Plaza de San Francisco in lovely Quito.
“Now what?” Spouse whispered in my ear. We were in the hall of the Cathedral of Quito in Equador. Even with my limited knowledge of Spanish I understood the sign in front of us: tourists are not allowed in during Mass. Next to the sign a schedule told is Masses were held all day long, so coming back later wasn’t an option. Around us people were entering and leaving the Cathedral as if it was a supermercado. “This is ridiculous,” I said, pushing Spouse through the door.
I had two very good reasons to ignore any prohibition to enter the church. The first was the Cathedral’s nativity scene Ecuador-style with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and a lama. The second was a painting of the last supper with Jesus and his apostles dining on a local dish of roasted guinea pig. I couldn’t possibly miss these examples of what is called syncretism, the fusion of opposing principles.
Though a priest was giving mass the atmosphere in the Cathedral wasn’t exactly serene. Equadorians were shuffling along the pews, chatting with each other and praying aloud to the various saint statues. As we searched for the paintings, passing the mumbling crowds, I folded my hands as if in prayer. “You hypocrit!” Spouse whispered. “I’m just trying to blend in,” I whispered back.
The lama was lovely. I wish I could say the same about the roasted guinea pig. My curiousity satisfied I took a pew and tried to make out what the priest said through his microphone. “You’re pulling the leg of these people,” Spouse hissed. “Isn’t that what this is all about?” I whispered back.
At the end of Mass, the priest grabbed a plastic bag from behind the altar and darted to the church doors. He was in such a hurry that he ignored Equadorians who wanted to shake his hand. As he passed us, we saw what was written on his plastic bag: The Famous Grouse.
I bet a glass of Scotch whisky goes very well with roasted guinea pig.
I never quite understood one of my Ozzie friends when she was going on about how delicious Australian breakfasts are – until I was in Sydney. There I found out what makes breakfast down under so amazing: the fact that immigrants from all over the world contribute the best of their cuisine. I can recommend the legendary Reuben Hills on Albion street and the absolute scrumptious Organic produce on Crown street.
“I like your earrings!” I looked suspiciously at the woman who addressed me in the Central Business District of Sydney, Australia. What did she want? Money? Was she trying to sell something? Or maybe on a mission to evangelize people? I tightened the grip on my purse. “Have a nice day,” the woman said smilingly and carried on.
Of all the dangers of Sydney (venomous funnel-web spiders, slippery cliffs and too much good food) there’s one phenomenon that calls for a special warning: friendly, chatty strangers. I know, they should be rare in a city of 4,5 million people. But they’re just everywhere: at pedestrian crossings, behind the wheel of a taxi and at the next table in a breakfast cafe.
They startled me at first. I was taking a picture of a sign that said “don’t touch sea dragons” at Manly Beach when a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder. I immediately assumed I was doing something illegal (that’s what you get from hanging out in Switzerland) but he merely pointed out an actual sea dragon that was sunbathing a few meters from me. Then another stranger appeared, offering to take a picture of Spouse and me. She didn’t charge us for it, nor did she steal our camera. Weird.
I slowly warmed up to the chatty friendliness of the Ozzies. I started greeting other hotel guests in the elevator. I allowed myself a brusque remark about the weather to the guy making my decaf-soy-latte. Eventually I was discussing football with a supporter from Melbourne in a Jacuzzi and evaluating the Irish economy with a dentist in a store called Pie Face.
Once I had started, I could hardly stop. Returning to Europe I was taken aback when the guy checking my passport didn’t smile at me and didn’t return my greeting. People often say Australians are friendly because they enjoy great weather, a prosperous economy and a laid-back lifestyle. It seems a bit strange though that we would need se many excuses to be friendly.