Subject: Mas Espaņol, por favor.
Landing in Quito, you instantly feel the difference from Colombia and Central America. Though Cartagena was exotic, with that comes a bit of chaos too. There was an order to this city that I hadnt seen in a long time. Cars driving at normal speeds, and driving like they actually wanted to live. The city is clean and organized.
However, coming from sea level, a certain degree of altitude sickness is bound to happen. Its had me for the past couple days, but passing now. Its a bit like a cold, but with some lightheadedness.
One really cool thing about Quito, is that although it is a modern bustling city of 1 million people, you still see indiginous people from the mountains walking around wearing their hand woven clothes. It looks slightly out of place, but its real neat to see.
I got in to Quito at 7pm, and checked in to a Hostel that another friend from Cartagena was coming to. Matthew had told me about this place, and it is probably one of the nicest hostels I have ever seen. Amazing courtyard, private rooms, pool table, the works. All for $5 a night.
Matthew and I headed out the next day in to the central part of the new city. What you might call the hip district. We wandered around for a bit, and then he had to run some errands and I wanted to go to a travel agent to try to get some costs of covering this continent, and making a plan to do so. While in the travel agency, I struck up a conversation with a Colombian couple. They asked me how long I planned to be in Quito. I told them just long enough to do a week of language classes. Turns out, Sandra is an English teacher in Colombia, and is here looking for work at one of the many schools here. She said she would be happy to tutor me in her free time. Sounded good. We ended up going to a cafe nearby and started somewhat of an improptu lesson over coffee. Mostly just talking in Spanish, which is the best way to learn.
But we talked about Colombia, and I told her how I loved Cartagena, and felt it was pretty safe as the kidnappings happened in the south. She rolled her eyes, then told me about 5 Italians who were kidnapped in Cartagena 2 weeks ago. I gulped. Had I heard that before hand, I would have never gone anywhere near there, and I was saddend by hearing it, knowing now that I wont probably ever go back. Although, I think staying in $3 hotels, probably keeps you somewhat out of the radar. Sandra grew up in Cali, in the south, 20kms from a FARC geurilla headquarters, and as such had some pretty amazing stories.
We may try to meet again today, if schedules permit. I still have to figure some travel things out, make some plans, and she has some job searching to do.
A few of us went out last night in downtown Quito. The city has a real good vibe. Its only in a few small city blocks, but it reminds me a lot of NYC. Good music, good dancing, but a bit of a trek from my hostel, so I am thinking about moving to one of the other hostels closer to that area tomorrow.
So much to do, so much to see
Hey now you're an All Star get your game on, go play
Only shooting stars break the mold
Subject: People and a continent in need of change.
No tengo cambio. If you travel to Central or South America, get used to hearing that. It means, sorry, I dont have change for that. Its what you hear if you try to buy any item less than a dollar with anything over a dollar bill. Its really quite staggering. While at the beach last weekend, I wanted to buy a bottle of water at about 7pm, after stores had been open all day. I went to 6 stores attempting to purchase this $.50 item with my $5 bill. The first 5 stores simply said, "No tengo cambio" and let the business walk away. All of the stores, including the 6th who actually had the change, look at you with awe, wondering how in the world you could expect them to have change. They dont shake their heads with sorrow that they dont have it, they seriously wonder what in the world you're thinking walking in there with those kinds of large bills, Mr Moneybags. Its reached the point of being a bit annoying. I've found a tactic this week that has worked for most times. Feel free to use it free of charge next time you're in Ecuador. When you walk in to store and ask to buy something, look real solemn, and tell the person you have a very large problem. Say it with a tone as though you were just robbed, or that someone just died. Then tell them that you only have a $5 bill. This conveys to them that you understand the extreme severity of this abhorrent situation, and that you are compassionate to the stress you have put them under. They nod solemnly, and send someone out for change. To whom, who knows? The change guru on the mountain perhaps, but they come back with 3 $1 bills, a dollar coin, a 50 cent piece and 10 nickles. Someone in town had change somewhere, and you can purchase your item, but more importantly, you now have change!
I love it.
But back to Quito. I have been hanging mostly with the Colombians I had met my first day here, Sandra and Damian. I really enjoy talking with Damian. He's incredibly interesting, and better yet, talks slow just so I can understand him. He also doesnt mind when I interupt mid sentence to ask a words meaning.
Damians freind Michele came down here from the US initially to work with kids. We as tourists here see these kids about 8 to 12 years old selling candy and cigarettes on the street corners, sometimes as late as 2am. I always just thought to myself that they should be in bed by then. Michele told me that these kids stay out late because if they come home and havent sold enough, often times their parents will hit them. Violence in the family here is more or less commonplace unfortunately. I really wish I hadnt known that.
Quito has a pretty good nightlife, especially in the tourist part of town. The bars are packed, about 70% with locals, and the rest tourists. A few of us went out to a bar called NO. Its probably the most popular place in town. By 11am it was well packed with people dancing. It also happened to be free glowstick night, but just for the ladies. Glowsticks are these little plastic neclaces and armbands that glow bright phosphorus colors for a few hours, usually seen at fairs., Glowsticks also happen to be the instrument of the rave dancer, a title I guess could have once been applied to me years ago. Ravers in the US would take two of these glowsticks and twirl them around in their hands to the music, and if done right, it looks like one glowstick is chasing the other, and that your wrists are made of rubber and sometimes it even appears as though your arms will pass through each other. Its fun to do, and neat to watch, but a skill that takes practice. At one point, I might have considered myself a bit of an above average glowsticker, but its been a while. All the same, I was getting the itch to do them when the music turned to techno in the bar. All the people in the bar were simply shaking the glowsticks up and down. People, please. I asked 2 girls if I could borrow their glowsticks. I wrapped them around my hands and went to town. When I get in to dancing with my glowsticks, everything else doesnt exist. Probably why I didnt notice them turn off all the lights around me when the DJ saw me dancing, which enhances the effect. Also probably why I didnt notice that pretty much the rest of the bar had stopped dancing to watch me. I looked up, and saw everyone around staring at me like I was from another planet. People in the back were on chairs trying to see. Wow. I handed back the glowsticks and went to sit down. The disco lights came back on, and people came over to ask me where I was from. Estados Unidos. They'd kind of nod their heads with a bit of a that-explains-it sort of look. Then they'd tell me they enjoyed watching it. A couple people asked how it was done, but its hard to explain. I saw a bunch of people trying out this new way of moving about the glowsticks. I feel as though I can move on to the next town now, I have enlightened the people here and they have seen the future. My work is done. :)
The next day, sitting in PapayaNet, Damian decided he was going to go to the beach with some freinds that night. It was just like that. One minute talking about nothing, the next minute, lets go to the beach in a few hours. Right on.
I was feeling a bit ill, but figured the beach would do me good anyway. We caught a night bus so we could sleep and arrive fresh, but I didnt sleep a wink. I guess a combination of the person in front of me reclining their seat fully, and the drivers death-wish, I just couldnt sleep. Its sort of a joke among backpackers that you take your life in your hands everytime you get on a bus here, but its not really funny. Drivers overtake each other on blind curves. Not just any blind curves, but ones that are on the side of a mountain. That means to one side you have rocks, to the other you have a sheer cliff. You're in a bus passing a bus at 50mph. If a bus comes the other way, someone is dying. Either there will be a head-on, or someone goes over the edge. I have seriously considered getting off busses in the middle of nowhere, but I would probably be just as unsafe doing so. I have been on busses where people have said something. It doesnt matter, this is the bus drivers world, and whatever reason they have for passing, it isnt going to change if you tell them you're scared. And its not just the occasional bus, its pretty much the majority of them. So everytime we pass someone, my heart races knowing that another bus could be around the corner. We passed a pretty major accident on the way to the beach. A bus collided with a car. Whoever was in the little car didnt make it, that was clear. Judging by the scene, it happened less than a half an hour earlier.
We made it to Santa Elena by 10am. Santa Elena is the southern entry point to beach points. There is a road that connects all the beaches nicknamed "Ruta del Sol". The idea is to enter the road in the south, go up the road, stopping at as many of the 20 beach points as you please, then take the north road back to Quito. Those are only the 2 roads to Quito from the beach points. It takes 12 hours to get to the south, and 8 hours back from the north.
We couldnt find any busses from Santa Elena to Montanita, the first beach, so we hitchhiked. Damian hitchhiked here from Colombia. Colombians are an interesting bunch. Known more or less as the bad-asses of South America. I wasnt afraid of hitchhiking with Damian and his friends, nobody really messes with Colombians. :)
We made it to Montanita and checked in to a rather cheap little place. Ok, not just cheap, but cheap and dirty. As I mentioned before, I had a little bout of the stomach flu, so as soon as we arrived I headed for the bathroom. Wanting to secure all my bases, I checked for toilet paper, but there was just newspaper, presumably for reading. Oh no. There was crumpled bits of newspaper in the trashcan (which is where TP goes in South America). So no, it wasnt for reading. Suffice to say my first 2 days at the beach werent pleasant until my medication kicked in and I could venture away from my hammock close to the bathroom. :) Being sick on the road is never fun.
What I saw of Montanita was pretty fun. Nice beaches, good for surfing, and pretty cool shops. Shops without change, but cool all the same. I ran in to my friends Leslie and David who I had met in Guatemala. First people I had bumped in to on a different continent now.
There was small disagreement with Damian and his freinds, and he, Michele and I decided to head north to Canoa, while his other friends stayed back.
We caught a local bus to the nearest big town where we caught the bus to the port closest to Canoa. We were the last people to get on the bus. As such, we had to take what seats were available, which looked like just one seat, which Michele took. I decided to stand. No dice. The assistant (every bus has someone who keeps things orderly and collects the money) insisted that we sit. It is the law that every passenger is seated. In rural areas, there is no one to enforce this law. Sometimes on packed rural busses, when they pass a police car, the driver will shout for everyone standing to crouch. However, in the cities, its manditory everyone be seated. There was a lady sitting next to her child. She was large, taking up 2/3rds of the double seat, the child the other 1/3rd. The assistant motioned for her to put the child on her lap, and I would sit there. Sorry pal, no room - my butt is a bit wider than that of a 7 year old. But that was my option. That or get off the bus which was now moving. I sqeezed, making myself and the lady quite possibly the two most uncomfortable people on the bus. It couldnt get any worse. No wait, I'm sorry, the people in front could recline their seats. So yes, it did get worse. Make that now we were the 3 most uncomfortable people on the bus, as the 7 year old now had the seat in front of him literally touching his face. 1.5 hours of this.
The bus stopped at a terminal where most of the people got off, and we waited for more to board, but we were staying on this bus. I moved to the front of the bus and got what you might call the Cadillac seats. They're right behind the driver, and there is a wall there so no one can recline. There is tons of legroom, and I had it. For 5 months I have been travelling by these busses and always seem to get the worst seats, and now this was my turn.
In these parts, you pay your fare on the bus normally. Sometimes you buy a ticket at the office, and get on the bus and give it to them when they come around to collect the money. The office will number the tickets, but those numbers are just really to count how many they sold. I have never taken the seat to which a ticket I had was numbered, nor have I seen anyone else do it. That is, until now. The only 2 people who bought tickets were a couple of travelers, and as such had tickets numbered 1 and 2. Knowing the drill, they sat in any old seat. Until they saw how roomy seats 1 and 2 were. They came over and said "These are our seats" and showed me the tickets. I told them they knew damn well those numbers didnt matter. They didnt care. They had a numbered ticket, and I had nothing and they made me move. The bus being mostly full now, I took what seat I could, and sat cramped in with my bag not even able to fit under the seat, so it was wedged uncomfortably between my legs.
I cant describe what this did to my emotional state of being. Not just this one instance, but every one combined. These busses were not made for 6-foot tall people with long legs. The seats recline in a fashion where the seat bottom slides forward when its reclined, I guess so that the person behind you doesnt bear the full brunt of your reclination. (Is that a word?) But if your legs are long enough, it doesnt matter, the seat back goes fully into your knees, forcing your legs apart in a painful manner. Furthermore, to reduce this pain, the only option is to get your seat bottom backwards, which is done by, yes, putting your seat fully upright.
So 5 months of sitting upright because of the person in front of me reclining, being cramped, smelling smelly people, being made to be a smelly person, screaming babies, screaming adults, being sweated upon, spittled upon, looked upon, pushed, shoved , kicked, and bumped upon, sold every manner of food, beverage, underwear and watches, being forced to listen to loud Spanish music combined with a slightly more pleasant static, I think I finally had enough when I was forced to move from my nice seat. I decided I would leave South America as soon as I got back to Quito.
A bit drastic Rick? Leaving a continent because someone stole your seat? Perhaps. Like I said, I cant describe what that event did to my emotioal state of being. I know busses in other parts of the world are worse, but.... anyway.
We took a boat to finally get over to Canoa. Canoa was an amazing place. Really clean nice beach town, and a lot of fun. I checked in to a nice hostel, while Damain and Michele checked in to a slightly cheaper place. I wanted real TP. We left the next day as Damian and Michele were low on money as they'd lent half of their money to their friends and we never found an ATM.
I got back to Quito, and started looking in to flights, etc. Throughout the day, I met a few people from my hostel who were headed to Laguna Quilatoa the next day and I decided to go with. I'm glad I did, as it re-kindled my desire to see more of South America.
We set out in the morning, and took a bus (which was ok :-) to Saquisili. Saquisili is Ecuadors largest market. It was by far my favorite market I have ever been to. Most markets that tourists see are catered towards tourists. Not Saquisili. Its put on for the locals, and its huge. Everything is sold there, and not once was I pressured to buy anything just for being a gringo. It was amazing to see this incredible market, and all the indian people in their customary dress, buying, trading and selling items.
There was a part of the market where livestock was traded. Cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, llamas. I saw a pretty good looking llama - well, I'm no llama expert, so I guess its just my opionion, but it was nice looking. Just then I had one of my crazier thoughts. I could buy this llama, travel around with it for a week, and re-sell it the next week. How crazy would that be!! I really like the idea of doing odd things like that. Imagine all the crazy situations that would come up. First off, am I allowed to take a llama on a bus? I'd find out. Then I'd need to find a hotel that accepted guests with llamas. Then I'd need to find a place to park it outside of resturants, etc. Yeah, I really thought that would be interesting. I'd write a short story afterwards titled "My week in Ecuador with my llama" which would cover all the trials and tribulations (and benefits!) of traveling with a llama. In the end, it would have to wait until next week if I do. I had my luggage etc in Quito, and a llama there certainly wouldnt do.
After the market, we headed for Laguna Quilatoa. Quilatoa is a lake situated inside the top of a volcano. Getting there was just as good as seeing it. We took another nice bus to the village of Zumbahua. The ride there is amazing. There were no other tourists, and all the local indians that live there still hold to their traditional ways of dress and farming. Driving through there was like being transported back in time. As well as the scenery was breathtaking.
Once we made it to Zumbahua, we had to find someone to take us to the lake. We found a guy in town with a pickup truck and negotiated a price for him to drive us to the volcano. Again, the scenery was amazing, and made all the better by the fact we were in the back of the truck.
Seeing the lake is incredible. Its the most amazing color of greenish blue. You can hike around it, but it takes 5 hours, which we didnt have. We made it there and back flawlessly, making each bus by minutes, and spending only $17 each for a trip that tour companies charge $55 and dont include a stop at the market. Way to go.
On the trip back, I felt flattered when a group of 15 year old local girls on my bus came up and started flirting with me, and then asked to have their picture taken with me. Cute. :)
Anyway, I'm back in Quito, still indecisive as ever as to where I am headed next. Hopefully I will figure something out soon. I'll either be in another country next week, or the proud owner of a llama.