State of Exception: Ecuador, weeks 1-2

9:3 Fruit stand

Fruit or fireworks display? From a market in the heart of Quito, which also has food stands, flowers, meat, clothing, chocolate…

My first impression of the Ecuador was from the air, at the end of a 24-hour odyssey to the Quito Airport: mountains, but to compare them to the Rockies would be an insult. The geography is more precipitous, with mountains towering up to 6,268 meters (over 20,000 feet) and valleys that aren’t valleys so much as chasms. Pichincha, the mountain on the western edge of Quito, stands at over 4,700 meters (15,000 feet) and is breathtaking. Even after an all-nighter from Denver to L.A. to Panama to Quito, I was awestruck. It takes a week or two to adjust to the altitude in the city, during which time walking up stairs feels like sprinting across campus and up to the top floor of Maxey when you’re ten minutes late to class.

Rooftop view of Quito, looking northwest

Rooftop view of Quito, looking northwest

A little geological/political context: the country is currently in a “state of exception” due to the rumblings of Cotopaxi, an active volcano south of the city. A substantial chunk of the region’s food is grown on and around its slopes, so some fear that an eruption could melt the glaciers packed below the summit, causing enormous mudslides that would wipe out production. In the meantime, hay is being shipped from the coast to feed the livestock around the volcano, whose normal fare has been covered by a thin layer of volcanic ash. Most days, Cotopaxi’s summit is wreathed in clouds, so the most I can see is a plume of smoke.

State of exception also allows the government to suspend normal procedure and act quickly in case of an emergency. Since there have been large-scale protests against the current administration in recent weeks, some question the implications of this measure for the opposition. More on internal (geo)politics of Ecuador as time goes on.

For now, I’m living in a more personal state of exception; I’m not the Ecuadorian government, but I am consuming more (fantastic) soup and fruit juice than I ever have in my life. It’s an embarrassment of riches, including almost a dozen kinds of fruit I had never seen before: taxo, pitajaya, guanabana, tomate de árbol, naranjilla, tuna, jackfruit, granadilla…the list goes on. Most meals are accompanied by juice, and no lunch is complete without a soup starter.

On my fourth day here, I ordered a dish called yawarlocro and thought I would be getting rice, avocado, beans, a little chicken (in my defense, that’s how it was pictured on the menu). The cook brought me this:

Scrumptious mystery soup from El Quinche, a small town east of Quito

Scrumptious mystery soup from El Quinche, a small town east of Quito

Soup, with a side of…hm.

It was delicious. Wait, is that throat? And is that tongue? Still delicious. And what’s that on the side? Looks like coffee grounds, tastes kind of like grainy cotija cheese. Pretty good. Later I asked my program’s academic director about it, and I swear he giggled. “‘Locro’ means soup in Kichwa, and ‘yawar’ means blood. It’s a very traditional dish.”

The side plate? Fried blood, with garlic and salt. The soup itself is made with sheep intestine and stomach lining, rich and hearty. It will be awhile before I order yawarlocro again, but apparently my mistake was a blessing in disguise, because animal tripe strengthens the stomach – sort of like probiotics in soup.

Food is not the only difference. I tower over everyone here (not so rare) but cannot tell people my height because Ecuador embraces the metric system, while the US stubbornly does not. Google to the rescue: I measure 1.78m, so I can now tell people if they ask. Their usual follow-up is, “You know, I have a [nephew/son/cousin] who’s [1.85-2] meters tall.” This is how I know that people are looking out for my future.

Transportation in Ecuador is an adventure. Traffic is more madcap but also more entertaining: people jump on the bus between stops to hawk snacks and gum, or to rap, and others stand at intersections, selling newspapers or blowing fire. I take the bus to and fro from the SIT academic building, and there’s only ever standing room, so I gaze over people’s heads and work on my balance. So far I have gotten lost only once, but the semester is still young.

I also made a friend:

9:5 IceEyesMore on this, and the mystery location, next time.