You could be forgiven for thinking Quito’s normally nonchalant colonial center had suddenly awoken this week to find itself on the edge of the apocalypse. Days of protests and strikes mean much of the city center is now littered with barricades, and riot police are everywhere. To add to the sense of unease, murmurs from the nearby Cotopaxi volcano have prompted residents to don surgical masks to ward off volcanic dust. I haven’t seen any dust, but the newspapers say it’s already here.
It’s a strange sight: in a country where safety standards are pretty much sci-fi, everyone is taking precautions against inhaling the stray sulfur molecule. When I pointed out to one mask clad Quiteño that there’s no volcanic dust to speak of, he suggested I look closer.
So I did.
Meandering the city aimlessly, I came across an old lady hawking surgical masks straight from the box. For 25 cents you could protect yourself from Cotopaxi’s bad breath. I watched her slowly hike up one of Quito’s steep hillside streets, waving masks at other pedestrians. Her strenuous hike was made harder by the fact that she shared the street with a convoy of old diesel trucks. They were grinding their way up the hill, belching thick black smoke on the old lady and everyone else. Nobody seemed to mind, presumably because the diesel wasn’t from a volcano.
Later in the day, when I stopped in a market to get a boot repaired, I noticed the mask wearing cobbler was working beneath a sheet of asbestos roofing. While he worked on my boot, he complained about Cotopaxi. Luckily, he had his surgical mask on to protect his lungs from volcanic dust. I peered around the market, trying to see the dust. I saw drums of stinking chemicals, a worker wielding some machinery together, and a man with one foot hobbling through the crowd. It looked like his stump was weeping.
But I couldn’t see any volcanic dust.
On my way home, I stopped at a bar. Outside, a man was already unconscious. His face was against the pavement, so I couldn’t tell if he was wearing his mask. Leaving the bar an hour later, I passed another drunk. This one was urinating up the side of a wall. The yellow arc glistened in the late afternoon sun, with droplets bouncing off the wall and back on his trousers. The rest of the piss formed a slender little stream that scuttled through the cracks in the pavement towards the gutter. A family of mask wearers stepped over the stream, one at a time. The last to cross was a little girl, who executed a petite jump to bounce clear of the urine. It looked like she was playing hopscotch. When the family reached the end of the block, the father noticed the girl’s mask had slipped, so he knelt and gave it a quick adjustment.
I looked closer, but I still couldn’t see any volcanic dust.
Maybe I couldn’t see the dust through the normal city smog. Maybe I couldn’t see it settle on the ground because of all the piss. Maybe I couldn’t detect the distinct eggy smell of sulfur because of all the exhaust fumes. Maybe I’ll die of something I can’t blame on Cotopaxi.
PS: Yeah, I get you should probably put a mask on if you’re asthmatic or something. The problem I have is that people get more worried about novel dangers like volcanoes than they do about everyday (but more dangerous) risks like pollution and booze. For now at least, Cotopaxi poses no real danger to Quito. Maybe if it eventually erupts, then we can all start freaking out. But for now I’ve already got plenty of things to worry about: I don’t need another problem in my life, and neither does Quito.