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.

Our Last Bus Stop

Santiago, Chile

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After a heart-warming stay in Valpo meeting Bernardita and experiencing the cultural core of Chile, Shay and I hopped a bus – OUR LAST BUS!! – to the capital. Santiago is a beautiful, modern city with around 5 million people. Buuut let me back track a second to a pretty important point. OUR LAST BUS!!!!! Since October we have ridden approximately (hmmm let me think here… some quick, mumbled calculations… 2-Otavalo add another 2 back to Quito then 4 round trip to Mindo which after coming back we left for Santa Ana for 7 hours then down another 4 to Guayaquil… even on the Galapagos now there’s a couple hours… then of course we booked it 52 hours from Guayaquil to Cusco, from which we rode in a van 22 hours but I’ll count it… river journeys I’d say about another half a day on that Madre de Dios they’ve got down there… then we started up over to Titicaca 8 hours then 4 hours then 8 hours and we found ourselves in La Paz… Left for CBBA on an 8 hour trip… then roundtrip journeys to Uyuni, Villa Tunari, Oruro, Torotoro, and Oruro, respectively, for journeys of 42, 8, 24, 17, and 8 hours. And then limped back to La Paz for an 8 hour slog. Then from there to OUR LAST BUS!! To Santiago, well that’d be about 41 hours… so…) 283 hours on buses, boats, and sleeping overnight in a train car. So that’s how Santiago looked soooooo beautiful!

Anyway, Santiago is the business heart of the Andes, as bustling as NYC, and even has a subway system. The jump from cobble-stone roads and piling 8 people in a taxi and bus drivers who take a nap while his passengers are trying to pile rocks to make a ramp into the river was still hitting us pretty hard with Chilean transportation. Their buses have reader boards that warn the passengers when the speed limit has been surpassed or the driver has worked longer than his/her Ministry of Transportation requirements.

Santiago. We came in the afternoon, checked in our bags, and headed downtown. I had arranged (successfully this time) to stay with a Couchsurfing couple and we wandered around town to kill time while they were out and about for the day. We got off the metro at the U. de Santiago and walked by all the Freshmen students’ hazing ritual; they are stripped of their clothes, painted and shaved, and forced to beg for money until they’ve raised enough for a proper party. We ran into these bums several times throughout the day as we made our way to the Plaza de Armas through a sunny, tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare under glass skyscrapers. At the Plaza we saw local artists’ stands and tourist information booths attached to Seguays.

After a big city meal in an old diner we toured the National History Museum. My favorite part (other than a GIANT stuffed Great Dane – like 8 feet long!) was the newspaper articles about Pinochet’s coup de etât. Chile is a very democratic country. Being so, they were the first nation to freely elect a socialist head of state. Salvador Allende gained power in 1970 and started socialist programs that didn’t work too well. He hosted Ché and Castro, spurned the US, and found himself in 1973 with a contender to the throne launching a coup from an American-owned hotel as his headquarters. Allende surrendered after devastating defeat and immediately afterwards the Chilean newspapers announced that he had killed himself using the decorative gun that Castro gave him. The Argentinian newspapers were about the same, with the press in Madrid questioning his suicide. The British papers, however, outright denounced the suicide claim, put it straight about US involvement, and lamented the forced withdrawal and silencing of Allende’s supporters. In 1989 Pinochet was removed by a free election, the people could properly mourn the disappearances of thousands from political mass murder, and a journalist donated the crushed glasses of Allende she found the morning after he was killed.

They don’t like to talk about it.

We stayed with Alberto and his wife Inez. They just returned from a 17 month trip around the world living in Australia, riding a train across Mongolia, staying with friends in Stockholm and France, and going to Harry Potter’s Magical Wizarding World in Orlando. Their hospitality was incredible. We felt so comfortable and traded travel stories over Chilean wines.

Alberto came with us the next day to show us the town. We went to Pablo Neruda’s house in the Bellavista Neighborhood where the U. de Chile is. Neruda built this house to have stress-free visits with his mistress. Built in 1955 the house resembles a ship with a galley-style dining room, captain’s bar, and secret passageways. The decor has all been replaced from his house in France since Pinochet’s goons trashed the place looking for proof of Neruda’s support of Allende (Neruda was the French Ambassador at the time), but all the art is funky and includes gifts made by Diego Rivera and other famous artists.

Tito told us how to get to a soccer game and, finally, we get to go to a game in a Latin American stadium. We had tried while living in Cochabamba but the stadium and the team never updated their website, all the taxistas could only respond “oh there should be a game this weekend either Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday,” and the newspapers didn’t help, so we missed the chance to cheer on Aurora. At the U. de Católica game, we watched last year’s national champion with a bunch of drunks cheering with the label “Católica (Catholic)” on their back as the full moon rose over the pink Andes and the half-empty stadium. Católica won 2-1.

The next day we wandered around some more neighborhoods and then caught some modern art museum. Other than the “This is Art?” modern art section we saw a couple nice photographic portrait galleries of people from all over Chile. Tito and Inez invited us to her sister’s birthday party that night and so we partied for one last time, drinking Piscolas, eating Churrascos, and having difficulty understanding Chilean Spanish even though we’ve been immersed for 5 months. Inez’s mom related to us her backpacking adventure back in the day. She went to a nude beach in Greece and studied the volleyball players.

On Sunday, OUR LAST DAY IN SOUTH AMERICA, we went to Barrio Bellavista again and enjoyed Porotos Granados (white bean and pumpkin stew) and pastel de choclo (a corn- based steak pot-pie). We went to another soccer game. In Valpo we watched Colo-Colo play a Brazilian team for the Copa Liberatadores in a bar with a bunch of old men off from a day at the shipyard kinda guys. So we thought we’d go to their game and cheer on the working-class team. The game was terribly sloppy but it was nice to sit in the sunshine and reminisce on our trip and jeer at horrible passes.

That night Tito took us to the airport for our 3:30 AM flight. 20 hours later in Pheonix Kyle and Kelli saw an alpaca clad Shalynn walking with a long-haired, scraggly bearded khaki guy with a flamingo feather in his bowler hat and a hug band-aid on his swollen face. “It’s a good thing we recognized Shalynn cuz you look like a crazy guy!” Kyle told me. We are home!