February 01, 2005

Otavalo, Ecuador: Cameras and culture clash

My mother and I had hired a guide to take us by car from our base in Quito, Ecuador to the livestock and artisan markets at Otavalo, about two hours away. Marika, the guide, was a chic Dane who dressed in tight black pants and heels and stood nearly two feet taller than than most Ecuadorans. She’d married an Ecuadoran banker and had lived in Quito for about four years.

She met us in our hotel lobby and walked us to the car, a huge, steel, late-‘70s Mercury sedan with a metallic coppertone paint job and a back seat the size of a living room sofa. Behind the steering wheel sat a massive bear of a man whom Marika introduced as “Charlie.” Charlie owned the Mercury, which had somehow made its way from its Detroit birthplace to a new life in South America. Charlie spoke little English and focused on his driving, negotiating the panoramic cliff-hugging roads with great care.

We watched pigs and produce change hands at the agricultural market, where the Otavalans did their shopping, then wandered among the handicraft and textile stalls in Otavalo’s main square. Women in richly embroidered blouses and deep blue head scarves worked at the stalls, while the men, dressed in white pants and shirts and dark indigo ponchos stood nearby, often in pairs. The Otavalo Indians are proud, protective of their lineage and are among the most successful of Ecuador’s indigenous groups. The work of these renowned weavers is highly prized.

Imbabura province’s lush, high altitude landscape rolled past the car windows as we headed back toward Quito. We resumed the routine we’d adopted on the ride to Otavalo: Marika made nonstop polite chitchat from the front seat, and silent Charlie kept his eyes on the road, stopping whenever we wanted to take a picture.

What’s that up ahead?! Something interesting is going on down that embankment off the road! A flurry of color and activity. A large group of Indians in bright colors is swirling and dancing and singing in a dusty yard next to a low, white building with a covered porch. A festival! What luck! Charlie stopped the car, and the four of us walked down the hill to watch the celebration.

In short order, my mother and I were pressed into the crowd, in the center of which were half-a-dozen men in garishly painted bird and animal masks. Marika was whirling about, too. Charlie, over six feet tall and the size of a linebacker, stood on the porch, watching the scene as carefully as he’d watched the road. I read and understood his body language, and kept my camera at my side.

My mother, dancing in the circle’s middle, raised her camera, looked into the viewfinder and clicked. Before I realized what was happening, Charlie bolted through the crowd and said to me, “Run! Now!” My mother was still dancing. Charlie pushed his way to her. I risked one shot of a man in an orange mask raising his arm toward me before I turned to run. The men in the circle lunged at us, pointing at our cameras. Faces that had been friendly and welcoming turned angry. People shouted, shook their fists in our faces and tried to grab our cameras.

Charlie, bigger than any three of them glued together, put his body between us and the snarling crowd. “Run!” We scrambled as fast as we could up the short embankment. Marika was already at the car and had opened all the doors. We jumped in and waited for Charlie, who’d stayed below longer than he should have to give us more running room. He bounded up the rise, jumped into the driver’s seat and tore away, the crowd not far behind.

I’d seen something before I’d jumped into the backseat. A car had pulled up behind us, and a blonde tourist in yellow polyester got out and started bounding gaily down the embankment toward the festival. Around her neck hung a big, black camera.

Where shall we go next?

Update on book proceeds to tsunami relief (see Jan. 2 post): The Red Cross has announced it has collected enough funds to sustain a 10-year rebuilding effort, and UNICEF is scaling back calls for donations. Thus, I'll target future proceeds from "Ribbons of Highway" sales to Save The Children.