Monday, May 21, 2007

FINAL South American Adventures- Part 12: Ecuador, Colombia & El Salvador

Hola muchachos de Suchitoto, El Salvador!

Upon arriving in Quito, Ecuador on April 25th, I immediately felt a connection with the Lego-looking capital city of this wonderfully strange country where they absolutely love volleyball, 80's rock ballads, gold trophies and Jean Claude Van Damn movies. Just visit once and you'll concur. Ecuador was my 50th country I've traveled through in my life, so of course this was cause for celebration. Fortunately I was joined for the past 3.5 weeks by my former Semester at Sea roommate, the legendary Jaret Martin, so celebrating in style was not a problem at all. Traveling with Jaret is like backpacking alongside a funhouse mirror- You know there will be incessant self-reflection, but there's a healthy dose of unexpected comedy and strange twistedness. During lunch on my first day in Quito, I spoke the words that will forever haunt me... I said to Jaret, "My journal from this trip is by far the most valuable thing I have with me. I'd rather lose my camera than lose this journal..." Two hours later I noticed that my camera had been stolen from my daypack, as the fates delivered a swift kick to the jimmies.

We jammed extra hard in Quito that night, consuming 6 schwarma sandwiches, 8 Ted Brogans, two rounds of apple-flavored hooka and a bottle of wine for a grand total of $14.50. Gotta love South America... Apparently we were sharing a few too many good laughs, as two kind Ecuadorian sisters approached us soonafter and asked if we were boyfriends. Thanks ladies, another kick to the goods. We did end up having one of those unforgettable travel nights, and booked it early the next morning to the mountain town of Banos. A visit to the Amazon jungle, 30k bike rides, thermal hot springs excursions, a terrifying cable car ride across a 500m gorge, latenight Mirador parties, chess battles, delicious food and my worst single day of illness awaited us in this great pueblo. In the interest of brevity, I will simply say that Banos is one of my top five favorite towns in the world. Go there. Now.

While in Banos we decided that we both had a strong craving for some rigorous physical exercise. The only workout I'd had since leaving Guatemala 2.5 months earlier was the daily 12oz lifting of local beverages to my parched lips. We set our sights on Volcan Cotopaxi, an active volcano where you can look into the crater from the rim and the 2nd highest mountain in all of Ecaudor at almost 20,000 (5900m) above sea level. That's higher than any mountain in all of Africa or the continental USA, which is probably why only 15% of attempting climbers had reached the summit the previous week. This was going to be one hell of a difficult rim job. We began the trek up the absurdly steep mountain at midnight aided by tremendous moonlight, the sturdy rope tying us two to our guide, razor-sharp shoe crampones and our diesel ice axes. Seven exhausting hours later, after all others had turned back, we arrived at the "cumbre" where both Jaret and I literally collapsed into sleep in a small snow hole. The walk down was equally treacherous, but we finally made it back around 11am from what I can genuinely admit was the most physically and mentally draining challenge of my life. My respect for mountain climbers is somewhere between how I feel about President David Palmer and the brave souls who catch spiders for a living. Damn those terrifying eight-legged freaks.

The rest of our time was spent viewing the gorgeous Ecuadorian landscapes in places like Latacunga, Alausi, el Nariz del Diablo, Zumbahoa, Laguna Quilotoa (incredible), and the northern market town of Otavalo. While in Riobamba we found a $2 per night hostel, which of course seemed to good to be true. By 3am, we found out that it was. Earlier in the night I offered a drink to the lone hostel worker from the full bottle of Pisco I'd been carrying since Peru. I took note of how much he seemed to enjoy the drink, but what I stupidly overlooked was the fact that he was wearing a cutoff t-shirt and black fingerless gloves. Yes, fingerless gloves. Over the next two hours he drained half the bottle, stole the other half when I told him he couldn't have it because we were going to sleep, attempted to fight both Jaret and I separately while breathing idiot winds every time he moved his teeth, and then finally locked himself outside the hostel for two hours. Again, one of those crazy traveling nights that I will never ever forget nor repeat.

After several weeks in Ecuador we experienced your typical shady latenight border crossing into the land of drug cartels, guerrilla warfare, kidnappings, Cuartas and beautiful women- Colombia. We bounced through Ipialis, pleasant Popoyan, crazy Cali and Pasto during our week in the country. I watched a 45 year-old salsa king tear up the dancefloor with his 23 year-old wife of 7 years, frequented the casinos on various occasions, and as always Jaret entertained with actions that shall only be revealed in person. Typical quotes included, "How do you feel about your personal development?", "Do you believe prayer can change the outcome of events?", and "Oh I forgot to tell you, I had my first wet dream in years last night!" We then popped back down to Quito for two final epic days together before I flew to El Salvador where I'm traveling for four days before returning home on Wednesday. Those final Quito days consisted of perusing the Old Town, splitting the Mitad Del Mundo, Gringolandia partying and of course Jaret fulfilling his lost bet obligation to wear just sandals, boxers and my Cuzco skimask for 15 minutes on the city streets.

I return home to the good ol' US of A in about 24 hours, so this will sadly be the final update from the road. The question I keep getting asked is, "Are you ready to go back to reality?" I started to think about that notion the other day, about the concept of home and the working world. I think that people have it backwards. While traveling is a removal from what's deemed to be "reality", in many ways it actually illuminates the inner-realities of the human condition. On the road and in hostels there's no performance reviews, no paid overtime, no long weekends. There's no defined schedule, no desired promotion, and most importantly, no bosses. I do exactly what my heart and mind tells me is most desirable at any given moment, with no skew of responsibility towards any elements of usual confinement. We are all equals when we throw on a backpack, sleep in 12-person dormitories and wait an extra day to shower because the water will be hot in the next town. Class, color and creed are only meaningful when you allow them to be, and on the road we feel an immediate connection to other backpackers regardless of such attributes. Removal from one's cultural comforts forces an openness and willingness to explore both internally and externally that cannot be induced to such extremes through any other method. Each day of traveling, I inherit new knowledge and expunge myself of subconscious stereotypes and misinformed assumptions. The more I know, the more I know just how much I don't know. For the past four months I've been able to act solely on personal intuition, and what is more real than that? While I'm extremely excited to return home to see you friends and loved ones, there's a bittersweet sadness to leaving the purest form of reality that I will ever know.

Lastly, I wrote a little ditty at the Puerta del Diablo yesterday about the people I've encountered on this trip... It's probably the best summary and conclusion I can give to these writings-

Lumberjacks, quacks and exogenous ex-pats
Hippie chicks wearing sacks spitting facts through braless racks
The whispered prayers of blackmagic soothsayers
Pueblo mayors holding impenetrable pocket pairs
Venemous almond scorpion stares
Alpaca stealers, bamboo peelers, lesbian acid dealers
Chicken bus cop-a-feelers
Librarians, agrarians, political contrarians
Astral travelers, cocaine dabblers, yarn unravelers
Undereducated youth, reluctant bearers of truth
Homeless men grinning vigor through a single golden-tooth
Irish fortune-tellers, Polish jungle-dwellers
Witch market candy sellers
Scuba instructors, cock-fight conductors
Teachers and lawyers, perverts and voyeurs
Masked shoe shiners, Ecuadorian ice climbers
Father and son complejo miners
Army commanders, former Pinochet bystanders
Argentinian cantors, Israeli salsa dancers
Scandinavian jugglers, Cuban-cigar smugglers
American Buddhists, Guatemalan nudists
Local news reporters, cooks for short-orders
Customs-paper sorters, hemp-necklace hoarders
Illegal profiteers falsely guarding sovereign borders
Priests, beasts, those betrothed to the deceased
Casino looters, English tutors
Massively fake Colombian hooters
Japanese tourists, Uruguayan florists
Dancing naked flags of Bolivian futbol purists
Gently echoed sighs of Chilean rabbis
Empty-palmed Mayans blinking dignity through cancelled eyes
All while sun and moon tango to control fickle skies
They said don't go there, to the foreign place you're bound
They said you'll get lost, but look what I've found
And each tells a story, of elation and strife
Each now interwoven
In this tapestry called Life.

Challenge the Assumptions,

Final Trip Statistics
Trip Mantra- "Tourists See, Travelers Seek."
Occupation Given at Final Hostel- Unicorn Hunter
Days- 110
Hot Showers- 29
Total Intercity Bus Rides- 63
Hours spent on intercity buses- 246
Oreos Consumed- Over 300
Facial Shaves- 2
Sticks of Deodorant Used- 1

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