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.)

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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.”

Blogging South America: Easter on the Western Side of the Greenwich Meridian

I realise I’ve been blogging a lot over the last 24 hours or so but I’m on another plane. Somewhere possibly over Ecuador. Maybe Colombia. I actually think were still over Brazil. Either way, I have not much to do besides read (which requires a light which would disturb other people so… not now), be entertained by the entertainment system (but I make a point of staying as up to date as possible with movies so I’ve seen everything that isn’t in a foreign language), and write (which I’m doing right now.)
I’m also listening to John Mayer- just to mix it up a little.

I was lucky enough to get a window seat this time and the sky is completely black- save for one outstandingly bright star that I have to lean a little forward and look a lot backwards to see ’cause it’s behind the plane.
Every now and then the sky below us gets starrily speckled, too, in conglomerations of artificial yellow light. Like now, actually. There it is, a little South American town just below the plane’s right wing. It’s shaped very much like an electric guitar with a rectangular hole in the middle. Who knows why.

It looks like Easter Sunday is catching up with this side of the world, at last: there’s a stripe of red and then a stripe of orange and then a stripe of colour that’s kind of green but it’s also kind of blue and then there’s a a whole of blackness and then there’s that one outstandingly bright star that I have to lean a little forward and look a lot backwards to see.
It’s the kind of scene that simply will not be done justice with a photograph- no matter how brilliant the camera- but I’ll put one in anyway.

The fact that I can’t stop staring out the window somewhat makes me realise that I’m not really afraid of heights; I’m afraid of what happens when there’s no economy class plane seat beneath my now (after six hours of sitting) completely numb derrière. Though that realisation still does not mean I’m about to start climbing on every roller coaster in town.

I know that my family is probably having a good ole Italian- South African Easter Sunday lunch right now. My uncle is probably wearing a nationality-appropriate apron and waving a pairs of tongs around authoritatively. My sister is probably within two meters of a dog. A good portion of the family is probably talking about how far away I am or something of the like.
And I’m thinking quite a bit about everyone and how much I miss them but I’m also thinking quite a bit about the food.

The flight tracker thingy still says there are four hours’ worth of sky time left so… By the time I post this I’m going to guess that my family is most likely having tea and cracking bright red Greek Easter eggs and it’s nearly the end of Easter.

But Easter has just caught up with this side of the Greenwich Meridian so I have one heck of a lot of Easter left.

And if you thought the Swiss were big on chocolate, you should have seen the Brazilian airport.

Fast forward eight or so hours and guess what? I’m on a plane! Shocker.
This time I’m leaving Panama from an airport in the middle of a forest at the edge of sea.
One of the flight attendants could be my gym instructor’s brother. He was at his post at the front of the plane with his arms crossed and his gaze menacing and we were all feeling sufficiently intimidated. Then a little curly-topped boy wearing an abundance of Ben 10 merchandise jumped into the aisle and started crying. The flight attendant didn’t react aside from menacingly turning his neck to the side at which point (if this was a movie) there would be an audible click.
And we remained sufficiently intimidated.

We remained that way until some upbeat dance music played and – I kid you not he did a rhythmic cha-cha down the aisle.
We were then sufficiently amused.

Happy Easter! xo

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“A little bit of heaven never hurt no-one.” ~John Mayer (from, ironically, a song called ‘On The Way Home’.)