Slow Travel Four Years Later

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

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Bacalar540straight

Constantly off balance. Yep. It’s hard remember the exact months or sometimes even the year of where we have been when during the last four years. A recent acquaintance after hearing our story said, “You guys are really out there, living on the edge,” and quickly added, “but in a good way.”

We call it slow travel. We target interesting places where we might want to live, do some research, and then go about finding an apartment — sometimes for a month, but three months is better. We both work remotely and need a routine to balance our schedules between work and play in order to pay for our travel.

We would love to have more flexibility in how long we can stay, but most tourist visas are granted for 90 days. In Europe the Schengen Agreement covers 26 countries with a common 90- day limit. In Central America the C4 Agreement sets similar parameters. Mexico has a six-month tourist visa. Some countries like Argentina allow you to leave for a day or two and return with a new 90-day visa, but that can be fickle.

Two to three months seems like a good  amount of time to experience a place, after which you can almost say you have lived there. Certainly it is more than a casual affair. It is time enough to get to know people and  burrow under the covers of a place.

Some exciting places where we have spent some slow-travel time during the last four years include:

Crucita and Cuenca, Ecuador
Dupont Circle, D.C., and Baltimore
Granada, Spain
Key West
Berlin
Boston
Buenos Aires
Florida
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Antigua, Guatemala
Amsterdam

When we add housesitting,  Morganton, North Carolina, and New Orleans get thrown into the mix. If we include one- and two-week places, the list grows to include Slovenia, Scotland and much of Mexico, Spain and Ecuador.

Today we are in Boston, nestled in a too-small, over-priced studio. From here we go to the Cape for the fall. We are already discussing our destination after that. Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is right around the corner, so maybe something in South America. Many factors go into our calculation, and we get more sophisticated as we go along.

Plus we do this on the cheap with no home base, nest egg or savings account to support us. The most we have paid for an apartment is $1,200/month all bills included. We strive to stay under $1,000 and average about $800.

slow travel pic

The beach at Crucita, Ecuador

Every place holds huge memories, and mundane life becomes special.  The reasons we ended up where we did, how we found it and how much we paid; if we enjoyed the neighborhood, where we ate and played; whether we were able to work effectively all become part of our story of that place. But more often than not, each place is better defined by the people we meet.

We tend to form bonds with our Spanish teachers, even though our efforts in learning Spanish would seemingly not support those friendships. In San Miguel it was the market woman we brought produce from each day and the yoga teacher whose class we attended. Sometimes, as in Key West, it was our landlord. When we left Buenos Aires, we exchanged gifts and hugs with our portero (doorman).

An intriguing aspect of slow travel is the art of stepping into the lives of others for a while, subletting their apartments with their pictures and things — the stuff of their lives —  exploring their neighborhoods and visiting their favorite haunts. These are amazing and eye-opening experiences that broaden our appreciation for the variety of people and lifestyles in our world.

Because we have no safety net, gaps in apartment rentals are filled with hotels, hostels, etc., which are more expensive. So when we approach the end of one stay, we need to have the next one set. If we’re going to fly, waiting too long means higher airfares. Our slow-travel lifestyle is challenging and exhilarating. You can imagine we don’t watch a lot of television.

Sometimes we have multiple possibilities or can’t decide where to go next, and that situation is the trickiest. While staying in Key West, we looked at several locations as the deadline approached and then almost out of the blue came the opportunity in San Miguel de Allende from a Craigslist advert. It was perfect. It’s like someone throws you a buoy. In that case we landed in an amazing place. Sometimes  family drives the choice, and for us, that could mean Florida, Michigan, Boston or Berlin.

Since not that many people travel this way with our same circumstances, we lack infrastructure — and make up the guidebooks as we go. As we continue to travel slowly, we’ll share experiences and lessons we’ve learned in the hopes that we inspire others to take the plunge and try slow travel. We invite you to follow along and keep in touch!

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City Bus Tours – A Valuable Tool for Slow Travelers

Edinburgh City Tour Bus

Say what you will. As veteran slow travelers, we have come to appreciate this staple of city tourism. We arrive in a city determined to know it — to walk, live, eat, shop, and cultivate a deep understanding. These city bus tours offer the opportunity to do the once around and orient yourself to a place. Hear the historical overview and pinpoint places for future probing, while snapping pictures and visualizing the directions and locations of key places. City tours are generally reasonably priced, and we like that.

One of our first city bus tours was in Granada, Spain. That one gave you 48 hours to get on and off. We planned it so we could visit some out of the way places like the Science Center while we got our bearings in the city. The cost was 17 euros.

Granada Spain view from top of bus

More recently we had an important visitor here in Boston and while we have been frequent visitors since 2003 when undergrad school started for our daughters, we had never done the world famous Duck Boat tour. This one is short and there is no getting on and off. Prices vary, go online to get deals. I doubt very many savvy travelers pay full price.

Picture of famous Boston Duck Boat

We found a variation of the above in Amsterdam.  There are lots of operators. We chose one and enjoyed the canal view. While biking and walking are tailor-made for this wonderful city, we learned a bit, relaxed and enjoyed the water-level perspective.

City Bus Tours of Amsterdam is best by boat

You can’t find too many cities higher than Quito at 2,800 meters, but you will find city bus tours.  The view from the top level of the bus offered a step-ladder perspective and the chance to take some nice photos. Plus the first few days walking in this low-oxygen city will have you gasping for breath. We gained some perspective and once acclimated we started walking and exploring. This one was $12 and you’re allowed on and off.

Quito Ecuador city view from top of bus

Edinburgh, a beautiful, walkable city with character, history and charm. We got our first look-see on this tour, then spent the next week walking and busing.

Picture from Edinburgh City Bus Tours passing Bagpipe Makers Shop

Cuenca, Ecuador. We fell in love with this city, and it started on this tour.

picture of overhead poster from bus in Cuenca Ecuador

Glasgow, Scotland. This bus tour started in George Square. Glasgow is going to become a must-see city on every smart list.

Picture of George Square in Glasgow Scotland

Buenos Aires. La Boca will stun you with color and character. Get on the bus, get to know this amazing city.

City Bus Tours bus let us capture this Picture of Bar and Cafe in LaBoca District of Buenos Aires

You meet interesting people from around the world, everyone is out for fun, and you learn something while not spending a fortune. Better yet, these tours offer the opportunity to make that first acquaintance with a city and possibly fall in love.

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Funky Apartments

it all looked good

The most (possibly only) tiresome part of slow travel  is finding apartments. Sure, if we had unlimited resources or even just lots of money, it might be one of the more fun aspects. But for us, it usually involves a lot of searching and then hoping. Funky apartments can be charming.

We have found some good ones.  Our apartment in Cuenca, Ecuador, pops to mind. The people we rented from in Crucita, Eucador, knew the people in Cuenca, so as we were ready to leave the beach we had a nice three-bedroom, 6th floor, modern apartment, close to the centre,  to rent  for $850/month. Of course we had struggled to find the Crucita house. Finding good beach rentals in Ecuador is challenging.

Those gems pop up, and we’ve enjoyed our share.  The funky apartments are memorable as well.  For example, we were in Berlin for our son’s graduation and wanted to stick around to spend some time with him. We focused on the Neukölln neighborhood, at the time a Turkish area with a thriving weekly market.  The neighborhood was in the process of gentrification with new bars and restaurants opening almost daily. Rents were low and the variety of value-priced restaurants amazing, which made it a cool place to live.

Turkish market 540

Craigslist was hardly used in Berlin, we couldn’t get a response. We had better luck with the German version of airbnb. As we made our way through several possibilities, we found a “bachelor pad” a 20-something male nurse was subletting while on vacation. It was clean, cheap and in a perfect location. Did I say it was small? Futon, stereo, sofa, kitchen; two rooms. As we finalized the agreement (he spoke English), we asked about the rent and his response floored us. He said, “Just leave it on the kitchen table with the keys when you leave.” To this day we remark on this “European” level of trust that is foreign to us. Unfortunately, this rental was only for three weeks so we needed another apartment.

1st berlin apt

Unfortunately, we found Mary, a struggling American artist in her mid-30’s who needed some cash so she was renting her very nice one-bedroom apartment in a several degrees more upscale neighborhood for a month or two to earn some money. We haggled over the price and how long she would rent. We should have known there would be issues. We settled in to work and three weeks later she emailed us to back out of the agreement. She needed her apartment back. She whined and insisted and forced us into the market again. To this day, we can point to two bad experiences renting apartments, and both were with Americans.

Spending a few months in Buenos Aires was on the tip top of my wish list. Early in 2011, we planned our stay as well as we could. In any large city there are clearly defined neighborhoods with distinct characters. This made finding an apartment in Buenos Aires all the more challenging. Each neighborhood has something to offer.

We were warned about San Telmo.  Yes, it was hip, cool, arty, trendy and edgy. And it had an accompanied reputation as not entirely safe.  We always take these “safety” warnings loosely. People see these things differently but when several people say it, we at least listen.

Helen from Australia answered an ad with an apartment in San Telmo. She sent pictures. We went for it. We wrote elsewhere on the blog about this apartment and I think it is worth the read. Bottom line, it was safe enough; still we decided to find another apartment.  I like San Telmo. Funny, even now as I look back at the apartment pictures, I wonder why we ever moved.

Buenos Aires does have an active expat community, and we found Mike’s YanquiMike site to be an invaluable place to touch base with the expat community. Also, expats and locals seemed to use Craigslist, so that was helpful. In the first two weeks we got to know San Telmo well and by hunting for apartments, much of the city. After some hand-wringing  we found an apartment in Palermo for $850/month with a  portero (doorman) whom we would later call a friend.

The experiences and the people associated with slow travel, not to mention the challenges to be met, are what make this form of travel special. As people become increasingly untethered from the office and as baby boomers look for authentic cultural experiences, slow travel is sure to grow. And one of the first steps for slow travelers is to find the perfect apartment at their destination.

 

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Guatemala, Slow Travel

San Pedro ihospital_adjacent church540

Antigua, Guatemala – San Pedro Church & Hospital & Volcán de Agua

Slow travel demands flexibility. For example, earlier this year we had planned to stay in Oaxaca, Mexico, for a few months, get some work done and take Spanish lessons. For a decade or more we had heard about this beautiful city and after a few days there, we understood.

oaxaca540

Street scene in Oaxaca, Mexico

As background, our arrival in Oaxaca was preceded by a month of travel, at the end of which we were tired, overspent and anxious to settle down and work.

Maybe because of its popularity, bad timing or it just wasn’t meant to be, for whatever reason, we couldn’t find an acceptable Oaxaca apartment in our price range. We tried the expat hangouts like the English-language library, posted apartment wanted signs, worked our ads on Craigslist and talked to whomever we could. The good stuff was taken and the scraps were left. Or, we just didn’t make the right connections. Note: We stayed at Hotel Trebol across from the city market. It was reasonably priced, clean and centrally located.

We might have tried real estate services there as a last resort but by the time we felt the need, the warm and fuzzies for Oaxaca were fading. Frustrated and going through money faster than anticipated or wanted, we started scrambling for alternatives. Five days after arriving, we jumped a bus headed for the beach in Puerto Escondido.

This is an example of what I mean when I say slow travel lacks an infrastructure. In comparison, if the same thing had happened in San Miguel de Allende, a quick email to the highly active mailing list there would  have received several responses.  There isn’t a comparable communication venue in Oaxaca and most places. Cuenca, Ecuador, has the next-best active list we have found (http://www.gringotree.com/cuenca/).

Flexibility and timing or luck worked in our favor. As we eyed Central America from our vantage point on the beach just north of Guatemala, an email generated from a Craigslist ad popped into our inbox.

Several email exchanges later, a Skype call, pictures sent and a rapport established, we booked a bus heading to Antiqua, Guatemala, which became our home for the next two months.

That was February. Our daughter would be graduating in May with her master’s degree, so we knew we would be in Boston then — okay, time to start looking for an apartment there!

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Mexico 2013, Travel through Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Oaxaca, Chiapas

By the numbers, we were in Mexico 28 days, from January 16 – February 13. We traveled roughly 3568km (2,217miles). It looks something like this:

Jan_Feb Travels

The first week we rented a car to explore the Yucatan Peninsula. We drove from Cancun as far south as Chetumal and then north toValladolid to see Chichen Itza and then back to Cancun to drop the car. Then we set off by bus to Merida, Progreso, and then our first monster bus ride (8 hours) to the beautiful Mayan ruins in Palenque, a World Heritage Site. Another bus (7 hours) took us to San Cristobal de las Casas epicenter of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. A few days later we moved on to culturally rich Oaxaca (11 hours), then the Pacific beach cities of  Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. We left Mexico via a 14-hour bus ride to Tapachula. Mexico has a wonderfully advanced bus system. The buses are comfortable, timely and make travel a breeze.

That outline explains the raw stats but tells nothing of the people we met nor the beauty of our time in Mexico. The trip from Palenque to San Cristobal through jungle and mountains is in my top 10 most scenic rides ever. If you are anywhere near Bacalar, you must visit the lagoon (Lake of Seven Colors) with its deep and mysterious cenotes. Tulum and Mahahual offer beautiful beaches and clear Caribbean waters. Merida is a million people strong, a vibrantly cultural city that bustles to a big city beat. Oaxaca lives up to its reputation as a beautiful, cultural and interesting city. The lure of the Pacific Ocean drew us to the designer city of Huatulco and then to the funkier laid-back city of Puerto Escondido. Four weeks later we were still looking for a place to settle and headed into our first visit to Central America.

The details of our 2013 Mexico tour will wait for another time, but here is a glimpse in no particular order:

View from second floor out to Catedral

The Government Palace in Merida, view from the second floor out to Cathedral.

Great hallway lined with murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco.

Great hallway lined with murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco.

Artist & Painter Fernando Castro Pacheco born in Merida 1914 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Castro_Pacheco

Artist & Painter Fernando Castro Pacheco was born in Merida, 1914.

These are only a sampling of the Pacheco murals hanging at the Government Palace

These are only a sampling of the Pacheco murals hanging at the Government Palace.

One more favorite.

One more favorite.

Cozumel from the boat.

Cozumel from the ferry.

Waterfront at Chetumal

Waterfront at Chetumal.

Graffitii in Progress at Playa del Carmen. We ate and watched the artist work.

Street art in progress at Playa del Carmen. We ate and watched the artist work.

Mahahual malecon on Costa Maya

Mahahual malecon on Costa Maya.

San Cristobal de Las Casas market

San Cristobal de Las Casas market.

Mayan ruins at Palenque

Mayan ruins at Palenque.

Puerto Escondido on the Pacific

Puerto Escondido on the Pacific.

Oaxaca Catedral at Zocala

Oaxaca Cathedral at the Zocala.

Oaxaca artisans at Zocala

Oaxaca artisans at the Zocala.

More later…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sardines on the Beach in Crucita

It was early October, another beautiful morning at our tranquil Ecuadorian beach house. But our view of the consistently blue Pacific had changed. Large barcos lined the horizon while small fishing boats dashed out, docked and then returned, overloaded with mounds of shiny sardines. We had been warned that our “California beach of the 1950’s” would become a commercial fish cleaning zone but, it happened fast and was complete and we were shocked.

During our three month trip to Ecuador, we rented a beach house in Crucita for five weeks. It wasn’t long before we discovered ourselves center stage in an intense local dispute that pits the sardine industry against local advocates fighting against the practice of using chop and clean houses on the beach. Currently the beach shacks serve as pre-packaging plants for the giant canneries in Manta.

Crucita has a beautiful shallow bay. During the 10 months of sardine fishing, the large fishing boats (barcos) that follow the Humboldt current just off the coast of Ecuador for the rich river of sardines use the bay for safety and to station themselves. We counted up to 14 one day.

barcos off shore

The sardines are fished at night; it’s best when moonlight exposes the shallow-swimming, silvery schools to the fishing boats and eventually the nets. Given the bonanza of nutritionally rich food like sardines, the Humboldt also teems with larger fish. So for example, Manta, Ecuador, the lights of which can be seen at night across the bay, is the tuna capital of the world.

It gets a little complicated and there are several subplots, but the fight we found revolves around a historical and supposedly illegal practice of cleaning and chopping the sardines on the beach. At daylight the locally owned small boats go out to the large barcos, where the sardines are collected from the fishing barcos and brought to shore for cleaning.

boats on beach_blog ready

Crucita is one of  the last fishing village that allows the chop shacks on the beach. The open air, thatched roofed, wooden pole shacks are roughly 40 feet long and 30 feet wide. Inside there are several tables, each about five feet wide with wood planks running  the 30-foot width. The fish are cleaned and chopped on the planks. So each shack can have dozens of people working on both sides of the tables. One of those chop shacks was in front of our house.

cutting fish1

Since this is one of the last communities to allow the chop shacks, sardines are also trucked (small to mid-sized trucks) from nearby fishing villages to Crucita and then brought on the beach to these cleaning sheds (30-40 of them).

Then the cleaned sardines are trucked to the major canneries in Manta about 40 miles away. Huge facilities there include U.S. companies like Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea, although those two process tuna, while other canneries specialize in the sardines.

The fight to get this practice stopped in Crucita has escalated. The local government  council allows it to continue and of course the canneries benefit because they receive cheaply cleaned sardines. You can imagine the resistance in place to any change. The chop and clean shacks are a cash business. Perhaps that helps explain why they remain.

Here is one of the nuances: the locals on the beach aren’t paid the wages they would if they were in a processing plant, not to mention the “social security” they are legally entitled to, and they work in rough conditions. At high tide the chop and clean crews stand in water. Plus children are working. Add to that the unsanitary conditions and lack of refrigeration, and the nutritionally rich sardines we buy don’t sound that appetizing.

fish chop shack_kids

The locals working against the chop shops believe the practice is illegal under Ecuadorian law and that the child labor has to end. Their efforts to end the beach practice has created pressure that affects many interests.

The advocates believe most of the workers are on their side since they would benefit from moving the cleaning and chopping off the beach to legitimate sites where they would be paid more and have better working conditions. But there is also a strict hierarchy among the sardine crews which tightly regulates the status quo.

fish chop shack2

Shortly after the season resumed in October, we saw the beach transformed into a bloody mess of fish guts and blood flowing to the ocean and truck oil stains on the beach. It seems as though there are legal, ethical and environmental issues at stake. The chop and clean shacks have been documented extensively, but they remain in active operation.

It is not known if President Correa is aware of the beach pre-processing shacks or the issues involved. The advocates were working hard to get their message out to local and regional officials and to the newspapers under the assumption that shining the light on this practice on a beautiful Ecuadorian beach would force public outrage and change.

fish chop shack3_blog ready

Ecuador is changing fast. President Correa is very popular (60-70% approval rate) and seemingly doing an amazing job while fighting entrenched interests. He is up against the local councils, many of which are powerful, so new laws  can get choked before they breathe. The lack of action here may be a case of choosing one’s battles.

Ecuador’s development, particularly in the last five years, is amazing to see; roads are being built everywhere, mandatory schooling has been implemented along with child labor laws, a minimum wage, and “social security.” Before Correa, Ecuador changed governments so often there was no stability. Now the country is swept up in massive social, political and economic changes. By the way, Correa is U.S.-educated with a PhD in economics.

I know what you are thinking, and there is an organization that is responsible for fishing regulations, it is called CEIPA. And seemingly they are aware of the chops shacks on the beach or at least should be after this article. Yet the shacks remain on the beach.

One more quick beach practice that caused a stir. During my runs on the beach I passed this truck a few times watching three or four guys vigorously loading it with sand and then I would watch it drive down the beach towards town. I was told they were using or selling the sand for mixing concrete for the local construction projects.

beach sand in truck

Suffice it to say we enjoyed an interesting stay in Crucita. This story unfolded in bits and pieces over our five week stay as we got to know the advocates. While intriguing, the atmosphere was too inflamed to feel comfortable and the beach was a mess. Our time in Crucita was over,  we moved on to Cuenca.

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#59, A Birthday to Remember

#59-#17, Unforgettable numbers…

On November 17, 2012, I turned 59. It was a beautiful morning in Cuenca, Ecuador, and the plan was a low-key celebration. We had a simple breakfast, then around 10 we took the 25-cent bus ride to el Centro. The city was bustling as we walked through the flower market, along the cathedral and down to the Riobamba River.

We made our way to the Broken Bridge, the location of a gringo event put on by the Chamber of Commerce where we enjoyed the music, bought some snack foods and sat by the river.

It was a decision point, between a movie and dinner at Joe’s Secret Garden (rated #1) in Cuenca or taking a bus excursion to el Agave, a Mexican restaurant located about 30 km south of town that we had learned about in Spanish class.

Comida de Mexicana won out so we hailed a cab to the always busy Terminal Terreste (bus station). We were looking for the Giron or Yunquilla or Tarqui bus, all of which headed south on the Pan American highway. According to our Spanish teacher one of those would take us to mile marker #17 and el Agave. We exited the terminal, dropped 10 cents in the turnstile and walked among the 30 or so buses searching the outgoing ones. The Giron bus was obscure but we found it.

The man handling the ticketing was at the bus door where we got into the discussion of mile marker #17, trying  to establish that we wanted to be dropped off there. Our Spanish failed us (milla diecisiete?), we tried everything including drawing a picture of a sign with a #17 on it. Nothing. All three of us grew frustrated, but we decided to get on the bus anyway because we were pretty certain it was going in the right direction.

We knew the restaurant was near Tarqui, a small village south of Cuenca. As we sensed we were getting close to Tarqui, the ticket guy came up to us and said in rather clear Spanish for us to get off at the next stop. We weren’t sure we were in Tarqui or that we should be getting off but hoped our Spanish would be understood by someone else. We paid our $3 as we slipped off the bus.

We asked at the outdoor restaurant near the bus stop, and the woman seemed to recognize comida de Mexicana and pointed up the road. A young man in his 20’s whom we guessed to be the woman’s son was working hard to strike up a conversation with us. The scene on this Saturday afternoon was getting confusing. Our Spanish wasn’t working. As I worked my best Spanish on the woman, I turned around to find the son had encouraged Betsy for a dance. The radio blared and the small crowd was clapping and enjoying the activity. It was time to move on. We did discover that the village across the road was Tarqui so we felt we were close; still no one seemed to know about the mile markers (signo?). We started walking.

It wasn’t long before we decided to get on the next bus and flagged it down. We experienced similar  translation issues for the next couple of kilometers (mile marker is a tough translation), although this guy seemed to know about the restaurant. He was turning at the next intersection but directed us to get off the bus and go straight, also pointing up the road. So we got off and started to walk again. Soon enough we discovered a mile marker #15 stake as plain as day. Unbelievable. Then we noticed that on the curb the location was painted in 20-meter increments, e.g. 15-200, 15-220, etc. When we found the stake for mile marker #16, our confidence soared. And we kept walking.

Walking along the side of the busy highway was problematic but the scenery was beautiful. The views of cow and crop-dotted  fields  against the wall of mountains were as idyllic and beautiful as they come. Near marker 16-380 we stopped at a small store and asked. The woman knew immediately when Betsy said comida de Mexicana. She pointed farther up the road toward mile marker #17. Our pace quickened and soon enough, hungry from our efforts, we arrived at el Agave, mile marker #17-420.

We walked into the homey, rustic restaurant and sat down at one of the large wood tables. It was time for a cerveza and our first Mexican meal in a long time. The time was 4 p.m. It had cost $4.50 in bus fare and taken us four hours to go 30 km.

My 59th birthday meal was minutes away. The owner’s young daughter approached the table and spoke in perfect English with a bright smile and sunny demeanor. We discovered she was in 11th grade and found the math in her Ecuadorian school more difficult than her previous school in New York State. The family had moved about four years ago, and while she missed her friends, she liked living in Ecuador. She took our order of fajitas and a taco plate.

During the meal, the mother and father came to our table and we chatted about life in the U.S. and their new life together in Ecuador. He was Ecuadorian and she was Mexican. They liked their simple lifestyle and proudly talked about the new home they were building behind the restaurant. There were cows and a horse in their field next to the restaurant and chickens in the yard. Their garden was ready to be planted. They seemed content. It was a perfect meal.

When it was time to leave, we asked about another member of their family who we had heard made amazing cheese, cheese products and cheesecake. They directed us up the hill, so we walked and found their small store. It was simple inside with displays of cheeses and yogurts and cakes. We  exchanged small talk but our mission was two slices of birthday cheesecake.

We started to walk back down the hill looking to flag down the next bus headed back to Cuenca. At the #17-220 marker an older jeep-styled truck pulled off to the side. We approached and the man introduced himself as Leo, a member of the restaurant family. Somehow our story of walking so far for dinner had reached him from the restaurant. He offered to give us a ride to the next bus stop. Slightly skeptical since we hadn’t met him in the restaurant, we got in, squeezing together on the front bucket seat. Leo spoke good English, he also had lived in New York State where he worked construction, bought and restored houses, and at one point during the housing boom had a crew working for him. He spoke of his wife and 13-year old son still living in the U.S. We would later find out that Leo had been deported.

We weren’t far down the road when Leo asked if we would like to take a ride into the mountains. Pausing a second to consider if going up in the mountains in our new acquaintance’s beat-up Jeep was sane, the next birthday adventure opportunity seized the moment. For the next hour Leo crept up the steep mountain along two-track dirt roads through several small villages. There were beautiful vistas of the valley as we neared the highest point of the surrounding mountains. At one point we were looking down on an approaching cloud bank. The elevation in the area was higher than Cuenca (8400 feet) and after our climb, Leo estimated we were at about 11,000 feet. As we drove along Leo would honk or wave at the people he knew which seemed to be about everyone. We eventually came to a small farmhouse that Leo’s dad owned and had been in the family for decades. They grew some corn and fava beans on the property. His father, now in his 80’s, had moved some time ago. Leo asked if we would like to see it but by now darkness was approaching and we passed. Leo said, “Next time.”

As Leo worked his way back down the mountain to the highway, we continued the conversation; then to our surprise he offered to drive us to Cuenca. He said he enjoyed the conversation and appreciated the opportunity to practice his English. Our conversation ranged from the community’s fight against an expanding Canadian gold mine in the next valley that they feared would contaminate the river and water supply to the contrast between living in the U.S. and Ecuador.

Leo said he owned 80 dairy cows and also worked odd construction jobs. There were many large, mountainside homes owned mostly by U.S. expats who provided some work for him.

He went on to tell us that about four years ago at the height of his business in the U.S. he was stopped by the state police l in New York and asked to prove his citizenship. He said that he had paid an attorney $10,000 to become a legal resident but that the attorney had basically stolen the money. Lacking papers, he was taken into custody and shortly thereafter deported. He said he was not bitter but that perhaps the state trooper had gone further than necessary and lacked the jurisdiction to ask him to prove his citizenship. You could tell that being forced to leave his family and business hurt him immeasurably.

We talked about the contrast between lifestyles, how families in the U.S. are increasingly pulled apart by economic issues but also the normal path of life there. In Ecuador most families still lived in close proximity. The discussion moved to the race to get ahead in the U.S., to make money, and at times devoting more of one’s life to work than to family. The pace was much slower and the striving less intense in Ecuador.

We thought of our own circumstances, how our family has dispersed, how we are connected electronically with Skype and email but go months without seeing each other. Interesting stuff to ponder.

It was dark now as we re-entered Cuenca. Perhaps my over-cautiousness led us to have Leo drop us off at the Super Maxi grocery store a few blocks from our apartment. I was thinking we should invite Leo to our apartment, have a birthday drink, and continue the conversation. That thought will linger. I still consider what causes us to be skeptical and cautious and why other cultures are more open. We said our goodbyes and Leo told us that if we get back to Ecuador be sure to visit.

My 59th birthday will be remembered — it had a pace, slow at first then a faster tempo of presents, if you will, of challenges, new experiences, and interesting people. How could I forget mile marker #17, another interesting local bus experience, walking far along the Pan American Highway, and Leo’s unexpected Jeep ride through mountain villages. Not to mention delicious Mexican food in Ecuador and sharing part of the day with a complete stranger. At the end, life moves on toward #60 and what that will bring…

By the way, after a little research it seems as though marcador de milla is the closest translation for mile marker; another is kilometraje diecisiete. Suggestions are welcome.

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Thanksgiving 2012, Ecuador, Cuenca, Cajas, Guayaquil

Ours was an untraditional Thanksgiving. A full day of travel and exploration completed with a remarkable dinner. We were scurrying around by 6:30 a.m. in our Cuenca, Ecuador apartment, where we had lived for the past five weeks, as we finished packing for the next road. The plan was to take a cab to the bus station (Terminal Terrestre) at 10, then a four-hour bus ride to Guayaquil, spend the night and then fly to Panama the next afternoon.

We spent five weeks in our Cuenca apartment, three months in Ecuador.

The cab arrived on time at 10 am. We were on the bus to Guayaquil by 10:30. About 30 km outside  Cuenca we entered Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park). The highest point of the park is 4,450 meters (14,600 feet), and the park is filled with jagged landscapes and deep valleys. The park’s 200-some glacial lakes and lagoons provide about 60 percent of the drinking water for Cuenca. Mountainous views into deep valleys laced with small villages delighted us as we followed the switchbacks between and around the peaks.

Finally the road leveled out, tropical vegetation everywhere as we made our way to sea level outside Guayaquil (pronounced: [ɡwaʝaˈkil]), the largest and most populous city in Ecuado, with around 3.5 million people, and the nation’s main port. Guayaquil is located on the western bank of the Guayas River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean at the Gulf of Guayaquil. From the modern Guayaquil bus terminal, we grabbed a cab to our downtown hotel. It was mid-afternoon, and the outside temperature had gone from the Cuenca constant 70 degrees to close to 90. We pulled out the shorts and light shirts and struck out to explore the busy city heading toward the Guayas river. Along the way, we saw the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil

   

 

We wandered across the street to the park, a gathering place for adults and children filled with well manicured trees, flowers and tropical plants. About a city block wide, on this day the place was teeming. We noticed a crowd with cameras poised so we moved in for a closer look. It was a bit of a shock. Iguanas were walking around everywhere. People, children included, were surrounded. It was all a person could do to avoid stepping on their long tails. Some children were leery and needed parental reassuring, but for the most part it was zoo.

 

Okay, we didn’t expect that and finally left the park mumbling about the Iguanas, the children’s faces and reactions, and the comedy of it all. Having enjoyed some outstanding colonial architecture in Cuenca, we found Guayaquil impressive in size and scope with churches and historical buildings, but structures like this were more dispersed, it took some hunting to find them. A few blocks away we landed on the  Malecón 2000 (boardwalk), considered to be a model of urban renewal and declared a healthy public space by the Pan-American Organization of Health (POH) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We walked the 2.5 km boardwalk with views of several historical monuments, museums, gardens, fountains, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, and food courts.

    We stumbled upon a free concert… The band had a big sound and the crowd enthusiastically supported them. But now it was getting dark and we were hungry. You can set your watch by sunrise and sunset in Ecuador, the days are 12 hours long all year long. By the time we hailed a taxi it was 7 p.m. It was a 30-minute ($4 dollar cab) ride across town to the Riveria restaurant, which had a reputation for great food. We stood outside looking at the menu, and the place was empty so we thought we had the wrong place. We balked at first and then decided to wade in. We were hardly seated when the crowd started to trickle in. By the time we finished ordering, the place was half full and by the end of our meal, there was a wait. We had a great Italian Thanksgiving meal. Luckily we didn’t have an early flight. After this day we were thankful to stretch out in our hotel room, prepare some last minute itinerary stuff and relax, e.g. fall asleep. What a day! We arrived at the Guayquil airport the next day easily two hours ahead of our Copa flight to Panama. Our three months in Ecuador were quickly coming to a close and a new chapter a two-hour plane flight away.

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