My shifts pass quickly at Café Dios No Muere in Quito, Ecuador, thanks to the constant gossip between the two Quiteno sisters that cook the Cajun-Ecuadorian menu. The chatter fills the tiny first floor of the three story, 400 year old, barrack-turned-restaurant, built into the back corner of the Santa Catalina Monastery. The creaking wood floors, low-beam ceilings, and antique wall decorations make for a cozy place to serve cappuccinos on the grey, chilly mornings. In the evenings, I cart trays of micro-brewed beer up and down the narrow staircase. The place is about the size of a hamster cage.
I am volunteering here for a week in exchange for room and board. My accommodation is in the haunted, dungeon-like basement of a centuries-old house. The crumbling brick walls adorned with rosaries and portraits of ancient men once served as a cool storage area for food, but now refrigerate the bodies of sleeping volunteers.
After six pm, the other volunteers and I don’t walk anywhere alone…. Not even the two blocks from the dorm to the café. The scantily clad women loitering on the corners of this busy historic zone make it apparent that we are doubly situated in the red light district. The stories recounted by the cooks of themselves and volunteers getting violently robbed in broad daylight make it apparent that… well… this area isn’t the safest. One girl was chased by a taxi, grabbed by her hair, and beaten to the ground. Three weeks ago, a volunteer found a bloody, lacerated body on the sidewalk just outside the dorm.
So, I haven’t really felt at ease here in Quito. Every morning, I poke my head out the door and carefully peer to my left and right before stepping outside. Yesterday, as I strode past unwanted stares on my way to Parque Itchimbia, looking ultra-tourist in my polka dot shorts, flip flops, and alpaca sweater, I was on high alert. After throwing a few suspicious glances over my shoulder, I began to ascend the hundred-or-so stairs to the park. My head spun as my unaccustomed lungs tightened in response to the altitude.
A delightful view welcomed me at the top. Kites flapped in the wind high above the city; bicycles rolled on a path past colorful frog statues; and kids, dogs, and balls cavorted through the grass. But when I told the cooks about it, they gasped in horror that I’d gone alone. Solita es peligrosa!
I definitely don’t feel as safe in Quito as I have in other parts of Ecuador, but between the uncomfortable stares and strange vibes, I’ve seen some of the best views, eaten the best food, and met some of my favorite people. The nerve-wracking ladder leading up to the turret of the Basilica was rewarded with an unforgettable panorama of the city. Out of everywhere I’ve been, vegetarian options in Ecuador are second only to India. And my heart holds a place for those feisty cooks.
Quito itself is a bit too rough to be a gem, but it has plenty of diamonds.