Llamas and Bananas
By Bryony Inge
Ecuador : A South American tropical paradise full of bananas and ponchos?
Before embarking on my journey I’d somehow convinced myself that I’d be sleeping on the floor of a mud hut and sharing my bed with eight people and the pet llama. Luckily living with a family in Quito for three months to learn Spanish and work as a volunteer was about to shatter my pathetic preconceptions. Armed with a medical kit excessive enough to combat the super-size scorpions waiting to swallow me whole, I found a country rich in cultural contrasts between the old and the new.
Quito is an oasis of modern malls and gold-stuffed colonial churches stuck right in the middle of the Andes, filling the narrow valley and climbing up its sides. The confusing battle between the values of a changing society is not only reflected in the mixture of sprawling shanty type pueblos and smart historical centre, but also in the music. Salsa, Spanish rock, imported pop and reggaton are pumped out from every city street corner. Traditional Andean pipe music is played in the mountains, while the ‘bandas del pueblo’ bang out traditional fiesta songs.
Salsa is the all-time favourite, and if you don’t know how you’ll soon be taught – probably in front of the entire extended family. Everyone from teenagers to grannies swing partners around the sitting room, singing songs and drinking whiskey until the early hours. These all-night expressions of exuberance aren’t just once a year special occasions, but whenever there’s the slightest excuse. Even the buses are a musical extravaganza. Blasting you with a 24- hour salsa soundtrack, they’re a veritable entertainment show and an in-your-seat shopping channel. Everything from ice-creams to stain removers pass down the aisle as the bus flies through the city.
Although there’s a spirit and energy about Quito, there’s a massive degree of inequality and a huge spectrum of social classes. A large percentage of the population lives in poverty but at least now there are signs of an effort being made. Projects are being set up by both locals and foreigners in an attempt to reduce problems such as lack of education and health services. Meanwhile the city is receiving more and more ‘volunteer tourists’ who want to ‘do something’ for society while discovering a new culture.
Exploring the country by bus is an experience that starts before you’ve even arrived at your destination. The buses insist on subjecting you to the most violent and bloody films you’ve ever seen while overtaking each other on vertiginous mountain bends. If you shut your eyes and pretend you’re on a rollercoaster it’s almost fun. Almost. What better way to travel than sharing a speeding metal box with 50 other smelly passengers for 12 hours? I was about to find out….