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Re-boot and re-unite

El Panecillo, the aluminum virgin overlooking Quito
El Panecillo, the aluminum virgin overlooking Quito
I confess. Galapagos was never high on my list. I'd always preferred destinations that required work, believing that authenticity couldn't be found through fine dining and room service. That adventure traveling was the highest calling, which entailed slipping out of your skin and our western bubble and exposing yourself to every vulnerability. A cushy westernized travel was an unnecessary layer separating one from a true experience. Furthermore, traveling in packs, in this case with six other family and friends, and then fifteen others on a luxury class boat was akin to being helicoptered to the summit of Everest, or having Bedouin nomads bused to your dinner table.

Yea call me a travel snob, an adventure elitist, a bourgeois of the rough and dirty quest, a lone wolf in a sea of shrink wrapped tour buses.I admit it.

But the Galapagos was a dream of a lifetime for my seventy-four year old mother in law Hil, and traveling with her daughters and her sin-in-laws was deserved payback for giving birth to them. So I set a personal goal to simply keep my mouth confined to bad translations of Spanish and quietly blend in on the boat.

It's early afternoon when I arrive in Mariscal Sucre airport. I'm in the taxi within a minute. The pre-paid $6 fare gets me just about anywhere in Quito. That would be my biggest cab expense in Ecuador. Why aren't things this easy in Costco country?

If first impressions are lasting, then Quito scores.

Sure there are the unmistakeable diesel fumes and smog of Latin America, the kamikaze drivers, the jugglers and tangerine and candy vendors in the middle of the street who pounce on idling cars, the grit and worn paint of all the cube shaped concrete buildings, the leathered faces of many locals.

But then my cab passes a tint glassed MUNDO MAC store. There isn't even a MAC store back home. We whizz by a high-end supermarket, camera stores, tall buildings, chic boutiques, boss looking cars, modern buses, and Chinese restaurants. My God I think I'm in heaven having just completed a development gig in Central America, I'd anticipated 15 more days of rice and beans and huevos revueltos.

There are no panhandlers, no mangy, rib protruding dogs, no stenches beyond the exhaust. Maybe the police have gentrified the Mariscal district where I'm staying. The Hotel Santa Barbara has hot water. Internet is free. The staff speak good English, security is tight but not over the top. And it's spotless and laden with character that would put any B and B back home to shame.

I have nine hours to kill before my wife and the rest of the group arrive. Traveling with her are, Chantel my 23yr old niece; Hil and her 63 yr old friend Ev; and Trish's sister, Terry and her husband Jeff. Caribbean resorts and monster cruise ships notwithstanding, this the first travel in a developing country for the latter four.

I drop my bag and decide I need more than anything else---a real cup of coffee. Not some bogus Nescafe job that is often served and consumed by locals in coffee producing countries. The receptionist tells me Este Cafe near Plaza Foch, is a can't miss. She says it's a 20 minute walk, which could mean an hour Latino time, but I chance it.

Half a block out the door I see it-- a greasy chopstick hole with hand scrawled specials on a window. Shrimp fried rice--$3. The shrimps are the size of Snickers bars and I down the plate before the tea arrives. I try and chat up the help who are Chinese. They are glued to the Simpsons-en espanol and couldn't be more indifferent to me, even with my Chinese roots. Glad to know Chinese restaurants aren't all that different the world over.

I wander towards Cafe Este. Remembering all the blog advisories about Quito's petty crime, I repeatedly look over my shoulder and clutch my daypack. But except for the broken sidewalks and mysterious bolts sticking out of the pavement, the streets are clean, the people friendly, the stores modern and hip. And my God, there are street signs. I don't let my guard down but I realize I need to chill as even though I'm a walking ATM to the locals, I'm a bigger target if I don't melt in as best as I can.

So I go with the flow and find coffee heaven at Cafe Este and watch the world go by. The heart of Mariscal is tourist central. Outfitters, trendy cafes, English bookstores, bars, pizza joints. It may not be oozing with lamas and panama hats, but there isn't a Burger King or Starbucks in sight either. The locals are hip and worldly and would fit into any Benetton ad. I grimace at the thought that I could be in Miami and wonder how far and wide I will have to travel to escape the toxicity of the consumer illusion.

I return to the airport by 11pm to pick up Trish and the others. I join the masses of eager locals crowding the arrivals area as if Madonna or Ronaldo were coming. To me, Trish is much more. Anytime I don't see her for more than a day, laying eyes on her is like seeing her for that magical first time all over again. My group is among the last to step through. Trish comes through and after 15 days, we gingerly touch each other's face to ensure it isn't a dream, then embrace eagerly and tightly.

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