Altitude Changes Attitude
Quito is a pretty excellent city. Its few million inhabitants live in this mile wide strip that’s about 30 miles long, sitting pretty almost 9000 feet higher than Jamaica Plain. On each side rise mountains, the largest of which, to the west, is the volcano Pinchincha topping out at over 15,000 feet. Yikes. As Vanessa described, there’s a tram that departs from the city and takes you up to a midway observation station. From there you can hike up toward the summit and around the grassy highlands with incredible vistas of Quito in the valley below. It’s the rainy season here, so even though it seems like that only means that it drizzles for about 15 minutes each morning, the summit is almost invariably enshrouded in clouds. It leaves the mountain looking mystical and enticing, but tough to hike. Night or day it’s always in the 60′s, making it easy to understand why vegetation of all sorts love it here. Today marked the eighth day of school and, while I can’t quite say that I’m eight times better at Spanish than I was on day one, I am excited to be improving. We were supposed to have group classes, but because those are often comprised of college kids on breaks, we each have four hours of one-on-one class each day. We’ve already extended our stay here in Quito by a week. You should check out the school – they do Skype classes too. Ask for Manuel (yes, Lilah, Manuel).
La Casa de Sanchez, where we have made our home while at the language school. Guess what grows here? Trick question. Everything.
It’s been a really nice, rejuvenating week and a half since we arrived in Quito. Although we were there for such a short time, Guayaquil left a sour taste in our mouths. There were bulletproof vested guards brandishing shotguns in every storefront. We’re talking even the grocery store. Try to imagine a scenario in which a grocery store would need multiple shotgun-enabled mercenaries. Apparently that’s the baseline they’re working from. We met a peace corp girl the other day who told us about three days a couple of years ago when the police in Ecuador went on strike. She said that no one in Guayaquil was able to leave their houses for fear of being robbed blind or killed. I’m sure that there are nice parts of Guayaquil, and maybe some time, when we know more Spanish, we’ll take the time to find them, but in that moment we felt like we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Then the drive up to Quito, while kind of pretty, was mostly through sodden banana plantations, cacao farms and depressed villages. All of the towns seemed like they were just barely above the water table and things were muddy enough to prove it. This was mostly expected because we chose to traverse northward through the central lowland farming region of Ecuador – not the prettiest or wealthiest part of the country to be certain. I thought it would be a lot faster than driving up the mountains. Instead of the predicted eight hours (or six if you ask Google), it took ten. As we drove, neither of us could imagine feeling okay riding our bike, much less with a dog, through all of these destitute little mud puddle towns and it was slowly eating away at our guts. There were dog carcasses and other refuse streun about the asphalt and we were going to ride through with our shiny purple tandem, hauling clean little white Fern in a custom built trailer. For a little while there, the more of the countryside we saw, the less it seemed possible to feel good about being a tourist to this struggle of an existence, much less a tourist by bicycle. We drove on and off the verge of tears for all ten of those hours, trying to figure out what we had been thinking while sitting in our cozy little room back in Jamaica Plain. The world seemed like one big bike path from that vantage point, but now that we were here on the ground, we saw it to be a big soggy mess.
We were starting to wonder if we were having one.
The mountains could not have sprung up beneath our little car any sooner. The road, by hour eight, suddenly shot precipitously upward and our engine strained through switchback after switchback. We left the horizontal floodplains, climbing up into cloud forest, waterfalls, and cool air. Although the drive into the mountains made us feel a little better about the world, by the time we got up to Quito, we were pretty desperate for things to be excited about. Luckily, this city didn’t disappoint. In Ecuador, as seems to be the case throughout the known world, things are just a little bit better in the mountains. Our belief in the universal wonders of the bicycle has been tempered and we’ve been relieved to see countless Ecuadorians walking their own clean little white dogs around these city streets (and they all use harnesses like Fern’s to boot). Quito has salvaged our faith in the idea that going by bicycle, even in Ecuador, is the only way to experience a country. I’m sure that our mixed feelings are far from entirely sorted out, and that there will undoubtedly continue to be a great many things that test our resolve in what we are doing with our lives, but, for now at least, things aren’t just once again feeling possible, but exciting.
Since we got here, the one last thorn in side of our trip has been the bike being stuck in customs. Thankfully we were at least able to fly it directly to Quito, otherwise we would have been stuck in Guayaquil this whole time, waiting for the situation to sort itself out. Apparently it comes down to the fact that LAN Cargo, the freight arm of the airline we flew, does not provide a customs agent for package inspection. When I’ve shipped things internationally with FedEx, for example, they invariably have an agent in the foreign country (unless you opt to use your own) that negotiates your goods through the maze of the customs house and sees that it makes it to the shipper depot on the other side. Apparently that’s not the case with LAN, but no one told us that in Miami. Carlos, you’re breaking our hearts. We showed up to the LAN Cargo office, near the airport here in Quito, expecting to have our package ready and waiting, but it was nowhere to be found. In retrospect, the guy at the office was telling us that we had to find and hire a customs agent, head to the customs house on the opposite side of the airport, pay for a package inspection and then collect our bike there. All I heard was “florb blorb gorb morb, blurg ferg.” The language school has come to the rescue though. Different people from the school have made three different trips and countless phone calls to the airport sorting the whole thing out. Now, after two solid weeks of “mañana,” with a little luck and an extra $120, we will finally be collecting the bicycle Thursday afternoon. It’s been a frustrating experience to be certain, and I would be lying if I said that we hadn’t thought about just not collecting the bike at all and cutting our loses, but (fingers crossed) things finally seem to be moving. I guess we’ve learned the lesson that, if anyone ever says that they can get your giant tandem half way around the world quickly, easily and cheaply, they’re lying through their teeth.
This past weekend we took a mini vacation (from our vacation) to Otavalo, an awesome little mountain town that plays host to a huge indigenous crafts market about 2 hours north of Quito. We spent Saturday checking out the wares and then Sunday hiking around the Peguche waterfalls. It was lovely. That trip was also the first time that we tested the theory that we could get Fern onto a bus. In spite of the explicit and ample signage suggesting otherwise, we successfully and overtly brought Fern on four separate buses. I started wondering if people wanted to tell me I couldn’t, but they figured it was too much trouble to get the message across. Score one for the Ferno. Also, Fern met her first full-fledged street dogs. Their reaction? They love her. While they were excited to bark at us, all they wanted from Fern was a nice deep sniff.
If you like anything, you’ll like Otavalo
So that’s where we’re at. We have another week and a half of language classes and preparation time, and then we hit the open road, making our way southward by any means necessary. If we lose faith in the bike again, we’ve started talking about other options. The bus? A rickshaw? Dirt bikes? The world is our empanada and only wonderful things can come of tasting it. Sorry for the dearth of photos in the beginning of this post; we weren’t really in the mood to take any. Don’t worry though, we’re back with it.
PS – They have mini eggs here. They’re amazing.