Ecuador: First Impressions
Updated: Dec 8, 2021
I write this...wait for it: YES, I write this direct from Ecuador! I am finally here!
The flights, three of them, that got me "here" by way of stops in San Francisco and Houston did not live up to my anxieties about missed connections and lost baggage...everything was just fine! The layover in Houston, however, did add a new anxiety into my travel pocket reserved for worrying about things that have not yet happened: while waiting in line to board the plane to Quito, a couple about my age were letting everyone know that the rules of getting into Ecuador had just changed and everyone needed to have a negative covid test in hand or your were going to find themselves rejected, refused, and turned back. To back up their claim, they pointed out that the nice fellow at the check-in desk had just called for anyone that did not have the words "Travel Ready" printed on their boarding pass were to come forward and report in. Uh-oh! No such words on my boarding pass, so I got in line and my pulse suddenly rose to 110 (so my Apple Watch dutifully warned me). Alas, the nice fellow at the check-in desk did give me a new ticket with the words "Travel Ready" on it once I produced both passport and vaccine card, with nothing said about needing a covid test. Yeah for team Kevin!
Once we got off the plane in Quito sometime after midnight, the same couple began spreading the same story as we waited in the very long snaking here and there immigration line. This time, they were claiming many people here were going to be very disappointed when they got turned back by immigration. Their claim seemed to have more uumph to it since there were young Ecuadoran ladies about half-way up the line asking people to turn in their government health forms that we had filled out on the plane. When I got to one of the ladies, she asked for my negative covid test. I showed her my vaccine card and passport and she said I had to have the test, too. Now my anxiety went through the roof along with my pulse and, presumably, my blood-pressure with them both. I argued with her and told her that we had never been informed of such a thing; she seemed annoyed by me and finally waved me through with the words, "But they might not let you in!" That was the worst thing in the world she could have said to me for the next half-hour as I curled my way through the snaking line, I saw many others with just those covid papers in hand. I had no idea what I was going to do if the Ecuadoran immigration people did, in fact, turn me back; how does that work? What about my luggage already on the carrousel spinning round and round longingly waiting for me to come same them from that particular luggage hell. Finally, it was my turn at the little window with a very official young lady in front of a big computer screen. I turned over my passport, she scanned it, asked how long I was going to be in the country and what I would be doing, all the standard immigration questions, then got her huge metal stamp in hand and let it fall onto my passport with the most happy "ka-ching" sound I've ever heard. She smiled and said simply, "Bienvenidos a Ecuador!" and with that waved me through to the luggage carrousel a hundred feet further on. "Oh dear Lord, Thank you! I am in!" Almost as good, the driver for the hotel van was waiting for me just outside Customs with a sign: "Kevin Code"...good enough, I'll be Kevin Code for a night!
On the brief ride to the hotel, a couple form Canada joined me and we had a great visit and by the time we had checked in and went to our rooms, we had become great friends...having just shared much of the same anxieties both in Houston and Quito. They were leaving early in the morning for a trek up a nearby volcano so we knew as we wished each other a good night...or a good morning (it was almost 2:00 am by then), we wouldn't see each other again.
I had just that night and part of the next day in that very fancy airport hotel, then hailed a taxi for the trip into the heart of the city where I had another hotel lined up for the next four nights. As we drove into town, I knew I was in Latin America again. The sights and sounds of this culture are familiar to me from trips to Guatemala and Mexico. The steep hillsides with small but colorful casitas clinging to them, the tienditas along the road, and the huge trucks rolling along as fast as they can in and out of the traffic. I'm back!
My little hotel on the Plaza Santo Domingo is a lovely place, but, sadly, because of covid, I'm presently the only guest. Alejandro and his family own and run the place, an old colonial-era home converted into a very comfortable yet simple hotel for ordinary travelers, certainly not jet-setters. Its called the Hotel Casa Montero and its entrance on the far side of the plaza would be easy to miss if you weren't paying attention. My taxi-driver did miss it, but I caught it just out of the side of my eye as we passed it by, so around several busy blocks he drove me to get us back to the front door. He had to park in a bus lane with a very large bus flashing its lights at us as he quickly unloaded my bags and I hauled them up to the door. Once inside, all was well...yet again.
This weekend is the city's annual fiesta so the streets around us here are very full of life with many musicians busking along them and as night falls, firecrackers and major attractions in every plaza. Tonight, I'll be treated from my hotel window to a light show on the façade of the Iglesia Santo Domingo. I walked around for a couple hours this morning and a couple more this afternoon, taking a break mid-way to rest back at the Casa Montero...the thin air of the 9,000' altitude does slow one down! In my morning walk, I hoped to get inside the Jesuit church just up the street, famous for its baroque styling...and the tons of gold-leaf adorning almost every square inch of its interior. It was still closed when I got there, so moved down the street a block and found another, much smaller church, El Sagrario, open and judging from the lit candles on the main altar, either having just had Mass or just about to have Mass. Since folks seemed to be staying in their pews, I figured I was just on time for my first liturgy in Ecuador. I was right. The priest came out of the sacristy with an assistant and began the prayer after complaining as loudly as possible about the disrespectful positioning of a rock-band just outside the doors. Well, it is the town fiesta, so I guess anything goes. If what was going on outside wasn't too respectful, what was going on inside struck me as eminently respectful. The folks in attendance were attentive, prayerful, and did their best to both listen and respond even with the rock-and-roll racket from outside filling the inside, too.
After Mass, I returned to the Jesuit church and, hooray, it was now open! I went in only to find a nice young man attending a table with a small computer and money box there. He told me if I want to go in, it'll cost me five bucks. (He didn't actually say, "five bucks"; he actually said, "cinco dolares"...same thing). I asked back, "Even just to pray?" He said, "prayer after five o'clock; now its a museum." I paid the five bucks and began to get my phone out of my pocket when the young fellow politely told me, "No fotos!" Five bucks and no photos...okay, but... It is a beautiful church and with all that gold everywhere one can easily understand how people four centuries ago would have found a place such as this to be the closest thing to heaven available to them on earth. A large painting graced one wall near the exit out to the street of a red-hot Lucifer handling the HR Department of hell. Many of those enduring everlasting horror in the fiery confines of that dread place even had particular sins attached to them: the naked guy flailing at the flames with the word avaricio hung on him was just one that looked particularly horrific. It was, I presume, intended to be a counter to anyone in that church so touched by gold everything that they might think even just for a moment that they should deserve a free ticket to that golden and godly place beyond the sky. That grotesque painting of hell surely made one take a second thought upon leaving the church and back into the streets of Quito, "How am I doin' with that avarice thing, anyway?"
Another notable thing about my walks today: in this country everyone follows the covid protocols. They are about the same as ours, but even out on the street, everyone is masked. No problem. And this is a country where over 90% of the population is already vaccinated. It gives me no joy to note that I am actually much safer here than at home when it comes to the pandemic. Go figure.
Finally, my stomach has been a little upset after all the anxiety in the airport, so I've been going light at the local restaurants, chicken soup and more chicken soup, but not the Campbell's version; this is the homemade stuff and it is very good. It goes well with the local beer, too. The altitude hasn't bothered me at all except when walking around; I don't have any stamina...just not enough oxygen in this air. I expect that will improve as the days go on.
In the next few days, my hotel-guy, Alejandro, will be taking me out for some sigh-seeing in nearby villages, maybe even to the actual equator ("Mitad del Mundo") where I can see if water swirls to the left on one side and to the right on the other. It'll be a help to him in hard times...he can use the money I'll pay him for the excursions to stay afloat with a mostly empty hotel on his hands. On Tuesday, December 7, I'll pack my bags back to the airport and fly down to Cuenca where my experience of Ecuador will continue! As always, thanks for joining me along the way!