Quito, like Ecuador itself, suffers from a split personality. To the south the old town, a Florence of the New World, all dreaming spires and towering belfries, gleams white in its valley beneath the high Andean sun. To the north, the new town, with its mirrored tower blocks, swanky hotels, overpasses and roundabouts, congested with grey, anonymous modernity. The contrast couldn't be greater, and at some 2,800 meters, clearer.
Bolívar called San Francisco de Quito a monastery when he first marched in with his victorious troops - before, in characteristic style, seducing and falling for Quito's most renowned beauty, Manuela Sáenz. Walking round the old town, you can understand why. The Church of the sixteenth and seventeenth century here enjoyed probably more power than the Spanish Crown. In the historic center alone, over two dozen churches, chapels and convents rise above the two- and three-storied houses.
The continent's oldest church stands here, fronting its largest religious complex. As soon as the town was founded in 1534, the Franciscans began building their temple. As the original 200 colonists measured and squared off their parcels of land, the Franciscans swallowed up a whole hillside on the site of the Incan temples which the defenders razed rather than leave to the Spanish. And then in rolled the Dominicans, the Jesuits, the Augustinians and all the original sin caravan of Inquisition Spain. The Cross and the Bible were just as much a part of the Conquest as the harquebus, horse and sword.
The colonists brought sheep, along with horses, cattle and wheat. They transformed the local countryside and economy. Quito's families grew rich from mining and the textiles their Indians wove, supplying the colonial cities and demand in Spain. They built mansions on streets which still bear their mark: Calle del Comercio, Calle del Algodón. The city thrived. Not for nothing is it dubbed the 'Reliquary of the Americas'.
In 2003, Quito celebrated 25 years as a Cultural World Heritage Site — the first city to receive the accolade. In 2004, it was the Cultural Capital of the Americas. And it remains the largest, and possibly most beautiful, historical centre in the Americas.
FROM COLONIAL TO CUTTING EDGE
Until recently, Franciscan, colonial Quito lived on. The Saturday street market would teem like a trout farm. Stalls clogged either side of the chessboard-grid of thoroughfares. Their blue awnings virtually webbed the narrow streets, knitted with cords and ropes to hold them up, trip one up, or garrote you. One couldn't move in some parts. And through this fish farm of commerce swam more traders, ambulant ones with their wares on trolleys, or in crates dragged by fraying string. Women carried platters of pink-iced cakes, big chisel-jawed black men sold fruit punches on boxes, vendors hawked Popsicles, boiling tripe in buns, vegetables, alarm clocks, fruit, and more socks and gloves and scarves than I've ever seen.
They sold everything. You name it. Crappola Central. And the noise: everyone shouting their wares, everything must go, sale now on, un dollar, un dollar, compreme aqui, remate, remate, las medias, las medias, compreme aqui, a la orden, los interiores, aqui aqui, un dollar, un dollar... As many people were selling as shopping. People tried on shoes from stalls stacked high with fake Reeboks and Nikes there and then. Mothers squirmed their daughters in and out of frilly skirts amid the cobbles. Beneath the Iglesia de la Merced, flower stalls outdid each other with buckets of polychrome exuberance to rival any seventeenth-century tableau.
No more. In 2001, the Corporación Metropolitana de Turismo de Quito was set up. The effect has been dramatic. With the help of the mayor and the local authorities, the street stalls have been dismantled, the vendors moved on, the cobbles scrubbed and swept. The city built various concrete indoor markets, and relocated the comerciantes there.
The historical heart of Quito is virtually unrecognizable. When showing friends round today, I end up sounding like an old git: "Ooh, it never used to be like this, you know. You couldn't walk down this street for love nor money in my day..." Now you can amble the streets without fear of being tripped or garroted by ropes and strings, accosted by tripe vendors, forced into a frilly skirt, or divested of your wallet or camera. Many streets have been re-organized with new lamp-posts and traffic-calming measures. Policemen wield their batons and guns at strategic intersections. At night, the city's largest churches and squares are bathed in spotlights and up lights. There are handy signposts in brushed steel indicating nearby tourist attractions. The old law by which all houses had to be whitewashed and their balconies painted blue was relaxed in 2002. Within months, façades had turned peppermint green and powder pink. Formerly austere streets of wedding cake white icing are now sprinkled with haphazardly-placed M&M's.
Mansions have been restored and cultural spaces opened up. The former Naval Archives, redolent with musty files rotting quietly, has been transformed into the elegant Centro Cultural Metropolitano. A four-star boutique hotel recently opened up in the old town. The Bishop's Palace on the handsome Plaza de la Independencia now boasts a posh restaurant, called, of all things, Mea Culpa — blasphemy!
Earlier last year, I was present at a meeting of young people who'd set up a loose organisation called 'Jugando a Ser Quito'. There were people from every profession, from advertisers to academics, students to café owners. The idea was to begin a dialogue between Quito's citizens on the future of the city, and for the energy of these young, largely creative people to be channeled through to the decision-makers in an effective way. It was fascinating as an outsider, and a Londoner to boot, to listen to these people talk about their city in such impassioned terms, and to think that they could really affect its course. Meetings were organized by email: the Franciscan has gone global.
Change is apparent everywhere you look. On the first Sunday of every month, roads are closed off from the south of the historic centre right through to the modern north. For bicycles! The 'Ciclo Paseo' has been a huge success. Even the American Ambassador got on her bike for the last one. It won't be long until Quito has proper cycle lanes, too.
I can't help admiring this new dawn. As an adopted son of this great city, it would be churlish not to applaud the citizenry for making it safer, more humane, prettier. But I do wonder. Isn't this all fancy window-dressing? Should precious funds really be directed to colored spotlights when there are schools around the corner without chalk? Is it just well-applied veneer for the sake of the tourists? Do we really want to make the historic center into a Disneylandia to some improbable yesteryear? The former street vendors complain their revenues are down since they moved into their warren-like concrete markets. Aren't the authorities just sweeping the city's social ills under the carpet? Surely the city should be for everyone, its life and soul not sacrificed at the altar of tourist revenues and the rich on their weekend paseo.
It's a delicate balance, and I don't have the answers. Already, houses in the old town are being converted into apartments for the wealthy (with underground car parking, of course). The poor will be pushed out to the slums of the south. The little cafés serving locro de papa and llapingacho will be supplanted by Subway sandwiches, and MacDonald's. It's a phenomenon not just restricted to Quito. It happens from Brooklyn to Hackney to Haight Ashbury.
HANNIBAL LECTER LET LOOSE IN THE NEW WORLD
I find it perhaps more disconcerting given Quito's history, and the history of Real Audencia which ruled these lands until Independence. In William Borroughs' Queer, the protagonist Lee feels "something going on here, some undercurrent of life that was hidden from him." The Franciscans moved fast to fill their church with imagery that would convey Christianity to the idolatrous masses. Inside their complex, alongside the catechism they taught practical crafts. Although at first most art was imported from Spain (there's a beautiful Zurbarán in the Franciscan museum), such was the need to fill the churches and minds, home-grown production soon became more important. By the mid-seventeenth century, the mix of indigenous and Spanish styles developed into the 'Quito School'. Art historians emphasize the school's bold colors and exuberant decoration, but to my mind its greatest impact, and legacy, is gore.
The undercurrent Borroughs detected courses pulsing through the city's arteries is blood: the blood of the Indians defeated and enslaved then decimated by diseases; blood on the hands of the Conquistadors who squabbled over their new-found lands; blood stains from the nineteenth century battles between liberals and conservatives; and blood in the churches.
In two of Quito 's best colonial art collections, row after row of Christs have been crucified. Without demeaning all the Virgins, gold leaf, polychromatic statuary and suffering saints, it is these crucifixions which open a window across the centuries to colonial Quito. I've never seen such blood-congealed depictions of Christ. The artists of the Quito School slashed Him with knives, drew pools of blood from His pores, gouged His body with weeping wounds: Hannibal Lecter let loose in the New World .
Their intention was to bring fear to the boil in the hearts and minds of the Indians, but also, I believe, to make the link in the indigenous peoples' minds between Christ and themselves. Christ suffered for you, say the Catholics in Europe. But in the New World they said Christ suffered like you: whipped and beaten and treated like a dog. But He was saved. Just as you will be — just as soon as we've worked you to death.
Quito then, like the other colonial cities of Cusco, Lima, Potosí or Bogotá, was founded on blood. Perhaps I've been reading too much history. Or maybe not enough. But no-one denies that the great temples and townhouses of this city were built upon one of the most unjust, cruel and barbaric foundations the world has witnessed.
The Jesuit church, La Compañía de Jesús, considered to be the loveliest church in Ecuador, is a good example. It was only just completed before the order's expulsion from the New World in 1767 — a result of the King of Spain arbitrarily giving his uncle the King of Portugal a slice of his lands which the Jesuits refused to leave. Behind its magnificent carved façade of volcanic stone, replete with bevies of bleeding hearts and choruses of angels, its massive altars, baroque columns and ceilings are laden, tip to toe, with gold leaf. Some seven tonnes of 'saint-seducing' gold, they say. The theatricality and extravagance of its interior are breathtaking. At its altar you'll find the silver, platinum, emeralds, gold and pearls which the Spanish, at unimaginable human cost, drove the Indians to unearth, now turned into exquisite crosses, or embroidered into the cloaks of the Virgins. Such beauty.
Like all of América's great colonial cities, Quito's legacy is palpable. The great doors of the twin-towered Franciscan church are propped open by the disfigured and the deformed, all Indian. In the shadow of La Compañía de Jesús, I watched an old Indian lady bent double stand bemused by the gates. She held her hand out, meekly, diffidently. She must stand there all day. She spoke to herself, mouthing psalms or little prayers, I'm not sure. No-one gave her a thing. In the squares, it's the Indian-looking boys with burnished cheeks and filthy clothes who run up to you to clean your shoes. And it's the Indian men who struggle through the streets, with burdens on their backs which would have broken Sisyphus. This is the Conquistadors' bequest to the ages. These are Atahualpa's proud children.
At the Museum of the City, in a stairwell hang a series of three paintings by the contemporary Quiteño painter, Jaime Zapata. They're remarkable, depicting scenes of the Conquest. The middle one shows the arrival of the Spanish. It's divided down the middle, with the Indian world on the left, and the Spanish/European on the right. A line bisects the two worlds, except in the middle where it bulges as the conquistador reaches through with pincer-like digits to grab the Indian's necklace. At the Spaniard's feet, rubbish and debris lie strewn, while on his arm there's a watch, and atop his helmet a crucifix. The top part of his face is skeletal, his jaw a steel plough, his armored body robotic. Greys and browns wash over his side of the painting, while on the Indian's, colors sing. I've found few more poignant artistic representations of the Conquest.
In the same museum, on my last visit, an exhibition ran off one of the beautiful cloisters. The building used to be a hospital, caring for the poor and the sick. The exhibition was housed where the patients lay on beds of straw in small stone cots built into the wall. It was eerie walking round even now. But this one big, long room had been given over to a project to encourage children of Indian communities from around the country to draw and paint and tell of their towns. It was a riot! All these pigeon-shit-splatted mountains, and clouds that only children seem to see, and fields of poster-paint green, and people, houses, cars, roads, fields, forests, smiling suns and life wherever you looked. Two rows of these three foot-square canvases, one above the other, span a web of color around the whole room.
After all this city's displays of religious blood and guts and gore, after all the debates of gentrification at what cost, after all the marginalized misery I've witnessed, after all the streets have been swept and the colored lights turned off for the night, after all is said and done, I think, in future, I'll seek out the children's vision of this city.
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