Ecuador’s Distant Rumblings

    Originally published in Outpost Magazine, summer 1999

    Two weeks into my stay in Quito, Ecuador, and already the world was on shaky ground. Protests incited by the worsening economy were accelerating across the country and it had just been announced that Pichincha, the volcano just 12 miles from downtown Quito, had begun to stir. A friend wrote me: “You have found yourself napping beside a dormant volcano and the only question is which one of you will wake up first.” The students at the English school where I was teaching told me not to worry: historically, Pichincha’s cycles of sleep and wakefulness tend to run in sync with the political fortunes of whomever happens to be in power. Whenever a leader’s popularity sinks, the danger of imminent eruption can be invoked as a diversion from grievances against their government. Pichincha acted as a giant pressure release valve; it was both literally and metaphorically letting off steam.

    Volcanoes are to Ecuador what churches are to Europe, both in abundance and as places of worship. Cotopaxi, a volcano that a fellow teacher and I set out for one Sunday morning, is the most sacred of the glacier-capped mountains due to its nearly perfect symmetrical cone. The second-highest active volcano in the world at 5897 metres, its name means “neck of the moon” in Quichua. It’s first recorded eruption in 1534 interrupted a battle between Pizarro’s lieutenant, Sebastian de Benalcazar, and the Inca garrison of a fort whose ruins still hunker on a flank of the volcano. Since then it has erupted regularly, destroying three different versions of the intrepid town of Latacunga. It’s last major eruption triggered a landslide all the way to the Pacific. By Cotopaxi time, it is overdue for another shake-up.

    Though we had intended to get much closer to the mountain, the buses had other plans and we ended up in Latacunga instead. “What a sleepy little town,” we thought while walking down its near-deserted streets. Then a distant trumpet and drum beat drifted down from a hill above the buildings. Drawn to the music, we soon found ourselves part of a steadily growing river of people, climbing stairs set into the hillside. Breathlessly reaching the top, we found the rest of the townspeople.

    We had chanced upon the town’s annual Mama Negro parade, a striking hybrid of Christian and indigenous Quichua traditions. Around us swarmed colourfully dressed women, food vendors, fire-cracker enthusiasts, men dressed as the Mama herself in dresses and black face, soldiers in grey fatigues armed with saxophones, clusters of men passing bottles, and a few visitors from the spirit world – people hidden inside strange bird-like costumes with conical heads, or stripe-faced apparitions that waved white sticks around bystanders cowed by their attention.

    But the oddest way of honouring the Mama is through the offerings. Imagine an upright roasted pig, snout pointed towards pig heaven. Arrange artfully around it roasted chickens and rabbits until you have a structure reminiscent of a Mayan temple, or, perhaps, a wedding cake, but made entirely of meat. Hang from the smaller animals bottles of whisky and rum and packs of cigarettes. Decorate with a tasteful assortment of colourful party streamers, strap the meaty monstrosity onto your back and begin the exhausting yet exhilarating dance down to the cathedral. And for youngsters eager to make an early start on their heavenly pre-payments, there are even piglet-sized ones, adorned with simple mickies of rum and half-packs of cigarettes.

    As we took stock of our surroundings, a group of men hovering around their barbecued offering to the apparently vice-ridden Black Mother motioned me over and bestowed on me the honour of carrying their meat through the narrow streets of Latacunga. To give me strength for the ordeal to come, they presented me with the bottle of greasy, brackish moonshine they had been sharing. I politely refused both overtures and, after agreeing that President Clinton could be excused for his infidelity but not for lying under oath, slipped away.

    We then struck off down the parade route. Already the street was lined with hundreds of people awaiting the spectacle to come, but as we walked I got the feeling that we were something of a spectacle ourselves – gringos on parade. I considered embracing the role and dutifully granting a languid wave to the crowd as we passed, but thought the better of it.

    Back in Quito, I found that the same force which had led us to Mama Negro – pure accident – was acting as my tour guide. The idea that I could control my destiny through the presumed knowledge of a guidebook was the greatest of human arrogances. Early evidence of this insight was the Quito bus system. With disturbing regularity I would get on the wrong bus and, as it sped into parts unknown, an inner voice would intone, “Sean, use the fluke.” Abdicating control to the whims of the bus deities – powers far greater than my own – I was taken where all buses seem to lead, to the old city. And what better place to lose yourself?

    It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Quito’s old city, declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978, hasn’t changed much in the past 400 years. But look back further than that and you’ll find that the temperate plateau on which Quito is built has been no stranger to change. Impressive as it is, its elegant facades and worn cobblestone streets are only the latest layer of human habitation on the site.

    At least 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived it was home to the Quitus people. When the Caras emigrated to the area the two tribes intermarried and became known as the Shyris Indians. In the same year that Columbus – using the fluke principle – found himself in the West Indies for the first time, the Inca king, Huanya-Capac, invaded Shyris territory and incorporated it into the growing Inca Empire. Over the ruins of the defeated Shyris capital he built a magnificent new capital city for the Incas.

    Just 40 years later the empire was reeling from years of civil war and the death of its king at the hands of the Spaniard, Pizarro, and his band of mercenaries. With the Spanish invaders only days away and the city undefended, Ruminahui, the dead king’s loyal general, razed the Inca capital to prevent its plunder by the gold-crazed Conquistadors. So it was on the ruins of two previous capitals that Benalcazar founded Quito in 1534. Although only traces of these pre-Columbian achievements remain, the past is still alive in the old city – despite the cabs and other vehicles that now push their way through even the narrowest market-clogged streets.

    Unlike the historic sectors of many other cities, Quito’s does not cater to tourists. It is still a place where poor people live, eat, play soccer in the street, work, celebrate, attend church, buy and sell. Seven days a week a sprawling market encompasses a labyrinth of streets bursting with vendors hawking everything from vegetables to live crabs and running shoes to batteries. In Ecuador, there always seem to be more people selling than buying.

    The Presidential Palace fronts the central Plaza de la Indepenencia. A few years ago Ecuador’s leader was a man named Bucaran, known as “el loco”, or “the crazy”, for exploits such as jumping out of a helicopter dressed as Batman or recording a CD of himself singing his favourite songs. He was sure that ghosts haunted the hallways of the palace and took up residence instead on a floor of the Hotel Hilton Colon, in the modern part of town. But once in power his behavior became all too typical: he robbed the public coffers and fled to Panama after nationwide protests drove him from power.

    Forgoing the lively Christmas and New Years celebrations of the old city, I headed instead to the Ecuadorian rainforest and spent my first night sleeping in the shadow of yet another volcano, the volatile Reventador, or the Exploder.

    I had a resort, with accommodations for 50, helicopter landing pad and hanger, to myself. The only other inhabitants were two carefree caretakers and a couple of dogs, equally unconcerned with the world beyond their gates. We walked over disintegrating flagstones and through weeds to my room in the staff quarters, exchanged a few words about the Clinton scandal, and then they left me to the fading evening landscape. Reventador’s cone stood silhouetted against the pinkish clouds, a transitory pimple upon the face of the Earth. The resort’s decaying buildings served as a tangible reminder of the impermanence of man and his creations. If this little cluster of buildings didn’t succumb to the rain, humidity, plants or sun first, there was always The Exploder or an earthquake to finish the job.

    I pitched my one-man tent on the patio in front of my room and watched the stars come out. A sliver of a moon, hanging horizontal like a smile on the equator, made a brief appearance before drifting behind Reventador, which punctuated the radiant swing of galaxies with its black bulk. The fire beetles were out, sending beacons of light to each other that looked like rippled reflections of the stars overhead. I zipped myself into my sleeping bag and listened to the drone of millions of insects, a reassuring echo of the crickets I used to hear in the moments before sleep as a child in rural Ontario. All my senses told me that I was in the womb of the world, embraced and probed on all sides by a life with more faces than the mind can grasp. I fell asleep and dreamed of the animals I’ve been.

    Back in Quito after the holidays, we were now in month four of a state of yellow alert for Pichincha, but no one was paying attention anymore. They had much more pressing things to worry about, such as the deteriorating economy. Had the government, I wondered, sabotaged the economy in a ploy to distract its citizenry from the real threat posed by the volcano?

    First the gas companies ran out of gasoline, then the government lifted restrictions on the exchange rate of the national currency, the sucre. Like some toy that had been wound up nearly to the breaking point and then released, the sucre shot up from 7,000 to the US dollar to 20,000, then down to 9,000, where it pretended to stabilize for a moment, then back up to 12,000. The forces of change, instability and unpredictability were gaining too much ground in the land. Nationwide strikes were called. Perhaps the volcano was only forgotten because it was immune to protest – at least the price of gasoline was something for which blame could be laid. People even stopped talking about Clinton’s impending impeachment.

    But they almost might as well have protested against the volcano for all the control the Ecuadorian poor have over their economic destiny. Ecuador suffers as a result of markets that crash in places many Ecuadorians haven’t even heard of. They might as well have marched up to Pichincha’s crater, hurled insults and molotov cocktails into its yawning maw, waved placards reading, “LAVA SUCKS,” chanted, “Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This volcano’s got to GO!”, maybe tossed a virgin or two in for good measure and rail against a world that simply refuses to stand still. The continents are as liquid as the oceans, only their movement is measured in eons, and the people of the Andes are on the crest of a wave that’s breaking.

    Two days after I left for Canada the president of Ecuador declared a state of emergency, the army was called out, bank accounts were frozen. But as I sat on the plane home, I was still thinking of the volcano. To the native peoples of the Andes all volcanoes are sacred – they catch the clouds from the sky and make it rain on the farmers’ fields below, fertile from volcanic ash. Thus they oversee the cycles of destruction and rebirth. An ending and a beginning are the same. And what better place to take note of this simple truth than from a jet streaking through the nothing between two somethings. I just hope I got on the right plane.