Monthly Archives: August 2010

“Quito Is Cooler Than You Are”

The other day, I received this comment in response to my blog post, “Quito, Slashed.” It comes from “Fan of Quito” and I thought it deserved its own blog for a response:

quito is cooler than you are.

and you’re missing the point.

stop thinking about yourself and your privileges that you miss so much and you’ll really start enjoying spending time in a culturally and geographically fascinating city.  think less about what you can GET from the city, and try to focus on what you can do to ameliorate all the sad things that you are witnessing.

Uhoh, have I come off like a total privileged, anti-Quito, gringa snob?! Please say NO. If so, BLOG = FAIL!! Gawd, I hope that is not the case… If anything, that is the exact OPPOSITE of how I would describe myself, but it’s always interesting to get a reaction from a stranger (have you read the rest of my blog, Fan of Quito? Because I think you’d see I’m quite different from your impression… or at least I’d hope so!).

Me horseback riding in Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Clemence D.

I love traveling (duh), and I always live with an open mind. I’m living in Ecuador for every experience that comes with it, and sometimes those experiences can be negative… But sometimes they are very, VERY positive.

Fan of Quito, I see your points. I hope I didn’t come off as ungrateful or superior in any way. I’m here to learn, to experience the ups and downs, to figure this city out, to take a risk, to explore myself as much as Ecuador. The truth is, I hit a rough patch a few weeks ago but I feel SO much better about Quito and about being here now. Hopefully that will also come through in the blog, alongside my downer moments. All I can do, and all I want to do with this blog, is track my journey as honestly as possible. The reality is that I was feeling frustrated with this city, so I wrote about it. When I am feeling in love with being here, I write about that too (did you read my last post on Canoa? All happy thoughts!).

Morning in Canoa. Photo by Tavel.

My coworker Nick decided, Fan of Quito, that you are right: why have I not been able to single-handedly change the world yet? Why have I not saved an orphan, randomly picked a street to patrol, or marched for some cause since I’ve been in Quito? I’m not sure what is expected of me by being an expat here, but I’m not trying to make a huge change — I’m sorry. All I intend to do is live here, take it all in, learn from it, and share the experience as best I can with anyone who wants to know about it. The changes I can make are small — tiny, miniscule. And part of my purpose for being here is for me, whether you think that is right or wrong. I know Ecuador isn’t perfect and that the problems — poverty, crime, political dysfunction — are much bigger than me and my experience, but they are also a part of it, and I think people deserve to know what being here really feels like for one person — in this case, me.

It’s true: I have been missing certain luxuries about NYC/USA-living like crazy. I am SO lucky to have them at all, and traveling to less-developed countries involves giving up many comforts as an American. But don’t you dare start to think that I am not getting so much by being here too! I am FULLY aware of how much I am getting out of being here, and I am trying to give in my own way. But part of the reason I was so frustrated with Quito was because I kept getting sick and it was wearing me down. There are problems in this city that I cannot solve, but I can live here, capture my honest experience in words, and then maybe other people will want to learn more about this place and what life is like. From there, who knows? Someone might want to volunteer here, or research it, or help it, or just appreciate it for what it already is — right?!

Clemence on a Boat. Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Tavel.

The important thing is that I am here, I am open, and I am being as honest as I can be about how this experience is turning out for ME, nobody else. I’m sorry if I offended you, if I came off as ignorant or overly negative towards Quito, but I expressed exactly how I was feeling the moment I wrote that particular blog, whether it was right to feel that way or not.

For what it’s worth, I’m not feeling like a Negative Nancy sour-puss anymore. That’s part of learning; sometimes you’ve got to go through rough, resentful patches to come out on the other side. I’m over some sort of hump and feeling great! It is a BEAUTIFUL morning, I’m meeting more and more wonderful people, I’m slowly discovering some places I really like in this city, and I am actually really, really happy to be here right now — despite all previous blog posts that may give the impression that I am not.

I obviously pissed someone off, and I guess it was cool to see that sort of reaction for a change. I am glad you said something, Fan of Quito, and thank you for reminding me that this experience in Ecuador isn’t just about me (even though I know that — I promise!). I mean, if I’ve pissed someone off that means a couple things: 1) people are reading, and 2) I’m on my way to success! Hehe.

No but really, I appreciate every and all comments, as long as they are honest. I am far from perfect, I have a lot to learn, but as long as I am imperfect and as long as I still have a TON to learn, I sure as heck am going to keep writing about it.

And hopefully, you’ll keep reading.

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Canoa: Shakin’ It Down to Sea Level

OK, FINALLY, a moment to sit down and write!

I’m BACK from a fantastic long weekend in Canoa. Five friends and I arrived in Quito Monday morning at 430am. We took the overnight bus, and I’ve gotta say… I saw some of the best stars I’ve seen in years. While the entire bus of Ecuadorians and a few gringos slept, I watched out the window as we ascended from sea level to 9,400 feet through the Andes. Over the previous few days, I: visited the Ecuadorian coast, felt an earthquake, got stung by a jellyfish, wrestled a coworker on a dirt field, danced for hours with Ecuadorian surfers to salsa, reggaeton & merengue, went horseback riding on the beach barefoot, had a pina colada, played frisbee in the ocean, played soccer with Ecuadorian kids in the sand, & got kisses blown to me by a 3-year-old Ecuadorian boy in a Speedo. 🙂 The entire weekend was just what I needed.

I think I’ve been a bit of a Debby Downer towards Ecuador in the last few blog entries, but I’m ready to bring the mood back up a few notches. Let’s see, where to start?

Canoa La Magica. Photo by Chris H.

It all began with the earth shaking.

After dozing on and off during a seven-hour overnight bus ride down from almost 10,000 feet to sea level, we (Desiree, Clemence, Jen and I — more friends were meeting us in Canoa the next day) had arrived in Canoa a bit heavy-eyed and creaky, but ready for the beach. As soon as we got off the bus, we knew we had to buy our bus tickets for the ride home, which would be packed on a Sunday night after a long holiday weekend (happy Independence Day, Ecuador!).

Desiree (Portland, Oregon), Jen (Cork, Ireland), Clemence (Paris, France) and I waddled off the bus, over to this convenience store/ticket counter (meh, every store tends to blend together in this country). As we tried to get the attention of a very distracted and high-strung Ecuadorian woman, she began to scream. We were a little perplexed when she jumped out of her seat behind the counter mid-conversation, grabbed her kids, and ran out the open-air shop in hysterics. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely confused for a moment there. We thought someone had stolen something because she grabbed her kids and BOOKED it out of the little shack-like shop, which was held up with some weak-looking pillars.

That is when I realized the ground was moving. Now, after a seven hour overnight bus ride, an earthquake is not the first thing you expect. The whole shop, which was plastered wall-to-wall (“wall” being a loose term here) with bathing suits, sunscreen, plastic beach toys, snacks, and towels, began wobbling. I saw the three pillars holding the entire roof up moving like we were on a boat in the ocean. Something funny was going on. My friends and I instinctively ran out of the shop into the middle of the dirt road — the main street in town — where everyone else had just run out screaming and tried to figure out what the F was happening.

As I stood by our bus, which we had exited no more than five or ten minutes earlier, I felt the earth rolling underneath me like a wave. Precarious looking telephone polls were wobbling to my left, and I saw a wooden fence shaking to my right. Behind us was a decrepit building that consisted of blocks of concrete and large metal spears — probably the worst sort of thing to be near during an earthquake. We just stood there, a bit stunned, with our backpacks on and sight of the beach about 200 meters away… Was this seriously happening?!

Desiree, Jen, Clemence and I looked at each other, kind of laughing, kind of freaked out, and said almost simultaneously: “Was that  a fucking EARTHQUAKE?!” (As Irish Jen would say, “CHRIST IN TEARS!”) A couple after-shocks and some funny looks exchanged between fellow travelers later, we decided we could complete our ticket transaction, and walked to our hostel a bit thrown-off, literally. We had no access to the news, but later found out there had been a 6.9-magnitude earthquake over a hundred miles beneath the Amazon in Ecuador. CRAAAAZY.

When we found our hostel, all I can say is… we were underwhelmed. Now, we don’t ask for much. We don’t need much. But there is one thing we all require in a malaria/dengue-infested town where mosquitos completely take over each night: a bug net. For $10/night, we booked a room at Posada de Daniel, which has a lovely website and mentioned a pool, hammocks, bug nets, and comfortable rooms…

Well, when we walked in, we were saddened to find that we were basically going to be sleeping in a mosquito-infested barn, with one thin sheet on every bed (no blankets) and… grrr… no bug nets. The bathrooms were filthy, there were no toilet seats on the toilets, and there was not a mirror in the entire place (what if you have something in your teeth? what if you need it for applying sunscreen? what if you get something in your eye?!).

Canoa from a hostel. Photo by Jena (from http://jenainecuador.wordpress.com)

We wandered the sandy beach town in search of other accommodation options. Our first choice, Surf Shack, which was owned by an awesome American named Peter (who I may or may not have a little crush on) was booked. One lovely looking hostel promised us a room, so we walked all the way back to our shit-hole hostel to tell them we weren’t going to stay there, then walked back to our upgrade only to find it was a mistake and the room was not available. We probably wandered into seven different hostels before finding one, Bambu, which was became, by FAR, our first choice. Only, we had to wait two hours before we would know for sure if we could stay there.

Luckily, it worked out, but we would have to spend the first of three nights in the dirty barn. We sprayed bug spray over our beds and bodies like we were spray painting ourselves and didn’t want to miss a spot. That room was one big carcinogenic cloud of Deet, but damnit, we were going to make it through the night! We literally had a padlock to get into the room, and there was such a thick cloud of mosquitos at night that we had serious trouble unlocking it. Sadly, cracks in the wooden stall-like doors did not bode well for our rest, but it was time to give sleep our best shot.

When we woke up, I was freezing with no blanket, and desperate for fresh air after spending most of the night completely underneath my thin white sheet (head and all). We all surveyed the damage and, poor Jen and Clemence, they got the worst of it; Jen was covered in red welts from getting bitten, even though she spent the entire night completely under her sheets. Clemence’s face got attacked by some smaller bites, but for a girl with perfect skin she was horrified when she eventually found a mirror (much later in the day). We counted our losses and booked it as quickly as possible to our new hostel which, for the exact same price, was now like a five-star hotel to us. We had our own shower, beautiful new bug nets, and our own colorful alpaca blanket on each bed! Things were looking UP.

We quickly met some very brown surfers with mesmerizingly toned butt muscles and the kind of abs that ripple perfectly from one’s love of a sport, not frequent trips to the gym. Mmm, my favorite kind. We enjoyed some orange-pineapple juice (which Clemence read eliminates cellulite, hmm), eggs, and delicious bread for breakfast from the sandy patio overlooking the beach, which came with a swarm of bees that made me a bit anxious (I hate beeeees — luckily there aren’t many bugs at all up here in Quito!). We were on VACATION on the Ecuadorian coast. It felt freakin’ AWESOME.

Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Jena (from http://jenainecuador.wordpress.com)

Canoa itself is beautiful, but not in a pristine-beach sort of way. (Check out my friend Jena’s blog for another take.) There is nothing pristine about Ecuador. Beautiful yes, but not pristine. The black and beige sand mixes together into a dark brown color, which somewhat matches the tone of the water but is interrupted beautifully by brightly colored tents set up each day all along the shore for lounging all day.

Breaking up the sound of crashing waves is the constant beat of the salsa-reggaeton-merengue mix, which blasts from speakers at a beach-side restaurant. People can be found dancing literally all day and night. Surfers wander the sandy town with surfboards in tow, and spend the afternoons (when the waves are a bit bigger) catching waves and giving surf lessons. Nobody wears shoes, despite piles of trash and beer bottles being passed around on the beach all day… I could go on describing Canoa, but then I’ll never get to the rest of the weekend!

I took a 2-hr walk along the beach every day, enjoying the fishing boats perched in the sand, and crabs scurrying by our feet. once you walk about 30-minutes beyond the colorful tents, you finally hear only the ocean, and it is wonderfully refreshing.

Boats and tents, Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Jena (from ttp://jenainecuador.wordpress.com)

On day two, my friends Mark (Canada), Chris (Ohio), Nick (NJ), Kimrey (Tennessee), Jesua (Quito), Cynthia (Quito), and Anna (Quito) had arrived. It didn’t take long before we were playing frisbee in the big waves, and getting taken down and whacked over and over again by the powerful water, which was super fun. I actually think it was the perfect activity to help snap me out of the little Quito-funk I had been in. Sometimes you just need to spend a day jumping through giant waves, ya know?

Watchin' the Waves. Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Chris H.

After what felt like a long time playing frisbee in the waves, I was about to go lounge in the sand when Chris and Jesua decided to play soccer with some young Ecuadorian boys. I couldn’t resist! So, we played. They pretty much kicked our butts (as much as under-10-year-olds can) and it was good fun. That’s one thing about Ecuador (or Latin America, really); no matter where you go, no matter what the scene, you can pretty much be certain that there will be people playing soccer there.

It was about 3pm and we hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so when Clemence was tired of waiting for me to stop playing with the boys, I decided it was time to go wash off in the water and call it a game. I went to the water, just where the waves meet the shore, and began wiping sand off my feet. I had cracked my left big toenail in half from soccer and it was bleeding and stinging from the ocean and sand but, not too big a deal. As I was rinsing off my feet, I felt something slap against my right foot. The second it happened, I began to feel stinging and burning. I quickly looked down and saw one long blue tentacle spread across my foot…. ARGH!!!

It had to be a jellyfish. Were there even jellyfish here!? No time to think. I just started rubbing the spot that was burning with water and sand, trying to rub the sting off, but it just started burning more and more. Ah, crap. I had been stung.

I started walking back to Clemence and encountered Chris. I asked if he knew whether or not there were jellyfish and said I was pretty sure I had gotten stung (I was a little worried not knowing how dangerous the jellyfish were in these waters, but had been stung many times in my childhood so I knew the basic drill). He kindly offered to pee on it, but said he’d have to drink some water first. I didn’t have time for that! I limped back to Clemence, told her I had been stung, and we walked back to the hostel where the Dutch surfer who ran it gave me a bottle of vinegar. He told me he had been stung a couple times in the past week so he felt my pain. Heh.

All I could really do was order a delicious almuerzo of fried fish, fried salted maduros (or non-sweet plantains), eat the tomato and onion salad with a little aji on it, and enjoy the maracuya (passion fruit) juice while I dabbed my burning foot in white vinegar. Of course, right? Of course!

Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Chris H.

Later that evening, we spent happy hour with a bunch of Ecuadorian surfers at our hostel, sipping two-for-one pina coladas while sand crunched between our toes. A luke-warm shower and a bunch of Deet later, we found ourselves shaking everything we had on a beach-side dance floor.

I was kind of a merengue slut that night, I’ve gotta be honest. I danced with every guy that asked (yes, they ask here, it’s nice) and man was it fun. But, I did find myself spending most of my time dancing with my friend Mark’s Ecuadorian surf instructor, Juan (eek… he has the same name as my parasite!), who insisted I take off my flip-flops so I could really move my feet in the sand. When I’d look around, all my friends were dancing with their own latino surfers, and it just seemed like everyone was having a fantastic time. I know I was.

The next day, we recovered quickly and headed back to the beach for more of the same. That night, however, we all met up at Surf Shack for happy hour once again. We played some drinking games, met some ex-pats, and ended up being gifted a round of aguardiente (sugar cane alcohol) shots by Peter, the owner. Man were those tasty!

A large portion of the group ended up wandering over to what my friends swear is the best restaurant in Ecuador; a Basque restaurant, where I had a taste of my friend’s grilled garlic calamari and almost passed out from the deliciousness from which I have been so deprived lately. Then, somehow, I was encouraged to arm-wrestle my friend Desiree, and everyone knows I can’t back down from a challenge! This led to arm wrestling my friend Jesua, and eventually, a crab race between Nick and Jesua and then a real wrestling match on a dirt field between me and Jesua (who encouraged me to do this?!). Here are the pre- and post- wrestling match photos, for your amusement. (Yes, I’m in the blue.)

Me (left) about to wrestle Ecuadorian friend Jesua (right) with Nick (middle) officiating. Photo by Chris H.

Me (bottom) losing my wrestling match to Jesua (top) with Nick officiating. Photo by Chris H.

I get feisty when I drink, and competitive. Despite the fact that we determined Jesua weighs 50 lbs more than me, I am a girl who has never really wrestled before, and I had already arm wrestled three times (I was le tired!), I wasn’t going to back down from the cheering. So, while this was a losing battle (and I ended up covered in dirt), I think I will be better prepared for my next match. Thank you Mark for your quick coach-like pep-talk. I’m sorry if I disappointed anyone, but I gave it my best. I’m new to this whole wrestling thing. Hehe.

Ahhh, Canoa. I guess I’ve got to stop here. Just imagine another night after the wrestling match full of dancing new friends (one of which I actually got to hang out with again last night  because he’s from Quito — woop woop!) and a nice dull hangover the next morning (or as they say in Quechua, estaba un poco chuchaqui). Oh, and me galloping alone across the Ecuadorian coast on a beautiful brown horse, barefoot.

After several weeks of being disenchanted with life in Quito, Canoa splashed some water on my face, slapped me around in all the right ways, and made me truly happy to be here again. Hopefully, there will more trips like it.

I think it’s fair to say that, Quito, I’m back.

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Purple Thread

It’s been a rough week here in Quito. Rough, because I found out the parasite I had six weeks ago most likely still lives, and I had another slashing attempt on the Ecovia last Saturday. I did get paid, but even that moment is a bit lackluster. I’d be lying if I said that this week didn’t make me think twice about what I’m doing here, and what is best for me, but don’t worry (as if one of you really is)… It takes more than that to break me.

I’ve been frustrated lately. That’s the truth. I could sit here and tell you living in Ecuador is a constant dream come true but it’s not. It certainly has its moments, but this week has been more about getting by and getting through it than dreaming. Sometimes I fantasize about buying a plane ticket home, and saying I did it, hugging my now sixteen-year-old brother (I missed his birthday last month) and getting back to life as I like it. But I’m not there yet. Maybe close, at times, but not close enough.

Beginning of a tough hike in the paramo of Papallacta. Ecuador.

I think the 2.5-month mark is one of the most difficult when you are anticipating being somewhere for a year. It’s like entering the second quarter of a race, when the adrenaline begins to settle and you can no longer count on the rush to get you through the next three quarters. It’s the time when you know you’ve got to find a comfortable place to settle; you must pace yourself, accept where you are at and how it feels, but you still want to rush through this part and get to the more thrilling home-stretch. The race always looks the longest from this vantage point. This is when it becomes mental more than physical. You can’t tell if you want the finish line to get there immediately or not, but either way it looks very far off, and it is in that space between where you are and where it ends that the race will be made, that some lesson will be learned.

I feel like the end is very far away at this point, and I want to be here, in the moment, 100%, but I keep catching myself trying to sneak a peek at the finish line. Actually, I can’t get the finish line out of my mind. That never makes for a good race. I know that much.

Last night, I decided to stay in. A couple friends went to a place called Banos (with a squiggle on the n, can’t type it) for the weekend, but since we are going to a beach town called Canoa on Wednesday night (AHHH, HOW I NEED AND WANT A BEACH GETAWAY RIGHT NOW!), I decided that two long trips that close together was a bit much. Plus, I am constantly scraping the barrel with my salary here, and it wouldn’t hurt to save a little money when I can.

Instead, I decided I would swing by the MegaMaxi, which sells everything from ellipticals to guanabanas (a sweet white fruit that looks like a melon covered in spikes), to pick up the ingredients for coconut chicken curry — something I’ve been craving lately (what I’d give to be able to order the massaman curry from Thai Market on 107th and Amsterdam… siiigh). I had the perfect night planned: I was going to do some writing, cook something delicious, and then watch a bootlegged DVD in my US Rowing sweatpants.

Of course, this ENORMOUS Wal-Mart-sized store had run out of coconut milk, and my coconut chicken curry cooking dreams had been shot. I settled for something else and went home, determined to have an incredible night by myself.

Inside the clock tower of the Cathedral in Old Town Quito.

This is the part where I could easily lie and save myself some slack, but the truth is, I had seen some New York Times article recently about the new season of the Jersey Shore starting (I know, right?), and I was kind of intrigued… So, I — a 26, almost 27 year old travel writer living in Ecuador, smart (I like to think), cultured… — went to MTV.com, and watched the first episode online.

As I watched, I ate my dinner, followed by a gooey passion fruit, and eventually a third of a bar of single origin organic Ecuadorian chocolate (75% cocoa). As unfortunate as it may be, I enjoyed every second of it.

When the first episode was over, I had a choice to make. It was about 8:15 pm on a Friday night and there was another episode available. I was in my sweats, I had a little more chocolate to go, and I didn’t really feel like writing at that point (maybe the Jersey Shore isn’t the best way to get inspired). So… I went ahead and watched another episode; it was equally delightful, in a sick, mind-numbing way.

Then I had the urge to do something I had been thinking about doing all week: I was going to sew the bag that had been slashed by a thief on the Ecovia back together. I hit some perfect mental state when “Wake Up,” by Arcade Fire, came on my random shuffle. The lyrics spoke right to me at that moment, and blasting this song while I sewed felt good. Real good.

I sewed and I sewed my big purple bag, empowered by some sort of resilience to the hits Quito has kept throwing at me. When I was done sewing and purple thread was tangled up on my table, a new song had started playing (“This Tornado Loves You,” by Neko Case, to be exact). It spoke right to the other side of stuff I’ve been feeling lately, and I just felt happy. Understood, in a strange way, better by my very own iTunes random shuffle than anyone else (even myself) lately.

When I was done sewing the big slash in my bag back together, I turned my purple bag (which I got at an artisan market in Buenos Aires) from inside-out to right-side-in, and took a look.

It was perfect. It gave me a rush. After a week full of frustrations, disappointments, friends saying “come home!” and friends saying “you can do this – stay!” I finally felt empowered again. Fuck you Quito. It was the best I had felt all week (some weeks are just like that, right?!).

And now, I have finished up my coffee, read the New York Times, and eaten some breakfast. In a few minutes, I will get back on the Ecovia and take my damaged bag with me to the gym. Damaged, but repaired. The hole has been sewn back together and I will carry it with me like a battle wound — one of the many I have accumulated by trying to do what I think is right for me.

If only everything was a bag that I could sew back together when someone slashed a hole in it. If only all it took was some purple thread…right?

Well, that’s a whole other story.

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