In Ecuador we spent an intensive week in Quito, learning Spanish, and living with a local family. We were robbed at the bus station, which involved some excitement with gun carrying special agents.We stayed on in Quito a week longer than planned in an attempt to recover our stuff, and eventually travelled on the rooftop of a train for five hours, south to Ambato. We climbed up a 5023m volcano in Banos and went clothes shopping in the Indian markets in Cuenca.
|Quito - Jesus in a wig, bus robbers and World Cup fever|
|Quito is one of the highest capitals in the world at 2800m. It takes your breath away both figuratively and literally. The setting is fantastic, crammed in between imposing Andean peaks, Pichincha and Cotopaxi (the highest active volcano in the world). Modern Quito , the new city, is clean and busy, acres of office blocks, posh hotels and swish shopping arcades. Ostensibly it seems a very prosperous place - by far the most advanced city we've seen south of the US border. The old city to the south is grittier, a maze of dirty old streets, crumbling colonial buildings. Successive earthquakes have taken their toll, but the Ecuadorians have managed to preserve many fine churches in the area. We visited the church of San Francisco in a plaza of the same name. As with all Latin churches, idolatry featured heavily - Jesus with a wig!, chapels to various saints, and gold everywhere. A large market spreads up Imbabua and the hills to the west, selling mostly clothes, rip-offs for $10. Scattered amongst the food stalls, Indians sell food from decrepit braziers, fried plantain, boiled figs, sweetcorn, kebabs and pork crackling with the pigs head still attached to its skin, as it roasts over the coals. Just south of the old town is the Panecillo, a monument of the Virgin of Ecuador on top of a hill, seemingly waving down at the city. This statue, 45m high can be entered for a few sucres, but it's best to take a taxi to it for a few more, since the streets leading up are notorious for robberies.||
The Virgen de Quito statue overlooks the City
|One of the first things we did in Quito was sign up with a Spanish for foreigners school. There are dozens to chose from, and Quito is one of the best places in South America to do this.|
|Whilst studying at the Spanish school, we asked to be fixed up with a local family to further improve our Spanish. We were a little sceptical at first, imagining we'd be sleeping on a mud floor with the chickens and eating daily meals of potato stew for a week with some trilby hatted Indian and her grubby kids.||Learning
Spanish in Quito
Quito is one of the best places in South America to enroll on an intensive Spanish school. There are lierally dozens to choose from, and it is worth shopping around a little to find one you like (not necessarily the cheapest.) We opted for Amazonas, which was in the centre of town, and seemed both professional and friendly.
|After our first day of classes, we delayed going up there, preferring to watch Brazil vs Holland in a bar. They had a TV set up on some old beer crates outside. It was a superb game, and every time there was a shot, the table next to us would erupt into screams. On the opposite side of the street, a VW beetle drew up, and someone set up a portable TV on the roof. By the end of the match, there was a crowd of about 80 people watching it.|
|After the match, we took a cab up to the district of La Gasca to meet our family. The house was about as far up the side of the mountain as it's possible to go without crampons. The views of the city stretched out below were great. The house was not a mud hut but a modern five bedroom place, elegantly furnished and spacious. Irmi the mother immediately invited us in to her kitchen and fed us rolls and coffee. We went through the usual questions; "where are you from, where are you going, how long are you staying in Ecuador etc". Irmi is married to lawyer husband Luis, who we didn't meet until the second day. He takes his work very seriously, a vocation almost, and has never lost a case in 15 years of practice. Irmi obviously worshipped him. She wasn't the only one. Luis is a bit of a local hero. He works for the 'people' workers who've been mistreated by their employers, overworked, underpaid and downtrodden. His office on the seventh floor downtown is adorned with brass plaques and medals of thanks from people and workers' committees he has helped. He also has a picture of Che Guevara and one of Lenin leading the people.||
Our friendly family
|Luis is a short man with a noble face, mild mannered and self effacing. It's easy to understand why he's so popular. Luis needs to win all his cases, since otherwise he doesn't get paid, and his family have expensive tastes. His three children, Luis Antoinio, Julian and Nadia all go to private school. They have a live-in negro maid, a cheery girl just 16 years old called Veronica, who studies when she's not working, a part-time chauffeur and a washer woman who comes twice a week. Veronica comes from a small town near Esmereldes on the coast. There are many blacks in this area. It's one of the hardest hit by the El Nino weather phenomenon. Their house has to be reached by boat now. She has 5 sisters and one brother. Her mother came to visit for a few days whilst we were there, bringing her 14 year old sister with her. She was hoping to place the other sister with a family too|
Iglesia de Sanfrancisco, and Market
|In the evenings, after eating, we'd spend hours chatting with Irmi before Luis got home. The first evening, we spoke about some of the social problems in the country. Ecuador has 60% unemployment, and rampant inflation. The El Nino damage will run to 2bn US dollars on infrastructure alone. Ecuador's foreign debt is a colossal burden. Some 80% of GDP is required just to service the interest payments. It's hard to imagine what measures any government could take in the face of such adversity, what kind of people would be attracted to such a task. Corrupt people, unfortunately, people interested in lining their own pockets. The last president of Ecuador, Bucaram, was ousted in Feb 1997 and was forced to leave the country after a debacle of mal-doing. His nick-name "El Loco", in his three years he embezzled over $80m and bestowed countless favours on family and friends, whilst doing nothing to haul the country out of the mire. His family used to come in to the senate and throw abuse and even objects at his opponents. Finally the country tired of his behaviour, and with the backing of the military he was forced to leave. The weekend we were in Quito, was election weekend. It was a very quiet and peaceful affair. Neither of the candidates seemed to be particularly attractive. Noboa, a multimillionaire and owner of some 105 business was considered more likely to feather his own nest. Jamil, his opponent was an ember of a previous government that had been very bad for the country. Worse still, in the eyes of many Ecuadorians, he was suspected of being a maricon, a homosexual. This fact sent Irmi and her friend Peti into fits of laughter. Apparently, Jamil's ex-wife cited the fact that he was a poof in the divorce proceedings. Jamil actually won, by a very small margin. It took a week for all the votes to come in from outlying regions. I wander how many naked Huarani indians voted from the depths of the Amazon. The vote count was well over 4 million, quite impressive for a country of only 12 million. Maybe some of those were falsified - who knows?|
|On Monday, 12th, we graduated from our Spanish school. I really feel it helped. On Tuesday, we planned to leave for Otavalo, a town north of Quito which is reputed to have one of the best markets in South America. We never made it. Irmi's chauffeur dropped us at the Terminal Terrestre, Quito's main bus terminal, a nasty concrete edifice in a dangerous part of town. We bought our tickets and went through the barriers to the bus where we were welcomed by the driver, a cheery man in a tropical shirt. He helped us to our seats and put our rucksack on the rack. Normally we keep it below, between our legs, and I thought about moving it, but stupidly left it. Other passengers boarded and we felt safe in the fact that the bus would be leaving in a couple of minutes. Then, strangely, the driver and other passengers left the bus. Our pack was gone, along with diaries, camera, films and various other items, including tampons. It was only a matter of seconds before I realised what was going down, and I ran off the bus after the ladrones, but they were nowhere to be seen. Katie was in tears, and I was gnashing my teeth. How could we have been so stupid, lulled into a sense of false security. We took our other packs off the bus and returned to Irmi's house, hoping they might be able to help us. Irmi wasn't there, she was in the beauty salon having her nails done, with her feet in a bowl of water. When she returned she was very annoyed at what had happened, and we all set off for the terminal a) to look for the robbers without the encumbrance of our big packs and b) to search the bins to see if they'd discarded stuff they wouldn't be able to sell. We quizzed lots of people at the terminal, the fruit sellers, cleaners and drivers. They admitted to knowing who the crooks were but feared for their lives if they opened their mouths. We were so lucky to have Irmi and Luis to help us. We had to fill in a denuncia, a special sort of police statement which demands an investigation. This probably would have taken days without their help. In practice, the police won't investigate unless you dangle a big enough carrot. The next day I went with Irmi to check out a market in the old town that sells 'used' goods. Our stuff wasn't there, but there were dozens of other knock-off items, especially music centres.|
|That night I bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker to drown our sorrows. It was the first whiskey I'd had since leaving the UK, and it was wonderful. Luis, Irmi and I finished the bottle. Then Luis, I and a couple of his friends went to his office for another bottle. We rolled into bed at 4am.|
|Welcome to the World of the Ecuadorian Special Agent|
The day after, I went with Fernando, a colleague of Luis' who used to be an OID (Officina de Investigation de Delito) agent. We sneaked around a while, and then I spotted him, the robber. We stalked awhile, peering from behind kiosks, then got the police down. They dragged him off into a room inside the station, and the last I saw was one of the agents following with a huge club in his hand. Latin American justice. The guy denied being the robber, but said he knew who the gang were. I offered the agents a lot of money for recovery of our stuff, so we live in hope.
The same week we were robbed, Irmi's mum got robbed twice in her house. She lost all her jewellery, and her telephone. We went to play cards there with the family. There were about a dozen brothers, sisters and spouses. It was very raucous, and great fun. We had another fun night out with Irmi and Luis, salsa dancing at the 'Royal Horse'. They bought bottles of vodka, and we got steadily drunk, shouting "salud" a lot and knocking back the drink.
|It was very sad to finally leave Irmi, Luis and their lovely kids on Saturday. They were very good to us, treated us like part of the family, and said we were the most special guests they'd ever had, which was a lovely thing to say - even if she probably said it to all the foreigners.|
reading the story of Adrian and Katie's travels through the Americas
between May and August 1998.
Adrian and Katie put the rat race on hold for a year to travel the world.
Adrian & Katie's World Tour News - Ecuador Last Updated: 29 May 1999 Web Page by Adrian Ball (email: email@example.com)