Reasons to Love the Big Mud City

We did not come to Guayaquil to see the place. Ecuador’s main port, Guayaquil gets its name from the muddy, dark Guayas River that froths by the shacks and modern buildings of the city. It’s more dangerous than Quito and crowded, even if it is pleasantly warm. Not many tourists make it to Guayaquil; indeed most who come to Ecuador only see the airport in Quito and the Galápagos Islands.

Shay and I only came here to see Kenny, a kid I sponsor through Children International. Nevertheless, our time along the banks of the chocolate milk petri dish proved to be a romantic stay.In the first place, our hotel for what it lacked in a view provided a clean,private refuge from several days of night buses and shared bathrooms. We were able to relax, spread out, and do some much needed laundry in the sink. When venturing about the city we confined ourselves to the safe thoroughfares of the city’s business elite; amongst the swarm of suits and cell phones we walked by shop after shop of 3D TVs, cameras and motorcycles to the Boardwalk. Here I discovered my aforementioned prejudice against the waterway, but the clean “Malecón 2000” area had a nice park and several playgrounds, as well as a monument to the reunion of the South American liberators San Matín from Argentina (who liberated his own country, Chile and Perú) with Simón Bolívar, the famous revolutionary who really had it in for Spain.

We made our way north to a recently-renovated colonial neighborhood called “Las Peñas.”Walking up the hill of “Las Peñas” proved to repeal one of the ironic façades of tourism in developing countries. The neighborhood originally was a fortress with canons to fight off pirates and Spanyards but had since congealed to be like any other hilltop community: rundown. It was only preserved for its bullet-point past and its proximity to the commercial district – the only place tourists will stay. Looking down at houses or through to ones not up against the street, we could see that the great renovations of this historic gem were only superficial. The history barely out of sight were still embarrassingly scuzzy.But the day was warm and we walked hand in hand by freshly-painted pastels on cobblestone streets, joking and drinking orange Fanta. Enjoying our view from the top of the sun setting behind another geographically unfavorable and thus neglected hillside barrio, we tried to take sexy pictures of each other with our hair flying in the breeze. The results may not have justified our infatuation of each other to outsiders, but we sure had a good time teasing and trying until the sun was only present in our failed yet cherished attempts.

A Mad Hatter Day with Wonderful People

Santa Ana and Visquije en Medio, Ecuador

Have you ever felt like you’re being held hostage by incredibly nice people? When you’re catered to by kind folk stumbling in their generosity and you feel bad for saying no but they give to you regardless, and then your whole day’s plans are blown because a whole group wants to show you a good time and you have no way of getting on track without really disrupting the group’s mood, you might be in Santa Ana, Ecuador. You might have been in a similar situation, but in my case, the wonderful people were the kind-hearted staff of the Escuela Especial Jesús de Praga, and their coup d’grace was the nearby Hydroelectric dam.

Happily ruined all my plans.

Shay and I have come to this special education school in this rural area near Portoviejo… which is to say near Manta… which is to say four hours north of Guayaquil an hour inland from the coast… in order to make a video about the work the volunteer organization Venaecuador has done in the area. If you recall, our host in Quito Mariana is the founder of the foundation, and I promised her I’d help her out with some publicity. After an absent night’s sleep on a night bus, staying half awake so as to not oversleep our stop and another half awake in the cold, windy Andes, we wait for an hour in the bus stop of the forgettable Portoviejo. A taxi driver calls our contact and a while later Aracely #1 joins us. She has short hair, a black evangelical gleam in her eyes, and has helped coordinate with Mariana’s volunteers since the beginning. (After a while we learned that she’s related to almost everyone we meet, including the family we spend the night with.) Aracely #1 lives in the bonsey town of Portoviejo with her husband; he has a dairy store and is the merchant for the country areas we were headed. Other than that, Portoviejo has a ketchup factory, a mustard factory, a mayo factory, and a chifles factory.

At one point in the groggy morning a van went careening past our bus stop, and Aracely #1 quickly makes an angry phone call. Then same van makes a return trip and we board, joining a crew of a growing number of chatting teachers. Apparently, this is the van a volunteer from South Carolina fund raised for, because in the next twenty minutes we picked up teachers and students until we were obscured under our backpacks with 17 people in a 9 person van. Arucely introduces me with importance, emphasizing, “Él es un periodista (He’s a journalist),” and we meet Aracely #2, the school director, Mercedes, who shies from my camera until she does her hair and makeup, Andrés, a slow-talking teen, and the driver Julio. Shay and I laugh to each other as everyone else seems to be chatting and laughing and happy to see each other and start another day together.

The group gives us a toast at breakfast and we eat with all the teachers while the kids do whatever it is they go off and do in the morning. Many people we meet seem skeptical when we tell them we’ll only be in town for the day, but I think it’s just a poor mask of their drop in excitement. Mariana did not tell me about this stop so I’m kinda anxious to get to the library I’m suppose to film before my meeting with the mayor who helped the foundation build it, but for starters I humor Aracely #2 and go about filming the school. A physical therapist named Mónica gives me a tour. They work with babies up to adults and account for all kids with any kind of disability they encounter. A few kids look like they have Downs Syndrome, some have debilitating physical needs, one girl is deaf, and they all were unsure about me until I smiled; then they would accept my challenge and easily win the competition.

In an interview, Arucely #2 tells me they are trying to build a bigger therapy room. In one room their “patient table” is a ping-pong table with a pad. They are counting on Venaecuador, as the gift of the van has already improved the students’ lives in the forms of increased school attendance and medical transportation. I ask Fabian what color he’ll use next, hear a clapping song, and am greeted with smiles. Shay set right into work helping a girl write her name and I was sorry to collect her and leave these great people. But we’d get our fair share later.

We made it to the along-the-only-road-that-goes-through farming village of Visquije en Medio and I got a tour of the school Mariana told me I would film. Our host Maria Cecilia showed me the new bathrooms, kitchen, and water tower the volunteers helped buy and build, and the desks and wobbly wall next on the agenda. Sooner than we thought we met up with our happy circus troupe for lunch; it was one of their birthdays and so the only male teacher repeatedly broke any instant of silence with clapping for the birthday girl. I gave them all pictures I took in the Galápagos, and I reveled in pouring as much mayo on my rice as the next Santa Añan. I got the feeling we should just go with the flow – especially after I found out that the mayor was actually in Spain, that the vice-mayor’s dad had just died, and that instead of going to work on the video I would be getting an all expenses paid (by me for the gas money) trip to the Poza Honda Hydroelectric Dam!

Working for the Forest Service this summer, I would sometimes feel bad for going too fast on roads with washboards in a Heavy Duty truck paid for by taxes. In a van donated for disabled children to get to school and to medical appointments, however, Julio bore no chagrin as we

pummeled through the earth’s crust – exposed as every road within this power grid is in the middle stage of repair. Chatting and laughing all the way, our crew endured our role-playing game of Yahtzee! until we had to stop because some hunk of metal fell off our back end. They laughed it off. If this were a cartoon, Shay and I would be sitting in a mobile, chattering henhouse as Julio, a wolf, drove us into some unforeseen danger. He seems to be a good guy, but his squinty “The Fonze” too cool look and his clattering urgency would definitely make him the wolf.

They were obviously impressed with Poza Honda. I wasn’t. It blocks the confluence of three rivers and boils turtles and fish. They were proud, though, and Shay and I feigned our being taken aback.

On the way back we stopped at a farm/resort and sat in some hammocks for a bit. Shay tried to pick an orange and ended up needing Aracely #2 to pick out some flies chimpanzee-style from her hair. I think they sensed our exhaustion, and after an unseen Scotty “holdin’ her tugether cappin’” our van dropped us off at our farmhouse, and I filmed a girl reading a book.

We certainly had a mixed reaction about the place. It wasn’t until some time to relax that we were able to accept their kindness and see the beauty of the place. Maria Cecilia’s brother, Luis, gave us a tour of the farm. Up the hill grow bamboo, papayas, bananas, coffee, cocoa, pumpkins, mangoes, oranges, and a tropical tree that grows 10m a year! The cows were in the pasture and the sun left the valley soft and green. Luis bragged about the tranquility and after a break from the day’s excitement we let it sink in. After a full, diverse meal entirely grown on the farm (rice, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, plátanos, lemon, and cheese) and an outdoor shower under the full moon and surround sound of the forest, we were certainly appreciative.

The next day I got the shots I needed of children at the school. I interviewed another of Maria Cecilia’s brothers to fill in for the mayor. The whole time a skinny, mumbling boy was following me closely. He was blind in one eye and also had some trouble communicating, but he told me where to put my camera and to take pictures. As we walked to school he hugged me, and I put my arm around him. I told him he should be a director, and he kissed me on my chest and cheek. I couldn’t even understand him when he said his name, but I hugged him when I could. This boy – actually the same age as me – gave me a final, touching reminder to never doubt the good intentions of people with a lot of love to give.

A Beautiful Place in a Crazy World

Mindo is a quiet town in the mountains with a growing tourism industry. It’s sleepy-quiet, and always adorned with wispy clouds in the surrounding hills. It is the cloud forest, after all, and we came to see the birds and butterflies and to do a bit of hiking.

My sister Kelli and I came to Mindo last year but it took us a ten hour bus fiasco. Shay and I made it in two from Quito and called Julia, one of the host moms for volunteers of Venaecuador, a volunteer organization I work with. She set us up with a clean hostel with a balcony and a view of the elementary school’s basketball courts, and agreed to take us bird watching in the morning. We hitched a ride up to the zip lining course and got a better view of the area; zooming by us. Also a déjà vu of my trip with Kelli, this time the guides weren’t as enthusiastic and Kelli’s screams weren’t echoing through the canyon so overall it was a bit less exciting, but I did feel myself overcome by a huge grin as I realized: “I’m zip lining through the cloud forest!”

We caught a ride down the hill with a Swiss who was checking out the place to see if his adventure touring company should add it to its itinerary. Not a bad gig! We walked along the river toward the Mariposario (butterfly garden) and saw a few groups tubing on the rapids. Shay decided she’d like to return earlier in the day when the butterflies are more active so we just hung out in the garden and watched the dozens of hummingbirds fight over whose turn it was at the feeder. Back in town we met a young U.S couple who had sold their homes and are retired and living in Euador off of renters in Colorado. They agreed to go birding with us (we were running low on cash and the ATM in town wasn’t working, so they split the cost) and we went to get brownies at a cocoa farm/hostal/bakery.

I had never been bird watching with a guide (other than Shay) and had a great time! It’s really exciting! We started at 6 and saw a Rufous Motmot before leaving town. It has a shiny blue body and a bright orange head, and I got a shot of it perched with a hummingbird flying by. We saw some scarlet tanagers and some finches on nearby fences, and then Julia pointed out a parrot about half a mile away!  I was proud to see one pretty far away that she couldn’t identify at first, but decided it was a road-side hawk. Walking up the hill we stopped for a half hour at a small valley where we saw our first green toucanet. In the large trees behind we saw several more toucans and a green and red quetzal really close. Here it was like an I Spy book with the green birds in the green trees and the leaves hanging down like they’re perched on branches. Looking for movement proved the easiest way to see what you think you’re seeing, and Julia had a 5000x telescope that made the birds look like they’re inside your house.

We saw another flock of Toucans and then some very fruit-loopy Acaricari very close up before ending our hike at a cable car ride across the canyon. Being wet and mountainous, Mindo has several beautiful waterfalls. We rode across and started a hike to the largest, Cascada Reina. Very avid birders, we took a couple hours slowly taking in all the movement surrounding us. We also share a passion for photography that coyly becomes competitive, so we had a great time spotting lizards, hummingbirds, shiny bugs, and the wonder of nature that any young imaginative kid would pretend to explore. We crossed rickety bridges and waded in the water with our shoes off. It was a lovely hike!

Working our way back up we were determined to hit up the other side of the waterfall hike. When Kelli and I came here, it was toward the end of our journey and we were adamant to fully inhale and savor the tranquility of this waterfall hike. One waterfall, Nambillo, we had climbed around and played our childhood creek game “poohsticks” and promised each other that someday we’d return. The cable car stopped operating at 4pm and we weren’t sure they would wait for us, so I started walking faster and expected Shay to keep up. Nearing 3pm, we had been hiking for nine hours on one liter of water between us! My nostalgia became a near-frantic effort to celebrate our promise. I started to feel bad for slave-driving Shay, but we made it to the falls with plenty of time to spare. I looked at how similar the falls were, thinking how much has happened in my life and Kelli’s life and Shay’s life in the last year. Such a serendipitous return to such a specific place, so far away from home, yet so special and symbolic to two wonderful, shared adventures, inspired a realization of the permanence of nature and the permanence of memory in comparison to the mercurial moment.

We made it back to town at 5pm, after 11 hours of hiking, exhausted and thirsty. After long brain-freezes from too avidly downing cold water, we took a nap, got a pizza, and met with a volunteer from Seattle named Temple. He told us that on the one day coup d’etat there were Colombians robbing tourists in the sleepy town of Mindo at gunpoint. Despite its peaceful, calming beauty, we can even make Mindo a rough place in a crazy world.

Bracelets to Carry for 5 Months

Today has had it´s share of yelling. ”Valo-Otaval-vamosaotavalo!” yelled the bus steward all morning as I tried to sleep. ”Cuarenta-cuarenta naranjas para cuaren–un dolar naranjas un dolar!” Can you guess where I made I contact with the orange-seller? Right in between forty cents and $1. We´re getting the gringo price.

Otavalo boasts the biggest open-air market in the world. It is not the most diverse. Like any sort of ”handicraft” mecca, there are repeats perfect for leveraging against other shops when haggling. Today I bought: Ecuadorian flag bracelet (.75), headband ($2), the common – yet very colorful Peruvian ear-flap hat ($5), a belt that I am using as a shoulder strap (the worst bargain of the day as the 8 year old girl was made of much tougher stuff than me and wouldn’t budge $7), and an Ecuadorian flag hacky sack ($1, but I found myself arguing down to .75 and then wondered to myself, why am I arguing over a quarter?). Shay went for the fences. Other than about the same, she got an alpaca sweater ($15), earrings (2 pairs for $7, but I approve), and like 2 weeks worth of Ecuadorian wages in bracelets. Despite the hyperbole, seriously, she´s bangled.

We found a hostal for the night for $4 each, ate a wonderful plate of street food (chicken, potatoes, eggs, rice and vegetables with the ubiquitous ahí chili sauce), and then asked around for a bus to the Condor Center.

People are very nice and helpful, patient and always complimenting us on our Spanish. The bus from Otavalo dropped us off by a lake in a nearby village and we walked a few miles uphill to the Condor Center. Farms with cows and pigs-on-a-rope and fields of purple-flowered pea bushes bordered the dirt road with a view of the dramatic, cloud obscured peak that rises from the lake below with a patchwork of farms and scattered houses around its base. Purple-flowered pea bushes.

The Condor Center has hawks, eagles and owls from all over the Americas. They are all rescues, but nonetheless saddening. The Andean Condor has a wingspan up to ten feet, is the largest flying bird in the world, the national symbol of Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela, and has a cage 30’x20’x15′ tall. But almost all they re-release die within a week. We saw a harpy eagle from Mexico, kestrels, pigmy and a beautiful snowy owl, and the closest I’ve ever been to an American Bald Eagle. I felt a patriotic duty to set him free. He was in a garden, chained to a pole, and 5 feet away. The ones without cages had bells on their feet. They are doing a wonderful service to educate and rehabilitate, but it seems so hard to see such powerful and ranging birds caged.

They had a short exhibition in which a few birds got to fly around, and sitting in an amphitheater overlooking Otavalo and the valley I felt a bit better for them. I also enjoyed the air and the overlook and Shay and I broke in my hacky sack on the mountain (it was very reminiscent of work this summer – hiking up a hill and having a hack-session). On the way down we rode with some Dutch travelers, walked them to the bus station, and then found a hole-in-the-wall with 35 chickens on the rotisserie.

The day ended with a different sort of yelling. When we left the Internet cafe we heard yelling and laughter coming from the main square where the market had been. We came up to a group watching a street performer painted like a mime. As we approached, he instantly brought attention to us. He smiled and yelled, “Hello!” in an over-emphasized gringo accent. We repeated the loud enunciation.

“Jwer arr ju frum?”

“¿Mande? (What?”)

The crowd laughed that he couldn’t communicate with us.

He asked us in Spanish how we like the marketplace, Ecuador, and where we’d go. We answered we’d go to the Galápagos and he said very sarcastically, “¡Esto es Ecuador!” (That is Ecuador) Then he asked if we’d been robbed yet and left the circle to have us put money in his hat. We gave him all our change.

He counted it.

I had Thirty six cents.

He showed the crowd and announced how cheap we were and they all laughed.

Later I realized the mime paint was actually gringo paint and he was making fun of all the tourists that come to Otavalo, dress nicely, spend thousands of dollars to go see the Galápagos, and then try, in limited Spanish, to swindle the locals into the lowest haggling prices.

And we gave him $0.36.

I left my blood in Houston

The view from Mariana Lara’s  house wiped away any stress, fatigue, or preoccupation from a day of plane hopping. Looking over Quito – a lake of a city that floods the valley toward Volcan Cotapaxi – I felt so calm and elated to be here again.  But maybe that was the altitude… or my worrysome mistake.

During our layover in Houston I thought it would be thoughtful to donate blood at an airport employee picnic. I wondered about flying afterward, but I have given blood at the U of O before and never had much of an adverse effect. I asked the nurses and they weren´t sure how flying would affect me, but the pamphlet only said not to work on an airplane for three days so surely I could just sit there lumped in my seat and circulate enough oxygen not to pass out? Well after watching me donate, Shay reminded me that Quito is at elevation. 9000 feet. Oh yeah.

Then I felt a little woozy.

The plane ride was fun, though. I was ok. Didn´t stand up or anything, but I made it alright. And I got to eat a lot of cookies.

Landing in Quito went incredibly smoothly. Marcos, a taxi driver who works with Mariana and picked up my sister Kelli here just over a year ago, picked us up at the airport and told us how well loved the President Rafael Correa is. There was a small coup d`etat on September 30th but it was just some riots started by the police in protest to Correa cutting their quintannial bonuses (They actually got a 3x mensual raise, and Correa got tear gassed). Anyway, we were safe and well received at Mariana´s.

Mariana is one of the kindest women I know. She retired after owning several nightclubs in Quito and started her own organization Venaecuador. She has helped build schools and libraries all over Ecuador and coordinates volunteers in orphanages, women´s centers, hospitals, and set up my internship working for the Galapagos National Park last year. She dotes on us, makes us feel completely at home, and stayed out until 1:30 am last night to help organize a church bazaar. She then made us breakfast at 6:30 this morning.

I was so happy to see her again, and excited to share Quito with Shalynn. I take her to the sites of Old Town: The Basilica, Plaza de Independencia, and the oppresive works of Catholicism on an indigenous people. I got to share these places last year with my sister Kelli too, so coming here a third time with two of my favorite people is a pleasure and strangely normal. I feel at home here.

After visiting the tourist center “Gringolandia,´´ Mariana took us to a birthday party. Two of her volunteers live with Carlita, who is turning 24. We celebrate with cake (Mariana, her mother, had me repeat how it was so rrrrrrrico! and dramatically swooned with the compliment) and wine that Shay brought (as she always does). Carlita and her boyfriend Jose took us and Canadians Zoe and Kristin out to a club. It was empty, but for a birthday special we got all the ladies in for free, the guys for $12, and open bar! Well all-you-can-drink strawberry margaritas, but who’s complaining. We danced and drank margaritas, and got a ride home with a Cuban taxi driver while Jose repeatedly screeched in front of Carlita and the girls´ taxi in protest to her refusing to ride home with him. I guess he proved he was sober enough…

Friday we took a tour up the TeleferiQo – a gondola that goes up to the 12,500´ Pinchincha. The main engine didn´t work, so we got into the gondola with an Ecuadorian/Californian and a Scot/Brit couple and the auxilary engine slowly pulled us into the sky. We had a wonderful view of the city and a great opportunity for handstands. We tried to meet up with Zoe and Kristin at the Natural Sciences Museum but went in alone as it was closing. Lots of bones and formaldyhide and a Bengal Tiger for some reason. Shalynn liked the butterflies (as she always does). We found the Canucks after an hour and took them back to Mariana´s to see her puppies. Correa was speaking about the uprise in Plaza de San Fransisco – which complicated our plans of going there for the night activities as the plaza was full with people, police, and barricades. Marianna had to drive for about 45 minutes to find her way into La Runda, the oldest street in Quito. Representative of colonial city planning, the people party with traditional food and drink every night. We had empanandas, canelazo (warm, and alcoholic), and mote con chincharron, a mix of fried white corn and pork.

Today we left for Otavalo and a bit more independent travel. We had been returning to Mariana´s for all three meals and getting directions every step. She is so kind and energetic and generous. I left my blood in Houston, but I left behind urgency and English, and Shay and I have started our dream trip happily and completely and fully (minus a pint).