Quito – Sniffed & Frisked (2013)

Quito – Sniffed & Frisked (2013)

“You have been selected,” gushes the breathless airline attendant in her charming Spanish-accented English as I approach the boarding gate. Her English vocabulary exhausted, she then lapses into Spanish. I am mystified but also flattered about having been chosen for whatever it is. Visions of a free across-the-world trip for two as gift from the airline unfold in my mind’s eye. Meanwhile, she brings a colleague to enlighten me. He explains that of the 200-odd passengers bound from Quito to Miami on that flight, I have been singled out for reopening of my X-rayed and checked-in baggage, which had already entered the entrails of the aircraft. I am marched a mile to the aircraft by a uniformed attendant who even holds an umbrella to shield me from the drizzle. The suitcase is disgorged from the stationary plane’s belly and laid out on a bench under its wings. A menacing sniffer dog is curled up under the bench, and two beefy security men signal to me to open the locks.

I fumble for my keys and manage to open my oversized suitcase overflowing with unwashed linen and the detritus of a three-week journey through Galapagos and the Amazon jungle. With gloved hands they patiently pull out each item of clothing, and all other debris squeezed into every inch of available space. Naturally, nothing suspicious is found — even the seashells I had smuggled in from Galapagos are ignored. Putting all the stuff back into the case is easier than pushing toothpaste back into the tube. Eventually, we manage to close the yawning suitcase and lock it. I look up smugly at one of security men and say, “You didn’t look into the false compartment at the bottom — I had hidden the cocaine packet there.” My friend who had accompanied me for the inspection pipes up and says tongue-in-cheek, “They didn’t even locate the two live iguanas we had smuggled in from Galapagos.” The security men blush and avert their eyes, and we get further emboldened. I pull out my camera and shoot the whole scene. Another man comes to shoo us off back to the boarding gate.

It must have been a routine check targeted at anyone with an unfamiliar name. The sight of the calm sniffer dog dozing off under the bench must have already convinced them that there was no contraband in the suitcase, but nevertheless they had to go through the motions. They endure our teasing good-naturedly.

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Quito‘s Marsical Sucre airport has other surprises, too. On another occasion, while we were waiting to board a flight to Guayaquil (pronounced Oyyakil) there is some minor commotion as a few men in apple green uniforms enter the boarding area. Everyone clambers to get a better view and cameras are out, flashes pop. At first we think these must be footballers; only they attract such attention in Latin America. My journalist friend goes to investigate and finds it is Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President, no less. She sidles up to him, takes her picture and tells him she had written about his policies in her newspaper. He is surprised but moves on after exchanging pleasantries. After about 10 minutes, a plainclothesman, obviously an intelligence official, approaches my friend and begins a long inquisition to find out exactly what she had written about his president. We emerge from this ordeal somewhat shaken.

Quito never ceases to surprise you. In the historic old town, the moment you point your camera to shoot the city square or its gorgeous basilicas and churches, a cop in uniform materialises, asking you to put your camera back into your bag. No, he has no objection to photography, but he is worried that your camera would be snatched! Our hotel manager had warned us against carrying our passports or too much cash as we went sightseeing. Apparently, passport snatching is quite common and photographs are morphed and the passports reused! Only in Quito can you witness the comic sight of foreign visitors hanging their backpacks on their front for fear of it being knifed if hung on the back. Quito’s streets are awash with cops; in fact, there are more cops than tourists in the old town.

But we manage. In fact, more than manage. We take a public bus to the Equator Monument about an hour’s ride away. It is more crowded than a DTC bus at peak hour and we clutch our bags as if our lives depend on it. At Mitad del Mundo, we stand triumphantly with one foot on either side of the metallic line which is actually a good 400 meters off the equator if you believe your GPS.

Quito is a quintessential Andean city, perched at a height of more than 9,300 feet with a spectacular range running along its spine. It shares the distinction of being the highest capital in the world alongside Bolivia’s La Paz. Quito’s winding and sloping streets remind me of old town Leh. During different periods of history, Quito has been ruled by Columbians, Peruvians and others, but no one vandalised the local Quichua culture as much as the Spanish who colonised this part of the world in the 16th Century. The imperialists went about systematically decimating and obliterating everything Ecuadorian. What remains today is only gilded Spanish churches plated with Inca gold and a hotchpotch culture of the Mestizos in the highlands. Not a single Inca structure remains. No wonder neighbouring Peru managed to tout Machu Picchu as one of the wonders of the world while all Ecuador can do is cling to its natural wonders — the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos islands.

Even if the Spanish had not destroyed Incan vestiges, the many volcanoes that overlook Quito might have. On a clear day, one can see the towering Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest live volcano, in its powdery snow crown. For some centuries, it has remained dormant, but how long it will remain benign is a matter of speculation. Pichincha, the other volcano to which you can ride a teleferique, erupted as late as August 2006. There are a few other minor fiery deities which had erupted sometime or the other in the past, some still smoking. In fact, the pan American highway that leads south from Quito all the way to Patagonia is referred to as the Avenue of Volcanoes. Yet, Quitenos carry on stoically.

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