I must confess that I’ve been saving the best one of the three churches we saw for the last. I don’t know whether it because we were lightheaded from getting off a flight and heading directly to see the sights, or whether it was the novelty of being in a new city but it seemed to me that this little church threw open for us its heart and soul in a way that few places in the world have done before. We walked in and bought tickets, expecting a standard walk around the church, but what we got was an involved leisurely tour that allowed us to caress each piece of wood we fancied and linger at each pillar we liked.
It was here that we, once again, had the standard Ecuadorian conversation……
“De donde eres? Where are you from?”
“Eso es tan lejos! That’s so far away!…….Bienvendio a mi paid…. Welcome to my country….”
….but with the extra warmth and pride that Cuencans seem to have.
In Todos Santos, the oldest church in the city, those words came from the lips of a nun of the Oblate Order, which was set up in the late 19th century here and have played a key role in adding to the church structure as well as setting up community infrastructure, chiefly a school in the premises that was the first to permit Indian women to attend (and is still in existence today). Many of the Oblate nuns lived under an oath of silence inside the convent here and continue to be highly regarded in Cuenca. With this conversation began the most detailed tour of a heritage site that I’ve ever had.
In the late 1530s when it was constructed, the Iglesias Todos Santos or the All Saints Church was instrumental in helping the Spanish conquistadors establish the Catholic faith in a terrain steeped in Inca practices intermingled with the pre-Inca Canari culture (many pre-spanish graves were found during restoration). In fact, it is rumored to have been built on a site called Ushno, which was sacred to indigenous people and used for religious rituals by them.Even after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca in 1557 and began to hold their religious services in El Sagrario (read here), Todos Santos continued to be the primary church for the ‘evangelising’ of native people.
Architecturally, like in other monuments we saw of the period, Todos Santos was a curious mix of native technology and art with Spanish aesthetic sensibilities. Originally, the church was built on wooden frames and filled with adobe walls, built with a special mud-brick called bahareque, which the Canaris made with a mix of sugarcane, straw and clay.
Phoenix-like, this beautiful building underwent significant restoration between 2010-12 after being nearly destroyed in two fires in 2005 and 2007. The restoration uncovered the exquisite murals that had been unfortunately painted over in 1960. What we saw, therefore, was a church proud of its second lease of life. Locally made terracotta tiles, the detailed paintings over the stucco walls, the use of bright colors like cobalt blue, gold, red and yellow, the bright blue and gold ceiling tiles all clearly spoke of the influence of local art on this church, perhaps inevitable in those early years.
As we climbed higher and higher into the bell tower and beyond, we could see the surviving original wooden beams replaced and reinforced by new ones labeled 2009 and 2010. Standing high above the terracotta roofs of the city, with stunning vistas all around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine the awe a religious structure as well-proportioned and intricately decorated as Todos Santos might have evoked in the Canari and Inca people back in the 16th century. After all, even we had our jaws dropping to the floor and our eyes agog!
On a lighter note, I discovered while scouring the Internet later that we weren’t the only ones who had got the full detailed tour of Todos Santos! Many others had given it rave reviews citing the care with which they had been shown around. Far from feeling bad about it, I’ve been feeling delighted that the little church is in such very dedicated hands!
This is the first church we encounter our walk from our hotel to the main city square. Its pretty but unassuming white exterior and well proportioned bell towers does not prepare us for the treasures inside. As we purchase our tickets and enter, it glitters and dazzles, it awes us into silence, just as it did the small congregation in the early years after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca. Built on Inka ruins (I really like this spelling, used commonly in Ecuador, so I’m going to stick to it!) starting the year 1557, the church was likely the centre of religious and social life for the Spanish in colonial Cuenca (it appears indigenous people were not permitted to worship here) and in fact, was built through private donations. It remained the heart of the city till the New Cathedral was built much later in the 19th century (read post).
Though longer a consecrated church but rather a carefully preserved museum, it still feels very much like a place of worship. The elegant, elongated proportion of the building translate into elegant arched hallways, richly decorated. Parts of the original paintwork on the walls have been restored, especially in the elaborate chapels along the sides of the main hall and the richness of colour and the beauty of the carefully crafted human forms are striking indeed. A three-dimensional depiction of the Last Supper now dominates the space before the gilded altar and the paintings in the altar section are particularly vivid. This is also the only place I have seen oil paints done on marble from the 16th century! The quality of the artefacts and the quality of restoration is impressive. Especially striking is the balance between restoration and preservation, with many places where the original paintwork or masonry has been left partially revealed just as they might have found it, giving the visitor a sense of how much changed over time.
Another interesting fact about this Cathedral is that its spire was used by the French Geodesic Expedition in 1739 as a point of reference to establish the arc of the earth. This becomes more relevant when I later visit the monument to the work of these brave scientists at Mitad del Mundo near Quito.
We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.
I’ll begin with the largest of all, the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.
Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.
The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.
The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!
The more you travel, the more you admire the industry and hard work of women. In Cuenca, we saw women carry things and sell eats, flowers and knick knacks on pavements and in street markets. Women manned the entries to churches and museums, sold us tickets and showed us around. Women served us in hole in the wall eateries, scurrying between kitchen and table even as their menfolk cooked inside. Here are some clicks of the beautiful women we met today, many of them clearly from native tribes of the region (like the Otovalos and Canari), distinct in their facial features and ethnic attire.
Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later.
After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing.
Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..
After winding up our event at the Habitat3 conference here in Quito, Ecuador, we tested ourselves to an outing to the old city for dinner. Of course we had read up about the historic centre of the Quito but nothing could prepare us for the sheer unassuming beauty of it. Chok-a-block with people on a Monday night, families and young people out in full swing, the city showed us its lively, warm side tonight.
We ate at a ‘cafeteria’, an endearing and affordable place full of chattering people where service was prompt and the elevated revolving chairs and continuous platform tip made for a unique experience. And then we stepped out into the stunning streets to see beautifully lit churches, plazas overflowing with life and the happy sounds of little children, a lovely sound and light show playing on the facade of the old theatre building, endless street grids with the lights of the sloping hills twinkling through in the distance. Mesmerised, all we want to do is go back to see historic Quito in daylight.
In the build-up to the travel to Quito, I wasn’t really focused on the actual day of travel. But as the 14th of October approached, I found myself wondering what it would be like to travel so far away, literally to the other end of the planet, in a single day! “Exhausting!” was the response I got from anyone I spoke to who had done it before. The word that resonated in my head was exciting. Call it a first timer’s enthusiasm!
Catching a flight out of Delhi at 3:30am means you don’t sleep that night. As it was, we got to the airport early and spent a few hours in the lounge, working! So many things were still pending as we tried to answer emails and take those last minute calls. After an 8 hour 20 minute flight, we reached Schipol (Amsterdam), where we had a little over an hour of time before we caught another 10 hour flight to Atlanta (after nearly missing it because they made a lat minute gate change!). After a stoppage of three and a half hours, we got on our final leg to get to Quito, a flight time of a little over five hours. That’s about 24 hours of time inside an aircraft and another 5 hours at airports. All of this within the same day! As we traveled westward, we kept gaining time and so, over 30 hours of transit only meant we had started traveling early in the day and landed close to midnight of the same day. In reality, it was much much more! Yes, the 14th of October 2016 was certainly the longest day of my life!
Landing in Quito on a cool, misty night felt ethereal; much of that dreaminess I’d attribute to the extreme exhaustion which we sensed but did not feel at the time. We were up the next morning, bright and chirpy and ready to hit the streets. Only halfway through the day did the exhaustion hit us. The legs felt heavy and weary, the head light. Sitting there in the office of one of the Ecuadorian vendors we are dealing with in connection to the event we are organizing here at Habitat3, it hit home to me when she described how high Quito is and how it isn’t easy to breathe here for first timers! Yes, Quito is in a valley at a height of over 2800 metres; it is the highest capital city in the world and also the one closest to the Equator giving it a unique set of weather conditions! In that moment, when the mind realized that the body needed rest, I thought about what it meant to be so far away from home, to experience a new culture, a new place and gain a fresh set of perspectives!
At the end of the first day here in Quito, I’m feeling very lucky and looking forward to a wonderful Habitat III conference where people from across the world have gathered to think about solutions to urban problems.
One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!
Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.
My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.
And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.
We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!
Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!
Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.
Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.
Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.
Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.
Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.
In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!
We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!
After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about.
On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….