Happy Thanksgiving!

Dia de gracias is not celebrated in Ecuador, surprisingly enough. I have not missed home as much as I expected to, but today I do. I miss the damp golden leaves blanketing sidewalks, the crisp November air, pumpkin pie. I miss the family time and games, the smell of the kitchen, and the tasty turkey.

They might not celebrate Thanksgiving in Ecuador, but that doesn’t keep me from being thankful.

I don’t want to downplay any of the things I am thankful for, but they are too many to list. Here are a few:

-I am thankful for the friendliness of strangers. Bonding with someone you just met is under-appreciated, yet so special.

-I am thankful for random acts of genuine kindness. It gives me hope.

-I am thankful for pillows and blankets–it gets cold at 10,000-feet, even on the equator. I do not know what I would do without my wool sheets, although I would be less likely to hit the snooze button.

-I am thankful for my adventurousness. I hope I never lose it.

-I am thankful for adorable dogs. They never fail to cheer me up!

-I am thankful for laughter and smiles.

-I am thankful for challenges. Life is boring without them.

-I am thankful for my family and friends.

-I am thankful for my good health.

Finally, I am thankful that you are reading my blog! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Why I go to the Napo

The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. Such words begin Annie Dillard’s Into the Jungle. In one month I will be attempting sleep aboard a flight to Portland – four weeks ahead of me, four months somehow passed. On Facebook my friends are orchestrating one-month-left posts for mass social media appeal. To me, though, pasting a paragraph for all of my friends to ‘like’ seemed too much like an easy way around a more meaningful reflection.

I have seen spectacular things over a summer and study abroad – sunsets in Africa, leaf-cutter ants in the rainforest, and volcanoes that spill waterfalls from their steaming flanks. It has been a wild stretch full-filling my craziest travel dreams and taking me to the most spectacular places on earth.

Yet, I agree with Dillard. The point of going somewhere like the Napo River is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. People want lists of the best places, vistas, and sights that I have witnessed so far, but my most enriching travel experiences cannot be ranked on a scale of spectacularity.

While idling for a bus under the starry Ecuadorian sky, enjoying a festival in a remote town untainted by other gringos, I begin realizing that simply seeing what is out there is so much more meaningful than chasing what is labeled as “most spectacular”.

For dinner I gnaw on skewers grilled by a curbside vendor and toss the bones toward a gangly pack of stray dogs. I go for my fifth skewer, striking up a conversation with the tiny old woman as she slaps more meat on the sizzling grill. She tells me her elaborate opinions in lilting Spanish. My Spanish flows fast and natural now as I talk with her; my skin has darkly tanned from months of daytime sun, and I realize that I might look like a local. Bobbing headlights appear from the bus trundling into town, but I do not want to leave; I have no need for a destination.

Traveling is about spontaneous moments. Traveling is about starting a competition with someone you just met. Traveling is about striking-up a conversation with an Ecuadorian riding the bus, grilling street food, or sitting around a campfire in the woods. Traveling is about embracing being the only gringo in an out-of-the-way village. It’s about reaching a town called Tena late into the night and conking-out before changing your clothes soaked through from the nighttime humidity of the Amazon rainforest, and awaking the next day excited just to see what is there.

Tena abuts the Napo River on the rim of the Amazon basin, where the Andes tower in the west. Spines of jutting ridges rear into sagging clouds, begging to shed their lush jungle shawls. Green mountainsides spill rivers that crash down like cymbals. Massive trees line the river banks – giants with with spreading crowns dropping vines just how rivulets pour from an umbrella. Flocks of parrots wheel overhead shrieking noisily before fading over distant forested hills.

Here we slide into the gentle current in a yellow raft, prepared for my first whitewater run – an adventure that will take us thundering through mighty rapids of the Rio Napo headwaters. We practice our technique on tranquil water until we can discern a distant hissing of rapids.

The river turns suddenly meaner. I am sitting at the bow, and minutes after aligning with the calm current, waves start crashing around me, swamping the boat and sucking heat from my core. We paddle for our lives. Calm riffles morph into looming walls of thrashing whitewater, thrusting the flimsy raft into car-sized holes before slamming us up and over the other side. In the wildest pounding rapids the boat is swallowed and I surface gasping for breath after the merciless river tosses me like a child’s toy into the roaring torrent.

Wheezing, I haul myself like a survivor back aboard the raft. We have a minute to regroup, preparing for battle, before the throttling river drops again from beneath us. I am strengthened by adrenaline, deafened by the roaring that engulfs me; and blinded by cold water blasting my face. My heart torques as we freefall down into the next gaping cavern bullied by thrashing towers of whitewater.

On the other side the rapids exhaust themselves and the river tames into threaded channels lapping at muddy shores and draining, suddenly lethargic, toward the Amazon. My body still pounds with adrenaline, but the scenery becomes tranquil as warm clouds sweep in from the humid lowlands ahead.

We float straight into the ripe scent of rain. The air is overpowered by the sweet, pungent smell rising around us. My shivering skin starts to sizzle from hot fat rain drops that begin plopping from the sky. Suddenly it is pouring. Warm rain falls in sheets, splattering the muddy river and steaming the landscape. Water runs in furrows through my eyebrows, dripping into my eyes and clinging to my face. Everything is hot and humid, and quiet except for the soft pattering of rain on the water’s surface. Drops splash, steam is rising, and the streaks of rain pelt from the sky, as the hot downpour runs down my face.

Suddenly the rain stops. The smell evaporates into the clearing air. A chill quivers through me again. On either side of our yellow raft stretches the vibrant Amazon wilderness. The swelling brown river swirls us along the shore where bright green trees spill-over the banks as if trying to escape the strangle of thick vines. Colorful birds flock in treetops, bouncing on limbs and squealing happily from their perches.

For a brief evening moment the sky clears. Parrots fly noisily overhead again, winging towards their nighttime roosts.  Upstream behind us, the sun begins burning-up over the distant toothy Andes. We let the muddy steaming river pull us down-current. Our tempo matches the lento sink of the sun. Shadow falls over the jungle, and as we are hauling to shore over smooth riverside cobbles, the flaming sunset sky is extinguished.

The next day begins as the last one had, an exciting blur of experiences and emotions. We rise with the sun, again excited just to see what is out there, excited to be traveling and on the road where everything seems to have meaning.

I cannot pinpoint why I love traveling. Some might suggest that it’s the breathtaking sunsets, the adrenaline from a roaring rapids, or the spectacular sights you will see.

I suspect that something else is at play. The best moments while traveling cannot be ranked, or compared. These moments comprise a synergistic entity that hits all of your senses full force like the strong onslaught of a hot downpour in the Amazon.  As Dillard writes, We are only here on this earth once. We might as well open our eyes and see what is out there. Spectacular or not, there is something remarkable about conversing with strangers in another language; the blast of exoticness as you step down from a bus; or the wind on your face as you embark into the unknown.

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Ten Reasons Why Ecuador Sometimes Annoys me

Just because you love something doesn’t mean it doesn’t occasionally get on your nerves. Imagine a brother, mother, or significant other–you might love them, but some of their antics just drive you up the wall.

I suppose my brother and mother fit the bill, but right now I’m referring to Ecuador. Yep. Sometimes it gets on my nerves.

Over a month ago I wrote a list of 10 Reasons Why Ecuador is The Perfect Study Abroad.ttp://christopherabroad.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/ten-10-reasons-why-ecuador-is-the-perfect-study-abroad/

I stand by that opinion–this life-changing trip is the perfect study abroad–but some things drive me nuts.

1. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalk during rush hour.

2. No toilet paper in the rest rooms

3. Having to pay 10 cents for the rest room and then finding out that there is no toilet paper.

4. Pollution.

5. Everything being so inconvenient. Nonetheless, I have learned to be patient and enjoy the adventure in everything.

6. The bus chófer collecting money at the most winding stretch of the whole ride.

7. Ecua-time… things go slower and more deliberately here–but it’s also a lot less stressful!

8. It costs $1.74 but you have $1.73

9. When the line for the ecovia bus is ten times longer than at Ben and Jerry’s on free cone day. (How many more poeple can fit on the bus? 10 more!)

10. Gringoism. Not sure if that’s a real word or not, but I shouldn’t be charged a boatload extra just because I’m a gringo! I’m not necessarily morally opposed to hiking the price for foreigners–the taxi drivers need the money–but there should at least be an exemption clause for students. On the plus side, I have mastered the art of regateando (bargaining) and have on occasion sold myself as an Ecuadorian to avoid that Gringo Price.

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A Week in Paradise: Galapagos

Thanks for visiting, even though I haven’t posted in a while. I skyped my parents Monday, but everyone else may be assuming that I died in a brawl with a rabid sea lion, faced death on a jungle mountainside, or got kidnapped by an insane taxi driver in the middle of the night. Some of which have an element of truth, but I’m still alive.

I ran into a random guy at Tortuga Bay on Tuesday a week-and-a-half ago. He wasn’t actually random, but he was sitting in the shade, wearing a park ranger uniform, so I didn’t recognize him.

Tortuga Bay is the nicest place in the Galapagos. The fine white beach feels like sugar between your toes, and gently lapping waves wash-over tracks left by the iguanas and tortoises, leaving a pristine expanse of soft warm sand. The random guy was sitting beneath some mangrove trees that overlooked the beach. He recognized us. “Hoy dia jugamos”, he told us. “A las siete.”

It clicked. Seven o’clock! I was down.

We showed up and he wasn’t there. I wasn’t surprised–something else must have come up. Plans like these are very much flexible and tentative in Ecuador. There were other guys to play with, so we started a game anyway. I never expected to play basketball in the Galapagos, much less a game more fun than I have ever played before. When I think of the Galapagos, I picture tortoises, sharks, exotic birds. Not basketball. Expectations aside, I have learned from my travels that some bonds are universal, and competition is among the strongest. As I write, I think of the Kenyan kids I would play futbol with every evening in Lela until the big red sun sun sank below the horizon. I think of the game I played in Canoa until my feet blistered. I remember kicking a ball around the town square at midnight in Mindo with some little kids we had just met. Or playing Ecua Volley with other students from around the world during lunch at school. I recall the victorious shouts–“gooooooooal”–and the blast of deflation after missed shots. The fist bumps, high fives, and grins that refuse to abide by cultural barriers.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. You are reading this now and thinking, I was imagining a natural paradise. I was thinking the same thing when I arrived on the sweltering islands, and as we stared at the scenery–noses pressed to the window–on our ride to town. Natural paradise on my mind as I headed for bed, but I glanced out the window and under the streetlights I saw some kids playing basketball. I couldn’t resist.

At first it must have seemed odd to them–a gringo asking to play–but after the first shot swished through the hoop, all differences were aside. The celebratory fist bumps, despair of defeat, and the exhaustion could not discriminate a gringo from an ecuadorian.

Do not worry if you heard of The Galapagos and dreamed of something other than basketball. Tourism industries are always selling stereotypes and exaggerations. The Wallowa Mountains of Oregon become The Alps of America. A temple atop a hill become The Machu Picchu of Ecuador. The list goes on, but The Galapagos is not on it. What you imagined is entirely true–the rare case when reality is better than anything you could make up. Over the next week we snorkeled with penguins and colorful fish. We walked on white sand beaches and befriended archaic two-hundred-year-old tortoises. The Galapagos really are a natural paradise.

Our first excursion was a two-hour ride aboard a Yacht, La Española. We basked in the warm sun, watching legions of albatrosses and tropicbirds sail past, dancing over the sparkling azure seas. At Isla Barolome we climbed a small volcano to see the most gorgeous view in the archipelago. Then we snorkeled with sea turtles and played with sea lions, among schools of colorful fish in the warm shallows of a bay.

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The next day we trekked to Tortuga Bay–the prettiest beach in Ecuador. We swam around a lagoon with friendly sharks, sea turtles and Blue-footed Boobies. Colorful Iguanas basked on rocks while Darwin’s finches fluttered down to the lower branches of a mangrove tree to check me out and land on my head. There was something transfixing about watching the waves crash on the rocks, and wash upon the shore.

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Day three involved our only disappointment of the trip, a  terrible boat ride to Isla Isabella aboard a stuffy boat. Infamous now, to us at least, “The Gaby” might be the most hated boat in all of Ecuador. Most of us survived without throwing up, but the scariest part came two days later when Gaby herself appeared demanding to know why we had chartered a different boat the next day. “Don’t you like the Gaby? What’s wrong with my boat, caballeros?!?”

Isla Isabella itself, however, is another paradise:

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We camped in the woods for a relaxing night. After others went to bed, I stayed up around the campfire talking with an Ecuadorian.

We left the camp behind in the morning, headed to the Sierra Negra Highlands for some hiking around a giant caldera. It is the world’s second largest active crater; areas are still steaming. Our hike took us through mist-laden cloud-forests, lava fields, and lush hillsides.

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After returning to Isla Santa Cruz, we tour Isla Floreana for a day. Thank goodness the boat was better than The Gaby. Here we learned about mutinous pirates, endemic birds, and volcanic eruptions that do, or once did, grace the island.

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We made the most of our last day. The night before had been a late one. After dinner of fresh seafood (fish, lobster, shrimp, and fish sums up the Galapagueño diet), we headed to the muelle–the public pier–to watch nocturnal sea creatures. Pier lights cast bright florescence into the clear water, illuminating bizarre nocturnal creatures. For an hour we watched. Schools of minnows darted back and forth in amazing synchronicity, parting for giant fish and scattering before a white-tipped shark slunk through. Out of the darkness a giant shadow appeared, flapping slowly. The creature was black, spotted above, with wings spreading ten feet across like a spaceship. It was a massive ray, out of the past, floating by and back into the darkness.

Our last morning started at the dock again, and it seemed like another world yet equally mesmerizing. We watched the sun rise.

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Our last morning was one to remember. We ran out to Tortuga Bay at first light, for a final swim off the beach and to watch the ancient tortoises for the last time.

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The Galapagos are known for provoking great revelations: By the powerful Incas who were said to have visited. By the legendary Charles Darwin aboard the SS Beagle. By scientists, journalists, and writers who come for inspiration.

I had my own revelations. Pondering two-hundred-year-old tortoises. Observing animals. And playing basketball under the streetlights.

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Amazon Wilderness: Tiputini and Yasuni

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There are some things everyone knows about the Amazon. It is called a rainforest for a reason. There are billions of mosquitos, millions of scorpions, and countless tarantulas. Heat and humidity will drench you in sweat every hour of the day. And getting lost is a bad idea.

In anticipation of the exotic birds, animals and plants to be seen, I forgot about all that and instead spent Thursday afternoon–the day before leaving–daydreaming about pygmy monkeys, parrots, and giant river otters.

Naturally we ended up getting lost. At 4:00 AM no less, in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by all those aforementioned terrors–humidity, heat, and millions of bugs.

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Exactly a day prior at 4 AM we had woken up in Quito, at 10,000 feet in the Andes, where you can gaze out the window at snow-capped peaks. In Ecuador, one day is enough to teleport you from the comfort of a house in a modern city to an unfamiliar trail in the middle of the amazon jungle.

All around us hummed the night sounds of a rainforest. A Tawny-bellied Screech-owls whistled softly, while a bizarre Great Potoo screeched from somewhere in the distance. Insects chirped and clicked incessantly. I walked quickly, rivulets of sweat rolling down my back, headed towards our destination. Pausing to catch my breath, I took a moment to ponder the phenomenal place I was fortunate enough to experience.

Finally we made it. I’d only thought I was lost.

Three-hundred narrow oversize steps and we reached the platform, immediately encountering more tarantulas and a shred of orange on the horizon. Slowly, the sun rose.

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I’d say it was worth it.

We saw a lot during our three days in the jungle. We learned that there’s a plant that turns your tongue blue if you chew it.

We also learned about all sorts of trees:

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And about all sorts of animals, like the giant river otters or strange pre-historic-looking Hoatzins:

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It turns out that everything I had daydreamed really did exist. Our trip was filled with Paradise Tanagers, finger-sized pygmy monkeys, butterflies, and hundreds of other exotic species.

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On the last afternoon, after trekking through the rainforest of Yasuni National Park to see pygmy monkeys, we swam in the river. The water was warm, and though the thunder cracking around us unnerved me just a little, it was the perfect afternoon.

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Photo essay of last weekend: Cuenca and Guayaquil

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 Friday, October 3rd:

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Ingapirca, the best Inca ruins of Ecuador. The tourism business likes calling it the “Machu Picchu of Ecuador” but that seems pretty far-fetched.

Saturday, October 4th

Hiking in Cajas National Park.

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Endemic Violet-throated Metaltail, found no where else in the world but the mountains around Cajas National Park.

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Sunday, October 5th: from the 14,000-ft tundra, thorugh rainforest, to the coast

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Monday, October 6th: Guayaquil (largest city in Ecuador):

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Nine Reasons Why Ecuador is the Perfect Study Abroad

I was eating a burrito on campus last winter when my twin Adrian showed up, and next thing I knew he had convinced me to study abroad. I studied abroad here by accident. I put effort into making it happen, but before deciding on a whim to go, while under the influence of a burrito, I had never even considered studying abroad in Ecuador.

Ecuador is a small country–the size of Oregon in territory, with a population representing one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population. Its prominence in the news, class room, or everyday conversation might be even less significant. You hear about Ecuador every now and then–after they win a game in the world cup, or pull a controversial political stint–but we hear a lot more about Haiti, Syria or Costa Rica all of which have comparable populations.

My parents visited Ecuador 25 years ago. They traveled the country for six weeks, summitting snowy volcanoes, canoeing through the heart of the rainforest, and hiking on the beach. Nonetheless, even they never mention Ecuador, which seems odd, because their other travel stories come up often: The Chinese guy who held their passport upside down while pretending that he could read it; various near-death mountaineering trips that they would kill me for doing; trekking New Zealand and Nepal… the list goes on.

It is as if Ecuador doesn’t exist. Many of us know the capitals of Costa Rica, Haiti, or Syria. But Ecuador? I’ll admit that I didn’t know its capital, either, until I decided to study there for a semester.

Considering all of this, I can’t blame my college friends who are studying abroad elsewhere right now for not coming here instead. That said, they are missing out. Ecuador is the little-known perfect place to study abroad. Here’s why:

#1 The language. Speaking in another language is an amazing experience. There is nothing like dreaming in Spanish, effortlessly speaking the local slang, or comprehending without trouble.

A fascinating aspect is the influence of Quechua–the Inca language–which is infused in Ecuadorian Spanish, to the dismay of Google Translate. After accounting for abbreviations and slang, you end up with crazy stuff if you attempt to “see translation” on Facebook.

#2: The culture: It is humbling, interesting, and educational to learn another culture, its customs, norms, and traditions. Staying with a host family has offered me a window into another world. The culture is rich here in the Andes of South America.

#3: The food. Even I like complaining about “all the rice”–and don’t get me wrong, I am still looking for a good plate of spaghetti–but I will admit that the food is actually scrumptious. Even guinea pig. The street food is remarkable; there is nothing like a skewer, empanada, or fresh coconut from a curbside vendor. And when your host mom makes hot soup and spicy chicken pasta for lunch with chocolate walnut mousse topped in whipped cream for desert, you can only justify so much complaining.

#4 My versatile experience in Euro-travel amounts to the six-and-a-half hours I once spent in Brussels. I had a long layover and simply could not pass on the chance to check another continent off the bucket list. Joking aside, I spent long enough to verify that a week in Ecuador would not pay for a night in Europe. It’s cheap. A hostel costs seven dollars and a bus ride costs twenty-five cents. You can do anything in a weekend for under a hundred dollars.

#5: The easy bus system. Ten bucks and an overnight trip can get you to any city in Ecuador–a quaint beach town, a historic mountain city, or a village in the amazon. The buses are clean, efficient, and cheap.

#6: Outdoor Paradise. Ecuador is like the example maps in geography books. You can watch a snow-capped volcano spew lava at night; you can wander a pristine tropical beach, swim with river dolphins in the rainforest, or marvel at tortoises on the Galapagos Islands. I cannot imagine a better paradise.

#7 The people are friendly. I have conversations with taxi drivers; the guy sitting next to me reminds me to get off when I arrive at my bus stop, and people are genuinely happy to meet and greet you. You can start a pick-up basketball or soccer game anywhere–even in the Galapagos.

#8: It’s relaxed. Sometimes too relaxed. But it can be nice too, avoiding the stress of high-strung life in the states.

#9: Recreation. This is something else I didn’t consider before coming, but between surfing, soccer, ecua-volley (volleyball sort of), rafting, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, hiking, “canyoning”, mountain biking, canoeing, sightseeing… there is nothing you cannot do.

Of course, this is just for me. Sunsets over beach towns, friendly people, good food and life-changing adventures aren’t for everyone.

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