Monday, 28 April 2008

You know how sometimes you meet a really funky person, and depending on the type of mood you’re in you can have a ball with that person, or you can wish they would just go away? We are staying in a really funky hotel. We were picked up at the airport by Carlos, who didn’t speak English but seemed very kind. It’s always a little bewildering to plop down in a new city, with new currency (this time we use American dollars, so that’s easy), new bathroom procedures (to flush the paper, or not flush the paper, that is the question), new maps, new downtowns, new restaurants, new everything. Even more bewildering is to put your trust in a man who doesn’t speak your language, hoping he’ll take you where you need to go.

Carlos brought us faithfully to our hotel, which we had already read about, so we knew what to expect. Kind of. We read that it was a little funky, a little quirky. The room Clay and I are staying in has no real wall or door between the bathroom and the bedroom. Just a curtain for a door, and a half wall of frosted glass and the back of the mirror between the potty and the front door. You can stick your head around the mirror and look directly into the room. We love the murals on the wall, the common living areas with blazing fires and flickering candles on the mantles, the wide molding half way up the walls chock full of books. But no door on the bathroom was a little too funky for the way we felt our first night in Quito.

We were all a little hungry, still running on breakfast and ice cream sundaes, plus a half a sandwich we got on the plane. By the time we set our stuff down, it was 8, the hotel’s restaurant closed at 9, and after reading in our guide book that tourists should be careful wandering around after dark, we weren’t comfortable with going outside the hotel until we’d seen it by day. We waited around half an hour for a table to clear up, but it never did and we ended up going to bed with no dinner, feeling a little funky ourselves. At this moment, of being disoriented and out of sorts with no bathroom door, I ached for home. My own sheets, my own dishes, my own clothes washer, my own bathroom door, and a tap I could drink water out of. They boys wrestling and tumbling and falling off the beds as they got ready did nothing to sooth my rumpled spirit.

“This day wasn’t my favorite,” murmured Clay as I got into bed that night. I had to agree, not my favorite.


Tuesday, April 29 2008

What a difference a good night’s sleep can make. We woke up refreshed and feeling much better about our funky little hotel, it was starting to grow on us. The bed was good, the pillows soft, and the blackberry juice at breakfast was delicious. We started taking malaria pills again, in preparation for our time in the Amazon rainforest in a few days. We had a half day tour of Quito, we were picked up at 9 by Carlos and our English-speaking guide, Hugo. My head spins with all the guides we have met the past nine months, it’s been a great way to get to know at least one local, asking about families and customs and getting a peek at the more intimate sides of life.

We began our trip with a ride on a cable car up to see high views of the city and surrounding mountains. As we climbed higher and higher, we saw that we were even higher than a plane across the way. We were really high, about 4,100 meters. We rose through clouds, and then above them, until we finally reached the top, where the air was thin and the wind was brisk. Unfortunately, the clouds cut off most of the view, but we could still get glimpses of the city below and the mountains and volcanoes that surrounded us. It was kind of cool to just be so high, up in the clouds, with our feet still on the ground.

Our kids are getting pretty sick of “city tours”, which usually aren’t really geared for kids, so when we encountered an amusement park at the base of the mountain, we decided to let the kids play for awhile. The rides were cheap, and we had the park almost entirely to ourselves. Benji was too short for the go karts, so while Alayna and Nate drove a few laps, Benji and I rode some rides. We had our own personal attendant who followed us around and flipped the switches for the rides we wanted to go on, since nobody else was around. Alayna and Nate jabbered a mile a minute when we met back up, they loved the go karts, and Alayna made her tires squeal as she rounded the curves.

After forty-five minutes it was time to head into Old Town and see a little more of Quito than roller coasters. I have never seen so many churches in one day. We only went into three of them, but we passed scads more as we made our way around town. I challenged the kids to find something different about each of the churches. One of them was very gothic, even though it was built just over one hundred years ago, with beautiful stained glass up and down the center aisle. The “gargoyles” on the outside of the church were different animals, including ones from the Galapagos like giant turtles and marine iguanas. There was also a puma and an armadillo, other Ecuadorian animals. I never knew I’d come to Ecuador and find our Texas armadillo! One thing we found really strange and different is that the church façade extended under the church, and was inhabited by small shops, selling everything from bubble gum to magazines. These cheap stores had walls of stone, they seemed to be part of the church, but looking out towards the streets.

The next church was South American baroque, overflowing with gold, everywhere you looked was gold, from the walls to the ceiling to the altars. It looked like what I imagined one of the Incan “cities of gold” looking like. The third church was more colorful, the walls and ceilings were painted in blues and reds and oranges and pinks, with murals and decorations festooning every surface. A small funeral was taking place in a side chapel, we didn’t linger, not wanted to disturb or intrude.

We walked down a skinny street Hugo told us was the oldest street in Quito. No traffic, just cobblestones and wooden shutters and different colored doors and houses, it was a pleasant place to walk. We walked across squares where shoe shiners were shining shoes at every park bench. On one side of the square was the president’s office, and underneath his sprawling building were little shops, just like at the church, made from the same façade. There was a barber shop and Clay was tempted to stop and get a haircut. Hugo said the president sometimes gets his hair cut there, for just two dollars. Clay decided to wait and we kept moving, we passed tons of kids getting out from school. We could tell where one neighborhood ended and another began because the school uniforms changed.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped to pick up the laundry we had dropped off that morning, just $4 for ten pounds, it’s the cheapest deal we’ve had so far on the trip and we were very proud of ourselves for avoiding the $57 bill we would have had if we had left it at the hotel. Washing it ourselves was out of the question. For one thing, there was way too much of it, and for another, our rooms don’t have any heat and they never would have dried. I did wash a pair of undies and socks for us the night before, and they were all still drippy wet when we woke up this morning.

Back at the hotel, Clay took the boys out for haircuts while Alayna and I settled into the quiet with books and a piece of chocolate. It was dreamy, I have not had many quiet moments to myself. None of us have. I finished my book, which I had borrowed from the hotel, a kid’s book I remembered reading back when I worked at Toad Hall, just as the boys came back. Benji’s hair is shorter than it’s ever been before, I almost cried, but he looks very handsome (and old). So did Nate and Clay, they cleaned up quite nicely. We snuggled on a couch in the living area, in front of a fire, and I read a Hardy Boys book to the boys while Alayna read Jane Eyre (she likes it, hooray!) and Clay got on the wireless internet to work on the Peru journals and pictures. We ate dinner in the hotel, finding a table with ease this time, played Emperor, and watched Gidget before bed. This hotel doesn’t seem so funky after all.


Wednesday, 30 April 2008

This morning on the way to the cloud forest, I noticed three goats tied up in a parking lot beside the road, and asked Hugo if he knew what they were doing there. He said they give milk, if you bring a cup you can get a fresh glass of milk for 30 cents. We were fresh out of cups, so we didn’t get to try it out, but I thought it was a great idea. About half way to the cloud forest, we stopped off at an equator museum called Intiñan, which means pathway of the sun. We had witnessed an equator experiment back in Kenya when we crossed the equator, when a guy with a bucket full of water and a toothpick demonstrated how the water spins in different directions depending what side of the equator you’re on. That’s the kind of quality experience I was expecting at this museum, and was pleasantly surprised to get a much bigger bang for our buck.

After meeting our guide for the museum, we were ushered into a large straw dwelling where we encountered a larger than life nude male statue wearing not a shred of clothes, unless you count the string tied around his middle holding up his, well, his privates. Alayna was not pleased, and even less pleased by the real-life picture of this same tribal man. I wasn’t so pleased myself. Our guide explained that this tribe was once very hostile to intruders, and killed several missionaries. Clay connected the dots and realized this was the Auca tribe, which is actually not their preferred name but a derogatory term coined by the Spanish that means “naked ones”. Their real tribe name is Huaorani, and these were the ones who killed Jim Elliot and Nate Saint. Wow, I didn’t realize we’d be heading into the same rainforest Jim Elliot was in when we do our rainforest stay in a few days.

Today, the Huaorani accept visitors in their midst, but there are still two tribes in the Amazon rainforest that don’t. Our guide made a slitting motion across her neck. She explained that four family groups would live in a hut the size of the one we were standing in. The parents would sleep in one hammock, and the kids, all the kids in a family, would sleep in one hammock, lying sideways across it. I wondered how Alayna would fare, sleeping with her two brothers every night in one hammock, Clay said she’d probably be married off by age twelve. All the hammocks were hoisted several feet off the ground and traps were set underneath them to protect them from dangerous snakes and other creatures that come in the night. There was a school group touring the museum at the same time, and as we left the hut, we could hear howls of laughter as they encountered the naked man statue.

I was wondering what all this had to do with the equator, it was interesting and all, but I wondered. Next, we were ushered to a different display where we saw a giant spider and the skin of an anaconda snake. We saw a baby worm in a jar that can get to six feet long, and our guide said people eat them. She said you can eat them fried or alive, she recommended fried. I don’t think we’ll be trying them either way. Next she showed us a real shrunken head, all shriveled but still strangely recognizable. To shrink the heads, the tribe in Ecuador first removes all the bones, and sews up the eyes and the mouth so their power can’t escape. There was a step by step poster that explained exactly how it’s done. Only tribal chiefs or enemies had their heads shrunk, but today there are collectors that are paying tribes a lot of money to kill someone and shrink a head for their collection. Benji looked a little nervous at this. Our guide said the size of your fist is about the size your head would be once it was shrunk, a great trivia fact for all you Jeopardy lovers out there.

Our next stop was the grave sight of someone who was pre-Incan. These people would bury their dead in pots after placing them in a fetal position. The pots were buried with the person’s belongings, jewelry and statues. If the person was a man, some of his belongings could include his wife and children, and even servants. They have found a grave of a man, buried with his wife and two kids, and twelve servants. Of course it didn’t matter if the wife and kids and servants were still alive, they were given a drink with opium in it, then buried alive. We looked down into the grave that had been uncovered at this sight, when it was discovered there were just pots and some shells left, it had been robbed long ago. I got the creeps just thinking about someone being buried alive.

It was finally time for some equator experiments. Did you know you can balance an egg on the end of a nail at the equator, because it pulls the yolk straight down and makes it more stable? Or that it’s harder to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed and your hands outstretched if you’re walking on the equator? Because you’re being pulled from each side. We spun a globe and watched it turn at the axes to understand why water spins in a counter-clockwise motion in the northern hemisphere and in a clockwise motion in the southern hemisphere. We learned all sorts of things that made a lot more sense when we were standing on the equator, than if we were sitting in a desk reading a book about it all. I hope the kids remember some of it.

Before we left, the kids had a chance to blow a dart at a cactus with a blow dart gun, which evoked pleas for a souvenir dart gun, which we denied. We saw a 130 year old home that’s still standing in the middle of the museum grounds, right where it was built. The woman who lived there died in 1991, she lived to the age of 115 and they claim her secret for long life was drinking chicha beer and eating guinea pigs.

It started to rain as we hit the road, on our way to the cloud forest. By the time we got to the butterfly breeding center, it was coming down pretty hard. I wasn’t sure what to expect about this cloud forest, I guess I imagined hiking deep into the jungle and encountering all sorts of strange animals while wisps of clouds floated about. The heavy rain made this seem not so appealing. The butterfly place was really interesting, and a much better alternative to my imaginings. We got to see the baby caterpillars and butterfly eggs, the big, fat caterpillars, and their chrysalises. In one case we saw several butterflies that had hatched from their chrysalis just that morning, a splatter of brown butterfly amniotic fluid below them. It takes three of four hours for their wings to dry so they can fly, and most of them only live about a month.

A woman removed some of the pins holding the chrysalis to the board so we could get a good look at them. Each species looked different, some looked like a drop of water. Some were green and looked like leaves, and some were brown like the bark of a tree. She would take them off, then pin them back on, with an almost bored expression on her face. She wasn’t even that careful, I wanted to cradle these fragile-looking wombs, and yet I thought about a human womb and how it gets bounced around in its nine months of gestation. Nature takes care of itself, it makes provisions for wind storms and indifferent butterfly guides.

We passed through a barrier and wandered around the butterfly enclosure, admiring all the different species, especially the “owl eye” butterfly. Its wings looked just like owl eyes, and the outside wings looked like snake heads. We ate outside the butterfly place on some covered picnic tables, admiring some diligent hummingbirds nearby that frequented the hummingbird feeders. One small black and white species never even stopped beating its wings as it sipped the nectar, it seemed to float in midair since its wings moved so fast we couldn’t see them.

Our last stop before heading back to Quito was an orchid place. It was still pouring down rain, we followed a Spanish-speaking woman around as she pointed out dozens of different kinds of orchids. The place looked like some sort of scientist’s lab, with the orchids sitting on “shelves” of old boards spread willy nilly all over the place. There were over 250 species here, and there are over 4,000 different species in the world, it boggled my mind. There is a whole world out there of orchid people, who know all about them, their Latin names and how they grow best and where different varieties can be found. There is so much I don’t know. We would have enjoyed our orchid tour more with some sunshine, but we still enjoyed seeing them. They are a strange flower.

We saw many versions of the “Dracula” variety, with two long, drooping “fangs” spilling down the sides of the flower. Some orchids grew on the backs of leaves, some were so tiny our guide used a magnifying glass so we could see them, some smelled delicious. Some looked like babies, some looked like dancers, some looked like monkey faces. It was amazing, how so many of the flowers looked like people or creatures. I have a new respect for orchids.

Our four hour round trip to the cloud forest was probably not worth it for just the butterflies and orchids, but throw in the equator museum and the views of the tree-covered hills and a few hummingbirds and I’d say it was worth it for sure. It rained hard the whole way back, it was still pouring when we got to our hotel. Remember how I said our hotel was funky? Well, when we opened the door to our room, it smelled super funky. Clay rounded the corner and noticed the tub was full of black water. Ewwwww. We called in the staff, who also said ewwwwww, and called in the manager, who kindly promised to refund all our money (!). The hotel is full so Clay and I had to stay with the kids in their room. They added a bed, and we’re all cozy wozy tonight.


Thursday, 1 May 2008

Last night a man stood outside our hotel window and yelled the same thing, over and over again. Our bed squeaked every time we moved. When I got up to go to the bathroom this morning, big drips landed on my head from the leaking sky light. All this led to a discussion with Clay about funky good, and funky bad. Funky good is cool murals on the walls, rooms with interesting shapes and sizes, paperback books crammed into all sorts of nooks and crannies. Nooks and crannies are funky good. Funky bad is stinky, black water in your bathtub, leaking skylights, minimal hot water, and no bathroom walls.

We were a little concerned about our flight, since it was scheduled to leave at 10:20 and our driver wasn’t picking us up until 9, but Clay was assured on the phone the night before that today was a holiday, there would be no traffic, no problem. We gave ourselves an hour to eat breakfast, but when we arrived in the dining room it was entirely filled, mostly with a large table of people also checking out that morning. The hotel doesn’t serve a buffet breakfast, and while the delicious ala carte dishes like big, fluffy corn pancakes and fruit and nut infused muesli are appreciated, they take awhile to prepare. We shuttled ourselves from a tippy, glass-topped coffee table in the living room, back to the dining room because they needed the living room for a meeting, but somehow we downed those pancakes in record time and dashed back up to finish packing.

We got out of there at 9:05, after a stressful departure, a fifteen minute wait to check out, and another long wait to check a bag we were leaving behind. Yes, that’s right, we’ll be returning to our funky little hotel between the rainforest and Galapagos. I have to say, they try hard, the staff was running their buns off trying to help everyone, there’s just a lot that needs help! We arrived at the airport, said goodbye to Carlos, looked for the woman who was supposed to meet us, encountered massive crowds, and put ourselves in a line while Clay tried to call the office and find out what we were supposed to do. It was total chaos in the airport and we couldn’t find the lady with our tickets. We breathed a sigh of relief when we discovered that the airport was closed due to bad weather. That was the reason for the crowds and we needn’t worry about missing our flight!

Maria found us eventually, and we were shepherded through the crowds to a nice quiet spot with five chairs she had saved for us. Breathe. Breathe. We settled in to wait until our flight time was announced, maybe two hours, maybe more. We were just glad we hadn’t missed our flight, though I wouldn’t be surprised if we left something behind at the hotel during our hurried, and harried, departure. Hopefully if we did, they’ll save it for us and we can retrieve it in a few days. When the rain lets up, we head into the jungle, we’ll try to avoid head shrinkers and naked men . . .