Friday, October 2, 2015

High In Quito

2 October 2015

We decided to take a break from travelling around Asia, and head to a different continent this year.  So we picked South America.  Mainly, the west coast.  And we started with Ecuador, because it's the beginning of spring here south of the equator.  We figured it would be warmer in the northern part of the southern hemisphere.

We knew Quito would be cool.  Maybe even chilly.  It's at a high elevation.  Turns out Quito is even colder than we expected.  (Good thing we both have cold weather clothes!)  We're wearing multiple layers, and sleeping under 3 blankets.  Yes, it's that cold!

The other big surprise about Ecuador is that several years ago they decided to use US dollars.  Really!  Although there are some Ecuadorean coins for change, but no bills.  All good old green US paper bills!

These photos are mostly taken from the terrace outside our room.  I love the varied colors of the houses in the old part of the city!

So, some facts:  The United Nations statistics website says that Ecuador has a population of roughly 16,342,000 people.  The city of Quito has 2,552,000 residents.  The largest city, Guayaquil, has a population of 2,589,000.  

Quito is the capital.  The elevation is 9,350 feet above sea level, or 2850 meters - making this officially the highest capital city in the world!  

The city is built on the eastern slopes of an active volcano, Volcan Pichincha, in the Andes mountains.  The last major eruption was in 1999 - prior to that, some time in the 1600s.  The two highest peaks of Pichincha are over 15,000 ft!  (We're hoping there isn't a major eruption while we're here!)

And yes, this is why we're cold!

Quito is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, one of the first to be named such in 1978.  The old part of the city is said to be one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas.  

The Quitu tribe settled in the area of modern Quito over 1,000 years ago, and were eventually taken over by the Caras tribe who established the Kingdom of Quito in (about) 980 Common Era.  There were epic battles with neighboring empires, most notably the Incas, who consolidated the Kingdom of Quito into the Incan Empire, approximately in the 1460-70s.  

Then the Spanish conquistadors showed up, and conquered the Incan Empire by 1534.  The Colonial Era began, with the indigenous peoples being subjugated, killed off by European diseases, forced to do the physical labor for the Spanish, all that.  And converted to Catholicism.  

In 1809, an independence movement began, and a plan for an independent government established.  Spanish troops were brought in from Peru and the independence movement was defeated.  Conflicts continued until 1822, when the independence troops, under the command of Simon Bolivar, finally were victorious, and the area around Quito was declared an independent state.  Various fights continued, civil war broke out, but by the early 1900s the modern nation of Ecuador was established.

Okay, enough history.  Modern times.  We're here now, and definitely feeling the effects of the altitude.  Mild altitude sickness.  We booked our hotel for two weeks, knowing that there's an adjustment period while bodies get used to thinner air and less pressure.  We have no idea what the average time for adjustment might be.  And some people feel no effects.

We, however, are both feeling the altitude.  I suspect our age doesn't help with the body re-adjusting to the elevation.  Nor does my asthma.  So we both get short of breath and feel our hearts pounding and racing after only a short walk.  The hills around here are killer.

We're doing all the recommendation things - take it easy.  Walk a bit slower than normal.  Stay hydrated - this is an arid climate, despite the daily rain and thunderstorms.  Get plenty of sleep.  Eat a bit lighter than we might otherwise.  Take it easy, rest, and don't push ourselves until we feel that we're breathing normally.

The headaches are gone, we both just breathe as if we've run marathons when all we did was walk up the one block hill from town.  If our symptoms continue too much longer, or get worse, we'll consult medical people.  There are medications that help with altitude sickness, or drinking the local coca tea.  We'll do something.

Anyway, we're both enjoying exploring Quito.  Our hotel is on the outskirts of the old city, so it's a short walk into the main part.  We're learning our way around.

Our room is technically a suite, since one corner is a small kitchen.  We have lovely wooden doors, inside and out, as well as leaded glass windows.  Beds are covered with two wool blankets and striped quilts for the cold nights.  And we have a huge terrace outside our room, used by other guests at the hostal but usually empty.  Right outside our door we have an araucarias tree, one of those cool trees we learned about in New Caledonia, the kind that date back to the time of the dinosaurs.

I should have taken a few photos of our room, but we were exhausted when we arrived - our flight left Newark at 6 AM, we changed planes in Miami, and we were just tired!  

But the hotel is Hostal Margarita 2 - and Hostal Margarita is in back, connected on our level by a bridge.  Yes, a bridge five storeys above the courtyard.  Neither of us wants to walk across.  But there's a wonderful brick oven or grill over there, though we haven't seen it in use.

We decided to explore a bit further than our neighborhood, and tried to find the tourist information center.  Our Spanish isn't great, so even when we ask a question we don't understand the entire answer, especially if it gets to be complicated directions.  (It took asking four or five people to find the bank, and that was with a map in hand!)

Well, we never did find the info center.  But we found the Basilica del Sagrado Voto Nacional, the Basilica of the National Vow.  With Catholicism being the predominant religion, there are tons of old churches and a few cathedrals throughout the city.  In the hierarchy of the church, a basilica is more important that a cathedral, which is more important than a church.  A basilica has certain ceremonial rights bestowed by the Pope, which other houses of worship do not have.

So, this basilica.  It was gorgeous!  Designed in the late 1800s by a French architect, it was completed in the early 1900s when the attached Heart of Mary cathedral was finished.

The architect apparently had a sense of humor - you know how most churches have gargoyles, those scary creatures that are supposed to frighten parishioners into good behavior, but also serve as rain spouts off the roof?  Well, this basilica has gargoyles that are really the various animals indigenous to Ecuador.  We especially enjoyed the huge tortoises of the Galapagos featured here!

(I have to add that we met a few young tourists and chatted with them - the young man from England took a few photos of the tortoises, because he has a pet turtle at home.  And he wants to show his pet turtle the gargoyle turtles/tortoises.  I loved it!)

The interior was even more spectacular than the outside of the building!  For people who don't know the structure of Catholic churches, cathedrals, basilicas, most have a floor plan something like the shape of a cross, with the very long main part of the building crossed by a shorter bar, which usually houses various chapels.  In fact, most of these huge places have tons of chapels inside, featuring various saints, or graves of important people of the church, or even those rather creepy relics (the finger of some saint or something).  

In this basilica, there were huge stained glass rose windows (the giant round windows) at each end of the cross, so four rose windows.  In between, there were more stained glass windows featuring various stories from Jesus' life, each with beautiful flowers and almost canopies over the figures.  Really gorgeous windows.  

The vaulted ceilings soared overhead, with crisscrossing ribs.  The main seating area was defined by arches, which led to all those chapels and the windows beyond.  

I think where the priest would lead the Mass was in the center of the cross, there was a round raised floor with some tables and lecterns, so that's my guess.

So, I'm sure some people are wondering how I know so much about Catholic churches, and why I was visiting this basilica.  I'm a retired art teacher, and the art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe was mostly sponsored by the church, which was only Catholic at the time.  That's how I know so much about the architecture and iconography.

As for visiting a basilica, to me it's just like visiting Angkor Wat.  Or the Buddhist temples in Thailand.  Or the stupas and pagodas of Myanmar.  I see all of these as part of the human need to understand our place in the universe, which usually includes a sense of deity greater than ourselves.  And that we humans create edifices to show our belief and faith, we give the best and most precious to our deity.  In all the places we've visited, all the cultures we've been involved in, this seems to be universal.  

I appreciate the human effort and ingenuity in creating these edifices, these places of worship.  I enjoy the sense of peace and tranquility within.  I appreciate the beauty created in the name of religion, whether I agree with the religion or not.  And rather than seeing the differences that divide our religions and cultures, that cause fighting and war and discrimination, I see the commonalities and similarities that bind us as human beings.

I think that's one of the biggest concepts I've taken away from our previous three years of travel, and that will probably continue to be reinforced as we travel this new continent - people are people, wherever we are and whatever we look like.  We all have the same emotions, pretty much the same thoughts, and want similar things out of life: we want to be successful, to be accepted as individuals, to be loved, to be part of a family, maybe to be famous, maybe to have children, maybe to create something that will last beyond our lifetime.  What changes is the way this is expressed, colored by the culture in which we live.

So that was our first few days in Ecuador, our fourth year of travel.


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