(or: It’s more than an altitude adjustment.)
Welcome to Quito, capital of Ecuador and city at the center of the world! (Mitad del Mundo, as they’ll have you know.) Quito sits in a valley in the Andes, and up the mountains as well. Remember this scene from Mission: Impossible?
Yeah, that’s what it feels like to walk around Quito, the streets are so steep. And it’s crowded! The guidebooks all crow about Quito as a jewel of Spanish colonial architecture. (Yeah, thanks Fodors and Lonely Planet.) What that really means is that the Spanish picked the steepest, most defensible hills to build on, then squished the buildings so close together that there’s barely room for one lane of traffic, don’t even think about two. Most of the street corners in the old part of the city have blue paint scrapes from the buses cutting it a little too close.
What that means is that there’s not much in the way of elbow room, whether you’re walking down the street or taking public transport. This was quite a shock when arriving here from the comparatively deserted Galapagos. I could feel all my introverted little brain cells vibrating frantically in an attempt to generate a force field between me and everyone else.
Just to make things extra fun, our arrival in Quito coincided (by no fault of ours) with Ecuador’s Independence Day celebration. Technically, Independence Day was on August 10 when we were still in Puerto Ayora, but the celebration continued all through the weekend with Quito’s biggest annual party, La Fiesta de la Luz.
So Lea and I take a bus from the airport, drag 40 kilos of backpack up the side of a friggin’ mountain to get to our hostel (seriously, Booking.com and TripAdvisor should list the incline of all surrounding streets) and our hosts, oblivious to the fact that we’re both about to die like a pair of overworked Himalayan pack mules, insist that we should go and see the celebration. Since we’re starving and the word “festival” implies the availability of mystery-meat street food, we dive right in to the experience.
Or should I say mosh pit?
La Fiesta de la Luz (Festival of Light, mantén con mi español, por favor) is an event where many of the churches and other buildings in Quito’s Centro Historical are lit up with displays of moving artwork. In addition, there are more light shows in the middle of the street.
To give some perspective, Lea filmed that umbrella show while we were inching through a shoulder-to-shoulder mob down a steep cobbled street. Once we got to the bottom there was a bit of a breather, but the crowds around the big displays were really thick. The biggest, the lightshow on the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, was surrounded by exactly the kind of slow-crush mob that one could easily get trampled under should you lose your footing.
And that was just the first night!
Our two weeks of classes started Monday at the Yanapuma Foundation and Spanish School, which was mercifully downhill from our original hostel. We study from 9:00 – 1:00 each day, Lea in private tutoring for intermediate Spanish speakers and myself in a beginners’ class. In the evenings we stay with a host family who provide lodging, breakfast, and dinner, and who speak only Español, forcing us to practice whether we’ve got the energy for it or not. Our home is an easy ten-minute bus ride from the school.
Oh my brothers, let me tell you about buses in Quito.
Quito has a lot, I say, a lot of buses. They go nearly everywhere and in town they’re only 25¢ to ride. The trouble is figuring out which bus to get on. Google Maps is very handy about which route numbers will pick you up from which stops and take you close to your destination. The problems with this are that A) Google is sometimes inaccurate about where the bus stops are and B) only about a third of the buses post which route they’re running.
Instead, the front window of each bus is plastered with a list of destinations and stops along the way, which is fine if you’re a local resident. If you’re not, then all you can do is search for a word that corresponds to something on your route, jump on said bus, and watch Google maps carefully along the way so that you can jump off if the bus starts heading in the wrong direction. Lea and I went so far as to stake out the bus stops near our casa and photograph the destination signs on each bus that came by so we’d know how to get home.
Lea and I have stitched together several trips by just picking buses heading in the general direction we want to go and switching when necessary. The bus rides are so cheap we still prefer traveling this way as opposed to arguing with taxi drivers. (That’s a rant I’ll perhaps save for a future entry.) What’s crazy-making is that the old part of Quito is so congested it seriously took us an hour one time to travel by bus a distance we could have walked in ten minutes.
So why not just walk? Allow me to refer you to the Tom Cruise video at the beginning of this post.
For all my grousing, Quito is a beautiful city. Ecuador is like the Switzerland of South America. Everywhere you look, there is some gorgeous mountain vista. Buildings that appear shabby on the outside may have gorgeous courtyards and villas on the interior. There are plenty of parks, all of which are full of people and families in the afternoons and weekends, resting in the grass, playing ball, or tooling around in paddleboats (which are still a thing here).
The churches are simply amazing, both outside and in, with the Basílica del Voto Nacional and the Iglesia de San Francisco being the champs. We also made the arduous journey up to the Virgen del Panecillo (a giant aluminum statue that overlooks the city), took a four-hour, three-transfer bus trip to the Saturday market in Otavalo (same trip back), and the easy but nerve-wracking Teleférico three thousand feet up the side of the Pichincha volcano to a breezy altitude of 12,943 feet above sea level.
As close as we are to the ionosphere, mis amigos, the adjustment I’m having to make on this trip isn’t to the altitude. It’s to long-term travel as a way of life as opposed to vacationing, and this week it really started to hit me.
Some of it’s to do with the feeling of helplessness that comes from not having all the information I’d like – it can drive me batty waiting on a bus to appear when I don’t know if I’m at the right stop or if that bus route even exists today – or when the police start closing all the streets around our bus stop and rerouting traffic for no damn reason. I’m learning to cope with that level of uncertainty, though we have caved in once or twice and grabbed a taxi.
Some of it’s to do with the sheer crush of people and the seeming lack of personal space everywhere in the world outside the United States. Yeah, I’ve been on a crowded subway car in the States, and I’ve also been crushed in the chaos of Bourbon Street late in the evening on Mardi Gras. In this author’s humble opinion, the first should never feel like the second.
The hardest thing to accept, though, is the idea that wherever Lea and I travel for the next ten months, we will always be in someone else’s space – sleeping in someone else’s bed, using someone else’s shower, eating at someone else’s table. Some of our hostels have offered more privacy than others, but there’s never a “do not disturb” sign to hang on the door. Staying in someone else’s home brings it to a whole new level. It’s incredibly generous for someone to open their house to us, but sometimes it can feel like we’re intruding, and sometimes it’s difficult to accept that I can’t just go be alone whenever I want.
I’m not homesick for our apartment in Atlanta, but I find myself missing the concept of “home” – some place that’s just ours and no one else’s, where we can close the door and shut out the world. But living without that comfort is part of the deal when you decide to travel the world.
Speaking of, just one more week of school and we’re back on the road!
Assuming we can find the right bus.