I gaze steadily out the small oval window of seat 22F as our plane takes off from the Quito airport runway and begins its steady climb to 35,000 feet. Looking down on the patchwork of green space, clusters of houses, and undulating hills, I think back over our time in Ecuador. Down below us I now know lies a country filled with beauty: the kindest people I’ve ever met in my travels, cultural points of interest, natural resources, chaos and noise, and a vast array of animals, plants, flowers, trees, and landscapes. All of this is packaged in a country about the size of Colorado.
Al and I left our cabin in Maine almost exactly eight months ago. As I was working to quiet my mind enough to fall asleep on our final night at the equator, I tried to count all the different beds we have slept in since late September. Between our travels through some of the western United States, visiting friends and family, and all of our stops in Ecuador, I came up with a total of 44. It seems no small miracle that we did not pick up bed bugs somewhere along the way, but we didn’t. Some beds were certainly more comfortable than others and Al gained a new level of appreciation for his pillows back home, but each offered us a chance to wake up in a unique place.
We also employed many modes of travel. We flew in large and small commercial planes, overlooking everything from endless banana fields to the snow-capped peaks of some of the country’s active and dormant volcanoes to rugged islands inhabited by animals unique to them in the world and surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean. We traveled hundreds of hours on nine long-distance bus rides and close to a dozen multi-hour car trips. On one bus we were subjected to five back-to-back, horrible feature-length films at a deafening volume. I had no idea The Rock made so many terrible movies.
We went up, down, and over high mountains on zig-zagging, narrow, pot-holed roads where rock slides frequently close the routes and “bus plunges” make regular news headlines. We traveled from the crisp, thin air of the Andes to the hot, rainy, muddy flatlands of Amazonia and back again. Sometimes we hired private drivers and their vehicles to get around. It was a way to meet someone local, practice speaking Spanish, and get from door to door more efficiently than in a bus. The degree of comfort varied to be sure—cars in Ecuador are driven years longer than in the States, the roads abuse them, and the availability of parts for repairs is limited. In one case, we stood in the back of a pickup truck, holding on for dear life and ducking branches as we bounced along a rutted dirt road. Besides planes, cars, vans, trucks, and buses, we used boats, bikes, trains, horses, canoes, kayaks, gondolas, chairlifts, and our feet to get around. We literally walked the soles off two pairs of sneakers and wore out a dozen pairs of socks.
In the 179 days we lived in Ecuador, we saw more than 80 different species of birds, including at least a dozen types of hummingbirds as well as blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, nazca boobies, wattled guans, choco toucans, lesser, great, and magnificent frigates, a tinamou mom and her chicks, falcons, hawks, eagles, osprey, and the delightful Galapagos penguins.
We encountered five kinds of turtles, some in the water and some on land, the full color spectrum of snakes, weird, wonderful and sometimes dangerous bugs, two- and three-toed sloths, foxes the locals call wolves, skunks the locals call foxes, rabbits that look like guinea pigs, guinea pigs that look like food (to locals and tourists), agoutis, llamas, alpacas, and tapirs (see photo). Ducks, pigs, chickens, roosters, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, and horses roam the yards and streets. In the jungle we saw spider, squirrel, and red howler monkeys, white-front capuchin monkeys, Miller-Saki monkeys, black mantel tamarinds, noisy night monkeys and the not-really-a-monkey Kinkajou. Oh, did I mention the dogs? Everywhere you go in this country there are dogs—pampered, coiffed little dogs, guard dogs, street dogs, dogs in t-shirts, hungry dogs, three legged dogs, and most of all barking dogs.
We had the pleasure of eating many new foods. Most especially we fell in love with the variety of fruits. The markets are filled with fresh, tropical fruit of all sizes and colors. Tops on our list of favorites are: granadilla, maracuyá, guayaba, and guanabana. We also enjoyed yellow dragon fruit, taxo, mamé, mora (blackberries), oritos (little bananas) and pineapple. An incredible treat is a batido: basically a frozen drink made with the freshest fruits, sweetened condensed milk, and ice blended to the consistency of a milk shake. We became addicts of avocado batidos but tried to limit our consumption since they are easily 500 calories each. We sought out tigrillos for breakfast on the weekends (see photo). A plate of tigrillos is basically a griddle-fried green plantain mash, usually mixed with cheese and onions and topped with a couple fried eggs, avocado, pickled onions and salsa. A lunch of tigrillos and a batido, for $5, and you don’t need to eat again until the next day. A similar dish but made with yellow potatoes is known as llapingachos. Seek it out if you find yourself in Ecuador. And honestly, of the dozens of Ecuadorian soups I ate, there was only one I didn’t like—the “hangover cure” fish-and-onion soup called encebollado. Some soups were a little weird (to us), like chicken soup served with a whole, bone-in leg or thigh plunked in the bowl alongside a chunk of corn-on-the-cob. It’s a bit of a challenge to eat neatly but the flavor is all there.
Being on the road for this long—and particularly being in small, isolated, peaceful places deeply connected to their natural environment but less well connected to the Internet—created a sort of bubble that was, in truth, welcome. We read about the major news events of the U.S. and the world, but we did not immerse ourselves in them. Without diminishing in any way the importance and impact of the war in Ukraine, global inflation, and reports of “democracy under siege”, it all just seemed so far away—and then hit us so hard when we returned to the tragic school shooting in the States. Ecuador has plenty of its own problems to deal with, and poverty in particular is at a level we don’t often see in the U.S. But the people we met seem by and large happy with their lives, modest as their material possessions may be. They are proud of the rich cultural and natural resources their country offers, and of recent improvements in protecting them. They feel safe in their country. We would have liked to “give back” more to the communities where we lived (beyond spending money there), but we just weren’t in any one place long enough to learn how we could contribute meaningfully. We did feel as if we were on a kind of cultural exchange, learning about local people and culture at the same time that we were, we hope, demonstrating that Americans can be more than their stereotypes.
So, what are some of the take-aways from eight months away from the place we call home?
- I learned that I need much less stuff than I thought I would. We sent things home with visiting family and left some things behind as our needs changed. By the end, we were doing just fine with one carry-on size suitcase and one small back-pack each. That made using all those different modes of travel and staying in all those different abodes so much easier!
- Being flexible when something does not go as planned can actually open up unexpected opportunities. For example, in Cuenca riders need a prepaid transit card to take the bus. There is no option to pay onboard. Our first time using the system a lovely, local woman offered us the use of her card and when we tried to give her the cash value she would not hear of it. From then on when we rode the buses (with card in hand) we would pay for others who for whatever reason could not pay for themselves.
- There’s more than one way to do this! Our original vision of the “ten-year plan” was to pick a specific place in a particular country, settle into it for the better part of a year, discover its seasonal ebbs and flows, create community for ourselves and be purposeful in it. This past year turned out to be more about traveling through Ecuador, never staying in one place for more than five weeks. We loved nearly every minute of it, but we did feel we missed out on creating a temporary “home” and connecting to a community.
Now that our time there is finished, friends and family are asking, “Where to next?” It is a natural question, but we’re still asking it ourselves! Wherever it is, I imagine we will pack less in our luggage, continue to welcome novel experiences, learn about our host country, cultivate friendships, and count our blessings every day.
7 thoughts on “Takeoffs and Takeaways”
Thanks for the memories and allowing us to explore along side your travels….even if from a distance!
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So inspirational to those of us who are “landlocked” and “culture bound.” Thanks for sharing your adventures with us!
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Wow! Rachel, what a beautifully-written and marvelously-descriptive summary of your 6-month stay in that extraordinary country on the Equator. I too aspire to travel like that when I set aside my spurs once and for all. Until then it’ll be much shorter stays in Nepal and Indonesia that rank quite high on my bucket list.
Please keep sharing your eloquently-written experiences with all of us. Who knows, your musings just might persuade me to reorder my bucket list and thereby force me to travel to even more exotic destinations…
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Thank you so much for your beautifully written and thoughtful comment Ian. I was in Nepal and Indonesia many years ago and highly recommend them both. Isn’t the world a magnificent place to live?
Rachel, I am certain that your memories are matched by those of the many local Ecuadorians you encountered. You are a terrific ambassador. Thanks for taking us along via your blogs.
This is so beautifully written! Thank you for all the effort you both took to expose us to Ecuador through your eyes. It has been a gift and I can’t wait to explore your next destination with you.
It has been a joy reading your beautiful and informative travelogues. It was wonderful to partake by osmosis the many facets of your experiences and I am positive that you will refer to them as great memory for years to come. Looking forward to what’s coming next. Love.