During my first few weeks in Quito, when Spanish classes seemed interminable, and I knew that my lunchbox was packed with congealing french-fries, I would bound down the hill to “El Jardin” or “The Garden” for lunch. In its clean, sanitized air, I would release my protective grip on my backpack and stroll past shops displaying American brands. No one would hiss or whistle at me, I didn’t have to pay to go to the bathroom, and I could pull out my ipod without looking over my shoulder. I felt as if I was on a shopping trip in San Francisco rather than thousands of miles from home.
I returned to Quito a few weeks ago to drop off my parents and brother at the airport. My good friend, Delia, who lives in the town adjacent to La Abundancia, was also visiting the city, and asked me to wait and take the bus back with her. “Of course,” I responded to her text, “I’ll just go to El Jardin.” I went straight up to the Levi’s store to ask about a pair of jeans. They started at $150, more than some families in my town make in a month. I decided on coffee instead.
The café I selected slowly filled with Quiteños as I sipped my double cappuccino. The women who entered seemed to sport an unofficial uniform: towering leather boots, wool peacoats, Longchamp bags, and perfectly coiffed hair. I looked down at my own clothing with discomfort. Besides the fleece jacket thrown over my shoulders, I was dressed like any other woman from my town. My jeans had no back pockets, my bright yellow t-shirt clung to my stomach, and rhinestones adorned my cheap plastic sandals.It was an outfit I would wear to work, or wear out to karaoke. But I in that environment, against the backdrop of neon Nike sneakers and gleaming watches, I began to feel acutely uncomfortable. I looked down at my drink and realized that I could have bought lunch in my town with the three dollars I had spent. I looked gleaming shop windows and knew how many sacks of yucca my host father would have to sell to buy a single silk tie. And I looked down at myself, and wondered how I had felt so comfortable in that same café a few months earlier.
As I took the bus back home, I began to wonder how I will react to the wealth that surrounds me at home. At my private high school, it’s not unusual to see a new Mercedes or a Range rover in the parking lot. How will I react when it’s not a random Quiteño carrying a Coach bag, but rather my best friend? When I am no longer living in La Abundancia, when I am surrounded by high-rises rather than farms, will the discomfort wear off? And, more importantly, do I want it to?