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From almost anywhere in Quito, the Pichincha volcano looms, reminding you that despite all the concrete, the earth is near. The volcano first slopes up gently, but then climbs quickly, forming a small peak that is often dusted with snow if you’re up early to see it before the clouds creep over . On the slopes north and south of the peak, you can see patches in varying shades of green, a reminder this is still an agricultural nation. Just across the ridge where the Swiss-built cable car line climbs the mountain, a jumble of antennas stand on another ridge, providing radio, tv, cellular, and internet service-if you’re lucky enough to have a line of site to the antenna but unfortunate enough to be somewhere they haven’t yet put in cable.
Cheap lunch shops offering sandwiches, chicken soup, pork chops, and other popular local staples abound in the streets. These are not restaurants, but simple places offering basic home cooking for Quito’s masses, who can’t afford more than $1 or $2 for a meal out. The same goes for “tiendas”, little shops selling bread, crackers, sodas, cigarettes, and other basic needs. Many wealthier Quiteños wouldn´t deign to visit these shops, but my cousin recently announced he goes all the time to one right next door to his house; the store is nestled between a candle factory and the lobby to a working class apartment building. The owner of this shop used to be a baker for the Ecuadorian Army, and makes first class bread.
On street corners everywhere, women dressed in bright reds, yellows, pinks and blues wearing bowler hats, part of the typical indigenous dress, display avocados, apricots, strawberries, tangerines, and other fruit brought in from the nearby countryside. Hauling baskets lined with plastic or newspaper, sellers also hawk “chochos con tostado”, a favorite street food consisting of lupini beans and toasted corn kernels, of a variety only found here in Ecuador. It’s served in little plastic bags with a tiny plastic pick, with spicy “aji” or chile sauce on top. You’ll find “fritada” or fried pork, served the same way, often with hominy and potatoes or tostado too. I recently spotted a man with a heard of goats, offering fresh goat milk straight from the udder, on the street corner. He was roaming right at the intersection where a middle class supermarket meets the popular open market, just the spot for his target market. Nonetheless, people offering “Porta, Movistar, Alegro” are replacing the snack food sellers that once populated the streets at traffic lights. These are the three main cellular carriers, and you can buy minutes just about anywhere traffic slows.
You can get your watch battery changed by a guy with a temporary lean-to built against someone’s wall or fence on the street corner, or your watch strap too. And he’ll probably be on his cellphone chatting it up with a friend somewhere.
Bookstores are few and far between. There are lots of offerings for textbooks, school notebooks, and paper supply, but few stock more than some basic titles and bestsellers. I recently visited one of the best known bookstores in Quito, located in the touristy Mariscal district, to get some books for my kids. Only a few shelves of children’s books were available, and none were of the simplified sort of non-fiction that is starting to interest my son. Lots of intellectual tomes in Spanish, good photography, design, and architecture books, but still of a limited selection. This bookstore has a wide selection of topics, but only a limited number of books in each selection, characterized mostly by the heavyweights of the topic. Grocery stores offer a limited number of publications and books, but are good for picking up the latest bestseller or society gossip rag printed on shiny paper with lots of photos, of which Latins seem to be so fond. HOLA, COSAS, VANIDADES.
Two main avenues run from North to South through a large swath of Quito. The city is a narrow strip no more than three miles east to west at any one part, but easily over twenty miles long, with about 1.5 million people. On Avenida 10 de Agosto, hundreds of stores, both small and large, sell every kind of auto part, ball bearing, industrial machinery, hardware, air conditioning equipment, and vehicle. Many of the shops have been around for decades and it shows; the exterior walls are often dirty, the display cases old, the glass scratched, the chrome worn. But they have stood the test of time and will probably continue to be there for many years to come.
Recently, I bought an Ecuadorian made high-powered gas stove at “Metalica Hermanos Lozada” on this very street. The shop is no more than a room full of kitchen stoves, blenders, and deep fryers. No marketing or advertising-it’s often easier to locate what you’re looking for by just driving around and seeing what’s available, rather than looking in the phonebook. Like most of the stores on this street, it has a large entrance, its only door a rolling steel shutter about 15 feet wide by 10 feet high. A sullen man who looked deeply bored gave me a quote the first time I came by. He turned friendly when I actually stopped in with cash in hand, and carried the stove a hundred yards down the street for me to the car.
At Quito’s north end it’s all industrial; textile factories, car assembly plants, moving and import/export companies, chemical factories, and motels-that is, of the Latin type. Motels are big business in Latin America, basically rendezvous spots where you can rent a room by the hour. You drive in through one entrance and pull into a small garage space, where a curtain is lowered to make your license plates less conspicuous. From there, you exit your car and enter a room, usually equipped with a dumb waiter for beverage and snack service. You make your exit through another entrance just down the block.
My wife and I, with the kids in back, were in just this area last week looking for a product for our chocolate business at one of the chemical companies in the area. The secretary had given us directions “just across from the Blue Seagull Motel.” We were lost until we asked a security guard its location. “Claro que sí,¨ he said in an enthusiastic, drawn out grin, as if he knew just what we were up to. I guess he didn´t notice the kids in the car. They didn´t have what we needed at the chemical factory, but we at least had a good laugh.