(if you've already read this, read installment 2 of Dan's crazy travels)
So I have been in Ecuador for just under 2 weeks so far. I have been on a guided trip to the amazon in the cuyabeno area, and done a lot of day trips in the quito area. Tomorrow I will go to the small town of El Chaupi to hike Illinza norte, the 8th highest peak (a volcano) in Ecuador at 5100 meters or so.
I'm just barely in the southern hemisphere as the equator is a mere 11 miles or km away. At the equator north of town there is a stone monolith with a bright red line that tourists with cameras find irresistible. I found it irresistible myself. As might be expected, there is more than one claimed equatorial line in the area, with each proclaimed to be the real thing, and confimed by GPS or whatever. "Amigo, I show you the REAL equator-un dolar, por favor" One private museum nearby will perform pseudoscientific demonstrations of the mystical forces of the equator for a mere $2. What a bargain to see an egg balanced on a nail (a nonsense demonstration they say can only be performed exactly on the equator). They also have shrunken heads for sale and other potential Ebay treasures.
The weather here in Quito is cool and dry, with dense white creampuff clouds arriving each late afternoon. its the dry season, so the clouds dont really produce any precipitation. I am staying at a really fun hostel called "Centro Del Mundo" (center of the world), which is a great place to stay, and some travelers get stuck there for longer than they ever planned. Centro has a party atmosphere and free rum+coke parties 3 nights a week (including tonight!). its located in a region of Quito known locally as "gringolandia", which has a lot of gringo travelers from all over the world. I have met some super fun people and had some insane fun nights of partying here in Quito with traveler friends. its funny how other travelers can become your best friends in like 2 days or something. And then everyone has to continue their trip to colombia, brazil, peru or whatever, and fresh gringos arrive. I have met some pretty nutty people already, who are on solo 10 month trips from mexico city to buenos aires or the like.
Quitoans and travelers alike really know how to have a good time. There are lots of discoes and such in the neighborhood to facilitate said good time. The music here is super fun, and I can now sing some popular spanish rap, although I have no idea what it means. A few nights we wound up at karaoke bars, which is popular among quitoans, who are definitely less shy then typical americans. I may not be able to converse with ecuadorians, but I have discovered they really like it when I get onstage and do some spanish karaoke. What total fun. I wound up paryting with some sketchy quitoans last week, who had piles of coca on tables and other horizontal surfaces (including coca spilled onto the floor) throughout their apartment. I guess thats affordable when coca costs $2 per gram or whatever. They stayed up until daylight consuming what must have been life-threatening quantities of freebase. Scary.
Many people here are going to or coming from colombia, which was surprising to me because the official travel warnings. Many say its a fantastic travel destination, and perhaps even their fave country in south america.
One popular destination among Centro guests is the local Quito prison, which houses a number of expat drug crime prisoners. I went there last weekend with a bunch of folks from Centro. After being meticulously scrutinized and searched, you receive large ugly green ink blot offical guest stamps up and down the arm, and you are allowed into the general prison area. They dont allow shorts, so I had to borrow a pair of long pants from a prisoner! The guy who loaned me the pants was a former guard for Pinochet, he claimed, who had been busted smuggling 50 kilos of coca. he was getting out in 6 months or so. He really didnt like living in the prison, even though he had his own kitchen (he was an older guy and old farts get nice accomodations), and generally better accomodations than at centro. Anyhow, we proceeded to meet some prisoners who were from the UK, Czech, and the US and we gave them cigarettes. They were malnourished (cigarettes make great gifts for sick and malnourished prioners) and told us about life in the prison. In prison, you have to BUY your own prison cell, which costs about $400US. If you dont have money or a business of some kind, then you sleep on the cement floor and eat rice and yucca (a starchy root like potato) and become malnourished and sick. Some people in the prison conduct elaborate and profitable drug running or other clandestine businesses (with appropriate profits going to the "guards") and they have the sweet stereo systems, flat-panel TVs and higher-end prostitutes to prove it. Prostitutes (at the low low price of $5) are allowed in the prison once a week, so rape is rare and much less likely than in American prisons. The american guy (busted with 60 kilos herion) claimed he might be murdered because he owed another prisoner $40 and would soon be released. I hooked him up with $40 in phone cards (which are as good as cash in prison), but maybe he'll just spend it on drugs or 8 prostitutes whatever-man he was STOKED! (we all need to support the brave men and women who labor at great risk to keep high quality chemical amusement aids available in the US). So the prison is a weird creepy fun (as a guest) place (smelly too), and definitely one of the most unusual places I have been. After the visit, we had our pictures taken outside the prison by machine-gun toting paramilitary guards. Everyone say "Queso!" said the guard with a smile. it was surreal.
Yesterday I took a train to the Boliche park at the base of 19,300-foot Cotopaxi volcano. Cotopaxi is beautifully cone shaped and looms over the countryside when the eweather is clear (in the morning). The train leaves from quito in the morning, and people ride on top (its very crowded with yammering quitoans yammering about god knows what. I cant understand a damn word), which provides spectacular views of the volcanoes and rural scenery. The train moves slowly, rocks harshly side to side, and a 2-inch high metal edge prevents one from slipping off over the side. I can only imagine the lawsuits that would result from such an arrangement in the US. Small farms are everywhere outside quito, and mestizo indians or whatever stop their hoeing or come out of their cinderblock homes to wave at the topside train passengers. Smiling kids in dirty clothes wave, too. Everyone waves. Wave wave wave. Some kids throw water balloons at the passengers, though, and I got smacked in the kisser. Pigs, piglets, chickens, llamas, cows with plump, flopping udders and everything else runs away from the train. The landscape is pretty wild with large areas of flat or sloping land punctuated by icy, rocky spires reaching 16,000-20,000 feet. There are groves of eucalyptus (you can smell them strongly as the train passes through) and many small corn, potato, onion and flower fields. The soil is deep and rich, which I guess is in part because of all the volcanic material and minerals. Seems like very high quality farmland with a year-round temperate growing season. It really is awesome.
The other day I went to the cloud forest of Mindo with a couple Norwegians. The cloud forest was a chilly rainforest, and really wet. There was a big cold water river running through it, and it was nonstop whitewater rolling over rounded boulders and stones. With a couple guides, we floated down on inner tubes. it was exciting for sure, and sometimes even fun, but not really enjoyable. The water was freezing ass cold and once you fall off your tube-which was inevitable-you were instantly and painfully smashed against the rocks. I was limping for almost a week. Ecuadorians may know how to party and ride trains, but they really need to learn about proper innertubing and appropriate rivers for it. Maybe some Peace Corps volunteers can help.
The amazon trip was through a guide company, which is really the only way to check it out. its not exactly a place you can just hike into. I stayed with a group of 10 gringos at this place a 3 hour motorboat ride inside cuyabeno park (in the northeast corner of EC). There are some indian type people living there, and lots of weird birds and stuff. Some of the bird sounds are hypnotic electronic synthesizer type noises-like staccato droplet sounds or warbling sirens. We saw monkeys and a lot of weird shit-a 2 meter fish that breathes air, a green beetle the size of my hand, toucans, macaws, piranhas we caught fishing, and weaver birds and a gazillion bizarre insects and giant cockroaches. We didnt see the pink freshwater dolphins (no shit), which are famous in the area. There was a giant leafcutter ant colony that made what looked like a human or deer trail through the forest. Hard to imagine that the trail was made by freaking ANTS. The ant trail was alive with moving and bobbing bright green leaf chunks, and the trail led from the very top of a 100 foot giant tree. I went swimming in the cuyabeno river, which in retrospect I wouldnt advise, but not because of the electric eels, stingrays and bloodthirsty piranhas. The river is rich in nasty microbes that can make one very ill. The guide company said "oh it safe uh-huh, yeah no worry yeah", but they also were using totally untreated river water in the sinks, which they thought was fine for tooth brushing. I didnt realize the problems with the sketchy sanitation until it was too late, and I was exploding with absolutely the WORST diarrhea I have ever had in my life. Overnight I was transformed into a human high pressure stink bomb, bursting at timed intervals like clockwork. Very embarrassing. I spent a lot of time in El Bano the last day of the trip, to the point where some of the other travelers playfully serenaded me with "welcome to the hotel El Bano...you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave!", a'la the Eagles' Hotel California hahaha. I finally recovered over the last couple days here in quito, with the help of some local, unpasteurized grassfed yogurt. VERY good stuff (its a miracle I found it), and a welcome contrast to the almost uniformly awful food (typically having every chemical in the Merck Index) eaten by most ecuadorians here in the city (think ice cream made almost entirely with hydrogenated oil, milk powder whatever and sugar. Like where the hell does all that quality milk from those plump flopping udders go, anyways?).
So, now that the cuyabeno illness is over, I will be moving on to the cotopaxi area (El Chaupi, Quilotoa, Latacunga, Banos etc) to do some mountain climbs and hiking and check out the small town scene.
Hope all is well with every one of you.
installment 2 two months later...