Of Tripe and Taxis: Ecuador wk. 5 (and 1/2)

One view on the road from Intag to Quito, north of Otavalo

One view on the road from Intag to Quito, north of Otavalo

Something shifted when I got back from Intag. Maybe not the same day: I quietly mourned our descent into the city smog and collapsed into bed almost as soon as I got home, exhausted. But the following week felt different, like I had settled in. To be honest, I haven’t experienced as much culture shock as I expected; that may be because I expected everything to feel weird and different, and it turned out to be only partly weird and different. I’m sure there are other factors – knowing the language (enough, anyway), the info from orientation, the people I’ve met, etc. But I’m a bit tired for introspection, so full psychological portrait later.

The fifth week was a whirlwind. Our second class began (Development Paradigms & Political Discourse), and every single day featured one or two speakers, all incredibly well-informed and often considered authorities on their subject. Topics included immigration, human rights, mining, indigenous movements, feminism, poverty, LGBTQ activism, and (of course) political discourse and development paradigms. All of this made me extremely glad to be abroad with SIT, as opposed to enrolled in a university proper; I got to ask a mining geologist details about copper exploration, a US Embassy economist about Ecuador’s development options, a human rights consultant about immigrant labor, and much more.

Then, a load of tripe. Not figurative. It’s an infallible remedy for stomach issues, though so far I’ve been fortunate to avoid anything debilitating. But them temptation remained; it’s like a rite of passage for long-term visitors. Three of us went to La Floresta (a neighborhood to the southeast), ordered a bowl of tripa mishka from a street vendor, then watched queasily as she fished an intestine out of a bucket and fried it over a grill. Our dish came with mote (corn, but think big), onions and an epic thunderstorm. Lightning cracked a few blocks away as we took our first tentative bites. The tripe itself tasted a little like bacon, but nourishingly fatty and so chewy that it’s referred to as “Ecuadorian gum.” There are so many idioms that make sense once you spend time around cows (or eat them) – spilled milk, kicking the bucket, chewing the fat. I was a vegetarian for eight years before I came to Ecuador, and I’ll probably be a vegetarian again when I go back, but for now – adventure is out there!

On Friday we went to La Ronda, a stretch in the historic district that comes to life at night. Sights included a rabbit wearing a tiny hat perched on someone’s shoulder, spitting images of Charlie Chaplin, Disney’s Merida and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, jugglers and comedians, Andean folk dancing and stores full of artisan-made chocolate.

This last week and a half I’ve set a record for sights that went un-photographed, but I haven’t been completely unproductive. Apart from eating tripe, I’ve undergone another important rite of passage: haggling with taxi drivers.

Something I’ve learned: no taxi driver wants to use their taximeter at night, despite the fact that it’s illegal not to (punishable by $45 fine, nothing to sneeze at in a country where only chain stores can reliably break a twenty). This was exactly what happened on the way back from La Ronda: four people piled in, the driver set the price (“diez dollarcitos, no más”) and ignored requests to use the taximeter until I opened my door and threatened to find another taxi. It was mostly an empty threat, but he grudgingly turned on the taximeter, and we paid half his suggested fare. It’s the little things.

Another little thing: going to the GALÁPAGOS TOMORROW!!! I can’t even believe this is happening. But first, a taxi to the airport at the crack of dawn, and they better be nice, because I’ll be too tired to haggle.

9:18 OtavaloCountryside

Otavalo countryside



Of Moths and Mining: Ecuador wk. 4

Intag: my program’s first expedition is to the cloud forest reserve about two hours northeast of Quito, in the province of Imbabura. In brief, fantastic. In less brief, I’m scared to write about it at all because I can’t possibly do it justice. Let’s start with the biodiversity: 9_16 MeAndMoths

At night, tenants would shine a light on a sheet to attract moths, which arrived in hordes. Try this in the U.S., and you might see five to ten species; do it in Intag, one of the world’s most biodiverse hotspots, and it’s impossible to count. Every time they do it, they see a new species. Those of us standing near the sheet gradually became festooned with moths – in our hair, on our faces, all over our clothes, and no two alike. It got to the point where I couldn’t lower my arms all the way for fear of crushing a hitchhiker. Some moths were surprisingly loyal, and stuck to my jacket all the way back to our cabin. One hid under my collar like a tiny bow tie.

If only I could remember the name of these prehistoric stumps...

If only I could remember the name of these prehistoric stumps…

We spent the next day trekking through primary and secondary forest for about three and a half hours, getting to know the land. I’m pretty sure the elevation at Intag is even higher than Quito, so just imagine a light, up-and-down stroll across a small mountain range at ten thousand feet, replete with plants that have too many medicinal uses to count. Some were snacks for dinosaurs (see fuzzy mystery plants on the left). One tree, when nudged with the tip of a machete, secreted a thick blood-colored sap that could be used for sunscreen, treating wounds, repelling mosquitoes or making soap.

(Did I mention I got to use a machete? I’m an adult now!)

Biodiversity means equilibrium: lots of species, but low population density, so no single type predominates. Everything is in balance, a bit like a well-run democracy. And, like democracy, it is as valuable as it is fragile; altering or destroying a few little components can debilitate the whole system. This leads us to a caveat in this bio-paradise: the Ecuadorian government would like to mine the entire area for copper, in partnership with a Chilean company that owns the largest open-pit copper mine on earth (now 133 years old). Company’s catchphrase, according to an employee: “Desayunar cobre, almorzar cobre, dormir con cobre.” (Copper for breakfast, copper for lunch, copper at bedtime).

The trouble with copper is that it doesn’t sleep alone. It is commonly found alongside lead and arsenic, two of the more toxic by-products of extraction. Then there’s the mining process itself. In this case, it would be an open pit mine, which requires removing the overburden to get at the metal nested beneath.

View from the roundhouse. Most of the mountain is covered by clouds

View from the roundhouse. Most of the mountain is covered by clouds

When a mining company talks about “overburden,” they mean “ecosystem.” I’ll leave the catastrophizing to Bill McKibben, but suffice to say this struggle is far from over. The communities in this area are internationally known for having thrown out two mining companies who previously tried to establish operations here, but those weren’t backed by the state; this one is. The day we talked about activism and extractivism in Intag, a fellow visitor said something that struck home: tomorrow or in fifty years, someone will extract the copper under this forest. It may not even be this company, but as long as the global market demands copper, Intag will be under threat, because unlike money, copper doesn’t evaporate in times of economic strife. Stopping demand is the only real way to stop supply. And now I take ten million deep breaths.

9:18 ElephantEarPano

Every leaf is about the size of a parasol. Or me in the fetal position, contemplating the global economic system.

On a lighter note: I ate bugs! Specifically, the larva of black soldier flies, frozen and baked and sautéed in lemon, with peppers. Good with guacamole. 4 out of 5 stars, would try again. And, because it would be sacrilege not to include dog pictures whenever I have them:

9:18 DesertFox

Code name Desert Fox

Code name "Grizzly Barrel"

Code name Grizzly Barrel

First name: Monte Last name: Cristo

Monte (Cristo)

Avocado Dreams: Ecuador week 3

9:5 IceEyesSo who is this charming, small dark stranger?

I cannot say, because I never learned her name, but we made a happy pair trotting around in the avocado groves.

My host family, it turns out, owns a small farm less than an hour out of Quito, so last weekend we piled into the car and drove out of the city smog on newly minted highways. After a while, we pulled off onto an improbably rocky road and followed it up a slope; I couldn’t comprehend why a road encrusted with thousands of uneven, football-sized stones would be preferable to dirt, until I realized that the cobbles probably keep rain from wreaking muddy havoc during the wet season. Right now, the mountains looks arid and inhospitable, to the point where it was hard for me to imagine any agricultural production happening in the area.

Apparently my imagination needs more exercise.

Avocados ripening on the branch, ready to harvest in about a month.

Avocados ripening on the branch, ready for harvest in a few weeks

Dozens of avocado trees, barely as old as me but several times taller, stood stoutly behind a little house. I was told the fruits wouldn’t be ready to harvest for another month or so, but they already looked delicious. A little further back was a lemon grove, easily twice as large and nourished by the stream flowing from an artificial pond. Five hundred young tilapia fill the water with excreted nutrients; eventually they’ll be eaten by the other family that lives on the property, or sold at the market. Closer to the entrance, potatoes, blackberries and hibiscus soak up the fierce high-altitude sunshine.

What else? Nine dogs, four cats and three cockatiels, mostly to be found lounging in the shade.9:5 DogsinChairs In a few weeks the harvest will begin in earnest, and truckloads of avocado and citrus will make their way to the city. The day passed like a dream, with fresh air and relaxation, until late afternoon. Back to Quito we went; on the way back, I marveled at various projects to tame the geography, in which massive hillsides have been sheathed in greenish, plasticky armor. This helps prevent landslides – no small threat in terrain like this – and make way for future construction. As we drove further I felt the air thicken again. Quito has a million smells, but exhaust is the most pervasive.

Since the farm visit, I’ve been out and about around the city, drinking tea and getting my bearings. This is a magical place, where I can get almost anywhere in a taxi for five dollars or less. I can even tell the drivers how to get to my house when they don’t know the exact streets (navigation here operates based on intersections, since actual addresses are little-used).

First, to the orchestra with my host family: the Ecuadorian national orchestra performs just a few kilometers north of where I have classes, and hosted the Argentinian Trio Aura the night that we went. It was modern and, frankly, far more exciting than I had anticipated, although I was still nodding slightly after a long week. Even more unusually, the show featured volcanic activity. “Cotopaxi I and II,” performed toward the middle, was a gorgeous composition in which the volcano erupted, according to my musical interpretation, 1.5 times. An homage to Mercedes Sosa made up the second half of the night.

The music was 75% of the show; I attribute the other quarter to the government officials who sat a few rows in front of us. These included a former president of Colombia, the Ecuadorian Minister of Culture, and several other men and women who were obviously of the same milieu and heartily shook hands as they arrived in groups. Two suited men entered ahead of everyone, scanned the audience, then sat at the end of the row and stared into their Blackberries for the remaining two hours.

Postcards of Guayasamin's works "Quito Rojo" (oil on canvas, 80x100cm, Quito-Ecuador 1987) and "Maternidad" (oil on canvas, 80x100cm, Quito-Ecuador 1989). Of Guayasamín's three artistic periods, the third was devoted exclusively to paintings of mother and child.

Postcards of Guayasamín’s works “Quito Rojo” (oil on canvas, 80x100cm, Quito-Ecuador 1987) and “Maternidad” (oil on canvas, 80x100cm, Quito-Ecuador 1989). Of Guayasamín’s three artistic periods, the third was devoted exclusively to paintings of mother and child.

Later in the week I had a taste of independent cinema, live music and the discoteca – all pretty self-explanatory. Our SIT group also visited the museum/house of the deceased Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, a frenetically prolific painter who willed a portion of his works to stay in the country instead of being auctioned off to international collectors.

Many of his paintings dwarf the viewer physically and emotionally, since they tend toward enormity and anguish in various degrees; the works pictured here are light. He dealt with themes including poverty, hunger and genocide, so the museum is not a lighthearted affair, but the art itself is incredible and striking, often with a cubist bent. Some have called Guayasamín the consummate painter of human hands, since the ones in his paintings convey a depth of feeling disproportionate to their size.

"El Violinista," Oswaldo Guayasamín (oil on canvas, 182.5x67cm, Quito - Ecuador, 1966)

Postcard of “El Violinista,” Oswaldo Guayasamín (oil on canvas, 182.5x67cm, Quito – Ecuador, 1966)

The next day, in fact, I recognized a bit of graffiti near SIT’s academic building: there were Guayasamín’s trademark hands, the face behind them twisted into a scream. That’s another thing about Ecuador: the graffiti isn’t ordinary tag. There are some trademark initials and “[Person A] loves [person B],” but much of it is political or downright insurgent. I believe Guayasamín would have approved.

Tomorrow I’m off to the cloud forest, sans internet. Compensations: no internet. Mind-blowing biodiversity. Vegetables. And more. Partial report (with pictures) upon return.