Saturday, June 20th, 2009

We landed in Quito almost a week ago. The arrival was uneventful, if you exclude the chaos at baggage claim, with baggage spread all over the piddly claim area. After 20 minutes, including walking on a (stopped) conveyor belt, I got all the bags and we left. I had not had the thrill of walking on a conveyor belt in a long time!! The view upon stepping outside the airport building was like what one I´d see in India: huge billboards spread out over the entire width of the airport wall, people all over the place. Our van was not more than a 100 ft from the building, but I was panting like a dog in heat by the time I got into the van (rule no. 1: take it easy when you´re not acclimated to the 9300 ft altitude, and let someone else carry more of the baggage).

We are in a tourist-class hotel along with 11 other American volunteers. The volunteer team is a motley crew, from all parts of the USA, and also includes a woman who lives in Kuwait.

The hotel is more like a very big house, with very traditional indigenous decorations and fittings throughout. It also has a piano in the restaurant, so on some days, we get entertained by the guests. The staff is very friendly, and the one I have gotten to know well is a matronly black lady called Cherito. Cherito now lets me use the microwave in the hotel kitchen, to heat up my morning coffee. Unlike Rani (the Tamil lady we had in Madras during last year’s trip, whom I could understand), I have no clue what Cherito says to me. I think she still hasn´t figured out that I don´t speak Spanish that well, and don´t understand most of what she´s saying. In addition to the 13 volunteers, there is also a bunch of Mexicans here who work for Toyota. They all speak pretty good English, so needless to say, hanging out in the lobby in the evening is a lot of fun.

Our local host is a really ebullient Peruvian woman, who looks so Indian that I´d have believed her if she told me her name was Vijayalakshmi. As it turns out, her name is Edith (that´s EH-DEETH). Edith is a wonderful person, sensitive to all the people´s needs, and coordinates all aspects of our visit.

On Monday, we all got ready and boarded the bus to Calderon, 15 miles out of Quito. With its sliding, rattling windows, its jerky movements during gear shifts, and its belching diesel fumes, the bus reminded me of being in India. Calderon is a small town, not unlike Shiddlaghatta or any other small town in India. Access to the child care center where we volunteer requires going through a market selling all kinds of vegetables, meats, and some fruits I have never seen before. There are also a lot of stray dogs all over the place, so overall, that market is an odd blend of a market in India and one in Africa (the women carrying babies wrapped in cloth on their backs reminds me of Africa.)

The child-care center has children of all ages, from 6 months to 5 years. The first half of Monday was a bit of a challenge. As you can imagine, for a guy used to speaking Spanish only when ordering cold beer or hot coffee in Mexico, it was hard to tell the kids to sit down, not hit, stand, sit, eat, drink, cross hands, cross legs, etc.) With the help of a dictionary, the nanny in the room (and Sonali who´s thankfully in the same center as I), I have now gotten to the point of being able to speak enough of the language, to get the kids to do what I want. One really cute little girl, Carolina, corrects me when I mis-speak, so that helps as well. She has also started saying “OK”, which is really cute. Phew, speaking in Tamil to the kids in Madras last summer was so much easier.

Quito is a compact town, and once we got over the horrible altitude-induced headaches (rule no. 2: think like an elephant, and DRINK LOTS OF WATER from day 0), we got to explore the city in our free time. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. There are a lot of people here who can pass of as (Asian) Indians, so Sonali and I don´t stand out at all. On the first day we were in the mall, a man behind me overheard me struggling to order something at the cafe. After I´d ordered, he must have figured out I wasn´t fluent in Spanish, and asked me if I was from India. I said I was, whereupon he gave me a big pat on the back, and said that the Ecuadorean people respected Indians (at least that´s what I think he said.) What better welcome to this country!

Because of the altitude, the place is refreshingly free of mosquitoes and other critters, in spite of being very close to the equator. Night times require sweaters, and going to bed requires warm blankets (I think the receptionist at the hotel must have been amused when I landed up at the hotel and asked if the rooms had air conditioning.) The weather really is fickle, and when the guidebooks said that one could see warm, dry, wet and cold in one day, they were not kidding. Edith jokingly said that the Quito weather was like men: unpredictable. I was wondering whether the men had an opposite perspective,-)) Talking of sweaters, I noticed that the locals were pretty well-dressed, and I looked really bad in my sheepskin jacket, so I (finally) bought a sweater that I now wear out.

Some things in the city are ridiculously cheap: a cab ride across town costs $3, a vegetarian dinner at an Indian place for 3 people cost us $8, and petrol is $1.50 a gallon. On the other hand, alcohol is very expensive ($65 for a 750 ml bottle of JW Black Label whisky, $40 for a bottle of tequila that I wouldn´t even bother to look at in California, $25 for a bottle of wine from Chile, that happens to be just down the coast.) Thankfully, in order to avoid the problems due to altitude, I haven´t had a drop of alcohol since I landed here, so no loss on this front. Some of the Americans complained about the traffic, the bumpy roads and the uneven sidewalks. I told them that coming from India, this place looks so tame!!

We have now gotten used to this place and the routine now: daily briefings at breakfast, fresh juice from fruits I have never heard of, the trip in the rattling bus and the loud ¡Hola! from the wonderful children every morning. En-route, I look at the 18000 ft Pichincha volcano, which, relative to Quito´s altitude, looks like a large hill than a really high-up volcano. Since it was only 10 years ago that it erupted and spewed ash over the city, crippling it, I also pray to Pichincha, so he stays dormant, at least while I am still around here ,-)))

I can’t believe it has been almost a week since we landed up here. I feel so settled down that it feels like I have lived here for years. Why is it so? Is it the country, the lovely people, or just me? I suspect it´s the first two. But I know that once I land in Palo Alto, it will feel like I never left…how weird.

– as

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