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.
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. 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.
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.
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.