Saturday, 23 March 2013

Easter in Quito

A post for Holy Week. In 1991 Easter fell at the end of March, as it does this year. I was in Ecuador. Sacked from my job, I had decided to leave a recession-hit London winter and learn Spanish at a language school in Quito. I stayed for several months and travelled widely in the country. This is an extract from the Ecuador chapter of my new book, The Nine Horizons. The names have been changed.

IT WAS now the week before Easter. I had a new teacher. Adriana was very small, clever and gentle with a round face and enormous brown eyes. She was about my age (I was 33) and was married with a daughter. That week, she tried to force impersonal, object and direct pronouns into me with great tact and charm, and I learned much. Instead of switching at the end of the week, we decided to work together for a little longer. I found myself looking forward to school in the morning.

One day Dave and I sitting in a bar (we did a lot of that). It was somewhere in the mountains south of Ibarra, on the Pan-American Highway. I think we had gone up there looking for places to hill-walk. We had not found any. (The Andes, unlike the Himalayas, are rather conical; one is either on a mountain or off it, and they are not such good walking country.) At night, in search of beer, we had walked down to the main road from the village where we were staying, along a narrow country lane, across a little steel bridge that clanged back at us in the dark, the sky a mass of stars.

“I like Adriana,” I said.

“You like Adriana,” he repeated.

“Looking into Adriana’s eyes,” I said, “is like sinking into a hot bath on a winter morning.”

“Oh, good Lord,” he exploded, with something between mirth and exasperation.

Dave was not a romantic, although women certainly liked him. At the time he was just embarking upon a relationship with one of the teachers at the school, but he said nothing about it and I did not ask. He returned to England at the end of summer, but in 1993 he moved to Quito, where they started a family; he went to work for a bank. I last heard from him in 1995. I suppose he is still there.

Adriana and I remained in contact for a little while but there was nothing between us; she was married, anyway. Two years later she travelled with her husband to Belgium, and thence to London, where she did look for me; but I was no longer there. One day at school she had asked me if I had a dream, and I said that it was to see the Himalayas. That was where I had gone. Later Dave told me that she got divorced. I do have a picture I took of her on the roof of the school one afternoon. The wind is blowing her very dark brown hair. She is wearing a blue denim shirt and jeans and smiling, and I have bounced a little flash into her eyes, but I wonder if they needed that. Behind her is yet another white church with twin towers; beyond it, the green of the Pichincha range can just be made out below the startling blue of the sky. But I am older now.

“If you drink tonight, you’ll turn into a fish,” she said one Thursday afternoon. “That is what our people say of those who drink or dance before midnight on Good Friday. And I know that the English students are always drinking on the Amazonas after school.” This was true. There were only a few of us but we had teamed up with the German dropouts.

“Will you go to the processions tomorrow?” she continued. “You should do. You’ll see the cucuruchos.”

I said that I would certainly go to the processions, although I was sure it would be raining. The weather had been bad lately; the previous day had been cold and wet. Walking home at dusk down the Mariana de Jesus, I had turned and looked up at the Pichinchas to see patches of snow creeping into the higher gullies. Today had been grey and cold. But it had not rained.

After school, I headed for the Scottish Bar in the Amazonas. The Scottish was kitsch. A six-foot plastic figure of a Scottish piper towered over the entrance. Waitresses wore short tartan skirts, rather fetching tartan waistcoats and tartan cardboard eyeshades; they dashed about between the gloomy interior and the cluster of blue tin tables on the wide pavement outside. Now and again, when it had been raining and the air was cold, we would be forced inside; more usually we sat outside and watched the world go by while drinking good local lager at 25 pence a pint. The clientele included young American tourists, clearly identifiable from their locally-made sombreros, which Ecuadorians rarely wore in towns. The Germans wore frayed jeans and tee-shirts. There was a scattering of Ecuadorians, mostly smartly-dressed young people. Now and then one of the tables would be taken by a pair of young women in risible skirts and vertiginous heels, mouths glistening red, earrings like hula hoops and big hair to the waist, dyed blonde, a little black showing at the roots.

Every night, Maria would pass by the tables. A middle-aged indigena woman in hat and shawl, she brought a large wooden box, lined with felt, of the sort in which one might expect to see rows of butterflies, transfixed with pins. In this she displayed the jewelry she sold to the tourists on the Amazonas. She said she made it, and perhaps she did; I rather liked it, buying earrings and pins as presents from her before I left. There were beggars too. One, a thin man of perhaps 30 with dark skin stretched tight across his wide cheekbones, came most nights, hauling himself along the pavement, his bent distorted legs dragging inertly behind him; now and then one of us would give him something and he took it without thanks. The poor do not thank you for being rich.

I did not stay long in the Scottish that night. After a beer or two I left alone and hailed a taxi on the Amazonas. The driver was about 60; unusually, he wore a suit and tie and was very polite, even switching on the meter. “Hasn’t rained today,” I remarked. “No. First dry day in two weeks,” he replied. “It’s a miracle,” I went on. “A miracle!” he confirmed with enthusiasm. “A miracle, for Semana Santa. Will you go to the processions tomorrow?”

Carlos asked me the same question as we drank our coffee after dinner. He had studied in a seminary for some years before abandoning the priesthood because the church took too much from the poor. In fact, the Second Vatican Council at Medellín had changed much, and in South America these changes had taken root, leading to a more liberal, compassionate church that was closer to the people. Carlos had a new occupation anyway, running an all-night off-licence. But I do not think he had lost his faith.
“Have you seen the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan?” he asked. I nodded. “That’s what you’ll see tomorrow. The cucuruchos are purple – well, sometimes brown – and they’ve got those same high pointed hoods that cover their faces. The hoods are pretty heavy, they’re lined with card. They’ll parade slowly through the city for some hours, carrying heavy crosses. It’s an act of penitence for the suffering of the Señor. Sometimes they will whip themselves and those without hoods may wear crowns of thorns that make them bleed. One year, instead of a heavy cross, one man carried a huge cactus instead of a cross. He bled. And they will walk in bare feet.”

“Good Lord,” I said. “Do they heat up the surface of the road as well, just to make things more interesting?”

“Oh, no,” he replied without smiling. “If the sun shines it should be hot enough.”

My flippancy was out of order. The custom of penitence is an accepted part of Catholicism. Its expression in this form arrived from Spain with the conquistadores, who in 1534 founded the city of Quito on the ashes of the old Inca capital, which had been burned by the retreating forces of Atahualpa’s last general, Rumiñahui. The penitents’ parade endured, but got out of hand, as those who sought public office chastised themselves mightily in order to curry favour with the faithful. So the Church had insisted that all the participants disguise their identity. Today, it was said, many a senior politician might be found beneath the sinister pointed hoods. “Including President Borja?” I asked an Ecuadorian acquaintance. “I doubt it,” he replied, “though God knows he’s got plenty to repent.”

The penitents inspired the respect of many, but the puzzlement of others. With 61% of Ecuadorians attending church regularly, this was still a deeply religious society; but it was not monolithic. Agnosticism and Protestantism were gaining ground. Amongst those who did believe, the strict tenets of the Church were no longer law; the Church in Rome had turned its back on the liberalizing spirit of the 1960s, but in South America it had not. Adriana was not unusual in getting divorced, and many priests no longer opposed contraception. The public observance of Holy Week lacked the deep solemnity of 30 or even 20 years ago. Today, the cucuruchos had their critics. They were aware of this.

“Why make fun of us?” one penitent asked a journalist from the daily paper Hoy. “It really worries me that people of some faiths should think they have the right to deny us our manner of worship.” He added that he wished more young people would take part. “This year, I’ll do their penitence for them.”

But the cucuruchos weren’t all old. Another article quoted a 23-year-old driver as saying that, ever since he began taking part, he felt more secure behind the wheel. Many a near-accident, he claimed, had been suddenly avoided without explanation. He was not alone in believing such things. The bus traveller in Ecuador soon got used to the stickers of Jesus in his crown of thorns, displayed above the seat of almost every driver; around the figure was written the words Dios guia mi camino. I wished at times that the drivers would rely on more than divine intervention.

“What, really, do you think of the cucuruchos?” I asked another Ecuadorian. “I think they’re very religious,” he said cautiously.“But these guys whipping themselves?” I pressed. “Oh well, I think they’re sadicos.”

The next morning we met at the Monastery of San Francisco to see for ourselves.

*** *** ***

BROTHER JODOCO Ricke arrived in Quito in 1536, hot on the heels of the conquistadors, and started work on the extraordinary Monastery of San Francisco. Built over the succeeding 50 years, it now stands proud above the Plaza of the same name, its white twin towers shining in the direct equatorial sun, the structure clearly visible from the Panecillo far above. Inside, its finery is a tribute not only to its artisans, but to a culture that was prepared to expend such monstrous sums in the name of God that nothing of the sort could be built today; even the basilica of Yamoussoukro in Côte d'Ivoire cannot quite be judged in the same context. It was said that if just two of the gilded columns in the church of San Francisco were stripped, they would pay off Ecuador’s burgeoning external debt. But there was no chance that this would be done, for the treasures of colonial Quito were a source of justified pride. Here and there one saw notices or stickers proclaiming Quito – Patrimonia de la Humanidad; UNESCO apparently agreed.

I did. One day I wandered quite by chance into one of the lesser-known colonial churches in Quito’s Old Town. The church was lit by beams of sunlight that streamed through arches around the nave, creating patches of vibrant light and cool, dim shadow; a priest swung a censer on a rope, and the smoke from the censer drifted in and out of the sunbeams, which caught the metal of the censer so that a dull gleam flew backwards and forwards with the rhythm of a hypnotist’s pendulum.

The magnificence of the San Francisco was not solely a product of Renaissance Europe. Its founder, Brother Jodoco Ricke, arrived in Quito just 44 years after the Moors had left Granada. The craftsmen who accompanied him brought influences that were as much Islamic as they were Christian, influences reflected by the courtyard within and its alabaster fountain. The Islamic and Christian traditions had combined Islamic decorative and Christian figurative influences to form one of the most striking buildings I have seen.

At ten in the morning on Easter Friday, I stood with Ellen and Dave in the courtyard of the San Francisco. It was not raining. It was a miracle. For Semana Santa. Knots of soberly-dressed worshippers were holding spontaneous services in the courtyard, sheltered from the sun in cloisters that looked out onto clumps of bright red flowers, contrasting with the white stonework and the brilliant blue of the sky. Deep within the building, in the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Jesus of the Great Power, the cucuruchos prepared body and mind for the six-hour ordeal ahead. Outside the Brotherhood’s door, a sign pointed to the studio of Stereo Radio Jesus del Gran Poder, the sign surmounted with a cartoon of a monk DJ in headphones with a turntable. Through this medium, the Brotherhood spread its message; but the sign pointed, too, to the dispensary, a boon in a city where the public hospitals lacked basic things like needles and sterile dressings.

We shouldered our way through the crush and out into the Plaza below. Here the faithful ambled across the cobbles, pausing now and then to inspect stands selling hats and craftwork. In the cat’s-cradle of ancient streets behind the San Francisco, market traders sold everything from digital watches to brightly-coloured rucksacks, stereos smuggled from Colombia, jewelry, cheap jeans and whole roast pig. On the steps of the monastery itself, four or five peddlers provided devotional images of the Virgin, votive candles, and postcards of Christ. Two aged beggars sat against the great, open wooden doors of the main church, hands outstretched for alms. No-one bothered them, the odd priest or monk stepping around them with something like respect. We sat on the steps in the growing heat. Everyone was waiting for the same thing – gringos, city families and the pious Indigenas of the Cordillera, for some of whom there was Christ alone and not much else.

At midday, the penitents emerged. The first one saw from the Plaza below was the high purple cones of the cucuruchos; they advanced slowly, two by two, preceded by a military band that belted out stately music, the brass notes with that curious Hispanic balance on a knife-edge of melody and atonality. The rims of the trumpets and tubas caught the fierce sunlight and refracted it, hurting the eyes. And very slowly, the huge statue of Jesus of the Great Power was borne shoulder-high from the doors of the San Francisco, ablaze with gold.

We made for the Calle Guayaquil. Here, an hour or so later, the procession moved slowly down the slope towards us, still escorted by the band, which would continue until the end at half-past six. Behind them came the first cucuruchos. They had a strange humanoid appearance. I raised my camera; normally shy about photographing people, I felt strangely detached from these curious creatures with their high pointed heads, their eyes just visible behind slits in the hoods. Then, as I focused my lens on the leading figure, I saw the eyes staring back at me, distorted by the fresnel screen in the viewfinder. My finger froze over the shutter and I did not take the picture, waiting until he had gone by before raising the camera back to my eye.

Many cucuruchos passed by, some carrying vast crosses. Later I was to hear that one cucurucho, Humberto Bautista, who was 89, was carrying a three-metre cross that weighed a quintal – about 46 kilos, just over 100lb. Many were even bigger. One or two of the cucuruchos, stripped to the waist beneath their hoods, whipped their backs. Behind the cucuruchos came 15 or 20 Roman centurions, driving before them Jesus figures who they were beating with cats-o’-nine-tails. Others walked past in simple robes, patches of blood showing as crowns of thorns bit into their foreheads. They too were lashing their naked backs with the same short, evil little whips. I saw more than one man who already had what must have been stinging weals between neck and waist. There were children in the procession, too, although certainly no-one was whipping them. Some were dressed as Christ; a few wore purple robes to match their fathers, and one, three or four years old, was a mini-cucurucho complete with cornet hat and cape. Some of the children carried small crosses.

The procession moved slowly, and stopped often. It must, for a man with a 100 lb. cross on his shoulders does not run, even if he is not 89. The number of spectators grew. In the Calle Bolívar, just after two, I had one of the very few ugly moments I had in Ecuador; part of the crowd, which had swelled to 500,000, which was 200,000 more than expected, rushed the statue of Jesus del Gran Poder in a display of mass piety. We were forced backwards and forwards and half-crushed as a moan of devotion arose from the worshippers. Gringos were now less in evidence.

Later we walked through the quieter streets of La Ronda, further behind the San Francisco, where beautiful houses of neat square proportions with white walls and blue window-frames recalled the elegance of colonial Quito. But the paint was flaking. An indigena, one of the new urban poor, lay against a dirty white wall in the sunshine; he was insensible, but his hand still clutched the neck of an empty rum-bottle. A teenage girl passed us. “They rob you here,” she warned us, whispering. Later I would hear that the fine streets of the Old City, hamstrung by planning and conservation laws, had become havens for the poor, and that people slept in shifts so that up to six could use the same bed. But maybe they were lucky. The following week an unexpected hailstorm caused the collapse of some corrugated-iron shacks on the edge of the city, killing nearly 30 people. Many Ecuadorians, whether religious or not, believed that religion was the cornerstone of the country’s tranquility, preventing it from going the way of some of its neighbours; and perhaps they were right.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.


  1. Interesting, I also studied Spanish in Quito. It is a neat place.

    In El Salvador, they make the alfombras, the salt rugs, for Semana Santa, and then they do a procession. Very interesting thing to watch.

  2. Indeed, El Salvador will be on my list if I start travelling again. I have seen little of Central America and would like to see more.
    I think the way Good Friday is marked across Latin America is probably both different and yet the same from one city to another.