Gary and Sarah Girotti/Jones|
¡Hola South America!
Quito - Must be the lack of oxygyn???
Ecuador is a very interesting place for a small country. In area, it is slightly bigger than the state of Nevada, but in terms of geographic diversity the place is huge. In such a small area it contains a sizable pacific coast, some of the highest mountains in the world (outside of the Himalayas), a large chunk of the Amazon rainforest, and the Galapagos islands. As one would imagine it is a tough place to govern (and Ecuador's political history bears this out), but for people who like the outdoors (hiking, climbing, diving, riding ....) the country is a little paradise.
Our adventure in Ecuador started with a startling, white-knuckle night time landing into Quito, the Ecuadorian capital. As we came in for the landing Gary (having been on way too many flights) started to get nervous and expressed that we are coming in really fast. Just then we cleared the clouds, only to realize that we appeared to be headed for a living room of one of the houses right in front of us! The landing was actual very normal for Quito standards. The extra speed was apparently due to the fact that Quito is 2800m above sea level, and the houses were due to the fact that Quito´s airport sits in the middle of the city, in the middle of a residential district. A design flaw that was badly exposed a several years ago when a Cuban plane missed the landing and wiped out an entire neighborhood. They are apparently building a new airport somewhere out of town.
The books say the name Quito comes from a pre-Inca tribe that inhabited the area, but we thing it's Quechua (Incan language) for paradox. The first and most striking paradox of Quito is that while it is only 22 KM from the equator it never gets much about 25 degrees C (the 2800m fact again). Our Asian tans faded quickly :-(.
The second paradox is the visible lack of people. Even thought Quito has over a million people crammed into a mountain valley, there never seems to be many people around--by 10 pm the place is dead.
The next striking paradox it that while the people of Quito seem to be very friendly, pleasant and quiet (a very surprising and welcome change from the ´In-your-face´ atmosphere of SE Asia), there are heavily armed (and I mean heavily armed) guards in front of every bank and government building. Also, the conciege told us that on weekends the locals like to shoot at each other outside the bars. (This is Charleton Hestons kind of place!) As for the weather, its just a mess. It is literally sunny, warm, cold, rainy and cloudy every day, without fail.
Despite these strange facts, the city is very pleasant. We walked the Old town colonial architecture, markets and churches, and toured New town shops and restaurants, churchs and more churchs!!. But between the city hills and the altitude we didn't last long...we fell easily into the Quito pattern of up late and down early.
La Mitad del Mundo
After seeing all the churches we could take, we decided to take a day trip to La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World). For the unitiated, the equator is just 22km north of Quito, and of course the inevitable tourist trap cum educational center has cropped up.
In the late 1800s, a group of French scientists came to Ecuador to make a precise location of the equator. From this work was born the metric system. A meter is based either on a fraction of the distance between the north pole and the equator or on a faction of the world´s diameter at the equator. We never could get a straight answer on this one. On the site of their work, and directly (apparently) straddling the equator, is a 30 meter high monument. With great anticipation, Gary broke out his GPS, sat on the yellow line that marked the equator and waited like the geek that he is to see 0,0,0 latitude. What he saw was 0,0,120 latitude???? To which he moaned "stupid machine" and looked like a sad puppy. He cheered up after a coffee at the local cafe and decimating Sarah in yet another game of Southern Hemisphere Crib.
After coffee we toured the numourus pavilions around the monument. The most interesting was the solar exhibit, which is not sanctioned by the government (hmm...must be good!). The reason the government shuns the exhibit is that it highlights this fact (read it here first!): the glorious Mitad del Mundo monument is actually not on the equator!!
Apparently, the French got it wrong by 300 meters. Gary's machine was right, to which he smiled "Silly Frenchies". Actually, it is not that surprising that the French missed--they did all of their measurements with sextons, and only took 15 months to do so. What is really amazing is that there is a lot of evidence that the pre-Inca tribes people got it right. That are ancient ruins on a nearby hill that are exactly on the equator. In addition, they built most of there religions monuments on the apex of the equator and the points of sunrise and sunset. What a revelation! We left feeling quite enlightened and clever :o) Although, of course, we can't say that we've stood with one foot in either hemisphere...
Otavalo: Market Day!
We set out early in the morning, our trusty guide Manuel puttering through the valleys and over the hills: destination Otavalo. Otavalo is a small town about 130 km north of Quito, and is reportedly the most important market in northern Ecuador.
We stopped first at the animal market on the edge of town. What a riot! There were hundreds of villagers milling about, piglets, cows, and goats trailing behind their owners as they bartered with one another. You may have seen comedy before, but there´s nothing to beat the high comedy of watching skinny little farmers trying to heave squealing, slippery, and P.O.´ed pigs into the back of a pickup. And the noise...(oh there I go giggling again!)...it´s just priceless.
After extracting ourselves from the animal market, we headed to the more serious business of the main market. Otovalo is completely consumed on market day--booths stretch for multiple blocks in every direction, and villagers crowd throughout looking for their weekly purchases. The villagers all dress in their traditional costumes, brightly colored outfits with elaborate designs and matching head coverings. We were feeling quite slovenly in our traditional costumes of khaki pants and t-shirts...
We went in prepared for battle: we are market pros from Southeast Asia, as you may recall, so we knew what was in store...except that it wasn´t at all. Imagine our surprise: not one person grabbed onto us, no one got mad when we wouldn´t buy their things that we had no use for, and bartering was actually a pleasant, non-cutthroat affair. We were quite discombobulated at first, but believe me, that didn´t stop us from diving in for the buying frenzy!
For sale: just about anything you can imagine. Fortunately, they had the insight to lay out the market into sections, with one street hawking only textiles, and another selling just food. We spent the majority of our time on the jewelry street (much to Gary´s dismay), and haggling over t-shirt prices. We were enthralled by the clothing for sale, but couldn´t justify buying any given the lack of wearing opportunity in the States (although it would provide good comic relief for Gary´s office). We headed home with a full bag and great pictures.