A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: misskailyn

Lost in Ecuador

"Never travel faster than your guardian angel can fly." -Mother Theresa

sunny
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Travelling, is a venture of extremes, both of nature and emotion. It is a chance to see the world; the earth’s driest dessert, the highest navigable lake, the best seafood markets and the most revered temples. It is also a time that pushes you to feel a full spectrum of emotions. Reactions you didn’t know you had. One minute you will feel truly invincible. The next, you will feel completely insignificant. The humor in it all is that it often happens within the same day. When on the road, every event, place and encounter is elevated to a level higher than any that was previously conceived. It is like a drug. When something is good, it takes your breath away. It touches a place inside your soul that makes you realize how stunning this journey of life is. The beauty and awe will be something that is imbedded in your mind for the rest of your days and will play in your slide show of memories forever. Landscapes, music, people. However, when something is bad, it is REALLY bad, and suddenly you know how helpless, far away from home and alone you really are. It makes you think, did I just make the biggest mistake of my life?

I have had many encounters to date that test my strength and fortitude. Being completely alone, lost, unable to communicate and on a broken bicycle in the middle of Ecuador is one of those events.

Banos, Ecuador is one of the most spectacular towns I have ever seen. It is hugged by emerald green mountains that form its boundaries, scooping the historical and tourist-friendly town into its arms. Banos receives its name from the dozens of natural hot springs and bathes that dot its center. Blue skies and white pillowy clouds serve as its canopy, and rivers named after the colors in the rainbow form its backdrop. Perched on top of a particularly large green hill is Casa del Arbor, a tree house sitting on the edge of the world. Here, I sat and swung into the sky while gazing at an active volcano, billowing black smoky plumes over its white cape of snow. This town is a magical refuge to backpackers, where my nightly tab consisted of $5 a night for a hostel and some 50 cent “tequila” shots I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

One morning, after parting with some friends I met along the road, I set off on my first lone venture. The town is proud of its natural beauty, and rightfully so. Many of the tourist shops that line the streets offer cheap mountain bike rentals in order for visitors to explore the sights. The premise is simple. Hop on the bike for an easy glide down the mountains while seeing seven of Banos’ most magnificent waterfalls. Then, after cruising down the mountain side, catch a ride back to town by taxi or shuttle bus at the designated spot. Easy! With a daypack which held a small water bottle, a chocolate bar and a coat, I went off to rent my bike.

The lady at the travel agency only spoke Spanish, which I didn’t understand. She showed me a map and assured me it would be “facil” to find the pickup point. I didn’t know “facil”, but assumed it meant easy. She circled some stopping points, brought out my bike, and I was on my way. The roads were made primarily for foot and car traffic, but once I rounded the sidewalks towards the end of town the bike lanes she promised began to appear. The winding lane hugged the road and sloped down the mountains. I enjoyed the quiet of the air and the feel of the warm wind on my arms as I flew down the gradient. Something about riding a bike always evokes the child in me. I feel free. The speed granted by wheels and the ease of travel makes me feel like I am flying. With this incredible lightness, I wound down the mountainside. I saw Rio Blanco, Rio Verde, and Rio Negro. I saw some small towns with sleeping dogs on the cobblestoned streets, and stores that were carefully being swept by their owners. The bike path swooped around the car tunnels and lined the powerful rivers that carved into the mountains. With no real sense of time, I kept riding down the mountains until the bike lane disappeared. I had not yet seen the pick-up point, so I kept peddling onward. Three hours had passed and the roads had become difficult. The bike lane was completely gone, and the hills began to climb aggressively upward. The sun was pounding down, and my water was gone. I felt uneasy but had nowhere to go but onward. I thought about turning around, but I hadn’t seen any cars and the mountain was so steep. There were no street signs and the road had become desolate. Four hours went by, and I finally ran into a small restaurant overlooking the valley. I pulled into the lot and parked my bicycle on the outside of the door.

In a game of charades that consisted of English, Spanish and desperation, I attempted to ask the mother and daughter who ran the little place for help. I pointed to the map I had been clutching with my life, and asked them where I was in relation to the pick-up point. They called over a man who was piling rocks into his pickup truck to come over and look. The four of us poured over my crumpled map and they spoke with surprise as they realized where I was trying to go. They pointed up the towering mountain I had just descended and told me in Spanish that the pick-up point was a few hours backward. I had gone entirely too far. I was praying I had misunderstood them, but the ominous pointing up the mountain sealed my fate. I had to peddle back up.
By this point my water was gone. The sun was beating down with an aggressive intensity that left my hands burnt and shoulders peeling. The elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level (nearly 1,000 feet higher than Denver, Colorado) meant that the air was thin and it was difficult to breathe. I was gasping for breath and took turns alternating between riding and pushing the bike I now hated up the mountain. I took breaks every few minutes and tried to find shade, but that just made my journey longer. I wanted to cry. My chain kept falling off my bike and eventually it got stuck in a position I could not fix. Now I was forced to push the broken monster while it skidded across the road on its useless back tire. Covered in sweat, tears and bicycle grease, I arrived at a shaded bus stop by a construction site. I sat down here and tried to catch my breath.

A young construction worker came over to me and sat down next to me. He was speaking to me in Spanish and I had no idea what he was saying. I pointed to my bike chain and tried to explain “no trabajar”. He made some gestures and waved me to follow him. I was nervous, as there were no cars around and I didn’t know where he was taking me. Weighing my options, I saw I had none, so I followed him tentatively into a fenced off, dirt lot with my broken and worthless bike. Next thing I knew, he was talking with the other construction workers and they were surrounding me and my bike. He disappeared and I was left standing there repeating “hola” as each new worker came over. They took turns examining my bike and talking to each other. I didn’t understand anything. The first construction worker reappeared from around a corner wheeling out a motorcycle. Now the entire construction site was circled around the bicycles. I watched as my bike went into the air and onto the back of the motorcycle. They started tying the broken beast with a rope to the back, which turned into a very difficult feat. My bike was ginormous and it kept tipping the motorcycle over. The workers all took turns offering different suggestions on how to best secure it, and shook the bike to test its security. I tried to stay out of the way, uttering “lo siento” and “muchos gracias” repeatedly. The whole process must have taken 15 minutes. Finally, they decided it was secure and they gestured for me to get on the back. With my fingers crossed, I sat between my new friend and my worst enemy, Mr. Shit Bicycle.
After a shaking start, we were off! Up the winding mountain we went. I gripped onto the seat for my dear life, but quickly had to grab the bike as its tires scraped against the paved road. The mountain bike was entirely too big. I tried to ignore it as the tires hit the road and dragged along. I was afraid it was going to bring us all down as we sped up the mountain. “Un momento!!!” I screamed. The driver looked in his rearview mirror and pulled to the side of the road. He was going to attempt to re-tie my bike, but I knew it was futile. I thanked him over and over, but told him I could push it the rest of the way easily. In reality, we had only covered a span less than a mile. I had ages to go.

He watched as I fought up the mountain and waved goodbye. As soon as I was around the corner, I started to cry. I had hours left to my struggle. I was hungry, thirsty sunburnt and lost. Why am I here? What am I doing? I can’t do this on my own. I was losing it. I couldn’t keep this up for the hours it would take to get back. I mustered up my strength and decided to hitch hike. Hitch hiking as a single, gringo who didn’t speak Spanish in the middle of Ecuador did not sound like a particularly bright idea to me, but I was desperate. I looked down the road and watched for a truck that could fit me and my bicycle. As soon as I saw one winding up the mountain, I stuck out my thumb. Instantly, the truck pulled over. I pushed up quickly to it and a man helped me to throw my bike in the back. I told him “Banos” and he nodded, telling me he wasn’t going that far but he could take me most of the way. I thanked him over and over, and his wife handed me baby wipes to clean off the oil covering my hands from the chain. I was so relieved. My mental and physical exhaustion was so intense, that as I watched the rosary attached to his rearview mirror sway, I really felt like he was my miracle. We drove up the steep and winding roads for what seemed like hours. I was so thankful. Eventually we reached the pickup point and I told them I could make it back from there. I left the truck, and thanked my saviors for the lift.

At the pickup point, I sat on the dirt pile and waited. Not even 5 minutes passed until I heard the roar of a bus climbing the pass. It pulled over, I threw the god-forsaken bike into the undercarriage and boarded the bus to Banos. I was shaking with relief and gratitude. I had made it. With the help of others and their kindness, I had made it. I will never forget the feeling of being lost and saved in Ecuador.

Posted by misskailyn 07:58 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Solomente


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Insanity, tenacity, a fiery desire for something more. A fervent passion for discovery and dissidence. For everyone these feelings differ in origin, yet they pull us all into the unknown. They propel us and our desire to leave comfort in order to feel completely inept and awed in a foreign land. Like the beatniks of Kerouac’s days, we are all exploring the parts of ourselves we didn’t know were there, until we discovered them and let them grow. We are reconnecting with the parts that life swept away. And we are living the lives we create along the “gringo trail” of South America.

For many, travel seems to be a time of transition. A window between the ending of school and the beginning of a career. The time that separates two jobs, countries of residence or even relationships. It is often the ellipses between the known and the uncertain. Something about travelling makes people reach into the depths of their beings to figure out what constants remain when everything else is stripped away. Without family, friends, a job and a residence, what is left? What is it that makes you, “you”?

For me and many others, it is a time to reconnect. A welcomed opportunity to visit with oneself. In a world that can quickly whisk one away into a race of pressures and expectations, travel serves as a platform of protest. I want to listen to the birds and monkeys chirp in canopies above my head. I want to wander the markets and taste strange fruits. I want to feel the stress and frenzied tempo of the world melt away until I am able to sit and enjoy the company of my thoughts and the warm breeze. It is easy to forget why we are embarking in the lives we have created, and it is easy for pressures to distract us from the passions that live within our hearts. It is important not to forget. For me, travel is my time to visit with myself. I know who I am, and I am reclaiming the opportunity to be with myself unapologetically.

Backpackers. You will find us somewhere between status, material belongings and the desire to be challenged. A 12 day trip, a 3 month trip or a trip that is indefinite, we all discover ourselves crossing paths in a room, sharing bunk-beds and stories over the musty stench of clothes worn for too many days. We are all bonded together by the land we hike and the personal miles we gain. Languages are different, but card games unite us. Countries are foreign but the twinkle in the eyes is the same. We each tell stories and describe places others have not yet ventured to, and the desire to experience as much of the world as possible binds us together. I want to experience things in the world for the first time and in the community of backpackers I have found I am not alone. Modern day hippies? Maybe. People taking time to enjoy the company of themselves. Definitely.

Posted by misskailyn 07:47 Archived in Peru Tagged travel backpacking solo Comments (0)

People are People

“Oh, Fletch, you don't love that! You don't love hatred and evil, of course. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them…that’s what I mean by love. It's fun, when you get the knack of it.” – Richard Bach


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My dad is from Boston and comes with all the skepticism and scruff that is implied in that statement. He often has said “people are people” and “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist”. I always took those statements in a negative way, but I think I now completely understand what he is saying.
It is not a negative judgment of character or life as I used to believe. Instead, it is taking the ego out of interpretation and just accepting people for how they are. It is hard for me to describe, but it is almost like an unconditional love or acceptance for the way people are, and their own autonomy and interconnectedness. It’s like when Jonathan Livingston Seagull is explaining his love for the other seagulls to Fletch, despite them treating him so horribly. He states:
“Oh, Fletch, you don't love that! You don't love hatred and evil, of course. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them…that’s what I mean by love. It's fun, when you get the knack of it.” – Richard Bach

Travelling as a single gringa in South America has helped me to understand what my dad and Jonathan mean. I have met the most WONDERFUL people. I have also met some not so wonderful people. But I think I have found this love they speak of. The challenge for me is to take people how they are and not to expect them to act a certain way. Once I take my own ego or expectation out of situations, it becomes fun.

On a daily basis, during just about every interaction with strangers, I feel as if they are trying to take money from me. When I went to the pharmacy, the attendant rang up my iron pills and told me they were “$12.50”. This is the equivalent to two days wages for Ecuadorians. Rest assured, that was not the actual price. The one time I didn’t settle a price before getting in a cab, he charged me 4 times what it should have been. Another time, a taxi driver drove around and couldn’t find my hostel, dropped me off at the police station, than tried to charge me 5 times as much as we had agreed on because he said he drove around too much. I have been given less change, been given false information, and been glared at often. I have heard of people’s wallets being taken off buses, at knife point and by children.

It is a weird thing to say, and I might not feel this way if something really bad happens to me, but there is a satisfaction I am beginning to feel about this challenge of wits. I have never been a very assertive person, but I am practicing daily and am finding each interaction more and more satisfying.

Yesterday I got a ride from a cute old grandpa to the bus station. In the back seat was his adorable 4 year old granddaughter. He humored me as I attempted to keep the conversation going in Spanish about the churches, my teaching career, what I was doing down in South America, etc. He told me a bit about the Catholic buildings and pointed his out. He laughed and helped me to say what I wanted in correct Spanish. When we got to the bus station I handed him a $5 for the $2 ride. Oh no! He pulled open the glove box and showed me the one dollar coin he had in there. I told him “lo siento” but that I did not have any change. He called out the closed window to someone and looked around flustered. He kept pointing to his one dollar coin. When it became clear to him that I was going to sit and wait for my change, he suddenly found a pocket full and handed it over. “Muchos gracias!” I said and exited the taxi.

I had won this challenge of wits! I held my ground and stuck to the facts of the situation. I needed my change!

I don’t blame him or anyone else for trying. $3 for me and $3 for him do mean extremely different things. He is right to think that the $3 doesn’t impact my life as much as it would for him. If I were to take each interaction as an insult or personal attack, I would not leave my hostel bunk bed. Bartering is an integral part of the culture, and as a gringa I have to defend my side of the deal more heavily than most. I still think that he was a cute old grandpa, but I also am starting to remember that “people are people”. He can both be a cute old grandpa and someone trying to take my money, and I actually kind of love him for both!

I have met some of the most hospitable people along my way as well. Truly, some of the sweetest and friendly people I could imagine. When my bike chain fell off and became unfixable (as I pushed the broken monster up a mountain from my nightmares) 4 construction workers attempted to tie my broken bike to the back of a motorcycle (with rope) and cart me and the bicycle up hill. When that didn’t work, a couple in a truck stopped for me, put my bicycle in the back and handed me baby-wipes to wipe the grease off my hands from the broken chain. People have attempted to explain things to me using gestures and simplified Spanish, and have offered me to join them when I am just a homeless looking stranger on the streets. These people are everywhere, but I am starting to find that it is the mixture of the types that make life so fun. ;)

Posted by misskailyn 11:42 Archived in Ecuador Tagged people culture bartering Comments (1)

Ecuador by Bus

The good, the bad and the Ecuadorian bus system


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The Good:

For the most part, the busing system in Ecuador is wonderful. The buses are cheap, very well maintained, clean and run smoothly. Please note the caveat “for the most part”. Now, note it again! Night buses and the buses used for long trips have restrooms on board, and the inside of the main cabin reminds me more of a plane than a bus. The seats recline, there are foot-rests, curtains, televisions and the bus ceiling looks like that of a Boeing 747 with lights and air knobs. You really feel like you are travelling in style!

Another reason to love the Ecuadorean buses is the onboard entertainment, and there is a lot of it. You will see “entertainment” listed in both the good and bad section. First, the good. Sitting in the stations or at various stops on the way to your destination, you will be offered just about anything you can think of to purchase. Empanadas, ice cream, Jello, crackers, apples, papaya, oranges, etc. People jump on board between stoplights and bus stops to peddle their wares. Sometimes there are live performances. My favorite occurred from Quito to Otavalo, when two teenagers, male and female, boarded the bus with a guitar, harmonica and acoustic eggs. They began to sing some songs in Spanish, concluded with The Beatles “All You Need is Love”, then departed with a few more dollars than they began with. I’ll talk about the televisions mentioned above in the “bad” section…

Finally, the buses are very easy to maneuver, even for someone that doesn’t speak the language. The terminals for long trips all have ticket windows and various companies to choose from. All you have to do is tell them where you want to go, and if there is a bus that arrives sooner, they will direct you to another company’s window. They have storage areas below the bus, and on occasion luggage is ticketed to prevent someone from leaving with your bag (although everyone knows to never put your purse above your seat once onboard. This is an open invitation to pickpockets, so keep it securely in your lap.) Seats are assigned and numbered on longer bus rides, mostly. On shorter rides, you can simply board and sit anywhere. There will then be an attendant that walks through collecting your money at this time. This method makes much more sense than the American method of paying at each stop, since the buses keep moving while people fumble for change. In fact, this method works so well that the Ecuadorian buses are notorious for arriving at their destinations much earlier that promised.

With all that being said, the buses can also be a living hell on wheels.

The Bad:

This is where I am going to get on my soap box and whine.

Ok, so the buses prefer to sell however many tickets they can to make as much as possible, which makes sense. BUT, this could mean you are standing in an aisle for 8 hours, smooshed against a window by a family taking up the one seat next to you, or gasping for air that doesn’t reak with a hot smell you try not to identify. It also could mean that it will stop for every single person along the way that would like a ride in that general direction.

Buses are easy to figure out from the bus terminal, but try to look up or figure out your next moves ahead of time and no one knows anything. I have tried to look things up on google, but most websites that pop up are personal accounts (such as mine) from hell night bus rides from 2011. Not particularly helpful. It seems as if there are no accurate bus schedules or any sort of information accessible online. I tried asking my hostel and then the fancy hotel across from my hostel for help, and both directed me to the bus terminal. Unless there is a direct bus to the final destination, it is impossible to plan how long it will take you or what buses you can take ahead of time.

Entertainment. This has been a common topic among backpackers comparing horror stories. Like I mentioned, the long bus rides have entertainment. The first time I saw a movie start on a bus full of little kids, I assumed I would be watching something like Pixar or Disney. Instead, a movie full of war, blood and rape commenced. I was in shock! Families just watched with their little babies and children watching too! This is very common on the buses. So far I have seen a movie with Christian Bale from Vietnam, a movie with Mark Wahlberg training in boot camp, and have heard from others about movies featuring graphic rape scenes that make them cringe. I really don’t understand this one….

My account of the night bus from Quito to Lago Agrio:

It all started out fine. I went to the large bus station (that resembled an airport) in Quito and bought my ticket for the night bus. It was supposed to be an 8 hour ride, so I planned on sleeping my way to the Amazon Rainforest. I caught the 10:00pm bus, put my bag below and sat in my assigned seat ready to sleep until my 6:00am arrival.

Ha! Joke was on me. The bus stopped every hour or so, letting people cram into the isles where there were no seats. Men, kids, women with babies, didn’t matter. As if being elbowed in the head every two seconds wasn’t enough, the guy next to me kept talking on his phone and singing love songs, in between making kissing sounds and what I am almost positive was phone sexing. Between turns, precariously driving over bridges I did not want to see during the daylight, and only using the lines for the lanes as rough guidelines, this bus was giving me a heart attack. Around 1am when I finally started to fall asleep, a horrific stench wafted into my nostrils. Try as I might, I could not shake the smell. Apparently, either could the staff. One of the bus assistants came back and started pounding on the bathroom door, which happened to be directly behind my seat. Heated Spanish started erupting from his mouth, including a few expletives I recognized from high school. “MERDE!!” and the man swung the bathroom door open. A poor woman walked out, head down, and proceeded to her seat. The attendant kept yelling and made his way to the front of the bus. The bus then pulled over and he stormed to the back armed with cleaner, a mop and angry glares. The driver left the bus and emptied the bathroom out onto the street. The attendant poured copious amounts of cleaner all over the bathroom and pointedly shoved open each window in the back of the bus. Cold air, a horrific stench drowned in cleaner and lots of stomping down the aisle from the attendant, and we were off again. In a few more stops, a policeman boarded and video recorded each of our faces onboard (I am assuming it was done to identify our bodies if the bus careened off the bridge I tried not to look at earlier). An hour or so later and we reached a section of road that was blocked by a large truck and police cars. Here an officer boarded and told all the men to get off the bus. I watched with the other 3 women aboard as the men were searched and the baggage compartment was rifled through. Once again the men boarded and we were off.

Remember when I said that Ecuadorean buses usually arrived early? Well this “8 hour ride” only took 6 hours. After talking with others, it seems that “8 hours” is what tourists are told so they think they can sleep onboard, when in fact everyone I talked to arrives in 6 hours. Usually this would be fine, but it meant that I arrived in Lago Agrio, a dirty, empty town run by Colombian guerrilla warfare (according to Lonely Planet) at the pitch dark hour of 4am. I took a sketchy cab ride from the bus stop down the wet streets to the hotel, which was closed and locked up. Luckily, another family of Australian and French heritage also sat there waiting (their “night” bus dropped them off at 3am). Together, we all sat on the streets, tired and anticipating the Amazonian monkeys, and vowing to never take the Lago Agrio night bus again.

Posted by misskailyn 10:04 Archived in Ecuador Tagged night bus ecuador hell Comments (0)

Ecuador; Love the Life!

Ama la Vida!

rain
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The official slogan of Ecuador reads “Ecuador, Ama la Vida”, or “Ecuador, Love the Life”. I have been in Ecuador for almost 2 weeks now, and wish I could stay longer already. The country is stunning and definitely lives up to its name.

In Quito, the markets and streets are full of history, music, color and food. Churches constructed in the 1500’s mark the corners of streets, while markets selling bananas, papayas, yucca and mora berries fill the spaces in between. Green rolling hills and volcanos surround the sprawling city, which is the closest capital to the sun. I couldn’t help but smile walking through the busy streets while music poured from the pockets of pedestrians and the windows of the residents.

A couple hours north of Quito lies Otavalo, the largest market in South America. Art, clothing and street meat are plentiful here and definitely was worth the bus ride north. The market is full of native people dressed in traditional clothing, tourists browsing the stalls, and men trying to sell their goods. By the end of the day, I haggled my way through the jewelry, art and street meat with a few more items in my over-stuffed backpack.
In Cuyabeno. The Amazon greeted me with a slap in the face. The diversity of the Amazon is startling. I have seen it on television, but it is a completely different beast when you are standing in the mud, looking up at the canopy that swallows you into its belly. I felt in awe at how purposeful every tree and animal is. I learned about trees that cure malaria, and the bugs that cause it. The plants that provide hallucinations and the animals that the shamans channel. There was beauty, danger and some darkness that pushed my limits. The guide tried to possess every single woman traveler that visited the lodge, while we bonded together with what another Ecuadorean male traveler called “the universal force of female compassion”. Before I left Seattle, I was afraid of nearing house spiders. By my last night in the jungle, I was sharing my room with a tarantula that cast a shadow across my hut’s floor.

Tena has been a wonderful surprise. Meant as a stopover recommended by a fellow traveler, this small Amazonian gateway has a ton to offer. The whitewater rafting is world renowned and the wild life follows you into the streets. In fact, it is difficult to escape sometimes. Yesterday, I was bit by a tapir while walking through the park! The bruise on my knee in the shape of beast teeth will remain a souvenir for the next few weeks, long after my bathing suite dries.

Today I am boarding a bus to Banos. I am hoping to soak in the natural thermal bathes, go canyoning in the waterfalls and biking through the mountains. Here lies the “swing at the end of the world”, where visitors in the past weeks have sat and watched the Tunguhuara Volcano erupting in the not too far distance.

Ecuador. Love the life. I can see why it houses so many expats that refuse to leave!

Posted by misskailyn 08:34 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

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