We had just slipped through this burning roadblock.
The taxi drive asked $2 above the normal fare to take me to the airport. Even so, he was still reluctant to drive through a burning roadblock.
"Don't go into the city centre," my friend had warned me earlier that morning. "The criminal classes will be having a field day with the Police and Security Services on strike. The army's closed the airport as well."
I hung around at the bottom of our street hoping to see what was going on. The city was unusually quiet and unusually noisy by turns. I didn't know how to read these signs. "Always confront an emergency with a full stomach," I thought.
I popped into the closest restaurant that offered a three-course lunch for $1.50. The soup was a thick broth with lumps of yucca and a large piece of fresh lobster in it, lightened with a squeeze of citrus. I cracked a lobster leg open, sucked out the sweet flesh, and turned my attention to the TV. My Spanish wasn't up to following what the President was saying, but I could sense the tension. Then the TV switched to live coverage of the streets. What is the difference between a
Initially this tree trunk had blocked our way.
demonstration and a riot? The noise level outside the restaurant suddenly rose. I decided to go back to the house.
"Please stay at home this afternoon; things are worse," Luis said. "They’ve closed the airport."
We rang LAN Airways. The airport was due to reopen at 6:00pm. My flight would depart on time at 8:40pm. At 5:30pm I called a taxi.
In the old city people were standing on the pavements with blank expressions, watching to see what would happen next. Between the old part of the city and the new part we ran into a burning roadblock. It would have been scary if there'd been people near it, but there weren't; even so my taxi driver didn't appear game to do anything about it! Fortunately another driver got out of his car and moved some concrete blocks. This opened up a narrow space that cars could move through in single file. The drive through the new section of the city was fast: the streets were deserted and shops and businesses had metal shutters pulled down.
The entry hall was already open when I arrived at two minutes to six. The departures board showed a number
At the airport nobody was allowed in.
of cancelled flights, but not mine. The door to the check-in area was still closed, with a crowd of travellers and luggage growing around it. As we stood there I thought how essentially peaceful Ecuadorian people are.
After an hour and half a man called, "LAN passengers." There was immediate bustle, then a surge forward. My glasses came off. I got wedged behind a couple sharing a passionate farewell. "Por favor,"
I said trying to push them out of my way. I got to the front. "No LAN Peru, LAN Madrid,"
the man said. Then he raised his voice, "Solo LAN Madrid."
The crowd surged in two directions, towards Madrid and away from Madrid.
When I got clear of the Melee my legs were shaking. I sat on my bag for a while. Then I queued at the LAN passenger service window and learned that my flight was cancelled. Fortunately, I had no trouble in getting rerouted for the next morning; I would still reach Santiago de Chile in time to catch my Sydney flight.
I got some dinner, and after I'd eaten I made an attempt to check in my bags, but they wouldn't permit
This is typical of the midday meals that coast between $1.50 and $3.00.
me into the check-in area. I could see people settling down under blankets with steely expressions on their faces. Should I join them for the night? I didn't feel like it but nor did I feel like returning to my guesthouse in the old city. I found an information desk and asked the woman there for the name of a cheap hotel close by. She wrote "SAVOY INN"
on a piece of paper.
She must have done the same for fifty people already. It was full. My very obliging taxi driver drove me to several other places, and eventually we found a guesthouse a little further from the airport that still had a room available. As the proprietor was helping me move my luggage inside we heard an exchange of automatic gun fire on the hillside above us. I wondered what sort of night it was going to be.
It was a night filled with sleep and the morning dawned in bright sunlight. Perhaps the gunfire was from the troops who rescued the President from the hospital where he had been held. Over breakfast I considered my weeks in the city ...
The whole experience reminded me
El Presidente at Monday changing of the guard.
that while Ecuador has enjoyed more stable democracy than the rest of Latin, the last three presidents did survive for full terms. But it was not typical of the three and a half months since I began to visit the city. Local people would remind me continuously about the level of petty crime, but the armed security presence was not as heavy as it had been in Bogotá. I "felt" safer on the streets in Quito and more comfortable dealing with taxi drivers. The democratic process seemed more securely in place.
Every Monday outside the presidential palace was the changing of the guard. President Correa would appear in public to shake some hands and wave to other people. Watchers displayed placards containing their political demands. Tourists wandered among them and the police watched while they took photographs. The placards protested equally inadequacies in public funding and the concerns of the richer members of the community. Or they expressed support for the President in his attempts to restructure the economy and to bring more benefits to poorer people.
Quito is recognized as one of the most livable cities in South America. It’s historical centre is both a UNESCO World
The lake and pleasure craft in Parque La Alemeda.
Heritage Site and a functioning metropolis. Public health is cheap, although there is a better level of service in private hospitals. Taxis are plentiful and safe. Public transport is much, much better than it is in - for example - Sydney. Government bus systems run in lanes that are closed to other traffic. The buses come every two to three minutes and commuters pay and wait inside enclosed shelters. Private buses provide supplementary routes. Both systems charge $0.25 ($0.12 concession) to go anywhere in the city. Education is basically free. Nutritional supplements are given to primary schools and to pensioners. There are many museums, art galleries, and public parks where families go to enjoy themselves at weekends.
If all of this falls short of what is needed, it is because Ecuador is not a rich country. After the coffee and coca plantations were knocked out by blight, Ecuador was - literally - a banana republic: until the discovery of petroleum pushed bananas back into second place on the export list.
Quito enjoys a temperate climate year round, despite being on the equator, because it is 2808m above sea level. The proximity to subtropical and tropical zones means that
Quito is a city crammed between hills: the view from my bedroom.
an incredible abundance of fresh fruit is available. Freshly squeezed juices are standard accompaniments to most meals at home and in restaurants. They make up for the national lack of interest in fresh vegetables and supplement the maize, root vegetables, legumes and maize to which small quantities of meat or fish are added. But these vegetables are abundant too, thriving on the fresh volcanic soils.
It is a long skinny city, surrounded by mountain chains and volcanic peaks. The city was built by the Spanish in 1534 on the site of the previous Inca capital. Nothing of this remains; I have read accounts that state differently that the Spanish razed the Inca city, and that the Incas destroyed it themselves rather than allow it to be conquered by invaders. Quiteños (residents of Quito) generally appear calm, friendly in a slightly reserved way, and content to go about their duties. There are areas where visitors are advised not to go, but the restrictions felt no more onerous to me than the ones that applied when I lived in Chicago in the 1980´s.
The old city consists of narrow streets and charming colonial buildings, many of them very old. The
My final view of El Volcan Cotapaxi.
modern city runs along wide thoroughfares, and because of the constrictions of the mountains always seems to have a green backdrop. The historical centre and a major thoroughfare are closed to traffic every second Sunday. Cyclists can do the 10k run out to the airport and pedestrians mill around the historic centre, taking photographs, watching all sorts of impromptu street theatre and listening to salsa, jazz, rock, or traditional music in the picturesque plazas.
I enjoyed my time in Quito immensely. I ate wholesomely and cheaply, moved around freely, cheaply and easily, and enjoyed meeting and learning from the Quiteños.
The next day I got to the airport and boarded my plane quite easily. I glanced over the Chilean newspapers. Their main concern was that Chileans should not take their political issues onto the streets. They reported between one and three people dead, with between twenty and seventy-five wounded. The Present had been held hostage for a short while by Police; he had been subjected to teargas and hospitalised as a result. He was blaming the opposition party and former President Gutiérrez, and the opposition for attempting a coup d'Etat. It seems more likely that it was a
Jumbo Lodging, my home in the old city.
labour dispute that ran out of control.
As I settled into my seat I looked out of the window; there at the end of the runway was the magnificent site of Cotapaxi volcano with its snow cover glistening in the sunshine. I had never seen Cotapaxi from the city before. It seemed a beacon of hope.
I stayed for several short stopovers and for three weeks while studying Spanish at the Jumbo Lodging
, a small family run hostel-cum-guest house near the Centro Histórico
. At US$20.00 a night this is a little more than one needs to pay for a single in the area, but it was worth it to me to feel myself in a family. To Luis and Maria and to the rest of the family a very big "Gracias!'
Luis and Alva speak good English and Luis uses Google World to provide more accurate tourist information than seemed to be available elsewhere in the city. The cheap guest house that rescued me on my last night reminded me of a 1950's guesthouse in the UK. It also charged US$20.00 for bed and breakfast and would be an interesting place to stay off
The old town is a grid of narrow streets like this one ...
the tourist track for those with a little Spanish. It is the Hotel Barón de Carondelet, Calle Brón de Carondelet 313 y Sánchez de Ávila, Quito,.
I studied Spanish at Vida Verde language school
, which is a school I can highly recommend. I studied individually for US$7.50 an hour. It offers face-to-face lessons on the internet as well.
How I’ve Been
Thanks to the incredibly long layover periods of 13 hours (Lima) and 6.5 hours (Santiago) that my cheap air ticket gave me, I reached Sydney at the exact time scheduled! I left my 33.5kg of luggage with Cate in Sydney and came home by train. It was wonderful to see Dave again. Fairly immediately I came down with a cold, so I’ve been sleeping everything off these last few days, and looking forward to commencing life again early next week!
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