Quito street-scene and last thoughts before leaving. And Cotopaxi, the cancelled climb :-(

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May 30th 2007
Published: May 30th 2007
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Well it's my last day in Quito, lofty capital of Ecuador. I'm mooching today. Currently sitting outside a busy street cafe on Rio Amazonas. As I wait for the requested menu, my nostrils fill with the sweet scent of wax polish emanating from the rubbings of the straggly-haired shoe-shiner working the floor beside me. His client peers down at his shoes inquiringly at the progress; the patron looks slightly less poor than the service provider.

A bus with a belching exhaust pulls away leaving a black cloud in its place, the diesel fumes overcoming the sweeter smells of the shoe polish. On the ground in front, in the middle of the tables sits a bare-legged man with barely any legs, such are his deformities. I'm wondering now if I can stomach the sandwich just arrived on my table-top as I peer over at his wretched, mis-shapen, dirty, gnarled feet on their half-legs. I can't stop looking though, but then I remind myself how lucky I am and then do. And tuck in heartily.

Other shoe-shiners buzz around the general area, boys and men stare and nod at me, vying for my business. I just want to eat my sandwich. I demonstrate that my Nubuck shoes aren't meant for polishing though, but then they just offer to at least be able to dust them off. One determined boy sees me cave in though, staring at me as they know how to do with doleful eyes bashful, that seem to say "my mother is a whore and my father whips me if I don't go home with any money". I ask him to just leave my shoes though, explaining that they're meant to look dirty. "Da mi un dolar" he demands, demandingly. "I can't give you a dollar, but here, have my change". Thinking I deserve at least some conversation I ask him his name. "Jose" he replies with a smile, before skipping off to claim another victim. I didn't feel victimized though really, as it reminded me of being in Mexico City, where locals tip these badgers and use the shoe-shiners. My Footprint guide described how there the people recognise they are providing an unofficial welfare state that hopefully keeps the lowest levels of society in some income, and away from aspiring to a life of crime.

As I continue wolfing my ham and cheese sarnie, two young females with enormous eyes (of the doleful bashful type) and soft, crying voices, implore me to give them money for food. Instead, I offer them food. Well, since I would have had to give them the remnants of the sandwich in my mouth I offer them my fries, "no tengo mas moneda - quieres algunas papas?" Their veil of solemnity is immediately relinquished and grubby hands grab my fries, pushing them into obviously hungry mouths. And then off they go too. I was glad to have stayed outside on the street now, almost having gone indoors at first....shutting them out. Easier, certainly. After seven months on the Latino road, all this unwanted attention can get to a gringo. But there's life out here. Street life. An unceasing conveyor-belt of sellers, pushers, ......oh here we go again already (an indigenous woman in her multi-coloured garb and felt bowler hat interrupts me as I write these lines. She wants to sell me some of these small paintings on some kind of thinly-stretched animal hide).....

I'm kind of at my limit now, but I catch the roaming eyes of a shoe-shiner in front of me and decide to watch him at work a while. He is standing next to and as motionless as the wide tree shadowing us all, but his eyes are full of energy, staring at the feet of passers-by, flitting from one person to another. It's contagious and I find myself doing the same, scanning for potential customers. Anyone with leather shoes, particularly dull-looking leather shoes, is a target. I want to leave but then another interesting type of street-vendor goes past, this time a guy with an unusual prop for tourist photos. He is clutching two white-coated puppies with red ribbons around their necks, whilst a Polaroid camera hangs around his. Finally, I settle my bill and take a walk through a large and pleasant park filled with all types and make my way to the Casa de la Cultura. According to my book, it's the one museum in Quito you should visit if one is all you have time for.

The museum surprises. As a youth I was mad about pre-historic stuff and the make-up of the Earth (went right off History when we left the Jurassic period, which saw my grades plummet from age 11) and this place was a mine of information - in English as well as Spanish too (good for learning the translations). Moving on from the Evolution of Man
I entered the archaelogical department, which was a large dark space with subtlely-lit scary pot demons. Have a look at these odd little men (designed by artists who, if alive today, would probably be working on South Park):

My least favourite room was the one brimming with religious paintings and icons. Really can't stomach this kind of art. It's not just creepy. They always seem dirty too, these statues. I used to be scared as a nipper of porcelain dolls and I don't feel too comfortable nowadays in a pitch-black room surrounded by Jesus and Mary, life-size (the lights don't come on until you get into a specific area). Too graphic too all these nails in feet and blood. I was soon out of there, not even taking a picture, and then arrived in a section of modern art. This was more up my street. Naked women was the theme for the first ones I came upon, wait I'll re-phrase that, saw. Others were so abstract that only in reading the label would you have a clue what the object was meant to represent. I did like the following works and oeuvres though:

Simon Bolivar, or as I just found out, in full, Mister Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios.....not exactly the snippiest of designations to whip out over a casual cocktail. Anyway, nice painting of the leader of many independence movements in South America. (Big eyebrows though - looks like he borrowed them from Liam Gallagher, or that bloke from the OC).

As I walked back to the groovy Crossroads Hostel in central Quito (new town), my cough started to hurt; "probably good that I'm not doing Cotopaxi today", I think to myself. The trip had had to be post-poned to Wednesday - in 3 days' time - because one of the girls (the less annoying one who was too sick to do Volcan Pichincha) was still out for the count.

Well, I feel pretty crappy myself today. A bit disconcerting. Thighs still a bit sore from the previous hikes and climbs, and my cough and throat are getting worse. It's sapping my energy and enthusiasm, and it is now almost constant rain in Quito. I call in to Safari tours to check my boots out for the next day (you need special ones that crampons can be clamped on to), but guess what, now the guides want to wait a day or two longer before we climb Cotopaxi. Why? Well, a big blob of snow had landed on the peak and, precarious as such big blobs of snow perched atop the summit of an active volcano tend to be, it was considered too dangerous to scale it.

"Do they have a good idea when it will be ready? I mean, I am getting a bit sick myself now and I can't keep running up and down the hills of Quito trying to keep on top form. I'm ready to go now."
Katy could see and understand my exasperation and faltering maintenance of my stamina for the job. "They reckon the sun will burn it off in the next day or two."
Then a call comes in. The girl is still bad, still sick. Katy tells them the 'good news' about the post-ponement, but they say it will be at least Friday before they can do it now in any case.

So I really have to think about this. What with waiting for a boat for Galapagos, waiting to get on the various hikes and now this delay, I am going to have spent most of my time in Ecuador way-laid in its now gray and rain-soaked capital...all for a hike up an icy hill (with no guarantee of making it to the top either). The thing is, you can't even leave Quito for a side-trip - excellently situated as it is in the heart of things - either, because you need to stay at altitude (Quito sits at around 2,800m).
"I'll have to think about this" I tell Katy, who is clearly empathising with my frustration.
And then I sit in a cafe with a coffee, mulling things over. Thing is, I've set my heart on conquering, or at least trying to conquer, this bloody peak, so balls. I'll do it. I waltz back in and tell Katy I will wait till Friday. There must be something I can do with my spare days, and maybe it'll clear up (eternal meteorological British optimism never failing). By the time I get back in there however, the French-Canadian career girls have had a re-think, and cancelled the entire event.
"I'm sorry" laments Katy, sincerely. "If you still want to, you can go yourself with a guide.....but it's an extra 85 dollars"
"So that's what.....250 dollars altogether?"
Katy takes the calculator. "Si."

Damn, that makes me feel bad too, to pay so much, and I might not make it for all kinds of reasons and from what I have learned, fit people in perfect health with top weather conditions don't always make it. Such a person, Jens whom I met on our boat in Galapagos, though he didnt really do any acclimitizing, tried it the other day (they also had five people for one guide instead of the recommended two) but had to turn back, just 200m from the top. They were all just so sick and had blinding head-aches from the altitude. He did say the guide was rushing them though. (I remember the guy at Safari demonstrating how fast you walk.....it looked like he was trying to hike into a force-10 gale, doing about one step every 3 seconds to conserve energy for the last section).
I emailed Jens later for his thoughts. "Don't do it - it's not worth it anyway. You can spend 250 dollars on much better things."
I called Sofie. "Fuck the money" is her alternative advice..."if you think you're gonna regret it, just do it".
Crazy though it might seem to some, the idea of some ice-climbing practice in the afternoon on the glacier, then leaving at midnight to hike up the moon-lit mountain sounded terribly romantic. Even though it is actually a six to seven hour treacherous walk - the last five on ice and snow - where breathing is difficult to say the least. Oh and then you have to come back down of course.

But when I emerged from the Internet shop into the pounding rain, it seemed achieving my mountaineering goal might be best left to another time, well, at least it did at that moment. Of course, fear, good excuses and tiredness are great counter-balances to taking on a challenge, and obvious barriers to success. This time though, they overcame me, and as I expected, I do regret not trying to climb it, even if physically I did make the right choice.

The pictures would (weather permitting) have been amazing.

A couple of weeks later I get a mail from lanky Warren, the guy I met doing volcan Pichincha who liked mostly eating cheese sandwiches. He'd managed it, Cotopaxi, and told me about his 'great sense of achievement' etc. Well done Warren.


Anyway, that's that. And as my mother, and girlfriend independently said, "it's only a mountain". Quite. I bet Sherpa Tenzing's mum said the same to him before he scaled Everest. The good thing about leaving my amateur mountaineering for this time is of course that I get to start travelling again, and I am looking forward to descending a few hundred metres too and getting out of this shitty weather. I feel like I am back in San Jose, Costa Rica.

A ton has happened here though, in Quito, and coming here from my ill-fated trip to San Jose was a great idea. It was the antidote I needed after getting robbed, and got my travel-head back on. I caught up with my old Spanish pal Antonia, now in Quito for five years doing her thang (more entries to come on escapades in her company), went for a week aboard a pirate ship in the Galapagos, as well as partying in Quito with various folks including my travelling buddy Keith Cullen from the Isle of Emeralds. He shipped in (by plane) a week or so after me and was still doing Spanish lessons by the time I was back from the Galaps. Apart from that, my planned alpine expedition to Cotopaxi DID result in my walking and climbing in some beautiful areas of Ecuador, which in themselves were entirely worth it. So nowt lost really. I just have a propensity to lament about things I didn't do, rather than great things I did.

Next stop will be Cuenca I think. They say it's nice


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