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!