The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

After two weeks in the Central Sierra town of Riobamba, Kathleen, Antonia and I moved back up to Quito to run parallel two-week conducting and voice workshops. The trip up on the bus was spectacular because we not only get a good view back towards the smoking Tungurahua Volcano but also clearly see Chimborazo and about four other volcanoes along the Avenida de Vulcanos.

At Hostal Toxa we find a large and comfortable room with bath in the La Mariscal district of Quito New Town - not far from the place we stayed at before. But this time it is much quieter and the beds are more comfortable. We have also learned to bargain and manage to get the price down for a two-week stay that includes the use of the kitchen.

We want to get Antonia back into Spanish lessons as soon as possible and ask around the hostal for recommendations. Leran, a tall young Israeli who is travelling in South America, recommends Beraca Language School just around the corner on Avenida Amazonas. By Tuesday afternoon, Antonia is taking four hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons. Every day she tells us how much she is enjoying it and how much she loves her teacher, a twenty-one-year-old Ecuadorian girl. Kathleen and I need more Spanish lessons too. But, for a variety of reasons (a lot of music work to do in Quito; the need to stretch resources) we decide we will take our lessons later after Antonia has returned home.

The two musical tasks for us here in Quito are to train choral conductors, on the one hand, and to provide voice training for coralistas (choir members). The five conductors who register are a mixed group. Four of them already have choirs and have a fair bit of experience. One has no choir but intends to have one. Nevertheless, they all benefit from instruction in how to improve the physical aspects of conducting (stance, use of hands, entrances, conclusions, etc.) and other aspects relating to different styles of music, choir “management”, choir building, programme planning, and the like. During the conducting classes, the other conductors and a few singers provide the “choir”.

Later in the evening another dozen and a half people arrive in the rooms of the Adventist Church School on Avenida Diez de Augusto where we are meeting. Most of the conductors stay for this too. It covers warm-up techniques and techniques to improve the quality of singing and to make it easier and more satisfying for the people to sing. Then we work on pieces from various eras.

When we are not at the workshops or taking Spanish we try to see a little more of Quito. Last weekend we go down again to the Old Town for a guided tour of the Museo Caamaño (Municipal Museum or Art and History) and then into the Compañia church, i.e. the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) headquarters for Ecuador.

All of the orders of Catholic monks and nuns have traditionally maintained large centres in the capital: Jesuits; Carmelites; Benedictines; Augustinians; Franciscans, to name but a few. The actual number of conventos (convent members) may be down these days but the buildings are huge and occupy a large portion of the surface of old-town Quito. The convent churches are all in the VIIth and VIIIth Quiteño style of Spanish baroque. In practical terms this means basilica-style buildings with an extraordinary amount of gold leaf and sometimes even solid gold. The Quiteño style has added Andean fruits and flowers to the carved pillars.

Despite fire and earthquake damage over the past several hundred years (most recently a huge quake in 1987), Compañia is surely the most elaborate of them all. It is considered the most elaborate church in “The Americas” (by which is meant Latin America, I think). There is barely a surface that is not decorated in gold (frequently the walls are complicated Moorish patterns) and the many altars are also all in gold. Although I can admire the workmanship, my Protestant taste finds it difficult to deal with all this gold along with the statuary and paintings.

There is also a lot of fairly primitive storytelling in the churches – mostly it seems about now various virgins saved Quito at one time or another. That Quito needed saving is a testament to the seismic activity of the Andes. But why it should always be virgins doing the saving is an interesting issue itself. Most of the events seem pretty off-the-wall strange. But, for bizarre stories, Mariana de Jesus tops the list in my books. She was reportedly so beautiful that she was forced to look out on the world from under a veil. Am I the only one who finds this strange? Did men tend to be struck dumb if they saw her naked face, or what? Were they tempted to ravage her on the spot?

But it gets better! When in the seventeenth Century Quito was beset by a series of earthquakes and epidemics, the 26-year-old damsel decided to sacrifice her life in order to save the city. This was after a longer period of self-flagellation, which apparently did not suffice to stop the tremors. (I told you this was bizarre!) After her demise the natural disasters ceased. Her blood was then sprinkled in a garden and a pure white lily grew up there. (Now why on earth, so to speak, would they spread her blood on the garden? And did the lily spring up spontaneously or did someone just happen to have planted a bulb there?)

A true believer, I guess, can connect the dots in this somewhat gory tale and come up with a coherent religious story. It does rather fly in the face of scientific knowledge about volcanoes, earthquakes and the spread of disease. That would explain the credulity of earlier generations. But, even in terms of Catholic belief, does nobody seem to worry that she actually committed suicide, a cardinal sin. The heretics among us may be inclined to think the events were totally random with no cause-and-effect relationships here at all. We might also suspect that the young lady was either worrisomely bipolar and burdened by some mighty serious complexes, or she had a need for attention that was over the top.

After being blinded by Jesuit gold leaf, we see placards in town announcing a concert that night at Teatro Bolívar. It is billed as a tribute to a now-deceased Ecuadorian classical guitarist who died recently in either Venezuela of Guyana (and whose name, despite repeated mention over the evening, I have now forgotten). The theatre itself is very large (1200 seats?) and in the midst of a major ongoing renovation. As usual in Ecuador there is no heating and the night air comes down our necks from the gaps in the temporary ceiling. Given this, the long video about the man’s life and achievements and the immoderate length of the moderator’s moderation begin to seem interminable.

But not only is this a tribute to one person, it is also a patriotic event. Tomorrow, Monday, is Simon Bolívar’s birthday, a big day in Latin America and especially in the Republicos bolivarianos (Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Panama, and Ecuador; there might be more). The Banda Municipale, a city-sponsored brass band, the founding of which goes back well over one hundred years, is on stage; about fifty quite good players and a very ancient conductor. There are also several singers, one of them named Hernan Tomay, who bills himself as the “Tenor de America” (again, America in this case translates to “Latin America”) even though, if he is a tenor, he never once in the evening sings higher than well below the passaggio. He also sings everything with a microphone. Loudly. The first and larger group of his pieces are all patriotic verse songs. The band also plays a lot of Ecuadorian Heimatlieder, although they do eventually play some other things as well. A soprano and a brother-duo come on to sing popular songs to the accompaniment of the brass band, the approval of the audience and the regular interruption of the long-winded moderator.

Billed to start at 2000, there is a line in the street outside the box office when we arrive at 1930. In the end they only ask for a one-dollar voluntary contribution to the concert. As the video starts, the auditorium is much less than half filled. In best Ecuadorian fashion, at least half of the crowd comes late: by 2045 the teatro is fully occupied and the crowd is clapping enthusiastically for each musical offering. We stick it out to the end, which comes at about 2200. The band members are already striking their tents and half of them have left the stage when there seems to be a conference on stage about whether to play an encore for the still clapping public. We learned to our surprise from the participants at the conducting workshop that encores are quite uncommon in Ecuador; clearly the response of the crowd has caught the performers off guard. Like true troopers, the singers (or hams) seem eager to keep singing. We decide that we have had enough, however, and make for the doors. On the way out I notice that half the seats are empty again. Maybe concerts are considered come-and-go events here.

After the children’s-choir festival that we visited in our first trip to Quito, this is the second public event we have witnessed. I can’t say it was really up our alley. But it was interesting to get a slice of Quito popular culture and to be inside one of the local concert venues. The third cultural event we attended was a night-time outdoor performance of La Serva a Padrona by Pergolesi. This is delightfully staged and sung on a stage set up in La Mariscal district. Freddy, one of our conducting students, plays in the 8-man guitar orchestra that accompanies the opera: a good idea that works quite well. Freddy also tells us that this is the first time that such a summertime opera has been staged with the support of the city.

So Antonia’s last weekend in Quito passes full of culture and touristic activities. Did I mention that we also visited the huge neo-gothic Basilica Voto Popular (Basilica of Popular Devotion) with the intention of climbing the tower for a view of the city. Somehow we were too tired to insist upon paying two dollars each for the privilege. I wrote about this church in an earlier blog. Basically, however, this huge stone pile is supposed to be popular expression of the devotion of the people of Ecuador to the Roman Catholic version of the Christian faith. The tensions between conservative Roman Catholic upper classes, on the one hand, and liberals who favoured a separation of church and state and a freedom to worship (or not) as the individual sees fit has been an important element in the political history of the country. Indeed, Moreno, the first president, was assassinated by an opponent because he, Moreno, tried to make Ecuadorian citizenship dependent upon being a Roman Catholic. In other words, if you were a Protestant, non-conformist, free-thinker, Jew or native spirit worshipper, you could not have Ecuadorian citizenship. Imagine George Bush saying you had to be a Southern Baptist to be a real American. Nowadays, fortunately or otherwise, the Ecuadorians have other things to worry about.

Newspaper articles

It is these other things that I have been researching and reading up on. As far as I can tell, the main issues for Ecuadorians are:

§ Economic and racial class divisions inside the country;
§ Unstable (democratic) government;
§ Ecuador’s relations with Andean countries like Columbia where rebel forces basically govern the 40% of the country next to Ecuador’s border and frequently use Ecuador as a safe haven. Open shooting broke out in 1995 on the disputed border with Peru in oil rich Oriente Province;
§ Ecuador’s overall relationship with the U.S.A.; the U.S. “war” on drugs and its “war” on terrorism as carried out in Ecuador and its neighbours. The U.S.A. now has an aircraft base in Manta and is intensely involved in Columbia;
§ And, as a separate but related theme, the impact on Ecuador (especially of Ecuadorian agriculture and Ecuadorian demographics) of regional free trade and so-called “trade liberalization”;
§ The mass emigration of Ecuadorians to the U.S.A. and the E.U. Ecuador has lost about 20 percent of its population of 13 million in recent years;
§ The relative benefits of small farms (as in Ecuador) versus large farms (as in the U.S.A.) Monoculture farming is ecologically unsound, socially disruptive, not really very efficient and produces food that might travel well but tastes bland or even bad; most Ecuadorian farmers till small plots;
§ (As another topic in US-Ecuadorian relations,) Ecuador and the petroleum industry. Ecuador is a major oil country but is in a clinch with the oil companies and the U.S.A. government about sharing profits, environmental protection and the impact on indigenous peoples in the Amazonian headwater regions of the country;
§ Foreign aid and Ecuador. What it’s used for and who is providing it and how much;
§ Volunteering in Ecuador. Who does what; is anybody making money here?

A friend is on the board of a small progressive newspaper in Canada and has suggested that I might want to submit some articles on topics like these. Perhaps the observations and researches I had been making for my own benefit have a wider interest. So, not tourist articles, but essays about serious issues for Ecuador with insights for Canadians, Americans and Europeans.

If the editor decides to go ahead with the articles I shall also post them to the blog. Stay tuned. There will be a quiz on Monday and it counts on the final.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Mama Tungurahua is upset

Ever since when, six weeks ago, we stayed in Baños at the foot of Mount Tungurahua we have been trying to catch an actual glimpse of the peak. Unfortunately, the several big peaks around that part of the country, some 200 kilometres south of the capital Quito along the so-call Avenida de Vulcános, seem to be cloud magnets. We never saw Tungurahua’s smoking head. Even after ten days in Riobamba - on the other side of the mountain from Baños - we still had not seen it.

At this time of year at least, Riobamba’s climate seems to run to overcast skies from just after sunset until midmorning the next day when the direct equatorial sun finally burns off the clouds. We are now well into the dry season and each noon when the skies had cleared around Riobamba, we were finally getting great views of Chimborazo and La Altar. But still no Tungurahua!

On our last “working” evening in Riobamba, Antonia, Kathleen and I are walking the ten blocks or so along the city’s cobbled streets to the Casa de Cultura to meet the choir that we had been working with for two weeks. It is shortly before 1800. Looking northwards back up one street at an intersection I realise that what I am seeing in addition to the usual cloud corona is a huge plume of grey smoke. Then I notice that other people are coming out of their houses to look as well. We are also able to see red at the bottom of the smoke where it issues from the crater. Our view is impeded by city buildings and the usual clutter of overhead telephone and power lines. But there is definitely something going on Tungurahua. When we arrive a few minutes later at the rehearsal room, Camilo, one of the singers, tells us that the Tungurahua has just begun to erupt.

Later, after the final rehearsal, we all go out for a dinner of platos tipicos, i.e. typical Ecuadorian food (in this case roast suckling pig with cheese-and-potato cakes) and later a visit to a karaoke bar. Each time we come outside the cars are looking greyer and greyer as cineza, volcanic ash, settles onto the city. Our Riobamba lady friends wrap their omni-present shawls around their nose and mouth when they step outside and some of the men pull up the collar of their jackets to keep from inhaling the ash.

We knew that Baños has been evacuated back in 1999 for three months after warnings by seismologists (volcanistas) that Tungurahua was about blow. Three months later nothing had happened and the citizens were allowed back in (to find in many cases that their belongings had been plundered). We are worried. The local papers of course are full of stories and pictures over the next few days. Smaller pueblos like Bilbao, between us and the crater, and pueblacitas on the mountainside have been or are being evacuated; parts of Baños too. The busses for Baños, which normally leave from the Terminal Orientale directly in front of our hostal, have all been cancelled because the roads are threatened and the ash fallout is too heavy along the route.

Riobambeños, on the other hand, are saying that, other than ash, Riobamba was not threatened by lava. Lava is indeed flowing down the mountain. But there is a valley between us and the flows, and the direction of the flows is a bit away from the city. The flume of ash rises six to seven kilometres
high, and it is drifting off to the southwest. While the ash fallout is heaviest near the mountain, of course, ash was also being measured in Guayaquil, some two hundred kilometres away on the coast.

Our hotel is pretty noisy even at the best of times. So we do not hear until late in the night the rumblings and tremors and explosions inside the mountain. Cleber, Maggie’s brother, tells me that there are lava plugs in the sides of the mountain that might (sic) alleviate the intense pressure inside the crater and allow lava to spill out. This would prevent the mountain from actually exploding like Mount St. Helen in Washington did some twenty or so years ago. Late at night when the market and bus traffic outside our hotel window calms, we can indeed hear the unsettling noises; a mixture between thunder and explosions.

Not that any of this apparently bothers anyone in Riobamba. Saturday dawns as usual. Everyone goes on with their lives. What else should they do? Shopkeepers are out sweeping up ash while others are brushing off their cars or trucks exactly as snowbound commuters would do in Winnipeg and Chicago. Although open sacks of grains and maize are displayed in some shops and tables of fruit and vegetables are everywhere around today’s weekly market, nobody bothers to cover up anything. Our innkeeper, Maggie, and her father are going to drive out to their piece of property in el campo (in the country) on Monday to check things out though they think they might have trouble getting through military roadblocks. Certainly the busses to Baños have not been running since Friday night. Who knows if they can even get through in their car. We leave for Quito on Monday morning so we haven’t found out yet.

The region is not exactly a stranger to natural catastrophes. Tungurahua erupted a decade ago, I am told by someone at the big family fiesta we are invited to on Sunday. But I read somewhere else that the last eruption was much longer ago than that. The whole sierra province of Ecuador has certainly been an active place for centuries. Severe earthquakes destroyed Riobamba in both 1711 and 1877 and, in living memory, a “super-earthquake” wiped out nearby Ambato in 1949. Tungurahua was first climbed in 1873, by Germans as it turns out. It had so altered its structure after volcanic and seismic activity that, in 1900, the new and now higher mountain was climbed again by an Ecuadorian. Maybe somebody will soon be able to climb it again for a new record.

A quick glimpse at the map of the Western Hemisphere reveals that the Andes in South America seems to be an extension of the coastal mountain ranges running up and down the coast all the way through Central America right up to Alaska, across the top of the North Pacific Ocean to Japan and down the other side to southeast Asia, Indonesia, et cetera. (This doesn’t even count the smaller fault lines out in the Pacific around, say, Hawaii, the Galapagos and elsewhere.) The circular Pacific line is wonky with earthquakes and smoky from active volcanoes. Along the coasts of the Americas, the various Pacific tectonic plates are moving eastwards, pushing themselves under the continents and raising up high mountains. Where the plates join and friction builds up to cause tremors and shakes, there are also leaks in the earth’s crust which allow molten earth to push up under pressure and burst out into the air to flow out of what have become volcano craters.

Although eruptions are plenty frequent in the Andes of Ecuador – there are I think some twenty-two active or semi-active volcanoes – to be on hand to see one is quite exciting. Every time I heard the earth rumble late at night I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And although Pichincha, Quito’s own house-mountain, is an active volcano, I feel safer for taking the bus out of Riobamba and, four hours later being caught up in Quito’s bustle and noise again. (We are told later that the lava flows always go down the side of the mountain away from the town, a St.-Helen’s-type occasion would wipe out everything. Ah, hey, yup. That’s cool.)

Singing and Fiestas

As our time in Riobamba came to an end we celebrate two fiestas with our new-found friends. Our singers at the Casa de Cultura respond eagerly to Kathleen’s suggestion that we should have at least one party at the end of the intensive, two-week workshop. For several nights in the second week there are groups of singers huddled together trying to work out plans.

On Friday, Señor Franklin Cárdenas, the charming head of the Casa de Cultura, which has been the financial sponsor of our stay here (they covered our hotel expenses) is present as well as a few others. And so is Cesar Santos, the head of the Choral Association, down from Quito. After working our way through the Mozart, Morley and other pieces we have been practising, we are formally thanked first by the choir members and then by Señor Cárdenas. Kathleen and Antonia and I are each given gifts. Then off we trot in a gaggle to a restaurant where they are serving mote y mais rosado. Mote is a type of very hard and quite large white maize that is boiled for a very long time to soften it and then eaten either hot as a side dish or, as in this case, cold, as a starter. You pick at it with your fingers. It is mixed with roasted corn kernels and salted. The main dish is roast suckling pig or chancho, as it is called in this part of Ecuador: the pig is gutted and either roasted hooves, head, tail and all on a spit or baked completo in an oven. Usually you get some sort of onion and tomato salad with it and, if you are really lucky , llaphingacho, the favourite comfort food of the sierras. (To make them, potatoes are boiled and mashed, mixed with cheese and formed into patties. Delicious!)

We sit together at long tables. Although a few people drink Pilsener beer (one of the main brands in the country), most people drink fresh juices. (We have been enjoying the availability of tropical juices ever since arriving in Latin America. Freshly squeezed orange juice is old hat around here. In fact it is pretty tame compared to mango, papaya, cantaloupe melon, mora (a type of big blackberry), strawberry, lime (I haven’t seen many lemons in Latin America), piña (pineapple) and banana. Try guanábana! Wonderful!)

Since the chancho has been roasting for hours on the grill set up on the sidewalk outside and is therefore ready, the serving out starts as quickly as the staff can slice the meat off the carcass and bring it to the table. In fact, the food comes a lot faster than the staff can whip up the individual orders for juice drinks in the single blender behind the bar.

We are accustomed to the German approach to party meals when dinner stretches many courses over the whole evening, and where the Gesellschaft at the table forms over hours. Where the German dinner table might have lots of different eating utensils and crockery, here in Ecuador eating is pretty direct. All the food (except the mote snack) comes on one plate and you eat with a tablespoon. As one person told us, it has to be a pretty formal party to get knives and forks. I find trying to cut roast pork and crackling with a spoon is quite a challenge. But everyone tells me just to pick up the meat in my fingers.

We have hardly sat back to digest the meal when there is a sudden rush for the door. Reckoning that we would be spending the rest of evening in the restaurant, we are almost left behind in the stampede. Is the lava headed this way? No. Just headed for the next stop on our itinerary. Next stop La Barca Karaoke Bar!

Karaoke is really popular in Ecuador because Ecuadorians love to sing. The classical choral tradition may hardly be known, indeed any familiarity with the classical music tradition may not be well developed either. But there is a huge reservoir of popular Latin American song. If you think the popular music tradition is big in the U.S.A. – musicals, film music, rock and roll, big band – whatever comes to your mind, Latin America is at least as big and probably bigger. The music comes from so many countries- everywhere from Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Columbia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and, yes, even little Ecuador. Safely arrived through the quiet streets at the bar, we are handed a thick catalogue to choose songs. There are page after page of Latin songs, none of which we know.

The bar is partially full of people when we arrive and the microphone is being passed from table to table. Some of the singers are all right, some downright bad (and drunk); most are kinda OK. A few of our own party actually sing with the Karaoke microphone too but, microphone or no, everybody follows the bouncing ball and sings lustily. They all seem to know the songs well and are having a terrific time. The karaoke is fun and Kathleen, Antonia and I join in where we can. There are lots of young people in the choir so the energy level is high, the laughing and clowning around is seemingly non-stop and the noise level, like everywhere in Ecuador, is off the scale. Nobody is drinking very much and nobody (at least at our table) is anywhere near drunk (one of the five young girls at the table behind us seems to be approaching obliteration). In fact, one pitcher of sangria, a few bottles of beer and singing seem to be enough to get everyone in our group on a high. Soon we are all up dancing between the tables.

Around 2200 the party seems to break up spontaneously. We all head out into the volcanic ash. The cobblestone streets are now nearly totally empty of traffic, the stationary cars are even greyer than they were when we went in, and the air by the light of the street lamps appears foggy from the volcanic fallout. After the thank-you’s, the hugging and the kissing and repeated farewells we pile into a taxi with Camilo, who apparently has been assigned to get us safely home, and rumble off through the city streets back to Hostal Puerta del Sol. More farewells while we are ringing the bell to wake up the night porter, and soon we are back in our rooms, unpacking our t-shirt gifts and collection of books from the Casa de Cultura and babbling about the whole delightful evening and the nearby volcano.

Ecuadorian hospitality

The choir experience in Riobamba was in one way very trying because many of the singers were novicios (beginners) and the musical skills of many of the others was not highly developed. But in nearly all other ways it completely met the goals that lay behind us attempting this sort of thing.

As I wrote elsewhere, we hardly got to know Mexico in the year and a quarter that we were there because, on a sailboat, we were restricted to the coast and coastal towns and villages. This is all right but it is such a tiny portion of the country and not always even the most interesting. We did spend two months on a rancho in Chihuahua State and nobody can deny that this is Mexico. But it was certainly not a Mexico that is widely known even to Mexicans. Since our hosts were Americans, two of the main characters there, Dutch and Alex, were respectively Dutch and American, and the live-in cowboy (Simon) was rather shy and retiring, we nearly always spoke English. So, both while on the boat and at the rancho, our Spanish therefore did not progress much.

As much as we loved being in Mexico, we wanted our Ecuador experience to be something more. We wanted to get to know the country and its people much better than we had succeeded in doing in Mexico and we wanted to improve our Spanish. Riobamba was our first “gig” and it met all our aims.

We met and came to like a group of about fifteen singers ranging in age from fifteen to fifty. Every night from Monday till Friday we rehearsed for two hours in the evening. We were invited to their houses occasionally and we partied with them at the end. Almost nobody spoke English so we were forced to struggle with Spanish. Sometimes it was too much and we would revert to English and sign language. Kathleen’s instructional language was a melange of Spanish, Italian (crescendo, piano, allargando, etc.), English and arm waving (that’s what conductors do anyway). It seemed to work.

Beyond the actual choir group, the workshop in Riobamba brought us immediately into contact with other people as well. First we got to know César Santos, the head of the Association of Ecuadorian Choirs in Quito, This association has the goal of improving and furthering the work of choirs all across the country. César is a professor of music at the Pontifical Catholic University in the capital. He comes originally from Riobamba and started the choir we were working with, still travelling down every weekend to rehearse them. Because his English is nearly as weak as our Spanish, he brought in Consuelo. Originally from Otavalo to the north, she works as an accountant at the same university and sings in a choir there. She speaks fluent German and English (she attended the German Schule in Quito) and took on some of the administrative work of our workshops. Through her we met Gerhardo Chacon, who also attended the German school in Quito, later studied for several years in Münster and is now a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University. Gerhardo spends part of the week in Quito to teach and part of the week in Riobamba where he is married to a local girl who is a dentist. She studied in Bonn for a few years as well.

As you can see, this music thing is creating a real network. It was Gerhardo who gave us a lift to Riobamba in his pickup at the beginning of the workshop (seminario). Over the four-hour trip we had an interesting talk and he was able to answer a lot of questions (in German) about Ecuador. I was eager to travel with him to one or two of the over 100 indígenas villages where he has organised educational projects, some of which have been sponsored by German foreign-aid donors. As we part in front of the Casa de Cultura, Gerhardo promises to contact us to come up to his house and/or to visit his projects in the country.

In addition to the daily choir workshop, both Kathleen and I are tied up with work via the internet, Kathleen with proofreading and I with German-English translating. Since we are not making any money on the Ecuadorian music gig, we are in urgent need some cash inflow. We are also taking three hours of Spanish lessons each day. So, unfortunately, we are not able to visit the countryside with Gerhardo. But late in the second week I get a call from him on our cellphone: Would we like to come to a fiesta familiar? Cecelia’s extended family will be assembling at someone’s house to celebrate someone’s 25th wedding anniversary. It is an all-day, come-and-go affair. He will pick us up at 1300.

I have my translation done as Gerhardo, Cecelia and their two little girls pull up in front of Puerta del Sol. The big house – it appears to be a work in progress - to which we are driven is out of town on the way to Guano. There we find about two dozen people including a lot of kids, assembled. We are welcomed warmly by the hosts and soon are seated at a dining room table with two of Cecelia’s brothers and the neighbour family with their three teenage daughters. More chancho! This seems to be the main festive meal in Ecuador! Or at least in Riobamba.

The large garden is surrounded by an eight or nine-foot brick wall. Ecuadorians are big on walls, usually studded on top with glass shards or iron spikes. Outside, some of the guys are playing Ecuadorian “Ecuavolley” (a nine-foot high net and only three players per side instead of six). A boom-box is blasting out salsa music and we dance in the sunshine for a while, men, women and children. Eventually we are all called inside to a large-screen television and --- Karaoke! For the next four or five hours a changing half of the crowd sings along with the pieces. The hosts must own some dozen or more karaoke CD’s. In between you drift off to talk to people, play volleyball, dance or find something to drink or eat. The men drink some beer and at some point, Antonio, the host, starts opening a flow of bottles of Glen Grant scotch. The men become increasingly beschwipst though nobody ever becomes in any way drunk or embarrassing. They just become jolly and sing all the more. Finally, after dark, when their tots start to unravel from playing all day with their myriad cousins, Cecelia and Gerhardo gather us all up and we pile back into the camionetta (a popular type of pickup truck with front and back seats) and are soon saying goodbye in front of the hotel. The little girls cry at the farewell. Our network is getting bigger and bigger!

Life with Maggie

Now add Maggie and her family to our friends and acquaintances in Riobamba. Maggie is mid-thirties and has an 11-year-old daughter named Daniele. Her family moved to Riobamba from near Guayaquil some years ago because they thought the town was safer. She lives with Señora Aida, her mother, and her father in a large flat downtown. She has a brother who is a civil servant with the forestry ministry, and a sister who is a professor of Spanish and French in Massachusetts. Like many middle-class families in Ecuador, she has relatives in the U.S.A. and Europe, where they have gone to find work and economic opportunity. Some never return.

Since we are staying in the hotel for two weeks, and since we are trying to save money, we are invited to use the kitchen. Every morning I get up before seven o’clock and stroll across the large open mercado, which is just beginning to stir, to pick up some fruit. The market ladies are beginning to recognise me and give me big smiles. Then it’s across the street to the panaderia for some of those delicious, freshly-baked enrollados (basically croissants). The customer section of the bakery is tiny. But the back room where you can see them through the door making the goodies seems to be going full blast day and night. The shop is open from way before dawn until very late at night and the working section at the back as well. The baker’s wife handles the sales and the baker himself is in back with the ovens. They never seem to leave the shop no matter what the day of the week.

The wife also manages several apprentice-age girls and the baker has several very young teenage boys helping with the baking. No doubt they are learning the trade too. Maybe they are his own kids. I then pick up some fresh milk (in plastic bags from a dairy) and maybe some mermalade, a not very common food in Ecuador, from the viveres, the mom-and-pop grocery store.

In Riobamba there are no stores whatever that can in any way be called supermarkets in the American or European sense. All the grocery stores are tiny but bulging with stock. There is a bakery on every corner, daily open-air fruit, vegetable and meat markets within five blocks of you no matter where you live in this city, a major market every Saturday and a somewhat smaller one on Wednesdays. That’s when live poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs and cats are sold. And, if you are in from the campo, that’s when you buy your clothes and shoes and farm tools and household wares and, I suppose your pirated DVD’s and videos. There are of course shops for these around town but the country people are in town on Saturdays and so are the travelling merchants.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Riobamba, Ecuador, Thursday, July 06, 2006

Through the Devil’s Nose

We nurture images of the great transcontinental railways across the U.S.A. or Canada. For myself, I always picture these railway projects being laid across the Great Plains or the Canadian Prairies. Of course, that was the easy part. The really tough part was blasting the lines through the mountain ranges that run north-south parallel to the Pacific coast. (I leave aside the superhuman effort required to lay tracks through the rock and muskeg of the Canadian or Precambrian Shield north around Lake Superior.)

Like everybody else, Ecuador started a railway in the mid-nineteenth century to unite its disparate cities. A narrow-gauge line was laid between Guayaquil on the coast to Quito in the mountains and eventually beyond to Otavalo and the Columbian border. But forget images of coolies laying track across the bald prairies! Once away from the coastal plain the line had to be punched through the Andes and reach an altitude of 3,000 metres by the time it got to Riobamba in the centre of the country. Not that it actually got any easier after that; there were still lots of mountains and valleys to get through. The modern highway that we travelled by pickup truck last Saturday to here from Quito with Gerardo frequently parallels the old mountain-gauge line.

Like Mexico, Ecuador seems now to have abandoned railways nearly altogether in favour of highways and busses. Highways and trucks are more flexible though, if all the costs are included, perhaps not really that much cheaper. If the automobile industry was going to become significant, there had to be highways. Once people had cars they didn’t use public transportation to the same degree. Revenues therefore began to fall off. Some governments, too, grew heartily sick of the frequently extortionist wage tactics used by politicised labour unions from monopolistic railways and wanted alternative transportation. In Mexico, finally, the government has essentially given up on passenger rail service, gone for long-distance highways financed privately as toll roads and put up cheap loans for long-distance bus services to be formed. The result is a nationwide network of expressways and quality bus lines.

Ecuador seems to have adopted the same attitude. In 1998-99 non-stop El Niño rains washed out a large part of the line between Riobamba and the coast. That, I guess, was the last straw. Now, although the lines still exist around the land, only the stretch between Riobamba south towards the coast is open as far as “The Devil’s Nose”, the spectacular set of switchbacks near Alausí a few hours away. And the antique mountain-gauge steam engines have been replaced by a diesel locomotive.

This line is now frequented basically only by tourists and runs only three days a week. The train leaves from Riobamba’s quaint but essentially unused 19th Century station downtown at 0700, is made up of a locomotive, three or four boxcars and a passenger car. Yesterday, when we travelled the road, we were also had a flatbed car, which carried rubble and workmen with shovels for part of the journey and a caterpillar front-end loader for another. A few cautious souls found seats in the unheated passenger coach. But one of the interesting aspects of this train is that you are allowed to sit on top of the box cars and get an unobstructed view on the mountains and passes as one rattles and sways along the unwelded track.

Up at five in the pre-dawn, William, Antonia and I get dressed and trudge off through the nearly deserted city streets for the railway station. Arriving twenty minutes later, we find the place abuzz with backpackers and other foreigners, street sellers and ticket-takers. We pick up a bottle of drinking water and redeem the little handwritten chit I had received yesterday when I went to buy the railroad tickets; the chit gave three cushions I had rented for a dollar each for the journey. We had already bought bread rolls from the panaderia last night.

Up the ladder we go on the side of the boxcar and along the centre ridge until we find some space. Handrails have been welded all along the sides of the cars so you don’t fall off when you are sitting. We drop our cushions and stake out our spots while more and more people arrive. No one goes into the boxcars themselves though some do toss in their large backpacks before heading up top.

At seven the diesel locomotive revs up and we are off through the city streets. As usual, the valley where Riobamba is situated is covered with low morning cloud. It seems to burn off as the day progresses, the skies opening up to puffy clouds against an azure blue backdrop. The mountain peaks appear slowly as the day goes on and two days ago we actually had a terrific, clear, late-afternoon view of Chimborazo, at 6,310 metres above sea level, the second highest mountain in the world after Mt. Everest.

The first half of the approximately five-hour train ride is cold and dusty. The early-morning air is cool enough to chill one and soon my fingers are feeling rather numb. At our first stop William cleverly buys one of those Andean wool hats with earflaps. He is wearing a fleece jacket and tennis shoes. I have on a sweatshirt under my fleece jacket and am wearing shoes and socks too. Antonia is the hardy one! She is wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a very light knitted pullover. For footwear she has on sandals. I am getting colder and colder in the breeze and seriously consider going to the passenger coach at the back of the train when we make our stop around 0900. Antonia however says that, other than her toes, she is actually if not warm at least warm enough. She convinces me to stick it out up top. And I am glad I did because soon the sun has burned off the clouds and people are beginning to strip off jackets and ponchos and sweaters. The sun is high in the sky and, in the dry mountain air, warms us up fast. William, ever the gentleman, buys a second woolly cap and lends it to Toni.

We chat with the eclectic band of fellow travellers atop the boxcar. Next to us is an Ecuadorian who emigrated to Los Angeles, California, and is now a fire-fighter. He is shepherding a family of American friends around his home country. We also meet a Norwegian university history student who is backpacking around the Andes for the summer vacation, a family from Washington, DC. and two ANZAC couples on vacation in Ecuador, Peru and Chile. All the while vendors keep tightrope-walking up and down the centre pathway with baskets of snacks and drinks. At the one or two stops we make, people in indigenous costumes are selling hot food (empanadas, waffles, soups and drinks or the usual Ecuadorian textiles and souvenirs with a slight leaning toward woollen gloves, scarves and headgear).

At first the train climbs to three thousand metres. We pass through wide upland plains, all cultivated or pasture land. There are plenty of people out in the fields planting or harvesting. We see no farm equipment more modern than a wooden plough towed by a pair of bullocks. Many of the cultivated land is in patches so small and/or so steep that there is no way that such land could be “modernised”, i.e. where capital in the form of equipment could be employed. Some of the tilled land growing maize, wheat, barley, beans, etc. is smaller than the foyer in our small family-run hotel. Some of the fields have been ploughed but we only once see a plough in use (the above wooden one as introduced by the Spanish in the 16th Century). Otherwise see lots of people using mattocks to break up the sods or till the soil. Here in the mountains water is in good supply. We spy lots of sloped gardens laid out in a downhill serpentine system to allow water diverted from a stream or irrigation canal to water the crop. We spot women standing in the cold mountain streams to do the washing against rounded stones and laying the clean items out on bushes of grass embankments to dry in the dry air. The housing we see near the railway is usually small, built of cement brick with corrugated iron roofing. Almost everywhere we see one, two or three black or Holstein milk cows tethered near a house or on the verge of tilled fields to graze. Every house seems also to have at least one, two or three pigs and a big old black sow and a couple of dogs. Woolly sheep are present too usually tended by a child or an adult. Only once however did I se anything that could be considered a large herd; a shepherd on foot was watching about two dozen animals. Mostly we saw herds of well under a dozen sheep. They don’t dock the tails here either the way they do in Canada. From what Gerardo told me in the car on the way to Riobamba, the land reforms have broken up some of the big haciendas. But nobody can get a big enough piece of land to keep a large family. Overpopulation on the land has led sometimes to the cultivation and grazing of marginal pieces of land and, as we saw, the tilling goes on right up to the top of some fairly high peaks. This, Gerardo says, has led to bad habits of overgrazing and the tilling means the mountain rains are not retained and is leading here and there in Ecuador to water shortages.

I could imagine that if the population left the land in the same degree that they have in industrialised countries much of this land would be turned into grassland for beef and/or large dairy herds. Much of the small acreages and marginal surfaces would be left fallow and only where farm machinery could be operated would tilling and machine harvesting take place. Statistically, most of these small farms (by far the greater number of farms in the country) are not economically viable at present and the country people look poor. You see it in their houses (small and with few amenities that I could spot), the standard of dental care (a lot of very toothless people including children and old people), the amount of backbreaking human physical work, not only in the fields but the carrying of extremely heavy loads as well. We see some burros but, except for once or twice where I spot someone riding a donkey and when we saw the two bullocks pulling a wooden plough, the burrows are simply tethered out and are grazing.

After Alausí, we head steeply down through long narrow valleys with untimbered, grassy slopes and a straight and long drop to a rushing stream. Eventually we spot other railway tracks running parallel to us much farther below us. We are approaching El Nariz del Diablo, The Devil’s Nose, the spectacular set of switchbacks that drop us I estimate a thousand metres into the valley. At times the train is running backwards. Looking over the side of the boxcar is a little nerve-wracking. On three boxcars there are brakemen positioned next to the big wheels that might be necessary to turn if the locomotive brakes fail and the train begins to run downhill out of control. Comforting thought!

At the bottom we come to the end of the track still in use. The conductors announce a ten-minute break before we start back up to Alausí. Passengers swarm off to walk along the river bank or to take photos of the train itself and the switchbacks that are visible on the cliffs we have just descended. We stop at the bottom of the valley for the locomotive to be placed at the other end of the train and soon we are moving back up the mountain. Indeed, I estimate we are actually travelling faster uphill than when we were moving so cautiously downhill. An hour later we are back in Alausí.

Everyone piles off. You can buy a ticket back to Riobamba on the train for $3 (the fare down was $11 for adultos and $5.50 for Señores or Majores). It takes more than three hours. The bus, on the other hand, costs $2 each and is back in town in about two hours although it follows along the railway line for much of the journey. Nearly everyone opts for the bus.

If you really wanted to save money, I suppose, you could catch the bus to Alausí, get on the train there for El Nariz del Diablo, and then take the train back to town for a couple of bucks.

The bus is warm and packed and there are lots of local people aboard as well. We meet Blair and Susan, a retired English couple from Bristol who are backpacking around for a year. While waiting for the bus to start, we discuss how various people react to our strange and peripatetic ways of life but after we get rolling and the bus begins the half-hour zigzag climb up the mountainside, we all drift off in sleep.

The day has been long and we are weary and hungry. We are also dirty from the dust that the train puts up all along the way and from sitting outside. Our noses are also quite red from the equatorial sun. But it has been a worthwhile day. I think this railway is not quite as spectacular and certainly not as long as the famous Copper Canyon Railway between Los Mochos and Chihuahua in northern Mexico. But Andean scenery here is also very beautiful and equally as awe-inspiring. It was an added adventure to be able to ride on the roof of the boxcars for an uninhibited view of the mountains and valleys. Well worth the effort!

Working with the choir

Back at the Terminal Terrestre bus terminal, we shuffle wearily into the downtown area. It is already 1630 and I have a rehearsal in town at 1800. The kids hop in a taxi that brings them to the Hostal Puerto del Sol on the north side while I find a cup of coffee and an internet café. At 1800 I meet Kathleen at the Casa de Cultura.

The same core group of young men and women are already assembled in the hallway while somebody looks for a key to the rehearsal room. Each day there are a few new bodies and Kathleen is testing a few of them for matching pitches and voice range. This choir is made up almost completely of eager beginners. It appears to be open to everyone so in a sense I guess it direction is to become a type of “community choir”. Very, very few, if any, can read music and, although perhaps as Latins, they have a great sense of rhythm, many cannot match pitches very reliably or even at all. So Kathleen is teaching the four and even five-part songs to them. There is a lot of basic work, in other words. Frustrating as this is, it might be a seed planted that will grow into something bigger. Certainly the people are absolutely delightful and seem to be willing to work steadily for two hours every evening. For my part, I am exhausted from the long day and dehydrated from the sun and fresh air. Bed is beginning to look very good.

Plans for the next few weeks

Tomorrow, Friday, I shall be travelling with William to Quito for him to catch his flight home. It departs late on Friday evening, stopping in Guayaquil before returning to the U.S.A. via Atlanta. It’s a real “red-eye”. I shall stay overnight in Quito and bus back down to Riobamba on Saturday.

The choir gig lasts another week in Riobamba and Kathleen needs to be in Quito for the following two weeks to train choir conductors at one of the conservatories in the capital. Antonia had wanted very much to go and stay/volunteer/study Spanish at Rio Muchacho, a really interesting and innovative organic tropical farm down near where the boat is anchored at Bahia de Caráquez on the coast. As interesting and fun as this might be, it is likely a little too expensive for our blood. It will be financially better for her to stay with us in Quito and take twenty hours of Spanish at a language school for two weeks. Her foreign language training in the public schools at home has been very spotty, the taxpayers apparently not being willing to hire language teachers. Three weeks of concentrated Spanish (we shall try to get a spot for her here in Riobamba for next week too) ought to be a big push up for her.

After the two weeks in Quito, we are free of engagements for a while and we shall likely head back down to the Vilisar. She needs her bottom painted and her zincs replaced, the topsides painted and one or two repairs made to ready her for sea again. Quien sabe cuando! Who knows when!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sunday, July 02, 2006

I am able to pick up some translating work that was due to come in on Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Despite feeling terrible again with a stomach amoeba and dosing myself with some sort of pills I get from the farmacia, we settle up our bill at Hostal Runa Pacha, say goodbye, sling our baggage over our shoulders and saunter off down the now familiar streets of Otavalo toward the bus terminal.

We have learned to stop worrying about bus schedules when traveling in Ecuador. There always seem to lots of busses going wherever you want to go. This Wednesday mid-morning is no different. The parking lot that serves as the terminal is abuzz with activity. Underway the bus conductors take tickets, handle the baggage and generally keep things functioning. As they approach stops (usually unofficial stops) along the route and in the terminals they act as barkers who are constantly calling out the bus’s destination. At first we are only hearing other towns out of the cacophony: “Ibarra!”; “Tulcan!”; “Esmeralda!”; “Cotacachi!”; “Agato!”, they shout at us. I am familiar with the system now and I keep shouting “Quito?” back at them. They wave us along the row of busses until finally one of the barkers acknowledges us and waves us over. The hawkers are competitive but they always correctly assume you want on the next bus to leave. Soon our baggage is stowed below and we are spread out in the bus. This time I switch sides so I can enjoy the views through the high mountain passes from a different angle than on the trip up here.

On the way Kathleen and Antonia, sitting farther forward, make the acquaintance of an indígenos musician, Fernando, traveling down with us to the capital. He has a CD of music he has recorded and they buy one from him. The last part of the trip is through the endless suburbs of Quito Norte and we appear to be heading right past La Mariscal where Hostal New Bask is located, and where we intend to put up for a few days. Fortunately the musician is getting off around there too, and he helps us get the bus stopped at the right spot. We all pile off while the vehicular traffic swarms around the bus, beeping and hooting in best Ecuadorian fashion. The conductor throws our luggage off, we say a hasty goodbye to Fernando, let ourselves be cadged by a taxi driver who throws our luggage into the back and we are off through the traffic to Calle Lizardo Garcia.

Taxi drivers seem seldom to use their meters so there is a little tussle while we work out that the trip is going to cost three dollars flat. After that the discussion with the driver goes back to futbol. Fifteen minutes later we are at the hostal. I head for the internet café to pick up my translation. Kathleen, Antonia and William go into the hostal and are soon settled back in the same room we left nearly two weeks ago to go to Baños and Otavalo. The hostel is more than pleased to get the two room keys back that we had inadvertently taken with us.

Over the next few days I am tied up completely grinding through a German-to-English translation of a contract about computers. There should be a premium paid for translating boring texts! But it’s all money in the bank and I grind away at it. Meanwhile Kathleen takes the kids for the afternoon to Mitad del Mundo, the site of the observatory where French scientists took the measurements of the equator back in 1700’s. It is at the foot of Mount Pichincha. You can shake hands (or do anything else you fancy or can manage, I imagine) across the equator. There is also an interesting ethnological museum covering the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.

Back in town by late afternoon, the kids are left on their own as both Kathleen and I work at the upstairs internet café. She is getting lots of proofreading at present, and I have the translation. We both therefore need a computer. The internet place has a few tables at one end, the “café” portion. I set up shop near an electrical outlet while Kathleen goes online at one of the terminals.

Somewhere in all of this, we get calls back from Señor Santos and Consuelo about the workshop in Riobamba. It seems that we are to be there for a mid-Saturday afternoon rehearsal and that the workshops or intensive rehearsals or whatever is supposed to be happening down there will take place every evening thereafter for the following two weeks.

Just what is to happen in Riobamba is a little vague in our minds. But, as we have learned in the sailing world, “closer is clearer”. We’ll just head down there and see what happens. Consuelo calls back later to say that she has arranged a ride for us on Saturday morning with a friend who is a professor at the Catholic University, where she herself works, but who lives in Riobamba.

This seems a little tentative. But what have we got to lose? The whole idea of volunteering to do these music things was to get to know Ecuador and meet Ecuadorians as well as perhaps to learn Spanish.

“God works in mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Take learning Spanish, for example. Our ride is a native Spanish speaker. His English is non-existent but he attended the Deutsche Schule in Quito while growing up (that’s how Consuelo knows him), and studied philosophy for three years in Műnster and Bielefeld. We converse in German. He picks us up in his camionetta (pickup truck) and off we go for another trip in Ecuador. Gerardo is really interesting to talk with and he is able to answer a lot of questions I have been saving up for such an occasion.

Questions about Ecuador: Politics; Free Trade in the Americas

We talk about Ecuadorian politics and economics as we go along. He observes that the power in the country is now and has always been with the wealthy. Occasionally there is a blip on the political scene, for example, a land reform here or a tax adjustment there. But nothing really changes. Perhaps now the wealth comes from things like exporting roses (a fairly capital-intensive affair because of all the permits and bank guarantees required) instead of large agricultural estates. But it’s often the same people. At least the Ecuadorians change the families now and again, unlike the Bush dynasty in the U.S.A.

We discuss relations between Ecuador and the U.S.A., the country’s main outside influence. It’s not that the U.S.A. has much understanding of Latin American in general or Ecuador in particular. But there are several major issues burdening the relationship. The first is oil, the second is the free-trade agreement with other Andean countries like Columbia, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, one the one hand, and the U.S.A. (and perhaps Canada and Mexico) on the other.

The Ecuadorian government is in favour of free trade as are the rose farmers and banana shippers. The former are in the hands of the well-to-do families, the latter largely in the hands of American companies like United Fruit Company. It is the small farmers, who are large in number, who fear and oppose free trade because they believe they will be wiped out. The rose growers and their friends believe that Ecuador is far enough from the U.S.A. that transport costs and the cheap labour and capital costs here will protect the local small farmers from a flood of agricultural products from the U.S.A. This has certainly not helped Mexico, however. You cannot go to a Mexican supermarket without realising that nearly every canned or fresh food comes from the U.S.A., even Washington apples and Florida citrus. American (and European) farmers are so highly subsidised by the taxpayer that their selling costs are not based upon the real cost of production. The taxpayer motivates them to overproduce and the surplus goes into cheap exports. And, as to transport costs, once a load is aboard a freighter, the cost is measured in pennies per ton. As an example, it is cheaper to ship crushed granite to Houston from a coastal quarry in Scotland than it is to truck it in from Austin, Texas.

But, according to Gerardo, free trade with Ecuador has been frozen by the U.S.A. because of the second big disagreement between the two countries: oil. Ecuador is the second largest supplier of petroleum to the U.S.A. after Venezuela. Oil is the largest single export from the country. It is drilled for in the Oriente, i.e. the Amazon headwater areas on the east side of Ecuador and shipped by a purpose-built pipeline to Esmeralda near the border to Columbia, where a trans-shipment terminal now exists. The deal cut between Occidental Oil (Arm and Hammer’s company) and the Ecuadorian government when it all began twenty years ago was that the Ecuadorians would receive 40 percent of the barrel price of oil and Occidental 60 percent. This applied only up to an oil price of $14 per barrel. After that Occidental would take it all. The Ecuadorian Government has been insisting that the contract has to be re-negotiated to split the profits fifty-fifty. Occidental, who, like most US oil companies, have excellent contact to the Bush administration and the Republican Party, has moved the US government to stop free-trade talks as a means of pressuring Ecuador in the matter of oil royalties. Clearly they hope the government here will be pushed by the beneficiaries of free trade to get the measure approved over the protests of the small farmers. Although we have seen no sign of it ourselves, the Ecuadorian Government introduced emergency powers to prevent protesters from demonstrating in five provinces. The Army can be used to this end. The Government says the measure will be put through, whatever, and the farmers should collect signatures and get a law introduced into parliament. In any case, although the other Andean countries have signed the agreement at diplomatic level, their parliaments have so far not ratified the agreements. The stories continue.

I asked about what the relationship is between the Army and the Government and learned that most Governments here keep an eye over their shoulders at how the military will react. The military look very well equipped and dressed and, we learned, they just got another pay rise to keep them happy. But every once in a while they take over the government if they are unhappy with the direction of politics.

Everyone is now wondering whether, after a long trend to liberal, free-market democratic governments, Latin American are starting to move in different directions. Many of the democratically-elected governments were not able to manage the economies very well and the middle class voters began to despair. At the same time, the liberal-capitalistic centred around open borders and globalisation have only benefited a small group of people while leaving the lower income people worse off than before. The governments have cut social security, health care and other social programs in an attempt to cut back “government” and balance budgets. This has benefited the middle-class taxpayers but left many worse off.

Chavez in Venezuela is seen by the U.S.A. as an enemy, especially so since the U.S.A., that great bringer of democracy to the world, toppled him once. He was re-elected and is madder than ever at the U.S.A. Left-leaning governments have appeared in other countries in South America too. Now, on Sunday, there is a presidential election in Mexico. Though the running is close, the left-leaning nationalist, Lopez Oberon, the popular and populist ex-mayor of Mexico City, looks set to win over the liberal-capitalist-internationalist Calderon. (The old PRI is way back.) Lopez says free trade and globalisation has not really benefited Mexico. Wait and see.

I really enjoyed the ride down for the many topics we could touch on and the questions we could get answered about Ecuador. We have been saving them up to find somebody we could talk with. As mentioned at the beginning, although we had not expected to be talking German, we had always hoped that the music workshops would bring more contact with Ecuador and Ecuadorians and it appears to be bearing fruit.

Arriving in Riobamba

Arriving finally at the Casa de Cultura in downtown Riobamba to find Cesar Ssantos and a group of about eleven young people ready to rehearse. Cesar took them through their pieces, which they had memorised (most of them do not read music.) Kathleen will rehearse the choir two hours every day for the next two weeks while Cesar is away. They may do a concert at the end of the period. She will be concentrating on singing technique, repertoire, tone and pitch, ensemble work, etc. They look like a fun group and proven that they are motivated since they turned out for practice while a fantastic match between France and Brasil was being televised!

The head of the Casa de Cultura made a very nice welcoming speech to us and we were chauffeured by car on a sightseeing tour through the city by a nice man named Peter. We stopped at the only piece of high ground in the Riobamba Valley from which we had a good view over the town and to the three volcanoes that encircle us: to the north, Tugarahua (active; 5,016 metres above sea level); to the south, El Arch (5,320 metres); and, to the west, the giant Chimbarosa (6,380 metres, the second highest mountain in the world after Everest and the highest in the Western Hemisphere.) Although we had seen Cotopachi on the way down from Quito, we were not able to see the tops of the three mountains since the weather had socked in a bit. Maybe one day.

The tour ended at the Hostal Puerta del Sol on the north side of town. The family that runs it, three generations under one roof, has apparently recently modernised the hostel, since the floors are all freshly tiled or of hardwood and the bathrooms are all with new fixtures and nicely tiled. The rooms are still quite impersonal and not really comfortable. There are no bedside tables and little storage and, as usual, the ubiquitous bare lightbulb in the centre of the ceiling. No reading lamps. But – Thank Goodness! – a good mattress.

Our windows overlook a big public market and the bus terminal for the Oriente and Baños. It is a beehive of activity when we arrive though it already late on Saturday afternoon with market women calling out their wares and bus conductors doing their routines. Ecuador is not over-run with cars. But there are lots and lots of noisy and stinking diesel-powered busses of an older generation and lots of diesel-powered trucks that appear either to have mufflers badly in need of repair or no mufflers at all. Since our windows are not of insulated glass, we resign ourselves to keeping the windows shut and sleeping with our earplugs in.

Today, Sunday, we relaxed and looked around the town, taking in breakfast at a greasy spoon around the corner and dinner at a hamburger place downtown near the market. When we visited the central market this morning we saw that that every food stall was serving roast suckling pig (Spanferkel) and, after Otavalo, we were eager to have this for dinner. After marching all the way down there again this afternoon late, we found the market had closed early for Sunday evening and we were forced into a fried chicken place. This turned out just fine and we came back after dark planning to play cards and get an early night to face the translations and proofreading expected in tomorrow and the first rehearsal of the week.