Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dancing in Argentina: Gaucho Vs. Tango

I've made it, Argentina, last country on my agenda and it's been worth the wait!

There are three Argentinian things I've been dreaming of for the past six months, and they are tango, steak, and wine.  I've tried the first two in my time here, (strangely, no wine yet... but soon,) and it's been everything I've ever dreamed of.

First of all, I made it over the Peruvian-Chilean border without much ado, and I spent three nights in the desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.  I went on a desert tour of the Valley of the Moon (mad stuff, all clay and plaster and crystals and salt flats, like scenery right out of The Dark Crystal,) and then had salsa lessons and Pisco Sours with some lovely Dutch folks.  Salsa still is not and never will be my dance, and as we sat around a campfire I mentioned how excited I was to try to learn tango in Argentina.

An Ecuadorian girl we were sitting with had this to say: "I cannot watch tango.  It's passionate and intense, but it makes me want to cry when I see it.... tango is not a happy dance."  Which, of course, immediately made me more determined than ever to learn it.

From San Pedro I bussed it to Salta in the north of Argentina, where I went out to a peña, a Gaucho party, and watched traditional dancing from that region.  And it was just the funnest thing in the world!  There was this little guy in full cowboy attire, ("The chubby ones are always the best," our Argentine friend assured us,) who just threw himself into it, stomping and spinning and throwing himself in romantic desperation at his lady partner, who seemed pretty thrilled with herself indeed.

By the end they were smiling and sweaty (it was a warm night,) and there were cheers all around.

Contrast this with tango, which is everywhere in Buenos Aires: from what I've seen, it's this fantastic music that's fueled entirely by melodrama.  That is, the more anguish and ire you can convey, whether singing or dancing or playing the concertina, the better you are.  For buying a CD from a street band named Al Afronte, who play traditional tango numbers with a kind of darker, artier, modern twist, I was given free entry to a tango club.  There I got a preliminary lesson to how to dance it, (my partner gave me this piece of kindly advice: "Try not to fall over your feet,") and then sat in a corner the rest of the night and drank gin and tonics with the one other Gringo in the class, a French guy who was even awkwarder than me.  (It's a start!  I WILL master tango!  Maybe not on this trip, but someday...)  But at any rate, the singer had this boundless, tragic energy and he bellowed from the stage like his heart was cleft down the middle.  Everyone else in the club danced and danced in this eerie blue light, like ghosts, and they were still dancing when we left.

And later on, at an outdoor market in San Telmo when meeting with a leather-worker who had promised to make me a bracelet, I stumbled into another pair of dancers, hired by the fancy restaurant to dance in the plaza and attract tourists, who were absolute quintessential tango.  They were young and handsome and dressed in black and red, and they were the two angriest looking people I'd ever seen.  (To be fair, it was nearly 30 degrees out, and the guy was in a full length black suit and waistcoat, and they must have been out in the sun all morning.)  But man, could they dance!  It's impossible to even describe it - their movements were lithe and sinewy and threatening, like neither of them weighed anything at all.  You couldn't even follow the pattern their feet were following - it was like calligraphy, and they were beautiful like a pair of 1930s con artists, like wolves, and like if you got too close to them they'd tear your throat out without breaking stride.

It was absolutely mesmerizing, and I stood there and watched until they took a break to pass a hat around.  So I gave 10 pesos to the guy and he said to me, "Gracias," with this look of pure loathing, like he hated me and himself and his partner and the whole world and everything in it except for tango.  It was absolutely fantastic.  I have got to take proper lessons at some point in the future.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Arequipa and the End of Peru

The White City, they call it, and the name really fits.  In addition from all the old buildings being built and carved out of white sandstone, everything seems to have a sort of bleached look about it.  It's warm and sunny every day, (another one of those "eternal spring" cities which South America seems to have so many of,) with cool breezes billowing in and out of the streets, and it smells like flowers.  On the hazy horizon loom three snow-capped volcanoes like gargantuan apparitions: El Mista, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu.

Two days ago Lisa, Darragh, and Charlotte caught up with me from Cusco and they were all just as thrilled as I was by the perpetual sunshine.  After the standard self-guided walking tour of the Plaza de Armas and grand, chaotic marketplace where we ate lomo saltado, (a traditional Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef, onions, and tomatoes served with the omnipresent pile of white rice and chips,) Charlotte and I went on a visit to the Monasterio Santa Catalina.  Founded in 1579, Santa Catalina is still a working convent where nuns live, but the historic part is sectioned off as a museum for tourists.

I've gotten pretty lazy when it comes to visiting tourist sites lately, but Santa Catalina was definitely one of the best things I've seen in the past six months, up there with Machu Picchu.  It was a labyrinth of courtyards and grottos and shadowy alcoves and secret orange tree cloisters, and you had could go exploring through all the rooms and sub-rooms and peek behind doors and climb stone stairs that lead to nothing to your heart's content.  Everything was so well-preserved you could very easily imagine nuns of the 16th century sweeping down the cobblestoned corridors with their wimples billowing in the wind (whenever I imagine nuns, they always have wimples that are billowing,) or sitting in the parlor embroidering or grinding corn into meal.  (Everywhere we went we saw smoke-stained kitchens with grinding stones.)

And the best news of all is that I finally did it - everywhere I'd read online told me it was impossible, but I found authentic, high-quality, INSANELY INEXPENSIVE alpaca wool and I bought it!  Ten balls of a lovely purplish-red color, each 110 yards, for 50 soles which comes to about $16.  I found it in an alpaca shop full of fancy designer knits, none of which I could afford, and I had to reign myself in from buying all the wool they had.

And now, in about four hours, I'm going to catch a bus to Tacna, on the border between Peru and Chile.  From there, if all goes according to plan (which in South America rarely happens, but I'm hopeful,) I will take a colectivo across the border and into Arica, and then a bus to San Pedro, a small tourist oasis in the Atacama desert.  Two days there and then across the border again into Argentina!  The final country, the one I've been most excited about since even before I planned this trip, and I'm almost there - it's starting to hit home that my trip is coming to an end and I'll be headed back to the States in two months.  I'm not dreading this as much as I might, as I'll be visiting a bunch of friends in California and then headed to a wedding in February.  And, best of all, I won't be in Baltimore long.  Besides, I'm beginning to get really sick of Andean cheese, which is all they have here.  It somehow manages to be both bland and stinky at the same time, and is pretty much the worst stuff ever.  I will NOT be sorry to see the end of it....


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dawn of the Cusco Knitting Club

I have started reading the second Game of Thrones book, (it seems to be moving a lot slower than the first, though that may be because I'm a lot busier with various writing projects and what have you,) and I still have the same mixed feelings towards it.  This is a small, pedantic detail, but I'm somewhat miffed at how Martin keeps taking perfectly ordinary things and giving them epic fantasy names.  "Lizard-lions" for alligators... OK, that makes sense.  They are lizardy, and they violently eat smaller animals.  "Zorses" for zebras, mmmm... where did they get the "Z" from in the first place if not from zebra?  But "Myrish lens tube" was the one that really got me.  How is the word "spyglass" possibly not old-timey enough?  Urgh.

Otherwise, I know there's been a considerable lack of knitting posts lately, and mostly this is because I've been too caught up in traveling, writing, and writing about travel.  But Cusco is essentially the Shangri-La of knitted products.  Everywhere you go you see women hanging out in the streets knitting frenziedly to pass the time as they sell apples, avocados, frogs' legs, or whatever else.  I've bought so many alpaca sweaters, scarves, hats, and mittens for people back home that I'm going to have to throw out pretty much everything in my backpack before moving on.  (Apparently you can get knitted products for a third of the price in Puno, but I was too excited to wait that long....)

Before the gang of my Machu Picchu buddies left for Lake Titicaca, Lisa, Charlotte and I went to explore a yarn store, which was essentially one of the most amazing things I've seen since I've been here - it was like a library, with all the walls stacked from floor to ceiling with skeins of multicolored yarn.  There was even this spidery, wooden spinning yarn-balling machine.  So Lisa bought me two skeins of rainbow yarn, which I've knitted into a pretty spiffy matching set of hat and gloves for her.

  Otherwise, we set up a knitting club, where I taught both Lisa and Charlotte the basics of knitting - the first meeting of knitting club mostly consisted of us balling yarn and attempting to untie knots and tangles from Lisa's skein.  But the second meeting of knitting club was a success!  They're both knitting enormous scarves, and I'm once again attempting to knit a sort of sundress out of skinny turquoise yarn and the remainder of Lisa's rainbow yarn.  It will either turn out to be really awesome or will make me look like a rag-doll... at this point it could go either way.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Cusco, Throwback to the Inca Empire

Happily, Cusco is absolutely lovely.  It was the capital of the Inca Empire and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's the perfect mix of bars and restaurants catering to tourists.  There is a bagel cafe just off the main plaza that serves proper Jewish bagels with your choice of cream cheese, avocado, and/or various types of salad.  Across the center of town is the San Pedro market, where you can find all sorts of woolen items for cheap, as well as baked goods, dried fruit, horrible Andean cheese (it's practically impossible to find good cheese down here... all they have is this white, crumbly, mildly salty stuff similar to Colombia's campesino cheese,) pasta, coca leaves, cow entrails, disembodies donkey faces, frogs' legs... virtually anything you can think of eating.  And aside from all that, the buildings are beautiful - churches and museums and statues all over the place, hiding around every corner.

People from Cusco are also all incredibly friendly.  Lisa, Darragh, and I have been here at least ten days now and nobody has tried to rip us off or been unnecessarily nasty to us.  In fact, people seem to be thrilled to say hello to tourists.  While going on a nature walk with a shaman in the Inca archaeological site outside the city, Saksaywaman, I wandered off by myself and happened upon two farmers carrying bundles of sticks.  They were very nice, even though I may have been technically trespassing, and eager to hear about where I was from and where I was going.  Later, when we stopped for lunch of bananas and pepinos (these shamans have hardcore dietary restrictions...) at a one-room house built of adobe bricks and corrugated tin where a little old couple lived, they lamented that they hadn't had notice that we were coming, or they would have cooked us a lunch.  They were adorable, and we left them the rest of our bags of fruit before heading off.

A gang of nine of us recently took a three-day trip to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town set up as a springboard to Machu Picchu.  To quote the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi, "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."  (Unless, of course, you go to Máncora.)  The people, knowing that anybody who wants to visit Machu Picchu has to spend at least one night in Aguas Calientes, use that as an excuse to suck as much money out of tourists as they can.  Everywhere we went we met with secret, sneaky "local tax" which is basically restaurants adding an extra 20% onto your bill without telling you.  Philip, one of our traveling crew, accidentally left his camera at a restaurant and had to use both bribes and threats of calling the police before the proprietor would give it back to him.  There are other crummy things I can say about Aguas Calientes, but I would rather talk about how wonderful Machu Picchu was.

An old Inca town way up high in the mountains, it was the only place never discovered by the Spanish conquistadores, meaning it was discovered in the 19th century almost entirely as it had existed centuries earlier, except that all the thatched roofs were gone.  So the layout of the town was perfectly preserved, with its temples and plazas and irrigation ducts and houses, and we just spent all day exploring the ruins and climbing up and down the walls.  We hiked up to the Sun Gate, which gave us the perfect view of the village just as the sun hit it from the west and made the entire mountainside light up.  It was beautiful and tranquil, and the whole day was an exhausting hike but well worth it.

Now I'm back in Cusco for two weeks while the guys have gone off to Copacabana in Bolivia, to return on my birthday which is coming up!  So I have two weeks to write and work and explore Cusco, which I am looking forward to hugely aside from the fact that it's cold and rainy nearly all of the time.  Rainy season, sigh... and here I thought I'd timed my trip so perfectly to coincide with summer.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Máncora, Peru: Worst Place EVER

Worse even than Portugal, and I do not say that lightly.

I came here on the cusp of the new moon, and a very dark and desperate moon it's shaping up to be.  I took the bus down from Cuenca, across the Andes which was daunting and surreal, like something out of a Sci-Fi Spaghetti Western.  Lots of cacti and chasms and winding green rivers at the bottom of vast ravines.  At the side of the road I saw a woman roasting a whole pig on a spit with a blowtorch.

Reason #1 Máncora is awful, and this was my very first experience of the place: I catch a tuk-tuk, of which there are hundreds, to my hostel, which is located on the beach at the end of a barren, desolate road.  The driver asks me out multiple times, because apparently when a girl doesn't have a boyfriend to defer to, "No" is not an acceptable answer.  When he realized I was not in fact going to date him, the little creep charged me 20 soles for the one-minute ride from town, ten times more than I should have paid.  I'm still seething about that, to the point that if I actually do find him again (I keep looking for a tuk-tuk driver with a yellow hat,) I'm liable to do something properly ridiculous, like slash his tires or kick him in the knees.  In which case he would then get all his jerk tuk-tuk buddies together and probably come murder me, because...

Reason #2 Máncora is awful: It is a post-apocalyptic dystopian wasteland terrorized by gangs of rogue tuk-tuks, hemmed in by desolate Mad Max cliffs.  (Credit to the Mad Max comparison goes to Darragh, who demands royalties.  Also, in the heat of my kvetching about Máncora I forgot to mention that I've met up with Lisa and Darragh again, which is awesome.)  Claudia from Leipzig, my roommate in Cuenca, is also here with us, and we've met a great crowd of wandering Europeans to hang out with.  Our hostel, also, is lovely - a line of bungalows inside the confines of a beach fortress that we can watch the sunset from.

Pictures courtesy of Lisa, on account of my camera got ruined by sand AGAIN.  (Reason #2 1/2 Máncora is awful.)  But everything outside of our hostel and its small plot of beach is just malicious tuk-tuks and one dead, bloated sea lion getting slowly sunburned and devoured by crabs.

Reason #3 Máncora is awful: A girl staying in the green bungalow got mugged in broad daylight, surrounded by onlookers, on the road outside the hostel.  Someone just ran up on her from behind, pushed her down, grabbed her bag, and jumped into his getaway tuk-tuk.  NEVER TRUST A TUK-TUK, SERIOUSLY.  And then, just to get that last dig in, the guy (who got her iPod,) went on her Facebook account and set her status as, "Soy gay."  NOT EVEN CLEVER.

Reason #4 Máncora is awful: There seems to be some strange plague working its way around the hostel, from bungalow to bungalow.  It started off in the yellow one, leveled everyone in it, and then started spreading to the rest of us, a harrowing 24-hour bout of vomiting, diarrhea, and general wretchedness.  Being one of the few people who hasn't caught it, I feel like I'm living in Bubonic Plague times - eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die, End of Days, Seventh Seal, Danse Macabre, the whole shebang.  

Reason #5 Máncora is awful: Another foreigner got mugged on the same road, a woman from Indiana who a few nights ago was complaining about how there is no concept of men and women being friends to guys in Máncora; she too has had problems turning down various romantic offers from men incapable of comprehending the fact that they would ever get turned down.  So she was walking down the road when a 15-year-old kid in a tuk-tuk (NEVER TRUST A TUK-TUK) drives up to her, pulls out a gun, and demands her bag.  Her reaction: "NO!" and she backhands him across the face, runs for it, then chases down a police van to get him arrested.  BADASS.  Maybe not the wisest decision, but I'm getting to the point where I'm so pissed off with everything about this town that in a knee-jerk situation, I might actually do the same.

Reason #6 Máncora is awful: This may be more my own personal grumpiness than anything - they say you hit a wall after traveling or living abroad for around 4 months where you just hate everything, and I guess I would be at that point about now - but it seems to me that the people here are very fawning when they want something out of you, i.e. your money, and then they'll be snide and disparaging when they think you can't understand them.  And yes, nobody likes tourists, and Máncora probably gets the most obnoxious kinds: rich (comparatively) young people looking to party.  But even in the poorer areas I've traveled around Russia and the Ukraine, I've never had any of the locals go out of their way to be deliberately nasty. 

Anyway, I've had my rant and now feel better.  Lisa, Darragh, and I are heading south to Trujillo tomorrow night, and then onward, them to Lima and me elsewhere, hopefully to reconvene in Cuzco for my birthday in November.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Short Look At the Cuenca Art Scene

I've gotten to know Ecuadorian art in three different ways in the two or so months I've spent here.  One is through street art, which I have to say I find mostly terrifying and off-putting.  The street art in Bogota was colorful and exciting and imaginative; the street art I've seen in Quito, Baños, and Cuenca looks like one of your creepier acid trips: paranoia tinged with apathy and despair.

Also, I have an age-old phobia of octopuses, or giant red bugs that look like octopuses (octopi?)  This is actually one of the less harrowing street murals.  It's painted on one of the walls overlooking El Barranco, the cobblestone walkway along the prettiest river I've seen since I came to South America.  Seriously, who wants to look at a demented, red octopus when you can look at this?

Anyway, the other day while exploring some of the cathedrals and plazas in the downtown areas, I came across a Museum of Modern Art and decided I'd take a look.  This was, in fact, a terrible idea, because what that museum actually held was nightmare fodder for the next four months or so of my vacation.

It reminded me of this Soviet Czech film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland I saw once, where Wonderland was basically someone's neverending tool shed filled with rusty protractors and dusty workbenches, and the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter were these moth-eaten, demented wind-up tinker toys.  This was quite possibly the most horrific art museum I've ever been to.

And then last weekend I was invited by Lino, a guy sleeping in my hostel room, to come and see his art exhibition.  His work, while still pretty dark, was much more interesting than the stuff at the museum.  It was fascinating seeing how his style evolved over the past three years.  My favorites were his earlier works, which were done in a very illustrative style, and had a lot of color and energy to them.

And then, mysteriously, the works from 2013 became much less friendly and more, to my mind, misogynistic.  There were a series of digital paintings of the top halves of women's faces where their eyes had been so doctored and stylized that they looked like dolls, and then a series of naked, shimmering female torsos.  It was especially interesting because Lino, from the talking with him that I did, is very cool and thoughtful and not at all your stereotypical macho Latino.

At any rate, afterwards we headed out into the city with a bunch of his artist friends and ended up at a bar overlooking El Barranco, drinking beers and a big pitcher of this hot cocktail from sugarcane liquor and naranjilla juice called canelazo.  The stuff basically tastes like warm Sunny Delight, and I downed most of the pitcher without realizing it.  And, as it's essentially all sugar, I woke up with the worst headache of my life.  But it was altogether a great show and a great night, and a good send-off from Ecuador.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Final Stop: Cuenca

Final stop of Ecuador, that is.  I'm pretty ready to leave the country... I'm getting so sick of the food here, which seems to consist entirely of white rice, a greasy chicken leg that's mostly skin, iceberg lettuce, and lots and lots of bananas, bananas everywhere, even in the soup.  If I never see another banana, I'll die a happy woman, but somehow I doubt that's going to be the case.

But otherwise, Cuenca is hands down the loveliest place I've seen in Ecuador yet and I'm sorry I didn't come here first.  I'm not sure whether it's spring or autumn here, because there are trees covered in flowers and then there are trees dropping yellow leaves tragically into the brook.  It's always chilly and often drizzly, with these great, brooding overcast skies which reminds me of Dublin.  And every corner you turn you stumble upon this great, century-old stone cathedral, monastery, or otherwise magnificent work of colonial architecture.

There are tons of tiny parks and cobblestone plazas hidden away between the streets, where people are selling things, roasting guinea pigs over open coals, or just sitting around watching people go by.  As always, there are tiny old women charging up and down hills and staircases with enormous bundles on their backs, with their fedora hats and long braids and colorful, embroidered skirts.

Otherwise, on a stop-off in Guayaquil to fix my camera (dropped it in the sand and all the gears froze up, urgh...) a Canadian girl in my hostel gave me the first book in the Game of Thrones series.  After two days of reading it I'm already a third of the way through the 800 page book, and I have very mixed feelings about it.  It's not the greatest writing, and I normally don't like to invest in reading a book unless it has prose and a story-line that will help me improve as a writer.  I swear, if I had to read the sentence, "Jon messed up Arya's hair," one more time, I was going to tear the book in half.  Also, good god, we get it.  WINTER IS COMING.  Shut up about it already.

And yet... I'm having so much fun reading it.  I may be too much of a book snob for my own good, and I think maybe the decline in my fiction reading over the past few years is (aside from no longer being a student with all the free time in the world) because I make it a point to choose books that are onerous to read.  But Game of Thrones is so evocative in showing you the world, and the characters are so interesting - the female characters are all strong and complex as well, which I appreciate, and of course a tomboy princess with a pet wolf is just great.  It's making me want to go back to the fantasy novel I've been cyclically writing, abandoning, and revamping for the past 15 years or so.  I've always considered multiple point-of-view narration to be shoddy writing, but I've seen it done well in the past, and there's so many more facets of a story you can tell than with just a single narrator.  And I've already written five pages of a prologue, so we'll see how this goes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez is delightful!  I am reunited with Lisa and Darragh, who came south from Canoa after hitting Tena, Quito, and a lot of places in between.  (They're much better travelers than me, as I seem to be just whiffling aimlessly around the country just looking for cafes with tasty sandwiches and reliable Wi-Fi.)  But Puerto Lopez during the off-season, as this seems to be, is so peaceful - rather dusty and derelict, with tons of open-air markets roofed with rusty corrugated tin and packs of stray dogs, just like I'd been expecting towns to be when I came to South America - and I would like to stay here longer but I'm getting restless.

We're staying at Hostal Maxima, a villa-type place that has gardens and hammocks and a mini-menagerie of parakeets, an iguana, a cat, and a gorgeous little kinkajou.  The kinkajou looks like a cross between a monkey and a tiny anteater, with big, black eyes and a prehensile tail and silky fur.  This one likes to get his tummy rubbed, and he kept grabbing my fingers through the bars of his cage with his claws and trying to gnaw on them.  And then he tried to steal my coffee.

So the other day, a group of us hailed down a pair of motor-rickshaws and went on a journey to a secret beach.  (Not exactly secret, as it was in a national park in Frailes, a little bit north of Puerto Lopez, but there was hardly anyone there because it was so out of the way.)  Our drivers, young local guys, got very competitive about racing us to the beach, resulting in a very tense, Ben Hur-esque rickshaw race to the destination.  (Our guy won!)

But the beach, once we arrived, was the most perfect beach I've ever seen.  Soft, sloping sand and cliffs and tide pools and blue water as far as the eye could see - nicer even than Playa Blanca, because there was no Gringo-targeted kitsch to get in the way of our swimming, sunbathing, wandering a long way away, and throwing rocks at the water.

A few nights later we discovered, to my immense joy, a Russian restaurant, run by a Russian emigre family, serving proper Russian food - pelmeni and borscht and potatoes with sour cream and the like, cooked up as you order by the mother.  It was such a relief after nothing but white rice and pan-fried chicken, and we are going to go there for dinner tonight before moving onwards.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Montañita de las Fiestas

Again I've been slacking on updates!  In my defense, I spent most of my time in Baños working, and thus came up with nothing very blog-worthy.  After that I spent five days in Montañita, a small, excessively touristy party town on the Pacific coast of Ecuador.  It reminded me a lot of Galway, in that it's essentially one constant, perpetually overcast carnival filled with hippies and weirdos, and so small that if there's someone you are trying to avoid you'll absolutely run into them five times a day.  I picked up three stalkers in five days, which is a new record for me.

Otherwise, I met my lovely friend Jean!  She's been in Montañita for a few weeks doing an ESL course, and she recently left for her new job teaching English in Puyo in the center of Ecuador.  Luckily, we got a few good days in of hanging out surfing, drinking beers, and eating ceviche, though not all at the same time.

She introduced me to her cool friend Jorge who taught me how to surf for the very first time.  It was thrilling, waiting for that moment when you feel yourself caught up in the wave and speeding along to the shore, and I even managed to stand up a couple of times.  Of course, the other fifty times I ended up getting knocked over by the waves and then getting punched in the ribs or clobbered in the head by my rogue surfboard.  But it's all part of the experience, I guess.

The next night we went to a beach party where there was a live brass band and the dance floor was just sand.  And the next day I did the most amazing thing of possibly any trip I've ever taken, which was ride a horse along the beach!  I've never actually galloped on a horse before, so it was sublime, in the Romantic sense of the word connoting awe and terror at the power of nature, to go thundering down the sand next to the waves and these stormy, dark clouds over the horizon.  Jorge and I had this little colt tagging along next to our horses, frolicking in and out of the waves, and then this pack of stray dogs came sprinting out of the sand dunes to race joyously along next to us.  I seriously felt like the king of the cowboys; of course, that was four days ago and my legs are still sore, but it was worth it.

I have since fled Montañita, as it's much too touristy and party-addled to stay for long, and gone to Puerto Lopez, a smallish, quiet town to the north.  The ocean here is much more peaceful and deserted, with men fishing in boats off the coast and flocks of enormous pelicans swooping back and forth over them, bobbing up and down in the water looking for handouts.  We shall see what this town holds!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Las piscinas, un gorro

At last!  I have finally gone to the hot springs!  They were worth every cent of the $2 admission fee, and I'm kicking myself for not going sooner.  (Luckily I have two more weeks in Baños, and I fully intend to go almost every morning.)  

Yes, they really are that brown and sludgy looking, but it's from the sulfur and other minerals in the water, not from people's dirty feet.  They pump the water in straight from the volcano, (my flatmate Johnny, who's big into homeopathic healing, goes everyday and he says that the pools are much hotter in the morning,) and when I went you could see the steam rolling off the surface of the water.  

I wasn't expecting to be too impressed - in general no hot tub in the world is ever hot enough for me in my perpetual coldness - but the water was actually scalding and I could only get in by inches.  But then I just sat around soaking in the warmth with a bunch of old people who've probably been doing this every morning for the past seventy years.  And then when the heat got to be too much, I climbed out and stood under the jet of water diverted straight from the waterfall, and KABOOM!  It was like a jolt of wakefulness straight to the heart and all my capillaries immediately constricted and the mountains looming in the distance seemed a hundred times more vivid.  So I did this, back and forth from hot spring to waterfall, for about two hours and by the end of it I felt like a tiny god, just shiny and clean and pretty darn thrilled with the world and everything in it.  So I think I'll be going every morning for the next two weeks.

Otherwise, I finished knitting my hat!  I used the wrong-sized needles, so it's baggier than I think it should be, but the pattern is gorgeous.

I think something so intricate would be better suited to light yarn, so I'm trying this again with the last of my good yarn, periwinkle blue bamboo-ewe wool blend, hoping it doesn't run out by the end.  So we'll see how that fares.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hot springs and roast chickens

Well, it seems I haven't updated in two weeks, and that's no good.  In my defense, I was sick for almost half of it with something dreadful which I will assume is either Jungle Wasting Fever or cholera.  (Given the fact that I haven't been to the jungle yet, let's just say cholera... cholera's romantic.)  But to make up for my slacking, here is a picture of the mountains and waterfalls they built Baños in the middle of:

While the city itself is pretty touristy, the mountains all around are gorgeous like something right out of Middle Earth.  It's generally cool and rainy here, though I hear the dry season is supposed to begin soon.  There's a huge, snow-capped volcano named Tungurahua overlooking the town, which erupts every couple of months.  Baños is full of legends of the Virgin Mary stepping in and saving the town from boiling lava, as well as creating the waterfall overlooking the hot springs.

I've made friends with some lovely people from Ireland, England, and Alaska and have moved into a house with two of them.  We spend our time practicing Spanish with our landlord Markos and having pancake breakfasts and dinner parties.  (Fresh guacamole is my specialty these days, ever since Quito, and it's going over pretty well.)  Markos has commandeered me into roasting a chicken for him, ("Can you cook?  Do you cook chicken?  Good, somebody will bring a chicken over today and you can roast it.") which I am somewhat leery of.  I've roasted a duck before but never a chicken, and I am particularly terrified of having to disembowel it with my bare hands.  But we'll see how that goes.

Given sickness and busy-ness, I haven't actually been able to do any of the tourist things around Baños, which is the "adventure capital" of Ecuador.  I've gone on one mini-hike up a mountain to go see the volcano, and aside from that I've mostly been drinking tea in cafes and researching articles for the new blog I now write for.  (Incidentally, the link to it is here: in case anyone's curious.)  I've also been stalked by this hugely irritating tour guide who knows everyone and is everywhere in the center of town, and who keeps flagging me down and trying to buy me coffee.  I think the ultimate idea is to turn the tables once I'm sufficiently infatuated with him, because nothing gets me hot like a corpulent, middle-aged Ecuadorian man, and then leech as much money off me as he can.  (My flatmate has had this same trouble with a local creeper named Milton; Gringo-hunting is apparently a popular sport in these parts.)

Otherwise, it's good to have a clean place to stay in for a few weeks now.  A friend of mine for Baltimore is currently in Montanita on the coast, taking a course in TEFL, so I may head out that way to meet up with her afterwards.  But for now, I have a chicken to figure out how to roast!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Baños de las Aguas Sagradas

I have made it to Baños, a sort of hot springs tourist town high in the Andes Mountains.  From what I've seen so far, it's gorgeous, and I'm looking forward to renting a bicycle to explore tomorrow.

Otherwise, I would like to take back what I said about Quiteños being unfriendly - they may be a bit guarded towards foreigners, but everyone who found me whiffling around looking for the bus to Quitumbes, the bus station that would take me to Baños, was very helpful with giving directions.  Then, noticing I was about to pass out on the overcrowded trolley bus weighed down with much too much luggage (I really must start unloading more at every place I stay,) a bunch of men shoved over to let me stand by the window, and then one of them even walked me to the Baños window once we arrived at Quitumbes.  Lovely people, the Ecuadorians.

Otherwise, I forgot to mention the hat I'm knitting, which I'm just thrilled about.  The yarn is cheap, but the pattern is amazing, like an optical illusion in fibers, "Crooked Paths" by Melissa LaBarre:

I can actually see myself knitting this one again and again.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back in the Andes

Quito: I've been here nine days and don't think too much of it.  To be fair, I've been working tons and planning out/writing drafts of my first week of posts for my new blog, and haven't had much time or inclination to explore Quito given how on my first day I went to a public park and in broad daylight this sketchy old guy tried to snatch my purse.  And then twenty minutes later a sketchy young guy tried to get me to "donate" money to his "help the disabled children charity."

But there are some pretty aspects of Quito I've seen in my wanderings.  Here are some of them:

Poor Quito.  It just exudes sketchiness, and the people aren't particularly friendly enough to give it any sort of charm.  (I say this, of course, having been completely spoiled by the enormous charm and friendliness of virtually everybody in Colombia.)  But the people are amazing to watch, though.  Little old ladies no higher than four feet high, charging up these mountainous streets with giant bundles on their backs as big as themselves.  Women in shawls and fedoras with tiny peacock feathers in the brims - fedoras seem to be fashionable for women here.  People walking down the street holding a big lump of blankets like a sack of potatoes, at the center of which somewhere there is a baby.

Moreover, I am loving the prices here.  Breakfast every day are two gorgeous fritatas, a fried egg with aji salsa, a cup of juice, and a mug of coffee - this costs $1.25 USD, and it is filling and delicious.  You can buy single eggs from vendors from 10 cents, and then a bag of vegetables for guacamole for 50 cents.  I am pretty much living like a king here... a lonely, transcribing king who rents a tiny room and eats a lot of fried eggs and guacamole.

Furthermore, 25 cents got me a ticket for the MetroBus, with which I made a lengthy sojourn to the Mitad del Mundo, a very charming tourist trap located an hour out of the city at 0' 0" 0".  Here is the required picture of me with one foot in the Northern hemisphere and one foot in the Southern:

After that I bought a doll from one of the eighty identical artisan shops, checked out creepy bugs at the insectarium, (Hercules beetles and tarantulas!) and then headed back to Quito to catch a Cuban film festival.  The movie I watched was called Lucía, by Humberto Solás, a very arty film full of intense black and white close-ups and sweaty people having passionate nervous breakdowns.  It followed the lives of three women named Lucía through three ages of Cuban revolutions, and I would have found all 159 minutes of it less exhausting if I'd been able to understand anything anyone was saying.  Either my Spanish is worse than I thought, or Cubans just speak incredibly fast.

Otherwise, I actually found the movie on YouTube if anyone's curious:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Cartagena, La Heroica!

Whew!  I have been amazingly busy these past two weeks or so, and updates have had to go on a back-burner for a bit.  I've been accepted for a job writing posts for a language blog, and being as languages are some of my favorite things, this is very exciting stuff!  Plus, I've been in Cartagena, Colombia's coastal city on the Caribbean Sea, and trying to enjoy it to the utmost, which I think I did a pretty good job at.

First of all, I did finish my red sweater on my last day in Medellín, but I lost interest halfway through and wasn't too thrilled at the result.  The pattern was great, but the yarn was just lackluster, and Medellín was too warm for sweaters anyway.

In the end, I left the sweater behind because it wouldn't fit in my backpack.  I took the bus to Cartagena, which took roughly 18 hours, and as we sped through the dark I deliriously watched house after open-air house speed by, and it seemed that every single one of them had a shrine to the Virgin Mary on the front porch surrounded by dozens of tea candles.  The entire family of each house was sitting around their shrines on lawn chairs, making me wonder if there was some sort of religious holiday going on, or if that was just what people do at nighttime in rural Cartagena.

The weather in the city was sweltering and humid, just the way I like it, and it stayed that way all week.  This, of course, drove me to the beach almost every day.  The beach at Bocagrande was nothing special - although I did get attack-massaged by a wandering beach masseuse, who grabbed my foot while I was in the middle of telling her off and practically yanked me off my towel.  My response to this went something like, "Now, wait just a second, what do you - oh, wait, that feels pretty good.  Carry on..."  The real tropical paradise was at Playa Blanca: white sands, aquamarine waves, palm trees, the whole shebang.  Used to swimming in the freezing, grey Atlantic at Ocean City, Maryland, I was pretty thrilled to for the first time ever be able to swim in water that felt like it was bathtub temperature.

(This was actually from a short stop at Islas del Rosario, right around the corner from Pablo Escobar's private island.)  Yes, Playa Blanca was quite cheesy and full of kitschy cabins with palm frond roofs and vendors pushing you to buy their necklaces, seashells, and coco locos... but it was beautiful nonetheless, and I hear if you stay overnight in a cabin you can have the island virtually to yourself once the tourists head back to the mainland.

The rest of my stay at Cartagena involved exploring the city, which is just perfect for walking and biking.  The inner city, that is, everything inside a century-old stone wall (built to protect the city from pirate attacks!) is built like a labyrinth of colonial and republican architecture, kind of a mix of New Orleans and Havana.

Everything was a bit pricey compared to Bogota, but you can buy a fresh coconut for a dollar, and the vendor will hack off the top with a machete and give you a straw to drink the coconut water inside.  The fish there is the most delicious fish in the world - they catch it fresh in the ocean, scale it and dunk it back in the seawater to salt it, and then fry it up right then and there for you.  Also delicious is cebiche, a Peruvian dish of raw seafood - I tried the shrimp, but there's also things like mussels, lobster, and octopus - marinated in lime juice and with finely chopped onions and cilantro.  The girl at the cebicheria who introduced me to this dish was extremely friendly, and also a little bored at work, so I hung out and we had a good, long chat as a rainstorm rolled in from the sea.  She lamented how ever since she had a baby her social life has gone out the window, and then she taught me the word bobo, which is Colombian for "dummy."  There are also friendly women walking around with bowls of mangoes on their heads, who will let you take a picture of them, and ghostly nuns taking sunset strolls along the circumference of the wall.

Most of all, Cartagena was a great place to unwind, relax, drink mojitos, and dance salsa at rooftop hotel parties.  I met a guy who was a dance instructor (so he said, anyway,) who actually managed to instruct me somewhat in the rhythm of salsa, so I'm not quite as abysmal as I was when I first got here.  I think the secret is to not move your shoulders... and also to try hard not to crash into your partner, wherein my difficulty lies.

But alas, I have left Colombia behind, and I miss it dearly.  There was something special about that place, I think.  Everyone was intense and friendly and beautiful, and it's my favorite country I've ever visited except for Ireland.  I'm in Quito now, not too sure what I think of it because I haven't had much time to explore yet.  But time will soon tell....