Ecuador – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This is an apt title, if only because I have a picture wearing an awesome poncho in Bolivia that will make Clint Eastwood jealous. I am waiting to get it via email so I can’t put it up just yet. It was from a homestay on Lake Titicaka where we got to wear some traditional stuff for the night. Traditional men’s garb is the awesome poncho and also something that looks suspiciously like a multi-coloured man purse for keeping coca leaves in.

Clint's man purse must be hidden behind him. Camera trickery no doubt.

Anyway, before prior to the Ecuador post I have to briefly re-visit Boliva. I have had great luck finding really interesting book exchange books so far. I am just starting an interesting autobiographical account of the San Pedro prison in Bolivia written by an Englishman named Thomas McFadden who served five years there for trafficking. It falls under the premise that truth is stranger than fiction. They used to have tours offered regularly until a recent prison mutiny that was a mess. Apparently now the tours are very expensive and a lot harder to arrange. This would explain why it was not on the collective radar screen when I was in La Paz.

Anyway, there were two quotes that I liked immediately. The first has to do with a taxi ride.

‘Fifteen Bolivianos, please.’ It seemed he now spoke English. I shook my head and smiled to show I had been in the country long enough to know the cost of a taxi ride.

‘Six’

‘OK, thirteen.’ Eventually he dropped his price a further two Bolivianos, but he said he couldn’t got any lower than that.

Cost cutting in Bolivian schools has resulted in generations of taxi drivers who do not know the numbers between one and ten. They learn to count from eleven upwards. I paid him the correct fare and he laughed good naturedly and then drove off.

This next quote deals with the scourge of the beer in the altitude.

‘Have you tried the beer of La Paz yet? It is called Pacena.’

‘Not yet.’

‘It is not like the beer of Santa Cruz. You will see.’

He was right. For a start, it was impossible to pour.

‘Slowly,’ the colonel warned when he saw the class filling up with forth. ‘You see, that is the altitude.’

I tried again with the glass tilted almost horizontally and it still
didn’t work.

Anyway, back to Ecuador…

The Good
Montanita was a very cool little surfing town. It was advertized as being almost all sand roads in the Lonely Planet. Naturally this was a cruel, cruel lie – there were no sand roads. But I am sure it was true sometime in the 90’s and it will be corrected in time for the 2020 edition.  Regardless it had a great beach, palm trees, thatched buildings and cool people. It was a very friendly place.

Despite being a lot of tourists here the surprising thing was that the usual associated hoard of locals after tourist cash was missing. There are lots of artisans for sure, but no begging (well, ok, two) and no abrasive touts. I made a some Ecuadorian friends here too which was great.

Ok, my photo of the street did not turn out so I borrowed this from Google Images. Despite the fact it makes me look like I am lying about the sand streets! This photo must be from 1992....

Also, Cuenca was another great city. It was easily one of my favourite cities in SA so far. It had a great look to it, with the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. Plus it had about three rivers running through it. The bridges were small and made of stone. Very friendly town too. There apparently are a lot of North American expats living there which, after having spent some time, makes a lot of sense. I made some friends with some university students there, but this unfortunately involved seeing a movie called the Kevin James ‘blockbuster’ The Zookeeper. In Spanish – but oafish falling down and talking animals that offer advice on dating needs no translation. Plus, I was the catalyst for this I think because I said movies are great for learning languages when they have subtitles. Or I think I said that. Nobody in Ecuador can understand me. This fits more into the upcoming ‘bad’ section though.

This was the river that my awesome $25 room looked out at. It was called Villa Nova and it on the left. Stay there! There is also a big park on the right.

Cuenca also had outrageously honest cab drivers. It was crazy, I had maybe 8 cabs and zero problems with them. I found out pretty quickly the fares were about the same no matter where for me because I was in the centre of town, and everyone charged me the same. I was not asking “how much to…” prior to because it was always $2.00 US. Normally there is a gringo markup attempt where they at least try for at least 100% more. No such shenanigans here. There was a cool coffee shop that did not think black coffee was either boiled milk or juice too (more on these boondoggles later.)

Cool coffee shop from my usual perch... well, going by the booze in the lower right, it's more than a coffee shop.

Unlike Thomas the trafficker’s Bolivian cab run in, and lot of my previous rides, I had a great cab driver in Guayaquil. I was very lucky here. I had taken this minivan trip the 4 hours from Cuenca. It was not even sketchy, it was $12 rather than $5 for the bus. But the guy in the hostel recommended it and was able to book ahead so I just went for it. Plus I am a high roller who spells his name with a ‘$’ for a ‘S’. Or maybe not. Actually, I spell my first name now “Brie Jann.’ This how it was written on a cardboard sign for a connection I had booked in advance in Peru.

Anyway, coming into Guayaquil, the van didn’t terminate at the bus stop which was unfortunate because it is quite secure and they screen their cabs there. It just ends up in some strip mall eight blocks from the bus station. Which sort of seems the opposite of secure. This city is unusally bad. The American State Dep’t has gone so far as to say this:

Due to the seriousness of the taxi situation in Guayaquil, all personnel working for the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Ecuador have been prohibited from riding in taxis hailed off the street in Guayaquil, even yellow taxis. In addition, local buses, and other forms of public transportation are also expressly off-limits to U.S. diplomatic personnel in Guayaquil. As an alternative, employees have been told to use their personal vehicles or to call one of the vetted taxi services listed on the U.S. Consulate General’s website.

Anyway, it was dark and that is when Gyualqyuil gets unhinged I guess. I would hate to see it on a full moon. But in fareness, I never really checked out the city so I shouldn’t give it a hard time. But with the cab, I asked the woman behind the desk at the minivan company’s office to call me a cab. She scowled and looked like she had swallowed some milk that I had forgotten about for a few extra weeks in my fridge. Not sure what would take her to Houston BC for some partially solidified milk, but you never know. I said this again, slower, and she was still unimpressed. ‘I can’t,’ she says. ‘Cabs are outside.’

Sure enough some shady looking dudes in nearly broken-down Nissan Sentras. But they were labelled with awesome stickers as Type R, Toyota Racing Development and Kenwood. Because every race car needs an audio sponsor, obviously. Sure, the Sentra is a fine vehicle, one that got me to jobs in Alberta, Ontario and PG between 2004 and 2006 without getting me killed, but I was not about to ruin that streak. I dismissed these yahoos and just hung out. I got lucky and only had to wait for 10 minutes to get a decent yellow cab that dropped some people off at the strip mall. Not guaranteed but better than the alternative.

So where the driver helped a bunch was ‘finding’ the hostel that I had booked. There was only one that could find in advance online that was close to the airport and cheaper than $10 a night. It was the Funky Monkey Hostel. Classy name, guys.

Sweet logo, guys

I had the directions written down verbatim but it was nowhere to be found. They referenced this shady restaurant that looked like it was from Back to the Future II, where Hill Valley is the dystopian wasteland overseen by Biff Tannen. Actually, the whole neighborhood looked really, really bad. Coincidentally, Biff’s future son Griff has a good sense of style. Griff dresses like me while traveling. It’s the metal spaghetti colander for a helmet that it the dead ringer. I like wearing hardhats in sawmills after all, so may as well stick with what works when traveling. The Back to the Future trilogy are my favourte movies but I keep meeting people with birthdays in the early 1990’s. This often presents a problem as they have not seen the 1983 first installment. Gah. Anyway, speaking of Back to the Future, below is an action shot of me in Ecuador:

Nice black cab and elderly cab driver at left. I am at right adopting a diplomatic pre-boarding pose because I certainly am not suspicious of cabbies.*

*Cuenca is the exception!

Anyway, me and my cab buddy drove around for 10 minutes looking for this place. The hostel was impossible to find. In their directions they cited landmarks and various things but no address. I had paid a deposit, only a $1, but still I wanted to find it. The driver asked 11 people. Seriously, I counted. My cabbie had very little English but he know some key descriptive words. So the ‘funky’ adjective was quickly changed out for something more creative.

I decided to bail on it and find another hostel. It was overpriced, WIFI-less hotel and had incredibly humourless, snarky staff. And no coffee. But my cabbie got me to a place which was great. We hadn’t agreed on a price beforehand either. A standard fare is $2, but I offered him $6 and he was happy. It had been at least twice the length of a standard trip anyway. Any other cabbie would have demanded $25 after all the messing around.

The non-funky, non-primate hotel was close to the airport but in a terrible area with nothing really there. They had a bank machine in a quiet office complex across the street guarded by two guys with guns. Two. Everything needs an armed guard in Ecuador here but, two, that is a lot. They take everyone’s info down too so I had to break out the passport to get in. I had a terrible dinner at the airport afterwards. There was no where else to go so I walked there. Well, nowhere may be a lie. I am no better than Lonely Planet now. There was a huge KFC in the background somewhere, kicking off an ominous red glare from under the Colonel’s unflinching gaze. I almost thought about making a trip there just to try a Double Down. After all I frequently mock this monstrosity so I may as well try one sometime. But rain cheque. I plan on getting back to regulation weight on the trip home thanks to stopovers in Miami and Chicago and their associated airport fast food lairs on the way to Edmonton. Maybe they even have a Carl’s Jr. Damn, the Americans have it good. Well, that warrants some careful thinking beforehand – I don’t want to end up looking like this guy.

Why did I eat so much KFC???? Arrrrrgh!

Anyway, now I am in Quito. No Venezuela. Well, I read that my buddy Hugo is in Cuba for some heath care now anyway so no paint going I suppose. I am not having good luck with flights so far. My plane ticket to Canada in three weeks in insufficient proof of onward travel. What an absolute joke. I kicked up a scene and had the airline manager there confirm this with the Venezuela customs crowd, but I would have needed a bus ticket at least. So I missed my flight, and would have had to wait for three days in Guayaquil for the replacement flight. Plus, the Venezuelan currency is officially a 4:1 exchange. The problem is that the real exchange rate for black market transactions is 8:1 at least. So a bus ticket remotely costs over $200 US. It would be half the price in person. And I wouldn’t use it anyway. Gotta know when to fold ’em, so I said forget this. I learned something big though – this guy has it right. I will do this next time. After all, only the airline usually has to be fooled. The immigration people are ok with people who don’t have dreadlocks and dope and are just going to spend some money in their country for a bit. I found this out after the fact obviously, but better late than never.

Quito is very nice. In my first day I went to a museum with Jenna, a girl from the hostel who I hung out with for the day. The museum is the works of an artist named Oswaldo Guayasamín. His focus, at least what was displayed here, was on the mistreatment of black and indigenous people in South America, past and present. He paints like Picasso and is really popular in Ecuador. I don’t know much brutal death and and destruction art, save for Picasso’s Guernica and then some Goya for good measure, so in my simple outlook he became a hybrid between the two. I need to download some photos from today though because his former mansion overlooking the city was right beside the museum. It looked like a place were Frank Sinatra would have hung out, even with the vintage cars still in the garage.

The museam

So when Jenna and I were talking about writing and blogs today she made a very interesting point. Apparently now narcissim is no longer in the new DSM5 as a psychiatric disorder. We figured it the proliferation of self-righteous drivel espoused in blogs was a big contributing factor. Seems bad for business though – it’s like a lawyer actually being OK with fewer laws. I’m off the hook though because nobody actually reads this thing. Not even me. I mean, clearly there is no proofreading to be had. It’s write, get rid of the red squiggy underlines that incessantly mock my inability to spell (and often my u’s in houmor and and other Canadianisms), then done!

The Bad

Apparently I am incoherent. This is mostly the case in Southern Ecuador. In my first day in the country I had about four mishaps with language, all with random people (RP) at different shops or kiosks. This is all in my Spanish, or some approximation of Spanish in my case.

BD Hey, can I have a water please?
RP Blank stare. Usually a scowl.
BD Can I… buy.. a water?
RP Gatorade?
BD No. I want a water.
RP Shrugs indifferently. Goes back to reading newspaper.
BD I point at a water.
RP Scowls. Look indignant. Why didn’t I ask for that in the first place?

I was at the post office. I had a bunch ‘Grandma Postcards’ to mail. They are mostly from Argentina and Chile. So April, May, that sort of thing. They had Peruvian postage on them because I had forgotten to get them mailed in Peru. So I went to the post office in Machila, Ecuador. Ps. Don’t go there. It’s atrocious.

Thanks, Google Images. If I pulled out my camera in this down I'd be dead a few times over. But this does look a little classy, surpisingly.

At the post office, I had my first friendly person which was great. This made me happy because everyone had sucked so far in my first few hours. I asked her to buy some stamps so I could mail them from that post office. I forgot how to say ‘on top of’ so I just said “put them…” then pointed on top of the Peruvian stamps. Then I added ‘I don’t like Peruvian stamps.’ She excused herself and left to find the supervisor. Presumably to fill out the forms for a hate crime.

About five minutes later another lady comes down and looks at me like I’m Forest Gump’s slightly more useless cousin. She tells me that she would love to help but, sir, we are in Ecuador. We are not in Peru. That is a different country. I will need Ecuadorian postage here. She was then really surprised that I wasn’t a blathering idiot and, I had actually been aware what country I was in. But I was just happy to get these postcards mailed after a six to ten week delay. And at the pace I am losing things, I needed to be rid of them quickly. I lost my sunglasses yesterday.

After the post office it was breakfast time. Random waiter guy (RG) was there watching soap operas. He yelled for his girlfriend to come out when I got there. Then again. Then again. She never showed. So he comes to the table, reluctantly.

BD. Coffee please
RG Jugo? (juice)
BD Coffee
RG Huh?
BD Coffee, dude.
RG I give you eggs
BD I don’t want eggs. Do you have a menu?
RG Uhhh
BD Bread?
RG Uhhh, yah. OK. Cafe with milk.
BD I don’t want milk
RG Uhhhhh
BD Cafe… black. No milk. Ok?
RG Ok, no problem.

So he comes out with this bread stuff covered in ham. Ham. But the worst was the coffee. It was a tub of instant, obviously. But the it was a cup of milk, fresh out of the microwave, bubbling from being boiled.

Anyway, the cabbie was fond of making throat-slitting gestures. Pretty much for anything. Walk down the street – muerto. Other cabbies – muerto. He was a jackass.

Walking down the street I was getting heckled incessantly by sweaty greasy guys in undershirts. I makes me wish I hadn’t lost my undershirt. Then we’d all be friends. Or not. And I am probably lucky I lost it now that I am looking pretty frail and emaciated. So, these idiots would try to summon me. To street corners, alleys whatever. Pretty atrocious. What kind of person accepts being summoned by thugs? And this was during the day.

I uncharacteristically asked for directions at the Peru/Ecuador border. I asked a guy who looked normal. He proceeded to follow me under the guise of help. Apparently it was a block away but hard to find. I thought whatever, I will put up with that then give him a buck at the immigration stand. A block later he says we needed a cab. It just so happened that he had a friend right there in a cab too! Lucky break! He then tried to grab my bag to ‘get it in the cab’ so we can go. Guess I might not be as frail as I thought. I got rid of him, just in English, and then took a non-corrupt cab without creeps. My fault – I should have never sanctioned a tag along, even for a short time.

The bus in from northern Peru was terrible. It was a 12 hour shot on a school bus type of rig that ended up taking 15. I had to sit beside the stinkiest man in the world. He was about 5’0″ and kept encroaching on my seat. Mostly while sleeping. So I would have to pick up whatever limb it was and put it back on his side. He was so little he should have had tons of space. But having to move limbs was not cool because I was not sure where the origin of the stink was. Possibly a dead skunk somewhere that he was carrying. This is not out of the question. In Arrested Development, my still favourite show because my TV clock stopped in 2005, GOB hurls a dead dove dramatically into the sea. And a letter and a dead rabbit. So perhaps this man planned to do the same with a dead skunk.

RETURN FROM WHENCE YOU CAME!

Regardless, I don’t stink afterwards though so good that it wasn’t contagious. A quick segue to dead skunks: I was read a book down here about a down and out junky in LA called Digging the Vein. There was the best simile ever used by the author. To paraphrase, it went something like this:

The failure enveloped him fully, as thought a giant, horrible skunk had turned around and sprayed him with the horrible choking spray of failure.

Wow. Maybe skip the similes next time. Still, probably at a higher level than my blog, but I am down for living in a glass house and throwing stones.

There was not a single regular restaurant in the boarder town. I was disappointed also because after getting on the bus I now get somewhere to hang out and get organized before going anywhere. It gets me away from all the “Hey! Hey! Hey! Amigo…” shouting and cabbies honking. Anyway, when I finally got checked into the motel it was 4:00 pm and definitely time to eat. It had been a long time since… dinner the previous night. The only food the whole time was street meat which is fine normally, but is not an acceptable option when taking a bus without a bathroom because sometime it spends a lot of time in the sun.

When I went looking for a restaurant, the problem was there was nothing open. The chairs were all up for siesta time. Gah. So I ate some friend chicken served up by another scowling Ecuadorian girl. I was expecting her to get confused by my evidently incoherent Forest Gump Spanish too even though this order entailed just saying a number off a board.

I also hate getting honked at, sort of what you see in touristy Mexico in the off season. It started happening a little in Peru. I had seen zero occurrences pretty much in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. And Bolivia is the poorest country in the continent, so if anyone should be ‘honking for dollars’ it is them. Anyway, the horns blare here because I need a cab but just do not know it yet. Sort of a Pavlovian reaction – horn honking brings out a need to whip out the wallet and drive around town. Just like his drooling dogs. Anyway, I was crossing a four lane street that was pretty busy. It took about a minute to get from A to B. In the process, because I was standing there, it was an absolutely ridiculous amount of honking, gesturing and slowing down. This made the crossing a lot longer than it would otherwise be – I mean four lanes… that is maybe 50′ across total? Thanks cabbies.

They heard the bell...! dogs on the beach in Montanita

One the bus leaving to Montanita, a man came on to sell newspapers. He offered me one coming up the isle, then down the isle. He was profiling. He wanted to rock some demographic and psychographic marketing slices to make more sales. After all, he had other magazines. So women who said no to the newspaper where offered gossip magazines and men who said no were offered hardware flyers or something like that. I was flattered by the double offer- he must have thought I looked like someone who could read! And possibly even someone who knew what country he is. Nope, not in the follow-up profiling. Upon the second no, he wedges some sort of Ecuadorian porno mag in my face. The kind without any articles most likely. So rather than being profiled as literate I was evidently profiled as a sweaty, scruffy pervert. Oh well.

The Ugly

Not just the lack of sun in Montanita. It was pretty overcast.

Yah. Don't swim at the point.

I went running on the beach in Montanita on morning and pretty much just ran out of real estate when I got to the point.

I should have read this sign beforehand!

Anyway, so I swam out maybe 200 meters to the point and hung out in the big waves for a bit. Fun stuff. Then I decided to come back in. After 10 minutes I was in… the same place. Hmm. So then I tried about 10 minutes of front crawl and made a little bit of progress, but needed a rest. A rest that involved going backwards. So, ok, no more rest breaks. Plus, the big waves were really nailing me too. This was not going well. Then another full-out go of the front crawl for five minutes.

I was, best case scenario, stuck there. I didn’t want to get too tired to have trouble treading water, but then that might not be the best long term plan. Plus there is some pride too, being just a useless bobbing guy out by the point is awful. So I kept swimming. Swimming is a charitable description because I was absurdly tied. It was more like a drowning guys’s thrashing around and spitting out salt water. Not a good scene. I got really lucky and got a big help-out from great guy who surfed out to yank me in. It’s really another story….

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3 Responses to Ecuador – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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