Posts Tagged With: Quito

Love Galapagos, Marry Me

Her name is Anita. That’s at least what she said. She hesitated for a moment and appeared to think about it when I asked her name.  So I was left with doubt as to the validity of the name she offered.

I met Anita on the white sands of Tortuga Beach on Santa Cruz, one of the volcanic islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. I was crouched down taking pictures of the aquatic iguanas that are unique to the Galapagos, when she was suddenly standing behind me, shooting her own pictures.

Aquatic iguanas are found in the Galapagos, this one on Tortuga Beach

When I rose, she asked if I could take her picture with the crystal blue waters of the beach as the backdrop, and handed me her camera. She wasn’t satisfied with the first two and asked that I shoot another one. The third one she reacted in a lukewarm fashion.  Hey, I’m only as good as the camera and the subject, I joked.  She laughed and launched into small talk about the beauty of the beach, the iguanas and Galapagos in general. As I continued to shoot pictures, so did she, walking in the direction of mangroves. I stayed put with my iguanas. In just a few minutes, she was way ahead of me on the beach, walking back to the bricked trail that leads to town. I noticed ahead, she caught the eye of some surfers, one of whom – surfboard under his arm – began to talk to her. He was in full flirt mode, from what I could tell from the distance. Then in a matter of minutes, he peeled away from her and rejoined his friends. When Anita stopped to take more pictures of the ocean and the volcanic rocks, I managed to catch up to her. She looked at me and said “it’s so beautiful, these beach”, then said she had just gone kayaking and it was great. We then began to walk back to town together, a very long walk, so I welcomed the company.

What I know about Anita I learned during our one-hour walk on the trail. She seemed to know a lot about the Galapagos. I asked if it was her first time to the islands. She said it was her eighth visit over the years. It was then Anita became interesting person to me: she said she loved the Galapagos and wanted to live on Santa Cruz, and she was looking for an islander to marry. Whoa! Say what? She smiled.

The bricked trail to and from Tortuga Beach

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

The Galapagos is part of Ecuador, but in many ways it behaves and is treated internally as a separate country. Each of the inhabited islands in the chain have drafted very strong immigration laws, some even more stringent than the ones on the books in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. The laws were put in place to prevent the islands from being flooded with people. The immigration laws are mainly in place to stop Ecuadorians from the mainland from relocating to the very desirable lifestyle of the Galapagos.

So unless you were born in the Galapagos, marry someone who is a citizen of the islands, or score a job contract with a company that does business on the islands, you are not allowed to live or work in Galapagos, and that especially means folks from Ecuador who are clamoring to get in.

Anita said she had tried with no success to get a job with a company on the islands. So now she was trying the approach tried by many other Ecuadorians: gain legal residency through marriage.

She was therefore looking for a husband, but she did not wish to make it a business deal as so many have done: pay someone thousands of dollars and pretend you are a couple until all the legal immigration papers are issued and legal residency is gained. Then divorce.

No, Anita was looking to make her marriage real and lasting. So she wanted to marry a Galapagueño – as the islanders are known – but she wanted to be in love with the man she marries and to have children with him. So she was finding it tougher to find the man of her dreams to make three wishes come true: marriage, kids and Galapagos citizenship.

So on her eighth trip she had still failed to meet her future husband. It was the topic that dominated our conversation. When I, for example, invited her to join some friends and me at a party that evening, her response was maybe she would meet her husband at the party. When I told her about my hosts – he a Galapagueño and she half Ecuadorian, half German born in Germany – Anita joked maybe she should meet the woman to ask how she managed to snag an islander husband.  On and on. I thought she’s obsessed!

Tortuga Beach in the Galapagos. One of the most beautiful beaches on Earth!

What was immediately apparent about Anita was that she is a fairly attractive woman who gets her fair share of attention. The beach surfers certainly stopped to talk. She said the one surfer who stopped to talk to her on the beach was Galapagueño, but young and dumb. Hey, the woman has standards.

What was not so immediately apparent was why – on her eighth visit to Galapagos – she had failed to find the island husband she so desperately sought. When I mentioned her to men on the island, they of course first asked about her looks then jokingly said “send her to me”.  Galapagueño, men and women, know they are a hot commodity to Ecuadorians seeking to move to the islands. But in recent years, the government has cracked down on such business marriages, checking in on couples and conducting investigations to make sure they are indeed a couple.

Anita, who is from Santo Domingo, a bustling city in the middle of the country, is not willing to take that chance. She wants the real deal.

When I first heard of this whole immigration status thing between Ecuador and Galapagos, I thought it was a rather strange arrangement. Think about it. You are an American citizen, for instance, and by law you cannot freely live in, say, New Jersey or New York or California.

You can’t work in a particular state unless you’ve secured a job contract. And if you simply wish to visit, your visits are limited to a certain number each year. All in the name of preservation and preventing a population and building boom and protecting the fragile ecosystem.

Adding to this interesting relationship is the fact that many Galapagueños don’t identify themselves as Ecuadorians. They say they are Galapagueño, not Ecuadorian, and say they are different culturally and in many other respects to the people on the mainland.

This relationship between the Galapagos and Ecuador surprised me. After all, the world views and treats the Galapagos as part of Ecuador. For that there is no doubt. Within the country, however, it’s a different story.

As for Anita, she plans a ninth visit to Galapagos. Buena suerte with the search for love and citizenship.

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Cantoma

Leaving Quito by bus, I woke up from a nap and could not believe my eyes. The bus was traveling on a winding road carved out of the Andes Mountains, on one side of the thankfully paved roadway a wall of jagged exposed mountain jutting upward. On the other side an abyss, otherwise known as a canyon.

The canyon was green and lush with vegetation, with misty clouds and creeping fog, a true Amazonian rainforest. Waterfalls cascaded from thousands of feet above. With seemingly every turn, a new one revealed itself and gave me a sense of comfort and much happiness. The landscape was what I imagined Heaven to be – green, lush, warm, full of all sorts of tropical creatures, ancient trees and grand plant species.

In the hands of the bus driver – literally! – were the lives of 42 souls. Miss one of those curves and we are all violently tumbling that gash in Earth’s surface. And we then should prepare to be swept down a roiling river fed by those gentle waters cascading from atop.

Quito is almost 10,000 feet above sea level and a drive down to the flatlands is spiritual. Picture heaven, picture paradise, put them together. For this moment I needed a soundtrack. So I cued up the ol’ iPod and searched for Cantoma.

Perfect, I thought. Relax. De-stress. Deep breath. Exhale. Enjoy this moment. It’s simply spectacular and I don’t know when or where I’ll find this heaven again. Close eyes. Listen to the music. No, open them. Ecuador, you are so natural, and you please.

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Riding, Slipping And Sliding Down An Andean Volcano

The very chilled Cotopaxi volcano

I took one last glance at the peak of the 19,347-foot snowcapped volcano, wrapped my gloved hands around the handlebar of the gold Trek mountain bicycle, placed both feet on the pedals, and flying down the peak’s jagged slopes I went, taking the first curve extremely fast, the rear wheel sliding to the right and then to the left as I pumped the brakes to slow down. Not a smooth start to this bike ride down Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest active volcano and second highest peak.

Thats me, coming round the mountain

I managed to stop the bike without falling. It wasn’t a pretty stop, but it was stop. There at that curve that came so suddenly and so soon, I listened to Diego, our guide on this bike tour of this beautiful and yet potentially deadly mountain that has logged more than 50 eruptions over centuries. Quito, Ecuador‘s capital, could face a major disaster if Cotopaxi were to explode. Similarly, other towns in the valley near the volcano could be wiped out by mudflows. Cotopaxi, scientists predict, will one day blow its top to disastrous consequences. But none of the people who see the volcano every day ever really think about that. What they think of is its beauty, it’s place among peaks in the Andes mountain range, and they appreciate Cotopaxi for what it is – a natural wonder.

Diego, a tall and lanky Ecuadorian, leads these bike tours of Cotopaxi and other peaks in the Andes several times a week. He works for a tour company named The Biking Dutchman. The company’s owner is dutch.

The Bike Beast - Crossing the waters of a swollen mountain lake

I don’t know where Diego gets the strength to ride these peaks as a job. It’s not exactly office work. It’s extremely physical and even dangerous: rain-soaked and bumpy dirt roads and uneven paths covered with volcanic ash, loose gravel, protruding rocks, rain-filled potholes, cars, trucks and wild horses – yes, wild horses – on the road, and those sharp curves, all make for a great challenge. Miscalculate and you just might wipe out – or be wiped out. But what is adventure with no risks?

At that first hard curve Diego stopped to point out the terrain, below the peak, a valley formed millions of years ago by Cotopaxi’s eruptions. He said maybe we would be able to see the wild horses that roam the valley. Spanish conquistadors brought horses here and these wild horses are of that lineage of horses left behind by the Spaniards. Indeed we saw several of those horses further down the mountain, trotting across the roadway, as we sped on our bikes toward them. On this trek, not counting Diego and a driver, there were five of us: a couple from Canada and another couple from Scotland that now lives in London. We were all going to test our mettle on this trip down the mountain, which involved some challenging climbs, especially given the thin mountain air.

Wild horses run across the valley at the foot of Cotopaxi

We started this tour at 7 a.m., meeting up at the Magic Bean hostel and cafe. After I loaded up on coffee and a cream cheese bagel, we hopped in the Biking Dutchman four-wheeler that would take us more than 14,000 feet up the mountain. From there, we would ride down, mostly down a steep and curvy road, but as I earlier said, there were a few uphill battles which some of us – myself included – lost: we walked our bikes. On one of these walks up the climb, here goes Diego pedaling along: “Hey Michael! This is the last one, it’s all down from here, come on, join me!” Yeah, superman. I’m right with you. 🙂

We made it!

On the way down, I was going so fast it was as if I was flying. At this point it was raining and my face was being pelted by the rain, dirt and gravel that somehow mysteriously was airborne. Churned up by cars and riders ahead of me, perhaps?

After a few minutes on the bike I had shed any fear and relish the speed down the volcano. I had done plenty of road cycling, but not much mountain biking, so there was somewhat of a learning curve (hahaaha, no pun intended 🙂 I figured out when to grip the handlebar tighter and when to loosen my grip; when to raise my butt off the seat and stand on the pedals; when to brake and when to simply just let go. I must have hit speeds of up to 40 mph (conservative estimate) going down the mountain’s slopes and even on some of the curves, feeling the bike slip and slide, but always trying to stay in control. That’s key, maintaining control even if you are going fast. Also extremely crucial, losing all fear. If you are afraid, you will get hurt. If you are too cautious, you will have no fun, and then what was the point of going up the mountain? You may as well have stayed in the city, sipping a mocha.

This kid was too funny!

So down and round and down and round I go, fast, all I hear is the buzz of the wind at my ears, wet, cold and warm all at once. I unzip my jacket to cool off then I’m too cold. Zip it back up, one hand on the handlebar – steady! The rain has clouded and the cold have clouded my Oakleys – my sporty sunglasses – which I then question why am I even wearing them, there’s no sun. I continue on, flying down the mountain, then come to a canal. I stop to take a photo. Here comes Diego: “Michael, you passed the first stop! You have to go back up. It’s a little bit of a climb.” Yeah, superman. A little big of a climb my…. I just came flying down that hill. That’s a nice climb.

Earlier, on the way up the volcano, Diego had pointed out a spot where we all should stop and meet. The idea was for all of us to ride at our pace, fast or slow, but that we should meet at the specified location to continue on the second part of the trek, which turned out to be a dirt path that circled back to the very canal where I had stopped. Nevertheless, I peddled up and up and up and up and up until I reached my fellow mountain bikers. They were waiting for me. The couple from Scotland said they were calling out my name, trying to get me to stop when they noticed I had gone beyond the meet up spot. I heard nothing but the wind.  For that, I got an extra helping of climbing.

Making coca tea, which helps altitude sickness, many swear

We broke for lunch around a warm chimney fire inside a store and coffee shop lower on the mountain. Pasta, some sort of spinach Quiche, ginger tea and brownies were provided. It was there I had my first drink of coca tea. They say it helps altitude sickness, but not that I was having any of that, I just wanted to try coca tea. Two indigenous women prepared it – it cost $1. To me coca tea tastes simply as an herbal tea. And no, I did not get high from it. The coca leaf is just a plant. Cocaine is a derivative of that plant. But it’s quite a bit of steps to get from the plain natural coca plant to manmade cocaine. After my tea, we suited up and down the mountain we continued, the handlebar feeling more like a jackhammer set on high.

I made it all the way down from more than 14,000 feet, without injury and exhilarated. It was a great tour. And great to be on the mountain. Now I’m sore – your body does take a pounding – but it’s a good sore.  Now, on to my next adventure.

Con "El Man Superman" Diego, after the journey

MORE PHOTOS OF THE COTOPAXI PEDAL

 


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