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The Winding Streets of Quito

Walking Home in the Old City

by RICHARD WARD

Quito.

I walk home every evening after my job teaching English at Escuela Politécnica Nacional, and if I have been walking fast down 10 de Agosto, one of Quito’s main thoroughfares, I make it a point to slow down on Guayaquil, in the old part of the city (Centro Histórico), where I live, because this is a marvelous and unique place, and I want it all to sink in.  I feel the need to train myself a bit here because it is different from being in nature where you are attuned to the quiet and solitude.  Cities are noisy and packed with distraction and the very act of navigating in these fish tanks disrupts the connection between that quiet part of ourselves that communicates with the transcendent and mysterious.

Any city worth its salt has places of meditation, churches, temples, museums, concert halls, parks and the like where people can go to re-establish and strengthen the connection between this inner space and whatever exists beyond.  The old city, by virtue of its antiquity, is conducive to a certain form of meditation.  It is common to hear of the “timelessness” of the old streets of X, or the “timeless beauty” of cathedral Y, but living in a place like the old city it really is possible to think of time as a static entity, a stationary fluid through which generations swim.  As if a subtle reminder of this, one of the first things you run into on the narrowing street of Guayaquil is an Indian (South Asia) store selling incense, fabrics, soap, Bollywood movies, rolling papers, pipes, posters and small statues of Hindu deities, the owner, a plump, sensuous, middle-aged, Spanish-speaking Indian woman given to wearing colorful saris and a perpetual frown.  I bought some sandalwood incense once and never went in again, though I always look when I walk past.

It is around here I invariably remind myself to slow down and take things in, the sidewalks and streets narrower, the walking more challenging.  Monstrous electric trolleys roar past playing their little warning jingles, familiar snippets of “La Cucaracha,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and something that sounds like “that’s amore” (when the moon hits your eye…), splashing water when it is raining, people good-humoredly jumping out of the way, jockeying for position in the well-known places where puddles are deeper next to the curb.  The trolleys make me nervous, their terrifying bulk speeding along inches from the sidewalk.  I don’t want to get too close, imagining any number of bad scenes, not the least being clipped in the back of the head by one of the massive side view mirrors that jut onto a sidewalk busy with all manner of pedestrian traffic including vendors, usually indigenous women, selling barbecued cuero (pork rinds), plátanos and tamales.

I pass a section of really old buildings, one housing a dilapidated but functioning hotel in which I have had a notion to rent a room for a night, and in the other buildings two interesting small businesses, one for cleaning and restoring hats, the other a progressive book store, Libreria Progeso.  The man in the dimly lit and mysterious hat store is constantly working on an array of Panama-style felt hats favored by the Kichwa, the main indigenous group here.  The good fellow next door, Arturo, whom I have come to know, always seems to be involved in animated conversations with exotic Latin leftist-looking types, his little nook of a store filled with photos of Che, Fidel, Regis Debray and other revolucionarios.  The first time I went into his store I bought a picture of Che after introducing myself in bad Spanish, feeling a little intimidated, but Arturo put me at ease, speaking slowly and simply.  Keenly aware of the terrible history of gringo intervention and dirty tricks I made it a point to communicate my disgust with US policy in Latin America, past and present.  Now when I visit we get right into things, the only inhibiting factor my plodding Spanish.  He has an animated speaking style, sometimes acting out his points with extravagant gestures, often, I suspect, to facilitate communication with his linguistically-challenged interlocutor.  In a glass cabinet on a lower shelf is a collection of erotica, of no particular political persuasion.  I would visit more often with Arturo but by the time I pass his store it is going on seven and I am hungry and tired and he is usually getting ready to close.

A little beyond Arturo’s store is the old Farmacia Fybeca with its polished brass fixtures, gold-lettered windows and black and white diamond pattern marble floor, its white-coated pharmacists patiently taking orders behind a long counter.  This is on the corner of Esmeraldas and Guayaquil, a hangout for hookers and transvestites, all very interesting.  Then comes the block of El Teatro de Sucre, with the trolley stop, next to a wide open kind of mini tenderloin filled with more hookers and shady characters, one of the places I walk with a little extra attitude, the clinking turnstiles of the parada marking the passage of harried Quiteños pushing their way out the exit onto the crowded sidewalk, music blaring from the open-front stores overlooked by a couple of impressively ugly buildings from the sixties, not an uncommon sight throughout the old city.  I negotiate the throng, nodding to some of the tough-looking characters I have come to recognize.

Across Guayaquil is the lovely and recently restored Teatro Nacional Sucre, venue to world-class music, the plaza fronting the theater many years ago a bull ring, the theater in those days a carnicería.  Now the plaza is a busy place full of interesting types, some less than honorably intentioned.  Here there are also concerts, and, almost always in the evenings when I walk past, street performers surrounded by curious, good-natured crowds, the borrachos and trolls out in force.

If it is late and I am especially hungry I will stop at the next block at La Tradición for a glass of steaming morocho and empanada de pollo, a full meal for $1.40, sitting at the front, if there is a table, to watch the activity in the streets.  Morocho is a type of corn, the main ingredient in a hot, sweet and spicy milk concoction bearing the same name, and empanadas are plate-sized hunks of fried bread filled with different things like chicken, beef or cheese.  The two are a natural pairing and very delicious.  A steady diet of morocho y empanada will clog your arteries in a year, which is why I restrict myself to once a week and even that is questionable.  About two weeks ago on a Friday I had my heart set on morocho y empanada at La Tradición but the whole neighborhood was blacked out, a rare occurrence, and I was disappointed to think of missing my favorite meal, as well as the chocolate ice cream cone to follow at a pizza place farther down the block. To my surprise and utter delight however, La Tradición was open for business despite the loss of electricity, its interior lit by dozens of candles, creating a charming and mysterious atmosphere, the woman at the counter taking money and making change from a drawer as always.  The blackout had transformed a lively and unique environment into something completely different and equally compelling, and I marveled at the difference between this and my experience in the United States when the electricity fails at commercial establishments.  Apparently the unfortunate people of the US lack the resources, mental and material, to conduct business when the power goes out, a condition that seems to have bedeviled much of the world.  Happily, there are exceptions to this pathetic state of affairs, such as La Tradición.  This same night, delighted with candle-lit morocho y empanada, my bliss was compounded by discovering the pizza place down the block still open for business and eager to sell their melting ice cream, not for the descuento I was hoping for, though you would hardly call one dollar for a fat delicious chocolate ice cream cone exorbitante.

The next part of the walk on Guayaquil is up the hill taking you past massive old St. Augustin church with its brick exterior facing the street, on this side the parada at Plaza Grande with its urgent, milling crowds and fiercely clinking turnstiles, a sound forever embedded in my brain, the sidewalk becoming even narrower, so that the maneuvering for position is constant.  One of the biggest challenges is passing slower walkers because it usually means getting onto the street and dealing with the threat of being squashed by a trolley.  If the gutters are filled with rain you have the Robin Hood/Little John situation of competing for the best sidewalk position with oncoming pedestrians to avoid being soaked by passing vehicles, usually a losing proposition for all concerned.  It is these moments when I love Quiteños the most.  A good rainstorm brings out a kind of festive humor and philosophical acceptance of things beyond human control, and a wonderful politeness too, displayed by the exaggerated dipping and turning of umbrellas to avoid contact.  I have been drenched many times by passing trolleys along with the people next to me and invariably our reactions are smiles and sometimes laughter.  There is a sweetness to this culture, although some will tell you how much worse things have gotten.  Despite my few encounters with thieves I have never felt threatened or afraid walking home.

Now I am on the home stretch headed towards Santo Domingo Plaza, passing clothing stores, fabric stores, relojerias, the adult movie theater and the security guard with his mild-mannered German shepherd, past the chirping stoplights, the massive old white convent as I look down its long sidewalk corridor and old, polished paving stones and arched portals reminding me of poor van Gogh at Saint-Rémy, crossing Bolivar and finally onto the plaza, on guard here a little bit but never a problem, the statue of old General Sucre gesturing towards Pichincha, the volcano, the great church ahead and the thick arch, survivor of earthquakes, through which I pass, usually a clutch of Afro-Ecuadorians at the entrance or close by, a place laid claim to, large, imposing women, drama, loud voices, the arch smelling of urine, the strong lights embedded in the sidewalk casting up their blinding glare, garish faces, Lautrec, Ensor, Jack the Ripper, never a problem though friends have warned me, never a problem here or Rocafuerte itself, my street, old Rocafuerte, La Loma, La Mama Cuchara, the last stretch passing the little police station, none of my usual hostilities, the small stores selling colorful plastic items of utility, buckets, bowls, dish racks, cups, the music store and its bootleg CDs blasting cumbia, merengue, salsa, The Doors, my friend who nods hello, by four o’clock each afternoon borracho and out in the street directing traffic with his whistle, the panaderia, Sansipan, busy and well-lit, where I buy cachos (croissants) for the morning at 15 cents apiece, another, smaller, music store, merengue, salsa, my eyes whirling, taking it all in, not forgetting the dog shit on the sidewalk, mad taxis and motorcycles racing up and down the street much too fast, more tiendas and their colorfully-garbed native vendors so sweet when you get to know them, selling fruits and vegetables for next to nothing, the school kids in their blue uniforms, a flowing, chattering, laughing river of high-spirited refugees through which you must pass, the many small restaurants serving seco de pollo, menestras, sopas, cuero, platanos, some a little fancier than others, some no more than a grill on the sidewalk, past the decrepit Grand Hotel full of glass windows straight out of the sixties where scruffy giant europeos and gringos come piling in with their huge backpacks ready for Ecuadorian adventures, the hot dog stand and its fine vendedora selling thin dogs in thick buns and salt-saturated papas fritas that will kill you, but she is a long-legged beauty and the reason I bought some in the first place though never again, my favorite little restaurante with its sidewalk grill where I buy seco de pollo or menestras once or twice a week for $1.50 from my friend Zoyla, the abuelita, from here a short walk to my place, unlocking the heavy front door and if it is dark taking care not to step in any of the neighbor’s dog’s shit in the courtyard as the animal greets me enthusiastically, wanting to play, up the stairs, unlocking my front door and turning on the lights, feeling good, allowing myself to fully acknowledge at last how tired I am, and I am home.

Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at: r.ward47@gmail.com.