La Ciudad Vieja y Otavalo

Trip Start Jul 19, 2006
Trip End Sep 19, 2006

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

I am now writing from an internet cafe in Otavalo, about 2 hours north of Quito. People are singing "Hey Jude" in spanish outside, to the familiar tune being played on a pipe flute. But how did I get here?

I slept in until 9:30am yesterday (the 21st). I awoke and waited to have lunch with Nelly's son, Giovanni, who would be arriving soon. Giovanni is married to Nancy, and Nancy is Patty's sister, the woman who's husband my mom knows. Told you it was complicated. Anyway, they arrived with their two daughters, both under 10 years old. Like most of the children I've met so far, they were bubbling with energy. This was an exciting visit because I had a present for Nancy. I had been carrying a packet full of letters to be delivered to Nancy.

It was like Christmas. Nancy passed the envelopes to each person who would get some words or gifts from family in the US. There was one for each of them, including the kids. Photos of close family separated by far too much distance splashed smiles onto everyone's faces. There was even a sonogram image of a baby. One of the daughters, Channy, received $6. She was ecstatic.

Nancy is also a tour guide, and knows a lot about the city. She offered to take me on a tour of the Old City in southern Quito that afternoon. We drove into the old town and it reminded me of many old towns that I have seen. The real indication that it is truly an Old Town is that everything looks old, but is covered in new, cheap merchandise...until you get to the real old town. Quito is a good place for religion. Every block seems to have its own church. Maybe it was a statistics thing with the Conquistadors. They figured if they build enough churches, odds are more likely that drunkards will stumble into the Lord's house rather than one of the worlds's oldest establishments.

The churches were almost obscene in their opulence. Imagine a building. Now cover everything with gold. Go ahead, just lop it on there. Now, put some more gold on. Maybe some rubies? Yes, we have to have rubies of some sort. Now put some more gold on. Sprinkle some diamonds on everything just for good measure. Also, the building itself is pure gold. Yeah, that about describes it.

Ok, I exaggerate. But you get the picture. Now these churches are all monuments to hundreds of saints. South Americans do love their saints. Big time. There are wooden carvings of saints everywhere. Coated in gold. Ok, not really, but they do look very realistic and I wouldn't have known they were wood if Nancy didn't tell me and have me knock on one of them. Wooden saints everywhere. Perhaps the most interesting, though, was this one saint that was in a small indentation in the wall, but it had neon pink lights arched around its area. It looked like a juke box! It must've been the juke box saint or something, I don't know. I expected 50's music to come out of it. I explained this to Nancy and she laughed. Maybe I'm just crazy.

One of the more golden churches, La Iglesia de la Compañía de Cristo, charged $2 to get in. I flashed my MIT ID and they let me in for $1. Nancy and Nelly stayed behind, letting Channy go with me because children are free. Channy must've learned a lot from her mother, because she commenced giving me a grand tour of the church, pointing out various saints and structures. We stared at one mural depicting Hell, full of demons and various sins scrawled all over it with people suffering according to their bad actions. Very Dante's Inferno. Channy does not believe in the devil at all, but puts her full faith in Jesus. She is 9.

After our tour of the churches, we drove up to the Panecillo. This is a famous statue in Quito that sits high on top a peak overlooking the old city. It is a statue of the Virgin Mary. Nancy explained that this was the only statue in the world portraying Mary with wings. You would think someone else would make one soon just so they could say they have one of only 2 statues portraying Mary with wings.

The Panecillo is supposed to be dangerous to walk up, with many thieves. Nancy drove us up there and we met up with Giovanni and Nancy's sister, Maria, at the top. The statue was huge! I paid $1 to climb up some stairs inside to walk at the base of the statue. I again brought the children with me, because they were free. This time it was 4 young girls and Channy explained more history to me.

The trip up to the Panecillo concluded our tour of the old city, and now we headed to Nancy's house in Pifo (a very small town about 45 minutes east of Quito). I was to stay with Nancy's family that night and leave in the morning for Otavalo. Everyone was so kind with me, I really felt like part of the family. Maria seemed to share my sense of humor as she would make very subtle jokes like "oh, we have a doll house outside that you can sleep in." She would say this in spanish with a straight face, just as I would do in english...but I wouldn't catch on. I usually fell for what she was saying.

One thing about Ecuadorianos: they like noise. There is always noise everywhere. Music, talking, TV, etc. Before leaving me to sleep, they showed me a TV I could watch. I decided to do some spanish practice and watch some of the stations. I browsed through various telenovelas and found the news talking about all the damage that has been done by the eruption of Tungurahua. This is the volcano near Baños that I will be visiting soon. The images showed whole villages covered in ash. Cows, nature's great indifferent beast, meandered around the fields as if nothing had happened. They had a thick coat of ash covering them. Something I noticed about the TV was that the lowest possible volume I could turn it to before going mute was still quite loud...probably about a middle-level volume on a normal TV. I don't know if this is an Ecuadorian thing or not, but it's consistent with the need to be cloaked in sound.

I woke up at 7am the next morning so I could catch the first bus from Pifo to Otavalo. I ate breakfast with Nancy, Giovanni, and Maria. It was pretty good, consisting of fruit covered with a yogurt-like milk and some type of cereal along with a healthy portion of coffee. They asked if I would like a little more coffee powder in my coffee to make it strong. "Si, un poco más." They pour enough to double the amount of coffee powder. "O mucho más... They laughed and I shrugged it off saying that it was probably better that way so I could stay awake and not be robbed on the bus. I was joking, of course. Now it's your turn to guess where this led the conversation:

a) a fun chat about how Rodrigo drinks way too much coffee
b) an interesting lesson about how Ecuadorians use a particularly strong type of coffee bean
c) scary stories about drugs and thieves

If you guessed (c), you are absolutely right. Giovanni began telling me that I should watch out for thieves on the buses and in the towns. I knew about this, though. He added that I should not accept any food or treats from anyone as they could be drugged to put me to sleep, making me an easy theft victim. I also knew this thanks to some good reading I had done beforehand. Then he began to tell me things I didn't know.

He said not to tell anyone the time or anything. He told a story of a woman who looked down at her watch to give the time to someone, and then got sprayed in the face with some powder that he blew at her. She immediately passed out and woke up later with all of her possessions gone. It even got personal when Nancy piped in with her own story! Nancy was driving with Nelly and they heard a loud BANG on the car. They stopped but didn't see anything. Then they continued and someone ran out of the street up to their car holding a bolt in his hands. He handed it to Nancy, claiming it had fallen out of her car. Nancy held it in her hands and immediately collapsed. It was coated with some drug that goes through the skin! Luckily they got away because Nelly noticed other people coming towards them and they drove off.

Can you imagine that? Holding a bolt and then you wake up somewhere else. Nancy doesn't remember anything after the bolt until waking up at home. But that's not the worst they told me. It's bad enough to lose some money and possessions...but it gets much worse.

****Those with weak constitutions should not read this section, just skip down to where it says "Happy Smiles and Rainbows"*****
Organs. They put you to sleep with one of the above tricks and take your organs! Imagine waking up in the middle of nowhere with no money. Man, this sucks. Why does my chest hurt? Oh, I'm missing a kidney. Apparently rich Europeans buy organs on the black market. Even worse, Giovani told me about one story where a woman was going through customs into the US. She was holding her baby in her hands. The official asked to see the baby. The woman was reluctant but eventually showed the face. It was pale...paler than me...unnaturally pale. The woman had killed her baby and filled it with cocaine to bring to the US!

It was 8:18 and I had to catch the 8:30 bus. I went back to collect my things. While bending down to get my backpack, I felt a familiar acidity creep up my throat. My stomach gets upset sometimes when I'm very nervous or have eaten way too much. I threw up a little in my mouth (sorry for the image, just trying to keep it real). I was fine. I lifted myself back up and looked in front of me to see a familiar face. A proud picture of Che Guevara hung on the wall, staring me down. Welcome to South America.

With quite a chipper spirit, I headed off for my bus to Otavalo. It was overflowing with people and I was the only gringo. I stood up for the entire 2 hour ride, and ended up talking with a man named Carlos Guerrero who is from Cotacachi (near Otavalo). He had never left Ecuador in his life, but has relatives in the US. I would guess him to be in his late 30's or early 40's. He was relatively clean-cut and dressed nicely. The bus was quite a mixture of people, ranging from me (the gringo) to tiny woman carrying a baby on her back with a sheet who looks like she came right off a photo in a national geographic. Carlos was very kind, pointing to and naming distant mountains and lakes. He gave me a lot of information. I wrote down his name and phone number and he said I could contact him any time if I needed help or advice in Cotacachi. He showed me where to get off the bus and walked me over to the market. I love the people here. I am still cautious of powder, though. And pale babies.

The market in Otavalo is one of the most famous markets in all of South America. Here you can get most any type of craft, and all for a very good price ("Un buen precio!" as you hear every vendor shout at you). I have been wandering around the market for the past couple of hours and so far have purchased a number of items. My goal is to look like a local by the time Brett arrives here tonight so I can surprise him at the airport in Quito. I also haven't shaved. We'll see how that goes.

While I was wandering around, I bumped into my good old friend Dustin Hoffman (remember, Captain Hook mustache from my trip to La Mitad del Mundo). It turns out he has a stand here every saturday that sells those rainmaker things and shrunken heads made out of sheep skin and fur (these turned out to be the contents of the huge bags he was carrying before). We shared a very warm greeting and he showed me around his booth. I asked him about the shrunken heads, thinking of getting one for my little brother. He told me all about how he made them and everything. I asked how much it would be to buy them. "¿Para tu? Nada" I was his amigo. I tried to pay him something, but he wouldn't let me. I did take down his phone number and name (it turns out he is actually Carlos Chicaiza, not Dustin Hoffman). He told me he will be there every saturday and that I should come back and visit. I fully intend to.

Now you know how I got where I am. The internet is relatively fast here (it only takes like 4-5minutes to upload each picture). Thanks to everyone who has responded to my entries! I hope you are all enjoying them. Now I have to get to Cotacachi so I can hike around the volcanic Lago Cuicocha and catch a bus in time to make it for Brett's flight.

Quantifiable Summary
Woke up at 21st and delivered mail to Nancy and Giovanni when they arrived.
Drove to Old Town with Nancy and Nelly, got a nice tour of churches and the Panecillo.
Stayed at Nancy's house that evening. Very welcoming.
Disturbing stories about drugs in the morning over breakfast.
Caught bus to Otavalo and met Carlos from Cotacachi.
Bought clothes at market and ran into Carlos Chicaza from the bus on my way to Mitad del Mundo.
I now have friends in Quito, Pifo, Baños, Otavalo, and Cotacachi (the last two both being Carlos's).
Still alive.
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