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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