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Queueing up for Quito

“What shall I do this week? Oh well, I think I’ll just jet off to Ecuador!” This may not be a very common decision, and yet this is exactly what I am doing. And while sitting in the airport, facing a day of flying, I realise there is a certain logic behind my choice: it is my third trip to Latin America, and after enjoying Caribbean island life with mojitos and merengue nights in the Dominican Republic, a gorgeous bay, sun and sand, and home-made enchiladas in Mexico, the time may well be appropriate for a trip to a more mountainous region in this part of the world – such as Ecuador.

Right now I don’t know terribly much about the country: only that for a while now, it has had a dollar-based economy; it is increasingly talked about as a retirement destination by North Americans (especially places such as Cuenca and Quito); it is an Andean country, a sometime part of the Inca empire; its capital, Quito, is on the Equator; and somewhat improbably (to me, since I always thought they sort of just hung in the ocean by themselves) the Galapagos Islands belong to it.

I don’t see myself as a typical tourist; when I get to a new place, I am in no rush to see all the sights, but rather I settle into a pattern where I go to the same coffee shop and bookshop every day and try to meet locals and get to know them. It amazes me to see tourists (usually Westerners, of the backpacker sort or not) who “do” all the sights yet have no interaction with the members of the society within which they travel. In every one of my trips I have lived a mini-life, so I can say I am a bit of a Bangkokian, a Cairene, or a Parisian. This time I will be a quiteño. I have always felt that my native Romania is closer temperamentally to Latin America than to its bigger “sister” Latin countries in Europe, so this will be a good time to put my theory to the test.

I arrive in Quito, after a rather gruelling flight; unfortunately I’m arriving at night so I’m missing the sight of the Andes Mountains. As the plane descends, though, I notice it’s foggy, and once on the ground I am surprised at how nippy it is. It’s cold in early September in the tropics. Of course the city’s elevation is the reason, but it is surprising nonetheless.

I’m staying at the Four Points Sheraton, and while it’s not as luxurious as other Sheraton properties around the world, it is still a nice hotel; later I find out the city is full of hostels that offer a cheaper accommodation alternative. Once I’m settled, since I am one who lives for the good times, I won’t let the fact that it’s 1 a.m. and I have not slept in quite a while get in the way of the fun. So I go out to a club called No bar. On the way there (and, by the way: the trip from the airport to the hotel was a mere $5 and it was longer than the same trip in Acapulco that had set me back $25; and in Quito no taxi ride seems to cost more than $3-$4), I get from the taxi driver something like “La zona es peligrosa. But I ask, in my severely limited Spanish, “¿No pistoles?” “No pistoles,” he replies, so I guess all is good for now.

The place (admission: $4; drinks: $2 for local beer, $3 for Corona – very expensive, according to the locals themselves) is positively packed with a wide assortment of locals and vacationing gringos; easy to tell the difference, the former have something slithery and feline about the way they move to the Latin rhythms (and they dance everywhere, including bar tops), while the latter sort of bob around; I have to say that listening to Shakira is a completely different experience on her home turf.

And, while the music is indeed mostly Latin (salsa, reggaeton, some Colombian music as I am told), the odd song by The Doors or Queen, or a rap number or another, can be heard from time to time, to an equally enthusiastic response from the crowd.

The bar itself is a rather common affair, but it is packed and it feels like a sauna. There seems to be something wholesome about the place; maybe it is the couples dancing together that make it look like a ’50s American high school dance, or maybe it’s the revellers who are very friendly and approachable. Yet I am told there is an ample supply of drugs in the area, so maybe not all is as it seems. Well, I felt safe and cosy myself.

A somewhat incongruous sight was a large group of Chinese mixing Hokkien and Spanish and dancing to the salsa like crazy. Apparently there is a significant Chinese business community in town, operating mainly in the clothing and restaurant businesses – and indeed, I see many chifas (Chinese restaurants) all over Quito.

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