The capital of Ecuador lies north to south at the foot of a volcano, one of the 17 which there are in the country, 7 of which are active in some way. One has just shown signs of eruption quite nearby at Banos. On the bus journey to get here we tried to see as many of them as we could but the mountain road mostly defeated us, although there is one snowy peak, Cotopaxi, once thought the highest mountain in the world before Everest was ‘discovered’, that you can see from many viewpoints. We stood at the side of a volcanic lake on a day tour around the district which included a magic waterfall where people bathe in the early morning to cleanse themselves of the evil spirits of life and before that went to the markets of Otavalo. This town in the hills around Quito has a famous textile market where local families sell their knitted goods and many other forms of folk art as well as everything else you can imagine and some you can’t. There is also a livestock market where we watched the locals sell all kinds of animals, guinea pigs, ducklings, pigs on strings. People haggled over the value of the chicken they held by the feet. It looked like a chaotic scene but serious business was being done on all sides. No-one was the least bit interested in us.
People often wear a distinctive local costume in Otavalo, and men as well as women have long plaits down their backs. One positive thing about Ecuador is that it is evident that there is a policy drive to encourage the country to embrace the diversity of all its indigenous cultures and races, which, after the brutal history of colonisation in all of South America, is still needed.
Quito has a modern city and an historic centre, which has been recently cleaned up. It is a City of Culture this year and there are many signs of a government effort to improve the city and to foster pride in its many attractions. There are lots of green spaces and a huge city park which includes a forest area where families can build fires and put up tents. On Sunday mornings the old city is closed to all wheeled traffic so people can stroll and a main arterial road is open only to cyclists. Just as we saw in Lima, on Sunday outdoor family fun and sport is the priority. When the dry season ends in the new year, the flowering trees and hedges here, as in other cities we have visited, must burst into colour as they put out brave flags now. In Cusco we were told the rains keep people indoors and flood the streets. But after 2 months of misery the brown hills have turned green.
Our efforts to see some of the cultural sights have been laughably unsuccessful. We have used local buses which are cheap and plentiful but also have walked lots so we have arrived three times, quite tired, at a museum to find it half closed, closed, oh and the third time we didn’t even find it. The city map is not the clearest, plus we have proved that people will just tell you something to be helpful even if they haven’t actually a clue how to direct you.
We shall be leaving today to go to Colombia and will be in England anyway when they celebrate their fiesta here in early December. It must be quite an event – the ‘chiva’ open air buses which are hired for parties at night fill the streets apparently and all of the city stops for fun. We saw a little bit of a fiesta in the Sacred Valley in Peru but have missed them in other towns sometimes by a day or two. But there is plenty of outdoor life to see. Especially in Peru, it is common to see processions and protests in the plazas: we have seen protests about the slow progress of a school building project, about bus drivers not taking care to look for pedestrians, about special education facilities, a trade union march. On any day you might see a church procession with an icon or a plaster saint being carried and fancy dress for all; stalls are thrown up overnight to celebrate an organisation or an anniversary; a band appears and marches up the side streets playing with much drum beating and laughter. One Sunday in Lima we saw yet another church procession coming towards the Cathedral; the increasing crowd and the solemmnity surrounding it made us think it was a funeral and of someone important. When we asked who this might be, we discovered that we were seeing the progress of Mother Theresa’s remains on their way around the world to receive the veneration of, and to bestow blessings on, the faithful.