What you should know about Ambato is this: It’s like Quito, but without any nice hotels. And we hated everything about Quito except the hotel. Dang. And I suppose the hotels are decent by someone’s standards. Just not ours. And we may be whiney Americanos, but even our resident guide was put off by the rotting flesh smell. She also said that it wasn’t typical for two rooms to be connected by a wall that didn’t go quite to the ceiling. Especially when they are bathrooms in two adjacent rooms. I know the used condom on top of that wall wasn’t standard.
All of these perks came in our second hotel. We checked out of the first one after a couple of hours. It was worse. Stinky and sleazy with a door out onto a precarious ledge that was just behind the buzzing neon sign, overlooking one of the busiest, noisiest, stinkiest corners we had seen. The door to that little balcony wouldn’t close all the way. The sheets had hairs on them that weren’t ours. It was bad. We checked back out, giving them 10 bucks for the trouble. They were gracious about it. I suspect it may have been the kind of place people rented by the hour anyway.
Probably the lowest moment of our trip was in the restaurant El Gran Alamo on one of the main drags in Ambato. Built to look like a log cabin, but with giant, pastel flower cut-outs stuck on to the front of it. It had giant open air windows with shutters flung open to the sidewalk. So a person could sit in a table that had an open window right alongside it. We chose a table by a window to do some people watching, but not in the middle of it all.
We were hungry, tired and overwhelmed. And depressed about our hotel choices. But the restaurant was nice enough, even if it was empty. We stopped taking this as a bad sign because our schedules were way off of the rest of Ecuador. When we were hungry for dinner at 6pm, the Ecuadorians had already had their main meal around 3pm and wouldn’t be hungry for anything other than a little soup around 8.
Cloth table cloths, candles and a window onto the street. We tried to relax. The food was forgettable. The mood wasn’t. Hunger brings into my family a kind of brittle fragility, just this side of panic. Jasper was whiney and wilted, Zach was resentful and superior, Andy was distant and slow and I was nervous and agitated. We were all shaking our feet under the table, looking around from our new, secure viewing station and fighting over the pre-dinner rolls.
After our jugos (pureed fruit and juice served with every meal) arrived I looked out across the 4 lanes of traffic and realized we had made a terrible mistake in choosing our table. I made eye contact with an indigena woman who had a baby on her back and a small girl in tow. She was short, like all the indigenas, with dark skin and bulging eyes. She wore the traditional fedorah and wool skirt and shawl. I saw her across the street, she saw me. Then I saw her cross through the traffic looking right in our window at us as she did. Unaccustomed to carrying change for beggars, we brought just a 20 dollar bill to pay for our dinner. Nothing else.
Jasper was across the table from me, close to the window. He had cried the night before after seeing a toddler sleeping in a doorway with his little arm over his eyes to block out the sun. Seeing beggars and poverty really took a toll on Jasper, more than anyone else.
She went for his side of the window and leaned in, “Señorcito, una monedita, Señorcito, por favor. Ayúdanos un poquito, Señorcito.” She was talking to him, staring at each of us in turn. Staring. Her lower lip out in an exaggerated pout, which was the tone of her voice, like a pouty whine. Jasper had been resting his chin in his hand. He lifted his head and looked at her then at me, shrugging, palm up, desperate.
Andy and I had been saying in muttered English to the boys, to just tell her no and look away. I looked at her and told her no, we didn’t have anything. But we did, we had dinner coming, and our bread in the middle of the table, a life, a home, cash in a hotel room (even if it was a skaggy hotel room), and money enough to pay for dinner. But no dollars or coins. I set my jaw, told her no and waved her on.
She leaned further into Jasper’s window, “Por favor, Señorcito…” The windows had panes that could be swung shut. We closed our side and I told Jasper to close his. He reached for it and started to close it. But her fingers were hanging over the ledge and there was no way for Jasper to close the window without smashing her fingers. He looked back at me with a “mom, make this go away, I don’t know what to do” look.
She never looked down at her hands, just kept staring into our eyes, as did her daughter, although the girl sometimes looked at her feet. I got up finally and walked over to the manager. I asked him if there was a way to get the woman to leave. He apologized profusely and marched out the door towards the woman, who had already begun to cross the street again.
I feel sort of like the ugly American incarnate when I say that beggar woman ruined our day, our whole trip to Ambato. We all wanted to put our heads on the table and teleport back to St. Paul, where a window-side seat allows us to wave to people we know and watch the rest of the world go by.