Saturday, September 25, 2010

Drugs, soup and witches

During breakfast, at the vegetarian restaurant across the street from our hostel (!) in Chiclayo, Ross noticed that there were bags of "coca" for sale behind the counter. We were surprised at first, but then remembered the guidebook mentioning that coca leaves are a legal and, in fact, important part of the culture in South America. (Which may explain the way people drive down here.) Natives chew the leaves or brew them into a tea to alleviate headaches, altitude sickness, hunger, fatigue, stomach pains, Kinda-Bored-Itis, and Not-Having-Enough-Fun-at-this-Party Syndrome. When we expressed interest in buying a bag, the waitress spent about 10 minutes offering advice and chatting with us about it. She spoke at great length about how she went to Cajamarca, had a headache because of the altitude, had a cup of coca tea, and BOOM! No headache. Had a stomach pain... Hey presto! Gone. (Incidentally, not a single person in Ecuador ever gave us advice or chatted with us. People here have been about 300 times friendlier than in Ecuador. They actually smile! And make jokes! And don't make me feel like I've raped their babies! Always a plus.)

To my parents and others who may worry: Unprocessed coca is about 100 times less potent than cocaine. It has roughly the same effect as a cup of coffee. So no worries, we probably won't turn up dead in a dumpster several days from now with an equally dead hooker and a donkey. (Although, somewhat relatedly, yesterday does mark the first day that I actually saw a man riding a donkey. Amazing!)

So we bought a bag of ground coca and took it back to our room to make a tea. Of course, because we have no way to boil water in our hotel room, we just mixed the coca with some bottled water and stirred it as vigorously as possible (which was not very vigorously). The result was a dark green, grainy, cold brew of disgustingness. We downed it anyway, just to see what it would be like, and eventually felt... absolutely nothing. Hmmmm. Not impressed.

Our main plan for today was to go explore La Mercada de los Brujos, or The Witches' Market. Because the next thing you want to do after trying coca for the first time is go haggle with some witches. (Un)fortunately, we had a hard time finding it because the guidebook's only 'guide' was that it was 'next to' the city's sprawling central market. And indeed, there is no other way to describe it except sprawling. Walking into this market was like what I'd imagine walking into the center of Delhi would be like. Local vendors had booths filled to the brim with every imagineable item, from bras and children's clothes, to pineapples and fish, to a metallurgy booth. The smells were, at times, overwhelming. People called out "Hola gringa! Gringa!!" trying to get my attention. Naturally. That is how I'd call a potential customer too. We even walked through a section of.... and here words fail me. Raw meat? Dead animals with flies buzzing all around them? Chickens cut open sideways so you could see all their organs? And that is when I had chicken blood squirted on my skirt as we walked. Mmm, yummy.

The "witch" part of the market was nowhere to be found (until we found it). Here people (or were they?) were selling herbs, candles, sacred shells, and shouting "Coca!" at us whenever we walked past. Now that is a better way to get a customer than "Gringa!!!!" (South Americans have a terrible affinity for shouting everything. On every corner there are people shouting what items they're selling. At the bus station there's guys shouting to advertise bus destinations. It's like, when I want strawberries I will come inquire about them. Likewise, shouting "QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO" will not make me buy a bus ticket to Quito, it will just make me hate you a little bit more with each passing minute.)

Either way, we decided to buy some coca leaves to chew, since the ground coca that we'd made "tea" with earlier was such a disappointment that we were still curious. We read online that to chew coca leaves, you have to mix them with an alkaloid called "llipta" (pronounced YIP-tah) to release the coca more readily. When we asked for some, the lady selling it just poured some out into a bottle cap and handed it for us to try. Uh, no thanks. I'll take your word that it's good stuff.

The witches are my favorite people in South America so far.

One of the other herbs we decided to buy from the witches was San Pedro, a ground cactus that gives you mild hallucinations for about an hour. Hey, when in Rome, right? The man invited us into the secret back section of his booth to show us the product. We haggled him down to about $5, because if you pay any more than that for your hallucinogenic cactus then you're a sucker.

Armed with all our new goodies, we finally made it out of the market and went back home to try the loot. We watched several YouTube videos of people mixing coca leaves with llipta and chewing the mixture, just to make sure we weren't about to kill ourselves trying to do this. (God, I love the internet.) Finally we gathered the nerve to try it ourselves. The coca leaves had a nice, leafy taste to them, but mixed with the llipta, the whole thing tasted bitter and unpleasant. You chew the mixture a few times and then keep it in a ball in your cheek like a squirrel. After a few minutes, my cheek and throat started to go a bit numb. Ross felt nothing. After 20 minutes, Ross still felt nothing, and I felt nothing more than a mild deja-vu of being at the dentist. I have a suspicion the whole coca thing is a vast South American conspiracy on the gringos. Now I'm worried that the San Pedro we bought is going to turn out to be just ground basil. Damn Peruvians.

To finally switch gears from talking about drugs: for dinner we went to a restaurant where I was served cream of cream soup. I had asked for cream of asparagus, but I think they forgot to put in the asparagus. We decided to spice it up by adding some black pepper to it, since, hey, it doesn't get much worse than just cream for dinner. We added a normal amount of pepper, only to find that the soup tasted exactly as before. So then I added more. And more. We added what I conservatively estimate to be about 3 tablespoons of pepper and gingerly did a taste test, with absolutely no discernible difference. How is this possible? Is this soup another South American conspiracy on the white people? Does it actually have super-powers of creaminess? Is the pepper actually fake pepper, placed there to watch us squirm? (Travelling in places where we're the only white people for miles has started to make us quite paranoid. It seems like everyone is ripping us off or deliberately messing with our heads. Stop it, South Americans.)

Eventually the soup went from white to a dull grey color, but I still tasted nothing but cream. So the next logical thing was to chip off pieces of fried plantain (their version of potato chips) and make a little happy face in the soup. Sadly, the waitress did not appreciate our art and walked away with a scowl. We left money on the table and fled.

Dissatisfied with my dinner of 4 sips of soup, we decided to buy some fruit on the way back home. I was delighted to see that, among the apples, bananas, and oranges, there were also 2 fruits for sale that were new to me. Trying foreign fruit is one of my favorite things to do. It's so exciting having no idea what a food is going to look like when you open it, not knowing what texture it will have (usually it's fucking weird) or what it will smell or taste like. It's like a gustatorial adventure. I have never been disappointed doing this and tonight was no exception. Ross was just as excited, if not more so, because we were finally going to be getting to use the sporks that we bought specifically for this trip.

Overall a highly satisfying day in Peru, especially once I washed the chicken blood off my skirt.

The emergence of Ross (from the bathroom)

Hello! Ross here. Or, as the locals would put it, "Hola! Rrrrrrrrrross aqui". Now that I am no longer spending every waking moment sitting on a toilet moaning helplessly, I decided to seize the opportunity to offer some advice vis-a-vis eating in Ecuador. My advice is: don't. Whether it's breakfast (desayuno), lunch (almuerzo) or dinner (merienda), just don't eat it. It might taste good, but do not be fooled: that's the bacteria's clever evolutionary trick of being delicious so that you eat greater quantities of it. So treacherous is the food, in fact, that I've come up with a warning which, were I president of Ecuador, would be required to be read to all potential victims customers at the country's restaurants by the attending waiter. It is a variation on the Miranda warning, which I shall call the "Merienda warning", and it goes as follows:

You have the right to remain hungry. Should you choose to waive this right, anything you eat can and will be used against you in a toilet of Ecuador. You have the right to speak to a pharmacist. If you do not already know how to use Imodium, you have the right to watch the pharmacist enthusiastically perform a series of unnecessarily graphic mimes with regard to its usage, rather than simply letting you read the multilingual package insert. (This will be done mainly for the amusement of the other customers, who have the right to laugh heartily at your gastrointestinal misfortune.) You have the right to develop a deep and abiding anxiety about any food or condiment that isn't a saltine cracker still tightly sealed in its wrapper. God be with you, amigo.

Because it was vitally important for me to be within fifteen feet of a washroom at all times, we decided to limit our exploring to Ecuador's Andean cities: Quito, Baños (one meaning of which, rather appropriately, is "bathrooms"), and Cuenca. While each was interesting and/or charming in its own way, it was the bus rides between the cities that I enjoyed the most, because the countryside is exceptionally beautiful. Were I to visit Ecuador again I would concentrate instead on the rural areas: the coastal west, the Amazonian northeast, the cloud- and rain forests. I'd go in search of sloths and endangered spectacled bears (endangered, I'm told, because so many of them are switching to contact lenses), I'd fly out to the Galápagos and snorkel with penguins (though, disappointingly, further research reveals that the penguins themselves haven't in fact been trained to use snorkels; they just hold their breath or something, which is much less cute).

Thus my experience in Ecuador must sadly be summed up as "a bit meh", but I blame that on the intestine-dissolving bacteria I acquired immediately upon arrival rather than the country itself, and I look forward to returning some day with a much more fauna- and flora-focused itinerary.

And, of course, a dozen suitcases of saltine crackers. Or an extra-large colostomy bag, if I'm travelling light.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The end of Ecuador

Apologies for taking so long to get another post up. We've been dealing with some stomach issues that have drained our motivation to even think about writing. Suddenly the words of friends at our going-away party ("Seriously, just don't eat while you travel") seem much more wise. Oh well, at least our weight loss is progressing nicely.

After Quito we bussed down to Baños (pronounced BAN-yos), a small touristy village where gringos come to do outdoor sports. Unfortunately we only had 1 day there where it wasn't pouring. We took advantage of the sunshine to rent bikes, and rode around the mountains in search of a waterfall called Pailon de Diablo (The Devil's Cauldron). The ride was incredible. The Andes are stunning - the peaks tower over you with glistening green slopes, studded by farmland somehow being cultivated on a 45 degree angle.

Halfway through our ride it started pouring, so we ducked into a tiny 'restaurant' to wait it out. 'Restaurant' is a bit of an overstatement. This was a tiny shack, where the owners lived in the bedroom in the back, and had a grill and some tables out front. 3 dogs wandered around, and chickens surrounded the property. It took the woman about half an hour to build a fire big enough to cook us and her family some fish. We drank tea and I picked at the fish, finding it surprisingly difficult to eat because I'd never been served an entire fish before. So sheltered. Finally the rain passed, and we continued on our ride. It lended a certain nostalgia to our ride that would've been lacking if it hadn't pissed rain for 2 hours.


We finally made it to the waterfall, and once again we were stunned by the beauty. The only way to get up close to it was to crawl through a tiny 3-foot diameter tunnel that had been made in the side of the mountain, and get completely soaked in the process. It's yet another instance that made me appreciate the freedom people have in South America. Given a similar circumstance in the U.S. or Canada, there would've been a paved walkway to the waterfall (destroying much of the mountain in the process), safety rails everywhere, employees helping you up, waivers to sign, blood oaths to swear, etc. I had the same thought when climbing up the ladders to the top of the basilica - this would never be allowed back home. It makes me a bit sad that we're so coddled in our society. A lot of fun and adventure is compromised that way.

We've spent the last 5 days in a tiny city called Cuenca (KWEN-ka). Cuenca is a small town with colonial architecture and grand churches on every corner. One of my favorite things about Cuenca is the very noticeable presence of the indigenous population here. The women still don their tradtional outfits - a feathered hat worn high on the head over a long braid of hair, a long colorful skirt, and a shawl. I always have to do a double-take when I see them taking taxis, or using ATMs, or drinking a Coke. It makes me feel like someone snatched them from history unawares and rudely dropped them here, 1,000 years in the future. I wish more groups of people still wore the traditional dress of their culture. How entertaining would that be?


We were ready to move on from this tiny city after day 2, but decided that going on a 6 hour bus ride where the toilets are averse to flushing would be a terrible idea until we felt better. Finally, today we have arrived in a shitty little town called Loja (LO-ha), our last stop before heading into Peru tomorrow. I'm excited to almost be in Peru, where we will travel around with Ross's brother to various ruins and parks. It will be nice to get away from the cities. The stench of fumes is constant in every city we've been to so far - inside our hostel, inside restaurants, literally everywhere. It has left me feeling lightheaded and a bit claustrophobic, and makes me really appreciate how clean our cars are in North America. Not to mention the insane traffic - stop signs are really just suggestions down here. To cross the street you just run into any tiny gap you can and hope for the best. Can you get across without dying? Yes? Then it's your right of way. (As evidence of how shitty Loja is, this is the one picture we took of this city.)

Both Ross and I have noticed our tolerance for poverty increase drastically. Already Ecuador doesn't seem poor, it just seems natural. Instead, it's Vancouver that seems preposterously extravagant. Before we left the city, a Michaels the size of a city block was being built next to our apartment. An entire 20,000 square foot store dedicated to arts and crafts! Absurd. And we wonder why real estate is so expensive. I'm sure I'm echoing the sentiments of every traveler that has ever gone before me, but: I love the way this trip is already making me re-evaluate so much that we considered normal before we left. I wonder how many of these impressions and thoughts will stay with me after we come back home. It's been an absolutely humbling experience and I'm really looking forward to what new thoughts the rest of the world will bring.

Click here for more pictures of Cuenca:

Click here for more pictures of Baños:

Monday, September 13, 2010

The emergence of the gringos

We're only into day 4 of our year-long trip, and already I've had enough thoughts to fill up a novel. Not sure where to start, so I will start with what is most prevalent in my mind.

A few days before we left, a friend asked me what creature comfort I would miss most during our travels. I wasn't quite sure how to answer, and mumbled something about safety. It turns out that the answer became abundantly clear to me on our very first day: hot water. The water system in Ecuador is... well, I don't want to say "abysmal," since the rest of the world will probably be even worse, but it definitely leaves a lot to be desired. However, the benefit of this is that my showers are down to about 10 minutes. We're saving the environment through sheer discomfort.

Another interesting aspect of the water system that's taken a few days to get used to: the pipes are so weak in Ecuador, that you're not allowed to throw toilet paper into the toilet, or the toilet will overflow. Instead you have to throw it into the trash can. At first this seemed really gross -- especially since I forgot a few times -- but after only a few days it seems almost normal. (Almost.)

However, all of that aside, it's been a marvelous trip so far. Quito was beautiful, and more rich and modern than I expected. It's divided up into 2 sections - Old Town, and New Town. Old Town is quite charming - post-colonial architecture, cobble-stone streets, and a view of The Virgen de Quito from everywhere. Plus, right next to our hostel was a gorgeous 115m tall gothic basilica that was so huge I couldn't even take a proper picture of it. Of course, we decided to climb to the very top of it on our first day in Quito. The sheer terror of climbing up rickety ladders at this height, combined with our altitude sickness, ensured that my legs were screaming at me when we came down. But wow, it was worth it. Such cool views, and such an adrenaline rush.


The main feeling so far: everywhere I go, I feel like a bumbling gringo (in a good way). For example, to go explore New Town yesterday, we decided to take the Trole bus. These buses are only 25 cents and go quite fast, so they're VERY VERY packed. So much so, that when you're exiting, you have to literally elbow your way through people. I guess Ross is more assertive about this sort of thing than I am, because he got to the door just fine, while I got stuck in the crowd. I was still about 4 feet from the door when the doors started to close. I panicked a bit and shouted "Ross! Wait!" and reached my hand out to him. He reached for my hand and started pulling me through the crowd of people, while the people on the bus were pushing me forward! With this teamwork (people here are so friendly) I was able to get out. I think my elbows are going to get a good workout on this trip.

Another example: When we finally got off the Trole, we decided to get some lunch. Lunch is the only meal that we have to get ourselves because we get breakfast and dinner at the hostel. We were trying to decide what to get, but didn't know what many of the words on the menu were. Unfortunately the dictionary we got isn't very good for food - most of the words we tried to look up weren't even in there. So we tried to order the cheapest thing on the menu, which was a portion of "merenza." Somehow we figured that this was probably vegetables, so it seemed safe. The waitress looked at us funny and made up a silly story about how you can only get merenza by itself between Monday and Friday. We figured she was just trying to get us to order something more expensive, so instead we ordered rice, with fish, and merenza. When the meals came, it turned out that merenza was a side of beans. So we had basically been trying to order a side of beans for lunch! Again we laughed about that for a long time (and at that point realized why the waitress was trying to get us to order something else - she was actually trying to help us!) That's right about the time that we came up with the name of this blog.

On Sunday they close down the streets to cars and you're free to walk (or bike) all along the streets. This was really nice, because there's so much traffic normally that it was great to be able to enjoy the cute architecture without all the smog in your face. We were also surprised by the fact that there were performances going on all around the city. We saw 4 different bands playing, dancers doing an indigenous-looking dance, and even skateboarders showing off! I really enjoyed this tradition. It made me wish that Vancouver did something like that once a week. It felt very alive!

On our last day in Quito we finally went up to see La Virgen de Quito up close. I was most surprised to see that, in addition to all the tourists and locals hanging out up there, there were lots and lots of dogs. Probably around 20 or more were running around. I asked the bathroom attendant why there were so many dogs. She said that when people don't want their dogs, they drop them here. They are then given food and water by the tourists and by the employees, they are neutered, and (if I understood her Spanish correctly) they check up on them every 3 months to make sure they're healthy. Overall it doesn't seem like such a bad life, even though they're stray.

I think my favorite part about Quito has been the hostel. It's such a fun place to be and it's so easy to meet people here (plus, the view is indescribable). Before we left, everyone kept telling us that you inevitably meet lots of cool people when you travel. I was a bit worried about this at the time, because I know both Ross and I can be a bit shy and anti-social at times. But somehow it just happens, and it's wonderful.

The first 2 nights I was going a bit insane living in dorms. It turns out that having personal space is important! Who knew? Now, 4 days later, I don't mind the dorms so much. The secret, in case anyone is wondering, is lots and lots of baggies. I got a baggie for my tops, a baggie for my pants and undies, a baggie for my morning/evening toiletries, a baggie for my shower toiletries, a baggie for my laundry... It sounds silly, but it's the only way to stay sane when you're unable to unpack and lay out your stuff. I swear by baggies now.

Our last night in Quito, we decided to book another night in the hostel (we weren't ready to leave yet), so we decided to splurge on a private room for the night. It felt so luxurious, even though it was just a bed in a room. But it's your own bed, and your own space, with no other people in the bunk underneath you, and you don't have to worry about waking people up - pure luxury! Oh for priorities shifting.

Now we're in a city called Baños. This city has hot springs, a huge waterfall, and you can also do sports like zip-lining, mountain biking or water rafting for very cheap. We are planning on meeting up with a couple we met a few days ago in the hostel and going rafting with them. Looking forward to soaking in some HOT water!