I found gringoland…

Today is an awkward day because checkout at my hotel is at 11 AM, but I don’t get on my 14+ hours of bus rides until 8 PM. Entonces I’ve got 9 hours to kill in a very little town with absolutely nothing going on. I could take a hike, but considering how humid it is, I’d like to spare myself (and the person next to me) from smelling nothing but BO on the bus for that many hours…

I spent the first half of the day in Loja on Monday. I wasn’t as charmed by the city as I thought I would be, but I did make my way to the botanical gardens, which were lovely and a great excuse to take lots of flower pictures with my DSLR. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you.) After lunch and checking out of my hostel at 2 PM, I made my way to Vilcabamba, a quiet town an hour and a half south of Loja on the edge of the Podocarpus National Park.

Despite some on and off again rain, yesterday was a great day — I went on a two hour horseback ride into the hills with a beautiful view of the national park and the surrounding mountains. Pinto, my red- and camel-colored horse, and I had a lovel time, but we did lots of trotting and galloping, which has resulted in an inordinate amount of back pain. (Yes, I realize I sound like an old lady). After my ride, I had a quick lunch and then went on a walk through a nearby nature reserve. Regardless of the fact that I got horribly lost and walked for way longer than I should have in a gigantic loop (this time I couldn’t even blame South American maps, it was just my own, stupid fault), the nature reserve was beautiful, with well marked paths (who knew that was even possible in Ecuador?!) and beautiful flowers, trees, and plenty of butterflies to see. Afterwards, I lay in the hammock, finished The Lost Girls, read the copy of Vogue I’ve been hanging onto from cover to cover, and went to bed at 9 PM. It was a perfect vacation day.

A little slice of heaven…

Vilcabamba has lots of gringas and gringos who now call the town — which is approximately 5 blocks long and another 4 blocks wide — home. This morning after I checked out, I grabbed a smoothie and made/studied spanish vocab cards at a juice place on the main square, which apparently is the place to be if you’re white and speak English. There were at least a dozen older, clearly retired, couples with American accents talking about neighbor drama or their newest born goat (I kid you not… pun intended). Another four or five younger couples with kids under the age of 5 also joined the pack, letting their kids run around with each other as they chatted about what they were going to be for the big town Halloween party tonight.

Personally, I’m not sure I get the appeal of Vilcabamba, but I have admitted and confirmed my city girl nature, and this is yet another reminder of why I belong in a bustling city. That being said, I definitely liked Mindo more than I like Vilcabamba. And though my hostel is breathtakingly beautiful, you can only stay at a hotel for so many days. I guess if you’re looking for a tranquil – and cheap – place to retire, this is your pueblo, but I’m happy to be moving on.

Unfortunately, moving on means approximately 14 hours on 3 busses across the border into Peru and down to Chiclayo. Stay tuned for that blog post, and cross your fingers that I have uneventful ride(s)!

Tienes un mapa?

Six hotels/hostels later (including my own) and I am still mapless. Who would have thought the city of Loja doesn’t believe in maps? Not I, that’s for sure.

I took a 4 hour (in Ecuadorian time, so really, 5 hour) bus ride from Cuenca down south to Loja this afternoon. The ride was, for the most part, easy and unexciting, sans the girl next to me who was doing some sort of needlepoint and kept elbowing me every 5 minutes, and the fact that our bus driver thought he was driving a race car, not a gigantic bus. But you know, totally normal for South America.

Once I got to Loja, I had a cab take me to the hostal I’d looked up online yesterday. For some reason, HostelWorld, HostelBookers, TripAdvisor AND LonelyPlanet had no way to book a Loja hotel of a decent price online. I hate arriving in cities without accommodation, but since I got in during the day with plenty of time in a very small city, I wasn’t too worried. Of course the hostal I showed up at was locked and nobody was there. A nice gentleman told me they might return in “one or two hours” so I walked next door into the Alcapulco Hotel.

My spanish conversation with the receptionist:

Me; Hola, tu tiene habitacions esta noche?

Receptionist: Si, si

Me: Ah, bien! Cuanto es por una por una noche?

Receptionist: Trece, por agua calliente, internet, y desayuno en la manana.

My brain: Treinta

Me: Ah, si. Una pregunta, tu tienes un mapa de la ciudad?

Receptionist: [points to the counter] Sî, aqui, pero solo esta una.

Me: En este barrio, hay otra hostals y hotels?

Receptionist: Si. Qué es lo que desea pagar?

Me: Quince, mas o menos?

Receptionist: Pero aqui es trece…

Me: Ah! Trece. Lo siento. Mi espanol is no bien, yo pienso tu dice trente.

For those of you who don’t know how to use google translate (ha), essentially I thought the receptionist said a room for the night was $30, not $13. Fitting perfectly into my $15/night, breakfast and wifi included budget requirements, I apologized and took a room.

Since my hotel didn’t have any maps, I took a wander around town, asking every open hotel or hostel in sight if they had one. No luck.

A quick screenshot of my itinerary over the next few days — Cuenca > Loja > Vilcabamba > Chiclayo (possibly via Piura, depending on the busses)

I wandered in straight lines so I knew I wouldn’t have trouble finding my way back (it was getting dark), and stumbled upon a plaza with women selling colada moradaguaguays de pan! I was very excited because in our Quito Spanish class, we read about some upcoming Ecuadorian holidays and traditions, including the Dia de los Difuntos  known to us in English as the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day. The colada morada is a berry-based drink, made also with cinnamon, sweet pepper and various other fruits, and represents the blood and pain of those who have passed away. The guaguays de pan are loafs of bread in the shape of babies, many decorated with icing to depict the face and clothing. For a whopping 70 cents I tried both – totally delicious!

Despues, I bought 3 oranges and 2 bananas for 40 cents (have I mentioned I love Ecuador) and wandered back to my hotel. I’ve resigned to spend the night inside, doing some research on Loja and Vilcabamba, my next destination, a quaint rainforest town very similar to Mindo that’s only an hour(ish) south of the city. I got a room at Le Rendez-Vous, an amazing sounding hostel I found via TripAdvisor.

I’m currently sitting in the lobby — the only place where the internet seems to want to cooperate — and listening to the child of the owner ding the service bell over, and over, and over (and over) again. Upstairs, there is a gaggle of kids I was previously sitting amongst, before I relocated for better wifi, screaming and chasing each other around the hallway, “walking” the younger kids with scarves and shirts as if they were dogs. Needless to say, not exactly how I pictured spending my night, but considering it’s Halloween season and Hurricane Sandy is approaching the east coast (Halloween and bad weather, two of my absolute least favorite things) I’m not exactly missing the United States right now either. I’m looking forward to my next two days of exploring Loja, then heading to Vilcabamba for horseback riding, hiking, and relaxing with my reader in a hammock!

Cuenca highlights: Ingapirca and El Cajas

Yesterday, we took a day trip out to the Ingapirca ruins, a two hour drive north into the Cañar province of Ecuador. We drove out of the Cuenca valley and into a very different, adjacent valley, where rolling green hills host farmland and pastures where cattle graze and beans, potatoes and corn grow. We stopped first at a beautiful church on the hillside with a view of the valley, and then at a local market where indigenous families sold a bizarre combination of fresh fruits and vegetables and brand name clothing (Hollister or Aeropostale anyone?) from China. I bought fresh chocolate that my mouth was practically watering for as I purchased it, and of course I had a total gringa moment, because it was 100% cocoa and disgustingly bitter. Total fail.

The ruins themselves are the biggest Incan ruins found in Ecuador, and are built upon ruins of the Cañari people — an older tribe conquered by the Incas. As a result, this site is the only Incan ruins site with a sun temple in the shape of an eliptical (the shape used primarily by the Cañari people, Incans primarily built square and rectangular rooms). Our guide Diego was fantastic, and explained tons of Incan theories and history for us. I loved him so much, at the end of the day I joked that I wished I could just take him with me into Peru!

hillsides (and cows!) from the van window

Amazing Incan moon calendar, believed to help view the constellations

(More pictures from the ruins in the gallery at the bottom)

The Incan culture truly fascinates me. The sheer manpower used to form such perfectly shaped stones for their temples are mind blowing, and the intelligence they held about the stars and solstices (every single temple they’ve built is angled absolutely perfectly for the solstices/equinoxes in June, March, September and December) is unbelievable. To this day, no one has been able to recreate the construction of the Incan people, it’s just that damn impressive. After seeing ruins from their civilization in so many countries, it’s interesting to see the differences and striking similarities, despite the thousands of miles of distance between the various sites.

After the tour our group of students from the school met for a cuy (guinea pig) dinner for Pascal’s birthday. I tasted a bit of the meat and skin (when in South America, right?) and didn’t think it was anything incredibly special, but the rest of the group seemed to enjoy it!

Today, our group opted for a day tour of the El Cajas national park, just 45 minutes outside of Cuenca and absolutely, breathtakingly, beautiful. I feel like I can’t quite find the right adjectives trying to explain the raw, natural beauty of the park, but the 110 sq miles of land contains over 700 bodies of water, thousands of species of bird and animal life, and more beautiful – and totally unique – flowers than I could count. Only 8% of the park is in use, the rest is inaccesible, high up on the granite hilltops or covered by golden yellow grass and “cushion forest,” a term for the muy fuerte y verede grass that grows on the thin layer of soil throughout the park and holds vast amounts of rainwater beneath it. We walked 5(ish) miles (we’re talking Ecuadorian distance, so really who knows) on two different paths, and visited the continental divide, where on one side of the mountain, all the water flows to the Pacific Ocean and on the other, all the water flows east instead, to the Atlantic.

We walked through mossy forests, around gorgeous lakes nestled into valleys, and through gigantic mud puddles (my shoes now have Iguazu dirt & Ecuadorian mud permanently embedded in them). We saw a herd of llama with two babies, all sorts of ducks and hummingbirds, and ate amazing fresh fried trout for lunch. I took a million photos (okay, only 263) in the 6 hours we were there, so I’ll let (some of) those speak for themselves.

Kathleen & I!

Obviously Stella had to make her appearance. I think she was quite jealous of all her fellow ducks living in the gorgeous ponds!

Clearly very bundled up (knee socks and all) — it was freezing!

Our trout lunch. I somehow managed to de-head, de-fin, de-tail AND de-spine this sucker. And despite the fish face on my plate, I ate it too! Surprisingly delicious and incredibly fresh! (Thanks to Robin for this awesome picture at lunch — my camera was in the van.)

Yesterday was my last day of the traveling classroom program, and our last day together as a group — we’ve been together two weeks, since the start of our week in Quito. Edith had her flight down to Lima this afternoon, Katelyn leaves the country tonight, Pascal is off to the Galapagos for a week, and Irene and Rinalta are headed back to Montañita.

For many reasons, I’m glad to head my own separate way.

I’ve really loved the homestays I’ve had — all of my families have been so sweet, so welcoming and so helpful as I’ve slowly learned to speak and express myself in Spanish. But staying in someone else’s house (and eating their food) can be tough, especially when you’re immersed in a different culture and have a different lifestyle. It was a wonderful experience – and something that I will always value – but I’m ready to set my own schedule and decide my own meals.

Traveling with a group is tough at times — everyone has different complaints, different needs, and different quirks, and it can be exhausting to be constantly surrounded by other people who see things differently, travel differently, and want and expect different things.

Of course, the perks of constantly having companions are great too. We built great inside jokes and had a blast together. Kathleen and I – who have been together since day one – forged a great friendship, and I was so bummed to say goodbye to her this afternoon! Luckily, she lives in San Francisco, so I’ve got a 99th reason to get myself up to the bay once I get back to the US. But having someone to watch your stuff while you walk to the bathroom, lend you a $1 coin when you only have a $20 that nobody will break, or take a silly picture of you at just the right moment is wonderful too, and I’ll definitely miss those perks.

I can’t believe four weeks have already passed — the time has literally flown, and what’s really unreal to me is that this means my travels are already a third over. So far, I’ve really had an amazing time, and I’m so glad I chose to take Spanish courses. I really feel like I’ve absorbed a ton and that I can communicate, which is much more than I thought I’d be able to say a month ago! I can’t wait to keep practicing.

My favorite, and clearly very appropriate, ending picture:

All of my favorite pictures from the last two days:

Yo amo Cuenca

I didn’t like, let alone love, Quito. It reminded me of a South American version of Los Angeles — gigantic, ugly, and smoggy, filled with fast food and inefficient public transportation. The city is also incredibly unsafe, and the school I was studying at was completely unorganized, so although I really loved my host family, I was ready to move on.

tourist pic!

Cuenca, on the other hand, is gorgeous, and I’ve completely fallen in love with this city. After less than 48 hours here, I understand why so many gringas decide to settle down in the city, and why the locals never leave. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, Cuenca is full of gorgeous churches, plazas filled with indigenous senoras selling flowers and fresh fruit, and incredibly old buildings that are falling apart in that beautiful, third world type of way, if that makes any sense at all. At first glance, not everything looks so charming, but there really is beauty everywhere here — in the balcony railings, the wild flowers growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, and the colorful graffiti.

The weather in Cuenca is relatively predictable this time of year: it’s perfectly sunny every morning, and without fail it rains every afternoon. If you’re lucky, like we were today, the sky clears up by 3 or 4 PM and the day ends with a gorgeous, cloud scattered sky to gawk at.

I had an amazing moment on my walk home today. I was walking down Avenida Loja and was incredibly distracted, staring at a beautiful church facade contrasted with a picture perfect sky on my right hand side. I crossed the street to pull out my camera and snap a picture, standing in the same place for a few moments trying to line up the right shot. When I turned around to re-cross the street, there was a picture perfect rainbow streaked across the clouds.
Had I not crossed the street, I’m not sure I would have seen it. A beautiful reminder to keep my eyes open to everything around me.
Here are a smattering of my favorite pictures from the last two days: Mercado 9 de Agusto with it’s fresh Ecuadorian cuisine and amazing selection of fresh fruit, Ecuadorian “shaman” senoras blessing small children, the Mirador de Turi outlook, and a random smattering of beautiful old buildings from our city tour yesterday.

Ayer, yo subo al volcán

Who ever thought I’d be able to say the words “Yesterday, I climbed a volcano?” I feel like that sentence needs a “freakin’” in there somewhere!

Let me start by saying that thus far, I’ve really enjoyed my time Ecuador. I’ve discovered, however, that many things local people tell me tend to be relatively untrue. For instance, “Oh, the walk is easy” – 30 minutes later I’m huffing and puffing up a gigantic hill. “Oh, it’s always cloudy, overcast and completely freezing there” – meanwhile, I’m sweating through my long sleeves and long pants. “Oh, we’re open every day” – the gate is clearly shut and locked. Maps are inaccurate, signs lie, and “mas tarde” – a general term for “later” – rules all. I’ve come to refer to these inaccuracies as Ecuadorian distance and Ecuadorian time.

That being said, our school here has been less than informative about the activities we’re signed up for. Oh, yeah, you’re going to go to a volcano called Cotopaxi. Lunch and a guide is included. Meet at the school at 6:20 AM. Have fun! is essentially what our instructions looked like for our day yesterday.

The real instructions, which we received en route to our destination: We are hiking up that volcano, mountain biking down some mysterious road, oh, and btw, its miserably freezing and probably below zero at the top, so you may want scarves, gloves and a hat. And bring 2 liters of water with you! I’m so glad I got all of this information before I packed my backpack for the day. Not.

Regardless of the lack of communication, climbing up the volcano was breathtaking. Literally, in that the altitude was so high it was incredibly difficult to breathe, and we were climbing up very steep switchbacks for over an hour, but also figuratively — the view of the valley below and the other volcanos in the distance was absolutely incredible.

The group, which consisted of 15 people, about a third of which were associated with our Spanish school, trudged up rather quickly. I took my time, stopping often to catch my breath, take pictures and just take in the view. I was enjoying myself thoroughly… until it was time to climb down.

Now, here for all to read, I will admit I am a wuss. I am my father’s daughter, and I can be both a complainer and a coward. However the path down Cotopaxi was one of the most unsafe, ridiculous challenges I have ever seen. Easily at a 75 degree incline, the path was covered in loose dirt, gravel and rocks with no stairs, no railings and no markings whatsoever. You could barely “climb” down slowly. Instead, you were forced to run-walk, your body pushed down with the force of gravity as you attempt not to tumble down the mountain. My shoes had more rocks and sand than a beach when I reached the bottom.

I ate shit several times and on my last fall, I managed to stop myself from tumbling face forward by catch myself with my right ankle… twisted underneath me. I think the shock, anger and fear caught up with me, and by the time I reached the bottom I was shaking with tears in my eyes. After I calmed down and realized the throbbing in my entire body was more fear than actual pain, I knew I was okay, but I will say now I would definitely not recommend that hike to anybody else.

Regardless, knowing I climbed to 4,810 meters (15,780 feet) on one of the world’s highest active volcanos is certainly an experience I won’t soon forget.

After we hiked down, the van dropped us off on the side of the road with our mountain bikes, handed us some helmets and said “see you in 10 kilometers and 45 minutes!” The road was under construction so it was dusty, rocky and altogether relatively unpleasant. Though I try not to be a debbie downer on vacation, I had a hard time enjoying the view while I was concentrating on not flipping over my handlebars, so about halfway through the descent I put my bike back on the trailer and climbed into the jeep. I’d had enough!

Of course, Stella had to make an appearance…

After a bizarre lunch of fruit, guacamole, ruffles and a terrible – and tasteless – mystery brocoli soup, we drove the 2 hours north back to Quito and said our farewell.

Random side-note – a couple we’d gone to the Isla de Plata with was also on the exact same Cotopaxi tour with us. Such a crazy small world!

And now, the rest of my pictures!

Adventuring to the cloud forest

Before I write about our day in Mindo, a few quick updates.

On Wednesday evening, we took a trip down to the Papallacta hot springs. I was hugely skeptical, considering we drove 2 hours on windy mountain roads, in the rain, to get there and I was being asked to put my bathing suit on when it was probably no more than 50 degrees outside, not to mention pitch black by the time we got there. But once I sunk into the amazing hot water, lay back and got to look at a sky full of stars, I knew immediately why the school prioritized this trip. My pictures are unimpressive because it was so dark and steamy, but believe me, it was amazing, and completely relaxing!

And here is a picture of me, Pascal and Kathleen hanging out with the Ecuadorian equator line on Thursday. The museum at the line was mostly cheesy, but it was fun to be at the actual equator regardless!

Now, onto our day in Mindo! 

My host family (who, btw, are super sweet, I’m so sad to be leaving them tomorrow!) had mentioned over dinner one night that Mindo, the cloud rainforest just two hours northwest of Quito, is really beautiful and that it’s a shame I didn’t have more time in Quito to spend some time there. I had been itching to get to a rainforest, especially since I don’t want to go deep into the Amazon on this trip. I mentioned Mindo to Kathleen and she was interested as well, so we decided to ditch classes on Friday and spend the day there.

After gathering a plethora of detailed instructions and information from our teachers and administration at the school, we hopped in a taxi at 7:30 AM and headed to the bus station. We got on the bus to Mindo no problem (and for a whopping $2.50 each), and were on the road by 8 AM. We arrived at 10 AM and found a tour agency, where we bought tickets for the Mindo Canopy Adventure – a 13 line zipline course. The lady at the agency showed us the location of the zipline course on the map, saying we could pay $4 for a taxi or just walk ourselves. Eager for some physical activity, the course looked close enough on the map, so we opted to walk.

Mistake numero uno.

South American maps are wrong. And deceptive. Okay, a gross exaggeration. But this isn’t the first time I’ve been deceived. A tiny little squiggle of a road in the bottom right corner of the map turned out to be a gigantic hill with many, many dusty switchbacks that we had to climb. We got to the course and were absolutely drenched in sweat. We had both significantly overdressed, considering how cold it was in Quito, and we quickly discovered our long pants and long sleeves were completely unnecessary. We did, however, take a nice little break at an adorable juice stand with cute wood swings for seats, and each indulged in batidos, amazing, fresh fruit smoothies. I never loved maracuya (passionfruit) in the States, but the fruit here is so fresh, maracuya has quickly become my favorite.

Stella loves fresh juice stands too!

Kathleen being super silly in front of our new favorite juice stand!

When we finally arrived, we signed waivers, checked our backpacks, got all strapped in and got our basic instructions for the zipline. In our exhaustion/excitement to start, we had rolled up our pants/leggings but forgot to put on bug spray.

Mistake numero dos.

After the first amazing, totally exhilarating zipline, we had to hike. And when I say hike, I mean up a very long, serious set of steps and along paths with very steep inclines. That’s when the nausea and altitude sickness began to kick in, and when I realized aside from a few bites of granola on the bus and my juice, I hadn’t eaten or drank any water yet that day.

Mistake numero tres.

Feeling totally faint and completely out of breath, we continued on the course. I was having a blast when I was on the actual ziplines, ironically, but when we had to walk — I mean hike — between lines, I was worried I was going to faint. I was seeing spots and ridiculously dizzy. Not safe! Luckily, I held it together and didn’t pass out, and when we finally finished I  chugged a ton of water and was all set.

Mistake number two became a reality when I looked down at my legs at the end of the course to discover at least 20 bug bites covering the space between my knees and my sock line. Oops. As I type, I am trying desperately not to scratch my legs off.

We hiked the mile and a half-ish (it’s questionable how long the walk actually was, but it was a solid 25 minutes, so we’re guessing at least a mile and a quarter, if not more) back to town and indulged in a delicious pizza lunch. We ordered two salads as well, which turned out to be wayyyy too much food, but completely delicious regardless.

Possibly one of the best veggie pizzas I’ve ever had. So delicious!

Suddenly, I looked down at my watch to realize it was 2 PM, and the last bus back to Quito, which we’d bought tickets in advance for, was at 3 PM. We figured we’d walk down to the butterfly garden, spend twenty minutes there, then hike back to town for the bus.

Mistake numero quatro.

We should have learned from our mistake that morning. The butterfly exhibit might have looked close on the map, but after a solid 30 minutes of fast-paced walking along a very curvy dirt road, each turn anticipating the butterflies to appear out of thin air, they were still nowhere to be found.

When we booked the canopy tour, the lady had asked if we were taking the 3 PM bus or the 5 PM, non-direct bus. So, wanting to take advantage of the fact that we were all the way out in this beautiful little town and wanted to have as much time as we could for the day, we decided to screw the $2.50 we’d spent on the 3 PM bus tickets and opt for the 5 PM instead.

Mistake numero cinco. (In case you can’t count in Spanish, we’re up to 5 mistakes thus far)

When we finally got to the butterfly garden, at just around 2:45, we asked the nice man working the front desk for some more information about the 5 PM bus. Turns out, this instance of non-direct means the bus takes 4 hours, not 2. Oh, and btw, he explained in Spanish, it doesn’t actually go to Quito, it goes to Santo Domingo, a far away suburb of Quito. And the second bus we’d need to catch to Quito from Santo Domingo doesn’t really have a schedule and picks you up at a random, yet very typical Ecuadorian, unmarked side of the road bus stop. We looked at each other and shrugged. We would just take a taxi back, knowing it would cost a fortune but it was too late, and worth not dealing with 5 plus hours of miserable local busses.

We had an amazing time with the butterflies — they were so beautiful and the garden was literally chock full of them — taking a ton of photos and just relaxing.

A female owl eye butterfly with its wings spread — such a gorgeous bright blue!

Owl eye butterflies… everywhere!

These guys were my favorite — such vibrant yellow and orange wings.

Oh, and Stella made some friends! Who knew butterflies and ducks got along so well 😉

More butterfly pictures in the gallery below!

An hour and a half later we made our way back through town, had a tour agency call us a cab (which we had accepted at that point would cost us $50) and hopped in our private SUV. A few minutes later, a killer headache set in. Luckily, we made it back to Quito in one piece — unfortunately, there was a dog that our driver hit somewhere along the way who can’t say the same. Ecuadorian drivers are insane, that’s all I have to say.

My headache was so bad at that point that all I had the energy to do was shower off the dirt and snuggle into bed to pass out, even though it was only 7:30 PM when we got home and I hadn’t eaten dinner.

Despite our several crucial mistakes, we had a blast, and the town of Mindo was adorable, and the surrounding rainforest absolutely beautiful. We both agreed that had we had more time, we would’ve spent the night and a second day — checking out the waterfall 7 km away and taking a tour of the local chocolate factory. Maybe next time I’m in Ecuador!

All of my favorite pictures from the day:

Bienvenidos a Quito

What I´ve learned during my first 48 hours in Quito:

  • Just like in Boston and New York, one minute it’s sunny and beautiful here, the next it’s windy as hell. Five minutes later, it’s raining cats and dogs. As my professor said, take your umbrella and your sunglasses because it will be sunny, and regardless of how clear the sky is, it will rain at some point.
  • Despite my desperate wishes, I am not escaping four hours of straight Spanish class. Just like in Manta, we have classes from 8 AM until 12 PM, with a thirty minute break at 10:30.
  • Humans shove themselves onto busses here the same way they do in Boston. In fact, the school children who get on and off at the stop near our spanish school might possibly be just as obnoxious as all the BU hipsters on the B line. A bold statement, but it’s true.
  • The mountains here are to the west, a confusing geographic difference. Regardless, they’re beautiful, and I love the way the buildings rise above you onto the hills.
  • People bury their heads into their cellphones as they walk, not paying attention to anything around them, exactly like in the US.
  • I have seen just as many Pizza Huts, Dominos, KFCs and McDonalds in Quito as there are in any town in the US.
  • In fact, Ecuador runs on Dunkin Donuts, just like America supposedly does.
  • The mall 5 minutes from my homestay is ten times nicer than the Cambridge Galleria, and much nicer than the Beverly Center. There’s a gigantic “Tiffanys Coming Soon” sign in the entrance, to match the Bulgari, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, North Face, Zara and other American brands housed in the mall.
  • In Ecudor, the economic classes are titled pobre, medio, y ricos – poor, middle class, and rich. Quito is one very large, very long city. In the northern suburbs, where our school is, is where all of the wealthy people live, which explains the expensive mall. Closer to the Centro Historico — the center of the city — are the indigenous peoples and middle class, and the poorer suburbs are in the south. In Quito, 60% of the population is indigineous peoples, and 40% are mestizos, of mixed indigineous and Spanish heritage. (My Spanish teacher gave us a great history lesson this morning.)
  • The delicious $2 or $3 Menu de Dia that I’ve become accustomed to thankfully still exists in Quito. The family I’m doing my homestay with owns a restaurant, and their food is cheap and absolutely delicious. This afternoon, I had salad, chicken and potato soup, chicken, rice, pasta salad and a dessert (banana with chocolate ice cream) for $2.50. Score!
  • Ridiculously salty food is just as prevalent in Quito as it is in the rest of Ecuador — my bloating is here to stay.
  • We may be in a major metropolitan city, however the milk is still not refrigerated and you cannot flush your toilet paper.
  • Taxes on imported goods in Ecuador are ridiculously high — a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese is $2.75, but the Ecuadorian version is 33 cents.
  • Yo amo Quito! It´s so nice to be back in a major ciudad, the people may speak spanish and the cuisine may be a little bit different, but I feel right at home.

Floating above the Pacific & Bird Shit Island

I can’t wait to document the ridiculousness that was our trip to the Isla de Plata (aka the island of bird shit) but first: paragliding.

I’ve been stoked for paragliding ever since I found out it was on my travel itinerary, and Friday was finally the day. We had the day off from classes since it was a national holiday in Ecuador, which was a nice break — 4 hours of Spanish a day (plus several more hours in the evening practicing) is intense, and my brain appreciated the break.

We drove about 30 minutes north to a town called Crucita then up onto a hill with a cliff overlooking the entire town and a gorgeous blue ocean. Kathleen went first while Pascal and I photographed. Even though we were going in tandem with a “guide” and her 15 minutes in the air looked amazing and completely effortless, I will admit a tiny pit began to grow in my stomach. I wasn’t nervous per-say, I just didn’t quite know what to expect. The second we were up off the ground and my tandem partner told me to sit back, I instantly relaxed. It sounds sort of silly, but I literally felt like a bird — peacefully gliding above the world, it almost felt like I was floating. Granted I might not have been quite so relaxed had I needed to control the parachute, but it was a pretty surreal 15 minutes. Just as cool: my guide (tandem partner? pilot? new bff?) and I spoke only in Spanish the entire time we were in the air, and there were only one or two sentences of his that I couldn’t understand. It might have been basic conversation, but I was damn proud of myself. Unfortunately, toward the end of our flight my motion sickness began to kick in, and I was ready to land. Regardless, I’d definitely go again if I had the opportunity!

Getting all suited up…

And off I go!

Check out that agua turquza!

High above the city…

Back on the ground, and grinning!

Part dos: Isla de Plata, aka Bird Shit Island

So before I begin to describe the horrific sea sickness that I experienced on Saturday, I would just like to say: I took motion sickness medication. I even made Kathleen, the nurse, and Pascal, the much more impressive Spanish speaker, come with me to the walk up pharmacy, where I used my pathetic Spanish to explain to the pharmacist that I had “nausea por la ocean” and that I would be on a boat the next day. She gave me four pills, which I paid a whopping 68 cents for (they proved their worth I guess) and we were on our way.

On Saturday morning, we met at the school at 7:30 AM where our driver was awaiting us, then drove two hours south to Puerto Lopez. Our group joined several other gringo groups and we all walked down to the beach from the tourist office. Our first instructions? Take off your shoes. Oh, and roll your pants up way above your knees, to at least mid-thigh.

Hmm, okay. We all obliged, sticking our shoes in a gigantic, thick plastic sack that was supposedly waterproof, and nervously laughing about just how deep into the water we’d have to walk. Our boat, which seated 16, was pushed slowly up to the beach, and we all trudged through the water to hop on. Luckily I only got wet up to my knees, so the nervousness was unnecessary. The hour and twenty minute ride to the island was rough, but my stomach held in there, and the intense nausea only hit me at the very end, when the driver stopped the boat to show us a supposed whale (which I did not see). At that point, I had had enough, and was ready to be off that boat pronto.

We got to the island, and our guide (who, btw, only spoke Spanish) explained we were going to walk on 3 different sets of paths around the island… for 6 miles. Thank god at the last minute I decided to throw my running shoes into a plastic bag and bring ’em along — Pascal and Kathleen only had their flip flops, as none of us were quite aware we’d be doing any hiking. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled for the physical activity. Last week, all I did was eat pan con queso (bread and ridiculously salty cheese). My host family was incredibly sweet but I think my semi vegetarian-ism confused them, and they didn’t quite know what else to serve me, despite the fact that I explained I do eat pollo, pescado y camarones. At least that’s my guess, they might just be completely unhealthy eaters, it was hard to tell.

The white cliffs of the Isla de Plata from our boat

I divulge. Despite not knowing we’d be walking so much, I was happy to do so. However, I should have realized that we needed to ascend several hundred feet onto the plateau of the island. As our boat approached the island I very clearly saw how high the cliffs were. I had sudden Machu Picchu flashbacks as I quickly lost my breath climbing countless, very steep, and very poorly constructed, wood “steps” — aka pieces of wood stuck into the dirt to serve as stairs, some of which were simply planks of wood, six inches apart, placed at a 45 degree angle across steep portions of the hill.

When we finally made it up, we began the walk along the perimeter of the island, stopping every few minutes so that our guide could explain information about the blue footed boobies. His explanations were solely in Spanish, so I didn’t quite comprehend everything he was saying, but I did learn that the boobies [insert your jokes here] don’t build nests. Instead, they pick a nice looking spot on the ground and nestle themselves on top of their egg(s), propping their bodies up every once and a while to spray their poop behind them. Once they’ve done their business, they rotate their body slightly, repeating the process over and over again throughout the day until they have created a nice indent in the dirt and are surrounded, literally, by a white circle of shit.

The island has several very rough dirt paths for visitors to hike along, but the island really belongs to the birds, many many thousands of them, who have decided their favorite place to nest is smack in the middle of all the man-made, nicely cleared paths. So despite the fact that there are specific, designated places for people to walk, you often have to wind your way two dozen feet out of your way, and in many cases into various shrubbery, around the paths because there are dozens of birds nesting on the ground in your way.

They may look like they have plastic dipped feet, but those blue flippers are definitely real

Protecting its eggs from predators

just chillin’ on the path

Gorgeous view of the Pacific from the Island — on a very overcast day

The other thing I learned is that that the island was named Isla de Plata hundreds of years ago because it was rumored that Sir Francis Drake buried his silver (plata) treasure on the island. Later, as more people discovered and visited the island, the name was thought to mean “Island of Silver” because of the way the cliffs are absolutely covered in white bird crap, which supposedly shines silver in the sun. We didn’t quite see that since it was grossly overcast and cloudy the entire day we were there, but I certainly believe it. Our group decided a more fitting name for the Isla was “Bird Shit Island.”

Overall, our walk was great, my doom came when we had to get back on the boat. Before heading back to the mainland, we made a stop for snorkeling. The water was freezing, there was no sun, and there wasn’t much exciting ocean wildlife to see, so I opted out. The hour plus ride back to Puerto Lopez might have been one of the most miserable of my life. The swells of the ocean were as high as 15 feet — it felt like our boat was flying, slamming down onto the water and bouncing us down hard enough that I swear I felt my kidneys displace. Most of the other people thought the ride was relatively entertaining, as they watched the ocean throw our boat around and our drive race like a maniac back to the mainland. I, however, mostly wanted to die. I could barely keep my lunch down, and I felt like my head was going to swivel off my body and into the Pacific. As I gripped the edge of the boat and tried desperately to take deep breaths and keep my eyes on the horizon, I swore I would never get on a boat again. At least not on this trip.

The worst part was that after we got back to Puerto Lopez, the three of us had to get into a car for another two hours. Even Kathleen, who said she’s never been sick on a boat, felt relatively nauseas toward the end of the ride. I refused to get in the car right away, bought a 7UP, and tried to convince my body not to lose all the nutrients I’d put in it several hours prior. Thankfully, I succeeded, and the car ride wasn’t too terrible, and I was able to pass out for half of it.

My body has apparently lost its ability to deal well with motion — my horrible motion sickness phase when I was younger (flashbacks to puking mid-way through the windy drive up to Tawonga in Yosemite) had faded in recent years, but alas, it’s back. This sad fact was confirmed by how sick I felt at the end of our nearly 11 hour bus ride to Quito from Manta yesterday. Once it got dark and the bus began to wind its way through the mountains, my body had had enough. No bien, especially considering how many busses I’m planning to be on over the next 2 1/2 months… Yikes! I am considering sucking it up and paying $70 to fly from Quito to Cuenca — it’s a 9+ hour bus ride through the mountains, and I’m relatively sure my pretty pennies just might be worth giving up in this particular instance.


there’s gotta be somethin’ more

As I was laying on the beach last Saturday listening to music, the Sugarland song “Something More” came on and literally gave me goosebumps. I feel flashbacks to LiveJournal or my TOD (hah!) coming on, but I wanted to post these lyrics since they resonate so much with my life right now.

So now boss man, here’s my two weeks
I’ll make it short and sweet, so listen up
I could work my life away, but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more
Gotta be more than this
I need a little less hard time
I need a little more bliss
I’m gonna take my chances
Taking a chance I might
Find what I’m looking for
There’s gotta be something more.
Some believe in destiny, and some believe in fate
I believe that happiness is something we create. 
You best believe that I’m not gonna wait
‘Cause there’s gotta be something more

One afternoon when I was in Montanita, Katarina, Erwin and I went for an afternoon mojito at a restaurant right on the beach. We talked about how lucky we were (are!) to be traveling the world, taking chunks of time off from the real world to actually live our dreams. We started talking about why so many people talk about wanting to travel but never actually make that dream come true — whether it’s monetary reasons, ignorance or simple fear of leaving behind the comforts of home, pausing their real lives, and taking a risk.

In my eyes, all those reasons combine to make one gigantic excuse, and I could not be happier that I kicked all of those excuses in the ass to make this trip happen. Sure, I hate having seven tops to wear for the next three months, and I miss the luxury of a stocked refrigerator and my shower with its perfect water pressure and actual hot water. And yes, of course, it’s a bit painful to see my money drain, slowly but surely, from my checking account. But what better way to appreciate the comforts of home in the US, and a stable income? Not only am I learning about South American culture, I’m learning about the lives, homes and cultures of the other travelers I’m meeting on my journey. I’m building a network of friendships that circumnavigates the globe, and a myriad of excuses to visit countries I’ve been dreaming of getting to.

Today we took a trip out to Monticristi (20 minutes from Manta), a town known for its mass production of Panama hats. Nothing too exciting to report, aside from dozens of stores selling millions of tchotchkes (or as Kathleen says, dust collectors) and more woven hats, baskets and hammocks than I’ve ever seen.

I will admit that if I wasn’t on this organized program I would definitely be scooting out of Manta early — it is far from an exciting town. It has also been nublado and frijo (cloudy and cold), not exactly beach weather. That being said, Kathleen and I found Cafe Verde, a nice coffee shop with delicious lattes and free wifi, where we’ve been spending each afternoon practicing our spanish and writing emails. Tomorrow is our cooking lesson, Friday is a national holiday and we’re taking a trip to go paragliding, and Saturday we have an all day trip to Puerto Lopez and the Isla de Plata, so thankfully I’ll be kept busy for the next 3 days.

And now, what you all really want: the rest of my pictures from Moñtanita!

Adios Moñtanita, hola Manta!

Well, I’m two bus rides down, approximately three dozen more to go!

Our supposed 3 hour bus ride north along the coast from Moñtanita to Manta this afternoon turned out to be more like 4 1/2 hours, and was quite the experience. Kathleen, Pascal and I are the three students participating in the traveling classroom program for the month of October. On Friday, each of us were each handed a piece of paper with a printed map we could barely make out, the name of our new host family, their phone number and the phone number for Manuel, the director of the spanish school we’re studying at in Manta. Along with our illegible map came a $5 bill – our bus fare.

Silly me, I was picturing a nice private van, which would shuttle the three of us up the coast and directly to our host families houses. Once I realized we were stuck taking a bus, I imagined the nice, over air-conditioned tourist busses I took in Peru and Bolivia, similar to the one I took up to Moñtanita from Guayaquil. We’re in South America after all — I should’ve known better. 

The bus we needed to take has no schedule, but between 6 AM-ish (emphasis on the ish) and 6 PM-ish, it runs every half hour, stopping for all of three seconds in the middle of the main road that runs through Moñtanita, allowing passengers to hop on and off. When the bus finally came, we shoved our packs in the back and jumped on to discover that there were no empty seats. Luckily, after standing in the aisle for 20 minutes or so, the bus stopped two more times and enough people got off that the five of us (we’d befriended a French girl and a Canadian guy also waiting at the bus stop with gigantic travel packs) were able to find seats. They were only going an hour or so north to Puerto Lopez, but they were able to get on the same bus as us. I should have seen that as a warning sign.

Instead of the direct bus I’d imagined, we ended up stopping close to two dozen times over the course of the next several hours. Our seats were barely padded, and as my ass went from sore to totally numb, my head began to pound from the ruckus around me.

For starters, there were children everywhere, of all ages, some crying, some screaming, some just talking and playing at an escalated volume. Women and men of all ages spoke Spanish loudly throughout the bus, and loose speakers, which had clearly been hand-wired into the two overhead luggage racks, blared a constant stream of static-y Spanish music. But it gets worse.

Have you ever heard the sound of metal scraping along concrete or asphalt? Imagine a gigantic metal dumpster being dragged across the ground, vibrating and scraping loudly… for hours on end. Okay, so there were pauses every few minutes or so, but I swear the engine of our bus was dragging directly along the highway with the tires. Every time our driver accelerated above 45 km, the roaring would start, slowly getting louder and louder until the scraping noises was booming. I wish I were exaggerating.

I was, ironically, thankful that I’d gone to bed ridiculously late on Friday night (I only got two hours of sleep.. oops!) and had a long day Saturday at the beach in the sun, so even though I had slept 8 hours on Saturday night, I was more than exhausted from the weekend. Eventually the noises around us because a sort of horrific lullaby that rocked me to sleep. I passed out for an hour and a half, and woke up for good as we pulled into yet another bus station to let passengers on and off.

At several points throughout the drive, the bus would stop for an instant and teenagers selling snacks — pans of stuffed breads or water and soda — would hop on, trying to make a few dollars.  It was certainly the Ecuadorian experience, and we were the whitest ones on the bus by several shades.

Thankfully, once we finally got to Manta I was able to call Manuel and let him know we’d arrived in one piece (yes Dad, the cell phone and Ecuador SIM card you insisted on making me travel with did in fact come in handy — now you can say I told you so in your next email.) Thankfully, a young man from our school came to pick us up, and took us each to our host families in a taxi.

My casa for the week isn’t a single house for one family. Instead, it’s a family-run hotel and my host family — a mom, dad, two daughters and a son — lives on the first floor. I have my own private room and bathroom (with hot water!) in the hotel, which is much nicer than I was expecting. The first night was by far the most challenging, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable and my Spanish slowly improves, I’ve been able to communicate relatively well. Of course my vocabulary is far from impressive, so I often need to stop them (or slow them down) when they ask me questions, but I’m getting by.

Overall, Manta is a relatively ugly harbor city. It’s spread out and none of the buildings are higher than five or six floors. I haven’t seen a single other tourist thus far, and I have to admit as weird as it is, I’m more than happy to be out of the tourist trap and fiesta town of Moñtanita. Of course living on the beach in a crazy party town where booze costs $2 wasn’t a horrific lifestyle for a week, but I’m ready to really experience the cities of Ecuador and move on to a more authentic part of the trip.

The only complaint I have thus far is our new schedule: starting at 8:30 AM, we have four hours of Spanish, broken up only by a single twenty minute break. It’s a lot, and by the end, my brain literally starts to hurt from all the information being thrown at me. I must be retaining some of it though, because I find I’m much more capable of having conversations with strangers, even if they’re relatively basic and brief!

The rest of my week is jam packed: tomorrow we have a trip to a panama hat factory, Thursday is a national holiday and we get to go paragliding (ah I can’t wait!), Friday we have a cooking lesson, and Saturday we have an all day trip to Puerto Lopez where we will be snorkeling and whale watching. The Sunday we get on our 7 hour bus ride east and into the mountains to Quito. Thankfully, we’re booked on a tourist bus with AC and nice seats, so there will be no repeat of our last bus journey!