The major focus of the day was the train ride to the Devil’s Nose. More on that later. Celso noticed that there was a local market en route and wanted us to see what a real market was like. No T-shirts sold here. There are fourteen indigenous tribes in Ecuador. Most are in the Amazon forest, but two live in the highlands of the Andes. The Kichwa here still speak a version of the language the Inca forced on them when they first established their empire. They have maintained their identity, customs, traditions and way of life, moving gingerly into what we would call the modern world. While some have intermingled with the Spanish and their descendants are mestizos, many are quite racially pure. They have dark brown skin, thick black hair, straight white teeth and are very small in stature. I’m not sure if this is genetics, poor nutrition, living at high altitudes, or all of the above. The women are especially amazing to see in their picturesque wrapped skirts, shawls, and derby hats. The men have made more trade-offs with the modern world in their attire. They are not fond of getting their picture taken. I wouldn’t like strangers barging into Walmart and taking my picture either, but it was hard to put the camera down.
Their weekly market functions the way my trip to Walmart might, with a stop at the car dealer along the way. The first area featured transportation animals; mostly donkeys, with an occasional horse and llama thrown in. A few were brought on trucks, but mostly there were just ridden to market by their owners. No real effort had been made to brush their coats or make them look nice. These were utilitarian animals. On the side vendors sold ropes for guiding the new purchases home again.
Then we went to the fresh food area, which mostly meant meat on the hoof. Many of the pigs squealed loudly and dug in their feet. The sheep were more cooperative and could have been sold for their wool as well. Young ducks were jammed into pens. Before they were sold, their privates were minutely examined. I don’t know what that was all about. Guinea pigs and rabbits were also for sale. These were fresh meat, not pets. The cattle area was the most well attended. Many of them had a future as dairy animals, rather than meat.
People were packed in and zipping around us, busy, busy, busy. It could have gotten a bit scary, but since everyone was at least a foot shorter than I was, I could always see Celso somewhere ahead in the crowd. Nevertheless less it was easy to get separated from one another by a recalcitrant pig or a mule on a leash. A great stop.
An hour later we found ourselves in a far more touristy area, boarding the Devil’s Nose train. At the turn of the 20th century the president decided it was be good to have a train running from Guyaquil on the seacoast to Quito in the mountains. The first part went pretty easily, but the mountains offered engineering challenges not yet mastered during that time. Two American engineers studied the situation for two years and said it was doable except for the Devil’s Nose section where the valley was so narrow, there was nowhere for a train to make a switch back. They settled on arranging the track so that the train had to have engines on both ends, It would zig zag through that area, backing up in one direction, resetting the track and going forward once again. Rinse and repeat. The train descends, in a breathtaking maneuver, 500 meters in just eight miles across a zigzag carved in the mountain, and continues deep into the Chanchan River gorge in the Southern Ecuadorian Andes. Malaria and typhoid were common issues during construction and the need for dynamite in the gorge lead to thousands of deaths. Experienced African workers were brought in from Cuba, Barbados and Jamaica. They were more resistant to malaria than the locals, but the casualty count was still huge.
We stopped at a station for an hour and the locals danced for us and shared a bit of their culture. The guide there apologized for his bad English (it was quite good) and said that this was his third language. Questions about his language caused him to share a bit more. He came to New York to improve his skills and ended up traveling through many of our states east of the Mississippi. He fell in love with a girl in Tennessee, married her and they had a child. In 2017 he was stopped for driving without a license and deported. He hopes to be able to see his child again in ten years when he is 16. Very sad.