Blogging South America: Cotopaxi and Room Service

Today we went mountain biking down Cotopaxi which, at 5 897m is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Driving through the Avenue of Volcanoes in the bus was quite terrifying because most of the roads are covered in layers of ash and rock and tyres kept losing grip. Hugo, our bus driver, kept having to stop and reverse and take run ups. Well, drive ups, I suppose. But on either side of these roads there are either steep drops or deep ditches and seeing the wheels roll backwards, perilously close to the edges was heart-stopping. Hugo has done this route several times before so he knew what he was doing but that didn’t exactly offer much solace as the distance between bus and moderate cliff decreased.

Eventually (thankfully!) it was decided that the Little Bus that Couldn’t had to stop braving the ashy roads so we got out and hiked the rest of the way. We stopped at around 4 600m to collect our bikes. We were warned it was going to be cold so I felt very much like the Michelin Man dressed in my hiking boots and socks, two pairs of pants, a vest, a t-shirt, a long-sleeve pyjama shirt, a fleecy rain jacket, my new alpaca beanie and scarf (it’s getting cold; alpaca beanie- heehee), and two pairs of gloves. Believe it or not, I was still freezing. And I couldn’t pull up my scarf over my nose because then every time I breathed my sunglasses would fog up. I still have all my facial features,though, (even if some don’t exactly function properly. Or at all) so don’t be concerned about that. We began our thrilling ride down the mountain. About an hour into the ride, the clouds cleared just enough for us to see the snowy top of the volcano. The rocks were a rusty red colour that looked awesome against the green of the surrounding land.

At the end of our 15km, rocky, bumpy, can-no-longer-feel-my-butt-but-that’s-okay-’cause-it-was-worth-it bicycle ride, we at lunch at the foot of Cotopaxi. After that we had a long bus ride back to our hotel. We spent the trip taking turns telling each other the plots of every horror movie known to this generation but that was only fun until it got dark. Then we played this game called ‘Never Have I Ever’ and let everyone share their love life stories and awkward/ embarrassing moments. I made some puns that made the whole bus laugh and I felt very powerful. We laughed until we could barely breathe (and not because of the altitude this time) and we arrived at our hotel at 19:30 but I could’ve done that the whole night. It was so much fun getting to know everyone.

The language barrier made an appearance again when we ordered room service. My friend picked up the phone, dialled 3 and, when the lady picked up, said, “Buenas noches.” and then immediately after, “I don’t actually speak Spanish. Sorry.” We ordered our food and it arrived many hungry minutes later. We lifted the lids only to discover that the lady who picked up had somehow mistaken ‘Fresh fruit’ for ‘French fries’. So there was that hilarious incident that you probably had to be there for.

PS: I’ve packed my backpack for pour two days in the Amazon basin. We’re leaving early tomorrow. I don’t know how much internet access I’m going to have there so some posts may be a couple days late. I’ll try my best.
Miss me too much xo

Blogging South America: Flying through Cloud Forests and a Hummingbird Luncheon.

Whenever you visit a foreign country, you will almost always hit a language barrier. After we got off the plane in São Paolo we kept going round in circles looking for where we could check in for our next flight because no authoritative people could never stand us, let alone help us. Eventually we stopped in a relatively crowded part of the airport and one of the teachers, in frustration, shouted, “Does anyone speak English?” to the general area.
“I speak English. It’s the only language I know!” said an bearded American pilot whose navy-coloured uniform was decorated with a variety of winged badges. He looked authoritative, alright but he was completely useless to us because he, too, was stuck on the same side of the language barrier as us.
Staying in a hotel, you will also come across a variety of people with nationalities. Being the polite school girls we are, we try to greet those we walked past in hallways or meet in lifts but it is rather tricky to decide in three seconds whether to greet the person in English or Spanish. A couple of safe options are either to singsong a whole lot of vowels that make a word that sounds like both ‘Hello’ and ‘Hola’ or, simply, to smile. This can be awkward, though, because nearly no-one returns the friendly facial expression. The Ecuadorian tourists I’ve come across must just be inherently unfriendly.

Breakfast was really early this morning because we had to be on the bus at 7:00 to take the two-hour trip to Mindo, a small but charming town in the northern hemisphere part of the country. Between Quito and Mindo there are several microclimates to be admired as you drive along the twisty roads in the Andes mountains. The changes between microclimates is almost instantaneous. One side of the mountain is dry and covered partially by small shrubs and shirt grass and then suddenly your looking at thick, dense, dark green forest intermingled with clouds. Again, no photograph could do the sights justice. The only things that really could have improved our absorption of the natural beauty was if the bus remained somewhat perpendicular to the ground and if Ecuadorians could start obeying solid lines on the road. Especially around blind corners bordering cliffs. That would be nice.

You know what would also be nice? If I wasn’t deathly afraid of heights. I so wanted to go zip-lining through the Cloud Forest canopy but, considering I nearly passed out on the cable car (which, to be fair, was a little rusted and operated manually by a man working a machine that looked more than vaguely like a car stripped of its covering. It was also freaking high.), I thought I’d better not. The cable car ride over a valley was fun, though. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be zip lining so I stood at the front of the 1m x 0.7m steel basket and held on for dear life. It sounds cheesy but it really did feel like flying, standing up in the basket with the air rushing past my ears so fast I couldn’t hear anything but the wind. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Below us (far, far below us) was the Cloud Forest; giant trees and a rushing river and a thin veil of mist between them. If my breath hadn’t already been taken away by the flying feeling, I would have said the view did. When I stepped off the basket in the other side, I almost fell into my Biology teacher; I hadn’t realised it but my legs had turned to unset jelly. My hands were shaking. The world spun a little. It was at this point that I decided I would not survive zip lining.
There’s that scene in ‘The Notebook’ where Noah says, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.” And there’s that song that goes, “I’m like a bird; I wanna fly away.” And I just think these people must not be afraid of heights because if I we’re a bird, I’m pretty sure I’d be a penguin.

When everyone was across the valley, we hiked through the Cloud Forest, and that was fantastic. (I know I sound repetitive but there really are no words to describe this place so I have to use some lame repetition.) Hiking down was fun. At the end of the trail there was a roaring waterfall and a turbulent river. Hiking up was hell. The scenery was still stunning and the clouds rolling along the ground and the trees cooled us down but the altitude certainly took it’s toll on us, regardless. I felt embarrassed because I knew how red I was and how much I was sweating and panting but then when I got back to the cable car, I saw that everyone else was much the same. “It’s the altitude,” we defended ourselves. Which it really was. And the walking-through-clouds thing didn’t help the sopping wet situation. I sound like I’m complaining. I’m not! This trip has totally been the most sensational experience of my life and I’ve enjoyed every split second of it. The environment’s just going to take some getting used to.

After the braver half of the group had finished zip lining, we went to a Butterfly Farm. Good grief there are some massive butterflies out there. There was one the size of my face (no exaggeration) whose wing pattern made it look like a snake. Another smaller one had wings alternating between being black and being transparent. There were scarlet-striped butterflies and bright orange monarchs and huge yellow ones. We went into a room with all of them with our sole aim to have one land on our finger. So we drowned our fingers in sugar water, ran around the room with our hands raised above our heads and repeated, “Land on my finger. Land on my finger. Land on my goodman finger!” We looked more than a little crazy and most of it was in vain but we sure had fun running desperately after butterflies. Not the face-sized snake one, though. We ran away from that one. It looks like a snake for a reason.

When we left the Butterfly Farm it was almost two thirty and we were ravenous so we, logically, went for lunch.

The problem with eating traditional food for lunch in South America is that I’m really enjoying it. Let me explain: I’m getting attached to some of the things they give us because they’re so delicious and they won’t be available back home and this is a problem. There’s this smoothie-like drink made from apple custard fruit and raspberries or some other red fruit that just makes me happy when I drink it. And I’m going to miss it.
Anyway, today we ate lunch in a restaurant called Sachatamia that made us take off our shoes before we went inside. At first I thought it was just because we were all muddy from the Cloud Forest but then I noticed that nine of the waitresses or other guests was wearing shoes either. Everyone inside pranced around in their socks. The restaurant has fancy wooden floors. While I was running to tell my friend something, I slid uncontrollably and my shoulder became violently acquainted with the side of a wooden pillar. I now have a long, line-shaped bruise on my upper arm which is more embarrassing than it is painful. Aside from having a no-shoe rule, the restaurant prides itself in being surrounded by almost thirty species of hummingbirds. So while I was eating my deliciously buttered trout and boiled vegetables inside, outside there were hundreds of vibrant hummingbirds flitting about and drinking nectar. We were allowed to go see the hummingbirds up close and I now know why they are called what they’re called. When I stood silently still, I could hear the thrumming of their wings as they flew past my ear. Now that was truly spectacular. One hummingbird flew a bit too close and its wing tapped me on the ear. This experience ended all too soon as we had to get back on the bus for our two-hour ride back to Quito.

We had take away chips for dinner and sat by the steaming pool to eat them. We laughed once again at the people who could not believe they were looking at pale people. (This, to be honest, is getting a little creepy.) Then, exhausted, we went to bed. Flying and hiking and having hummingbirds fly into your ear really takes its toll on a bunch of teenage girls.
It’s so awesome.
Until tomorrow xo

(I quickly want to add here that most of these posts are uploaded the day after they’re written because of Wifi scarcity. For example: this post was written on and about Tuesday 22 April but it’s only being posted on Wednesday. Sorry about that.)

Blogging South America: Eliana the Llama and Being Hemispherically Undefined

Buenos Dias!

Last night I crashed at 17:30. In my jeans and T-shirt from dinner. One minute I was awake reading ‘Paper Towns’ and the next it was pitch black and someone was knocking violently at the door. This freaked me out because who on earth would be banging on our door at such an outrageous hour? I raised my head groggily. “There’s someone at the door,” I whispered to my roommate in the next bed. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and I saw that her bed was empty. Oh, that must be her at the door, I thought. That made me freak out even more because how long had she been out there waiting for me to wake up and open the door?! It’s like– at which point I picked up my phone and saw that it was only 18:47. It had felt like I’d been asleep for hours and I’d been in such a deep sleep that I hadn’t even been remotely aware of the fact that she’d been knocking for a good half an hour. I’m a deep sleeper. I then slept for 12 more hours straight which is an achievement on my part because I usually can’t sleep for more than seven.

Breakfast at hotels is awesome because it’s always buffet and it’s always delicious and today was no exception. I ate a variety of cold and cooked meats, bread (including banana bread which is my new favourite thing), melons, bite size flapjacks, strawberries and a banana the length of my forearm. That sounds like a lot because it is. Everyone was ravenous and since the girls from our school are rather well known to be dedicated eaters, the buffet was restocked at least three times while we were there.

Today we visited three (or four?) churches. We went inside two- La Campañia Church and San Francisco- in which all that glittered was gold; everything but the floor was gilded in 18 carat or 24 carat gold. All my attempts to take panoramic shots failed because I just can’t bend 360 degrees. Leo, our tour guide, informed us that Ecuador has accumulated some debt over the years and that selling one of the churches could cover that debt and more. This didn’t surprise anyone. They really were magnificent.

Every Monday in Quito, in the main square called Independence Square, there is a a huge ceremony for the changing of the guard. Huge. Buckingham Palace ain’t got nothing on this thing. We were lucky enough to be around when it was happening. There were horses with feathery things in their manes and hundreds of men in blue, red and yellow uniform and a marching band playing the notational anthem and a school dressed all fancy to represent the youth or something and the Vice President was there. ‘Twas the true meaning of ‘the whole shebang’, I tell you. We took turns taking up-close-and-personal selfies with the horses. The locals took turns taking pictures with us because apparently pale, blonde ‘Gringos’ are not very common. We felt like celebrities. It was weird.

We had lunch in the sky. Sort of. It felt like that. We ate at the top of a dormant volcano which was completely cloud-capped (like snow-capped but with clouds) and you couldn’t see anything out the restaurant’s (El Crater) window of other than whiteness. We had a delicious set-menu three-course meal and at some point during the starter I realised that fresh avocado cubes, giant popcorn kernels and potato soup with cheese go really well together. I discussed Italian cooking with the teachers and then casually pointed out that the cloud-cap was lifting so you could see the inside of the volcano’s crater and then suddenly everyone was pressed up against the window going, “Ooh, aaaaahhh.”
Eventually logic kicked in and we went outside to enjoy the spectacular view. It was quite a steep drop inside the crater and far down below there were quaint little farmhouses and pastures the kind of green that makes you want to take a deep breath and inhale the freshness. There was still a thick cloud layer that rolled by speedily and tickled our cheeks and arms which were outstretched. It was while we were admiring the scenery that we met Eliana. Eliana was a charming and curious brown llama with a white face who posed with us as we hugged her and took copious photographs and, yes, selfies (#llamaselfie.) Llamas are known to spit, though so every time Eliana made a sudden movement, all the girls scattered, squealing. This happened many times and it was hilarious.

And then, the highlight of the day… The Equator. The Equator (which totally deserves to be capitalised) is represented by this massive square monument with a painted yellow line on the floor at its base and a globe on top. I ran along the line with one foot on either side, yelling “Southern Hemisphere. Northern Hemisphere. Southern Hemisphere. Northern Hemisphere,” with every step.
There were so many differently posed photographs being taken. I stood at one end and just saw a whole lot of teenage girls standing or sitting in a strange variety of unorthodox Tai Chi positions; trying to look like they were holding the globe and leaning against the monument and standing (or sitting) creatively in both hemispheres.
“You’re so fat that you expand over both hemispheres!” was the to-be caption of one photo of a girl lying on the line.
“My love for you stretches from north to south,” was another.
One girl balanced on one foot on the line and asked, “Okay, so which hemisphere am I in now?” to which I replied, “Neither. You’re hemispherically undefined.” and people laughed.
Leo took a photo of our 28-people group but we wanted one with him so we recruited the help of a tall, checked-beret-wearing French man who repeatedly (read: more than photographically necessary) announced, “Cheese!” So we said, “Cheese!” and sat, hemispherically undefined, on the equator.

Throughout the day we also saw a 45m-tall silver statue of the world’s only winged Madonna and some more breathtaking scenery from the top of the mountain on which the aforementioned Madonna is placed. Quito is a densely populated city in the middle of a valley constantly filled with clouds. You’d think that because it’s on the Equator and only has one season all year round that the weather would be quite predictable. It’s not. Quite frankly, it’s the most bipolar, least predictable weather I’ve ever come across. We met the author of a book on Galapagos who signed and sold us his book full of beautiful photographs of the Galapagorian flora and fauna.

After the day’s planned activities,there was time for us to visit a local market where I tried bargaining for the first time. It was exhilarating. The trick is to ask a price, halve the given price, be denied that price, walk away, and then buy whatever you wanted at your price. We single-handedly saved Ecuador from having to sell one of the gilded churches, I’m sure. Looking at my purchases, I sincerely hope that no-one in my family is allergic to alpacas because otherwise things could get very awkward. I haven’t bought myself anything yet and I really hope I get another chance to buy myself a jersey or something so I can say, “It’s quite cold outside; I think alpaca jersey.”