John Merck
July 14, 2000

Day 1 - Departure, arrival in Quito:


Baltimore Washington International
The Flight
Alameda Real

Baltimore Washington International: Betty and I were the first at Baltimore Washington International Airport. Blue long term parking lot, shuttle bus. Normally this would be no problem. "What airline?" the driver asked, "Continental, international departures," I replied, the picture of competence and authority in my incongruous Stetson field hat. "There isn't an international departure building, sir. How about the Continental desk?" Sure, why not? Snafu number one. I envisioned students wandering aimlessly in search of an non-existent international departure building. When we arrived, no one else was there. Oh no. Where are they? "They'll figure it out," Betty reassured me. Sure enough, one by one they arrive. I counted. Seventeen souls. Good.

The check-in attendant had to take some time with Betty and me, nailing down the procedures for passengers bound for Ecuador. Good thing. By the time our students arrived, he was an expert. Eventually everyone was checked in without incident. Introductions all around to parents, faculty, students, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, then off to the gate. We whiled away the time with paper work. The cost of gratuities and Ecuador's $25 departure tax was built into their fee, however I was required to give them each their $25 in crisp new bills and get them to sign a receipt. No problem. I'd asked them for a photocopy of the main page of their passports to facilitate replacement if one got lost - a likely event. I collected these. No problem. I began to suspect that the students really were competent.

Flight: Boarding announcement. Still seventeen. Good. We found our seats and settled in. Takeoff. Clouds. I studied my Spanish phrase book. Time passed. Transfer in Houston's George Bush International Airport. Still seventeen. Good. More time. This time, the weather was clear enough to allow us to see the featureless Gulf of Mexico. Landfall in Central America as the sun was setting. Then, Quito.

Quito: The land below was pitch black with rare lonely points of light, yet the 737 was clearly descending. We crossed a crest of mountains and more lights appeared, but still not a big city. Finally, after some banking turns, there it was. Everyone with a window seat gasped. The peak of a mountain above the city was streaked with glowing orange. Oh my God, could Pichincha be erupting? We had heard of other eruptions in the Ecuadorian Andes, but nothing to suggest that Pichincha, Quito's pet active volcano, was going off. Still, the glowing orange streaks were not to be denied. If it were true, what a way to introduce neophytes to igneous geology!

But it didn't add up. Pichincha, a classic subduction zone stratovolcano, should erupt explosively in clouds of pyroclasts, not send streams of orange lava down its flanks as if it were Kilauea. Also, no excited announcements from the flight deck. We landed and climbed down the stairs and onto the tarmac as if nothing were going on. The aroma of burning wood hung in the air.

We gathered on the tarmac. One, two...seventeen. Thank God. We followed the yellow path to international arrivals. Lines, passport control. Betty and I were last. One, two,.... seventeen. Good. Baggage claim. It was all there. Thank you God. We headed for the exit. Someone from Metropolitan Touring should be there to meet us. There he was. "Buenas noches..." my mouth made the strange words in earnest. He spoke good English. Wonderful. "Have all your people place their bags here," he instructed. We did. "OK," he said, nodding to a colleague, "We'll take care of these. Let's go to the bus." With some misgivings we abandoned our luggage and followed.

"So, what's up with the mountain?" I asked, gesturing toward the spectacle that dominated the city.

"Oh," he answered, "people have set some fires."

Alameda Real: We boarded the bus. One, two,.... seventeen. Good. The ride to the hotel was about twenty five minutes. That was long enough to tie up one aggravating loose end. At the close of our trip, our departure flight would not leave until close to midnight. As a result, we would have an entire day in Quito. How much would a day tour of the old city and equatorial monument cost? $17 a head, it turned out. Would the students be willing to pay? They seemed, if anything, enthusiastic. We booked the tour.

At midnight on a Monday, downtown Quito was quiet, even though it was a big city. The infrastructure was not what one would expect in a U.S. or western European city. Narrower streets and sidewalks, for example. It was pleasant, and clean, though, and the light traffic moved quickly through canyons of tall office buildings and undisguised construction sites. We arrived at the Hotel Alameda Real, a tall attractive modern hotel. There were our bags. Good. Check-in. Room keys. Breakfast vouchers. "Be ready to roll at 7:00 in the morning," our Metropolitan touring man told us. No problem. As we headed for our rooms, I looked out the front doors. Across the street a row of one story buildings proclaimed themselves to be cybercafes and coffee shops. A German shepherd patrolled a rooftop. So it WAS a foreign city, after all.

Day 2 - Arrival in the Islands
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