Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ecuador Part II

Photos taken from the 7th floor restaurant and bar of Hotel Quito are limited sight compared to how much the city sparkles in the night. It is the best possible scenario with the equipment available especially since we didn’t get our cameras down from the airplane’s overhead bin. Eyes and mouth wide open are the best ways to experience a panoramic moment. After that, tell the story!

It had been recommended to accept a “free drink” receipt from the front desk as we checked in. When we asked for chamomile tea at the bar, they looked at us curiously. Nevertheless, it was a good way to ease into the next event on the day’s calendar. Sleep. We slept the sleep of those who have been in traveling mode for more than 36 hours. Hard, heavy and twitchy. It was nice to unfold and be free of other people’s elbows.

Breakfast was in the restaurant, as well. The misty mountain view beyond the massive windows nearly stunned me out of an appetite. Don’t worry, I ate from the fruit buffet, enjoyed scrambled eggs and bacon, and tried the much touted Guanabana juice.

My head throbbed with every effort, whether walking, climbing stairs or getting up from a chair, from the altitude difference of about 9,000 feet (where I live the altitude is approx. 200 ft above sea level). The man who sat beside me in the airplane the night before advised me to do everything slowly on this trip. I let the throb in my head remind me to take his advice.

At breakfast, we met up with a tour put together by American Writers and Artists International (AWAI). Sure enough, Photography instructor, Rich Wagner, sat at one of the breakfast tables handing out our luggage name tags. We were to meet him and the rest of the group in the hotel foyer in 20 minutes. So much for slow.

It seems I’m always the one staying at a nice hotel when there is no time to enjoy its amenities. From the foyer, we admired a full-sized pool, gardens and roads worth exploring. The gift shop was not open late at night or early in the morning. Brightly woven bags, carved wood and leather goods taunted us from within the shop windows. A bouquet of roses, bigger than I had ever seen, graced the center of the reception area. The price tag for the night was under $50.

To use the restroom after checkout and before boarding the bus, one had to take a spiral staircase down one level. I don’t recommend trying to run down or up a spiral staircase at a high altitude if you’re not used to it. Talk about hot-flashes!

A man sold scarves near the bus and a snazzy person from the group had already purchased a few for her bus-day travel outfit. She looked great. “Two for five,” she said, moving to the back of the bus as people admired her scarves. “It’s a good price.” We had been advised to wait until we visited the smaller villages to buy, so we absorbed our jealousy. Come to find out, she had been pretty savvy to get them in the city.

Just after the last of the group laboriously climbed the bus steps, a man with a London accent leapt onto the bus in his “outback” hat and khakis. He had finished a conversation on his cell phone with, “Yeah, Steve, and take off that slinky lingerie,” turned to Phil and I and said, “Steve and I are friends.” It was going to be an interesting trip, especially after we learned John would be our interpreter on the trip.

In only a few moments, John, the interpreter, broke the ice with silly jokes, spoke instructions to the bus driver in Spanish and began preparing us for what we would see on the bus ride to Cotacachi, our destination and spring-board city for learning “suitcase Spanish,” better photography, and some of the culture of Ecuador. For the questions on the way, he either had a clever answer or a twinkle in his eye. We were all pleased to note that he had lived in Ecuador a dozen years or so and was a family man, married to a local Ecuadorian artist with two young children soon to start school. We kept him busy answering our questions and urging the driver to stop for toilet stops. The “Steve” he had been talking to would be our, also British, Spanish teacher and rather mellow fellow with a bad cold.

We stopped at the equator, which, of course Ecuador is named for. We stopped again for biscochos, a dryish bread (a little less crusty than biscotti) that when dipped in caramel sauce turns into a delicious treat, and coffee. Two potty and candy stops, and all the time between we were surrounded by the layered greens of the Andes and their snow-covered volcanoes dotted with the bright houses of small farms.

At the equator, Phil retrieved the G.P.S. he brought for just this occasion, and, sure enough, it registered all zeros in every degree. Even the local Ecuadorians got a kick out of seeing that.

Surprise, surprise (an inside joke for my W and W friends) our bus couldn’t take us straight to the hotel because the streets were closed for a parade! Horse men and women strutted their [foaming at the mouth] horses, mariachi bands danced and sang with their guitar playing clowns. There was plenty of fresh watermelon, carameled apples and cotton candy for sale. The parade took place outside of our hotel and principally in front of the great cathedral at the town square. It was a lively way to advertise the upcoming rodeo at the edge of town to commence in an hour.

No sooner had we arrived (late, according to Lori, our coordinator and the program’s brain child), than we were already in a hurry to go to something else. We were urged to take our cameras as this was an event the group before us didn’t get to see. We would be required to bring photos for review to the first class. Our group of 19 stuck out like white camera trigger fingers among beautiful coffee-colored others. We found each other in the crowd by our monstrous lenses. The locals were tolerant if not downright welcoming and gracious to us.

Have you ever seen a rodeo? A bull fight? This was the wildest and craziest rodeo I’ve ever seen. If only I could share the sound of the oohs and aahs and frequent laughter above the pen. We were delighted by the matador and his tiny legion of little boy matadors-in-training, the abandoned capes, the baby bull, the bull-with-the-broken-horn, the running and wall climbing to get away from the bull, the women and the baby pig against the bull…it was wild!

You wouldn’t believe how many gigabytes each of the group had absorbed before we had even started our classes. Reliving the rodeo at the next morning’s photo review was a hoot.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Missing Photographs: Ecuador Part 1

The most common questions I hear, these days, are, “Why were you in Ecuador (of all places)?” “Was it a Work and Witness Trip?” “Did Phil have business in Ecuador?” For those of you who know us, it will come as a surprise that we went to Ecuador not for Phil’s computer skills, nor to be of very much help to those building houses or churches. We were in Ecuador on one of those pleasurable vacations to get an education.

Come to think of it, Phil’s computer skills did come in handy and part of what we learned will help Phil on his next Work and Witness trip. More about that in a moment. First, I want to tell you about the photographs we didn’t take on a trip with a heavy photographic component (photography would be one of the class subjects and tour emphases).

My parents drove us to the Spokane International Airport on the evening of August 29th, dropped us off and left with our son. They promised to pick us up ten days later.

After the normal time-sink of checking in baggage and nearly disrobing and redressing for security, we decided to order dinner while we waited for our connecting flight from Spokane to Seattle. It was imperative that we caught this flight on time, as we had three other flights to catch throughout the night to arrive at Quito International (Ecuador) on the day we were to connect with our tour group. While we ate, and just after Phil caught up with an old colleague, our flight began to delay, first by ten minutes, and eventually by an hour and a half.

A light bulb was out in the baggage area of our Alaska Airlines jet. Changing the bulb and “filling out the paperwork” took that long.

During the delay, the travel agents worked furiously to connect people on alternative flights. Our situation took four flight attendants and the last half hour of our wait. One flight attendant even had to personally and physically change the tags on our luggage so it would remain with us throughout the trip. The cumbersome schedule re-vamp would most likely cost us an additional $500. We originally booked on frequent flier miles. Phil’s stress level had risen noticeably on his reddening face.

At one point, in Spokane, I thought Phil would declare that we were canceling the trip. Such a declaration was on my dread-list. I preferred to lean on “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and “a marriage that prays together, stays together.” We had been advised to get traveler’s insurance and hadn’t, which we soon regretted.

The photo I didn’t take in the Geiger Field (Spokane) International Airport, was of two adorable Asian boys busying themselves during the delay. They both took turns rushing to the windows to watch for landing and taking off airplanes, as well as sidling up to their mother on those vinyl chairs, teasing each other over her while she visited on the telephone intermittently between two languages.

By the time we were in the air toward Seattle, we had already missed our flight from Seattle to Miami.

We had time to visit Seattle International Airport’s talking water fountain and facilities before boarding our rerouted flight to Orlando instead of Miami. We would have to hope for a miracle to get us from Orlando to Miami on an American Airlines jetliner instead of Alaska Airlines.

Click to the next missed photo: Phil tucked into a window seat, me in the middle, and the isle seat filled to overflowing with a short, stalky Sikh. Picture the Sikh’s elbow jabbed into my side (while I’m scooted as close to Phil’s side as possible) for a six hour flight. He wears all blue, even his silky turban, and his head hangs over his chest to protect the turban from crushing against the seat back.

In Orlando, (breathe!) we check e-mail on our computers with bleary eyes while we wait for a travel agent to appear at our supposed gate. The only language we hear floating around us is Spanish. The Spanish language will be one of our class subjects when we are in Ecuador, if we get there. We don’t know any better than that the travel agent will see that our place has been held on their flight and we’ll need to cough up $200.

When travel agents begin opening up the gate for check-in, one woman travel agent can barely walk without holding on to the counter to go from computer to door, and the other, a man, looks and acts more like a bouncer than a flight attendant. The airport looks like it needs a bouncer, especially after probably one hundred 17 and 18 year old girls, all speaking Portuguese, line up in front of the counter, then sit in smaller groups on the floor in that line. We approach the man, who quickly informs us that the very helpful Alaska Airlines travel agents have committed a faux pas, but that we can go ahead and fly from Orlando to Miami (a one hour flight) for $950! You should have seen Phil’s face, then!

The bouncer, I mean, travel agent, uses a firm but confidential tone to inform us that Alaska Airlines has “screwed us over” financially and we have no recourse unless the delay was due to an airplane dysfunction, as in a “burnt out light bulb or other dysfunctionality.” Aha! He points to our loophole. When he realizes we had been wronged in this way, he takes it upon himself to call Alaska Airlines, explain our demise, and insist that Alaska do something to make things right.

We wait and watch the 17 and 18 year old girls who all look a little too terrific at 6:30 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time. Incoming passengers needing to check in don’t really know what to do with a gaggle of girls lined up, seated Indian style (is that phrase allowed anymore?), at the counter. It is amusing to watch. Another missed set of photos. When it appears that the lame woman is about to call out the first to be seated on the plane, we have not yet received tickets, but we have been assured by the man that Alaska is hand-writing Alaska-paid tickets for us and will have their representative personally walk them to the American Airlines counter in time for departure.

We see a woman half run, half walk the tickets to the counter just as the woman travel agent has to whistle and shout like a gym teacher to get the attention of 100 girls and those around them to announce seat row numbers to enter the jetway. We catch the eye of the bouncer-like attendant and he nods us to the counter.

“You’re $950 richer,” he says, handing the tickets to Phil.

We are thankful to the point of tears, both to Alaska and to American. I had already written a “thank you” compliment on a comment card to the Alaska Airlines folks who helped get us to Florida the night before. But American Airlines personnel have consistently gone out of their way on our behalf for International excursions. (I’ll have to write about the instance in Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on our way to Brazil summer of 2007 another time.) Believe me, that kind of service is not common in the rest of the world. We no sooner get the tickets in our hands and our section of rows is called. So we walk on.

Will, way and pray. They still work, but it’s a God-miracle, as far as I’m concerned. And I feel humbled because I know that Alaska Airlines, as well as so many other airlines, are suffering great economic losses. That day, they suffered more because of a light bulb--and some on our behalf.

As our plane lands, the flight attendant announced the gate numbers for passengers flying out of Miami. It seemed as if she named every country on the planet. The Miami International Airport is huge and swarming with Internationals. While Spanish seems the most common language and it seems as if we have already entered another country than the U.S., we also recognize languages from our travels in and around Scandinavia. No wonder a common place Swedes told us they had visited in the U.S. was Miami, Florida (where the Scandinavian population is in the millions)!

Our layover in Miami is long. We have missed our flights to Panama and then Quito by only a few minutes, but we knew that would happen before we left Spokane. We are extremely tired from delays, difficulty sleeping under the circumstances, and we have many more hours to go. We have not had the opportunity to inform our tour group of our delay, so I leave messages at any number given as a reference—it is still too early in the morning for offices to be open. I am relieved to get voice messages because I cannot hear out of my multiple flight plugged ears. Add to my temporary hearing loss, the English announcements over the intercom come from such thick accents that I can barely understand what is going on, if at all.

We check e-mail, charge our computer batteries and wander the terminal halls. We find out that our son is doing well with his grandparents, so far. We wait. We are letting ourselves believe that we really are headed to Ecuador for the first time. We hope it will be a wonderful adventure, beginning with a few wearying setbacks which will soon turn into fond memories.

No sooner do we embark, stow, blanket, pillow and sit, than we are asleep. We did take time to observe the same clouds we saw flying into Miami. I had heard the news the day before describe the weather on the Florida coast as clouds gathering into a hurricane. It was true, the clouds looked like ghostly figures standing on soundless, cloud platforms gathering for as far as the eye could see in the direction of the Florida coast. Somehow, we didn’t feel the force of these individual clouds enmasse, except on the rare occasion over Cuba or something, and even then it was only a momentary, unfrightening undercurrent.

Panama looked lush and intriguing as I awoke from a refreshing nap, nudged by the decreasing altitude felt in my tortured ears. What houses I saw looked like trailers under metal-roofed frames. It didn’t seem like a form of construction for enduring hurricanes, but there was no evidence of wind destruction. The air felt warm and humid as we set down.

We had no time to explore Panama, or even the airport, as we got to our gate just in time to board another plane. We seated ourselves next to an Ecuadorian from Quito who was kind enough to attempt to understand my broken Spanish and to help, when necessary, with his limited English, especially when it came to filling out our immigration papers. By the time we reached Quito, it was night and the city sparkled like a million crystals hidden among the hillsides in the sun—but that is a photo I took from the 7th floor of Hotel Quito after we finally made it through customs and waited an extra hour from another party from our tour group.

More on this trip in the next entry.