Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bulletins From BA #23

Bulletins From BA #23
15 febrero 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.


Excursión a Ecuador (continuación)

Día Seis - My taxista Raoul picked me up at the crack of 10:00 and we set out on a turístico trifecta. First stop: El Panecillo, a “hill” (3016 m, 9895 ft) on the south side of Quito. The vistas, as you might expect, are sweeping and stunning. Even better, there is a giant (45m, 148 ft) aluminum statue of “The Woman of the Apocalypse,” a Madonna variation from the hallucinatory Book of Revelation. The statue is on a commodious pedestal that you may enter to obtain an even more stunning/sweeping view.

Next up: La Plaza de San Francisco, a major public square in Old Town. The plaza faces La Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco, a complex that dates to the 16th century. Since I had some commerce to attend to, I was not long exploring; although I did note that the church, while suitably grand, looked somewhat worn and in need of attention. The place was packed for Mass, so out of respect (and a nearly total ignorance of Catholic rituals), I ambled while the congregation sat, and stood in silence when they rose. No one seemed to notice.

Final destination: La Basílica de Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americans. It is an imposing edifice, as befits its architectural heritage. Construction began in 1887, but since actual completion is rumored to herald the end of the world, no one seems in a hurry to technically “finish” the project.

The church has the requisite vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, and stained glass, and the gargoyles adorning the exterior are fashioned to represent indigenous animals, e.g., armadillos, turtles, and pumas. But the coolest feature of La Basílica is that you can climb all the way to the tiptop of the main tower for yet another stunning view of la ciudad. The ascent is steep and not for the acrophobic. Fortunately, my years of scrambling on shipboard ladders (in the Navy, there are no “stairs”) paid off. It was a terrific way to end my tour of Quito.

Día Siete - For our final day in Ecuador, A.J. and I elected to join a smallish bus tour for an excursion to the sabado (Saturday) market in Otavalo, reputedly the largest textile market in South America. Naturally, there were a few roadside attractions:

Calderon - A town famous for artistic items made from a (decidedly inedible) flour-based marzipan.

Guayllabamba - A roadside stop to sample the cherimoya fruit, a (decidedly edible) pre-Incan favourite.

Cayambe - Specifically, Mira Lago Parador Touristico, located on Lago San Pablo at the base of Imbabura volcano. Muy picturesque. Here we took onboard a young woman who sang songs beautifully in Kichwa, a widely spoken local dialect.

[Horticultural Sidebar - One of the major industries in Cayambe is the cultivation of roses, gazillions of them, primarily for export.]

Otavalo - The textile market, situated in the Plaza de Los Ponchos, is moderately overwhelming. The vendors are constantly hustling the gringos, though not to excess, and we purchased a few very nice pieces at precios (prices) muy razonables.

Cotacachi - Lunch & Leather. Great Ecuadorian food and fairly high-end leather shops. A charming pequeño pueblo.

Cayambe - Specifically, “La Mitad Del Mundo” (“The Middle of the World”). Or, less prosaically, the Equator. Naturally, many goofy tourist photos were taken. (Incidentally, the story of the French Geodesic Mission and the search for the Equator is altogether fascinating.)

Día Ocho - Up at 03:00 for the return flight to Buenos Aires. The plane was packed, including families returning from vacaciones with their screaming children. But after navigating the customary confusions of Ezeiza International Airport, we and our tourist memorabilia made it home in good order. Nuestro viaje a Ecuador fue un gran éxito. (Our trip to Ecuador was a great success.)

Gracias por su indulgencia. ¡Adelante!


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bulletins From BA #22

Bulletins From BA #22
13 febrero 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.


Excursión a Ecuador (continuación)

Día Tres - Next up: Cuenca (,Ecuador), a three-hour thrill ride from Loja in a rented car driven at very high speed. The mountain scenery is spectacular and varies considerably, from lush greenery to desert cactus, depending on altitude. Regrettably, we couldn’t stop for photos, as that would have been suicidal. (I wish I had a picture of the young hombre on the roadside leading three sheep on a leash while reading a book. Or a smart phone… hard to tell.)

Upon arriving in Cuenca, we repaired to the Hotel Crespo on Calle Larga. I love this place: lots of aged wood, great art on the walls, and the best trout I have ever eaten. A.J. had an appointment, so I took time to walk about and tend to a commercial matter, to wit, a hat.

And not just any sombrero. I was in the market for a genuine, real deal, Made-in-Cuenca Panama hat. After strolling around the town and spending some time in the Nueva Catedral de Cuenca (one of the most ethereal places I’ve ever encountered), I arrived at my destination: Barranco’s Panama Hat Factory, a family-owned operation since 1942. Now, it is possible to spend a small fortune on one of these things, but I opted for a $45 custom-made, natural color fedora with a brown band. Sharp. Very. Sharp.

[Sociological Sidebar - Practically the only people sporting Panama hats are gringos. Like me. It’s very interesting. Some estadounidense (“Americans”) come to settle in Cuenca, it being a relatively inexpensive, eco-friendly place to live and/or start a business. Others come because it is cheaper to retire and live in “Gringolandia,” where you can save money and pretend you’re in the U.S. We heard tales of estadounidense being quite snotty with the locals, a violation of my personal First Rule of Diplomacy: Show some damned respect.]

Following dinner with the local BNC director at a restaurant located in the basement of a convent, our host escorted us on an evening drive around Cuenca, taking us past many of the area’s 52 churches, including one with a spectacular panoramic view. Cuenca is a lovely place and we wish we could’ve stayed another day or two.

Día Cuatro - Our return flight from Cuenca to Quito was scheduled for early afternoon, so we spent the morning visiting the Museo del Banco Central, that included pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary art as well as excellent ethnographic exhibits of Ecuadorean indigenous cultures. Behind the building are the Pumapungo ruins, the remaining foundations of a once great Incan city. Then it was off to the airport.

Travel Summary (short, but brief): Three hour flight delay due to mechanical (not volcanic) trouble, followed by an actual 35-minutes in the air, followed by a 90-minute slog in rush hour traffic to our hotel. Eat, crash, burn.

Día Cinco - Anne was up and off to Embassy Quito early, leaving me to my own devices. Fortuitously, I hooked up with a muy agradable taxi driver named Raoul and arranged a trip to Fundación Guayasamín (, a complex dedicated to the works of Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), the Ecuadorian painter, sculptor, art collector, and national treasure. Guayasamín was both prodigious and prolific and he left a hell of a legacy.

Two buildings perch high on a hillside overlooking Quito: La Capilla del Hombre, where his large paintings and sculptures are exhibited, and his former home, La Casa Museo Guayasamín, which houses his extensive collections of religious, pre-Columbian, and other art, as well as his studio, where two paintings still stand unfinished. If you ever visit Quito, do not fail to visit this amazing place.

Continuará en Bulletins From BA #23.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bulletins From BA #21

Bulletins From BA #21
11 febrero 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.


Air travel within South America is seriously expensive and that has unavoidably curtailed the number of Anne’s official trips I can afford to tag along on. But since she was scheduled to travel to Ecuador and this might be my only shot, we decided to spend the money.

It was so worth it.

Día Uno - Having arrived round midnight at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport after a long flight from Buenos Aires, we checked into our hotel and promptly crashed. Fortunately, we had a free day before A.J. got down to bidness, so we spent a few hours shlepping around the Old Town area. The high point of the day (not withstanding an Afro-Ecuadorian busker effortlessly juggling seven balls at a traffic stop) was La Compañia, an exercise in gold-leafed ecclesiastical extravagance. We then had a fine lunch at a family-run-hole-in-the-wall, before returning to the hotel in time to watch the Super Bowl. Which was unexpectedly staggering.

[Topographical Sidebar - BA is at sea level. Quito is at an elevation of 2800 m (9350 ft). Welcome to the Andes, where breathing is not always autonomic.]

Día Dos - We arose at 04:00 (That’s right, 4 AM - forget that whole “glamourous Foreign Service lifestyle” nonsense.) to meet with the Director of the Embassy Quito IRC (Information Resource Center) and catch a plane to the small city of Loja. At the airport, pandemonium was the order of the day. Seems that Tungurahua volcano had inconveniently erupted, necessitating the cancellation of a boatload of flights. But we did finally make ours, and arrived at Ciudad de Catamayo Airport where we were picked up and whisked across the mountains to Loja.

Since Loja is not a major tourist destination, tagging along with Anne seemed to be the more entertaining option. After meeting with the muy amable couple who operate the local BNC (BiNational Center), it was time for almuerzo (lunch) at Mama Lola Restaurante, a terrific place serving local Ecuadorian food. We especially enjoyed the horchata, a drink made from flowers. Our gracious hosts then took us to a shop where we acquired copious quantities of bocadillo, a delicious candy made from sugar cane.

[Numismatic Sidebar - The U.S. greenback is also the official currency of Ecuador, although Ecuadorians use $1 coins and .50 pieces extensively. The $1 bill is, thankfully in my opinion, a rarity.]

Our final stop in Loja was the American Corner located at UTLP (La Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja), a lovely campus located on a hillside overlooking the town. I enjoyed sitting in the shade, luxuriating in the gentle breeze, and casually observing the impossibly young estudiantes.

Continuará en Bulletins From BA #22.