Having experienced the warmth and generosity of Peru I move on to my next country: Ecuador. I’m off to a tricky start as the domestic airline I am using to fly from Lima to Quito (Ecuador’s capital city) has oversold flights so I’ll be getting a plane in the evening. I’m not happy about this at all as I’m told that being a single woman arriving in Quito in the middle of Sunday night is not a good idea at all. I find that there are a few other disappointed female passengers including an Australian, French and Columbian, and 3 Peruvian men on business trips. We are packed into a bus to a hotel for a 3-course lunch that actually turns out to be rather enjoyable and we share travel stories. The Aussie is also staying in a hostel in Mariscal so we plan to get a taxi together on arrival. We land at midnight and get into town by 1am. I’ve warned the hostel I will be late. It’s a Sunday evening and the whole place is like a ghost town-where is everyone? The driver hands me my rucksack, I’ve already said goodbye to the Aussie and I’m outside the hostel door-no one lets me in. After 30 minutes of banging on the door and planning finding another place to stay whilst hiding my backpack in a bush, someone finally comes to the door-“welcome to Ecuador”.
Ecuador is the second smallest country in South America, yet has an impressive range of landscapes and places to explore. There’s everything from tropical rainforests and wildlife on the Galapagos Islands to heritage and culture in the vibrant cities, oh and not forgetting beautiful beaches on the coast-I intend to get a taste of all of this! I start my journey of this country in Quito, the capital. The country’s history is written all over the City on the street signs, and the Mariscal neighbourhood (known by the locals as Gringo-land due to the many hostels and over priced bars, clubs and restaurants) is named after Ecuador’s greatest independence hero. Simon Bolivar is highly regarded for leading Latin America to freedom from Spanish rule, and his dream was to form a united South America. In 1822 Ecuador gained its freedom when one of Bolivar’s best generals Mariscal Sucre defeated the royalists and took Quito. Then, Ecuador was joined by Bolivar with Venezuela and Columbia to form the independent state Gran Colombia. However this only lasted 8 years with Ecuador becoming fully independent in 1830.
Ecuador has an interesting disruptive past and continues to experience upheaval and change with numerous comings and goings in political power over the past years, and interestingly in 2000 changed its currency and took on the dollar. This is a subject that can lead to much discussion and debate even now, and is met with approval and dislike by Ecuadorians seeing the benefits and difficulties it brings. There are regularly protests and debates, but then these are prevalent all over South America, I bet Bolivar is turning in his grave, when will this continent be able to rest and get over the mess made by capitalist leaders and the West? (first and foremost the USA-ahem). Here there exists everything from peasant farming families to the rich upper-class with their maids and modern toys. An estimated 60-70% of Ecuadorians live below the poverty line, yet regardless of class and income generally the people here will give you a warm welcome and show you a good time you really will never forget-as I have experienced so far. Quito is huge, and no wonder with 30% of the entire population being crammed into here and Guayaquil, the second biggest city. Football is an obsession here, the religion predominatly Roman Catholic and when it comes to music you either love Reggaeton (I love Daddy Yankee!) or prefer foreign rock music and heavy metal. (Note: this a generalization of course!).
I have an early start on Monday morning for my first 4-hour Spanish lesson and I chose my hostel carefully on Foch as its two blocks away from the Simon Bolivar Spanish School. My teacher Maribel is local and speaks pretty good English-not that we speak much English of course! It’s great having some one to one time so that I can go at a pace that is perfect for me. There are changes in the language from country to country, I’ve already noticed that bus stops in Peru were called paradero but here it’s parada-more challenge and confusion for me! Maribel tells me appearance is very important in Quito and I notice during the week that no matter the size of your rear end you wear the tightest pair of jeans you can find and generally all of your outfit is tight-fitting with any flesh and tummies hanging out (!). Even Maribel is wearing the tightest clothes everyday! After school on Monday I go for an almuerzo for lunch. This is great value local food, a set menu for around $1.50. I get a freshly squeezed fruit juice and banana followed by a delicious bowl of soup, followed by meatballs, salad and rice. I end up having lunch at Santiago’s for the next three days as it’s so good and within my budget. I’m pretty exhausted not having had much sleep but I pop onto a trole (tram) for a ride into the old town. The weather is hot and I get off at Plaza Grande-it´s packed full of locals. I have a nice walk around the colonial buildings; museums, churches and government offices. It’s very pleasant actually. I sit in the square with an ice-cream and chat to a local man in his 60s, a chance to practice my Spanish. He asks if I prefer Peru or Ecuador, I am asked this same question numerous times when I meet Ecuadorians later in the week.
I spend a lot of time this week with a German girl who is staying in the 6-bed dorm I am in, she’s going to be living in Quito for a year to study. One evening I have dinner at an Indian restaurant (I am feeling desperate for some masala but the food is terrible!) with Australians, English and Irish people. It feels strange to be around Brits and I realize that I much prefer to be around locals and prefer not to bump into my own kind at all! It’s like getting a mini-culture shock regularly meeting people from around the world, their behaviour, attitude and use of language is very interesting. What is obvious is that us Brits don’t have the warmth that some other cultures possess, we can be very reserved I think but my personality doesn´t fit this stereotype-I like to think not anyway. Another thing I am noticing is the number of 19 year old girls traveling in South America, it seems to be the magic number and makes me chuckle when I think of all the people back home that have the impression of this continent being completely dangerous with guns and knives on every street corner. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of bad things do happen here and I’m advised not to walk out of my hostel alone after 9pm as it´s just too dangerous, you can smell it in the air; this is gringo-land after all. One evening a few of us check out the local nightlife and go to some local bars-no gringos in sight. I love watching the couples doing salsa, boy can these men dance it’s in their blood! One day after school I notice that Mariscal is packed with locals wearing bright yellow Ecuador t-shirts, its Ecuador V Bolivia this afternoon and everyone is watching the game, even my Spanish teacher plays football in a local women’s team. I enjoy watching us win (well I’m in Ecuador!) in a local café over lunch, then watch the second half back at the hostel with the staff. So much excitement in the air and Mariscal is buzzing late into the night. I’m in Quito for a two-week dance festival so I go to the Humanizarte Fundacion Cultural Theatre one evening to see Shuffle Trips Dance Company from Brazil perform Nimguem Vai Sabe (No One Will Know). My friend calls the theatre in the afternoon to get some information about buying tickets but the cleaner answers and says to call back later. We do and we are advised to get there 30 minutes before and we should get a ticket. We do and the theatre is pleasantly full. It is small scale in size and we sit on plastic chairs that you’d find on your patio back home. The venue has a warm local feel, only ever so slightly pretentious to be honest, and I can tell by the dress and appearance of all attendees that the audience is generally the bohemian trendy type, with mostly young people but still a good age spread-not too different from the UK then for a contemporary dance show?!
The presentation is great, we see 10 different pieces and up to 8 dancers, only two are women. They are all wearing simple suits, all different colours and play with everything from tap to hip-hop dance. There’s some recorded music, some live percussion, some silent movement and even some singing. Different moods, emotions and speeds are explored and the night ends on a high with a piece to a recent pop song. Definitely worth the money and an entertaining night out, but I’m hoping that there is some more cutting edge work for me to explore in my time here as that was light entertainment, however quit accessible I think.
On Sundays Quito is much quieter and pleasant. Many streets and the old town are closed to traffic. Mariscal feels very different and I cross the road not watching out for cars, but for people on bicycles. I decide to go to Mercado Santa Clara for lunch and dine with the locals. I take a fish with potatoes and salad for $2-it’s absolutely delicious. The place is packed with locals; couples, families, singles eating chicken, meats, vegetable dishes, fresh fruit juices, I love the ambience-it’s so warm. With a happy stomach I take a long walk to Avenue Patria and find myself looking at some interesting works of art by local artists, I chat to the wife of one artist who is not there today as I look at a work playing with politics, a painting of the last supper with various presidents, war heroes and criminals around the table-and Bart Simpson of course. From here I continue on and I pass the Theatre, a huge building that is closed in the afternoon. There are no posters up or any information about show times, I can’t tell if it’s a working theatre but assume it is for those who are in the know, and doesn’t have a marketing policy that fits with what I am familiar with, the rules are different here. I continue walking to my destination; Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana as it is here that I can see the country’s largest collection of Ecuadorian art. The archeological and 19th Century collections are excellent, but the Sala de Arte Contemporaneo (Contemporary Art Room) is small and disappointing, and I am absolutely convinced that this is not representative of the skill and imagination that is resident here, I have learnt that from looking at paintings in the street. This certainly gets me thinking about how developed the arts sector is and what relationship there is between the state and what’s going on at ground level. I don’t want to assume anything, but this country has had much more critical matters to deal with over the past few years so perhaps the creative industries has not yet had its day-I hope to investigate this further over the coming weeks.
I spend a few evenings with some local Ecuadorians that I meet through my German room mate, its great to be around people my age and wave length, not that age is everything but its great. They are so friendly and warm we spend the next three evenings together driving around the city, checking out the old town at night, speaking in Spanglish and just having fun. On my last night Alejandro and Julio take me to Café Mosaico for the most spectacular and beautiful view of Quito´s old town at night. I’m sad to say goodbye to my new friends but not so sad to leave Mariscal where I have felt limited by the danger on the streets at night, I´m looking forward to feeling completely free again, and I think I will most definitely find that in the jungle where I am heading to next. Ecuador has found a place in my heart, and it´s only been 7 days…