There’s Poetry in Quitoguayaquil

I was going to write about Sao Paulo, but big cities are like cool kids in the playground, making life hard for the underdogs, the modest kids who often go unnoticed. The Ecuadorian sisters Quito and Guayaquil, for example, whose names are usually uttered in a single breath by my wife, the professional traveller: “Ah yes, Quitoguayaquil! The landing in Quito is spectacular! Or was it Guayaquil? In among the mountains, a sharp turn and then straight down to land.”

In search of poems about Guayaquil

I decided to check the web, because the flying sometimes plays tricks on her memory. She may well have been referring to Hong Kong, Vancouver or Lima. But she was right this time. The more spectacular landing is in Quito, with snow-capped volcanoes in the background. Situated at an altitude of 2,850 metres, Quito is the second-highest administrative capital in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia (thank you, Wikipedia). Of course I also checked the approach to Guayaquil’s José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport, just to confirm that it wasn’t even more spectacular. Video footage from the cockpit showed the plane crossing a broad river on what looked to be a coastal plain. Not spectacular perhaps, but surprising nonetheless, mainly because I thought Ecuador was a landlocked country. It was clearly time to check the map. I also wanted to find out what made José Joaquín de Olmedo so great that they should name an airport after him. Was he Ecuador’s Second-World-War flying ace? A hero of the revolution? A star quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys?

He was none of the above. José Joaquín de Olmedo y Maruri was, in fact, president of Ecuador for six months in 1845 and mayor of Guayaquil on two separate occasions. I was a bit disappointed, I must admit, but my heart leapt when I read that he was also a poet.

This confirmed all my romantic illusions about South America, where passionate poets dipped their pens in blood and embraced the revolution … To cut a long story short, I went in search of English translations of Olmedo’s work, but all I could find online was a single quote: “He who does not hope to win, has already lost.”

Taking Olmedo’s advice to heart, I went in search of poems about Guayaquil, because for some unknowable reason the city’s name tugged at my heartstrings more than Quito. Guayaquil is the largest and most populous city in Ecuador, so I hoped that at least one of its 3.3 million inhabitants had posted English translations of poems about their beloved city on the internet. I plumbed the deepest depths of the web, but came up empty-handed and unlinked.

And so, on the brink of defeat, I consulted the Great Oracle with the words “poems about Quito” and almost immediately found Jorge Carrera Andrade – poet, historian, author, and (of course!) diplomat – who is considered one of the most important Latin American poets of the 20th century, alongside Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and Cesar Vallejo.

I found out why within several clicks, which took me to several wonderful English translations of Andrade’s poems by Steven Ford Brown. His crystal-clear verse is like birdsong, guiding the reader on a voyage of discovery through Ecuador. Here’s an excerpt from Andrade’s “Hydrographic Poem”.

From the tree-lined coast
embraced by the bow of a silly snake.
Mulatto coconut trees with flexible waists.
Banana trees with rosy entrails.
Forests pierced by parrots,
cane huts, homes of shore dwellers;
tamer of mosquitoes
and decapitator of coconuts.

You can read the rest of Andrade’s beautiful poem here, along with several others. And if there are any other Ecuadorian poets or readers who have gems to guide us on our way, I sincerely hope they will share them as comments below.

 Richard de Nooy