A Tale of Two Cities

A city visit is like a cardio blast in our otherwise fairly low-impact workout. This week we have two planned. We’ll go in, hit em hard and get out quickly. Maximum activity in a short burst: pounding the streets, circuits of the historic centre, galleries, squares, promenades, fighting beggars, hustling coin, running from the cops, that kind of stuff. It means wearing real shoes, and somehow they seem to be intolerably constrictive these days.

Two days we spend in Guayaquil, the bustling port in the south. It is Ecuador’s largest city, a place of size and verve with a one-way system that you can orbit for days, circling your destination in concentric circles that never quite arrive.

Sometime long ago in another life, I worked all night to grind out an essay on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The book is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, describing the strange and fantastic cities of Kahn’s Mongol empire. “Cities like dreams,” says Marco Polo “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

This is certainly a city of confusing perspectives and hidden vistas: folded over and backwards, layered above itself, running over hills and along the curves of the river. Raised pedestrian walkways float over dark docklands, streets are placed in geometrical grids that abruptly unwind into mounds of spaghetti, a picturesque hillside of coloured houses, when viewed up close, cracks into a network of alleyways and open doorways where voices call us from the shadows.

The heart of Guayaquil is the malécon, the boardwalk, recently refurbished and hailed as a blueprint for Latin American urban regeneration. It is a concrete snake that meanders along the shoreline, looking inwards at high-rise towers and outwards over an estuary where floating clumps of river weed drift like wraiths in the murky brown waters. A cable car is strung like a washing line between the two banks. There is also a giant Ferris wheel onto which we dutifully traipse, then inch our way around a giant hazy arc that gradually exposes all the circuitry of this sprawling urban motherboard. We complete the malécon, then climb a hill, then a city stairway , then a lighthouse for good measure (Menna always finds us a lighthouse to climb)

Satisfied we have reached the highest points of the city we descend to its bowels. We mash up the centuries in the Museo of Anthropologia y Arte Moderna (the MAAC dude!). There are dim rooms where mysterious pre-Colombian figurines glow under spotlights, ancient fertility statuettes loll around with voluptuous curves and spread legs. Deeper we go; further back in time: we find shamanic totems humming with malevolent power; obsidian blades to flay a man alive, shrunken heads grinning at us.

We round a corner and we are wrenched back into the twenty-first century: light, white walls, a pandemic-inspired multimedia portraiture exhibition, video exhibitions, a frenetic mosaic of faces. When finally we are spun around and ejected back out into the sunlight, the kids are inspired, chattery, dazzled.

We roll out of Guayaquil next day and take the switchback road over the mountains. We drive into cloud and thunder on an ominous stretch of road of where rockfalls and avalanches have obliterated the tarmac in several places. We join a ghostly convoy of cars in the mist, edging our way round the destroyed sections, the mud and rock piles worryingly fresh (are there survivors interred within?).

When we finally drop below the cloud line we find sunshine and eagles and all of the majesty of the Andes spread out beneath us. Pastures ripple off into the distance over huge geological folds. We pull over the car and stand in the biting cold, silently looking out at this amazing view. We wind our way down through countryside where great rocks surge out of the fields and llamas (yes llamas!) sulk on the roadside. We arrive at Cuenca, jewel of the south, home of the famous Cuenca Chicas, a renowned girl band of the early millennium years.

Cuenca is a leafy colonial town cut from a conquistador template that has been applied throughout Latin America (Antigua in Guatemala, San Cristobal in Mexico, Granada in Nicaragua…). Think balustraded arcades and walkways, arched squares and fountains, baroque cathedral domes, courtyard gardens behind shuttered walls, ornate street doors, shady pleasure gardens by the river.

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents” mutters Marco Polo somewhere in the distance.

Again we spend a day walking the stone streets. Another art exhibition, at the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderna (the MMAM, ma’am). The spectrum is the theme here – we walk through rooms of green, cyan, magenta that are designed to follow the rainbow, though I am off on a nostalgia trip of the ZX Spectrum colour palate (64bit). We immerse ourselves, we touch, model, paint, we get our hands messy, take insta-friendly shots. We find the permanent exhibition and find more traditional art, primitivist Latin American landscapes with their stick figures, glossy leaf work, flat dimensions and complex textures. They are mesmerising and beautiful.

Menna can’t find a lighthouse so far inland but she takes us on a long walk along the river in search of another museum (closed!). She homes in on the cathedral instead, dragging us on circuits of the sacristy, dodging the beggars and asylum seekers that seek sanctuary in the doorways, trying to breach those great neo-classical towers. Fortunately it is too late, and the doors are bolted, we cannot climb up. It is siesta time.

And then we call time on the cultural tour, the urban diversion. We are going to head back out to the mountains now, see condors, find wild places. “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased” says Calvino’s Kublai Kahn, and so here is our testimony. We will ride out from those great Ecuadorean cities in search of new adventures. Onwards, upwards and outwards we go.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

Invisible Cities. Italo Calvino


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