Friday, October 30, 2009

The way things are done.

I´ve been pretty hard on my shoes, and unlike Anika only brought one pair. Somewhere on the slopes of Cotopaxi a hole opened up along the outer edge near the sole. My normal behavor when the seems start to come apart on a pair of shoes is to toss them and start looking for a new pair. However, I got these shoes special for this trip and they are just right in so many ways. Also, I´m starting to get into the grove of the way things are done down here. To throw these shoes away would be needless and senselessly wasteful. I have past dozens of shoe repair places as I´ve walked the street of various cities. Once we returned from the mountains I stopped at the first one we passed. Thirty minutes and a dollar later my shoe was as good as new. There was something very satisfing about this experience. I´m hoping to wear some more holes in these boots in order to have the pleasure of repeating it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Turning 26

We spent my birthday at an Ecoresort on the beach south of Puerto Lopez. The place was very nice with beautiful Bamboo architecture, a fabulous botanical garden, and even a swimming pool. The rooms were very expensive, but we were able to set up our tent in the corner of the garden and stay for 7 dollars a night. We spent some time on the beach, but the gray skys and thin mist limited this activity. Mostly we sat in confortable chairs and read our books in front of an open fire. Cards also past the time. Anika is getting better at cribbage and the games are becoming more interesting. It has been nice to relax for a few days after the fast paced travel schedule that brought us out of Quito, up a volcano, around a crater lake, and down to the coast in what seemed to be a the blink of an eye.

The resort was mostly empty and the staff had little to do. I played a couple of games of pool with the them and had some interesting conversations. I wanted to talk about Ecuador, but my new friend kept bringing the conversation back to Michael Jackson. What a strange live that guy had.

There are so many more places to go, and so many things that I am exited to see; it is hard to stay focused on the time and place in which I find myself. The comfort and familiarity of home are missed, but novelty and awe take their place.

More pictures are up, and I added a link to them on the right.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From the mountains to the beaches of Ecuador

Back again, finally!

It has been a whirlwind of travel this past week or so. Since that first day in Quito, things drastically improved. We spend a couple of great days sightseeing around the city and getting a lot of important business done. There are a great deal of very old churches and monestaries in the old town of Quito and we saw most of them, at least from the outside. Often it costs several dollars to enter a church so we had to pick and choose which to visit. The one we spent the most time visiting was the monestary of Santa Catalina where nuns live in silence except for 1 hour each day (from 12:30 to 1:30pm) when they can speak to each other about specified topics in the little courtyard outside of their rooms. The nuns also make candies, lotions, non-alcoholic wines and other goods that you can buy through a revolving window so that the nuns remain hidden. I bought a delicious candy called a turron which is made of honey and peanuts. We also visited the museum which has a wide display of religious art mostly in the Quiteño style which, the guide informed us, is characterized by an excessive amount of blood and gore. Most of the gruesome paintings featured fountains of blood squirting from Jesus´wounds with lambs drinking from the bloody rivers. The guide also gave us a look into a replica of a nun´s cell and as a finale, she led us up a windy staircase into the bell tower which gave us a spectacular view of all of Quito´s old town. In Quito, we also visited two outdoor stores where Brad bought a waterproof backpack cover, an English language bookstore with used books which was far superior to any book exchange that we have encountered in hostals, and El Guapulo, a bohemian neighborhood with roads that twist down into a valley that supposedly marks Francisco de Orellana´s journey from Quito to the Atlantic via the Amazon, the first such decent by a European. We also watched the Ecuador vs Chile soccer game in which Ecuador was disqualified from the World Cup.

Preparing ourselves for a backpacking adventure in Cotopaxi National Park took several days in Quito and a very interesting trip to the Supermaxi grocery store where we cobbled together a few days worth of meals suitable to be carried on our backs. We even found peanut butter! And then we were off on a southbound bus to be dropped at the El Boliche entrance to the park. As we hopped off the bus and watched it speed down the panamaerican highway we hoped that the directions we had photocopied out of the hiking and backpacking guide to Ecuador plus the topographical maps we had bought wouldn´t lead us astray. The first day was to be a 9 or 10km hike to a camp site at the Rio Daule where there was water and picnic sites. We hiked and hiked with no sign of a camp site and so we continued along a road that we knew would, and eventually did, lead us to the main entrance road into the park. However, instead of meeting the road somewhere in the middle, we emerged directly at the park entrance station, Control Caspi, and the guard looked at us like we had wandered off of another planet since, according to him, the road we had been hiking on is the old road into Cotopaxi and is definitely no longer used by anyone at all! So, we camped at the park entrance station and at 9 the next morning, we were packed and once again starting our hike toward the volcano, though the morning was cloudy and we could not see any sign of the 19,300 foot peak. We felt incredibly stong striding along that road, refusing all offers of rides toward the interior of the park. Even though we were at about 12,000 feet, we were very well acclimatized having just lived at La Luna for 2 weeks and walking felt great! Soon we came to Mariscal Sucre, where there is a restaurant, a museum and several cabañas. We passed a deserted camping area and it struck us as bizarre that nobody would be camping on a weekend in Ecuador´s most famous national park. We passed Laguna Limpiopungo, a high altitude lake home to many species of birds. And we kept on walking, starting up the road that leads to the climber´s refugio, where those attempting the summit start their climbs. As the slope increased and we started to feel tired, Brad and I scouted out a campsite in the dip between a couple of green hills and set up our tent. We had a sweeping view of the flat paramo that lay below with Laguna Limpiopungo, 2 volcanos to the east, several more peaks to the north, and as the sun set, Cotopaxi showed it´s glaciers and towered over us as we made dinner and prepared for bed. During the night it rained nonstop and there was plenty of lightning and thunder. I felt nervous about the flashing all around us but we were safe and our trusty tent even kept us and our packs perfectly dry. We emerged in the morning to sun and a clear view of the climbers descending from their morning summit victories. That morning we made it to the climber´s refugio at about 16,000 feet and we spent at least an hour enjoying the views, talking to the climbers who had been to the top that day, and drinking a beer and some hot chocolate. When the tourists started pouring in from their hired buses, we began our descent and walked almost all the way out of the park before hailing a pickup truck and getting a bumpy ride out to the panamericana where we flagged a bus to Latacunga. It was a stunning adventure!

It´s hard to transition from the serenity and crisp clean air of the mountains to a bustling city. I always find myself feeling a bit stressed out and slighly more irritable when making desicions. Latacunga has very little in the way of hostels and so we ended up in the Hotel Centro which is just as cheap as most hostels and had a private bathroom and a TV (the first one we´ve watched pretty much since we left Portland). It wasn´t the nicest room and unlike a hostel there was a serious lack of information about the city and the surrounding area, not to mention there were no other backpackers sitting around to relate their experiences and to give advice. We managed to get ourselves fed (although I did have to dodge chicken feet in my soup again) and to book a ticket on a bus the next morning to Chugchilan, a little town on what the Lonely Planet dubs the Quilotoa Loop. The Loop is a series of towns in the highlands that specialize in farming and in other crafts. Some of the towns are close enough together that you can hike between them and some require a bus or other transportation. When we arried in Chugchilan there was a thick fog restricting our views of almost everything but what was about 15 feet in front of us. I was worried that it would be foggy the next day as well and that our plan to hike 8 miles to Laguna Quilotoa would be threatened but the locals assured us it would clear in the morning. Brad and I camped in the yard of a beautiful hostel and spent some time reading in front of their nice wood stove. Sure enough when we woke up, the sun was out and it was a really warm day for our hike. Grabbing some bread and bananas for breakfast, we made our way out of town, into a steep canyon and then straight up the other side. We wound our way along a trail that is used by tourists and locals (as well as llamas) to pass between the little villages. I greeted a little girl in one village saying Buenos Dias and she definitely mocked my accent as she repeated the greeting back to me. We also encountered several children who tried to convince us that we were lost so that they could guide us back to town, earing a dollar or a gift for their services. Clearly, many tourists pass through the area and the local children have learned well how to get what they want from us. Laguna Quilotoa is a crater lake and it is incredibly striking, although I think that because I grew up near the Crater Lake in Oregon, I was slightly less impressed by it´s beauty. When Brad and I got to the crater rim, we were just sitting down to enjoy tunafish sandwiches for lunch when the clouds moved it, it started to rain, then hail, and pretty soon we were in the middle of a full blown thunder and lightning storm that crashed and echoed around the crater walls. We made our way around the crater on a tiny, trecherous trail that passed what looked like a couple of funeral pyres perched on the rocky cliffs on the way to the little village of Quilotoa. By the time we got there, the lake was completely obscured by fog, we were pretty well drenched, and we decided to hire a pickup truck to take us to the village of Zumbahua where we immediately caught a bus toward the warmer weather at the coast.

We had planned to stay one more night at least around Quilotoa but the beauty of not having an itinerary allowed us to spontaneously switch our schedule to match our needs. I really needed to be in the sun and warmer weather so we went west to the Pacific Ocean. But first, the bus stopped in Quevedo, a city that is not even mentioned in the guide book because it has no services for travelers. After a lot of asking around we ended up at a decent hostel for the night but it was on one of the busiest, loudest streets I have ever seen and all night we could not only hear but feel the rumbling trucks passing beside our room. From Quevedo, we got a bus to Portoviejo, from Portoviejo we got a bus to Jipijapa (pronounced hippihoppa), from Jipijapa we got a bus to Puerto Lopez, our final destination, which is where I am right now. Puerto Viejo has been both exciting and a bit of a letdown. First, it is a quiet beach town with dirt roads and a very clean beach in a bay that is loaded with blue fishing boats. We are staying in a bamboo hostel with beautiful plants and hammocks (and cold showers) and beds that have mosquito nets though they aren´t really needed they just look kinda cool. That stuff is all great! The only letdown is that the sun hasn´t really made a clear appearance since we got here almost 2 nights ago. Today was pretty bright and the breeze is definitely warm but I was hoping for some blue skies and sun! I guess you can´t have everything and we certainly do have quite a few very good things. Tonight we ate fresh fish for dinner that was caught by some fellow travelers who we met in Otavalo and who happened to be here too. They went out fishing today and invited us to eat some of their delicious fish! Tomorrow I believe we will be heading just a little way down the coast to another little beach. But now I think it is time to go read my book. In a hammock. With a bowl of fresh pineapple from the market.

Thanks for reading! More pictures are up in the Ecuador section of picasa.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Shaky Start In Quito

Buenas Tardes a Todos,
So here we are in Quito, about 2 hours south of Otavalo and the farthest south Brad has ever been! Since we are going south, I guess almost every travel day brings us farther south than Brad has ever been, but it´s still fun to say! Anyway, we left La Luna, saying goodbye to a lot of people with whom we have worked and spent some great times. It felt a little strange to put on the backpacks and walk down the 4km to the Panamerica for the last time. It was also strange to watch our stuff that we had strewn about our little room at La Luna, get packed neatly into our 2 small bags. I almost forgot that it all fit the first time but nothing has changed besides the addition of a new headband and a coin purse from Otavalo. We easily flagged a Quito bound bus and paid our $2 upon boarding. We arrived at the northern bus station and immediately transferred buses to go to the southern bus station, the one that the Lonely Planet shows us is directly in the middle of the Old Town, a mere 5 or 6 blocks from the Casa Bambu, our hostel. When we arrived at the southern terminal, we climbed into a taxi and upon naming our destination, discovered that we were instead at a brand new southern bus terminal that is way the hell south of town, not at all near the Old Town and certainly a long distance from the Casa Bambu. It was just 3 months ago that the bus terminal had moved locations from the Old Town to the south of town. The cab ride took us to the front door of the Casa Bambu and we checked into 2 dorm beds. Since the main center of Quito is divided into the New Town and the Old Town, we chose the Casa Bambu because it is situated directly between the two, easy walking distance from each and in a very quiet neighborhood up a hill that looks out over the city. There is a roof terrace in the hostel that has spectacular views, a pool table, ping pong, hammocks, and a pretty little garden with a lawn that appears to be made for tents. When we inquired about camping, however, the hostel owner informed us that they are beginning to remodel so they will not allow camping at this time. Bummer since it would be bad ass to camp in the middle of Quito.

This morning, Brad and I awoke after a really great night of sleep (we even got to sleep in past 7:45 which is when we have been waking up in order to open the door of La Luna at 8 and start serving coffee) and we were ready to tackle the various errands we had lined up to accomplish today. First off, after the failed trip to the US Embassy in Bogota, Brad and I figured that the best place to get additional pages for his passport would be in Quito since the US Embassy is located just a few blocks from Casa Bambu. When we arrived at the supposed embassy site, the building could have been an embassy, it had large fences and flags, but none of the flags featured the stars and stripes. A nearby traffic cop explained to us that 3 months ago, the US Embassy moved to a new location waaaaay up in the northern section of Quito (sound familiar?) and we would have to catch a bus to get there. Setting aside our expectations of getting the errands out of the way early, we boarded the bus and half an hour later arrived at the embassy only to discover that services for citizens of the USA didn´t begin until 1:30pm. So we got right back on the bus and hopped off close to the hostel for our next activity, a visit to the Instituto Geografico Militar, which is actually located exactly where the Lonely Planet specifies. And it was extremely easy to obtain and buy copies of the topographical maps that we will need when we go hiking in Cotopaxi National Park and in the highland villages near Laguna Quilotoa in the coming weeks.

I was so excited to start seeing the sights of Quito that the morning of a few setbacks seemed to take forever, and so it was finally time to head out to see the Old Town. I have a few memories of the wide plazas in Old Town from when I was briefly in Quito with my family back in 2005 and I was really anxious to see if I remembered everything correctly. Walking from the hostel, we went south along a very busy, exhaust filled street, Avenida Gran Colombia, until we got to the Mercado Central, a two storey building with food stalls serving up Almuerzos as well as stalls loaded with fruits, vegetables, and meats to buy. Being lunch time, we surveyed the options and sat down to eat a chicken soup followed by a plate of rice, potatos, and more chicken. Sounded just about what we expected until the soup came and the chicken part of the soup was chicken feet and what looked like a chicken head without the beak (Brad actually told me the chicken head part later because I was too busy trying not to look at what was sitting at the bottom of the broth and potatos besides the all too obvious chicken foot). The rest of the meal wasn´t much better not to mention that a woman who was selling juice came up and totally tricked us into buying an additional disgustingly sweet juice from her when we figured it was just the juice that always comes with the Almuerzo. Oh well, lessons learned!

Following lunch, we walked back into the street to head toward the Plaza Grande in Old Town. The drizzle that had started just before lunch turned suddenly into a deluge and we ran up a hill and across several streets to a massive gothic church called the Basilica del Voto Nacional to escape the water. Inside, there were very few lights and the side aisles were so dim and eerie that to see the end of them you actually had to walk the full length of the church. Many other people had chosen to take refuge from the storm in the church too and we stood together in the doorway to watch the weather. Figuring that tomorrow morning would be a better opportunity to do more exploring, Brad and I hurried back through the rain to the hostel, me to do some interneting, and Brad to head out to attempt to get his passport business sorted out. And that brings us to the moment. I´m feeling a bit silly about the restart of our travels after so long in Otavalo but I´m sure we will quickly feel more at ease again.

Hasta Luego,

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fuya Fuya

It´s Wednesday in Otavalo and Brad and I are in town for a couple of hours today between our work shifts up at La Luna. We visited a book store but found the English books were too expensive to buy, even used. I found the post office in order to buy a couple of stamps so I could send a letter and possibly a post card back to the States but there were several people in line all waiting to send huge packages of what looked like woven sweaters and scarves so I decided to wait on the stamp purchase. It´s fun to walk around Otavalo on days when the market is not happening because things are much calmer and far fewer tourists are in the streets.
La Luna has been almost empty of guests since Sunday so Brad and I took the opportunity to do one of the many hikes in the hills that surround Otavalo. We walked 10.5km up a road to Laguna Mojanda, a large lake in what appears to be the crater of a huge volcano but is really just a high altitude lake sitting in a basin between sharp little peaks and steep green hillsides. To the west is Volcan Fuya Fuya whose 4260 meter high summit lies just about 2km beyond the lake. When we arrived at the lake, it was cloudy but very calm and after a short sandwich break, we climbed to the top of Fuya Fuya and were greeted with beautiful views mostly to the south toward Quito and down the sides of the mountain to Otavalo and lots of very hilly green farmland. On extremely clear days you can see all the way to Quito, several snowy Andes peaks, and some people even say you can see Colombia. Even without the long distance views, it was a thrill to stand on the peak watching the mist float in and to enjoy the complete isolation and silence of being the only people around. We finished our day by hiking the road back to La Luna. As we collapsed into the hammocks on the porch to rest our legs, the first rain we have seen in Ecuador began to fall and it was beautiful to watch the parched grass and dusty roads get a much needed soaking.
After a couple of days with no guests at La Luna, the place is starting to fill up again and we are expecting almost full occupancy on Friday and Saturday this weekend. For the past 2 weekends, a group of 8 American students and their 2 guides has lived in the dormitory and we have been serving them breakfast and sometimes lunch and dinner which gets a bit hectic (but fun) especially when they all make special requests to go along with the order they place off the menu (instead of just avodado slices on the nachos, make it into guacamole and add a touch of lime, oh and light on the cheese). It´s pretty interesting to meet all of the travellers who pass through on their way to other adventures. We get great information about places we hope to visit and we have a growing list of contacts who we hope to keep meeting up with throughout our travels. Just a few more days left at our job in Otavalo and then it´s off to Quito on Monday. It has been incredibly relaxing to be in one place for 2 weeks and we have made some good friends with the owners and others who have also enjoyed staying for more than just a night or two at La Luna. I think, however, that I will be ready to move on to more travels when the time comes!
Hope all is well and keep up the comments...we love hearing from you!
P.S. more pictures here and

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Let the Good Times Roll

It has been over a week since we came to Otavalo and six days since we started working at La Luna. The owners are quite nice and the work is not hard. We take orders in the morning for breakfast and bring food out from the kitchen. We keep track of guests' tabs and deal with payment when they check out. We do a little cleaning up at the end of the night, feed the dogs and close the resturant. I have done some repainting of the rooms and some prep work on the walls before applying new plaster. Everyday I move the horse, Lulu, to a new stop in the yard and bring her water.
We were taking special care of Lulu early in the week becuase she was very pregnant. No one knew exactly how far along she was but they knew it was close to a year, which is a horse's gestation period. A few days ago we awoke to find that Lulu had given birth during the night and tragicly the colt was not alive. Lulu was standing next to it and looked extremely sad. I helped dig a grave and we buried the colt; it was a sad morning.
I have been playing soccer almost daily with the local kids and adults; everyone is included in the game. They play with a small ball which I am not used to and the altitude here, 10,000 feet, has severely limited my endurance, but I still enjoy the games a great deal. No one gets angry during the games and smiles are abundant. The people here are some the happiest I have seen in all my travels. They are not rich, but not overly poor. They have maintained their traditions and have pride in their heritage. Family bonds are close and it has been fasicnating to learn how everyone is interconnected. The people here have not abondoned their culture in search of western style materialism. I believe this pride in who they are and who their ancestors were is the source of their happiness.
Work is not hard and most the time there is nothing to do, so we read lots of book and go on walks into town or around the hills surrounding the hostel. The locals are exeedingly friendly and I have had the privledge of several conversations ranging from soil conditions and the need for rain, to lessons in Quechua, the first language of many here. In fact a conversation in spanish can be slow at times as it is possible that both of us are conversing in our second language. We are looking forward to another wonderful week here. See you later.