Friday, October 9, 2015

Faces of The Volcano

9 October 2015

I find the people of Ecuador to be endlessly fascinating.  The population is a mix of the various indigenous nations, other conquering groups from nearby cultures over the centuries, and then the Spanish conquistadors.  

The faces range from blandly European to very Spanish to perhaps a face straight out of an El Greco painting, with aquiline features, pale skin, and dark mournful eyes.  

Then there are the various indigenous groups, some native to Ecuador, some the conquering Incas.  Skin tones range from a lovely soft creamy café au lait beige, to deep coppery sienna.  Dark eyes that are sparkling with laughter, or gazing beyond the here and now and searching through the millenia.  Noses that are almost Asian, round and broad, or noses that could be carved from mountain stone.  At times I think I'm looking at an Incan prince or princess, at other times perhaps a mask from the Aztec empire.  Really, I could look at people all day long.

And the clothes!  I try to compliment some of the women on their fabulous clothes - one group of women wear white blouses with embroidery, and long dark skirts, often with colorful scarves or wraps.  Another culture features black or red ponchos or ruanas, along with the wool felted fedora, often with a peacock feather tucked in the band.  And today, I met several women who have dark knife-pleated skirts, knee length, with knee socks, a colorful cardigan, the fedora, and always a long braid down their backs.  I've learned to say "Las ropas es muy linda" which is a grammatically not so great way of saying "The clothes are very pretty."  (I'm not sure how to say "your" in the polite form, as when speaking to strangers.)  But I get smiles, nods, and a brief connection.

We've spent the past few days wandering around Quito - our neighborhood, the old city, the Plaza del Teatro, and today, la Plaza Grande.  More beautiful buildings, more friendly people and lovely clothes, more shy people who said no to a photo, and more wonderful food.  We're both enjoying the food of Ecuador, or at least in Quito.  Coffee is grown here, as well as cacao, and a cafeteria means a coffee shop, not a buffet-style place to eat.

As part of our way of dealing with the effects of the altitude, we not only are walking more slowly.  We're exploring more slowly.  We've started sitting in cafés watching the people in the café, on the street, in the buses, just slowly sipping our coffee or tea and watching life around us.  Maybe this is also part of the culture here, we see other people just hanging around a café or park.  Okay, most of those people are older than we are.  Or perhaps they are our age but look older than we do.  Always difficult to tell, the sun here most likely ages skin more quickly than in northern climes and lower altitudes.  But we're jubilados, retired people, so we qualify for lounging at the café.

The Plaza del Teatro is gorgeous, a large plaza with the National Theatre building making one side of the square.  The theatre itself is a neo-classical building with Ionic columns, colonnades, and a frieze featuring Apollo with his lyre, toga-wrapped figures who might be other gods or goddess, or perhaps demi-gods, or even actors and actresses.  

The official name is the Teatro Sucre, Señor Sucre being one of the military men who fought with Simon Bolivar for independence.  The building was completed in 1887.  Prior to the construction of the theatre, this square was referred to as the Butcher's Plaza, where meat was traded and bought.  So the building of the theatre was seen as the beginning of culture (European, that is) in Ecuador.

My favorite part of Plaza del Teatro, however, was the wonderful water fountain.  This is a lovely pre-Columbian style stone frog, pouring water into the basin.  Somewhat whimsical, totally culturally appropriate in Ecuador, and a nod (however small) to the traditional art of Ecuador.  I just loved this!

In our search for a way to deal with our issues with the altitude, we've visited several pharmacies.  Our request consists of first asking, in Spanish, for a pill for vertigo - but to be sure it is understand that we're talking about altitude sickness, not dizziness, then we go into an alternating Spanish and mime sort of charade.  Holding a spinning head and saying No esto, fingers walking for en la camino (on the road), and then a final altitudo to emphasize that we're sick from the altitude, not dizzy in general.  (No one has laughed at us yet.  And yes, this is mostly me acting this out.)  I've received medication that is given in the US for actual dizziness vertigo; a B complex pill which I'm taking (it can't hurt!); and today, finally, from a vendor at the plaza, coca leaves to make tea.  This is the traditional remedy, often touted in off-the-beaten-track tour guides and recommended by other travellers.  So I'll try some coca leaf tea tomorrow morning, and report back.

Today we went to la Plaze Grande, along with a good portion of Quito's population.  Today is Guayaquil Independence Day.  Guayaquil (pronounced GWI-a-keel) is the largest city in Ecuador, and today marks the day the city and surrounding region won independence from Spain in 1820.  History is never far away, we are finding - and while this isn't the national independence day, it still is a national holiday.  The government is closed, various businesses closed early, and many people are off from work.  

And as most days this time of year in Quito (summer), the morning and early afternoon were warm and sunny.  Well, warm is a relative term; the high is maybe 70-75 F (20-22.5 C).  Given that nights drop to 40-something F (5-8C), that daytime high feels positively toasty.

Crowds gathered on this sunny Guayaquil day, with children playing in the parks, adults strolling along, everyone eating ice cream (which never seems to melt despite the almost-warmth).  

And bands!  We encountered a wonderful band at Plaza Grande, a group of men earnestly singing to the crowds, accompanied by a trumpet, a guitar or two, and an accordian.  No idea what the songs were about, our Spanish isn't that good, but the songs seemed popular and familiar to the audience, and everyone cheered and applauded each song as it began and again when it ended.

There was another small group, two older men with guitars, and a friend singing along.  They were also good, but not as flashy as the younger group in coordinated clothes and with more instruments.  

Check out this child sleeping in the cleaning cart!  His mother was sweeping up the trash, and I guess this was the best way of keeping her napping kidlet nearby.  A woman went over to ensure the child was breathing, since the head was under a blanket.  She noticed I was watching, and told me this was "cochire del niño" or something like that - bed of the child, I guessed.





There was some excitement at our hotel a few nights ago.  First, the terrace outside our room was enclosed with plastic siding that actually had windows.  Chairs and benches were arranged facing forward, and a table was set with candles and flowers.  We asked, thinking perhaps this was for a wedding (how exciting!).  It turned out that this was for a church service, sort of a thanksgiving Mass to the Virgin Mary who, we were told, bestows miracles to the people of Quito.  The one young woman working at the hotel who speaks English came and said we might be disturbed, but we were welcome to join the service, they would be happy to have us.  It's always difficult to explain that we're Jewish, so I just thanked her and said we might.  However, I asked what they would do with the flowers after the service, and she promised we could have one arrangement.  (Art teachers learn to scrounge!)

The music was actually quite lovely, all these voices singing in Spanish and accompanied by an acoustic guitar.  And then, suddenly, there was a familiar tune - wait, no, it couldn't be - yes, Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" in Spanish?!?!  Really?  Seriously?

Okay, after my niece who lived in Chile said she heard this in Valparaiso, too, and she thought the words were from a hymn or psalm, I did some research.  (She's fluent in Spanish, so I know she understood the words and would have a better clue than I did.)  And so, I present to you the South American version of the Lord's Prayer, Our Father Who Art In Heaven, sung in Spanish, to the melody of "Sounds of Silence."  (And can't you just picture some hippie priest in 1968 or so bringing this melody to South America???)

Okay, the volcano.  Ecuador stands right on the equator, and has distinct topographic regions.  There's the Pacific coast, the highlands (really the foothills to the Andes), the Andes themselves, and then to the east the Amazon jungle.  Ecuador is the fourth-smallest South American country, just under 110,000 sq miles (283,560 sq km).  There are 28 - 28!!! - volcanoes on the mainland.  And another 15 volcanoes among the Galapagos Islands.  So that's 43 volcanoes in this little country!

Obviously, not all the volcanoes are active.   (Officially speaking, only 26 are active.)  Some might even be extinct.  But others are quite active, and there are current alerts.

Quito is built on one of those active volcanoes, Volcan Pichincha.  That's one of the reasons that Quito is so hilly, with streets that stop and turn into steep flights of stairs.  (The other reason is that we're in the Andes here.  So of course it's steep and hilly!)

We look across at Volcan Pichincha, and the cable cars or tram that climb the mountain so that tourists can walk up to the caldera and peer in.  This is another 6000 feet above most of Quito, it turns out.  So that would be another few atmospheres lighter, thus more difficult for those of us who seem to feel the effects of the altitude.  Not that I enjoy riding hanging cable cars or trams or hanging from a wire.  No, I'll skip going up Pichincha.

But we see the cable cars (called a teleferico in Spanish) going up and down every day.  Difficult to photograph, so I've labelled this for you.

We can even see the lights of the teleferico at night!  (The little row of lights going diagonally up the mountain, on the right side of the first night photo.)

That's the excitement in Quito at the moment.  We'll see what other activities we find, maybe a market of local arts and crafts over the weekend, or some interesting foods we haven't tried.

And I'll let you know how my black market coca leaf tea goes!

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