As our group set out on our first bus trip, I looked out the windows at the streets of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The first thing to strike me was the mountains. They were everywhere and they were huge. And yet, a city was nestled here, complete with buildings, streets and cars. Quito is a large city; it was as if someone had magically levitated Boston and set it down amidst New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
And the odd thing about these mountains is that way up on the sides, farmers were at work. Growing things, raising cattle, horses, sheep. You couldn’t always see the people or animals up there, but the patches of green on each mountainside resembled the checkerboards farms of the Midwest.
The trip continued and we took in more sights. Car dealerships surrounded with spiky fences. A supermarket. Drugstores. Everyday people on their way to work, or waiting for a city bus. The roads went up and downhill and followed the mountains’ curves. I didn’t see any traffic lights and I mentioned this to our Ecuadorian guide, Andrea.
“Oh yes, my friend,” she said. “We have many traffic lights. You will see them.”
Stella and I sat together on the bus; we were tired but excited. The flight from Miami by way of Bogotá arrived late, past midnight, and we finally went to sleep around 2 am. Breakfast was at 6:30 and the bus left at 8:00. The day was sunny and felt to be around 65 degrees. A nice start, we all agreed.
Our American tour leader, Becca, stood up, grabbed a microphone, and gave us a welcoming speech as the bus rolled through Quito. She represented Compassion International, a nonprofit from Colorado Springs. The organization is dedicated to child development in many countries around the world. We would all meet the children we were sponsoring later in the week, but today we were to visit one of two “projects” at a local church.
We pulled up at the church, got off the bus, and met a long line of children who applauded as we walked past. This was odd in itself, but as we entered the church hall, a rock band comprised of teenagers were playing loud music while the younger children danced. Stella informed me that this was nothing new; many churches were playing rock music these days.
The parents sat in the back. We were guided to our chairs; up front, in among the children. I felt guilty, since I was sure I blocked the view of the kids behind me.
The band played on and on. I think we adults were supposed to dance too, but we’d all had very little sleep; indeed it was hard to stay on our feet. Finally after 20 minutes we were allowed to sit. The pastor and his wife gave the service in Spanish while one of the Compassion guides translated. These two clergy members were dentists by profession.
After the service, many from our group helped to serve the kids a snack – a sort of milk drink with a roll. Later, after clean up, lunch was served. Chicken and rice was given to the kids first, then the grown ups. Liquid refreshment was bottled water or Coca Cola.
At noon, we took groups of kids to a downtown park. It was beautiful, with green grass and flowers fenced off from the concrete walkways. I looked up – straight up – and saw the sun, higher than I’ve ever seen it. My body cast no shadow except for the bill of my baseball cap. The adults led the kids in games such as Duck Duck Goose, and blowing bubbles. The kids seemed very happy, and became happier when Stella returned from a corner store with candy for all. It was a rainbow striped taffy bar, which Pablo, another Ecuadorian guide, told us every kid liked.
Back at church, the kids and their parents took their leave, and left us Americans to hear the pastor discuss his project, including all the reports and paperwork needed to keep things going. He must have noticed our heads nodding, since he cut his talk short. We boarded the bus and headed home.
Before reaching the hotel, Becca advised us to visit the neighborhood grocery store in preparation for our sponsored child visit later in the week. The parents appreciate staples, she told us, such as rice, sugar, oil and dried peas. Since Stella’s knee was hurting, I was sent with a large group to the store. The sun was going down, and our guides advised us to walk in groups.
Shopping along with a crowd of Ecuadorians on the way home from work was quite an experience. The aisles were jammed. The shopping carts are slightly smaller than ours, but even so, will not fit through the checkout lane. You have to empty your cart and then leave it for a store employee to take away. My cashier, a young woman, asked me a question in rapid-fire Spanish. I shook my head, smiled and said, “Sorry, I’m from the hotel,” as if that explained my total numbskullery. She smiled too, and somehow I paid and left to rejoin my group.
I came back to the hotel with two heavy grocery bags. Stella was pleased. We ate a late hotel dinner with our new friends and then hurried back to our rooms. We knew the next day was the long trip to Banos, about 60 miles south, and we’d need our rest.
There were going to be some physical challenges ahead, and a few surprises as well.