Las Gorras (hats) of Guamote

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After regaining our luggage at the Hotel Endamo, we picked up the bus to Riobamba on the Pan American outside Latacunga. The wonderful Enrique dropped us at the right place to stand to hail it. Riobamba was good for a day no more, but we had an extra half day to wander the streets of this pleasant but not exciting city. Our hostel, the Oasis, was highly eccentric, but comfortable — it was kind of like living in someone’s backyard, someone with a penchant for collecting oddments and leaving them lying around. Our room was $3 more than standard, at $29, as the first one we looked at was going to have a hard time accommodating us and our rolling packs. So, being senior, we were offered the “suite”, two brilliantly painted rooms, one a rudimentary kitchen which I am sure no one has ever used. Good place to leave the packs though.

We had breakfast across the street and up a flight of stairs in the tiny apartment shared by the daughter of the house, her husband and their cute 1 year old daughter. We sat at their kitchen table while they rustled up whatever we wanted in the way of breakfast. An eclectic collection of oddments like an ancient telephone, a treadle sewing machine, an old trunk, sundry old time chairs, and vases of dried flowers filled the lobby of the hostel — and I must mention the 3, yes I mean 3, different huge locks that had to be opened and shut every time we came or went – and if it was after 7 we had to ring for admission as the metal roller had been pulled down over the inner doors! Actually this sort of security is not unusual here, so different from our Asian experiences, it makes us feel uncomfortable at times. These hostels are fun though as we always meet other travellers and find their stories amusing.

The reason for the extra night in Riobamba was our plan to go the huge and authentic indigenous market in a small town called Guamote, about a third of the way down the highway to Cuenca, our next stop. Guamote is, as one man told us, 95% indigenous, 5% mestizo, and on Thursdays people come from far and wide to sell everything under the sun at the market which sprawls randomly to cover the whole village. This is our 4th market and by far the most varied in terms of clothing and headgear worn, and the most comprehensive animal market so far.

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You will have to look at Doug’s pictures to imagine the vastly varied hats and clothes. We have rarely travelled anywhere cold before (Guamote is about 3300 metres) and so have never seen people who so rarely wash themselves or their clothes. We figure the men’s ponchos are put on at adolescence and probably they are buried in them. Not to blame them, at that altitude and those temperatures and in such a dry climate, warm baths are not an option. Just very different from the frequently bathed Asians we are used to!! Especially when crammed into a bus, I am thankful for our desensitizing experience with Mrs Day!

A new to us hat was a white bowl shaped, almost brimless model, decorated with two coloured wool pompoms hanging at eye level. White straw fedoras (on the women) also began to show up, while the brimless white bowls were sometimes made of a felted material and sometimes a thick cotton. The skirts here were of the velveteen type with embroidery at the edges. The thing to do is to layer both skirts and shawls. Many women appeared to be wearing 3 or 4 skirts one on top of the other, and at least as many shawls. They pin the shawls together with kilt pins, large trays of which are always on offer in the markets. Some older ladies, apparently feeling the chill, wrap a large woollen blanket around their entire outfit and secure it with yet another pin. Since these ladies are very short and stocky to begin with, the net effect is to make them look quite globular. Both men and women keep their hair in long braids, oddly suitable for the headgear.

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We stayed at a lovely hostel run by a Belgian foundation which was set up to assist people in the community with preschool education and work training for women and girls. They built the 10 room hostel to provide funds for the projects and it is wholly run by residents of the village with the addition of a couple of young Belgian volunteers who speak enough languages to make the bookings and explain some of the operation. Very new and very Scandinavian in design — a bevy of village women cook all the meals, very tipico in style and delicious. It seems they have been discovered by the European small tour groups and they were packed the night we stayed (Wednesday being the most popular night before the Thursday market) and they do a booming business in lunches for groups who just want to look at the village and the program on their way through to Cuenca. A different way to travel for sure.

One young Belgian volunteer had the most transfixing Rasta locks I have ever seen (and we’ve seen a few). She was tiny and red haired with piercing ice blue eyes, very pale, must stick out like a sore thumb in Guamote, but very energetic and helpful. Even with some of the enormous tails of hair wrapped around her head, she could still sit on the ends of the matted locks that hung down. It looked like she would topple over backwards from the weight. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

We loved the market. We went early to the large animals area — loaded with cattle, sheep, pigs, not so many llamas as in Sasiquili and Zumbahua, horses, and burros. The fun part is watching them all being led around on strings by old ladies, carried away shrieking (the pigs) in bags, and generally observing the intense buying and selling that goes on, and trying to figure out how much money is changing hands.

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Then we started walking back through the tiny town which we had explored thoroughly the afternoon before when we arrived. Everyone must know that the vegetables are in one part, the fruit in another, the household goods somewhere else, the shawls and ponchos in their own place along with the embroidered skirts and needlework belts. I really loved the shawls the women wear on which they make elaborate fringes, but the quality of the fabric is not suitable for foreign buyers — in fact there is really nothing for visitors to buy, the spectacle is what is interesting for us. Everywhere meals are on offer — the pig’s heads announce the pork meals such as we had in the Otavalo market, then there are the spits of chickens, tons of variations of cooked corn, beans, and then the rather off putting stews of everything under the sun, which Doug strongly suspects of being offal and organs, neither of which he will allow to pass his lips. We restricted our gastronomic experiments to the hostel, this was not as sanitary as Otavalo!

At noon we hailed a cambionetta (a truck) to take us down to the Pan American Highway where we stood until a bus heading for Cuenca came along and picked us up. Four and a half hours later we arrived at the busy terminal and uneventfully got a taxi to our hostal (as distinct from a hostel), a beautiful old antique house — another story in itself which I will take up in the next instalment. Thanks for reading – bye for now!

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