By JAMES THOMAS STEVENS
This fall semester, I took a sabbatical to work on a long poem, a poetic rewrite of a 1926 grammar book, but sitting at a desk every single day proves not very inspirational to a poet. Part of a poet’s work is simply experiencing.
I decided that some time during my sabbatical, I would travel. In the past I’d been to France, Italy, the U.K., Turkey, China, and Jordan. This time, I intended to head south rather than east.
It was decided that my brother and I would meet in Quito, Ecuador. He would fly from Chicago and I would leave from Albuquerque. I had long dreamed of seeing the Andes and traveling along the Avenida de los VolcÃ¡nes, or Avenue of the Volcanoes, a geological highway winding its way between fourteen volcanoes in central Ecuador.
I arrived at night in a heavy Andean mist, the lights of the city below visible for just seconds at a time. Quito’s brand new airport is actually in Tababela, about an hour northeast of Quito. Arriving within twenty minutes of one another, my brother and shared a cab ride.
Quito, City Below the Volcano
Entering Quito at night, you would think you were in a ghost town. With the metal grates pulled down over all storefronts and a smattering of dim light from energy-saving bulbs, you would have no idea you were in a city of 1.6 million people. The hotel workers were asleep on couches in the lobby, rising long enough in the dark to sign us in and give us a key.
The morning light exposed a bustling city at the base of the lush green Pichincha Volcano, a city built at 9,350 feet.
Quito has the best preserved colonial section of all Ecuadorian cities; pastel-colored buildings with their red tiled roofs and ornate balconies, line the cobblestone streets of the Centro HistÃ³rico. Churches and cathedrals abound in this historic colonial section, while to the north lie the modern business and entertainment districts of La Mariscal and La Carolina.
We toured the Presidential Palace on the Plaza de la Independencia, visited cathedrals, and La Ronda ”“ the musician/artist neighborhood, and ate many plates of llapingachos, a favored Ecuadorian meal of chorizo, avocado, stewed meat, and two fried eggs atop three balls of mashed potato. Oddly, the hardest thing to find in Ecuador is good coffee. Ecuatorianos prefer instant Nescafe or cafe pasado (previously brewed and reheated coffee) to fresh.
To the North, Then South
With the weekend arriving, we planned a trip north to the mainly Indigenous town of Otavalo in the north, a town that hosts the largest Indigenous market in Ecuador. On the road to Otavalo, we passed the third highest volcano and the only one to be crossed by the equator, VolcÃ¡n Cayambe. Its snow-capped peak and majesty easily explained why the local Quichua people once considered it the center of the universe.
Otavalo, my favorite town, is a town of approximately 50,000 people and has an Indigenous population of around 80 percent. The bright shawls and ponchos, the black hats and braids, the beads, and easy smiles, all beneath the shadow of VolcÃ¡n Imbabura, make for a beautiful experience.
Heading south for our final destination city of Riobamba, we stopped for one day and night in the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City); clearly tourist driven, it is where the Equator Monument stands. We happened to arrive on the autumnal equinox, so there was an Indigenous ceremony going on, involving the scattering of corn meal and berries, and fires to smudge with on either side of the equatorial line.
Afterward, there were tables lined up for a feed. We opted for a restaurant and bypassed the roasting racks of cuy, a favorite food in South America, roasted guinea pig complete with head. I stuck with the llapingachos. That night we dined well at El CrÃ¡ter Hotel, our one luxury hotel at just $80, perched on the rim of VolcÃ¡n Pululahua.
Not a Greyhound Bus Ride
Catching a bus from Quito’s Terminal Terrestre, more like an airport than a bus station, we settled in for the four-hour ride to Riobamba. The basic rule of bus travel is that it costs one dollar per hour, so the four hour ride only cost four dollars ”“ and what a ride it was.
There is no single preferred bus company like Greyhound; they are each in competition. This means, if a bus driver spots a passenger on the side of the road, he will try to pass the bus in front of him to get that fare. Imagine this: forget about the fact that you’re at 10,000 feet, on the side of a mountain, while the drivers try to outrun each other. Enjoy that Cameron Diaz/ Tom Cruise movie in Spanish, if you can keep your attention fixed.
Every time the bus stops, two or three vendors will board with bags of potato chips, or warm containers of empanadas and tamales, or cokes. Two or three will get off before the bus pulls back out, but one will stay on ”“ this is the salesman who will hand everybody a product then perform an infomercial for the next ten or fifteen minutes.
When he is done, you hand him back the product or buy it. This will repeat for four hours. Forget trying to concentrate on that movie, and never mind that you just passed Cotopaxi, the most beautiful volcano you’ll ever see. Enjoy the ride.
From Riobamba, Straight Down the Devil’s Nose
Riobamba is a city of past Grandeur. The colonial section is beautiful in its own broken way, its plazas surrounded by faded glory and algaed fountains. Two days was more than enough time to visit the museums and cloisters. The city lies to the east of VolcÃ¡n Chimborazo, the highest volcano in Ecuador at over 20,000 feet and the farthest point from the core of the earth, due to the bulge at the equator. It is locally known as El Chimbo and rarely is without cloud cover.
The first day we only caught glimpses of it, but the third day, I happened to be out alone and I passed the Parque 21 de Abril, where it is rumored that one can see all four surrounding volcanoes. I climbed the steps to the decrepit little park and saw three of the four. The following morning, we enjoyed a local specialty, juice from the tomate de Ã¡rbol served over ice from the peak of El Chimbo.
As mentioned, three days was too long to stay in Riobamba, so on the third day I made the preparations to ride the train down the treacherous Nariz del Diablo, a train leaving the neighboring city of AlausÃ and descending down a near vertical mountainside through a series of switchbacks. El Nariz del Diablo is a mountain shaped like the devil’s nose. Two indents, one on either side of the mountain, resemble eyes.
The small city of AlausÃ is a beautiful pastel-painted city that is mainly Indigenous. It is located at the bottom of a long switchback road, and a large statue of Saint Peter holding his keys and Bible dominates the skyline. The railroad station was bustling with tourists, there to make the trip down the Devil’s Nose to a small museum, where lunch is included and dancing with locals. This section of track is the only part of a line that once took passengers from Guayaquil in the south up to Quito in the north.
The following morning, we hopped on a bus headed back to Quito. My brother had a midnight flight, and mine was at 6:00 am the following day. The only negative about the new Mariscal Sucre airport is that when it was built (far from Quito), no hotels were built nearby, and most international flights leave either at midnight or daybreak.
I had read that due to the lack of hotels, many people with large homes near Tababela had opened them up as B & B’s, even offering rides to the airport. I lucked out and booked a beautiful room at an old hacienda in Puembo, a town fifteen minutes from the airport. It was surrounded by blossoming jacaranda trees and eucalyptus. The staff cooked a homemade dinner for the three of us guests. My brother was invited as well, then he was driven to the airport by the owner.
Twenty fours hours later, I was back in my log hooghan in Lamy, left to recall the memories of the land called Ecuador ”“ the pervasive scent of eucalyptus; the smiling faces of the Ecuatorianos; the high-pitched drone of the loteria ticket vendors who held so many hanging from their portable racks that they appeared to wear skirts fabricated of tickets; the espumilla vendors scooping their sweet fruit flavored meringues into ice cream cones on every street corner; the majesty of volcanoes on all sides; the hummingbirds everywhere; and last but not least, the colors of the Quichua people, the pink and red mantas, the black hats, the layers of gold and coral necklaces, the white lace shirts.
Ecuador, you are a country I plan to return to, again and again. Gracias a la vida.
(James Thomas Stevens is core faculty in the creative writing department.)
Copyright © IAIA CHRONICLE 2013