Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kid in the Hostel

Two weeks ago I started volunteering at a hostel in order to keep a roof over my head and some semblance of independence.  So far, it’s an interesting study in the impermanence of travel in the form of relationships with other people and places and of different travel mindsets.  
Community Hostel is more like a family—hence the name—than just a space where a bunch of travelers shower, sleep, and eat. I’m not just spewing my newfound loyalty all over the page here by the way; this is genuinely how I feel. I’ve never stayed in a hostel like it before. It seems to be a combination of the space itself, the staff (cough, cough, me), and the types of travelers who come here.
The result is a continual party happening in the common areas, the bedrooms, etc. Every day and night people are meeting each other, becoming fast friends, and touring the city/country together. Most hostels I’ve stayed at have common areas, but they aren’t used like this one is—and usually the staff is more distant and removed from the hubbub. Here, Marco (one of the owners) is right in the action, cooking everyone breakfast, taking them to his favorite clubs, and somehow still remembering names after being a hostel owner for a year or so. The rest of us volunteers and employees try to do likewise. It’s tough. I do enjoy trying to cook big fancy meals for people though—it’s great practice for developing my fledgling culinary skills.
Anyway, the temporary nature of most people’s hostel-life puts the permanent members of Community Hostel in a strange situation. Some of us volunteers are traveling around too and often meet other travelers at the hostel to join up with, but plenty of us are staying put in Quito or in Ecuador for a good while. It’s strange to be surrounded by these sunburned travelers getting back from Cotopaxi or the coast and packing again to return to Australia or Germany or the US. Their interaction with this place is something other—a fleeting good time.
Because of my teaching job, it’s difficult for me to keep up with who’s who. And why bother, I find myself asking. So many of these people are just here for two or three weeks that even if they are super cool, it’s emotionally exhausting to become friends with so many people so fast only to say goodbye. At least, it’s emotionally exhausting for me; I’m not sure about everyone else.
Still, I’ve already met some great people and had a lot of fun with them. But now everyone else is on the run now and I’m not. I’m tempted to feel self-righteous, because I’m getting to know this city and country better; because I’m actually living here. But I’ve written about this type of attitude before, here: http://simplyontherun.blogspot.com/2012/09/on-traveling-and-coming-home.html and I know not everyone can just up and run away to South America indefinitely. Also, I realized I’m pretty envious of them, despite their being here for only a month or so, because they can do whatever they want here, without any obligations.
Living at a hostel means giving up your space and your alone time—for me my time to write—unless you are super sneaky and anti-social. I get up a little after 5am every morning (at least I’m trying to) just to breathe, drink my coffee in peace, write, or read something other than my Wall Street Institute manual. This is the only time I’m not somehow working for the hostel when I’m here and I cherish it.
There’s a beautiful view of the city from our balcony, so I get to watch the sun rise and the city wake up. Quito wakes up suddenly and angrily, like a screaming toddler. Dogs howl in unison, car alarms sound, fruit venders compete with newspaper venders to see who can yell louder (and less intelligibly). I watch it all from the third story and am reminded that Quito is not my city anymore than it’s the city of my hostel mates.
The Balcony 
View from the balcony.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

No more [f]unemployment

My first two weeks of employment at Wall Street Institute have left me with little time to write blog entrees, partly because I am now also living and volunteering at a hostel. I have finished my training and have been teaching and being observed this week; next week I'll be all on my own with my official schedule set, which will be nice. 
So far, I enjoy my students but am struggling a bit with the company itself and its mission--as well as with my boss, who treats me like a child. 
At the hostel, I get to meet a lot of awesome travelers and get experience cooking for 10-20 people, as well as cleaning for them and stuff. It's a lot of work and a lot of learning how to do different things and being flexible, but I enjoy it. The best part so far is the people and the beautiful building/location in the Historic Center of the city: http://www.communityhostel.com/. The worst part is that I hardly ever have a moment to myself. 
So, my funemployment is officially over, but I had a good run. And I'm still not paying rent--which means I've not paid rent since...May? Anyway, I'll of course be posting more updates about life in Quito and surroundings, but they will be less frequent until I can sort of catch my breath here. 
You can look forward to a nice long post about public transportation, Ecua-fashion, Wall Street Institute, and maybe a guide to hostel life. In the mean time, I thought I should just post something so that people know I'm still alive and well. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Traveling Solo (Canoa & Bahia)

Last weekend I did my first real solo trip in Ecuador. I have traveled alone before, but always with the intention of meeting up with people in a day or so. This time I was going to the beach all by my lonesome, just to hang out and see what I could see for the weekend before I started working full time.
Traveling by myself has always enticed me for whatever reason. I am free—I don’t have to make anyone else happy and I can do whatever I decide to do at anytime. There’s more of an element of surprise I guess, because a lot of times I feel like I have no idea what random crazy thing I’ll suddenly decide to do. When I’m traveling with others, I am limited by what they’d like to do and see, etc., and I feel somehow responsible.
Anyway, I started the whole trip out haphazardly, by deciding to find a night bus last minute because my boss pushed back my starting date. I wanted to go first to Bahia de Caraquez, a small coastal city, and then catch another bus from there to Canoa, a tiny surfing town nearby—rumored to have the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. I couldn’t seem to find a number to call to find out about times and tickets, so I was going to just show up at the terminal, which has worked well for me so far. But instead, since I had no one to answer to but myself, I met some Ecuadorian friends and drank a beer or two at their apartment until they decided it was too dangerous for me to leave that night and insisted I stay there and go the next morning.
The next morning I went to the terminal and found a ticket pretty easily and spent my eight-hour bus ride watching the eucalyptus forests change to banana and orange orchards and feeling the temperature and humidity rise considerably.
After I got to Canoa I found a hostel for five bucks a night—which was nice other than some sand in the sheets—and a quick meal before walking around a bit. I soon saw a sign that said “microbrews.” Naturally, I went into this establishment. Ecuadorian beer is okay if you’re into light lagers with lime—or, there’s one called Club Roja, which is a sort of red ale—but as a spoiled girl from the northwest, where a new microbrewery is starting up every few days, the beer selection here generally leaves much to be desired. So, I walked into this little surf shack, ordered an IPA made on the edge of town by an American ex-pat, and sat at the bar, nursing it with tender affection.
Canoa is a popular tourist destination because of the surfing, the quaintness of the town itself, and the beachso there were plenty of foreigners in the bar as well as Ecuadorians. The bar itself is owned and run by an Ecuadorian-Canadian couple who I spoke with for some time. They have a hostel and a volunteer-to-live-and-surf type of program as well as surf lessons, kayak rentals, etc. Plus, the beer!
Anyway, shortly after I got there I was asked to play trivia with a British guy who needed a partner. The winners got to split a $25 tab and we won, so I got a couple more microbrews and breakfast the next day out of the deal. It was great. And, during trivia I noticed a guy with a Seattle Mariners hat on. He had curly blond hair flowing out of the back, so I asked him if he knew he looked like Randy Johnson and we started talking. After reminiscing about the great 1995 season with him for awhile, I found out he was form Bonners Ferry. Such a weird, small-world moment.
Anyway, I spent most of my time in Canoa playing in the waves, exploring the beach, reading my book, and generally relaxing. It’s a nice town—very touristy, but in a way that seems to be pretty good for the town. I got a little tired of people trying to sell me everything, but it was still quite nice to spend some time in the sun and warm water.
The next day I played around until noon or so then caught a bus back to Bahia, where I hung out on the beach there all day. It was a Saturday but there were very few people there, mostly little Ecuadorian families. Bahia doesn’t have a huge beach or much as far as waves, so I guess a lot of people prefer Canoa. I didn’t see any other obvious foreigners, but I met an Ecuadorian guy who had tried to sell me stuff in Canoa and we played Frisbee on the beach for quite a while.
I got my bus back to Quito at 9:45pm and arrived back home at about 7am: dirty, sunburned, and satisfied. I had exactly $3.56 left in my pocket after taking $40 with me and staying three days and two nights—not bad! But it’s a good thing I won trivia…
I think my first solo trip was a success. Of course, I would still usually prefer to find someone else to travel with, for safety and entertainment purposes. I like to have someone along to share the experience with. But it does change my interaction with a place and the people there a bit. This trip was sometimes a little lonely, but I also met people who I probably won’t have talked to if I’d been with a friend. 

 I had to walk quite awhile to find a secluded spot near Canoa, but it was worth it. 

 Main beach.
 The town of Canoa. 
My hammock at the hostel. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Photo Update: Cuenca and Surroundings

I have to get more photos up before I blog about other things, so here's another photo update. 
Cuenca is a small, green city in the south of Ecuador. It boasts a slower pace of life with more environmental consciousness and attention given to cyclists and pedestrians than I've seen anywhere else in this country. In Cuenca, the poorer people are employed by the city to clean the streets and take care of the gardens and lawns, rather than having to resort to begging and crime. 
It reminded me of Boise because of the rivers running through it with bike paths, parks, and huge flowering trees, and because of the nearby mountains and the clean--but much more historic--downtown (built on/around Incan ruins). It's warmer than Quito and more friendly because of its size and significantly lower crime rate. I can see why there are nearly 4,000 expats currently residing there and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, although I have to say--as with Boise--I could get a little bored there after awhile. 
Anyway, here are a few pictures. Unfortunately, I neglected to take many of the downtown area, which has great architecture. 

 Christmas walk by one of the rivers with the fam. 
 One of the 58 (I think) historic churches. 
View from some Incan ruins. 

I met my German friends, Joe and Lisa, in Cuenca the day after Christmas and we decided to go to Parque Nacional El Cajas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Cajas. It's a huge, beautiful national park only about half an hour from the city. The landscape is drastic; stark and stunning. There are cloud forests, mountains, and hundreds of lakes (and water in every form). It's home to a unique ecosystem that retains water--it looks dry, but believe me, it's a strange, spongey wetland--and there are crazy trees and plants and even some pumas, wolves, bears, etc. We left thoroughly wet and thoroughly happy. I could easily spend days and nights backpacking there. 
Starting point: Lake Toreadora
 I was in love with this plant and took about ten pictures of it...notice all of the lakes in the background. 

 Joe and Lisa walking behind me through the cloud forest: a tangle of "paper trees" with mist, caves, and painted rocks to keep us going the right way. 
 Cloud forest!
 This lichen also got photographed a lot...

The next day, we visited Incan/ Canari (indigenous people who preceded the Incans) ruins, called Ingapirca, about three hours away by bus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingapirca. I was not that impressed because there isn't much hiking to do around there and it only took an hour or so to tour the ruins, but it cost six bucks for foreigners to see. Still, it was cool to walk through structures from that time period. The largest structure still standing, also the most famous, is the Temple to the Sun, which was built with stones that fit perfectly together without mortar. 
I found out later that before Ingapirca was an official site, my uncle's mother snagged a couple of these special stones for her living room. She had me put my hands in their groves. Now I understand more why they charge you money and watch you while you're there...

 We walked around a bit and got a more impressive view from the adjacent hill.
Then we made friends with some cows. 

The next day, my aunt and uncle took my cousins and I to Cojitambo, which is a mountain about 45 minutes north of Cuenca. It is home to some Incan ruins as well as an incredible view. It's not very developed or popular, so there weren't many other people there, which was nice. Plus, it's a great place to rock climb and I got to try it for the first time because one of my uncle's tour groups was there climbing and we joined them. It was super fun. 

Oops, I guess I didn't take any pictures of the ruins...well, you can't blame me. They were all over the place and the mountains interest me more. :) 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Photo Update: Latacunga

The town of Latacunga itself is quite small and not terribly pretty or nice, but it's a great place to stay if you want to go to Cotopaxi National Park or Quilotoa Crater Lake, which is exactly what I did. Also, the hostel where I stayed was really nice. 
Quilotoa is about an hour and a half away by bus and kind of in the middle of nowhere, but since President Correa did some volunteer work there, he's put money into developing it into a tourist destination. There's a new highway being built and quite a few hostels at the top of the lake--where you can choose to take a trail down to the water and then come back up, a trail around the lake, or a longer trail to go to nearby villages. 
The lake was beautiful, but I was a little disappointed because due to a flat bus tire, road construction, and the general slowness of bus-riding, we didn't get a change to walk around the lake, only down to it. Still, it was a beautiful spot for a picnic and llama-friending and we all (my German friends and a few Americans) really enjoyed it. There are horses for rent at the bottom because the hike back up is pretty steep, but we didn't take them. 
The best part was probably the fact that the buses were full so we had to take a super full camioneta all the way back to Latacunga. Camionetas are pickups that will take you places for a small fee. Somewhere between a taxi and hitch-hiking I guess. It was hilarious--there were four foreigners and three Ecuadorians squished into the cab of the pickup and about half a dozen more in the back. We listened to the Backstreet Boys full volume and drove probably 80 km per hour with kids in the back (and it was raining). 
 What a beaut!

One of the not-so-wild llamas, who was interested in our picnic.
Horses being watered at the bottom.

Our trip to Cotopaxi was more successful time-wise, but it was freezing cold and raining when we got to the park. But as we drove up--in another camioneta, this time with more room--the rain turned to snow. The wind died down and sun came out about halfway up to the refuge. It was still pretty tough though--hiking at 5,000 meters isn't exactly a walk in the park. Lisa and Joe (my Germans) both got altitude sickness and stopped at the refuge while Trenna (an American I met at the hostel) and I continued on. 
I think I already explained some about Cotopaxi in an older post, so I'm not going to elaborate much here. It's one of the most popular tourist destinations around Quito and for good reason. I loved it and I want to summit it now. 
 Joe and Lisa bundled up and hiking. 

Just above the refuge. 
 Glacier viewing--doesn't it look like Mars? 
Volcanic rocks!
And when the sun came out, even more Mars-like. 
Oh hey, glacier. (I walked on it too). I think it was at about 5,300 m (17,000+ ft.). 
 Running down. 
Lisa and I making guacamole at the hostel later.