This is what I’ve heard about Ecuador.  You can consume guardiente, an intense spirit made from fermented sugarcane that is pretty much considered the national liquor of Ecuador. You know what guardient translates to in Spanish?  “Fire water”.  Which is the apt image for Marie Elena Martinez’s story.  She drinks from the solo cup of travel and undergoes a trial by fire of sorts.  Enjoy today’s Summer Chick Tale.

Quito

The Lan flight was empty enabling me to situate in a window-aisle seat combo and spread out.  Snug in in-flight linens, I tried to watch the uber-hot Jolie-Pitts in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but I couldn’t concentrate.  I was on a plane to South America.  Alone. Up until this morning, I had never even been to Miami solo.  Let alone, the continent of South America.  What was I thinking? A big talker about most everything, I’m not sure I believed myself when I announced my plans.  I knew my friends and family certainly didn’t.  Now, I was 35,000 miles above the Pacific.  Too late to turn back…  While my head freaked out, my body overdosed on the mental exhaustion.  Seemingly, I dozed off.  A pretty, dark-haired stewardess was now gently waking me as the pilot announced that we were approaching Quito.  Fasten seat belts; return seat backs to the upright position, and all that jazz.  Wait!  What?  We’re here? I’d slept through the entire flight.  Movie credits were rolling on my seat’s personal screen.  I wasn’t ready!  I hadn’t done my in-flight processing.  God Almighty, what happens next? My pulse quickened, body moisture returned.  I reached for the overhead fan.  Then, terrified, I lifted the window shade to my right and I was treated to a most amazing sight.  South America.  Ecuador.

As I steadfastly concentrated on my window view, yoga breathing techniques finally coming in handy, I noticed just how high above sea level we were and just how far down we’d need to come to reach land.  The highs and lows of Ecuador’s altitude, significantly enhanced by Mother Nature’s palette, were on proud display.  The geography was astounding, the mountains lush, green and expansive, and what I later learned was Volcán Pichincha loomed ominously in the background.  Quite magically, the massive cliff in our flight path disappeared, and the city of Quito, colorful and cramped from the sky, emerged out of thin air.  It was an unbelievable vantage point—the drop-off of Quito’s hills into the surrounding country below—and having lived in New York City where the horizon is bland cityscape for so long made it all the more remarkable.  For the first time in years, I was completely awed by the natural beauty surrounding me.

It was at that same moment that I caught sight of my very unladylike gaping reflection in the tiny double-thick windowpane, which flashed me back to the first plane trip I had ever taken.  Five years old, Disney World.  Orlando, Florida.  I’m sure I had had the same expression as my curious little face peered out the window of that plane, constant surprise as each new first presented itself: first trip on the Monorail, first sight of the Magic Kingdom, first parade down Main Street, first hug from Mickey Mouse. A child, I had no real sense of expectation; everything fascinated me.  Travel was new and I quickly became smug in my first real solitary trip moment.

Marie smiling from ear-to-ear

Ecuador was Disney World, all over again.  South America wasn’t going to Acapulco or Cancun on spring break, and it wasn’t Tahoe or Aspen in the dead of winter.  It wasn’t post-college Europe with backpacking friends, and it wasn’t a bachelorette party in Puerto Rico.  While I had no idea what awaited me on the ground, I decided to approach my trip like the 1979 version of myself visiting Disney World for the first time.  With no expectations, I couldn’t be disappointed.  I was going to be meeting with fabulous adventures and occurrences and vistas like that of approaching Quito every day, and I wanted to embrace each and every one of them.  I let worry fall away like the passing clouds.  I found myself smiling out the window; smiling at where I was, at what I was seeing, at the leap I had taken.  It was a high previously unknown to me, a high that wasn’t dependent on the usual suspects—hallucinogens and herbals—it was the high of penetrating a complete unknown.

My knees shook a little as I descended the stairs attached to the rear of the plane and stepped onto the tarmac of the Mariscal Sucre International Airport.  I inhaled deeply, drinking in the mountain air of this new continent, and slowly twirled around in look at my new surroundings.  Sounds corny and a bit dramatic, way too Mary Tyler Moore, but that’s exactly what I did.  Fellow passengers whizzed past—places to go, people to see—but not me.  I was taking my time; as I would have to keep reminding myself, I had all of the time in the world.  I caught myself smiling again.  I went through Immigration, accepted my first passport stamp, smiling.  Got my baggage, went through Customs, smiling.  And then I realized, good as I felt, I had to stop being so freakin’ obvious.

Approaching a line of cars outside the airport, I was rushed by a pack of little brown faces, the various representatives of Quito car services.  Automatically frazzled, trying to determine who offered the most honest ride, I noticed an “official” windowed taxi booth that took the guesswork out of my first international quandary.  My designated driver, a compact, hurried man relieved me of my belongings, and then shuffled me to a waiting van.  Hoisting my bags into the back, he closed the double doors and looked my way for direction.  Suddenly, it was if all of the wind had been sucked out of me.  All the smiles, gone.  I sat silently in the back of a van in a South American country of faint popularity, hands tightly balled into my crotch, eyes darting around the emptying parking lot.  I heard faint mariachi music playing; it came from an undetermined direction.  Maybe, well, the radio.

“Okay.  Vamos,” prodded the driver. 

“Okay.  Vamos,” I repeated.  But I had no idea what I was agreeing to.  I didn’t ask the price to my destination or how much per kilometer, the logical questions the guidebooks encourage you to ask before getting into the taxi—I couldn’t think straight.

Donde?” asked the little man.  Right.  Fuckin’ donde? But I was drawing blanks.  Focus, Marie.  Stay in control.  I took a deep breath, then another.  A moment later, the name of my hotel returned.

“A la Hostal de Fuente Piedra 1,” I stated with (false) matter-of-fact conviction while hoping for a miracle.

“Si, si,” responded my driver.  And off we went.

As we drove through the dusty hills of Quito’s outlying districts, every last word of my South American Fodor’s education, gleaned from the guidebooks that I had pored over all summer, came rushing back to me.  Located in the Pichincha province—one of twenty-four in the country—Quito was Ecuador’s second largest city.  Nine thousand feet above sea level, it was also South America’s second highest capital (bragging rights went to Bolivia’s La Paz).  But as we navigated our way through mid-day traffic, Quito felt like an ill-chosen place to start the rest of my life.  It was dirty, congested, and only mildly interesting with respect to the fleeting glimpses of the passing architecture.  An intense stench of petrol floated on the breeze, and I had a headache by the time we pulled up to the hotel—the self-chosen Hostal de Fuente Piedra. A corner building made of white stucco, the Hostal de Fuente Piedra had looked affordably acceptable and charming enough in the online photo images—images that hadn’t featured the Hostal’s bulky, metal, gated doors.  Doors that made me wonder if maybe I should’ve started in a Four Seasons or, even a Hyatt, you know, to ease into things…

The Quito hills

As my driver harnessed all of his weight to heft my enormous bag out of the trunk, I was buzzed into a Spanish-tiled courtyard that doubled as a reception area, sparsely decorated with a few wrought iron benches and various potted plants in various shades of undernourishment.

“Marie Elena Martinez?” asked the young woman at the desk.

“Sí, Sí.  Marie Elena,” I replied, using my full name for the first time in a long while.  I had become a solid “Marie” somewhere between college and 30, very much to my mother’s dismay.  As a little girl, my mother had trained me to, hand on hip, wrist turned inward, correct any and all mispronunciations of my God-given name.  “A name,” she loved to remind me, “that she lovingly picked out.”  And I abided my mother.  “Marie Elena,” I would scold teachers on the first day of class each year.  “Marie Elena,” I would admonish lazy short cutters, who turned Jennifer into Jen and Kimberly in Kim. When I was young, I was proud to one up people on my name.  “Proud,” my mom would remind me, “of how different it was.”

Then, things changed.  I remember the day “Marie” started to emerge.  Clearly. It was the first University of Michigan football game, my freshman year, and I promptly fell in love with Matt Kulekofsky, the heavy-lidded hottie from Long Island.  Game over, we hopscotched the bleachers toward the field, rowdy 18-year olds on a mission of assimilation.  I got lost in the fray; I was heading the wrong way when Matt, stumbling over not only the bleachers but also his words, shouted it out: “Marie!”  Marie Elena was too cumbersome; Marie Elena was too obvious. Matt wasn’t sure he wanted to claim me yet, Football Game #1 and all.  In the din, Marie was anyone.  Marie blended in.  But already tuned to the sound of his voice, I heard it. And I turned. For a moment, I was “Adrienne!”  For another, I was “Stella!”  And thereafter, I was Marie.

Here in Quito, however, Marie felt out of place.  And far away.  “Marie Elena,” South American style, had a whole new ring to it.  It sounded exotic; it sounded intriguing.  And besides, it sounded damn good with a Spanish accent.  It felt nice to be Marie Elena again.  New place, new me; it just felt right.

First solo hotel!

Routine paperwork logged, I was brought to Room Five.  Another good sign, five was my lucky number.  But there, still basking in the glow of my renewed birth name, my balloon popped.  I mean, what did I expect for $27 a night? There was nothing unbearable about Room Five, but there was nothing remotely spectacular about it either.  The bedspread in earth tone-stripes, the faux-glass floral lamp, and mahogany armoire faintly radiating a bouquet of mothballs reminded me of a great aunt’s house, circa the late 70’s.  Which wasn’t entirely comforting.  The bathroom was tiny.  I mean, tiny. I wondered if a certain hefty family member of mine would actually fit in the bathroom at all.  (Let alone have ample towel coverage.)  The plastic shower curtain broadcasting “Hostal de Fuente Piedra 1” in large, royal blue letters was dulled by a thin layer of scum, and, as I lined up my toiletries on the slanted shelf next to the white-tiled sink, they slid off one by one, rolling out into the living space and under the bed.  On retrieval, they were covered with dust.  So, the budget needed revising.  Upward.  Noted.

Unpacked, lacking a task, I lay down on my lumpy bed.  I looked around my little room not knowing, exactly, what to do with myself.  I was in a foreign country, with no itinerary, no family or friends, and no comforts.  What was I doing here?  What did I expect to happen? Amid the solitude, I was no longer Mary-Tyler-Moore sure of the possibilities, and in my uncertainty I felt the first stirrings of, was it possible, despair and dread at what the next two months might hold.

At this moment of total Armageddon, my phone rang.  Okay, it works. Assuming it would be my mother ignoring the “only call in an emergency” instruction, Caller-ID announced it was Jen Cohen, a friend from college who always happened to check in at just the right moment, for being my invisible angel.

Will she hide underneath the covers?

“Cohen?” I said slowly, swallowing my emotion.

“Marie?  You sound so far away.  Wait, where are you?  You leave tomorrow, no?” Cohen shrieked into the phone.  Okay, an absent-minded invisible angel.

“No, Jen.  Today.  I’m in…Ecuador.  In this depressing little hotel room that has no charm, in the middle of Quito.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I’m fucking freaking out,” I shrieked back.

“Oh my God! I’m so glad I called.  Relax; you’re going to be fine.  This is the beginning of your adventure.  Just breathe and embrace it.  If anyone can do this, you can,” she comforted, trying to inject me with the shot of confidence I so desperately needed.  But could I? To the rest of the world, I prided myself on being a Superwoman.  I could handle anything, and I worked hard at making it look easy.  Sometimes, I even fooled myself.  This time, however, I had not.  Had I finally bitten off more than I could chew?

“I know, I know.  I just…”

“Just nothing.  I can’t believe you’re in Ecuador right now,” she said again.  “Tell me about the trip,” and just like that, Jen had talked me down from my panic.  I told her about the plane ride, about seeing Quito for the first time from the plane, how my hotel had bars on the windows.  In retelling these first Ecuador moments to Jen, I realized how much I had to look forward to, how much I would have to share.

The solo traveler eases in

Reassured, I hung up and looked around my little Quito room again.  Only this time, I let go. I had jumped and landed safely on the other side.  I could finally relax.  Day by day, experience by experience, city by city, country by country, I’d make it through, I promised myself.  Insecurity melted from my body with each deep, steady breath.  Focused on Room Five’s door handle (as if miraculous opening would encourage movement), my mind raced with a flurry of images: a montage of preparation for this very moment, my family on an early 80’s Christmas morning, the face of every boy I ever loved (no matter how fleeting), and a committing to memory of my little room in Ecuador—a room I was both desperate—and terrified—to leave.  I wanted to memorize every detail, the dots on the ceiling, the design on the pillows, condensation stains on the desktop, and the placement of furniture.  But sometime during this meditation, I crashed.  Hard.

For the next twenty hours, I slept.  I was entirely spent.  Nine years spent.  I missed breakfast by more than an hour the next morning.  On awakening, I found myself again momentarily confused.  Where was I again?  Aaaah, right, I’m in Ecuador. I wondered if I’d wake many mornings unsure of where I was or if eventually the novelty of novelty would wear off.  The prospect of the day didn’t seem as intimidating as it had yesterday.  No more excuses!  It was time to dance.  I was ready.

Author bio: In the fall of 2005, Marie Elena Martinez decided to put windowless office space, toner requests, writing literary press releases, and ten-years-on-the-job toasters behind her.  Leaving a successful PR gig at HarperCollins Publishers, she booked a ticket to Quito, Ecuador and followed her heart…out of the country.  Over the last five years, she’s visited six continents, and more than forty countries as diverse as Argentina, India, United Arab Emirates, and New Zealand.  Currently, she lives in her hometown of New York City, and works as a freelance travel and food writer for such publications as The Wall Street Journal,The Huffington Post,Newsday, The Boston Globe,The Miami Herald, Men’s Fitness, and Women’s Adventure.  You can find her in two places, at Marie’s blog or Marie’s World, not to mention Twitter and Facebook.  Her Ecuador piece was adapted from I’m Just Visiting, a working manuscript in memoir format, which chronicles both her time abroad and the pitfalls of re-entry.

Summer Chick Tales was conceived from my love of the season and my obsession with slurpees.  I always have one every summer.  I also love women writers.  Lots.  If you want to submit a story or be in charge of the mojito station, see the editorial schedule.  Come on, join the XX chromosome party.

Quito photo: Adam Rauckhorst