Six hours and 2500 miles later, I stepped out into the waiting area of the Quito International Airport. It was a sea of Andean faces. Some held signs, some screamed Spanish words and all of them looked unfamiliar. Then I saw my name, my very American and very Jewish name, splashed across a sheet of paper supported by a clipboard. I pointed to the sign and nodded my head. The man swooped over, scooped up my bag and ushered me out to a van.
It was just past midnight when I crawled between the crisp white sheets of my hotel bed. Noises echoed off the street, the clatter knocking against my window as if to request entrance. Horns honked, people screamed and I turned the television louder. With the sheets pulled up to my chin and my head propped gently against the wall, I cried. I cried that the man on the television was so passionately in love with his wife. I cried that I wasn’t on the receiving end of such feelings. I cried that I was alone in a big bed in a foreign land. I got up and stood in front of the mirror across from the closets. With the television echoing in the background, I watched my face contort and my tears flow until I had nothing left. And then I got back into bed and fell asleep to the hum of the rattling city.
In the morning, I awoke and glanced around the room. I stepped out of bed and into the bathroom. I pressed my hip bones against the granite sink as I brushed my teeth. I stared down my puffy eyes and tear stained cheeks. I pulled on pants that were too big and worked my way into a wrinkled t-shirt. With daytime essentials tucked into my backpack, I took one last glance in the mirror and descended to the lobby.
“Mauro?” I asked the woman sitting in an armchair just beyond the entrance.
“Non, non,” she said with a giggle before fetching a tall man standing at the front desk.
She quietly spoke Spanish words I didn’t understand and then he looked up and walked over to me.
“Paige? I am Mauro. You arrive okay?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, let’s start the day!” he excitedly suggested as he led me out to an idling SUV.
I slid into the front seat, clipped my belt and braced myself for the start of my adventure. The roads were bumpy. Pungent diesel fumes lifted off the streets and crawled through the vents. I peered over the dash and out over the nose of the truck. Mauro noted the relevance of a memorial on the hillside and the importance of a government building. He took me to historic streets, beautiful churches and up a windy road to a hilltop where under the gaze of an angel kids fly kites. I lingered on the grassy knoll and drifted off as delicate nylon figures tethered to taught strings floated against the azure sky.
When all of the worthwhile spots of the city had been explored, we piled back in the car and departed Quito.
“Is this the equator?” I asked as the truck pulled off the road and onto a gravel path.
“No, this is a park. It costs one dollar,” Mauro said as he shifted the truck to neutral and coasted up to a gatehouse.
I quickly rifled through my bag and presented Mauro with a crinkled dollar bill. He passed it off through the open window to a man who looked suspiciously unofficial. He then pulled onto a grassy patch packed tight with donkeys and other vehicles. I slipped out of the truck and followed Mauro down an earthen path. Dust kicked up in little clouds around my feet. Aromas of frying pork drifted through the air as I passed a collection of tented shops. We stopped behind a group of tourists. I lifted my weight onto my tippy toes to see over the heads in front of me.
“Here,” Mauro said as he waived his arm and walked off to a narrow path.
A few paces behind, I followed my guide. With my eyes cast down to navigate the steep pitch on crumbling earth, I slowly walked away from the clutter of onlookers.
“Stand on this,” Mauro said, the toe of his battered boot directing me.
I steadied my feet on a large rock close to the edge of the path. Close to a drop off into tall reeds and twisted shrubs. And then I looked out.
“It is a crater,” Mauro began.
“Are those farms?” I asked.
“Yes. They live off the land. There are springs in the mountainside. Sometimes the people go to market but usually they stay down there,” he said.
“This is just,” I started before pausing with a sigh. “Beautiful,” I finished.
And there I teetered on a rock looking out at the world below me. I breathed in the clean air dipping off the side of the dormant volcano. I squinted my eyes against the summer sun beaming through the turquoise sky. I looked out at the pristine land and simple life these people lived. And all of the loneliness and sadness that had been dotting mine just melted away. Standing there under a summer sun in a foreign land, I let go of everything I knew and embraced everything I didn’t.
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