Before coming to Ecuador in late August, I quit my job, ended a passionless relationship, and cashed out three garbage bags full of change I’d accumulated over the years. I had a vague plan of enrolling in a crash course in Spanish at the Universidad Católica, the same university my mom had attended many years before. When I arrived in Quito, my cousin Ana was waiting for me at the airport, and even after ten years apart, I instantly recognized her round eyes and giant smile as I exited baggage claim. She had graciously prepared a guest room for me, and on the ride back to her house, she gave me updates on our other relatives. I was especially interested in hearing about Aunt Belén, a writer herself who was dealing with lung cancer.
“She is in Montevideo,” was all that my cousin had to say about our aunt.
Like many of the houses in Quito, my cousin’s was built with an emphasis on security rather than aesthetics. The walls surrounding the property were topped with jagged glass from broken beer bottles, and except for the reinforced metal garage and front door, a solid brick wall formed the façade of the house. There were no windows on the ground floor, and iron bars covered all the windows on the upper levels. My room was adjacent to the garage on the first floor, and though I was welcome to ascend at any time to enter the main house, I often preferred to stay in my personal dungeon. On nights when there were rolling blackouts, there would be total darkness. The sound of the front door closing had the clamor of a jail cell slamming shut. Outside on the other side of my bedroom wall was where the neighbor’s dogs slept, and every morning, well before the roosters awoke, they would announce themselves with vicious barking.
Some days, when my cousin wasn’t home, I’d go out onto her second floor balcony and stare out over Quito. In the streets below, stooping old women with brown crackled skin drifted the streets selling corn or stalking the morning trash. If they looked up to me, I would turn my head skyward to avoid their pleading eyes. And I’d feel guilty. Every morning dark clouds climbed and peered over the surrounding mountains, but at some point in the day the equatorial sun would burn through and dissolve them. They fought a constant battle. At one moment you could be walking to lunch through icy mist and in the next you’d feel the sun rip off a layer of skin. It was a land of volatile seasons every day.
The city had changed noticeably even during the relatively short span of years that I had known it. Houses climbed the slopes of the surrounding mountains faster than paved roads could be built to get to them. Forests of buildings replaced the real trees that once covered the land. Each year the buildings expanded upward while formal roofs were rarely added. Rebar sprouted out from rooftops like flowerless bouquets until financing was secured to add another level. Expansion was always the plan but rarely the reality.
Taking the city bus to the university was certainly daunting because routes weren’t formally mapped; instead, they were vaguely listed as a series of street names on a piece of cardboard in the bus front window. Fortunately there was a bus stop a block away from my cousin’s house. Even better, it was the first stop of a two hour round trip through northern Quito so there wouldn’t be a competition for an open seat. One other passenger, a young woman in a business suit, boarded with me and sat in the back while I chose a seat in the front. The bus crawled up the hill where at the next block it gathered a few more passengers, mostly students, and at the next a few more. Designated bus stops marked the route but they were generally ignored in favor of the waving arm from the sidewalk. This might seem incredibly inefficient as the bus stopped every hundred meters or so, but there was so much traffic it couldn’t have gone much faster anyway. As we passed through the Machala district of Quito, an area my cousin warned turns violent at night, the seats filled quickly and the aisles began to crowd. It was like a pile of ants swarming around a spilled drop of lemonade. When it seemed there was no more space, people squeezed together and created it. I crouched in my seat under the sweaty armpit of a man using my headrest for balance. The mosh pit of people bounced off each other whenever the bus turned a corner. What was remarkable is that despite our proximity to one another, nobody spoke. A few sang quietly to themselves and students lucky enough to find a seat scrambled to finish their homework. But most of the passengers picked an arbitrary object and stared at it until they reached their stop. By the time we reached the financial district, we traded the suits for hawkers selling newspapers and mints.
As we reached Amazonas Avenue I recognized several landmarks from previous trips to Quito: the bullfighting ring; the pyramidal hotel where foreigners stayed and where the water pressure was uniquely sufficient to allow for waste paper to be flushed down the toilet instead of deposited in a smelly bin; Carolina Park where one could safely jog during the day or be mugged at night; and El Jardin Mall full of bagless shoppers more content to browse than buy. I had had an assortment of seatmates thus far—the short, dark man who didn’t know what to do with his hands and nervously rubbed them against his knees, a student of Level Two English, a mother with a small child on her lap.
My stop was near the end of the line where the bus would turn around to complete the route in reverse, but I wasn’t exactly sure which intersection. While I was glad not to have a swarm to maneuver through, I also felt panicked as the other passengers deserted me. Had I missed my stop? Worried I might be heading in a wayward direction, I got off too early and hurried down the street desperately searching for a familiar landmark. I turned corners, walked up hills, down hills, between buildings and buses, and over piles of dog manure left behind by the legions of stray dogs that roam the city. I reached a street corner adjacent to a park and scanned the city in all directions. On the sidewalk, a policewoman in a slick, brown uniform was helping pedestrians cross the busy road. I resolved to ask her for help. “Can you help me? I am very late, and I can’t find la Universidad Católica.”
She looked me over, head to toe, giggling spittle into her fist. She put a caring hand on my shoulder and spun me around. She pointed to the American flag waving in front of the US Embassy. “Go there.”
“Ok, gracias,” I said, frustrated that she had not only laughed at me but also wanted me to go back home to my country. With my shoulders slumped I walked towards the flag and the white compound that housed it. Wrapping around the exterior wall was a long line of Ecuadorians each carrying a manila folder with their documents inside. Dish satellites were jumbled together on the rooftop, and deep inside the compound U.S. diplomats were likely watching football highlights from the previous day. Too embarrassed to ask anyone for further instructions, I waited patiently in line. Across the street I noticed a couple of college-aged students pass by with backpacks laden with books. I stepped out of line and followed them with my eyes down the street until I saw the familiar pedestrian bridge over the busy avenue 12 de Octubre. I was close! With my backpack swaying recklessly side to side, I raced down the street past magazine booths, shoeshine boys, and vendors in brightly colored jumpsuits selling phone cards. Other pedestrians strolled down the sidewalk without any sympathy to my looming tardiness. In Quito the suffocating traffic congestion accompanied by a symphony of car horns creates an illusion of a frenetic pace, but nothing could be more distant from the truth. Quiteños amble through the city completely oblivious to time. Tardiness was the rule; punctuality the exception.
As I reached the steps leading to the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, I slowed a little when I noticed the other students weren’t in a hurry, but as soon as I reached the staircase of the foreign language building, I charged up the steps until I reached the third floor. I sidestepped down the hallway scanning the room numbers until I found my classroom. The door was open. I was ten minutes late. My future classmates were at their desks waiting patiently for the professor who had yet to arrive. We were all a little unsure of each other and of what language we should speak, so we sat in silence.
Twenty minutes after nine, the professor entered.