Quito fascinates me. The city is divided into two parts. The historic colonial center and the bustling energetic modern downtown. With my bike safely nestled into the narrow corridor off the lobby of my hotel I set off to explore Quito at night. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Colonial Quito is a large scale museum of colonial churches, sculptures, paintings and buildings. Conquered by Sebastian de Benalcazar in 1534, Quito is the only place on earth where the equator crosses the highlands and has the notoriety of being the second highest capital in the world.
Making my way around the Plaza Indepedencia surveying the four colonial buildings that represent the ruling powers of Quito’s colonial period, the Government Palace where Ecuador’s president lives, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral facing north, I am immediately surrounded by young children looking to sell me cigarettes, gum, candy and shoe shines. With the sun long faded behind the Pinchincha volcano, shrouded in clouds during my stay, I suggest that they are up late and should be in bed. And switching roles I also suggest that being out alone at night on the plaza is dangerous. They laugh and eagerly lead me toward the Government’s Palace after I asked where the president lives. I ask them if I can meet the president and ask we get closer to the west side of the plaza I spot a man screaming at the Government Palace. Angered and appearing somewhat inebriated he’s telling the president he is no good because he is doing nothing for Ecuador’s poor. He screams there are no jobs and people are sick and I gather he says that the president has a deaf ear and does not hear or see the problems in the country. Ecuador is South America’s most densely populated country with 70% of its population below the poverty line. Armed guards flank the palace and tell me the president isn’t in residence so the man’s anger and words are futile except perhaps giving tourists a bit of a scare.
Later basking in grand lighting accentuating the dramatic colonial architecture of churches and other buildings I watch two weddings exit and pour onto the street and plaza. A bride and groom are whisked away in a vintage Mercedes outside the La Compania de Jesus Church, regarded as perhaps the richest church in the Americas with its six Salomonic columns copied from those by Bernini in the Vatican. But the splendor of this church truly reveals itself walking inside where the gold leaf covered walls and vaulted ceiling with Moorish designs overshadows the equally gold-laced Baroque tribunes, the altar, pulpit and chapels.
Just southwest of the Grand Plaza (Plaza de Independencia) is the Plaza & Monastery of San Francisco, an expansive cobblestone plaza with a street market on one side. Ominous and sitting proud above the plaza is the Monastery of San Francisco. This is Quito’s largest colonial structure and its oldest church, built between 1534 and 1604. While closed at night the next day I watch traditional a traditional folk festival for Navidad in the Plaza and wander through the Museo Franciscano which gets me in to see the monastery’s beautiful courtyard and artwork.
After the long drive from Ipiales and my night tour of Quito my left eye starts bothering me. Drives me crazy actually. It’s as if something is in it. I try every trick to get it out of my eye, but nothing works: flushing it with water, pulling on the eye lid, softly rubbing tissue under the eyelid. Sleeping is excruciating painful. The pain subsides with my eyes open, but when I try to settle into a peaceful slumber it feels like a huge pebble is pushing my eye deep into my head. I’ve had no worse night sleeping since I departed California in July. I’m angry, frustrated and exhausted. The next morning one of the hotel employees leads me to a medical clinic on the border of the old town. My nearly 100 year old doctor explains he’s not an opthamologist and that I should come back tomorrow — Monday. This is unacceptable and I ask if he can just look and possibly clean my eye. He disappears and then returns with a large magnifying glass. Well, maybe this is my penance for choosing to stay in Old Town Quito — I get old town medical methods. His hand shaking as he moves his eye and the glass toward my face.
“Muy inflammado,” he explains telling me that the eye is inflamed. I insist that there is something still in there. I can feel it. When I ask if he’s sure there’s no debris or particles in my eye he simply stands back proud in his white smock and says, “Absolutomente!” and scribbles a prescription for an eye wash antibiotic and I’m back on the street — feeling no better than when I entered the clinic.
Sunday night is another without sleeping. My eye is killing me. I worry about riding tomorrow to Cuenca. I dribble a few drops into my eye and resist from rubbing it further.
Photos: (1) Basilica in Quito; (2) Why not three up cruising the streets of Quito?; (3) Guarding the president at the Government Palace; (4) The Archbishop’s Palace on Plaza de Independencia, Quito; (5) Courtyard at San Francisco Monastery; (6) Traditional Ecuadorian Folk Festival; (7&8) La Compania de Jesus Church; (9) My Doc who said “Absolutomente” there was nothing in my eye.