Latin America · Travel

Ecuador: Shrunken heads, panama hats, and standing in the middle of the world

Would you like to learn how to make your very own shrunken head? It might get you in prison, but if you want to learn, read on…

I am now in Cuenca. I am lost for words to describe this city. Every corner is a surprise: a marvel of Spanish colonial architecture that feels like a step back in time.

Things I almost lost: My favourite, old, taped together alarm clock. Bought a new one for $2 in Quito and then found the old one the next day. That is how it goes.

I left you last when I arrived in Quito, and spent a day relaxing with my cousin who was suffering from altitude sickness. The following day we decided to compensate for our sloth and took a bus and then another to get to the Mitad del Mundo — the middle of the world — the
Equator. It was a bit of a let down, but we had heard about another place where you could find the “real” equator. That was at the Museo de Inti Nan, where we not only learned the process of making a shrunken head (this involves chopping off the head, scooping out the insides, including the skull until the head is just like those rubber masks you get at Halloween, steaming the head in special herbs until it shrinks, sewing mouth and eyelids shut, and then smoking it, and voila! One shrunken head for you.), but also saw some really cool (if high schoolish) experiments on the REAL equatorial line (apparently the tourist one is off by 00,00,00,07 degrees or something). I was always a keener in high school, so this was a great deal of fun for me. We were also challenged to balance an egg on the head of a nail — something you can only do quickly on the equator. If we succeeded, we would get a certificate. My cousin and I failed in the first round,
but this Japanese guy and his girlfriend who were with us did it. So we were like, well, if the Japanese can do it, so can the Indians, and we did it. Score 2 for India!

We later walked through the colonial centre of Quito, after getting lost in a dangerous part of the city and finding our way back unscathed, right into another dangerous part of it. Well, whatever, a city is a city, is a city, thugs and all. Quito is potentially heart-stopping. Quite literally. All the streets slope up and we picked the slopiest. At an altitude of 3000+ metres, walking two feet
felt like running for ten minutes. Or maybe I am just really out of shape. This is a city of churches. Some like wedding cakes, some white-washed and dark-timbered, with old iron bells that ring out in the evenings. You throw a stone, you hit a church, that is how many there are in the colonial section. I tried to keep my camera out of sight, but it was almost impossible not to want to pull the thing out every ten seconds to take yet another photo.

That evening we also visited El Panecillo, a hilltop on which stands a massive statue of the Virgin ready to take flight on a chained dragon. We climbed inside and saw a wonderful view of the city.

We considered spending another day in Quito as we had lost out on the first day due to illness. Mauricio, the manager of our hotel tempted us further by telling us that there was a bull run next door and we could hang on the terrace and get front row seats for the action for free. As sorely tempted as we were, we decided to continue on to Latacunga, from where we were to do a day trip to Laguna Quilotoa. Since we had decided not to go with a guide and to do it on our own,
we were anxious to get to Latacunga with enough time to settle in and prepare the trip.

We set out for the Quilotoa crater the following day. I had some regrets about missing the bull run, but we had to prioritize. Seriously, I´ve read so much about how bad Ecuadorean buses are, and to all those who call them rubbish and uncomfortable, I say this: take a 12-hour bus ride from Goa to Hampi on a bus with benches, and then tell me that plush, if smelly seating, is a major step down in travel luxury. We had a great ride, driving through mist, over hills with cliffs and farmland sprawling as far as the eye could see. A little campesina girl got on the bus with her mother halfway to the village of Zumbahua. She decided to sit next to me, and stared solemnly at me. Her white knee socks and black shoes were grey with dirt. Her chubby cheeks were chapped from the wind. Her fingernails had dirt caked under them. I gave her some sweets I had bought. I soon realized she wasn´t staring at me, but past me, so I let her have my window seat. She promptly fell asleep on my arm, tightly clutching a sweet in each hand.

From Zumbahua, we hired a pickup to drive us to the crater. The guy, Franklin, was very cool, told us a lot about the area, including the tidbit that some scientists say the crater, which devastated much around it, is still dormant. We passed llamas and farm houses that looked like bombed out concrete shells on straw-coloured landscapes of rolling hills and gaping canyons. We reached Quilotoa, and after arranging for mules to bring us back up, went to the lookout point to
see the crater.

How can I describe the immensity and beauty of it? A perfectly oval bowl of ragged, jagged cliffs towering over a perfectly green emerald lake that nestled far at the bottom like a precious egg. I felt like an eagle and a miniscule, meaningless person at the same time. I am still in awe. We descended quickly down steep slopes of volcanic ash, slipping and sliding down in about 40 minutes, and were thankful for the ride back up, although I felt very sorry for my mule and kept
apologizing to him as he panted and puffed his way back up.

On our way back from the crater, Franklin told us that there was a bull run in a village near by, which is why we had seen so many campesinos requesting us for rides (we took lots of people along different stretches of road). I was really excited and so was my cousin. We had missed Quito and here was another chance!

Well, it was yet another gob-smacking moment. We drove into a small village, and there it was, a dirt area dominated by a bull pen. The stands around it were a single tier of wooden planks that you could only mount by climbing a rickety wooden ladder. You then jumped from one set of planks to another with a ten foot drop below, until you found a place to sit. Under these planks were campesinos dressed in all their finery, getting well and truly plastered. A live band played
on the stands and a gaggle of people danced around while raising toasts to each other. It was 2 in the afternoon.

The bulls came out and it was hilarious. All the women and children watching laughed. I suppose they never really foresaw danger, so I decided to laugh along instead of being terrified that someone would get gored. And boy, was it funny. There was a bunch of drunk men waving ragged ponchos and blankets at these poor bulls, and then rolling around in the dust triumphantly every time it came at them and missed. I have lots of photos and will share. I was really happy that I got to see a bull run in Ecuador, having missed Quito, and this very special, because, as Franklin told us, it was one man´s shindig to celebrate the end of the harvest in the area, and all 100 people there were his extended family.

I am now in Cuenca. Ecuador has been a flyby, and I have many regrets about this. It is truly one of the most beautiful countries I have seen, and one that I must return to with more time. Cuenca is an especially beautiful city, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998. Rightfully so. Its colonial centre is truly one of the prettiest places I have been. Whitewashed walls, old Spanish colonial houses with carved wooden doors, wrought iron hanging balconies blooming with
hibiscus, and old-fashioned cobbled streets. The centre is filled with immense churches and cathedrals whose mosaic domes and whitewashed bell towers rise up against an azure sky. The beauty of this city is also that it is so lived in. It´s not a preserved relic of a time past, but a living, breathing place.

Here I met Mr. Alberto Pulla, maker of Panama hats. I am wearing mine as I write this and have sent one home to Toronto as well. (They are really cheap, okay?) If you don´t already know this, Cuenca is the actual home of the Panama hat. A lot of Ecuadorean migrant workers went to Panama to work, and took these hats with them. It was there that the name Panama hat was given. Over here, they just call it the Sombrero. Senor Pulla is a man of about 80, with a shiny bald head and a crescent of silver hair. Some sort of lung disorder prevents him from speaking, so he breathes and wheezes his words. Anyway, he collects postcards from around the world, and he was SO excited to learn that we were from India that he took us up to his rooms to show us his collection of postcards. He has none from India, so I am send him one when I go back. He was ever so happy, and gave us lots of hugs. My heart melted. This is why I have two hats. (One I purchased earlier from the hat museum where I learned all about how the hats are made).

Anyway, I just blew today´s and tomorrow´s budgets sending ten of you postcards from Ecuador (BE GRATEFUL!) and mailing one of my hats back to Canada. Tanzeel, my sweet and dear brother, do not be alarmed by the massive package that comes to your door.

Tomorrow we are off to Loja for one night, and early in the morning we leave for the hot, sunny beaches of Mancora, Peru.

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