Tag Archives: Ecuador

Canoa: Shakin’ It Down to Sea Level

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

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

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

Canoa La Magica. Photo by Chris H.

It all began with the earth shaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canoa, Ecuador. Photo by Chris H.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Ecuador

Purple Thread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s a whole other story.


Filed under Uncategorized

My New Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afternoon sunlight on a street in Old Town, Quito.

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

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

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

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

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Zipping Through Clouds

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

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

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

Forest. Mindo, Ecuador.

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

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

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

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

Waking up under a bug net. Mindo, Ecuador.

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

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

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

Basket in the sky. Mindo, Ecuador.

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

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

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

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

Waterfall in the cloud forest. Mindo, Ecuador.

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

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

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

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

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

Large bug. Mindo, Ecuador.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night night, world.


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Alemania Mania

Well, it’s over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sad Tavel, Happy German. Photo by Desiree A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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