Micah: Unmitigated

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Archive for the ‘Ecuador’ Category

Eruption

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

It is an amazing sight. From the abbreviated summit of the 16,500 ft high Volcan Tungruhua, a dark gray smoke billows into the sky and trails off into the distance. It is entertaining, it is humbling, it is momentary.

I caught my first glimpse on Monday, after a short hike with the American I met in Quilotoa (I’ll call him Guy) and a girl from Seattle we met on the old dusty trail. (She’s a former Underdog Sports participant, of the minigolf variety.) We sat at Bellavista for over an hour, talking and staring at the peak. Girl said it was the most action she had seen from the volcano during her 4 day stay.

blowing off some steam

blowing off some steam

Back in town, Guy and I parted ways with Girl, checked out a hanging bridge over Rio Pastaza, and tried some Curry Vindaloo at the local gringo joint. The curry with bananas was ok, but the roaming local band that stopped in to entertain us was better.

Guy headed off to Quito and a flight home the next day. It was good to talk with someone in my same age group and of similar interests. He studied Math in college as well and recently fell into a 6th grade Math teaching job in Nashville. Not his desired position after getting a Doctorate in Archeology, he is like me, still looking to get on a path.

Tuesday and Wednesday both revolved around World Cup soccer matches. Market lunches, short hikes, TV, and fast food dinners filled the hours.

Thursday: With no International sporting events on the magical picture box, I was free to roam the hills and try to get closer to the action. I wandered through the small farming village of Runtún and stumbled upon a viewpoint known as “La Casa del Arbol”. As the name implies, the property contains a tree house but more importantly a swing. I do love swings.

me on swing

me on swing

Clouds blocked views of the Volcano, but there was a 30 second window which was timed nicely with an exhale from the rock. A rumble was also heard and felt, reminding me of it’s proximity.

The highlight though was meeting the 3 American women who strolled up to the vista after their bus broke-down. A mother/daughter pair from Memphis and a friend from Atlanta. They arrived with the owner who upset them with his foul odor, firm hugs during photos, and free beer (they prefer cocktails). I showed my pics from the swing and convinced most of them it was safe. Then, I was handed cameras and given artistic freedom while they nervously relived their childhood.

With darkness looming, I joined them in the jaunt along the gravel roads back toward town. They were staying in a sweet hotel on the hill above Baños with the best views around. Finding it was a bit tricky though and required help from locals and a trusting walk down a dirt trail. I enjoyed listening to the teasing that can only be shared between close friends and family, something that is hard to find on the backpacker trail. It reminded me of home.

With my hostal another 45 minutes down the hill in Baños, I said goodbye to the friendly trio at their casa. Then made a quick stop at bellavista for one more view of some spewing ash, before racing darkness into town.

Friday: Slept most of the day under the influence of allergy medicine. Some places give me minor trouble, but not near as bad as back home.

Saturday: Crossed the bridge to hike up the other side of the valley. I had a high point in mind, but wasn’t sure how to get there. Luckily, the quiet road took me to a vista with benches. After 30 minutes of fog and rain at the top, sun and near perfect views of the volcano. The perspective from farther away was better than expected, allowing me to see the old lava path on the western slope and the full shape of the geological wonder.

taking in the view

taking in the view

Today: Watched the sloppy World Cup final after some market ceviche. I like the way they do this dish down here in Ecuador. They put fish in a bowl, pour in a tomato soup with onions, give you a lime to squeeze in, and a bowl of popcorn to put on top. Add condiments to reach your desired spice level and enjoy. More interesting but less filling than the standard market almuerzo: chicken soup, plate with beef or more boiled chicken, rice, salad with beets, and potato cakes (seems to be a Baños thing, which I love), and a glass of juice.

I am now in the process of booking Spanish classes in Manta, via email. Looking forward to living in the shared student apartment and cooking for myself. Tentative start date is July 26th.

Tomorrow, the plan is to arrive in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, and say goodbye to the Andes. Sun and beaches are next. Necesito mi bronceado vuelta

E = 56

Cool Blue Reason

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Laguna Quilotoa is pretty spectacular. It’s a 2 hour bus ride from Latacunga, that rises up 1,200 meters to 4,000 at the rim of the crater lake. The air is thin, the temperature is chilly, but the views are amazing.

Laguna Quilotoa

Laguna Quilotoa

I stayed 2 nights in a hostal a few steps from the rim, paying $10 a night for a warm bed, two meals, and a wood burning stove to sit around. All necessary after getting rained on my first afternoon of hiking down to the lake. The first night (Thursday), it was just me, a German guy, and the host family, drinking tea and hot chocolate by the fire.

Friday: I hiked around the rim, stopping often to catch my breath and take pictures. The weather was near perfect, with early views of a pair of snow capped peaks. I was unprepared for the sunshine though and subsequently burnt my nose for the umpteenth time this trip. The circular path takes about 5 hours, but I stetched it out to 7, sitting on the rim watching the afternoon clouds.

The Lake and I

The Lake and I

The white fluffy stuff would creep over the far side from the surrounding valleys, dissipating before it could reach the water. That night, I shared the fire with a funny couple from Finland and a Dutch couple.

I tried to compare this site with “Crater Lake” in Oregon though it has been a few years. Quilotoa is smaller, higher up, doesn’t have the cone in the middle, the water is not as clear, the rim is more well defined and better for hiking, it’s cheaper, and I would call the surrounding views about equal. So, it kind of depends on what you like.

more Laguna

more Laguna

Saturday: Looked at the lake some more before grabbing some lunch and meeting a guy from the US. He was a cool guy, originally from the Bay Area, who took pity on this long term vagabond and paid for my meal. We were both planning to be in the city of Baños on Sunday, and exchanged info in order to meet up. Thus, he will make another appearance in this blog.

I got a ride to the bus stop from the American and his guide, and was joined there by the Dutch couple from the previous night. Our next destination, the village of Chugchilán and some altitude relief. The thrilling ride measured only about 14 km, but lasted nearly 2 hours. Being market day, each stop of the crowded bus required multiple sacks to be unloaded and people to be squeezed out. The highlight was the old drunk man, sitting on a sack of potatoes in the aisle. He was the butt of constant jokes by nearby Ecuadorians, but also behaved inappropriately toward some women. The driver decided to kick him off the bus about 30 minutes before his desired destination. He was removed by a few men and placed on the ground, before clumsily attempting to chase down his departing transportation. I laughed, but only because I was confident he would be able to procur another ride shortly.

My accommodations in Chugchilán were in another comfortable mountain hostal, full of adventurous souls. Meal and drinks were had with the Dutch couple, a nice British couple, a young German man, and friendly older Canadian man. I was tempted by their tales and plans for hiking between villages, but felt like I had already done the signature trek and that an altitude related cold was imminent.

Sunday: I set my sights on getting back to civilization and down to the 1,800 meter high town of Baños. I completed the “Quilotoa Loop” by catching another crowded market day bus 1.5 hours north to Sigchos. There, transfered to a Latacunga bus and stood through 2 hours of hairpin turns. A young girl threw up in a plastic bag and a woman with a baby fainted in the aisle. Both would survive.

I arrived at my destination after 7 hours and 4 buses, but was still able to do some of my best hostal hunting. The Lonely Planet place wanted near $7 for a dorm, the next 2 places were cheaper but not that nice, then I found Hostal Carolina and the best value I have seen traveling. For $6, I get a private room and bath, 2 beds (1 for building a little fort), TV, door opens onto the 3rd floor patio with views, central location yet quiet, free wifi downstairs, and a complimentary bar of soap. All of that and it is right across the street from where the Yank I met in Quilotoa is staying.

Now: Despite the lack of empanadas, I plan to hang out here for a week or so. They have a nice food market for cheap lunches and green hills all around for hiking. Plus, as those I have allowed to be my friend on Facebook know, Volcán Tungurahua is active and close-by. My goal is to stick around until I see lava (from a distance) and/or find a cheap Spanish school in Ecuador via the interweb. I need to get a date and location locked down or scratch it all together, so that I can map out the rest of my time here. Por suerte, este volcán no requiere sacrificios.

E = 56

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Over the past week: I changed hemispheres a couple times, ventured deep into “Gringoland”, participated in the customary activities, and made it out nearly unscathed.

I arrived in Quito on Tuesday, the day before the 3rd US World Cup game. The next day, with the England game on at the same time and with me at the most popular sportsbar in town, I ran into 2 seperate brits I had met in Colombia. It was an exciting place to watch the game, with the England fans cheering on one side of the pub at their big screen, and us yelling at our smaller TV hanging over the bar. Only at the end was there much rejoicing and slapping of hands, and everyone left happy.

I proceeded to do my tourist duties and walked around checking out the museums, the Old Town, and numerous churches. Quito is actually a nice city, once you get away from all of the upscale bars and guys trying to sell you reefer. My favorite site was the “Basilica del Voto Nacional”, a gothic church set on a hill with towers you can climb.

view of city from tower

view of city from tower

Thursday, I checked another site off my list, the “Mitad del Mundo”or Equator. It is a silly place, with many shops and museums surrounding a line that they have drawn on the earth. I overpaid for one museum and for some reason decided to see a show at the planetarium, but more importantly got a picture of the sign.

the Ecuador, or is it?

The Equator, or is it?

The silliest thing about the whole place is that they have now determined using GPS that this is not the actual Equator. They were off by about a hundred meters and thus next door there is a smaller site with supposedly the real thing.  More importanly, they host the fun and games associated with changing hemispheres. They have water tricks showing a straight drain on the line and different directions a few feet on either side. Feats of strength were also performed, trying to show that there is less gravitational pull on the line, and I attempted to balance an egg on a nail. All very amusing, though the highlight of the day could have been that I was told I looked Israeli by a random Israeli girl on the bus back to town. I have always thought I looked too American and it was good to hear that as I cultivate more hair, I can assume another identity if needed. Though it would be tough to learn Hebrew and I don’t think my family would let me convert to Judaism.

Next on the Quito tourist list, a ride up the Teleferico. A cable car takes you up to about 4100 meters with great views of the city below. The main reason I paid the $8.50 foreigner price, was for the access to climb the last 700 meters to the top of Pichincha Volcano.

this is it

This is it

Another fun ridge with great weather and views. Less strenuous than the last volcano, the 2.5 hr hike only had me on the verge of quitting a few times. The people coming down told me that all you could see was the white of the clouds but I was blessed with semi-clear skies for my final ascent and time at the top. Some scrambling was required, which means I had to use my hands to climb rocks, but that made it more fun.

I am number 1

I am number 1

views on the way down

views on the way down

I found a way down from the top that didn’t require much reverse scrambling and had a blast following a sandy/ashy avalanche path that felt like skiing. It was a great break from all of the people back in town and at my hostel. But when I got back, I went ahead and joined the birthday celebration and had the first dance club  experience of my trip. It was a lot of fun to mingle with a big group of fellow travelers of all shapes, sizes, and itineraries. Especially when you meet a fellow kickballer who plays in D.C. and has enjoyed similiar success on the field.

With my tourist obligations complete, I layed around Saturday with the other revelers and watched the final US World Cup game.  Then we hit the local Mongolian grill restaurant where I nearly got down 4 plates of bland tasting concoctions, despite how much or what sauce I put on. Sunday I departed.

I am now in another market town called Latacunga. This one seems to be bustling everyday, with an area the size of 2 city blocks filled with fresh produce and random items. Despite being here for 2 days, I have not yet fully experienced the joys of this town, with my body apparently trying to remind me how old I am after my 5 nights in ¨The Party Hostel¨. I had dreaded entering Quito, hearing stories of muggings and pant slashings, but in the end I really enjoyed the big city. Now I long for the fresh air I breathed while on my volcano hike.  My next destination is the Quilotoa Loop, a bumpy circular route through the mountains with small towns and a spectacular crater lake. Voy a tratar de escribir más a menudo.

E = 56

One In A Million

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

This is an interesting time in the life of my trip. It is sort of a convergence of a couple things, and I am not sure yet how I feel about them individually or as a group. Allow me to explain:

It says ¨Welcome to Ecuador¨

It says ¨Welcome to Ecuador¨

First off: I am now in Ecuador and beginning a new country had me a little nervous at first. A new book had to be read and a new plan had to be put into place. Since I am exiting to Peru, I have to make my way south without missing anything to the east or west. Backtracking will be unavoidable but not very expensive. The tentative idea is to hit the sights south along the Andean Mountains, especially the numerous volcanoes, before doing a loop to take in the pacific coast. Down here they use a currency known as the US Dollar, with their own version of our coins. Though for the time being, I still convert most prices to Colombian Pesos to compare.

My first and current city is Otavalo, known for having one the largest indigenous markets in Latin America. I woke up early on Saturday morning, hoping to catch the animal market in all of it’s glory, but I was locked in my hostel until 8 am. Catching the end of the wheelings and dealings, I saw mostly chickens, guinea pigs, and hens exchanging hands. By 9 am, most vendors are setup in the streets closed to cars and the main square, ready to sell. An amazing sight, the Otavaleños always dress in traditional garb and are renowned for their weaving and craftsmanship.

shopping

shopping

Around the center and main streets, you get the tourist items like ponchos, sweaters, and handbags. On the outskitrts, I found locals buying their everyday items like shoes, clothes, and rope. Some walk around with the animals they bought earlier in the day, often placed into sacks, and the sacks are often squealing or trying to roll away.

The food section has everything you can imagine, with fruit, veggies, and kitchen counters. Open partially everyday, I have eaten most of my meals there, finding some good and bad stuff. My first meal here was the only one this trip I didn’t finish. The skillet filled with rice, noodles, eggs, and some types of meat, looked harmless enough, but it smelled like I was walking through a barn at the state fair. I believe the meat was chewy intestines and possibly blood sausage, both tasted very real. For my next meal, I opted for one of the numerous giant pigs and discovered I don’t have a problem looking my lunch in the face, or eating it’s crispy skin.

I think he was looking at me

I think he was looking at me

Overall, the food has been decent but not great. I think the places I have been eating in this town are a little too local. I worry about a noticeable lack of empanadas and really any breaded fried street food, for that matter. And I may have gotten a little overconfident in eating all of my meals at tents, resulting in my first sickness of the trip so far. Luckily, if I had to choose a day and place to be cooped up in my room, this is it. A nice cheap room with private bath and a TV, complimented by World Cup soccer, a replay of last years Wimbledon final, and the Estados Unidos Open as a night cap.

The next factor at play here is time. Today marks the 2 month point of my journey, and now everyday is the longest trip I have been on. I am curious to see how I hold up mentally and physically. Already very thin, I wonder how low I can go and if I will weaken at some point. Given a 90 day stamp, I can take all the time I need exploring an area roughly the size of Nevada, so I should be able to stay fresh. I have also decided to let the hair on the top of my head grow for the duration, despite my cousin’s disapproval. This should be fun, any tips from people who have attempted this courageous feat?

The last factor is the season known as Summer. I never like to travel during the busy time, wanting beaches to myself and my choice of accommodations. On top of the number of people, it is the type that bother me the most. Walking the market, I saw a group of 14 year old Americans, haggling for an Andean panflute. Now I don’t have a problem with parents taking their kids on an international vacation or the 2 week trippers off from university, I have been both. I just don’t want to be lumped into that group while I am on this self titled “crazy adventure”, even if it is just for one market day. In that one day, I saw/heard more Americans than in all of Colombia. I found myself wishing I had a sign around my neck that said “7 months”, so that all vendors and tourist would know what I am about. It’s like embarking on a 2 month journey through the jungle looking for a lost city, and when you get there all battered and bitten, a family wearing newly bought ponchos has just arrived by helicopter and their son is sitting on one of the statues playing his gameboy.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it is how I felt. Parts of it are comfortable and feel like home, but that is not really what I want. As they venture off on their $1,000 a head trips to the Galapagos, I will seek refuge in the mountains after a short stop in the country’s capital. Hopefully I find a dorm room filled with like minded folk, and get back in backpacker flow. While at the moment, I am finding joy in the little Ecuadorian kid next to me, bobbing his head and singing to a Shakira video on YouTube. La aventura que tenemos por delante me excita, yo sólo espero que no se puede acceder en helicóptero.

E = 52