If someone ever tries to tell you that a 40km trek, 20km up a volcano and 20km down, is “suave”; don’t believe them. A 20km ascent is never a gentle affair. No matter how slow you go, it’s not easy. Not ever.
Rewind. This past weekend I was invited by my cousin-in-law, Rai, to accompany a geology expedition to Mojanda. Mojanda is a small region in the Andes of Ecuador that includes several volcano peaks and crater lakes. I’ve always wanted to check it out, so what better way than to go with a bunch of geology students from Ecuador’s Universidad Central? I was a little worried about the altitude, as I recently arrived back to Ecuador after 6 weeks at sea level in the USA; but Rai assured me that the hike was “suave”…suave, as in easy.
So I packed my essential camping and camera gear and set out early Saturday morning with a group of college kids. In typical Ecuadorian fashion, our planned 7am departure turned out to really be a 10:30am departure–during which time I almost bailed because I just can’t work when it comes to poor planning and tardiness. I stuck with the expedition mainly because I was excited to play with my new wide angle camera lense to get some mountaintop night sky photos.
Anyway, we finally made it to our destination–Otavalo, where we began our ascent. And what an ascent it was. Holy smokes! We are talking 8 hours of grueling, quad-burning work. Keep in mind, I was carrying a tent, sleeping bag, food and water for 2 days, emergency kit, and some significantly heavy camera gear. Also, it was raining. So, all in all, not a walk in the park. It was tough–and I’m not a wimpy wimp. Nothing at all technical, just a lot of up up up and no down.
By the time we made it to camp it was already getting dark and freezing cold. We camped alongside the largest of the Mojanda lagoons, and it was a breathtakingly dramatic landscape. Jagged peaks in every direction, and our little campsite nestled in the crater next to the lake. Granted, when we arrived it was very overcast, nearly dark, and we were completely exhausted, so it wasn’t really until the next morning that we could fully appreciate the landscape.
While camping with a bunch of college kids 12 years your junior is not the most peaceful experience, I was so excited about testing out my night photography skills that I didn’t really even mind the noise. I got some pretty awesome (in my humble opinion) shots of the night sky, although I still have so much to learn and needs lots more practice. We tried to do some long-exposure light writing photos…and failed, but had fun nonetheless.
Morning brought sunshine and spectacular views…and a long hike around the lake and then down. Down. down. I personally strongly prefer going down to going up, but it still isn’t easy on the joints. It was a beautiful day with beautiful views. A long hard hike, but in the end totally worth it. I would say Mojanda has some of the best Paramo landscapes in Ecuador–different from the highest, glacier capped peaks, but rugged and beautiful nonetheless.
I just got home from a friend’s place here in Quito, and wanted to get this thought I had on my taxi ride home down on paper before I go to bed. Here’s what just happened:
I was out with a fellow US expat this evening, and we parted ways on the street where I caught a taxi to take me home and he was going to walk the other direction to get to his apartment. I got in the taxi, said “buenas noches” to the driver, and then it occured to me to offer my friend a ride back to his place, even though I was going a different direction. So I rolled down the window (we were at a stoplight), and called out to my friend in English to ask if he wanted a lift. We had a quick exchange in English, he declined my offer, and I drove off in my cab. Upon rolling up the window, I quickly and without a second thought gave directions to my destination in Spanish to the driver and we engaged in polite small talk.
A couple minutes into the ride, a thought occurred to me. I often see videos posted of people in the United States going on rampages when they hear people speaking languages other than English in public places. This most commonly happens with Spanish being the language spoken. I have seen countless videos of people swearing at non-English speakers and shouting at them to go back to their country, and that they are not welcome here. That in America, we speak English.
What a horrible thing. I have lived in several countries, and I have never experienced that type of language shaming. It would make me feel awful if someone were to shout at me or treat me with hostility simply for speaking in my native tongue. And why shouldn’t we speak in whatever language we want? What is wrong with me speaking English to a fellow English speaker, even though we are in a country where they speak Spanish? The answer is: nothing. There is nothing wrong with that, and no one here seems to have a problem with it. Even if English were the official language of the USA, which it is NOT, why does that even matter? What happened to the freedom of speech?
This past weekend was my last in Ecuador before I leave for the states for 6 weeks. One might think that this would call for some quality time with my partner –we will call him A--(asin civil-unioned life partner…not my business partner….), seeing as we will be apart from each other for a month and a half. Alas, alone time is nearly unheard of in this family centered culture…or at least in A’s family.
So, I spent all day Saturday helping A’s mom and step dad move into a new apartment. That may not sound so bad, but that’s just because you don’t know A’s mom (and if you do happen to know her, you know exactly what I’m talking about). Do not misunderstand me, I love this woman. She is dear to me and an incredibly supportive force in my life. She is also a spontaneous, disorganized hurricane of a woman. Everything is last minute and haphazard and there is no planning involved.
I, on the other hand, am a planner–to the extreme. When A and I are moving, I spend a full month organizing all of our belongings, purging those things we no longer need or use, packing categorically with boxes labelled with their contents and the room they are destined for, and even planning the order which boxes are loaded into the truck to maximize workflow efficiency. Their are lists and schedules, an early start and a smooth process all around.
Also, you should know that this is the 4th time we have helped them move in 2 years, the 2nd in 6 months, and THEY HAVE SO MUCH STUFF.
Okay, so now you know the background and hopefully you can imagine to some extent what moving day is like without me having to spend much time describing the painful details. Enough to say that it was a very long, frustrating, disorganized day of hard labor. By 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I was more than ready to be done. A and I were both sort of putzing around not being useful, so I started bugging him to go home.
Earlier in the day we got a messagefrom our two houseguests that there was no water in the apartment. Awesome. This is pretty typical in Ecuador for a variety of reasons–sometimes they just shut the water off to certain parts of the city to conserve water–sometimes you get advance notice, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes people just shut down the water line to your building to mess with you. It happens. So we were hauling a giant jug of water back withus just in case it didn’t resolve itself. Luckily that gave me the leverage I needed to convince A that we needed to take a taxi home instead of walking.
So we taxi home, exhausted, and as we are walking up the stairs to our apartment on the 4th floor, hauling water, we started to smell something burning. The smell got stronger as we ascended, and we opened our apartment door to a wall of smoke. Our apartment was full of thick smoke, to the point where you could hardly see down the entrance hallway. I heard the two Venezuelan girls who are staying with us laughing in their bedroom, and called to them that something was burning (obviously). They responded, “no, we aren’t cooking anything.” I rush to the kitchen to find everything in order–nothing on the stove. At that point the girls came out of their room and noticed the house full of smoke for the first time, bewildered. A ran down stairs to make sure that the smoke was not coming from a different apartment, while I checked the living room and bedrooms for obvious signs of fire…nothing.
Then, I opened the bathroom door. It was the half bath that the girls use–we call it the crap cave. It’s a long narrow chamber with a toilet at the far end. When I entered said crap cave, I saw a sight that I had never expected I would see in my life. My toilet was on fire. Not a small fire–a raging bonfire sort of fire. The walls where charred black with soot, and flames licked all the way up to the ceiling. I will say it again: my toilet was on fire.
In hindsight, I wish that I had taken the extra minute to find my phone to snap photo evidence of this phenomenon. Unfortunately, I instead decided it was more important to douse said flaming toilet. I question my priorities. My first reaction was actually to use the jar of baking soda next to the sink (for dental hygiene purposes…ask your dentist about it), but then I remembered how hard it is to get baking soda in this country. It is a precious commodity, and I could not bring myself to sacrifice it to the flames. Instead I ran to the kitchen, grabbed a bowl, and used the water that was in the toilet bowl to start dousing. We also had the water that we had just hauled up the stairs with us, so with that I was able to control the situation.
Needless to say, we were all in a state of shock and awe. We had just wanted to come home and collapse in a puddle of moving day exhaustion, and instead came home to our apartment, more specifically, our toilet, on fire. Here’s what had happened….our sweet young Venezuelan houseguests had lit a candle in the bathroom. The candle was left on the back of the toilet, on top of a towel and next to a roll of toilet paper. The candle was forgotten. The candle lit the toilet paper and underlying towel on fire, both of which burned easily and managed to ignite the plastic of the toilet seat and lid. Oops.
The girls spent a couple hours furiously scrubbing the soot off the walls and cleaning up what they could. They will be compensating us with a repaired toilet. No one was hurt, and nothing outside of the bathroom was damaged. Pula (cat) slept through it all and only came out when she realized A was home to demand her daily snuggles.
So Saturday was filled with family and flaming toilets, maybe we could relax together on Sunday, right? Wrong. It was mother’s day. Womp womp womp. Do we go to A’s mom’s house? No, of course not. We have to go to his brother’s house…his brother who lives literally almost in Venezuela on a mountain top desert that is impossible to get to. It is honestly easier for me to get home to the USA than it is to get to his brother’s house. Plus, it takes so long to get there, that we always end up getting back super late and crabby and with a headache etc. So, I wasn’t psyched. Luckily, G & G (A’s mom and stepdad) offered to give me a ride. Sooooo much better than having to spend 2+ hours on busses and traversing dust storm desert wasteland to get there….or so I thought.
You would think that at this point I would have learned my lesson–G&G are disorganized and unreliable and nothingever ever ever goes as planned. I know this. It is a fact. And yet….still….I have hope. We were planned to leave at 11am and I was promised that we would leave to come back by 4pm. Ok, manageable. They ended up picking me up at 12:30, because they decided to get massages at the last minute and that took a long time, blah blah blah. Ok, so they are coming to pick me up…but then they call and tell me to meet them somewhere else, I don’t know why. So I walk to meet them, in the rain, carrying two cakes and a backpack full of necessary survival gear and meet them at my pickup point. The car is packed with people. I squeeze in. It is hot. I hate being hot. Then, we go not in the directionof the brother’s house, but across the city in a different direction entirely to take this stranger lady home. I don’t know who she is or why we are doing this. We go to her house which is super far away. And after almost an hour we finally get rid of her. Then we finally do start in the direction of the brother’s house. Unfortunately, we only make it about halfway before G&G decide they are hungry (we are on our way to have family lunch, mind you), and they need to stop for food. So we stop for food–I stay in the car, carsick as usual and tired and over it all. They ask me if I want passion fruit ice cream, I was feeling sick so I said no thank you , I don’t want anything. They brought me some sort of pudding topped with whipped cream concoction. Then we continue on our way…..to….a hardware store. Apparently, we urgently needed to buy some nails. Nails are purchased, we are back on our way to the brother’s. Finally, finally finally–it’s after 2pm now–I can see our destination. I can see it! A phone rings. Someone forgot to buy cheese. It is an emergency. We turn around. I die inside. Finally, 3 ½ hours after our scheduled departure, we make it to mother’s day lunch.
Of course we don’t leave by 4pm. We were lucky to leave by 6pm. And then we had to take a detour to drop someone off. And then at 7pm I thought, maybe, just maybe, we can finally go home and snuggle and watch a movie together. Nope. Off to grandma’s house we go. By grandma’s house, I mean “El Hogar de los Ancianos”–”The home of the Ancients”. The care facility where grandma is cooped up. Visiting grandma took another 2 hours because she, unlike the rest of us, was not tired; and there was a phone call from a cousin that went on and on and on….you get it.
It was a long weekend, and the flaming toilet was sort of the highlight. Welcome to my life in Ecuador.
So you’ve decided to take a trip, and for the sake of this post, let’s assume that you’ve already chosen your destination(s). (See “GATA’s Guide to choosing a destination” if you’re still on that step) Great! What do you do now? Planning an epic adventure can be daunting, even for the most experienced among us.
**Disclosure: I am writing on this topic because I am currently in the process of planning a 6-week mega tour of Europe, and it is overwhelming, even for me–a professional travel planner!
So, whether you’re planning a long weekend getaway or a 6 month backpacking extravaganza, where do you start?
Step 1: Contact GATA! Seriously…and I’m not saying this to try to sell you anything. If you want to take a trip with us, that’s awesome; but you should contact us if you’re thinking about traveling anywhere because a) we are cool people who love sharing travel experience and making new friends and b) we are career travelers who have been A LOT of places. Rayna and I are always happy to talk travel and share our expertise, regardless of whether it is directly related to our business or not. So really, give us a shout!
Step 1.2: If you know anyone who has been to your destination, ask them for advice. What are the must-sees and what is best to avoid? What to pack? How does the public transportation work? Etc.
Step 2: Take to the interwebs! So step 1–ask a friend. Step 2– ask everyone’s very best friend (when it comes to information seeking): Google! Most countries have a tourism website–a safe starting place; but it is best to delve deeper. Check out the Lonely Planet and NatGeo pages. Better yet, see if you can find a blog about someone else’s trip for first hand experience. Look at maps. If you are looking for a package tour, make sure you scroll down and don’t just click on the first search results that pops up. The first options are usually big conglomerate travel agencies, while those listed farther down are the little guys with personalized tours that get off the beaten path (e.g. us).
If you still need to narrow down your destination, make your search more specific and include activities that you would like to do. For example: “best hikes in Turkmenestan” Another strategy I use is to do an image search. I scroll through all the photos that come up for a country or region, click on the ones that catch my attention, and figure out where exactly they were taken–an excellent way to narrow down your search.
It is best to have a map handy while doing your homework so that you can visualize where your specific sites are. Remember to stay realistic–you’re not going to be able to explore ALL of India in 5 days…or 10…or even 20.
Step 2.2: Social Media. Start following destination relevant accounts on your SM platform of choice. I, for example, just started following several Scottish photography accounts on instagram–a great way to whittle down where exactly you want to visit.
Step 3: Determine your guidelines. So by now you should have a pretty good idea of exactly where you want to go within your country(ies) of choice and what you would like to do there. Now you have to set some realistic guidelines. These guidelines are based on 2 main factors: time & money. How much time do you have for this trip and what is your budget? These two factors will determine how much you will have to pair down that long list of places and activities that you came up with during steps 1 and 2.
Step 4: Geography & Transportation. Now that you know your time and financial limitations, you need to look more carefully at that mp of yours and cross reference it with you list of destinations and activities. At this point you also need to research transportation options and costs. When it comes to getting around, time and money generally have an inverse relationship. You could travel the length of Chile on a bus for cheap(ish), but it will take you a week—or you could pay more for a 2 hour flight that covers the same distance. It just depends on your priorities and previously mentioned limitations.
Time Out! So now we know where exactly we want to visit within our general destination, we know how much time we have for our trip and how much money we have to spend. That paints a pretty clear picture of what our trip is going to look like. This is also where we have a divergence of the planning process depending on personal preferences.
For some people, this is all the information and planning they need. These are the laid back folks that prefer to simply show up and wing it– usually with at least an outline of where they want to go and how they will get there, but with no pre arranged reservations.
At the other end of the spectrum are the planners. If you’re a planner or a novice traveler, keep reading.
Step 5: Reservations. Now we go back to the World Wide Web for another round of research. This time we are getting specific–accommodation, activities, and transportation. Be thorough, check out reviews on TripAdvisor, and make sure you keep a record of your reservation confirmations.
I would strongly recommend making yourself a detailed itinerary, complete with map, confirmation numbers, and contact info for your trip, and leave a copy with a friend back home.
Miscellaneous planning advice to keep in mind:
Will you need a visa? If so, how do you get one, how much does it cost, and how long will it take. DO NOT wait until the last minute.
When is the best time to go to your chosen destination?
What to pack? Will you need to invest in any new gear?
Consider purchasing a travel insurance plan–which one, you ask? Well that’s a topic for another day.
Mostly, you should just drop us a line…and by “line”, I mean email. We would love to hear from you.
Not every trip can be nor should be an epic, life culminating “dream trip”; but every travel experience should excite, invigorate and inspire you in some way. If you have the time, money and occasion to take that “dream trip” you’ve always wanted, great! Go for it! Unfortunately, most of our opportunities for travel do not meet this criteria. Most of the time we have a finite amount of time or money or both, and sometimes even if we have the requisite resources, it’s just not the right time. For example, I have always wanted to go to Scotland. As a kid, I was obsessed. I would buy ridiculously overpriced books on the country and spend hours drooling and dreaming over pictures of the highlands and the Isle of Skye. I have now travelled to over 30 countries….but still have not been to Scotland, even though that has been my dream destination since….forever! Well, that changes this summer, as I have saved up some money and am planning an epic trip to celebrate my 30th birthday. I will be spending 3 weeks in Scotland with the man I love to celebrate the occasion–I have the time, the money, and the occasion to make it a trip worthy of all my years of dreaming.
Here’s another story about planning a trip and choosing a destination…. A few years back in the days I spent working a desk job like a “responsible” adult (overrated, not recommended), I found myself with an accumulation of three weeks vacation. Obviously, I was going to have some sort of international adventure; the question was where? At that point in my life, I had already traveled most of South America and much of Africa and Europe. I was (and still am) saving New Zealand (and with it Australia) for a time when I have months to spend instead of mere weeks. So the obvious choice was Southeast Asia. All backpackers and free spirited young folk do Southeast Asia. It is a backpacker’s paradise and a staple in any serial travelers country collection. In fact, it was hard to believe that I hadn’t already checked it off my list.
So, I started planning my trip (see “GATA’s Guide to Planning a Trip”). Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. Sounds amazing, right? Right? RIGHT?! I kept trying to psych myself up, but I just was not feeling inspired. I wasn’t excited. I was planning a trip to somewhere simply because it was somewhere that I hadn’t been before and that lots of other people go to. Not good enough reasons.
No, when I thought about it, I realized a few things…. First of all, Southeast Asia is hot and swampy. I hate being hot. I HATE BEING HOT. It is a region renowned for its beautiful beaches and crazy partying. Well I’m not much of a beach goer, and I loathe drunken, drugged, loud, hostel-staying backpackers…. So, no wonder I wasn’t excited.
Now, this isn’t to say that I will never go to Southeast Asia, nor that I wouldn’t enjoy traveling the region. It just wasn’t a good fit for me at that time, and my reasons for going, mainly, that it was somewhere I hadn’t been, were not sufficient to justify the trip.
I stopped my Southeast Asia planning and instead started thinking of what I love — mountains, wilderness, hiking, being challenged and far from crowds and cities. At that point a beam of sunshine pierced through the dismal grey Michigan sky and shone upon me, and it was clear. NEPAL. 3 weeks trekking through the Himalayas–yes please! It is everything I love, and it was somewhere new that I had never been! It was so obvious and so perfect, and I was immediately EXCITED. That excitement and renewed passion was, and is, how I know I have chosen the right destination. (My trip to Nepal was epic and amazing and incredible in so many ways….unfortunately, not the actual topic of this post).
The point of that story is the following: The opportunity to travel is a privilege. Don’t waste it by going somewhere simply because it is somewhere that other people like to go or because it sounds exotic. Really examine why you want to go somewhere, and if you are not feeling excited or inspired by your destination, reevaluate and consider what it is that makes you feel most alive. What inspires you? Take the time and money you have and chase that–wherever it may be. Remember that it’s okay to save your ultimate dream trip for another time, for when you have more time or more money or have the right person to be your companion.
If you are still having trouble deciding where to go, contact us and we would be happy to give you some ideas.
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Sorry for the late post guys, but I am finally back in the states and currently suffering from Ecuador withdrawal. I’m still trying to cope with the fact that it’s all over. Well Ecuador, it has been a total blast. I’m lucky enough to say that for the very first time ever I visited a third world country and helped out people who needed it the most and actually became what I consider my friends. Between all of the traveling from place to place (from Quito to Yunguilla to Mitad Del Mundo to Papallacta and finally back), delicious food, and the community service (did I just forget an intense soccer game?), I couldn’t have possibly asked for anything more. I’m also going to be brutally honest: this experience opened my eyes to way of life that I admit to not fully understand or ever begin to imagine, yet still appreciate at the same time how people in this society help out another in times of need. It truly makes me grateful for all that I have in my life. I will never forget any of the friends I encountered here, nor any of my experiences, nor the breathtaking scenery within this incredibly beautiful country. This might as well have been one of the best weeks of my whole 22 years. Ecuador, you will be greatly missed.
Today, we arrived in the hidden village of Yunguilla. For those of you who are not so geographically savvy, Yunguilla is about 1-2 hours away from Quito, in the middle of, well, basically nowhere. Even though this small town lives off one small store and the working mentality of its citizens, I don’t think I have ever seen such humble and content people. Upon our first day of arrival, we were greeted by the friendly smiles of home stay families. For the next week, we would be emerged in the houses of these strangers who we knew nothing about. Little did I know that these “strangers” did not posses any qualities of being “weird” or “strange.” My homestay mother welcomed Lilly and me into her home with a warm smile and fresh popcorn. Within the first few moments, I knew that I felt right at home in this hilltop abode. One of the moments that has touched me the most since I have been here is when I was working in the artesian shop with one of the most warm hearted women that I have had the chance of meeting. Being able to help out “Leely” with making crafts to sell in the little store was an experience that I would never of thought could teach me so much. As we began to work, she told me about the paper that we were drawing on. Every single piece was recycled and the materials were either second-hand or completely natural, such as leaves or flowers. As I began to draw, I realized that I did not really have room to mess up. I didn’t have paper and fresh markers at my beck and call as I do in the United States. These recycled paper cards were sold to villagers and tourists in order to further gain profit for the community. As Leely and I began to talk, she told me that she works three days a week and each day, 8 to 10 hours. She does this while balancing raising two daughters and working as an avid member and citizen of Yunguilla. Her story inspired me. Seeing her be so passionate about the glitter paint and colored pencils that went into making these heart-felt crafts reminded me of how blessed I am to be able to take art class and visit museums and buy a fresh poster board and markers any time I have an upcoming project. Being here in Yunguilla is an eye-opening experience for me, and I have become more thankful for the little things, such as making Mother’s Day cards in a little shack with the presence of genuine companions.