Travels without a Donkey: Ecuador (1)

AS THE old adage goes, ´it´s been a long time between donkeys.´

As was bound to occur eventually we had our first bit of bad luck in six months travelling. We were robbed of our laptop, camera and basically everything else we had that was worth anything. It happened on a seven hour bus trip from Quito to a tiny village on the coast called Punta Blanca where we had signed up for a month´s volunteer work. In the somewhat shady outskirts of Quito three men boarded the bus separately. One of them appeared to be working for the bus, calling out the route and trying to get people on board (as they do here) and the other two sat behind us. We were in the first two seats enjoying the extra leg room when the first guy asked us to put our bags under the seats and out of the way, slightly aggressively, he did it for us. About ten minutes later the three guys got off. A further ten minutes later I grabbed my bag, thinking I could use the time on the bus to squeeze out a donkey, and found that most of our stuff was gone. The two guys behind us had taken everything of value and disappeared into the decaying suburbs.

There was nothing we could do. The driver wouldn´t go back for me to look for them. After three hours of discovering other things we had lost, and trying to remember what we had on memory stick and what we didn´t, we made it to Santo Domingo. Then we spent another three hours or so visiting three different types of police stations to finally get an official robbery report for travel insurance purposes. Three hours is about as long as you would want to spend in Santo Domingo. We have lost the last two months of photos apart from what is on TasTimes, interviews and writing. Bummer.
Colourful southern outskirts of Quito
Anyway apart from the three bastards that robbed us I have a very good feeling about Ecuador. Quito is a beautiful city with a lot going for it. It was once the northern capital of the Incas, who conquered the area about 70 years before the Spanish, and was later one of the most important cities of the Spanish empire.

Before the Incas the area was inhabited by the Quitus. The Incas basically enslaved the Quitus, as the Spanish would eventually enslave the Incas, and it is for this reason that the Spanish so easily conquered the area with so few numbers. The Spanish were able to exploit the huge discontent and hunger for freedom amongst the Quitus to gain their support in overthrowing the Incas. Due to this history Ecuador is rich in the monuments and artefacts of three distinct cultures – those of the pre-Inca cultures including the Quitus, Incan and Colonial Spanish.

Not far out of Quito are pre-Incan monuments to the sun and the moon and the equator, which incidentally the pre-Incan people had in the right place unlike the French of the 1800s who with much newer technology built equatorial monuments a kilometre away from the correct place.

The old centre of Quito, which has been a UNESCO site since the seventies, is an awesome example of a major Spanish colonial centre. With its churches in every block, painted building and steep little streets one could easily be in Segovia, Avila or Toledo in Spain. Heading south from the old centre the city gets poorer and poorer, and heading north it gets richer and richer. Like a mini-Caracas, Quito is a long narrow city flowing down a valley, though it´s much higher at about 2800m above sea level with nearby mountains topping 5000m. There´s a good atmosphere in the old town and despite its drawcards it hasn´t given over to tourist pandering (too much) as some places do.
Quito´s main square
Speaking of pandering to tourism the area La Mariscal in the north of Quito is the perfect place to observe the negative effects of tourism. The area is known by the locals as ´Gringo-landia´ due it being predominantly owned and enjoyed by Gringos (see Footnote). It is partly an area of homogenised bars, cafes and restaurants, in which everything is four or five times the price it is elsewhere in the city and is full of North Americans and Europeans, or upper class Ecuadorians mimicking them. The other side of La Mariscal is cheap, justified by its poor quality, and is frequented by local and foreign misfits, criminals, drunks and wasters. We have bumped into a few foreigners several times now who upon hearing English give you the same story each time of how they have run into some bad luck and just need a few dollars to get it sorted. As we have seen the same locals stumbling down the road muttering indecipherably many times.

It is a seedy and unattractive place, where the vices of several cultures meet. By all accounts it´s the easiest part of the city to get mugged and partake in eating, drinking, smoking and drugging too much. It is a soul-less place. In the morning police move-on the local homeless with batons, so that the ´Gringos´ have a nice corner to vomit in the following night.

A highlight of Quito was climbing the summit of Ruco Pichincha. In the indigenous language Quichua, ruco means father and Pichincha is the province. There is a smaller mountain nearby called Guagua Pichincha, guagua meaning baby in Quichua. From Quito you can get a cable-car from 2900m to 4100m above sea level then walk for a few hours to the top of Ruco Pichincha, which is about 4800m. It was a beautiful walk and it was strange seeing alpine plants similar to those in Tasmania, including large cushion plants, I suppose remnants of Gondwana Land.
Quito from the summit of Ruco Pichincha

Anna got to about 100m from the top when it got a bit sketchy. I kept on going, trying to follow a group of four ahead including a guy who was clearly a local guide. I was desperately trying to keep up as there were no markers on this last rocky section. The altitude seemed to have shrunk my lungs. The route got worse and worse, close to vertical climbing with a good hundred metre drop straight down below me. I started thinking something wasn´t right, but was more scared of trying to climb down than keeping going, as i was barely able to climb up. I was trying to stop my legs from trembling with fear as this was the last thing I needed. Suddenly, I climbed over one last section and was on top. Trying to stand so the group of four couldn´t tell my legs were shaking, I asked the guide, ´´Is this the normal route?´´

´´No, it´s the climbers route,´´ he answered. With the relief that I didn´t have to try and climb back down the same way I was able to enjoy the spectacular view of Quito far below and mountains in every direction, including snow-capped volcanos of over 5000m.

In Quito there is a huge19th century church and you can climb all its towers, including those with external ladders and the bell tower. It provides unique views of the city and of a church as you rarely get access to these parts of churches. As I conversed with vertigo for the second day in a row I couldn´t help thinking about the lack of OH and S in this part of the world and how you are still allowed to choose your own risks here.
High up a church spire
I have found that the one thing you can talk to any Ecuadorian about is football. Even though Ecuador missed out of qualifying for the World Cup by a point, everyone is excited about the coming world cup. Even the President, Correa, had said that everyone should be able to watch the world cup, not just those who can afford cable TV, and as such a state channel is showing every game live. Anywhere you go in Ecuador you see a ground and goals constructed out of whatever is available and people playing the beautiful game. Such is the passion that a taxi driver the other day told me that when Ecuador were playing England in the last world cup and suddenly had to score with five minutes to go that he was ´´vomiting blood´´ due to uncontrollable excitement.

The number of indigenous people in Quito strikes you after coming from Venezuela and El Salvador where there are fewer indigenous. Approximately 25 per cent of Ecuadorians are indigenous with the majority of the remaining being Mestizo. More on the indigenous and some currents issues concerning them in the next postcard to TasTimes, as well as Ecuador outside the capital and the inspiring artist Guayasamin.

I have heard three similar but different versions of the origin of the word ´Gringo´, perhaps you can help?

1. During one of the United States forays into Latin America a General Green was leading the US army and the locals would chant ´´Green-go, Green-go.´´

2. The ´green-go´ refers to the colour of US money and was chanted at US troops.

3. The ´green-go´ refers to the colour of the US army uniforms and was chanted at US troops.

In any case, the origin seems to be of wanting US troops out of Latin America. Unfortunately for us, ´Gringo´ is now generally used by locals to describe all white foreigners. However, it is used both in affectionate and unaffectionate terms.
Mount Cotopaxi from Ruco Pichincha