Crossing from Peru into Ecuador was a physical experience. After a couple of hours baking in a mobile oven (aka the Loja Co-operative bus) we disembarked near the border, attended to Peruvian exit formalities and then walked over the Rio Macara bridge into Ecuador. The walk took 5 minutes; dealing with the legalities to enter the country took longer with lots of standing outside a portacabin immigration office in the dimming light before getting back on a bus for a swaying journey to our first stop, Loja.
After spending a night or so in laid-back Loja, we headed for Baños, a town on the edge of La Cordillera de los Llanganates. This is where Ecuadoreans that can afford it go to soak in thermal baths warmed by nearby volcanoes. Although loaded with tourists the majority of them were friendly Ecuadorean families, which made for conversations loaded with curiosity while our respective kin soaked in murky pools.
Family hikes along river gorges or up in the hills were a highlight for me and, I think, Polly. Trouble is, no other families seemed to be hiking, something our not-too-stupid children worked out. They did themselves proud when all three marched up 2500 feet of a hill to get a go on a condor swing (an unnerving contraption designed to give the illusion that you have hurled yourself over the edge of the mountain). Other hikes ended at pools filled with cool water from plunging waterfalls.
Baños is also famous a variety of toffee so hard that it has to be warmed-up to give teeth any chance of survival. This entails sweet-shop workers pulling large bands of the sticky stuff with their hands to stretch it into an edible form. A disturbing number of teenage boys were so employed but, for what I consider obvious reasons, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy this local delicacy from their adolescent mitts.
The next few days were based around Otavalo, a town in Ecuador’s fertile highlands. It is gorgeous, sited within range of five volcanos. Some were a bit ambitious to dupe the children into climbing but on a reassuringly drizzly and cloudy day we set-off to walk around a nearby crater lake. This involved getting a local bus out to the village Cotacachi before hiring a truck-type taxi to the start of the path. We arranged for the driver to collect us later and on the way back he was bemoaning gringos having bought up cheap land to develop gated communities for North American retirees. We stopped in the market before catching the bus back, feasting for pennies on pulled pork baked in an earth oven. The taxista’s story was confirmed by an older gringo who found us in the market. Chuck (name changed to protect his identity/I can’t remember his name) gleefully told us that ‘International Living’ magazine had identified the area as a good place to buy real estate. Indeed, I found the magazine printing, without irony, “Thanks to growing expat communities in several of Ecuador’s most popular destinations, fitting in once you arrive is remarkably easy…”
Groaning, we returned to Otavalo. According to Lonely Planet (so it is probably several years out of date and was fourth hand information to the author), this is the location of Latin America’s largest goods market for local indigenous peoples. There is also an animal market on a Saturday, which we visited early in the morning to get a glimpse of this campesino (peasant farmer) gathering. It was noisy, healthily smelly, with many ponderous faces studying the livestock before making decisions that could make a huge difference to their families’ fortunes.
Later we found the other market and the guidebook was right. A vast swathe of the town had been turned-over to stalls holding every possible type of colourful stuff you really don’t need. By 10am, hordes of all-too-keen tourists were ready to buy said produce, presumably in the belief that what their condominium in Colorado really needed was a large wall hanging with a motif depicting an orange and brown earth mother with large breasts and a hat.
Scepticism aside, I regret not having planned enough time in this beautiful country before we needed to get to Quito for a scheduled flight. Before leaving, I hoped, at least, to see Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s final masterpiece. Anyone trudging their way through our blogs will gather that most museums bore the life out of me; galleries don’t. Knowing just enough to recognise how important a figure Guayasamin was on the Latin American art scene, I was genuinely excited when Lonely Planet Polly said Quito was home to La Capilla del Hombre (“The Chapel of Man”).
I don’t know about you but too often my mind makes connections which are best not voiced. It can be a real problem. Whenever I see a picture from Guayasamin, the song “La Bamba” starts playing in my head. I blame it Los Lobos, a Mexican band who found temporary fame by covering the song made famous by Richie Valens in the 1950s. They made a lot of other music, including the album “La Pistola y el Corazon” (The pistol and the heart), which I thought had one of his pictures on the album cover. I am wrong. But what my 30-year old mistake did was whet my appetite for his work, albeit in a completely half-cocked manner.
A master painter and sculptor of Quechua and Mestizo descent; also a committed atheist, Guayasamin said, “many temples are built in honor (sic) of the gods, but none to celebrate man”, so he established a foundation to build the chapel. The building’s location and the simple architectural lines are pleasing but the content provokes an emotive response. Huge paintings cover the walls, starting with his early ‘Trail of Tears’ phase where the misery and injustice suffered by Latin American indigenous peoples are depicted. Images capture the political oppression, racism, poverty and class division found in much of Latin America. Other works from his ‘Age of Rage’ phase portray some of the major tragedies of the 20th century including the Holocaust, the Vietnam war and victims of dictatorships.
During these phases he said:
For the children that death took while playing, for the men that dimmed while working, for the poor that failed while loving, I will paint with the scream of a shotgun, with the power of thunder and the eagerness of battle.
But his final phase, known as ‘The Tenderness’, sees a shift in colour and symbolic modification of earlier subjects. The particular focus on the relationship between mother and child leaves one with little doubt that at the end of his life he wanted to project feelings of compassion and love.
For what it is worth, I was really pleased this last flurry of work felt like a man bringing his life to a peaceful conclusion; reflecting in an honest manner that a rounded portrayal of the human condition should not only capture the inhumanity we witness; it should also provide hope, for wherever we find suffering and hate, we also find love and solidarity.
13 January 2017
- Cover image: Oswaldo Guaysamin’s El Guitarista