Thursday, September 12, 2013

Illness #5, En Route to Quito

We were on our way to the Amazon Basin, the southeast corner of Ecuador. The temperatures and humidity were rising, and by the time we arrived at our hotel, I was sweating. There was no air conditioning, just a blowing fan, so I was not surprised when I couldn't fall asleep. I tossed and turned while Mark snored, taunting me with his ability to sleep so easily. In the middle of the full sized bed, our arms were touching, sweating on each other. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep like this, so I switched, end for end, placing my feet at the head of the bed. It didn't help. I was still sweating, tired but wide awake, and then my stomach started to churn. I grabbed the trash can from the bathroom and placed it alongside the bed, just in case. I couldn't remember the last time I felt that way. It was miserable, and then it happened, sweet relief; I projectile vomited the pineapple pizza I'd eaten hours earlier on the bus, and the iced limeade I'd eaten at the cafe when we arrived in town. There it was, mystery illness #5. I couldn't believe how many times I'd been sick on this trip. How was Mark not sick? We'd eaten all the same things- except for the hand-made sesame candies at the bus stop. By morning, it had developed into a full-on flu. I was achy in every part of my body, and it had started raining buckets outside. We decided to cancel the Amazon plans due to the rains; no one loves hiking and camping in buckets of rain.

We were in a town that didn't have much to offer. I had two choices. 1) Stay in the hot hotel room, without television, and feel sick all day, or 2) Down some Theraflu, and get on a 5 hour bus ride to Quito. I decided to go for it. I reasoned that as long as I wasn't eating, I wouldn't be able to throw up anymore. I fasted for 24 hours, so by the time we arrived in Quito, I was hungry. As the bus rolled by McDonalds, a processed cheeseburger had never seemed so appealing to me. Every restaurant looked appetizing. Then there was a steakhouse. That REALLY sounded good, but first we needed a hotel. We found a cab driver to take us to the Candalabro area where backpackers tend to stay. Mark paid for our hotel. When we found it, we dumped our bags and set out looking to solve my 24 hour hunger problem. Forget breaking back into eating with something simple like soup; I wanted steak. Just a block off the square, we were waved into a romantic candle-lit corner Argentinian restaurant which was empty, except for us. I ordered what turned out to be a giant, juicy T-bone steak with mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and veggies. I was already tempting fate, so skipped the red wine in favor of a bottle of carbonated water. To my great satisfaction, every bite was deliciously satisfying, and it all stayed down. I had survived mystery illness #5, but I couldn't get out of South America without two more surprise illnesses. Ah, well, it's the price we pay for travel, and some trips just turn out to be more expensive than others.


3 Refunds

To travel in the majority world is to know that there are no refunds. The last few days, however, have defied the rules of the road. In the past three days, we've negotiated for three refunds. We'd rather have had the agreed upon experience, but sometimes ya gotta roll with the punches.

Refund #1: Los Banos, Ecuador

The town of Los Banos is cute, set up for tourists. While there are many excursions (paragliding, biking, waterfalls, a volcano, bungee jumping, etc), the main attraction is the natural hot springs which provide a heated bath in several locations. The first night, we strolled in our swimsuits to the public pool, but it was very crowded, so we skipped it and settled for a bag of mayo-covered grilled cow intestines (which we shared with a dog who was following us... contrary to the sound of it, the flavor was tastey, but incredibly chewy, like grissel). Anyway, the next day, we were still excited to have a soak, so we wandered the quiet backstreets until we came upon Monte Selva, a private hot springs. At $7 per head, it was a bit expensive, but we were reasoned that a $65/night hotel would have a lovely, clean, hot jacuzzi, so we decided to go for it. In contrast to the pretty outside grounds, the inside was unkept. Even so, we made our way across soggy, breeding ground of indoor/outdoor carpet to a "hot pool" which was barely lukewarm. As I peered in, I felt like I was reliving the old prarie days when families shared the once a week bath, and I was the last one to bathe... with my giant-sized global family who left their uncleanliness in the lukewarm, murky water. I reasoned that this must be one of the cooler pools and another one would be warmer. We tried each pool until we realized that none of them were hot. By this point, I was disgusted. When we complained to the front desk clerk, he said he could make it hotter within 5 minutes. We didn't want to be unreasonable, Ugly Americans, so we decided to give it a try and sat back down in the "hot pool." I tried to go to my "happy place" while waiting for the heat to kick in, but while I was sitting, I became acutely aware of the dead skin floating along the surface of the water. When Mark mentioned that he had accidentally touched a large clump of floating hair, I nearly vomited in the dirty water. I had to get OUT. I felt unclean, like I'd been defiled by dirty water. Quickly, I showered off with soap and shower water, then ran back to give Mark my sandals so that he could shower as well (he forgot his and was extremely nervous about picking up a foot fungus). Mark showered off while I sat with my naked, but clean, feet extended from a plastic lawn chair, my personal pedestal of cleanliness and sanity. I feel sad that I'm dogging on a travel place because people seem to remember the horrible incidents rather than the exciting bits, but as I thought about our travels through India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Mexico, I honestly couldn't remember a time when the conditions were less clean. To the contrary, we'd been to so many lovely, clean, HEATED natural hot pools. As I sat on my pedestal of cleanliness, I began to formulate a Spanish complaint. By the time Mark emerged from the shower, I was wound up and ready to file my complaint with the front desk staff (not about them, personally, and not to ruin their day, but to communicate to management that this was an unacceptable experience). They needed to know that this was (in Spanish) "Seriously, the worst in the world." I felt quite satisfied with myself when I, in Spanish, relayed the reasons for my dissatisfaction and obtained a full refund. I think this might be the first time this has ever happened where we received a full refund, but it wouldn't be the last. Surprisingly, there were two more to come in the next 48 hours.

Refund #2: Bus ride from Banos to Tena

We were sad about our crappy experience at the "hot pools," and because it was raining outside, we decided to leave town without doing any excursions. We packed and lugged our bags to the bus station where we purchased $8 bus tickets from Banos to Tena, the gateway to the Amazon rainforest. We waited on a bench outside for an hour or two until our bus arrived... full, with no available seats. We were told by the attendant that we should stand in the aisle for this bus ride through the Andes. When we declined, and the attendant began trying to pursuade others to stand so that we could have the seats. Naturally, I was uncomfortable with the idea of displacing someone else from their seat. I told the attendant it wasn't the seated ladies' problem; we wouldn't be taking anyone's seats. We deboarded, which caused quite a commotion, drug our bags back into the office, and complained until the driver's assistant returned with our money. Again, it was only $8, but it was our $8, and we weren't paying for seats that weren't available. We switched to a bus line three doors down that offered a bus in an hour and a half... or so we were told. Three hours later, the bus arrived. By this point, we had spent pretty much all day encountering unacceptable circumstances and attempting to rectify the situation, but alas, we boarded a bus from Banos to Tena, pizza and refund in hand.

Refund #3: Hotel Quito

Mark paid for our hotel, on the driver's recommendation, and as he returned to the car to grab our bags, the driver said we'd need to drive to another location. Another location? We immediately knew we were being scammed. We drove around the crowded streets to another hotel. I inquired about the room that we had already paid for, and was told that this one, a mile away, was better. I took a look at the room and was satisfied with the room itself, and the hot water, but when I asked about wifi, there was none. This wasn't what we had paid for. I asked for our money back. The male receptionist said that we'd have to go back to get it at the other hotel (conveniently, our cab driver had already sped away). I politely replied that we'd like the refund now, at this hotel. He phoned the other hotel and basically said there was nothing he could do. Mark said he thought the police might be able to help him figure it out. I watched our luggage inside as Mark went out to find a cop outside. There were plenty of cops around due to the loud, live rock concert taking place in Mariscol Sucre square. The receptionist started to look stressed. "I can offer you another hotel, a different one." I replied that our trust had been broken and that we just wanted our money back. During the wait, a young couple entered and rented a room. They paid upfront and the receptionist refunded me the cash. I thanked him and went outside to let Mark know that we'd had a refund victory, though from what I could make out in the dark, he was returning with what appeared to be not 1, but 3 uniformed policeofficers. I had to laugh. It seemed like overkill for a $25 refund. "I guess they take this kind of thing seriously," I thought to myself. The cops entered the hotel and shook hands with everyone to verify that everything was in order. Then, Mark and I trudged back out the door looking for another hotel.

Normally, we tend to be go-with-the-flow kind of backpackers, but for whatever reason this 3 day period on our trip was out of the ordinary, the kind of thing that called for a full round of refunds, the likes of which we'd never seen before, and hope to be lucky enough to never encounter again.


The Devil's Nose Train in Alausi, Ecuador

We rolled through the Andes until the bus pulled over on the side of the road, next to nothing. "Alausi?" "Alausi," the attendant confirmed. Usually, when we get dropped off there are all kinds of touts trying to sell us something, lead us somewhere, but this stop was empty. We looked around and saw a road leading down the mountain to a valley below. It looked like it'd be a mile hike down to the Devil's Nose. We started walking.
The town was totally cute, quiet, colorful, laid-back, the perfect spot for tourists. The valley and main street reminded us of Silverton, Colorado, where we got married 11 years ago.
The next morning at the train station, we had our pictures taken behind a cut-out board. I love our Ecuadorian dopplegangers. Life could be so different, eh?

The train was more expensive than we anticipated, but we had come to town to ride the Devil's Nose, so we shelled out the $25 each for the 2 hour ride. The views were pretty and the narrator spoke English, so that was nice, but it was hard to enjoy along-side all of the other tourists- and the train wasn't even full.

How I felt alongside so many tourists

We tried to avoid the crowds for photos, lunch, and a tour of the museum. We were mildly successful. The museum itself was tiny, but really interesting. It had signs giving credit to all of the men who died building the train track, and it had placards displaying the superstitions attached to this area. One man told a story of walking the tracks at night, being greeted by the devil, and entering a cave of golden chairs that were on fire. Mother Mary told him it wasn't his time yet. Why Mother Mary was with the devil in the middle of the night in a cave in Ecuador doesn't make sense to me, but hey, it's his scary bedtime story.

How I felt alongside so many tourists
So, yeah, we rode the train down the Devil's Nose. They wouldn't let us ride up on top of the train like they used to (something about 70 year old Japanese tourists tumbling off and dying freaked the government out and freaked tourists out too, so it's been discontinued). Anyway, it was a lovely ride, and a lovely town, and a nice little place to eat in, walk around in, and photograph. Everything is super tranquillo (like the restaurant might take a couple of hours, or checking into your room might take awhile), so come with lots of patience and an attitude to just sit back and enjoy the ride. There are some great views.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Expat Life Isn't a Permanent Vacation

Cuenca, Ecuador was once rated one of the top places for expats to retire by International Living magazine. The town is cute, historical, safe, pleasant. For these reasons, Mark and I considered spending a few months here, but the more gringos we met (all lovely people), the less appealing international living in general became. I've always known that America is my home, but meeting and interacting with the expats in Cuenca solidified this fact. In general, folks here were grieving and surviving, rather than living a permanent vacation status. The people we met were relocating to Cuenca less out of choice, and more out of necessity, which created some tough situations.  Here are some of the ex-pats we met:

50+ blonde at the cafe: After 3 months, she was packing up a moving container with all of her belongings and heading back to Texas. She missed people, and the familiar things; she'd had enough of the expat life.

Cancer survivor with MS: She and her husband were selling homemade biscotti to afford a surgery in Italy. They consoled themselves by "eating healthy" in Ecuador (no GMO's), but life was rough.

Late 50's Cafe owner: After two years in the Peace Corps, he and his wife were serving breakfast to gringos, repainting tagged walls, and repairing plumbing on overflowing toilets. Meanwhile, when gringos come in to inquire about how to settle in Cuenca, and a look of fear comes over their faces like "Please, don't unload your problems on me."

80 year old, retired lawyer, Bob: Lived in a hostel for the past two years, bleeding internally, no family or friends to contact, just the landlord at his hostel.

Family of four from Boston: The little latch-key brothers spent their days terrorizing the hostel while being shouted at by their parents who repeatedly threatened to "F-ing beat the daylights out of them." They weren't completely horrible parents.  Despite their bone-y appearance, the parents survived on only coffee; this way they could afford their kid's breakfast.

I don't know why the gringo population in this town had so many hurts, but it broke my heart to see it all. I left praying for each of these people, and for the town of Cuenca, and wondering what more I could do to help people in need.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Donating Blood in Ecuador

We were deep in negotiations. Mark wanted four more months of language classes in South America. I wanted to go home as scheduled. Our Ecuadorian visa was only good for 90 days, and Mark wanted to try out a new town every month, plus bus up through Central America and Mexico on the way home. It stressed me out to think about moving every month. We couldn't legally work in Ecuador. And, the bus ride home sounded like the least appealing of all options, though I will admit, I was interested in volunteering at a hospital or health-related industry, just for the experience.
I agreed to keep an open mind and search out options in Quito, but before Quito, we arrived in Cuenca, where we noticed a large number of retired gringos congregating around the western-looking Coffee Tree. It was an appealing town with a 300,000 population of non- honkers. It felt safe for walking around and had a sprawling historical district with familiar food options and loads of DVD stores. Life in Cuenca carried the possibility for community among English-speakers, and there were ample places such as hospitals and the Red Cross for opportunities to volunteer.
At breakfast, we inquired at the Windhorse, our favorite gringo breakfast cafe and discovered that, in fact, Cuenca was featured on International Living's top places to retire. Though more expensive than other places in S.A., the cost of living is still lower than in the States. It appeared that gringos were inflating the market. Condos were going for $110K+, but there were good reasons to migrate to Cuenca. The weather is pleasant year-round, although the 8,000 foot elevation can be a challenge for some.
While we were chatting, a retired submarine vet/real estate investor, Phil, mentioned to the owner, Craig, that is 80 year old retired lawyer friend, Bob, was in the hospital and needed blood or he would die. Mark and I asked which hospital and offered to donate a pint. Phil was like "Well, hop in a cab, and let's go." Phil had been living in Cuenca for seven months and didn't even attempt the Spanish. "Hospital. Two dollars," and when the driver didn't understand, he repeated himself more insistently in the same English. Mark and I offered to help "Moscoso Hospital Publico, por favor." We were off. At the free public hospital, we met another gringo, Ken, at the emergency exit. He was worried about his friend and happy to see more donors. Inside the maze, near the Banco Sangre (blood bank), we waited for a nurse to appear. Meanwhile, Ken entertained us with stories of carrying around vials of blood like an active participant in Bob's medical care team. He even relayed a story about a nurse who couldn't get the needle in properly, thus she let the blood drip down someone's hand, into the collection bag. We began to wonder what we would be in for. When we were finally called, about an hour later, we entered the nurse's station for the finger prick. I confirmed that the metal pricker was new and Mark wondered why I cringed and laughed- until he felt the old metal can opener type device pry open his middle finger. The nurse spread out three drops of blood onto a glass slide, added chemicals to each pool, swished it around with a toothpick, and sat it over a viewing light to confirm our blood types. We were both A+, and Bob had already received A+; he needed A-. There were already three bodies filling up the donation chairs, so they chased us back out without collecting a pint.
"Sorry we couldn't help, guys." Phil had been offering $10 to passerby-ers in the hallway, but couldn't find any takers. Ken tried to donate but had low blood pressure and was thus rejected. We hoped they'd find someone. We hopped back in a cab bound for the historic district and when we arrived at the Coffee Tree, Phil treated us to a slice of chocolate cake and drinks. We felt like things were maybe coming together for a potential stay in Cuenca. We had met part of the gringo community and found a place where I could inquire about volunteering.
The following morning, I printed my resume and took a cab back to the hospital to inquire about volunteer possibilities. After traipsing around the hospital and meeting with several administrators, it appeared there were no opportunities without medical credentials as a trained Dr. or nurse. I was disappointed, but decided that since I was there, I'd check in on Bob. He was sleeping amongst 5 other cots, so I wrote on a get-well-soon card and left it under a gift bag of biscotti. As I exited, a nurse told me that he needed toilet paper and I'd need to visit with social services to give them Bob's information. I explained that I'd never met the guy, just tried to donate blood, but that I'd buy him some toilet paper and see what I could do to find his contact information. I found a store outside the hospital and returned with a couple of rolls of toilet paper. Although it surprised me that a free clinic wouldn't provide this service, I wasn't going to leave someone without a basic necessity in life. It seemed inhumane, but when there's no money, it's just reality. When I returned, Bob was awake, so I introduced myself and spent the next hour laughing and joking with him. He confessed he wanted to steal the guy's food across from him and begged me to sneak him a glass of water, so I snuck him in a sip of the good stuff. He had an exam later in the day, but was so hungry and thirsty it was driving him crazy. He had tried to eat the biscotti, but the nurse took it away, "No eating or drinking before the exam. The Dr. will decide when you can eat and drink again." I felt stuck between helping him live and giving him whatever he wanted. For crying out loud, the man was 80 years old, living in a hostel in a foreign country with no family members to contact.
We discussed his information for the social worker. He directed me to a plastic bag of clothes in the small metal cabinet next to the bed. "Don't touch anything," he instructed. As I opened the bag, I understood why. His clothes were bloodied and soiled. The whole mess had an unpleasant aroma. He fished around for his pants which contained his wallet, no money inside, just an ID card, which we used to gather his passport number. He confessed he was staying in Ecuador illegally, "but don't tell them that." I felt a little sad inside when I asked if there was anyone he'd like them to contact in case of emergency and he replied, "I suppose, my landlord. I'm staying at a hostel." He'd been there for two years, without family contact. It broke my heart. I don't know his whole story, but the idea of dying at 80 years old, without family, and with a few friends in Cuenca... I realized how much I wanted to live at home, near my friends and family, with my own culture, with healthcare that provided toilet paper and a pint of blood if I was hemoraging internally. I shook Bob's hand and wished him well. Per his request, I took his favorite crime novel with me when I left. I hoped his friends would return with another book from the community book exchange, even though he had already read them all.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cuenca, Ecuador

I like Cuenca, Ecuador, and I'm not alone. There are all kinds of expats here. It's a popular place, with a price tag to match. Rather than rely on our Lonely Planet Guide for lodging, we asked our taxi driver for an economic recommendation. He brought us to the backpacker mecca section of the city, on a cliff overlooking the riverwalk; there were half a dozen options within one block- it was perfect. The friendly owner, Wilson, gave us a tour. We dumped our bags and set off to explore the city. We enjoyed what we found:
Historic section, off the Calle Larga (large street)
Orange climbing flowers, as seen from the popular riverwalk
Ladies here love their hats (even the babies are fashionistas)
Historic section
Flower market
Judicial building- love the stone work!
Streets of Cuenca

Saturday art market
Wish I could fit this in my backpack. I'd store my eggs on the counter for display, and convenience.
Need something that cures all your physical ailments? (see next pic)
The answer for all your physical aches and pains, for only $6
This town knows how to party! Wish I had room in my pack for some wild heels. Then again, I'd probably pull a Bridget Jones/SJP on the cobblestone.
Most of the stores here are mom and pop shops, but if you need a little bit of everything, there are markets of assembled mom and pop shops with everything at one stop. Belts, shoes, socks, underwear, hair accessories, fruits and veggies, meat, eggs, baskets, flowers, etc, etc, etc all under one roof.
This town knows how to party! Wish I had room in my pack for some wild heels. Then again, I'd probably pull a Bridget Jones/SJP on the cobblestone.
While you're at it, don't forget to pick up a scoop of lard...
We loved everything except for the pet shop. Naturally, I wanted to take all of these lil' fellas home with me, but I was sad to discover that they were from a puppy mill :-( Now I double want to take them home with me.

Welcome to Ecuador

Bienvenidos a Ecuador! It was a successful crossing from Cajamarca, Peru to Loja, Ecuador. No machine gun hold-ups, no bribes or scams across the border, and no explosive diarrhea (can't say the same for the kid behind us, but he recovered well, and we all thank Dios for the windows which prevented us from vomiting). We'd powered through 19 hours on a bus. Yeah, us!
No man's land, the border between Peru and Ecuador
Ecuador is beautiful. At the border, we were greeted by green terraced rice fields followed by pink wild-flowers and green ceiba trees. I could kick myself for not getting pictures of them. They were stunners. We rolled along enjoying hours of sunny, green hillsides covered with fat, happy cows.
No man's land, the border between Peru and Ecuador
It's nearly impossible to read while driving through the Andes, so we entertained ourselves with my ipod. Having familiar music keeps me happy.
Occasionally, we'd pass through a town and marvel at the sights. One of my favorite sightings was a lunch section on main street with a showcase of the 3 little piggies. If we hadn't filled up on lentil soup in the town before, we may have stopped in and shaved off a chunk.
Later, in Cuenca, Ecuador, we were in search of supper and found a local super market (supermarkets in the majority world are more like vender stalls, collections of sole proprietors, rather than traditional, Western big box stores). When we saw the fruit stalls, we knew we were on the right track. Then we saw the weiners, followed by the legs of beef and whole chickens. We were getting close. We looked upstairs and found the perfect supper: a big piggy!
We ordered a plate of the good stuff with a side of cheesy potatoes, then asked if it was okay to take a picture of the head. The ladies motioned "go ahead" while a local guy came near and said, in Spanish, "Everybody comes to eat, but the gringos want a picture with the head (insert eye rolling)." Mark and I understood and thus we busted out laughing which caught the guy by surprise. I don't think he anticipated us understanding Spanish :-)
For our night entertainment, we picked up some DVD's at the bargain price of 4 for $5. Surprisingly, they were all in English. We had to laugh a few times during "The Lone Ranger" because dark shadows crossed our screen, just like in the theater, to get their popcorn or use the restroom. Good luck, Hollywood, on collecting royalties for those copies. Our hostel had a rooftop living room, complete with a hammock (which made me really happy- my buns needed a break after sitting on busses for so long). The windows overlooked the lighted riverwalk and river down below which we had scouted earlier in the day. It felt good to finally be somewhere. The city has a lot of historical charm, which is probably why there are so many expats here. It's a pretty town for walking, so I'm sure I'll post pics soon.