Few cities have a setting to match that of Quito, which was second in height to La Paz, as a high altitude capital city. Sprawled into a hollow at the foot of the volcano Pichincha (at four thousand seven hundred and ninety four metres), it had been an Inca city. Charming old colonial centre, cobblestone streets dipping and winding into deep ravines.
There were the usual charming central plazas allowing the statued tributes to past heroes; bronzed houses for pigeons. People would gather there in droves, street sellers hawking, the ice cream sellers and the beggars. The ornately decorated churches, of which there were many, seemed a befitting backdrop to the snotty nosed boy without legs who was displaying his tin can to passers by. Catholicism was rife here as it was in most of South America. The boy, the church, it didn't sit right. Something amiss.
Almost as if cut in half with a big knife, we found the new part to the city. The oil dollars had spawned large hotels, modern shops and fashionable women doing all those things they'd seen on their last trip to Europe.
A small side trip to Otovalo was one that provided some special events. It was the biggest and best known market in Ecuador and a good time to buy all those woollen goodies, weavings, and jewelry. "Pressies for the rellies".
We were up early and, after the usual toast and tea breakfast, found our way to the market area. People were still setting up their stalls, so I found a place to sit and absorb the sun. Melt into the feeling of the market. Men and women doubled over by the weight of massive five foot square bundles of woollen goods would glide past without even a slide glance. The smell of roasted pork and other unknowns wafted through the air. Hammering and shouting as makeshift stalls were erected in readiness for yet another drove of tourists. The men in their brown ponchos and white hessian pants, the car-tyre sandals. The women with the black scarf tied around their heads, and hoards of golden beads around their necks, gave the whole area a nice rustic appeal.
I watched as a man sat amongst his piles of woven baskets. Totally absorbed, tweezers and small mirror in hand, picking individual hairs from his chin.
There were black people here too. They would waddle past carrying cane baskets full of bananas or oranges on their heads. A dog version of Bob Marley and the rasterfarian sect comes sniffing by. I'm sure that he's riddled with all sorts of nasties and shoo him away.
The sun further softens me. My late night before doesn't help either, as I drift off into an aimless stare towards the empty spaces of the market. It had been a great night with new found friend Phillepe, a Frenchman, at a small bar called a Peña, where they had a live band playing what I considered some of the most beautiful sounding instruments. All sorts of strange vertical flutes and pan-pipes, a really unique ten-stringed guitar like instrument that was played with characteristic fast hand-strumming movements. There was also a drum made of what looked like a hollowed out tree with the skin of a cow stretched over the top. Simple instruments, powerful music.
Changes were occurring. I found myself ordering a beer. I remember this pena as being the first time in my life that I had actively ordered a beer. It didn't take long for the alcohol and altitude to mix with my withered energies, and so at one a.m. Phillepe and I, full of good music, sung our way back to residential Santa Ana.
Back to the present, as my general glazed scan now becomes a fixed observation. A familiar shape captures my attention.
Brad is up and at it and already getting into the swing of things. I can see him together with Phillepe in the distance. I'm sure they haven't seen me. Brad's vowed to get into some real bargaining and hopes to score lots of prospective presents for friends and family back home. Already those familiar gestures used by all bargainers are being touted.
There is a full spectrum of buyers here today. They go from the very bottom of the money pit to those executives and rich who are on their annual two weeks' holiday. They don't really care to bargain. It's like a game, I think to myself. Because these Otovalan indians are some of the best organised marketeers in South America. I'm sure that eventually everyone is only playing to roles, real life theatre.
I guessed that, at their cost of living, they were always in a "win" situation. Sale prices would balance out. The loud talking American guy next to me who would pay whatever was asked, probably not even receiving the correct change, and still toting away with a bargain. Then there was the backpacker-class, people like me, who thought of bargaining as a lot of fun, an integral balance on the economic system, and becoming involved in the very fabric of it all.
There was a lot of waving of hands in the air, lots of half-hearted walking away from a stall, just waiting for the owner to call you back and make the next best offer. You had to be intuitive whether their outright refusal to go any lower was indeed the limit, or whether there were greater depths to be scraped. Of course, there were lashings of professionalism from both sides. If you were a serious bargainer, then wearing your oldest, dirtiest clothes and only carrying a few sucres (the Ecuadorian currency) in your wallet, were good tactics. Who couldn't believe you when you say it's your last hundred and sixty sucres (the exchange was about fifty eight sucres for one US dollar), and you open your wallet and, sure enough, there's just a hundred and fifty sucres in there. It was just a game and I was feeling happy enough to play. I was good at it.
Two finely woven shawls, three woven belts, four hats, two jumpers, two pairs of gloves and some earrings, all at what I considered the "going" price.
It meant that whatever games had been played on that day, that the end result was that they had the cash and I had too much to fit into my pack.
It's Sunday, 18 July and we're up at the crack of dawn for our bus ride back to Quito. A quick three hour trip.
From the bus terminal it's quite a haul back to our hotel. Laden down with the spoils of the market, the weight of possessions! We spot a poster advertising a bull fight scheduled to start in two hours time. With a spurt, flutter and snack, we find ourselves sitting inside the "Plaza de Toros", the bullfighting ring and ready to witness three hours of non-stop action. My first bullfight. Only days before I had seen my first, and last, cockfight.
We saw a matador beaten by the bull and five other bulls which weren't so lucky. A merciless sport which seemed to reflect glimpses of the chequered history, the character, of these Latin countries. The total dominance, the unfair ascendancy and a total underdog who people willed themselves to believe has some chance. There were many things to be read into the whole bullfight scenario, but the action allowed very little time for reflective thinking. By far the most creative moving matador of the day just happened to be matched with the most courageous bull.
We knew that he was going to be good when he opened his account on the bull by kneeling down, his cape in front of himself, directly in front of the gate. Just ten metres out from where the bull would come charging.
But all the style and punishment handed out by the picadors and the matador could not tarnish the strength and courage, that raw instinct to live, that was held within this large black snorter.
There was a classic touch of sad humour as the bull started to buckle at the knees and fall, the matador, turning his back on his rival, in complete defiance, to greet the waves of "Olés" from the crowd. And, as if to thwart death (or maybe he thought the crowd were cheering him) the bull would regain balance and make yet another bloodied charge at the matador.
I also felt for the matador. He had shown his own form of bravery and finesse, yet had been made to look quite foolish by the never-say-death attitude of the bull.
Back at our hotel and sitting in the attached restaurant. Backpackers of the world unite. Good food and a dozen intense conversations echoing around the room. Smells blend with rough whitewashed walls, decorated with fine weavings, candles casting sinister shadows on a multi-national gathering. The specialty of the house seems to lie betwen pizza and lasagne.
"Meeneraal Walter"; loudly, distinctly American. An old American man trying to order "agua mineral". The waiter is confused both by what is being asked and the distortion in his ear drums being caused by the overpowering volume at which its being asked. The question is slowed, segmented to "Men-wral-wal-ter". The waiter lost, dumfounded. People are laughing.
By now the whole room is aware of the proceedings, but no-one has stepped forth to help, so I lean over and clarify his request. Immediately, a cold bottle of mineral water appears, to which I'm thanked profusely. Genuinely.
Grady is seventy-two years of age, slightly excessive in his warmth (he insists to buy me dinner!), and is fulfilling a life-long dream. He'd been a furniture maker all his life and, upon his own admission, had never really left Minnesota all his life. But most of his life he'd had an ambition to, one day, travel to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. One day he'd said to his wife, "I'm going dear, it's time!"
And so here he was, not a word of Spanish to his "vocab", wallet pushed loosely into his gaping pockets, sure prey to pickpockets, and well into his second week of travelling. He produced a twenty-eight page letter he was writing to his wife and displayed its bulk on the table.
I had much preferred to spend the evening talking to someone else, but I could sense a very lonely old man. I wondered what I'd be like if I made it to seventy years old. I always had this mental picture of big baggy trousers held upward with braces, a bow tie of excessive colour and big black thick rimmed glasses. I'd go around pinching young lady's bottoms, then laugh in a high pitched slightly eccentric voice, saying, "Don't worry about me, I'm just an old man." I would love to sit around telling grandchildren endless stories of when I "crept the Amazon" or "fought off a thousand pirahnas with a toothpick". You know the scene, the child in hypnotized attention, total awe and belief.