Posts Tagged With: Quito

First Mission In Europe: The United Kingdom, Stonehenge

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That’s me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

Nobody likes a nag. So why is my backpack acting like one?

“Time to pack, Michael!”

“Get cracking, Michael!”

“Don’t wait until the last minute, Michael”

“You need to do this, Michael!

“I need your attention, Michael!”

Blah blah blah blah blah bluh bluh bluh….SHUT UP ALREADY!

Sorry, didn’t mean to lose my cool. I  don’t usually lose my cool. I have to be *really* pushed to lose it. I definitely shouldn’t let a dumb backpack get to me.

But Kelty– that’s my backpack’s name – is right to nag. I do need to get on with packing. Otherwise, I’m going to find myself up against a wall I don’t really need  to climb.

And misleading them! 🙂 I kid. Here, leading a CouchSurf bike tour of South Beach. Photo swiped from Rob Greeley, whose camera needs a time check 🙂

This is my last full week in Miami, and I really should start packing this week. Next week I leave for London to restart my world trip. First big mission, a trip to Stonehenge and an attempt to topple it. Okay, Scotland Yard, that’s a joke. I will not attempt to knock down your piled on flat stones. Who do you think I am, Monty Python?

I just want to see this mysterious centuries-old structure. It’s just one of those ancient ruins (is that what it is?) I’ve wanted to see for as long as I can remember. For me, it’s a must-see wonder on par with others I’ve already seen:  the Eiffel Tower; the Leaning Tower of Pisa; the Statue of Liberty; Machu Picchu; the Great Wall of China; and others I’ve yet to see: the Egyptian Pyramids and so many others. And yet, it’s one of those that get an “awesome!” that you plan to visit, to a “why?” would you want to see that? And I must say, most of the negative feedback about visiting Stonehenge has been coming from people who are British and largely live in London. It’s a total bore, is what I’m getting. Really?  Maybe they need to stand on their heads and have another look 🙂

No matter, I’m still determined to go. If once I get there, have a look and yawn, so be it. I would have at least fulfilled a wish, even if I have to look at it from every angle, including on my head, to see something of significance in it. I am of the school that things aren’t boring, people are.

So since I expect to encounter all sorts of weather in Europe, even in full on summer, I need to start sorting out now what I will need to pack, and yet keep the stuff I intend to lug around to a minimum. Packing for all kinds of climates is a huge challenge. You need cool clothing for summer; warm for the cold and snow, and waterproof  for rainy days and London.  I plan to do some camping, so must make room for my tent. My hammock would be nice to have along, but that may be a luxury – and extra weight – my shoulders and back can’t afford. Hammock stays home. I think 🙂

And having a good time! Here, with the co-owners of the The Abbey Brewing Company in Miami Beach, celebrating the bar’s 17th anniversary. Co-owner Carlos is on the left in green shirt, and co-owner Ray in tie-dye shirt is next to me. The people in the middle, well, I have no idea who they are! 🙂 I joke. They are the contractors who built The Abbey 17 years ago and expanded it last year.

A rant about these past three months in Miami. I am really glad I came back and spent them in Miami and Miami Beach and places in between. Meeting old friends and making new ones showed me how much my year away in South America changed me. You can’t go away on a journey for that length of time and experience different cultures and not be changed, hopefully for the better. Miami allowed me to clearly see the good and the bad in people I thought I knew. When you’ve spent a year in the Third World, the negativity of too many people in the First World bursts forth with a bang. In these three months, I often sat listening to a friend or acquaintance go on and on about his or her woes and thinking in the midst of their baffling discourse: “You think you have problems, try living like most in rural Villavieja, Colombia, or urban Quito, Ecuador. I am, of course, not minimizing the problems people face day in and day out, but some of y’all need to get some real problems. In his song, “You Will Know”, Stevie Wonders rightly recites “Problems have solutions”, and indeed they do for most of us in the First World, with our First World educations and First World resources. But again, some just live for drama. They’re miserable without it. Travel makes you see that your “problems” pale and a positive outcome of that is that it makes you get off your behind, quit feeling sorry for yourself, and address the problems head-on with solutions.

In short, more than learning about friends, I learned something about myself: that I am a different person, more analytical and less critical, and far less judgmental. I returned to Miami, I think, improved as a human being, with greater compassion and caring for the planet and the people who live in it. At times I was tested. But I think I emerged on top and right. So now, as I continue this journey – this time across largely First World countries in Europe – I believe my year in South America will serve me well. My plan is to spend the rest of the year in Europe, and perhaps even the beginning of 2013. Brrrrrrrr…European winter, yes, I know.

As I make my way across the United Kingdom, up to Scotland and Ireland, I will have time to decide whether or not to return to London for the 2012 Olympics. London during the Olympics could be a lot of fun – or a huge mistake. One part of me screams that an international event of this magnitude is a big target for would-be terrorists, at worst, and at best, an overcrowded city overrun by chaos. But the Summer Olympics happens only every four years, so what a wonderful opportunity to experience it, no?  We’ll see. Plenty of time to decide.

So, I bid you adieu, ciao, goodbye, adios Miami. And I say hello Europe at the end of the month. I look… I mean I really, really look forward to seeing my friends scattered across Europe, who have been patiently awaiting my arrival. I know that because they keep asking me when will I get there! I can’t wait.

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My Nomadic Network

I have become them.

I am them.

I am part of it.

I am it.


I am now part of that loosely connected network of travelers with their entire lives stuffed in backpacks, roaming the world and bumping into each other in new wondrous places, in different countries and cities, across new oceans, mountains and deserts. We share phenomenal moments and fun here and there then pack up and part ways after days but sometimes weeks.

Our conversations are almost entirely about where we’ve been and where were going, and casually share itineraries sometimes with the aim to meet again elsewhere. E-mail, Facebook and other travel and social networks keep us connected.

After three months of travel it occurred to me today that I had unwittingly joined this global network of nomads. I was having breakfast in The Rock, a restaurant on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos when a couple from London, England, entered. I looked at them and thought they looked familiar. They sat at the table next to mine and the woman immediately made the statement they had seen me several weeks earlier in Ecuador‘s capital city, Quito. I confirmed that indeed that was the case. We chatted about our travels past and future. Their itinerary was very similar to mine. They had left Quito, traveled to Guayaquil then the Galapagos and now were in route to Peru and onward south to other countries in South America.

During breaks in our conversation I looked out the large windows of the restaurant – a favorite hangout for foreigners on their way to someplace else – and in a span of less than an hour  recognized several other familiar faces. These were individuals I had seen and interacted with in other parts of Ecuador and Colombia.

Paul and I in Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador. Another time, another place, another country

We were all obviously on the same track, weighted down with backpacks. A nomadic network of  travelers saying hello, saying goodbye, and hello again.

In Cuenca, Ecuador, my current location, this network was evident as I exited La Cigale restaurant. A man who held the door for me asked if I had been in the Galapagos about two or three weeks ago. I responded in the affirmative and he said he had seen me on the island. A few more steps through Cuenca’s colonial center and across the street I saw three people I had met two months earlier in Taganga, a fishing village in Colombia. We had sat on the beach there having beers and watching a spectacular sunset. These sort of encounters have been repeated over and over again in just these short three months. Imagine how many people I will have met on the road  and new experiences shared over three years of travel?

One such person is Paul Ford of Austin, Texas. I met cool Texas dude Paul in Cartagena, Colombia, where we chilled, discussed travel plans, partied and got drunk together (celebrating the birthday of another person – Luis – whom I had previously met in Barranquilla, Colombia). Paul and I had some good and crazy times in our travels together and apart.

I left Paul in Cartagena after that crazy night of celebrating Luis’ birthday and didn’t know if I’d see him again. But this is the network and somehow it works to bring travelers together. He sent me an e-mail on the couchsurfing Web site. He said he was in Cuenca, which I had already decided would be my next destination once I left the Galapagos and returned to the mainland.

Now, Paul has sort of become my Cuenca sidekick. We have spent countless hours checking out the city, hiking in Cajas National Park, and meeting new people in the nomadic network. Through Paul  I have met others and introduced him to others. And so the network goes and grows. We meet, we greet, we travel and we meet again. Long term travel has created this global network of friends, all with people, places and many things in common. It’s been simply fantastic.

Natalie of Paris, France, my fellow travel companion for a day, tries to decide on a purchase in Sigsig, Ecuador.

The nomadic network works. For the most part, it consists of some of the most open-minded, coolest, most resourceful and resilient people on the planet. Traveling for months or years with everything you own in a backpack is not easy or glamorous. Getting from one place to another takes an awful lot of logistics, energy and will to continue. Most of us are traveling on a budget and sometimes end up sleeping in some scary places. When I’m not sleeping on somebody’s couch through couchsurfing, I am in a hostel or hotel or camping. Some hostels, well, let’s just say you get what you pay for. In Cuenca, after leaving my CS hosts’ swanky digs about 45 minutes by bus outside the city, I landed in a smelly, moldy hostel that lacked housekeeping. The house maid, I was told, simply didn’t show up for work. Sometimes you do what you have to do to stay within your budget. And sometimes because you’ve penny-pinched so much you can afford to splurge a bit, if nothing else, for your own health, both physical and mental.

My smelly hostel cost $10 a night. My current digs, The Victoria Hotel, costs $40 a night, and it’s worth every penny. It has afforded me a good night’s rest, a clean bathroom, a hot shower, and a place to take care of other important business to carry on traveling.

I love my nomadic network. When I leave Cuenca I will probably see Paul and other travelers in some other country, sharing new experiences with new people, largely locals, which also is fantastic. The network is what makes the journey fun and rewarding. It’s about people. It’s about some of the coolest people. It’s me.

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NEW ARRIVALS: But this is not the end of the road, just part of a longer journey

1 – YOU REALLY HAVE TO WANT TO GET HERE TO GET HERE – It’s not just the matter of your flight from your home country. Once you get to Quito or Guayaquil, you still have a two-hour flight to Baltra island, where the airport is located. From Baltra you must now  take a bus to a ferry which will then take you on a 5-minute ride across a canal to the island of Santa Cruz where you will then have to take another bus for a 45-minute to 1-hour ride across the mountain, through three different ecosystems, into town. And you may still have to take a taxi to your hotel, depending on its location. And by the way, this is not the end of the road. Santa Cruz is just a stop – a transfer port, if you will – to Cristobal, Isabel and other isalnds in the archipelago.

2 – CHARGE ME ANOTHER FEE, WON’T YOU? – Even before you leave the airport in Quito or Guayaquil, the fees to visit Galapagos start coming. The immigration office asks basic questions –  what is the nature of your visit, how many days you plan to stay, and if you are bringing in any plants or organic materials – then the officer says that’ll be $10. The questions are essentially the same questions asked by the customs officer once you arrive on the island. Then you slide over to another officer, this one said to be from the national parks department, and without even looking up, he barks $100. One hundred and ten dollars and you haven’t yet seen so much as a turtle. And so what was that $10 for again?

Then if you intend to visit other island, and you do, there are “exit” fees, such as the $5 you pay to leave the island of Isabela. There’s a guy at the dock just standing there, who surprises you with the command $5 please, as you make your way to the boat ramp. So now the fee count is up to $115, with just two islands visited.  And I haven’t included transportation costs, such as the minimum $25 to go from one island to another, $50 round trip, and a bunch of other expensive excursions you “must” take to see points of interests on the islands, such as $60 per person to snorkel the famed tunnels;  $30 to rent a horse for a couple of hours; $15 daily for a bicycle. It all adds up!

3 – BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE, THUMP! – Santa Cruz is just one of several islands. To get the full Galapagos experience, you must visit other islands. But that requires a ride on a lancha, a small speed boat that ferries passengers between islands. The only trouble with these boats is they provide an incredibly bumpy ride across the ocean. You don’t glide across the ocean in these boats. You bounce across.

From Isabela to Santa Cruz, that’s two hours of your head being snapped in every direction and you trying to hold on to your hat and lunch. If you get sea sick, don’t even think about getting on any of these boats. And if you think you might get sea sick, pop a pill. If you fear these rough ocean crossings, you might as well forget about coming to Galapagos. You’ll just be wasting time and money. In Galapagos, much of the fun is being in and out on the water.

4 – YOU TALK FUNNY – People in Galapagos have a funny way of referring to other people. If they say your name to another person, they add the equivalent of THE before the person’s name.

Example: “I saw the Michael yesterday and he was walking with the James. They were going to the home of the Brenda. She was planning a party for the Julio.”

So in Spanish, with the male and feminine, it’s EL for male and LA for female. So el Michael; la Michelle; el Daniel. La Maria. La Angela. El Pete. El Jose. La Jane.  In English, it would be the Michael; the Michelle; the Daniel; the Maria, etc.  Get it? Strange, huh?

5 – YOUR CREDIT IS NO GOOD – Most places in Galapagos, including hotels and restaurants – do not accept credit cards, so bring stacks of cash. And it would be a mistake to try to wait until you get to the islands to try to extract cash from the few ATMs around. They often don’t work. And if you think walking into the very few banks – there are no banks or ATMs on some of the islands – to get a cash advance on your credit card is wise, think again. The lines are long and slow and you will spend a good part of your day there probably only to learn that the teller can’t help you for one reason or another. Bring plenty of cash from the mainland and save yourself some huge headaches.

6 – POWER FAILURE – This is Ecuador and just as in other parts of the country, power outages are common. It happens in developing countries. So if you need to shave or charge your phone or do anything that requires electricity, do it while the power is on. Don’t put it off. In Galapagos, the power outages seem to happen mostly in the mornings for at least a couple of hours. So no coffee for you, either!

7 – SHARK MEAT – These islands are right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and there are very strong currents. You get to a beach and it looks beautiful and inviting but pay attention to posted signs and heed the warnings not to swim, no matter how good a swimmer you think you are. You will be dragged out to sea, plain and simple. If you are a strong swimmer, you may be able to fight your way back to shore, but why take that risk? There are no lifeguards on duty anywhere. You swim at your own risk. There are beautiful spots where there are no undercurrents and where the ocean is heavenly crystal blue and you don’ unnecessarily risk your life.

Locals have tales of how many people have been swept out and drowned. It’s amazing how many people ignore the posted warnings or the warnings from locals. You see people swimming where they are not supposed to, don’t be a fool and follow suit.

8- DO SCIENTIST EVEN DANCE? – There’s very little nightlife, but you didn’t come here to party, did you? You came to do marine research J. On Santa Cruz there are a couple of dance clubs and several bars and restaurants with bars, but they pale in comparison to big city clubs. They also close earlier than most big city spots. If you want to party you will have to round up a few friends and make your own good time. Consequently, nightlife means going home early, wandering the streets, or sitting some place quietly having a beer.

9 – CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE? – Everybody talks about the same thing! Sit in any bar or restaurant and at every table the discussion is about scuba diving, snorkeling, tours, and how the day was spent. But there are also a lot of marine scientists and researchers here and their discussions are at once interesting and boring. So overhearing a discussion from a bunch of researchers about turtle population can be interesting to a point then suddenly lose appeal. Does anybody on these islands talk about sex?

10 – I’LL GIVE YOU A GUIDED TOUR!– The whole system in place is set up to take your money! You can’t go here, you can’t do this, you can’t do that alone – you need a guide. Hogwash! If you get connected with the right people you can see a good amount of nature and the wildlife without paying insane amounts of money for a guided tour. For $15, I rented a mountain bike and saw an incredible amount of stuff on Isabela island. Did the same on horseback.  Be resourceful. Try hitching a ride on a boat and offer to pay them something – perhaps in exchange cook a meal.

Of course, there are some spots that require local knowledge, but even then you can ask around an strike a deal with a local person. I saw a man walking on the beach and we chatted for a bit and he said he was going diving for octopus. I asked where and he said just up the beach. I asked if I could tag along. We ended up in this incredible spot full of all sorts of marine life, in the water and on land. Cost? $0. And I made a friend.

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