Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Latino Who Couldn’t Dance

It’s exactly the two week mark: two weeks from today, I will be flying home to NYC. I’ve got so many thoughts buzzing around, but the overriding feeling is excitement. Yes, I just feel GREAT about this decision, hopeful, excited, but completely curious as well. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to go to NYC. Instead of writing about all that I feel and think about leaving (because of course, it’s always a little sad when an adventure ends), I am still here. So I am going to write about still being here, in Quito.

Dogs in Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador.

One of my all-time favorite children’s stories is Ferdinand the Bull. It’s about a bull named Ferdinand, who is not like the other bulls. While he has the large horns and the stature of an intimidating animal, all he really wants to do is sit and smell the flowers while his bull friends do bull-like things, like bash their heads into each other and jump around in the field.

Wednesday nights are Salsa Night at a bar/club in the Mariscal. Salsa night at El Aguijon (the name translates to “the Stinger”) consists of foreigners and Ecuadorians  mixing harmoniously in a spatter of salsa moves ranging from sexy and precise to sloppy and awkward. Within two minutes of entering, every gringa in the club will have at least one Latino man (or boy, as if often the case) taking one of their hands and asking them to dance.

What’s sweet is that, often, the guys just want to teach the girls how to salsa (you can turn that into a metaphor if you’d like — also very much true). The nice thing about being a gal salsa-ing is that, for the most part, you don’t have to know how to salsa; you just need to follow the guy’s lead.

I have to say… I used to hate salsa. Mostly because I couldn’t do it, and it took too much thinking for dancing, in my book. My favorite dancing is when I get lost in it, when I can’t HELP but dance. There is no thinking involved, just feeling — some force moves you, you just go with it. With salsa, you have to match someone and force your feet into a slightly unnatural rhythm if you aren’t used to dancing to its beats. I took 1 salsa, 1 cumbia and 1 merengue dance class while volunteering in Costa Rica 5 years ago, but that didn’t do me much good without any practice.

After six months in Quito, I can proudly say I now know how to salsa. At least enough to hold my own on salsa night. And, I kind of love it. Although sometimes I certainly need to switch it up.

That said, not everyone knows how to salsa…

Last Wednesday, my friend Jesua (“Map Jesus” as we call him, since he used to be the mapmaker in our office) brought a few of his male friends to join us for salsa night.  We found them sitting on cement posts on a dark street in the Mariscal, passing a plastic shot glass around and holding a bottle of cheap vodka.

Once we (about 6 of my gringa friends and the four Ecuadorian guys) were in Aguijon, the invitations to dance started comin’. We turned the first onslaught down because we wanted to get drinks, and we just weren’t ready yet.  Eventually, I accepted an invite from a guy with long black hair, about my height (tall, for Ecuador) who smelled like a combination of fruit-flavored gum and sweat. His dance moves weren’t that impressive, compared to what I’ve gotten used to (shout out to my favorite salsa partner, Victor!) so I moved on after I had sufficiently sweat and banged into other gringas on the  dance floor. It aint no joke: some people are hardcore on salsa night! Let’s just say I have a couple cigarette burns from a couple massive German girls.

I ended up spending some time with one of Jesua’s friends, who we will call Fernando (yep, start making the connection…). He started telling me how he hates salsa and asked me what other kind of music I like to dance to. He looked horrified and offended when I told him I LOVE dancing to Reggaeton. Hehe. Don’t hate. He was like “How could you like Reggaeton?! It’s all dancing like wah-wah-wah [him imitating some grinding with a look of disgust].” I laughed and said, “exactly!” I can’t explain my love for Reggaeton, people. There is just something about it that makes me move the way I want to move, and I love it. So there.

He said he only likes rock and plays bass in a band. But I could tell he was starting to get antsy and was weighing the risks of asking me to dance. Eventually he did, with the disclaimer that he can’t dance salsa but “whatever, let’s just see what happens.”

We got onto the dance floor, and I was a bit shocked to see that this nice, attractive enough Ecuadorian guy just could NOT salsa. He knew he was failing and flailing, and immediately began defending himself. He was sweating and embarrassed but figured he would give it his best shot. Eventually it was just too awful, so we stopped and he was like “I don’t understand why everyone thinks all Latino guys can dance! It’s not like that. Not everyone dances salsa!” Hehe. Poor guy. He just seemed so nervous and uncomfortable.

I guess he may have had a point. Although, in my experience, most Latino guys CAN dance. That is one of my favorite things about them. For the most part, the second you step on the dance floor you can tell it’s in their blood. In fact, it is on the dance floor when most guys tell me “Ah, you really ARE Argentine! I can tell by the way you move…” Hehe. What? It’s true. The hips don’t lie. I love dancing.

They exist — the outliers, the anomalies, the ones who break the mold. Latino men are known for being smooth, for having moves that white girls fantasize about, for knowing what to do with their feet, hips, and shoulders on the dance floor and for knowing how to take control…

But not every Latino can dance. Not every bull wants to fight. At one point or another, we’ve all been the Latino who can’t dance, or Ferdinand the Bull. As much as I LOVE traveling, I just can’t wait to stay put for a bit. Sure, the wanderlust will quickly creep back in, but going home, to New York City, has never felt so exotic and so exciting.

I guess right now, I’m the travel writer who is ready to come home. At least I learned how to salsa while I was away.

Me, 15,000 ft up on Pichincha Volcano. Quito, Ecuador.

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Filed under Ecuador, Uncategorized

Same Quito, Different Blogs

I wanted to write a special blog post to acknowledge my fellow Quito bloggers. These blogs (listed below) each offer a different perspective on this Ecuador experience that we have shared.

First, The Traveling Bard:

Allison is one of our newest interns. She hails from Arizona and has a contagious zest for life. Her very strong passion and love for travel and anthropology shines through in her blog. She makes wonderful little YouTube videos for every trip we take, so you should definitely check those out. I have posted my favorite one below, and it’s not just my favorite because I am in it a LOT. Here she captures our trip to Cotopaxi in a way that photographs cannot, and yes there are a lot of cameos of my butt, so enjoy.

Second, Chomp and Circumstance:

Libby was the first person I met before moving to Quito. She started one week before I did and will be leaving two weeks before me. Libby is from Ohio and had only one trip abroad under her belt before making the ballsy move to Ecuador. She came here with absolutely no knowledge of Spanish and no experience with Latin America (except for her cute Chilean boyfriend back in the states). The girl’s come a long way, and she captures her experience in a very matter-of-fact and un-fluffy way.

Third, Rambling Em:

Emily, also an intern, has a very subtle and dry sense of humor. I often hear her sighing heavily, and that is how I know she is style editing — her least favorite activity, possibly ever. She is probably the most efficient person in the office and has a delightful dark side, although she mostly smiles and laughs through the frustrations of life. She has mixed feelings about Ecuador, and I always enjoy when and how she expresses them. She is a bit self-depricating at times, but I hope she knows she is kind of a star.

Fourth, Even Owls Pine:

Desiree is a west coaster through and through. She has lived everywhere from Colorado to Iceland and loves to talk about her old roommate, the stripper. She is funny and sweet on the outside, but I know she has a dark side. She only writes about one blog entry a month, but each one is enjoyable and focused. Her most recent entry deals with her anger towards Jon Stewart, who indirectly called her a prostitute.

And finally, there’s Jena in Ecuador.

Now, Jena was an intern in the office when I first arrived. She had to go home (to NJ) for a bit, but now she is back. Like, literally — as of yesterday. Today will be her first day in the office as a staff writer and I cannot wait to see her. Let’s just say she gets the party started. And she is a great writer. Her blog is probably the most thorough account of the experience in Ecuador, so you can peruse it all you want to learn more.

 

The Traveling Bard, TwT, and Rambling Em in Cotopaxi, Ecuador.

 

So there you have it. In case you ever wanted to read different perspectives of my experience, or get other people’s takes on this beautiful and unpredictable country, there ya go. Many other interns and friends have come and gone, but this is the current group, and these are the people with whom I will be sharing the last leg of this crazy adventure in Ecuador.

Enjoy.

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Filed under Contributor, Ecuador

Pain in the Cotopaxi

Over the weekend, I free-falled for a couple seconds down a muddy root-covered wall, I spent six hours on two different horses, and I got to see one of the tallest continuously active volcanoes in the WORLD (conflicting reports say it is the tallest). All I can say is MAN does my body hurt today. But it was all worth it.

 

Cotopaxi Volcano and flowers, Ecuador.

 

Friday after work, Allison, Emily (the two VIVA interns) and I still hadn’t made a concrete plan for how we were going to get to Cotopaxi the next morning, but we did plan to meet for breakfast. Hey, it was a start.

My stomach had been churning and doing the familiar parasite dance that I have unfortunately become accustomed to here, but I was not missing out on this volcano, even if I had to spend the weekend in a hammock. Cotopaxi was only an hour and forty-five minutes away; I figured this was a distance I could handle.

We met for breakfast on Saturday and I had a vague idea of how to get to our hostel. I was in charge of logistics, but I was hoping Allison or Emily would surprise me with the perfect plan because my stomach was hurting and I didn’t feel like organizing. I wasn’t too concerned. I had no idea how, but I knew we would get to Cotopaxi.

 

Cotopaxi Volcano. Ecuador.

 

The plan slowly formed: we were going to take a trolly in Quito to some stop none of us could remember, to hail a bus of some sort to a town called Machachi. We weren’t exactly sure where to hail this bus, but – like everything – we’d figure it out. I knew it was up some steps (yep, that’s about it) on some street (nobody knew the name) so that was something, right?

As we were about to leave brunch, I was feeling just awful. But hey, I’m used to feeling awful now. So, we headed out prepared to take some trolly to some station to some set of stairs to hail some bus on some street to some town called Machachi, which was 45 minutes away from our final destination. Hmm.

Then, like some sort of gift from the universe, there was a taxi waiting directly outside the restaurant. I remembered my Plan B: as an alternative, we could take a taxi to the huge Quitumbe bus station 45 minutes outside of Quito where there were always buses headed all over Ecuador. The cab driver asked if we wanted a ride, so we all agreed to go with my vague Plan B and hopped in the cab.

Off we went, to Quitumbe. When we arrived, I quickly found the information desk and asked which bus to take to Machachi, where and when to get it… The woman was very helpful and we quickly dashed away to catch the bus.

 

Flowers, Cotopaxi in Background.

 

Out of many colorful buses, we found the bright orange and yellow one that was supposedly ours. I remembered reading on the website to tell the bus driver we wanted to be dropped off at “the statue of the horse at the turn-off to Machachi.” (This is how bus travel in Ecuador works.) So, I hopped on the bus, full of locals munching on all sorts of local snacks, found the bus driver, whose wife was sitting in the passenger seat with a baby on her lap (quite common) and asked, 1) If this was the bus to Machachi, 2) If he could drop us off on the highway where the statue of a man on a horse was in Machachi, and 3) If he could let us know when it was time to get out. This third request was key, as often the buses don’t really stop moving and people get on and off while it is in motion. In order to get out of our seats and past the seven or eight guys standing in the aisle, we would need advance notice. I’ve learned that you must always ask them to let you know when to get out, because any random patch of highway could be a bus stop and time estimates mean pretty much nothing in this place.

We got cozy in our overheated, overcrowded seats. I sat hugging my backpack while a very indigenous-looking man with dirt in every crease of his hands practically sat on me for most of the ride, and families of two or three sat piled up in one chair.

Much quicker than I had expected, the guy checking tickets called to tell me it was time to get out. I was like “Now?! Here?!” To me it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere on a highway far away from any statue of a man on a horse, but I rounded up Allison and Emily and pushed my way out of the packed bus with my fingers crossed. We stood on the side of the road, confused, as the bus drove away.

 

Llamas in Cotopaxi.

 

Sure enough, in the distance and across the highway, there was a statue of a man on a horse. That had better be the one! The hostel had given me a phone number of a cab driver to call once I got there who would take us the last 45 minutes. We stood by the statue as I called. It didn’t take long for us to notice one of the scariest looking guys I have ever seen. Right behind us, a man with jet black hair that looked like it had was permanently blowing away from his face paced back and forth. He had on pants, but one entire leg was slashed from his crotch to his diseased-looking foot. He was filthy and had bulging white eyes under a layer of caked-on dirt. He just walked all the way in one direction, clenching his hands, looking like a murderer ready to kill, then walked all the way in the other direction, staring us down. We were totally alone. The cab driver said he would be there in ten minutes. I have  not been so uncomfortable and felt so unsafe in a long time. Allison, Emily and I just tried to ignore him and look strong. At least there were three of us.

Finally, a pick-up truck swerved by the pacing man. He started honking and holding a sign none of us could read. On his windshield in huge white letters it said “GOD FORGIVES ALL OF US!” so I thought he was just another Ecuadorian honking and haggling us for being obvious gringas. Then he parked, ran out and asked for Rachel while holding the sign for our hostel. WHEW — he was our guy!

We hopped in the pick-up truck and off we went — last leg of the trip. I was a little scared when a guy crouched on the road jumped up, pounded on the door, and hopped in the back of our truck. As normal and accustomed to this as I have become in Ecuador, it still gives me a little jolt every time because there are so many horror stories. But in hilly towns like Machachi, hitch-hiking and pick-up “taxis” are a way of life.

Finally, we had arrived. The hostel (Secret Garden Cotopaxi) was beautiful, and even though Cotopaxi was hiding behind some clouds, we could feel its presence. We were up high (about 3,500 meters/11,500 ft) where the green of the hills was overwhelmingly green and the blue of the sky was overwhelmingly blue. It wasn’t long before we were asked if we wanted to go on a 2-hour hike to some waterfalls. Without much thought, we enthusiastically said YEAH!

 

Green of Cotopaxi, with Dalmation. Just before sunset.

 

We were told to put on some rubber boots and get going before it got too late. A nice German guy took us, and the hostel dalmatian and dachshund followed. I never really did like those wiener dogs until this one who became my little cuddle buddy for the weekend.

Anyways… I was expecting a walk, a stroll if you will, through the woods to a nice little waterfall. Well, I should have figured I was in for an adventure as nothing in this country has been smooth sailing for me! The moment we had to open a barbed wire fence and then climb down some mud covered path into what looked like a ditch, I knew this wasn’t going to be the walk in the park I was hoping for.

We literally had to walk along the jagged edge of a stream, hopping from slippery stone to slippery stone in huge rubber boots. As if that wasn’t bad enough (all I could think of was PROTECT your KNEE Tavel… PROTECT YOUR KNEE. Watch EVERY step. NO INJURIES!). I hated myself for saying yes to the hike, because every step was one step away from slipping, sliding, popping, dislocating… all the horrible things I now know can happen to my body, and I couldn’t stand the idea of back-tracking on my progress. My knee ached as I was forced to jump from stone to stone, and eventually we had to literally ROCK CLIMB small cliffs just to get around deep water.

 

Allison on the waterfall hike. Easy part.

 

I was too scared for my life to take photos of this stuff, but imagine me clinging to mud, rocks, vines, anything I could, while my size 9.5 feet tried to find their grip through loose rubber boots in the crevices of slippery stones. One wrong step or slip, and I’d drop ten or so feet into the ice cold, sharp and rocky creek below. I honestly was shaking in my boots. It wasn’t so much that I was scared of doing this (2 years ago I would have been fearless), but once you injure yourself in such a way that you lose so many things you love so fast (for those who don’t know, I messed up my knee two years ago and have the longest recovery ever), you don’t take these things for granted. I’ve been to freakin’ IGUAZU FALLS in Argentina — I was not ready to risk my knee health for some puny waterfall in Ecuador. But… I also wasn’t going to turn around easily. So I kept going.

 

Waterfall hike surroundings.

 

At one point, we had to pretty much hug a wall of dirt, grabbing roots of trees for support to get over the water in a certain area. I was about halfway across when I grabbed a couple roots that detached from the ground. I started sliding down the hill and I just thought, “There it is. Here I go. Prepare for the regret and the pain…” And somehow, a couple seconds down, I found something else to grab that broke my fall into the stream. I seriously thought I was about to tumble to my death, and poor Allison had to watch the whole thing right before it was her turn. Miraculously, we made it.

When we got to the waterfall, it was definitely pretty and all that, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about how I had to reverse the hike and get back the exact same way. But I was focused and ready to get back as cautiously as possible.

 

Victorious. (L to R: Me, Allison, Emily)

 

The way home was no easier. When I crawled out of the little ravine into the blue sky and green fields again, just before the sun went down, I can’t tell you how grateful and RELIEVED I was to have made it back without some horrendous fall. I was covered in mud, my stomach was still hurting from the parasite and my right knee ached, but I couldn’t have been happier. Emily, Allison and I could finally breathe.

We spent the rest of the evening hanging out with an awesome group of Danish, Spanish, British, Canadian, German, Irish and Swiss people with whom we shared a bunk room in the hostel. I slept underneath an Irish girl and in between a Spanish guy and a Canadian lady. Gotta love the hostel experience.

The next morning, we had a plan: we were going on a 6-hr hoseback ride from 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to about 4,500 m (14,750 ft), to the peak of Ruminahui. We were on our horses by around 8 am and ready to ride. I kept asking which were the fastest horses because I like to gallop and get the horse to go as fast as it can. As soon as we were told to pick a horse, I realized everyone had already chosen theirs (the large, beautiful, sturdy looking ones) and I was left with the choice of two slow pokes or a small spunky guy. I am usually one for a large horse (I love big horses, big dogs, and big boys — just sayin’) but I decided to go for spunk this time. Luckily, my horse had a lot of fire, and I could quickly see that the next six hours might be spent holding him back rather than trying to get him to move.

 

Front of the pack. Beginning of Trek. Cotopaxi.

 

The second we had open road, me and a couple other horses took off like bats out of hell. We’d gallop and gallop, then try to slow them down so we could get more comfortable in our incredibly UNCOMFORTABLE Ecuadorian-style saddles and stirrups (which basically looked like wooden clogs and were an English saddle rider’s worst nightmare). An hour into the ride, the Spaniard — whose horse was a firecracker that didn’t want to walk — had to get off. He had literally burned through all the skin on his skinny culo (ass) and was in a lot of pain. But we were only an hour into a six hour ride. He had no choice but to man up. I just tried to remind him that his country won the World Cup this year. I think it helped.

The ride was absolutely stunning. Passing through the green pastures with Cotopaxi constantly in the distance made me feel fresh and alive, excited and happy to be exactly where I was with all these other travelers. Moments like that, you just feel FREE. Capital letters, FREE.

 

Cotopaxi Ride.

 

But as we climbed the mountains, the horses began to slow down, and the wind picked up. The wind whipped my face like it was some sort of ancient torture ritual. Our horses were literally getting blown around. The wind was so strong and so powerful during some passes that we could barely move forward and certainly couldn’t hear. It was painfully windy. Brutal gusts seemed unrelenting as we climbed higher and higher into the thinning air.

When it was finally the halfway point, I had rubbed burns and blisters from the leather stirrup strap into my shins. It hurt every second, but I knew I had three more hours to go. My ass, my knees, my ankles — everything just hurt, and we all took turns complaining about aches and pains while we took in the awesomely beautiful surroundings. I have to say, I’ve never felt such strong wind in my life. Between the sun and the wind, my face burned. My eyes stung from the constant dust and dirt that had been kicked up by a trail of horseshoes. At times, I just had to ride with my eyes completely shut and trust the horse, because there was so much shit being blown into my face it was just painful to keep them open. After the ride, I spent hours wiping the black dust out of my eyes, and didn’t even notice the streaks of dirt across my face. All I could think of was how much everything hurt…and how good a shower was going to feel later.

 

Going up, fighting the wind.

 

In every adventure, there is a moment when – no matter how many people are around – you get lost in your own experience. At least for me. Well, during this trek, I really did get lost! Basically, at the halfway point, we all crashed in some sharp tall grass to take a “natural bathroom” break, down some mint tea and banana bread, and give our aching bones a rest. When it was time to get back on the horses, the Canadian girl was asking anyone with a fast horse if she could trade her pregnant (or fat) horse for a more lively one. There was a lot of horse trading going on, and I felt bad for her because my horse was so awesome and hers was a lame duck who barely moved, so I said that she could have mine if she really wanted a fun ride, and I could whip her’s into shape.

 

Horses in Cotopaxi.

 

This was when everything began to go downhill. What I didn’t know is that one of her stirrups was totally twisted and was going to cause me pain in my left ankle and knee for the next three hours. I also thought I was experienced enough to get any horse I wanted moving, but this horse was practically dead. After spending the first three hours in the front of the back I found myself stuck in the back with only one horse slower — the Danish girl’s horse — and in a lot of pain. I tweaked my back, my knees were killing me, and the rubbing against my shins had already blistered my legs. Now I had to spend three more hours with leather and denim rubbing against the raw skin.

As much as I LIVE for horseback riding, I suddenly realized I was not having the best time. I was hurting, and I was moving so slowly it felt like I was going backwards. After endless kicking, grunting, and slapping the horse… I just got tired. It all hurt me even more, and every time we finally ran, my knee and ankle, back and shins just throbbed. I felt like I aged 70 years on that horse, but it was a long way home, and we still had to pass back through the blasting wind.

 

Siesta in the grass with Cotopaxi.

 

The way home may have been three of the longest hours of my life. I had to stay behind and watch as all the horses took off. For a New Yorker, that is NOT easy. The dragging horse, combined with my aches and pains, made the ride torturous and LONG. Eventually I caught up and ended up riding with the Canadian girl who was on my spunky first horse, and the Spaniard, whose culo was killing him. As a car turned down one of the roads, the Canadian’s horse spooked and bucked her right off. The poor girl went flying onto the dirt road and I quickly rushed over to see if she was ok. She was, although spooked as well.

I rode up ahead to get Darwin, our group leader (yes, I asked if that was his real name or if it was some sort of joke, and it was definitely his real name. OOPS.) I told him she had fallen off and he dashed back to meet her.

At this point, I had a choice to make. I could either hang back with the Canadian and the Spaniard, or try to catch up to the rest of the group (I am NOT used to being in the back of the pack when I ride…) There was about 1.5 hrs left of the trek and I suddenly found myself completely alone in the mountainous green pastures of Ecuador. So, I decided to keep walking. Surely, I’d catch up to the group.

 

Losing the group. Cotopaxi horse trek.

 

Every ten minutes, I though I had to be closer to the pack… but they were nowhere to be found. Every twenty minutes, when I’d pass an actual human being, I’d ask him if he saw a bunch of gringos on horses and he’d point me in their direction. By then, it was about 1:30 pm. I had not eaten since 7:30 am. I had been on a horse in the sun for about six hours. I was hurting everywhere, I was starving, and I was exhausted. And now, I was lost. Shit.

The group in front of me assumed I was with the group in back, and the group in back figured I had caught up to the horses in front, but NOPE. I was alone, for about an hour and a half, in no man’s land. I think I began to have some sort of spiritual experience, in which I began to imagine a whole bunch of worse-case-scenarios followed by shutting each one of them out of my mind. I was tired and a little lost, but trusted my sense of direction and my lazy-ass horse, who kept tripping and huffing (something was not right). I actually started talking to the horse in my extreme frustration, talking to myself maybe and to nobody, and to Ecuador. I was hurting so badly I considered walking over and over again, but knew it would only extend the already brutal trek. I was so happy but so angry at my body. In heaven when I looked around but in my own personal hell when I let myself feel where I was. Never in my life have I wanted to get off a horse so badly… I decided that I temporarily HATED horses. I was frustrated as heck, but I had at least an hour left to go and I still had to find my way back, all alone.

 

Alone on a horse with Cotopaxi bulls.

 

When I finally saw a sign to the hostel, I wanted to cry with joy. But then I saw how far away it still was, and I wanted to cry with exhaustion and hunger, like a baby. Of course  I didn’t, and I trekked on with my horse, because there was no other option. I savored the alone time, the quiet, the colors that were so bright I could barely accept their reality, and eventually, after what felt like an ETERNITY, made it back to the hostel.

 

HOME STRETCH! Hostel in sight. Cotopaxi.

 

I dismounted my horse and could barely walk for the first few steps, but I had survived! When I hobbled in, everyone was already seated at the table having lunch, sun and wind-burnt from the morning. They had no idea I had been alone in the Ecuadorian wilderness on a half-dead horse, or that the Canadian had fallen off the horse I had given up. But we could all commiserate in our pain, which finally, at the end of the long journey, felt much more bearable.

I’ve gotta say… I am sore as hell today. I felt like I could barely move when I woke up. Last night, I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 8 pm (they burned, and I was still rubbing black dirt out of them when I went to bed). Allison, Emily and I shared some good laughs this morning in the office as we recounted our adventure and groaned each time we tried to move.

Despite all the battle wounds, the near-death experiences, the scares, the almost-disaster moments, the lack of a plan for how to get to the hostel and the unexpected torture that came from something I actually, truly, love, I have to say: the weekend in Cotopaxi was fucking BEAUTIFUL. There’s really no other way to say it. And fast horse or slow horse, underneath all the aches and pains, I know there was a smile the entire way.

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Couped Up In Quito

Well, I think I’ve come up with a #11 for my last post

On Thursday, I walked to work as I do every other morning, except this time I was a little late because I was trying to wrap up a blog about the 10 Strange Things That Have Become Normal While Living in Quito. Ironically, I had just bought my plane ticket home the night before. Everything seemed normal enough, but as I explained, sometimes strange things become “normal” here in Quito. Now attempted coup d’etats can be added to the list!

Fire in Quito. Coup Attempt. Sept 30, 2010

Just as I began content editing the first 100 pages of a 900+ page VIVA Travel Guide to Argentina, my cell phone rang. It was the lead writer of the Frommer’s Ecuador & The Galapagos 2010 book. He had arrived the night before and we were planning to meet to discuss how I could possibly help with the new guidebook. After the initial Hello, he asked me what the hell was going on in this city? I had no idea what he was talking about. He said “Yeah, the airports are closed and there are people burning tires and rioting all over the place!” Hmm. I said I’d check the news (what was this guy talking about?!). Despite it all, we planned to meet for drinks and possibly dinner in the Mariscal at 7 pm to discuss how I could possibly help with the book. I already had a lunch date planned and I was headed to the gym right after work, so it was slated to be a busy day in Quito.

Then I received a second phone call. My coworkers were curious when they heard me say, “OH MY GOD. Are you SERIOUS? Holy shit. OK. OK. Right. OK, well thank you SO much for letting me know. No, we heard nothing. I’ll check the news. Holy crap. OK. Be safe! Let’s touch base later.” My Austrian friend works in a school slightly outside the city. She told me there were NO police in Quito and that the military had taken over and shut down the airport. She confirmed what the Frommer’s writer had told me and said there was rioting, gun fire, and chaos in the city. Their school was on lockdown and they were going to send everyone home as soon as it was safe enough.

Fire in Old Town Quito, behind Panecillo. Sept 30, 2010

Then, the whirlwind of rumors began. Banks and supermarkets were being robbed, there was looting at every turn, thieves were taking over the city. The Quito that I have been blogging about for over four months, and continuously describing as not very safe, was now without police officers. I know a lot of people in this city have guns, so the idea of a city like this without cops or military, and with the cops actually ATTACKING their own president, was a scary and sudden reality.

Needless to say, for the next couple of hours, we couldn’t focus on work. The President was attacked?! An attempted coup d’etat?! I felt a surge of adrenaline. Was this really happening? I felt unsafe. A desperate quest for more information had begun. We Tweeted, we emailed, we Gchatted, we Facebooked, we even talked to each other without using a form of social media (I know, WEIRD!).

The news hadn’t hit the US yet, so the best way to figure out what was going on was to live stream Ecuadorian radio and TV from our computers. Luckily, our office consists mostly a bunch of Ecuadorian guys, who were all smiles when they told us NOT to go out on the streets and to stay put and to keep checking the news for safety updates. It took a couple hours for the US Embassy to send us an email saying that it was not safe to be out on the streets of Quito, to remain in our homes, and to stock up on food until further notice. I think the Ecuadorians got a small kick out of seeing a bunch of gringas freak out for a second. Hehe. This sort of thing isn’t as shocking in Latin America. In fact, I feel even more Argentine now that I have finally experienced a real Latin American coup attempt! Yep, I can check THAT off the list.

Riots at Military Hospital in Quito. Sept 30, 2010

Now for the truth…

My first thought after being told we couldn’t leave the office because it was too unsafe: what about lunch?! Yes, we had just found out that the police were trying to overthrow the government, and I immediately felt my stomach growl. I decided it was probably an inappropriate time to bring up lunch, and tried to focus back on the news. At this point, everything was a big mess. Twitter turned out to be the best source of information (I follow a bunch of major news sources) and between me and my coworkers and a whole bunch of re-tweets, we were piecing together a hole-filled patchwork of information. The bottom line: our city was FUCKED.

By now, you’ve seen the news clips and you’ve read the recaps. You know what went down. I’ve gotta say, I felt more anxious than I expected. As scary as it was, we couldn’t help but make jokes and be silly. We pondered the appropriateness of ordering pizza during a coup. Every time the office doorbell rang we’d freak and be like “DON’T OPEN IT!!” Outside, car alarms, honking and chatter filled the streets and were more suspicious than ever. Kids were released from every school and many main roads were blocked off by the military. When we all went out on the terrace to scope out the situation, my friend Libby almost accidentally touched an electric wire so I said LIBBY! MOVE AWAY FROM THE WIRE and she turned around, freaked out, and said “Do I have a red dot on my head or something?!” Hehehe. No, but actually not a bad question at the time.

Now, I’m not sure what the protocol is for lunch during an attempted coup, but my stomach had only gotten more and more vocal. Luckily, one of the interns was also starving so we rounded up the troops (and a few Ecuadorian guys to accompany us) and headed out into the chaos for some treats. It felt funny to grab a banana and some Chips A’hoy cookies while the military was trying to overthrow the government, but hey — a girl’s gotta eat, coup or no coup! After a risky snack run to Carlos, our favorite store owner around the corner, we returned to our office sanctuary. Our CEO had emailed us that we should all get home and take taxis, go home in pairs or groups if we can. So, we did.

That was a scary experience, but everything turned out alright. I found a taxi quickly and the Ecuadorian driver and I listened to the radio the whole trip, as he discussed the ungratefulness of the police. When I got home, I was alone for a couple hours. I had the news on, Facebook, Twitter and Gchat up, and a million news sites open. From my apartment, I could see fires scattered around the city. For a couple hours, there was a ton of traffic and honking and noise and then, SILENCE. An eery silence.

Eventually, my roommate got home, which made me feel much better. We cooked whatever we had in the house, and continued to piece together the reality of what was going on. One of her friends had run out to try and take pictures. Not only did he almost have his camera stolen, but some cops grabbed him and made him delete every single photo after interrogating him about what country he was from (Canada, obviously — we are ALL Canadian…), if he works for the government, what news station he reports for, etc. They let him go with his camera… but no photographs.

Neighbor and sun setting after a chaotic day in Quito. Sept 30, 2010

As I was taking photos from my living room window, I actually locked cameras and eyes with a guy on a rooftop nearby. Hehe. We both waved, cheers-ed with our cameras, tried to communicate with hand gestures, and continued to photograph the experience as best we could, from the safety of our homes.

One of the scariest moments for me was at night, around 10pm. The entire evening, the city had turned spooky and quiet. There were no cars, no people, no buses, no airplanes. Streets that are normally mobbed with traffic were empty, dead. Then, out of the silence, I heard the explosion of gunfire. Machine guns and shot guns exploded out of the night: BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM POP POP BAMBAMBAMBAM POP BAMBAM POP. There was some sort of shootout and gunfire was being exchanged what felt like just down the street. As it turns out, we were listening to the very moment when President Correa was being rescued by the military from the military hospital in which he had been sequestered for most of the day. I sat on the floor of my living room, gchatting with friends while the gunfire blasted throughout the quiet city. I felt, for the first time in my life, like I was in a war zone. It was very scary, and very real.

This is exactly what I heard (except it went on much longer, and this is before the climax). Watch the first minute of this video. It also shows exactly where I was yesterday morning, witnessing the bullet holes and the tear gas in the wake of this violent exchange.

Once it all quieted down, we heard the President had been rescued, and all we could do was try and sleep. When we woke up on Friday, we were told not to go into work, that the streets weren’t safe. I had unfortunately run out of milk (dang it!). It was a GORGEOUS sunny day and everything seemed peaceful enough in the morning. So, I decided to brave the streets in the name of coffee. I ran downstairs in my sweatpants and flip-flops, scurried to the nearest convenience store, talked for a couple minutes with people in there, and scuffled back to my apartment. Not gonna lie, I was a bit nervous, but I made it!

My roommate had had Lasik eye surgery scheduled for that day. She had been counting down the minutes and, of course, it was cancelled. The hospital in which she was going to have the surgery was literally across the street — 40 feet or so — from the hospital where the President had been kept the day before, outside of which tons of rioting had taken place. She still had an appointment and didn’t want to go alone, so I was happy to go with her. I was sick of being cooped up in the apartment and wanted to see what it was like out there…

We called a cab to be safe. The city seemed normal, sunny, relieved. When we arrived at the hospital, we got out of the cab and within seconds, we noticed a funny smell. It was tear gas. My nose began itching and my throat got scratchy. We covered our mouths and walked as quickly as we could through the streets that had been bombarded the day before. They were being cleaned and two memorial wreaths were being hung for the two civilians who were killed. Blood was speckled throughout the sidewalks, and shards of burned papers and blotches on the street reminded us of all that went down only hours earlier.

We rushed up a blood covered staircase to a glass passageway that would get us from one hospital building to another. Now, in that glass tunnel is where everything became a little too real. The tear gas fumes were suddenly overwhelming. My eyes started watering and my nose and throat started itching and burning more than before. I started running through the tunnel to get out of the tear gas fumes, but as I passed through it, I started to notice the bullet holes everywhere… [An example, and another one] I saw holes as big as golfballs with the fingerprint of shattered glass spraying out from the empty space. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to take a photograph.

Despite the tear gas, I had to stop. I was standing in the space where the bullet would have hit. A couple reporters were taking photos of the holes. I wanted to go home and get my camera so I could too, but Kari had her appointment to get to. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. This wasn’t something that happened in a far away city; this was something that happened right where I was standing, where, if I had been there the day earlier, I would have been shot. The fumes crept into our eyes like an eery reminder of how real this all was… And after taking in the bullet holes for a couple minutes, we ran out to where we could breathe again.

Right now, it’s hard to know how safe things are. The city wasn’t safe to begin with, and now the police are unhappy. They’re all we’ve got.

Yes, I survived an attempted coup d’etat. This adventure in Quito has only gotten more wild and more unpredictable. But I am OK (thanks for EVERYONE who was concerned and for all the messages!). All I can do now is enjoy the adventure, the coups, the riots, the rebellions…

Afterall, I’ve only got a month of this craziness left.

This song is now stuck in my head:

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