Into South America: Week 2

Spectacular views from Isla de Plata

Spectacular views from Isla de Plata

 

Although my updates generally paint a rosy picture, and for the most part it is, there are challenging times on the road. I struggle with anxiety, loneliness, and fear. The unknown can be a very difficult place to be. And although I talk a lot about tolerance and acceptance, that doesn’t mean that I always am. Probably the most difficult for me is being around people who are inconsiderate to others. I fucking hate that. Like the four girls staying at Balsa who got up early and stayed up late. Nothing inherently wrong with that but they talk and yell and laugh loudly together all the time, like they are the only ones here, completely oblivious that there may be other people around who are sleeping, or just want peace and quiet. Or the dog owners who let their animals crap on the beach. I realize these are not big problems in the overall scheme of things, but I do feel strongly here, and everywhere, that being considerate of others would solve many problems. The bigger goal, I know, is learning to suspend judgement. But it’s hard. Having said that, I did make an effort to understand why they were this way, sitting in the dining area on several occasions…watching, listening. I think by nature most Latin Americans are loud and expressive. And there is a certain life and joy in that. By the end it still bugged me, but not as much I suppose. I didn’t really make much of an effort to connect with them, but I tried to understand a little more.

And perhaps that is something about travel that I appreciate most. Outside of my usual element, and surrounded by strange and new things and people, forces me to become more patient, tolerant, and accepting. Maybe not always by much, but incrementally more. And that is a good thing.

With Julie who runs Balsa Surf Camp with her husband Rasti.

With Julie who runs Balsa Surf Camp with her husband Rasti.

When I updated last week, I had just arrived at Balsa Surf Camp in Montanita, located a few minutes from the party town at the North end of the beach. I cannot recommend it enough…this is magical place…and I have rarely felt this. It’s worth a little background here. Balsa is owned by Julie, a teacher from France, and Rasti, an Ecuadorian. They are both probably early thirties. Julie came to teach French in Ecuador in 2004 and met Rasti. They got married and decided to open a hostel. They bought the land and spent the next year and half in 2008/2009 building it with about 15 locals. The hostel (although it is much more than that) is beautiful in every sense of the word. Care and attention to detail is evident everywhere. Beautiful, intricate wood and stone work. Quiet music. Hammocks to relax. Good food. Environmentally and socially conscious. Rasti makes his own balsa wood surf boards, and creates wonders with all types of wood. Together, they have created a peaceful, relaxed, client-focused sanctuary. For $25 a night I had my own little cabin. It is a very special place, and a I will never forget it. I had planned to stay a couple of nights and ended up staying a week.

imageI really did not do much of anything for most of the week: swimming, surfing, body surfing, boogie boarding, walking, thinking, and sleeping. It was a restorative week. Fighting a cold (at the equator, go figure), ongoing intestinal issues and adjustments (I mistakenly took a stool softener instead of Imodium…THAT was fun!), and nursing a few minor surf injuries. I used this quiet time to try to mend. But I found it really tough at times to allow myself to just be. One minute I think I am in a perfect beach groove, the next I think I should bugger off and be doing something. But I have no timetable, no agenda, no place I have to be. Quiet time forces you to be alone with your thoughts, and that can be unsettling. And also rewarding.

At night, I would often lie in a hammock and read or write…no TV, no distractions. I slept really well. But there were mosquitoes…not the malaria kind, but still hungry. And they are much more sophisticated here. You can’t hear them buzzing around you, and you can’t feel them biting you. Smart little bastards.

And not one minute of sun for the entire week, with the exception of a day trip I took on Monday. Gray and kind of rainy, heavy, and humid the whole time. The upside? I saved a fortune in sun screen! It was actually a very good time to be there because it is low season, and not too many people. That changes significantly come December where prices go up, it’s hard to get a room, or even a meal without waiting.

With Oscar, my surf instructor.

With Oscar, my surf instructor.

The atmosphere is tolerant and laid back, and Montanita is one of the top surfing destinations in the world. The first few days I did some surf “research” and found a cool dude, Oscar, from Costa Rica. He did not push me, suggesting I wait until conditions are optimal to surf. Which I really need. By Thursday things were looking good, so out I went with very little success. Surfing is the toughest sport I have ever tried, using all kinds of muscles I don’t normally use. Out again on Friday, and this time I got up. Not gracefully or for long, but up nonetheless. I had planned to do about an hour a day, but after hurting my back on the second day, that would be it for me for surfing. I was content to body surf and boogie board for my remaining days, and caught some really great waves.

Toward the end of each day I would wander down the beach to a really cool beachside patio called Dharma Beach Hotel, watching the waves and surfers. Man, the good ones are so graceful, and make it look so easy. I think Dharma is owned by a famous DJ. Everytime I walked in off the beach, they had this chill house music thumping softly in the background…nice funky, low key groove. The servers are friendly. They burn incense, serve nice food. And they make a great 2 for 1 Mojito!

With my Argentinian friends Santiago, Lucas, and Gonzalo.

With my Argentinian friends Santiago, Lucas, and Gonzalo.

It was here on Thursday I think that I met three very cool surfer dudes from Argentina…Lucas, Santiago, and Gonzalo. Very bright, funny, engaging, and real. I really connected right away with two in particular…Santiago and Lucas. We talked politics, education, the environment, sports hooligans, problems in our respective countries, love, and life. We would meet towards the end of each day on the hotel beach patio. They are 30 something guys who go on surf trip every year together. I have a strong feeling we will remain in touch.

Santiago said something interesting about the ocean: “I am not afraid of the waves, but I respect them.” That is absolutely how you have to approach surfing, and the ocean in general. And for me the message was even more relevant. After hurting my back on the second surf day, and my elbow boogie boarding, and sitting on top of a few very big waves and looking down, I am sure that was the ocean’s way of warning me to be careful. Although the waves in Montanita are great for all levels of surfers, it is still the ocean, and Mother Nature is always in charge. I hear you, ocean, and I am listening.

I also learned something about riptides as well. When waves crash and the water travels up the shore, that water eventually travels back to the sea. When there is a break in a sandbar for example, that water can get funnelled together, creating a strong, narrow current back to the sea. The beach patrol told me that rip current can be particularly strong when the tide is receding, which makes sense.

Monday was my final full day, so I decided to do some sightseeing. I took a tour to Isla de Plata (silver island), so named because of the colour of the bird poo when it rains looks silver. After a 45-minute drive North to Puerto Lopez, we took an hour or so boat to the island which is about 37 km. away. There was about 16 of us in the boat, mostly Dutch. Maybe it was me or them, or the situation, but I hardly connected with anyone until the end of the day. The boat stopped about midway, and a few humpback wales pulled up alongside the boat to say hi! Beautiful, majestic creatures, and we were so lucky to see them.

imageAs we anchored near the island, several massive sea turtles surrounded the boat…so curious they were! The island, a protected national park of about eight square km, is desolate. There is absolutely nothing there. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Oh…and finally the sun came out for awhile. After a week of gray, it felt so nice on my skin. But even with partial sun and lots of protection, I almost burned.

Some people call Isla de Plata a mini version of the Galapagos. It is home to many species of lizards, birds, sea lions, and other animals. But the island is probably best known for a very particular type of bird…wait for it…the booby! This next segment will reveal my sometimes infantile sense of humour, so I apologize in advance.

imageWithout question, the funniest and most memorable part of the day was the search for the boobys. I appeared to be the only one on the tour to find this funny. Maybe it was my sense of humour, or maybe because I was the only English speaking person there (yes of course it must have been that). Anyway, the guide, in all seriousness, kept saying (in English, with a very distinctive Spanish accent) things like: “now we will find some boobys.” OMG…it was freakin’ PRICELESS! We saw more boobys than I have ever seen before, certainly in one day. We saw big boobys, small boobys, single boobys, and even a really nice pair of boobys! No wonder so many men visit this island! I never really got over the hilarity of it all, but the birds themselves are pretty cool–inquisitive and unafraid. And they are real posers as well. Hope you enjoy some of these very up close and personal photos of boobys.

A pair of boobys.

A pair of boobys.

It has been a wonderful stay here, and it was very hard to leave magic of Balsa, but now I feel ready to move on. So Tuesday I was on an early morning bus to Guayaquil where I met up again with Mark the Irishman. Guayaquil is big, dirty, and not particularly safe from what I have heard, so the least amount of time I can spend here, the better. He and I walked around the central area for awhile, and then headed North-East, through the Andes mountains (avenue of the volcanoes) about four hours to Riobamba. It is at about 9,000 feet altitude and is, or at least I thought it was, home to the famous Devil’s Nose train which through an impressive engineering feat, is able to drop/climb 500 metres in a relatively short distance. Anyway, the train actually leaves about 100 km. south of Riobamba, back where we had just come from, so no train ride for me…this time. Nice town, but not a particularly memorable night at the hostel.

Running out of gas in the Andes mountain? Not when Mark has a spare tank!

Running out of gas in the Andes mountain? Not when Mark has a spare tank!

My final thoughts of the week concern the whole issue of connecting, which I suppose I am more aware of in these unfamiliar surroundings: sometimes you connect with a person, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes right away. Other times it may take awhile. But when I travel, I somehow feel that I must try to connect with everybody, which is particularly hard for an introvert like me. But I realize that I can’t always connect with everybody, and I need to learn to be OK with that, while not forgetting the importance of trying. All the people I have met and enjoyed so far happened because I pushed myself to make an effort, even though it was not always comfortable. Connecting and finding the flow in a new place or situation often takes time. And I must remember to be patient with myself.

The journey continues…til next week.

Jonathanimage

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Into South America: Week 1

In the Ecuadorean mountains, near Otavallo

In the Ecuadorean mountains, near Otavallo

Well, I have come to the end of week 1 in Ecuador, and what a ride it’s been. I realize that for some of you, all the nitty gritty, day to day stuff may be boring. So I will try a new format, starting with a bullet list of random thoughts and observations for those who want it short and sweet, and a full day by day insight for those who are interested in reading more.

Random thoughts and observations
Dogs: there is a dog society, parallel to humans, in most of the small towns I have visited. Dogs are walking around the streets–alone or in groups–going about their own business, running their own show–seemingly unaware or oblivious to what people are doing. I have never seen anything quite like it.
Popcorn: served with virtually every meal. No movie required.
The equator: I assumed it would be stupid hot here because Ecuador is on the equator. Not so, at least so far. 8-23 Celsius in the mountains, and 18-27 Celsius on the West coast. One day last week, pea-sized hail was actually falling from the sky in Quito! Wild.
Gas: 36 cents a litre!
Exports: Ecuador is the number one exporter of bananas and tuna worldwide.
Hats off: the Panama hat is actually made in Ecuador.
Young at heart: I was by far the eldest in the hostels I have stayed in so far. But somehow I don’t feel out of place. Like-minded travelling souls perhaps.
People and pride: people care here. They may not have much, but they take pride in what they do have. They are understated and not aggressive.

The week in review
Flying into the capital city of Quito, Ecuador was pretty cool…dropping into a mountainous valley 9,300 above sea level, twice the altitude of Denver Colorado. And what a pleasure it was to finally arrive after a long (and thankfully uneventful) day of travel, greeted by a very friendly and hassle-free immigration officer at the Quito airport. I then got into an airport cab. The driver was a very nice, pleasant older fellow…but he had no idea where he was going. I think was suffering from early stages of dementia. Poor guy. He must have stopped 10 times for directions, and then promptly forgot them every time! Mumbling to himself, then laughing. So a one hour trip took two.

Finally arrived at a very basic, but nice and clean and friendly hostel in a busy central neighbourhood…good vibe. Hotel staff Alejandro and Andres made me feel totally welcome. No doubt the whole hostel thing was a good idea, as there were people staying there from all over the world. Lots to learn from fellow travellers, but I really was too tired too talk to anyone the first night. But I did much better the second day, meeting lots of new people, including Mark, a young Irishman living in Ecuador. I would end up spending lots of time with him in my first week.

That usual initial fear of the unknown was, and is always right there, but I pushed through it, and ventured out on my own to walk around the neighbourhood on day 2. I had it in my head that I was arriving in a picturesque little Ecuadorian town. Wrong. Quito is a huge city of about 2.5 million people! The most unusual thing I saw was a female police inspector wearing 3-inch heels! I really do not like big city life, but I made the most of my surroundings over the next several days. A few food highlights of the day: a fresh juice I had never tried before (tree tomato), a delicious seafood ceviche, and an interesting combo of figs and cheese (queso) for dessert. Yummy!

The highlight of day 2? While I was walking around the city, a car was backing up and there were a bunch of small kids behind him. I jumped between the kids and the car and stopped him. We all kept walking and when I looked back, a young girl smiled shyly at me and said “gracias.” A very touching moment.

Overlooking Quito, on a volcano

Overlooking Quito, on a volcano

I started day 3 by climbing a volcano that overlooks the city…well not actually climbing. I took the cable car to about 13,000 feet. The air was even thinner up there, and I felt a little light headed and out of breath, but the view was spectacular. Then met a group at another hostel for a 3-hour walking tour of the old town. The guide was really good–engaging and informative–and I learned some Ecuadorian history and culture. Then the rain and cold came in a big way. Not only rain, but pea-sized hail!! But by the end of day 3, I was certainly becoming much more comfortable and confident.

Saturday I took a day tour several hours north of Quito through the Andes mountains. We made several stops, the highlight being Otavalo, home to south America’s biggest Saturday market. I am not a shopper, but I did enjoy this place. Huge market, but surprisingly calm and “tranquillo.” Unlike many other peoples, Ecuadorians are not aggressive when it comes to selling. I am very careful about what and where I eat when I’m travelling–nothing worse than getting sick thousands of miles away from home–but after carefully scoping out the food stands, I enjoyed a delicious freshly pulled pork snack for $1.50, eating with locals. Although the day was a little touristy, this was a really good way to make this kind of trip. I also really enjoyed chatting with some of the others in the bus…visitors from Germany, Thailand, Switzerland, US, and Canada. Even a US pilot. I learned about them, and picked up all kinds of useful travel tips and info. Made a few stops along the way, including a mountain lagoon and the equator line. Pretty cool to have one foot in the north hemisphere, and one in the south.

One foot in the North, and one in the South. pointing North.

One foot in the North, and one in the South. pointing North.

One very interesting thing I learned about that was a new way to look at the Earth. Kind of hard to explain, and I’m not sure I completely understand it, but the gist of it involves looking at the earth not as upper and lower hemispheres, but as left and right. North, South, East, and West stay the same, but the Earth is, in effect, turned on its side. If you hold a globe below you, looking at the equator with North on your left and South on your right, and spin it away from you! You get the idea. A whole new way to look at Mother Earth.

Day 5 (Sunday), I drove with Mark from Quito, heading South and West through the mountains and down to the coast. It was a very long drive…about 10 hours…but the 1-hour descent from about 9,000 to about 2,000 feet was wild. Twisty, turny roads, driving through the clouds, crossing different climate zones…it was an incredibly spectacular part of the journey. We finally made it to the modern port city of Manta (one of the biggest drug ports in the world apparently), then south along the coast to Salango, a small fishing village just outside of Puerto Lopez. We stayed at a very basic, but clean hostel for $8 a night. The best part was falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.

Fishermen arriving with their early morning catch...and the birds trying to get a free meal!

Fishermen arriving with their early morning catch…and the birds trying to get a free meal!

On Monday we visited a large Canadian real estate project (Hola Ecuador) which is about 45 minutes North of Salango. From there, we travelled South, stopping at most of the beach towns and main beaches along the way. Quite a nice stretch of about 60 km. between Puerto Lopez and Montanita, which is a very cool surf town. Lots of life and activity there compared to the others. Beach bums, hippies, and great waves. Then back to Salango for a second night.

imageOn Tuesday (day 7), we and headed south, back to Monanita where Mark dropped me, and where I will hang out for a few days. Earlier in the week, a fellow traveller recommended Balsa Surf Camp, a hostel, off the beaten path but on the beach for $25 a night. What a beautiful place this turned out to be. A lot of care and attention and thought has been put into this comfortable and relaxed oasis. Feels very welcoming and peaceful here. I have not been feeling 100% healthy over the last few days–adjusting to the food, fighting a cold–so this will be a restorative time I think. Spent the rest of the day walking the beach and doing some body surfing, getting to know the water. Not quite up to the physical demands of surfing yet, so will hope to do that tomorrow as I begin week 2!

It is very interesting how things have unfolded this week, the people I have met, and how one person or place leads to the next. I could never have predicted how any of this would unfold. I did not have a firm plan, yet things have turned out just perfectly. It reminds me of the gift that is the present moment, and allowing myself to go with the flow.

A few final thoughts…every time I arrive in a new place, I wonder what the hell am I doing here. My reflex is guarded and nervous and suspicious in various proportions and amount. I tend to want to keep to myself. And when I do that, invariably, that’s exactly what I get back. But I push through it, and make an effort to connect. And that changes the whole experience to something very rich and meaningful.

Even though I don’t know much Spanish, I make an effort in their language. I make an effort to know them. And that goes a long way to breaking barriers. Smiling, asking their name, showing an interest, trying to engage…it changes everything. I have been warned about all kinds of dangerous situations and scams and I am mindful. But I am reminded time and time again that when a I treat people with kindness and openness…the way I want to be treated….I invariably get the same treatment in return. I am perhaps naive in some ways, but I do know that people are fundamentally quite similar, and respond to the same things, whatever country they’re from.

Now why do I work extra hard at this only when I am in unfamiliar territory….need to think about this one.

Any thoughts or questions? Don’t be shy. ‘Til next week.

Jonathanimage

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