SHEL’S AND FRANK’S EXCELLENT ECUADOR ADVENTUREFirst impressions: Leaving Ecuador – and dreaming of returning

Apr 1, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Frank and Shel Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel Drake is a professional travel photographer.

We’d just spent 24 hours traveling and 36 hours awake and I could hardly hold my head up, but the first thing I did when we got home was start researching a better way to fly to and from Ecuador.

Our return trip began the previous evening in Cuenca, where we took a Tame flight at 6:30, from which we’d seen a single snowcapped peak peeking out from above the thick and billowing cloud cover (sitting on the left, west, side). Arriving in Quito at 7:30, we walked the tarmac from the flight to the baggage-claim area, jet engines screaming in our ears and jet-fuel fumes filling our faces. We picked up our luggage at the domestic terminal, showed our claim tickets to the baggage checker, and entered the international terminal.

The airport in Quito is called Mariscal Sucre (UIO — the name commemorates a revolutionary hero and you’ll see it on lots of government buildings and street signs) and it’s not exactly a showcase for the country. But the domestic and international terminals are right next to each other, so it was a snap to transfer from our Cuenca arrival to our Atlanta departure.

The outer room of the international terminal at Mariscal Sucre is open to the public, so it was teeming with people greeting or seeing off friends or family. After showing our passports to guards, we entered the inner ground-floor room, with its ticket counters, six seats against the far wall, and a fast-food counter.

After a couple weeks in Ecuador, the food prices — $6 for a pechuga de pollo apanado (breaded chicken breast) sandwich, $8 for a lomo y queso (cheesesteak) sanduche, even $9-something for an arroz con cuerdo (rice and pork) plate — stopped us in our tracks, though we were hungry and captive with a five-hour layover.

Actually, if I’d wanted to eat, I would’ve and to hell with the $6. Shel wanted to eat, but wouldn’t pay. Thing is, she always wants to eat (and still somehow manages to stay thin) and she didn’t figure the local version of an airport fast-food chicken sandwich to be worthy of her seis damn dolares. I had a feeling she might’ve been surprised at how good it probably was, well worth the equivalent cost of a Happy Meal where we, sadly, were headed; Ecuador’s food, like so many other things about the country, never failed, meal after meal, to astound us. But already accustomed to non-airport prices and quality, we waited, foodless, for a couple hours. Around nine-thirty p.m., the Delta ticket counter opened for business.

A motley assemblage of passengers queued up for the flight to Atlanta, including a white-haired German couple carrying backpacks, several Estados Unidos retirees, two elderly women clutching bird books, apparently just back from Galapagos, a college-age girl who, later at the gate area, was reading email when she burst into tears, and a little bald guy nervously rearranging his suitcase and carry-on, so we were subjected to the unsavory sight of his dirty socks and underwear, a couple crushed Panama hats, and about 25 packages of the anti-depressant Lexipro spilling out onto the Mariscal Sucre floor. After our own drug-store experience in Otavalo, Shel and I quietly speculated that the drug is probably readily available without a prescription and perhaps relatively inexpensive in Ecuador.

When it was our turn at the check-in counter, Shel’s luggage was three pounds overweight at 53.5 pounds. Shel tends to travel a little heavy; this trip it was six pair of shoes. I was under by seven pounds, even with the wallhangings, sweaters, T-shirts, and art we’d bought at the crafts mercado in Otavalo, plus three bottles of Espiritu de Ecuador liqueur we were bringing back as gifts. So we rearranged our luggage, giving everyone in line a good look at our own lumpy loads of dirty laundry.

We got our luggage weights sorted out, collected our boarding passes, and proceeded to the exit-tax window for our $40 see-ya stickers. I admit that handing over $80 in order that the two of us could leave the country was a bit painful. But not unlike the 12% sales tax, the 10% automatic service charge at hotels, and restaurants with cash registers, and even the 10% surcharge for using tarjetas de credito (credit cards), the airport tax had to be paid, so why stress over it? Besides, this particular fee was the only real government we’d seen in action the whole time and I figured, well, it’s cheap enough for such a magical place. I handed over four of my last five twenties.

Then it was arriba to the second-floor gate area. At the top of the escalator, a security guard checked our tickets; then we strolled past a half-dozen little duty-free stalls, long closed for the night, and up to the immigration counter where we were stamped out of the country. Then it was through the metal detector, so sensitive that it beeped, it turned out, from a dime and a nickel in my pants pocket and a pair of eyeglasses in my breast pocket. As I was wanded, I wondered if my zipper would set it off and what I’d do then. We got through that, but the continuing tight security surprised us.

Outside the gate itself, a Delta counter agent again wanted a look at our tickets and passports; then our carry-ons were searched, and then we were frisked. We had to show our boarding passes to get onto the jetway, then again to get onto the plane. After we claimed our seats, I said to Shel, “Better hang onto your boarding pass. We’ll probably have to show it to get off the plane.”

Sitting in my airline seat, taking the first of many deep breaths of stale air, I thought about how the carry-on search lady had just made an issue over my toothpaste, insisting that it be in a Zip-Loc bag. We asked around if anyone had one; no one did. Then, being ecuatoriana, friendly and helpful, she came up with one. She smiled as she put my tube of Crest into it, which was when I realized that all the security hoopla was for Los Estados Unidos. After all, we’d left Ecuador after getting our passports stamped. So either Homeland Security was putting the pressure on, or the ecuatorianos were guarding against the kind of publicity that would result from some mad bomber boarding a U.S.-bound jet from little ol’ Mariscal Sucre, or the gate agents misunderstood the instructions that liquids in carry-ons had to be removed from luggage before being put through the metal detectors. Whichever, my Crest 3-D Cinnamon Rush was now securely nestled in an unzipped Zip-Loc bag and, as a result, Delta flight 1480 and all the people onboard were safe.

A five-hour flight to and a four-hour layover in Atlanta, then a four-hour flight to Las Vegas later and I was sitting at my computer, reviewing schedules and fares, looking for a better way to fly from Ecuador back to the world.

It wasn’t so much the traveling — the more than 12 hours in airports and 10 hours in an upright and locked position in a cigar tube with wings. It wasn’t even being squeezed by the dreaded clutches of the airline industry — the $6 pechuga de pollo, the wanded eyeglasses, the Zip-Loc toothpaste, or the $11 Egg McMuffins and coffee we found ourselves masticating desultorily at the Atlanta airport, wrapped in more packaging than we’d seen in the past two weeks.

It was much more the fact that I was totally smitten with Ecuador and I was already starting to plan how and when I’d see her again.

Also, I’d decided that I’d chronicle Shel and Frank’s excellent Ecuador adventure, a mixto of a travel blog, the exploits of aspiring expatriates, and the musings of a writer with a whole new country’s worth of content, my deathless prose illustrated by Shel’s timeless photos.

And this was the start of it, not even fifteen minutes home from the airport, researching the various airlines, airports, schedules, and fares, launching into learning everything there was to know about getting back to Ecuador. All grist for the mixto mill.

Photo caption: Delta flight 1480 on the tarmac in Quito, bound for Atlanta. 

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