Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kuelap: the cloud fortress of the Chachapoyas

Kuelap is the mountain fortress of the Chachapoyas - a pre-Incan civilisation who chose to build, live and prosper in the high Andes. Kuelap itself is at 3,000 metres where even a brisk stroll leaves you gasping for breath.
Looking up at Kuelap
The mountain on which the ancient city stands is a fortress in itself. Sublime and powerful, its steep sides and jutting cliffs form natural defensive walls. It was on this formidable rock the Chachapoyas built something even more formidable - their own great towering walls with hunks of quarried stone. 

The walls of Kuelap loom threateningly over the visitor. It's easy to imagine how envious neighbouring tribes would be dissuaded from attempting to storm this fortress. In Kuelap's 1,000 year history its walls were never breached by force of arms. The invading Incan armies simply camped outside until the Chachapoyas had eaten all their cuy and drunk all their chicha. 

This brings me on to perhaps the most incredible fact about Kuelap - it survived as a habitable fortress from the 5th Century AD until early colonial times. The Norman castles of medieval England (constructed from 1066 AD onwards) were largely redundant by 1500 AD - ready for their transformations into Tudor stately homes. Until the gunpowder age, it's hard to imagine anything smashing Kuelap's walls (even the great Ottoman cannon that ultimately breached the walls of Constantinople would have had a hard time pummeling these stones).

The walls of Fortaleza de Kuelap, Peru

3,000 people lived within the walls of Kuelap during its heyday. All the surrounding villages and farms provided the necessary commodities for the privileged inhabitants of the city. Gazing over the walls of Kuelap at the cloud covered mountains and deep valleys, I really got an impression of travelling back through time. This same landscape, virtually unaltered by the modern world, was once admired over 1,500 years ago by a citizen of Kuelap. 

Like all pre-Colombian South American cultures, the Chachapoyans had no written language. Without these historic records the interpretation of a massive complex like Kuelap is still proving a great challenge for archaeologists. In the absence of written records, archaeologists studying ancient Latin civilisations have learned much from studying pottery and iconography. Unfortunately, these are two areas the Chachapoyans weren't particularly proficient. Instead, it is believed they were warriors and weavers.

The houses in Kuelap are circular, unlike the Incan square pattern, and built in heavy stone. The homes are separated into two living spaces, the cooking-living area and the sleeping area which were divided by a hollow wall which was used to raise guinea-pigs, an essential part of the Andean diet - even today. The houses might be relatively small in area (except by London standards) but if you count the stone platform on which they were built, the ceiling was about 15 meters high - you could squeeze six stories into that height today.

a Kuelap 048
Looking out over the ruins of Kuelap at the clouds
The walls of Kuelap still contain human bones, which were buried deep inside and are still visible today. I was able to stick my camera inside and get a few photos. By burying their ancestors in the very walls and foundations of their city, it reinforced the idea that Kuelap was proudly Chachapoyan and belonged to the long line of noble families.

Human bones embedded in the walls of Kuelap
Human remains in Kuelap
Fortaleza de Kuelap in PeruArchaeologists believe an aristocracy lived in Kuelap and many of the houses have much more elaborate stonework. The fine detail and craftsmanship has survived the centuries and is still stunning to this day.

The Chachapoyas came to a sticky end, like so many other pre-Colombian civilisations, when the irresistible Incan empire came knocking. Unlike weaker tribes, the Chachapoyas maintained a long struggle for their freedom from the Incan rule but were eventually conquered in around 1470 AD. The Incan influence didn't last for long and rebellions continued until the arrival of the Spanish, with whom the Chachapoyas formed an alliance in the myopic hope of a less demanding emperor. Ultimately it proved an epic fail, the Spanish enacted a regime of forced migration (what we'd call ethnic cleansing today), forced labour (what we'd call slavery today) and, of course, a bumper bag of novel diseases - Europe's gift that kept on giving for the New World. After 50 years under Spanish rule only 10 per cent of the population remained - perhaps they backed the wrong horse, after all.

Kuelap was burnt down and abandoned in this early colonial period and the greatness of the Chachapoyan civilisation was forgotten... until today. Amazingly (and quite excitingly) only four per cent of Kuelap has been excavated - there are bound to be some incredible discoveries in the future to shed more light on this fascinating and mysterious civilisation.

Strange dinosaur carving on the wall of Kuelap, Peru
T-Rex in Kuelap?
I was particularly struck by some of the carvings on the walls of Kuelap. One in particular looked just like a tyrannosaurus rex - I couldn't help thinking of Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' and Professor Challenger striding arrogantly through Kuelap. 

The most depressing news is Kuelap has recently been sold to an American investment company who plan to build a cable car to the remote fortress - there's no way obese Yanks could be expected to wheeze their way up the stone steps. I shudder to think what fresh horrors await Kuelap. Its remoteness, inaccessibility and relatively unknown status on the Peruvian tourist trail make it something quite unique. To get into Machu Picchu you need to arrive early and join the long queues, it would be a shame if this became Kuelap's fate.

Lucy has been to Machu Picchu many times and I wondered what her impressions were, compared to my own.

"When I was 15 years old I was taken by my father to discover some of the great constructions of ancient American societies. It was time for me, he thought, to open my eyes to the impressive torrent of cultural production and to see the contrast with the now socially excluded descendants of these great civilizations. 
Lucy in Kuelap
Everything was a bit black and white in this discourse, but in the end, it got us to Cusco. We had to leave Ecuador because here the archaeological remains have either been looted, destroyed or are still buried (with some outstanding exceptions).

Machu Picchu had had the luck of having been covered with vegetation for several hundred years when it was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham. But lately the queues of foreign tourists have also changed the panorama, along with the hippie-types who believe they are the sons of the Incan sun God. In any case, it was the start of my never-ending interest for the pre-hispanic past.

A completely different experience, equally grandiose, is Kuelap. For starters, getting there is not easy. A fortress of the Chachapoyas people, it had been occupied until colonial times and afterwards was hidden in the cloud forest for some 300 years. It’s a complex of about 400 houses, ceremonial constructions and a huge surrounding wall. It was occupied since 500 AD until early colonial times.

Machu Picchu still feels like it is inhabited, such was the care of reconstruction. This is certainly not the case among the ruins of Kuelap. However, whereas Machu Picchu can feel like a Theme Park with its thousands of guides, tourists and exhibitions - Kuelap feels like the real thing. Trees still grow and llamas roam among the abandoned city and you can feel the presence of those that lived there and were lost."

DISCLAIMER - Kuelap is in Peru, not Ecuador, but I felt it deserved a special guest slot on the blog

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Set fire to Celebrities: Años Viejos at New Year

Año Viejo dummies in EcuadorBurning idols is an Ecuadorian tradition on New Year's Eve. Across the country the night sky will be lit by an eerie amber glow as millions of dummies are scorched on the streets.

The dummies are known as Años Viejos and represent the year that has passed. Who you choose to burn is entirely up to you, but typically it should be a popular figure or icon from the last twelve months.

Of course you can get creative and make your own doll, but there are plenty of ready-made dolls for sale. They cost anywhere between three dollars and twenty... depending how elaborate the effigy is.

Año Viejo dummies in Ecuador
Rafael Correa effigy
Of course politicians make popular choices and there were plenty of cardboard Correas on sale. In England I can imagine millions of Margaret Thatchers going up in flames at the stroke of midnight. There are also hundreds of Barack Obamas ready for the burn.

Año Viejo dummies in Ecuador
Burn Barack
Another popular choice was the Ecuadorian footballer Christian Benitez who died of a heart attack during a match in Qatar aged just 27. On the back of his shirt was written the poetic message: “Now I'm by God's side and will enjoy the World Cup 2014 from heaven.”

This is a crucial point – you don't have to hate the person you're burning (although it's probably more fun if you do).

There were lots of stalls selling dummies inside Parque de la Carolina and I've never seen so many copyright violations in all my life. To be honest, I think the offenders would have a watertight case in defence - their effigies are so unrecognisable that they couldn't possibly breach intellectual copyright. Bart Simpson, for example, was just a fat kid painted yellow, only identifiable by BART painted across his forehead.
Año Viejo dummies in Ecuador
Copyright infringements ahoy! That's Bart Simpson by the way, although I'm not sure why he's blue
At the stroke of midnight the Años Viejos are torched like a Viking funeral. You jump over your burning effigy and welcome in the New Year.

If all of this sounds a little bit too safe and tame, the locals fill their effigies with fireworks to make the leap of faith a bit more daring.

I haven't decided who I will burn, but I suppose it will have to be somebody British.

The trouble is I can't really imagine burning somebody I don't hate... and I don't really hate anybody. Apart from Steven Gerrard obviously; and that guy from the Go Compare adverts; and anybody who's ever auditioned for the X Factor; and Luis Suarez of course; oh and I nearly forgot George Galloway (and I'll throw in Ken Livingstone while I'm on cretinous politicians); and then there's the person who cloned my Visa card; Andrew Marr; Piers Morgan (goes without saying); all Royal commentators on the BBC; Mark Lawrenson; the street dog in Quito who barks all night; and finally Steven Gerrard again. God, it's going to be quite a bonfire.

Año Viejo dummies in Ecuador
You really have to use your imagination to guess who the dummies are... could this be Sylvester Stallone or a young David Cameron?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cockfighting in Ecuador

Why did the chicken cross the road? To hoof you in the guts and peck out your eyes, you slag. Be warned - this is the brutal world of cockfighting.

Bear baiting, bull fighting, even fox hunting are slowly being outlawed in Europe, it's political correctness gone mad. Thankfully in Ecuador common sense still reigns and the discerning gent can witness the mortal and bloody combat of trained animal killers without interference from “the man”. Cock fighting is big news in Ecuador – not quite the Premier League but certainly more popular than greyhound racing.

Prize cock fighter
El Tyson: Weighing in at 6lbs this poultry punisher has won seven out of his last ten fights by peck out in the first round

But it's not really about the sport (or at least I hope it's not) it's about the gambling. In England every other shop front on our depressing high streets is a bookies – conveniently sandwiched between a Wetherspoons and a Greggs. In Ecuador there's no such thing as Ladbrookes or William Hill. Instead the working classes get their gambling fix among the squawk, feathers and brutality of a cock fight.

The valleys around Vilcabamba breed some of the hardest fighting cocks in Ecuador. They are cared for with a rare tenderness and are often guarded by sleepy, saggy-faced boxer dogs. In Vilcabamba town the cocks are staked to the ground on little leads. The best birds change hands for 1,500 dollars a pop – it's the equivalent of buying a thoroughbred race horse in English money.
Fighting cocks
El Bruno: He might look like a feathered dandy but in the ring this avian Adonis comes at his opponents like a spider monkey - his only rule: no hitting the face 

Cock fights happen every other weekend in this part of Ecuador and they attract a raucous crowd. It's no place for a lady, in fact women aren't allowed to attend.

Lucy's aunt had her own bitter experience with cocks. Her husband was addicted to cock fighting, at one stage he had about 25 of the strutting monsters staked out in his garden. He spent all of his time and money caring for his birds. Sick at his frivolous frittering and avian-obsession the aunt exacted a fitting revenge. One day, when he was out, she took the birds to market and sold them for the price of scrawny domestic chickens – about a dollar a head. These birds were trained killers so I pity the poor bugger who had to ring their necks for the sopa de pollo – they probably lost an eye.

Fighting cocks
El Cocko Loco: this featherweight psycho tips the scales at just 4lbs but what he lacks in breast meat he makes up for in dirty tricks. Just look at that steely death stare - those, Sir, are the eyes of a natural born killer

The funny thing about the fighting cocks is they look really silly. Their legs are plucked bald (presumably for aerodynamics) so it looks a bit like they're wearing tights. Also they walk very camp, a bit like Basil Fawlty's goose step. Of course, I'd never say this to their faces – they'd kick my head in.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Vilcabamba: as American as mom's apple pie

Vilcabamba is called the Valley of Longevity, partly because of the unusually high life-expectancy of the town's residents but largely because a few over-enthusiastic journalists failed to check their facts before printing a story in National Geographic. Regardless of its reputed powers of life extension, it is a beautiful place. The sun shines, tropical fruits thrive, a cool breeze blows down the Andean valleys and the mountain springs flow cold and clear. In fact, Vilcabamba is so good many people have felt fit to use that most-hackneyed of metaphors "Paradise".

But is Paradise going bad? That's the conclusion of one blogger who made this bold statement after a brief trip into town and a chat with a few dissatisfied expats. The author cites a few reports and rumours of isolated crimes before leaping to illogical conclusion that Vilcabamba is in the midst of a crime wave that would make down-town Johannesburg look like a trip to the zoo with Barney the dinosaur. Vilcabamba is many things, but crime-ridden it is not... chocker block with Yanks, it is.

Of course, crime exists in Vilcabamba but that's because it's a town on the planet of Earth with humans living in it. Crime thrives when there is a chasm of disparity between those who have and have not. The gringos pull into town in their brand new 4x4s and park next to a knackered Nissan that's so old it's called a Datsun. The gringos live in air-conditioned gated homes with terraces and pools next door to breeze block shacks and chickens scratching through the pig shit. There is no shame at the inequality and there is no attempt to mix, unless they're on the lookout for a cheap cleaner or gardener. So yes, there probably is a little bit of crime – but let's keep things in perspective.

Using the same strange logic, the blogger draws baffling and paranoid conclusions about the town's sleepiness – inferring there must be something sinister behind the veneer of tranquility or as he describes it “a very dark shadow hanging over town”.

However, despite some of the author's baffling conclusions, he writes well and his observations are largely accurate. I agree that many people have arrived in Vilcabamba as the Hajj to their hippie Mecca, expecting quick-fix enlightenment and an escape (not a solution) from their First World Problems. In town, the American expats are eager to talk – it's almost desperate, certainly lonely. With a bottle of Pilsener in their hand, they quickly tell you the story of their lives and their new found freedom in Ecuador. Of course, they never ask you any questions, instead they plough on with their monologue like a poor player treading the same well worn boards. They are mostly men, mostly over the age of 60 and all shamelessly smug that their little hoards are buying more bang for their buck than their “conformist” compatriots over in Florida.

Vilcabamba exists in a strange segregation. There are the gringo bars and restaurants around the main square, and then there are the locals' facilities. Lucy and I were in a limbo, with a foot in both camps. When she spoke Spanish with an Ecuadorian accent the foreign bar staff gave her a strange look – the look the bartender in Cairo gave Lawrence of Arabia when he strolled into the officer's mess dressed in sandy Arab clobber. The half-drunk American expats were similarly confused by the presence of a native in their close-knit community. One American even said: “You don't expect to hear an Ecuadorian speak English” which unlocked the dual achievements of being both startlingly idiotic and racist at the same time.

We went to another popular expat bar and the response was similar. Lucy ordered a gin and tonic but instead received a sparkling water and tonic. She told the bar man, believing he'd simply made a mistake, but he replied: “You can't get tonic in Ecuador.” I think he'd mistaken tonic water for unicorn's tears. Lucy handed back the watery gin and got a beer instead. Five minutes later the bar man went to local corner shop and returned with a bottle of tonic. He fixed the drink and the charmless Spanish waitress thumped it on our table without eye contact and told us it was on the house. Things got odder, when Lucy posted a negative review on Trip Advisor – which charitably brushed over this incident and focussed on a critique of the Tom Yum soup, which tasted like vegetable broth and curry powder. Lucy received a private message from the waitress inviting her to give the review face-to-face next time (thus perverting the very nature of online review sites), she then spiraled into an unhinged tirade on the subject of jealousy, before finishing with a villainous: “jajajajajaja”.

But everything I've written makes it sound like Vilcabamba is a hostile and unpleasant town. It's not. The locals are as friendly and helpful as everybody in Ecuador. For example, when I saw the fighting cocks pegged out on the street, their owner was only too happy to tell us about them and patient while I lay on the dusty street photographing them. Or the the hillside farmer who joked with us when we got lost and had to hike through his field to find the road. Even the construction workers are friendly as they haul heavy rocks atop the fortress-like wall of a hotel they will never be able to afford to stay in.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pan de Yuca

Pan de Yuca is the bread of coastal Ecuador, but it is eaten widely across South America. It is made from Yuca flour, rather than corn or wheat, and fresh cheese.
Pan de Yuca
Pan de Yuca - crispy on the outside, doughy in the middle
Fresh cheese (or queso fresco) doesn't really exist in Europe – but well-drained cottage cheese can be used as an alternative – just add a pinch of salt.

Pan de Yuca is my favourite breakfast and can be knocked up in twenty minutes. It couldn't be simpler to make – here's Lucy's recipe.

One mug of yuca flour,
Two mugs of grated queso fresco,
One egg,
One small spoon of baking powder.

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. I like to really knead it with my fists, this helps it to rise.

Roll the mix into squash ball sized breads – if you don't play squash try a golf-ball – if you don't play golf then try a slighter undersized table tennis ball – and if you don't play table tennis either perhaps you should ask yourself precisely what you're doing with your spare time.

Place the dough balls into a preheated oven (220 degrees). Bake until golden, about 10-15 minutes.
Pan de Yuca
Pan de Yuca - notice how they've risen to the size of the white ball on a pool table - if you don't play pool...
Serve with coffee and fruit for a breakfast of champions.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Learn to speak Quechua: Lesson one

Learning Spanish in Ecuador means dipping your Castilian chips in a healthy dollop of Quechua sauce.
Indian portraits in Ecuador
A Quechua speaker from near Facundo Vela

Quechua was the Incan language in pre-Colombian South America. It is spoken in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and by the immigrant population of Argentina – that's just under 10 million people.

Spanish has borrowed thousands of words from this indigenous language. But even English has a sprinkling of Quechua - the words condor, puma, llama, quinine, and jerky (for dried meat) are all of Quechua origin.

Here are some of my favourite Quechua words, used commonly in Ecuador

Old Indian lady
A Quechua speaker from Tisaleo
Chuchaqui – Hangover. I had to learn this word when I was chuchaqui, the morning after I'd drunk half a bottle of listerine and danced with a stuffed raposa

Wawa – baby. It's an onamatapaeic word from the noise they make when they cry)

Chirisiqui – literally 'cold bum' but with the English meaning 'stark bollock naked'

Chapa – the fuzz, the filth, the rozzers. Or if you're in trouble 'Senor Policia'. Chapa literally means to survey

Wacala – Minging

Llucsi – mush, go... used for animals or, if you're a loveable rogue like myself, for loved-ones who dilly and dally

Wambra – little child, I rather like this one

Chaquinan – foot path, useful when Lucy and I completely lost the chaquinan when we went hiking around Imbabura

Bamba – valley. As in the town Riobamba (which is river valley). Ecuadorians call it Friobamba because it's so cold. I had a delicious plate of fish and chips in Friobamba – but that's another story (it was also 30 degrees that day)

Longo – young chap when used by the Indians, but when used by mestizos about the Indians it takes on racist connotations. Lucy compares it to the English word 'pikey'

Lucy... not a Quechua speaker
Here are a few thoughts about Quechua from an Ecuadorian (more precisely, Lucy)

“Sadly Quechua is slowly disappearing in Ecuador, mainly because of the popular notion that by speaking it you belong to a lower class or are socially excluded.

In the newly populated areas of the subtropic, the highland Quechua speaking parents refuse to talk to their children in their native language. Instead, they want their Wambras and Wawas to learn Spanish to have better opportunities in life. The same happens with most immigrants in the cities.
Nina outside school
The parents of this girl from the subtropical region
originally came from the highlands around Simiatug.
She now speaks Spanish and not Quechua

Despite this Quechua persists somehow, even in mestizo environments. Sometimes we learn the words of this pre-Colombian language without even knowing they are not of Spanish origin. All of the words above are widely used by all Ecuadorians.

This may cause some despair or sadness to those who romanticise the indigenous cultures, and of course, with the loss of the language you also lose lots of your culture. But I think languages should live only as long as they are useful for communication, leaving aside all our idyllic thoughts of the pre-Hispanic Andean cultures.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

A humble apology to the Granadilla

When I was writing my South American Fruit Guide I made some rash and disparaging comments about the Granadilla. I now see how hurtful my words were and, although it causes me great embarrassment to read back my ignorant statements, I am going to republish them. This public humiliation is part of my penance.

Granadilla fruit from Ecuador
How wrong I was

"Granadilla – another popular local fruit. Although the taste isn't so unpleasant as the tree tomato the texture is another story. To eat Granadilla you top it like a hard-boiled egg and slurp and suck its sloppy, seedy innards. I was reminded of that scene in the Temple of Doom where they serve chilled monkey brains to an hysterical Kate Capshaw.
Tasting notes: chilled monkey brains" 
Tom Rayner, EcuAdore: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of South American Fruit

These words I wrote October 7, 2013. I don't recognise myself.

So what was my road to Damascus moment?

It all began on Los Frailes beach, a paradise beyond paradise where I sat in the sun listening to the gentle lapping of the waves (while unwittingly toasting my skin to an eye-popping, nuclear pink - I'll look forward to that melanoma later). There are no snack bars on this remote beach so Lucy had prepared a fruity picnic. The choice in the fruit shop in Puerto Lopez was disappointingly restrictive so somehow the granadilla found a place in the shopping basket - this despite my vows never to eat the 'monkey brain fruit' again.

To cut a long story short, it was love at second slurp. What had once tasted like simian cerebrum was now a parade of sloppy deliciousness marching across my palate. If I was speaking in Spanish I'd call it ricissimo. How narrow-minded I'd been. How quick to judge. In short, a prize fool.

You see, the granadilla isn't a powerful puncher like the maracuya or the taxo. It's a subtle perfume that almost dissolves on the tongue. The experience of eating granadilla is not dissimilar to swallowing oysters in Cancale, Brittany. Of course the flavours are polar opposites; but there's something about the subtlety of taste and the way the juices break over the tongue like a high-tide and trickle, without chewing, down the throat. It is floral and delicate. Eating granadilla is like lying in a summer meadow where you breathe the scents and flavours of summer through the nostrils - the fool's parsley, cowslip and buttercups. It is like a bone-dry chardonnay with its aromas hidden in the very heart of darkness. To understand the grandilla you need to arm the machete and hack your way through the dense jungle to discover its secrets. 

The granadilla is a prince among fruit. I'm completely addicted; I'm eating at least three a day. If I'm lucky I can pick up five for a dollar from a roadside fruit-seller. I've become expert at peeling away the firm skin, piercing its woody jumper inner-lining and sucking out the sloppy seeds. 

Granadilla, I owe you a sincere and unreserved apology. 

She's a Goer: Talkng about Quilotoa

The volcano Quilotoa, and its lake-filled crater, is one of the most stunning sights in Ecuador.

Laguna Quilotoa
Lake Quilotoa: I created this panoramic photostitch from 40 RAW images, the original file is enormous
800 years ago the 4,000 metre volcano of Quilotoa went pop. To put it mildly, you wouldn't have wanted to be in the area. The catastrophic eruption collapsed the volcano and created this natural wonder. This eruption was classified as VEI-6, that's one up the scale from Vesuvius and sharing the stage with Krakatoa.

Quilotoa's eruption sliced away the top of the mountain like a soft-boiled egg at breakfast. Standing at the summit and considering the weight of rock blasted away is ineffable. The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated had a power of 50 megatons, Quilotoa had 12 times this force. Even more astonishingly, archaeologists unearthing medieval graves in Spitalfields, east London believe they've found volcanic debris from Quilotoa's eruption.

But this devastation created something spectacular, a perfect aquamarine mirror to the sky. Every shade of blue and green flickers across this basin. Silvers sparkle on the soft, wind-blown ripples as the natural minerals suspended in the water catch the light of the intense Equatorial sun.

At the summit of Quilotoa are a motley collection of hostels, a few crafts shops and restaurants. The best bet is the community restaurant run by the local Kichwas and set-up with development funding. The hot quinoa soup was just the ticket after my climb out of Quilotoa.

On the subject of mist, it's best to arrive to Quilotoa earlier rather than later. There would be nothing more disappointing than a long drive and no view at the end. Mornings tend to be brighter than afternoons - so says local folklore.

There's a viewing platform overlooking the lake, but the best way to experience Quilotoa is hiking down to its base. It's a slippery, half-hour walk down and a wheezy, red-faced hour back (if you're fit). 

Amazingly, a hostel exists at the base of the volcano. It's hard to imagine a more isolated bed. Conditions are basic but what a view to wake up to in the morning. It costs 12 dollars a night, including dinner. Camping is also allowed at the base, but there's no running water and the toilet at the hostel is a pit so it's no place for pampered princesses (like me).

Getting back to the top is hard work. Luckily there's a herd of reluctant mules on hand who will carry you back for eight dollars. The mules are led by the local Indian children, who bound up the mountain with dusty faces without raising their pulses. Lucy took a horse but I thought I'd benefit from some exercise. Also, the horses aren't very big and I thought I'd look a bit of a tit swinging in the saddle of a pit pony with my feet dragging along the ground.

Walking anywhere at 4,000 metres is unpleasant, walking uphill at 4,000 metres is a Sandakan death march. My hike was made all the more arduous because I was matching the pace of Lucy's horse and the Kichwa girl, who was thrashing the sorry mule into compliance. My heart went out to the poor horse; we were both suffering - only he had a rope stinging his rump every time he wanted to catch a breath and I had a cold, bottle of Guitig mineral water. 

That ten-year-old girl had an uncanny strength in her legs. I consider myself reasonably fit but I just couldn't get enough oxygen in my lungs to keep up with her. It was only because Lucy's horse kept refusing to budge that I stood a chance. 

I've run half-marathons in respectable times and at the ten mile stage my lungs burn, my legs burn, my head is light and every neuron of sense in my head is telling me to stop. After crossing the line my muscles are numb, pounded into atrophy, and I am bent-double in exhaustion. But I can honestly say climbing the 400 metre ascent to the top of Quilotoa was just as challenging. The problem isn't aching muscles or sheer exhaustion, I just couldn't physically get the breath into my lungs. It's a slow strangulation. I should probably have taken it steadier, but that's not what idiotic, young men do when a ten-year-old girl is pulling away. 

Quilotoa is a 90-minute drive from Latacunga - the nearest town on the Pan American highway - passing through breathtaking Andean canyons and other-worldly, rock formations that jut defiantly from the valleys. En route is the Indian village of Tigua famous for its resident indigenous artists; there's a small gallery if you want to break up the journey.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Making diablo masks for the Diablada Pillareña

Meet Marco Antonio Callamara. There are two things you should know about him. Firstly, he's not as scary as he looks. Secondly, he makes devil masks for a living.
Diablo de Pillaro
Marco Antonio Callamara showing off his latest creation
Marco gets paid to spend his days imagining the face of Satan, then recreating it with paper, glue and acrylic paint.

Marco is from Pillaro in Ecuador, a chilly town high in the Andes that can only be reached by a perilous, snaking road from Ambato. Pillaro is most famous for its diabolical annual festival.

La Diablada Pillarena is a UNESCO heritage festival with its roots buried deep into black Pagan soil. Sadly, its origins are lost to historians after a riot and fire in the 19th Century destroyed the town's archives. What is clear - the festival has nothing to do with the Catholic church... although there's clearly some fire and brimstone influences bubbling away in the mixed cauldron. 

The Face of Satan part iiBut the festival isn't until January - so I'll be back. In the months preceding the annual event the mask makers of Pillaro are busy adding the finishing touches to their devilish creations. Like some black metal Blue Peter presenter, I was in Pillaro with the stick back plastic to help make some masks.

The face of SatanMarco specialises in the wild and wacky. His masks are not traditional, and have a cheeky sense of humour. Many of his devils have erections or are cradling bottles of trago.

He works from his home just outside town and in the shade of the Tungurahua volcano. Beneath the washing line his yard is piled high with half-finished demons and diablos. In his lifetime he has created 200 masks and they sell for around $300 a pop.

Marco's workshop
I also went to see Edison Guachamin who maintains a more traditional approach to the diablo masks. Edison runs a local folk dance group so he not only creates the diablo masks but also choreographs the dance routines for the festival.

We compared one of Edison's masks with a pre-Incan mask from La Tolita civilisation, now housed in Quito's Museum and the likeness was extraordinary. Thankfully, there are still some dark corners the light of Catholic Spain has failed to illuminate.

Edison ran me through the process of making a devil mask, the entire procedure takes a couple of weeks but he has several masks on the go.

Yellow pages Satan
Satan in the phone book - look close and you can see numbers
It all begins with a clay mould, roughly in the shape of a human head. Over the clay, layer after layer of paper is added, bound by a strong glue. Edison uses a Quito telephone directory and it's strange to see the face of Satan emerging from the mess of names and numbers.

The masks are fitted with twisted horns which are secured (presumably with the consent) from the local ram population. The very finest masks are equipped with a pair of hairy ears which are secured (presumably without the consent) from the local pig population. Further accessories include animal teeth or marble eyes.

The masks are made to order and some people want a real horror show, others want something cheekier and more loveable. The devil comes in many guises.

Edison in his workshop
Edison working on Satan's snake staff
Finally the masks are painted in bright reds and blacks. The outfits are topped with giant crowns, made from folded cardboard. The headgear is very heavy and slightly unstable so dancing in one of these costumes under the heat of the Ecuadorian sun is a real challenge.

Showing a finished mask
Painting the teeth

I would dearly love to dress as a devil and dance through town. Disappointingly, it was suggested I should dress as the Guaricha – basically a clownish transvestite who has to flirt with authority and beg for money.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rayner on Reinas

Reina is the Spanish word for Queen and Ecuadorians love Reinas.

Let's be clear from the start, these queens aren't the sort of dignified, noble monarchs you might find on the back of a five pound note. No, sir. The biggest difference is they're sexy and throw sweets at you.

There's only one thing the Ecuadorians love as much as a Reina, and that's a Fiesta. Hardly a day has gone by without stumbling blindly into the middle of a Bacchanalian revelry. The reasons for the fiestas are usually shrouded in a mystery more impenetrable than the Enigma code. Sometimes it's a Virgin, sometimes it's liberation from the Spanish, sometimes it can just be a donkey's birthday.

By way of example, I was in the small sub-tropical town of Quinsaloma. As we drove into town we passed three separate stages, rigged to the nines with lights and amps. It looked like a rock concert and this was just a Wednesday night. It turned out the town was celebrating its new civic status – it was no longer going to be categorised as a small town, it was now a mid-sized town. It's hard to imagine a duller and more meaninglessly bureaucratic reason to celebrate, but this didn't stop the local population going bat-shit mental armed only with brass bands, trago and partially de-weaponised fireworks.

Have a basketball, of course
Have some strawberries, why not?
But I digress, back to the Reinas. There cannot be a fiesta in Ecuador without at least 20 Reinas. They ride majestically through the town on the back of agricultural trailers that, only the day before, were carrying a pig and six cows to market.

Under President Rafael Correa Ecuador has finally found political stability. This new democracy is contagious and to become a Reina you need popular support. In the week preceding the festival voting takes place.

I was in Ambato this week and the University was hosting an election for its Reina. The walls of the campus were plastered with campaign posters, each with a glamour snap of the hopeful candidate. They were selling tickets for the Reina unveiling at seven dollars a pop – that's the equivalent of twenty five quid in real money. It's serious stuff.

Reina from the 1930s being publically reminded of the cruelty of ageing and the fleeting fickleness of transient beauty

I'm sat at the Fiesta de Tisaleo, a small Andean town with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. It's a Sunday and we've just cracked open a six pack of Club Rojas (Ecuador's most delicious local beer). Embarrassingly four school children chose that moment to walk past with an anti-booze banner which roughly translated as Dad's old maxim: “You don't need a load of ale to have a good time.”

After the guilt-tripping kids, it was turn for the parade of Reinas.

There was an offical festival Reina, there was an old lady Reina, there was a Reina for the taxi drivers' union, a Reina for the cobblers union, a Reina for every local school, a Reina for the Reina's Union.

The Reina's job is to smile, wave to the braying hoi polloi, kiss the mayor (seriously), and shower gifts from her imperial chariot (which has just the faintest odour of pig shit despite a good hosing the night before). Most Reinas throw sweets, some throw oranges, one surrealist Reina threw basketballs and strawberries. However, the best freebies came from the cobblers' union Reina, who lobbed boxes of shoes into the crowd. This rain of plimsolls caused what in England we would call a riot but in Latin America falls somewhere between a polite queue and a mild jostle.
Bit of leg for the dads
The dads in the crowd loved the Reinas, the mayor really loved the Reinas, even the sweet-coveting kids loved the Reinas. All clean innocent fun, right? Well I'm inclined to agree, if I'm prepared to overlook the inherent sexism of the entire spectacle. The trouble is, I'm not.

For a start, the Reinas never look completely natural. There's always that underlying sordidness about the whole affair, a sort of grubby shame. Of course, the Reina is the presiding monarch of the fiesta, it's just that she is so vulnerable and exposed. One rat-arsed borracho can turn the entire regal role on its head with a disrespectful cat-call or well-aimed satsuma. You might remember the toe-curlingly sexist beauty contest I witnessed at the festival of Salango.
More sweets? You're sweet enough already, Darling
Horse riding Reina, a clever twist on a well-trodden theme. Nice one, Treacle
More questionable still, the entire Reina parade takes place in front of thousands of impressionable young girls. Make up, hair and a pretty smile are what counts. The golden rule is Reinas are to be seen (read: perved over) and not heard. It's not a very positive message for the next generation.

Of course, I should be careful what I wish for. I'm certainly not advocating giving the Reinas soapboxes with their tiaras. The last thing I want to hear at a boozy fiesta is some Bono-esque rant about destroying the rainforest.  
Give us a smile, Love
Reinas, Reinas everywhere but not a drop to drink

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The day I stumbled across an illegal trago distillery

It's not everyday you stumble across an illegal distillery. Rarer still to be given a tour and a tasting.

I was in the remote sub-Tropical region close to Facunda Vela. A man had fallen from a horse and we went to offer assistance. He had cracked his spine, but was going to recover if he laid still in bed for a few months (which he was never going to do). But my thoughts soon turned elsewhere; something was tickling my nostrils – the unmistakable smell of alcohol.

We had unwittingly arrived at an illegal sugar cane spirit distillery. The super-strength liquor is known as trago; the same poison I'd been force-fed at La Fiesta de laVirgen de Merced.

We were deep in the jungle. There were no roads (only rocky tracks), no electricity, no shops, no running water. This was the heart of darkness.

So I started sniffing around the distillery fully expecting to hear a "nada que ver aqui, rayo de sol." But no, bizarrely, the owner happily gave us a tour of operations. He even demonstrated the dark art of trago making.

First up the raw sugar cane is sliced in half down the middle. It was fed into a very agricultural looking press, powered by an old generator and saggy belt-drive. I was amazed at how much juice this sticky plant contained, it poured out and we had soon filled a bucket.

The raw sugar cane juice is an unappetising grey/brown colour. I was given a mug to drink. Tasting notes, it was very sweet, but muddy and unpleasant with a faint note of red diesel.

The next part of the process was no less appealing. Fermentation took place in a large pig trough. The flies were thick in the air and the sugar cane bubbled and popped volcanically. The entire mixture looked just like raw sewage. Oranges floated in the mix; although I'm not sure how they were supposed to impart any flavour.

Next I was shown the distillation machine. This looked even more agricultural than the press. They weren't distilling any trago that day so I didn't get to see it working.

With the tour over it was time to taste the trago. I was poured a very generous measure into a filthy cup. Thoughts of blindness and liver failure briefly crossed my mind but only fleetingly, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I knocked back what must have been a quadruple measure by British standards (or what my Welsh friend Alex used to call 'quads' (but then he also pronounced toast as tost so I'm not sure what to believe anymore.))

The experience of neat trago goes something like this. First the tongue burns, then the throat burns, then the esophagus burns, then the stomach burns... and the stomach doesn't stop burning for at least two hours. The warmth of the spirit radiates like a coal furnace in the gut. Within minutes of quaffing the fire juice your heart is pounding and your head becomes pleasantly light. All of a sudden strange things start to make sense, like taking all your clothes off and chasing the wooly monkeys through the jungle with a sharpened stick.

Once I'd been found in the jungle and reunited with my clothes it was time for the final part of the production. The finished product is stored in large plastic barrels and sold to the nearby communities for one dollar a litre. It hardly seems possible alcohol this powerful can be sold so cheaply. The Indian community loves to celebrate with trago and it is seldom drunk responsibly. The culture is to drink until you pass out. Driving through the paramo (the Andean dessert above 3,400 metres) I've seen borrachos passed out by the roadside with their dogs waiting patiently beside them.

The Indian way to drink is very communal. I know because I had first hand experience in a monster session lasting from 9pm until 4:30am. The Indians drink from a single cup which is constantly refilled and passed around a circle. The person being offered the trago can refuse it and hand it back to the server who must down the glass. Of course, revenge is swift and the trickster can expect a double-measure in return.

Back at the distillery and a donkey was being loaded with two large plastic barrels filled to the brim with trago. My host was about to do the rounds like a twisted milkman. The donkey didn't look very happy, but then I suppose they never do.

I was feeling a bit light-headed and had a cramped, bumpy truck ride to the nearest village to contend with.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I can still see and I've not turned yellow.