Friday, March 18, 2005

Quito Adios

Friday March 18, 2005, 46 miles (74 km) - Total so far: 823 miles (1,324 km)

Friends: It's nice to be winding down my hours in a foreign land without having to disrupt my spending habits by trying to ration or use up my remaining local currency before departure since its the same as back home, U.S. greenbacks. Ecuador does have its own coins, in denominations similar to ours up to one dollar, though that too is infiltrated by the occasional American penny, nickel, dime and quarter. Even after two weeks here I am still startled by the site of everyone in the market, buyers and sellers, holding clutches of American currency. It violates my conditioning of years of frequenting third-world countries. It doesn't compute. It's almost unsettling, as if I've slipped into another dimension.

Ecuador does epitomize the third world. There's no doubting you're in a third-world country when you encounter a pick-up truck, overloaded with rolls of toilet paper, slowly driving down the road with the driver holding a megaphone announcing three rolls for one dollar. You also know you're in a third-world country when you pay for something that costs one dollar with a five dollar bill and the owner has to go find change and doesn't return for fifteen minutes. I did bring one fifty dollar bill that I figured I would have to change at a bank. I was able to break it, however, at one of my four dollar hotels (another hallmark of a third-world country). The owner closely examined the 50, as he explained a favorite trick is to add a zero to the five dollar bill and pass it off as a 50, a problem most countries don't have, as the U.S. is about the only nation that doesn't have different colors for different bills.

In my meanderings about Quito the past two days I've tried to include as many parks and plazas and playgrounds as I could. When I'm marooned in a city, I find myself drawn to its open spaces, as I go through withdrawal of being out in the countryside. These open spaces usually have at least one monument to an historical figure, such as Simon Bolivar, and they are a welcome break from the torrid traffic. I'm further attracted to the parks and plazas and playgrounds, as watching a people at play, or at leisure, tells as much about them as anything. These open spaces in this overbuilt urban environment were predominantly inhabited by men. Some were sprawled on the grass playing cards, but the featured action in the biggest park was volleyball. It was a strictly male activity.

There were two games going on in courts separated by a walkway, both surrounded by spectators, packed together standing and sitting. On one court three-man teams were competing and on the other four-man teams. These games weren't simply recreational. There was money at stake. Before each game started, each team handed a wad of cash to a ref. These were adults in their 30s and 40s, wearing everyday dress, all in long pants. The temperature was 60 degrees, but one or two of the competitors had shed their shirts. None were tall enough to spike, but they covered the court like magicians and were quite adapt at placing their shots, especially just dropping the ball over the net. No one served overhand. There didn't seem to be any wagering among the spectators, nor cheers, just rapt attention. Volleyball, more than soccer, was the game of choice along the road, as well, throughout my travels here. Out in the rural areas there were girls at play in addition to the men. Pool tables were also a common site.

All goes well for me in these last two days. My bike box awaited me in the locked vestibule of the hotel I left it at, and the clerk wanted no storage fee. I was able to loosen my pedals with the small wrench I brought, so I didn't need to search out a bike shop to perform the operation. I still wanted to find a bike shop to buy some more of those Ecuadoran brake pads ("zapatas" they are called, as compared to "zapatos", the word for shoes) as well as some patches, which are usually a fraction of the cost of what they are back home, and something I can always use. So far I've needed two in the 800 plus miles of this trip. I thought I'd stumble upon a bike shop in my meanderings about Quito, but in my first 30 miles of exploration all I came upon were several outfitters advertising bike tours and several multi-purpose stores with bikes out front. None sold brake shoes or patches. They sent me off in the direction of a bike shop, but since I wasn't desperate, I made no determined effort to find one, and didn't. But finally, a first-rate shop, selling even clip-less pedals and helmets, turned up a couple miles north of the airport in the nicer part of Quito. I bought some 90 cent brake pads and 100 patches for $1.50, the only things I'll be declaring on my customs report tomorrow.

I opted for a hotel in the New Town, rather than the Old Town, as it was closer to the airport and had a greater choice of hotels and restaurants (ranging from Mexican to Indian) and travel agencies and outfitters and Internet cafes catering to the gringoes. It was a gringo ghetto akin to that of the Khao San area of Bangkok or Freak Street in Kathmandu, except there were no hoards of gringos. About the only place I encountered any was in the Internet cafes. They are significant enough that Lonely Planet lists them as one of the highlights of Quito, not the most flattering of descriptions, but not necessarily inaccurate. They are cheap, most wanting 80 cents for an hour, compared to two dollars at Banos. I actually found one for 60 cents an hour by accident, as it had no sign advertising its cheapness, unlike just about all the others that had 80 cents prominently displayed in their windows. I did a lot of catching up on the news there, learning, among other things, that Lance finished 140th in the prologue of the week-long Paris-Nice race, his first race of the year, and then after four stages dropped out. It is nothing to be alarmed about. There are still over 100 days before the start of The Tour.

It is most welcome to have a choice of restaurants. One of my main criteria in choosing a place to eat is that it doesn't have blaring music or a blaring television. It's not always easy to find. I had to settle for a Chinese restaurant last night. It had a TV, but it was in an adjoining room and not too loud. Still, I couldn't help but look up occasionally at the movie that was playing, the Michael Jordan animated feature with Bill Murray, followed by Kevin Kostner as Eliot Ness in the "Untouchables." They were stark reminders that I was heading home to Chicago. And from the kitchen I could hear Abba.

So another trip nears its conclusion. It was good to see Don Jaime's new domain and to have confirmed that he is the same ol' Jim, instigator and agitator. In Chicago he helped establish a thriving Critical Mass, spearheaded a movement to depave Lake Shore Drive and hosted poetry slams. Already here in Ecuador, he's becoming a community leader. He's writing letters to the editor and signing them, against the advice of locals, complaining about "fucking idiots" scorching the streets of Banos on dune buggies (cuadrones) and other ills. He's also trying to organize a weekend of art exhibits in Banos similar to Wicker Park's "Around the Coyote" and is negotiating to sponsor one of the town's soccer teams. It was nice to get in a little biking with him. It would have been nicer to have had more, but no matter how much there'd been, it wouldn't have been enough.

It was also good to acquaint myself with my new bike before subjecting it to a prolonged excursion, as I will this summer. I am already excited about another two weeks of movies at Cannes and trooping along with Lance and company around France for three weeks, and between the two getting in more than overnight visits with the friends I met up with in France last summer. I am also looking forward to the ease of camping in France, the variety of food, the late sunsets and the amiability and responsiveness of the locals, which weren't always a part of this experience. It was still a most satisfying adventure. Next time I return to these parts I hope I can entice Don Jaime to join me for a jaunt through Colombia, where the bicycle and those who ride it are celebrated as nowhere else I've been.

All for now, George

No comments: