Sunday, August 8, 2010

July 23, My Last Blog Post - Reentry

We've been back just over a week now. Our actual reentry day was a bit shaky, but life has been great since then. Our flight, which was scheduled to go Quito/Miami/Chicago/Seattle and for which we had boarding passes all the way thru, hiccuped in Chicago, when the boarding pass machine read "Calgary" instead of "Seattle." So we got bumped to the next flight, two hours later, and that was delayed for an hour, so we arrived in Seattle about 12:30 am. Mia had heard that her friends were going to come meet her at the airport, but we figured that with our late arrival, they would bail. However, our good friend Susan, and three of Mia's best friends met us at the airport and took us home, to a house decorated with a "Welcome Home" sign and fading red helium balloons; to a fridge stocked with essentials like Jarlsberg cheese and red wine; and to clean sheets and towels left by our recently departed tenants. Although we'd already been up traveling for 22 hours, the excitement for all of us, especially for the girls, looking thru almost forgotten boxes of belongs kept us up until 3:00 am.
The next day saw us on the road by 3:30 pm, after a morning rollerblade by Debby and me, for a four-hour drive to Lake Chelan, to a weekend with our old "gang." I think the super-charged oxygen bump coming down to sea level from 8,500 ft must have kicked in, because both Debby and I saw the sun rise at the lake the following morning.

So now we've been back a week, and we are basically unpacked, and the girls are ensconced in their now separate rooms. I feel that for all of us, the "transition" has been great, primarily because WE LOVE OUR LIVES IN SEATTLE. Of course, we are still on vacation, and staying out late at clubs and sleeping until 9 or 10:00 (guilt-free, I should add), but still, we have moved back to the life we loved before we left, and guess what? - we still love it!

Some highlights:

Friends. We have such awesome friends, who have welcomed us back, told us how much they missed us, and eased our re-entry. This holds true for all of us, although Nikki's reunion with most of her friends was delayed for about a week, since most of them were in Japan for a class trip at the end of their John Stanford International School career.

Food. The variety of food here is amazing. Sure, mangos are 2 for $5 (instead of 4 for $1) and papayas and pineapples are $5 each, but it's berry time, and the strawberries and blueberries and raspberries, some from our own garden, are great. So is the sushi, Mexican food, grilled salmon, micro-brews and good coffee. The variety blows us away - there are 31 flavors for God's sake!

Family. Perhaps because we've been together so much for the past year, it is so nice to see the trust our kids are placing in us. Tonight I had them take down their lemonade stand in five minutes so we could have a picnic dinner in the sunset at Gasworks park - not a word of dissent or complaint. And last night, Nikki initiated a Spanish language conversation with me - Nikki, who wouldn't even speak Spanish if Debby or I were in the same room with her just a month ago! Although we are all digging our friends and our own "being home" trip, we come together as family smoothly and comfortably - no meltdowns or whining all week, even when hunger or tiredness might suggest otherwise.

Exercise. Debby and I have both been rollerblading several times this week, and Debby went mountain biking at Lake Chelan. Although I haven't started running yet, I tell myself that the roller blading is building up my cardio-vascular capacity!

Music. We've been rediscovering the type of music we loved in all sorts of forms - at parties and clubs, and on our friends playlists!

So that's it. This is my last blog post on our sabbatical year. It's been a great year in Ecuador (where?) but it's great to be back. In Cuenca we met many ex-pats who were fleeing something, imagined or real, from their home. Others, on a limited-time sabbatical like us, anticipated the life-changing effects the year would have on them and talked about the changes they would need to make to keep that Cuenca-feeling. Neither of these scenarios was ours. We were, for the most part, conscientiously living the kind of life we wanted before we left last August. And spending a year abroad was a dream from that life. And now, dream realized, we come back to that life, both altered and enriched by the dream.

First Impressions about the US after being gone for a year (Debby)

Now that we have been back in Seattle for 9 days, I want to reflect on some of my first impressions upon returning to the US after being gone for an entire year.

We took 3 planes home from Quito and on each leg of the trip, I noticed that the passengers were whiter and whiter and that suddenly I blended in with everyone. Our first flight from Quito to Miami was 80% Ecuadorian which seemed normal. Miami to Chicago was less diverse but still had some blend of colors. The shocker was going from Chicago to Seattle and seeing virtually all white people.

Our first impression when we arrived in Miami was how abrupt, rushed and non cordial people seemed. Granted we were in an airport and dealing with disgruntled TSA folks but still! No one greets anyone with"Good Morning, Sir" or even says hello. Vendors, in particular, just want to get down to business. After a couple of interactions with sales people, Nikki turns to me and says "Why is everyone here so rude?" I told her that it is called "efficiency" :) We have really gotten accustomed to the constant courtesy and sincerity of the Ecuadorian people. The pace of life is slower and people always have time to say hello, ask about the family, and chat. I already miss the daily salutations and kissing on the cheek that happens about 10 times a day there.

Everything seemed so clean, orderly, and non chaotic to us, from the bathrooms to the streets to the schedules.

Back in Seattle, we were amazed that cars stopped for us as pedestrians at crosswalks, people gave us the right of way on our bikes and there were actually street signs and traffic lights!!

When we walked into our house we were amazed at how beautiful and big it seemed. We also were amazed at how much stuff we have (even after doing some serious cleansing before we left). When we unpacked our boxes in storage, we all ended up giving about a quarter of our clothes and personal belongings away. We have learned to live really simply and don't want to clutter our lives with more stuff.

We were psyched to throw our toilet paper in the toilet bowl and turn on a sink faucet and feel HOT WATER!!

Everything is incredibly expensive. In Miami the girls asked for 2 packs of gum for the next plane ride and it cost me $6 (3 good full course meals in Cuenca!).

Our local QFC (grocery store) in Wallingford had received a facelift and I was totally overwhelmed shopping there. Such incredible variety and too many choices for me!

The best part about coming back to Seattle was seeing all of our friends. We got home at 1 am on a Thursday, barely unpacked and the very next day we went to a 4 day party at our friends' cabin on Lake Chelan with a group of 38 people and it was the best homecoming we could imagine. We timed our return perfectly- summer was just beginning mid July and every day we have woken up to 75 degrees and sun. Our transition has been extra sweet since neither of us has to work for another 6 weeks (me) and 3 weeks (Don).

Final thoughts on our year in Ecuador (Debby)

Tomorrow morning we leave for the United States and we are all so excited to be home, see our friends and family, get settled into our house and be in the city we love so much.

As the year comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on what it has all meant. There have been so many benefits for our family and for each of us as individuals- some tangible, some less so. While Don and I have learned so much about ourselves and Ecuador, the true beneficiaries of our year have been our kids. They are now fluent in Spanish, have lived in a very different culture and have become fully accustomed to life outside of the US, have been exposed to travel and adventure, and, hopefully, are far more open minded and flexible. We have marveled at how quickly they adapted to life here, made friends, picked up Spanish, and became open to new experiences. Although they truly were not excited about our year here (in fact they called Ecuador "Ecuapoop" before we left :), I can confidently say they have had an amazing year and they are already asking when they can return to their friends in Cuenca.

As for me, I have savored all the time we have had together as a family. I know that when school starts up again in the fall and we all go our separate ways for the entire day until dinner, I will miss our 2 p.m. daily lunches, our hours spent together traveling and exploring new places, our many restaurant meals, our hikes together, and our laughs and frustrations that stem from living in Ecuador. I know the experiences we have had this year have made us an even closer family and we will look back on this year for the rest of our lives.

Having said all of this, I am ready to go home. I love our lives in Seattle so much. Here are the top 10 things I won't miss from this year:

10. The Guayaquil bus station where we got robbed.

9. Bad pillows and hard beds in hotels.

8. People cutting in line at the store and interrupting.

7. A lack of commitment and follow through from my University students.

6. Really bad boxed wine.

5. A meal with potatoes, rice, pasta and no greens.

4. Long, bumpy bus rides with violent or religious movies on at an exorbitant volume.

3. The cheese from Ecuador.

2. Intermittent, lukewarm showers with no pressure (forget about a bath!)

1. Nasty smelling black diesel spewing from buses.

And now for the top 10 things I WILL miss from Ecuador:

10. $10 hour long massages complete with hot rocks and 2 massage therapists.

9. Fresh mangos, pineapples, and papaya for breakfast every day.

8. The warmth and sincerity of the Ecuadorian people. We literally never met a rude person the entire year.

7. The beauty of Cajas National Park and the Andes in general.

6. The ceviche on the coast.

5. The white powder-like sand of the Galapagos.

4. The time to read 25 books in a year and actually reflect on them.

3. The friendships we formed through exercise, volunteer work, university work and the girls' school.

2. Our gracious, loving and generous Ecuadorian family who included us in all they did- Rita, Jaime, and their 3 kids and 4 grandchildren.

1. All the time we shared together as a family.

Travel Log, Wed. July 14, Leaving Otavalo

Although the crafts stalls kept pulling us back, we did find time to explore some of the other sites around Otavalo. Monday, we all went for a hike around Lago Cuicocha, a pretty lake in the center of a volcano. We hiked around the rim of the crater (about a 4 hour hike - both girls did a great job), in and out of the fog, with views of the lake and its two little islands, as well as of the surrounding countryside, including a nearby snow-flecked mountain.

Tuesday we went to the nearby village of Peguche, only four or five km from Otavalo. There isn't too much to see in town, although the rhythmic click-clack of electric looms can be heard from inside most houses. Peguche also has a beautiful waterfall, just a 10 minute hike from town.

There is an internal and external component of travel. And so while the whole region around Otavalo is beautiful and rich geographically and culturally, I, and all of us, would rather be elsewhere. Home. We've had a great year, we've had a great five weeks of traveling, but now, the end, and our next beginning, is just too close at hand. Instead of really diving into what surrounds us, we are all just sort of killing time, awaiting our flight home. I don't say this with any negative judgment, I just think this is natural, and to be expected. Tomorrow we fly!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Travel Log, Sunday, July 11, Otavalo

We arrived in Otavalo yesterday afternoon after a day's stopover in Quito. Saturday is the main market day here, and while we arrived way too late to see the animal market, the artisan market was still going strong. Otavalo is the most famous place in Ecuador for crafts, and stalls lined the streets and filled the "Plaza de Ponchos." We had saved some of our souvenir shopping for our visit here, so although I was pretty overwhelmed by it all, we dove in and shopped.

Today was the final of the Mundial, so we took a break from shopping and even site-seeing to chill and watch the game. We watched the game in the coffeeshop/tienda of a non-indigenous Otavaleño who had spent time in Albany, NY. Watching Spain beat Holland 1-0 in overtime with the locals was fun. At a few points when Spain was on the verge of scoring, the owner's Aunt, who wanted Holland to win, spun the thumb and forefinger on both her hands, (in a mini-itsy-bitsy spider move) while chanting something like "chumbale chumbale chumbale..." Must be an Ecuadorian curse that didn't quite work. It has been great traveling with the Mundial - always an easy way to strike up a conversation, asking about yesterday's results or predictions for today's game.

Travel Log, Thursday, July 8, Pedernales

Canoa, midweek in July, is a pretty sleepy beach town. Although there are lots of hotels and beachfront stands for food, booze or crafts, the majority of them were unoccupied or closed up. Although ceviche was available at restaurants, there were no ceviche carts on the beach, like we enjoyed in Montañita.

The sun came out for about an hour yesterday late morning, and we all enjoyed playing in the waves. Once we all dried off, we watched Spain beat Germany 1-0 in the semi-finals of the Mundial. Later we all walked the beach and picked up three large bags of garbage, earning a free milkshake for each of the kids.

We said goodby to Alex, Chuck, Sara and Ben, and then moved about 90 km up the coast to Pedernales. Tomorrow is a 6 hour bus to Quito. I think we are all pretty ready to be home in Seattle.

Travel Log, Monday, July 5, Canoa

Aunt Sue returned to Chicago early yesterday morning, and given the option of a couple of days of four-hour bus rides to get to Canoa, the second of which would be on the girls birthday, we took the wimpy way out and flew from Quito to Manta. We spent the night in the seedier side of Manta, in Tarqui, and caught a bus from there north to Bahia de Caráquez, then a 10 minute passenger ferry, and finally a 30 minute bus ride up to Canoa. The passenger ferry will soon be only a memory as a long bridge across the Rio Chone will open in the fall.

This time of year the coast is mostly overcast and rainy, and we arrived in the rain. We met Debby's Peace Corps friend Alex and her family here, and most of the afternoon was spent on the beach, catching up. We celebrated the girl's birthday at the hotel with cake and a few small presents. And tonight, although I can hear the waves breaking outside our hotel, the dominate night sound is the bar next door, blaring Ecuadorian top 40.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Travel Log, Saturday, July 3, Mindo

Our first morning in Mindo was for fun. Mindo is renowned for the rich variety of birds found in the protected forests (over 400 distinct varieties were counted in recent years) but a number of "adventure tourist" activities have sprouted up as well. So we all headed out first thing in the morning for the zip lines! Debby and I had done some zip lines in Panama many years ago, but the girls were too young. Sue had never been. There were 10 runs on this course, the longest was over 500 meters - about a quarter mile! The lines crossed back and forth over the river valley far below. A real rush for everyone!

Afterward we drove up the road a few more kms to a short hike to some waterfalls. A long thick rope swing surprised us about halfway down the trail, and the girls (and their parents) swung until the travails of the arduous 20 minute hike were forgotten.

Friday, the adults went for an early morning (6:00 am) bird-spotting hike while the girls slept in (and watched Germany trounce Argentina, 4-0). We chose to act as our own guides, and started out on the Yellow House Trail as the sun was still burning off the morning fog. We definitely saw a yellow throated toucan, and the back of either a parrot or a quetzal. (There are a couple varieties of quetzals in this forest, neither of which resemble the Guatemalan quetzal with its long tail feathers.) We heard lots of other interesting bird calls, but never could locate the squawkers.

One of the interesting things about the forests of Mindo is that most of them are on private property. For now, I guess the owners are making a sufficient profit charging $3 to walk to the waterfall, or $6 to hike the Yellow House trail for them to keep their property pristine. But I wonder what will happen when profit and ecological preservation are forced to go head to head.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Travel Log, Thursday, July 1, Saquisilí, Quilatoa Loop

We had an early, farm style breakfast and left for the market at Saquisilí, about an hour's drive further east. We had been through this town just two days earlier, on our way to Isinliví, and it was pretty sleepy. But Thursday is market day, and it is completely different. The market is spread out in five or six different plazas,and the streets are packed with people buying, selling and moving between areas. We started off in the animal market, where we saw people buying and selling pigs, sheep, cows, and various kinds of ropes and harnesses. This part of the market supposedly starts around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, but when we got there about 9:00, is was still fascinating enough for us...

We moved on to another square with a little of everything: small animals like chickens, (in cages and bags), cuy (guinea pigs), rabbits, hardware, furniture, mattresses, fish and music are what stand out for me.

When we got to the artisan section of the market, what struck me was not the beautiful weavings, paintings and other products, but rather the subdued energy in this square. Since there weren't many tourists, this square, with all it's stalls, was just so quiet, compared to the chaotic hustle and bustle of the other areas.

After a picnic in the main square, we drove north, thru Quito, and after only getting slightly lost, arrived in Mindo, about four hours later, as the sun was going down. First impressions: a riot of vegetation, like being inside a gigantic greenhouse in a botanical garden!

Travel Log, Wednesday, June 30, Tigua, Quilatoa Loop

Karen, Sarah and Lucas left early yesterday morning, and after breakfast, Sue and our family rented a car and headed south. Our destination was a region about two hours south of Quito, a high Andean rural area, punctuated by small towns and communities. The main road around this region is dubbed "the Quilatoa Loop" in the guide books. Quilatoa is the name of a lake in a volcanic crater with a circumference of, perhaps, 6-8 miles. We entered the loop from the north east corner, heading counter-clockwise. The area is sparsely populated, and there is very little traffic as well. Driving to Isinliví we saw lots of sheep, a few llamas and lots of fields on steep slopes being cultivated by hand by entire families. Potatoes, wheat and onions are some of the main crops in this region.

The town of Isinliví is quite small, and we stayed in a wonderful little hostal called Llullu Llama. There were seven other travelers there, including a garulous Australian couple in their 50s, who had met doing an extended world tour 30 years ago, and were now back on the road after raising their family. We all ate family style.

Since the main road between Isinliví and the lake was reported to be a bumpy dirt road, so we decided to take a different, more direct, bumpy dirt road. Along this route we saw something we hadn't seen in Ecuador before: severe rural poverty. In many of these communities the majority of homes are "chozas" or low huts made with grass roofs reaching to the ground. (Although I interpreted this as one of the signs of their poverty, grass roofed huts being on the low end of the building material hierarchy, below adobe and concrete block, a guide we met at the Inti Solar museum a few days later, asserted that it was tradition, not poverty which lead to this choice of living arrangement.) At a couple places where we stopped and asked directions, we were asked for money. Outside of the occasional drunk, or some very down and out beggers, this hadn't happened to us before. But the people here asking for money weren't down and out, they looked young and/or healthy, they were friendly and helpful, and once they asked not for themselves, but rather for help with a new school building, but they didn't have any qualms about asking. Perhaps other travelers willingly gave when asked, and this is where the custom/problem started. Anyway, it was a little odd. Outside of this, and even considering this, the people we met, especially in Isinliví (where they didn't beg) are extremely friendly. Big smiles greet us, and people are happy to talk.

Although we somehow got off the road we were supposed to be on, we eventually got to a paved road on the south side of the loop. And once on this road, it was an easy drive to the lake. Supposedly it takes about 5-6 hours to hike all the way around the lake, along the rim of the crater. We only hiked out for an hour or so, and returned the way we came. The lake is beautiful, and although clouds obscured the views to the Cotopaxi and Ilinizas volcanoes to the north, the panorama views of the patchwork crop lands were wonderful.

We spent the night in a old hacienda house a few miles east of Tigua, about 45 minutes east of the lake. The delightful owners treated us and the other four guests with canelazo, stories of the history of the hacienda and a lovely dinner.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Travel Log: Saturday, June 29, Jamu Lodge

This morning we took a two-hour boat ride down river to Don Alberto's house. He is a traditional medicine man or shaman of the Siona community where he lives. He greeted us in traditional dress, which included a black tunic, a crown of parrot feathers and a feather thru his nose. He told us a little about the old ways, how the tunic used to be made of tree bark, and how they used wooden spoons and clay pots. He told us a little about his training as a shaman, which started at age 12, and continued to age 15 with his grandfather, and then continued with another teacher until age 30. He talked about using ayahuasca, or "eje" which is a hallucinogenic which helps them have visions which they use to help cure people and identify new and/or proper ways to use plants as medicine. According to Don Alberto, they can see illness in a person in three colors: yellow - stomach, red - blood, or black - brain (or mental illness). He then gave us a demonstration of the use of "ortiga" (stinging nettles) to help with circulation. (The welts this raised on Lucas' back and Debby's arms and legs disappeared by the end of the day!)

After lunch, we went to the house of another member of the community, "Mama Aurora" to learn how the Siona make yucca bread. First they pull up the yucca plant, breaking off and burying part of the root to start another plant. Then they peel it, grate it, and squeeze the water out of it, using a thin woven reed mat. After it is dry, they sift it, and this fine "flour" is spread on a hot clay plate (what the Guatemalan's call a "comal" but the Ecuadoran's call a "tiesto"). It is spread in a thin layer, and packed against the tiesto, and after a few minutes it is flipped. The resulting "bread" is more like a large pancake, and is tasty, but a bit dry.

After this, we headed back to the lodge, and after some down time, we took a short night walk thru the nearby jungle, and saw a lot of spiders, leaf cutter ants and other insects.

The jungle has been one of the parts of our travels in Ecuador that I have been most looking forward to, even more than our trip to the Galapagos or Machu Pichu. We had first talked about going with our friends who came to visit at Christmas-time, but it didn't make the final cut on that itinerary. (Probably just as well, based on what we learned on the trip this week, that the river drops from about 10' deep to about 1' deep in January and Feb.) Thankfully, this trip lived up to my expectations.

The four days we spent here was a perfect mix of the natural - bird and reptile watching boat rides, jungle hikes; and the cultural - a visit to a shaman and to Mama Aurora. The nature is fantastic and like a rich novel, I loved it although most of it went over my head. Although I won't remember, and can't appreciate all the different varieties of birds our guides pointed out, I did love the red crests of the tanagers, and the yellow breast and wing tips of the caciques, the swallow's graceful flight just inches above the river's surface and the iridescent blue of the "morpho" butterflies, which traversed the river too quickly and erratically to ever pose for a photo. The black furry monkey's tails high in the canopy were a bit difficult to distinguish, but the large band of squirrel monkeys crossing the river on the low fallen vines and trunks as our canoe passed underneath were easily identifiable. And although we were constantly on the watch for fauna, the overwhelming presence in the jungle is flora. The lush green of the trees and plants that line the river is amazing. The shades of green, from the canopy to the floor, from the almost translucent green of the newly opened fern to the sturdy pale gray green of the bromeliad and the multiple greens of the various palms, ever changing as wind and sunlight shuffle the pallet: green is the color of the jungle. Mix in the coffee brown of the river, the gray and ivory of the tree trunks, and the blue of the sky, glimpsed thru blocks of green, and that is the color of the jungle. The reds, yellows or violets of a flower or butterfly or bird punctuate the scene, but green dominates it.

Travel Log: Friday, June 28, Jamu Lodge

Our day started with a boat ride to a hike thru the jungle. This whole environment is so different. On our ride out we saw river dolphins, "anhingas," cormorants, stinky turkeys and long nose bats. On the hike we saw "quita calzones" ants, which swarmed out of their nests to cover our hands when placed on the the nest, and once we got rid of them all, provided (so they say) a natural insect repellent. We also saw lots of vines, bromeliads and mud (thank goodness for our "siete vidas" or knee high rubber boots that the lodge provided).

In the afternoon the adults went for a self guided canoe ride in a dugout canoe while the kids went out in a kayak, and swung from vines into the water. We all went for out again in the motorized canoe, and went piranha fishing (Lucas caught two) and after dark, saw caymans and tree boas.

Travel Log: Thursday, June 27, Jamu Lodge, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

We started the day with a 7:00 am taxi to the airport. The girls have been super excited the past few days, since they re-united with their cousins Lucas and Sarah and their Aunt Karen and Aunt Sue. We've been doing some site seeing in Quito, and sharing meals at restaurants, both "typical" and "international." With this crowd, we've had a kids table and an adults table, which keeps everyone happy.

Our flight to Lago Agrio was a quick one - probably about 30 minutes (compared to 10 hours by bus). At Lago Agrio we boarded a small bus with other travelers and headed towards Jamu Lodge, driving about 2 1/2 hours. This part of the jungle reminds me of the Guatemalan coastal region. We passed thru numerous small and newish towns - there is a lot of oil in this part of the jungle, and the towns are probably related to this.

At the end of the road we boarded a long, narrow motorized canoe. Our group of 8 sat two abreast and, along with our driver, guide and cargo, filled the boat. On our two hour trip down the Rio Cuyabeno, we saw 3 different monkey species, numerous birds and bats. About 20 minutes after the river emptied into a large lagoon, we turned into the dock for the Jamu Lodge.

The lodge itself is all wood construction, with thatched roofs, Light in the rooms is from candles, and solar cells provide additional power for lighting in the common areas and kitchen.

After settling in, we got back into the canoes for a sunset cruise to the lagoon. We saw a "stinky turkey" and some river dolphins. We finished a refreshing swim shortly before a beautiful sunset.

Now at night, the almost full moon is illuminating the woods, and the myriad sounds of the jungle lull me to sleep.