Wednesday, September 9, 2009

north coastin

Your run of the mill armchair traveler must tremble upon the mention of the northwest border of Ecuador, entrenched with FARC guerrillas, abound with illegal loggers and lawlessness: a modern day Wild West. Little do they know, cocooned ever so delicately in their lazy susans rapaciously reading the pages of Lonely Planet, Northwest Ecuador is a adventure waiting to be had. I had the privilege of experiencing that adventure two weeks ago in the company of my great friends and thrill seekers; Rodrigo and Pete. Our itinerary, to start, was simple enough. Pick me up in Tabuga and head north, leaving the comforts of Manabi and snaking our way up the coast into the “Green Province” aptly named Esmeraldas. We set off with high spirits, hair whipping in the wind as Rodrigo's diesel powered Defender 90 hummed it's way through coastal forest highway. With a vague idea of reaching our destination sometime that evening, we took our time stopping along the way to explore this forgotten coastline. As lunchtime approached, indicated by the collective growl of our stomaches, we took a hairpin left turn off the highway rattling down a dirt road amidst sporadic rain. We were heading to a small ramshackle beach town named Mompiche,famous for a very shy point breaking left wave and inundated by Serrano tourists come holidays. As we rolled into town, Pete pointed out one of his favorite haunts; a nondescript bamboo structure renowned for some bomb seafood and not for it's feng shui dinning room. We settled ourselves into the plastic chairs, scanning the various wall decorations such as a Baby Jesus poster and fake Nativity scene adding life to a otherwise lifeless gray wall. Shortly after we settled in, the waitress-cum-cook sauntered in and took our orders; three lobster cebiches, could you eat anything else being within a stones throw for the ocean? As the staff of one set out to prepare our feast, a middle-aged man, apparent kin of the cook, sat down to chat us up. After obligatory salutations, buenas tardes and the like, he directed our attention to the celling where affixed to a bamboo support beam was a monster exoskeleton a la the predator's mask in the gobernator's classic movie “Predator”. As we pondered the enormity of the foot long flat shell that once housed a mangrove dwelling crab-like thing, we were saved by the enticing aromas of our orders. Cebiche done right is divine, light and down right mouthgasmic, cold cebiche and a colder beer is my favorite Ecuadorian meal. We downed our meals with the fever of competitive eaters and parted ways with the drab restaurant, stellar cook and weird crab shell wall decoration. We had a lost coast to explore. Back on the road, we began to take notice of the changing scenery blurring our vistas at 100 kph. Being the green province and all, Esmeraldas has a annual rainfall that rivals some of the wettest parts of the amazon, which makes for verdant green forests and meandering rivers born high in the mountains eventually reaching their ocean outlets. Such a occurrence, river meeting ocean, or confluence if you will, was our final destination and outpost for the rest of the trip. We arrived in Rio Verde just after dark, named after the river that separates the town as it flows into the Pacific. Its a small community, roughly 900 inhabitants that grind out their living fishing and cultivated crops such as cacao, banana and other tropical fruits. We took up refuge in HipoHotel, a cinder block edifice advertising fans and tvs, drawn by the promise of circulated air in the thick tropical heat, hey why not. We retired early, preparing for a excursion in canoe to some rural settlements along the Rio Onzele that snakes through part of the Choco corridor, a biological hot spot home to thousands of species of flora and fauna as well as important ethnic groups like the Chachis and Afro-Ecuadorian that inhabit the forest. The morning before our excursion we stocked up on mameys (mango like fruit with dark flesh) and a five pound watermelon to tide us over until we reached Borbon, a important hub that links remote settlements to transportation and trade. Upon arriving in Borbon, we promptly hopped in a motorized canoe and took off up stream the Rio Onzele. We visited cacao cultivators, tree farmers and fisherman all who had nary a mean bone in their bodies. We were two hours south of the Colombian border, perceived FARC territory,but the reception that met us drowned out all trepidation. Their hospitality was refreshing, humbling in a way as we listened, snapped photos and drank in our surrounding. Being engulfed in wilderness depending on the river as a main transportation route was magically, fulfilling childhood dreams of jungle expeditions in unpronounceable far away lands. We basked in the shade of coconut palms, looping the tops of coconuts with our machetes spilling the sweet juice into our mouths and down the front of our teeshirts, it was heaven. Such a palpable connection with nature really put my mind and body at ease, forgetting all modern day preoccupations and really living the moment. After the canoe gracefully glided back on to shore and we disembarked, weighed down which more tropical fruit gifted to us, we knew it was time to part ways with our amicable guides and new found friends. We packed into the truck preparing to return home, our brief stay in this undiscovered paradise passed as quickly as a tropical downpour but we knew that our return was as imminent as the sunrise. This place touched us, brought us to the forefront of the issues; logging, guerrilla movements, rich culture and warm people, but more than anything else, it opened our eyes to one of the true gems Ecuador has to offer. Thanks you Esmeraldas, we will be back!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Celebrando el Año Viejo

Not many words just yet but pics to tide you over. Happy 2009!!

Team "No Pants Dance" Beer Pong Champs of Ecuador.

Building Lawn Golf.

Planting coconut trees on New Years Eve.

Building Lawn Golf.

Action shot of Lawn Golf aka Golf Playero.

Ryan hooking a three pointer.

Elliot on the hunt.

Artsy shot of me playing Lawn Golf.

Group sunset enjoyment.

Secret Santa group.

Hola Vida Waterfall.

Enjoying the spot.

Group pic.

Cooooold water.

Hiking around.

27th Birthday Celebrations

Celebrating my 27th birthday was quite an event, actually several events drawn out over the week. This year my birthday was on a Thursday and my good friend Andrea’s birthday was on Monday the 10th. We had the good fortune of 3 friends coming down to Tabuga to spend some time with us for our birthdays. On Wednesday we celebrated Andrea’s b-day by making lots of good food and hanging out in her house as people stopped by to wish her happy b-day. The next day was my birthday and I worked in the morning then headed back to Andrea’s house to celebrate with Peace Corps friends and some people from Tabuga. We had black bean hummus, veggie burritos and carrot cake. After dinner we heading down to the basketball court and played some hoops in the rain. Friday morning came and we all packed up a headed to Mompiche, which is a small mellow beach town on the northern coast of Ecuador. When we got there the electricity was out, which happens quite often here, but we settled in to our rooms non-the-less. The northern coast is populated with many Afro-Ecuadorians and a ton of good food and music. For lunch the first day I had encocado with is a shrimp stew made with coconut and served over rice, it is amazing!! Other great dishes were encebollado, which is a fish soup with a spicy onion laced broth served at breakfast and is said to have medicinal effects to get rid of a hangover. Some of the fruits I ate were noni, naranjilla, papaya and maracuya. We found a very cool man named Tio Italo who would mix all these fruits together and make batidos either with or without rum, I opted for the non-alcoholic ones the majority of the time. During the two days we were there we hiked around the beach, went surfing, played beach soccer and went to a local dance at some random club in the middle of nowhere. It was a very relaxing weekend and we all parted ways on Sunday with everyone heading back to his or her houses all over Ecuador.

On our way to Mompiche.

Enjoying ridding in the back on a moto-taxi.

Birthday group at Andrea's house.

Faces and Places of Tabuga

My house.
Exterior of my house.

X-mas celebration in Tabuga. Bigote dressed up as Papa Noel.

Maximo and Nubia who work with me in the reserve.

Bigote chilling, representing the best soccer team in Ecuador.....Barcelona!!

Neighbors enjoying carrot cake on my B-day.

Me and neighbor kiddies.


So, I have gotten a bit behind with the blogging and over the next few days I will be filling in the gaps since my last post. There has been quite a lot going on since I enthralled my dear readers with my adventure running 22 kilometers two miles above sea level and stories need to be told. Lets start with our all-American competitive eating holiday known as Thanksgiving. My original plan for Thanksgiving was to tag along with some Peace Corps buddies and go to one of the many embassy workers’ dinner parties. Each year the well-heeled embassy staff invites poor, dirty and hungry volunteers to their house to enjoy luxuries like couches, Sam Adams beer and a meal without rice! It seemed like a no-brainer that I would be able to go to the party, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I am pretty close with some of the Peace Corps brass. At the 11th hour, the long arm of Uncle Sam reached out and snatched away my dreams of turkey dinners in outrageous mansions paid for by U.S. tax dollars. As it turned out being a returned volunteer holds little merit in getting invited to parties, I’ll have to remember that when I try to go the Black and White Ball next year on my P.C. credentials. I wasn’t allowed to go because I am not a currently serving volunteer, well that just contradicts the whole spirit of Thanksgiving The spirit to, you know, give thanks to your family and friends and enjoy their company. Ever the optimist, I set off to trump those silly tie wearing international development workers with a Thanksgiving feast of my own. I was going to need help and enlisted the help of my great friend Ryan and after two days of planning the menu we had our feast mapped out. On our first day of shopping we went to a place called SuperMaxi, this is a giant Costco-like super market comparable to anything in the states. We spent over an hour perusing the isles and generally ogling over things such as goat cheese, bagels and Budweiser and ended up leaving the store with three items: olives, potatoes and walnuts. Not the most productive shopping trip but when literally had six dollars on us collectively. Not the most productive trip ever and we returned the next day with sixty dollars and a more devised plan. We bought a 16-pound turkey and enough fixings to fed 10 people then headed to Ryan’s house. By some wired twist of fate Ryan’s landlord has an industrial kitchen adjacent to the house, apparently his landlord used to run a catering company and they were kind enough to loan us the kitchen. On Thanksgiving Day, Ryan and I woke up ready for a full day of cooking. Collectively, what Ryan and I know about cooking a Thanksgiving bird was limited but with ingenuity and creativity we got after it. We seasoned the turkey with an enticing mix of salt, pepper, garlic, and a lot of curry, I think the curry really turned out well and added a unique taste to our bird. Some of the side dishes were garlic-curried mashed potatoes, stuffing with raisins, olives and apples, spinach salad, homemade gravy and an apple crisp for dessert. All and all we cooked for 6 hours listening to and discussing every early 90’s Hip Hop album on my iPod, Ryan happens to be a Hip Hop fan like me and we debated East Coast /West Coast style, positive versus gangster rap, among other riveting topics. Around 6 that night a bunch of friends came through, many of the same friends that had already eaten at the embassy worker’s houses but they were ready to double up and eat two dinners. For my first attempt at Thanksgiving dinner I think it went very well, we hardly used any recipes and cooked the way we thought would taste good and it did! With the leftovers we made a turkey and stuffing omelet, which was amazing and instead of zoning out to football like our compatriots stateside, we watched a bootleg copy of The Big Lebowski on a 13 inch T.V. Thanksgiving Ecau-style was great and not soon to be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Running Fool

Last Sunday was one of the more challenging days I’ve had in Ecuador. No, I didn’t get robbed, lost in the cultural differences or sick from the ever-present street food but instead I ran my first half-marathon! About a week back my friend Elliot mentioned to me that he had signed up for the race but could no longer make it so I casually said I would take his place. After accepting, I told myself I would train and went on a few runs while I was on the coast visiting my future job site. Running on the coast was great and each run ended with a dip in the ocean for some bodysurfing. I trained for two days and collectively ran 10 k during my time on the coast. The following week I left for Quito for a week full of meetings culminating on Sunday with the Quito half-marathon. The week leading up to the race was very busy for me and I didn’t get to train at all, the only physical activity I had was about 20 mins of pick-up soccer I played one day in Parque Carolina. Frankly, I was in trouble and wasn’t very optimistic about my chances on finishing the race. The course was 21 k (13 miles) long starting in downtown Quito and finishing at La Mitad Del Mundo. The course was a series of hills for the first 19k and ended with a brutal 2k uphill climb all the way to the finish line, not failing to mention that Quito sits a almost 10,000 feet above sea level making it the 2nd highest capital in the world. One the day of the race, I hoped on the bus and headed downtown to meet my fellow runners Jay, Nick, Maggie, Laura and Jeannette. The scene at the start was more dance party than marathon with large speakers blaring house music and many of the participants dancing around to keep warm, Quito at 7 a.m. is cold!! As the clock struck 7 we were off, my pace for the first few k was quite fast attributed mostly to the adrenaline I was experiencing running with so many people. As the race wore on and the crowed dissipated I found myself pacing Jay, which was great for me since he was a more experienced marathon runner than me. So for 19 k we pushed on keeping a pretty good pace to finish in 2 hours or so. Throughout the race there were quite a few supporters showering us with encouragement and even pieces of pineapple and grapes. By kilometer 19, I was literally the running dead. The uphill climbed killed me as I watched Jay slowly disappear in front on me. When his 6’2 frame started to look more like a speck of dust on the horizon I knew I had to suck it up and finish the race. I mustered up all the energy I had left and dominated the last k of the hill finishing in 2 hours and 15 mins. For my first attempt at marathon running I’m pleased with that time, I happy to have finished. It was a very challenging event combined with the altitude and series of hills throughout the course. I’m glad I participated and it was an experience I’ll never forget but it didn’t quite inspire me to become a hardcore runner just yet. I think I’ll stick to biking, yoga and soccer. Running long distances like that really takes a toll on your body and I can attest to that, I have been limping around Quito like a grandpa for the last two days!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A River Wild

(Continuation from the bus story) Once we were all accounted for on the bus we began descending into the Oriente region of Ecuador. The Oriente makes up a large part of Ecuador and is sparsely populated with indigenous groups and people working in oil extraction. There is an oil pipeline that begins in the Oriente passing through towns like Coca and Shell (ironic right) and ends on the Pacific Coast in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador. Anyway, during the decent you can see the scenery change from highland Quito to the lush, hot, humid jungles of the Oriente. Our destination was a party, not just any party, but the annual Peace Corps Volunteer Halloween Party. When you bring together volunteers that spend significant time in the Ecuadorian campo, parties like this one go down in history. We had about 60 attendees dressed up as wine boxes, nuns, WWF wrestlers and even Jesus ready to get after 100 cases of Plisener, Ecuador finest brew!! We partied hard all night and even had a dance party lead by Jesus toward the end of the night. My friends Ryan and Elliot, both of whom were dressed like Jesus stood on the second floor of the hotel were the party was held and incited the dance craziness, complete with organized dance moves and house music. The way the light was hitting them both evoked a holier than thou sensation and was an awesome cap to an awesome party.
Always the early bird, I was up the next morning early organizing my rafting team for a chance and 1st place and 300 bucks in the El Chaco Rafting Tournament. The local rafting guides and PCV’s in the area organize the tournament; it is a very well run event and always garners a large turnout. It generates not only revenue for the town but also great exposure for the tourism sites in the area. My team was down at the river by 9 and we were set to raft at 11. In the time between our race we played some beach football, took in the sun, checked out some of food stands and bought some artisan crafts PCV’s had brought from their communities. When 11 came around we were pumped and ready start out with a good time. The event broke down like this; there were two time trials on Saturday and the fastest teams would be placed based on their times for the finals on Sunday. In retrospect, my team was stacked. We went through our first trial paddling down the river course in a time of 2 minutes and 11 seconds. Jubilation ensued as we crossed the finish line; too bad that was the only joy that would come to our dream team that weekend. When our second trail rolled around the previous nights shenanigans had caught up to many of us. Needless to say paddling all out for 2 minutes straight was not something we were looking forward to. The race started out well and we actually had the lead for a while until everything began to unravel. On the second rapid, one of my team members (John) flew out of the boat and was raked over the rocks for a good part of the course. It looked a lot worse than it actually was and he came out of it with only a few bruise and some sore ribs.
Losing John hurt our overall time and we thought qualifying for Sunday was not in the cards. When Sunday rolled around the competition organizers threw us a curve ball and let all the teams into the finals. Redemption was on our minds as we lined up with the 5 other boats in our heat for the finals. We took a commanding lead amidst bigger rapids and intermitting rainfall. With one quarter of the course left we were passed up by another Peace Corps boat and we tried furiously to catch them as the finish line loomed in the distance. While we were paddling like mad to catch them, we failed to recognize the large rock we were about to crash into. The subsequent crash set me, the guide and one of the girls flying out of the boat killing our chances to regain the lead. Our boat was stuck on that rock for a while and another boat managed to crash into it sending many of their paddlers into the river. I’m sure it was a pretty hilarious spectacle from the riverbank and I’m glad nobody got hurt. Even without winning the competition, that honor went to an Ecuadorian team, this was one of the best weekends I’ve had in Ecuador. The sprit of competition and friendship between Ecuadorians and Americans alike was refreshing and the event had a real community feel to it and we felt very much apart of that community. As Sunday wrapped up many of the volunteers hoped on buses heading to their sites all over Ecuador. Some friends and I decided to stay in El Chaco one more night and hit up the local disco, we then woke up Monday morning at 5 and took a bus to Quito. I spent a few days in Quito and then left for the coast and to visit the reserve where I will be working. Presently, I’m writing for Tabuga, the closest community to the reserve. Tabuga is a small 400- person community flanked by the reserve on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. One of my friends lives here and she has been kind enough to host me for the last few days. So that’s what the last week has looked like for the most part, a lot of play and travel as I wait for my work visa so I can begin working at the reserve. Stay tuned for pictures of the reserve and the howler monkey that live in the trees above my house.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A sign of whats ahead…

If this past week is any indications of what my time in Ecuador will be like then brace yourselves, I’ll have lots to share. I arrived in Quito on Wednesday morning after flying from Los Angeles to Panama. In Panama, I had the good fortune of meeting my Peace Corps friend Akul. He had been in the states for a few weeks so we swapped stories and pictures during our comfortable two-hour flight to Quito. Arriving to Quito during the day is an amazing site, verdant emerald mountains sprawl in the plane’s windows and as you descend into the city. The airport is located in the middle of the city and we were able to point out several parks and building we recognized. Upon landing, we hauled our stuff over to Ryan’s house (also a Peace Corps Volunteer), at Ryan’s we had a nice welcome party with several other friends and we went out to eat really nice Mexican food. Thursday day was spent running errands, buying a phone and working on some logistics for my job. Thursday evening we headed out to a Halloween party in Quito. I went dressed as a “turista tipico” complete with a Hawaiian shirt and goofy bucket hat. I think my costume went over well even though me, Ryan, Akul and the girls we were with were some of the only people dressed up. Friday was another lazy afternoon as we prepared for our trip into the Oriente region of Ecuador. The Oriente is on the cusp of the Amazon rainforest and also the site of Peace Corps annual Halloween Bash and rafting competition. To get the bus terminal, we had allowed ourselves one hour to go from one end of Quito to the other. Thinking that would have been more than sufficient we were on our way but one of the cabs got pulled over by the police halfway into the trip. I guess the driver didn’t have the proper signage and was fined. This set cab number two back about fifteen minutes. My cab arrived on time and we sent Andrea up to the bus to try to stall its departure until the other guys arrived. We succeeded in stalling the bus for about ten minutes but ultimately took off amidst frantic phone calls from the guys held up by the traffic stop. Incredibly, they were able to catch up and were waiting on the side of the road ahead of the bus to try to get on. As the bus approached them, I was thinking we had averted our mini disaster but the bus blew right by them! The sheer desperation on their faces as the bus passed and the ensuing profanity laced phone calls were epic. As it turned out, there are designated places along the freeway where you can board the bus and they were not standing in one of them. We figured out that one of the “designated stops” was about 800 meters ahead and relayed that info to the guys. With nothing more then a shred of a chance to reach us they started running. The whole bus had taken interest in this spectacle and started to cheer on the guys chasing after the bus. After 400 meters or so we hit a bit of traffic and the guys eventually caught up. The bus erupted in applause as they climbed aboard and the collapsed their sweaty selves down into the seats. That’s it for now; soon to come stories from the rafting competition…. Here are some pictures to tide you over. Enjoy!

The guys running after the bus.

Just about to make it as the bus pulled away for the second time.
Me and the queen of El Chaco, where the rafting comp was held.
Racing down the river.
Hitting the rapids head on.