The Ecuadorian Files: Part VI

OTAVALO

I would be lying if I say that I was not pleased when I left Quito. Although I was breathing more comfortably, it was still a great relief when I left. The trip over the Andes to Otavalo is amongst the most spectacular I have ever experienced. I just wished that the driver would have stopped to let us take pictures, but typical Ecuadorian drivers, he rushed from point A to point B, like there was no tomorrow. The ride took about 2 hours and cost about $1(transportation in Ecuador is ridiculously cheap. There is a standard cab fee in Otavalo of $1.50 between points A and B within the city limits). When I arrived at the bus station, I walked over to a cab and showed him the address of my hostel. Roberto, the owner, was not there and you guessed it: I HAD to go, and true to my belief, regardless of what Ecuadorians do, I was not going to pee in the street! Period.

While I was waiting, a woman approached and asked me whether I was waiting for Roberto. I replied in the affirmative; she knew him and called. [FYI: This was my first meeting with Sophia, a woman from Scotland who used to date Roberto. More, a lot more, on her later]. When Roberto arrived, he told me I should have peed in the street – apart from my infamous eye roll I also gave him my equally devastating look.

While I was waiting on one of the roof terraces as Roberto and Sophia were getting my room ready, I met Wolfgang He was a German who wanted to sell me property on the spot. He employed the typical expat strategy, “things are going to get more expensive and you have to act now.” Thus, within 30 minutes of my arrival I exercised my devastating eye roll and look for a second time.

My en suite room, for a mere $10/night, had a balcony with a view of the Imbabura volcano. Standing on my balcony, all of a sudden, I was out of breath again. Naw, I thought, it is all in the mind, as your breathing troubles were over. But, what were the diesel fumes I smelled? Yep, you guessed it; this was only the start of my problems! I hung out at the hostel, met some people, and walked around a bit and discovered a super market where I bought a few things.

Early next morning I was looking for a place where I could have breakfast. For the first time in my life I was in a place where (or so it seemed) NOBODY could speak English. It would appear that there were NO places that served breakfast and I was getting hungrier by the minute. When I passed a place with pictures of the dishes they served, and one of those pictures contained two fried eggs, I sat down. I was the only person in the restaurant and of course, we had a language problem. I pointed to the picture and showed the owner what I wanted pain (bread) as well, hoping to get toast. I also gestured that I wanted coffee.

After what seemed like an eternity, I got my meal. It was HUMUNGOUS!  I could not eat it all and was hoping and praying that I was not putting some strange (unacceptable) food in my mouth [FYI: I knew it was not the Ecuadorian delicacy, Toro Pene Sopa, or in English: bull penis soup!]

I returned to the hostel for a shower and to get ready for my first day in Otavalo, renowned for its crafts. Nice BIG shower, but virtually NO water pressure. I had a drip-drip shower (when talking to Roberto about this, he told me that they had not been able to solve the problem on HOW to get the water from the source to the various outlets). It may have taken longer than the usual shower, but I managed to get clean and off I went.

First stop was the bank to get funds to pay Roberto. Afterwards I continued to the market where I stood in awe. I have NEVER seen anything like it. The most beautiful crafts at ridiculously low prices. While standing there, and while strolling through this enormous market, I realized how much good expats could do (like writing a grant and get the necessary funding to put a roof over the market … that would prevent the vendors from packing every time there was a shower). I was, and still am, even after I have been back for nearly two months, in awe of that place.

I stayed in Otavalo for a week and did several things during my stay. The most important ones are:

  • At my request, Sophia showed me her house that she is busy building. Wow! It is a three-storey house, built on a lot with an incredible view of Otavalo. One storey is complete and she lives there while the other two stories are been completed. Upon completion the house will be around 3,000 square meters with an incredible view, 3 bathrooms, 4/5 bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and living room and several roof terraces … all of this for $50,000! She has a huge lot and is already growing veggies and started her flowers. The house is in a typical neighborhood and neighbors boast pigs, chickens, cows and sheep (not to mention the dogs!) She has a really nice house and I fell in love when I saw it. While we were at her house, a friend of hers called from Imbabura, who was on his way to Otavalo and wanted to hook up. With a: “You have to meet him,” she called a cab (for $1.50, remember) and we went to the town. I had a ball with her friend and his charming wife as well as a very productive discussion.
  • Ian stayed at the same hostel and is 60 years old. He is from England and is traveling through South America and will be doing so until he turns 65 when his retirement kicks in! I had a ball with him and we spent a lot of time together. I was sad to see him off the day before I left.
  • I made a day trip to Cotacachi; a delightful place, known for its leatherworks. Once again American expats spoiled it for me. Based on my experience(s) in Ecuador, I believe the expats I have met are of the lowest quality of people, outcasts.  These people do not mingle with the locals; they do not integrate with them; do not learn Spanish. In fact, there is a huge contingency of expats in Cotacachi who meet with the mayor on a regular basis and during the last meeting DEMANDED THAT ANNOUNCEMENTS ARE MADE/SENT OUT IN ENGLISH AS WELL!! The locals HATE us and we have only ourselves to blame. Trust me, I hate the expats whom I have met, as badly!!
  • I went to the market with Sophia to make purchases (both as gifts and mementoes). I bought 20 scarves for the ladies at the university and two tapestries for moi.
  • Woke up one Saturday morning and heard the noises of pigs and cows. Rushed to my balcony and there locals were getting their livestock to the Saturday market. Quite an experience!

I am not going to discuss my breathing problems (again), as I continued to experience these, but not as badly as in Quito. Before I knew it, my time was up. I took the bus to Quito from where I flew to Guayaquil, onto Miami and finally Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

The Ecuadorian Files: Part V (#2)

On our way to the Middle of the Earth. Quito is not a pretty city

Tom told me that New Year’s day was big in Quito as “they take to the streets” and based on this, I decided to extend my stay in order to “recover” from the major hangover I was going to experience following the New Year’s Day Party. Finally, the 31st arrived. I kept a low profile (slept in a bit, had a late breakfast) and just before noon, I took to the streets. OMG! There were people everywhere and they were setting up stands, bands were making incredible sounds, it was all in the air, one could feel it. There was a major smile on my face as I could feel that I was about to experience the MOTHER of all NY parties … to hell with what I experienced in Trafalgar Square, or Times Square, I was about to be part of the biggest one of them all … right here in Quito (amazing how my breathing problems were something of the past … of course those pills worked!)

I continued to walk down Avenue of the Americas and could not believe what my eyes were seeing. I KNEW this was going to be HUGE, eat your hearts out Americans; y’all have NO idea how to party. Sure, let’s do shots! Eventually I sat down for a drink and a bite. This American lady started talking to me. If I thought this was big, she told me, be here around midnite. Sure she had experienced it many, many times before. It was then that I decided to head back home, take a nap and get ready for the MOTHER OF ALL PARTIES (I mean, one has to know one’s limitations, right?)

No sooner was I in my room and there was a knock on my door; a female who identified herself as Jenny, was calling out my name. I opened and there she was: Jenny, whom I met in Banos (with her partner Mike) and whom I had told about my hostel in Quito). Hugs around, I went down to greet, Mike. Of course, the bottle of rum came out, it was Cuba Libres all around and we discussed our strategy for welcoming 2012. I relayed what everyone had told me: it was going to be crazy and, considering that we were getting a bit long in the tooth, it was agreed that it would be best for us to recharge the batteries prior to that evening (in other words, get some much needed rest!)

Quito is not pretty and BIG ... stretches 30 miles from north to south!

We gathered in the dining room area around 9:30 that evening, had another Cuba Libre, and off we went. For the MOTHER of all parties. Each of us boasted about where we had welcomed a New Year before. My contribution was Trafalgar Square and Time Square. We were all psyched up when we hit the Avenue of the Americas, we were READY as THIS was going to be IT (like Coke, just a lot better). Then we looked around on the Avenue of Americas … we could not believe our eyes (at least, I could not as I was there earlier the day!) … every thing that was erected earlier during the day was either gone, or being taken down! WTF!!! The New Year was 2 hours away? I have extended my stay in Quito to welcome the New Year … WHAT was going on?

“Oh,” I assured them, “the action is further down the street. Wait till we get to that square where the American lady told me  about what’s going to cook tonite. And the band there, was unreal.” Who the hell was I trying to fool? The further we walked, the closer we got to the MAGICAL square, it was more of the same: constructions were either already gone, or being taken down. WTF (for a second time). We arrived at the square that I was bragging up and it was even worse: everything that was there earlier during the day was GONE! Tables outside restaurants and bars were taken inside, it seemed like it was a ghost town (OK, I am exaggerating!). I was shocked, to say the least.

This was about the time that Mother Nature started calling, and although it is quite common for Ecuadorian males to relieve themselves outdoors in the presence of others, I remembered what Bette Midler said (which I referred to earlier on). I informed Jenny and Mike that I would meet them at the Corner Pub as they were trying to figure out whether the few remaining musicians only knew one song: Simon’s, “I’d rather be a snail.”  Needless to say, I made it to the pub in record time and by the time my companions arrived, I had already downed two drinks.

I heard this band earlier during the day when the lady told me everything was going to happen that night. I could not wait. When we got there, it was all gone! Oh well ..

We sat there. Shell shocked. What was going on? Where was everybody? Where did it all go? Where did it go wrong (not to sound like Susan Boyle!) When in doubt, ask the locals. Oh, we were told, it is all very simple. People leave around 10 to celebrate with their families! Wow! How I hated that American woman who told me otherwise! I wanted to lick my wounds and decided to go home. Mike and Jenny said no, let’s find a place. I said no, I’ll cut my losses and went home. I could not have been in my room for more than five minutes when the two were there: “You are coming with us, and we are not taking no for an answer.” I agreed and we took a couple from Argentine with us.” We looked around and looked around, but everything was CLOSED; thus when we found a bar that was open, we jumped on it (or should I say into it!)

Our problems started the moment we sat down (the place was remarkably empty for a New Year’s evening) and ordered FIVE beers. We were brought six. We explained that there were only five of us; the waitress took two beers back. Wait a bit, wait a bit, now we are one short. So back came the two beers that were removed earlier! We managed to sort it out (after what seemed like a lifetime) an were making small talk with one eye on the clock; yours truly being so ticked off as the “mother of all parties” was not going to materialize.

And then it happened. It was 2012! Whoopee! Never been so excited in my life (yeah right!) Standing on the balcony, waving at the few pedestrians down in the street (must admit, that was my Evita moment!) when one of the workers rushed out to the balcony and removed the “DOL.” (FYI: Around the Christmas holiday period and leading up to the New Year strange looking doll-like figures go on sale all over Ecuador. These dolls are up to three or four feet in height and are referred to as “Los Años Viejos” (the old years). The dolls are burned at midnight to bring in the New Year – as in burning an effigy.)

Check all the thousands in the street, one doll is burning!

And our intelligent person is trying to set our doll on fire ... TG she did not set the other guy alight!

Nice couple from Argentina who celebrated with us

She carted it downstairs, into the street and tried to set it on fire with (what I assumed was vodka?) but to no avail. Then someone arrived with (what I again assumed) was some flammable liquid (it later turned out to be just that) which he poured over the doll. WHILE HE WAS STILL POURING THE LIQUID, THE MADAM SET IT ON FIRE; the flame moving right up to the bottle (which was still in his hand!) Luckily he held his cool and a disaster was averted! And we were all happy, so happy, what a great way to welcome 2012. New Year’s Day 2012 fell on a Sunday and the selling of alcohol in Ecuador is verboten on this holy day. However, the President in all his wisdom agreed that this day could be an exception, but Ecuadorians would have to repent on the next day! Give me a break, even George Bush never did something as stupid as that.

And here's Jenny each leg in a different hemisphere!

Something about being able to balance an egg at the Equator

He DID it!

Following the disastrous New Year’s we had, we decided to go to Mitad del Mundo, the Middle of the Earth. Jenny was in charge to get us there. Well, it did not bode well after we had been walking for some time (towards the bus stop) I asked for the map and saw that we were “miles” away from the bus stop. We stopped a cab driver to take us to the stop. We then negotiated with him to take us to Mitad del Mundo for $40 (divided between 3 people, it came to $13/each). Not only was it a good deal, but the cab driver was an incredible guy who told us a lot about Quito (like renting a 2-bedroom apartment for $200/month) and he even stopped for us to take pics. The pics on here tell the story. Enjoy!

 

 

The Ecuadorian Files: Part V (#1)

QUITO (Part One)

When I arrived at the bus stop in Banos I purchased a ticket to Quito (I can’t remember how much it cost, but it was not more than $2) when then I noticed “her.” A bitch. A real one, in other words, to be PC in America, a female dog. She was so thin. She was hungry and, based on her teats that were swaying an inch or two above the ground, she most probably had litter after litter after litter. As she was of a larger breed type (a mutt) she most probably had two litters a year (Gawd knows for how many years in succession). And I got mad. Really, really mad at those assholes who do not spay or neuter their dogs. She climbed into a trashcan, to get something to eat. At this stage I wanted to puke, barf, throw up, lose my cookies, whatever you want to call it, but I was mad. Beyond being reasonable. It is NOT right (anyone still wants to know WHY my millions/billions/ka-zillions are going to charities involving animals after my departure from this earth?) To make things worse, the day after Christmas, so many kids were walking around with adorable and fluffy puppies – puppies that would grow up and most probably be left to fend for themselves once grown; having litter after litter after litter. Like the bitch in Banos who is one of thousands found throughout Ecuador (how I would like to castrate all those “owners” who do not take care of their dogs, with a blunt teaspoon!) But once again, a la Sophia ex Golden Girls, I digress.

The bus ride between Banos and Quito was uneventful. Sure, by this time I had gotten used to the vendors jumping on and off buses selling their goods. The ride lasted about two hours. When we arrived at the SOUTHERN terminal, I retrieved my backpack (Pa-kesel), put her on my back and looked for a cab. Within seconds, a cab drive offered his services at an acceptable price and I accepted, when soon afterwards I realized I could not breathe!! I had to get to a bathroom really badly and gestured to him that I wanted a “banos.” He directed me to one while waiting for me. It was in the bathroom that I realized something BIG was wrong, breathing wise, that is. How I managed to get to his cab, I don’t know (FYI: It was an unregistered cab, but I did not care as I was really experiencing some serious respiratory problems. Add to that the weird glances I received from the driver and it did not bode well for me) and off we went.  My eyes were closed most of the times and I thought: “God, this is a good time to take me as I cannot breathe in any case; so let’s just put an end to my misery!”

We got to my hostel. I paid the driver and yet, it was not the end of my problems. Picture this. Pa-kesel on my back (barely managing to get through narrow doorways and I had no intention to “download” pa-kesel and carrying it by hand as the little shit weighed something like 60 pounds) while struggling to get oxygen into my lungs (“God, have all those years of smoking finally caught up with me? Was I dying, or even worse, have I contracted the final stage of lung cancer when I got off the bus in Quito?”) Only to be told by Tanya (whose English was as good as my Spanish) the receptionist, that she wanted MORE money from me as what my (printed out from Hostelbookers) receipt indicated. I looked her straight in the eye and said in my best English: “You can go and **** yourself, THIS I how much I am paying, take it or leave it, and went to my room.” (It later turned out that it was a language problem – who would have guessed? – and I paid my balance of $61 and Tanya and I became best buddies, though not bed buddies!)

(FYI: I work with a woman who told me that her brother, Tom, had been living in Quito for a long time. He married an Ecuadorian lady with whom he has three children. She gave me his email address and we corresponded for a very long time prior to my visit to Ecuador and I invited him to dinner; not only to meet him, but to also “thank” him for all his help and hospitality).

Once I was settled, I emailed Tom and we agreed that he would “pick me up” at my hostel from where we would move on to a restaurant of his choice for dinner. Tom arrived, we exchanged pleasantries and I sat him down in the courtyard wanting to reveal “something big” to him. “Tom,” I said, “I do not know what is wrong, but I cannot walk more than 5 – 10 yards before I have to sit down for a breather.” “Oh that is not a big problem, it is the altitude. Do you have a headache? If you do, make sure that it does not spread to your body, as you will have to seek immediate medical attention!” He mentioned the name of this “disease” but the name escapes me.

Well, the trip to the restaurant (bar prior to that for drinks) that was not far from the hostel, took FOREVER. Every five yards I asked for a reprieve and breathed like an old man on his last legs. We finally made it to the bar, where Tom told me that he could not use any alcohol as he has to (annually) take certain tablets to “debacterialize” (or something like that) himself and while doing this he was not allowed to consume any alcohol. I had a drink (in between trying to breathe like a human being) before we took the TREK to the restaurant. Tom chose the restaurant. I did not care for my steak, but as per Tom’s recommendations, the sangria was really outstanding. Too soon the evening ended and we said our goodbyes (after he “delivered” me safely to the hostel) and my respiratory problems continued. It would seem that things would be getting better (Tom said to give it about three days).

It was a stressful night, as I could not get rid of this “elephant on my chest.” Nevertheless, I enjoyed breakfast the next day when a lady approached me in perfect English inquiring about the “problem” I had with my bill. Turned out there was no problem, rather a language one. Tanya does not speak English, I do not speak Spanish. I paid the balance of $61 (which I wanted to do the day I arrived) and Tanya and I became friends. She could not understand why I did not want juice, as everyone seems to be so in love with juice (FYI: The Ecuadorians take their juice, add water to it, beat the hell out of it in a blender until it froths, then add sugar to it … if one let it sit for too long, the juice and water start separating; does not look good and the taste did not appeal to me).

After breakfast I set off. My hostel was located in the popular tourist area, La Mariscal Sucre, which has earned the name of Gringoland for obvious reasons. There are not many landmarks in this area, although it is filled with bars and restaurants. It was at one of the bars that I encountered yet another Gringo I did not care for. This man thought he was God’s gift to women and would (a la the 60s and 70s) check out women passing by while making rude sexual comments. I looked at this obese Adonis and at one stage could not help commenting: “You would not know what to do with her.” I simply cannot print/record the conversation that followed my comment (I know little children are reading this! J)

I did a lot of walking, visited many tourist landmarks, but still, there was this “elephant on my chest.” I woke up one night and could hardly breathe. It was then that I realized that I was in deep trouble. At breakfast the next day when Tanya (in Spanish) inquired how I was, I gestured to her that I was not doing well, pointed to the sky and imitated my difficulty to breathe. She inquired (so great to be able to use gestures, anyone can communicate that way) whether I had a headache, told her that was not the case and she said: “Farmacia.”

I went to Old Quito (visited an incredible cathedral on my way) and visited a Farmacia. By this time I was in real trouble, as breathing now had become a major problem for me. When I learned that the ladies in the Farmacia could not speak English, I said (in good old English): “Well ladies, I have a problem, as I am finding it hard to breathe.” I started panting, pointed to the sky and they too, like Tanya, wanted to know whether I was suffering from headaches. I replied in the negative and they gave me some pills/tablets/capsules. Before the one could return with the water to swallow it down, I had already downed two. I don’t know whether it was psychological, or what, but it seemed like there was instant relief.

I continued walking, visited an Ecuadorian restaurant where I enjoyed the traditional half-a-chicken and rice (for less than $3) as well as a beer! (Alcohol sales are not allowed on Sundays, but the smaller places tend to overlook this rule). Took a cab back home and was smiling from ear to ear, as the elephant was not longer on my chest and I could BREATHE! PTL!!!              ………………….                 to be continued

The Ecuadorian Files: Part IV

BANOS

While enjoying my incredible stay at Izhcayluma (Vilcabamba) home of the worthless outcasts of the 60s, aka Hippies (sorry, had to get that one in as I am still BITTER about these dregs!), I made the decision that if I could fly, rather than taking a bus, that was the route to go. I went to the TAME (airline) office in Vilcabamba (of course, ignoring the dirty, stoned people with long hair … stop it now, enough already!) and purchased a ticket from Loja to Quito (where I had to take a bus to Banos). The cab charged me $30 for 90-minute ride from Izhcayluma to the airport. Loja is about 30 miles north from Vilcabamba and the airport is yet another 30 miles outside Loja. Got to the airport, and once again experience the incredible friendliness and hospitality of the Ecuadorian people. Words cannot describe the demeanor of this polite nation.

I first encountered Quito en route to Guayaquil. Got a headache. This would be my second, brief encounter. Did not feel “right.” I went to the cab ranks, trying to solicit a cab to take me to the bus terminal (“boes terminales a Banos”). $20, one said. You are out of your mind, I thought. Someone agreed to take me there for $15. If only I knew how far the airport was from the (I later learned) SOUTHERN terminal. Quito is an ugly town; really, really ugly. It stretches for 30 MILES from north to south; a thin sliver, like a banana, although not curved. The ride to the terminal was OK, although there were a few close encounters, but I made it there in one piece. The cab driver agreed to show me where to buy a ticket (once I agreed to pay the $1 parking fee). He was super nice, got my ticket and I gave him $20 (instead of the $15 + $1). The bus ride was like all others, some scary moments, through a beautiful countryside, mainly on the Andes. Of course the vendors got on and off the bus, trying to dispose of their goods.

Banos means bathroom (as in restroom) in Spanish. Why would anyone in his/her right mind, call a town Banos? When I arrived, a cab took me to my hostel for $1. My hostel was a gorgeous old house where the owner (his name escapes me now), who is originally from Switzerland, runs a very nice place although everyone agreed that he was overlooking the full potential of the place.

I had not eaten the whole day and was HUNGRY. The owner of my hostel directed me to a Swiss Restaurant, only to be told that they will be opening in about another 2 hours. They, in turn directed me to an Italian restaurant. I could not find it and the next thing, on the square, I heard someone calling out my name. It was Jason and Stina. Talked to them briefly (they had just eaten and did not want to join me for dinner). Five minutes later I bumped into the two old French ladies from Cuenca. Although we could not speak each other’s language, we exchanged pleasantries and I continued looking for a restaurant that I found in Café Hood … great place with great food.

Banos is a beautiful little town, with the emphasis on little. I may have spent too much time there, but I enjoyed every second of it. One does not need more than 2 days in the exquisite town with its quaint little tourist shops, square and really good restaurants. The waterfalls on the outskirts of town are a must, and so is the tree house from where the status on the Tungurahua volcano is reported daily.

The Tungurahua volcano is an active one and prior to my visit, a very concerned colleague sent me daily status reports on the volcano as she was very concerned about this sucker erupting while I was visiting as the residents of Banos had to evacuate, not too many years ago. I visited the tree house and was huffing and puffing like crazy. It would only be in Quito that I would discover that my huffing and puffing had nothing to do with being out of shape!

The Ecuadorian Files: Part III

VILCABAMBA.

After the minivan taxi ordeal, I vowed NEVER to take one of “those” EVER again. Thus, when my time was up in Cuenca, I opted for a “regular” bus ride to Vilcabamba.  In order to get to the latter, I had to take a bus to Loja, from where I had to catch another one for the final 30 miles. As this was my first ride on a “regular” bus I was stunned when I saw vendors hopping on the bus at every stop, trying to sell their goods (food stuffs and mementoes) to passengers and getting off at the next stop. One of the people who got on was a young man who lamented in Spanish sounding like one of the Jehova witnesses … of course I had no idea what he was saying as my Spanish is limited to “hablo ingles.”

This ride was considerably better than the one from Guayaquil to Cuenca (except for the last hour when the driver went crazy – I learned later that Ecuador has the second highest number of road fatalities in the world after Honduras!) and it was during this ride that I witnessed what a beautiful country Ecuador is. (FYI, Ecuador “consists” of three parts: the coast, mountain area – Andes – and the rain forest. I visited the mountain area. The Andes range is very impressive and we were “going down” (Vilcabamba is only 5,000 ft). At the penultimate stop, I purchased three little cakes (similar to our pound cakes, but smaller and tasteless). I offered one to the young man sitting next to me and we tried to converse as he spoke some English. It was during the last leg of the race that I decided to find out how much a cab would charge me to take met to Vilcabamba (30 miles from Loja). I discussed this with my fellow passenger and once we arrived at Loja, he helped me secure a cab. This was accomplished for $14!! (price for the ride from Cuenca to Loja, nearly 4 hours, was under $4).

I showed the driver the address of Izhcayluma  (more on this incredible place later) and off we went. It was during this trip that I realized ALL Ecuadorian drivers were totally crazy, messed-up, fd-up, and in the event of moving there that I would NEVER own a vehicle (I was told horror stories about vehicle insurance and what happens if one is involved in a car accident).

The cab driver did not know where Izhcayluma was, but no problem. He stopped in Vilcabamba, asked a lady who pointed us in the right direction and off we went. Izhcayluma  is situated some 2 miles outside of Vilcabamba. It is owned by two German brothers, Peter and Dieter, who bought the land 11 years ago, started building and developing and, three years after they started, the first tourists were welcomed. I paid the cab driver and followed the signs to “reception.” And then I saw “IT.”

 

 

 

 

The view of Vilcabamba, the incredible gardens (where I knew every single plant). It was a picture out of a South African book. Featuring Nelspruit. Magoebaskloof. Duiwelskloof (or whatever those places maybe called nowadays, wondering if they still exist).  It was love at first sight. Within an instant I made up my mind. THIS is where I want to retire. No doubt in my mind. I walked towards the reception area, identified myself and said: “I have a reservation for five days and I would like to extend it.” Only to be told that they were fully booked.

I was shown to my cabana. If ever there was a South African scene, complete with “doringbome” (acacia trees). (FYI: The Andes is FULL of proteas, the NATIONAL South African flower! Some of them were in bloom, although I was not familiar with the species that bloomed). The view was incredible; the gardens left me speechless. And what really, really, got under my skin was that I KNEW every single plant, some of them could be found in my last garden in Johannesburg. I wandered around and sat down in the dining area (very similar to what they have in the Kruger Park … open on most sides with a thatched roof), ordered a bottle of wine and took it all in. I was in paradise. (FYI: it was summer time in Ecuador, yet one had to sleep under a blanket or two. The climate can best be described as 12 months of spring-like weather and it rains every day – at least in Cuenca). I was not hungry and ordered a salad. OMG it was HUGE and I could hardly digest a quarter of it.

I went to bed early on my first night and no sooner was I in bed, when I heard THEM. Those dreaded things, akin to South Africa that tortured me during my childhood, summer night after summer night. MOZZIES! (mosquitoes). I had no “OFF” and had to fight them the whole night long, just like during my childhood. I did not care, as I was NOT going to close my door leading to the balcony as I was enjoying fresh air again. At dawn the ordeal was over … you should have seen my legs … and I headed to my first breakfast (included in the price of $30/night for the cabana. Sitting there, looking down at the village, I could not wait to go down and meet Dennis (Dennis, the father of three daughters; one whom was dated by a student of mine who told me about Dennis. On googling Dennis and Marie, I discovered that they ran a smoothie place in Vilcabamba, called The Juice Factory).

Izhcayluma is about 2 miles outside of town and given my experience with Ecuadorian drivers, there was no ways that I was going to walk to town. I called a cab (reception did on my behalf) and gladly paid the $1-fare. First I had to see whether the ATMs were working (“We have two ATMs, but they do not always work”). Managed to get money, and off to The Juice Factory I went. He was wearing a Penn State University t-shirt. I walked up to him and said: “Hi Dennis, how is Marie?” (The internet is a wonderful source, complete with pics!) The man’s jaw dropped. He inquired as to who I was and I explained how I knew about him. He called Marie and introduced us.

He told me that there was a South African family and pointed out the woman to me who was visiting with a friend. We walked over and I addressed her in Afrikaans. She was bowled over. We went back to The Juice Factory and I ordered smoothies (Unbelievably good and unbelievable value at $2.50). She told me that her parents, who were visiting, were around my age. I suggested that she fetched them; she did and we hit it off. I found it strange that the mother opened up her heart to a complete stranger about her daughter’s weird friends: how there was no intellectual stimulation forthcoming from the visitors to the mansion her daughter was renting; how their son-in-law was not their first choice for their daughter, but that he was a good person … it would all make sense later on as I would make the most startling discovery about Vilcabamba. It would appear that this village was not only known for it longevity.

The one person after the other stopped by. They were “different,” but I was not paying attention. I met the kids of the South African. The two boys had ponytails down to their butts, the girl looked like any other girl her age. When I asked the eldest why he did not care for America, he told me that he could mention 500 reasons. I told him that one would suffice. “Oh, they spray their fruit and veggies with poison.” I looked him straight in the eye and said: “Oh yeah, and here in Ecuador they print statements on menus that the fruit and veggies used in those establishments have been desinfected (sic) and is save to use.” The first seed of suspicion was planted: What the hell was going on here?

And then the father arrived. Wow! So thin with such a long ponytail? Was there a water shortage in this mansion which they rented for $1,500/month (Dennis told me he was paying $150/month for his 3 bedroom/3 bathroom apartment; someone else was paying $350/month for the same accommodation … but $1,5000? Incidentally, I saw the place and it is INDEED a MANSION). I ordered the one smoothie after the other for all the visitors and of course (“you simply have to have it”) carrot cake.

And then I was alone. Like the day I was born. It was time to take stock. Wow, what was going on here? Such weird, but friendly, people. The kids being home schooled by someone who did not complete college and talking such crap about the pesticides and insecticides we were using in the USA? Having heard the whole day long about how America is something of the past? Obama is a fascist? America is fast becoming a police state? America has become a time bomb, ticking away. Where have I heard those sentiments before? (In between these thoughts, I had to settle the bill with Dennis, enjoying a smoothie with me was one thing, footing the bill seemed to be another!)

Then it struck me where I have experienced this before: the 1960s, the era of the hippies. Like Dr Boyer used to put it: “They have contributed absolutely nothing to society, but fornicating in the park and using drugs.” The Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964, the Baby Boomers who screwed up the 1960s and the Baby Boomers who are now reaching retirement age, who had not make provision for their retirement, who had found that it is CHEAP (NOT inexpensive) to live in Ecuador …. BINGO!! So many pennies dropped, it sounded like a BAD symphony. Vilcabamba is flooded by these outcasts who are in their sixties now. They still do not bathe, they still do drugs. They go to bed stoned, they wake up stoned, continue to be stoned and on top of that consume too much alcohol and by noon they are happy.

I encountered them, I detest them, they burst my bubble of living out my life in Vilcabamba. I had drawn up plans for my 2-bedroom home with an incredible view, and the garden to die for, the place I was going to call: Almal altyd welkom. The garden with its bougainvilleas, ONE Jacaranda tree, frangipani, clivias, fuschias, agapanti, arum lilies aka callas, EVERYTHING that I grew up with and loved so much. Not to mention the 50 lychee trees in front.
Disappointed, I returned to Izhcayluma. Ordered a bottle a wine, which I could not enjoy while looking down on the village (in fact, I had less than a glass and took the bottle to the cabana). Surely this was not true? The next day I went back to the village. Talked to the folks. Business owners. Expats. And my fears were confirmed. Not only have the hippies taken over, but they have driven the locals from the town, but Vilcabamba was also a “passing through” town for other hippies. The one business owner told me: “We need people like you here, we need to get rid of them. Come down here and help us.”

Yes, I saw them. I DETEST them. Like they screwed up everything nearly half a century ago, they are again screwing up. Only this time it AFFECTS ME!

The Ecuadorian Chronicles: Part II

CUENCA

I researched all the places where expats were hanging out prior to my departure as I intended to meet with these folks and chatting them up about living in Ecuador. Once I arrived at my hostel, I decided to chill for the rest of the day and that evening as I was still recovering from the ride-from-hell between Guayaquil and Cuenca (I swear the Voortrekkers did not have to endure what I did … the main difference was that I had shoes on while they did bare feet – or so I was taught!) Thus, I took a stroll around Villa de la Rosa where I stayed and enjoyed its beautiful gardens.

Stina in blue, Jason in green

It was on day one that I met Jason and Stina, a newly wed couple from DC, who quit their jobs in order to enjoy ONE YEAR of traveling, or as they put it, their Mega Moon (big honeymoon). What a delightful couple. I spent many enjoyable hours with them while Stina kicked our butts at dominoes. (FYI: no sooner had I arrived in Banos, when I bumped into them and a few minutes later into the two old French ladies who were also staying at De la Rosa and who could not speak a word of English). Visit Jason and Stina at www.facebook.com/sjmegamoon and enjoy their trip; trust me, you will not be disappointed. But, a la Sophia (ex Golden Girls) I digress.

The next day I strolled around downtown Cuenca and that evening I went to the Eucalyptus Café where I did not meet any expats, but had the time of my life. Met a couple from San Diego (her name Athena, his escapes me) as well as two young girls from Canada, the owner (and expat from the UK) and his gorgeous Ecuadorian girlfriend, but NO expats. At one stage the staff were moving tables around and when I asked Ms Ecuador what was going on, she told me that they were expecting 32 students. I immediately responded that I would have to leave. To her puzzled look, I responded: “In America one has to leave when such a large number of students are about to enter, as they do not know how to behave.” She assured me that was not the case in Ecuador and I am very glad that I stayed. These young people were a delight. Of course Ms Ecuador wanted to dance and I assured her that she had a better chance of seeing me giving birth than dancing with her. She was relentless, but I emerged the victor.

The two girls had a great time and when they sat down, I ordered margharitas. “Wow,” the one said after her first sip, “this is STRONG!” I grinned. The other asked: “How many have you had?” “I dunno, 6 or 7” I replied with a sheepish grin. The evening ended, I put the two girls in a cab (“You’re just like our Dads”) and started walking. Wasn’t long into my walk when someone honked. It was the owner and his gorgeous girlfriend who gave me a ride home.

The magnificent

courtyard at

Kookaburra

The next day I went to Kookaburra, another expat hangout. When I walked in, I greeted the owner like I have known him for years (saw his pic on the website). He came and sat down and we chatted. A lady walked by and I said, “there’s your wife, Jenny) to which he responded: “My gawd, you DID do your homework.” Once again I met no expats but had a breakfast at a very affordable price. FYI: The Kookaburra is for sale (they need more time for their painting, as Kookaburra got out of hand) for $400K. They bought the building, basically gutted it (and did a helluva job). On top of the restaurant with its three dining rooms and magnificent courtyard, the building also houses their apartment and two rooms for visitors ($35/night).

During the days I would walk around. Everywhere. Went to the Super Maxi, the supermarket where I bought food to prepare for our meals (I invited the owner and a guy who worked there to join us one night. They declined politely, but were taken by the potatoes … the food in Ecuador is basically very bland). In between my walks I would encounter by luck other expat hangouts (Café Austria) or seek these places out (Inca Bar).

View of the south side of Cuenca from Mt Turi

It was at the Inca Bar, a favorite hangout place where expats meet to watch American football, that I encountered expats for the first time. I did NOT care for them one bit. I found them to be loud, obnoxious and dirty! Yeah that’s right, dirty like they have not bathed in some time or washed their clothes. Also, they looked like leftover hippies, aged of course now, from the sixties with their ponytails and seemed to know simply everything. If only I knew then how these images would haunt me during my trip, and how these people would absolutely DESTROY my love for the one place where it was love at first sight, but more on that later.

The following day I “discovered” Café Austria. A delightful place, except that this one “stud” whom I encountered the day before at Inca Bar, was in there, SKYPING A BUSINESS DEAL. In English of course, as these dregs all suffer from ethnocentricity which is why locals hate them. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my breakfast and continued exploring the city of Cuenca (voted the #1 one retirement spot abroad for three years in succession).

I also made a visit to Bananas (twice) where the two ladies who own it, serve a breakfast so BIG, I had a hard time finishing it. I encountered more expats at Bananas and finally made up my mind: If the expats that I have encountered so far during my visit is anything to go by, I would not have many expat friends.

Time was drawing to a close and I realized that I had not had a look at the suburbs, those areas where the people of Cuenca lived. I visited the Tourist Bureau and told Grace, a fantastic young woman who was fluent in English, that I was looking for someone to take me around and show me the living areas of Cuenca as I had no desire to live downtown Cuenca. She gave me Noshy’s number and I got Jason (who is fluent in Spanish) to call. She agreed to show me around at $15/hour.

Noshy and her husband met me the following day outside Villa de la Rosa and showed me whatever I wanted. I was shocked to see cows, pigs and sheep in neighborhoods. Not to mention the dogs running around looking for bitches in heat … the one litter after the other, time after time, oih vey! They showed me the “gated American communities, or enclaves. Cookie-cutter homes, just like they are in America. One could pick up any of these and put them in any American city, take your pick. Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco. These people have no desire to emerge themselves in the Ecuadorian culture, rather they wish to continue their culture as they, obviously, are so ethnocentric: “MY culture is SUPERIOR to yours.” There I have said it. It was while observing these communities, that I made up my mind: In the event of me moving to Cuenca, or whatever place in Ecuador, I will NEVER live in one of those communities, NEVER!

During our trip, I pointed to the mountain and inquired whether it was a good neighborhood up there. They assured me it was and took me up there. Well, I lost my heart there (just like in San Francisco … I lost my heart high up on a mountain top, or whatever). They showed me a lot (price was ridiculous at $40K, but I have learned that if one has cash, the price plummets!) The view was incredible, even better what I had in Johannesburg many, many years ago. While I was planning my house, I noticed that they were building a condo next door. IT had EVERYTHING I ever wanted, INCLUDING the HUGE terrace with the view. Told them that I wanted the condo. In the mean time, Noshy’s husband inquired about the price for the 3-story house being built behind us. About 3,000 sq ft, the asking price was $65K!!!! Four bedrooms, three bathrooms with views to kill for.

I spent less than 2 hours with them, but paid her for two. It was the best $30 I have spent in my life. Add to that the drinks that I bought afterwards and it was still a bargain. I made two wonderful friends. Should I move to Cuenca, I will definitely use their services.

The next day was my last in Cuenca. A city that I thoroughly enjoyed. A city where the altitude caused me considerable problems. I realized later that Cuenca was just a taste of what was waiting for me in my fight against altitude (FYI: compare the altitude of the following cities to get an idea of what I am talking about: Pittsburgh – 1,400 ft; Johannesburg – 1,700 ft; Denver (aka Mile High City) – 5,300 ft; and then Cuenca at 8,400 ft! Staggering!!)

Other than the problem with the altitude, I considered the level of hygiene to be suspect (open meat carcasses in food markets, while flies and bugs were having a good time … most of us had the “trots”), but the BIGGEST problem for me was the fact that one could not flush toilet tissue because of the 2-inch sewage system (the paper would clog the system!) So what to do after usage? Separate container next to the commodes!! YUK!!!!!!!!!!!!!

On my last day in Cuenca, I realized that Otavalo (final town before returning home) was 12 hours (bus ride) away from Guayaquil from where I was departing. I went to the LAN office and purchased a ticket from Quito to Guayaquil ($60).

This was the start of my strategy: “If you can fly there, do so. It is better than a bus ride!”

The Ecuadorian Chronicles: Part I

Arriving in Guayaquil and leaving for Cuenca the next day.

Pittsburgh – Miami – Quito – Guayaquil. It was a full day’s flying with all the layovers, but when I eventually arrived in Guayaquil, there were two men from the hostel waiting for me, one holding a sign with my name on it.

“Oh, thank Gawd,” I started. “I need to get to the hostel and have a drink. I did notice that it had a bar.” Their sheepish grins confirmed my fears: their English was as good as my Spanish – non-existing! Trust me, it was a quiet ride through a town where the humidity puts that of Pittsburgh to shame; a town that is known as the MOST dangerous in Ecuador!

Upon my arrival I was shown to my room, and headed straight for the bar once I have put my backpacks down. There were several other tourists, all fluent in English, congregating at the bar next to the pool. There was also a floppy ear bunny that believed it was a dog. It responded to commands and came when called! Cute as a button. I admired the mango tree (one of several in the area) and after a few screwdrivers retired for the night.

The next day I settled my account and requested to be taken to the “bus (pronounced boes) terminales a Cuenca.” It was suggested to me that it would be faster to take a mini van taxi instead of a regular bus and that it would only cost $4 more; i.e., total for the trip would be only $12 (Ecuador has adopted our currency).

Well, day one, mistake one.  The 3-hour trip was an utter nightmare. I, who do not “do” church, was praying out aloud in my native tongue and begged the Big Guy to let my misery end fast and painlessly. On the Andes, where one could not see 3 feet in front of one (fog), this Mad Max driver was passing other vehicles (on curves at hair raising speeds). A practice that he continued when it rained and one that he speeded up when the sun was shining! The man was possessed and relentless! (and I have wished nothing BUT EVIL on this jackass)

We stopped as he had to “lose” some of the time that he gained while driving like Lucifer. The guy sitting next to me spoke broken English and told me that the “ladies are scared.” I looked at him and said: “I have s*** in my pants, I am beyond been scared!”

When we arrived in Cuenca, I grabbed my backpack, stared this jackass driver down and cussed him out in my native tongue. One of the things I said (I remember this vividly) was: “Ask me for a tip and see how I kill you, you moernaai!” (the latter is such a swear word, that I will not even think of telling anyone what it means!)

I got a cab to my hostel for the princely sum of $3 and guess what? Again the people at the hostel could not speak English and I had not mastered Spanish since my arrival the previous night. I realized that it was going to be a trying vacation, to say the least.

Buenos Aires is in Europe?

Yeah right! You know better, I know better. So why is there a piece (and videos) on Buenos Aires? Simple: it is about the travels and studying abroad of one of our students here at Point Park University. A student whom I have never met, but will, trust me. A certain ms Leticia Henry. Read her letter below to you guys. Follow her advice. Enjoy her videos. And just do it!

Dear Readers and Viewers,

A couple of days before I left for Buenos Aires (Argentina), I was listening to a talk show on the radio. The station conducted a poll about the regrets of young Americans ages 21-30. The results found that theBA roomBA womanbiggest regret among this age group was not having traveled the world.

For six months, I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Argentina.  It was such a rewarding experience for me because in addition to learning about another culture, it also was an adventure in self- discovery. Within each of the videos I tried to show some of the highlights of Argentina, as well as the great fun I had. I hope that you will enjoy them. Perhaps they will inspire you to brave the great unknown and do a little traveling yourself!

Sincerely,

Leticia Henry