Thursday, August 18, 2005

Home Again, Home Again, Lickety-Split

Well, here I am, whisked away from the Southern Hemisphere and plopped down in the Northern one. My flight was uneventful, although I thought it was a little strange that the film was The Naked Gun. I mean, really, as classic as it may be, the film came out in 1988 and stars O.J. Simpson! Was there nothing else in the airline video library available? But still, it was a good break from the never-ending series of action movies shown on South American buses. (To be fair I should say that the films were almost always action movies with lots of shooting, fighting and explosions a la Jean-Claude Van Damme, but occasionally they'd show a stupid comedy starring a former SNL star, e.g. "The Animal" or "Beverly Hills Ninja")

So, I'm just hanging out at my mom's in CT, enjoying the comforts of a full refrigerator and a bed I don't have to pay for, not to mention re-discovering all the stuff I left behind. It's amazing how much joy a simple tank top can bring after wearing the same four shirts and two pairs of pants for seven months! I'm still getting used to using the American keyboard again, re-learning where the "-", "@", and even the """ are located, and fully enjoying being able to drink from the tap and eat salads again.

As for the future of Distant Wanderings...not to worry, I've got some more wanderings coming up. Next week I head to Boston for a wedding, then I fly straight from there to England for another wedding! Then, well, I have jury duty. Finally, I haven't decided yet, but there is a distinct possibility that I may head back out in September for a few months of travelling before settling down (where? and to do what? don't ask me, I don't know). I will let you know.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Damas y Caballeros...

Well, here I am at the airport, waiting for the announcement for my flight to board, and taking advantage of the internet access. I´ve been in Guayaquil for the past couple of days, which is a good way to prepare for going home, because first of all it´s HOT (which should prepare me for the New England heat wave) and also it´s really not a very nice city (not to mention that my hotel is like a prison and smells like mildew), so it just makes me want to get out of here! But I had a couple nice strolls along the riverside boardwalk, and checked out a park with iguanas in it. I wanted to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but since it is (in theory at least) for children, it´s dubbed in Spanish, and I figured it wouldn´t be quite the same, so I´ll wait. The other options were House of Wax (with Paris Hilton) and an Adam Sandler movie which I suspect came out a long time ago. So, no air-conditioned movie theater to escape the heat.

I´m not feeling too philosophical today, so I´ll come back in a couple of days to reflect on my trip and on the future of Distant Wanderings.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Getting High

That´s high

Wednesday was Dad´s last day in Ecuador, and we took an excursion to Cotopaxi Volcano, near Quito. The excursion was not to the top of the volcano, at more than 5,900 meters (19,000 feet)--that requires two days and some serious effort. Instead we would go up to the snowline, checking out the flora and fauna along the way. We were a group of 7, with a guide, and at the beginning of the day it looked like the mountain might be covered by clouds all day (reminiscent of my other volcano climbing attempt, in Pucon, Chile). The women selling handicrafts at the National Park entrance were happy to see us coming--they must love chilly days, they sell lots of knitted hats and gloves to unprepared tourists! We drove most of the way, parking at around 4,500 meters. From there we walked up to the refuge for a snack, before deciding as a group that we wanted to continue hiking up to the edge of the glacier at more than 5,000 meters. Although we took it easy and walked at a slow, steady pace, the walk was very hard for most of the group, since they had spent very little time at high altitudes and the thin air up there is hard on the lungs! I was happy to discover that despite time spent at sea level, my body is still acclimatized to high altitudes and I left the huffing and puffing to the others. Clouds continued to blow by but when we got to the glacier we were rewarded: the sun came out and shined on us, and we had the satisfaction of seeing that 5059 meters (16,600 feet) on the guide´s GPS. There it is, folks, the highest I´ve ever been!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Let´s Dance!

After the market on Saturday, I met up with some friends I met on my jungle tour, and we went out dancing. To my surprise, Otavalo (population 26,000) gave me one of the best nights out I´ve had in South America! We went to a peña, a club which normally features local bands, sometimes salsa, sometimes traditional music. On this particular night, the band was a cover band, basically playing the Latino Top 40. They were great! It was an 11-ish-piece group, with three singers who did boy-band type dance moves as they sang. It was hilarious. They broke it up occasionally to do little contests and give away t-shirts to celebrate the peña´s 5-year anniversary. For example, they got the entire crowded room hopping back and forth holding on to each other´s shoulders, or doing the macarena, and once got some people on stage to see who could move their hips best and fastest. Aside from another small group who left before us, we were the only gringos in the place, and despite our best efforts we were completely humbled by the moves of the locals, who seem to grow up with music in their blood.

There was more dancing two days later in Ibarra (although this time with no participation). After running out of churches to visit in this quiet town, Dad and I went up to a lookout point on top of a hill, and from there we could hear the sounds of music on the other side. We went to check it out and found a traditional dance festival. We never really got to the bottom of the story behind the dance, but it involved lots of men and boys dressed up in drag (traditional indigenous drag, that is, complete with long black yarn braids in their hair) and dancing around in a circle, led by men dressed up with long white beards, hats and sheepskin chaps! It was really fun to watch...although I missed my boy-band from Saturday night. If ever I get married in South America, I will find them to play at my wedding.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Quito and the North

Buy Me! Buy Me!

So, Dad arrived Wednesday night for a whirlwind week of Ecuadorian sights. On Thursday, we filled our brains to capacity with art and archaeology at the Museo del Banco Central´s huge collection, then wandered around Quito´s beautiful colonial Old Town. We went up to the tip-top of the Basilica towers, which involved a hair-raising climb up some very thin iron ladders and ended with a climb out a little window to perch on a ledge high above the city at the top of one of the towers. Scary! But it also gave us a view of the Basilica from the inside out, including close-up looks at the structure of the church roof and the inside of the clocks.

Today we are in Otavalo for the famous Saturday market. We left the hotel at 6:30 to go to the animal market, which is quite a sight, with locals selling cows, horses, sheep and pigs. The pigs were especially vocal about being sold--I had never realized what a harsh, high-pitched screaming sound they can make, especially when being dragged on a leash or lifted by their necks and tails onto the back of a pickup truck! After that we headed to the enormous artisan´s market where all kinds of colorful rugs, hammocks, sweaters, ponchos, hats and bags are for sale. We both came away with quite a few new possessions, but I´m happy to say the spending was not out of control. Of particular note is the fact that I continued to resist the temptation to buy a poncho, which means that with only 10 days to go, it looks like I´ll return home after nearly 7 months in South America without one...this is a good thing, because although they are very tempting, the fact is I would absolutely never wear one.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle


Well, I´m back from four very nice days in Cuyabeno National Park, at the far northeast corner of Ecuador. I really wasn´t sure what to expect from my trip to the jungle, although I have to admit I was quite apprehensive. I thought the bugs would drive me crazy and that I surely would be eaten alive by mosquitoes, figured I probably wouldn´t sleep because I was nervous about creepy-crawly things climbing on me, but that I would see lots of interesting wildlife. I was especially interested in seeing monkeys.

My group was 10 people from four countries: the US, France, Tahiti, and Slovenia. We had two guides. Lenin was our naturalist guide and he told us all about the wildlife. We spent some of our time walking in our gumboots and ponchos through the forest, and some of the time cruising the Cuyabena river in our motorized bark canoe looking for animals. I proved completely useless at spotting animals, while Lenin could spot an owl on a branch several trees deep in the forest. But once they were pointed out to me, I saw lots of colorful birds and butterflies, the eyes of a Cayman (like an alligator) glowing red in the light of my flashlight at night, pink dolphins, piranhas, and, yes, monkeys--several different kinds. Usually we only saw a couple at a time, sitting on branches, but on the last day as we headed out of the jungle we were rewarded for our patience. At first we only saw the branches of three or four trees moving all around as if there was a strong wind through them. But the more we looked we saw that the branches were filled with monkeys! Lenin estimated that there were about eighty of them, jumping, swinging and diving from branch to branch--tiny little squirrel monkeys and curly tailed capucin monkeys. In the evenings we also heard a strange sound--it seemed to be like a distant tornado or the noise of traffic on a highway, but really it was the bizarre sound of Red Howler Monkeys!

Aurora, our indigenous guide, showed us how the local indigenous communities use the jungle plants. She would stop as we were walking, use her ever-present machete to cut down a branch or two, and in a few minutes whip up a bracelet or a basket. She also showed us which plants are used to treat malaria, the flu, arthritis or intestinal parasites, which hallucinogenic vines are used by shaman and which branches can be whittled into poisonous darts to hunt monkeys. One evening we went back to her house and she showed us how to make bread from the yucca plant. She seemed just as fascinated by the animals as we were--she would point and laugh at the monkeys or birds and shared our curiosity and interest in the forest around us.

It was a really fun, fascinating experience, and I am most happy to report that none of the things I was apprehensive about turned out to be problems--in fact, considering we were deep in the rainforest, the accommodations were quite luxurious: we had our meals cooked and served to us, we had showers (cold of course, but really, what do you expect? It was rainwater) and real toilets. Our comfy mattresses were completely enclosed inside mosquito nets, which removed all my concerns about six- or eight-legged invaders disturbing my sleep. I had three really excellent nights´ sleep despite the fact that one night we finished our nighttime nature walk by looking around for tarantulas, and found several of them under or on the ceiling of our sleeping hut and in the bathroom! But best of all, and most unbelievably, I returned from my experience in the tropics completely mosquito-bite-free!

For more jungle photos, click on either the tarantula above or the piranha:

Also, I got my underwater photos back from the Galapagos. Unfortunately, they´re a little disappointing (I guess I´m not going to win any awards in underwater photography) but you can see some of the animals I saw, anyway. Click on me and the turtle for the Galapagos set:
Swimming with a Sea Turtle