Monthly Archives: July 2010

Quito, Slashed

I’m trying, Quito. I’m really trying to like you. Trying to love you, even. But I don’t. Not yet. And here is another reason why…

It was a matter of time. I knew that. But it doesn’t make it feel any less degrading or offensive. It doesn’t make me feel any less violated, any less angry. But, luckily, I didn’t get robbed. Not technically. However, I got slashed. My bag that is. And my good feelings about Quito. I’m not happy about it — not happy about either.

Let’s see… I’ve been here since May 17. That’s two and a half months. Already, I have been involved in two hit and runs (once I was the “hit” while riding in the back of a pick-up truck – yeah, didn’t tell you guys that one yet, the other time I was the “run” while riding in the back of a pick-up truck after a woman got hit and had her foot run over by another car). I’ve been hospitalized with a parasite AND bacterial infection (which came with three weeks of feeling like total crap). And now, I’ve been (almost) robbed. Yes, it could always be worse.

What are you supposed to do when someone who is literally pressed against you on an extremely crowded bus (or, as we call it here, the Ecovia, which is more like a tram with its own private lane) appears to be slicing your bag open with some sort of knife or blade? What do you do when you realize this and pull your bag away, but it’s too crowded to see the damage, and you are in an enclosed vehicle, inches from the thief’s face, while they do everything they can to cut through your paper-thin cloth bag with a knife, centimeters from your stomach?

You let them try, because you can’t stop them. Not with a knife that close. And what did I have to lose? A pair of spandex? Some socks? My deodorant? But, just because you’re a foreigner, you’ve got to be worth the effort, right? And because robberies of under a few hundred dollars have no penalty in Ecuador, what do they have to lose? Nothing. They have the knife. Only you have something to lose. So, you wait for those doors to open, and you wait for the moment to pass. You take it, because you have to. It is unfair, and wrong, but in Quito, it’s life.

Ecuadorian woman and her baby. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

Luckily, I didn’t have far to go. The next stop was mine. I looked over at my French friend, Clemence, who also knew something was up. She felt the same tug at her bag. But we were sardines in a bumpy tin can. The Ecovia often stops and turns so suddenly that people literally fall on each other and bang into each other worse than any public transportation I’ve ever been on. When someone has a knife pointed at you, sawing their way through your worthless gym bag, do you call them on it? Do you grab their wrist and say HEY, GET THE FUCK OFF OF MY STUFF! Or do you hope the doors open so you can get out before you stop suddenly and they accidentally let the knife go three inches farther than they had intended?

When the doors opened, we got out and I immediately looked down. There it was, a six or seven inch slash right through my t-shirt -thin bag. I quickly checked for what little valuables I had (phone and half my cash – $7 or so – was dispersed throughout my jacket as planned, iPod was at the other end of my bag – safe – and keys were in my extra bag within the gym bag, unnoticed). I was not bleeding. I was not robbed. I had all my belongings including my most valuable – the keys to my apartment. Clemence had a hole in her bag too, but they didn’t get anything, or so she thought. She was fine. Her bag was thicker, with leather. She found out later they got her phone.

But we were ok. Pissed off, but ok. OK enough. And let me just tell you, I had an AWESOME workout after that. Couldn’t think of a better place to go with that anger surging through me than the gym.

This had to happen on a day I was missing NYC like crazy, during a week I had to stop myself from thinking about home, the bliss of summer, the time I anxiously await every freakin’ year. This comes one week after my friend who has been living here for four years got robbed TWICE, two days apart. The week two friends got engaged. The week of some really crazy dreams and a few nightmares that made me wonder about a bunch of things. A week during which I KNEW I was going to get robbed… I woke up Monday, and I just had a bad feeling that this was the week… But I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to jinx it. And here I am. Me and my freaky instincts. And there was nothing I could do.

Sometimes, I don’t know what to make of it all. I keep trying to do what is best for me. I keep trying to find my way to that good and beautiful place where all the pieces fit (please tell me it exists!). But I keep getting bumped around. The challenges just keep on comin’! I guess that’s life, eh?

Jumping with friends (From L to R: Clemence, me, Leah, Lexie) in Old Town, Quito.

The most important thing is that I am ok. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this. I’m not sure where I am supposed to be right now. Or why I’m here in Quito. But I’ve got to just keep believing that this is good, this is right, this is where I need to be. Because in all honesty, when something like this happens, it makes you want to run away — anywhere, just somewhere else. I know challenges like this comes with the territory when you’re a traveler, but I’m ready for the good stuff. It feels like I’m constantly being forced to be strong… stronger. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re forced to. I’m tired of having to be tough, and trying to be strong… but sometimes, I get tired of the challenges. And then I wake up and I know I’m ready for more.

Half the time, I’m having SO much fun! I’m having this incredible adventure and I’m loving it! REALLY! I think that comes through in the blog. And the the other half the time, I wonder why I am here and not sipping chai on the Upper West Side, where I feel safe and at home. But I guess I already know the answer to that one: I’m here because sipping chai on the Upper West Side is not enough. I learned all I could from sitting on the Upper West Side with chai. As much as I might want that right now, I didn’t come to Quito to play it safe.

My bag may have gotten slashed, but my trust in the fact that I will get something valuable out of this experience –something so valuable that a thief cannot steal it — and that maybe I already have…

Well, the thieves on the Ecovia certainly couldn’t take that from me.

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My New Normal

I’ve written about the canopy tour through the cloud forest of Mindo, the afternoon spent in hot springs at 4,000 m, the frog-eating spiders, the car that was stolen at gunpoint outside my apartment, and my trip to the emergency room, but perhaps the most interesting thing of all is my new “normal.” Finding normalcy in Quito is the real adventure.

Finally, I will try and give a snapshot of what a normal day is like for me. Not because I want to bore you to tears, but because I want you – for one blog entry – to be here with me.

I wake up. (I guess it’s always gotta start there, huh?) My mattress is supported by creaky wood, which squeaks every time I turn and twist under the purple striped alpaca blanket I bought at an artisan market my first week here. I get up, make myself some horribly disappointing coffee (don’t get me started on the irony of how bad coffee is down here… It’s the single biggest tragedy of living in Ecuador. Yes, you are correct: Ecuador is capable of producing excellent coffee… but they export all the good stuff! BAH!). I did, however, purchase a French Press over the weekend, so hopefully the days of sad, flat, coffee that only takes you about 35% of the way towards where you want to go (a real coffee buzz) are behind me… Doubtful, but a girl can hope.

Woman cleaning and mountains. View from my apartment in Quito.

I usually turn on my laptop, put on some music, and attempt to use the internet, which comes and goes like the rainclouds here. My disappointing coffee always cools too quickly.

As you can see, mornings are slightly imperfect, but I’m starting to get used to it. After being here more than two months, I’m at the point where my intense longing for certain things (coffee, Chinese food, bike rides up and down the Hudson, rows on the Harlem, salad, consistently good food, farmer’s markets… ok I have to stop!) is being countered by a slow acceptance of the fact that I’m in this for the long haul, and I won’t get to enjoy those things for some time. Man, do I love America right now! But I’m slowly learning to love Ecuador too.

After my shower, and all the blah blah blah of getting ready for my day, I grab my keys, which are on the same gold carabiner that I used for every one of my NYC apartments since graduating, and I get ready to blend into Quito. But first, I double and triple check that I have all five keys (I’m paranoid of getting locked out). I unlock the two doors to EXIT my apartment, and head down the terra-cotta colored tile staircase. Each time I exit my building, I have a moment of happiness when the sun hits my face and I notice the trees are continuously in bloom.

About 50 feet down the street, I see the sweet security guard who says good morning to be every day (he must be 5’2′”, has a pointy mustache, and always wears a large scarf wrapped around his neck and a wool sweater). I walk a little further, past the dog I have never seen who barks each time it hears footsteps, past the bus station where I’ve never seen the same person twice , then by the Honey & Honey bakery, with the Pichincha volcano constantly to my right. About ten more minutes in, there is a big black dog that sits outside an Italian restaurant, savoring the sun. I always want to pet it, but never do. I struggle with that decision every day. One day, I’ll pet him and we will become friends.

As I get farther down the hill, I hear the usual “Mandarinas, mandarinas, mandarinas!” from the indigenous Ecuadorians (did you know that 25% of Ecuadorians are indigenous?) with their fedora-looking hats, dark skirts, white tops, gold necklaces, tie up shoes, and long black braids.

It’s about a 25-minute walk to work, and during that walk I don’t see a single other “gringa.” The V!VA office is on a small street in between two larger avenues, with three little grocery stores around the corner. I’m now familiar with all the store owners, who always wave and say hi when I walk by, especially Carlos, who has the middle shop and is the V!VA office’s store of choice (he puts large beers in the freezer every Friday so that they are cold and ready for us when 5pm Beer Friday comes around). He also gives me free stuff (apparently, I am one of the chosen ones…) and sometimes whistles as me. Things were a little tense during the World Cup because boy does he hate Maradona! Most Ecuadorians (like many Central Americans) think Argentines are cocky, overly proud assholes, so I have that going for me! Most Americans seem to love NYC, but think the same about Manhattanites. Awesome. I’m apparently doomed to have no friends.

Then there is the other store, run by a few very sweet women, who the V!VA staff refers to as “The Crazy Bitches.” Hehe. I’m still not sure why, but every afternoon, when it is time for a snack run, you’ll often hear someone in the office say, “Hey guys, I’m going to run down to The Crazy Bitches. Anyone want anything from them or Carlos?” And we will get our money ready, not thinking twice about calling them The Crazy Bitches, and head down the stairs for some fresh air and cookies.

Fresh blackberry juice (jugo de mora) in the Plaza San Francisco. Old Town, Quito.

I buzz in, and walk up the stairs to my desk, which used to belong to my coworker Mark from Canada, who left just before the World Cup finals. He was sure to set the background as Paul the Octopus hugging the German flag, and he changed the name of all my Desktop icons to reflect his distaste for the Argentine soccer team, for example: My Computer = Paul’s Computer, Norton Anti-Virus = Anti-Argentina Protection, Google Earth = Google Earth, the Argentina-Free Edition, Adobe Acrobat =  Y Llora, y Llora, y Llora Maradona, Skype = Heartbroken Argentina Fan’s Hotline, and so on. Hehe. Well-played Mark. WELL-PLAYED. I have yet to change any of this.

One of these days I’ll get a few photos from the office, but it is not wise to carry anything valuable around, so I can’t just bring a camera to work whenever I want. Usually, if we have more than $40 on us, it ends up in a shoe, a bra, a secret pocket, or randomly dispersed throughout all of the above. I literally carry $5 – $20 in one pocket specifically in case I get robbed: I can either hand them all the money in my bag, and that way I still have cab money to get home if it’s late, or I can give them a $20 and they should be happy with that. Hopefully they won’t spray shit in my face like what happened to a friend of a friend. I don’t even want to tell you that story — my blog is too clean for something that awful, and I want to keep it that way.

For lunch, we have a few options. Usually we go to an almuerzo place. Almeuerzos, or lunches, are set menus that usually come with a soup (which tends to be choclo/corn-based, with potatoes and vegetables, and the occasional chicken foot or hunk of fatty mystery meat floating in it), a fresh juice (papaya, blackberry, or naranjilla, for example), one of two main course options (generally chicken, pork, or red meat in some form, with a large portion of white rice and either beans or some sort of small vegetable portion), and sometimes a slice of fruit (watermelon) or a cookie for dessert. It costs a whopping $1.75 – $2.50. During the World Cup (sorry I keep mentioning it, but you have to understand that the World Cup was a large part of my normal life here!), we would eat our almuerzos at a sports bar/almuerzo place surrounded by Ecuadorians while watching the 1pm game.

We work hard all day. I’m extremely busy, actually. But, we also take time out to joke about completely inappropriate things, and make fun of some of the writing that appears in our own books (we have one shared document called “Best Sentences” that is a hilarious list of poorly written or ironic sentences we encounter while editing). He he he. On Fridays, we sometimes play Hot or Not, and literally stop working at 5pm, bring up Hot or Not on one of the computers, and rate people on a scale of 1 to 10 while we drink our beers and make fun of each other. It’s a very healthy work environment. At least we aren’t like the last group of V!VA writers, who put their OWN photos on Hotornot.com and had a competition going for who was the hottest! Ha!

There is plenty more to say about my work environment, but maybe I should leave that for private conversations. Ha. (That’s always promising, huh?)

After work, twice a week, I have Spanish class. We all do. Not because we need it, necessarily, but because our company pays for it, so it’s free. My Spanish class consists of a man named Luis who meets me in a conference room downstairs, and it is literally 1.5 hrs of Spanish conversation. I dread it every time, but realize I want to be speaking Spanish as much as possible, so I suck it up and go. It’s good for me. We speak a lot of English in the office, although I do speak some Spanish when I’m working with the Ecuadorians in my office, also known as the Techies (which is often). The office is actually half-Ecuadorian, and the other half is currently: American, British, Irish, French, and Canadian (well, he just left). The age range is about 22 to 35 or so. It’s a great group, and we get along really well. There is a lot of laughing, and a lot of poking fun at each other. Basically, we’re becoming our own little V!VA family, and I’m sure it’s only going to get more wonderfully dysfunctional as the year goes on.

Afternoon sunlight on a street in Old Town, Quito.

If I’m not at Spanish class, I’m either going to the gym after work (where I always see someone I know pedaling to the blasting beats of salsa or reggaeton), going to dinner at one of the cheap restaurants in the Mariscal with my coworkers, or hanging out with friends before Salsa Night at one of the clubs here (every Wednesday is salsa night at El Aguijon, which literally means the stinger, as in that of a sting ray). The truth is, I NEVER get home before 730pm… and rarely do I get home before 8pm. Salsa night is basically one big salsa-fest, filled with tourists and their salsa teachers, Ecuadorians and their gringo boyfriends, or some hot mess of it all. Ecuadorians will take your hand and ask you to dance, and then you spend the next several songs whipping through the crowd, spinning, stepping on people, and occasionally getting cigarette burns from random German girls (grrrr!). It’s a lot of fun, but usually leaves you a bit chuchaqui (the Quechua word for hungover — probably my favorite word in Ecuador so far) on Thursday morning.

The weekends are different. We usually squeeze in a hike or a hot spring soak, but we have a lot of places left to visit. I’m trying to spread them out, for now, and I want to enjoy some weekends in Quito. I have finally found a favorite breakfast/brunch spot, called Colibri (hummingbird). I meet my coworkers there for Saturday brunch. We sit under these swooping trees speckled with spiky red flowers from which humming birds of all varieties feed throughout the meal. The breakfast comes with fresh squeezed juice (I usually get papaya, or maracuya as they call it here), a cappuccino, scrambled eggs with sausage, and a large fruit salad with yogurt and granola, but my friends usually get the chocolate crepes with their eggs. It also comes with the best fresh bread I’ve had in Ecuador, to date, and a different jam every time — sometimes it’s guava, sometimes blackberry, sometimes strawberry… We sit in the shade, humming birds everywhere, and enjoy the rare moment of tranquility in an otherwise loud and busy city — during an otherwise loud and busy life.

Ahh, there is so much more to say about my new “normal” in Quito, but for now, enjoy that one slice of it all.

Now it’s time for me to go get another “normal” day started… Ack! Late for work!

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Zipping Through Clouds

I know, I know. Where have I been? Well, I’ve been having fun and lacking internet at home, hence the brief hiatus. My apologies!

A few people have told me that, while they love to hear about my adventures, what they really want to read about is my normal life. Truth is, my “normal” life is filled with adventures right now. But I’ll try and pump out a blog this week about what a “regular” day is like from start to finish, here in the Andes.

Until then, let me tell you about my weekend in a cloud forest…

Forest. Mindo, Ecuador.

How do I capture the overwhelming green (green times a hundred) of the mountains? How do I describe what it’s like to take a bus through the Ecuadorian countryside, driving through clouds at 10,000 feet while forest and sky hug every corner of the surrounding landscape? How do I explain the nothingness of driving up, down, and around hills for two hours? Or the way fog meets forest in the distance but it all blurs when you drive through it? The landscape is so beautiful sometimes, it’s almost unreal. And yet, I should be getting used to living in the clouds by now, shouldn’t I?

A few of my friends and I took a bus out of Quito on Friday afternoon, just as the daily 3:30pm storm was about to drop out of the sky like a load of wet laundry. I was sitting next to my Irish coworker, Jen. Behind me was Clemence from Paris and Eli from DC. To my right, Desiree from Oregon and Libby from Ohio. I had a backpack full of stuff on my lap. There was little leg room and red fringe dangling all around me like I was stuck in some old woman’s lampshade. The guy in charge announced for everyone on the bus to guard their belongings (from each other?). We were headed to Mindo, on another Ecuadorian adventure.

The ride was mostly zig-zagging through hilly forest. As we got lower in altitude and closer to Mindo, the plants got more lush, more green, the leaves bigger, fatter… The smells heavier, and less mountain-crisp. When we arrived in Mindo, the first thing I noticed was the slightly warmer air. Ahhh, it felt so delightful to get out of the snappy mountain air when I’d been desperately craving summer!

The second we exited the bus, we were overcome with some sort of giddy jungle excitement. The tiny town was instantly delicious, and we couldn’t get over the strong flower smells and warmer air that snapped us right into vacation-mode (believe it or not, travel writing is actually hard work people!). We wandered down the main road and towards our hostel, La Casa de Cecilia, which cost us a whopping $6/night — walls not included.

Waking up under a bug net. Mindo, Ecuador.

When we found it, we were led up a tiny staircase and through a hatch-door in what was to be our bedroom floor. In we walked into a room with a bunch of bunk beds and barely any walls. I think this may have been the first time I had to sleep under a bug net (I actually don’t think this is true, but can’t remember where else I may have done this). Thank goodness for those nets though! I quickly saw some of the largest bugs I’ve seen in years. There were a few moments of panic when said bugs landed on friends or flapped frantically in front of our faces, but we knew we had our bug nets to protect us in our sleep. We even prepared for bed in total darkness each night, just to lessen the chances of either having large bugs in our beds, or — worse — seeing the ones that were already there.

We were giddy. Our bedroom was practically outside, in the forest, and little more than space separated us from giant flowers and moths the size of birds (that Darwin guy picked the right country). In every shared area, there were hammocks dangling between wooden beams. It didn’t take us long to realize we were very happy to be there, in Mindo.

On Saturday morning, after a delicious breakfast of eggs, bread and jam, freshly made pineapple juice, and arguably the best coffee (that doesn’t say much) that I’ve had yet in Ecuador (it was cloud forest coffee, local to the region, and organic!), we were headed to our first activity: hiking to waterfalls.

Basket in the sky. Mindo, Ecuador.

To get to the hike, we had to ride in the back of a pick-up truck 30 minutes through rugged dirt roads to a little hut, out of which an iron basket would take us high across the trees and to the beginning of the trails. We were joined by an extremely Russian Russian named Nikola (he said he was from Germany – lies), an awesome Swede with long, long dreadlocks and cool tattoos named Jacob, and his dad, who we later found out was very… fit. Hehe.

Leaf during hike in the cloud forest. Mindo, Ecuador.

We let the men go first. Then it was our turn. Not gonna lie, I was unexpectedly nervous to get in that thing. However, I was wearing my extremely sexy EMS pants that unzip into shorts, so I felt unusually outdoorsy and well-outfitted for the occasion if we were to plummet into the trees. Five of us girls got into this tiny little basket, for lack of a better word, and there we were, floating across the forest a couple hundred feet above the ground, dangling from three questionable cables. I find that the older I get, the more I worry. As I yelped and smiled with joy, I admit that I did imagine, several times in fact, the cables just snapping and all of us tumbling to our deaths in the cloud forest of Mindo, Ecuador. Luckily, that didn’t happen and we made it across. Yes, I was relieved. But dangers like this one are just a part of living in South America.

We began our hike, which had its tricky moments, trudging through mud, getting whacked by large branches, witnessing interesting plants, and navigating slippery rocks. We got to see a few beautiful waterfalls, crossed a couple rickety and slippery bridges, and basically just savored the sunshine through the shade of large green leave as insects and birds chattered and screamed all around us. It felt very jungle-y. Very I’m-not-in-NYC-anymore. Very I’m-glad-I-bought-these-awesome-pants-that-turn-into-shorts. I loved it.

Waterfall in the cloud forest. Mindo, Ecuador.

For a change of pace, we spent the afternoon chillaxing in hammocks, followed by a chocolate tour. I knew a week earlier that I would be going to on a chocolate tour, so let me just tell you… I was CRAVING chocolate like never before. We learned about cocoa plants and saw how cocoa goes from plant to plate. But really, for me, the tour sounded something like this: “Blah blah blah, chocolate, blah blah, chocolate, blah, blah, cocoa plant, blah, blah, and NOW YOU WILL GET THE CHANCE TO SAMPLE SOME OF OUR FABULOUS CHOCOLATE!” DING DING DING!!!! Oh yeah, I was excited. When they told us many people considered their brownies to be the best brownies in the WORLD, I was skeptical, curious, and intrigued, like I was about to meet some celebrity that I had imagined naked all week long. But mostly, I was salivating like a freakin’ dog in heat and I just needed some chocolate… fast.

By some miracle, I was the first to get served my chocolate brownie, along with a cup of hot chocolate to wash it down. Everyone looked at my brownie, wondering how it would taste. At that point, I didn’t care. I was going to eat the hell out of it no matter what it tasted like. I was DESPERATE for chocolate and couldn’t stand the anticipation much longer. I took a tiny corner of the brownie and put it in my mouth. It was strange: at first, it tasted so far from what I expected that I was confused. Even though I had been anticipating that moment for DAYS, it was… different.

And then it hit me: the brownie was fucking DELICIOUS.

I kept eating it, overwhelmed by the fudge and the chocolate, the cocoa flavors were heightened after all the talking, as if listening to a man talk about chocolate for an hour had elevated my brownie-devouring experience. It was like brownie yoga or something. I honestly don’t know how a brownie could taste better: it was the best brownie I have ever had in my life. Good work Mindo Chocolate.

There is little to do on a night in Mindo, so, logically, we signed up for the “Frog Concert.” Now, let me just say I was skeptical about this activity. My friends seemed into it, and there was no other option, so I agreed to go. Clemence from Paris has a fear of frogs (he he he he… ok sorry, sorry), so we decided this would be good for her. For some reason, she agreed.

Large bug. Mindo, Ecuador.

The hostel told us it was a 10 minute walk up some dirt road. We began walking, and quickly managed to get lost. When we asked a couple of men in a bike-cart where we might find the “frog concert” they laughed in our faces and said they had no idea. Yep, we felt like gringa idiots. Luckily, a passing Ecuadorian woman and her gentleman friend overheard us, told us those two guys were Cuban and didn’t know what they were talking about, and the Ecuadorian guy proceeded to walk us the 30 minutes along some dark road to an even darker dirt path in the woods. We were then instructed to walk (in the dark silence) to the so-called frog concert from there. Ok then.

Luckily, he was right. We walked and walked and walked, and eventually came across a mass of people sitting on a little porch over a frog pond full of lilly pads, and we could hear constant croaking: we knew were were in the right place.

They distributed crappy wine, and after a lecture by a very cool and passionate frog expert, they turned out the lights. He used his cell phone to call the frogs and… they freakin’ responded! It was actually kind of awesome. Then, we formed a very long line and walked in total darkness through the woods, around ponds, listening for tree frogs, encountering frog-eating spiders (upon which a flashlight unfortunately shone several times), and some crazy bark that is covered in an organism which makes it glow in the dark! I know, cool right? All cool except for the gigantic freaky spiders… (Chill down my spine.)

On Sunday, we split into two groups: the ones who wanted to check out the butterfly (mariposa) farm, and the four of us who wanted to go on a canopy tour. I chose the canopy tour. Basically, we had to walk in our harnesses from one launching dock to another, from which we’d zip line across 13 different cables of varying lengths and speeds. I’ve gotta say, this was super fun. I had gone zip lining in Costa Rica, but that was a few years earlier. We were FLYING through the air. It’s a crazy feeling to be holding onto a little rope and launching yourself hundreds of feet in the air, barely missing palm tree branches as you cross the sky. Yes, it’s scary when you realize how easy it is for something to go wrong. But man is it thrilling to mess with those odds… It was beautiful.

My friend Eli does the "mariposa" while zip lining in Mindo, Ecuador.

The entire weekend in Mindo filled some hole that had formed in my Quito living, and it was wonderful. Everything, from the waterfalls, the forest air, the lush plants, the amazing floral scent, the tranquilo vibe, the friendliness, the frogs, the bug nets, the clouds, the rides in the back of a pick up truck… It all just made me feel that thrill of travel, that za-za-zoo excitement that I am where I want to be right now, doing what I’ve gotta do, living the adventures I daydreamed about during the 9-5 grind of my previous job, when I’d sit in a grey office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan knowing I didn’t belong there, but not sure how I’d get out… Or where I’d go…

I left out the story of how we almost collided head-on with a truck while I was standing up in the back of a pick-up, but instead the other car swerved and ran over a 50 to 60-year-old woman. Yeah, things suddenly went from thrilling to serious. I left out all the delicious trout we ate, and the friends we made, and the pillow talk we shared…

I guess not every story makes it into the blog. At least now you have a taste of some of the stories that are out there, zipping high above the trees in the clouds of Ecuador.

Here’s a song that just came on my random shuffle by the Be Good Tanya’s called The Littlest Birds. I think it perfectly wraps up my mood right now. And now, I shall go to sleep in my apartment in the clouds.

Night night, world.

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One Year of TwT

Just like that, a year has gone by. An extremely full, crazy, challenging, wonderful, unpredictable, refreshing, and inspiring year. A year full of travels for this Tavel.

I started T w T on July 7, 2009. As I’ve mentioned, I had a mini epiphany after I got hurt pretty badly by someone I trusted, for the second time. After the wave of crushing disappointment retreated, something strange happened: things that had been unclear for years suddenly became completely transparent, and I realized how important it was for me to follow my passion no matter what, no matter who, no matter why, no matter where…

This blog doesn’t just capture what has happened in my life, and what big and little trips I’ve take outside of NYC during the past 365 days; it represents the up and down journey that comes with following your passion or dream (not to sound cheesy but… yeah, cheese). My life has been one big mixed bag of adventures and possibilities this past year, and I would have NEVER predicted I’d be writing the one-year post at a MacBook in an apartment in Quito, Ecuador, as a travel writer.

In this year of T w T, I’ve gotten my hopes up, I’ve gotten them destroyed, I’ve been offered amazing opportunities, I’ve had people take them away, I’ve been hospitalized, I’ve been in love, I’ve been heartbroken, and I’ve been confused. I’ve traveled to Oregon, Arizona, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, the Dominican Republic, Chicago, Rome, Pompeii, Vatican City, Argentina, and Ecuador. I’ve hiked through mud at 4,000 meters, I’ve seen Matt Damon run by, I’ve watched Argentina lose, I’ve watched the US win, I’ve soaked in natural hot springs, I’ve gone horseback riding in the Pampas, I’ve done yoga on the beach of Hispaniola two weeks before the earthquake hit Haiti, I wandered the ancient city of Pompeii one week before the eruption in Iceland. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve taken risks, I’ve followed my gut, and I’ve lived the dream — even if that dream has sometimes felt like a nightmare.

Thank you for tuning into all of it. And thank you for one year of traveling with this random 26-year-old Tavel, who is slowly but surely figuring out where she is, and always learning more about where she wants to go next…

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Alemania Mania

Well, it’s over.

Both the US and Argentina are out of the World Cup, and I must retire my Lionel Messi jersey (and my World Cup dreams) for another four years. Argentina had a disappointing — and dare I say embarrassing? — finish, and their 4-0 loss to Germany did not do me much good when I found myself sitting in a plaza in Ecuador, surrounded by a healthy mix of Argentine and German fans, with the losing team’s jersey on my back.

I watched the game in disblelief. I knew there was a very good chance that Argentina could lose, but I really didn’t think it would happen. Not like it did. As each goal seemed to putter past the Argentine goalie (who I still think looks like a My Little Pony), I couldn’t do anything. It was like watching a dorky kid get kicked by a big bully over and over again, and watching him just take it; I sat there wondering what they were thinking, what they were doing, why Argentina was playing such a bad game when I was certain they could do better? Why throw it all away? Why cower to the German giants, who robbed them of advancing to the semi-finals the exact same way four years ago? Ah, but it’s Argentina. We’re used to this sort of thing.

The fact is, the Germans played better. They were stronger, faster, surer of themselves, and more confident. They won because they outplayed Argentina, and there isn’t much more to say about it.

When the game ended, the concentration of people with Argentine jerseys began to dissolve. Germans started to pour out from different watering holes and cafes, with that mean looking flag of theirs flying around at every turn. Suddenly, there was singing, chanting, screaming in German. You would have thought they won the World Cup final by the way they were celebrating. Cars started honking, they would jump on the back of pick-up trucks that drove by, cheering and swigging their beers. I was told there were a lot of Germans in this town; now I believed it.

Germans celebrating their victory in Plaza Foch. Photo by Desiree A.

I went from feeling like a confident half-Argentine to feeling like a lamb ready for the slaughter. As I watched the players hearts break on the tv, I knew it was a matter of time before I had to get up and walk-of-shame through the rest of the day. Luckily, I had a complete Viva Guides posse with me.

I decided I needed a sad photograph with the Germans celebrating behind me, so my friend Desiree and I decided to brave the enemy celebration for the sake of one photo. I walked cautiously to the center of Plaza, where the Germans were getting rowdy. My blue and white striped Messi jersey stuck to me like I was wearing a Jewish star during the H0locaust (sorry, couldn’t help the reference!). I expected to get made fun of, to be taunted, laughed at… But I knew I had to brave the situation for the sake of a funny photo.

Sad Tavel, Happy German. Photo by Desiree A.

Just when I got close enough to the celebrating Germans, I did my sad pout and Desiree got her cell phone camera ready. Then, much to my surprise, a large German guy who had been dancing around just a second ago saw my sulking face and gave me a big hug. Without speaking, he just put his arms around me and patted me with pity on the head, beer in hand. I made it out alive, and I realized that maybe these Germans weren’t going to be so mean afterall.

A couple hours later, after killing some time before the next game, my Viva posse and I decided to get some food. We found a nondescript burger place that was mostly empty, and took over two large tables where we thought we could eat in peace.

Sure enough, a few minutes after ordering, I heard the familiar chanting of happy Germans. And, just my luck, in walked a crowd of about 10 smashed Germans, screaming and singing with facepaint nearly dripping down their strong cheekbones. The women were double or triple my size, and looked like they could eat me for lunch after throwing me around like a rag doll.

Of course, there I was, still in my Argentine jersey, deflated from the game and looking all pathetic against their black, red and orange stripes (thanks Maradona, THANKS). It didn’t take long for them to notice me. Immediately after walking in and seeing my Messi jersey, the heckling began… “MESSI! MESSI! WHO THE FUCK IS MESSI!?!” They surrounded me, screamed at me, chanted in my ears, danced around me… My poor coworkers just looked at me, embarrassed, wondering why the hell I didn’t bring a change of shirt. I knew they had my back, but sitting on a little bench with 10 enormous, drunk, Germans screaming and singing and cackling behind me was a little scary… Not gonna lie!

Me getting heckled by Germans, post-match. Photo by Desiree A.

Luckily, I made it out alive. You win some, you lose some, and sometimes all you can do is accept your defeat, take a photo and write a blog about it. My Argentina jersey has officially been put away this World Cup, but the real fun begins now. As we approach the semi-finals and eventually the  much-anticipated final, we’ll see who is celebrating in the end. No matter who wins, I have a feeling it will probably be me.

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