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Literature

Though Ecuador's literary tradition is not world famous, neither is it barren. Ecuador has produced some excellent literary talents. Unfortunately, Ecuadorean authors are not widely read outside the country, at least not in comparison with writers from other parts of Latin America -- many Ecuadorean works aren't translated, and those that are can be difficult to come by.

Quito is also saturated with a different kind of literature: graffiti. As a local saying goes, No hay muros blancos -- there are no blank walls in Quito. Graffiti writing is taken far more seriously here than elsewhere in the world, with politicians, writers, and journalists frequently quoting the social, political, and poetic sentiments expressed on the walls. An oft-quoted graffiti expression is "Es más fácil describir lo que no es amor" -- "It's easier to describe what isn't love." Think about that for a while.

Recommended Books -- Works narrating the history of Ecuador in English are few and far between. In fact, I've yet to find a good comprehensive history of the country in English. If you want to break things down into periods, start with the award-winning The Conquest of the Incas, by John Hemming (Harvest/HBJ Book, 2003), which deals with Ecuador and Peru's Inca history; or the newer The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie (Simon & Schuster, 2008). These books are well complemented by Indians, Oil and Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador, by Allen Gerlach (SR Books, 2003), a brilliantly descriptive account of the country's more contemporary history, political conditions, and the rise of its indigenous movements. While not confined to Ecuador, I think every traveler to Latin America should read Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire (W.W. Norton & Co., 1998). This astonishing achievement tells the history of the Americas in a poetic prose and unique style that redefines the form, function, and potential of nonfiction history.

Ecuador's Jorge Icaza (1906-79) was one of the 20th century's most notable authors. His seminal work, Huasipungo (1934), tells of the exploitation suffered by the local indigenous peoples at the hands of their colonizers; it's an excellently written, extremely insightful critique on Ecuadorean society. Its English translation is titled The Villagers (Southern Illinois University, 1964). Demetrio Aguilera Malta is another distinguished author whose first and most successful work of magical realism, Don Goyo (Humana Press, 1980), has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Following this success, Aguilera Malta's Babelandia (Springer-Verlag, 1985) somewhat satirically yet comically tells of the kidnapping of a corrupt general in a Latin American dictatorship by a group of guerillas. Enrique Gil Gilbert's Our Daily Bread (Farrar and Rinehart, 1983) is another novel that received international critical acclaim in the mid-20th century. Juyungo (Passeggiata, 1991), penned by the late Adalberto Ortiz (1914-2003), incorporates elements of Afro-American culture and identity, as well as telling of the exploitation and discrimination faced by Afro-Americans within a Latin American society.

Another notable work of Ecuadorean fiction is Jorge Enrique Adoum's Entre Marx y una Mujer Desnuda (Between Marx and a Naked Woman; Siglo 21, revised edition 2002), a clever novel about novels, and about Ecuadorean society as a whole. Although not yet translated, it was made into a 1995 film by Camilo Luzuriaga, and you can sometimes find a subtitled copy of the film at better video stores.

Regarding contemporary literature, Abdón Ubidia's celebrated novel Wolves' Dreams (Latin American Literary Press Review, 1996) emerged in the 1980s as a superb insight into Ecuador's political and economic realities in the context of an attempted bank robbery. Eliécer Cárdenas's novels signify a break with tradition on the country's literary scene in an attempt to dig up an Ecuador buried and forgotten; his most celebrated, critically acclaimed realist work is Polvo y Ceniza (Dust and Ashes; Eskeletra, 1978), which has been translated into a number of languages.

For an outsider's perspective, you might pick up The Ecuador Effect, by David E. Stuart (University of New Mexico Press, 2007), a fictionalized account of the author's anthropological and human rights work in the country during the 1970s.

For natural-history and wildlife buffs, my all-time favorite book is Tropical Nature, by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata (Touchstone Books, 1987). This is a lively collection of tales and adventures by two neotropical biologists; a lot of their research was carried out in Ecuador. The best all-purpose field guide for those visiting the country is David L. Pearson and Les Beletsky's Traveller's Wildlife Guide: Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands (Interlink, 2005). Amazon Wildlife, by Hans Ulrich Bernard (Insight Guides, 2002), is a visual, detailed guide on jungle life. For bird lovers, Common Birds of Amazonian Ecuador, by Chris Canday and Lou Jost (Ediciones Libri Mundi, 1997), provides a good overview; for more detailed descriptions and a comprehensive listing of species for the whole country, grab Robert Ridgely and others' The Birds of Ecuador (Comstock Publishing, 2001). Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of the Galápagos Islands, by Andy Swash and Rob Still (A&C Black Publishers, 2005), is a fully illustrated, colorful, descriptive, and yet user-friendly guide to Galápagos fauna and birdlife.

Perhaps the most common book ordered by those heading to the Galápagos Islands is a reprint of Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (Penguin, 1999). Running a close second is Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Signet Classics, 2003). I also recommend David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo (Scribner, 1996), which is admittedly tangential to Ecuador and the Galápagos, but really gives you a good sense of the foundation of the theory of evolution, as well as its impact, implications, and current development.

Music

A variety of musical traditions come together in Ecuador. In Afro-Ecuadorean folk culture, the marimba is king. The traditional music of the Andes features wind instruments, such as the guaramo horn, the pifano and pinkullo flutes, and panpipes (rondador), supported by percussion. Its distinctive pentatonic scales give it a very haunting feel.

Songs in mainstream contemporary folk music fall into one of three forms. The first is pasillo, a slow variant on the waltz played with guitar and rondin flute. The second is pasacalle, a dance rhythm, and the third is yarabi, a sentimental style that has retained its popularity for generations.

Urban discotecas spin salsa and merengue, though a new style called reggaetón is starting to dominate. Reggaetón is a combination of hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall reggae whose firmest roots are in Panama, though the music was popularized in Puerto Rico. In recent years it has skyrocketed in popularity in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, most Central and South American nations, and among Latinos in the United States. City bars feature those rhythms as well as pop and rock en español.

Film

Ecuador doesn't have a major film industry, but it does produce a small number of independent local films each year. Some of these can be found online or at better stocked video stores. Sebastian Cordero is the country's most prominent director, with Crónicas (Chronicles; 2004) -- starring John Leguizamo -- and Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (Rats, Big Rats, and Rat Catchers; 1999) to his credit. Qué Tan Lejos (How Far Away; 2006), by Tania Hermida, was met with critical acclaim; it tells the story of two young women forced to hitchhike to Cuenca when a worker's strike stops bus traffic. Another film sometimes available is Entre Marx y una Mujer Desnuda (Between Marx and a Naked Woman; 1995), directed by Camilo Luzuriaga and based on a novel by Jorge Enrique Adoum.

Perhaps the most relevant film for English-speaking visitors is the 2005 docudrama End of the Spear, directed by Jim Hanon. Although filmed mostly in Panama, this movie tells the tale of the 1956 Waoroni killing of five missionaries in Ecuador's Amazon basin. The movie even includes cameos by several of the surviving members of the missionary families and members of the Waoroni tribe involved in the events.

Several major releases were either entirely or partially filmed in Ecuador. These include the Academy Award-nominated Maria Full of Grace (2004), John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs (2003), and Proof of Life (2000), starring Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan.

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