#17: Quito, Ecuador:
Life is a Philosophy at High Altitudes
Mt Cotapaxi, Ecuador – bring a sweater.
21 Mar 2002
I arrived in Ecuador two weeks ago from Peru. The endless banana plantations of El Oro (“Gold”) Province and its capital Machala (nicknamed “Banana Capital of the World”) greeted me as I entered Ecuadorian territory. Finally I have a chance to see the origins of many of the bananas I have eaten all these years!
I spent my first night in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and commercial centre, where in 1822 Simon Bolivar – the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru from Spanish colonial rule – met for the first time Jose de San Martin, the liberator of Argentina. Nobody knows what happened at this famous and mysterious meeting of the two supreme leaders of South American liberation movement, but San Martin left quickly for self-exile in Europe after that. Some say San Martin was disgusted by Bolivar’s arrogance and desire to keep the glories for himself; others say Bolivar might have bought San Martin off with his newfound treasures. Well, another great South American mystery.
As for Guayaquil, the guidebooks bitch about how dangerous the city is. Why haven’t they discovered the joyous multiracial residents of this great port city? And their many salsa bars, Afro-Ecuadorian rhythms and the wonderful specialist restaurants over here that serve those glorious Pacific crabs?
Tackling the glaciers.
Quito, capital of Ecuador, is next. Old Quito was once the northern capital of the Inca Empire, and the Spanish conquerors further crowned it with great architectural gems. With the marriage of Spanish and Inca cultures, a Quito school of painting art developed here. No wonder Quito was among the first cities to be declared by UNECSO as a World Heritage City in 1978. That’s not all.
It was also here that Francisco de Orellana set off to search for the El Dorado, a mysterious city where the ruler supposedly covered himself with gold dust at dawn and washed it off at dusk. de Orellana went astray and discovered the Amazon instead, sailing for the next 1½ years down the great river all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. That is also one reason for the long-standing Ecuadorian claim on the Amazonian part of Peru, a claim that had led to military conflict between the two nations for many years, which was only relinquished in 1998.
These days, the area of downtown Quito around Av. Rio Amazonas is also a definitive Gringolandia. Thousands of young foreigners congregate here to study Spanish. Backpackers hang out in the many bars and discos here, in between adventures in the Galapagos, Amazonian jungle and the Avenue of Volcanoes.
Quiteï¿½nos are a friendly people. A local I hardly knew drove me to my hotel when I arrived, as the friend he was waiting for was late. I also met Pablo, a friendly Quito lawyer, who introduced me to his friends, as well as the Quito party circuit, in between interesting discussions about Ecuadorian economy (interested in the merits of dollarisation?) and politics (yes, the numerous revolutions and coup d’etats of the past decade), as well as local high-society gossips and scandals.
Yes, the party circuit – several nights of excesses and endless glasses of Cuba Libre and other vices, in discos with names such as No Bar/Sutra Cafe (obviously it is a bar-disco with lots of chicas and chicos, where the kama can come after the sutra). The gringos are a fun lot too! I spent hours explaining Confucianist theories and debating Middle Eastern issues and competitive merits of Peruvian versus Ecuadorian cerviches (fantastic raw fish marinated with lemon and onions, which I must introduce to Singaporean gastronomical adventurers) with other long-term international nomads (or drifters, perhaps in the opinion of my parents) in Cafe Amazonas, PapayaNet and other cafes.
After one of the several nights of excesses, I spent 4 hours climbing a short stretch of the 5897m volcano Mt Cotapaxi, up to the high glacier line, but I forgot that I needed more than a T-shirt and a sweater to manage at this level. A nice Norwegian girl lent me an additional sweater, but even then I shivered like a sheared-naked sheep which had wandered out of shelter in mid-winter. The altitude bit my ears like bombshells in the London Blitz.
Market day in Otavalo.
I took a shaky local bus to Otavalo, a bustling small town set in a beautiful valley surrounded by active volcanoes north of Quito. The local Otavaleï¿½o Indians are well-known for their entrepreneurial flair and colourful textiles, and for running the largest craft market in South America, with goods brought from all over the Andes regions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Here I bargained with the locals over the amazing textiles and blankets, and bought enough to open the first Ecuadorian artisan shop in Singapore. I also briefly contemplated buying a cow for US$280 (or 7 million sucres in the old money, as I was quoted by the farmer) but decided that having lomo saltado in a local restaurant will do.
It’s so easy to fall in love with (and perhaps even in) Quito. Maybe it’s the high-altitude that’s having an effect on me (2850m above sea level), or maybe I am becoming a hippie nomad after all. As with before, I have learned that the best thing to do is to run away.
For all my foolishness or craziness, I have booked myself a flight to Bogota, Colombia. Juan Camilo, my classmate from London Business School, will play host for me there. Bogota is a real party town and temple of high art and architecture. It also has some of the most beautiful peoples on Earth (how many beauty contests have the Colombians won?). My desire to travel there has set in once again, for the glorious high altitude of the northern Andes, and alas, in a country that has been suffering from 40 years of violent civil conflict.
Well, right at the onset of all this excitement, bad news is emerging from home, which may require an emergency departure for Singapore. Let’s see what happens. Wish me luck.