Today I missed my flight out of Quito by a factor of three: first, they expect international travelers to arrive three hours early and I had allotted two; second, we hit traffic so I was only an hour and a half early; third and most importantly, I was looking at a flight for the next day so I was off by an hour. So, arriving at 9 for what turned out to be a 9:25 flight, I was told the flight was closed and I would have to purchase another ticket. I was able to pay a penalty and just move the whole 2-day itinerary forward a day, although I have not yet been able to confirm the change of my Bolivian tickets; there may be more charges for that and I sincerely hope I can manage to make the change tomorrow morning before they force me to buy a whole new one.
So, after the initial shock I immediately felt glad about the possibility of spending another day in Ecuador, and my first instinct was to get myself back out to Imbabura and the beautiful volcanic mountains we had seen on Saturday. I decided to take a regular bus rather than book a special tour, so that I could see a little better what normal life is like here, something I have been almost entirely shielded from. I thought my best bet would be to ride to Otavalo and look for Peter Bernstein’s friend Rafael who is the grandfather of a Quichua speaking family that sells in the market there.
On the bus to Otavalo in Imbabura, I watched a little TV, mostly children’s shows including one Pee Wee Herman/Harold and his Purple Crayon imitation and one bizarre (to me) show featuring Ecuadoreans of African heritage acting like buffoons; this one also seemed to be a children’s show and seemed to be playing out extreme racial stereotypes in which a man offered to sell a woman a fruit and made an explicit comment to her about it; making it sound like the word for that fruit was also the word for female private parts; when she rejected the fruit, scolded him for being so forward and handed it back to her, he got to say the punchline: “OK, as long as I get to fondle your fruit…”
I was impressed with the beauty of the Ecuadorian mountains and at the same time, the scars of highway construction all over them. I remembered the recent National Geographic magazine that said we’ve passed into the era in which the sheer numbers of people on Earth constitutes the biggest force of nature affecting all else on the planet.
These mountains and the Ecuadorian climate in general is very much an extension of what one sees in Bolivia and Peru in the highlands except a lot more toward the tropical side of things. For those who know Bolivia I would say it compares to Yungas and Chapare; for those who know Peru, the Sacred Valley.
When I talked later with Rafael I found out that llamas are not found here (they are more adapted to the highlands) neither do people make chuño (freeze dried potatoes) which rely on the high desert to freeze them at night and melt them during the day.
Rafael told me that he has a second home about a half hour outside the city which I assume is a small farm, but he said that in the last three or four years, a combination of drought and frosts has ruined the crops and obliged farmers to sell their animals, so he has almost none left. Therefore, no sheep to produce wool for the handcrafts that seem to be his family’s main source of income; they have had to buy their wool from Peru in the past few years.
I am glad I met Rafael because as an Otavaleño merchant, he has a deeply rooted perspective that I had not encountered further south. Ecuadoran craftspeople are located in such a way that they have a very long (millenial) history of trade with people to the north and south of them. They have always gone great distances to sell their wares; the “Panama” hat originated in Cuenca, Ecuador, and Panama is a long way north. Today, Rafael makes trips twice a year to Seattle, Washington, Oregon, Florida and New York, making the rounds of universities where he sells crafts at tables on campuses. There is a certain solemn dignity about these Otavaleño merchants that stems from holding one’s own in the world of trade with people of many cultures for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Riding on the bus into Otavalo, and then walking with my bags from the bus station through town and up to the central market, I found the streets and sidewalks full of well-dressed people of all ages. Lots of schoolchildren in uniforms and wearing backpacks. Lots of men and women in traditional dress; which here includes white canvas sandals and white pants with a navy blue poncho and wide brimmed hat for the men, many of whom wear a single braid or pony tail in back. Women in traditional dress wear frilly white blouses with embroidery which are created here on computerized sewing machines; they also wear ankle length tight skirts and blue shawls, colorful wide-woven belts and many tiny golden beaded chains around their necks. There seemed to be quite a few kids and young people in various amounts of traditional dress as well as more modern clothes, which here include long slender wool skirts, knee socks and shoes for girls.
People were friendly on the street and elders especially greeted children and friends of all ages with kindness – a look, smiles, handshakes.
Rafael took me for a walk around the food market place which is somewhat open but has roofs and tables; he and I both remembered a time when these markets were just tents and people sold their wares on blankets on the ground. I talked about how in the north we tend to be pretty alienated from our food sources; only one in a hundred of us is now a farmer as opposed to one in ten as it was in the 19th century. Here there is just a huge abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, berries, and recently butchered meat ready for the buying.
I also got to meet two of his grandchildren, one daughter and his lovely wife. Maybe Rafael will visit us on his next trip north.