Friday, August 22, 2014

Crime in Ecuador and Quito

TLDR: Ecuador is relatively safe for a Latin American country however crime is persistent but avoidable
Quito nights
Quito nights
How bad is crime in Quito and Ecuador?
Lots of people I know have been victims of crime and their colourful stories of compliance drugging, armed robberies and express kidnappings leave a lasting impression. Of course, there are far more Ecuadorians who don't have a violent crime story to share, but their silence fails to impact in quite the same way.
Just by way of contrast, I have lived in two other capital cities in the last five years - Brussels and London - and I have been a victim of crime in both (violent and petty theft). So apocryphally speaking, Quito is no less safe than either the capital of the European Union, Brussels, or the centre of the known universe, London.
Another confounding factor is that crime is more widely reported in Europe, where we still have an expectation that the police will treat our story with a modicum of respect and maybe even conduct some level of detective work (or at the very least the pretense of an investigation (although what I'd really love is a magnifying glass and some dusting for prints)). In Quito the police will look bemused if you report a low-level, non-violent crime; when my iPhone was stolen I did not bother to report it. So of course, if crime isn't reported then crime doesn't officially exist... and this makes it difficult to assess the scale of crime in Ecuador. Obviously!

Living in Ecuador
After nearly a year in Ecuador and I can honestly say I have never felt intimidated or threatened in the streets or in the bars. This is certainly not the case in the UK where random acts of violence in the pubs and clubs of market towns across the country are common place. In London I've walked through estates where I know I'm at risk and the threat hangs heavy in the air. 
By contrast, crime is less likely to loiter in Ecuador. There aren't the state tower-blocks that exist in London which serve to shepherd, and pen the poor together. Poverty sprawls across large areas and is never concentrated in quite the same way. 
Another example. I spent most of the World Cup in Mariscal (the busy bar area). It was filled with thousands of drunk football fans, many of them Colombians mingling with Ecuadorians. Everybody was drinking neat rum and strong lager on the streets and not once did I see any trouble. I could only imagine the same scene in London, with drunk England fans mingling with drunk Scottish fans. Messy!
But then this is the nature of crime in Ecuador, it will arrive when you least expect. Sat in a taxi and two men can bundle either side of you, spray you with mace, punch and disorientate you and drive you round emptying cash from machines until they choose to dump you somewhere in the south of Quito, bleeding, confused and penniless.

How crime works in Ecuador
I suppose there are many ingenious and varied tricks, but here are some of the victims' tales related to me. These stories are mostly from Ecuadorians, not tourists.
Lucy's aunt was stopped in the street and asked to read something in a book, the robber claimed he couldn't read and was embarrassed. She leaned closer to read the passage and was sprayed with gas to make her compliant. She was then taken to the cash machine to empty her account.
Another cousin was sprayed with tomato ketchup. They were shocked and confused. A friendly soul arrived with a napkin to help clean them up and offer sympathy, meanwhile their bag was being rifled through and their pockets emptied of their values.
In my case I was carrying two heavy bags in a crowded public space at a fiesta. I felt a hand reach into my front jean pocket and take my iPhone. I could do nothing because my hands were full with expensive camera gear. I saw the face of the teenager who stole my phone but he disappeared into the chaos and all I could do was shrug. I was lucky.
A Kiwi backpacker fell asleep on an overnight bus and awoke to find his bag had been opened and his iPad taken.
Lucy was driving through the centre of Quito and stopped at the traffic lights outside Quicentro shopping centre. A man approached her car, pulled out a gun and robbed her in the middle of the day. Before he left he said: "Don't be afraid guapa, I wasn't going to shoot you."
The cousin of a friend in Cuenca was driving with his girlfriend when the car in front stopped, another car stopped from behind. They were taken from their car at gunpoint and forced into the lead vehicle. Their car was stolen and used for another robbery. Meanwhile they were beaten and robbed and dumped in the countryside miles outside Cuenca. They suspected the robbers had driven up from the coast to target the richer city of Cuenca. All of the criminals had strong Guayaquil accents.
Crime is more common in the south of Quito but lots of people in the north are robbed on the streets outside their homes, often in the early morning when they are leaving for work. One female friend was indecently assaulted by the robber after she had handed over her phone - adding insult to injury, he groped her breasts before fleeing.

Most cities have markets selling stolen goods. They operate quite brazenly and the police turn a blind eye to them. The market of stolen goods in Ambato is enormous. Of course, I wouldn't recommend trying to recoup your losses with a cheap phone. Ethics aside, these market traders aren't your friendly fruit and veg sellers, there's no consumer rights and you're more likely to get something else robbed while you're window shopping.

How to avoid crime in Ecuador
The best ways to stay safe are to never get too drunk, not to walk late at night (particularly in the periphery of Mariscal), only use licensed taxis, to know where you are going and generally avoid anywhere south of the Virgin in Quito. 

What is the weather like in Quito?

TLDR: Strong sun, changeable, showers, cold at night 

What is the weather like in Quito?
In theory there are two seasons, but there's little to distinguish them except a bit more rain. Generally it's sunny in the day, with an occasional burst of rain, with much cooler evenings. There's rarely a day in Quito when the sun doesn't shine for at least a couple of hours.
The sun is very strong, and you can feel your skin cooking. I'm quite pale and factor 25 was not always enough if I was spending a long time outside. The temperature might only be about 22 degrees but it feels unbearably hot under the sun.
And of course, at nearly 3,000 metres the effects of the sun are even more pronounced than on the coast. It's an irony that the worst sunburn I've seen in Ecuador generally happens in the Andes and not the coast (where generally tourists are more religious about the application of sunscreen).
April is supposed to be the wettest month and June and August are sunny but with strong winds. Otherwise I couldn't really tell any difference between the seasons in Quito.

Quito panorama, Ecuador
The Quito skyline - clouds and blue sky... what next?

Quito has a mountain climate so it's very changeable. Within seconds a bank of cloud can blow over and obscure the sun. You were feeling too hot a moment ago in your t-shirt, now you're too cold and wishing you'd brought a jumper. Quito is confusing like that and I never seemed to have the perfect outfit. To make things even more difficult, it's likely to rain at some point in the day so a waterproof jacket is always a bonus. For some reason Quitenos never seem to bother with umbrellas very much.

I always found the nights in Quito very cold. The temperature drops to around ten degrees and I can't remember ever seeing a house in the capital with central heating. It's probably unnecessary but you might appreciate an extra blanket on the bed.

Andean weather

The Quito climate is more or less consistent throughout Andean Ecuador. Quitenos claim their weather is the best and better than Ambato. People from Ambato laugh at the climate of Riobamba, calling it Frillobamba (do you see what they've done there?). Cuenca in the south probably is slightly cooler, but not by much. The weather in the Andean valleys is gorgeous; a slight descent in altitude has a marked effect. Here it seems to be much sunnier and you're rarely caught out by colder spells.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Recipe: Lucy's Pachamanca a la Olla

Pachamanca is a Peruvian dish eaten since the Incas made by burying food in the earth and cooking it with hot stones. It's delicious, but not exactly the sort of thing you're going to make after getting back from a long day at work.

Traditionally it's made with a smorgasbord of meat - including guinea pig (cuy), pork, chicken and lamb.

This is an alternative pescatarian recipe from Lucy that's really easy to make at home, without digging up your back garden. The great thing about pachamanca is you don't need to follow a recipe too closely.

I really love the flavour of the huacatay herb - it's a gentle minty flavour. In Ecuador it's known as yuyo de zorro and grows wild as a weed. You might also see it called Andean black mint, southern cone marigold, or stinking roger. 
Huacatay herb
I'd never heard of it before moving to South America but apparently in Latin grocery stores it is sold as a paste to homesick expats.

Ingredients (for four people):
½ cup of huacatay herb (called Andean black pepper and in Ecuador called yuyo de zorro)½ cup of oil1 cup of white wine vinegar4 garlic clovesAj√≠ amarilloBlack pepperCuminCogollo or choclo leaves
Fish - dorado
Habas beans (broad beans)
Choclo (white corn on the cob)
Papa cholas/papa amarilla (any variety of crumbly, yellow potato will do)
Sweet potato


Method: (total preparation and cooking time approx three hours)

Marinade the fish with half of the mixture

Blend the huacatay herb with all the other spices to form a thin paste. It should be a pea green colour and the consistency of a smoothie.

I made mine with that classic Peruvian chili, the aji amarillo - it doesn't add too much heat and really reminds me of Peruvian cuisine. Also, don't spare the garlic - you'll want to use at least four cloves

Peel the vegetables, but leave the habas beans in their shell

Place all the vegetables in a large pan - the bigger the better. The ones that take the longest to cook should be at the bottom (like the yuca and the papa chola), followed by the habas beans at the very top. 

Add the rest of the huacatay mixture and cover the pan with the choclo leaves, a kitchen towel and a heavy lid. 

Cook at a very low temperature for two hours. If you're using gas, the flame should be at its lowest (but make sure it doesn't blow out). It can be really easy to burn the bottom of the pan if you're impatient, so check it regularly

When the vegetables are cooked, add the fish on the top with the rest of the sauce and cook for another 30 minutes.

Peruvians don't tend to peel any of the vegetables, but I prefer to peel the yuca, potatoes and sweet potatoes and just leave the habas beans in their shell.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The haunting tale of Cuenca's Convent of the Immaculate Conception

On a low step on the far wall of this dark room the dead were once laid. Walls a metre thick deaden the  maelstrom of the city outside. The horns, the engines, the bustle are muffled; all I hear is the sound of my own breath from a chest wheezing against the cold. The lofty windows fail to illuminate the room, even though a moment ago the midday sun had scorched my exposed skin and slammed my eyes to a squint.

In the gloom I see a frightened girl, maybe just 11-years-old, her hair is crudely shorn and she is stripped to her petticoat. She is huddled in the corner, her arms wrapped tightly about her knees, pulling them tight against her chest in a futile effort to stop the spasmodic shivers which are rattling her frozen bones. In her right hand she grips a doll, dressed in all the fashions and fineries she had seen her older sister wearing, fresh from her honeymoon in Madrid. This girl will never see Madrid, the walls of the convent are the boundaries of her much reduced world. Like her sister, she too will marry. She saw the face of her husband hours earlier. He stared down at her with eyes filled with pain, anguish and compassion. His face one great, purple bruise, his temples pouring with blood, his muscles taut through the agony of death and a gaping wound exposing his cracked white ribs.

Convento de la Concepcion, Cuenca
Welcome to Heaven, girls
Welcome to the Convento de las Conceptas, one of Ecuador's most important religious institutions.

The order of the Immaculate Conception built its convent in Cuenca in 1599 and cloistered nuns still live there to this day. Of course, you'll never see them but they still sell a herbal water drink (agua de pitimas) from behind a rotating wooden window.

With the slow decline of the convent in our Godless age, it has now been turned into a museum... and a rather good one at that.

You can wander - unimpeded by the smartphone wielding masses - through 30 rooms, crammed with the best examples of religious art in the country. There was an impressive collection of retablos; these were portable nativity sets which could be carried by donkey to the Indian communities as a tool for conversion. The religious figures have often been supplemented with characters from indigenous everyday life to better help the Indians understand the message. The three wise men arrive on llamas and Spanish colonial soldiers take the place of Herod's men.
The most impressive retablo in the convent
In its halcyon years the convent enjoyed the patronage of Ecuador's richest families. The eldest daughter of the dynasty would be married off to a rich suitor, the other daughters would scrabble around for the scraps, and the unfortunate youngest daughter was packed off to the convent.

It's hard to believe in these secular times, but it was a great honour to have a virginal daughter married to Jesus. It might even save the souls of a few family members - who probably deserved a decent dose of damnation for their treatment of the Indians on their haciendas.

The young girl, before the age of puberty, was sent to the convent where she was expected to make a pact with God for life.

On arrival her long locks were sheared off. They would later be used to make wigs for the icons and Virgins used during religious parades. You can still see the wigs crowning the saints and virgins. This creepy archangel was particularly haunting - as the rest of the convent crumbles like the faith which had once supported it, the hair remains as light and curly as the day it was sheared.
An archangel with the hair shorn from one of the girls
Tragically there is a room of toys the young girls brought to the convent with them; dolls, music boxes, and figurines. In my mind, there was an insurmountable gulf between the folk innocence of these simple toys and the brutal, gory (and often terrifying) religious figures inside the convent.

Gory Christ
Married to Christ
However, the young girls were about to face an ordeal more traumatising than anything a pair of scissors could inflict. They had to spend their first night in the convent - probably their first night away from their family - alone... in the room where the dead are laid out before burial. Even today, stripped of its function, the room reverberates with a malignant energy. It is bare, just white plaster and a low step on which the bodies were laid. At night it would have been a pitch-black, living nightmare.

After this gentle icebreaker the girls had the rest of their lives to devote to Christ. They were permitted only one visit from their family, the timing of which they could choose. They were sealed off from the outside world and would never, in theory, see the face of a man again. Their silent days were filled with prayer and the many duties of convent life - it seems cookery was a particularly popular pastime and the nuns have perfected a sort of cheesy biscuit called the quesadilla (which you can still buy from them today).

I can't help thinking the monks over in Belgium must have had a better time of things. The nuns in Cuenca get herbal water and cheese biscuits while their brothers-in-Christ were scoffing plates of ripe cheese from Flanders' fertile flocks, washed down by gallons of foaming beer.

Cuenca is Ecuador's most beautiful city... in fact, it might be Ecuador's only beautiful city. It's colonial centre has been both carefully preserved and sympathetically restored. Also, the religious beliefs that once supported the convent of the Immaculate Conception have also been better preserved here. Cuenca is Ecuador's most Catholic city and a devotion exists here that I have not seen elsewhere in Ecuador. The city's Cathedral was crammed with worshipers on a wet Wednesday morning. People of all ages and backgrounds were knelt on the cold stone offering prayers to God.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Crazy Taxi

What do you do if you return to your taxi and find the driver honking on a crack pipe?

Well I suppose the answer is you send him on his way with a firm cuff around the ear.

But what do you do if you're 3,500 metres above sea level, freezing cold, hungry, in the middle of nowhere and desperate to get warm?

That's right, you knock on the driver's window, pretend you haven't seen the drugs and smile awkwardly at the three Argentinian hippy chicks who are nervously exiting the taxi.

Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Painterly beauty in Cajas national park
We were in the Cajas national park, near Cuenca. It is easily some of the most stunning scenery in a country already packed to the point of bursting with stunning scenery. Unlike most of Ecuador, Cajas is a glacial landscape - which makes a refreshing change from the volcanic scenery. Cajas is full of lakes and crags, black peaty bogs and wildflowers in the most amazing colours. I found these red and yellow flowers that looked like lollipops and the floor is thickly carpeted by this alien-looking turquoise plant.

Wild flowers in Cajas national park, Ecuador
The lollipop flowers
Carpet plants in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
The alien carpet plant
There was also a bizarre plant called Oreja de Burro (Donkey's Ear). It grew like a ghostly weed near the abundant sources of water. It glowed white and yellow with such an eerie phosphorescence, despite the overcast day. I took a few photos but it really didn't do it any justice. The leaves were so white it looked a bit like infra-red photography.

Strange oreja de burro plants in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Donkey's ears? You need a bit of an imagination
Our taxi driver was a real Jekyll and Hyde character. On the way up to the national park he had been the perfect gentlemen. When he noticed Lucy wasn't wearing a coat he stopped at his house and borrowed a padded jacket from his wife. He also pulled over at a house in the national park he knew where they serve steaming hot cups of aguita de tipo (a sort of hot toddy, made with sugar cane liquor and a local herb called tipo). It was bloody potent and instantly warmed the cockles. I suppose alarm bells should have rung when our driver knocked one back with a curious relish.

The next warning bell came when he was explaining the supreme quality of Colombian weed. But we were in good spirits and looking forward to our hike around the lake (laguna de toreadora). The driver had kindly offered to wait in the car while we completed the tour - he said it would take two hours.

The lake is very beautiful and reminded me a lot of the Lake District... which I suppose was formed in very similar geographical conditions. However, unlike the Lake District there were very few tourists, even though it was high-season. We passed a local group of excited school children that were being herded like cats by a very brave/foolhardy teacher. To her credit she managed to lead the expedition back to the safety of the refuge with only three walking wounded and two missing in action.

I'm a fast walker and Lucy isn't too far behind, so we made good progress. Also, I'd forgotten to bring a coat and it was absolutely freezing so I needed to stride out to keep warm (even with a belly still burning with aguita de tipo). We completed the two hour walk in just under an hour and surprised our taxi driver - who clearly thought he could blast some reggae, blaze and chill with the Argentinian hippy chicks for another hour... now that I think about it, why were there three Argentinian hippies at the foot of a glacial lake in the middle of nowhere?

On the return journey our driver was transformed. Suddenly he wanted to speak in English, which he couldn't do. He also wanted to tell me how beautiful Latin women were and that my wife was "rica". This means delicious in a juicy way and is highly inappropriate... even in the company of hard-drinking rugger-buggers it would sound a bit sexist and gratuitous.

To make matters worse he wanted to tell me a filthy joke about the gringo at the Spanish language school who told his teacher he had eaten trucha (trout) at the weekend. Lucy refused to let him finish his joke but I'd already guessed the punchline... suffice to say trucha has a double-meaning in Spanish.

To make matters worse we'd booked lunch at a nearby restaurant and had already agreed to pay for our taxi driver's lunch. Guess what we were eating? That's right, trucha.

The driver continued his tedious monologue about how Latin people are warm and brilliant and Europeans are cold and dull. Lucy was squirming beside me in her discomfort. The driver insisted on making me sit next to Lucy in front of the fire - he was under the mistaken impression the situation could possibly be romantic. The wood on the fire was wet so the driver had to sit in front of us blowing at the smoldering, wet wood every 10 seconds or so. Eventually the fire roared into life, but it was still far from romantic.

Lucy by the fire in Cajas, Ecuador
Forcing a nervous smile as our driver stokes the flames
He also drank another aguita de tipo... so he slightly pissed, as well as high. On the way back his spacial awareness completely failed him and he constantly veered into the other lane before lurching back to correct himself. Lucy gripped my arm tightly. I was keeping a close eye on the road and was ready at any moment to order him to stop. I engaged him in some conversation, hoping to snap him from his drowsiness and it worked. We arrived back in Cuenca safely. He even had a fit of righteous indignation and scolded a young boy for throwing his chewed sugar cane onto the street.

A lot of people who read this will think we were crazy for getting in the taxi and I agree, looking back it seems needlessly reckless. But in our defence, it was a sticky situation. We were in a remote national park and there were very few cars passing on the quiet road, let alone taxis. We perhaps could have persuaded a driver to come up from Cuenca (45 mins away) to rescue us, but it wouldn't have been easy. There was no mobile signal and we had no taxi numbers. Also, when incidents like this are unfolding it's hard to believe they are really happening. You look through the window of your taxi and see the driver lighting a pipe and wonder if it's real or just a nightmare. I stood transfixed and only snapped from the trance when Lucy started shouting: "Act, act, act!" at me.

Also, I have no idea what he was smoking. I was expecting the cabin to stink of weed when I entered, but it didn't. It was a very different smell. I don't have the keen nose of a spaniel sniffing suitcases at Heathrow airport but I was concerned... if it wasn't weed, what the bloody hell was it? Crack?! What's it like to drive after a cheeky honk on your crack pipe? I really wasn't equipped to answer these questions.

Maybe I should add that our driver was 52 and married with children. I should probably also mention that we had an amazing time in the Cajas national park and it really is some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Ecuador.

Panama hats in Cuenca

$2,000 dollar Panama hat
A $2,000 Panama hat
You're sat in the pub, warm lager in hand, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps disemboweled across the table.

"Tie break," the landlord says... you could cut the tension with a knife. "Universally Challenged 14. Norfolk in Chance 14."

Everybody takes a deep breath. Both teams need to nominate a champion, an intellectual gladiator to do battle, winner takes all (which in this case is £25 and a round of beers). The two champions take a nervous step towards the centre of the ring. The landlord taps his microphone for attention. First correct answer wins.

"Where are Panama hats made?"

"Bloody Panama, isn't it?"

Made in Ecuador, the Panama hat
Made in Ecuador
I'm in Cuenca (that's in Ecuador) and I'm visiting the Hormero Ortega Panama hat factory. I've always had a soft spot for the Panama hat. For me it is quintessentially English. A symbol of better days, when half the globe was painted pink, we had a cocktail tray before dinner and people still wore hats. I've also got a soft spot for quality handmade clothing, in the face of the Chinese production lines and Bangladeshi sweat shops.

Cuenca is the home of the Panama hat industry. In the villages and communities surrounding the city Indian women still weave the intricate hats from their own homes. It's a real cottage industry.

The reeds needed for the production come from lower down, in the sub-Tropical areas of Ecuador and are taken to the highlands where generations of women have handed down the skill, mother to daughter. To say it's a fiddle is an understatement. Even the very cheapest hats have a weave more intricate than a bird's nest. The most expensive hats, which can sell for well over $2,000 and take up to eight months to complete, are so tightly meshed they form a solid wall of reed capable of blocking out the sunlight.

Homero Ortega is one of the largest factories in town and offers a tour of its facilities. It's all free and the propaganda is thankfully delivered by the teaspoon rather than the shovel load.

When the hats arrive to the factory they have no shape at all and look more like the classic Mexican sombrero. They have all been branded with the Homero Ortega stamp. Buyers from the factory visit the community and choose the raw hats. Every craftswoman produces her own quality of hat, and the finer the mesh the more value it has.

Panama hats at the Homero Ortega factory in Cuenca
How the hats arrive to the factory

The next stage is to wash and dye the hats. The classic hat is white, but these days you can get your bespoke hat in every colour of the rainbow. The girl who was taking us on the tour had a neon pink hat... it's simply not cricket.

The hats are steam pressed by a gang of men using antique machines, some from the 1920s... I guess there was no need to update the machines - it's just steam and a heavy weight.

Steam press for Panama hats in Cuenca
Watch your fingers! There's no emergency stop button on this brute

The finishing touches are added by women in the sewing room. One of the jobs is to attach the famous black band around the base of the Panama hat. I had never realised but the size of the hat can be varied considerably by loosening or tightening the band, which is held in place with a pin.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop and in this case it's not rubbers, pens and little fluffy toys - it's wall to wall Panama hats. The temptation proved a bit too great for me. It certainly wasn't a necessary purchase, I already own a Panama hat (a present from Sam on my 30th birthday). It was always a little tight and it says produced in England on the inside, so I could argue there's some room for improvement.

Detail of the fine weave of a $2,000 Panama hat
It's amazing to think the human hand can create a weave this intricate... it takes eight months and will cost you $2,000 
I found a lovely hat for $80. But naturally there's a sliding scale of quality. I tried on another hat for $130. The difference in the weave was considerable. It was much softer and virtually no sunlight could penetrate. Predictably I chose the $130 hat... however, after taking a look at the $2,000 hat I did wonder about upgrading.

In Brussels they were very sensitive about their great culinary invention (the thrice-fried chip) being known to the international market as "the French fry". It's a similar story in Cuenca with the Panama hat. During the tour of the Homero Ortega factory they insisted on calling the Panama hat, the Cuenca hat. They're idiots, of course. The Panama hat is one of the most recognisable brands in the hotly contested hat industry. So what if it's not named after the city where it's made? If I called this blog entry the Cuenca hat then nobody would know what the hell I was talking about. And for the record, Stilton cheese isn't made in Stilton either - but do you hear the folks of Melton Mowbray banging on about it?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Only Train in Ecuador

El Tren is Ecuador's only train - hence the name, The Train. It's a far cry from the East Coast mainline that spits high-speed express trains packed with 30 million grumpy commuters each year from London to North from the gaping mouth of Kings Cross station. A couple of trains a day shunt out of the sleepy platform of Alausi, and this is only during high-season for tourists.

There are a few other differences I noticed between El Tren and the East Coast Mainline. Instead of rolling past hundreds of miles of flat, fertile farmland interspersed only by depressing commuter belt towns (Stevenage, I'm looking at you) I was snaking down a precarious mountainside watching the flora change before my eyes from high Andean to exotic broad-leafed sub Tropical Triffids. On the downside, my carriage was filled with silver-haired American tourists who were as obnoxious as they were fat.

El Tren Ecuador
Riding down the Devil's Nose from Alausi
We were riding a section of track called the Devil's Nose (La Nariz del Diablo). It's named after the striking nose-shaped mountain that the line descends and was considered one of the most difficult engineering challenges in the world when it was first built. The 2,000 poor Jamaicans who died during the construction of this short section would almost certainly agree with this statement. These were former slaves from the British colony who were shipped to Ecuador to work laying the track. They were chosen because they were thought to be more tolerant to tropical diseases - unfortunately the best immune system in the world can't save you from a direct blast of clumsily placed dynamite or falling 3,000 feet from a sheer mountainside.

Considering the sacrifice made by these men, it's rather a shame there's no monument to them or more than a passing mention of their deaths. We were all happily rolling down a breathtaking track enjoying the fruits of their fatal labour at a rate of 20 dead Jamaicans per minute. It's little wonder this section of the line is reportedly haunted.

The only train in Ecuador
Leaving Alausi station
El Nariz del Diablo, Ecuador
If you use your imagination, this is the Devil's nose

The Devil's Nose section has to bridge a 1000 metre difference in altitude in just over 10 kilometres. The ratio is too steep to lay a standard track, it would make Alton Towers' latest roller coaster look tame. The solution is to build a series of switchbacks to soften the gradient, a back and forth ride, much like the swing of a pendulum.

It's amazing the changes in the landscape as you descend. The thermometer also rises steadily. We passed scrappy fields of maize outside Alausi, corn grows well in even the poorest soil of the high Andes, to more exotic sub-tropical plants and fruit.

The Devil's nose is just a small section in a much vaster 600 mile network that runs from Quito (in the highlands) to Guayquil (Ecuador's major port). Before the train was running it used to take over three weeks for a mule caravan to make the back-breaking trudge from the coast to the capital, and that was only when the weather was good. By train the journey took just two days. Understandably, the oxygen-starved citizens of Quito celebrated its arrival with a frenzy of new-found commercialism.

The train first ran in the 1890s and continued in slow decline for over 100 years. Lucy can remember taking the train as a child when it was still packed with animals heading to market and you had to sit on the roof, like in India. Apparently a couple of Japanese tourists fell off and have spoiled it for the rest of us.

A particularly bad El Nino in the late 90s finished off large sections of the ageing track and it was abandoned without so much as a fare you well. Fortunately, Ecuador's most important President of the last 50 years recognised its potential as a tourist attraction. Rafael Correa ordered the most spectacular sections of the line to be renovated (like the Devil's Nose, or the Route of Ice which reaches altitudes of over 3,600 metres). The plan worked and El Tren is packed, albeit more tightly than ever before, with our remarkably rotund cousins from North America.

They've done a great job restoring not only the track but also the trains and the infrastructure. Each carriage gets a guide, who points out the most interesting landmarks and narrates the history of the track. When you arrive at the station there is an Indian folk dance group waiting to greet you and a couple of patient llamas for a photo op. You even get a free drink and snack from the cafe. It costs about $25 for a ticket but it's a good few hours entertainment and there isn't very much like it anywhere else in the world.

In terms of engineering undertakings I'd still give the top prize to the Trans Siberian Railway, which crosses 6,600 miles of bitter Russian steppe. But even the vastness of the TSR can't match what El Tren has to offer in terms of diversity. It puffs up from the Pacific coast where blue whales visit to breed, through cloud forest, and rain forest, to the rich sub-Tropical wetlands, and then with a monumental grind, up into the high Andes and passing snow-capped volcanoes, all the way to the lofty capital of Quito.
El Nariz del Diablo, Ecuador
A section of the switchback track

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The World Cup in Ecuador

The Belgian national anthem finished and the first rumbling bars of the Stars and Stripes struck up. As one, the pub stood with their hands over their hearts and belted out every word. I was the only person not standing because I am officially a Belgian citizen (even though I misplaced my ID card over a year ago).
I was in Finn McCools Irish pub in the centre of Quito and I had just discovered the American expat community in Ecuador outnumbers the Belgian community (if I can count myself as the Belgian community) by about 100 to one.
It's been fun watching the World Cup in South America and a very different atmosphere to back in England.
For a start, the level of hostility and violence in the bars is almost non-existent.
I watched Colombia beat Uruguay and the large Colombian community in Ecuador went absolute crazy, buying bottles of rum and taking over all of the bars in the centre of Marsical, cranking up the salsa and the Carlos Vives on the stereo.
What was incredible is everybody was somewhere on the road to blind drunkenness and not one fight broke out - if this was any city centre in England (but especially one north of London) it would have been a bloody riot.
Unfortunately for Quito's nascent gay community it was the same day as their big Pride celebration. They had arranged bands, dancers, music and parades. I felt bad for them, the gays didn't stand a chance against the army of drunk Colombians. Pretty soon the drag queens were pushed to the periphery of their own party and Lady Gaga's 'Born this Way' was drowned out by 'La Gota Fria'.
In Latin America there is a lot more unity than in Europe. Ecuadorians will support a South American country over any other team and Ecuadorians will support Colombia over any other team because they're neighbours.
In England the closer (geographically) a country is to our little island, the less likely we are to support them. I'm a rare Federalist in an island of Isolationists and will always support the European teams, but with England out of the cup after two matches I plumped for Ecuador.
Ecuador's campaign lasted just one match longer than England's, and a draw against France saw them eliminated.
The standard of Ecuadorian football is pretty poor, with the exception of two players (both called Valencia). The national league is somewhere between Division One and Division Two - it's hardly surprising the players aren't too enthusiastic about performing since most haven't been paid for the last six months.
Ecuador were largely outplayed by France but they showed a spirit and determination that I haven't seen in an England team for so many years. My Valencia (Antonio) was sent off and it was t'other Valencia's turn to take centre stage. He's almost as fast as his namesake and much less likely to see a red-card. I reckon he'll be in the Prem before long.
When Ecuador were sent home by Switzerland most people just shrugged their shoulders, said: "good game" and moved on with their lives. There was none of the soul-searching, inquiries, demands for resignations, or burning Beckham effigies that happens in England. I suppose the Ecuadorians, quite rightly, recognise the World Cup is just a bit of a laugh and there's no reason to bite somebody's ear off over it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Toros de Pueblo

What happens when you get hammered on strong lager, lock an angry bull inside a ring and start pissing it off?
Torros del pueblo, Ecuador
This obviously.

The fiesta experience is almost ineffable - it's a concoction of noise; the childlike, alien nasal song of Indian women; the bang of the bass drum and the brass blast; head-spinning intoxication; insurgent-grade rockets exploding just above head height, tripping over the groaning drunk; getting trampled by a horse; molested by a street dog; more booze; not more booze; then more booze; a cross-dressing man, blacked-up and wielding a screaming baby chases you with his broom; you crash into a drunk Indian man; you spend five minutes trying to explain what England is, he looks confused and gives you more booze; bulls, bulls, and more booze.

I was at the Fiesta de Pesillo, just north of Cayambe. It follows the typical mold of Ecuadorian fiestas, booze, bands, costumes and fireworks... but Pesillo has bulls.

Toros de Pueblo is a simple idea. Lock an angry bull inside a ring in the middle of town and wind it up until somebody gets a good goring. It's astonishing how sobering a horn in the trasero can be.

All of the town's heroes and hard-men stepped into the ring to prove the size of their huevos, with predictably hilarious consequences. Drunk these men were, matadors they were not.

Even the kids get involved - this eight-year-old boy got caught out by the bull's sudden turn of pace and got royally clobbered. Amazingly there were no tears. He got a firm shake, a dust down and was back in the ring for more.

Torros del pueblo, Ecuador Torros del pueblo, Ecuador

I love the toros de pueblo - perhaps a surprising stance for a vegetarian. Sure, it's a blood sport, but the blood is all human not animal.

I was a little drunk and desperate to join in the fun but a firm hand clasped around my elbow prevented me from hurdling the barrier. 'It looks easy,' I reasoned. 'I could outrun that old bull'. Lucy wisely decided to beat a retreat while she still had control, quoting Withnail and I: "A coward you are Tom, an expert on bulls you are not." Also the bamboo stand we were sharing with 500 other people was starting to creak under the strain.
Fruit for the bull's back
The processional pineapple and the snow-capped volcano of Cayambe
It is a fact: at any moment, on any day, somewhere in Ecuador a fiesta is happening. But finding the fiesta is easier said than done. We drove to Cayambe, the main town in the area, hoping to land square into the thick of it but all we found were broken bottles, empty stands and snoozing borrachos. We were 24 hours too late.

We picked up the trail just north of town with the remnants of an all-night fiesta. Five men and women were swigging beer and dancing and singing. They pointed us in the direction of Pesillo and promised us bulls.

It must have been a bit like finding a rave back in the 90s, just march to the sound of the cannons.

On the way to Pesillo we passed this incredible rainbow over the town.
Rainbow over Olmedo town, Ecuador (near Cayambe)
Rainbow over town, looks like a MAC job
Fiestas are crazy places at the best of time and I can never stay sober for long. Trago and beer are poured down my throat, occasionally I'll contribute a dollar for the vaca. The cow is like a rolling collection fund to make sure there's always booze flowing. There is no concept of ownership at an Ecuadorian fiesta, your booze is their booze and their booze is your booze. It's the Communist ideal in practice and it works... if working means an entire town gets utterly rat-arsed for five days straight.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A week in Moraspungo

The land around Moraspungo is a deep, red clay. When it rains, and it always rains, the earth churns into a viscous patty that swallows Wellies whole and covers every car, bus and bike in a triple coat of terracotta mud.

The red earth is set against a thousand shades of green - banana leaves, cacao, wild strawberries or the eponymous blackberries in Moraspungo's name.

A fog drifts across the jungle. We are 1,000 metres above the sea, already leaving the Andes for the coast. The heat and the humidity quickly glistens the skin with a cool sweat. Ten minutes after your shower you feel dirty again.

It reminds me of marshland - that strange coexistence of decay and the abundance of life... not to mention the ravenous mosquitoes. My hairy arms were enough to dissuade the mosquitoes of the coast but in the jungle they simply nestle themselves in like a feathered bed and settle down for the feast. I left Moraspungo pock-marked and driven to distraction by the intensity of the itching.

I was filming for the Fundacion Alli Causai, who are building water tanks for the town and its surrounding community. It's hard to believe so many people are drinking and bathing in dirty water everyday, but they are.

Life without clean water is unpleasant. Brushing your teeth can make you sick. Fruit and vegetables are washed in dirty water and can make you sick. Unsurprisingly I did get sick, but fortunately not until I was back in Quito.
Lugging bags of cement 

Filling the tank
We were teaching local schoolchildren how to wash their hands after going to the toilet and the importance of good personal hygiene. The children proudly demonstrated their new-found talent for my camera.

A few months back I drew illustrations for a pamphlet teaching the children good hygiene. I thought it was a wind up when I was asked to draw a shit in the shower but apparently it had been quite a problem.
Washing hands
We were also visiting patients in the remote jungle communities. Washington and Ivan, from FAC, wanted to check-in on an 18-month old child and asked if I wanted to join them. Of course, I did.

We had to leave the 4x4, their house was only accessible down a steep muddy bank and over a raging river. The bridge was constructed with two trunks of bamboo which flexed and swayed. I had to cross carrying my camera and if I'd slipped and fallen around £4,000 of gear would have gone floating away down the rapids of the Rio Moras.
Crossing the river
Standing on the bamboo bridge in the depths of the Ecuadorian jungle I had a sort of Naked Lunch moment. I don't think London has ever felt so distant.

The family - twelve of them - were living in a wooden shack on the bank of the stream. They had evidently chosen this spot to access the water, which is vital in producing trago (the local sugar cane spirit I discovered a taste for back in November).

Chickens, dogs, pigs and donkeys all live side-by-side with the family. A fire smokes all day long and on top a great pan bubbles away with some chicken broth. Everybody is filthy and caked in mud. After the dogs have finished barking at us they soon retreat to their dark corners to sleep, occasionally shaking the flies off their ears.

The family is pleased to see FAC. Not because there is anything wrong with the child, but just because it is a recognition that they exist. These people have fallen through the system and are no longer citizens. The rights and access to the Ecuadorian government's commendable free healthcare policy has well and truly bypassed this community.
Hanging from the rafters, he was not a happy bunny
Lucy and I were staying in Quinsaloma. A small town close to Moraspungo. It's the only town with a hotel in the area, but not a hotel in the sense of hot water in the shower or breakfast in the morning.
The hotel is just out of town, opposite the brothel. All night long the buzz of Suzuki AX100s, loaded sometimes with up to three horny banana pickers, drifted in and out of the brothel's discrete car park. Images of white women in bikinis with great mops of blonde hair advertise the brothel's offerings. But it's fantasy. Inside are only impoverished Indian girls from distant communities who were once burnt by the shame and guilt they had lied to their parents - who think they are in Quito washing clothes or cleaning apartments - but now are numbed and, eventually, diseased.

We ate breakfast in a small restaurant owned by a friendly man from Quito who had sought his fortune in Italy, before returning to Ecuador to invest his winnings in a business of his own. He took great pride in showing Lucy his Bialetti machine when she asked if he served "real" coffee. Despite lying slap bang in the middle of ten thousand acres of coffee plantations, the local restaurants take great pride in serving instant Nescafe Gold Blend - it's seemingly cosmopolitan and chic.

Breakfast in Ecuador looks like a hearty dinner in the rest of the world. It can be a saucy slab of grisly pork or chicken served on a mountain of rice with fried banana at the side and a bolon (fried plantain ball) as a side-order. It is washed down with a jugo - maracuya or mora if I'm lucky, tomate de arbol or  papaya if I'm not.

The bananas in Moraspungo taste like no other banana I've ever eaten, intense and almost juicy. A head of bananas here (that's around 100 fruit) costs just two dollars. The local oranges, which are piled in dumps by the side of the road, are sold for 50 oranges a dollar. You feel like a criminal carrying away a back-breaking sack of fruit for the price of an apple in Sainsbury's.

The people of this community are immigrants. The towns are new. Impoverished communities in the highlands - like Simiatug - were forced down from the fresh air and sun of the Andes and into the jungle. When the first people arrived, less than 70 years ago, the jungle had to be hacked back with machetes to make room for their houses.

I can never get my head around the disparity between the fertility of the land and the poverty of those who live on it. There is sunshine, there is rain and there are mountains of delicious fruit. Something went very wrong somewhere.
It's really rather beautiful here

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Wish You Were Here? La Mana edition

The Pyramid Paradise in La Mana fails to live up to its name... well the paradise part at least.

Imagine Butlins with pyramids. Now imagine Butlins with pyramids 28 days after the zombie apocalypse first struck Skegness. Welcome to Pyramid Paradise.

Whoever built this leisure park had lofty ambitions. There are four swimming pools, three water slides, poolside bars, volley ball courts, reception centres and a restaurant. The trouble is, the jungle wants its land back and nobody cares to argue.

Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Pyramid accommodation... this doesn't look so bad

Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
You'll get a sore arse sliding down this chipped concrete water slide
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Why wouldn't there be a knackered petrol pump outside the women's toilets?
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Not in the least bit creepy
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Relax in the lounge with a cool cerveza and watch the plaster peel away before your eyes
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Just shift the calculator, the hat stand and the pram and recline on the soft mattress in the bedroom
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Butlins after the zombie apocalypse

La Mana is the largest town in the midst of thousands upon thousands of acres of banana plantations. Bananas grow here because the heat is suffocating and the rain is torrential. Bananas are big business, particularly for the export market. Check the label in Sainsburys next time you visit, your banana probably came from La Mana.

Bananas need a lot of TLC; plantations need to be kept clear of the encroaching jungle, the bananas need to be wrapped in plastic bags for protection, and picking the heads of heavy fruit is hard work. As a result there is a huge influx of labour to the area.

The owners of Pyramid Paradise probably imagined thousands of happy families arriving to town, all looking for some weekend diversion to escape the scorching sun.

Unfortunately the picture is rather different. Young, single men came, looking to make a quick buck to send home to their families. With the cool breeze and sunshine of the sierra just an hour away, why would anybody want to stay in La Mana unless they had to? Instead of happy families there are brothels everywhere and HIV is rife. So is tuberculosis, which will probably kill you first.

In La Mana everything rots under the rain and the sticky heat. Watch closely and you can follow the inexorable creep of the mildew tide and the plaster peel. 

Inside the crowded medical centre of La Mana it's a depressing scene. Living in Quito it's easy to forget the other side of Ecuador, but lots of the people in La Mana are in desperate poverty.

I met a 50-year-old man with HIV who is recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. The aid agency I was working for had found him living under plastic bags at the back of his niece's house. He had no other family. He did not understand the nature of his illness and would surely have died. The agency bought materials and the community built him a more permanent shelter in the village. His favourite things are cerveza and fiestas... so we've really got quite a lot in common.

He knows when the agency is in town and always turns up to get a free lunch. Once he arrived and broke down in tears at the dinner table. He had just begun to understand the nature of HIV and wanted reassurance that everything was going to be all right for him. His tears were uncontrollable, he knew full well the truth but wanted somebody to lie to him. 

I met another woman, just a year older than I am. She too had tuberculosis and HIV. She had contracted it from her husband, who later died of tuberculosis. She has two young children, who luckily escaped contraction, and is living in poverty in a remote village 20km from La Mana. She was stoic and found solace in religion but, despite new found evangelicalism, her's was not a happy lot.

Back to Pyramid Paradise for a spot of lunch. The chipped dustbin head of Micky Mouse grins back at me. The mosquitoes are eating me alive and I'm glad to be leaving for Moraspungo... but that's because I don't know what it's like in Moraspungo. There I would see what real poverty looked like and how short is the reach of Ecuador's impressive public health system.

Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Wish you were here?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wind and Oil

My local village (in Cambridgeshire) is locked in heated debate about the installation of a new wind farm. 

Opponents, deftly skirting the elephant in the room of their house prices, are horrified by the monstrous eyesore soon to be erected on this flat, featureless expanse of windswept bog. 

The opposition website provides a neat illustration of the size and impact of the wind farm, placing the looming silhouettes of doom next to Thorney's historic abbey and a Bedford cottage. In case you've missed the subtle message, apparently a wind turbine is much larger than a 19th Century farmer's cottage. I can't argue with the author's firm grasp of scale, however, their understanding of relativity is woefully askew. I don't think anybody ever proposed building a wind turbine ten feet away from the Abbey.

I didn't think point number two could be topped... until I reached point number six - public footpaths. The wind farm development will have a "negative impact" on our "unspoilt" bridleways. They're unspoilt because nobody uses them, only the Ordnance Survey knows they exist. I'd bet if I wanted to take a pleasant afternoon stroll down one of these idyllic lanes I'd probably get shown both barrels by one of the charming, local farmers who seem to have mistaken the Fens for Zimbabwe. 

Making things nice and simple (presumably because that's the easiest way to avoid getting bogged down in logic) the opposition has written a six point plan of their concerns - in essence, it's a less ambitious version of US President Woodrow Wilson's post war reconstruction plan.

Point number two is a corker - the noise. Apparently if the wind is blowing in the right direction (that's a prevailing south westerly, if you're interested) and you turn the television off, and prick an ear to the breeze you might actually be able to hear the sound of the turbines. Of course, it's more likely that you'll hear the sound of the A47 bypass, or a dog barking, or a human voice, or any of the other millions of things in this world that make noise.

The six point plan is so flimsy and surreal that I began to wonder if it was not, in fact, a work of masterful satire (like when Defoe suggested eating the poor in his 'Modest Proposal'). 

What has any of this got to do with Ecuador?

Well, while the great environmental debate of the modern age is raging in Cambridgeshire... meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government has signed permits for oil drilling to commence in the Yasuni National Park (just 150 miles from where I now live) - a single hectare of which is home to a richer mix of trees, birds, amphibians, and reptiles than the US and Canada put together. 

What biodiversity has a hectare at Gore's Farm got to offer apart from a couple of labradors and a dead crow?

We can at least be reassured by promises from the Chinese drilling companies that they will take good care of this UNESCO reserve. 

So, let's soak thousands of acres of the most biologically diverse land on the planet in viscous, black filth and spare fair East Anglia from the irrecoverable plague of green energy.

Why not be more honest, Thorney? Replace the six point plan with the slogan "Sustainable energy at Gores Farm might have a slight impact on my house price thus making me slightly poorer as a result... I'm not against green energy, in fact, I offset the carbon footprint of my trans-Atlantic flights with tree planting projects in the Amazon." It's just a shame the Chinese are about the swamp your Amazonian saplings in black gold.

The Yasuni

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pakistani cricket ambassadors in Quito

I was jogging through Parque Carolina yesterday when I spotted a game of cricket in progress.

I presumed they'd be rubbish (read: my standard) and wondered if I could worm my way in to hit those Latino chumps with a few of my famous fast deliveries (Max Rayner will know what I'm talking about).

When I finished my run I headed back to the cricket pitch and discovered about 100 spectators crowded around the action. At first I thought cricket was about to take Ecuador by storm, but as I jostled my way to the front I discovered the truth.

The game was being contested by two teams from Quito's Pakistani community. A decision had gone against the batsman and rather than walking slowly back to the pavilion (a Chinese temple folly with a gong in it) he went medieval with the willow.
Like this... only nobody was smiling
I've witnessed a few fights in my life but I've never heard such a vocal confrontation involving so many people and with so few punches thrown. The commotion was unbelievable and since the argument was being conducted in Urdu (probably) I have absolutely no idea what was the cause of contention. My guess is an LBW, that's always a bit of a loose rule.

The fight consisted of lots of squaring up and posturing. At one stage somebody took away the wickets in a sulk, only to return them a minute later. The ring leaders were the batsman and the bowler on the opposite side, who looked a bit like a fat version of Shoaib Akhtar.

The indigenous Indian family stood next to me looked very concerned by it all. The father explained to his daughter: “The Arabs are having a fight about their baseball game.”

One of the Pakistani players in the outfield sulked-away, radiating shame. He stood near me and I shook my head at him regretfully. “No es cricket,” I said.

Amazingly, after 15 minutes of bitter fighting the game restarted as suddenly as it had stopped. I didn't hang around to see the inevitable second round. I would not have umpired that match for all the money in the world.

I couldn't decide if the Pakistanis had been good or bad ambassadors for South American cricket. They certainly made cricket seem like the most exciting and important game in the world.

I decided not to volunteer my arm for a few of those famous fast bowls and went to eat a pizza instead.

Surprisingly Quito has a thriving Pakistani community. In fact, so many arrived in the 1990s that Pakistan is now one of the only countries in the world requiring a Visa to enter Ecuador – joining North Korea, Iran, Palestine and Iraq.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dogs are everywhere

In England, dogs are esteemed members of the family – not quite on the same pegging as a wife or a first son, but certainly on the same rung as a grandparent, and way above uncles and aunts. As shocking and incomprehensible as it might sound to English ears: in Ecuador people are valued more highly than dogs.

I love dogs as much as the next man. You might even call me a dog person. But the more I think about it, the more I think Ecuadorians are right.

It's not that Ecuadorians don't like dogs, because they do. In fact, I think I've seen more dogs in Ecuador than in the UK – although this is probably because most of them live out on the streets. I just think South Americans have a more sensible attitude towards animals than the British. After all, they're just dogs.

Whymper the Alsatian
Whymper the mountain dog... who left us to die on the slopes of Chimborazo
When I think of the treatments, therapies, operations and medicines friends' dogs have received in England I actually feel slightly disgusted. This probably sounds a bit Geldof-esque (in the worst possible way), but I've driven to remote Andean and jungle communities where people are dying because they can't afford antibiotics or the taxi fare to the nearest hospital.

Two years ago I visited a vet in Surrey who had just installed a hyrdro-therapy pool for dogs. He's known as the bionic vet because he fits prosthetic legs to dogs who've lost limbs to cancer. Two months ago I visited a remote village 3,500 metres above sea-level where a woman was suffering her second bout of tuberculosis in a year, having already lost her husband (and any means of financial support) to the same illness. If it wasn't for the NGO I was with, she would also have died leaving an orphaned child in a village full of alcoholics.

I asked the bionic vet if spending tens of thousands of pounds treating a dog was not obscene and he told me it was just personal choice. Some people buy Ferraris, others like to fit prosthetic hips on their genetically-faulty designer dogs. “It's their money,” he said. “They should be able to spend it however they like.” I agree... to an extent... because isn't buying a Ferrari also obscene?

But this brings me onto the flip-side of the coin. The perro callejero (street dog).

I realised I'd been in Ayampe (a coastal town in Ecuador) for too long when I was first name terms with six of the street dogs in town. What a pack we were! There was little Salchicha, the scaredy-cat sausage dog. There was Zuca the playful labrador puppy who ate three chickens one morning and Jose had to pay $30 for the loss. There was Oso, a sort of Jack-Russell, who hunts crabs on the beach – El Cangrejero they call him. Then there's Wiley! What a royal shit he is.

Wiley was the leader of the street dogs, so called because he looked like a coyote. He was a bully and made a sport of kicking Oso's head in. Lucy and I dubbed him Wanker, because he was always behaving like a complete wanker. He used to chase the poor, old donkey up and down the beach, barking at it and biting its tail. At night he would corner the donkey and bark until well into the madrugada. He was also known as rapey-dog because of his predilection for bikini-clad, blonde backpackers. He literally would not take no for an answer.

Like most street dogs Wiley got a nasty skin infection, he had a parasite in his head. Some bikini-clad, blonde backpacker took pity on him and packed him off to the vet at her expense. When she went on her way Wiley was left out on the streets once again.

Cure and release is a common theme. In Ayampe an American hotel owner once paid for a vet to treat all the street dogs in town. A generous act? In my opinion, it would have been better to put them all down. Dogs aren't bred to live without humans. Within a month all of their conditions had returned and we were back to square one.

In Quito the situation is even worse. Street dogs howl and bark all night. They forage for food and rip bins apart, which in turn encourages rats. Occasionally they bite children. They are always getting themselves run over – dead or wounded street dogs are a common sight on the roadsides in Ecuador and it's never nice to see.

But I don't want to paint too black a picture.

Of course, I've met some real crackers in South America. For example, Jacinto the ginger beach bum in Mancora was a beauty. And then there was Whymper the Alsatian who lived at the mountain lodge of Chimborazo. He followed Lucy and I on a hike to 5,000 metres... then we got lost on the slopes of the volcano and he swiftly abandoned us. He looked a rather sheepish when we returned sun-burnt and pissed-off four hours later. I should also probably give a name-check to Canela, Emila's pampered poodle who dances an Irish jig on her hind legs whenever she gets excited. And of course there's Randy Russett, Canela's sweetheart street dog who lives over the road.

Dogs are Everywhere, as Jarvis Cocker would say.