Friday, March 18, 2011

Last Days in Quito and Closing Thoughts

I’m in the Houston airport right now waiting for my flight to Seattle. Before I start talking about how upset I am about this, I’ll go over what I did during my last week in Quito.

I’ll start off with the most “exciting” part of the week. On Tuesday after my service learning, Meghan, Giang, Danny’s 10 year-old son and I were walking through el Parque La Carolina when this guy came up to us. He was probably a little younger than I am and he started talking to me but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He put his hand on my shoulder and then I was able to discern the words, “quieres morir? Tengo una pistola en mi bolsillo. Dame su dinero y su celular” (do you want to die? I have a pistol in my pocket. Give me your money and cellphone). I then obviously realized that he was trying to rob me. He had his hand behind his back where his supposed pistol would have been. Throughout the entire last 10 weeks, we’d been told that if we were ever in a situation like this, it is DEFINITELY safer just to comply with the ladrón (thief). Big Mama is going to be really upset when she hears that that’s not what I did.

At first, it took me a second to realize what was actually happening but when I did, I started thinking. Probably the wrong move. I’d seen the guy walking up to us and saw he was wearing athletic warm-up type pants that were fairly thin. Because of this, I was certain that he didn’t actually have a gun in his pocket. After he told me he had a gun, I sort of stared at him for a few seconds and then called his bluff. I said, “hay mucha gente aquí” (there’s a lot of people here) which was true. We were walking right along the bike/running path in the park and there were several people in the vicinity. It was at this point that the ladrón changed his plan of attack and sort of started to realize I wasn’t just going to give my stuff over. He hesitated for a second then slowly tried to reach into my pocket for my stuff so I pushed him away. He then looked like he was thinking of trying to get Meghan’s stuff too but then thought better and ran off but not before saying, “todo bien” (it’s all good).  I realize now that I was pretty foolish and extremely lucky that it had been a super inexperienced ladrón. I could sort of tell he didn’t know what he was doing but I still probably should have just handed over my stuff. My teachers told me that it was probably his first or second time trying to rob someone because his strategy was so lame. Most of the time, thieves will have at LEAST a fake or real gun that they point at you or will trap you and put a knife to you so you can’t get away. I’ve been keeping this sort of information sort of on the down low in my blogs while I’ve been there mainly so Big Mama doesn’t worry about me more. The fact is, is that there is a lot of theft in Ecuador (mainly the big cities like Quito and Guayaquil as well as the coast). In our orientation, the guy told us that he had lived in Quito for a less than 3 years and had already gotten robbed six times, all of them at gunpoint or with a knife to him. Granted, he said that these things usually happen when people don’t keep their wits about them and are doing stupid things like going to an ATM at night in Gringolandia/Plaza Foch (the main bar and club area in Quito). I think in our group over the 10 weeks, we probably had about 10 different robberies, all of which were pickpocketing type robberies without violence. However, one guy at ACLAS who is from another school got robbed 4 times in a month, at least one of the times at gunpoint in the middle of Gringolandia. Again though, I’m pretty sure it was because he was being sort of stupid and was taking out a couple hundred dollars from an ATM at like two in the morning. But anyway, my robbery situation turned out alright thankfully and I didn’t lose anything.

The rest of the week, I was just trying to fit in as much as I could before I left. My friends and I wanted to go to our favorite restaurant, Vista Hermosa in el centro historico one last time. I also wanted to try some more Ecuadorian foods before I left like fanesca, a soup with 12 grains, fish, bananas, cheese, peppers, and probably other stuff. It was basically like a super thick salmon chowder. This soup is unique to Ecuador and usually is made only during special religious occasions like Lent right now, for example. I also tried a plate called churrasco for lunch one day which is comprised of rice, some steak, papas fritas (French fries), and two fried eggs on top. It tasted pretty much exactly how it sounds.

This being my last week in Quito also meant it was my last week volunteering at the Hogar Corazón de María old folks home. On Thursday, we played our last game of Bingo with the ancianos and said our goodbyes. We also said our goodbyes to the family we know that comes every Thursday to visit. I also said goodbye to one of my friends, Carol, that I met at the asilo. She gave me a little bag type thing that she made herself as well as some little trinkets to remember her by. In addition to this, it was also a hard day because instead of going to the cafeteria where I normally go that has the higher functioning ancianas, I went to the cafeteria with all the ancianas that have mobility issues and need a lot more help. I helped one woman eat her soup and it took about 30 minutes to finish half of a small bowl. It was pretty sad because a lot of the women in this part of the asilo need a lot of help like this and some of them struggle a lot and are clearly miserable.

We had our exams on Thursday which included a test and a 10 minute oral presentation (in Spanish of course) about a Latin American country of our choice. I chose Venezuela. I made a powerpoint and did a some research on its history as well as its current president, Hugo Chávez. The last couple oral presentations I did, I was super nervous and I’d pretty much prepared exactly what I was going to say in the presentations. This time, I just decided to wing it pretty much. I had a general outline of what I was going to say but didn’t know exactly what I would say. I just decided to learn the material really well then just talk when I got up there. I was worried that I’d only take like 3 minutes and have nothing more to say about Venezuela but thankfully I was wrong and I ended up taking over 10. After our exams, the program director of ACLAS threw a little party for us and all of our host parents came. Rocío almost started crying. I was quite touched. Then we went back home and I started packing. Sam, Paul, and Meghan came with me because we all wanted to go get some ghetto food, as we call it, at my favorite hole in the wall “comida típica” restaurant in the Vicentina neighborhood. All my friends, Rocío, and Santiago (Santi, the other Ecuadorian student that lives with Rocío) came to ghetto food. The only things on the menu are bbqed pollo de piernas, de pechuga, mollejas, cuero, o pinchos (chicken legs, breast, gizzards, pig skin, or kabobs. Everybody got some sort of chicken and it was sooooooo good as always. Definitely a good last meal before I left. Then Paul and Meghan got on a bus for Manta on the coast for their last weekend in Quito. I had planned to just pack all night until I had to get a cab at 4am to the airport but apparently I’d allowed way too much time. I packed all my stuff up in about an hour and a half total and then Sam and I went to Plaza Foch to festejar one last time. Our plan was to sit at one of the outdoor restaurant areas in the middle of the plaza and see if any of our classmates were out partying as well. However, less than 20 seconds after we got out of the cab, we found a big group of our friends and we joined up with them. It’s weird how that has happened EVERY time that we’ve gone to Plaza Foch. We ended up having a great last night going to a couple different bars and ending up at our favorite dance club, No Bar, which never fails to be a good time. After that, I went back home, said goodbye to mi madre and took a cab to the airport. Side note: apparently the Quito airport is one of the most difficult to land at in the world because it is set in such a mountainous region. There is a part of Quito called Guápulo which is a hill in Quito that the airplanes need to fly over before they land. After they get over this hill, they need to descend pretty quickly so they don’t overshoot the runway. Apparently, there have been many incidents where it is extremely cloudy and the planes can’t see the ground and actually crash into Guápulo. Thankfully, this did not happen either of the times I flew into Quito.

All in all, I could not have been happier with my decision to study abroad in Ecuador. Paul, Meghan, and I were talking about it at Vista Hermosa and we agreed it was probably the best ten weeks of our lives as well as the best decision we’d ever made. Looking back on everything, it’s safe to say that I have absolutely no regrets about anything. Usually I’m not a person without regrets because I feel like it’s a natural emotion but in this instance, I have no problem saying it.  I constantly felt like I was on an amazing adventure.

Near the end, people like mi madre and random acquaintances I met on the bus kept asking what my favorite part of Ecuador was and it was really hard for me to decide. Part of me loved the excitement and adrenaline of Baños where we went bridge jumping and canyoning. Then another part of me loved the beautiful beaches and unique wildlife of the Galápagos Islands. I think I decided that I liked my trips to the Amazonian jungle the best though. The scenery was so green and gorgeous. I have never seen anything like it in my life. Not to mention, the 5-7 hour bus rides to and from these parts were incredibly pretty as well. Watching the sun set while piranha fishing on la Laguna Grande, swimming naked under a waterfall (skinning cascada-ing we called it), and having monkeys climb over me were all incredible experiences that I’ll never forget.

Naturally, after having an amazing experience like this, I’m pretty bummed to be leaving it all and heading back home. The international exchange programs office told us we would have a bit of a culture shock and most likely have some trouble adjusting back to our normal life again. I was pretty sure that I was going to transition fine but when I was on the plane earlier today it hit me that I would never have an experience like that again with those same people. I met some Ecuadorians and people from the UW that are now some of my closest friends only after a couple months. It makes me really sad to know that I won’t be seeing mi madre, Rocío Garcia every day anymore and learning about her country. I couldn’t have asked for a better host mother. I’m not going to have my Ecuador routine of catching the bus with Sam every day anymore, eating $2 almuerzos for lunch, or leaving every weekend to experience a different part of the country. Looking back on it, it really is amazing how many different experiences I had in just one little country. It has beautiful beaches, huge snow-capped mountains, as well as extremely diverse jungle regions. When I first came to Ecuador, I had no idea that it had so much to offer and now that I’ve left, I don’t think I could have been more pleased in another country. I’ll definitely miss the whole adventure of it all as well as little things such as 25 cent bus rides, extremely cheap cab fares, Ecuadorian food and drink, fútbol always on TV, and speaking Spanish with random Ecuadorians I’d meet on the bus, in cabs, or at the asilo.

While I am really sad that my amazing adventure is over, there are definitely things I am looking forward to back in my normal life. For one, once I get back to Seattle, I’ll be leaving again in about 12 hours for Hawaii for Spring Break with my family and friend Rachel who decided to invite herself along. After that, I’m REALLY looking forward to getting back and playing soccer again. My old coach of 3 seasons resigned last fall after almost 20 years and I have only heard good things about the quality of our new coach so that is definitely something to be excited about. Being able to drink tap water and being able to flush toilet paper is also going to be really nice.

On that note, I think this blog is just about finished. I’ve never really enjoyed writing all that much but to be honest, it was actually pretty fun writing this blog every week. I’m sure I didn’t nearly do justice to my experience with my words and pictures but hopefully everyone that read it enjoyed it anyway. This experience has sparked a new love for traveling within me so I hope to return to South America again as well as explore other parts of the world in the (hopefully near) future. When I do, I’ll be sure to blog again. Until then, nos vemos, espero que te vaya bien, adios, chao.

Mi madre y yo y nuestros ponchos

Monday, March 14, 2011

Las Islas de Galápagos y Reserva Ecológica de Cuyabeno

I’ve been SUPER busy the last two weeks which is why I haven’t written anything in a while. I had paper to write and was only in Quito for 2 days during the last week. We’ll start with the Galápagos trip.

Two Fridays ago, I got up at 5 am to go to the Quito airport. I met up with six amigos and we embarked on a weekend filled with animals, beautiful scenery, and hot weather. My friends from school, Meghan, Kelsey, Lauren, Caitie, Danny, and his 10 year-old son, Sule who was visiting, were the only ones out of 32 in our program that decided to go to Galápagos. I know a lot of others really wanted to go but a trip to the Galápagos is VERY expensive so that turned a lot of people off from it. We went during the weekend of Carnaval which is pretty much the Latin American equivalent of Mardi Gras but is treated like a spring break vacation by a lot of the people in Ecuador. Usually during Carnaval, the beach and places like Ambato and Baños near the jungle are EXTREMELY busy and people need to make reservations in hotels and hostals before they get there so that’s what the other students did all weekend.

Our group on the other hand, took a 35 minute flight from Quito to Guayaquil then an hour-ish flight from there to the island of Baltra in the Galápagos. Pretty much the only thing that Baltra is known for is that it has the main airport in the islands. We got off the plane and immediately found ourselves in some pretty hot weather. We took a 10-minute bus ride to the canal where we got on a little ferryboat that took us across the canal to the main island, Santa Cruz, which took about 10 minutes and cost 80 cents. Then we shared a taxi with some other people and ended up paying $2 for a 40-minute ride to the main town, Puerto Ayora, on the other side of the island. During this ride we gained just a little bit of elevation (probably no more than 200 feet) in the middle of the journey. At this part, the climate changed really quickly and it started to rain pretty hard. Once we got to the other coast though it went away and once again, we found ourselves in some pretty good heat.
The canal and ferryboat
It got rainy

We got to Puerto Ayora and went to the place we would be staying. My friend Kelsey has a local friend that knew someone that rented out his condo in the Galápagos so we took advantage of that and ended up renting this condo for 4 nights. It was actually pretty nice with a kitchen and showers and stuff but was probably 10 degrees hotter than it was outside at all times which was rather uncomfortable to sleep in because it got in the 90s (possibly 100s) during the day and was about 80 at night I believe. The guy (Carlos) was super nice though and helped us find a tour agency where we could organize our day trips to other islands. We were trying to get a tour to a nearby island called Isabela (the largest of the islands) but the price was a little higher than we wanted it to be. As we were trying to negotiate the price, one of the agents there pulled me aside and said that if we came back without Carlos, she would lower the price $15 dollars for each person because he was looking to get a commission for bringing us to the tour agency. We didn’t really think he deserved the commission because Danny and Sule had already gone to that same agency to book a 4 day cruise by themselves and we were planning on going there anyway. (This left me with four girls for 4 days in the Galápagos Islands. Whoohoo!) We left so we could eat lunch and talk amongst ourselves and decide what we wanted to do. Carlos decided to follow us too which kind of annoyed us so we said to him as politely as possible that we just wanted to eat with each other and that we would meet him at the condo when we were done with our business. He wasn’t offended at all and left us to decide what we wanted to do. We ate then went back to the tour agency and got a lower price.

After that we took a short walk to the Charles Darwin Research Center which is primarily a tortoise-rearing center. We saw a bunch of baby and full-grown tortoises as well as a few iguanas. It was cool because we got to see all the different sizes that the tortoises can be depending on age and specie. The most unique one we saw was called Lonesome George. This guy is pretty big and has a shell that goes really high in the front. He was found in the 1970s and it was established that he is the last remaining tortoise of his specie in the world. They have been trying to get him to mate with some similar tortoises and actually got a bunch of eggs a couple years ago. Unfortunately, none of them hatched successfullyL. After that we were pretty toasty from walking around so we went to a small nearby beach that had a bunch of marine iguanas and crabs all over the rocks. Mind you, these crabs and iguanas are ALL over the island so this beach didn’t turn out to be all that special. We dipped in the water to cool off real quick then went back to our place to make dinner. Everything is SUPER expensive in the Galápagos so we tried to cook as much as possible to save money. That is, super expensive in relation to the rest of Ecuador. The prices of food and stuff were actually pretty similar to those in the US but since we’re so used to buying meals like lunch for two dollars, we really didn’t like having to pay 5-7 dollars instead.
Baby tortugas!
Lonesome George being lonesome
Tortoise on the left decided to smile too :)
Really hope that guy was alive

The next day we got up at 6ish, ate some granola and yogurt, and then met up with the tour agency at 7. Apparently, Carlos called them and wanted a commission so they told us to meet them at the dock instead of the office. We got there on time and of course everybody else was on Ecuadorian time so we took off from the dock at around 8:30. Our group had 18 people and it took us about 2 hours to get to Isabela and unfortunately I had a headache for most of the ride there for some reason so that was pretty fun. We finally got there and immediately got on a chiva (open air bus) that would take us around to all the spots included in our tour. We started by taking a half hour ride to a place called el muro de lágrimas (wall of tears) which is this huge manmade wall of large stones. The tour guide only spoke in Spanish and I believe he said that it was used in the World War II era by the US as a prison and the prisoners would have to build this wall as a castigo (punishment). There was a quote that said, “Los valientes lloran, y los débiles se mueren” (the strong/brave cry and the weak die).
Setting off from Puerto Ayora to Isabela
Puerto Ayora
Tortoise on side of the rode

*so my blog has just told me that I've been using up too much space and can't upload any more photos. Not happy about this. When I get the chance, I will upload more to a photobucket site and put the link on here. Until then we´ll have to live with just words :(

Galápagos Pictures:
Cuyabeno Pictures:
I hope those links work...
After that, we went to another tortoise rearing center. This place had a ton more tortoises than La Estación de Charles Darwin but we weren’t allowed to get close to them. It also had an indoor museum (with air conditioning!) that gave some quick facts and info about tortoises (including how long they live and what their biggest threats are).

Then we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was rather mediocre but the fresh cold fruit juice was fantastic in the hot weather. We had an hour to rest or go in the water until our next activity so we walked to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen before. The sand was super white and the water was the bluest I’ve ever seen. We got in the water for a bit which was incredibly warm (probably 85ish degrees). We then walked over to a strange dock-like thing and found that it and the rocks surrounding it were completely covered in black marine iguanas. There were probably between 75 and 100 in the area at least. We were told we couldn’t enter their area because it was mating season and it was prohibited.

After that, we took a short chiva ride to our next stop which would be snorkeling. I don’t mean to sound stuck up or anything but my previous snorkeling experience was in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii which has a TON of cool looking fish so this experience turned out to be a little bit of a letdown. I’d read in my guide book that the Galápagos had some really really good snorkeling so went we got there I was a little surprised to find just a couple not so visually impressive species of fish. They probably just didn’t take us to the best spots because this one was close and would probably satisfy the majority of snorkelers. However I DID see some cool things there at the end including a Galápagos penguin for a moment before it zoomed off, a huge sea turtle, and a couple manta rays along the bottom. We got a little less than an hour to snorkel then we had to head back to the boat to return to Puerto Ayora.

The next day we decided to stay on Santa Cruz to see what it had to offer. We got up and went out to breakfast then took about an hour-long walk from our condo to Tortuga Bay. Once we got there, we were again amazed at how white the sand was and how blue the water was. It was equally as gorgeous as the beach from the day before if not more so. We first went to the nearby mangrove lagoon which had really green, still water but was still pretty anyway. We didn’t spend much time there before we decided we wanted to go back to the blue water where there were some waves as well as a small spot to snorkel. The snorkeling here was fairly decent because we saw some HUGE schools of medium sized (8 inches) silver fish. There were a couple times were I got startled while I was in the water. One time I looked up in my snorkel mask and saw a bit black thing swimming by which turned out to be a 3 foot long marine iguana. Then a little bit later I was looking down and saw a huge brown thing beneath me which turn out to be a sea lion.

After a couple hours at Tortuga Bay we returned to Puerto Ayora and went to the dock so we could take a quick, 60 cent water taxi to the trailhead of Las Grietas (the crevices). These crevices are filled with brackish water and get really deep in places. The snorkeling was not too good here. We saw a couple fish and that was it. The weird thing was that when we dived down about 5 feet, the water temperature suddenly got really warm. Usually it’s the opposite I think. We did a little snorkeling then joined some of the locals in some jumping from the ledges in the deep areas. You could either jump from the very top which was about 30 feet or a spot a little lower which was about 20-25. I chose the 20-25 because I was too lazy to go all the way around to the top instead of just climbing up the side of the grieta. By this time it was beginning to get dark so we headed back home before the mosquitoes came out.

The next day we took a tour to an island called North Seymour which was actually just on the other side of Baltra. We bussed back to the canal and took a 40 minute boat ride to North Seymour. Here we found a TON of frigate birds. We took a couple hours to walk around the island and saw frigates, land iguanas, a few sea lions, some lizards, and one blue-footed booby at the end. The frigates and land iguanas were pretty cool but we were a little upset that we hadn’t seen any blue-footed boobies or large families of sea lions like our tour agent had promised. I finally spotted a booby once we were about to leave but it was not being very cooperative because it was sitting down all the way and we could barely see its feet. We then went back to the boat and had lunch for about an hour or so. Right when we got back, someone noticed that we had a couple 2-3 meter sharks swimming around our boat. Our guide told us they were Galápagos sharks and weren’t dangerous. They stuck around the whole time until we left. We then headed over to a beach on the northwest side of Santa Cruz called Las Bachas where the remains of some old war ships can be seen. We got an hour to do some swimming and snorkeling here. The snorkeling was decent again because we saw some bigger more colorful fish we hadn’t seen before. I swam over to a rocky section and saw a couple more blue-footed boobies. I got out of the water and got pretty close to them but wasn’t able to take any pictures because I’d swum there without my camera. After that we went back to Puerto Ayora for our last night in the Galápagos.

The next morning (Tuesday) we got up early and went out for breakfast before we had to take a taxi back to the canal. By the end of the weekend we’d all gotten fairly burnt and were pretty worn out. All in all todo definativamente vale la pena (it was all definitely worth it) even though we’d missed all of the Carnaval celebration while we were there.

We got back to Quito, went to school on Wednesday and Thursday then found ourselves at another weekend. I knew I wanted to go to the jungle again because it’s only so often you get the opportunity to go to the Amazon. I asked mi madre where she thought I should go on my last weekend in Ecuador and she suggested La Reserva Ecológica de Cuyabeno (Cuyabeno Ecological Reserve) because all of the people she had talked to had said that was the prettiest part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. She had a contact who worked with tours in that region so she set me up with a guide and I took an 8 hour bus overnight to Lago Agrio, an ugly oil worker town which is basically a jump off point near Cuyabeno. The trip would have been shorter but on the way there a semi-truck that had flipped its trailer in the middle of the road delayed us for an hour or so. Thankfully I got a couple of my friends, Giang, Danny, and his son Sule, to go with me so I didn’t have to go alone. We got there at about 7:30am and were told to meet our contact at a hotel at 8. Our contact didn’t show up with the guide, Luis, until 8:30 then said they needed to leave really quickly to buy food and supplies. They first said they’d be back at 9 then changed it to 9:30. There was some sort of women’s rights rally in the streets and this may or may not have had something to do with the fact that our guide didn’t return until 10:15. We left with Luis on a two hour taxi truck ride to the Cuyabeno River where we put all of our stuff in a motorized canoe and took a two and a half hour ride down the river to the laguna grande (big lagoon). Luis told us that there was a huge group that was actually occupying all of the rooms in the Amanu Lodge where we had planned to stay. Because of this, we had to go to a different cabaña (cabin) on the other side of the lagoon. I actually preferred this because it was really secluded from the big group and all of their noise. We got there and it didn’t look like it’d been used in a while because it was pretty dirty. Luis cleaned it out and set up our beds and mosquito nets for us. Then we went out in a paddle canoe to take a quick dip and watch the beautiful sunset. Luis asked if we wanted to bring our cameras but we all said no for some reason and definitely regretted it once we saw how pretty the sunset was. We got back to the cabaña and Luis cooked a super tasty meal of soup, chicken, rice and salad for us. Sule was really tired and ended up passing out before dinner at about 7:30 because he hadn’t gotten much sleep on the bus ride overnight. We had planned to go out and see some insects but the rest of us were pretty tired too and ended up going to bed by 9:30.

We had plans to get up at quarter ‘til six to watch the sunrise but that night it rained really hard and was cloudy in the morning so we didn’t go out. Apparently there was a huge thunderstorm as well that I had slept through. We got over 10 hours of sleep and didn’t get up until 8:15. After breakfast we went out on a hike through the forest and saw several different types of trees and plants including a tree that was called leche de * (milk of something I can’t remember). When you have a stomach ache or intestinal issues, apparently you can cut a small hole in this tree and it will bleed out a white milky substance. You’re supposed to take 2 spoonfuls of it and within 20 minutes you’ll be feeling fine again. There was also another tree that you can use to make a cure for malaria. You take the shavings of wood from the tree and boil them in 8 liters of water until there is only one liter left so it is really concentrated. Then you have to take 2 spoonfuls at every meal for 4 days and afterwards you will be cured. Luis told us that when he was 12, he got malaria, used this remedy and it worked perfectly.

We also heard some cool birds, saw many insects, a few frogs, and false coral snake for a moment. One bird we heard can hear us from 100 meters away and starts doing a strange squawk telling us to keep out. One of the trees we saw was called a telephone tree because in the past when people got lost, they would hit the tree stump with a stick and it could be heard for 600 meters. Another party would then hit a telephone tree too and the lost people would try to find that other party. It was incredibly how much knowledge Luis had about all the plants and animals in the jungle. He told us he had taken a course about it before becoming a guide.

The hike took about 3 hours and then we returned for lunch. After lunch, we went down to the water to do some canoeing. We noticed when we got to the canoe that the water level had risen at least a couple inches, if not a half foot overnight. Luis said this was normal because we were just entering the rainy season and that by the end, the water will have risen from 1.5 meters in the middle of the lake to 6 meters (over 12 feet!). We canoed around the edge of the lagoon and saw a bunch of cool birds in the trees including some white egrets, greater anis, herons, parrots, macaws (flying off in the distance), and stinky turkeys (hoatzin in Spanish). We got back to the Amanu Lodge and just hung out while we had a nice cold Pilsener (national beer of Ecuador). After that, we grabbed some fishing poles and went out to do some piranha fishing near the entrance of the river in the lagoon. The fishing poles were just long sticks with some fishing wire and a hook. Really high tech stuff. We put some little pieces of beef on the hook and sat in the boat and waited for nibbles. We got a TON of nibbles. We probably had over 25 pieces of bait and only caught three piranhas in about an hour. They were really good at chomping on the meat without getting caught. Luis told us that there were three types of piraña in the lake: white, black, and red ones. Giang caught the first one after about 10 minutes and it was a white one. Then about 15 minutes later I caught a red one which I was told by the non-colorblind people was more of a purplish color. Then right at the end I caught a black one as well. They were all pretty much the same size. I’ve never really enjoyed fishing in the past because I never catch anything and it takes so long but I really enjoyed it this time because I caught TWO in less than an hour and they were piranhas which made the experience extra cool.

By this time, the sun was setting and thankfully the clouds and disappeared a little bit and I was able to get some good pictures of it. We ran out of bate so we canoed to the other side hoping that we’d be able to see some pink river dolphins. Luis told us “podemos verlos si tenemos suerte” (we can see them if we’re lucky). We ended up getting lucky and seeing two river dolphins swimming around. They come up for water every 20 seconds or so, so we’d see them stick their heads out for air for a second. They don’t look at all like normal dolphins and are actually sort of ugly. They’ve got a strange, ridged hump-type thing on their back and their heads aren’t that great looking either. They were still definitely cool to see though. On our way back, we could hear a bunch of howler monkeys making a ton of noise in the trees nearby. They aren’t very big but can make a really deep loud moan. If Luis hadn’t told us they were howler monkeys, I would have probably thought there were huge scary monsters around the outside of the lagoon. We paddled back and by the time we got to the middle of the lake the sun was completely down. There was still a little bit of light so we hopped in the water, shampooed our hair, and played around for a little bit. I can now say I’ve bathed in a lagoon J. By the time we were done with that and paddled back it was dark and we only had moonlight to show us the way. Luis has been a guide in Cuyabeno for 22 years so even if the moon wasn’t out I’m sure he could have led us back with his eyes closed.

Luis made us another fantastic dinner and we chatted with him a little. I asked him if he liked his job and he said that he loved the jungle and that he really enjoyed the work that he does as a guide. This is definitely a good thing because he then told us that he works almost nonstop and only gets a couple days of vacation per year. No weekends!? Madness. He also told us that he has seven children as well. After dinner we put on our rubber boots and went out fishing again. This time however, we only took our flashlights and a machete with us. There are some fish that come up to the surface late at night and when you shine a light on them they don’t move. Luis was really good at finding this fish. He’d shine the light and then chop them with the machete in the head. He ended up getting 4 in about a half an hour. I was holding on to a branch trying to look for fish and it broke so I partially fell in the water getting my shirt and pants wet. Thankfully not too wet though. After that, we went back to the cabin and went to bed.

The next morning, Luis and I got up for a 6am canoe ride to watch the sunrise and look at some birds on an island in the middle of the lagoon. They were pretty much the same birds we saw from the day before but just in greater numbers. There were some clouds in the sky but the sunrise was still quite pretty. We had planned on leaving at 9:30 that morning but the guy with the motorized canoe came by and said we needed to leave with him at 7:30 instead with the other group because they were the last canoe leaving the laguna. The whole trip, Luis had been telling us how he’d been planning to make us a plato fuerte (big meal) that morning for breakfast. He was going to make meat, rice, eggs, fruit, and cook the fish he caught the night before wrapped up in a leaf. Unfortunately, we didn’t have  time and had to have a hurried breakfast of eggs, bread, and pineapple instead. We ate and picked up the cabin really fast and were on our way.

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience. I definitely would have liked to stay a little longer so we could do some deeper excursions into the jungle and see some of the indigenous tribes that still live there. I was also hoping to see some caimans and anacondas because I’d read that they could be seen in that region. Luis said that anacondas aren’t usually seen every time and that the caimans hide in the bushes over the water during the day so you can only see them at night. We tried looking for them with our flashlights but never found any. On the boat ride back to the road, I was almost positive I saw one but it possibly could have just been a caiman-like log floating in the water because we’d seen many of those. I was pretty sure I saw an eye on this floating log/caiman though.

We got back to Lago Agrio just before one and bought a bus ticket for 2:30 back to Quito. On the way back, we got stopped at 3 different checkpoints by the Ecuadorian military. Everybody had to get out of the bus and have their identification and bags checked. Mi madre said this is normal because the part of the country we were in was in the northeast corner of the country which is really close to the Colombian border where there is a lot of drug trafficking, guerrillas, and theft. While the stops were kind of annoying, it was comforting to know they were a least trying to keep us safe.

I think that’s about it for this blog entry. I’ve got less than a week left in Ecuador and I’m definitely feeling at least a little sad about leaving. I knew my time here would go faster than I wanted it to and it definitely did. I may write another blog on my flight home or after I return with some closing thoughts but we’ll see. Hasta ese tiempo, ¡espero que vayan bien!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Jungle!

I did a lot of fun things last week. I had a couple midterms which were super fun of course. At the Asilo, we met a family that comes every Thursday (the visiting day) to visit a grandma/aunt/sister. There are a pair elderly folks (the man is the anciana’s brother), and also a middle-aged woman, Yolanda (the anciana’s niece), as well as some grandchildren of the woman. They are a very nice family and we spent most of the time chatting with the older man, Oswaldo, who actually used to live in the Miami for six years on a ranch owned by some Ecuadorians called the Flamingo Ranch. Because of this, he knew a little bit of English but we spoke in Spanish the whole time anyway. He liked telling the same joke over and over again which was: “Yo sé dos palabras de ingles. Uno=One. Dos=One one.” Or in English: “I know two words in English. One, one. Two, one one.” But anyway, the family is super nice and afterwards, Yolanda invited us over to her house for igo y queso (figs and cheese). Paul, Sam, Meghan, and I went to her house and met the rest of her family. They were pretty wealthy I think. The figs were reeeeaaaaally sweet but with the salty cheese were really good. We stayed and chatted for a couple hours and it was really nice. We plan to go back again this week after school.
There was a party at the asilo

Some of the ancianas took turns singing. Some were good. Some were not good.

One of mis amigas

Painting in the entryway of the asilo

On Thursday, instead of class, we got to go on a field trip to a museum of our choice. Our class voted and decided to go to El Museo de la Ciudad which is in the Old town (centro historico) area. The museum gives a history of the indigenous people of Quito/Ecuador and La Conquista of the region. We got to see some cool art and wax figurines and stuff. We were there for about 3 hours and after that long, I wasn’t really all that into it. Beforehand though, we went to a place called el centro metropolitano (I’m pretty sure that was the name) which is a library-ish place. Our assignment was to go talk with random people inside the place and ask them about the Conquista of the Incas and see how much they knew. The first woman I asked was probably about 30 and she seemed to know a lot and was pretty well educated on the subject. We talked for about 10 minutes about the Incas and just about what I was doing in Ecuador. I’ve found I really like conversing with random locals. The next group I talked to was a couple girls who were in their last year of high school and they SORT of knew a little bit about the Incas but gave an excuse that they’d studied them a long time ago and had forgotten. Some of the other people in my class weren’t being very social so my teacher forced them to go talk with some kids who looked like they were seven or so. It was sorta funny.
Painting depicting how evil the Spanish were

Life and goodness associated with las indígenas and death and darkness associated with the Spanish

On Friday, Meghan, mi madre, and her friend set off for la Amazonia and her home town of Puerto Napo which is along el río napo and is 10 minutes from the city of Tena. Her friend happened to be driving in that direction so we all tagged along. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for my other friends, Paul and Sam so they had to take a bus. It took us about 5 hours to get there by car because we made several stops along the way for food and also in a pueblo called Papallacta which is known for its beautiful hot springs. We only stopped for a couple minutes to take a look and then went back on our way. The drive was gorgeous. It was soooo green with trees all over the hills. We got to Tena and got Meghan, Paul, and Sam a hostal then went to mi madre’s house where her mother and brother live. They fed us fish from the river for dinner which turned out to be extremely difficult to eat because it was literally just a fish that was wrapped up in a banana leave and boiled with some seasonings. It had a TON of tiny bones and took about an hour to eat but it was tasty anyway. We talked with her brother, Pato (short for Patricio), who is a guía (guide) for tourists and helped us set up our itinerary for the weekend. Initially, I wanted to do some white water rafting because I’d read in several guide books that it was a really good place to do it but eventually decided against it because Pato said it wasn’t all that good and that I’d need to go to a different river farther away which was way more expensive to do some really good rafting. We all decided that we wanted to go visit some caves, a waterfall, and la playa de los monos (monkey beach). That night we went back to Tena with Pato who showed us a few bars, including a karaoke bar which was pretty fun. Meghan and I attempted karaoke for the first time and did a duet of Grease’s “Summer Loving” with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It was pretty funny. I really wanted to find some Elton John to sing but sadly, they had none. After that, I went back to mi madre’s house to sleep because I could stay there for free.

Small village of Puerto Napo where mi madre lives

Just some graffiti

Mi madre's house hidden by trees

The next morning, I got up and ate then went to Tena with Pato. We met up with the others and went to the local market to see all the fruits and natural medicines. They were also selling clothes and shoes so we all bought some cheap shoes made by local Ecuadorian company, Venus, that were $6 a pair. They were the same kind we used when we went Canyoning in Baños and we perfect for the caves because you can get them wet and they dry really easily. And I like how they look haha. After that we took off for Las Cavernas de Jumandy. We took a taxi pickup truck and just rode in the truck bed which was a new experience for me and I rather enjoyed it. It took about 15 minutes to get there and cost $3 to enter and get a guide. Our guide was an indigenous man who was really nice. He lent us head lamps and led us through the caves and explained a lot of the things inside. We got in there and pretty much half the way we either had to wade or swim through a stream that was going through the cave. Our new Venus shoes came in real handy. There was also a small waterfall within the cave that we got to stand underneath. In addition to this, there were also some large huecos (holes) where the water got real deep. One we jumped off a ledge about ten feet above the water which was pretty fun. There were also some holes that were 1-3 meters deep but were only about 2 feet in diameter which we also went in to.
Our Venus shoes. I got black of course

View from the truck bed

La entrada (entrance)

Me popping up from the 3 meter deep, 2 foot wide hueco

Hanging out under the falls

Then we went down one of the brazos (arms) of the cave which was dry ground but had a much thinner passageway. A couple times throughout the cave we saw some big but skinny tarantulas, many crickets, and a couple bats. There were also a couple strange, colored rock formations that he called profundidades (I think). One was called the profundidad de coliflor  (cauliflower), another was la zanahoria (carrot), and the last one I don’t remember. There were also many stalactites and stalagmites as well. I hit my head on a couple which felt really REALLY good. We got to the end of the arm and turned off all the lights and it was probably the darkest dark I’ve been in (tied with Ape Caves of course). Here, he gave us some history of the caves. I couldn’t understand him very well so I sort of stopped listening but the main idea was that shamans used to use them for special rituals and I THINK there used to be gold in them and so clearly, once the Spanish arrived, they wanted it. We got to the end of the caves and got out and hiked back to the beginning. It took about an hour total to do the entire tour and I really enjoyed it.

Don't remember the name of this one

La zanahoria. Supposed to be good luck to kiss it? It is also known as something a little more PG-13 to R rated

I think I may have hit my head on one of those. Definitely hit my head a couple times at least.

This one went all the way from the ground to the ceiling...or vice versa?

Cool little ones on the ceiling

This guy was a little smaller than my hand

La salida (exit)
View on the way back

We went back to mi madre’s house for lunch and did some resting because we were tired for some reason. We had originally planned to hike to the waterfall that afternoon but some of us weren’t feeling all that well so we decided to do la playa de los monos instead. We took another cab ride about 20 minutes away to a town called Misahuallí which was on the bank of the conjunction of el río napo  and el río misahuallí. Next to this sandy beach, there were a bunch of trees that were FULL of monkeys. The monkeys were very tame and had no problem being around humans. They were always moving around and some played high in the trees, some played in the low trees that were at our head level, and some played on the ground. We got to go right up close to the monkeys and one of them decided to jump on Meghan’s head and try to steal her camera. We had heard beforehand that the monkeys were little ladrones (thieves) that liked to steal people’s things like drinks, wallets, cameras, and small trinkets that people carried around. There were several instances when a monkey tried to run up behind me and take my camera from my hand. After the monkey climbed on Meghan, we were all trying to use our cameras as bait for the monkeys to come close to us and climb on us. I final got one to climb on me but not for very long. There was a man who had a plastic bottle of juice stolen from him. The monkeys had some trouble getting it open and eventually dropped on the ground next to me. I picked it up and the monkey came and jumped on my arm and grabbed the bottle pretty hard. I didn’t want to let go for some reason and the monkey didn’t either so I was sort of swinging it around until it started to open its mouth and I got scared so I let the monkey win.

There was a baby monkey that we saw that stayed with its mother all the time on the ground. They would both sort of sit around and they let us get really close and I actually held the baby’s hand for about 10 seconds. Once the baby and mother would get tired of us, the baby would get on the mother’s back and they’d move to a new spot away from us. We spent an hour or so at the monkey beach just playing with the monkeys. There were also to little boys who had a fairly big snake (some sort of python I think) and were letting tourists take pictures with it for a dollar. Thankfully, I didn’t get anything stolen while we were there. One of the monkeys hopped on Meghan’s head and pulled out her hair tie and ran off with it. He put it around his neck for a bit then got bored with it and dropped it on the ground. Pato said that often times when monkeys steal cameras they try to take pictures with them. I think I would have like to see that.
Takin a ride

Some monkeys fighting/playing

Happy kid with snake

Trying to get him to mount me using the camera as bait

I made a friend with a baby!


Mama and baby

Conjunction of Río Napo (right) and Río Misahuallí (left)

Some lady had a birdy on the bus back to Puerto Napo

That night, we went and ate at a restaurant in Tena on the river which was pretty nice. It started raining REALLY hard while we were there so we decided to stay for over 2 hours until it let up a little. Then we walked up and down the main street in Tena looking for a place to hang out. We ended up getting some ice cream and playing cards until about 10pm when all the lights in that half of the city went out. We decided at that point, it was probably time to turn in. I took a cab home and only a couple blocks down the street there was still power. I asked mi madre about it the next day and she said it was fairly normal, especially because of the rain and thunderstorm.

The next morning the others met me at mi madre’s house and we took a 10 minute cab to the head of a trail that went to some waterfalls. A man named Humberto owned the place and led us a little way down the trail then left us with one of his sons to be our guide. His son was probably no older than 10 but knew a lot about the flora and fauna that we encountered. He went barefoot and in shorts but the rest of us went in pants and rented rubber boots. It took us about 30-40 minutes to get to the falls and along the way we saw a lot of green plants and trees as well as some armadillo tracks and an armadillo den. We got to the  (cascada) waterfall and saw several different types of butterflies including one that landed on Meghan and me. We got to do some swimming in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall which was nice because we were pretty toasty at that point. Mi madre told me that people often go to the waterfall and swim nude because it is thought of as a cleansing experience. The water goes along the earth for so long that it picks up a lot of good energy and when it comes down on your nude body it gets rid of all your bad energy and evil spirits. Of course, we all did it.

This hormiga (ant) is called a Conga. It is about 2 cm long and can kill a baby if it bites it. If it bites a full grown person, it can make them really sick for 2-3 days

Piscinas (pools) where we met up with our kid guide

This part was called the tobogan

Armadillo den

Armadillo tracks

I'm in the jungle!

La cascada

Butterfly on Meghan's wrist

Big tree at la entrada

This guy was almost as big as my palm

El Río Napo

After we got back, we ate a very interesting lunch. I’d wanted to try cuy (guinea pig) the whole time I’d been here because I heard it was sort of a delicacy. Apparently you can only find it in “lugares exclusivos” (exclusive places) and so I jumped on the opportunity of trying it in the jungle. It was marinated and roasted and actually tasted pretty similar to chicken to be honest. It didn’t have a whole lot of meat on it and the meat that it DID have was sort of tough to get to because there were so many bones but it was pretty good. The skin was rather tough and still had some guinea pig hair on it but also tasted pretty good. This was my second difficult eating experience of the weekend. After that, we had some crabs that Pato had bought live earlier that morning and cooked for us. They were about half the size of a large Dungeness crab and were about 4 times as hard to crack and eat. The shell was just about the same thickness but because they were so small, it was tough to get all the meat out. It took about a half hour to finish one crab. Third difficult eating experience of the weekend. After this we had to rush to leave because our taxi had arrived. We decided to take a taxi for the 4 hour ride back to Quito because if we took a bus it’d drop us off at the bus station which is about an hour away from our house. Mi madre said it’d be tough to get a taxi and that the taxi would probably cost $10 anyway. So instead of the $5 bus ride we took a $20 taxi ride that dropped us off at our houses. We were all thinking that $20 was super expensive but in reality, if we tried to taxi a taxi for 4 hours in the states that fee would be ridiculous haha. It’s expensive in Ecuador but probably worth it in the end because we can go straight to our door instead and don’t have to worry about getting robbed on the bus like Meghan did the week before. Oh! One more thing. Meghan got robbed AGAIN last week on the metro bus on the way to the museum. These buses are usually SUPER packed and people have to stand extremely close to each other to fit in. She noticed a guy standing pretty close to her and didn’t realize it at the time but he had actually put his hand in her open handbag and taken her coin purse (which she had bought the day before to replace her OTHER stolen one). Thankfully she didn’t have as much money in it as last time and only lost less than $15 but it still sucked. She’s just had an unlucky week. L

On that note, I think that’s everything of interest that I did in the last week. I’m SUPER pumped for this upcoming weekend because it is Carnaval (4 day festival) and we get next Monday and Tuesday off which means a 5 day weekend. It ALSO means that I’m going to the Galapagos Islands this weekend! I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say when I get back so until then, que vayan bien!