Sunday, 31 January 2016

Absence of Consequence

For those in the know: Cuenca ~

All that's missing is a chalked outline and a grumpy detective

The new, the different, the oddity, all are easy to spot.

The lady crouched on the step stitching a belt? her ancient, knurled fingers producing the intricate, detailed repetitive pattern. The tableaux of effigies awaiting incineration on old years night, that days later still leave an ash shadow. A story that, had I not witnessed its beginning, I would not have recognised, nor even noted. No, it's the sudden appearance of a minor vignette that serves to depict an absence.

Wandering past the law court and its attendant lawyer offices, I spot a pinstriped lady shading her head with a large envelope. An absence: head shading is a common occurrence, given the proximity of the sun, yet nobody wears a hat. The indigenous will triple fold a shawl to create a neat symmetry to their traditional attire, others simply drape a t-shirt over their heads. Neither are suitable solutions for her. But that wasn't what caught my attention; it was the general lack of ochre A3 envelopes, coupled with the want of shops selling ink-pads and rubber stamps. The scarcity of men with manual typewriters, shade-sheltering under spreading trees and roof eaves in the close proximity to every government office. That envelope is the Peruvian badge of profession. The scribe, the 'franker' and the typed, triplicated form, the essential product for their bureaucracy.

It's early evening and we're walking along under the arched porticoes that surround the plaza, stepping around the stuffed black garbage bags stacked against the stone pillars, there awaiting their nightly collection. Not one single bag has been shredded. Not one sack is spewing its entrails. It's only then that I realise another absence. There's simply no dogs in the centre of this city. And as a consequence the streets are litter free, probably the cleanest city we've visited.

Next morning we wander downhill, no particular destination in mind, happy to let serendipity be our provider.

An effluent-free city centre river, giant water-worn granite boulders and manicured grass, arched footbridges rendered in burnished steel. An exaggerated extravaganza of the classic water feature, one that, all too often is stranded in a suburban back garden. I almost expect to find a fishing gnome around the next bend. Only it's a chainsaw carver who's creating tactile seating in a newly created park. Another absence. One that serves to emphasise the preponderance of M. Eiffel (et al.) and their cast-iron foundries, that totally dominate all of South America's street and plaza furniture.

This city is drawing us in.

A montage of embroidered belts

Yet the most surreal 'absence of consequence' comes that evening. Our wanderings had sourced the location of the 'exotic' eateries. A street of ethnic food set within the confines of Ecuadorean cuisine. A restaurant that claims to be using Pakistani spices, that's called 'The Taj Mahal' that's serving doner kebabs. A fusion that probably should have served as a warning. We order and are asked if we want our Bombay aloo with or without 'picante'? I'm in a South Asian eatery; since when was there a choice of 'bland spice' or 'slightly bland spice'? For that's exactly how it arrived. An absence that serves to re-emphasise how un-challenged our taste buds have been for the last considerable time.


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Night Interruptions.

Cotopaxi lost in cloud.

We're using a new tent, one that is in essence a mosquito proof bivvi. A free-standing, rather upmarket bivouac. One, that in extremis will pitch in a bug-infested room. With its vast mesh screen and the flysheet folded back, offers a widescreen view, and on a hot night, one that will capture any cooling breeze that might be passing. That uninterrupted view has another advantage. It's a pacifier when wild camping. Rustles in the night will always be amplified and when filtered through a part comatose brain, an ant becomes an elephant, a falling leaf, a knife wielding maniac. I can, at least rouse an eye and not see that gremlin's shadow. Still, sleep is never perfect.

Volcán Chimborazo lost in cloud.

I've spent the day cycling past the warnings. Which way to head in the event of exploding mountains, splitting earth and smothering ash. In Latacumba, I'd got excited by the prospect of green-painted arrows on the tarmacadam, only the cycle route didn't want to cooperate. Kept heading away from the mountain. Of course. It was the evacuation route. Sitting in an eatery, I inspect the map on the wall. It's shaded in green and grey. Potential beds for lava-flowing rivers. Then there was the road cutting. Hacking its way through the hillside, exposing a classic soil profile, a timeline of Volcan Cotopaxi's tempestuous past.

Cotopaxi lost in cloud.

All very sobering. So it's of little surprise that my sleep-fuddled brain was attuned to all things of a destructive nature. A slow, low grumbling coming from somewhere over there. An erupting volcano. A mobile erupting volcano. Or the lumbering Ecuadorean military aeroplane returning to its base.

So I settle back, count the stars, sleep-doze, with smug satisfaction. That whining mozzie can't get me.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

It's Not a Panama Hat.

Panama hats don't come from Panama. They come from Ecuador. Only they're not Panama hats. They're a Toquilla Straw Hat, or a Jipyapa; this from the plant's indigenous name. But only the very best get to be called a Monticristi, named for the town of origin and the foundation that protects and grades these hats.

It's probably the greatest 'term theft' and the least understood misnomer. One that is easily explained.

Hat weaving began on the Ecuadorean coast in the sixteenth century. It was, as it still is, a cottage craft industry. Using the fronds of the Carludovica palmata, a palm like plant that is indigenous to Province Manabi. The new shoots are harvested, beaten on the ground to remove the young leaves, boiled and dried, bleached in sulphur, shrunk and rolled. Transported from the lowlands to Cuenca, up in the mountains. Only then can the weaving begin.

It gained its mismatched appellation because, for a considerable amount of time it was exported, like much of the South America's production, across the Panama isthmus. Gaining further credence in 1904, when President Roosevelt visits the canal excavations and is photographed in one of these eponymous hats. Or so the histories relate.

I'm slowly riding along a pueblo's concrete street, I glance to one side. Through an open door I catch a glimpse of a lady on her stool, illuminated against the corridor's gloom, using the cool of the morning and the low directional light to weave a part completed hat. Some will claim that the best hats are woven by moonlight, when fingers have less tendency to perspiration. Which sounds more like a tenet from Demeter orthodoxy. Turning the corner I come on a workshop whose sole advertisement is a trip hazard of hats set out in a grid on the pavement. Walking on, past a few more anonymous doors, I glance up an alley, to a man stacking a toppling column of yet more hats.

Most will be of the lower grades, either 'standard' or 'superior', for the visitor market. The 'fino' and 'super fino', those for the discerning gent in his linen suit, regimental tie and deep pockets, are through the back. The latter has the mystique that no light nor water will pass through it, the very best, those 'Monticristis', with their crochet weave in excess of three thousand pleats to the square inch, which, when rolled up, will pass through a wedding ring. The dollar bill-roll to pay for it might not.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Time Travelling Grocer

When it comes to food provisions, I feel like I've become a time traveling anthropologist, touring the differing points on grocery's evolutionary curve.

High up on the altiplano she's called an 'artisanal', a western concept that offers images of specialist crafters, when the reality is necessity and survival. The Andiña pastoralist with her solitary, hand harvested milk cow, who crafts a simple boiled white cheese. A simple necessity, there's no milk-tanker collection service for raw milk. It's her sole cash crop. Now she has to stand in the bitter wind by the roadsides trying to sell to a disinterested passing public. Her only other alternative is to sell to an intermediary or travel to town on market day. And history is cluttered with rapacious middle-men and fickle markets. If it doesn't sell, she has costs but no income. Raw capitalism.

From road verge sale to the town market. In its basic form, ranked rows of steel poles canopied in polythene. Structures that can appear and disappear with sudden alacrity. Twenty tented structures, twenty vegetable sellers, twenty chances to buy the same identical produce. Raw competitive capitalism.

The temporary tent now evolves into bricks and mortar. Small dark caves where an eclectic selection of offerings are stacked deep and high. Move next door and the exact same offerings are available, only the random layout is different. And yet, what is interesting, the tent and the cave still survive when the basic supermarket opens across the road. In its essential form, the latter is just an enlarged form of the formers. A maxi-kiosk. It has more space for exactly the same offering. A larger display of toilet rolls.

Now grocer evolution evolves the 'hypermarket'. Western capitalist wisdom dictates that the tent, the cave, the kiosk, will simply wither away, swept aside by the hyper-efficient. We've cycled small town USA and witnessed the effect. Main Street with its' 'pay-day loans' and beauty nail-bars, dollar-shops and drawn shutters. Blind windows papered over with last year's news, these unrentables to be filled with 'op', 'thrift', or 'charity' shops. Alter the monetary denomination and I could be describing certain Scottish High Streets. Yet this scenario has yet to be enacted in the Andean towns and cities that we've visited.

Maybe the answer is walking towards me. A diminutive, determined matriarch bustling her persuasive way along the street. I step from the pavement so as not to impede her path; you wouldn't dare to argue with her. It's her street. It's her town. It's her country. It's her stall. It will survive.

Yet, all this grocery-anthropology leaves me with one question. The average height of an Andeña is well under 5' 5" (....), why is the top shelf in this hipermercado so far out of her reach?


Sunday, 17 January 2016


Why walk a round trip of several kilometres to the city's hypermarket when there's more ethnic colour to be found just around the corner?

I would like to claim research, serendipity and exercise. A chance to measure the incursion of the 'global grazers' and the other trans-national emporiumists. A chance to find some new story or at least a new set of street arts. A chance to stretch some muscles that haven't been exercised whilst granny-grinding an Ecuadorean hill. Only the real reason is more prosaic.

The Forager wants to see what is available, what is possible. Because when small town foraging, you need to be able to recognise the dusty objects buried in the rafters, set deep within the murky depths of the market stall. There's never any self-service, just like there's never any price tag.

Mall del Rio was just like the many that we've checked out. It's morning, an empty silence of polished marble, a clamouring contrast to the manic confusion of the narrow colonial streets across town. An emptiness filled with expectant designer boutiques, imported sports trainers, luxury car lottery salesmen and empty massage chairs. Off to one side is the 'grazers' food-court', there to capture the cinema-goer, where local brands try to outstare the likes of Ronald and The Colonel. All offering overpriced fast-food with a side of chilli. But what we're here for is placed at the rear.

Couture for the well dressed lady dog.

The food author Michael Pollen's advice is to walk the outer reaches of a supermarket, avoid the centre and only choose items that which your grandmother would recognise. (Advice that will, for some, need recalibration, adding a Great to the Gran.) We ignore his maxim in the interest of pure research, and stroll up and down every aisle. It was worth it.

Of course there were stories and a narrative on a nation to be found. Where else would you expect to buy a twenty gallon stainless steel milk churn or non-slip auto clutch pedal pads, frilly-laced dog dresses or a 50 tonne bottle jack? Who knew that I might need them?

Our wanderings determine that salt has a sell-by date four months after I start to draw my pension, that flour can be purchased in pretty pastel patterned cotton sacks, that rice comes in six grades, that diet rusks are called 'toasts of air' and that we could buy a 10kg bag of either boiled sweets or sweet biscuits. We now know that there is little point in searching for tinned evaporated milk, (our Peruvian treat) or powdered cheese. But of much greater significance, there's shelves filled with ground coffee, which translates as a significant amount of time can now be devoted to assessment and tasting. We had gathered intelligence that there was a shop that specialised in coffee tastings, it figured high on our to-do list. Closed for the holidays. Just like the German bakery whose anticipation and promise had sustained us up that last big climb before we descended on town.

These wanders take time, the packaging's font is Spanified Minuscule. The forager has to re-perch her specs for each perusal. Having noted that, Ecuador has enacted 'traffic light' warnings for grease, salt, and sugar. Which does help in choosing for the dire warned red-lit carbs and calories.

She selects a salami, it has claims to artisanality, "better take two then", more importantly; it's got three artery clogging stop lights. We can always counter the vascular damage with 'healthy' bacillus infused yogurt.

As we walked across town, it became apparent from the accents which were surrounding us that there was a significant visitor and expat population of European and, in particular North American citizens. One of that's catered for by the bags of anaemic bagels, Nestle iced tea, Aunt Jemima's pancake mix and Hershey chocolate bars. Then for all those on an all inclusive expenses trip or a newly cleared mortgag, there's Nutella.

We then progress upstairs, hoping to reach the DIY and find a bottle of benzine or a can of alcohol. (For stove cooking purposes!) only to be waylaid by the toy shop. Passing shelf upon shelf stuffed with the next great mercantile event of the year: Giant Teddy Bear for St. Valentine. From there to the ranked regimen of China-built cycles branded as 'Relax' and 'Still Man'. Oxymoronic, if you assume these bikes are intended for the city's narrow cobbled streets with their impatient taxis. Or simply a metaphor for my protracted progress up an Ecuadorean hillside. Like the weird and wonderful inscriptions on the tee-shirts that barely conceal the over-endowed mannequins that are propped outside every ladies clothing shop, you have to wonder; to which random lexical search engine they turned.

The morning progresses. Slowly the store fills with shoppers and a conundrum. I turn down breakfast cereal canyon and find an Andean family, all three generations of ladies in traditional dress. I shouldn't be surprised: after all, I'm in their country, yet I especially notice them, where I wouldn't if they were outside on the other side of the street. Is it the juxtaposition of westernised shopping mall and this family, the same comparison, the same alienisim, as the gringo cyclists in the local market place? For our ethnicity seems to require the appropriate back-cloth to enable us to blend in, to be comfortable on a stage. Is this the real reason we've walked all the way across the city? The chance to wallow in a milieu, in a familiar, comprehensible place. A mild sedative from the concentration of abroad. It would appear that we still require that dilution to culture shock, even after all this time.

Satiated with our successful retail research, I'm ready to head back to the other world, to collect some ciclo-radical graffiti I saw in the distance, to stride out down the trail beside the river. When serendipity steps in. To understand our incredulous amazement, you need to know one incontrovertible fact; the 'shoe-shine boy' is always, without exception, male. Yet there before us is a 'shoe-shine' lady. Not one, but two 'shoe-shine' ladies. Like the incursions of the mall into Andean retailing, am I witnessing the imminent death of Latino machismo.


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Many Names: One Bread.

There's a certain routine to our returning arrival in BA. Collect cargo and clear the airport, bus into town, walk around the corner and head for the metro. Stop by the first vendor and buy a bag of four. (This is our first opportunity to measure the rate of inflation in our six months of absence.. Once it was five.) Of course they will be consumed long before the train reaches San Isidro and the flat. We know where to find them in Salta, we know that they're a guaranteed fixture to every exit from every roundabout in Paraguay. In Asunsion, the 'chipaeros' jump on and off the still-moving buses, their dexterity with a wide wicker basket a true skill. Yet, beyond these locals they're an elusive treat. And like genuinely seasonal fruit, or a rare alpine plant, they need to be treasured when found.

Chipas. That eponymous Paraguayan bread roll, who's primary constituent is manioc flour. Or Mandioca flour, or Tapioca flour, or Casava flour, or Brazilian Arrowroot flour and now Almidon de Yuca. They're all one and the same plant: Manihot esculenta. To which, certainly in the quality ones, boiled white cheese will have been added. A confection best eaten warm, or at least before midday, when they still have the glutinous chew of a comfort food. Breakfast food. A bread that can stand alone and doesn't require the addition of unguents.

It's been a while, but now those elusive panes have reappeared, not out of a calico covered wide wicker basket balanced on a chipamonger's head, but the hot box of a chip shop. Fast-food. An aside to your 'burger, egg and chips. Or, as we've just discovered in Cuenca, the accompaniment to a frozen yogurt.

It was the Navigator in her forager mode that first spotted them. When it comes to 'Chipa Coursing' she's has the nose of a bloodhound. Which now leaves a problem. Having awakened the chipa taste bud, the search is on. Only fast-food outlets are a city phenomenon, yet verge-side evidence suggests that 'Dominos', 'Subways', KFC et al, exist somewhere, although Ronald and a McChipa are hopefully still a nightmare fantasy away, because that would introduce a truly monumental ethical problem.

The solution has been simple. That provendorial instinct has sourced the necessary raw ingredients. All we now need is a shade tree. Set up the petrol stove and mix up the flour, 'Royal', dried cheese and powdered milk. Season heavily with salt, pepper, nutmeg or what ever else seems appropriate or more likely, what's lurking dead at the bottom of a pannier. And to add a soupçon of fusion cuisine, throw in a handful of oats.

This plethora of local terms used in the construction of our favoured bun, is but one part of the many interests in frontera hopping. Our regimen of eating fare might be similar to Perú, but it's the names that have changed. To the south, our 'tortilla de carne' would be an egg omelette with rationed flecks of meat through it, in Ecuador it's a solid hamburger patty with a fried egg on top. Our palta, the avocado is now an 'aguacata'. Our 'Chifa' fried rice is now a 'Chaulafán', still a volcanic heap that can still erupt if too much chilli is added.

Our Chipas are now called 'Pan de Yucas' that comes in a 'Meal Deal' with frozen fruit yogurt. A rather enticing combination of hot and cold, sweet and salty. I suspect that for the next while we'll be doing a bit of hunting. Maybe not a seasonal food, but a regional one, and as such wil need treasuring.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

Quirks, Oddities and Plazas.

The main plaza is our favoured point of reference when tackling a new town or city. On the app-map they're invariably the large pale green square set in the middle of a grid of boxes. The genuine centre to which the Spartan road signage tries to point. They're generally a refuge away from the heavy goods traffic, a hot sun and the hive of moto-taxis.

For us, in particular, they are a place to park-up and drink deep shade. To take a breather from the shock of negotiating unregulated junctions, semaphoring traffic lights and wayward wandering pedestrians. Then for the Forager to deploy her divination and recce a room for the night.

Throughout all our southern travels, these plazas have come with certain characteristics, a certain conservative ground plan: The Catholic Church, in one of it's many guises, a clutch of telecom vendors and a fist of Banks, all facing in on some notable personage, column busted or astride a prancing horse, invariably poking the sky with a sword. The plan will always be a square. That is, until we reached Ecuador.

The frontier town of Macarà was our first encounter with un-gridded streets laced with un-rideable gradients. Its plaza defies any recognisable geometric description; likewise the accoutrements of archetypical architecture. A chapel and a basilica stand at opposite corners, the latter, when floodlit, is a pink and yellow blancmange, so defying of the mandatory Papal yellow on white. The council 'gin-palace' is rendered in brutalist concrete and occupies yet another quadrant. It's the final face that is unique. An airport terminal. Where many towns can be divided along rail tracks, Macará has a runway traversing its entire length, whose main purpose appears to be a dog walking trail and jogging track.

By the time we've reached Cuenca, we've started to get the measure of Sr. Town Planner and his partner Sr. Road Engineer. Gradients in excess of 9% are permissible, hairpin bends are not, and in town, replacement with flights of stairs, a useful solution; just don't note them on an app-map. Widening the sidewalk and installing one-way traffic management is the start of a 'liveable city', only it might be useful to alternate the 'una-vias'. Installing a two-way cycle path, but allowing it to disgorge you onto every unregulated roundabout renders it problematic. As you might have guessed, it took a good deal of quartering and quandering to reach Cuenca's central plaza. It felt like we had circumnavigated its old town twice. It was worth it.

The old colonial centre is on a grid, is peppered with plazas, each with an attendant cathedral, basilica or capilla. Held in place by steep valley hilsides and the Rio Tomebamba, whose cliff-like banks have given rise to those long flights of stairs that so thwarted our entry.

We keep to the script and eventually park up in the plaza, (Parque Calderón...which gives you an idea as to who is stuck up on his column, trying to puncture a cloud), sitting under manicured mesquites and soaring podocarps. Arboreal architecture that complements the vast, imposing monumental edifice of the city's 'new' cathedral. I don't know where the Navigator found her diabolical divining rods, only it bothers me, given that I'm surrounded by so much ecclesiasticalism. But I do know that they work. She returns to our corral of cycles with a smile...."wait till you see what I've found...." Maybe she employs the services of our 'guardian angel' or just has a dead reckoning instinct. Whatever; it's colonial in style, a balcony room that overlooks the plaza and the Santo Domingo church. Our bikes are parked behind a stuffed sofa in the 'palm court' of the secluded central atrium, there to complement the chaise longue, the ornaments and antiques; there's even a piano, just no pianist.

It oozes that potential for 'slow death' and 'faded grandeur', an ambiance that you know will never materialise, if only because of Julio the dueño owner. Even the cleaning regime is in keeping. No mechanical device attacks the Axminster. Whilst not quite 'the sprinkled tea-leaves' of an inter-war Britain, the principle is the same. A damp cloth wiped over the surface before a gentle broom sweep. It could descend into a pastiche if it wasn't so genuine.

It's all so at a variance with the antiseptic norm of the generic, bland-washed, star-encrusted 'international hotel'.

So good... we didn't buy it, but did end up staying several nights.


Wednesday, 6 January 2016


I first saw them a few days ago, in Macarà, three kilometres inside the Ecuadorean border. A Disney cast of characters, augmented by a Smurf and personages that my ignorance of the national political scene fails to identify. They're propped against a wall outside the balloon and party shop, such that I wonder if they're might be a local story involved. Some life sized, others just models. Gaudy bright, but with a distinct amateurish finish; as if the local primary school's P6 has been perfecting the art of papier-mâché. The detail is exquisite, only they lack permanence. Short shelf lives.

All cultures have ways to conclude the dying year, to draw a line under what has gone before. I remember being sent to take the hot ashes from the fireplace to the bin, the front door being opened just before the 'bells', so to hear the shipping horns down on the Clyde. Yet some are best forgotten, if only for the sake of embarrassment, to wit: that epitome of Scotch kitsch: The White Heather Show. All lost tartan trews and Andy Stewart.

With these customs observed, it's time to start afresh. Traditions that persist and we've just happened on some new ones.

Los Años Viejos; the old year brings out the Monigotes, those effigy characters that we first spotted a few days ago. Now they've moved from lounging nonchalantly to clambering onto car roofs, motorbiker pillion seats, parked outside car showrooms and tethered threateningly in front of vets' surgeries. The hardware store has spray painted spades in the colours of promised prosperity, whilst I wonder if the pharmacy is suggesting that it might trade in anabolic steroids. Traditionally they would be representing those that you didn't care for: your politics, your boss, your creditors. those that you have deemed to have sinned, like the over-remunerated football striker who failed to score, or the customer who's failed to settle their tab.

Then the tradition morphed to include characters from the popular imagination, Marvel's superheroes, or Looney Tunes' animates, to those who have been prominent in the previous year. It will also include the wish list; hence the motorbike on a car roof that passed me. Many of the creations are wonderfully crafted. There was ET who filled the cargo bed of a pickup, Spider-Man clinging to the roof of a speeding car, Peppa-Pig impregnated into a van's radiator grille. On other occasions you get the impression that there's a back story, an 'in-story', a history of incident that's being purged.

What is a near consistent: they're all male orientated.

Which introduces another cast of performers. The Vindas. The Widows. The 'wives' of the Monigotes, those effigies that will be burnt at midnight. Performed by young men dressed in luminous wigs and stuffed bras, suspenders belts and high heels, who then hold to ransom the passing traffic. That is, until some beer money has been elicited.

As if all this frenzy were not enough, there's all the other traditions to be adhered to.

Tradition: Retail Therapy. The purchase of yellow underwear to encourage prosperity, try red if it's love you crave or green for the filthy lucre. Silver and pink wigs to re-enact 'Frozen', a black plastic scythe with a white face mask to mimic Munch's 'Scream'. Then there's the acquisition of fireworks, and don't forget the beer. Crates of Pilsen are stacked in canyons down the narrow pavements, whist the explosives vendors furtively materialise after dark.

Tradition: the clear-out. The gents' barbers are ankle deep in hair clippings, metallic spray is in fashion. The car-washes are queued out, sudsy sludge flowing down the gutters.

The dark comes quickly, private parties break out in the now closed shops and cafés. The music from the karaoke bars steadily magnifies. With an half hour of the old year left, the impatient start to detonate the first rockets, little boys fling fire crackers into echoing alleys. The countdown reverberates across the plaza, and on the stroke, the first bonfire blazes. All those effigies, all that bad karma from last year goes up in flames. Purged. With the leaping flames comes one more ritual. Fire jumping. The cathartic purification of the old and if you want to add a little excitment, carry a tumbler of your favourite fire water.

We watch from a safe distance, I've seen one to many mis-fired rockets, one too many squibs skittering at ankle height today.

Tomorrow all that will be left will be a heap of ghost ash, an occasional part-charred paper skull and a populace being poured into taxis. For the party still has a full day to run.

Another year has begun, another year of collecting characters for the next old-year's bonfire of the sinners.


Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Art of Relax

For those in the know: Ruta PanAmericana: E35 Macará Internacional Border crossing > Loja.

"New country", strange but true, we've not been able to say that for some time. Last year's trip was in some ways a reprise of the previous year's curtailed travel, when the Navigator had a disagreement with a Chilean highway. (3 days hospitalisation and insertion of some ironwork). It then developed into some circulatory perambulation through southern Perú. This year's trip started from where the previous had left off, and after yet more deviations has finally managed to reach A New Country.

A New Place. That tantalising anticipation of something different. The most immediate being, what will the immigration and customs officials take exception to? Relax .... they're just not interested in us.

It's but a simple dotted line on a map, a short bridge over a stream, the tarmac shows no break, even the ceibo trees are no different, the parrots still scream from bank to bank. But we've entered a different place. I still find it remarkable, given South America's shared colonial, then independence history, how different each place is. It's what makes SA travel so fascinating. Sure, you can study the guidebooks, read the blogs, garner some wiki facts, but these are the gross simplifications, the broad-brush pictures. The realities are in the minutiae. And it's these that will colour-in my perception of this place.

Some things haven't changed. The bin lorry still plays a melodic lullaby. The light switch is still hidden behind the toilet door. The hot and cold taps are still transposed. The cockerel still sounds reveille for the pre-dawn. They are still selling 'prosperity seeking' yellow underwear for the New Year.

Yet, many things have changed. The solitary fork provided with my lunch comes with substance and a companionable knife; the rice is no longer mouldable into a 'gutty-ball', fit to go eighteen holes of golf. The dogs are occasionally tethered, and as a consequence the felines have a modicum of chances to survive. I've seen more cats in the last five days than we've noted in two Peruvian months. They still have to furtively slink around corners, and in 'Looney Tunes' fashion, I watch one bristle-haired moggy scale the face of an unrendered brick wall, remaining clamped there whilst the yapping terrier vexed its fury below.

Relax. That Peruvian War of Clarion Attrition, that uncontrollable armed decibel race for ever more strident horns, hasn't crossed the frontier. In part, because neither have the fume-belching moto-taxis nor the fare-honking combi buses, which makes for a relaxing, silent night if we've purchased a room in the vicinity of any Ecuadorean intersection.

Relax. Try a nice cup of the native caffeinated brew. Whist Ecuador isn't known for coffee production, it does have the favourable conditions around Loja to grow some, and unlike it's southern neighbour, doesn't export the best, leaving the floor sweepings for the local markets. However this new bounty is somewhat tempered by the relaxing electrical supply. It's a 110v system and when boiling the kettle, this translates as funereal sluggishness. We've given up on cooked porridge and now brew the morning's fix the evening before. Otherwise it would be an unexaggerated three hour session.

Relax. Macarà's sidewalk pavements are portico'd and pillared. Evil looking hooks stick out from said pillars, just at eye level, there to enable a hammock to swing. At four degrees south of the equator, the shadows have little creep; your siesta might not be disturbed from above by the near-stationary shadows, but by the speeding car passing within inches of your head.

Relax. You're standing at one of Loja's crossroads, the yellow taxi pulls up and hesitates, even stops, to check the state of the crossing, then encourages you to cross first. This is disconcerting.

Relax; "Ecuadorians are honest and friendly people....", you'll find variations on this redundant statement in every country's tourist info-fiction. Frankly, most people are! Only it's the actions that prove the claim. We're creating our latest substitution for bread, a variation on a pancake mix, by the side of the road. A car pulls up and we're presented with a selection bag of biscuits. We chat, they take a photo of the cyclo-Scots-gringos, leave.... Then turn around and come back with three kilos of mangos. We're filtering water at a well, and we get presented with a turkey sandwich in real, un-sweetened bread. (It's the 26th December; everybody's suffering turkey sandwiches, so why should we be exempt?). Two hours later and it's a wall poster, then it's more mangoes. All this and we're only a hundred kilometres into the country.

Relax. The next few kilometres are in a valley bottom, a rare few moments of level land. All too soon we'll be back to bottom-gear grind up those notorious gradients. Ecuadorean roads are always in such a hurry to reach their hill-tops. Then they either get bored or distracted and fall all the way down the other side. Relax, and scream "concentrate!".

Relax. It's old year's night. Try not to jump every time a howitzer shell explodes. Or you'll be a quivering nervous un-relaxed wreck before the evening is out.