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They lived in a modest but comfortable apartment on the Calle Galapagos, a steep, narrow street climbing a hillside in the old city of Quito, near the recently restored historical center of the city, at the foot of the looming Basilica overlooking the busy metropolis. It was the morning of the much anticipated Parade of the Queens, when the 81 beauty queens in country for the Miss Universe pageant, winding through the streets on flower-bedecked allegorical floats, accompanied by bands of musicians, military drum corps, swirling, spinning troupes of folkloric dancers and adorable children in ceremonial Sunday best with garlands in their hair.
The parade was scheduled to begin at 11, and we arrived around 10, anticipating a crowd but totally unprepared for the massive tide of humanity choking the streets and hanging from every available balcony, rooftop, lamppost and ledge accessible from the street or within the buildings. The streets were still damp after the previous nights rainstorms, but the bright Andean sunlight and clear dry daylight was rapidly drying them out.
After bumping and slipping our way through the packed mass of humanity to a spot reasonably close to the parade route, on one of the rapidly ascending side streets, from where we had a narrow window on the actual action between ancient apartment buildings where the lane we were on ran into the slightly wider avenue down which the parade would supposedly pass, we settled in with our cameras and bottles of water to wait.
It seemed like the entire population not only of Quito over a million people, mostly poor Indians but the whole highland region, had turned out for the public extravaganza. This parade, therefore, represented the only opportunity for most people to actually see the beauty queens with their own eyes, which explained the massive turnout. Within a few minutes of our arrival it became apparent that something was serious wrong with our vantage point.
Asking some of the less dangerous looking locals around us we were informed that there had been an unannounced, last-minute change in the parade route, and in fact it would not pass the street corner a half-block below us but would instead begin in a small plaza a few blocks away.
Many of these folks had staked out their spots at dawn and were understandably upset that they would see nothing beyond the knots of police and street sellers filling the street below. When the chants took on a more aggressive tone and changed to angry shouts of "Fraud, fraud, fraud" we decided discretion was the better part of tourism, and beat a careful retreat up the mountainside-climbing street, away from the parade route.
After a brisk and breathless walk at over two miles above sea level even ascending a steep stoop can be a challenge we arrived.
The aunt in question was a wizened dumpling with a girlish giggle and sun-spotted skin like poorly preserved parchment. He must have weighed less than pounds. They greeted us effusively, and our initial impression was that this iteration of the ancient relative drill was going to be a gut. Whereas years ago, in our wild and impetuous youth, the prospect of spending a few hours with older feeble relatives somehow being related to them, even by marriage, made matters much worse would have been greeted with unadulterated horror and a desire to flee the premises screaming and shuddering, in search of loud music and powerful intoxicants.
But now, we reckoned confidently, our hard-won maturity and transcendent equilibrium had converted it into a placid opportunity to learn from the lessons of age and pay respects to the fading shadows of a bygone era.
Dowbrigade » Blog Archive » Afternoon Delight
Or so we thought. The opening conversational gambits were standard and culturally choreographed; polite exchanges of names and geographical origins, introductions and expressions of pleasure at finally putting faces to names gleaned from the family grapevine.
As soon as we were seated in the shaky wooden living room set on worn leather cushions, we were served a toast of one of the specialties of the house — a syrupy white liquid called "Ron Pon Pei" whose base of sweet milk and cinnamon cleverly disguised whatever alcoholic additives it obviously contained. We polished it off with polite enthusiastic compliments on its exquisite taste and consistency, and were later rewarded with an entire bottle of the vile delicacy to warm our voyage upon leaving.
This stuff was obviously designed to combat old-age insomnia, because within a few minutes of our second glass we were so successful in our polite compliments they insisted , the Dowbrigade, no big drinker by any stretch of the imagination, was engaged in a titanic struggle to keep his eyelids anywhere above half-mast.
The conversation had turned to family reminisces. How many years since Norma or her aunt and uncle had seen this or that great uncle, niece, brother-in-law or distant cousin.
Who had married whom, divorced and why , children seldom seen but meticulously dissected as to personality, career path, and future prospects, rising and falling fortunes, degrees of relation between estranged but labyrinthine connected branches of the typically multitudenous extended family.
Since we knew none of these people, we for the most part stayed politely silent, trying desperately to stay awake. At one point we tried to make a joke. The aunt was remembering a favorite niece who had married and later divorced someone named "The Engineer Runnah" Ecuadorians often use professional titles in place of first names. One of the reasons we married her. These reminisces were mercifully interrupted by arrival of the luncheon, which consisted of a delicious carrot cream soup, a dense but edible meatloaf, rice always and a green bean and egg salad.
After lunch the conversation unfortunately but inevitably turned morbid, as the couple began reminiscing about friends, family and colleagues who had passed on. They had, as old people often do, exact counts of the years since those or that relative or acquaintance died. Recountings of final conversations, days of the week, manner of death, names of hospitals and doctors, details of medical mistakes and failed treatments. This led to an extensive exploration of medicine in general, an encyclopedic listing of all of the ailments of remaining brothers and sisters, cousins and friends, advantages and disadvantages of this or that pill, patch, syrup or infusion, dangerous drug interactions, folk remedies and the quackery We were listening with some marginal interest, hoping to glean the brand name of some powerful narcotic to dull the pain of this prolonged flexing of the politeness muscle and the growing ache in our buttocks, unable to find a comfortable perch on the ancient furniture.
Just when we felt a ray of hope, as they seemed to have exhausted the roll call of both the quick and the dead among their circle of intimates, and as we began to plot a polite disengagement, disaster struck, in the form of the emergence of the absolute bane of family reunions, innumerable stacks of cracked and yellowing photo albums. There followed an additional hour of excruciating trips down the garden path of nostalgic recounting of weddings, birthdays, graduations, First Communions, retirement dinners, professional association dinners, commemorative banquets, family vacations and assorted candid snapshots.
Of course, each photo was accompanied by folk tales and family anecdotes, worn thin like the photos from thousands of reviews and retellings, but requiring the listener to feign not only interest but surprise, appreciation, humor and horror at appropriate moments.
The uncle, in particular, had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of favorite stories and memories attached to some of the photos. We will never forget, hard though we may try, one particular album featuring photos of a historic trip to Europe 40 years ago.
Afternoon Delight: Anchor Changes Channels - The New York Times
Like many older people who have trouble remembering the names of grandchildren or the current president, he was able to recreate, in excruciating detail, every step of that tour of Europe, every conversation, museum, meal, bus ride and mishap along the way. Somehow we arrived at the last page of the last album. With the ingenuous and only partially invented excuse of wanting to visit the nearby Basilica before it closed for the day, we began the complicated process of disengagement and polite adioses.
Finally we slipped out into the gathering shadows of the crisp Andean afternoon, clutching our bottle of Ron Pon Pei. We felt an overpowering desire to search out loud music and powerful intoxicants.
Norma Yvonne owes us big.