Monday, January 3, 2011

On familiarity

The road has a familiar feel to it. Almost every country I go to, the same motifs repeat themselves. Wandering around old colonial cities, finding hole-in-the-wall restaurants to break bread with locals, avoiding the tourist and gringo hotspots. The long, smelly bus rides to local attractions. The hikes through cloud forests like Mindo, the chats with locals, and the beaming faces of kids when you juggle for them. The poverty seems the same as well. Rolling hills covered with shacks, the dirty hands and faces of street children begging for handouts, the indigenous women selling various trinkets and their young children playing around them in the cold crisp night air. The elderly men and women wearing age with deep, beautiful wrinkles that we fight so passionately in the West.

Today, I left Quito and headed to Latacunga, a small-city and gateway to some of the hiking and mountain biking in the Andes. Sheltered by nearby volcanoes, the town hosts a sprawling, dirty local market. Various games of street volley ball take place, with crowds gathering when old, hardened veterans take up a game, or when fresh, untalented gringos like myself join in. Unlike many markets, Latacunga's isn't built for tourists but locals, and during my time there, I didn't see another white face. Being a stranger in this world, felt familiar to me.

In Quito, after visiting the Old City, I spent my first night wandering around the Mariscal Sucre, or the new town part of Quito. Tourists throng around the area of La Mera and Reina Victoria with glitsy bars, Western music and restaurants. I watch a local vendor in the middle of the plaza. Her young child runs in circles around her, dancing to the pop and hip-hop tunes blasting from the nearby bar.

It's odd how people travel so far to surround themselves with the same scenery as back at home. In the quest for the exotic, we reveal how wedded we are to the familiar.

But I suppose I'm doing the same. Perhaps it's stranger in my case, that being alone on the road, that being an outsider feels the most familiar of all.

Tomorrow I head to Quilotoa for three days of hiking around a volcanic lake and to remote, mountain villages. Tomorrow, I take a familiar path.

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