countin' the days

Monday, April 21, 2008

One, Two, Cha Cha Cha

After over 1,000km and way too many delays in buses, I needed a quick break before I continued my journey south. I stopped to spend my last few Ecuadorian days in Vilcabamba, a beautiful little town nestled into the Valley of Longevity that´s famous for its supreme mellowness. It was the perfect rest stop. Although I debated indulging myself with a massage or a horseback ride through the mountains, in the end I decided to save my money and instead spent my days hiking and seriously chilling.

It would have been easy to get stuck in this peaceful haven of good vibes and the easygoing lifestyle, but I was anxious to get to Peru. My last afternoon in Vilcabamba, I looked out over the valley to find a beautiful rainbow. I took it as a sign that my journey to Peru the next day was going to be a good one. I was right.

Feeling ambitious and confident, I opted to take the rural La Balsa border crossing from Ecuador to Peru that foreigners rarely go for. I was slightly hesitant at first, finding myself trapped in that cycle of negative thought that can make almost anything seem like a bad idea. Not wanting to submit myself to that kind of thought process -- and trusting my gut instincts -- I went for it. It was one of the best journeys I´ve had so far.

I started out with a 6am bus ride through foggy mountains that descended into incredible hills covered in jungle foliage with tiny villages emerging out of the dense vegetation. I arrived in the small town of Zumba, where I killed a couple hours sitting at a table at the bus
terminal at a local family´s very basic restaurant. They asked me plenty of questions about my traveling, including of course the normal inquiries as to my age, my marital status, and why in the world I am traveling by myself. Mostly I spent my time with 8-year-old Carol, who after drawing several beautiful pictures in my journal decided to try on both of my backpacks. Could she be a future world traveler? I hope so.

I was excited to discover that my next form of transport was the "ranchera," open-air rows of benches mounted on the flatbed of a heavy-duty truck (you can see it in the background of the first photo of Carol). It felt like an adventure ride at an amusement park, and was equally as fun as riding around in huge Land Rovers in the Masai Mara in Kenya. We bumped along for 2 hours, stopping twice to deal with some serious mud that stood in our way. I wasn´t nervous at all though... by this point, I´ve seen the crappiest of vehicles make it through the worst of situations, so I knew this huge beast of a truck wasn´t going to be a problem. Naturally, there were guys carrying several chickens seated behind me, a few people sleeping (which seems to defy the laws of existence), and an old guy with his dogs practically sitting on my backpack (which I was grateful for because at least it meant my bag wouldn´t go flying out of the truck).

The scenery was absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful, enhanced further by the perfect weather and the excitement of the ride. We made it to the rushing river that marks the Ecuador-Peru La Balsa border and seeing nothing of importance on the Ecuador side, I walked over the bridge into Peru. A few minutes later I had it pointed out to me that I had neglected to get my exit stamp from Ecuador, so back across the bridge I went. I entered the police office and found 3 immigration officers in shorts and flip-flops engaged in a riotous card game. I interrupted the game to have my passport stamped by one of the "officers," but the other two were impatient and kept prodding him to make a move all the while. It was an easy ordeal, and I promised to return soon to Ecuador on my way out... they said they´d be waiting for me.

Back over in Peru, my immigration officer was a mullet-clad, jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing young man, who was listening to salsa so loud that I had to shout at him to be heard. I filled out a piece of paper, got a stamp, and then he invited me to drink a beer with him while I waited for my shared taxi to depart. I would have done it, too, but my ride was ready to go as soon as I was, so I bid the border farewell and kept on moving.

My shared taxi was an old, white, Toyota station wagon with a cracked windshield and a friendly driver who sang along to sappy Peruvian love songs. I was joined by the two guys from the ranchera and their squawking chickens, as well as a couple bottles of pure cane alcohol they´d brewed up at home which they spent the whole ride drinking. We slowly traveled along a particularly crappy road, but somehow made it to San Ignacio right after sunset, where I took a cold but divine shower and crashed out early.

Day two of the journey involved a bit more coordination and stamina. I took a
minibus to Jáen (where the inevitable chicken rode right next to me), another minibus to Bagua Grande, and finally another piece of shit shared taxi all the way to Chachapoyas (or simply "Chacha") -- with rides in crappy Asia-esque motorbike taxis across town shoved in between, since there don´t appear to be many central bus terminals here in northern Peru.

The journey was totally nutty and at times completely illogical, but tons of fun. Truthfully, it was easier than I expected; the biggest challenge arose from possessing enough stamina, patience, and good faith to make it through the day. The scenery was some of the best and most diverse that I´ve seen, particularly in such a short time span. And there came a certain secret pleasure from knowing that I was the only gringo around for miles...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bumping Along the Quilotoa Loop

After departing Cotacachi, Lauren and I decided to go for one more adventure together. We´d been planning on checking out the Quilotoa Loop about 6 weeks before, but were deterred by a series of landslides and a string of changed plans. This particular area of Ecuador was a must-see because of its challenging accessibility, tiny and unspoiled indigenous villages, and mindblowing scenery. It did not let us down.

We started out early one morning and took buses as far as we could physically stand it. We ended up in the tiny, endlessly charming village of Zumbahua, a good deal into The Loop. Our timing couldn´t have been better, because we´d arrived in time to check out its famous Saturday morning market. Indigenous folks from all around flock to Zumbahua for this weekly ritual, and often haul their variety of goods in on the most popular form of local transport: llamas. We browsed the market for a couple hours, checking out the good on offer: stands of colorful yarns and clothing, bright and fresh produce, stalls of traditional indigenous shawls and skirts, and even squealing animals waiting in line to be slaughtered and sold right there on the spot.

To arrive in our next and far more remote destination, we hopped on a local bus. We sat on the bus and waited for over an hour, as the passengers crammed themselves into it. By the time the bus took off, it had turned into a foul-smelling mess of people and goods: clearly a baby had made a mess of a diaper or two, sacks of potatos and onions and fish were reeking up the air, I had two barely-alive chickens on top of my feet, and to top it off someone had spilled a particulary disgusting batch of homemade booze all over the floor. After an hour and a half bumping along the most nail-biting road I´ve experienced in Ecuador yet, we made it to Chugchilán.

The next day, we realized that the road we´d traveled in on the day before was no longer accessible due to heavy overnight rain. Fearing the worst (ie, getting stuck in the Loop and Lauren missing her flight home), we decided to proceed onwards ´round the loop in the same direction. This was the most "exciting" bus ride yet. About an hour in, we hit a major landslide and got stuck in the mud. Instantaneously, a few guys jumped out and began to dig us out with shovels. It worked. Then 20 minutes later, a woman started screaming "stop!" because the entire back of the bus -- where I was seated -- began filling with smoke. The cause of the white smoke pouring out of the ceiling was determined to be an "electrical malfunction," which after some apparent "disconnecting" classified us ready to be on our way. I was skeptical, but the problem never resurfaced. An hour later, we got a flat tire! At this point, I just had to laugh. The tire was fixed incredibly quickly and, miraculously, we made it out of the Loop to our final destination without any more problems.

Crazy as the bus rides were, truthfully it was all part of the journey. And nothing could beat the views.

The End

For my last couple weeks of volunteering, I was unexpectedly joined by Lauren. I´d been dabbling in a variety of projects in the area, as usual, but when Lauren showed up I thought it would be best to use her experience teaching English as a second language however we could. We traveled about an hour together to a nearby elementary school, where we taught English to 4 different classes in 4 hours. It was a whilrwild experience. Some classrooms even had two different age groups together, because there just isn´t enough space or enough teachers to take care of everyone. We left feeling exhausted and overworked, but definitely had some fun -- especially teaching "Head Shoulders Knees & Toes" to giggling groups of young´uns. Aside from the teaching gig, I continued to work at Runa Tupari translating new website material from Spanish to English and selling tours, and helped my family do some gardening and planting at home.

After 4 1/2 weeks that absolutely flew by, it was time to say goodbye. For my last night, I decided to buy a couple of little presents. The first was a purple potato peeler for Maria; one day while cooking lunch together she mentioned not having one and needing to buy one (as I was struggling like an idiot to peel the potatoes with a dull knife). The second was a large, delicious chocolate cake from my favorite cafe in Otavalo, where I would begin every day with a slice of cake and (real!) coffee for $1. Not surprisingly, little Sayani was extremely excited and quite literally couldn´t keep her hands off of it. We all had a great last night together, taking tons of photos and even looking through old family photos. It was a bittersweet goodbye -- it felt like the right time to be moving on, but the experience had been so great that I was a little sad too.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reaping the Benefits

One the many projects I was involved with during my volunteering period was UNORCAC`s community-based tourism operator, Runa Tupari ( They are based out of the city of Otavalo, and have on offer a bunch of tours throughout the local area that include activities like hiking, mountain climbing, and visiting indigenous communities. As the dedicated and hard-working volunteer that I was, I was able to take part in a bunch of these tours free of charge.

The first outing I went on was a four-hour hike up to the summit of Fuya-Fuya (4265m; 14,075ft). It was steep going in steadily increasing fog and rain, but tons of fun. I couldn´t get enough of the amazing flora and fauna of the páramo (Andean highlands), and snapped loads of picturs of the amazing things growing underfoot. We even saw an Andean fox (though I didn´t have time to snap his photo). All the while the amazing Mojanda Lakes were below us, so really any which way I turned I was treated to something beautiful.

Feeling exceedingly confident and enthusiastic, two days later I decided to go for a much bigger mountain: Volcano Cotacachi. We started the trek at 5am, and for the first few hours were treated to an exceptionally good view of the area. Sure, there were still some clouds around, but shockingly no rain! It was 5 hours of straight uphill hiking, not exactly an easy chore with my legs still aching from the other climb 48 hours before. Whoops. But no matter, I still made it. We hiked up to where the snow began -- about 4800m (15,800ft) -- but since we didn´t have proper gear that´s where we had to stop. On the way up and down, we saw 6 different llamas chilling on the high mountain slopes, all of whom stopped to check us out with that particular curious stare so unique to llamas. It was a classic South Ameriacn moment.

Later that same week, I accompanied a Danish couple on the indigenous community tour, acting as translator. The tour goes to three different villages in the area, each one specializing in a certain indigenous crafts. We watched a woman using a stone to pound together pieces of reeds to make mats (a full day´s work for $3); a demonstration and performance with traditional Andean instruments; and a weaver and his wife who process and create wool masterpieces in a tradition that hardly anyone uses anymore. Fascinating as they all were, I couldn´t get over the cuteness of the weaving couple. I mean, have you ever seen anything cuter than this old weaving mama?