Friday, 29 August 2014

And now his Ecuadorian watch is ended.

I have bid adieu for now to Ecuador.  If you would like to follow my continuing adventures (this time in Spanish North Africa) go to:

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

An Ecuadorian Legend - La Dama Tapada (The Veiled Lady)

It was the year of our lord seveteen hundred and I was recent arrived in the Most Noble and Most Loyal City of St James of Guayaquil, one of the most squalid and backward little ports the Viceroyalty of Peru has to offer. 

Not even the merest fugitive flicker of the great revolutions in science and reason emerging from the old world had reached its benighted and superstitious shores. I do declare that no matter how far and wide you search on this, God's good earth, you never shall find a more wretched hive of scum and villiany.

I am a man of reason, not taken to flights of fancy, bound by the guiding principles of empiricism to admit nothing that I cannot first prove, to allow nothing that I have not first experienced through direct sensory contact.

As I said, I am a man of reason.  And had I not witnessed the events I am about to unfold to you with mine own two eyes, I would without doubt consider it credulous nonsense: an old wives' tale conjured up to strike fear into the hearts of the gullible.  But no true man of science can deny what he has witnessed firsthand.  And what I witnessed that night, chilled me to the very marrow.

It was close to midnight and I had spent the evening in the club conversing with some fellow immigrants from the old world with regards to the latest scientific marvels of the day.  It was such a blessed relief to discuss matters of import with civilised people, and we had spent several fine hours wrapped in conversation with a bottle of good coñac and a box of fine cigars to lubricate the discourse. 

The evening drawing to a close, I bid my friends adieu with the intention of walking back to my lodgings.  They advised me in the most ardent terms to hail a cab, but I declined, saying that an evening stroll would help to clear my head.  How I do rue that decision now.

I took a shortcut through a dimly lit backstreet.  Exceptionally for such a thoroughfare, this lane emanated a sweet and fragrant scent, redolent of fresh spring mornings, new cut grass and finest peppermint.  Advancing through the gloom, my interest piqued, I began to discern the sillhouette of a lady.  As I approached, I saw that she was wearing an elegant black evening gown, of a sort most rare in the colonies, carrying a parasol of the finest silk, her face covered by an intricate black lace veil..

<<A good evening to you m'lady>> Spake I <<These are dangerous roads for a delicate bloom such as yourself to be walking after dark.  Might I be permitted to escort you to your lodgings?>>

The lady gave no reply, but beckoned me with a come-hither of her right index finger

<<Is this the direction of your abode?>>  I asked

Again there was no reply but the waggling of a single coaxing finger.  Intrigue proved stronger than caution and I followed. 

I know not how long we walked;  I placed one foot in front of the other in front of the other as in a trance, following that intriguing silhouette, drawn on by that enticing aroma, until I found myself in a field far from the city centre.

She turned to face me and lifted up her veil.  Instantly, the sweet aroma was replaced by a nauseating stench of rot and decay that seemed to burn my very sinuses.  Below the veil, her face was that of a corpse still in the process of putrefaction and her eyes were two flaming balls of hellfire. She approached me with a greedy look on her ruined face, arms outstretched, grasping at me.

I turned and fled with all the speed and vigour of blind panic.  Ne'er before have I run so far and so fast and ne'er again shall I.  I did not drop my frenetic pace until I had reached my lodgings in the centre of the city and the safety of my bed, which I lay on in a cold sweat of terror, eyes wide and breathing heavy.

But I was one of the lucky ones.  Many were found that year in remote corners of the city, convulsing to death on the ground, frothing at the mouth like rabid dogs, faces clenched in a deathmask of panic.  There final words in this  life repeated over and over, a mumbled death rattle of <<the veiled lady, the veiled lady, the veiled lady....>>

<> <> <> <> >< <> <> <> <> >< <> <> <> <> >< <> <> <> <> >< <> <> <> <>

And the moral of the story is: if you're going to get blind drunk and follow a strange woman to a remote location through the darkened backstreets of a port city of dubious reputation, first ensure that she is not a homicidal, flame-eyed  corpse.
Stay safe now........

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Of Death, Design and Cuenca's Independence Day: Part the Third (3rd November, 2013: Snapshots from the 193rd Anniversary of Cuenca's Declaration of Independence)

It is dusk and whilst strolling along the riverside of the Rio Tomebamba in central Cuenca I am drawn in by the anti-hubbub you get when the milling masses pull up and huddle for a moment, focusing their collective attention on something.  I approach to investigate. 

A small crowd have gathered around a street artist who is hunched over a sheet of posterboard, a can of spray-paint in hand.  He is using the can to spritz the delicate curve of a tree-trunk haloed in the twilight onto the posterboard.  He reaches down to pick up another can. 

But hold on, ¿why has he got a cigarette lighter in his other hand?  ¿What's he doing with...
¡BWOOOOOMSSSSSSHHHH!  A great leaping arc of fire emanates from the point where the projection of spray has crossed the lighter's flame.

It turns out he has not become disenamoured with his work and attempted to destroy it in a fit of pique, but is merely using a rather grandstanding method to quick-dry the paint.  I spend the next 15 minutes or so watching the variation of slow, gentle arcs of spray paint counterpointed by sudden bursts of noisy conflagration, quite transfixed by the showmanship of it all.

This is one of the many artistic and artisanal delights on view from artists and makers who have gathered about the riverside over the independence weekend as an (in this case quite probably not officially invited) part of the 11th Festival Artesanías de América, organised by Cuenca's Interamerican Centre of Crafts and Popular Arts to coincide with the 193rd Anniversary of Cuenca's declaration of independence.

A veritable glut of gazebos have been set up, from which artisans from Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Uruguay are peddling an eclectic mix of alpaca shawls, straw hats and diverse items of leatherware; woolen sheep figurines and wooden tea dispensers; elephant-shaped ovens and children's mobiles made out of painted gourds hung from strings; handmade guitars and charangos; jewellery of silver, gold, stone and bead; etchings, paintings, carvings and playthings many and splendid in their variety and ingenuity; and, around the edges of the festival proper, more cheap and cheerful tat than you can swing a bag of cents at.

It is a sun-drenched early afternoon and I am standing watching delegations from each of Cuenca's barrios (neighbourhoods) filing past in celebratory high-spirits; all togged up in traditional dress, spinning and twirling, skirts a-whirling, offering sweet treats to the assembling masses from the backs of gaudied-up trucks

Crowd Control

A few hasty wanderers attempt to cross the path of the parade and are pre-emptively headed-off by a traffic steward who halts them by the simple expedient of blowing a streamer in their faces, which makes a satisfying wooshing sound.   The swirl and colour of the parade continues unabated. 

People relaxing in Parque de la Madre, taking the sudden appearance of pre-historic predators with impressive serenity.
I wander south of the Rio Tomebamba to Parque de la Madre in order to check out the progress on the construction of Cuenca's new planetarium ('the largest in Ecuador' as the under-construction sign proudly proclaims) and am presented with a most fearsome sight.  The park has been invaded by a group of fang-baring dinosaurs who are stalking ominously across the field.  This doesn't seem to have deterred the people from coming out for a picnic however.  Perhaps the pre-historic beasties have been roped-into lending their considerable bulk to help out with the construction effort.

Cuenca's new planetarium - now open to the public.

A Chola Cuencana in traditional dress made entirely from flowers - displayed in the Plaza de Flores.
And the extent of the celebrations doesn't end there.  It seems that in every park and open space in the city there is some kind of event going on.  The rest of my Cuenca independence weekend flies by in a melange of military parades (tanks, mortars and all), late night street concerts (all cumbia dancing, toffee-apples and sausages-on-a-stick) donkey races, orchestral performances (replete with cannon fire, mariachi singers and pyrotechnics), traditional dance displays and a thousand call-and-responses of:

<<¡QUE VIVA CUENCA!>>                                                                       <<¡QUE VIVA!>>

Long live Cuenca indeed.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Of Death, Design and Cuenca's Independence Day: Part the Second (We Do Not Want A Tyrant King)

In my last post I regaled you with tales of the Ecuadorian Day of the Deceased, which takes place on the 2nd of November.  But the Day of the Deceased is far from the only thing celebrated in Cuenca during the start of November.  Quite the reverse, for the 3rd of November, 1820 was the day that Cuenca declared its independence.

Cuenca's coat of arms.   Motto: First God and then wait your turn Sonny-Jim.  (n.b. I may have added that last bit)

Antonio Vallejo, the irascible and inflexible governor of Cuenca, is not best pleased.  He has woken to find the walls of the town, the king's walls, daubed with the following seditious slogan:

<<Nobles ciudadanos, prevengan las armas para la libertad nuestra y la de nuestros queremos tirano rey>>

<< Noble citizens, arm yourselves for our liberty and that of our children...
We do not want a tyrant king>>

In the coming days he will hear rumours of rabble-rousing leaflets calling for 'liberty and not these many oppressions' circulating amongst the citizenry of the town.  His zeal against the enemies of the king will not be found wanting, and his search will be exacting and thorough, but the people of Cuenca will remain tight-lipped and the culprits of this first cry for liberty will never be found. 

This day. the 21st of march 1795, will come to be known as the day the call for independence was first proclaimed in the streets of Cuenca.

Dr. José María Vásquez de Noboa - Mayor of Cuenca

A man riding an unsaddled packhorse, blood streaming from a bayonet wound in his leg, is criss-crossing the streets of Cuenca calling out to the people, exhorting them to rise up against royalist oppression.  His name is Tomás Ordóñez and it is the 3rd of November, 1820.

A week earlier, he was in the house of his father Paulino Ordóñez (one of the men suspected of the circulation of seditious leaflets in 1795), listening to an impassioned speech calling for a revolution against the monarchist government, delivered by his mother Margarita Torres in front of a group of revolutionary conspirators. 

Spurred on by Guayaquil's almost bloodless coup on October the 9th and undettered by two previous failed attempts to liberate Cuenca, the 'patriots' are confident that they have both the support of the people and also that of a powerful and influential co-conspirator.  They agree to take action on the following Friday and that is just what they do.

A few hours prior to his blood-spattered gallop of exhortation, Tomás had entered the Plaza de Armas accompanied by 8 other 'patriots'.  In the plaza, Dr. José María Vásquez de Noboa, the mayor of Cuenca and the king's representative in the city, was proclaiming Reales Ordenes Españolas, the king's commands, accompanied by a military bodyguard.  Unbeknownst to the bodyguard, Dr Vásquez de Noboa is the influential co-conspirator who has assisted in the masterminding of the plot and helped to arm the rebels.  Tomás and his fellow patriots had drawn arms, let out a cry for freedom and charged upon the bodyguard, thereby beginning the Battle for Cuenca.

¿Was Noboa a true believer in the revolution? or ¿was this a mere act of political expediency?   If he was playing the political game he did it with consummate skill: when patriots petitioning for Quito's independence on the 10th of August 1809 were unceremoniously bundled into jail Noboa loudly voiced his opposition to the petition; and when Guayaquil declared its independence on October 9, 1820, he categorically refused to second the proclamation.   He did however allow an open meeting of the city council to discuss the ramifications of Guayaquil's independence.  ¿Convert to the revolutionary cause, longtime double-agent or Machiavellian pragmatist?  You decide. 

Following the initial skirmish in the Plaza de Armas, the patriots regrouped in Plaza San Sebastian and officially declared Cuenca's independence in front of a large gathering of the people.  As you might expect, the royalists were somewhat unimpressed by this and the two sides engaged in a series of clashes, fracases, affrays and melees in which the royalists superior arms had them slowly gaining the upper hand. 

After two days of heavy fighting, and when all seemed to be lost for the revolutionary cause, on the afternoon of the fourth of November, 1820, reinforcements arrrived from the town of Chuquipata and helped to drive the royalist forces from the town.  

José María Vásquez de Noboa,
now chief of government of the Republic of Cuenca, opened his letter to General Santander, vice-president of Colombia, informing him of the victory, with the following words:

<<Los días 3 y 4 del presente fueron los de la mayor ignominia
para los agentes del despotismo.>>
<<The 3rd and 4th days of the present month were days of the greatest ignominity
for the agents of despotism.>>

At last, Cuenca had its independence and was free from the tyranny of the monarch (In fact, the city would be retaken barely a month later in a bloody battle, and face over a year of brutal repression until the arrival of Marshal Sucre's army on the 22nd of February, 1822, in the run-up to the Battle of Pichincha, would deliver a final crushing blow to the shackle of Imperialism in the city.  But let's skim over that inconvenient little detail).

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Of Death, Design and Cuenca's Independence Day: Part the First (Lest They Should Die the Social Death)

One of my students waves me over into the corner of the class with a conspiratorial air.  She is holding a small object concealed in a nondescript, black plastic bag.  She flashes me a nervous smile.

<<This is a baby.  It's for you.>>

This has to go down as one of the creepiest statements I've ever been on the receiving end of.  I feel like I've taken a wrong turn and ended up in Royston Vasey (feel free to replace this archetype with your own preferred flavour of disquieting and surreal small-town setting, perhaps something from David Lynch).  Apprehensive doesn't begin to cover it. 

She reaches her hand into the bag: my breath is held and my fingers crossed in the fervent hope that I'm not about to become enmeshed in a shadowy child trafficking ring or accessory to a case of infanticide.

She draws the small object out from the bag.  It is at once both beautiful and grotesque.  A bijou, baby-shaped confectionery: all sugared bread and goo and dried fruit.

<<We have them when we celebrate the Day of the Deceased.>>

Well...that's lovely (in a very particular sense of the term lovely).  I am taken aback by this apparently unbidden, yet somewhat sinister, generosity.

A few moments later, she comes up to me again, red faced.

<<Incidentally, I think I stole your pen.>>

<<¿How do you know it's my pen?>>

<<It has your name written on it, teacher.>>

And so it does.  A Christmas present from my parents, onto which they had my given and family thoughtfully engraved school-jumper style, lest I should forget.  I hadn't been quite sure where I'd misplaced it (this is not an unusual state of affairs in the grand lackadaisy that is my humble existence, hence the engraving) but here it is, returned safe and sound

In an odd way, the two gifts share a certain forget-me-not quality, one in remembrance of those past, the other in order that I carry a memento of who I am (that is if I don't leave it lying around for students to inadvertently pilfer).

And with that, the mystery of the unsolicited present comes clear.  ¡Ah sweet guilt, oh great shame-flushed bearer of gifts!

So ¿what is this sugar-coated monstrosity? I hear you ask.  It's called a 'guagua de pan'.  Guagua (or wawa) is the gloriously onomatopoeic word for a baby or young child in the Quechua (and its Ecuadorian cousin Kichwa) and Aymara languages of the Andes.  So, a 'guagua de pan' translates literally as a 'bread baby'.

Originally made to represent and honor those who had died young, they are a traditional element of the Ecuadorian celebration of the Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased), which takes place each year on the 2nd of November (shifted from its ancient perch to coincide with the Catholic celebration of All Souls' Day).

The people of the Andes don't lavish quite the same level of macabre opulence upon their commemorations of the departed as the Mexicans do: shell-encrusted, spirit-awakening, dancing skeletons and sugar skulls are conspicuous by their absence.

The difference in approach is rooted in the difference in traditional belief.  In the Aztec world, life and death were considered to be intricately intertwined: typical depictions of burial show the greedy earth opening its maw to devour the dead.  Skeletal imagery was symbollic of the cycle of fertility and regrowth and the imagery of the Mexican Dia de Muertos reflects this.

Amongst the offerings laid for the adult dead during the Mexican celebrations are bottles of tequila, mezcal and pulque, which would no doubt please Centzon Totochtin, the four hundred hard-partying rabbit gods of drunkenness in Aztec mythology.   The focus is definitely upon the joyous celebration of the cycle of rebirth.

One of the Centzon Totochtin - not averse to a bevy.
In keeping with the more reserved but highly communal nature of the people of the Andes, the focus of their Día de los Difuntos is slightly different.  The Inca made a distinction between two deaths, the rather mundane death of the body, and the far more serious social death which occurs when your ancestors cease to remember you.   The act of remembrance in the Ecuadorian Día de los Difuntos helps to keep the souls of the departed from suffering this social death.

Differences notwithstanding, what the Andean celebrations do share in common with their Mexican counterpart is that families bring offerings to their deceased relatives and ancestors, often having a picnic at the graveside along with the spirits from the Más Allá (great beyond)

Headstones and burial plots are cleaned, flowers are placed, the living and the dead have a good catch-up and the deceased's favourite foods are consumed for their benefit; along with guaguas de pan and their traditional accompaniment: 'colada morada'.

The deep purple of a Catholic funeral mass, of mourning and penitence, 'colada morada' translates literally as 'dark purple strained'.  It is made from various combinations of fruits such as andean blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, naranjilla and babaco; panela (cane sugar), cornflour, lemongrass, lemon verbana and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and ishpingo: all mixed together and served up warm and steaming.

In the days leading up to the Día de los Difuntos, guaguas de pan and colada morada suddenly become available from every bakers, every cafe and restaurant and every street stall and peddler's cart in the city.  Cuenca's tradespeople are clearly determined to ensure that no soul shall suffer the social death through forgetfulness.

Perhaps now is an apt moment to heed their advice (with or without confectionery assistance) and think upon those who have passed, lest they should die the social death for mere want of remembrance.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Cuenca: Bounty, Beauty and Bureaucracy - Part IV (Signed in Triplicate)

In Spanish there is a word, 'trámite', which means 'an act or process of bureaucracy'.  There is also another, somewhat less formal, word, 'cagatintas', which translates literally as 'ínk-shitter' and whose closest equivalent in English is the somewhat less evocative 'penpusher', or perhaps 'jobsworth'.

It is with good reason that the Spanish language possesses these words, as the Imperial Spanish, and their Latin-american post-colonial successors have raised the process of form-filling, red-taping, nit-picking, signed-in-triplicate bureaucracy to a fine art. 

And it is towards the first fusillade of this monumental bombardment of paperwork that you find me heading, with a sheaf of passport and visa photocopies in hand, all ready to be notarised.

The lady at the notaries scrutinizes my photocopies, then my passport, then me, then my photocopies again and finally, apparently convinced that I am not a diabolical fraudster, stamps the documents with a satisfyingly large stamp, then another yet more grand stamp and then, just for good measure, with an even more elaborate, hardwood, cathedral-doorhandle of a stamp.  Satisfied with her work, she turns to me and says:

<<Okay, you are ready.  I will take you to see the doctor now.>>

This is a somewhat alarming turn of events.  ¿Is there a medical?  In my two and a bit months back in the UK over the summer I've been hitting the alcohol pretty hard with a succession of old friends and relatives. ¿Would my liver be deemed unfit for passport copy notarisation?

She ushers me through to an adjoining room, wherein sits a gentleman at least as austere and official as the hardwood stamp that preceded him.  Tweed suited and starch shirted, adorned with elaborate horn-rimmed spectacles and topped with a shock of tousled-grey hair.  It would not have surprised me in the slighest had he got up at that very moment and ushered his assistant into a TARDIS with a great burst of light and retro-synth effects, to save the universe from another dalek invasion

He opens his mouth, and out of it emanates a deep, sonorous, treacle-pudding voice with the gramophone-crackly hints of a long attachment to fine pipe tobacco:

<<¿These documents are yours?>>

<<Yes, doctor.>>  I reply, my voice unexpectedly husky.

He peers down at the documents appraisingly, and, with the full gravity of his officialdom, flourishes a signature. 

The lady gives me a the slightest of nods, and with a final genuflect to the doctor, we shuffle deferentially backwards out of the room: a pair of mere laymen in the presence of the law.

I wander, still shrouded in my own great humility, to the school I'm working for, in order to pass my documents across to the member of staff who has been assigned to babystep me through the registration process.

She sweeps a lazy glance over the notarised documents while informing me that I need to go to the local police station next in order to get something called a Movimiento Mirgratorio....

<<Oh, that's interesting.>>  She remarks with a tone of mild curioisity.

These are words I have come to truly dread, particularly when coming from someone with certificates hanging on their wall and letters after their names; lawyers, auditors, doctors and the like.  You don't want them to find your situation the remotest bit interesting; you want them to find it humdrum and run of the mill, worthy of the merest tick of the pen and not the slightest flicker of interest.

Interesting is a long, precedent-setting and above all expensive court case; interesting is an as yet incurable new strain of disease which will provide them with a much talked about research paper and you with a singularly excruciating death; interesting is an exhuastive and destitution inducing audit of your affairs which dredges up incriminating paper trails to all those offshore accounts you thought you'd hidden so well.  Interesting means complications, trouble and reams of paperwork.

It turned out that the border control at Quito had wrongly stamped the visa in my passport as a 12-iii and not a 12viii.  A 12iii stamp would technically make me a British diplomat.  After drifting briefly off into a daydream about what I could do with all that sweet impunity (swimming in a pool of forged banknotes with the coked-up ambassadors that I'd invited to shmooze at my on-the-hush-hush diplomatic speakeasy), I crash landed back on planet what-do-I-have-to-do-about-it with a resounding thud.

The problem, she said, was not one that could be handled at the Cuenca police headquarters.  The upshot of which was that I'd have to go to Guayaquil (a day trip away) the following Friday to get it sorted.  But it was alright, I could (1) take the three and a half hour bus-ride there, (2) find the polive headquarters, (3) jump through the necessary hoops and (4) hop the bus straight back in time to teach my evening lesson.  I made a mental note to (1) sort out asap another teacher to cover my lesson instead.

And I would have company too.  I wasn't the only one who had had their passports wrongly stamped, there were two other teachers from the school going.  Somehow the prospect of company didn't quite offset the gravity of the fact that more than a tenth of the new intake of teachers had had their passports mis-stamped: a whole gaggle of educators unintentionally posing as retirees, business-people and diplomats.

I've heard mixed reviews about Guayaquil, Ecuador's biggest city and apparently a somewhat characterless metropolis, but my trip has armed me with scant evidence to confirm or deny these rumours.

Some of the highlights of my trip included; the van station; the bus station food court; the sunbaked concrete pavement where I spent a jolly half hour sweating out a fair proportion of my body fluids in the midday sun waiting for the Jefatura Provincial de Migracion to re-open post-siesta; numerous minor brawls, which are apparently the Guayaquil equivalent of queuing; and an hour sat on the Jefatura's attractively vac-formed, primary-colours-only-please plastic seating awaiting the updating of my visa.

As well as being the highlights of my time in Guayaquil, these were also my only experiences during my time in Guayaquil.

As it was, we eventually got our Movimiento Migratorios, hopped the next van back to Cuenca and arrived back just in time to be an hour late for our classes. 

The following Monday I returned to the school to discover that my notarised copies had to be in colour not black and white so I would have to get more copies and have them notarised

I arrived at the familiar
city centre notaries to discover that they were closed for siesta.  Ah well, I figured, I could maybe squeeze a quick notarisation session in during my hour and a half between lessons this afternoon.

A few hours later, I am exiting the school with the intention of hunting out a nearby notary when I run into Oliver, another teacher from the school, coming the other way.   Formerly of London, England, he's been living in Cuenca for some time now and I've been told that he's a man in the know.  Perhaps now is the time to test his street-savvy.

<<¡Oliver!  ¿Do you happen to know where there is a notary near here?>>

<<Well the one the school uses is just over that way past the football stadium.>>

¿What road is it on?>>

<<You can't miss it.  Go past the stadium and it's on the big road, between a bunch of taco places and a sex shop.>>

<<¡¿Between a taco place and a sex shop?!>>

<<Yeah, it's called Sexta>>

<<¿What the sex shop?>>

<<No, the notaries.>>

Street-savvy tested and found not wanting.

It's interesting (at least for a language nerd such as myself) to note that the sexta I was now gong to is etymolgycially entangled with the siesta that had just caused me to miss the previous notary.

The siesta or midday repose of Spain derives ultimately from the latin 'hora sexta', that being the sixth hour from dawn.

There is a reason for this midday drowsiness.  From the point when one wakes, the homeostatic drive towards sleep begins to grow, in the mid-afternoon it becomes counterbalanced by the circadian signal for wakefulness.  The urge to siesta strikes when the homeostatic signal has had time to build but the circadian signal has not yet kicked in.

The sex of 'sex shop' however, most probably originated from a different etymological root (Australians - the pun is intended) altogether, connected to the latin 'secare' (to divide or cut) with the idea of the division of the two genders.  It wasn't until that filthy old toerag D.H.Lawrence put pen to paper in 1929 that we first have it written down in the sense of 'sexual intercourse'.

But its neither sexta nor sex shop that I stumble across first, but another notary's office entirely. 
I wander in through the door but not a step further.  The queue trundles back across the office and fills up all the seats around to the door.

I wait there for 15 minutes before someone wanders in and joins the queue about ten people in front of me.  I am bemused, then mildly peeved and finally realisation dawns.  I lean down to the lady in front of me

<<¿Excuse me.  Is this the queue?>>

She simply shakes her head, leaving me a little nonplussed to have been left standing in the doorway for 15 minutes like a numpty.

As it happens, it doesn't matter much as the queue hasn't moved one bit in the 15 minutes since I arrived.

So I move forward to join the queue proper and obediently wait in line.

Well, I say in line.  The word 'line', comes from the Latin 'linea' and originally referred to a thread of flax (linen) pulled taut for purposes of measurement.  Lines are, by definition, straight.

This was not a line.  

This was a squiggle.

A great, curving snake of a squiggle, thin at points, bulging plentifully at others, lazilly arcing its way towards the desks. 

There is an experiment in physics called the Double-slit Experiment in which photons of light are shot at a plate with two slits. The photons pass through the slits, interfering with each other to produce a pattern of light and dark.

But even when the rate of photons is slowed to the point where they are not able to interfere with each other, the pattern remains.  This leads to the mind-boggling conclusion that the photon must be going through both slits simultaneously and interfering with itself (oooh errrr misses, titter).  This is because of quantum.

Ecuadorian queuing is very quantum.  Sometimes you move on, sometimes you don’t, other times you both move on and yet get nowhere.  Nothing is certain, it's all a question of probability.

I remained in line for a solid hour of this directionless flux queuing before I ran out of time

The next day I took Oliver's sage advice and hunted out Sexta. 

You can tell this photo was taken on a Sunday as the sex shop
owner has shut up shop to go to church.
It turned out to be a rum tip-off as it took me less than 20 minutes to get my copies notarised.  Narrowly resisting the urge to pop in next door and buy a pair of edible knickers on the same trip, I made my way to the final stage of my bureauodyssey; registering with the Foreign Affairs Ministry,

<<I’m here to get my passport visa registered.>>

<<Is that your passport or your visa you want registered?>>  Asks the guard/official at the Ministry..

<<I want to register this visa in my passport.>>

<<So that’s the visa then?>>


<<Here’s a ticket.  Come back at 11:30.>>  

It was 9:30, which meant I now had two hours to kill with non-specified activities.

Cut to 11:30.

<<Good morning, I’m here to get my visa registered.  Here’s my ticket.>>

<<Who told you to come here?>>

<<You told me to come back at 11:30.>>

The guard/official recovers with some aplomb.

<<Yes, that does sound like the kind of thing I would say.   Take a seat please.>>

After 15 minutes of thumb-twiddling, I am called up to the front-desk where my documents are perused, a few forms are signed, stamps are given a ceremonious stamping and all appears to be well.

<<Ok all done.  Now all we need is 2 copies of the stamp and one copy each of the passport photo page and the visa.>>

The clerk at the front-desk points over to a room containing a giant photocopier.  I wander in, causing the guard/official to shout out in exasperation.

<<No, not there!   You need to go to the shop outside.>>

Advice noted, I wander out to the conveniently located copy shop outside and return to the desk with the requested copies.

<<Can you sign these please.>>

I sign them.

<<Ok. That’s everything.  Could you just go through to that room over there.>>

He points over to a room containing a giant photocopier.  I wander in, causing the guard/official to shout out in exasperation.

<<No, you can’t just go in there.  You have to take a ticket and wait in line first.>>

I get a ticket and wait for my number to come up.  When it does, I head into the room; taking the blessed lack of exasperated shouting as a good sign.

I sit at the nearest desk and hand my documents to a lady with a well practiced impression of government-sanctioned indifference.  She peers down at my papers. 

Un ange passe.

All around is frenetic activity, hustle and bustle, confering and signing and stamping and hubbub.  The giant photocopier however, sits resolutely unused.  Perhaps its just for display, a pleasant focal point.

She looks up <<Ok these all seem to be in order.  Can you go to the bank-teller at the end of the corridor and pay four dollars.>>

<<I’m sorry.  I thought that the registration process was free.>>

<<Oh it is.  This payment is for the registration of the registration.  That costs four dollars.>>

Hmmm, that all seems quite reasonable.

I direct myself towards the bank teller's stall and wait to be served.  The nearest guard/official approaches and tells me to queue the right way, despite the fact there is no one else in the queue and no visible indication of which direction I should be queuing in.

My queuing faux-pas rectified, the teller appears, I get my receipt, pay and return to the room of the photocopier.

<<Here you go, have a nice day.>> The lady says in a prozac-dead tone which clearly implies she couldn't care less what kind of day I have.  She passes me my documents. 

A few tentative steps towards the exit don't result in me being shouted at.  I figure this means I am okay to go... I go.

All my trámites over (until the next ones), I wander out into the crisp afternoon sunshine.

And so, with that, I bid you a fond farewell for now. 

I leave you with this final comforting thought:

                           Republics, confederations and empires may rise and fall,
                                               but bureaucracy is here to stay. 


Monday, 28 October 2013

Cuenca: Bounty, Beauty, Blood and Bureaucracy - Part III (Parklife)

A young boy, barely 18 years of age, stands tall, holding a banner aloft.  He is 3500m above sea level, on the side of a volcano and in the midst of utter chaos.  He is reeling from altitude sickness and dog-tired from a grueling night march up the mountainside, trudging through gullies which the night's persistent drizzle has turned into veritable quagmires.  

Despite his tender years, this young lad, one Abdón Calderón, is already a veteran of 6 battles.   A Lieutenant in the Yaguachi batallion of Marshal Antonio José de Sucre y Alcalá's liberation army, he has good reason to hate the Imperialist Spanish army, who had his father Francisco Calderón shot in the face and confiscated all his worldly goods for good measure.

Down below Lieutenant Calderón lies the city of Quito and around him all hell has well and truly gone and broken loose.  It is the 22nd of May, 1822 and the Battle of Pichincha is in full flow. 

Lieutenant Calderón charges ahead of his troops, flag held high, screming the revolutionary cry:

¡Viva la Patria! ¡Viva la independencia!>>

As a reward for his revolutionary zeal, he gets shot in his right shoulder.  This doesn't deter him though and he hefts the banner skywards and charges anew.  As a reward for his continuing revolutionary zeal, he gets shot in his left shoulder.  At this point, his fellow soldiers gently suggest that he might want to take a trip to the medic to get the multiple gunshot wounds seen to.  Lieutenant Calderón doesn't think much of this idea and continues fighting and carrying the flag until, having clocked up a very respectable four gunshot wounds, he finally gives up the ghost.

At midday, when Field Marshal Melchor Aymerich of the Royalist army orders the retreat, Lieutenant Calderón is taken into the newly liberated city to receive medical treatment.  

In Marshal Sucre's post-battle report, he specifically mentions
Lieutenant Calderón's bravery, describing his refusal to leave the field despite four gunshot wounds and calling him an 'heroic officer'. 

Thus is born a legend.   Later versions of the tale will tell of how plucky Lieutenant Calderón, having had both arms blown off by cannon balls, picks up the flag with his teeth and charges on Monty Python and the Holy Grail's Black Knight style.  The glamour of the legend is tarnished a little when you realize that Abdón Calderón died in the hospital fourteen days after the battle from an intense bout of dysentery

To honour him for his bravery, the central park of his hometown of Cuenca will be named after him, with a statue of his heroic last stand placed in its centre.

But that is still four centuries away, and the city of Cuenca doesn't even exist yet.  The year is 1556 and all around the ground where the park will one day stand is ruins and desolation.  The shattered corpse of the once great city of Tumepampa, laid waste by the sibling rivalry writ large of Atahualpa and

Not far from these ruins lies farmland around a little hamlet called
Santa Ana de los Ríos.  This farmland is worked by Don Rodríguez Núñez de Bonillade, treasurer of the Real Audencia de Quito.  When I say he worked the land, I mean he got indigenous people to work the land, took the product and rewarded them by not having them beaten or killed. 

Don Rodriguez saw great potential in the area: it was fertile, had abundant water and was well placed at a midpoint between Lima and Quito.  To his mind, it was the perfect location in which to found a new city.

So he went to the viceroy of Lima,
Don Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, chief representative in the new world of his imperial majesty Rey Felipe II 'el prudent
e'; Rey de España, Portugal, Nápoles, Sicilia, Cerdeña, Inglaterra e Irlanda (jure uxoris), Duque de Milán, Soberano de los Países Bajos y Duque de Borgoña.

File:Hurtado de Mendoza1.jpg
Don Andrés Hurtado de Mensoza:
keeping his eye on the new world for Rey Felipe II

Don Andrés was mighty keen on the founding of cities, and decided that this new one should take the name of the city of his birth, Cuenca, in honour of, well, him.

He was far too busy being terribly important  to do the dirty work himself and so sent one of his chief assistants, Don Gil Ramirez Dávalos, Sheriff of Quito, to do the hard-yards of city founding for him.

Don Gil Davos Ramirez was famed for his loyalty, his ability to command, his spirit of sacrifice and his spectacular ugliness.

A soldier from the age of 15, he had lived in Mexico for 16 years, pacifying local resistance to being drawn into the warm embrace of the Spanish Empire, before making his way south to the Viceroyalty of Peru.

Whilst in the bushlands of Nochistlán in southern Mexico, using a freshly-sharpened sword to convince the people of the benefits of civilisation, Don Gil received a rock in the face from a local who was not entirely in agreement with his arguments.  This crushed his jaw, destroying most of his teeth and leaving him with a somewhat sour and lopsided expression.

But an unpleasant countenance was no impediment to the efficient carrying out of his boss's otders and on Monday the 12th of April 1557, the first day of Easter week, he officially founded the city of Cuenca; mapping out the grid-patterned street plan of the city.  The plan centered around the Plaza de Armas, which was to contain a grand plinth at its centre, topped by marble vases, and be surrounded by such important edifices as the principal church, the main government buildings and the various houses of
Don Gil Davos Ramirez.

Urban layout of the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, created by Octavio Cordero Palacios (1870-1930), with lithography by A. Sarmiento, for his book "Miscelánea histórica del Azuay" (Historical Miscellany of Azuay) (1915). It is a reinterpretation of the original layout of the city according to its certificate of establishment given by Gil Ramirez Davalos on April 12, 1557.

It is 1590 and in Cuenca's Plaza de Armas the people are making their way to mass at the Iglesia del Sagrario (Church of the Shrine) all dressed up in their Sunday best.   One thing you will quickly note about the people however, is that they are all rather white.  The church is the centre for the 'Parish of the Spaniards' within the town and no indigenous people are allowed entry.

La Iglesia del Sagrario in 2013 - It is now a museum of religious art
Planning for the church began when the City was founded in 1557 and construction commenced ten years later, using stones from the ruins of Tumepampa in the church's foundations and walls. The building was then completed in adobe and white-washed in the traditional style of colonial basilica

So having pilfered the buildings of the indigenous people to build the church, told the locals that they are godless idolaters who must convert to the true faith from their barbaric sun/moon worshipping ways lest they spend all eternity in the hell-fires of damnation, the colonists then deny them access to the main church in town.  Ain't that just imparting the wonders of  civilisation upon the heathens at its very best. 

It will not be until after Ecuador's independence that the indigenous people will be allowed access to the same churches as the 'blancos'.

It is 1736 and there is a great bruohaha in the Plaza de Armas.  The people have gathered to watch the novel spectacle of a group of foreigners waving oddly shaped bits of metal at the Iglesia del Sagrario.

The foreigners are part of the French Geodesic Mission, led by French scientists Charles Marie de La Condamine, Pierre Bouguer, Louis Godin and the Spanish geographers Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa and sponsored by King Louis XV.  They are here to test Isaac Newton's hypothesis that the earth is not a perfect sphere, but bulges around the equator. 

They have been working their way south from Quito over the last month, taking measurements along a particular meridian arc in the Yaruqui plains running perpendicular to the equator.

As well as confirming that the earth is indeed an oblate spheroid and not a perfect sphere, the group will manage to fit in a few other little scientific tinkerings: Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa will discover platinum which is nowadays used in catalytic converters, laboratory equipment, electrical contacts and electrodes, platinum resistance thermometers, dentistry equipment, and jewelry;
Bougeur and Ullloa will make the first study and recording of the phenomenon known as a fog bow;

A Fog Bow - also known as Ulloa's halo or Bouguer's halo
and Condamine will be the first westerner to study the properties of rubber, as well as observing the manner in which the Quechua used cinchona bark to fight malaria and through experiment finding the most effective form of quinine extract from the cinchona.

Busts of the Geodesic mission scientists at the Mitad Del Mundo muesum
There is now a rather grandiloquent inscription on the tower which was used to help prove that the earth stuck out at the Ecuator which reads:

  <<Torre más célebre que las pirámides de Egipto>>

<<A tower more celebrated than the pyramids of Egypt>>

It is a cold, still early morning on the 20th of March, 1887 and Coronel Luis Vargas Torres is taking a morning stroll in the Plaza de Armas in Cuenca.  Inconveniently for him, his stroll follows the line indicated by a sword held by a serious-looking soldier who will in a few moments order some other serious looking soldiers to shoot Coronel Vargas Torres in the head.

The serious-looking soldier orders the colonel to drop to his knees:

<<Drop to my knees...a gunshot should be received standing face on.>> the colonel retorts.

The soldier takes out a bandage with which he makes to cover Vargas Torres' eyes.  The colonel waves it away with disdain.  He turns to face his executioners, raises himself to his full height and stares death in the face. 

If at this point someone had leaned in and told him that in 20 years time, this very sqaure would be renamed in his honour and that 100 years later a university in his native Esmereldas province would come to bear his name, it would likely serve as rather cold comfort in the face of hot lead.

In 1895, Vargas Torres' ally, Eloy Alforo, will lead the liberal revolution, which Vargas Torres fought for, to victory over the conservatives;
legalizing divorce, allowing religious freedom, and weakening the stranglehold of the church over the state, but Vargas Torres will not live to see this come to pass.

The last words he shares with this world are as follows:
<<God wishes that the heat of my blood which spills out upon this execution ground,
shall serve to harden the hearts of these good citizens and save our people.>>
And then the gunshots flare and all is silence.

Let us turn our faces away from this grim spectacle and look elsewhere. 

At the opposite end of the square from the Iglesia El Sagrario, construction is continuing apace on the new Cathedral.  The population of the town has outgrown the Sagrario and a grand new building is being executed.  Designed by a German-born friar called Juan Bautista Stiehle, who arrived in Cuenca from Alsace in 1873, to design suggestions made by Bishop León Garrido, the cathedral is to be surmounted by three giant domes covered by striking blue and white glazed tiles brought from Czechoslavokia and topped by two grand towers. 

Unfortunately. the designs will prove to be too grand for something as small-minded as reality.  The towers will have to be truncated due to a calculation error in the architectural plans.  Had they been raised to their planned height, the foundation of this Church to the Immaculate Conception, would not have been able to bear the weight.

Here's a model of the Cathedral as it would have been if that killjoy physics hadn't intervened...

...and here's how it would have looked if it was physically viable but made entirely of chocolate.

Is it a beard or was Cordero a dragon: you decide..

It is January 1912 and an old man with a splendour of whispy grey facial hair is sitting staring at a circle of pine trees  in the centre of the park.   The crowds wandering by seem to be paying him rather more attention than you would expect to be lavished upon an aged academic sitting around in a park.  ¿So why all the attention?

Well, the name of this wrinkled and hirsute don is
Luis Benjamín Cordero y Crespo and as well as being a noted scholar, poet, and biologist, he was once President of all Ecuador.   The people of Ecuador will come to know him as 'el grande' (the great). 

It was he himself who brought these eight pines, which form an elegant crown in the centre of the park, from Chile in 1875 and planted them here in the city centre.

He is starting to show the weight of his 78 years and he will be dead before the month is out, but I wouldn't feel too sorry for him if I were you.   Only fifteen years before, at the ripe old age of 63, he married a lady who had just turned 32 and sired two sons with her; the sly old goat.  

His interest in, and knowledge about, nature came from his upbringing, the son of poor farmers in rural Cañar province.  he spent his youth in the countryside working the fields.

As a child, he learned to speak Quichua from his indigenous friends and developed from them a keen sense of the inequalities of the society of his day.

During his presidency, he oversaw the construction of schools and colleges for poor children

He wrote extensively, penning poems in both Quichua and Spanish, as well as publishing the first Spanish-Quichua dictionary.

In 1904, he wrote the lyrics for what would become the anthem of Cuenca and its surrounding province of Azuay:

His love of writing, of his native land, and of nature can clearly be seen in this ode to Cuenca's principal  river Tomebamba, which I've reproduced here in its original Quichua with Spanish and English translations:

Taquishpa uraycun. Ishcay pataman            Canta y corre, chispeando diamantes,            Run singing, oh sparking diamonds
     huaylla jahuapi, shullata shitan
                      que aljofaran la verde ribera                           that pearly seed the green bank.
    Paypag llipiacug llambu riripupi
                          En su terso cristal revebera                    In your smooth crystal reverberates
     inti ninica cunyagman rigchan.
                      sol que lanza centellas radiantes                   a sun that throws out sparks aglow.

   Jucu lligllaca puyushinami
                           Como copos de niebla errantes                                 Like wisps of wandering mist
 yuraglla cuyun caypi chaypica.                      albos linos ondulan doquiera                           Snow-white linen, rippling here and there

 Pasag rigrami pachata huagtan,                   De cien brazos fantástica hilera                             A hundred phantom arms in a row,
timbug puscuta jatarichishpa.                      bate la onda con lienzos flotantes                   which beat the waves with floating canvases

¡Masnami chayan! ¡Masnami huambun!      ¡Cuánta vida! ¡Qué inmenso gentío                   Such life!   Such an immense multitude:
Shugcuna tagshan. Shugcuna chimbau.      en el cauce, en la orilla, en el llano                         in the riverbed, on the banks
Maycanca purin. Maycanca llandun...          y entre el grupo de arbustos umbrío.                          amongst the shaded trees!

     ¡Ima yacuta cantag atinga,                       ¡Tomebamba imponente y galano,                     Oh Tomebamba, gallant and grand
  Tumibamballa, manyapi jatun                      
tan hermoso cual tú no habrá río,                            as fine as you no river shall there be
    Solano yaya shayarigpica!                        
Si aparece en tu margen Solano!                                  If Solano apears at your margins!

The Solano to whom the poem refers was one Fray Vicente Solano,
a Cuecnano theologian, writer and polemicist who helped to found Cuenca's first printing press in 1828. 

It is the year 1920 and the park is in a state of great upheavel; new trees are being planted, others uprooted (although not Cordero's octagon of pines) and new paths are being laid. 

These momentous changes are taking place under the oversite of Octavio Cordero Palacios, who is taking time out of his work as a dramatist, professor and mathematician to do a little public planning and garden design.

It is Cordero Palacio's decision to rebaptize the park, Parque Abdón Calderón, after the heroic/crazy (delete as applicable) young soldier we met at the beginning of this blog post.

In 1929 a statue of Calderón in suitably dramatic pose will be placed in the centre of the 8 pines, replacing the plinth and marble urns of old.

It is 2013 and Cordero's pines, Calderón's statue and the new and old cathedrals have been joined by a new cast of characters: there's a host of assorted hobby horses, a giant cut-out Shrek with accompanying donkey and some straight-from-the-crayon-packet-primary-coloured model cars. 

Every now and then a kiddie will wander up to one, grab their parents and plead to have their photo taken with them.

At this point, the toy's owner will magically appear with a camera and offer to take the photo, for a very reasonable fee.

The sun is out, couples are lounging into each other on benches, luxuriating in their proximity; young bootblacks are approaching likely businessmen with the tempting offer of a well-lustered shoe.

 At the bandstand at the edge of the park, a group of break dancers is hopping, swooping, twisting and flipping around on their heads for the benefit of nobody in particular.

There are hawkers selling wares, families relaxing, teenagers enjoying an ice-cream, the odd gringo here and there snapping away furiously with their cameras.

Everyone seems to be relaxed, off-duty, in no way concerned with timetables or deadlines or anything so onerous as paperwork.

And look, there I am, making my way out of the park exit nearest the cathedral, panting a little with the exertion of a brisk high-altitude stroll, heading towards that notaries in the corner, ready to be administered with the modern day equivalent of incaic bureaucracy;

Túpaq Inka Yupanki would be proud.