ecuador flags along a building

By Alfieyah Abdullah

Mami is a tiny woman. A head shorter than I am; stout, like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast. The strands of white hair have overtaken the jet-black bob she once had. It looks intentional as if she chooses to deliberately dye her hair shades of grey. Her routine is simple. She’s up at five in the morning most days to let the pompous Persian cat, Julian, out of her room for his breakfast, prepare the morning breakfast from scratch for the five dogs in the house – usually a concoction of fresh vegetables and minced beef – and then back she goes into bed for a lie-in until eight, after which she then prepares breakfast for us both. 

The first time I met Mami was when she and my Ecuadorian friend Johanna had greeted me after a long 19-hour flight from London to Quito. 

“This is for you,” Johanna had said to me upon my arrival, as she handed me a yellow polka dot balloon that had ‘Bienvenido Fie’ written on it in blue marker. “My mum is very fond of properly greeting people,” she continues. I hug Mami, do the kiss-on-the-cheek routine that I am not fond of and manage an awkward “Hola”, followed by a tired smile. She smiled back, not really saying anything. I wondered where my stint of Spanish lessons had gone. I stood there awkwardly, twiddling my thumbs and trying to find the right words to start a conversation. Thankfully, Johanna broke the silence. 

a shop window in quito with woman walking past

Shop window in Quito [Alfieyah Abdullah]

Now I watch her as she runs around the kitchen, Uri, the mischievous puppy biting at her ankles. The table has already been set, overturned glass on a coaster, a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice and a plate of sweet bread that she had somehow found time to pop out to buy sits in its glossy egg-washed glory in the middle of the table. She then materialises with a plate of piping hot scrambled eggs in her hand. I give her the goofiest grin as a thank you. 

Mami studied English for a short period of time years ago but our communication usually ends up with me relying on Google translate or sign language. Most days I understand her English and I still understand Spanish. I just hadn’t found the confidence to hold a proper conversation.

The lack of confidence coupled with my awkwardness gets worse when Mami has the whole family over on weekends and I’m invited to join in. The scenario looks like this: me sitting at the dining table silently absorbing the atmosphere and sipping on some fruit tea. Occasionally when I understand bits of the conversation, I’d smile quietly to myself. 

“If you’re not here, I don’t cook a lot. I go to my neighbour’s house for coffee and she cooks. But I like cooking for you,” she says as we both settle down to eat breakfast together. Midway through, she pipes up, “10 we go out.” It wasn’t a question and I knew there was no arguing with her so I get through breakfast as quickly as I can, wash the dishes and scramble up the two flights of stairs to get ready. 

quito top with mountain in horizon

Quito with mountain [Alfieyah Abdullah]

Promptly at 10, she’s knocking on my bedroom door all dressed up with her red lipstick and tortoiseshell sunglasses. 

“Quick! Quick!” she exclaims, before rushing down the stairs to get the car out onto the road. I hear the large metal gate creak as she opens it, the sound of the heavy bolts on the door being unlocked and the car engine starting. The dogs start barking excitedly. 

In contrast to the day, I landed in Quito, I was no longer pining for my fleece hoodie to counteract the drastically cold weather which had rudely greeted me. The sun’s rays and heat penetrated in through the car window and I could feel my right arm getting scorched by the second. Maybe that’s what cheese under the grill feels like. 

I had only been here a few days but the new environment had already engulfed me in its culture. Flying to Ecuador with the intention of studying the indigenous groups in Otavalo (a town north of Quito famous among tourists for its textile market) and the Amazon seemed like an indecisive decision at the time, especially with what little Spanish I knew and how different a country Ecuador is to my home, Singapore.

Singapore, over the years, has truly converted itself into catering to the tourist market, only leaving little nuances of heritage around in the form of museums and areas like Chinatown and Little India that showcase bits of the diversity it has. The authenticity of each area has been overtaken by tourist trinkets and souvenir shops, and the hawker culture we’re so known for has turned into an air-conditioned space with over-priced food that locals don’t venture into.

woman sat on step of shop in street

Quito woman [Alfieyah Abdullah]

In Ecuador, tourism seemed to have been contained in specific spaces. Tourists only venture out to places that are heavily promoted in guidebooks like La Mariscal or in El Centro Historico (purposely conserved to attract visitors). 

I wanted to find out how the indigenous groups like the Otavaleños in Otavalo still managed to keep their tradition of weaving and how the Kichwa in the Amazon still choose to be selective about the modernity that they incorporate into their daily lives despite the modernity and tourism creeping at their doorstep. I wanted to see if they had succumbed to it or would do so in the long run, similar to what Singapore had done. 

Quito resembles a grungier version of Greece. Instead of the porcelain white and blue, exposed grey concrete buildings stack tall on the rolling hills and hide in the nooks of valleys, matching the colours of the sand and dust that blow freely. The only occasional pops of colour materialise from haphazardly scattered singular painted walls.

Metal framing remains on some, indicating unfinished two-storey buildings, yet curtains hang visible through dusty first-floor windows. Cacti and tall thistle brambles stand overgrown next to rough-and-ready food stalls sporadically lining the street; their makeshift grills and mismatched seating waiting for the work crowd to descend. 

This capital city of Ecuador is located on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active volcano in the Andes mountains. 

After Guayaquil, it is the second most populous city. The city itself is divided into the central, southern and northern parts. 

The car heaves up the winding dusty roads where, according to Johanna, driving in a car feels like you’re riding a horse because of potholes galore. Instead of the incomplete sight, I had just passed, there are now concrete sidewalks and identical housing developments standing neatly in rows, barricaded by the six-feet cement brick walls that seemed to be a common sight in the outskirts of Quito.

The walls are topped with glass shards instead of spikes to keep trespassers out. Across the side of an estate, “Lenin presidente vota” is splashed in bold red. The faint smell of diesel greets me as we drive into a small hillside neighbourhood. Tiny shops and the occasional restaurant are packed closely together around the main square. A crowd of people wait patiently for a bus next to a sign that has seen better days, spray paint squiggles covering it. There is no indication of a timetable. 

Mami and I sit in silence during the drive. There’s a hole where the car radio is supposed to be. With the assumptions I had heard before the trip about everyone living in mud huts, so far, all I had seen was a brick jungle. We leave the outskirts of Quito and drive to central Quito where instead of unfinished brick buildings I was greeted by the stunning view of multiple-story apartment buildings painted in various pastel shades, all packed closely together. The city seemed to come alive. 

From tranquil neighbourhoods, we make our way into the busy city centre, passing by large shopping malls, gyms and office buildings en route to El Centro Historico, the Old Town. Venturing into the colonial space, I’m immediately enthralled by how carefully preserved the area is. Painstakingly conserved churches, convents, galleries and museums sit at every corner. Even the shop signage resembles none of the neon flashing signs or billboards I had gotten used to passing by in the neighbourhood I live in. Instead, they are modest bronze letters mounted inconspicuously to retain the colonial atmosphere. 

Parking the car, we decide to trek to the main square – Plaza de Independencia. For a Monday morning, it’s buzzing with tourists and locals alike. Shoe shiners sit under the arches in the former bishop’s palace that is now home to food courts and artisan shops. They watch the square or read the daily newspaper, trying not to doze off while awaiting their next job. Tour guides lead their groups into the open space within the palace competing to be heard.

The town of quito with colourful yellow houses on the hill in the background

Yellow houses on the hill [Alfieyah Abdullah]

The gentle burble of a water fountain juxtaposes the chaos. Mami gestures to me and gently nudges me in the direction of a tour group explaining the historical significance of the place. We sneakily hang around the back of the group avoiding eye contact. 

The tour group disbands and Mami and I scuttle away to the second floor. Occasional splashes of bright green in the form of hanging plants add life to the cold, stone neoclassical columns on the first floor. Hanging ferns droop over the balconies, complementing the burnt-sienna pillars on the second.

Hardly a roof, bright natural light filters in through the glass panels held together by a thin wood frame. Glass cabinets containing trinkets and articles from various cities in Ecuador line the narrow walkway. Almost hidden from view aside from the tell-tale signs of the postcards displayed outside, is a small souvenir shop. Normally, I would rush to buy a bag-load of postcards but with multiple prior warnings against trusting the postal system in Ecuador, I walk away empty handed. 

Mami prods me. I soon realise that’s her way of getting my attention. She points at the glass cabinets where woven textiles are on display and say “In Otavalo is better.” 

Before my arrival, Johanna had informed Mami about my interest and purpose in visiting Otavalo. I was determined to see the Otavaleños in action, weaving their textiles – something I had read they were extremely proud of. When I dived into reading about Ecuador’s indigenous groups, the Otavaleños were described as a group that accepted tourism, using their access to visitors as a means to spread the message about their tradition and craft.

woman carrying a bag of oranges in the street

A woman carrying oranges [Alfieyah Abdullah]

I wanted to hear their stories and get up close to see the many documented images of them weaving come to life. I knew it would be interesting to see how they assimilated their tradition into society, how positive the impact had been on them and to prove that it is possible to merge tourism and modernity yet still keep the authenticity of culture – something I feel that is slowly disappearing from Singapore. 

I casually mention to Mami that I’ve booked a hotel and am planning to get a tour group. She firmly insists that she take me instead and that I must add another reservation to that hotel booking for her. I sense her enthusiasm about chaperoning me around and I choose not to fight her about it. Besides, it’s a chance for us to bond – a good idea since I’d be living with her for a good period of time. 

We make our way back to the square. The independence monument is the centre of attraction; so much so you can hardly see it with more tourist groups clustered around it. Adjacent to it is the stairway leading to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Little coffee shops and eateries line the side of the cathedral, a perfect spot to sit under the shade, avoid the pigeons and people-watch. The locals sit around the square observing the curious habits of the wide-eyed traveller whilst whispering to themselves. A street peddler has his arms full of different charging cables and selfie sticks. He walks up to the tourists promoting his wares. 

Further down, the Central Bank (Museo Nacional de Banco Central del Ecuador) turned museum is an architectural statement with its emerald green tile and domed roof. Resembling Gringotts Bank from the Harry Potter films, the museum documents the history of Ecuador dating from the first inhabitants to present day all presented chronologically. In a nearby side-street, a caricaturist sits focused on his newest subject.

He’s the first artist I’ve encountered since my time in Ecuador. So far, my people-watching seem to bring out the same few characters – the street peddler or occasional street performer. Maybe with so many blank walls around acting as a canvas and a spray can their brush, no one finds the joy in pen and paper anymore. Who knows? 

The farther we go into the old city through the side streets and alleyways, the less of tourists and tourism we see. Souvenir shops turn into little convenience stores and small-scale supermarkets. Public buses shuttling residents to and fro replace the double-decker tour buses. In the distance, the sun is slowly starting to set over the stacked cube houses. I stand in the middle of the San Francisco Plaza, a charming cobbled square reminiscent of London’s Trafalgar Square complete with excessive flocks of pigeons.

The grand church, Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco is a dark silhouette against the evening sky. Mami and I bask in its glory quietly before we trace our steps back to the parking garage. 

“You remember where the car?” she asks me, fumbling around in her purse. 

I confidently nod. Turns out, I don’t. We spend fifteen minutes pressing the car key alarm button just to find out where we had left it. She clicks her tongue at me disapprovingly as I cower and smile sheepishly. We then navigate our way through ‘Gringolandia’, what the locals dub the neighbourhood of La Mariscal because of its popularity with tourists. The area is a subsection of Quito’s mostly upscale and modern new town, made up of a dense concentration of bars, clubs, restaurants and swanky hotels. 

a colourful mural in quito

Colourful mural [Alfieyah Abdullah]

La Mariscal has undergone various stages of transformation with the increase in visitors to Quito, turning from an area dedicated to cattle grazing and agriculture to becoming the most appealing area of Quito for jetsetters to paint the town red or kick up their heels. Although primarily known for its nightlife, tourists are also fascinated by the curious concoction of architecture that makes up the area.

Walking the streets, I spot bars disguised as castles, complete with towers and pinnacles, stoic white mansions with neoclassical ornaments, tiles and wrought-iron gates interwoven with well-known fast-food joints for the not-so-adventurous traveller. 

The Mercado Artesanal, or artisanal market is another point of convenience for travellers. A dupe of the Otavalo market ‘Plaza de los Ponchos’, its stalls are crammed together under a single roof instead of the open-air market that’s found in Otavalo. According to Mami, it’s “only for tourists, no locals go here. The people selling are mostly Mestizo, not Otavaleño.” 

I struck up a conversation with Al, visiting from Bristol while he peruses the shops with his wife and he confirms what Mami said. “The place is definitely designed for tourists,” he says. “The stuff is obviously not top quality, but if you’re after a nice gift or souvenir, look no further. It’s mass market stuff but we found it cheaper than almost anywhere else, so why not! You can’t expect an alpaca scarf for $4!” 

I refrain from purchasing anything from the market, keeping my visit to Otavalo in mind. We jump back into the car quickly because Mami has no intention of staying and waiting for the nightlife scene to descend upon her. Just beyond La Mariscal’s tourist borders, the lives of Quito’s residents go on. One of Quito’s busiest parks, Parque El Ejido, is alive with the sounds of children playing on the playgroundbasketball and volleyball matches in full swing. As dynamic as the image is, all I’m thinking of is my growling stomach. 

Away from the haggling, steep prices and mass-produced fare in ‘Gringolandia’, street food vendors are busy enticing the evening crowd with the smells and sounds of humble local fare in La Floresta. As quoted by Mariana Andrade, the co-founder of De La Floresta (a committee formed by enterprising locals constantly at the helm of events and policies aiming to protect this enclave from gentrification), La Floresta is “the meeting point of cultures and social classes… and where gourmet food lives comfortably next to corn tortillas and empanadas.” 

La Floresta is the balance of Quito. In the mornings and early afternoons, the endless wall murals and art galleries, a result of the community coming together with their common love for the areas history and architecture, attract the Instagram tourist. Co-owner of La Huerta y la Maquina (a gallery and furniture studio mix), Luis Herrera quoted in an article for Airbnb, said: “We want to reconnect people to the traditions of our ancestors who made their own things.”

long shot of the town and hills view with colourful sign saying 'mitar del mundo'

Mitar Del Mundo [Alfieyah Abdullah]

The locality is made up of a population of creators producing collaborative work; new artists working with indigenous communities to cultivate a new unique representation of Quito. Hence, it’s no surprise that the many galleries and studios in the area are more for the residents than the stray traveller. No neon flashing signs calling out to you to buy yet another Quito fridge magnet or an overpriced Panama hat – just honest traders contributing to their heritage by creating an individual identity out of their art. 

At night, the neighbourhood’s Parque Navarro beckons the residents and the community, engulfing them in the clouds of grill smoke. I join the snaking queues of eager diners and watch the stall vendor, dressed in fancy chef whites despite it being a street stall, grab an uncooked ball of pastry and with a quick sizzle in the hot oil and a deft flip, the perfectly crimped dough morphs into a delicious crisp pocket of hot air  empanadas.

There’s an energetic buzz in the air as everyone tucks into their hot food and indulges in friendly conversation, signalling the end of a long work day. I’m thankful that there isn’t a street peddler shoving a phone cable or a selfie stick in my face. I speak too soon. Seconds later, Mami is force-feeding me a spoonful of guatita. The broth is chock full of flavour; hints of cilantro, clove and a good blend of spice. All is good until I bite into the meat that has an unusual mouth feel. I make a face. Tripe. 


Featured image courtesy of alh1 via Flickr