We awoke that Saturday morning with a collective feeling of “blah”. As a family, we are not generally inclined towards hypochondria, but the four of all either had a headache, stomach upset, or a strong case of the lazies. Two of us awoke before dawn with the anxiety that sleep cut too short brings. The other two slept far past their normal waking time and proceeded to grump around the house with the grogginess that over-sleeping causes. After coffee, sugary bread, and a brief family discussion, we agreed that the best thing to do would be to spend the day relaxing at our apartment, maybe with a walk around the old streets and colonial buildings of our neighborhood to round out the day. There was no need to try and accomplish any sightseeing, visits to museums that we had missed, or other ambitious activities when we were obviously still so knackered from our trip far north of metropolitan Quito – to the equator or “Mitad del Mundo” as the Quiteños call the little town, a couple of days earlier.
That particular trip wouldn’t have been so exhausting if we hadn’t been trying to do everything so cheaply. We are “poor” travelers, restrained by a tiny budget but largely unrestrained by time. During our meandering journey of about a year, we are free to stay for longer periods of time in our favorite cities and locales as long as we are frugal and careful with our expenditures. We had rented an apartment in Quito for 6 weeks, mostly because a longer rental was cheaper than the weekly ones favored by the tourists who are merely dropping in on their way to the Galapagos, and also because we had simply fallen in love with the city.
Our excursion to Mitad del Mundo started with some vague and poor planning. In this city, we had come to rely on the extensive bus system to get around, as it was a very economical and reliable choice. But our Spanish was still far from perfect, and it was never helpful asking directions from harried and fast-talking bus station attendants as they took our family fare of 62 cents while a forever-long queue of frantic bus riders huffed impatiently behind us. We hadn’t been able to clarify exactly which bus stations or routes we were supposed to be using to get to our destination. It would seem that no gringos had ever gone there without using a tour guide or a private driver, or at least none that had helpfully left english language directions on trip-advisor. We were a bit lost from the outset.
So the adventure had resulted in no less than 7 bus rides totaling about 4 hours to get there and back, along with what seemed to be endless amounts of walking in the hot and dusty day. The dust was almost overwhelming at times, choking us and forcing us to stop and cover our eyes, and we wondered why we had never read any reviews of Mitad del Mundo that mentioned it. We asked a tour guide at the kitschy equator museum, and she answered simply with one word.
The earthquake had happened two days earlier and it was a big one, causing landslides in an area next to Mitad del Mundo, killing three people and apparently causing clouds of dust to linger over the area for days. It hadn’t caused any damage in our neighborhood (the old historic area of Quito), but it had shaken us up and reminded us that we were indeed living in the ring of fire in the bottom story of a four-story concrete building no less.
So after our dusty, long and exhausting day, we felt we deserved a break from the relentless exploring and wandering that we had taken up since coming to Quito.
As I stood in the doorway of the bathroom brushing my teeth and chatting with my daughter as she made her bed in the next room, I felt a slight jolt. Nothing too terrible really, and it wasn’t until my husband shouted from the next room, “That’s an earthquake!” that my heart made a little leap of recognition. It was then that I became aware that the floor beneath my feet was rolling, almost like the sensation you have when riding on a large boat or ship. I shouted at my family to get into the doorways, even though I had no idea if my experience of what to do in the California earthquakes of my childhood would do us any good in South American concrete houses.
After what seemed like an eternity of shaking (that was surely less than a minute), we agreed that it must be over. I found that it was hard to tell because my muscles were tense and my body was still shaking.
As an added after-effect of the quake, we had all shaken off our grogginess. In fact, we were completely panicked.
“I think we need to get out of here,” my husband said. “Maybe we are about to have a big one. Did you feel how much that floor was moving? I’m not sure we’re safe here”.
“Well, maybe it was just an aftershock,” I said, my optimistic side voicing what I wasn’t actually feeling.
“That was at least as strong as the one from the other day, if not stronger,” my husband argued.
My kids stood looking at us both with wide eyes. Maybe we did need to go somewhere for the day out of the house. A large, wide-open city park seemed just the thing. So we dressed and organized our packs in record time and headed out to the bus station, nearly running.
The good thing about the bus station near our apartment is that it is at the end of this particular bus line. That means that when you get on, it is onto an empty bus with rows and rows of beautiful empty seats to choose from. We have learned to cram our larger-than-the-average-Ecaudorian family into one tiny area of two seats though, because at the very next stop, no matter the time or day, all of humanity seems to cram onto the bus.
We sat in the midst of armpits and hair and bags and bad breath for the next half hour to get to one of the largest city parks in Quito. When we finally exited, fighting our way off with loud shouts of “disculpe!” and some slight pushing, my husband announced that his headache was unsurprisingly back with a vengeance. We found our way to a little pharmacy and with some pantomiming and creative vocabulary explained our situation. After fortifying ourselves with Motrin and Gatorade, we were back on our way. It was lunchtime (at least for us gringos) and we were in search of an elusive seafood restaurant next to the park that had gotten some rave reviews online (but that we had somehow managed to miss on our prior visits).
And so we walked. And walked. And walked. I couldn’t actually remember the name of this restaurant, just that it was somewhere on this block next to a kebab restaurant. Every 20 feet or so we would stop and gaze expectantly through restaurant windows looking for the mythical “Best Ceviche in Quito” restaurant. Finally, almost like an oasis in the desert, we found it. Of course, by then the kids were tired and annoyed and demanding to spend some time at the park that was tantalizingly just across the street. We relented and walked over to spend time on the playground first.
As we crossed the street, an obnoxiously loud train came into view. It was driving on the street parallel to the park, all bright colors, cartoonish designs and flashing lights. It was filled with smiling families and children whose parents didn’t make them walk nearly as much as we made ours. Predictably, our two-year old son pointed and shouted with glee, “Thomas!!”.
As the train was obviously not stopping anywhere near us (evidenced by the fact that it was driving alarmingly fast and passing other cars as it made its way down the street), we placated our son with a promise that we would look for Thomas later after we had played a bit and had lunch.
Of course we were hoping that he would forget or lose interest, but they never do.
And that was how we began our search for the “Ghost Train” of Parque Carolina.
But first, we had to go back and eat at the “Best Ceviche in Quito” restaurant. As we walked through the doors, we were not the least bit surprised to see that absolutely no other customers were in there. We have learned that our biological rhythms are not in line with the South Americans just yet. We are in bed earlier, up earlier, and hungry earlier. We have tried to adjust, but frankly, its not really happening. Having a child that wakes up by 6 am no matter what hasn’t helped.
We were seated by a friendly-enough waiter who then disappeared into the back room. As we gazed over the menu, our son looked longingly out the window, moaning at the sheer tragedy of not being on that beautiful train. My husband and I meanwhile, were moaning at the tragedy of just how amazingly expensive this restaurant was.
“$13 for one small bowl of ceviche? Surely this must be some sort of foreign money exchange typo,” my husband muttered.
Since Ecuador uses US dollars, that wasn’t likely. This was not in our “cheap lunch out” budget in this generally inexpensive city. Luckily for us, we had no need to explain the situation in an awkward, spanish challenged conversation because our waiter had completely disappeared. Not as in just stepped out for a moment to make a phone call disappeared, but as in we’ve been here for ten minutes and I think this restaurant is now completely empty except for us disappeared. Slightly weirded out, we gathered our things and slunk out.
Which is how we ended up at the kebab restaurant next door. As we walked in, my husband asked the man at the front if they accepted credit cards, as we had neglected to grab any cash in our haste to get out of the apartment. He emphatically shook his head and indicated that there was a cash machine about two blocks away, which is how I ended up hanging out in this odd place by myself with the kids.
I didn’t really begin to sense the oddness until I settled in and had a look around. I refer to this place as a kebab restaurant because it just sort of seemed like that was what it was. I based this assumption on the vaguely middle eastern decor and the more casual counter service atmosphere that reminded me of kebab restaurants past, but I never actually figured out if they even served kebabs because there was no menu. None on the wall over the counter, and none printed on placards for handy perusal. There was however, a beautiful picture of the Egyptian pyramids on the wall behind our table, but with photos of large camels rather amateurishly superimposed on them in unlikely spots. This decor was enhanced by the large and rather boisterous group of men sitting at a table near us, drinking beer and engaging in a lively discussion in Arabic. There were no other customers.
The man approached our table with what I could only describe as trepidation. I then tried to order the three of us some beverages, holding off on figuring out the food until my husband got back. I asked for juice for my kids, and again, the man shook his head rather emphatically. He didn’t seem to be much of a talker. I had not until that point been in a single establishment in Ecuador that did not have juice. Ecuador is a nation of juice drinkers. Even the humblest of restaurants will have a wide variety of juice offerings, most freshly squeezed and rather amazingly delicious. This place had Sprite. But ever the flexible traveler, I ordered two.
I then asked for a beer for myself. The man raised his eyebrows and…hesitated. He repeated my order back to me, as if he was sure he couldn’t have gotten that correct. “Yes, a beer,” I responded in spanish. HIs lips pursed into a thin line. He backed away from the table keeping his eyes on me the whole time. When he returned, he set the bottle of beer, along with two glasses (apparently I couldn’t finish a bottle on my own?) an odd distance away from me, almost on the neighboring table.
When my husband returned from the cash machine, he inquired at the counter about the food offerings. The man silently pointed at the vertical spit behind the counter with the gyro meat slowly turning in circles. No other explanation. Ever wary of meat uncovered and cooking for an indeterminate time, my husband asked if there were any other options. The man shook his head in frustration and came over to speak with me, my husband following. The man asked me in spanish what I would like to order, and after a very brief discussion we established that falafel was available and acceptable to us. With a sigh of relief on both our parts, the man returned to the back room presumably to pass on our order.
When he was out of earshot, I told my husband about the odd reaction to my beer order.
“Maybe it’s the sort of place where they serve alcohol but don’t really want to,” I suggested rather lamely as we both sat looking at the impressively large glass beer cooler displayed prominently in the front entrance.
“Not likely with that group hanging out,” my husband said, indicating the table of loud talking men. As we watched, somewhat awed over the next fifteen minutes, the men drank their way through four more rounds of bottles of beer all around.
Surprisingly, the food was delicious and the bill was shockingly small. I never got a second beer, but you can’t have everything.
As we walked out of the restaurant and back towards the park, we were stunned into silence by the sight of this in front of the ceviche restaurant that we had abandoned.
It was a giant, headless crab wearing a Panama hat, trying its darndest to entice customers inside. In the short time since we had left, they had gone from leaving customers stranded helpless in the dining room to wearing creepy costumes to try and drum up business.
We didn’t have time to sit and ponder as we were now on a mission to locate the train that we had seen circling the park. It was eluding us. Occasionally, we thought we would see glimpses of it through the masses of soccer player and food vendors, but the image would disappear as quickly as it had come. We began to question our sanity. We trudged through every corner of that giant park for the next hour and a half, more and more desperate as time went on. We asked every security guard and police officer that we came across, but all of them just looked at us with bafflement. A few offered suggestions, but of course they all contradicted one another.
“I think maybe it stops at the far north end,” one said, when we were of course standing on the far south end.
“I think maybe it goes through the middle of the park, right there,” one said, mere moments after the guard stationed in the middle had told us he had never seen such a thing.
At one point, it passed us as we were walking, trudging really, towards the only end of the park we hadn’t tried. Its dazzling lights and music taunted us as it zoomed by, the conductor seemingly oblivious to our frantic waves. My son, now convinced he would never see Thomas again, practically collapsed in sobs on the ground. We gave ourselves one last chance to find the legendary train stop.
When we arrived at the busy north end of the park, there was of course, no train or sign for the train, or people queueing up for the train anywhere in sight. Not ready to give up, I approached one last police officer with my pleas.
“Why don’t you go ask my colleague. She speaks english,” the officer said to me in perfect english.
Ok. I asked the other very friendly, sort-of english speaking officer. She initially declined any knowledge of the train, but then offered that she maybe had seen it go by here. Success! Sort of. It hadn’t stopped for us before, but we were hopeful that the now pathetic looks of quiet desperation on our faces would work this time. As we stood on the curb, continually leaning out over the street to see if we could catch sight of the elusive beast, the sort-of english speaking officer approached me again.
“I help you stop train,” she offered. We weren’t sure what she meant exactly, but thanked her profusely. Two minutes later, a glorious sight! The train was rounding the bend headed our way. The extremely helpful Quito officer stepped boldly into oncoming traffic and waved her hand rather officially. The train conductor had obviously not intended to stop here, but he obliged by pulling to the curb. We practically leapt onto an empty car, worried we might miss our opportunity.
We rode around the entire perimeter of the park, stopping at a previously unknown (to us) dusty little tucked-away section where large groups of men were gathered playing or watching intense games of cards. We enjoyed the crazy driving and bizarre noises emitted by this train so much, that we decided to stay on for one more trip. I think there may have been a little hesitation on our part to get out of the train that we had searched for for so long, sort of like giving up your primo parking spot at the mall the week before Christmas. We paid for both trips, the second one oddly costing a dollar extra (gringo tax?) and enjoyed the next ride even more than the first.
My son sadly waved goodbye to Thomas as we left the park, headed for the bus station and home. Our nerves over the earthquake had settled and we were ready to go back to our little concrete abode.
“That was a really weird day,” my husband said to me as we waited on the platform.
Just then, the bus pulled in and a young man in front of us turned and tossed his crumpled up bus ticket directly at my husband’s chest. I wondered for a brief moment if he had been trying to throw it into a trashcan, but the odd look on his face and lack of any nearby trashcans told me that wasn’t likely. My husband, who at a solid 6’2 towers over most Ecuadorians including this one, just looked calmly at me and said, “Let’s catch the next bus”.
As we watched the young man board the bus and drive away, he added, “There must be something in the air today”.