the indoor temperature must go down below 15C (60F), and we slept comfortably only under four heavy wool blankets.

 

Cuenca is served by ice cold mountain water that you can actually drink from the tap.  The downside for us was that the hot water system in the house was not working which made normal showering unpleasant to contemplate.  Instead we heated water on the stove and bathed ourselves in the wash basin in the laundry room.  Our first night we discovered a leaking pipe in the bathroom. When I got up for a the middle of the night to visit to the bathroom I was greeted by a puddle of ice cold water.  That was a bad as it got.

 

The event, our presentation of our book, “Aguaje,” in the Casa de la Cultura, took place on Thursday.  We arrived several days in advance in order to arrange interviews and media coverage and to ensure that all logistics were in place.  Both Cuenca dailies gave us good coverage and we were interviewed on both the local radio and TV station.  Cuenca is laid out in the traditional Spanish colonial model: large square plaza (park) in the center of town with the main church on one side, government and culture (museums, etc.) on the other sides.  The Casa de la Cultura is right on the square, ideally located.

 

The event was not as well attended as we had hoped.  In addition to the rain that evening, there was a demonstration by the teachers’ union (damn selfish teachers think they should earn more than forty dollars a month, and what’s more they expect to get paid on time – imagine!) blocked a main entrance to the old city.  But the program itself was most successful.  Two of Ecuador’s finest novelists eulogized Carmen’s poetry, and the director of a major international art biennial gave a warm and positive review of my illustrations.  We did a slide show of my art, and that was also well received.  After the event, about fifteen fellow poets and artists joined us at a lovely quaint bar/cafe, the Rueda (Wheel), where we enjoyed drinks, snacks and music until after two in the am.

 

The drink of the night was the traditional Cuenca canelaso, a drink served warm in a ceramic pot a la Japanese sake.  It is made up of canela (unrefined cane sugar), aguardiente (an alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane), juice from the naranjilla (a tropical fruit native to Ecuador) and lime.  The two pitchers of canelaso on our table somehow never seemed to empty the entire evening.  It is one of those drinks where you don’t notice the effect it has on you until you try to stand up.  I wondered how this feast was going to be financed and whispered the question to Carmen.  She replied that we would all contribute.  But as the night wore on, one by one members of the party drifted away, and I noticed no cash was left on the table with which to help with the inevitable final reckoning.  I got really worried when the number of us at the table dwindled down to a handful.  We were bailed out in the end by Pepe Serrano, an old friend of Carmen’s who is a judge and the uncle of Ecuador’s ex vice president, Rosalía Arteaga, who picked up the check.

 

Hernán Illescas is a Cuenca artist I met in Toronto last summer where we both were exhibiting.  We became friends then, and during our visit in Cuenca we spent some time with him and his wife Mariela.  That night at the Rueda, he had brought along his cousin, Miguel, who is a sculptor and musician.  When the house musicians took a break, he went up to their stage, borrowed a guitar, and began singing at the microphone.  Before long the rest of the band joined in, and they played together the rest of the evening.

 

During our free time we mainly walked around the old town, passing through the narrow streets, occasionally stopping to browse a shop or enter into a street market.  We also spent a good deal of time sipping cappuccino with Carmen’s poet friends.  We visited museums, art galleries, and a few churches (I am of the “you-seen-one-you-seen-them-all” school of ecclesiastical architecture).  The day following the book presentation we met with the president of the Casa de la Cultura who invited me to present my portfolio the their committee in order to arrange for an exhibition there next year.

 

We made the trip back to Playas in one six hour stint, changing at the terminal in GQ for the home stretch to Playas.

 

It is good to be home.  I will miss the beauty of the Andes, but not the weather.

Adventure in the Andes 2 December 28, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes 2, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
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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).

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