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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Getting around in Quito: watch your step

There's a sign up the front of the bus telling you where it will go but if you're a traveller you just ask someone which one to get on. Once on-board I went to the front of the bus and told the spruiker where I wanted to go - about two kilometres down one of the city's main avenues - and paid my 25 cents (in Ecuador they use US currency) then found a place to stand and hung on. You need to hang on because the driver accelerates at a furious pace all the time: it's a binary situation, either full bore or stopping dead.

A young woman tells me where to get off the bus and I descend to the pavement then walk back to the street crossing. It's another main thoroughfare and as usual the pedestrian signals aren't working. There's a traffic cop there directing the cars and I go to the middle of the road to wait. Finally I get across and walk down the cracked pavement to where I'm heading. Side streets are packed with cars that inch up to the main road and rev their engines as they wait for a chance to enter the flow; watch your step when you cross these small streets, they have no signals.

Quito is challenging at these times. There are other things too. You wonder what ghosts live in the mountains surrounding Quito. Are they like the little boy who came into the Dunkin Donuts today as I bought my cappuccino and chattered incomrehensibly and seemingly by rote some incantation aimed at soliciting a few cents from me, or a dollar? Or the little boy who walked up to me square-legged as a toreador outside the restaurant as I smoked a cigarette after lunch and asked me for food, a shoe-shine boy? Was it because the police seemed to disappear as soon as it started raining? In any case, there seem to be ghosts in Quito come down out of the mountains to scavenge among the mortal souls who populate its cracked streets.

The income disparities are striking. My hotel is in the CBD centre and there's a big mall across the road called Quicentro that is full of high-end shops like Tiffany's, the US jeweller's. Families and young couples - all holding hands - walk through the corridors in step with the piped music - all of which is from the West - and look at each other and into the shop windows. You see all kinds of faces: pure European and mestizo, Andean and black. Everyone is dressed well and the supermarket is doing a booming business, but on the other hand there are security guards in most stores and also men in hats and dark suits standing around in the corridor doing nothing but watching the throng pass by.

Outside my hotel there are street kiosks staffed by Andrean traders who look poor and on the pavement just outside the hotel is a woman in Andean dress sitting on the ground next to a small tray on legs that is filled with snacks and cigarettes. At a kiosk you can buy cigarettes individually and they keep a lighter on a string for the convenience of patrons. And everywhere outside there are police, some in black uniforms, others with uniforms that tell you they are traffic police, and others in brown uniforms; such a plethora of police out here on a sunny Saturday morning keeping the peace.

A man drives past the hotel in a gleaming Mercedes.

In a restaurant one night in the famous Mariscal district I saw a young man and a young woman sitting together at a table eating their food with one hand while, all the time, they held hands under the table. They ate burgers and chicken wings, as we did. On the street the procession of police cars and cops on off-road bikes is incessant. Sometimes they have their lights flashing, and the rhythm synchs strangely with the stereo in the restaurant playing Steely Dan.

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