They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Travel Diary (14 out of 28): At the foot of “taita” Imbabura mountain...

Travel Diary (14 out of 28): At the foot of

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

Ecuador always represented in my mind a wonderful country. I grew up far from where I was born, as any other Latin American emigrant who left his/her country in the 80s' to go and live in Spain. There, my best friends –those with whom I first did music in the streets– were from Ecuador, Quichua indigenous people from the Otavalo area. During the long hours that we shared together, they did not talk of anything else but the beauty of their countryside, of their mountains, of their women, of their markets, of their food... With them I learnt Quichua language and the magic of the Andean flutes and strings. One promise that I made to myself when I came back to South America, at the end of the 90's, was to travel to the valleys that my friends remembered with such an emotion, with the sort of bright in the eyes that meant nostalgia and deep memories. It would be right now, thanks to this journey of thousands and thousands kilometers through the Andean range, when I would be able to make my dream come true.

We arrived in Quito after a 36 hours' trip that destroyed the very little that still remained of our exhausted bodies. Fatigue made us lost a bit of our nerve and part of our good sense of humor, though we continued being ready for enjoying the new horizons that we started guessing in front of us. When we opened our eyes early in that morning, we discovered an absolutely fantastic countryside: mountains covered with green pasture, meadows, fields densely populated with trees, bushes and shrubs, high summits, valleys with all the imaginable tints of green colouring their floor. That represented a huge change of temperature and environment to our astonished pupils –used to the harsh desert we had journeyed through– that smiled gratefully in a sense. Those highlands we were crossing where the announcement of water, rain, mist, life...

We arrived in Quito very early, on Saturday the 18th of November. Our knowledge of that city was almost none, however, some friends were waiting for us. Both of them –Gloria Añazco and Eduardo Proaño– librarians and excellent mates, opened the doors of their house and their family for us, and made us feel as we were in our home. They treated us like brothers and siblings, and we joined them in their daily routine. We do not think that we will be able to thank each of them their sweetness and kindness. Their cordiality, affection, and respect towards Sara and me were priceless. There are things in life that we never forget, laughter and hugs that last forever, and are deeply kept in our hearts while they wait for being enjoyed and lived again. Welcomed in such a wonderful manner, our fatigue vanished, and after having breakfast and a shower, we decided abruptly –suddenly and unexpectedly, as many of our decisions while travelling used to be– that we would visit Otavalo that very same day. Here I would like to stop for a moment and point out something: ethnology distinguishes different Quichua speaking groups in Ecuador, one of them is the "Otavaleño", placed in the town named Otavalo and in the communities surrounding it. These people have a very strong personality: they preserve their traditions, their clothes, their customs and their language, but at the same time, they are very active, progressive and keep on moving and going abroad to sell their handicrafts, textiles and show their music and the Andean sounds to everybody else in the world. Men plaits and dark blue "ponchos" are a distinct features of these traders-artists with coppery skin and very sweet accent (even when talking in Spanish it is amazing how kindly they pronounce each sentence).

Each community is specialized in a particular handicraft, and each member of those communities is very proud of belonging to his/her own, what, sometimes, gives rise to traditional disputes between peoples.

Otavalo, together with Ibarra, are the most important cities in the area. The rest of the villages and rural communities form the sparse population of the mountains at the foot of the father ("taita") Imbabura Mount and the mother ("mama") Cotacachi Mount, two volcanoes that when they are not covered with snow, they are so with stormy clouds though.

Otavalo valley (poetically named "dawn valley") is the cradle of craftsmen and women, musicians and traditions. On Saturdays, the city welcomes the stalls of one of the most famous handicrafts, instruments and textiles market in the entire world (at least among the knowing travelers).

We wanted to take advantage of such an opportunity of visiting both the valley and the city during the market day, since, at that moment, people from different communities came down to Otavalo in order to trade and exchange food for textiles, textiles for grain, grain for animals, animals for ceramics and so on. On that day, we might see instruments, eat a traditional dish, watch their typical clothes, listen to Quichua, smell new flavors, see different colors with a centenary history, and feel how the indigenous blood beat in the heart of America. In addition, I did fulfill a personal dream walking in the streets that my old friends have trodden when they were children.

At the same time we decided to set off for Otavalo, we started putting very few things in our backpack while our hosts looked for someone who could be our contact in Peguche, a small indigenous community near Otavalo. This person would be a teacher named Elena Huenala and we would be ready to leave a short time later. In less than two hours we were on a bus again, going uphill through the chain of mountains surrounding Quito, leaving on one of its sides the child ("wawa") Pichincha volcano, which dominated the inmense capital and covers it with ashes from time to time, as it is still active.

No, we did not have time to visit downtown, nor its narrow colonial streets, renowned by their beauty. It would be in a couple of days when we would be walking along them.

That morning, we preferred getting involved in a new small adventure –the ones that we enjoy the most– and were delighted to see before our eyes those rows of tiles covering the roofs –a feature that characterizes most of the houses there–, the herds of cows, the pastures, the orchards and the fields at the bottom of the impressive Andean summits. I remembered that those lands had resisted many years the many Inkan attacks before becoming part of the Inkan province known as Chinchaysuyu, ruled by Huáscar, Atahualpa's ill-fated brother. Later on, those grounds would be dominated by the Spanish Crown and the Christian religion, following the same destiny as the other American viceroyalties. It would not be until the movement led by Bolívar (and continued by his generals) reached those hills that independency was won.

The road zigzagged into the distance and would take us to Tabacundo (a bit northwards than Otavalo), from where came one of the most famous Ecuadorian "sanjuanitos": "Tabacundeña". "Sanjuanitos" are typical musical rhythms from that region; originally they were played during San Juan festivity, however, they became a sort of "national anthem" for the Andean folk music. The sound of their instruments, specially the "rondador" (a Pan flute similar in its structure and timbre to the one used by the knife grinders that used to play in the streets each time they arrived in a new place) gave them a very peculiar touch.

Otavalo shown a frantic activity when we first put a foot on its grounds –yawning and stretching our muscles– after travelling two hours on a bus much more comfortable than the previous ones. We neither knew where we were, nor where we ought to go to find the market, but a bit further on we saw many people following the very same direction and we decided to walk behind them. We followed the women, dressed in colorful blouses and black skirts ("anaco"), carrying in their bags those big bundles ("rebozo"), a bright colorful piece of textile where many things are wrapped up, from clothes and food to the very little children; the men loading boxes; the grandmothers leading a group of children (the ones that best behave, by the way) also dressed with their original clothes.

While we were crossing those narrow streets packed with traders and visitors, and flooded with shouts, invitations in Quichua or in Spanish to buy, to see and touch, to try and play, we also could smell the traditional dishes just cooked and wondered whether or not everything would be prepared to be appreciated by visitors like us both. Soon we understood that it was not, that it was a celebration, it was a custom, a tradition that still remained in those communities with the same power to bring people together, and without forgetting some new tendencies of our modern life.

We walked for a while, following the many streams of people going from one place to the other, thinking that sooner or later we will find the renowned "Plaza de los Ponchos", that is, the Handicraft Market. There are three markets in Otavalo on Saturdays: the one of foodstuffs, the animals' one and the one mentioned above. The latter is the one that all the tourist guides recommend to visit However, some deity's hand –knowing that we are not ordinary tourists– led us to the first one, the sort of market where tourists are rarely seen because it is intended for exchanging fruit, vegetables, cereals, eggs, meat, bread, etc., and this stuff cannot be taken to your home country as a present for your family and friends. Our steps end in a sort of indoor market without walls and we spent the whole morning there. We trode slowly, crossed every corridor, turned in each corner, stopped at all of the stalls in order to see the profusion of colors, of smells, of tastes, of textures, that we had never met before or if we had ever seen then, they still make a difference with the ones we had in Spain or Argentina. We listened to "sanjuanitos" coming out from a radio that we never found, and from all the pots and pans where food was being cooked in the heart of that market –the dining room– delicious flavors announced a tasty lunch.

From seeds to dried pasta in the shape of very thin sticks, from alive crabs (that were sold tied two or more together) to products brought by the negroes from Chota (one of the groups with African origins that still remain in this country), from tropical mangoes to rice (something that cannot be omitted in any Ecuadorian dish), everything was exhibited there.

The women selling their stuff while lively talking to each other in Quichua, looked at us with the same curiosity as we admired their adornments and dresses. Refreshments made with thousands fruits and colorful milkshakes populated those counters.

This part of the market, situated in the middle, consisted of a series of long counters behind which the cooks laboriously prepared the meal, moving carefully among the gas rings. Lunch time was near and they were almost finishing "fritadas" (bits of cow or pig meat stirred up and slowly fried), "tortillas" (round balls of smashed potatoes, sometimes mixed with vegetables or "chicharrones"), roasted chickens, "seco de res" (beef stew), and many other typical dishes.

We did suppose that in many communities the fact of eating meat was already something to be celebrated: as well as in Argentina, farmers who grow animals take care of them as their most important capital, killing only some of them on very special occasions. There we were ordering a menu (drink included) for 1$. We sat among the others, we were only two more in the crowd: trading, chatting, eating, resting... The funny thing is that we still thought that we were in the Handicraft Market and what surprised us the most was not to find more people from abroad.

We left the market absolutely marveled at the festive air that surrounded the place, and while Sara waited for a minute learning how a mother did for tying her child to her back with the colorful "rebozo", I did try to understand that beautiful language, which I was able to speak very slowly and found it difficult to follow at the speed those people spoke it.

"Alli punzha... Imanallataq kanguichiq, wauqekuna?" (Nice day... ¿How are you, brothers?) I heard to say to someone. It was really moving, I felt deep emotions inside. How wonderful to normally talk in such a valuable language as Quichua was. It was something very special to be there and enjoy something so important for our identity, for our cultural heritage.

Our following steps took us along crowded streets that we had not crossed before, where dozens of handicrafts stalls formed rows on both sides, this time perfectly equipped for attracting tourists' attention. In fact, the quality of most of the things exhibited there was excellent: wooden carvings, musical instruments, CDs, textiles, metal work. Little by little, playing one "charango" here, looking at some textiles over there, searching for popular music a bit, we finally arrived at the "Plaza de los Ponchos", where we met all the foreigners that we had not seen during the morning, and became aware of the fact that we had not been following the touristic route but the one done by locals. This, by the way, made us very happy, because it was much more for our liking.

Still we spent a while in Otavalo, and even had time to be sat down in the Rumiñawi Square, where an enormous head has been placed in the middle honoring the Inkan general, whose name means "stone eye". That square reminded me of a song by the group from Otavalo "Charijayac", who, when I was very young, made a musical theme called "Otavalo y punto" that said "building Rumiñawi Park". When, with my musicians friends, I did heard that theme there in Spain, so far in time and space from that square, they told me that the Square was under construction and that they would have liked very much to be there when it was officially open to the public and cross it holding their girlfriends' hands or beside their parents, sisters and brothers. Being there, sitting in a bench of that finished square, made me think of those people from Otavalo that were far away, of the young boy that I was, of the many dreams and the great desire of visiting that place through years and years. And I did also think that, in a way or another, the life always gives to us the opportunity to make true our dreams if we pursue them long enough. And, if sometimes those chances arrive later (to our understanding) maybe it is because that is the moment for us to enjoy and appreciate them.

The sun was setting when we decided to find a taxi and asked its driver to take us to the near village of Peguche, where Elena Huenala had kindly offered a place to spend the night. Peguche is a very small population, whose inhabitants work the land and make textiles, situated at the foot of the stony giant that indigenous people named Imbabura. It is also renowned for giving birth to well known artists and musicians and thanks to the textiles that tireless sellers, travelling from one market to another, have traded worldwide It is next to Otavalo, so near that you can go walking from one to the other, but the clouds that covered the sky and embraced those hills around us menaced to break a fierce storm over our heads, thus we look for lodging as soon as we could.

To find Elena's house and meet her and family was very easy. To fall in love with them and their world was even easier. We would spend the night and the following day with her and her family, however, we will introduce them to you in tomorrow's post, because that day, maybe the most beautiful of our journey, deserves a special treatment.

From this sunny city, humid and flooded with very hungry mosquitoes, which are biting us day and night without rest, we send you a huge hug.