September 2, 2006

Fiesta on the Equator
Otavalo, Ecuador

Jumping between hemispheres and dancing on the streets.

Mitad del Mundo

An hour out of Quito is the equatorial line—the middle of the world. I went with a pair of Brits to the monument that marks the division between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Middle of the world!

Constructed in the late 1980's, the monument marks what was believed to be the equatorial, marked by a fella in 1736. Well, it turns out that he was a wee bit off (seven seconds of a degree to be exact), but thanks to magic of GPS a little alternate site has sprung up a few hundred meters down the road, claiming to be the true dividing line.

The alternate site has a bunch of little experiments that are run to show some of the oddities that the middle of the world produces (you weigh less, easier to balance an egg, and water that doesn't form a vortex when it drains).

The scene was certainly touristy and slightly anti-climatic, but worth a visit for the novelty, if nothing else.


I took a bus 2.5 hours north, back towards Colombia, to the town of Otavalo. Nestled next to several beautiful volcanic mountains, Otavalo reminds me of a small town in Colorado. The daytime air is warm, but crisp.

I'm in Otavalo for two reasons: The large Saturday market, which dates back to pre-Inca times, and the Fiesta del Yamor (held during the first 10 days of September).

Well, after five months of daily wear, my Reef sandals (that I replaced my horrible Teva's with in the Caribbean) finally broke. I'm stubborn with my footwear though, and after some questions to locals and some hunting, I found a small man in an unmarked room, repairing shoes. He'd have my sandal fixed in three hours—US$0.50.

September 1st, festival day. It's early afternoon and the town is already buzzing. Bleachers erected along the streets, street vendors selling delicious, cheap food. I was strolling back from retrieving my sandal, when a chiva (the Colombian and Ecuadorian equivalent of a Guatemalan chicken bus) rolled up along side me. A 12-man band was playing on the roof, a bevy of beer models played up top and on a platform on the back, while people on benches below toss advertisements at folks on the street. I, like others on the street, couldn't help but stand and smile.

Atop the Chiva

Before I knew it I was being motioned by the group to come aboard and join the festivities. I was handed a pair of local beers, and we began orbiting the city, band blaring, girls dancing.

The thing everyone up top had to watch out for were the utility lines that draped across the streets. They were so low, I nearly got closelined a couple of times.

It was a full day of pure Spanish conversation, as I didn't encounter any English speakers. I made friends with a young guy standing next to me, and after two or three hours of revolving around the city he invited me back to his home to kill some time before the parade and meet his friends and family.

Three 18 year old guys and I started making our way to the main avenue, when we made a stop nearby to grab a beer. I thought it odd that the restaurant was covered in pink on top of pink. Ahh, things came into focus when one of the guys got a condom with our beer order—I was in a small, Ecuadorian brothel.

After a few liters of beer, and some uncomfortable, forced conversation with a woman that I wouldn't touch with a stick, we left.

It was well into the evening, and the festival was in full swing. Thousands of people crowded the streets—an endless sea black-haired folk who come up to my shoulders. I was really surprised with the number of attractive young people everywhere—a talent scout would be overwhelmed.

Dancing in the streets

The parade lasted for a good four hours, partially due to the simple floats that had to deal with intersection after intersection of utility lines. Men with large sticks helped push them up as the vehicle proceeded, sometimes requiring a temporary disassembly of the display. Dancers and marching bands from all of Ecuador participated—with all the costumes and outfits it looked like a scene out of Gangs of New York.

Plate of typical food

The food in town is cheap and phenomenal. I would be a very, very fat man if I lived here. I mentioned before that I love corn, and it's everywhere here, cooked in all manner of ways (such as a drink called yamor that's prepared for the festivities, made out of seven different varieties of corn). A huge skewer of various meats and potatoes the length of my forearm goes for US$0.50. So many dishes to try, I was finding excuses to eat too often.

Gold necklaces

The Saturday market was large and interesting. Lots of lama products and indigenous men and women wearing their traditional garb. Women wear gold necklaces (or wooden beads painted gold) that seems to multiply in size and number the older they get.

I was interested in sticking around for the evening cock fights and possibly taking the guy I met up on his offer to stay at his house on the coast (departing in a couple of days), but I've decided to head back to Quito and see my Italian traveler friend Giovanni before he takes off to the Galapagos Islands tomorrow. After, I'll start heading south towards Peru.

I'm getting concerned about the upcoming temperatures and the lack of warm clothing that I own. I hear parts of Peru and Bolivia can dip down into the negative 20 degrees range at night. Yeesh.

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