We left Quito with a screech of tires in our share taxi. Apparently taxi drivers now have to undergo a 7 month driving course and pass exams to get a license. Ours must have predated the testing or slept through the part on not terrifying your passengers to death. Though I have to admit, only Doug and I seemed the least bit alarmed, and poor Doug was in the front seat. Two and a half hours later we pulled up to our guesthouse in Otavalo and with a sigh of relief we decanted from the taxi and rang the buzzer to be admitted to the hotel. Security is such that every single time we left the hotel we had to ring to get back in, day or evening!
By great good fortune, and my usual trust in Rough Guide, we had an absolutely great place to stay for our week in Otavalo. The Riviera Sucre has been run by the same family as a hotel for 120 years. Senora ran the place and not a thing escaped her eye. The two boys who alternated doing all the work in the garden, unlocking and locking the front door dozens of times a day, cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry and sleeping by the front door each night were shy but helpful — and unfortunately totally baffled by our ghastly attempts at Spanish. The place was constantly busy, with a kitchen guests could use, and a log burning fire in the lounge in the evenings. An absolute steal for $28 a night, with an additional $3 for breakfast. Every day we had a different fresh juice and thus we have learned a number of new to us fruits that are absolutely delicious. For example “mara” is a kind of blackberry and makes scrumptious juice, and “tomate de arbol” ie tree tomato is not a tomato at all but makes the sweetest and most flavourful juice I’ve ever tasted. Now that we have seen them growing on a tree, I see how their appearance is somewhat like a Roma tomato but there the resemblance ends. Our room was simple, immaculate, and I think had 120 year old plank floors, much refinished. We were so glad to have such a pleasant relaxing place to stay and a lovely garden to do our homework in each afternoon.
We arrived on a Friday evening to take in the famous Saturday market. Up we got at 6 to head to the large animal market outside of town. Very brisk at that time of day. I basically put on every layer I brought and have continued to do so ever since. The market was crowded with people selling cattle, llamas (a few), pigs, chickens, ducks, cuy (guinea pigs), puppies (not to eat), and a few horses. The pigs who are the worst divas ever, screamed and complained every time someone tried to move them — they were led in on ropes and I must say the tiny little old ladies were much better at getting them to cooperate than the younger men were. We could hardly blame them for complaining when they were stuffed into sacks after being purchased and left heaving on the ground while their purchaser went off in search of other animals to buy. Guinea pig is a big delicacy here (we tried it in Quito, quite disappointing in that there is so little meat on one, but tasty enough) and they were being stuffed into bags in twos and threes. Quite the bargaining going on, but for us the most interesting part was the varied clothing worn by the traders, all indigenas and wearing the clothing of their village. Quite the variety, Doug has been trying to photograph them surreptitiously ever since.
The indigenas are very prosperous here in this area. They are master weavers and have organized themselves into family cooperatives to market and sell their products outside of Ecuador. They knit and weave in wool and alpaca though alpacas are not found here in the north, and their genuine products are very lovely. Unfortunately a lot of what is sold in the market is acrylic with a little wool billed as “lama” or “alpaca.” As one weaver told me, “You can tell by the price” among other things. An alpaca sweater is over $100 and a pure wool sweater is a minimum of $35 if machine woven, more for hand made products. Oh well, a lot of tourists seemed very happy with their “lama wool” shawls which they bought for $7!! Most of the businesses in the town are indigena owned and run, as was our Spanish school, though our teacher Myrian was mestizo. Basically those are the two groups in Ecuador, at the coast there are a few “Afroecuadoreans”, remnants of those brought over to work the plantations back in the day.
We have never seen such short people in all our travels. Without a word of a lie, some of the older ones are no more than 3 feet tall. Doug held his arm bent at his side as one old dear passed us, and she AND her hat didn’t graze his elbow. All the men wear pony tails or braids down their backs though the younger ones are often in modern clothes. The women maintain traditional dress however, with long braided hair and a variety of headgear. The Otavalo outfit consisted of an embroidered blouse and a long navy wrap skirt over a white petticoat. They had a variety of wraps over their shoulders which were handy for carrying babies of which they had a lot. On their heads they often folded a navy cloth on which they could balance their purchases from the market. Other women wore short accordian pleated skirts with thick cotton stockings, a cape or a poncho over the embroidered blouse, and a black or brown felt hat on their heads. Muy interesante!
In the centre of Otavalo, the Plaza de Ponchos is always full of traders hawking hats, scarves, sweaters, wall hangings, paintings, toys, key rings etc etc, but on Saturdays the market spills out on to all the side streets and includes all the necessities for village life. Loaded buses start pouring in from outlying areas before dawn, and most of the traders have set up the evening before and slept in their stalls. As always people watching is the fun part, seeing what the locals choose to buy and watching them haggle. The town has several large vegetable and fruit markets, but they were all more packed with produce than usual on this big market day. I watched an elderly nun ordering up a grocery list of herbs and herbal remedies. The stall lady had a long list of various tinctures and infusions you could make with her herbal combinations. Later we got our Spanish teacher to go back with us to explain what some of them were for. The little lady gave us samples to taste, one that was for your diabetes was particularly delicious! In the middle of the produce market are lots of little “cocinas”, places where you get a huge plate of chicken or pork with 5 or 6 kinds or corn kernels cooked in different ways, a salad and a potato fritter for $2. We chose the pork lady as we liked the huge pig head with a tomato in his mouth advertising her stall. Delicioso or muy rico as they say here.
Our reason for staying in Otavalo for a week was to study Spanish, clearly an essential skill here where almost no one speaks English, Quechua being the first language of many. For instance, even though our guesthouse caters exclusively to foreign backpackers (of all ages) absolutely no one has a lick of English. A lot of Americans speak excellent Spanish and Europeans are so good at picking up the rudiments. Just us poor unilingual Canadians can’t even make our basic questions understood. Hence Monday morning bright and early we were standing at the door of Mundo Andino, our Spanish school for the week. La directora, clad in the pleated skirt type of indigena outfit, assured us in Spanish that they provided total immersion and that no one would be able to speak to us in English. Then she introduced us to our teacher Myrian, who thank heavens was studying by correspondence to qualify to teach English at a secondary school so was able to help us out from time to time, especially when explaining some of the finer points of grammar. However, she flatly refused to communicate in English if the directora was within earshot, even when we were having our coffee break on the roof top teraza.
It is beyond exhausting to struggle to understand and speak a new language for 4 hours a day and then go home and do homework. I remember the total enervation we felt when we did this 5 years ago in Guatemala. It certainly makes me understand how my poor students felt. At times you just get so frustrated you feel you cannot carry on. By Wednesday night, after Myrian had decided we really had to know some irregular verbs, I had such a dolor en mi cabeza (pain in my head) that I refused to do the homework. Fortunately she really did understand that we needed to learn survival Spanish and to improve our listening skills. Even if we haltingly ask a question, it is no use if we can’t understand the reply. We started all our lessons with an hour (which gradually stretched to two) of discussions about Eduador’s customs, economy, politics, population, etc etc (that would be Myrian’s side) and our halting attempts to explain the same things about Canada. Poor woman probably has no idea what goes on in Canada but by the end of the week we pretty much got everything she was telling us about wages, what things cost, how she and her husband have worked to build a house and get their living, the political situation here (she is very enthusiastic about the changes in the past 10 years or so) and so on. We really feel lucky to have had such an enthusiastic and effervescent teacher. Doug took to supplying crazy answers to her questions and she would go into gales and gales of laughter. Altogether a great experience though I fear holding an actual conversation is far in the future for us. And a whole new level of frustration awaits us when we try to get past the present tense verbs….
We were sad to say good-bye to the Riviera Sucre, but we had booked a weekend stay in one of the oldest Haciendas in Ecuador. Hacienda Cusin was established in 1603! Such an amazing place, it will require its own posting, so adios for now.