Acclimating To A New City At 9,000 Feet

The supermarket is like a bad acid trip. I grab a cart and I am hot under my jacket and as I walk down the first aisle I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I’ve been transported to an alternate universe where everything looks the same but is different. The occasional item looks familiar — Ritz crackers? — but most things are in another language. How do these people know what they are buying? Oh, right, they speak and read and understand Spanish; we are in Ecuador and they are Ecuadorians.

Suddenly, I am struck with the realization that I have no idea what I am doing here. What do I want to buy? What do I even like to eat? Do I like fruit? I bypass the meat and go to the fruit section. I see small, spiky yellow grenades, and large, spiky green grenades, both of which are apparently edible, and I want to buy something I don’t recognize for the novelty, but everything is really dense and heavy and I’m afraid of not having the energy to carry too much home, so I settle on a dense and heavy papaya and some mangoes and bananas.

I go in circles for awhile, stopping for way too long in the “milk” section (which comes in boxes) to decide between different flavored, sugary milks, only to choose one and walk five feet ahead to find the regular, non-sugar milk which I actually prefer, but I just spent way too long on choosing this cinnamon milk so fuck it cinnamon milk it is. I avoid vegetables because I vaguely remember that I should, lest I want a parasite or something. I feel like I am operating with incomplete information but nonetheless I move on.

This is a setting I have entered thousands of times before and yet here everything is strange and I feel like an intruder. Will I be found out as a gringo? Is my confusion evident on my face? I take deep breaths but the thin Andean air can’t fill my lungs fully and feel like I’m having a small panic attack, so I keep pushing the cart and hope no one speaks to me or asks for help getting things off a tall shelf (I am half a head taller than most of the people here), and eventually tire of looking for things that I don’t know if I actually want and head to the check out. The cashier asks me if I have change when the bill rings up for $19.53, and I understand and tell her no, and for a moment I don’t feel insane.

This is the first day or so in Quito in a nutshell. At over 9,000 feet above sea level — particularly coming directly from New York which is at most, what, 50 feet up? — it takes some time to acclimate. The toll is physical, as there’s simply less oxygen with each breath, so walking the hills or even sitting up too quickly, as I did on my first morning when the dogs began their daily 14-hour barking session, results in dizziness and fatigue. But it mixes with the emotional turmoil that I often feel upon arriving in a new place (particularly one where I don’t speak the language well) for an extended stay. It heightens all of your feelings, particularly the ones that spring from fear of the unknown rather than the rational side of you, which knows that first impressions are always wrong and everything will be different once you get your bearings and feel more at ease walking the streets and eating with the locals.

Indeed, it’s only been a few days since I arrived but already I’m looking at Quito with a different eye. I even returned to the supermarket yesterday (with backup in the form of Mateo, my friend and host during my stay here) and was able to think clearly enough to buy things like “eggs” and “regular milk” and also a spiky yellow grenade fruit.

So while I’d like to recount everything I’ve done so far and every feeling I had while doing it, my experience with the city is changing as quickly as the weather does here. So instead I’ll make a quick list of things to do when arriving in Quito, if only for my own reference:

  • Don’t freak out. Your neighborhood, La Floresta, is kind of like Bushwick. If you told someone they were going to New York City and then started them in Bushwick, you’d probably think, this city kind of sucks. But then you realize that it’s actually pretty hip(ster) and there are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops and bodegas to explore. And no city is just one neighborhood: There are plenty of more cosmopolitan, and more desperate, areas to explore.
  • Don’t get too drunk. Oh, well, you may not really have a say in that. When you’re young (and perhaps I still qualify as such), you’re going to go out and get drunk in order to socialize and feel more relaxed. So maybe you’re going to drink seven Pilseners and a few Clubs and help demolish a pitcher of mojito, and the intense pressure headache you’ll get as a result will at least serve as a low point for you. It gets better.
  • Dogs are going to bark. So, get used to it.
  • No one will care as much about how bad your Spanish is as you do. Get over yourself and try out different words and don’t worry about being perfect, just about being understood. If anything, the intense feeling of embarrassment when fucking something up will serve as reinforcement the next time you ask for something similar.
  • Remember that you don’t go somewhere else to live the same life you were living. Things are supposed to be different, from the view of the Andes you get walking down almost any street to the overpowering smell of car exhaust that comes as a result of little regulation. If you want to be ensconced in comfort, go back and live with your mom.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Future blog posts will hopefully be more focused and specific. At the moment, a mixture of cigarette smoke and confusion over how to translate certain words is making it tough to think straight. This just needs to be published because I’ve worked on it for too long. So, goodbye, first post from Ecuador.

I’m a freelance writer originally from Brooklyn. I write about travel mostly but also business and “culture.” I hope you like what you read.

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