Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's Hot Now!

Miscellaneous

  • The guide books suggested the men wear a money belt so we went out and got one before we left. Brian hated it! It's uncomfortable to wear and awkward to get at. We ended up cutting the belt part off and Brian keeps the pouch in his front pocket. We've noticed several people wearing trucker wallets that are attached by a short hook or chain to their pant loop. We think that would probably be the best idea.
  • There is apparently a law in Ecuador that you can't bring a car more than 2 years old into the country. They build cars here under agreement with GM etc., so we're guessing this supports the local economy.
  • We've taken to really enjoying fresh fruit juice here - they grind up melons or pineapples and it's absolutely heaven for about 80 cents to a $1. For awhile I thought Tree Tomatoe juice was maybe apple juice but it's not - it's something very like a tomatoe.
  • They have spectacular thunder storms here - no lightning that we can see but loud banging thunder.
  • Minimum wage here is $1.05.
  • Gas costs $1.44 per US gallon!
  • Everywhere you go - on the bus, in a store, in a market, in a restaurant - there's always music. Loud! You can't get away from it. We're convinced that South American music only has 3 tunes and they just throw different words on it.
  • We've seen 4 or 6 women washing clothes in the various rivers. Laundry day (!) we comment to each other. The general populace does not have a drier machine here - no need - but we get our laundry done generally at the place we're staying and they do a good job and have dryers.
  • Most people seem to have some sort of padding on the dash in their cars. I guess this is necessary because of the heat!
  • Pedestrian walk/don't walk lights are apparently optional here.
  • You'll see some motorcyclers wearing helmets but generally not. Often you'll see Dad, a child & Mom on a motorbike - all without helmets.
  • At the airports and bus stations the taxi drivers have to push their cars through the line up. Presumably this is another conservation thing or anti-pollutant.
  • Correction? The bells in the churches in the low lands sound normal - so now we're conjecturing that maybe the bells in the churches in the Andes sound so weird because of the altitude and thinner air. Any scientist types out there who know?
Cuenca - Guayaquil

We got on the bus in Cuenca to go to Guayaquil and about an hour out of town a dozen policia stopped the bus and everybody over 40, except mothers with babes in arms, had to get off the bus and they were all patted down. We had to show our ID but that was it for us oldsters. Looking for drugs? We had to take a 2 hour detour to go around a landslide area caused by the rain. The drive from Cuenca to Guayaquil went through Machala, the banana capital of Ecuador, and for miles and miles and miles there was nothing but banana trees. We saw some minor flooding but nothing too bad. After the banana trees we think we saw miles and miles of rice paddies, but neither one of us are sure what a rice paddie looks like.

Usually when we arrive at a bus station we get off into a hot, dusty, crowded bus station but in Guayaquil you exit the bus and end up in Metrotown! A very modern, air conditioned mall. We really appreciated the air conditioning because now we're into the real equator hot weather down at the coast. The bus station mall is a huge place, right next to the airport; it's four levels.
Everything in Guayaquil cost more, just like in any big city. Cappucino was $1.40 (!) compared to 80 cents in the Andes.

We told you they like Nescafe here but they also have something like coffee where they give you a cup of warm milk and you pour into it a kindof coffee syrup. It looks like soya sauce. Brian has a particularly hard time with this one.

We wandered Guayaquil for a day and a half, spending most of our time on the Malecon which is a strech along the river that has been highly refurbished full of parks and statues and a mall and play parks for kiddies and giant tour boats moored at the docks. We saw the changing of the guard of the policia that is dedicated just to this area! There were about 2 dozen of them to partrol an area a couple of hundred yards wide by about a mile long.

When we left Guayaquil we picked up a self-employed guide in the bus station and he led us through the whole ticket purchase and departure gate processes through the massive facility for $1. It was very helpful!

Guayaquil - Salinas

We arrived in Salinas yesterday afternoon and immediately hit the beach. Brian had lost his brand new swim suit so we had to buy him another ($18 and Brian bargained it down to $12 - he seems to like the bargaining!) We had trouble for the first time making reservations over the phone this time. When they realized our Spanish was so awful, they just hung up on us. So we got the clerk at our hotel in Guayaquil to make the call for us and he booked us into an OK place. After seeing the beach and the weather (it's hot and humid!) we concluded that it would be very tiring to do a complete tour of the coast. We're beginning to run a little tight on time to RV with our friend John in the middle of March.

It took us only about 2 hours to decide that the coast is a beautiful place to visit but we would have no interest in actually living here because it is so hot and so humid. Yesterday was 31 degrees.

We tried to negotiate a rate for a week at our hotel but they wouldn't bargain so we went to another hotel that we actually liked better, it's right on the beach, and came up with a rate that is going to be $80 less for a week long stay. We'll be moving this morning.

Salinas is very beautiful, lovely beach, palm trees, the epitome of a tropical resort! You can rent 2 chairs and a beach umbrella for $3 a day, otherwise you're sitting in the direct sun and it's way too hot. We're going to the water park sometime this week - $3, and we're told that it's very well designed and lots of fun.

The non smoking thing is still going very well but Brian is nervous about running out of Nicorettes.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lo siento. No entiendo

Miscellaneous
  • Everywhere we have gone with the exception of last night there have been very hard beds and tiny pillows. When we were looking at furniture their couches were very hard too! Wonder what that's all about?
  • In restaurants the napkins they give you are tiny. We're told Ecuadorians are very conservation oriented and it shows in their napkins.
  • In addition to the ladies having to pack toilet paper in their purses, we forgot to tell you you're not allowed to throw your toilet paper down the toilet. Whether that's a conservation thing or bad plumbing we're not sure.
  • Most of the people we meet, other than Ecuadorians, fall into 3 categories: earnest young volunteers, old hippies (We now know where everyone from Nelson, B.C. moved) or seniors on a tour.
  • There always seems to be kids around and when we asked we were advised that there are so many children in Ecuador that they go to school in shifts.
  • The bells in the churches are POOPY. They don't have a nice gong noise like Canadian or European churches, it's sortof a clank, clang - there's no resonance - it sounds like someone hitting an angle iron with a crow bar. This is consistent with different cities and churches.
  • Store openings seem to be at owners will - very random.
Vilcabamba

As we told you Vilcabamba is a 3 horse town. It only takes about 30 minutes to see the whole place. The big excitement Saturday night is sitting on the park benches in the middle of town and watching other people on the park benches. We did, however, go to a violin concert in a Monestary a couple of k's out of town. It cost us a buck. We shanghied a couple of young volunteer types to go with us and they shared the cost of the cab ride ($3) with us. Funnily, we didn´t see any monks, only nuns?

AND we went for a 2 hour horse back ride around the valley on these small Andes Mountain ponies. Brian says his horse looked at him and thought "Great! I get the gringo grosso." The horses are incredibly sure footed. At one point we went down a very very steep (at least 45 degrees) dry creek bed, about 12 inches wide, made up of creek stones and boulders. All we could do is hold on (no pictures (!) we were too busy) but they handled it with aplomb. We had a riot but were very sore later on. Shelley was afraid to get off the horse without help at the end.

Side note: Brian didn't want to wear his good chinos horse back riding so we to
ok a tour around Vilcabamba looking for some cargo pants or sweat pants (called heater pants in Ecuador) for him, but every place we went their eyes went wide - nothing big enough - so he ended up wearing his gentleman's leisure pants (pyjama bottoms). No one noticed.

On Wednesday, President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency and ordered 2,000 members of the army and the police to help
rescue workers. Correa increased by $25 million the $10 million he already had allocated for the emergency efforts. He also directed another $88 million to municipalities. Where we were in Vilcabamba they turned off the water and we had to flush the toilet using a bucket but that was about the extent of our troubles there. We may have trouble heading to the coast but we'll see. The emergency was because of la nina (not to be confused with el nino). They've had a much stronger rainfall than normal. We, however, since the beginning of our trip have only encountered one full day of rain and that was in Vilcabamba. It seems to rain at night for us and a thin misty rain sometimes for a couple of hours here and there. We've been very lucky! We've both got red tans.

Characters in Vilcabamba

There are about 150 ex pats in Vilcabamba (total population probably 500) and like all small towns the chief entertainment seems to be gossip. There was the ZZ top lookalike, appa
rently a refugee journalist from the States who took off his shoes 25 years ago and hasn't worn a pair since. There seem to be dozens of hippies who must have income from some source because we didn't see any work going on at all. There's the Boston "lady" who dresses well but begs for money on the street. There's the question guy who gives you a long scientific answer to anything you asked. (Did you know the water swirling the opposite way in the Southern Hemisphere is an urban legend?) There's the English lottery winner, etc. etc. They all had advice to give us re moving to Ecuador - most of it conflicting!

Vilcabamba to Loja to Cuenca

On the 6 hour bus trip from Vilcabamba to Cuenca we probably did not average more than 30 or 40 k per hour. We're amending our "good roads" report given previously. Before we were travelling on the Pan American (which is pretty good) but this road was a secondary highway, full of pot holes. It seems you're either creeping up a very steep hill or braking down the other side, so it makes for very slow going. We were the only gringos on the ride.

The long distance buses are surprisingly luxurious, made by Mercedes Benz, Scania and Hino. They're equipped
with televisions and everything but it's extremely hard to get anyone to open a window on the bus. What's that - it gets hot! Along the roadside there are little canals that we didn't think much of on the trip up but they were full of water on the trip back. All of the rivers are very fast flowing, constant rapids.

We're in Cuenca now and were planning on going to Guayaquil tomorrow but with the state of emergency we may have to cancel our trip to the coast. We'll see. We stopped taking our anti altitude pills when we went to Vilcabamba but felt quite light headed this morning, so started up again and felt better quite quickly after that. We are both agreed that we are truly having the adventure of a lifetime for us. So far it's incredible.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I Don't Like Me Here!

Cuenca - Loja

Well we were up with the rooster (which has awakened us every day since we left Cuenca) and off to Loja. So far in our trip we've encountered hardly any bugs. It's our understanding that'll change once we get to the low lands however. Our count for road kill (discounting the many dogs) is now up to 2 cows and 1 pig. The long distance bus ride was per usual; windy roads, heart stopping drop offs, loud Spanish rap or 80's musak, blaring vendors selling us CDs or juice. We bought deep fried banana chips to tide us over this time. Very good!

When Shelley was a kid her family had a saying "I don't like me here" based on an old story about her Grandpa refusing to get out of the car at a camp ground they thought they might stay at. He wrapped his arms around himself stating "I don´t like me here". That's exactly the sentiment Brian expressed when we hit Loja. He didn't like the cab ride into our hotel, he didn't like our hotel, he didn't like the way people bumped into us in the street and we couldn't find cappuccino (Instant Nescafe is common here - they think it's a treat!). So as a consequence instead of staying the three days we planned, we checked out first thing the next morning and came to Vilcabamba.

While in Loja however we encountered for the first time an Ecuadorian electrical outlet. Shelley had bought a special converter which up to this point we hadn't had to use.

General Aside: Heinz ketchup would make a killing in this country. Their ketchup is full of cornstarch and shiny!

Loja- Vilcabamba

We are here for a week. This is the spot that the travel guides and all of the on-line information claims is the most popular place for ex pats in the country. It is absolutely beautiful but definitely a one horse town (maybe 3). Coming down, down, down the mountain from Loja you could feel everything getting warmer and the vegetation getting lusher. Lots of palms, banana trees, succulents and flowering plants. Like everywhere in Ecuador there's corn growing in every spot available. We found out there are about 150 ex-pats living in the area, and have spoken to several of them. The pace of life is very very slow. Walking around the town there are chickens everywhere (all free range chickens in Ecuador), many birds are tweeting and there's coffee growing in private yards. Walking down the street, you'll encounter burros carrying loads.

The place we're staying has a lovely garden in the court yard with oranges
growing and a pool. Shelley's going swimming every day. Entertainment seems to be watching the local policia playing volley ball in the yard next to the station.

At this point, as much as we think it's very beautiful and certainly cheap, we're concerned that we won't be able to slow down enough to enjoy it. In other words we're still thinking Cuenca is the spot for us. However, we still have to go out to the coast and we're trying to keep an open mind.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Brian's Not Allergic to Ecuador

Miscellaneous

Cost of Food, etc: you can eat a steak with potatoes and cold vegetables (they serve them that way here) for $4 to $6. A latte coffee or cappuccino costs 60 cents to $1.50 - we're paying an average of 80 cents. Brian had lunch the other day, pig cut straight from a whole roasted pig, head still on, with 3 roasted potatoes, salad and beans for $2. He couldn´t finish it all! Our hostel (hotel) rooms are costing between $19 and $24 with breakfast included. A dozen roses in the flower market cost $1, but electronics, like a lap top cost more - around $1200 for the most basic laptop. Furniture, solid wood, hand made in factories here is very reasonable, a four piece living room set, couch, loveseat, two chairs and a coffee table was $800. The same thing in Canada would likely be around $3000. We figure we could completely furnish an apartment with brand new hand made furniture, superb quality for under $5000, including the linen's and cutlery. You can rent a very nice apartment for between $300 - $400. We're talking West End quality. If you want to go a little more native you can get something for $150 - $200.

We've found out you can get health insurance through Miami for about $150 per month. It's supposed to be completely comprehensive and price depends on your age and health. We found this out when we went to a restaurant/bar on Friday night that caters to a number of ex pats who get together on a weekly basis to trade information.

Some stores will sell motorcycles, furniture, laptops and appliances all in the same store!

Just like the guide book says, ladies always pack toilet paper. Most places have it on hand but some don't. KFC's abound - they're like Starbucks or MacDonalds back home. There are Payless Shoes outlets and just about every other kind of fast food you'd find in Canada. We stay away from them though - what's the point - but they're there if you get a hankering for a Mac burger.

We kind of thought there'd be a lot of old American cars around but nearly everything we see are small, newer imports.

We've been "ripped off" twice - once a waiter gave us back our change less $2 and once, despite knowing we were supposed to negotiate the cost before we get into the car, a taxi driver ripped us off for about $4.50. He told us we had to go by the meter but the meter jumped 75 cents then 60 cents then $1.20, etc. so a $1.50 trip ended up costing us $6. Generally, however, everything and everybody is very good to us despite the language problem. They truly don't speak much English here; again just like the guide book says. We've quickly mastered such things as, "where's the bathroom, how much does it cost, please bring the bill, is this the bus to .....", etc.

We've bought a couple of things at the public markets, a sweater for Shelley that the guy wanted $18 for and Brian bargained down to $12. Brian's getting pretty good at it; the bargaining that is!
Not a surprise I guess, being a Catholic country, but there are babies everywhere! Sort of related is the fact that the churches inside are incredibly ornate with tons of gold leaf and marble, etc. Any clergyman in Canada would give their left arm for the attendance these churches get. We saw a very neat thing on Sunday - a traditional mariachi band playing during a church service. We were just walking by and heard it and so poked out heads in to have a look. The quality of the music was extraordinary.

Cuenca

We started out planning on staying in Cuenca for 4 days, but changed that to 8 because we liked it so much, plus we were playing tourist too hard so we needed a break. We thought Brian was allergic to Ecuador for awhile but it's resolved into a laryngitis - so that's good news! There are bakeries on just about every block in Cuenca. This is very hard on Shelley with her new low cholesterol diet! We spend a lot of time in the main square in Cuenca. They seem to have entertainment on a regular basis. Little girls dancing, men singing semi opera, lots of parades (we've encountered 5 so far on our trip). The city offers just about anything that we would need and it's clean and very civilized. The weather is odd though. In the middle of the day if the clouds are absent you're down to a t-shirt, but if it clouds up over you then you need a light sweater. Fairly cool at night.

The place we're staying is a delight and most of the people staying there are here teaching at the University or here taking Spanish lessons. We´ve noted that most tourists are either young backpackers or retirees.

Brian asked the lady where we're staying why no one seemed to wear panama hats as Ecuador is the place they originated.
She told him only tourists wear them and we've now noticed that this appears to be true. We visited a panama hat factory. Another one of our serendipitous encounters. It appears the same family has operated out of this location for generations - they even have a small panama hat museum.

We went to Ingapirca for a day trip. It is Ecuadors most significant archaeological site. Apparently the stones and the sun temple are set up to align with phases of the moon, etc. On our 2 hours trip there we commented that the country around here looks just like Kamloops - only greener (it's the rainy season after all) and there's the odd cactus or succulent
plant. We've been told the scenery goes semi-tropical when we descend to the flat lands on the coast. Everywhere along the road during our various excursions there are small crosses and shrines.
Interesting tid bit: llamas sound like cows - they moo!

As far as Brian is concerned we don't have to go past Cuenca, we both love it here. However, tomorrow we're off to Loja. We've been told that the weather is a little warmer there and that it's even nicer than Cuenca.

Cuy (guinea pig) is one of the local delicacies. We haven't tried it yet! Likely won't.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Covered in Ash

Miscellaneous thoughts and observations from Ecuador

Quito ~ At restaurants, people will get bowls of popcorn as a snack, so you have coffee and popcorn. There's tons of cops and security guards everywhere, carrying guns. They are not threatening and no one seems to pay any attention to them. Even a coffee bar may have an armed security guard.

Ecuador smells different than Canada. We think it might be a combination of beans and lime. It´s spicy. The reason we say it´s beans and lime is that we got a snack on a bus with beans, roasted corn kernels and a slice of lime and our hands ended up smelling like the general smell of Ecuador. We stayed in Quito for four days and it wasn't until the 4th day that we didn't get lost going back to our hostel. The weather is colder than we thought, about 20 degrees for about 4 hours during mid day but going down to 10 at night. That will change as we travel around the country though. We already noticed here in Cuenca that it is quite a bit warmer.

On all buses, city and long distance, there is a pilot (driver) and a conductor person who shouts out where we are going to the people on the street, collects fares and facilitates the vendors coming onto and off the bus. Lots of vendors get on the bus selling CDs, drinks, hot and cold snacks, and sometimes just begging for money. Canadians
would be aghast at the lack of emission
control. We're not sure if it is the quality of the fuel or just poor maintenance, but it seems that every vehicle belches out smoke. Diesel seems to be the worst.

Quito to Riobamba ~ Along the road everywhere you see cows, burros, sheep and pigs
leashed to stakes, as well as grouped in fields. There seems to be lots of feral dogs. We saw several dead dogs along the road and one dead cow. When we arrived in Riobamba and as we were travelling in the bus there were hoards of people riding in the back of pickup trucks spraying
and throwing water at the bus and
at people walking on the street. It was the last day of Carnival and that's what they do apparently. In Riobamba we got off lucky and were only sprayed once.

We stayed in a delightful old Hotel, immaculately clean. While Quito was shabby, Riobamba was less so but still shabby. Upon waking up in the morning and going out we noticed people wearing face masks and there was fine ash everywhere. It looked like cement dust. The Tungurahua volcano had errupted at 11 pm Tuesday night. We tossed the coin about going to Banos which is at the foot of the volcano or Riobamba. I guess we were lucky the coin fell the right way! We found out this morning that 2 villages at the base of the volcano have been evacuated and Banos has been placed on a red alert - no tourists allowed!

Up to this point it seems that all the buildings are made of concrete block most of it not painted. It is obvious there is very little money in the country and in the poorer centers of the city. A lot of buildings are unfinished and the appearance is that many people are basically living in hovels.

The indigenous population have only in the last decade or so begun to get fair treatment. Incidentally the indigenous people seem to be so TINY! and many of them wear the traditional costume with the felt hat, the leggings and skirts. We noticed that there´s a lot of manual labour in the fields and it seems to be exclusively the indigenous people that are doing it.

Riobamba to Cuenca ~ From La Tomba, about 40 k north of Cuenca to the City, everything seemed to get tidier and cleaner and the buildings were well kept, painted and it was obvious there was more money around. Cuenca is delightful. It´s clean and thoroughly charming. The roads are narrow and all one way and made of cobble stone. The feeling is European Brian says. Cuenca is famous for its centuries old Spanish colonial architecture. The roads in the countryside are great, except when they're not. You'll be on a four lane black top and suddenly there you are on a dirt road with wash outs on the side of a mountain looking down for miles. We have found out that the area from Quito to Cuenca is actually in a valley between two mountain ranges but you´re still at 3000 m elevation. We´re planning on staying in Cuenca for four days.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

We're Here!

The plane ride was tedious and the food was awful. They gave us Cheerios for breakfast and a green banana. For supper we had a chicken burrito and salad (it wasn't a good burrito).

We were exhausted when we got here and finally got to bed at 1 a.m. Yesterday we explored what they call New Town and today we're in Old Town. We really lucked out as it turned out to be Carnival. Everything is a bit third world, the pavement is cracked and many buildings need paint. On the plus side the buses are 25 cents, and they give change, and the people are very very friendly. One woman phoned her friend who spoke English and had her friend translate for us (this was in a store). On the buses they let vendors on for free for one stop and then they sing their song to sell whatever it is they want to sell - candy, tape recorders, fruit, etc. We are beset with 6 and 7 year old kids wanting to shine shoes or selling candy.

We got a cell phone, the number is - 5555555. I presume you have to add a country code etc before that to call. We only bought 200 minutes so don't call unless you have to.

We're at 9000 feet and despite the anti-elevation pills we're taking we both feel tired when walking around. It's hard work to just breath I guess - either that or we're just both in poor shape.

We will be leaving Quito on Tuesday to go to Riobamba which is only a couple of miles from the volcano that is currently errupting. That trip by bus should take about 4 hours.

P.S.:- The non-smoking is going pretty good.