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December 10, 2005

From Ecuador with love ...

— — — Jennifer Squires

It's my fifth day visiting my sister in Ecuador, and if my offer on a little pink house along the Rio Negro between Banos and Puyo goes through, I may not come back ... just kidding. But I'm having a wonderful time and wish my trip could be longer.

We visited Quito Wednesday and Thursday, where my younger sister Audrey is living with a family while she attends La Universidad de San Francisco this semester. We started this morning with a visit to the school Audrey completed her social work hours in. It's a kindergarten class with, today at least, 32 students and one teacher. The kids, most of whom are from families of construction workers and maids, wear uniforms and spend most of the day at school, which is supported in part by a local church. Families pay $6 a month to send their kids there; $11 if they stay for afternoon lunch.

When we walked into the classroom, kids raced toward both of us. We stood in a sea of five year olds for several minutes while they hugged, kissed and climbed all over us. Once the excitement of seeing Audrey again waned, we helped them color pictures of a family, listened to them sing songs and tied loose shoes before lunch.

Lunch included another class in a room with a sink, several child-sized plastic tables and not enough chairs for more than 60 children. We opened packages of crackers, twisted off lids of juice bottles and tried to quiet down the group to say grace. When one boy didn't have a lunch, so we asked other students to fill a bowl with crackers, fruit, leftover french fries and hot dog pieces for him.

After the kids headed to recess, Audrey and I caught two buses to end up in the heart of old town. We made it through about half of the sights listed in my "Lets Go" guidebook. After the British coffeeshop operated by an Ecuadorian woman who thought I was Spanish, La Basillica del Vota Nacional (the Basillica of the National Vote) entertained us the most.

LA BASILLICA

Our tour guide, an aquaintance of one of Audrey's study-abroad friends, made our trip through the church hilarious and, at times, death defying. Construction on the church began in 1892 and, as is tradition in the building of Catholic places of worship, lasted for decades.

According to information from the church, Pope John Paul II blessed the church on Jan. 30, 1985. The basillica is 150 meters long, 35 meters wide and 35 meters high at the center. The building was consecrated and declared on June 12, 1988, although some of the animal gargoyles on the facade still need to be finished. They're waiting on a pair of condors, the Ecuardorian version of the bald eagle.

The thing about Ecuardorian tourist activities that differs from the U.S. is you can go just about anywhere and do more than you ever imagined. We were on the roof of the church, encouraged to climb one of the ornate supports for a photo and allowed to ascend nearly all the way up two separate towers. The tallest towers &

the two on the southwest side &

have large clocks brought from Europe set into them.

Those towers, according to the guide, are 83 meters from the ground to the top of the crosses that bless them.

With our guides enoucragement, we climbed the metal supports inside one tower. Audrey clung to two corners of the tower, teetering on a 12-inch metal rail while I stood on a crossed support a meter or two below her. Unlike rapelling down four waterfalls two days prior, this time we didn't get helmets or ropes to secure us. The photos, however, will be fantastic.

*Editor's note: Audrey's camera was stolen and Jen lost the cord that enables her camera to upload photos to her computer. When she returns from Ecuador, she will be soundly reprimanded and forced to draw pictures of everything she saw in Ecuador. We will post those pictures online early next week.

After descending the towers, our guide took us to the La Tumba Presidencia, the President's Tomb. A british woman we met in Banos said when she visited the basillica, Ecuardorians in the church plaza gasped when the guide opened the tomb, and pushed to get a peek of the marble crypt. Our entrance had decidedly less fanfare.

The guide unlocked the gate to the below ground burial site and led us into a shiny new tomb. The marble appeared freshly cut and the room had none of the musty, dead scent one would expect in a grave.

Apparently, the entire tomb is quite new. Right now only three presidents are interred there, although they have dozens of marble boxes open and ready for new bodies.

"Ecuador has a lot of presidents," as Audrey put it. The guide told us even those leaders ousted during the political turmoil at the turn of the century will be interred here when they die.

With the backing of our guide, Audrey and I took turns climbing in one of the empty tombs, much to the disgust of the Catholic-educated Australian travelers also on the tour. On the way out of the tomb, the guide also found us a once-used coffin to stand inside of while the other pretended to pray in front of it. Thats when the Australians started having flashbacks of nuns rapping their wrists with rulers.

WAX ASSASSINATION

After the Basillica, Audrey and I ventured to the Museo Fransciscano, a museum attached to the Monestary of San Francisco. The museum contains some of the oldest artwork in Ecuador, including paintings, sculptures and furniture dating back to the 16th century. We checked out the president's residence, a few churches and plazas while we searched for a museum: el Antiguo Cuartel de la Real Audencia.

El Antiguo Cuartel de la Real Audencia was the first think I underlined in the guide book during my flight from Miami to Quito. A fan of history, but not of reading long paragraphs in a foreign language while a guide asks if I have any questions, the real attraction of el Antiguo Cuartel de la Real Audencia was the wax. Yes, they depict the assassination of local patriots by royal (Spanish) forces using lifesize wax models.

The wax muesum, which is part of el Mueso Alberto Mena Caamano in the Centro Cultural Metropolitano (Metropolitan Cultural Center), actually illustrates the period from when the area was coined "Equador" in 1736, to 1830 &

the year when the name "Ecuador" was given to the new republic. Yes, there are maps, photos, paintings by beloved Ecuadorian artists and a lot of those long paragraphs (all in Spanish), but the wax got me there.

The best wax scene is saved for last. Early on, we saw wax monks in their chambers and wax patriots sitting around a candlelit table going over documents. Then we decended into the basement, or dungeon, of the building. A former Jesuit house, it became an army barracks in 1767 and now houses art collections. The assassination allegedly took place in the dungeon in 1810, a decade before the country achieved independence from Spain.

Walking down the stone stairs into the dungeon, the air got colder. A light came on down the hall as we neared a gate. Inside the gate we could see a bed and the few necessities any prisoner in an underground cell would need. Disappointed because, after six wax scenes (including a guard, whom I thought was real and greeted with a timid "hola"), I began to worry there would be no blood.

We pushed through the gate, which initially seemed to be locked &

looking back, it may have been set to open on a timer &

and scurried through to dark cold to the next room.

No light.

I had to assume that the lost gory wax scene was shrouded in darkness, but where was the tasteful illumination? We rushed ahead to a display of archaic documents and were disappointed, but ready to move on, when a shot rang out.

Yelling, screaming and more gunfire followed. We raced back to the darkness just in time for the end of the battle soundtrack.

There, in front of us, was a dead wax priest, the crumpled bodies of patriots and what appeared to be a family caught midscream. A couple of royal soldiers were forever perserved attacking these people and, yes ... there was blood.

WRAPPING UP

Little could top the gory wax museum, but Audrey (a science major) wanted to tour the observatory on the way home.

Built in 1873, one telescope and one seismograph still function, but the majority of the Observatorio Astronomica Nacional (National Astronomy Observatory) has been relegated to museum space. Shelves of old pencil sharpeners, thermometers, calculators and any other gadget they could find, along with a century of domestic and foreign astronomy textbooks, fill the castle-like yellow building.

I'm guessing they don't get a lot of tourists at the observatory. We had to ring a buzzer to enter, although I missed the sign and jiggled the shaky old door hard enough to almost break the single-pane window and attract the attention of one scientist. He led us into an office, where they dug tickets fashioned like postcards from a worn wooden desk. We paid our $1 entrance fee and waited near the door for a guide.

Eventually, two univeristy students toured us through the dusty archives. The first showed Audrey and I maps of the constellations, the out-of-date gadgets, and the basement where they still track the tremblors that occassionally shake the city. With volcanoes in their backyard, I suppose only experiencing tremblors is reassuring.

The second guide took us on top of the building to the wind gauge, sunlight-recording crystal and the functioning telescope. The whole building, which was modeled after an observatory in Bonn, Germany, has legs in each of the four cardinal directions, along with three towers from which to watch the night skies.

We visited the largest tower. Located in the center of the building, it is also the oldest. The original tower was constructed with whatever they could find. This was before cement, during a time when building materials included animal excrement and blood. Since then, it appears the structure has been reinforced.

The observatory kept us busy after 5 p.m. and, with family dinner scheduled at 8 p.m. and a bus ride home, Audrey and I headed for the Ecovia, a bus line that runs north and south from Old Town.

With three full days left in Ecuador, I have a lot left to do.

Tomorrow I'll wrap up the sights in Quito, then head out to dinner with Audrey and her friends. I hear they're going to show me the Ecuadorian night life in Gringolandia, the part of town stacked with tourist-friendly nightclubs.

We're scheduled to leave with the parents (sponsor family) for the north coast, where we'll spend a day relaxing on the beach, eating fresh ceviche and finishing up my Christmas shopping. On the way home Saturday, we'll stop for viewpoints, maybe a cacao bean farm or even a banana plantation. Sunday morning, I fly out and, by Monday night, will be back in Ashland for the 7 p.m. school board meeting.

See you there.