Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mindo & beyond

DEC 27, 2011

Christmas day for us this year was a very low-key affair, partly due to the excellent Christmas dinner hosted by the hostel on the 24th. It was well-attended by staff, their families, and guests, an interesting and very fun mix of German, French, Swiss, Canadian and Ecuadorean folks. Aside from some of the Ecuadoreans, I believe I was the only uni-lingual person there. It was interesting to note that among the Europeans, English became the default language since the French-speakers and the German-speakers couldn’t speak each other’s languages, and spoke Spanish in varying degrees, but could all speak English. Of course, when interacting with the hostel staff and their families, we all spoke Spanish as best we could. Sam and I have typically avoided international hostels in our travels, tending to prefer locally-owned, family-run hotels or hostels where we experience more local flavour. I found it very interesting to experience how, as the only guest there who could speak only one language fluently, it was my own language that everyone defaulted to. Convenient, but bizarre, and even somewhat embarrassing.

Anyway, it was a heckuva good party, and a very good time was had by all. The meal was excellent – some kind of chicken stroganoff sort of thing, served with salad and rice – and we made sure to tip the cook and servers well since they were working on their party night. The motto “eat, drink and be merry,” was the prevailing theme for the night, and I expect there were more than a couple of sore heads the next morning.

We laid pretty low on the 25th, resting, reading, and feasting on pizza delivered right to our door – not quite the roasted turkey with all the trimmings that I’m accustomed to, but just fine nonetheless. The next day dawned clear and bright, and so did we, so after celebrating my birthday with a cup of coffee and toast, we packed our gear and prepared to hit the road. Our first stop was the Institute for Military Geography, where we selected a couple of topographical maps, which we hope will encourage us to get trekking in this bountiful, beautiful land. After that, we hopped on a bus to Mindo.

Mindo is one of those places that can easily be dubbed “God’s Garden.” It’s a tropical paradise, known as a cloud forest, due to the clouds that gather atop the trees, maintaining constant moisture and the lush green plant life this area is known for. Mindo is also renowned for its diverse bird life, and is why Sam and I could be found – awake! – at 5:00 this morning, heading to a bioreserve to witness the mating dance of the “gallo de la peña” or “cock of the rock.” The male of the species is bright red, and one would think (or at least, I did) that being so bright it should be easy to spot even in dense foliage. One would be wrong, however, and every glimpse of the red feathers was very exciting as a result. We also saw a very large woodpecker of some sort, hummingbirds a-plenty, and, to my great excitement, even a female quetzal (less rare than the male, but exciting nonetheless). The quetzal is exciting to spot, for me, because of its association to Mayan spirituality. The son of God in Mayan tradition is named Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent. The quetzal is named so because when the male flies, its tail feathers (astonishingly beautiful long feathers) look like a serpent undulating. (There’s a whole lot more to this correlation that I won’t go into here, but you can look it up.) The quetzal is also an endangered species as a result of deforestation. At any rate, it was an exciting thing to spot.

We’re spending tonight in a little wooden cabin in a garden paradise, which so far at least, seems much more peaceful than the hostel we were in last night – it was a nice place with nice people, but the walls were thin enough to make me wonder if there were actually people in the room with us, and (sigh) the roosters started awfully early, especially when we had a 4:00am start this morning.

One unanticipated point of interest on our jaunt to the park this morning was the brightness of the stars in the still-dark sky. As we drove, I saw the Big Dipper out my car window, upside down and low on the horizon, reminding us that the night sky here is totally different from what we’re accustomed to north of the Equator. I have to look up the Southern Cross star pattern so I know what to look for!

Having seen the birds and experienced the rain and clouds, we feel ready to move on. Tomorrow after breakfast, we’ll pack up and catch a bus around the mountain and into the lowlands, heading south. As beautiful as Ecuador is, it’s a country very focused on tourism and it’s easy to get sucked into the tourist track – fun, but expensive, and not why we’re here.

DEC 31, 2011

Now that I have internet again, I can finish this post...
We hopped on a bus the other day and spent about 10 or 11 hours traveling from Mindo to Guayaquil, which I'm pretty sure is in an alternate universe. We went from a small town with mud roads to a city that could easily have been NY or Chicago, except that at 11:30pm, everything was closed. It was fascinating, but definitely not what we're looking for, so yesterday we hopped on another bus and came to Cuenca.

Cuenca is another beautiful historic town, like Quito but somehow more real - in the heart of the historic centre,there are still real people doing normal things. It's been fascinating so far, and we're looking forward to heading out this afternoon to investigate a couple of Incan archaeological sites. First, however, I need to pick up our clean clothes so that we actually have something to wear out and about.

We haven't quite decided how we'll ring in the New Year tonight, but given the ongoing celebrations, it won't be hard to find people to join. Fireworks and firecrackers have been going non-stop since we arrived yesterday afternoon.

I'll leave this here for now. Wishing you all the happiest of New Year's celebrations and all the best for 2012!

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