We were very lucky to get to stay in the mansion in Quito for three days. This meant we got to eat three wonderful breakfasts there and we didn’t have to move all of our luggage for three days, which was exceptional.
Our next days in Quito involved eating delicious food, checking out the Old Town and Virgin Mary and an extremely weird Gringo Basura pool mission.
Jacob and I are really struggling to get in as much exercise as we’d like now that we aren’t committed to walking 22ish miles a day. But we are still eating a lot. To try and avoid an extreme transition to obesity and grumpy vibes we have been desperate for exercise. Lorelei has gone for the occasional run but Jacob seems to turn into a physio-requiring mess pretty quickly following a few runs.
We are not in Australia anymore and thus don’t have the luxury of ubiquitous community pools everywhere, sadly. But we are determined and so one day we let Barb and Elizabeth go wander the streets and we set off on what could best be described as an extremely weird pool mission. First we refused to take a taxi and walked up some hilly areas that made San Francisco (and Wellington) seem flat. After some confusion, getting lost, finding a really random free WiFi zone and then asking a random man for help, we found the pool our hotel had recommended. It was surrounded by high security fences, there was an empty parking lot, lots of people tidying the surrounding lawns and a security guard. Turns out it was not only an Olympic-sized length but it was only for Olympians. Us Gringo Basura didn’t qualify.
And so we wandered toward a part of the town that Lorelei has seen a Hilton hotel in. We thought maybe we could pay to swim laps in their pool. After finding the Hilton we learned that their pool was closed for the day and it would be $20 a person to use the small pool. A little more wandering around hotels in the area proved that not many have pools. Finally it was getting toward 1pm and we had to go meet Elizabeth and Barb.
They were actually late (a first) but anyway it made us use the internet to investigate pool potential further and we decided to cancel our afternoon plans to seal this deal. There was apparently a boys high school we could go pay money to swim at. So we hopped on the local bus after lunch and made our way there. For the record if you ever go to Quito, don’t be polite and wait for people to get off the buses before you board or you won’t make it on. The drivers just pull away once everyone is off or even a little before! Luckily we didn’t lose any feet but we did miss a bus or two the first few times we used the buses.
When we finally made it into pool’s front foyer to pay we learned something very interesting about Ecuadorian culture. Basically anything goes in Quito with ‘entrepreneurs’ of all sorts trying to sell you stuff anywhere possible (they frequently board buses and ride trying to sell you stuff). The roads are complete chaos like you would never want to believe, but, they have very strict rules about their pools and particularly what you wear in them.
The front desk lady was polite and friendly enough but she wanted to inspect our swim-wear. Lorelei was lucky to pass the test but Jacob was apparently up to no good. His shorts simply weren’t up to par and we had to buy him a tight little pair. He didn’t have a swim cap – a true travesty requiring immediate purchase (though they didn’t make him cover his increasingly long hiker trash neck beard). We hoped it was just miscommunication based on sub-standard Spanish but no, this time Lorelei did know what was going on. But we had worked too hard to find a pool, and so we bought Jacob a funny little Ecuadorian swimming costume and so our pool visit costs increased some more.
Later on in the day we had a magnificent meal at a sushi place that we will ‘steal’ a blurb from Barb’s ‘travel-log’ to describe:
Eating with Lorelei and Jacob has been a great adventure. Jacob has an extremely high metabolism to begin with, and their bodies are both still in PCT hiker mode – totally depleted of fat, and craving every calorie they can find. So we have a policy of no calorie left behind, and Jacob (with a good bit of help from Lorelei) does a fine job of eating whatever the rest of us cannot. We find that if we order enough food for 5 or 6 large hungry Americans, it is just about right for the 4 of us. This has caused no end of consternation among Ecuadoran wait staff, which turns to amazement when the plates are left clean.
Our food experiences have ranged from the ridiculous (eating at a Chinese restaurant where the waitstaff spoke only Spanish, pointing to the pictures to show what we wanted, only to have them pull out a helpful (and clearly often-used) pointer to enable us to reach the higher pictures) to the sublime (a 7-course tasting menu at Zazu, a Relais et Chateaux-awarded restaurant in Quito that included dishes I am still salivating over). On top of this, of course, is Lorelei’s harvesting instinct, which most recently had her repeatedly throwing a basketball at an avocado tree outside the door of our hotel room, since (yes, she had asked at check-in) she had been told that she could take fruit on the ground of the orchard, but could not pick things. She’s a pretty good shot, and scored two avocados …now on the ground.
But by far the highlight of our food adventures has been the evening spent at Shibumi Sushi in Otavalo. It’s tiny – perhaps 10 seats – but we scored seats at the sushi bar. There, we were masterfully both fed and entertained by an Ecuadoran named Junior who spent 17 years in Denmark, much of it studying sushi-making under a Japanese ex-pat maestro. (Go ahead – re-read that last sentence. It’s worth it.) We put ourselves in Junior’s hands, telling him to feed us as he saw fit. What followed was some wonderful, and wonderfully inventive, sushi – and a demonstration of really beautiful hands at work with really sharp knives. Some of the ingredients used included ground coffee, macadamia nuts, melon, yogurt, tamarind and dill. Junior kept putting new delights in front of us. Elizabeth and I began to slow, and then dropped out, but to Junior’s astonishment and pleasure, Lorelei and Jacob were still going strong at eating. Finally, they had exhausted even his extensive repertoire, and he was reduced to serving them repeats of their favorites. We had not even inquired as to cost before we started (though TripAdvisor had indicated it was a good value) so when we asked for the bill I really had no idea how much it was going to be. The final tab for huge amounts of really good sushi for four people (five if you count Lorelei and Jacob properly), including entertainment? $136. So here is my pitch – if you are ever in Quito, go out of your way to find Junior and sit at his sushi bar. You will not be disappointed.
And while we are at it, we’ll let her tell you about a few other interesting cultural differences we have noticed in Ecuador:
The mannequins in the store windows are not built like me. (Well, ok, the mannequins in the US are not built like me either, but these are “not-me” in a different fashion.) In particular, they all seem to have what I can only describe as a bubble butt. Seriously…
Religion here is a bit of a mishmash of Catholocism and local indigenous myths. There is a huge statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking Quito; she goes by a variety of names, but my favorite is the Dancing Virgin…
They have plants growing on the electric wires. These are balls of thistle-like vegetation, which range from barely visible to perhaps four inches across, and hundreds of them just sit there on the wires in Otavalo. Apparently, they are like air ferns and do not require soil or water, other than what they draw from the air. They also apparently really like electricity, as we have not seen them anywhere other than on the wires.
You know how ice cream trucks in the US play a tune over and over, loud enough to be heard from a block or two away? We heard something similar here, though it was a pan pipe melody, rather than The Old Gray Mare (which is what the Hingham ice cream trucks used to play for reasons I never did understand). Upon further investigation, it turned out to be the garbage truck, and the adults were all running after it with bags and cans of trash, as eager to catch it as kids chasing Popsicles.
Speaking of ice cream, one enterprising vendor on a busy street in Quito would prep two soft-serve ice cream cones while traffic was moving, and then sell them door-to-door, as it were, up the line of traffic when it backed up for the light. Most often, he sold both to the first car he approached, which was always a taxi – one cone went to the passenger, and one to the driver. We never did figure out whether the driver paid for his own cone or the passenger was just charged double – but at 50¢ per cone, it probably didn’t matter.
Roses are one of Ecuador’s biggest exports. When they say “long stem roses” they mean it – the host at one of the restaurants explained rather apologetically that this evening’s display was only about 5 feet tall, and that they usually bought the ones that were more than two meters… Apparently the Ecuadorian location helps them grow straight.
Toilet paper. Yup, toilet paper could be a complete sentence here in Ecuador. To begin with, it’s pretty much BYO. Then, it doesn’t actually go IN the toilet, but rather in a trash bin next to the toilet. (Perhaps it should be called “small trash bin paper”?) There are signs everywhere, many in English only, pleading with you not to flush any paper. (Apparently, if you speak Spanish you already understand this.) Anyway, most of the time this is pretty easy to remember, but I do have to say that in the middle of the night, I for one am functioning pretty much on auto-pilot. So if you read somewhere that the entire municipal sewer system of Otavalo has failed, you know which gringa basura to blame.
Going to the Dogs
I once had someone tell me that house cats are either tree cats (wanting to climb) or bush cats (wanting to hide and ambush) by nature. The dogs here seem to fall into a similar dichotomy, though I suspect it is not by nature.
First, there are the roof dogs (subspecies: balcony dogs). These appear to be guard dogs. They live on the roofs or balconies of buildings, and bark at anyone or anything passing below. You can see them lunging over the parapets; I don’t think they will actually jump to the ground (though I did have doubts about one nasty Lab in a second story window that we walked by) but I do wonder what happens when two rival roof gangs meet. (And for the record, who ever heard of a nasty Lab?)
Then, there are the street dogs. Sometimes they wander around with no owner in sight (99% of the dogs have no collar, let alone a leash), following tourists and locals alike hoping for a handout. Most often, though, they are stretched out on the sidewalk so still, and so oblivious to passers-by, that they appear to be dead. You can walk right by one of these dogs, your feet literally inches from its nose, and it will not move. I am convinced they are putting canine Quaaludes in the water.
Most of the dogs are not vaccinated, neutered or given any health care at all, and it shows – evidence of mange and injury are common. The dogs breed freely, and the result is some of the oddest-looking mutts you have ever seen. What tickles me is that like the indigenous people who live here, the dogs are on average considerably smaller than in the US.
And back to the real gringo basura narrative (Barb is lovely but merely a wannabe…gringo basura get excited by $2.50/meal price tags not $130 ones – luckily for us you can get pretty good multi-course meals for $2.50 if you are brave enough). Our next few days brought us to Otovalo, a town known for its markets, particularly the textiles which the local indigenous groups (mostly Kichwa) became particularly adept at producing when they were enslaved by the Spanish conquistadors to do so.
Some Kichwa were less excited about slavery and fled down east into ‘the Oriente’ where they settled in the Amazon Rainforest. It turns out the Spanish were less enthused by the bugs, snakes and such in the latter so never made a huge effort to settle the region. The textiles at the market were crazy cheap and nice with lots of soft alpaca wool clothing. Jacob and I didn’t buy much as we already have way more stuff we are lugging around Ecuador than we’d like to, a side effect of undertaking such a range of activities on this trip. We’ll let wannabe gringo basura Barb tell you about the animal market:
I made the mistake of going to the livestock market on Saturday morning in Otavalo. Elizabeth wanted to take photos, and I went along for the cultural experience. Scenes ranged from comic (surprisingly, pigs do not like to walk on leashes) to really sad (I will not go into those here). My tolerance for all of this was, not surprisingly, very low, and I left Elizabeth to her camera and came back to the hotel. On the way, I passed a man herding a group of goats across the street. Goats are surprisingly good at staying in the crosswalk – who knew? The goats were all tied loosely together, but the man did not have hold of the rope himself. Then another man came around the corner, walking a very large sheep on a leash. The sheep saw the goats and started running toward them, with his owner desperately trying to dig in his heels and hold him back. The sheep won the battle, but apparently sheep do not regularly prey on goats, as both the goats and the goatherd were unconcerned. After some exploratory sniffing, the sheep ambled away with his man and the goats climbed onto the sidewalk and went on their way. Just another Saturday morning in Otavalo…
And back to us (though sorry, try as we might, we can’t make the oics leave now! – Italics problem fixed now, Lucie) Meanwhile Lorelei had to cheer herself up from the sad aspects of the animal market by petting kittens (on string leashes, and apparently not destined for dinner tables) and taking pictures of puppies. (Sorry McCrossins, she has been making quite a lot of good dog friends here.)
Probably the true highlight of Otovalo for the Gringo Basura was staying at a hacienda with amazing veggie gardens, fruit trees and assortment of sporting/game facilities. We played basketball, a lot of squash, a lot of ping pong, and billiards. To be fair, Lorelei found the squash stressful at first but as her skills improved she actually enjoyed it. In particular, one of the wait staff came in to watch a game and she ended up beating Jacob 9-0. Because it was a close-out she ordered him to run around the grounds naked but he didn’t abide.
Our ‘Backroads’ tour also started in the Otovalo area. This was an ‘active tour’ booked (and generously sponsored) by Barb. The tour began with a walk around part of a Crater Lake which was impressive, particularly with the knowledge that there was an active volcano behind us and that they expected the lake to explode again at some stage.
Then we visited a weaving place where the old school back strap looms are still used and wool is often still spun using simple machinery and hands.
In the evening, after dinner, we also convinced the other people on the tour (the leader, James, and a couple from Georgia) to come play ping pong with us. Sadly Barb and Elizabeth weren’t keen. James smashed everyone. I blame it on the fact that as a tour guide, he gets to visit this hacienda all the time and can buff up on his skills. The allegations were denied.
The hacienda was super luxurious, especially for Gringo Basura like Jake and I who really only wanted to play the sports. There was a library, fancy food, and fireplaces in each room that the staff came and lit at night. They also put hot water bottles in our super enormous king sized bed. It wasn’t even that cold but the fires did provide a nice ambience. The good news is that we weren’t the ones paying for this place as ‘our sponsor’ knew Gringo Basura like us just wouldn’t spring for this sort of thing. There is no way we could travel for nine months if we did.
Jacob and I woke up at 5:30am the next day for some last minute squash-playing. To be fair, Lorelei didn’t really want to play, her arm was so tired, but she wanted to be a good wife. The highlight was the friendly hacienda dog coming in behind the court barking repeatedly until we finally let him in. It turned out he didn’t really like playing squash, the smashing rackets made him flinch and he didn’t even chase the ball. He just stood there until we let him back out.
Then we hiked to another hacienda (though our bags were carried on a support van which didn’t really feel like hiking to the PCT-ers on the tour). The hike predominantly went through settled areas which was different to PCT hiking but gave us a better glimpse of life in Ecuador.
We also visited a school with the cutest kids ever (forcing Jake and I to wonder if we should in fact have babies, though ideally Ecuadorian ones).
Next we stopped by a women’s cooperative where we learned about the healing properties of many native plants.
We walked by fields of quinoa. It was gorgeous. We learned the mean conquistadors made out that wheat and rice were superior to quinoa, hence making the more nutritious quinoa out to be the poor man’s crop. Ironically enough, now quinoa is more often eaten at high-end restaurants whereas poorer restaurants tend to have white bread and white rice.
The new hacienda also had fireplaces in the rooms that were magically lit at night, but lacked awesome established sports facilities. It did manage to make up for it with an awesome Andean Condor (a huge endangered vulture) rescue project, lovely dogs, and some great grounds for hiking.
The hike up a hill toward the condor project provided great views including of ancient pre-Spanish pyramids. The condors were impressively big and learning about how there were only 100 left in the wild in Ecuador was interesting, as were the photographs of the Andean Spectacled Bear from a camera set up nearby.
The hacienda also had a cheese factory on site which we checked out. We also got to eat the delicious cheeses which were served to us almost constantly. They had some more aged cheeses than are typically available in Ecuador and they were good.
We also got to try roasted ‘cuy’ (guinea pig) at dinner one night but we didn’t really like it. It was very salty and the texture wasn’t the best.
After two nights at this hacienda, we set off for the Galapagos Islands, but we will tell you about that in our next blog post. See you then.