Travel is enticing, however, and it took less than 24 hours for the thrill of the road to get us in its grips once again. Our first stop was Quito, Ecuador. We were on our way to a house-sitting assignment for 20 days in Cuenca, a 45-minute plane ride from Quito. Our flight arrived in Quito at ten at night, so we booked a hotel for the night and would head for Cuenca the next day. The Hotel Antinea was adorable, with great architecture and a welcoming feel, that started right in the cozy lobby.
My expectation upon traveling after being home for three weeks was that I wouldn't want to be living in unfamiliar surroundings and getting clothes out of a suitcase each day once again. But those feelings faded away, replaced by the sense of adventure of communicating with people in a different land and also by the sense of unity that we felt as a family. Our ten months on the road from December of 2011 until early October of 2012 had created an unspoken bond that we all felt, even as we were seated apart on the flight from Atlanta to Quito. It's what we'd done for almost a year now, and we really enjoyed it.
One of the more enjoyable parts of the trip was landing house sitting gigs. We got the twenty-day house sitting job in Cuenca through trustedhousesitters.com, the site we used to take care of 5 labradoodle puppies in France back in July. Our quality care of the property and pets there resulted in getting a glowing reference from that homeowner and paved the way for our next job through that website.
When we saw the listing for the house sitting job in Ecuador, we were immediately intrigued. It was from a couple in a condo who needed someone to take care of their two older cats, plus it also featured Direct TV and wireless internet. As much as we like to experience the local culture, it's also a nice perk to be able to have a bit of a taste of home, so the satellite TV and internet helped trigger our applying for the job.
Kathy and Maik, the cat owners and condo people, were originally uneasy about the whole house sitting concept, but Annie exchanged a couple of messages through the website and convinced them to do a video chat session to try to help seal the deal. We chatted for about 15 minutes with them while we were in South Africa, and agreed to head to Cuenca at the start of the South American phase of the trip.
After a comfortable night in Quito, we headed for Cuenca on a Wednesday afternoon. A 45-minute flight landed us in the capital of the Azuay province of Ecuador in the southern highlands of the small nation on the western coast of South America. It's nestled among the sierra of the Andes mountains, with an altitude of about 8200 feet, or roughly three thousand feet higher than Denver.
The condo where we lived with Whiskers and Spirit was part of a multi-family building on the western edge of town. On the ground floor of the complex were some shops, including a hair dresser, fish place, a couple of clothing shops and a mini-market. There was only one woman who worked there the entire duration of our stay, and her name was, predictably enough, Maria. She spoke exactly no English, but we had a great time chatting with her during our nearly daily visits to her shop. It was a fun experience to converse with her in our "gorilla" Spanish and her patient toddler-level Spanish. (Me in Spanish: "Me like eat food. Me like Cuenca and those beer!" Her: Esta Bien!")
One of the more appealing aspects of life in Cuenca is the large ex-pat population. Cuenca is considered one of the top spots for foreigners in all of South America. It's a city of about 500,000 people and the locals are friendly to gringos, plus there is a very well-organized gringo culture that meshes well with the Cuencanos. Annie signed up for a daily email from a service called the Gringo Tree, which contains a handful of notices about activities in the community, along with a classified ad or two, sort of a Craigslist type of thing.
Taxis are very affordable, costing only about $2 to get into the center of town, but most of the time we headed into Cuenca, we chose to walk. With no major hills in the way, the stroll was fairly easy. We made that walk pretty much every day at least one way. Three times a week, we took Spanish lessons at a bookstore in town where the people we are house sitting for took lessons and we slid into their two-hour spot while they were back home in Chicago.
Maria Elena, our instructor, was very patient with us, especially with Ben and Marley. Annie and I had some lingering Spanish knowledge tucked back in the distant recesses of what's left of our brains and some of that actually bubbled back to life. The kids caught on reasonably quickly, and it was fun to put our limited but increasing knowledge of Spanish to use on the streets and in shops and restaurants.
We also put it to use during our second week in Cuenca, during the tres dias de fiestas the city was having as part of it's Independence Day Celebrations. Vendors were selling a wide variety of wares in tents set up in locations all across the city. Annie jumped on the chance to buy some alpaca blankets at a good price but most of the time we just tent-shopped, enjoying being among the crowds who filled the city from all around Ecuador.
One of the highlights of the three days of celebrations was a parade held on the middle day, which we watched from the central square in town, Calderon. The parade participants included a wide variety, with some sporting wild outfits and putting on a brief performance in front of the reviewing stand just to our left.
My favorite was some girls dressed in indigenous outfits who danced their way down the street.
Annie's daily email from the Daily Gringo updated us on the events that were happening in Cuenca, especially those targeted at Gringos such as us. Various restaurants had "gringo" nights during the week, and we checked a few of those out during our stay. One of the first we tried was a bit of a dud, as the food wasn't very good and the prices were high. Plus, at the table next to us, what looked to be a first date was going on. They both looked to be in their 60s, with the woman at the table talking quite loudly, and the man trying to act patient while at the same time having a look on his face like he couldn't wait to get out of there. Then at the end of their evening at the restaurant, he whipped out some dental floss and started digging into his teeth like he was starving and wanted every last morsel of food wedged between his pearly whites. I don't know if he did that to try to make sure that he would never have to sit through a dinner with this woman again or not. Turns out that we ran into him a few other times around town in our three weeks there, and he chatted us up once at lunch and turned out to be a very nice guy. He was a Texan who had just moved to Cuenca a few months before. As we were wrapping up our meal that day, I was tempted to ask him if he had any dental floss that I could use, but I managed to restrain myself.
A more enjoyable Gringo night was our second Friday night there when a cute restaurant where we had breakfast once early in our stay was having a Mexican night. That's one food group that we all enjoy, so we got in a cab and told the driver where we wanted to go and he headed in that direction. As we got to where the restaurant was, I wanted to say something along the lines of "here is fine" which in gorilla Spanish would have been "aqui is bien" but instead I gestured and said "Estoy aqui!", which is "I am here!" I realized my mistake and tried to correct myself, much to the amusement of the driver and my family.
Another popular gringo hangout that appealed to us was at a place called the Inca Lounge. On Sundays, they showed NFL football games. We stopped in there three of the four Sundays we spent in Cuenca, making some new friends and enjoying hearing from people who had decided to take the plunge and move from the U.S. to Ecuador. It was a fun atmosphere, and one of the best things was that we only saw one Steelers fan our entire time there.
One of our inspirations for this trip is Anthony Bourdain and his TV show, No Reservations. He has one of the best gigs in the business as he travels the world, going to locations of his choosing and eating the local food and drinking the local drinks. His show has been an influence on some of the locations we have picked, especially San Sebastian, Spain. In his shows, he frequently has what he calls a local "fixer." That's someone who can guide him to some unique places to go and help him avoid unsavory spots. We had a fixer in Cuenca: Gladys the cleaning lady.
Gladys worked for Kathy and Maik, the Chicagoans we were house-sitting for. She comes in once a week and cleans their condo and does a great job. She also speaks pretty good English, it's certainly better than our Spanish. We got to know her a bit and talked to her some and she offered to take us to some Inca ruins about two hours outside of Cuenca called Ingapirca. She had just gotten a new car and was excited to take us for a drive in it. She even said she knew of some places to get cuy (pronounced coo-ee), the local delicacy better known north of the border as guinea pig. We'd seen Anthony Bourdain eat some cuy in one of his shows and he seemed to enjoy it, so we just had to give it a try.
The first two-thirds of the drive were on a nicely maintained highway, called an Autopista. Gladys was an excellent driver and we enjoyed the smooth ride. Things got a little bumpier once we took the turn-off at the decrepit sign that pointed in the direction of Ingapirca. There were as many potholes as there were turns on this winding road, and Gladys did a fearless job of guiding her new Chevy Sail around the suspension-bending obstacles while somehow not losing any of that new car smell.
Ingapirca is well known among the locals, apparently so well known that the government decided there was no need to put up signs saying, "hey gringo, Ingapirca this away!" Gladys patiently stopped and asked directions from time to time. At least that's what we thought she was asking. She could have been saying, "hey, I've got a carload of gringos, and they must be loaded! They've been traveling the world for almost a year, and you should see all the Apple devices in the condo they're staying in. I think their last names must really be Jobs, can you help me find some people to tie them up?" Okay, maybe she wasn't saying that, or maybe she couldn't find anyone to help carry out her evil plans. Whatever the real story is, we made it safely to the ruins, which are supposedly the best-preserved pre-Spanish Inca ruins in Ecuador.
The ancient walls and pathways at Ingapirca aren't exactly Macchu Picchu, but they were impressive nonetheless. The complex was originally built by the local people called the Canaris, and the Incas came along and did something that rarely happens when two differing groups of people collide: they co-existed peacefully. The Incas adopted some of the Canaris traditions, while the Canaris accepted some of the ideas and customs that the Incas brought with them. What a concept!
After about forty-five minutes or so, we had seen enough ruins and were ready to check out a couple of restaurants open near the entrance that we had spotted on the way in. But before we could get to those, we noticed a small one-story white building with some tables out front and a sign listing some food offerings.
At the top of the list: cuy! Turns out one of the little buggers is enough to feed three people, so we knew that would be just right for Annie, Gladys and me.
The restaurant was run by an indigenous woman who was very friendly, and served up a local cheese that Marley had grown fond of, while frying up a fish that Ben just loved.
As for the guinea pig, Annie liked it, probably more for the experience than the actual taste. Gladys happily took the head of the guinea pig saying that was her favorite part, including the brain.
For me, the effort it took to get what little meat there was off the bones was not quite worth it. It tasted a little gamey to me. I can eat chicken until the cows come home mooing your praises for not eating them. I like big juicy hunks of animal flesh, not little slivers. Still it was a great experience, and a testament to having the services of a local fixer.
The route back to Cuenca happened to go through the home town of Gladys, Canar. She was very proud of her birthplace, and even stopped to show us her adorable grand daughter.
It was a display of grandmotherly love that needed no translation.
Another discovery we made in Ecuador is that Cuenca is actually the birthplace of the Panama hat. The hats, which are hand-woven, gained popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were shipped to other parts of the world through the isthmus of Panama and since that's where they were first purchased they became known as Panama hats. Stores, or tiendas, all across Cuenca sell the hats, but we decided to go directly to the source: The Panama Hat Museum. Inside were tables filled with Panama hats of all shapes and sizes, and they would take special orders for the regular retail price of $25. I actually had to get an XXL for my big American noggin and Marley got an XL in a very pretty purple. We picked them up the next day and had fun wearing them around town, while also enjoying their protective nature from the equatorial sun.
Our Spanish instructor Maria Elena wound up being a great resource for us on life in Ecuador. She was very enthusiastic about showing us and the kids how the locals lived. One Saturday, she took Ben and Marley on a half-day field trip to a couple of small towns outside of Cuenca. Marley bought a beautiful locally made guitar for a fraction of what a similar guitar would cost in the States. Our daughter looked adorable with the guitar strap over her shoulder, like she was ready to hit the streets and do some busking to help us afford to get back home.
On our final Saturday in Cuenca, we got together with Maria Elena and her two children at what had become our favorite restaurant in Ecuador.
Chitople featured some great burritos and tacos and quesadillas, with fresh ingredients and a fun atmosphere. It was great to see Maria Elena with her children, who were very well-behaved, especially considering we took about two hours to eat lunch.
As has been the case with so many of our stops in more than two dozen countries, our best memories of Ecuador will be the people we met along the way.
I came across a quote in the beginning of a book called Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann that sums it up pretty well. It is attributed to Aleksandar Hemon in The Lazarus Project who wrote: "All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is."