Landing in Quito, Ecuador
Maybe there was a part of me that was on autopilot. Not only was I numb to the fear of such a foreign place, but it hadn’t yet hit me that I wasn’t going to university next year like all my friends. No, I was doing something better, I was going on an adventure; the world was Peter Pan and I was Wendy. I was still just a teenager floating around, apathetic. I still surprise myself at how quickly I adjusted to life in Ecuador, how normal it became. Yet, I had just entered a country that would later feel like a prison to me.
I remember the first thing that freaked me out. It was the middle of the night when our plane touched down on the runway at the airport in Quito, Ecuador. As we were landing I looked out the window and saw houses right next to the runway. Not only that, but they all went upward towards the sky. They were stacked on top of each other with light coming out of the windows that made them look like a UFO hovering in the air.
After handing my passport to a customs official with the mustache of Saddam Hussein and the smile of Vladimir Putin, I walked into the baggage claim area. Everything was brown and clearly this place had not been updated since the 1970’s. I waited in line at a small podium to get a luggage cart, but where was the woman behind it? She was out retrieving them from all over the airport to give us for 1$ each. This airport in Ecuador clearly didn’t depend on technology to get them through the day and would still continue to function in spite of an impending apocalypse.
I begrudgingly grabbed my suitcase from a pile in the corner. Apparently suitcases had to be moved quickly since there were so many flights and only 2 carousels. With my parents, I walked through the doors towards the arrivals area. On the left, hundreds of people were all lined up waiting for their loved ones and to the right were dozens of men sticking their heads out of various windows offering every type of taxi and tour service. They yelled at us, desperately trying to get our attention like paparazzi.
It was loud and chaotic, much like Ecuador itself, and everything was moving quickly around me. In a movie, this would be the scene where the room is spinning around me and I look on with a bewildered expression on my face, except I didn’t have that lovely Hollywood editing. Where was Colin Firth to welcome me?
White People are a Hot Commodity
I heard loud voices meshing together with the intensity and sound of an oncoming freight train. We walked outside to a row of white vans that gave no indication as to what they were for. I looked at my parents and saw them both frantically looking around with wide eyes. It’s never comforting to see that, even after you’ve grown up and realized your parents don’t actually have their shit together any more than you do.
Three men came up to us all yelling, “taxi, taxi!” Clearly white people where a hot commodity here. In South America it’s assumed that we all have fat wallets and make it rain wherever we go. We put our suitcases in the back of one of the white vans, (don’t they tell children to stay away from those?) and slowly and loudly told the driver “Hotel Quito” like we were the kind of assholes who talk to immigrants in the U.S. like they are idiots. As in, “Welcome to our country!”
We took off at warp speed, driving up winding hills that were so foggy you couldn’t see the city below. I was relieved when we finally arrived to our hotel, which was thankfully fairly Western looking. However, the actual rooms were very basic and my mom almost had a nervous breakdown when she realized there was no coffee pot in the room, and no Starbucks in the entire country of Ecuador. I believe this was the epiphany it took for her to realize we were no longer in the states.
I knew so little about South America or traveling in general, that it never occurred to me they wouldn’t have all my favorite foods like pop tarts and Wonka candy; had I known this I would have stocked up. In the years to come, I would frequently stock up on my favorite American candy whenever we visited the U.S. I even had 9 boxes of my candy stolen from my suitcase from baggage handlers when they used a pen to put a hole through the material in the pocket. They didn’t even steal my jewelry!
On our first day in Quito I got a map from the front desk and we made our way down to an area called “Guapalo” where my dad had seen an apartment online before we left the U.S. The place was 500$ a month (now that I look back on this I realize we were being conned big time. Places like this I learned, normally went for about 100$ a month.) The directions down there were laughable. There were no numbers or street signs, just directions like “take a right at the red house.” Was I supposed to know the difference between 3 houses, all in differing shades of maroon?
When we finally found the apartment, an old woman took us down some very steep stairs leading to the edge of a ledge. The apartment was built so it was attached to the side of the mountain. It was very long with a couple of bedrooms and a basic kitchen, however living there would have felt more like camping. “Rustic” would have been the most polite term for it.
We left immediately, and consulted a realtor who then took us to the most expensive area of the city. We rented an apartment there and ended up staying for exactly two months before we found a place that was actually at a standard rental price for the country.
So, after handing envelopes of cash literally under the table (seriously, they actually stick their hand under the table to collect it) to the corrupt government officials who would give us our visas, we were settled in for the moment.