Seven Days in Ecuador - Part Two
Tue 13/05 - 15/05/08
I spend my first full day in Quito wandering around, getting my bearings. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, with a population of roughly 1.5 million. The historic centre is a World Heritage site, full of churches, monasteries, plazas and museums. It's a pretty stunning place - just as you think you've seen it all, you spot something else around a corner or in the distance, poking out over the rooftops. From just about any point in the old city, you can see the Mirador El Panecillo looking down upon you. A huge statue of a winged Virgin Mary, it sits atop the Panecillo hill. Although the views are meant to be amazing from the hill, it's not safe to walk there - apparently the streets are lined with banditos, muggers and buggerers, so I avoid for now.
I stop in San Francisco Plaza for something to eat, and meet an American woman, living in Ecuador with her husband. She gives me a list of tips, writing down places I should visit and things worth seeing. I've four nights booked in Quito, and I want to see at
least one other part of Ecuador before I move on.
In the evening, it pours with rain. I head back to the Chicago hostel early. I sit downstairs in the reception/bar area, have a few beers, and talk a bit to the receptionist and a couple of American girls.
Wednesday. I walk back into to town, with plenty to still explore. For some reason, the centre is packed full of school kids - the little fuckers are everywhere. They seem to be flowing out from Plaza Grande, one of the busiest and most attractive points in the city, home to the Cathedral, Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Municipal Palace. I assume there's some kind of festival or public holiday, and just try to avoid getting caught up in the crowds.
In the evening, I go into to a café in a little mall just off Plaza Grande. I check the menu, which is in Spanish, and order a chicken sandwich and a beer. Ten minutes later, the waitress comes out with the menu again and says something in Spanish. Being an ignorant bastard, “No entiendo” is my stock response. She seems to be saying that
what I’ve ordered is not available. She points to the menu, and shows me other meals, encouraging me to choose one of them instead.
I struggle to grasp the exact nature of the problem. At first, I thought that maybe they had run out of chicken, but now she is pointing to something else, which clearly has the word “pollo” in its title. The main reason for my original choice was price. I’m fiercely counting the pennies now - sad, because being tight is not in my nature, and it’s not what the locals expect of you, being a tourist. The usual assumption is that you have plenty of money, so I guess that whenever I don't leave a tip or order the cheapest item on the menu, they just think I being a cunt.
I can’t see anything else I want for the equivalent price, so I just shake my head and make signals with my hand, designed to say “nothing thanks”. I feel a bit embarrassed, but decide to just sit and finish my beer before finding somewhere else. Then, moments later, the older male waiter who showed me to my seat appears. He says something
like “they are trying.”
I’m confused now. Trying what? What was the problem with my order? It can’t have been the chicken. What else is there? The only other things that make up the meal are bread, chips and salad. Can they have seriously run out of any of those? Although strange, I’m leaning towards the bread theory.
Five minutes later, and out comes my order - a chicken sandwich, complete with all the ingredients, exactly as you would expect. This is really weird. Maybe they only serve sandwiches at lunch time, and have made an exception for me. But then I remember the waitress pointing to the ham sandwich on the menu - and that also rules out the possibility of it being a problem with the bread. What the fuck is going on here?
I’m starting to get the fear. For some reason, my order caused a problem. What if I really pissed the chef off? What if he has some unique condition or phobia, prohibiting him from preparing a chicken sandwich at any time later than 1.30pm? Offending the person who prepares your meal is never a good idea if you want your food to
remain uncontaminated. I learnt this working my first job as a waiter in a roadside café, aged sixteen. When one customer gave the deputy manager a hard time on the door, she went into the kitchen, took the omelette the customer had ordered out of the freezer, and she and the chef played football with it across the kitchen floor, before sticking it in the microwave and serving.
I look at my plate. Fuck it. The meal looks good, and I’m hungry. Whatever has gone on, I’m still gonna eat. Worse case scenario, the chef will have taken great offence at whatever outrage I’ve dealt him and will have buttered both sides of my bread with his cock. As long as I can’t taste it, I don’t care. Hell, there must be a couple of million people eating seaman every day, usually with full awareness. It’s just millions of very, very, very tiny children, floating in clear liquid. Nothing wrong with that. Bon appétit.
I eat in a mild state of paranoia, wishing I could understand Spanish. There doesn't seem to be any reaction from the staff - they're not laughing into their hands or paying me any
undue attention. I finish my meal, pay and leave, still none the wiser.
On Thursday I take a cab to La Marsical, aka Gringo Land or Mucho Gringos. This is a more modern part of the city, with banks, restaurants, hotels and internet cafes, and as a result is where most of the tourists tend to hang out. I sort out a few things on the net and take out some cash, then go to the Magic Bean, a restaurant/bar/hotel on the corner of one of the main streets. There's a football game on the TV, and I sit and watch it with a few of the locals. San Lorenzo of Argentina are playing Liga, of Ecuador. As most people know, South Americans are very passionate about football, and when Liga score a goal, the three guys in shirt and ties next to me suddenly leap out of their chairs screaming. One drops to his knees and another does a dance around the bar.
Moments later, San Lorenzo equalise, thanks to a horrific error by the Liga 'keeper. I duck, half expecting chairs and tables to be overturned, but the guys take it well, with a smile and
a shrug. Excitement breaks out again when the ball ends up in the net for the third time in five minutes, but this time it's ruled out for offside. The match finishes in a draw, and the locals seem satisfied. I return to my hostel, and pack a few things. I've arranged to go to Mindo, a small town in the jungle, for the weekend. I leave my main bag downstairs, and book my final night in Ecuador back at the Chicago.
I get up early in the morning, the plan being to catch a bus at 8am to the town of Mindo. Mindo is located in the western lowlands of Ecuador, in a part of the rainforest known as Cloud Forest. It's famous for having arguably the richest and most diverse bird population in the whole of South America, and offers a range of outdoor activities such as hiking, tubing and canopying.
The day begins in typically surreal and treacherous fashion. Nothing in my life is ever straightforward or simple. It could that mysterious forces are at work. It could be that I'm just having a run of bad luck. Or it could be that I've grossly
overestimated my own capacities and intelligence, and that I'm simply too retarded to be left alone and unsupervised in far off places.
I step outside the hostel at 6.45am. I wave down a taxi, but for some reason he refuses to take me to my requested location - apparently he only drives in the one direction. I walk down the street and hail another. I point to the bus terminal I need to get to, circled on the big, colourful map given to me at the tourist information office. The driver studies it closely. One thing I've discovered in Quito is that taxi drivers and maps are rarely compatible. The location I'm showing him is central, and well known. It's where I was instructed to catch my bus to Mindo. Even the fact that we can't speak each other's language shouldn't prevent me from reaching my goal. I point to the big picture of the Cathedral, showing where we are right now. I trace my finger along the page until it reaches the picture of the bus.
The cab driver nods unconvincingly, and we pull away. Fifteen minutes later, I'm driven down a quiet, empty street. There is
no sign of any bus terminal, or even a bus stop. I ask if this is the right place. Shrug. The driver gesticulates a little, shrugs again and says something in Spanish. I let out a weary sigh. I know this feeling well. This is that point "when good pets go bad” - when things fall or spill out of cupboards. When insects attack. This is the reality TV show about seemingly normal, everyday creatures or situations that suddenly and unexpectedly get out of control and people get hurt. I man is savaged by his pet hamster. I small girl gets her hair pulled by a monkey. An ordinary housewife is viciously scalded by an uncooled cup-a-soup.
Today's episode - a man takes a ride to a well known and clearly marked location - (deep voiceover) "and things take a deadly turn for the worse!" The cab driver is looking around, vaguely pointing behind him. I repeatedly ask if this is the bus station. I point my finger at the picture of the bus. The driver just keeps shrugging. I get out and study the map. Anxiety is beginning to set in. The street names where I've been dropped
seem to roughly match those on the map, but I know this isn't where you catch the bus. How can things have gone wrong so early? How can a taxi driver, asked to find a spot that hundreds of tourists must get driven to every week and aided by a map that a small child could easily understand, not know how to get to that point?
I'm still standing on the corner of the street studying the map when my taxi speeds back up the road and pulls up alongside me. The driver is saying something in Spanish. I've know idea what he means, but he seems to be telling me to get back into the car. An Ecuadorian family are trying to get in, but he ushers them out. I'm guessing he has some idea now of where we need to be. Then, I say the magic words - "Mindo - I need to get a bus to Mindo!" He waves his arms ecstatically. "Si, si, Mindo, Mindo!" Fuck it. What have I got to loose? I get back in.
Off we go again. I still not convinced by this madman. He has the look of a
Taxi Driver/Repo Man guy
"Oh, you don't want to look in there..."
person in the midst or on the verge of a mental breakdown - face rough and red, like a sun dried tomato, his thin black hair swept dramatically back and forward in a multitude of directions, poorly disguising a glaringly bald head and eyes that seem to rattle around in their sockets like those of a ventriloquists dummy. If anyone's ever seen the film Repo Man, just picture the guy in the Chevy Malibu, Frank Parnell, and you'll have a pretty spot on idea of what I'm dealing with.
I keep asking if Frank knows where we're going, pointing over and over to the map, and he keeps nodding vaguely. After ten minutes or so, I know this shit isn't right. We've driven way too far to be anywhere near the X on the map. When I question him, Frank just laughs, and seems to be saying "Trust me, I'm a taxi driver - I know my shit." We pass a large terminal, and my friend points to it. So that's my stop? "Si, si." Okay, but then why are we still going? Frank makes a circular motion. So we have to turn around? We're on a one way system? "Si, si." So why the fuck are we still
going? I get the impression that whatever I say to him, Frank will just nod and enthusiastically agree. You love the smell of napalm in the morning? "Si, si". Is it a long way to Tipperary? "Si, si." Do chipmunks sing sad songs and eat their mothers when the sun sets in the west? "Si."
My innards’ are churning now. This is the kind of stress my system doesn't need so early in the day. This mad fool is giving me palpitations. What the hell can I do? I've repeatedly made my point - I've made it as clear as I possibly could without the ability to use Spanish exactly where I wanted to be. All I can do now is wait it out and see where Frank takes me. If it turns out he actually knows what he's doing, I will politely thank him and be on my way. If he doesn't, and we end up in the middle of nowhere again, I'll make it clear we must fight to the death and fate will smile and pick a winner.
At 7.50am, we pull into a large coach terminal. Frank points feverishly - "Mindo, Mindo". He calls a bus driver over, who confirms that this is where I get the coach to Mindo. I nod slowly. I think I understand, now. The stop on the map, which is a good 15km away at least, must be the point at which you catch the metro, which then carries you to the terminal. I pay Frank. I still don't understand why he couldn't have dropped me where I originally asked, or what it was about my instructions that seemed to confuse him so much, but like the sandwich incident, this will forever remain a mystery - an unsolved X file.
I buy my ticket and take a seat on the coach, which smells of a heady mix of wet dog and stale alcohol. In two hours I will be in Mindo. I close my eyes, and dream of Chevy Malibu’s. What's in the trunk, Frank? "Oh, you don't wanna look in there..."
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