Friday, February 20, 2015

Carnival in Ecuador!

Banos: adventure capital of Ecuador (that 'n' has a tilde, which I can't figure out). Anything adrenaline-inducing is available here. Whitewater kayaking & rafting, mountaineering, rock climbing, paragliding, canyoneering, off-roading... you get the idea. Naturally, spending some playtime in Banos was a big goal of mine. What I didn't realize though, was that my time in Banos corresponded with Carnival, the biggest festival of the year, and Banos is a major destination for Ecuadorians from around the country to celebrate.

(Very active Tungurahua volcano just outside of Banos)

While this made getting a room difficult, the atmosphere was incredible. When I wasn't canyoneering or zip-lining, I was with a crew of other backpackers soaking up the local festival. I mean that very literally. Ecuadorians of all ages celebrate by attacking each other with "cariocas" or spray foam.

Image stolen from here.

 The aerosol canisters are available at every store and street vendor, and range in size from a beer bottle to a fire extinguisher. To be seen holding one unofficially means that you are "in" the game, and a target for everyone else brandishing a carioca- though especially when it comes to gringos this rule is very loose, as we're fun targets no matter what. My Belgian friend, Val, and I initially bought our first round only "to defend ourselves" but that escalated immediately after we twisted the safety tabs off. The streets were lawless- everyone was covered in candy-scented foam. Innocent looking 4 year olds, bands of roving teenagers, indigenous women dressed in traditional clothes, other backpackers... everyone had a foam canister and laughed while attacking each other relentlessly. We ran between cars, screamed directions at each other ("WATCH YOUR BACK THERE'S MORE OF THEM THAN US!!!!"), trying to avoid the cars doing drive-bys. Eventually a group of us wiped the foam from our hair and retreated to higher ground to spray pedestrians from the safety of a bar balcony, beers in hand. Our group was Irish, British, Swiss (who, unsurprisingly, refrained from getting involved), Belgian, Ecuadorian, German, and me. Getting to decide from above who to foam taught me about the origins of power tripping. "He's wearing Ed Hardy! Get him!  Gringos!! Hippies!! Get them! Don't get that couple, they're too cute. She's got a fire extinguisher.. definitely get her!" When someone had to dash out on the street for more ammo, they came back foamed. We vaguely mused that our flank was totally undefended if someone came upstairs through the bar, but I doubted anyone had the cajones to do it. I was totally wrong though, and we fully deserved the revenge attack when a few guys invaded the bar and cornered us on the balcony.

(Our arsenal from the balcony.)

By the end of the night my clothes and hair were soaking wet, I smelled like grape candy, and my cheeks hurt from smiling. The following night we avoided the foam wars and instead drank the usual weak Ecuadorian pilseners on the fourth story hostel terrace and watched dozens of red paper lanterns float into the dark sky and eventually blend into the stars. It was the iconic, peaceful sort of travel moment that renewed my appreciation for getting to be so far away from everything I am familiar with. At one point while canyoning the day before a group of us were in a waterfall yelling "I don't want to go home!!" The night on the roof, I admit that I was wondering if returning home was the right decision.

(Eating 'cuy' or roast guinea pig, was surprisingly delicious.)


I'm the type of traveler who struggles to move on to new destinations. I like to travel slow and get to know places and the people in them rather than bouncing around and spending a whole lot of my time dealing with travel logistics. As much wanderlust as I feel, I do like to unpack and explode my stuff all over a room and let myself get attached to some element of routine. I did manage to drag myself from Banos and up to Otavalo- a largely indigenous town in the northern highlands. Perfect for last-minute shopping, Otavalo has been a historically important city for trading, and their artisan market continues to thrive. I hit the ATM twice in one morning and filled up a burlap rice sack (that became my checked bag) with colorful alpaca blankets and textiles, stuffed llama toys, paintings and silver jewelry. 

(View from a hillside looking over Otavalo.)

A few buses and taxis and planes later I'm home-home in Escondido and driving north to return to Portland temporarily tomorrow. Ecuador was amazing for so many reasons that I'll continue to digest. Traveling solo was empowering, and considerably more enjoyable, and less scary than I was expecting. Someday I'll make myself digest the experience more and write more on it. Right now though, I have a cold that I brought back from South America and I'm wiped out. Sorry this post isn't very exciting or well-written.

The Swing At The End of The World

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Back in Portland in a Week!

It's amazing how much can happen between blog posts. I've simultaneously been bitten badly by the travel bug, and accepted an opportunity to return to Portland next week to fill in at my old position at JOIN temporarily. On one hand, the timing is awful. I couldn't be happier in South America, and traveling solo has been the most empowering experience of my life. On the other, I haven't stopped talking about JOIN to anyone who will listen since I left. I'm really looking forward to getting back into the work and the comfortable patterns of my old life. Working for a few months will let me replenish my dwindling bank account, defer grad school for a year, and travel longer than I'd initially planned. My flight back to San Diego is booked for a few days from now, and from there my car full of stuff and I will drive back north to Portland until May. For now, I'm trying to be present to Ecuador and get the most out of my little time left. It's Carnival season, and the streets are full of energy and little kids throwing water and spraying each other and unsuspecting tourists with foam.

After leaving the coast, I went to Cotopaxi National Park. I stayed in a lovely, retreat-esque hostel called Secret Garden Cotopaxi.

(Barbed wire is no match for us!)

(Marbles vs rocks vs corn kernels vs beans.)

Our shuttle from Quito drove two hours in the rain, largely on cobbled streets through a beautiful countryside. We were greeted by hot mulled wine around the fire, and spent the afternoon and evening cozily reading and playing Chinese checkers. There was no wifi for miles, so the dozen or so of us backpackers got to know each other well, and explore the Cotopaxi area together. The dorm rooms lacked electricity but each had wood burning stoves and the beds had down comforters. I slept better there than I have in a long time. At night we had Chilean wine in the jacuzzi and stayed up too late talking and learning about each other's countries. It's really good for me to get a more objective look at global issues and different cultures. I really value these "zoomed out" conversations that challenge ideas that I've only ever experienced from an American viewpoint. A group of us hiked to the glacier on Cotopaxi, and endured a wet and cold mountain bike ride down the mountain. I struggled with having to leave Cotopaxi!

(Waterfall "hike")

Next, a Coloradan travel buddy, Jack, and I went south to the city of Latacunga, which itself was surprisingly pleasant but unremarkable. It's the jumping-off point for a variety of mountain-based adventures, or in our case, Quilatoa Lake. At an elevation of almost 4,000 meters, the volcanic-crater lake rimmed by jagged peaks is stunning.

 Locals believe that it has no bottom, and I can see why. We hiked down 400 meters to the water's edge and paid $10 to take horses back up. (I wish that was an option more often when hiking!) I bought a traditional Tigua painting and woven tapestry to decorate the imaginary house I will someday own.
I resisted the urge to photograph the indigenous, Kichwa-speaking locals, and left Jack at Quilatoa to continue south.

(Photo stolen from the interwebs because I feel weird photographing strangers.)

I missed the last bus out of tiny Quilatoa, so I followed the example of a local family and hitched a ride in a pickup truck. I slung my backpack into the bed and sat up front squished against the wife of the truck owner. She spoke more Kichwa than Spanish but amicably asked me, "Are you traveling alone without company? Where is your husband?" Like every other solo traveling gal, I get this question a lot, and my answer depends on who's asking. In her case, I laughed and said "No necesito compania y no necesito un esposo!" which she loved. If she was one of the many too-forward dudes who approach me on the bus, beach, or on the street, my answer would have been. "Yeah, I have a husband, he's working at home/waiting for me at the hotel/etc. BUT WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT IF I HAVE A HUSBAND OR NOT."  I get so frustrated by "estas soltera o casada?" ("you single or married?") always being either the first or second question I get asked by dudes. They never really have an answer to why that's important, and me being visibly pissed, plus that question, plus getting up to leave, plus occasionally saying "No quiero hablar contigo" ("I don't want to talk to you.) I haven't really had any problems besides being annoyed. In general, I'm morally opposed to using the "I have a boyfriend" excuse because I shouldn't have to "belong" to one guy just to avoid getting harassed by another. But here, it's tougher, so I do it. (Though a surprising number of guys say "So what? He's in the States, this is Ecuador." And I can't help but get offended on behalf of my imaginary boyfriend/husband.) Last night leaving a bar, some guy actually grabbed my arm to pull me towards his group of friends and I whipped around and said "WHY DO YOU THINK THAT'S OKAY?" After a few drinks, and with my crew of friends nearby, I had enough dumb confidence to be ready to throw down. Yeah, I find a lot of South American men inappropriate and disrespectful towards me, and being blonde here kind of sucks, but I don't know that the culture here towards women is that different, or that we just hide it better up north. 

That paragraph sounded more negative than I intended. Guys being forward is low on my list of concerns. Traveling sola is giving me more self-confidence and letting me grow in many ways. Having the time to journal, or to sit quietly on a bench and watch a foreign world go by is such a gift. I love it, and could actually use more solo time. I've met so many people, and hanging out with other travelers is almost a constant. It's nice to hear someone yell "Colleen!!" across a park when I didn't realize that I knew anyone in town. 

I'm currently in Banos, adventure capital of the country. Next blog post will be about the ridiculousness of Carnival. At the moment I'm taking a break, hiding out in my hostel from the foam wars on the streets :)
(This fuzzy creature was outside my dorm room every morning in Cotopaxi.)

Monday, February 9, 2015

"Don't live your dreams!"

I finished up at the farm and spent a day back in Canoa, my new favorite sleepy surfing village on my way back to Quito. Out of nowhere I feel like I've become more of a beach person, and loved getting up to go swimming in the waves in the morning and at sunset.
I seriously considered doing surf lessons and getting into surfing, but I knew that I'd be sucked into the Canoa vortex and never get on with my trip. I'll add surfing to my "someday to do" list.

I also went to this great fishing town south of Canoa called Puerto Lopez, the jumping off point for a day trip to the "Poor Man's Galapagos." Isla de la Plata is about 35 times less expensive than a trip to the Galapagos ($35 vs $1,200) but I think the Galapagos might be 35 times as cool. Maybe not, I did see a lot of Blue Footed Boobies, which are either too lazy or too fearless to move out of the way of humans.
("This is MY shady spot, you dumb human.)

We hiked around the island preserve, applying more sunscreen every few minutes. Afterwards, going snorkeling was a welcome relief from the heat. I've never been suspended in a school of curious fish, or watched angelfish poke around rock formations next to me. As a reformed non-ocean lover, this snorkeling experience was surprisingly magical. 

Puerto Lopez, unlike my comfortable Canoa, actually has a nightlife! Robberies are also more common, so in an effort to keep my iPhone safe, I sacrificed getting photos of the two dueling dance clubs on the sand. Standing between them, your brain is bombarded by two thumping strains of awful reggaton and disjointed strobe lights. After a few pina coladas though, it's better than it sounds. 

(Most of my sustenance lately has come from places that look like this.)

(Unidentified deep sea monster)

The evening before I caught the night bus out of Canoa, I was eating my favorite local ice cream popsicle on the beach, watching the surfers and beach frolickers. I was drawn into watching this one group of older adults who were emanating joy like nothing I'd ever seen. [This is a journal excerpt that I wrote on the beach and I'm not taking the time to revise.] 
("Don't live asleep, live your dreams!")

"I could tell that it was their first time seeing the ocean. A group of women held hands on the sand, staring, smiling, wordlessly gaping at the sea. I watched them take it all in.. a totally new sensory experience, and I got to see the ocean again with new eyes too. The terrifying and beautiful possibilities that the stretch of infinite horizon brings. I don't have any stereotypes to draw on but I somehow know that they are from the campo. Accustomed to the more mountainous interior of tiny hillside farms, this amount of space must have been overwhelming. The women laughed and pointed, nervously daring to leave the high sandbar of the beach and venture into the water. Before long, a trail of several older men and women, clothes soaking wet, faces stretching into big smiles, held hands and carefully jumped in the waves together. The braver ones loser to the sea, the more timid anchored closer to dry land. Each wave nearly knocked them down and started a new chorus of laughter. A woman in her sixties, her hair in a long braid, wore a knee-length skirt and clutched the hands on either side protectively, crouching defensively into each wave. I'm not a good enough writer to describe her smile. She exuded a soulful energy from deep inside: a childlike glee at this new experience, a sense of awe and joy and danger, a happy closeness with her family on either side and waving from the beach. 
I couldn't stop smiling while watching them. I thought about going up to ask for a photo. I would crouch down and take a series of bursts to capture the most authentic facial expressions. In the fading sunset, it would have been a great photo. But I couldn't do it. Couldn't be obtrusive in addition to being a voyeur. My punishment for not speaking good Spanish and being a stranger in a strange land is to watch from the sidelines. Instead I got out my journal to write this and enjoyed the last of the sunset."

After I'd put my journal away, I was walking back to my hostel and happened to pass the family from the campo. They all excitedly introduced themselves to me- likely one of few gringos they'd talked to- and confirmed that yes, this was their first time seeing the ocean and they were thrilled to be here. I welcomed them to the beach and they welcomed me to visit their village. I told them that seeing them in the waves had made me so happy, and I was grateful for them sharing their happiness with me. They wanted a photo with me, so I snagged one too, feeling pretty good about being rewarded for my patience with a good conversation and the reminder of how something like playing in the waves can cross all kinds of cultural barriers.

(Beach bonfire one night with a crew from the hostel.)

I decided that I want to check out the Amazon, by spending a few days doing a boat trip up the rivers in the jungle to see wildlife and indigenous tribes. I don't have any specific plans yet, but step 1 is to get vaccinated against Yellow Fever, which is endemic in the jungle. I spent an extra day in Quito to do chores like getting the vaccine, visiting an ATM (there are none in Canoa), laundry, buying a combination lock, and trip-planning. All of those less than exciting things that are good for the morning after a long night bus through rainy mountains.
(Trying my best to not do my 'classic starfish pose' and 'Colleen face' in a photo at my favorite Quito art museum.)

Finding the Yellow Fever vaccine in Quito was relatively easy, but required a few conversations with various health care workers that approximately translated to this:

Colleen: "I have the yellow fever. Do you know where the syringe is?"
Nurse: "You have a fever? You have yellow fever?"
Colleen: "No, I don't have the fever. I WANT the fever. Do you know where it is?"
Nurse: "Are you kidding me right now."

Anyways, the Ecuadorians I talked to were extremely helpful and extremely forgiving of my awful Spanish. I found the Public Health Center in historic old town, not far from my hostel and got the vaccine and certification for free, rather than $100 in the States!

Next I'm heading south, into the Andes!

In case you were wondering, this is what my "productive internet time setup" looks like.

Hey, thanks for reading this. I'm consistently surprised by the view count, and I'm happy that people care enough to read. Thank you! :)