My daily Instagram piece turned into a lengthy one, so I thought I’d post it here instead. In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting in Oregon, I felt obliged to...
On the Road Again | Quito, Ecuador
Thursday the 17th snuck up on me quicker than most departure dates. My bags were mostly packed and ready to go, but parts of my mind were still scattered about the town I once called home. My visits to Atlanta have become less frequent and much shorter over these past two years, which is a result of so many different things. I no longer have a car or job there, and it’s not an easy city to be solely on foot. In addition, I tend to spend too much money when I visit, which is honestly a testament to my incredible friends. They do whatever it takes to join me for nostalgia-filled nights at our favorite old watering holes, and I love them for that. While I can assure you it’s always a good time, it is my my bank account that ultimately suffers. She screams “Stop it!” and begs me to leave Atlanta on the next possible flight. She’s right and I know it, so lately, I listen. My friends are everything to me though. They’re my biggest fans and shoulders to cry on, despite the miles that have separated us over the years. They are why I will always come back, even if just for a day. This particular last visit to Atlanta, although an almost perfect time, was also a bit strange for me. One of my best buddies, Shira, was packing up for a massive adventure of her own. While I was overcome with excitement for her and her upcoming journey, it felt as though Atlanta was loosing another main attraction. Shira has been instrumental in my short saving stints in Atlanta the past couple of years, never hesitating to offer me her car, her couch, her bed or anything else I might need to reach my financial goals. To say she’s been a great friend to me would be an understatement. The week before departing for this trip, Shira was living the nomadic life herself, in an effort to save a few final bucks. She was staying at her best friend, Cara’s, who is married with an (awesome) toddler. I only include that bit to depict how hectic life was for Shira when I arrived back in Atlanta. Once again, without hesitation, Shira told me I could stay there for the week. Cara and the family were more than happy to have me as well, proving that no matter how hard I fight, Atlanta will always have that touch of home that I occasionally crave. After soaking up all I could for a week, I was ready for the road, yet again. Shira dropped me off downtown, where I met one of my best buddies, Andrew, for a drink before jetting off. I hugged her goodbye, wished her all the luck in the world and said “See you in Straya!” She’d be flying to Australia from Europe sometime around November, with just a couple of bags and a long-term work visa. Coincidentally, that was my plan as well, with South America being my destination of choice until then. As planned, I strolled into the Hard Rock Cafe around midday, weighed down with two overstuffed backpacks and an unusual amount of emotion. Excitement and anxiety tend to intensify just before these trips, and I embrace them equally. Andrew walked in just minutes after me, bringing with him his strong suits: Tranquility and humor. After a couple of Captain & Cokes and a conversation about the world’s latest attempt to makes us all lose faith in humanity, the time came for me to pay my tab and hit the road. Here we were again, saying goodbye — for now, anyways. But like Andrew once wrote to me,“The goodbyes suck, but they make the hellos that much better.” He’s right, and that’s the beauty here. We hugged it out at the train station, both laughing at our ongoing joke about Atlanta and its massively failed attempt at public transport. I swiped my MARTA Breeze card and within seconds, a train flashing the word “Airport” quickly approached the platform from the tunnel. Here we go.
Shira’s going away party, which made for quite the Sunday Funday in Atlanta. Contrary to what this photo says, I do, in fact, have pants on.
Andrew and I after perhaps a few cocktails.
A couple of my favorites (Matty & Dani) and I, getting in on a little World Cup action. This day quickly got out of hand.
I enjoyed an overpriced glass of wine at the main bar at Hartsfield Jackson’s Concourse E, a tradition I never skimp on. Oddly enough, my departure gate for Quito was just across from the San Pedro Sula departure gate, where it all started over two years ago. The nostalgia was quickly trumped by excitement and perhaps a slight buzz from the glass of sauvignon blanc I quickly downed just minutes earlier. I was cleared for the flight about halfway through the boarding process, once again scoring a first class seat. Insert eye-rolls here, “Delta-Brat” haters. I know, I know. The flight departed on-time, somewhere around 5:30pm, with a scheduled local arrival time of 11pm. I indulged in more wine, tried to enjoy my airplane dinner and snoozed off to some freshly downloaded tunes. Before I knew it, the landing gear was down and I no longer recognized the city below me. The customs line moved quickly and I was kindly greeted by an Ecuadorian Immigration officer who gladly granted me a 90-day tourist visa into his country. I grabbed my backpack from baggage claim and ran through a bit of Spanish in my head, quickly noticing the effects of the wine and overall grogginess from the flight. I knew my plan was to catch a bus to the old airport terminal, then grab a taxi to my hostel in a central part of town. It was well past midnight at this point, but the busses were still running and I was on my way within minutes. Much to my surprise, my phone began buzzing with notifications as soon as I boarded. I was so exhausted by this point, I almost ignored it, thinking it was some sort of hallucination or something. I looked up to see the seat in front of me advertising free wifi, at which point I thought I’d really lost it. As it turns out though, the bus had wifi. Real, functioning wifi. I’ll be damned, I thought. Here I was in Ecuador, on a bus, sending Facebook messages. While I think it’s nice to stay a bit disconnected while traveling, I can’t deny my fascination with wifi on a moving bus in South America. A 45-minute bus ride and 20-minute taxi ride later, I was safe and sound at Minka Hostel in Quito. I tried my best not to be that ass hole that arrives in the middle of the night and makes a ridiculous amount of noise, something I’ve mastered over the years. (Hint: A headlamp is key here.) I quickly brushed my teeth and got comfy in my top bunk. I was back in South America — home — and as usual, asleep within seconds.
A perfect sunset somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, en route to Quito.
I woke up and scoped out the hostel and the terrace, both of which were lovely. The weather was chillier than I’d expected, but I was prepared. I didn’t want to spend too much time in Quito, as I knew it was more expensive than the rest of Ecuador, so I had to move quickly. I threw my jean jacket on and hopped straight to it, starting with the famous Basilica del Voto Nacional, just two blocks away. I generally shy away from the massive attractions and tours, but something about this particular church drew me. I paid the $1 USD and entered, only to find that it was even more than I bargained for. (I should note here that Ecuador uses the U.S. Dollar, making for no conversions and easy budget management.) I wandered around by myself for three hours, never once stopping to look at my watch. It was that good. It’s quite popular to climb the bell towers, one of which is not for the faint of heart (read: people who are afraid of heights, like myself). The last two
stairs ladders you have to climb are lined with dodgy wiring, forcing you to stare death directly in the eye a mere 60 meters below. Fine, so maybe I’m a tad bit dramatic. The fear of heights is something I’ve struggled with since I was a little girl, and I know the only cure is to face it. So I tried. I got about half way up, took a look down and said “Fuck that,” out loud, on a church bell tower. Oh, how proud my Father would be! People were crowded around, laughing at their friends, and people like me, who chickened out half way up. It was all good fun and I was simply happy to be there. The views were outstanding, even from halfway point, so I knew I hadn’t missed out on much. Somehow in the chaos of the crowds, I ended up meeting a couple of guys from The States and South Africa who were up for meeting for drinks later that night. They knew of cool, less gringo-infested bar area to hang out in, so we planned on meeting there later that evening. After they left the basilica, I continued wandering around until I found the more inviting and less terrifying bell tower. It was a shaky spiral staircase that seemed to endlessly swirl round and round, but I was game. In a few quick minutes, I was at the top, which turned out to be higher than the main tower. I win. If you plan on hitting Quito at any point, I highly suggest climbing the less crowded bell towers —and that’s not the height-fearing sissy in me talking. The views are superb and you have it all to yourself. I just cannot say enough about The National Basilica. It really is one of a kind. Blame it on my Catholic upbringing and devout Catholic father, but I almost felt something when I walked in— something I haven’t felt in a long time. I immediately thought of one of my most favorite quotes, taken from a much larger piece on travel, courtesy of Nick Miller: “Travel is little beds and cramped bathrooms…It’s extraordinary conversations with ordinary people. It’s churches that are compelling enough to enter.” This is precisely how I felt for three straight hours. All of this, mind you, coming from a not-so-religious person. Travel is gorgeous like that, isn’t it?
Built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, La Basilica del Voto Nacional is technically still unfinished. In true religious fashion, a local legend says once it’s finished, the world will end. So, there’s that.
View from the second story.
Intricate stained glass on the second story.
This is about as high as I made it up the first bell tower. That smile is one of content though, isn’t it?
…And this is why I was perfectly content in the previous shot. No, gracias!
Shot from the inside of second, much higher tower.
While I’m ashamed to be part of a generation that uses terms like “selfie” as part of their daily vocabulary, traveling solo presents a few challenges. Taking photos of yourself is one of them. That said, soaking up views like this on a perfectly sunny day justifies a photo of yourself. Right?
I returned to the hostel later that afternoon, where I began chatting with another American girl, also infected with the travel bug. She was quite fluent in Spanish and knew Ecuador well, so I took any knowledge she was willing to share. She had plans to attend a free arts & dance performance that night and extended the invitation to me. Yes was obviously the only answer, especially since her name was Emily as well. Travel fate would have it that way, wouldn’t it? In return, I invited her to come with me to meet the guys from the Basilica afterwards. It was a date, making for the perfect first night out in Ecuador. The local dance performance was incredible and quite liberal for this part of the world. It was culturally rich and I absolutely loved seeing the artsy side of a city such as Quito. It’s always nice to be reminded that art is, in fact, an International language — and a beautiful one at that. As planned, we met the American and South African for a drink on Calle La Ronda, a must-do while visiting Quito. This particular area is a narrow cobblestone street, now lined with salsa bars, rather pricey restaurants and candy shops. It’s one of the oldest streets in Quito and it really gets going on the weekends. We had timed it perfectly, as was proven by the hoards of people and loud music coming from every which way. We had a ball of a night, but wrapped it up early enough to avoid too much trouble. It was my first night out at 2,800 meters (almost 9,300 ft), so I knew better. If you’ve never had a hangover at altitude, thank your lucky stars. More on that when I get to Peru though. The next morning was happily free of a hangover and full of energy. This was the case for most days in Quito, as I was focused on moving on quickly. I had a lazy day spent wandering around the hilly capital and into little local restaurants, trying various soups and almuerzos (Spanish for “lunch”— in particular, a cheap, set lunch that includes a few courses. They generally average anywhere from $1.50-$3.50 and are one of my favorite things about Latin America.). After I’d scoped out a few areas of Quito, I decided to tick “standing on the Equator” off my list. I managed to talk a couple of Israeli guys into going with me one morning, as I thought the commute portion of the day might be a bit tricky. Right, I was. The three of us confidently hopped on the local bus to a northern terminal in town, La Ofelia. Forty-five easy minutes later, we’d arrived at the surprisingly orderly station. From there, we searched for a second bus labeled “Mitad del Mundo” (middle of the world). We quickly found it and queued-up with about 25 other people, all of who were locals. Aside from one local woman telling us to get off a few stops too early, we arrived as planned. I learned another valuable lesson about Ecuadorians this day: They’ll do anything for a seat on a bus. The lady who told us to get off about 25 minutes too early had previously been standing beside me (as I was seated). I kid you not, she told us to get off at that stop so she could have my seat. The guys agreed with me here, swear it. What can you do but laugh though? So we did. I then used my struggling Spanish to ask a cop how to get to the Equator. He laughed as I approached him, both of us knowing this little blonde gringa was every bit of the word L-O-S-T. He was ever so kind and told us to simply walk down a couple hundred meters and hop back on another bus that was labeled “Mitad del Mundo.” We figured it out quite easily, still laughing about the lady who had so smoothly (or not) pulled one over on me just minutes earlier. We finally arrived to the unmistakable Mitad del Mundo and dug right in. As South America would have it, there are actually two “equators” here. You can read more on that mess in this cheeky, yet informative NY Times Piece. The first, and most popular, is the original monument, but it’s 250 meters off from the actual latitude line of 0’ 0’ 0’. Thanks to the invention of the GPS, there’s now an updated, and perfectly accurate point, where a second museum exists. We went to both, as we had to be sure we’d actually been to THE Equator. The second museum is just a short walk from the original monument and park, and is far more interesting. It was well worth the $3 entrance fee and even came with a few laughs.
Me standing on the unofficial line at the first monument.
Up-close shot of the first monument, which was built to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Geodesic Mission…in the wrong place.
Because everyone loves a foot-shot.
Go on, have a laugh. This is me, attempting to walk a straight line without looking down, on the true Equator. It’s not as easy as it looks, although I faired better than most of the boys. Just sayin’.
Try balancing an egg on top of a nail…on the Equator. Nothing is easy here. Shortly after this demonstration (which no one was able to do), we were also shown how water swirls counterclockwise down a drain in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. It’s called the Coriolis Effect and can be seen quite clearly via hurricanes in the respective hemispheres. And yes, directly on the Equator, the water drains straight down — no swirling at all.
The real shot of me standing on the Equator!
A few exhausting and productive days in bustling Quito left me itching for a bit of social time and nightlife. Luckily, I’d bumped into a lovely English guy in the hostel kitchen while I was getting ready for my Equator excursion earlier that morning. When I returned, he and his Italian friend were shooting pool over a few Ecuadorian Pilseners. Naturally, I was quick to grab a beer and join in . The conversation easily flowed — as did the cervezas. His name was Josh and while this and many other blogs straddle the fine line of narcissism, I’d like to take a minute to stray far from that line. Let me tell you a little bit about Josh, the 26 year-old from Kent, England. You’ll thank me later — watch. Upon first meeting him, I immediately took him for one of those “good travelers.” He was always cooking something up in the kitchen, generally along the cheap lines of pasta & tomato sauce. Rumor has it, he even tried to use Ketchup as a substitute in the presence of an Italian! I also noticed how he brought his own beers in, rather than buying them for almost twice the cost through the hostel. I’m not really sure if this was allowed or not, but he didn’t care. It was because of this that he struck me as the standard, budged traveler, probably making his way through South America over the course of 7-12 months. I was wrong though. There was nothing standard about this guy. As it turned out, Josh was — brace yourself— CYCLING from Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, to Alaska. ALASKA. No, I’m not kidding you. I met him almost halfway through his 17,000 mile journey, in which he’d already crossed the Andes twice. On a bicycle. By himself. I stared at him in disbelief for what seemed like an eternity, my mind trying wrap my head around what he’d just explained to me. I must have asked him a hundred questions, which he so patiently and thoroughly answered, smile included. I was both baffled and jealous as he told me stories of facing 80 k/hour winds through parts of southern Chile, and avoiding armed robbers while camping in the mountains of Peru. He wasn’t what you’re picturing either. There was no long, dirty beard, and no stench to match it. Instead, he donned an almost permanent grin, accompanied by rosy cheeks and light brown, slightly curly hair. He was rather clean-cut, to be honest. Aside from his slender build, nothing about him immediately said, “I’ve just biked almost 7,000 miles.” (That’s not me having a crack, Josh!) I remember when I first set off to properly travel, a great friend and personal travel guru, Rob, warned me about meeting people like Josh. He said to me, “Emily, you’re going to meet people doing so much cooler shit than you. They’re going to be climbing things you’ve never heard of and going distances so much further than you thought possible. But you can’t let it get to you, because you’re always going to meet people like this. You’re on your own journey- enjoy that.” I so vividly recall this conversation with Rob, but I didn’t really get it at the time. Because I was too amped-up on excitement for my own departure, I just nodded and didn’t really think about it. Here I was, over two years later, finally “getting it.” Rob was right, dammit. Just when you think your next three months of traveling solo through South America are something from a modern day Kerouac novel, you meet a guy doing something so much greater. I’m in no way putting myself down here, by the way. I find these experiences both healthy, necessary, and most importantly, humbling. It is because of people like Josh that I continue to challenge myself, especially on the road. As if I didn’t already think the world of Josh and his massive, Guevera-like adventure, I soon learned he kept a blog as well. I think it goes without saying that we were instantly buddies, swapping travel stories and blog tips for weeks to come. To boot, he’s an absolutely brilliant writer. Of course he is, I thought. That said, I highly encourage you to check out his aptly named site, Thighs and Lows. I’m warning you though — he’s really good at this blog thing. So, before you ditch me for him, remember who sent you there!
This is Josh and his house somewhere in Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) in Bolivia. “I am young, fit, nimble, and most importantly curious! I accept that all the advances the modern world offers will never alter the frailty of man, so I choose to explore!” — Josh
Josh and the bike in Cartagena (if I’ve guessed correctly). If you ask him how many miles he’s clocked today, he’ll tell you, “Not sure. My odometer broke in Bolivia.” That’s just the kind of guy he is.
Now that I’ve introduced this Josh character to you, you’re better prepared for the next post. Stay tuned for stories from the adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños, where Josh, the Italian and I find all things muddy, mountainous and beautiful. We also make it back to sea level via the cocktail-infused beach town of Montanita. Swinging, zip-lining, biking, hiking, beaching and partying are all on-deck! See you then, guys. Much love from Bolivia! X