Going Native – A Homestay in Sibayo (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part II)

I am wearing an embroidered, gathered skirt, heavy shawl and too-small hat as I dance around a fire in a small, cobblestone courtyard – no easy feat in hiking boots and at an altitude of 12,730 feet (3880 meters) above sea level. Welcome to a homestay at Samana Wasi, in the Peruvian town of Sibayo.

After our stop in Sumbay (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art), we continued through the canyon with a few stops along the way, most notably at the Castillos Encantados (Enchanted Castles) where we took a short hike to enjoy the rock formations.

We arrived in Sibayo and were greeted by Nieves and Vesevio, the owners of Samana Wasi. In an effort to assist communities with maintaining traditional lifestyles, the government has promoted “experiential tourism” in towns like Sibayo. Guests stay with a family and see a traditional way of life and the tourist income allows the locals to continue that life. The Peruvian government fronted money to improve the infrastructure of Sibayo with new cobblestone roads, a quaint town square, a lookout pavilion that doubles as a community center, statutes and paint in cheerful colors to liven up the homes. Several families formed a cooperative to host tourists and initially guests booked through a central agency that placed tourists in the various homes. But Vesevio told Salome that the co-op system has broken down because some families had very poor accommodations and tour agencies began booking directly with the better homes. Vesevio was proud to say that his home had the most bookings, a fact confirmed by our tour agent who made a point to tell us that we were staying in the best home in Sibayo.

Semana Wasi was a small lodge with traditional single story stone buildings with thatched roofs surrounding a courtyard. Our room was…rustic. If this room was the best in town, what were the other rooms like? The plain furnishings, less than spotless blankets and cement floor were not a complete surprise, but the stench was overpowering. We had an attached bathroom, but the promised shower wasn’t there and the bathroom had a 3/4 wall between ours and another bathroom. We stood in our room a bit stunned for a few minutes not wanting to offend anyone. But how could you miss the smell of shit? Ultimately we closed the bathroom door and held our breath any time we needed to use it. No shower? No problem as we wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much time in the bathroom anyhow. Once again, my years at the cottage with an outhouse served me well. We ultimately decided that the plumbing must not be hooked up properly (or at all) and chalked it up to another adventure.* We met fellow lodgers – a group from Belgium – who told us that they were booked into a hotel but decided to stay another night at the lodge. Apparently their rooms didn’t stink or they weren’t as particular as we are.

But while the room was lacking, the hospitality was not. After a stroll through town, we joined Nieves, her daughter-in-law (whose name I never caught) and Dulce, a rejected 1-month old alpaca, in the kitchen as our meal was made. Nieves and the other woman were friendly and we had a nice conversation about Dulce and the food that was being prepared. We also learned why the women wore different hats. Nieves and Lady (Nieves 13-year old daughter) wore tall, white hats with some shiny bling and a flower or two. Nieves daughter-in-law’s hat was lower with embroidery as was one of the other woman’s hats. The women wear the traditional hat of their culture: Collagua or Cabana. Both cultures practiced skull shaping until it was banned by the conquering Spaniards. The Collagua forced skulls into a taller, narrower shape and the Cabana forced skulls into a squatter, broader shape. Once the practice was banned, they demonstrated their cultures through their hats. The Collagua wear white, tall hats, and the Cabana wear low, embroidered hats. Marriage does not change the hat one wears, which is why the daughter-in-law still wore the hat of her ancestors, and the type of hat is determined by the mother (so the daughter of a Collagua man and a Cabana woman would wear the Cabana hat of her mother’s culture). After our visit in the kitchen, we sat down with the friendly Belgians to enjoy a traditional meal of fresh tea, quinoa soup, pancakes and rice.

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

That evening we were treated to a traditional Pachamama (World Mother or Mother Earth) ceremony. Honoring pachamama through traditional rituals remains common and Salomé’s family still engages in the practice despite living in Arequipa. Offerings are made to Pachamama to ensure good plantings, harvests, travel and health. Vesevio asked for good travel for all of us and good health for an ailing guest during our ceremony, which included offerings of coca leaves and other herbs being passed around the circle and offered to the mountain apus (spirits). It was very interesting but we did not take pictures out of respect.

Then the party began. We were dressed in traditional garb and the local musicians showed up. Soon we were all dancing. And what would be a dance without some shots?

Shots!

The Belgians had a 5:30 wake up call so the party ended around 9. We crawled into bed and were thankful for the heavy alpaca blankets as it was about 50 degrees in the room. We slept well until a rooster started crowing at 3:30. Yep, we were back in Peru! We had a simple breakfast and then Nieves escorted us on a walk through the town to a suspension bridge. Sibayo’s people were famous for the long treks they would make from the mountains to the coast. They would pack up their mountain goods, trade them along the way to the coast where they would collect seaweed (needed for iodine in those days) and trade it along the trek home. The round trip took about 3 months. There are still some older villagers who made this trek in their youth.

We continued past the square, to the suspension bridge and then up to the lookout. Our conversation lagged a bit, but then Nieves and I began to talk about the plants she was collecting and their uses. It was very interesting to hear how the plants are still used to treat all common maladies and made me want to learn more about their medicinal properties. Back at Samana Wasi, we said goodbye to the family and headed on our way through the canyon.

We enjoyed a unique experience with a wonderful family who made us feel welcome and at ease. It is odd to view someone’s lifestyle as a tourist attraction, but this visit was very comfortable and it felt as though the family was showing us their normal activities and not a “show” for the tourists. A few days later we would experience the “show” when we toured Lake Titicaca, but we left Sibayo with a warm feeling and an appreciation for the life they continue to lead there.

Part III – The Condors

* Note: I mentioned the plumbing problem to the tour operator who said he would tell the family so it could correct the issue.

Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art

Las Ventanas del Colca - the Windows to Colca

Las Ventanas del Colca – the Windows to Colca

We were happy to be back in Peru: we had dinner with friends in Lima, revisited Machu Picchu the easy way and not after a 4-day hike, relaxed in Cusco, and enjoyed the great restaurants and colonial streets of Arequipa. Then we hopped into a van with our driver Lilian and our guide Salomé, left Arequipa and headed for the Colca Canyon, hailed as the second-deepest in the world at 3,400 meters (11,155 feet)  and “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon,” for a 3-day adventure.

What a fantastic time! We lucked out with the weather – the rain came as we drove (not lucky for Lilian) or ate lunch. I generally hate car rides, but Salomé was an entertaining and knowledgable guide and Lilian an excellent driver. The roads on this trip were well maintained by Peruvian standards and I had none of the terror our trip to Kuelap had induced. (Roadtripping and Kuelap – The City in the Clouds posts) We enjoyed the views and a few hikes back at high altitude. It was great to be in the Andes, breathing the fresh mountain air and enjoying the vicuña, alpaca and llama sightings as well as the mountain peaks.

Apart from seeing the condors (subject of an upcoming post), my other goal quickly became to finally learn to identify the difference between alpacas and llamas. Confession: for the 2 years I lived in Peru any time I had a camelid picture, I would run it by my cousin Maureen who raises alpacas to get the proper identification (thanks Maureen!). Salomé gave me more specific identification pointers and, after 3 days, I felt fairly confident. Until we learned that some of the confusing ones were likely cross-bred and thus a combo alpaca-llama. So here it goes: llamas have bigger, curvier ears and pointier faces while alpacas have straight ears and less pointy, smaller faces. I had been told that before, but things like “bigger” and “smaller” are relative, so it helps to have both animals to confidently distinguish. Then I got the definitive factor – look at their butts. Llama have tails that poof out and up and alpaca tails are against the body. At last, an easier method!

Salomé - left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Salomé – left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Our next destination was to see 8,000 year old cave art in Sumbay. Sumbay is at an altitude of 14,429 feet (4,397 meters), so we first stopped for some coca tea to counter the effects of the high altitude.

We headed off the main road down a a rutted, rocky path, the worst of the entire trip. “Are you sure you don’t want us to walk?” I asked Lilian as I had visions of the van bottoming out and being stuck in the middle of nowhere. She assured us it was fine and navigated the so-called road. Salomé explained that during a mining boom the railroad stopped in Sumbay and the town was thriving, but subsequently better roads were built, the railroad ceased and Sumbay became a ghost town save one lone holdout who literally has the key to the caves. As soon as we pulled into the abandoned town, there was José. We initially weren’t sure whether he was irritated that we were there as he stood with his arms crossed over his chest in a somewhat aggressive pose, but it became quickly apparent that he was anxious for the company and happy to show us around. He told Salomé that he was halfway up the mountain with his grazing animals and when he saw the van on the road, he ran down the mountain so he could be waiting for us. A race we didn’t even know we were having! I found José as interesting as the cave art: why would he stay isolated in Sumbay when his family and village had all moved on? Like most people, José didn’t want to leave the life he knew. He had animals to care for, the cave to protect and he found Arequipa, where his wife and children lived, to be too chaotic and busy. So he lives alone, with occasional visits from his family and one or two tourist visits a week.

After some conversation, we set off on a 20 minute hike into the canyon to see the caves. Along the way we saw this cute viscacha skipping over the rocks.

Viscacha

Viscacha

We arrived at the caves and José unlocked the chain link fence so we could get close to the art. Most of the figures were camelids and it is believed that the pictures depict the domestication of the animals. There are some hunting and domestication scenes as well a couple of pumas and some rheas, which are American relatives of the ostrich and emu.  It was a spectacular sight tucked away in the valley. José was a capable guide and pointed out all of the notable figures to us. After hiking back to the town, we said goodbye to José after tipping him and giving him some of our snacks. We would have bought provisions for him had we known the isolated life he leads.

And that “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon” claim to fame? Well, it’s a bit misleading. The canyon’s depth is measured from the tippy top of its highest peak, not anywhere tourists are going to hang out. In some places, the top of the canyon is pretty close to its bottom. It doesn’t have the wide, open expanse of the Grand Canyon, and the vertical drop-offs aren’t as steep. The canyon is habitable and pre-Incan and Incan cultures created terraces for farming the land. While the Colca Canyon is spectacular, the majesty of the Grand Canyon is still tops in my book.

Farmland in the Valley

Farmland in the Colca Valley

Next Stop: A Home Stay in Sibayo

Eating Grubs and a Death Defying Swim – The Amazon Part II

Why was I swimming in a lake with caiman, electric eels, anacondas, piranhas and arapaima, ginormous 200 pound, 9 feet long fish?

The Final Stretch

The Final Stretch

Because Matt wanted to do it and, if he was going to do it, I wasn’t going to chicken out. The plight of the youngest child.

Rodrigo assured me that it was safe and that all of the aforementioned animals were “shy” and wouldn’t want to eat me. I was skeptical and the fact that I had seen another tourist catch a piranha off the very pier we were swimming to made me question my decision. Matt and I negotiated where we would jump in – Matt wanted to swim half of the lake and I wanted to swim about 10 strokes. Negotiations completed with a mid-point, Matt and I each slid off opposite sides of the canoe and I started swimming like crazy, all the while yelling at Matt to hurry up. I noticed that Rodrigo had an anxious look on his face when we first got in the water, but I just swam faster. Matt apparently thought that I was lagging behind and was swimming leisurely until our friends informed him that I was way ahead and it was a race. We arrived at the pier in a photo finish. I asked Rodrigo why he looked nervous and he said that as I got in the lake one of the arapaima had jumped right in front of me and he was afraid I would panic if I had seen it. How right he was!

The next day we took a picture of where we had started our swim. Pretty impressive distance, I think.

Swim Distance

Swim Distance

Earlier in the day, our excursion was to an indigenous Kichwa community, Sani Isla. I approached the tour with some trepidation because I worry that these types of tours make a spectacle of people, as if they are zoo animals to be observed and oohed over. Matt and I talked about it and he pointed out that his school is now part of such tours and that he and the other teachers and students welcome the tours. That made me feel better.

The women of the community established a cooperative to better their lives and are part of a larger organization that is designed to improve the lives of indigenous women and allow them to continue their traditional way of life. They make jewelry and other trinkets, give tours of their community area and prepare some traditional food for the tourists to enjoy. The cooperative is run by the woman through an elected board. The women rotate the duties at the community area, which can be a couple of hours walk from their homes. When we visited, there was a meeting occurring so there were many woman and children at the site. The site also contains the local elementary school that was even less resourced than Tomas de Berlanga. I wished we had known so we could have brought some books or other items.

 

We walked around the grounds and saw the plants they raised: papaya, pineapple, yucca, plantain, cocoa, coffee and more. These are the typical plants that each family would have around its house. Rodrigo was intent on showing his indigenous skills and shimmied up the tree to pick us a papaya. While I normally do not like papaya, this one was delicious.

After our papaya snack, we went to the cooking area to see the traditional cooking style and taste some food. Rodrigo explained the various items on the grill: fish with palm hearts cooked in leaves, grilled nut of some kind, plantains and grubs on a stick. Yes, Grubs. He showed us the fat, squirming live grubs

Live Grubs

Live Grubs

Ripped one in two,

Ready to Share a Grub

Ready to Share a Grub

And challenged, er, invited, one of us to share the now-oozing, bloody grub with him. We stood there, aghast, each hoping someone else would be a sport and just when Rodrigo’s eyes lit upon Matt, Sally volunteered. Talk about taking one for the team! I gagged the entire time as I watched her fabulous expressions as she chewed and chewed and finally swallowed the grub.

Sally Taking One for the Team

Sally Taking One for the Team

“I was okay until I got to the bum, which was squishy,” was Sally’s verdict. After that, I felt I would have been a poor sport not to eat a grilled grub, so I quickly grabbed the smallest one on the skewer. Truth be told, it did not taste bad and had a smoky, bacon flavor, but it was hard to get particularly after I had just seen a raw one eaten.

The rest of the food was fine. While Matt and I have grown accustomed to being served fish with its head still attached, we still are squeamish about it. Rodrigo happily ate seconds and thirds of everything we didn’t want, and with more gusto than he ate at any of our meals at the lodge, which confirmed that this was an authentic meal and probably one he preferred over the Western-style food the lodge served.

Our last activity at the community center was a shake down to adopt some turtles and release them into the river. I am not entirely convinced that these same turtles aren’t caught every week to be adopted by some other tourists, but played along all the same. I named my turtle “Wisconsin,” Matt named his “Ky” and Arturo named his “Kerry,” which I chose to see as a compliment regardless of whether it was! Stephen was traumatized when his turtle kept going the wrong way and almost got run over by our boat. Not sure that one is going to make it.

The grub wasn’t the only interesting insect we were offered to eat. The next morning, when Matt and I were the only two in our group until the new tourists arrived, Rodrigo was excited to find these flying ants and encouraged us to pop off the abdomen (back part) and eat it. We declined and he ate them with relish.

Sloth - 1 (52)

Tasty Snack?

We did, however, try the teeny-tiny lemon ants, nicknamed because they taste like lemon. I had eaten ants before when my 9th grade biology teacher, Mr. Alvarez, had a day when we ate ants, worms, bullheads and cattails to show us that what we consider food is subjective. At least I think that was the point. And how to survive if you were lost in the wilderness, I suppose. I thought the ants were delicious and went back for seconds, meaning I walked over to the tree they lived on and waiting for some more to crawl on me before licking them off my arm. When in Rome…

Enjoying Lemon Ants

Enjoying Lemon Ants

The other highlights of the trip included the cool mushrooms:

The search for sloths, which Sally was on a hunt to see. We saw both 2 and 3 toed sloths from a great distances:

Sloth from a Distance

Sloth from a Distance

Cool insects, which we did not eat:

Neat frogs:

And my favorite, the stinky turkey. It’s real name is the hoatzin and its key features are that it is stinky, tastes like a bad turkey, and makes a noise like a labrador retriever panting on a hot day. That said, it is really quite pretty.

The last night this fellow made an appearance in the stockroom under the lodge.

I didn’t sleep very well that night. I had noticed that the pillar holding up our cottage, which was also part of the bed frame, was open around it and all night I imagined a boa constrictor slithering up besides me. While I half-wanted to see an anaconda on the trip, I think the boa constrictor was sufficient.

All in all, a nice getaway from the island. I’m glad we went and had a great time, but once in the Amazon is probably enough for me. Next time, that caiman might just get me!

Welcome to the Jungle – The Amazon Part I

We ran out of time in Peru and never made it to the Amazon, so for Matt’s first scheduled vacation, we booked a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Called the jungle and considered a rainforest, both descriptions are apt. We were in the Amazon basin, but the Ecuadorian lodges are on tributaries of the Amazon, something Matt was disappointed to learn.

Matt in the Jungle

Matt in the Jungle

We wanted comfort, as much as there is comfort in the middle of the jungle, so we stayed at an upscale lodge, La Selva Amazon Ecolodge, just off the Napo River on Lake Garzacocha. After a short flight from Quito to Coca, we took a 2+ hour boat ride down the Napo. The big industry is oil and we saw many drill sites along the way.

After getting drenched in a downpour on the boat ride, welcome to the rainforest, we took a short walk, climbed into canoes and were paddled though creeks and across a lake before reaching the lodge. I was initially uncomfortable with 2 men paddling 6 additional adults around, but got used to it as we traveled that way throughout the trip.

The grounds and accommodations were very nice and about as luxurious as they could be given the journey it takes to get everything there. Shortly after arrival, everyone was put in groups. Like summer camp, your excursions and meals are with the same people. We lucked out and were with a great group: Sally and Clint from England and Stephen and Arturo from the US. Because Matt and I stayed a day longer than the traditional 3-day stay, we were groupless at the end. It quickly became apparent that other guests perceived our group as the “good” group based on the horror stories we heard. We also lucked out with our guides, Rodrigo and Dario. Wildlife viewing in the Amazon is the opposite of wildlife viewing in the Galapagos: the animals hide in the Amazon as opposed to coming within centimeters of you as they do in the Galapagos. Rodrigo was our naturalist and Dario our native guide. However, Rodrigo was also the only naturalist who grew up in the Amazon rainforest. I think his skills in spotting wildlife came from hunting in the forest since he was a young child. He also liked to mention, with a gleam in his eye, how tasty particular species of monkeys are.

The Gang Minus Dario

The Gang Minus Dario

Our first excursion was a night canoe trip across the lake and followed by a hike. Nothing like jumping right into things: tarantulas, a snake and more!

On the way back we stopped to visit this sinister guy:

Caiman

Caiman

Matt and I were in the back of the canoe and couldn’t see him very well, but Arturo took a great photo for us.

Day 2 started with a 5 am wake up call to hike to the observation tower for an early morning of birdwatching. It was overcast, but we still saw many brightly colored parrots and other birds. Unfortunately, we saw most through a telescope so no pictures.

After a few hours, we hiked through the rainforest for a couple of hours. It was a peaceful walk through the forest although I could have done without rousing a tarantula from its lair.

We went back to the lodge for relaxation and lunch before our next hike. The highlight of this hike, and my favorite part of our entire visit, were the monkeys. We saw howler, wooly, pygmy marmoset, red titi, capuchin, squirrel, owl night and black mantle monkeys. My favorites were the appropriately named howler monkeys even though they woke us up every morning with their howling (the first morning we had no idea what the racket was) and the “monkey migrations,” particularly of the acrobatic squirrel monkeys, when countless monkeys would stream overhead. They weren’t always easy to spot, but after a few days we learned a little how to read the moving leaves high in the trees to know if it was wind or monkeys. Rodrigo loved the monkeys and made sure we saw the different varieties.

Listen to these with the sound on:

Next Up: Swimming with the piranhas, eating grubs, stinky turkeys and more!

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Happy Two Year (and a Day) Ex-pat Anniversary!

Two years ago yesterday, Matt and I landed in Peru and began our international living adventure.

Last Hurrah!

In the past two years we have:

  • Lived in 2 countries
  • Learned Spanish
  • Trekked to Machu Picchu
  • Acquired a donkey jaw as a musical instrument
  • Ate guinea pig
  • Swum with sharks, manta rays, sea lions and sea turtles

and so much more!

While the there will always be challenges and we miss our stateside family and friends, this adventure has been incredible. We have made new friendships that will stand the test of time and distance and had experiences we will never forget.

You only get one life, so live the life YOU want to live!

Young, wild and free

Young, wild and free

PS. This is my 100th blog post – thanks for reading!

Walk the Line: A Visit to the Equator

North and South of the Equator

North and South of the Equator

Who can resist the draw of standing on the equator? Matt and I couldn’t, so one Sunday we set off from Quito to go to Mitad del Mundo, “the Middle of the World.” We intended to take a cheap bus there, but for some reason, despite directions, couldn’t figure out where to catch the bus. So we settled for a $15 cab ride to drive us the 1/2 hour to the site. After some confusion (apparently the theme of our day) we realized that the building we, and a bunch of other people, were hanging around was just the Unasur (Union of South American Nations) building, and was not getting us closer to standing on the equator! We headed over to the ticket booth, which was inexplicable chaos. There were some people waiting, but nothing like a Milwaukee Summerfest crowd. The delay seemed to be because newcomers would conveniently not see the lines and just pop ahead of all of us waiting. Eventually, I had enough of this nonsense and skipped ahead of the skippees to the front of a line.

We were in at last. Our full tickets included the planetarium, and we were urged several times to go directly to the planetarium. We took a quick photo or two on the equator, rushed to the planetarium… and waited in line for about 40 minutes. The show was in Spanish, and while I understood a decent amount of it, a nap seemed more in order. Frankly, apart from the Little and Big Dippers, Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt (but not the whole guy) I can never see the constellations – it’s a bunch of dots and a lot of imagination to me!

We headed to the monument and went to the top to enjoy the views and the sight of the equatorial line running across the premises.

Now here is the rub: the monument is in the wrong spot and we were not actually at the equator! We knew that before entering the complex, but decided to check out the spectacle all the same. And a spectacle it was. The monument also houses a nice museum showcasing the indigenous cultures of Ecuador, and the grounds have tons of souvenir shops, restaurants, a couple other museums and even some entertainment, all devoted to the wrong spot on the map. I find it hilarious that although modern GPS proves the equator to be about 240 meters north of this line, this entire complex pretends that isn’t the case. Not a disclaimer anywhere that you aren’t on the real deal. Apparently the motto is “Why be right if people will pay anyhow?” And indeed, we did!

Walk the Line

Walk the Wrong Line

But then we walked down the road to the real equator, at the Intiñan museum. Privately owned (yes, the incorrect location is owned by the local government), the Intiñan museum was hokey but charming.

We were told to wait for an English tour, but a mountain storm was brewing so we tagged along on a Spanish tour, which we quickly ditched when we realized it was going to take us through little exhibits of the different regions of Ecuador. We just wanted to stand on the equator. And so we did.

Matt didn’t try, but I was determined to balance the egg!

All in all, a fun, silly time. Especially when you consider that the equator is a line and certainly there are other spots in the area on which one could cross it.

We tried for a picture proof, but because our phone GPS is not military grade, this was as close as we could get.

As close as we could get on our GPS

As close as we could get on our GPS

Art and the City

I admit that I had never heard of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most famous painter, before we arrived in Quito.

Self Sculpture

Self Sculpture

Born in poverty in 1919, Guayasamin devoted his artwork to portraying indigenous people, racial discrimination, injustice, violence and the plight of the poor. Powerful stuff. One of his famous quotes is “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a child that had no feet.” The Fundacion Guayasamin site contains the artist’s former home and studio (he died in 1999) with its breathtaking mountain views, a museum called La Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) that Guayasamin designed before his death and, as an added bonus, a small archeological site. It was amazing. An absolute must-see for anyone visiting Quito.

Mural

Mural

The exterior of La Capilla del Hombre is bunker-esque, but inside the space is perfect, just as the artist envisioned.

La Capilla de Hombre

La Capilla de Hombre

The Capilla del Hombre is a tribute to man, in particular the struggles and sufferings of Latin Americans. The museum has an eternal flame on the ground floor that represents a prayer for peace and human rights. Matt snuck some pictures.

Suffering

Suffering

While it was definitely our favorite museum, we also enjoyed other museums and artwork around the city.

Wheelie Art:

The National Museum of Quito is housed in a complex that includes theaters and a few other museums and has some cool outdoor art. Pictures are forbidden in the museum (this time Matt complied) but the works ranged from pre-Colombian pottery and the like to religious art from the Colonial era.

In the same complex is a modern art museum and we stopped in and enjoyed some work of Francisco Urquiza. I have no idea who he is but his paintings were really cool!

Another museum visit, to the Casa De Alabado, was also well worth it although we again have no pictures to share. It had pre-Colombian artwork of the indigenous cultures. Finally, we enjoyed the Museum of Contemporary Art. Housed high on a hill overlooking the city in an old military hospital, the museum has rotating exhibits. We saw three: a student photography exhibit, an Italian exhibit of art from the 1960s (psychedelic, baby!) and Art in Orbit, devoted to outer space. Art in Orbit included a room at the end, complete with bean bag chairs, where one could watch various sci-fi movies.

I loved the room of gowns by Italian designer Fausto Sarli. Che Bello!

The 60s art was dizzying with its play on dimensions. This piece was awesome and photographed pretty well. It was 2D but the pixie stick lines looked real!

2 Dimensional, but looks 3D!

2 Dimensional, but looks 3D!

And last, but not least, if you can’t make art, join it!

Photo Bomb

Photo Bomb

Quito – the City that Grew on Me

We have passed the 3 week mark in Quito, Ecuador. While this isn’t ideal and we would rather be getting on with our new life on the Galapagos Islands, there are worse places to spend a few weeks as you wait for your visas. Well, not just visas: we finally got those last week but now need the special permission to live on the Galápagos Islands. Nothing seems to be going easily, but we are trying to enjoy our time despite the frustration of waiting.

Relaxed

Relaxed

Quito is situated in the Andes at 9,350 feet above sea level. That hasn’t posed a problem for us because we were used to living in the Andes in Cajamarca. For a capital city with a population of about 2.6 million, Quito feels surprisingly accessible. We are staying in an apartment (thank you, Airbnb) in the Mariscal Foch area, which is a great location for us. We can walk to a number of parks, restaurants, malls, the Old Center etc. Initially Quito did not rock my world – it was nice but not spectacular. However, the more time we have been here, the more I appreciate it. (Except the food. Peruvian food is much better.) A mountain view anywhere you look is a selling point.

View from the Apartment

View from the Apartment

One of my favorite things about Quito is the many parks. We have walked through Carolina, Ejido, Arbolito and Alameda parks several times. It’s a toss up which is my favorite. Ejido and Arbolito Parks appear to be one park and have a lot of trees (hence the name “Arbolito” or “Little Tree”), making for a nice walk. All of the parks are well used by families, couples, groups of people and, as we saw yesterday, card players. I didn’t get a picture, but it cracked me up – crowds of men around an overturned box, cash flying. Initially we thought it was a shell game but then we saw the cards. I’m not sure what game is being played or whether my assumption is correct that it is illegal, but I am intrigued.

Park Carolina is a ginormous park. It has a running track, soccer fields, lagoon, old airplane, and, my favorite part, a wonderful botanical garden. I have dragged a somewhat reluctant Matt to botanical gardens everywhere we have visited and he agreed this one was the best. It might have been because the weather was perfect – low 70s and partly cloudy (key at the equator) – so it was pleasant to stroll around. There were many different exhibits and 2 greenhouses: one devoted to carnivorous plants and one to orchids. I wanted to see a bug get eaten in the Carnivorous greenhouse, but no such luck.

The Orchid Greenhouse contains over 1,200 Ecuadorian species of orchids and is a highlight of the gardens.

Our walks in the parks have been educational and relaxing. Not a bad way to pass the time.

Next Up: Great Museums and The Middle of the World!

Beautiful Basilica de Voto Nacional

“Are these people nuts?” It seems that I ask this question frequently in South America although not often in a church. I am looking at a rickety, unenclosed, 3 story ladder (unless you count the netting and I do not) that leads to the top of the one of bell towers of the magnificent Basilica de Voto Nacional in Quito. A stiff wind is blowing and as I watch, a septuagenarian makes the very wise decision to turn around and descend the ladder on her rear. There is a line of people waiting to ascend and the look of horror on my face makes it clear that I am not planning the climb. Another lady confesses that she made it three steps and had to turn back. I console myself with the fact that the view from the base of the bell tower is fantastic and causing an international incident by getting stuck on the ladder isn’t really necessary. While I am a wimp when it comes to climbing – actually descending – open staircases, this climb isn’t for the faint of heart. The Basilica sits high atop a hill in the city and the towers are 377 feet high.

Basilica de Voto Nacional

Basilica de Voto Nacional

The funny part is that I didn’t feel that the rest of our climb around the Basilica was particularly safe. On the second story balconies we had to climb across crumbling corners and navigate electrical cords everywhere. Guardrails? Please. Apparently, your faith will protect you from harm! But touring the Basilica was well worth the risk – it is as spectacular as its views. It is patterned after Notre Dame and the Gothic design is fantastic. My favorite part was the native species gargoyles although the brilliant stained glass was a close second. The nave itself is unfinished and a bit cold feeling, but there is a small chapel, La Capilla de Sacramento, that is stunning in its decoration. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Chapel.

Pope John Paul II blessed the Basilica in 1985 and this welcoming entrance was one of my favorite parts of the building.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II