Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ecuador Travelogue

I've not posted in many days because I've been traveling in Ecuador. That old saw about travel being broadening really is true. Its regrettable that more people can't afford to travel internationally; I think that society could definitely benefit from people becoming a little more cosmopolitan. So, first things first, impressions of Quito. I had the good opportunity to be traveling with a friend who had previously been an exchange student in Ecuador; we were shown around the city during our stay there by her former host family. That seems to really be the way to see things, traveling with a local. I suspect that my previous experience traveling in Iceland (good vacation, but waaayyy too expensive) would have been better if I had been traveling with someone who was intimately familiar with the country. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that I was able to follow basic conversations in Spanish, despite the fact that I was never very good at it in high school and haven't used it in years (though I suspect that I still sound like a retarded 8 year old when I try to speak it). The first thing I noticed about Quito was the general economics of the city. I wouldn't go so far as to say "third world", but everything, even in the tourist areas, seems a little bit worn, there's trash in the street, there are stray dogs all over, etc. Probably not that much worse than various parts of Los Angeles that I've been to, but then again I wouldn't go to those parts of LA to vacation. In the Old City in particular you see lots of things which bring to mind the phrase "abject poverty" (don't worry, you ain't seen nothing yet), but the economic malaise seems to go all the way (or at least close to) the top. For example, we had the opportunity to have lunch at the home of my friend's host family. They're solidly middle (perhaps upper middle) class, they've got a house in a nice part of town, and live near people who are well-enough off to afford private security. Oh yeah, did I mention the private security? I have to assume that people either don't trust or can't rely on the police. There are a lot more private security guards than one would see in similar areas of the United States, even for modestly-sized private residences. Anyway, as I was saying, my friend's host family is well off. Their parlour (sala?) in particular was very nice, lots of high quality furniture, inlaid wood floors, all that jazz. But when we got to tour the other parts of the house I found that they weren't nearly as nice. I had the impression that they'd dumped a lot of money into their sitting room (presumably for appearances sake) at the expense of the rest of the house. What really struck me, though, was their reaction to gifts which my friend had brought. She gave them $100, maybe $200, worth of random stuff imported from the US, distributed among four people. By the end of the gift giving the mother and father were both in tears. Another member of the group I was traveling with attributed this to general emotion, that they were just so struck by the thoughtfulness of the gifts from an exchange student they hadn't seen in 7 years. Undoubtedly there was a good bit of that mixed in as well, but I'm convinced that their extreme reaction was due, in part, to the fact that what seemed like modest gifts to us were really much more valuable in their eyes. Another fascinating aspect of Quito is the blatant social and economic stratification. In the States we're all about stratification, no doubt of that, but we go out of our way to camouflage those differences. In Quito, by contrast, its quite obvious that how much money you have and who you know can get you better treatment. In the money category, consider the gondola in Quito which takes you to the summit of one of the mountains surround the city (Cruz Loma?). There are two lines for the gondola, a regular line and an express line. You pay more for tickets for the express line, which allows you to spend less time waiting for the gondola. The group I was traveling with remarked that that sort of thing wouldn't fly in the US; people around here get very pissed when other people are able to buy special treatment in such an obvious manner. Regarding the social aspect, it appears that the host family we traveled with had some connections (the father of the husband was apparently a fairly important person). They showed some kind of a card when we arrived at the gondola which got us parking in a small lot close to the entrace; most people apparently have to park down the hill and take a bus up. Also, we just sort of waltzed into La Ronda (a really nice restaurant, probably one of the nicest in Quito) without reservations and were seated after waiting for only a few minutes. During the course of our travels around Quito there were also a couple of exchanges between the husband and either police or security people which I didn't quite follow; they could have been nothing, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some kind of bribery or other negotiation going on. So after hanging around Quito for a day or so we spent 3 nights at the Cuyabeno Lodge, a really nice (from a relative standpoint) jungle lodge in the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve (part of the greater Amazon basin/rainforest). Actually getting to the lodge was something else though. We took a flight from Quito to Lago Agrio; the flight was fine, Lago Agrio (basically an oil town) was nasty. Too many people and too little hygiene. And it got worse; we took a bus from Lago Agrio to the edge of the reserve. You want to talk about abject poverty, here's where we get to talk about abject poverty. During the drive we passed so many tiny shacks without running water or electricity; our guide later said that the people who live in them survive on less that $10 per week (month?). Its inadequate to try to set the misery of these people down on paper, you really have to see it to understand it. The reserve itself was pretty awesome, but it takes time to grow on you. My first impression was that it was quantitatively, but not qualitatively, different from other reserves/parks that I've been to. Sure, the animal life was more colorful (literally and figuratively), and there was denser vegetation, but it wasn't really different. Then I started to notice that it really was different... its living thing piled on living thing piled on living thing. Every available growing substrate seems to be taken up with something or another, and there's lots of instances of things growing on other things, like epiphyte plants growing on trees, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if there are things growing on the epiphyte plants as well. But what really made me understand the qualitative difference of the Amazon forest as opposed to elsewhere was taking a walk in the jungle in the evening. There are truly freakish insects everywhere... we saw one thing called a "lobster grasshopper" (or similar) which looks like your garden variety grasshopper except that it's (a lot) bigger and has a heavily armored carapace in a multitude of colors (I seem to recall a lot of brown and red, possibly some yellow as well). We also saw a beetle of no particular distinction except for its gold shell. I don't mean yellow, I mean thing thing looks like a gold nugget; it reflects so much light that people had a difficult time photographing it. And, of course, there are you ever-present panopoly of spiders, some quite hefty, but they really pale in comparison to the previously-mentioned examples. As an interesting aside, we also had the change to visit an indigenous village, which wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected. The particular group that we visited (wish I could remember the specific name) lives in conditions which are actually a lot better than many of the habitations I saw on the way to the reserve. They've got decent housing, a generator for electricity, a school, DVD players (movies are a prime source of entertainment apparently), etc.; they seem to be making a pretty good living from the whole eco-tourism thing (again, relatively). The visit itself consisted of us going out there on a canoe, taking a break to have a beer we bought from the village store (which stocked some staples of no interest to tourists, so probably caters to the local community as well), then going to see this whopping-great tree on the outskirts of the village. No hordes of people to greet us, no song and dance and exposure to the wisdom of the shamans, none of the crap that I'd feared. At some point during the trip we ended up talking with our guide (a very, very smart chap by the name of Paoul) about the impact of external contact on the indigenous people. He seemed to be under the impression that, in the long run, contact with the outside world is going to turn out to be bad for the natives. With regards to the natives who have already been contacted, he noted that the youth are often unhappy because they recognize the paucity of just about everything in their own lives in comparison to the outside world. They leave their villages and head towards the cities in order to try to obtain the things they've seen, but there isn't any work for them outside, so they end up coming back unsatisfied. With regards to tribes which haven't been contacted (Paoul said that there's still a lithic-technology tribe somewhere in the preserve) he advocated leaving them uncontacted, seemingly on the "ignorance is bliss" principle. Which, of course, led to further discussion which meandered into the territory of authenticity. "Authenticity" is such a problematic word, especially in the context of contacts between the Western world and indigenous societies. Lots of people are worried that contact with the outside world pollutes or dillutes indigenous cultures and keeps them from preserving their traditions. One of the friends I was traveling with is a martial arts instructor, and he likened it to an experience he had when visiting some monks in China. There were people in the group he was touring with who were unhappy to see the monks using cell phones; apparently using technology was not suitably monkish. My friend's observation on this was that "monks need to keep in touch too". Anecdotes like this make me think that there's more motivating the desire to preserve indigenous cultures than just a concern for the well-being of those cultures; there's a strong undercurrent of "don't evolve" as well. In the case of the monks, people expect to see guys in saffron robes sitting around meditating; in the case of indigenous peoples they want to see them living in grass huts and adorning themselves with shells and feathers. People have a pre-conceived notion of what the monks and the indigenous peoples should be like, and they find anything which deviates from this image disturbing. As for the "ignorance is bliss" take, from a pragmatic standpoint Paoul is probably right. Its hard to be unhappy about things which you don't have if you don't know that those things exist. Ideologically I find it hard to square this stance with the idea that the noblest goal of humankind is to help each other find self-fulfillment. Keeping information about the outside world from people doesn't further this goal and is, in a very real sense, paternalistic since it rests on the notion that information about the outside world it too dangerous for indigenous peoples to handle. It seems to me that there should be a way to reconcile this conflict between pragmatism and idealism; it ought to be possible to introduce indigenous socities to the outside world in such a fashion that it doesn't cause the problems which Paoul pointed out. Not that I have any idea of how that can be accomplished, but I have a hard time believing that there's not some solution to the problem. The rest of the trip was fun, but not nearly as interesting. We went to the hotsprings at Papallacta and to the market at Otavalo; the hotsprings were especially nice after being in the jungle for 4 days. Speaking of authenticity, I got yer authenticity right here. The toilet wasn't working on the bus from Lago Agrio to Papallacta, so at one point everyone got out and peed by the side of the road. Hows that for authentic? Being a foodie (among other things) I was also very interested in the Ecuadorean food cultures. As near as I can figure out there are at least 3 native styles of food, some better than others. The most ubiquitous seems to be, I dunno, "common" food. Lots of chicken, rice, papas, plantains, plus there's all sorts of cafes which serve sanduches (ham and cheese sandwhiches served hot or cold). Pretty good, but not astounding. Then there's the food I got at La Ronda, the aforementioned fancy restaurant in Quito, which seems to be classically (i.e. French) -inspired but uses indigenous ingredients. I had seco de chiva (a sort of stewed goat meat) which was really good, but I have to complain about the presentation. The plate had a portion of the seco accompanied by rice, potatos, avocado (and maybe something else), but none of the accompaniments were dressed and the potato tournades (tournades? who the hell uses tournades anymore?) were underdone. The last style I was exposed to was the food that they were serving at the jungle lodge; it was probably the best of everything I had to eat. Lots of fresh fruit and vegtables, presumably because refrigeration is at a premium. I swear, I had the best ceviche I've ever had, and they served a radish salad w/ lime and cilantro that was really fantastic. I really wished that I spoke spanish better... I wanted to interrogate the camp cook to find out where he learned to do his thing. That is all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

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