Adventure in the Andes December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
Tags: aguaje, canelaso, carmen vascones, casa cultura, cuenca, Ecuador, ecuador art, ecuador culture, ecuador travel, hernan illescas, pepe serrano, roger hollander, rosalia arteaga
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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.