Wanderlust: Otavalo, Ecuador

Simón Bolivar Park in Otavalo, Ecuador, July 2018

After visiting the village of Cahuasqui, my family and I stayed the night in Otavalo, the major city closest to the village. I’d visted Otavalo the last time I went to Ecuador as well, but this was my first time spending the night in a hotel in the area.

We enjoyed the cool summer evening, watching the locals hang around Simón Bolivar Park. Teenagers sat near the statue with their skateboards and a speaker playing music loudly. Mothers pushed strollers along the walking paths. Toddlers ran around the grass, dancing to the music playing from all sides of the park.

My uncle had a toddler of his own that we towed around town, walking down the streets and peeking into the shops. Rows upon rows of clothing and shoe stores abounded the city’s streets. Of course, food was also interspered among the shops. One group of friends stood on the corner eating fully-loaded hot dogs from a vendor as one would do in New York City.

The next day we stuck around long enough to do some shopping at the Plaza de los Ponchos. This colorful display is filled with handmade wears from the locals who sell their trinkets, clothing, and food to visiting city dwellers and tourists. You can test your haggling skills to the max at this flea market that Otavaleños put out every weekend.

It’s always the colors that fascinate me at these markets. I’m in love with the bright and vibrant blends and patterns they use in this community. It’s a beautiful tradition that pays homage to their indigenous roots. I picked up a jacket with a mesmerizing purple and gray pattern made from alpaca wool. It’s my new favorite winter wear. And it was perfect for my trip to the mountains the next day, but that’s a story for the next installment.

The Plaza de Ponchos offers fresh fruit, produce, and snacks to munch on throughout the day. The shortbread cookies from a local baker were my favorite that day.

We also saw performers singing and dancing for tips at a few different stalls. It’s an experience that reminded me how alive the people of my father’s country are. There is joy and celebration in the smallest of moments and in the everyday.

Have any of you visited Otavalo? Do you want to see it after reading this post? Let me know in the comments.

See the rest of my Wanderlust series here.

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The Scientific Method

Microscope ( Image by felixioncool from Pixabay )

Sean tilted his head.

“It’s a jar of dirt.” Dylan sounded disappointed.

“That’s not dirt,” Emily added. “I’ve seen dirt. That’s not it.”

Sean and I gave our daughter a questioning look. She shrugged. “I’ve been studying different things with the microscope you bought me last year. Dirt is mostly what I’ve studied since that’s all there is around here.”

We laughed, but held the jar out for the kids to see. “The thing is, sweet pea, this wasn’t solid when we found it and put it in the jar.”

“Yeah, it was liquid. Which is why we thought it was oil.”

“How did it turn hard so fast?” she asked, reaching out a hand to touch the jar.

I pulled it out of her reach before she could even graze it with her fingertips. I shot her a warning look that made her pout. “We don’t know what it is, and now this turn of events is mysterious.”

“Sorry, Em. It’s just not safe.”

“But it’s in a jar.”

“And it seems to have changed within the jar. Who knows what could happen if you touch the container now,” I said.

“You’re touching it,” Dylan pointed out.

Sean gave him the mind-your-tongue look. “We’re grownups.”

Dylan rolled his eyes.

“Well, what if the grownups put a sample under my microscope and let me take a look?” Emily flashed her sweetest smile.

“Oh, no sweet pea, I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

“Pleeeeeaaase?” Dylan and Emily pleaded together, clasping their hands and dancing in place.

I looked to Sean for backup, but should have known right away that was useless. He merely gave me the same puppy eyes as our kids.

Georgia popped her head in from the kitchen. “Alright, you lot. Have fun with your science experiments. I’m out.”

We all waved goodbye to the kids’ grandma and heard the screen door slam behind her as she left. I listened to her car engine turn on in the driveway and the crackle of the tires over the pebbles. I’d have no backup from her.

“Maybe we could just put a little piece on a slide.”

“Sean—”

“We handle the sample ourselves, with gloves and tweezers, slide the glass onto the microscope, and supervise her as she looks through the lens.”

Emily nodded vigorously and looked at me with wide eyes. Dylan followed suit until finally even Sean was begging for the experiment.

I let out an exasperated breath. “Okay, we’ll take a look under the microscope, but no touching, either of you.” I emphasized the point with a severe finger wagging.

They nodded in unison. Sean and I grabbed the materials while the kids went to Emily’s makeshift lab in the tool shed to prep the microscope.

“Sean, are you sure this is a good idea? What if the stuff is radioactive?”

“It would probably be glowing if it was radioactive.” His sweet smile that had first enticed me to marry him played across his face.

“Sean, I’m serious. We don’t know what this stuff is.” I held up the jar and squinted at the substance. It was still in the new solid form it had taken almost an hour before.

“Honestly, Phil,” Sean said, “I think it’ll be fine. It might just be some kind of fossil thing. Like the tar pits, but once we removed it from its environment, it solidified. Change in temperature and pressure and all that.”

I smiled. “So you’re a scientist now?”

“I’m just trying to be practical. Not let our imaginations get the best of us. Besides, we’re always encouraging the kids to be curious and discover the world.”

“I know, I know. But telling them to be curious in theory is great. Letting them do something that could be dangerous is different.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Now let’s get out there before Em starts shrieking for us.” Sean leaned in and kissed me, pouring in every ounce of reassurance he could offer.

Out in the tool shed, the kids had cleaned the desk space, sanitized the microscope, and pulled out fresh glass slides. They both wore gloves and greeted us with big grins.

Emily reached out a hand with a slide. “Here, put a sample on this.”

Sean and I glanced at one another, having one of those moments that said oil or no oil, we have all we need right here. I opened the jar and let my partner chisel off a piece with the tweezers. It came off easier than expected, like it was a clump of dirt.

He placed the fine powder onto the slide and placed it under the microscope. Emily started to adjust the slide, but I stopped her with a stern glare. She paused and let her dad do it for her.

“Alright, Em, just the microscope and its controls,” Sean cautioned.

She nodded. Dylan stood nearby and followed his sister’s instructions when she asked for more or less light and help adjusting the lens.

“Well, what do you see?” Dylan asked eagerly.

“Definitely not dirt.” She kept her eye on the microscope lens. “It doesn’t have the same composition as what’s in our backyard.”

“What composition does it have?” I asked.

Emily looked up at us and shrugged. “Not sure. Nothing I’ve seen, but then again, I haven’t seen much.” She laughed.

Dylan nudged his sister to let him take a look. He pressed his eye to the microscope. “Whoah, cool.”

“What’s it doing?” Emily pushed her brother out of the way again to see into the lens.

But even Sean and I could see what was happening. The sample from the slide radiated a blue glow. I grabbed my partner’s hand and took a step forward to pull the kids away, but Sean stopped me.

“Relax. It’s probably a microbe thing, like the Bioluminescent Bays.”

“Fascinating,” Emily exhaled.

“What is?” Dylan peered around the microscope at an angle, trying to get a look at what his sister was seeing.

“Its composition changed. I still don’t recognize it, but it’s different than before. Almost like a kaleidoscope.”

Emily stepped back and let Dylan look again. She turned to me with bright eyes almost the same as the sample’s glow. “Papa, look.” She pointed at the jar we’d left on the desk.

The substance had changed once more to liquid, but this time almost translucent, and also glowing blue. It didn’t just glow though; it pulsated, like it was sending out a beacon.

“That’s…odd.”

“Okay, we’re definitely in a sci-fi flick now, Phil. This has gotta be alien.” Sean’s face was lit by the jar’s blue light, giving him almost a panicked expression.

“Enough science project for the night. We’ll find a lab to send this to in the morning.”

The kids began to protest, but I put a hand up in silence, indicating the final word.

“Your papa’s right, kids. We’ve played enough with this new thing for one day. Let’s get you both to bed now.” Sean turned to me. “Wanna lock it up in something for now?”

I nodded. While Sean escorted Emily and Dylan back to the house to get them ready for bed, I emptied out an old steel toolbox to put the jar in. With my hands still in gloves, I picked up the sample slide from the microscope and looked around, unsure of what to do with it for a moment. Before I could decide though, it began to squirm and move on its own.

This is a continuation of a short story called “Better Than Fiction” which I serialized for my blog. See the other parts here: Part 1 | Part 2

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Wanderlust: La ruta escondida, Ecuador

Outside of Quito my dad and I took the rental car on a trek through the mountains on what’s known as la ruta escondida, “the hidden route.” It’s a mountain road that passes through five villages: Atahualpa, Perucho, Chavezpamba, San José de Minas and San Antonio de Pichincha.

My dad and I stopped at Atahualpa, Ecuador on la ruta escondida, July 2018

It’s a daunting task driving on dirt and pebble roads through the mountains. The constant curves and up and down is enough to make anyone car sick, so if you take this trip and you’re prone to motion sickness, I highly recommend Dramamine and ginger chews.

What’s truly thrilling though is winding through these narrow roads, knowing at any moment another car coming from the other direction can be around the corner. There are no guard rails on these roads, so it’s a test of skill and courage to drive through those mountains.

Stopped at a stream along la ruta escondida, Ecuador, July 2018

The sights along the way are a marvel. There’s green as far as the eye can see, old bridges long forgotten by city dwellers and clean streams of water for passing cows and llamas to drink from.

We saw the locals walking on the same roads our car drove on. These are rural people who make a living off the land and think nothing of a 20-mile journey on foot.

It’s a long way between towns, so make sure you have a fully charged phone, or at least a portable charger with you. The last thing you want is to be stranded out in the mountains without a phone to call for help.

On our road trip through la ruta escondida, we stopped for lunch in Perucho at a little local restaurant. It looked more like someone’s house, but that’s how businesses are out there. The food was delicious, made with fresh ingredients. Everything tastes different in Ecuador. It all tastes the way food should, without the added preservatives and chemicals. Make sure you work up an appetite, because each meal after the morning includes a bowl of soup and a plate of rice, protein and greens.

Our meal in Perucho, Ecuador, la ruta escondida: vegetable soup, rice, chicken, potatoes, and salad, July 2018
Restaurant Cahuasqui in the village in Ecuador, la ruta escondida, July 2018

Our journey through the mountains led to the destination I’d most anticipated: the village of Cahuasqui, my family’s surname. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who knew how to pronounce my last name. Even better, my last name was on everything, from restaurants to grocery stores to ice cream shops.

It’s common to see European surnames on buildings in the U.S. Depending on where you travel in America, Spanish surnames are also plenty. But indigenous names like Cahuasqui? Never.

It was quiet the day we visited the town, but it felt like home. We stopped for dinner here, once more in what felt like a resident’s private kitchen. We picked at salted popcorn as we awaited our meals. Popcorn was the appetizer of choice here, like how Mexican restaurants set out chips and salsa or Cuban restaurants set out garlic bread.

Before daylight ran out, we headed back on the road, through the winding mountain roads, back to the closest city, Otavalo. Stay tuned for my time in Otavalo in the next installment.

For the previous installment of my summer 2018 trip to Ecuador, click here. You can see more about my time in Ecuador from my first trip in 2011.

Has anyone else done a road trip like this one? Does anyone want to take the road less traveled after reading this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Mixing Genres

This is the second installment in a short story called “Better Than Fiction” that I’ve decided to serialize. Let me know what you think in the comments! See the first installment here.

Pile of carbon fuel (Image by SeppH from Pixabay)

“I really thought we’d finally caught a break,” Sean whispered.

I kissed the scruffy cheek of the man I’d married so many years ago. “This is just a bump.”

We climbed into the rusted, old Toyota Tacoma, its doors squeaky with good use. “Who knows,” I beamed, “maybe we discovered a new element. That’d be even better.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “You watch too many sci-fi movies, Phil.”

“It’s only fiction until it becomes true. Then it’s just science.”

Sean laughed, grasping the jar in his hand. “Maybe we should get a second opinion. I mean, we don’t know how oil is supposed to move in a container. Maybe the prospector was just trying to swindle us. Get us to tell him where we found it and take it for himself.”

“I think you’ve watched too many mystery thrillers.” I grabbed his hand as we drove back to our little shack on the countryside.

“But seriously, Phil.” Sean furrowed his brows, concentrating his stare on the black sludge in the jar. “If it’s not oil, then what is it? We hit a pool of it at our drill sight.”

I shook my head, keeping my eyes up ahead. “What if it’s alien? And the government was trying to cover it up.”

Sean let out a snort and squeezed his partner’s hand. “Mixing genres now?”

“Hey, it could happen.”

We pulled into our driveway, laughing at all the ridiculous possibilities of what the black sludge could be. The kids were already waiting for us on the front doorstep and came running as we got out of the car. Emily jumped into Sean’s arms and Dylan embraced me around the waist.

“We missed you.” Dylan’s voice was muffled as his face was buried in my stomach.

“We missed you, too.” I ran a hand through my son’s hair, thinking he needed a cut.

“What’s for dinner?” Sean asked Emily.

“Nana made chicken pot pie. And I helped.” She threw us both a proud smile.

“That sounds great. Can’t wait to eat it.”

We walked back together and found my mother in law prepping the dinner table. “I’m sure you boys are hungry and tired.” To the kids she said, “Go wash up now. Let your papas breathe.”

Sean hugged his mother and kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks for all the help, ma.”

She touched a hand to his face and smiled. “Of course, sweetie. Anything for the family.”

I gave her a hug as well. “Georgia, you’re an angel.”

“Hush now. Sit down and eat.” She gave them each a playful pat on the shoulders and put the meal on the table.

Emily and Dylan came back, hands still moist from the wash. They helped their grandmother by setting out the pitcher of tea and the basket of dinner rolls. We all sat down and joined hands to say grace. Sean led the prayer as he always did.

“Dear Lord, we thank you for this hot meal we are about to receive and the home you have provided. We thank you for the family that keeps our house warm and the love and joy we share with one another each day. We ask that you keep us safe and never wanting for anything. May we be able to pass on your blessings, in your name Lord. Amen.”

The kids, Georgia, and I echoed the, Amen, just before the hot dishes got passed around. Sounds of laughter filled the dining room while Emily and Dylan told us about their days at school the past week we’d missed. They told us of their friends, their homework, their upcoming science fair projects, and the quarrels between cliques.

“Papa, did you find what you were looking for out in Fairmont?” Emily turned her inquisitive face to me.

I looked to Sean for a moment before answering. “No, sweet pea. Not quite.”

“So what did you find?” she persisted.

I chuckled. “What makes you think we found anything?”

Emily smiled wide. “Dad put his bag in the closet right as soon as he got home. And you just said, ‘not quite,’ which means you found something.”

Sean gave a hearty laugh. “C’mon, Phil. You know nothing gets past Em. She’s the smartest in the family.”

I sighed. “Alright, we found something, but we’re not sure what. We thought it might be oil, but the prospector said it wasn’t.”

“Can I see it?” Their daughter’s eyes lit up with curiosity.

Sean put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I’m not sure that’s safe, Em. We don’t know if it’s dangerous.”

“Aw, c’mon dad. Let us have a look,” Dylan chipped in now.

Sean and I looked to Georgia who merely shrugged and began cleaning up the dinner table. I glanced at Sean and raised an eyebrow. He put his hands up in surrender.

“Okay, but it stays in the jar. Don’t open it.” The chair gave a low screech as I pushed it back, away from the table, and made my way to the front door closet to retrieve the jar from Sean’s pack.

I removed the jar from the bag and nearly dropped it. In the time since we’d found the liquid and put it in the container, it had solidified. “Uh, Sean?”

He walked over, the kids close behind. “What’s wrong, Phil?” I revealed the jar, filled with a now rock-solid substance.

Wanderlust: Quito, Ecuador

I returned to Ecuador last year to see more than I did on my first visit. My dad and I still stayed in Quito with family, but this time we rented a car to take adventure into our own hands. Here’s where our tour led us this time.

Quito, Ecuador from the backseat of a car (2018).

Once more, we drove through my dad’s childhood neighborhood, but this time, he took me to his high school campus, Montufa. I saw the school that educated the man who became my father, who then educated me into the woman I am today.

We couldn’t get beyond the gates of the school, as we clearly were not students or faculty, but I could see its expansive size from where I stood. The white columns and buildings looked more like a university campus than a high school. But the hundreds of students milling about in matching dark uniforms let us know that this was, indeed, el colegio (high school).

My father wanted to take me onto the campus, to walk the halls and pathways he once did. Much the same way I wanted to take him through my own school’s tracks when I was in attendance at McArthur, to show him my world on the day parents came to speak with teachers and see their kids’ progress.

Though we didn’t get that chance, to see Montufa as it stood before me that day, and as I watched those kids running from one end of the campus to another, urgent in their need to get away from classes at the end of the day, reminded me that my father once lived a life not so different from mine as a teenager.

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Barrio de San Juan, Quito, Ecuador (2018)

In the Barrio de San Juan stands an art museum that once functioned as a military hospital outpost and sanatorium. I know this not because we walked inside and read a sign, but because when we came upon it, my father stood in awe before the building and said, “Remember the stories I told you about standing guard at night when I was in the army? Well, this is where it was.”

I’ve heard the story countless times. How at night the soldiers stood guard at the hospital, knowing that only feet away lay the dead bodies in the mortuary, waiting to be taken for burial or autopsies.

One night my father, the eternal prankster, took things a bit far. He left his shift as a fellow soldier took over, but instead of leaving for the night, he stayed behind to play a trick. See, the soldiers always felt creeped out by the place, but my dad was never bothered by the dead.

That night, my father set up a prank that made it sound like the dead had come back to life. The soldier on guard that night got so spooked, he began firing into the sanatorium, where my father still lingered for his prank. The other soldier was so scared, he shot more rounds than necessary, and my father had to run the other way, climb out a window, and shimmy down a wall to escape getting shot by his scared comrade. To this day, my dad still thinks it was a good, worthwhile prank.

That day in the summer of 2018, I stood in the very spot where that story took place. Now, where once the dead awaited their next destination, stands a museum for contemporary art. Where once military soldiers like my father stood guard, now is a civilian guard for the art’s protection and tourist’s convenience.

Ciudad Mitad del Mundo

Located in the San Antonio parish of Pichincha, Quito, Ecuador, stands a monument to the halfway point of the world; an homage to the land’s namesake, the equator.

The steps behind the monument for Mitad del Mundo, 2018

I don’t remember there being a whole city built around this tourist attraction the last time I visited in 2011. At least, not to the extent I saw that day. There was a whole map of sights other than the monument and its museum interior. We didn’t have time to see everything as we arrived late in the day, but it was still amazing to see how far the attraction had grown. I felt proud to see that so many people wanted to know of my family’s culture and history.

If you’re able to climb stairs, the museum inside the monument showcases pieces from the country’s indigenous cultures and a timeline of its history. Nearby is another building with a virtual reality presentation of the stars, like an observatory come to life before your eyes, that gives visitors a look into the geography’s development.

Today we know that where the line of demarcation sits isn’t an accurate reading of where the equator runs. But hey, what’s 240 meters between friends? When you visit, make sure to take a turn around the village to see authentic homes, churches, and shops that contain keepsakes of the rich Ecuadorian culture.

See my first impressions of Ecuador from my first visit in 2011 (link in first paragraph). Let me know if any of you have been to Ecuador and drop a comment! Stay tuned for the rest of my adventures in Ecuador, summer of 2018.

A Bump in the Road

Green blue oil film wave (Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay)

At first, we thought the black liquid was oil, that we’d struck it rich and that we’d be able to retire and live in leisure. We actually started writing down all the ways we’d spend the money.

Our first choice was an estate out in the country, with wide open spaces for the kids to run around. We had such grand dreams to finally get Emily the Little Laboratory Kit she always wanted. We reveled in the vision of seeing Dylan’s face when we brought home the Fender Stratocaster he’d looked at with longing every time he passed Moe’s Music Store window.

All those dreams shattered though when the local prospector said, “Sorry, gentlemen. Not oil.”

Sean’s face fell. “What?”

The prospector shook his head. “This isn’t oil.” He tapped the mason jar my partner and I had brought in.

“Well then, what is it?” My heart sank to my stomach.

He shrugged. “Don’t know, but not oil.”

Sean looked at the prospector with suspicion. “How do you know?”

“Been around oil my whole life.” The prospector leaned forward. “This looks like it, but see how it moves when I tilt the jar?”

The prospector tipped the container to the side and showed us the slow, sludgy movement of the black liquid. “Oil don’t do that.”

I grabbed the mason jar back from his hands. “Where can we find out what this is?” I took Sean’s hand and gave it a squeeze. The look I gave my partner said, Don’t give up hope.

The prospector gave another apathetic shrug. “Some lab, I s’pose. I’m no scientist.” I pursed my lips and nodded. “Thank you.” We rose at the same time and walked out to our truck.

This is the first installment in a short story called “Better Than Fiction” that I’ve decided to serialize. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Wanderlust: Ireland, Galway

Finally, I come to the end of my travel log from Ireland, 2017. The trip itself only lasted one week, but the experience will stay with me for a lifetime. Our last stop on the tour was Galway, a harbour city on the west coast of the country.

By the time our group arrived in Galway, I was exhausted. My new friends and I took the time to simply stroll along the harbour and enjoy the scenery. At night, there is a lively bar scene for the young and young at heart.

It’s a colorful, but relaxed environment as we walked through Shop Street checking out the local wares and restaurants. We even managed to squeeze our way through a bar packed with football fans screaming over a soccer match on the television that night.

We stayed in Eyre Square at Kinlay Hostel. It was my first ever experience with a hostel, and it wasn’t terrible, but after the great hotels we’d stayed in throughout the rest of the trip, it was certainly different.

I didn’t so much mind the sleeping accommodations. We were six in a room with three sets of bunk beds. The top bunks were a bit high and close to the ceiling, so I had to duck my head to climb up and couldn’t sit up, but we were really only there to sleep, so no big deal.

I think the worst part of this hostel experience for me was the bathroom. It was only the six of us sharing our bathroom, but its construction was nothing I’d ever seen before, and having traveled a little in Europe, I’ve seen some strange bathrooms. This one had one level floor, with no barrier or separation between the toilet and the shower, which meant when you bathed, water got all over the floor. So if someone needed to use the toilet after you got out of the shower, they had to get their feet wet. It was a little gross. But I guess that’s part of the travel experience, is to be a bit uncomfortable sometimes.

After the whirlwind Grand Tour of Ireland that EF Ultimate Break offered, I was glad to have a low-key night, enjoying the sights of beautiful Galway with my new friends.

Though I didn’t get to experience them myself, the Salthill Promenade is a walk I’d like to take next time I’m in Ireland. Yes, I definitely want to go back and catch all that I missed the first time around.

Have any of you been to Galway? What were your impressions? Let me know in the comments! And check out the rest of my travel adventures here.