Part I – Quito
Thursday, April 3rd
Although our adventure began months earlier with all the planning, the moment that the trip became “real” occurred the night before we left for Quito, when news of the 8 point plus earthquake in Chile hit the news. A review of the internet news services revealed that our trip would not feel any impact. Whew! (Though for once we do have travel insurance!)
The flights were uneventful. The only thing of note was actually a humorous situation: We could not get our boarding passes through the American Airlines phone app no matter when or how hard we tried, on both Android and Apple. At the airport we checked in with the gate agent, and it took her no fewer than 15 tries to print our four boarding passes correctly.
We flew from San Juan to Miami to Quito. We left Miami late because of some problem, and so arrived in Quito well after dark, 8 pm instead of 7. Flying into Quito, the view was amazing. The city of Quito, famous for it’s skinny-length (1 mile wide by 20 miles long) visually flows through a valley bordered on both sides by volcanoes, active, inactive and extinct. With a minimum of imagination, and the existance of dark patches of rain clouds scudding anxiously beneath us, the scene became one of lava spewing from the volcanoes accompanied by primordial miasmic steam. Alternately, the clouds now long blown to the other end of the valley, the city stretched below us like magnificent jewels, a spreading collar of brilliants, twinkling against the black velvet of its display case.
We were met by our driver and taken to our hotel, Casa Aliso, a ride of almost an hour. Tomorrow by this account, Paul, our driver tonight and our driver home from Ibarra tomorrow, told us that many tour agencies no longer book guests into the hotels in Quito, precisely because of the long drive. Instead they get booked in places near Otavalo, where they are strategically prepared for the Saturday morning market, one of the “absolute don’t miss” attractions in Ecuador (which we unfortunately missed).
Once we reached the hotel, despite the hour, we took a quick three block walk to have dinner at “Lo Nuestro” an Ecuadorian restaurant. We tried to order typical dishes, and ended up with way too much food. We tried the llapingachas (potato-cheese pancakes) served on a large platter with beef, chorizo, fried eggs, avocado; and a sea bass in coconut that wasn’t much to write home about.
Friday, April 4th
Friday morning, I was awake early. I took a couple of extra minutes to wander around our hotel and take some pictures of it. The hotel has about 16 rooms in an old house, though I could locate only 10. Each room is decorated in the same style but with different details. All have wooden beds, but the bedsteads are not same room to room. The rooms are different sizes, too, and some are doubles, others singles. The first floor has rooms, but there is also a lovely dining room, where breakfast is served daily from 7 to 8:30 am. There is a library and a small living room-like room, in addition to a waiting area and the hotel reception in another area closer to the street level. Views from the rooms are of lovely gardens. (Click on any picture below to sc
In my photo wanderings I wanted to go outside, but found the door locked. Just as I was peering out, a ChildFund vehicle drove to the front of the hotel. Momentarily shock took over: I thought we were going to be picked up at 7:30 and it was just 6:30! I found someone to open the door, and went to meet our driver. She assured me that she had arrived early because she was unsure of the location. While she futzed with her car, I wandered up the hill to see if there were any picture opportunities. There weren’t. But when I turned around and began my walk back down to the hotel, the mountains loomed right there in front of me, so huge that it was amazing that I could possibly have missed them!
Miriam, our driver and guide up to the Carchi region, today’s destination, joined us for breakfast and we were on the road by 7:30 as planned. The drive was long and slow drive. The roads are good quality but there are so many heavy, slow trucks that what was less than 100 km took well over 4 ½ hours. To compensate, the scenery was beautiful. I didn’t mind the slow ride that much because I had time to look out the window – and also to take pictures. (Taking pictures from a moving car is an acquired skill, best practiced at low speeds!)
Of course, the volcanoes and the mountains were my favorites. Not having grown up with that kind of scenery I don’t think I will ever tire of looking at it. Add the mythical character of the Andes – I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I found each unfolding vista more interesting and more beautiful than the previous. What does one expect to see in the high Andes? I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t a patchwork of brilliant greens and earth browns, separated by long, straight borders of dark green trees, a patchwork of color and fertility under a bright blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, orderly farms following the contours of the mountains, broken by deep rifts in the earth, crevasses and sharp cliffs. Deep in the canyons flowed wild water through narrow gorges over rocks that seemed mere pebbles from the height, but which were probably immense boulder at eye level.
We saw fields of corn, lots of sugar cane and even russet-red quinoa. We saw very few animals however. Cows I could count on one hand, horses – maybe three. We saw some goats, but not flocks, just an occasional family goat tethered to the side of the road where grass was growing.
And where were all the famed birds of Ecuador? Not on our route. The only bird I remember noting was an egret in the air, flying to a lone tree studded with perching birds of the same species.
Our route took us past Otavalo to Ibarra, a city I thought was a large village but which actually is the provincial capital of Imbabura province and has a half a million people. From Ibarra we changed course to the northwest and headed along the road to Tulcan, stopping an hour short of the “hot” border with Colombia in a town called San Gabriel. San Gabriel, too, is no village: 250, 000 people live in the area.
Our destination in San Gabriel was the headquarters of a coalition of community groups that work with ChildFund, the international agency with which I have sponsored children for the last 30 years. Here the main excitement and sole reason for making this trip was 19 year old Elvis, a child I have sponsored since he was little, and who never in my dreams had I hoped to meet.
First we had brief introductions, meeting Elvis, his mother and father, and younger sister. He has another sister, Deysi, who stayed at home. While in the headquarters we were given an official presentation on the organizational structure of the community groups working in the coalition. Slicing and dicing, these groups serve the youngest children, school-age kids, teens and adults. We were able to visit a train-the-trainer session where a more experienced leader of one of the groups, was working with representatives from six or seven villages. These women, mothers, would return to their villages and train the women in their communities. The particular training we saw was on showing love and acceptance of your child by things like reading to them, hugging them and touching them. It is amazing to us that these are skills that parents in these poor rural areas actually need to be taught (or is it that they have to be given permission to express these emotions?)
The reception we received, not just from Elvis and his family, but also from the staff and the participants present was heart-warming. We felt so appreciated and so special. Everyone wanted their picture taken with us. Everyone thanked us for being donors to ChildFund. I am sure not many people get all the way up to that part of Ecuador to see what these people are accomplishing – especially based on the comments we received from Ecuadorians ho heard we had been.
We also really enjoyed meeting and talking to Miriam, our chaperone for the day. She is also from the Andes, but is mestizo, but married to an indigenous man. She told us about her life (translated: I asked a lot of questions!). She met her husband while both were working for World Vision (an organization to which we have ties through Gerry’s nephew’s wife). She had to overcome the prejudice of her husband’s proudly indigenous family to be accepted, and to be allowed to mix their blood with the impure blood of the mestizos. (That’s probably a bit more dramatic than it actually was as her husband’s family seemed quite enlightened, but it posed an upside down conundrum of the issue racial purity.) She and her husband have 3 children, a 14-year old boy and 6 year old twin girls. Our drive was quite enjoyable because she really appreciated Gerry’s sense of humor and laughed at all his jokes in a natural way!
We were able to have lunch with Miriam and Elvis and his family. Though that sounds pretty innocuous – Miriam’s job is to protect Elvis from us, and we could not be left un-chaperones with him. She gave us the background about that on the way home: It seems that anyone is allowed to sponsor a child and donate money to the organization, but not everyone can be allowed to actually visit. Gerry and I underwent a vetting process when we asked to be able to visit, and the process involved background checks of various sorts. Even still, we could not be allowed to be alone with him, for his protection. Americans have a reputation as baby-snatchers in various countries in Latin America, and though there have not been incidents in Ecuador, ChildFund has had incidents in other parts of the world. We appreciated their focus on the children and the child’s safety over the wishes (or demands) that might arise from the donors.
Within a half hour of commencing the drive home, it was clear that the amount of driving this trip had entailed was awful. Worth it, but awful! Add to that, we were stopped by the police and threatened with car-empoundment because a renewal document was missing from the car’s papers. Miriam was frantic but she convinced the police to let us go, promising to get all the paperwork in order by Monday morning. Between a late start, a slow drive and the police stop, we did not arrive in Ibarra to meet our other driver, Paul, until 5:00 pm, smack dab at the onset of rush hour. Traffic was chaotic, but again, it gave ample opportunity for people watching. Oh, and for the collection of evidence that drivers in Ecuador are even more outrageous than the ones were are used to in Puerto Rico!
By now, the weather had changed. A sunny, bucolic morning had given way to a stormy, dark afternoon. The photography we had planned was in serious jeopardy. We were not going to make it to the best sites by 6:00 pm, and the weather wasn’t going to cooperate to give us dramatic shots anyway, so now the drive was beginning to feel not just long, but wasted as well.
Paul took us through Otavalo, allowing a 15 minute stop in the main square to take a few pictures, but it was uninspiring. From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump around the lake to the Hacienda Cusin. It was late for taking pictures, but though the sky was overcast, the beauty of the setting called for some heroic efforts with the camera, so up goes the ISO.
To break up the drive home, and walk around a bit, we wandered into the bar, where we met a contingent of the Hacienda’s guests. Somewhat like the paradores in Puerto Rico, the haciendas have been restored and reopened as hotels (most on the luxury end of the scale). The bar was a nice place to meet some other travelers, half of whom were visiting Quito post-Galapagos, and half of whom, like us – pre-Galapagos. We all had plenty to talk about.
The atmosphere was so congenial that we decided to stay for dinner. The restaurant had excellent food and the atmosphere was very special. It was a good opportunity to get to know Paul (pronounced Pa-ool”) who with his wife, owns and runs an hacienda of their own, Hacienda San Martin. For a future trip to this part of the world, we will try to include an extended stay in a hacienda as a way to get closer to the culture of the northern Andes. The haciendas offer, besides motor touring around the villages, the opportunities to hike, horse-back ride and bicycle in the mountains.
Following dinner, we had a long, dark, hour and a half drive back to Quito which was drawn out significantly by dense fog for most of the route. Though long, it was a worthwhile day, especially so because of Elvis, and lo and behold, I did get some decent pictures. Just the briefest of stops in the hotel to say hello to Joanne and Luis who arrived on the same flight, one day later, detained us on our exhausted way to bed.