For the first time in my life, I am a minority, a white face in a sea of Hispanic. There are times when I feel like I am a spectacle, and other times when I feel like the Quiteños couldn’t care less. A certain admiration for the American culture is apparent when you see slogans on T-Shirts that you know that the wearers don’t know how to read, or walk past a clothing store and realize that all the mannequins are white. Oddly enough, Pixar and Angry Birds are huge here. Ecuador uses the dollar, which is fantastic, and comfort foods such as Jiff PB and Gatorade are imported and sold like luxuries at supermercados that are identical to those in the states, minus the hordes of tropical produce I didn’t know existed. The $ goes way far for everything except imports: I saw a 750 mL bottle of Jägermeister being sold for $55!!!
There is a ton of natural beauty here, but the can city at times seems very homogeneous and feels dirty in a way that even New York isn’t. In NYC, you expect mountains of garbage and subways littered to the point that fires become a problem. The filth is different here. (To my knowledge) there are no regulations on pollution and emissions, so it isn’t uncommon to see buses spewing fountains of smog as they accelerate and the cars that follow looking more like boats drifting down a black stream. The architecture is the oddest intersection of cathedral, modern office, and poverty. Money isn’t spent on infrastructure, so rather than renovate, new buildings keep going up. These are quickly covered with ash and grime, so it isn’t long before our new buildings look old and we need to start building again. Graffiti is everywhere, on public works and every concrete surface.
Yet last Wednesday, I went for a day trip to Centro Historico, the political center of the city, and since my perception of Quito has been changing. It wasn’t dirty or run down; it was flourishing with an unrivaled sense of culture. I visited the renowned La Basilica and a handful of other Iglesias (churches), where I saw entire alters carved out of gold. People were praying and I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures, but the highest compliment I can give them is that it isn’t hard to see why the Spaniards came and pillaged the natural wealth of the region. I also attended a guided tour of the Museo Alberto Mena Caamaño on the city’s history, and walked out after half an hour when all I could deduce from the mediadoro is that we were talking about Quito.
I have been working at a school for children with congenital disorders for the past two weeks and will be here at least through the New Year. The children I attend to range from ~1.5-6 and are as varied in their conditions as they are in age. We have a two year old whose condition is listed as “obesity” (definitely on the pudgy side, but come on…) and a five year old who tricked me into giving her a banana last week (lo siento, no comprendo!). Others have Autism, Noonan or Down’s Syndrome, Microcephaly, and Cerebral Palsy. The last is particularly prevalent, with children falling into one of four categories: leve, moderada, grave, or profunda. Most of the children come from undesirable backgrounds. Several have clearly been beaten.
Typical days are a free-for-all sprinkled with “structured” activities (e.g., today we broke out the newspapers again, and tearing them lasted for several hours; Quito saw snow for the first time today), but every Friday we go to a horse farm at the Parque Guápulo on the south side of the city. This park specializes in animal therapy for children with physical and cognitive impairments. On our last visit, the children took turns petting the animals, and then walking them around by means of a rope. As I was returning from one of these walks, one of the women in our group began to shout at me in Spanish. Shaking my head to let her know as I didn’t understand, she began gesticulating rabidly. I continued forward until she covered her eyes, mouth agape, and I looked down and discovered my foot in a fresh mound of horse excrement. This is why we learn to speak the native tongue.
The work has been coming very naturally to me (the secret: selective regression), and it has been as rewarding as it exhausting. To say this has been eye-opening or humbling doesn’t really capture the essence of the experience. Last week we watched La Bella y La Bestia (Beauty and the Beast), and it took me half of the movie to feed one of our children half of a banana. This boy has profound Cerebral Palsy, the sort who is without any communicative abilities and will forever be chair-bound, dependent on his caretakers. I confess that during this interval thoughts that do not speak highly of my humility crossed my stream of consciousness. But when I finished, he looked up at me, the slightest of smiles creeping up the corners of his mouth, and I simply melted. I still have a lot of growing to do.
This past Saturday, the Canadian, the German, my 12-year-old homestay sister and I took an $8.50 ride (here, an amount indicative that it is for tourists- I saw more white people in a few hours than I have in two weeks) up Teleférico, a gondola up the side of one of the mountain ranges that cup the city. Quito is built about 9,000 feet above sea level, and when we exited, we were about 5,000 feet higher. The view was unlike anything I have ever seen: a city nestled in a valley, stretching endlessly in both directions . From the top of the gondola, we set out on a hike that takes you straight into the clouds. The air is so thin that is impossible to advance more than a few dozen feet without stopping. Progress was very, very slow, and the German and my sister turned around when the trail evaporated. The two remaining made North America proud, pushing onward and onward.
It’s hard to explain what those remaining hours were like. Safety became a concern as visibility decreased, then stopped existing, and we began to suspect we were the only ones still hiking the trail. Fatigue seeped beyond our muscles and our bones, straight into our souls. We almost didn’t make it. Then for a moment, the clouds parted overhead, and we could just make out the summit. I had this vision in my head of reaching the peak and the whole sky clearing, revealing the valley and the city sprawled below, but the reality was nothing like that. There was a lonely signpost denoting an elevation of ~15,500 feet, twenty feet of visibility, and then an infinite nothing. The round trip took from 11am until about 5:30pm and a strength I didn’t know I had, and I couldn’t be happier that we made it.
…And I hope you made it this far with me. A lot is going on; clearly I am enjoying myself. I’d love to hear your thoughts, as this isn’t meant to be one-sided. There’s a reason you are reading this, so remind me of that reason 🙂
Sight of the week: I’ve gone out one night so far, and from my seat by the bar’s window, I saw three locals doing key bumps as a group of cops walked right through their circle.