Sunday, October 7, 2007

Avenue of the Volcanoes, Ecuador

The descent into Quito was brief, since the city sits 2 miles in the air. The plane approached the airport from the north, slipping past the line of volcanoes that stretch the length of the Andean plateau. Upon landing I hopped into the hotel van. At the first red light, a man popped in front of the van, drank deeply from a glass bottle filled with clear liquid, and with a flick of a lighter, blew a 6 foot flame. The next day a talented pair of jugglers tried a similar but less spectacular ploy for getting cash from drivers who were waiting for the light to change.

Quito is a city of two million people, who have cast a net of irregular roads over a mountain valley. The spaghetti bowl of streets is jammed with cars, trucks and buses. The clouds of exhaust and the low regard of drivers for pedestrians makes walking through town an unappealing option.

But I didn’t know the disadvantages of walking until I had committed to seeing the town on foot. There are a number of grand churches, and graceful plazas in Quito, but it is the light that is the most striking. Because of the altitude, the sunlight is blue-white like the blinding light of a welder’s arc.

At the edge of the Plaza Grande, under an enormous stone cross, is the entrance to an Andy Warhol exhibition. Armed guards are posted at the entrance. Since militia have been present at most every museum and store I have entered, I asked an Ecuadorian friend what this was all about. He said that armed gangs of Columbians have entered the country and will rob any place with cash on the premises. I asked an American who lives here the same question, and he said that it is armed gangs of Ecuadorians who are the thieves. In this version the Columbians have become a convenient scapegoat for home grown problems resulting from extreme educational and economic inequities. The truth most likely lies between the two accounts.

I passed on the Andy Warhol, but I had a wonderful visit to the Banco Central Del Ecuador Museo Nacional, which houses a collection of Ecuadorian art from the Pre-Columbian to the present. The collection of pre-colonial Ecuadorian sculpture is thrilling. There is a clay plaque of a family -- Mom, Dad and the kids, with arms thrown around each other, looking like a snapshot from a happy holiday. Nearby there is a long-necked vessel, whose base is a full-size, human foot, with fat, wiggling toes. And there is this wonderful being above (La Tolita Region), with snakes and gnarly teeth, whose faceted face supports the notion that representation of multiple times and spaces is not unique to the cubists. Since I know nothing about these cultures, I can’t say more than that I admire the intelligent and inventive representation of human passion.

The modern representation of passion is less convincing.

But fortunately, there is love in the streets of Ecuador. So skip the modern art collections.

David handles the communications and bookings for Cabanas that is my ultimate destination and he kindly offered to show me around the Andean Plateau which has…

lovely lakes and llamas by fertile fields and cloud capped volcanoes.
We drove to the market in Otavalo to look around.

David pointed out a chess set of Incas and Conquistadors.

The collection of turtle shells and human skulls was eye catching as was…

the array of cooking spoons and …

the people who know things I can’t imagine.

We drove to Ibarra for lunch, and ate in a mall. The mall could have been anywhere in the world, except that the fast food restaurant served ceviche. Ibarra is known for it’s annual fox hunt, which was happening as we arrived. The event is modeled on the English sport, but in this version the fox is replaced by a masked bandit and the riders’ pinks are exchanged for South American cowboy gear. The event is popular with young people who turn out for massive tailgate parties that extend into a night of dancing.

On the return to Quito, I stood on the equator, one foot in the North and the other in the South.

It was a miraculous day.

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