As we bump from bus to bus on the winding way to Cumbaya, the silence is disrupted only by the arrival of the daily habas vendor, loudly chanting the name of the beans over and over as he enters one end of the bus and exits the other, not selling a single bag. Everyone sticks to their phones or books as we pass lanes with elaborate spray-painted concrete walls, medians with rogue corn stalks growing next to orange juice sellers, and adjacent rows of open-air flower shops preparing their bouquets, every bump of the bus throwing the color of the streets on the grey morning.

The sight that stays in my mind, however, is the casual meeting of friends on a sidewalk or in a gas station parking lot. Even at 8:30 am, the surprise of running into acquaintances elicits broad smiles, kisses on the cheek and a genuinely enthusiastic “cómo estás!?” followed by a conversation with a mutually unknown expiration date. Everyone is off to work after, their days made so much better by seeing Maria’s boyfriend’s mother met once at a birthday party.

Since August, Quito has been the launching pad for the ecology field trips and a resting spot for the return. Rarely do we have time to explore the city and meet its people, and connect on a social level with our host country. When we are back, what I enjoy the most are the chances to see the Ecuadorian bondad of family and friends, and admire their affection and closeness. One time recently I visited my host mother’s mother-in-law, and I was expecting to stare into a corner as rapid-fire Spanish is tossed back-and-forth over my head like ping-pong. On the contrary, the kind woman welcomes me into her home, offers me tea, and listens as my host mom and I recount trips to America, laughing and remarking “no les creo!” as we describe supermarket size.

What this community thrives on is a sense of kinship and “family-above-all” mentality. My host mother’s late husband has been gone for a year, and she still makes time on a Sunday to drive an hour to visit his mother. And not just for a mandatory meeting, but a warm sharing of food and time, an authentic exchange of love and kindness. This is what I didn’t know I was craving from the city of Quito, and I’ve finally gotten it: it’s the people and their culture that give the city its vibrancy and color. It’s the la música latina blasting on the Ecovia, the way Mami folds the edges of her homemade embanadas, and sharing a smile with anyone who has shared one with you.


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