I have a latte at Plaza de las Americas – a modern mall with restaurants, cinemas, and coffee shops near Av. 10 de Agosto, not far from my hotel. This complex offers free wireless Internet; other places for Internet access include Papaya.Net, which has a number of modern shops in different parts of town, including Old Quito – there, I do hear two ladies speaking in British-accented English. I did try a naranjilla juice there; I had no idea there were so many tropical fruits I was not aware of. The latte, though, was quite bland and milky, and service was bad (like service almost everywhere I went, actually), with long wait times.
When it came to bad service, especially bad was a place called Bodeguita de Cuba, well recommended by Lonely Planet; usually I do not like to criticise operations such as restaurants and hotels (since I do not know how easy or hard it is to run one), but here I and two companions had to wait what seemed like an hour to get any kind of attention – and there were no other customers in the place! And when a group of Cubans walked in, the little attention we got until then grew even more feeble: the maitre d’ seemed more interested in conversing with his compatriots than in seeing if his other customers had any needs. Not to mention that the place is rather grungy looking, with customers’ graffiti and art work all over the walls (“¡Bush terrorista!“, “Mary was here”, etc.).
Speaking of food, Ecuadorean fare is heavily tilted towards steaks, beans, and rice. I also had yams and other kind of local potatoes that were pretty good. Most of the food is not spicy at all, despite the presence of a salsa-like condiment called ajo that can be found everywhere. Potato and chicken soups are also on offer, and I liked them all, although none were as flavoured as, say, Mexican food. I tried a ceviche, a kind of marinated shrimp soup, for $5 a bowl at a food court. It was very delicious – and surprisingly filling.
One evening I end up in Guapulo, which is a small village near Quito (actually: near a ritzy area of Quito called Gonzalez Suarez; the high rises in Gonzalez overlook Guapulo). Getting there was a scary experience – there is only a narrow winding and very steep cobblestone road, which cars and cyclists cruise down fast all the time, and which has very narrow pavements (when they exist at all). It is a very picturesque little trip, though, and the place seems to be a favourite haunt of Western hippies, some of whom I understand live in the area. The houses lining the road have a dreamlike quality that I have never experienced elsewhere.
Walking around Old Quito I come across the San Francisco Church and Museum; this is the largest religious complex in the Americas, according to my travel guide. I found both rather scary (I am not a religious person, and a previous encounter with Andean Catholicism in the guise of a procession venerating the Virgin in Guapulo had me positively spooked – maybe it was the singing, maybe it was the statue of the Virgen, maybe it was the mists of the mountains, maybe it was the poorly lit cobblestone street reminding me of Magritte’s Empire Of Lights, but at that precise moment I wanted to be in a lounge with a martini and listening to electronica; the throwback to a different age and its beliefs was a bit much for my taste). However, it is an interesting experience in Colonial Latin America, and so is the Museo de la Ciudad, also located in Old Quito. The area, apparently, was not recommended a few years ago, but now it seems to be bustling with activity. Well, there still are small children hanging on to you offering to polish your shoes for small change, but unfortunately this is life.
I learn that Ecuador has three distinct areas (four, if the Galapagos are included): the coastal area (where the largest city in the country, Guayaquil, is), the central area where Quito is, and the eastern area (Amazon and mountains). Each has a different culture, and the people in each area are also different. Ecuador shares much culture and customs with other Andean countries such as Peru and Bolivia, although the latter is more mountainous and apparently less rich culturally. Each Latin American country seems to have its very distinctive characteristics, which are a bit of mystery to me: but, apparently, Colombians are the most talkative and fun loving, Argentinians the most uppity in behaviour, and so on. Even so, there is something common, that I recognise from my home culture thousands of miles away: maybe it is the people’s demeanour, or their garrulousness, or something else, but we Romanians and Ecuadoreans are alike in many and unmistakable ways; there indeed is a Latin blood which spans continents. My theory is proven, I think!
One night I find myself driven to the urbanisaciones, gated communities outside of Quito, and I get near what will be the largest mall in South America. It is not completed yet, but it does look gigantic. It does trigger memories of the half-empty Berjaya Mall in Kuala Lumpur, the largest mall in South-East Asia. Modern Quito, like KL, also sports numerous steel and glass office buildings. I notice several banks; other than that, hair salons seem to be the most frequently encountered businesses in town.
Ecuador is influenced by two countries: Spain, the erstwhile colonial power, and the US. Many Ecuadoreans I talk to have either lived in or travelled to one of these two places. Other than the two gentlemen at the British pub, and the Ford and Chevy trucks on the road, however, I see little direct American presence. As far as Spaniards, I meet one at a club one night; I’m amazed at how easy it is to make friends here; just meeting someone briefly and exchanging a few words warrants a kiss on the cheek at the next encounter. I see various groups of tourists at old town hangouts, I think I hear Dutch and German, and not a few British accents.
Texting (sending SMS messages via mobile phone) is a national sport in Ecuador. Everyone seems busy standing at street corners typing messages on tiny keyboards with remarkable speed. I find out why – mobile calls appear prohibitively expensive; my few calls a day from the hotel room resulted in a outrageous $70+ bill, and even if those were inflated hotel prices, mobile usage is clearly rather pricey.
Not knowing what is in store, I go to the TeleferiQue – one of Quito’s top new attractions. It is a ski-lift-like type of contraption that climbs the mountain; it starts quite nicely, with the small cabin hovering at 3-4 metres above the ground, but pretty soon I notice I am above some very tall trees; the view is breathtaking, I can see the whole of Quito in the valley with the mountains around it, but my knees are seriously shaking by the time I get to the top. And, at the top, it is cold. Very cold, in fact. I can see clouds below me.
The way Ecuadoreans talk is something worthy of note. The expressiveness of Ecuadorean TV anchors makes the American talking heads appear wooden and stifled. I am sure I am missing a lot of meaning just by not understanding the subtleties of declaimed Latin American Spanish language: plenty of oohs, tsks, repetitions, and words that seem to speed up mid-sentence.
Some things I did not get to do this time: visit the monument of the Equator (umm, okay, a bit touristy); go to an Indian village (there is one not far from Quito); or go to a traditional cafe to hear peña (Andean) music. I heard some such music on the radio and it was quite beautiful. Also, I wish I knew the name of a band I caught on TV late one night – I think it was an Ecuadorean band, and it was mixing traditional music with rock to great effect. I would also like to visit Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and best representative of the coastal culture of the country; no less a luminary than Christina Aguilera has roots in Guayaquil.
Along with the sense-awakening exoticism that faraway, palm tree-lined places bring, and a sometimes more welcoming social life (in Latin America there is always time to socialise and party the night away), there is another reason for expatriation among Westerners and that is the real possibility of living well in a developing country off savings accumulated from Western salaries. In Quito, for example, a nice apartment or house is between $40,000 and $80,000, and I see some buildings that must afford a really gorgeous view of the mountains. Knowing that the nearest beach is only four hours away from Quito only makes this town so much more attractive. It is not glamorous or well-known like Rio or Buenos Aires, and even for northern South America, Colombia seems to take the spotlight (its bad seems quite well counterbalanced by its good; a French gentleman I meet one night keeps enthusing about “les filles de Colombie”). But I find this quite refreshing; as a Romanian I have a definite predilection for overlooked places and countries that aren’t continuously preoccupied with their ranking in the world. In Quito, the weather is nice, the food is good, the city is manageable, and the people are genial and laid-back – go there and decide for yourself, and I’ll plan on meeting you for tapas at Q Bar!