Dec 26 (Wednesday)
I met students David and Brittany at the County Market in Canton at 4:30. I drove down to St. Louis, mostly n the rain and dark. We checked in to the Marriott, waited for another member of our party, and went to dinner.
Dec 27 (Thursday)
We ate breakfast at the hotel and took a shuttle to the airport, where we met the rest of the students. We checked our bags and I distributed the T shirts. We went through security for the first of many times. I had forgotten to put my Swiss Army knife in my checked bag, so I stuck it in my backpack. It went through without difficulty. Of all people, Brent was chosen for the thorough search. Our flight left on time and we landed in Atlanta without difficulty. We had 4 hours to burn before our next flight. Owing to some confusing signage, many of us had to go through security again. They ran my backpack through the X ray machine twice, but they didn’t catch the knife. Our flight was delayed somewhat. We sat near the gate, read and played cards. Finally, we got on the plane and left Georgia in the dark. It was a 5-hour flight to Quito. They showed the movie Stardust, which I had just seen a few weeks earlier. I watched it with the Spanish language channel, which was good practice. Our landing in Quito was decidedly rough. It was an “All hands brace for impact” moment, but it turned out all right. We went through immigration and customs, which required more X-raying of our stuff, and met our guide Marta. She showed us to our bus and gave us a little introduction to Ecuador on the way to the hotel. We checked in and got to bed late, like midnight. Many people reported that their sleep was poor for various reasons. For me, it was strange to be hearing frogs again.
Dec 28 (Friday)
We rose early, got breakfast at a buffet full of interesting local dishes, and loaded back into the bus. We got a great look at the city as we went back across town to the airport. Many flowers were in bloom. The city sits in a valley among the mountains.
Quito, Plaza de Toros (bullfighting stadium)
We went through security AGAIN, checked our bags, endured confusion with respect to our tickets, and waited in yet more lines. When we got to the gate, there was even more confusion about which gate was actually ours, and when we would board. Eventually we did board the 737 and made the short flight to Guayaquil, which is on the coast of Ecuador. We didn’t have to get off the plane, but we did have to sit on the ground for a half hour. A two-hour flight through the clouds took us to the Galapagos. As we descended through the clouds, we could see Santa Cruz and Baltra, the former US air base.
Farms on the Andean highlands. Santa Cruz Island at left, Baltra at right
We had a smooth landing, waited in more lines, got our luggage, and waited for the bus. This is where we saw our first lava lizards and land iguanas. We met our guide Mauricio, took a bus on a short ride across Baltra, and loaded onto a ferry. A short trip across the strait of Itabasca landed us on Santa Cruz. We saw blue-footed boobies plunge diving, and our first frigate birds. There were Sally Lightfoot crabs all over the shore, and a couple of sea lions hanging about. We loaded into yet another bus and drove across Santa Cruz. We passed from the arid zone into the scrub zone and the Scalesia zone. It’s so weird to see plants in flower in December. It was really cool. When we got near the southern side of the island, we saw tortoises out grazing in the fields. We had a nice lunch at the hotel, checked in and got into our rooms. Some of the balconies had great views of the bay.
View from my room. The room I shared with the boys, as neat as it would ever be.
David Phillips and Brent Groesch, the two ruffians I shared a room with. I have no complaints about their company. Giant prickly pear tree. David is the one reaching up to take a photo. He’s 6′ 3″.
Group photo, fake background. Me and a half-grown tortoise.
Almost everyone at entrance to Station. Stephanie demonstrates sunscreen application technique. Sadly, she got burned anyway. Equatorial sun beats Irish redhead every time.
Shortly, we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Station. We saw the tortoise rearing facility, which had some little baby tortoises in nurseries, and some large older individuals as well. Lonesome George sleeps in the middle of the day, so we only saw a bit of his shell. The prickly pear cactus trees were huge around there. We also saw the mockingbird, yellow warbler, and one of the finches. We walked back into town, looked through some of the shops and made phone calls back home in these telephone booths where you can pay cheaply by the minute. My efforts to rent or buy a cell phone were useless. It was very warm and rather humid most of the day, and mostly cloudy. We had a nice dinner at the hotel again. I swam in the pool for a short while. Some of the students went out for shopping and other pursuits, but I went to catch up on this narrative and get some sleep.
Dec 29 (Saturday)
We took a boat ride out to Floreana, and older island to the south. Along the way, we saw an albatross and many dolphins. We ferried into the pier on a smaller boat. Before we got on the bus, one of the women fell and sprained her ankle. Fortunately, Tama applied some traditional Chinese techniques, which was very handy, as I had left the first aid kit at the Hotel. We rode the bus up a hill and hiked around, seeing many tortoises in a semi-wild condition. We got good looks at the vegetation. I saw monarchs, cloudless sulfurs, skippers, and many carpenter bees. We visited the little spring that provides the island’s 120 occupants with water.
Spring. Rock carved by early settlers; note clever use of ferns for hair.
Girls on the street: Chaundra, Jacquez, Maria, Jenn. Peek-a-boo girls: Kristin, Sandy, Gayla, Brittany.
We saw some neat rock formations, pirate caves, and old settlers buildings. We took the bus back down to the tiny town and had a great lunch, with Darwin’s finches hopping around and begging for food. We walked down to the pier, where there were many Sally lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas (much more colorful here), and sea lions. They had a hard time getting the attention of the boat driver to pick us up. They hauled us out in two boatloads, but Gayla had left her sunglasses at the eatery and ran back. We took off before she returned, and boy did she look panicked, but we turned around and got her.
Gayla runs to catch the boat. Devil’s Crown.
We took the boat out to the famous Devil’s Crown, but didn’t see the penguins in the place where we had the best chance. We geared up for snorkeling and all got in the water. It was a little rough, deep and cold, but our wetsuits did the job, except that Stephanie, an excellent swimmer, went without. One got a bit freaked, so I took her back to the boat. There were tremendous numbers and diversity of fish, many pencil urchins, and some sea stars. We angled over to a cave, where stingrays were resting in the bottom. There was a school of big blue fish in one spot, and some white corals. There was another cave, or really a hole in the rock underwater. I saw a bunch of fish suddenly swim out of it, followed by a sea lion (fortunately not a shark). Later, the guide and Stephanie swam through the hole to the other side. Steph scraped her heels on the rocks. I went too, with Brittany supposedly following, but she didn’t show up. Her full-length wet suit had floated her to the top of the hole. She pushed herself out by hand, and scratched her palms up. It’s hard to catch your breath while breathing through a tube, but I eventually went back through the hole. Then we saw more sea lions and a sea turtle, and swam along with the latter. Many students got scratched up on the rocks for one reason or another.
Sandy and Kristin. Tama looks on while Sandy and Gayla try out the cargo bike.
A boat ride back to the hotel brought us showers, then dinner, during which a native Indian band played. I thought they were great. We did some shopping, then went to a nightclub where we all got one free drink, arranged by our guide. Almost everyone danced, and Gayla got a long lesson from a local guy who was really good. Turns out it was at least in part a gay bar, however, and one guy walked in and tried to pick up both Dave and Brent. Later, I said, “Hey, what am I, chopped liver?”
Brittany finds the best place to sleep in the boat. Indian band.
Dec 30 (Sunday)
Santa Cruz Island
We rode in two small boats, first along a rock wall where we got close looks at blue-footed boobies and brown noddies. A couple of the noddies were acting naughty.
Blue panga. Naughty noddies.
We went through the Canal de Amor, with clear blue water, and got out on Punto Estrada. After a short hike we came to a pool where 4 white-tipped sharks were resting on the bottom.
Love Canal. Sea lions on the pier.
Then another came and swam around, sometimes shallow. We hiked to the other side of the point and found some large marine iguana colonies. One male let us get very close, and we took our pictures with it.
Friendly iguana. Tolerant, at least.
On the way back we ran across a hermit crab.
CO2 makes hermit crabs come out of their shell. Great blue heron salute.
We got back in the boats and motored to another part of the bay (Playa de los Alemanes), where we disembarked and hiked 1 km, past salt flats, to a brackish, deep lagoon (las grietas). Some of the locals did cliff diving into it.
Salt mines. Note use of cinder block and bamboo in domestic construction.
Cliff diver jumps off. Another splashes down.
We snorkeled it without wetsuits, as it was warm. Not many fish, but it was neat, and the students got to practice in a more friendly environment. Brittany grabbed someone else’s leg to scare her. So I dove deep and came up under Brittany and grabbed her leg, totally scaring her. Some of us climbed up on the rocks and did some shorter dives. We hiked back to the boats and motored over to a small island. Along the way, we saw sea turtles mating and a small hammerhead shark. We anchored in the lee of the island, but there was still some heavy surf. There were sea lions and marine iguanas. There were lots of big colorful fish. I went over to where the marine iguanas were coming from, and saw a big, beautiful male, blue, red and black, eating the algae from a rock. I called to the students, but only David came over. On the way, a sea lion nipped at his fins. He stuck his camera in its face and took a picture. It still didn’t let go. It was hilarious. As we were watching the iguana, the surge got stronger. I swam against it and managed to get out into deep water again, but David was washed ashore. He got cut up on the rocks and was really tired from fighting the current. Everyone was yelling at him to stay off the rocks and swim back out. After he rested a bit, he came back to the boat. There were lots of sea lions about, up to their highjinks swimming around us. At one time, four females were swimming all around us. I picked up a pencil urchin to look at. Diving into the deep water was fun, to look at the big fish. And I did see another iguana cropping short algae from the rocks. We got in late for lunch, and soon head out for a rough 20-mile bus ride, and a 1 km hike to Garrapatero Beach. Tama and I took a side trip to a lagoon to look at flamingos. There were two, and I photographed them to death. Also there were teal and shorebirds. The students said the water was warm, but I didn’t swim. We played hackysack and Britt took the pictures. At 5 the beach captain kicked us out, saying the beach closed at 5. Locals continued to arrive, so I doubted his veracity somewhat. We hiked back to the bus and endured the rough ride home. There was a nice sunset. This was the first sunny day, as it has been overcast until now. We got back just in time for dinner. Afterward we went shopping and had a couple of beers.
I had taped Jenn’s ankle, and it held up really well during the hiking. I had also put bandaids on Steph’s wounds, and they stayed on even in the ocean.
Dec 31 (Monday)
We walked from the hotel down a sidewalk trail 3 km to Tortuga Bay, a long beach with lots of wave action, unsuitable for swimming. We saw tracks of sea turtles that had come up on shore, perhaps to lay eggs. We walked all the way down this beach to another one in a protected bay, relatively shallow. We swam there with the eagle rays, sting rays and sea turtles. Tama and I rented a double kayak and paddled it along the mangroves on both sides of the bay. In one spot, there were about 30 good sized white-tipped sharks right underneath us. The rays and turtles liked this spot too. We saw a lava heron on its nest in the mangroves, and a marine iguana chase a couple of others off his personal pile of rocks. I had bought a hammock to put my stuff on, as apparently none of the two dozen shops here sells beach towels (though every one has the requisite “I love boobies” T shirt). We hung it up in a tree and took several people’s picture in it.
Me in my hammock, relaxing in the Islands.
It’s surprisingly comfortable. At 11 we packed up and walked out. I got a nice sunburn on top of my feet and legs. Jenn had about 6 blisters on her feet, which I tended with moleskin thereafter. I took a nap after lunch, and we took a bus to Los Gemelos, some large pit craters. From there, we drove a short distance to the lava tube. It’s illuminated with incandescent lights. There’s a tight spot we all had to crawl through. It was much like a cave, but with no formations. After we emerged from the other end of the tube, we took the bus to Primicias Reserve, a farm that has a lot of tortoises. We took lots of pictures, and some video of feeding behavior. There was a big eatery and shop there. They had a couple of old tortoise shells that we got inside and goofed off with.
Two tortoise boys. Mauricio, our guide in the Islands.
On the way back, we picked up 4 guys, friends of the guide, who would otherwise had a long walk back to town. I took another nap, a shower, wrote this entry, and prepared for New Year’s eve. The town tradition is to make cardboard and paper mache effigies and burn them. Some men dress up as widows and beg for money. It’s hilarious. We went out on the town for a couple of beers, more shopping, and to see the New Year’s festivities. There was a huge gathering in front of a bandshell down by the pier. There was a beauty contest among the widows, including sexy dancing by all the shemales. A lot of the subtleties were lost, as I was unable to understand most of the Spanish, except when they asked e
ach contestant how they reacted on the night their husband died. One screamed, the others gave vent to various moanings and lamentations. The winner got $100.
One of Las Miudas. A man-puppet.
The shops that had made life-sized puppets burned them in the street. At midnight, there was a great fireworks show, right over our heads. Afterward the band began to play. They were excellent, I guess salsa was their style. They had dancing girls that didn’t sing or play any instruments. One of the students later got up on stage and danced with one. I had a headache, sore feet, and was tired and sunburnt. I went back to the hotel and to sleep. Most of the students stayed out later. It was an amazingly safe environment. There were no creepazoids about, and everyone seemed to get along. The balcony doors are open slats, so I heard the party continue…until I got up at 6 AM! I went out to take some pics in the streets. There were drunk people passed out on benches, and others being led away staggering. These people know how to party.
Jan 1 (Tuesday)
We took the bus across Santa Cruz Island, seeing our last tortoises on the roadside. We ferried across to Baltra and bussed gain to the airport. Our guide left us at the ferry. It’s a damned good thing we had Maria Elena Alejandre with us. She’s not only a very nice and helpful student, but a fluent speaker of Spanish. I never would have gotten us on the plane. I shopped, drank a coke and photographed some lizards. They ended up calling for boarding early, and I had to rush around finding students. Some had just ordered French fries (the first they would have had in at least a week), but couldn’t stay to eat them. We flew to Guayaquil. I sat next to a lady and her baby. The baby was fine until right around when we had to descend, then she barfed. The mother cleaned it up with a blanket, but there was still considerable residue on the seat after they left. On the plane, one student had swollen legs from her sunburn. By the time we got to the airport in Quito, she was looking pretty bad, and I decided to get her to a doctor. Fortunately, the hotel had a house doctor, who came up to her room, examined and treated her, all for $50. She had sun poisoning, as I expected. It was a real hairball getting students into rooms, getting baggage out of storage and making plans for the evening. Wrangling 12 students and dealing with multiple crises is like the proverbial herding of cats. Later we had two more girls get sick, one with GI problems and fever. She looked the worst. She didn’t want to see a doctor, but I made an executive decision. While the doctor was there I had her look at the roommate, who had a throat infection. I didn’t let the students leave the hotel that night. It has a casino and bar, which was plenty to keep them busy. I have to thank Stacey and Savannah at this point for giving me practice in how to tape a sprained ankle and how to tell when a girl is sick enough to need a doctor, respectively.
Jan 2 (Wednesday)
We took a bus ride. Along the way we stopped at Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the earth. This was the guide giving us a freebie, as it wasn’t included in our tour. There’s a huge monument where the French surveyed in the equatorial line in the 1700s. Later, more accurate methods showed that it was further north, exactly where the Indians had placed it thousands of years ago. I saw my GPS cross 0 latitude for a second, but snapped the pic at 0.003 minutes N. Our first stop was at the Mindo cloud forest. There were lots of cool flowers and plants, but not many birds. We hiked up steep, rocky, muddy terrain at high altitude in the rain. At the end, most of us stripped to our bathing suits and stood under the cold, beautiful waterfall. It had an excellent effect on my hair. The challenge was drying off, removing mud and getting back into clothes. We hiked back down in the slippery mud to the orchid farm. Not as fascinating, but some interesting flowers. The next stop was the lunch place, Sachatamia Rainforest Research, which had a bunch of hummingbird feeders, and an incredible number and variety of exotic looking hummingbirds. Sadly, the rain and low light levels made photography difficult. We continued to the butterfly conservatory, which had about 20 species. It was nice to see some insects, but it couldn’t compare to Butterfly World in Florida. I took lots of pics, as expected. Then it was a 3-hour bus ride back to Quito, mostly in the rain. We all napped. There was a phone cafe across the street that we used to call home.
The monument to Mitad del Mundo. Here’s what the GPS said there.
A short way up the street and we’re closer to the mark. The trail map to the waterfall.
Our guide in the mainland, Marta. I meditated for 5 breaths. I was really concentrated for 3 or 4 of them, I swear!
Jan 3 (Thursday)
I woke up at 3 AM with the Inca two-step. I visited the bathroom every 20 minutes afterward. About half of our group had it at this point, and nearly all would have it by the end. I got an Immodium from one of our guys.
We rented a bus for a two-hour ride north. Our first stop was at Cuicocha, a beautiful natural lake in the mountains. We passed on the boat ride, and just took a little hike on a trail up a hillside to get a good overview on the lake. There were lots of flowers and stuff along the way. We took the bus back to Otavalo. Now, all along the way, the driver had trouble finding gears on the thing. Half way down the mountain he grinds a gear, then the a loud thunka-thunka sound starts coming from under the bus. Sounded like the U joint, but I didn’t crawl under to look. He made a few attempts to fix it and a few phone calls. He eventually flagged down a public bus which we took just a few miles in to Otavalo. That was interesting. It was standing room only among the local people, which included little old ladies, school girls in uniform, work men, and ladies breast-feeding their children.
We got to the market, which takes up an entire plaza, or square city block. I shopped a little, and stopped to eat, as I was feeling poorly. I had about the worst hamburger I’ve had in years. The patty was compressed and looked a little green. We continued shopping until the designated meeting hour, then did another half hour. The place was full of indigenous craft products: clothing of alpaca wool, blankets, tablecloths, sweaters, ponchos, jewelry, carvings, paintings, purses, hammocks, etc. I bought way too much stuff, and had to buy a bag to put it in. It was fun at first haggling over prices, and my Spanish held up well, even though many of the vendors spoke with a Quechua accent. When we got back on the bus, a local girl got on and sang us a few songs, most in Quechua, but one in Spanish. Then she went around and sold us stuff out of her little bag. I bought a couple of scarves. We let her off at her home village. She was 13. I told some of our students they were slackers by comparison. This little girl has a regular racket going. After the long, uneventful ride home, we went out to at a traditional Ecuadoran restaurant. I tried chicha, a local favorite drink (fermented corn). Many of the student and I tried cuy, breaded and fried guinea pig. I was joking beforehand, asking if it came with the head and eyes on, like a trout. It actually came with the severed head, and they leave the claws on the feet. It was really good, like a sweet chicken. There was a guitar player who was very good. Back at the hotel, we went up to the bar to hear another guitar player. He turned out to be more of a singer, with amplified back up music that was too boomy. Mauricio had taught us a couple of sayings that I’m trying to remember here. Instead of saying “cheese” for a picture “Me gusta la chicha, la cana, la yucca, y la cerveza.” (I like chicha, sugar cane, yucca cakes, and beer). As a toast: “Arriba, a bajo, al lado, otro lado, al centro, al dentro.” (Up, down, to one side, to the other side, to the center, to the inside.”
A shopkeeper where I left a wad of cash. The 13-year-old charmer on the bus.
Jan 4 – 5
I slept in a little. I went out on the balcony to take in the view, and saw a hawk swoop at a little bird. I went down to the gardens and took pictures of birds. We let the students sleep in and met at the lobby at 10:30. Most of them wanted to go to Old Town, the historic part of the city. Tama and I went to take a tramway (Teleferico) up to near the top of Mount Pichincha. It was 4100 m elevation there, or about 13,500 ft. The signs say “Slow, don’t run.” After about 5 steps up we were breathing hard. The altitude effects were tangible. Every time I bent down to photograph a flower, I got up dizzy. We walked a little further up the mountain. There’s a horse rental there, but I don’t know if they were open. We ran into an exchange student from Ohio who had just arrived two days previously. She had a lot to look forward to.
Warning signs. They’re serious about this.
After we got back down the mountain, I recognized our doctor, Ximena (which I think is a lovely name), who was taking some visiting family members around town. She asked how our girls were doing. I mentioned that I had used her as an example of bedside manner, professionalism and caring, since most of our students are pre-med. I also mentioned I wasn’t feeling too good that day, and she noted that I was a little pale. Damn she was good!
We took a cab to El Panecillo, a giant statue of the winged virgin standing on a dragon (the devil) whom she has chained. There were more shops there, so we naturally bought more stuff. We ate bananas for lunch, and they were good. We took another cab down to Old Town and walked around. We didn’t go into any of the churches, but visited a few shops along the way. Ecuador is absolutely crazy about soccer. Every other store was a soccer shop, and I am not kidding. I bought some jerseys for Savannah. We took another cab back to the hotel and met our students for dinner at Hunter’s, basically an American restaurant, but cheaper. I had an excellent steak for about six dollars.
Pork was obviously on the menu at El Panecillo, but this was enough to make even an obligate carnivore like me turn frugivore.
Tama Weisman, a great traveling partner. Me at El Panecillo, overlooking the city of Quito.
We took a bus to the airport, and let the fun begin. Security, immigration, checking baggage, standing in line. We had to pay the requisite $45 to leave the country. A young Chilean guy was standing near the line asking for money (in very poor English), as he didn’t have the fee. I gave him a dollar and all my useless Ecuadoran change. I thought that his black T-shirt featuring a fist holding a marijuana leaf and the slogan “Disfruta sus derechos” (Enjoy your rights) was probably not going to earn him the smoothest transitions through airports. One of our guys had his luggage chosen for the random search. The plane left at 10:30 P.M.
After the short flight to Guayaquil, we all had to get off the plane, go into the terminal, go back through security, and get back on the SAME DAMN PLANE. Some stupid Ecuadoran rule. Meanwhile, one of our girls had lost her boarding pass. The flight from Guayaquil to Atlanta was the long leg, and I slept as much as I could, as it was the red-eye. Atlanta was another series of hassles: security, immigration, customs, baggage claim, baggage check, security again, and a 3-hour layover. One piece of luggage was thought to be lost, when another student had picked it up as a favor. At one point we all had to stop in our tracks for a security breach. After a couple of minutes they let us move on. When we got back to St. Louis, one piece of luggage didn’t show up with the rest. We contacted an agent, and it finally came out on the carousel. All the students were picked up by someone, except for my two, who drove back to Canton with me.
In summary, I think Brent put it best, “Ecuador: beautiful country, beautiful people.”