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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Travel diary (16-18 out of 28): narrow streets and churches in the Pichincha shade

Travel diary (16–18 out of 28): narrow streets and churches in the Pichincha shade

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]

The day got up very warm and damp, our bed was immersed in the humid and cold atmosphere of a room with an extraordinary amount of water in the air, on the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor, in the wardrobe, in our clothes. It made no difference to be inside or outside the hotel. The temperature was exactly the same, so was the humidity. Evil tongues usually have a liking for urban legends, and in Quito there was one that told how easy it was to protect you from rain: you only have to cross the street, because in Quito it rains over the pavement on one side but not over the other. This disparity between sunny and rainy weather, though it was not that wide as the myth told, certainly existed. In spite of the atmospheric conditions, we decided to walk along the streets, cross the parks and sit down in the squares to be able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the daily life running through the old part of Quito, the first Humankind Cultural Heritage as it was declared by UNESCO. Our hotel was not exactly downtown but was in the centre anyway. It was placed in one of the neighborhoods inhabited by rich people in the past, but it has become second-rate and was not that nice at the present. The newest and wealthy part of the city was placed eastwards. Downtown was towards the west. We would have to walk over 40 blocks, so we started our tour very early in the morning after having breakfast in a small inn where we were served coffee, a huge glass of natural juice, bread with cheese and boiled eggs. During the following days we would understand that this was the sort of breakfast that everyone had in Quito, and day after day we felt deeply in love with the profusion of exotic types of fruit that grew along the country, and were used to make the most delicious juices and milkshakes we had ever tasted.

There we were, walking a long 10th of August Av., surrounding "El Ejido" Park, the green area in the heart of the city where people have rest at any time and can even have access to a number of good readings from the Public Library placed inside, that is named after the park. These libraries in parks, squares and public walking areas –old friends of my childhood– are, probably, the best "adornment" to make recreation grounds look more attractive, and be highly enjoyable.

We went from one park to another named the Alameda, where the imposing monument to the Libertador Simón Bolívar was erected and it is also placed the old Astronomical Observatory, which used to be really beautiful in the old times and was now under reconstruction and improving works.

Following the same street we arrived in the San Blas neighborhood, with its ancient church and its small square, located in the intersection with Guayaquil St., which would lead our steps downtown. Right there, opposite San Blas church, it was written on a building wall with brass letters that Quito was declared the first Cultural Heritage of Humankind.

Soon we were to discover that Heritage along Guayaquil and Venezuela Sts., and the many more that crossed or run parallel to the former ones. The historical center was a pattern of straight and very narrow streets crossing each other, raising and falling quickly, beautifully adorned with very high whitewashed walls, wooden balconies, and thick dark carved doors. It was absolutely impossible to walk two blocks without running into a church, cathedral, basilica, hermitage, convent or monastery, all of them exhibiting the most significant features of the colonial or early republican architecture. The San Agustín church and convent, the Carmen Bajo church and monastery, the Santa Bárbara and Santa Catalina churches... were only a few of the more than 25 ones that we saw –though we only visit some of them– during that morning.

If you stopped at one corner you could see the narrow stony streets that lay on the steep slope of the hill where oldest part of Quito is situated, with its shops and stores' doors open, with its tiny sidewalks, with its balconies covered with geraniums' pots, with its reddish roofing tiles, and behind, as a frame, the Pichincha silhouette over the Andean range. Sometimes those slopes were covered in green, but most of the time we saw their summits crowned with stormy clouds and the slopes tinted in grey. After having touring the spine of South America during three weeks, that range seemed not to have an end, like existing and continuing forever.

If you crossed the street and remained still at the opposite corner for a couple of minutes more, you could notice how packed with people and vehicles those streets were. Many people would trip over you in that position and most of the cars would sound their horns if your intention was to use the road to pass someone walking more slowly than you.

We were able to feel the rhythm of the modern city beating in the heart of an ancient one, and we were very enthusiastic about being stepping carefully onto the scenery that a large number of people had trodden a few centuries ago. There is always something magic when you walk along ancient streets; it is probably the history that has been written on each of their stones by the men and women that walked them before.

In the Plaza Grande, also named "de la Independencia" ("Big Square" also named "of Independence") there were placed –as in most of the Latin America capitals– the Government Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Both monumental buildings were of great beauty, especially the Cathedral, which gathered other convents together, such as the one called Sagrario. We noticed that a lot of improving works were being made in some of the ancient buildings of the historic center, which seemed to us to be really good news for a city that "supports" the presence of millions of visitors, the increasing pollution, and a very frequent volcanic activity.

Once in the Plaza Grande we tried and sought for tourist information –country and city maps and guidebooks– that allowed us to move with a bit more organization and improvising less, but, regretfully, we discovered that those services were, in Quito, provided by the police, and honestly speaking, they did not do a very good job. In fact, we were lucky to get a simple and incomplete map because they did not have enough for the growing number of visitors we found that morning and the following ones.

With those monuments behind pleasing to our senses we went on and found a bit further the Compañía de Jesús church and further on the San Francisco church and convent and the Cantuña chapel, splendid buildings that shown the best of colonial style on their facades.

Those squares –illuminated with the bright light of the day and that stormy clouds darkened little by little as time was slowly passing– and those buildings were the living memory of a past time, with its great and horrible stories, with its achievements and its failures, with the echoes of well known and almost unknown people still ringing inside the confined spaces behind their huge walls.

The storm put an end to our tourist march. It started suddenly, a faithful feature of the weather in Quito that, as expected, soaked wherever, whenever and in whatever way it wanted. Completely wet –but absolutely happy– we came back to our hotel to get some rest, and to wait for the rain to stop so that we could go out again. But it would not happen until the following day.

On that Tuesday, 21st of November, we chose the option we thought the best – before the rain and the unstable weather forced us to remain in the hotel: to pay a visit to the museums and institutions that the previous had been closed (as it happened on Mondays in every city we had been).

We headed for the south part of El Ejido Park, an area known as El Arbolito ("The small tree"), where the Ecuadorian House of Culture was situated. The magnificent building of this noble institution gathered the Central Bank of Ecuador Museum, the different exhibition rooms that belonged to the CCE (closed a few years ago, waiting for better times to arrive), the theatre "Simón Bolívar", the Ecuadorian Writers Association and other spaces for painting, sculpture, dancing, music, and art in general. In addition, there was also placed the National Library, which we were not able to visit during our stay in Quito. The CCE also included a couple of specialized libraries that offered reference services and sold their own titles.

Due to the closing of the small specialized collections (among which we regretted not to be able to see one of the best popular musical instruments exhibitions in Latin America) we should "be resigned" to visit the Archaeological room of the National Museum of the Central Bank. Its collection –probably one of the best we had seen through our tour, due to its excellent structure and design– covered the Ecuadorian history from 12.000 BC to Atahualpa's execution and the subsequent fall of the Inkan Empire. It also counted with a special section dedicated to metallurgy and golden elements. The rest of the rooms exhibited colonial, 19th century and modern pieces of art, and there were a few temporary exhibitions as well.

Its chronological organization, the space management, the use of different techniques to create the mysterious atmosphere where the glass cases where immersed, the interesting combination of archaeological remains with maps, graphs and models, turned the principal room into a true discovering walk. Unknowing the pre-Hispanic Ecuadorian history, we were delighted to see most of its traits: here, the remaining part of Spondylus shells used as ceremonial adornments and exchange money; there, the erotic ceramics; further on, wooden tools... At the end of the sequence –spanning the entire geography of the country, from the coastal line to the Amazonian forests– we arrived at the Inkan section.

The exhibition in the archaeological room finished with Atahualpa's death, represented on one of the high walls of the museums, with a sentence written in very big characters – the same that we had found in Lima: chawpi punchaw tutallarqa ("it became dark at noon"). Tradition told that when Atahualpa was about to be executed, the day suddenly became night. It seemed as if that mythical cry of the sun would have ended up, not only with Atahualpa's life but with a chapter of our past history.

The Gold room gave us a lot of information about the advanced techniques used to work metal elements in pre-Hispanic times. Those black, gold, and silver smiths, with a few tools, got absolutely splendid results, with very high artistic and technical level. From filigrees to spirals, from thin threads wonderfully weaved to form a sort of plaits to tiny perforations, the golden metal –the very same that so many ill ambitions have brought to those American horizons– looked at us as bright and eternal as always, from behind the empty eyes of a mask or from the wings of some mythological animal beautifully carved.

Fascinated as we felt with all those sights of clay, Sara and I left the Museum.

From the CCE we decided to go and have a look at Abya Yala Editions, placed next to the Catholic University in 12 of October Av. This publishing house –that is a cultural centre also– is one of the principal publishing books on original peoples in South America. In fact, in its bookshop we could find many different documents on the oriental Ecuadorian ethnic groups (especially on the Achuar and Shuar groups, formerly known as "jívaros"), plus a good number of manuals, photographical documents, maps, dictionaries, anthropology and linguistic texts, specialized magazines, and a great deal of books dedicated to research and education matters. Likewise, it counted with literature related to the present state of things for indigenous peoples in the rest of Latin America and the world.

We thought that it would be better to go back the following day in order to do some shopping and visit the Amazonian Museum –placed upstairs– and looked for shelter in the room of our hotel when we saw the threatening sky over our heads. We came back walking along Amazonas Av. –a very touristic area, where most visitors from abroad are lodged– and stopping for buying our return tickets to Lima, this time with "Rutas de América" bus company.

That night, the Central Bank of Ecuador presented the first edition of the book "Original Societies from Ecuador", a presentation that included Enrique Males (indigenous musician and singer from Ibarra) and Papá Roncón (probably the best example of Afro-Ecuadorian music from Esmeraldas) performances. We were invited to this presentation by our friend Eduardo Proaño, and could enjoy the sounds of those pre-Hispanic instruments played by Males, as well as pieces of oral tradition represented by Roncón. The book –two volumes, in fact– was a text book for school children that included the history, the archaeology and the ethnography of Ecuadorian original peoples that existed in the country before the European arrival. I thought that such a book was an excellent idea, considering the many text books for schools in Argentina whose editions have neither been actualized nor their contents improved, and still there are many teachers and librarians who do not know the original history of their own nation. Hence, this sort of initiatives is always welcomed if done with the seriousness that they deserve. With evident complicity on the part of Eduardo, we got both volumes –the teacher guides, in fact– since we wanted to bring them home with us in order to learn step by step a bit more of the footprints left by humankind in those incredible lands. We had dinner with our friends and their family. It was a night for trying "naranjilla" juice and "cedrón" tea for the first time, for listening to an old records collection as well as to the new digital sounds... It was a night for enjoying it with friends... It was an unforgettable night.

Next morning –our last free day in Quito– we decided to pay a visit to our friend Gloria Añazco, who worked in the Library of the Andean Justice Tribunal. After seeing the legislative collections –statutes, laws and jurisprudence books– organized in the shelves of that little unit, we thought about the different possibilities for the following hours and we started from the Library of the Central Bank of Ecuador, located very near to the CCE. The unit had varied collections –all of them with databases on the Internet– and of special interest for us was the "Jijón y Caamaño", the incunabula, valuable and rare books collection. Shamefully, those master pieces –preserved in a special case, with temperature, humidity and exposure to light carefully controlled– were not accessible for the general public; however, some of its most famous documents had been digitalized and they were freely accessible on the Internet. Nevertheless, we did not fail to make the best use of our visit and got a few leaflets with information on the early printed works and the first ones who printed them in Ecuador, as well as on the rare and curious books that were included in the collection and the Americanists that were part of its catalogues. Being a library specialized in American matters, it was quite easy to find, among their titles, the works from the pen of Alexander von Humboldt, of the Argentinean authors Serrano and Lehmann, of Bertonio, of D'Orbigny, of Herrera, of Montesinos... In addition we took with us a catalogue with explanations of the books collection that belonged to Eugenio Espejo, the first Ecuadorian "librarian" whose effigy can be found –if I am not wrong– in the Ecuadorian Librarians Association logo.

From that library we went back to Abya Yala Editions, and there we got a few books related to our professional areas and two traditional tales written in three languages (Quichua, English and Spanish) beautifully illustrated.

Later we visited the Amazonian Museum, organized according to the many elements that Salesian (catholic) missions had collected in the eastern part of the country, in the region next to the frontier with Peru and Colombia, which is thickly covered with trees and vegetation.

In this small museum, which seemed to lack organization and had a very poor underlying structure, we found groups of artifacts belonging to the different ethnic groups that populated the eastern region of the country. However, the majority of the exhibition was referred to Shuar and Achuar cultures that, together with Aguaruna and Huambisa (from Peru) formed the great nation formerly known as "jívaros". These indigenous peoples won fame at the beginning of the past century (and were still famous until recently) thanks to their custom of hunting human heads and make them smaller using a technique which consisted of a special mixture of herbs where they were first boiled, for later being heated with sand. The trophies achieved in that way (named tsantsas) became very expensive tourists souvenirs, till the "jívaros" themselves started to reduce monkeys' heads or to falsify the "tsantsas" for business. At present, it is very rare to find an original trophy-head, with the exception of museums, though Shuar and Achuar people continue, from time to time, hunting heads as an ancient tradition without trading with their trophies.

Among the tsantsas' features we can mention their long hair, their mouths and eyes tied together with knots leaving both ends hanging loosely, their ears adorned with wooden pieces and the peculiar dark ochre color on their face. The elaboration process –taking the bones out of the head, cleaning it and boiling the skin, filling them with hot sand, shaping, tying and adorning them– was made, originally, in order to avoid the spirit of the assassinated foe to come back looking for revenge. Obtaining and keeping this trophy-heads was something quite usual among original peoples from the entire American continent. Many pre-Inkan vessels show warriors carrying head and some nations from the Forest such as "Avá-chiriwano" peoples from Bolivian-Argentinean regions put them into practice during many centuries. One variant –that became very popular with films and literature– was the well known "scalping" or the stealing of scalps, that took place among some native peoples that inhabited the south-west and the prairies of the United States, and also among peoples from the Great Chaco in South America, such as Nivaklé and Yofwafja in Argentina.

Among musical instruments and big canoes made of hollowed trunks, among stuffed animals and examples of carefully made baskets and wickerwork, among weapons and bags woven with fibers, we passed the morning discovering words and sounds from a very difficult language, and the characteristics of a culture that we had only guessed through the pages of some books.

We improvised our lunch as we used to –always in a very popular inn or a tiny restaurant– and went downtown once more, because we did not want to leave the city without seeing the Music Library of the Central Bank of Ecuador, a small information unit that, though it did not count with the modern technology available today and needed for the reproduction of audiovisual materials, still managed –with the resources on hand– to give good service to students, professionals and researchers. Even if its collection was mostly oriented towards classical and academic music (therefore, with an important lack of popular examples in their shelves and drawers), the articles, videos and recorded conferences compensated for this loss of variety.

Under the persistent and obstinate raining we went back to our hotel, saying goodbye to each nook in that pretty scenery, beautifully represented by its colonial buildings, poorly dressed in its corners, historical as no other, populated by unsolved problems, noisy and polluted as many, rising like a phoenix from their ashes after the Pichincha has covered it with the grey and black powder left by its volcanic activity, worried about its political future that would be soon decided after the presidential election –between conservative Noboa and left-wing candidate Correa– took place in a few days...

On the following day we would be in Riobamba attending the IX Ecuadorian Librarians Meeting. Our next trip –this time by car–, our participation in the event and our return to Quito in order to go back in Córdoba through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and NW Argentina will be the material for our two last posts referring this travel diary...