Among The Mountains Of The Equator

ALTHOUGH Ecuador straddles the equator, the greater part of it has an excellent climate. It is a land of the sky, for it has a dozen towns which are twice as high up in the air as Denver. Nine-tenths of its inhabitants live in the clouds. It has cattle ranches in the Andes, which are more than two miles above the Pacific ocean; and it has in Quito the highest capital city in the world.

Quito is situated in a valley between the two ranges of the Andes, on the very roof of South America. It is more than half a mile higher than the city of Mexico, and more than a thousand feet higher than the Hospice of St. Bernard, in the Alps, the highest point in Europe where men live all the year round.

Quito claims a population of 80,000 people. It is doubtful whether it has 50,000. It is not half so large as it was before the country was discovered by the Spaniards. At that time it was one of the great centres of the Inca civilization, a civilization which was better than that of many of the Ecuadorians of to-day. The city then had several hundred thousand inhabitants, and it was for many years more populous than it is now.

Quito is thus one of the old cities of the world. The Indians have many traditions concerning it. They claim that there was a town upon its site before Christ was born; and it is known that there was a settlement there in A. D. 1000. At the time of the Incas it was a city of temples and palaces. Atahualpa, the Inca monarch, who was murdered by Pizarro, had a home in it, the roof of which was plated with gold; and the city contained vast treasures, which were buried by the Indians in order that they might not fall into the hands of the Spaniards.

The Quito of today is like a Spanish city of the Middle Ages. The people of Guayaquil say that it is just about a hundred years behind the moon. It has nothing in the way of modern improvements, and few modern customs, and it is so difficult of access that travellers seldom get to it.

The only means of crossing the Andes is on mules. You go first to Babahoyo, and from there make your way over the mountains, a distance of 165 miles, to Quito. The round trip costs about $l00, and if you have baggage considerably more. All goods taken to and from the central valley of Ecuador are carried up the mountains on the backs of men and mules. At Babahoyo I saw twenty-four Indians starting out for Quito with a piano. The piano was cased, and the men were bearing it along on their heads. The cost of transportation was almost as great as the price of the piano. Ordinary packages cost from $60 to $70 per ton; the freight on a small boiler recently shipped was $l00. Absolutely nothing has been done in the way of making roads, and you travel along narrow paths, fording streams, your mule at times wading through mud up to its belly. Parts of the road are so steep that you have to lean over and clasp the neck of the animal you are riding to hold on, and in descending some of the declivities the mules sit down and slide.

The Ecuadorians say, “Our roads are for birds, not for men.” You realize this again and again during the journey, which in the wet season is uncomfortable from start to finish. There is almost constant rain ; and you cannot rest in the wretched inns, they are so infested with unmentionable insects.

It grows colder as you ascend, and at the top you need your heaviest clothing. Crossing the coast range you enter a wide valley more, than two miles above the sea, finally reaching the little town of Ambato, about seventy miles from Quito. Here you get a stage, which takes you to the capital. The stage-coach is of English make, but antiquated. It is pulled by relays of mules, which carry you on the gallop.

Another route from Guayaquil to the capital is over Ecuador’s only railroad to the foot of the mountains at Chimbo, The road is a narrow gauge, fifty-four miles long, built by an American named Kelley. The original idea was to carry it over the Andes, and this may be done at some time in the future, a concession to that effect having been granted to an American syndicate.

Quito is beautifully situated, right in the mountains, walled in, as it were, by some of the highest peaks of the Andes. Just back of it is the active volcano, Pichincha, its snow-capped peak so near the city that the ice for making Quito’s ice-cream cornes from there. Pichincha has a crater half a mile deep and a mile wide at the bottom. It is a mile higher up in the air than Mt. ‘Etna; and its eruptions, which occur at long intervals, are such that Mount Vesuvius would be a portable furnace beside it.

It is a five hours’ journey from the city to the top of this volcanic mountain. You can ride almost to the summit on horseback. Standing upon it you look down upon Quito in the valley below. It is a city of white adobe houses of one and two stories, roofed with red tiles. The buildings are low and squatty; they stand along narrow streets which cross each other at right angles. One is struck by the large numbers of convents, monasteries, and churches among them. Fully one-fourth of the city is taken up by church establishments, and there are as many priests and nuns to the square foot as in Rome. Quito is altogether Catholic. It has always been a supporter of the Pope, its contributions to the Church having been so numerous that it has received the name of “The Little Mother of the Pope.”

The government is still largely a union of church and state, and the priests have great influence. Catholicism is the only religion, and by that I do not mean the liberal Catholicism of the United States, but Spanish Catholicism, which in Ecuador has as many evils as it had in the days of the Inquisition. The country is nominally a republic, but voters must belong to the Church, and must be able to read and write. Inasmuch as not more than one-tenth of the people can read or write, the educated whites control the elections.

Ecuador is a land of revolutions. Every now and then a new party ousts the President and takes possession, going through the ceremony of an election afterwards as a matter of form. The President lives at Quito, and in his Cabinet of five ministers, one represents the Church. In addition to the President and Cabinet, there is a Congress of two Houses, a system of courts, and a number of governors, one for each province, who are appointed and subject to removal by the President.

Ecuador has a small national debt, payment of the interest on which has been suspended since March, 18g6. There are but few direct taxes. Seventy per cent of the government income is de-rived from customs duties; fifteen per cent from taxes on cacao, real estate, rum, and tobacco; and six per cent from salt and gun-powder monopolies. Every city has its government salt ware-house, where the merchants or private consumers must come to buy, and where they pay several times as much for a very poor article as they would if salt were free. I visited such a warehouse at Babahoyo. There were hundreds of tons of dirty salt, banked up in large barn-like rooms, and I saw salt weighed out to purchasers on a pair of American scales. The salt costs the government sixty cents a hundredweight, and its price at the warehouses is almost two cents a pound. The revenue from this source amounts to about $200,000 dollars a year.

Ecuador has now a public school system, but, as I have said, only about one-tenth of the people can read and write. There are over a thousand primary schools, and more than forty schools of higher grades. The children all study out loud, and the din is as great as in the schools of China. Quito has a university, which is largely managed by Jesuits, and there are colleges at Cuenca and Guayaquil. At Guayaquil there are two newspapers, both of which get brief cable dispatches. The papers are sold by newsboys on the streets; they are printed on old American presses, from type made in the United States; but their paper and ink come from Germany. Among the other public institutions are a hospital at Guayaquil, and asylums for lunatics and lepers at Quito.

The most interesting people of Ecuador are the Indians, who are of two classes, the semi-civilized and the savage. Among the latter there are about 150,000 or 200,000 who have never been subdued, and are less known than the people of interior Africa. Some of the tribes along the Napo river, which flows through eastern Ecuador into the Maranon, use poisoned arrows, which they shoot at their enemies through blow-guns made of reeds. With these guns they can send the arrows long distances, and a scratch from one of them causes death.

Another tribe of this region, the Jivaros, have a curious method of preserving the heads of such of their enemies as are killed in battle. While I write these words a human head, cut off just below the chin, lies on the table before me. Whether it is that of a woman or a man I do not know. The hair is long, black, and silky, and so thick that I can hardly grasp it all in my hand. The head came from this Indian tribe. It was offered to me as a curiosity for $i00 in gold, and I can buy several more at the same price. It is a gruesome object, not larger than my fist, but the features are as perfect as in life. All the bones have been removed, and the skin has shrunken into its present shape. It is black, its eyes are closed, the forehead over which the dark hair hangs is low, and the nose is almost negro in shape. The lips, which were once full and sensuous, are sewed together with long cotton strands, which hang down like a macrame fringe; and the chin has a pronounced dimple in it, which may have been admired by the sweetheart and friends of the owner of the head.

It is now against the laws of Ecuador to sell these heads, but they are surreptitiously offered to every traveller. How they are prepared is a mystery. A red-whiskered German came to Quito some years ago to learn the process. He made his way into the wilds of the eastern Andes and disappeared. Nothing has since been heard of him, but it is said that about six months after he started out on his expedition a head beautifully cured was brought in for sale. Its features were German in cast, and on the chin was a beard of the same brick-dust hue as that of the German explorer.

From native sources I learn that the Indians, after they have removed the bones of the skull, cure the heads by filling them with hot pebbles and passing them from hand to hand, pressing them so carefully inward that in shrinking they do not lose their shape. After this they are baked in the sand and so treated that they will last for ages. The skin of the neck of the head before me is about one-sixth of an inch thick. Its pretty ears are about the size of a silver quarter, and as I push back its hair and look at its closed eyes I almost fear that they will open and glare at me.

Most of the Indians of Ecuador are semi-civilized. We have, it is estimated, about 260,000 Indians in the United States. Ecuador has 870,000 in a total population of 1,250,000, the remainder of the inhabitants being made up of about l00,000 whites and about 300,000 of mixed races, or crosses of the whites and negroes with the Indians.

The whites are the ruling class. They are the government—the wealth, the brains—the Ecuador that we know in business and in trade. The Indians who constitute the working population are chiefly Quichuas, the descendants of the people who inhabited the plateau when the Spaniards first came. They are thriftless, and seem to have little spirit or ambition. Their highest idea of pleasure is plenty of liquor; and the Ecuadorian ” smile ” is as common as the drink of America. They live like dogs, and work almost from birth to death. They till the soil, carry the freight on their backs up and down the mountains, and are in fact often treated more like cattle than the animals themselves. They submit to the whites, and are accustomed to being advised by them. Only a comparatively few of these Indians can read or write, and very few accumulate property. The semi-civilized Indians are Catholics. They are ruled by the priests, and a large part of their earnings goes to the Church.

From this it will be seen that the people of Ecuador will never be a large consuming class. A suit or two of cotton clothes, a little rice and meat, a cane hut in the lowlands or one of adobe brick in the mountains, will suffice for most of them. It will be long before Ecuador can have a large trade. There are no accurate trade statistics, and it is consequently difficult to get at what the business of the country amounts to. It probably ranges somewhere between $10,000,000 and $15,000,000 a year, the imports being less than the exports. There are practically no factories, hence all its manufactured goods are imported. Except lumber, lard, kerosene, flour, and barbed wire for fences, which are largely shipped from the United States, most of the imports come from Europe.

Freight rates are at present lower to France or England than to New York, and the banking connections are altogether in favor of London. Many American articles might be introduced into the country if our people would study the markets, accommodate their prices to European competition, and so pack their goods that they could be shipped upon the backs of mules to the high plateau across the mountains.