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june 4, 2005 -> A Relaxed Approach to Ecuador

The techno music blared from two speakers at the front of the room.  My legs blurred as I labored up the last “hill.”  My arms still ached from lifting weights; I could barely hold myself above the handlebars of the stationary bike.  Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, Quito stretched down the narrow valley, presided over by the green bulk of Volcano Pichincha.  After surviving my first-ever “spinning” class, I did an “abs and back” class, followed by an hour on the treadmill.  Then I showered up and walked around the mall's courtyard to the air-conditioned café, where I would relax and write until Nori arrived.  She was taking a week of Spanish lessons, and staying with a local family. 

You know you've been traveling too long when shopping malls become exciting.  We loved the Plaza de las Americas.  We bought one-week gym memberships, updated our website using the free Wi-Fi connection, drank cappuccinos, watched the latest Star Wars movie and devoured ribs at Tony Roma's.  We had three weeks to explore Ecuador – more than enough time for the relatively small country.  But we both needed a rest after our Galapagos ordeal, and decided to relax for a week in Quito.  It's funny that our “little vacations from the big vacation” often turn out to be an approximation of normal (non-traveling) life: staying in one place, running errands, trying to get in shape, and spending money on things we don't need. 

The day after we arrived from the Galapagos Islands, we had gone north to see Otavalo's famed Saturday market.  The market filled a huge plaza and spilled over into the streets.  It had lost its “authenticity” decades ago, but one couldn't complain about the variety or prices of the handicrafts on offer – including luxurious alpaca blankets and shawls.  And we did notice a large number of local women shopping for traditional jewelry and produce.  Having restrained ourselves throughout South America, we returned to Quito heavy with souvenirs.  Surrounded by pretty hills, clear lakes and extinct volcanoes, Otavalo could be a great place to spend a few days, if it wasn't so noisy and dirty.  Most people arrived on Friday night and left by Saturday afternoon.

 

Unfortunately, Quito wasn't the best place to spend a relaxing week.  First, it was a dangerous city.  Criminals patrolled the Mariscal District – also known as “Gringolandia” – mugging tourists.  A gang of black transvestites had been particularly active.  Second, it was a very loud city.  Car horns and ambulance sirens wailed throughout the night.  The city's popular “Eco-via” tramlines ran on electricity, but they screeched and roared with every stop.  Our earplugs failed completely.  Third, Quito is doomed.  One evening, I attended an informative (and hilarious) lecture on the volcanic history of the Galapagos Islands.  The volcano-chasing geologist started by opining that Quito would eventually be destroyed, not by volcanic eruptions, but by earthquakes.  He called the San Andreas Fault “a tiny crack” compared to the fault line near Quito.  With our Quito week behind us, we decided to split up and explore different corners of the country.  I opted for a few days hiking, while Nori signed up for a volunteer program in the south of the country. 

It took six hours to reach Chugchilan, a remote village famous for hiking and horseback riding.  I stayed at the Black Sheep, an American-owned eco-lodge that – for once – lived up to its name: self-composting toilets, vegetarian meals; employing locals in the lodge, and encouraging others to offer excursions to their guests.  Exhausted from very little sleep in Quito, I was looking forward to three silent nights.  So at four o'clock in the morning, when a local neighbor put her speakers out the window and turned on the “burrito music” at top volume, I leapt from the bed and staggered uphill - naked save my boxer shorts - to scream at the old lady who was making breakfast for her early-rising family members.  That morning, another guest of the Black Sheep would scold me for my lack of “cultural acceptance.”  That made me even angrier.  The Black Sheep had given a big economic boost to its local neighbors, so didn't they need to show some “cultural acceptance” too?  (Incidentally, the next two nights were very quiet.) 

Groggy from lack of sleep, I piled into the back of a pick-up truck with five other guests (and three machete-packing cowboys that we picked up along the way.)  The hike from Volcano Quilotoa back to Chugchilan is the area's trekking highlight.  It was a dusty, bumpy, one-hour ride to the volcano, but what an amazing sight.  The massive, jagged crater rose high above a lake of South Pacific blueness.  The howling winds that scoured the crater edge had also whipped up frothy waves on the lake's surface.  I decided that I had enough time take the much longer, and less traveled counterclockwise route around the volcano's edge – if I ran the downhills and flats.  It was an exhausting, but incredible day.  The trail stuck to the edge of the crater; very little separated me from the cliffs on my left.  Dogs chased me, shepherd boys begged for “caramelos,” and running in my nearly sole-less boots left big blisters.   

Nori returned from her volunteer program a few days early, her belly and legs covered with insect bites.  She had stayed with a family in the small town of El Tambo, just a few kilometers from the ruins of Ingapirca, and home to numerous Cañari indigenous communities.  Each village had its own identifying dress.  With only a week to spend, Nori felt more like an honored guest than a hard-working volunteer.  Her family introduced her to the neighbors, took her to the weekly produce market, and let her have a try at milking cows, shearing sheep, and feeding cuys (hamsters.)  She had left her earplugs in Quito, and the roosters and dogs of El Tambo ensured several sleepless nights.  “I'm not cut out for farm life,” Nori stated, as if that hadn't been obvious to me for some time. 

* On our final night in South America, we met up with three Antarctica cruising buddies at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Quito.  It was a tearful farewell, not because of sentimentality but because some idiot had thrown a canister of tear gas into the crowds of drunk Ecuadorians celebrating their football team's surprising 2-0 defeat of Argentina.

Scott

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