Monday, December 31, 2012

Burn Baby, Burn


Okay, I have been avoiding the owners of the hostal/hostel like the plague, because I did not trust myself to be civil after that party. There was no warning, no concern, no nothing that an accommodation should offer in such a situation. We are leaving today on a 3:30 pm shuttle for Guayaquil; the best way to avoid them to send Ron, the mediator to do all the work. Ron is a people pleaser, so he will tell them all the positive kudos they want to hear about our stay as I am in the room writing my TripAdvisor commentary with the wrath of Simón Bolívar as he was kicking Spanish ass.

I knew they were playing Musical Chairs the night of the party, because I kept peeking through the blinds. It was not until I went into the kitchen, right next to our room that I spotted the Pin the Tail on the Donkey paper taped on the wall RIGHT under our bedroom window. The nerve of it all and for god sakes, not one of them was under 25 years old. How crazy!!

This was our last go round with the city of Cuenca, the 3rd largest in the country. In some ways 3 days was too long, but I fear I did not give it a fair trial. My church junkie needs were met today, because most of the churches were closed until today. We went from church to church, but even I became overwhelmed with photographing gold, so quit.

Some Canadians started talking to us as we were leaving the park, there was some parade forming with dozens of floats, all nativity recreations. Some people hold onto grudges, these guys refuse to give up Christmas. Anyway, the Canadians had been here for 7 years and love it. They were not sure why other than it was cheap. Apparently, you can get a long term Visa if you have an income of $800 a month. They have a 1600 square foot, 2 bedroom place with a huge patio and only pay $400 a month for rent. No one I spoke with could pinpoint the attraction of this town that drew them other than the fact that it is cheap and there are many other ex-pats. None of them explored other cities or towns before deciding on this one. Rather short sighted.

Just a side note for my own memory, no one can sell alcohol on Sundays throughout the country. Therefore, you will not find a single bar open and not one restaurant will sell you a beer.

Being New Year’s Eve, there are still more businesses closed than open. We did find the used English Bookstore, called Carolina’s open. Quite a comprehensive collection, we swore we would not buy any books, because we brought books to read and leave for others. We found 2 we surely would not find in Budapest. Chatting with the owner, she is from South Carolina, hence the name of the store and her name is Caroline. She and hubby have been here 17 years.

Taking a taxi to the shuttle office, we arrived in quick time, which was fortunate as we were told the shuttle was leaving at 4pm, but a Brit on the same was told 3:30. The scenery was breathtaking; hairpin curves in thick fog at times almost instilled a renewed interest in religion. When there was clear viewing the mountains and green pastures were glorious. This really is a beautiful country.

Arriving at 7:00 pm, we took a taxi to our hotel. Lovely place, Hostal Joshua is highly recommended. Finding a restaurant open on New Year’s Eve was a difficult as my passing for 40. Unlike our budgetary needs dictated, we had to settle for a high priced seafood brasserie. As we were scanning the menu, we both realized that our charge cards were at the hotel. Between us, we had $40. Dinner was sparse. Ron had soup and a beer; I had an appetizer crab salad and diet Coke. The bill was $32.89.

Ron finally found a place where he can watch CNN to see if the USA has sailed over the fiscal cliff or if a bridge of sanity was constructed. The joke on him was that 99% of the coverage was New Year’s Eve in NYC with Kathy Griffon and Anderson Cooper. The real thrill of the night came close to midnight.

Our host directed us out on the street where the neighbors gather for the festivities. All of the local families brought their dolls that they created or bought. Spider Man, the Hulk, and Little Smurf made an appearance along with a dozen others we did not recognize. They all stood there like ladies in waiting or Joan of Arc waiting for their fate. Before midnight, there were dozens of fireworks sailing through the sky, lighting it with gold, green, and reds at times singularly and others in combination. The real show starts close to midnight when all of the dolls who have been so patient are put in a pile in the street where they are saturated with gasoline and lit on fire.

The surprise for us was that each of these babes and boys were filled with firecrackers. As they burned, they exploded. There must have been some layering, because not all of the firecrackers went off at the same time. They continued over time for twenty minutes or more for several. It was quite fun to be part of the neighborhood. They seemed to enjoy sharing it; a number of people made a point to pass by us and wish a Happy New Year!

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Atheist Church Junkie


 Having had a disruptive night last night with the 2nd anniversary party of the hostal/hostel, which made me hostile, we did not get out the door until noon time. Our first stop was the Coffee Tree for breakfast and a good cup of coffee. The folks around the hostal are rarely around, so we would have had to hunt them down for a paltry breakfast that they charge extra for anyway. This is the rendezvous post for the ex-pat community, so when we arrived and took a table, all Caucasians turn to us with questioning eyes. Are you the latest addition to our clutch? You can tell they are dying to talk, but resist. At one point, I was reading my book; those at the next table asked what I was reading, but as soon as I described the plot, their eyes glazed over, tuning out.

There seems to be a custom here that we have been witnessing bit by bit. People create a mannequin, full body and then put a mask on it. From what we have been told, they add a mask of someone they don’t like: a political figure, an entertainer, a mother-in-law, or ex-wife even. On New Year’s Eve, this effigy is set on fire. As all customs become commercialized eventually, we have seen full sized Spider Man, Smurfs, Minnie Mouse, et al.

We ventured into their version of a great market. It is much more compact than the one in Budapest. The stalls are side by side in neat rows of two on each side on all of the three floors. On the top floor, they almost all sell fruit drinks, freshly juiced. How 10 stands selling the same thing side by side can make money is beyond me. A glass of fresh papaya juice is 50 cents. I keep buying 5 fresh, ready to eat avocados for $1. 

On the first floor or ground level, there are so many good looking foods being cooked, I could really make a pig of myself. Speaking of which, there were seven stands again side by side selling pork right from the pig that had been sitting out all day.

Competition is not complete without the ladies in front of the churches. There will be 3 to 5 of them all sitting side by side with their outdoor umbrellas shading them, while they have their portable fryers at the ready for the finishing touches of the empanadas they make by the mountain load. Each lady has a stack of freshly fried dough stuffed with something ready for any pedestrian who either is entering or exiting the church. It is almost as if they realize that the wafer offered inside is definitely not filling for the body, even if it is for the soul.

I concluded that I am a church junkie, if it has not been apparent from past trips and photos. The reasoning is simple with three components. Churches have fantastic art, even if it is flavored with faith beliefs; I can still appreciate the value of the artist or lack thereof. There are few things that I love artistically more than stained glass. The execution of the work is most often incredible and the best pieces are incredibly high up where they don’t photograph well. Last of all, if I were good at math or could even measure with a ruler, I would have considered architecture. That was my early career dream, but it was thwarted when I could not decipher those little lines between 1 inch and one half inch on a ruler. 

So the rest of the day was spent walking or resting or walking some more. According to my pedometer, we are putting in 5-8 miles a day. 

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

This is No Llama Party


In Ecuador the hospitality industry seems to use hostel and hostal without any regard to the significance to the rest of the world. So far both places we stayed in Quito used ‘hostal’ in their name as did the place in Otavalo. However, all three were definitely within the ‘hotel’ category, not even close to any mental image of a hostel.

In Cuenca, all terms are out the window. The place we are at has a huge courtyard divided in quarters with walking paths, but each section within is abundant greenery. Around the courtyard are five rooms, but they all share a bathroom. We had initially requested a share bathroom room, but when we viewed the setup, changed our mind fast. Switching to another room was not a hardship since there are so few guests here. The Austrians we met last night are leaving this morning as are the Minnesota people. That leaves us and one Japanese man. But here lies the problem.

Our room with the private bath is off of the courtyard right next to a humongous patio that has five large tables and chairs along with a sofa and three arm chairs under an oversized flat screen television set. This is the breakfast area, but the room right next to ours is the communal kitchen. At 6:45 am, the wife-owner has served breakfast to the Austrians who have an early bus. They are sitting outside our door and window to the patio and yucking it up big time, which means naturally we cannot sleep. By 7:30, we are showered and setting down to breakfast of scrambled eggs, fruit juice, coffee, and a roll of wheat bread. She found out I was diabetic and so is her husband. Nice touch!

There reportedly only one museum in the city worthy of any time and it closes at 3pm on Saturday, closed Sunday. This makes it our first destination.  Museo del Banco Central is a massive museum, archaeological site, and botanical gardens in a magnificent modern building and outdoor area.

The museum itself covers several floors in a modern building next to the Central Bank building, but the lower floor exhibits were all closed. This was not too missed as the walk-through re-creations of typical dwellings from the various regions of Ecuador were plenty to absorb and impress us. The museum was constructed over the ruins of an Inca palace called Pumapungo. In this room is the history of the Incas in Cuenca along with local archaeological artifacts. Upon exiting and walking behind the museum, the actual archaeological site is on view. There are a few llamas tethered in to the area, but one baby is loose to wander around it. The complex is set on a high hillside, from which the views of the botanical garden below are superior to appreciate the plants. In addition to the Inca archaeological excavations beyond the botanical gardens is a small aviary. We spent longer than initially we thought we would need. Walking the outside, climbing up and down the staircases and trying to get the llamas to pose for a picture all around took over an hour and a half. It was worth it.

We decided on Café Eucalyptus for lunch; it was termed as a tapas restaurant. Something happened as there was not a tapa on the menu. I settled for Indian vegetable vendaloo and Ron had Thai green curry chicken. With a Spanish flair in the décor, the menu was odd. One oversized painting on one wall was a bull fight scene with the bull on hind legs ready to spear the matador. The upper level has antique saddles hanging from the wall. The portions of food were very generous and the food was great. Mine was not quite hot enough, but the poor waitress had the entire place to cover herself besides aiding the sole cook in the kitchen.

After walking around the town for a few hours, we thought it best to visit the agency that provides shuttle services from here to Guayaquil for our trip there on New Year’s Eve. All we had was a website, but that did not list an address. Ron asked a number of people, but with the tourism office closed, it was hit and miss. Then I spotted a Hop-On Hop-Off bus and suggested he ask the driver. Sure enough, they knew the address and wrote instructions for a taxi driver.

We asked the driver about what we heard regarding a large North American population here. He pointed in one direction and said “Yes over there is the American contingency.” Then pointing in a different direction, he continued “Over in that direction are the Canadians.” Both areas were significantly away from the center of the city, necessitating a car for transportation. Any fantasy of a later life living in Cuenca has been dissolved. After a twenty minute taxi ride, we paid $2 and went to the office making our reservations. A different driver who had lived in the US for 6 months in Minnesota of all places got lost bringing us back when we wanted to go to the Panama Hat Museum, so charged us $4.

There is a misnomer that Panama hats originated in Panama. Clearing up this mystery, we learned long before leaving home that they originated here in Cuenca. What caused the identity crisis was that the hats were originally being shipped from here to the World’s Fair in Paris. There was no direct route for shipping them, so they went from here to Panama and from Panama to Paris. Once they arrived, the assumption was that they were from Panama and the moniker stuck. Ron who loves hats had quietly dreamed of visiting here and getting an authentic hat. What a disappointment for a museum. Two tiny little rooms showed the raw materials and little else. There were hundreds of different hats for sale ranging from $25 to 300.  Ron wanted the crushable type, which of course started at $150; he left with his Tilley hat only, the hat he arrived with.

As fortune would have it, I had seen women selling avocados and wanted to buy some. Shortly after purchasing them, there was an Artisans Handicraft Arcade. In this small mall, there were three sellers of Panama hats, so Ron was able to get his hat after all.

Writing and snoozing was how we spent the late afternoon and early evening. One did one thing while the other did the snoozing. By 7:30 we went hunting for a dinner place, not too difficult in this area. A cute and quaint eatery had opened just 2 weeks ago. Both having light dinners, we were more than satiated. Across from us was an American ex-pat from Connecticut. He had only been here 7 weeks, but has been here in the past. He has not been thrilled with the ex-pat community stating that they are cliquey snobs. Having attended a party the night before, he recited the number of things that other North Americans had to say about living here that were not up to their expectations including the pollution.

Returning back to the hostel/hotel at 9pm, we were greeted by 2 young women who were  decorating the patio outside our door. Initially it seemed that it was for some future celebration, but alas it was for the night’s festivities. They were throwing a party for the 2 year anniversary of the hostel. What trumped up reasons for a party. She said “We hope we don’t disturb you, but you are welcome to join us.” What fun to join an all-Spanish speaking party. No thanks! We asked how many were expected and was informed only some friends and a few family. The Japanese guest had left, so we were the only guests in the place.

Not only were there 16 people that we could count through the slit of the blinds, but they had live and recorded music. Adults from 20s – 70s were out there playing musical chairs. The music was loud enough for a stage performance. The screaming and laughing went on for hours. Just when we thought it was over, it started up again. There was no peace until 2am this morning. I was so angry, I was half tempted to go out there with nothing but a towel, but thought they would consider me part of the entertainment and just party on. The extravagance of the party was way over the top. There were tables of food and what looked to be party favors for the guests as well as presents from them. This place is getting a rotten review in every place I can find. You would expect guests at a hostel to have a party or get overly rowdy, but not the proprietors.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Quito to Cuenca


Dawdling this morning was a pleasure and we avoided yesterday’s crowd at breakfast. Most of our time at this hotel, we were the only tourists in residence usurped of the title one night by a Scandinavian couple and then snatched back until a horde of Hispanics moved into the room next to us. Seven of them stuffed into one room, should we have reported potential incest? They were all one family, parents and teens. 

Securing our bags in the manager’s office, we set out for our last hoorah until we return later in January assuming our cruise boat doesn’t sink in the Galapagos. We have been trying to get into the government palace, but the lines were tremendously long each time we passed. This morn, the other gate was open and the guard let us by. Great success to get to see the two guards up close, they are stiff like dressed up mannequins with rifles. However, we were stopped at the entrance to the gardens. We could not grasp the rapid speech of the guard there, who was not as amicable as the first. Finally, he let me take one step in to kneel for a photo of the stained glass. When we left, it dawned on us that entrance is by tour only and they are only on the hour.

Our final culture du jour expedition was Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia. Photos are forbidden to the point you are assigned a guide to take you around. Honestly, without the guide, the museum would have meant little. María’s family was from Germany, but got rich in Ecuador. They were not just plain rich; they were filthy King Midas type rich. Daddy died and María had her hand in the till, so she created a charity center for children and adults, but primarily children.

She hired 25 workers at all times to work in the house. Each day they fed 125-150 children. Being a staunch Catholic, having money, she had many connections with the church. The house is surprisingly modern for the time (1932), she had all of the amenities possible, including indoor bathroom with flushing toilet and hot water shower. The house is extravagant, so parts to the point of excess. Everything in it except for some rugs was imported from Europe. Some of the walls that look like they were wallpapered were actually hand painted. There were curtains and drapes to match the exact same pattern. She was a patron on the Ecuadorian painter Victor Mideros so dozens of his paintings adorn the walls.

During the tour, it is difficult to conceive how someone who reveled in extravagance would be so generous with her money at the same time. She created foundations to continue her work after her death and all of her workers are still receiving retirement benefits, though she died in 1987.

Originally, we had planned to go to Baños for 3 nights, but decided the 5 hour bus ride was not as appealing once here as it was in the planning stages in our kitchen. Right after making the decision, we received warnings from the US Embassy about volcano eruptions in Baños and to avoid that area. According to the original plan, we should have been returning late today, so we had a late flight booked on LAN Airlines from Quito to Cuenca. When we tried changing it, we would have had to buy a new ticket. No deal!
Tuckered still from altitude and anticipation we waited out our last 2 hours at the hotel in the lobby reading our books. They were great about calling a taxi; the airfare to the airport was less than coming from it. Check in was a breeze, then security required everyone to removed their shoes. Once beyond there, the entire waiting area is one giant room with four gates for departing flights. Astonishingly, there were gobs of people who had the same quirky idea for flying on the same day as we did. Praise the credit card gods or the patron saint of debtors, there was a Diners Club lounge. We both carry the card; admission is free.

Every DC lounge is different as they are generally part of a consortium of other airline lounges. This lounge was independent. In one corner was a fountain of melted chocolate with the needed supplements of marshmallows, fruit, nuts and other things I could not bear to look at since they are on my naughty list. There was a selection of little sandwiches in cute little buns; some of them were whole grain, which is on my nice list.

The flight was only 50 minutes, making getting to and fro the airport 5 times as long as the flight, but it beats a 4 hour bus ride. Always wary of taxi drivers that approach me in a terminal, I shoo them away. I did this with an elderly man who approached me. After some confusion in finding no other taxi available, we asked this gentleman’s rate. It was $3, cheaper than the posted official rates. He was hired.

Once at Hotel de La Rosario, he had to park a block away due to restrictions, but did help with the luggage, because he could not break a $10 bill. This was providence. The hotel had no record of us under my name, Ron’s name or any assumed name we chose to make up on the spot. We insisted and showed our reservation sheet. It turned out, embarrassingly enough that we were booked at Hostal de La Rosario, which apparently is a common mistake. The taxi driver took down the directions and we were in a for another fifteen minute drive. They had no record of us other, but they finally found their paperwork.

While they were shuffling around getting a room ready, we talked to a couple from Salzburg and then a family from Minnesota. The mother of the MN group was here scoping out the city for possible retirement. She had found that in order to stay, you must buy a property and for the first 3 years you are not allowed to leave the country for more than 90 days. Not being about to leave was identical to our experience in Hungary. What she discovered was that real estate is reasonable, public transport and food from the markets is cheap, but meat from the grocery stores and any brand goods that a North American would recognize is very expensive. She had concerns about furnishing a home without breaking the bank. Her other apprehension was making friends since she would be here alone. It all gave me pause and brought up questions.

The neighborhood we are in has been declared extremely safe by the clan from Minnesota, so we took their word for it. The husband and wife who run this place speak no English. It should be interesting.

Within blocks are numerous restaurants and bars. We chose Stencils, a small place with incredibly cheap prices and Bob Dylan music playing.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Beauty of Old Things


Hey, don't be rude. The title is not referring to me. This is the day we are planning on the mother of all museums in Quito, the Museo Nacional Ministerio de Cultura. Reportedly, one needs about 4 hours to ‘do’ this cultural center with great justice. We are charged, but Ron has been suffering from fatigue. Assuming it is still the altitude creating some problems, we do sit to rest more often than any other adventure. 

We took the bus to the new section of town, holding our bags securely, but it was not as crowded as in the past. Arriving in the park where we had been prior, while Ron rested, I hunted through all of the booths selling merchandise, looking for a belt. My new nylon travel pants bought 2 months ago for this trip were just snug upon purchase. Now they fall over my hips as I walk. I continually having to readjust them less I start flashing and humoring Ecuadorians. Alas no luck, there was not a cinturón vendor amongst the lot. Back to holding up the pants by putting my hands in the pockets.

Once in the museum, we find that there are five main areas. The first to discover is the Sala Arqueología, which features artifacts from all over the country stretching back to pre-Columbian times. Set out in a maze like setting, the lighting is perfect for viewing the artifacts, reading the descriptions in English, and not getting bleary-eyed in the process. It also seems to create an atmosphere that encourages you to continue without feeling like information overload is dragging you down. There were more ancient tribes in this  area than I could ever had guessed and seeing the tools, decorated plates, furniture, and religious implements was exciting, educational and inspiring. Many of Ecuador's indigenous communities continue to use some of these things today.

Other areas included the Sala de Oro, which has a good collection of gold objects from before colonization. This was interesting, but not as engaging as the other pieces, so I breezed through here. Remaining sections are normally the Sala de Arte Colonial, the Sala de Arte Republicano and the Sala de Arte Contemporáneo. However, upon our visit, there was a special exhibit on maps and geography that had taken over the latter two galleries, so there were only a few pieces on display. The Sala de Arte Colonial was consumed with religious art, which in turn amused me or horrified me alternatively. The Hispanics have this way of displaying Jesus in the most gruesome ways, such as having him seated in chair surrounded by flowers, with arms welcoming you, but his face and body are dripping with blood. Thanks JC, but I will wait until after you have showered.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing since Ron was not feeling well. We went to a holistic health pharmacy where the healer gave him some pills for bronchial problems. Hopefully, this will help. He still has the cough he had before we left Budapest.

Dinner was at the same restaurant we ate at on Christmas. Short day!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

No Boxes for You


Unlike most of Europe, they have not heard of Boxing Day here, so everything is open for business today. Though almost all businesses were engaged in commercial ventures, all cultural places of interest were closed.

Therefore, for the day after Christmas, my true love gave to me two entrance tickets to Casa Del Alabado, which is itself a historic space as a seventeenth-century colonial house located in downtown of Quito, between the San Francisco church and Santa Clara convent. In 2002, it was converted to a luscious museum with archeologically excavated pieces from Ecuador. What a treasure this museum is as are the treasures within. Approximately 5,000 pieces are on display from all cultures that dwelled in the Ecuadorian lands, in the past. Located in Old Town it was not difficult to reach. The layout is easy to navigate and there is sufficient English in each area, one does not feel left out. However, if you are craving more, you can rent an audio tour in English as well as Spanish.

Feeling a bit culturally deprived since leaving Otavalo, we continued on to Museo Ciudad Funcación Museos. The City Museum is part of a cultural service of the Metropolitan District of Quito. Occupying the oldest civil building in Quito, originally called the Mercy Hospital of Our Lord Jesus Christ, it was renamed San Juan de Dios Hospital from 1565-1974 served the community with in-patient as home health services. During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was run by the Brotherhood of the Brotherhood of Charity and Mercy. During the 18th century, the Betlemitas Friars took over expanding the services to hospitality and spiritual comfort but continuing the medical services. Lastly, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Sisters of Charity. As the sign says, “Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, bleeders, gardeners, cooks and laundresses have woven and continue to weave stories and myths that are part of our collective memory.”

We hunted down a vegetarian restaurant called Ari Comida Sana days ago, but they close by 3pm. We returned there today for lunch. It was packed; a good sign. We grabbed the last table. The food was delicious. One woman served the entire place, making the superior service even more impressive.

There is an area that is famous for all of the poets, writers and musicians who were either born or lived on a particular street called La Ronda Calle. Now it has reclaimed the fame as an area where artisans have created spaces for selling their wares. This very steep hilled street has innumerable little stores and workshops running down it, intersperse with restaurants. Disappointingly, most of the shops were closed. We did however find a fine restaurant, Negra Tentacion for an excellent dinner.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Una Triste Navidad


In extreme opposition to yesterday, today was like any other day in the city with the exception that the museums are closed. The population of the city is out on the streets doing their routine pushing and shoving; I think they may have imported more people, because it looks like more than ever. The Christmas cheer must have worn off. Tired of their presents already, the populous are checking out the stores like they have never seen them before, not that there are any post-Christmas sales going on. Same old, same old prices!

Where is the Christmas spirit? Where are the family values? Who is cooking Christmas dinner? Why are these mobs of people littering the streets with their movement? Is this what Christmas is about? I remember the days when there were Blue Sunday Laws and no commercial establishments were allowed to be open on Sundays or holidays. I hated it as a child, but think I would love it now. It was a calmer way of life.

As a holiday, for me it is another day on vacation. Only the culture we are in either enhances or hampers the day. Not having anything to do culturally is an inhibitor. Shopping has been done, seen it, bought it, packed it. We walked and took the bus to the “other side of the city” to get a decent cup of coffee. Thank you Magic Bean. Later we stopped at a local restaurant for a Bolón de Queso. Too starchy for my new regime, but tasty never the less. You can see it in the picture.

For dinner we returned to one of the restaurants that didn’t want us yesterday. Today they are open normal hours, so bring your dinero and appetite; all are welcome. I made gastronomic history for me. I had trout for dinner. I have not eaten fish-fish for 40 years, not even tuna; non-fish-fish that I have eaten include lobster, shrimp, crab, scallops, and clams, but clams only if they are fried. Trout smothered in garlic is lovely I have decided. Ron had sea bass, because he enjoys fish. I tried a piece. It was not bad either. Now I will expand my horizons a bit at a time, but I still will not try the national dish here: guinea pig or cuyo as they call it.

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Otavalo Photos Part 2 of 2


Part 2 of 2 of the Otavalo photos are here.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Cristmas Eve - What Again?


Returning to Quito has been stimulation let down. In Otavalo, there were Christmas decorations in the public squares, on the streets, in just about every store and hotel. In Quito, you are hard pressed to find anything festive at all. In one square, there are some white lights strung on a few trees that look like the way I used to put tinsel on the Christmas tree I got tired of being careful. They are just flung on without regard to symmetry or appeal. Stores are crowded as it is so why bother putting up decorations when people are coming in anyway. Only churches have some sense of style, but one crèche after another is not my idea of fun.

Adding to my misery, I cannot get a real latte coffee. It is the strangest thing, but each time I ask for a latte, I get regular coffee with hot milk separately or mixed, more commonly called café au lait. Describing in minute detail exactly what I want as I am practically climbing over the counter to demonstrate with their espresso machine, I get something different. Sometimes it is a demitasse espresso with milk in it or a demitasse espresso with no cow juice in sight. Where or where is The Daily Grind? Oh, yea! It is in Otavalo. Well here there is The Magic Bean, but that is in the new part of town, eight dangerous bus stops away, but it may be worth the trip.

It is Christmas Eve. It is raining. It is cold. I spot an espresso machine at the San Francisco Church gift shop and restaurant.  Hope is eternal. First we check out the gift shop; we want to approach this slowly and not scare off the barista. This is not a gift shop, it is a museum where everything is for sale. It goes on and on in this maze like fashion. Ron jokingly suggests I leave a trail of breadcrumbs so that I don’t get lost. I felt a need to tell him I loved him, Merry Christmas, and hopefully we would see each other again by my birthday in January.  Everything for sale of course was a replica, but beautifully constructed. It took me forty-five minutes to make my way through and find my way out again. We ordered drinks at the gift shop restaurant. Again, I was disappointed. The coffee tasted like they used pig sty mud to filter it.

There is no place to eat dinner at a reasonable hour. All restaurants are closing at 5pm. Not even the fast food restaurants are staying open beyond 5pm. We went to one place we had queried earlier and arrived at 4:20 pm, a bit early for dinner. They refused us, because we could not be done by 5pm.  We ducked into a close by fast food restaurant before they locked the doors. It is tough choosing a Christmas Eve dinner from a fast food menu, but dozens were doing it and I would bet many have diseases they don’t even know about yet.

Five o’clock in the evening, the streets were still mobbed with people. This is your big holiday. Get the hell home and cook dinner. Finish wrapping presents. Do something Christmasy, AT HOME! By 6pm, the streets were empty. They took my advice. We decided on 8pm Christmas mass. The only reason I go is because my heart would be in my mouth letting Ron go by himself. It is not confirmed, but the latest Christmas mass held at any of the 5 churches downtown is 9pm. I think that the police staff starts to thin out by 10pm, so for safety sake, they do it earlier and get it over with. It also gives all of the priests’ time to prepare milk and cookies for Santa.

Ron of course wanted to be at church by 7:15 to get a seat. Our church of choice or rather his was La Compañía de Jesús. I delayed us until 7:30 to reduce my agony. It was a joke. We had our pick of seats barring maybe 3 rows of pews. Long after I gave up wishing I had brought my book to read, the church was less than half full. Here is this church that is bleeding gold everywhere you look. They took up only one collection. By the time the basket reaches us, a quick perusal of the contents assures me it would not pay for a nice dinner at a semi-expensive restaurant. No fear of priestly embezzlement here unless they chip some gold from some hidden place. Even the wall sockets are gold.

Masses in Latin countries are so different. People are bringing up baby dolls with fire points coming out of his head. This is their Jesus from their crèche. They put these dolls and other items on a table to be blessed after mass. During mass, children are running around. People are staring with admiring eyes at the darlings, barely recognizing the fact that there is a priest up there doing something holy. Those who don’t belong to the child enjoyment society are busy speaking amongst themselves.

This is why I leave home for Christmas. I want the pomp and circumstance of other cultures to glide me through the holiday. It saves on sweeping up tree needles and repacking ornaments myself.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

I Left My Heart in Otavalo


Leaving Otavalo was an emotional experience. In the few days we have been here, I have come to love it. There is so much positive life energy. Speaking with a couple of Americans who are living here, it is not just Christmas time, this is the norm. This could be an alternative place to live if the correct opportunities surfaced.

We took our last walk around town and low and behold the central square had transformed yet again. Over by where the dance performances were held the night before last, the bleachers were now gone and the Ecuadorian version of Jack Lalanne was doing a public class in aerobic exercise with a vast following of the public matching his every move in tandem. Just watching them exercise non-stop for over a half hour made me tired, but they did not end it there. They continued on as we moseyed on over to The Daily Grind for a coffee.

There we met an American from NYC who supposed has a non-profit foundation to build schools and then turn them over to the community. She was believable at first, but as her story became increasing aggrandizing while at the same time contradictory to what more than one Ecuadorian has shared with us, I started to be skeptical. After 30 minutes of listening, I asked her if she know of the US State department resources that could be tapped into. She knew nothing about them, which I found strange for someone running a foundation for over 10 years.

Checking out of the hotel brought a small surprise. Although we had paid for the room ahead of time in full, breakfast was not included as we had read in Frommer’s nor as it turned out was it $3.60 a day per person as our reservation showed. It was $4.40 per person each morning, depleting our cash reserve by $35.20.  

Grabbing a taxi from the street is extraordinarily easy. The young man took us right to the bus that was leaving for Quito for only $2. Being the first to arrive, we had our pick of seats; hence the very front offered the most leg room. These buses like most in Central and South America stop anywhere along the street where some flags them or someone alerts them of the need to get off. Every bus has a person, usually, but not always a young man who hangs out the open door yelling the route along the way as the bus approaches any single or group of persons on the roadside, giving them time to hail the bus if this is their destination. Although the roads are well maintained, there are still some bumps, so my heart was in my mouth expecting this man to go flying through the door at any time.

From the Quito bus station to our hotel, which was farther away than our last hotel here, the cab ride only cost us $10.00 whereas going it was $15 and to the wrong bus station at that. We were so pleased with the rate as the poor driver kept his patience as we were stuck in traffic for over a half hour at times, less at other times, but it was repeatedly. It kept me thinking I was so delighted that taxis are not metered or the bill would have been over the roof.

Our current hotel is right in the old city. What we failed to remember having used the Hop-on Hop-off bus the last time is that Quito has a tremendous amount of steep hills. I mean to say that Quito makes San Francisco look like the Hungarian Plains. There is one staircase that has about 500 steps from bottom to top with nothing in between where to rest, other than one of the steps. Strangely, even with Quito and Otavalo being the same altitude presumably, we were smacked with low energy within an hour of walking upon our return. There is an entirely new adjustment period needed.

With all of the stores open, the streets are jam packed with pedestrians and cars. We assume people are getting their holiday shopping out of the way, in spite of this being Sunday. This is one of the few times you can visit churches, because they are open for masses. There is a Catholic church about every three blocks in the Old Town area. If you have ever heard of or experienced snow blindness, in these churches imagine gold blindness. In all of the churches I have been in in over 56 countries, I have never seen anything like this before, EVER! Every single inch or centimeter, depending on your choice, is covered with something and that something is either gold or framed in gold. Each time I go into one of these churches, I think King Midas was let loose here after being on souped up amphetamines. There is an unreal feeling to them. I would never be able to concentrate on the service without my eyes roaming all over the walls and ceiling.

In this neck of the woods, we have yet to be able to find a decent place to eat where I can accommodate my eating plan without breaking the bank. Tomorrow being Christmas Eve will be another challenge.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Otavalo Photos Part 1 of 2


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From Lively to Manic


This seductive, slow paced city, turns into a manic monster on Saturdays. Famous for its Saturday markets that have become so popular they are now held daily in abbreviated form; however, on Saturday it explodes like confetti being shot from a cannon. Like a manic depressive, the rest of the week seems repressed, depressed, and withdrawn as compared to the manic, nothing is held back, city on amphetamines nature that is its transformation. 

 We could not believe what we were seeing as we left the hotel for the park. There was barely a footpath between booths, stands, and individual sellers walking the narrow transit areas hawking their wares with pushcarts. It was exciting, it was a sensory overload, it was energizing. There were fruits we have not seen before or some that we have not seen in years.

Burdened down with cash, I felt a strong need to unburden myself by shopping. There were little gifts for some friend’s children, some things to embellish the walls of the B and B bedroom walls, and other presents for me alone. Five avocados sell for $1 or a bag of ten mangoes for the same price where 75 cents will buy you a grilled banana or plantain. Some woman sell roasted bugs and in another bowl cooked beans. I was not taking the risk of getting the wrong one so by-passed both.

Basically, this is how we spent our day, being tussled, shoved, stepped on, and pushed out of the way while browsing and shopping. What a fabulous day it was. There were stops at The Daily Grind for a coffee and Buena Vista for lunch. Christmas shows are still being performed in the main square creating a liveliness I have not felt for years.

This being our last night, we decided on Hosteria Country Inn Puerto Lago restaurant out of the town. It sits on a lake overlooking the mountains. We went about 6 pm to be sure to make it before the sun set. Being seated at a table right near the window, the view was incredible watching the clouds dance around the mountains turning color from milky white to orange sherbet.

Quinoa empanadas stuffed with cheese is nothing I would ever have thought of, but they were unbelievably delicious. Ron had a trout in a sauce neither of us was familiar with, while I had curried chicken. My potato was baked, but halved, scooped out and filled with a cheesy cream. Both dishes made impressionable presentations.

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