Ecuador doesn’t have a game face for tourists. Visitors from the States generally arrive late at night, pursued by tales of how dangerous Quito is and how tricky the airport landings can be. These are not tall tales. By the time we go through customs, in a room not much bigger than our studio apartment, it’s one in the morning, and we’re met by the small mob of taxi drivers asking for our business. We carefully select an official taxi, with the orange license number displayed on the doors and plates, and secure a fixed-price drive to the Centro Historico. At night and during civil unrest, the fare will be about eight dollars. During the day, five dollars might do it.
From the taxi at night, the city looks abandoned and slummy. The metal shutters are pulled down and locked over shop doors and windows. Graffiti covers the shutters, walls, and any roadside barriers. Little bags of garbage torn open by dogs are piled on neighborhood street corners. Even at night, the soot and city filth darkens the gray tones of metal, concrete, stone, and tile. There is no one on the streets, and there is no window-shopping here, unless you count the signs pasted around doorways, advertising mobile phones, telephone booths, repair services, photocopies, ice cream treats, or sandwiches, and usually all of the above. Traffic other than taxis is rare at this hour, so the stoplights are mere mileage markers, and our driver doesn’t even slow down from his 50 mph clip.
As our taxi turned down Calle Cotopaxi from Carchí, I could see Tom wasn’t exaggerating about the steep street. It seemed the cab was going to scoot down the slick stone pavers and jump the construction dirt pile at the bottom, going airborne before riding the hill down the next couple blocks. The rebuilding of the street had been going on since before Tom moved here in July, was briefly finished in October, and then was torn up again three times for water lines, sewage repairs, and electrical work. The night I arrived, the single car lane bending around the corner below wasn’t complete, nor was the pedestrian stairway on the left. We generally coax drivers down to our door, only to have them back up the steep incline to exit. Or, we find unexpected closures above so that the taxi has to circle around to approach from below, dropping us on Calle Manabí, a half block and some seventy feet below our front door.
We carried our bags through the large wooden entry doors of the building, and I check out our place. First impressions: a beautiful stone courtyard with a fountain along the back wall; white plaster walls; wooden-beamed balconies; many stairs up, narrow, wooden steps with switchbacks, without railings. We managed the luggage in two trips, panting up another three flights up.
Our cozy pad is small but well organized, and tidied up for my arrival. The bed is made up with clean sheets, the nice little kitchen has windows all its own, and the space includes a pair of closets, a built-in wooden counter strip which will become our study and dining space, and windows overlooking the lights of the churches and palace below. I can make out the steep edges of town on either side and the giant winged virgin on top of Panecillo, the hill directly across from us. Car lights creep up the road winding around the hill. I postpone opining on anything other than the night view. It’s late and I’m here. But I can’t help noticing the promised terrace was elsewhere in the building. Tomorrow I’ll get my bearings. A cold beer and a contented, if not solid, night’s sleep follows. I am finally sharing a studio apartment again with Tom, just as we’d done in London in the winter of 1978 and in Madrid in ’79.
Ah, yes, sleep. Every home has its unique sounds and shadows. The small refrigerator here kicks on and off with a clunking sort of rim shot. The downstairs neighbor’s broom clanks off the wooden stairs and echoes in the plaster-walled staircase. The front door at the street, 3 levels down, thuds or slams. Someone on the street pushes apartment call buttons at random. The glaring, crime-fighting lights in a plaza a half-mile from here disturb me. The reflection of lights on the westerly hill get mixed up with the real lights from the east hill. Stars are barely visible in the city. But, there’s nothing spooky here, and nothing that keeps me from sleep this night. I’ll adjust to these typical household idiosyncrasies, though I’m not so sure I’ll warm to the fluorescent lighting.
From our Perch
Over the first weeks, I discover a completely new array of noises from the neighborhood – some typical, some annoying, some laughable. Two dogs live in apartments here in our building. Another two or three are within a door down the street. All nice dogs, I’m sure, but Lota, the retriever mix and our closest neighbor, is often locked alone out on the deck below our window, where she barks, whines, cries pitifully, and serves as the main courtyard watchdog. All the others are just responding to the very same sounds we are: the ever-popular bottle rockets, church bells that sounds like they are being pounded by packs of angry teens, pigeon-scattering fireworks, ambulance sirens, sirens to mark school time, car alarms that set the dogs off anew, helicopters, radios and assorted music, honking traffic, and, our favorite, the morning marching practices of the schools nearby.
Starting at seven in the morning most schooldays and Saturdays, we are treated to an amplified voice shouting through a microphone or megaphone, as if neither the shouting nor the amplification could do the job on their own. Rallying the troops! Sometimes we hear a recording of a patriotic song, played over and over while the voice shouts orders. We imagine little kids in their school uniforms marching and turning and bumping into one another, and muttering under their breath that this, at least, isn’t as bad as learning English. Again and again, until I can pick out the chorus and interludes, the song plays on. Other times, without benefit of recorded music, the drummers start in with a simple, funereal beat. Nothing flashy, nothing fancy. Bum, bum, bum-bumpa-bum. Bum, bum, bum-bumpa-bum. They must be getting the hang of it. Left, right, left and right. Now, the horns come in, blaring sustained and completely dissonant tones. Pure volume. The pitch is of no concern. Just blow long and hard. Start together and blow as loud as you can. This is the essence of the marching band. Uniforms and noise. Perhaps, a beat.
We can’t see these groups practice, except through binoculars to the schoolyard of San Francisco a half mile away. In November, though, we were lucky to see the fruits of their labor – a parade involving every school in the Quito area. The atonal practices netted just the right results. The loud marching units of mass disorganization were led by satin and glitter attired baton girls. The horns made no music, but sometimes the xylophones carried a tune. Boys ogled at the scantily clad girls and snickered at the marching boys. Every type of uniform filled the streets: school uniforms and band uniforms, athletic uniforms, military uniforms, dancing shoes, marching boots, and the killer, plain-black heels that are required attire for school girls of a certain age. It was Quito in a nutshell, all noise and uniforms and outdated fashion fantasies. Alluring and discombobulated, officious and freewheeling, Quito keeps trying.
It’s hard to place the direction of sounds in these hills, and rooftops obscure the narrow streets and courtyards below. In daylight, houses in white, peach, pink, and green light up the hillsides, while terracotta and corrugated metal roofs demark the foreground from background. Down below, about a quarter mile away, a blue shell shape folds around a statue. To the right, a tunnel opening spews traffic through the hill to the west. A couple huge buildings ask for explanation: another school or convent here and there, a smaller church in the distance, the Ecologico Water Museum up the hill, the tower commemorating soldiers of some undefined war.
Our view appears to be a complete view of the Centro Historico, but at the same time, it’s confined to the three mountainsides. Our backs are turned to the rest of Quito to the north and to the nearest volcano, Pichincha. The Panecillo creates the southern edge of the city in my mind. It wasn’t until two months after arriving that I learned that the sprawl beyond the Virgin goes nearly as far south of the historic district as it does to the north, and maybe further.
The mornings are typically sunny. The view expands to the mountainside southwest of here, over the Panecillo’s Winged Virgin’s left shoulder. That is the green hillside that offers some sense of life outside the city during the day. It is the valley that sucks in the clouds from the west later in the day, and the point that brightens at sunset in colors of orange and mauve. On exceptional days with no clouds even in the distance, I spot the snow-covered top of Volcan Cotopaxi, and another day the peaks of Antisana suddenly appear. The 180-degree view out our windows is expansive and also confining, enclosed by mountain walls. But both in the morning and at night it is the great antidote to our tight living quarters in a new city, in a new country, in a new language. I spend many mornings the first couple weeks peering through binoculars to see what there is to see.