“What do you think of the situation in Venezuela?” Fernando asks conspiratorially, in Spanish, only minutes after we meet as neighbours on a warm stone bench in Quito’s Plaza Grande.
Prepared only with basic phrases, and with a combination of jetlag and altitude sickness, my answer was hesitant. “Es complicado…” I try, and he smiles, moving on to opinions of British 80s pop music. Citing Abba, Elton John and the Beach Boys as his personal favourites, Fernando also wants to know which Latin Americans are most common in London, and the name of our Prime Minister. He notes this last down on a small notebook from his pocket, along with my friend’s, mine and his, which looks like quite an odd, yet significant, list.
Discussing popular culture and socialist politics with a Quiteño was an unexpected and charming introduction to Ecuador’s capital, but it turned out to be the first of many friendly encounters all over the city. There was the initially unnerving approach by two policemen, which quickly turned to delight when they handed over two bunches of Ecuadorean roses in honour of Valentine’s Day, flashes of red and yellow matching the flag flying over the president’s residency on the north west of the square.
The small waiter in one of the cafes under the arches of the square, serving us locro de papas con queso (potato soup with cheese), had only smiles and encouragement at our as yet unpractised Spanish phrases. This soup, eaten with avocado and corn, and a cheese and fig sandwich, caramelised and dripping with sweetness, is one of our first tastes of Ecuadorean cuisine. It’s homely, filling, and full of new flavours.
At the top of our steep, cobbled street in the old town, a non-descript bakery turns out to be a home-from-home breakfast spot with two small tables in front of a tabletop of fresh pastries. The señora turns our table so we can better see the view of the Virgin of Quito way up on the opposite mountainside, before making us a fruit salad from scratch. Her husband turns out to be a former pastry chef for Sheraton hotels and has travelled all over the world.
Irvin, the waiter in our restaurant on the charismatic La Ronda street, is the first of several Venezuelans we meet during our stay in Ecuador who have fled the problems in their home country. He tells us about the desperate situation those still there are facing – no medical supplies and supermarkets with empty shelves – and offers to walk us home since the streets aren’t safe at night, he says.
A few days later, we will meet Carlo, a mechanical engineer working at a hostel in the beach town of Canoa, and Daniel, a well-educated former radio producer and artist, at a hostel down the coast in Puerto Lopez. All living alone, all wishing to return home to Venezuela but unable to do so.
Reading about the growing threat of street crime in Quito left a strange feeling of paranoia, not the usual freedom and excitement when exploring a new place. But far from feeling in danger, the reoccurring theme of our stay was actually kindness and welcome, and a reminder that a friendly human interaction is always just around the corner.