Written by Shady Ady on 22 Jun, 2007
While in Quito awaiting the arrival of an old friend, one of the hastiest and possibly rashest decisions of my life was made, deciding to enter the Quito Marathon (www.maratondequito.com). Different to other marathons where I enter months in advance, this will take place next…Read More
While in Quito awaiting the arrival of an old friend, one of the hastiest and possibly rashest decisions of my life was made, deciding to enter the Quito Marathon (www.maratondequito.com). Different to other marathons where I enter months in advance, this will take place next Sunday, allowing a little less than two weeks training for. It's a good job I enjoy challenges, although I have a feeling this one will cause greater amounts of pain than most. I am sure for some people, the words crazy, stupid, and incompetent spring to mind, especially considering the small fact I will be running all 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometres) at an altitude of over 2,800m above sea level. Indeed, FIFA have just banned all international football matches taking place over 2,500m due to concerns about players health and physical safety. I suppose it puts into perspective how silly this plan might be. Hopefully it won’t backfire on me.After meeting my friend at the ungodly hour of 5am (my fault!), ready to start the first days activities I was accosted by an innocent homeless man asking for some spare change to help fight the harsh cold of the night. A security guard at the opposite end of the street sensed either danger, or the chance to impress and after sprinting the length of the road, jumping across a couple of parked cars as if starring in an action movie, decided to pound the defenceless, slightly drunk homeless guy into oblivion. Accepting my role as the fair maiden in distress I quickly thanked my handsome knight with a manly wink and shake of the head, before making a speedy exit.Not wanting to disappoint an eager friend, five action-packed days were prepared, including return trips to the extinct volcanic lake of Laguna Quilotoa, the indigenous market of Saquisilli, where I tasted my best ever guinea pig, and Quito's old town where the sights of a church covered in seven tonnes of gold and the changing of the guards at the presidential palace were taken in. Wanting to see some new sights as well, two places were ventured to that I’ve been rather excited about seeing since arriving in Ecuador.The first was touted as one of the most original, colourful and energetic displays of indigenous heritage in the country, the fiesta of Corpus Christi in the nearby Andean town of Pujili. Sadly it didn’t quite live up to expectations. You could blame me for this though, choosing to stand at the very end of the festival, past the VIP stand and the watching President where few performers could be bothered to dance, more interested in drinking the alcohol they should have been giving to a crowd full of anticipation. Even though slightly on the disappointing side, humorous moments were still there to be had. The Presidents secret service, army and police personnel, sent to protect his every move decided to guard the wrong road while waiting for his arrival, leading to an amusing scramble when he appeared, helpless against the huge, mobbing crowd, his security staff sprinting down the road to save face and probably their jobs. Morale levels were improved the following day where along with fiance and friend, steps were made towards the summit of Cotopaxi Volcano (via Marcelo Araque Expediciones, $50 for day trip shared between a maximum of seven people, Tel: 271/9524 or 098/698/125, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hihostels.com.ec), standing proud on the sierra skyline at an impressive height of 5987m. Considering I’ve been living on the slopes of this active beast since arriving into Ecuador, this trip had been a long time coming.Expecting to be struck by zero visibility and copious amounts of cloud, as was the case for the previous two weeks, a stroke of luck saw picture perfect blue skies and excellent visibility upon awakening. Such weather can be slightly misleading in these parts, as it normally portrays gale force winds around the next corner. After seeing rock faces where mighty Incas be-headed young virgins and reaching an altitude of 4,500 metres, the highest altitude of my life these ferocious winds struck with a vengeance. So strong they were that the next 500m rise in altitude, a climb to the refuge and glacier was almost impossible. Deciding to rest, saw you sliding back down the sandy soft incline towards the starting point, stones the size of fifty pence pieces hitting you smack in the face.With only fifty metres left to the glacier, I decided to admit defeat and call it a day. Walking in snow on nothing but old worn out trainers and with the wind threatening to blow you off into deep ravines at every turn I decided the dangers were too much. Not everyone agreed with my expert decision. Teenagers half my age, dressed more for a beach holiday than the sub minus temperatures of high altitude mountain climbing happily made it to the glacier with very little effort. It seemed the weather was a huge problem for those attempting to reach the summit, as only two out of ten passed had actually succeeded in their goal. The President also cancelled a visit here due to bad weather. What a pussy! I swear this man is stalking me!After a fond farewell to my friend it was time to venture back to school life, finding a female student abandoned by her mother. The girl, a product of rape, who at the age of seven was raped herself, had apparently been put in a spot of danger by her abusive step-father, who the mother suspected was planning on harming the girl in some sort of revenge attack. With such a situation placed before her, the mother decided there was no other choice but to run away to a female abuse shelter located in a secretive position for her own safety. One rule though of this organisation is that women are only allowed to bring two children maximum with them. After realising this, she decided to abandon the poor schoolgirl, the one person who seemed to be in the most danger.Not having a mother or father and living with 'put-out' relatives probably isn't the happiest and enjoyable of childhoods, especially considering everything else that has happened in her youthful existence. Even before this incident she openly admitted she knew her mother didn't love her. Maybe if a certain Senorita Jolie and Senor Pitt were made aware of the situation they would be willing to adopt again. In such a situation I think adoption is the only way out of a miserable, sad existence. Close
In a week of rather boisterous International Children's Day celebrations, most of my time was spent at immigration, with renewing my visa a top priority. Failure to do so would see a marvellous fine of at least $200 and possible deportation. After four tedious days…Read More
In a week of rather boisterous International Children's Day celebrations, most of my time was spent at immigration, with renewing my visa a top priority. Failure to do so would see a marvellous fine of at least $200 and possible deportation. After four tedious days of paperwork I finally obtained the official stamp needed for Ecuadorian legality and decided to escape from stressful bureaucracy to the wonders of Mindo, a sparsely populated village surrounded by mist and cloud forests.Arriving under the cover of darkness after three hours of '80s classics and negotiating more of Ecuador’s mountain hugging roads a serious dilemma was placed before me. Should my time here be spent partaking in a spot of bird watching, something that Mindo is internationally acclaimed for, or should I break my adventure sport virginity instead? To be honest, it wasn't that much of a dilemma and after a few seconds thought it was decided that the adrenalin filled challenges of 'inner-tubing' and 'rappelling' sounded far more exciting.For those of you who are unaware to what such sports entail then let me quickly explain. Inner-tubing involves floating down a rough, rapid filled river in a rubber ring, being tossed around and drenched head to toe. Rappelling, in the case of Mindo meant jumping halfway off a ninety metre waterfall and then lowering yourself down on a rope, while supposedly jumping down the rock face, as seen in many of the James Bond movies. Information regarding both can be found at the informative Centro Informacion Mindo on the corner of the main park, open 7am-7pm daily. Fun was had at each, although there was plenty of room for improvements in my performances. Firstly, deciding to go inner-tubing at 8am before the sun had even shown his face to the world wasn't the best pieces of judgement I have ever made, arriving back into the village an hour later in nothing but my swimming trunks, bitterly cold, and watching numerous strange glares from the passing, heavily dressed locals.Secondly learning to use my legs at the same time as lowering my torso down the rope will certainly help me enjoy rappelling a lot more and will probably lead to less incidences of aimless dangling, lungs filling rapidly with gushing water, and completing the challenge with both knees and elbows covered in deep gashes and cuts.It certainly didn't help confidence levels watching my fiance happily sail down the forty five metres with no hassle whatsoever, the adoring crowd below going wild. I have to say this was a relief after watching her nearly fall from a slippery ledge into oblivion while climbing up the waterfall. Such a fall would have certainly meant wedding cancellations. Luckily the instructor was behind her to save the day, a place where a doting, loving fiance should have been. I might have been last when it came to technique, but after watching a number of other 'rappellers' make their way to the bottom of the waterfall, I was safe in the knowledge that if it was a competition based on speed, I would have walked away with the first prize! Annoyingly, photos of adventure sport participation were a failure due to inept guides who somehow failed to understand how to work a simple aim and shoot camera. Never mind! After one-to one feeding sessions with delicate lepidoptera butterflies the size of my face (Fundacion Mariposas de Mindo, daily 9am-6pm, entrance $3, www.mariposasdemindo.com), fighting off a ridiculous number of horny, friendly dogs and finding out my hostel (La Casa de Cecilia, $5 per person per night, Tel: 02/2765453) was managed by a group of sexually aware teenagers I decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat, back to the slopes of Cotopaxi Volcano. This proved a good decision as I later learnt the President had scheduled a visit which would have made travel and enjoyment very difficult. Teaching has been a very relaxing affair, watching the children gnawing their way through boiled nipples of various slaughtered pigs (I will never complain about eating boiled pig skin ever again!) and journeying to the countries capital in the name of field trip shenanigans where visits to a planetarium and a publishing company (Editorial Ecuador) were achieved. Both surprisingly proved entertaining, the highlight of which was watching the school principal get in an argument with the planetarium lecturer in front of two hundred watching spectators over the number of planets in the solar system. With such a busy days worth of activities, a hearty 'Burger King' meal was needed to keep the children awake and alert. It's hard to believe that for many of these children this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. In Ecuador eateries such as 'Burger King', 'McDonald's' and old Colonel Sanders favourite 'KFC' are seen as a luxury and a symbol of wealth. A little different to views in more Westernized countries where the words 'cheap' and 'poverty stricken' spring to mind.Normally no field trips can progress successfully without at least one moment of controversy, and this one proved no different. A child originally banned from the day’s activities for stealing another kid's mobile phone, leading to the victim and the victim's mother receiving a number of hideous beatings from the father, was allowed to participate after the headmistress confessed to not having the heart to follow through with the chosen punishment. At the same time, the child that was beaten black and blue was threatened with expulsion from the same field trip for wearing socks that were not sparkling clean. When you consider a child’s parent averages an income around the $40 a week mark, I don’t really think socks are high on the agenda of necessities.This week should have also seen the arrival of a new male volunteer, who I was hoping would add some much needed testosterone filled banter to the volunteer house. Thanks to what I can only call a spot of divine intervention I managed to find myself sitting next to him in a random Internet cafe (Friends Cafe, Calle Jose Calama, 8am-10pm daily) a few days before his arrival, where the fragrance of bad odour and the smell of an unwashed bottom hit me head on. Dirty clothes, long greasy hair and a dialect not that dissimilar to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle certainly didn't help with first impressions either, and by the time he confessed to a friend of his current plans of volunteering and rubbing shoulders with myself, my worst fears were confirmed. After listening to him brag profusely and loudly for the next ten minutes, for all to hear, of cross-border smuggling operations, transmitted STD's, racist comments referring to Ecuadorian women as 'gargoyles' and even the conning of his own grandmother out of $200, I realised something had to be done with such a potential menace. United with fellow volunteers we petitioned hard and probably for the first time here our concerns were listened to and his placement was terminated before he arrived. Close
Written by Shady Ady on 06 Jun, 2007
Even with my fiancée suffering from another mystery illness, traveling, alongside nursing my fiancée back to health, was still a top priority. Such a situation meant for virtually the first time in Ecuador I had to embark on solo journeys, without my trusted 'dictionary with…Read More
Even with my fiancée suffering from another mystery illness, traveling, alongside nursing my fiancée back to health, was still a top priority. Such a situation meant for virtually the first time in Ecuador I had to embark on solo journeys, without my trusted 'dictionary with long hair' by my side. Well, that's what Ecuadorians nicely call it when the female of the species has the better Spanish.Some of the lucky, well-behaved school children were in for a surprise this week: learning that, in a blatant act of generosity and charity from my fellow volunteers and me, they were about to venture into the unknown; a trip to Quito Zoo, widely touted as the best in the country. I fully understand that teachers shouldn't have favorites, but the thought of trying to control the 'wild disobedient' stallions of the education system, passing through the busy and dangerous capital, using nothing but the joys of public transport was a task even beyond my capabilities.After a stressful day of controlling the excitable, energetic children, for once putting the priorities of other less fortunate people first (the selfish man that I am), everyone returned home safely. I wasn't best pleased at having dropped one child off at his rundown concrete abode, too young to cross the Panamericana by himself, that the last bus home had been missed. This left a beautiful 10km walk home, passing the blue-heart-painted tarmac, representing the numerous people who have lost their lives on this deadly road. In such a situation, as darkness was falling, positives need to be focused upon, which in this instance were the stunning postcard perfect sunsets over the Cotopaxi and Illiniza volcanoes.A journey to the zoo with children, as to be expected, was full of amusing incidences. Children here in the Ecuadorian Sierra certainly mature faster and are exposed to the ways of the human world at a much earlier age. Never before have I known ten year old boys walk around checking out the rears and wolf whistling young ladies, old enough (in this part of the world) to be their mothers. There also seemed to be various blossoming relationships I was oblivious to before.The variety of animals on show was slightly disappointing, two African lions—the highlight of a dominantly Ecuadorian affair—to fight off boredom attempted to participate in the ritual of mating. Sadly, the lioness didn't really share the male’s keenness for such strenuous exercise and fought off the advances of her partner with a roar and a snarl, much to the excitement of the children, who were getting a live biology lesson right before their very eyes. It seemed a good time was had by all and even the sight of a bus crash on the way home, where dead bodies were being placed without body bags into a mobile mortuary didn't seem to faze them. In fact they acted like such sights were seen every day.Being on a field trip and in such a responsible position has certainly reiterated the fact it will be a few good years before I’m tempted to bring my own little creations into this self-destructing world. When the time is right though, I will be in the full knowledge that, for some strange reason, being all fatherly seems only to add to my feeble physical attraction with the opposite sex. I had more women trying to make eye contact with me than any other day here, although all under the watchful gaze of my beautiful fiancée.The weekend should have seen the riding of a train from the capital, Quito, to the slopes of Cotopaxi volcano, where I live, or a 12-hour round-trip to San Rafael Falls, the largest waterfalls in Ecuador. Due to unforeseen occurrences, both opportunities failed to take place. The train is fully booked up until the end of July by schools treating their students for a hard years work. So much for it being a tourist train! The waterfalls proved to be too long a journey for a sick fiancée to undertake. Frustrated with the lack of activities, I returned home to vent my anger out on a football, which I kicked around, alone, all afternoon.My saving grace from a weekend of non-activity was a last minute home invitation from the mother whose child I accompanied home after zoo shenanigans. I was slightly apprehensive at this offer as it is widely believed by senior members of the teaching staff that the mother is regularly raped by the father in front of their children. This could help explain the sometimes disturbing behavior portrayed by their three sons, one only the tender age of two. If true, what can you do in a situation like this? A mother not wanting police involvement and a father who would probably fail to testify already proves a big stumbling block. What would become of the children? Foster care? A children’s home? From what I have heard, neither of these opportunities sound like bettering their lives. It's a no-win situation for all involved, except possibly the father.In the end, the chance of seeing a traditional side to Andean life proved too strong and I accepted this kind offer, arriving to the house early the morning after, fending off attacking dogs, chicken, and geese. Upon arriving, I found their two-year-old son, happily pottering around unaccompanied on the flat roof of the house. After politely sitting in the sparsely decorated living room and watching the feeding of various animals in adjacent buildings, the mother informed me that her eldest son would take me on a stroll to the beautifully haunted paramo, a sparsely vegetated region of Ecuador found at high altitude, normally windswept and bitterly cold.Being led by an 11-year-old, I was expecting a nice relaxing walk. I couldn't have been more wrong. After stumbling through shoulder-length razor-sharp grass, the young lad decided more enthralling times would be had scaling down a near vertical cliff, clinging to tufts of grass in order not to fall. It took a lot of effort and concentration to make it to the bottom with my life intact! Once in the depths of the lush green gorge, waterfalls cascading down the hill, the path entered upon was deemed too dangerous and steep to use on the return leg, instead deciding to follow the river back towards the main road, where hopefully the gradient would allow an easier climb back to the trail.This proved to be easier said than done, needing to make our own trails through the thick bush-like vegetation, crossing the river regularly, five meters below, on nothing but rotting tree branches. An hour later, the ordeal was over and all I had to show for this adventure were clothes caked in mud and sweat and the embarrassment of mistaking the sound of a hummingbird for the heavy breathing of an Andean Spectacled Bear who I thought was coming to end my pitiful existence. At this point, I think my student was in the belief he was in the presence of a right 'weapon'.Such a workout left me with an appetite 'The Fridge' would have been proud of, but after arriving back at the family home and being given a plate of potatoes covered in a mountain of boiled pig skin, it was soon lost, even with bubble-gum flavored soda to help wash it down. Even with the strenuous work-out and dodgy food it was an interesting day. There were no signs of any wrong-doing here, although I doubt such events would take place right before my own very innocent eyes. Close
Written by Shady Ady on 28 May, 2007
The last couple of weeks have been all about surprises and the main one for me, purely for selfish reasons, rotated around my 26th birthday. My fiancée was polite and well-mannered enough to arrange a whole weekend of secretive trips, including a scenic journey to…Read More
The last couple of weeks have been all about surprises and the main one for me, purely for selfish reasons, rotated around my 26th birthday. My fiancée was polite and well-mannered enough to arrange a whole weekend of secretive trips, including a scenic journey to some thermal baths and a trip to one of the most fanatically-supported football teams in Ecuador, arranged around two nights in luxury $5-a-night accommodation in the countries capital, Quito.Quito is always full of interesting characters, and this weekend proved no different. From female thieves, dressed as prostitutes and working on the city's transport systems, luring unsuspecting passengers into scooping a quick glimpse of their cleavage while losing their money in the process, to US convicts sitting in Internet cafes, on a work-release program after five years behind bars, phoning random women from Myspace and in a thick New York accent conversing the F-word at least a dozen times a minute.The thermal baths found in the tiny rural town of Papallacta, situated on the edge of the jungle involved catching a 6:30am bus, and from the ride to the bus station, I have come to the conclusion that the youths of Ecuador would be a match for anyone, even the alcoholic might of Finland. Even at this late hour of the night, the street corners are crowded with youths and eager security guards, clutching full bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey, gulping down mouthfuls of the brown liquor to keep them warm from the crisp morning air.The journey to Papallacta, riding high through the paramo and sometimes snow-covered mountain passes was made to be a torturous affair thanks in part to the bus driver deciding to play the same song on repeat whose only words were a mere 'I'm f****** high, you'll f****** die'. It doesn't really bode well for instilling confidence.Once at the thermal baths, my naked torso available for all to see—and down to a stroke of good fortune pot bellies are a current fashion trend, so I fitted in perfectly—jumping from the variety of pools on offer ranging in temperature from icy cold to scolding hot. There was even the chance to cool down in a nearby river, but at a height of 3250m above sea level, submerging yourself without feeling a loss of mobility and dizziness was impossible. Impossible for me, but for the women a good 50 years my senior there seemed to be no problems. It puts into perspective how mentally strong Ecuadorian women are. Cold temperatures followed by a night at the hands of a wife-beating husband is a life I don't particularly fancy leading!While happily splashing around in the waters like a demented five year old for a good three hours, the thick blankets of mist and fog that clung to the surrounding hills had lured me into the false sense of security that any chance of skin damage from the harsh rays of the equatorial sun was ridiculous. I even laughed at some of the older guests, their faces plastered white with lotion. I who was the center of jokes as by evening time my body had turned an ugly shade of beetroot red, the excruciating combination of pain and itching stopping me from sleeping for two nights.After an eventful evening of watching Kate Winslet's breasts in Little Children, some not so traditional English cheese and chips and partaking in a few games of darts in The Turtle Head, watched by a number of gawking Goths who found such a pub game highly engrossing, probably due to my fiancée having far more fun trying to throw the darts in my foot rather than the board, it was time for my second day of birthday themed activities, centering around a trip to the Liverpool of Ecuadorian football, LDU de Quito, who had the strenuous task of defeating the leagues whipping boys, Emelec Guayaquil. Arriving at the Casa Blanca ground, luckily in the safety of a taxi’s back seat, I was treated to the sight of two Emelec fans taking an umbrella beating from a group of home supporters. Such a sight with no apparent police intervention probably wasn't the best thing to see when attending as a gringo, but after regular trips to Hinckley Athletic in my teenage years, such scenes left me unscathed.If the lack of police support outside the ground was disturbing, watching the text message and ice cream eating behavior of the 'men in blue' inside was nothing short of unbelievable, allowing numerous supporters, some as young as five (where were the parents!) scale the ten-meter-high security fence and exchange in the throwing of missiles with opposition fans, and even the burning of opposition banners. Other fans decided that the banging away on their drums was much more an intimidating act of aggression. Sadly, one teeth-clenched hooligan, an Andy 'The Viking' Fordham look-alike lost all hints of menace while banging away on his drum and goading the away supporters, his free hand gripped tightly in the palm of his daughters, her pink Barbie rucksack placed firmly over his shoulder.In a one-sided encounter, LDU de Quito after wasting numerous guilt-edged chances eventually ran out 1-0 winners, a well-deserved victory in my eyes. Not so to the players of Emelec, who decided to start a brawl at the end of the game with opposing players and officials, which had to be broken up by baton-wielding riot police. Such behavior would rarely be seen in European leagues, but here it seems a common occurrence of post-match activities.My birthday was completed a few days later with a homemade cake and cookies and the pleasant news that that an old photo of mine had been chosen as the front cover design for the latest blockbuster release from Cambridge University Press, 'Damage to Memory'. Sadly, one of my fellow volunteers decided to emulate the late, great Mother Theresa by giving the majority of the cookies to the poor and needy infants at the day care center. I am sure such an act has put them back in contention for a promotion to glory when the time is nigh, and also allowed the children to learn a very valuable lesson in charity and giving, but the small selfish part of me can't help to be left feeling cheated after eating only six of the 40 cookies made for me.Other highlights of the past fortnight included an outdoor bonfire, marshmallow, and box wine extravaganza to celebrate the departure of old volunteers. Our celebrating even attracted the attention of the local police, who dropped by to see what all the noise and mayhem was about. After shining a spotlight on the fiesta and seeing it was group of harmless gringos, they left without saying a word. The party proved to be a slightly premature occasion after realizing several days later that the departed had left little presents so not to be forgotten. These included a mouse infestation and a secretly hidden diarrhea-filled nappy in their room, which had filled the house with a beautiful aroma before eventually being found. Not the sort of behavior you would expect from volunteers approaching their 40th birthdays.Teaching has been uneventful, the highlight of which was giving the homework of writing four words in English beginning with the letter ‘d’. One girl decided to choose the well-taught 'd' word of 'defile' as one of her four. As this was written between the words 'deficit' and 'definable', I have come to the conclusion it was copied straight from the dictionary. I hope so anyway! One morning, a school child arrived at my abode in a distressed state and collapsed on the floor, sobbing that his uncle had just died. The other female volunteers were far more professional than myself at dealing with the situation. All I could think of was making jokes, which I don’t think was the answer. The full story emerged a couple of days later. The poor kid, along with his brother had taken an innocent walk to visit their uncle, only to find him hanging from the rafters when getting there. This family has had a rough time recently; another child’s mother strangled an aunt to death as well. It puts into perspective the harsh lives that some local inhabitants are forced to lead. Close
I have to say, the last two weeks have seen more high profile celebrations than any other during my stay in Ecuador, and it's still a week to go to my birthday! The obvious reason for these joyous days was after almost five months of…Read More
I have to say, the last two weeks have seen more high profile celebrations than any other during my stay in Ecuador, and it's still a week to go to my birthday! The obvious reason for these joyous days was after almost five months of nothing but inconsideration, selfishness, and rudeness, to mention just a few faults, the family that I have been sharing the same roof with have finally left. As they said their last goodbyes, the relief on my face was more than evident, as no longer do I have to worry if the pot I’m cooking in has just been used as a vomit bucket, or about stepping my little white naked foot into a pile of children's feces.Now they have left, I feel free to ask if it's normal for a thirty-three year old man to have his wife read to him every night until he falls asleep. Personally, I find such an idea slightly self-deprecating. Surely, the next step is to wear adult diapers? Their inconsiderateness was summed up in their last week here when they were shell shocked to learn the school, where they have been volunteering their services, wasn't prepared to pay $200 from their budget (for the children) to pay for their souvenirs to be sent back home, and then, to add insult to injury, they tried to steal the house phone.Alongside the departure of old faces, a week's vacation was also undertaken to the south of the country, a place where I was hoping to participate in the eating of local delicacies such as horse, cat, and dog. After searching high and low for these tempting snacks, I've come to the conclusion such a boastful statement was nothing but a despicable lie, as my palate remained empty throughout my trip here. Only copious amounts of Mexican food stopped me from spiraling into depression.To reach the first destination, a tiny village by the name of Vilcabamba, a beautifully luxurious sixteen-hour bus journey was needed, using the reliable bus company of Viajares Internacional, who took the racing line around every bend of the mountain roads as though racing F1 at Silverstone. The only comfort was knowing the avoidance of a head-on crash would only lead to a 300m drop down a sheer rock face to an almost certain death.Unlike the last time I rode a night bus, this time around was a pretty uneventful affair, and I managed to sleep for the majority of the trip, awakening only once at the bus station in the city of Cuenca to see two people dressed like Laurel and Hardy taking a hard earned beating from the security guards on patrol. By the time dawn came around and I had risen from my slumber, the views on offer were nothing short of breathtaking.In recent decades the village of Vilcabamba has gained the nickname 'The Valley of Longevity' and has become a honey pot for gringos, due to numerous claims of people living to the ripe old age of 135 years old, some even older. If you ask me, I think the locals have been snorting a little too much of the white stuff, not the cocaine variety found in both Peru and Columbia, but the less harmful hallucinogenic substance of cactus powder, found in abundance here. Due to it's position in the eyes of Ecuadorian Law and the reaction I got the one time I have hallucinated, on the prescribed malaria drug of larium, I decided to stay well clear of it.A number of hikes were ventured upon here, to the nearby Cerro Mandango, Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve and Podocarpus National Park, which ended in being chased by a bull and, in the confusion, slipping down an embankment straight into a fresh pile of cow turd. But it was one of the joys that comes for free, the activity of people-watching that proved most entertaining, due to the villages eclectic international flavor. From obnoxious Scottish hikers to bragging Antarctic researchers, you certainly have the full spectrum here. Personal favorites included a gringo woman crawling on all fours and howling like a dog on the main square (obviously too much cactus powder!), creepy guys hitting on girls young enough to put them behind bars for life, and two guys dressed in the same Victorian clothes as those strange American cult religions. Even the policeman spent most of their time sitting on park benches eating ice cream and eying up the young foreigners walking past.Nightlife here was also a strange spectacle. On Saturday evening, as the first star lit up the night sky, people from surrounding villages and towns arrived in the main square drinking a variety of high percentage alcohol. Instead of congregating together though to form one big evening fiesta, anti-social behavior was the order of play. Each group huddled together in the back of their brand spanking new pick-up trucks. At least 20 of these vehicles pumped up their stereos and rocked to hit classics like 'Hit Me Baby One More Time', not by the legendary baldie Britney Spears, but by the equally impressive Travis. Why would anyone choose to have the same haircut as Gary Glitter?Following a few days spent in Vilcabamba and admiring old Incan faces carved into the surrounding rock faces, two quite uneventful days were spent in Loja, a town which seems happy to place its Alcohol Anonymous organization above the towns premiere nightspot, 'The Beer Factory'. Not the best pieces of judgment I have ever seen. One night in a hostel that seemed to double as hospital lodgings (Hostel Londres, Calle Sucre 07-51, Tel: 07/561936) was more than enough, and even the sights of the local zoo, highlights of which included having monkey poo thrown at me by the cheeky cretins themselves, having my hand snapped tight inside an ostrich's mouth (their reflexes were faster that I was expecting) and stroking a lonely giraffe wasn’t enough to prolong my stay here, plus I was highly allergic to something and I doubt my sanity would have held out for another day of constant sneezing.After watching enough freshly squeezed, unpasteurized goats milk eagerly gulped down by the local inhabitants, it was time to move on, past ancient towns like Saraguro, full of indigenous Indians, where the Incan bloodline still runs strong and stuck in a pace of life from centuries past, arriving in the city of Cuenca a good six hours later. Still holding much of its colonial charm, Cuenca is deemed by many to be the country's most beautiful city and home to the world famous Panama hat, a fact not known by many people. Indeed some of the most famous Panama hat makers reside here including the voiceless Alberto Pulla, whose workshop is located on Calle Tarqui 6-91. Alberto has been making these posh accessories for over 70 years, and I had the pleasure of meeting him. For some reason, conversation wasn't really forthcoming. If you are a religious nut and get highly turned on by copious amounts of colonial churches, such as the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and the churches of San Francisco, San Sebastian, and Santo Domingo, to name but a few, then Cuenca is for you. For me, after previous church encounters in Quito I didn't really get the buzz or the 'almighty forgiveness' I was wanting and found other local pleasures such as the old Inca ruins of Ingapirca, the stunning scenery of El Cajas National Park and the cities wide variety of museums like Museo del Banco Central far more interesting. Visiting the churches and getting past the huge number of cripples and homeless beggars living in the church doorways was more of a daunting task than I imagine avoiding Michael Barrymore's hotspots would have been in his heyday. I wonder if these poverty-stricken members of society have ever thought upon the unique idea of actually entering the church for a dose of praying and repenting, instead of surviving on a few measly cents and charity each day? I'm sure they have!The week's traveling was over before it had begun and upon the return home with the prospect of returning to work, I drowned my sorrows by turning my weeks facial hair growth into something Hulk Hogan himself would have been proud of. Sadly my fiancée didn't share my enthusiasm for it. On my return back to school I’ve spent a good amount of time amusing the children (and myself!) by teaching them the rather easy lyrical song of 'Barmy Army', made famous throughout the world by England's traveling army of cricket fans. A few more practice sessions and they will be ready to perform before parents galore at the end of year performance spectacular. Close
Written by aku on 26 Jun, 2000
Transportation in Ecuador: especially outside of the 'major' cities is a definite adventure in and of itself. A ride on a local bus, private pick-up truck, or intercity autobus provides a cheap (maybe even risky) thrill and definite entertainment. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a…Read More
Transportation in Ecuador: especially outside of the 'major' cities is a definite adventure in and of itself. A ride on a local bus, private pick-up truck, or intercity autobus provides a cheap (maybe even risky) thrill and definite entertainment. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a huge risk-taker when it comes to transportation, and I quickly found myself experimenting with (or being forced to use) all modes of travel, without batting an eye. In the countryside, for a mere 25 cents, you'll discover yourself hopping in the back of pick-up trucks, a.k.a. 'camionetas', filled with what seems to be whole villages of indigena families, in order to get to the village market. The two hour bus trip between Cuenca and Santa Isabella that I took with two friends was one of the memorable highlights of our weekend trip there… we wound through treacherous curves through the Andes (all the while concerned about the bus’s braking capacity, the gaping potholes and scary embankments), we stopped for little ladies who cheerily hoisted their basket of live chickens up onto the roof before boarding, and all of this we enjoyed with a backdrop of blasting salsa music. When we couldn’t get from the local market back to our hotel by local bus, we flagged down one of the plentiful and sagging camionetas with a whole family and their market supplies in the pickup. We were always grateful when they stopped for us bewildered looking gringas, and pulled us into the truck. Close
Written by aku on 15 Jun, 2000
Estudio International Sampere -- Highly Recommend! Exceptional, well-organized language/cultural immersion program started by Madrid-based Spanish language school.
Included in the program are daily classes in grammar, conversation, cultural studies, and weekend daytrips. Weekly "classe de cultura" lectures included guest speakers from indigena social/political organizations, local…Read More
Estudio International Sampere -- Highly Recommend! Exceptional, well-organized language/cultural immersion program started by Madrid-based Spanish language school.
Included in the program are daily classes in grammar, conversation, cultural studies, and weekend daytrips. Weekly "classe de cultura" lectures included guest speakers from indigena social/political organizations, local artists, representatives from Ecuadoran womens' rights groups, and University of Cuenca professors. School also sponsors weekly ceramics class and salsa/merengue lessons, as well as weekly native cuisine cooking classes for all students. Weekend day excursions included trips to Gualaceo, Sigsig, Cajas Park, Ingapirca, and local waterfalls.
Language classes available for all levels - max. students per class was 4 for group lessons, and 1-on-1 lessons also available. Teachers are all native Ecuadoreans, and very skilled and professional. Mostly European students, ages 18-60. School arranges homestay for students in mostly middle class Cuencana families who provide room and board. Typically one student per family, within walking distance to the school located in colonial Cuenca.
I registered for the program through Amerispan clearinghouse for Spanish language study worldwide, but you may also directly register thru the school.
Estudio Internacional Sampere
Calle Hermano Miguel 3-43
Cuenca, Ecuador www.sampere.com