Sunday, October 28, 2012

From Quito Ecuador to Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve

For months I poured over maps and studied two guidebooks of Ecuador and could not get a sense how we would make our way in seven weeks from Quito, Ecuador to Lima, Peru. Out of frustration I decided to make no decisions about a route, knowing that like a thick fog, the closer you look, the clearer the picture becomes. Unlike our twenty trips to Asia, we are not traveling by bicycles but by public buses. We are also in a new continent, without any previous reference points. Previously I focused largely on finding places a days’ bicycle ride apart with some accommodation. In Ecuador, our route unfolds day by day, with unexpected surprises, which reminds me of the quote from Paul Theroux, “the tourist does not remember where he has been, and the traveler does not know where he is going”.

What is also different is that we are still getting used to carrying our burdens on our backs in packs and not benefiting from the marvelous efficiencies of bikes. Most importantly we are missing the independence of coming and going as we please. There is similarity as with all early days travel, I contemplate how I could reduce the weight, reviewing each item in our bags, and at times concluding some if not all of our belongings should or could be ditched. Perhaps it’s all a progression from homeless hobo?

But there are compensations: a state of wonder, as each day, each hour brings a sense of joy that comes from all the stimuli of traveling in a new land, with language skills that hardly extend beyond two important expressions, “Mas cafĂ©” and “mas cerveca”. The feeling of confidence increases as we learn to appreciate the genuine warmth of the people and truly wondrous sights, from man-made to the perfection of nature.

In Quito, we stayed in Hotel Portal de Cantuna, which from the moment of our arrival felt like home. This giant former mansion, converted less than a year ago to a 13 room boutique hotel, with all the features from 150 years ago retained, owned and operated by Julia and her son Bernardo. She would hug and kiss at each opportunity, especially as she prepared breakfast in an open kitchen, and the son, who could not have been more helpful and took us by the hand to arrange our cell phone, give directions to the trolleys that were packed like sardines and making sure the taxi we got, is not one that would have us being robbed, which is a constant warning in guide books. Of course, if one heeded all the warnings about crime, robberies, muggings, theft, ailments from food and water, health hazards, extreme events of nature, the potential riots and other civil insurrection, like most people, one could always choose the sensible alternative and stay close to home and wait for the ceiling to fall down.

In Quito, we were a few steps from the Plaza and Church of San Francisco, dating from the 16th century that rivals anything one might see in Europe, except that it was hardly mobbed by people allowing us to appreciate the grandeur and simplicity of its Franciscan denomination. In contrast, the Iglisia de la Compania de Jesus, built over a 150 year period, starting in 1605, was gilded by 200 tons of gold, enough to take ones breath away figuratively, and climbing the steep bell tower of the Basilica, left us breathless from the climb and the splendid panoramic view below.

The experiences which could be an hourly account are far too numerous to detail, and yet each brought the sense of “reality” unlike those obtained on the various television channels that try to compress to 60 minute segments on a two dimensional screen, that which has sounds, smells, sights, texture and most importantly that sense of surprise of not quite knowing what’s around the corner or experiences awaiting from one minute to the next.

We witnessed the regular Monday morning changing of the Presidential guards, with all the pomp and ceremony of movies of my childhood, as the brass bands blared and the soldiers in brass fittings and blue uniforms, as if modeled after the lead soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, marched and raised the flag on the Presidential Palace with the roaring approval of the crowd, which surprisingly included a large group of protesting union workers, who at one point earlier looked like might challenge representatives of the variety of police forces present.

After wondering the cobble stoned streets of this ancient city for two days, a short bus ride took us to Otavalo, known for its handy crafts, exported worldwide made by various indigenous groups. Our stay in a hotel named for the town was a delight, with a classic open court design, with rooms facing the courtyard, since we were the only guests on arrival, we got a large, quiet room in the back, with a huge window facing Cotopaxi volcano.

As further good fortune, out of curiosity we visited a community development organization called Runa Tupari Native Travel, where a German volunteer, Martin, who has lived and worked in South America for the last five years, gave us his subjective view of places worthy of visit, which happened to coincide with our own values. As a result we developed a plan to reach the coast, and avoid the very touristy town of Banos and find not only an alternative, but get off the main tourist path.

One day we did a guided tour of artisans making straw mats, jewellery, weavings, art and wooden objects, using methods developed over the centuries applying amazing skills at hourly rates that are less than minimum wage in the cities. (For example a large straw mat, about three hours of labour would sell for about four dollars or a hand spun and dyed woolen scarf, which took days to make sold for $15.). Sadly, in our homeless state, and firm resolve not to carry even an additional ounce of weight, we had to limit our purchases to two pairs of earrings bought only to support a wonderful community project.

Speaking of weight, the one along my belt-line is expanding as lunch and dinner seems to consist of, some and most of the time all of my favourite starches: potatoes, usually fried, giant kernels of corn, popped, roasted, boiled or on the cob, plantains, and beans, accompanied by other vegetables and generous portions of meat, that being the mains; starters are soups of all or some of the above ingredients, plus cream. These five course fixed-price meals range from three to five dollars.

Unlike in many Asian countries, where exchanging a few hundred dollars US, makes one an instant local millionaire, in Ecuador the US buck is the national currency and as such one is more aware of prices. Unlike in Asia where the currency of choice is the crisp $100 note and is most sought after, in Ecuador even a $10 note results in a plea for something smaller as most of our dealings are with small business and smaller denomination coins are in short supply. Virtually none of the banks would change large bill, and only do so one at a time - but thankfully we discovered that larger supermarkets were happy to take large bills, so we need not go hungry.

In Otavalo we stayed for the famous Saturday market that takes over nearly the whole town with endless vendors occupying the main streets displaying all the goods and handicrafts that one can imagine. Best however was the animal market where locals and tourist mingled and the bargaining was at a feverous pitch when sheep, pigs, chickens, cows, bulls and horses where changing hands.

Near Otavalo we had an overnight stay in a rural hacienda with a local indigenous family (in quite luxurious accommodations) where we helped with the cows and vegetable crops, attended an outdoor church service with men in blue ponchos, long black hair in braids, often reaching their hip, wearing white pants and fedoras.; the women in black skirts, white colourfully embroidered blouses, beads, head wear and also jet black braids -so special to see and experience, especially when we were invited to a huge community feast of chicken and corn, rice and potatoes to celebrate a musical competition in which our hosts daughter participated.

Our next destination was Nangulvi, barely mentioned in guide books a true oasis with wonderful hot springs. The community-run hacienda where we stayed gave us full access to the hot springs, the rope bridge and a hike up the gorge. It was a tremendous deal: a cabin facing a raging river, and three authentic meals, the cost for two was only $40. Arriving on Sunday, there was a bit of a buzz from locals around the five pools of varying degrees of hot water. But by Monday morning we had the place to ourselves and the kitchen went out of their way to assure our comfort and feed us to the max, so much so that at 12:30 we were still eating lunch, when the waitress informed us that our one o’clock bus had already passed. We grabbed out backpacks and rushed to the roadside hoping against all odds that she was wrong, as the next bus, for the two hour ride to Chontal, was the following evening.

Contemplating whether to hitch a ride or stay another day, another bus (or the one we originally anticipated) arrived five minutes later and we were on our way to Chontal where we were told we would have to overnight before continuing our journey. A casual inquiry on arrival clarified that indeed there was a connecting bus, and it materialized in less than five minutes, and much to our delight we were on our way to Nanegalitos, from where we took a four wheel drive truck to the famous Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve.

Chapters could be written on riding local buses, as they are the best metaphors for the lands that they cover and the communities that they bind together. People hop off and off at will anywhere along the routes, carrying all conceivable goods and implements and often greet each other as if family, which they may well be. Best are the small kids, some surely no more than four or five years of age, clutching their nickel fares, who are often dropped at some remote mountain dirt trail, and in their immaculate uniforms they scamper up on steep trails as experienced mountain goats. There is hardly greater joy on a kid’s face, when some conductors refuse their payment.

Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve is a private eco-reserve founded by a British ecologist to preserve prime cloud forests through his efforts, and that of a foundation. As one might expect it is a quite magical setting and the staff warm and amazingly knowledgeable and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in a cabin, overlooking a canopy of trees and our three guided hikes through the cloud forest. We saw plenty hummingbirds and some rare avian species, but not being ’’birders’’ we did not fully appreciate the rarities and after two nights, looked forward to the lower altitudes of Mindo and the continuation of our magical, mystery tour.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Year of Living Homelessly

‘Homeless’ is how I have been describing my current state, albeit not the young frequently seemingly healthy panhandlers outside coffee shops. I am fortunately in reasonable physical shape for a male in his late sixties, arthritic joints excepted, non-smoking, married and of fairly sound mind but currently without a home, admittedly out of choice and not necessity. In fairness, perhaps my wife Alison’s depiction, “home-free” is more apt, as we sold our house, which had been home for about 31 years, last December. Since then we have traveled though South-East Asia and Australia for 4 months and upon our return to Toronto in April, we have been house-sitting in Toronto and nearby cottage country. This mobile life-style has many advantages, the main one being the complete sense of freedom it has given us, and we hope to replicate, at least for the next year or so.

 Downsizing from a three-story house with five bedrooms and four bathrooms to a 10’ by 17’ climate controlled storage unit, (not that we are living in it, as yet), took some effort and adjusting, not the least of which was what to do with all the years of accumulated STUFF that had anchored us physically and emotionally. Reasons for selling, beyond the obvious size consideration, were in part the feeling that the seemingly inexorable rise in house prices fueled by the press as measured by numerous house-porn articles, and the crescendo of cocktail party speculative chatter, had to at some point abate. More importantly, it was the growing realization that over that last twenty years, as avid bicycle tourists, Alison and I had been quite content to travel our planet for months at a time with four rather small saddle bags and on returning home, experiencing the startling contrast of being burdened by a house needing constant attention, a house full of possessions that had less and less meaning over time.

 Craigslist was of limited help in the unburdening process: some old electronics and a set of snow tires on rims sold rather expeditiously. Books, household gadgets and the usual array of dust collectors, of which we had tons, often duplicates, became objects of give-away parties, where we invited friends with the understanding that they had to take some item as a token of their appreciation of being fed and/or wined and dined. Despite heroic efforts, the countless items hidden in plain sight or in drawers and cupboards necessitated endless trips to the nearest Goodwill store where I became a recognized habituĂ©. A few antiques were accepted by a consignment store and numerous pieces of furniture(which were surplus to our needs, as we only kept items to eventually fill a one-bedroom apartment), went near gratis to friends or to the Furniture Bank, which gives a tax donation for the “value” of the item. The value of the said items seems to equal what they charge to remove them.

 Since our return about six months ago we have lived comfortably in homes and cottages graciously offered to us by friends and acquaintances. Having no fixed address, other than our mail going to a friend’s home does have some challenges. For decades, we had had email accounts with our cable provider Rogers, but they could not provide email service without a fixed physical location, so we switched to web-based Gmail. Similarly, our land-line numbers were transported to cellphones. As a consequence, I joined the 21st century with an unlimited data plan smart phone, which costs less than a land-line and allows me not only to stay in touch wherever I am, but as a bonus, to be connected to the internet as well.

Beyond practical considerations, I am often asked if we miss having a place of our own, or not sleeping in my own bed. The answer is an overwhelming no! There are the obvious things that I do not miss: paying for a mortgage, utilities, insurance, permits, cable, internet, property and utility taxes etc. that go with owning property. I also have no fond memories of all the maintenance and related issues that go with being a proud home owner: fixing roofs, driveway, painting, leaky basements and the myriad of small things that seem to require time, skills or reasonably priced and reliable tradesmen, all in short supply. I have also got used to not having to face the relationship testing discussions like “when are we going to do such and such?” Then there are the perennial issues of updating appliances, kitchens, bathrooms, gardens etc. and the furnishings to go with them, to give us the sense of well-being and approval of our peers. The homes that we stayed in varied in size and design, proud testaments to their owners. Each house provided some novel features and new neighborhoods to enjoy and explore, like luxury B&Bs, on the road of our travels.

 Ironically, as we become experienced, and appreciated house-sitters, with excellent references, I now take pride in doing some repairs in the homes we stay in: fixing doors, leaking taps, chipped sinks, and with a bit of judicious use of force and logic, even making good a massive garage door, not to mention watering gardens, looking after pets, driving the owners to the airport and stocking the fridge with food on their return. We also enjoy replacing ancient clock radios, dull knives and semi-working toasters and kettles that their owners just never got around to doing, a behavior pattern that are reminders of my own past procrastinations.

 Having a storage unit full of possessions is a mixed blessing. Our mover Tony did such a fabulous job of stacking our belongings like a giant Rubik’s cube, that short of unpacking the whole unit, we are denied access beyond the first layer of boxes and a few seasonal clothes and items that we had the foresight to keep handy. It has been nearly a year since our move and we have slowly forgotten the contents of the countless boxes, and have done perfectly well without them. We are constantly dismayed by all the stuff that we still own but have not used and are happy to do without. We are content with our modest traveling possessions and are extremely reluctant to buy anything but consumables lest we add to our hoard and duplicate something we already own.

Still, there have been some adjustments. We discovered quite early in our house-sitting moves that we could not enjoy drinking coffee from a random selection of fine bone china or beer mugs, so we each succumbed to purchasing Dollar Store mugs of pleasing size and shape. Likewise, we are now proud owners of a brand new can opener, carrot peeler and an ultra-sharp ceramic knife, as well as a large plastic salad bowl and a garage sale purchase of delicately carved set of wooden servers from South Africa to go with it – all of which now travel with us from house to house as part of our house-sitting essentials. .

We are off on a six month adventure to Ecuador, Peru, Australia and Guatemala and looking forward to house-sitting, perhaps your home next April, so do keep a list of the things that may need fixing. The anticipation of traveling in cooler and wetter climes has also prompted me to buy a couple of long sleeved shirts and a fleecy from my favorite Goodwill store, which after our travels will be donated to some worthy cause.