Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Double Spaces of Quito

Indigenous people peeling maize while overlooking
Quito from El Panecillo, Ecuador. Photo by Diego
Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0.
Quito stands high in the Andes at 2,850 m (9,350 ft), so the clouds hang so low that they're often fog, and there are many cool and misty days even though the city of 2.6 million is just slightly south of the equator. In the six months that I was there, I often wore a sweater because the average daytime temperature is 19° C. (66° F.), which drops to 10° C. (50° F.) at night. Many Latin American capitals offset their tropical latitudes with high altitudes, and I wonder if the Spanish conquistadores weren't working with a climate logic like the hill station logic of the British in India under which, at least during the hot months, work was done at elevations as high above sea level as possible. I have enjoyed the beach in the tropics far enough from the equator to enjoy the vestiges of seasons, so, for example, the Mexican Pacific has beautiful weather at the ends of the year, but it's hard for me to imagine sea level on the equator as anything less than sweltering at any time of year. I come originally from Texas, which, though at 30° north latitude swelters in the summer, so I've had enough of that. I loved Quito's climate, which, if anything, with its rainy days, clouds and fog, reminded me more of London (of books, movies, and imagination—I haven't been there).

In the parts of Quito where I lived and worked, there were many steel and glass office towers and modern shopping centers, but these freely commingled on the map with tumbledown buildings of cinder blocks. Even the municipal services building in Quito looked more like a dirty and greasy car repair yard than a civil registry. The poverty seems to be a gauzy veil that inescapably covers the country so that it becomes visible even in the interstices of high-rise buildings and sprawling indoor malls. The poor abound, and the small middle class—like a handful of illegitimate offspring of the rich ruling class—work in the tall buildings or shop in the malls.

Another duality of Quito reminds me of colliding galaxies. They look so solid with their spiral arms full of stars, but in actuality they are so tenuous and full of space that they can pass through each other without having much effect on each other except for a little tugging and stretching. And this is how the two societies of Ecuador work too. The indigenous pass through the cities scarcely affected by madness of urban crowds, and the more Europeanized Ecuadoreans pay the indigenous folk little mind.

One place where these two galaxies collide in a less tenuous manner is at Otavalo. This city, the capital of Otavalo Canton, belongs to the Otavaleños, who are masterful weavers, and on market day, Saturday, the town fills with tourists who want to buy the textiles they make. During the market's peak, says Wikipedia,
almost one third of the town becomes full of stalls selling textiles, tagua nut jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods and spools of wool. As the city has become more of a tourist attraction, many of the goods sold in the markets are mass-produced in nearby factories and sold in the market by middle-men. More artisan products can be purchased in neighboring communities or at the Museo Viviente Otavalango.
I arrived in Ecuador from Colombia, and I immediately noticed a difference in the government's signage (like the UK's "Keep calm and carry on"). In Colombia, these signs say "It's time to act" ("Ya es hora de actuar"), and Red Cross posters addressed to combatants appear in surprising places and ask that, whatever the warring parties must do to each other, they should leave civilians out of it (i.e. don't shoot them, and don't kidnap them). Meanwhile in Ecuador, the signs say things like "Visit the Zoo." The massive change in tenor reflected the shift from war to peace, and it was reassuring. This led me to be perhaps a bit overconfident in getting around, but I suffered no consequences for it. The apartment complex where I lived—half a dozen high-rise buildings in a small park surrounded by chain link topped with razor wire—was guarded by a small army of guards equipped with automatic weaponry. Whether the dangers outside the fence warranted the guns, I know not, but I figured better too much than too little. Still, as I say, I got around Quito with the same casual disregard that I have in the US (which is fast becoming as dangerous as any Latin American country).

This photograph by Diego Delso was, by the way, Wikimedia Commons's Picture of the Day on 9 June 2016. You should be able to click on it and see the full scale view, which I urge you to do because the picture is so full of details. The two women in the foreground provide a dizzying vertiginous contrast to the city below. (LATER: Unfortunately the original resolution that I uploaded was too much for Facebook, which couldn't display the picture. Google+ managed it fine. In an effort to get through to Facebook, I lessened the resolution, but this didn't help. I'm sorely disappointed with Facebook not only because I tried to humor its limitations but also because for this blog the picture is more than half the story.)