thin air of Quito
Monday, January 24 2005
setting: 7th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, USA
A pair of Ray and Nancy's friends have occasional need for a car, so Gretchen had arranged for them to use it during our time in Ecuador in exchange for the very useful service of dropping us off at the airport and then picking us back up upon our return. The drop off happened this morning and would have been picture-perfect had it not been for a peculiar traffic jam in a major Brooklyn intersection along the way. A pair of municipal buses decided for some reason to stop in that intersection and just sit there for what seemed like at least ten minutes (it was probably more like four and only two before we realized something was amiss). Oddly, though, the people around us were completely out of character and quietly accepted this unreasonable state. But gradually they became incensed, leaned on their horns, and then bullied somehow around the buses. Most of us did this by driving directly into the oncoming lanes, although one person attempted to drive over a rather high landform comprised of plowed snow.
Our airline was LAN Ecuador and the plane was the massive kind with two parallel aisles. You might not suspect a big demand for flights to Ecuador, but most of the seats in the plane were taken. Happily, Gretchen and I had all three seats of a row between the aisles to ourselves. Looking around at the other passengers, we appeared to be the only gringos except for one other guy. Of the several hundred people on the plane, I might well have been the tallest person.
LAN Ecuador seems to be run on a somewhat more economical business model than more familiar American airlines. The plane, though massive, was decidedly old fashioned in appointments. Seats didn't come equipped with their own private video screens (the norm on international flights to first world nations) and there weren't even any of those airplane phones that cost so much to use. There was a single large screen at the head of coach class for the showing of the movie, and the movie was Shark Tale, a Pixar film, but it was too far away to enjoy. Instead I napped and read a book that Gretchen had shoplifted called Life of Pi.
I learned a little lesson in inhalation management during the flight when a determined mother headed back to the bathroom holding a toddler. I might have been obeying some sort of sexual imperative when I inhaled deeply into my nose as she passed. This was a bad idea; the only information delivered by my olfactory system was that the toddler urgently needed to have his diapers changed.
When it wasn't playing a movie, bad soap operas, or the monotonous display of LAN Ecuador's logo, the screen at the front of the plane would show a map of our flight. We started out some distance off the Jersey shore, passed down the center of the southeastern tip of Maryland, and continued from there almost due south. This took us just east of Miami, directly over the center of Cuba, and then across Central America to the Pacific near the Panama Canal.
Six hours after leaving New York we came down for an unusually rough landing in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. As we did so, I turned to Gretchen and said "that's what I call a third world landing." By then the plane had erupted in applause. They like their third world landings in the third world.
Our ultimate destination was Quito, and those continuing to that city weren't permitted to disembark. They kept us on the plane while a crew of maintenance people (most of them dark metitzo women) came through with their backpack vacuum cleaners and cleaned the plane around us.
By this point we'd grown sick of our windowless seats. Meanwhile Gretchen developed an immediate dislike for the woman on the plane directly behind her who hung a fur-lined coat on the back of the seat in which Gretchen was seated in such a way that the fur formed an unavoidable halo around her head. So we relocated to different seats nearer to the front of the plane. The life vest had fallen
from benath the bottom of the seat adjacent to mine and I realized I'd never actually seen one of these vests except in the instructional videos shown at the beginning of a flight.
The flight to Quito took only about forty minutes and transported us high into the Andes above lush alpine pastures and then down into the airport in the valley below, which was still over 9000 feet above sea level.
Ecuadoran customs wasn't a difficult procedure, though they did xray our carry-on luggage, something I haven't encountered even in the most hard-assed of customs (post-9/11 American). A driver was waiting for us holding a sign as we emerged from customs, and he drove us to our hotel, Hostal Folklore, which lies on Madrid Street just outside a district in Quito known as Gringolandia, because its nightlife appeals to foreign tourists.
The staff in Hostal Folklore (two young women who spoke only Spanish) weren't especially friendly as they checked us in, and the price for a night had changed from $20 to $25. But a room is a room, even if the mattress is hard and the television only gets local Quito stations. (Cable as Americans know it exists only in the United States and finer hotels in Europe.)
Our cab driver had recommended La Choza, a restaurant with reportedly good Ecuadorian cuisine, so we walked there from our Hostal a little ways down 12 de Octubre across from the Swiss Hotel. What a place! It had a guy out in front dressed in a rain coat and his only job was to set people up with taxis. Further in, the space was a lavish multi-tiered space with a very high employee-to-customer ratio. Straight away, though, we could hear a familiar flattened murmur coming from the people seated at the central table. Americans. We'd come all this way and now we would be just another set of gringos eating at a gringocentric restaurant.
But it didn't end up being that way at all. We placed our orders in Spanish and the food was authentically Ecuadoran, full of strange combinations of savory and sweet. Two different corn side dishes came with Gretchen's meal; one was a dish of the popped variety and the other was somewhat more roasted than popped. I ordered the sea bass, which was the only thing that really interested me on the menu, and its presentation seemed to indicate it is a common choice of Americans, since it was presented as American comfort food, with segregated sides of flavorless overcooked vegetables.
At some point in the meal Gretchen noted that the Americans seated at the big table appeared to all be gays and lesbians. By this point there was a third group of people seated at a third table and it was reassuring that they appeared to be Ecuadorian.
Our dinner cost us something close to $30 (we used United States currency since the Ecuadorian economy is completely dollarized). As is the custom in Ecuador, we left a tip of about five percent.
By the time we emerged from the restaurant, the rain that had been falling since we landed was coming down somewhat harder. But we had our rain coats, so we headed off on foot, hopefully to find one or two bars that Gretchen had read about on the internet. As we walked down the crumbling sidewalks, we took note of things that you'd never see in a country as litigious as the United States. In one placed there was a square manhole maybe three feet deep, and the only thing to keep you from falling into it was a crude rebar grill with holes big enough to step through. Nobody had bothered to grate the shallower holes and the frequent yawning chasms in any way whatsoever.
The thin air at Quito's 9000 feet elevation wasn't noticeable to me except when vehicles passed by. Then it seemed that there was much less air available to dilute the pollution. This problem was further exacerbated by the age of the vehicles, which on average looked to be about four or five times that of American vehicles. Interestingly, American-made vehicles dominated the fleet, with a heavy emphasis on smaller models such as the Ford Festiva.
We never did find any of the bars we sought. We went to their addresses and there was nothing there at all; perhaps there was something we didn't know about Quito's system of street addresses. But it was an interesting walk nonetheless, past numerous vendors selling food from booths. At some point we encountered our first black person since leaving JFK; he was a friendly man selling especially long hot dogs. In our entire walk we only encountered one panhandler who hassled us politely and accepted our unvoiced refusal in both Spanish and English.
During a particularly strong period of rainfall, we ducked under a leaking awning to look at our map and noted that under an adjacent awning there was a young prostitute plying her trade. If one were to use the metaphor of fishing for her occupation, she had baited her hook and had casted her line. The hook in this case consisted of a tight-fitting low-cut pair of blue jeans whose fly appeared to be all the way down. Now all she had to do was wait for a nibble.
It came in the form of a beat up little car coming to a halt across the intersection. Suddenly the prostitute was running towards it like a happy hitch hiker. A brief conversation between driver and hooker ended with her kicking the passenger side door. This fish was too small and would have to be cast back into the sea.
On the way back to the hotel we managed to get slightly lost and in our ill-tempered wandering we were soaked from on high and also from the side (Quito's streets are poorly drained and passing traffic can throw a surprising amount of water horizontally).
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