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The International Writers Magazine: Ecuador

So Long, Sidekick
Tyrel Nelson

The rainbow-tiled sidewalks were blurry. Fighting off a fierce caffeine headache that made my previous 2 hours on the bus from Quito agonizing, I struggled to keep up with Andrew as we proceeded south on Bolívar. In addition, I was famished. A lack of Joe and breakfast on this sunny Saturday morning had severely dampened my spirits. And given that this was our first time in the Imbabura province (we had both ventured separately from the distant south), my fellow gringo and I had no idea where to go in order to bring me back to life. In spite of only being off the bus for 10 minutes, I already hated Otavalo.

Suddenly, Andrew stopped on a downtown street corner.
"Want to get some breakfast?" my short, brown-haired friend asked while staring at a café kitty-cornered from us.
All I could do was nod excitedly as we headed for the glass doors.

The color and optimism were back in my face several minutes later. Savoring every sip of my black coffee and inhaling my eggs and bacon, I enthusiastically bounced ideas for the day off my former TESOL classmate, who devoured his loaded chicken sandwich on the other end of our small wooden table. Studying my guidebook, the two of us eventually decided to walk a big loop, ambling down Bolívar and then double back north on Sucre, which were the two main arteries running through the heart of the municipality.

Once outside, my pal from Loja (a small, tranquil city near Ecuador’s southern tip) and I continued south on Bolívar to complete a trifecta of churches. First, the two of us stopped by González Suárez Plaza, where we admired the twin towers of the square’s smoky church. Next, we meandered across the community’s central park-Parque Bolívar. Not only did Andrew and I ogle the thriving area’s verdant shrubbery, palm trees, and fountains, but we were also impressed by the plaza’s enormous salmon chapel. Lastly, the two of us paused for a moment below the yellow and baby-blue façade of the Iglesia San Francisco. Even though this holy house was much smaller than its northern counterparts, its cleanliness and upkeep were remarkable. The church looked brand new, like it was built the night before.

After crossing off chapels on our list, Andrew and I sauntered one block east until we reached Sucre. The two of us then backtracked north with markets on our minds.

Pacing northward, Andrew and I were pleased by the colorful buildings and decorated lampposts that lined Sucre. We were also in awe of the endless blue and yellow tarps that occupied the bustling byway, which covered the upcoming kiosks as far as the eye could see. And just as we re-passed Otavalo’s central plaza, Andrew and I were swallowed by a sea of shoppers.

My fellow English teacher and I patiently pressed on, snaking our way through the dense crowd of gringos and Ecuadorians, as well as occasionally stopping by a booth so Andrew could check out the crafts. And as we continued to bob, weave, and bargain, I couldn’t help but wonder where all the hype about Otavalo came from. I had heard countless individuals rave about this pueblo’s authentic, one-of-kind merchandise. But as I analyzed the items for sale, I concluded that I could have bought about eighty percent of these so-called unique crafts in Cuenca; the city I had been calling home for the past 10 months. The merchandise may have been a tad cheaper here, but it certainly didn’t warrant traveling across the country to save some pocket change. Like most of the places that I’d heard others rattle on about, this one was overrated too.

Regardless of my disappointment, Andrew and I carried on and eventually entered Otavalo’s famous Plaza de Ponchos; an enormous concrete area dominated by stands covered with giant blue umbrellas. Here, the two of us tried our best not to get annoyed as we constantly moseyed our way around the massive multitude of tourists and nationals. Despite our fading patience with the unending swarms of people, Andrew managed to get some shopping done nonetheless. Satisfied with his arts and crafts purchases, Mr. Murphy and I then quickly decided to break away from the pack.

Always suckers for views, Andrew and I agreed there had to be a lookout point and that we should find it. Consequently, the two of us once again marched south on Bolívar until we reached Calderón. Looking east, Andrew and I noticed a wide cement staircase running up the green hill on the edge of town and, therefore, picked up our pace.
While we crept closer towards the town’s outskirts, the midday sun crept further behind the ever-increasing clouds. Nevertheless, despite the dimming skies, the two of us discovered a couple of more sites.

For instance, we stumbled upon Otavalo’s food market, which sat on a corner lot filled with fruit stands sheltered by evergreen tin roofs. In fact, the fruit looked so shiny that it appeared plastic, similar to the foods used to decorate tables. Moreover, Andrew and I came across the old train station, which rested on the community’s eastern border and had obviously been out of commission for many years. And after swiftly crossing the decrepit tracks, the two of us finally arrived at the concrete stairs, ascending them immediately.

Reaching the top of the rather short staircase, Andrew and I saw more rusty rails that curved around the dusty hilltop we were standing on. In addition, both of us wandered towards the base of a sky-scraping cement cross, which stabbed deep into the heavens and was, unfortunately, riddled with graffiti.

Andrew and I, in truth, wandered about the area for a good while. However, we still couldn’t find any indication of an overlook for the city. To that end, my fellow traveler and I opted to return to the stairs

But just as we were about to descend the hill, the two of us noticed a tiny metal sign that said, "Balcón de Otavalo." Andrew and I had been standing on the town’s lookout point without even realizing it. I was surprised.

Although it didn’t seem like my friend and I were very high, there were no more stairs above us; this was it. That said, I took a few photos overlooking Otavalo and followed Andrew back down the stairs. It was time to catch a bus.

As we headed north on Bolívar, I was reminded of the numerous occasions that Andrew and I had done this; the final walk out of town. However, unlike our past exits from various communities scattered around the country, this departure had a different feeling to it because my friend was about to jet. Given that Andrew was just a handful of days from boarding his plane for the States, this was, in fact, the last march of our last marches in Ecuador. Making our way north, I pondered this realization for the next few blocks.

Without any warning, an elderly woman then yelled, snapping me out of my daze. She was leaning out from the passenger window of a truck stopped at the intersection that Andrew and I were crossing.
"Here you go, young man. Take these, they’re free," said the gray-haired Ecuadorian as she handed me two magazines.
Returning to Andrew, who was waiting for me on the sidewalk, I held the publications out in front of me to examine my parting gifts while we approached the northern city limits.
"I don’t think that one’s meant for you," my pal said, pointing to the periodical titled, Being Young.
Always reminded of the fact that I was in kindergarten when my sidekick was born, I laughed.
I then looked over to see Andrew sporting a wide grin. A smile that not only represented the pride in his latest wisecrack, but also the contentedness he felt from a fulfilling 11 months in Ecuador.
And even though I was glad that Andrew was happy to be heading home, part of me wasn’t. It was a bit tough knowing he’d soon be gone.

© Tyrel Nelson October 2008

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