We’ve been in Ecuador a bit over a week now and almost the whole time we’ve been here I’ve been searching for Jesus. It’s not what you think. I mean, Jesus is everywhere here. You can’t walk down the street without experiencing Jesus in some way or another. There is the begging woman with her hand out, the street vendor touting the latest in fruit, the blind singer busking on the corner, the father loving on his tiny son, the mother with her baby tied firmly to her back, and all the churches and the little statues of Jesus that are more common than Starbucks and MacDonald’s back home. This is a vveerrry Catholic country and they do love their Jesus (and, my personal favorite, Mary), especially during the Christmas season. If you are, like me, a traveler who loves religious art, Ecuador is pretty heavenly what with all the Spanish colonial influence and all.
But in spite of all these opportunities to experience the Jesus energy here, there is one particular ‘Jesus’ I really wanted to see. He’s a life sized polychrome statue at the top of Iglesia de Todos Santos, a historic church. Ecuador is famous for it’s polychrome religious statuary and they are truly magnificent works of art. (Really. Click on the link there to read a great article about the history of this technique.) If you are lucky you get to climb up and be with a life-sized Jesus and look out over the city. Maybe even say a blessing or two. I was intent on seeing that Jesus. You’d think a little thing like that would be simple, but that’s never how we roll.
I think we set out to see the statue three different times. We’d wake up in the morning in our nice one bedroom apartment, the one with unlimited hot water for the big shower, and I’d announce, ‘Let’s go find that Jesus today.’. Mike would agree, and then we’d get dressed and go out, only to get distracted by one thing or another as we made our way around the historic area of Cuenca. There’s a lot to see in this city and most of it is within easy walking distance of our apartment. So one day we went to the Parque Calderon, the big park by the big new cathedral, and wandered around there for awhile. I took in the last part of Mass in the ‘new cathedral’, which is incredibly beautiful and overwhelmingly large. We didn’t find the Jesus. We saw a lot of other Jesuses, but not the one we were looking for.
Another day we walked in a different direction. We came upon another park and another church. This time there were families enjoying a teenage ‘dance off’ in the square and kids playing in the fountain. We were enchanted to see kids being allowed to play in the town square fountain, as they should be allowed to do on a warm day. We stuck around to watch and listen, then noticed the Museum of Modern Art and decided to explore that. We loved the building more than the artworks. It was built over a hundred years ago by monks who wanted to help alcoholics get off the street. Then it was a hospital for mentally ill women. Now it’s a museum and the building outshines the actual art: Long outdoor hallways with small rooms that open onto courtyards of lovely statuary and plants; rooms historically used for patients, now used as artist’s studios. The feel of the place is serene; peaceful. Again we were not disappointed in our discoveries, but there was no life-sized polychrome Jesus.
Yesterday we wandered way down to the end of Calle Large, the street Claire and Dan live on. At the end of the street we walked through an open gate. It was just a gate in a fence, no big deal. But we stumbled into a lovely park with an aviary filled with the birds of the region. Enchanting! The place is a large park dedicated to flora and fauna of Ecuador, and attached to the considerable Inca/Canari ruins referred to as Pumapungo. We’ve never seen a ruin we didn’t want to explore. This ruin included the foundations of the housing dedicated to the Canari virgins who served the priests. Hmmm. Apparently those jokes about ‘sacrificial virgins’ are actually true.
Turning back for home we wandered along the street and suddenly, there was the church with the life-sized Jesus! It is part of the Todos Santos complex, which includes a working garden and convent. This small church, no more ornate than any other church in Ecuador, had a tall bell tower and by squinting just the right way into the sun, you could almost see the hands of Jesus waving at you. We went in through the open door into the cool vestibule.
A lovely young woman welcomed us in Spanish, of course, and we nodded and smiled because really, we didn’t understand a word she was saying. After asking her to speak more slowly, a phrase that gets a lot of use with us, I used Google translate to inquire about climbing up to see the Jesus. She looked crestfallen. We had noticed that there was scaffolding around the tower and hoped against hope that didn’t mean Jesus wasn’t accepting visitors that day. She gave us a long explanation that, again, we couldn’t understand, so we just said ‘oh, ok, no problem’. But we must have looked especially disappointed, or maybe she thought I was going to cry if I couldn’t see that statue. Whatever her reasons, she suddenly just told us it would be 1$ for the tour. We slapped the money on the counter right away, before she could change her mind.
She closed the doors to the church and led us up small wooden stairs that smelled of care and polish, stopping at every landing to open windows to a view of her city. So far, this tour was pretty good what with small, creaky staircases and a fantastic statue of the Virgin on the landing, but it was about to get better. At the next landing she opened a small door and gestured us to follow her out to a ledge on the roof. That’s right. We followed this woman onto a ledge about 2 feet wide with no railing. She cautioned us to take care not to fall. That was the safety speech. It was great! The view was expansive. Photos were snapped. Then we carried on up the stairs, which got smaller at each landing.
Into the bell tower we emerged, and there was more opening of shutters and expansive views of the city and river. She gave us a tour guide version of the story of the church, in Spanish, telling when everything was built, when the bridge below was destroyed by the river, when the tower was added and repaired. She said the dates in English and the rest we figured out by her hand gestures and some limited Spanish words we understood. Since I don’t retain verbal information anyhow, the fact that we had a language barrier didn’t matter at all. I was absorbing the whole feel of the thing at that point.
The next level up was the statue. I could see Jesus’ red robes from below. And this, unfortunately, is where we stopped. As she had told us, the bell tower was under repair and the repairmen had tied a rope across the stairway, limiting access to the top of the tower. Our tour guide went as far as to try to get underneath the rope to see if it was safe, to no avail. I had to give her much kudos for trying. She clearly didn’t want us to be disappointed. She let me climb up the tiny, narrow steps to stick my camera up through the opening for a photo of Jesus’ back. I had found the Jesus. But he was not receiving visitors, after all.
Mike asked when the repairs would be finished and it looks possible they’ll be done before Christmas. We were too tired to explore the entire Todos Santos complex and so when the scaffolding is down, we’ll try again. I really do want to see this statue. And besides, climbing up these little wooden stairs, ducking my head to pass beneath the low ceiling, views of the city…all for 1$? Yes, please. I’ll do that again.