Henry Rollins: Wandering Through Ecuador's "Zona Gangsta"

Henry Rollins: Wandering Through Ecuador's "Zona Gangsta"
Photo by Heidi May

I am currently in Quito, Ecuador, more than 9,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. The weather is reminiscent of early autumn on the East Coast of America.

Every day, I go out walking up and down steep streets, which are packed with people, vehicles and the lilting chants of the vendors. The smells go from perfume to food to decomposition, sometimes in one inhalation. There has not been one day when I have not seen a man, stooped over, taking small, trudging, robotic steps, carrying on his back a refrigerator that dwarfs him. Up the street he goes, to turn and disappear into a building.

Yesterday, I walked up a street called Mejia until the base of a mountain almost stopped it. I saw a street to my left that looked ridiculously steep, no one on it, the walls on either side covered with graffiti. I went up it, marveling at the incline and the view it afforded.

The street dead-ended soon after and gave me the choice of left or right. I went left because it seemed the overlook would be better. As I walked, I was able to take in a huge part of the city and enjoy the contrast from streets clogged with people to no people at all — and, besides a live band playing in the distance, almost total silence.

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Every square inch of wall space was taken up with graffiti I couldn’t understand, but it looked really cool. A man walked by me, gave me a serious look and said, “Hola!” I returned the greeting and kept moving.

On my left, I came upon a clear spot with a guardrail and stared out. There are a lot of churches in this part of town. I flashed on the image of missionaries on the side of a trail, their skulls split open, their faces still holding a patient smile.

A man came up on my right side. He was checking out my camera. For about a minute, we stood unmoving, him looking at the right side of my head, me looking straight out, keeping him in my periphery, checking for movement. Finally, he smacked the guardrail a few times and walked away.

I measure “bad” neighborhoods by the level of urine stench, graffiti and stray dogs. This street had plenty of all three, but nothing rang the danger bells in my mind. After a moment, I was on my way.

Several meters later, I emerged at a street called Bolivar. The sign on my right said I was on Manuel Rodriguez. As I was staring down the decline of Bolivar and strategizing the best route to take, I noticed a huge rat, which kept running from underneath a car to the sidewalk and back under the car again.

A voice at my left broke me out of my rodent surveillance. A man was standing next to me, pointing down Manuel Rodriguez. “No!” He didn’t want me to walk down the street. This has happened to me before: A woman in Bangladesh gently pushing me and waving her finger at me. I thanked the man and shook my head no. With one hand, he pointed down Manuel Rodriguez and, with the other, made wild stabbing motions at his heart. “No!” I thanked him and waved my hands to show I wouldn’t dare. He nodded at me gravely and lurched away, going where I had just been.

I thought of myself, perforated, sans camera, the reporte policial stating, “Victim had blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his … wherever.”

The rat had disappeared. As I made my right onto Bolivar, I noticed spray-painted on the wall behind me: “Zona Gangsta.”

Down Bolivar, left on Imabura, right on Chile, left on Cuenca and right on Mejia, describing a ragged circle that took quite a while to execute. With every step, my knees petitioned me for a redress of grievances. I felt their pain.

Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency, doing away with the Ecuadorian sucre in 2000. Another example of America’s long reach into this part of the world. It makes getting around easy, but at the same time, it’s disquieting that I can go into another country and spend the same cash I was using in a food court at the Houston airport a few days ago.

Economic matters fly way above my intellectual pay grade, but to me it is a blow to the sovereignty of the country, turning the entire population into the U.S.’ stepchildren. I hate to think that any American might travel here with the idea that Ecuador is merely one of his backyards to act out in, the way some do in Tijuana.

Globalization should be treated like a full pitcher of nitroglycerin, and any country should regard any huge, interest-seeking entry with extreme wariness. However, now and then, things work out rather well.

This is probably just my twisted selfishness coming to the fore, but I love it when music crosses borders and spreads. Outside my window today, probably at the same music festival as yesterday, there is a band playing really fast, the singer going for the bowels-o’-hell tone. Mostly I’m only hearing snare and vocal, and it’s mixing eclectically with the Pere Ubu track I’m listening to.

So far, I’ve seen three Ramones tops. Two sweatshirts and one T-shirt. As far as I can find out, the band never played in Ecuador but it rocked huge venues in Brazil and Argentina. Marky, C.J. and even Richie still play in a few South American countries, using “Ramone” in their advertising. Maybe The Ramones are one of America’s greatest exports and enduring representatives. Hey (ho), I’ll take it.

Next stop, Coca and onto the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.

More From the Mind of Henry Rollins:
The Major Labels Are Screwing Up Record Store Day

When You Claim Racism Is Over, You Get a Dylann Roof
Why I'm Not an Atheist

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