The smell. I could pick Quito’s smell out of a line-up – even among Latin American cities – with no problem. It hits me on the first morning of this trip, as I jog down the familiar path along Av. Amazonas. It’s dominated by a strong scent of diesel fuel, but it’s more than that. There’s the sweet, charcoal smell of grilling bananas, the sometimes-pungent odor of urine (human or animal), and the indescribable feeling in your nostrils and throat that comes from breathing extremely dry air.
I smile, because the smell brings me back to the hundred other times I’ve arrived in this city and been greeted by this particular brew. But I’m not really sure I like it.
My first few days in Quito are a blast. I see old friends, make new ones, run on familiar (and unfamiliar) routes, always surrounded by these enormous snow-capped mountains and the even more enormous Andean sky. It’s everything I’ve hoped it would be.
With this positivity comes yet another familiar feeling: regret that I’ll be leaving in less than a week, and the desire to stick around (just a bit) longer. Unpacking my things, exploring a new neighborhood – I suddenly have an urge to set up shop for a while. I could do this again, I think.
On my first day here – the equatorial sun scorching overhead – I buy an ice cream bar from a 140-year-old man pushing a cart. It’s not until I see the same bar in a shop a few minutes later that I realized Methuselah charged me almost double, a mistake I never would have made when I lived here. As a visitor, I shake it off and laugh at myself.
It’s entirely because I’m a visitor that I can laugh it off. Because I’m leaving in a handful of days, I have to actively remind myself that these things that I can laugh at now were once bothersome. Things that drove Ty the resident crazy are simply a nostalgic reminder of an earlier era to Ty the visitor.
I think back to a conversation I had with my friend, Dan, an American who had lived in Quito for several years around the same time as me. I randomly ran into Dan in Duluth, Minnesota before Grandma’s Marathon and we talked about our time down South. He had left Quito only a month before this, and instead of the normal reminiscence, our conversation focused on why he left, the things that incensed him while living there.
I was thrilled to hear that Dan was happy with his decision and his new life in the States, but I was also grateful for our conversation because it made me think back on my own time in Quito with a more critical lens. I have a tendency to retrospectively over-glorify past periods of my life, ignoring or blocking out any negativity; but talking with Dan made me think about why I, too, had decided to leave Quito.
Don’t get me wrong – I do love Quito and Ecuador and South America and the Andes. But there are also aspects of living here that drive me crazy. Being a visitor allows me to see the entire spectrum in a positive light. Like an old friend, Quito’s idiosyncrasies that might be maddening to a resident come off as unique and charming during a week-long visit.
Now, I’ll have to navigate through one more idiosyncrasy, as I try to find some fried banana and coconut juice here in La Carolina. The street vendors are trying to hide today – never in the same place and never anywhere when you’re really looking for them.
But today is a beautiful day and I have nothing to do, so an aimless walk through the park sounds wonderful; I’ll wander until I find something. And as I do, I’ll let that smell of the city wash over me, and – at least for another few days – I’ll smile.