In daytime, the city is quite impressive, surrounded as it is by what seem like perpetually misty mountains. The old town is especially hilly and walking around it is quite an exercise. It takes some serious energy to be able to explore it on foot. Quito appears as relatively clean and with pothole-free roads; traffic can be a bit chaotic for someone used to cars driving in their own lanes, and the sight of a truck with 5-7 people crammed in the back is not that unusual. I am impressed with the vehicles’ brakes; some really rickety-looking taxis do wonders on the city’s steep and winding streets. I see a few original Minis and VW Beetles – a reminder that what in the West is seen as cool vintage design is seen as utilitarian in other parts of the world.
Seated as I am in front of a Citibank office, I notice businessmen with slicked back hair and Oakleys mingling with Indians in their native dress; the people are mostly Caucasian or Indian or a mix thereof, with very few blacks.
It takes quite some time getting used to being called caballero, and I do feel a tingle of pride – just like when I was first called sir in an English-speaking country. But caballero sounds so much more dramatic!
I spend one evening at a martini bar, Coffee Tree, in the same area of new Quito as No bar, crammed with local bikers, dreadlocked artists, and all sundry of all night party people. I have interesting conversations in English augmented by my mostly gesture-based Spanish (some people do speak excellent English, but for a long term resident of the city, learning Spanish is a requisite), ranging quite wide, from Hollywood cinema (where I was hopelessly outsmarted), to the music of Marilyn Manson, to machismo, to, er, politics (while Mr Bush isn’t exactly popular, neither is his nemesis Mr Chavez of Venezuela, where apparently the oil wealth has failed to trickle to the population at large or to the infrastructure; Ecuador has elections coming up soon and it is possible that a Chavez-fashioned populist may win here too). Martinis were a very reasonable $2.50 for two. A personal fact: where I grew up, Latin American literature was a luxury reserved to the few glitterati; here, Marques or Llosa are things everyone reads. Quite obvious, I guess, but unusual to me.
Other sights for the day: Libris Mundi, a bookshop with mostly Spanish books; a mall, Quicentro (rather small and crammed by US standards, and selling mostly expensive stuff); TGI Friday’s and Tony Roma’s (both considered expensive). A park, Carolina, where the locals come in droves to play football, tennis, volleyball, and to eat what seemed to be deep-fried bananas. I sampled the local beers, Pilsener and Brahma, and found them both quite light. $1 at a street vendor. Saw a sign advertising English lessons with a profesor británico; the English-teaching profession is alive and well in the Andes.
Of course, Quito is surrounded not only by mountains but also by volcanoes such as Cotopaxi and Pichirincha. Not long ago an eruption of one of the volcanoes covered the city in ash, disturbing the traffic and life in general. And even now, as I type outside, my laptop’s keyboard gets periodically dirtied by an ash-like dust.
And there are risks to walking: even if the temperature is only slightly over 20°C during the day (and in the low 10s at night), I get a sunburn on my face after a few hours in the city.
I go for a glass of wine at the ritzy Q Bar and Lounge, on Mariscal Foche con Reina Victoria (near No Bar and Coffee Tree). A glass of red (copa de rojo) sets me back $4, quite hefty a charge in this city. The local yuppies seem to gather in the area, as there are other nice lounges around the square – such as Foccacia, where I have a rather watered-down gin and tonic. The buildings around the plaza are very nice and modern, and the crowd is positively hip. And the tapas at Q Bar are good, priced at $3 a plate. The chorizo en vino is quite outstanding.
Other than Q Bar and No bar, I go to a dance club called Blues. There is an outrageous (in this city) $10 charge, and the place is dark and smelly; quite typical of techno clubs, I guess. I’m quite surprised when the music changes from, well, techno, to Rage Against The Machine (“Killing In The Name Of”) and Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”). A Corona is $2.50. I’m not impressed, although I hear the same music played later that night at Bungalow, another club in the area where the dreadlocked bartenders who were previously gyrating to salsa turn the place into a mosh pit when the music switches to Rabia Contra La Máquina.
A thing peculiar to Quito is how each passing plane causes a thundering roar that drowns every other sound in the city for a few seconds. The airport is only a few miles out, and since the city is surrounded by tall mountains, the echo is deafening.
There is a British pub near my hotel called Buster’s. However, when I go in, there is American football on TV and only two customers, both norteamericanos. I have a Tortuga beer, which I never have had before, and a chicken steak – the prices are reasonable but since I passed on the fish and chips, I have no idea how good is the British fare on the menu. The American guys at the bar casually name-drop items such as ‘Beijing’, ‘Sudan’, and ‘El Oriente’. They are involved in oil or something. I do feel kind of like in a movie, maybe The Tailor of Panama. One of them is an ex-marine, and the other is an older, soft-spoken gentleman in round glasses, who makes me feel he would have no qualms about toppling a foreign government if it crossed him or The Company.
The feeling of being in a Latin America-themed movie such as Down Came A Blackbird or The Kiss Of The Spider-Woman is reinforced days later when I find myself in the middle of a pensioners’ demonstration in Quito Viejo. Police with water cannons and shields loiter about the area; I have seen this scene in way too many places in this world. However, the tropical trees, the Andes in the background, and the traditional dress of some of the passers-by make this much more than a average urban experience. It is also a reminder that for most of the locals, the city is expensive. A $2 latte or a $3 bag of candy is quite dear when the average wage is a few hundred dollars a month or less. And many things here seem more expensive than in the US for example. Locals have told me that one can live a good life on $400 a month, but I doubt this would be adequate for a Western standard of living with nights out and the odd big-screen TV. However, I do think that $1,000 a month would allow for a plentiful life here. Oh, and petrol is a bit over $1 a US gallon.