I keep thinking my updates will be brief, but so far it is not to be. It would appear I have a few things to say! Here’s another long one, but if you don’t feel like reading, you may want to focus on some of the cool pics and videos.
If week 2 was slow and relaxed beach time, week 3 has been the complete opposite. On the move through the Andes as I made my way North towards the Colombian border crossing. When I updated last week, I talked about loud and inconsiderate people. Well the universe has certainly given me a big dose of noise this week. Wednesday we continued through the mountains, and arrived in Banos. We checked into a clean hostel on the main square. The next morning at 6:45 am, a 7-piece band began playing, right below my hostel window! And not even a good band at that! This was followed by fireworks and other explosions. Friday and Saturday mornings, it was parades and fireworks. Sunday, no parades, but a tremendous amount of activity and door slamming and alarms going off beginning at 6 am. Now I just have to laugh, because the universe is evidently sending me a message. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but I can certainly hear it!
I am usually pretty good at going with the flow, but sometimes I get edgy or anxious when things are not going to plan. Little things, like waiting 15 minutes for coffee in the morning, or having a 7-piece band outside my window, or things being consistently done ass backwards (I know….suspend judgment), or how complicated things get if you ask for something a little different. I keep having to remind myself that I’m not in Kansas anymore, that everything moves at a different speed, and that they have their own ways of doing things. I have to keep reminding myself that I do not necessarily create the flow; rather I must simply allow myself to connect to it, whatever and wherever it is. My work in progress continues.
The trip through the mountains into Banos was another very cool drive, in, through, and around various peaks and valleys. Because of the rich, volcanic soil, there are many vertical farms actually running up the mountain/volcano sides. Banos is at about 6,000 feet nestled into a valley, at the base of the active Turgurahua volcano. Really orderly, friendly, safe-feeling little town where people take pride in their surroundings. Lots of stuff to do here…rafting, biking, hang gliding, zip lining, bungee jumping, natural volcano fed hot springs, waterfalls, jungle trips, etc.
Thursday turned out to be one of the best days I have had in a very long time. I took a jungle tour around Puyo, about 90 minutes east of Banos, where the mountains end and the jungle begins. This is also where the rivers from Ecuador (and also Peru, and Colombia) flow into Brazil to form the Amazon River, which then flows out to the Atlantic. Interesting facts about the Amazon River…it is about 6,400 km. long, and used to flow in the opposite direction (from East to West) before the formation of the Andes/Sierra mountains, thousands of years ago.
Our guide, Ruma (whose real name was Richard I found out later…never quite understood this) spent 20 years living in the jungle with no electricity or running water. This dude really was the king of the jungle in every sense of the word. Our first stop was a rescued animal sanctuary…lots of monkeys who had been rescued from various situations. They are so very human when you study them carefully. One took a special interest in me and we stared at each other for awhile, then he curled up and covered his eyes, which I thought was quite rude!
Then a 45-minute hike into the jungle. Ruma would stop every few minutes and show us things. For example, leaves when you crumple them release a substance that helps asthma. Or mud from a river bank that is good for the skin. I asked him what he might suggest for a cut on my leg. He walked up to a tree, sliced the bark, collected the resin, and rubbed it on my cut. They refer to it as sangue de dragone (dragon’s blood). He also showed us a very different looking tree (the Devil’s Penis) that can actually move itself several feet in any direction by extending its above-ground roots!
We arrived at a secluded mountain waterfall and pool (Ola Vida). I have never seen anything like it…simply breathtaking. I jumped in, and then under the waterfall until I was behind it. I looked up and could see the water falling just in front of me. I looked down and saw a rainbow. I looked through and I could see a misty version of the outside world. In some meditations and therapy, they talk about going to your safe place. This waterfall oasis will be that place for me.
We hiked back, then to the Puyo River, and got into these long wooden canoe-type boats and rafted for about 45 minutes through some very active water. The boat guides maneuvered them expertly using only long sticks, around some very treacherous and rocky stretches. But it was very peaceful, and it makes me want to take a bigger trip down the Amazon in Peru or Brazil. Check out this video.
We then stopped for lunch and climbed up to a lookout where there was a swing that went right off the side of a cliff. Freaking terrifying! I wasn’t going to do it, but I watched the others and decided I did not want to regret not doing it. Plus I was the only Canadian, so I felt I had to swing for my country. So I did it….and what a rush! Check out this video.
Finally we visited an indigenous community where I learned to use a blow dart gun, and we learned about some of their customs and traditions. These communities are extended families, so it is not permitted to marry inside one’s own community. It is not uncommon for men to have 10-15 children with a number of partners. Ruma himself is in his mid 20s, has been “divorced” once, and already has four kids with several women. No question, he is the jungle version of a ladies’ man. Some of the girls on the tour were swooning over him, and he knew it, and was clearly used to it. And for good reason. He is also somewhat of a prankster. He coated my face with mud, and into my hair for good measure. He also offered us to taste the inside of a certain leaf, and when we asked him what it was, he told us “ants!” He seemed to have a number of side deals going on wherever we went, and had clearly bridged the gap between jungle and “civilization,” but I liked him, and he gave me a day I will never forget. I asked him what life he preferred–jungle or city, and he said without hesitation, “the jungle.” A very interesting response.
I also met a few other cool people that day. A filmmaker from Amsterdam who was shooting a documentary in Quito on gated communities, and how these are rooted in fear. And also a young drama student from London, Simon. He has been travelling the world on and off for the past several years, and his parents have finally stopped asking what he is doing with his life. It seems many of his generation are doing exactly this. Good for them. He jumped into the bus with almost nothing with him, and blissfully unaware of what we were doing that day. He reminded me of the the critical importance of being in the moment and going with the flow.
We spent the next couple of days in Banos, every morning serenaded by some form of early local entertainment outside the hotel window. Halloween night, as I walked down the street chewing on a candy, I felt a hard crunch. I had grabbed a handful of these delicious, chewy, soft, chocolate sweets from the restaurant. The crunch was not the candy, but my FILLING which had fallen out. “What the @&$? am I going to do now,” I thought. That’s what greed will get you. If I had taken only one and not made a pig of myself. Mark thought I was overreacting, and that all would be fine, but I found it quite traumatic, and had a mini meltdown. I was worried about having swallowed silver and mercury. I thought I might not make it through the night. It really is the strangest “filling,” missing half a tooth! Surprisingly, I did wake up the next morning, and it didn’t hurt. I’m getting used to it, but know I must get it looked at soon.
One other note from Banos and other spots along the way. They serve a local “delicacy” called cuye, but really it is a large rat, roasted whole over hot coals, with its teeth and paws sticking up. I am usually a fairly adventurous eater, and will try almost anything, but I simply cannot bring myself to eat that! Yuck!
Another sidebar on services…generally tipping is not expected, and not part of their culture. So if you leave them anything, they are surprised and grateful. I leave modest tips for almost everything, and I can always feel a positive vibe shift. This raises a lot of thoughts in my mind about money…how people view it, what they will do for it, and what it represents. And perhaps now a different way of viewing it for me. More like a form of energy transfer.
Saturday we continued North through the mountains, past Quito, Otovallo, stopping in Ibarra for the night, a non-touristy town of about 100,000. Good vibe here. Why I keep thinking I will arrive in a tiny Ecuadorian village, I have no idea. These are mostly big cities. I am also realizing again that I don’t like big cities! I don’t mind short visits, but I really don’t want to live in one. Too much hustle and bustle and yuck.
Nothing was booked, so we just drove around near the main square, and happened upon this small family-run hostel. Doris and Jefferson greeted us warmly. They don’t speak much English, but somehow my musical background came up before we left for a quick bite.
When we came back, they were waiting to chat with us, and more of their family had joined them. I had to explain in my halting Spanish that, no I am not a famous musician but that I just like to sing! They wanted pictures anyway, and immediately said they were fans. Really very lovely people. The next morning right on cue at 6 am, slamming doors, loud voices, and lots of noise (this is not Kansas).
We hit the road again for a short hop to the border town of Tulcan. It is also about 100,000 population, and I did not get a good vibe here at all. We splurged and stayed in a very nice place for $36, and I had perhaps the best sleep I’ve had since arriving in Ecuador. This was also my final day with Mark, and we said our goodbyes. I have been so very fortunate to have met him and have really been spoiled travelling by car. I am very grateful to have toured most of the country with him, and have really enjoyed his company.
Monday morning I was up early (no band or parade!), and took a short cab ride to the Colombian border of Rumichaca. I have heard this crossing can get crazy, so I was there by about 7 am. I had my passport stamped by the Ecuadorian immigration, then simply walked across a small bridge and did the same at Colombian immigration. Easy. Too easy actually. There was nothing preventing me from simply walking across and not showing anyone my passport. Or maybe because I’m a gringo. But with no stamp out of Ecuador, and into Colombia, I would not be able to get out.
For the rest of the day I felt uneasy–new country, unfamiliar surroundings. I took a short cab ride to the bus station in Ipiales, the nearest town. The fare was 7,000 pesos (about $4). Nice, friendly cabby, but when we arrived he announced it was 10,000 for no reason I could understand (maybe because I am a gringo, or because that’s how much I gave him?). At the bus station, you have to pay to use the washroom. There is no central ticket counter, and everyone is shouting at you to buy your ticket from them. And I certainly don’t look like I’m local, so I am likely a target. A big target. Then a spectacular 90-minute bus ride through the mountains to Pasto (sit on the right side for best views). It continues to amaze me how these roads were built.
Rather than a 20-hour bus ride to Medellin, I had previously booked a flight for Tuesday, but thought I would try to get a flight that day (Monday). So rather than stay in Pasto, I headed directly to the airport. After a lot of confusion, and befriending a policeman, I learned that buses or cabs to the airport from the bus station was not possible. So I took a cab to another place where a bunch of mini buses were parked. The fare to the airport (about 45 minutes north of Pasto) was 5,000 pesos. But when I gave him 6,000, he announced that that was the fare. Note to self…don’t expect change! Annoying, and I want to argue on principal, but I guess this is how they make money and for the amount, it’s simply not worth fighting about, especially given my limited Spanish.
So far, there is definitely a different feel in Colombia. Not unsafe exactly, but as soon as I crossed over, I saw police and other armed people everywhere..in the towns, and along the roadside, in the middle of nowhere. So far it feels…unsettled…as do I.
At the airport I learned that it was possible to fly that day, but that it would cost me more than what I had paid for the ticket. So rather than go back to Pasto, I left the airport on foot with backpack and luggage in tow, and tried to find a place to stay for the night. What a site that must have been, I’m sure. Yes, I certainly must look local! The truth is I am a gringo, and will always be, but there are ways to break down this barrier, in time. I have written about this before…when it comes down to it, we are not all that different, regardless of background or culture. We respond to the same things. And a smile goes a long, long way in any culture.
On the road I befriended another policeman, and he pointed me in the right direction to find a hotel. I stopped at the first place I found, and took a $10 room for the night. Nothing fancy, but clean and the people seemed honest. Not really a town, but there are few hotels and restaurants along the main road. No wifi, and no banks. Note to self: always get what you need whenever it’s available, because you have no way of knowing where you will end up and what will or won’t be available when you get there. And forget about cashing traveller’s cheques. So far, impossible, even at any of the main banks in the big cities.
I dumped my stuff, locked everything up, and walked up the road and had a bite, again very much aware that I stick out like a sore thumb, and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Then back to my room where I napped for a few hours. I wandered back out around 7:30 pm looking for another snack, but the strip of highway felt very eerie in the dark. I could feel that there were shady things going on. Anyway I found a place, and had coffee. Again I felt everyone’s eyes on me. And that can feel intimidating, especially when I am not in zone. A young man who works at the restaurant, Daniel, took a special interest in me, as did the rest of the staff. I was suspicious at first, but then it started to feel OK. I loosened up and tried to chat with him. I reminded myself again that it takes time to find the flow, or for it to find you. Flow is elusive. Be patient.
Then back to Hotel San Miguel where I flipped through the TV channels, bit my nails, worried, and finally fell asleep. I ended up sleeping alot that first day. I kept wondering what the hell I was doing here, realizing that I really am alone now, with no Mark to ease the way for me.
Deep down I know things will be OK, and that I have been and will be taken care of, but sometimes I forget. In any given moment, I will never have all the answers.
I woke up Tuesday to a bright sunny day, feeling refreshed and more comfortable. Everything seems different today, better somehow. I walked back to the restaurant I had found the night before and had breakfast. And this time it felt completely different. What a difference a day makes. I was very friendly and more open with Daniel and the staff, and they were all excited, laughing, and buzzing around me. We even took a bunch of pictures together, all the kitchen staff giggling. As I look back on my first day in Colombia, for the most part I know I was guarded and nervous. And that’s exactly what I got back, or felt I was getting back. When I opened up, that’s exactly what I felt I got back. Funny that.
Then I packed up, and walked back to the airport for my scheduled flight to Medellin, via Bogota. Packing is a struggle every time. Too much stuff, more things to keep track of and worry about. Note to self: don’t bring so much stuff!
I connected through Bogota, the capital, a large mountain-rimmed city high in the Sierra. I can’t say much else about it, but it certainly looks neat, well-designed, and green…at least from the air! Then a short hop to Medellin (population 4.5 million), a few hundred kilometres West of Bogota. The usual travel hiccups and delays, and I did find myself getting more anxious as edgy as the day wore on (maybe too much strong coffee?). And of course, the usual uneasiness when I arrive somewhere new. No doubt things will look better, and I will be more comfortable when I wake up tomorrow.
Things would have been so much easier the last few days if I could speak the language better. I have the tools…dictionaries and apps, but in the moment they are quite useless. Note to self: you must learn more Spanish!
I arrived in a section of Medellin called El Poblado, and found a boutique room at a place called Happy Buddha, which I thought sounded perfect at the end of a long travel day. Too loud and young and expensive, but it will do for the night. From the little I have seen so far, Medellin is young, chic, hip, modern, definitely has Western standards, and is far more expensive than what I have been used to the last several weeks.
More from Medellin and the rest of Colombia next week.