Legs straining to be stretched and set free on solid ground, our excitement heightened in the expectations of new adventures in the land of equatorial significance and a little nervous of what we will find. So little is still not known about our new destination, Ecuador.
As the sky darkens and the long span of ocean becomes clumps of light we begin to talk to a Spanish man sitting next to us. He has been conducting business in Ecuador for years and gave us some advice about where to go. He says to watch out in Quito as the people can be savvy, although very nice people, they can try to rip you off. With this in mind and having read a lot about the crime in Quito it made for a relatively uneasy arrival. We arrived in the airport to a long line, trying to read the signs in Spanish and aching to get out of the airport, but before long we were speeding in a taxi towards our hotel. The Hotel San Francisco de Quito, named after the saint of the same name. We arrived to the old city known as “El Centro”to cobbled streets and churches, sliding through a large wooden door in the wall of a side-street to enter a green cloistered courtyard. Ringing the bell and being buzzed through a large iron gate we ascended into the hotel. Tiers of rooms set around the central courtyard were dotted with plants, giving the whole place the feel of a walled garden. Stairways and corridors ran from the main courtyard to smaller green courtyards and even more stairs which stole our breath. Not figuratively, the altitude made any ascending or exertion a light headed and breathless experience. Quito stands between 9,000 and 10,0o0 feet above sea level and is situated in a valley in the Andes. Still we ascended before finally reaching our cosy room with a view of the mountains and rest.
In 1698, after an earthquake destroyed the house of a Spanish conquerer built in 1534 a two story house with open courtyard and servants quarters was built in its place by another Spaniard, Juan de Dios Padilla. The new building was a great example of both colonial and Quiteño architecture and remains the same today. Spanish Catholic fresco work still remains above some of the stairwells and the rooms are adorned with classic Ecuadorian craft such as weaving and beautiful hand-carved furniture.
The morning met us with sun over the foggy mountain crags which surround Quito. Shafts of sunlight through stone and fern led us down to a vaulted cellar, cool and ancient.
We were greeted by what would become a very familiar complementary breakfast. After stumbling awkwardly to understand our waitress on the first morning by the end of our stay we could easily communicate that yes scrambled eggs and coffee please ” Revueltos huevous y coffee negro y coffee con leche por favor” So began our struggle with communication, hardly anyone spoke english and our spanish es terible. But you’ll be amazed how far guess work and charades can get you. Still, we decided to start working again with our spanish tapes to prepare ourselves for lessons when we begin our volunteering. Our first wander around Old Town was beautiful and overwhelming. Narrow cobbled stone streets with high walls running along pocked with little doorways housing either tiny shops or leading through to open court yards. One such doorway lead to a domed stone corridor with amazing graffiti splashed along either side, we were to find much more examples of Quitos artwork painted around the different districts of the city.
Many plazas are spotted around old town as meeting places for the locals each with it’s own magnificent church. We sat down in Plaza Grande for a moment of respite and were immediately approached by a small boy who was a part of the brotherhood of shoe shiners that are endemic to the city. Dotahn asked how much and the boy replied in a number over 20 that was unfamiliar to us. (should have paid more attention in class) After just having left America and its exorbinate prices he offered the boy cinco (5) the boy didn’t look too happy but agreed and proceeded to shine. When he finished Dotahn handed him $5 and the kid just looked up in shock and then sped off. We later looked up the word for the amount he was asking, (cincuenta) turns out he was asking for 50 cents and Dotahn had just made it his luckiest day. Especially considering that an average main meal costs two to four dollars. That’s a lot of candy!
We continued on to visit other plazas, another being the Plaza de San Francisco. An impressive monastery and the oldest colonial building in Quito. The Monastery of San Francisco houses an impressive collection of religious paintings and sculptural work, many of which depict San Francisco de Asis in dark light, holding a human skull, in the act of self-flagellation or stigmata. The constant and heavily gruesome depictions of the crucifixion puzzled Emmily, forcing her to question the Spanish Catholic Church’s use of torture porn. Dotahn was quite fascinated by it all.
That night we decided to finish the day by eating at a restaurant the Lonely Planet recommended situated in a backpacker hostel called the Secret Garden. A way to meet new people and eat food they grow themselves on a farm with the same name. Located at the other end of Old Town on a hill we followed a set of arrows up a winding staircase till we came to the dining area of the hostel that afforded spectacular views of Quito. Tahn’s head began to ache stemming from his jaw, but beer had a soothing effect and he enjoyed the nights festivities. After a lovely dinner the nigh was followed by cheap booze, travel stories and sing songs with the other backpackers around a fire.
Next days journeys led us to the New Town district, specifically to the gringo area of Mariscal Sucre. A definite change of atmosphere from our Old Town refuge, Mariscal Sucre is a maze of bars, restaurants and shopping obviously constructed expressly for international tourism. Less crumbling grandeur and more flash amidst the shanty aspect of the side streets, with tour operators on every corner and upscale bars amid tiny, dark establishments turned into restaurants. Like money sprouting up from the cracks of a crumbling concrete pavement. Here lies both the light and dark sides of tourism. Some businesses flourish with money flowing more freely into the community, more country folk and indigenous people can come to the city to sell their wares. Yet the areas with the most tourism also have the most crime. Obviously tourism is not really to blame as the Ecuadorian government has also had the resources to clean up areas of Quito with better lighting and police and military presence to encourage tourism. In the end it really is doing more good than harm as we began to see more and more as we headed into the areas of Ecuador’s natural beauty. The longer we stayed in Quito the more we realised that the people were on the most part happy with tourism and very helpful. In South East Asia we were met with far more aggressive bartering and extortion. The worst we encountered in Quito was the entourage of girls snickering at Emmily and her silly ‘Gringo Sombrero’.
Emmily had long pined for the two of us to dance together and Quito was a great place for us to do lessons. We decided on an establishment in the Mariscal Sucre and booked in for a few private two hour Salsa lessons. We had very limited time in Quito and so decided that two hours at a time would allow us to learn a lot more. We were right, but two hours is also a hell of a long time to be doing anything at 9,500 feet, especially spinning around and around. Although initially horrible embarrassing and fumbly, especially for Dotahn, both of us soon began to have a lot of fun with it. Our teachers were both excellent, fun and had a good sense of humour and technique. We learned a lot in the three two hour sessions.
During one of our Old Town wanderings we were passing a large iron gate and heard music coming from a large courtyard within. We saw a large crowd gathering and a lady ushered us inside before security locked the gate behind us. We realised we had been ushered into a Catholic girls school, rows of balconies surrounding a central courtyard with people watching from above as well as forming a circle around the performance. A large group of marching girls were dancing in the centre with much swirling of batons and encouragement by the crowd. Streams of young girls in matching blue and white uniforms came bustling past us as we stood by the stairs and watched the show, daring each other to come up to us and say “hola”.
As the performance finished we were let out by security and went on to find the central Mercado, or food court of Old Town. After wandering into a meat market, down small alleys and thinking ourselves lost we found a stairwell leading to rows of tables and people eating lunch. With excitement and hunger we climbed the stairs and were met with a busy food court, vendors encircling a central eating area with tables. Only Ecuadorians were eating there and we were mostly unable to understand what was being served, but as we passed a certain stand we recognised a key word, Llapingachos. We were ushered to a table and quickly served a large plate of fried potato and cheese pancakes (llapingachos), chorizo, avocado, rice, salad and fried eggs. Another woman served us huge glasses of papaya juice and we ate what was to be the best lunch of our time in Quito. We finished and paid our $4 and were walking out when a Mariachi band came sweeping up the stairs and began to serenade the woman preparing food at one of the vendors. Much to their pleased embarrassment.
Ecuadorians are a very festive people, Quito has quite the reputation as a night city with recommendations to hit the night clubs after 12am. We decided to head to the clubs on saturday but for tonight Emm had read about a street fiesta in the historical street of La Ronda held every friday. With signs ( in spanish) along the walls proclaiming the proud history of the musicians, artist and architects who have lived there, La Ronda was alive with music both flowing out of the restaurants and along the footpath. Every second bar had a lady with a cauldron over fire by the footpath, with heady aromas of spice, cane liquor and cider wafting forth. Ladling out to the folks for 50c, keeping everyone warm and cozy.
Cobblestones, beautiful and colorful buildings with ornate balconies overlooking the festivities and a buzz of fiesta in the air all added to a wonderful atmosphere. After a delicious cup of steaming Canelazo and a wander we found an arched doorway which was even more pressed with people than the others we had passed. After being waved in by the security guard we entered a maze of rooms, stairs and courtyards filled with art. An art opening was in progress with a big range of mediums and a striking modern style. Abstract sculpture, beautiful works in ink, paint and strong themes political and personal. Waiters drifted amongst the guests with platters of hand-crafted chocolate wonders and little fruit tarts. It really was a great exhibition in an amazing and different setting.
The weekend had come and we took the opportunity to head to Ecuador’s one and only theme park ‘Mitad del Mundo’ or ‘The middle of the world’. Positioned on the site that Charles-Marie de la Condamine, in 1736, measured as the site of the equator. Mitad del Mundo consists of a giant monument and shops of food and souveniers. A museum with various facts about the equator and a planetarium. One quick walk around and we decided that we had had enough. The highlight was a sun ritual by a shaman with the audience participating by rubbing in a mixture of seeds and spices in their hands, bringing forth and focusing their spiritual energy. There were also a number of traditional dance performances which were interesting to watch, with themes of the Spanish, Catholicism and the more native traditions of Ecuador.
This days outing to the middle of the world was cut short though by nagging facial pains, and it was beginning to look unlikely that we would be able to show off our new salsa moves at the clubs in New Town. Instead we stayed indoors spending the evening watching our new favorite series given to us by Brian called “Avatar: The last air bender” and suffering a horrible nights lack of sleep as Dotahn groaned in pain. The following day was hunting down a farmacia and trying to communicate the want of pain killers by holding our face and saying “ow!” which the ladies in the store found amusing. Eventually we found someone who spoke a little english and we bought a few tablets of ibuprofen.
Visits to museums and more churches were planned, particularly the biggest museum in Ecuador, the Museo del Banco Central. Only two exhibition wings were open on our visit, the early spanish religious art (of which we’ve seen a lot of in all the churches) and our favorite, artifacts and early history of the indigenous people of Ecuador. The pre Incan pottery we found the most fascinating, expressing a creative freedom and originality which was later suppressed. At first by the Incan occupation and even more so by the Spanish. The earlier pottery was mainly for ceremonial purposes, but showed a real freedom in design and a humour not seen in the Incan wares. I really wanted to take many photos, I found it very inspiring work, but Ecuador doesn’t have the same snap happy ways as America and I wasn’t allowed. We also visited a grand old church in the Old Town, the Inglesia de La Compañía de Jesús. Dotahn had been wondering where all the pictures of hell were considering the plethora of angel iconography. Inside this church was a large painting of hell with demons and tormented souls and a depiction of the consequences of the seven deadly sins. Heavily gilded and ornate, every surface was either carved, painted or smothered in gold. One of the side chapels housed an interesting collection of old scientific and naval instruments as well as ancient maps.
We had our fill of the city and after our last complicated salsa lesson we planned our trip to Mindo.