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.

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.

Reno>Idaho

It was a good decision to take back roads instead of highways on my way from Reno to Wyoming.

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Night fell on the backcountry Idaho road I was traveling. Decided to stop for the night and met a fellow family of travelers with fantastic stories of visits to Moscow in winter during the Cold War, Papua New Guinea, and remote areas of Africa.

Grand Teton national park today and for the next few days. It’s just over two years to the day since my best friend and I fell in love with the mountains here. I’ve been dying to explore them ever since!