Hurry Up and Wait

Growth and modernization bring dazzling new experiences to the people of the developing world.  In Latin America’s growing cities, real shopping malls eventually appear.  The larger the city, the more impressive the mall.  And, sooner or later, that means food courts.

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Food Court

At long last, a deserving populace has the same shot at childhood obesity and diabetes that was until now the exclusive province of the most advanced nations.

Super-sizing has come to the Andes.

For the foreign visitor, the multitude of choices is largely unfamiliar and almost overwhelming.  The flashy surroundings may be glass and chrome, but the fare is often traditional and regionally specific.

There’s menestra, the stewed lentils or beans that accompany a serving of meat and rice, or citrus-marinated ceviche made with shrimp from the coast and especially popular out there for breakfast.  A warm, coconut-infused alternative is called encocadoThere are specialties from neighboring Latin countries, and from China, sandwiches of a (sort of) US deli style, and of course burgers and fries.  One outfit serves steaks on a thick wooden plank.  The very biggest malls may feature a classy Colombian chain called Crepes & Waffles, known not only for its food but for giving jobs and career training to single mothers.

Here in Ecuador, there are a few familiar logos.  Burger King, and McDonald’s, but not often.  KFC has a big footprint in a country where more chicken is consumed per capita than any other meat, and with production capacity to match its national appetite: more than a quarter-million chickens a year, and a billion eggs.

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“Are there any KFCs in the United States?” a young Ecuadorian once asked me.  I tried to explain that the “K” stands for “Kentucky,” but he’d never heard of Kentucky.

Judging from the long lines at one food court, I concluded that KFC was by far the most popular choice of the local lunch crowd.

Until I tried it myself.  And discovered that it was merely the slowest.

It seemed completely counterintuitive.  The chicken was all pre-cooked and piled high.  The pre-fab combo choices were all laid out on a bright menu board—with relatively more rice and arepas than you’d find in the typical US outlet.  Yes, the employees had been trained to upsell, and they had to ask about beverage choices, but that wasn’t enough to explain twenty minutes in a motionless queue.  Did these people know nothing about the basics of fast food?

A sign on the counter invited customer feedback, and in my mind, I outlined the withering critique I would email to the folks on Colonel Sanders Lane in Louisville.  I thought about it as I strolled past a dozen other offerings, from pizza to Asian grilled shrimp—and suddenly noticed what was missing.

Nowhere was there any mention of “fast food.”

There was fried, boiled, barbecued and roasted.  There was variety, convenience, and a range of prices.  Nobody said anything about fast.

white-castle

The curiously American creation of fast food, connecting kitchens with assembly line methods, probably had its beginnings in 1921, with the establishment of White Castle in Kansas.  Others came later, including McDonald’s in 1948, and Burger King and Taco Bell in the 1950s.  In time, much of the world adopted the cuisine, if not always its revved-up velocity.

US restaurants use a million tricks to achieve the fastest possible table turnover, getting customers in and out to make room for more.  In contrast, I have one Latin friend who finishes the meal and then sits deliberately still, staring into space for 15 minutes while the food settles, believing it’s the healthy thing to do.  Ol’ Dave at Wendy’s would break into a cold sweat.

In Latin America, mealtime can be time-consuming—businesses commonly close for two hours or more every day for the proprietors’ lunch.  A trip to the mall often involves the whole family, and may include shopping and a movie as well as a meal.  They’re not looking for a speedy experience any more than you’d want to be whisked in and out of your favorite upscale steakhouse in 10 minutes.

Those spacious food courts fill to bursting, especially on weekends, packed with adults and children, with soccer on big-screen TVs, sellers shouting out order numbers, and a steady clamor of clacking trays and lively conversation.  Small kids chase each other wildly among the tables, and no one would think of objecting.  It is, to borrow a vivid local phrase, like una olla de grillos—a big, scrambling “pot of crickets.”

It’s not precisely the slow food movement, but it is generally more social, more family-focused, and more time-consuming than grabbing a Big Mac on the run.

lunch

So, when time is short and hunger calls, what’s a rushed gringo to do?  Ironically, the answer may be found in the old, traditional markets.  There, where a vendor may have just a single table and a couple of benches, turnover is essential.  The whole hog is already roasted, the fish already fried, and your plate is in front of you in seconds.  It has to be fresh, because most cooks don’t have refrigeration under their tarp.

And the whole meal is likely to set you back less than two dollars.  Not quite the original 1948 McDonalds burger price of 15 cents, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Rocks in a Hard Place

Around 250 BC, when the First Punic War was shifting its focus toward the southwest of Sicily and the siege of Lilybaeum, the Romans first devised an inventive way to break the ankles of 21st-century hikers.  That wasn’t their central purpose, of course, and the benefits of dominion far outweighed the orthopedic drawbacks.

hole The great builders invented cobblestones.  They were adopted across the Roman Empire, from Britannia to Mesopotamia, and eventually embraced in much of Latin America, including here in Ecuador.

Cobblestones are just rocks, somewhat rounded, but laying them on beds of sand or earth is what turns rocks into cobbles, and dirt roads into something that in the best examples are nearly free of ruts and dust.  A cobble is often described as “smaller than a boulder but larger than a pebble,” which doesn’t tell you much.  “Fist-size” would be a good average.

Those who walk such roads suffer the constant threat of twisted tendons or fractured fibulae.  The stones can be slick, or loose, or just terribly uneven.

Steer your car onto that gleaming, nubby surface and shake every screw loose.  It’ll make you think the springs were stolen, and the seats bolted directly to the frame by a demented prankster.

Some cobblestones are smoother than others, but never as smooth as they look.

They are charming and quaint, and they will jounce the fillings from your teeth.  The thunderous rumble of approaching tires or iron-rimmed wagon wheels has long been touted by rock apologists as a safety feature of cobblestone roads, alerting pedestrians to approaching danger, to which we say, “Nice try.”

Heavy rain can undermine and wash out a few of the stones, especially if repair is delayed long.  They mostly stay put, though—which is more than you can say for the main street of El Milagro (“The Miracle”), a flyspeck community on the two-lane winding road between Ibarra and Imbaya.

The street is just a block-long asphalt thoroughfare, with one lane so badly mended that drivers long ago threw up their hands and tacitly took turns on the other lane in both directions.  The patchwork blacktop blanket was thick and lumpy, as if someone had paved over several parked cars, with yawning cracks in several places revealing the rough original underneath.

It was the kind of backwater stretch you assumed the pavers would never revisit, until one Thursday morning a few weeks ago, they did.

A posse of men blocked the street with a dump truck and went to work, leaving traffic to find its own alternative route, as is traditional.  By nightfall they had laid down a thick, velvety layer of warm asphalt so beautiful, you could almost feel the property taxes going up.

By Friday morning, its surface was already showing distorted ripples, and beginning a slow-motion slide down the hill like pudding.  It was an inky glacier, sluggish but unstoppable.  The workmen were gone.

The mantle had started to split open when Saturday dawned, and drivers resumed sharing the other lane by evening.  The project had taken a day to complete, and lasted for two more.  Some cobblestone roads, in contrast, have endured for two thousand years, bashed for centuries by the wheels of lumbering Roman chariots.

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El Milagro

Life abroad is filled with intriguing daily mysteries, and without them, the expat might as well have stayed home. Those related to daily routines like transportation or food are the hardest to ignore.  With a healthy sense of curiosity and a soothing ersatz mantra along the lines of Illegitimi non carborundum, imponderables become memorable, and even delightful.

reduzcaJust past the place where much of the new blacktop has now disintegrated into fine black gravel and dispersed, there’s another small enigma of highway protocol.  At the edge of town, exactly where a driver passing through would routinely step on the gas, a graffiti-sprayed sign in authoritative crimson commands, REDUCE SPEED.

A fantasy scene has developed in my mind as I accelerate past the sign on my way home.  I envision a foreman and his crew at the end of a long day of sign-posting.

“We have one sign left and we can’t go home until we put it up somewhere,” he says.  “Any ideas?”

Not far away on the Pan-American Highway—which, by the way, is a shining example of Ecuador’s world-class paving talent—six lanes snake through rugged mountain terrain.  Repaving there seems like it never stops, to the point where the latest layer of asphalt is a good eight inches higher than some of the storm drain grates.  Drop a wheel in that at 90 km/h, and it’s KYAG.  (Kiss Your Axle Goodbye)

On a recent weekend pause in the paving, winding up a steep curve from the town of San Antonio, a succession of warning signs lined up in the median.  Loose Gravel, one said.  Road Workers Ahead, warned another.  Detour 200 Meters.  Uneven Pavement.

None of it was true.  They had to store the signs somewhere, I suppose, and why not in the median, where the overall effect is one of a vague admonition for weekend caution?

On back-country routes, you’re on your own.  People sometimes speak fancifully of the day when someone paves the craggy cobblestone road to the alpine lake called Mojanda, for instance, but nobody expects it.  The rocks remain.

After all, the Romans won all three of the Punic Wars, and created the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization, and they did it with an army that moved over cobblestone roads.  The US Interstate highway system itself was conceived as a way to move the military.

Never underestimate the power of rocks.  I’m just saying.

cobbles

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The Day the News Died

sinclair_lewis_1930With the stunning election of a boorish and dangerous TV personality to the most powerful office in the world, Sinclair Lewis officially became a prophet.  His 1935 novel about the election of a fascist, bigoted US president, It Can’t Happen Here, just did.

Facebook is on fire.

Amid all that commotion, it was easy to overlook another historic event: the death of journalism.  November 8, 2016.  Journalism, R.I.P.  It had a good run.

This is not about the wildly inaccurate polls, a conundrum that has savants scrambling to discover what went so wrong.  No, there really is no unalienable constitutional right to know the outcome of an election before it occurs.  Deal with it.  Polls are a fascinating novelty that have gained an unwarranted, outsize stature.  We’ve gotten used to them, but we probably don’t deserve them.

Political polls, it could be noted, rose to prominence in about the same period that prospective parents began routinely to learn the gender of their unborn children.  Americans seem to hate surprises.

The polls will bounce back.  Journalism, in which important information is discovered and evaluated and delivered to an audience whose trust has been earned, will not.

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Thirty years ago, when desktop publishing became the rage, some observers warned that the breakthrough would simply help more inept people turn out more hideous design work more quickly.  And it did.

Something similar but much bigger happened with the explosive arrival of social media, only a dozen years ago.  It offered an irresistible, interactive, deeply personal, frequently opinionated platform where absolutely anyone could play, and it took the world and its Web by storm.

Item: The venerable CBS Evening News has about 7.4 million viewers.  Facebook has 1.79 billion active users.

Serious journalism became like licorice in a chocolate shop.  Some people still like licorice, at least some of the time.  But most of us, let’s face it, will opt for the Christophe Roussel.

Item: On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite concluded on the air that the war in Vietnam could not be won.  Lyndon Johnson snapped off the TV and decided not to seek reelection, and the great, brutal conflict changed course toward a slow and bitter conclusion.

Today, a guy in his underpants with a laptop in his mother’s basement can have a comparable impact.  Through the magic of digital technology, we are transported to the 1930s, where the rumor mill could plant and circulate malicious gossip, or just let it ripen, until its malodorous message permeated the public consciousness and replaced reality with fantasy.

I watched with growing alarm over more than a decade as major institutions invested in “journalistic” new media projects that more often than not were silly toys.  Were these people joking?  It was all very cutting edge and high tech, and there were serious conferences, with panel discussions and continental breakfasts, to analyze this new way of listening to the electorate.

Judging by the near-unanimous misreading by journalists of the mood of the voters, they were listening to noise.

Now, respected entities like the Poynter Institute say the media must learn to listen more; in other words, be more like Facebook.  I disagree.  Sometimes, journalism, it’s not about you.

The audience needs to listen, and they’re listening to someone else, mostly to each other.  The gleeful announcements of hip new initiatives to freshen stale journalism came too late, and are off the mark.

The public has moved on.  Like it or not—and I don’t—social media have been as transformative as movable type was.  Good journalism is all but helpless in the face of cute puppy videos.

I spent most of my career practicing or supporting journalism of high quality, but my pessimism isn’t an expression of nostalgia.  I’m not sure anything could have been done about it—nothing I can think of.  I’m not accusing anyone in the field of bad faith.

Today’s journalists will have a role to play in whatever comes next, but it won’t quite be journalism.  The job of journalism is not to “share.”  It is to research, edit, think, anticipate, analyze, and deliver information within a trustworthy framework.  “What the president said is news,” a wise man once declared.  “Why he said it is analysis.  Whether he should have said it is opinion.”

Inspiring, succinct, but awfully serious.  Social media can be great fun and irresistibly engaging while solid journalism is the cod liver oil of media—the sort of thing that’s good for you, but painfully so.

There are still enough sober citizens, dumbfounded by the election, that copies of It Can’t Happen Here sold out all over since then.  Lots of fine journalists are still doing fine work.  They will respond to the challenge with optimism.  But in the cacophony of social media, fewer and fewer people are listening to them.

Discuss.  headstone-2

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Herding Instinct

stakeWhen it comes time to move a hundred or more milk cows to a new pasture here in the countryside, ranchers put up a temporary electric fence along the road to keep the girls on course.  A single slender strand of wire, threaded through insulated stakes and given a slight electrical charge, is just enough to steer big wet noses along their cobbled path.

The domestic bovine, which many consider to be the dumbest animal on the planet, goes where it is told and knows only that its singular mission in life is to eat nonstop until its last breath.  The cow seems unaware of its powerful half-ton bulk.  Whether herded by cowpokes on horseback or by more contemporary means, it is the very model of docile servitude.  In thousands of years, probably no single cow has ever been accused of showing initiative.

In an authoritarian state, you might say, cows would possess the character of the perfect voter.  Well, they might never actually vote, but they’d certainly never vote “no.”

All governments find ways to shepherd their citizens along the right communal path, some more successfully than others.  Some employ persuasion; others lean just slightly toward the electric fence model.

frontExpats who decide to live in Ecuador come across some interesting methods of official herding after a time.  In fact, one of the most effective has to do with voting.

Ecuadorians are eligible to vote in elections beginning at age 16.  But between the ages of 18 and 65, it’s required.  An excuse is fairly easy to get, but without it, non-voters face a fine.  This year the fine would be $44.60.  That’s serious money in a country where the minimum wage is $366 a month.

Catching violators is tricky, as the sin is one of omission.  But there are ways.  All manner of transactions require proof of voting in the last election, no matter how unrelated the matter at hand may be.  That’s what I was told, for example, when I got a driver’s license.

“But I didn’t vote,” I told the clerk.  (Voting is optional for foreigners.)

“Then you need to prove you didn’t vote,” she said.  There’s an office for that in the provincial capital, where I was quickly issued a card (no charge) showing I hadn’t voted but was excused.

Imagine what a different result this vote-or-else rule would have produced in the recent plebiscite on Colombia’s proposed peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas.  Polls predicted approval by nearly two to one, to end more than half a century of brutal, murderous armed conflict that killed at least a quarter of a million people.  Instead, the proposal was defeated by a slender margin.

Spanish journalist Martín Caparrós said bluntly that the result is proof that democracy doesn’t work.  That’s because, while the outcome was very close, it was really decided by the 60 percent of Colombians who chose not to vote at all.

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There are historic examples worldwide where citizens have fought for the right to vote and won, and then gradually lost interest in it, perhaps believing their vote was unimportant.  “But inevitably,” Caparrós writes, “little by little, they will start looking for ways in which they can exert influence.  From what we see, democracy is not one of those ways.”

Beyond whipping up the electorate with shrill, unfounded denunciations of a “rigged” US election, the business of voting is often not a pretty sight.  Democrats work to register new voters, since it’s the right thing to do, but also because new voters from swelling minority populations tend to lean Democratic.  Republicans fight it for the same reason, sponsoring voter ID laws that suppress voting in a phony crusade to prevent voter fraud that has repeatedly been shown to be “virtually nonexistent.”  (It ranks about the same as alien abductions.)

And then there’s the question of whether those registered voters actually vote.  In 2012, 57.5% of US eligible voters went to the polls, which is lower than the figure in most developed countries.

In Colombia, disappointed treaty supporters immediately cited the parallel case of the Brexit vote, and the way things are going in our own presidential election, it’s hard not to wonder what new shocks are around the corner.

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Former Cows

If anything is rigged, it’s the colossal case of gerrymandering that gave Republicans control of Congress for years to come.

So much is being said that is simply not true, and so many people are buying it.  So little of it has anything remotely to do with critically important issues like war and peace, poverty, immigration, and climate change.

Thomas Jefferson cautioned that a civilized nation cannot be both ignorant and free.  The cows may be a warning.

I for one mailed my absentee ballot last week.  There are no fines for failure to vote, but there could be worse things than the tingly touch of a slightly electrified fence.

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The Blind Men and the Elephant

 

indian_elephant_116229In the ancient Indian poem, six blind men approach an elephant from all directions and seek to describe it by touching different parts.  Not surprisingly, they come away with six different answers: an elephant is like a wall, a spear, a snake, and more.  The tale has been used to illustrate myriad mortal foibles over the centuries, especially the inability or refusal to see the big picture in subjects like religion or politics.

The elephant’s opinion of this experience has not been reported.  Nor is it known whether any of the men realized they were collectively fondling an animal the size of a small barn.

The concept also seems to work in other applications.  In four years in Ecuador—a small country that I know you’re getting tired of hearing about—I have now lived in three places as different from one another as spears and snakes.  The unexpected effect is to make it seem much bigger than it is.

I first settled in the scenic mountain town of Cotacachi, known for handcrafted leather and a few hundred resident expats, some of them sealed in walled communities.  Tour buses disgorge Americans and Europeans, and Ecuadorians from the capital, to shop for leather jackets, purses, boots, and even custom saddles (horse not included).  It’s a nice town with nice people, and I spent two and a half years there.

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But in search of something a little less influenced by invasive species like me, I moved just a few miles to the village of Peguche, an industrious town of clicking looms, defined by Kichwa culture and music and bound together by the business of producing woven fabric.  In fifteen months of living directly on the town square, I experienced the whole range of seasonal celebrations and family events with people who were unfailingly warm and welcoming.

And then, through sheer happenstance triggered by a casual comment from a friend, I recently fell into the irresistible allure of a 17th century hacienda.  It’s something like the American pioneers who left perfectly good cities to strike out across the prairies in search of a bright new future, although I just had peace and quiet in mind.

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The haciendas of Latin America were the spoils of colonization, vast landed estates granted to high officials by the Spanish Crown.  One of the first was given to the conqueror Cortés in 1529 and comprised what is now the Mexican state of Morales—an expanse of nearly 1900 square miles.  Here in South America, haciendas were often established or financed by Jesuits, producing cattle, sugar cane and other crops with indigenous labor under a system called encomiendas.  It was posited as a way to “protect” native populations, but in reality was barely a step above slavery.

Land reform that peaked in the mid-20th century led to redistribution of enormous Latin estates.  That movement, combined with an assortment of economic events, broke up the expanses of terrain on the South American continent, in many cases leaving the original residences to become attractive resorts.

But while the landed gentry were gone after 500 years, the land was still there and still producing.  In this area of high Andean valleys—once within the northern reaches of the Inca Empire—an elevation of around 2000 meters delivered the best climate for agriculture, and that describes the one where I now have a place to live.  Temperatures are mild and the weather a little drier than it is nearby, but a complex and far-reaching system of irrigation channels takes care of that, powered only by gravity.

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The fields on all sides are dotted with cattle and planted in alfalfa, potatoes, and sugar cane, and tomatoes grown in greenhouses.  It makes a gorgeous and peaceful place to live for someone so inclined.  And it’s obviously not for everyone, or the former haciendas would be overrun.  Some people want to be close to shopping.  Some of us dream of a quiet spot to write.

Wherever one lives in Ecuador, nonetheless, it’s a base from which to explore.  The country is only about the size of Burkina Faso—an impoverished, flat, landlocked, tropical West African republic.  But the diversity of Ecuador’s geography and climate make it feel gigantic.

You can spend a weekend deep in the steamy Amazon jungle, and the next on a cold, windswept mountain páramo far above the tree line.  There are big cities, and flame-throwing volcanos, and historic gold-mining towns.  Spectacular waterfalls and hot springs are beyond counting.

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And if it’s agriculture you want, look for timber, coffee, bananas, cocoa, rice, and cassava, in addition to sugar cane, potatoes, and shrimp.  It’s like traveling through the regions of an entire continent, and not just a small country.  On the sweltering Pacific coast, there are even groves of tagua trees, producing a nut that can be carved just like ivory without harming a single tusk.  It’s sometimes called “vegetable ivory.”

One out of six mythical blind men might mistake it for an elephant.

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That Burning Sensation

Look out the window on any morning and you’ll see smoke ascending, if it’s not already snaking in under the door.  In most villages, as in the Ecuadorian countryside in all directions, fire is a constant presence.

Morning2Sometimes an indoor cooking fire sends smoke rising right through the roof tiles, making chimneys an indulgent frill.  More often it’s outside in the form of burning heaps of dried weeds or trash.  Corn cobs are charred in damp and smoky piles, sometimes as a seasonal symbol of housecleaning and fresh starts, but usually just to get rid of them.

You’d think they were electing a Pope.

When the garbage truck pulls through town, alerting residents with its tinkling music, not everyone rushes out.  Some people have already burned all or most of their refuse, while the wasteful resident gringo typically has more trash to discard than an average indigenous family of six, who waste nothing.

The fires are no joke.  In the dry summer months, typically windy as well, fires take off.  When last summer’s season ran much longer than normal, some farmers lit fires according to the traditional belief that smoke attracts drought-busting rain.  The opposite usually happens, and grass and forest fires rage out of control, driven by squalling summer whirlwinds that have been known to lift the roofs off houses.

Forest

Forest fire, Otavalo

In 2015, at least three firefighters died battling such conflagrations.  After all, it’s the kind of blaze where they are most likely to gain experience.  The sierras are a region of fireproof cement houses, and house fires are almost unheard of.  So universal is the devotion to cement construction, I have often kidded that if Ecuador produced fine watches, they would be made of cement.  Now I see that the Italians have already done it.

Scientists tell us that wildfires lit up the nascent earth long before humans appeared—just as soon as there were plants to be burned and oxygen produced by those plants.  Until we came along, the planet had to get by with lightning, volcanos and meteorites as the source of ignition.  Time passed.  Campfires were invented, and mosquitos.

I earned my weekly allowance in the early 1960s by lugging the household trash out to a rusty metal drum once or twice a week and setting it ablaze, something most people wouldn’t dream of doing now.  It was a time of rich aromatic smoke from autumn leaves, a smell that still triggers powerful olfactory memories for those of a certain age.  These days it would trigger a stiff fine.

Who among us has never stared hypnotically into the glowing embers of a campfire?  (And if you haven’t, never admit it.)  Campfire songs, S’mores, and swirling showers of sparks are seared into the human consciousness, sometimes into the human skin, all the way back to the days of cave paintings.  Jack London made the campfire into a riveting short story of life and death.

But back to Ecuador.  This is not Beijing.  A hazy afternoon in the mountains is more likely caused by dust than smoke from widely scattered fires.  The atmosphere has a remarkable capacity, within reason, for cleaning itself.  And the Ecuadorian government has long worked to nudge at least some combustion away from wood and charcoal toward hydro-electricity and propane.

Morning

Chances are this country will get over its fondness for bonfires, like we eventually did.  It’s even more likely that Earth will get over us.  Given everything that the planet has been through in its cataclysmic history, “I doubt if it cares much about life on Earth,” says one geochemist.

We may eventually succeed in making our world uninhabitable, but as George R. Stewart concluded in 1949, Earth Abides.

We really ought to be more responsible.  Still, sometimes you just want to poke another marshmallow on the stick and see what happens.

Morning

 

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Civic Pride

AThe gray statue was easy to miss in a driving downpour, along a narrow road of jarring cobblestones carved into the steep side of Imbabura volcano hundreds of feet above the Pan American Highway.  Seen through the rainfall sheeting on the windshield, its broken base was an indisputable ear of corn, with four human figures above, holding an open book to the slate-colored sky.  Next to it was a cement cross, partly covered with white ceramic tiles, half of them fallen away like scales.

The pairing of the statuary and the cross looked like a mistake.

It was worth another visit on a sunny morning a couple of days later to search for meaning, or at least an identifying plaque.  But there were no more clues.  A man and a woman stood above the corn—an important symbol of fertility in the Kichwa culture.  They hoisted the big book over their heads.  A Bible?  What else could it be?

The man wore a broad, floppy hat of a style never seen around here.  The woman’s left hand was broken off.  She, and the two children crouched below, might have been attired as contemporaries of Columbus.  Or for that matter, American pioneers in a Conestoga on the prairie.

The mute enigma stood by the road, amid weeds and litter, keeping its secrets, above an expansive, million-dollar view of a broad valley and more mountains beyond.

AAlmost every town in Ecuador has a statue, but not like that one.  They depict something about the identity of each place, such as local products or historical events, and their meaning is literal.  In Pimampiro, it’s all about the tomatoes grown in greenhouses that spread across the slopes above town.  In Cotacachi, they celebrate the leather trade or musical instruments, along with a tribute to the ever-popular pastime of spinning tops called trompos.

And they all appear to have leapt from the same slightly eerie drawing board—brightly painted goliaths that are like mannequins but not quite human, with staring eyes and frozen smiles.  It’s easy to imagine a dodgy traveling salesman crisscrossing the country, unable to believe his luck in closing a deal at every stop.

BThese will not be mistaken for New York City’s gilded “Civic Fame.”

I faintly remember a story many years ago—possibly from Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer—about a man who painted gold letters on the windows of New York offices.  He worked the first floor, and then the second, telling each prospect that all their competitors on the previous floor were having it done.  Eventually, seeing no reason to stop, he was lettering the windows of lawyers and accountants more than fifty floors above the street.

It’s another version of the many legends of lightning rod salesmen—and I’m sure they were all men—peddling their wares across America.  Ray Bradbury made them terrifying.  In some other iterations, houses were so bristling with rods after the sale that they were not only protected from lightning storms; they might actually cause them.

Mark Twain wrote the definitive version in his short story called Political Economy, in which a pretentious columnist producing a windy essay on economics suffers constant interruptions by the crafty salesman at his door.  In his impatience, the writer tells the installer to do whatever is needed, resulting in 1,631 lightning rods and 3,211 feet of “best quality, zinc-plated, spiral twist” wire.

Somebody probably knows the story behind Ecuador’s look-alike statues, but the fiction of a runaway salesman might be more entertaining than the truth.  Better to let it remain a mystery.

BAnd the sculpture on the mountain?

On the sunny morning of my second visit, an elderly Kichwa woman walked down a mountain path to catch a bus.  Here was my chance to unravel the origins of the crumbling family and their book.  We exchanged pleasant greetings and I asked her—what was the history of this local treasure?  What was its significance?

She cackled.  “I have no idea,” she said as her bus hove into sight around the bend.   “Something about corn.”

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