the cutest cabin
The day after meeting Lady and Jimena at the lake we left our biggest bags at Lady’s town house and set off with her and Jimena in a camionetta to the countryside. After trekking across a couple of fields we arrived at the cutest wooden cabin miles from anywhere. Think ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and you are some way to understanding what it was like. The entire cabin had actually been built by our red poncho wearing boatman from the previous day. After opening up the house and letting the sunbeams dance in the four of us went out for a walk. We hiked down the hills through lush green fields with cows grazing on the steep slopes ending up at the foot of an overhanging cliff. A torrent of water was spurting out from the top and spraying far out from the cliff before crashing and tumbling into the pool below.
how awesome is this
The sheer scale of the cliff, the thundering roar of the water and the surrounding mountains and volcano miles from any civilization apart from the odd farmer only highlighted our insignificance. Nobody said much for quite a while. This place was saturated with with a special feeling, maybe spiritual, but without anybody orchestrating it we just sat quietly on rocks or paddled slowly and thoughtfully in the river, we lay in the sun with eyes half closed listening to the sweet song of a pair of eagles which were soaring silhouetted overhead or we wandered around barefoot in the soft spongy grass.
As we walked further on we disturbed clouds of yellow butterflies which were massing around the fresher cow pats and which rose up around our knees. Lady wanted to take us to a huge ceremonial rock which had very old markings on it but we were thwarted by some angry looking bullocks in one of the fields. These menacing creatures stamped and snorted as we attempted to gain entry to their field so we had to admit defeat and return to the cabin.
Our spectacular eclipse
Lady made us the tastiest of soups and then we all chilled out around a campfire. With smoke stinging our eyes we ate popcorn and drank wine and chatted to the soothing background sound of Lady’s medieval music. Every so often the clouds rolled across the sky – the light from the full moon made them look like pillows edged with shiny silver silk ribbon. We could see the red planet Mars close to the moon and as the time came for the eclipse to begin we prepared ourselves. We collected some lovely fleecy blankets that Lady had in her cabin and rolled ourselves up in them on the slope behind the little wooden cabin. Just like earlier at the waterfall we spread ourselves out, happy in our own thoughts, occasionally dozing off or murmuring the others awake with a sleepy exclamation as the shadow of the sun crept across the moon. We counted ourselves so lucky because just as the shadow began to nibble away at the edge of the moon the clouds retreated. It took a few hours for the eclipse to become complete but because of the proximity of Mars, when the moon was fully covered by the sun’s shadow it glowed an amazing red colour. We lay there totally transfixed in the silence at three in the morning, staring up at the craters and shadows on the moon’s surface. Up and away to our left, the outline of the active volcano reared up into the sky. There was no light pollution, just the occasional squeak of an animal or the chirping of the crickets. After about ten minutes of the spectacular show nature drew her curtains and rolled the clouds back over the moon. Three of us took ourselves inside the cabin not realising that one of us was still rolled up on the grass inside her blanket. Jimena woke a little later, outside in the dark with raindrops thundering down on her face.
Had we followed our initial plan, me and M would have caught the bus out of Pasto earlier that morning. Instead we accepted an offer from two total strangers to join them for the night far from anywhere in the Colombian countryside. When I began my adventures last summer I wrote a blog entry about strangers and trusting people. Nearly twelve months on, I hardly had to think twice about accepting Lady’s kind offer. I am learning to trust my instincts. Thank you so much Lady and Jimena. What an amazing, very special, day and night.
I remember my grandmother offering me sweets from a jar every time she returned from her holidays in Bournemouth. The pebble sweets always fascinated me, partly because of the real and present danger that I could crack a tooth. I always worried that somehow a real pebble may have got inside the jar and for that reason I always picked the most brightly coloured, unrealistic looking pebble that I could reach.
But primarily I was fascinated because of the multitude of colours that shone glossily through the jar in all their synthetic and artificial glory – and I wondered, where in the world would you find pebbles with those range of colours.
I don’t know much about geology but I always assumed that rocks and pebbles were found with their own kind, like the drab grey stones that you find on countless beaches in the UK, but here, on my stretch of beach in Ecuador, I have found the template for those sweets. Glistening and shining across the whole spectrum of colours, a thin line of pebbles line up on the sand at the mid-water line. If my grandmother were around today I would pack up a box and post then home for her, but I will have to be content with collecting them into a pile and taking a photograph and banking the image of them into my memory bank.
Like people, these pebbles are fascinating because of their differences. Like the grey pebbles clumped together on so many beaches, people seek out their own, whether by class, nationality or age, but isn’t life more interesting if you mix it up a bit?
I suppose that by the very nature of my current way of life you might think that I am mixing with like-minded people – travellers and backpackers – but everybody has a different reason for travelling and the histories and background of people that I meet differ massively.
I am not scared by difference. I embrace it and try to live by that old adage that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. People generally have a knack of getting on together no matter what atrocities are reported in the media, but unfortunately some like to stir things up, setting neighbours against neighbours or sister against brother for their own ends – which sadly are usually to do with power or control rather than what is right or reasonable.
I have friends with tattoos and piercings, shaved heads or brightly coloured hair or dreadlocks. I have friends who come from many different countries and very different cultures to my own. I have friends who are still at university and friends in their seventies but when we are together age isn’t an issue. Gay, straight or transgender, they are all amazing and like the pebbles on the beach, they all shine out in their own way.
For me, the best bit of travel is the people who I am meeting along the way. Those pebbles remind me that diversity is good.
I had met a Swiss girl whilst in my hostel in Mindo and we teamed up to go to Quito together. Martin (of the frog chorus) joined us on the bus trip back and after me and Kath had checked into our hostel (the Minka Hostel – more about this in the next post) Martin showed us around the night life sights of La Mariscal in the new town. This is an area of several streets based around a lively square, edged with restaurants and pubs and jam packed with people all out to have fun. It is knows as Gringo Corner or Backpackers Alley and is where many tourists and travellers gather both during the daytime and at night.
The following day was a Saturday and Kath was planning to visit the market town of Otovalo. I was originally going to give it a miss as it was physically impossible to put anything extra in my rucsac but I am so pleased that I changed my mind and I went along. Otovalo is said to have the biggest and best street market in Ecuador and it didn’t disappoint. It was enormous and the stalls spilled out of the main square and took over many of the surrounding streets. It was a riot of colour with stalls selling material and ceramics but the best bits for me were the different clothes worn by the local women who were sat behind the piles of merchandise.
Many of the women wore crisp white cottons shirts with fabulous embroidery around the top half. They had long skirts made of wool – in most cases these appeared to simply be a large length of woollen cloth which they had tucked into a waistband. And hats. There were all sorts of hats but the strangest headgear appeared to be a large amount of material which had been folded down into a large square and just popped on top of the owner’s head. The majority of the ladies wore their hair long but in a single plait or a pony tail and many had wrapped a length of elaborately embroidered material around and down the length. They also had wider embroidered strips which they wore as bright belts.
a stall holder poses for me
After trawling around the market we had a bit of a wander around the other streets and then we got the bus back. We were treated to the usual violent film on the bus, and after being escorted to the correct Trole bus across the terminal by our own personal armed guard we very quickly got ourselves lost when we disembarked. I don’t know what it is about Quito but for the life of me I cannot get my bearings and I have no idea where I am for most of the time.
everything is bright and beautiful
Quito stretches along a thin valley for some forty kilometres but it is only five kilometres wide. Add to this, the fact that it is built on hills and on the sides of volcanoes which slant away from the run of the grid structure, and it contains many old streets which do not conform to the grid structure which is trying to impose some order on the map and you have a recipe for losing your way.
The following day me and Kath met up with one of my Ecuadorian friends who lives in Quito and we were treated to the most amazing guided tour of the city. If you are going to see a city, then the best way is with a local. Tanya, Daniele and Lys tried to encourage me to climb the ladders up the turrets of the Basillica (do they think that I am completely mad??), but they did persuade us to clamber high up onto a ledge in front of a massive round stained glass window for a photograph.
We saw the old town on a Sunday morning when many of the streets are closed and are given over to the population who walk and ride their bicycles. We popped our noses into a few of the many churches and convents and wandered around a food market sampling many of the local flavours. And then we strolled down La Ronda – a series of narrow streets which used to house poets and writers and now house artisan products, workshops and traditional restaurants.
After a lunch, in my case a warming, filling local soup called locra, we got a cab up to the top of the smallish hill called Panecillo (because it is shaped like a little loaf of bread) and we climbed up inside the large statue of La Virgen de Panecillo which dominates the skyline. The statue is made up of thousands of squares and has been constructed like a three-D jigsaw. She faces the city with her back to the south and is believed to protect the city from the volcanoes in the region.
La Virgen de Panacillo
Me and Kath returned back to our hostel and both agreed that we had been very lucky and privileged to have such amazing tour and experience in Quito.
We parted company the following day when I set off for Latacunga on my own but I left my larger rucsack behind at the hostel, as I would be returning and hopefully meeting up with my Polish friend at the end of the week.
I am becoming unhealthily focused on what I can possibly leave out of my rucsack so that I am carrying less, but it seems that this is an affliction that strikes all backpackers at some stage. Paint on carnival clothes – a good excuse to throw them out. Thousands of mozzies – great – spray on the poison – it will reduce the weight. Toothpaste finished – this is a cause for celebration until I remember that I have to buy more and that loads the grams back on.
And yes, of course I bought something at Otovalo market!
After the craziness of Carnival and a rapid repack of my backpack, I was boarding a bus at a half past midnight in Trujillo. My amazing friend G had come to see me off at the bus station, and after an emotional goodbye with him I settled into my almost fully reclining seat and prepared myself for nineteen hours aboard. The conductor was like a teddy bear, rotund and with waistcoat buttons straining he had a high voice and fussy mannerisms but luckily for me, he decided to take me under his wing and practice his not too bad English which allayed my fears about the forthcoming border crossing. The journey was OK as I had chosen a single seat downstairs, the films on the seatback set were not too bad and the chicken dinner was actually quite tasty. The border crossing between Peru and Ecuador was in a new building with the exit and entry points side by side, the officials were not overly officious and the teddy bear kept a paternal eye on me so it all went smoothly.
a beach hut
Once in Ecuador the bus swung away from the desert sands of the coast and the scenery almost immediately changed from khaki sand to the most emerald of greens. Banana plantations and sugar cane fields marched into the distance where lush forests took over. Dotted amongst the greenery were little houses, many on stilts and most made of bamboo and wood, with woven banana leaf walls and thatched roofs, bleached to a pale tan colour by the tropical sun. A couple of times we were stopped at road blocks and surly soldiers climbed aboard. They scowled at us and one time one took a particular interest in what was under the seat in front of me, poking and banging with a menacing looking stick, but then a little later on, another group decided that they would relieve their boredom and instructed us to identify our bags in the hold and ordered us to line up and begin to unpack them by the side of the road. Was I glad that they gave up before getting to mine – if they opened it I would NEVER have got the contents back inside. And they would have discovered my hidden stash of coco leaf tea bags. We continued to Guayaquil without further drama although I have to admit to being extremely nervous about this leg of my adventure.
Santa Marianita beach
Guide books and other travellers all stressed the dangers of the rogue taxi drivers in this city, with people regularly hijacked and where robberies are a fact of life. I chose the most mature looking driver that I could find in the melee outside the bus terminal and just hoped that the two spy cameras and the panic button in his cab were working and he was one of the good guys. I was extremely relieved to arrive at my hostel in a little residential street and checked in at the same time as an Italian guy who had been on my bus. We had both asked other passengers what hostel they might be staying in so that we could share a cab but had not asked each other. We set off into the back streets to find somewhere to eat and then cooled down with our feet dangling in the tiny little pool in the hostel courtyard, chatting with other travellers and drinking beer.
Peru had been hot but Guayaquil was off the scale and so very humid. I was allocated a top bunk in a dorm at the DreamKapture hostel where I lay awake for most of the night, slowly roasting, but scared to toss and turn in case I rolled to the unguarded edge and ended up on the floor.
The next day I shared a cab back to the bus terminal with a very odd Dutch guy and where I eventually located the correct bus company out of the one hundred and four windows (I am not exaggerating this time) and managing to brush off the countless ticket touts who were bothering me, with two minutes to spare, I got on my rickety looking bus to Manta.
We bowled through more of the stunning countryside for three and a half hours, stopping occasionally for more passengers and the obligatory food vendors. I bought and ate an unidentifiable pie-like thing and then, before I knew it, I had been turfed off the bus and into a deserted parking lot at Manta.
there was a stunning sunset every night
Of course, I wasn’t alone for long as my backpack attracted the usual clutch of cab drivers but this worked to my advantage as I could haggle among them for the best price to my final destination which was the beach resort of Santa Marianita – where I was deposited into paradise.
Following a communication mix up I had done no homework at all so was completely in the dark about what to expect and even unsure about what work I would be doing. I was to stay at a beachside hostel, working in exchange for my bed and breakfast, but what a hostel this one turned out to be. Over the next two and a half weeks I would meet many guests, the other volunteers and many of the local ex-pat community who all regularly gathered to chat in the shady hammocks but now, just a couple of hours after arriving I was standing on the sand outside the gate and shaving the pink hair off an Italian lady’s head whilst giggling Ecuadorians stopped to watch.
the beach-front property
The American owner, a feisty lady from New York who had built her home from scratch and loved nothing better than to introduce and mix up friends, volunteers and guests in her big social melting pot was in her seventieth year, but you would never ever think it. She drove her large 4×4 truck competently and speedily (and the time I was sat in the open back, painfully into potholes), slept with a gun besides her bed ready to blow the brains out of any intruder and had a collection of thirteen rescue cats and four dogs which draped themselves lovingly over guests, hammocks and walls.
It was like a mini United Nations. There were Americans of course, several Canadians, my Italian friend who now sported a shaved head, a Ukranian and a German, a couple of Croatians, a Russian/Australian, an Indian, Dutch, Chinese a lovely English girl and two wonderful Ecuadorian ladies, not to mention the men in the hotel next door who ran the kite surfing school and came from goodness knows where.
the patio outside the studios
Sunday morning was known as Gringo Breakfast with guest numbers swollen by local people. Sometimes up to forty would descend on the place and Maira the petite Ecuadorian cook would gallantly man the frying pans, aided by the stunningly beautiful Croatian girl who had once starred for three years in a popular Croatian soap opera, but was now travelling and volunteering like me.
The pace of life was slow. Rooms were cleaned, laundry laundered and groceries shopped for; punctuated by long walks down the beach to the lighthouse (more of a stick with a bulb on top than a house with a light), dips in the powerful surf and frequent power cuts. One evening six of us walked along to the local village where an ill-timed power cut found us sat in a dark courtyard of a local house and a light-bulb was powered by the car battery – yet a very tasty meal came out of the kitchen. Another day, I joined one of our Ecuadorian guests on a taxi ride to nearby Monticristi.
the impressive entrance to the mausoleum
I forgot my Spanish/English dictionary but my Spanish must be improving as we got by and had a very enjoyable time looking around the hilltop mausoleum of Eloy Alfaro Delgado and shopping at the artisan market. We learned that some of the finest Ecuadorian (NOT Panama) hats are made in this region with the most expensive taking up to eight months to make, and we looked around the congress building which had been built and then occupied for only six years before the powers that be decided they should be relocated to Quito. Government officials waste money at every level and in every country.
the finest Ecuadorian hats
In my short time here I met some wonderful people and all had their own special stories, some of which I was privileged to hear. Obviously I am not going to tell you these stories as they are not mine to tell, but I am never ceased to be amazed by the bravery and resilience of many people. I can only wonder how, when so many people battle adversity of every kind and win through; coming out the other side as interesting, intelligent, empathetic wonderful human beings, why others crumple and give up at far lesser challenges, becoming bitter, resentful and angry.
Flying into Madrid and with my instructions clamped tightly in my hand I negotiated passport control, the metro and the Cercanias train system to arrive at my destination for the next week . Senorio de Illescas is a dormitory town which lies bang in between Madrid and Toledo, just 35kms to either on a train or a bus and with the journey costing an amazing two and a half euros. I had discovered the family who were to be my hosts on the Workaway website – but unlike working on the farm in Portugal my remit here in Spain was to speak English. And to play with the adorable seven month old baby who I shall call Garban (Spanish for something small like a tadpole or a chickpea)
After the structure of the farm where we had a specific (though flexible) timetable to follow, here there was no such structure. The timetable was dictated by Garban, but with his ready smiles that was no hardship.
the familiar symbol of Madrid
I began writing this account of my experiences in Madrid intending it to be factual and objective but as I leave, heading south to Estepona, it is hard to remain composed.
The family that I lived with for three weeks took me into their home and into their hearts. I have met both sets of parents, brother, sister, aunts and uncles, cousins and the amazing grandmother. We have prepared meals together and swapped recipes, cycled, walked, shopped and chatted late into the night.
Dyana and Hunter have been the ultimate hosts, tour guides and friends and there were tears all around as we said our goodbyes. They have ‘met’ my parents via skype and they extended an invitation to them to visit them in Madrid which was reciprocated by my parents should Dyana and Hunter return to the UK.
Since my arrival, Garban has sprouted two new teeth, he has begun to crawl and he has started at his nursery. It was difficult to watch the anguish on Hunter’s face as he walked away from his crying son leaving him with the nursery staff, and it brought back many memories for me with my children. Perhaps if I could turn back the clock and I had the benefit of hindsight I would maybe do some things differently – but there is no point regretting what I did or didn’t do – they were the right things at the time.
tapas dish of pig’s ears
Anyway, I digress. It was easy to love Garban and I loved every minute of my time in Illescas – even when challenged to eat tripe (pigs intestines). With ten pairs of eyes watching me, and the family holding their collective breath, I struggled gamely to chew and swallow. Feeling rather like a contestant on ‘I’m a Celebrity’ I regret to say that I failed miserably, although thankfully Mario gallantly reached me with a bucket in time! I felt honoured that despite many of the family not speaking any English they included me in the family birthday celebrations and with sign language and with Dyana and Hunter translating, I felt very much a part of things.
The economic situation in Spain is bad – but Dyana (named after an actress) and Hunter (so called following his wild antics one evening when he chased a massive bug around the kitchen with a tea towel) have good jobs. Dyana was enjoying her last two weeks of her maternity leave when I rocked up at their door, and then during my third week Hunter took annual leave and stayed home while she returned to work and little Garban began his gentle introduction to the nursery.
I was impressed with Dyana and Hunter’s standard of English and also that of their brother and sister. It made me keen to persevere with my Spanish lessons. I know that my understanding did improve over the three weeks although I still lack confidence when trying to speak. Learning a language is a pleasurable pain – or should that be a painful pleasure – for people who want to be stimulated and love learning, and I know that forthcoming experiences will be greatly enhanced if I can understand and make myself understood in Spanish.
So what exactly did I get up to?
Well, no two days were ever the same.
To begin with, I usually rose at eight-ish most mornings and after breakfast I would usually entertain the baby and chat to Dyana. We would often go out for a walk or we would go to the shops. We went once to the weekly market set up in the shadow of the futuristic looking bull ring, where they sold local produce, stopping to study a pair of tigers who were sleepily sprawled out in a trailer which was parked on the street. They were not a permanent feature of the town but were part of a travelling circus which was in town. We stopped several times for beer or a coke and tapas in some bars and as the temperature was a toasty thirty degrees for the majority of my stay, I often lay in the garden on a sun lounger or I dipped in and out of the little pool.
Garban is totally doted on by his entire extended family and I never once witnessed any irritation or impatience with him. If he couldn’t sleep then not to worry, it just meant more time with him. If he refused to eat, no matter, still more time with him. Perhaps because of the devotion that he received, he had little need to cry or grumble and was ready with his smiles and cuddles. Dyana’s brother and Hunter’s sister showered him with affection and it never ceased to make me laugh when either set of grand parents arrived and the battle to cuddle and hold him began between the couples. He was so content and happy to be with me and I earned the nickname Mary Poppins.
With encouragement and plenty of hints and tips from Dyana and Hunter I set off on some mini-adventures and I explored Toledo, Madrid and Sergovia – and you will get in-depth reports from these amazing places in the future I met some lovely people including a lady from New Zealand, travellers from Colombia and Poland and of course from Madrid itself, and amazingly I also met up with friends from the UK who happened to be in the area.
the local bull ring glows under the sunset
As I now bowl south on the coach I can see an intriguing looking castle on a distant hill which is flanked by a row of old fashioned windmills. The rain that accompanied our departure from Madrid has stopped and the windmills gleam in the sun. The plains of Spain are truly enormous. Stretching for as far as the eye can see, crops and dried grasses wave golden yellow in the sun and with far away mountains propping up the sky on the horizon this is certainly no place for the agoraphobic. I have loved every place that I have visited so far on my travels and Pollyanna-like, I always try to find beauty or something of interest. Madrid felt very special to me. The centre is compact – even more compact than Lisboa and contains a diversity of sights all within walking distance to each other. The metro system is sleek, modern and inexpensive and there is a range of eating and drinking places to suit all tastes and budgets. Most importantly of all for me, it felt safe. When the lights come on at night it takes on a whole new persona but still envelops and welcomes its inhabitants.
I am very excited to be moving on and to be meeting up with friends at a wedding in Estepona but I am also very sad and truly sorry to leave an amazing family. I know that I have made some friends for life.