Sunday, October 23, 2005

Dos semanas en Ecuador

I am currently in a little surf bum town half way up Ecuador´s Pacific coast chilling out after a hectic but highly enjoyable couple of weeks in Ecuador. This time has been spent learning Spanish and going out in Quito, with a wee adventure to the north in the middle.

Quito is an interesting city. The new town is nothing much to speak of, but the old town is packed with colonial architecture that is really shown off with the backdrop of Volcan Pinchincha, a 4,600m odd volcano that dominates that city. A trip up to 4,200m in a cable car was a real highlight as you could see the 1.5m people city laid out infont of you as if in sim city. To see a plane slowly fly in and land over 1000m below you is interesting. The altitude definitely takes some getting used to, as I found on my first night out where I had to go home knackered after barely any dancing. That night in itself was a story as by total accident I bumped into Laurence (friend from law school) within 5 minutes of walking into the first bar – the world is a small place at times.

Essentially I woke up, saw a bit of the town, did 4 hours of Spanish (at $4 an hour individual – amazing) with my teacher Ginna, then got sucked into either rum and coke night (litres of free rum at hostel Mitel del Mundo and a lot of consequently messy people) or something similar before various clubs (including salsa – learning slowly) and the cycle continued.

The people here are so passionate about everything and this was illustrated wonderfully by the two probable highlights of my stay. The first was going to see Ecuador v Uruguay, at which the hosts qualified for the World Cup. The explosion of joy, fiesta and yellow everywhere was breathtaking, and they really know how to celebrate. The stadium was literally packed to the rafters hours before the game. There were fly overs, parachutists, long chants of “vamos equatorianos” and the comic insults to anything or anyone remotely Uruguayan which I shall not repeat here.

The second event was of the riot variety. I was having a lovely morning wandering around the old city with an American girl called Monique when we bumped into a seemingly peaceful march of a few thousand mainly university students and school kids. I believe it concerned Marxism etc as there were red flags and Che Guevara images everywhere (alongside FUEU signs). After what appeared to be little provocation, the police decided to spice up things a little by firing into the crowd. This caused general panic and a mini stampede. What they had fired turned out to be tear gas (not uncommon here, earlier in my stay a comic incident occurred in a bar when someone lit up a cigarette and everyone started choking at what was believed the smoke but infact was a gas bomb the police had fired outside.). What ensued was about an hour of the police firing gas, everyone running (half in joy with smiles), the gas clearing, everyone going back and the cycle staring again. The whole experience was both interesting, exciting and strangely fun as that was undeniably part of the prevailing mood. There are though always a few idiots at these things, and beyond the stone throwing at police tanks, the event that stuck in my mind most was when someone tried to steel my sunnies. I know I was being stupid wearing my oakleys on the top of my head, but it is still rude for someone to wait for three gas bombs to be fired right next door to me, grab the glasses off my head and then run into the gas as the crowd ran the otherway. I´m afraid to say I did something a bit foolish and awakening some long lost rugby instincts ran after the git and got in a good tackle. He then nicely handed me my glasses (to which I for some strange and idiosyncratic English reason said “lo siento” sorry) but as I searched through the smoke for the side bits that had fallen off he and his mate had the cheek start kicking me. Luckily Ecuadorians are very small and they legged it on seeing how pissed off I was. All in all this was rather a strange but interesting incident and I consequently decided to leave the demonstration and go learn some Spanish. Fortunately the effect of the gas was only minor and temporary but it has genuinely shocked me that the police so liberally fire the stuff on school children – perhaps an unpleasant side to the passionate national character.

In fact Quito in general does not seem to be the most relaxed place, so after much fun and meeting many nice people I felt the need to get out.

The first major excursion was a 5 day "Avi tour" with 3 lovely Israelis (Avi, Eleanar, and Talia – all apologies for the spelling) and a lovely German (Nicky) to Otavelo and surrounding picos and volcanoes. I will leave the details to the magnificent photos when I return, but here is a snippet. We went to the one of the biggest markets in South America at Otavalo, that was great with all the vibrancy, colours and local friendly people. We swam in the freezing crater lake (Cuicocha) of a 4600m active volcano (Cotacachi) before watching the sunset over the mountains. We road the top of a bus for 3 hours down to some hot baths and back again through windy roads and truly dramatic scenery, went horse-trekking, and swam in waterfalls. The locals indigenous people were so friendly and notably hardy in their traditional dress. Tiny old women would be dragging large loads on their backs that I would struggle with.

BUT, the undeniable highlight was climbing a 4,293m peak – Fuya Fuya. Unbelievable! From the top not only could we see Quito 50 miles away, huge lakes below over peaks, Cotopaxi and another number of volcanoes over 5,00m (and in fact over 5,800 - huge), but also even Columbia. This is exactly what I went travelling for, one of the best experiences I have ever had. The climb was a bit arduous and a bit steep at times, but literally running and sliding down was at times hilarious. So much fun.

Anyhow, I have been rabbiting on. The same feeling of needing to leave Quito and get on with my travels hit me shortly after my return to Quito and hence I have travelled down to the coast with the same Talia, Eleanar and Monique. Here I am resting my blistered feet, before heading to Ancon where my grandmother grew up and then heading to COLUMBIA. It was not on my itinery but the combination of so many good and safe reports from numerous travellers – and vitally no negative ones – and a look at the relatively stable situation has convinced me to head up there with some amigos. It is remarkable how much more of an accurate report on a place you can get when on the ground! I can not wait, the highlands and Carribean coast awaits….
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