A Travellerspoint blog

I’m Gonna Take That Mountain

To Cotopaxi and back again

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“I know somehow that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”
-Martin Luther King Jr. (“I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech)

“I keep on living to keep from to keep from crying. I keep on dreaming to keep from dying. I keep on trying. I ain’t gonna stop. Get right down to the bottom of the barrel and you flow back on top.”
-Amos Lee, “Bottom of the Barrel”

When I crossed the finish line of the Austin Marathon, I collapsed into the arms of a friendly volunteer and was carried to the medical tent. As I lay there amidst mounds of ice packs, I remember thinking that I had just completed the hardest physical, emotional, and mental strain of my life. But that was before I met Cotopaxi.

The second highest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi towers at 5,897 meters above sea level (about 18,000 feet), simply majestic to behold…at a comfortable distance. This snow-capped beast known for icy, whipping winds reveals, on a clear morning, a stunning, above-the-clouds view of the mountaintops of Ecuador. It was for this reason, and the bragging rights that accompany a mountain climb, that I decided to take on Cotopaxi.

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So, without so much experience as a lesson on attaching snow spikes to the bottom of my boots, I set off for the refuge house at the base of the mountain, joined by Heather, Megan, Johnnie, and our two hardy Swiss friends Patrick and David. The owner of the refuge house, Eduardo, picked us up at Vida Verde in a sturdy SUV and we began the bumpy, pothole-lined gravel ride to the Cotopaxi—we had learned by now that, in Ecuador, every vehicle is an off-roader.

After a couple of hours, Eduardo suddenly slammed on the brakes. “This is where you start hiking,” he declared with a matter of fact grin. We grabbed our waters and watched with glum faces as the SUV bounced onward, toward the refuge, leaving us in a cloud of gravel and dust. I tried to keep pace with the Swiss mountaineers as we bounded up the steep path, pausing occasionally for photos of the beautiful skyline of mountains and treetops.

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Approximately three hours later, David, Patrick, and I reached the refuge house, Cotopaxi Cara Sur, a quant entourage of cabins with a main building whose expansive glass windows provide a stunning view of the face of the mountain. Sitting around a gas-powered space heater, we felt like kings and queens of the mountainside, dining on salty popcorn and cradling teacups with our still-numbed fingers. Once everyone else had arrived, we moved to the dinner tables where we slurped potato soup and enjoyed brim-filled glasses of red wine. There were three other travelers at the refuge house, Germans who were on a three-week motorbike tour through Ecuador. Stretching my tired legs, I began to wonder why anyone would hike up a mountain when man’s ingenuity has provided us with such motorized devices.

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We went to bed underneath piles of sheets and an unzipped sleeping bag. At dawn, I awakened, unable to sleep longer in the biting cold, and stumbled my way to the main building for some coffee and a warm breakfast. Saturday morning was spent perfectly at ease—reading, playing cards, chatting—and reminded me of Mitch Hedburg’s notion of mountain-climbing: “I want to climb a mountain—not so I can get to the top—cause I want to hang out at base camp. That seems fun. You sleep in a colorful tent, you grow a beard, you drink hot chocolate, you walk around, ‘Hey, you going to the top?’ . . . ‘Soon.’”

Unfortunately, unlike Mitch, our base camp days were over by Saturday afternoon and, with bags stuffed with climbing gear, Heather, Patrick, David, and I began the long trek up to the tiendas, or tents. The incessant rain pounded our heads as we strode up the mountain, accompanied by our two guides (Juan and Pablo) and two sturdy horses that were obviously better acclimated to the incline. After a few hours, chilled and wet, we caught sight of the tiendas, yellow plastic beacons on the rocky slope of Cotopaxi. Inside one tent, our sleeping quarters, lay five wooden boards haphazardly positioned side-by-side. In another, our guides began preparing our dinner of spaghetti and tomato sauce. We used the lingering sunlight to quickly unpack, lie out our sleeping bags, and mummify ourselves in warm clothes.

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Around 7PM, after eating the pasta and downing several steaming cups of tea, we went back to our tent and bundled up for a few fitful hours of sleep. At one point, I tried to convince myself that I had just been sleeping when, in fact, I knew I was just as wide-eyed and restless as the rest of my companions. At midnight, Juan and Pablo shook open our tent’s flap and told us to start getting dressed for the climb. Stumbling around with dimly lit headlamps, we pulled on boots, snow pants, jackets, facemasks, gloves, scarves, and hats. Heather, with an unfortunate bout of traveler’s sickness, decided it was best not to climb, so I set off with the two guides and my Swiss companions up the dark Cotopaxi slope.

As if in a dream, we plowed through the rocky crust, our feet digging deep into its gravel like mechanical wheels in slow motion. After an hour or so, we reached the crest of the snow and we paused to attach sharp, heavy spikes to the bottoms of our boots and connect thick ropes between the harnesses around our own waists and those of our guides, tasks I soon learned were not merely precautionary. I devoured half of a chocolate bar and glanced up at the night sky, perfectly clear and plastered with tiny beacons of light.

No time for childish stargazing, however, because we were off once again, this time in snow. After a few minutes of my bumbling about, Juan turned and, yelling above the howling wind, explained that it was necessary to walk sideways up the sleep slope. As I awkwardly and rather painfully grapevined up the mountainside, I began to doubt my stamina and motivation for this climb. Luckily, the darkness was all encompassing and all I could see was the splotch of lighted snow directly in front of my feet; if I had seen the slope, all hope would have been lost.

The wind whipped at our faces, beating us backwards as we continued to baby step up the 60-degree slope. I use “we” quite loosely here, as the Swiss men with their Swiss Alps legs were soon far ahead of my bobbing headlamp. Nevertheless, Juan and I strove onward, performing a strange sort of tug-of-war in which Juan, who was leading, would suddenly feel the rope go taut and would pull back. I the stagnant second party would respond with a fervent shake of the head. Another tug. Another shake. And so on and so forth until I would finally surmise that it was better to keep plodding along behind Juan than to stand there like a bobble head.

It is incredible the thoughts that pass through your head as your body plunges forward in the darkness, pushed to exhaustion for an unseen and seemingly unreachable finale. Self-congratulations on leaving the tent to embrace this adventure. Imagining the people I would impress by reaching the top…and those I would let down if I turned back early. Cursing the mountain, the cold, the wind, and anything else that seemed culpable for my pain. That damn, nasal Mile Sirus song: “It ain’t about how fast you get there. It ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.” Desperate prayers. More cursing. Regret. Desperation. Hope. Desolation.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity of darkness, we approached the final slope. Up ahead, I watched as three headlamps cheerily bounced to the top. With victory so clearly in sight, I began bounding up the mountain. A few seconds later, I began another game of tug-and-war with Juan, feeling the full angle of the 80-degree slope, the steepest of the entire mountain. For this portion of the climb, I walked with feet straight ahead, placing my feet and ice pick in the same holes made by my guide to avoid slipping in the ankle-deep snow.

Somehow I found the strength to keep moving and, as I crawled over the final hump, I felt a simultaneous sense of accomplishment and exhaustion. David and Patrick were busy taking photos so I stumbled my way to a large rock and plopped down, utterly unable to move. After a few minutes, the boys managed to get me up for a photo at the cumbre (the top) and we all basked in the pink glow of the rising sun, which illuminated the sea of clouds and mountaintops dotting its surface like tiny glaciers.

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After twenty minutes or so, it was time to begin the descent. At this point, my chocolate bars and Gatorade had frozen solid and I was thankful that I had purchased a bottle of 220, the Ecuadorian equivalent of Red Bull, which was miraculously still in liquid form. On the way down, my legs felt like rubber and, though Juan was behind me in case I should slip, I still felt nervous. The sun was fully in the sky now and I could see the steepness of the slope we had scaled up in the darkness. Driven by the necessity to prove my athleticism, I insisted on taking a photograph of the incline. I took off my backpack and placed it in the snow in front of me; however, to my misfortune, as I was removing my gloves to pick up the camera, a huge gust of wind blew past, carrying with it my entire backpack. Around my legs and down, down, down the icy slope of the mountain it flew and, though I pleaded with my guide to pursue it, he protested that it was unsafe to be traipsing around the mountain during the day when the slope was a sleek wall of ice and avalanches were prevalent. Thus, the camera was lost to the mountain, a high price to pay for Cotopaxi, but the only black stain on the whole experience.

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At the tents once again, I was given another steamy cup of tea before continuing our downward climb towards the refuge house. The boys and I were internally basking in the glory of the climb, but our external selves were weakened and exhausted. We said farewell to our faithful guides, pilled into the van, and were soon en route to Quito. Upon returning, I learned a new phrase: llegamos sano y salvo, or, we arrived safe and sound. Thank goodness!

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The following days passed quickly, the highlights including a Juan Luis Guerra concert, salsa dancing, coffee dates, a stunning theatrical performance by our ChACE group for the whole Vida Verde School, and a delicious farewell dinner from Rosa’s brother who is a chef for the Marriott Hotel. I wish I had the time and space to write a lengthy blog entry about my last few days in Ecuador but considering the hour and my current location—Santiago, Chile—this paragraph and a few accompanying pictures will have to suffice. I will write soon with an update on my newest location but until then, live hard and live strong!

Besitos,

Laura

Posted by lhamman1 20:54 Archived in Ecuador Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

La Vida Full Action

Welcome to the Jungle

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“Que alegria vivir
Sientendose vivido!”
(How happy to live, feeling alive!)
-Pedro Salinas

As our exuberant guide in the jungle was fond of saying, life is not worth living unless it is pursued “full action.” Though Eduardo’s modus operandus was realized in aggravating games of hide-and-seek during jungle hikes, I still find that his lifelong motto holds some truth for what we all desire—a form of carpe diem, a way to drink the last dregs of life before our youth slips away. With this in mind, I begin my tale.

Two weeks ago, the streets of Historic Downtown Quito closed for a momentous race called La Ruta de Las Iglesias (The Run of the Churches). Heather and I had been eager to participate in this nighttime race for weeks and, though the race numbers sold out months before our arrival in Quito, we decided to run anyway. With a little inspiration from my host sister Diana and her friend Washo, Rosa ordered Team Vida Verde shirts so we could promote the school while running. That night we were joined by several other members of the school, all decked out in their Vida Verde regalia, and we hustled to find a spot at the race start. The night air was cool and crisp and a wave of excitement pulsated through the crowd of runners. After a moving rendition of the national hymn of Quito, we were off!

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Up hill, down hill, on crooked cobblestone roads we raced, passing old Baroque churches dimly lit in hues of yellow and blue. Unbeknownst to me, my personal fan club had managed to span the length of the course, as shouts of “Corre, gringa, corre!” (“Run, white girl, run!”) rang out from every corner. Local bands played a quick beat as we raced through downtown and headed north for the second half of the course. Heather and I finished together in 53:00, an impressive time for the 10K considering the hills and altitude. When the rest of the group reached La Llegada, the finish line, we went out to an Irish Pub to celebrate.

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The next day, we woke early for a gondola ride up the nearby mountain, Pinchincha. The gondola, known as the Teleferico, functioned more or less like a ski lift and, as we slowly ascended the full 4,100 meters of altitude, the expansive city of Quito grew smaller and smaller. With the mountain caps dusted in clouds and the sweet sound of zamponas drifting through the air, we shared the sentiment of peace and tranquility. We warmed ourselves with café and then rode horses through the dry fields of the paramo, the mountainous landscape. I bought a CD from the friendly indigenous man playing the zamponas (the wooden flute of Ecuador) to return to the calm whenever life deals me a tough hand.

The following week was, without a doubt, my favorite in Quito. During the course of my time in Ecuador, I had made a few friends, the closest of which were Pablo and Juan. Both were knowledgeable about all things Ecuadorian, although they did throw in the occasional phony Quichua phrase (an indigenous language) for good measure. Together we shared colloquial expressions, cultural oddities, and plenty of laughs. Pablo elaborated much upon the typical American and the fixation with “Top 10” lists. In his honor, I adhered to my cultural roots and created my own “Top 10” lists. Enjoy!

My Top Ten Obsessions in Ecuador
1. Canelazo (the steamy beverage made from naranjillo juice and sugar cane liquor)
2. Colibries (hummingbirds)
3. Anything made with mora (blackberry)
4. Idiomatic expressions (a detailed list will follow)
5. Moccachinos (especially those from Coffee Tree)
6. Running in the Parque Carolina (an athlete’s paradise, with courts of all sorts)
7. Futbolin (foosball!)
8. Scarves (the go-to Ecuadorian accessory for chilly nights)
9. Traditional music of Ecuador (las zamponas)
10. Cuentos de hada (Fairytales, the popular reading material at the centro de ninos where we volunteer)

My Top Ten Favorite Idiomatic Expressions in Spanish
1. Cerrar con un broche de oro = To end things well (literally: to close with a golden broche)
2. Hablar como una lora = To talk like a parrot (a favorite of my professor’s who realized the uncanny similarity between “lora” and “Laura”…)
3. Cargar el arpa = to be the third wheel (literally: to play the harp)
4. Donde hubo fuego, cenizas quedan = where there was fire, ashes remain
5. Tomarse el pelo = to make a joke about someone (literally: to take someone’s hair)
6. Cada ladron juzga por su condicion = the pot calling the kettle black (literally: each crook judged for his own condition)
7. Tener cabeza de pollo = to be forgetful (literally: to have a chicken head)
8. Barriga llena, corazon contento = Stomach full, heart happy
9. Buscar la quinta pata al gato = Always looking for more (literally: looking for the cat’s fifth paw)
10. Costar un ojo de la cara = Costs an arm and a leg (literally: Costs an eye from your face)

One of the highlights of the week was a trip to Papallacta, a small town about an hour from Quito known for its balnearios, or hot springs. During the drive the clouds dissipated, revealing the majestic form of the mountain Antisana. The moon shone brightly in the evening sky as we donned our trajes del bano (bathing suits) and stepped into the steamy waters of the hot springs. The water, naturally heated by the volcano above, is filtered into several pools, creating a spa-like atmosphere perfect for a well-deserved descanso, or relaxation.

The following weekend, Pablo, Juan, Heather, and I drove to Mindo, a touristy town about two hours from Quito, to snap a few photos of colibries (hummingbirds). Ecuador contains more than 18% of the world’s bird population, more than North America and Europe combined, and it was high time that we saw the world’s most spastic flying creatures.

When we arrived in Mindo, the entire town was in the plaza for a yearly celebration of the Virgin of the Cisnes (swans). We quickly found a hostel and went downtown to join in the fun. While the band played, we dined at a pizzeria and, when the music moved down the street, we followed. At nightfall, the band took a break and the pyrotechnics commenced! Fireworks of all sorts, flaming creations that spun into the air, and a paper mache vaca (cow) that a man carried over his head as it spouted out fireworks in all directions. Then, more music, more canelazo, and dancing!

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We woke early the next morning to see the famous hummingbirds in the garden outside the hostel. Much to my surprise, these tiny creatures create quite a buzz, tiny helicopters whizzing through the air. With camera in hand, I frolicked about trying to capture a winning photo amidst the swarm. After having my fill of hummingbirds, we drove to the main plaza of Mindo and bought passes to go canopying, commonly known in the states as zip lining.

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Canopying was an incredible rush, soaring high above the jungle floor with only a small metal hoop to keep us aloft. Feeling adventurous, I tried the “mariposa,” a move that involves a guide behind to hold you upside-down! Heather tried the “superman,” wrapping her legs around the guide behind with arms extended to sail across the sky. After fifteen or so zip lines, we arrived back at the start, elated.

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Sadly, we couldn’t stay another night in Mindo because the next morning we were waking early for our weeklong adventure in the Amazon Jungle. We drove back, said farewell to our Ecuadorian friends, and snagged a few hours of sleep before strapping on our backpacks and hopping a bus to Tena, a small town on the edge of the jungle. For this trip, our group of five was expanded with David, a Swiss friend from the school, and three professors. We arrived in time for lunch and boot rentals before driving to Amarangachi, the home and hostel of an indigenous family about one hour from Tena.

The Amazon is breathtakingly beautiful, erupting with ferns and trees whose leaves unfold to the sun like enormous hands in prayer. Amidst nature’s palate of yellows and greens, I felt the peaceful spirit of the Pachamama, the Quichua term for Mother Earth. Into this interweaving of plant life we walked, trailing behind our overly exuberant guide Eduardo as he identified leaves, trunks, and fruits, each with its own medicinal purpose. I have included a comprehensive set of pictures (at the bottom) with the description of each plant in case you should someday find yourself lost in the Amazon, Man vs. Wild style.

Thus began a glorious week in the jungle. We began each day with morning classes, ate lunch with our professors, and then set off on Amazon adventures. For the first part of our jungle experience, we stayed at the home of a family isolated from all the pleasures of city life, including electricity. Each night after sunset, the family would light candles and we would pass the evening playing card games (Bull Shit was a crowd favorite), reading, and laughing with our professors. One night, feeling particularly close to nature, I bathed with a bar of soap in the river and rocked myself to sleep in a hammock under the stars.

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During the afternoons, we swam in the river, went tubing, and hiked up waterfalls. Eduardo’s signature phrases—“Full action” and “Relax”—became daily objects of entertainment, especially because, unlike Eduardo, we did not define “full action” as being splashed with ice-cold river water nor did we believe “relax” was the appropriate response to “What time are we having breakfast?” But, thanks to Eduardo, we had material for bromas (jokes) for the duration of the trip.

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After a few days, we packed our bags and headed to Shangrila, easily the most beautiful place I have ever stayed in my life. This hostel of paradise—with electricity—was situated on a mountaintop, overlooking the whole of the Amazon and a winding river below. We continued our schedule of morning classes, lunch, and afternoon adventures, with more tubing, swimming in the river, and hiking to a nearby lagoon. We also went canyoning, which is a hike through the dark, cave-like formations just below the surface of the jungle floor. Myriads of bats raced above our heads as we squeezed through the cool, wet rock formations. Our guide in Shangrila, Roberto, was thankfully not a fan of jungle hide-and-seek and led us safely back to the hostel to dry off and enjoy an evening of Pilsener, the typical, light Ecuadorian brew.

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Another highlight was a trip to an indigenous community about a twenty-minute river tube ride from Shangrila. There, we were introduced to a family and learned about their daily routines in the Amazon. We sipped chicha, a thick, milky traditional indigenous beverage of the Amazon made with either maiz (corn) or yuca. During indigenous festivals, the chicha is given three days to ferment, transforming into a rather potent beverage; lamentably, our chicha was freshly made, though I doubt I would have been able to drink more than a few sips of the frothy liquid anyway.

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At the end of the week, we were all sad to leave, but it was time to move on to the next adventure: Banos! The city of Banos is about five hours from Tena and is nestled in a valley amidst towering green mountains. Originally, the city gained its fame for its naturally heated springs, but has now become a tourist hotspot for rafting, canyoning, and bungee jumping. After our arrival, Heather, Johnnie, David, and I embarked on an epic hike up the mountain, pausing intermittently to take photos of the town below. At the lookout, we made friends with a young Ecuadorian girl who was taking her family’s sheep to graze on the mountaintop. I showed her how to make loud shrills and squeaks by blowing a piece of grass and she joined in with kazoo-like sounds from a long, hollow plant. We continued our journey up the mountain to a small café called Café del cielo, or Café of the Sky—a highly appropriate name—and relaxed with coffee and ice cream floats.

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That evening, a few more students from the school arrived in Banos and, together, we had dinner and drinks at an artsy restaurant called Café Hoot. The next morning, we woke early for canyoning, an activity quite different from the cave-crawling in the jungle. In Banos, canyoning is the term for scaling down waterfalls, grasping a rope connecting your waist to the top of the cascade. We geared up for the experience: thick boots, helmet, wet suit, and climbing belt. All decked out in the equipment, I felt a bit like Batman, minus the cool gadgets and vehicle.

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The first waterfall was only 7 meters tall (about 25 feet), but I struggled to find good footholds as the water rushed down my legs, slowly maneuvering my body down the rock wall. The next waterfall was 15 meters, then 25, culminating in one that was nearly 40 (that’s about 135 feet high)! But, by this point, we were all feeling more confident, hopping on the wall as we descended into the rushing water. At the bottom of the final cascade, we were cold, wet, and beaming with pride at our accomplishment.

After lunch and changing into dry clothes, a small group of us rented bicycles and rode the Ruta de las cascadas (the Route of the Cascades). I snapped a few pictures as we raced along the highway, though none as impressive as the photo of the final waterfall, el Pailon del Diablo. To get a little closer to these majestic falls, we locked up the bikes, and hiked down to the base of the cascade. Pailon del Diablo gets its name from the shape of the pool in which the water falls, a large oval reminiscent of the pailon that the indigenous people use to prepare food. Supposedly the face of the devil (el Diablo) is also visible in a rock formation, but he didn’t make an appearance for us. Heather and I tossed our heads back into the rushing waters and, happily drenched from head to toe, hiked back to the bikes and took a truck ride back up the highway to Banos.

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The next day, we woke at 4:30AM to experience the famous hot springs of Banos. The two pools of steamy volcanic water were packed to the gills with early-bird Ecuadorians! We hopped in, hopped out, and, twenty minutes later, we were back in our beds, glad to have tried the balnearios but eager for a few more hours of sleep. Not long after, we took an early bus back to Quito, elated from our journey and happy to be back with the comforts of home.

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Tomorrow we leave for our last great adventure in Ecuador: Cotopaxi! Heather, Megan, Johnnie, David, Patrick, and I will be climbing up the highest active volcano in the world, traveling through the night and hoping to reach the cumbre (the top) by dawn. Wish us luck! I hope all is well at home and I’ll write when I return with the story of my first mountain climb. Ciao!


Jungle Plants

1. Ayawaska, the hallucinogenic plant of the shaman, facilitating premonitions and communing with spirits
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2. Cuya, a Quichua word for this fruit in the squash family
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3. Yuca, the potato of the jungle
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4. Cacao Tree (cocoa)
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5. Chonta, a type of palm tree used for construction because of its iron-like trunk (but beware of its spines—they hurt!)
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6. Palm trees, the leaves of which are used to construct roofs
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7. Huadua, a type of bamboo used for construction
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8. The red fruit of the cocoa tree
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9. Maiz (choclo), a white, tender type of corn
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10. Papaya Tree (if you look closely, you can see the green papaya fruit)
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11. Labios morena, a medicinal plant named for its lip-like leaves
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12. Palmera caminante (the walking palm), a fascinating tree that is continually growing new roots and shedding old ones, causing the tree to actually move about one meter each year
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13. Bromelia, a fruit in the pineapple family very popular among osos peresozos (slothes)
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14. Pelo de palmera bambil, the hair-like part of the palm that is used to make brooms
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Posted by lhamman1 06:18 Archived in Ecuador Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

When Life Gives You Rotten Asparagus, Make Soup

The Ecuadorian Way

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As we traveled home from el bosque nublado, the Cloud Forest, Heather identified a keen aspect of Ecuadorian culture: here, in a land of plentiful resources, the people are remarkably conscious of waste. In the forest, each plant and animal is utilized in its entirety, not a length of bamboo wasted or a segment of sugar cane unchewed. Similarly, in Quito, my host mother Rosa constantly reminds me to turn off the lights and save every scrap of food, the latter of which was made evident during dinner one night when Megan and I realized that the asparagus we had prepared was rotten. After a few bites, we tossed the rest in the trash; immediately, Rosa dug into the tiny trash bin and retrieved our half-eaten stalks. Surprised, we helped her chop them into inch-long segments and stored them in the refrigerator. Lunch the following day? Asparagus soup.

This simplistic stewardship that is so typically Ecuadorian is not, of course, without exceptions. The tendency to burn trash, the air pollution from cars and buses, and the deficiency of sufficient recycling programs are significant problems; however, there is a noticeable lack of waste in the city streets and a conscious effort to care for the rich environment of the jungle and coast. This mentality has given rise to my own consideration of the natural, life-giving forces that I have experienced within the last couple of weeks. My most fulfilling moments fall into four categories, all of which will, of course, be explained in greater detail below: impassioned art, rich meals, plentiful laughter, and sparkling springs.

El Arte Puro - The Pure Art

One morning during class, a group of us opted to spend the duration of the morning at the Museo del Banco Central, an archeological goldmine for anyone interested in clay pots and ancient history. The museum chronicles the earliest known people in Ecuador who were surmised to have crossed the same bridge of land as the early indigenous people in North America. After a sufficiently long hike down the continent, they created small communities, mostly matriarchal, and lived off the land. Time passed, clay pots were enhanced with new colors and complex patterns, and patriarchal communities grew as a result of the need to defend their lands against competing tribes. The artwork reflected a deep understanding of the natural world and a commune with the gods of earth, land, and sea—assisted by various hallucinogens.

It was not until the late fifteenth century that a war-minded tribe from Peru, the Incas, conquered the land and imposed a feudalistic system of living that was both slave-like and communistic. Less than one hundred years later, white men on horses arrived to conquer, enslave, and evangelize. From clay pots and polytheistic sculptures to portraits of Mary and Child. With wan faces and shining blue eyes, this artwork seemed unnatural and cold, so far removed from the earthen people who rejoiced in the cycle of the sun and moon. I passed quickly and monotonously through this final section of the museum, only pausing to appreciate one of the few indigenous works of Christian art, a statue of the crucifix in which Jesus is covered in deep, gaping wounds, much more profound and vivid than those of European crucifixes. It was in this Christ that the indigenous people of Ecuador could identify, one who knew the deep pain and suffering of their subjugation. To me, this portrayal of Christ seemed the most pure and untainted, a true expression of humanity at its worst and its most honest.

The following week, we embarked on another expedition—walking through Quito is always an adventure—to find the Museo Guayasamin, the home and studio of Ecuador’s most famous modern artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin. During his lengthy life (1909-1999), Guayasamin produced a wide variety of art, ranging from sweeping mountainous landscapes of Quito to dark portrayals of war, betrayal, and death. Despite my preference towards the impressionism of Monet, I found myself drawn to the modern, cubistic images of suffering, meditation, and love. Like my favorite impressionistic artist, when Guayasamin found a worthy subject, he began a series of paintings using the same image with different colors and angles. It was in his series of mother and child that I felt his passion, their arms and fingers intertwined in a manner reminiscent of Picasso. The sharp contrast of yellows and oranges against a deep black and blue backdrop shone like a light in the darkness of gloom and death. How interesting to compare the portrayals of compassion and of suffering that, albeit in different forms, have persisted throughout centuries in Ecuador.


La comida rica – The Rich Food

Anyone who knows me well, would not be surprised to find eating as one of my most fulfilling, life-giving experiences here in Ecuador. At its basic, food is one of the three necessities of life; at its richest, food is one of the most satisfying and sense-fulfilling comforts of the traveler’s experience. In the past few weeks, I have embarked on a personal mission to sample all of the pastries in Ecuador, no small feat considering that there is a panaderia (bakery) on almost every block. From pan enrollado con chocolate, a honey-glazed crescent filled with chocolate, to pan con mora y coco, a triangular-shaped delicacy topped with shredded coconut and filled with blackberry jam, there is no shortage of “mmmms” and “ahhhhs” in an Ecuadorian panaderia. Of course, I have indulged in the occasional American sweet, and I have found that McDonalds’ McFlurry is just as good here as in the states.

In addition to gorging on sweets, I have also been learning a bit of Ecuadorian cooking. Last Wednesday, for example, a group of students from the school and I learned how to make llapingachos, a Quitchua word meaning potato tortillas. With freshly washed hands, we pressed, mixed, and molded the potatoes into small ovals filled with queso fresco, fresh cheese. Heather and I then took the golden patties to the stovetop where we fried them until they were covered with a crispy, orange shell. Que rica! With a side of salad, egg, and chorizo sausages, we were more than satisfied with our self-prepared Ecuadorian meal and eager for our next cooking lesson.

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La Comunidad – The Community

I am a firm believer that it is impossible to truly know a country unless you have befriended its inhabitants. For this reason, I use every available opportunity to practice my Spanish with native Ecuadorians—on the bus, in the street, at cafes, and anywhere else I can find someone who is willing to talk. With speaking a foreign language comes the wonderful music of laughter, as grammatical errors become chistes, jokes, and you quickly and willingly capitulate your sense of pride. Among my many mistakes, one of the finest was when I told my professor I was interested in buying a potion sold at local markets used to “hacer el amor,” which is not translated “creating love,” but, rather, “making love.” Another gem is Heather’s request at Café Mosaico when she ordered her drink by saying, “Quieres mi bebe?” which translates, “Would you like my baby?”

In finding new Ecuadorian friends, I have also discovered a love for mochaccinos and canelazo, the latter of which is a warm, liquored drink flavored with apple, orange, or blackberry. Many an entertaining story can be told with a warm beverage in hand, particularly if the drink has an extra kick. If I ever open a Spanish language school of my own, you better believe there would be a large jarra of canelazo in the courtyard and an abundance of “hora feliz” ventures.

Agua de Vida – Life-giving Water

As any good traveler knows, in order to truly appreciate a country you must venture off the beaten path and nothing better emulates this mentality than last weekend’s trip to el bosque nublado, the cloud forest. Hiking through the cloud forest is an almost supernatural experience, as the heavy, lingering mist gives nourishment to the abundance of banana trees, ferns, and orchids. Cloud forests are some of the most biologically diverse places on earth, also home to a large variety of birds and butterflies, and the near-constant wetness evokes the same naturalistic sentiment as the sea for Ishmael in Moby Dick.

Our journey, as always, involved a bumpy bus ride down a mountain and, in a style reminiscent of Oregan Trail, a few instances when we chose to forge the river. Somehow our rickety van ride was a success and we crossed one more river, this time with a bridge, to reach the small town of Naranjito. The owners of EcoHostel were the nicest Ecuadorians I have met thus far, welcoming us with a potent liquored drink and clean bathrooms—with toilet paper! http://ecohostal-latorre.com/

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After a delicious breakfast, we pulled on our rubber boots—a necessity in the cloud forest—and set off on a hike. Our guides, a savvy, ecological-minded German and an energetic eight-year old Ecuadorian, led us through faun and fauna, explaining various plants and insects as we trekked through the wet, muddy landscape. First, we had to cross a river in a small wooden cart connected to a rope that linked the two shores. As the rickety box swayed back and forth across the river, I clung tightly to the side and said a silent prayer. We continued our hike, at one point entering a natural banana forest. My host mother Rosa, who accompanied us on this trip, insisted that we stop and enjoy a banana fresh from the tree. The soft, sweet flesh of the freshly plucked banana gave us the energy to continue our journey through this wet, tropical paradise.

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We finally reached our destination: two rushing waterfalls called Gemelos, Twins. At once, we peeled off our wet layers of clothes to reveal our bathing suits and jumped in! The water was cool, but as refreshing as a glass of chilled lemonade on a steamy summer afternoon. I found a nice sitting rock near the falls and dangled my feet into the frothy bubbles of the waterfall’s cascade. Time passed too quickly and soon it was time to hike back through the muddy trail. We were greeted with a clean rinse and another delicious meal, this time with juice from the borojo, a native aphrodisiac fruit that soon had me cuddling with Johnnie on the hamaca (hammock).

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The following day we embarked on our second adventure of the trip: tubing down the Narajal River. Recalling my relaxing float down the Guadalupe River in Texas, I began lamenting our lack of a beer cooler tube to accompany us, until I learned that tubing in Ecuador is quite different than in Texas. First of all, tubing in Ecuador requires a helmet and a life jacket. Second, you float on your stomach so that you have your arms free to prevent you from crashing into the giant rocks and the rapids that follow them. We flew down the river, arms flailing and tubes bumping. After twenty minutes or so, we reached rapids that were too strong so we carried our tubes across a rocky shore and then our guides nonchalantly informed us that we were going to SCALE DOWN the side of a rocky cliff. With a thin rope in one hand a slippery grasp of rock in the other, I slowly, slowly climbed down the rock wall. Feeling quite accomplished after this unprecedented feat, we hopped back on our tubes and floated to the end of our journey: a small waterfall in a tranquil, gentle path of the river. I splashed fresh spring water all over my face and body—how great to be alive!

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Of course, no trip in Ecuador would be complete without some sort of travel complication. On the way home, a giant rock somehow became wedged between the van's back right tire. After several failed attempts with a panel of wood and a hammer, we drove to a nearby town to find a "mechanic" to solve the problem. Thankfully the rock was extracted and the rest of the ride passed surprisingly smoothly.

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I can hardly believe that another week has come and gone. This weekend looks to be exciting too, with a 6-mile race to run in Quito and money to burn at the biggest market town in all of Ecuador. Hope all is well on the home front and check back soon for another update!

Posted by lhamman1 11:04 Archived in Ecuador Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Where the Land Meets the Sky

Walking the line and riding through heaven

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“This is not a story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it to be. It is a glimpse of two lives running parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams.”
-Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

During the past few weeks, I have been pacing through Che Guevara’s coming-of-age novel, his contemplation of the liberation of youth and the vast injustices for the people of South America. Although I am by no means revolutionary, I do believe that my housemates and I are living on parallel latitudes, embarking on self-exploration through a common desire to travel, teach, and hold fast to our youth.

This past week we have continued that journey, sinking our roots deep into the culture, language, and landscape of this beautiful country. On Tuesday, after a stressful five hours of language class, I sought a solitary run for consolation. On my map of Quito, the Parque Ichimbia seemed near enough so I laced up my shoes and headed south; little did I know, my trusty map lacked a topographical guide and, within minutes, I was panting as I raced up an eternity of stairs. Finally at the top, I rested a moment and turned back to witness a stunning view of the entirety of Quito, nestled under rolling mountains. As I continued my run along the outskirts of the park, I felt a divine presence that I have not experienced for many years. A wave of peace rolled over my soul and I breathed deep the crisp air of an Ecuadorian afternoon.

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Imagine my joy when I learned that Wednesday we would be returning to the Parque Ichimbia to eat dinner at a fancy restaurant called Café Mosaico. The dinner—chicken parmigiana—was delicious and the view, as expected, phenomenal. Afterward, a group of us went to the Casa de la Cultura to view a performance of modern dance and a few scenes from the ballet version of “La bella durmiente”—Sleeping Beauty. That night, I nodded off dreaming of twirling ballerinas and frosty mountaintops.

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The following day, Megan and I returned to the Casa de la Cultura to watch a Brazilian movie called “Noel.” Contrary to our initial predilections, Noel was not a Christmas story but, rather, an emotional tale of a samba songwriter named Noel and his bohemian lifestyle. Thankfully, the Brazilian movie had Spanish subtitles, which actually proved more utile than a Spanish movie since we could easily follow the text.

Friday morning we embarked on one of the more exciting events in Ecuador: a trip to the equator! Quito is only an hour south of America’s midsection and, after a fairly painless bus ride, our group—professors and students—walked to the museum Inti Nan, or walk of the sun. This outdoor museum contained artifacts from various local indigenous tribes, specimens of animals typical to Ecuador, and a variety of experiments conducted on the equator. Of particular interest was the large stone slab that was used by the indigenous people to tell time, measuring only three times of day: morning (6am), noon (12pm), and evening (6pm).

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One of the more interesting experiments on the equator involved a bucket of water and a large plastic tank that was placed in both hemispheres and on the Equator. When the bucket of water was poured into the tank in the Northern Hemisphere, the water swirled counterclockwise. When the bucket was poured over the Southern Hemisphere, the water swirled clockwise. And, as you might guess, when the bucket was poured over the equator, the water flowed straight downward, devoid of any gravitational pull. This experiment demonstrated the Coriolis effect, which for the Earth dictates that moving objects on the surface appear to veer to the right in the northern hemisphere, and to the left in the southern.

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Another interesting experiment involved balance. On the equator, as we learned in the water experiment, there is no gravitational pull so it is easier to balance objects. Accordingly, the next experiment was the attempt to balance an egg on the head of a nail. Some of our group were able to achieve this feat though, equator or not, my shaky hands were never designed for balance. Afterward, we discovered our own center of balance by walking on the equatorial line with our eyes closed. After a few blind steps, I began veering towards the North Hemisphere; our guide informed me that my inner pull is northward—a simple observation, I thought, considering that the past twenty-four years of my life have been spent on that side of the planet.

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That evening, Megan and I celebrated our host sister Diana’s nineteenth birthday with Pizza Hut, Pilsener—the local Ecuadorian brew—and a game of kings or “reyes.” Sitting alongside giddy and occasionally coarse nineteen-year olds while teaching them this American college tradition, I felt suddenly old though pleasantly surprised at their enthusiasm with the game. Afterward, I joined Diana, her boyfriend Peter, and some of Peter’s German friends for a night out on the town to ir de farra. We stopped by a hookah bar and then went to another bar where I won a few beers on the futbolin, or foosball table, my specialty, and then salsa danced the night away.

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The next morning I woke early for our trip to Pilulahua, the only active volcanic crater in the world that is currently inhabited. After two hours on a bumpy bus, we were introduced to the horses, our transportation for the day. Mine was a dark, brawny beast named Morgana who carried me safely for two hours, despite having a swollen ankle (which, unfortunately, we discovered after the morning ride). Each time we broke into a trot, I clung to the reins for dear life and posted like hell, recalling my younger sisters in their English riding lessons so many years ago. Lunch was the best I’ve had in Ecuador and we learned that the owner of the restaurant, Rolando Vera, was a famous marathoner in his youth. Heather and I got a picture with him and felt newly inspired to attempt the marathon in Chile.

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For the ride back, Megan graciously gave me her horse since Morgana was in bad shape and we sent off a difficult climb up and down the mountains of the crater. During the afternoon, a thick, rippling fog descended upon the crater, making it impossible to distinguish the land from the sky. In our heavenly landscape, we plowed through, grasping tightly as our horses jumped off jagged stones to fit through the narrow mountain passage. Arriving back at the farm a few hours later, we were given a warm apple-cinnamon beverage to keep the blood flowing and we bid farewell to our faithful animal companions.

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The past few days have passed rather lazily, though the upcoming weekend promises to be full of new adventures. Until then, enjoy the stories and the photos and take a moment out of your busy day to simply contemplate the natural beauty all around. Hasta luego!

Posted by lhamman1 06:25 Archived in Ecuador Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Beauty and the Beast

A tale of ballenas and buses

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"...the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul..."
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

As my English professor would often recount, there is more to Melville’s Moby Dick than one can uncover in one reading. Within the simple tale of an allusive whale, one finds metaphors rich and plentiful amidst the impassioned and tragic storyline of obsession, friendship, and fatalism. In my retelling of the past weekend, without portending to belittle Melville’s epic novel, I challenge you to attune your mind’s eye towards the parallels between my tale and his, linking the sacrifices of a whaler to those of a tourist with an eager heart and a tenuous stomach.

My story begins on a warm Friday afternoon when, after cramming a month’s worth of clothes into a backpack bound for a weekend’s worth of journeying, I strode across the street and down two blocks to Vida Verde. At the language school, I reunited with seven female companions and, together, we hailed two taxis and began the lengthy ride to La Estacion del Sur, the southern bus station. We arrived early for the eight o’clock bus so we took the opportunity to use the restrooms, unappreciative of our good fortune in receiving a handful of toilet paper and having functioning toilets. The night bus left on schedule, an anomaly for most things Ecuadorian, and we began our twisting decent from the mountains surrounding Quito.

After two hours of quasi-sleep, we were awakened for the first of many rest stops along the way, and we drowsily sauntered off the bus and into the crusty, paperless restrooms. Eight hours later, we arrived in Manta, a small coast town north of Puerto Lopez. With some negotiating, we secured a spot on a small bus bound for Puerto Lopez, unaware of the novelty of having a seat. Throughout the next two hours, the bus filled to capacity with a wide spectrum of travelers, most standing in the aisles, clinging to the backs of our seats. At one point, I leaned forward to retrieve my water bottle and returned to find two arms linked around my headrest. After a few jostling road bumps, I maneuvered my way back into the seat cushion and did not readjust for the duration of the ride.

Finally, in the wee hours of morning, we caught sight of the sandy beaches of Puerto Lopez. Though a far stretch from Cancun, this Ecuadorian beach town had all the makings of a tourist hotspot: trendy oceanside bars, vendors pacing the sand with cheap jewelry and tasty snacks, and small stores offering beachwear and hammocks for negotiable prices. However, the dilapidated, paint-peeled homes a mere block from the beachfront stood in stark contrast to the bamboo-lined restaurants on the coast, a reminder of the pervasive poverty throughout Ecuador.

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We found Hostel Sol Inn with ease, a quant establishment abundant in palms and bamboo. The rooms were simple yet charming and the colorful paintings on the walls throughout the hostel were a cheery reflection of the proximity of the beach. After waiting a few minutes for our rooms to be ready, it became clear that this hostel did operate on Ecuadorian time, so we changed into our suits, stowed our bags in the office closet, and headed for the shore. Along the way, I fell privy to the coaxing of the local salesmen and, within a few minutes, had invested in my first hamaca (hammock).

The beach was still quite cool at this hour so, after a quick breakfast of eggs, bread, and coffee, we walked to the boating area of the shore where the fisherman were proudly laying their evening’s catch. After reveling in the size of the swordfish and shark sprawled on the shore, I asked their owner, a brawny man with long, curly locks, about his typical catch and he promptly whipped out his cell phone to show me pictures of larger sharks. Even in a small fishing town, one cannot hide from the breadth of technology.

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We passed the next few hours on the beach, warming ourselves under the gentle glow of the sun. Megan and I braved the water for a brief swim and I experimented with my Walgreens snorkel set; much to my dismay, the turbulent, sandy water was not designed for my viewing pleasure. Instead, I stared in awe at the graceful pelicans, swooping over the water in search of today’s catch like tiny WWII dive-bombers. I was equally intrigued by the abundance of small crabs that scuttled across the sand before vanishing into minute holes whenever a walker drew near.

Day quickly passed into night and, after a majestic sunset, we shared cocktails around a small bonfire on the beach before taking a mototaxi to an Italian restaurant that, we were told, was very difficult to find. Two blocks later, we grudgingly paid the mototaxi and commenced in eating delicious mountains of pasta adorned with garlic, pesto, garlic, oil…and more garlic! My desire for a night on the town was sufficiently subdued with a stomach full of pasta so I walked with the girls back to the hostel, tumbled into bed, and was fast asleep.

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The following morning, we woke early for our adventure on the sea: whale watching! For a glimpse of ballenas horobadas (humpback whales), we had endured endless hours on a bumpy bus and a Saturday night without so much as a shake of the hips; let it suffice to say I was ecstatic. Our breakfast was less than satisfying so Anne and I volunteered to find a panaderia (bakery) and, not long after, returned with a bag bursting with crescents. With bellies full, we followed our trusty guides, Wilmer and Winston, towards a boat named “Wahoo!” After a brief safety run-through cautioning against running on the boat and suggesting the rear of the boat as the place for emptying one’s stomach, we were off!

For the first few minutes, I had plenty of “wahoo” moments as we bounced along the rough waves. The cool ocean spray in my hair ignited my excitement as I voraciously scanned the grey water for a tail or a fin. After thirty minutes, the eagerness in scrutinizing each wave began to subside; in contrary, my stomach began to awaken anew with each lurch of the boat. Finally, we drew near to la Isla de la Plata (Silver Island) and our captain slowed the boat to a near stop in preparation for whale watching. I had thought the incessant bouncing of the boat to be unbearable during the ride; now, we were tossed about like dandelion seeds on a windy day, prey to the transient whims of the ocean. I momentarily forgot my dizziness when the first dorsal fin of the humpback was sighted and watched with fascination as the young whale cheerily leapt out of the water as if dancing across the surface of the ocean. It became clear that we were following a mother and child and we all clung to our cameras, desperate for a postcard-worthy photo.

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It was about the time that the humpbacks began to near that I felt a familiar rumble in my stomach followed by a warm sensation in the back of my throat. Remembering the wise words of our captain, I thought it best to move to the back of the boat. I raced to the rear, straddling two large gasoline tanks, and, to my misfortune, waited until the moment when the whales were nearest to relieve myself of my breakfast. Not to be outdone by the other whale watchers, I grabbed my camera and snapped a shot, before continuing to empty my stomach. Even now, I am amazed by my persistent dedication, or perhaps obsession, with capturing that moment on camera.

We circled the whales for fifteen more minutes, somehow keeping our stomachs at bay, and in that time, I successfully captured twenty pictures of ocean water and four pictures of whale parts. Such is the fate of this camera-bound tourist. Eventually, I gave the camera a rest and simply marveled at the enormity and majesty of these creatures, sailing over the tops of waves with such commanding grace. Our guides finally turned towards the Isla de la Plata and offered us a snack of bread and fruit, which I politely yet ardently declined.

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On the island, we hiked up and down barren hills, snapping pictures of the curious piqueros de patas azul, or blue-footed boobies. These unique birds with ocean-blue feet ruled over the island, a fact we learned when two stopped in our path, hissing and refusing to budge, and forced our entire group to push through a mangled mess of trees to avoid catastrophe. The trees on the island were grey and strangely devoid of plumage, though our guide assured us that, during the rainy season in the winter, they verdantly flourish.

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After a few hours, we returned to the boat for coral reef snorkeling. I proudly produced my Walgreens snorkel set from my bag, insisting that I use my personal set as if I had been snorkeling all my life. Undeterred by our guide’s declaration of its “poor quality,” I leapt off the boat in search of the cast of The Little Mermaid. Amidst the yellow-and-black striped fish and schools of silver minnows there was a strange, rhythmic buzzing in the water. It wasn’t until Megan leapt out of the water with a shriek that I realized the tiny algae floating on the surface were in fact miniature medusas—jellyfish. Thus, our brief snorkeling venture concluded and we were once again bouncing across the waves, heading for shore.

The return trip was much bumpier than the initial ride, but somehow I was able to maintain control over my bowels. As we neared the shore, we passed a large fishing boat in a tornado of sea birds and I couldn’t help thinking of that pivotal scene in Moby Dick when the ship is sinking and a large sea bird is impaled by the mast and goes down with the boat and crew. I prayed we would not meet a similar fate and, as our tiny boat reached into shore, I heaved a great sigh of relief.

The next day, we embarked on another epic bus ride, this time leaving in the morning and planning on arriving in the early evening. After buying four crescent rolls and a piece of banana bread for a dollar, I found my seat and tried to relax as we ricocheted along the rough dirt road. The seats quickly filled with frequent stops and, at each pause, a handful of vendors would hop onboard and pace the aisles, selling agua de coco, ceviche, pan de banana, gelatin, naranjas, and more, before jumping off the bus in search of another.

At noon, Heather asked the driver for our estimated arrival time and was shocked when he predicted ten more hours until Quito. By now, all the seats were occupied, yet we continued to board, filling the aisles with people willing to stand for the duration of the trip. Driving at sea level and a bus crammed with bodies began to take its toll—we were breathing air so think it seemed drinkable. In addition, our ancient bus lacked air conditioning, so we opened all available windows and fervently fanned ourselves. Ten hours later, as predicted, we pulled into the Estacion del Sur, dreaming of McDonalds’ fries and vowing never again to take the Reina del Camino bus, whose name ironically translates, “Queen of the Road.”

In the total darkness of night, we hailed a cab and, exhausted as we were, smiled at the proximity of home. However, not to be outdone by the excruciating bus ride, our cab broke down a few miles down the road. After a couple of minutes, the driver reemerged from the hood of the car and diagnosed the problem as a lack of oil. I lamented that I had not packed motor oil in my travel bag, and was highly tempted to indulge when he offered me a cigarette for my nerves. Luckily, the driver’s brother arrived quickly and we finally crawled into bed around midnight.

Though not nearly as eloquent as Melville’s story, I find that my tale at least deserves some credit for its epic length. I conclude now with a reflection: as we traveled along dusty village roads, passing decrepit homes and the occasional boy kicking an old soccer ball, I saw a mother in a blue dress gently caress the hair of her youngest son as she waited for the bus. As I watched her tender touch, I considered the commonality of the human race, the values that we all share, of family and security, of playfulness and love. In the great wonder-world of watching whales, jumping waves, and sweating profusely, I had discovered that we are not so different as we might seem, that we are drawn together by similar purpose, and, through thick and through thin, we are all searching for the same sustenance.

Posted by lhamman1 13:30 Archived in Ecuador Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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