Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Slice of Life in Quito

A walk through of a typical day in Quito:

You hear the roosters crowing or roostering, whatever it is that roosters do. It's still dark out, and you look over at your clock and see that it's 1 a.m. That doesn't even make sense. What in the hell is the rooster doing up so early? Quito is probably the only city I've seen with an airport actually in the center of the city, and you can always hear planes soaring overhead no matter where you are. Somehow, a plane is always worked into your dreams. Once more you are woken up by the rooster outside your window at 4 a.m. and you think that you'd never imagine being woken up by a rooster in a city. 5 a.m. comes with dogs barking at each other in a turf war of sorts, and a horn beeps by. 5:20 a.m. and it's finally your own alarm that kicks you out of bed for good.

If you're feeling ambitious enough, you jump in the shower and wait for it to warm up a bit, otherwise you head straight for the essentials like clothes, glasses or contacts, and some coffee or hot cocoa. It's cold in the mornings here, and the old saying is that Quito's weather is like a woman, always changing and crazy. If you love the seasons, you'll love Quito, because you get to see all of them every day. No joke. In the morning you get your taste of winter, with chills in the 40s (Farenheit) and winds. On a good day you might be able to see Cotopaxi, the highest volcanic peak in Ecuador. Otherwise it's overcast and grey, but the sun is already strong and warming things up.

Once you head out the door you walk down the hill 5 minutes to catch the bus on Avenida Occidental, a highway on the west side of Quito. The bus has certain stops, but will basically stop wherever you wave it down. In the morning, we take the Mitad del Mundo bus which takes us far enough into the city to then walk 25 minutes or so to our teaching site. The bus is always packed to the brim, and this kind of overflow would only be allowed in a college town on weekend nights. If you're lucky enough to get on the bus before it takes off with the doors still open, you now move into Jack Bauer mode. Everyone on the bus is a potential thief, especially the little kids. The only people you can trust are the two other gringos you came on with, so you watch out for each other.

The bus says there's a maximum capacity of 48 or so, but my better judgment and experience tells me there's usually something like 70 people on board. It costs a quarter to ride and a man pushes his way up and down the bus, jumping off at stops to get on the other end to take your money. Not only are you a secret agent, scoping everyone out, but you become a ninja. You have to sling your bag around your stomach to keep an eye on it, and somehow you manage to hang on for dear life to a pole while holding your bag tight against your stomach, also while keeping your hand in your pocket to protect your money, phone, and legal papers. Somehow, you grow a third arm on the bus. This is the ride for 40 minutes, if there's no traffic. But in a city of 2 million people with 1.5 million cars, traffic tends to pick up quickly and last for a long time. Sometimes the ride can be over an hour.

Once you get to the final stop and walk your 25 minutes or so, you get closer to the teaching site. But it's not all a piece of cake. Every time you cross the street, you run the risk of getting hit by a car. There's no such thing as right of way for pedestrians here, and cars probably speed up as you get closer. That's just the way it is.

The pollution is bad in Quito: on some days you can actually taste it. Huge plumes of black smoke billow out from the buses, trucks, and cars that swarm throughout the streets. Certain days of clarity are broken up as you look down the street and see the smog and carbon emissions, thick like fog. Maybe it's the altitude that causes it to just linger, and the fact that Quito is in a valley can't help.

Along the route, little boys will hassle you to get your shoes shined and girls will be selling Chicklets. Every person stares at your because you're blond and have blue eyes. You're exotic, you're different, and you're just simply a gringo. Again, that's just the way it is.

After practice teaching for two hours it's time to make the walk back into la Mariscal, also known as gringolandia, and continue with orientation. Hours of meetings and information sessions prepare you for the upcoming year, but they also wear you out and make you oh so sleepy. Lunch break is the savior, either for 1 or 2 hours, depending on the day. By this point you've entered summer, and it's upwards of 75 degrees. The sun is hot and because you're so high up, you're burning quickly. It's also hard to dress in this weather, so you wear layers, this way you can take it off when it's hot and put it back on later on.

With a group of volunteers you head out and grab an almuerzo for $1.50-2. If you pay more than that you're getting screwed. An almuerzo will include a big plate of food, typically a pound of rice with grilled fish or meat, and a banana or small salad, as well as freshly squeezed juice. The food in Ecuador is, with exception, awesome. There is the chance of getting sick once in a while, and you just have to weigh your options. North Americans are known down here to have weak stomachs, and it takes some time to build up a tolerance to the cooking. Do you really need that tantalizing street meat?

Back to orientation for a few more hours, and finally you get to break around 4 p.m. for about an hour or two. This is when you grab some coffee and work on your lesson plan or just goof off. From 6-8 you sit in Spanish class and struggle to understand and stay awake. By 8 p.m., you're a zombie and just want to get home. The other problem is that because of the altitude, your contacts dry up in about 2 hours, so for most of the day your eyes burn and you feel more tired than you are. Now it's closer to fall and heading into winter, and it's actually very chilly as you leave the warm Spanish school.

Heading home in either a taxi for $4 or another bus for .25 cents, you make it home finally around 9 p.m. After a long dinner with a great family, it's finally time for bed around 10:30. An exhausting day to say the least. The dogs are barking as usual, and the rooster is being a wise ass, but you pass out in bed within minutes, ready to start it all over again in just a few hours.

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