"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me."
Walt Whitman (1819-92)
"When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break."
Akhenaton (d. c.1354 BC)
And now, the current weather, from some random person we pulled off the street:
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Exotic in Thin Air (Part 2, Taxis)
ad-ven-ture Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English aventure, from Old French, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin adventura, from Latin adventus, past participle of advenire to arrive, from ad- + venire to come -- more at COME
1 a : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks b : the encountering of risks
2 : an exciting or remarkable experience
3 : What you can get to by taxi in Ecuador
Armed with my backwards phrase book and a map of the city, my fiance and I set out to explore Quito.
Our first stop was the bank. We cashed $100 in USD's. We got back, in the largest bills they made, a two inch stack of sucre notes. We would encounter this dichotomy the entire time we were there. What was big to us would be trivial to them, and what was trivial to us would be big to them. The exchange rate was no exception.
I jammed the bills into my wallet as best I could, and we grabbed a taxi for the City Centre, which was supposed to be the best place to start seeing Quito.
About four blooks from the square, the taxi stopped and the driver refused to go any closer.
Our limited command of Spanish (make that no command at all) meant that we could only guess at what he was saying. He kept saying something and pointing down the road, shaking his head "no." We figured he meant that he did not want to go further for some reason, which was correct, but it turns out that wasn't what he was shaking his head about.
We paid him and set out on foot. As we got closer, the press of people got tighter and tighter, and we were hearing music, until suddenly we broke free of the crowd and found ourselves in the middle of the street.
In front of something VERY strange indeed.
They were wearing masks made out of screen wire and painted, which gave them the really strange quality of being able to let you see their expression through the mask. There must have been a hundred of them, and they were stomping and chanting their way rapidly right in our direction in a frenzied mass.
Some sort of festival/celebration was going on, we never found out what it was. They had brass bands, speeches, the whole shebang. We wandered around the square, carefully avoiding the soldiers with submachine guns.
You would never believe the varied uniforms the soldiers there wore. We must have seen at least 20 or thirty different ones, from regular fatigues to blue camo (blue? To hide in what?) to something that looked like it was from the 1800's. But they all had submachine guns.
We went into a church that was just off the square, and were astonished. The inside of the church looked like it was solid gold! Actually, they used seven tons of the stuff, and it shows. The altar is massive, and the place gives you a feeling that you are very insignificant and tiny and God and the church is very not insignificant and tiny..
Which might explain why all that gold is still there after all these years.
We went for lunch in a little restaurant we found off the main roads. We went in and were seated. No menus arrived. Food began to appear, course after course after course. No one so much as asked what we wanted to drink, but they did bring us what I think was cantelope juice.
The bill for both of us combined was less than $2.00, with the tip.
From there we climbed up Panecillo Hill and took in the views of the city from up there. Don't try this today, there are muggers and pickpockets. Take a taxi. On top of the hill towers the statue of the Winged Virgin of Quito, a gift to Ecuador from France. (What is it with the French and gigantic statues? )
Speaking of taxi, by now we were pretty darn tired. I didn't want to walk all the way back to the hotel. So on our way down, we eagerly looked for the first cab we could get.
A couple of them just sped by, one turned off his sign when he saw us. We were in a residential area, maybe he was heading home. Finally, this young boy saw what we were doing and asked us if we could help. Sure, and he grabbed somebody from a nearby building who had a cab and all of us headed back to the hotel.
Just before we arrived, the driver, through the boy, tried to tell us the fare. It was far above what his meter said, and we knew he was ripping us off, but even the inflated price was less than $2.00. We paid him, and were rather unprepared for what awaited us when we pulled up.
ALL of the hotel's taxi drivers immediately ran outside and started screaming at our driver. He was screaming back just as hard. Apparently, you are not supposed to drive a taxi up to our hotel unless you are "authorized." Ours wasn't.
Later, we headed to the airport in an "authorized" taxi to get our luggage. Long story short, the customs soldier ended up having to break the lock on my suitcase because I had left the key in the hotel room. Maybe a few of those bills cramming my wallet would have made that not happen.
That night, tired and hungry, we ate at a place called Vecchios, an Italian restaurant across the road from the hotel. We ate there several times during our stay. In a country that was so strange to us, Italian food was familiar, and it somehow felt like home a bit.
Bright and early the next morning, we approached a taxi driver about seeing some of the sights outside of the city, including the Equator, which is not far away and an obligatory tourist stop. The driver's name was Luis, and he spoke passable English, looked friendly, so we hopped in.
What a ride we had! Luis was expert at navigating the rough country roads that were the only things you could find once you got outside of the main city area. We barrelled through little town after little town, mostly on dirt and clay roads, scattering kids and goats and chickens as we blew through.
Our first stop was the Equatorial monument. We did the tourist thing and stood with feet on both sides of the Equator at once, and got a certificate that said so. Luis took one look at it and dragged us back to the indian lady and her daughter that had sold it to us and made them fill it out and sign it, since we had bought a blank one.
From there, Luis drove us up a winding mountain highway, paved, with guardrails, that was better than anything we had been on so far. Suddenly, the road just...ended.
Thats all, no turn to the side, no place there at the end, just a dead stop and a railing overlooking a steep valley.
That wasn't just a valley, Luis told us. It was a live volcanic crater.
We looked in, and saw a village and farms.
The temperature inside the crater is kept warm by the presence of lava just below the surface. This lets them grow triopical fruit in the crater. The people live in it too. Since there is no road to the bottom, at harvest time the people of that village must load the entire harvest onto their backs and climb up to the highway where trucks will be waiting.
Incredible. Only in Ecuador.
Our next stop was at an old Inca ruin that had just been discovered. It was a boat shaped fort that guarded several valleys. While we were there a local boy came up and spoke to us about it. Turns out that no one had even known this fort was there until the early 80's when they had floods, and the soil had been washed away, revealing the tops of the walls. Since then, the archeologists had been having a field day with it, no pun intended.
He said, gosh, when I was young we used to ride motorcycles up here. The little houses down below were constructed out of stones that looked suspiciously like the ones in the fort, too.
You never know. At least not in Ecuador.
Luis took us back to the hotel, telling us about his son. His son was legally considered a medical paraplegic, although in actuality he was fine. Luis had arranged that so his son could avoid the draft. Most well to do people had paraplegic sons. Luis made enough money at his taxi driver job to support his family nicely, wear nice suits, and put his son through college.
The price for our entire half day excursion...$20. With tip.
That night, we wanted something a little more like home. So we went up to the desk clerk, a very friendly young lady with impeccable English, and asked her where we could find something like fried chicken.
"Excuse me, could you repeat that?" she asked.
"We would like to find a restaurant that serves fried chicken."
"Yes." I was beginning to wonder if I needed to fish out the phrase book.
"FRIED chicken?" she repeated yet again, her eyes wider than they should have been. "Why would anyone want to fry a chicken?"
I think it was at that precise moment that I realized that no, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.
And tomorrow we would take a bus tour, then take the only train in the Ecuadorian Andes.
Assuming the track didn't wash away and the train still ran. (More later)
Your travel life has the aspect of a dream. It is something outside the normal, yet you are in it. It is peopled with characters you have never seen before and in all probability will never see again. It brings occasional homesickness, and loneliness, and pangs of longing... But you are like the Vikings who have gone into a world of adventure, and home is not home until you return.
Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976)