Thursday, June 28, 2012

Touring in the Middle of the World

Hello Friends and Readers!

We've had a couple of busy days seeing many sites in and around Quito, which we learned comes from an indigenous, pre-Incan word 'Ki-Tu", which means middle of the world. The people here thousands of years ago knew that they were in the middle of the world based on the stars! The full name is "San Francisco de Quito" which translates to "St. Francis of the Middle of the World". I guess that makes San Francisco, California the St. Francis of the North!

Monday, we headed back to Otavalo to witness some celebrations for Inti Raymi, which is a summer solstice and harvest festival celebrated by different groups from Ecuador to Peru. We woke up very early (6:30... okay, I know it's not that early, but it was very early for us!) and took a cab to the northernmost bus station, Terminal Carcalen. We then grabbed a bus to Otavalo and the ride was uneventful; they even showed a movie about the Mayans, but the dubbing was terrible! All the voices were down by the same guy with no emotion... but I digress. We arrived in Otavalo around 10 AM and started toward the center of the city when we happened upon a parade of locals and school children, all dressed up, playing music, singing and dancing, carrying trestles with fruit hanging from them. After watching the parade, we continued towards the center of town for some coffee and empanadas. We wandered about town looking for the alleged Melcocha Fair (melcocha is sort of like taffy), but could not find it. We eventually found ourselves at a park witnessing some dancing and music and many families picnicking and enjoying the holiday. Seeing all that food made us hungry ourselves, so we headed to our favorite Chifa and enjoyed a Chinese lunch! The reason we knew today was a good day for the celebrations was because a friend from UCLA, Jessie, is doing her dissertation field work in Otavalo. (You can read about her experiences learning and living with a local family here.) Around 2 PM we took a bus towards her part of town and met Jessie and the family she is living with, including Patricio who is also her teacher. Patricio is the last flutist in his community and is very knowledgable about his culture and history and was an excellent guide for the afternoon. We got to see their home, which includes a kitchen, where live cuy (guinea pigs) are kept for food, a large bread oven, and a room with looms where they make traditional textiles. Jessie gifted us an amazing piece with a picture of two llamas, for which we are very grateful! We then went in search of the band of musicians who were playing house to house, sort of like Christmas caroling, and receiving food and drink in return. Many of the participants were in costumes, but unlike Halloween, where costumes are meant to frighten, these costumes are meant to make fun and show people/things that the people like or would like to be; perhaps a little like Purim. (The holiday is also a harvest festival and the families hang fruits and bread from a trestle, sort of like Sukkot!) Matt and I joined in a little dancing and a little drinking before heading over to the Capilla at Patricio's suggestion. The Capilla is a church that the Spanish built over a former sacred site (old news). As we walked towards the Capilla, he told us about how many different groups celebrated, from the different costumes they wear in different groups all over the Northern Highlands, to the Incan groups in Peru. In fact, he told us, Inti Raymi as a sun celebration is something they inherited from the Incas; before, his community worshipped the moon and the river/water. He also told us how rain and rainbows have different meanings or omens depending on where they are situated in relation to their community. I found it interesting how this community had survived so many different conquerors and how they have adapted traditions into their own and survived (sound like another ethno-religious group I know?). In front of the Capilla, there was more dancing and music making as well as stalls with games, selling food, and finally, the much anticipated melcocha! We were waiting for the group of musicians to arrive and go into the Capilla for dancing, but like many people in Ecuador, they were very late in arriving. Unfortunately, the last bus returning to Quito was at 7 PM, and to top it off, Matt wasn't feeling very well (perhaps something in the many fried donuts we had or who knows), so we caught a cab back to the bus station and were on a bus at 6 PM. We did see the procession heading towards the Capilla on our way, though! We arrived back in Quito at 8, again no trouble on the bus, and came home exhausted from a wonderful day.

Tuesday, the tourism continued. We slept a little later, but were still out of the house before noon. We took the Ecovia tram up towards Parque la Carolina to check out some gardens and museums. On Andrey's suggestion, we got of at Benalcalzar and walked down a street called Portugal that is home to some nice shops and coffee shops. Much to my delight, there was a Bagel shop! I had just been telling my mother how I craved a good bagel with lox and it felt like someone must have been listening! I was so delighted to have a freshly toasted sesame bagel with cream cheese and lox, tomato and onion. I believe we will be heading back at least once more before leaving Quito! After a delightful brunch, we continued to the park. Our first stop was the Vivarium, which had several nice enclosures for snakes and other reptiles from all over the world. We saw several venomous snakes with large triangle shaped heads. Next, we headed to the Botanical Gardens, which had plants from all the regions in Ecuador. We saw many beautiful orchids, trees, and medicinal plants. There was also a local cat who decided to be our tour guide and followed us all over the park. The highlight was definitely the area with carnivorous plants!! Our last stop was at the Museum of Natural Science. This small museum had an interesting collection of shells, corals, insects, and taxidermic animals from Ecuador.

Wednesday, we were up early again to the Mitad del Mundo, middle of the world. Even though we will be visiting the site with our parents this weekend, we wanted to make sure to hit up the museums in the area. After visiting the monument on the Equator (which is actually about 300 meters off the mark!) we went to the Museo Solar Intinan, which had some history of the area and Ecuador followed by some science demonstrations on the ACTUAL equator line, measure by GPS. Apparently, every "second" of latitude accounts for 32 meters, and this line is the center of the center of 0 00'00". My favorite was a demonstration of the Coriolis effect, which is the water swirling counterclockwise north of the equator, clockwise south of the equator, and NO SWIRL on the equator! We also tried to balance an egg and saw how gravity effects our equilibrium. It was a lot of fun, our tour guide was very knowledgable and kind. He spoke English, but we took the Spanish tour. (Towards the beginning of the tour, he asked if we were from Chile and upon discovering we were "Estadounidenses", remarked what good Spanish we spoke! This is actually the second time we've been asked if were are Chileno!) At the end, Matt got a stamp on his passport (mine was back at the apartment, darn!) and I got a certificate from the Mitad del Mundo! We ate lunch near the Mitad del Mundo then headed back. We accidentally got on a bus that was not going back to the MetroBus station, but took us a lot closer to the center, so we eventually were able to switch busses with the help of a newspaper vendor and made it home safe!

Today, we took it easy, sleeping in and making French Toast with some brioche from a local bakery. Tomorrow, Andrey has asked that we show him some "Jewish Food", so we will be making Latkes! I've already made my own applesauce and we bought potatoes and onions, so we are ready! In just 2 days, my mom and step-dad (Belinda aka la Jefe and Mike aka Miguelito), Matt's parents (Saralyn aka Mopsita and Allan aka Zorro), and our friends, a mom and daughter pair, Ollie and Barb (no spanish names...yet!), will be arriving in Quito. We will spend Sunday touring Quito and then its off to the Galapagos for a cruise! Check back next week for GUEST POSTS from our parents and travel buddies!

I want to apologize for the lack of pictures - the ping time on the internet here is very slow and it can take up to an hour to upload just 10 pictures. We will try to get some up, soon!

Thanks for reading and see you soon!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Quito Round 2 - and Equipment Failure Round 2

Hello again loyal readers of We are back in Quito having fun and staying safe. Getting here from Playa Canoa was much easier, turns out there is a direct night bus, so we left monday night and showed up tuesday morning. Unfortunately, the bus was rather uncomfortable, and we ended up sleeping much of tuesday to make up for it. On Wednesday we went to the museum in the Centro Cultural and had a free tour. We learned a lot about historical Ecuadorian leaders, and about how instrumental Quito was in some of the initial revolutions and separating from Gran Colombia. We also went to the Museo de la Ciudad which had a lot of very interesting and lifelike wax figures, as well as pictures and exhibits about Quito throughout history. The Museo de la Ciudad also seemed to have recently been upgraded as many of the exhibits now had flat screen televisions with videos and so forth. There was also an exhibit about the hospital and how much it has changed in the past few hundred years. Thursday and Friday we took it easy, checked out the central market and bought some raw materials for making a delicious array of food. Yesterday we went to the weekend crafts fair at Parque El Egido. We also participated in a marksmanship contest where we tried to shoot a dart gun at candy. We did not win. Today we took the Teleferiqo up to an altitude of 4100 meters and had an amazing view of the city. At the summit we managed to buy some grilled beef with potatoes, vegetables and sausage. We also sipped a little Coca tea to deal with the extreme altitude. Oddly enough it is nearly flavorless, but we felt much more acclimated after drinking it.

In other news, our water purifier has broken again. Those of you who have followed us diligently know that we started off the voyage with a SteriPen Traveler. It broke about four or five weeks in, and the folks at SteriPen were kind enough to ship us a new one in Guatemala. It has proven to be very useful as bottled water is hard to come by in the Amazon, and it was much easier to fill up a bottle from the river and SteriPen it instead of building a fire. However today we tried to clean some tap water and it thought it did the job, but the actual lamp did not turn on(it uses UV light to purify the water). I tried switching out the batteries with spares, but got the same results. In the owner's manual it says that I should ship it back for warranty repair if this happens, which at this point is not really possible since by the time they get it in New Hampshire, we will be somewhere else, and with postal timeframes in this part of the world, I decided to throw in the towel on this product. It seemed like a really great idea, but for whatever reason we are batting .000 with SteriPen. Looks like we will be buying bottled water from this point forward. On the bright side, the backpack is a little lighter!

As you will recall, when we first came into Ecuador we stayed in a small town called Otavalo, we are going to head back there tomorrow for the day because they are celebrating the summer solstice with a weeklong festival. We have heard that it is something like Thanksgiving with lots of food, so it should be quite interesting. We will keep you posted!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Playa Canoa

After relaxing in Baños we decided to relax on the beach. This decision is based on the fact that almost every Ecuadorian we meet tells us of the three region of Ecuador, the coast, the mountains, and the east. All that was left for us was the beach. So we left Baños and headed for Ambato. In Ambato we caught another bus to the inter-provincial terminal and bought two tickets to Manta. We had about nine hours to kill so we got on a different bus and went to downtown Ambato. We met a nice half-Peruvian, half-Alaskan who told us that he liked South America more than Alaska, and then we found a small coffee shop to hang out, watch some tv, and eat lunch. We got back on a bus to return to the bus station and got on our long bus ride to Manta. The next morning, we arrived in Manta around 6:00 A.M. And promptly got on a bus to Bahía which was a two or three hour jaunt. In Bahía we got on a bus across the bridge to Canoa, about an hour ride, and finally made it. We have been hanging out on the beach, eating delicious coastal food (lobster, shrimp, conch, crab, squid, fish, rice, vegetables) and getting used to hammocks again. Tomorrow night we will most likely be heading back to Quito for some touristy fun until our families arrive to visit.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Relaxation, Cuy and Caña!

Since our return from the Jungle, we've decided to rest up here in Baños.  In addition to the many adventurous activities here, there are also spas galore!  I decided to try a Hot Volcanic Stone massage, seeing as we lie in the shadow of an active volcano.  I have to say, it was a little different.  The masseuse did all the same things you might do in a traditional massage, but she had hot rocks in her hands and rubbed my body with them.  While the warmth was soothing, the rocks don't have the same dexterity has fingers do for getting into those sore muscles.  The highlight of the treatment for me was the face massage that included a chocolate mask.  It smelled scrumptous!  (Matt is not a big fan of massages and chose to relax with a cup of coffee in a cafe, instead.)  Today, we headed back to the Piscinas de la Virgen and the hot pool was especially hot today, so we stayed mostly in the warm pool, near the hot side.  Being a Monday, it was a lot less crowded, which was nice.  

Of course, we've been eating to regain our strength, too.  Yesterday, we had a specialty of the region for lunch - Cuy, also known as Guinea Pig, grilled, with potatoes, rice, and salad.  I have to say, the taste of the cuy was something truly unique.  We split a half-cuy, and we got the lower half which included Belly, some organs (heart, I think), back and legs.  This particular restaurant used a sort of peppery-glaze which was yummy and the meat is tasty, too.  The taste of the meat is really unique, not like chicken or beef or anything else I can describe, but the texture reminded me somewhat of duck: crispy skin and dark, fatty meat.  Matt says the belly reminded him somewhat of chicharron, which is pig belly, but I wouldn't know.  I'm really glad we tried this dish we've heard so much about and would surely eat it again if the right opportunity presented itself.

We had a late breakfast after the piscinas this morning, at Yolanda's Puesto #19 in the mercado, so we just decided to get a little snack of sugar cane this afternoon.  Since sugar cane is actually a grass, we can't eat it because humans are not ruminants, like cows, and cannot digest grass.  Instead, you suck and chew on the cut bits getting the juice (guarapo) out and throw away the stalk.  Yum!  

We have really enjoyed Baños and now  plan on heading to the coast tonorrow.  The internet is a little slow here, so we've been delayed in uploading photos, but we're working on it.  As always, we will keep you posted! 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Amazon!!!

Hello again from Baños. When we last spoke, we were just preparing for our Amazon journey. I am happy to report that we returned safely early this afternoon with no major injuries, missing limbs, or new pets. We did however acquire some bug bites. To get to our little corner of the jungle we took a bus to Puyo, and then caught the bus going to Macas telling the driver to drop us off at kilometer 48, where the reserve is. There we met Jose, our contact person, and a member of the Shuar tribe that lives on the Arutam reserve. We ate lunch and got settled into our very rustic surroundings. Our roommate was a really neat flying beatle. We also got to use our mosquito net for the first time ever!! That afternoon we took a brief hike through the jungle for about an hour and a half with one of the Shuar tribesman who chopped down a tree which we later ate for dinner. It was a palm tree, and we ate the heart of it.

The next day we ate breakfast, which consisted of about a dozen fried bananas and some banana/yuca patties and then we set off into the jungle. After a few hours of fairly strenuous hiking and looking at very small monkeys we arrived at the jungle house, a significantly more rustic wooden building with nothing but wooden planks and the soul of the Amazon to sleep on. We ate lunch and then hiked down to the waterfalls which required a bit of ropework to navigate down the mountain. These waterfalls are a source of strength for the Shuar, and they consider the waterfalls a place to communicate with their deity. We then hiked back up to the jungle house for dinner, and a dessert of fire-roasted caterpillarsb (or grubs)!!! The neat thing about these caterpillars is that they are very fatty, so when they are cooked, the fat comes out and almost fries them. I thought it tasted like a cheesy french fry, Sarah had to spit hers out, but our guide said that live ones are even tastier. We slept that night on wooden planks, not exactly comfortable.

The following day we journeyed down to the river using a path that hadn't been traversed in some time. On the way our guide chopped apart a fallen tree and grabbed a half dozen caterpillars. We ate a few, and the rest were to be used for fishing. Again, I found the live caterpillar to be delicious, very crunchy and juicy at the same time. Sarah however, was less than thrilled and didn't even try it. Anyways, it is interesting to mention that there were quite a bit of fallen trees with other plants growing on top. You can really see the cycle of plant life in the Amazon with some trees growing very tall, falling, and then hundreds of little plants growing on top. We eventually arrived at the river and went for a swim while our guide did some fishing. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful, so after an hour or two we headed back to the jungle house. We had a late lunch, and decided that we didn't want to sleep on a wooden plank again so we hiked all the way back to the main village for dinner. This morning we woke up, ate breakfast, caught a Quito-bound bus on the side of the road, and hopped off in Baños.

A few reflections. We realized that modern technology and city living has changed the culture of the Shuar people significantly. They all have cell phones, and even the grandmother had a television. One of the dinners we had in the jungle included Quaker oatmeal. However, Jose, our contact person, is one of 23 brothers and sisters between his father and his two wives. It is also a very male-dominated (borderline chauvinistic) society. Sarah wasn't even allowed to touch the flute during a bonfire cultural explanation even after I explained that she was the musician, nor was she permitted to eat the spicy sauce with dinner the first night. I'm prettynsure the only reason she was even allowed to eat at the table was because she was a paying guest - everyone else at the table were men. The last night there was some birthday cake, and the grandmother ate hers crouched in the kitchen on the edge of the dining room; not entering as her culturemdidn't permit her to eat in the room with men. Of course, there are many beautiful things in their culture, too. They have a unique relationship with the jungle they live in and know many of its secrets. Unfortunately, it seems their culture is slowly evaporating as many of the children prefer to speak Spanish and are chosing to live a non-Shuar lifestyle. We got the feeling that in two or three generations the only Shuar left practicing their traditional culture will probably just be a few who operate the reserve for tourists and the families that love extremely deep in the jungle, rarely interacting with modernity. I suppose only time will tell.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chiva to the Volcano!

¡Buenas tardes followers of the team! Last night we took a chiva bus to the top of a local mountain for some amazing views. The plan was originally to look at the neighboring volcano, currently in eruption mode. However, we were basically situated in a giant cloud, and could only see the city. We did have an awesome view of the city at night and the spires of the church are lit up. We will upload photos when we get somewhere with decent internet. By the way, a chiva bus is basically a disco on wheels in bus form, so we managed to drink 3 liters of beer or so, as well as some canelazo at the top of the mountain.

Tomorrow we head into the Amazon. We have signed up for a four day excursion where we will be lead by natives through various hunting, hiking, and anaconda-running-away-from activities. We will update you when we escape the teeth of the mighty amazonian pirahnas, caimans, poisonous snakes, and other goodies. If you don't hear from us by June 12th or so, please contact the US embassy in Quito to arrange a search party. ¡Hasta luego!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Baños Adventures

Hello and greetings from Baños, Ecuador's adventure capitol!  Let me bring you up to date on our adventures since we last wrote:

We decided we ought to do a little touring while in Quito, even though we plan to do most sight-seeing when we return in a few weeks.  We walked around town with Andrey one day, taking some photos with his cell phone in the Plaza de la Independencía and from a restaurant called El Mirador, for its wonderful views of the city.  On Thursday, we took ourselves to the Cathedral, which is home to many paintings of the Quito school: indigenous artists trained in the Spanish style who worked their own culture and beliefs into the christian paintings they did.  One scene in the church features Jesus eating cuy (guinea pig) at the last supper!  They also have a museum with portraits of every bishop ever to hold office in Quito, many robes and hats worn by church officials for the last 300 years, and paintings and silverwork done by local artisans for the church.  After the church, we walked across the plaza to the Casa Presidencial, Ecuador's White House if you will, and took a tour.  We could not see any of the rooms currently in use for political purposes, but the tour did take us through several beautiful rooms, including the very high tech cabinet room, the dining room, and the "yellow" room, with portraits of all the presidents, where Press conferences are usually held.  We also saw many gifts to the president of Ecuador from other nations which were on display.  While we did have to go through a metal detector and present ID to visit, the overall security was somewhat lacking, in comparison to my experiences in Washington, DC.  There are also several small shops under the government building on the plaza with absolutely no security.  I suppose the government has a lot of trust of its citizens!

On Friday, we got a slow start, enjoying the morning in Quito with friends, but eventually made our way to the bus station and on to Baños.  The city is in a valley between mountains and a volcano, which is the heat source for the thermal pools.  Friday night we learned the lesson, again, that groups of more than 10 are really annoying!  A group of Canadian students was staying in our hostal, there were perhaps 25, and they decided to stand outside our room talking until 3 am, despite our request that they move and talk more quietly.  At 8 am, having gotten very little sleep, we decided to head to the pools to relax.  There are several pools in and around town, but we decided to go to one that is close by and well recommended.  The site is right next to a waterfall, so the view is lovely!  The pools were actually paved like swimming pools and many children were playing and learning to swim in the cooler, but still warm, pool.  There was also a cold pool for lap swimming and the the hot pool where most people just sat and relaxed.  The water had many minerals in it and had a sort of murky yellow color.  After about two hours between the hot and warm pools, we were well wrinkled and decided to get some lunch.  We headed to the central mercado where Matt had Yaguarlocro, a potato soup with blood sausage, and I had Seco de Pollo, a chicken stew, that came with some excellent cheesy-fried potatoes.  Exhausted from the lack of sleep and the hot water, we napped in the afternoon.

Yesterday, we went canyoning!  Canyoning is repelling down waterfalls.  We stocked up on a big brunch at the mercado, Matt had more yaguarlocro and I had lapingachos - a platter with more cheesy-fried potatoes, egg, sausage, salad of tomatoes, onions, beets, and lettuce, and avocado.  Our adventure got off to a slow start, as we had been told to arrive at 2 but the other couple coming were told 2:30.  We also shared a bus with a group going rafting, so we had to wait for them and all their gear.  When it came to our gear, we had wet suits, worn over our bathing suits, a jacket, harness, and helmet, and non-slippery shoes.  While they did have a XXXL wetsuit that fit Matt, the biggest shoes they had were a size 44, 3 sizes too small!  So Matt wore his keens, which were a little slippery but did the job.  Unfortunately, we don't have any pictures as I didn't want to risk submerging my camera.  It was a perfect day, sunny and warm, though a little windy.  We first had to hike up to the top of two of the waterfalls, the first was 18 meters high, the other 20.  The first fall we repelled "alone", that is to say without a guide rope - just one rope connected to you and the mountain and you walked backwards down the waterfall.  I tried to stay towards the side, as the water was quite powerful in the center.  When close to the bottom, the guide calls out "1-2-3-salta!" and you jump backwards into the pool!  It's really fun, though sometimes hard to get up out from under the waterfall!  The second, taller waterfall, the guide attached a second rope to the harness that he controlled to help stabilize on the way down.  At the bottom of the two waterfalls, we cross the highway to continue dowm three more.  The first fall was 5 meters and you go down like a waterslide - on your back, arms crossed, with the guide rope controlling the fall.  The last two falls are connected - a rappell down 5 meters, then you switch ropes and do a 40 meter free fall controlled by the guide.  I rappelled down the first part easily but when I saw the second part, or rather, couldn't see the ground under the waterfall, I told the guide, "No voy a mentir, tengo miedo!" (I'm not going to lie, I am scared!") But he told me to be "tranquila" and trust him becuase he's professional.  I held onto the rope and stepped out onto the watefall.  I took a few steps down and though, 'This isn't so bad...' and that's when the freefall started!  I was surprised, but then it was awesome!  You fall between a sort of cave and the waterfall, so the water is coming down directly on you and the whole scene in beautiful!  When I got the bottom, I unhooked and wanted to run up to the top to do it again!  Unfortunately, what goes down must come up and it was quite a hike to get back to the highway.  By the time I got there, I was so tired that the thought of hiking back up again was not appealing.  The rappelling was hard work and my hands and knees were tired, too.  Matt decided not to do the last 2 falls, so I give everyone who reads this post permission to call him a wimp.  There was a 6-year-old boy, the son of a guide, who went down the last 3 falls, proving that children know no fear!  There was also a French girl who got to the first fall, and decided not to do it!  There goes $25, because you know they don't give refunds.  Overall, we had a lot of fun and I would definitely recommend the experience to anyone in Baños.When we got home, we took a hot shower and grabbed some Chinese food for dinner.  I am so happy for the chifas here in Ecuador - I don't think I realized how much I missed it!  It's also cool to see Chinese people speaking fluent Spanish.  We were so tired that we hit the hay early.  

We slept a good night and woke up early this morning, enjoying a breakfast of cheese and banano empanadas and freshly squeezed jugo.  The empanadas here are almost like the hojaldre of panama - a puffy fried bread - with filling then sprinkled with sugar.  This afternoon, we plan to take a chiva bus tour of some other waterfalls in the area.  We are still looking into making arrangements for a trip into the Amazon.  As always, we will keep you posted.  Thanks for reading!