I've been reading, for the second time, a book called The Last Days of the Incas by Kim McQuarrie. It makes traveling so much better when you know something about the history of what you're looking at. It's a terrific lot of historical research that reconstructs in great detail just how the Spanish destroyed the Inca empire, and fits in beautifully with Hiram Bingham's accounts of his rediscovery of the Incan sites, particularly Machu Picchu. (Did you know, btw, that Bingham was looking for Vilcabamba, the last Incan capital, and thought that's what he'd found at Machu Picchu? Oh well, that's another story for later, and to be told by someone else–scholars, for instance–who are interested in academic credit.)
We've been in Peru for five days now, and the first impressions are that Peru is more prosperous than Ecuador, and that this is due to a few things: the people just seem to be more entrepreneurial, especially when it comes to tourism; and the government seems more interested in actually doing things to promote the economy instead of promoting itself.
We see some of that in Cusco, where we are now, but it was really apparent in Lima, where we spent two days before heading up to the mountains.
To my mind, one of the major deficiencies of Quito is its lack of neighborhood bars. When we lived in Madrid and Barcelona, we could count on there being at least one bar on damn near every block in the residential neighborhoods. These were most often family places that opened early in the morning so you could get your café con leche and a croissant, served a hearty lunch at the beginning of siesta time, and were there for beer, wine and tapas after work.
No such luck in Quito.
We make up for the coffee ourselves by brewing a very strong pot every morning in our French-style press pot we brought from home. (We tried serving it to one of my students one day and he recoiled at the grounds that stuck in his teeth.) There actually is a place that makes pretty good croissants, but it's about a 20 minute walk, and we don't usually make it there in the morning.
Saturday and Sunday are the best days to walk around the city for two reasons: everyone else is doing it, and the city provides entertainment in the form of music and dancing.
First, the people watching part: both weekend days are big shopping days. On Saturday, all shops are open and are doing big business. Squeezing through the stalls of the Quiteño equivalent of a mall is an experience in itself. The shopping centers mostly resemble a U.S. storage locker facility where rows of 12 x 24 foot empty spaces face each other across a narrow hallway. Here, though, those lockers are packed to the top with merchandise of all types. One stall has underwear, the next has shoes, the next has small appliances, and the one next to that has mattresses (which reminds me, I need one.)
Oswaldo Guayasamín, who died in 1999, is undoubtedly Ecuador's most famous artist. You see his images everywhere you go. Even the shops that sell Indian handicrafts appropriate his work for everything from sweaters to painted peanut bowls.
Inside the Capilla; you can see the scale
It was his final gift to his country to establish two incredible museums of his work–the Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) and the Fundación Guayasamín. He was extremely generous.
I have one English student right now. His name is Carlos, and he's a National Police officer who is currently stationed as an immigration officer at the Quito airport. Kris and I met him when we came back to Quito after my father's funeral, and he happened to be the officer we drew to check our passports and visas.
We began talking a bit while he was checking us in, and he asked me why we were in Quito. I said I had been teaching English, but had to quit my job because I'd had to go back to the US twice already. He asked if I gave private classes, and the rest just sort of worked itself out.
I first went to La Mitad del Mundo the week I got to Ecuador. I was taken there by the family I stayed with for a month while I was first working at the school. They took me there because it was the monument to the site of the equator, and damnit, this is Ecuador, after all.
I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook later that the monument is actually off by 240 meters, and that some Indians had accurately sited the equator and built their own monument in the proper site about a thousand years ago. But, the Indian site is on the steep side of a mountain, and this site is in a little valley, so I'm betting that, while they knew where the equator was, the tourism types decided that a flat site near the side of the highway was, shall we say, more efficacious when it came to charging admission and selling souvenirs.
And, what's 240 meters between friends? Especially when that 240 meters is pretty much straight up.
I've been living in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, for about four and a half months now, counting the two trips back to the U.S. to take care of some business. Now my wife, Kristin Henning, and I are here for the duration, and that could be indefinite as we've just applied for resident visas.
The picture at the top of the blog's home page is the view from outside the picture window of my apartment. The apartment is very small, very inexpensive, but, except for the mattress, very comfortable. Depending on how successful I am with the visa application, I will remedy the mattress situation soon.
The view is of a hill, which rises right in the middle of the valley of Quito and is called the Panecillo, which translates as “Little Loaf of Bread.” It's topped by a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which sort of serves as the logo of Quito. And, as Quiteños are proud to point out, she's the only Virgin with wings in the world. That's because she's the Virgin of the Apocalypse and is stomping on the snake from the Garden of Eden. It's the image of the final triumph at the end of the world of good over evil. I'll believe it when I see it.