January 1, 2005 Scrambling to file my column, catch up on email, organize, pack and clean up the house so Lillian won’t think we live like pigs (which we do nearly 50% of the time) took up most of the day. Jon couldn’t believe I scoured the refrigerator shelves! Experts say that the pressure won’t be so overwhelming if you work through each task one step at a time. Hogwash. Even though I had prepared packing lists in my mind and every visit to a store brought in bags of new stuff “we just might need for the trip,” I never believed I would make it in time. I finally told myself that everything that didn’t fit into the suitcase or the backpack, had to remain at home. I was crazy to think I needed 13 days of clean outfits—where there’s a sink, clean clothes can be had (in 24 hours if the humidity isn’t too high). The three-hour wait at LAX actually flew by. So many lines to wait in: 1) to get boarding pass 2) to X-ray checked bags 3) to X-ray carry-on bags. I stupidly insisted on keeping my 19 rolls of film radiation-free and had to wait patiently while each roll (and two underwater disposables) was wiped individually with a special cloth meant to find vestiges of bomb-making material. The writer of my guidebook was particularly adamant about protecting film—hope the hassle is worth it.
January 2, 2005 The plane ride to San Jose (Costa Rica) was uneventful. My Nyquil worked (despite the little tantrum-throwing brat behind me) and I slept nearly all the way. By the time I decided to do something about her kicking my seat back—we were both racking up the zzzz. There must, however, be a more civilized way to travel cheaply than the "red eye." If God intended man to take his rest squished into nine square feet with two other people or sitting upright in a super-hard airplane seat, he would have made us without pain receptors. Sleeping in one’s clothes is also a surefire way to offend, no matter how much deodorant one has applied. I couldn’t wait to get to a hotel room in Quito and take a shower. At least I had toothpaste/toothbrush in my purse. The two-hour layover in San Jose was actually welcome because there would be a chance to eat (no food on this flight) and a chance to get to know the other folks on the tour.When we got to the Hotel Mercure Alameda, I just though I’d lay down and test the bed when I conked out for nearly three hours. What a blissful, dreamless slumber that was. We arrived too late to eat with the others so Jon and I settle for an intimate dinner for two at Spicy’s. Jon had the traditional Ecuadorian soup and chicken stew. My salad was delicious. I didn't think I was throwing caution to the wind (Montezuma’s Revenge from water-washed greens). Spicy’s looked like a clean, well-lighted place and my guidebook claimed the H2O in Quito was certainly potable. I also ordered a T-bone—that was a mistake. Let’s just say the cattle in Ecuador, climbing up and down hills as they do, are tough and lean. Then there's the 9,300 foot altitude. We got back to the room and became engrossed in the film, Behind Enemy Lines. Owen Wilson did a pretty credible job. Actually the constant action held our interest and I might want to consider the film for inclusion in Reelpolitik IV.January 3, 2005. Jon needs about three hours to get ready in the morning so he set the alarm for 5:30 AM. When Jon is awake, everybody is awake. My throat thinks it’s too early to down the sumptuous breakfast buffet the hotel provided (eggs, bacon, and about twenty other dishes). Actually I should be grateful that I didn’t have to nosh on Atkins bars which get really old, really fast.
We managed to get on the tour bus guided by Dulce. She is warm, friendly and highly knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. The tour started with Panecillo Hill—Michael added "sound" to my videos. Unbelievable view and the winged virgin statue was quite inspiring.Next we visited the Historical Quito—starting with Independence Square with its Parliament Buildings, the National Cathedral and the Archbishop's palace (home to Mea Culpa). No filming was allowed in the cathedral so I purchased a calendar displaying all the ornately gilded pulpits in Quito’s major churches. The application of gold leaf to just about every inch of the church was mind-boggling. There are apparently two schools of thought with respect to the liberal use of gold—those who think wealth should be more equally distributed (like to the poor) and those who desire the glorification of God’s house. After you see the Banco Central Del Ecuador Museo Nacional, you understand the affinity for glitz yet with many folks trying to live on $160 a month, the equity argument does persuade. Actually the Jesuits (who have more money than God) paid for the renovation of the gilt. The tension between the two school sort of comes to a head at the Church of St. Francis, where the laity has more of a voice in interior decoration. There was this altar-wide nativity scene that was, well, the word that comes to mind is "kitschy" what with blinking multi-colored lights, llamas instead of camels, and a shepherd who was the spitting image of my hippy husband. St. Francis, the oldest church in South America, was also being renovated so most of the art work was missing. What intrigued me was the mix of pagan imagery with the saints. You could find big breasted mermen? on the pulpit and the image of cats everywhere. The choir loft was most striking. All of the martyrs, each with an individual guardian angel, reminded me of Michael’s stint as a brother of the Holy Cross. At noon, he reported, the brothers were read gory accounts of saints’ deaths from the book called The Martyrology—great appetizer, I’d say. Rincon La Ronda was the choice for lunch. It may have taken three hours to eat but it was quite an impressive meal and besides, we needed the rest. We loved the empanadas, shrimp ceviche (best I’ve ever tasted), pork, fried bananas, hominy, and squash. Desert, at least what I chose, was a compote of figs served with goat cheese. The other choices included flan, chocolate cake, blanc mange and a beautiful tore. We ordered coffee but it didn’t arrive until after the last call to board the bus. Gulp. Gulp.Off to Middle of the World monument where you can stand in two hemispheres simultaneously. I took pictures of Jon and Herb engaged in such nonsense. Mike declined the photo op. The Ethnographic Museum, which detailed the lives of about 25 different indigenous tribes of Ecuadorian natives (including head hunters) was most memorable. The exhibit covered five floors and gave us some idea of the diverse handcrafted items we could be seeing in the marketplace. Dinner at the hotel was salad and a bottle of Fabiana Pinot Grigio. It was a most romantic evening and ended exactly the way romantic evenings should end.January 4, 2005 Early start this morning—7:30AM. We hit the Pan American Highway and rode south. The Central Valley was dramatically edged on each side by parallel ranges of volcanoes (Avenue de Volcanoes) named by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Our destination was Cotopaxi National Park (founded on July 26th, 1979) and named for arguably the highest active volcano in the world, at 19,700 feet. Alexander von Humboldt made an unsuccessful attempt on Chimborazo, then believed to be the highest mountain in the world (6,526 feet) in 1802 until Mt. Everest was discovered fifty years later. Glacial waters perfectly sculpted the base of Cotopaxi (“Cone of Moon”) which was obscured from view this day due to the serious rain clouds that hid the snow-crested summit. Cotopaxi, considered sacred by the peoples indigenous to the Andes, erupted in 1534, in the middle of conflict with the Spanish. The Spaniards panicked and fled while the natives began to worship. Cotopaxi has erupted several times since then, with the biggest tragedy occurring in 1877, when the Cotopaxi glacier wiped the nearby city of Latacunga off the map.
Lucio Andrade Marin planted a forest of pine trees in Cotapaxi National Park in 1928 to see if conifers would adapt to high altitudes. Unfortunately, once the acid (sap) from these trees gets into the soil, nothing else will grow there. The trees are regularly harvested for house construction. According to the museum, the Cotapaxi National park is home to Andean gulls, hummingbirds, rabbits, deer, gazelles, paramo wolves, bears, foxes, weasels, wild horses, deer, llamas and several rare species including blue-billed pointed ducks, puma, and Andean condors. We saw none of them, having to make do with pictures or stuffed animals (condor with 8-foot wing span) on display.
We also learned that von Humboldt came up with the theory that the higher the altitude, the shorter (in stature) the vegetation and consequently, the wildlife. It all had to do with evolutionary adaptation and the most efficient use of energy. We learned this lesson in the most practical way—a leisurely hike at this altitude literally took our breath away. Most of us tried to disguise our lack of physical fitness with frequent “photo ops.” Lunch at the Hacienda La Cienega (300 years old) was quite impressive. It was still raining and I would have loved to sit on the covered veranda with a glass of wine and watch the oversized drops make the inner courtyard garden glisten. The restaurant treated us to a fabulous salsa made up of mango, garlic, and onions. The first course was an empanada with tuna, followed by a grilled steak, peas w/bacon and chunks of potato. Dessert was a choice of ice cream or fruit. What was really fun was the entertainment. A quartet (Passion de Cotapaxi) serenaded us with exotic instruments. The leader played a 12-sting instrument about the size of a ukulele which he alternated with pan pipes. The sound was so intriguing that lots of folks (including Michael) opted for their 2 for $15 CD deal. After lunch we wandered back across the courtyard for but another “shopping opportunity.” The owner of the shop wove textiles on his own loom and produced some very beautiful tapestries and rugs. We dined that evening at the Red Hot Chili Peppers (we had to try the place just to be able to send a cocktail napkin to Trevor) with Michael and Herb. Michael and I had a great talk while Jon was catching up on his email. January 5, 2005. Today is a free day in Quito. Most of the group ended up at the Banco Central del Ecuador Museo Nacional. The bottom floor exhibited the history of about 25 different indigenous peoples of Ecuador. It was amazing how differently each tribe evolved with respect to culture, art, religion and language in a country about the size of Nevada. Apparently with mountain ranges and rivers the tribes became geographaphically isolated although they came together each year to trade. Reminded me of the Jean Auel series “Clan of the Cave Bear.” The artifacts were well organized and the plaques, written in Spanish and English, were chock full of information. I especially identified with the people of El Tapito Island. These guys were really in touch with sensuality and had a matter-of-fact attitude about sex and relationships. The precious metals room was particularly informative—the gold, silver, and platinum used to adorn one’s person indicated a change in lifestyle from mere sustenance to enough leisure time and wealth to support Pre-Columbian conspicuous consumerism. At the gift shop, I fell in love with a nativity scene in which Mary is a voluptuous brunette, crowned in silver (Pre-Incan), and reclining in a very earthy way but with a look of awe on her chubby face. Joseph holds a staff, wears a silver crown, and seems very protective. Little baby Jesus is swaddled up to his nose and also wears a silver halo like crown. We waited for Herb to purchase a little bird in a nest-like basket for Chris and then headed up to the Magic Bean (a 60's style hotel with a diverse clientele) where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch of port, veggies (turnips, carrots and broccoli), fries and mango salsa. Herb regaled us with yourthful tales of hitchhiking across Europe and Indonesia. I had no idea that he toured Afghanistan before the Russians or enjoyed a sojourn to India and Nepal. We then changed out of rain-soaked clothes and headed over to the park to check out the handicrafts booths. We found a T-shirt for Trevor--"Picasso’s Guitarist" in size 36 (Kids large) and a muted gold alpaca scarf for Brendan to twine over his mouth and around his neck during the snow season in Haltom City. Also spied some cute sweaters with little llamas on them for Max but decided to wait until we visited Otavalo. Returned to the hotel and opted for a dinner of drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the bar. Herb and Mike stopped by and also Carl, Scott, and Bob to trade stories before embarking on the packing we all needed to do for the ship. Procrastination is a wonderful thing. We had the option to check a bag at the hotel—we used ours to house all the gifts and the dirty clothes. Galapagos, here we come!