We didn’t realize that we were arriving in Quito on May Day, or that May Day even mattered. In the U.S., at most it means children with baskets of flowers or a hippie Maypole dance. But, as it is in almost every other country in the world except the U.S., May Day is a big deal in Ecuador. It’s like Labor Day for us, only with a strongly political side—it celebrates not only laborers and the labor movement, but also brings out socialists and revolutionaries to make their case. Side note: Unlike in the U.S., it’s actually acceptable to be a socialist in Ecuador and many other countries. Socialism is not a political slur, but a mainstream political movement that argues for more economic equality and against rapacious capitalism.
So little did we know that when we walked into the historical district to see some tourist attractions on our first day here, we would find ourselves in the midst of a huge, loosely coordinated parade that massed in the Plaza Grande near government buildings and a cathedral (which was in the midst of its Sunday Mass). Horns bleated, groups chanted, bands drummed, and speeches blared. Photojournalists wearing khaki pocket vests carried huge telephoto lenses to snap images of the masses; television reporters set up live shots as the parade passed by; city, state, and national police squads wearing riot gear surrounded the edges of the square. I felt like I was in the midst of one of those movie scenes where anti-government demonstrations turn into revolutions, but in the end, all was peaceful, even celebratory. Families watched the parade pass by and sidewalk vendors sold comida chitarra (junk food). All the historical tourist attractions were closed, but we saw something completely unexpected instead: today’s city, alive.
The next day was Monday, a day when most museums are closed, so we decided to go to a renowned botanical garden on the grounds of a large park in the center of the city. To get there, we figured out the commuter bus—the city is narrow, so there are three and north-south buslines with their own traffic lanes and elevated stops, all running in parallel up the midline of the city. The trolley was packed, but with families, not commuters. When we got to the park—think Central Park or Golden Gate Park, with huge playgrounds, paddle boats, pony rides, bouncy houses, climbing walls, pickup soccer games, and countless cart vendors—it was jam-packed with families. That’s when it hit us—this Monday was Ecuador’s Labor Day holiday. In fact, their summer vacation from school was about to end. The next day was back-to-school day. On the Monday that we had chosen to go to the biggest family destination in the city, the kids were in the midst of celebrating their last day of summer vacation.
We are spending just three days in Quito now (and two more later in the month) as we launch into the last three weeks of our time in Ecuador. It’s not a lot for a visit to the country’s largest city (2.8 million residents), but we have prioritized other places until now. I’m not sure why: it’s beautiful, modern, and multi-faceted. Quito sits at just under 10,000 feet elevation and stretches through a long valley, surrounded by snowy volcanoes reaching up to 15,000 feet, plus a couple that scrape the sky at 20,000 feet. It’s one of the highest capitals in the world and the closest to the equator, so the altitude and the strength of the sun’s rays are both palpable features of the city. We are staying in the “centro historico” (historical center), where the architecture dates to the Spanish colonial period. It is set on steep hillsides with cobblestone streets and at least a dozen cathedrals and their accompanying plazas. (I read one account from the 1940s describing Quito as a city with 100 churches and one bathroom… I can say with assurance the latter has improved!).
After being at sea level for three months, we have definitely needed to adjust to the altitude—climbing the hill to our apartment has us huffing for breath—and the temperature—Layers! Long pants! Blankets! The city itself is also a brand-new experience in our time in Ecuador. Outside the historic district, it feels like a fast-moving, modern city with high-rise glass towers, a subway and commuter bus system, traffic jams, and multiple neighborhoods, some more upscale and well-off than others. We went to a mall (!) and got a fresh salad (!) and artesenal chocolate ice cream (!). We’ve been warned about crime but haven’t experienced it. There are high-end restaurants, street vendors, an international airport, dozens of museums, and an elite soccer team.
Looking ahead, we have planned two weeks of hiking in the northern sierras along the spine of the Andes, an area known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, then a week in the Amazonian region known as Cuyabena. (All without wifi—an adventure in Internet withdrawal for three weeks!) We expect that these areas will be unlike anything we’ve experienced before in Ecuador. Sure, we had some amazing hikes in the Andes south of here and dipped our toes in the Amazon region at Podocarpus National Park. But now we will be hiking beneath towering, snow-capped volcanoes, seeing glacial crater lakes, and feeling the highest altitudes we’ve ever experienced. Then—after a nine-hour bus ride that promises its own unique set of experiences—we’ll take a motorized canoe into the jungle and stay in an eco-lodge set in a landscape of howler monkeys, tropical birds, tarantulas, and (if we’re lucky) pink river dolphins.
It seems entirely fitting that we cap off our time in Ecuador by heading into the unknown (for us). That has been a defining feature of our time here—rather than settling into one place, as we had originally planned, we just kept exploring, aided by the incredible luxury of time. Never staying in one place more than five weeks, we have moved from the southern highlands to three different coastal towns, the islands of Galapagos, and the cloud forest of Mindo. We’ve learned at each stop along the way — about the country, the people, the culture, the language, the climate, and of course ourselves.
Most of the places we’ve been, the things we’ve done and are about to do, are the kinds of things tourists do. For good reason: they are remarkable, even unique experiences. While we may not be tourists exactly, we have accepted that, this year at least, we are definitely long-term travelers. In my mind, the difference between tourists and travelers is that tourists want to see a place. It’s a slice in time. Travelers want to see the place in the context of its people and culture. Travelers recognize that, when they visit a place, they are stepping into a parade that started long before we arrived and will continue long after we’ve left. Sometimes we just watch the parade; sometimes we join in, but we are at least aware of it.
We are not residents. We are not members of a community. We are not ex-pats (more on that distinction in a future post!). But through our travels, we really are trying to get a sense of what this country is all about. Part of that is seeing the places. We want to be sure that, before we leave here, we have seen all four regions of Ecuador—the sierra, the coast, Galapagos, and the Amazon—and if all goes well in the next three weeks, we’ll accomplish that. But we won’t really know these places, and we certainly won’t feel like we’ve become a part of them.
We’ve found that there’s some magic combination of time, the people we meet, the activities we engage in, and the size of the town that factor into feeling like we’re starting to be connected to a place. We feel it when we bump into people we know and have conversations with them. When we are beginning to understand the weather patterns and the best local foods. When we do an activity more than once. We have not felt it everywhere, and it’s not always the places we’ve stayed longest—although staying a month or so does help. But when we do feel it, we recognize it as the first signs of becoming part of a community. It feels good. And then, this year at least, we move on, because that’s what travelers do.
So, here we are again: leaving what we’ve grown accustomed to, entering mid-stream into the ongoing parade of life in a new place and trying to make sense of it. And that sense of newness, of excitement for what’s to come, now feels familiar.