It is difficult to sum up my recent experiences in Ecuador; writing from a woman’s perspective and with poetry and art as a conduit for social change.
I traveled to Cuenca for a week, to spend time with my daughter, Charlotte, and to absorb the sights, beauty, and flavor of a country she loves. I was excited to go, and had some presumptive ideas, but I was not prepared for the breathtaking vistas and the vital pulse of an ancient city founded by the Incas. The finely chiseled faces, the curious yet friendly smiles, the distinct high cheekbones of the indigenous people in their traditional clothing were a constant reminder of the ancient pulse of this primordial land, with a culture dating back centuries before colonial times.
This is a land where time has stood still, and progress is a guest.
The steep, carved mountains surrounding the city are a mixture of glacier formed gouges, and volcanic uprisings in a palette of every shade of green. The city is surrounded by three major Volcanoes, Tungurahua, (still active,) Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo, which towers majestically at 20,549 feet , covered with snow. At 8,200 feet above sea level, the air is crisp yet thin, the altitude made my heart race, and I was hungry for air. Drinking Coca leaves became my savior, as I slowly adjusted to the atmosphere. Fluffy white clouds hung in the azure sky, and a purple- blue haze glazed the shadow streaked mountains, always changing, always taking my precious breath away again.
Surrounded by beauty the city bustles with honking yellow taxis, wheelbarrows of fruit, flower markets, and local shop-keepers selling their wares under white canopies along the sidewalks; brightly colored blankets, woven Aztec fabrics and alpaca ponchos amongst the smorgasbord of choices. Haggling and bargaining is expected until each party is happy. The air is hung with the smell of fresh ground coffee and Eucalyptus.
Around each corner, wild dogs roam playfully in the streets, skillfully stealing opportunities for food, darting in and out of doors and empty lots. I was told by my daughter that this is a culture that traditionally frowns on neutering, but in the last few years humane societies have evolved to address the wild, uncontrolled canine population problem.
The crumbling infrastructure of the streets, along with the impressive Spanish colonial haciendas, the magnificent wide and looming stone staircases, are a reminder that Cuenca had its heights as an architecturally stunning city in the early 19th century; although the oldest Cathedral dates back to the 1500’s. White washed churches are familiar landmarks throughout the city, and the sound of church bells echo through the town. Predominately Catholic traditions form a back drop to city life, petals strewn in church doorways, stages of the Calvary adorned with flowers and fruit, candles burning for loved ones, luminaries at night; a scarfed woman kneeling in front of a statue of the virgin Mary, in silent prayer.
Great carved doors welcome visitors, with proud and evocative intent. The doorways are significant. One steps over the threshold with respect and awe. The winds of change and a comparatively cheap economy have brought many immigrants here; many Europeans and Northern Americans, who come to retire in relative luxury. A luxury that the average indigenous Ecuadorian cannot afford. One must step carefully through these grand doors. This is a proud nation. Proud of its heritage, and protective of its traditions, its’ economic and ecological vulnerability.
I was heartened to experience a visit to Amaru zoo; a refuge for rescued animals. The zoo is situated on the side of a steep mountain, populated with fir and eucalyptus trees, along with pampas grass and huge outcroppings of Agave-type cactus, and Yucca.
The zoo has educational stages, teaching about endangered species, against poaching, and against keeping exotic pets, as well as about composting and recycling etc. The zoo emphasizes how we are one with the earth, and that we “"Have a responsibility to look after our planet… it is our only home” (The Dalai Lama)
The wing span of the Great Andean Condor was awesome! At least 8-10 feet!
Imagine it souring above the snow topped volcanos, hunting with laser sharp eyes for the smallest prey. A huge bird, keeping vigil like an old school master, with his hooked beak and white collar, eyeing the sacrificial chicks released into his territory, with shifty nonchalance. Pounce! His vulture neighbors were quick and cruel, tearing the poor little things apart greedily; hard to watch, yet part of the food chain.
“The Andean condor was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1973 and is in danger of becoming extinct due primarily to over hunting. Many farmers shoot these birds because they mistakenly believe the condors kill their livestock. Pesticide poisoning through the food chain has also hurt populations.”(Rainforest alliance.org)
The bird house was full of once-injured birds of prey, and parrots. McCaws perch freely in the trees, as do the mischievous spider monkeys swinging from branch to bough, using their tails to balance and somersault, looking innocently seductive whenever food is present, and politely taking with strangely long delicate fingers. Dried bananas were their favorite!
There were two poems in the rest area, both in Spanish, which I attempted to translate.
The Spanish language is rich and poetic, with a romance that is hard to imitate without sounding precocious. Yet these poems are an example of how beautiful the language is, and how close to the earth, and nature we are married.
LAS LUCIERNAGAS "Hilanderas de luz, por la llanura, en fantástica y rauda muchedumbre, con arabescos de argentada lumbre bordan el manto de la noche oscura. Alas y brillantez para la altura tienen ellas; mas huyen de la cumbre, y, después de irradiar fugaz vislumbre, rescatan en el césped su hermosura. requerir el resplandor del dia, transforman, con brillante pedrería, a humilde for en reluciente broche. Y hermanas de las célicas estrellas, así amables y pródigas como ellas, su limosna de luz dan a la noche." Manuel María 0rtiz Ordoñez Faunia-1954
TO the best of my ability,(using #google translate, and a bit of clumsy poetic license…), the poem roughly translates:
"Spinners of light, across the plain,
in a fantastic and dense crowd,
with Arabesques of silver fire
embroidering the mantle of the dark night.
They possess great wings of brilliance;
They fly from the summit,
and, after a radiating fleeting glimpse,
they reflect their beauty in the grass,
transforming the night into a brilliant gleaming rhinestone brooch.
And the sisters of the celestial stars,
as kind and lavish as they are,
create the night with their Alms of light.
"Manuel María 0rtiz Ordoñez Faunia-1954
LA LIBELULA "La de las alas de cristal que, al vivo halago de la luz lleva el iris a su espalda; la de rasgados ojos de esmeralda, ual los de bella huri de ensueño mago. El sombrío boscaje encuentra aciago, no es digna de sus huellas la guirnalda, ni en pos del cielo de zafir y gualda remonta por la altura el vuelo vago. Busca las olas, que besar procura, y por instantes en cada una posa, para que todas copien su hermosura. Y, en medio de inefables embelesos, ignora si serán para una hermosa más fugaces las olas o los besos. Manuel María Ortiz Ordoñez Faunia 1954
The one with the crystal wings that,
flatters the light, carries the iris behind him;
The one with raven emerald eyes,
the one with the beautiful air of a dreamy magician.
The shady grove hides fate,
the garland is not worthy of its footprints,
nor of the sky of zafir and gualda
It ascends by the height of the vacant flight.
Look for the waves, which kisses seek,
so that all may copy beauty in each pose.
And, in the midst of indescribable indecision ,
one does not know if they will choose
The beautiful more fleeting waves or the kisses.
Manuel María Ortiz Ordoñez Faunia 1954
Similar to the Native American philosophy, the Ecuadorian culture echoes that of the Incas with respect to their reverence for the earth and for the Mother of all things.
The Feminine was honored.
Wayna-Kapec, an ancient king of the Incas, born in Pumapango, ( an Incan settlement that existed prior to the city of Cuenca,) ordered a Qucha, or “"moist ground” be constructed in honor of his Mother, Mama Ocllo. The river was dammed for this purpose, and remains an irrigation source to this day.
The religions of the Andean world, stamped a harmonious practice on the man-nature interrelation. So animals, such as the Puma, the serpent, the Llama, and birds such as the McCaw, Condor, and the Hummingbird, are all linked to the myths of the origin of the people.
The street graffiti is rich and mostly done by talented artists, adding a vibrancy to crumbling walls and old grey staircases. They reflect the reverence for tradition and patterns, yet embrace a new era of expectation and brave individuality.
Food is an important part of any culture, and Cuenca was no exception. My favorite were Tamales made from maize, steamed in banana leaves and flavored with homemade salsa. One could dine richly from small street cafes, although I avoided street vendors to save myself from Montezuma's revenge!
Yes, the Ecuadorians eat guinea pigs. Cuy ( pronounced “ Cooie “ )is a traditional part of the indigenous people's diet. Rich in protein, and apparently sweet meat. They are often sacrificed for special occasions, and are roasted, or served in stews. I could not bring myself to even try Cuy, I raised too many Guinea pigs as pets when I was young, and couldn't bear the thought of killing one for food. No, I am not vegetarian, but as I become more conscious of how meat is raised and killed, I have seriously considered giving up meat. Cruelty free is an important consideration. At least the chickens roam free here, and the cows I saw were not cooped up in milking farms. Cows are commonly visible grazing at the side of the road, and their pasture is varied daily. Alpacas are farmed for their warm, soft fleece, which is sheered each year. These gentle creatures roam freely in the grounds of public parks and in gardens, grazing on the grass and keeping the lawns cropped.
Things are changing in Ecuador. Bull fights are thankfully no longer legal, and I saw one grand old Bull stadium standing proudly out in the middle of nowhere, waiting for some developer to restore it as a stadium, or perhaps a convention center
I saw a bull fight once, when I was in Mexico in the 80’s. I was curious, and the excitement of the costumes and the Toreadors lured me in. The game between man and bull was balanced at first, Bull chasing daredevil arrogant young men, who hid behind barriers to avoid the tossing horns; crowds reacting with excitement as the play became more vital. But when the swords came out, and the first strike was made, the cruelty and the inevitable morbidity of the bull brought me to tears. I could no longer cheer with the crowd, and as the bull buckled with blood soaked skin, the salty sanguineous smell of blood leaching into the hot humid air was sickening.
I was changed at that moment.
Lord Byron (1788–1824)
(From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)
THE LISTS are oped, the spacious area cleared,
Thousands on thousands piled are seated round;
Long ere the first loud trumpet’s note is heard,
No vacant space for lated wight is found:
Here dons, grandees, but chiefly dames abound,
Skilled in the ogle of a roguish eye,
Yet ever well inclined to heal the wound;
None through their cold disdain are doomed to die,
As moonstruck bards complain, by Love’s sad archery.
Hushed is the din of tongues,—on gallant steeds,
With milk-white crest, gold spur, and light-poised lance,
Four cavaliers prepare for venturous deeds,
And lowly bending to the lists advance;
Rich are their scarfs, their chargers featly prance:
If in the dangerous game they shine to-day,
The crowd’s loud shout, and ladies’ lovely glance,
Best prize of better acts, they bear away,
And all that kings or chiefs e’er gain their toils repay.
In costly sheen and gaudy cloak arrayed,
But all afoot, the light-limbed Matador
Stands in the center, eager to invade
The lord of lowing herds; but not before
The ground, with cautious tread, is traversed o’er,
Lest aught unseen should lurk to thwart his speed:
His arms a dart, he fights aloof, nor more
Can man achieve without the friendly steed,--
Alas! too oft condemned for him to bear and bleed.
Thrice sounds the clarion; lo! the signal falls.
The den expands, and Expectation mute
Gapes round the silent circle’s peopled walls.
Bounds with one lashing spring the mighty brute,
And wildly staring, spurns, with sounding foot,
The sand, nor blindly rushes on his foe:
Here, there, he points his threatening front, to suit
His first attack, wide waving to and fro
His angry tail; red rolls his eye’s dilated glow.
Sudden he stops; his eye is fixed: away,
Away, thou heedless boy! prepare the spear;
Now is thy time to perish, or display
The skill that yet may check his mad career.
With well-timed croupe the nimble coursers veer;
On foams the bull, but not unscathed he goes;
Streams from his flank the crimson torrent clear:
He flies, he wheels, distracted with his throes:
Dart follows dart; lance, lance; loud bellowings speak his woes.
Again he comes; nor dart nor lance avail,
Nor the wild plunging of the tortured horse;
Though man and man’s avenging arms assail,
Vain are his weapons, vainer is his force.
One gallant steed is stretched a mangled corse;
Another, hideous sight! unseamed appears,
His gory chest unveils life’s panting source;
Though death-struck, still his feeble frame he rears;
Staggering, but stemming all, his lord unharmed he bears.
Foiled, bleeding, breathless, furious to the last,
Full in the centre stands the bull at bay,
Mid wounds, and clinging darts, and lances brast,
And foes disabled in the brutal fray:
And now the Matadores around him play,
Shake the red cloak, and poise the ready brand:
Once more through all he bursts his thundering way,--
Vain rage! the mantle quits the conynge hand,
Wraps his fierce eye,—’t is past,—he sinks upon the sand!
Where his vast neck just mingles with the spine,
Sheathed in his form the deadly weapon lies.
He stops,—he starts,—disdaining to decline:
Slowly he falls, amidst triumphant cries,
Without a groan, without a struggle dies.
The decorated car appears: on high
The corse is piled,—sweet sight for vulgar eyes;
Four steeds that spurn the rein, as swift as shy,
Hurl the dark bull along, scarce seen in dashing by.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
– Saint Augustine
My experiences in Ecuador were too numerous to put in one blog entry.
I have to dedicate some time to getting myself ready for Christmas, and I also have a “real” job:)
I will continue my thoughts in the next chapter.
In the meantime, I will leave you with this thought:-
”A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill
and have a very happy holiday season