Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 4

We left the hotel at around 4.30 am, and were driven to the airport by the only cab driver in the whole world who would make a point of staying within the posted speed limit on largely deserted roads. It didn’t matter though – we were on the first flight of the day and through security in virtually no time. Our first leg was to Panama City – an easy two hours. I watched about half of Robert Bresson’s 1977 The Devil Probably, about a teenager who convinces himself suicide is the only rational option. That’s right, the archetypal vacation movie. From the air, Panama City looked surprisingly like a mini-Manhattan, but I guess that’s as much as we’ll ever know about it (if we were into that thing of counting countries we’ve visited regardless of the quality of the interaction, I guess we could have ticked one off right there). Within another few minutes we were sitting at the gate to our Quito flight. That went smoothly too, and actually I don’t think we’ve ever been out of an airport with our bags so quickly (it helped we were in row 5 – we had a big line-up building up behind us at immigration).

Everyone in Cancun accepts both US$ and pesos, but with a highly variable exchange rate – 1:10, 1:13, who knows. If you had the local landscape figured out you could probably make a modest income on arbitrage activity. In Ecuador, the US$ is actually the official currency. We got a cab at the airport with a flat rate of $7. We thought maybe this meant the hotel was merely around the corner, but actually the drive took almost half an hour, seemingly a sign then that we've entered a cheaper phase of the vacation (the Galapagos will blow that to pieces of course). Based on the drive from the airport, Quito was a crowded mishmash of the kind people live in all over the world, but we know not to judge anything based on that.

We were in the hotel before 3 pm. We’re staying in the Swissotel, after nice experiences with the brand in Berlin and London; they upgraded us in London to a terrific suite with a stunning view of the Thames, and they must be our lucky hotel chain because we were upgraded here again, to an equally terrific suite (with a diverting but less stunning view - here it is). It’s really a wonderful room (and much cheaper than London of course), but you see the difficulty of maintaining equivalent standards across the world –Internet access in the room isn’t automatic and isn’t wireless and costs $15 a day (again, compared to $7 for a half-hour cab ride), which I had to go downstairs and sign for separately. No matter – it instantly felt good to be here.

We asked the concierge about walking in the area, and he mapped out a little route for us – once we started on it we realized it would take us about twenty minutes, mainly involving shopping for souvenirs at a little market (that’s the low expectation hotels have of their guests), so we just followed our own route. Any theoretical concerns about safety (which does come up a lot when you look into Quito) fell away almost at once – people are just living their lives, and it was actually exhilarating simply to be ignored by everyone (the interventions got so intense in Cancun that a little girl came up during dinner on the last night and asked for the avocado off my plate). We walked for a while along a street on the edge of the financial district – nothing special, but a pleasant jumble of stores and cafes with wide sidewalks and plenty of diversion. We crossed over into a big park, and then evolved an idea of walking toward Quito’s main attraction, the historical district (which we were originally going to leave for tomorrow). We didn’t end up reaching it, but it became a wonderful walk, through further green spaces, past various historical buildings and learning institutions, mostly very quiet (although with the sense of things shutting down and people heading home); the kind of exploring we’ve enjoyed in multiple European cities. We easily got our bearings for tomorrow, more or less reaching the threshold of the old city, with the virgin monument rising above it like a life-forming prophecy. We ended by walking up to the La Basilica del Voto Nacional, a Notre Dame-like structure that we assumed to be hundreds of years old, but turns out to date back only to the 1880’s. From there we wandered back to the hotel, arriving around 6, as it was starting to get dark. Again, no one showed the slightest bit of interest in us along the way..I was almost feeling insulted.

There’s a risk of altitude sickness here, but we didn’t feel it today – I was pretty achy at the end of our walk, but that was probably from too little activity in recent days. Considered objectively, Cancun is obviously an impressive creation, a major destination that’s become a modern legend of sorts in just a few decades, reflecting immense vision and will-power and coordination. But this sometimes seems like the only kind of major project that’s possible in the modern world – whether it be Vegas, Dubai, or even the current activity in downtown Toronto. Luxury condos and pleasure palaces we can build. Urban mass transit? – not any more. And so western life gets grimmer and more fatiguing, making the dream of a short-lived escape to somewhere like Cancun all the more necessary; a far from virtuous cycle. It’s perhaps rather funny how happy we became as we settled into our Quito walk, objectively much less soothing than a beach resort (if this turns out to be the last entry in this blog, it’ll certainly be because I get run over tomorrow – traffic control here seems patchy at best) but with a major, priceless advantage – it’s all real!

We stayed in the hotel for a while, doing some planning and relaxing in our different ways, which in my case involves frantically writing this journal, reviewing our photos, checking dozens of websites, and even responding to the odd work email (regardless of the out of office message). Maybe that just means I’m an internal mess, but that’s another reason then why Quito would be a more satisfying environment…

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