A young child’s reminiscence of living on a volcano and riding the “chicken bus”.
My family moved to Quito Ecuador in 1961, I think. I was too young to care about dates so I don’t really remember. My father was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Offutt AFB south of Omaha Nebraska. He was sent to Quito Ecuador with a 6 month layover in Arlington Virginia so that he could go to a government Spanish class. Our family got our passport photos taken at the Pentagon. We flew from Arlington to Miami, to Guayaquil, Ecuador then on to Quito. A long trip for a 5 year old. I’m not sure how we got from the airport to our temporary lodgings, I was probably mostly asleep.
The little hotel we stayed at was called a Pencion (Pen-see-Ohn). It was like a beautiful old mansion surrounded by a very high sold wall. I remember this because I was allowed to play outside as much as I wanted. There was a patio in the back with a lemon tree growing in a planter carved out of the pavement in the middle of the patio right outside of a pair of French doors. We ate all of our meals in the dining room at the Pencion.
I became friends with an employee of the Pencion named Laura (Spanish pronunciation, please). Looking back, I think my parents probably paid her to babysit me and my younger brother Bobby who was about a year old. I can remember her taking us for a short walk outside of the tall walls to a fountain in the middle of a traffic circle about a block away and letting us splash around in the water. She showed me how to make a boat out of newspaper. When my parents found a home to rent, she came with us as a housekeeper and nanny. She was with us until we moved back to the United States in 1963. We were great friends.
The house my parents rented was in a northern suburb of Quito. I can remember it was a large 2 story house, maybe the equivalent of four blocks up the hill from the main road. By uphill I mean on the slope of the volcano Pichincha. My father said the road at the bottom of the hill was the Pan-American Highway. All I knew was that if we turned right onto it we were going into the city and if we turned left we were going to the base. In the early 1960’s it was more like a dirt road that a highway. We would walk down our street, which actually WAS a dirt road, to go to the neighborhood market which was across the highway. It was safe enough that I was allowed to go by myself or with my friends next door. Most of the houses in our area were rented by Americans.
My father worked at a US military base on the northern edge of Quito. The thing I remember most about the base was that it was a combined base for the Air Force and the Navy. The main building was a long narrow one storied structure that was painted dark blue on the Air Force half and grey on the Navy half. Where the paint color changed from blue to grey, there was a door to the outside, 2 steps down and a sidewalk that led to the flagpole. My dad was a navigator. I’m not sure where he flew to most of the time, but I do know that once a month the shopping plane left for a US base in Panama. The guys took shopping lists from other military families and the plane came back loaded with American groceries and toiletries.
My baby brother was sick a lot while we were there. Quito had a missionary hospital. When they could not decide what was wrong with him, my mother, brother and I flew to Panama on the grocery plane to go to the military hospital in Panama. Well children were not allowed inside of the hospital. I sat on the front steps with crayons and coloring books. My mother told me several years ago that she was proud of me for being so well behaved on those days when I had to sit on the steps and color for hours while she was inside with my brother. My mother said he had Amoebas and we would need to make sure that we never drink or cook with water that was not boiled first.
He needed to go to the hospital in Panama several times. I did not go with them each time, I think I only went twice. Laura and I had fun when my parents left me home. One of our adventures was a half day hike up the mountain. We followed a narrow foot path uphill carrying our picnic lunch. We walked until we decided it was lunch time. We sat on the ground and ate lunch, then walked back home.
Another adventure that is one of my fondest memories is when we took what I call the “chicken bus” to a huge market. We caught the bus in front of the neighborhood market at the bottom of our street. I call it the chicken bus because it was overflowing with people and some of the women were holding chickens, usually by their feet. Chickens are not well behaved and don’t sit still for very long. There was a large luggage rack on top of the bus that was loaded with boxes and bags, tied down of course, and sometimes there were even people sitting on top. The market we went to was maybe an hour south. The market was absolutely huge. There was what seemed like a never ending sea of women sitting behind a cloth laid out on the ground with huge piles of whatever they were selling piled high on the cloth. There seemed to be no end to what you could buy. Vegetables, fruit, clothes, shoes, blankets and hats are what I can remember most clearly. Oh! How could I forget, chickens. Yes, live chickens were for sale. It was an all day trip and I remember it fondly.
Another adventure was when a neighbor who was a single Navy guy, Chief Merckly, took the children of all of his friends up Pichincha for a hot dog roast. He stopped at several houses along the way picking up kids in his small car. We stopped at his girlfriend’s house in the old historic part of Quito to pick up the rest of the gang. There were so many kids in the small car that we had to sit on top of each other. Nobody minded. When we got out of town proper, he let some of the older kids sit on the hood and the trunk. Trust me, we needed the breathing room. We were on a small dirt road heading up the mountain to a waterfall. There was no traffic. When the road got steep, the older kids had to walk and I was allowed to sit on the hood. I felt like one of the big kids. There were times it was so steep that the oldest boys had to push the car to help it up the road. When we reached the waterfall we all needed to splash around in the cool, clean water. Where the water from the waterfall pool turned into a stream and started it’s down the mountain, someone had laid large curved concrete tiles for the stream bed. It made a great waterslide…..for the older kids. Chief Merckly said I was too young to go down the creek. I didn’t feel like a big kid anymore. He tried to make me feel better by telling me he needed me to help him build a fire to roast the hot dogs. After we ate hot dogs and dries off part way, we all pilled back in and on the car and started a slow roll down the mountain. By the time we got to the edge of town we were dry. Everyone had to pile back into the car and sit on top of each other again. It’s a good thing we were dry!
My family took several road trips while we lived in Ecuador. We drove north to the equator several times. There was no park or monuments at that time. There was a small post office that was made for tourists. It was a short one story round concrete dome structure. The shape of the dome was like to pointed end of a chicken egg. The outside was decorated with raised and painted Incan hieroglyphs. My father took one photo of this structure that has gotten lost over the past 50 years. It was more like a hut than a building.
On another trip we drove down the east side of the mountains, following a river. At one point we stopped and hiked down a short trail to the river. The riverbank was lined with an amazing amount of white pumice stones. I collected as many rocks as I could get into my pockets. We also spent time throwing pumice rocks into the river and watching it float away with the current.
We didn’t go into the city too often. When we did, it was usually because we had to. We went to the American Embassy at least twice that I remember. Once for a shot and another time for a sugar cube. I can remember asking my mother why we had to come to the Embassy and stand in a long for just a sugar cube. She told me it was to protect me from getting Polio. When I was in first grade my school sent a note home telling my mother that I needed glasses. That meant a trip into the new modern part of downtown to see an optometrist and I’m assuming a second trip to pick up my glasses.
The school I went to was a private Ecuadorian school that taught German as a second language. German was my first language, so that worked out pretty good. I already knew enough Spanish to get by because Laura spoke only Spanish. At school I became fluent in Spanish pretty quickly. I guess I should put in here that German was my first language because I was born in Germany and lived with my German grandparents until I was three. I learned English in kindergarten in Omaha Nebraska.
Several times we went to a park close to Quito that had a lake with swans in it. It was a wonderful place for a picnic. We also made several trips to a place away from the city that had a large warm pool. It was at a lower elevation and it might have been in a jungle. My mother said it was down the west side on the way to Guayaquil.
Over the past several years I have looked on Google Earth to see if I could find the area where we lived, where I went to school, where the US military base was. It has all changed so much over the past 50 years that I was completely lost. The airport has moved. I suspect that they might have built the Sucre Airport over the old military base. We passed by a bullring on the way from the city to our house and I did see a bullring at the south end of the airport on Google Earth. With my luck, they tore down the one I remember and built a new one in a different place.
What a five, six and seven year old remembers is so different from what an adult remembers. We have different priorities. I remember coloring books, birthday parties and white popsicles that taste like coconut. I remember rocks that float, cactuses with a red fruit that you eat, friends and sleepovers. I remember an Indio family that lived in a cardboard house in the empty lot next to our house. They made corn nuts over an open fire inside their cardboard house. I remember catching hell when my mother found out I was in their hut and playing with their kids. (They got their cardboard from my father who threw empty boxes over the wall after each grocery trip to Panama). I remember bringing home a live guinea pig that came out of a piñata at a birthday party. And I remember how absolutely beautiful the mountains were.
I am still a mountain girl.
This post was written for the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge– Leave your shoes at the Door.