Sunday, December 31, 2017

Quito: the New York City of the Andes?

Katharine Shilcutt made a trip to Quito, Ecuador and wrote about it in December's edition of Houstonia Magazine, where she compares it favorably to New York City:
You shouldn’t try to rent a car in Ecuador; you are not nimble or practiced enough for the driving conditions, the congestion, the loose interpretation of traffic signals and lane dividers. And anyway, in a metropolis like Quito where 2.7 million people make their home, it makes as much sense as renting a car in New York City—which, as it turns out, is very close to what Quito looks like by daylight. 
The next morning, we gasp as we round a corner from our apartment down a hill toward Avenida América. Beyond the seven-lane thoroughfare sprawls a dense, colorful city packed with tall buildings that would seem even taller were they not dwarfed by the Andes Mountains beyond. In the far distance, the snow-capped Pichincha—an active volcano whose last major eruption, in 1999, covered the city with a layer of ash—looms like the home of an ancient god. The largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas, Basílica del Voto Nacional, is the only structure that comes close to competing with the natural landscape, its twin spires jutting into the sky like two jagged Andean peaks. 
As we walk the avenue, we see women selling fresh red crabs from deep blue buckets, next to a Colombian bakery where old men are laughing loudly at a curbside table, while diesel buses puff along, about one for every ten taxi cabs. Stick your hand out, and you’ve got a cab in, well, a New York minute. I can’t help thinking that long, skinny, built-up and crammed-in Quito feels like what would happen if you dropped Manhattan from the sky into the middle of the mountains.
It's nice to know that the drivers are just as crazy today as they were when I spent my teenage summers there, but otherwise I get the feeling that Quito has changed quite a bit since the last time I was there. It's always been a bustling metropolis, and it's always been densely-built - a geographic necessity, given that the city is hemmed in by Mount Pichincha to the west and the Valle de Los Chillos to the east - but I certainly wouldn't have compared it to Manhattan back then. While it was a somewhat cosmopolitan city, Quito was also the capital of a desperately poor and largely agricultural nation, and it simply did not possess New York City levels of wealth, sophistication or infrastructure. Three decades later, however, things may have changed: now Quito's even building its own subway.
ON A SATURDAY MORNING, Hala and I stroll through the city to brunch. In the huge Parque La Carolina, we pass a farmers market with live music, a Zona de Crossfit that proves the fitness trend is inescapable, and a grand botanical garden. We land at a German bakery where the table next to us chats away in Japanese as we munch on “Janky” (see: Yankee) waffles and bacon and gulp down dark, delicious blackberry juice and Ecuadorian coffee.  
“I didn’t expect this city to be so international,” Hala remarks, not for the first time. (The final time will be some nights later in a sushi restaurant, where I enjoy fresh eel while she carries on in Arabic with some diplomats from Qatar and a local Instagram celebrity originally from Tunisia.)
Sushi restaurants? Yeah, when I was 14 I resented the fact that Quito didn't even have a real McDonalds. In fact, looking at Google Maps I notice that almost all the restaurants I remember - the place down the street from our apart-hotel that had the excellent llapingachos and locro de queso, the quirky "El Pub" next to the British Embassy, the cheap "Chifa" restaurants serving fried rice and "wonton soup" with chicken organs in it - have all disappeared, replaced by vegan restaurants, Brazilian rodizios, coffee shops, tandoori restaurants and, yes, American fast food outlets.

Given its size and location in the center of the city, Parque La Carolina is fairly analogous to Central Park in Manhattan. But the only thing I really remember about that park is that once my mom and brother went down there to play tennis and were accosted by a bribe-seeking police officer for not having their passports with them; it certainly didn't have a botanical garden or live music back then.

For all the things that might have changed over the years, however, Shilcutt did discover one thing about Quito that is exactly the same as when I lived there:
Back in town and heading out for dinner, we notice the clouds are tumbling quickly over the mountains, into the streets of the city. “That cloud looks like it’s walking!” Hala exclaims. I always thought T.S. Eliot’s anthropomorphized description of fog in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was a little affected. But now that I’ve seen a cloud creep along a street like an animal, I’m regretting everything I wrote in that 12th grade English lit class.
Almost every night, the mountain fog would creep into the city. Watching it roll down from the mountains and up from the valleys was a sight to behold - it really would "crawl" along Avenida 12 de Octubre, Avenida Colon and the other streets around our apart-hotel - and once it enveloped the city it would completely transform it, creating a mysterious, shrouded cityscape punctuated by faded streetlights and passing headlights. It was a landscape that was a serene as it was eerie, and it was very cool to experience.
Quito is a city that upends expectations and offers fascinating contrasts: It’s a few miles south of the equator, yes, but it’s also 9,350 feet high, so it’s cool here year-round, with crisp, thin mountain air. Centuries-old cathedrals and cozy 1950s-era cafeterías coexist alongside hip, open-air food truck parks and post-modern high-rises out of The Jetsons. All of this, in a small country with an outsized global reach, thanks to its petroleum exports and fruitful trade agreements with countries like India and China.
The "crisp, thin mountain air" was one of my favorite things about Quito, especially since it meant escape from the oppressive summertime heat of Houston, and also because it came infused with a distinct aroma of diesel exhaust, firewood smoke and food being cooked: the "Quito Smell," I used to call it. And although I can't speak to Ecuador's trade agreements with China and India - the United States was, and still is, Ecuador's top trading partner - the fact that places like China and India play a larger role in Ecuador's economy than they once did almost certainly makes Quito more of an "international" city than it was a quarter-century ago.

Thanks to dollarization, Quito is a more expensive city than it was when I first spent my summers there, when the sucre was constantly being devalued and everything was crazy cheap. I first noticed this in 2001, during my most recent visit to Ecuador, and it drove my then-girlfriend crazy that I would complain about how much more expensive things had gotten in Ecuador because everything was still very cheap when compared to the United States. This appears to still be the case, if some of the prices Shilcutt reports for taxi rides ($2-$4), simple meals ($7-$12) and Airbnb nights ($40-$90) are correct.

Nobody's going to mistake Quito for New York City anytime soon; it's probably not even the "New York City of the Andes" as long as cities like Bogotá, Colombia or Santiago, Chile rank higher in the "Global Cities" index. But Quito is nevertheless an international city - obviously much more so than it was when I lived there as a teenager - and it is poised to continue to grow as an economic and tourist destination. It is a city full of history, culture, good food and amazing sights. And it's a nonstop flight away from Houston.*

Next summer will mark the thirtieth anniversary since my first trip there, in 1988. I haven't been back since 2001. Hence, another trip to Quito is in the planning stages. It's time to go back, and see the ways in which the city I once considered my "home away from home" has changed.

*Which is another thing that's changed since I was a teenager: back in the 80s, the only way to get to Ecuador from Houston was to fly through Miami. Now, United flies non-stop, and it really wouldn't surprise me if Southwest started flying to Quito from Hobby one day in the future, too. 

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