Travel Writers: Flying Without Wings in Quito

By Emily Kerry

Location: Quito, Ecuador

The first time we see the Andes it’s a shock. Out of the plane’s tiny window, I’m giggling like a little girl at the giant clouds when, like a jolt of lightening, mountains shoot up through the white. Majestical, but menacing. Are we meant to be that close? My heart caught in my throat, I look around. Cabin crew still calm. Maybe this isn’t panic, then, it’s just the altitude.

Our descent to Quito is memorable. We’re coming in to land. Fast. No sign of a runway and we’re flanked on either side by bricks and mortar. The buildings are getting pretty close. In moments we’re be near enough to see faces inside. Christ, we’re attempting a crash landing on the high street. Then from nowhere the pilot finds a runway. Welcome to Quito. It’s terra firma at just shy of 3000m and we’re still walking through clouds even though we’ve hit tarmac.

We visit El Mitad del Mundo, literally Middle Earth, the point that marks the equator. The guidebook says there are buses from Avenida Americas but tourists should only catch the pink-striped ones. We wait and there’s no bus of any colour so I duck into a shop to ask. The shop turns out to be full of big men and even bigger knives. Some garbled Spanish and I duck straight back out. Back on Americas, a bus to Middle Earth rolls up. It’s green. We look at each other and jump on.

Green means go to this driver. Before we’ve handed over our coins he’s back out of the pit stop. We fall towards the seats – and everyone else – but he motions to us to stay up front. You and your camera can only sit where you want on the pink stripes. Instinctively, I reach for a seatbelt. No joy. It’s not even really a seat. The whole bus is in an advanced state of decay. Ecuador’s answer to fluffy dice are laid out before me. A plastic Jesus, a plastic dolphin, stickers everywhere, zebra-print fur covering the dashboard. Our vigilante driver has a porn mag poking out of his trouser pocket.

I realise we’ve got front row seats to Quito Life. Past plastic Jesus, the road stretches out in widescreen. Cars, trucks and buses vie for road space. People are everywhere, selling everything – fruit, calculators, maize, chewing gum, bracelets, lotto tickets, water, handbags, watches, chickens.

At a busy junction a man is kneeling in the dirt between cars, head rolled back, laughing. Traffic screeches by. Out of nowhere, there’s a Chevrolet, an entire family sat in the boot amongst old sacking and oil drums, dressed in their church best, off to some wedding or christening. The daughters hold their thick, black hair back in the breeze, brushing grit from their eyes. Scrap-heap scooters weave in and out of impossible gaps. Am I dizzy with the heat or is it the lurching bus? Now there’s a woman running to catch us up, boxes, bags and two tiny children grasped in her arms. She bundles them all onto the moving bus. Our driver’s only on green lights now.

And all the time, there’s a cacophony of noise: hawkers bellowing, horns bleeping, cars braking, babies bleating, music blaring, and as we pass the airport, planes blazing, bringing others down through the clouds, their engines roaring in our ears and rattling the bus as they come in overhead to land.

Text © Emily Kerry 2004. Photos © Ian Kerrigan 2004

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