This weekend, I got exactly what I needed out of Quito: reassurance. Reassurance that this whole Ecuador thing could be pretty awesome, even if it’s not exactly clear what that might be yet.
It’s not that I didn’t like Quito the first week. I arrived with a very open mind and I knew very well that my first impression would most likely dissolve into something else within days, weeks, or months. But the first few days… I don’t know. I didn’t love it. I couldn’t figure out where I was. I didn’t fully understand where the beauty of this city was hiding. The streets weren’t buzzing with life, the buildings weren’t old and colorful like I had seen in the photos. Quito felt nothing like the stunning city I had been told about, I had Googled, I had secretly hoped for even though I knew it would be an unidealized reality instead. I didn’t feel totally comfortable, I didn’t feel especially safe, and I couldn’t help but wonder: am I going to fall in love with this place or what?
Well, it’s amazing what a few days with new friends, American AND Ecuadorian, can do.
Let’s back up…
I’ve only been here six days. I’ve got groceries to buy and real life stuff to deal with, like getting tissues and figuring out how to take out the garbage. You know, just stuff. Moving somewhere new is an adrenalized uphill battle at first; you’ve got the excitement and hope for everything the experience can become, but you’ve still got to figure out what the heck your building blocks are going to be. It’s like making friends; it’s easy to meet people and have new “friends,” but real friendships grow from life experiences, conversations, and time. Nothing comes instantly. Not even in a week.
Ending the week by finding out a friend of a friend was robbed outside my apartment, followed by my realization that I wasn’t going to the amazing beach everyone was talking about because bus tickets were sold out, made me wonder how the weekend would turn out. Honestly, it showed me the side of Quito I needed and wanted to see so badly. Now I get it… Now I’m starting to realize how much there is to see and do here. And what a bonus — I like everyone I have met so far!
This Friday, I was introduced to “Beer Fridays” at work. Basically, we work from 9am-6pm (give or take). On Fridays, at 5pm, someone makes the rounds to Carlos who owns the convenience store downstairs (yep, already met him, we’re already friends). Every Friday afternoon, Carlos sticks a few bottles of Pilsner (the lackluster Ecuadorian beer that comes only in LARGE bottles) in the freezer. At 5pm, a V!VA staffer collects money ($1/beer… not kidding) and fills a crate with the chilled bottles. Using the handle of my desk or the nearby closet doorknob as a bottle opener, we pop open our beers and call it a week. I like beer Fridays already.
Jena, one of my coworkers, asked me if I wanted to grab dinner in the Mariscal after work. La Mariscal is basically the extremely crazy “party neighborhood” of Quito, where you can find all the hostels, a bunch of restaurants, clubs blasting Jay-Z and reggaeton beginning at 5pm, and the occasional crackhead. For many, it’s a glowing hangover waiting to happen. But I was there to eat. She took me to a delicious Indian restaurant, we had a great little talk, and then I headed home to pack for a POSSIBLE last-minute bus ticket to Canoa (no dice).
Saturday, with my roommate Kari away for the long weekend, I figured it was a good time to tackle the SuperMaxi. No, I’m not talking about female products here… I’m talking about the MASSIVE supermarket down the hill that has everything I could ever need when it comes to groceries and toiletries! YES. Little did I know that it opens at 10am on Saturday, and that is the day and time that Ecuadorians stock up on food for the next five years of their lives. Holy crap, I waited like 45 minutes with my 15 items. I’ll spare you the prices… but they are VERY nice 🙂 For once, this New Yorker gets to say that!
I met up with my friend Libby for lunch in the Mariscal. It was much more attractive during the daytime, and I realized that I had a lot to see and try — exactly what I had hoped to feel. The first few days in Ecuador, I wondered where all the LIFE was. Now, I found it. At least some of it. One flavor of life (there are plenty more).
We wandered the streets and ended up at the artisan market, where I splurged ($12) on a beautiful alpaca blanket to brighten my new room. (Yep, guess what my family is getting for the holidays… LOTS of alpaca stuff! Hehe) We then met up with Nan, one of Libby’s new friends, who’s been living in Quito for over a year. She LOVES it. That love was good to see and feel. Maybe it was contagious.
After an incredible fruit salad (ugh, how do I share what it’s like to bite into perfectly ripe slices of papaya, watermelon, strawberry and banana when you’ve spent the day cooking in the Ecuatorial sun?), we met up with two of Nan’s Ecuadorian friends — Bunuel and… ah crap, you caught me, I have no idea what the other guy’s name was… The four of us headed on foot to a new neighborhood, La Floresta, which I quickly fell for. We trekked up a little hill, past all sorts of beautiful flower bushes and trees, and into a peaceful, hip neighborhood that felt — for the first time — like home to me in Quito. Sometimes a neighborhood picks you. This one did that. If/when I move, I think it will be here. We headed to an independent film theater called Ocho y Medio, where we bought tickets for two documentaries that were part of the independent film festival going on. Bunuel is in film school, so both he and Nan knew a lot of people there, including one guy who I whispered to Libby (he looks so Argentinean) and low and behold, we met him and… he is. Just as much as me, except his dad is from Ecuador. Glad I can tell who my people are when I see them.
Finally, I saw a whole new breed of Ecuadorians. I just needed to know that this town had both the modern Quitenos and the traditional ones. The theater was filled with people, young and old, hip and interesting. People drank beers in the patios outside the theater, or sipped herbal teas outside the entrance to the movie, they discussed films they had seen, and hugged and laughed. I instantly loved it there. Something clicked in my Quito experience. Good click.
We had an hour to kill, so we wondered over to a nearby park which kinda knocked my Gringa socks off. Not because it was so beautiful (it wasn’t), but because there we were, on a cliff overlooking a lush green valley, with mountains so large I thought they were clouds in the distance, and I was speaking Spanish with a new Ecuadorian friend. I was there. I finally started to get this place, to see it, to understand that it’s got something special under the grime I first noticed… Quito had shed its first layer of skin.
The films were interesting but not life changing by any means. One was about a Columbian woman who’s children go off to live in France. She misses them, loves them, envies them in a way, but has to let them go. Of course, this hit a chord in all of us, who instantly thought of our mommies and how it must feel to watch your own kids go live out their dreams and their adventures while you send emails from the home they left… But I have to say — I know my mom is still living out her adventures too. And I’m proud of her. That’s the way it should be.
And then, there is the Old Town. Wow. Today, I met up with an Ecuadorian girl named Dyana who is unbelievably sweet (she dated a friend of mine who lived in Ecuador for a year and he had put me in touch with her). Not only had she offered to pick me up at the airport (which I kindly declined, as that was, like, TOO nice and I knew I would be a zombie), but she quickly emailed me to welcome me to Quito and invite me out. When I found out I couldn’t get to the beach, I let her know I’d be around for the weekend, and she unknowingly planned my perfect Sunday.
I met up with Dyana, her 10 yr old son Joel (um, ADORABLE), and her boyfriend Dominic (awesome guy) at 10am this morning in Parque El Ejido. I brought my friend Libby. We all rented some ratty mountain bikes for 2 hrs ($4 each). My breaks didn’t work, Libby’s gears constantly clicked, and Dyana who is a beautiful and tiny Ecuadorian lady, had to keep switching with her 10 year old son to figure out which bike was a better fit. Before the bike ride, they decided to take us to a juice bar and let us sample something “truly Ecuadorian.” Ahhh, the fruit… the FRUIT! It’s delicious, and EVERYWHERE. I LOVE. After a carrot orange juice and a couple mango juices, we got back on our bikes and started pedaling away… I was worried I wouldn’t be able to breathe, but the uphills mixed nicely with the downhills, and I did better than I had expected.
On Sundays, many of the streets are shut down and they become full of cyclists, free of cars. It’s a brilliant idea to shut down streets one day of the week for bikes, and was even better since we didn’t actually have helmets… We literally biked for two hours up into the steep cobblestone streets of the Old Town, where plazas, churches, steep winding staircases and Ecuadorians abound. It was absolutely breathtaking (and yeah, that could have been partially from the altitude — man was I huffing up a couple of those hills while Joel zoomed by!). And what a view…
We paused every now and then to catch our breath. I’d chat/mess with Joel who was my buddy during the ride, Dominic and Dyana taught us about Ecuador, and that sun just beamed down on us. It felt so good — SO good — to finally realize that there is a lot of Quito to love, and there’s going to be a lot of Quito and this experience to share.
We sampled some authentic Ecuadorian food (ok, I admit, I was so hungry that I had to pass on the cow intestine stew, but I did try the plantain and cheese ball, and the chicken with rice, avocado, lime and onion thing — delish!). Libby and I headed home completely exhausted, but both SO happy. It was an absolutely wonderful day, and it’s been a wonderful weekend. Our understanding of Quito has grown in necessary ways.
Tomorrow, I’m getting up at 6am to meet up with Libby, Nan, and Nan’s Ecuadorian boyfriend to go to some hot springs in a place called Papallacta, about 2 hrs outside the city. This will be my first excursion out of Quito since arriving almost a week ago now.
This first week has been very full, and each day has made a difference. There is so much more to talk about, to write about, to comment on, but I’ve got to get into my bed, under my new alpaca blanket.
I’m glad I’m here, wherever that really is.