After nearly nine months of living in South America, I set out on a pilgrimage to my first homestay in Ecuador 18 years ago. (Pardon me while I catch my breath.) There on a semester exchange program with my undergraduate institution, I lived with a host family for three months. That experience seared changes into my heart and soul that in truth lead me back here almost two decades later.
This time around, while staying in the Batán district, a more northern section of Quito, I found myself mere blocks from my former neighborhood and stomping ground. Up until now, I stole a few moments to explore the area just below it by Parque Carolina, where every weekend I watched as Quiteños convened for soccer matches, and the palm-lined Avenida Naciones Unidas, a common route to the few strip malls and nicer buses on Avenida Río Amazonas.
Walking this route anew, the changes are difficult to absorb. Those modest strip malls are now mammoth, modern structures with glistening glass that blocks out and reflects the intense equatorial sun. They are outfitted with MundoMac (MacWorld), Bennetton, Bvlgari, TGI Fridays, North Face, and even a Dunkin’ Donuts as well as the more regional and continental chains. My recollections of buying guanabana ice cream in Quicentro’s one layer mall or purchasing stamps in the basement section of the CCI are nearly overrun by these commercial edifices. As I passed by the Unicorn center, a very cool, vertically spiral shopping center, I could only verify its existence by the far right curved wall built into by a more typical and rather mundane cubic design.
This particular Saturday, I wandered down from the hills that corral the eastern side of Quito, finally to rediscover my past. Descending, déjà vu snuck up my spine with an eerie and subtle vigor. Crossing over on Calle 6 de Diciembre (my sister’s birthday and also the official birthday of Quito) the purple buses stuffed so full people hung out the door are now replaced with the Ecovia, a swift hybrid between trolley and bus that has smartly painted and covered stops traveling the length of the city. Reaching Telégrafo, my cross street, I walk toward my destination of Avenida de los Shyris.
Walking down Telégrafo a grin unconsciously affixed itself on my face. While so much appeared different and unfamiliar, my mind sifted through years and memories to recognize that I had indeed been here before in that quiet, mysterious way our brains recall things we were sure we forgot. Houses were mostly the same, though some new, some different colors. Businesses changed, some reflecting the times and economy like internet cafés and dog grooming salons. Yet, the corners still disclosed history with the remains of the guard boxes where soldiers once stood bearing automatic weapons meant to express protection though they rather freaked me out. Some remained, though abandoned. Others repainted still housed guards of some kind. Yet instead of arms, the tan-vested Ministerio employees bore far less intimidating cups of soda while resting on plastic chairs.
Continuing on I reach Shyris, taking a right toward the direction of my former home. First, I recognized the building to the left still home to a university satellite. To the right a nine or 10-story building sprung out of the earth all shiny and new with tinted windows. In the middle stood my house, indelible in my mind if only for some film photographs taken and kept all this time. I had wondered if my host parents still lived there or still lived at all. My host father was at least in his sixties back then. As I stood across six lanes of traffic, I realized if they were living, they weren’t living there. Adorning the house, besides an external gate, was a fake airplane upside down, a 70 percent savings sign, and another that read “Racing Hobbies: A Control Remoto”. Once my house, it now sold remote control racing cars.
I really am not sure what I expected, but in my mind, it remained a home. I can recall each room’s general arrangement and décor — the black phone in the front right corner where the dining room lay; the formal chairs and pink theme in the living space. The stairs to the upstairs loft where my host mom played bridge with her friends, which lead to the patio with the washing machine and where I spent time soaking in the sun. I recall my room, and my parent’s. I see the kitchen where we drank tea in the evening and where I ate breakfast. I remember the other phone, a cordless I believe, that sat outside the kitchen on a bar where I called my mother every Sunday. I can see the bathroom with (hot water) and the sink where I brushed my teeth. My memories are not complete without the grandmother I never met standing at the lower level slider looking out like a ghost.
While I slyly took pictures, the surrealism of the moment did not abandon me. I captured the startling betrayal of time to compare to the photo of my past I carried with me. After negotiating the traffic, I followed the path I took to my friends Sarah’s, a fellow exchange student from Wisconsin. Not exactly recalling her address, I wandered on what I can only explain as intuition. A few blocks and turns later, I’m pretty sure I encountered the house she called home, looking fairly similar to the image I unknowingly held in my mind.
In five emotion-filled days, I will once again leave Ecuador and another family. This time I feel my connections will remain despite the fact that after I depart, both our lives will change as will the landscape, their home, the town, the people, and the world. I suppose we all move on in the ways we choose, don’t choose, and don’t realize until standing in front of a reminder with distance and perspective to see what was from who we are today.
And, to be slightly more irreverent, the first quote that came to mind when I saw my old house is from my favorite movie, Grosse Point Blank: “You can never go home again, Oatman… but I guess you can shop there” Martin Blank.