Sunday, February 15, 2015

gateways

I made the best of a long travel day, skipping the 3:30 am bus and sharing a car to Quito with Melissa. Buses in Ecuador are very cheap: Chugchilan to Latacunga to Quito costs $5 for five hours. But sometimes it's worth splurging, so you can stop at the perfect bend in the road, and enjoy pancakes and a last lovingly packed lunch with your name on it from BSI. 
We said goodbye to Iliniza Norte y Sur, the snow-capped mountains in the distance, as the car pulled away from the travelers at Black Sheep Inn and steep canyons of Quilotoa. 
Several hours later, we set off on a walking tour of Quito's colonial Centro Historico, which dates back 500 years, and was built on top of Inca ruins. Cynthia arrived in from San Francisco this morning, and we had a three-course menu del dia with heaping plates of roasted chicken or steak for $2 each. I even got a marrow bone, which tasted especially rich after four days of hearty vegetarian meals. 
Old Town Quito is filled with churches, many with magnificent stonework and interesting doors. 
Many Quito residents left town for the four-day weekend and Carnaval, while crowds of families strolled  on a warm Sunday afternoon. 
Modern art in the courtyard. If you know what this is, let me know. 

This regal convent honors San Francisco. In fact the city's original name is San Francisco de Quito. No wonder we felt at home. 
A service was going on, but we glimpsed the famous gold interior. Obscene to contemplate the Spanish filling churches with garish riches at the expense of indigenous people. But the handicrafts and artistry shine, every bit of roof ornately carved and painted. 
Happily Ecuador is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. Highways are newly paved. Education is now mandatory through 10th grade. 
Quito water is safe and high-quality, at least that's what the sign claims. Last month Ecuador spent millions on a Super Bowl ad. And the tourism slogan "Ama la vida" means "Love life."
These are public bathrooms. We weren't sure why they say "Sshh!" 
After a too-brief stop at a chocolate cafe (Ecuador produces most of the world's highest quality chocolate), Cynthia saw a woman with a giant industrial mixer whipping what looked like ice cream. It's a local treat known as espuma and had a texture somewhere between whipped cream and marshmallows. A squirt of strawberry jam and sprinkles adorn the top. We weren't completely sold on it—it isn't even cold. But the texture is intriguing. 

A young man wearing a top hat and a dress emerged from an open door. Curious I poked my head in and found the marvelous Casa de Arte, filled with street art. They weren't open, but I'll go back when I return to Quito. 
None of us had slept enough, and I had a flight to catch to Cuenca, so we headed back to San Blas, a little tired but in a good way. 

Travel is all about connections: the people you meet, the doors you open, the bridges you cross. I've written before about gateway cities, the moment I had in Bangkok airport when I realized I was only two hours from Kathmandu. Or the time I called my grandmother on a pay phone from a Greyhound station in Kamloops. They had a huge map of Canada on the wall, and I realized I was halfway to Lake Louise. 

I travel because those doors may open at any time, to a place you thought was beyond reach. But it won't happen unless you leave the safety of your sofa and walk out that door to the unknown. 

I can't promise what you'll find there. Only that you won't be alone. Ama la vida.