Thursday, August 26, 2010

Portete, Esmeraldas

While on the beach in Esmeraldas we became thirsty. It was an empty beach, known to the locals but not yet to the tourists. We were alone in our thirst until a boy on a horse rode by. We asked him where we could find coconut water. He told us to wait. Twenty minutes later he was back with three coconuts on a cart behind his horse. “¿Tienen un machete?” he asked us.

I didn’t know a machete was standard beach ware, but fortunate for us and for the boy, a couple of campers a few dozen meters away had one in their sack. The boy got 2 dollars and we got three fresh coconuts – drained and split, the milk and the meat. I’d never had fresh coconut before, let alone on the beach. It was the beginning of a love affair…

The Creative Process

Claudia Burneo is an art student from Ecuador who studies in Montreal. Before her return trip she organized an art exhibit at the local bar No Lugar in Guapulo (Quito's version of Greenwich village). In the process of one and a half days the barren white-washed-walled and grungy concrete-floored space of No Lugar was transformed into a vibrant, colorful, creative space by Burneo, a small group of friends, several cans of paint, a ladder, brains, beers and a broom.

In the Workshop of a Master

On a quiet, wooded street right before the crest of Turí - a steep hill overlooking Cuenca and its four rivers, equipped with a spotlit church, viewing platform and charming village - lies the workshop of Eduardo Vega, one of Ecuador's best known ceramic artists.

I discovered his work while at a café gallery off Cuenca's plaza Otorongo. While waiting for my order of organic tamales with my friend and her work colleagues, I leisurely perused the local handcrafts on display; amongst a host of embroidered scarves, leather purses and bright oil paintings, the rich colors and abstracted, yet natural forms of a display of ceramics immediately caught my eye. I was fascinated by an ashtray, a shallow, circular dish with a face split in two colors, coral red and cloud white, lined in turquoise blue and ashen black. The style was reminiscent of Picasso, cubist and minimalistic modern art but, at the same time, held a sensibility to the natural world and its forms borrowed from Ecuador's first nations.

"Who is the artist?" I asked.

Ten minutes later, mid-tamale, my friend's boss, a woman of connections, placed a hand upon my shoulder. "This is Eduardo Vega, the artist you asked about."

No elegant words of appreciation or intelligent questions graced my mouth, but nonetheless, Vega invited me to his workshop. He continued small talk with my friend's boss, they seemed to be well acquainted, and I visited his workshop the next day with my camera in hand.

Musings on a Theme II

Vendors on the boardwalk at Pedernales, Beach Baroque, there's a necklace for every ideology!

Monday, August 23, 2010

El Alabado

In Quito's new Museo del Alabado I found the antidote to the dead, self-righteous statuettes of the colonial Catholic Church. The name literally translates to "Museum of the Praised" and is filled with hundreds of pieces from Ecuador's prehistory unearthed in archeological excavations and set on display beneath spotlights of awe. These clay and stone pieces were more alive to me than the porcelain virgins and saints that I had encountered all morning during my tour of the city's churches and convents. Where the eyes of the saints were uplifted in an unattainable extasis and painted with the intention to appear as realistic as possible (somehow always falling short and leading to a creepy, zombic and less-than-human effect); The several-thousand-year-old pieces carved the abstraction of the human soul.

above: Valdivia 4000 a.C. - 1500 a.C

Carchi-Pasto 750 d.C - 1550 d.C

Valdivia 4000 a.C - 1500 a.C

La Tolita 350 a.C - 350 d.C

Valdivia 4000 a.C. - 1500 a.C "This ancestor with six faces, four facing in the cardinal directions, is itself a model of the cosmos."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

El Prohibido...

While in Cuenca, a local friend promised to take my friend, her boss and I to a bar like none other, called El Prohibido. I wondered how a place could merit such a name, "The Prohibited" - a bit hyperbolic, ¿no?

On our first attempt the bar was closed. The entryway was disguised in a mural of figures of fantasy, holes were carved out in the wall and filled with tiny mutant figures, a crying baby angel, two twisted dog-men, a Medusa head with all her curls hung over the entry way...our friend rang a bell and about a minute later, a barred window cracked open, and a man appeared to tell us the place was not open. Dolores, my friend's 60 + year-old boss declared it an intriguing site worthy of a return visit.

The next night we ventured into the Prohibited and I, for one, was moderately aghast by its hyperbolic fanfare - every inch was filled with some far-beyond-gothic, sudo-sacrilegious detail: dark oil paintings of women making love to demons or in ecstasy with snakes, altars of baby dolls with their eyes poked out and scalps filled with pins, chandeliers of human skulls and rib bones, smiling bathroom dwarfs with enlarged vein-laced penises - the satanic interpretation of baroque.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tiestos, Inspired Cooking in Cuenca

There's a small restaurant in Cuenca's historic district along calle Juan Jaramillo with a menu bold enough to revolutionize the idea of good food in Cuenca. Chef Juan Carlos Solano, who founded the restaurant only a couple years previous, serves only a couple dishes a day and has no printed menu. His menu, which is recited to guests, is a choice of two meat dishes cooked and served in tiestos, traditional clay platters placed over flame. His entrees are preceded by a menagerie of sweet and spicy salsas, variations on the typical Ecuadorian ají (chile)sauce served at meal times. The salsas feature surprising ingredients such as apple, pineapple, sweet pepper, cloves and the licorice-flavored local spice, ishpingo.

"We were created to break schemes and to change dining in Cuenca," says Solano. From Solano's point of view, the restaurants in his city offer the same menu and don't take full advantage of the rich culinary culture of the region.

Solano is a chef in the true sense of the word - an artist who plays with the different flavors, local ingredients and colors in his dishes. On our particular day at the restaurant, we were served steak seared in a deep purple blackberry, red wine and ishpingo sauce. Our second plate was a chicken dish served in a creamy golden curry sauce with crunchy hazelnuts. The dishes, each presented steaming and fresh from the fire, complemented each other in taste, texture and color and were served with several vegetable accompaniments: local new potatoes, steamed choclo, and semolina grain mixed with finely chopped peppers and herbs. Dessert was served on plates prepared by Solano's wife - designs of flowers or women in indigenous dress drizzled in chocolate and colorfully sweet passion fruit sauce.

Oil paintings of regional scenes hung from the walls, vases of bright white calla lilies rested on the counter tops and local woven fabrics covered the heavy wooden tables.

While his patrons enjoyed their meals, Solano played the role of gracious host and socialized with his diners, creating an intimate atmosphere. We ate our meal in relative silence, reveling in the flavors before us, only pausing to murmur an "mmmm" of enjoyment or exclaim a "¡que maravilla!" in surprise.

"I've never known a table of women to be so quiet at mealtime!" said Solano as he approached us.

In addition to Tiestos, Solano, a true Cuencano, hopes to open a café with limited service hours, serving, not the typical americano breakfast offered to tourists by most cafés on the plaza, but what is seen in the homes of Cuencanos - a simple sweet roll and good cup of café pasado.

For more information, visit:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

musings on a theme

During an evening of tragos with friends in Cuenca I felt inspired to take notes on a napkin. "Este país es muy barroco..." Pablo began. I'm sure there is more to add to this list...

Fanzines on the Tomebamba

Our first night in Cuenca, a friend of ours took Paz and I to a Fanzine exhibit at the Casa de los Arcos along the rio Tomebamba, one of Cuenca's four free flowing rivers. A fanzine is the graffiti of magazines, produced by individuals without editorial support and usually reproduced through the cheapest means possible, multiple black-and-white photocopies. The subject matter covers an entire ambit of themes and can be very saucy in its political commentary and artistic creation.

The house was historic (late 1800's) and recently restored with a beautiful view of the river and the southern end of the city. We sipped warm canelazo from the balcony while looking out over the night-lit city, listening to the river rapids below and commenting on the intriguing qualities of the fanzine...the creativity it encourages, its peculiar method of reproduction...


Paz and I took the night bus from Cuenca to Mancora. It was a 12 hour trip down from the green mountains of Ecuador to the desert coast of Peru. I either slept or sleepwalked through most of it: the winding journey along mountain roads from Cuenca, the dark rain forests of southern Ecuador, the 1 a.m. bus switch at the frontier, the two-hour-long wait at the border crossing to leave Ecuador, the 3.30 a.m. presentation of documents to enter Peru...we arrived at 6 a.m. and the first thing I can remember is shoving myself into something I had never seen before in my life...a mototaxi.

This form of transportation - a motorbike with a small carriage of plastic tarp attached to its rear - is apparently very common in the coastal cities of Peru and Ecuador. Despite their shanty appearance, the mototaxistas are legit and creative. Their shirts and carriages bear emblems of the local asociación de mototaxistas and their plastic coverings are decorated with all sorts of personalized images, stickers and window pastings. We saw everything from Ché and Jesus to Mickey Mouse and Guns and Roses.

From the Heights of Pintag

A nighttime walk on the edge of the paramo beneath the radiance of the full moon. The intense light of our night's sun was caught in the clouds and cast our shadows, long, upon the earth. Beyond these illuminated clouds were the stars, bright in a cold, clear sky. In the distance below us, on the dark silhouettes of faraway mountainsides and clinging to the shadows of the valleys shone the lights of Quito, Cumbaya, Tumbaco...shivering in the distance.

Friday, August 6, 2010

waiting for the birds to fly

I guess any substantially-sized church with a prominent plaza and bit of history would be incomplete without its own honorary flock of pigeons. I noticed the pigeons in the plaza of Cuenca's Iglesia Santo Domingo every time I passed by on my walks through the city. Children played with the pigeons. Mothers fed them. Grandfathers shooed them could have been the plaza of any church, anywhere. On one occasion, I was surprised by how much the scene reminded me of a picture my grandfather had taken on a trip to Venice in the late 1950's. In my grandpa's picture, a child stood in the middle of the flock, which swarmed around him or took flight, while adults stood alone or walked in pairs across the plaza.

Venice, 1960's

One day, I waited to catch the pigeons in flight. For ten minutes I stood on the street corner, a gawking tourist with camera in hand, waiting for a magic moment.