Friday, January 30, 2015

Finca Mono Verde

(When I said I'd be "off the grid" for two weeks, I didn't realize I'd have weekends free to explore! Details on where I am now in the next post.)

So I finally dragged myself away from Quito towards the coast. A day and a half in Canoa, a sleepy surfing and fishing village, was wonderful, and exactly how much time I needed to remind myself that I'm less of a beach person than a mountain person. I loved swimming in the warm Pacific and watching local fishermen haul in their daily catch, roll boats back up the beach on logs, and untangle nets at sunset.

There were plenty of "cevicherias" - little bamboo shacks on the sand that sell fresh shrimp ceviche and pina coladas. At this time of year, there's a pretty consistently good swell, and foreign and Ecuadorian surfers swamp the breaks and the few beach bars each night. I was staying in this great funky hostel that had hammocks slung all over the place, sort of topsy turvy bamboo architecture, and great papaya crepes included with the price of the room.

I read a lot, ate a lot of ceviche and fried plantain, and hung  out with the assortment of travelers that this type of town attracts. Over beers, we talked travel (who's been where, where ya headed, how to get here, etc.) and learned about each other's countries. Of course I'm consistently amazed by how far behind the US is in terms of things like maternal and paternity leave, and health care, but even more important- did you know that most Finnish houses and apartments have saunas?

I dusted the sand from my Chacos and caught a bus north to the almost imperceptible town of Tabuga, where Finca Mono Verde is. I learned of this place through a grapevine of friends and decided that I should spend some time volunteering on the farm to learn about permaculture and sustainable farming methods. Since El Salvador, I've always felt a bit bothered by how disconnected I am from the food I eat, but I never do anything about it. This Finca WWOOF gig offered a chance for me to get my hands dirty and spend a minute getting connected to the system of growth that sustains me.

My corner of the volunteer room on the Finca. To the right is an open porch & hammock.

The Finca is great. It's bamboo structures, chickens running around, banana trees, mud, and shirtless Frenchmen smoking cigarettes and building more bamboo structures.

 I spent several hours today pruning- which was so much cooler than it sounds. I learned what the legume trees that had to be cut down looked like, and then Arnaud, the lead Frenchman, gave me a machete for the day. I realize that when it comes to digging irrigation trenches like I did the other day, that I am a totally average shovel-user. But I am thinking of myself as a machete prodigy. I was bleeping efficient. Forehand, backhand, short volleys, and softball swings- it was as if all of my athletic experience  until now had been preparing me for this morning. I was sweaty and muddy, and my hands are threatening to blister, but looking over the field of pruned legume trees and mulched coffee bushes underneath the canopy of banana trees was a great feeling.

(If you've read this book or it's prequel, and are as into them as I am, I want to have a book-date-lunch with you!)

The other day, I helped a Californian couple who'd just finished volunteering to carry their surfboards and backpacks up to the main road to hitch a ride to the next town. We'd said our goodbyes and I'd just turned to walk back to the farm under orange flowered trees when a downpour hit. I was wearing this great wide-brimmed hat I'd just bought from a sombrero seller on the beach, so my head and neck were dry, but after about ten seconds, that was it. Rain in the tropics is so different than what I know in Portland. There, the rain is cold and unfriendly and dark. There's rarely enough to even merit using a hood, but it's a constant, depressing companion for months straight. The rain in Ecuador was a completely different type. The air turned into a waterfall, and the dirt road I was walking on became a series of muddy rivulets within minutes. I ducked into an old cross section of a giant cement pipe and leaned back against the cool wall to watch the torrent outside. It was warm out, and I was already as soaked as I could possibly be, so the rain wasn't actually obnoxious, but the pipe was cozy, and a good place to sit and think. Outside, chickens were roosting close together on the bamboo pillars underneath a house, and a group of muddy calves trudged across a field together. I tried to picture exactly where I was on a map; zooming out from this farm, to the coastal providence, to Ecuador, to Central and South America, to this hemisphere, and to the whole planet and beyond. I saw all of the places where the people I miss are, and sat upright when I realized that I didn't really know anyone within 3,000 miles. That is just too lonely a thought when you're sitting out the rain alone in a concrete pipe, so I smiled at the downpour and waked back to the Finca. Ten minutes later I was laughing, making lemon jam with two French guys in their skivvies, drinking cowboy coffee, and listening to bad techno music over the roar of the downpour on the tin roof.

Weirdos :)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Flying Solo in Quito!

I feel like the only constant I've had in the past six months has been this recurring realization of 'holy crap, how did I get here?' All of a sudden, I'm drinking a beer in the snow in Flagstaff, I'm dancing at a Hindu holy festival in Nepal, I'm watching Emily's Academic League match at the local high school, I'm sitting in my car alone at the edge of Las Vegas' neon glow, too pissed off to drive, I'm on a broken train in Santa Barbara en route to a Christmas party, I'm in a cave in Idaho, I'm in Ecuador climbing a rickety iron staircase to the top of a Gothic church steeple. 

It's been a weird collection of meta-realizations, strung together by what feels in hindsight like unconscious decision-making. Someday I'll have a few glasses of wine and try to write a poem about it. But anyways, I left my job, got rid of my stuff, and two seconds later I'm eating arroz con pollo y plantains in a cute guest house in Ecuador with a cute cat named Gato Samuel asleep by my feet.

Ecuador is already stealing my heart. I thought I'd quickly bounce off of Quito in favor of safer, smaller cities, but this place has a bustling, colorful, friendliness I wasn't expecting in a large capitol. I think a lot of it has to do with where I am staying. Posada Tambuco is this wonderful little guest house that feels more like a homestay. Each morning, Yolanda, who co-owns the place with her husband greets me with "Buenos dias, mi amor!" and I spend an hour reading, eating breakfast, and enjoying the Salsa music in the sunny kitchen. 

Carlitos is a few years older than me and helps run the place with his parents. We speak Spanglish, and he helps me navigate the city, especially by darkening the parts of the Quito map where it's not safe for me to go. Safety, of course, is a constant concern of mine. I've never been so aware of being so blonde and so solo, but I'm taking every precaution without living in fear and everything has been great. I had been thinking about taking the fast and direct night bus to the coast tonight, then I was told that the bus "goes fast so that it doesn't get robbed." so I opted to spend another night at Posada Tambuco and leave in the morning instead.

 I've been speaking a lot of Spanish. (Though to be real, that really should say "I've been enthusiastically butchering a beautiful language with no regard to verb tenses, sentence structure or most vocabulary.") 

Yesterday, my first day here, I spent a few hours walking around Old Town, exploring churches, cathedrals and museums. The streets are cobbled and clean, the Ecuadorian flag flutters off of most balconies, and the colorfully restored colonial architecture is a photogenic backdrop Ecuadorians bustling about their daily business. Indigenous women with babies slung around their backs sell gum, lottery tickets, cheap toys and ice cream. Groups of older men in black leather jackets sit on marble benches smoking and laughing. Everywhere there are teenagers taking selfies, slyly holding hands and giggling in large groups.

I leaned against a stone pillar outside and watched all of the sunny commotion for a while before ducking inside to the cool, dark, incensed air of a historic church. I love sitting in the last pew of these huge stone buildings, recognizing the saints of my childhood in the ornate stained glass windows and watching Catholics of all ages stop in to light a votive intention candle and say a quick kneeling prayer. Ecuador is 96% Roman Catholic and I'm not at all surprised by that overwhelming majority. Still though, the ratio of Quitenos (that 'n' has a ~ but I don't know how to type that) to churches in Old Town was amazing.

It's funny how when you travel, so many situations sound like the the set up to a cheesy joke. "So this American, a Canadian, an Austrian and a German walk into a bar...." (that was last night.) Today, that same group of us took a series of buses to visit the equator! Yeah, I stopped over for a visit to the Northern Hemisphere, no big deal. On one hand, it was a cheesy photo op. On the other hand, that is effing incredible! El Mitad del Mundo! 0 degrees latitude! The center of the world!

This post is already longer than anyone (even my mom) wants to read. But one more thought.. the people you meet traveling are incredible. Conversation tends to naturally skip the pleasantries that we often get stuck in, in favor of the real good stuff. We all all share the same distance from our comfort zones, and finding fun and laughter and exploring together becomes a rad way of building connections from nothing. I'll stop from getting more sappy, but I am so grateful for the rotating cast of mis amigos nuevos here.
Be Alive- Travel. On a climbing wall!

Quito has Sunday Parkways just like Portland!

Roasted guinea pigs. I did not eat these (yet).


I started off my flight from Houston to Quito tipsy off the free wine at the United VIP Club lounge. Probably the first and last time in my life I'll ever be in one of those- a gift perk from opening a United Visa.

The United Club was a very fancy place that smells of rich mahogany and has a lot more laptops than smiles. There are tables with shrink wrapped apples and all the Tillamook cheese you can eat. The place was three stories tall and full of people who pay more than my monthly rent for a few extra inches of legroom. I had coffee with a nice Argentinian gentleman who was a real-life oil baron for a major company. When I asked what he did, exactly, he smiled and said, "I take care of Latin America."   "All of it?" I asked. "Yes, all of Latin America." Then he reminisced about traveling in his twenties and riding a cargo ship to go train around Europe in the 1970s before leaving to catch his fight.

Meanwhile, my family is all jokingly texting me, "FIND A SUGAR DADDY COLLEEN!" But alas, the crowd was more of a stiletto than 'hiking-boots-that-still-smell-like-Nepali-donkey-shit' crowd. I did have the even better fortune of meeting Dian, who was as enthusiastic as taking advantage of the open bar as I was.

Dian: "Can you take our picture?!?"
Bartender: "Don't you two like, not even know each other?"
Colleen: "What are you talking about? We go way back, to like, three drinks ago."

Pro Travel Tip: According to Dian, you can buy these United Club passes for $10-$15 on eBay. Just in case you want to go sugar-daddy hunting and eat a lot of cheese.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Six Weeks With A Carry-On!

Deciding to go to Ecuador was one of the more impulsive things I’ve done. I only bought* the ticket on Friday and haven’t even spent much time thinking about the trip between then and now. I did buy the Lonely Planet guide and a Spanish-English dictionary, so what could go wrong?

What a weird place in my life when I literally clicked around Google Maps to decide which random country to spend several weeks in! Ecuador won because it had been part of my original Patagonia plan, and through doing preliminary research and talking with friends, it sounds like a relatively safe place to be a solo female backpacker. A big goal of mine is to improve my Spanish, and it sounds like Ecuador is a good place to do that, as well as offering a diversity of outdoor fun. I’ll spend a day in Quito getting acclimatized (literally- Quito is the world’s highest capital city at 9,350 ft), and then bus to Mindo to check out a cloud forest, and then to spend a few weeks volunteering on a permaculture farm on the coast (thanks Chris for that connection!). I’m not quite sure what the next four weeks will look like. I’ve learned that it’s so much more fun to go with an open agenda and the ability to say yes to opportunities, and to let my mood and whomever I meet sway me towards what I decide to do.

And yup- only traveling with a small carry-on bag. This rugged cutie, actually, from the MH employee store, and an REI flash pack as my “personal item.” As a chronic over-packer/doomsday prepper, it was a struggle for me to cut down on what I packed. I’ll figure out a way to post my packing list, (which I’m sure will be the most fascinating thing you’ve ever spent time reading). I hate the feeling of BSA (“Backpack Separation Anxiety”) and with the high rate of bag thefts, pickpockets and robberies, it’ll be one less thing to worry about if I can just keep my backpack on my lap while taking buses around. Actually only having a carry-on was already hugely helpful today.. funny story...

My big travel adventure became more adventurous earlier than expected this morning, when I was supposed to have left. My flight out of San Diego had taxied down the tarmac and was gathering speed on the runway, seconds from being airborne when we suddenly stopped. The pilot announced that there were bad winds in the connection city and that we would head back to the terminal to deplane and wait on news. Because I missed my connections they offered me a circuitous route that would have taken way too long and involved spending tonight in Mexico City airport. I opted to just try again tomorrow morning with a more direct route.

(Here’s what should have been my flight, taking off without me.)

So glad that I didn’t have any checked bags and I could just hop off the plane and be flexible with my plans. My family welcomed my triumphant return from the airport a few hours later, and got Emily to play hooky from high school so we could hang out.

So I’m trying again tomorrow and in the meantime packing a few small things I forgot and reading up on these these terrifying reports of robberies in Quito. I might just stay in my hotel room the whole time. Only sort of kidding.

I also went to Zion National Park, via Vegas, for a few days with a friend. Zion is rad. The drive was pretty, the weather was chilly but otherwise perfect. I was glad to have a zero degree bag, and it was nice being in the park during the quiet season. 

Hiking solo in a canyon on Sunday I met Dianna, who described our meeting as “hiking into a parallel universe and met another version of myself.” Haha, it was incredible- almost creepy- how much we had in common! I love experiences of paths serendipitously crossing and I’m excited to connect again in Portland! (Yeah Dianna.. make the move!)  

On the way back, we stopped in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and happened to hit it right at sunset, when it was very apparent how the place had gotten it’s name. It was fun to scramble up this massive, somewhat sketchy red rock pile and be rewarded with stunning 360 degree views of a mountainous desert glowing in the fading light.

*”Bought” this ticket for a total of $150 round trip in fees and taxes. I got into “travel hacking” a few months ago and it’s pretty awesome. If you can deal with a few points possibly dinging your credit score**, some annual fees, minimum spend requirements, and having to be pretty organized, strategically opening credit cards is a fantastic way to get cheap airfare. I’ve only opened four cards and have enough miles to go around the world and back easily. I’m a relatively low “spender” but you can get creative in hitting spend limits (ie: Amazon money transfer, putting your phone bill and utilities on it, buying gift cards, etc.) Just be sure to pay it off in full each month obviously, as the APR is generally rough. Choose one of the three travel alliances to target your miles because the airlines will transfer miles within each alliance. I go with “Star Alliance” which includes United Airlines.

So, for example: Each way to Ecuador was 20k miles (this means taking a more roundabout route and not being totally flexible on days, but who cares)

A few months ago I signed up for Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer card, which is a good one. The sign up bonus was 30k miles (don’t get a card offering any less than this), and I got an additional 5k miles for adding my brother as a co-signer. (Helps build his credit and I just cut up the card anyways.) I had to spend I think $3,000 within a year, which I did, and then some. There will be a $95 annual fee the second year, which I could probably get waived if I say pretty please. So, woohoo! that was enough miles for this 40k mile Ecuador trip. Bonus of then booking with this same card was priority boarding, free checked bags, and free passes to United’s VIP lounge. There isn’t a catch, as far as I know. Really, I should say that this trip costs $245 (fees/taxes + credit card annual fee) plus the time it took to research and organize this, but that is far better than the $1,300 price tag it would have had otherwise.

Here's a good beginner guide for travel hacking.
And I haven't used personally used this guy's advice, but he's well respected.
Spend some time wandering the internet and you'll find lots of info. Just be sure to pay off your balances and keep track of cards.

**Opening up these cards actually helped my credit score (access to larger line of credit, more lines of credit), but closing the cards can ding you.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

This Post Is Two Months Too Late, But I Did In Fact Return From Nepal

So I’m definitely not going to win any Blogger of the Year awards.  I haven’t written anything a few months, and those have been eventful months!  It’s been shocking to me to hear from a number of people that they miss reading my posts (weird! and thanks!) and I saw that the view count on this thing is surprisingly high.  So, my dear friends and family, I’ll choose a few recent things to digest here.
(This was the view I opened the door to in the morning. It's harvest season!)

1. Here’s a funny Nepal bus moment.  I had discovered that I could thumb-type on my iPad mini despite how jarring the bus ride was, so I was enjoying my newfound bus-riding confidence, listening to bluegrass remakes of Modest Mouse, and journaling eloquently about the bus…
‘Trundling confidently along in our swaying steel behemoth, we dodge devastating potholes and muscle smaller vehicles out of the way.  The front driver’s cabin is bedazzled in sparkling red garlands, marigolds, postcards of Himalayas, swinging holographic holy cards of various Hindu deities.  Despite the bus being lovingly painted with colorful calligraphy invoking Laxmi Puja and the flying monkey god Hanuman, I don’t feel the security they’re probably supposed to inspire.’

…when I was suddenly jolted from my writing by a screech, and swerve, a metallic thud, and our bus gently coming to a stop blocking most of the country’s largest highway.  We all got off to take a look at what had happened.  I may not know much about the mechanics of vehicles but even I could tell that the whole drive shaft had just fallen off and gotten jammed in the underbody.  I sh*t you not. (My dad says I shouldn’t curse on this blog.) That bus wasn’t going anywhere.  The Nepalis- more used to this than I was- took only a few hectic minutes to help unload everyone’s luggage and flag down passing buses, who scooped us up and took us the next few hours free of charge. 
The new bus was full of a loud, sing-songey Chinese tour group who blasted Chinese pop music and traded what must have been joking insults over the bus PA system. (I should mention that nearly half of tourists to Nepal are Chinese. The number of Chinese visitors increases every year, and Nepal is frantically trying to keep up with the growing demand from their rich northern neighbors for a cheap vacation.)

2. The Return from Nepal was more eventful than I’d have liked, but it all worked out.  My kidney infection got better soon after my blog post months ago, I read this great book Shantaram (which you should read too), we went whitewater rafting/kayaking on the Trisuli River, and I said goodbye to Vince in Kathmandu.  I’d changed my ticket to return home a week earlier than planned to surprise my mom for Thanksgiving, but when I went to the airline office in Kathmandu to confirm, I was informed that they were closing all airports in Nepal for the next week due to security for a political conference. No joke. Other effects of the SAARC conference were road repaving projects, massive traffic, and a very visible military presence everywhere in Kathmandu.  Can you imagine that happening in the US?  The airline wanted $300 cash, in the next 20 minutes, so that I could fly out the next morning.  My debit card had been stolen (see last post) so Max ran to an ATM, and I went gratefully in debt to him and got my flight. 
Mount Everest from the ascent out of Nepal!

3. Nepal was fantastic.  If you are considering going, do it.  Each year more rivers get dammed by India and China and the Himalayas become a little less pristine with each added tourist and teahouse.  Go with an open heart and don’t hide behind a camera and Nepal will reward you with incredible warmness, adventure and culture. I’m not really blogging specific helpful travel details, but get in touch with me if you want to hear those.
View from the river camp after rafting.

Watching our last sunset in Nepal fade over the Himalayas.

(One of my favorites at the orphanage in Pokhara.)

4. The US is pretty fantastic too.  Coming home has been wonderful. Being so near the deadly storm on Annapurna  and hearing the heartbreaking stories told to us by grieving Sherpas made me reevaluate some of my priorities. Surprising my mom and sister and seeing my family and the dogs was just the best. 

After Thanksgiving, chasing Max to Idaho for a week was fun. Seeing my Uncle John & Aunt Abbie in Boise was lovely as usual, and getting to explore a state I’d previously known little about was a great adventure. 

(This beer was so heavy I needed a straw.)

Portland never felt more like home than when I felt my usual rush of relief when I stepped off the plane and walked down the familiar terminal with its ugly carpet. I love that city. The week was full of friend dates and beery gatherings and JOIN visits- all of which reminded me of how much love I left behind. 
Mini-reunion of my JVC housemates. I love these people.

Kevyn & Tatiana.. my favorites :)

It’s tough to just take a quick vacation to a place where I have such deep roots, but important, I suppose, to get to realize how much it all can mean.
The 33- hour train ride from Portland to San Diego gave me a lot of time to think and watch the scenery roll by. I had a wonderful Christmas at home in Escondido with my family. Afterwards we went to Sedona, AZ so we could all commiserate in a condo-cesspool of flu-germs and be too sick to do anything outside. I actually survived without getting sick, thanks probably to my post-Nepal hyperactive immune system.
(Being a jerk and showing off how flu-free I am!)
I spent New Years Eve with one of my best friends, Sam (aka Dr. Melzer!) in beautiful snowy Flagstaff, and then spent a fun night catching up with Francesca and friends at her beach house near Huntington Beach.

Life is not bad at all. I donated all of the money from my GoFundMe to two great organizations doing more important work than I could ever do in Nepal (see last post). I feel a lot of guilt lifted after having donated the money to do more good than I could ever accomplish in a short time.

5. Here’s a more intimate excerpt from my travel journal:
"One dumb idea that I held until recently was the impression that people doing the long-term type of traveling must really have their stuff together. It was probably because of the romantic, photogenic, carefree image that comes with traveling that made me subconsciously believe that I’d transform into a confident, wise, globetrotter who could draw an accurate map of Asia from memory and fearlessly hop on the back of a motorbike to try to find my way home after dark in Kathmandu.  I can do both, but not at all accurately or fearlessly.
I think that a large part of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into a foreign world is being able to embrace the fact that I’m still going to be the same cautious Colleen who was the last to learn to bike without training wheels, and is pretty terrified of being broke or getting my heart broken.  I’m still going to be full of self-doubt and fear around the big questions and will never be totally at ease traveling solo.  I’ll continue to be very aware of the disconnect between the curated Facebook version of events and the long, unglamorous hours in between the photo ops spent in lonely hotel rooms meditating on whether I’m making the right decisions and what I want to be when I grow up.
But in leaving my wonderful Portland world I forced myself to say “Yes!” to the universe and to go ahead and let myself make some mistakes and maybe get hurt out in the world.  I definitely don’t ‘have my stuff together’ but I’m giving myself-insecurities and all- permission to be vulnerable and to live the questions out here."

Since writing this, Max and I ended things, which is sad, painful and not for blogging. My life plans have been shifting constantly, but I think I’ve tentatively figured out what I want to do from here. It includes South America, humanitarian aid on the US-Mexico border, wilderness therapy and grad school. Because of my knees, I had to back out of the Patagonia volunteer program which is a huge bummer. My time at home has included doctor visits, x-rays and physical therapy. I'm optimistic, but unfortunately the coordinators in Patagonia agreed that this is not the year for me.
Details on future plans in the next post.. which I'll try to write before three months of adventures go by..