The Road To Ecuador

vcxa8286I never made it to Vilcabamba. When the shuttle stopped in Loja, the voice in my head, my guide through life, said, “Get off here.” I did and the moment I walked through the town entrance, I fell in love with the city. I was under the castle’s spell. While walking from one end to the other, I decided to say here for the night rather than continue on to Vilcabamba. Another great thing about travel, changing plans in midstream when where you are, feels like the place you need to be.

I followed the streets according to my interest in the names and saw two men working outside a hotel. I asked about a room for the night. After a brief conversation, I asked the owner, if he knew of any apartments for rent in town. He showed me two of his in the final phase of completion on the top of the hotel. He offered for me to stay in one for the same price as the hotel room. I was concerned about the noise from the disco and took him up on his offer as a trial run for a possible future rental. When the music woke me around midnight, I thought of the wonderful times I had dancing with a group from the school on Friday and the salsa lessons I took at the school during the week. Any apartment in the area would still be affected by the sound as music was all over town. In my head, I danced myself back to sleep.

So, while looking for a hotel room, I found an apartment on the edge of El Centro. It is on the top floor of a four story disco/bar (The Mills) which is opened on Friday and Saturday nights. From the outside it looks like a modern version of the Taj Mahal and would not have grabbed my interest at all, visually, as a place to live. Rather over done for my taste, modern and trendy, but as fate would have it, I saw the inside first. Otherwise I would not have stopped.

One of my favorite poets, Charles Bukowski, recommends all writers live above a bar. The more rough and tumble the better. So, it appears this is my chosen fate. Now I have a place to land when I return. From the roof top, I have a 360 degree view of the city and the mountains. Climbing the eighty stairs to my apartment a few times a day will keep me in shape. Legs don’t fail me now.

This morning I visited the various open markets in town. Fruits, familiar and unknown, filled the makeshift stalls. Salted fish piled high. Beans of every size and variation one might imagine. I stopped in the main square and listened to the Marine Band Concert, saw men and women on horseback parade around the town and kids playing jump rope and using a loading ramp as a sliding board. This is a town of happy people. I am happy here. This is where I am supposed to be, and for now at least, Loja is home.

RoofTops

Creative space isn’t about putting up walls or hiding from the outside world, nor is it a simple desire to be away from people. Creative space is about finding solace and silence in the external world, so that we may adequately listen to our own minds. This can mean different things to different people: writers may want time to read and jot down thoughts, painters time to paint, designers time to sketch, process, and brainstorm. — Michael Champlin

I like rooftops. When we were kids my brother and I would play king of the rooftop from my Aunt’s Baby Sis’s shed. In movies they are either used to have romantic dinners for two or for chase scenes. Think of Matrix or Skyfall for the chase scenes and maybe You’ve Got Mail for the romantic scene. I know there are better examples but these are what come to mind. Rooftops are also used for people to jump off or fly off from if they are so inclined.

The Drifters made rooftops popular with their sixties hit Up On The Roof. I remember listening to that song over and over again and pretending that I was on top of the roof letting “All my cares just drift right into space.” These times were actually my first letting go experiences long before some New Age guru suggested putting your cares into a ballon and letting them drift away.

My home in Loja is on the top floor of a hotel and as the apartment next to me is unoccupied, I have the rooftop all to myself. I have not had any romantic dinners with a beautiful Lojanos woman, but I do spend many hours looking up at the sky or watching the fireworks from the rooftop. Because Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador, established in 1548, the buildings themselves are almost all connected. The city is the perfect blend of old and new construction. The old walls form the walls and foundations for many of the new buildings. From what I have seen, buildings are never completely torn down. Space within El Centro is limited. Although there are many green plazas and parks within the city limits, individual yard space is very unusual to be included with a home. Outside El Centro yards are more abundant but still very small.

Because of these space restrictions, rooftops in Loja have many uses. The kids play soccer and volleyball on rooftops which is much safer than the streets if they cannot make it to the nearby fields or parks. They also serve to provide space for large family gatherings and barbecues. On sunny days you can see laundry hanging from almost every rooftop in sight. The laundry looks like Tibetan prayer flags waving in the breeze.

The Lojanos also raise their chickens and pets on their rooftops. Many of the rooftops in the area of my apartment have hen houses built on them. I think this is great utilization of space until the rosters start rostering at four o’clock in the morning or the dogs start barking out of frustration at other dogs or people walking on the street, but it is all a part of living here in Loja. A city I have come to love and appreciate for its diverse cultures and warm friendly people.

“Right smack dab in the middle of town, I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof…Up on the roof.”

Walking

I am one of those people who absolutely enjoys walking. Although it is a wonderful exercise for my body, I walk because walking takes me outside of my physical world. It forces me to be aware and present. In the moment, each moment. I can live in my introverted world for days on end without any human contact. I love my solitude. So walking becomes a way of pushing my senses, taking in more sights, sounds, smells and tastes than are available in my home. Walking the streets in El Centro forces me to interact with people, forces me to engage in a language with which I am still unfamiliar, and gives me a better sense of community. A greater feel of belonging.

The streets in El Centro are old and narrow as are the sidewalks. Most of the streets are one way and there are very few lights or stop signs. Cars and people seem to move along in unison. Most of the time during the day, people walking move faster than the cars. The streets are one lane wide so when a taxi stops to pick up or to let off a customer or a truck stops for a delivery all traffic behind them stops also. Everyone blows their horns but no one moves any faster. The streets are empty of traffic at night because most of the traffic apparently comes from the outskirts of the town center. A part of the city I have yet to explore. I feel as safe walking at night as I do walking during the day. Loja and Cuenca are both safe environments.

The other advantage of walking is I get to see where things are, but then I usually forget and have to go looking all over again. Many of the stores in El Centro are small family operations without signage of any kind. When the doors are closed, they become the family home and not longer a store. So a store or restaurant during the day is impossible to find in the evenings or on Sundays when most stores are closed.

Walking to the farmers market, grocery store, or just strolling through town gives me more opportunities to interact with the citizens of this wonderful town. I have already made a few friends this way. Walking helps me to be more aware of everything around me and that is important because in Loja and Cuenca, the pedestrian does not have the right of way. Even in the cross walks.

A Hotel Citizen

“I am a hotel citizen.” It has been nine months since I moved to the fifth floor of the Hostal Los Molinos (Hostal The Mills) in Loja, Ecuador. It was my initial intension to use this location only as a landing base for my permanent return last December until a more suitable living arrangement could be found, but I am still here. I thought the disco music on Friday and Saturday nights, or the barking German shepherd outside my bedroom window, or the numerous calls of the neighborhood rosters before sunrise would quickly drive me to find a different residence, but I am still here. I live in one of two apartments on the rooftop. It is peaceful here because it is the highest building in the area. There are 80 steps to my floor which I climb three to four times a day as there are no elevators in most of the residential buildings in Loja.

The apartment next to me has been vacant since I moved here in December but a couple from the US will be moving in the beginning of September. I believe he is retired and she teaches at the English School and has offered to help my with my Spanish.

Having an apartment in a hotel is a bit different for me because I am use to being isolated in my living arrangements. In Fiji, I lived on an plot of land one hundred yards from the ocean. In California, a small casita invisible to the rest of the world behind the main dwelling. Years ago when I imagined my retirement, I thought of the possibility of living in a residential hotel but the image in my mind was in a city like New York or San Francisco and the hotel had a doorman who would greet me upon each exit and return.

There are some advantages to living in a hotel. One advantage of living where I do is the fabulous 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains. Also, I did not have to purchase furniture or appliances, and all utilities, cable, and internet wifi are included. For a person like myself who gets itchy feet every three to five years, a hotel is a good choice. Although now that I have residency here, at least Ecuador will be home for a while. I have learned to put in earplugs before the music starts in the disco so the loud music is not much of a problem. Sometimes if I wake up, I’ll go down to the bar for a drink or read. It is a very young crowd and reminds me of my disco days except everyone here does the salsa.

I am a bit of a curiosity to the young adults who come to dance at the disco. They think I am someone important because the hotel staff treats me so well. I leave by a special door that takes me to the stairway and back up to my rooftop apartment. The rooftops in Loja are used as extended rooms by the families to keep the pets and/or chickens, and to hang laundry out to dry. On holidays and weekends many of the families have BQ’s on the neighborhood rooftops.

In Ecuador the children live in the family home until they marry and often even after they are married. It is very family orientated here, often two or three family segments live in the same home. So, by living in a hotel, I have become part of an extended family. The employees are very friendly and attend to me as a family member. We speak different languages but that barrier has not hindered our relationship. Perhaps this is the reason more than any other I am still here.