Balu

  Above: Iglesia Guaytacama, December 28, 2017.

Above: Iglesia Guaytacama, December 28, 2017.

Guaytacama is a sleepy area (I can’t even confirm that it’s an actual town), situated about 30 kilometers south of the main road that leads into Cotopaxi National Park. As the bird flies, it’s about another 30 kilometers from Guaytacama to Insinliví, the traditional starting point for a trekking route known as the Quilotoa Loop (which isn’t a loop at all). Before leaving home, I’d read about and seen photos of the Quilotoa Loop whilst planning my first couple of weeks in Ecuador and deemed it a must-do.

I’d chosen to spend the night in Guaytacama because, on a map, it appeared to be a logical spot to layover before catching a bus into Insinliví after having spent a day bus hopping and hiking volcanoes. Of course, everything I’d read recommended traveling a bit farther south, to Latacunga, to spend the night and store superfluous gear before catching a bus to Insinliví to begin hiking the Loop. But, oh no: I knew how to read a map, dammit, and Guaytacama was clearly closer to Insinliví than Latacunga. So, thinking myself clever, to Guaytacama I went.  

The bus I’d flagged down from the side of the highway after leaving Cotopaxi dropped me, naturally, on the side of the highway, and I made the two- or three-kilometer walk to Guaytacama. Despite a complete lack of street signs or numbers (a phenomenon I was soon to learn was no phenomenon at all in South America), I managed to find my Airbnb with relative ease, as the directions the owner provided me indicated it would be situated one street behind the town square and the main church, which were hard to miss.

  Above: the church.

Above: the church.

I knocked on the heavy metal security door a few times, but no one answered. Having exchanged messages with my host a few times before leaving Quito, I knew he and his dad weren’t expecting me until 4:00 or 5:00 PM, and it was barely 2:30. (Apparently, I overcompensated for time, thinking my victorious ascent of Cotopaxi, i.e., hiking from the parking lot to the refugio, would take longer than it did.)

I back-tracked to a bodega I’d passed, scared the hell out of a young lady behind the counter (apparently she had not seen a six-foot ginger in quite some time – or ever), bought a bottle of water and a snack pack of Oreos, and then returned to the Airbnb. I found a spot across the street underneath a cinder block wall (in the shade, of course), un-hefted my gear, and waited for someone to show up. I snacked on the Oreos and took long draws of body-temperature water from my Camelback.

About 30 minutes later, a man rounded the corner and approached me. I can only presume he thought I was either his Airbnb guest for the evening or the most lost gringo he’d ever seen. (Either would have been plausible.) He introduced himself as Pedro, and told me to follow him up the stairs on the side of the house, to the third floor, to an apartment that would serve as my accommodation for the night.

Now, this being South America, and my having paid a whopping $15.00 for my room for the night, I was not expecting much. But, having found the outside of the home to be as-represented in the Airbnb photos, I generally expected the inside to match as well.

I followed Pedro inside and I walked into what, I could only presume, was the washing station, kitchen, and lounging area for the local auto mechanics (there were several), grazing cattle I’d passed while walking into town (there were many), and the local coal miners (there is no coal mining in that region, that I’m aware of, but they must have shipped them into that particular Airbnb to bathe and in order to ensure the habitation was sufficiently filthy).

The place was putrid, by any standards. Flies buzzed all over the food that was rotting on the kitchen counter; trash of all kinds -- “Is that a diaper?? If so, where the hell is the baby!?” I thought to myself -- overflowed from a trashcan; and filth generally abounded.

I stopped, turned around, sprinted back to the autopista and caught a bus to Latacunga… in my mind.

Not wanting to seem like the rude, spoiled American that I am, I grimaced, but said nothing. Pedro led me to the back of the apartment to my room and the bathroom, which, thankfully, both appeared relatively clean and free of decay.

“Screw it,” I thought. “It’s just one night… Plus, I got that tetanus shot before I left home and I’m carrying enough doxycycline to kill the plague.”

I asked Pedro if there were other people staying in the house that evening. He indicated that there were, but they were staying in the unit below, on the second floor. I contemplated this and thought, perhaps, the rooms on the second floor were fully occupied for the night, and this was why I was on the third floor, in the landfill. (I realized later, however, that there absolutely was not anyone on the second floor. Hell, aside from Pedro and me, I don’t think there was another person on the entire block.)

Despite the decay,  I found the internet worked like a champ. So, I pulled up the Airbnb posting for the property and looked at the pictures. I realized the floor plan of the (very clean) apartment pictured was identical to the one I was in and realized it was likely the unit below, on the second floor. I’d been had – the victim of a bait and switch.

Rather than letting my frustration get the better of me, I took a deep breath, ignoring the stench of motor oil and rotting vegetables, and harkened back to the sage advice of that great and wise philosopher, Kendrick Lamar: “Sit down. Be humble.” So that's what I did.

After some deep breathing, I took a shower; ate dinner at the only open restaurant in town – a pizza joint, which was surprisingly delicious; walked back to the landfill; and went to bed.

Despite being absolutely exhausted from waking up at 5AM, fighting crowds, sitting on buses, and gasping up the side of a volcano, I spent the next few hours sleepless. Occasionally, I gazed out the window at the cattle grazing and chewing cud in the moonlight. But, mostly, I lay listening to Guaytacama’s many stray dogs barking to one another across the town:

“Hey, did you see the gringo walk into town?” barked one (in Spanish, of course) to the others.

“Yep, sure did. His backpack looked like it weighed more then he did - hahaha!” barked another.

“I saw him walk into Pedro’s place. I bet he’s loving the landfill right about now – LOLZ!” barked the one below me on the street.

“Hey, speaking of which, we should go over there, hit up the third floor and see what kind of goodies there are to munch on in the living room.”

“Oh, word? Cool, see y’all there…”

And on and on they went.

The next morning, I awoke in my sleeping bag – yeah, the bed sheets looked clean, but I wasn’t taking any chances – eager to get on the road to Insinliví. I asked Pedro where to catch the bus, and, with an “Oh, you silly gringo” smile, he informed me there is no bus from Guaytacama to Insinliví, and that I’d have to go Saquisilí to catch a bus (thus, perhaps, another of several reasons everyone uses Latacunga as a springboard for Insinliví instead of Guaytacama).

Pedro walked me to the end of the street, where we waited for a bus that would take me to Saquisilí. After about ten minutes, seeing no buses, Pedro flagged down a taxi that happened by. Me being me, I declined, wanting to save a few bucks and having absolutely no idea how far away Saquisilí was. The taxi driver looked at me, annoyed, and drove off.

I told Pedro I’d wait for a bus and he need not wait for me.

Pedro demurred.

“Pues, un camino.” Pedro said.

Seeing a truck approaching, but not understanding what he meant, I smiled politely.

“Sí,” I said (thinking “Yeah dude, sure, I see the truck, too”).

Nodding in agreement, Pedro flagged down the driver. The two exchanged pleasantries and Pedro explained that I needed a ride to Saquisilí to catch the bus.

Realizing Pedro was getting me a ride in the back of the covered, flatbed truck, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I won’t die on I-35.”

Pedro and I exchanged a quick adios, and I crawled into the back of the truck.

About 20 minutes later, we arrived in Saquisilí. I heaved my gear back onto my back; handed the driver a quarter (because I’m a big tipper); and began weaving my way through the small, curiously busy town, looking for the bus headed northwest to Insinliví.

Several blocks later, after wandering though a maze of markets, traffic, and humanity, I found a line of buses parked. Apparently I was wearing a massive sign on my forehead that read “GRINGO GOING TO INSINLIVI LIKE EVERY OTHER GRINGO WHO SCREWS UP AND GOES TO GUAYTACAMA INSTEAD OF LATACUNGA LIKE EVERYONE TOLD HIM,” because a man standing next to one of the busses yelled to me from two football fields away, “HEY, GRINGO!!! INSINLIVI!?!?!?!?!”

I walked over, said “Sí” (in my best Spanish, as always), and asked how long until the bus departed.

“A las doce,” he said.

I looked at my watch. It was a las diez. I sighed and asked if there was a bus leaving any sooner.

“No,” the man said.

Resigned to sit and twiddle my thumbs for two hours, I paid the man -- who I assumed was the bus driver, but just as well could have been a random man standing next to the bus looking for lost gringos -- the two-dollar fare and climbed aboard. The air was mercifully cool, and a pleasant breeze flowed through the bus's open doors and windows. Occasionally, a lone man, woman, or child of various age would climb aboard the bus, selling fresh fruit, baked goods, jugos, watches, headphones, or whatever else you might need while waiting two hours for your bus to leave. I bought a few apples and some plums and found them to be divinely fresh and delicious. I queued up a few podcasts that I’d downloaded back in Quito, ate fruit, and soon drifted off into a comfortable nap.

The day happened to be a Thursday, which is market day in Saquisilí, when people from the surrounding mountain areas descend to buy, sell, and trade goods and foods of all kinds, thus the chaos I’d encountered in an otherwise would-be small, quiet town. Occasionally, I would stir from my slumber, to see the bus slowly filling with people. They carried dozens of eggs, crated and stacked on their heads; big, heavy bags of rice; fruit; diapers; babies strapped to their backs; mattresses (which, thankfully, got stacked on the roof of the bus); and much, much more.

I came to as 12 o’clock finally rolled around, and the bus pulled out of town. Saquisilí’s cobblestone roads soon ended, and the bus began what would become a seemingly endless plod along rough dirt roads, through microscopic pueblos, ever ascending into the mountains.  

Along the way, the bus stopped occasionally to drop passengers here and there.

I watched, feeling guilty as the passengers disembarked with their cumbersome loads of food, sundries, and offspring, and then trudged off to their obviously-not-easy-breezy lives. Here I was on a joy ride, drinking cool, clean, disease-free water that I’d cleaned through my Sawyer water filter into my Camelback, both conveniently housed in my Osprey backpack, snacking on novelty fruits, while these people were riding the bus –- some of them for hours on end -– to pick up life’s essentials.  

Every pueblo we passed through bore mostly the same trademarks. Litter and other forms of waste were everywhere. The smallest of small children –- often shoeless and shirtless, but always badly in need of a bath –- congregated along the road, as did the elderly. Dozens of emaciated stray dogs followed the children around, chased the bus, or lounged and stared indifferently.

Occasionally, a person or two would disembarked where there was absolutely no sign of other human life, let alone a pueblo. They just got off the bus and started walking. Given the ever-increasing altitude and vertical cliffs on one side of the road or the other, I wondered where in the hell they could possibly be going. 

At one stop, a small family disembarked and began unloading supplies from the bus's roof and lower storage compartments. An old man among the family was dressed in a fedora, button-down shirt, blazer and slacks. Each article of clothing bore the scars of dozens of patches, tears, and stains. Yet, the effort he (or someone) went to in order to be well-dressed for a day at the market was unmistakable. 

He followed the family from the back of the bus, pausing after every step to rest on his cane. He stopped in front of me, at the top of the steps leading out of the door, staring down and outward at the ground. As he stood there, he began to drool long streams of saliva. The wind blew the saliva in thick wisps across the floor, onto his stubbled face and blazer. He continued standing there, motionless. A moment later, a stench hit my nose. The old man had soiled himself. He was oblivious to it all.

Suddenly, he began to stretch a leg forward, as if to walk down the steep steps on his own. A woman outside the bus yelled, “¡Tio, no!” and sprang into the bus to stop him before anyone realized what was going on. The woman and a couple of people helped the old man out of the bus; the driver swung the doors shut as if irritated by the old man’s lethargy; and off we went again.

I sat thinking about the old man. The more I thought, the more my heart began to hurt. While always fully cognizant of how good my life has been, for the first time I could remember, I was embarrassed that I’d ever considered my “problems” to be problems. Life is, obviously, hard for people who inhabit the mountain pueblos of Ecuador. If they suffer from depression, anxiety, or existential crises, those are likely the least of their problems.

I felt sick. Not the typical motion sickness that I’ve grown so accustomed to over the years, but sick at myself. Sick about me being me. I felt a sudden urge to dump out all of the over-priced, name brand, bullshit camping and outdoor gear I’d brought with me, jump off the bus, and find a cave to crawl into.

As I sat there, basking in a guilt of white privilege, the bus approached another pueblo. This one was bigger than most of the others we’d passed and there was… something, going on. I could hear loud speakers blaring music – a type I didn’t recognize as the omnipresent salsa, merengue, bachata, nor Kendrick.

As the bus rolled to a stop, I counted about a hundred people congregated in a large, open space, eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and celebrating. (What they were celebrating, I haven’t a clue and likely never will. From what I have been able to ascertain, in Ecuador and Peru alike, there is a holiday and/or reason to party at least every other day, including funerals.)

party crowd.jpg

Children played soccer (or fútbol for the initiated) in one area; grown-ups played volleyball in another; a man juggled what looked to be a mixture of balls, car parts, and small appliances; people danced everywhere, yet no place in particular; and, everyone, ages 10 to 90, was, as far as I could tell, drunk out of their minds.

Distracted by the chaos unfolding out the window to my right, I was surprised to glance forward and see a masked murderer sitting in the middle of the road. Seeing as the wall of a cliff bordered the road on the left side, and several cars bordered the other side, there would be no going around the murderer. Clearly, the driver would have to run him over.

  Above: Masked murderer, sprawled in roadway.

Above: Masked murderer, sprawled in roadway.

So, naturally, the driver stayed stopped and opened the doors to let passengers off and let the murderer on so he could kill everyone aboard.

I gaped in horror as the murderer drunkenly crawled to his feet, nearly fell over, caught himself using the mostly-empty bottle of liquor he held in his hand, stumbled head-on into a parked car, and then finally righted himself. He staggered toward the bus driver’s opened window and thrust the bottle inside. The murderer slurred at the driver in a bizarrely terrifying, high-pitched squeal, demanding that the driver take a drink and pay a toll to pass through town.

The driver and his assistant looked at each other, smiled, and laughed, as did most of the other people on the bus. The driver shook his head no, and tried to dissuade the murderer; but the murderer persisted. Finally, the driver relented, took a minuscule swig from the bottle, passed it to his assistant, handed it back to the murderer, and handed him a few coins. The murderer staggered off, finally. Crisis averted.

With that close call past, it was time to move on… Or so I thought.

Before the driver could close the passenger door, an armed soldier climbed aboard, his rifle sloppily slung across his shoulder. Like the masked murderer, the soldier carried a bottle of booze.

Also like the masked murderer, the soldier demanded that the driver take a drink; but, unlike the murderer, the soldier had a shot glass and filled it to the brim before thrusting it at the driver.

As everyone (except terrified me) laughed at this production, I noticed the soldier’s rifle was made of wood and heavily rusted steel; his uniform, stained by years of hard-soldiering, no doubt, looked like a costume from the Three Amigos (or perhaps the yet-to-be-written Three Amigos Go to Ecuador). If the soldier was ever on active duty, it had been no less than 100 years prior.

The driver made little effort to dissuade the soldier and took the drink. But, this was no pretend swig as before with the murderer. The driver emptied the shot glass in an easy gulp, and then did so again when the soldier demanded he take another.

“Great,” I thought. “I’m in the middle of Mad Max: Fury Mountain Road Meets Three Amigos at 3,000 meters above sea-level on the side of a cliff, and my driver is shit-housed. Awesome. Super. Wonderful!”

The soldier finally disembarked and, at last, we passed through the pueblo.

We continued on, higher, higher into the mountains, often surrounded by clouds. The higher we climbed, the more terrifying the road became. At any given point, we were surrounded on one side by the wall of the mountain, and on the other by nauseatingly steep cliffs. The dirt road was plagued with potholes and deep rivets, and, several times, the driver had to make two-, three-, and 14-point turns to navigate the bus around switchbacks in the road.

There were no guardrails. If one wheel went off the side, the entire bus would slide off and roll down, with all of us in it, into the cloudy oblivion below. There would be no survivors.

Eventually, the bus began descending. Slowly, the road wound down, out of the clouds, into shockingly green, verdant, yet ever-steep fields of agriculture. Despite a century or two of obvious deforestation and over-farming, I found myself gazing with wonder and admiration at the crops growing on the mountainsides. Occasionally, I saw a man or a woman tending to their crops, walking up and down the seemingly vertical fields, as if out for a morning stroll.

Finally, the bus pulled into Insinliví and I disembarked with a handful of other people. One of those people was an alarmingly large man who shared my pasty, pale skin tone. He wore military-style cammies, and carried an externally-framed backpack that reminded me of the ALICE packs we carried around in Marine Corps bootcamp and MCT. I began walking down the only main thoroughfare in the pueblo, and could hear nothing but the large man’s footsteps closely behind mind.

“Well, this is it. I’m either going to be pummeled to death by this psycho, or he’s going to the same hostel as I am,” I thought.

I paused and swung around.

“Hi. You going to Llullu Llama, too?”

The giant stared at me blank-faced.

I tried again in Spanish.

“Vas a Llullu Llama?”

No reply.

“Ummm… El hostál... de Llullu…?”

Finally, a huge smile creeping across his face, he said “Ja! Ja! Die Herberge Llullu! Ja!”

Apparently the giant had no intention of grinding me up to make his dinner – he was just a German who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

We shook hands, exchanged names, and continued our short walk through the town. We soon found the refuge of Llullu Llama, and ducked in, away from the light mist that had begun to fall.

After checking in, I dropped my pack at my bed in the 10-person, attic-style sleeping quarters (don’t get me started); showered; made myself a cup of coffee, and carried it out back to find one of the most magnificent views of my lifetime. The back door of Llullu opened to a long, deep valley of dark green forest and cropland, the likes of which I had never, nor since, seen in my life. Perhaps best of all, there, on a retaining wall bordering the patio area, laid Balu, the hostel’s proprietor and resident St. Bernard. Balu turned his massive head toward me and we introduced ourselves.

Balu.jpg

We talked for a few minutes about nothing in particular, until we could each tell the other was content to sit and do nothing, quietly. The rainy mist had stopped, and the sky began to clear. I sat down to take in the view, enjoy my coffee, and smile.

 

From Bariloche, with Love,

~Z

 

20 Rules for Enjoying Life in South America

  Above: a ginger ponders life, the universe, and everything. Laguna 69, Cordillera Blanca.

Above: a ginger ponders life, the universe, and everything. Laguna 69, Cordillera Blanca.

DISCLAIMER: I have not visited every country in South America—not even close. However, having spent the last 49 days exploring Ecuador and Peru, and, previously, a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires and Uruguay, as well as a 15-hour layover gasping around Bogotá, I feel borderline qualified to provide you, Beautiful Reader, with the following rules for making the most of your time in South America.

A lot of these are transportation and food related. (Because you still have to eat and move about after you get here.) Some are safety related. (Because I don’t want you coming down here, doing something stupid, getting hurt, and then you/your family ranting about what a dangerous place South America is.) Others are just common sense. (Because some of you—you likely do not know who you are—just need more of it.) 

Admittedly, many of these may sound like complaints or reasons not to visit South America. Please don't take them as such. I am only trying to make sure you understand, before you get here, that this isn’t the Domain, Uptown, West 7th, LoDo, SoCo, or SoHo. Things are just different here. (And certainly for the better compared to most of the neighborhoods I just named.)  South America is absolutely beautiful, as are the people (especially in the LATAM airlines ticket offices), the cultures, and the geographies.

You should come here. It’s amazing.

So, without further adieu and in no particular order:

1)             When crossing the street, you do not have the right of way, no matter what. Even if there happens to be a pedestrian-crossing signal telling you it’s okay to cross the street, don’t even think about thinking that un-marked taxi or colectivo is going to yield to you. It will not. Even if you are crossing the street with a group of nuns carrying orphaned babies surrounded by police, you do not have the right of way.

2)             Id.

3)             Breakfast is… different. You will be hard pressed to find the breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, that I have been—er… you may be craving. In larger cities, you’ll be able to find restaurants serving desayuno Americano, and that will at least get you coffee, eggs, and a biscuit-ish bread; but, I promise you: it ain’t gonna be as Americano as you want it to be.

In many restaurants, meals, especially breakfasts, are not made to order, and you might have only one option. Don’t be surprised, especially when you’re in a small town/small restaurant, if that one option is a serving of  a simple soup, baked chicken, and a disturbingly large side of plain, white rice (see infra No. 4). 

However, "different" doesn't always mean "bad." Cafe Colibrí, in Baños, Ecuador was like walking into a garden oasis (virtually every morning for the two weeks I was in town), in which I would be served coffees, juices, fruits, and tostadas created for the saints after which the city was named. Oh, and this delicious breaky was around $4.00, depending on how many coffees I chugged. 

  The "Desayuno Colibrí" at Cafe Colibrí, Baños, Ecuador. Not pictured: delicious chicken and avocado tostada; amazing chocolate-mint-dessert-drink thing.

The "Desayuno Colibrí" at Cafe Colibrí, Baños, Ecuador. Not pictured: delicious chicken and avocado tostada; amazing chocolate-mint-dessert-drink thing.

4)             Learn to love white rice. You'll be eating a lot of it.

5)             Speaking of desayunos, this ain’t Mexico: if you’re coming for any length of time, learn some Spanish first. Seriously. If you come to South America thinking you’re going to an all-inclusive resort in [insert generic Mexican resort city here], thinking the locals will know enough English to help your gringo ass get around, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

6)             The fruit is delicious, abundant, and unique. Fruit carts are seemingly ubiquitous down here, and you’ll also find plenty of markets stocked full of fruits you’ve likely never tasted, nor seen.

One time, on a bus from Saquisilí to Insinliví, I traded an apple to the woman sitting next me, for one of the fruits she was eating. I bit into it and it had a somewhat thick, sour outside, but a delicious, juicy, sensuous inside.

“¿!Que es esto!?” I inquired.

“Es mango,” she replied.

Okay, apparently, I’d only had mango in juice form before—sue me, you litigious so-and-so. My ignorance of fresh fruits aside, I promise you can, and very much should, try the unique and delicious fruits you’ll encounter.

7)             When dining out, go about two hours before you’re hungry, and be patient. (Or, just do what I do: eat; go back to the Airbnb to use the facilities; then immediately go back out for your next meal.) If you’re in a rush, don’t go to a restaurant thinking you’re going to be in and out like you’re getting a to-go order of Arby’s beef-and-cheddar, with curly fries and delicious Arby’s Sauce.

More than one South American I’ve met has joked about folks down here doing everything on their own time. So, I’m comfortable telling you that many things just run slower. This holds true in restaurants and virtually every other aspect of life here. So, tranquilo. (Spanish for “chill the fuck o*ut.”)

That said, don’t be shy about approaching the waiter and asking for your check (or another beer). They won’t take offense.

8)             Everything is under construction, all the time. It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about—roads, buildings, cars, the plane you’re about to board and fly into a terrifying storm over the Andes—nothing is finished being built and/or repaired. It’s like living on I-35 between Waco and Austin, but much, much prettier, and without the road rage.

9)             DO NOT WALK AND TEXT. You will fall into a hole, a construction site (see id), or a bizarrely deep drainage ditch, or off of a bizarrely high, beautiful mountain. You’re probably walking around on your phone right now, reading this awesomeness. Stop it. God knows I’ve been guilty of it myself, but South America quickly broke me of this bad habit. There is something dangerous (albeit possibly very pretty) to fall into or off of, everywhere you go.

  Unmarked sidewalk hole in which to fall and break one's ankle; standard variety.

Unmarked sidewalk hole in which to fall and break one's ankle; standard variety.

10)          The Galapagos are fucking exp*ensive. They’re also insanely beautiful, and not to be missed under any circumstances. Traveling on limited funds? Too bad. Bust your budget. Inherit some money. Rob a few dozen colectivos. I don’t care what you do: just don’t miss this incredible place.

  Isla Isabela, Galapagos Islands.

Isla Isabela, Galapagos Islands.

Being the ginger that I am, I’m not particularly drawn to tropical regions, even gorgeous ones. Heat and humidity are always miserable—I don’t care where you are. And, as we all know, the sun is the devil (see infra No. 11). Those facts notwithstanding, the beauty of this place amazed me.

Diving with sharks, sea turtles, and manta rays? Check. Seeing Red-Listed Blue-Footed Boobies nesting eggs on the ground because they have no natural predators in the Galapagos? Check. Watching penguins chill on volcanic up crops in middle of the ocean? Check.

Just shut up; fork over your money; go.

  A blue-footed boobie keeps two eggs warm, and wonders why humans have no decency. 

A blue-footed boobie keeps two eggs warm, and wonders why humans have no decency. 

11)          The sun is the devil, so lather up. And, it’s not just gringo gingers who feel this way. When your native-born freediving or climbing instructor with the mocha-toned skin hits you up for some of your sunblock, you know the sun here is not something with which you should trifle.

Remember: Ecuador is thusly named because it’s on the damned equator. When you’re in those parts, and/or on the side of a 5,000-plus-meter volcano, you’re literally closer to the sun.

Don’t be stupid: shell out twenty-three dollars—literally what I paid in Puerto Ayora—for high-quality sunblock. I recommend something between SPF 50, SPF 24 million, and SPF Ginger (available only by prescription issued by physicians who are also gingers; ergo, generally not available in South America).

12)          You’re getting dogs, so bring good earplugs. Yes. You read that correctly. No matter which city, region, or country you visit, upon arrival you will immediately be issued several dogs (as they like to travel in packs). What’s that? You’re a cat person, you say? Allergic to dogs, are you? Too damned bad. You’re getting some dogs.

There is no central authority to explain which dogs are yours, but the dogs will let you know. They will be lounging just outside the airport, in the middle of the street, inside bars and restaurants, and, always—always—immediately outside your window, barking their heads off while you’re trying to sleep at night. Don’t forget those earplugs.

In general, your dogs will be stray if not outright feral, mangy, apathetic to your presence, yet simultaneously unpredictable.

  One of my many S.A. street dogs.

One of my many S.A. street dogs.

Pro tip: pick out good names for your dogs—it makes them much cuter when they steal food off of the table in the restaurant you’re eating in, lunge at you from the shadows when you’re walking home at night, and bark all damned night long. I’ve named all of my S.A. (pronounced “ese”) dogs “Cállate el Bitey” for the sake of accuracy and not having to remember a new dog name every town I go to.

13)          Don’t drink directly from the big beer bottles and take them back to the bodega when you're finished. Several breweries here still re-bottle. And, at least in Peru, when you return them, you'll get back 1 sole (about 33 cents) and the bodega owner's gratitude.

14)          “Just Say No” to giardia: buy a Sawyer water filter (or similar device) before you come. Unless your guts are already lined with lead from the paint chips you ate as a child, drinking water from the tap and the vast majority of natural water sources is not safe. Not only will a water filter save you from spending your entire trip in the restroom, you will avoid using plastic bottles that will end up in a landfill, on the side of a road, in a water source, in an animal’s stomach or yours.

15)          The Andes are insanely, outrageously beautiful… And altitude sickness sucks. (Ask me how I know). Read this and sort by “Elevation.” (Or Google “Um, tell me again how high that city is???” before you leave home.) If the city you’re flying into is in the top twenty or thirty, and you’re a sea-level dweller, as I was, be prepared to be tranquilo for a few days while your body and brain acclimate to the altitude. The odds are slim that you will suffer from sever AMS as soon as you hit the ground in Quito, Bogotá, or La Paz; but minimize strenuous activities for a while, drink as many fluids as you can stand (cold beer doesn’t count), and get plenty to eat.

  In the distance, the Cordillera Negra, seen from Vallunaraju base camp, 4,950 meters above sea level.

In the distance, the Cordillera Negra, seen from Vallunaraju base camp, 4,950 meters above sea level.

16)          The beef is amazing. (At least Buenos Aires.) If you’re flying into, say, Buenos Aires, you’ll be at seal-level and won’t have to waste time “acclimating” or fighting “altitude sickness.” Accordingly, upon arrival following your insanely long, multi-connection, 17-plus-hour fight from not-Buenos Aires, I advise you skip going to your hotel/Airbnb/business meeting, and sprint to Steaks by Luis (but be sure to make your reservations at least a few weeks in advance).

Luis.jpg

As with the Galapagos, by all means: shut up; fork over your money; go. I don’t care if you’re vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, or an outright freedom-hater. I ain’t trying to hear that. It’s going to be the best wine, cheese, pork, and cow you ever put in your mouth. Go.

17)          Transportation is… not great. So, if you suffer from motion sickness, bring drugs. I’m sorry, South America—I really do love you, but it’s true: your transportation infrastructure sucks.

Get used to: shitty roa*ds; taxies with shot struts; sweltering buses and colectivos packed like gingers fighting for spots of shade on the equator; and, perhaps the worst, an alarming lack of German-made autos. (I know, I know, I know—that's terrible. I’ve already spoken to the authorities and they’re now working on implementing a Yugo-Porsche exchange program. So, ¡tranquilo, por favor!)

More importantly, if you’re an unfortunate soul, like me—you see how terrible my life is—and you suffer from motion sickness, I strongly advise you stock up on dimenhydrinate (a.k.a., Dramamine) and/or scopolamine patches. I’ve been fortunate enough to find dimenhydrinate in the couple of pharmacies I’ve searched in Buenos Aires and Guayquil; but, for patches, unless you have a “doctor” supplying you “prescriptions” somewhere in S.A., you’ll need to go to your PCP before you leave the States for a script. Both medicines have side effects and I’ve experienced them from both.

(You wear scopolamine patches for up to 72 hours—I had blurry vision up close and my equilibrium was definitely a bit off when on dry land, both being common side effects. The day after I made the boat ride to Puerto Villamil from Puerto Ayora, before I realized I was having side effects, I woke up, tried to walk into the bathroom, but instead did a face-plant into the doorjamb—not joking.)

18)          Walk through dark alleys in unfamiliar neighborhoods, alone, at night. That was a test. If you read that and thought, “Okay, cool. Will do,” you should stay at home, forever.

Thus far, I’ve yet to feel unsafe at any point in South America (except crossing streets); but I also always remain aware of my surroundings, sure as hell avoid dark alleys, and generally keep my head on a swivel. If you wouldn’t do something back home, don’t do it here.

19)          Learn to love fireworks and explosions (assuming you don’t already). The first time I heard “fireworks” go off in Ecuador, which happened to be right around Christmas time, I thought, perhaps, someone was doing a reenactment of the Tet Offensive. It turned out just to be a Tuesday.

Folks love them some fireworks down here. They have all kinds, set them off at all times of day and night, for any or no reason.

Be advised: many of them are not so much “fireworks” as much as they are “loud, airborne explosions.” As it happens, those filmed below were being set off as I wrote this. At first I thought, “Good grief, it’s Monday morning, people.” Then I thought, “You know, I hate Mondays, too. Monday mornings are a perfectly valid time to explode things.”

[Incidentally, I think today also happens to be near the end of Carnival, but, mostly, I think people just like to blow shit up and make loud noises.] 

20)          Come prepared to live life to the fullest and fall in love. Despite only having seen a small fraction of South America, I absolutely love this continent. I can’t fully explain how or why. But, come on down. You’ll find out for yourself.

From Huaraz, with Love,

~Z

 

Cotopaxi

  Above: the mighty Cotopaxi stratovolcano. 

Above: the mighty Cotopaxi stratovolcano. 

Just beyond a sign marking the main entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, the bus slowed and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. Brittany, Nir, and I disembarked, and the attendant/herder retrieved my pack from below the bus. I performed a quick once over on my precious cargo to ensure neither thieves nor ISIS had tampered with it. They had not.

The attendant/herder pointed us in the direction of two small, white, quad-cab, tour guide pick-up trucks that sat parked on the shoulder of an on-ramp leading toward the park. The three of us began walking toward the trucks and one of the tour guides met us halfway.

Between Nir’s command of Spanish and mine (read: Nir translated for me), we ascertained from the driver, who introduced himself as Patricio, that he would drive us into the park, and then to the base of Cotopaxi, where he would allow us plenty of time to asphyxiate whilst climbing to the refugio, and then to a lake that sat below.

“¿Entonces, no irás en el expedición con nosotros? I asked

Our would-be “tour guide” looked at me with pity, as if I was a 10-year-old who had just been told Santa Claus is not real.

I only understood part of Patricio's response, but I took it to mean “Oh, hells to the no, I’m not climbing up that damn thing with you people. Are you kidding? It’s cold up there and there’s a heater in my truck. Also, it’s getting close to my nap time, so I’ll be sleeping in my nice warm truck while you gringos freeze your asses off.”

“Fair enough,” I said to no one in particular.

Understanding that Patricio was to be more of a driver and less of an anything else, we agreed to pay him $25.00 per person, and climbed into the small truck.

Nir and Brittany being a couple worked in my favor here, and they offered me the front seat. I was greatly relieved, because, aside from having a little extra legroom in the front seat, I can also (usually) overcome my life-long battle with motion sickness. [Leave me alone. The struggle is real, y’all!] If that turned out not to be the case here, at least I could projectile vomit toward the windshield, as opposed to the backside of one of my new friends’ headrest.

To even greater relief, the road leading into and through the main entrance of the park turned out to be freshly paved and well maintained. The truck puttered along smoothly, with nary a proverbial bump in the road. 

I was impressed much, much too soon, as the blacktop soon ran out and we continued on along a potholed, uneven dirt road.

Nine hours later – okay, okay, it was 25 minutes; but it felt like a lifetime of having my kidneys punched on – we rounded a bend. To our right, across a long, open field that rose into the sky, sat Cotopaxi.

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Our driver pulled to the side of the road, where we eagerly jumped out and snapped a few pictures. Still below the base of the volcano, the temperature had dropped noticeably from the park entrance, some 500 vertical meters below and behind us. As I scurried back to the warmth of the truck, I noticed that we were in a valley of sorts, wedged between Cotopaxi and other surrounding mountains. Clouds whipped around the mountain peaks and down into the valley at bizarrely fast speeds

"Hmm,” I said, again to no one in particular. “I wonder if it’s going to rain.”

Loaded back into the truck, we continued on.

Around 700 vertical meters later, we reached the “parking lot” at Cotopaxi’s base. By “parking lot,” I mean a spot where the road dead ends and vehicles park disturbingly close to the steep edge of the road, where any man, woman, child, or truck could easily roll off and down to their doom.

“Mira, el refugio es allí,” Patricio said and pointed to what looked like a lunchbox made for ants sitting precariously on a cliff high above.

“¿!El, huh?!” I asked in my best Spanish.

“Sí, el refugio,” Patricio replied politely and pointed again.

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Abovea view of the refugio, barely visible and just inside the snow line.

Brittany, Nir, and I looked at each other and accepted our sentencing.

Me being me, i.e., always super, super well-prepared, Nir and Brittany waited patiently while I scrambled to pull on my North Face windbreaker, re-tie my hiking boots, and extend my hiking poles to the exact length that I absolutely had not bothered to remember.

We set out, and I noticed immediately I was the only person among dozens of others on the mountain who was using hiking poles. Not only that, I saw several people dressed in blue jeans, light sweatshirts, and definitely not hiking boots. Yet, they all seemed to pass me by like truck drivers answering the call of free methamphetamine somewhere along I-35. 

15 steps above the "parking lot," I collapsed, gasping for breath, my head spinning, my chest spasming, heart threatening to burst from my chest. As I fell, I began to slide in the loose, grey, volcanic dirt. Down and down I slid to the edge of a massive fissure that dropped 50 meters below.  Over the edge I went.

Okay, just kidding, again. I’m totally still alive – tranquilo!

I had to stop to catch my breath numerous times along the way up to the refugio and every time I leaned against the support of my hiking poles, I gazed toward the massive fissure. Even though it was at least 15 meters away and the odds of falling into it were virtually zero, its sharp mouth seemed to lie open, waiting to gobble up the unfortunate soul who came too close to the edge.

Above: clouds race into a deep fissure to the immediate west of the refugio hiking trail. 

The steepness of the volcano, combined with the texture of dirt and rocks leading up the volcano made for sloppy, slow dredging, the likes of which I had certainly never experienced before (but which – SPOILER ALERT – I would encounter again a couple of weeks later on a different volcano) . For every step I took, the dirt would slide me back down another three or four inches.

As we made our way up, I was relieved to see that Nir was taking the hike fairly slow as well. Whether he did so out of sheer pity for me or because he also was struggling, I didn’t know and I didn’t care - I was just happy not to be left in the dust. Meanwhile, Brittany had scampered a few dozen meters ahead of us, seemingly unfazed by the altitude, the terrain, nor the quickly worsening weather.

IMG_20171227_113137.jpg

From left to right: Brittany, Nir, and a ginger pause to catch their breath and a quick photo op.  

About halfway to the refugio, we stopped to catch our breath and looked down toward the “parking lot.” The weather had changed from “party cloudy,” to “can’t see shit” (which is technical phraseology taught to all pilots and air traffic controllers). The vehicles were invisible, enveloped by thick white clouds that began to chase us up the mountain. Then, it began to snow.

 

HISTORICAL INTERLUDE

 

A battle raged at the foot of a mountain.

In the middle of absolute, gory chaos, an Inca warrior spotted a vulnerable adversary, and shot an arrow into the un-armored left flank of a young conquistador. As the arrow lodged itself deep inside the conquistador’s ribcage and tore violently through his left lung, he tried to scream. All he could muster was a blood-choked gurgle of agony and despair.

Panicking, the young conquistador made what would be the last mistake of his short life. Disoriented and trying in vain to dislodge the arrow, he ran. But, rather than running back to the safety of the conquistadors’ horse-mounted line, he ran directly into the sea of oncoming Incans.

Another Inca warrior spotted the injured conquistador and charged toward him. As the Inca charged, he expertly swung a long sling over his head. The sling was almost two meters long, hand-woven, and braided with different colors of llama wool. The precise, elegant craftsmanship betrayed the nature of the sling’s deadly cargo: a smooth, oblong-shaped stone, weighing just under one kilogram.

Suddenly, hearing the battle yell of the Inca warrior, the young conquistador realized his mistake and attempted to retreat in the other direction.

It was too late.

The Inca made one last overhead rotation of the sling, and, from 15 meters away, launched the stone at the conquistador. The warrior’s aim was true, and the stone struck its target, smashing into oblivion the bone, cartilage, and grey matter of the conquistador’s nose and skull.

The young conquistador did not rise again.

On the other side of the battlefield, another conquistador – this one a seasoned fighter, originally from the ranks of the lower nobility back in Spain, and having enjoyed the spoils of war on many occasion – rode atop a large, black Andalusian stallion that measured just over 17 hands. One of the few Andalusian’s to make the long, miserable voyage to the New World, the horse, like the conquistador, was no stranger to struggle and strife.

The conquistador was covered nearly head-to-toe in strong, heavy body armor, crafted thousands of miles away back in Toledo, Spain. The stallion was draped in heavy chainmail that protected its head and body from the arrows, spears, and stones of the Incas.  Despite the weight of the armor, the horse and rider moved together easily, seeming as though they were a single being.

The rider spurred the horse into a gallop, toward the sea of chaos. As he rode, he readied his lance, preparing to thrust it into an enemy. Crafted from wood and razor sharp Toledo steel, the lance was over 10 feet long, thereby saving the conquistador the inconvenience of having to dismount his steed in order to murder enemy fighters.

As he charged, several of the Incas fled in fear, having never seen a horse, let alone one so massive and covered in armor. One Inca, however, stood his ground and readied an arrow. Three seconds later, he loosed the arrow directly at the conquistador’s head. It made contact, but bounced harmlessly off the of the mounted devil’s helmet.

The Inca watched helplessly as the arrow fell to the ground. Then, he ran.

It was too late.

The stallion closed the gap and was upon the warrior within seconds. The conquistador thrust the lance deep into the warrior’s back, severing his spinal cord.

The Inca warrior did not rise again.

As the battle raged, a deep, menacing grumble rose from within the mountainous battlefield.

At first, no one – Spaniard nor Inca – noticed, and the violence on the mountain side continued.

Minutes later, without warning, the mountain belched thick, dark grey, sulfury, smoke thousands of feet into the air. The ground shook violently below the combatants. The eruption sent thousands of igneous rocks – some the size of peas, others the size of small cars – flying into the air.

The combatants all stopped and gazed, dumbstruck and terrified, toward the top of the mountain.

Then, hot ash and rocks began to rain down upon the battlefield. Sulfurous smoke filled the air, making it impossible to breathe. Lava began slithering from the volcano, into sharp, deep fissures, that creased the mountain, created by millenia of similar lava flows and eruptions.

The combatants – Spaniard and Inca alike – ran for their lives.

The battled ended.

.           .           .

Okay, yeah. So I’ve taken some liberties here. I am certainly no historian of the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire. I don’t know how much time passed between the time Cotopaxi erupted and the time everyone hauled ass off the mountain. Nor, do I know, precisely, how any single warrior died; but you can bet your bottom dollar that battle during that time was a violent, hands-on, and gory experience.

In 1534, Cotopaxi really did erupt during a battle between Spanish conquistadors and the Incas. (There may also have been other Native peoples fighting along side the Spanish, as the Incas had long forced other cultures into assimilation and submission, much as the Spanish would do to the Incas.) The violence of a full-scale battle was actually interrupted by an even more violent act of nature.

Naturally, an eruption of any size out of Ecuador’s second highest mountain peak probably scared the living shit out of everyone – warriors or not. So, it’s not hard to imagine them all running for their lives, content to leave killing each other for another day, as opposed to getting killed right then and there by the demon that was spewing forth from the volcano.

I thought about these things as we trudged upward to the climber’s refugio, knowing that Cotopaxi’s last eruption, which lasted over five months, was only two years in the past. In fact, Cotopaxi was only re-opened for climbing on October 7, 2017, less than four months before I arrived in Ecuador.

.          .         . 

Just as the snow and clouds began to envelope us, we reached the refugio, where we took a few quick photos standing at the elevation marker, holding out the attached Ecuadorian flag. Obligatory photos taken, we huddled into the refugio with a few dozen other people, and enjoyed a few minutes of warmth and relaxation.

As I sat, I contemplated the fact that, even at 4,864 meters above sea level, we were still another 1,000 meters from the mighty Cotopaxi’s summit. Suddenly, I felt very, very small. 

Rested and warmed, we agreed it was time to head back to the truck. As we made our way down, intermittent rays of sun shone through the clouds, only to be quickly extinguished and replaced by what I absent-mindedly described aloud as sleet.

“I think that’s hail,” Nir said.

Nir was undoubtedly correct, but at the moment I didn’t care what the - ahem - hail it was. It was cold and stung as it managed time and time again to prick the few exposed pieces of my face.

Back in the "parking lot," Patricio welcomed us back, and we crawled into the truck’s warmth. With more vehicles having arrived during our absence, Patricio managed to execute a 73-point u-turn and we headed back down from whence we had some.

I was exhausted. Between waking up in the pre-dawn hours, jumping on and off buses, and “climbing” a volcano, not only was I exhausted, I had forgotten that there was a “tour” of the lake yet to come.

As we pulled into the parking lot by the lake – an actual parking lot this time – the sleet/hail had turned to rain. From what I could tell Nir and Brittany shared my relative disinterest in walking around the lake in the rain. Nevertheless, we put our rain gear back on, and walked the 100 meters or so to a gazebo that cropped out from the lake’s shoreline.

From there, we enjoyed the shelter and gazed back toward the Cotopaxi. It stood, unfazed, watching back at us, just as it had done to countless other humans for millennia before.

                                    

We stayed for about 10 minutes and then headed back to the truck, again relieved to be in the warmth and relative comfort of the small pick-up truck.

About 40 minutes later, Patricio dropped us off near the highway, where we had begun.

Brittany, Nir, and I exchanged farewells, and they headed toward the northbound side of the highway, to catch a bus back to Quito. I shook hands with Patricio, gave him an inappropriately small tip [hey, I’m living on peanuts during this trip, leave me alone!], and hoisted my 386-pound backpack onto my shoulders. I made my way over the bridge to the southbound side of the highway, where I began walking toward my destination for the evening: Guaytacama. 

Once again, I traveled alone. 

 

From Guayaquil, with Love,

Z

City Escape

  Latacunga -- er... Cotopaxi or bust!

Latacunga -- er... Cotopaxi or bust!

At Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe, I leapt (read: was pushed) from the Metro into a sea of commuters who dashed this way and that, each trying to catch their next connection.

With backpack loaded heavy and awkward on my shoulders, I labored through the chaos toward three ticket counters that each read “Latacunga.” As I approached, attendants behind thick, glass ticket windows each yelled toward me, attempting to gain my business. I picked one at random.

I knew from more high-level planning that, to get to the entrance of Parque National Cotopaxi, I needed to take the bus route that terminated in Latacunga; but, I was somewhat concerned by the fact that, at the ticket counter, Cotopaxi was not listed as a stop.

“¡¿Cotopaxi!?” I inquired through the holes in the glass window.

“¡Latacunga!” the attendant replied.

“¡Quiero que ir a Cotopaxi!” I countered.

“¡Sí, Latacunga!” came the attendant’s retort.

Her logic was sound. There was no refuting her argument. I conceded the point and purchased a ticket to Latacunga for $1.50.

Ticket in hand, a station attendant herded me, along with hundreds of other cattle, through double turnstiles, toward the departure gates. As I approached my bus, the driver, waiting just outside the door, offered to put my absolutely-too-large-to-put-in-the-cabin backpack under the bus. Knowing from research to never, ever let anyone take my pack and put it under the bus, where it would be out of sight and unprotected, I immediately surrendered it to driver, grateful to unload the monolith from my body.

“Tranquilo,” the driver said, reading my relieved, yet always paranoid mind. “Tu maleta es seguro.”

In what I could tell was an obvious, and much appreciated, effort to put me at ease, the driver showed me to the passenger side of first row of the bus, directly over the compartment that held my pack, where I could and make sure no one was absconding with it. (I later realized, having actually read my next ticket, that when you purchase an inter-municipal bus ticket, seats are typically assigned at the ticket counter. The passenger side first row often only has one seat, as was the case here; and I was traveling solo. Ergo, the driver showed me to this particular seat because it was the one to which the ticket counter attendant assigned me.)

As I gazed out of the window, a younger man approached the driver. They exchanged pleasantries, and the younger man hopped aboard and into the driver’s seat. Come to find out, the gentleman I thought to be the driver was actually more of an attendant/herder of men and women, who saw to luggage that needed to be stowed below the bus, shuffled passengers around the cabin as they entered and exited, and, sometimes – sometimes not – collected bus fares.

Soon, we pulled away from the gate and began our departure from the terminal.

The bus crawled toward the terminal’s gates, which appeared to be wide-open for any bus, car, person, or Boeing 747 to enter. As we approached the exit, the bus picking up speed, the attendant/herder signaled to two men, whom he appeared to know, standing near a sidewalk. They scurried through the crowd of vehicles and people toward our bus and jumped aboard through the open double doors. The two men exchanged laughs and smiles with the attendant/herder and made their way to seats toward the back of the bus.

About five meters later, a man wearing a crisp uniform, a billy club, and a very serious frown jumped aboard the bus, yelling. Apparently a transportation policeman of some kind, he yelled at the attendant/herder in words I understood to roughly translate to: “They didn’t pay! Get them the hell off of the bus!”

The bus slowed again, but absolutely did not stop, and the stowaways and policeman jumped off.

Approximately 20 meters later, with the terminal gates still well within view, the stowaways, having chased the bus through the crowd, jumped back aboard. They exchanged more grins and laughter with the attendant/herder and made their way back to the seats they hadn’t purchased. I couldn’t help but grin as well, internally cheering their successful effort to buck the system.

Finally en route, the driver whipped the bus mercilessly through backstreets that were seemingly much too narrow for the bus’s girth, at speeds seemingly too rapid for human safety. At every turn, the nose of the bus appeared destined for a collision with the corner of a building or a signpost. The top of the bus leaned at precarious, top-heavy angles, passengers swaying and jerking from side-to-side, like helpless stalks of corn clutching to the ground through a windstorm.

We finally cleared the southern end of Quito, and turned onto E-35, the main highway traveling north-to-south, which more or less runs through the heart of Ecuador.

Suddenly, I found myself white-knuckling the armrests of my seat, as the numbering and bisecting nature of the highway reminded me of the damned and loathsome road that is I-35, back in Texas. I felt my face turn hot and red, as I thought about the road where I spent un-countable hours of my precious, short life wondering why the troglodytes operating the vehicles in front of me do not understand, despite the large signs every five miles, that the left lane is for passing only; how long it would be before, one day, a sleepless, cranked-out driver of an 18-wheeler would slam my car into a guardrail, or worse; and, whether the “home protection” rounds of my safely-stored (read: in the unlocked glove box) XD 9mm Sub Compact would pierce the radiator and engine blocks of the dualies spewing soot and smell into the air, as driven by rednecks and other assholes who felt the need to overcompensate for… something.   

A gust of cool wind from the still-open bus doors hit me in the face, and I snapped back into the moment. “Breathe,” I thought. "In through the nose; out through the mouth... There you go... Tranquilo... Hey, look, a mountain. Hey, look another mountain... This is swell... I am happy... I am on a bus in the middle of Ecuador."

My mind back aboard the bus, I realized that, directly behind me, I was hearing a conversation in English. I turned to find a young couple, probably in their mid-twenties, chatting.

“Are y’all going to Cotopaxi?” I asked.

“We are,” they replied.

“Excellent. So am I. I’m Zac. Do you want to hire a guide with me?” I stammered, excited to not have to translate words in my head before speaking.

“I’m Nir and this is Brittany,” Nir replied. “That sounds good.”

I had made my first new traveling friends.

 

From Baños, with Love,

Z

The Metro; Altitude; and Skynet

  The Virgen del Panecillo stands watch over Quito, Ecuador.

The Virgen del Panecillo stands watch over Quito, Ecuador.

 

I spent the better part of Christmas Day, and the next, traipsing around Quito, exploring the sites and sounds of a city whose airport ate my at-the-time-(spoiler alert!)-yet-to-be-utilized Osprey backpack.

Anyone who has had to make a last-minute Christmas Day jaunt to the grocery store for dinner ingredients, or a few cases of beer, knows how eerily wonderful a city can be during those precious hours. It is as though you have an entire city to yourself. You can drive as fast as you want. You don’t have to wear clothes. You can steal anything your heart desires. Because, hey: no one’s looking.

The area of Quito I stayed in, near La Pradera, far from the touristy areas, felt much the same, except I didn’t have a car to drive; I wore clothes because it was a bit chilly and rainy; and I didn’t steal anything, because I’m not inclined to explore the Ecuadorian legal system as an active participant. Virtually every store and restaurant were closed; a few cars passed by occasionally; and, the only significant noise came from the relatively empty Metrobus-Q, the city’s carotid artery of public transportation.

THE METRO

The Metro, even on Christmas Day, runs like a well-oiled machine. The equivalent of an aboveground subway, running mostly north and south, it has platform stations at regular intervals along the city’s main thoroughfares. For $0.25 (Ecuador is on the USD, so it makes life easy for a noob traveler of South America), you can access three different Metro lines, which, in turn, will lead you to another ubiquitous bus service, which I failed to utilize. (See infra.) And, like a regular subway, the doors to the Metro will close on you in a heartbeat – young, elderly, disabled, pretty, or ugly, the drivers do not discriminate; so step lively.

(Incidentally, Quito Metro, the municipal transportation authority, is in the process of constructing a 22-kilometer, 15-station, underground transportation system, the Metro de Quito. The system will transport an estimated 400,000 per day; and, if you believe the illustrations and descriptions on billboards above the areas where stations are being constructed, it will rival subway systems of any major modern city. Scheduled to be operational in July 2019, the project will cost approximately $2 billion. Compared to certain underground transportation projects in the States, that may seem like a bargain. However, considering the fact that $2 billion is a whopping ten percent of Ecuador’s GDP, investors obviously see a great deal of potential for the project.)

Determined to stop moping about my lost backpack (still looking at you, LATAM!), I took the advice of the Google Trips app, and decided to check out El Panecillo, a long-dormant volcano turned city park, featuring a towering monument of the Virgin Mary.

After my Airbnb hostess, Cecilia, provided me with instructions on how to use the Metro and which station to stop at to get to the park, I jumped on the bus, zipped through the city, and soon saw the statue of the Virgin Mary... as the bus passed it by and it disappeared out of site. I had missed my stop.

Realizing I was lost, I hopped off at the next station and asked a Metro security guard for directions, in my always-broken Spanish. Apparently having no need to visit the statue he looks at every day from afar, he asked the station’s ticket attendant which station I should head to, who then directed me back in the direction I’d come.

“Okay. Claro. Sí. Intiendo,” I said.

Obviously understanding that I most certainly did not understand, the attendant and security guard exchanged quick, knowing grins and went about their business.

Fortunately, I’d only missed the correct station by a couple of stops, and I soon hopped off at station El Marín. From there, I could clearly see the statue of the Virgin towering on the "hill" above, but I could not see any direct route up.

Again turning to a Metro security guard for directions, he instructed me to take the “autobus azul, allí.”

“Okay,” I thought to myself. “I see the blue buses across the street. I got this.”

I proceeded to cross the street, and a taxi driver promptly attempted to gain my business. I declined and walked a few feet further. There, blue bus, after blue bus, after blue bus stopped ever so briefly for passengers to embark and disembark, and then roared onward. Unlike the Metro, here there were absolutely no indicators as to which direction each bus was headed; and buses stopped on both sides, and in the middle, of the one-way street. I can only describe the blue bus system, at least in that particular location, as a live game of Frogger, wherein, I was the frog.

Defeated, I regressed the few meters back to the taxi driver, who obviously knew the gringo would never figure out what the hell was going on, and asked him how much a ride up the “hill” to the Panecillo would cost.

“Quatro o cinco, mas o menos,” he told me.

I knew from performing high-level, advance research, i.e., reading precisely one Lonely Planet article, that the cabs in Quito are metered (with the exception of rides to and from the airport, which are a set $25.00 pretty much anywhere within the city). So, I felt relatively at ease jumping in and accepting a cab ride that I knew would get me where I wanted to go.

Siete dollars later, we were about 20 vertical meters/80 feet from the top of the hill. I’d been had. The driver had under-quoted me by a whopping two or three dollars and we weren’t even to the top. What an outrage! I threw the money directly at the driver’s face, which I’m sure hurt, because they like using coined dollars in Ecuador; and yelled at him, “I’m never coming back to your terrible country – but, also, muchas gracias, Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año, amigo, y buen día,” then tucked and rolled out of the still-moving vehicle.

Constructed over the course of four years and completed March 28, 1975, the statue of Virgen del Panecillo, a.k.a., Virgen de Quito, stands at 41 meters/135 feet [author’s note: from now on, y’all are going to have to do your own metric-to-imperial conversation, because I’m already tired of Googling it – just multiple the number of meters by 3, sprinkle on few more meters for good measure and voilà!] tall, including the 11-meter base, making it taller than the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The Virgin stands watch over the northern half of Quito from atop Bosque de Panecillo, a city park that tops out at 3,000 meters, about 150 meters over the base elevation of the city.

ALTITUDE

Having climbed the equivalent of a few flights of stairs, from where my body stopped rolling out of the cab, to the top of the park, I gasped my way over to the base of the Virgin. I craned my neck upward, in awe. Hard to fully appreciate from below on the city’s floor, the statue’s height was truly remarkable. A few brave souls had even paid the small entry fee to climb the base of the statue from inside the structure.

 

As I turned from the Virgin to admire her view over the city, I felt… something. I was not positive what, at first. It started with a slight twinge of nerves, somewhere between my stomach and head. A moment later, a pounding pain hit my frontal lobe, accompanied by a spinning sensation. I sat down to try to think about what was going on, as well as to avoid toppling over like an arbol de pelirojo. 

Then, I realized: I had been here before.

About nine months earlier, my then girlfriend and I landed in Bogotá for a 15-hour layover on our way to Buenos Aires. Arriving at 5:00 AM, we figured we had plenty of time get an Airbnb, clean up, nap, and see a few sites. After taking a two-hour coma, we arose, and took an Uber to the base of Monserrate, the 3,152-meter mountain that reigns over the city. About 30 meters along the paved, 2-hour walk up the mountain, we looked at each other. Completely winded, pale (more so than normal), and dizzy, we realized we had altitude sickness, and quickly retreated back to the 2,625-meter lowlands of the city below.

Back atop the Panecillo’s 3,000 meters, memories of Bogotá swam, slow and gelatinous, back into my head.

Now, if you’re a math whiz and taking notes, you may have ascertained that Quito's base altitude is a couple-hundred meters higher than Bogotá's. At 3,640 meters, La Paz, Bolivia, is the only capital city in the world higher than Ecuador's Quito.

Despite having spent a whole 24-hours in Quito prior to heading up the Panecillo, I had not quite acclimated to the altitude and lack of oxygen. However, the mere act of realizing I was suffering from a spell of altitude sickness (as opposed to food poisoning, giardiasis, and/or both) seemed to bring my head out of its haze.

I quickly chewed on the mixed nuts (insert “that’s what she said joke" here) I’d carried with me from my mom’s house in Fort Worth, bought a bottle of water, chugged it, and decided to set out for the city below.

In the distance, I could see a massive church, Bascilica del Voto Nacionál Quito, and decided it would be my next destination. I peered down into the city, trying to figure a way to walk in the general direction of the church, thinking if I could find my way there, I would be able to skip another cab ride and jump on the Metro, back to my Airbnb.

  The spires of Bascilica del Voto Nacionál Quito.

The spires of Bascilica del Voto Nacionál Quito.

I convinced myself I could find my way, and began navigating my way down the long switchback walkways that ran through the neighborhoods below.

Always alert (if not a bit paranoid) being a six-foot ginger in a foreign country, I kept my head on a swivel as I made my way down toward the city, looking out for would-be bandits and stick-up men. I passed small, ramshackle homes; men and women hand-washing clothes in community washing basins; a group of sun-worn, middle-aged men sitting at the end of a small soccer field, enjoying the virtues of being very, very day drunk; and young couples lounging here and there, hand-in-hand, cheek-to-cheek.

After about 15 minutes, I reached the bottom of the hill, and, only a few blocks later, the middle of what turned out to be the city’s historical district.

In the Plaza Grande, hundreds of people lounged, soaking in the precious few moments of the day’s sun. (During December, Quito averages near-constant cloud cover.) Children ate helados, oblivious to the previously frozen, sticky deliciousness melting down their faces and hands. Musicians and other circo de la calle-types performed for tips. And, of course, dozens of young couples held hands and smooched. (PDA is definitely a thing in South America.)

  One of many statues in the Plaza Grande; the Vigen de Panecillo looms in the background.

One of many statues in the Plaza Grande; the Vigen de Panecillo looms in the background.

 

I continued ambling northward through town, from whence I had come. The historic district behind me, I encountered a few smaller crowds in the numerous parks that I passed along the way, with nary an eye paying me any attention.

Before I knew it, I stood in front of my Airbnb, where I’d begun the day. Not only had I not been robbed at knifepoint, I had really, really enjoyed the 6.5-kilometer stroll. (Yes, of course, I went back and Googled how far I'd walked.)

SKYNET

The next day, December 26, the city returned to its routine, which, in theory, meant someone would actually be working at LATAM and might answer a telephone. With this in mind, I sprang out of bed at 4:00 AM, only to learn that Quito is much like Austin, in that 4:00 AM is still nighttime and no one is yet working. I tried, in vain, to force myself back to sleep. Around 7:00, I heard Cecilia moving about in the kitchen.

I eagerly asked if she would mind assisting me in contacting the airline, as my previous attempts through my US cell phone had been completely unsuccessful. She willingly assisted, dialing the Ecuadorian 800-number from her phone, which – get this – was a land line! It was a cordless phone, sure, but it still had a base that plugged into the wall. I gazed in awe.

Cecelia made a valiant attempt, but soon grew annoyed with LATAM’s cumbersome automated answering system.

She handed me the phone and told me there was an option to “marque dos” for English. I re-dialed the number, and quickly found myself also annoyed with the automated system.

“Please enter your claim number,” the recording instructed.

The piece of paper that the luggage attendant handed me 48 hours earlier didn’t have a claim number. Thnking myself clever, I entered my passport number instead.

“You have not entered the correct amount of numbers. Please enter your claim number,” the dastardly machine again directed.

“I don’t have a fuc—!” I caught myself a syllable short, as Cecelia sat next to me on the couch, watching expectantly.

A friend of mine has “breathe” tattooed on the top of her – if memory serves – left foot (in Elvish no less). She has no reason to know this, but when I catch myself about to scream and/or start shooting my Springfield Armory XD Sub Compact 9mm into traffic, I (sometimes) remember her tattoo, and remind myself to take a moment, calm down, and breathe (or respirar, when I’m in a Spanish speaking country).

I took a deep breath and steadied my brain. Then, I remembered: I have an extensive amount of training and professional experience navigating automated systems! Knowing then exactly how to fix the problem, I marque-d (don’t ever go around saying that, please) “0” this time, and waited for the operator to answer…

“Welcome to LATAM Airlines. Please enter your claim number.”

Skynet had won.

I became enraged and screamed, “DIE, YOU EVIL, NO GOOD, LIVER-LIPPED, SPAWN OF SATAN!” and launched Cecelia’s cordless phone out the living room window of her eighth-storey condo. We watched as it fell and smashed into a million little pieces on the street below.

Okay, I totally didn’t do that. Calm down (Mom).

I hung up, defeated… Then, the phone rang.

“What in the world?” I thought to myself. “Could LATAM actually be star-sixty-nining us, to help?”

“Ahlow?” Cecelia answered in a combination of “hola” and “hello.”

A pause.

“¡¿Ahhh, como estas, amor!? ¡Feliz Navidad!” Cecelia exclaimed to not LATAM airlines.

She gave me a “sorry ‘boutcha” look, a shrug of her shoulders, and turned toward another room to have her conversation.

Then, she paused, turned back, told her friend on the phone to “espera, por favor,” and said something that I understood to mean, “Oh, BT-dubs, there’s a LATAM office two corners over. Maybe they can help you.”

My jaw dropped.

Forty-three seconds later, I’d flown down the eight flights of stairs and made the sprint up the very, very steep hill to what was, in fact, a LATAM office.

I entered and saw that there was a short line, with several, extremely-not-unattractive attendants, each with a different shade of devastatingly gorgeous mocha-toned skin, dressed in crisp, form-fitting skirts with equally impressive blouses, jet black hair pulled into smart, tight buns atop their heads, dark brown eyes…

Whoa. Hey. Sorry. What was I talking about?

Oh, yeah…

The attendants were all helping other customers. About 10 excruciating minutes later, one of the extremely-not-unattractive attendants called me over.

Using my ever-gringo Spanish, I explained how my backpack had disappeared on Christmas Eve, likely stolen by one of Santa’s bad elves. She looked at me blankly.

“¿Tienes la papel?" she asked.

I handed her the “luggage discrepancy” paper.

She dialed a few numbers, put the phone on speaker, and began clicking away on her computer. The phone rang. And rang. And rang… and rang, and rang, and rang. I’m not even close to kidding. At least five minutes later, the attendant hung up and redialed: more of the same.

“¿Es normal?” I asked. ("Normal" is Spanish for "normal.")

“Sí,” she replied, not rudely, just indifferently.

What seemed like hours later, a voice finally answered. The voice and the attendant exchanged a few sentences; she clicked some more buttons on her computer; and then hung up. About 90 seconds had passed since the voice answered.

I looked at her, wondering what in the world had gone wrong.

“Señor E-bahns. Your maleta es here, in Quito.”

My sight tunneled to black, and I fainted.  

Apparently, I fell and hit my head, because when I woke up, my head was cradled in the lap of one of the extremely-not-unattractive attendants; one held a cold compress to my forehead; another fed me delicious, frozen grapes; while the others fanned me with palm tree fronds.

Okay. Fine. None of that happened, except the attendant telling me my bag was, in fact, in Quito.

She then told me if I returned "a las dos," my bag would be there.

Three hours later, after wondering around and having enjoyed a tasty lunch of chicken, rice, and vegetables (for the smoking deal of $2.75, including a $0.25 tip), I returned to the LATAM office. My bag was there, as promised, unharmed, still wrapped in the unnecessary bungee cords I’d stolen out of my dad’s truck three days before.

The rest of the day passed, much to my relief, without event.

I woke up the morning of the 28th, wide-awake at 5:30 AM. Cecelia apparently heard me rustling about and met me in the kitchen. She asked where I was headed and I told her “Cotopaxi, y despues Guaytacama.”

We exchanged fair wells, and she wished me safe travels.

Finally ready, I loaded (all 108 pounds of) my backpack onto my shoulders, crammed myself into the elevator down to the first floor, exited, and promptly found myself locked in the small lobby of the building.

I failed to explain this earlier, but it took four keys to get into Cecelia’s condo: one for the door to her condo, one for the elevator, one to get in and out of the lobby, and one to get in and out of the gate at the front of the driveway. Prior to departing, I surrendered my keys to Cecelia, of course, with her explaining that she would watch me from her entry way window and would use her “clicker” (a traditional Spanish word for “clicker”) to open the front gate when I approached it. But, when I got into the lobby, the concierge was not yet on duty; the door up to the (very optional) stairs was locked, as was the elevator, now that I had exited it, as was the front door.

I looked around, in vain, for an escape route, but I was stuck. I would have to wait for someone to come along and let me out. I unloaded my pack and sat on the small bench near the front desk.

“Damn,” I thought. “I’m never going to get out of here.” [“And this story is never going to end,” you’re thinking.]

I glanced around the increasingly tiny, claustrophobic lobby, hoping for a condo bulletin, emergency evacuation route, or something else interesting to read. Then, my eyes locked on it: a buzzer that deactivated the front door lock. I sprang to my feet, wrestled my pack on, hit the buzzer and flew out the door, finally free.

I walked down the driveway, elated – nothing but the open road and adventure in view… But, as I approached the gate, nothing happened. I looked back up at the eighth-storey window of Cecelia’s apartment, but, alas, no one was there. I can only presume that I had taken so long to get out of the building that she figured I had jumped out of a back window (as opposed to getting locked in the lobby due to the fact that, you know, NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WAS A BUZZER).

After a few minutes of pondering whether I could heave my backpack (which now weighed approximately 172 pounts) over the stiletto points of the cast-iron gate and crawl over without permanently injuring my unborn children, luckily a car entered from outside. As I stood there in the mist, waiting for the gate to ever, ever, ever, so… slowly… open, the vehicle’s occupants and I just looked back and forth at each other. They could only presume – rightfully so – that I was a bearded, tobogganed thief, who had loaded up his satchel with stolen Christmas goods and found myself trapped. 

Fortunately, they let me pass without questioning and I, finally (for real this time), made my way to the bus station in the cool, foggy morning haze.

Beyond the city sat Volcán Cotopaxi, hidden behind thick, gooey layers of clouds. Unseen, but not unknown, it beckoned me.

It was time to get out of town.

From Baños, with Love – and wishing you all Feliz Año Nuevo!

Z

 

 

Holiday Solitude and Gratitude

  Above: the view from the toilet in the AirBnb I stayed at over Christmas (seriously), because, hey, when else are you more alone?

Above: the view from the toilet in the AirBnb I stayed at over Christmas (seriously), because, hey, when else are you more alone?

Spending the holidays alone and away from home is absolutely, completely… cathartic. Yes. I said it. It feels… good.

There are no gifts to give, nor gifts to receive (although my mom and dad were quite generous in the giving department before I left – thanks, love y’all!); no interstates to travel, nor road rage to suppress; no meals to prepare, nor stress deciding where meals will be had. In short, spending the holidays away from home is no muss, no fuss.

This year is only the second time I recall being away from home and/or loved ones for Christmas and New Year’s, since I was in the Marine Corps. This time, though, it was by choice; and, instead of Christmas dinner in a chow hall, it was in the home of a generous and kind Ecuadorian family. (If you ever have to make the choice, I very much recommend the latter.)

For months prior to setting out on this adventure, when telling friends and acquaintances I was leaving on December 23rd, they subjected me to the same line of interrogatories: “You’re leaving right before Christmas!? Won’t you miss your family? Isn’t your mom going to be upset? Won’t you be lonely?”

“Yes. Yes. Initially, yes, without doubt. And, probably,” I would reply.

So, why would anyone intentionally cause grief to their family and be voluntarily subjected to unnecessary loneliness during what is supposed to be a friends-and-family time of year? I cannot speak for anyone else, but I did it because my lease was up and my landlord kept hounding me for past due rent.

I’m kidding about the past due rent (or am I?), but I’m not positive why I picked the date that I did, except my lease really is up on the 31st, and I found a good deal on a one-way ticket into Quito for the 23rd. So, there you have it: high-level decision making at its finest.

If I’m being honest with you, and perhaps more so with myself, I think I wanted to miss the holidays in order to miss the routine. I love my family and friends as much those of you who are reading this. However, when I booked my flight back in the summer, I felt a little spark of excitement at the idea of being a loner for the holidays.

Next year, someone will ask me, “What did you do for the holidays last year?” (Because people totally go around asking one another such things.)

“I took a one-way flight into South America; wondered around; met new people; and saw exotic places,” I will reply.

That may seem selfish, but we all deserve to be selfish sometimes.

Within reason, i.e., with individual responsibilities to family in mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting yourself first occasionally. Hell, if it keeps you sane and out of prison, be as selfish as you need to be, and tell the rest of the world to take a flying leap, from time to time.

I’m not the first person to make this argument (as people smarter than I have already noted); but, I assert that each and every one of us has a responsibility to spend some time alone, and get away from the people, places, and things that support us, as well as those that we support.

Now, before you delete and forever block my blog from your browser (or throw this book in the fireplace after it’s been made into a New York Times Bestseller), hear me out, because I can hear eyes rolling out of heads as you think to yourselves, “Easy for you to say, ginger. You’re not married and you have no kids.”

Yes, I fully acknowledge these facts. It was probably much, much easier for me to pull up my stakes, pack my bags, and bid “the real world” adieu, vis-á-vis anyone who has a family for which to care. I’m not suggesting, however, that everyone should do what I’m doing; and, for god sake, I hope most of you don’t, because the world would be a real shit show if we all just decided to turn into vagabonds.

I also acknowledge how completely, totally, insanely fortunate I am to be able to do what I'm doing, be what I am (see infra, re: privileged, white, male), and to be where I'm from. For these things, I am ever, ever grateful. 

I am only suggesting that, without regular doses of relative solitude and introspection, we easily become overly dependent on routine and being comfortable, and that can be a dangerous thing.

For me, routine and comfort had become a crutch and an excuse to avoid confronting some inner demons. The more comfortable I became, the less happy I was. I know that is a privileged, white, US-born, male thing to say (although I absolutely do not come from privilege), but it’s the truth. It may not be your truth; but it certainly was mine. I knew that, if I didn’t get out of my comfort zone and do some serious life reevaluation, something irreplaceable would break. It took much longer than it should have, but I finally had the sense to decide that that something will not be me, ever.

Not long after I announced my sabbatical, a friend told me, via text message (which is the only reason I can quote him here exactly), “We all have our breaking points. Wisdom is knowing what that point is and what to do to avoid hitting it.”

How right you are, my friend.

With sob story and soapbox complete, for the time being, I promise I'm writing about more fun and exciting things, and will post again soon. Below is a sneak peak.

From Chugchilán, with Love,

Z

  Baloo, the proprietor of Hostal Llullu Lama, Insinliví, Ecuador. 

Baloo, the proprietor of Hostal Llullu Lama, Insinliví, Ecuador. 

Quito-ohhh, My Goodness, I’m Exhausted

cotopaxi2.jpg

I know I owe you, my beloved readers – all twelve of you – an update, but I climbed a volcano today -- okay, okay, I slowly trod upon a couple thousand feet of one, but I’m telling every person who asks, and those who don’t, for the rest of my life, that I climbed a volcano, so there! 

The point being: due to the fact that I’m delirious from lack of oxygen and pure exhaustion, here are the Ginger’s Notes version of today's events (and I promise to give you a tl;dr version tomorrow for those of you who are gluttons for punishment):

·      rode in lots of buses - traffic laws: still optional;

·      gasped up the side of Volcán Cotopaxi, through wind, sun, rain, sleet, snow, and hail (I’m not exaggerating in any way, shape, or form, y’all – seriouly);

·      ate at a pizzeria in an Ecuadorian village – am definitely the only gringo within miles;

·      just filled up the bladder on my Sawyer Mini Water Hydration System as a substitute for my absolutely-must-have-bedside-nighttime-glass-of-water (just say no to giardiasis, y’all).

From Guaytacama, with Love,

Z

No One Likes to Travel (or, "Merry Christmas, from Quito")

cotopaxi.jpg
Above: clouds obscure the 19,347-foot Volcán Cotopaxi, approximately 30 miles south of Ecuador's capital city of Quito, as seen from Bosque del Panecillo.

No one likes to travel. Traveling, by and large, is unpleasant – especially international travel, and especially during the holidays. Seriously. Airports, overly-handsy TSA agents, over-booked flights, crowds, thirteen-dollar beers, "All I want for Christmas Is You" blaring through the overhead speakers for the millionth time, and redeye flights are just not fun.

But, unless you’re traveling for work (or being transported via ConAir for a government-funded, all-expense paid stay at ClubFed), you are most likely subjecting yourself to the wild monkey shit fight that is air travel, because there is a person and/or destination that makes it all worth it.

And so it came to be, on December 23, 2017, two days before Christmas (which was a Saturday for those of you reading this in the year 2216, when gingers have evolved to have golden, bronzed skin, developed an immunity to melanoma, and ascended to every single high office in the world), after subjecting my friends and family to months of excited/terrified talk about my sabbatical, that I found myself crammed into a fully booked flight from Austin-Bergstrom to Dallas-Fort Worth. Few things in life are as pleasing as a 38-minute flight and a two-hour layover to embark on an intercontinental journey. My destination: Patagonia, via a couple of months of meandering through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

While a quick layover through DFW for an international flight is far from uncommon, my lead-up to it was. On Thursday, I had to drive from Austin to Fort Worth to leave my car and other worldly belongings at my mom’s, and then have a friend drive me back to Austin (thanks, Josh!) on Friday, only to take a connection back to DFW for my connection to Quito, Ecuador, by way of Lima, Peru. Simple, right?

Upon arrival in DFW, I realized that, in Austin, American Airlines had not issued me a connecting boarding pass from DFW to Quito. After speaking with the attendant at the departure gate, and the attended told me I would have to wait for a boarding pass, I then realized why: I had been racially profiled. I couldn’t believe it. There, 20 miles from my hometown of Fort Worth, being profiled. Now, it’s not unusual for people to give canelos a second look or two in, say, Okinawa or Tulúm; but damn if I’d ever fallen victim to straight up profiling in Texas.

How do I know I was profiled, you ask? I know because as I turned away from my conversation with the attendant, there stood behind me another, equally beautiful ginger. We locked eyes, but said nothing, because gingers have the ability to communicate via an extra-sensory perception that is built into our DNA (specifically within the hair follicles, of course).

“They got you, too?” my brother thought to me.

“Sure as hell did,” I transmitted back.

We were simultaneously outraged and terrified. If there had been a couple more of us, we could have recreated the music video for MIA’s Born Free. (DISCLAIMER: NSFW nor for the squeamish). After another moment or two, we suppressed our mutual urge to burn the place to the ground, and instead opted to wait it out at the “Irish” pub that conveniently, stood only a few feet away from us in the terminal. (I kid you not. Next time you’re in terminal D, near gate 20 at DFW, look for it.) Profiling gingers, and then forcing us to sit together and drink Guinness at a wannabe Irish pub? Such injustice!

After much introspection, my ginger brother man and I decided we had not actually been profiled. We arrived at this decision after we returned to the gate and the attendant informed us that the flight had been overbooked, and they were just waiting to see if we would be among the few who no-showed, so they could issue our seats to someone else. Makes perfect sense, right? Whatever.

Eventually, the airline issued our boarding passes; I made it from Lima to Quito without further incident; and, everyone lived happily ever after… No, not really. Not. Even. Close.

Upon arrival at Lima, around 6:00 AM, I was informed that, wait for it… wait for it… the airline, this time LATAM, overbooked the connection from Lima to Quito. This time though, my physically standing at the gate had no effect on the attendant, and she informed me I would be bumped to a flight leaving at 4:15 PM. However, the airline was “kind” enough to provide me with a voucher for a round trip cab ride and a hotel room for the day.

If you’ve ever traveled in a large South American city, or even Tijuana for that matter, you know that driving and pedestrianism is less of a rules-based activity and more of a let’s-all-honk-our-horns-at-the-same-time-walk-into-traffic-without-regard-to-the-presence-of-cars-or-buses-and-ignore-all-traffic-signals type of activity. Lima is no exception.

After about 25 minutes of my taxi driver, Roger Falcon, according to the credentials hanging in the cab, reenacting the chase scene in Ronin, and being absolutely sure to reach over, touch the rosary hanging from his rearview, genuflect and, presumably, say an internal Hail Mary at unknowable but very frequent intervals along the way, we arrived at the Hotel Delfines, in the neighborhood of Miraflores.

Now, this having been my first time in Lima, I cannot say for certain that this was the Beverly Hills of Lima, but Miraflores is the Beverly Hills of Lima. Pulling into the neighborhood, I was amazed by the carefully manicured lawns, palm trees, absolute over-abundance of highly waxed German-made automobiles, and ornately strung electrified fencing over each residential security wall.

  Note the strings of electrified fencing, top left. 

Note the strings of electrified fencing, top left. 

Before Roger could even slip his taxi out of gear and engage the parking brake, a bellhop from the Delfines opened my door, handed me a cold bottle of water, and offered to help rear my first born when the time came. I politely declined the latter, but gratefully accepted the cold water (it was a sweltering 72F/22C degrees, after all), and finished making arrangements with Roger for him to return at 2:00 PM to return me to the airport.

  Hotel Delfines, Lima, Peru

Hotel Delfines, Lima, Peru

The Hotel Delfines is… ¿Como se dice?... Ah, yes: “fancy as hell.” The receptionist quickly accepted the voucher the airline provided me and I was in my room, stripped naked as a newborn baby, and enjoying a nice hot shower in 10 minutes flat. 

Having washed away the trauma of the seven-hour flight from DFW, getting bumped off my flight to Quito, and the car chase – er, cab ride from the airport, I decided to catch up on some work and some writing. I propped myself up on a pile of pillows in the cozy queen bed of my room, opened up my laptop, and promptly fell asleep. Babies don’t sleep as well as I did. (Although, I am told, sometimes babies don’t sleep. At all.)

I woke up famished, and went downstairs to the hotel restaurant, where I enjoyed a simple, but tasty, lunch of grilled chicken, vegetables and chicha morada. If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking morada, you must getcha some. I had no idea what I was drinking at the moment, but it could have been battery acid and I would have gladly accepted a second helping.

Appetite and thirst satiated, I took a stroll around the neighborhood. The surrounding homes were immaculate, the hotels even more grandiose than the Delfines, and the towering palm trees majestic. While the neighborhood was, indeed, very nice, I was particularly shocked and disappointed that there was a golf clinic, but no archery range, polo club, or F1 track… Such savagery.

  The Miraflores hood's local hangout: Country Club Lima Hotel

The Miraflores hood's local hangout: Country Club Lima Hotel

I returned to my room; Roger showed up and whisked me back to the airport; and, I boarded the flight to Quito without further incident… Until the flight reached cruising altitude.

Those of you who know me well and/or have flown with me know that I am not a fan of flying. Like I said, no one likes to travel; but, I seriously dislike the actual act of flying. It’s not so much that I actually think the plane is going to fall out of the sky; but, when there’s turbulence, not even an elephant-sized dose of Xanax and a fifth of vodka could sedate me.

Speaking of vodka: the flight into Quito shook more than James Bond's martinis. As thoughts of crash landing in the middle of snow-covered, bitter cold, Andes Mountains raced through my head, I closely analyzed my equally terrified co-passengers to determine which one would be weakest, and therefore the first to die and be cannibalized by us survivors, a al Alive. Then, without warning, the turbulence abruptly abated, and we coasted into a nice, soft landing at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport.

Remember that whole part above about the airline’s odd reticence to issue me a boarding pass in DFW, and then getting bumped from my original flight out of Lima? Assuming so, you may not be surprised to learn that the airline lost my luggage. Yup. That beautifully functional Osprey Aether AG 70 (liter), which held virtually all of the worldly belongings I am going to need to get by for the next several months, is lost, and I haven’t so much as carried it outside of an airport.

Fortunately, I made full use of the Osprey’s detachable daypack, and used it as a carry-on for my computer, other electronics, toiletries, and a light jacket. But, suffice it say that being handed a little piece of paper and told “someone will call you within 72 hours” is not how I wanted to start my time in South America (or anyplace else, ever).

With my spirits sunk to subterranean levels, I had no choice but to get in a cab and make my way to the Airbnb I reserved.

The cab driver seemed, quite understandably, confused that his six-foot, pellirojo passenger was carrying only a small backpack.

“¿Vivas acá en Quito?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“¿Tienes familia en Quito?”

“No,” I moped.

¿Cuanto tiempo se quedar?”

In my broken and, to date, saddest Spanish, I explained I was here to start a months-long trip through South America, and that LATAM had lost my backpack.

“¡Ayy!” the driver exclaimed. “¡Que pena!”

“Estamos en acuerdo,” I said.

He proceeded to assure me everything would be okay, and that, if a person has to be stranded without luggage, Quito is a good place to do it, because everyone here is nice and there are lots of things to do. Looking in the rearview, I suspect he could tell by the dejected look on my face, that this was of no solace to me.

“Tranquilo,” came the oft-heard refrain of South America. “Tranquilo.”

We arrived at the Airbnb, and my host, Cecilia, greeted me warmly at the front door of her high-rise condo building. Communicating with one of her daughters via WhatsApp -- seriously, y’all, if you’re not yet using WhatsApp, you are wrong -- I’d explained earlier in the day that I’d been bumped from my flight; and, upon arriving in Quito, that my luggage had been lost. Cecilia’s warm smile ensured me from the start that, at least as long as I am a guest in her home, everything would be okay.

We took an elevator to the top floor of the building to her condo, and Cecilia gave me a quick tour, showing me my room and the facilities. By this time, I was hungry again and asked if there was any chance of someplace being open on Christmas Eve. She replied that I could likely find a sandwich or something else in the tienda just across the street. I went to my room, unloaded my gear (what little of it I have, that is), and started to head down to the store. As I did, Cecelia stopped me.

Speaking English to me for the first time (and the only time, so far), she said, “Like your mom say, don’t eat much.”

Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she explained that she, two of her daughters and one of their friends would be having Christmas dinner at 10:00 PM, and I was expected to join them.

The fact that my host invited me, a complete and total stranger, to eat Christmas dinner with her family certainly reinforced the cab driver’s declaration that the citizens of Quito are nice people. Of course, that would be a wild understatement when applied to Cecilia and her family.

I was asked to sit at the head of the table and Cecilia presented a plate of food that looked and smelled so good I wanted to weep. All seated, we feasted on homemade hallaca (a Venezuelan recipe akin to the tamales we eat in the States), polo al orno (oven-roasted chicken), and ensalada de papas (a type of potato salad, but not what anyone who is reading this in Texas is thinking of); and, of course, red wine.

Surrounded with the warmth and kindness of complete strangers, I enjoyed one of the tastiest Christmas dinners I’ve ever had. The conversation and atmosphere were equally delightful. Cecilia’s condo is decked out in full Christmas regalia and reminds me much of the decorations in the homes of my mom and aunt in Texas. We ate, and drank, and laughed; and, at least for a couple of hours, I forgot all about my backpack being lost somewhere between Austin, DFW, Lima, and Quito.

My hosts explained to me that, in most South American cultures, Christmas festivities all take place on Christmas Eve, so that everyone can rest and recover from la cruda on Christmas Day. I explained to them that, even if my backpack does show up, I am moving in with them.

Full and exhausted, I excused myself from the table and retired to my room, where l settled my brain, and enjoyed a long, long winter’s nap.

Today, I plan to roam around and do a little sight seeing, while the streets are quite and the crowds absolutely non-existent... all while wearing the same underwear I've had on for the last three days, of course.  (Pro tip: invest in some Smartwool Merino wool underwear. I washed them out whilst showering yesterday, and they were smell free and dry within 10 minutes. Thanks, Mom!!) 

No matter whether you are Muslim, Catholic, agnostic, atheist, or none of the above; no matter if you are surrounded by friends and family (or if you’re just going to watch Netflix and chill); no matter whether you are stuck on an airplane or in an airport; no matter if you are missing your luggage: Merry Christmas, y’all!

From Quito, with Love,

Z

Here's the Original Home Page...

.. which, approximately seven people read, and refers to my original, less-inspired domain name. Seeing as how this site (and more importantly, this adventure) is a work in progress, I reserve the right to keep moving stuff around. Enjoy!

From Austin, with love,

Z

 

Departing December 23, 2017

A few months ago, as I lay in bed, trying to suppress another bi-monthly existential crisis, I made a decision. Well, I made two decisions, actually. The first decision was to get out of bed and brush the taste of the previous night's craft beer out of my month. The second decision was a bit more profound and ridiculously irresponsible: I decide to leave my job as a lawyer, break out of the velvet handcuffs that have become my life, and travel the world. I decided to become - ahem - The Lawayer. Get it? "Lawyer." "Away." "LAwayer"??? Come on, stay with me here, people.  

On December 23, 2017, I will embark on a true adventure. Starting in Quito, Ecuador, I will spend the next several months traveling through South America, New Zealand, and maybe some other places along the way and in between. 

Now, you (Mom) may be asking yourself: "Why?" Or (everyone else) more precisely, "Why do I care?" That's a good question. For the first of many answers, see above, i.e., bi-monthly existential crises. The second reason, as famed mountaineer George Mallory replied in 1923 to a New York Times reporter in response to being asked why he was attempting to climb Mt. Everest: "Because it is fucking there." Okay, so I'm paraphrasing Mr. Mallory's words, and I'm certainly not climbing Mt. Everest. But my reasoning is the same: the world is there - or, more precisely, here, right under our feet - and I don't want to die one day having left it unseen and mysterious. To live a life shackled to car payments, bar tabs, billable hours, and pay checks is not a life led, at all. 

Obviously, there are many other reasons to do what I'm doing, and we - that's you and me, beautiful reader - will get to talk all about them along the way. 

So, I hope you'll keep coming back to watch, read, and follow along as I find out why none of this is going to be as easy as it sounds; but, also, hopefully, why it will all be worth it. I'll be writing about and recording my travels along the way, so please subscribe to my RSS feed and follow me on Instagram and Twitter (@thelawayer).

From Austin, with Love, 

The Lawayer

 

Better Late Than Never

Season’s greetings, beautiful readers!

Here we are, t-minus 15 days until departure, and, as you can see by the numerous posts I’ve written here, I have spent hour-upon-hour writing and honing my craft… Okay, well, I intended to do a bit more writing than I have, but this level of genius requires extensive, time-consuming thought. So, with apologies to my editor and without further ado…

As with every other major event in my life, i.e., enlisting, studying for the LSAT, studying for the Bar – the exam, not the place – I have attacked my trip-planning with rigor and discipline; and, by “rigor and discipline” I mean “passive ambivalence.” Yeah, so I’m a bit behind on my writing and slightly less so on my to-do list.

I have managed, however, to at least get the ball rolling on wrapping up my affairs at work and home and I’ve even managed to pick up some gear for my trip along the way. And, thanks to last night’s Great Texas Blizzard of 2017, I’ve even had the opportunity to put some of that gear to the test in actual, legitimately cold weather and a little snow. (Note to self: neighbors do not appreciate testing long underwear when said underwear is all I’m wearing.)

So, aside from playing in the half-inch of snow we received during GTB17, what have I been doing, you ask? Quite a bit actually, so here is an impromptu rundown of what I’ve been up to, which, hopefully, anyone else who randomly decides to uproot their lives will find helpful.

Buying and bumming stuff

I’ve purchased a bitchin’ new Patagonia ski jacket, Merino wool hiking socks, long underwear, and a few other odds and ends; and it’s been fun, actually, reading up on gear and introducing my warm Texas soul to the concept of a cold Andes Mountains winter. But a friend giving me a high end, sub-zero sleeping bag, ultra-light weight hiking poles, and a one-man tent was way more fun. (Thanks, Scott!)

 Highly organized gear pile.

Highly organized gear pile.

Getting rid of stuff

To date, I’ve sold, donated or lent a bookshelf, a plant shelf, a shelf that held other shelves, a dresser, coolers, art work, tools, stereos, shoes that I hadn’t worn for eons, a guitar, guns (this is Texas, dammit), clothes that I hadn’t worn for eons, a car (I only cried a little), a cat, a dog (okay, okay, I didn’t “give” away my pets, but they will be enjoying an extended stay with my mom and ex-wife, respectively – thanks, ladies!), old computers, pots and pans, DVDs, a blue ray player… The list goes on, and I have more to purge, but you get the idea.   

The very notion that I, very literally, spent time and money storing some of this crap is absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing. Not only was I storing it, but, almost three years ago, I moved it from one domicile to another, only to store it again.

A few months ago, after I made the decision to take this trip, but well before I’d fully wrapped my head around what it was going to take to pull it off, I watched The Minimalists and subsequently stumbled upon a few podcasts and other stories about people who decided to ditch the majority of their personal belongings, and simplify their lives.

Now, make no mistake: I am not getting rid of my Sleep Number mattress, frankly, it kinda sucked selling a car that I loved and worked hard to buy, and limiting the number of items you possess to some arbitrary number seems a bit dumb. However, I see a lot of value in downsizing and decluttering, and I should probably be embarrassed that I just publicly admitted to being in love with a car (but, if you’re in the market, you should totally buy a Porsche – it ain’t just clever marketing, y’all).

 Bye-bye, baby.

Bye-bye, baby.

The day I got home from the Marine Corps, when I was 24 years old (five years ago, I swear), I bought a cell phone; and, I have been afflicted with Ikea Nesting Syndrome ever since. Buy, buy, buy, acquire, acquire, acquire. Something had to give, eventually. Am I saying cell phones aren’t a useful and vital means of communication now, 14 years—er… I mean, five years later? No. You pretty much have to have one these days. My point is not that recently paroled—er… recently discharged veterans shouldn’t buy cell phones; my point is that acquiring things is a slippery, slippery slope and I slipped way, way down into the ravine. I mean, for crying out loud, why was I still holding on a 40-pound Gateway desktop computer that I bought in 2002!? It was probably running on Windows 2 for heaven sake.

Hopefully this trip and the obligatory separation of wheat from chaff will remind me what’s truly important in life… like family, friends, single malts and IPAs (and not necessarily in that order).

Wrapping up my life

As final and morose as it may sound to describe this as “wrapping up” my life, preparing for a months-long journey does, in some ways, feel like I’ve become the executor of my own estate. I’ve consolidated and closed bank accounts; closed utility accounts; sold off possessions; given my apartment complex notice that I’ll be vacating; given my tenants notice that they’ll be without a landlord for an indeterminate amount of time and asked them to please keep sending the rent checks on time and to please not burn the house down while I’m gone, because that would really kill my vibe; said goodbyes to family and friends; and systematically avoided any and all new responsibilities at work, while pawning off on other lawyers the responsibilities I did have. So, yeah, in a way, I’ve been wrapping up my life.

I confess that this has, at times, been a somewhat depressing process for me. Every time I check off an item from my to-do list, which is written down absolutely nowhere except the dry erase board that is my mind, I cannot help but think, “Damn. 38 years and all my life has amounted to is some bills, some possessions, and a bunch of internet usernames and passwords.”

Now, please, don’t get me wrong: I absolutely know how fortunate I am to be a white male born in the States, and I’ve done some gratifying and cool things in life. Honestly, I’m just being intentionally dramatic, because – well, I think it’s fucking funny. But, this exercise in downsizing and wrapping up has been quite eye-opening – and for the better. As cliché as it sounds, for the first time in my adult life I am excited about the idea of acquiring some something that isn’t a paycheck or a shiny (and badass) car. Instead, I’m off to acquire some real life, honest-to-god adventure. I’m excited about getting away from the day-to-day grind and to start living in the moment-to-moment. I’m excited to see what the rest of the world has in store; and, I’m excited to share it all with you.

TTFN, y’all.

From Austin, with love.

The Lawayer