Being 6'9", it's not often I feel undersized. I´m not sure what percentile of height I fall into, but I´m assuming it´s pretty small. I´m usually the tallest person in the room. Occasionally when playing basketball I'll run across someone larger than myself, but those meetings are few and far between.
My brief time in Ecuador has provided some fairly unique and humbling moments. Moments which make you obviously think "It's a small world", but some that far surpass that tired and inadequate cliché. There have been moments reassuring me God definitely has a hand in things, that we are not ourselves the center of the universe, and that our physical presences are just that - physical.
When I arrived in Quito, I had already picked out a hostel from the descriptions given in my trusty Lonely Planet "South America on a Shoestring" guide book. I was to stay at the L' Auberge Inn, a hostel located between the Old Town and the New. My taxi delivered me unscathed, and I fumbled my way through some broken Spanish to secure a private room with my own bathroom for $10 a night (as opposed to $8 for a dorm and a shared bathroom). The place was nice - 4 internet connections, a pool table, a little outside courtyard, a pizzeria underneath... What else do I need?
I had to wait a few minutes until my room was ready, so I sat down in the bright stone courtyard for a bit. I then noticed a young guy in his early 20´s sitting by himself at a table reading Conrad´s "Heart of Darkness" - an intriguing choice. He said hello in plain, un-accented English. We began to chat, discussing origins and destinations. Turns out he was from St. Louis and had been traveling since July. He´d been bumming around in Ecuador for a little over three months, and was to head back in a few weeks for his sister's wedding, and to eventually get a job, much to his dismay. He'd just graduated from Truman University in Kirksville, MO - a school I'm familiar with from my basketball days in the MIAA. I must admit, it was nice talking to a Midwesterner.
We ended up walking down to the Pizzeria and took advantage of the 2 for 1 pizza special. The place had a few patrons, but was far from packed. Aaron wisely sat down at a table across from a cute little gal who was finishing her pizza. She welcomed us in German-accented English, and we chatted for a good bit. As all traveler conversations inevitably end up, we asked where she was from. I don't know what the population of Lichtenstein is, but there can't be a good chance of meeting one of their citizens at a pizzeria in Quito, Ecuador.
Hmmm. St. Louis, Truman U., Lichtenstein - It's a small w... nope. Not going to do it.
Aaron and I ended up walking down to the Mariscal area of town - the newer shopping/touristy area to the North of the Old Town. It was filled with street vendors and travel agencies and souveneir shops. We walked through it all to the backpackers' area of town (you can always tell - numerous hostels, a lot of English on the signs, tons of internet cafes, and cheap, cheap food options), down to "Confederate Books", a second-hand book store ran by a fairly nice, slightly overweight, middle-aged guy from Chicago. Even though the prices were a little higher than they probably should have been, I picked up a copy of "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman.
The next day I walked around the "Old Town". It's apparently a World Heritage Site, and I can see why. It's ridiculously quaint, filled with winding roads shadowed by colorful 2-3 story buildings, old, ornate churches around every corner and people of all kinds bustling about. There were street vendors and shoeshine boys. Old men reading the paper and old ladies sitting in the park enjoying the morning sun. Police officers whistling to themselves and kids in uniform heading to school. I sat on a worn concrete bench in the Gran Plaza for a while, listening to the noise of the city. Old ladies crowing out offers for telephone cards and lottery tickets, the casual conversation of couples walking by holding hands, the bark of a police captain to his troops standing in formation. It was actually relaxing just to watch it all go by.
I ended up running into a herd of American Grayhairs in the streets just south of the San Francisco Monestary. They are an interesting breed - wide eyed and slow, sporting too-short khaki shorts, ridiculously bad hats, fanny packs and pulled up socks, usually led by a local guide spewing broken English commentary. As I passed by, a few of them commented on my height (shocker), and one asked where I was from. I said "the states", and was quickly pressed for more detail. To make a long story short, I ended up talking to an old guy about the struggles of the Washburn University (Topeka, KS) men's basketball team, and how their women's team is apparently ranked in the nation.
Weird. Small wor...
I ended up getting a taxi to take me up to a large hill in the center of town called 'El Panecillo' where a statue of 'La Virgen de Quito' overlooks the city. It was a bit of a chore, as my Spanish skills still suck, but I worked it out for him to drive me up there, wait for me while I took pictures, and then drive me back to the Mariscal. I was semi-to-fully proud of my effort. The drive up was one of the most smog-filled, eye-stinging rides I've ever been on. We were sitting in bumper to bumper traffic with huge blue and green buses boxing us in on all sides, spewing their dark diesel exhaust right into our windows. The driver didn't seem to mind too much.
The monument was enormous - a tribute to the Virgin Mary, but with wings. It was nearly impossible to get a good picture of from any angle simply due to its size and location on the hill. However, the view it offered of the city was tremendous.
The driver took me back down to the Mariscal where I walked for a good while on a main thoroughfare called "Av. Amazonas". I walked past a huge expanse of open grass and trees right in the middle of the city, reminding me loosely of Central Park in New York. I stopped in an internet café to check email, and to resume a chat via Gmail with a former co-worker and good friend of mine in Memphis, TN. As we signed off, I thought about how bizarre it was to be in Quito, chatting real-time with someone in Memphis. It was fun, like we were back in the same office again.
You know, it's a small w....
The next day I took a cab up to the "Telefériqo" - a Gondola system running from the base to the top of "Cruz Loma" a huge hill on the east side of the Pichincha volcano overlooking Quito. They've tried to turn the "base" of the gondola into an amusement park, but it's obviously struggling to attract visitors - lots of open spaces in the shopping areas, video games and amusement park rides operating without passengers... Anyway, as I was early, and only a few people were in line, I got a gondola car to myself. The ride to the top was spectacular. Quito revealed itself slowly - like opening a map - I could see the Museum near my hostel, the airport, the monument atop 'El Panecillo' where I was yesterday... everything. As I ascended, beautiful snow-covered peaks of mountains and volcanoes appeared in the distance. Cotopaxi is the nearest, and most impressive, dominating the eastern horizon.
The ride took about 5 minutes to the top. I was introduced to a couple large glassed-in structures containing another set of shops and restaraunts, again seemingly struggling to survive. However, the areas outside of the buildings provided simply amazing views of Quito and the surrounding areas. To the South and Southeast, you could see the Old Town and Cotopaxi in the distance. To the Southwest, beautiful green terraced farmland on the sides of rolling hills. To the west and northwest, more mountains, too jagged and vertical to tame for agriculture. To the North, northeast and immediate east, Quito in all it's sprawling splendor. I don't know how to explain it other than to have you imagine placing the entire city of Denver with all it's suburbs into the area where Dillon, Frisco and Breckenridge exist. It's really quite beautiful.
I walked as many of the paths as I could while at the top of the mountain, the main trail leading to a large open area offering a great view of the East with Quito in the foreground and two large snow-covered peaks in the background. I heard some English - American English at that - from a group of people to my left. I migrated that way in hopes of getting my picture in front of the scenery. There were three of them, a guy and his girlfriend in their 20's, and another gal slightly older than the other two. I sidled up to them and offered to take their group picture quid pro quo.
As we talked, I found out they were from Omaha, NE, in Quito for a few days for a Christian conference of some variety. I mentioned to them I too was originally from Nebraska, though from a very small town called Imperial in the Southwest corner. Now as anyone from Nebraska knows, roughly 70% of the state's population lives in the Omaha/Lincoln area, so I had low expectations of their recognition of my small town. Turns out Johnathan is originally from North Platte, a "city" about 60 miles northeast of Imperial. He then asked me if I knew Vanessa Franco, a friend of theirs in Omaha. I should imagine my eyes got fairly large. Strangely enough, Vanessa's brother and I were inseparable best friends from kindergarten through seventh grade. Johnathan reeled off a few more names like Alex and Sam McNair whom I knew as well. What are the odds? Truly, what are the odds of meeting these people who know people from a part of my past not thought about for 10-15 years?
Ok, Ok. It's a small world.
I stayed up on the mountain for a couple hours, finding it to offer some welcome solace and refuge from the city, and also a chance to reflect on the trip so far, and the journey yet to come. It's already been life-changing, and I've yet to hit the 1-month mark. I found a little corner of the mountain to just sit and think and pray for a bit. It was like breathing deeply for the first time in a while.
Now, a reality check. For those of you who are geographically challenged (as I was to a degree before this trip), the equator runs right through Ecuador, and is physically located just North of the city. Another little fact - Quito is one of the highest capitals in the world (La Paz, Bolivia claiming the title), and the mountain I'm on top of is around 4000 meters (12,000 feet) up. Of course, all this means the sun is closer to the Earth here than in, say, Kansas City. Now, as covered in previous entries, I'm a pretty white guy. Ok, pale. I have two colors, white and red. What I don't need is for the sun to be closer to me than it already is. And yes, I did realize this before I went up, and applied sunscreen liberally. However, THE SUN IS DAMN CLOSE! It didn't really matter. Even with SPF 30 applied a couple times, 2-2.5 hours up on that mountain is enough. I ended up with a pretty good sunburn on all exposed areas. Thankfully I was smart enough to wear long sleeves, long pants and shoes. My face though, is still peeling.
Speaking of the equator, I left the Telefériqo around 2:30 or so in hopes of figuring out a way to the monument at the "Mitad del Mundo" - the middle of the Earth. I ended up taking a bus back into the city, and through the course of an hour and a half and a few painful Spanish exchanges, I made it on a city bus with "Mitad del Mundo" on it's windshield.
Pulling out of the station though, we started going in the opposite direction I thought we should be going. It was somewhat disturbing, but I thought, I can always get off, and if all else fails, I can find a taxi. As long as I don't get robbed or stabbed first. We went into some side streets and picked up a bunch of people. We then hit the highway heading in a direction that felt much better. After about 45 minutes of stopping every so often to let people on and off we made it into another little suburb. Still unsure of where I was, I gained some confidence when I saw signs with the monument on them and an arrow pointing up.
We finally rounded a turn, and the money taker on the bus yelled "Monument Mitad del Mundo?" I raised my hand, and the bus screeched to a stop, people lurching forward into the seats in front of them. Tthe doors opened and I jumped out. I looked around and saw the monument in the distance to my left. I dodged a few buses and taxis as I crossed a big roundabout, and headed into the park. I paid my $2 entry fee and started exploring. There are a bunch of little shops and restraunts in the park, all offering pretty much the same set of knick-knacks and "hand-made" items that are strikingly similar to everyone elses "hand-made" stuff.
I finally made my way through them to the large open area containing the monument. It's huge - a 50-foot tall, fat stone obelisk with a large globe sitting on its side (equator running up and down) at the top. The tourist I am, I ended up taking a bunch of pictures, including the obligatory one in front of the yellow 00'00'00' sign perched over the top of the red line marking the definition of north and south.
Now, I'm sure many of you have heard that GPS measurements have actually placed the "real" equator about 600 feet north of the actual monument. I had no idea until a friend of mine told me this through an email a few weeks ago. He also mentioned the folks who owned this property have now set up a museum/tour of their own. Having this in the back of my mind, I set out to find the real one. I got some directions (kind of) from a loud, long-haired Canadian guy with a hand-held GPS unit, who'd heard the same story. I headed out of the "official" park and turned North. After a couple minutes, I saw a sign for the Inti Nan museum pointing left. I walked up a dirt road and found the "museum".
I paid my $3 entry fee, and was joined by a group of 6-8 more people for a short tour. Our guide was a cute little Ecuadoran girl named "Carolina" (pronounced Care-o-leen-ah). She had shoulder-length black hair, dark skin and was dressed in a red zip-up sweater, khaki shorts and a white hat. She spoke in very good but heavily accented English - it was actually fun to listen to. She first showed us an ancient sun dial, and explained the significance of the solstices and the shadows at the equator. Then she poured water into a rusty metal tub with a drain plug in the bottom of it. She placed it directly over the redline of the equator and took out the plug. The water didn't spin at all. It just poured out of the bottom - straight down into a bucket. She then moved the tub 6 feet to the north, refilled it, and pulled the plug again. The water started spinning counter clockwise (as it does in the Northern hemisphere -go flush your toilet if you don't believe me). She then moved the tub 6 feet to the South and repeated the process. The water spun clockwise. It was an eerie sensation. She performed more experiements, showing how due to magnetic fields (or something), you're stronger on either side of the equator than directly on it. She balanced an egg on a nail, and made us try to walk a straight line on the equator with our eyes closed - It's near impossible. It was a set of demonstrations and revalations that while simple, were completely humbling and unforgettable.
We then walked through some other areas, getting a feel for what it was like years and years ago, about how people hunted with blow guns, made some sort of traditional beverage with their spit and how the actual process of shrinking a head is accomplished. It was well worth the $3 admission fee, and much more entertaining than the official site.
The next day was Sunday, and I admittedly planned my activities around the Super Bowl. I´d found a good Irish-American bar called Murphy´s that was showing the game and having $1 beer specials. I migrated there around 5:30 or so, with kickoff being at 6:30. It was already packed with Americans, the majority of which seemed to be college students, or those freshly graduated and taking a year to explore the world. I sat at the bar with a good view of a TV just over the beer tap. It was a strange sensation - watching the most American of sports in a bar in the Southern Hemisphere with a room full of Americans. Only had we been watching NASCAR would it have been more bizzare. I talked for a long while to a cute pediatrician from New York named Susan who was in Ecuador on vacation. (Susan, I hope your Amazon trip went well). We and a very few others were cheering on the Colts - dismayed at the start of the game, then gaining hope as it went on.
It is a small world. It´s getting smaller every day. Tell you what, it´s a hell of a lot of fun to be out in it.