Friday, January 1, 2010

Thanksgiving through New Year 2010

We celebrated Thanksgiving in San Gil, Colombia at our favorite vegetarian restaurant (no turkey that night folks). It was wonderful to share a delicious meal and reminisce about our amazing family and friends and this trip that we have been on for almost almost 9 months.

Enjoying Colombia as much as we did, we decided that it was time to GET OUT before it was too late because.... "the only risk in coming to Colombia is wanting to stay!" One night over dinner in San Gil, we reviewed our goals and how much more time we had with our trip, and with that (after a month of living in the area), we decided to leave the next morning.

We headed straight for Bogotá, skipping some very interesting parts of the country.....kicking ourselves along the way.
We have decided that we will come back to Colombia one day to explore it completely. One of the things that is so enchanting about Colombia is it's people. Colombians are almost self-conscious of the bad reputation their country has regarding safety. As a result, just about everyone we met was EXTRA hospitable. I mean extremely friendly..... and out of all the countries we have visited so far, Colombians are the most easy to strike up a conversation with. You can ask someone for directions and they will turn it into a 10 minute conversation about how you are doing, how your trip is going, and whether the people are treating you well. Colombians are more than willing to stop whatever they are doing to speak with you and they truly go above and beyond to be hospitable. It was noticeable from the moment we arrived in Cartagena from Panama City. In Panama City, upon entering a store you would be barked at with the expression, "Dígame" (tell me what you want), whereas in Colombia, as you walk past even fruit stands on the street, people will call out to you in a kind tone..... "a la orden" (at your service). It was a really nice change.

The people are so hospitable that a man in our small bus to Bogotá gave up his prime seat (which he had arrived early to get) and insisted that Mark take it. When Mark tried to refuse graciously, the man said, ''No, no! This is the seat for you. There is much more leg room and it is very important for you as a visitor to see the beautiful views of our country.'' (In Spanish, of course.) This man was very jovial and questioned us profusely regarding our treatment in the country. He also begged us to make sure to go home and tell all our friends and family how friendly the people are...... and he was right, he had a very valid point. This story does need to be told--the story of the Colombian people.

During our bus ride together, he decided to one up everyone else in the country by convincing the bus driver and the rest of the passengers to stop at a sugar cane manufacturing plant (hut) on the side of the road so we could see the process of how they convert sugar cane into ''panela,'' the natural and less refined form of sugar which everyone here enjoys. The pride in this process was evident. We were familiar with panela already because it is very common throughout Central America, but we hadn't seen the process of making it. Everyone in the bus got out (almost gleefully) and we were all treated to a tour of this facility that you would never know was there just from passing by on the road. After being given a fresh piece of Panela, the guys all pressured us into drinking the special fermented juice which is a by product from making the Panela. I could tell it was the kind of initiation they couldn't wait for us to have...... the best part of the tour possibly, and the kind of thing that would "put hair on your chest" or something of the sort. They handed us this non-sanitized container, which who knows who had been drinking out of, with huge smiles and eager anticipation of our reaction...... and of course in that moment, we couldn't refuse, so down it went. Very nice. It kind of reminded me of fermented apple cider, only next time we'll bring our own glasses!

After this, we all piled back into the bus and hurled towards Bogotá. Once there, we found our way to the Candelería District, the historic but also more dangerous district at night. Gotta love the arts. We had a wonderful few days here, and walking around the historic buildings was magnificent.

Of course, no walk is complete without Michelle petting every animal that crosses her path. This time she got lucky with some llamas.

These photos were taken in Independence Plaza in Bogotá (early December). To the left, which you can't see in the photo, was a 50' Christmas tree with huge sunflowers all over it.

At night, the sunflowers along with these cool red trees (fake) lit up the square in a heavenly way.

We also got lucky and were there on December 7th which is the night that Colombia celebrates the Virgin Mary by lining the streets with candles. The following day is a national holiday called the Day of the Immaculate Conception and all government buildings are closed. It sure was a nice night to walk around and meet new people under the glow of candlelight.

Probably what we loved most about Bogotá was 'Ciclovía' which is when Bogotá shuts down their most significant streets throughout the city for pedestrians and bicycles only (if you have time, this is a really neat link which has a video of the event). This happens every Sunday and every holiday and in the evenings after 7:00 near the Presidential Palace. It's an incredible thing in a city of nearly 8.6 million people, and it was exciting to participate. Apparently several years back a political figure tried to pass a new law doing away with Ciclovía, and the people protested like mad in order to keep it. You can see by how many people are on this wide street just how popular it is today. During the week, this street is filled with cars and noisy buses.

......and with that, we headed straight for the border on a 22hr overnight bus from Bogotá. It actually wasn't as bad as it sounds.......we left late in the afternoon, and arrived mid morning the next day. We recommend this method to anyone wanting to travel in between Bogotá and Quito and save a little money along the way. It's possible to fly, but it's more than double the price (just an FYI), and the border crossing was our most tranquil and easy to manage out of the entire trip thus far. Just be aware that there are two terminals at opposite ends of Quito (North and South), and it is about 45 minutes from either terminal to the Historic District, or Mariscal (New Town). There are buses in, but you can also just take a cab.
Once in Ecuador we headed straight to the market town of Otavalo, where we were treated again to the beauty and culture of the indigenous people. It felt like it had been ages--since Guatamala actually--since we had lived among indigenous people. Here they speak the native language of Quechua (Kee-chwa), with Spanish as the second language for many. It is an amazingly beautiful language and Michelle is trying to pick up a few simple phrases from a medical Spanish-Quechua book she received.
Seeing how Otavalo is rather high in the mountains (about 8,450 ft.--so it's rather chilly), and how here in Ecuador the sunbeams shine directly downward.... The first things we bought were a scarf and a traditional indigenous hat.........yes the indigenous all seem to wear these "Robin Hood/1930's style'' hats. Not sure when the tradition started. Usually the men have a long braid hanging behind showing their beautiful black shiny hair. The women also wear these hats, usually with a feather or some decoration attached to the ribbon on one side. They are made of wool........

Mark finally got to take his first bike ride after eight or nine months and took some great shots of Otavalo from above.

During the ride Mark circled around Cuicocha Crater Lake, at times some 11,500 feet above sea level. He finished the ride convinced that he had lost any ability to ride a bike... but then ended up in bed hours later with the same fever and strep throat that Michelle had caught in Bogotá. The 40 lb. bike and no pedal cages and elevation didn't help either. :)

In Otavalo, Michelle found a great volunteer opportunity with the local Health Ministry working in the mobile health bus. She was able to visit various surrounding communities and practice her Quechua. The health campaign she worked on was mainly polio and flu vaccinations for kids. In her white coat the people took to calling her ''Doctorcita.''

While we were in Otavalo we became very interested in a region of Ecuador called Intag. Historically it has been a remote region of Ecuador that had been exploited by Copper mining companies until the last decade when the indigenous people began organizing and fighting to preserve their land and way of life. There is an Intag store in Otavalo which we liked to visit to eat yuca and talk to the workers in the store about their home. One day we met a really nice young couple (Matt and Quenaya and their baby son Liam) who happened to be from Chico, California--just over an hour away from Redding! It turns out that Quenaya's father Carlos has been a large contributor to the movement in INTAG and has a place called the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve. We were invited to visit so we packed up and made our way into Intag. We spent the day visiting and hiking through the cloud forest. We were also invited to stay for a delicious and hearty vegetarian lunch. It was such an amazing day; thank you!

Early that evening Carlos' whole family and both of us packed up and went to the local hot springs. We stayed in some lovely cabañas along the river and shared dinner together. What a treat.

The hot springs here in Ecuador are completely developed regardless of how far from civilization they are. These were no exception. The facilities included six or seven pools of varying size and temperature.
The next morning we found ourselves in the middle of Intag with hours to go between buses when we made the snap decision to spend Christmas in Baños, Ecuador. This was Christmas Eve mind you.... We decided to pack up and start walking in the hopes of hitching a ride. We did a lot of walking through some of the most beautiful landscapes, but we also got really lucky and caught two rides back to Otavalo. One with an open sided empty tour wagon, and one in the back of a truck with a family that Michelle had met in Otavalo from Anacortes, Washington. What luck!

We ended up catching a bus to Quito as soon as we returned to Otavalo, and then another to Baños where we arrived at midnight on Christmas Eve. Normally the most sketchy thing one can possibly do while traveling is to arrive in an unknown place and get dropped off at the bus station at midnight. Fortunately, Baños is completely different.

We quickly found a hotel for $3 per person (a steal thanks to the overabundance of hotels in Baños), but the next day decided to move to our hotel of choice, Hostal Timara. This was a much nicer location and the hostal included a lovely kitchen, areas to study, three parrots, one turtle, and two dogs, one of which we got to take on hikes. Splendid. Highly recommended.

This is a photo of Tungarahua which in Quichua (Kee-chwa) means "Little Hell". It sits directly above the city of Baños and has a long history of tormenting the area with its unpredictable eruptions - thus the name. Thankfully none have ever destroyed the city itself, but 10 years ago, the entire town was forcibly evacuated by the government for a period of about 3 months until the people revolted and pushed through the police baracade.

Today Baños is a great place to visit. It features 3 hot springs, numerous waterfalls, lots of hiking, pleasant weather, and nice restaurants that are reasonably priced. Basically it's a wonderful and tranquil (except holidays) place to visit if you're in Ecuador.

Our first full day there, Christmas Day, we spent at one of the lesser known hot springs with hundreds of other Ecuadorians (we were the only non-natives on site). We had hours of Spanish practice and ended up befriending an Ecuadorian named Rudy who invited us to a Christmas party in his village called Salasaca about 30 min from Baños. We hemmed and hawed, partly because we didn't want to get stuck in some distant village with people that we didn't know (also not knowing the bus routes yet), and partly because we were a bit tired from arriving at midnight on Christmas Eve and then soaking for several hours in hot pools on Christmas.... But in the end, we agreed to go with this very hospitable man to his village. What we thought would be a relatively small family Christmas party, turned out to be a fiesta for the entire village with hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages in attendance. What a great decision and amazing experience. Not only were we the only foreigners in the entire town, but there weren't any Mestizos either (Latin American term for mixed European-Amerindian ancestry) -- meaning that it was truly a cultural indigenous event (there is a class structure here.....we have found). Not knowing exactly how we would be welcomed, we thought we'd take it kind of slow and not venture out immediately into the dance area where the band was playing. But, as soon as we arrived we were hugged and offered the best seats in the house to sit and plates of food were thrust into our hands. Minutes later huge bowls of soup and drinks were brought as well. We eventually migrated our way out to the main area. Knowing Michelle though, you probably know that she can't keep from dancing if music is playing, so pretty soon we were out there with the best of them. It was incredible.

One of the things that is so difficult in terms of documenting the beautiful indigenous culture here is that you just can't take a picture of someone point blank--it's offensive--as a result, you have to hold yourself back from recording these incredible things that might be right before your eyes. The nice thing about a party, is that people actually encourage you to fire off photos and they sometimes even wave and pose and get in on the action. As a result, we have a few photos from this event.

The party was quite a fiesta. Tons of food and plenty to drink. Michelle mixed with the many, many women who were cooking and serving the food and they were proud to have photos taken of their work. The women told Michelle that the food included three pigs and over seventy chickens. Of course a party isn't a party with just food--one needs some good stout drink as well. Of course, by the end of the night the strong moonshine made by the people in this part of the world from sugarcane, called Aguardiente (aka Fire Water), took its toll... as you can see from the results above. (Actually we took this photo for fun.....but it looks pretty convincing.)

The Christmas party started in and around one house in the village. Then the people gathered in a parade--carrying a Baby Jesus in a cradle and following a band to another house in the village. Apparently there was one other house to visit later in the evening and then all the festivities would end at the church at about 3 in the morning.... But after several hours of fine socializing and cultural immersion we decided to call it a night. Rudy gave us a ride to the bus stop and we paid our 30 cents each to get back to Baños. Quite easy actually. Thanks to Rudy and the village of Salasaca, Christmas 2009 is one which we will NEVER forget!

Thinking back on the event and the man who took us there, the one thing that we won't forget is the question that he asked us in the hot springs in order to get us to come with him....... "Do you want to come to Ecuador and just do the normal thing, eat at restaurants and go on tours, or would you like to get to know the people?" Well...... that night, he made the latter possible for both of us. Thank you so much! We both felt incredibly privileged to have been invited and warmly welcomed into their culture.

........The next day, we rented bikes and rode down the highway to see all the magnificent waterfalls that stretch between Baños and the Amazon. A little geography here.....Baños is in the Andes Mountains and from there eastward the terrain drops drastically to the sweaty jungles of the Amazon.

At the first waterfall, we took a "Terabita" (cable car) across the gorge to.......well, to get to the other side. We had a little wind going across, and had to hold on to our hats.....or maybe this is a nice way to say "hello" in Quichua......I can't remember now.

At the next waterfall crossing (La Manta de la Novia--Bridal Veil Falls) we were treated to a rusty old suspension bridge and a great view of the watershed. Just love suspension bridges!

The final waterfall we visited, named "Pailon Del Diablo" was definitely the highlight of the day. We were able to climb on our hands and knees in a 50' tunnel to get behind this massive movement of water, and get a picture of it to boot. There was a lot of moisture in the air, and thankfully our new, 2nd hand camera didn't bail out on us just yet.

The next day, we were invited to a demonstration on how local artisans work with a special kind of wood called Tagua. It's basically a substitute material for ivory, and I have to say we were really impressed by the material, and by how efficient this guy was. He made us a button for free, and then sent us on our way. Thanks Señor Wilson! It was a random gift and demonstration, but that's what made it so interesting.

Here is a new type of flower we have never seen before. Have you ever been on one of those walks where every plant species is a new one that you have never seen. This was that walk, and there were many......probably 20 different blooming species that we had never seen before. Yes......we photographed almost all of them. :)

Is that smoke coming out of the top or are you just happy to see me? I took this picture on New Years Eve during the day on a hike by myself. When I returned, I asked our local info expert if the mountain was smoking at the moment and he said "NO! hasn't been smoking for several years now." I took several pictures of the summit which show the same thing. It's hard to say if this was smoke or not, but I do know that shortly after New Years, the story hit the news that Tungurahua had officially erupted. We were already gone by then........

Ahhhhh.......New Years in Baños. Truly an experience........ young men dressed up as women, burning effigies in every street, candle lit hot air balloons, and fireworks to top off the evening.

Some very convincing guys, I must say...... They were dressed up as women and would stop cars, rubbing their bodies all over the hoods until the driver gave up a little change. The same thing happened on the sidewalks but with people. Older men not in drag would be molested until they forked out some change.

It sounds strange, but it's the tradition here. A little Monty Pythonish maybe?

This little lovely in the center.......not a woman! Kevin Morris, I think this one might have a little something on your wedding picture pose.

To the right..... I wonder how long it took these guys to shave all that leg hair off. Maybe they were road cyclists......

More examples....... It was just crazy, wilder than Halloween anywhere we've ever been

Then there were the effigies...... The idea is that everybody creates, or buys a paper doll, doesn't matter what size although the smallest were about 3 feet high. On this you would paste messages about all the things that you wanted to put behind you and change for the better in the new year. These messages could also be directed at presidents, etc., as some of the dolls were dressed up as political figures, although the majority were personally based I think. Some people would drive around all day with the smaller dolls stuck to the front of their cars as you would a wreath for Christmas.

Then there were other effigies.....huge structures that were taller than a 2 or 3 story house. There were many, many Michael Jacksons--the most impressive being three stories tall. All of these effigies, including the large ones, were burned exactly at midnight. Then with only minutes to spare, it was necessary to run to some rooftop to see the fireworks show that rapidly ensued. The evening literally went bang, bang, bang, and if you weren't running to see the show, you surely missed out.

During the fireworks, people from all over the city sent up these really neat small hot air balloons that glowed in the night sky. It was an enchanting thing to behold and a beautiful tradition. We would love to see something like this back home, but I think these might have been banned in the States due to the fire hazard. Maybe an entrepreneur can come up with a creative way to make a fire proof version, and it will take off in popularity. It's a great tradition!

A few more effigies.....this here to the right was a curbside edition......

And this is one of the many tributes to Michael Jackson......

Drill Baby Drill.......I mean...... Burn Baby Burn..... An effigy, or maybe several.....burning away. There's a balloon in the background about to be set off. It gives you an idea about how large they are.

Speaking of drilling and burning......if you're interested in finding out about the oil legacy here in Ecuador, you can go to Chevron in Ecuador. or Chevron Toxico. We weren't able to make it out there for a Toxic Tour, but maybe on another trip.

We usually try to include one video in our blog posts even though they take sooooo long to upload.

In this one, our neighbors across the street tried to get their hot air balloon up in the air, and this is one of those times. After 4 balloons, they finally got one heading in the right direction. Watch this to see what happened. Enjoy......

We really hope everyone reading this had a great New Years Eve this year! Thanks for reading the blog and keeping up with us!

In our next blog, we will cover our adventures in the Sweaty Jungles of Ecuador. Ciao!

Mark & Michelle


  1. Great entry guys!
    lenny, julie and avery

  2. So much beauty! The vistas, flowers, waterfalls, pools, your photo's are a wonderful way to share all your adventures. I sure appreciate this blog. Mark, your hand reaching out to the world, what a great way to start that last blog! Love the woollen Robin Hood hat. Love the Cidovia-idea in Bogota. That's one way to save on gas. Glad to hear you got to ride a bike for the first time since 9 mos. Judging from all the fun you are having (e.g. Xmas party and New Year's celebration, etc...) with the natives and the firewater, I wonder how real life in the U.S. will affect you. Both of you are such free adventurous spirits. But we want you back!