A Travellerspoint blog

The good, the Bad, and the Terribly Painful

overcast 26 °C

The Painful

Saturday in Baños six of us girls from Arutam, the volunteering in the jungle, decided to go horseback riding. It´ll write more about that later. A four hour ride up the volcanic hills surrounding the town, past waterfalls and farms and gorgeous houses, up to the lookout where you can see the entire city. All for $10 each. And my horse was amazing, much more responsive and better than any other trail horse I´ve used at home.

The ride was almost over when I realized my arms were getting sunburnt. I had thought that since I had been in the Amazon for two weeks and my arms had darkened consideraly, that I wouldn´t really need protection on my arms. I used the sunscreen out of my bag, but it was too late. Wearing a t-shirt, by late afternoon I had a glowing red farmers-burn. Ha ha.

There was too much pain to sleep; I felt like someone had seared my flesh with a hot iron. My skin was unbelievably hot and an angry, angry red. I decided to slather my skin with lotion, until it was white. Then I soaked two tank tops, and tied them onto my arms, using dozens of the cheap hair elastics I had bought in Otavalo. From the innumerable sunburns I´ve experienced in my life, I knew that as the water evaporated all night, it would suck the heat from my skin, and perhaps lessen the pain. Arms bundled like a mummy, I took two painkillers and slept.

The Bad

Two days later, arms still glowing but now also peeleing, Cali, my Calgarian friend and I, decided to take an overnight bus from Baños to the coast. It left at 5:30 pm, and was to go to Salinas in approximately 12 hours, and then from there, we would catch a bus up the coast to Montañita.

We settled in for the long haul. About 2 hours in, I decided it was time for some music. But the knapsack, which had been in full sight the entire time, was suddenly lacking my Ipod. I pulled everything out, certain it had to be there. No luck, it was gone. I have no idea how it happened, or why they did not take my camera and/or money as well. It´s still a mystery.

But it has really made me frustrated.... it´s not the loss of the Ipod itself. It can be replaced, in fact, it is insured. But I am in South America for another two and a half months, and my music is my security blanket. Anyone who knows me me, has seen that I turn music on the minute I walk into a room, when I get up in the morning, when I´m in the car. When I am nervous and my stomach is upset, it calms me. When I am tired it soothes me. But most of all, it is a familiar peice of home when everything you see, eat, smell, and do, is completely foreign.

I still have to report it missing and get the vital police report for the insurers. But there are no police in Montañita; it is too small. I will go to Guayaquil next week.

The Good

We arrived, after a detour into Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, near the Southern coast, in the small hamlet of Salinas, pop 1000. It was 5:30 in the morning and we were completely groggy from intermittent sleep and the jostling of the bus. The bus dropped us off somewhere near the coast, in a sort of industrial/commercial area. There was no one around, not even the dogs I´ve come to expect everywhere.

In a stroke of luck, we managed to snag a solo passing taxi, and asked for the bus to Montañita. We wound up and about, away from the coast, past firmly shut stores and dark deserted streets. It was too far and complicated to have walked, and we were indeed grateful for the taxi. We pulled up in a small little parking lot where three or four dark, small, buses sat. I assumed we would end up sitting there until one of them left, likely for a few hours until the sun rose. A few bus drivers, tired, hardworking, older Ecuadorian men, lounged nearby. We once again inquired for the bus to Montañita. To our surprise, it was leaving in 20 minutes. We climbed aboard.

Another two hour nap and we were jolted awake. We´d arrived in Montañita. Dazed from the sleep, we stumbled off the bus, which disappeared down the road in a swirl of ochre dust.

We walked towards the town. It was now 7:30, the sun well up but hidden by a veil of grey clouds. Where other towns would have been bustling, Montañita still slept. Nary a soul stirred, save the two Canadian backbackers just arriving. Every store was shut tight.

It was definitely a surf town, and we knew it before we saw the Pacific. The buildings all had roofs of thached palm, and bamboo seemed to be a major structural element. I could see half a dozen surf shops, boards and clothing visible through the large windows. Suddenly, two surfer boys appeared, walking down the intersecting street. With lean, perfectly muscled bodies typical of the sport, and boards under their arms. they made a pretty picture. I felt a sudden surge of excitement. I´m going to be surfing before I know it!

Tired of walking with our heavy knapsacks, we picked a fairly reasonable, $7 a night hostal on the main street. Our room had a balcony, complete with hammock, that overlooked the main drag. A row of coconut trees completed the view. Tired, we dropped our bags and slept, the single fan, a real luxury, keeping the heat at bay.

Posted by SJS 10:24 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Heading for the Coast

Day 27

sunny 21 °C

Hi all;

I have been writing a ton in my journal and I can´t wait to share it with you all but for the meantime I am just posting a bit of an update here.

Kali and I are leaving Baños today to take an overnight bus, about 8+ hours to the coastal town of Salinas. From there we will head to Montanita, the chilled out surf town with perfect beaches and wicked waves. Not a huge fan of long bus rides, but there are no day buses, and at least we´ll save on a night´s lodging. Buses here in Ecuador are very comfortable and most of them have seriously reclining seats.

Very excited to get back on the road... I am a nomad now and I love it!

Talk to you all soon...


Posted by SJS 13:56 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

The Day of Departure

Day 24

sunny 25 °C

Today I leave Quito for what should be months, until I return to fly out. Part two of my journey is now beginning. From here, I am going to meet Cali, a girl from Calgary I volunteered with, in Baños. We found a cheap place to go horseback riding, and Baños is the perfect town to relax and chill. It undeniably the most beautiful town I´ve yet to see in Ecuador.

From Baños, we´re going to Cuenca and Ingapirca, where Ecuador´s largest Incan ruins are. Afterwards, we are going to Montanita on the coast. Surf and sand for us!

Well my laundry is almost done. Gotta go!

Posted by SJS 10:01 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Gittin´er done in Quito

Day 23

semi-overcast 23 °C

When I awoke at Camilo´s this morning, I was on my last $4. The night before, dark and pouring rain, I attempted to gain access to my cash at the ATM across the street. No luck. Everything was closed, dark and creepy, so I retired to my hostal. (Later that eve Camilo came over and we ended up going to his apartmento instead).

This morning it re-surfaced. Sure, I had a place to stay so technically I wouldn´t have to sleep on the streets tonight. But being without money in a foreign country is more than a bit unnerving.

Camilo and I took a taxi from bank to bank, with no luck. I even tried the emergency card my Mom gave me. What kind of Banco International doesn´t take a Canadian cash card? Time was running out, and he had to get to class. I was on my own. I was carrying some things I was going to stash with the rest of my luggage at the Secret Garden Hostal in San Blas. Basically, I am walking down the street carrying two orange bags and a giant blowgun. As if I don´t attract enough attention as is.

I seemed to be in banking alley. One after the other, they were conveniently lined up. And one after the other, they all spit out my card and said something about not accepting the card. I visited more than a dozen banks, and no luck.

With $4, I could get to San Blas where I knew there was a bank, but there was no guarantee I´d be able to get any out. Then I would have too little money to get back to his apartment. For some silly reason, I left my travellers checks in my bag at his apartment. I had had no trouble getting money out in Puyo, the little jungle town. So why here?

I decided, upon my $2 taxi ride´s arrival in San Blas, to head straight to the secret garden to stash my stuff. Then, at least I wouldn´t have to be toting around a blowgun, anyways. I turned up Jose Antepara, and began walking the steeply inclined road up to the Secret Garden. Suddenly, a rattily-dressed, leery looking man spied me and came right for me, at an astounding pace, considering his age. Instinctively, I darted into the nearest shop, a small convenience-style shop. My heart racing, I peeked out the door a few moments later, to discover him still lurking there. Eeep! I waited another few, and no longer seeing him, I followed two clean-cut young men up the street.

Who knows, maybe he was one of those crazy-friendly types and just wanted to chat. But then he would have followed me into the shop, right? I guess I´ll never know, but I am sure following my instinct was the right thing to do; and in doing so I surely avoided trouble.

At the hostal, Brad, the Canadian manager, was not there and Chasqi, the guide who still had my trekking poles, had not dropped them off. Frustrated, and breathing heavily because the the altitude, I stuffed my crap in the corner under the stairs near the rooftop terrace. Mostly souvenirs and extra clothes, there was nothing of real value. Besides, someone could steal it; it couldn´t make my day any worse. I had no money, a broken watch, broken glasses, and was starvingly hungry. Go ahead, it would make my day. I was already broke, blind, hungry, time-less, and if I didn´t find a bank, homeless.

Walking down the street to my last hope, the Banco Pacifico, I fought an inner battle. I had only had two cups of coffee all day; and it was about 5 pm now. I had been awake since 8:30. Justifiably, I was quite hungry. Camilo had made breakfast, which was darling, but I didn´t like the meat (bologna?) in the hot grilled sandwiches, so I told him I was not hungry, and was content with the hot cafe con leche. I had just over $2 left. I knew I couldn´t make it to Camilo´s in northern Quito on that, anyways. Maybe if I found something to eat really cheap...

And there it was. Two women and a deep fryer sat in front of a little cafeteria. Crispy, freshly fried cheese empanadas, twice the size of one of my outstretched hands, glistened and beckoned to me. A quick check of the price; 40 cents. A true steal; it would be an entire meal. Before placing it and a napkin into a plastic bag, the shopkeeper, upon my "si", dusted it with sugar.

It was heaven in dough form. Light and yet crispy, the sugar gave it a taste quite similar to the beaver tails one finds at home, in Ottawa. It was the most delicious street food I´d ever tried, and if it wasn´t for transportation, I could live for days on that $4. Maybe being on your last few dollars in a foreign country, your next meal uncertain, adds a certain flavour that´s impossible to find elsewhere.

The Banco Pacifica was my salvation. I almost wept when the words "Now dispensing your cash" flashed across the screen. Victory was mine!


Some city buses here in Quito beep out a tune. I never noticed it before. Some the same, some different, and for a reason that escapes me. Perhaps it signifies the destination. The funny thing is, one actually emitted "Rudolph the Red Nosed Raindeer" and it seemed to ridiculously out of place, that I laughed right out loud.


Its now 9:45 pm, and the glow of my completely sucessful day flls me. What had started as a nightmare ended as a lofty dream. Tomorrow, at 8 am, Chasqui is dropping off the trekking poles. I found the money, bought a new watch battery ($0.45), new nose pieces for my glasses ($3.00), a duffel bag to leave all my souvenirs at the hostal in ($9.45), and I got 2 GB of photos put onto four cds ($16.00). I had dinner at the Secret Garden as well; coq-au-vin and french onion soup. Camilo had class till late and relaxing in the familiarity of the hostal was exactly what I needed.

Posted by SJS 09:07 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

Life in the Amazon

Day 16

all seasons in one day 24 °C

I arrived at the Shuar village safely monday night, although the bus ride took forever and I arrived after dark. Just like in my nightmare.
Alone, after dark, in the Amazon. The darkness here is not like southern ontario, where in Toronto it is always light and even outside of Peterborough the ambient light somehow ensures a lack of complete darkness. In the Amazon, very few people have electricity- maybe enough to run one or two light bulbs. As a result, dark is dark. You can´t see a thing, it´s as if a curtain has been dropped in front of you.

Before the bus even pulled away, there was a native man at my side. I have no idea where he came from or how he got there, but suddenly he was there, hoisting my giant knapsack with ease. Another girl, maybe 10, materialized and picked up my day sack, leaving me to carry only my plastic bag with my rubber boots. It was bewildering but reassuring.

They took me across the road, where I inquired about a bathroom. It had been a long, bumpy ride. Wordlessly, but with a smile, the young girl whisked me across the road and through the forest. I could hear english near one of the houses and knew the volunteers were near.

Afterwards they picked up my stuff, and took me to where I was staying, my habitaçion. It was all a blur. Up some wooden stairs into a room without a door or window, then the disappeared as suddenly as they´d arrived. I was left alone, in a wooden room with two single beds made out of plywood and without mattresses. The door looked out of the family garden, the window, out over the soccer field. A quick scan with the flashlight revealed two giagantic spiders hanging out near the roof. Time for the mosquito net. I unfurled my sleeping bag, and hung my net from a beam I placed across the top of the two walls. I placed my knapsack in the corner and sat. It was completely quiet. It had all happened so fast. I had arrived, and now was sitting in a room in an unknown person´s house. Now what? It was only 6:30 pm.

I sat crosslegged on the bed and reached for my comfort food, sucretes, or frosted flakes. I could see stars and a giant red hibiscus tree out of the door; the clouds had cleared enough to allow the light of the stars. Nothing else to do, I decided I might as well sleep. I crawled into my sleeping bag, under my net, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

A knock on my "door" and an voice in English woke me, slowly. I attempted to drag my self from unconsciousness. I focused on the words. A girl was standing at my door. "Are you going to come down for dinner? It´s 7:30."

I mumbled something unintelligible as I attempted to clear the cobwebs from my mind enough to formulate an intelligent response. Anyone who knows me and has tried to wake me knows it´s quite the feat. "Umm, sure, that´d be great. Just let me change."

I found myself walking back downstairs, through the hole in the wooden floor with the ladder. The first floor had the main bedroom, where the family lived, and a door to the outside, with stairs. The kitchen, where I was headed, was a half level lower than the main floor, right on ground level. As I grew accustomed to the light emitted by a single bulb hanging in the center of the house, I saw that it was a dirt floor. A table sat in the corner, with benches on both sides. Another corner sported a stove top of some sorts, on a high wooden platform, with two burners. It was attached via a black hose to a canister of gas a few feet away. It looked like the same kind of coleman type stove we would take camping. A few banged-up, well used aluminum pots rested on top. A third corner seemed to be for clean dishes, dirty dishes, fresh fruit, and garbage, all stacked around each other. A group of bananas and plantains lay on the floor.

I sat at the table, where the other girl was seated with a bowl of dinner. A woman, obviously the mother of the house, smiled at me and asked me my name in spanish. She had a baby, a toddler really, and sat with him on her lap. She got up to fill me a bowl as well.

I looked at it. I don´t know what I expected amazonian food to be, but this wasn´t it. It was chunks of potato in a sort of chicken broth, thick gravy. Three minature bananas, cooked, sat on the edges of the bowl. Dinner was potato and banana stew. I started to eat. It tasted as bad as it looked. I gamely tried to eat, not wanting to insult my host. But after getting sick, I really did lack any appetite for this weird food. It was like eating a bowl of mush in mush, pure starchy carbohydrates. It lacked any real taste, and I was thankful for the (dirty) bags of salt and pepper on the table that one could take pinches of. The bananas were not very sweet, more starchy. I´ve read there are about 130 varieties of bananas down here, and they pretty much eat them all. They had a bucket of tea on the table, but it was made with some sort of plant I suppose, which gave it a light green colour. It was bitter and odd tasting.

The lady took the baby up the stairs, leaving us gringos (whites) alone. I said I really didn´t like it, and the other girl said "Oh, it´s pretty good today. At least there´s some kind of sauce!" Uh-oh.
Neither of us finished and we threw the rest to the dogs, which is what they do with leftover food down here.

Afterwards we headed over to the volunteer house, where everyone was hanging out. The house is elevated, and underneath was just beams and a table. Hammocks hung from the beams and gringos filled the benches, playing cards and drinking cervesa, or beer.

Some socializing later, I ended up back in bed, even more tired. Back to sleep.


I awoke the next morning, Tuesday, starving. I was sure looking forward to breakfast! A quick trip to the baños (ban-yos, or bathroom) which was located across the soccer field near the volunteer house, and I was back in the kitchen. I smiled at the lady (a young woman who couldn´t have been much older than me), and tried to make small talk in spanish. Not entirely successful.

A bowl and a mug appeared in front of me. I stared, incredulously. Breakfast was five tiny, hot bananas in a bowl. They appeared to have been boiled in their skins and then peeled and served. They tasted exactly how they looked; like hot bananas, only very starchy and more tough then the ones at home. I sampled the mug. It was a cold banana drink; and tasted like she had mashed up bananas and put them in the cold tea from the night before. Which is likely exactly what she did. She sat at the end of the table, feeding the baby the banana drink. Holding a giant brown bowl twice the size of the little boy´s head, she poured the mash down his throat. He squirmed, cried, but ate. Chunks of yellow banana fell unnoticed onto his shirt.

After she left, we once again threw our bananas to the dogs and ducks, who hung out in the mud behind the house. Guiltily but happily, I thought of my jar of nutella, soda crackers, and half a bag of doritos stashed in my knapsack upstairs.

After breakfast we headed to the volunteer lodge, where we lounged for an hour before the Shuar got there, to organize the day´s activities. Splitting into groups, I decided to go help with the
mirador, or lookout; a house they were tearing down and rebuilding up on the hill that overlooked the the Rio Pastaza and some volcanoes in the distance.

The house, a wooden structure with a palm frond roof, as partially dismantled when we got there. We set to work finishing the job. Once the wet, rotting roof came down, we had real problems. There was a giant ant´s nest inside. Large, quite round, black ants came pouring out of the disintigrating palms, by the thousands. And we still had to drag the pieces of the roof away to various piles; a lot of the wood had to be reused.

I have never been more uncomfortable or close to freaking out ever. The ants were everywhere. They climbed up our boots dozens at a time, and every time we moved a chuck of roof they swarmed us. I had ants on every part of my body; some even crawled into my pants and I found one between my breasts. We often had 20 or 30 on us at any given time. If you squished them in any way, they bit. Hard. I actually undid my pants to flick them out. It was torture; I was losing my mind. As soon as you think you´d gotten them off of you, more had climbed up your boots. They swarmed the ground, making parts of it look like the earth itself was moving. Some of them tried to rescue the tiny white capsules I can only assume were eggs or larvae. We were continually stamping our feet and brushing our clothes in a futile effort to dislodge them. I can feel them crawl on my again as I write this.

An excruciating hour later, most of the ants had run away, leaving only hundreds, not thousands to bother us. But the plague was not over yet. Out came the tiny blackflies. Clouds of them. They went for our eyes; and often flew right in; blinding out until you stumbled around and flicked them out. Some went up my nose. Now we were swatting our clothes, stamping our feet, and waving our hands in the air, while still trying to get work done. We must have looked insane but at that point I almost was. Oh did I mention we found a tarantula in the stuff we were moving too? Peachy...

Eventually we quit for lunch and headed back down to our respective lairs. Lunch at my house was a chunk of cooked yucca (a root which is a staple of their diet; think of a yellow, very starchy, hard, a bit stringy potato.. sort of) and two chunks of some sort of very grey, almost blue, grainy potato. Completely tastless, somewhat dry, carbohydrates in a bowl, this time, no sauce . This is it; I am going to starve in the Amazon, I thought.

Things improved after lunch, I decided not to return to the mirador but stay in the lowlands helping Maria clear a garden. I used a machete to clear grass and leaves and we tried to burn the refuse, not easy to do as everything was pretty damp. I was kind of fun, easy work, just swinging the machete and raking the rest.

Dinner was yucca again, this time in a chicken broth. A bone with a little bit of skin attached was all the chicken we got, apparently they break it and suck out the marrow. Not for me...

Anyways, I have decided to take a proactive approach to the food situation. I am staying at one of the poorest houses in the village; everyone else eats much better. Some get cereal and coffee in the morning! So today in Puyo here I am going to pick up some vegetables and some dried pasta, and I am going to offer to cook a few meals for them. Give them a little taste of Canada, which they may appreciate, and keep me from starving. I worry about my blood iron levels (which tend to always be low, like my Mom´s, which makes me tired) if I don´t get any dark veggies or meat. I know food is supposed to be included- and it is, I guess- but a few dollars on food is not going to hurt and I want to do something nice for the family anyways. Everything we´ve eaten so far has come right out of their own garden; she spent all morning digging up that yucca that I fed to the dogs.

I don´t know if I want to stay a whole month or not. Apparently there is not much work to do volunteer-wise (there´s 16 volunteers right now). We´´ll see if I can study medicinal plants. Tomorrow I want to work in the garden with my host, see what they grow and how the harvest it.

Time to go. Love you all!

Posted by SJS 10:53 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

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