Travels from February 3 and February 17:
Well, I guess we should fill you in on what the last 3 weeks have been like here in South America. We have been on a roll-a-coaster of highs and lows. The "highs" are the usual; the "lows" were lumped into a 24-hour period.
Ecuador is a country of dichotomies: Bahia de Caraquez is an ecocuidad, with tall, modern apartment buildings right beside other "traditional" dwellings and businesses. The apartments are brick buildings full of glass windows and are painted very nicely, while the "traditional" buildings have exterior walls made of panels of split bamboo "plastered" with mortar or cow dung, before being painted. Believe it or not, we are told the cow dung lasts longer than the mortar!
Bahia (as this city is called throughout Ecuador) has asphalt-paved streets, a concrete sea wall along the waterfront malecon, storm drains and streetlights. It is the beginning of rainy season here, so we have witnessed that the storm drains work fine, draining copious amounts of runoff into the river. In addition, the Cantonal (region or county) of Sucre handles the street maintenance with modern vehicles, such as Vactors, sewer drain vacuums for city streets and not found in many US cities. In addition they use dump trucks and skip-loaders for clearing mud from the highway and streets. This we have witnessed because severe rains have caused mudslides all around here.
Yet on the other hand, there are more bicycle pedicabs than there are taxis. Bicycles are used by most of the common residents in Bahia. Otherwise they walk or ride the bus. While there isn't a city bus system, there are about 4 different bus companies and it appears that about every 15 minutes there is a bus leaving the waterfront. Since Bahia is isolated, having merely a single highway in/out, just about any bus works for most residents. The upper class residents use Mercedes, Toyotas, Land Rovers or other fancy vehicles.
The harbor is managed by the Armed forces of Ecuador, Armada del Ecuador. A branch of their naval division runs the Port Captain's office. The pilot who assisted our entry into the river also works out of that office. In addition, the pilots are the skippers for the 3 car-ferries they run from Bahia across the river to the town of San Vicente. The pilots appear to be non-military; we have never seen one of them in a uniform. However, two other men, in full naval uniform accompanied our pilot when Nanjo was brought into the river.
The naval officers are very proud, yet very friendly; we have rated them as "the most friendly we have ever experienced". When we checked in, the next morning after arriving after dark the day before, we had a series of events demonstrated to us: First, a Lt. Commander accompanied me to get a copy of our zarpe made. He didn't ask for it, I was the one who wanted the copy before we gave them our international zarpe from Panama. I just asked if he could point me in the right direction. On the way to the copy-shop, he pointed out Internet cafes and other important stops. Second, when Poet's Place asked where he might find some coax cable to buy, a radioman was summoned and he offered to help Steve, at 1630, after his duty was over. They didn't find any for sale in town, so the sailor came out to Poet's Place to test and confirm the problem. No charge, just a friendly level of cooperation. A few days later, when we bused to Manta to check in at Immigration, the Port Captain wanted to know that we were going to be away from our boats and for how long . . . so that he could watch them for us! Later, when we went inland for a week, they merely suggested that we make sure that our dinghies were out of the water. By knowing that nobody was expected to be on the boats, they would be alert to seeing any indication of a person aboard. Each time that we returned, the first time after dark, the on-duty sailor welcomed us as we approached the stairs down to where we tied our dinks.
Several weeks after we first arrived, there were 8 boats in the river at anchor in front of Bahia. Apparently this was just what the city had hoped would happen some day, become a popular stop for cruisers. The Alcalde (mayor) of the city, whose offices are in Bahia, invited all of us to a special audience with him one evening. We were met at the dinghy landing by an English-speaking representative who took us on a tour of Bahia and the hills above, before stopping at the Mayor's modern building. The Mayor is an MD with a clinic, running the city after hours. It looked that way, because he was sitting at his desk in his medical "scrubs", a huge flamboyant Spanish-speaking man. He officially welcomed us to Ecuador, giving us special portfolios with certificates (with our names spelled perfectly, which rarely happened in the past in the States). Actually, we received two certificates, one in Spanish and one in English, each stating the honor of receiving us as international guests to his community. Further, he stated that our (Nanjo's) arrival strengthened the ties of friendship and solidarity with the residents of Bahia. Later he asked us to give him ideas on how he could improve the desirability of his port to attract more cruisers ("I want to see 20 boats here all the time!"). One boat gave the Mayor and the Port Capitan certificates of appreciation. We gave the Mayor a print of a digital photo of all 8 boats anchored in the river that I made at the Internet café. Those are some of the best examples of why our guard was down for our inland travels.
The morning we left Nanjo, destined for Quito, it rained very hard. Enough so that we got up a couple of times to empty the 5-gal jugs into the water tanks in the middle of the storm in the nude (so that we wouldn't have to leave wet clothes aboard while we were gone). It was still raining as we got a lift to the dinghy landing (no, not in the nude) by another cruiser who had just arrived and would provide secondary watch on our two boats. We caught an express bus at 0800. The stewardess conducted a security check on every passenger and carry-on bag before they could board. This was very impressive, especially after we were re-inspected before reboarding at stops during the 8-hour trip. Our checked bag had a very fancy, reusable bag tag to prove it was ours. Our ticket was $8. During the trip, two movies competed with the breathtaking views out the window as we climbed into the Andes to reach Quito, almost 9500 feet in elevation.
Arriving in Quito in the afternoon, we walked up some cobblestone streets to get to our hotel. At this elevation, we all were short of breath and developed headaches. The next morning Nancy had altitude sickness symptoms and didn't come down to breakfast with me, but when I finished, I brought her some toast, tea and a banana. By 1000 she was feeling much better. We canceled the original plan to bus to a Mitad del Mundo where, in 1736, Charles-Marie de La Condamine's expedition determined that it was indeed the equator, proving that the world wasn't perfectly round, but bulged at the equator. We will do it some other time; we hadn't given it enough time anyway. Instead we took a walking tour of Quito.
In general, we think that Quito is a cross between San Francisco several generations ago and European cities. On one hand the majority of the structures are stone or brick, streets are cobbled and narrow and the city is built on top of itself - new streets and buildings are built after tunnels and fill allows the existing streets to continue to be used. Quito is a city built on hills, just like SFO. However, I speak of "old town" Quito. There is also a modern part, but we didn't get there, seeing it only from the bus as we headed north.
The people: At the first church, Santo Domingo, we stopped to stare in disbelief at the golden alter room off the main church. Outside, we were approached by an elderly gent who, totally in Spanish, welcomed us and gave us pointers about the area. I won't say that we understood everything he said, but we picked up a lot. He was particularly interested in warning us where we shouldn't go, where it was unsafe. We remembered his warnings and heeded them over the two days that we toured Old Town, although we probably pushed the envelope. The other church we visited, Iglesia de San Francisco was even more amazing in its ornate interior ceiling, wall and alter architecture. It used even more gold gilding. We could see even more church spires blocks away and headed for them. Looking at the Freedom statue (for the most part, a copy of the Statue of Liberty with a few Ecuadorian icons at its base), in the middle of Independence Plaza, two police officers introduced themselves to us. Naturally, we were initially concerned that we had done something wrong, but quickly understood that they were interested in helping us. They both spoke excellent English and informed us that they would like to accompany us as we toured the plaza or any place in Old Town. Soon, Sandra, in her 20s, was the only officer accompanying us as she told about the government offices, which surround the plaza. We were going to see the National Cathedral and the Cultural Center, but Steve and Sharon called us on the handheld VHF and we decided to meet up. At parting with Sandra, she stated that if we came back during the week, we could look for her and she would guide us for as long as we liked. We plan to take her up on that offer a week before we fly home in May.
The next day, we took a bus over the equator, north to Otavalo, a town known for its Indian woven goods and other crafts. We planned to be there for their special Saturday market. We found a very nice hotel with a double for $8, with private bath and hot water ("just tell Luis when you want hot water"). In general, meals were very inexpensive. The hotel didn't have a restaurant, but at the places the locals ate, we had very nice meals for less than $2. On Saturday morning, Steve, Nancy and I had breakfast for $1.50 . . . for all of us! We had eggs, a croissant with cheese and coffee - just the right amount of carbs, protein and fat for Nacy and me. We had been told to get to the market early and be done by 10 - 11am. The bargaining gets tougher as the day progresses and the rich touristas arrive. We checked out of the hotel and hiked to the bus stop. There we bought a brown-bag lunch: Some deep-fried pork over a boiled potato, with homemade corn nuts sprinkled around. The bag was small, but we enjoyed our lunch to go for $1. Well, I did buy a couple of croissants at 10 cents each and we ate an orange we were carrying. That bus took us back to Quito, crossing the equator once again (we now have crossed it 4 times), where we stayed the night before heading south.
We were getting pretty good at this Ecuadorian travel we thought. We were used to vast swings in the elevation. We knew how to get around in Old Town and how to locate the correct bus for our destination. We had confidence in how much time we needed to get where we were heading for our next stop.
Our breakfast at our hotel (Spanish omelet for 85 cents) made our departure from the hotel a little late. After checking out and on the way to the bus terminal, I offered to increase my stride and purchase the tickets by the time the other three arrived at the appropriate gate. I also knew that I had to have a dime for each person to get through the turnstile preceding the loading platform. Just as Nancy and Poet's Place arrived, I handed each their dime and told them what bus to board, before passing through myself. Positioning ourselves on the left side of the bus because it would give us the best views on the climb into the Andes, we comprised half of the passengers. However, as soon as we left the bus station, more passengers began to climb aboard. All a person needing a bus has to do is wave at the bus and it will stop; at certain "paradas", a doorman will yell out his bus' destination and ask people where they are going. Soon our bus was filled. We rode in the hills just above Quito, an immense city, and further south to Ambato before beginning to climb up beyond 13,000 feet. Somewhere around 11,000 feet the bus stopped at a tire repair shop because we had a flat. There were just a few passengers remaining on the bus. It was close to lunch, so I asked Nancy to grab my backpack out of the overhead rack.
Nancy passed the pack, saying that it had slipped a few seats behind Steve and me. I unzipped it and pulled out my El Salvadorian diabetes bag, where I keep my test meter, my syringe, my alcohol pads . . . and our passports. I popped off the Velcro clasp and reached in for the meter . . . I was met with only a void!
(to be continued)
Crew of Nanjo