Categories
Travel

Ecuador

Galapagos Islands

April 16th, 2007

(Please excuse the low-rez quality. It was shot on a still camera before the age of ubiquitous HD!)

 

An eye-opening adventure through a prehistoric wonderland of nature.

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GO

March 31st, 2007

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Hola!

So the journey has begun. After months of exhaustive theoretical adventure speculation and a mere handful of hours of specific Ecuador planning, I am typing this message in Quito Ecuador. It all started off rather frustrating. I was running a tad bit late for my flight in LA when I get to my car and it doesn´t start. Doh! So a slow traffic cab ride later (where the cabbie curiously investigates my travel intentions) I am hanging out in the International wing of LAX. I always love gawking at the diverse people and exotic destinations. It gives great future travel ideas!

As I get closer to my gate, my sore thumbness begins to stick out more and more. No one is speaking English. Even the announcements tend to exist only in Spanish. Everyone is very tan and comfortable. There seems to be gate changes and delays but I can hardly keep up. I am still in the USA and I am already confused…what have I got myself into! Eventually things settle down and I get into a nice conversation with an Australian. She is visiting her boyfriend in Columbia (which is where our plane is briefly in layover).

 

The flight to Columbia was not so bad (only 7 hours). I stumbled into my first official Spanish transaction by being woken up my the stewardess. She was asking about food and drink. Happily I responded quickly and naturally in ultra basic Spanish. Success! The plane transfer in Columbia was pretty smooth as well. The airport had a distinct Incan culture vibe all over the walls. The police were dressed quite impressively with large letters on the sleeves and an overall camouflage look. Arriving in Quito was also fairly smooth.

Easily the coolest part of the day was that a friend of a friend from Berklee named Diego (who has won a Grammy for engineering) ended up spotting me and picking me up from the airport (which was vaguely arranged only hours before I left). This was a great relief! He took me to a delicious restaurant overlooking Quito. I ate Cevicha (a cold soup like meal with raw fish, onions, salt, lemon and plantains, empanada and of course some local Cervaza!) and then for some homemade fruit ice cream that is frozen by spinning fruit juice in

Quito is built on a mountain (almost 10k feet) and looked incredible from the plane. All the lush green hills and many layers of buildings adapting to the crags formed a dramatic landscape. It is actually a bit harder to breath. I find myself short of breath at random times. The streets are swarming with insane traffic and people selling bizarre trinkets. The table next to us at the ice cream place bought a keyboard! Many of the food and retail places also have informal police (some with shotguns!) that keep the area free of petty crime. Diego assures me Quito is safer because of it.

He then took me to my hotel where I wandered around a bit on the famous street of Amazonas and scoped out some possible trips for tomorrow. Nap. Steak dinner at the hotel for 6 bucks!

I hope you all are well. Thanks for reading!

My Name is Mud

April 2nd, 2007

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Buenas!

So I spent the beginning of the next day comparing and bargaining for a sweet Galapagos scuba diving trip for when I return to Quito. After quite a bit of walking and hand gesturing, I came across an amazing boat that will hit all of the best dive spots in the Galapagos. It will be ridiculous.

Later that day, I met up with my tour group. I will be spending massive amounts of time with these folks over the next 2 weeks. It turns out there are only 3 other tourists and a guide. This should be good for getting to know each and traveling with mobility. Mark is a 25 year old from London. Allen is a 70 year old from Australia and Patricia is a 23 year old from Switzerland. Marcelo is the guide. He is from Ecuador and is mutli-lingual. They are all quite friendly and have traveled quite a lot. My last name (Fotsch) is Swiss. I asked Patrica if she has heard of this name and it turns out her neighbors have the same last name! Maybe we are related! She also claims that I pronounce it wrong. She pronounces it much more harsh and German.

We had a bit more time before our group left Quito so Mark and I went to a cable car that zips up a nearby mountain. It is called Teleferico….and it was a massive tourist attraction. The views were pretty spectacular though so it was worth waiting in line. We saw some interesting authentic looking people on top of the mountain with many horses and dogs.

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After the hot springs, we jumped on a public bus (our normal mode of transport) and then a local truck driver took us the final stretch with us and our stuff packed into the back. This may sound pretty rough and annoying but it is actually pretty great getting such a close look into Ecuador culture. We are definitely the only western folks around and so we are sitting next to the farmers and poor of Ecuador. Even very brief conversations are rewarding and intense.

More to come soon!

Jungles are better than Computers

April 7th, 2007

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hi friends.

Please forgive me for this Mega-Post…but it is trying to capture 4 rad days of jungle. My journey has carved deeper into the heart of Ecuador. It has been exciting, awe-inspiring and heart breaking. After a few more bumpy bus rides we arrive in the jungle town of Tena. This is where many of the Amazon families and tours stock up on supplies. Our guide suggested we buy some food and gifts here to give to the families and schools as a token of our appreciation. My gift idea was a ball for the school children. Yeah for games! We also bought rice and beans and of course….lots of chocolate. After shopping, we met with the family we will be staying with.

They are Quechan Indians that have lived in the jungle for their whole lives. We all pile into the back of a pickup truck (about 12 people plus gear!) and head into the jungle. It is gushing rain at this point and the forest is glistening with delicious rain water. I love the combination of hot humid weather with big fat rain. This was when ´Rain Forest first really made sense to me. We drive
past quite a bit of poverty…large sheets of metal and water logged wood assembled as homes for large families. Many of them have pigs, chickens, cows and dogs wandering nearby. Others are walking along the dirt road using giant leaves as umbrellas…otherwise known in the jungle as the poor-mans-umbrella. I guess they are walking the many miles into Tena for supplies because they have no other way to get there.

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The family we are staying with has a bit nicer accommodation. Although no electricity or hot water, the rooms are picture perfect huts made of wood and straw. Shortly after arriving, they have dinner prepared. All of the meals we eat are authentic and delicious. It ranges from Talapia wrapped in leaves to many variations of bananas to exotic fruits. After dinner everyone gathers around the dinner table and we introduce ourselves. I am glad the tour group is only 4 so as to not overwhelm the room with big white people with cameras. It is a very intimate setting. We are engulfed in darkness except for the sparse candles that illuminate our faces. Only the surprisingly loud wash of sound from the jungle reminds us that we are nowhere near airports or highways.

The family of 9 consists of Delfin (the father, shaman, master of the jungle and eco-tourism entrepreneur), Mother (also the local teacher for every grade and child that lives within 5 or 10km) and 7 kids ranging from infant to 15 years old. The kids are not shy at all. They gladly stand up and spout out their name, age, grade in school and perhaps some fun specific tidbit. One of the older boys even knows a few basic words in English that he is a bit embarrassed to practice in front of us. We also clumsily provide our personal details in Spanish. I have trouble describing Video Game Sound Designer so my guide saves me and says I make sounds for peliculas (movies). This brings a smile to the family. Delfin (via translator) asks why the background sounds in Rambo are different than what the jungle really sounds like. This question gets the kids roaring with laughter. I tried to describe how sound and picture are recorded separately and that seemed to satisfy his question. We continued asking questions (via translator) all night…some quite serious and others silly. My biggest regret is not knowing more Spanish. I wish I could speak more directly to the people of Ecuador as they seem quite interesting and different than folks back home. Language barriers suck.

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Delfin spoke passionately about the destruction of the rain forest. Ecuador has a terrible relationship with the oil companies like Texaco. A few decades ago they came in with large careless machines and pipelines to extract the oil and they have left a wake of un-repairable damage behind. Just 10 years ago, many more exotic plants and animals were thriving in large numbers. Today, many of the stereotypical Amazon creatures like monkeys, pink dolphins and Tapirs are much harder to spot because they are small in numbers and hiding in the few remaining places that humans are not destroying. The problem is further exacerbated by poaching and poverty. The poor indigenous families must rely on the small benefits that the oil companies pay to Ecuador (oil is around 60% of their national income) or they cannot survive. Those that choose otherwise must burn down huge tracts of rain forest themselves to make room for plantations as the old ones are polluted and no longer fertile. Still others choose to fight back and their have been a number of oil workers killed by spears and blowguns in the recent years.

I think we have all heard stories and facts like this before and maybe we get a bit sad…but it is hard to have any meaningful response. Hearing these things face to face from an Amazon family in the middle of the Amazon (whose ancestors have absolutely perfected the art of living in equilibrium with the jungle) definitely left an impact on me. He understands the solution is not simply to kill or eject these problems but that an intelligent balance must be found. Somehow the Oil companies and pharmaceutical companies and tour agencies need to find a way to reap the benefits of this lush area without stripping out the life. I went to bed dreaming of how I can make an effective and impactful documentary/movie/music/videogame project about all of this.

The next day was incredibly fun. We started out by walking around the house and learning about the helpful plants. It was like having a backyard pharmacy. He could deal with pregnancy, amputation, simple cuts and colds, paints, building, weapons, catching food, cooking food, clothing, entertainment, drugs and much more. I am usually pretty skeptical of things like this but it was very convincing. He used this plant good called dragons blood to heal some random cuts. They clotted up and healed quickly. I chewed on the stem of a leaf and it numbed my tongue like Novocain. This can be rubbed on the body as a pain reducer in case of the need for amputation. He had poisonous plants that they use in blow guns to hunt (I didn’t test this one). He grew drugs that Shamans use to conjure spirits for special occasions and painting unusual designs on pottery. All of this somehow bonded me to the Jungle even more. I felt like it would take care of me if it came to it.

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Next we went for a ¨hike¨. While we were given some pretty serious boots, I was expecting to perhaps wade around in some water. What we actually did was climb up 3 waterfalls. We started the hike all prepared with our waterproof jackets and were quite accurate with our foot placement when crossing rivers so as to minimize our wetness. This is already failing because it starts pouring rain again. It really does feel like a water facet that can be turned on and off instantly. I started to suspect something when some of the kids came along in only shorts and a t-shirt. They knew what we were in for. We came to the first waterfall. Delfin jumped in and took a shower! I followed soon thereafter. It was exhilarating and cold! Delfin and crew would climb up unaided and secure some ropes for us less skilled folks to climb up directly in the force of the water. This is sometimes called canyoning but it was much more intense than any water trails that I have done. It felt so good to be completely drenched and hiking through the hot and sticky jungle. Each waterfall filled my tall boots with water. The boys demonstrated the best way to remove the water: squirt it out like a water gun. Weeeeee!

We returned home and decided to take one final dip in the nearby ¨pool¨. This was created by wedging wood in a deep part of a creek and creating some standing water (don’t worry, I am taking Maleria pills). Some more of the family came down to join us. I pulled out the ball I purchased earlier and I started up a good ol game of catch with one of the younger girls named Emily. She laughed hysterically at every throw. Eventually some of the older boys came in and we developed a crude game of water volleyball. And thus marks the jungle version of VBVB(Venice beach volleyball)..which I officially titled EJVB (Ecuadorian Jungle Volleyball).

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We came back to the house and I decided to take a nap in one of the hammocks. No sooner do I start to doze off does Emily waddle down and start asking me questions in Spanish. Of course I hardly understand anything but she doesn’t seem to mind. She sits in the hammock next to me and we start to do all sorts of silly games. She was a giggle box! She really enjoyed all of the silly sounds I made while zooming around and swinging her on the hammock. This attracted more kids and the giggling chaos increased exponentially. Later in the day…Emily denied me another nap by trying to ask me more questions in Spanish. This time she decided to not accept my language ignorance and spent the next hour teaching me Spanish vocabulary. She would point to her teeth and say ¨dientes¨or jump up and down and say ¨salto¨. It was like having a live (and adorable) Learn to Speak Spanish CD. I am convinced that this is the best possible way to learn vocabulary. The night ended with Delfin leading a ceremony with his kids and wife. It included music with rocks, flutes, singing and drums as well as dancing and stories.

The next morning we woke up early and walked to the school. It was a shabby small building from the outside but a bustling swarm of learning kids on the inside. Most of the family was there as well as some other kids from the area. They introduced themselves and sang a few songs for us. We introduced ourselves with name and location and they all competed to see if they could point out our country on the map first. I somehow ended up leading the class in a round of Itsy Bitsy Spider…hand gestures included. They really loved it. They all made sure to be accurate with each hand gesture and tried their best to sing along. I wrote the words on the chalkboardand their homework assignment was to write it down. One of the people in our group stood up and started talking about Christianity and Jesus. He was pointing to the cross and other pictures and asking the kids various religious questions. This was a bit unexpected but the translator followed along. While it was certainly fine for him to express these feelings I couldn’t help but feel the urge to stand up and present an alternate view…to suggest the benefits of determining your own conclusions based upon your thoughts and discoveries. This would have likely been disastrous as I will be spending quite a bit more time in this group but I still feel like I chickened out. I also am not sure if it is my place to be influencing these people in that way. Difficult and intense moment though, for me at least.

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Strangely, this school stop was on our way to a white-water rafting trip. We and our guides knew that we would be keeping the other rafters waiting while we were at the school…so they invented the most hilarious and effective fabrication that has ever been said about me. They told the delayed and impatient rafters that we were a bunch of Canadian humanitarians that are traveling the world educating and helping children. ?!?!?! This did work brilliantly however, as they were quite friendly with us all during the trip. During the truck ride home, one of them started asking us about our work…and the whole story unfolded. We all had a good laugh about it. The rafting was a class III+ river. The scenery was stunning (though I didn’t bring my camera for fear of water damage). The guide was very playful and invented all sorts of crazy games for us to play and fall in. Great fun.

We said goodbye to the family and relocated to an eco-lodge. It is situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river. Amazingly beautiful. The lodge itself is also a pretty amazing wooden structure. There was even a bar! The highlight of this night was sitting around late night with a few folks and the bartender teaching each other our countries card games. Of course, I taught Texas hold em….using chess pieces as chips. The bartender taught us (in Spanish) a game called Cuarenta (40). It is the most popular Ecuadorian card game. I have since played it with a number of other locals.

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The next day we took a motorized canoe trip further up river to an animal sanctuary. I wasn´t quite sure what to expect out of this trip. I had heard some of these facilities were more like zoo´s than rehabilitation centers but this one turned out to be very focused on getting the animals repaired without subjecting them to treatment that will affect their chances of survival after release (like too much human exposure). One might ask why allow tourists at all but our entrance fee money is the only thing that keeps these animals fed. The sanctuary wasn´t all that different from the regular jungle. There was no fence and their weren´t that many cages….so it felt pretty much like we had wandered into this animal haven on accident. Many of the monkeys were allowed to swing freely around the area. Some of them jumped on us and others wrestled with each other. They were so amazing to watch. So powerful and incredible agility. One cannot help but consider evolution when watching how they interact with us and each other. I wish I could have stayed there all day. The volunteers were very nice and knowledgeable….although they had no formal education. Maybe my next vacations will be a Volunteer Vacation where you spend a few months with animals and local education.

Ok. I am tired now. Thank you for reading and all your comments. I miss you all.

Much love.brad

Mountain Dancing

April 10th, 2007

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Aloha mis amigos,

After a rip roaring good time in the jungle, we had to depart back to civilization. A shame really cause I could easily spend weeks or months exploring the Amazon. In fact, I am reading a book about a guy who kayaked the entire 4500 miles of the river. Pretty amazing. After a long bus trip, we landed in a town called baños. It is a hub for adventure activities and fun bars. It is also surrounded by volcanoes. We attempted to drive up close to it so that we could hear and feel it. Sadly it chose not to erupt while we waited for over an hour. Apparently this is unusual as it rumbles pretty frequently. So instead of volcano audio recordings I just got some night frogs.

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The next morning we awoke early to jump on some ATV Quad bikes and race up and down a mountain. They went fast and we were virtually alone on this dirt road. There were some incredible views and it was fun to skid in the mud. My bike actually died in the middle of the trail but we used a cell phone (it worked on a mountain) to call a guy with a truck to jump start it. That was a pretty funny sight. Later that day we wandered into a 3 story bar and quickly found ourselves engaged in an intense game of pool with some local Ecuadorians. They did not speak much English but we had some great laughs and lots of cerveza. Still later that night we joined the swarming night life. This was Easter weekend. Latin America loves Easter and they travel to cities like this in droves to celebrate. The streets and clubs were slammed. We ended up in a hot and sweaty salsa club with a live band. The dancing was intense and fun. The band even struck up a song about Che Guavera. Very patriotic for the locals (although che is not from Ecuador).

After a late night, we woke up super early to catch a famous train ride through the mountains. Sadly the station we planned on catching it at had a landslide over the tracks…so we had to drive further south to catch a different train down The Devil’s Nose. This is apparently an engineering marvel as the tracks have to switchback to and fro down the mountains. The other distinctive feature was that you can sit on the roof! The atmosphere around the train was pretty aggressive as many people wanted to get the best possible seats for viewing. Just to get on the train, our guide had to do some schmoozing with some folks he knew. We worked out this crazy system where he would sneak us on just at the last second before the whole huge line got to rush to the good seats. That was almost as amusing as the train ride.

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We arrived in the o so colonial town of Cuenca. This is a bustling antique city and also boasts the 3rd largest population in Ecuador. It was a nice city but I can firmly say that I am not a person who enjoys exploring cities on vacation. I would much rather be doing some outdoor adventure or mingling with locals. The only exception is hot sweaty salsa clubs. We were able to find a guide that would take us to the top of a mountain with some mountain bikes and pick us up at the other end. This proved to be an incredible trip. It was a 50 kilometer (31 mile) trail down a gorgeous mountain that started at 4200 meters (14000 feet) and followed a rushing river the whole way down. Brilliant! The guide (who actually didn’t bike) was the 1996 Ecuadorian downhill bike champion. He was a serious adventure dude.

So we finally get to top and we begin our descent. Literally 30 meters ( 5 seconds) into the trip one of the riders (their were only 3) slipped into a muddy ditch on the side of the track and crashed hard on her arm. I looked back and could hardly believe it. It was a hilarious and peculiar sight. She was covered in freezing cold mud and her bike was on top of her…and we started riding 5 seconds ago!! She didn’t seem to be in great pain but after trying to get back on the bike her wrist was giving her problems. It turns out she had to bail on the ride and the truck drove her back with no ride at all. Major bummer. I hope she is ok. The rest of the ride was fabulous. Rolling hills over ultra lush green mountains and thundering rivers. We passed through very isolated towns with unique churches and worn down schools. Sometimes dogs and even children would run along with us and scream with delight. I would shout “Rapido! Mas Rapido!” and they would try to run faster. Awesome! The ride was fast and exhilarating with constant beautiful sights and sounds of nature . I had to really make a concerted effort to focus on the road and not revel too much in the aesthetics.

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We finally finished the ride covered in mud and rain. We felt like warriors! On the ride back some interesting street performers stepped directly in front of our car. Two men started juggling clubs across the hood of the car while another girl danced and twirled flags. They were all painted and dressed like clowns. It was quite clever so I donated some coins. One last related note on this day…I was in the shower scrubbing all the mud off my body when I almost slipped and fell. To think I have survived all of these adventures with no problem and the closest I have come to injury was in the shower! I guess what I am saying is…everyone be careful when you take your showers tomorrow. Its more dangerous than anything I am doing!

We flew back to Quito tonight and we embark to some rustic haciendas tomorrow.

Keep them comments comin! They give me smiles galore!!

AMore,
BRad

La Mitad del Mundo

April 14th, 2007

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The final leg of the mainland Ecuador trip has just wrapped up tonight. This section was more focused on cultural markets and towns and consequently less adrenaline packed. It was actually nice to relax and take things in at a casual pace. Some of the highlights included going to the Equator at Latitude Longitude measurement of 0 0 0. Strangely enough there are actually 2 monuments for this special location…one created by the French a few hundred years ago based upon geographical measurements and one that was recently created by GPS. The GPS is about 100 yards down the road and is supposed to be Ultra accurate. We were given all sorts of neat facts about the uniqueness of the Equator including some gravitational experiments with spinning water and egg balancing. Some people claim these are bogus. Either way, it was fun to try.

We stayed in a 400 year old Hacienda fully loaded with old dusty furniture, sculptures and fireplaces. We went on a nice horse ride with the local cowboy. None of us had any real horse experience so we mostly trotted along at an uncharacteristically safe pace. At times we asked for Mas Rapido and we nearly bobbled out of the saddle. The most interesting section of the ride went directly through a field full of cows. It was a bit like herding as the cows ran in terror with each turn and gallop. It was quite funny but of course the animal lover in me felt like a jerk. Later that night I ate a Guinea Pig.

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One additional note about Ecuador Politics. Their is a country-wide election tomorrow to vote on what is going to happen to the government. Some people want it gone and others are skeptical about a complete overall as this has happened 6 times in the last 10 years. Just recently the president fired half of congress and hired his own political pals into office. I am certainly far from an expert on this topic, but from the conversations I have had with a few locals, there is quite a lot of corruption and instability. Strangely, the only impact this has had on me was the lack of alcohol availability. Ecuador has a law that prohibits alcohol sale and consumption 4 days before and up to the election. Thus, I am typing a blog on Saturday night. :(

The next stop included a visit to a crater lake and a Rose plantation. It was amazing how much security they had around this place. Huge 20 foot walls and angry dogs and armed guards around every turn. Apparently they are concerned about other plantations stealing their methods and secrets. Strangely enough they don’t mind if we take photos. Hmmmmm. This region generates a huge amount of Roses for the entire world. Just watching them for 10 minutes easily uncovered the extreme boredom these people live with each day. They do the exact same movement over and over every 10 seconds all day everyday. Eek.

The final stop was in Otavalo…home of one of the largest Indian markets in Latin American. Every Saturday the entire city is completely covered with Indians offering goods. They come from all over the country to compete for the tourist and local dollar. We started bright and early at the animal market. It was a bizarre sight. Many people just stand around with their pigs, goats, chickens, cows, horses and wait for someone to make an offer. They all did a nice job of standing near similar animals for easy comparison. Other animals were on auction via a fast speaking man with a microphone. Every step was a huge poo on shoe risk. I spent the rest of the day getting lost in the endless streets of hats, hammocks, statues, live music, raw food and extreme poverty.

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One unpleasant thought that occurred to me while I was sitting on a bench watching other tourists waddle around to each booth. Many of them wore expensive clothing and carried around huge elaborate cameras and spoke in loud English with no effort at all to speak at least a few Spanish words. They would haggle these poor street vendors down to such low prices it was absurd. The prices were amazingly low anyway. I think some of these vendors are so desperate for money, they would take a loss in order to feed their children. The rich tourist will probably spend the 3 dollars they haggled on a pink cell phone cozy. Anyway, I couldn’t help but feel lumped into this same group of rich white tourists. I have different ideologies and actions, but these are not apparent on first glance.

Next up….GALAPAGOS!!!! I am Uber-Mega-Stoked for this part of the trip. It is an 8day cruise that hops from island to island. All sorts of Darwinian Mega-Diversity to be seen above and below water. Some people say this is the best scuba diving in the world. I have my underwater camera all prepped and hopefully I have some nice videos and pictures for you…although I am not sure what sort of internet access is available.

okdoke. buenos noches.
-brad