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Farewell to Ecuador

Ecuador day nineteen

A last morning in Quito

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Santo Domingo

So, almost time to go home, after an amazing time in Ecuador. We had explored the old colonial cities of Quito and Cuenca, been awed by the majesty of the Andes, and been thrilled by the many wildlife encounters on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. But with an evening flight to catch, we determined to make the most of our last few hours here and take in some of the sights for which we had not previously had time.

Museo Domenicano de Arte Fray Pedro Bedón

We started here, just around the corner from our hotel. The Museo Domenicano de Arte in the monastery of Santo Domingo may be smaller than the Museo Fray Pedro Gocial attached to Iglesia San Francisco, but it is well worth a visit. In some ways I liked it more – perhaps because there were fewer exhibits and it was therefore easier to take them in; perhaps because the leaflet we were given gave us a good explanation in English of a few of the more noted pieces; perhaps because photography is allowed; but probably because we had the opportunity here to see more than just the museum itself.

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In the cloisters

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Wooden statue

But let’s start with the museum. We came here first thing in the morning and were the only visitors. The entrance fee of $2 included the brief leaflet, in Spanish and English, mentioned above. We were offered a guide but declined as we wanted to look round at our own pace. The guy who sold us the ticket told us we were allowed to take photos, without flash naturally, and walked with us to the room off the cloister where the treasures are displayed, which he unlocked for us. We spent some time in the short series of rooms. Among the treasures on display are:
~ a huge hymn book, dating from 1681 and made from parchment, leather and wood
~ an 18th century painting of the Virgin of the Rosary, by an anonymous artist of the Cuzco school
~ various wooden statues of saints from the 17th and 18th centuries, very realistic on their portrayal

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In the museum

When we had finished looking around here, we took some time to enjoy the peaceful cloister where more paintings were displayed, some of them looking decided more modern but not described in our leaflet.

As we went to leave the same guy who had sold us the tickets asked if we would like to see the original monastery refectory. We said that we would, so he locked up the museum (there were still no other visitors) and took us to the far corner of the cloister where he unlocked a door that led through the next cloister. This is currently part of the school for boys run by the monks, but he explained that the building works that we could see going on were being carried out to turn another part of the monastery into the school and open this part up to the public, thus extending the museum.

He then opened another door and we were in the refectory. This was really worth seeing – a large room beautifully decorated, with seating along the edges. Each of the 54 seats has a painting of one of the Dominican martyrs, along with the cause of their demise – some stabbed, some stoned, one shot by arrows and so on. As a contrast to these rather grizzly images, the ceiling has beautiful paintings depicting the life of St Catherine, from her birth at one end to old age at the other. Our guide pointed out that some had been restored and were consequently much richer in colour. The room is apparently still in use – hired out by the monks for special events, and used by themselves on feast days.

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In the refectory

Back in the cloister I asked our guide about the more modern paintings we had seen, and one in particular that had intrigued me. He explained that it had been painted in 1933 by a Dominican monk and artist, and showed the establishment, in Guayaquil, of Ecuador’s first trade union. You can see people practicing their various trades and crafts, gathered around Jesus in his guise as a carpenter, with his father Joseph, also of course a carpenter, behind him. On the right a Dominican brother leads more workers to join the union, and in the background is the busy port of the city, a hive of industry and activity.

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Painting marking the first trade union in Ecuador

We had spent considerably longer here than we had expected, and there was still the neighbouring church to be seen.

Iglesia Santo Domingo

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Chapel of the Rosary

The church of Santo Domingo was our “next-door neighbour” while we were in Quito, but somehow we had never got around to going inside until now, our last morning in the city, and when we did so there was a service in progress so we couldn’t look round properly. But while we were hesitating at the back a local lady motioned to us to indicate that we should go ahead, so we did just walk quietly along the right-hand side to peer into its most noted treasure, the Chapel of the Rosary. This alone is worth a visit to this church! It is richly decorated in deep red and gold, with a stunning rococo altar-piece, and quite takes your breath away. We had been told by our guide in the museum that this was the only part of the church to retain its original appearance, after the rest was redecorated in what later Dominicans considered more appropriate to the worship of God – this being thought perhaps too rich and worldly. But can you imagine what the church must once have looked like if it were once all like this?! It isn’t possible to enter the chapel (or at least, wasn’t possible when we visited) but photos are allowed from the gate that closes it off, as long as you don’t use flash. Despite resting my camera on that gate, the gloom has meant that my photo is a little blurred but I had to share it so you can see a little of the dramatic effect of this chapel.

The rest of the church is much plainer although still worth seeing, with some notable paintings – apparently. As I said, we weren’t really able to look around properly, but didn’t mind at all, as once we’d seen that chapel we were more than happy that we’d made time to come inside our neighbour church.

The church stands in, and dominates, the plaza of the same name. In the centre of the square a statue of Antonio Jose de Sucre points to the Pichincha volcano where he led the winning battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822. I had read that the square is considered unsafe at night, but we had walked along its north-eastern side several times on our way to and from La Ronda, once stopping to take photos, and had never seen anything to concern us. However, we may have been lucky, so do be careful if you visit at night.

From the southern corner of the plaza you can walk under the arch that the church forms over the road, Rocafuerte, and look back for some rather different views.

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Santo Domingo from Rocafuerte

After visiting the church we walked up to the Plaza San Francisco for coffee at our favourite café, Tianguez, and from there walked along the narrow but busy shopping street, Cuenca. We came across a number of clothes shops along this street that to our European eyes were rather old-fashioned but all the more fascinating for that, and they presented us with some great photo opportunities. In particular, the shops selling clothes for special occasions such as children’s First Communion celebrations, and dresses for brides, caught our eye – and our camera lenses!

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Shops in the colonial city

Iglesia La Merced

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La Merced

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I had not read as much about this church as many of the others in Quito before our arrival, but as our walk led us this way we decided to pop inside for a look. Approaching the church along Cuenca gave us an excellent view of it, and as it was morning and therefore sunny it was shown to best advantage, its white walls gleaming. Entering we found that there was no fee to pay and no restriction on photography other than a request not to use flash – unusual here in Quito.

The church dates from the early part of the 18th century, having replaced an earlier one that was destroyed by earthquake in 1660. The tower is the highest in colonial Quito, at 47 metres. According to a legend this tower is possessed by the devil. Supposedly the only person strong enough to resist the devil was a black bell-ringer named Ceferino, and no one has dared enter the tower since he died in 1810. The clock therefore stands still and the bell is never rung.

The church has an unusual grey stone door frame, with images of the sun and moon carved above the lintel – the two heavenly bodies worshipped by the indigenous people who no doubt quarried the stone. Inside two features dominate – the beautifully painted dome with its dedication to Mary, and the altar. The latter has a life-size stone statue of the Virgin of Mercy, to whom Sucre dedicated his victorious sword after the Battle of Pichincha. The statue was carried in procession during the eruptions of Pichincha volcano.

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The dome of La Merced

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The altar

All this we saw, as well as a number of interesting paintings. But I wish I had done more research, as I found out after returning home that the cloister here is considered one of the most attractive in Quito, with pillars of stone and dazzling white archways, as well as a wide stone courtyard with a magnificent carved stone fountain in the centre. Furthermore, from this cloister you can apparently access the library, with two floors of ancient parchments and gold- and leather-bound books. How I regretted not having seen this! Nevertheless we enjoyed our visit to this slightly off-the-path church.

Iglesia San Agustin

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Iglesia San Agustin

By now we were running out of morning and still wanted to fit in lunch before we had to leave. But we made time for a brief visit to another church.

The church of San Agustin is one of the oldest in Quito, having been constructed during the first half of the 17th century, but much of it has been rebuilt after damage by earthquake in 1880. It has a distinctive tall bell tower (37 metres) topped with a statue of St Agustine. We didn’t have time for a proper exploration, but we did manage to get a quick look at what seemed to me to be a somewhat plainer church than some of the others in Quito but with attractively painted walls and ceiling – almost more in the style of a grand house than a place of worship. The most noted part of the church is in fact its cloisters, which we had no time to visit. These are decorated with paintings depicting the life of St Augustine, dating from the mid 17th century and the work of an important artist of the Quiteño school, Miguel de Santiago. The chapterhouse opens off the cloister and was the location for an important event in the city’s history – the signing, on August 10th 1809, of Ecuador’s declaration of independence from Spain.

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Last lunch in Quito

A more thorough exploration of this church and its treasures will be one of my priorities should we ever return to Quito.

As our route back to the hotel took us past the Plaza Independencia we popped into the Palacio Arzobispal for lunch at Querubin, where we had eaten on our first day in the city. A toasted cheese sandwich and last glass of my favourite guanabana juice were a good finale to our time in this very likeable city.

Travelling home

After lunch we headed back to the Hotel San Francisco de Quito to pick up the bags they had kindly been looking after for us. Our transfer to the airport went smoothly, as did the flight home, with none of the delays of our outward journey, and the standard of service on board was as good as I’d remembered from a previous long-haul flight with KLM some years ago.

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Sunset over Ecuador

Travelling directly from Quito to Europe was great, as it meant a long overnight leg with a chance to catch some sleep, and a short hop back to Heathrow on a plane so small that baggage reclaim was mercifully quick, and we were home from the airport in record time!

The end of another wonderful trip – one of the most memorable we have taken.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches sunset city quito ecuador street_photography Comments (5)

Tales of life and death in Jaisalmer

India day seven continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Before and after our visit to the fort we wandered the streets of the old city of Jaisalmer, with its honey-coloured havelis with ornately carved sandstone windows. Beyond we found eerily atmospheric cenotaphs, and beyond that the desert …

Gadisar Lake

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Our first stop on our day’s sightseeing tour here was at this very photogenic spot on the edge of the old town. The lake is also often referred to locally as Gadisar Tank, as it is manmade – built as a reservoir for the city of Jaisalmer by Rawal Jaisal, the first maharaja of Jaisalmer, and later restored and improved by Maharaja Maharwal Gadsi Singh in about 1400 AD. There are a number of temples and shrines not only around the lake but also out in the middle, and several ghats once (but no longer) used for cremations.

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On Gadisar Lake

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A large number of catfish live in the lake. Our guide Gaurav had bought some slices of bread from a local lad as we walked along the road and we were soon to find out why. He tossed a few pieces into the water and it immediately began to churn as the fish jostled to grab a bite. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fish so close together in a body of water at one time!

It is possible to hire boats here, and it’s also a good place for birdwatching, as well as for photography as I hope you can see.

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The main path down to Gadisar Lake leads beneath a lovely sandstone gate, the Tilon-ki-Pol (meaning Gate of Tilon), which dates back to the 14th century.

The story goes that Tilon was a famous dancer (some people say prostitute) in the court of the maharaja. She wanted to pay for a gate to be built here, so that she would be remembered after her death. But the maharaja refused permission because he would have to pass under it to go down to the lake, and this he felt would be beneath his dignity as a great ruler (another version of the tale puts the maharaja in a better light by suggesting that he felt it would detract from the importance of the lake as it would become the main feature here). Whatever the truth of his displeasure, while he was away on court business she had it built anyway, and when he returned and threatened to pull it down, she added a temple to Krishna on the top so that it would become sacred and therefore not to be destroyed even by a king.

To get a good view of the gate don’t walk through it to the lake but instead follow the road a short way past it and head down to the water further to the east.

Sati memorials

Some of the structures around Gadisar Lake have small memorial stones, beautifully carved, which Gaurav told us commemorated women who had immolated themselves.

In fact, I have since learned, they commemorate first and foremost the men who died and were cremated at these ghats, but also their wives who practised what is known as sati – self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husband. The stone with the carving of a man on horseback is a memorial to the man, while that with the figures with their hands folded is for the wives, with the number of figures showing how many wives performed sati.

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This seems a horrific idea to Westerners, and probably these days to most Indians too, but Gaurav told us that it was not so long ago that sati was still practised here. His own great grandmother had immolated herself on the death of her husband (I didn’t think to ask about the date, being quite shocked at the revelation, but I would guess that it must have been in the first part of the twentieth century, long after the practice was officially banned in India). Later that day we were to visit the Brahmin cenotaph of Vyas Chhatri where he told us that this (to me) gruesome sacrifice had taken place.

Meanwhile though we spent the rest of the morning exploring the fort (as described in my previous entry), and the afternoon in the old town that surrounds it …

Old town architecture

After spending much of the morning in the fort and taking a short break for a cold drink in one of its many rooftop restaurants, we made our way down into the streets of the old town below. These are not dissimilar in many ways to those inside the fort, but perhaps a little wider and with more traffic in places.

As in the fort, there was so much here to photograph – more Ganesh paintings (see my previous entry for an explanation of these), more beautiful buildings, more colourful details and local dress.

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Street scenes in the old town

Havelis

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Patwa Haveli

Jaisalmer grew up as an oasis town on the camel caravan routes between East and West, trading silk, spices, indigo and precious and semi-precious stones. The caravans would stay here to rest and resupply, and the high tolls they paid enriched the city and the Court. Its merchants became wealthy, as did its bankers (both, by the way, professions favoured by the large number of Jains who lived here, who shun agriculture because it conflicts with their belief regarding the sanctity of every living thing). These rich merchants and bankers naturally liked to show off their wealth in the grandeur and beauty of their homes. Furthermore, the relative liberalism of this western border town when much of northern India was under Mughal rule, attracted artists and craftsmen, whose skills flourished here. Thus many of the city’s houses, all built in that lovely golden sandstone, are further embellished by carvings, and of these the most gorgeously elaborate are the mansions or havelis of the rich. You can find havelis in many places in India, but Jaisalmer is particularly noted both for the large concentration of them in a relatively small city, and for the delicacy of the carvings in the sandstone.

You will see such beautiful stonework in both the fort itself and in the lower town streets, but the best examples of havelis are probably those in the latter which is where these photos were taken. Here you will find the one considered the most beautiful of all, the Patwa Haveli. This was built over a period of about 50 years from 1805 onwards by a Jain merchant, Guman Chand Patwa, as a home for his five sons consisting of five adjoining houses. The many oriel windows projecting out over the street maximise the use of space in the small town plot, while the carved sandstone lattice screens let in cool air in the desert heat. This building is open to the public but I have to say that by the time we reached this point in our hot day’s sightseeing we were running out of energy so we contented ourselves with views from outside. Although the streets here are narrow there is a small open square opposite making photography a little easier than it might otherwise be (Gaurav told us that the city government had cleared this space deliberately, which made me wonder what had been destroyed in the process).

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Patwa Haveli

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Haveli architecture in the old town

Other havelis of note are Nathmal and Salim, but really you will find this wonderfully detailed stonework on so many houses here that you will be spoiled for choice! Whichever you visit, there are three distinctive features to look out for. Firstly, the carved sandstone screen known as a jaali, which you find on many old buildings in Mughal India. Secondly, the decorative stone oriel window called a jharokha as seen in such profusion on the Patwa Haveli. Both of these elements could be partly prefabricated and installed in even quite modest houses which explains perhaps why so many houses in Jaisalmer look so fabulous. The third element, again easily seen on the Patwa Haveli, is the deep downward curve of the small roofs that shelter the windows – a style brought by the Mughals from Bengal.

Shopping for silver

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Mehar had told us on the drive to Jaisalmer that one of the things it was famous for was its silver-work and silver jewellery, and I love silver jewellery! So I determined that a bangle bought here would make a nice souvenir of my trip. I asked Gaurav for advice (yes, knowing that his chosen shop would be one that paid him to bring us there, but also knowing that TransIndus guides are under strict instructions not to rip tourists off and only to recommend good places). He suggested that he could take us to a family business, run from their home in the old town.

We arrived at the house, slipped off our shoes, and descended to the basement which serves as the shop. There were two other customers seated on the low cushions – one another tourist, an American woman and her daughter picking out presents for friends back home; the other a local woman choosing with great care the jewellery she would wear at her wedding. I asked the man serving us if I could see some bangles and he emptied a large bag on the floor at my feet! He demonstrated the clever design, a speciality here – the bangles are hollow and can be twisted to put on and take off, clicking into place to hold them. I rummaged for a short while until I found a design I liked, and he then helped me unearth it in the correct size.

I was pleased that there was no “hard sell” here – OK, it was suggested I might like to wear more than one bangle, or buy another for a friend, but neither of these points were pressed when I said no thank you. The service was pleasant and the buying experience more relaxed than in a shop, so I was happy with Gaurav’s recommendation, and with my purchase, which I wore almost daily for more than a year following this trip. Sadly though, it was one of very many holiday-bought pieces of jewellery that were stolen when we were burgled in spring 2016, and this photo of the pile of bangles on the carpet is my only record of it – that, and the memories, which no burglar can take away.

Vyas Chhatri

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After a break at our hotel, the Fort Rajwada, and a swim in its lovely pool, Gaurav picked us up again to go to see the sunset, a popular outing in Jaisalmer. From what I have read it seems that many people visit Bada Bagh, the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Royal Family, but our Brahmin guide brought us to these instead. The place had a particular meaning for him, as he explained that it was here that his great grandmother had performed immolation on the death of her husband, according to the then-tradition, as he had told us that morning by Gadisar Lake.

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The name of Vyas Chhatri refers to the structure of the tombs – these small domed pavilions seen in so much of Mughal architecture. It is not usual in Hinduism to erect such tombs for the dead, as Hindus believe that their souls will be reborn through reincarnation, but when the Mughals brought Islam to India they brought with it the custom of erecting tombs which gradually become popular among Hindus too in some regions, especially in these western desert parts. Kings and important people would be honoured and remembered in these “tomb gardens” which were established in prominent spots such as this hillside and were open to the public.

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This is still an active cremation site so be prepared to see the remains of fires and wood stacked for future use. I have seen some visitors suggest that this makes it inappropriate to visit as a tourist attraction, but I felt it was no more so than visiting a graveyard, for instance, and the fact that it was suggested by a local with a direct connection to the place reassured me further on that count. Be prepared for this though, and for the fact that if a cremation has recently taken place you may even, as one shocked tourist whose account I read (The creepy beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan), come across smouldering ashes.

The same writer also notes with some revulsion that funerals in this part of India at least are still caste-based, so only Brahmins will be cremated here while other castes each have their own site. I find the whole caste system bewildering and somewhat anachronistic, but by this point in our trip had learned to accept that to many of the locals we spoke with it was an unquestioned way of life – although perhaps even more so to a Brahmin like Gaurav.

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The latter had suggested that we head for a spot about five minutes’ walk away to watch the sunset, and most visitors there at the time did this, presumably because it offers a view of the town and fort beyond. But after checking it out quickly we decided to stay by the cenotaphs themselves and were rewarded with much better photos as a result, as you can frame the setting sun with the structures, which really glow in this light.

Entry to this spot is free but there’s a small charge of 50 IR for camera use – do pay this as you will want to take photos!

Once the sun had set it was back to our hotel for dinner in the same Sonal restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening. We enjoyed our meal of a minced lamb kebab, potatoes stuffed with nuts and dry fruit, and dal, washed down with a couple of beers, while reflecting on a busy and fascinating day in the city that has probably stayed with me more than most others visited on that trip.

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Hotel view, the following morning

Posted by ToonSarah 07:17 Archived in India Tagged buildings people sunset india city rajasthan jaisalmer customs Comments (2)

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