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.