Archive for the ‘Ecuador’ Category

Ecuador: The recap, part 3
August 6, 2010

I know, I know. You totally don’t care anymore, can’t even remember where I went, barely recall who writes this thing in the first place. (That girl? With the blabbering? Didn’t she just go to India?)

But I’m here to correct you and insist you take a seat and listen to some final thoughts on my trip to Ecuador, that country in South America, where I journeyed ages ago. I can even refer you here and here and maybe even here if you need some background before we proceed. No worries, I’ll wait. After all, I made you wait, um, over a month, for this last piece. I’m terribly sorry about that.


But I think I’m ready now.

So. When we last left our reluctant, nature-phobic heroine, she was in Quito, soaking up all the cobblestone-lined streets, banana milkshakes and fog-rimmed views the mountain-enclosed capitol has to offer. And it was…well, it was okay.

To be honest, I was a little bit underwhelmed by Quito. Maybe it was because our tour guide had conveniently high-tailed it to Wisconsin or because our Spanish was embarrassingly bad, or maybe I was just unaccustomed to traveling without the constant sense of dread and anxiety that had accompanied so much of my India trip, but I just couldn’t get that excited about the city. It was new; it was different; it was fine – but I just didn’t feel like there was that much to see or do or, most importantly – let’s be real, eat there.

And then we went to Banos. And my trip was made.

Banos – pronounced Bon-yos, with a tilde that I can’t figure out how to add on wordpress –  is about a four-hour ride from Quito, up and down windy roads that cut away to deep ravines and rivers on one side, mountains stretching upward on the other. It was a multiple dramomine kind of trip. But once you get there…well, it’s worth it.

Very Jurrasic Park, no?

We stayed at a hostel that charged us $9.50 a night for a room with two sets of bunk beds, a shower with an ample supply of hot water and, unbeknownst to us at first, a massive spider that looked more like a furry mammal than an insect. Our confrontation with said spider resulted in me screaming so loudly that several people on our floor I was being raped, Ben sequestering himself in the computer room with the alibi that he was googling “tarantula and Ecuador,” and an employee eventually killing it with a shoe, while assuring us, “no es una tarantula.” I invite you to be the judge of that.

The hostel also had a rooftop lounge where we spent most of our time in the evenings, reading books (Eat, Pray, Love for me; something so complex and science-y I can’t even describe it here for Ben; Cavalier and Clay for Chels) and playing card games (well, playing card games for Ben and Chels, getting killed in said card games and then whining about it for me.)

The evenings were relaxing and easy, a perfect compliment to days full of, well, adventure.

My most favorite activity of all was a bike ride we took down a popular path in town, which leads you through a series of waterfalls, or cascadas. It was totally downhill, and I was wearing a horseback-riding helmet, which is to say it was as far from a legitimate physical activity as you can get. But I managed to get some sort of massive endorphin kick out of it nonetheless – probably further evidence of how activity-starved my gym-avoiding body is – and, cycling past the scenery with the sun burning my shoulders and my little helmet bobbing up and down on my head, I was really, truly ecstatic.

I remember repeatedly shouting “This is SO MUCH FUN!” over my shoulder as we wove our way down the hills. I remember making Chelsea take a picture of me in action. I remember stopping so much that at one point Benjamin got worried, but I just couldn’t let it all go by so fast.

By the time we reached our final destination, a massive, pulsing, shooting stream of water catapulting itself over rocks faster than anything I’ve ever seen, I was oh so happy.

We hiked down a path carved into the shrubbery until finally we reached a drawstring bridge with a sweet view of the waterfall. Still happy.

And then we paid a few more bucks to access several balconies that have been carved into the side of the canyon over the years, slippery, rock-covered platforms suspended over and in the rushing waters that, if you’re brave enough, will take you right there. In it.

Chelsea was the first to insist she was going, descending the wet stairs to look the thing in the eye and feel it all. Per usual, I volunteered to hold her camera. I’d be fine up here, I said. Like I mentioned, already totally happy. No need to go throwing myself into a waterfall for the full effect!

But she went and she didn’t die and she came back up soaking wet and laughing hysterically and insisting that we go back down, with the camera too, and was I coming or not?

So I went.

And I’m very glad I did.

Guess what? Still happy. As if you couldn’t tell by their smily faces.

And then they saw the other balcony.

The one where you had to slide on your stomach up a tunnel carved into the side of the hill, pushing yourself up against the smooth rock until you finally emerged…where? Somewhere, up there, in it.

This time, I volunteered to hold the backpack. Someone had to do it, I argued. Can’t get all our stuff stolen in South America! Can’t shimmy up a three-foot-diameter cylinder with that thing strapped on!

So I woosed out, momentarily, and they went up and scoped it out for me, and came back and said it was amazing, awesome, I had to go, and Benjamin would help me. So he did, and I did. And I’m glad for all of it.

We climbed back up the path, soaking now, but happier even still, to find that it had started to rain for real, up there, in the real world. We didn’t even care, pedaled through the gray and walked our bikes up to a bus stop, where a local bus eventually came by and picked up our dirty bikes and dirty bodies and ferried us back the way we came, up the mountains this time, to Banos.

Where we decided it was time for some food. Strangely enough, the town has a creepily high concentration of restaurants featuring international cuisine: Mexican places and red-and-white-checked-tablecloth-bedecked Italian eateries, Argentinian steakhouses and French bistros. We covered a decent amount of ground over our three days there, indulging in the “meat platter” at the Argentinian steakhouse – which was really a series of platters stacked high with sausages and filet and pork loins and other glorious, bleeding delicacies; tostadas and burritos at the Mexican place; and cheesy baked pasta dishes at the Italian restaurant, plus a pizza with a fried egg in the middle. We also had our share of gigantic, cheap breakfasts, complete with eggs and toast and hot chocolate and fresh-squeezed fruit juices, all for a couple bucks. South America, my cheap Jewish heart salutes you.

While we’re on the subject of food, I should probably tell you about the little obsession Chels and I developed in Banos.  We discovered galapaguitos, the objects of our affection, while on a lazy stroll through the grocery store in town, and instantly fell in love. Small vanilla cookies coated in chocolate and finished with a layer of crunchy, round, multicolored sprinkles, these things were delicious and adorable and hilarious. Let’s be honest: traditional Ecuadorian food they were not, as evidenced by the big Nestle logo stamped on the back, but I really couldn’t have cared less. Coincidentally, we made several repeat trips to the grocery store, where I had a habit of clutching the single-serve pouches to my chest.

And stocking up on an embarrassingly high number of bags. For gifts, of course. Galapaguitos: make a great souvenir from your Ecuadorian adventures! Especially when you’re too cheap to actually visit their namesake.

Lest you think our vacation was all food and fun, let me assure you I did my fair share of hiking.

And by that I mean I took a gondola-type thing to the top of a peak bordering Quito, walked a few hundred feet, decided I had altitude sickness, and went back to the lodge for a snack while Ben and Chelsea fended for themselves in a freak hail storm.

But that was back in Quito. In Banos, fueled by a waterfall high and freshly-squeezed blackberry juice, I actually made it to the top of a few walks that involved the vertical.

I laugh in the face of danger (peligro!), obviously.

Despite the time that I valiantly spent in sneakers, I should admit that the hot baths were really more my thing.

Banos is built on hot springs that pump naturally warm and mineral-rich water into several man-made pools, where you can soak and sun yourself and pat yourself on the back for that half-hour-long hike you did in the rain that morning.

It was relaxing and lovely while still being different and new and maybe even a little scary at first. Actually, I’d say the whole trip was kind of like that, when you stack everything up, side by side, activity after activity. And every time I do, I come to the same conclusion. Totally worth it.

Ecuador: The recap, part 2
July 8, 2010

So, where were we?

The center of the world, I think, or, El Mitad Del Mundo, as the Ecuadorians say.

We trekked out on Sunday to the creepy South American tourist attraction that is Ecuador’s tribute to the equator. Except apparently, according to my Lonely Parent, it’s not even actually on the equator. Details, details – they still have a nifty line.

It even runs right down the center of the performance platform, where we watched some traditional Ecuadorian dances while chomping down on empanadas and banana batidos – milkshake-like concoctions worth every pound I gained during the trip.

Unsurprisingly, I was particularly struck by the deep-fried rice and beef stuffed empanada we ordered, and the dancers wearing the rainbow of big, swirling dresses.

We cabbed it out to El Mitad Del Mundo but decided to test our luck with the bus system for the ride back. And this was where South America started proving itself to be so much easier than India. Like, in India, I managed to get myself into trouble just by boarding my own personal car (which had a habit of rolling down hills sans driver and getting itself into accidents.) In Ecuador, we shrugged our shoulders, said what the hell, and hopped on a random bus – and it miraculously took us exactly where we wanted to go, despite the fact that my Spanish has apparently disintegrated to the point where I may actually be more fluent in Hindi. (Note: I don’t speak Hindi.)

It may have taken a while, the bus crawling up the narrow, steep streets of the cities seemingly on a route to nowhere, but suddenly, our destination of choice appeared: the statue of the winged virgin that keeps watch over Quito, high up the hillside. El Panacillo, they call her. She’s pretty creepy; but also, kind of awesome.

And she comes with a great view.

Next up: the fun stuff – our three-day trip to Banos, complete with waterfalls, actual physical activity and an evening of horror that ended with the assurance “no es una tarantula!” Stay tuned.

Ecuador: The recap, part 1
June 27, 2010

Well, that was fun.

Especially with a little bit of hindsight.

Let’s recap, shall we?

We arrived in Quito on a Saturday afternoon, fresh from a 6 a.m., one-layover flight from JFK, during which I insisted on taking the two sleeping pills left over from my non-stop India excursion. It seemed like a good idea at the time, considering I was pretty beat from our 2:45 a.m. wake-up but too wired to effectively make up for lost time on my own. Sadly, though, the de-boarding in Costa Rica and surprisingly good in-flight french toast  kind of made for a waste of an Ambien – especially for the girl who has to take two in order to calm the f down. I pity the person who had to help semi-woozy, semi-nauseous drugged me retrieve my bag from the overhead compartment.

The Quito airport itself is nestled in the heart of the city, which can make for some harrowing landing experiences, but a fast and cheap cab to wherever you’re headed. Actually, even if it was a long cab ride, say the 45 minutes to an hour it took us to get from our home base in Quito to the city’s South bus station, it would still be cheap: everything is ridiculously inexpensive in Ecuador. Like, really. $2.75 for a full meal, $9.50 for one night in a hostel. That kind of cheap. My inner jew rejoiced immediately!

My inner HGTV nerd also found cause for celebration after we paid the cab driver and made our way to the house we would be staying in in Quito. Said home belongs to Caitlin and Alex, two Wisconsin natives and former colleagues of my brother, Jake, who were kind enough to let three total strangers crash with them for four nights. Not gonna lie, any resentment or frustration I had toward Jake for stranding us alone in South America kind of disappeared once we saw Caitlin and Alex’s pad, complete with two guest bedrooms for Ben, Chelsea and I; a gorgeous terrace with views of the city and the surrounding mountains; and a living room bordered by a cozy fireplace on one side and and floor-to-ceiling windows with a gorgeous panoramic backdrop on the other.

We felt especially lucky to be staying there after hearing about Jacob’s former apartment, which was alternatively described as being “in a basement” and “in a garage.” He also apparently used a headlamp as his light source after dark. (Not sure if that’s a reflection on the quality of his landlord or just his affinity for climbing gear, but let’s just say it was a turn-off for this city girl.)

In contrast, Caitlin & Alex’s place was bright and spacious and just really comforting. We got to play with their two, totally insane cats, collapse into their hammock for impromptu reading sessions and make fun of Spanish commercials by the fire. It gave the vacation a really relaxed, warm vibe that I totally needed.

On Saturday afternoon, we had plenty of company too – Caitlin & Alex had a bunch of the teachers from the American School in Quito – former haunt of Jake – over to watch the world cup game. They even fed us: platters of roasted vegetables and grilled chicken breast, stuffed plantains and herbed mozzarella. And all the filtered water we could drink! I was a happy camper.

Ben, Chels & I were kind of itching to explore the city though, so we didn’t stay to chat with the gang for long. Alex plopped us in a cab (we were miserable at trying to communicate where we were going on our intro-level spanish) and off we went to Old City, with me snapping photos from the back seat.

We wandered along the plazas and narrow, steep streets, which were pretty much devoid of tourists.

The architecture is really beautiful and the layout of that portion of the city intriguing, but it was still a little creepy to be honest. I don’t know how to explain it – it just felt a little cold and strange. A few women warned me to be careful with my camera. It seemed like the threat of crime was always lurking a little bit under the surface, although I can’t say we were really scared, per se. More like wary, which definitely forces you to separate yourself from the city a bit, I think. You can’t just fall into it the same way you can in Rome or Madrid.

Still, the city feels alive. There’s bright colors and loud children and affectionate couples and stray dogs running everywhere.

They’re also very into ice cream down there, which they serve all sorts of ways, including all whipped together and doused in sugary syrup. Kind of like if the kid who always insisted on mixing his eye scream sundae into “soup” at your birthday party took over the entire market for frozen desserts in the states.

We weren’t the biggest fans of that variety but made it our mission to explore all the helado Ecuador had to offer in the days to come.

Next up: Ben, Chels & Rach take on a creepy South American tourist trap. Stay tuned!

Ecuador photographic
June 22, 2010

Unedited Ecuador pics, plus some gratuitous pictures of my parents’ elderly golden retriever, are up on flickr.

Sadly, Ecuador wasn’t the most photo-friendly place, seeing as we were actually doing shit, which is apparently new and different for me. I shot a bit in Quito, but was too scared to bring my camera to Banos, figuring it might not be secure in our $9.50 a night hostel, and that I wouldn’t be able to drag my gear along on our hiking/biking/bathing adventures anyway. I spent half the time regretting that decision (see: insane views of the valley that were just screaming for a high aperture) and half the time thanking my lucky stars I left the dslr safe and sound in Quito (see: water-clogged shots in midst of las cascadas)

Bottom line: photos in Quito are by me, on my Nikon, while photos from Banos are on Chels’ camera, taken either by her or me, who, unsurprisingly, felt the need to commandeer the point and shoot on a regular basis. In the end, I think it was good for me to get my eyes out from behind the lens for a few days. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget those waterfalls, despite my lack of dslr photographic evidence.

The reluctant adventurer
June 21, 2010

I’m baaack.

Safe and sound, despite the trepidation this picture suggests. And I’m bursting with a story or three about the trials and tribulations of traipsing through South America with your philosophy major younger brother and your Brooklynite hipster friend. Also: fun. We had a lot of fun.

It wasn’t as epic as India; as in, I managed not to inflict any bodily harm on myself. But it was still an eye-opening week that pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to get a little up close and personal with nature.

I’m going to chill a bit for the next few days, as I’m kind of swamped with work and life and trying to make the most of the four days overlap Dave and I have together in between our respective summer vacations, four days already crammed with perfectly pleasant activities like barbecues and baseball games and movie dates and unpacking my suitcase too, eventually, I suppose. For now, though, you should probably at least know that, yes, I am being pummeled by a large waterfall in the above photo, and, most importantly, I am wearing a horseback riding helmet in the process. Did I ever ride a horse? Of course not, but it did come in handy for the spelunking. (Bet you haven’t heard that word since Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego, huh?)

Hasta luego, chicos. Hablaremos pronto, si?

The fourth continent
June 11, 2010

On Saturday, God willing, we’ll touch down in South America, and I will set foot on my fourth continent in six months (also: 25 years.)

The weather forecast looks dismal and all of our plans are still up in the air and I seem to have the touchings of a bizarre skin rash on my right elbow and all of the other health problems that have made their presence known in my life over the past three years are flaring up too. But I’m sucking it up and packing my granola bars and resisting the urge the freak the f out, both because the freaking out did me absolutely no good last time I tried to pull this off, and because I know that when I get off that plane, Chelsea and Ben will be there beside me. And, while I still have very little faith in myself, I have faith in them and thus faith in us and I really do think it’s all going to turn out ok. Splendid, even. Maybe.

The only sure thing is that you’ll get to hear all about it upon my return. Until June 21, then, kids. See you on the other side of my insane travel aspirations.

assorted reactions to the volcanic eruption in Ecuador
June 1, 2010

From the kid who forced his girlfriend to leave before he got his shots, because he “didn’t want her to see him like that.”

Ben: Is it the apocalypse?

From my chill Brooklyn-based travel buddy.

Chelsea: I was wondering when that would happen. It seems appropriate.

From my chill middle brother, who is, granted, now some 3,057 away from the ash and lava.

Jacob:  dont worry, you guys will be fine.  but if theyre closing the airport in guayaquil, i dont know where you will end up when your plane gets diverted because of the fog in quito…maybe brush up on your portuguese?

Thanks, Jay. My Portuguese is about as good as my Hindi, and we all know how that went down.

He was also kind enough to point out that the volcano in question is right next to Banos, the town we were planning on spending the majority of our trip in. And by “planning,” I mean “didn’t get the vaccines necessary to go anywhere else.”

Jacob:  it was also erupting in jan/feb but i dont think it changed anything, people still went to banos. but this time it seems a little worse.

Never fear though, kids – there’s an upside!

Jacob: on the other hand, they supposedly do some pretty cool volcano tours where they put you in a chiva (ie. open air party bus) at night and drive you up to where you can see it erupting!

Always a silver lining.

No words…
May 31, 2010

…just this cute little picture of a Volcano erupting in, you know, Ecuador. As in, that place I’m departing for in 12 days.

image via AP

More commentary/freaking out to follow, but thought I’d let the lava and ash speak for itself for the moment. It seems like it’s earned it, don’t you think?

the accidental trio
May 19, 2010

One of my upcoming travel buddies is a pretty unlikely suspect: my youngest brother, Benjamin.

If it were up to him, Ben wouldn’t even be my travel buddy at all – just a familiar face on the flight down to Ecuador, and maybe a fleeting presence at a dinner or two, as long as it’s on our parents’ credit card. His original plan was to ditch us immediately upon clearing customs, as his vacation was to be a 10-day-long rock-climbing adventure, his chance to dominate the vertical on continent #3.

But the only other sibling that enjoys hurling himself off of cliffs has fled the scene, leaving this smart, sarcastic and incredibly stubborn 20-year old stuck with me and Chels for the week. And to be honest, I’m not really sure how it’s going to go down.

To fully understand the severity of this undertaking, you must first understand Benjamin. And while you can’t really understand B without having the unique pleasure of meeting him in all his in-person glory, in lieu of the real thing, transcripts of conversations often capture that particular Benjamin-ness astonishingly well.

For example, last night’s brief phone chat.

Benjamin, answering: Hello?

Rachel: Hi, B.

B: Hey, can I call you back? I’m watching Lost right now.

R: Sure. I’m surprised you even picked up…Dave’s like glued to our TV right now.

B: Well, I’m watching it because I hate it. Not because I like it.

R: Of course. Of course.

Or, this gem, related third-hand from our brother Jacob.

The scene: a small math seminar at Dartmouth. The characters: Jake and a mutual friend, who was living with Ben that quarter. The quote: “Your brother spent the morning throwing a tantrum about numbers.”

Are you starting to get it now? This kid is literally the most argumentative human being on the face of the planet. He’s a philosophy and physics major, if that helps to put things into perspective. He is exactly the kind of kid who would throw a tantrum about numbers. And about a hell of a lot of other things, too.

He’s also totally sharp and hard-working and insanely bright, and while he loves to fight, he usually does so with a stone-cold intensity, a creepily calm demeanor and a steely persuasion that at least forces you to consider the fact that you’re probably wrong, even if you’ll never admit it to him. When he thinks no one’s looking, you can occasionally catch him doing something kind and empathetic, though he rarely shows his own vulnerability. In fact, he and Jake both seemed to have scored a monopoly on the toughness gene in our family, because they’re always the cool, calm and collected to my…well, anxious, paranoid self. I’m actually 90% sure Benjamin thinks I’m certifiably insane (his thoughts on this blog: “It seems to be…therapeutic for you.”)

Of course, we all have our weaknesses – even the stone-cold, rock-climbing rocket scientists among us. And in his case, the weakness in question is pretty much pathetic.

Shots. The kid who has his own ice axe can’t stand them. Won’t get them. Is refusing to go to the jungle simply because he’s more scared of needles than Yellow Fever. It’s both infuriating – like, how do I get cast as the pussy sibling when that kid won’t even get a tetanus injection? – and yet also oddly empowering.  I feel extremely capable right now. Have I booked us any hostels or jungle stays yet? No. Have I decided where, exactly, we’re going? No. Did I pass high school Spanish? Barely. But I do know that I’m capable of getting my ass to the Drexel Travel Clinic next week, and brave enough to weather a few injections. And that has to count for something.

embracing the unfun
April 22, 2010

One of my coworkers got her wisdom teeth out yesterday, and, having never had any kind of surgery before, she was a total wreck beforehand, espousing the risks of laughing gas and basically reading me her will.

I told her to calm down, that she wouldn’t remember any of it and everything would be fine. And then, amid her anxious all-caps emails and warnings of death, I had this weird moment of recognition. That sense of dread I saw in her, typically prompted by impending dental work or visits from your in-laws? Dude, that’s how I feel about my vacations.

I don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. I’ve spent the weeks months leading up to the last three vacations I’ve planned in a panic, secretly hoping and praying they wouldn’t come. And the aftermath wasn’t too pleasant either.

As is a running theme in my life, the whole thing makes absolutely no sense. Why would someone pay hundreds of dollars, use up weeks of PTO, spend hours pouring over Lonely Planet books all in order to do something she really, really doesn’t even want to do? Repeatedly.

And it’s not like I don’t know what I do like to do. Trust me, I’m aware. I like sipping sangria on the beach, wandering around 17th century piazzas with gelato in hand, taking in impressionist art at the Musee d’Orsay. I like things that sit squarely on the beaten path.

So how to explain my consistent attempts to venture off it? For a while, I think I was holding out hope that buried deep inside me was some sort of daring, go-with-the-flow adventurer. I thought there was a chance I was secretly more rustic than cosmopolitan, more Agra than Rome. After all, I’m related to these kids, right?

But while I wanted, desperately, to like Agra more than Rome – really, I did – it just didn’t happen that way. Agra…well, Agra was difficult for me. Rome was easy and lovely.

I can’t really change the fact that a big part of me naturally gravitates toward the pretty and the tourist-trotten. But what I can do is tell that part of me to shut the hell up, and then insist that it stop crying, suck it up and get on the plane to Ecuador, dammit. Because there’s still this other part of me – probably the part that decided that whole managing editor thing was a good idea – that thinks it’s not ok to stick with easy and lovely forever. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something good and important about taking on the difficult. That I need to see the world and experience some discomfort and open my eyes a little. How else can I write or live or grow up?

I also think I might lose the little courage and confidence I currently cling to in order to carry out this manifesto if I wait too long, because with age comes higher standards and more funds and less of a tolerance for activities like jumping onto a packed train car while it’s still moving. Also, can you picture 65-year-old Rach in an Indian ER? Let’s hope we never have to see that play out in real life.

So this time, I’m taking a few precautions – some of which I think will be wonderful (bringing along Chels) and some of which have already flopped (turning to my Quito-resident brother for guidance) – and I’m giving this developing country thing another go. Partially because I’m not totally ready to let go of the idea that Jake and Ben and I are biologically related. And partially because I think that even if I don’t enjoy it, even if I come home more stressed, more tired and with another set of stitches in my leg, I’ll somehow be better for it.