22.05.2016 - 22.05.2016
I wasn't holding my breath for Quito. After Lima's city centre (not to be confused for the gorgeousness of Miraflores) I can't say I was expecting much of Ecuador's capital. But I was pleased to have my expectations surpassed.
We stayed at a great hostel called the Blue House (well recommended if you find yourself in Quito) and the area around us was bustling with nightlife and swarming with activity - but I'll come back to that shortly.
We'd heard about a volcano with a crater we could walk down to. Alas, when we got to the top, the "crater" below was nothing more than a green village with mountains around it. It wasn't an impressive sight. In fact, for me, the best thing was the organic chocolate and orange cake I procured at the summit's cafe. Deciding this would not be a great deal of fun, we headed instead to the centre of the earth!
Mitad deal Mundo was a great surprise. In fact, I hadn't expected more than paint on the equator line and a picture moment. But they had an excellent monument constructed at the site which housed a cultural and science-based museum. You were faced with fun little experiments and facts about magnets, gravity, and the effects of the equator on the world. As you ascended further there was information about the history of Ecuador, particularly the tribes within (apparently Shua is actually Shuar - oops, my bad. I stayed with them, too, so I should've known better!) The top offered excellent views of the surrounding mountains and city below.
After you're done with the museum and have taken all the snaps you want of lying on the equatorial line, there's still more to do. A visit to the chocolate factory (yep, it tastes excellent), as well as several art galleries, a planetarium, information about the French missionaries, and a handful of shops and cafes - all included in the entrance fee to the museum. All in all, Mitad del Mundo was well worth the visit and highly recommended.
So, having seen what nightlife surrounded our hostel when we arrived late on Friday, we were eager to sample it ourselves the following night. Which we did! Though drinking out in Quito can be expensive, like many places geared in a similar way, there are countless two-for-one offers, happy hours, and free shots to find! The atmosphere was great and, despite some suggestions it wasn't completely safe, we didn't have any trouble and everyone returned to the hostel in one piece, albeit a little late...
...which made the early 5am start the next day a little interesting. With blood-shot eyes, cracked lips, and breath that could melt an ashtray, we headed to Mindo.
Mindo was a bit like Baños in that the town seemed geared towards extreme activities and having fun. There were a lot of choices of things to do and tour companies to book them through. In the end we settled on three options:
1. Visiting a butterfly farm. While not exactly extreme, it was not to be missed. You could easily get them to sit on your fingers while they ate the banana goo from your skin. But the real joy came when they spread their wings - those little butterflies are colour as fuck! Unfortunately, you need to be careful walking around. We were warned early that some of the butterflies would by lying on the floor. I didn't really notice where I was going, and, well, one thing led to another and...I still maintain it was the butterfly's fault! Yes, yes. I killed a beautiful butterfly. But my guilt (guilt, hah!) lasted all of a second before my eyes were caught by the plethora of colours whipping through the air around us. Incredible!
2. Incredible, but not adrenaline-pumping. Which is why our next activity was tubing. For those that don't know (like me), tubing is effectively white water rafting without all those pesky safety aspects like paddles and steering included. If anyone remembers me gushing over the fun I had with the rapids in Baños on the raft, you might remember how shocked I was at the apparent lack of health of safety. Well, if anything, tubing was even worse. We were given a hard hat and a floatation vest and basically told to hold on and not fall in. As our guides (who didn't have hats or vests) pushed us down this river, we were bashed from side to side, spun in a constant rotation so nobody could see what was coming for very long, stuck on rocks, and occasionally submerged under the white waves. But that only made the whole experience even better! Like with everything in South America, the apparent lack of health and safety just added adrenalin to the danger.
3. Which was why the next task was so fun. We were supposed to go visiting several waterfalls with the prospect of maybe jumping in one. Unfortunately, pushed for time, I gravitated towards the one waterfall I could jump in. The path to the jump was special in and of itself - slippy and wet steps worn smooth many years ago, a metal railing that was one push away from collapse, and needing the use of a rope to scramble up the side of the cliff. The waterfall was a roaring and churning mass of water, smashing down over giant boulders, boiling and bubbling into the relentless current below. It looked perfect. I couldn't understand *all* of the "safety" instructions the man explained to me, but neither of us were particularly bothered by this fact. I understood the basics. I would jump straight, not hit the rocks, and - most importantly - not drown. He had a rope tied around me to prevent me getting sucked under by the current. So, having paid my $3, what else was there to do but jump? The fall was further than the bungee jump I did off the bridge and the impact was so forceful it dragged the air from my lungs. After hitting the rocks at the riverbed, I pushed myself to breathless surface. I wasn't expecting the current to be so strong and suddenly the water dragged me under and along the floor. I surfaced again and was suddenly glad of the rope tied around me. Between a mixture of swimming and (mostly) the rope, I managed to reach the shore and safety. Possibly the least safe thing I'd done thus far in South America. Now I wanted to do it again. Shame I ran out of time.
Monday morning came and brought with it it's own particular brand of fears.
I was on my way to teach English to children as part of an outreach programme.
We arrived at the school (Fundación Honrar la Vida) and shown around by the director. Basically, the school worked with disadvantaged children who suffered at home because of their parents' domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependency, and even prostitution. The director explained that the children aren't shown much affection and his goal in the school (aside from education) was to teach them how to express themselves through art and music, how to have a happy place they can come to, to be shown affection and love. We ended up meeting the children during their break time and playing with them. Initially they were a little recalcitrant, but maybe that was because they were suddenly faced with an enormous idiot who couldn't speak their language. But, being a child at heart myself, I soon got through to them by giving piggy back and shoulder rides. Next I was lifting the children up and helping them do pull ups to ring the school bell - very soon, a line of kids appeared (with a Suspicious Tom waiting in the line too...) all wanting to be picked up and flown around.
Despite being a wise-assed cheeky bastard, this all tugged quite hard on my heart. I felt a tragic helplessness. How was it that such lovely and happy children could come from homes that were a polar-opposite reflection of their personalities and energies? I really wanted to help and figured if someone wanted me to teach, I would teach!
Thankfully (for the children) the director had a better idea than for us to teach English. With a view that he wanted the children to have a pretty place to come to, somewhere they were happy to attend and felt safe inside, he asked if we would paint the wall outside the school. Where it wasn't covered in graffiti the wall was crumbling and dirty and grey. The whole area was largely unpainted and unappealing concrete structures. We wanted to give them a school they would be happy to see!
So, the next morning while Georgie and Bryony finalised the design of the mural and theme, the rest of us white-washed the wall. Rashid and I scraped the spray paint off the windows. Tom and Alex set to work playing guitar and teaching the children music. Within four seconds of picking up a paintbrush and roller, I was covered in splats of white paint. By the end, I was almost certain I had half a tin of white paint over me instead of the wall.
The next morning we were met about 3am with another earthquake. Nothing was damaged or broken but I was woken by a rumbling in the night, though (being me) I wasn't aware of it until the following morning when I was told it was an earthquake. While painting the school, what we thought was an aftershock was actually another earthquake. It was fairly strange feeling the whole street move and shake. It wasn't too bad if you were moving but as soon as you stopped it was instantly noticeable. Everything was shaking! Given this was my first real, conscious, experience of a proper quake, and considering it was a relatively weak one, it was a little disturbing. It didn't last long though, and we continued our painting.
I personally (and unfortunately, for all lovers of art and aesthetics) painted a rainbow, a sun, Tom and I collaborated on a colourful macaw, I splashed on a couple of trees, helped finish the waterfall, a lake surrounded by mountains and a volcano, and generally made a mess! It was a fun way to volunteer, but oddly (or maybe not oddly, considering) uplifting work. I get a real sense of pride as the wall came together.
Georgie and Bryony's designs were incredible! Georgie's outlines and placements were perfect. She nailed the giant school logo of five giant hands in a circle, of which the director was very particular about and ultimately very impressed with. Bryony smashed the jaguar, monkey, and condor. Aaron's sloth was awesome, as was everyones work.
The final morning we finished the wall. We all placed our hand prints under the school name and asked for the children to do the same. Every day I would look at our paintings with a new sense of pride and fellowship. Everyone helped, even those of us who can't draw to save a life. But on the last day, I was more than a little overcome. Not wanting to labour the point too much I genuinely feel as though we created something beautiful for the children that will improve their lives. If only a little bit, I think we made their world a brighter place.
A few of us went to visit an outdoor climbing wall in Ecuador. Sadly, the main wall was being worked on for a competition at the weekend so we couldn't use it, but we were allowed to use the bouldering wall and brick building. Which we did. Aaron and Bryony are fucking gods on the wall (at least compared to my feeble efforts) but myself, Rashid and Sam still made it up to the top of the brick building. We were impressed with ourselves, having never free climbed before and certainly not to these heights. There was nothing below us but gravel and hard floor. Nothing holding us on but our own grip and balance (my balance was clearly on point that day). We were ultimately told off for climbing without using ropes and belays, but that only made us feel prouder for climbing it all without any safety. To our defence, the man who told us we could climb it offered us no ropes or harnesses and told us to just go for it. Given the lack of safety apparent through South America, we accepted this as the way it was! It was initially daunting to climb without any support (especially with my ankle and shoulder still playing up) but so worth the effort at the top.
And because I love bikes, I was more than a little excited about our next activity. A shame it wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but in hindsight it should offer a little chuckle. I hope.
We took a cable car up to 4100 meters on the path of sea volcano. Here we met a man who was kind enough to provide us with several bikes in order for us to race down the mountainside. As we started, the views were concealed from us because of fog and rain, but that didn't stop me.
What did stop me was my chain breaking. That isn't an incredible issue when cycling downhill, but it does pose a problem when cycling through Quito city to get back to the rental shop! I had to use my feet to propel me onwards if ever I found myself on an uphill or level path. But that's by the by. What really became a problem was the lack of brakes. That and the lack of grip on the tires. If it wasn't for the frame, you couldn't possibly have guessed these were bikes built for mountain biking. So from the beginning I found myself without a chain, without brakes, without grip. If it wasn't for my natural sense of balance and coordination (if you're reading this, Tricia, stop laughing!) I probably would've fallen off more than the four times I did do! Still, I survived, and while the ride wasn't as if hoped, it was still an amusing experience. If only in hindsight.
Otavalo (pronounced "ota-barlow") market was next. The most famous and colourful market in South America, and one of the top 15 places to visit in Lonely Planet's guide to South America. I've got to say, as far as markets go, I was pleasantly surprised. It was certainly colourful and certainly active. There were hundreds and hundreds of stalls. A lot of the places sold similar (if not identical) things but you could find the odd stall that has unique items. Everyone was ready to haggle and I'm certain we all came away with some decent purchases. It's just trying to figure out how to get them all home that's the problem - Heaven only knows how Aaron is going to manage with his metal tree!
We ended the day visiting Laguna de Cuicocha, a natural yet sulphurous lagoon formed on the crater of a volcano. Considering how I started this blog post, I think this is a nice way to bring it nearly to an end. This is how a volcano crater should be dammit (I'm joking - I don't really expect craters to stick to the way I want them to look) and it was fully glorious. The sulphur in the water prevented swimming but we went out on a boat to get some nice snaps of the crater and the water shimmering with sunlight. Beautiful and with no fee to enter a definite must if you're in the area.
And on Sunday night, we had a bittersweet meal. We had a meal to say farewell to Frank. Like Stefan before him, this would be our last night with Frank. Frank has been a great guide to us, taking us to places off the tour map, helping translate for me when I was hopeless, putting up with our demands and requests and generally just helping us through Peru and Ecuador. Frank is heading back to Lima now while we go elsewhere...
...because that's it with Quito, and Ecuador, and mainland South America. Now I'm off elsewhere. Now I'm off to a place I didn't think I could actually get to. Now I'm off to a place I used to watch in nature documentaries when I was a child (all those long years ago).
Now I'm off to the Galápagos Islands!