28. Aug, 2015

No time to stop - so much to learn in Ecuador

Our Ecuador! Your Ecuador! Everyone's Ecuador!

For 140 years Cotopaxi, Ecuador's biggest volcano, had lay dormant, but it decided to wake upon hearing that we were visiting. It spewed its contents 12 km up into the air  and has yet to stop, covering Quito and our dreams of a visit to its base in dust! We would later see the damage it had showered on the surrounding area for ourselves. 

Our first night in Ecuador was a comfortable one. We had been collected from the airport by our host, who was a Dutchman. The room was amazing, just on the outskirts of Quito. We woke up and started to prepare for our travels around Ecuador. We had not planned where to stay or what to do, but hoped to be guided by the locals - ever the optimist and risk taker. By the end of the week we would have visited several churches, Quito landmarks, an art gallery by the nation's most famous artist Guayasamin, seen football matches, polo matches,  wathced a kite flying competition, stood on the equator, watched volleyball matches, seen at least two local bands, watched tropical birds fly, seen 2 parades - one including seeing the president, went white water rafting, swung on a swing in the clouds above Banos City, sat in the natural warm spring waters of Banos and prepared for a 40km bike ride! Was that enough entertainment? No, John wanted to go horse riding, but I put this on hold for one of the horse capitals of the world - Argentina! 

We had read lots about the dangers of Quito and knew what risks we were prepared to take. Our guesthouse was in the centre of the Old Town and the street which housed this tranquil place was frequented by at least 15 ladies of the night. Some of them were also transgender. full of disfiguring  and often inaccurately placed implants on their once pretty faces and bodies This did present us with a bit of a difficulty as we were reluctant to venture out at night for fear of stepping into a 'Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy zone'! 

 Old Town was fascinating. Lots of interesting people to watch and you were never far away from local politics in action.

 It was easy to get around Quito, a long and narrow city with buses running day and night and police commanding the traffic with a whistle and a prayer. 

Now this really was a city to get your teeth into, lots to see and do, so different to SJ. There was wealth here, but also a sense of pride from all its citizens. When I asked the residents where the money was coming from, (so obviously wealthier than CR and if not then wealth in Ecuador is distributed more fairly) I was told it was their oil. There was heavy police and army presence wherever we went and we welcomed that. 

Ecuadorians showered each other with love. They held hands, all generations kissed and helped each other openly. The warm climate helped to make this one of the happiest nations on Earth - ranging between 21 and 27 degrees all year round. The huge police and army presence helped to keep everyone safe or at least the belief that they were. There was an honesty about the people that I immediately felt. People openly chanted against the country's democracy in the plazas while the police and army looked on, but daren't challenge the people's right to freedom of speech. Often you would see sons helping their mums or grans with chores or guiding them through the streets. Men and women worked alongside each other too.  Women worked in construction and we often saw blind people or people in wheelchairs being made welcomed and supported everywhere. Clearly a country which was inclusive, or at least trying to be. I loved that and didn't feel I had witnessed this in the other countries I had visited since Spain. 

A changing of the guard each Monday drew in crowds from across Quito. These crowds would sing the national anthem ( not many knew this though) and cheer the appearance of El presidente Rafael Correa as he looked upon his troops as they paid respect to him and their country and trampled over the odd newspaper seller who got  in their way! A flamboyant affair which lasted for an hour in the Plaza Grande. Horsemen galloped around the tiny square  in an impressive display, the smart foot soldiers brandishing Sabres and lances contrasted the shabby hat sellers and vagrant boys who polished shoes - the toothless, the ruthless, the corrupt, the shiny, the penniless, the hopeful and the hopeless all basked in the beams of El Presidente who had sold all their gas to China! Viva Ecuador! 

After 5 days in Quito it was time to move on to the countryside, we had read that the journey to and a stay in Banos were not to be missed  and so we booked a few nights there. Onwards by local bus the scenery was dramatic. It was such a pleasurable journey - in the main but offered some challenges.

Firstly the reputable bus company that we had booked with cancelled our trip and therefore we were assigned to another bus. We left 30 minutes later than scheduled. All should still be well I thought, until the young man sitting in the seat adjacent to me did the sign of the cross and kissed his crucifix as we sped passed a clearly signposted 40km per hour sign at 110 kph! The bus titled to one side and then another - oh dear Mother of God, I thought as we leapt up and down on the bus without any obvious suspension. This driver was fearless, he honked his horn aggressively at learner drivers and overtook performance cars at a pace, that put the fear of God in me. I distracted myself by watching the spectacular backdrop. At times I didn't have time to ingest it as we flew past at a constant 100+ kph, even round bends. Luckily John had just had his hair cut so his couldn't stand on end, but mine - well it was swinging from the rafters, so hairy was the ride. The only time the driver slowed down was to go through transito officiale! 

The bus conductor looked a little out of place in Ecuador, with a thick black mullet and a  moustache which drooped down to his chin. He would have done well do to audition for a Mexican who ran the local cantina draped in a black and red striped poncho! He asks us for our ticket - no tengo un boleto señor - El hombre tengo - our Spanish was embarrassingly awful. He shrugs his shoulders and wonders off! Yep should definitely audition for that cantina owner, I think again as he swaggers back down the aisle! 

We approached the base of Cotopaxi. People wore face masks to prevent the volcanic ash penetrating their lungs. A thick fog still lay in the air 12 days after the eruption. All around us lay thick ash, upon the house tops, the roads and worse of all was the green land. This eruption had clearly decimated the landscape, the food for the farm animals, the crops and the local income. A declaration of emergency was ordered by El Presidente, but I don't know what good it did. I was grateful that we were staying well outside the site.  It featured nightly on any news lips I watched such was the interest. 

Banos, like Tortuguero, did not disappoint with an attack on the senses. The backdrop continued to be dramatic. The low lying clouds, the vultures and hummingbirds flying overhead and the rush of the rivers were a constant reminder that life on Earth was amazing.

Our room overlooked the vertical fields, it was hard to imagine that this was farming land, such was the height and acute angle of the fields. We had excellent views of both the sunrise and sunset. We lay in our hammock, drank wine and enjoyed the ambience of this isolated haven down a mud track. 

Banos is well known for its hair raising activities and so we opted for just one - white water rafting. After getting kitted out we headed out of Banos, about 30 km, on a tour bus with about 25 other daredevils. There were people from S. Korea, Switzerland, Hong Kong, U.S.A, Holland and India on our bus. Oddly we had to introduce ourselves and say whether we could swim or not! I was to later realise why.

Wetsuits on and the safety talk about the trip started. The language that the instructor used disturbed me - 'when' rather than 'if' was used constantly. When you fall out of the boat...when you get trapped under the boat...when you try to get back in the boat...What is all this 'when...'? I asked myself.' What happened to if...?' What the instructors didn't know was that he was dealing with two potentially paranoid people here and to top it all the Dutch were assigned to the same boat as us - rewind to river accident and our now Dutch friends!

When he started talking about anacondas and crocodiles in the river I was ready to swap my wetsuit for my shorts and top! 'Only joking,' he says!

I listened intently, hanging on to every word in order to preserve my life! I remained optimistic as we trudged down to the river with the boat. The water was cold. Nevertheless, I got in and clambered into the boat in the position I had been given. Anjie, the Dutch lady about my age, sat behind me and in front were two young strapping Koreans. John sat to my left and the instructor was behind me to my left. - see photos. The first set of Rapids were terrifying, as I did not know what to expect. I listened carefully to the instructor's advice and did my best to paddle as the boat soared up and down. I have canoed and kayaked before and had learned the basics about paddle control etc. But I don't think I impressed him as his eyes rolled in his head as he soon realised what a motley crew we were. 'One two, one two,' he shouted trying to get us organised. The Koreans wanted anything other than to be organised. They were playful and as soon as an opportunity for them to jump out of the boat was presented to them they grasped it. Off they leapt, belly flopping into the running waters. The trip would last for a further 70 minutes with them frolicking and not paddling as the boat bounced uncontrollably in the waters.

At times our boat would soar at least 10 ft into the air for about 20 seconds as we grappled with our paddles to get the boat under control. The Koreans remained excitable and rocked the boat further, hoping it would flip, it was a buttock clenching moment for some, but we remained calm as we wiped water from our eyes and high fived each other when we were successful - successful = we had remained on the boat intact. 

I began to relax as I saw other boats in the water flip on their sides and all inhabitants ousted,  but survive. How bad can it be? I thought. If you have every been white water rafting you will know that you have to sit on the side of the boat and lean towards the water, then lean forwards as you dig your paddle in and lean backwards as you pull your paddle back. This motion naturally means that you are likely to fall out of the boat if you get hit unexpectedly by a rapid wave. Whilst I was vulnerable on the side of this rubber dingy, my confidence grew. 

A calm before the storm was on the horizon, just like our holiday thus far. One of the Koreans turned to Paulo the instructor and said, 'I want more action!' 'We are a team, replied Paulo, and these old people do not want more action.' He then turned to us and apologised for calling us 'old'. If it meant I would live to tell the tale of the white water rafting I don't mind being called old. I am old and so is John - well older! 'But if you want more action, Paulo continued, I can give you more.'  We entered further Rapids and it was obvious that they were growing with intensity. Paulo always gave good instructions as he skilfully guided us through what were many hair raising moments. We passed by some whirlpools which would suck any unsuspecting adventurer in and release them a different person! I gulped when I saw those hoping Paulo wouldn't take us anywhere near them. Paulo gave us 'oldies' at the back a mischievous wink. He shouted at the Korean to get out of the boat. At first the Korean dismissed his request and stayed firmly put, clutching his paddle and I daresay his buttocks! Paulo grabbed him with his large brown paws and threw him into the water. Have you ever seen someone nearly drown, cry for help, look terrified, but pretending that they are ok? Have you ever seen a brown man turn white before your eyes? We did! I can't say it was fun, at the time I was terrified for him, clasping my mouth with my eyes agog and almost letting my paddle slip.  The whirlpools sucked him down  and down and spat him out time and time again. He gasped for every breath hoping it wasn't his last. Too tired to wave his arms to say help me, help me, he used his eyes to do the talking. John said 'every many for himself,' as the boat soared another 10 ft in the air 'leave him'.  But compassion saved the day and United Nations came together to save him from the rushing waters. Like any good Korean citizen he thanked every one of us for forgiving him for his foolish ways and relieved sat down and behaved from then on! 

The thrills were not yet finished. Paulo repeatedly explained that there were more challenges ahead and he was not wrong. Paulo, an experienced adventurer, knew how to tame a wild class. He knew he had to gain and then maintain the respect of everyone on the boat if we were to triumph this trip. Higher rapids were to come. Once through though we always celebrated with a team high five and a signal to the boats behind that it was safe to cross. 

The end was in sight, but more high rapids and it was at this point that we were asked if we could swim - again. I along with everyone said yes  and with that we were all thrown from the boat and into the waters. This time we bounced up and down merrily with the boat close by. Paulo knew what risks to take with the group and every person, even at if first some had frayed nerves or felt that this trip wouldn't challenge them, all felt safe in his hands as we flew through the rapids with our life jackets intact and our heads just above the water -  he was indeed a great teacher who knew how to get the best out of people, so that they would arrive on shore a different person. 

Later that evening we rounded off the perfect day by swinging in the hammock outside our room with the sun beating down on our faces and witnessing the sunset over Tunguruhua volcano. 

A magnificent natural park lay before this dormant volcano where you literally play around in the sky at 1800m above sea level, there's even a swing for you to swing on which takes you right into the clouds - not for the faint hearted. At first I was a little scared, unlike John who was so fearless he even forgot to attach his safety harness,  until an insightful American pointed this out to him! 

Water seemed to feature quite a lot during our holiday except for in the form of rain. Banos is famous for its natural warm spring waters and we were keen to try them out. Both our current hosts and the guidebooks recommended the therma spas at Salado; I am not sure we would. The whole process, changing areas and baths were reminiscent of something from a 1950s British school kid's horror story of their swimming pool days, complete with green algae adorning the sides of the walls. So quite honestly I think it was best left there - in the 1950s! The baths seemed ancient, dirty with muddy floors, cramped changing rooms,  worn wooden benches in the changing rooms and plastic crates to put your clothes in, The baths were not spa baths, but large cold and warm paddling pools where local children dived bombed into your imaginary tranquil space splashing you with the muddy waters whilst laughing at you the  'gringos'! Some nationals from other countries arrived, paid their money, saw the pool facilities and swiftly left. We were pleased we had tried them but were more pleased to get dry and leave. 

A walk back down the hill to the village and we encountered several industrious families all making the local taffy. A boy leant over his counter to me and offered me some from the batch he was making. The rest of his family were busy wrapping and sealing it in small bags ready to be sold all over Ecuador.  Sugar cane and this candy are what the region is also famous for. So much on offer in Banos - a small city with a big heart. We didn't want to leave.