Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Argentina and Chile bound

I´m back! I have so much to say, but I'm going to attempt to keep it short. (Right, Lauren, right.) I'm currently in Córdoba, Argentina, and I'm with my peach, Kjell, so things are fabulous. Kjell and I met up in Buenos Aires on June 8th, and after some initial obstacles (airport being closed, cancelled flights, etc.), we had a marvelous rendezvous. It had been almost six months since I had seen him. We immediately turned to our Lonely Planet Argentina and Chile guides, and started planning away. Yes, that's right, we had nothing planned before we got here, but things have turned out well for flying by the seat of our pants. On the first night Kjell treated me to an amazing steak dinner at a place in Buenos Aires called La Cabelleriza. This place can make a meat lover out of anyone. It was muy sabroso, and I'm still dreaming about it. This has been the best meal we have had to date because food and just about everything is twice as expensive as Ecuador, and I am missing my home away from home and the $1.25 meals and 5 cent bananas. Buenos Aires is like any other major European city. The architecture is stunning, and I couldn't get over it's extreme contrast to Quito and all of Ecuador for that matter. The difference is night and day. Designer shops line the streets, people talk on cell phones without hesitation in public, leather goods abound, and there are multitudes of cultural events. The only downside was that it was COLD, and that practically everything was closed that we wanted to see. I'm not kidding. We had high hopes for Buenos Aires, but after going to the Teatro Colonial, the Casa Rosada, etc., and seeing that they were closed, the wind was taken out of our sail. I just began to laugh as we walked around and saw huge "Cerrado" (closed) signs in the windows. We should have heeded the forewarning, because Buenos Aires was only a precursor for what was to follow. Buenos Aires did treat us to many memorable things. We saw a tango show, took a really fun tango class, saw an awesome, bohemian antique market, visited an interesting artesan fair, went to a fútbol game (Boca Jrs. v. Belgrano) in the stadium of the in/famous Maradona, visited an Evita Perón museum, walked across the famous space-age bridge, tested out some steaks, acted like true tourists in a boulevard called "El Caminito", passed through the famous La Recoleta cemetery (where Evita is buried), and ate in the very hip and eclectic El Palermo barrio of Buenos Aires. In spite of every other thing being closed, we made the best of the city, and we're still seeing how traveling in the low season has it's benefits but disadvantages as well.

We then headed to the most remarkable waterfalls I have ever seen: Iguazú falls. My mouth has never dropped in front of waterfalls before, but I serioulsy couldn't marvel enough at the mammoth drop-offs. Kjell and I spent all day there, winding around the paths and taking the sights in from all possible angles. We even went on a motor boat directly into the falls and were freezing like the tourists we are, but it was worth it. One of the falls apart from the rest was called The Devil's Throat, and it captivated me. I'll hopefully put a picture up later because it was an abyss that I can't describe. It's absolutely amazing- a convergence of all the rivers that falls into a massive hole in a two-tiered drop. You hopefully can get the idea.

After Iguazú we headed on our first overnight bus, which was a bit of a haul. It was a 22 hour journey, but it wasn't so bad because we were able to sleep, and following Latin American tradition, they entertained us with the most horrible movies known to man that we laughed about. Kjell and I do a lot of that it seems. We're just about always laughing. I told him today that people must look at us and think, "What can those two kids possibly be laughing at so much all day long?" I love it. Anyway, we stopped over in a rather dull town called Tucumán, but we found a gem of a restaurant and tried locro, this crazy mystery stew. It came to us with all kinds of strange meat that we put to the side. It was a foray into adventurous eating that doesn't need to be repeated, but it was fun. Empanadas (love of my life) are better! We then headed to Cafayate, a town known for it's white wines. There are Rutas del Vino (wine routes) in both Chile and Argentina, so we wanted to see what a wine town was all about. But hey, what luck, it was a national holiday, and all the wineries were, you guessed it, c-l-o-s-e-d! We laughed again. We did have enough luck to go to one, however. We also went on a great, 46 km bikeride through a gorge of scenery like no other. We saw unbelievable rock formations and mountains. It was a tough journey, but it gave us needed exercise after so many bus rides. We had a lovely tuna picnic (note, tuna is our best friend), and really enjoyed being insane and biking the whole gorge. Only wimps take cars!

Kjell really wanted to go paragliding, so we went to a town that is famed for it's flying. La Cumbre treated Kjell to a majestic overlook and lush valley as he tandemed with the guide. It was a REALLY relaxed town, and this means, haha, most things were closed! We really enjoyed the free breakfast though:) They are nothing like Ecuador's feasts, but we are appreciating all of the endless, calorie-laden bread products Argentina has to offer and it's world class hot chocolate (called The Submarino). They serve it as a hot glass of milk, and then you're able to dunk a whole bar of chocolate into it (hence, the submarine).

We spent today in the college town of Córdoba, and it treated us well. It has seven universities, so we checked some out. (Don't worry, the idea of law school here crossed my mind, but it quickly left). Kjell played some chess in the plaza like a champ, and I enjoyed watching him play with the Argentinians, and he won! We wandered around the market and bought amazing meat and cheese for lunch. They have tons of that here, but we made the mistake of eating cured, but raw meat a week ago because we didn't realize that meat was served crudo, or raw, here. Hmnnn. We've since learned to ask before ordering.

General observations about Argentina so far:
1) The men´s haircuts are awesome. They sport some serious mullets, and it makes me laugh. We're both waiting to find a good place to get our hair cut in true Argentine fashion. We need to work on the clothes though so we pull off the trying-but-not-really grunge, chic bohemian thing.
2) The country is enormous, and I am already starting to cringe when I see the double-decker overnight buses that I can now begin to call my second home.
3) The accent cracks me up. It sounds more like Italian than Spanish, and they pronounce the y, ll, and j differently.
4) It's difficult to eat both well and cheaply. Hello tuna.
5) I should have checked into the whole southern hemisphere´s winter in June and July thing. About that...
6) People are really helpful and go out of their way to greet you and say "Buenas tardes" with mucho, mucho gusto.
7) Everyone smokes, and that's how the women stay so thin I'm convinced.
8) They serve agua con gas (carbonated water) with all coffee/café drinks, and I love it! I also love the really cute little spoons they have.
9) Everyone drinks maté. It's awesome. I read a lot about maté in my Argentine lit classes in college because the famed gauchos of the Pampas used to drink it and pass it around the bonfire to stay warm. The tradition has stuck, and everyone walks around with a thermos of hot water, their gourd with maté in it, and the bombilla (self-straining straw). To the North American this seems to be a cumbersome load to carry, but it's second nature for everyone to carry the thermos and gourd around here. High-school ages kids drink it on the bus, older people drink it on benches, salespeople have it behind the counter, young 20-somethings take it on dates-the works! It's a maté obsession here, but what a healthy way to go, right?
10) There are sweets and candy stores on every corner, and they always tempt us. We give in daily.
11) Poverty is not as apparent as in Ecuador, and I still can't believe Ecuador and Argentina exist on the same continent. The physical indigenous characteristics aren't as apparent as in Ecuador, and there is an obvious European descendency. It's nice for once that people can't pick me out as a foreigner just by looking at me. When I speak it's a different story- I'm caught!
12) Wine is sold on every corner, and it's possible to buy wine-by-the-glass for $1.25.

I told you I'd try to keep it short! Next off is Mendoza on a night bus. I hope everyone is doing well and is ready to eat mountains of salads with me when I come home. I get back July 12th in Tampa. More to come soon!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Getting in touch with the Pacha Mama

I love Ecuador. This country is merely a dot on the map, but within its borders exist such biodiversity and beauty that it’s hard to believe Ecuador is only the size of Colorado. Where else can you find volcanoes, jungle, beach, highlands, and Darwin’s famed islands all in the same place? One of my treasured friends, Jessica Cornett, came to visit me to embark on a beach tour of Ecuador. It was amazing. I don’t even know where to begin. I saw so much of Ecuador that I literally haven’t left a rock unturned now in this awesome country. Jessica is a flexible, spunky, active (yet capable of being totally lethargic, which is awesome), bare-bones traveler, and we were a formidable pair. We relished not having a plan, a watch, or a place to be. Our days consisted of absolute relaxation. The biggest decisions we had to make were if we were going to pay six dollars or eight dollars for our hostel, if we wanted the pineapple or coconut milkshake, if we wanted to sunbathe now or later, if I wanted gummy snacks, or if I should start reading a new book. (I’ll stop now.) We started our adventure in a tiny beach town called Canoa, and I have to say that getting there was the most frightening Ecuadorian bus experience I have ever had. We literally escaped crashing into an oil tanker by the skin of our teeth at one point during the almost 10 hour bus ride to Canoa. I loved how a really sassy woman on the bus marched up to the driver in an irate fury due to his driving. I had never seen such hip-popping, finger snapping, oh-no-you-don’t, hand waving in the face spiciness since my arrival here nearly eight months ago. We all applauded her. Jessica was beside herself, and I was laughing because I have developed this irrational and all-too-trusting confidence in bus drivers here. The whole “near death, hey let’s pass ten cars on a blind curve” thing really just doesn’t phase me. I always seem to assure myself that no matter how crazy the ride, I probably won’t die. I’m way too okay with the driving. Canoa was awesome. We stayed in this tiki hut hostel loft thing, and it was our first introduction to the cold-water showers of the coast. Jessica proceeded to burn herself like the royal lobster that she is, so the rest of our days on the beautiful beach of Canoa were spent pilfering tons of aloe plant branches for her. We got quite good at it. I wish I had pictures to put on the blog, but I’ll get into that later. It’s a tragic story.

Jessica is marvelous. She cracks me up (and herself, which is oftentimes even funnier). She also makes really keen observations and insights, so I really enjoyed hearing what she had to say about the country that I have come to love. Her first obsession began in Quito when she awoke the first morning to the “fruit and randomness truck”. These trucks are all over the country, and they’re fun to watch. Someone drives the truck while droning on into a microphone that is attached to a massive megaphone/loudspeaker mounted on top of the truck. They drive really slowly down residential streets advertising the myriad products they have on the back bed of the truck. Usually it sounds something like this: “aguacates, bananas, tomates, comprame los aguacates”. If you’re lucky, they might just be selling underwear, toilet paper, or even chickens or pet turtles (lucky charm!). I’m getting off track.

After Canoa, we explored the beach town of Bahia, and it’s a small, but charming pueblo. We made it our mission to eat Pinguino brand Magnum ice-cream bars. It was great while it lasted, but we tired of Magnums after a while like the toddlers that we are. We climbed up the ridiculously tall, imposing cross on the hill that serves as a lookout point over all of Bahia and walked along the beach beneath a precipice of natural beauty that we lovingly termed “The Prettiness”. We also checked out a beach soccer game, and it is always fun to see girls playing with the guys and their proud moments when they actually pass the ball or defend a male opponent. It gave us a good laugh to witness their glee. I forgot to mention that Jess and I began our costal culinary tour in Canoa and Bahia. We tried specialties like Viche (a peanut based soup with fish- read amazingly delicious), encocado, arepas, etc. Jessica is a fan of looking at a menu, identifying what she has never seen or heard of, ordering the unknown items, and relishing in the delight of the surprise. This creates for fun eating.

After Bahia we ventured to the rather uneventful, but tranquil town of Crucita. I had heard tons about it, but it actually turned out to be our least favorite town. The only thing there is to do there is paraglide, so Miss Jessica had a go. I am in my ridiculously frugal stage of traveling now that money is running out, and I still have 1.5 months left, so I stayed back and took pictures of Jessica riding the winds in her massive purple sail. We also observed the throngs of fishermen and fishmongers in Crucita. It’s the primary industry, and there are literally fish everywhere. Boatloads of fish come in, and the fishermen bring the fish fresh off the boat right to the shore, where there are tiki warehouses set up for the scaling and cleaning of fish. Scales fly everywhere, and a small stream of blood trickled down from the cleaning shacks into the sea. The men all work together to transport the fish, and they systematically and methodically push the boats onto the shore using the method of logs underneath the boat to roll it up. Meanwhile, birds swarm in dizzying numbers over the fish cleaning stations and the boats in the hopes that they’ll find a tasty scrap. It’s a colorful, chaotic, hot mess, and I loved observing it.

Puerto Lopez was next on the list because it’s the starting point to go to the poor man’s Galapagos, or Isla de La Plata. There is no comparison between the two, but we did have the good fortune of happening upon a few blue footed boobies, and the crowning moment was seeing the albatross. It’s an enormous bird/almost mystical looking animal. The views from the island were impressive because the deep indigo and turquoise waters swirled and crashed against mammoth black rocks and cliffs. There were many smaller islands as well that created sweeping, curved archipelagos. We went snorkeling there as well, and we saw amazing diversity that Erica and I missed out on the Galapagos a little bit. There were so many different kinds of fish! We hung around Puerto Lopez a little too long. We joked with each other that when we started to recognize people in the towns and when we noticed when new waves of tourists had come in that it was definitely time to go. We started to not even be able to drink a soda on the street corner without seeing people from the town that we knew. Speaking of colas, Jessica was quite fond of Inca Cola, the yellow, bubble-gum tasting favorite of Peruvians, and we had the ritual of sharing a cola in a glass bottle some nights. We’re too cute. A lot of cola is served in glass bottles in the little convenient, corner store type “variety” stores that offer everything fried and trans fat. The best is when the stores have little tables inside them so the townspeople come and hang out. I likened it to getting a Slurpee at 7-Eleven and sitting at an indoor table in the middle of the isle. How strange, right? Anyway, serving the colas in glass bottles has many advantages. For starters, it tastes worlds better, the shops can send the bottles back to be cleaned and re-filled, the cost can be lower for consumers due to the savings in material, and Ecuador can actually take part in small-scale recycling because lord knows it’s lacking here. I have become painfully unaware of throwing plastic bottles and paper away now because it’s been so long. The only downside is that you can’t take the bottle home with you because it needs to be returned to the store. Therefore, you have to enjoy the drink on the premises. Jessica was about to walk off with the bottle, and I thought it was really funny. Again, I’m getting off track.

Puerto Lopez served as a great home base for lots of activities. We also attempted to go to a town called Agua Blanca because there was a good hike we had read about in the Lonely Planet. Speaking of the Lonely Planet, my advice is to not take everything they print to be fact. Jessica and I are convinced that the writers didn’t go to some of the towns we were in since the last edition. Anyway, Agua Blanca was a flop, but my fiesta-ready eyes saw the preparations for a big party that was to take place that night for the patron saint San Isidro. People were adorning the entrance of the church with crazy palms and they were constructing a big tent and stage. It looked all too much like the Mexican wedding party scene from the movie Babel, and ever since I saw that movie I have wanted to go to a party like that. So we went! It was an event, let me tell you. Getting there was an effort, as the only way to go is on these little motorcycle-taxi things. We had shamelessly cajoled our motorcycle guy, Luis, into taking us to Agua Blanca. So here were are in this sputtering, moto-taxi, and Jessica of course had her supafly, fake Chanel, pink sunglasses on even though it was 10 pm (for the dirt and dust, claro). We arrived, and surprisingly we didn’t receive the stares I thought we would for being the only gringitas in the middle of the most in-the-sticks town celebration that two girls could possibly happen upon. The people were happy we were there. Lots of people wanted to know who we were, and I was happy to be in this rustic, dirt-floor fiesta with the people of the community. Old couples danced next to young teenagers. Young boys danced with their moms and weren’t embarrassed in the least. Ladies tried to stand upright in spite of the really tight jeans, sparkly halters, and high heels they were wearing in the dirt. I swear though, even the toddlers dance better than Jess and me. It’s such an important part of their culture that I’d be hard pressed to find an Ecuadorian that can’t dance. They went so far as to announce us over the speaker system (multiple times), and this infinitely amused us. I even got Jessica to dance some salsa! You know it had to be a good party to get her dance. Everyone was drinking the famed (disgusting) Pisener beer of Ecuador, and Jess and I found it funny that when someone ordered a beer, the beer man brought out a small, wooden table with the one bottle of beer (and 10 cups because everyone shares). So for the price of one beer you get a whole set-up! That’s hard to beat. We also went to the most picturesque beach that we saw during beach tour ’07 called Los Frailes. Los Frailes is untouched by man. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and we basically had the whole beach to ourselves. Moto-boy Luis drove us again, and we were a bit upset by the early closing time of the park. We had tried to go the day before, but the guards wouldn’t let us in due to the San Isidro party, and the day we went was Mother’s Day, so they wanted to go home. (Read: they were finding good excuses to not work). I’m actually really glad that we were there during Mother’s day because we saw the most awesome karaoke truck. A big, blue Ford truck with speakers and karaoke equipment in the back just drove around the town and parked in front of houses, and the people came out and started celebrating wherever the truck went. They seemed to really be enjoying themselves! I don’t think that this truck would have much success in the majority of the U.S. Puerto Lopez on the whole treated us rather well, and it’s hard to resist the charm of a quaint harbor town situated on a beautiful bay with hundreds of bobbing, floating blue boats anchored in the water. We had bad luck with the place we stayed, but breakfast is included. “Breakfast” here is kind of funny. I am way too spoiled now. Ecuadorian breakfast always includes coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, and fresh fruit juice. It comes with scrambled eggs and bread with jelly and butter, and if you’re lucky, fresh fruit. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I love instant coffee here! No, you read that right. I’m in a country with decadent coffee, but it’s mainly exported, as with most profitable products in developing nations, and what do the locals drink and get left with? Nestle instant, soluble coffee. I love it in hot milk though. Anyway, I am tired of the traditional breakfasts now, but it was nice while it lasted. Another funny thing in Puerto Lopez were the many young guys transporting fish around town. Jess and I were off in our own little world, when all of a sudden I saw a swordfish inexplicably approaching Jess and dry land! What?! These MASSIVE fish were piled high on a bicycle-buggy, and the poor kid was working really hard to pedal the weight of the fish. It was really odd to see the fish right next to the motorcycles and cars that passed by. Jess also really found the random stores funny. She bought a hat, for example, in a store that sold shirts, hats, crackers, toilet paper, lettuce, tea, batteries, shoes, dog food, pots, and figurines. There are so many of these stores that I don’t understand how any of them stay in business and why they don’t specialize in and offer one product is beyond me. They all want to offer a little of everything though instead of only offering one kind of item. They must have their reasons.

Another funny thing we noticed was how people open up their houses for their businesses. It makes better financial sense to open up a room of your house to have a business and live there as well, but this created for interesting times when we did laundry, bought snacks, or tried to use internet. We were just sitting there at the computers when in the next room over the whole family eating dinner, the kids were doing homework, and people were watching dubbed versions of the Simpsons in Spanish on the t.v. that sat right below the gigantic poster of Jesus and Mary framed in a huge, cracked, bronze frame. We also dropped our laundry there, and the lady told us that we’d have to come back in about 8 hours because she needed to wash all the clothes and hang them out to dry. She returned the clothes to use in a piecemeal fashion as she remembered where she had hung different articles in different places of the house to dry. Or, one time I tried to buy an creamcicle, and I had to knock on the gate of a door to alert the woman who was sitting on her couch watching television that I wanted to buy something from her store. A frustrating thing about Ecuadorian purchases is the change issue. I can’t stand it. Vendors and taxi drivers alike are notorious for NEVER having change for larger bills. And by large bills I mean a 5 or a 10. No joke. I wanted to buy a Twix once because I was having a U.S. craving day, and I just flat out couldn’t buy it because the vendor didn’t have change. The pain of walking away from that piece of chocolate was too much to bear! It amazes me how these people lose out on sales because of merely not having the energy to go get change for the day for their business. Nobody wants a big bill. I’ve entered a store and tried to buy something more than a handful of times and have had to leave the item there because of this. What I don’t understand, however, is if these people are charging people in small coins all day long (taxi drivers especially), how is it exactly that they don’t have change!? Argh.

After being in Puerto Lopez too long, we ventured on off to the most touristy beach town in all of Ecuador called Montañita. It’s the epitome of laid back, surfer dude chillness. In the Tracy’s words, more sounds come out of the mouths of the surfer boys than actual words. (“The waves were like whoooooaa, and I was like, chaaaa.”) It was absolutely adorable though, and I really liked the town minus the boom, boom, boom, thumping of techno music until 5 a.m. right outside our window. I felt like I was literally sleeping in the subwoofer. The town had tons of great food (which was well received because Jess and I were a little tired of the fixed Ecuadorian meal of rice, beans, meat, and some kind of strange salad). I need not say more when I tell you that the very first thing I did was buy an entire watermelon when I arrived, and I practically ate the whole blessed thing myself on the rocks. If you know me well, you know that little brings me more happiness than single handedly devouring a watermelon with no utensils. Another great addition was the random baker on the corner who had the most decadent treats. Jess and I indulged practically ever time we passed him, and we usually had the good luck of getting something that came right out of the oven. He baked for the lazy, unproductive and shamelessly hedonistic crowd at the beach though and didn’t start baking until wake-up time, or 12 p.m, since that’s when breakfast is anyway. He also had the fabulous 6 p.m. sunset treats when the air got a little chilly. He’s a genius. It got a little pathetic when we knew what was old and had tried almost everything. Life doesn’t get much better than freshly baked goods if you ask me. I feel like it’s right up there with cuddling with hot laundry that’s just come out of the dryer. Anyway…the highlight of this city was my fatal attempt at surfing. Holy cow, surfing is impossible. I took a “lesson”, and I thought life was good since I could stand up and ride in a few waves while my instructor was helping me. The minute he left and I was left to my own devices, I was doomed. I was laughing all day long as I almost lost my bathing suit multiple times and took some seriously noteworthy, completely ungraceful and ungodly falls. I felt like I had hung out in a washing machine all day long by the end of it.

The good thing about these towns is that even though there are tourists, there are still locals who keep on living their normal lives, so you never feel like you are too far removed from normality. When we were in Montañita we observed the fiestas of San Isidro as well. This San Isidro character is pretty popular apparently. There was a carnival-like celebration in town, and the church was the happenin’ spot. I just love how people are inside praying and outside a band is blaring at fully capacity while people dance in front of the church doors. These are the kids of scenes that I would love to capture on film, but it’s impossible to show the juxtaposition to do it justice. Oh wait, and I don’t have a camera. We just walked around the town because that’s precisely what everyone else was doing- walking around and looking at everyone else. There were a lot of salchipapa (hot dog mixed with potatoes) stands as well as other makeshift “restaurants” on the road, which basically means women with a portable stove and the biggest pots known to man with weird meat mixes in them. They put up tents with plastic chairs, and there was the essential cord of light bulbs hanging above. I smiled when I saw tourists mixing with the locals and eating at these local joints. There was also a cotton candy stand, and being that I am a sucker for anything sweet, and especially pink and sticky cotton candy, I had to try some. I noticed an older couple standing by me watching my every move. I asked them if they had even tried cotton candy before, and not only had they never tried it, they had never seen it, and they thought it was some freak, alien creation. It made me laugh. I offered them some, and they didn’t quite know where to put their fingers. Then they feared putting the pieces they had torn off into their mouths. After the lady tried some I saw the glimmer in her eye for more, so I offered her more, so we stood there and shared cotton candy together. She kept taking more. It was really funny. There were also all kinds of corn (choclo) stands because people eat them as snacks. I think we should too in the U.S. The funniest part was this big dance floor that had been partitioned off with fencing. There were female dancers inside the entrance and really loud music, but the confusing part was that nobody was entering. Everyone was standing outside the entrance as if they were waiting for something. We were really confused; if the party was inside, why was everyone staring at an empty dance floor from the outside? Then we saw a poster on the fence that said, “Entrance: 1 dollar”. It was kind of sad. People eventually entered though. The best part of the whole thing was a fireworks show called the “vaca loca”. That means crazy cow in English. Tracy and I saw a similar event in Baños, but this was 1,000 times crazier. It’s essentially a really unsafe fireworks display, and a daring man gets into a wooden contraption (that looks like a cow) with explosives all over it and runs around the town square like a crazy cow. The best though was this tower that they had constructed of all kind of fireworks, and it exploded in the middle of the town square. At the top was an icon of San Isidro, and once the fireworks reached the top, his image appeared in all of its divine, farming (haha, and flaming) glory. The people think it’s really funny to play with fire, and they laugh when things go wrong and flaming rockets comes hurtling toward their faces. I don’t get it.

Next on the list was Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and the business capital of the country. While Quito is the cultural and political capital, it still pales in comparison in terms of population. I had heard that Guayaquil was very dangerous and rather uneventful, so we only spent the afternoon there. We walked along the Malecón 2000, which is a 3 km boardwalk that is absolutely amazing. It is the nicest public space that I have seen in all of Ecuador. There were playgrounds, zen gardens, restaurants, and just generally cool architecture. It impressed me that such a restoration project exists here. After our jaunt in Guayaquil, we went to Cuenca! What an awesome city. It reminded me a lot of Cusco in Peru, but it’s still entirely different. It has quaint cafes and shops and cobblestone streets. It also has 30 churches or something and all are different styles. It was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the efforts to keep it pristine are amazing. Coming from Quito, I can really appreciate recycling efforts, and Cuenca has it right. There are trash cans on every street corner (gasp, what a concept), and the streets are clean. We took days trips to thermal pools, Inca ruins (called Ingapirca), and we went to Cajas National Park. This beauty of this park is seriously beyond my descriptive capacity. If only we had pictures to show for it, which brings me to the tragic loss of Jessica’s camera. My camera is broken, and like I said, I’m in a frugal state now, so I decided to rely on the people’s cameras who come and visit me. Well, it was just our luck that her camera broke as well. She is obsessed with photos, so we immediately went to buy another camera. We took 300 pictures of awesome scenery in the national park, Cuenca, and a really cool market in the middle of nowhere called Cañar, but then she lost the new camera. (It’s okay, Jess.) We were beyond sad, and she was especially devastated to have lost a camera and such awesome pictures. Oh well. Cajas was unbelievable, and the best part is that we got lost, but then we found the path again after tromping around in the muck. The trees in the forested areas were unlike any kind of vegetation I had ever seen. It rocked. (Get it?) The best part was hitching a ride back with an Ecuadorian family back to Cuenca on the back of their faltering pick-up truck. They were a hilarious bunch. There were literally 10 or so of them, maybe more including the little ones, and they even had a mattress and blankets in the back of the truck for comfort. It was really nice of them to offer us a ride. The truck put-put-putted up the hills, and I wouldn’t doubt if it broke that day after we got off, but they were a jolly bunch, and they were traveling as a family around this beautiful country, and you can’t ask for much for than that. Plus, they were happy to help some gringitas out. They’re always surprised when I can hold a conversation with them. Ah! I forget to mention something that continually makes me happy when it comes to national parks here. Being that I am more Ecuadorian now than some nationals (kidding), I have a census and an I.D. here, which means that I pay like a national in all the parks, i.e. I paid $1.50 and Jess had to pay $10. I just think about that when I’m feeling poor! Jess and I also tried some good food in Cuenca, namely a Colombian specialty called “arepas”. It’s a corn tortilla with just about anything sweet or savory that you might desire on top of it. They also had this great oatmeal drink that we loved, although the malt-flavored soda wasn’t so great. Another interesting thing about Cuenca is that the indigenous women dress differently than the women in Quito and other parts of Ecuador. They wear really elaborate, vibrantly colored (and heavy) skirts with all kinds of hand-sewn sequins and embroidery decorating the bottom hem. They also wear different hats and shoes. The hats are more rounded, and instead of the Otavalan, triangular shoes, a lot of them wear tennis shoes with ridiculous USA socks. Seriously, there were so many ladies wear this one particular kind of sock that it made me wonder where the big U.S. sock sale was. I felt like we were in a completely different country when we were in Cuenca.

Next we traveled down to Loja (en route Jess lost the camera), and we then went to Vilcabama, a famed town because of the number of centenarians who live there. Many say that there is specious evidence because many of the really old people can’t generate a birth certificate and don’t really know when they were born. In any case the scenery is breathtaking, and Jess and I did our fair share of hiking. I really liked that there was honestly nothing more to do than go hiking; it creates for healthy, uncomplicated living. All of the people that we met during our travels were very helpful and kind for the most part. I find Ecuadorians to be really affable. We were in a taxi once, and the driver asked me where I was from, and I told him that I had spent six months in Quito. He immediately jumped into how the Quiteños are cold, hypocritical, and while they are very well-educated, they are not so helpful and giving. He said that on the other hand, the Costeños, the people who are from the coast, may be vulgar and a little dirty, but they are genuine, straightforward, and loyal. He made me laugh. I had heard about the highland/coast divide for a long time, but he was the first person I have met to be so vocal about the stereotypes. I also met another woman on one of the buses we took along the coast, and she asked me where I was from. After only the second question I noticed that her hand was on my lap, and soon after she was holding my hand. I know it’s a simple gesture, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I just thought about how nice it is here that people do that. She wanted to know all about me and my parents and how I felt about being away from my mom on Mother’s day. I think she held my hand for a good 20 minutes. I quite liked it actually, and I surely have never had that happen to me in the U.S. People like to be with people here, and the good ones look out for travelers and spread a little love when they can. Oh, and there’s one more thing that I think needs to go down in the books. Jessica and I were on the bus, and it was only a short bus ride (an hour I think), but I made the mistake of drinking a whole bottle of water a good half hour before we left. I’m usually good about dehydrating myself so that I don’t have to worry about bathroom emergencies on buses. I forgot this time though. I didn’t know what to do, so I just asked the bus driver to stop the bus. I got off, went to the back of the bus so nobody could see me, and successfully went to the bathroom. It was liberating! Jessica was horrified I think (as was everyone else on the bus), and more importantly, so were the people in the truck going the opposite way that drove by at the perfectly wrong time. Awesome.

So this has been beach tour ’07 in a nutshell. I hope you’ve enjoyed if you’ve made it this far. I figured I owed you a long entry after a month break. I’ll be in Quito until June 7th. I then leave to meet up with Kjell in Argentina for some more backpacking, and then it’s back to the U.S. on July 12th. I have a huge adventure ahead of me still, which I’m really looking forward to, but I’m also looking forward to catching up with everyone when I get back. E-mail me so we can make some dates! Abrazos y besos a todos.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Row, row, row your boat

My time at the lodge has come to an end, and I´m surprisingly a little sad to leave. I was supposed to volunteer for a month, but instead I cut my stay short by a week because a friend of mine, Tracy, came to visit, and I decided to leave with her! My time at the lodge was great, and the best part was getting to know the staff and the tourists who came from all over the globe. I think I´ve met people from 15 different countries in just three weeks. Living with the staff at the lodge afforded me the opportunity to have really interesting conversations about HIV, education, family structure, natural medicinal remedies (especially for the machaca bug), teenage pregnancy, etc. One of my favorite ladies who works there is only 29 and she´s already a grandmother. I couldn´t believe it. But then I listened to her story multiple nights after dinner, and I came to know one of the strongest women I have ever met. She shared with me a little about the pain in her life, what living in a tiny community is like, and how it was to be pregnant at 13 and now have a daughter who gave birth at 13 as well. When I was leaving I wanted to leave some of my clothing and bathroom things for her, and I gave her a bag of stuff. At first she was really grateful, but then I could tell that something was wrong. I had never anticipated that giving her things would make her feel bad or would be insulting. That obviously was never my intention, but I think I embarrassed her by giving her things. She lamented that she had nothing to give me in return, and I just laughed and told her that she had given me her friendship and dinner conversations and that I had learned a lot from her. She didn´t understand. Anyway, I learned a good lesson with the giving of my clothing that I had never anticipated. I think I should have been more cautious and tactful about giving. It wasn´t charity. I was just trying to help someone that I admire.

Having the opportunity to be in Tena has also been a good experience. It is worlds away from Quito, and I was able to learn about a different community in Ecuador. The town is really small, and everyone knows everyone (seriously). Practically everyone has a child slung around their hip. Most people are very hot, tired, and looking to make a dollar or two. There is literally a brigade of popsicle salespeople, and people roam the streets hawking whatever object it is that they got a good deal on and are trying to sell this week. The people have much darker skin here, and the Kichwa descent is very apparent. Some poeple including guides at the lodge are 100% Kichwa. They also seem to look older to me than they are because of thier thick, leathered skin and multiple children in tow. They are very hard workers, and their posture and finger nails attest to their work ethic. They are also big drinkers, and when they drink it´s not the occasional cocktail, it´s two days of debauchery. Sometimes I stare at the young mothers on the street or bus because I can´t believe how full thier hands are; their babies are usually quite dirty and crying, and they usually have a burlap bag that weighs a ton with some kind of vegetable in it. Likewise, older women walk down the street with no shoes, and I look at their weathered, calloused feet, thier deep, almost chiseled wrinkles, and I think about what kind of life they have had and what they have gone through. I wonder if they´ve ever seen an iPod, if they´ve ever traveled outside of Tena, if they´ve ever had a day to rest, take a bath, and eat chocolate cake. I doubt it. But their life is rich in many other ways. They look at the yucca and corn plantations and smile because they can tell it will be a good harvest, they take their kids canoeing to fish, they drink chicha, and they´re happy to have lived a fruitful, sun-filled day. I really love how life is so slow here. People eat when they´re hungry and sleep when they´re tired. It sounds simple, but it´s a beautiful thing. They take life day by day, and they don´t worry about tomorrow because they´re too worried about making ends meet today.

Tena has been a bit of a shock for me because it´s been dirty, trying, and outside of my comfort zone, but I´m glad I came here and met such wonderful people. I learned tons about medicinal plants and Kichwa cooking, and I saw some of the most amazing sunsets on the Andean range framing the Amazon basin. It´s time to move on now though. Tracy and I went to a small town that we had heard a lot about called Misahualli, but it turned out to be a flop. The best part were the monkeys and not because we ooed and ahhed over them. Quite the contary! I was seated on a bench enjoying a nice ice cream cone when, whoosh!, someone stole my crackers! It wasn´t a person though. It was a sneaky thief. I hate those monkeys! It then started to throw my crackers to break them in the pack and then proceeded to try to open them. Meanwhile, I was confused because I´ve never exactly had to con a monkey into givng me my things back. Fine, take the crackers I thought. But apparently they are intelligent little devils, and he started opening the zippers on my backpack. I saw he was going for where the malaria pills are, and that´s where I drew the line. I just started to throw things to distract him, but this was no small nor stupid monkey, and it bore it´s teeth. I was honestly scared but also upset because I really wanted my ice cream! But at this point I was wearing my ice cream (and so was my backpack). To make matters even more wonderful for me, the poor foreigner, I was smack dab in the middle of the town square, and my hooting and hollering was drawing attention, and people were having a good laugh and the dumb North American. I laughed later becuase I honestly must have looked like a complete idiot fending off this silly monkey, but I was scared it would bite me. A nice boy finally came over and helped me, and my anxiety lowered. Going to the city was worth the monkey experience. Now Tracy and I are getting read to take a four day, white water kayaking class, and I´m psyched. I just hope that I don´t break something or get hurt.

I also wanted to mention that I read online about what happened at Virignia Tech. I honestly couldn´t believe it. I sat back and thought about how many people have expressed how concerned they are for my safety here in Ecuador, and then this happens at a university. I just happened upon Yahoo news and saw the headlines, and I had to take a doubletake because I couldn´t believe what I saw. People down here ask me what is wrong with the United States. First Columbine, now this, they say. Do parents not spend time with their kids? Is it because you all eat fast food? Is it because you are obsessed with success and working a lot? I don´t really have a good answer for them. They have a point though.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Simple pleasures

I´m still surving the Amazon, and I´m learning how to unwind. Who knew it could be so hard to learn how to do nothing and relax? I know, I know, you must be thinking, right, Lauren, poor you. Seriously though, there´s an art to doing nothing. I think there´s even a book by that name, and if there isn´t , I will be more than qualified to write it in about three more weeks. I´m learning how to really appreciate the poeple who come to the lodge. As you know, I´m very much the talker, so I chat away with the guests, and I´ve met some really great people. I know it may sound funny, but I think that people should travel with business cards because I´ve met so many scientists, engineers, and other professionals who´ve met other great contacts from their field at the lodge. I also thought that maybe it´s also because people are on vacation with nothing else to do at night, so they actually give everyone a chance, aren´t caught in the hustle and bustle of their lives, and resign themselves to hammocks and conversation. It´s a beautiful thing to see how people actually listen and entertain themselves by asking people about the most interesting parts of their lives. Everyone really does have a story. Max Ehrmann is right.

I´m also really enjoying the cacao fruit. I know I already mentioned this, but I seriously cannot get over how much I love this fruit. It´s almost better than the chocolate that it later produces. Almost! The mazorca, or the body of the fruit, has this impressive red-orange watercolor look to it when it´s ripe. The most amazing this is that the fruit grows right from the trunk of the tree and not from a branch. (Maybe look it up-it´s neat). Then the fun part comes of whacking it open with a machete. I am getting good at this. Then you finally get to devour the fleshy pulp that cover the beans. I love walking around with my cacao fruits and then taking them tubing with us. La da dee dee doo, just floating down the river with some great fruit. I´ve also made it my business to get a batido (great fruity milshake made with WHOLE milk-yikes) every time I come to town. I´ve had three different kinds so far and plan on trying all 15. Like I said in the title, simple pleasures.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch life is good. I have found which hammocks I like best, and I´ve started to make friends with the staff. It´s funny how a day with nothing planned turns into something. I´ve done a lot of reading, and I especially like Isabel Allende these days. Most people know her for The House of the Spirits, and I´m currently reading her book called Paula (dedicated to her daughter). It´s a good read. I´m also really beginning to learn to love the rain. It´s torrencial here. When it rains, it really rains. Most people want to enjoy the rainforest without the rain part, but that´s why it´s called what it is. I love listening to the rain now though. I can spend a good hour in the hammock listening to the changes in the rain. Then comes the sunset if it´s an afternoon rain, and then what´s a girl to do? That takes another hour.

As I mentioned last week, I´ve been meeting tons of international people at the lodge. I had to translate for a old Norweigan couple these past three days, and it was trying. First off, not only did they not speak Spanish, but they didn´t speak English well either, so this created some fun times. The woman also had leg problems, so walks that take three hours took five. Think nightfall in the jungle. Yeah, I´ll get to that. So we go on a walk with the couple and four other guests. The guide, José, shows us a plant called Ortiga, or stinging nettles. He tells the group that it´s good to put Ortiga on the body to help with blood flow. So what´s the most logical thing for the Norweigan lady to do? Drop her pants of course. I really wish I were making this up. This 60 or 70-something lady undid her pants and proceeded to rub Ortiga all over her thighs while we all watched with mouths agape. It´s one of those morbidly interesting things that you really wish you weren´t seeing but you can´t seem to take your eyes off of. (Preposition). Then, because of her slow walking, so didn´t get going to head out of the jungle until late afternoon. The guide went ahead with two Italian people, and left me with the other four people, and we had to follow the path out of the jungle in the dark. I finally got fed up with being really scared and yelled at by the guests, so I yelled for José to come back at the top of my lungs. We all knew that there was no rational reason to get more scared just because it was dark outside, but you can´t help being a little concerned in the jungle at nightfall. The guests were a little upset to say the least.

So that´s the week in review. Meanwhile, I´m having way too vivid dreams because of my malaria pills and hoping not to get dengue. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Being Jane isn´t as fun as I thought it would be

I safely arrived in the Amazon, but the past week hasn´t really been what I had wanted or expected. I´m never good with change, so I´m trying to stay positive while duking it out loads of spiders and ferocious conga ants. The lodge that I´m at is absolutely gorgeous. Amarongachi tours owns two sets of cabins, and I´m currently at the really nice ones (electricity), but the threat of going to the bug infested, more rustic cabins looms. Anyway, the nice cabins are called Shangrila, and the place deserves the name for sure. They have a whole floor of hammocks, a full bar, and a sight that literally takes your breath away. One man who I was translating for sat in front of the view for hours. After about three hours I noticed he was still sitting there. He wasn´t reading or listening to music. He was just sitting there taking it all in. He made a really great analogy and noted that he could stare off into the jungle basin much in the same way that he can look at the burning embers of a fire forever. Even though the jungle is composed of immobile objects, the landscape and the mirage of clouds is always changing, especially after a rainstorm. I saw the most amazing red sky last night after the rain, and I got frustrated because there was just no way to capture the beauty on film. (Which reminds me, there will be no more pictures on the site for the next three months because of my technical ineptitute. Sorry. More reason to see me when I get back!)

The lodge, like I said, is gorgeous, but the problem now is that it´s low season, and there aren´t many tourists. I went from a very hustle and bustle life in Quito into the middle of nowhere, so I´m having to learn how to find things to do and be patient. For example, I had to literally wait for the bus to take me into town for an hour yesterday! I was seriously dreaming about how glorious it´s going to be to drive a care again when I get back. I was talking to my mom about this, and she advised to fully appreciate this time, but I just laughed at the irony of the situtation. When I was drowning in my studies/thesis/volunteering/jobs during college all I wanted was a week of mindlessness, and now that I have a month of it, I want something real to do! I think I will dedicate myself to studying Kichwa (dialect of Quechua), the indigenous language here. The people who work at the lodge are indigenous, and they are fully bilingual in Spanish and Kichwa, and I think it´s a good opporutnity to learn. This past week there were some tourists, so I was able to go on hikes and on the river with them. I´ve already met people from Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Cuba in the short week that I´ve been here. I´m just hoping that more people come.

Working in a travel lodge has made me laugh a few times because it´s worlds away from the five star, five diamond service that I was used to giving at the Broadmoor hotel last summer. I serve the people and eat with them at the same time. I really kind of just do my own thing, and whatever that is is fine with the staff! You have to love it. The staff also doesn´t really concern itself with the details. If the people want cold water and there is none, well, sorry. And that´s that. The guides bring water on the hikes, but they only bring two or three cups for the people, and it´s funny to watch their expressions when they realize they have to share the cups! Erica would have a fit with the lack of sanitation. I´m getting my share of all kinds of bacteria though, so I think I am going to have the world´s strongest immune system in the U.S. You can´t exactly be fussy, for example, when you´re on the bus, and there´s a chicken sitting next to you on the next seat. I just laugh. I was sitting yesterday on the bus, and I happened to look down, and there staring at me were two chicken heads! Oh my.

So we´ll see how the next three weeks in the jungle go playing Tarzan. I´m learning about all the medicinal plants and am loving the beauty. Who knew that the jungle had so many leaves and roots to eat? I love eating the cacao fruit as well (where chocolate comes from). The jungle really is a playground, but when I saw a rainbow boa beaneath me in the caverns yesterday, I just about lost it. I´m still very much a GIRL when it comes down to it! Happy Passover to my family, and happy Easter too. I´m dreaming about Jelly Belly jelly beans right now. Take care.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Por Fin!

I know it´s been all too long since I´ve updated you all, so I apologize, but life has been a bit busy on the equator. I finished my scholarship some time ago, and now I´m gearing up for new adventures. It´s crazy that six months have passed already. The time has seriously flown by, and I can´t believe that I´ll be leaving Quito. I also think I haven´t written as much as usual on the blog because things haven´t surprised me and shocked me. I’m kind of getting used to life down here, so I haven´t been so flabberghasted (wink). I think this a good thing.

This photo has nothing to do with anything, it's just a little taste (literally) of the culinary delights. Yummmm.

Regardless, even if I´m not commenting on the good and bad of Quito, rest assured that life here has a way of sending me little surprises almost every day. I don´t know if any of you have been keeping up with the political situation here, but there is still no resolution. The congress was dissolved, and they protested saying it was unconstitutional and dictatorial. There is supposed to be a vote for the Asamblea Constituyente April 15th to officially create a checks and balances system (somewhat), so the sneaky, ousted congress members have found a few judges to rule in their favor and block the vote. I don´t understand how this happens. How is it that a random, local judge in the coast or the jungle can make such an important decision that affects the entire country in this especially heated time? Why isn´t the supreme court here deciding these matters?

I also want to touch on crime a little more. I find it fascinating that people here are very hesitant to help when they witness crime. Firstly, people don´t want to involve themselves because they don´t want to put themselves in harm´s way. I can fully understand this. What I don´t understand is the police. I´ve heard of cases when good Samaritans have helped someone seriously hurt by taking them in their car to a hospital. How nice, right? Wrong, the police make them their first suspect. One of my favorite professors, Monica, told me that one of her good friends was recently murdered on the street. He was an elegant man, always dressing in nice suits and with jewelry. Three men attacked him and killed him in broad daylight only to take his wallet. Even if these criminals are caught on camera, etc. it doesn´t matter. The afflicted person has to file a report and go to the police before anything can be done. So what happens in the case of murder then, you ask? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A dead person can´t exactly get themselves to a police station to press charges. Sometimes, just for appearances, the police apprehend the criminals, but then they´re set free four days later because nobody has come to incriminate them.

So now that I´ve painted this lawless picture in your mind, I want you to consider just how many wealthy people live in Quito. It´s amazing. With all of the chaos and lack of order or rule, there still exists a very wealthy class of people that risk driving their Mercedes and wearing white pants. This dichotomy still fascinates me and depresses me at the same time because it´s made me see how very “dog-eat-dog” a society can be. I also see how it´s really every man for himself. Mind you, I´m saying this after also witnessing the amazing acts of Rotary here, so I’m trying to put it in perspective I think.

On to a more amusing topic…names for romantic relationships. I think it´s really funny when people ask me if I have an “enamorado” (meaning someone you’re wildly lovey about), and I say yes, I have a “novio” (boyfriend). I didn´t realize that the chain of seriousness went as follows: pasatiempo, pelado, enamorado, novio. In English it would translate as: someone to pass the time, someone to flirt with, someone to lust after, and someone who actually has your heart. But it gets better because just yesterday I heard someone say that her friend was her “amigovio”. This really made me laugh because it´s a combo of amigo and novio. Anyway, none of this really matters and it’s juvenile, but it amuses me.

I also had the opportunity to go to the Universidad Central, the main public university here, and I sat in on a class to see what a Spanish literature class is like. It was a really great experience because the professor was a riot. His method of teaching was really similar to what I had experienced at the University of Florida, but he was far more frank and open with his students, which called my attention. I also though it was hilarious that after an hour of class he just decided to stop for a second to go smoke. He literally just put the book down and walked out. The kids were totally used to this. But then he must have had a great, fleeting thought, because he came running back and stood at the door, one arm in, one arm out, so that he could technically smoke without being in the room. Hehe.

So, Lauren, if you´ve finished your scholarship, what are you up to these days? Ah, good question, thanks for asking…

After my scholarship ended, my sister came to town, and we can a grand, albeit short, exploration of Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. As many of you know, she´s quite the go-getter, so resting was not an option. We went to the jungle and to another nature town, and then we embarked for one of the most stressful and unfortunate experiences of our lives: the Galapagos. Yes, you read that right. One of the world´s most precious treasures really through us for a loop. We got on the plane happy as can be in Quito, and when we arrived in Baltra and found out that OUR BOAT WAS BROKEN; we were not happy campers. The other people on the boat had apparently already found out, and we were the only people who came without knowing. Four people on the boat found out in good time and opted to not even go. Erica and I were furious. A representative from the boast didn´t even have the courtesy to come to the airport to receive us. We only had Miguel, the most horrible guide ever, to tell us what was happening. Usually when something like this happens, the boat company is supposed to put its passengers on another boat of equal or better quality, but our company did not do this. They gave us a revised itinerary that included day trips to islands that we didn´t even want to go see. So basically we were going to have to stay in a hotel on the main island, wake up at 4 a.m., and take day trips. I really wanted to cry. The company said that there were no spaces on the other boats, but I didn´t believe any part of it.

To top it all off, I was the only one who spoke Spanish, so I had to be the translator for our group, and that was a task and a half. A woman from the boat finally had the respect to come meet our group, and she told us that we all had to come to a unanimous decision about what we wanted to do. And I had to mediate it all. It was such a tense environment because everyone had thousands of dollars invested in the trip, and we all had different interests. We finally came to an agreement four hours later that the company should refund half our money. We made the lady write up a contract, and she signed it. After all that stress, we finally an agreement- or so we thought.

We got up and ready by 5 a.m. the next day, and the got us on a plush day boat. Great. At least we were on water. Then came the lady, except this time she had a written contract. She passed it out to the group, and the first thing we all thought was, how interesting. This is WRITTEN IN SPANISH! The contract basically would forbid us to ask for any more money back etc. The dates were wrong, my name was misspelled, and it was a disaster. She told us that if we didn’t sign it there would be no trip. We got off the boat. How horrible. I finally got in touch with my travel agency (where I booked the trip), and they got a first-class boat for Erica and me, and we were elated. It wasn´t what we wanted, and it would mean one more day in the same island, but we took it. We had no other option. So a five day tour turned into two solid days in the islands, but what can you do?

The photo to the right is my "Whahoo! We got a boat dance!"

Erica and I tried to make some serious lemonade out of our lemons. Well, we’ll actually call them pina coladas, if you will. We got on a different boat and we saw the northern islands. I had wanted to see the southern islands, but what I was really after was the famous blue-footed booby, so I didn’t care where we went at that point. I just wanted to see the coveted booby. Yes, the name is fun. I know. We saw a sampling of the astounding beauty that the Galapagos has to offer: boobies, frigate birds, penguins, a shark, turtles, tons of fish, families of sting rays (awe-inspiring), loads of sea lions (Erica’s favorites), and some other treasures that I’m forgetting. The islands themselves are amazingly beautiful. We hiked up to a simply gorgeous lookout point one evening, and we could see the sunset and its reflection on both sides of the sound. It was pure tranquility, but then I remembered that I was surrounded by tourists speaking every language known to man. It’s fascinating how many people come from all corners of the globe to see these islands. We met all kinds of Europeans and others from Israel, etc. Erica and I met quite a few people on awesome, long-term, South American or worldwide adventures, and it really inspired us to travel the world for a year. We’ll see if it comes to be, but I’d like to dream about it for the time being:) The Galapagos really gave us a good run for our money, but at least we got to take part in a little of its magestic beauty. It really made me more appreciative of all the times that things go right it life. We tend not to notice because things are going as they should, but when something like this happens you realize that you should be more grateful for all the times when it was smooth sailing (haha. Get it?).

My birthday passed as well, as I was happy to spend it in Quito. The Rotarians actually sang to me (in English), and that was cute. People here sing in English first and then they sing feliz cumpleanos in Spanish. I find it entertaining. I did a lot of things that made me feel good like running at the gym, getting my hair cut, and eating! I also went out dancing (salsa of course), and danced until I couldn’t move my poor feet anymore. You know it’s a quality place when they serve chicken soup at 2 a.m. to give “fuerza” (strength/endurance) to the dancers! Feliz cumpleanos a mi!

I’ve been gearing up to leave Quito, and today is the day (wish me luck). I’m headed off on the 8 a.m. bus to the jungle. That has a funny ring to it. Seriously though, I’m going to a lodge to work for a month as a translator. I went to this lodge (Shangrila,, with my language academy, and I absolutely loved it, so now I’m going back in a different capacity. They need English/Spanish translators for their guests who come and don’t speak any Spanish. That’s where I come in. Meanwhile, I’ll be helping lead tours through the Amazon (neat, right?), canyons, rivers (in tubes), and the like. I’m really looking forward to it, but it has its dangers, like bed bugs (not joking), boas, tarantulas, and generally disconcerting people who give me a strange look. Anyway, I will really feel worlds away, so email me! Send me love! I’ll send you a monkey.

Monday, February 19, 2007

No words can do it justice…

But if I had to pick one it would be “transformational”, both for the wheelchair recipients and the donating team. This past Monday I began a four-day trip with Colorado Springs Rotary members and members of a truly inspirational organization called Adopt-a-Village (formerly known as Hope Alliance). I was so impressed and inspired by this wonderful group of people. It was a motley crew, and each person had their strengths and something to contribute to the group. They all came with the single goal
of distributing wheelchairs to disabled Ecuadorians, and for many it was their third trip to South America because they had done similar projects in Peru in prior years. I thought my Saturday experience was great, but the four days that we spent delivering chairs in Santo Domingo, Bahía, Portoviejo, Ambato, and Latacunga made an impression on me that I had never anticipated. This trip made me so grateful and so painfully aware of how fortunate I am to have the gift of complete health and mobility. The warmth, kindness, and true appreciation of everyone we came across, be it other Rotary clubs, wheelchair recipients, or their family members, had a way of filling me with a sense of purpose that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. The wheelchair recipients we met all had unique stories, and some just made me want to scream with anger when I learned why they were in a wheelchair. I had the opportunity to do a bit of interviewing and translating into English, which was wonderful way to learn about the stories of many of the recipients. I think the cases that struck me the most were those of young women because their reality hit all to close to home. I could very easily be in their condition. It made me consider the injustice of chance and circumstance. Why did I receive the good fortune of health, education and a stable life while other young women find themselves immobile and painfully poor? I deserve these things no more than they do. I met one young girl (26) who simply got sick one day. The next day she woke up paralyzed. For the past seven years her loving and dedicated brothers have transported her by carrying her wherever she needed to go. With the chair she said that she can now sit and have a small store maybe, or better yet, she can do simple but important things, like going shopping for clothes with her mother.

The girl who had the largest impact on me, however, was unable to speak. We all went to a local hospital to deliver a chair to this young woman. We entered the hospital, and just by looking at the quantity of people, feeling the stifling heat, and seeing the dirt on the walls, I knew that I needed to try really hard to put the judgment card aside and just take in what I was experiencing. We entered the room and spoke to her mother and father, who were dutifully by her side tending to her. They told me that she was a perfectly healthy, pregnant 20-year-old girl, and she actually was in such good condition that she walked herself to the hospital to give birth. Due to complications, she had to receive anesthesia for a Cesarean section, but the anestigeologist gave her too much, which not only paralyzed her but affected her mental capabilities as well. This occurred five months ago, and the parents are still paying to keep their daughter in the hospital. They are thousands of dollars in debt, which is money they don’t even have. To make matters even worse, the baby died shortly after birth.

As with anything, we experienced the good and the bad. Fortunately, we saw, in my opinion, many more joyous cases than cases like the one I mentioned above. For instance, we met a law school student who was very excited about his new possibilities for mobility. We met grandmothers and grandfathers who came with their families to receive the chairs. We met young children in need. One boy in particular stands out because he had no legs and only one arm because of a horrible fire that he was in. We met people of all ages and needs, and giving the chairs was a beautiful sight to be had. They were so proud to begin anew, and sometimes their loved ones cried in happiness. I honestly believe that we witnessed countless liberations- liberations of spirits and physical bodies that had been confined for years. In some cases we literally saw an instant smile and transformation as the person lifted their head to face the world with new confidence. Others cried. The touching part was to see this change regardless of how it manifested itself. Some people were carried in on the backs of their loved ones. One man in particular crawled in; he literally came in on his hands and knees. Another was rolled in on a chair that his family had made with furniture wheels on the legs to create a make-shift wheelchair. I just stood in the hallway and watched as a flood of recipients passed by me. How does one go unchanged after seeing so many people who have battled with disability? It wasn’t their need that spoke to me most, however. It was their strength, perseverance, ingenuity, determination, and tenderness. Seeing such varied human conditions spoke to me. They are amazing people.

The organization for this project was remarkable. The U.S. clubs had raised the funds, and the Ecuadorian club arranged for the logistics. Every chair recipient had to register themselves, so when the day came to deliver the chairs, we had exactly the right number of chairs (big and small), which is a feat of organization. It was heart wrenching, however, when people showed up to the events who weren’t registered to receive a chair. In many cases they were worse off than those on the list, but we had to refuse them. I was elated when in some of these cases we could spare an extra chair, but how exactly do you tell a 90-year-old woman that you can’t help her when you look at her obviously abused and almost gangrened feet? It was the reality of the situation, and I think this fueled inspiration to return again.

I had never experienced this kind of humanitarian and philanthropic giving in the past. I think that during this trip we all felt like actualized agents of change. It was simple: we treated others how we wanted to be treated. We gave metal and rubber- nothing more. But human interaction is never that simple, and it’s always greater than the sum of its parts. We experienced humanity. People helped people- again, nothing more. It made me consider how complicated we make our lives sometimes, and how in the midst of noise and haste, we lose sight of the simple importance of looking around us. As many recipients commented, they received new legs. They also received independence, confidence, and a new willingness to positively change their life.

We thrived off of tearing open the wheelchair boxes, assembling the chairs, creating our assembly lines of adjustments and tweaking, and finally, taking Polaroid pictures of the recipients and their families. I know this is painfully cliché, but this week was as much a gift to me as the chairs were to the people I think. I changed because of it. On a final note, after a week of giving of themselves to their last shred of energy, the members of the Colorado Springs group donated a massive amount of clothing to give to a local foundation. The hearts of these people are so enormous that, using the words of a trip member, I don’t know how they continue fitting in their chests.

A huge THANK YOU is due to the North Colorado Springs Rotary club, Adopt-a-Village, Quito Rotary Club, and finally, the Rotary Club of Downtown Gainesville for making this all possible. Pockets of peace and change are possible. They are taking place right before my eyes in Ecuador.