There are hookers here. On nearly every street corner is a woman in high heels and stretchy leopard print or zebra print or some kind of animal print pants, fanny pack around her waist, hissing at the passersby between snaps from her gum. I try not to make eye contact as I go but at one point I notice one leading a man by the hand along a side street, then suddenly pushing aside what appeared to be a wall but was actually a door, disappearing inside.
It has rained for many days in a row without fail and today things have finally cleared up, the sky is as the sea. I walk down Guayaquil, one of the main streets in Quito’s historic district, which is a UNESCO World Heritage partially because it’s just so regal and beautiful. The main plaza, Plaza De La Independencia, is fenced in by colonial white-washed buildings and populated with towering palm trees, blooming flowers, crosses and a statue commemorating the day Quito first looked to gain independence from the Spanish monarchy. From there, streets snake out in all directions, maintaining much of the old feel above — colorful buildings, lamps hanging from cables suspended above the road — if not below (grimy bodegas, the hookers, the occasional KFC).
Around lunch time these streets brim with people moving in every direction, swerving around woman who slice fruit and men who stumble drunk, their lips blistered and bleeding, into the road. The extremes of Quito’s population are on full display here: The businessmen walk behind the indigenous woman with a baby in one arm and sacks of lemons in another. Greeters shout from restaurant doorways; women in red aprons hold already-served ice cream cones tantalizingly close to those who walk past; kids sit on doorsteps, watching one of their own kick a soccer ball in stocking feet. Some streets stretch up and away, and looking down one I can see the mass of people surging back and forth, a scene reminiscent of Times Square.
As such it’s difficult to find a quiet street in the centro, and at every moment I’m on my guard for someone who might snatch my bag, or worse, approach me with a line like “WHERE ARE YOU FROM, DO YOU WANT TO BUY MY STUFF?” I walk away from the main plaza, where groups of old men sit in the shade of the trees and shoe shiners roam looking for a gig, to the outskirts of the center, looking for a street called La Ronda.
I’ve visited La Ronda already on this trip — it’s a beautiful cobblestone street with flower boxes and flags hanging from the windows and walls in varying shades of orange, pink and blue. The road slopes downward (or upward, depending on which direction you walk, or how you see the world), winding past boutique artisan shops and restaurants and signs that promise “GIGANTIC” empanadas. As I round the corner onto La Ronda, the sky is perfectly blue and I feel like I am sliding down into another world. I’ve found peace here.
Except that I didn’t expect to find peace, and am actually a bit confused and I’d even go as far as to say annoyed about it. When I was here last, the street was bustling. Today almost everything is shuttered and one of the only people I see approaches to sell me what appears to be a bunch of twisted paper clips and orange and brown pipe cleaners. His hands are so dirty and his eyes are so wide and sad that when he tells me it’s a dollar I fish a gold coin out of my pocket (hey, you ever wonder where all those $1 coins went? They went to Ecuador) and receive his work and put it directly in my bag and forget about it until I write this post later.
At the bottom of the hill I ask a police officer what the deal is and he tells me La Ronda doesn’t open up until Thursday afternoon, when it runs through the weekend. It’s currently 2 p.m. on Wednesday. I thank him for his help and walk aimlessly around an “urban park” for awhile (it’s some combination of rock climbing gym and playground and art exhibit that I don’t understand) until I feel hungry enough to walk back into the centro.
I am trying to practice mindfulness so I don’t wake up on the floor of my apartment in Quito and think, “But, wait, why aren’t I in Montana right now instead? Or better yet, fuckin’, I dunno, the beach somewhere?” But I allow myself to acknowledge that picking a place to eat lunch around here is difficult and invites many “What if?” questions, like, What if this place that is offering a set lunch for $2.50 is remarkably better than the one two doors down that offers almost the same thing for $2.25? Many places have the same kind of deal — a starter soup, a meat + rice + vegetable dish, a piece of fruit — and yet I am nearly paralyzed with fear that I am not picking the right spot to eat every time I sit down. It doesn’t help that when I muster up the courage to go into one of these places, the waitresses often look as though a garbage can has sauntered in and asked for a seat. Not repulsed, but surprised and not in a “Oh boy, a gringo chose me!” kind of way.
So today as I pass dozens and dozens of restaurants of varying sizes, lighting situations and smells (but nearly the same menu and price), I am struck by a woman frying pancakes in a green doorway. There is nothing special about this woman or this doorway, but the prospect of something different intrigues me and though I continue walking down the street behind a crowd of people which begins cramming itself onto a bus as soon as the door opens, I am smitten with the concept of eating whatever it she was frying. So I let the crowd in front of me somewhat disperse, make it to the end of the block, agonize for a few more seconds about what I am potentially missing out on and then turn around.
The woman is flipping the fried cakes on a set of enormous pans that almost completely block entrance into the sitting area. I notice two men silently chewing their pancakes in the semi-darkness, alighted only by a TV that spews out a program in chunks as the reception freezes and resets. The scene that is currently attempting to play shows a man rushing to the aid of what appears to be a dead or unconscious prostitute on the floor of his home.
I greet the woman and am given the typical reply which makes me feel like I am intruding, but soldier on by asking what’s inside this pancake, pointing at one that looks done.
“Uno, por favor.”
I go and sit at a table between the two men who both appear to be contemplating leaving their wives and she brings me the pancake. I take a bite — it’s a fairly tasty piece of fried bread that, upon another bite, oozes queso fresco from its pores. I surreptitiously snap a photo to commemorate the time I ate a piece of fried cheese bread in Quito.
I demolish my circle of bread cheese and leave my remaining companion to dip his lunch in his coffee, paying the woman $0.50 as I depart. It’s only when I’m back out onto the street where the wind can hit me that I realize the stifling heat of the restaurant.
I begin taking a circuitous route out of the centro and back towards my apartment. I go back through the main square, which by now is bursting with people and the only seats available are on benches that directly face the hot sun. I walk in circles for awhile, admiring the way the light hits the presidential palace. A man approaches me and says he owns a house in New Jersey and thus would like to sell me a hat. I leave.
Usually a fried cheese pancake wouldn’t be enough to satisfy me for lunch, so as I walk north I look for a lady selling grilled plantains to supplement it. There are usually a few by La Parque Alamada, which is overseen by a statue of Simon Bolivar riding a horse. But there are none today, and so I continue walking, noting as the intimidating and awe-inspiring grey spires of the Basilica (the largest neo-Gothic basilica around), just a short distance to my left, recede into the distance.
I buy a cup of coconut water for $1 and am just about blown away by the sweet, refreshing flavor. I have encountered a new favorite street item.
By this point I am firmly outside the centro. The hookers are gone; so too are the countless fruit sellers and the clash of the old world with the new. Ahead of me is the rest of Quito, a city not unlike many others you’d see around the world. As hectic and occasionally frustrating as the centro can be, a walk through there is always brings you something unique, if only for a moment. Even in New York, it’s hard nowadays to find a prostitute escaping through a trap door in the side of an historic old building with an expansive courtyard, where she and her john can look up at the sky while they exchange money for sex.