Saturday, February 28, 2009

Back to Cuenca and Real Life, Kind Of

Lauren and I got back into Cuenca last night after a long and tiring but amazing trip through Peru and a little bit of the coast of Ecuador. After two vacation in the month of February, I still have another week of vacation until classes start on March 9th.

The three of us (including Becky) arrived in Guayaquil on Wednesday and spent the day getting to know the city. Finally after 8 visits to and from the largest city in the country, I've seen the few sights. Malecon 2000 was very nice and cool, with an IMAX and modern art and anthropology museum. We then walked up to Las Penas, a series of steps and colorful shops in a neighborhood. That took us about 2 hours, and then we had basically seen everything worth seeing in the city. We also ate some great encebollado, a traditional dish on the coast which consists of a lot of onions, fish, and other vegetables. It's served hot and is known as the local cure to hangovers.

The next morning Becky left to go back to Loja and Lauren and I went four hours up the coast to visit our friend Ricardo in Portoviejo. Portoviejo is the capital of the Manabi province, but has no tourism and is 30 minutes inland from a beach. Because of that, everyone was looking at us like we were crazy for going there and making sure we were getting on the right bus. Instead of speaking Spanish they were using hand motions to speak. It was pretty funny.

Portoviejo is a pretty small city, but reminded me of Machala. It's dusty and hot, and we walked around, ate encebollado, and hung out in Ricardo's neighborhood. We gathered around the local kids and taught them to play football. American football, that is. It was a lot of fun. We ate some great food with his family and then relaxed for "hammock time" on the rooftop terrace at night with a few beers.

The next morning Lauren and I headed back for Cuenca, a long 8 hour trip stopping in Guayaquil. Our original plan was to travel as long as we could and go far up the coast to Esmeraldas, but early on the trip in Peru, Lauren realized that she wouldn't be able to afford it because the universities still haven't paid us. I haven't been paid in 2 months, and she hasn't been paid in 3. This morning I spent an hour waiting in line at the bank to find out that I still haven't been paid. We also just found out that the university has been paying us $20 less than the contract states every month, so we should be getting a check to make up for that, hopefully.

It's nice to be back in Cuenca, though it is sad that the trip is over. We saw and did some amazing things, as well as meet some really nice people. I was pleased when I walked into my room to see that the light bulb was changed with a more powerful one, and I'll now actually be able to read at night for the first time since I've been in Cuenca. I'm very excited about it. I feel like I can actually see into the room for the first time.

Over the course of the next week I'll be adding photos from the trip as well as writing about some of the experiences we had in Peru. So stay tuned.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Back in Puno

We´re back in Puno today after a day and a half exploring Lake Titicaca. We started out on Sunday by heading to the Uros Islands, which are man-made floating islands made out of reeds from the lake. The islands are small and only a few families live on each one. We ate some of the reeds, which kind of tasted like sugarcane without the sugar and then took a reed boat to another island.

We then moved on to Amantani, a natural island with pre-Incan ruins. Here we stayed with host indigenous families, and we got a chance to understand some of the culture. The hosts were incredibly friendly and welcoming, speaking both Quechua and Spanish very well. Eating their local food which consisted mostly of soup and vegetables, we also drank mate tea with coca leaves for the altitude.

After lunch we headed up to the top of the island, and because we were so high up, it was a struggle. It was difficult, but because we have been living high up in the Andes, we made it to the top first and beat everyone else by about 20 minutes. If I hadn´t been living in Cuenca I probably would have been back at the bottom with the older people. We couldn´t see the sun set because it was cloudy, but instead dodged little girls trying to hit our faces with chalk for Carnaval.

On the way back down we stopped for some incredible donuts with syrup and mate in a little stone shop by the ruins. Later after dinner we went to the community center dressed in traditional indigenous clothes and danced with the locals for a couple of hours. The community center was the only building with electricity, which was solar powered. On the walk back we were only guided through the extreme darkness by tiny flashlights and occasional bursts of lightning in the distance.

The island was once of the most peaceful places I´ve ever been to, and you couldn´t help but feel relaxed and want to stay longer. Even the use of outhouses couldn´t spoil the atmosphere. In the morning we had a quick breakfast and moved on to the island of Tequile. Just as we started a hike up to the center it started to rain, so by the time we got up there we were all soaked and wet.

We didn´t do much in Tequile except look at a market and hear some information about the locals, and then we got lunch. The sun came out and it was hot again, drying our clothes quickly. We got back on the boat and started the trip back to Puno. The trip was nice because we got to see some of the islands, even though traveling around the lake takes a very long time because the boats are so slow. We met some nice people and had some good laughs, but now it´s time to move on again.

I still feel like I´m rocking on a boat right now. The plan is to head back to Cuzco, catch our flight to Lima, and then on the 25th return to Guayaquil. From there we´ll probably spend the night and then I might head up to Portoviejo to visit my friend Ricardo. It´s still a mystery as to whether or not the government has paid us, and as a result it is straining our expenses on the trip. But it´s been a good time so far, and hopefully we can continue to make the most out of the time we have.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Arrival in Puno, Lake Titicaca

We arrived in Puno, about two hours from the border of Bolivia a few hours ago. The town is on the shores of Lake Titicaca and is the base for further excursion into Copacabana, Bolivia or La Paz. Tonight we´ll be on our own and then tomorrow we will start a little tour of the lake. We´re all pretty tired--these have been long and tiring days in Peru. It seems as though every day we are waking up at the crack of dawn or before dawn and going late.

Today we took a 6 hour bus ride from Cuzco to Puno in a private bus which was much nicer than any bus I´ve seen in Ecuador. There was no annoyingly loud music or bad movies playing and we didn´t stop to pick anyone up. We even stopped at a rest area which had a beautiful view of snow capped mountains and some stalls selling goods.

I´ve been low on cash as well. The soles fly by here quickly, and the last two places we went to really took a lot of money out of me. So lately we´ve been on a forced diet of bread and fruit for our meals. Luckily the prices in Puno are a lot lower, so we were just able to eat a real meal which only cost 6 soles, about $2. It´s a matter of saving money for the better things, but also things to come. People often ask me how I can afford to travel so much, and truthfully it´s in part because I don´t waste money on things I don´t need. I try to keep costs to a minimum and as a result, I don´t eat gourmet meals on the road.

With that being said, I´ve also had a couple of things that I´ve wanted to get, such as an alpaca sweater that I bought for 25 soles, around $15. And I need to buy a couple of gifts for some friends. But otherwise, the money goes towards the necessities. Macchu Pichu was an extremely expensive part of the trip, but well worth it. It wouldn´t be the same Peru trip if we didn´t go to the ruins.

Again, I continue to meet some of the friendliest people I ever have down here in Peru, and they all seem willing to help in some way. The countryside is beautiful and the mountains are in a category of their own. For now, it´s back to being a lousy tourist.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Machu Picchu, Yea!

After months, maybe years of wanting to come to the Incan ruin of Machu Picchu, I finally came and saw the sight this morning. Lauren, Becky, and I woke up at 4:15 a.m. to catch the first bus up to the ruin at 5:30. It started off raining and little bit and cold, but once the sun was up it warmed up a bit. We got there as early as possible so that we could climb the mountain in the background called Waynapicchu, but were told we couldnt because the day limit of 400 people had already gone up. Yet we checked back later at 8 oclock and got lucky, as we took the last three spots up.

It was an extremely hard hike but well worth it as we saw the entire town from atop the hill, as well as a great 360 view of the surrounding mountains. The mountains here are a lot different from those in Ecuador, much more defined and rigid. I have taken some great photos and videos, and will be able to post them all once I get back to Cuenca, whenever that may be.

There is literally a book about this experience that I could write, but these Internet cafes are damn expensive, and I dont have the time to sit here and write about all of it right now anyway. We are tired and have a few hours to kill in this expensive, tourist trap town known as Machu Picchu Pueblo (previously known as Aguascalientes). Tonight we are taking the train back to Ollantatambo and then a bus back to Cuzco. Tomorrow we will leave early in the morning for Lake Titicaca, stopping first in Puno and celebrating Beckys 23rd birthday. The following day we will be going to one of the islands and spending the night with an indigenous family, arranged through a tour we set up for $90, including the bus tickets, meals, pick up, and tour excursions for two days.

Once we head back to Cuzco and Lima, we will have another day to spend in the capital city, and then back into Guayaquil on the 25th. From then on we will be back in Ecuador, but traveling around to other parts. Ill try to keep you posted.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In Cuzco

We arrived in Cuzco today, making it our 4th major city in three days (Cuenca, Guayaquil, Lima, Cuzco.) We pulled an all-nighter last night to catch a 5:40 a.m. flight this morning from Lima to Cuzco, which has really ruined the day in a sense, making us all zombies. We still went out and walked all over Cuzco, seeing whatever we could and taking care of plans to go to Macchu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.

Lima was very hot and expensive, but in general a nice city. And I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it. We stayed in the suburb of Miraflores. Miraflores is to Lima as Cambridge is to Boston. They´re both their own city, but they´re pretty much the same city. We´ve met some incredibly friendly people and have had a good time seeing what we could so far, even though we are pressed for time and moving along quickly.

Cuzco is high up and I´m actually a bit winded, but we´ve had a good time. Tomorrow we move on towards Macchu Picchu.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Today I'm taking off with my friends Lauren and Becky to Peru. We're taking a bus in a couple of hours to Guayaquil and then getting on the 6:30 p.m. flight to Lima. This is the same flight that wound up being 6 hours delayed when I went to Chile, but apparently it's on time as of right now. We'll spend a day in Lima and then fly to Cuzco (or Cusco) and see the sights, as well as the granddaddy of them all, Macchu Picchu.

From Cuzco we'll go on to Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia, and though we've wanted to get into Bolivia and tried to find ways to extend our flights, we just don't think we'll have enough time to get in there. It's also an issue of Americans having to pay $135 for the visa to enter the country. But if we were going to pay that kind of money to get in, we'd like to spend more than a day there.

Our flight back to Guayaquil from Lima is on February 25th, but classes don't start again until March 9th. So the tentative plan is that Lauren and I will travel up the coast of Ecuador to Portoviejo and Esmeraldas, turning right and going to Quilotoa and Ibarra in the north of the sierra. But again, it's all tentative and could easily change. We've also discussed jumping on a bus and going right back into Peru to see the north coast.

In any case, blogging will be difficult for a few days, but I will try to give periodic updates from the road when I can. However, my main concern will be having the experiences rather than stopping every day to write about them. But be patient! When I can I will update on all of the fun stuff that we've been up to, and hopefully the stories will be accompanied by good pictures and video. Until whenever in early March, have a good time and I'll be back eventually. Check in for updates, and I'll see you out there.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Today's Older Traveler

There's a breed of traveler that you see all over the country, but I guess it wasn't until I went to the Galapagos that I really felt compelled to write about it. They often travel in packs, but have been known to wander out on their own or with another partner. I'm talking, of course, about older travelers. Those who have hit middle age and want to go on an adventure to a country they've never seen before. First, let me just say that I think it's great that older people still want to get out there and travel, especially to a country like Ecuador where you need to rough it in many parts. Yet there are just some things about these travelers that boggle my mind and the quirks need to be pointed out. Let's begin.

Bring Proper Attire

For some reason, every older traveler wears the exact same thing. I don't know if there's some special store that the AARP is recommending their members shop at for trips to South America, but they are all in cahoots on this one. A typical outfit consists of something like a safari jacket or shirt. This could best be described as a olive drab shirt with cargo pockets and zippers in random locations, either for design or to fool a potential thief. An alternative to this can also be brightly colored button down or collared shirts.

For the pantaloons you can expect cargo pants or shorts matching the shirt and always tucked in. For the women, you can also find loose fitting elastic waist pants or a summer dress. At times, you might also find these older travelers wearing shirts boasting the last spot they visited. We're not talking "I Love New York" kind of shirts, but you know that the shirt or hand bag wasn't bought in the States or Europe.

A generality, yet also the truth, are the knee high socks and ankle shoes or sandals. Maybe it's to protect against mosquitoes, even though there aren't any high in the mountains. A backpack will almost always be on and a camera slung around the neck. Not that the locals would have any trouble identifying them as tourists, but it just seals the deal from miles away. From time to time you can also see them with a guidebook in hand, a finger pressed into the pages to save the mark on the current city they're in. A map could also be replaced in this situation.

And something that I see more often in Cuenca than anywhere else is the Panama Hat. The reason I always find this funny is because only two groups of people where the Panama Hat in Cuenca: the indigenous, who would never be confused with tourists, and large groups of tourists. There always seems to be a group of tourists, straight from the hat museum, all touting their newly bought hats. I love sitting in the park in the center and just watching these large groups walk by in their hats, all being hassled by street kids to shine their shoes.

Act Accordingly

Some people might think I would feel uncomfortable being the only gringo on a bus or in a neighborhood. On the contrary, I actually feel less comfortable when I'm surrounded by other tourists. The reason is that they stick out and draw attention and are always going to be a juicy target for whoever wants to take advantage of them. One time on a bus from Riobamba to Cuenca I was the only gringo, yet I felt comfortable. At one stop about 10 gringos got on, dressed exactly as I've described, talking loudly and obnoxiously. I didn't feel right until they all got off the bus a couple of hours later. Everyone knows that a tourist will have a camera, a wallet with money and credit cards, and possibly an iPod or some other luxury. I just don't want to be near the action.

But it's also the demeanor of these tourists. For one thing, they don't seem to understand the culture of bargaining. It's not an insult to bargain, and it's actually expected, so when they pay the first price someone quotes them, it drives up the expected price for me as well, taking me longer to haggle. And at times, they can get rude about it too. Sometimes these travelers will simply take advantage of the locals and the low prices, abusing the fact that they have money to spend.

Another time on a bus an older couple was trying to argue with the bus attendant. When people get on the bus they have to pay, but the couple assumed everyone had already paid and the attendant was now making some people pay again. "Senor, por que? Es malo, es malo," the man said in his awful Spanish. Accusing the attendant of stealing money isn't really a good idea unless you're positive it has happened, and to you. I tried to explain to them what the deal was, and finally they let it drop.

When traveling in packs, they usually at least have the security of numbers. Yet they still come in like an invasive species and take over the area they are in, making a scene as they move through. But when they are alone they are more prone to being worked over and seem lost. I don't understand why it is, but the older travelers always seem to act in the same way, and I find it amusing at the very least. That isn't to say that younger travelers don't act like this sometimes as well, but in my experience it is much less common.

Whatever this rant was, it was just a way for me to discuss some of the quirks of the travelers that I see around here in Cuenca and Ecuador as a whole. Don't hate me for saying it, it's just the truth.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Birthdays and Valentines

Yesterday was a pretty lazy day. I was sick, as I usually get sick once a week in Cuenca now. It's always the same thing. I wake up fine and within an hour I'm on a sneezing/runny nose rampage. It usually lasts all day and I feel awful, but it cleared up for the most part by late afternoon. I went down to the bank to see if I finally got paid for January, but was told that the check wouldn't clear until Monday. So hopefully on Monday I can pay the rent for last month.

My friend Diana invited me out for her birthday to a dance club, so I met up with her and her cousins that I'm also friends with around 10 p.m. It was an older crowd at the club, but we got a couple bottles of rum and danced for a while. Her new boyfriend is from Spain and we talked for a little bit about how I used to live there, and it was actually hard for me to understand him at first because it's been so long since I heard a Spanish accent. My friends told me that when I first got to Cuenca I sounded more Spanish, but now I sound more like I'm from Cuenca. I really can't tell the difference at all when I'm the one speaking.

We talked for a while and also danced a good amount. The birthday girl was unhappy that she was turning 25, so the cousins made a point of yelling happy birthday every so often. I mentioned that the same day was my grandfather's birthday, easier to remember because it's on Valentine's Day. I'm kind of surprised that Valentine's Day is a big deal here, but there were little pink hearts all around the city and people were selling flowers and balloons saying "I Love You." It's also weird that it was in English, and not in Spanish. But I guess it's universally understood.

Today a friend from Guayaquil is coming in and there's another birthday party later on at night. My throat is kind of hurting today, probably from the cold, so hopefully it doesn't get any worse before moving on to travel again on Monday. Soon enough I'll be in Peru.

Friday, February 13, 2009

More Photos of the Galápagos

Sea turtles mating

Pelicans waiting for free lunch in Puerto Ayoro

A tortoise eating

Up close to the inside of a cactus

Video of the Galápagos

Here is a short video of the trip to the Galapagos that I've made. It just gives a quick summary of the types of things you can see and do in the islands. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stow Away

Since I've been back in Cuenca I've been pretty busy. I'm on vacation, so I'm able to just do what I want and it's nice to not worry about classes. Yesterday I spent the bulk of the morning writing about my trip in the Galapagos and uploading pictures. After lunch I went into town to buy a small backpack. I'd been using a TripAdvisor string bag to carry around my cameras and other things when I went out on day trips. But the bag broke the second day in the Galapagos, and I needed a replacement.

I wasn't really looking for a great bag, just something to hold my camera equipment, so I didn't want to spend more than $5. First I went to an almacen near my house and saw a pretty good bag. The store clerk said it was $8.50 so I said $5 and she agreed that would be fine. But the store owner wanted no less than $7, and I got the wink from the clerk that I shouldn't pay more than $5, so I left.

I walked around trying to find a bag and ran into three different students of mine at different times. I eventually found a market and bought a cheap bag for $5. I was about to walk home when I ran into an American girl named Patricia that I'd met a couple of weeks ago. She's studying abroad with a small group of students from Lewis and Clark University. Her class was going to the San Fransisco church for a field trip and she asked if I wanted to go. I had nothing better to do so I went.

I'd walked by the church a few times but never gone inside. It's been under reconstruction since I've been in Cuenca and has been closed to the public, but the teacher was able to get the class in for a tour. It was funny because with only a handful of students, it was clear that I was just jumping on board for a free tour, but it took at least 20 minutes before someone else asked me who I was. The teacher never even asked me.

We walked around the church and saw the workers fixing things, and then we were invited to go up to the top of the steeple 4 at a time. I waited until everyone else had gone up so as to not ruin their field trip. Once up top I could see the entire city in a panoramic view. The only problem was that I didn't have my camera because I had no idea I would get to see this. But I talked to the guide and told him that I was a professor at the university and he told me I could come back whenever I wanted.

It was cool sitting in with the class and made me miss being a student. It was definitely a fun time and I enjoyed being one. Otherwise, I've been spending the time reading "El Alquimista," by Paulo Coelho in Spanish, writing, and watching episodes of "The Office," which I have now finally completed.

In other news, I'm a few steps closer to getting dual citizenship with Argentina. My birth certificate has been amended to have my mother's original maiden name and has been sent to the Argentinian Consulate in New York to get a Hague Apostille, which is a form that must be affixed to any official document being sent internationally. I've also checked in with the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires and double checked that I'm able to have both passports. So now it's just a matter of waiting for the forms to arrive and then going to the Argentinian Consulate in Guayaquil to sign the papers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Leaving the Galápagos: Day 5

On the 5th and final day of our trip, we woke up and had breakfast, just like every other day. We spent about 30 minutes packing up our stuff, which was strewn all across the hotel room. Andrew and I had been running the air conditioning non stop at 18* Celsius since we got there, so the room always felt like winter. This helped our clothes dry faster, but the wet socks from the day before were still damp.

Once we were all ready to go we piled into the van and headed towards Los Gemelos. Los Gemelos were described as craters, but in actuality were just enormous sink holes. The holes are next to each other, in between the main road on Santa Cruz, and are filled with vegetation. We only spent a few minutes at each hole, just taking pictures and talking. Once back in the vans, we headed towards the airport. Andrew and Cara were in a separate van with some German tourists who were on our tour because there wasn't enough room in the main van.

The second van beat us to the ferry landing and Kristine and I waited with the others for the second boat to go. Once we got across to Baltra we had to wait another 15 minutes for the bus to leave for the airport. By the time we got there Andrew and Cara were already checked in and ready to go, but as we got in the check in line we had to wait for about 40 minutes before anyone moved.

Now with just a few minutes before boarding, we sat around waiting to go. I wasn't in First Class again, but I was sitting next to Kristine, so I was happy I'd have a friend to talk to. Also, the three others would be continuing on to Quito and I was getting off in Guayaquil, so this would be our last chance to talk. The flight took over an hour, and when we got to Guayaquil I said my goodbyes quickly and got off the plane.

My plan was to spend the night in Guayaquil to see the sights finally, but when I called up my friend Craig he was already at work, so I just decided to head back to Cuenca. It was a long day of travel, but I finally got into Cuenca after 8 o'clock. And the trip was over, but it was one hell of a time. In total, we spent $630 for the package, which included round trip airfare, hotel, food, guided tours, and airport pickup and drop off. We changed a day excursion which cost $50 more, and had to rent snorkel gear each day for $2.50 (or $5 with flippers). We also had to pay for our own drinks, which were expensive on the island. The prices of everything in the Galapagos are more expensive than anywhere else in the country because it all has to be imported.

The park entrance for foreigners would be $100, but we only had to pay $6 with our Ecuadorian IDs. So we spent a lot of money, but in turn, it was a lot for the value. And we all agreed that if we only go to the Galapagos Islands once in our lives we might as well make it worth it. It's a trip that everyone should be so lucky to take.

Above: Andrew and I at Los Gemelos (he leaned down to make me look tall), Los Gemelos

Galápagos: Day 4

Waking up semi-ready to go, we headed off for the 15 minute boat ride to La Loberia, a small island with sea lions. The weather wasn't so good, just cloudy and cooler than the last two days, so the sea lions weren't sunning themselves as much as they'd been beforehand. After a few minutes looking at them, we moved on to Punta Estrada to snorkel. The snorkeling was good, but not as intense as it had been the two previous days. We were still able to swim with schools of fish, but once you've been feet away from sharks and sea lions, you want more.

After snorkeling we ate lunch just as the rain, which had been clearly visible across the channel, was now falling onto the boat. We were stuck with a group of children on a school trip and most of the adults went for cover under the awning as the kids ate in the rain. We all agreed that the kids were terrible and needed to be thrown overboard, yet no one did anything.

After the lunch we went to Las Grietas, a valley with a pool of clear water consisting of about 50% sea water and 50% rain water. It was a 20 minute walk from the dock and the rain fell lightly and gently. As we got closer we saw people coming back covered in mud, and knew it was going to get dirty before it got clean. The path was made up of what was clearly once a lava flow, and now it was simply a black rock walk. It got muddier and more difficult to walk closer to the water, and we had to shimmy down muddy steps and rocks to get into the cold water.

Once in, we could see that the valley made by the rocks went deep into the water, and we could see all the way down to the sand. There were some fish, but it was more interesting just to be swimming in their surrounding by the walls. There were even some tunnels that Andrew was able to swim through. As we swam the rain fell harder and by the time we got out it was coming down consistently. We treked back up the trail, our clothes wet from the rain and the water.

I stupidly commented that at least it wasn't raining too hard. No later than 30 seconds later the rain picked up and came in hard. We were now fully soaked and stopped in at a bar next to salt flats to avoid it for a few minutes. Our shoes were covered in mud so we used a fountain to clean off, which just soaked the shoes even more. We finally made it back to the boat and by the time we got back to Puerto Ayoro the rain had eased up.

Our plan was to go with Javier to some lava tubes for $20, but as we thought about it, we realized we didn't want to spend that much money. Instead we hitched a ride with another tour and paid the entrance fee of $2.50 ($3 for foreigners). We also tagged along with the tour, so it worked out pretty well in the end. The lava tubes are huge tunnels that were carved out by the magma millions of years ago. They are the second longest tunnels in South America. It was a short walk and soon we were back on the bus and back at the hotel. The weather cleared up and the sun came out later.

We had our last dinner of lobster tail at the hotel and then went out for some drinks and dancing with some girls we met from Machala.

Above: Blue footed boobies, cacti and rain in the distance, a flower grows on a cactus, the lava tubes

Exploring the Galápagos: Day 3

On the third day our plans changed to go to an island called Floreana, in the south. Our new guide, Javier, was friendly and told us all the things we would be able to see as we waited on the 2 hour boat ride. The seas were tough on Andrew and he got pretty sick for most of the ride. A lot of us were feeling ill but kept it together in whatever way we could. Once we got to Floreana we took a chiva bus ride for 20 minutes to go on a small walk. A few of us sat on the top of the bus, dodging branches and holding on as the bumps threw us around.

Only 120 people live on the island, and its had an interesting history. The first inhabitant was an Irish pirate who lived there by trading vegetables for rum. Then in the 20th century three German families settled there, but they eventually killed most of each other off in mysterious ways. Now, people come to the island every day to see tortoises that were brought to the island and aren't native to it. You can still see the volcanic cones, mostly blown out, which have now been overgrown with trees and vegetation. At the top of the hike we saw a stone statue of a head that someone had carved out at some point, leaving some plants to be the hair. It was oddly reminiscent of Easter Island.

Back down at the port we saw a couple of penguins quickly swimming by. I wasn't even aware that penguins lived there, but they weren't the kind that you would expect to see in Antarctica. Much smaller, they breezed through the water. Back in the boat we ate lunch and then moved on to snorkel. We were supposed to go in a beautiful area called "Devil's Crown," but the water was too rough so we moved on to another spot. The water was equally amazing, and as we jumped in we were able to see everything beneath us with clarity that could be described as High Definition.

We saw a school of sharks and moved closer. They weren't Great Whites, but rather small ones. Nonetheless, once a shark swims towards you, it can be nerve wracking. Later on in the boat Javier told us that someone must have been scared, because they can sense the fear and get curious so they swim towards you. I don't know if I believe that, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone was afraid of a shark coming right for you. At one point a shark was swimming close to me and my first thought was, "Oh crap!"

We moved on to a different area and there we swam with sea lions. Javier told us not to go towards them because it would be a threat to their territory. Instead, they would see us and come to us, which was true. When you clap, a sea lion will look up and follow the noise. With a universe of sea life below us, I even attempted diving, getting better each time. Though I could hold my breath a lot longer above water, with the pressure and exercise of swimming deep, I could only go a little below the surface. Trying to grab fish, it was a cat and mouse game to see who could hold their breath longer, and the fish always won. I was now very confident with the snorkeling, and was swimming around with ease.

A sea lion came out of no where and was right near my foot, which made me nervous that he would bite me, but he playfully moved along and up to the surface. The temperature was perfect and the water was as good as could be. We watched schools of fish, but some people were also stung by jellyfish. Once we got out we told different stories of all the things we'd seen and done. No matter how much SPF 50 I put on, I was still burning badly, and my shoulders and back were taking the brunt. I put my shirt back on and tried to stay covered. We started the 2 hour trek back, and Andrew continued to be sick over the side. It was a long and tiring day, but it was well worth it. We went to bed early that night, still feeling like we were on a boat. The next day would be a bit more relaxed.

Above: Devil's Crown, a sea lion yawning, a stone head sculpture in Floreana, a blown out volcano crater

In the Galápagos: Day 2

We woke up tired but excited on Saturday morning, ready for a day on the sea. First we had to take the 40 minute drive back up to the top of Santa Cruz to the ferry station, where we waited for a boat. A gentle rain started to fall, but it felt good and we didn't care. And soon enough it stopped anyway. We got on our boat packed with about 15 people and headed off for about 30-45 minutes towards Islas Daphne, an uninhabited volcanic island that is home to sea lions, crabs, and a number of birds.

There at Islas Daphne we went snorkeling for the first time. To rent the snorkeling gear it was $2.50 for the mask and air tube or $5 to include flippers. I didn't think I would need the flippers, but it was a mistake because it would have made a big difference. As everyone jumped in I soon remembered just what a lousy swimmer I am. One year at summer camp I went from being a Level 4 swimmer to a Level 3, and rough seas were not a good way to ease into it.

I immediately struggled and doggy paddled as hard as I could to stay afloat as the boat drifted away and the rest of the group moved closer to the rocks. I was alone and the waves were crashing over me. I tried to use the breathing tube but it was hard to get used to it, especially while freaking out and trying to stay above the water, so I was breathing too hard and struggling badly. I was first trying to make it towards my friends, but after a couple of minutes I was only trying to make it back towards the boat.

I couldn't see anything and was getting a little nervous. I swallowed more and more salt water and just barely made it back as my muscles were exhausted. As hard as I was paddling, I couldn't move at all. I could have been in a strong current, but it could also just have been that I'm a terrible swimmer. When I got back on the boat the captain asked what happened and I said I couldn't swim well, and in about two minutes I started puking off the side of the boat. I think it might have had to do with swallowing the water and my heart rate going to crazy from the stress of it.

I sat on the edge of the boat drying off and watching the other swim, upset and uneasy. I was a little scared that the whole trip would be thrown off because I couldn't really swim well. Once everyone got back on I heard about all the amazing things they saw--sharks, sea lions, and schools of fish. Kristine was inches from a sea lion and wanted to touch it but pulled back, luckily because they usually bite if you're too close. My friends were sympathetic and said they would try to help me swim next time.

We moved on back to Baltra, but this time to a small beach with just a few feet of sand before reaching bushes that we weren't able to explore because there were tortoise nests. On the way to the beach we actually saw two sea turtles mating in the water and stopped to watch for a couple of minutes. As we all snapped photos, I asked Andrew if he thought aliens watched us mating with the same intrigue.

At the next beach the water was clear and calm, so I tried to swim again. With Kristine's help, I was able to figure out how to breath well and figured out how to snorkel and just float with the current. It was harder without the flippers, but at least I was able to do it. The water was turquoise and blue, and we were able to see schools of fish and large exotic ones with amazing color patterns. It was a big rush to see it all and I was glad that I was able to do it. The current would move the fish and I to the left, then back to the right, up and to the left again, dangerously close to a rock. Suddenly I would turn around and realize I was right in the middle of a huge school of small fish.

When we got back on the boat we had lunch and headed back to Puerto Ayoro. We walked around the town for the rest of the day and went out dancing with the Chileans for a little bit later that night. But we knew we had a big day ahead of us, so we got ready for it. Instead of going to Tortuga Bay, a popular beach, we paid $50 extra to change our plans and go to Floreana, an island about 2 hours away.

Above: images from Islas Daphne, the beach in Baltra, a view from the captain's seat

A Trip to the Galápagos: Day 1

Before I could leave for the Galapagos I had to spend the night in Guayaquil, so immediately after the last final exam finished I caught the 3 o'clock bus to the largest city in Ecuador. The only problem was that I accidentally took the route that goes through Canar instead of Cajas, so it took an extra hour. By the time I got to Guayaquil it was around 8 p.m. and I waited in the bus terminal for my friends Craig and Carrie to meet me. We got dinner there and then went back to Craig's house where I was invited to spend the night.

The heat of Guayaquil was already hitting me hard, and by the time we arrived to his house after the 10 minute walk, I was drenched in sweat that wouldn't stop pouring down. We sat and talked with his host family, some very nice people, for most of the night and then walked Carrie home, who lives 10 minutes away. It was hard getting to sleep that night because it was so humid, and I continued to just sweat in the bed, not even using a blanket. My flight was scheduled for 9 a.m., but right before my alarm went off at 6:15 I got a text from my friend Kristine saying that the flight was changed and we'd be leaving at 11 instead. I got to sleep a couple extra hours and went to the airport ready to go but still tired.

At the airport I met up with a Chilean friend I made on the coast a couple weekends before named Nicole. She and her friend Veronica wanted to go to the Galapagos with someone, so they planned a trip for the same time to have someone else to go with. Once I got on the airplane I was surprised to find that for some reason I was in First Class. Besides the extra leg room, bigger seats, and faster meal service, there wasn't much of a difference, but it was still amusing to see my other friends, Kristine, her friend from home Cara, and Andrew stuck in the back of coach with a group of kids kicking their seats. The flight from Guayaquil took exactly 1 hour and 4 minutes, and once we landed in Baltra, a former U.S. Military base during World War II, we gained an hour. Right before we landed the flight attendants sprayed some lemon scented disinfectant all over the plane to avoid bringing in any unwanted bacteria.

At the terminal, which is just meant for one plane at a time, we could feel the heat as we walked on the tarmac to the check in station. Back in Guayaquil we were forced to pay $10 for a Galapagos ID card, but it was really just a way for them to get $10 out of you. There were two lines in Baltra, those for Ecuadorians and those for tourists. The Ecuadorians pay $6 to enter the park and tourists pay $100, although other South American can pay $50. With our Ecuadorian residence cards we were able to pay $6, and as we stood in the local line a man tapped me on the shoulder and said he thought I was in the wrong line. I showed him my card and he excused himself as we laughed it off.

Once everything was squared away we took a bus to the edge of the island and got on to a 3 minute ferry to Santa Cruz, the island where we were staying. The hotel had arranged a pickup, and a guide was waiting for us. The ride from the ferry station to the other end of the island at Puerto Ayoro, where most of the inhabitants of the Galapagos live, takes 40 minutes down a nicely paved and mostly straight road. Everything else around is open nature. In that 40 minutes alone the topography changes from arid and desert-like to lush rain forest to beach.

Down at Hotel Ninfa, we were given some time to rest up before heading to the Charles Darwin Research Station. There we saw our first tortoises on an overcast and extremely humid day. The tortoises were enormous and slow moving, yet when they wanted to they could flee faster than we thought was possible. As the sweat poured down my face uncontrollably, we walked on to the pen of Lonesome George, the last subspecies of his kind. Park staff have been trying to get Lonesome George to mate for several years, yet so far it has been unsuccessful. Because it was later in the day and thus hotter, George was hiding under some brush and we couldn't see him. He usually only comes out in the morning.

We also learned that the Galapagos Islands gets its name from an old Spanish word "Galapago," which was the name of a type of saddle. Both the island shapes and the shapes of the tortoise shells look like the saddle, and so the Spaniards who discovered the islands named it accordingly.

In addition to tortoises, we saw many types of lizards and iguanas, pelicans, and other animals with no fear of humans. They would come right up to us if we let them, and though we couldn't touch them, there was a feeling that we easily could have. Andrew and I had a bet going on how many times the guide would say "Charles Darwin." I said over 25 and he said under 20, and it wound up being just 12 times, so I bought him a beer later on. As the sweat continued to fall down we left for a drink just as it started to rain hard for about 30 minutes, cooling things down a bit.

We headed back to the hotel for dinner at 6:30 and went out for a drink that night, but rested up for a big day ahead of us.

Above: Lonesome George's pen, a tortoise up close, camouflaged iguanas, a tortoise stretching

Aaaand We're Back

I returned to the mainland today, arriving from the Galapagos Islands around 3 p.m. local time. I was going to spend the night in Guayaquil with my friend Craig, but by the time I called him from the airplane he was already at work and wouldn't be out until 8 p.m., so I just decided to come back to Cuenca. And finally after a long day of travel I got in to Cuenca after 8 p.m. Tomorrow I'm going to load up some pictures and start writing about the great things we did in the islands. It was a great trip that was worth the cost, and I'd recommend anyone go there. It's definitely a place that is more geared towards aquatic enthusiasts, but anyone can enjoy the islands. Until then, I'm going to rest and prepare for some more vacation until the next journey.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Off to the Galapagos

Just as a reminder to the readers, I'm taking off today for a trip to the Galapagos Islands. After the last suspension final exam is settled I'm taking the bus to Guayaquil where I'll spend the night with my friend Craig. I think Ricardo will also be in Guayaquil, so we'll all most likely meet up for a drink or two. But nothing too crazy, because in the morning I'm flying to the Galapagos for 5 days. I'll be back in Guayaquil on the 10th and probably come straight back to Cuenca if it's not too late.

Once I get back I'll have some photos posted and some stories to share. And there might even be some video of the islands too. See you when I get back.


For a while now I've been hearing people say "Simon," when they are on the phone, and I've never understood why. At first I thought it might be a word I was unfamiliar with, but when I looked it up, nothing came about. I convinced myself that I was hearing it wrong.

But then I thought that it could be a person's name. The way it was pronounced, "See-mohn" would be a logical answer for the equivalent of the English name Simon. But then I thought about the fact that I've never met a Simon down here, and the only one I've ever heard of was Simon Bolivar. So again, I was confused.

But every once in a while I would walk by someone on the phone and hear "Simon, Simon," and it utterly perplexed me. I wanted to ask them what the deal was, but it's not usually the kind of thing you do, just going up to a stranger on the street and asking them why they're saying something. But finally, I have discovered what Simon means.

As it turns out, they are saying the name Simon. But they are not referencing anyone in particular. Instead, it's just a childish way to say the word "Si," or yes. So when someone is on the phone and in agreement with what is being said, they will sometimes say Simon instead of Si. There is no rhyme or reason to it, and I'm sure we have our own little equivalents in English. Two examples I could quickly think of are "Ready Freddy?" and "No prob, Bob." Of course we are not talking to someone named Fred or Bob, unless by chance we are. But it is understood what we are saying.

But I'm glad that I've finally figured out what one catch phrase means. It's not something that I could have read in a dictionary or found out from a class about grammar. It's just something you learn from immersion and living in a culture. And that's pretty cool. Right, Simon?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

One of Many Flaws

Let's talk about just one of many flaws in the Ecuadorian educational system. Forget for a minute that they change the schedule and don't give you notification of things until a few days before. That's irrelevant for right now. Instead, let's just look at the "Suspension Exam" part of a flawed system. It's nearly impossible to fail a course down here because it's built into the culture to give you a second, maybe even a third chance. So even if you have failed the course or the final exam, you are allowed to take another test a day or two later. Basically, it's a refusal to accept that you just might not be good enough to make the cut, but rather than making you feel badly about it, they let it slide.

This is bad for many reasons. First, it allows those who probably shouldn't be passing the chance to pass again. If someone failed a course in the United States, they would have to take the entire semester over again and prove that they had learned the material this time through before they could move on. Here, however, all you need to do is take a similar exam again, which you can study the same material over again, and pass the course as if nothing happened. No one will know the difference.

The could be the reason why there are structural problems. You can see how it would cause problems if engineers and architects who shouldn't be passing their classes wind up getting jobs designing things. And let's also think about the impact it has on the teachers as well, since I'm one of them.

Knowing in advance that if you have done everything you can for a student who is going to fail, yet they will still most likely be able to pass your class, it kind of makes you feel useless to begin with. If the school isn't going to take your word for it, then it diminishes the teachers' importance. Also, it's a hassle to have to come back to the university after finals have already "ended" and give another final. And we're supposed to make up an entirely new test, which isn't the easiest thing to do on short notice. With all of that extra work in mind, it makes you want to do whatever you can to pass the student just so you don't have to deal with the aggravation. And sometimes that means passing on a student that you know doesn't really deserve to.

Another professor at the university had a problem with nepotism from his students. He had a student who was failing. They took the second chance test and failed that as well. But the student knew the director or someone in the administration, so they complained and got permission to take a third test, even though finals were officially done. So the professor had to come in at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning to give the third final exam. It's interesting to say third final exam. Usually you get the idea that the first one is final as it is. It's not rewarding the stupidity of the students or punishing them by retaking it. Rather, it's punishing the professors, who have done what they can for the students, and are then told they need to do extra work, even if they don't believe they should pass.

I'm not down here to fail students. I'm also not going to throw grades around easily for my own benefit. But I'm still a pretty easy grader compared to some other professors I've worked with, mainly because I try to think about how hard it is to speak a second language, and I know that it's nerve wracking during a test. Yet I also have to deal with the expectations of the society telling me that I need to give more chances even if I don't believe it to be deserved.

The United States is decidedly a more competitive society, whereas down in Ecuador, it's more about helping those who need is so everyone is around the same level. You can't really argue with how they want to do things, but you can look at some things around you and think to yourself, "this is why some things run differently here." And it's frustrating. You want to be able to impart some knowledge and tell, from your own perspective, why things are running incorrectly, but either no one understands or cares to do anything about it. But like I keep saying, I'm not here to revolutionize the system, just do my work and help where I can.

Monday, February 2, 2009

"That's How It Starts"

Back when I was studying in Spain we had a lot of vacation time. On one of the vacation periods, a few of us rented a couple of cars and took off for Lagos, Portugal. You'll find Lagos listed on one of my top European cities on the left. It's really just a small beach town, but it was a hell of a time, with incredibly warm locals. Anyway, while we were there we took a half hour drive to a point with cliffs where the locals used to believe the end of the world existed, back in the medieval days when they though the Earth was flat. Actually, the picture for this blog, up above with the sunset, is from that exact location.

So while we were there taking in the sunset, freezing on the windy cliffs, a woman came up to my friend, who was wearing a William and Mary sweatshirt, and asked if she went there. My friend said yes, and the woman seemed happy, saying that she had attended William and Mary a few years earlier. So they started talking and we asked what she was doing in Portugal. The woman said that she was teaching English up north near Lisbon and that she'd been around to a few countries before coming to this country.

We agreed that it sounded cool, and she asked if we were on vacation, so we said yes, but that we were studying abroad in Spain. "That's how it starts," she said with a smile. It was kind of a weird thing to say, and I don't think any of us really took it to heart at the time. I remember even thinking that it was a little odd to be living abroad and teaching English. It didn't seem like something I'd ever be interested in doing.

But as time went on, I became more interested in living abroad, and those words really began to ring true. Studying abroad is how it starts for many people. Some just use it as one experience in their lives to go off of, but others use it as a launching pad to go into a certain field or begin traveling more often. Of the people involved in my organization, almost all of them studied abroad somewhere at some point.

After studying in Spain I wanted more, and I went to Uruguay for my last spring break to do some volunteer work. I was already planning on living abroad again by that point and had applied to two organizations to teach abroad. One option was going back to Spain, to a place I already knew and loved. And the other option was going to Ecuador, a country I didn't know much about and knew would be a struggle. But I went with something new and a way to challenge myself, and so far it has worked out well.

And now I find myself looking ahead again. My next plan is to move to Argentina for a few months or a year after I am finished with my time in Ecuador. My plan is to finally go back home once I leave Argentina, way in the future, but it's hard to say exactly what I'll do before I even get to a place. And if I've learned anything from my experiences so far, it's that you can't really be sure of something until you've had enough time to work through it. But what she said is true. It's just the start, and there are many other ways I can continue my involvement in international relations, even if I live back in the United States. Yet once you have lived abroad, it opens your eyes to many things, more so than just traveling through a place, and it's a change that affects who you are and what you do, for better or worse.

Above: Images from Lagos, Portugal and the cliffs

Superbowl Action

The big event yesterday was the Superbowl, being played in Tampa, Florida. My friend Casey and his wife Lara stayed in Cuenca an extra day to watch the game before heading back to Jima in the morning, and our plan was to watch in a bar down the street. The TV downstairs gets ESPN International, but lately it hasn't been working well and blacks out frequently. It started getting really bad during the Inauguration.

So our plan was to go to a gringo bar called "Wunderbar" where we watch the Presidential debates and election. But we were let down when we saw that they were closed on Sunday, just like almost everything else in the city. Next we decided to watch at a restaurant called "Cafe Eucalyptus" which is also in the center. Casey and Lara got there first at 5 o'clock, but the satellite wasn't working for the TV there. In a scramble, we started running around the center trying to find a place to watch.

Then I remembered a cafe/hostel where I'd gotten coffee a few times. They had a flat screen HDTV and had ESPN International. We headed over and asked them to turn on the TV and search for the game. With success, we found the pregame and were able to breath easy. It was a very expensive place, $4.00 for a sandwich (which was good), but it was worth it to be able to watch the game. Hardly anyone was there watching, and eventually my friend Jamie showed up for a little bit too.

Nothing is open late on a Sunday night in Cuenca, and we were pushing it by keeping the staff there until 9:30 p.m. They were essentially trying to kick us out, but were also watching the game with us, hoping the clock would run out sooner. We were about to leave until the Arizona Cardinals came back and made it an interesting game. From then on we knew we were staying, and I was just hoping it wouldn't go into overtime. I really had nothing invested in either team, but I was rooting for the Cardinals to win so they could have a championship to be proud of. It was close, and very entertaining towards the end, making it worth the trouble of going out for it. But the game finally ended and we thanked the staff greatly for letting us stay so late, and then headed home, careful for other people out on the street. It's never a good idea to be out late on a Sunday night.

But hey, at least we got to watch the Superbowl in Ecuador, which isn't something you get to do everyday.

And Then There Were Finals

This is going to be a pretty lazy, laid back week. If all goes well that is. Now that classes have ended, all that stands between me and a month of vacation is some final exams. For the next three I'll be proctoring and sitting in on a few exams, going from having no work to having to grade 20 exams in a matter of hours. Once all of the grades are in on Wednesday, I'll know if any of the students need to take a "suspension" exam. What that basically means is it's nearly impossible to fail in the school system here, so even if you failed the test, they give you another chance.

If someone does need to take that test, then I will have to proctor the make up test on Thursday, right before I take off for Guayaquil. I have a flight to the Galapagos on Friday morning, so I need to get into Guayaquil on Thursday afternoon to make sure I get there in time. I'm still unsure of my itinerary for the trip, but I know that I'll be meeting up with my friends Andrew and Kristine, as well as Kristine's friend from back home. Once I get back from the Galapagos I'll have a lot of pictures to post, as well as good stories to share.

For now, I need to get through this last week as easily as possible. It will be a bit of a struggle to keep the anticipation down, as this is going to be such a big month of travel. After the Galapagos I'll be coming back to Cuenca for a few days and then taking off for Peru for a week and a half. We'll be going to Lima, Cuzco, Macchu Piccu, and Lake Titicaca. We want to go to Bolivia, but with the entrance fee of $135, we might need to pass on it. After Peru, we still have two weeks of vacation, so we'll probably hit up some other cities in Ecuador.

There's still so much to see here that it almost feels encircling to realize that half of my time here is gone. Just yesterday I went to a park far down in a part of Cuenca that I'd never even been to, though it was only a 25 minute walk from my house. No one had told me about it until a week or so ago, and it was a huge, nice looking park filled with families out for a Sunday activity. The neighborhood looked nice and gave good views of the mountains in the distance, which I usually can't see from my neighborhood. Just getting to this other part of the city made me realize how much more there is to see and do, not just in the country, but in my city.

I like living in the center of the city. It makes things convenient and easy. And it's a nice place to be. But I also wish sometimes that I was outside of the center, so that I would be able to see more of the city and get a different feel for things. Living in the center, I always seen gringos and and probably lumped in with them as I walk around. If I lived in a neighborhood further away, I'd most definitely be the only foreigner, and as a result, I feel my experience would be a little bit different, if not more authentic. But beggars can't be choosers. And I'm happy with the situation. It's sunny right now. We'll see how long that lasts though. My guess would be it starts raining by 3 pm.