Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ecuador 2021

 Greetings all, I know I haven't been keeping up here much, but it is still a pandemic and spending 99% of your time in the house doesn't lend itself much to interesting updates. We did make a bunch of videos with our advent calendar of beauty products. You can find those on my (tornwordo) youtube channel. That was a fun distraction in December. They weren't all that popular except for one when we decided to do our video shirtless.

We were not supposed to do any visiting for Christmas but we have only seen the same 4 people since March so we got together with 2 at a time of them for dinners. We were rather distracted putting the final touches on our plans to excape south for much of winter. Since travel restrictions are changing practically daily, we weren't really sure if would happen until we landed in Ecuador. We got our Covid tests the 6th and left the 9th of January. 

We were trepidatious about flying in the time of Covid, but these two put us to shame. The planes were pretty full flying down and it felt the most unsafe during our change of planes in Bogota, but we arrived late at night in Quito and crashed at our Airbnb for the week. 

We had a great little apartment on the 10th floor with a view of the city and the looming volcano. Quito is the only world capital built on the slopes of an active volcano. The first day we arrived, I had a terrible bout of  altitude sickness, headache and vomiting all day. In the evening when I finally felt like I could eat somthing, Serge went out and came back with 4 sandwiches with fries and 4 margaritas. It cost $20. This was our first taste of how dirt cheap food is in Ecuador. I spent a lot of the week working, as the semester was just finishing up in one of the programs I work in. 

Still, we were able to get out every day and go for long walks exploring the city. One morning we took the newly reopened (since the pandemic started) tramway up the slopes of the volcano. The air was so thin in Quito at 9300 feet, but it was dizzying when we got up to 13000 feet. We lasted about half an hour up there before we fled down the mountain. 

Another fortuitous event was getting together with Carmen who was an exchange student when I was in high school. Due to FB, friends put us in touch and it turned out she ran a restaurant three blocks from where we were staying. We had delicious steaks for lunch.

For our last night in Quito, we splurged and had a 9 course chef's tasting menu. In Ecuador, it felt much much safer than back home. First, absolutely everyone everywhere wore a mask while outside the home. In restaurants, only 25% capacity allowed and everything super distanced. The protocol for handling money took many steps. Put money in basket, seller squirts money with sanitizer on both sides, takes the money out of the basket and makes change while squirting the change before placing in the basket and again once in the basket. Then you can take your change from the basket. The sanitizer was ubiquitous. Sometimes there was a 'squirting tunnel' of alcohol you had to walk through before entering the business. Not surprising their infection rates are the lowest in Latin America. Also no wonder back home, things were spinning out of control. But we will come back to that later. 

After the week was up, we flew to Cuenca, where we would live for the next 5 weeks. We arrived at our wonderful airbnb apartment with a balcony overlooking the river and facing the setting sun. We would have stayed the whole five weeks there, but right when I decided to extend our stay there, someone else reserved. For two weeks I worked constantly, probably my highest earning weeks of the last year. And all because of Zoom and the fact that I could work from anywhere since all my teaching is being done on line right now. This is another reason we left for such a long time, in fact it is the longest Serge and I have ever traveled together. It wasn't really a vacation, and yet it was, since we knew back home, everyone was trapped inside with snow, ice and cold outside. They instigated an 8pm curfiew the day we left Montreal and is still in effect as I type. 

A few minute walk put us in the old side of the city. It seems to me that Italy and Madrid would be in the same general direction but according to this, I would be wrong. You could pull your mask down if you were smoking. That's not why I started smoking again (in fact there exists no good reason) but it was nice to use it as an excuse to sit on park benches or on the bank of the river watching the world go by. 

We rode the shiny new tramway called Tranvia. We took it over to the giant outdoor market Feria Libre. I was on the hunt for avocados (5 for a dollar!) and cigarettes. At the regular store, cigarettes were $6 a pack. I had googled tobacco in Ecuador and I landed on a report from some world body on the tobacco situation in each country. It was there I learned that the black market cigarette trade from smuggling across the Columbia border was rampant, and that Phillip Morris was supporting that black market. Sure enough, if you looked closely at most of the individuals selling sundries, they had cigarettes. They were less than $2 a pack. It was ironic that the report lambasting the black market for cigarettes was what pointed me to becoming a customer for that market. You already knew I had no moral compass, right? Wink.

Serge fried his face on our first sunny walk in Quito. That led to a $30 purchase for Coppertone sunscreen. Food is cheap, yes, drugstore items, not so much. In Cuenca, Serge bought a hat for $15 and then forgot it on the hat rack when we came home. Here we are at Roscoe's house. We had met him and all the other people we know in Cuenca on our cruise to South America in 2016. I'm sure I blogged it. Anyway, we hung out with Roscoe a few times, playing Phase 10, a fun progressive rummy type card game. He also hooked me up with my preferred smoking substance which I was sadly without in Quito. (As I said, no good reasons to start smoking cigarettes, but that's why.)

This was the first of many almuerzos in Cuenca. When they put 'almuerzo' on the menu, it is generally a soup, followed by a choice of 2 or three main dishes, and a small dessert and a glass of juice. The price for this is $2.50 - $4.00 a person. These plates were $3.75 with beer, soup and dessert. Basically it felt like meals out were a fifth of the price back home - so we made sure to eat out once a day. Most of the time, we ate outside on patios. Every day, the high was in the low 70's and most days it then rained a bit in the late afternoon and cooled off.

There were fewer roaming dogs than I have experienced in other Latin American countries, but this guy joined up with me for over an hour. A few weeks later, he found me again and followed me home. We named him Juan Carlos. Such a good boy. He was well fed though and certainly had a home and was just out on his daily rounds. 

Mark and Tom, whom we had also met on the 2016 cruise took us on a trip up to the Cajas to the continental divide on the spine of the Andes. Definitely chillier at 14000 feet. By then we had pretty much acclimated to the altitude, though Serge seemed to have some breathing issues when horizontal the whole time. 

There were llamas and alpacas mulling about, naturally. I dared not get close. I've seen (and cracked up over) those spitting llama videos on youtube. 

They also took us to a fancy place on the town square where tuxedoed waiters served us cadillac margaritas. Margaritas became a ritual before dinner and I made them at the apartment with Aguardiente instead of Tequila. Limes were so plentiful and cheap and kitchens are equipped with the essential juicing accessories. 

The tour bus reopened while we were there so one day we took a trip around town on the double decker bus. There were all of 5 people on the tour, and the hour and a half circuit was $5. It got more popular, we noticed, around valentine's day, when sweethearts abounded. 

The tour bus has a half hour stop at the top of a hill overlooking Cuenca. It was a little showery that afternoon. I had bought an umbrella, but forgot it on a park bench waiting for the tour bus to start. Doh!

I was constantly stunned how beautiful it is in the Andes. Lush and green, it reminded me of the Alps in Switzerland. Villages and towns largely strung out along winding rivers. Often, I remarked how hard this (view) would be if it were a puzzle. This was taken on a tour out to a rose farm. Ecuador is a huge producer of flowers and giant greenhouses could be seen flanking the hillsides. Before we got to the farm, we stopped at this cathedral and took the thousand steps up to the top. 

When we got to the rose farm, our guide introduced us to Pedro, who was tied up like a dog and seemed to wag his behind as we approached. He wanted to be pet, as our guide explained, he had been raised with dogs and understandably thought he was one. Melted my heart, I tell you.

Our guide explained the whole process of growing roses and how complex it is. They had just finished shipping flowers for the industry's Christmas - Valentines's day. Apparently, Mother's Day only comes in a distant second place. 

Nevertheless, the guide admitted that funeral and wedding business keeps everything going the rest of the year. Never a shortage of those events.

We went on the tour with Michael and Christian whom we had met the first time we visited Cuenca in 2019. They lived in the same building as our airbnb unit. At the end of the tour, the guide gave us all a bunch of roses. Ours lasted and were beautiful until the end of our stay. One night, Christian asked if we wanted to go for Cui (guinea pig, a local delicacy) but I couldn't because I had to be online for something that night. I really wanted to try it too, hopefully on our next visit. 

We had dinner one night at Tom and Mark's and there was a HUGE electrical storm the likes of which I haven't seen in years in Las Vegas. They also reminded us of the artisan craft shop in San Francisco plaza. The entry looks like a little vestibule, but if you are invited in, you go in the back and it's like a warehouse full of blankets, wearables, leather goods and even shoes. Everything made by locals. OMG we got alpaca and llama wool blankets (4), two sweaters (so warm!) two tuques (even warmer!) gifts to bring home, a leather murse for me and some nifty shoes for Serge. All for less than $250. It was gratifying to see the $15 blankets we bought listed on Ebay for over $100.  I know we are supposed to bargain, but it seemed insulting to do so given the price. 

A few days before we left, Mark and Tom took us out to Paute, another lovely town outside of Cuenca. It was there that we followed a ruddy dirt road up the hillside to the world's largest wooden spoon. A plaque from the Guiness world record people confirmed its stature as the world's largest. We have already seen the world's largest axe in New Brunswick, what world's largest tool will we stumble onto next?

One of our favorite things about the trip was the weekly $25 massages with Edgar. For once, a masseuse who didn't hurt me. (And no, there were no happy endings before you ask.) Another favorite thing about the trip was our twice weekly Spanish lessons with nuestra profesora, Gaby via Zoom. It was so fun to learn words and phrases and try them out in the city. We liked it so much that we paid for lessons to continue at home. Why not? It's still winter and there's nowhere to go. But it will be harder to practice here in Montreal.

The last night was upon us, so we went for seafood and the stressful return began. First, two weeks prior, Air Canada decided to stop flying to South America and canceled our return trip. When I called, they offered to put us on Copa via Panama to get home. Well wouldn't you know, that was for the 22nd, one day after our original return date. A week later, Canada announced mandatory hotel quarantine for international travelers to the tune of $2000 per person - starting you guessed it - the 22nd. So the 22nd wasn't going to work for us. I immediately booked a one-way ticket home on Delta via Atlanta and canceled our Air Canada/Copa reservation and opted for the voucher for the remaining value of the unused portion of our tickets. We had to have a PCR test within 72 hours of our final flight leg to Canada, and we had a 19 hour layover in Atlanta. Luckily, the clinic took our swabs at 7:30am and had our results at 5:30pm the same day. Makes me wonder why Canada makes you stay in a hotel to wait for results in 3 days when it can OBVIOUSLY be done much more quickly. Such nonsense. Anyway, we stayed with friends in Atlanta on our layover and took three planes in three days to get home. It's cold here.

But everyone has settled back into normal, my boys napping during the day and me banging something out on the computer. I hope you enjoyed a glimpse of our six-week journey. There's a bunch I'm leaving out like the election they had and Carnaval. Both were more subdued than in normal times, though we saw campaigning and got squirted with water during Carnaval by passing cars. I'm really glad we did it, but also a little scared we could have gotten infected along the way home. Only time will tell if we dodged that bullet. Now to hang on until it's our turn for the vaccine. Peace out y'all.