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Goodbye for now Ecuador. Hello Peru!

We’ve come to the end of our time in Ecuador, a 3-week-turned-month-and-a-half adventure through a relatively small country with immensely diverse peoples, landscapes, climates and cities. We have come to know the people and the country much more intimately here than in Colombia, perhaps because of the amount of time we’ve spent or the amount of times we have been sick in people’s homes... In any case, there has been an undeniable warmth about the people we have come to know here.

The idiosyncrasies of each indigenous community have been fascinating to experience through each community’s colorful markets and festivals. Ecuador’s food has been at once predictable and full of little surprises. Our volunteer experiences have been peaceful, but animated by an eccentric crew of international volunteers. Meanwhile, couchsurfing with a pair of horse farmers, a systems engineer, a volunteer firefighter and a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer from Texas, injected dynamic energy into our experience in Ecuador.

Highlights include the majestic Quilotoa Crater Lake in the Central Highlands and a cozy hostel-with-woodstove stay,P1010383.jpg the Spanish streets and colonial buildings of Cuenca, P1020092.jpgP1020102.jpg eating in dozens of markets, swimming in the coast at Las Frailes,P1020009.jpgP1010994.jpg and waking up above the clouds, high in the mountains outside of Vilcabamba.P1020322.jpg Most important, however, are the relationships we have formed out of working with and sharing space with strangers.
Now, we will cross the border from Ecuador into Peru at La Balsa, into a much larger, touristic country that promises more volunteer opportunities, mountainous hikes, the Amazon, Incan and pre-Incan ruins, and at least another month of travel.

We will make a long, fragmented journey to Chachapoyas, with two other volunteers we met in our time at Sacred Sueños: Emile, a Quebecois biologist, who has a 2-month run of volunteer work, and Fabian from Switzerland, a practiced traveler on an open-ended journey through South America.

The deep beauty of Ecuador has made its impression on us, but we must forge ahead… onward to Peru!

Posted by AmyERichards 21:12 Archived in Ecuador Tagged peru in end of to highlights ecuador weeks six Comments (1)

Counterfeit Cash

During exchanges with vendors here, bills are nearly always checked for authenticity, although we hadn’t felt the need to take the same precautions about the cash we were handed until recently. Aside from monopoly money, I had never had fake cash in my possession until one afternoon in Puerto Lopez. Puerto Lopez is a coastal town with access to national parks, the “Poor Man’s Galapago’s” and a steady stream of tourists. We were about to find that where there are tourists, counterfeit bills are not uncommon.

In our case, we had jumped at a long-awaited opportunity to snorkel off the coast of Ecuador, the day after arriving in Puerto Lopez. We had bargained for a decent price for a half-day boat trip to try to snorkel (often each person in a group pays a different price, and vendors or guides keep close track of what they told each person)… So we met with about 10 other people near the beach and gave the second half of our payment to the collection woman. We needed change (which tends to elicit complaints) so she opened a super-compartmentalized wallet which contained a great deal of large bills. She fished around a bit and handed us a $5 bill (Ecuador’s currency is USD) and $3 in change (they use $1 Sacajawea’s instead of bills [apparently all of that pre-credit card subway change was being funneled into Ecuador]). So we gladly accepted our change without paying careful attention to the bills.

After an enjoyable boat ride, but no snorkeling because of murky water after storms, we made it back on land. I asked the woman who took our money how they charge people for snorkeling trips when they know there will be no snorkeling… she came up with a number of excuses and more or less walked away.

Later that day, we went to pay for groceries and T.L. found that his five-dollar-bill had mostly disintegrated, after getting wet on the boat. He paid with some coins and when we stepped onto the street, he showed me the bill… a laughably fake disintegrating piece of paper. Counterfeit money!
My instinct was to go back to the snorkeling place and explain what had happened, but we discussed our options before making moves: go to a bank, go to the police, go to the woman who gave it to us, try to put it back together and use it, call it bad luck and forget about it. My feeling of having been wronged said no to the last two options, so we asked our hostel owner how often this happened and what he suggested we do.
He said in the past, a great deal of counterfeit $20’s would come in from Colombia, but more recently, counterfeiting $5’s had come into practice because they went more unnoticed. He suggested the only way anything might be done about it would be to go directly to the woman who had given it to us, because the police were corrupt and the banks wouldn’t do much either.

We walked back to the tour office and I announced to a group of 6 or so people that we had been given a counterfeit $5 that morning. No one moved from their hammocks or their chairs, but everyone asked me to come show them the bill. Each shook his head, affirming that “no vale nada”. They began to explain, however, that the woman I had paid wasn’t there.

After a few minutes of describing the woman and some debating about how fat she was (one of the first things people ask when you try to describe a person is if they are fat, no offense to any of the fat people in the room). They finally determined that it was Julia, la gorda (the fatty), whose mother had cheated one of the man’s mothers out of $50 ten months ago. Of course, that must be her! After a series of phone calls, they summonsed Julia la Gorda to the tour office. We sat and waited as other people filtered in and out while the others related our story and passed around the five to the newcomers.

Finally, after a bit of waiting, Julia la Gorda appeared and was directed to T.L. and I with our disintegrated cash. We explained our story and she quickly denied that she gave it to us, but under the scrutinizing eyes of her peers, she changed the five without too much prodding. She proceeded to show us the rest of her real $5’s and how to tell that bills were counterfeit, while T.L. continued to try to give the new $5 backs to her, because he didn’t understand that she was actually giving us one. When we finally had the $5 back, we thanked her and left, perplexed at the exchange. Earlier we were sure that the snorkeling-free trip cost us an extra $5 that day, but we walked out with our $5 restored.

We have no way of knowing whether Julia la Gorda knew the bill she handed us was fake, whether she was part of a larger counterfeiting ring, or whether she was totally innocent. In the end, a wet boat ride made it so the bill was taken out of circulation and we have learned to be more conscious of the bills we receive in our travels.

Posted by AmyERichards 14:40 Archived in Ecuador Tagged puerto five ecuador bill lopez dollar bills fake counterfeit duped Comments (0)

Police Corruption and Futbol Fans

all seasons in one day 70 °F

So far, we have traveled for 6 weeks in Ecuador, feeling safe in most every town or city we have visited. Still, police corruption has been a common theme in many of our discussions with Ecuadorians. We had a firsthand peak at the type of police corruption we’d heard about during an 11:30 AM Quito vs. Liga fútbol game we attended in Quito.
From the start of the game, we found ourselves entertained by a group of incoherently drunk men swaying about in the row ahead. They cheered for Quito, slopping Pilseners and spitting curses into one another’s faces (it was an intercity rival game). About halfway into the game however, the group moved closer to us, leaving their most drunk member with drool running from his chin onto his round belly, passed out from an early day of drinking. Soon enough, the men were asking about us… where we came from, why we had chosen to cheer for Quito etc. They passed 32 oz. beer cups between all of us and were happy to have us cheering for their team. Finally we asked about their tired friend. They answered, “O, he’s a cop, we actually just met him last night.”

The man’s story goes (details are hazy, as he was inebriated while relating it):

The man had been drunk driving the night before when he was pulled over by a cop. When the cop proceeded to announce his fine, the man offered the cop free admittance and drinks at any of the major nightclubs in Quito, at which he held some administrative position. The cop gladly accepted, and while on duty(?), accompanied the man and his friends to the bars for the rest of the night. The drinking continued through the early hours of the morning until the cop was finally belligerent. Earlier on in the binge, the men discovered the cop to be a Liga fan, so when sufficiently drunk, they dressed the cop in a too-small Quito jersey and they all went to the game to continue the festivities.

So the passed out man we were concerned about was a potentially on-duty police officer/Liga fan, left mostly unconscious by the drunken enemy he should have apprehended the night before.

“The police are corrupt here, very, very corrupt” the men concluded. And so there it was.

Posted by AmyERichards 14:08 Archived in Ecuador Tagged in police futbol game drunk quito ecuador corruption liga cop Comments (0)

They Even Fried The Carrot Cake!

On our diet here...

So friends and family have been asking about food since we’ve been here: mostly, “how is it?” Generally speaking, Latin American cuisine consists of rice, beans, root vegetables, plantains and corn. Supplement these basic food stuffs with arepas (or any variety of corn-based pancake or tortilla), dozens of varieties of delicious fruits, fried pig and chicken parts. Jumble this around, mix some of it in bowls, and you have what you generally eat throughout the day, every day here.

I don’t get too tired of rice and beans and fruits and veggies, but it gets pretty tough to sustain ourselves in any healthy way when the only options on the road are fried… everything. There’s fried chicken, fried chicken pastries, fried empanadas, fried chicharron (pig skin), fried cow intestine, fried fish on the bone, fried plantains, fried mashed potatoes, fried potato chips, fried and battered rice cakes, fried yucca, fried doughballs, fried onion rings, and fried corn cakes: kind of like your good ole’ people’s fair back in the States.

To say the least, we’ve jumped at the chance to buy granola and raisins and fruit and carrots to travel with, so as not to saturate our bodies too much in the saturated-fats buffet here. Still, it’s impossible to avoid having to eat at least a few fried foods a day… T.L. isn’t complaining too much about it really.

Why so much fried food? Well, foods are generally prepared stovetop, as most people do not have an oven in the home. In addition, the best option for street vendors is portable burners. So the quickest and easiest prep, which doesn’t require much seasoning or special ingredients, is frying. When I talk about heavily fried foods, this means, if you place your fried food on a stack of napkins, it will soak through around 15, while still leaving an oil mark on the table.

We had a menu-of-the-day meal recently (they usually come with 2-3 courses and a juice, and can be found at any number of small eateries that line every town)… This one included soup and salad and carrot cake, so I was pretty excited. When our meal came, T.L. asked what I thought the little fried thing was on our plates, and I said “Who knows? Just another little fried thing...” We both bit in, and said wow, that is super fried and really delicious, but what is it? Then I saw some trace of a shaving of carrot… it was the carrot cake! They battered… and fried… the carrot cake! The default healthy dessert! The sacrilege! They knew it would be delicious! So I let T.L. finish mine, as it was very rich, and I supplemented with some ice-cream later that night.

The Colombian diet is also heavy in meat: pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages, hotdogs, hamburgers etc. so for a mostly non-meat eating person, I’ve had to slowly introduce more meat into the diet. While T.L. had been thoroughly enjoying our vegetarian meals at Organizmo, his only birthday wish had been for meat. So, I set off to town with Itamar, a vegetarian, in search of birthday supplies. We thought we had done a good job buying some raw red meat and chicken, until T.L. told me, post-barbecue, he wasn’t even sure it was meat.

Thus far in Ecuador, however, we’ve tried a large selection of tasty, less-fried snacks, and we’ve been able to make some of our own food again at our WWOOF site in Baños and couchsurfing. So we’ve made it so far without having to eat guinea pig, but it’s coming sooner than later. House-pet-impaled-on-metal-stick-over-hot-coals (cuy) has yet to ignite my appetite, but who knows what we’ll eat at the end of a treacherous day of hiking!

Posted by AmyERichards 15:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged rice cake corn foods carrot colombia ecuador fried beans Comments (0)

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