Friday, May 13, 2011


You know, what I'd really like to do with this blog is chronicle my adventures in an actual traveling armchair. You know, rig-up a La-Z-Boy with a set of wheels. Maybe motorize it. Put in some cup-holders. I'm sure it's already been done. The "car" comes to mind. Or the Jazzy. Or Roundhouse (1:46).

Wheeled upholstery, believe it or not, isn't unprecedented in my life. My high school boyfriend, Andrew, once put wheels on a couch. It's a simple story.
Andrew had a friend, Dave. Dave's parents had a couch. One day, they decided they wanted to get rid of it. So they put it on the front lawn by the side of the road. Andrew and his buddies, lit by some kind of divine spark, decided this would be the perfect place to gather for beers and late-night sh**-shooting. It quickly became a phenomenon. Rules were established, a television was brought out, and, most importantly, wheels were added to the couch's bottom, mainly to facilitate swift movement back to the house in the event of inclement weather and/or something non-couch related demanding the boys' attention, like work... or throwing a brick of lard at a Wendy's (true story). Really, I think everyone just liked the idea of having a couch on wheels. Over time, The Couch came to represent something greater than the sum of its parts. It encouraged the ridiculous, fostered the unexpected, and most importantly, answered the question, "Why?" with a resounding, "Why not?" All quite Hawksian, really.

Anyway, there you have it. Wheeled upholstery. I want some. Also, don't you like the word "upholster?" Upholster? I don't even know 'er! ...Am I right?

Unfortunately, most of the exploring I did on my most recent trip abroad was done on my own two feet. This is where I was:

Quito, Ecuador. Most of which is south of the Equator. Obviously, you have a single burning question: Which way did the toilets flush?

Answer: I don't really know. I looked once and was sure I saw it going the "wrong" way, per the myths and legends. But now I'm not sure. In addition to receiving differing reports from my peers,
I've read that it's all a bunch of nonsense. Apparently, the Coriolis Effect doesn't come into play at all in the realm of flushing. Something I read said that if there is a difference in flush direction, it's just the way that particular toilet was manufactured. Which, I suppose, makes sense. But still raises some questions: Why wouldn't toilet manufacturers in this day and age have established a standard flush direction? Do they actually manufacture toilets differently depending on geography? What about imported toilets? And how about regular drains? (Why didn't I observe the drains??) And if it is the Coriolis Effect, what happens when you're directly on the Equator? Does it go straight down?? Or worse...straight up?? Who knows.

So what brought me to Ecuador? Believe it or not, a singing gig. And, as if that weren't awesome enough, some of my best friends came along, too. Pretty incredible.

Like so many epic adventures, ours began in Indianapolis. All in all, it was an uneventful journey. In a good way. The most exciting moment was probably when one of my earplugs got stuck and I had to pull it out with tweezers.

It was misty and cool when we landed in Quito, not unexpected conditions in a city that stands at 9,000 feet in an Andean river basin. We had gotten ourselves pretty worked up worrying about altitude sickness, so it was a pleasant surprise when we didn't instantly crumple to the ground upon exiting the aircraft. At baggage claim, my friend Bill and I admitted our disappointment with the colorless stamps in our passports. Talk about a first-world complaint.

Culture finally slapped me across the face when we left the arrivals gate. It was crowded and chaotic and we stuck out like big, sore, Gringo thumbs. Outside, waiting for the vans that would take us to our hotel, we were approached by a beautiful little girl, baby on her back, trying to sell us gum and candies. She was the first of many youngsters who would pull at our strings, both heart and purse.

Nobody admitted it at the time, but I think we were all a little nervous when we pulled up to our hotel. The street was grimy, graffitied, and ominously quiet. But Los Quipus turned out to be as lovely an accommodation as we could have asked for. We learned quickly that in Quito, outward appearances say little about the quality of what lies behind. You adapt quickly to the litter and graffiti, or miss a lot of what Quito has to offer.

My favorite plant in the courtyard of Los Quipus.

You can find sterile and manufactured in Quito if you know where to look. A good place to start might be the "Dining" section of my Rough Guide: Ecuador
, which inevitably led us to overpriced, "western-style" restaurants in the Mariscal district, many of which were described as "authentic" or "traditional." Mariscal (named for Mariscal Sucre, famous freedom fighter) is home to most of Quito's hotels and hostels and is described by locals as "Gringoland." But it's by no means all bad. When you're tired and hungry and sick of pretending you know what you're doing, it's nice to go to a Tex-Mex place with an English menu and a guy in a sombrero. (Speaking of hats, there's something important you should know before we go any further. Prepare yourself. The Panama Hat is, in fact, Ecuadorian. Not Panamanian. It's true!)


Tourism in Quito does require a certain amount of savvy. It can be exhausting. First and foremost, there's the water issue. In addition to abstaining from tap water generally, there are tap-rinsed fruits and vegetables to consider and tap-created ice to be avoided. The trickiest adjustment is brushing your teeth with bottled water. More than once I unthinkingly rinsed my brush in the sink. So I boiled some bottled water and rinsed it again. Probably unnecessary, but I won't advocate one way or the other because I don't want to be blamed for your hypothetical future parasites. I'll just say that our group exercised varying levels of caution and by and large, we were all relatively okay. It seems to be kind of a crapshoot.

Another potentially unpleasant surprise is the fact that one can't really flush one's toilet paper. Quito's plumbing is a wee bit too delicate. So to speak. Instead, there are bins by every toilet for paper disposal. I frequently forgot, and honestly, there were no discernible consequences. But I don't know, I wouldn't want it to be my toilet paper that destroyed an entire city's sewage network. So, again, I'll leave it up to you.

Then there's crime to consider. Quito is certainly not the world's safest destination. My advice would be to apply the requisite amount of common sense for travel in any larger city, and then up-it by a couple of degrees. We were, in fact, witnesses to some small-scale crime. One afternoon, one of the women in our group was taking a photo with her phone when a man ran up and tried to pry it right out of her hand. He ran away too quickly for anyone to stop him, but luckily her phone (and her person) came away unharmed.

Taxis were also a bit of an adventure. A friend of mine insisted that there's a ring of unlicensed cab drivers who execute faux-abductions to scare their fares into handing over money and valuables. I wouldn't be surprised. Cabs are plentiful, cheap, and easy to hail, but it probably is safest to have your hotel call for you. And if you do hail one, make sure you can see a four-digit registration number on the sides and top of the car. Our only incident occurred when a driver tried to charge us $5 for what we knew to be a $3 ride, maximum. A simple, "No, muy caro" was all it took and we patted ourselves on the back for being awesome non-suckers. So I can vouch for the real threat of rip-offery.

On the issue of money, here's a fun fact: Ecuador uses the American dollar. You'll find, though, that because most things are relatively inexpensive, you'll wind up using a lot of Ecuadorian coinage. They mint the coins themselves (same denominations plus a $.50 piece) but use U.S. issue bills. They also use a heck of a lot of $1 coins, which I wish we used more often here because they're golden and make me feel like a pirate.

Quito's highland climate means the temperature is basically the same all year: low to mid-60s. Their "winter" is really a rainy season, with April bearing the brunt. Mornings were consistently sunny and beautiful but around midday, clouds started building over Pichincha, the friendly neighborhood volcano. By mid-afternoon, it was all rain, all the time.

A view of Pichincha

You'll never catch Pichincha looking the same way twice. My guide book described it as "brooding." I'll give that one to the Rough Guide. It did brood a bit.

Our best day in Quito found us at the Basílica del Voto Nacional, a neo-Gothic church built in the late 1800s, following Ecuador's independence from Spain. Its best feature is its general Ecuadorian stamp of originality. The gargoyles are way cool. Instead of grotesque monsters, they're all native Ecuadorian fauna. Birds, tortoises, iguanas... the list goes on. (In case you've forgotten, like I had, the Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador. All those endemic species help make it one of the world's "megadiverse" countries.)

Rough Guide had mentioned spectacular, "not-to-be-missed" views from the top of the Basílica, alluding slightly to some kind of potentially frightening ascent. When we asked someone how we might get up to the towers, we stumbled into a tour. Our guide was warm, excited, and only spoke Spanish. It was fantastic.

And they weren't kidding about those towers. It's like an Amazing Race challenge getting up there. We're talking tiny metal ladders that allow you to look down hundreds of feet while you're climbing and rickety wooden bridges à la Indiana Jones. Meanwhile, our guide hopped around like Spiderman, pointing things out to us in enthusiastic Spanish. (Short aside: It's said that the Spanish spoken in Ecuador is among the clearest and most easily understood in the world. As a result, Quito is home to a host of language schools and has become a very popular place to learn Spanish. I should mention that I asked one of our Colombian colleagues about this and he shook his head and said that the clearest Spanish is actually spoken in, you guessed it, Colombia. Beats me.)

Basílica del Voto Nacional

View from the Basílica of El Panecillo. El Panecillo means "The Little Bread Roll." Apt, wouldn't you say? It's home to the Virgen de Quito (erected 1976) and serves as the southern boundary of Quito's historic Old Town.

Frightening stairs at the Basílica. The pictures just don't capture it.

Inside one of the clock towers. Great Scott!

El Murciélago Hombre

Quito's Old Town, where you can find the Basílica, is a fascinating area. You expect the winding, narrow streets, the picturesque plazas, and the Spanish Colonial architecture. You don't expect it to have such a lived-in vibe. Your average "Old Town" in, say, Europe, tends to be a bit Disney. Nobody really lives in the "Centro storico" part of Venice. They live in scary mainland areas like Mestre, home to the most frightening hotel I've ever had the pleasure of staying in. Seriously, there were prostitutes on the corner right beneath our window. I didn't sleep at all. Come to think of it, I stayed in a frightening hostel/campsite in mainland Venice once too. We slept in these weird pods things and found out later that the place had bed bugs. None of this has anything to do with Ecuador.

The Old Town area of Quito is different. It certainly isn't the city's residential hub, but you still get the sense that a real community exists. Particularly if you wander a bit off the beaten path because your stupid
guide book has a map that's impossible to read. You're more likely to pass a shop that sell tiles or underwear or stereo systems than a shopt that sells souvenirs or touristy trinkets.

La Ronda. A street for tourists, supposedly lined with shops selling traditional goods. When we went, it was completely deserted. Naturally.

Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Plaza Santo Domingo is one of the Old Town's three main squares. The other two are the Plaza de la Independencia and the Plaza San Francisco.

Super-creepy mannequins seem to be a thing in Quito. Perhaps the Guayllabamba River Basin is the actual Uncanny Valley?

Karaoke. Universal.

View of El Panecillo

Teatro Bolívar. As you can probably tell from the picture, it was built in the 1930s. If I remember correctly, a fire destroyed it in the '90s and it's still undergoing restoration. We had lunch at a cafe right across the street. Good old Simon Bolívar has his mitts on just about everything in South America, doesn't he?

Did I mention we were there during Holy Week? Well, we were there during Holy Week. Which meant we were lucky enough to be there for the Good Friday processionals, one of the most culturally intense experiences I've ever had. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures. We didn't want to risk bringing anything even remotely valuable since Old Town becomes absolutely packed
with people for the event. (I kept what little money I brought in my bra... which seemed like a great idea until I actually had to pay for something. Awkward.)

The procession begins in the Plaza San Francisco and wends it's way through Old Town, up to the Basílica and back, over the course of something like 7 hours in total. It begins with hundreds of penitents in purple hoods (called Cucuruchos
) carrying crosses and paintings. Among them are men in tunics and thorny crowns dragging real wooden crosses, stopping periodically to catch their breath and wipe the sweat off their brows. Other men engage in various degrees of self-flagellation, some symbolically and others covering their backs with real and painful-looking red welts.

Eventually, two enormous litters process out of the plaza. The first carries the Virgin of Sorrows and the second Jesus the Almighty. Hundreds of people join the procession and the streets become a sea of humanity as far as the eye can see. Music to accompany the procession is broadcast from the Plaza San Francisco, most memorably a canned version of the same dreary hymn looping endlessly. Many of the spectators lining the streets mouthed the words automatically. Every detail of the ceremony seemed to be deeply ingrained.

While the penitence and faith were clearly quite genuine, the atmosphere surrounding the procession was, it has to be said, pretty festive. Vendors were selling ice cream and balloons, women in tight tank-tops were strutting with their boyfriends, kids were running and playing. It could have been the Fourth of July. Except that we were in Ecuador. And it was April.

I can't leave you without any visuals, so here are some pictures taken by some stranger somewhere:

On the following day, we had an opportunity to take a mini-day-trip to a town north of Quito called Otavalo, home of South America's largest open-air market. Every Saturday, indigenous people from 70 surrounding villages come together to sell their wares. I had saved almost all of my souvenir shopping for this particular excursion. According to my book, The Otavalo Market was the #1 Not-to-Miss place in Ecuador. Once in a lifetime, right?

It started out well. The drive north was beautiful. At some point we crossed the Equator, but wherever it was, there was no fanfare. Close to Otavalo, we stopped at a little tourist shop where people were having pictures taken with llamas and enjoying panoramic views. To our surprise, three young girls in traditional garb hopped on our bus and sang to us in Kichwa, the indigenous language of the region. It was great. But after the driver dropped them off, things took a turn.

Inexplicably, our driver took us past
Otavalo into a town called Cotacachi. Unfortunately, our time was limited since we had to get back to Quito for an evening concert. So this little detour cost us precious hours in Otavalo. I was a little ticked. So, unfortunately, the lovely little town of Cotacachi (prized for its leather goods) will forever be the town that wasn't Otavalo. They'll be fine though. Apparently they're quite affluent.

When we did finally get to Otavalo, I almost immediately lost my friends in the sea of color and the din of haggling. So I went on a solo souvenir tear, haggling my little heart out. Haggling, it turns out, is a blast
. Granted, they're experts at making you think you're getting a good deal. Still, it's fun and you come away feeling accomplished. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of Otavalo, either. In my excitement, I left my camera on the bus.

Vista on the route from Quito to Otavalo



My favorite picture from the trip. It would be in Cotacachi. .

Cotacachi's main square.

They were having some kind of festival in Cotacachi. And no festival is complete without Barney, obviously.

Want to know more things?

Iglesia de la La Campañia

A gilded Baroque church and one of Quito's major highlights.
Some History, Courtesy of Lonely Planet
Worth a read, mainly because there was an important Incan ruler named Tupac. Yes, Tupac.
Rough Guide Ecuador
Despite my complaining, it wasn't all
bad. I've just come to trust Rough Guide implicitly so this one let me down a bit with its terrible maps and disappointing restaurant suggestions. In Rough Guide's defense, Quito is a sprawling, lengthwise city that is difficult to fit neatly onto a map (I would imagine, I'm not a cartographer) and most of the best restaurants didn't really have names. So I'm giving them a mulligan. But they can't coast on 2006's life-changing Indonesian meal in Amsterdam forever!
National Geographic's Take on Ecuador
Because I love National Geographic.
Ecuadorian Cuisine
One of Ecuador's highland delicacies: Guinea Pig, or Cuy. I didn't try it, but a colleague who did said it tasted like (you guessed it) chicken. Another said rabbit. Makes sense. The array of fruit is amazing and if you happen to make it there during Holy Week, you'll have the opportunity to try Fanesca, a stew served only during Lent and Easter. They make a pretty big fuss about it. Bill and I thought the first restaurant we went to was actually called
Fanesca because the banner announcing that they were serving it was bigger than the restaurant's actual sign. Oops.

So there you have it. A taste of Ecuador. All worth it for the llama finger puppets I brought back.


Greg said...

I remember being SO jealous of "the couch"...Sarah would talk about it and I felt so not cool for never making it to the couch.

SoundsLikeCanada said...

Wow, what an amazing opportunity!

I love your blog because I knew you would give me a lot of good details about your trip - not just "we did this touristy thing, and it was fun," but "I had to keep money in my bra in case I was robbed" kind of details.