By Sam Oppenheim
Quito, Ecuador, 3,000 meters (9,100 feet) above sea level. I'm finally in bed, listening to distant city noises in the chilly high altitude air.
This country is strange, they use the US dollar here as an official currency, but "cafe-con-leche" is served with a hot cup of milk and a cold "syrup" style glass container with coffee or espresso in it.
The highlight of my one day sojourn in Quito was the TeleferiQo, a gondola ride up the green flank of one of the inactive volcanoes surrounding the city. From the top you could see the whole city of Quito, cupped in a valley between mountains, a green bowl filled with the fruits of man's labors - boxes of all sizes and hues, little houses everywhere, a colony of colored squares.
I rumbled along the Panamerican highway, southbound through the "avenue of Volcanoes", a stretch 1,000km or 500 miles long that passes between 20+ active and inactive snow-capped or blackish-brown bare cones every so often.
As I wandered around Cuenca on the 4th of July, the city endeared itself to me immediately, much like Toledo, Barcelona, and Prague. It is pleasant, and the architecture is downright gorgeous! Not a block goes by that doesn't offer stunningly preserved colonial architecture, and air of quaintness, and a liveliness that invites further exploration.
I liked Cuenca so much I photographed it extensively with my nice large Canon camera. Traveling alone, I seemed a good mark not once, but twice, for would-be-thieves. The first time someone spilled a fruit smoothie on my backpack while I was taking a picture.. My camera bag was on me, but my backpack was on the sidewalk as I was cleaning it, and a second guy distracted me for just a second by touching my butt saying there was more juice there. While I turned to check my rear, one guy started off with my backpack - but I turned and grabbed his arm - shouting "No!" and he let go of my bag and ran. Everyone on the crowded street was willing to help me. The next day in the market a guy who was too friendly distracted me while an accomplice put mustard on my pants and shirt - yuck! Since then I have been very cautious in using my big camera - and snap shots in public with my pocket camera.
Despite any inconvenience, I have thoroughly enjoyed my travels. For me Ecuador has been very much about the culinary experiences. I thrived on trying exotic new South American fruits, and later having the courage to try Cuy - the local delicacy of cooked Guinea Pig!
CHILCATORA HILLS VILLAGE
From Cuenca I took a tour to a local indigenous community that profits from cultural-culinary tourism. On the tour with me was a simply adorable older couple who were so in love! Mario and Cindy, in an its-a-small-world-moment later revealed to me they were re-introduced to each other by a mutual friend in Fairfield, IA!
Anyway, in addition to tea with Aguardiente (a local hard liquor) and a tour of the local land, the highlight was watching the women kill, prepare, and cook a chicken and guinea pig.
Picture this: a local indigenous woman wearing colorful homespun clothes and the traditional white hat picks up a furry rodent and snaps its neck in the kitchen. Next, she plucks its eye from the socket and drains blood into a bowl from the inverted body. Then both the beheaded chicken and cyclops ex-pet are immersed in boiling water and de-feathered and de-furred, respectively. Finally, naked as a pinkie newborn mouse, the animal is gutted, seasoned, and cooked.
The women in their adorable "fino" straw hats and billowing skirts spread rice, corn, vegetables, and potatoes along a long thin white sheet, like artists painting a simple Jackson Pollock piece with colors and flavors as their palette. Their work of art, contrasting with the green grass, blue sky, and brown cracked-mud building was accented with cuy (guinea pig) and chicken. It was a masterpiece!
Chilcatora Photo Essay:
No city tour is complete without sampling the nightlife, so before heading South to Peru I made the sacrifice for a greater good of balanced reporting and drank extensively two nights in a row. The first night I went out with Matthew and Amy, two new friends I met. We started at a karaoke bar with a twist - after 5 songs of karaoke, they dim the lights and regular dancing overtakes the floor for a set of 5-6 songs until everyone sits down, drinks more, rests, and karaoke's again - a great compromise and mixed use. Yes, I did sing karaoke and break a few local girls' hearts when I left at midnight without getting their numbers, but I had work to do! We went to a dance club called "Pop!" where we drank "Brahma," a curiously good, cheap, Brazilian beer named after the Hindu God! We drank so well that Matthew declared "I love her, but I cannot remember her name". Even later I had to forcibly remove him from harassing Amy and he admitted he was only 18 and lied about being 21! The next night was even better with dinner and two rounds of drinks in a high-class restaurant with live Cuban music, followed by dancing in two different clubs, and being serenaded on our way home by a group of drunken, singing old men. In every bar and club except for Pop, we were the only foreigners, which meant we truly experienced the local flavor of nightlife, and I can say it is excellent!
Two days later I left my new friend Amy and boarded an international bus with 3 even-newer friends from Ireland we met the night before drinking in a city further south. At the border between Ecuador and Peru we disembarked, stamped our passports, and walked across the bridge to Peru.