Walking Quito, Ecuador

 

 

A cab from the bus station takes us toward the center of Quito, where we will be staying for several days. With over two million residents, it is no surprise that this city has neighborhoods of normal busy-ness, where life goes on along graffiti streets with too many vehicles. I think we are driving through most of these neighborhoods on our ride today, and marvel at the new yellow school buses, the traffic lights that impose order and the general rush I notice in the streets. We pass through bleached-out urban spread and then up-up-up to the high plateau of historical Quito. 

Once we reach Hotel Casa Gardenia, in the center of the city and settle in, my impressions change. Urbane, international, less hurried, welcoming.

But all those descriptions of Quito – the bustle and the serenity – surprise me. 

The last time I was here, traveling in a pack of two or four or six hamburger-starved young Americans, we sought out Rusty Burger the moment our feet hit the last step of the bus. We ate hamburgers translated into the South American experience and called them glorious. We stayed at a ramshackle hostel that was often packed to the brim with Peace Corps volunteers – like ourselves – and young back-packing world travelers from countries I had never been to. The streets of Quito I came to know 40 years ago had been a mixed-salad of old cars, old horse carts, aging homes inside tall stucco walls, and newer buildings along one section of a street near the hostel. It was a small landscape that I came to know well. I visited the historical section of the city only once or twice, after I had eaten my fill of homesick hamburgers.

Today, our hotel, built into an ancient building, lies along a curving and narrow cobbled street, and is guarded from that street by a thick wooden door from Colonial times. But inside, a modern glass-and-chrome structure offers a massive picture window that frames the entire central square in one gorgeous view. A storm approaches as we check-in, then passes by, cleaning our perspective and setting up our visit to be just as new and refreshed as the view itself. 

Our location offers an easy walking-tour visit to old Quito. We start out holding a tourist map and head down, down the narrow street. It contracts so much at one point that we have to yield for cars. At another passage, the sidewalk has steps that simply dissolve into a gutter from the 1700’s. We walk through a tunnel of stonework from that era, as modern cars compete with us for space.

Then we are at the central square. People call it the Grand Square (Plaza Grande) and Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia). Ancient stonework continues from the street, but the square itself blooms with color from plantings of flowers mixed with grassy sections and lush trimmed bushes. People are everywhere: walking along, and sitting on the grass and on benches. Massive two- and three-storey buildings line the square, each with a historical purpose: the cathedral, the presidential palace, a grand hotel.

The building that attracts us most is the Archbishop’s Plaza, and the reason we choose this place is predictable. We are in search of food. Inside this former residence of Quito’s archbishop is a beautiful warren of tourism. The interior of the building holds several patios, one with a quintessential fountain, another with a zigzagging covered walkway. There are hallways linking the interior patios and enough entrances and exits to confuse any visitor. And there are restaurants.

We have a hard time deciding which menu to choose, and end up taking a table on an upstairs outdoor patio and eat a wonderful humita ( similar to tamales.) Another rain storm passes as we eat, and the patter of the rain into the interior courtyard is exactly enough to bring a pause to the day, but not enough to change our plans.

After the meal, we continue walking downhill to the city market. The two-story concrete structure contains fruits, vegetables and every imaginable meat. Cascading boxes are hidden behind multi-colored produce: purple and yellow potatoes, orange- and white-speckled corn,  light red-skinned plantains. Because there are ingredients, there are also food stalls. Fresh juices, roasted whole pig, llapingacho (stuffed potato patties.)

There is so much more to see, and we have some days to catch our memories of this city we had loved. Forty years later, I am joyful at discovering this modern transformation of Quito. Eating hamburgers from home seemed important at one time. And maybe that is a good personal memory. But Quito itself is so much more than Rusty Burgers, and I am very happy to know that now.

 

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Walking Otavalo, Ecuador

 

It’s been 40 years since my two feet walked this ground. The cement umbrella-ed artisan booths are still here. An aura of tranquil living impresses me – now as before – and it runs counter-point to the dramatic setting. Clouds still curl over the mountains. Something about the high-altitude air makes visitors feel they’ve never been clean before. But surrounding the market I remember from years ago are now rows and layers of canvas-covered awnings that expand the market to two or three times the size it was.

If you visit Otavalo, today as 40 years ago, it is likely for the artisan market. I had made the trip several times from my home in Colombia as a young woman in my twenties. I ate huge pancakes and drank my first kefir and orange juice in a hippie restaurant just across the square from the booth where I bought wool yarn for the blanket I would crochet. The hippie restaurant is no longer there, but before I venture out too far, my husband and I eat in a fabulous modern cafe. Then we set out to follow our memories. Will I find the same style of woven wall art that, 40 years later, still decorates our home? Will I find skeins of rough wool yarn, so natural that bits of dry grass and seeds are part of each creation?

Ruanas are still for sale, and as numerous. These long, sometimes very thick wraps of woven wool that have slits to fit your head through were ever-present and worn by everyone when I lived in the region. When I bought my own, from this outdoor market in Otavalo, and learned how to wear it with ease, I had finally felt at home with my South American experience.

Five times today, I circle the market, walking to relive my past. I stroll the rows across, and the rows up and down. I get lost in a tangle of tables where people sell items they no longer want next to the alley where you can buy sewing machines that were already second-hand when I was last here. Finally, I buy a new ruana, stash it in a bag, not sure if it is really the one I want, but knowing I need to go through this ritual.

On the few days of the week when there isn’t a market, the square in the middle of this town is empty, aside from the concrete circles with the odd umbrella covers. To me, these circular remnants are a wonderful touchstone, one thing that hasn’t changed, sturdy and reliable. Everywhere else I walk on this market day displays how the world has changed: cell phones and a million chargers for sale on top of a plastic folded table, warm wool sweaters and gloves and hats that are knitted by machine, wall-hangings in colors so bright I know there is modern chemistry in their dyes.

I want to buy some natural yarn, and think I will start a new project while we travel. I pick a craft woman, one among so many, and enjoy the back-and-forth of negotiations. The price is so good that I want to buy more than I can pack into my carry-on suitcase. I need a crochet hook, and can’t remember the word in Spanish. I try to describe what I want. The woman understands and takes me at a run into an alley where, in a brick-and-mortar shop, everything I could possibly need is for sale. The yarn I buy is soft and so warm my fingers are soothed just by the touch.

We walk to the odd-and-ends section of the market. My husband searches through tables and tables of screws and bolts, ancient watches, and finds a coin from last century to purchase.

It’s all a wonder: the stroll, the shopping trip, the search for memories.

I pull the ruana from the bag and put it on, walking away from the Otavalo artisans, comfortable again in this place of mists and mountains and forty-year old magic.

 

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