It helps when something you want to describe happens to fit into a cliche that gives structure to your article. Though normally you want to avoid such easy, universal themes (what city, including my hometown of New York, isn’t one of polarities — rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, serene and chaotic?), the writer’s block I’m working through begs for such a framework. And if it works, it works.
And it works. I’ve only known Quito for a few days (we are going to strike from the record my two weeks here when I was 17, as back then I was barely a person) but I can’t help but notice the stark differences in culture, nature, people and weather in this city that I can often see without even turning my head.
Take, for example, the setting. Quito sits on top of the Andes, and the city is surrounded on many sides by even higher mountain and volcano peaks. In the near distance, rising up almost too suddenly to be true, are verdant hills dotted with boxy homes surrounded by deep green trees. Further on, in almost all directions, are mountain tops with sheer cliffs and rolling spines, green as well but shadowed gray by distance and cloud cover. Turning a corner on the street to face thousands of feet of foliage and rock is humbling and astounding every time.
This profound natural beauty stands in stark contrast to the city below, for the most part. Quito is typical of many Latin American cities for the slapdash way much of it feels — most of the architecture is boxy and subdued (save for a few neighborhoods and the churches, which are magnificent), with alternating color combinations such as beige and yellow, or white and dull pink or blue. Tin roofs, peeling paint, crumbling brick and strange angles to some of the buildings — giving off the aura of “I am about to fall down” — abound. Massive tangles of telephone and power wires are so ubiquitous that they are almost like white noise above the streets. In the shadows of these lines, smoke-belching cars and buses without doors congest the roads and swerve around corners, never inclined to stop for pedestrians. The sidewalks are cracked and uneven, and the broken glass on the ground is matched by the shards that are cemented to the tops of walls outside of apartment buildings as a makeshift security measure. For every beautiful and thoughtful mural, there are 10,000 ugly and pointless graffiti tags on every block. Seen from above, the city stretches out like a dilapidated and mostly uninspired Lego set.
And yet: Turn the corner off a busy avenue, most notably in my neighborhood of La Floresta (which is known as a bohemian and hipster hangout), and suddenly the din of traffic disappears, and the walls are white and clean and covered with vines, and in the gardens behind those walls are explosive purple flowers being investigated by fluttering butterflies. Walk further and pass a coffee shop with sweet, almost imperceptible guitar licks floating out the front window. The restaurants range from small, neatly kept storefronts promising cheap lunch meals to hip garden cafes with clear roofs to keep out the most harmful sun rays. There are also many regal, tree-lined plazas, centered around ornate and enormous statues — the most incredible of which is in the center of the Centro Historico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These oases provide much needed relief for when you’ve walked for too long along what seems to be an endless and unregulated and unsupervised construction site.
Earth is over 92 million miles away from the sun, yet a distance of a few thousand feet apparently makes the difference between “a strong sun” and “holy shit, this sun is strong as fuck.” A combination of the shortened distance and the weakened atmosphere means newcomers to Quito like myself must take care to shield themselves with sunscreen, sleeves and hats.
But the weather here is manic, and changes from block to block. One moment I’m cursing my decision to leave the house in a jacket, as I sweat under what is supposed to be “breathable” material, standing under a stark blue sky with only a few fat white clouds and no breeze. But I turn the corner and suddenly notice the world has gone dark — a gray mass has swirled in on strong gusts of wind that make me button up. This cycle repeats.
From any point in Quito, one can see that crisp blue sky to the east and south and the gray to the north and west, or vice versa. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next — though I’ve been lucky to only experience “rain” in almost laughable small amounts so far (a drop or two at most) — so the trick is to dress like everything is going to happen at once and adjust accordingly.
It’s true that there is less diversity here than, say, New York City: Most people are Ecuadorian, and they look Latin(o/a?), though some are of Afro-Caribbean descent.
But as most visitors to this region can tell you, the people you see exist along a broad spectrum, from smaller, browner, indigenous folks to taller, whiter, more European-looking types (and of course the dark brown skin of the Afro-Carib crowd). There are those who spend their afternoons drinking tea and eating specialty pizzas in cafes high above the city; and those who roast plantains and chorizo in the parks near where their children sit despondently in the shade of the trees. There are those who wear suits, work in finance and don designer sunglasses as they walk through the Centro Historico; and those who wear colorful, traditional garb as they mill around the popular bars, hawking small packets of gum to drunken hipster punks (and I mean that as a description, not an insult).
There are parts of Quito, and there are people in Quito, that would not be out of place in Los Angeles or Paris. And there are people who cling to the last vestiges of a culture that was destroyed, co-opted and forcibly disfigured several times over, who live in extreme poverty and subsist in the crevices of a society that at once respects and ignores them.
Not all the street food, or the food from the small, poorly lit eateries promising “desayunos y almuerzos” that line most streets, is served with a profound sadness. First of all, those fried plantains are huge and tasty and only $0.50. But in many places, classic Ecuadorian fare such as this week’s special, fanesca, a fish stew made during Easter, is ravenously consumed by hordes of people on lunch breaks and in after-work rushes. I pass storefronts with empanadas and sweet breads in the window; restaurants where families happily scoop up noodle soup, rice, chicken, and salads (a typical “lunch” special at most eateries); street corners where strangers crowd around a stand serving unknowable (to me) combinations of meat, vegetables and fish; grills with roasting guinea pig and corn; a man walking with bags of avocados, crying out “avocados for lunch!” These foods and the restaurants that provide them are enjoyed by all types of people, indigenous or not.
But there is also a higher class of restaurant that is typically only enjoyed by those with money. At “Frida’s,” a spot in my neighborhood that serves only tacos, does so at $4 a pop. As we sat consuming our decent but not overwhelmingly fantastic tacos, the Beatles and Michael Jackson blared overhead and I heard as much English as I did Spanish. In my walks around town, I’ve seen high-end Italian restaurants, gringo bars with English names serving typical American bar food, sushi spots, places where you wouldn’t call what you’re doing “eating” as much as “dining.” These places don’t just exist to serve tourists, but the class of Ecuadorians that is familiar with international travel and iPhones.
So far, the most enjoyable for me has been the mixture of the two. A friend of a friend had an asado on Sunday, and while we brought what no one can consider “typical cuisine” (it was frozen yogurt), we ate an incredible amount of steak, peppers and onions, blood sausage, potatoes, creamy cheese and spicy sauces, and capped it off with sips of mate through a thick silver straw. The view: a patio overlooking one of the more serene and lovely parts of the city. The people: patient and kind as I tried to explain what I was doing here in broken Spanish.
It wasn’t extreme at all. It was just living, which in only a few short days I’ve found myself doing more of, rather than taking time to notice how different everything is from what I’m used to. I’m finishing this on a day where hundreds were wounded or killed in Brussels in an act of extreme religious violence. I can’t tell you how hard it is to believe that people could act so horrendously in one part of the world, while here in this one people of all shapes, sizes, colors are simply coexisting in a town that is both breaking and beautiful.
(I’m not forgetting about the years of bloody and terrifying fascist rule throughout this region, funded and supported by the U.S. government. But that’s another story.)