Ecuador and the end of the South American leg

March 28 – April 6 2015

Ten short days in Ecuador, 24 hours in Bogota, and just like that, seven solid months of travel in South America came to a close.

I took a bus ride of nearly 20 hours from Trujillo in Peru to Guayaquil in Ecuador, a trip that was mainly unremarkable despite involving crossing an international border. I’ve crossed so many borders now. My passport is starting to fill up.

I visited Guayaquil, Couchsurfing with an awesome Finnish girl who makes macrame bracelets and had moved there to be with her Ecuadoran boyfriend. I was there 48 hours or so, most of my time spent with Viia, her boyfriend, and one of his friends, driving around Guayaquil, eating a typical Ecuadoran dish called Seco de Pollo, talking with Viia about travel and about South American culture, and, strangely, watching the season finale of the Walking Dead.

I took a bus up the coast from Guayaquil to a little beach town Viia recommended, where I watched ten or fifteen other backpackers got off the bus at the big surf town Montanita, kept staring out the window as we passed rows of identical kiosks selling the same cheap souvenirs you can find all over Ecuador, waited as the bus rolled further on to Olon, where I got off and took another bus 30 minutes further up the coast, past towns and into a country of tiny villages and quiet seaside bed-and-breakfasts, to Viejamar, an enchanted garden of hibiscus flowers and palm trees that happened to also contain a hostel – a few bamboo cabins, hammocks, and couches scattered among the palms and flowers and under the shade of the second-floor cabin where Rodrigo, the Chilean owner, spent his days surfing and occasionally administrating the hostel. The pool was on the other side of the kitchen and the gate was on the other side of the pool, under the balcony where you could watch the sunset and the locals surfing after work and feel the sea breeze, and on the other side of the gate it was sand and a twenty-second stroll (or a ten-second dash at mid-day when the sand was hot) to the little palm hut with hammocks and hooks to hang up my towel and then another two second dash down the wet sand and into the formidable waves of the Pacific Ocean. I stayed at Viejamar for five days.

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There’s an island about an hour from shore called Isla de la Plata, reached from the town of Puerto Lopez (close to Viejamar, between 20 and 30 minutes driving, depending on how fast the fishermen I hitched rides with wanted to drive). This island is like a small Galapagos, they say, because some of the same species live there. A column of massive, sharp-winged Frigate birds dominates the sky above the little mass of land, the birds circling slowly and silently in mesmerizing circles, not like vultures and not at all like frantic, haphazard seagulls. On top of the island we walked with a guide along a sandy path where blue-footed boobies nest. How have these animals survived, as curious as they are? Perhaps there’s a reason they only live here, and on the Galapagos, isolated from humans and other predators. They would come out of their nests to look at us, waddling practically in between our feet and turning their heads slowly and curiously. I’ve never seen a wild animal so curious and so unafraid, and so serene.

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We took the boat out into the shallow, clear water in the shoals of the island. Sea turtles swam up to our boat. Schools of parrotfish flickered under us. Everyone got out of the boat to snorkel. I never learned to snorkel so I dove without a mask, looking through the clear water at the coral colonies under us.

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From Viejamar I took an overnight bus to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, high in the mountains at around 2800 meters in elevation. That first morning after bad vibes at the first hostel I was supposed to stay at (unluckily named “vibes”), and after I found a much prettier hostel looking out across a wide valley to the high mountains beyond, I took one of the free walking tours in the old center of Quito. A girl from Guayaquil led a group of about 20 of us through the central market (I’m crazy about markets), through several plazas and past historic buildings, telling us wild stories about some of the crazy presidents in Ecuador’s past (and unfortunately, its present), showing us monuments to the fighters who were among the first in South America to rebel against Spanish rule. Quito is a beautiful, interesting city, and I barely began to discover it.

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I went to an Easter Vigil service in a building that is home to at least three different Christian churches (one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, one German-speaking). The service was small and disorganized, possibly because it was held in three different languages; but the pastors and priests made the most of it. I went back the next morning for Easter, feeling a little strange as i always do when I visit a congregation just to pass through. Churches I think are not places that people generally pass through. They are places you come to find family and heal wounds and plead for forgiveness and contemplate the meaning of your life. They’re definitely not a place for tourists. But a tourist I was and they were friendly and gracious about it, as people in churches usually are.

If you’re in Quito, the city in South America that rests on the official equator, you have to go and visit the official monument that marks the official equator line. It’s touristic and Disneyworld-ish, but you can’t come all the way to the equator and not go. So I went, taking a bus 90 minutes from my hostel in Quito, walking around and taking photos, and feeling a little weird in this surreal fabricated Disneyworld village, wandering around alone in the morning on the day after Easter when everything was quiet and most of the shop keepers weren’t even awake enough to try to pressure me into buying a tacky souvenir. And it was interesting to think, wow, I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere this whole time and now I can just hop back to the northern hemisphere, like I’m teleporting home or something. And it was disappointing to visit the equator line and find that the scientific exhibits were closed, so I wandered around looking at a photography exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the experiments conducted by French scientists who were responsible for measuring the bulge of the earth at the equator.

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And then it was time for another 90-minute bus ride back to Quito and convincing the receptionists at my hostel to help me with directions to the airport (is it that difficult to believe I would rather pay $5 and take the bus than $35 for a taxi? Apparently so.) and taking the bus which was cheap and fast and got me to the airport for my flight to Bogota.

And then it was barely more than an hour before I landed back in Bogota, back in the city where I started my journey through South America over seven months ago.

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca: 9-11 March 2015

Copacabana

9 march 2015
I’m up early for coffee with Brayan before heading to a line of buses near the cemetery in La Paz. By now it’s almost familiar – a man standing by one of the buses shouts COPACABANAAAAAA at everyone passing by and I walk up to him and buy a ticket and eat a quick snack and file onto the bus along with a few other tourists and locals and in a few minutes the bus is climbing up the valley and passing El Alto. We drive through concrete and cinder block suburbs for about an hour. Gradually the landscape opens up to green fields soggy in the rain, sheep and llamas walking next to their colorful cholita shepherds. Soon the fields rise to rolling green hills and the hills rise up to green mountains and a little later through breaks in the clouds the sun sparkles on a bright sapphire lake bounded by steep green peaks.

This is lake Titicaca, the highest lake on earth, and in the Inka philosophy, the place of creation of the Inka people, the sun, and the moon.

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Back on the pavement and past more beautiful rolling hills for an hour or so and finally we’re pulling into a large plaza dotted with kiosks, white colonial buildings with red roofs, and a white cathedral with huge graceful arches framing a stone courtyard. I step out of the bus and wander downhill, toward the edge of the lake. There are two main streets leading down to water, where charming little restaurants have signs and menus written in English on chalkboards out front, and souvenir shops overflow with little llama figurines and Peruvian blankets and macrame bracelets and knitted alpaca sweaters. There are hotels and hospedajes and cheap motels which are confusingly called hostals, but surprisingly there don’t seem to be any classic backpacker hostels here. I wander into Hostal la Libertad which has an open, bright lobby tiled in white with a tall glass entrance. The stony-faced, unsmiling receptionist offers me a private room for 30 bolivianos a night (a little less than $5) and I when I go up to settle my things I see that the room itself is finished but the floor it’s on is bare concrete, with unfinished windows open to the sky. At the end of the hall, past the rooms still under construction, the floor drops off into empty space.

I leave my hotel in the afternoon and wander Copacabana for an hour. The majority of the town is the two touristic streets running parallel to each other, down to the water where flocks of paddle boats sway with the ripples and larger speedboats lie at anchor waiting to take their next cargo of tourists to Isla del Sol. Lots of backpackers wandering around, like me. Further up the hill there’s the plaza and cathedral, and from there the town spreads out into residential streets and then into little farms. I can walk from top to bottom in 30 minutes or so. I wander inside the cathedral, looking at the enormous altar covered in gold plate. Niches along the walls of the sanctuary hold statues of Mary and Joseph, dressed in elaborate royal robes. At the front of the cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to a replica of a famous statue of Mary to which many miracles have been attributed.

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From the cathedral I walk through town toward a steep hill overlooking the water. At the entrance to the hill is an arch announcing the hill as CALVARIO, or Calvary, a name for the hill where Jesus was crucified. My breathing is shallow and I sweat up the steep steps, panting from the altitude (3800 meters, about 12,500 feet). There are stations of the cross carved along the way.

I hope for feelings of reverence as I’m sweating my way up the hill, but I’m distracted by the feeling that this is all very out of place. I can’t forget the history of Bolivia, the conquest of the advanced civilization that was once in power here, the absolute razing of their sacred spaces and their people by the European invaders who justified torture and murder by calling it evangelism. The cathedral and calvario hill feel a little like they were dropped here intact from Europe, cookie-cutter style. At the top of the hill where I rest and eat a grilled trout I bought in town, I watch the sun setting over this huge lake which for the Inkas was traditionally the birthplace of their people, and I think, this could have been such an important pilgrimage site, for the same reasons that the Inkas found it to be a sacred place, and they missed it and built a giant European-style cathedral instead, away from the water which is so important in Christianity – water which is there in the creation story even before light. How did they miss it?

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I’m not able to come up with any satisfying explanation before sunset and I’m tired from the walk, so I stumble back down the dark stone steps and back through the quiet residential streets and on to the loud touristic street and back up to my motel room where I toss and turn for most of the night.

10 march 2015
I’m up early for a humble breakfast of apples and peanut butter and cold rice from my dinner last night, and then I walk down towards the water and pay one of the myriad tour companies for a day trip to Isla del Sol by boat.

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The island has always had people living on it, I learn, maybe as far back as 3000 BC. There are sacred spots where the sun and moon and even people were meant to have been born, and a spring that was supposed to be the fountain of youth, but surrounding these are normal people carrying out their lives raising quinoa and barley and other crops on ancient terraces built into the hills.

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We dock at the north end of the island where there are a few hotels and overpriced restaurants and a map of the ruins and paths on the island. I go with a group and a guide to some of the sacred places – a rock that looks like a puma, a labyrinth in ruins, depressions in the rock that look like footprints and were supposed to be the footprints of the sun. With the tour and the commercialization of the place it’s hard to feel reverent and contemplative, to try and see what the Inkas saw here, but I watch carefully for it anyway.

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After the tour I walk along the path that crosses the island toward the south. At this point I regret not sleeping for a night on the island, because I have to walk very quickly to reach the south end of the island in time for my boat back to Copacabana. The scenery is lovely, tall green hills dotted with little ruins, grazing sheep and llamas, deep blue bays. But i have to speed walk along the path to make it to the boat in time for the hour-long slow journey back to Copacabana, and there I eat a quick dinner with friends who are leaving on an evening bus.

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I go to sleep early again, planning to get up early and take a bus to Arequipa, in Peru. Tonight is my last night in Bolivia.

La Paz: 5-8 March 2015

La Paz Blog

5 March 2015
We rise slowly and methodically over La Paz in a teleferico (a suspended cable car). I’ve read a lot about this city and it’s as impressive as they say – buildings seem to have been absolutely poured into the valley, spilling up onto the sides until the hills become too vertical to support any further construction. The buildings become shabbier and poorer as we rise. Far away in the heart of the valley I can see the tall, modern-looking skyscrapers of downtown.

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We pass the poorest of the buildings we’ve seen so far – just shacks – crest the very edge of the cliff that lines the valley, and the teleferico glides along a slow u-turn and the doors open to let us out. At the edge of the terminal we see a long street covered in market stalls extending as far as we can see. We’ve come to the 16 July market in El Alto. Roman and I stroll down the first street, where for about $10 I buy an alpaca sweater that I think would have cost $100 in the US. We keep walking and pass the vendors selling car parts – booth after booth after booth with rows of gears in all sizes and steering wheels and seatbelts and chrome floor mats and entire engines in differing states of repair.

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The car engine booths slowly give way to the furniture section, and as we’re passing a side street I smell something amazing and we turn to investigate. On a nondescript corner between two furniture shops a woman is cooking under a plastic awning, surrounded by a pans filled with soup, rice, chicken, potatoes. The amazing smell is coming from the deep-fried chicken spitting in a shallow vat of oil. I desperately want some of this chicken. Roman and I stand politely by the row of pots while the cook talks with other customers, the two of us trying to figure out the etiquette for ordering. I err on the side of being too polite when I travel – I hate to be an inconsiderate foreigner – but I think the way it works here is you go up and shout at this poor lady and eventually she brings you your food. After about ten awkward minutes waiting for her to notice me and ask what I want to order, someone in line says “let the foreigners go first” and I point to that fantastic chicken and she grins and tells us to go have a seat inside. In another ten minutes there’s an enormous pile of rice under this beautiful golden chicken breast, ringed with potatoes and a little shredded lettuce and onion and tomatoes, and I kid you not readers it is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten – and I grew up in the South.

After we have eaten the glorious fried chicken and enough rice to feed at least three grown men, we pay the bill – 26 bolivianos, about $3.50 – and stroll back out onto the market. The furniture section seems to go on nearly to the horizon, so we turn inwards to the center of the market, thinking we’ll wander for a bit. Every time we turn a corner I expect to see the end of a street where the stalls get emptier and further apart and eventually stop. But this market doesn’t stop. It’s as large as a small town. You can buy everything in this market: flowers, toilet paper, beds, carved stucco Greek columns, puppies, cocoa leaves, ducks, jewelry, shoes, bicycles, cars, toilet seats. We never find the end, and after maybe an hour of wandering in the rain we start to ask for directions back to the teleferico and people point and give us vague directions and after another twenty minutes or so we’re climbing back into a gondola and looking down on the city with the enormous market of El Alto still buzzing behind us.

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In the afternoon we find decent coffee – like me, Roman misses good espresso – and wander central La Paz. In the evening we cook in the hostel’s sad excuse for a kitchen, and investigate the bar next door, and meet new people and run into friends we’ve met in other cities on the road.

6 march 2015:
Roman takes a bus for Copacabana and I sit down for a long day of writing and catching up on plans for the next leg of my journey, through Peru and Ecuador.

In the evening, despite my repeated reminders to myself that I am not an 85-year-old woman, I fall asleep at 21:00. I wake up a few hours later when my roommate comes in – an American from Vermont. After a few minutes of conversation he brings up cocaine. I didn’t know this, but it seems La Paz is a major cocaine hub in Bolivia, and like Medellin and Cartagena in Colombia, it attracts its fair share of tourists mainly traveling there to get high. This style of traveling baffles me, readers, and I am an open minded person but I think this is a pretty pathetic reason to travel. After many attempts to get me to come with him, my roommate leaves for some kind of famous cocaine bar and I decide to do something more interesting, like drinking cocktails and playing pool at the hostel bar. I meet L—–, a German, and play a game of pool that lasts probably an hour because we’re both so bad at it. To console ourselves we decide to look for a drink at a bar downtown.

Up an old brick set of stairs in a narrow alley we almost miss a little low wooden doorway, but a woman just outside hears us speaking English and gets our attention and invites us in. She’s Bolivian but speaks almost perfect English after having lived in Bermuda for many years. She introduces us to the tiny bar, called Bocaysapito (mouth of the toad), so named for a black road statue enshrined in a little alcove in the back of the bar. We learn later that you’re supposed to buy the toad a drink and stick a lit cigarette in its mouth, and the toad will grant you a wish. The superstitious residents of the bar crowd together around old wooden tables and along benches, everyone sharing space and talking together around candles and pitchers of very strong Fernet and coke. Someone is playing folklore on an acoustic guitar. We find ourselves at a table of bohemian-looking Bolivians who fill little two-ounce glasses for us from the pitcher. The woman who invited us in talks to us about Bolivia, about the president Evo Morales, about the future of the country. She introduces us to the owner of the bar, a man with a dark sun-stained face and long hair. This is about the time we stop paying for drinks and stop looking at the time on our phones and dive into the conversations around us. Sometime around 2:30 the music stops and sometime around 3:30 everyone else gets kicked out of the bar, but we’re still talking and we’re at the owner’s table and we light another candle and keep talking and pouring Fernet.

Around 5:00 suddenly everyone is starving. “Let’s go to las velas!” . We’re in a taxi for ten minutes then and out into a little concrete market with a sign outside that says LAS VELAS and inside the concrete stalls are sleepy women with their long braids tucked behind their shoulders to keep them out of the little fires under their grills, and on the grills are the late night comfort foods of La Paz: golden chicken and grilled sausages and near the entrance, two ladies selling anticucho, which is meat from the heart of a cow. They cut it into thin ribbons and grill it and serve it with spicy peanut sauce and a little tennis-ball-sized boiled potato, for 10 bolivianos a plate (about $1.50). It tastes smoky and rich like most grilled meat and we each eat several little plates with the healthy appetites of people who’ve been up all night drinking.

The sky is getting light as L—– and I climb out of the taxi in front of our hostel. There’s a little terrace on the top floor of the hostel where we look out at the city as the dawn grows and brings to light what little color there is to see in this grey city.

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7 march 2015
L—– and I spend the day wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop. Neither of us slept much after being up all night, but we enjoy the sleepy day, watching the rain from under the eaves of dark cafes selling drinks that always seem to come in tall clear glasses with the milk and coffee layered like a parfait.

Late in the afternoon I meet Brayan, my Couchsurfing host in La Paz. We take a public bus to his family’s home near the stadium and he opens the door to a guest bedroom where I’m staying for a couple of nights. I eat with the family around the dining room table, talking shyly with Brayan’s parents and brother.

8 march 2015
Brayan and I go again to the El Alto market where he buys a slew of house plants and I buy a pair of the sturdy flat shoes the indigenous women wear. I figure if those shoes stand up to working and walking and carrying sacks of potatoes, they should work just as well for traveling.

In the evening I eat another helping of anticucho from a street vendor near Brayan’s house. It’s my last cold night in La Paz. From the view at Brayan’s house I look out across the valley sparkling with the lights of the city, houses draped like a blanket into the crannies of the hills.

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Ushuaia: Day 2

1 January 2015:
14:20 – I pause to eat hard boiled eggs and raisins on a little stone wall holding up the trail. I can’t stay long – the wind is blowing now and even with my down jacket I get chilly quickly. As soon as I start moving again I’ll shed layers the way I did at the start of this hike, a walk of a few kilometers along the edge of a bay that extends into the Tierra del Fuego national park. I’m within sight of a clear, turquoise bay lined with little flowering bushes and a variety of trees – I think aspen or beech, mostly, and some firs. The dark earth is lightly covered in a bed of yellow oval-shaped leaves from the fall and dead branches. There’s not much undergrowth in the park so the woods have a pleasant open feeling.

My hands start to get numb and I move on. The lake I’m heading for is still a few kilometers away.

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14:45 – I’m waiting for the bus back to Ushuaia from the national park. While I wait I sketch the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the lake. A man stops and shyly asks if he can take a photo of my drawing.

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I’m loitering by the parking lot when I spot an enormous black bird of prey circling the lake with slow, powerful wingbeats. Its wingspan must be nearly two meters wide. Its head is white and after a few minutes I realize that what I thought was the sun shining on its back is actually white feathers lining its shoulders. It’s a condor – not a rare animal to see in the park but an exciting spot nonetheless. It circles majestically, and conveniently, in front of a peak called “el condor”. The bus arrives just as the bird disappears from view.

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23:56 – I’m walking back from the bar where I met a friend from the states to get some advice on hiking Torres del Paine. The sun has just barely set, and the sky is still light in the west – it’s nearly midnight! The longest day of the year was just a couple of weeks ago and there are only a few hours of true darkness at this time of year.

Back at my host’s house, I’m a little uncomfortable again. Couchsurfing is often a gamble : sometimes you connect and make a friend for life, other times it’s just a bit awkward or unremarkable. I’m still surprised at how very difficult it is for me to converse with my hosts. All three of them work in the tourist industry in Ushuaia, so I thought it would be easy for us to talk, especially as my Spanish is steadily improving, and I assume they’re used to talking to foreigners – but I can barely understand them when they talk to me and not at all when they talk to each other. There’s a skill to knowing how to slow down, speak clearly, and use short sentences when you talk to someone who’s not fluent in your language, and for whatever reason, these guys don’t have that skill. I don’t blame them for it, though it does surprise me. Maybe they’ve never hosted someone who doesn’t speak Spanish well before. In any case, our interactions are strained and awkward. I do my best to be a good guest in spite of the language barrier.

Impressions from week one

Today is my fifth morning in South America. I’m leaving Bogota to travel to Medellin, and then onward to the northern coast, so I’ll take this opportunity to write some scenes from my first week. That’s what the first week is for me currently – a collection of scenes:

– The rooster starts to crow at around 5 in the morning. Who keeps a rooster in an apartment complex in a heavily populated neighborhood of a major metropolitan city? “Cock-a-doodle-doo” is too cheerful an onomatopoeia for any sound at such an indecent hour. I meant to ask Javier for the spanish word, hoping it would be more appropriate.

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– I eat well. Eggs, tomatoes, arepas (little cakes made of cornstarch or flour with cheese) for breakfast (thanks Javier); ajiaco (soup); stir fry and chicken at home; and exotic fruits I’ve never seen or heard of before. I especially like the pitaya, which is small, yellow, and spiky on the outside, mild and sweet on the inside.

– At the museo Botero, Javier tells me that Botero painted fat people (and fat fruits, and fat violins…) because he wanted a way of making his subjects significant, as though through their enormous size they would acquire a kind of grandeur and permanence. The fat Mona Lisa is my favorite.

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– Everyone makes me feel welcome. My Couchsurfing host Javier has a guest bedroom for me and threatens to kick me out when I try to help with the dishes. I meet other couchsurfers for dinner and drinks. Everyone is patient, friendly, welcoming.

– We walk through the historic neighborhood La Candelaria – historically significant and also historically unsafe. A security guard rests an enormous machine gun against her hip while she answers a text message on her iphone.

– Despite stern warnings from travel websites and Javier, I find the hike up Monserrate to be well-guarded and heavily traveled, mostly by high school girls. I’m delighted by brilliant flowers lining the path and increasingly impressive views of the city. I make the 2500 meter climb in about an hour, which is great considering the altitude (bogota is already 3000 meters above sea level). I’m told some people run up the trail in 30 minutes or less! At Monserrate I visit the little chapel and watch blue and green hummingbirds among the vivid blooms of plants I’ve never seen before.

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It was a strange week. I was comfortable and well taken-care of, yet I didn’t feel like myself – truthfully, I wasn’t very happy. Transitions aren’t easy, even if you’re transitioning to something you’re excited about – maybe I was homesick, maybe depressed.

They’re not pleasant feelings, and I try not to let myself feel guilty for being unhappy (one of the awful things about depression – the depression makes you sad for no reason, and then you feel guilty for feeling sad with no reason, and then you’re depressed again). However, I welcome these feelings, unpleasant though they are. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore my moods and their meanings. I try not to make decisions based only on my mood, but instead to use my emotions as one of many tools I can use to make choices.

As I write this my mood is shifting. I’m settling in to travel mode, feeling more comfortable and confident. I’ll write again from my next stop with more thoughts.