Quito: the first 48 hours

In a rain-washed city just south of the equator, sparks rise and raindrops fall, from budding skyscrapers and streets that steam in the mist. This is Quito: urgent, curious, frustrated. Construction is incessant. Traffic buzzes and hums: buses speed through humdrum life. People chatter and argue, and everywhere direct their looks and words at me: hola, gringa, muy buenas, chica. On street corners and roundabouts people hunch, frustrated, under umbrellas or in shacks. Their long faces mirror the city’s profile on a map: hemmed in to the east and west by 11 of the country’s 30 volcanoes.

It’s 2800m above sea level, but the streets rise like the sea, in drunken waves, capped by frothing, foamy cloud. Traffic sprays you with puddles as you pass. Occasionally, you’ll reach the peak of the waves and stare around you, out of breath as you see the heaving mass of the city – and then you plunge back into another trough of dark avenues.

The steepness of Quito

I expected Quito to be colourful. It is, and it isn’t. Pale clouds queue to pass each other between grey skyscrapers. The lower terraces of Guagua Pichincha, the local volcano, are ochre and brown, fringed with silhouettes of black trees. The palette is from recent forest fires, that burned the local hills down and eagerly licked the trees clean of leaves. Luckily they were extinguished. Two days ago, the rain came – and how it came! At 2 o’clock each afternoon, the passing clouds accumulate and the faucet to the sky twists open. I sat in a loud meeting at the university today. We all raised our voices, ignoring the tantrum of rain on the roof. Outside the window, whole buildings dissolved in the mist.

So, no, Quito isn’t a riot of colour. The city is painted in small daubs: flowers, language, and people.

The avenues are crowded by flowers. Hibiscus, pink and blood red. Pale yellow trumpet flowers, a foot long. Candles of golden wax appear as votive offerings on greenly trimmed trees. Violent purples and moody blues. Alliums in mauve, their shattered globes larger than my head.

Flamboyant colour in roadside plots.

And the people: all shades, all stages of life.

First, the businessmen. Out of offices on Avenida 12 de Octubre they step, with comically large Bluetooth headsets, yapping into their phones and snapping up the sidewalks. Pale and pressed in grey suits. Down the sidewalk, a world away, squat the vendors: dark, short, and round. The men are burly, the women squat, and all have curious faces tanned and wrinkled like boot leather. Most tell me they’re from Quito, and they tend to have a uniform. The woman sport narrow ebony plaits and wail their food prices, sad and shrill, like tattered birds of paradise in old black cardigans with bright shirt-feathers, pink and red, bunching through the neck. In comparison, those from the farms outside of the city wear a different costume: wildly embroidered shawls, dark trilbys. Where I work, you can find another tribe: the students. They are split into two teams. The late teens, who look haughty, and the older students, who look anxious. Apparently it’s not uncommon to finish your degree only in your late twenties.

Despite their differences, these tribes all speak a common language. Spanish here is fluid, bright and quick. It isn’t dissimilar from the Spanish spoken in Spain, but it’s peppered and salted with words from Quechua and other indigenous languages. I’d love to share the vibrant slang they use here – but that’s for another blog post!

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