After my Brasilian visa expired in 2014, I cut the umbelical cord and set out for Ecuador, finding a surprising side of a beautiful country.
The Quito airport was amazing. Beautiful, well organized, efficient. Pictures and murals of the Galapogos Islands and Quito’s colonial architecture lined the walls, while immigration and security personnel wore what looked like genuine smiles. They even offered a free shuttle to the city center. The tourism board seemed to pull the strings rather than the transportation agency. After leaving the airport, the rest of Ecuador came into view.
The airport was built an hour outside of the city and the view was initially spectacular, going through rolling green hills until reaching the shanty towns on the outskirts of the city. Then the rest came into view, the part with the smog and small plywood houses. Quito itself was great, but the contrast between the city and its outskirts was similar to the contrast between the Ecuador of travel magazines and the other Ecuador.
I bought a bus ticket to Shushufindi, a small town on the edge of the Amazon where I had a job lined up. I didn’t speak very much Spanish at the time and there was no bus in the port where mine was supposed to be, so I sheepishly asked the girls near me if there was a bus to Shushufindi. Giggling, they told me there was, but that the port and bus number had changed, and it would be leaving early. My brain told me that they were playing a joke on me and sending me to a different city, but my gut told me to trust them. They made sure I caught the bus and after we found that our seats were in the same row, we were soon on our way. I was exhausted from the jetlag and travel that day and fell asleep after a few hours.
I’m not sure how it happened but I woke up somehow spooning with the girl next to me in the bus seat that wasn’t big enough for one person to sleep comfortably. It was also drenched in sweat. My clothes were soaked through and my hair wet. The moderate chill in Quito had been replaced by a swampy hell.
We arrived at around 5:00 AM and my new friend helped me catch a cab to the hotel where I would be working. I worked there the next two weeks, working mornings and having the afternoons and evenings free. The work was awful and instead of a partnership of sorts like my other volunteer experiences, I augmented paid labor. Work featured constructing new walls using rusty nails and rotted wood from old walls… but the afternoons were fun.
I went running often, though the town was so small that I would literally run from one end of the main street to the other within ten minutes. There was a beautiful park with free wifi close to where I worked and I would often spend my evenings there. I also traded English lessons for drum lessons at a small studio next door to the hotel. It was a blast for me, but less fun for my impatient teacher. Even with the distractions, you can’t spend an entire evening, every evening, running, going to a small park, and taking drum lessons. I did my best to read and practice Spanish with the family when I wasn’t running, but eventually got bored again and wound up walking down the same small streets a dozen times.
After walking I returned to the hotel for a refreshing cold shower. They usually weren’t. There were two showers and two toilets per floor at the hotel, plus one sink. They were separated from the stairwell by metal doors roughly six feet high. As they weren’t indoors and you couldn’t flush the toilet paper, the smell became ripe in the afternoon heat and I did my best to avoid the area. This left those staying in the hotel a dilemma: Use the shower in the morning, when the sun has not been able to heat the water tank yet but there is no used toilet paper in the bins; or use the shower in the afternoon, when the water is almost warm but the used toilet paper has been baking inside a metal bin. Decisions, decisions.
The town’s economy revolved around a nearby oil refinery. Men came from around the region to work there for a few weeks, staying at cheap hotels that lined the main street. This meant that the main street was dominated by hotels. And escorts.
With the town revolving around the oil refinery, the hotel revolved around prostitution. A kind young woman and her child lived in a room across the courtyard. She was the bartender at the local strip club and lived here temporarily to get away from her abusive boyfriend. He would come by every three or four days, escorting a woman or two to different rooms and giving everyone dirty stares. It became obvious that he was the town pimp and the hotel was his place of business. Most of the men who came to the hotel seemed to be linked through him.
I ignored my negative initial impressions and gave the town a chance. I went to the dance club, but they only played reggaeton. I explored the town, but it was only two kilometers long. I hung out with locals, but they invited me to cock fights… and a dance club that only played reggaeton.
I left after two weeks, having seen the other Ecuador. The one away from the Galapagos Islands. The one away from Quito’s nightlife and Guayaquil’s culture. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind returning.