Gourd

Saturday, February 2, 2008: A day of tourism, Otavalo, an Ecuadorian “must-see”, mostly taken from my blog, Galapagos&more (http://kris2008.wordpress.com/).

My room in the Magic Bean hostel in Quito has a window overlooking the street; and what a very busy street it is! It is no bother to me though. I hear the activity of horns beeping (especially once one starts, everyone else joins in), people talking loudly, lots of whistling, the noise from the diners in the restaurant, and this area is hopping with discos that play music late into the night.

I have a wake-up call for 5:30 AM, but I am up even earlier (in anticipation, I guess). I get dressed and answer the light tap on the door to say that I am up and ready. Gracias.

It is dark outside and I creep downstairs slowly (no lights are on) but as I walk down them there is illumination. Must have a motion detector. Good thing! I meet el señor who stays downstairs as security overnight. He is the one who knocked, and he asks if I want café and a bagel. Si. Con leche? Si. He asks me again and I hear the word leche, so I figure he didn’t hear me the first time, and I say yes again. He delivers a big Styrofoam cup of coffee with milk, one of those sugar pourer thingies, and a hot bagel wrapped in foil in a paper bag. I “fix” my café and he unlocks the front iron gate and directs me to the taxi. The coffee lid leaves much to be desired, but I have on my trusty poncho which won’t show the stain.

El señor told the taxi driver where I wanted to go, but he asks me again. Yes to the bus terminal to get a bus to Otavalo. And off we go. At this crisp early morning hour, there are no cars to speak of, and the taxi driver is a madman behind the wheel. I saw where the bus terminal was when I got my taxi from the airport to the Magic Bean. But this driver is going way too far away for him to be bringing me to the terminal.

Okay, I think to myself, if he drives me all the way to Otavalo, what can I do or say about it (no hablo Español). It is where I want to go, right? I sip my coffee only at the stop lights; the potholes make it impossible to put this cup to my lips any other time. I dig into the brown paper breakfast bag and find 2 foil wrapped objects. One is definitely a bagel, the other: cream cheese! So maybe this is what the guard was asking me regarding leche(?)

We drive through the darkness and the sun is coming up. I’m resigned to the fact that this little adventure is going to set me back big bucks. When, much to my amazement, the cabbie pulls over next to a gas station on this highway and says here is the bus stop. I am speechless. I try to convey to him Are you sure? And he shakes his head, Si.

Yep! The first bus has a sign on it to some other destination, and the second bus has the word “Otavalo” right where it should be. I ask how much? $3.50. It just cost me twenty bucks to take a taxi to this bus stop. And now it’s going to cost me $3.50 to go the next 100 miles north. Go figure!

The gringa boards the bus; trying to pay the driver, like you do in the States. Ah no, you pay while you are traveling there, much like on the Metro North. There is a second guy who collects the money as the driver drives. Most of the people filling all but one seat are sleepy or ignore me. It’s the last seat at the back of the bus, in that one big row with 5 seats across; three guys on one side, one guy on the other. Not so gracefully, I navigate the aisle & plop into the seat; adjusting my poncho, scarf, purse, coffee cup & brown paper bag.

Even after I get on the bus, others get on and have to stand for the ride. I’m thinking thank goodness I got a seat no matter which one. While we sit and wait, the music plays, and one passenger sings along with most of the songs. Two men bang on the overhead to let the driver know Hey! It’s time to go. The bus sits there. They bang and more people board so there are even more standees. This is wild. But from my vantage point at the back of the bus, I can see it all, crazy as it is.

The money collector must have told the bus driver that there are no more passengers to get on, so we go. I am happy to not have a window seat. It is very cold and the windows are all fogged up with moisture. I wouldn’t be able to see a thing out the window and I drink the coffee to finally finish or wear it.

The ride is akin to Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney! We go fast and anytime another bus drives toward us from the opposite direction, the bus driver honks the horn in acknowledgement. I love this recognition of one another. My kind of driver, who is having fun at work!

Most of the beginning of the ride (1 hour maybe) is “express,” then the trip turns into a local bus for anyone standing at a bus stop flagging us down. There are folks who got on when I did, who are getting off. Mothers, babies, children, men, vendors get on to sell potato chips (or maybe plantain chips?) They look homemade, a crush of humanity.

I am amazed that the bus driver passes cars, trucks and other buses going uphill in the opposite lane. I guess the double line in the middle of the road is a just a traffic “suggestion.” I just sit back and take it all in. We change altitude (higher) and my ears block up, then just as soon as they’re blocked we go down. It is a highway of switchbacks, too. Part of me is glad not to be able to see too well out any window and view the gorges as we speed along.

At this altitude (Northern Sierra region), it is not rainy like in Quito. It is partly sunny, and from the little Otavalo Moon Guide map that I have, I can tell that we are almost there. We just passed the Saturday morning animal market; a precursor of the big indigenous market in Plaza de Ponchos. I see piglets, goats & cows as we zoom by.

When we get to the Otavalo bus terminal, I come down the steps of the bus into an amazing street scene: most of the persons who just left my bus, plus all of the others on the street. There are women holding chickens by their legs with wings flapping, street side vendors selling foodstuffs, just a throng. I have to etch in my mind where this bus terminal is in order to know where to walk back to if I ever want to see Quito again. I walk into where all of the buses are waiting, and see, Yes! This is a real bus terminal; lots of big buses, with different locations on their fronts. Sweet! Now I just need to remember the directions and my route to get back.

Easily enough, I follow the crowd walking in the direction of the Plaza. I observe the landmarks as I walk. Of course, I have my little map, too, just in case.

Otavalo is wonderful! Most of the streets around the Plaza are also filled with crafts and textiles; knitted & hand-woven ponchos, chaquetas, handbags, wall hangings, rugs, blankets. The thought of becoming an importer/exporter easily comes to mind. Most of the items are gorgeous, high quality and fantastically colored. I mosey and look. I find the center of the Plaza where there is food being prepared to sell and eat here, and the farmers market. The smell of cooked food reminds me that I haven’t eaten. I take out my bagel and take a big bite and stuff it back into my bag. Lots of different types of corn and beans & fruits and vegetables are being sold. I see all different varieties of flours too (probably not wheat) being sold out of sacks. Many sellers try to get my attention. No gracias, just looking. I am committed not to add to the weight of my baggage to the Galapagos, but that only lasts so long.

I see a booth with carved gourds, and one, the size of a baseball, has 4 owls on it. My willpower is gone, and I am suckered in. I look at others, but this is it. Can’t remember how much I paid, but probably too much, of course.

There are some older natives begging for money. I stick out like a sore thumb, being a solo, white, female (read: foreigner). Much to my shame, I give nothing.

I look at jewelry (silver) and haggle one seller for a necklace. He wants too much, even after I try to bargain. I walk away from the stall. I wander eyeballing everything. Of course, I see this really cool piece of jewelry: a pin that can be also a necklace of an Aztec type animal; looks to be a jaguar. It is lapis and silver. Enchanting. I pick it up and the seller says that he has made all of what is on the table. His trabajo. I am either a total sucker, or naïve, or both, and we go back and forth on price. I am about to buy it when he points over to his earrings. Wouldn’t you know? He has lapis and silver spiral earrings that match the spiraling tail of the jaguar. Hmm, needless to say I bought them both! I also snapped his picture for posterity.

My determination to not buy anything is completely gone. I wander around some more and end up at yet another stall of gourds. To me these are little pieces of folk art and I am here. I will handpick another one, and there are so many to choose from. The seller shows me one, no, another, hmm maybe, another … The gourds are just amazing in detail, telling stories about indigenous life, myths and legends. This one depicts the story of the shaman; has el sol y la luna, and 6 little vignettes with written description. I am hooked. We barter back and forth. There is a custom that vendors give their first customer the best price of the day for good luck. He tells me that I am it, and I pay him. He picks up other gourds to tempt me, telling me the story about each. I say, no, no, no. I want only the one I just bought. Have a good day, and I am gone.

Resigned not to buy any more, I stand on a corner and take photos. I’m into a few pix and my batteries die. Sometimes I am the smart traveler. I brought 2 new ones just in case. Good thing! I take mostly long views of the market. It seems that everywhere I try to take a picture, there is a huge painted 55-gallon drum (for trash) ruining the shot.

I am ready to leave and walk down a street. I see a stall with beautiful pullover jackets. I am (once again) hooked. The woman whose stall it is, sits with her back to the front of the booth spinning wool with her fingers. She doesn’t see me. I try to get my camera out of my bag, but she senses me and stands up, turns around, and starts to pay attention. The chaqueta that I really like is $8. Not to be believed. I hand her a 10 and she has no change. She scurries off to find change and two girls come into the booth. In the end, I get my change and snap a picture of the girls.

Now, I am ready to leave. I find a cross street and ask someone where is el terminal de autobus. I am on the right track, find some of the remembered landmarks, turn and voila! I found it. It is 9:58 AM and a bus to Quito is leaving in 2 minutes. Perfect timing.

This bus trip is so very different. As I get on, one woman has a big bag filled with live chickens. They get to go in the underneath baggage compartment. Whew!

This time, I am at the front of the bus at the window, and it is almost empty.  The not-driver guy (who collects the money from the passengers), is standing at the open door hawking this bus, “Quito! Quito! Quito!” We drive slowly through the main street looking for more passengers. We get some, but not many. After we pass the animal market, we start moving for real. The not-driver guy puts a video in the overhead TV monitor. It is a Chinese movie dubbed in Spanish. ¡Ay, caramba! I try not to watch it, because Hey! It’s Ecuador out there. I try to open the window so I can take pictures without the glass reflection, but it is totally stuck. I take pix anyway. Some of the views are panoramic and open. Others look just like any other hillside farming communities. It’s just a foreign country, is all.

This bus driver doesn’t honk at other buses as they pass. Again, vendors get on the bus to sell stuff to the passengers: chips, water, soda and ice cream! People are getting on and off the bus. This one feels more like a local than the ‘express’ I got this morning. The Chinese mafia on the screen are shooting and killing everyone in sight. So much violence and bloodshed. At the very least, “interesting” in a sociological way.

When I boarded the bus, I asked if this bus went to the bus terminal in Quito. Si. I’ll admit that I haven’t the foggiest idea when to get off, but when we get to a place where a lot of people get off that’s my clue, esp. since the non-driver guy is hawking a new location to the people waiting. I am a little nervous and get off; ask him again and he says yes. I see it across the highway. Muchos gracias, señor.

I’m hopeful that at this bus terminal I will find a bus to the airport. I’m standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross it, when a taxi pulls up, and I think Yes! and get in. I say that I have to go to the aeropuerto to get my baggage. ICARO, por favor. He drives me to the baggage claim area, I say no, it is at the departure gate. I tell him with gestures and poor Spanish that I have to get the luggage, then go to my hostel. He tries to tell me he will wait. I say it might be a while. He parks in a no parking place, but I take all of my stuff with me just to be safe. I think he said it was $9.50 for the taxi, I hand him a twenty. I don’t get any change. Maybe he said $19.50 and I’m gone.

Since this is an exit only, the security guard wants to know what I am doing here. I try to tell him that I have equipaje from yesterday to claim. (Good thing gesturing is part of the shared human experience!) He asks for my ticket and I produce it. He points and says through there. I go to the claim door of ICARO, and it is locked. I go back to tell the security guard it is locked. He points to the ICARO woman matching the baggage claim tickets to the baggage right in front of us. I am so self-absorbed getting my bag back, I missed seeing the throng of persons whose flight just arrived and she is very attentive and busy doing her job. Every luggage tag is matched. If you don’t hold the matching ticket in your hand, you will not be able to get your luggage out the exit. I watch and wait. When she is done, I tell her that my bag is supposed to be here, available for pick-up after 5 PM yesterday. She is confused. Maybe I said, 5 PM today (my Spanish, obviously, is not great), but she unlocks the office produces my bag, I smile gratefully, and my baggage claim ticket matches the one on the bag and I am back in the business of having all of my luggage. Whew!

Next hurdle is finding my “waiting” taxi. I walk to where he was parked illegally, and I don’t see him. I walk back to where the taxi stand is. I walk back one more time to the place I last saw him and give up. He either got a huge tip and there was no way he was going to wait since (naïvely) I had already paid him, or he got a 50 cent tip and got the heck of there.

I walk back to the taxi stand and take the next taxi in line. I say Magic Bean, and he doesn’t have a clue. Estúpido me, I forgot to bring the street address of the Bean! I know that it is in the Mariscal district off of Foch (that is a street name) and the other street is, ah, um. I’ll know it when I see it. Great!

During the ride, I recognize some of the landmarks that I saw the first time I took a taxi to the Magic Bean. I know that we are going in the right direction. I see the bus terminal where I thought I was going to start my day (Ha!) and we drive on. The driver gets close and asks a passerby where Foch is, he tells him where. We are within a few blocks, but Foch is una via (one way) and not the way we’re headed. We take the street after it and head past the named streets. No not this one, no not this one, ah, this one, J.L. Mera! Muy bueno!!! I make a promise to myself to bring the Magic Bean business card (with the address printed on it, duh) every time I leave the Bean. Good thinkin!

I go to my room and unpack my Otavalo things. I find my bagel and cream cheese and devour it. Hungry? I’d say. I take a shower and look into my second suitcase. It is so well packed that I hate to undo it. I find a few things that I need, but leave it mostly intact. I’ll be leaving in less than two days, and it will take me forever to repack it as well as the first time. I read/write some email. The Bean is wireless and I can connect in the restaurant, or my room. In Quito, there are Internet cafes all over the place. You go in, sit down, order a coffee, and log in for a while. Nice.

I go to up my room, and start this blog… Then to bed for tomorrow’s adventure.

This object (gourd) sat on my bookcase on my desk in my dorm room when I stayed at the Charles Darwin Research Station. I was on sabbatical and volunteered my expertise in the Library there. I stayed and worked there for 14 weeks. This gourd made it all the way back to the States and sat on the bookcase in my living room since May 2008.

I would be really interested if there was a Spanish speaking person who would be able to read the wording on the story panels on the gourd, or recognize it as a legend or classical story of some kind. I was going to ask someone at Eastern Connecticut State University in the World Languages Dept. but never got around to it. So the story is still a mystery to me. During this project if someone figures it out, I’d be most grateful.

I wanted to share my story and this object with the Object Ethnography Project, 2012.

— mailed from Mansfield Center, CT

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