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Quito: Third Time’s a Charm

Colonial, historical splendor, with mountains: View from the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito, Ecuador.

1st Try Quito: Dusty, Overcast, Lonely

Perhaps it is a silly thing to say, but generally I fall in love with the places I visit, usually for different reasons: Costa Rica for jungles, monkeys and beaches; Mexico for sublime tacos, architecture and history; Colombia for lush green mountains and an excellent experience meeting friends and practicing Spanish at a Spanish language school (see here for the school I studied at); and etc. But Quito and I had a series of misunderstandings the first few times I passed through its bustling white-washed, cracked concrete.

Weepy Jesuses always fascinate me, given I grew up Protestant. The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, 18th Century

My initial impressions of the city, after arriving tired and exhausted from an overnight flight into an eerily empty hostel, and after spending a few days getting myself arranged for the Amazon, were: Windy, dry, overcast, dusty, square white buildings, cream tones, concrete, buses, clothing black and navy, some white and jeans; white fine bread that disintegrates in your mouth when you are hungry, long bus rides for only 25 cents, tiresome bargaining in taxis, men staring me down such that after a few days I begin to fantasize about shaving my hair entirely and dressing in extremely bulky clothing, lots of cigarettes being sold on every corner, women selling fresh juice and bags of mandarins from the street, a loud, packed street called Amazonas nearby. And it goes on. Not all of these impressions are specifically negative; some are quite positive (lots of fresh fruit and cheap bus fare!).

However, as a person who thrives in forest and green leaves, the dryness and aridness of Quito’s streets, buildings, and landscapes did little to attract my attention. I was also preparing to go into the Amazon that first time in Quito and admittedly had some fear wrapped around me those days leading up to my trip to Puyo and beyond. And given there was only one other person in my hostel, I had no one to go exploring the city with, or even to talk to–thank goodness for Whatsapp and my dear friends back home for filling in the void while I stayed in that lonely hostel.

Sick and Tired the Second Time Around

For my second visit to Quito I stayed at Vibes Hostel in the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, a crashpad after spending a few weeks in the Amazon. Again, circumstances worked against a positive relationship between me and Quito–I was sick with a parasite for days, and couldn’t get myself out to do even the free walking tour or change to a better location. Vibes itself reeked of neglect, and I lamented my choice of hostel when it became clear the place was infested with bed bugs—never before have I seen bed bugs scampering about like that and biting me brazenly in the afternoon. Several mattresses were removed from different rooms while I was there. Furthermore, the Marsical Sucre neighborhood felt rough around the edges–always men about, not many women. After a few days I began to think about shaving my head again.

This sketchy neighborhood, which nonetheless seems to have the most hostels, bars and restaurants, generally clustered around the Plaza Poch, perplexed me. Or was the “sketchy” feeling just my own perception? I’ll admit, a distinct form of paranoia got stuck in my psyche while in the Amazon jungle which I couldn’t quite shake it for many weeks after. The grimy Vibes Hostel and the Marsical neighborhood did little to help me resolve it.

But it wasn’t just me. A fellow female traveler confirmed the hostel and the neighborhood were not appealing, and that she too felt uncomfortable walking around, even in good ol’ broad daylight. We both happily left Vibes and headed to the town of Mindo, where I’d rented a room with a view of trees for the month.

Third time’s a charm

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A Sort of Boring Walking Tour, but it was free, and I made friends!

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I booked my final nights before heading to Peru at The Secret Garden, located on Los Rios in Quito’s Centro Histórico. My my, what a difference a well-run hostel and a grand location make! The hostel, located in a colonial building, had its own myriad charms: narrow corridors and open spaces, many places to chill and work, and a rooftop bar and restaurant overlooking the mountains, the Virgin of el Panecillo, and just generally, lovely, historical, Quito. Amusingly, my first day there I got lost trying to find my room in the multi-floored, brightly decorated hostel with two sets of staircases and narrow stone corridors. I felt like a little kid playing hide and seek.

It was while staying here that Quito’s delights began to reveal themselves: small details like almuerzos to be found in cafes with whiteboards declaring the specials of the day, usually soups, meat, rice and salad, a fruit juice and a dessert; and steaming, thick, sweet and fruity colada morada served up for Dia de los Muertos.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

Given I was not sick—except for the altitude-induced exhaustion and headaches–I went out with groups from the hostel and enjoyed finding chocolate shops, new spots to eat, old cathedrals, and more. We even took a taxi one night back to the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, where, admittedly, there are many fun places to eat. Still, I’d hold on tight to your belongings in that area, and stay at the Secret Garden.

Posing as Sherlock with my only ad-hoc Halloween prop, my tobacco pipe. In front of the Secret Garden Hostel, Quito.

Quito, I’m glad we made peace and you showed me your magic.

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A Jungle Story: Bugs and a Boa

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A friend pointing out a wandering spider (not as deadly as its cousin the Brazilian Wandering Spider, thank goodness) before killing it.

My Ecuadorian housemate back in Minnesota and I had numerous discussions about the Amazon jungle and what to expect when I went to live there for six weeks.

“There are bugs, Christine,” she told me one night as we were snacking on popcorn in the kitchen. “And they will bite you. All over.”

I remember scoffing playfully. “Yes, there are spiders, scorpions, tailless whip scorpions, moths, butterflies, and other insects in the jungles, but they don’t have clouds of mosquitoes and flies like here in Minnesota.” I was thinking of my time in the coastal jungles of Costa Rica, where bugs were like large animals to watch and enjoy rather than swat away.

My roommate Chela has lived in jungles for extended periods of time. She listened, and then responded, somewhat gravely: “Yes, but there are tiny bugs that bite and sometimes carry parasites that get into the skin. You must wear repellent, and you should ask before you go if they have this parasite in the community. You will need to use good netting at night.”

“Chagas?” I asked. The travel doctor had told me not to Google that one, so I didn’t. (Still have not).

“Yes, that, but also Leishmaniasis,” she said.

Leishmaniasis. The open ulcer on the arm of an American woman I met years ago came to mind immediately. She lived in the green jeweled Caribbean coast of Costa Rica,  where she and her husband cultivated cacao, and made delicious chocolate. She’d called it “jungle disease.”

We talked into the night, back and forth, about what to expect in the Amazon. About bugs and parasites. I felt fine with all of them, knowing if I ended up contracting a parasite I could get treatment afterward. We only stopped when the subject broached snakes, and especially, the fer-de-lans, or, in Spanish, the equis.

“Well,” I sighed. “Let’s not talk about that one.” The ultimate pit viper, they call it.

“You’ll wear rubber boots,” she said.

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Jungle roommate.

The snake arrived the third night in my thatched roof hut. I was just stepping into my hut after using my latrine, still pondering the tailless whip scorpions that lived on its inner wall, an arachnid couple with sizeable but harmless pedipalps and thread like front legs that float and taste the air around them for prey.

Two moving orbs near the front of my hut, in the roof, reflecting my headlamp’s weak beam, caught my attention. I turned on the lightbulb (yes, I had a light bulb hanging in my hut!) and to my alarm, beheld a moderately-sized snake steadily coiling about one of the log beams holding up the roof.

I stared at it for several minutes, and once it noticed me, it created a “U” shape on the beam and rested its head in it, and observed me in return.

I didn’t know whether it was venomous, but its head did look somewhat bulgy on either side, which indicated it might be a viper. Two options came to mind: a) I could leave it be, get into my tent, and hope it went on its way, or b) I could pick up the machete sitting on the table next to me, swing and chop it half.

My adrenaline prompted me to grab the machete, but my brain said: But Cici, you don’t know how snakes react. What if it lunges at your face?

Though it was very late, I walked down the path to my neighbor’s house and, regrettably, woke him up. He came back with me, groggy, but aware that a foreigner like me needed assistance with such things as snake visitors in the night.

“Did you kill it?” he asked me.

“No, no,” I said. “I don’t have much experience with snakes, and I didn’t know how it would react if I approached it.”

We went inside and he walked calmly up to the snake. “It’s a boa.” He turned, relaxed.

“Ah!” I cried in relief. “A pet, then.”

He chuckled and left, and I went to bed.

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A giant carapa tree.

Sr. Boa killed all the bats, one by one, every other night between 9:00 and 10:00pm. I would be sitting at my table, reading, preparing English lessons, and glance up to see him sitting there patiently in a spring-form “S” shape just outside of the noisy bats’ nest. Quite frankly, when I saw him strangling his first victim, I was glad. While I don’t mind bats, and appreciate the fact they eat insects, I didn’t like them living in my hut—they pooped on my things and screeched nonstop sometimes, disrupting my ability to sleep, read, and think.

And when the bats were gone, I never saw Sr. Boa again.

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Living in Mashien, Ecuador, was a fully-rounded experience, challenging but rare. I will always be grateful to the community for inviting me in and sharing their way of life with me. If you are interested in learning about volunteering in this community, please contact Napo Mashian at fundacion.ikiam@gmail.com. The community hosts volunteer English teachers and those who have skills and interest in developing ecotourism projects.

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In next week’s post, I’ll share more experiences of the jungle in the form of disparate scenes, without explanation, to give you a sense of what I experienced—the rugged adventure, the flora and fauna, and some of the discomfort that comes with being in a new place and culture.

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Mindo Chocolate & the City of Trees

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One of the many waterfalls in Mindo Cloud Forest.

Vast stands of dark green trees fill my body with joy. Literal, transcendent joy; the kind that relaxes and clears your spirit. Welcome to Mindo, Ecuador, a city of clouded trees, concerts of frogs, and chocolate factories.

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Morning Clouds over Mindo.

After spending three weeks in Medellín, Colombia, and then two nights in busy, dry, bustling Quito, Mindo has been a welcome respite, and a reminder of the kind of place which brings me a literal, visceral peace. Riding the tarabita (cable car) over the misted forest to a hiking trail filled with cascades, I could hardly muster a movement except to let my jaw drop, a cliché but a true one, so positively stunned with awe I was by the thousands of tree inhabitants of this place.

Tree inhabitants! A city of trees, so verdant, so enrobed in mist. I didn’t mind the rain after I began the hike; given the arduous nature of the hike, a light mist brought relief.

I’ve had the privilege to visit many crowded tree cities, and while walking this trail my mind immediately connected to the store of images of all the other forests I’ve visited: jungles in Costa Rica and Guatemala, the hovering giant Redwoods of California, towering pines in Oregon, the cedar, birch and pine stands in northern Minnesota, and finally, the gnarled, mystical oak groves of my youth.

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Take the Tarabita for a ride over a verdant city of trees.

Perhaps it is true that being in a place that so resonates with your soul can more easily bring you clarity where before there was just an internal mess; for me this was true. When I sat down for hot chocolate, a bolt of understanding unfolded in my mind of what I needed to do in the coming years, of what I hope to achieve in this one life I have been given.

Yet we live lives of juxtaposition. While in one part of my being I felt peace, in another, I felt restlessness, and unease. Tomorrow I’m headed into one of the last empires of tree: the Amazon basin. When someone asked me why I was going there (so many bugs, and it’s hot!—to which I always reply, hello, I’m from Minnesota, where we inhale clouds of mosquitoes in the summers), why I wanted to visit, I answered: “I want to see the Amazon before it’s gone.”

Pessimistic answer, I suppose, but what else can I say, when deforestation continues to destroy and encroach on this precious parcel of forest? When mining companies and logging companies continue to buy up land from indigenous communities, their economic clout no match for a community whose lives flourished before, but now, relative to the economic status quo, are considered low-income, with few means, other than the growing ecotourism trade, to keep their communities in tact?

As I continue to travel and interact with other travelers, I observe more keenly how complexly rigid our world is, and how difficult to change, whether that be the wages of the cacao farmer for “fair trade” and “organic” beans (see below for more on this), or the campesinos in Mexico trying to change their lives for the better but are blocked by corrupt government practices once they are considered “leftist”.

Poverty continues to exist for the vast majority of people in the world; misery was the precise term a French journalist described the situation to me in Colombia; a desperate way of living for many that cannot change under the system of commerce and trade implemented by the corporations that control our lives.

A system under which cacao farmers never taste a finished chocolate product made from the fruit they grow; a system under which locals who welcome foreigners into their homes and lands will likely never visit their guests in their own countries and experience the wonder of travel for themselves; a system in which TVs fill restaurants and parade images of cars, homes, and the splendor of consumerism before the eyes of those will never have a chance to own those very things.

I look to the silent mass of trees for an answer, and though I receive their peaceful blessing for a moment, and a bit of clarity on my own life’s direction, I do not get any answers for the human condition, other than to offer what tools I have, my language for those who want to learn it; and to continue traveling as a guest in another’s home, a guest who is grateful for the opportunity to visit other lands and peoples. I am constantly reminded of the necessity to live with the kind of integrity molded and informed by the people I meet and the circumstances I observe, circumstance which include some of the world’s harshest realities.

Visit Mindo Chocolate Factory for more information on the cultivation of cacao in Ecuador. Jose and his wife Barbara own the factory, and buy fruit directly from farmers in the area around Mindo. While their products are not packaged “organic” or “fair trade”, they deal in Direct Trade, a practice most chocolate farmers and chocolate producers are moving towards, as the labels “fair trade” can be bought and often do not reflect fair wages. Cacao farmers tend to live on very little, even though their product is one of the highest demand products in the world. Additionally, farmers tend not to be able to afford the “organic” label as it requires a yearly payment to maintain, but large groups of farmers sometimes can get the certification for their farms in bulk. See here for Mindo chocolates, which you can purchase online in the United States.