I spent the better part of Christmas Day, and the next, traipsing around Quito, exploring the sites and sounds of a city whose airport ate my at-the-time-(spoiler alert!)-yet-to-be-utilized Osprey backpack.
Anyone who has had to make a last-minute Christmas Day jaunt to the grocery store for dinner ingredients, or a few cases of beer, knows how eerily wonderful a city can be during those precious hours. It is as though you have an entire city to yourself. You can drive as fast as you want. You don’t have to wear clothes. You can steal anything your heart desires. Because, hey: no one’s looking.
The area of Quito I stayed in, near La Pradera, far from the touristy areas, felt much the same, except I didn’t have a car to drive; I wore clothes because it was a bit chilly and rainy; and I didn’t steal anything, because I’m not inclined to explore the Ecuadorian legal system as an active participant. Virtually every store and restaurant were closed; a few cars passed by occasionally; and, the only significant noise came from the relatively empty Metrobus-Q, the city’s carotid artery of public transportation.
The Metro, even on Christmas Day, runs like a well-oiled machine. The equivalent of an aboveground subway, running mostly north and south, it has platform stations at regular intervals along the city’s main thoroughfares. For $0.25 (Ecuador is on the USD, so it makes life easy for a noob traveler of South America), you can access three different Metro lines, which, in turn, will lead you to another ubiquitous bus service, which I failed to utilize. (See infra.) And, like a regular subway, the doors to the Metro will close on you in a heartbeat – young, elderly, disabled, pretty, or ugly, the drivers do not discriminate; so step lively.
(Incidentally, Quito Metro, the municipal transportation authority, is in the process of constructing a 22-kilometer, 15-station, underground transportation system, the Metro de Quito. The system will transport an estimated 400,000 per day; and, if you believe the illustrations and descriptions on billboards above the areas where stations are being constructed, it will rival subway systems of any major modern city. Scheduled to be operational in July 2019, the project will cost approximately $2 billion. Compared to certain underground transportation projects in the States, that may seem like a bargain. However, considering the fact that $2 billion is a whopping ten percent of Ecuador’s GDP, investors obviously see a great deal of potential for the project.)
Determined to stop moping about my lost backpack (still looking at you, LATAM!), I took the advice of the Google Trips app, and decided to check out El Panecillo, a long-dormant volcano turned city park, featuring a towering monument of the Virgin Mary.
After my Airbnb hostess, Cecilia, provided me with instructions on how to use the Metro and which station to stop at to get to the park, I jumped on the bus, zipped through the city, and soon saw the statue of the Virgin Mary... as the bus passed it by and it disappeared out of site. I had missed my stop.
Realizing I was lost, I hopped off at the next station and asked a Metro security guard for directions, in my always-broken Spanish. Apparently having no need to visit the statue he looks at every day from afar, he asked the station’s ticket attendant which station I should head to, who then directed me back in the direction I’d come.
“Okay. Claro. Sí. Intiendo,” I said.
Obviously understanding that I most certainly did not understand, the attendant and security guard exchanged quick, knowing grins and went about their business.
Fortunately, I’d only missed the correct station by a couple of stops, and I soon hopped off at station El Marín. From there, I could clearly see the statue of the Virgin towering on the "hill" above, but I could not see any direct route up.
Again turning to a Metro security guard for directions, he instructed me to take the “autobus azul, allí.”
“Okay,” I thought to myself. “I see the blue buses across the street. I got this.”
I proceeded to cross the street, and a taxi driver promptly attempted to gain my business. I declined and walked a few feet further. There, blue bus, after blue bus, after blue bus stopped ever so briefly for passengers to embark and disembark, and then roared onward. Unlike the Metro, here there were absolutely no indicators as to which direction each bus was headed; and buses stopped on both sides, and in the middle, of the one-way street. I can only describe the blue bus system, at least in that particular location, as a live game of Frogger, wherein, I was the frog.
Defeated, I regressed the few meters back to the taxi driver, who obviously knew the gringo would never figure out what the hell was going on, and asked him how much a ride up the “hill” to the Panecillo would cost.
“Quatro o cinco, mas o menos,” he told me.
I knew from performing high-level, advance research, i.e., reading precisely one Lonely Planet article, that the cabs in Quito are metered (with the exception of rides to and from the airport, which are a set $25.00 pretty much anywhere within the city). So, I felt relatively at ease jumping in and accepting a cab ride that I knew would get me where I wanted to go.
Siete dollars later, we were about 20 vertical meters/80 feet from the top of the hill. I’d been had. The driver had under-quoted me by a whopping two or three dollars and we weren’t even to the top. What an outrage! I threw the money directly at the driver’s face, which I’m sure hurt, because they like using coined dollars in Ecuador; and yelled at him, “I’m never coming back to your terrible country – but, also, muchas gracias, Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año, amigo, y buen día,” then tucked and rolled out of the still-moving vehicle.
Constructed over the course of four years and completed March 28, 1975, the statue of Virgen del Panecillo, a.k.a., Virgen de Quito, stands at 41 meters/135 feet [author’s note: from now on, y’all are going to have to do your own metric-to-imperial conversation, because I’m already tired of Googling it – just multiple the number of meters by 3, sprinkle on few more meters for good measure and voilà!] tall, including the 11-meter base, making it taller than the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The Virgin stands watch over the northern half of Quito from atop Bosque de Panecillo, a city park that tops out at 3,000 meters, about 150 meters over the base elevation of the city.
Having climbed the equivalent of a few flights of stairs, from where my body stopped rolling out of the cab, to the top of the park, I gasped my way over to the base of the Virgin. I craned my neck upward, in awe. Hard to fully appreciate from below on the city’s floor, the statue’s height was truly remarkable. A few brave souls had even paid the small entry fee to climb the base of the statue from inside the structure.
As I turned from the Virgin to admire her view over the city, I felt… something. I was not positive what, at first. It started with a slight twinge of nerves, somewhere between my stomach and head. A moment later, a pounding pain hit my frontal lobe, accompanied by a spinning sensation. I sat down to try to think about what was going on, as well as to avoid toppling over like an arbol de pelirojo.
Then, I realized: I had been here before.
About nine months earlier, my then girlfriend and I landed in Bogotá for a 15-hour layover on our way to Buenos Aires. Arriving at 5:00 AM, we figured we had plenty of time get an Airbnb, clean up, nap, and see a few sites. After taking a two-hour coma, we arose, and took an Uber to the base of Monserrate, the 3,152-meter mountain that reigns over the city. About 30 meters along the paved, 2-hour walk up the mountain, we looked at each other. Completely winded, pale (more so than normal), and dizzy, we realized we had altitude sickness, and quickly retreated back to the 2,625-meter lowlands of the city below.
Back atop the Panecillo’s 3,000 meters, memories of Bogotá swam, slow and gelatinous, back into my head.
Now, if you’re a math whiz and taking notes, you may have ascertained that Quito's base altitude is a couple-hundred meters higher than Bogotá's. At 3,640 meters, La Paz, Bolivia, is the only capital city in the world higher than Ecuador's Quito.
Despite having spent a whole 24-hours in Quito prior to heading up the Panecillo, I had not quite acclimated to the altitude and lack of oxygen. However, the mere act of realizing I was suffering from a spell of altitude sickness (as opposed to food poisoning, giardiasis, and/or both) seemed to bring my head out of its haze.
I quickly chewed on the mixed nuts (insert “that’s what she said joke" here) I’d carried with me from my mom’s house in Fort Worth, bought a bottle of water, chugged it, and decided to set out for the city below.
In the distance, I could see a massive church, Bascilica del Voto Nacionál Quito, and decided it would be my next destination. I peered down into the city, trying to figure a way to walk in the general direction of the church, thinking if I could find my way there, I would be able to skip another cab ride and jump on the Metro, back to my Airbnb.
I convinced myself I could find my way, and began navigating my way down the long switchback walkways that ran through the neighborhoods below.
Always alert (if not a bit paranoid) being a six-foot ginger in a foreign country, I kept my head on a swivel as I made my way down toward the city, looking out for would-be bandits and stick-up men. I passed small, ramshackle homes; men and women hand-washing clothes in community washing basins; a group of sun-worn, middle-aged men sitting at the end of a small soccer field, enjoying the virtues of being very, very day drunk; and young couples lounging here and there, hand-in-hand, cheek-to-cheek.
After about 15 minutes, I reached the bottom of the hill, and, only a few blocks later, the middle of what turned out to be the city’s historical district.
In the Plaza Grande, hundreds of people lounged, soaking in the precious few moments of the day’s sun. (During December, Quito averages near-constant cloud cover.) Children ate helados, oblivious to the previously frozen, sticky deliciousness melting down their faces and hands. Musicians and other circo de la calle-types performed for tips. And, of course, dozens of young couples held hands and smooched. (PDA is definitely a thing in South America.)
I continued ambling northward through town, from whence I had come. The historic district behind me, I encountered a few smaller crowds in the numerous parks that I passed along the way, with nary an eye paying me any attention.
Before I knew it, I stood in front of my Airbnb, where I’d begun the day. Not only had I not been robbed at knifepoint, I had really, really enjoyed the 6.5-kilometer stroll. (Yes, of course, I went back and Googled how far I'd walked.)
The next day, December 26, the city returned to its routine, which, in theory, meant someone would actually be working at LATAM and might answer a telephone. With this in mind, I sprang out of bed at 4:00 AM, only to learn that Quito is much like Austin, in that 4:00 AM is still nighttime and no one is yet working. I tried, in vain, to force myself back to sleep. Around 7:00, I heard Cecilia moving about in the kitchen.
I eagerly asked if she would mind assisting me in contacting the airline, as my previous attempts through my US cell phone had been completely unsuccessful. She willingly assisted, dialing the Ecuadorian 800-number from her phone, which – get this – was a land line! It was a cordless phone, sure, but it still had a base that plugged into the wall. I gazed in awe.
Cecelia made a valiant attempt, but soon grew annoyed with LATAM’s cumbersome automated answering system.
She handed me the phone and told me there was an option to “marque dos” for English. I re-dialed the number, and quickly found myself also annoyed with the automated system.
“Please enter your claim number,” the recording instructed.
The piece of paper that the luggage attendant handed me 48 hours earlier didn’t have a claim number. Thnking myself clever, I entered my passport number instead.
“You have not entered the correct amount of numbers. Please enter your claim number,” the dastardly machine again directed.
“I don’t have a fuc—!” I caught myself a syllable short, as Cecelia sat next to me on the couch, watching expectantly.
A friend of mine has “breathe” tattooed on the top of her – if memory serves – left foot (in Elvish no less). She has no reason to know this, but when I catch myself about to scream and/or start shooting my Springfield Armory XD Sub Compact 9mm into traffic, I (sometimes) remember her tattoo, and remind myself to take a moment, calm down, and breathe (or respirar, when I’m in a Spanish speaking country).
I took a deep breath and steadied my brain. Then, I remembered: I have an extensive amount of training and professional experience navigating automated systems! Knowing then exactly how to fix the problem, I marque-d (don’t ever go around saying that, please) “0” this time, and waited for the operator to answer…
“Welcome to LATAM Airlines. Please enter your claim number.”
Skynet had won.
I became enraged and screamed, “DIE, YOU EVIL, NO GOOD, LIVER-LIPPED, SPAWN OF SATAN!” and launched Cecelia’s cordless phone out the living room window of her eighth-storey condo. We watched as it fell and smashed into a million little pieces on the street below.
Okay, I totally didn’t do that. Calm down (Mom).
I hung up, defeated… Then, the phone rang.
“What in the world?” I thought to myself. “Could LATAM actually be star-sixty-nining us, to help?”
“Ahlow?” Cecelia answered in a combination of “hola” and “hello.”
“¡¿Ahhh, como estas, amor!? ¡Feliz Navidad!” Cecelia exclaimed to not LATAM airlines.
She gave me a “sorry ‘boutcha” look, a shrug of her shoulders, and turned toward another room to have her conversation.
Then, she paused, turned back, told her friend on the phone to “espera, por favor,” and said something that I understood to mean, “Oh, BT-dubs, there’s a LATAM office two corners over. Maybe they can help you.”
My jaw dropped.
Forty-three seconds later, I’d flown down the eight flights of stairs and made the sprint up the very, very steep hill to what was, in fact, a LATAM office.
I entered and saw that there was a short line, with several, extremely-not-unattractive attendants, each with a different shade of devastatingly gorgeous mocha-toned skin, dressed in crisp, form-fitting skirts with equally impressive blouses, jet black hair pulled into smart, tight buns atop their heads, dark brown eyes…
Whoa. Hey. Sorry. What was I talking about?
The attendants were all helping other customers. About 10 excruciating minutes later, one of the extremely-not-unattractive attendants called me over.
Using my ever-gringo Spanish, I explained how my backpack had disappeared on Christmas Eve, likely stolen by one of Santa’s bad elves. She looked at me blankly.
“¿Tienes la papel?" she asked.
I handed her the “luggage discrepancy” paper.
She dialed a few numbers, put the phone on speaker, and began clicking away on her computer. The phone rang. And rang. And rang… and rang, and rang, and rang. I’m not even close to kidding. At least five minutes later, the attendant hung up and redialed: more of the same.
“¿Es normal?” I asked. ("Normal" is Spanish for "normal.")
“Sí,” she replied, not rudely, just indifferently.
What seemed like hours later, a voice finally answered. The voice and the attendant exchanged a few sentences; she clicked some more buttons on her computer; and then hung up. About 90 seconds had passed since the voice answered.
I looked at her, wondering what in the world had gone wrong.
“Señor E-bahns. Your maleta es here, in Quito.”
My sight tunneled to black, and I fainted.
Apparently, I fell and hit my head, because when I woke up, my head was cradled in the lap of one of the extremely-not-unattractive attendants; one held a cold compress to my forehead; another fed me delicious, frozen grapes; while the others fanned me with palm tree fronds.
Okay. Fine. None of that happened, except the attendant telling me my bag was, in fact, in Quito.
She then told me if I returned "a las dos," my bag would be there.
Three hours later, after wondering around and having enjoyed a tasty lunch of chicken, rice, and vegetables (for the smoking deal of $2.75, including a $0.25 tip), I returned to the LATAM office. My bag was there, as promised, unharmed, still wrapped in the unnecessary bungee cords I’d stolen out of my dad’s truck three days before.
The rest of the day passed, much to my relief, without event.
I woke up the morning of the 28th, wide-awake at 5:30 AM. Cecelia apparently heard me rustling about and met me in the kitchen. She asked where I was headed and I told her “Cotopaxi, y despues Guaytacama.”
We exchanged fair wells, and she wished me safe travels.
Finally ready, I loaded (all 108 pounds of) my backpack onto my shoulders, crammed myself into the elevator down to the first floor, exited, and promptly found myself locked in the small lobby of the building.
I failed to explain this earlier, but it took four keys to get into Cecelia’s condo: one for the door to her condo, one for the elevator, one to get in and out of the lobby, and one to get in and out of the gate at the front of the driveway. Prior to departing, I surrendered my keys to Cecelia, of course, with her explaining that she would watch me from her entry way window and would use her “clicker” (a traditional Spanish word for “clicker”) to open the front gate when I approached it. But, when I got into the lobby, the concierge was not yet on duty; the door up to the (very optional) stairs was locked, as was the elevator, now that I had exited it, as was the front door.
I looked around, in vain, for an escape route, but I was stuck. I would have to wait for someone to come along and let me out. I unloaded my pack and sat on the small bench near the front desk.
“Damn,” I thought. “I’m never going to get out of here.” [“And this story is never going to end,” you’re thinking.]
I glanced around the increasingly tiny, claustrophobic lobby, hoping for a condo bulletin, emergency evacuation route, or something else interesting to read. Then, my eyes locked on it: a buzzer that deactivated the front door lock. I sprang to my feet, wrestled my pack on, hit the buzzer and flew out the door, finally free.
I walked down the driveway, elated – nothing but the open road and adventure in view… But, as I approached the gate, nothing happened. I looked back up at the eighth-storey window of Cecelia’s apartment, but, alas, no one was there. I can only presume that I had taken so long to get out of the building that she figured I had jumped out of a back window (as opposed to getting locked in the lobby due to the fact that, you know, NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WAS A BUZZER).
After a few minutes of pondering whether I could heave my backpack (which now weighed approximately 172 pounts) over the stiletto points of the cast-iron gate and crawl over without permanently injuring my unborn children, luckily a car entered from outside. As I stood there in the mist, waiting for the gate to ever, ever, ever, so… slowly… open, the vehicle’s occupants and I just looked back and forth at each other. They could only presume – rightfully so – that I was a bearded, tobogganed thief, who had loaded up his satchel with stolen Christmas goods and found myself trapped.
Fortunately, they let me pass without questioning and I, finally (for real this time), made my way to the bus station in the cool, foggy morning haze.
Beyond the city sat Volcán Cotopaxi, hidden behind thick, gooey layers of clouds. Unseen, but not unknown, it beckoned me.
It was time to get out of town.
From Baños, with Love – and wishing you all Feliz Año Nuevo!