From City to Ciudad

By Elliot Chan
photo by Elliot Chan

The La Mariscal district is notoriously dangerous for travelers on Sunday mornings. While everybody in Quito is in church or sleeping off a hangover, troubled locals prey on the ignorant and arrogant. Perhaps more the latter than the former, we found ourselves heading down a deserted street toward the bus terminal out of the city.

The previous night seemed endless. Only seven hours ago, the streets were packed with tourists and locals, bonding over a Grande Pilsner and a fooseball game. Memories of making cookies and soup, and smoking hookah were still fresh on our minds. We were embraced by Ecuador; we were accepted, loved and appreciated. But barely knowing enough Spanish to order off a menu, we were disillusioned.

Wearing flashy sunglasses and walking with a North American swagger, we clashed with the dilapidated buildings, the battered streets and the poorly chiseled skylines. We might just get away with it, we thought. And that was the only way to think while traveling.

Then in the distance we saw a boy walking towards us. He was wearing a dirty blue athletic tank top. But he was far from athletic. It wasn’t that he was scrawny or malnourish, he was just incredibly average. The boy approached us with no threatening notion and began speaking in his native tongue.

No hablo,” said Cody, assuming he was a merchant trying to sell us something.

But he was persistent and soon we realized he wasn’t conversing pleasantries. “Si,” I said, furrowing my brow, shaking my head and shrugging my shoulder, a universal sign for misunderstanding. “Si.

photo by Elliot Chan

 

Frustrated, the boy gnashed his teeth, “Moneys…” he looked down at his fist. Between his fingers was the neck of a broken bottle. “Moneys!” His accent was difficult to understand, but the intent was clear when he subtly directed the weapon at us. I glanced up at Cody and he looked back at me. We understood each other without a single word spoken.

We were down the block when we glanced back at the boy. He was dismissively walking away. Like a salesman accustomed to losing costumers, he displayed no visible disappointment. We cross the street to the bus station, paid the 25 cents fare and waited in the shelter at the middle of the road. We stayed silent for a moment, recollecting what had just been avoided. The rehearsal was over, the warning was heeded and what was once a vacation was now survival.

Soon the bus arrived and we squeezed in. Unfriendly eyes watched as we maneuvered our heavy bags. At the rear of the bus on the opposite side of the door was a three feet by two feet area dedicated for standees. As passengers rotated in and out, we eventually worked our way to that little spot out of the stream of departing and incoming human traffic.

photo by Elliot Chan

 

We smiled at each other for a moment of ease. At first it felt like a fortunate turn of events, but then the bus pulled into another station and a large swam of Ecuadorians making their daily commute entered. We crammed against the window, stretched onto our tippy toes and hung on for dear life.

Toddlers accustomed to the commuting fashion thought nothing of it. Between and around our legs they were playing a game of tag. Cody looked up and gave their guardian a dirty look. But the kids continued squirming around beneath our view, laughing and thinking nothing of us foreigners.

“I’m falling over,” said Cody, his fingertips clinging to a horizontal bar above. “I would rather be in your position.”

“I doubt it,” I said, my face pressed against the window. But as terrible as it sounded, for a moment I felt a breeze and breathed fresh air. After a blissful exhale, an idling truck beside the bus spewed out a black cloud that slowly dissipated. A helmetless biker rode through the smog and coughed so wildly that he almost lost balance and careered into a pedestrian.

photo by Elliot Chan

 

I looked over and saw agony in Cody’s face. It was comical, but if he saw humour in the situation, he did not show it. The bus lurched and came to a halt. The doors opened and more passengers boarded. “You fucking kidding me?” Cody had a temper and it often got the best of him. As his only companion, the job of consoling him fell upon me.

“Relax,” I said, remembering that there was nothing more embarrassing than being a frustrated tourist. “We are almost there… I think.”

It took us 40 minutes to travel over five kilometers. The bus pulled into the terminal and the people poured out like water from a broken faucet. We were the last drops. After taking in a moment to recuperate and gather in the new environment, we were due for a siesta, but all we could afford on our budget was a bottle of water. I splurged and purchased yellow imitation Gatorade. I was alive. I deserved it.

photo by Elliot Chan

 

We purchased our ticket to Cuenca, a colonial city eight hours south of Quito. It cost us 10 dollars and a good night sleep—but it was worth it. It was always worth it. When people back home interrogate me, questioning my ability and reason for traveling, I summed up my answer with beaches, culture and cuisine, but mundane routines was what really get me going. Back home, walking down streets and taking buses are not great survival feats worth bragging about. Elsewhere, every day is a guaranteed adventure. After all, some travel to escape, but I travel to discover and discovery is a great inconvenience.

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