Tuesday, August 25, 2015

I meet my hero, in the stone

After what turned out to be an entirely unnecessarily prompt start this morning - thanks for nothing, Latin Tours guide David - I did another repeat city tour, this time of Quito. It's a city of 3 million, at an altitude of 3000 metres and, confined by the topography, 75km long and 7 wide (David is big on numbers). It's been here a long time and has the usual four-part Latin American history of pre-Inca, Inca, colonisation and independence. They seem particularly touchy about the colony thing here and insist that they speak Castilian, not Spanish.
We visited, of course, plazas and churches: the CompaƱia de Jesus one is completely gold inside, 10 tonnes of leaf they reckon, and judging by the one shiny side nave they had to restore after a fire, when it was all new it must have been totally dazzling. Though actually they were all ornate and colourful, restraint and religion as ever strangers to each other, at least as far as the Catholics are concerned (95% of the population practising Catholics here, says David).
Then we popped up the hill for a closer look at South America's second-most significant religious statue (thanks, David): the aluminium Virgin Mary with her wings and chain, standing on a snake. Last time I thought her odd stance suggested that she was just about to hurl a frisbee, but now - perhaps as a result of the recent unpleasantness at Ollantaytambo - she looks more to me as though she's suffering from the after-effects of an unwise food choice.
Then, today's high point, we went to the Middle of the World (as opposed to Middle Earth): latitude 00°00'00". Back in 1735 the French sent a Geodesic Expedition here to establish exactly that, and I read all about it in The Map-Maker's Wife which I reviewed by chance years ago, and developed a schoolgirl crush on unlikely hero Charles Marie de la Condamine - so it was a bit of a thrill to go to where he and his colleagues decided the very spot was, and to see his bust next to the monument.
Just a few years ago some spoilsport Canadian came along with his GPS and proved that they were in fact 240 metres out - such wasters, what a let-down, them with their star charts and triangulation - and so there are two sites to visit, the 'real' one a very touristy affair with a dried Amazonian penis fish and a shrunken head amongst other novelties. There is also a series of equator-related experiments to do with water draining down a plug-hole, resistance, gravity and even egg-balancing, which all seemed to me entirely spurious. But David said yes, so there you go.

And now I'm sitting by a fire in the lounge of a 1602 hacienda with painted ceilings, pillars, antiques and chandeliers, tapestries and oil paintings, and a garden outside full of familiar flowers, about to go to bed ready for yet another unjustifiably early start on tomorrow's programme, which will include a market and thermal pools. So David promises.

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