Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Stalking la Condamine

This is a book that I reviewed for the Press back in 2004 - not something I would ever have thought to read, otherwise, and what a loss that would have been. I enjoyed it so much that I've re-read it several times since, and become a huge fan of a French scientist with the girly name of Charles Marie de la Condamine, who died in 1744. 'Scientist' is a bit vague - he was an explorer, geographer and mathematician, and in 1735 sailed to Ecuador to spend what turned out to be 10 years there measuring the length of a degree at the equator so that it could be compared with the length of one further north, and so test Newton's hypothesis that the Earth wasn't a perfect sphere. Dry stuff, you might think, but it's an absolutely ripping yarn, with swaying liana bridges over chasms, icy hurricanes trapping the team in a reed hut on a mountain top, crumbling paths along precipices, swamps alive with mosquitoes that could bite through clothing, and muddy slopes so steep they slid their mules down them like toboggans.
When I went with World Journeys to Ecuador in 2009, I got a real buzz from reading the book on the plane and landing briefly at Guayaquil which was featuring in the story right at that point. But that was nothing compared to when we took the extraordinary Chiva Express north from Quito and spent a night at the hacienda San Agustin de Callo. It's a marvellous place, originally built as a palace by the Incas in 1440, used subsequently as a monastery, and later as the residence of a twice-elected President of Ecuador. Our hostess, Mignon Plaza, was his grand-daughter, and the daughter of a bull-fighter.
It was a colourful evening, starting with hand-feeding llamas before a lovely dinner in a room with Inca walls, live music played on Pan's pipes and an armadillo guitar, singing and dancing, a cooking lesson in the kitchen learning how to make Mignon's signature potato soup, and finally a bath in my room in front of a roaring fire, with hand-painted cherubs on the bathroom ceiling. It was an amazing day, full of marvels (did I mention the gaucho on the high chapparel with the ocelot chaps?) - but the most wonderful part of it all was discovering that Charles Marie had slept under the very same roof.

No comments:

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...