Monday, July 26, 2010

The Love and Culture Shock

There is a club in Downtown Quito that people like to call "exclusive". My friend and host here in Quito doesn't go there very often, but we went one Friday night with a group of her high school friends, preppy young people with knit sweaters and polo shirts, the latest i-pod and a repertoire of American music and travel experiences, perfect English and private school educations...the frat boys of South America.

I didn't know what exclusive meant until our group of 15 or so poured out from several cars onto the sidewalk before the club. There was a crowd of people but no line.

How do we get in? I wondered. We made our way to a metal gate where a stern-faced man dressed in a suit stood with a clipboard and earphones. It took me a few minutes to realize that people were only getting past that metal chain through invitation. Several walked right on through the moment they arrived, greeting the bouncers, not thinking twice of the crowd on the street corner that parted to make way for them. It took about a half hour of waiting and standing idle, made up in my dress and high heels, for every inch of my ánimo and pre-party glow to dissipate. Why would people want to wait for this? Why would people want to be a part of this? Fed up, I walked down the street and sat on a stoop, pouting.

My delicate American sensibilities of equality and democracy (however, hypothetical they may be) were in the process of being thoroughly offended. In the next hour, Paz's knit sweater friends succeeded repeatedly in coaxing me back to the crowd after my proclamations of taking a taxi home, walking across the street to another club or sleeping on the stairs of a neighboring building until the joint closed. They had to tell me more than twice to be quiet as I complained out loud in a host of languages about the absurdity of the club's policy, loud enough for all the bouncers to hear. "You don't understand," the friends told me, "this is how things are done here."

"They only let you in if they know you, if you look like you'll spend a lot of money," another person in the crowd told me.

My friend was one of the first few to get in: familiar, well-mannered, made up in a black lace cocktail dress. Her sister, a club regular, was already inside. While we were waiting, they were working hard inside, talking to the owners, trying to gain the entrance of the rest. Apparently they weren't the only ones attempting to pull strings. It was an hour and a half before the last of us were "invited" to come in. A few smart ones had already gone home or found a better club to go off to.

Apparently my defiance was also hypothetical. In the end, I did get into the club. I did end up dancing with my friends awash in the pop music blaring inside. I did end up drinking from their glasses and paying the 10 dollar entry fee. I even ended up enjoying myself.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Josue and the forest of bamboo

About twenty minutes down the dirt packed and potholed roads outside the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado, is a forest of bamboo. Paz took me one morning; we bumped along in her jeep past fields lush with plants I never knew existed, over valleys swallowed in fog, tall, skinny palm trees emerging to scrape the sky. She pulled up to a dirt yard with a colorful little row of (how do I say, the structures don't merit the word houses or apartments)...a colorful little row of domestic quarters. A pack of dogs rushed out from beneath a stilted house, barking. Two young boys stood on the stoop at the top of the stairs, watching us, while a woman sat squat at the bottom, washing containers in a metal tub. Roosters and chickens ran free in the yard.

"Is it okay to be here?" I asked Paz. A silly question, but I felt like a trespasser. Paz parked the jeep, said her greetings to the boys and the women who responded very amicably. We proceeded behind the structures.

By a smoldering pile of dirt and rotten bamboo leaves stood a little boy, Josue.
"Josue!" Paz's greeting was surprised. She asked how his operation went, told him how handsome he looked, asked him if he would like to join us on our walk in the bamboo. Josue smiled wide. He had stayed with Paz's family at their hacienda after his cleft-pallete operation three months previous. It was the last in a serious of operations. His was a particularly tricky case, one that was so unappealing to the eyes of strangers that it kept him from school. He was eleven now, and learning mathematics, reading, writing...

I followed the two of them into the forest and its cool quiet and diffused light. The bamboo grew in bunches far over our heads - like tall trees with a dozen hollow trunks. A light rain fell, cutting through the canopy, echoing on the hollow trunks, falling on our bare skin and the earthen red carpet of decaying leaves. It was a sanctuary for contemplation.

We asked Josue to guide us and to keep us safe from the snakes. When the drizzle turned to deluge, we sought refuge under the awning of his family's quarters. We watched through the glassless window as he swung his baby sister in her hammock. We watched his mother perform her outside chores: pour buckets of rain water on the narrow concrete porch lining their complex, sweep the water out of earthen gutters with a broom, rinse out her son's boots. Her white dress was soaked to the skin, exposing her bra-less upper body. She wore thin plastic flip flops, nearly barefoot.

From the bamboo forest we drove another ten minutes to a one-way bridge overlooking a cascade of falls and rapids and a gorge of swirling water some 25 meters below our feet. The point, located at the convergence of two branches of a river, was called El Salto del Tigre. A few meters up the road, in a tangle of branches, vines, and tropical bushes we found two paths leading to a still lagoon amidst the falls. I followed Paz and Josué down the steep, muddy paths, over slippery boulders, grasping fallen trunks and tangled roots covered in velvet coats of moss.

The quiet pool between the cascades reminded me of something I had dreamt before. Tall vines hung down from the forest canopy, skimming the surface of the water. An island of river-polished boulders and stones stretched out into the lagoon. An ever-present hum of falling water and bird calls filled the air. A blue morpho butterfly floated by. We left our clothes and cameras on the rocks and slipped into the water, cold and fresh. Submerged, the water was a natural, transparent green and had a mineral richness that felt soft and nourishing to the skin.

At first, Josue entered the water with trepidation, claiming that he did not know how to swim. Ten minutes later, he was jumping off the rocks, belly first, and doggy paddling around gasping for air with a wide smile fixed upon his face. He was hesitant when we said it was time to leave and had to jump and paddle at least more than one "una vez más".

La Liebre: Live Jazz

After a week in Quito, Maria Paz, my friend and host, asked me what was the thing I liked most about her city. I told her I had yet to would be the people, I supposed, the beautiful moments hidden in everyday life. I was still a tourist, my domain was still old churches, landmarks, breathtaking but inanimate views of mountains and valleys, pictures with stories that were not my own.

I met Paz's circle of friends later that afternoon. We shared wine at a local video rental store turned Jazz bar. Since most of the conversation was over my head, I sat there, soaking up the atmosphere and watching the musicians. I don't think I've ever listened to Jazz live before...and as I studied the faces of the musicians, the furrowed eyebrows of the guitarist, the wide-eyed concentration of the drummer, the surprising twists and turns the music took, I realized: Jazz is to watch at the very moment of invention.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Accident: One Casualty

Horror is 9 a.m. on a sunny morning, highway view of the city, raging traffic, full of motion and promise. Horror is a toppled motorcycle bent backwards beneath an underpass, a body thrown against the concrete wall, blood streaming from beneath a hastily placed tarp. I couldn't help looking - Why did I look? As traffic continued, frenetic as before, aggressive as before, bumper-to-bumper as before...I could not.

Seseribó: El Hogar de la Salsa

After attending an opera at the Sucre theatre on Friday night, Paz and I drove out to Seseribó, a salsa club on Calle 12 de Octubre and Veintimilla, known as the "Hogar de la Salsa" in Quito. A live band from Esmeraldas was playing, a group of sixteen or so men of various ages, the Chigualeros.

The club was crowded, an underground labyrinth of open-walled rooms with low ceilings, dim lights and large oil paintings of warm sumptuous tones and warm sumptuous people. The entry rooms were for tables and drinking, open floors and dancing. Beyond these dark rooms was a longer, brighter hall with a low stage where the band played. Here, the music took precedence. A few couples moved together in the midst of the crowd but the rest moved by themselves - a natural response to the energy that came from the mouths and fingertips of the six men, their unfaltering rhythm, their delicious harmony...It was as if the only way to listen to this kind of music was with the entire body, in movement, in a communion of rhythm.

As the group began to play, I had the sensation that one of my dad's old fania records was coming to life - and I was there to dance to it.

Playing Tourist in Downtown Quito


LA IGLESIA DE LA COMPANÍA, La calle de las siete cruces. It was prohibited to photograph the interior of this church, which was literally, as my friend described it, "una joya de Quito" (a treasure of Quito). Baroque decoration covered every inch of the interior walls and ceilings, arabesque designs (mudéjar) climbed up the pillars - All of it was coated in gold.

View from LA VISTA HERMOSA restaurant, Quito

View from LA VISTA HERMOSA restaurant, Quito

Footman, HOTEL PLAZA GRANDE. As we toured Quito's main plaza we got stuck in the rain. We sought relief in the café of the Hotel Plaza Grande along with maté tea, coffee and rosero (a popular Quito drink of diced fruit and choclo, a type of corn). I thought I had a headache from lack of caffeine, but the coffee I ordered did not help. It was the altitude. Quito stands, the second highest administrative capital city in the world, over 9,000 ft.

Quito: Arrival

I woke up at 3 a.m. in New York City and went to bed at 2 a.m. (3 a.m. EST) in Quito. I had breakfast over the vast gray ocean somewhere between Manhattan Island and Panama City, lunch somewhere between Panama and Medellín, afternoon coffee somewhere over the coast of Ecuador, and dinner in Quito at the dining room table with my friend María Paz, her mother, her sisters and her sister's cousins (Thank goodness airlines in Latin America still serve meals). I had after dinner drinks in the city with Paz and one of her good friends who had just had her car stolen - the second car in two weeks.

Before drinks, we made a stop by the police station to report the stolen car. As we stood in the chilly air of the street corner I listened to my educated friends discuss poverty and violence and the difference between the two. They hypothesized over "transition periods" and the strange increase in violent acts and petty crimes in the city over the past several months.

"Poverty is my purse that was stolen last week," concluded Paz. "Violence is the stolen car."

I asked my friends what usually happens with stolen cars - they are usually not found by authorities but transported over the border into Peru or Colombia. Reporting them is little more than a process.

It is cold in Quito, colder than I expected. I could see my breath as Paz picked me up from the airport. It was 6p.m. and night was already descending over the mountains, darkening the overcast skies and low-hanging wisps of clouds. I saw the same rain in Quito as I saw in Medellín, in Panama, in the hills of New York's Southern Tier...