Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ecuador Map

After the last updated map let-down (I never explained the places visited, I'm sorry), I pledge to do better and quicker.

We didn’t volunteer in Ecuador, so no color code is necessary. You’ll notice I went ahead and included the location names right next to the map. Is this helpful or not?
32 – Tulcán – early morning of 2/22 – An all-night bus from Cali, Colombia took us to the border earlier than anticipated. We waited for the sun to rise to make for a safer border crossing into this small Ecuadorian town.

33 – Quito – 2/22 to 3/05 – We stayed with Eleana Figueroa (Ele), Joe’s family’s former foreign exchange student, her brother and sister in Quito. They have a nice apartment a little ways north of the city center. And they were INCREDIBLE hosts! Here Joe’s mom came for a week, also using their home as a central base for other travels. We were all impressed by the unique, beautiful churches and plazas, along with happening, hip neighborhoods Quito has to offer. Though polluted, Quito was a good place to be.

34 – Otavalo – 2/26 to 2/27 – We, including the mother, fell victim to Otavalo’s main tourist attraction—it’s lively, touristy market. Everything we owned ended up spewing forth soft alpaca accessories, minus our wallets, which weren’t spewing forth much at all. Juleen proved the master market negotiator of the three. A hostel situated amid the rolling green and rocky volcanoes, plus good pizza made the short trip even more pleasant.

35 – Riobamba – 2/28 to 3/01 – A traditional Ecuadorian lunch—fritada, mote, plantains, empanadas de queso, potatoes, fried whole corn kernels, salad, etc—with Ele’s family, followed by a light dinner of guinea pig made this trip synonymous with food. Meeting Ele’s fam was great too! We see where she got the great hosting skills.

36 – Baños – 3/01 – The few hours we spent here were not enough. Baños is a great traveler and adventurer hub with more than enough to offer, and an incredible setting with 360 degrees of steep mountainous terrain surrounding the small city to boot.

37 – somewhere within the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve – 3/06 to 3/09 – Seven hours in bus from Quito to the jungle frontier town of Lago Agrio. Three hours in a private van farther eastward. Two-and-a-half more hours into the Amazonian ecosystem in motor-powered canoe. We thus ended up at Jamu Lodge, quite a luxurious place given its environs. See the preceding blog for more info about what we did.

38 – Cuenca – 3/11 to 3/14 – Seventeen hours in bus from Lago Agrio got us to Cuenca, soon to be our favorite city of the journey. Incan ruins, great museums, a riverwalk, not to mention Ecuador’s staple beautiful plazas and churches, a happy gringo community—what’s not to love about Cuenca?

39 – Loja – 3/14 – The way out of Ecuador took us through Loja. Though there didn’t appear to be much to do in town (we were told the place to watch American sports is the bus terminal, for example—luckily we didn’t find the Purdue-Minnesota basketball game), it’s supposedly surrounded by national parks. We can attest to the pleasantly mild climate. Another night bus, this one with a border crossing into Peru, took us out of Loja and the country.

Ecuador Wrap-Up
It seems this country has a lot to offer. The fact that it’s smaller makes its distinct climates and locations much more accessible, which is a big plus compared to relative giants Colombia and Peru. It was also significantly cheaper than Colombia—another bonus. Though we didn’t volunteer, spending time with Ele, her family and Joe’s mom made the time substantive enough that it didn’t seem like we were lacking in the I-need-to-be-productive department; this has haunted Joe especially during previous extended traveling phases of the trip. In the end, we highly recommend the parts of Ecuador we saw (particularly Cuenca, Julie and Harold!), and we’re anxious to see more.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Welcome to the jungle!

“In the jungle. Welcome to the jungle,” as Joe would scream at the top of his lungs, attempting to sing a popular American rock song. Yes, we were headed to the jungle, Ecuador’s Amazon (the watershed, not the actual river) to be exact. We paid the bill, the steepest of our adventure, and took off. Heading east approximately ten hours in bus, plus 2.5 hours downstream in a motorized canoe, we arrived at our jungle lodge. Jamu Lodge was fully equipped with hammocks for Joe to enjoy his early mornings, hot tea, coffee, and chocolate for us to enjoy at any point of the day, and comfy mosquito net-protected beds!

Other than enjoy our few days of luxury, what did we do? We did all the typical jungle stuff. We took our canoe out into the middle of a lake that is home to piranhas, crocodiles, and snakes for sunset swims. We took a hike through the trees to admire monkeys, birds, and plants. We, unsuccessfully, went piranha fishing; apparently, it’s the wrong time of the year. We visited an indigenous group still living in the jungle. They demonstrated one of their typical cooking practices, using a root plant called yuca. In addition to getting to see their village, we visited the village Shaman. He was wearing his full regale, and, after talking about his training and tradition, he demonstrated the strength of jungle plants on a couple of our fellow tourists. Two tourists became victims to a jungle plant that supposedly increases circulation, but only after breaking their backs out into terribly itchy hives.

While all was interesting, the highlight was Joe The Biologist coming alive in our night hike. Eight of us were tightly in line, listening to every word that came out of our guide’s mouth. While Joe The Biologist, with his crappy flashlight in hand, was wondering off the path, searching for the never-been-seen-before insect or snake. His efforts proved not only to be quite the entertainment for me (Juleen), but it proved fruitful for the group. He was the sole person to spot a snake that night.

While alive with other life forms, our lives in the jungle were pretty sleepy. The insects were humming, owls were hooting, and the rest of our group was alive and well, enjoying the night, even the 60-ish Dutch couple. Meanwhile, by 9:30, we were fast asleep. Being in such close proximity with the seven other people comprising our group highlighted our different sleeping schedules, making us a little self-conscious as we turned our flames out right after dinner as theirs were just getting started. Our minimum nine-hour sleeping schedule hasn’t just made us uncomfortable in the Amazon; it’s been a re-occurring “problem” throughout the trip. When else has this problem manifested itself???

For two examples, we need go no further than tonight and last night! Last night when our couchsurfing host kindly invited us to go dancing our first question was when will he go out. Upon hearing the 9:30 departure time we declined. We were sleeping before he left. Finally, we are presently struggling, as we wait for our night bus to leave at 11pm! The only way to stay awake, I guess, is to write a blog…

Friday, March 5, 2010

A good meal lost in the Moore's basement

Before, when I, Joe, thought of guinea pigs I could only think of the pet guinea pig (or hamster—who knows the difference between those terrible pets anyway?) my sister had when we were growing up. A little while, probably just a few days, into its existence at our house, it went missing. Months later we found it. Underneath our old, scraggly basement couch we found a familiar looking and familiar smelling dead pet guinea pig. After our last few weeks here in Ecuador none of us will think of guinea pigs, or cuyes as Spanish-speakers call them, in the same way.

This monumental transformation of our perceptions of this small, measly rodent started because my family had a foreign exchange student. She was Ecuadorian and came to stay with us during my first year away at college. I didn’t get to know her too well, but a few stories surfaced from her time in the States and made their way to me. One of the most entertaining stories of Eleana, details her going to a friend’s house for dinner and offering to cook up the family’s pet for dinner. You see, in Ecuador and Peru (and apparently other southern South America countries too) guinea pigs don’t have assume a throne of a plastic cage w/ a spinning wheel. They instead sit atop one’s royal dinner (or likely lunch) plate, ready to be consumed, paws and all.

Eating guinea pig, or cuy, dates back further than modern-day Ecuadorian and Peruvian omnivores. Supposedly, according to Juleen, the Incans were enthralled with eating cuy, placing some spiritual significance in consuming the rodent. For more on this part of the story, let’s go to the source herself. Here’s Juleen.

Well, being the Incan expert that I am, I googled it. Here is what I found, “The cuy has a place in pre-Colombian Inca tradition. Consumed only by the nobility or used as a sacrifice and a means of foretelling the future via the entrails.”

So, in pursuit of Incan bliss, we followed not the trails to the ancient civilization’s sites, but the faint sounds of cuy that give the guinea pig their Spanish name. Our first encounter with the royal rodent occurred at an animal market in Otavalo, Ecuador, a few hours north of Quito. Among other animals, the predominantly indigenous capitalists maintained a thriving cuy trade. Sellers had baskets full of fluffy-haired guinea pigs. Buyers went around grabbing the necks of the cuy, testing the meatiness of the animals, throwing them into a rice sack if they met the mark.

Okay, we can handle the cuy exchange. That’s not too hard on the eyes, nor the stomach. But could we handle cuyes cooking as they rotate above a charcoal grill? Unlike the familiar rotisserie poultry, the cuy comes with head, paws, and, well, everything attached. No polite de-animalization of your lunch here. Still we survived.

The logical next step of our cuy-based Incan investigation is the climax—eating the darn thing. Why else would we have stopped at the road-side rotisserie cuy vendor? Eleana’s father was anxious for us to try the cuy, of all Ecuadorian meals his favorite. And so we stopped the car, bought a whole cuy (very crisp, please, he asked) to go for $15. Wrapped in a plastic bag that hid the sight but not the rich smell, we headed towards Eleana’s hometown in Riobamba, three hours south of Quito.

Finally, that evening the time had come to eat like kings, or, more appropriately, Incas (meaning kings in the indigenous Quechua tongue). Juleen wasted no time in putting her portion of the cuy to waste, eating the rodent like the pig she is. Joe, as he is inclined to, politely and nimbly picked the small pieces of meat off of the small bones. Denise, Joe’s mom, even took part in the cuy-tasting fiesta, eating a few bites. The climax within the climax of this story? Juleen boldly and indiscriminatingly chomping the cuy’s hind-leg paw. She reports that it was a delight, particularly the discernible crunch of the fingernail. Joe reports that he has assumed a spot atop a throne, albeit figurative…and imaginary.

Now, all familiar with the Moores’ sad pet guinea pig tale, we can’t help but think differently about guinea pigs. Never again will we let such a useless pet go to waste. And, having done the important part and eaten like an Inca, we plan to continue our Inca quest right after our Amazonian adventure that starts with a 11pm bus ride tonight!