Monthly Archives: February 2019

Deep breaths

La Basilica — where I was standing!

Streams of smog spill out onto the street from big blue buses and yellow minivans labeled “C.I.A. Escolar.” I try to cover my breath, but it is too late: I can already feel the black tar making its home within my bronchioles. It is Saturday, and I have decided to join some of the other students on the program in the Centro Histórico to visit the Basilica, a tall, unfinished, and somewhat ill-fitting neo-Gothic church located at the top of a hill (it has been alleged by some locals that its completion will usher the end of the world).

I do not know what it is about the Centro Histórico—maybe the narrow streets and old stone architecture are compounding factors—but I find that the pollution there is particularly suffocating. And the rest of Quito is not great, either. My short walk to the local Trolebús stop, one I make almost every morning, is largely enough to remind me that I am far away from home.

There are many things that I have been able to get accustomed to while living here, like food and public transport patterns. However, I do not think that I will ever be able to get used to breathing in car contaminants. It is not something that you can really ever prepare for, despite any warning made before leaving. Just as you are at the mercy of the smell of an irresistible empanada, so are you to the plumes of smoke spiraling nearby. That is one unsettling reality of studying abroad: you are not necessarily in control of your environment. Yet it is also one with which you must inevitably make peace.

The top of the Basilica provides a much-needed breath of fresh air, although it is immediately undercut by the onset of vertigo-induced hyperventilation (having to climb up intensely narrow and rickety metal steps does not help). Still, I have tasted pure air, and in the uneasy ecstasy I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if it were always like this.


Sunday. Despite having gone to the Centro Histórico the day before, I am back with my host brother to see some of its more hidden features. But while I am walking, what stands out more to me than anything else is the sustained feeling of what I had seldom felt before—a pure, uncontaminated air streaming in and out of my lungs, uninterrupted. In many of the streets, there is not a single car. Instead, I see entire families riding bikes, rollerblading couples holding hands, and the occasional skateboarder. The reason? Since 2003, Quito has closed a 30-kilometer stretch of avenues, going north to south, for bicyclers and pedestrians. In 2009, “Ciclopaseo” became a weekly event.

El Centro Histórico

It is shocking just how transformative the closure is on the general environment. I would say that there is a tangible sense of relief visible in the gait of every pedestrian (although to be fair, it might also be the fact that it is a Sunday). Instead of feeling stuffy and small, the streets feel like an extension of the sky. And not only is the smog gone, but also the noise pollution. The city is taking a great big breath.

I too am taking great big breaths, and with each one I feel a renewed sense of calm. But as we head back home and reenter the world of traffic, the feeling returns to the realm of distant memory. And upon opening my computer to search for pollution statistics, I am alarmed to see that Quito’s continual population growth has forecasted worse air quality by 2040. 35% of Quito’s streets already exceed their capacity by traffic, and that figure is rising.

But at the same time, there are new public transportation initiatives that could help mitigate some of these issues. The city has been constructing a new metro line that is expected to service 400,000 riders, although it is unclear when it will ever be completed (concerns have also been raised about how vertical it is—it is only one line that goes up and down the city). It has also been working on making improvements to the interconnectivity of the entire system.

It will be interesting to see how Quito chooses to tackle the problem in the coming decades. In the meantime, I will have to continue bearing the brunt of the smog. However, I would not say that it is all bad: it has also pushed me to seek out spaces of refuge throughout the city, like the Parque Metropolitano (a personal favorite of mine). Some photos are provided below:

El Parque Metropolitano


La Plaza Nicaragua

La Plaza Costa Rica

Hasta la próxima!



I woke up to quilts of rolling emerald hills, patched with plots of agricultural land and stitched with narrow dirt roads. “It must not be long now,” I thought to myself. But after fourteen hours in transit with almost no shut-eye, my understanding of the passage of time was unwinding like a thread, and I felt more or less like a loosely-knit sweater. I turned my eyes to the tired Ecuadorian woman sitting next to me as I tried to get my bearings. To my surprise, she was completely unmoved by the expansive landscape, as if the hills below were merely small notches in the ground. I turned back to my window. The green blanket was now soaked in the brine of cityscape, with white buildings washing over the valley and spilling upwards into the surrounding highlands.

“That’s Quito?” I asked my passive neighbor, who suddenly beamed with unanticipated warmth.


I was perplexed. On maps that I had seen, Quito was a narrow strip of urbanization contained by four volcanoes. Crucially, however, I had underestimated the drive—and necessity—to build, no matter the incline.

Finally landed and out of customs, I met my host, Patty, in the lobby of El Aeropuerto Mariscal Sucre, and headed in the direction of Quito. Like it had been in the plane, lumbering hills soon made way for buildings and movement. At a red light at the outskirts of the city, while looking out the car window at small comercios with signs that read “Gypsum” and “Bricks,” I could also make out buildings far in the distance straddling the hillside.

“They seem to be building higher and higher,” I said.

She responded: “Yes, even three or four years ago it wasn’t as developed as before.”

Right then, a mass of bodies started to fill the empty spaces of the pavement, carrying plastic sacs of coconut milk and columns of fruit. Some also had ice cream and bottled water. They agglomerated around our car, but moved on quickly once they figured out that we weren’t buying. Still, I felt a little smothered.

“Most of the people here are Venezuelans,” she remarked.

It made sense: with the current humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, many had chosen to leave their home and seek refuge somewhere else more stable. In Ecuador, 300,000 Venezuelans poured into the country and are now working in the informal economy, which nevertheless makes up 45% of all national economic activity. But recent violent acts perpetrated by some migrants, like the murder of an Ecuadorian woman in the city of Ibarra, have elicited an overwhelmingly xenophobic response from both the Ecuadorian state and population. When I mentioned that I heard about this to Patty, she said:
“Yeah, there is this idea now in Ecuador that most Venezuelans are bad people, but in reality, you can’t scapegoat them. Like with any population, there are good and bad people.”

It was after this episode that it dawned on me that the country where I would be spending approximately four months was going through growing pains. Ecuador has historically considered itself a small country, and in many respects, it feels like one. It was difficult, for instance, to reconcile the drive through small city streets with what I had seen from the airplane. Moreover, their common usage of the suffix “-ito” like in “pequeñito” or “amorcito” only serves to further highlight smallness.

But in other ways, the country is already large. Not only in terms of its geology, with its high-rising mountains, but also its biology—Ecuador is the most biodiverse place on Earth. In addition, it is culturally diverse, with various indigenous ethnicities and a strong Afro-Ecuadorian population.

In other words, though it may be a small country, Ecuador already practices a dense quilt-work. It remains to be seen, though, if it will continue to weave.