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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Travel diary (19-22 out of 28): Smoke over Mt. Tungurahua…

Travel diary (19–22 out of 28): Smoke over Mt. Tungurahua

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]

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

On Wednesday, 22nd of November we left Quito and set off for Riobamba, where the IX Ecuadorian Librarians Congress, organized by the Ecuadorian Librarians Association, would take place. The Congress' motto was "The Library in the XXI Century". This time we went by car. David Romero, a conservator who worked for the Republic's Ministry of Culture, took us with him to the southern city, crossing in our journey Cotopaxi, Tungurahua and Chimborazo provinces.

We were traveling southwards, crossing forests and dales, mountains and moors. It was curious to notice, in a few kilometers only, the quick succession of different sceneries and ecological layers. Our travel companions pointed out that those contrasts were even bigger when one crossed the country from west to east: in a few hours the view changed from the coastal scenery to the high Andean range and from that mountainous area to the thick Amazonian forest that featured the oriental part of the country.

In Latacunga we broke out our journey, stopping only for a short time to taste the famous chugchucaras at Doña Rosa's. That is a regional dish that basically consists of fried small chunks of pork with bigger chunks of its skin also fried. Since I was not very hungry and Sara was not very fond of that sort of food we only tried a very small piece and thanked our hosts for the invitation with a smile. Further on we found the well known ice-creams with five different color layers from Salcedo. Though we were at the foot of Cotopaxi volcano we were not able to see its proud summit. Neither could we admire active Tungurahua, because the sun was setting when we managed to guess it smoking silhouette. Children from this region say that this mount "roars". For us, this was completely different from anything we had seen before, and it was amazing to notice how the communities that are place at the foot of the volcano lived without worrying too much about those "roars", and quite indifferent to the occasional bursts of activity and the ashes that covered the roofs, the walls and the floors of their houses.

That region –surroundings of Ambato– was Salasaca Quechuas' home. Behind, northwards, we had left Otavaleño Quechuas. When we were in Peguche, we were told that the Salasacas spoke in a different way from the Otavaleños: "in a different manner they speak; soon you discover that they are 'Salasacas'". As we could see they also dressed differently and we did not find the same pleased and satisfied feeling in their sight as the one we had observed in the Otavaleños' proud eyes; maybe they were more insecure, perhaps they have been hit hardest, probably they resigned themselves... Somewhere I had heard Salasaca music and it has nothing in common with the music that was made in northern Ecuador. It was great to be able to appreciate such huge regional differences in the same culture, in the same language and in the same people.

We arrived in Riobamba –capital of the Chimborazo province and well known historic Ecuadorian city– at night, under the very same obstinate rain that traveled with us during the whole journey and that did not allow us to see the Chimborazo silhouette –one of the highest Andean volcanoes– when the sun was going down. Neither could we admire the Sangay, the most active volcano in the world, which had been in front of us behind a veil of persistent raindrops.

Welcomed by the event Organization Commission, we were taken to the hotel after a few minutes waiting and chatting with other colleagues and international guests. The hotel called "El Rincón Alemán" ("The German nook"), was a family house far away from downtown, with excellent facilities and its host was really very kind.

An hour later, some organizers came to pick us up and we joined the group for having dinner. We had to listen to embarrassing opinions and regrettable personal judgments on the part of the Ecuadorian official librarianship representatives, who –we wanted to believe– would not represent the opinions of the majority of Ecuadorian librarians. We went back to the hotel doubting whether or not our presence there would be of any interest. What we had seen and heard till that moment made us feel as spectators watching a sort of "great figures circus". I do not remember if we paid attention to something else: we were exhausted and went to sleep immediately. The universe disappeared for a few hours but in our minds a question still echoed: "what the hell are we doing here?"

On Thursday, 23rd of November, the Librarians Congress would be officially inaugurated so, after having breakfast at the hotel, organizers showed us the way to the Superior Polytechnic School of Chimborazo in whose auditorium the event would take place. The Congress basically consisted of the presence of a small group of foreign guests that came from Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Spain and Argentina. With the exception of the Spanish lecturer –who would open the Congress that morning– and me, the rest of the lecturers where archivists who would talk about documents conservation and preservation. Apart from the conferences, the Congress would be the meeting point for AEB members to choose new representatives and discuss matters that only concerned to themselves.

During the three days that the event lasted, we understood that there were things working poorly; that the organization was not as stable as supposedly it should have been; that some people worked hardly while others showed off their positions; and that "international" conferences were a sort of stuffing to fill the discussion breaks and justify the sense –if any– of an event where solving internal problems was the important matter. And those internal problems appeared constantly and sometimes the discussions were far from educated or civilized. Anyone who wanted to attend this Congress would have to pay 40 dollars to have a sit in the auditorium. If we consider that there were over 200 people there... well, you can easily make this arithmetical calculation.

The very first conference was given by Dra. María del Pilar Gallego, Madrid Librarians Association president. If I have to be honest, I nearly died of embarrassment when she said the sort of things that I had to listen to for one hour and a half. Sara and I did never understood how she could continue speaking that nonsense without guilt feelings, not being ashamed of reading page after page without looking at her audience a single time. Maybe she knew what she was talking about, but her words made no sense, her reading was a complete disaster since she had a lot of pronunciation problems, and the things she explained about "Digital Libraries" were completely out of date. "Shameful" is all that I can say about this woman performance. The public only bore her reading during 10 minutes and with no respect at all started to stand up, to chat, to talk by their mobile phones, to say hello to each other from one side of the auditorium to the other, to sleep, to snore... Their attitude was also very shameful and their lack of education, absolutely regrettable.

Sara and I listened to her from the beginning to the end, without understanding a reading that was full of errors, either in its format or in its contents, boring, without supporting images or slides, badly presented and worse executed. Meanwhile the rest of the audience forgot that there was a lecturer on the stage and behaved as if they were in a pub, not in a conference room. Though most of the spectators agreed on qualifying that lecture as abominable crime against our profession, we still had to bear the hypocrisy of those who congratulated Mrs. Gallego. This is something very common: someone taps you on your shoulder to say "well done", while s/he turns her/his face thinking "poor fellow".

[As a lecturer myself I use to repeat to me, according to the Spanish saying, that: "It is not good when the wise person is quiet; however, it is worse when the stupid one claps"].

Anyway, after such a beginning of activities and the subsequent confusion due to the lack of presenters and moderators –who did not exist at all– it was my turn. Through my conference I presented some very basic ideas concerning the meaning of Digital Divide, its nature, which is the state of things at present, its effects and the threat that it still represents for Latin America. I also pointed out the actions and factors that we should consider to reduce it (since we cannot affirm that there is a "solution" for eliminating that huge difference completely). Among the many questions that were raised at the end of my speech, a few ones had to do with the curiosity that my work with indigenous communities, rural libraries and reading-writing promotion had arisen. It was from those questions that Sara and I got our best contacts (and friends) in Ecuador. Maybe that was the best part of the Congress: the bond of friendship and future collaborations that we could build with people that shared the same interests as we.

In relation with those moments, Sara wrote down in her diary:

"Our happiest and most moving moments arrived at the end of the presentation. We were congratulated, thanked, embraced, our hands were stretched by an old indigenous woman who was a librarian from the shores of the River Napo, taken photographs, looked with bright eyes and smiling lips. Many people wanted us to collaborate with them in future projects, and invited us to come back the next year to give some workshops..."

In some place that we did not manage to find, lunch was served for everybody that has bought the ticket beforehand. After going round the University Campus twice without discovering the signaled place (we would know later that it was a sort of large shed situated a bit far from the auditorium) we ended up in the students restaurant (cheap and tasteful by the way).

Later we attended the conference given by the Peruvian archivist Carmen Pfuyo, but we missed the first part because neither the organization nor the public seemed to respect the Congress schedule. Since the following activities (cultural visits) had been cancelled due to the delay that did not allow things to happen when they should had, we decided to go back to the hotel on our own account, and have a shower before taking part in the evening activities that included fireworks ("chamarrasca") and drinks such as the famous "canelazo".

When we arrived on time at the placed we were told, we only found the ashes, and the lights had been switched off. We did not know when the party had been celebrated and nobody was able to give us an explanation the following day. Apparently it was decided to set light to the paper figures immediately after the last conference (not in the evening as it was planned) and we were the only ones who left the place when it finished.

The night has fallen: we were very disappointed and absolutely exhausted. Therefore we decided to rest at the hotel. Still there were some things to do the following day.

On Friday, 24th of November, the second conference day took place. We had to take a taxi because organizers had disappeared and nobody seemed to be in charge. We were decided to take things easy and attended the lecture on the part of the Uruguayan archivist María Laura Rosas, who had been invited in the very last minute, when it was knew the "unexpected" absence of another official guest. As we were not very interested in the subject –archives conservation, which, honestly, is a bit beyond our realms– we preferred to walk around the university and continue talking with the same people that approached the previous day to explain to us their work, their experiences and their ideas. That way, we were able to know very interesting projects that were being developed in Ibarra, in the Forest region, in the south of the country, in Guayaquil, in Quito... Here and there, a good number of professionals were looking for exchanging ideas and novelties, for telling us about their achievements or their failures, and that was, as we had written down in our diaries, the most valuable learning that we got from Riobamba. Many gave us presents (leaflets from Archidona and Napo region, a book of poems, a doll from Imbabura that today is placed on our desk, etc.), many took a photo with us... and I was interviewed for the local newspaper. After lunch time –in that sort of large shed where many ate sat on billiard tables and others remained stood– our colleague David Romero took us and the other lecturers for a walk downtown. We visited the Museum of the City where there was a very nice exhibition of paintings related to the important that the train has had in Ecuador, as well as a lot of information about the Natural Parks that surround this region. During our visit we listened carefully to the guide that told us the very peculiar story about the first owner of the building where the museum was situated now. According to the legend, the immense house had belonged to a very rich woman that was bewitched while she was practicing the famous game so-called "witch board". As a consequence she did start floating in the air and could never take communion again nor be exorcized.

[... We did not know how seriously take this story ...]

The churches and the squares of Riobamba were of particular beauty; the streets still had much of its provincial taste, and there was a significant indigenous presence. David –who knew the rough tracks of the local art thanks to their profession– turned to be the best guide.

That night there was another party but we did neither know where nor at what time. As on other occasions, nobody came to pick us up, nobody called, nobody looked after us. So, we decided to stay at the hotel and watch on TV the debate between the conservative candidate Noboa (owner of a very disgusting discourse) and the left-wing Rafael Correa, who finally won the presidential election. The night has come and our disappointment was still too much. Things had not happened as we expected and nobody offered us an explanation. We will be back in Quito the following day and set off for Lima at night.

On Sunday, 25th of November, the event finished with the same disorganization as it had started. The first conference that morning (and the last of the Congress) was to be given by the Bolivian archivist Lidia Gardeazabal, who showed very interesting photographs from a restoration workshop that took place in Cochabamba under her direction, in the context of the Bolivian National Library where she worked. Once she had finished answering the questions thrown by the public, the AEB General Assembly was celebrated with the reading and the approval of their statutes and the election of the members of the board. We decided to leave the room because we did not want to listen to the internal problems that would be discussed shortly after.

The Congress ended at midday, after a chaotic discussion where loud voices, shouts and expressions of excitement could be heard from outside. We soon realized that nobody from the organization had thought how we were going to go back to Quito. Considering this state of things we took the bull by the horns and faced the situation directly.

We said goodbye to a couple of "organizers" and went to the local Bus Station in order to find a means of transport –cheap and comfortable– that took us to Quito under the stormy and lead-colored sky that neither allowed us to guess the Cotopaxi silhouette nor the Chimborazo dark shape.

Sara wrote down in her diary much of the sounds and flavors of that journey:

"'Small pears, peaches, claudias (plums), small apples for the journey'. That way the man who got on the bus that took us from Riobamba to Quito, advertised his culinary offering. Before our eyes extended a sort of quilt with many different patches sewn together consisting of successive fields, some of them sown, some of them covered with fruit trees, some of them with pastures for pigs, llamas, cows and donkeys. 'Beans, small beans, try them now'. 'Ice-creams, small ice-creams made of cream from Salcedo'".

Once in Quito, we went back to the table and the arms of our "adoptive family" Proaño-Añazco, with whom we shared a splendid farewell dinner that wiped out our distress and the many vicissitudes we had had to deal with and that reconciled us with life and Ecuador. They took us to the Bus Station and the last thing we saw in Quito was their waving hands telling us goodbye.

We looked at each other while we wiped some tears from our cheeks. Ecuador had been a wonderful country and apart from professional disappointments (that we had always found, especially in our own country), we soon understood that we would miss that family, those streets, those kind people from Peguche and the very gentle ones that we found here and there, those delicious dishes, those colleagues that had embraced us stretching our hands and looked with deep emotion sharing their successes and their failures...

Yes, we would miss that country, its people, that market in Otavalo, that waterfall in Peguche, those librarians from the shores of the River Napo. We would miss their kindness and their sweetness, the dreams that they had whispered in our ears, the sorrows that we had seen, the obstinate rain, the crazy weather and that "don't-know-what", which covered everything and turned it so beautiful and unforgettable...

If there was something that we should thank the Librarians Congress organizers for, it was the opportunity to know those people and that country. It was the most wonderful thing that we found in our long journey, which took us almost four weeks to complete.

As it has been said through the many lines of this post, the Congress was not of our living at all. We believe that any event (especially those that pretend to be "international") should be built on solid grounds, thinking before anything else of who is going to be invited and why, and not calling a few people from abroad in order to patch a poor schedule. We also believe that the organization of such an event should consist of a group of people thinking and acting as a team, but not by two or three volunteers who will never manage to solve the many problems that may occur. We think that timetables and activities in schedule should be respected. We also consider that it is not fair to blame the ones that we have in front of us running from one place to another (though they do not know where they have to go or what they have to do) for the errors of those comfortably sat at their desks. The ones to be blamed are those who remain with crossing arms and, besides, are the ones who won success. We want to show our total disapproval of their methods and themselves.

Now it was time to go back home. The return journey would take us four more days and a few problems that we will share in the following post that would be the last of our travel diary.