Friday, 11 September 2009

Needless Trepidation And Innovative Cocktails

Quito; a city of 7.5 million people in the highlands of Ecuador. Dirt poor in places and, reputedly, very dangerous. It's gaining a reputation very quickly as one of the most dangerous cities in South America. I lost track of the number of people we encountered who told us they'd been robbed, or had stayed at hostels where it seemed that every other person coming through the door had just been done over. Tales of robberies taking place within nightclubs were rife, one fellow I met had had a screwdriver held to his throat while an accomplice had a good look through his pockets. How jolly unpleasant. So to say I was apprehensive about entering the city would be putting it mildly. At least I had Garfield and Speckled for company...if I'd been alone, the evening arrival would have had me wide-eyed with paranoia. Garf can look after himself, and if all else failed we could pick Jim up and use him as a baseball bat to fend off any unwanted attention. I needn't have worried, to be honest. Like anywhere in South America, if you monitor what's going on around you and don't walk around in Cloud Cuckoo Land, then you're fine.

Quito's old town is quaint, and the view from the Secret Garden Hostal's roof terrace was beautiful as night fell. The city is predominantly low-rise, and hugs the contours of a narrow valley 2850m above sea level. Mountains and volcanoes flank both sides of this sprawling metropolis. It's a stunning setting for a city you cannot picture until you see it for yourself.

We stayed at Colonial House around the corner, as Secret Garden was full. But we socialised there, as it seemed to be the be the busiest in the area, and you couldn't beat that view. Drinking up there one night, Speckled and myself switched from beers to Cuba Libres, as he'd said they were good and strong. And they get you pissed quicker than beer. We stood at the bar chatting to the Kiwi barmaid as she beavered (this will become apparent) away with various orders. She passed me the drinks, and we continued chatting. As I put the glass to my lips for the third time, I encountered a foreign object on my lip; I immediately knew what it was.

"Excuse me...but are these drinks called Cuba Libres?" I asked.
"Yes?" she frowned, puzzled.
"I think you may have to rename them" I said, holding aloft the short, dark and curly hair previously stuck to my lower lip "Puba Libres."
"Oh my god" she gasped, obviously horrified (I was strangely calm...travelling has mellowed me, obviously) "I'm so sorry...I'm very sorry..."
"Well as long as it's yours, and not his" I said, gesturing at the hairy trekker-type serving at the far end of the bar.
"I don't know how this happened" she cried, wringing her hands.
"I've got a pretty fair idea."
"Do you want another one?" she offered.
"Another pube...or a drink?"
"Drink!" she laughed, relieved at how I was taking it.
"No, it's fine. Honestly. Besides...it's not the first one I've choked on, and hopefully it won't be the last."

Aside from the stray hairs of strangers, I loved Quito. The old town is a delight to walk around, all cobled streets, colourul buildings and gorgeous plazas; the best of which was Plaza Grande. You could people-watch here for hours, and the photographic opportunities are endless. I sat and chatted with an old bloke as he has his shoes shined, he looking very dapper in his suit and Panama hat. It's a relaxing spot to spend an hour or so. The new town is a little different, and caters more for the tourists. This is also the more dangerous area: locals told us to get taxis between bars, even if it was only a hundred yards away...and never to walk alone at night. We had no trouble at all, though. And the only robbery we heard of while we were there concerned the infamous Ketchup Scam. It works by someone squirting ketchup on your rucksack, then apologising and offering to clean it. An accomplice will usually distract/ hold you as the thief legs it with your gear. Only a bloody simpleton would fall for this one, surely? How many people in London accidentally spill condiments on you in the street?

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