First Stop in South America – Ecuador

My first stop was supposed to be Peru and I even arranged a one-week Spanish lesson in Arequipa. However, I missed my flight so I took a plane to Ecuador instead. That was the earliest flight I could get.

Ecuador, I’d say, was probably the hardest for me to travel around. I knew no Spanish, not even ‘hola’. The first Spanish word that I learnt was a very special but useful and crucial one and I learnt it on the plane. Got any idea? Here’s what it was: Salida. Everyone needs to know that if you are traveling on the plane, right? 😊

I booked a B&B for my first night in Ecuador. I decided if it was good, I’d extend my stay and I did.

On my first day when I arrived, it was very sunny in the morning but it was raining very hard starting from the afternoon. There are only two seasons in Ecuador: dry season and wet season. It happened that when I went there, it was their wet season. I didn’t really mind. I enjoyed the cool high-altitude air. In fact, I didn’t feel the high altitude unlike the time when I was in Tibet.

I didn’t do any research (I should have done some) on Quito or other cities in Ecuador because I only had Galápagos in mind. I didn’t even realise I could actually go to Amazon in Ecuador but because I didn’t take the anti-malaria pills prior to the trip, I’d skip it this time. You need to give yourself an excuse to revisit a place.

The hostel manager picked me up from the airport, helped me buy a phone card, tested my phone card and took me to the hostel. In the car, he explained to me quickly about the Sunday arrangement in the capital city of Ecuador, ‘to reduce pollution, our government makes Sunday morning a car-free morning in the city centre. Nobody is allowed to drive.’ That was a good idea but I didn’t know if the government was doing anything to improve the traffic situation. I should have asked him if there would be more public transport available at other times. Anyway, when we were on our way to the hostel, it was nearly afternoon. Some cars started to emerge.

There were still a few hours left before I could check in my room, the manager gave me another temporary room to rest for a while but as an INTP or ENTP, I didn’t rest. I bought a new phone (iPhone 4, my first smartphone) for this trip. I searched online to find more information about the area. I also chatted with the people at the hostel to get to know more about the city.

The sunny Sunday morning. View from my temporary room.

One thing that I usually do when I travel is visiting churches. I had plenty of time before I could check in my own room so I decided to visit the Basilica.

The Basilica
The Basilica
The Basilica
The interior of the Basilica
The Basilica
The facilities inside the church
Virgen de El Panecillo. According to Atlas Obscura, the statue is ‘the world’s tallest aluminum statue’ and ‘is also the world’s tallest image of a winged Virgin Mary.’ 
I walked past this building (Palacio Arzobispal) in the morning but there were people dancing at the entrance so I didn’t go in. When I went there again after visiting the church, the dancers were all gone.

I went in and found this lovely 2-storey building. I checked out every floor of this building. It was a joy just to walk up and down the stairs. (I may not find it a joy now with my knee problem.) Then I found this restaurant on the top floor. I didn’t understand the meaning of the name of the restaurant but I was attracted by their English menu so I sat down and ate there.

It turned out the name of the restaurant was based on a story of a monk who partied every night with the girls.

Every night when the monk went out to party, Jesus asked him, ‘until when?’ and every night, he answered, ‘until the return.’ So, who was this monk? What happened to him in the end? Check out another blog here.

I was told that the restaurants in La Rhonda would be opened at 7 or 8pm until midnight so I went there at around that time. 

It was getting dark but when I went under the bridge at La Rhonda, it was very bright because the entire street was lit up by the street lamps.

I walked through the cobblestone street and had a look at the restaurants on both sides. Not all of them were open.  After I had a look at all of them, I picked my choice – the first restaurant that I saw.  As I approached it, I took a look at the interior of the restaurant.  Ah!  Artistic décor!  And then I turned around and saw on the opposite side, there was actually another restaurant. I didn’t see it when I first came.  It was right beside a handicraft shop.  On the ground floor, there was a fountain.  When I looked up, there was a flight of stairs leading up to the restaurant. The décor looked very familiar. It looked like a restaurant I had been to somewhere… the teddy bear restaurant in Shanghai?  Or a restaurant in Hanoi?  Or the one in Prague? I really didn’t remember but I remember I was with someone. But who was that? 

Déjà vu. 

I wanted to go to the artistic place to eat but a voice told me to go upstairs to have a look at that restaurant so I did.

It was another nicely decorated restaurant in an old building. It seemed all the buildings here were very old including my hostel. Well, it’s called the Old Town so everything must be old.  The hostel manager told me the government was ‘renovating’ the old town to increase the value of the buildings and to get rid of the poor people who caused troubles in this area.  

So I went into the restaurant, sat down, ordered my food but the owner of the restaurant couldn’t understand ‘hot water’ in English. I wanted to show him my bottled water but as I was searching my bag, he said he would look for another customer who knew English to help me. Then came two girls, one blonde and another brunette. Deutscherin. Gut! They were very excited. I asked if I could join them. I guessed the voice I heard in my head when I was downstairs wanted me to meet them.

It turned out that the waiter couldn’t understand why I ordered hot water without lemons or anything. That’s really strange to them. I know. But hot water helps to cleans your intestines and hence, keeps you slim. That’s not how I keep myself slim but my stomach really likes hot water. Want me to share how I stay slim? Let me know in the comments. 😊

They were having a light meal with an Ecuadorian guy. They spoke very good Español.  They had been in Ecuador for 9 months (Really?) because they were volunteers. That was what I wanted to do (little did I know that I’d be a volunteer years later in Cambodia) so I asked them if I could go to see them work or maybe work for an hour or so the next day.  Decided. I would meet up with them tomorrow.

The Ecuadorian guy highly recommended me to try an Ecuadorian alcoholic drink Canelazo. It’s a hot alcoholic drink mixed with some fruit and cinnamon. He also offered me ‘Club’ beer and ‘Pilsener’ beer. That was very generous of them. 😊

Sunny in the morning on my second day in Quito

The hostel manager sold me the last spot of a Galápagos tour at a ‘last-minute’ price. It was really last minute because I’d fly there the day after tomorrow. After I got everything sorted, I headed south to visit the two German girls as promised. The programme that they joined was organised by the German government. I think it’s quite common for governments to arrange this kind of ‘overseas volunteering programmes’. They committed for 1 year. Before they came, they didn’t know each other at all. They met here in Ecuador. It was quite cool. Now that I have volunteered in Cambodia, in retrospect, it was quite cool for me to have met the French volunteer in Cambodia too. We had so much fun together.

Here’s the school that they volunteered at.
Look at these little kids! They looked so happy! 😊 One of them slept while he was eating. I couldn’t catch that cute moment on my camera though. It was very funny to watch.

The kids had their nap time after lunch and that was the time when the teachers and I had a cultural exchange. They asked me many questions about my culture. First of all, they asked me to sing in my language, then they asked me how to use chopsticks, and then they asked me to teach them some words in my language. Maybe they had never had a chance to speak to an Asian. Anyway, I really liked doing this kind of cultural exchange. In fact, I’d do some more after this trip.

When the day finished, the two volunteers took me further south. It was so different from the city centre. It was the Ecuador I expected.

The southern part of Quito
You can see Japanese manga regardless of where you are in the world.
The two volunteers treated me morocho (hot milk mixed with cinnamon and some fruit) and empanada

After this afternoon tea, we went back to the city centre where we split.

I ate at the artistic restaurant that I wanted to try last night.
It turned out the restaurant was really related to an artist called Guayasamin, an Ecuadorian painter and a sculptor, who was the brother of the owner’s father.

Before I started this South American trip, I contacted a few people from WCCM. While I was at the school, the coordinator of Ecuador WCCM called me and arranged to have lunch with me so we scheduled to meet the day before my Galápagos trip.

I worked out the pattern of the predictable weather at this time of the year in Ecuador – sunny in the morning, rainy in the afternoon so I decided to start walking around the city before having lunch with the coordinator from WCCM.

Quito
Quito
Quito
The churches are as grand as the ones in Europe.
Jaw-dropping. But I was looking up at the ceiling so my jaws didn’t drop. Phew! No, I don’t want them to drop. Thanks.
So intricate!
Another church. And I even attended mid-day mass.

I took many pictures of the church after the mass. The security guard came and followed me as I left as he needed to close the gate of the church. After I walked out of the church, he pointed at a sign ‘no photography’!  Oh, no! I apologized.

The coordinators of WCCM took me to a 5-star hotel for lunch! My goodness! I didn’t expect that! Oh no! Other than meditation, we also talked about the legal system and of course the food that they ordered. It was sooooooo delicious! I actually felt bad about it because I really didn’t want them to spend so much money. But they were so kind and generous.

They told me the history of this hotel. It used to be a house owned by a very wealthy family but they sold it recently and now, it’s a hotel. That was too luxurious for me.

Lunch at a luxurious hotel

‘Because the country lies at a relatively high altitude, the fruits grown in Ecuador taste slightly different from the ones you can have at lower altitude’, the WCCM coordinators explained.  

I joined a free tour at the Presidential Palace after the scrumptious lunch. Because it was quite late, there weren’t many people. The tour was in Spanish but fortunately, two of the people in the queue were tourists and they understood Spanish so they translated that into English for me. That was so kind of them. It turned out they were brother and sister and only the sister understood Spanish. The brother just relied on her. That was so funny.

One of the rooms at the palace

The president didn’t live in this palace. He lived somewhere else but the palace displayed all the gifts given to the president from other countries. (Years later, when I visited The Istana in Singapore, there was a room displaying all the gifts from other countries too). There was also a painting by Guayasamin in the palace. I am glad that I learnt about him last night.  All things were now connected.

After this, my plan was to go to the new town. But I changed my mind because of the rain and the voice I heard again. It said, ‘I am coming back to Quito after Galápagos anyway. I can wait.’  So, I headed back to the hostel, planning to have an early dinner and then pack my stuff.  

At least, that was my plan.

Having a curious soul, I found a shop on the lower ground floor at the same site as the café that I went to in La Ronda so I decided to check it out. I saw a woman working on something in the dark. At first, I thought she was weaving. She greeted me in Spanish. I tried to repeat what she said and of course that exposed the fact that I didn’t understand Spanish so she started speaking to me in English. She explained she was repairing a 300-year-old piano! (Did I hear it right?!) She showed me around the shop and introduced me to the teacher who was tuning an old piano.

The piano that the woman was working on.

The teacher introduced me to his students who had just finished their lesson and asked me if I could play any musical instruments. I could only play violin but I couldn’t find any of them there so I couldn’t jam with them (I couldn’t anyway even if there were. I wasn’t good enough.) Actually, the reason why I learnt to play a violin had a lot to do with traveling. Yes, you got it! If I had no money to continue to travel, I could just go busking. Violins are mobile and easy to carry. But after visiting a few places in Europe, I gave up the thought of being a busker. (This is so crazy. ‘What’s your dream?’ ‘I want to be a busker!’ 🤣 Just like what I said to my economics lecturer when I was at university, ‘I want to be a backpacker!’ I always have weird thoughts that not too many people can understand.) The buskers were too good. I think teaching English phonetics will be more doable for me or becoming a volunteer in an NGO where shelter and food are provided will also do. Don’t you want to be a millionaire? Yes. In fact, I had been a multi-millionaire a few times when I was travelling in Vietnam. Don’t get it? Check out their currency. You’ll then know. 😄

Fast forward to 2012 in the shop in La Ronda, Quito, Ecuador, I saw a guitar and asked if the student can play it. He picked it up, started strumming the strings and started playing Romance d’Amour. I nearly cried as I listened to it. It was so touching.

This is what happiness is all about.

You don’t need millions of dollars to be happy.

The me in Tibet in 2005 remains the same.  

11 – 13 November 2012

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