Today I finished my first week in Quito and left for the jungle town of Puyo where I'll be stationed for the next few weeks. In light of this, I thought I'd give the more conservative Catholic capital a send-off with a few notes on RELIGION.
Quite frankly, Catholicism (and its history) is everywhere. The Old Town is filled with reminders of Spanish-colonialism, old-style churches and monasteries chief among them. Nearly every block has a steeple, "sainted" plaza, or Catholic school-house (the best have the trifecta) and overlooking all of them is the "Virgin del Quito". The massive statue sits high atop "El Panecillo" (a hill in Old Town known as "the bread loaf"), and the winged-virgin holds a chained dragon resting on the world as she gazes out over the city (maybe I'm reading too far into things, but that dragon seemed to be covering most of North America and Europe...a cultural critique anyone?).
The Jesuits seemed the most determined to leave their mark here. Over two centuries they built La Compañía de Jesus, a remarkably ornate church just off Quito's main plaza in which nearly everything but the paintings is covered with gold. Across the city in "New Town" is a Jesuit hospital known as Vozandes (now of a chain), which I've been told had a less glorified history. Apparently two generations of Jesuits were killed off by local peoples in their attempts to found a mission hospital...until a third generation was successful at "civilizing the natives" and establishing some permanence.
Though public hospitals are not technically Catholic, the influence of Catholicism on the Ecuadorian legal system has effectively guided them to operate like Catholic institutions elsewhere. Many public health clinics list a patron saint or display religious imagery. Abortion, an issue admittedly far more complex than the religious overtones it often carries, is strictly forbidden (a fact numerous posters of fetuses are quick to remind people) and while contraception is legal, access is limited and often stigmatized.
Similarly, much of daily life is shaped by the church as well. No alcohol of any sort is to be sold on Sunday or beyond midnight Monday through Thursday. Quito is effectively dead on Sunday and for Saturday mass with the exception of church-goers, and many museums close as well (because they either are or are run by churches).
Perhaps most interesting is the juxtaposition of religious imagery with Western civilization or even sinfulness. I have yet to see a taxi or bus that wasn't covered with crosses, Jesus, saints or rosary beads, but they're often at odds with the other symbols. Naked women, peeing boys, or cartoon bears with hats that say "Speed Sex" just aren't the environment I would have expected to surround Baby Jesus. Most vehicles also tend to claim a patron virgin (the "Virgin de Agua Santa" being one of the most popular; she's also the resident virgin of Baños, where I'll be spending the weekend en route to Puyo), though how they decide which virgin is best I haven't the foggiest.