How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Perhaps it was our hapless introduction to Quito that clouded our judgment, but it suddenly seemed as if everybody was getting really annoying.

Our first negative encounter was with our taxi driver into Quito. It’s a familiar and annoying scene: you tell him (it’s always a he) where you want to go, he says he knows exactly where it is, you get into the cab, and then about five minutes later, he asks you, “Wait, what is the address?” When you tell him again, it’s all confusion and bafflement on his part, and total exasperation on your part.

“No, we said, ‘Andalucia‘, not ‘Santa Lucia‘!” we repeated over and over. It would have been funny if we hadn’t already been exhausted and hungry, and if this situation hadn’t already occurred about a zillion times on this trip already.

On our second day in Quito, we went on a mission for SNACKS. My best friends from childhood had sent me a care package, and I had been salivating for about a month in anticipation. A perk of being a member of the South American Explorers Club is that you can use their address to accept packages. I had been in contact with the manager of the Quito Club, John, about the arrival of the package, and during our email exchange, he asked me twice if I was an “Avon Lady” and told me that he needed three tubs of silicon glove (my email address contains the word “avonlea”, which is the setting for the Anne of Green Gables series of books). His repeated question made me think that he was 1) old and 2) possibly senile. These two predictions turned out to be true.

This is what my package looked like. Good thing chips and candy aren’t fragile items! Thanks to Elizabeth, Hyemee, and Manda!

We arrived at the Quito Club already knowing that we would have to pay them $8, since John had gone to the post office to pick up my package and had to pay $5 for duty. The extra $3 was for the taxi ride, apparently. I gave him a $10 bill and he grumbled about having to give me change. “Do you want to just give me a $2 tip?” he asked.

“Uhhh, not really,” I said, but I thought, Are you serious?! Craig and I could have gone to the post office ourselves, after all. Yes, it was very nice of him to do it, but not necessary. I also had no idea he even intended to go. It’s definitely the sign of an old, white, American gringo ex-pat to assume backpackers will gladly hand over $2 without thinking about it. John seemed so out of touch with the kind of travelers we were; he ranted to Craig about how tourists should tip heavily because “they can afford it”. It was pointless to even try to explain to him that there now existed more than one type of tourist, and that some of them (like us), were counting every penny.

Even with the euphoria of my American junk food, the encounter left a sour taste in our mouths.

We spent our last day in Quito exploring the old, colonial part of the city. We visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a huge neo-gothic monstrosity that was built in the late 1800s. You can, for $2, climb up all three of its towers, which allows for amazing views. Craig and I braved the questionable metal staircase that had been positioned in a seemingly precarious spot, clinging to a flying buttress far above anything solid. We remarked on how something like that would never be allowed in the States (a common theme in South America), but the views were spectacular. Still, we were both shaking a bit when we finally got back to street level!

Basilica del Voto Nacional. Not ostentatious at all.

Scary staircase. We weren’t the only ones who found it unnerving.

Hello from Quito!

Colonial Quito showed us that the city did have some charms. We finally saw some interesting architecture (the rest of Quito is a concrete and uninteresting), and stopped for a coffee in a cafe off the Plaza de Armas. It was a beautiful Sunday, and the plaza was filled with Quiteños, eating ice cream, riding bikes, and wandering the artisenal market. Unfortunately, as soon as we sat down, our patented gringo-alert began to buzz. You can usually tell them by their plaid shirts, cargo shorts, and sunglasses. This one helped us out by speaking very loudly in American English about all the things he’d done and seen.

As soon as his companion left to go to the bathroom, he zeroed in on us (it’s impossible for them to stop talking about themselves if there’s someone around to listen).

“Where are you from?” he asked without preamble. (By the way, should we have just answered in Spanish that we didn’t understand English?)

“We’re from Seattle,” we said (we answer Seattle to Americans and los Estados Unidos to everyone else).

“Ah,” he said. “I’m from Winnipeg.” (So I got the American part wrong, but… close enough.) And then–of course–he asked the absolute most common question of all, “How long are you traveling?”

“We’re not entirely sure,” Craig replied, momentarily stunning the Winnipegger into silence. Before he could recover, Craig explained, “We’re traveling through South America, but we don’t have an end-date.”

“And how long have you been traveling for?” the Winnipegger asked. We knew that our answer of “Almost six months” wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted us to tell him that we’d only arrived to Quito yesterday, just so he could then regale us with all of his knowledge. We knew this because after six months of traveling, you start to separate people into types, and Winnipegger was the I-like-to-feel-like-I-know-everything-and-I-want-to-impart-my-vast-wisdom-type. Of all types, this is one of the most irritating.

So it was with great satisfaction that we could say, “Almost six months,” and stop his lecture before it began. Despite having nearly half a year of backpacking under our belts, some of these types still feel the need to ask us silly questions that I perceive as condescending. “Of course I know I need small change to buy street food!” I want to scream. “You think after six months I don’t know a thing like that?!” Ugh.

But the Winnipegger lowered himself even more in our esteem in an entirely different manner when he said, “Six months! Are you tired of everything, then?”

Tired of what, exactly? Getting to see new, beautiful places nearly every day? Not having to work and pay bills? Exploring new cultures? Learning a new language?? Double ugh.

“Well, tired of churches, at least?” the Winnipegger asked, grasping at straws.

I won’t say that there haven’t been times on this trip where I’ve thought, “Oh God, not another church!” But we had just visited the Basilica and had a great (if slighly terrifying) time there. Traveling, like anything, can get tedious, but I think it’s probably one of the most tedious-proof things you can do. There’s always a new city to explore and hows and wherefores of getting there. It is an adventure, but above all, it’s a treat, and to have somebody ask you if you’re tired of it (and not just of traveling, but of everything!) is like asking if somebody’s tired of ice cream, or tired of taking naps. In short, it’s the type of question that only somebody like the Winnipegger would ask. I mean, what did he expect us to say? “Yes! And we’re leaving tomorrow!”? Not a likely answer from any backpacker, but of course, the Winnipegger couldn’t possibly know that, not being a backpacker himself.

Luckily, his companion finally returned, saying, “The bathroom! It’s through a tunnel!” Cue eye-rolling.

You’ll only see something like this in Colonial Quito. The vast sprawl of the rest of the city is fairly boring in comparison.

Our next destination was our work-exchange on a farm near Cotacachi, just a few hours north of Quito. When we arrived, the rest of the volunteers had just finished eating lunch, and Lindsey and Shawn, the young American ex-pats who owned it, were MIA for a bit. One of the volunteers, an English girl named Analise, immediately took it upon herself to give us a tour. Five minutes in, I was thinking to myself, I really hope the rest of them aren’t like this.

Analise was very much like the dreaded Bob of the Salkantay trek. Condescending, patronizing, and bossy. She could make a simple request, such as refilling the sugar bowl, sound like an order from the Queen of England. She was also a “buttinsky”–needing to put her oar in whenever possible, but in a totally meaningless way. Her haughty accent didn’t really help matters, either. Craig and I thanked the heavens she was leaving in two days.

So now I’m wondering, have Craig and I become that equally abhorrent type of traveler that judges everybody and finds them lacking? Of course we’ve met people that we absolutely loved on this trip, but there are also plenty that we would just as soon have done without. Are we jaded? Or have we always been like this? I vote for the latter for myself, but sometimes, I’d rather that we didn’t get so worked up about the people we don’t like. So what if Analise wanted to feel like she was better than us? So what if the Winnipegger loved to act like a benevolent, enlightened tour guide? Who cares? They shouldn’t affect us at all, but they always end up rubbing us the wrong way.

Should we try and stay above it all? Or just suffer through it in our usual frames of mind, until we can really get down and enjoy a thorough rant-fest about them? It’s seems very much like the high road versus the low road. Well, personally, I’ve always loved a good gab and gossip. Not in a malicious way, of course, but in that (skirting-the-line) “I’m just trying to understand!” way. It’s with good intentions; perhaps, after meeting and talking about enough of them, we’ll eventually come to be more sympathetic! Miracles can happen, right?

View of the garden and the pigs from the roof of our work-exchange. Such a beautiful landscape! That’s something I can’t feel glib or jaded about, and, thank goodness, I’ll never get tired of it!