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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Living "High"

ECUADOR | Saturday, 16 June 2012 | Views [328]

A street in El Centrol Histórico with the Basilica in the back.

A street in El Centrol Histórico with the Basilica in the back.

Hola amigos!  I've been in Quito, Ecuador for almost two weeks, first trip to South America.

I arrived Monday afternoon after flying on one of the most kids-filled flights ever.  The airport is literally smack in the middle of the city, so as you fly in, you see high rises and cars in the streets and what people are having for dinner through their apartment window (the airport isn't quite that close, think nothing beats the old Hong Kong airport in terms of closeness to residential areas, you really could see what people were watching on their TV as the plane descended).  For being the airport of a capital city, it is quite small in size (the new airport is over a year delayed in construction, and it's at least an hour away from Quito city center by car with no roads to get there!  So much for city and infrastructure planning).  Again I was nervous as I waited for my bag to arrive, but at least I was humored while waiting.  The conveyor belt was "S"-shaped and snaked around, but the turns weren't smooth thus many bags were stuck there and the subsequent bags would pile up or fall off; there were hardly any workers around, so a few nice passengers would "un-stuck" the bags by pulling them back on the belt, while the bags that fell off were simply left off until the workers came by.  

The second nervous part was looking for my pick-up person when I exited the airport, and luckily he was there with my name on a sign.  His van was parked just a few blocks away from the airport (that's how small the airport was, you walked out of the terminal and immediately were on the busy city street).  The in-country program coordinator even called his mobile phone to greet me as we walked to the van.  Within 15 minutes, we arrived at the home of the family I'd be staying for two weeks while taking Spanish lessons.  Maria, my host mama, is a lovely woman who proudly announced she is 68 years old.  She has hosted volunteers for many years; her husband has passed and her only daughter is married and lives in Dallas, Texas, so she has generously opened her home to nomads like me.  Her home is a flat in a mid-rise building that has a mix of residential homes and small offices; there is no elevators, and she lives on the third floor, so it's a good workout walking up and down the stairs daily.  The building reminds me of the older homes in HK with squeaky gates and slightly dark stairways (only because all the lights have sensors, so as soon as you walk by the lights come on, how energy efficient!)

The day I arrived, another volunteer was already at Maria's house, and two other volunteers arrived later that night.  Unlike me who is staying for two weeks, these three volunteers were only staying a few nights, as they were in transit to their project location (two to the Galapagos to teach English, one to the Sierra region for an environment conservation project).  We each have our own bedroom, and each bedroom was remodeled to have its own bathroom, albeit quite small but I'm used to it by now.  My room was furnished like any bedroom you would find in a home, with photos on the wall and family memorabilia, all of Maria's daughter and grandsons, very homey.

Quito is the capital of Ecuador and second most populous city in Ecuador (after Guayaquil).  It's long and narrow, going from the northern to southern end may take almost an hour.  The city's elevation is approximately 2,800 meters (9,200 ft), one of the world's highest capital (fortunately I experienced no altitude sickness like many guidebooks warned).  The city straddles the equator, so the climate should be hot and humid, but because of the elevation, it is rather comfortable throughout the year.  During my stay, the temperature ranged between 14 °C at night to 24 °C midday; there were wide swings from sun to rain within a day, going from cloudy to sunny in the morning, to thunderstorm in the afternoon that lasted about 20 minutes, and finally back to sunny.  Quito experiences only two seasons: dry and wet; the dry season, June through September, is referred to as summer, while the wet season, October through May, is referred to as winter.  I saw people wearing boots and sandals on the same day, so even the locals seem confused whether it was summer or winter!

I was struck by how beautiful Quito's landscape is, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, all still active.  On a clear day, I saw Cotopaxi and Cayambe from Maria's house, both snow-capped and stunning (they are about a 2-hour bus ride away).  I believe there are about 8 volcanoes surrounding the city, and I thought Californians were tough living on fault lines!  To get around the city, I mostly walked, took taxis (flag down at $0.35), or rode the bus ($0.25).  There is no subway, although it may be built in the future to accommodate the new airport.  Generally I felt safe when walking, but I also stuck to the big streets and during daylight.  The worst things about walking in Quito were the fume from the vehicles, especially the buses (it was like 50 smokers breathing on me at the same time!) and the constant honking and cars that seemed to be gunning for pedestrians.  Good thing I am a pro at jaywalking and ignoring traffic lights, every driver appeared to be lawless!

Staying with Maria was such a treat.  She loves to cook and fed me well: breakfast, dinner, plus a packed lunch to take on weekdays to my Spanish lesson.  She prides on cooking with fresh ingredients, little sugar, and a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and meat.  Rice is a staple, and avocados and tomatoes are often used as sides.  She also makes excellent cakes (had chocolate, apple, orange) and yogurt (like a thick shake, with avocado or strawberry, milk, and honey).  Banana is also her favorite ingredient, either pan fried and served with the entree, or as a dessert.  If I enjoyed something in particular, I would ask her how she prepared it so I can try for myself at the project site.  When I felt slightly unwell, she made me tea with oregano (grown at home, a popular remedy in Ecuador), honey, and lemon; later, she gave me oregano juice (took a few oregano leaves, sprinkled with salt, mashed with a spoon until the leaves were wilted and juices all squeezed out).  Nothing beats natural remedy, felt better in just a few hours!

Also while in Quito, I had Spanish language lesson every weekday, 4-1/2 hours per lesson.  I thought it'd be in a class with other students, but turned out to be 1-on-1; it was great to have the dedicated attention, but it was a lot of information compressed in a short time.  My head was overloaded every afternoon!  The lessons helped me to read menus and signs decently, and I could ask short, common questions, but understanding the answer and chaining words into sentences will requite lots more practice.

I only had one full weekend in Quito, plus I will be back for a proper holiday with friends after my volunteer project ends, so I did not venture very far.  I visited la mitad del mundo which marks where the equator lies; the visit included a short talk about some indigenous tribes and demonstrations showing the uniqueness of the equator (e.g. can balance an uncooked egg on a nail due to gravity going straight down into center of the earth) and the contrasts of the two hemispheres (e.g. the different rotation of water).  I also took the Telefériqo, a cable car that takes visitors from the city center up the Cruz Loma hill to about 4,100 meters (13,500 ft); where the cable car ends, visitors can hike all the way to the Pichincha volcano.  I started the hike but it became increasingly cool and windy; I rarely get to this elevation except to ski!  After hiking for about 1.5 hours and no sign telling me how much farther to Pichincha, I turned around (I found out later from another volunteer it took him 5 hours to hike all the way, and he definitely experienced some altitude sickness along the way).  Finally, I visited the two main tourist neighborhoods: El Centro Histórico (aka Old Town) which consists of many stunning churches and charming cobblestone streets, and New Town, where there are plenty of hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists.

It was nice to be staying in a proper home with homemade meals, my own room, and even laundry service (Maria has a helper who did laundry on the weekends) but I was ready to head back to the beach, close to the ocean and the animals.  There will be plenty of time to be in urban areas; moreover, I look forward to returning to wearing sandals and super casual wear daily!

Tags: cotopaxi, el centro histórico, equator, la mitad del mundo, maria, new town, old town, pichincha, quito, spanish lesson

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