I sat alone on the hostel rooftop. A chilly, but calm wind swept through the plants and shrubbery that outlined the perimeter of the roof. I took a drag from my half-burnt cigarette, and glanced over at the narrow streets on either side of me. Santiago's city center was adorned with ornately built low-rise buildings. Animated figures moved across the illuminated windowsills across from me; the denizens of Santiago going about their nightly rituals. I turned my view towards the North and watched as a the last flickers of traffic drizzled out in and out of the intersection which lay atop the Costanera. It was my last night here, and as I gently put out my cigarette and washed down the bitter taste of tobacco with a glass of red, I found myself thinking about home. Thoughts of forgotten love and vivid loneliness mingled with a newfound longing for freedom and adventure. I thought about my cushioned bed, my friends and family and newly adopted puppy all waiting for me at home. As poured another glass of Chilean red, I found myself ready to leave. I had come alone to a place I had never been before, where everyone spoke a language I did not know. I came with no itinerary, plan or direction, but as I contemplated my journey back, I found that I was leaving with something far greater than the notion of "finding myself" or anything remotely inspirational. I was leaving instead with the self-love and confidence of knowing who I was as a person. As to how I left with that love, is a story that I want to tell with all of my heart and soul, right from the beginning.
The jilted shake of the plane woke me up from my nap. I looked around across the dimly lit seats in front of me, many of which were filled with sleeping passengers who'd filled themselves on the steamed rice, corn and beef we were served hours prior. Holding the right side of my chair, I twisted my back to stretch and roll my shoulders, and as I did so, I glanced through the open window on my right. The cloudy night sky glowed with the flashing light on the tip of the airplane's wing. As the plane began to wind down into a descent, the thinning of the clouds revealed tiny speckles of light that pockmarked the shadows of the hilly, mountainous landscape.
The tiny speckles became more plentiful and densely grouped and the outlines of streetlights that illuminated the streets began to be recognizable. It wasn't long until the grandeur of Ecuador's capital, Quito presented itself to me -- an entire city built on the Andean foothills. I was nervous, pangs of excitement beat through my chest as we slowly descended across the black horizon. It was my first time travelling solo after all, and with no pre-booked accommodations, I guess you could say that this was really "shotgun travel" in a sense -- I had to make the best of whatever presented itself to me, even if it would mean not having a bed to sleep in or not eating for the day.
The airport was small and plain. The few stores and duty free markets that were still open really had no one in them and by the time I had collected my backpack and made it through customs, it was well past 11pm. Public transit wasn't in service and the airport was about a half hour away from the city. I flagged a taxi, or rather, was swarmed with taxi drivers as I made my way through the exit. I had read about Ecuadorian taxi drivers prior to leaving, and that it was quite easy to be targeted and scammed, especially if you looked like a foreigner. As I, the little Asian guy with a huge backpack stepped outside, I couldn't help but think how much I really stood out like a sore thumb. Panicking with the drivers beckoning me for my patronage, I had picked the first guy that came up to me. Looking back at it, I guess he looked the most friendliest out of them all at the time. I handed him my the larger of my two bags, and I entered the taxi on the left side door as he placed it into the trunk. Away from the safety and comfort of airports, I guess you could say that this is where my journey truly began. As he sped down the Ruta Collas towards my supposed hostel for the night, the anxiety in my chest turned into a beating recoil of relief. The faint speckles of light across the hillsides that I saw atop the plane became much brighter from the view on the ground. As we sifted through the middle of two rows of trees, the speed of the car made the hillside lights look like they were distant stars, twinkling ever so brightly.
As we slowly pulled up in front of the hostel, I handed the driver $25 USD, a hefty price for my cheap budget, but the normal amount gringos would pay from the airport to the city. I hampered with my bags up to the door of the Secret Garden and slowly opened the wooden door. A colorful yet narrow interior lay before me and I as I approached, I could hear the faint playing of music which echoed down the stairs. I didn't have to wait long until I was greeted by a man who appeared from a door on the side.
"Do you have a reservation?" he asks.
"No." I said.
"We don't have any space."
And this is where it all went downhill. Turns out that the beds were filled from when I previously checked the bookings for the place on Hostelworld. My inexperienced backpacker ass didn't think it was necessary to book a bed in Quito's most popular hostel.
It was already well past 12am, and with broken english, he told me to walk down the street to another hostel. I meekly picked up my two bags and treaded on the cobbled road until a gated entrance came up on my right side. I rang the door buzzer. After a few minutes, words of Spanish came running out from the intercom and all I could muster up was the phrase.
"Hola, can I stay here for tonight."
The gate opened on its own, and I made my way up a dark alley with a large truck parked at the end of it. I was startled as dogs started to bark viciously at me from an adjacent house. A small courtyard opened on my right side, and a I sidled up the staircase looking for anyone to talk to, but no one peeped out until a small woman in her 60s peeped through the door. She didn't speak a word of english, and I didn't know a word of Spanish, aside from "Hola" of course. After about 10 minutes of back and forth, she got the idea that I was here to stay, and showed me up to the top floor and into a room where two girls were sleeping quietly. I made my way to the first bunk I could find, and collapsed on the mattress. I didn't even bother changing out of my clothes. Wasn't too bad for my first night I suppose, but I couldn't help but think this:
"Welcome to South America David."
End of Pt.1