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May 11, 2011

Miniatures, little scenes, vignettes

“Hasta la proxima”

Two days ago Colin and I returned on the bus from Cholila to El Bolson, an hour and a half trip, via Transportes Esquel. Cholila is a tiny town with a new agro-technical secondary school which draws students from a large rural area (up to 300 kilometers/180 miles away). Natalie has been volunteering there: teaching English, helping with homework, and sometimes being housemom to  students boarding there. We joined her this weekend to see the school, play frisbee and make pancakes with the kids, relax and do some fishing.

Saturday we enjoyed a sunny hike to Mosquito Lake, just 30 minutes from town, and visited one of the teachers and her husband who are building their own house from local, natural materials. We liked their Russian stove, a massive masonry heater that is extremely efficient and gives off heat for nearly a day after being fired. It incorporates an oven, and they built it themselves!

Back to our bus driver, with whom we’d traveled in the summer on two trips to Los Alerces National Park. This time, after retrieving our bags from the compartments below the bus, he said goodbye this way, “Hasta la proxima!” I was surprised, because I thought I was one of the few people who used this expression. A close translation is, “Until next time.” It was also very friendly of him, but then he is one of our favorite bus drivers: not in a hurry, no scary curves or passing on the mountain roads.

Not three hours later, after Colin and I had unpacked, gone for a run together and showered (Colin rode our bike actually, keeps us even), we headed out for some ice cream and met a group of friends we know from church here who were walking home from a hike to the Cerro Amigo mirador (overlook) above town. After “saludos” all around (warm greetings and a kiss on the cheek) we talked as we walked together and then started the “despedidas” (good-byes) where we went separate ways. Daniel’s despedida was, “Hasta la proxima!” A first from him. Now I know there are three of us warmly wishing “Until next time!”


New Reading Room shade roof

In town, I’ve been helping with the new Sala de Lectura (Christian Science Reading Room). The local church members decided to move to a location with more foot traffic. That meant cleaning, painting, redoing a bathroom– and adding a “techo” (roof awning” over the sidewalk to shade the hot  west sun and keep folks dry in the wet winters. I took on staining the framework (last week) and will be painting the storefront this week.

Adobe brick and cane shade structure in progress

Out of town, at “La Granja Valle Pintado” (Painted Valley Farm) I’ve also been volunteering with more techos. Several structures were started but not completed this summer, so as winter approaches here in the southern hemisphere there is a push to get four roofs erected. After weeks of moving slowly, gathering materials and setting some final beams and rafters, it all came together. In one week we finished the roof for a garden shade structure and tool shed, and in one day we finished the roof on the lenera (firewood area). We also replaced three upper windows on the kitchen building. Much less drafty without holes! More pictures to come.


Ultimate Disc-o Fever

March 31, 2011

Anybody who’s been to the South Street baseball fields in Viroqua on a Sunday afternoon knows that we love to play Ultimate, the fast-moving “frisbee” disc game played with two teams on a soccer field (or cancha, in South America). We’re there nearly every Sunday, playing into the fall until the snow flies.

Up for grabs

No surprise then that we brought discs on our South American sabbatical. Plenty of discs, cones to mark goals, even our cleats solely for the purpose of playing Ultimate (okay, we thought Colin would probably play futbol– soccer– also, which he has).

Ultimate is terrifically popular among college-age athletes in the States, and it turned out to be the same in Argentina. Here are a few pictures of our games at Gaia, near Navarro in Buenos Aires province. We’ve given away discs to the point we have none left, so we’re trying to get more– several of these Argentine players have asked, after looking for and not finding any available in stores.

How to throw

I wish I had a picture of Hugo, the capoeira afficionado, catching the disc over his head with his feet, but we didn’t have the camera ready.


Lago Cuicocha hike

March 30, 2011

Next, a few posts about our final month in Ecuador. On a Tuesday (Nov. 30) Natalie and I hiked around the rim of Lago Cuicocha, which reminded me of Crater Lake in Oregon. “Lago” is Spanish for lake, and the indigenous name, “Cuicocha,” means Guinea Pig Lake—except it’s important to know that guinea pigs are a specia food, originally only served to the Inca, or Emperor, and is still a prized food among the native peoples.

The lake is 8 miles (12 k) from Cotacachi, at about 10,000 feet. We took a taxi to the trailhead ($6 one way from Cotacachi) and had a thoroughly enjoyable workout/hike, especially once the sun came out after lunch. Much of the hike was a steep climb, but the last third was gentle and mostly on a road (we went counter-clockwise around the lake). Four and a half hours with lunch and a few short stops. We heard of locals taking all day and having a leisurely lunch and siesta, which sounded good. Just make sure it’s a warm day. With clouds and/or wind (fortunately we had no rain or wind) it can be quite cold. We had arranged for the same taxi to return and pick us up. It returned late (we started using other drivers after that), so Colin was home from school by the time we returned.

Enough logistics. We started with high clouds, which became dense fog as we gained altitude, so that we couldn’t see the lake for nearly two hours. But there were so many, and such a variety of wildflowers (pictures below) that we didn’t mind. Well, we would have minded if it hadn’t cleared up, which it did by lunch time, so we enjoyed a great view from a warm, sunny lunch spot, watching the swirling clouds clear across the lake and the sunlight sparkle on the water.

Remember, in Ecuador the temperatures are nearly the same year ‘round. Where they vary is with altitude. Cotacachi at 8,000 ft. (2,400 meters) is pleasant and cool. Cuicocha, at 10,000 feet (and higher on the rim trail) can be warm under ideal conditions, but is usually colder.

On the last leg of the hike we traveled the edge of a tree reserve, and found a sign indicating it belonged to the Raul Pavon Mejia Bahai School—Colin’s school! We asked the director later and he confirmed that the land, a mix of pasture and pine plantation, had been donated to the school and they used it for field and camping trips.

Our next adventure was longer, three days in the Intag valley with a wonderful host, Peter Shear. That post is next.

Sí, Argentina

March 23, 2011

Yes, we made the jump to Argentina, in January! You certainly didn’t hear about it here first.

In fact, we owe Ecuador several blog posts still: our trips to the coast at Puerto Lopez, to the jungle in the Cuyabeno Reserve, a hike around the rim of Lago Cuicocha, and a wonderful visit with the family of Peter Shear at his permaculture farm in Pucará. We packed as much as we could in our final month in Ecuador, so we still have a number of interesting stories to tell.

We’ll get to those. But we thought it was time to let our readers know (all three of you) that we arrived safely in Argentina, have traveled far south to Patagonia, found a home in the mountains, and have been enjoying the people, the spectacular scenery, and plenty of fishing over the last two months.

We did have a missing camera moment, the battery and its charger actually, but thanks to our friends at L’Auberge Hostel in Quito our camera is functioning again and we will be able to post lots of photos of this place that reminds us quite a bit of Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Wisconsin. There are a few stories to tell!

Car-Sharing in Ecuador

January 8, 2011

Ecuador does not have an official car-sharing program, in Quito or any other city.  But as far as I can tell, there is an unofficial car sharing program across the country that functions well enough that the majority of people do not have cars, and they seem to feel like they can get where they need to go.

It was while taking a taxi in Quito one day that it crossed my mind that the taxis here function like car sharing.  If we can’t get where we need to go either on foot or on a bus, because it is too far, or because we want to get there faster, we take a taxi.  It seems that taxis are readily available across Ecuador, not just in the big cities.  And like paying a small amount to use a Zipcar for an hour or two, we can pay a taxi driver for the use of his car and fuel.  In addition, he gets employment.

Thinking about it more, it seems that the busses and taxis work together to create the effective car sharing system here in Ecuador.  For most trips that are longer than walking, people (including us) take the busses.  The busses are frequent and inexpensive.  In most cases, around town and between nearby towns, busses run every 5-15 minutes throughout the day and cost 25 cents for adults and 12 cents for children/students.  Busses for longer trips often run every hour or two each day, or for remote locations, twice a day, and they cost roughly $1/hour of riding time.  We have managed to travel most everywhere we wanted to go in Ecuador taking busses and the occasional taxi.  Often times, the ride is bumpy, the music too loud, or the movies inappropriate for children.  But as far as moving people where they need to go, this system works well, and means that in the end there are fewer cars on the road.

Learning a new language is fun!

December 11, 2010

I have certainly had fun learning Spanish here in Ecuador.  I had plans of learning more before we left on our trip, but the truth is I knew very little; numbers, colors, some foods, some other nouns.  Our first four weeks were filled with intensive Spanish classes for 2-4 hours a day.  By the end of that, I felt like I could have very basic interactions but only in the present tense.  Today, my vocabulary has grown including nouns, adjectives, and verbs, and over the last couple weeks I have been improving my verb conjugations working with my teacher Fredy.  (If you want a great suggestion for a Spanish teacher who is skilled at on-line classes via Skype, let me know.  I highly recommend Fredy.)

One of the great things about learning another language is that is gets you thinking about how your own language is structured.  Verb conjugation in English seems easier to me, but most other things, especially pronunciation and spelling are harder.  The structure of sentences in Spanish is different, and so it is fun to think about how we say things differently in English. In learning a new language, it feels like a process of thinking of what I want to say in English, and then translating into Spanish, a slow and cumbersome process.  It is amazing that in our native language we speak without really thinking about what words come next, or how to conjugate a verb for the sentence we are saying.  I am sitting here writing away without really thinking about how to say what I am trying to say.  How can it be so easy to know how to say things in our native language?  It is as easy as walking.

Fun and confusing words:

In Ecuador, there are many small stores that sell various things, and the names of the stores reflect what they sell.  “Panaderias” make and sell “pan” (bread).  “Heladerias” make and sell “helados” (ice cream).  But one of my favorite words so far is “joyeria”.  I keep thinking that a joyeria must make joy.  What a lovely idea.  The truth is a joyeria makes and sells “joya” (jewelry).

Even on the hiking trail, that oh so common word - Siga

A phrase we hear often is “Siga, no mas.”  Literally, this translates to “follow, no more.”  We hear it on the bus, where it means “Go ahead, get on”.  We hear it when we ask a question like can we use the internet, and this response means “Sure, go ahead”.  And I’m sure there are other meanings I have yet to figure out.

Many of the boys here use hair gel to make their hair stand up in various ways.  Colin wanted some for his hair.  When we went to stores asking for “gel”, we were met with confusion.  Finally though with some more explanation on our part, we were understood.  “Si, tenemos hell.” (Yes, we have gel.) The thing about Spanish though is that often a g is pronounced like an h, so gel is pronounced “hell.”  Now we know what to ask for if we run out!

Cloud forest of Puerto Quito

December 11, 2010

This is actually the story of our trip to Puerto Quito, Oct. 30 – Nov. 3.

We had originally read of fishing possibilities in Puerto Quito when we were researching Mindo.  Puerto Quito is in the lower coastal region of Ecuador between Quito and the beach.  It was originally planned to be the port for Quito, which never did happen, so it is still a pretty sleepy town.  Colin had a five-day weekend from school because of All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1), Dia de los Difuntos (Nov. 2) and Cuenca Day (Nov. 3), so we decided to go there and see if we could find some fish.  Several things delayed our vacation, but we finally made it there and enjoyed some swimming, fishing, and just being away from most everything.

One of the big frustrations we have living in Ecuador is trying to get information, from the name of streets (usually no street signs, and sometimes people don’t even know the name of their own street) to information about places we want to visit.  Puerto Quito is listed only briefly in our Lonely Planet Guide as a stop between Mindo and the Coast, but no accommodations are listed.  We could only find a couple places searching on the web, one of which was no longer in business, one of which did not respond at all to our emails or calls, and one other that just seemed way too expensive for us.  So what do you do when you can find a place a place to stay ahead of time?  You go on an adventure.

Buying tickets to leave Quito for the weekend

We stayed a night in Quito so that we could start off early for Puerto Quito in hopes of arriving early enough to find a place to stay, figure a few things out, and still have the afternoon for fun.  We arrived at the bus terminal a little later than we thought (after an hour on the city bus), but even at 10 am, it was a lot like the Chicago airport with weather delays on a holiday weekend.  Of course it was a holiday weekend, and more people travel on buses than any other mode of transportation in Ecuador.  Lines of people stretched in front of ticket windows, some snaking back and forth because there wasn’t enough room for the “cola” (line or tail) to fit between the ticket window and the other end of the parking lot.  And it was sunny, so some of us huddled in the little bit of shade available, while others in our parties took their turn in line.  We waited in line for over two hours to get tickets on the 1 pm bus to Puerto Quito. The only good thing about this is that all those people are not driving their own vehicles with associated emissions and traffic (another post on this later).  Once you actually do get on the bus, there really is no traffic to speak of.  Ticket in hand, we all went to the bathroom one last time, got some lunch, and got on the bus for our 3 ½ hour ride.  (Tip:  Always go to the bathroom before going on a long bus ride in Ecuador.  Most buses do not have bathrooms.  Sometimes there is no pit stop (usually a place where men get off the bus and pee on the side of the road) at all.)

Sometime before 5 pm (not early like we had hoped) we arrived at our destination.  We walked around town looking for an information office, hotels, etc. and for the first time, I think we were the only “extranjeros” (foreigners) in town.  After checking out two hostals that didn’t meet our standards, we ended up at a hotel that was nice enough but still more expensive than we usually pay.  We were all glad to be done for the day.  After a bit of fishing in the river, some swimming in the pool (our first accommodations with a pool) and dinner, we were ready for bed.  The Gran Hotel Puerto Quito turned out to be a good spot to stay.  Though we were still hoping for something a little more jungle-ish and off the main highway.

I loved this tree next to our cabaña

By a stroke of luck the owners at the Gran Hotel led us to our next accommodations.  They offer their guests a free tour of the fruit farm they have outside of town where we tasted many new tropical fruits; new kinds of mandarins, oranges, and something like a cross between a lemon and an orange called a lima.  And there were fresh macadamia nuts, a fruit like a cross between a cashew fruit and a peach called an “arazá”, and then a huge new fruit that tasted something like a great mango.  Amazing!  On the way back to the hotel from this tour, we saw Hosteria Malacatos and stopped to ask about their rooms and prices.  After a few more calls to other places, we decided to head to Malacatos outside of town and away from the main road.  It was a good change, only slightly cheaper, but beautiful grounds, better food, a tilapia pond for fishing for dinner, and the river right across the road, not to mention a beautiful pool.  Colin swam a lot, even though the pool was cool and the weather was overcast and not very warm.  He also was fishing a lot in the tilapia ponds, though mostly catch and release. I was just relaxing!  No internet available in Puerto Quito unless you go to an internet café.  And we were not anywhere near one there.  I knew work with colleagues in the US was fine without me.

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