Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pyroclastic Flows? We Don´t Care About No Stinkin Pyroclastic Flows

Whenever I withdraw money from a Third World ATM, I turn around, ostentatiously flash the wad, and say in a loud and commanding voice: Okay, which one of you malnourished losers thinks he can take me?

But I didn´t find an ATM in Tena. Instead we got on the bus, drove through the jungle on crappy roads to Puyo, then turned right on a paved one and went halfway up the Andes to the Ecuadorian resort town of Banos.

Which we immediately liked. After all, how can you not like a place with verdant green mountain walls and waterfalls erupting forth all over? Especially since, once we got to the artsy B&B there, and met the couple our age from Chicago, complete with bicycles and guitars, who had just bought the place a couple of years ago, and we got the room with the view and the fireplace...

Anyway, Maureen started feeling better. And once we walked around the town and saw all the non-Ecuadorian-hole-in-the-wall food options, and also saw that it was neither a total local resort nor a total backpacker dive...

Well, we got rid of the excess elipses, and had a good night´s sleep. And the next morning... they were back. Along with cold, drizzly rain. I guess that´s the price you pay for all that greenery. Still, there wasn´t much to do until the afternoon, when it started to clear, and I started to head up some steep steps to a lookout point.

From where I could see the nearby volcano, Tunguruhua, which has also been erupting. Big time. In ´99 they evacuated the town. Then it died down. Then in August last year it started to explode again. Although now, as the clouds cleared a bit at its summit, it was just streaming out brown smoke.

All of which makes for the kind of tourism I like. Although our new friends from Chicago are just a tad concerned about their uninsured B&B investment.

Still, exploding volcanoes make for low, low real estate prices. And the area is stunningly beautful. So, if a volcano hasn´t had a catastrophic eruption in, say, 10,000 years, what are the odds that it´s going to do so in the measly 20 or so years that you have left?

We hope to go back before we leave Ecuador to check a few places out.

In the meantime, on Tuesday, although I have yet to see a totally blue sky in the country, it was more sunny than not. And the project of Mo and me was to bicycle downhill about 12 miles to a famous waterfall.

Now neither of us basically have been bicycling since around 1989, and Maureen doesn´t take too readily to anything that might go wrong, but if you´re going downhill all the way, what can go wrong?

Okay, it was on the main road, with the trucks and the buses and all, and she didn´t particularly like that. Then it turned out that there were indeed uphill portions (13 in all), and her legs weren´t up for that. Then there was the 400 meter long dark tunnel with the dripping water. But after a short bit of yelling and screaming at me, she made a valiant attempt to get into the good sport mode.

She even went with me on the tiny open gondola bucket that goes 500 meters over a chasm with a raging river below.

But when we got to the end of the line and the walk to the waterfall, she looked at how down, down, down the trail went, computed that that meant an up, up, up at some point, and left me on my own.

Me, I´m an idiot. Because even though after the first few hundred meters I had realized that it probably was going to be no different from all the other waterfalls that you can see with no effort, I still had to go all the way there to prove to myself that, yes, it was no different from all the other...

Once I labored back uphill we rode the bikes over to the main highway again where we, uh, stopped a bus going back up to Banos and put the bikes underneath.

Nothing to do once we got back except to eat more food and sit around our lovely room. Then Wednesday around noon we left town.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Saturday morning in Quito started like every morning seems to: cool and damp. By around ten it gets warm enough that you have to change the long sleeve to the short sleeve for the rest of the day.

Apparently my memory was correct, and Quito was a lot spiffier 25 years ago. About 10 years ago it went really downhill, and now it´s on the way back up. But right now we were going downhill from our hotel to the bus station, a kind of slummy affair where we got a bus for Tena and the Amazon.

On the way out of town we finally saw an area that was spiffy and new and suburban and clean, Quito´s upscale address, named (I kid you not) Cumbaya. Past that, we went up, up, up to hit the eastern pass through the Andes and then down, down, down towards the Amazon basin.

Even though this was the main road to that region, it was pretty darn crappy. And although the bus was okay, most of the passengers were short haul. Which meant far too many stops. But none for a bathroom break. Which Maureen didn´t cotton to all that well.

Five hours or so later we were down to about 1000 feet, at the town of Tena, right at the interface of the Andean foothills and the flat Amazon area. As we got off the bus we realized that the tour books had greatly oversold Tena, and instead of being a whitewater rafting and jungle touring paradise it was actually a grimy dump.

And, oh, by the way, it was really hot and humid now that the sun was out. Especially since we´re used to the desert of ABQ.

So we proceeded to pull our luggage through said dump for about a half a mile until we got to the only half decent hotel in town. And by the time we checked in, walked around trying to find edible food, and got hotter and humider, our spirits were none too bright.

Which led to last week´s posting.

On the other hand, once we had eaten and gotten back to the hotel, and had taken a cold shower,and were sitting on the porch overlooking the river, it wasn´t quite so bad.

And the next morning, after taking another shower, we walked around a little municipal jungle park by the river, saving us thetime and the trouble and expense of a formal jungle tour with the mud and the insects, etc.

And then it was time for another shower and a taxi over to the rundown bus terminal and another five hour bus ride through the jungle and up another hill towards our next destination.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Okay, Now It Really Begins

8 days late.

But before we get to the daily grind of bus rides, hotel rooms, etc., let´s cut to the chase.

Almost without exception, so far just about every square centimeter of Ecuador is gorgeous deep green drop dead beautiful, with endless steep mountainsides divided into little plots of land and houses, a climate that is always 70 degrees in the day and 50 degrees at night, with clouds and drizzle endlessly alternating with blue sky. People are almost always quiet and polite, and many times the rural ones are dressed up in their colorful peasant indigenous costumes. You can get a half decent house with land where other expats are hanging around for about $40,000.

Not to mention that you can actually live quite comfortably on your Social Security check.

More on that later.

In the meantime, let´s start the grind.

So we arrived in Quito at 11 pm on Wednesday, and effortlessly got a cab into town at non ripoff prices.

And the first thing you always notice when you start world traveling, especially in the Third World, is how there usually aren´t any donkey carts on the streets. No, what you see is pretty much like back home - buildings, roads, vehicles - and really (especially in the capital city) they´re not all that much shabbier. The reality, of course, is that everybody else is the world is doing exactly what you´re doing--trying to earn a living, watching tv, worrying about their screwed up family. There is no Alternative Travel Universe where people just exist to be charming backdrops to your escapist fantasies.

On the other hand, as in learning a foreign language, it always is expansive to realize that, even though the processes are the same, still the ways that said processes are expressed can be totally different. You know, instead of watching American Idol they´re watching Ecuadorian Pop Star...

So we end up in Old Town Quito, snag the last room in the hotel, and wake up the next morning to... Old Town Quito. Hmmm. Not as old and colonial as I remembered from 25 years ago. So once we´re up and about we walk around Old Town, then keep walking about a mile and a half further to New Town Quito. Hmmm again. Not as new and exciting as it had seemed way back then.

In fact, after a day of walking around Quito, including the big park, the new museum, the... Well, although it had gotten too cloudy in the afternoon to take the cable car up the mountainside, the cumulative effect of Quito on Day One was kind of underwhelming.

Which made us decide to skip Day Two of Quito and go straight to the world famous crafts market in Otavalo, a 2 and a half hour bus ride north. Now Saturday is the Big Day, but we figured that therefore Friday would be uncrowded and the vendors would be ready to deal.

The ride to Otavalo was mostly over a wooded mountain, so it wasn´t all that exciting. And the world famous crafts market was... Well, let´s just say that, by definition, they´re not making any new traditional crafts. And that by around 1970 hippies had already found all the interesting traditional crafts there are in the world. So that in the one square block little plaza where all the little plastic awninged ´stalls´ were there wasn´t anything that I hadn´t seen and bought before.

But we were determined to buy noentheless. So within a couple of hours we had purchased a blanket, a poncho, an alpaca sweater, and a cape. Not to mention a giant woolen bag to put all the rest of the stuff in. At about $14 each. And I must admit that most of the vendors were pretty friendly and virtually all the women (at least) were nice enough to show up in their colorful costumes.

By now it was about 3 in the afternoon, and, there still being time, we then hired a cab to drive us about an hour through the countryside and up a mountain to where there was a famous lake within a volcano. We oohed and aahed, and then had him drive us back to the bus station. Cost was $15.

Then it was back to Quito and back to our hotel (which actually was pretty nice and quaint). Then a taxi to New Town and a Pizza Hut (making it Pizza Huts on 5 continents for both Maureen and me), then back to Old Town and sleep.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Now The Blog Starts

No, it doesn´t.

And the reason why is that it´s so friggin humid down here in the Amazon.

I mean, it just saps the will and deflates the spirit and you end up just being a soggy puddle of totally spent motivation.

And that came after six hours being trapped in a bus seat where they wouldn´t even stop for a minute to let you out and stretch your legs.

Never to mind, however. Because tomorrow we´re going to take another bus out of this dump and head at least halfway up the Andes again to the town of Banos.

And then we´ll tell you about our exciting time in Quito and Otavalo and, hopefully, Banos.

Just you wait...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Humiliation of 24 Hours in Houston

So we´re starting the forty minute flight from Dallas to Houston, and the pilot keeps talking about how we´re definitely going to make it right on time, but with a tone of voice that just telepathically screams, I´m lying. And of course we end up an hour late.

Which is just exactly the amount of time that we were supposed to have before the Quito flight took off. Which it did, right on time. At least, that´s what they told us.

And there are two giant conventions in town and a lot of weather related screwed up flight plans on top of that, and all the rentacar companies are sold out and none of the hotels have rooms, and anyway I don´t want to pay $150 a night for a crappy night in Houston. HOUSTON?????? I mean, Managua would be interesting. Cleveland would even be a hoot. But Houston has absolutely nothing about it except flat and humid and vapid. Not to mention starting to get hot this time of year.

Oh, and of course there aren´t any other flights out to Ecuador until same time tomorrow. Not to mention that we left the cell phone at home, because why would we possibly be needing it on this trip?

So two and a half hours later I finally tracked down the very last motel room in the greater Houston airport metro area. A cheapie at $93. And then we went down to find the luggage that the people upstairs said we had to claim because we missed the flight.

So at 9 pm the people downstairs tell us that it will take at least 4 hours to find said luggage. That is, unless it was put on the plane, since the plane hadn´t really taken off until 45 minutes later.

So out we went to our motel room and slept in our clothes. And the next morning, so as to pass some time, I figured that, instead of eating at the Waffle House next door, we could walk two miles in the hot sun along a row of Texas sized car dealers so as to have breakfast at the IHOP.

Which we did. And then we walked back. And then we went out to the airport and sat there for five hours.

Surpisingly, it´s less than five hours to go from Houston to South America. And, naturally, they had screwed up our vegie meal request...

Anyhow, the luggage had been successfully placed in the plane, the taxi driver didn´t try to rip us off taking us in from the airport at midnight, and our hotel room still had one room left.

So now it´s time to start the travelogue.

Except that I´m going to hold off for a while.

Because a lot of time you want to wait until you´ve acclimated to a place before you start passing judgment. And this time we´ll have 21 days (not 22, thanks to Continental) to do so.

So I´ll just stop with a synchronicity.

Because last night, as we were sitting in the back of the plane and I was yelling at the stewardess because I was hungry and they had no food for me, on the other side of the aisle was an Ecuadorian man and his family. And today when we were looking in the pastry window of a high end coffee shop semi admiring their pastries, the same man was entering the same pastry shop, and he stopped and we ended up having a nice conversation, etc., etc.

But that´s the thing about synchronicity. It defies all odds, and yet doesn´t have any intrinsic meaning.

Or does it???