A train ride to Hell

The track going down from Alausi to Sibambe is quite steep. Surveyed and laid by British engineers in the nineteenth century,it is a marvel of civil engineering. They still run the old carriages though the puffers have been replaced by prosaic diesel.

A lot of station staff wearing rather camp hats and trying to look busy. We left at 8 o’clock on the dot. You trundle along the narrow gauge track hugging the cliff face. They used to ride on the roof until a few years ago when a pair of Japanese fell off!

You are greeted at the lower station by a group of local people in costume doing unconvincing folk dances to taped music. I couldn’t bring myself to photo them, they seemed so forlorn.

The bottom section is so steep it has to use traverses.

The name Nariz de Diablo apparently refers to a rock sticking up on the hillside but I couldn’t see it. The story goes that the Devil didn’t want it built which explains the two thousand deaths including the chief engineer during its construction.

Alausi itself is a scruffy dump with no perceived good features. A young off-duty policeman told me everyone is at home by  8pm. He appeared to be right.

Next stop Cuenca four hours away on the coach. The prospect of a well-heeled and elegant city.

 

Riobamba

For all its (mostly spurious) claims for firsts of this and that, it’s a rather dirty rundown place. The streets are dirty, the shops mostly scruffy and very little evidence of municipal care. Every single church is kept locked following a spate of anti-religious attacks last year. The man in the Cathedral stone museum was vague as to the motives. Abusive priests?

Bamboo is very big for scaffolding. This reminded me of India.

Cars sound their horn at the least reason- it does attract the attention of the driver on his phone at the lights.

On the subject of cars, anyone who wants to make a killing selling Volkswagen Beetles should come to Ecuador. They are more common than Morris Minors, some pimped some perfect, some rough.

It has rained for three days on and off. Day 2 here I headed off out towards Chimborazo hoping for a break in the weather. It was briefly sunny, enough to catch my forehead but otherwise low cloud covered the upper slopes. An initial bright spot was the llama museum in a village rejoicing in the name of Palacio Real. I learned a lot about llamas and alpacas and vicunas. They are Gods’s gift to man: food; clothing; manure; transport. Watch the ears for mood, and the tail. The urine is an abortifacient. They can breed across species. All that didn’t stop the Incas sacrificing a thousand at a time to appease the gods and replenish the earth.

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Women were sowing seed broadcast and men following with enormous mattocks. When one saw me she came over and we chatted about crops country, weather and villages nearby. She was curious and happy to stop for a few moments. I’d cut myself a stick after having nearly been bitten by a dog in Tena. They are everywhere, roaming wild in the streets or out with owners of whom they take no notice. I’d already had to shake it at several nasty specimens, mostly small.

These two had dogs with them.

There never was a break in the clouds over Chimborazo. On reflection my day on Cotopaxi was blessed by the weather.

Having trudged up into the village recommended by the sower, found nothing of note and started to retrace my steps, an old boy in a pickup and his wife offered me a lift. He had a house in the village and another being built in town that he wanted to check on. As we came within sight of Riobamba he swung off the road down a dirt track. A bit like coming into Exmouth down Raddenstile a hundred years ago. We saw his house- four walls no roof, work in progress – and carried on till we suddenly came out on the ring road. He ended up dropping me a hundred yards from the hotel!

For a strongly Catholic country you see a lot of young couples in public holding hands kissing, being intimate. Doubt that this would apply to same sex couples.

Hornados is very big round here. It’s a whole medium sized pig slow roasted with lots of crackling. Very tender and tasty,served with salad and boiled corn. Mostly in stalls in the market, $3 a go.

Got to the bus station a bit early and found myself being thrust into a busy additional was pulling out. Meant my big bag stayed with me on the bus. Inter city buses stop like they were a local service wherever anyone wants to get on or off.

Driving through wide valleys of lush fields with all kinds of crops, beans peas, maize, potatoes, onions. No seasons, you see them all in different stages of growth.

Bus pulls into Alausi 10 metres from the hotel. Perfect.

 

 

 

Jungle Part 2

I was distracted by the Hudl charging trauma.

Although there were no sightings of wildlife I did see several tracks of a very large tapir and also what Ramiro said was an armadillo. No poo anywhere, apparently it is dealt with very quickly by beetles.

I did have an impressive butterfly in my bedroom one night. Wingspan is about 5 inches.

On reflection the event that had the most impact was when I went into the jungle with Ramiro and Jens’s young intern after dark. There were lots of weird and wonderful insects to see, stick, spiders beetles. But it was when he motioned to turn off our torches. It was black, totally black. Up in the sky nothing, sideways nothing. You knew there were two people within arm’s reach but no sight. And the noise of all the insects pressing in on you.

We were supposed to go to a saltlick to see parrots in the morning but it involved wading through a river that would have been too swollen with recent rains.

At least I learned quite a lot about the medicinal properties of a lot of the trees. Sangue de drago that seemed to cure most things and could be used for facepainting and then rubbed in to become a creamy sunscreen. Thick yellow extrusion like butter coming from cracks in a really old tree that is the Amazon answer to Vick. Roots of plants that are mashed up and used to catch fish by stunning them. A plant whose leaves you mash up mix with water and drink to stave off snakebites long enough to get treated.

Ramiro had trained as a shaman since he was seven. His father and grandfather were shamans. They hold a body of knowledge built up over hundreds or even thousands of years. And his children aren’t interested. He needs to find someone in the village willing to train.

Down in the Jungle, staying in a hut

All your cares in the World gone kaput. Well apart from how to get anything dry again.

Fast buses in Quito have dedicated  lanes that whisk  you through the rush hour traffic and all for 9p. The coach down from Quito had been uneventful apart from a quickly repaired landslip that is best forgotten.

The views of the river slashing through the hillside are dramatic.

The hostal is on a hillside overlooking the town surrounded by forest and a cacophony of insects once the sun has gone. Run by a German and longtime resident who also has a project in the Jungle where I have been for three days. An hour in a car and an hour walking to get there. Genuinely isolated and cleansingly simple. No electricity, water from the mountain river, no “signal”. Wooden huts on stilts. He takes students as interns to help maintain the estate of about twenty hectares of raw forest. The guide, Ramiro, is a kichwa who speaks spanish and is also a shaman.

  A group of Canadians – french and english- turned up from a long march and made a lot of noise. Ramiro had found big fat beetle larvae that got them all jostling as to who would handle or eat them. Not sure they have ever seen “I’m a celebrity”. Fish baked in banana leaves,fried yucca, salad- and chopped up grubs that had been fried. Some coffee them were eaten with declarations of deliciousness! At 68 you no longer have to prove stuff like eating weird food.

“At this point I left the hammock I was swinging in, two empty beers on the table, to go into town to eat. Fine, had another good meal in same place, got back and packed ready for Riobamba in the morning.

Morning saw complete gutwrenching panic. Tablet hadn’t charged overnight and had 17% power. Cable at reception the same. Plugged camera in and it worked which was odd. The prospect of no Hudl was unnerving. No guidebook, no communication, no news. No access to booking ahead if needed. Wasted trip to Mall merely confirmed it wasn’t the cable. Do I get April to post the spare micro USB port sitting on my desk? And where to? Continuous feeling of nausea particularly as it had been so easy getting a battery charger for the camera.”

Last night I left it plugged in- no logic just irrational hope it might get better. It had turned off so had to restart it. Red light back on, 85% !! I was ecstatic and furious all at the same time. So no hunt along the street of computers for someone to fit a new port. And the cafe for breakfast was excellent. So return to semblance of sanity.

Had an illuminating conversation with my neighbour on the coach. Working for organisation certifying fair trade products all over the country. Coffee cocoa quinoa. Confirmed stories about farmers selling all the quinoa and buying junk food. Big problem is educating them about keeping some back but the money is persuasive.

He was worried about getting to Riobamba in time to play for his daughter’s fathers football team. They were in the semifinals.

Libertador hotel is cosy, clean, warm and decorated in thirties colonial style. Station is outside my window. Booking office, museum but no longer any trains except at weekends. Until last May there was a Tren del Quinoa that ran to Alausi but ” there were (unspecified) problems”.

Anyway I now have my ticket for  Nez de Diablo on Thursday. Apparently not for the squeamish. They banned people riding on the roof after a couple of Japanese fell off. Suppose it makes a change from the selfie trip back over the cliff.

More to follow.

Cotopaxi – and that’s not a cloud

Today has been awesome. Sorry for the cliche but it just has been. The forecast was rain most of the day. They could get a job in Exeter! It was bright sunshine as you can see all morning. Four Canadians, one yank and me. Average age 30 not including me. One of the Canadians turned out to be from Iran so we had lots to talk about. It’s a big jump from 4200 to 4800m as I found out. However much you breath there’s not enough to keep your legs going. The first twenty minutes were very hard. Even chewing on coca leaves didn’t seem to help. Guide was encouraging and admitted hard even for him coming from Quito. An unappetising truth is that it was the Canadian girl trailing behind that in part pushed me up rather than down. Pathetic really worrying about losing face at my age. We all made it to the top eventually.

The view out over the countryside made you feel small. No sign of habitation, no power lines no roads.

The guide had never noticed the face in the rock before. An Inca carving?

Walking back down was comparatively painless marred only by the sole coming off one boot and throwing me head over heels for five metres. Bootlace adapted to hold it on worked really well. And the next stage being a cycle ride took the pressure off. I think it was the longest freewheel in my life and pretty fast considering it was a rutted dirt track. By the time we reached the lake it was as if the air was full of oxygen.

A really good lunch at the same little restaurant where we had breakfast included passion fruit juice and cheese and potato soup which was by then very welcome. On the ride back into Quito I turned round to see all the others fast asleep. Mind you I felt pretty whacked as well. But it was worth every aching muscle and tortured lung.

Tomorrow will be five days in the jungle so there could be a gap.

 

 

Higher and higher

First real taste of native pottery in a museum created in an old colonial mansion from the owner’s personal collection. All beautifully presented but sadly lacking contextual information. This specimen had such a perfect look of satiation. And made by hand,not thrown. Maybe not quite right on a rooftop.

This morning took the cable car up to volcano Pichincha which is not far from the city. It’s not all bad being old and alone – 25% discount for what is called” third estate” and processed past a queue of about 60 people to fill up an odd space in a gondola! It’s another 1400m up, so 4200, which gave me a hard hit for about 15 minutes. Contemplated going straight down again but it eased up and eventually be a slow two hour ramble through wild and empty hillside. A big eagle was curling in wide circles overhead until it finally dipped a wing and slid out of sight. Walking through stunted trees and shrubs I realized I was being watched by two llamas.

A bright sunny day gave a clear view of Cotopaxi some 70kms away. In fact when I finally got back l noticed I will have to slap on a lot more of the factor 50 next time.

I stopped by the craft market to look for the man selling “old” pottery I’d seen the day before. There were similar pieces in the museum and I could better judge what he had. There was a tiny clay figure different from the rest and it is now awaiting travel to Europe. Well I think it’s genuinely old.

Had a very homely meal tonight instead local cantina suggested by hostal owner. Barbequed slice of meat, rice, lentils and salad and a bottle of Sprite. Ended up sharing the table with family of five quitenos. Discussed recent incident in Cuenca where a passenger upstairs on a city tour died going under a bridge- he was standing up taking photos. Dangerous business photography.

 

 

 

ownerer

 

 

 

Getting high in the Andes was a twenty four hour headache that has now receded. You do everything slowly, one step at a time, or run out of steam. Quito is steep and hilly but it occasionally makes for stunning views. In a taxi this morning staring down a steep cobbled streets. I think he said it was dangerous when it rained. Understatement!
It’s difficult to pinpoint where the city lies economically or socially. There’s a lot of action on the street selling anything from bags of mangoes through street food ( Moto) to brush heads. I have learnt a new way to eat mangoes. But the girls standing outside the shops holding up extruded garish ice-cream are not tempting.
Whole streets are pedestrianised and even more at the weekend. But there are also beggars and mutilated occasionally.
Museums have ranged from closed for the last three years to being ultra new and swish. City museum was free today-not restaurants or Heritage Day, they were installing a new computer programme!
The churches are all( so far) bling on bling.But the Nativity scenes are astonishing in detail and colour.
No rain so far so it was the right decision leaving the brolly in Heathrow. So l don’t need to worry about looking like the Burk on the Coast programme when I go up Pichincha volcano via the teleferico.
An early start to catch the sun.

Heathrow Connect

Sitting in Terminal 2 wondering at what point I misplaced the two brownies brought specially. Not starving as such, just irritated – they were very good.
There is a gentle hum of noise but otherwise more like a library than a nursery of screaming children on their way to a beach. Hour and a half before gate is opened but a 25 minutes walk to get there.
Which raises the question of Heathrow Express- Why?. It is 15 minutes quicker than Connect but three times the price. If you’re catching a plane do you really time it with a 15 minutes gap to get there? Is it boarded by the people who board the plane at the very last minute? Would passengers on Express look different from those on Connect? More harassed? Perhaps more relaxed in the knowledge they are so important the plane will wait for them? Yes admittedly you have to walk to platform 11 instead of 6 but is that all? And you would miss seeing the station signs in Southall that whimsically are sub- titled in hindi. Fond memories of riding the Mumbai suburban railways at rush hour. They should send Southern Trains executive out there to see how it is done properly. 3000 people turned round in three minutes.
Someone has left a ( see through) brolly where I am sitting. It has been here for some time now. Given the forecast for Quito is unending thunderstorms do I appropriate it? There is no turning back for its owner now somewhere up above. What would Voltaire say? Is it booby- trapped? Do I really need it?
I think watch an episode of Bluestone 42 and then decide. All the rest is same after being in their world.

Introduction and preamble

You join me at the beginning of what may be an epic journey or an overwhelming disaster. Having spent over forty years making pots for a living, on and off, the title of the blog was an easy pun to make. It remains to be seen if being 3000 metres above sea level results in pottering or tottering.

The on and off bit was because I interspersed it with working part-time in a criminal solicitors office as a paralegal. When I retired I determined not to see the inside of a prison ever again so ”plenty polite to the Policia”.

I’m 68 so this may be my last time let out alone. Four weeks spent in Iran in 2015 is now starting to seem very cosy as I look daily at the forecasts for Quito weather – rather a lot of thunder and lightning! The temperatures will range from 35 down to -5 C so clothing is tricky. Pile it on and throw it off. Maybe there is a reason so many wear those flappy hats.

I have planned to spend three weeks in Ecuador and three weeks in Peru, working my way south from Quito via the Amazon to the Peruvian coastal plain and then back up into the Andes via Lake Titicaca and Cuzco. Trains, coaches, planes all lined up in varying degrees of comfort. Some of the routes are supposed to be pretty dramatic. Coming down the mountain into the jungle through cloud forest.

Cotopaxi comes a bit later.

The planes  bit is courtesy of my infinitely helpful and knowledgeable niece who works for Latin Routes in Kingston. I was left with the impression that what they don’t know about S America is written on a postage stamp. She was able to point me in the right direction and all based on personal  experience of the countries. If only we’d had time for some Spanish lessons as well.

Language is going to be interesting. The good thing is not having to do the lithpy bit. But speaking French and Italian is not necessarily going to be such a big advantage. The similarities mean you can easily slip sideways and vocabulary varies quite a lot.

As a potter I have for long been aware of the wonderful anthropomorphic unglazed wares that came out of Central and Southern America. Their quality and confidence in form and decoration appear to be in production even today and I am looking forward to finding contemporary honest makers of pots rather than tourist trinkets.

All the pots I have ever made have been wood-fired – devonrooffinials.co.uk –  and it gives an immediate point of contact  when you meet others firing in a similar traditional way. Bringing examples back is another matter.

Still not been able to locate a decent bird book – but there are so many birds in Ecuador the books are all massive. I’ve worked out that I can use images on google search for Birds of Ecuador and it even gives a filter for colour so maybe that will be more practical.

I also have a theory about how to draw cash out using using your credit card without paying any fees. I’ll let you know if it works.

So  all I need now is a compass in my Christmas cracker and I’m about ready to go. I’m banking on the demonstrations in Peru dying down before I get there. We shall see.

Next stop Heathrow.