Day One: Exploring Quito

Today was WOW! Got up around 7:45 local time (which was rough after staying up till like 2:30 because Jayda and I were too stoked and antsy to sleep until then), and had breakfast here at the Radisson. It was actually pretty good for hotel food; they had a custom made omelette station, so I had a hearty omelette, some fruit, and café con leche (thank goodness). Stephanie told us to have a big breakfast in anticipation of the long day ahead of us.
We then had a long orientation in one of the meeting rooms at the hotel, covering everything from proper manners, to where to carry your money while out in the city, to how to reject advances by the opposite sex in bars. Essentially it was part one of the overall culture shock of being in a foreign country. Plus it was a good quick review of some of the basics, like polite ways of asking questions and ordering in restaurants and such (conditional plus imperfect subjunctive clauses anyone?).
Following our orientation, we walked down to the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Ecuador, the university where we’ll be taking our courses. It’s a straight shot down the Avenida 12 de octubre from our hotel, and I’m glad I have a general idea of where it is, so getting to school next week won’t be as difficult when we’ll be living with our host families.
After returning to the hotel, the twenty nine of us plus Stephanie and Gabriel got on our tour bus and headed down the Avenida Mariscal Sucre, the street which I learned later runs north south through Quito. We headed south towards the Centro Histórico (the Old Town), stopping first at the Basílica del Voto Nacional, a beautiful towering Gothic church on a hill just after the  city shifts noticeably from the New Town to the Old Town (the New Town is where we’re staying, in the northern part of the city with the more modern, urbanized buildings; the Old Town is just south of the New Town, consisting of colonial-age buildings and architecture and tight, cobblestone streets). The church had some beautiful stained glass and the ceiling, held up with ribbed vaults (if I’m recalling my Art History 100 class this year correctly), were ridiculously high. Something like 90% of the Ecuadorean population is Catholic, and our guides (guías) David and Carla stressed this along with the importance and significance of Quito’s churches.
We then moved onto the Plaza Grande, what Lonely Planet calls the “heart of the Old Town”. They aren’t kidding. As if I weren’t amazed enough with the 16th century colonial architecture as our tour bus took some precarious turns through the steep and narrow streets, the Plaza blew me away. I think that’s when it hit me. I am in Ecuador, a tiny but beautiful South American country with a rich culture and history. And Quito, Ecuador’s capital and second largest city, is only one of three incredible cities that I get to explore during this program.
We split into groups, and Carla was my guide through the Plaza, the Palacio del Gobierno, the Iglesia del Sagrario, and La Compañía, a 17th century Jesuit church. The tour was entirely in Spanish, and I’m proud to say I understood virtually everything she said. She was a really great guide; she was enthusiastic and gave us a lot of important historical information without overwhelming us. The Plaza was my favorite though; I can’t quite pinpoint what amazed me so much about it, but the whole time we walked through it and around it, in pleasant sunny weather with a gentle breeze, I was in awe. Definitely on the travel high, or whatever you want to call it.
We ended in the Centro at the Museo de la Ciudad, a sort of museum testimony to Quito’s history located in what used to be a hospital, where our tired and ravenous group spent some time walking through the exhibits. I didn’t absorb too much, mainly because I was pretty exhausted from our long day, but I did find the displays aesthetically pleasing. We were all pretty quiet when we got back on the bus to head over to our final destination, after passing briefly through another grand plaza, the Plaza San Francisco.
Probably one of the memorable moments of the day for me, besides all the incredible sights, happened as we were preparing to go inside the Palacio del Gobierno, the white government building on the west side of the Plaza along the main road, García Moreno.    A tiny little boy, literally as tall as my thigh, dressed in worn clothing and holding a wooden basket sort of thing, came up to a couple of us, asking if we wanted our shoes shined. I couldn’t really hear his squeaky voice, but Stephanie had mentioned during orientation that children will just come right up to you and insist on shining your shoes, because sometimes that’s the only way they can make some money. That was probably a culture shock moment. And I also just felt such a motherly affection for this little boy, who looked up at me with innocent eyes and in that instant literally melted my heart. Even though Carla was in the midst of telling us about the building, I think we were all in awe of this little boy. And there were others too, older women, teenage girls and little children walking up to tourists and offering them fabrics and scarves and other trinkets for a low price. My heart goes out to them. 40% of Ecuador’s population is below the poverty line, and it’s a harsh reality that those little children reminded me of.
Another random observation I made: whereas as I observed in Santorini, Greece, back in 2006, there are a lot of stray cats roaming around, in El Centro, there are a large number of dogs. One cute one even approached us later at the Panecillo, but that’s probably because we were munching on some wafer cookies Stephanie bought us to tide us over until we got back to the hotel.
As if the Plaza hadn’t blown me away enough, the Panecillo was outstanding. Essentially it’s a high but relatively small hill at the south of the Old Town with a giant statue of the La Virgen de Quito, the patron of the city. It’s an insanely huge statue, of the virgin standing atop a defeated snake, symbolizing Ecuadorean independence, if I remember correctly from David and Carla. And did I mention the views? El Panecillo provides breathtaking views of Quito, even in the fading light of a cloudy sunset. To the north, the direction towards which the statue faces, is the Centro Histórico and then further north the New Town. I could literally see the exact quebrada (a hill created by volcanic activity) that divides the two parts of the city, the top of which runs eastward like a smooth wave from the top of Pinchincha, the volcano (which is still active occasionally) bordering the west of the city. All along the top of the quebrada, and south of it, are  the colonial buildings and narrow stone streets, but just beyond the quebrada, on the northern side, are the taller, modernized buildings of the New Town. It was a truly fascinating sight.
But my awe didn’t stop there; the city continues to the south! Carla said the city stretches north to south approximately 47 kilometers, with the same hilly, uneven terrain and houses dotting the landscape. As David said, Quito by no means FLAT, and this was most obviously observable from this high point up on the Panecillo, especially from atop the statue that we climbed (ok, it was like four flights of stairs). But it was starting to get windy and chilly so we didn’t stay long. But my picture total for the day skyrocketed with these views.
Our now extremely exhausted group clambered back onto the bus and headed back to the hotel. Upon our return, probably around 6:15, we changed, then a group of us girls went out to dinner. Some people went to a bar grill thing, but Lauren and I asked the concierge if there was a nearby Ecuadorean restaurant, and she directed us to La Choza, which was conveniently two blocks away.
GREAT choice. The ambience was really nice, lower lighting and cute little traditional-looking tables and decorated walls. We all ordered appetizers, because the menu was a little pricier than what we could probably find in Quito. Man, did I choose well. I ordered the Variedad de Cebiche (we know it as ceviche, essentially raw fish marinated in lemon juice). I read earlier in my beloved Lonely Planet that ceviche is one of Ecuador’s most popular traditional dishes, and the sides that came with it are traditional as well.   It came with three types of ceviche: de camarón (shrimp, with onions and tomato/lemon juice marinade), de pescado (raw fish in lemon juice…not exactly sure what type of fish it was), and the third de corazones palmeras (hearts of palm? I guess they’re like artichoke hearts? Either way, with the lemon/tomato marinade, it was awesome). And the ceviches came with sides of popcorn, toasted corn kernels, and fried plantain chips, surprisingly perfect alongside the fishy ceviches. And THEN, we were all pleasantly surprised with the live entertainment, which appeared to be traditional Ecuadorean dance, on the small stage at the opposite end of the restaurant. It reminded me of the Ballet Folklórico that I saw in Mexico City. The girls wore gorgeous long skirts that they twirled and spun in. The dancers were energetic and even brought some of the diners onstage during one song! We had finished eating, and so one of the guys pulled Laura and Brooke onstage! It was so fun to watch. So for $11, I had killer ceviche and got to see live traditional entertainment. It was a great end to a wonderful day.
I just can’t get over how awesome this day was. Hence the long blog post…I hope it conveys to some extent how great my day was! Time for me to sleep though; another long day tomorrow.
Feliz en Quito, disfrutándolo todo,
Raya

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