Once outside the airport in Scotland, my first impression was, Man, the Scottish are nice. Throughout my week-long stay in the country, this thought proved true again and again. A bus driver even took the time to direct me to the hostel without me having to ask. And oh what a hostel it was. Situated just below Edinburgh Castle, Castle Rock Hostel is off the Royal Mile and Garden Market, excellent places for sightseeing. (The market square, now full of restaurants and pubs, used to be the gallows for hanging people. Yeek.)
The hostel had an eclectic aura with each room–including the sixteen-person room I stayed in–having its own name, ranging from “Underwear” to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” To make finding your bed easier, and perhaps more fun, even the individual beds had names. Pleased with my hostel choice, I set out to explore the Royal Mile.
I met Heath outside a cathedral. Turns out we both had the same thought in mind, a little sightseeing while in search of a place to eat. Initially, I was a bit disappointed when his accent turned out to be native to Tennessee. With a name like Heath, I was hoping for something a little more exotic. Come on, I thought. Where are the foreigners? But I thought it would be nice to have some company, so we decided to look for food together. I was tricked by the presence of the sun in the sky, thinking it was onlly 6 PM. Lies. It was 10 PM. Most of the restaurants were no longer serving food, but eventually we found a place.
I am glad I didn’t let Heath’s American citizenship deter me from forming a new friendship. He is a really admirable, down-to-earth guy. Our dinner conversation got serious real quick talking about matters of ethics blahblahblah. But how often do you meet a complete stranger, decide to have dinner together, and within an hour hit the topics of religion, poverty, life ambitions and self-discovery? Very rarely.
That got me thinking. We’re so used to picking and choosing our group of friends. And there’s logic to that–some people click, some people are so annoying they should be avoided. But when you are out of your comfort zone traveling a foreign land alone, the drawing bowl isn’t big. You give everyone a chance. It might test your patience, but that has proven to be extremely rewarding for me thus far. By the end of my first night in Scotland, I already had plans to hike with Heath the following day.
The hostel advertised a free walking tour of Edinburgh. I said, “Free?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Where do I meet the tour guide?” Overly dramatic, enthusiastic Mark led the tour, but his antics made the historical facts more memorable. I walked away from the tour feeling well-informed. My favorite story was (of course) about a loyal dog from the late 1800s. When Greyfriar Bobby the dog‘s owner died, the dog stayed on the grave for more than ten years. People started bringing him food because he was not leaving the grave to search for any. After a few years, a law passed calling for the euthanization of all stray dogs. The people were in an uproar when they discovered this included Bobby. However, there was one way to avoid Bobby being put to sleep. The law wouldn’t apply to a stray dog if the dog was a citizen of the town. So, Bobby the dog was given the keys to the city and saved from an untimely death. He died on his master’s grave. However, because he wasn’t Catholic, he could not be buried in the church graveyard next to his owner. His grave is just outside the cemetery gates.
On our way to Arthur’s Seat, Heath and I stopped at the National Museum of Scotland to find Dolly the cloned sheep. The taxidermied ewe was inside a glass case, her hooves nailed to a wooden plank with pieces of hay and fake poo glued to it. Thank you for the realism, Scottish history museum.
The view from Arthur’s Seat was magnificent. Scottish landscape is unbelievably beautiful. The hill looked out over the old and new parts of Edinburgh as well as the North Sea. I would have liked to be up there at night, but I would fear the rocky hillside descent.
A ghost tour was offered that night, and Heath and I joined it along with another girl from our hostel I met earlier in the day. Faithful Mark turned out to be the tour guide, and he did not let us down with the energy level, making the ghost stories a bit more appealing. The tour ended at a pub where Heath and I exchanged backpacking stories with Ali (originally from Iran, now working in North Carolina). All three of us agreed: traveling is addicting.
I left the following morning for Aberdeen on the northeast coast. My friend, Kim, from Ohio Wesleyan has a homebase there. (She is kind of a nomad, but that is where her parents live now.) It was nice to have a temporary homebase of my own, too. I spent five nights with Kim, her parents and her younger sister.
We went to a castle almost every day. All but one had been lived in until some point in the 1900s, so the rooms were furnished. One of the castles gave me the image of every little girl’s dream castle, for its exterior was pink. However, my favorite castle did not have antique tapestries hanging from the walls or expensive dinnerware set on a table for a party of ten that would never come. Instead, Dunnottar Castle lay in ruins on a cliff overlooking the North Sea.
Peering out over the shoreline, I spotted two black circles in the water. I don’t know if I legitimately thought they were seals or just wanted them to be, but I jumped up excitedly shouting, “Seals! Seals! Seeeaaaaalllllllllsssssss!” Kim’s sister pointed out that we could climb down the slope under the cliff for a closer look. I ran down, slipping and sliding when the going got rough until I stood one hundred meters from four seals, 150 meters from two others. I wanted to swim with them, to touch them, to look one in the eye, but I settled for sitting motionless on the rocks exposed by low tide. This was their home. Who was I to invade it? There’s something magical about seeing zoo animals in the wild. I sat there for thirty minutes feeling the magic. Then, I pulled myself away so that Kim and I could view the castle ruins.
I was lucky enough to have Kim’s mom transporting us around. I really really really wanted to see a Highland cow, teenage moo-moos as Kim’s family calls them. The beginning of the actual Highlands was at least an hour drive, so it wasn’t likely I would see any around Aberdeen. But, Kim’s mom remembered seeing some in the direction of the airport, so we drove up to the farmlands to test our luck. And luck was on our side that day–a whole field of Highland cows! Even two calves!
Before leaving Scotland, I got a full-out Scotland experience at the Highland Games, similar in some ways to our county fair but with sporting events going on. Scottish “track and field” uniforms for men are kilts. (It is true; kilts are worn underwear-free.) The shot put equivalent (but actually quite far from the equivalent) is a log (more like a tree trunk) throw. The Scottish officially made tug-of-war a sport. A dance competition went on as well. While we watched the Irish and Scottish dancing, a loud-speaker announcement called for “overseas visitors to participate in the one hundred meter run.” I was wearing jeans and had a bum foot (a self-inflicted wound from lack of self-control, ahem). Nevertheless, I looked at Kim.
“Should I do it?”
“You should do it.”
“I really want to do it. I think I’m going to do it.”
After a minute more of contemplation, I unbuttoned my jacket and ran to the starting line. Soon, seven males and four females were lined up for the race. What fun spirit! We smiled and laughed as we ran. When I finished, strangers congratulated me with, “Good job, Ohio! Way to go, USA!” I received a goodie bag prize complete with an inscribed first place trophy and a Scottish flag.
Shortly thereafter, I said goodbye to Kim’s family. Kim is off to grad school in Australia. Who knows? Maybe my next contintental excursion takes me there.
From Aberdeen, I caught a budget airline flight to London. (All hail ye, EasyJet.) It was time for an AmaZOOnico reunion! I figured if I was going to be in Europe, why not meet up with some of the people who made my experience in Ecuador so memorable? Bummer the monkeys couldn’t come, too. Remember Ane from Denmark? We met in London and recounted the jungle days while creating an entirely new set of memories. I willingly made a fool of myself in London… multiple times. For entertainment’s sake, I’m game. Episodes of hearty laughter make life worth living. So I continued to embarass myself with public performances in Wales and Denmark. But the escapades of London, Wales and Denmark await my penmanship. I hope you eagerly await them as well.
After Porto’s ivy and river view, Portugal continued to woo me with its landscape. I caught a 5:45 AM train to Lagos, a relatively touristic city on Portugal’s southern coast. About five hours later, I found myself sitting on the pier watching a pair of male fiddler crabs engage in a duel. The brawl reminded me of the crayfish competitions observed in my Animal Behavior class at university, proof that bigger isn’t always better… but usually.
That evening, I felt close to home when the Mama Mia soundtrack played through the stereo while I ate dinner at a restaurant. I can’t tell you how many times my roommate and I held spontaneous song and dance parties to this music, whether in our house, in the car, or on the lawn.
Looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep after the early morning start, I soon realized sleep would not come easily that night. In the bed next to me on the top bunk, a noise–sounding like a car engine turning over while a lawnmower simultaneously revved up–escaped from the nasal cavity of a woman. This snore, ladies and gentlemen, was louder and more powerful than the synchronized snores of my mother and dog. Needless to say it made for a good conversation starter with bunkmate, Jacky, the following morning.
Jacky from Australia was also traveling Europe solo for three months. Both thinking of staying two more nights, we quickly became friends. Neither of us had concrete plans of where to go or what to do, so we hit the street and decided to follow the coast. A couple miles into our walk, after passing savanna-like terrain on a straight road, we ran into a dead end. Instead of turning around, we ventured toward the edge of the cliff only to discover a (brutal) stairway (down) to Heaven. At the bottom of the steps lay a boat-filled cove surrounded by tall rock islands. These were the boat trips to the grotto Jacky and I heard talk about! We hopped on a boat for a tour of the caves and cliffs. Our driver didn’t speak English, but he smiled a toothless smile every time he could name a rock formation,
such as the two called “Elephant” because they resembled the animal. Thirty minutes later, our mouths dry from hanging open in gracious awe, we slowly ascended the stairway.
On the afternoon of the second day, Jacky and I met another solo Australian traveler on the beach. Donny was in search of a sightseeing opportunity, so Jacky and I walked him back to the grottos. They were worth a second look, but this time we stayed on top of the cliffs and looked out over the sea. Headed back into town, we detoured to follow some signs for the beaches of which there seemed to be a few. We approached a narrow, steep, broken plank stairway, far from welcoming as the descent to the grottos had been. The splintered wooden steps surrounded by rocky crevices suggested a rolled ankle if one put a foot in the wrong place. This, of course, only fed us more adventure. It doesn’t always take a rainbow to find that pot of gold.
About twenty steps from the bottom, a white-haired man poked his head out from behind a boulder. Our view of the beach was obscured by massive rocks on either side. The rocks also safeguarded our Puritan eyes from the white-haired man’s fellow nudists. When Old Man Rivers moved into full view, he was not clothed. His skin was baked to an unnatural reddish-purplish-brownish hue. While the three of us were quick to avert our eyes, we noticed the man waving us forward, an invitation to join him. We looked at each other. Should we do it? The question could be read on all of our faces. And surprisingly, we all decided we didn’t walk down the stairs of death for nothing. There was a beach, dangnabbit, and we wanted to see it.
We kept our clothes on and made sure our focus lay on the caves and waves away from shore. Donny and I went for a bathing-suit clad swim in the frigid water. Yes, frigid. I exaggerate naught. So cold that it felt like an icicle hit the exact center of my skull and sent a chill down the full length of my spine. Did I mention it was worth it? The nudists by far had the nicest beach.
Back at the hostel, relaxing (or rather, recovering) from the day’s affairs, Jacky and I met Leanne from New York, also a solo traveler. The four of us tabled the idea of a road trip. That story continues soon.
Donny, Jacky and I went to a tavern to watch the England vs. USA World Cup match. I cheered when USA scored the cheap goal. I was the only one cheering. At that moment, it became apparent that this tavern was filled ninety percent with British tourists, evidenced by an accented atmosphere of curse words, and ten percent filled with fellow European Union folk. Whoops. Fearing someone might soon drown me under the tap, the three of us picked up Leanne and Babsi from Finland. Babsi was also staying in the room with Jacky and I.
We enjoyed yet another free attraction, an art exhibit. Then, we made our way to the town center where a street performer was putting on a comedic circus show. We caught the end of his first performance, making conversation with him when he finished. On our way past the center twenty minutes later, the show was going on again. The Portuguese entertainer noted our presence and gave us a shout out, hailing us then and thereafter with, “Australia! America!” He completed his sequined Speedo bathing suit ensemble with white socks and black loafers. It was the Speedo that tipped off Jacky and I that we’d seen this man before. The day prior, he cooled down after some juggling on the beach with a self-programmed yoga routine. When Jacky and I left him on the beach, his face was beet-red after a cumulative seven minute head stand.
The next day, Leanne, Donny and I joined a kayaking tour through the grottos.
At one point, we entered a cave with a small amount of light penetrating down to the ocean bottom from a hole in the cave roof. The water was well over our heads, but the ocean floor was still clearly visible. By the end of my time in Lagos, I rode a boat, swam and kayaked through the caves, and each mode of transportation led to new observations. I have found that it is well worth admiring things in detail more than once from different perspectives every time.
To refuel ourselves after three hours of ocean kayaking, the four musketeers made an absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious meal. We felt like royalty. Food always tastes better after a hard day’s work, and when the wind picked up on the ocean, kayaking back turned into quite the aerobic workout.
After dinner, we made our rent-a-car plans searching Europcar’s website for the cheapest car. We made sure that the cheapest was also an automatic as Jacky was the only one who could drive manual, and she didn’t have her actual driver’s license with her, only a copy. Leanne would be our registered driver because she was the oldest thereby saving us from incurring the added young driver fee.
Jacky stayed at the hostel the following morning while Leanne, Donny and I walked fifteen minutes to Europcar. Registered and paid, Leanne climbed behind the wheel as Donny shouted from the backseat, “Wait! This is a manual!” The attendant inside did nothing to help us.
“You wanted a small car,” he said.
A joint reply: “No, we booked the cheapest small car that was automatic. And we made sure it was automatic.”
“No. I’m sorry, but no.”
He left us standing there unsure of how three non-stick drivers would get this car back to the hostel where the unregistered Jacky could take the wheel. Leanne and I opted for Donny to drive as he seemed the most confident. We knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t figure out how to put the car into reverse.
Three day car rental: €159. Rental insurance: €15. Driving out of the rent-a-car shop with an unregistered, unaccomplished stick driver behind the wheel of a manual: Priceless.
And that’s when I learned to drive stick–in Portugal. All I can say is thank goodness they drive on the same side of the road as the states. But my first roundabout was a bit scary. I drove for about three hours, stalling at every stoplight. We made a U-turn forty minutes into the trip backtracking to the southernmost tip of Portugal to the remote town of Sagres. I hereby petition this place for one of the 2010 Seven Wonders of the World.
We spent the night in the car in a parking lot of a small town called Alcacer do Sal. On our way to Lisbon airport for my flight to Scotland, we drove partway up a mountain to Sintra where we checked out a Moorish palace. Before I knew it, it was goodbye Portugal, rental car and new friends, hello Scotland!
Saturday night on the dance floor in Salamanca, Spain came and went, and I managed to make it until 4:30 a.m. running on pure adrenaline. I’ve been visiting my friend, Marcos, a friend I met at Ohio Wesleyan who lives here. There’s a big festival going on, and Marcos insisted I stay awake until seven a.m. on Saturday. Sorry my friend, I couldn’t make it any later.
Perhaps the lack of sleep was catching up to us the following evening. While cooking dinner, Marcos and I examined–for lack of a better word–the English and Spanish languages, enjoying each other’s non-native accents. I received a lesson on when to roll my R‘s, but sometimes, I still manage to let my tongue get a little carried away, as does any normal person upon the discovery of something new. (I couldn’t roll my R‘s until halfway through last summer in Ecuador. One day, it just clicked!)
The next day, I said my goodbyes to Marcos and his mom, and I headed by bus from Spain to Portugal. Traveling in Europe is often like going from one state to the next in the U.S., and public transportation is big in Europe. Consequently, hopping from one country to another is quite affordable for a recent college graduate like me. My destination was Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, with a population of over 200,000. I later learned that one of Portugal’s most famous exports, Port wine, is produced and shipped from here, making its namesake the city of Porto.
Stepping off the bus, I found my way to Oporto Poet’s Hostel by putting my rusty, novice Portuguese language skills to the test. Pronunciation aside, it was a success, and I booked three nights in the modern-mixed-with-retro hostel.
Still accustomed to the Spanish meal schedule, I relaxed with a light late dinner on the Douro River. The following morning, I quickly realized I was ill prepared for rain. When I could no longer bare the cool weather and drizzle, I put down three Euros for a bright yellow poncho. That certainly didn’t make me stand out as a tourist! I spent the rest of the day navigating the alleyways of Portugal’s second largest city without a map. At times, I had no destination in mind. Instead, I let curiosity lead me up and down homey and abandoned side streets.
When I want to get to know a place, I spend a day walking around more-or-less aimlessly finding my own sights worth seeing. In Porto, I found the facade of every door was worth paying attention to. Call me crazy, but now and then I began imagining what lie behind each door. Behind the hunter green, brass handle door with an array of potted plants out front was, in my mind, a comfortable home for a young, single, working woman.
Adjacent to that home, my brain conjured the image of an elderly couple that cared only about what was on the inside; hence the chipping brown paint on the old (and probably creaky) wooden door. Just when my mind jumped to the conclusion that the unpainted, dried out, cracked door with a broken knob was nothing more than a forsaken hardware store, the door slowly opened and out came a father with a toddler in tow.
How quick we are to make assumptions. I don’t think there are any limits to the imagination, but perhaps breaking free from the chains that bind us to our presumptive instincts is more difficult than we expect, especially because imagination seems to be linked so strongly yet subconsciously to our past experiences.
One afternoon, I crossed the bridge over the Douro River in search of a quaint local cafe. Voila, I came across a number of options. Settling on a sandwich joint run by a young Portuguese couple, I took a seat at a table with a decent view of the river. A little girl who I guessed was the daughter of the couple that ran the restaurant brought me a placemat and silverware.
“Obrigada,” I thanked her. She scurried off to engage in a game of tag with an elderly man–Grandpa, perhaps. Soon after, she carried out my food, chatting away in Portuguese to me, to herself, to whomever. When I finished, she came over to take my plate, again talking away. Unable to understand her, I smiled and thanked her. A minute later, she was back, and this time I was sure she was attempting conversation. I still don’t know if she recognized that I was a non-Portuguese-speaking foreigner. It didn’t matter. She told me to wait a moment and ran to the back of the cafe. When she returned, she dumped the contents of a plastic grocery bag onto the table. Out poured enough Hello Kitty merchandise to make an entire class of kindergarten girls merrier than Christmas morning or trick-or-treat–bracelets, key chains, mini purses, figurines, necklaces.
“Me dê sua mão,” she demanded, and I held out my palm. She wrapped her hand around my index finger, pulling it toward the now categorized nation of Hello Kitties. “Um.” She scanned my face for some sign, but what I didn’t know. “Dois,” she continued.
“Um, dois,” I repeated the counting. She nodded. “Três,” I said, pointing to the third bracelet in line.
“Muito bom,” she praised me.
We spent the next half hour rearranging the Hello Kitty display, at one point engaging in a race to see who could count the kittens fastest. Though I never learned the girl’s name, she unknowingly gave me food for thought. To her, there was no language barrier. She
talked whether or not I acknowledged that I understood. For her, communication had no boundaries. I realized then that communication doesn’t always require understanding. What it requires most is a commitment between two people to simply try and understand one another through means sometimes other than language.
After lunch, I crossed over the upper part of the two-level bridge. Approaching the end, my eyes were drawn to a landscape of green, ivy that seemed to roll in pleasant, dominating waves over the buildings below. Here was a silent competition of man versus nature. And nature surely was winning.
After exploring the Crystal Palace Park where I had a run-in with peacocks galore, I ate a home cooked pre-paid meal at the hostel, one of the many perks of this place. The past few days, I’d been feeling a bit lonely. Talking to myself offered minimal, short-lived entertainment. (Surprising, I know.) The alone time was good and necessary, especially as I sought this Euro trip for self-reflection. However, I wanted this trip to result in new friendships as well. I made a resolution to myself that I would indeed meet new people. Without forgetting to make time for myself, I dug inside of me for the outgoing girl who talks to strangers (in addition to herself). On my last night in Porto, I started to make friends, moving past the small talk of backpackers coming and going.
Lagos, Portugal was next. But that story comes with one heck of an ending, so I’ll save it for another day.
Until the next time I have access to a computer with cheap Internet and time to sit down and share my journey with you…
Another summer abroad, but this time I’m not digging through monkey poo, nor do I have to avoid tarantulas like the plague. I decided on a European excursion, a post-graduation gift from me to me, some time for self-discovery and cultural exploration. My trip begins and ends in Madrid, Spain, and everything in between is up in the air.
I started out with some sisterly bonding. Ashley, my older sister, lives in Madrid. Way back during the ’09-’10 Ohio blizzards–followed by the sixty degree weather–the three Venzel girls decided it was time for a sister vacation. Having put this idea on the table, it blossomed into my plans for backpacking through Western Europe. And so it happened that for the past two weeks, Ashley, Bridgette (my younger sister) and myself, along with Ashley’s boyfriend Miguel (not a sister, but still a part of the family) enjoyed
the life of the Spaniards.
Bridgette and I took a solo trip to Toledo, Spain (Toledo, Ohio’s sister city) where we found the Calle de Toledo de Ohio(Street of Toledo, Ohio). Though the street was only about five paces in length, Bridgette and I were nonetheless enthusiastic, taking turns spelling out O-H-I-O under the street sign (sorry, Michigan fans).
In Segovia, Spain, the four of us marveled at an ancient Roman aqueduct, an open-topped stone pipeline that used to provide water to the pueblo. I have more-or-less become successful at navigating a city both on foot and on the Metro, but we’ll see if my knowledge of city layouts extends beyond Madrid. This capital city had cathedrals galore and a beautiful palace. I enjoyed the rose garden, a serene setting with a stone walkway home to more than fifty species of roses from around the world. Bridgette and I declared it the perfect place for a marriage proposal. (Men, take note.)
The nightlife in Madrid is hip-hop-‘n-happenin’. Stop at a bar for drinks and tapas/pintxos (little plates of appetizers) and then on to another. After receiving disgruntled looks from bartenders when I asked for un vaso de agua (I’m not an abolitionist, but I do choose not to drink alcohol), I’ve discovered the universal virgin drink –and likely the only one in Spanish bars–mosto! It’s a watered down white grape juice. And it’s not free, unlike the glasses of water, so I make the bartenders happy by ordering mosto and enjoy more of the Spanish culture. Sometimes, the mosto comes with an olive. I don’t eat the olive. I can’t bring myself to savor the flavor of those weird-looking grapes.
All of us spent a few days on the northern coast of Spain in San Sebastian. This city is part of the Basque country where the first language is actually Basque, not Spanish. While riding my bike along the coast, a television reporter caught me for an interview. I timidly (what? me? timid?) praised the beautiful coastline of San Sebastian. Luckily, we didn’t have a television to watch the news, so I was saved from a spree of jokes.
The marine biologist in me couldn’t contain herself, so I spent some time perusing the tidal pools on a rock pier at low tide.
I was ecstatic to find a starfish as well as colonies of sea urchins. And yes, I did jump with excitement at the numerous types of algae, especially at the sight of Ulva, or sea lettuce, my personal favorite.
Also in San Sebastian we three girls watched Miguel and a few locals take off into the air and paraglide. Paragliding is the sport where you run off a cliff while attached to a parachute, and then soar through the air. Low and behold, I was offered the opportunity to paraglide in a tandem with Miguel’s friend Iosu. I accepted, I paraglided and I loved it. Granted the only air circulation was a lazy breeze, I was still able to glide over the tops of the trees, paralleling the dynamic line below where sea meets land. Iosu pointed
out a falcon to me, and we followed behind it, with it, for a number of meters, ourselves just another bird in the sky.
By some heavenly miracle, I’ve been able to stay up until two or three a.m. even on the weekdays, breaking my weekend routine of eleven p.m. (11:30 is pushing it). I’m in Salamanca, Spain now visiting Marcos, a friend I met at Ohio Wesleyan who lives here. There’s a festival going on, and we watched an acrobatic show in the Plaza Mayor. Marcos says I have to stay awake until seven a.m. on Saturday (or really Sunday), as that’s the dia de fiesta here. He says I have to rest lots before. I said, okay, but I’ll still fall asleep on the dance floor.
My nerves are easing some at the future prospect of traveling alone for an extended period of time. I’ve done it successfully before, but it’s still not a comfortable thought. I have to remember to still be my crazy self. The locals and fellow backpackers can love me or hate me. At the very least, I’ll entertain myself, right? My next stop is Portugal, and by all accounts it is a beautiful country. I will let you know soon enough!
Perhaps the best way to describe my feelings upon returning home would be as such: It was good for awhile. I wasn’t expecting to welcome the civilian modernized lifestyle with open arms for I hadn’t yearned for it while in the jungle. I was so preoccupied about catching my connecting flight from Houston to Detroit that I neglected the fact that I was walking on U.S. ground. I ordered a sandwich in Spanish at some Barry Bagel equivalent in the Houston airport, then quickly repeated myself in English. It dawned on me that the airport chatter was in a language I hadn’t heard spoken natively in quite some time. I was home! I couldn’t wait to see my family, but I didn’t have to take even a breath to realize the cultural shock I was about to experience.
Carolina, the Ecuadorian girl I traveled with for the past two weeks, leads an upper class lifestyle so I was actually backstepping a bit into the middle class sector of my hometown. However, there were still many things to which I had yet to re-accustom. At the forefront of my mind was the calming feeling of being able to walk alone on the street, the freedom to strike up a conversation with a stranger without the fear of being robbed or hit on. Soon enough, that welcomed comfort wore off as well and I began to miss the adventurous lifestyle I had been leading. Of course, I do not wish to be ambushed by a thief in Perrysburg nor get whistled at by a car of high school boys at a stop light. I do, however, miss Ecuador.
The highlights of my last week of traveling include my solo trip to the coast and climbing the dormant volcano Cotopaxi (at a pace slower than a tortoise). After some miscommunication that took place outside an airline ticket station, I boarded a flight from Quito to Manta alone. I was scared. I was worried. I felt vulnerable. The coast is supposedly characterized by more robberies. I hadn’t had exceptionally comforting experience travelling alone up to that point and I didn’t exactly have concrete plans as to where I was going or what I was doing. Despite my anxious thoughts, I managed to calm myself enough to enjoy a relaxing time on the beach. I met a group of three men in their forties and fifties vacationing with a seven-year-old son. They took quite a liking to chatting with the American girl who was sitting on the sand breathing in the smell of the sea. They paid a small token to a traveling duo of guitarrists to serenade three songs for me. Fernando, the man who initiated the serenade, told me to remember the people of Cuenca, their native city, as “nice people who just want to be your friend.” Finally, I thought, a group of men who just wanted to laugh and joke and get to know this foreigner, to be nothing more than friends. From a reader’s viewpoint, the serenade might not sound like a gesture of friendship but I can assure you it was. And I was finally feeling comfortable being alone.
After a few days in Manta, I took a bus ride past a number of ghost towns to Puerto Lopez. Words falter in describing the sheer magnificence and natural beauty of a pod of whales in the ocean. I went whale watching on a boat with a group of about twenty tourists. The first Humpback we saw had just its fluke sticking up out of the water, seemingly frozen in place, in time sufficient enough for the onlookers to catch more than a glance. Not long enough, of course, for the old school, slow-working camera Carolina lent me. But long enough to have imprinted an image in my head. I came to Puerto Lopez to see whales because it was prime whale season when the families swim through these bays once a year. Having witnessed firsthand the enormous tail of a Humpback whale glistening with water droplets despite the overcast skies, I would have been content with just that image. But luckily, we continued our voyage at sea.
We encountered a family of three Humpbacks swimming along, pectoral fins skimming the surface every now and then. Underwater, their bodies looked like the blue of a robin’s egg illuminated against the stark contrast of the midnight blue sea. The whale watching, however, didn’t stop there. We saw another family of Humpbacks, three adults and two babies. At this point in my writing, I do not know whether I should pour out my heart to you or hold back, but I’m taking a leap of faith and going for the foremost. About halfway through the trip, I abandoned the camera. It had worked whatever magic I thought it capable of and I decided I would rather take in these sights with my own eyes than through a camera lens. Hence, I kept my eyes peeled wide open on the water’s surface, searching for water spouting up or whirling about, any sign of marine life.
And it happened. Four times. Something you see on a calendar page but rarely witness in real life. The water parted as the nose of a Humpback whale emerged, on four different occasions, followed by the gigantic white belly with the pectoral fins splayed out, all accompanied by a spray of oceanwater. Each time these creatures hit the water with a crackling belly smack that would leave any human’s stomach permanently red, I felt my own waterworks churning. The sight of these animals and the sound of their bodies hitting the water, assurance that the experience was not just a dream, brought actual tears to my eyes. Maybe you think it’s crazy, crying because of something you see in nature. But just like people shed tears of happiness, I was shedding tears of pure elation.
To top it off, on our way back, we rounded a cliff and saw those birds with the blue feet, Blue-footed Boobies, native to Ecuador. We had passed by here on our way out to sea but I only noticed the white-colored rocks and thought, Hmm, must be some very white sand. No, no. It was bird poop. T hese cliffs were filled with so many Blue-footed Boobies that the rocks looked snow-covered from their excrement.
When I returned to Quito, Carolina and I took a trip with three friends to Cotopaxi. Three of the five of us (myself included) finished the climb to the refuge center. Two hours after we began our ascent, we marveled at the expanse of mountains and greenlands visible from this vantage point. Additionally, we congratulated ourselves on what had seemed an unnatural accomplishment. The winds and cold we battled coupled with the steep incline and sandy terrain that didn’t offer strong footholds translated to numerous power breaks for the climbers. Some of the gusts of wind were so powerful that they forced us backward, sometimes knocked us over so that we rolled a few feet downhill. Losing that much ground, just a few feet, sounded like an added death trek at the time. That small yellow building, our destination, stared us down from above. I’m pretty sure it was laughing at us. Our descent took only 30 minutes. When we were driving away from the mountain, we stopped to read the welcome sign. Instantly our pride level plummeted. We had only climbed three hundred meters… in two hours. We were hoping for at least a mile. Needless to say it was quite a tiring trek.
So now I sit here typing away at a computer that I can have at my fingertips whenever I want. I sit in a room dimly lit by the natural light seeping through the blinds though the darkness is calling for the yellow shine of the lightbulb which I am holding out on. I sleep in a bed with a metal frame instead of bamboo slats and a mattress that doesn’t feel like the entire Detroit Tigers team batted it in for twenty-four hours straight. I walk down the sidewalk alone and in barefeet confident that I won’t be ambushed or step on broken glass. I enjoy air conditioning in this intense heat and humidity. I could go for a run with my iPod if I wanted to but, though I thrive on music, I sometimes find the music of the busy and natural world more inspirational than any break-up-and-get-over-it love song. I eat healthy, planned dinners instead of as-quick-and-easy-as-possible dinners thrown together by volunteers after a long, hard day of work. I don’t have to fall asleep to the fear that tarantulas will crawl across my hair or face when I sleep. I can play with my dog and guinea pig whenever I want. I can drive my car and listen to English songs on the radio while singing loudly with my sister. I am not restrained in the jungle on Sundays and thus can finally go to church in the mornings like I longed to do. I can read a book on a couch (instead of a sand fly infested, stained hammock) while listening to the sound of Dad drumming away in the basement. And I myself can rock out on the drums or play the piano when I feel the yearning. I can use my cell phone. I drink treated tap water instead of questionably filtered water from a stream in the Amazon. And I think my intestines are back on track after two months of confusion with my rainforest diet. Still, despite all the pleasures, the comfort, the material and non-material joys of my USA lifestyle, I can’t erase one thought from my mind: When’s my next trip back to the jungle?
It’s been a long, memorable experience that will undoubtedly live within me for the rest of my life. I have grown immensely as a person, in my values and life choices, having finally experienced what I have long thought to be the key to happiness: simplicity. While you may or may not agree with me, I am so very glad I could at least share my monkey stories and tarantula freak-outs with you all, whether family, friend, or stranger. Thank you for taking time out of our busy go-go-go lives (believe me, I’m a go-go-goer) to read these lengthy paragraphs of text. I’m not sure I would have had the patience as a reader to read every line every week, so I am thankful for any little bit that you read. Hopefully, you enjoyed sharing this experience with me as much as I did with you.
I kept thinking during my last feeding tour, with squawking macaws making me bleed from the ears and ants on my shirt from the spider monkey cage, How can I ever say goodbye to this place? Now I’m realizing, after a week in Quito, that I don’t ever have to say goodbye.
I have found myself laughing out loud in a bout of silence on a car ride when I picture Beata. An image is embedded in my mind of her vehemently shaking her head when she doesn’t want to do something, backing away with her pink lips pursed in a perfect O as she makes a sound I can only imagine E.T. would make. I can still hear the voices of volunteers yelling ”No!'” to the mischievous monkeys that found their way into the kitchen after someone forgot to lock the door. The smell of ocelet pee, though not an inviting scent, is still fresh in my mind and nostrils. I often find myself trying to perfect the trumpet call of Trompi. I still see Gino’s face pressed up against the peccaries’ pen because, having been a pet, he adores attention. The frustration of volunteers trying to shoo squirrel monkeys out of the bodéga (our fruit cutting and storage place) is laughable now. I can’t possibly count the number of times ”Âh stupid barizo!” was yelled at Amazoonico.
By far, the barizos (squirrel monkeys) were the award winning thieves during feeding time. I laugh every time I picture Huahuasupay’s face with a discolored, half-closed eye and a hairdo that prompted my nickname for him: Elvis the Pirate. Pirate is fitting not only because of the pirate eye but because he is also a nasty booty stealer. I’m beginning to think I might acutally miss his temper tantrums after he attacks me but is unsuccessful in gaining access to the food bucket. While I’m still recovering from temporary hearing loss in the aviary of fifty some parrots, I’m a little nostalgic when I realize I’ll soon be back to one hundred percent hearing.
When I arrived in Quito, I was abnormally excited by the sight of grass. I quickly discarded my sandals and ran onto a patch of green sanctity, literally feeling every blade on my overworked feet. There’s no such thing as lawn in the jungle. But my excitement, though still existent, is now coupled with feelings of nostalgia. Moving from the primitive, candlelight, cold water shower lifestyle of the Amazon to the blinding city lights of Quito without time for a transition was far from overwhelming. I happily welcomed my first actually hot shower (not just warm like Tena). Yet after a week, I’m finding an ice cold shower–so cold that one cannot stand fully under the running water but must wash a body part at a time–isn’t that bad. If it means living in the jungle, I’ll take it.
I still have yet to turn a TV on though there’s one in every room but two in Carolina’s house. (Carolina is my Quiteño friend with whom I worked for a month at Amazoonico. Did I mention her family is highly wealthy… on American standards?) I miss dinner by candlelight, hearing the “Comiiiiiiiiiida!‘” dinner call every night, the prospect of looking forward to a free day.
I’m still accustomed to waking up with the sun, but I’ve pushed my bedtime back from 8:30 to 10:30. (Quite an accomplishment in one week, I must say. Although I’m certainly not killing my body anymore carrying fifty kilos of carrots or two giant bunches of plantains up more than one hundred stairs.) Sure, life in the jungle can really make you appreciate what you have. But for some people, the jungle life shows why primitive conditions might make for a preferred lifetstyle.
Ane, my closest friend from Amazoonico, is a stylish chica accustomed to wearing dresses every day. At first glance, you might think, “She’ll never survive two months.” But she did! (I recently discovered some volunteers thought that about me when I ran for help after seeing my first free-roaming tarantula. Give me a break! He was right outside my room!)
I think very few people “don’t have it in them” to live in the jungle. Half the volunteers (myself included) despise tarantulas, but we made it out alive. (I still fear their hairiness and creepy crawling legs nonetheless.) It definitely takes some getting used to, but I swear primitive living is better than any trip to the spa . If you really want to clear your mind and face a reality free from everyday troubles, forget for a day that you have electricity. Cook and eat by candlelight. Sing your own songs instead of letting the CD player do it for you. Turn off your cell phone and ignore the emails that bog all of us down. Make your own bread, marmalade and juice from scratch. And lay in a hammock. Seriously, folks, for one day you can relax without a hefty fee. (I feel like I just ran an advertisement for Life in the Amazon. But my eyes are a little slippery just from writing this.)
After the hard work at Amazoonico, I owe myself a trip to the beach to go whale watching. We leave today, but Carolina and I aren’t planning any cruise or resort-type stay. Keep it cheap because cheap means simple. I guarantee I’ll enjoy myself just as much if not more than I would at any one hundred dollar a night hotel. I’ve enjoyed my sight seeing thus far despite my craving for manual labor. (Psh.)
I enjoyed a trip to Baños where we saw waterfalls galore, thermal pools and, forever kids at heart, played with four niños on the teeter totter. Carolina and I stopped at a zoocriadero in Fatima. I’m not sure how to explain what all that entails but it’s a rescue center set-up but ethically more-so a zoo. A really really under-educated, dirty zoo with small cages and only one man running the place who calls every animal “my life, my love, my dear.” A bit of a cuckoo but a nice man. I got to pet a tapir. Great Aunt Sally, they are massive.
We visited an actual zoo like the Toledo Zoo but with bears in cages smaller than a front yard. Many of the animals had stereotypies. The visitors enjoyed watching the bears pace back and forth, pausing for a moment to stand on their hind legs as if they were following a command. Sadly, this entertainment is a sign of animal suffering in an under-enriched, small environment.
We went to a rescue center in Otávalo where I saw three birds native to North America. There’s a sign of animal trafficking from the U.S. to Ecuador. Many of the birds, as in Amazoonico, were rescued ex-pets. We stopped at another animal rescue center that was beautifully landscaped and non-profit but seemed to spend more money on pathways than animal enrichment. The volunteers were a little confused about the release part of the rescue center. They release some animals but still pet all of them regardless of release potential. That’s not helping the animal at all. I got to pet an ostrich that was running in place as he tried to push through the fence. Very strong and very cool, but perhaps he was trying to tell me something? There were two full-grown lions at this rescue center in a cage the size of two walk-in closets. That was the worst of it. But in all honesty, the volunteers are trying and I think doing the best they know how to do.
In the city of Mindo, I jumped twelve meters from a cliff into a waterfall. And then I went back for more. I’m not sure why I jumped again as I was just as scared out of my mind the second time. I could actually feel pressure from the spray of the waterfall pushing my legs upward. I had to fight to keep them down. Back in Quito, Carolina, her friend Namdev and I went to an amusement park called Vulqano Park, a lovely mixture of Spanish and English in the name there. It was no Cedar Point but we rode three rides and I screamed bloody murder on every one while simultaneously taking in the city lights of Quito. Near Tena, we took a flashlight aided trek through an otherwise pitch black cave. Carolina’s Shiatsu dog, Negrita, came, too. At one point, we came across a small waterfall with such strong pressure that it made a five meter deep hole in the rocks, the perfect width for a human body. I jumped in and nearly drowned from the pressure of the waterfall but still enjoyed every second of it. By the end of our hike, we were both almost as muddy as we were at the end of an Amazoonico work day, but smelling much better, of course.
Without a doubt, all of this traveling is exciting. It is a cultural eye-opener to have the comparisons between the indigenous, poor folk and the city-dwelling, rich people. But it is very different not hearing the high-pitched puppy-like sounds of the toucans all the way at the volunteer house, or to dread the sound of a passing canoe because it either means tourists or carrying loads of food. I am enjoying myself, but I miss my life in the Amazon.
My time at Amazoonico is coming to an end. I don’t know how I will be able to get used to not having monkeys following me everywhere, jumping onto my shoulders as a platform midway between a branch and the feeding table. I hope I can figure out a way to pack the rainforest smell in a bottle to take with me. I will definitely not have trouble acclimating to a tarantula-free lifestlye once again. I amaze myself with how much I can’t stand those things. You’d think I’d get used to them after two months in the jungle where you see one every other day. I have not and I don’t anticipate doing so anytime soon.
Mea, the spider monkey, was acting weirder than normal last week. During a tour, Ane’s tourists were pointing to a jelly-like glob on the ground of Johan and Mea’s cage. Ane had her thoughts of what it was, but she got the vet to have a look. It was a fetus. Mea had a miscarriage. We thought she was pregnant because of her change in eating habits, her behavior and what may have led to the initial belief, a slightly larger than normal stomach. It was unbelievable in the next couple days how sad she looked, sitting on the ground and not doing much. Just like a human.
All of the volunteers got a tour of Monkey Island where the highly aggressive (like monkey killing, people attacking) monkeys go along with the rejected monkeys not accepted in a group. Clearly it is too dangerous to go on the island, so we joined the feeding canoe that passes by every morning and throws food on the island, handing some to the monkeys that decide to reach their hands down from the branches. I saw a white Capuchin mama with a baby on her back!
I think I have neglected to say in my past journaling that I had to abandon the bright pink rainboots my neighbor lent me and trade them in for some boring black ones. It was those darn toucans. Every time I fed them, they attacked my boots as if the boots, not me, were the intruders in their territory. After a month, the toucans were successful at gashing two holes in them. In the rainforest, you kind of need rainboots without holes in them. (If you are reading this, Mrs. Seiwert, I will be sure to replace those lovely boots when I get back to the U.S.)
Huahuasupay is such a thief! He appears out of nowhere during animal feeding time and evidently if a tourist has food as well. While leading a group of Ecuadorians through Amazoonico, I was oblivious to the sandwich an elderly woman was munching on. Whoops, my bad. We were passing Herman and Martin (woolly monkeys) headed to the peccaries when I heard some commotion.
Huahuasupay had dropped unexpectedly and ever so sneakily from a tree and stolen the sandwich, plastic bag and all, right out of the lady’s hand. When I reached for the plastic bag that he dropped, the Capuchin of course tried to attack me. I held my ground, told him to go enjoy his sandwich and recovered the empty plastic bag. I probably should have remembered the “no feeding the animals” part of the introduction that should really be reworded to “no food on tour or you might get ambushed by a monkey.”
Speaking of Martin and Herman, I saw them playing together for the first time. Martin is the neurologically-impaired partially paralyzed juvenile that lives with the grandfather-like but relatively boring alpha male Herman. They were making a popcorn-stuck-in-the-throat-sound and rolling around on their food table. I’ve never seen a monkey put food aside like that.
Fergus (England) and I entered the small cage of the kinkajous and agoutis to give the agoutis their breakfast. The kinkajous get fed only in the afternoon because of their nocturnal lifestlye which would infer that the kinks should be sleeping at this time. Cranky lady kinky was awake and hissing up a storm so that we couldn’t enter the big cage. We gave her an orito to try to lure her away. She was pleased but hissed between bites. I think I should sit in on one of her anger management sessions because she doesn’t really seem to be getting anywhere.
Ane and I were headed to feed the ocelots during feeding time one afternoon (and by feed I mean I don’t touch the meat and Ane wraps it in a leaf because she doesn’t want to touch it either but I make her throw it in the cage). In the middle of her tour, Sybille came running frantically and said, “There’s a tree in the ocelots’ cage! Go get Miguel!” I sprinted eight hundred meters in rubber boots up stairs and through two gates to go get Miguel.
If there’s a tree in the ocelots’ cage they can escape, something that has happened before but means they eat the chickens and try to get close to the humans for attention. As ex-pets, they do not realize the potential of their sharp claws and teeth. And if an ocelot gets territorial, ex-pet or not, watch yourself. Miguel, naturally, feeds on adventure. When I reach his house, I am out of breath and speaking in Spanish and English because he understands only bits of both. He asks me if it’s a big tree. I say I don’t know because I didn’t see it but I would assume so because Sybille made it sound like an emergency.
“Is it inside or outside?”
Again I say, “Sounded like an emergency so it must be inside.”
He asks if he should bring a machete or a “vroom vroom.” I say probably the “vroom vroom.” He comes running from his house with both a machete and the vroom vroom chainsaw. We make it to the ocelots’ cage out of breath to find Ane chilling by the large branch but definitely not a tree that is outside the ocelots’ cage.
“Aw, Stacey, ziss no es for zee vroom vroom. Ziss is a pequeño.” Sorry, Miguel, I didn’t know. “Ziss is my free day,” he says. I hear Friday. I correct him and say, “It’s Saturday.” Confusion ensues heightened by the language barrier of this Swiss animal caretaker.
Miguel machetes the branch with grunts and sweatdrops and throws it into the forest. I apologize for the confusion about the vroom vroom, tell him to enjoy his Saturday free day, congratulate him on a job well done, and watch Ane throw the meat in with a leaf protecting her hands from the blood juice. Just another day at Amazoonico. It never fails to be an adventure at this animal rescue center in the middle of the Amazon.