Quito - Siga No Mas!

Trip Start Nov 24, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

So let the adventures begin!

While Ecuador is new, unfamiliar and obviously exciting, being back in South America brings me great satisfaction. One part familiar, two parts foreign and a dash of nostalgia on ice! The familiarity of cultural nuances years removed vividly brings back the reasons why I loved it here in SA before and sets a new precedent on the reality that here and now, we are living this and doing what we had planned on doing and thought about for so many hours in the past back home. Our six months are finally upon us. Hooray!

Shockingly, Quito is a lot nicer of a city than I ever expected. Having already witnessed the realities of a continent which battles (in my opinion) a huge rural-urban migration crisis where the grand megalopolis setting is coated with an ostracized peripheral society, a high rate of poverty and HUGE informal sector population that survives day by day in a world w/o empathy, I half expected a capital far more in shambles than what I was greeted with. I was gearing up for what unavoidably greets your eyes in Lima or what BA tries so hard to shield but never can quite successfully do. So far, though it is much smaller than both and without a doubt it has its fair share of poverty, heart sickening problems and disparity among social realms, it seems like a more balanced city. Maybe it's just because it has less money and high rises to pronounce the contrast...I'll think about it more for sure.

One of my most vivid recollections of Buenos Aires and the depths of anguish people suffer that brings them to a state of sensory-numbness (as I can't think of a better term) was walking across one of the biggest squares in the entire city, surrounded by some of the most impressive buildings that I had seen at that point in my life. As a group of us walked by, there in the grassy quarters that covered the massive square like a mosaic, I watched a young boy, a little older than my nephew is now run after a pigeon, grab it by its neck and snap it without an ounce of compassion for its life. A bird - now a lifeless toy. I'm not saying pigeons are evolutions finest but as his dad looked on without affliction, torment or care, himself looking like he was in a state of homeless, and the boy flung it around like a stuffed animal, it makes you wonder if we are all just in the end, doomed. The child is doomed to repeat his fathers life, I am doomed because I witnessed it and walked on and we are all doomed because it continues on. Maybe as human nature instigates, we gradually separate ourselves from what hurts and like them, no longer feel. When it reaches that state though, when people can't care or feel because frankly nobody has cared for them and their life of despair and unending hopelessness is relegated to basic survival. That is when it dawns on you...simply, why? And why them?

And to be able to travel and enjoy different places in your life for what they are, do you have to desensitized yourself and just be a spectator with no true immersion into what it is that you see and what 'true life' is for them?

Less than 24 hours ago I took a clean hot shower, had my last peanut butter and toast for six months, suspended my cell phone subscription and left behind the comforts of living in the U.S with a very close partner in life. The first thing that you come to realize eating a fresh pineapple-mango-banana-apple fruit salad on a rooftop terrace at a place that costs you a mere six dollars for a private room and overlooks buildings that  would probably break the fire code in the US and subsequently be confiscated and torn down, is that South America as a whole bleeds hypocrisy and is defined by two totally opposite values - two worlds that are so intertwined that even though you can see the blaring differences between them, you no longer can see them as separate. It is what it is. Two different worlds colliding at the core, creating a unique balance of their own. Here even the joys of simple things come bound with a complexity far greater than can be understood.

Bananas. The yummy bananas in my fruit salad. Ecuador's largest world export commodity. The money that's involved. The people involved from the very fields they come from to the men and women who ship them internationally. The profits made. The people who see it, the people who don't. The local economies dependent on it nevertheless. The small farms bought up by the large corporations as the former owners and the rest of their family are then herded over to work the ground that once belonged to them, now as a peasant. Less than ideal living and working conditions. The Safeways, Costcos, Walmarts and various other grocery chains that dot the planet and sell Chiquita Banana goodness. The people, the money, the business, the demand, the vicious cycle... The Banana.

Machu Picchu. Ancient pre-colombian spiritual site. South America's biggest tourist attraction now reached by bus and train. Great. Now the less capable have a chance to see it now too, right. Equal Opportunity? But to whom? Guides walk past speaking Spanish. Symbolic of never-ending change. Symbolic of the Spanish conquest of South American territories and all the bad that it encompassed. Modern Conquest meets Historical Conquest. Collsion. Visible fissures of the past can still be seen today. Not what people put to much thought into when setting foot in MP. But why do the majority of people go? Could they care less about Machu Picchu or do they go because they respect and value other places, other cultures and things not their own but equally good in this world. The latter. It becomes a huge money maker now. Yes. I've been there twice. Towns resurrected by tourism. Cities now dependent upon it. Indeed it probably does a lot of 'good' to stimulate the local and national economy. It probably helps in the funding of social programs for those in need too. Enter Cusco - long ago its identity lost to tourist companies, gringos and shops that sell Inca memorabilia. I'm a gringo and I own some of that memorabilia.  The people who still live amidst it all like their ancestors did so many centuries ago. Who work the same land that they have for hundreds of years and still speak their indigenous language. Other families - families who have moved from the small outer-lying towns to work in this booming industry. They can't look back now, and the industry never will. Instead of selling their potatoes in the local markets they now sell gum, cigarettes and Nestle candy. They still wear their traditional clothes. They still believe in their traditional customs and way of life. Do they still have their identity or are they just doing what is needed in order to survive in an unforgiving world? I don't know. Their kids help sell now too. The cycle...The blame? Why?

It is so much more than that. So much smaller and intricate and real. Machu Picchu and Bananas are are just  two large and easy to write about examples of a situation that is witnessed by travelers every day and lived by those immersed in it every minute of every day. The truth of it all is that it's not just great tourist sites or internationally traded goods such as bananas. It blatantly exists everywhere. In cities, in towns, in the mountains along the coast. In people's ideals, in the things they value, in the things that they buy. Like it or not it is part of what defines South America now. It is also what could change it in the worst way. Beneath it however are the magnetic forces that draw you back. The cultural, geographical and historical beauties that stand out above it all for those fortunate to appreciate it. So, here we begin...

Think Quito.

The city sits in a beautiful narrow valley at the foot of the Volcano Pinchincha around 9400 feet. It is the highest capital in Latin America so despite it being
situated so utterly close to the equator it enjoys a more mild climate than you would first think looking at in on a globe. It often is quite cold at night. In 1999 Vulcan Pinchincha erupted after 300 odd years of lying dormant and covered Quito with many inches of ash. Some of the pictures are stunning as you can only imagine what it would look like from the city streets. Because we arrived nearly at midnight on the 24th and the taxi driver and us could not find the location of our place, waking up the first morning in a foreign place not yet seen in daylight and looking out over the beautiful colonial buildings of the old city with some good freeze dried Nescafé was a great way say, 'Yes, we're here'. A view and sensation I´ll hold onto for a good while. We aren't staying in the safest of locations, but the hostel is quiet, clean and away from the discos and clubs that we are trying avoid early on. The last two days we have spent checking out various sights around the city, eating interesting fruits and overall just absorbing the feel and way of life in Ecuador. Adjusting our declination of sorts. Though I am not a huge fan of large cities in general I thoroughly enjoy people watching and taking in the hustle and bustle of a new place. One of the highlights so far has been a visit to the Oswaldo Guayasamin Museum. It was definitely well worth the trouble it took us to get there and I urge you to look up some of his paintings! Fantastically Unique.

After a number of awkward moments in several museums and cathedrals in which I was politely asked to remove my hat only to reveal my frightening (but might I add, good looking :-)) mohawk, I decided to have it shaved off. I´m not sure which was worse, me having a hat on in a historic/spiritual building, or cruising around three century old paintings of Jesus Christ with a haircut fit for a heretic. Regardless, now I am getting accustomed to the no-hair look and like it just as well. I've been cutting my hair now for the last five years since I've been in college (too cheap to pay of course) and my mom cut it for years prior (thanks mom) so paying even a dime is more than I am accustomed to. Nevertheless, it cost me a whole two dollars for the buzz and that even included an option for a head massage that I hesitantly turned down. I tipped the barber 50 percent and we both parted ways happily.

The Quito City festival is gearing up this coming week and Chivas (open aired buses, some even with room to stand on top) are driving around like stretched limousines in Vegas with partiers riding on top and dancing wildly about as they cruise past. Last night we had to angrily sleep through a marching band as they
practice their last minute tunes in preparation for the festival. They
were in the room next door. Music blares, people are everywhere in the streets, a homosexual support parade marches by, men and women yell above the crowd in attempt to sell the content of their baskets - homemade ice cream and freshly baked goods, their smells drowned out by that of rotten garbage, human piss and car exhaust. Pollution coats the outsides of glass windows with a filthy residue not removed in ages, a person on stilts walks by handing out fliers, a crowd begins to gather around a street comedian, a nearby family restaurants advertises their delicious seafood on restaurant signs that show random women oiled up in thongs, a lady in traditional Andean dress casually skirts by, newborn in tote, a man with no legs skirts around on a small wooden cart, desperately begging for a gift, his hands callused from years of survival ...we take it all in, nobody gives him a second thought, sheepishly we hand him our change in hand.

This is Quito.

Pinchincha Eruption - Quito
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