Tuesday, May 31, 2011
So as I now sit cozy on my blue couch in Brooklyn in my home sweet home, I cannot believe what I did with my time the last few months nor wrap my head around how natural it feels to be here now. As Kat and I pontificated during some walk around some national park or whilst sitting on a beach in paradise, we realized we were living in a wrinkle in time. We were operating within the string theory, full on. We hopped off the main grid and left NYC in shambles (clearly it cannot function without our presence), and went about a 4 month trip that really felt more like a year, or a lifetime. We maximized every minute, day, meal, opportunity, month, trek, stroll, whatever. We did it up! Meanwhile we knew full well that life didn't stop and Brooklyn wasn't in freeze frame until our return, but once you're living another life you have to actively remind yourself of what things are like even though you cannot see them first hand. When May 24th came around and we landed in a hot, muggy city rather than a cold, snowy one, it was clear, nay obvious, that time elapsed. Go figure! But it felt good to hop in my mom's car and merge onto the BQE and watch the Manhattan skyline float by. After telling acquaintances for the last 4 months that I'm from New York City and to have each and every person be excited, impressed, jealous, in awe, what have you, I then felt a great sense of pride and awe myself for having gone so far and having held my hometown so close to me. To know that what I can come back to is a place many consider to be the best city in the world definitely eases the transition back to real life.
And back we go. I start back on the Wafels & Dinges truck bright and early in the morning. Kat has been in a cuddle pile 3 feet high full of little bursts of energy and enthusiasm that are her siblings. After Kathleen hosed her down and put her in a fumigator (still don't know what that means), Kat was bathed in Purell and rewarded for her patience with Thai food, Sushi and homemade meatballs that she pre-ordered by email with her folks before we came back. Kat will be home in NYC until the end of June before she goes back to Ann Arbor to continue working on the Community Farm & Kitchen. Until then she will spend time with family and hanging out with friends. We have to get used to coordinating to hang out instead of just waking up together in the same room, tent or hammock.
That has been one of the weirdest parts of the transition. Kat and I became a unit, one mind and synced excretory systems (not to get too detailed). We not only finished each other's sentences but sometimes the other couldn't even get out their sentence because the other one was already saying it and the first one was left speechless because how many people in the world say the things you were about to say word for word? (Phew, long sentence.) The answer is not many! Needless to say we are super close. We learned so much on the trip in general, but having a friend, mom, sibling, teacher, listener built into a journey like this one was more than we could've asked for. To be able to shoot the shit (excuse the language) day-to-day, and also tackle intense, existential life questions when we felt up to the challenge, with a soul sister (hermana de alma) was the best ongoing aspect of all 4 months.
We had debates about traveling alone versus with others, but I think the fact that we still love each other more than anything and would love to take another trip together some day is evidence that for our friendship the trip was a major success! Kat, I know you're listening, and I know I'm not saying anything new, but you are da bomb, the shit, the mother of all that is friendship and although I know I am physically capable of doing what we did on my own, I wouldn't have had it any other way than to be able to share every day with you.
We learned so much and there is no way we will just live our lives from now on without thinking each day about the experiences we had or the people we met or the places at which we marveled. For this we will also not just dump the blog like it wasn't our major means of communication to our home planet for 2 months. Therefore we will keep writing and looking back on our trip, but in a different way. Instead of a day-by-day or place-by-place account like we did originally, we will find common themes, ideas, types of trips that we did and organize the blog that way. We still have so much to say and reflect on so we hope that although we are now in the states that this is still of interest to you. If not, then don't read it. But when you ask about our trip and it's evident you didn't read the blog I will yell at you. Just kidding, e-memories aren't the only way.
Lastly, thank you to all who kept up with the blog, whether you read each and every entry or just one and realized how long they were so you decided never to do it again. It was so amazing to think about family and friends at home that were interested and excited for all the things we were doing. It made it all that much for exciting to know we had the love and support from the home front. We felt capable of everything. Maybe that's why we never got into any altercations in dark alley ways, an experience we were convinced was the initiation into the South American backpacker's life. But alas, someone was watching down on us from above, and it might've had something to do with all of you at home who were thinking of us almost as much as we were thinking of you.
Love love love
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
After the slight disappointment in Otovalo we were still able to leave having had a positive experience. We grabbed an evening bus to the capital city and arrived at a great hostel situated conveniently on the top of a high, steep hill between the old and new parts of the city. Quito is quite huge and at night the valley is a stream of endless lights stretching far and trailing off into the distance. It was pouring when we got in, a daily event like clockwork beginning in the afternoon. After consulting a native Quitonian (?) on the bus we decided to leave our stuff and hit up Plaza Foch, a young, poppin neighborhood with a lot of bars, resturants and discotecas. We shared a burrito on a roof top along with some yummy margaritas, overlooking the crowded plaza and sea of people in their own world. Each cafe/bar was blasting it´s own music, making sure to play the few staple songs that we´ve come to know and love over the past couple of months. We later came across a small club boasting free drinks with cover, which we were able to get down to 2 for 1. We could choose between vodka, rum or aguardiente (no thank you, we´ve had enough), and enjoy the elbow to elbow space. After a few hours of dancing we called it a night, sneaking quiety into our dorm room of sleeping patrons and dozing off quickly ourselves.
In the morning we enjoyed hot showers and consulted our map to plan out the day. We opted to walk to the old city making a necessary stop at the Mercado Central for breakfast/lunch. We sat down and got amazing juice which we demanded the waitress to choose the combination for us. It was delicious and had a new component - alfalfa sprouts! Golly good! We then were given a bowl of fried fish and perfectly cooked potatoes, shrimp ceviche (you know we love that!), with a small dish of partially popped corn (big feed kernels that are commonplace in the whole country. After eating we took a lap around the market that was packed with fruits, veggies, candies, meats (including bowls full of freshly prepared lard) and various eateries. Mostly women who worked their, the staffs were dressed in uniforms that resembled that of nurses in pastel pinks and purples with little white caps and aprons.
We strolled along Avenida Gran Colombia, one of many street names that appear throughout Ecuador and Colombia, and probably Venezuela since it originates from Simon Bolivar´s plan for a united South America(a.k.a. Gran Colombia). This only got as far as these three countries and their flags indicate the relation, all sharing yellow, blue and red horizontal stripes with a bit of variation. Bolivar is another name of streets, plazas and regions that appears everywhere. We hit up plaza central where the main cathedral is, a beautifully ornate church that is also the site of the tomb of Mariscal Sucre, the former general and president of Ecuador. His name is also everywhere, kinda hard to get away from if you tried.
We walked and walked and walked and walked. Churches, plazas, then plazas and churches. All these give way to views of the enormous angel statue atop a hill overlooking the city and the various other narrow streets that would all of a sudden come to a 60º angle and head up the sides of the valley. We had our sights set on the basilica whose steeples were visible from around the city. On the way there we got our first taste of the Ecuadorian obsession with volleyball (there are courts everywhere, city or country, it´s incredible). But then right on schedule it started to down pour so we saught shelter in the massive, gothic basilica. It was absolutely gorgeous, probably the most beautiful church of the entire trip, dare we say our lives. We were happy to sit and dry off for a while, watching the start of a wedding ceremony and admiring the marvelous yet simple wonder.
The rain let up and we were ready to return to the hostel after a long day on our feet. We gradbbed groceries with another hostelite named Jason and cooked dinner while admiring the splendid view from the hostel rooftop (remember how we said it´s on the top of a hill? Well that comes with the perk of a spectacular view). We discussed what our night activity was going to be over quinoa, veggies and beer, and decided to check out what the old city had to offer for a change of pace. We hopped in a cab with Jason and Josh, from Boston and England respectively, seeking out a place to hear traditional, live Ecuadorian music. These places are called peñas and are really common, but the only ones we heard of were apparently nonexistent and boarded up. But we didn´t give up! We walked further deep into the city per the recommendations of some pizzaeria workers, wondering where all the people were. These streets were deserted! There was not a soul around. What gives?
Just a blocks further revealed where everyone was - the tiniest street in the whole capital city. There were beats pounded on drums and beautiful indigenous women with huge smiles persistently saying "Baila! Baila! Venga! Venga!" We joined in for a bit before we realized the procession didn´t really go anywhere, and it was shortly over. We wiggled through the crowd and found ourselves sitting in a little empanada joint drinking enormous beers and hot, delicious fried things. Of all the holes in the walls this was the liveliest. A woman standing by the door nearly demanding passerbys to come in while she maintained the foot-high flame beneath the castiron caldron of boiling oil, cranking out empanadas by the hundreds (or so it seemed to be that many).
Afterwards we joined the crowds once again for laps back and forth along the street, stopping frequently to drink the hot, hard cider that was sold from other huge caldrons (a true witches concoction, sweet and deceptively strong). We also made numerous stops to the bathroom as you can imagine. The night was catching up with us so we decided to going into a dark, cavernous peña to hear some music and soak up some more ambience. Through a hallway from the front we crept into the back room which was larger than that in the front. On the back wall beneath an umbrella (not sure why that was there, but it served as an upside down stage) were two guys who were playing national Ecudorian music in synchrony. The place was packed with people young and old, singing along to every word. Think classic rock or Beatles - cross-generational, relatable music that brings people together. We definitely felt the love and enthusiasm that came with each song although we couldn´t have been more clueless to what was being said. The singers sounded fanastic, but sang so fast we could only pick up on the slower ones. Even so it was a splendid night. Tired from all the walking we packed it in and went to bed. After walking through an artesian market and getting coffee in the morning we hopped on a bus to head towards Salinas, a tiny town in the mountains. High in the mountains. We left satisfied with Quito and our adventures walking about. Not too much else we needed.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
After a less than pleasant night on the bus, we found ourselves at yet another border crossing, making this the sixth one of the trip. We felt a little out of practice though, since crossing into Colombia basically consisted of getting off the sailboat, getting to our hostel, and picking up our passports later in the day from our boat captain, who handled all the border formalities for us. Our most recent experience was therefore the crossing into Panama, which some of you may remember was a total, disproportionately frustrating nightmare. So we braced ourselves and pulled out our passports and our wallets, only to basically waltz across the border with hardly any interaction with the officials, and absolutely no fees to pay. Amazing! Once done with the Colombian side, we started walking across to the Ecuadorian side, only to be mobbed by a group of men who started shouting unintelligible things at us, something about amarillo and vaccines. They kept pointing to a poster, which said something about the H1-N1 flu virus, to which we frantically responded that we dont need it, or that we already have it, whichever would make them go away! They kept insisting on amarillo, amarillo (the H1N1 poster happened to be yellow, I should point out) and they said we couldn´t get into Colombia without this vaccine, whatever it may be. After a push and pull where the men triend to convince us to come with them and get the vaccine, and we nervously exchanged glances and shook our heads and tried to push past them so we could get to the border office and see what exactly this was all about, we finally figured out that they were talking about the Yellow Fever vaccine, and that that was what we needed to be allowed into Ecuador. We breathed a sigh of relief, announced loud and clear that we already got this vaccine at home and had cards to prove it, and finally marched past them, basking in the relief of not having to get stuck by some Ecuadorian needle and injected with god-knows-what. We got to the Ecuadorian border office, wielding our vaccination cards like protective weapons, got our passports stamped, and.... thats it. Nobody so much as insinuated anything about Yellow fever or vaccinations to us at all!! Incredible. These things will just never get old.
Next we made our way to Otavalo, or rather to the farm near Otavalo where we were hoping to stay and volunteer for about a week. I had been in contact with the woman running the project, and she had said that we should just let her know when we would be arriving, and that there was work for us in the garden and at their small school. After all the moving around we had been doing, and especially after our wonderful experience on the farm in Salento (and given how awesome farming is in general) we were really excited to stay in one place, relax, work outside, and just help out and be part of something. Unfortunaly, after a couple of email exchanges, the woman at this farm (which claimed to call itseld Aroha Village) stopped responding to my emails. After three of four unanswered messages, we figured we would just write down all the information we had on them (they are listed on a website that is similar to WWOOF, and helps place people in volunteering positions around the world) and then figure out how to get there once we got to Otovalo. Well. Thats not exactly how it went. Once we got off the bus, we started asking around to see if anyone knew anything about this place, or the town where they claimed to be located. One kindly cab driver agreed to chauffeur us around for a while, and even asked several people on our behalf, to see if anyone could help. Nobody that we spoke to had heard of it, or knew anything about any of the information we had. Not one person! After about two hours of being on this wild goose chase, we had to give up, and asked the cabbie to drop us off at a hostal in Otovalo. We had done all we could. It seemed that this farm just didnt even exist. We had to cut our losses, let the disappointment set in, and go from there.
And that we did. Our hostel in Otovalo was beautifully cheap, as is the rest of Ecuador, which was quite a relief after the unexpected expensiveness of Colombia. The woman who ran the place was a truly special individual. She was English, with ruddy skin and buck teeth and everything. She also happened to have the most beautifully sculpted mullet we have ever seen in our entire lives. It was... a work of art. Very impressive. To boot, she was super weird and anti-social... let just say that she didnt seem cut out to run a hostal at all. In fact, judging by how clearly frustrated and even angry she became when we dared to ask her about anything, I would say that her job makes her quite miserable. Why people do these things to themselves, I will never understand. Anyway, we didnt exactly hang around, and as far as a place to sleep it was quite comfortable and even entertaining.
Otovalo turned out to be pretty cool. There was a huge craft market which we spend a significant amount of time browsing, and even bought some pretty gifts for ourselves and others. There were also many huge, filling, cheap lunches to be had. For US1.75 we each got a delicious fresh squeezed juice, a huge bowl of hearty soup with all kinds of veggies in it, and a steaming pile of rice, meat, and ´´salad´´. Paying seemed like a downright joke!
We also used the time to get on the internet and figure out what our next move should be. We were pretty bummed about not working on the farm, so we searched and emailed and hoped and prayed, and pretty soon we got a response from a very sweet-sounding person named Alicia at a nature reserve in the south of Ecuador. She said that they always needed help from volunteers and that we could come whenever we wanted, stay however long we wanted, and to whatever work they needed to be done at the time. Now this sounded like our kind of place. We also found some cool places in between Otovalo and the nature reserve that we wanted to visit. So we laid out a tentaive plan, confirmed things with Alicia, crossed our fingers that her nature reserve did in fact exist, and continued with out journey. Our next stop would be Salinas, a small town in the mountains that makes its own cheese and chocolate. How could we pass that up? We couldnt. After stocking up on another hefty lunch, we were on our way.
But we left Salento, trudged up that muddy, slurpy trail and caught a collectivo to Armenia in order to move south in Colombia. We headed to Popayan. Supposedly 3 hours to Cali from Armenia, then supposedly 5/6 hours from Cali to Popayan. We always know to add a couple of hours to the end of that but we didn´t know what we had coming.
Getting to Armenia was a sinch. We were out of Salento by 10:30 and made it to Cali in time for a bus around 4:30pm. Originally we were going to stay in Cali. We heard the night life was supposed to be wild, with tons of Salsa and stilettos. We opted for the mud and coffee of Salento so we only saw Cali to and from the bus terminal. In through the north, out through the south, making sure to pass every mechanic and hardware store on the way. For all we know, that´s all the city is, thus making our decision to not stay much easier.
One frustrating thing about buses here is that there´s a terminal, and one would think that´s where people go to wait for and embark on the buses. No. That´s only a select few. Everyone else waits just outside the terminal, perhaps just across the street. Why? We wait and wait and wait to leave the terminal, then when we finally do we stop done the road and pick up a whole slew of other passengers. This makes little to no sense, and is aggravating when you think you´ve finally managed to leave. This happens EVERYWHERE! I´m starting to think we should just wait with them all. But then we´re part of the problem right?
So we finally get out of Cali. The congested city took over an hour to get out of, but it was smooth sailing after that. NOT! After only 2 hours of driving, things start to slow down, significantly, and we realize that there are tons of tractor trailers all along side the road, parked. The bus inches up and up, and then pulls over, as well. It´s dark, it´s almost 7pm. We just want to get there. Please. What is up? We only have a couple more hours to go. We see people getting out of their cars - this is never a good sign. Of course, this isn´t the NYC Subway where a garbled voice gets on and tells you there´s a rat in the tracks and we´ll be moving shortly. No one says anything. Everyone on the bus looks calm but annoyed. The bus inches up past a few more trucks, then pulls over again. Light traffic is coming towards us, but nothing is moving in our direction. This is a dark, mountain road, no lights except for those of the vehicles. A half hour goes by as we continue to creep up the road, stopping and starting every few hundred feet and getting feedback from people that walk up to check out the situation. We hear the word "derrumbe" and think there must be an accident of some sort. Great!!!
No one seems to know at this point how long it will take, but we are just gratelful that we´re not far from Popayan, while others of the bus are continuing another 10+ hours to the border with Ecuador. The bus pulls up in front of an overcrowded restaurant and we´re told to go get something to eat while we wait for more information. This place has never had so many customers at once. They are running around like elves before Christmas, but way less organized and without enough toys. We decide we might as well sit and have some soup with a man and his adorable daughter until we know more. At this point we´ve been stopped for over an hour, maybe more. The bus ayudante is at the restaurant, too, so we ask him how many hours he thinks we´ll be here for. He says 3 - 5 hours. Our jaws thud on the table and we can´t help but laugh. Excuse me? He shrugs, smiles and says again "Derrumbe". What the hell is this? He goes back to his table and keeps eating. We then decide a proper meal may be in order if we are spending the greater part of this night on this road. Awesome.
After all the food runs out at the restaurant, and the passengers feel they´ve killed enough time there, everyone heads back to the bus to get some sleep. We stretch our legs a bit outside the bus and talk more with the ayudante. Again "derrumbe" comes up. Okay, we need to know what this is. "Y que es derrumbe?" we ask. With a mixture of hand gestures and the use of the word "tierra" we realize it means landslide. Lightbulbs go off and a sudden sense of clarity takes over. Well, a landslide would definitely cause hours of delay on a tiny mountain road. It would also explain the blatant abandonment of 18-wheelers. We are going to be here all night. What would have been just another couple of hours has now turned into an all evening activity. We get on the bus, plug in a podcast and hope that when we wake up we´re in Popayan.
That we were...at 12:30 am. We were groggily awakened by the ayudante, "Popayan, Popayan". Oh yea, right, we don´t want to stay on this bus for the rest of our lives. Forgot about that. We jump up, gather our things and get our backpacks on. We get in a taxi that takes us to a hostel that doesn´t have any free beds. Great. Perfect. Why on earth would we want a bed right now. We walk around the corner to another hostel that does have room, and we walk up the tiny, spiral staircase and fall into sleep.
We are just happy to not be on that mountain anymore. We wake up and do a few laps of Popayan. A beautiful colonial town, with white washed buildings and a beautiful main plaza. We had a delicious breakfast at a small place close by where a family of women cooked and cleaned together in a very calm, familiar atmosphere. We were able to try pasamor de maiz (spoonfed to me by an older woman waiting for her grandson to join her for lunch), a chilled/room temperature, milky, cereal-like soup with corn and added chunks panela (sugar cane). Soooooo good. Made us happy after a night of bus torture. We strolled around some more, bought cute earrings with feathers while enjoying our last serving of raspao on the plaza, and walked up to the mirador to look over the city. We attempted to mail postcards but we didn´t want to pay $2 per card, so opted out until the next stop, hoping Ecuador would be cheaper. We heard there was a soccer game on, so per the recommendation of the hostel walked to a pizza place on the other side of town. Apparently no one else cared about the game, so instead we got sucked into a dramatic tela novela of betrayal and love. Favorite line - "Dejame sola!" (Leave me alone!) Very entertaining.
We went back to the hostel and gathered our things. We were orginally going to spend another night in Popayan, but we just wanted to keep moving to Ecuador. Popayan was preciosa, but wasn´t enough to keep us around for longer. We went to the bus station that night to get an overnight bus to Ipiales, just before the border. 8 hours, and it was. But rather than a coach bus it was a minibus, freezing cold and very uncomfortable. The only seats left weren´t together and it was sketchy! I was in the very first seat with a clear view of the front window, front row to death defying turns tempting fate and my stomach. Once people started getting off at various places we managed to sit together, and proceeded to move another 3 times to seats that were either warmer, or reclined, or didn´t have anyone next to them. Finally we arrived to Ipiales, shaking a bit after two bus rides from hell. It´s never easy, but fresh air and solid ground felt nice.
"Taxi, taxi, taxi!!!" Wait. Let me get my backpack on and my jacket zipped first, please. I know you´ll be there in 5 minutes anyway, still repeating you´re Pokemon name in my face whether I need a taxi or not. Be with you in a moment.
We need to constantly remind ourselves in these instances - Sigh, breathe, you´re alive and well. One step at a time. At least we´re here and not stuck on the road for hours. Breathe. In the near distant future you can sit, maybe eat, even possibly shower. All is good. Life is good. Nothing is that bad. Breathe. Smile.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
After a couple of hours, and with absolutely no trail signs to let us know where we were or how much longer we had left to go, we decided to turn back for fear of being stranded on this mountain overnight. When we were about halfway back, the dark, ominuous sky opened up and unleashed a torrential downpour all over us. Yay! We had heard that it rained in the valley every afternoon, but for some odd reason we didn´t deem that a good enough reason to bring out rainjackets with us (who needs em, anyway?) so to say we got soaked would be a huge understatement. There was nothing we could do, so we carried on, through the mud and the rain, laughing and enjoying every minute. At one point we got to an especially deep rut in the trail, so we decided to walk along the edges, which rose much higher than the muddy rut and seemed to be the better way to go. I was on one side, and Soph was on the other. Eventually, her side tapered off to a very narrow stip of land, too narrow, in fact, to walk along successfully. She realized she was stranded when it was too late, the ravine was too deep (and way too muddy) for her to jump down into it. She wisely decided to use the fence to help helpself along the narrow part, but again, for a reason we will never know, this fence was made or barbed wire. I watched as she struggled with it, tried to find part that weren´t spiky to hold on to, and maneuver her body in a way that would get her through without getting stuck on the barbs. Within moments her shirt was caught on the wire in about ten places, her feet were splayed in an almost split, her arms were stretched out, and she was whimpering 'I´m going to fall in all this mud!' Needless to say, I was doubled over with laughter, but had enough wherewithall to take some incriminating pictures. I also couldnt do anything but watch, because I was on the other side of this ravine with no way of getting to her. Lucky me! After a few minutes she freed herself, and we pushed on through the rain. By the time we got back to the road, our dreams of walking back instead of taking a jeep were pretty irrelevant, for many reasons! So as usual, Sophisticated Koala vs. Mother Nature ends in an undisputed victory for the latter, and hilarious stories for the former. All is still right with the world.
The following day we woke up early to work! Emma had told us that we could work in the morning, from 8-12, in exchange for a big free lunch. An unbeatable deal, especially since given the location and the nature of this farm, I would have worked for free. Forever. We were given two scrubby pieces of grain sack, and told to rub the moss of the coffee trees. Since it was an organic farm, this had to be done by hand, whereas on other farms they would have sprayed chemicals instead. After figuring out how to keep out footing on the insanely steep incline, we had a wonderful scrubbing away, with frequent pauses to rest and look out over the sweeping mountains. I´m surprised we got anything done, considering the fact that the view was indescribable, and we both caught outselves just staring out at it, wondering how the hell we wound up there, and taking in the meaning of what it was to be in such a place, at that very moment. At noon we were rewarded with an enormous lunch, and sat around the long table with the other workers stuffing out faces. After lunch, guess what we did? You got it, chilled out some more! After another afternoon of rest and relaxation, and an evening of dinner and good converstaion with the other people staying the farm, we went to bed feeling totally content.
Contented and feeling blessed,