Wednesday, September 30, 2009


How is it that in a new city even the most mundane tasks transform into adventures? I had to get some bloodwork done, and Erika convinced me that I need not go to a doctor, that with a form she has from her grandmother's medical file, I could simply go to a laboratory and order and interpret my own lab reports. So that is what I did. Erika drove me to the lab which was located near the Plaza de Toros. The lab was tiny with a small foyer and an attached medical suite. There was no wait, in fact, the laboratory assistant took me before others waiting ahead of me, perhaps because I was a paying customer. All was routine, except that when I tried to pay with a credit card, I was told that although there was a sign proudly informing me that Amex was accepted, because I had an 'international' card (are there any other Amex cards?) I would have to pay cash. This is an issue because we are very tight for 'effectivo' since Eric's robbery experience. He has spoken to his bank countless times to arrange for a replacement card, but the last we heard was that the Fedex package was in El Salvador!!! I gave the lab technician my precious dollar bills and had the blood work.

I woke up early to pick up the results this morning, but only remembered that the lab was near the Plaza de Toros. I became entirely turned around and spent an inordinate time going in the wrong direction before I called Isabel for a reminder of where the lab was located. When I finally found the place I presented my passport copy, and was given a printout of the results.

I met Eric at the Megamaxi for the highlight of my day. I ordinarily cannot bear to go grocery shopping and most of the time Eric gets a list from me and manages well enough. But Megamaxi is an entirely different experience, and one I look forward to. It is a huge store, with electronics, kitchenware, and clothing, somewhat like Target. The store was not open when I arrived, but my attention was drawn to the display of fruits and flowers and outside the locked doors. It was an exhibit of edible art and very captivating. It kept me busy until the doors to the store opened. I feel like a child in a candy store, surrounded by enticing sweets. Once inside the store, Eric and I were drawn to display after display, trying to choose local produce and labels, discussing buying a small oven to complement my kitchen, still looking for a whisk and now a potato masher as well.
Two hours later, we finally wandered out of the store, our buggy full, our pockets empty, entertained for the time, simply by having to make decisions about which juicer to buy, how much to spend on a pot we will discard in a year, choosing between local and imported produce, whether we in fact need a laundry hamper, which unknown detergent to buy, all very momentous decisions. Perhaps what made the experience more fun was doing it together, something we never have time for in our usual lives.

My day became far less mundane when I met my group of Spanish students for a walk around the 'centro historico' at night. All the churches were lit up and the place was magical. We encountered a protest at the Plaza de la Independencia, climbed up the stairs to the roof of the public library to see Cayambe clearly in the distance as well as the spires of the churches nearby, drank 'canelazo' (a warm alcoholic drink with cinnamon) in La Ronda, visited the man squares of the old town, and talked and got to know each other better. Back in the Mariscal it was ladies night at the local bar, and after a few mojitos and swaying on the dance floor it was time to check on Maya and Eric, who were cuddled together in bed fast asleep.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Las Iglesias

I have wanted to return to the Centro Historico for some time, to walk the cobbled streets, to visit the churches again, to enter the museums and buildings I have not had time to see, to get to know this most charming part of the city. Because it is so well preserved in the traditional colonial style, Quito was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

Quito was a capital long before the Spaniards came, but the Incan monuments were razed to the ground by general Ruminahui, rather than allow the city to fall into the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. The Spaniards built their new capital on top of the ruins, so walking through the historical centre brings one back to the time of the Spanish empire. However, it was the local indigenous population that built the churches and painted the interiors and sculpted the magnificent altars, and the result was very much a synthesis of cultures, of the old and new world, of European and indigenous or mestizo.

The street of the seven crosses, for example, was pre-Hispanic, and connected the Incan Sun Temple which was located on the hill now called the Panecillo ( with the dancing Virgin of Quito on top) to the Temple of the Moon. It is said the seven crosses were built to appease the natives, to aid the transition from polytheistic beliefs of old to the religion of the Spaniards. The Spanish conquerers were determined to spread their beliefs throughout their new empire, and churches were built on every street in old Quito.

The churches appear hidden. On the outside, they are whitewashed and rarely reveal their treasures until one enters, often from an obscure side entrance. Once inside, one is struck by the brilliance of colour, and the astonishing use of gold on every surface. Styles are all over the place. In one church there can be Romanesque columns, Gothic arches, baroque altars, neoclassical chapels, 'Quiteno school' paintings and sculptures, Moorish ceilings as well as native motifs. Colonial Quito had its own style of art, which was different from Spain as well as neighbouring cities, such as Cuzco.

Paintings of religious themes initially look like any parallel European scene, until one looks closely and finds a llama in the manger with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, who have mestizo faces, and GuaGua and Rucu Pichincha in the background. Local artists had their own unique way of representing the stories in the bible. The churches may have been conceived and planned by the Spanish colonists, but the artists who created the buildings and the art were locals, and had their own visions and ways to tell their stories.

I made my way to the three churches I had visited with Maya; the Compania, the Sagraria and San Francisco, and then had my personal guided tour (in Spanish, for practice) in the cathedral with its museum. The doors to the cathedral are always closed, so I wondered if any of the public entered, and was told there is a daily mass early in the morning, when the main doors are open. I will have to wake up very early one morning to see that. I am interested in going to mass one Sunday, to see if there is anything unique and different in the service.

The centro historico is active and vital and alive. The streets are bustling with people and there are shops for all sorts of goods everywhere in the old town. The Ecovia goes directly from our house to San Marin, the end of the line, and the Plaza de la Independencia is a hike uphill from there. The busdriver in both directions today raced through the streets, slamming on brakes, swerving around corners, with the passengers hanging on for dear life and ploughing into one another. I felt battered and bruised when I got home, hoping that Ibuprofen would work for me, because I want to return to the centro tomorrow to visit more churches (there are so many, I will be at this project for some time).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Free Day!

Maya and I had the day to ourselves without an agenda. Her school took the day off to celebrate Yom Kippur, but for the rest of Quito, it was a regular school and work day, so it felt like we were skipping classes. No alarm to wake up to, no commitments, ( I took three days off from Spanish class because I felt overwhelmed with information, but now it feels as if I am missing too much and will forget what I learned!), and a gorgeous sunny day to explore our neighbourhood. I had my morning coffee at 'Boncaffe' next door and read 'El Comercio', wanting to know more about the demonstrations that are shutting down the roads to and from Quito. Indigenous people are protesting about water rights and other government programs. The US Embassy website offers warnings about the potential danger of these events, and tells us to stay away. According to the paper, discussions were being held and nothing untoward has happened yet.

Maya and I visited the local grocery store and bought as many fruits and vegetables as we could carry, along with more roses (I cannot but want more beautiful roses at a couple dollars for two dozen), and both of us had our nails done at the 'Peluqueria' on the main floor of the apartment building.
I had wanted to return to the 'Fundacion Guayasamin', which is housed in one of his former homes turned into a museum. It holds his extensive collection of pre-columbian and colonial art as well as works from his early through late career. I had to work hard to convince Maya to join me, since she would have been happier staying at home and reading, but we did make it our project of the day. Guayasamin collected wonderful pieces of native art, from the Valdivians through the period of the Incas, and was inspired by the motifs of the earlier art. He also collected early colonial art, and the foundation has a remarkable trove of crucifixes. One is more bloody than the next; it is interesting to see how the bloody history of the natives' struggle with the colonists may have influenced the depiction of Christ on the cross. We had a rather horrible guide, who paused excessively and could not remember what he was to say over and over again. I began however to see the difference between the Quito school and the Cuzco school, and unique style of both.

The premise was that Guayasamin was influenced by both the pre-Columbian art and the colonial art. The subject of most of his paintings was the suffering of the native people of the countries of South America. However the exhibition included his early paintings as well as examples of the three periods of his career, the age of wrath, the age of anger and the period of tenderness, when he repeatedly show mothers and their children and their relationships. I was less disturbed by his paintings this time. I tried to relate the pre-Columbian and Colonial influences to his work, and tried to understand how he evolved as a painter.

The museum is hidden behind high walls, quiet and peaceful and a place for contemplation. Later in his life he moved further up the hill where he built his 'Capilla de Hombre', a chapel to man, not to God. Both homes have the same view of Pichincha that I have, but more expansive, broader, and more spectacular.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Macro Shots

The alarm 'boinged' at 5 AM this morning. Eric and Tom went to the bamboo forest to record the plain-tailed wrens. Maya and I stayed under our layers of blankets for a few more hours. It was too cold during the night to venture to the bathrooms (down the hall, down the stairs, along the next building), but once the sun rose, everything warmed up beautifully. Breakfast was pineapple and crepes (choice of nutella, banana and nutella, pineapple, jam or sugar, made to order) and French toast.

Eric had all his equipment sprawled out on every surface, and once back from the bird expedition, focused his energies on trying to find a way to overcome some interference he was getting in his bat recordings, so Pamela, Amber, Maya and I decided to take a walk in the forest and try out our macro lenses. I now must purchase a good macro lens, or at least that is what I learned during our walk. Each of us had a different camera, and we took our time photographing whatever appealed to us. I find the cloud forest a magical place, and of course it rained during our walk, so everything was different on our walk back.

Eric worked out his bat detector problems, and decided to remain another night at Yanayacu with Pamela to make some more recordings. Tom had birds at home to feed, and was worried that we would not get home. There are some planned demonstrations against the government set for Monday, with the expectation that the roads to and from Quito would be blocked. Tom was concerned that if we did not get on the road early enough, we would not get back at all. These protests can be quite intense and potentially dangerous, so they are best avoided. I wonder if everyone was avoiding the roads, because they were empty and we cruised back to Quito in record time and did not encounter any obstacles, except for intense fires in Cumbaya near Quito which were spectacular and terrifying. They were next to the road and uncontrollable, and devastating.

It felt good to be home. Maya and I walked through the neighbourhood, buying bread and cheese and flowers and DVDs at three for five dollars. Eric had a good bat recording night, so the experiment was a success, but has not yet figured out how to get back to Quito tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cloud Forest

We are in the cloud forest at Yanayacu again. Eric built a bat detector, and has brought a student from Catolica with him. Her name is Pamela, but she is called 'Guabita'. It comes from Guagua (which is Quichua for baby and the g is pronounced as a w), and because her little cousins could not pronounce the 'wawa' they called her 'Wabita' and thus her nickname evolved. She is doing her thesis on bats. Tom drove us in the 'camionetta' and I invited Amber, a student at Guayasamin Language school, who is trying to arrange a job guiding in an ecolodge. I thought she could make some contacts at Yanayacu, and may enjoy participating in the research, but the station turned out to be empty. All the volunteers and students and researchers were away for the weekend in Guayaquil. Harold is in the United States finishing up some work. Drew, his second in command is gone, and Jose, the next on the totem pole left for guiding work this evening ( although he did take us for a walk through the forest to show us where the plain tailed wrens are). The plan is to wake up early and catch some in nets, and record them as well.

So we are entirely alone at the research station. There are two men who may be paying attention to us, and the two dogs, Rain and Beans, are barking at anything that moves. It feels a little creepy to be the only researchers here, but it is also very peaceful and quiet and comfortable. We were moved up to the main building, where we have a room with a double bed and a smaller bed for Maya, which is a step up from last time we stayed. The kitchen was stocked this time with lots of fruits and vegetables. During our last visit, the cupboards were bare, and we scrambled to feed ourselves. Jose had just been to the market in Baeza this morning and was unloading the crates of produce just as we arrived. I had also raided our refridgerator before we left, and so we had more than enough to indulge in.

The bat detection project was not successful. Eric had worked all yesterday and most of the night to build an apparatus. But when setting it up here, he discovered that he was recording noises that most likely came from the generator, and could not find any bats when he chose a place near the caterpillar barn. Later Pamela and Amber encountered a bat at the back of the building and one recording was made, but I know Eric had hoped for much more than one recording. On the other hand, science is like that, much of the time experiments do not work as expected. We did hear the plain tailed wrens during our walk today, and Eric recorded them. The plan is to wake up very early in the morning and set up nets to catch them ( and kill them, look at their brains?) and record them singing. They are the birds which sing together, the male and female parts of the song so well blended that one cannot tell when the one ends and the other begins.
Jose is a birder, and so during our walk he was able to point out several birds. It is always amazing that the guides are able to see and identify birds and animals so well. There are birding ecolodges in the area (San Isidro and San Jorge) that are exclusively for birders. We saw a colourful tanager and a flycatcher. I saw a red breasted hawk, but no one else saw it so I am not sure that counts.

It feels good to be out of Quito for a few days. The air is clean and the sounds we hear are the songs of birds and dogs barking. The cloud forest is ethereal, magical, and very inviting.