Wednesday, January 22, 2014

South of the equator: Quito and Cuenca

Almost a week ago I left Lubbock on my first trip of the year. After 16 continuous days in the Hub City, it was about time to change the scenery, just a tad at least. American Airlines reliably transported me to Quito, Ecuador, just a smidgen south of the equator, and yes, the scenery was indeed different.
The venue of the races that I attended
I had been to Ecuador before, once riding my Bike Friday for about a month all over the northern part of the country, and the second time together with Judy, hitting some of the most scenic little towns and markets in the highlands. Both of those trips took place in the ‘90s. Now, about 15 years later, change is evident down here, too: The trucks belch out less pollution, there are many more new, expensive cars on the streets, and the denomination no longer is the Sucre but rather the Dollar.
The nature of competition: One second in the lead ...
... and the next on the ground
The reason for my going to Quito was an assignment to a bike race, and for a few days I was busy with that. I met some very nice people, among them the chancellor of one of the private universities here, UIDE, and the head of the fledgling English department at the university. We talked about the possibility of teaching here for a semester or two, and in the coming months I will certainly look into this, although my 2014 schedule is already chockfull until the fall. We’ll see.
Tempers flared at the awards, and the law was dispatched
Post-race plastic water bottle recycling
The race was interesting. I have always enjoyed the South- and Latin American mentality as far as time and obligations are concerned. A lot of nodding will accompany one’s request for this or that, but when the time gets close for delivery, nothing will have happened. With the clock ticking, and the pressure mounting, action suddenly starts up, and before you know it, whatever looked impossible just 15 minutes ago has been delivered, after all. And so it was here as well. One just needs to have faith. Lots.
Ingenious electrical work in front of my hotel window
Election time in Ecuador—no shootings were reported

I did not stay in Quito proper but rather in one of the surrounding ‘burbs or whatever one wants to call Cumbaya. It is closer to the newly built airport than Quito, and the hotel was only 25 minutes from the venue while accommodations in Quito would have meant an hour or more in stop-and-go traffic. There was nothing scenic about Cumbaya, and the hotel was noisy yet clean. This was, after all, a business trip. A driver would pick me up at the hotel, drive me to the UIDE campus where the track was located, and at the end of the day I’d be chauffeured back to Cumbaya. An easy life!
Felipe, Loyal, Carlos, moi, and Peter, after the race
Modern bike rack in Cumbaya
Students at the San Francisco de Quito university relax with a bit of beer
On Monday, after finishing off the business side of the trip, I took a flight on TAME from Quito to Cuenca, a city in the southern part of Ecuador that I had not visited before. As a World Heritage City, Cuenca often is referred to as the “Athens of Ecuador” for its nice climate and pretty colonial architecture. Here I was going to while away three more days before returning on Thursday to the US. Well, this plan has been modified as my Thursday flight out of Cuenca, on LAN Ecuador, has been cancelled, and American had to rebook me for a Friday return. So, I will spend an extra night here in the lovely Hotel de las Rosas. American has already remunerated me with a flight voucher worth $300 for my next flight. That pretty much takes care of my four-day private vacation.
The one-hour flight cost $45
Approaching Cuenca—the airport is in the middle of town
I thought we were going to land on somebody's roof!
Today is Wednesday, and I am writing part of this blog entry after having my breakfast in this wonderful little hotel. I had chosen it before coming down here based on Tripadvisor reviews, and I have to say: well worth the money! The days of finding a clean and comfortable hotel for $10 here in Ecuador are over, and the $55 that I pay per night is definitely on the upper scale of prices. But (after a first night facing the street) I have been put into an incredibly nice room with a comfortable bed, superior bathroom, and private roof-top terrace that couldn’t be much better. It is quiet, and the noise from the city no longer bothers me. (That was definitely a problem in Cumbaya as well, where I had to sleep with ear-plugs.) When one returns from sightseeing in the afternoon, fruit, cake and a fresh cup of coffee wait, and at night they lovingly put a hot-water bottle into one’s bed! The breakfast is outstanding, the people super-friendly, and only the internet has incessant hiccups that make checking e-mail and posting blog entries a bit of a pain.
My room in the Casa de las Rosas
This particular entry will not feature any references or pictures related to food or drink—that will be reserved for my second Ecuador blog entry. Rather, I’ll try to let you know what one can do around here and what there is to see. Cuenca was founded in 1557 by the Spaniards, so much of the architecture and of course the layout of at least the old part of town reflects that. When I flew in I could see all those big churches sticking out of the sea of red tile roofs. Narrow streets, incessant bus, taxi, and private traffic, pedestrians, street vendors, and stray dogs all mingle. The hair is dark, and the faces more often than not mestizo or indigenous. It's your typical South American street scene: seeming chaos that is well regulated. After now two days and many walks I have figured out that the street vendors have their own spots, that the policemen really don't do anything but be present, and that the beggars beg along established routes. It's nice to be in a place and start noticing the routines so quickly.
A guinea pig rotisserie for your backyard BBQ enjoyment
The fruit selection is amazing
Potatoes anyone?
Yesterday, on my first full day here in Cuenca, I spent most of the day walking around, visiting various museums. The major one is the Museo Pumapungo, which has a fabulous ethnographic collection. Man, the diversity of indigenous cultures down here is mind boggling! There are the highlands, there's the coast, and then of course there is el oriente, the tropical rainforests on the east side of the Andes that are part of the vast Amazon basin. Even now, there are small enclaves of tribes with fewer than a 1,000 members in fairly close proximity of Quito and other large cities. I found all this extremely fascinating. Here we are in the 3rd millenium, and there are real "Indians" just a few kilometers away! Actually, one can see them in the market, too, but the ones that come to town regularly obviously have been much assimilated.
Picture of a photo of one of the tribes—los Tsatchila-colorados
Another thing that intrigued me was the symbiosis between man and nature in these cultures—the way the communities work their land, the way they feed, clothe, and cure themselves. There is so much that is on the brink of extinction, and it's so easy to forget that sitting in our smug little houses in the civilized world.
The museum has a wide range of exhibits
What would talking about Amazonian tribes be without mentioning shrunken heads, right? Well, the Museo Pumapungo did not disappoint: On display were four or five tsantsas. I didn't know anything about the Shuar culture, which is responsible for all those gruesome tales. For one, women, children, and white people were never shrunk because the Shuar deemed all of them inferior. Heads were only taken (and then shrunk) in retribution for an illegal killing of a person. Obviously there are a bunch of rituals, shamanism, and hallucinogenics involved in the whole thing. If you want more info, you should be able to Google those two terms, or just come down here and visit the museo.
Shrunken head from the Shuar culture
This (free!) museum is built on the grounds of the old Tumipampa or Tomebamba, as the Inca referred to this site. Earlier it had been inhabited by the Canari, who called it Guapdondelig. The few ruins are well restored and maintained, and large gardens and even exhibits of local birds round out this feeling of being moved back into a different world. This museum is highly recommendable, and I didn't even mention some of the modern art.
Fausto Bravo's Tres Marias, in the Museo Pumapungo
So, in the interest of the reader who has already spent 20 minutes poring over this and the progress of time here this morning, let me close things down for today (especially since the internet connection has horrible hick-ups): So far I have spent 1 1/2 immensely enjoyable days here in Cuenca, and there is more to come. Tune back in for a food-dedicated entry in the next day or two—you won't be disappointed. And please check out a few more of the pics below.


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