Saturday, October 31, 2009

Canari and Incans

Pumapango Ruins

Cuenca has a small town feel, with many of its inhabitants out on the street all day and evening. Perhaps because it is Independence Day weekend, there is more activity and celebration than usual. We were invited last night to join friends for dinner at their hotel on the other side of the river, so we hailed a taxi and gave him La Casona as our destination. On his way to the restaurant by that name, we passed an outdoor market with crowds of people milling about. The traffic was heavy, and when we redirected our taxiste to the hotel rather than the restaurant, we discovered that most roads in the direction of the hotel were closed off to traffic, with police monitoring access. It turned out that there was a soccer game at the stadium( I believe it was Cuenca against Quito, the later being up in the standings) and that the hotel in question was close to the stadium, so it took far too long to reach our destination. Our dinner started late and continued at a leisurely pace, so that we missed the fireworks that we had planned to watch at 9. On the other hand there are sure to be many more to go off over the next few days.

Day of the Dead Booths

Our non-majestic hotel is centrally located, only a couple of blocks from the main plaza, which is its only redeeming quality. We are housed in a cellar with no windows and hardly any light (two lightbulbs hang from the ceiling). There are three beds that are reasonably comfortable, but the room is depressing and oppressive. Our door opens out onto the main reception/dining room area, so it is not very private, and it locks with a padlock rather than a key. I am trying to convince myself that our hotel's inadequacies just do not matter.

Parque Calderon

We met our friends Kenneth and Anne this morning at the Museo of the Banco Central, where a small archeological and colonial section gave us a little background about the pre Incan, Incan and Spanish inhabitants of what is now Cuenca. There is a confusing ethnographical exhibit upstairs which required a guide which we did not have. The section on the Schuar people of the Amazon was most instructive, so much more than every other exhibit in the museum, otherwise I was just confused. Before we left the indoor exhibits, we were instructed to look at a modern video installation. I learned that Cuenca has a yearly 'Bienal' and that all the competing art pieces are currently exhibited all over the city. Yesterday at the Convent Museum we saw an entry from Uzbekistan which showed a man praying in the snow. I did not understand at the time how this piece fit in with all the colonial art we had seen. I recalled that at the Casa de la Cultura yesterday we had also seen some Bienal works, but I paid little attention at the time.

Attached to the Banco Central is a huge excavated ruin of an Incan palace which was destroyed in the civil war between Huascar and Atahualpa. The palace is huge, and has a commanding view of the valley all around, and with just a little imagination, one could sense how grand and ostentatious it was. The Incans also grew extensive gardens and collected animals, so there was a little zoo on the grounds of the palace with toucans and eagles and parrots. This was our introduction to what we would be seeing tomorrow in Ingapirca, the most extensive Incan ruin in Ecuador.

Incan Gardens

Huayna Capac's Palace

Cactus Flowers

Reconstruction of Incan House for Women who Served the Inca

We had arrived at the museum with warm clothes anticipating rain and cold weather, so of course it was hot and exhausting in the harsh sunshine. We walked back to the town centre and passed another archeological site with Canari, Incan and Spanish colonial ruins. It is not unusual for the Incans to build on top of Canari structures, and the Spaniards to use Inca stones and foundations to build their own structures. We visited the craft fair again and talked to the Salasaca booth attendants to confirm arrangements for a Salasaca poncho for Eric. Our lunch was in a bar/restaurant with a wonderful view across the Tomebamba river, the most impressive building being the university, which is almost 500 years old. Cuenca has three universities and is very proud of having one of the earliest higher institutions of learning in the Americas.

View Across the Tomebamba River to the University

Colonial Buildings

The churches we visited were closed, including the Catedral Nuevo, the old cathedral, San Francisco and Santo Domingo. Across from the Catedral Nuevo, in the plaza (called Parque Calderon) street theatre is very popular. There was never a time that I did nto see a big crowd laughing and clapping and growing in size. I wish I understood more!!! A man in a woman's evening dress was performing to great applause. Much of what I heard was very sexually suggestive, but there we children and women laughing too, so perhaps there were multiple meanings which I did not understand.

Catedral Antigua

While Eric and Maya rested in our hotel room, I wandered back to the main plaza for more street entertainment, including musicians and street performers. I walked up and down the streets with beautiful colonial buildings and checked on the churches, which were lit up when the sun went down. I walked to the other side of the river and visited the outdoor market geared to the local population. There was music and what appeared to be a revival meeting going on. Families and children were eating grilled meat on skewers, ice/cream, cotton candy and other treats. There was one booth which attracted the most customers, and it sold wafers with fillings to order. We met Kenneth and Anne at 'El Jardin', which is where Eric and I had eaten years before with the Johns Hopkins students. The food was good (we have had wonderful food in Cuenca!) but the service was extremely slow, no different this time than the last time we were there. I believe that with the students it took four of five hours to get served. I think we got in and out in less that two hours tonight!

Every Building is Unique

Santo Domingo

Friday, October 30, 2009


Catedral Nueva

Monday is the Day of the Dead and Tuesday is the celebration of Independence Day for Cuenca, so the whole country is taking a long weekend, and we are making it even longer. We flew to Cuenca this morning, which is a 45 minute flight over the Andes past Chimborazo peeking out above the clouds. It was difficult to find a hotel room in the city ahead of time because of the celebrations, so we took what was available which was a very basic, dark, and dingy room in the hardly majestic Hotel Majestic. We were obliged to pay the whole bill for the five nights in cash through a bank in Quito, so despite being rather horrified at the condition of the room, there was little recourse other than to pay more for a better room and that was not a good option for us. I resolved to spend as little time as possible in the hotel and to enjoy Cuenca as much as possible. We left our bags in the room and found our way to the parade passing by the Parque Calderon, which is the central plaza. The route was packed with spectators, and the parade consisted of young people dancing and wearing traditional costumes, which are bright and colorful. The music was familiar but the dances were different from what I had seen before. The theme was geared toward independence of the New World Spanish from the European Spanish, but the celebration and the participants were indigenous.


The Canaris were the indigenous group that inhabited the area around Cuenca long before the Incans and then the Spanish came. The Canaris were vital in helping the Spanish defeat the Incas. It was interesting to see the indigenous people celebrate a Spanish/colonial event which ultimately oppressed the local population for hundreds of years, but I am sure that is not the politically correct thing to say.

The city is recognized as a wonderfully preserved colonial treasure. There are dozens of churches. The Catedral Nuevo was designed to be the biggest church in all of South America with an expected capacity of 10,000, but there was some architectural miscalculation, so it was not quite finished. It is massive, and so very different from the churches in Quito. It has a beautiful pink travertine facade and entrancing blue tiled domes, and very picturesque. The flower market is nearby, and not too far is the Plaza San Francisco with a market for clothes and shoes. Maya chose a pair for school, and decided she needed a $1 belt as well. Our wandering brought us to the Convento de las Conceptas, which houses a religious art museum. It was a nervewracking experience, because whenever anyone got too near a painting or sculpture, an incredibly loud and obnoxious alarm would sound and the guards would have to find the culprit and turn off the alarm, which would take an inordinate amount of time. There have been thefts of artwork over the years at several museums in Ecuador, so it makes sense that they want to protect their collection, but the sensors were far too sensitive. The convent was once a house of a wealthy woman who donated it to the order as a dowry so that her three daughters could join the nunnery. The nuns stayed inside the convent all year, venturing to the world outside one day a year. Maya expressed far too much interest in becoming a nun, and decided she wants to try it for a month or so in the summertime!

Shopping at the Market

Ducks shopping at the Plaza San Francisco

Flower Market Plazoleta del Carmen

Shopping for the Day of the Dead

Museo of the Convento de Las Conceptas

Cuenca is located along the Rio Tomebamba, and many lovely hotels and homes are built along the banks of the river. We walked to a craft show at the 'Museo de Artes Populares' and admired the artisan work from all over Ecuador. Everything appeared to be of better quality than what one sees in the regular markets. The prices were also steeper and nonnegotiable, which is unusual for markets in Ecuador. We stopped at the Salasaca/Tunguragua booth where we admired a rug which depicted the Salasaca calendar. A mountain dog eating a 'cuy' represents January, February is a tortuga, March is a bird, April is represented by a pig, May is a bird, June is the mountain path where you go to collect plants, July is the rat, August is the burro, September is the mountain wolf, October is the dog and November is the cat and the shaman or 'yachak' represents December. Hearing the explanation meant I had to have the rug. Eric wants to buy a black poncho, which the Salasaca men still wear in mourning for the death of Atahualpa in 1533. The Salasaca were a tribe from Bolivia who were moved to the area around Tunguragua by the Incans and have settled there. He has wanted this poncho for years and has never seen one for sale. The woman in the booth promised to send for one from her home near Ambato.

Salasaca Calendar

We dashed back to the hotel in the rain. Hopefully it will be clear when we return to the river to watch the fireworks!

Iglesia San Francisco Altar

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Morning Pichincha

I decided to look at another school possibility for Maya and visited 'Academia Cotopaxi' on Tuesday, which is the choice of Embassy employees and diplomats, from the United States and from many other countries. When I initially looked at schools for Maya last January, I never considered any English instruction schools. I was convinced that if we were to live in a Spanish speaking environment, immersing Maya in the language would ensure quick and easy language acquisition. I never imagined that Maya would not simply adjust quickly, make friends, find her place here.

I resisted looking at alternatives until now. I learned that Cotopaxi was having an open house, and was able to show up at the end of the day without an appointment. I was warmly received and given a tour. The school was up on one side of the valley with a lovely view, extensive grounds, and the children looked happy and well taken care of. When I talked to the admissions officer, I was assured that the school was accustomed to accepting new children at any time of the year, that Maya could visit within a few days, take an exam, and start school shortly thereafter. The transition would be smooth and easy. All instruction would be in English, with an American curriculum, and one hour of Spanish a day. I ran into a teacher who I knew, and Bianca, who we had met at Hacienda Cienega, and Nicole, the Canadian ambassador's daughter, all who greeted me warmly. Only after my tour did I learn that the school cost about double that of Alberto Einstein, which is already at our limit.

Halloween Ballerina

I went to pick Maya up at her school, where she was playing soccer with the boys. She was comfortable and was clearly enjoying herself. I talked to her teachers who felt she was doing better. As we drove to ballet class, she happily told me about the boys that liked her.

I was desperate about Maya last week. Now I wonder if in fact things are turning around for her, that my expectation that she will settle and adjust may actually happen. She was invited to a Halloween party tonight. A group of teachers from her school had arranged to receive a group of trick-or-treaters, so Maya dressed up in her cat outfit (which she had rejected initially, then agreed to wear the suit but not the mask, but warmed to the costume and by the end of the evening liked her mask) and Lucia's parents drove the children to each of the houses to pick up treats, which included candy, toothpaste, apples and pears.

Halloween Cat

Maya, a secret smile on her face, told me today that she is speaking Spanish. I have yet to hear her say one word in Spanish, although she will tell me every phrase she has learned in her French class. For weeks she has refused to speak any Spanish at all, although she dutifully conjugates her verbs nightly. We were advised not to push the Spanish, to be relaxed about it, just let it happen when it happens. I wonder if it is happening now.

I hope this is not wishful thinking.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Cathedral Tower at Dusk

Ecuadorians like to engage in protest. They have had a democratic form of government for only forty or so years, so they like to exercise the right to express themselves. There have been huge demonstrations quite regularly since we have arrived. The US government sends an email each time a large organized protest is planned, telling us to stay away from the action, that violence is often an outcome of the demonstrations, that police will be out in force and use teargas to manage the crowds, that transportation will be disrupted and to try to avoid the protest. Which is exactly what I done with each 'manifestacion'.

Last Wednesday and today, we were warned about university students protesting at the President's palace. There is a new higher education law which the students disagree with, and they are out in force each week. When I arrived at the Plaza Grande today, as part of a 'Quito at Night' outing with my school, I was expecting some evidence of the protests, but found only a small group waving lime green banners, listening to a man in a megaphone. I asked our guide, Diego, what was being said, and his response was that this group, identifiable by their bright green colour, were out every night supporting the government, and that the government actually paid them to express their positive feelings about the president and his allies. I guess it is a way to provide balance, since most of the protesters demonstrate against the government and the president. In fact, Correa's approval ratings have plummeted, although he still retains just a little more than 50 % approval.

President Correa's Paid Supporters

Plaza Grande, Archbishop's Palace

In the latter part of September and the early part of October, there were large demonstrations against the government by indigenous groups. Roads were closed and parts of the country were entirely shut down. Everyday, scores of people expressed their disapproval of the government in the Plaza Grande as well as in the other major cities and many of the jungle settlements. some violence and deaths were reported. Ultimately, Correa agreed to negotiate with the protesters, and the demonstrations fizzled.The federally employed teachers had protested in several cities early in September, and although I saw nothing, the news reported clashes between protesters and the police and some destruction of property. The photos of the streets once they were empty certainly suggested chaos and property damage. The students at Mejia High school protested one day last week, filling Seis di Diciembre for long stretches, their marching band providing a beat while the students shouted slogans, and demanding a new director and a return to school (the school had been closed for some weeks due to some dispute between the principal and the government). The police led and followed the group of students in their uniforms and it was orderly and controlled.

Protesting is one way in which Ecuadorians can express their views or their support and to feel part of the democracy. Most people vote, and there are no qualms about a demonstration.

Plaza del Teatro and Teatro Sucre

Our outing to the old city began in the 'Alameda', a park where Eloy Alfaro, the first 'liberal' president after government after government of conservatives, was dragged to his death by his assassins. Ecuadorians have had a few presidents assassinated by opposing parties over the years. Garcia Moreno was stabbed to death in front of the Presidential Palace in the Plaza Grande. Our next stop was the Plaza del Teatro, where we saw a large group of spectators watching a man in white face paint engaging in a dialogue with a member of the audience. Diego explained that there is always some form of street theatre going on, directed to local politics and satire. Often the activity on the street is more interesting than anything going on in the grand old theatre itself.Plaza Teatro

Street Entertainer

The Centro Historico is beautiful at night. The churches are brightly lit, wispy clouds are descending over the mountains that circle the city, there are musicians at many corners and there is always much activity. We walked through the Plaza Grande and to Plaza San Francisco, where a platform was set up with three poles topped with what appeared to be all sorts of toys and plates and mementos. We discovered that the poles were covered with wax and that there would be a contest tomorrow wherein contestants would try to scale the poles (which is extremely difficult, most people keep sliding down to the bottom) to reach a prize. I was unable to find out what sort of fiesta this would be. Diego told me there are festivals in Quito and in Ecuador all the time and many of them are local and unknown to those that are not part of the community involved.

San Francisco

An evening in the old town is never complete without a visit to La Ronda and a taste of canelazo, a warm drink with sugar cane whisky and narajilla or mora juice. We were too early for much action in the restaurants, where the musicians were just warming up and getting ready for the crowds to come. I had made arrangements to see another folkloric dance performance at 'Humanizarte' near the Mariscal.


La Ronda

It was an entirely different experience than Jacchigua, the performance I had seen at the Casa de la Cultura. The costumes were no different, but there was a clear differentiation between indigenous and Spanish dances, and most of the music and the dances appeared to be earlier versions, less 'performance' and more 'tradition'. I am not sure that I can explain it better.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I am obliged to learn a new skill this year; how to look at money and detect fakes. In Ecuador, there is a thriving industry in counterfeiting, and it is not unusual to receive a fake five or twenty dollar bill. I have watched everyone who receives a bill of more than one dollar look closely at the bill through the light and mark it with a special marker to ensure it is not a fake. Until today, I have not looked too closely at the money I use, but a taxi driver passed his counterfeited five dollar bill to me today. I did not pay attention until he was long gone, and I don't know if he did it knowingly or not, but I am quite sure there is no recourse (buyer beware!). I did not feel comfortable using it again (I could have simply passed it on), so I held on to it and when I came home I sat under the light and examined it closely. I realized that it did look different, that it was not a perfect copy of an American dollar bill, but on the other hand, it is close enough to survive in circulation for a time.

Ecuador has been using the United States dollar since 2000, in an effort to stabilize the economy. Adopting the dollar makes it impossible to print more money (they do make coins however) and limits inflation and forces fiscal responsibility. There are many arguments for and against dollarization, but in fact, Ecuador appears to have done well with the policy. The economy has improved since the adoption of the dollar.

I am told by Ecuadorians that the dollar has also attracted immigrants and criminals from all the surrounding countries, and that much money laundering is going on all over the country. When I ask about the plethora of construction projects on every corner, I am told that building and renting are routes of investment for 'dirty money', or ways to clean up the money.

Counterfeiting appears to be a successful business, and although people are very cautious and try to check carefully when receiving a suspicious bill, there are fakes in circulation all the time. Fidel told me he could go to the bank and trade the bill for cash, but I have decided that it will be a keepsake for us, part of the many interesting experiences we have encountered in this country.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Human Touch

Bright Pichincha Morning

Pichincha Changing an Hour Later

In certain wonderful ways, experiencing Ecuador is like stepping back ten or twenty years, sometimes decades. Trying to make travel arrangements via internet (which is the only way I have planned trips for more than ten years) is impossible. After several failed efforts online, I stepped into a travel agency near my Spanish school, and asked 'Fanny' to find a flight to and from Cuenca.

This coming weekend is a long weekend, with Monday November 2nd being the 'Day of the Dead' and Tuesday being Independence Day for Cuenca, a city in southern Ecuador. Schools and businesses are closed for both days to celebrate both occasions. Eric and I have been planning to travel to Cuenca for the holiday and to participate in the festivities.

It felt wonderful to have someone else take care of the details. Even after I agreed on dates and paid with a credit card, I realized I had mixed up the return date (I thought Tuesday was the 2nd, so inadvertently had us return in the midst of Independence Day events), so I called and asked Fanny to change the dates, which she did without hesitation, and without a change fee.

When I looked for hotels online (Kayak, Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz), every Cuenca hotel was booked for the weekend. Fanny assured me that she would find a hotel. I felt so relieved to not have to make the phonecalls and spend the time online. I will visit her tomorrow at my midmorning break to discuss the final arrangements.

In Ecuador, most business appears to be done face to face, and there is something reassuring about that. Human interaction and human contact reigns, and that is comforting, and reminds me of a time long ago, before computers and cellphones ( although most people here have at least two cell phones, one Porta and one Movistar, the two main companies for cellphones), when one would call for service and talk to a human being rather than a machine. Perhaps it is inefficient, but then again, things do get done, and without visiting Fanny I would not be going to Cuenca this weekend.

Perhaps due to unemployment and underemployment, there are to be all sorts of helpful people around. There are guardians who watch your car if you park in a parking lot or in front of a store or even on the street. They are paid a few cents, and make it feel safer to park. When entering most stores, one is immediately greeted and offered help, and sometimes several (too many?) eager helpers are available to you. There are guards at every building on our street and they are at their posts 24 hours a day, not only to guard, but also to be available to the tenants for all sorts of requests. Even when I feel that I want to take care of everything myself, I am reassured that if I needed help, it would be available.

Afternoon Pichincha

Sunset on Pichincha