I was still weak from food poisoning as I made my way to the airport in Caracas with Senor Eduardo driving and Vero by my side to catch my 6:30am flight to Quito, Equador, a flight which involved a brief stopover in Bogota. The site of Miss Venezuela at check-in did little to make me feel better. I don’t like blondes, I’m a brunette man. Still, I asked her for a photo, and she didn’t look too bad at all for the time of morning, and was proudly displaying her sash declaring her title.
I bid goodbye to Vero and her Dad, who pressed a fair amount of bolivars into my hand to spend at the airport, which was really kind and thoughtful of him. Senor Eduardo and the rest of Vero’s family I would be seeing again in around 3 weeks, when I planned to return to Caracas. Vero I’d be seeing in Cartagena, Colombia, I hoped, in around 2 weeks. I went through security checks and boarded my flight to Quito via Bogota. I remember little of the flight. Bogota has a nice airport, modern and comfortable. Quito’s wasn’t bad either. Such exotic place names for me these. Caracas, Bogota, Quito. I used to see them on a map, imagine what they’d be like. There’s nothing like just going ahead and visiting the places you’ve dreamed of going to. Nothing like following your dreams.
I arrived in Quito, and jumped in a cab straight to the Mariscal area, or ‘gringolandia’ as it’s known to the locals, for obvious reasons when you’re there. I checked in to the lovely Hotel Sebastian, on Calle Almagro 822, near the centre of the Mariscal, and got a good walk-in rate discount. Nice, big room. Hot shower. Like a faded 4 star hotel. Charm. My view was of the peaks of the Andes, for Quito is high in the Andes, and boasts the title of the world’s second-highest capital city. It’s a small city in terms of population – only 1.5 million dwell here, but it’s big on sights – choc full of historical monuments in the old town, big on culture, and big on dining and drinking options. I was looking forward to having a good look around. First though, I wanted to try and sort out a trip to Equador’s greatest gift – the Galapagos Islands. I’d turned up in Quito without a booking to the Galapagos, so was hoping I could bag a last minute cruise bargain. My friend Charlie whom I’d traveled around West Timor with once sent me the name of a small travel agents he used for a Galapagos trip called Carpdm, so I decided to try and find it.
I left the hotel and stepped out into a cool sunny Andes afternoon. I decided to try and walk to the Unesco World Heritage site of Quito’s ‘Old Town’, hopefully finding the travel agents on the way. I was on my guard – Quito isn’t a safe city in the central areas. Gangs of drugged-out rogues hung around on the corner of streets, some altered their stride to try to walk close to me. I crossed the street several times. It was too quiet, and I knew I was in a vulnerable position. I walked purposefully until I came to a lovely park, Parque La Almeda. As it was a holiday it was full of families enjoying picnics, and couples lounging around under the shade of trees, the young men with confident mannerisms, easy smiles and slicked back hair like young Elvis or Marlon Brandos with healthy Hollywood suntans, the young girls gazing out of their suitors arms to the world dreamily. Candyfloss sellers were doing a roaring trade, and young kids were running around everywhere high on the sugar. It was a lovely picturesque place with the mountains watching over everything. I came across the omnipresent Simon Bolivar monument, then continued my walk.
I came to another park, Parque La Carolina. This was full of families too, riding in paddleboats, walking along the bike paths chatting, having a picnic together. It all made for a very pleasant atmosphere indeed. I made it to the Old Town, the historical heart of Quito. My first stop was the Quito Cathedral, where I was able to enjoy sweeping views over the whole city, with its colourful houses, lush green hills rising up and falling down like waves suspended in time, and the buildings like little pieces of colourful coral, and just as fragile looking. I continued down to Plaza Grande, the heart of the old town. It was buzzing here, the square was full of folk from all over Equador it seemed. There were those in trendy city dress, others in suits, others in indigenous dress. The indigenous population of Equador numbers some 3.5 million, about a quarter of the total population, and the 25% are split into a dozen or so groups speaking some 20 languages. It seemed as though there were a representative of each here today in Plaza Grande, some laughing, some arguing loudly, others watching a couple of bible-loving men in suits talking about evil in society and praying for judgement day, throwing themselves on the floor and kissing the bible. There were 2 of them, taking it in turns, but they weren’t getting a very captive audience at that moment, not that it seemed to deter them. They had the passion of the South American coupled with the passion of the God-fearing man, like the Jehova’s witnesses that come and ask you if you’ve found God yet, and if you haven’t and you want to, that will be $100 a month thank you very much. A scary combination.
The Palacio del Gobierno, the presidents business quarters, flank a side of this square, and today it was an open house day, so hundreds were queueing to get a glimpse of the mosaic depicting Francisco de Orellana’s descent of the Amazon, or maybe even of the President, the leftist Rafael Correa. I couldn’t really be bothered queuing, I was still too weak, and I moved on for fear of fainting. I walked all around the wonderful narrow cobbled streets, full of chapels, convents, churches and monasteries, street vendors animatedly selling their wares adding to the colourful atmosphere. The coloured houses had lovely balconies, many with brightly-coloured bourgainville hanging down. It had a lovely, magical atmosphere, little cafes were dotted around here and there, people ambling around from all walks of life, street painters and performers doing there thing, drunk homeless people doing there’s. Little homeless old ladies were in abundance here too for some reason, but they didn’t seem to go against the grain of the place, rather went with it, as though part of the furniture, as did the old lanterns hanging from wires over some of the alleys, that had probably cast light on these poor old women when they were young and free and innocent. Time went quickly, quicker no doubt than time does in the lives of those who struggle, and I found myself back at Plaza Grande, listening to a band playing traditional Andean folklorica as the sun began going down. I wandered amongst the crowds, the well-to-do, the families, the not well-to-do, the shoe shiners and the businessmen getting their shoes shined, the preachers still going strong. I sat for a minute and saw a father and his sons having a chat on a bench. They were covered in shoe polish, dressed in dirty rags, and they were pooling the money they had collected together after a hard day’s work. The father seemed pleased and rubbed one of his son’s hair with his blackened hand, a proud smile on his face, hardened by poverty. The other son seemed over the moon, and his face for a moment showed the flash and promise of youth, a youth that poverty had taken away as soon as he was old enough to hold a shoe polishing brush. They shared a few precious moments, then split up again to try and find more shoes to shine. How horrible living hand to mouth, only hoping that the next day would bring enough money to eat. About 40% of Ecuadorians live like this, below the poverty line. It’s not right. Life is not fair.
It was too late to go to the travel agents now, and it was getting darker and there was a chill in the air. I hadn’t eaten all day and had barely stopped walking. I tried to eat some pizza at pizza hut on the way back to the Mariscal. I was in no mood to try the local delicacy, cuy (roast guinea pig), so had decided to go western. I could only manage 2 slices, and felt terrible, so I retreated towards my hotel with a bottle of water. The streets were full of people in the Mariscal, and there was an interesting looking square full of bars I wanted to try later. Just outside this square though, the streets were quieter and had an air of menace about them. The feeling of danger is real here. The Old Town and the Mariscal in Quito is full of homeless people, most of them drunk or wandering around in drugged up zombie-like states. Of course travelers are targets. Avoid them and you’re fine. I walked back to my hotel, and got ready to head out for a drink.
I walked back to the Mariscal at night, and found the square lively with a good mix of well-heeled locals and backpackers. I had a beer, felt terrible, and went straight back to hotel. I still wasn’t over my food poisoning, and I hadn’t eaten really all day, so was very weak. I told myself I needed to eat breakfast tomorrow, and I collapsed on my bed exhausted. It had been a very long but very interesting day indeed. Quito is a beautiful city in an incredible setting. The people seem nice, friendly and warm for the most part, and, although I’d seen the good and bad of Quito today, I couldn’t wait to see more tomorrow.