The first stop in Ecuador
15.05.2009 - 17.05.2009 29 °C
My first stop in Ecuador: Otavalo, in the far north of the country, a smallish Andean market town.
The main attraction in Otavalo is the Saturday market. Indigenous folk come down from the surrounding mountains to sell their colourful wares, mostly textiles (from alpaca and llama) and ceramics.
At the market I saw my first Fat American Couple, an unknown phenomenon in Colombia. In fact the place was swarming with tourists, and white faces in the crowd outnumbered the locals for the first time. As the day went on and the stallholders began to pack up, so the tourists subsided. By Sunday morning, I was back to being the only gringo in sight -- the status quo in Colombia.
A night out in Otavalo
NB very long and no pictures, so unless you're bored skip this bit
On Sunday night I teamed up with a Swiss guy named Claudio, who was also travelling alone and was staying in the same hostel. We went to the central plaza and (not hopeful, it being a Sunday) asked some local guys where the party was. There was indeed an open club where everyone was headed. They recommended we get a beer from the shop and drink it on the plaza, as they were doing. One of the guys had a plastic cup and offered us some of his beer -- but only a token amount. It seemed to be a sort of formal gesture of politeness. The Otavaleños are at least as generous as their Colombian counterparts, and take at least as much pride in that fact as did the residents of Medellin. There were signs in Otavalo saying 'welcome to the happiest city in the country'.
We duly bought some beer (1 dollar for more than an English pint) and drank it in the marketplace before heading to the club. Otavalo has a population of 25,000 and feels even more provincial. Despite this it had three clubs, one of which was open. Inside it was like any club in the UK, with a central dancefloor, disco lighting, DJ and bar. The music was almost all reggaeton, one of the three ubiquitous genres in Colombia. All reggaeton songs have the same beat, and at the same tempo. In fact they are practically identical in all respects.
The dancefloor was packed. And to my astonishment, all the indigenous girls who had run the market stalls the day before were there in the same traditional dress. They were mingled in with the rest of the Ecuadorian youths, who dress just like Europeans of the same age. Almost everybody was dancing, but all in fixed couples, unlike in Colombia, where everybody danced with everybody. I began to doubt Claudio's claim that he had danced with five girls simultaneously two nights before. But then I looked away and looked back, and Claudio was kissing some girl. But then Claudio looked away and looked back, and the same girl was kissing some other guy...
Feelings were clearly running high. Two guys began fighting and were dragged out of the club (unrelated to Claudio and the easy-going girl). But then the DJ put on a new track, and there was a wave of excitement in the club. Everyone rushed to the dancefloor and formed several concentric circles, each person holding the waist of the person in front. Any couples that had existed before seemed to have dissolved into a group attitude. We then proceeded to shuffle round in the circles. Every now and then somebody would initiate a change in direction, and the circles would about-face and shuffle in the opposite direction. Someone told us that it was traditional music, and a traditional dance. The music consisted mostly of bass line, with a faint repetitive melody over the top. I'm not sure if it was one song or several, but it seemed to go on for about half an hour as a strange trance. Nobody said anything to anybody else, and people seemed to concentrate just on following the circle. The repetitiveness didn't matter.
The DJ announced that due to the violence, the club was closing early (it was about 12:30), and we should come back next week when we'd calmed down. Everyone exited in a rapid and orderly fashion. However, outside there was some sort of fight going on. A few guys were walking around with their shirts off, more or less beating their chests. One of them had blood on his face. Everyone else watched, or slowly filed into the waiting taxis. Other than strutting around looking macho, the conflict seemed to have ended already. A police pickup truck arrived, lights flashing but with no siren. It crawled through the middle of the crowd, nobody paying it much attention, and the three policemen inside seeming fairly indolent. But then they turned around and cruised back through the crowd, the two passengers having rolled down the windows a little, and pillbox-style doused the peaceful crowd with pepper spray. My first experience of this -- I was fairly far off and only caught a little bit of the vapour, but it gave a horrible tickle in the throat that made me cough. I couldn't really believe what was happening: they hadn't given any warning, or so much as exited their vehicle to address the three guys who actually had been fighting, and besides, the crowd was peacefully dispersing by itself. And rather than stick around after their sortie, they just drove off!
Somehow Claudio had got talking to a local chap, who was fairly drunk and told the same story over and over about how he'd spent two years in a South African jail for smuggling cocaine. His brother was there, and confirmed the tale. I talked to an older indigenous guy, who was wearing traditional outfit and felt hat, who said his father's generation had machete fights with the local mestizo population, but that now there was peace.
We went home.
The Peguche waterfalls
A short bike ride from the hostal were the Peguche waterfalls, evidently a popular weekend destination for Ecuadorians (but not gringos).
Crawling through a tunnel in the rock, there was another set of falls that you could swim in:
Biking around Otavalo
I continued on my bike ride to the Lago de San Pablo. Many small villages are dotted around the lake, overshadowed by the enormous mountain Imbabura:
Biking through the hot and dusty streets...
I spied tree tomatoes growing (tamarillos in English I think). They make tasty juice:
And the first of many volleyball nets. The Ecuadorians are crazy about the sport, and every village has one or more pitches:
Interesting and strange things around Otavalo
In Otavalo I saw my first 'Chifa', or Chinese restaurant. Even the small towns in Ecuador have at least one, always run by Chinese families.
'Pink chicken' isn't exactly an inspiring name for a chicken restaurant. Although the only undercooked poultry of my trip so far was served by a expensive and swanky joint called 'Texas chicken' in Quito...
All the pet dogs in South America seem to be dressed up like this, so as to not be confused with street dogs and culled in the periodic poison meat handouts. They don't seem to have heard of collars though, and instead go for the demeaning sweater/bandana/all-over lurid hair dye option:
An enormous bus for an all-inclusive gap year tour of the continent:
The best set menu so far, starting with spinach soup (also main course, dessert, and drink, for about US $1.50):
As I was leaving Otavalo for Quito, I bought some orange juice from a stallholder at the bus station. She seized the opportunity to try to marry me to her daughter, and insisted on taking a picture of the two of us.
Her: 'So when are you coming back to Otavalo?'
Me: 'Ermm I'm not sure.'
Her: 'Well be certain to come back to my stall. My daughter will be here.'
Me: 'Thanks for the juice... bye.'