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Reflections on Ecuador

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

*Written 2010-07-08; posted by airport WIFI 2010-07-15*

country_houseWe’ve seen many different kinds of places so far during our stay in Ecuador. From what I’ve seen so far, Ecuador seems opposite of the US in at least one aspect. In the US, or at least that portion of it which I’ve seen so far, the poorest areas are often the urban slums, the housing projects, the inner city, while the farther from the city you get, the bigger the houses are, the more suburban or rural the landscape is, and the wealthier the area seems. Exceptions exist, of course, such as family farmers trying to stay alive in the midwest amidst the big factory farms, and the extremely expensive real estate that can be found in popular areas of cities like San Francisco. In Ecuador, however, it seems that the further you get from the cities, the poorer the area is. In the city, you find automobiles, shopping malls, schools, well-dressed businessmen, etc. In the countryside is where the indigenous communities still live, with houses often built of mud and stone, thatch, or crumbling plaster, and any paint that once was is now in dire need of repair. The cities are connected by the highway; the countryside, by a barely traversable, pothole-filled, mud and rock pathway. In the cities, the roads are filled with cars; in the remote country, the cars go through, not to, and the people travel by hitching a ride in empty cattle trucks.

guamote_womanYet each community in these remote areas is different. Otavalo had the most stray dogs I’ve seen anywhere so far, though everywhere has some. It also seemed the most used to foreigners, since its large market draws quite a tourist crowd on Saturdays. A small indigenous town we passed through on our way to Crater Lake yesterday had a fight happening in the middle of the street, and the whole town was standing in a mob watching it, following it, smiling, etc. Just farther up the road, when we stopped to take a picture of a canyon, a small boy came up to us with his dog asking for us to give him something. When we took a picture of some people herding sheep across the road in front of us on a different hill, the women looked at us accusingly with their hands out, wanting us to pay them for taking the picture. On the other hand, in the animal market we visited today in Guamote, a young woman literally jumped into a picture Ted was taking of chickens so that she would be in it too. (She missed, and I obliged her by taking a picture of her directly, after which she asked me if we were taking pictures and I let her excitedly look at some of them while she asked where we were from.) Guamote seemed to be the least accustomed to foreigners, as it was where people have stared at us the most out of curiosity, especially the children. One tiny girl was staring at me with wide eyes until her mother noticed and pulled her away, after which she promptly snuck back out from under mom’s arm to stare at me again; older children and adults would wait until we’d passed and then turn around to stare at our backs.

attireThe attire of the women changes with each locality as well. The women farthest north wore black linen skirts that wrapped around their waist like a sari and hung to the floor, with elaborately laced and embroidered white blouses covered by a black shawl wrapped diagonally across one hip and the other shoulder. Just south of them, the women wore a similar but more colorful outfit. In the center of the Ecuadorian Andes, the women wear brightly colored knee-length felt skirts with a decoration around the trim, a sweater, a large brightly-colored felt poncho-shawl for warmth that covers most of their torso, tights, and flat shoes that remind me of nurse’s shoes in the US. In the large mestizo cities like Quito and Cuenca, you see general Western attire–jeans, hoodies, tennis shoes, skirts, heels, brand-name jackets, and anything else you might expect to see in a typical American city.

pigThe food has some similarities and some differences. Every place we’ve stayed at, for instance, has offered us eggs and fruit for breakfast, sometimes with a variety of breads, jams, etc. At first, I thought this was because they were afraid foreigners wouldn’t eat anything besides eggs and fruit for breakfast, but Paul said that is pretty typical breakfast food here as well. However, the variety of juices available is phenomenal. One place might offer us a choice of pineapple, papaya, blackberry, naranjilla, jackfruit, tree tomato, and perhaps more. As someone who loves fruit juice, I’m loving it… For lunch or dinner, we quickly learned that we are generally better off ordering fish than beef; the beef here is generally pretty tough, while the fish is fresh (with one exception… swordfish at dinner last night). Roasting entire pigs is commonly seen around small towns, and the pork here is tender. I don’t really have anything to say about the chicken; it’s been neither great nor terrible. We passed many quinoa fields, but rice and potatoes are most often served with the meat we’ve had, and the meat is generally grilled or fried. Vegetables are often slow-roasted and caramelized as desserts, making them warm and sweet. We’ve also had quite a bit of food that tasted way too salty, generally in more remote areas where it was probably salted for preservation. One thing that is uniquely Ecuadorian, however, is the chili sauce that must accompany *everything*–no matter the meal, the food, all items get flavored by some version of the chili sauce. Ted has been brave enough to try it; I haven’t. Apparently all foods taste better with it, though…

Ecuadorian Surprises

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

*Written 2010-07-07; posted from airport WiFi on 2010-07-15*

Some notes on unexpected tidbits from my time in Ecuador so far:

The radio stations play a *lot* of American music. They mostly play Top40 hits from the 1990s to present, but I’ve also heard older stuff like the BeeGees. One of the hotels we stayed at also played 30s jazz music after dinner.

The government of Ecuador introduced a lot of non-native trees. In particular, one national park was dotted with California pines, and Australian Eucalyptus trees are *everywhere*. According to our guide, Ecuador does not have very many native trees in the highlands, so the government introduced these species to improve air quality, diversify industry, and beautify the landscape. I found this really strange because in the US, the government spends a lot of resources preserving natural ecosystems and kicking out non-native species.

fumes from busThe air in the cities and on the roadways here is nasty. I expected Ecuador, with its mostly-agricultural economy, to have clean air, but it’s actually quite polluted, mostly because of lax air quality regulations and enforcement. Many of the trucks and buses we pass are both visibly and odoriferously emitting noxious gasses.

The weather in the Amazon Rainforest is what you might expect — hot and humid, with sudden periodic downpours and thunderstorms. In the highlands, however, we were greeted by cloudy days, occasional showers, and weather much, much colder than we expected.

Apparently the altitude (we’ve been traveling between 9k and 16k feet so far) compensates for the closer proximity of the sun. Where we’d have snow at 6k feet in California, Ecuador has snow at 16k feet. Perhaps the equivalent California weather would be the Sierra Nevadas at 3-6k feet. Anyway, we foolishly came with only a few long-sleeved shirts and thin jackets and would have frozen long ago had our guide not lent us some of his clothes.

On a few different occasions, we found ourselves driving down twisty unpaved roads for hours, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. After one drive, we found ourselves at El Angel national park — apparently we were the only ones visiting, because the parking lot was empty, and even the ranger station was abandoned. I guess this was surprising because I was expecting something more like the national parks in the US, where tourists are buzzing around everywhere.

papallactaA second drive was supposed to take us to our next hotel. After driving for hours through endless darkness, we climbed one last hill, and somehow ended up at a hot-springs resort. Someone apparently had the bright idea of building a resort on top of this mountain, far away from civilization and paved roads. At least that trip ended well — the hot springs did wonders for our achy muscles.

cotopaxi restaurantA third drive took us into Cotopaxi National Park where we saw a few other cars, which we found a bit more promising than El Angel. After entering the park, we turned on the four-wheel drive and bounced over rocks and through streams for an hour through what appeared to be a wasteland — only rocks, dirt, and shrubs as far as the eye could see. We were supposedly headed to a restaurant for lunch. Finally, we came to a lone building in the middle of the park with a single bus in front — and found it packed full of people. The restaurant also served as a hotel, and had WiFi, satellite TV, hot running water, etc. It was quite a surprise.

Hiking Boots: Ecuador Days 6-8

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

*Written 2010-07-07; posted with WIFI access 2010-07-10*

We’ve spent the last 3 days hiking around various places in Ecuador.

frailejonesFirst, we drove to El Angel National Park on Monday. El Angel is in the remote northwest of the country, about an hour’s drive from the Columbian border. Getting there involved a 45 min. trek down the bumpiest road of my life, during which we passed many extremely poor indigenous residences eking out an existence far from… anything. The park itself is the only place in the world that the frailejone grows. This plant looks like a miniature palm tree with more rubbery, upward-growing leaves. Not only is it the only place where frailejones grow, but they are practically the only thing that grows there, and grow there they do–the park is covered with them and little else but some grasses. Murphy’s Law at work: The bumpy road made me really need a toilet, so of course the ranger station at the end was closed (we were the only people in the whole park except for a few that lived near its edge); and of course the grey clouds that had been on the horizon all day decided to dump rain on us the minute we began our hike, and to stop dumping rain the minute we began to drive off. Nonetheless, we made it to the high point of the trail and were able to look out at the park full of strange plants.

cotopaxiThen on Tuesday, we were on the opposite side of the Andes at Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi is the name of a volcano (and thus of a province, as all provinces are named after volcanoes). The road inside this national park was… somewhat better, although we forded a few rivers (and by forded, I mean drove through) and crept through a few mini-canyons in the road. The park also had a few more visitors: one busload full of white high-school-aged boys, and one lone traveler named Jeff from Canada (who hitched a ride from us down part of the road). The park used to be owned by a family, which still retains a small part of the land on which they run a restaurant where we ate lunch. We then drove through a lot of near-barren land covered in dandelions (and thus appearing a lovely shade of red/purple) and began ascending the volcano. We ascended the volcano by car until an altitude of 15,000 feet, at which point it began to get foggy. I am still amazed that I can be so high and have it be… maybe 40-50 degrees fahrenheit and no snow. From there, we climbed another 1000 feet to a shelter at the snowline, 16,000 feet above sea level. This is one of the highest shelters in South America. It was difficult to ascend those 1000 feet due to the extreme altitude; we got tired very easily and had to go very slowly to ensure we could continue breathing. Going down was interesting–the ground was soft such that you could make each step slide a foot farther down the mountain just through the loose soil. It began to snow on the way down and I couldn’t even see the car from 20 yards away, but it took about… 10% of the time it took to ascend.

quilotoaToday (Wednesday, or so I’m told), we drove west across the valley between Cotopaxi and the western Andes, and crossed the Andes to their western border to a Crater Lake. Crater Lake is owned and run by the local indigenous population, who have opened a restaurant at the top (lunch) and keep mules and horses to sell hikers a ride back up. Crater Lake itself used to be the summit of a volcano, until the volcano imploded. It is now a lake some 1200 feet below the edge of the crater, with the lake itself being another 230 feet deep. I thought that hiking down to the lake would be similar to when we hiked down into the Grand Canyon, but there were some major differences: it was cold instead of hot (this was good) and the ground was soft instead of hard (this made it more difficult). It was fun riding two horses back up out of the crater, but it was difficult for the horses–especially mine, which was smaller and older and had to stop often to catch its breath (or eat a flower). Ted also bought himself a hat from the local people, who have apparently adopted a sort of Swiss hat to go with their native garb that he thought was cute.

la_cienegaIn between each of these hikes, we have driven through a *lot* of the Ecuadorian countryside and stayed at 3 very different places. Monday night, we stayed at a resort in the middle of nowhere (i.e. Papallacta) on the road back east toward the Amazon rainforest, and the resort happened to be built on top of a bunch of hot springs. Immediately outside all of the rooms were “thermal pools”, or man-made in-ground pools fed with water from the underground springs, and therefore hot! The hot water was so exciting; we finally spent a night just relaxing. Tuesday night, we stayed at an Hosteria at a town nearby Cotopaxi called Hacienda La Cienega (The Swamp). The first room they took us to smelled like cigarette smoke (which I can’t handle) and when our guide asked for a better room and told them we were on our honeymoon, they gave us the best room in the hacienda. It was the master suite, in the center of the second floor with a balcony overlooking the front and a surprisingly modern master bath (that didn’t match the decor of the rest of the place at all but that was a really nice bathroom). And when I asked for some aspirin due to our double headache, they gave us some Coca tea to go with it. Apparently Coca tea is the local remedy for headaches, and Oregano tea is the local remedy for stomachaches. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to enjoy the place too much because we fell asleep with the lights still on immediately after dinner and woke up with the lights still on in the middle of the night… but we took a walk through the hacienda’s gardens this morning and saw the chapel and the grounds. The air was fresh and crisp and the sun was out and the grounds were lovely. We are now on our way to a place in Riobamba, farther south down the PanAmerican Highway.

Enferma Otra Vez: Ecuador Day 5

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

*Written 2010-07-04; posted by WIFI 2010-07-07*

The good: My neck, which last night was completely paralyzed and left me lying on my stomach and propping up my chin and forehead for most of the night because I couldn’t move my neck or put any pressure on it, is now mobile. It is incredibly stiff and still hurts, but I no longer have a pinched nerve or whatever was paralyzing it.

The bad: Now the rest of me hurts. My stomach is unhappy, my head is complaining, and my body in general is achy, in addition to the stiff neck. It reminds me of a scare we had in high school where a classmate died of a disease whose main symptoms were flu-like symptoms along with really stiff muscles…

marketNonetheless, we’ve had a full day. We met our guide, Paul, after breakfast this morning (both of us were late; we left around 9:30) and drove into the main town of Otavalo (our Hacienda is in the outskirts). There, Paul led us through the produce market where the local farmers sell their goods as well as other packaged products, and showed us all types of different foods that are not normally available in the U.S.; Ted was amazed by the large selection. We tried an aloe drink that is supposed to help stomach ulcers, but it made me feel sick when my last gulp was all the goop at the bottom. I learned that bananas naturally grow connected in an arc, rather than in a blob; Paul said that they appear in a blob in the U.S. because they are cut down before they are ripe and stacked, and since they are still forming they heal themselves together. I can’t quite picture this happening with a bunch of bananas thrown in a pile, and I can’t picture someone painstakingly stacking them all up tip to tip, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Next, we drove to the textile market, where the local indigenous population sells items such as scarves, blankets, clothing, rugs, jewelry, hammocks, dolls, etc. A big selling point for many items is that they are made of Alpaca fur, which is quite soft. We learned that many of the vendors sold the same items, which meant they were not actually the ones making them. Paul said that some of them were made in Peru and imported, while some of the items made here were exported for sale in Peru. He said Otavalo has one of the most prosperous indigenous communities in South America due to the popularity of its market.

The main community in Otavalo is a subset of the Quichoa tribe. In Otavalo, they are identifiable by the women’s clothing: generally a black skirt, white blouse, and black shawl across one shoulder. Typical men’s clothing is white trousers and a white shirt, but it is not as commonly seen. In addition, everyone wears their hair long, and often in braids. I’ve also discovered that they are quite short–none of them are taller than I. In the next town over, they wear much more colorful attire; it is regional.

We bought some scarves, earrings, knife, and hammocks, practicing our Spanish bargaining skills; then we drove up to the Reserva Ecologica Cotacachi Cayapas, which has a large water-flled crater left over from a volcanic eruption. We learned that Ecuador has 55 volcanoes, 28 of which are currently active (the rest of which are “potentially active”, rather than “inactive” or “dormant”), and that most of the provinces in the country are named after their main volcano–we are currently in the province Imbabara, and are near the Imbabara volcano.

cotacachiWe got lunch at the restaurant on the Reserve, trying some Naranjilla and Tamarin juices as well as some trout, and then went for a short hike to a high point on the edge of the crater. Unfortunately, we discovered that mosquitoes live here, even though we’re 8-9000 feet above sea level. Paul said that just a few years ago, there were no mosquitoes, but that the average temperature had risen just enough since then that mosquitoes now find it habitable. We also saw a rare bird and some new flowers, in addition to the large lake itself which has 3 hills rising out of the middle of it.

On the way back from the crater lake, we stopped at what Paul called “leathertown”–we never learned its actual name. Apparently selling leather products was profitable for some people there, and the whole town took up the business, so there are 3 full blocks lined with small shops selling leather products. Ted looked at a few belts and we figured out his belt size, but we didn’t buy anything.

I wanted to take some good pictures of the lifestyles of the community here, but I’m not sure how to do so without seeming rude–you don’t just point a camera at somebody because they have a different lifestyle than you…

When we got back to the lodge, we found some peacocks wandering the grounds, and the female began pecking at Ted while he took its picture. Then we discovered the power had gone out for the whole hacienda, so we lit some candles and took a nap. We also found our clean laundry on the bed that we’d given to be washed yesterday. Later we found our way to dinner, during which the power came back on, yay. During dinner, it was just us and one other American couple (from Atlanta, Georgia) in the restaurant. Apparently this is not peak tourist season.

I tried to wind down the night with a nice hot shower to soothe my achy body and unhappy head; I was really looking forward to it since we haven’t had a hot shower since our first night in Quito. Unfortunately, the nice hot shower turned icy right as I was about to rinse off… so I froze.

And now, I’m going to put my sick self to bed.

Jungle to Andes Highlands: Ecuador Day 4

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

*Written 2010-07-03; Posted by WIFI 2010-07-07*

Okay, this is more like it. A full belly, warm fire, soft bed, hot water bottle for Pamela’s neck, and NO MOSQUITOS.

We’re at Hacienda Pinsaqui near Otavalo tonight. Pamela’s in bed because her neck’s been hurting, and I’m sitting on a rug by the fire writing this. I’m learning to tend a fire in a fireplace; I’ve never had to deal with real wood in a fireplace before.

arcoirisThis morning, we had breakfast at the Arco Iris Jungle Lodge and departed by motor canoe, to a bittersweet goodbye. On one hand, we’d barely begun to see all of the interesting things in the rainforest. On the other hand, we were tired, dirty, and covered in insect bites (okay, maybe that was just me.) Despite all of the problems with Arco Iris’ facilities, the staff (all five of them, with just the two of us as guests) did their best to take care of us.

From Arco Iris, we traveled by motor canoe back to Coca, then by plane to Quito. At Quito’s airport, a guide named Luis and his 13 year old son Cristian (just along for the ride) picked us up in his car to take us to Otavalo.

During the car ride, we mentioned that we were looking for a new memory card reader since ours had stopped working for some reason, and Luis offered to take us shopping. We ended up stopping at a large, busy, indoor shopping mall. It was a strange experience — the mall looked like a typical American shopping mall, except that most of the signs were in Spanish. Just most, because there were actually quite a few American stores like Hallmark, Victoria’s Secret, McDonald’s, etc. There were also many non-American stores with English names. We eventually found a CompactFlash memory card reader in RadioShack (where else?), and headed back out.

At Otavalo, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that Luis had been to before in the downtown market area. I had some sort of chicken and mushroom dish; Pamela had some fish special. I thought my food was pretty good; Pamela said that hers was better. I’ll have to take her word for it.

fireAfter lunch, we completed our journey to Hacienda Pinsaqui, where Luis dropped us off. According to a promotional pamphlet provided to us, the Hacienda was constructed in 1790, and was originally used as a textile workshop. Since then, it’s been host to guests like Simon Bolivar, and well as the site of the signing of the Treaty of Pinsaqui between Columbia and Ecuador. Today, it’s just a nice historic accommodation frequented by travelers.

We only had a bit of time to wander the grounds, which included buildings, plazas with fountains, and gardens, before darkness took hold. We followed the lights back to the main building, then followed music to a side door where we found a group of musicians playing local folk music. We stayed there for a bit and ate some tea and appetizers offered to us. Later, we got dinner in the Hacienda restaurant, and finally settled down for the night.