Wanderings Across Ocean and Land

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post, and despite a chilled travelling pace, seeing as I am on my own and can wander as I please, I am now looking back and considering how much I have to update and share.

We’ll begin with me finally deciding to move on from my homestay family in Montañita. Mid-afternoon, after a quick goodbye prayer, Julio grabbed my large backpack, Melinda hurled rapid Spanish at David and Lucas, the two youngest of the children, who then meekly followed, and the group of us trudged up the street to the main road. They stood with me by the dusty roadside until my bus came, then I climbed aboard and rumbled off.

A WHALE of a Time (oh the wit)

I moved only one hour up the coast, to Puerto Lopez, the small fishing village which acts as the starting point for all whalewatching tours, which I had therefore briefly visited a couple of weeks earlier. Really, it is simply a few layers of rickety houses and cheap and colourful cafes and hostels edged onto a long wide curve of sandy beach, with blue fishing boats bobbing about in the bay, so one day of wandering and lazing about was sufficient to relax into the place. At one end of the beach a pier jutted out, and it was from here that I took the boat to Isla de la Plata, or Silver Island.

It is not strictly known for certain, but cloudy days seem to have some correlation with more activity amongst the humpback population. For whatever reason, during the couple of hours it took to cross the 40km to the island, we crossed over with two pods of very active whales, jumping magnificently out of the water and splashing their fins, time and time again. In the first group, a much smaller baby swam alongside, attempting, with commendable effort, to jump just like the adults. It is difficult to describe the experience of seeing the whales so close. I could see incredible detail: barnacles stuck to their throat or tails creating a hard, knobbly look; the patterning of black and white on their skin; even their small eyes amid wrinkly folds.

We reached Silver Island, and waded the last few metres ashore, shoes held aloft. It is dry season at the moment, so the vegetation covering the craggy lump of an island was fairly dry and sparse looking. We spent a couple of hours following a path which looped along high above the shoreline, allowing us close encounters with both blue-footed boobys and frigatebirds. Male frigatebirds have a red membrane for a throat, which they swell up to enormous sizes as a means of impressing the female frigate birds, who for the most part, from what we observed, sat there fairly unimpressed. But it must work a treat, because the colony was large and spread across many tree tops were nesting females and fluffy white chicks. We spent a while goggling at one particular male who seemed to have swollen his throat beyond control and was trying to work out how to handle the huge balloon around his neck without losing face, then we looped back to the shoreline and climbed aboard our small boat.

We stopped briefly slightly further along the island’s coast, to gawp at large marine turtles, and then have a short snorkel amid the colourful shoals of fish in the fairly chilly water, then we sped back towards the mainland.

The Way to the Heart

I continued my journey by heading north, connecting various local buses to reach the small port city of Bahía de Caráquez, which is built on the bulge of a peninsula jutting into the mouth of a wide, blue river at the point where it meets the Pacific Ocean. The weather there was beautifully sunny and clear, with a light, lazy, almost Mediterranean feel to the place; a small sandy beach curved around the clean white high rises and wide pavements, elderly men cycled around slightly faded and peeling rickshaw taxis, and yachts bobbed around in the river. A short way upstream, a lengthy, grey snake of a bridge spanned the width of the river, joining the city to those further north.

I spent a couple of days simply being lazy, wandering the pavements and beach along the water’s edge. Then I crossed the river with a water taxi and took an actual car taxi a short way upstream. I came to a small collection of thatched-roof buildings, a community of fishermen and their families who have started up an eco-initiative, running half-day tours to Isla Corazón, or Heart Island.

This island, which sits in the estuary of the river, is created exclusively of mangroves and is, indeed, beautifully heart-shaped. Seeing as I was on my own, I got a private tour. A small motor boat took David, my guide, and I across the water to the island’s edge, where we clambered aboard a small white canoe we had been dragging. David then rowed me through a natural, one-kilometre-long tunnel, made by the curving mangrove branches, which bisects the island and can only be travelled at high tide when the water is high enough to flow through and create a channel. He taught me about mangrove trees, which can only grow in conditions where salty and ‘sweet’ water meet, hence why estuaries are perfect, and pointed out the four types which make up the island: Black, White, Red and what translates as ‘Shell’ mangroves. I thought the trees were beautiful, especially the Red Mangrove, which has a spindly, tangle of roots to hold it suspended over the water, in which bright red crabs live.

We emerged from the other side of the island and slowly rowed along the section which creates the two bumps at the top of a heart shape, alongside a frigatebird colony which put Silver Island to shame. Hundreds upon hundreds of frigatebirds circled in the sky above us, with even more sat in the tops of mangrove trees, which were coloured white with guano. Groups of males, or rather, collections of red balloons with a few bird parts attached, created a cacophony of clicking sounds, another of their tactics to attract females.

The motor boat picked us up, and we circled the island, until we were close to the point of the heart, as such, where we disembarked and wandered around a boardwalk through the mangroves. David told me a bit about how the initiative came about and what they strived to do to protect the reserve, as we watched red crabs scuttling around the roots and into their holes in the mud and saw a number of large termite nests, or ‘palaces’ as David called them, constructed so that they sat in the mangrove branches.

The motor-boat took us the short distance back to the mainland, helpfully dragging a small fishing boat partway, which allowed me a gawp at the layer of shrimp and other marine life drifting around the bottom of the boat which made up the day’s catch. A taxi drove me across the long grey bridge spanning the entire river and back to Bahía.

In my Capacity as Galapagos Scout and Advisor

In the evening I caught an overnight bus to Quito, which helpfully arrived in the city early, at the brisk hour of 5am. I sat in the huge, shiny, glassy, airport-like terminal for two hours, huddled in all my layers, alpaca wool and otherwise,  to guard against the chill the return to altitude brought with it. When it was light, I haggled with five taxi drivers and eventually found a man who offered me the real price straight up, who then drove me through the city to my hostel. My first impression of Quito was of a vast and tightly packed city, spread haphazardly in every nook and cranny created by the folds at the foothills of the mountains surrounding the city. It was chilly, but beautifully sunny, somewhat like England when winter has dragged on and suddenly, one day, you realise that spring has flooded in.

My several days in Quito contained an unusual assortment of activities and sights. Due to the fact that my family are shortly visiting, and will be arriving in Quito, I avoided all the obvious tourist attractions, and began by acting as a Galapagos scout and advisor for them. This required hours of research online, until my eyes were square and my brain buzzing, and I had compiled a list of the top travel agencies for Galapagos cruises. Of the fourteen I picked, only eleven seemed to have actual addresses with an office in Quito, and of these eleven, only five existed exactly where they said they did, and even then it was difficult work finding them due to the ridiculous numbering system that the city has. I spent on a long day trawling two specific areas of the city to try and find as many of these agencies as possible, and gather information. The stiff hip I got from all the walking (yes, that’s right, old before my time) was worth it just for the fact that I got to know the new town area of the city quite well, including a couple of small but beautiful parks and its public transport system. It was while I was riding on of the buses that two young boys got on with a small box of sweets and began singing. The elder one couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and his little brother was four at a push. However, when the little boy spotted me and my smile, he cracked such a beautifully radiant smile in return that I couldn’t help stretching mine to a grin. Once their hearty, if somewhat discordant, song was over, he headed straight over to me, peered up into my face and asked ‘¿Se llama gringo?Are you called gringo? which I confirmed, right away, to be true.

I briefly met up with Carolin, my Swiss friend who shared my homestay family in Montañita, for a breakfast in the city and a wander around a touristy area of the new town.

One evening, I went along on a food tour organised by my hostel. There wasn’t much on offer for vegetarians, but it allowed for an interesting walk around the old town at night, from beautifully lit up plazas to tiny food places, where chicken wings turned on spikes and women ladled out soup made from the womb of cows.

A landmark moment occurred on my last day in Quito: five and a half months into my journey I had my very first moment of homesickness. I skyped my mum for her birthday, and was placed on a spinning cheese wheel in the centre of the table, so that I could talk to various cousins, my aunt, grandma, parents and sister. I joined in with the rendition of Happy Birthday, and pretended to help blow out the candles on the cake from my position in the hostel common room several thousand miles away, and watched the opening of the cards and presents. I felt a touch deflated for a couple of minutes, until my mum cheerily told me I’d been privy to the best part of the day and to carry on enjoying myself.

So in this spirit, I caught a bus and then climbed for about half an hour past quite posh houses and high rises, asking for directions all the while, because of course my destination was not actually where its address led me to believe. I was rewarded for my efforts with a stunning view across the city and its colourful buildings packed tightly into the folds of the mountain, spreading so far that it was hazy at its furthest points. The panoramic was not my aim however; I had come in search of the Museo Fundación Guayasamín, a foundation in honour of the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. I toured his beautiful house, with its sumptuous single bedroom, huge glassy bathroom complete with cactus garden, library with walls adorned with native masks from across South America, and large painting studio. Next to his house was the large, grey Capilla del Hombre, or Chapel of Man. It was a lofty building, with a large dome and small flickering flame in the every centre, but it is not a religious chapel; it is dedicated to humanity, with unbelievably huge canvases of his work stretched across the walls depicting various agonies and aspects of the human experience.


Come the weekend and I was off on another overnight bus, headed back towards the coast. My eight hour journey was spread over seventeen hours due to stopovers and bus changes, but eventually I was back in the seaside village of Puerto Lopez. I met Cristina, the director of the Ecuadorian branch of the Pacific Whale Foundation, who drove me to my new home for the next few weeks. In a compound an unusual looking building sat, three storeys high with a round brick tower on either side. I have an apartment room to myself: kitchen area at one end, bed and chest-of-drawers at the other, plastic garden table in between. It’s nice to have my own space, though it comes with its own quirks; the wooden floor is dirty so I’ve arranged a stepping stone system of plastic bags from my bed to the bathroom so I don’t bring brown feet into my bed whenever I need the toilet in the night. My bathroom is to one side and circular, as it is in one of the tower sections. I was also amused the first evening when I realised that every single one of the eight windows has been covered in a mirror film, so that when my light is on and its dark outside, I cannot see a single thing through the glass but, helpfully, I am lit up for any passers-by who want a peer.

I began my volunteer fieldwork with the humpback whales on Monday. However, you need a bit of suspense, so that story will be left for next time and, for now, that’s all folks!

Growing a Spanish Brain

Not a long update this time, seeing as since the last update my main activity has been getting two further weeks of private Spanish lessons under my belt. It has been quite an overload of information, but incredibly useful and I am hoping to start weaving it into my Spanish over the next few months.

Besides lessons each day, there have been more yoga sessions on the roof, more partying with fellow students, and several hang out sessions with my Ecuadorian family, including a geography lesson based on looking through the stamps in my passport and then finding the corresponding countries on a miniature globe they have, and an art session, where the kids riffled through my pencil case then sat around drawing pictures with my watercolour pencils.


Humpback Flirtations

I made use of the time off at the weekend to go whale watching. A small boat carried twenty or so of us bobbing through the pacific waves away from the shore. Seeing as it is mating season, we didn’t have to search for long, or be very far from shore, before encountering a group of humpback whales frolicking in the water. They sprayed water through their blowholes, and curved out of the water so that first we saw lumpy heads, then large fins, followed by the long length of the body, until the tail waved a goodbye and slid under the surface. Over a couple of hours we saw thirteen different whales, sometimes only a few metres from the boat, as well as a more at a distance, jumping out of the water. As we headed back to shore, we passed a cliff face and a group of blue-footed boobys clinging to it with such brightly coloured feet that, on approach, I absurdly thought they had all been tagged for some reason.

When I returned to Montañita in the afternoon, I wandered between the various jewellery stalls lining the streets, chatted to the hippies making the items, and got a colourful braid twisted into my own hair. I came to the beach, and something seemed to be going on: there was a cluster of people at the water’s edge, and another small crowd close to me at the entrance to one of the streets. I then realised there was a body lying on a stretcher. There was a lot of confusion, but over the next few days, events became clear. The beach attracts hundreds of Ecuadorian tourists every weekend. The current had suddenly picked up several people, and a boat nearby had managed to save a few of the swimmers who were swept away, but three people died. There was outcry in the aftermath, as the municipality have stopped funding lifeguards recently, but following this terrible accident an agreement was reached; the next week I noticed life guards had returned to their watch towers on the beach.

On Sunday, a new student was welcomed into my Montañita family: Carolin from Switzerland. We spent the day walking around the town so that I could show her around the place.


The Next Move

My third, and final, week of lessons passed by as quickly as those before. We were graced with a couple of days of sunshine, (seeing as we are now in the depths of winter, it’s cloudy and drizzly most of the time), which meant chilling out on the beach in between classes. Come Friday, Carolin and I were invited for an evening meal with the parents of our Montañita father, Julio. After the meal we were shown around the large flat with its various family photographs, and had a laugh setting up a self-timer photo of the lot of us.

The weekend was focussed around a couple of crazy nights out, padded out in between with lie ins, and wandering on the beach.

Now that my time at the Spanish School is up, I am chilling out for a couple of days to work out what to do next and where I want to travel to, gearing myself up to say goodbye to my family here.

An Ecuadorian Birthday

The Slides of Saint Basil

As my first experience of Ecuador, the city of Loja proved to be pretty and interesting. It is fairly small, so over a couple of days I wandered a lot of the central area and sights. I visited the cathedral, which looked onto a small, leafy square, the main plaza of the city. Nearby, the city gate, which looks like a miniature version of the castle in the Disney logo, contained a small art gallery and had a tower which I climbed for a view across the city and its hilly outer edges. I also wandered around Parque Jipiro, a slightly surreal experience with its spattering of colourful buildings amid the playareas. A mock Chinese pagoda sat on the edge of a small lake, and ice cream was served inside. A building with the turrets and bright colours of a fairytale castle functioned as an information point. A copy of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow had a modification which I think the original should consider adding: slides swooping around its outer edges.

During my few days in Loja, I didn’t see a singly other gringo, maybe due to the season, or maybe the city is too far south for most tourists to consider a worthwhile visit. This meant I had the place, with its juice bars, small cafes and varied vegetarian options, all to myself to discover.


My New, Blue Home

After a few days, I moved on across the country to the coast, and the small seaside town of Montañita. It is famous for its surf and rasta/hippy influence, with a lot of gringoes and South American tourists settling for months on end, selling jewellery up at stalls lining the edge of the sand streets or touring the restaurants in the evening to busk.

I spent a couple of days relaxing, watching the quarter finals, and wandering the beach and town. I then moved in with a local family, the Clemente-Rosales, a homestay linked to the Montañita Spanish School. They live four small blocks away from the centre, far enough that the booming music and crowds that the weekend partying attract are not a disturbance. The shift in environment is noticeable, with children playing on the street, a cockerel which insists on crowing in the early hours of the morning, and much more basic, but typical, houses; the Clemente-Rosales’ has a tin roof which the concrete walls don’t reach, so all noises within the house, as well as those adjacent, are shared. However, the house is lovely with bright blue and turquoise walls, and I have my own, large room with a double bed. My new mama and papa, Melinda and Julio, have six children, five sons and one daughter, who range from 8-24 years in age, and provide both entertainment and ample extra Spanish practice. Until this weekend, Erik, a Swedish student, was also staying in the same family, and proved to be a great introduction to the town. He was also studying at the Spanish school which, last Monday, I began studying at.


Working On My Spanish Brain

Seeing as it has been more than a year since I finished my degree, the concentration required for three or four hours of studying a day has been pretty tiring. However, the teachers at the Montañita Spanish School are absolutely excellent, and by filing in the holes in my grammatical knowledge and chatting for several hours each day, the speaking skills which I have developed over the last four months are improving quickly and with more precision.

Between and after classes there is plenty of time for hanging out with the students, and the school organises enjoyable extra activities. The week began with a welcome meal, on Monday evening, for the new students, followed by a visit to cocktail alley, which is lined with stalls owed and run by locals who mix up all sorts of concoctions with fresh fruit and various alcohols. By Wednesday, we had progressed to a full blown Montañita night out, which kicked off with predrinks at the accommodation where most students stay, where Erik and I shared a bottle of something simply, and somewhat suspiciously, labelled ‘Latin Spirit’, bought at a small corner shop. By Saturday, my birthday, new group of friends and the weekend spirit here made for a great night out.

Mi Cumpleaños

My birthday began with my present to myself. With a couple of new American friends from the school, Caroline and Katie, I set off early Saturday morning in a small boat headed for El Pelado, a small island so named ‘The Bald’ because it is simply a very large rock on which many pelicans roost. We anchored nearby, and after the usual faffing which scuba diving entails, to simply mimic what fish manage so easily, I was in the water and diving for my first time in South America. There wasn’t much coral but the fascinating marine life more than made up for this, with large vivid green or blue starfish, urchins with spins as long as my forearms and bright blue or purple centres, deflated mottled brown-and-white puffer fish and swordfish more than a metre long, flashing silver. On my second dive we saw an octopus and the rare treat of a tiny, brown seahorse. We swam slightly further from the rocks this time and into huge shoals of tiny fish which sprung away at the slightest wave of my hand.

Shortly after lunch we were cutting our way through the waves and back to the shore and towards my Ecuadorian family for my birthday dinner. My new mama made a vegetarian lasagne, and shortly afterwards a beautiful cake was revealed, which had been especially ordered and decorated with my name in swirly writing. The family sang me a long song, starting with a birthday song from their church, moving into the Spanish version of ‘Happy Birthday’ and ending with the English, all the while accompanied by a clapping rhythm. Unsurprisingly, I was incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness and the effort they made.

The day improved further when I headed into town and met a group of friends from the Spanish School. After a long hang out in cocktail alley, playing drinking games at our favourite stand, we headed to a local club with zero other gringoes and therefore full of locals who showed up our samba and salsa dancing and our stiff hips.

The end of the long night was finished with a quick wander through a local wedding party happening in the street outside my house, which continued until 10am the next morning, ending just in time to allow me a short nap before the World Cup final.

The atmosphere in town for the game was amazing, and even though there was a large Argentina following, there was enough of a German contingent to make for a cheerful atmosphere with the final result.

And this brings me to the start of a new week, and a shift in my timetable so that I have early morning lessons. However, my afternoon classes now take place on the roof with a view across the town and sea, and yesterday I saw a humpback whale leaping out of the water several times. Small details like this remind me I am living the dream. I have added a yoga session every evening to my daily routine, and tonight we begin the cycle again with another welcome meal for the new students.

The view from my afternoon classroom on the roof