Category Archives: Ecuador

One Year Since Ecuador

It has been one year since I lived in Ecuador.

As I sit here working on a paper about the atomic structure of copper, I want to dedicate this entry to remembering the adventures of my “old” life. Last night, I spoke with my parents about the choices that my four siblings and I have made/are making in our twenties. I spoke about how eternally grateful I am for having had the experience I did while in Ecuador. Granted, I was pretty sick most of the time, I was attempted robbed three times (but for the record – nobody got a dime off of me, echem, even with razor blades involved), my building was broken into, I had many frustrations, and at a certain point I knew that it was time for me to come home and make some decisions…  that didn’t stop me from having some of the best and most inspiring adventures of my life.

These videos, created by my then VIVA Travel Guides intern and now good friend Allison (AKA “The Traveling Bard”), capture — at least in one form — some of the experience. I guess with Thanksgiving around the corner, it seemed appropriate to recognize how grateful I am for the adventures I’ve had. I distinctly remember one bus ride, when about five friends and I made the 10 hour overnight trip from Canoa (the beach) all the way up to Quito (a 9,400 foot climb through the Andes) to head straight to work. Everyone was sleeping, and I had a window seat on the rickety, dank bus. As it climbed from sea level into the mountains, I remember watching out my window in complete awe as layer upon layer of mountains spread out from all around us. It was just our bus in the entire sea of mountains, climbing up towards the most beautiful display of stars I think I will ever see. And while everyone slept, I may or may not have gotten choked up with happiness watching the scenery go by, because I knew I was living the life I wanted to live. The world is so clear when you feel like you and the stars are the only ones in it. I was living my dream, even if it turned out to be less perfect than I had imagined. I was in the thick of life, whatever mine would turn out to be.

I went to Ecuador immediately after getting my heart broken. I didn’t know a single soul in the entire country. I took a huge risk, I took some tumbles along the way, but now — one year later — I know I will forever be LUCKY that I ever took a chance. Juan the Amoeba (for all those who remember that little sucker) may have been a surprise visitor, but he is gone now. What’s left is some pretty f-ing incredible memories. So what can I say? Take the risk. And be grateful that you did, no matter what.

I’ve got to head to my 8am class. But check these out and enjoy my cameos, if you will:

And here is my attempt to make a video (not nearly as good as Allison’s but it was my first ever!):

A special thank you to ALLISON!! Follow her @ACarlton or check her out here http://www.allisoncarlton.com/ (side note: I took her homepage photo 🙂 Yay).

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Filed under Ecuador, Life Stuff, Travel

Humble Pie Season

As I slowly arise very un-phoenix-like from two weeks of back-t0-back midterms, I find myself still looking up at a pretty sizable mountain that I’m not sure how to climb. In fact, it’s more like a jungle gym with moving parts and trap doors that open up right when I think I’ve found some stable ground. And somewhere in it, there is a guy who punches you in the face whenever you get to the top of a ladder. Oh! And there are sharks! (Somehow.) Yeah, sharks. And then there are Spartans throwing spears at you! And… thorns…everywhere…I think. Definitely thorns. And cockroaches. I HATE cockroaches, so they are crawling around making things worse. And… Ok, OK. Enough with the metaphors. (By now you should know that I can get carried away with those.)

Galapagos Hawk. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. October 2010.

Forgive me. I’m just excited to be using words instead of “science” right now. Words are home. Science is that dark alley in a foreign country that you have to walk down knowing you could and/or will get robbed. But it’s the only way to get to your friends, so you clutch your bag, hold your head up high, and put on your don’t-fuck-with-me face as you begin to walk. Science is not home for me. It is not comfortable or natural to be surrounded by it. Not yet.

Street in Cotacachi, Ecuador.

I’ve gone from one goal to another, gradually lowering each one from big, grandiose goals of success that people write books about all the way down to the most basic and unappreciated accomplishment of all: survival. I wish I could say that all it takes is hard work, but what if even that is not enough?

I am the kind of person who thinks she can do anything. I think I’m taller than I am, I think I’m stronger than I am, and as it turns out, I guess I may think I’m smarter than I am (this one is the toughest pill to swallow!). I took a couple of hits these past few weeks, so it is important now to regroup and get fired up for a new round of the game. For what it’s worth, I discovered during the happy hours following each midterm that, when it comes to beer pong, which I haven’t played in years, I’ve still got it. HEY! Right now I’ll take being good at something, just to remember what it feels like. I’d like to be good at anything again!

Faceless woman. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

Sometimes, in life, there are moments when you take a nibble of humble pie. Then there are the moments when you get the whole fucking pie thrown in your face by some asshole (right now, that asshole would be YOU, Biology!). This may be one of those moments. But I don’t care what kind of pie it is… I’m going to gobble it up until there’s nothing left.

As most of you know, I write not because I like to listen to my own thoughts and sulk or cheer or aimlessly share the minutiae of my life for shits and giggles [wow, I’m cursing a lot this morning]. I write because I know my experience is more universal than it feels, at times. Nobody wants to sit and eat their humble pie alone!

So, for all you readers out there (echo…echo…echo?), who wants to have a slice with me? The sooner it’s gone, the sooner I can conquer the world again.

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Filed under Ecuador, Life Stuff

Two Years of TwT

Two years. Two freakin’ years. Exactly one year ago today, I wrote this post: One Year of TwT. I was in Ecuador, unsure of (but excited about) everything, hurting from a couple of my most major heartbreaks, and trying to navigate my way through a dream job that didn’t necessarily answer my questions or quell my secret wish to be in healthcare. Two years of learning, of risk-taking, of leaps-of-faith, of putting myself out there (and yes, I’m a little sick of myself too, don’t worry). Travel writing was still a dream job in many ways, but one that I was realizing more and more may not have been my dream job, afterall.

Over 15,000 ft up, atop Ruminahui Peak with Cotopaxi Volcano and interns Allison (L) and Emily (R) in Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador. October 2010.

When I started this blog, I felt wholeheartedly like travel writing was going to be my escape route from a life that was feeling a little too mediocre for me — maybe even not me at all. I needed za-za-zoo in every form. Travel became a passion to replace passion, and writing became the support that replaced support, but how could I say that even the two together were not enough? I had to dedicate myself entirely to one dream in order to know whether or not it was going to last.

Sometimes I can’t believe all that happened in the past year — coup attempts, the Galapagos Islands, the World Cup, Juan the Amoeba (grr!), quitting my job in Ecuador, moving back to NYC, applying to post-baccs, switching careers – first, in theory then it actuality, going back to school, and all the people in between. To think that I have even the slightest chance of capturing all this in book-form (pray to the publishing gods, please) is unreal, unbelievable, and yet it makes absolute sense to me right now. But, the important thing is: I lived a dream. No other way of saying it. And yes, the dream turned out to be imperfect, but it came true. (I just happen to have more dreams!)

View from the Cathedral overlooking Old Town Quito, and clouds. Summer 2010.

I am writing from the other side of my first college course since…err…college. I did it.

Yes, I learned a lot very quickly, I made new friends, and I even managed to submit my final sample chapter to my literary agent (double YAY), but the work is only intensifying right now. The hunt for an editor/publisher begins (anyone out there?! haha. OK sorry, had to.). Two days into my second semester-condensed-into-six-week course — Statistics — I am realizing that this is going to be even tougher and more time-consuming than the first course. I’ve even gotten to use a calculator for the first time in ten years (and I figured out, all by myself, how to calculate standard deviations with it). While Developmental Psychology may have wiped the dust from my brain, Statistics will hopefully grease the wheels.

You’d think, logistically, that it might get easier every class… But no. While yes, there are correlations (see, I’m already talking like I understand statistics) between Developmental Psychology and Statistics, these seem to be two very different beasts for my brain right now. And then, come fall, I will be doubling up with Chem I and Bio I (plus labs, obvi), a workload that promises to be, um, challenging for a girl who hasn’t thought about either subject in 12 years (to say the least).

Leaves in the cloud forest. Mindo, Ecuador. Summer 2010.

Meanwhile, summer keeps on glowing. I’ve spent weekends by the pool upstate, as planned, and weeknight with the occasional glass (or maybe shared bottle) of wine (but, really, mostly doing homework or studying for exams, which I will have every Monday for the next six weeks — OY).

Today, in a fruitless quest to find a dress for at least one of the four weddings I somehow plan to attend during the remainder of this summer (did I mention I’m also a maid of honor for my sister’s NOW LEGAL wedding in August!?), I tried on a way too short and tight sexy little thing because I couldn’t resist its sparkles. It was totally inappropriate. I’d be lying if I said that I am not still covered in glitter after taking it off. Only now, it feels celebratory and appropriate, like I’m my own TwT party’s confetti. But, the reality is, I’ve got to get to bed because I have my first Statistics lab in the morning.

Two years ago, I was in NYC starting this blog with a heavy heart and no clue where I was going with it. One year ago, I was in South America living a travel writing dream that made me wonder if it was enough. This year, the whole plan has shifted and I’m back in school doing pretty much the opposite. I promise I’m not insane — I’m just a very active participant in this life thing.

All of this began when I started TwT, unsure of all that would unravel in my life around it. Now, it continues with TwT. And, hopefully, all of you.

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Filed under Ecuador, Healthcare, Life Stuff, New York City, School, Travel

One-Way Ticket to Trouble

To everyone who contributed their 2011 Travel Wish Lists: THANK YOU! Great lists. Go ahead and check out the comments to see where other people hope to travel this year. It’s always fun to get you all participating. I knew I couldn’t possibly be the only one daydreaming about vacations, especially this time of year.

Oh look, another snowstorm. I am not amused, winter.

It’s that time of year when winter begins to take its toll on me. It becomes not just a season, but a state of mind. The cold dark days hold my spirit down like a snowball and chain. Some days, I forget what a little warmth and sunshine could do for my soul. The idea of tulip buds springing out from the blanket of winter is a distant memory, a fantasy of a world hidden from this one. The sun is an afterthought, the warmth – a dream…

Bah! Enough sulking! Things are good! Dreary, but good. I can already taste the happy-high I get on that first spring-like day. It makes all this winter crap WORTH it. Vale la pena, people. Vale la pena…

In the meantime, there is one travel story that I haven’t written about yet… I’ll call it: One-Way Ticket to Trouble

Love in the snow. Central Park, NYC.

Before returning from Quito to NYC, I did something I will avoid for the rest of my life: I bought a one-way ticket from a South American city to JFK International Airport. (You just can’t get away with this stuff anymore!) Now, I’m used to getting pulled aside for security checks at airports (apparently my combination of visas and stamps from Japan to Turkey to Belgium to Argentina several times to Ecuador to Mexico to the Dominican Republic to… (you get the idea)… is a bit suspicious).

All was off to a good start until I got to the front of the line at the Quito airport. I had one large suitcase (afterall, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be living in Quito for 1 or 2 years), one small suitcase/duffle bag thing, a backpack, a purse (god I hate that word), and only one suitcase lock. In South America, most people have their suitcases wrapped in plastic so that no thieves can get in. I never bother. If they want to steal my cheap socks, power to them (actually no, please don’t do that). I was dreading this trip because it was probably the most luggage I have ever had to travel with (by plane), and I was alone (eh, I’m used to it) with a layover in Bogota. Have you ever tried to use a restroom in an airport with that much stuff? Yeah, good luck.

As soon as I entered the airport, my body covered in luggage (ugh), an Ecuadorian man began walking beside me insisting that I get my bags wrapped for security. It, of course, would cost me $10 plus more for the extra weight my oversized suitcase was carrying, so there was no way. I knew my bag was going to be overweight (the suitcase itself weighs a ton — it’s an old one, and I borrowed it from my parents but let me tell you people: invest in a really GOOD lightweight suitcase, even if it’s a little more expensive: the over-weight penalties aren’t worth it, and if you’re as professional a packer as me, you will need it!).

Anyway, I was not into the whole Saran-wrap thing, and I was not forking over the money. I had a lock, and a couple paperclips. I locked one suitcase and unfolded the paper clips to create makeshift “locks” for the zippers of my other suitcase, twisting them in such a way that maybe a thief would look at the tangled clips and go “forget this nonsense, onto the next one.” I’ve learned that if you make it just SLIGHTLY inconvenient for someone to rob you, they’ll pass. I do what I can.

I get in line and eventually make it to the front of the check-in pack. I am told that the combined weight of my two suitcases is over the weight limit for the Colombian airline, and I couldn’t bring everything.

HA. No.

I do my usual nice begging and ask about my options. They say I have to remove some stuff. I see an Ecuadorian guy next to me with the same problem, starting to empty out the insane amount of t-shirts he has in his suitcase while a friend tries to put them in his own bag. I ask the woman, “What can I do? I need to bring my stuff home….” She looks at me and sighs. Then says to give her a second. I do what I’ve learned to do and say: “How much will it cost?” She comes back with a number, and my bags are good to go. First crisis: averted.

Winter in Central Park. NYC.

I’m about two hours early (oops), so I buy the most expensive magazine I’ve ever purchased (don’t ask — let’s just say I hadn’t seen a Vanity Fair in seven months and I was beyond excited to be on my way home). I go through security, buy a little snack, and park myself at the gate, my heart buzzing uncontrollably with excitement for my too-good-to-be-true anticipated return to NYC. All I need is for the voyage to be smooth.

Twenty minutes before the flight was supposed to depart, I see a man from the airline start walking around the 40 or so people sitting at the gate, asking to check everyone’s passport and name. When he gets to me, he asks if I will come with him for a few minutes… Not to worry, this was “a standard safety procedure.” Oh crap. Here we go…

Luckily, two other people were also selected form the crowd. We walked through everyone like we had already been convicted of a crime, left the gate behind, and headed down a dark, long hallway. I asked where we were going (of course!), and he told us they were going to do a thorough security check of our luggage. Curses. My suitcase packing-job was a work of art, I tell ya. I don’t think anyone could possibly fit more in that thing than I did, and now I was going to have to watch them open it, dishevel my shit, and remove each item one at a time, in front of four armed Ecuadorian officers (one of which kept flirting with me… grr).

They took us up and down staircases, around corners, through doors, and eventually, we were outside and practically on the runway. We ended up in a garage behind the airplane with our luggage sitting there, waiting. Luckily, they only had one of my two suitcases – the smaller one. Yippy.

One by one (I was last), they opened our suitcases and removed every single item. As the police officer took out each pair of my underwear, the wooden hand-painted bowl, an alpaca blanket, etc. etc., I stared uncomfortably. All the Ecuadorian cops were just watching and I just wanted to get this overwith. I was a little alarmed when the guy started sniffing my bag (hey!), but what can ya do? He found my large, external hard drive (cords dangling off and all) and asked suspiciously what it was. I explained, he had another guy check it. They moved on.

Finally, we were all cleared and were sent back up to the gate. Whew, I thought. Got that overwith!

The short flight from Quito to Bogota was a rough, bumpy ride over the Andes. I knew it would be; you can’t fly over mountains without a healthy amount of prayer-inducing turbulence — but whoa. Let’s just say I was happy to land in Colombia. That happiness was then short-lived.

Immediately, after we got off the plane, we were somehow in line for something else. None of us knew what, since the line was so long and it passed through a tiny, hidden doorway. But, sure enough, it was a security check. I had already been through security TWICE since I was randomly selected for an additional full security check in Quito, and there was nowhere I could have gone (and nothing I could have done) between the last security check and this one, having only been on the airplane in between, but there we were, getting thoroughly checked one by one, again. Fine, it’s Colombia, I get it.

As you can imagine, this took some time. Luckily, I had a 3 hr layover, so things weren’t too desperate. I open every single pocket, remove laptop, etc., put it all back, put shoes back on, clear security and start walking to my gate.

I get to the gate, buy a water to drink in between flights (I was still about 8,500 feet up and you need to keep hydrated… I was totally lightheaded from the altitude). I buy my water, go to walk into the gate, and the woman who had been sitting next to me on the plane and I decide to sit together. She was Ecuadorian, but had family she was visiting in NJ, so we were on the same two flights and both happy to have an in-transit buddy. After getting comfortable for about 20 minutes, we were told everyone at the gate (an enclosed glass room) had to exit the gate and re-enter through a security checkpoint designed only for our flight. Annoying, but fine.

We go out of the gate, they say no food or water beyond that point. I’m forced to chug the water bottle I just bought before i re-enter, but am in good company as the young French guy next to me had to as well. We commiserate. Then, we have to open every pocket of every carry-on bag, remove all of our stuff, put it all back in, take off shoes, get frisked, and put everything back together as quickly as possible to get back into the gate. I still have two hours before the flight, but after just chugging a water, I know I will want to use the restroom before we board (I avoid airplane bathrooms when I can). I dread this moment, because they informed us that if we leave the gate again, we’d have to repeat the security process. You’ve got to be kidding me, I think.

The sweet Ecuadorian woman has to get food and asks me to watch her bag while she runs out, to keep the security measures to a minimum. I agree (something I was hesitant about doing, especially in a country like Colombia…) but decide I’m being paranoid and it’s ok. While she is gone, I am left there alone for about 20 minutes. A couple cops with drug-sniffing dogs make their way through the rows of chairs. I start getting scared — what if there is something in this woman’s suitcase and this was all planned?!? SHIT SHIT SHIT. Suddenly, over the loud speaker, I hear my name called and I have to go to the front desk. My name is NEVER called! HOLY SHIT. My heart starts racing and I remember that I didn’t lock my suitcases. What if someone planted cocaine in one of the unlocked pockets on the outside? GAHHH.

There I am, with all my stuff and this woman’s stuff, she is not there, and I’m being called to the front. I run up, keeping one eye on the bags, and ask them if it’s ok to wait until my “friend” comes back from the restroom, as I did not want to leave her stuff behind. They say that’s fine, and I’ve got all eyes on me in the quiet terminal. Wahhh.

The woman comes back, feels bad for keeping me waiting, and is shocked (and probably suspicious) when I tell her I just got asked to the front. Two Colombian police officers take me to a back room, where my OTHER suitcase is sitting, and tell me that they need to do a security check on my bag. I get a little flustered and whimper, realizing this is my completely over-stuffed suitcase — the big one — and worry that they won’t be able to close it afterwards. In a sad voice, I just tell them that there is so much stuff in that bag… (Did I really have to go through this again?!) Big mistake. I was just trying to be human with them, but they immediately looked me in the eyes – no humor – and said, deadpanned, “What kind of stuff ma’am? Is there anything suspicious in here?” Wait, no! I say “No no, nothing! Just, I was living in Ecuador so I packed the suitcase really tightly…But feel free to go through it, you just have to promise me you’ll help me close it up!” I was trying to be myself, but not the time and place I guess. Heh.

They proceed to remove every item, one at a time…. AGAIN. And I have to helplessly sit there and watch. Then, they start asking me if I am traveling alone, if I am single, asking me where I learned to speak Spanish, etc. When he goes in for the sniff, I am not surprised this time around. The dog comes over, starts sniffing around too, and I start wondering what the heck it smells like. I want to sniff it now (ok not really). I panic a little again. I have this fear of having someone plant something on me while I’m traveling and getting taken into custody in another country (I’ve watched too many of those ABC specials, “Locked Up Abroad,” I think). I promise myself I will never travel without a lock after this experience.

Winter sunset over the Hudson. NY, NY.

Just as I begin to let my worst fears take over, they told me everything was ok, and helped me put all my stuff back into the suitcase — the once pristine packing job was now a dumpster. It took three Colombian police to close it back up. Finally, I was free to go — but I had them secure every single zipper with these little plastic snappy things they had, just for peace of mind.

When I got back to the waiting area, I was so relieved. Then, I realized we were boarding in an hour, and I had to pee. SERIOUSLY?! I rushed out, and proceeded back through the security check — removing shoes, emptying my bag, etc. — for hopefully the last time. Total carry-on security checks: 5 (2 in Quito, 3 in Bogota). Total “additional” security checks: 2 (1 in Quito, 1 in Colombia). 1 for each suitcase. Finally, I was on the plane home for the last leg of the trip… and I could rest with ease.

At one point during the flight, about 45 minutes before landing, one of the pilots stepped out to use the restroom. While he was in there, the cockpit door swung open. Everyone on the plane was sleeping, and I was in row 9, staring straight into the cockpit, realizing there were no flight attendants in site. Hello!!?? (I mean HOLA?!) Does anybody see this?! I wasn’t sure what was going on, but this New Yorker does not like seeing a cockpit door fly open with no flight attendants anywhere near it. I stared into the cockpit, through the front window of the plane, and watched the little blinking lights in the distance as we approached NYC. I was honestly pretty nervous, and decided without hesitation that, if something were to go wrong, I am a fight not flight person (proven over and over, for better or worse), and I would be trying to tackle someone before I sat and watched something bad happen.

Relief came over me when the pilot left the bathroom, went back into the cockpit, and securely shut the door. And suddenly, I appreciated the unique and beautiful view I had just gotten. It was all going to be ok: I was almost home.

I made it through immigration just fine, although they asked me more questions than the usual “what were you doing in Ecuador?” and I was shocked and happy to find that my bags were among the first to tumble around the belt. I breezed through the final gates, holding my breath in anticipation of something stopping me from the freedom that awaited, but nothing got in my way.

After six months in Ecuador, and numerous intense security checks along the way, I was HOME.

Rose in Argentina. Palermo, Buenos Aires.

It’s been two and a half months since I returned from Quito, and it’s getting harder and harder to believe the whole experience ever happened. The memories are so vivid and real, but nothing in my day-to-day life connects me to the people and adventures I had when I was there. The whole experience feels like a shot of something strong and powerful was dropped into one big drink I’ve been sipping slowly for years. But the ripples continue to spill out from my adventure in Ecuador. I’ll just keep watching until the ripples are too far away to count.

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Filed under Ecuador, Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, Winter

Galapa-Gone: 5 days, 4 nights in the Galapagos Islands

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It started with the flight attendants spraying the overhead compartments on the airplane. It was clear that we were going somewhere different, somewhere unique, somewhere extremely delicate and untouched. They were spraying our luggage to make sure we didn’t bring any foreign species onto the islands, which at the time seemed fragile and small. This wasn’t going to be like other trips I had been on. Spending five days and four nights on a catamaran in the Galapagos Islands was going to be special…

That, I knew.

The Nina, our catamaran, just off of Gardner Bay, Isla Espanola

Even months before I left, it seemed like everyone who traveled to the Galapagos Islands had taken some sort of vow of secrecy. Friends who had gone would give me short responses when asked to describe the experience. They’d tell me it was “AMAZING” and say “You have to try and go…” But I couldn’t grasp what was so different and special about the Galapagos. I saw a photo here or there, but nobody wanted to give anything away. One friend refused to show me any photos before I left. She told me, “I don’t want to ruin it, you have to go and find out what it’s like for yourself!” I was running out of time in Ecuador and my waiting for a last-minute deal was becoming desperate, so I began to make moves to ensure that a trip would happen. I wanted to know what the secret was. I wanted to be a part of the less than 160,000 people who are permitted on the island annually. I wanted to be in the I’ve-been-to-the-Galapagos club, but the opportunity was slipping through my fingers as my time left in Quito dwindled.

View from Isla Espanola. Galapagos.

I tried to accept that maybe I wouldn’t get to go, and yet I didn’t believe it. I had to go. During lunch on my last day at work, I made my way to a travel agency, credit card in hand, ready to give in and buy a spot on a 4 day, 3 night cruise on a boat that resembled the Staten Island Ferry (in a not good way, if that wasn’t clear)… But something in my gut told me not to pull the trigger. The cruise was leaving the next day, so I had to make a decision by 6 pm. I decided to wait out the afternoon, see if the deal I was so desperately waiting for would crop up before 6, and if not, I’d come back after work to secure my spot.

Isla Espanola shore. Glapagos.

At 4:30 pm, thirty minutes before I was going to leave to purchase the very questionable boat tickets, I got the email I had been waiting one month for: a spot had opened up on The Nina — the #1, nicest, most luxurious boat in the Galapagos Islands — and I was going to be able to get on the 5 day, 4 night cruise, which usually costs $2,700 for for close to free (in exchange for some writing about it). It was unbelievable, unreal, and almost too good to be true.

I could barely comprehend this opportunity. I had to buy the tickets that night. My decision was easily made. THIS was how one should go to the Galapagos! I just didn’t think it was possible: I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford something this nice and I had only one week left in Ecuador. I was half an hour away from out of time. I felt like the luckiest girl in Ecuador, and after everything I have been through here, it just seemed right to end my adventure in the lap of luxury — something very far from my reality and yet suddenly so close. I couldn’t get over how grateful I felt… I just felt lucky. I still do.

Baby sea lion on Espanola Island.

When we landed on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos, it looked like a desert floating in the Pacific. The air was crisp for what I imagined an island on the equator to feel like, and the vegetation looked dead. This was what all the fuss was about? I just had to be patient.

Our plane had been delayed 3 hrs, so we were all sad to miss a large chunk of our expensive cruise (my first cruise ever, mind you). They apologized profusely for us missing out on some baby turtles in captivity and took us on a boat to the dock where we would board The Nina for the first time. In a stroke of luck, we bumped into the rest of our 16 passenger cruise, and they hadn’t left yet! Because of the 3 hr delay on a 9 am flight (we were supposed to arrive on the boat for lunch), I hadn’t eaten anything all day. We were told we could immediately hop on the bus to see some turtles or get on the boat and relax until dinner. Half the group got on the boat, but my friend Allison and I were not going to  miss a thing if we didn’t have to, so we hopped on the bus with our carry-on luggage in tow and stomachs totally empty, and got our empty cameras ready.

Land Iguana clinging to a rock on Isla Espanola.

I was so hungry I could barely function (I don’t skip meals for just anything!), but the first few minutes in the Galapagos proved promising. We saw mostly large oversized flowers, big green leaves, and small groups of locals celebrating around a graveyard, as it was Dia de los Muertos when we arrived.

The truth is, I wasn’t too impressed by the baby turtle farm. I wasn’t interested in seeing a bunch of baby turtles in capitivity with white numbers scribbled on their shells. I wanted the wild side of the islands to come out… And it would.

Sea lion at sunrise on Isla Floreana.

When I could barely keep my eyes open and my body upright from hunger, at around 5:30 pm, it was time to board The Nina for the first time. The catamaran held 16 people, and was much smaller and more luxurious than any of the more wobbly boats and cruise ships floating in the harbor. I had never been on a cruise (I had never wanted to go on a cruise, but this is the only way to really see the diversity of the Galapagos Islands) so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. When we stepped onto the boat for the first time, I was a little surprised by the amount of swaying. (Needless to say, everyone turned a bit green at some point, but I made it without ever getting full-blown seasick, although even today – two days later – I still feel myself swaying in the waves even 10,000 feet up, here in Quito.) A sea lion was perched on the steps — an exciting site on day one, but a common occurrence by day five (you see how the Galapagos can spoil you?!).

Sea lions cuddling on the shore of Isla Espanola.

Our boat consisted of about 10 crew members (one appropriately nicknamed “Iguana” because of his iguana-like profile and spikey gelled hairstyle), 6 hilarious Australians, 1 Norwegian, 4 Americans (including me), an Ecuadorian family, and a Swiss woman. We all began to get to know each other as we settled in and set sail for another island, which would take us all night to get to. The adventure had begun.

Just before a delicious dinner, we had a briefing about our itinerary. The wake-up  call was going to be at 5:30 am and we were going to Isla Española to see blue footed boobies, other types of boobies, finches, frigate birds, land iguanas and, of course, sea lions. It all sounded great, but I still wasn’t sure how much I was really going to get to see.

Land iguana close-up. Isla Espanola.

Sure enough, at 6 am, we all boarded one of the “zodiacs” (inflatable blue boats that took us from our catamaran to the shore) and disembarked on the rocky coast of Isla Española just as the sun was rising over the island. Within seconds, I saw bright orange and red crabs scattered across the rocks, and sea lions napping in the sunrise. The sun sparkled off the sand and light reflected off the crystal clear water like glitter. I could barely believe how much I was already seeing. And it was so quiet. The only sound we could hear was the assortment of bird calls against the swishing of waves.

Crab. Isla Espanola.

As we took a few more steps inland, hundreds of red and black land iguanas grazed the sand, clinging to black rocks and standing guard across the beach. The large iguanas stood confidently on their turf, unfazed by our presence. They looked like small colorful dinosaurs, fearless and stoic.

Land Iguanas on Isla Espanola.

A baby sea lion played in the rocks nearby. Crabs scurried and then paused, as if posing for the cameras. We began our walk around the island (most of the islands are quite small), with our fingers on the triggers of our cameras firing photographs left and right like we were in the middle of a beautiful war zone armed only with cameras.

Blue footed boobie. Isla Espanola.

One of the creatures I was most excited to see on this trip was the blue footed boobie. I can’t really explain it, but I remember studying evolution in a tenth grade biology class and learning about the boobies (yes, I still giggle a little every time I say boobie). When we finally came across one, I was amazed how blue their feet really are. They are funny looking birds, with googley eyes and a long narrow beak. It was almost like they were posing for the camera. Part of the reason we arrived on the island so early was to see the male boobies doing their little mating dance to impress (and hopefully mate with, echem) the female boobies. This is something I wish had been passed to humans. I guess guys do a sort of “dance” to attract females, but I’d like to see some high kicks once in a while!

Blue footed boobie. Galapagos.

The boobie dance goes a little something like this: lift right foot very high. Put it down sloooowly. Nod head a couple times. Puff out chest and spread wings. Then repeat. Of course, each male boobie does his own special dance, but the moves are pretty limited and similar. Meanwhile, the female boobie will stand nearby looking on, and will give some sort of signal as to whether or not she is interested and/or impressed (or not — sorry Mr. Boobie). The male boobie does his jig, his blue feet twinkling in anticipation and hope, and the female boobie either determines that his moves are acceptable (aka: sexy), or she rolls her beady eyes and moves on to the next boobie (ouch!). It’s pretty fun to watch.

Blue footed boobie mating dance. Galapagos.

Words can’t really express what it’s like to be surrounded by so much wildlife while wandering around the brilliant cliffs and rocks of a virtually untouched island. When you visit the Galapagos, you realized how trodden our world is — how damaged, how interrupted, and how threatened our ecosystems are. It’s almost heartbreaking to see the contrast, and yet you realize how valued and cherished the Galapagos Islands still are to all who visit. What is so special about these islands? It’s getting to sample a piece of a world that isn’t ours. Spending time there felt like a privilege and a gift; it was like getting VIP access to the only part of the world that remains purely how it was intended to be.

Isla Espanola panorama.

Later that day, we got to visit the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. We traveled on The Nina to Gardner Bay, a white sand beach on the other side of the island. We slowly approached the shore through water so brightly turquoise it was hard for our brains to fully comprehend the colors. The water was completely transparent; you could see almost all the way down to the sand below, even 20 feet down. The only dark blotches that interrupted the sea were rocks, massive sea turtles (of which we saw many), and the occasional shark (sharks!) or sea lion.

Me lounging with sea lions on Garnders Bay, Isla Espanola.

When we landed on the beach of Gardner Bay, I was overwhelmed by its beauty, and by the string of sea lions lying across the shore as far as the eye could see. With no real predators, and with humans as non-threats, the sea lions had nothing to fear. That’s one of the most incredible things about being on the Galapagos Islands: we are so used to being scary humans, of being threats to most animals who run away in fear of our presence. But in the Galapagos, humans are not killing animals, destroying plants or overrunning the land. There, we arrived as peacefully as we could, with hearts full of respect for the wildlife. We accepted the fact that this is their world, and we were lucky that they were willing to share it with us. The animals in the Galapagos, luckily, know nothing else of us. But seeing untouched sand on a beach without human footprints of any kind makes you realize what a gift our world can be, and how much has been destroyed, and permanently taken away — not just from us, but from them. Even the Galapagos Islands are completely vulnerable. Shoes must be cleaned each time you leave an island so as not to disrupt or transfer any of the endemic flora from one island to another, and the old hiking mantra “leave no trace” is taken very seriously. Many islands don’t even allow shoes on the beaches, and your feet must be thoroughly hosed down with water each time you get back on your boat.

Sea lions along Gardners Bay. Isla Espanola.

When you go through all of these steps, you realize how easily life can be destroyed, and how easily these unique islands can be damaged forever. As much as I want to tell everyone they must go to the Galapagos Islands, I really don’t want any of you to go. Or, I should say, I don’t want too many people to visit, because I’m scared we could lose one of the only unscathed places that we have left. And surely, we eventually will, even with the Galapagos’ attempts at capping the amount of boats and the amount of tourists allowed on the island every year. The damage we cause is irreversible, and despite all the efforts of Darwin and his succeeding scientists and naturalists on the islands, our human desire to see and touch what has not yet been touched by our curious hands will only lead to the inevitable sullying of the very thing we cherish so deeply.

Baby sea lion. Galapagos.

Some moments from the trip are very hard to explain. For example, how do you explain what it feels like to look into the eyes of Lonely George, the last turtle of his species who has no interest in mating no matter what scientists try (surrounding him by sexy female tortoises accomplished nothing, and theories that he is gay live on)? Being in the Galapagos, you learn about how many species are facing extinction on the islands. On some islands, there are less than 70 of one species of iguana remaining. Less than 70! Sigh. And there is only one Lonely George.

One evening, after an incredible snorkel adventure during which I got to swim with sea lions and sharks (eek!) along a stunning coral-covered wall of a reef in the middle of the freezing ocean, the  young American couple, the 22-year-old Norwegian girl and I decided to take a break. We sat up on the roof deck of the boat, cool in the early evening breeze while The Nina cruised to the next island. We sat outstretched in our chairs, with the seat backs tilted as far back as they could go, and kept our gazes upwards as a show of frigate birds flew overhead. There we sat for hours, completely mesmerized by the mid-air dance of the birds, amazed at how close they would come to us, with dips and dives through the breeze of our boat as we cruised through a sunset that made us forget anywhere else in the world existed. We watched the males fight in the sky for the attention of the females, and we learned how their feathers flared and constricted to catch the fresh wind in all the right ways. We sat in silence for much of an hour, admiring the world we were a part of, appreciating every detail of its silence and its noise.

Frigate female flying overhead. Galapagos.

On a turtle plantation, we got to sit beside giant tortoises as they roamed the grassy fields. They had nothing to fear as we got closer to them and they allowed us to take photos of their ancient looking faces and dinosaur-looking feet. Every island we visited in the Galapagos had something different to show us, to teach us. The birds, the plants, the sand, the sea lions, the crabs, the turtles, the iguanas and everything in between was a gift. I feel privileged to have gotten this glimpse into such a rare and beautiful world. And yet I feel almost guilty for allowing my footsteps to make impressions in the sand at all.

Green sand beach, Isla Floreana.

Close up of the sand, with olivine minerals that give it its unique green sparkle.

Me with a giant tortoise. Galapagos.

And then there are the people with whom I shared this experience. I didn’t go to the Galapagos Islands for the people. I didn’t go intending to make new friends. I went because this experiences living in Ecuador has been one of the most challenging of my life, and I wanted to wrap it up with an unforgettable, beautiful adventure. I didn’t think too much about who would be on the boat with me for 5 days and 4 nights. In all honesty, I didn’t really care. But something special happened on this trip – something that can’t be planned.

Somehow, I related to this guy. Giant tortoise. Isla Santa Cruz.

I never imagined that an Arizona girl who doesn’t “believe in evolution” (yes, we had some pretty intense and interesting discussions on our boat), a stylish middle-aged woman from Switzerland, 3 Australian couples, a young couple from NJ, a young Norwegian girl and an Ecuadorian/Belgian/American family with two young children spending only 5 days on a catamaran in the Galapagos Islands could become such a family in so little time, but we did. After all, we shared a once in a lifetime experience together. We shared a slice of something special in this world. In an odd way, I felt closer to those people after five days than I feel to some people I’ve known for much longer, and saying goodbye was surprisingly heartbreaking. Once we arrived back in Quito, we all hugged and some of us got choked up. Most of us didn’t even exchange contact information. It’s like our friendships were endemic (yes, they like that word) to the Galapagos along with everything else!

Waiting for stingrays at sunrise. Isla Floreana.

You can’t plan the experiences when everything just clicks. Trust me, I’ve tried. You could say this adventure in Ecuador never fully clicked for me. So many things went wrong, so many things failed me, so many unexpected challenges arose. As I begin to pack for my return to the US, I’m only now beginning to see how many things have gone right. I do know this: being here has been worth every second and every lesson I have learned. I was tired of being sick (damn you, Juan the Amoeba!), tired of people trying to rob me with razor blades, tired of men hissing and making little comments every time I (or my fellow gringas) walked by. I was ready to blend in again. After getting bumped and smacked around by life enough times here, I now realize how much this place and this experience has taught me. I was so ready to take all that I had gotten out of this adventure home with me and call it a done deal. And then, just like, that in my final week here in Ecuador, everything came together.

Me in the sand of Isla Floreana.

Tomorrow, after over six wild months in Ecuador, I am going back to New York City. I am finally going HOME. But looking back, this whole experience in Ecuador was absolutely wonderful. I may have been attempted robbed three times, I may have had to deal with a resilient parasite and bacterial infection that put me in the hospital and forced me to curl up into the fetal position (shivering so hard I was scared to chip a tooth!) more times than I want to remember. I may have had to deal with some very difficult and frustrating situations, and re-evaluate a lot of things I have clung to. I had to let go, hold on, get my ass kicked, experience a coup attempt, go to sleep to the sound of machine guns, trudge through rain and mud at 12,000 ft when my body wanted to collapse from months of being sick. I had to give up many little luxuries that I didn’t even realize I had, and lean on new friends when all I wanted was to be strong enough on my own. But I am going home with a newfound love and appreciation of EVERYTHING. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for what I have had the pleasure of experiencing here in this beautiful and unpredictable country, and excitement for all I can experience with a refreshed soul when I get home. I love my friends, I love my family, and I love this world more than ever.

Isla Floreana. Galapagos.

Frigate bird. North Seymour Island.

Like all travel adventures, you can’t predict how you will be challenged or what you will learn, but as long as you’re willing to explore, you can be pretty darn sure that you will come home grateful that you went… wherever the trip took you.

Adios Ecuador. Thank you (for everything). New York City, I’m coming home.

Last morning in the Galapagos. North Seymour Island at 6am.

Here is a short YouTube video I created from the trip. I’m new at this, but enjoy:

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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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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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Gone ‘Til November

Life in Quito is about to get VERY busy.

For those of you who don’t know, I am coming home in early November. There is so much more to say about that, but there will be plenty of time to GO THERE, so to speak, later on. All I can say is that, when you decide to come home, everything becomes more wonderful wherever you are about to leave. It’s already becoming bittersweet, and while I don’t doubt the decision at all, I am afraid this next month and a half is just going to FLY…

Ecuadorian woman in indigenous garb. Otavalo Market, Ecuador.

Man, what have I been up to?! SO MUCH!

Over the weekend, I ventured to the famous (and overwhelmingly colorful) Otavalo Market. I am NOT a big shopper, and if I do any kind of shopping, I usually prefer to do it on my own and fast. I have to touch everything, and I’m in and out (uhhh, still talking about shopping here). I especially am not into shopping in the scorching sun (as much as I do love the sun, this whole Equator thing is very real), and I am not into being grabbed and lured into every single little tent when I’m just trying to look around. But, that said, it was a very nice trip and a good experience to get out of the big city and over to Otavalo. I had big hopes and dreams of getting friends and family members all sorts of easily-packable presents, but somehow I ended up with a bunch of random wall-hangings (for an apartment I don’t have, mind you) and one necklace of the Inca sun for myself. Oops!

Pile of Yarn and Gringos. Otavalo Market, Ecuador.

After the Otavalo market, we headed to Cotacachi, a place known as “the leather town” here. Now, I usually just stick to Argentina when I want something made out of leather, but this adorable little town in the middle of the Andes also cast some sort of spell on me. I had NO intention of buying anything in leather there, and only had $60 remaining in my left shoe (I had already gone into the right shoe for my other $60 while in Otavalo). Well, we walked into a store, I immediately saw the kind of leather jacket I’ve been looking for for years (a dark brown leather bomber), I tried it on, it fit perfectly, my friends encouraged me to throw down for it, I said F-it, I’ll take it, and that was that. The owner told me it was $78. I told him I had $60 in my shoe (visiting these places, bargaining becomes like a game). I found a couple more scraps of dollars in my bag, and it became mine for $70. Excellent.

Cotacachi Street. Cotacachi, Ecuador.

With only about a month and a half left in Ecuador, I am going to have to be very productive and efficient. I absolutely cannot leave South America without going to Colombia, and yet how can I leave Ecuador without visiting the Galapagos Islands?! I can’t afford either trip, especially with no job lined up for when I get home (YET! Anyone, anyone?! I’m available and on the hunt!), but let’s be honest: it’s not like that has ever stopped me before.

Here’s a song to match my current mood.

Basically, I’m in a good place. I am feeling great about being 27, about still having over a month of South American living, of speaking Spanish, of putting together an Argentina guidebook before I leave (this involves reading over 900 pages of writing in the next 2-3 weeks and cutting it down to about 600 or so), about things I’ve learned, adventures I’ve had, trips I still plan to take before I go…

Man on a bike. Cotacachi, Ecuador.

Some people have said to me, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out” because I am not staying in Ecuador the entire year. Look, that is absolutely NOT the case! It’s hard to explain this, but all I can say is that this trip has absolutely worked out. It hasn’t been about getting exactly what I want out of it (I didn’t know what I wanted), it’s been about taking everything I DO get out of it along in my little life suitcase. I came here with no idea what to expect, and that is exactly what I got.

With only about a month and a half of Ecuadorian adventures left, I’m going to have to try not to blink. It’s funny how deciding to go home can make you love that you aren’t there …yet.

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