Saturday, May 19, 2012

Out of the frying pan into the fire.....

This piece was originally written in 2004 in an internet cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a detailed recap of my very first day in South America - 3 weeks before I met my husband. It was originally intended to be the introduction to a travel book entitled:

Out of the 'Blue' and into the 'Green and Gringa'
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of my friends.

11 May 2003

I pressed my forehead against the airplane door window in KLM business class, straining to catch that unforgettable first sight of the Andes as the plane tilted left into its circling descent. The landing in Quito was one of the most beautiful and one of the most dangerous - that’s what the suited passengers sitting either side of me had boasted. Not wanting to miss a beat to this nail-biting start of my South American adventure – and to show the passengers around me that I had in fact been listening - I clicked my barely used Canon digital camera incessantly from both sides of the plane. In retrospect my eyes didn’t have the same chance to appreciate what my lens captured.

My seat in business class had been a last minute complimentary upgrade thanks to my ‘Flying Dutchman’ membership and an overbooked economy class - a combination of good fortune that should have dumbstruck me. However, spoiled by a former lifestyle, I didn’t wonder on it too much when I was summoned up to the desk in the passenger lounge to receive my surprise class-upgrade ticket. I waved a nonchalant ‘see you later’ to the good -looking accountant who’d been casually chatting to me, deriving some grim satisfaction from his augmented interest as I rejoined the boarding queue at the front along with the first class and business class passengers.     

I had flown business class on a few occasions over the last year – but more so in the seductive, induction stage of my ‘soon to be ex’ oilfield career with Schlumberger. Still in their wake, it didn’t occur to me then not to take such a luxury for granted – perhaps I hadn’t truly intended on giving it all up at that point. I accepted my good fortune with an ease that belied the worn jeans and baseball cap I was sporting. Nobody would have guessed that I was sipping champagne because I’d timely cashed in a wad of old boarding pass stubs on my last flight out to China – they’d started clogging up my playboy bunny purse - I didn’t act like it wasn’t actually my God-given right to be there.

Once seated and satiated, after a tasty snack and a few glasses of free bubbly, the novelty of all the in-flight activities had started to wane and still too caffeine intoxicated to attempt sleep, I’d been forced to think on the place I was so thoughtlessly heading toward - and even more unwillingly - of that place I had so thoughtfully fled. Ecuador was an obscure destination, or so I’d thought. That any section of the plane could be overbooked seemed a little odd.

I’d felt sure that most passengers would get off in the Caribbean. But when we’d finally re-boarded the plane - after waiting for the all clear on the Quito weather report - my initial prejudices of Ecuador had been subdued when a substantial proportion of passengers remained for the last leg of the flight on to Quito. What was in Ecuador for all of these people with their smart clothes and fancy dresses? My unanswered thoughts meandered from the sure virgin beauty of the mountains to the lush wonders of the jungle, yet inevitably I’d found myself thinking of the oil. There was always oil in the most obscure – unlivable - places. Forcing myself to focus on this cloud’s silver lining, my thoughts flitted assuredly to my good friend and ‘Blue’ colleague Ron Lark, probably already in Quito by now.

Ron’s transferal from China to Ecuador had coincided with the time of my choosing to exhaust my vacation days there; however, the idea of my going to Ecuador had been planted by an external factor, Eric; a drinking friend from my University days, who was currently teaching English in Cuenca. Thanks to my annual vacation allowance I had the freedom to choose anyplace in the world to fly. I first thought tentatively of Ecuador for the simple fact that I already knew somebody there. I further reasoned that Ecuador was as far away from both Beijing and England as could be and part of a mysterious continent of which I was completely ignorant – perhaps the biggest turn on to a born traveler. It seemed as good a place as any to start – whatever I was starting.

But Cuenca was quite far south of Quito, as I understood it, and I was very skeptical of arriving alone on what I considered a high-risk continent. Eric attempted to quash my fears, insisting over MSN messenger that I’d be fine landing in Quito alone – that I had to see the place before I visited him in Cuenca. He assured me it would be no problem to email him when I’d arrived and settled in. I was still dubious, so the plan didn’t turn concrete until the tidings of Ron’s transferal had sunk in.  Knowing that Schlumberger existed in Quito gave me the ‘get out of jail free card’ that buffered the start of my adventure. I could tell myself that this journey was essentially no different; they just would not be waiting in the airport with a sign - as it turned out, Simon would be there waiting instead….

After I’d checked out the exact location of Ecuador on the Internet, and ensured that the British Embassy had not recently warned all Brits to leave, Schlumberger purchased an expensive round trip ticket for me, open-ended for one year. I was leaving China on the pretext of using up my accumulation of vacation days, but with an accepted understanding of my intention to resign. They thought that I might change my mind and I conceded there was a good chance of that happening. I had from then until the end of June - almost 8 weeks in which to find out that the grass was really no greener in South America.

I buckled up now, as the plane leveled out and the seat belt sign indicated that we were soon to land. We were close enough to get a clear view of the snow-capped volcanic landscape skirting the high altitude capital city. I stopped my clicking and stared in wonder at a new beauty. As the extensive development of Quito became shockingly clear, Ecuador earned further reprisal in my eyes. Excitement overwhelmed the usual wave of apprehension as the wheels touched down and the wing fans lifted to break our speed, noisily beating the air stream back giving that false impression of whirring out of control.

My lungs barely endured the waiting as the plane parked and the seat belt sign dinged off, leaving only the forever illuminated no smoking sign. I unbuckled and pulled out my small knapsack from the overhead compartment in one fluid motion. The doors were opened to the outside and I was almost first to leave the air-conditioned interior, straight out into the path of the concentrated equator sunrays. I blinked across to a tiny airport terminal. Somewhere I knew that Simon would already be waiting.

In arrivals a dirty transparent plastic wall cordoned off a lone luggage belt from four immigration desks only two of which were manned. I could see dark, craggy faced men in uniform smoking in the luggage collection area. First inline I smiled my way through and my UK passport was stamped with ‘90 days’ – plenty of time. I glanced left at the immobile luggage belt, happy with myself that I’d not needed to stow any. Fumbling in my knapsack to secure my passport and find my cigarettes, I started for the exit. I slowed my pace when I couldn’t lay my hand on anything remotely cigarette packet like – bollocks…! My box of 20 packs of Marlboro lights was left inside a duty-free bag sitting on the plane! I considered walking away and leaving them for one of the hostesses, but I wasn’t sure if they’d have Marlboro lights in Ecuador. And it was 20 packs….well 18 and a half or so now, it had been a long flight. Somewhere inside of me wanted to delay my meeting with Simon. That thought process alone was enough to leave me gasping… I could really have done with a cigarette or two!

I scanned the baggage claim lounge for help. Nothing really looked hopeful so I approached a man behind a desk in the corner. To say my Spanish was a little limited here would be an overstatement. Unless I had thought to ‘thank’ the man into finding my cigarettes I was pretty much screwed. After my tentative English greeting was rewarded with a less tentative barrage of Spanish, charades became my better option. It had done wonders for me in China. My bad acting involved a lot of simulated puffing and pointing at the plane, and I’d managed to smoke a few of his cigarettes before he found a partial English speaker for me to tell my problem to. They told me to wait and after twenty minutes or so a young Latino came springing through the plastic curtains onto and over the once again immobile luggage conveyor belt with my duty free carrier bag. By now I was the last passenger in the airport in spite of not having stowed luggage beneath the plane. I felt a little guilty about Simon waiting. I was already delayed a couple of hours from the extended stopover in the Caribbean where I’d seen little more than the inside of a smoker’s lounge although I’d felt the heat. We’d had to wait for the weather to clear in order to make a safe landing at Quito’s dangerous altitude.

I still walked incredibly slowly out of the terminal into the late morning sun, hoping to spot Simon before he saw me. Outside the airport was crowded with many people. My untuned hearing allowed me to block out the inane babbling so I sauntered passed cab drivers and numerous promoters without comment or apology.  Just beyond the rabble my eyes focused calmly on a familiar boyish grin, they widened however catching on a small flash of red that followed his wave of recognition. I stopped and looked hard at the rose that he was holding a little unsurely by his side. My tummy squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of romance and I thought fleetingly of Paul in China - I didn't fly across the globe to escape from one messed up relationship only to fall straight into another....

Simon was a mutual friend of Eric’s and mine, also from university. He’d never been more than that. But some boy friends were harder to keep as just that than others. I’d guarded myself well for the three years of university behind a long distance boyfriend, but he’d expired along with my ‘studenthood’. I don’t really understand how or why Simon had fallen into this equation. His planned trip to South America just so happened to conveniently fall in with my flight dates. Mindful of being alone in a new country - this time really being alone without the protection of my company Schlumberger - I allowed the fear of the unknown to override my bravado and in spite of a desire for an independent adventure I agreed for him to collect me at Quito airport.  I told myself it would be nice to catch up, I wasn’t above telling myself a lie in order to kickstart my adventure. The truth was I needed him and whatever I suspected his motives were at the time – I had my own. And, in spite of all, it was nice to see him.

“Is that all your luggage?” Simon was shocked to see my minimalist bag. I’d packed for good weather, deeming my jeans and trainers as necessities then a few changes of underwear, a bikini, and my lonely planet guide ‘South America on a Shoestring’. It had been my most expensive purchase after my ticket. I had my debit card, and there was enough on there to re-supply my wardrobe regularly for many moons to come. I hated the idea of a big heavy backpack and I wanted my mild scoliosis to stay mild. Besides that, I hadn’t planned how long I would be there and what I would be doing. So it didn’t matter what I had with me.. I figured I would figure it all out - in time.

We wandered out of the airport and started to walk, neither of us knew in what direction. It was nice to walk in the sun for a while, especially as I’d been sitting down for so long. We chatted about how we’d both wasted the past couple of years since University. I had a lot of negative things to say about working in the oilfield; Simon talked about his travels in Korea. We talked about what we could do in the next 4 weeks; that was how long Simon had before he returned to England. He wanted to climb a mountain, and scuba dive.  Both ideas sounded fun. He seemed to think we could see Ecuador in the first 2 weeks, then Peru in the other. The airport was a long way out from the part of the city where Simon was staying, and nervous about how many cigarettes I would smoke on the walk, we hailed a cab and the driver took us into ‘Gringo-Landia’ named so after the incredible number of tourists that come to this area. I don’t know how much we were charged. I’m glad I now can’t remember. I was surprised that Simon spoke Spanish. That would certainly make my life easier for a few days.

Simon’s hostel was within the realms of Gringo-Land. He already had a room where we could stay. I hadn’t been planning on sharing my room. The thought didn't even occur to me, so I wasn't used to the idea. I didn’t voice my concern - I simply didn't want to be un-cool about it, so I waited until we arrived at Hostel Del Sol to see what the room was like. Simon took me upstairs into a small room with a single bed. I hadn’t even seen the bed at first with all Simon’s crap exploded about the room. My first thought had been, ‘how does he carry so much shit?’ followed – swiftly – by, ‘does he expect me to snuggle up alongside him in that?’ It wasn’t going to happen. I knew that, he didn’t yet. I dumped my bag down where I could find space and delaying a potentially awkward conversation I agreed to go and investigate Quito.

I’d arrived in Quito the 11th May, midday on a Sunday. Nothing was open. We walked around for more than two hours before eventually finding a restaurant. I ordered a cocktail and Simon had a beer. He’d mentioned something very English, as we were walking around like, “Let’s go and get shit-faced tonight.” I didn't have the heart yet to smash all of his illusions of a fun time with me, so I tried to soften the blow by consuming a little alcohol. I told myself I was just being a good sport. In reality I needed a stiff drink.

The bill went onto my debit card, then we ventured a little further adrift of Gringo-Land finding the dingiest club ever that you could imagine to come across, open midday Sunday – and so of course we decided to go inside and take a look – I really didn't want anything more to drink, so I don’t know why I accepted one. The place was definitely sketchy although I was not far from oblivious at the time and still ignorant to the real threat Ecuador poses. The kids inside were underage, and the beer was rank, so for this reason I steered us out of there almost straight away. We politely sipped our beers until the plastic cups were more empty than full, then we slipped away without being disturbed save for a few steady eyes that surveyed our person intently. I had developed a pretty naïve first impression, and that was ok by me. Nobody really knows when they are being naïve.

As we reentered Hostel Del Sol, I suggested a bigger and better room with two beds. Simon didn’t realize how big a compromise this was for me. He spoke in Spanish to the receptionist and I started to feel an uncomfortable dependency on him. A large part of my naivety was in believing that everybody would try to speak English to me. Ruined by Schlumberger, an unwelcome realization that I’d never before actually been anywhere on my own was starting to set in. Pleading exhaustion I managed to avoid getting shit-faced without actually losing too much face and we both slept a long time. 

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