Author Archives: Yann Dardonville

About Yann Dardonville

French-American living in Ecuador for a few months!

La Semana Santa

Leaning against the white, stucco wall of one of Riobamba’s classic colonial buildings, I watched on, entertained and estranged, as young Ecuadorians with markered-on beards dragged their crosses along the cobblestone, moaning “in agony” over the (faux) flagellation inflicted by their companions in Roman imperial garb. But while some were fully committed to celebrating La Semana Santa (Holy Week), others, decidedly, were not: as one school group processed, I observed one of the students stooped over his joined hands as if to pray, but with his eyes fixed to his watch.

If these two scenes exemplified the poles of interest in the event, I would have placed myself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It definitely provoked wonder—over the significance of the whole procession; over the various family and community traditions that fed into it (each “float” or segment of the parade seemed to have its own signature); and over how someone had the genius of using the red-bristled brush of a broom to emulate Roman helmet feathers. But I also felt detached—not only did it not resonate with my lack of a religious upbringing, but it was an event that seemed to repeat the same motifs over and over again without ultimately much variation.

Broom helmets!!

I think that much of the appeal of the event came down to the fact that such a large percentage of the Riobambeño population was participating, and that so many people knew each other. It was fun to watch the crowd wave and call out to their friends in the procession, and to see them laugh as their eyes met. In effect, it gave me a glimpse into the rich web of community connections that is often hidden away from the public sphere by work and routine.

Many children were dressed as such, participating.

Not only revealing, it also felt constructive. In a time where everything feels so individualized and polarized, with people even refusing to occupy the same physical and digital spaces, this was a moment where everyone was unified around something bigger than themselves. Whether they were moaning in pain or looking at their watches, they were nevertheless still sharing space together. Whether or not they were Catholic, they were still sharing a moment together. Moreover, individuals had come together in advance to build floats and make costumes. One could tell that La Semana Santa was not simply “una semana.”

One thing that has been so interesting to observe in Ecuador is the way that tradition still holds power. It has been noted that in occidental thought, “tradition” tends to have a negative connotation, butting heads against “progress” and change. “Static” is bad—stubborn—they tell us. But does everything always have to change? Maybe it is true that everything is in movement, in flux. But who is to say that that movement cannot retrace its old steps? Can it not be at once generative and regenerative?  Think of a spiral: constantly in motion, expanding and shrinking, but with points that can overlap, return to a previous point.

Just food for thought.

An elaborate float.

A big motif


Serendipitous homeostasis

There is no feeling like chancing on something you never knew existed, and that upon first contact, moves you so viscerally. In a time when information is so omnipresent, surprises like this are hard to come by. However, one of the beauties of studying abroad is that, being deprived of so much cultural knowledge, you are pushed face-first into a lake of serendipity. The water is cold—shockingly so—but when you get out and dry off you are warm and blissful, as if someone hit a reset switch for your nervous system.

“Serendipitous homeostasis” hit me as I stared at the painting of a woman with her hands held up, one of them curled and the other strained open. Her face, emaciated, was resolutely split down the middle into two tones, a melancholy yellow and a mournful blue. The rest of her body was less segregated, with blue wrapping around yellow in uncertain union. I looked over at the title on a little golden plate: El Mestizaje.

“El Mestizaje”

“Guayasamín was very sensitive to the question of identity being a mestizo himself,” the museum’s tour guide said with a healthy dose of boredom. To a certain degree, I understood her disengagement: she had probably presented the work with the same exact wording hundreds of times. But I could not relate. I stood there marveling at how the painting arrested the feeling of implacable sadness so perfectly, so transfixed that the tour had moved on to the next room when I came back to my senses. “Came back to my senses” is somewhat disingenuous, though; I think I was only fully in my senses when looking at the painting. It was that powerful.

If you had not heard of Oswaldo Guayasamín until now, I recommend that you look up his work. And if you are feeling slightly bold, buy a plane ticket to Quito and go visit La Capilla del Hombre, one of his parting gifts to Ecuador. Located beneath his house (a beautifully preserved manor), la Capilla is a rectangular structure made of multi-colored bricks with a conical dome protruding from the center. In a way, it almost gives the impression of mimicking an ancient Mesoamerican structure (it is probably not a coincidence that a large Mayan statue stands nearby). The museum, with two floors, is not only full of paintings but also sculptures. At the center of the bottom floor is an “eternal flame” meant to immortalize his presence, although I would argue that it was not ultimately necessary—his paintings have done more than enough to cement his legacy within the Ecuadorian imaginary.

La Capilla del Hombre with Quito in the background

Guayasamín’s house

Guayasamín is a veritable master, and that is why I am shocked I had not heard of him before. Exploring themes such as oppression, social inequality, as well as racism in Latin America and around the world, he attempted to capture the absolute essence of his subjects. This is why you will never see one of them smiling: to him, expressions of joy were temporary, while melancholy and sadness manifested permanence. At times, the constant anguish of his paintings became a little hard to stomach. But when I exited the building, I felt once more the warmness that you feel after diving into cold water, a little reminder I was living and feeling.

Mujeres de Nicaragua

Part of “Retratos de América”

I’m not like the others, right?

Pshhhh, I’m not like those other tourists—those walking, shorts-and-sandals-wearing beneficiaries of globalization. I say “buenas” or “buenas tardes” when I walk by people on the street. I don’t automatically assume that everyone who passes by me speaks English. And I’m not one of those “gringos fríos,” unless your “frío” actually means to imply “cool.” I pick conversations with shop owners. I go to smaller museums to really learn about the pormenores (details) of the culture. I’ve spent hours thumbing through newspapers to understand what’s really going on. I read a good amount of texts about the politics and culture of the country from native authors. I ride public transportation every day. I live with a host national family and do chores. I’m a regular at the local family-run café. I say “chutaaaa” when things go horribly wrong. I am aware of how my presence and identity take up certain kinds of space. Right… right?

It is a warm, sunny day on the island of Isabela in the Galapagos, and I am watching a group of English-speaking tourists fumble around for their booking information—yet also still proceeding through the sand-covered streets with an air of entitlement. One says “hello” to me. I respond with “hola,” barely hiding my disdain. For weeks, the students on my program and I have been reflecting on the socio-political and linguistic costs of tourism and globalization, and now that we have come face-to-face with the beast itself, it is difficult for us to put away any critical lens. As we walk around the small town of Puerto Villamil, every few steps punctuated by a fallen coconut, and as we observe the developing skeletons of new hotels and restaurants and hear their noisy growth, I try to visualize what it looked like more than thirty years ago before the uptick in tourism. I try to reflect on the types of cultural changes that may have occurred. And I also attempt to imagine what it all could have looked like before there was any human presence on the island at all.

But while this all goes on in my mind, I neglect to think on how one could easily look at me and feel the same kind of contempt. After all, did I not just hike through the national park earlier that day, and do some snorkeling in the nearby bay? Am I not currently returning to my cushy beachside hotel room with a balcony overlooking the shore? Am I not going to a restaurant later this evening to feast on an assortment of seafood delights? No matter how many “buenas tardes” I might let loose, there is no way that I can separate myself from the truth: I am also part of the problem.

Early on during program orientation, our academic director made us sit with a rather destabilizing idea: that study abroad is just another form of neocolonialism. It is hard, at least for me after significant reflection, to think otherwise. Students purchase their experiences abroad through the help of certain programs, where they will then spend their time enjoying what the countries have to offer and extracting cultural knowledge—often without the consent of their populations nor with much reciprocity. And, usually arriving with sizeable spending money, these individuals enter a socio-cultural landscape with privileges which subsequently affect the communities hosting them; i.e. a community moving away from traditional practices to produce touristic goods and experiences. Often, the arrow of power seems to point in only one direction.

I have been very fortunate to be in an academic program that takes structural inequalities into consideration and attempts to minimize its impacts on native populations, prioritizing local businesses and attempting to create relationships of reciprocity. But its role—and by extension my role—within the industry of academic tourism cannot be completely exonerated. We still take part in global processes that to a certain extent exploit certain populations for the benefit of others. We still take part in imposing the hegemony (the somewhat hackneyed political word for domination) of the market.

How, then, do you avoid being like the “other tourists”? I do not think you ever can completely. But to start, saying “buenas,” as already mentioned, is not enough. It is about putting aside your cultural assumptions and entering in dialogue with host nationals, learning new things and also sharing your own knowledge. It is about being attentive to the power dynamics between you and other persons, as well as recognizing your role as an actor in processes bigger than yourself—and then taking concrete steps to avoid or counter the damage. It is about looking to create relationships of reciprocity and consent. It is about realizing that your presence in the country is temporary, and that is something you must be constantly conscious of abroad and back home. Speaking of back home, it is also about doing something to address systemic inequalities after your experience in the country is over.

This list is brief and wholly inadequate in addressing the scope of what needs to be done. But I hope that my fellow Whitties who are either currently abroad or preparing for it will be conscious of their position and privilege, and reflect on the impact of their presence. And to make up for a bit of a dense blog post, here are some photos from the Galapagos:

We stayed in little huts on Floreana — lots of little signs all around about conservation!

Near where we stayed in Floreana

A marine iguana sanctuary in the distance

From the island of Isabela–La Sierra Negra

A rock of “reunion”

Deep breaths

La Basilica — where I was standing!

Streams of smog spill out onto the street from big blue buses and yellow minivans labeled “C.I.A. Escolar.” I try to cover my breath, but it is too late: I can already feel the black tar making its home within my bronchioles. It is Saturday, and I have decided to join some of the other students on the program in the Centro Histórico to visit the Basilica, a tall, unfinished, and somewhat ill-fitting neo-Gothic church located at the top of a hill (it has been alleged by some locals that its completion will usher the end of the world).

I do not know what it is about the Centro Histórico—maybe the narrow streets and old stone architecture are compounding factors—but I find that the pollution there is particularly suffocating. And the rest of Quito is not great, either. My short walk to the local Trolebús stop, one I make almost every morning, is largely enough to remind me that I am far away from home.

There are many things that I have been able to get accustomed to while living here, like food and public transport patterns. However, I do not think that I will ever be able to get used to breathing in car contaminants. It is not something that you can really ever prepare for, despite any warning made before leaving. Just as you are at the mercy of the smell of an irresistible empanada, so are you to the plumes of smoke spiraling nearby. That is one unsettling reality of studying abroad: you are not necessarily in control of your environment. Yet it is also one with which you must inevitably make peace.

The top of the Basilica provides a much-needed breath of fresh air, although it is immediately undercut by the onset of vertigo-induced hyperventilation (having to climb up intensely narrow and rickety metal steps does not help). Still, I have tasted pure air, and in the uneasy ecstasy I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if it were always like this.


Sunday. Despite having gone to the Centro Histórico the day before, I am back with my host brother to see some of its more hidden features. But while I am walking, what stands out more to me than anything else is the sustained feeling of what I had seldom felt before—a pure, uncontaminated air streaming in and out of my lungs, uninterrupted. In many of the streets, there is not a single car. Instead, I see entire families riding bikes, rollerblading couples holding hands, and the occasional skateboarder. The reason? Since 2003, Quito has closed a 30-kilometer stretch of avenues, going north to south, for bicyclers and pedestrians. In 2009, “Ciclopaseo” became a weekly event.

El Centro Histórico

It is shocking just how transformative the closure is on the general environment. I would say that there is a tangible sense of relief visible in the gait of every pedestrian (although to be fair, it might also be the fact that it is a Sunday). Instead of feeling stuffy and small, the streets feel like an extension of the sky. And not only is the smog gone, but also the noise pollution. The city is taking a great big breath.

I too am taking great big breaths, and with each one I feel a renewed sense of calm. But as we head back home and reenter the world of traffic, the feeling returns to the realm of distant memory. And upon opening my computer to search for pollution statistics, I am alarmed to see that Quito’s continual population growth has forecasted worse air quality by 2040. 35% of Quito’s streets already exceed their capacity by traffic, and that figure is rising.

But at the same time, there are new public transportation initiatives that could help mitigate some of these issues. The city has been constructing a new metro line that is expected to service 400,000 riders, although it is unclear when it will ever be completed (concerns have also been raised about how vertical it is—it is only one line that goes up and down the city). It has also been working on making improvements to the interconnectivity of the entire system.

It will be interesting to see how Quito chooses to tackle the problem in the coming decades. In the meantime, I will have to continue bearing the brunt of the smog. However, I would not say that it is all bad: it has also pushed me to seek out spaces of refuge throughout the city, like the Parque Metropolitano (a personal favorite of mine). Some photos are provided below:

El Parque Metropolitano


La Plaza Nicaragua

La Plaza Costa Rica

Hasta la próxima!



I woke up to quilts of rolling emerald hills, patched with plots of agricultural land and stitched with narrow dirt roads. “It must not be long now,” I thought to myself. But after fourteen hours in transit with almost no shut-eye, my understanding of the passage of time was unwinding like a thread, and I felt more or less like a loosely-knit sweater. I turned my eyes to the tired Ecuadorian woman sitting next to me as I tried to get my bearings. To my surprise, she was completely unmoved by the expansive landscape, as if the hills below were merely small notches in the ground. I turned back to my window. The green blanket was now soaked in the brine of cityscape, with white buildings washing over the valley and spilling upwards into the surrounding highlands.

“That’s Quito?” I asked my passive neighbor, who suddenly beamed with unanticipated warmth.


I was perplexed. On maps that I had seen, Quito was a narrow strip of urbanization contained by four volcanoes. Crucially, however, I had underestimated the drive—and necessity—to build, no matter the incline.

Finally landed and out of customs, I met my host, Patty, in the lobby of El Aeropuerto Mariscal Sucre, and headed in the direction of Quito. Like it had been in the plane, lumbering hills soon made way for buildings and movement. At a red light at the outskirts of the city, while looking out the car window at small comercios with signs that read “Gypsum” and “Bricks,” I could also make out buildings far in the distance straddling the hillside.

“They seem to be building higher and higher,” I said.

She responded: “Yes, even three or four years ago it wasn’t as developed as before.”

Right then, a mass of bodies started to fill the empty spaces of the pavement, carrying plastic sacs of coconut milk and columns of fruit. Some also had ice cream and bottled water. They agglomerated around our car, but moved on quickly once they figured out that we weren’t buying. Still, I felt a little smothered.

“Most of the people here are Venezuelans,” she remarked.

It made sense: with the current humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, many had chosen to leave their home and seek refuge somewhere else more stable. In Ecuador, 300,000 Venezuelans poured into the country and are now working in the informal economy, which nevertheless makes up 45% of all national economic activity. But recent violent acts perpetrated by some migrants, like the murder of an Ecuadorian woman in the city of Ibarra, have elicited an overwhelmingly xenophobic response from both the Ecuadorian state and population. When I mentioned that I heard about this to Patty, she said:
“Yeah, there is this idea now in Ecuador that most Venezuelans are bad people, but in reality, you can’t scapegoat them. Like with any population, there are good and bad people.”

It was after this episode that it dawned on me that the country where I would be spending approximately four months was going through growing pains. Ecuador has historically considered itself a small country, and in many respects, it feels like one. It was difficult, for instance, to reconcile the drive through small city streets with what I had seen from the airplane. Moreover, their common usage of the suffix “-ito” like in “pequeñito” or “amorcito” only serves to further highlight smallness.

But in other ways, the country is already large. Not only in terms of its geology, with its high-rising mountains, but also its biology—Ecuador is the most biodiverse place on Earth. In addition, it is culturally diverse, with various indigenous ethnicities and a strong Afro-Ecuadorian population.

In other words, though it may be a small country, Ecuador already practices a dense quilt-work. It remains to be seen, though, if it will continue to weave.