Sunday, January 14, 2018

December 22
We woke up and took it pretty easy our first morning in Cuenca. Manimal sleeping fully through the night let us relax a little bit. We got him a warm bath pretty early on (first time we'd seen a bathtub on our trip, all showers thus far), and he seemed happy thereafter. I believe for breakfast, the kids were happy with Clif bars and applesauce that we'd carried with and hadn't run through yet.

I made a run out to the grocery store to ensure we had stuff like saltines and bananas, should Manimal need to stick to that kind of diet. I was too early for the grocery to open (9:30 a.m. open), but a market at an even closer gas station had a pretty good selection of things. Peanut butter--mantequilla de mani--was hard to find. "Pasta de mani" was the best I could do. Ingredients listed: peanuts. Yet somehow it was very salty. hmm. I picked up some bread and yogurt and a few other little things.
Before too long we headed out to explore a little bit.
So, this was the home exchange portion of our trip... in some respects you might consider it the main factor that made the trip happen. We had a free place to stay here in Cuenca; we could build around it. Perhaps unfortunately, the allure of all the other things Ecuador has to offer kept us from just simply enjoying the free stay. We had to see the rain forest, and we had a few more intentions for side trips that we minimized after our jungle visit. Also, needing to get that one extra flight to get all the way to Cuenca made Quito a must-do.

Anyway, our place was lovely--3 bedrooms, a nice fully stocked kitchen, a bathtub with good hot water that didn't run out, and it was situated right by the Rio Tomebamba, a pretty small river, at least at the beginning of our trip, more of what I'd consider a wide creek, but a nice little place to walk by or to listen to the water running through. 

Along the river, Hamish was pleased to find "screw nuts" to collect as treasure. They came in Phillips head, pentalobe, and the rare tri-point:
Bad development: Hamish put her hand down on a rock at random and received the first bee sting of her life from probably the only bee we saw in Ecuador. Thankfully, no anaphylactic responses kicked in, and we only had some mild complaints that her hand hurt from then on (I got the stinger out pretty easily).

As in previous situations, we set out walking by the river without a fully determined goal, but then we just kept on walking. It was about 1 mile to the edge of downtown.

We passed a few rocks with either scripture or Biblical indications on them:
(Jesus es mi salvador). We also saw "Cristo vendra pronto (Christ come quickly)" and "El señor vendrá como ladron en la noche 1 Thessalonians 5:2" (my translation says "you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night"). So that's kind of neat. I don't know if these "graffitis" were a regular event or had something to do with the Christmas season and the upcoming parade.

Anyway it was a nice walk. When we reached town, we did was find a local market-- not the kind that sells a bunch of tourist souvenirs, as in Quito, but the real local food market. I love these.

There's lots of memories of Singapore here. There's just something really nice about these markets to me, so much fresh fruit and vegetables. And as seen above, huge bags of different pastas, hadn't seen that before. Here I am picking out one of everything I didn't recognize:

The nice lady gave the kids strawberries... sorta before we could do anything... should we be washing these?! too late, eaten.

I guess they'll survive.

There was also a huge section of meat and seafood and more. In Singapore, in all our time there, I bought fresh fish from the wet market one time I believe. It was fine, but the whole experience wasn't terribly appealing. For some reason I felt like things looked/smelled better/cleaner here, by comparison. I remember seeing a big display of shrimp and thinking if I lived there I'd be up for trying it out. But not on vacation.

In the back there was a section with more home goods and clothing. We didn't venture far, but there were a couple of stalls piled high with shoes. Figuring we could score a little deal and it would be fun, we ended up buying both kids a pair of new shoes. We only haggled a little, but we were happy enough with the price.

On the edges of the market and through town there were a number of stores that again seem like weird economics. Here is an example. I stopped at a couple of "pharmacy" stores to see if I could find something simple like an aloe to apply to Hamish's bee sting (it wasn't swelling or anything, I really just think the thought that I put something on it would have appeased her). I didn't find what I was looking for-- the one place that I explained things to suggested some tylenol and something else, and I knew it didn't warrant anything internal. In this picture, we're standing by a small store that had almost exclusively baby stuff. The baby oil drew me in, but again, no aloe or similar. But, I don't know, in that environment, the idea of a stall that carried only diapers and baby oil and wipes and the like just seemed kind of weird. There were other stalls that seemed to have only cooking oil. There were many with little candy/cracker Christmas gift assortments, as can be seen to the right of me:

And here's just another view of the street.

We wandered around a little while. It didn't take long to realize that we liked Cuenca a lot. It just felt like a breath of fresh air after all of the prior. We were walking distance to some interesting but peaceful/relaxed stuff, we had a nice place to stay right by a calm river, we were pretty happy.
We grabbed lunch at a little Persian restaurant called Algeria. They also had a fixed-price set lunch that was very good. Not the first time we'd seen it, but popcorn as an appetizer is a nice touch:

There was an interesting looking shop across the street advertising alpaca wares, so I hopped up and visited on my own. It was run by a woman who said she and some other women raised the alpaca, sheared them, and created the products she had for sale. There was some lovely stuff but it was no longer Quito street market prices. She didn't speak English completely either, but was very pleasant. After shopping a bit, I got Alli and the kids to come and check it out. It wasn't long before Hamish was modeling clothes:

Despite all this, we only purchased one gift for Aunt Jenn, and no discount was offered for our modeling. 

We grabbed a taxi home (yes it's walkable, but a $2 taxi with sleepy kids is way way worth it) for our rest time.

Then I could photograph our market score. Shoes for each,  custard apple, tuna (cactus-associated fruit), melon pear (or sweet cucumber), some yellow plums of some sort, dragon fruit, and of course mango. Cherries in the bag and smooth-skinned avocado on top. 

After nap, we stayed true to our promise of more playgrounds. We'd noticed one right across the river. Of course, there was a bridge a little ways away, but the water was so low, Hamish and I had to try...

We gave up, however, before crossing all the way. I was pretty confident I could make some of the jumps but ensuring Hamish also did without getting all wet was more than I was ultimately up for. Now, you'll also notice several other people in the river here. They are not here for play, though. They've come to do the laundry. They were really beating and scrubbing some clothes on those rocks.
We made it to the playground:

Hamish complained a bit that "everything was broken", which was not true, but it definitely wasn't a shiny new setup. There's a piece of wood missing from that suspension bridge, for instance. But, I figure it's good for her just to see that not everyone has the same quality stuff. There were local kids running about, mostly attached to those washing in the river. Ours didn't really mingle, but nobody seemed to mind the others' presence.

It turns out a tree stump and a few surrounding rocks worked better for our kids anyway, who took to pretending, e.g.,"Hey manimal, pretend that we were cats and there are bears chasing us and we have to run across the rocks to get to the other side, ok?"

We let the kids play for a good while until it was time to come in and get dinner together. We'd brought mac and cheese all the way from home and not used it up to that point. Combined with the fresh exotic fruits, we made ourselves quite a little spread.

After dinner, we had a movie night and watched Holiday Inn. We got the kids to bed, and then neighbors (Americans who'd lived in Cuenca for 5 years) dropped in with a bottle of wine. We stayed up past midnight chatting about all manner of things and finally got ourselves to bed.

December 23

We started off in the morning and ran into Shiloh and his owners.

We'd already met her before, but the neighbors with the wine let us in on her fame, so we had to get pictures. She (we're talking the dog here) was trained to recognize when a previous owner stopped breathing... maybe even when his heart stopped beating, and jump on his chest and alert him. That owner eventually got a pacemaker and her working days were over, but she came along to Ecuador when the owner moved there. Though retired, she needed something more fulfilling and took to visiting sick children at a cancer hospital. There was a tear-jerking story of a boy with terminal cancer who only wanted Shiloh and her spending his last night with him. She apparently has a room at the children's hospital named after her now, maybe she got a medal. She also once rode from Quito to Cuenca in the president's lap when the airline wouldn't accept her "papers" that were in English. Anyway, of course the kids enjoyed getting to give her snacks and make her do tricks. We finally left and grabbed a cab into the city

to Parque Calderon, where there were many hats on display

Regrettably, we purchased none of these. Extra regrettably, that blue hat to the right stayed there also. We thought we'd get another chance after fully surveying our options, but the holidays and weather ultimately meant we never saw these particular hats again. travesty. We grabbed some sandwiches for lunch right on the edge of the square and chased those with ice cream (frozen yogurt for the manimal).

We left here and walked

-to the sombrero museum, which has a wide variety of hats in different qualities and colors. They also had a great view out back.

The Sombrero museum also had a lot of information about the making of the hats, and on certain days, apparently, one side would be filled with craftsmen making hats.

The Panama hat, it should be said, originated in Ecuador (recall the Panama hat palm in the Quechua village). It was only in the 1850s that the economy of Ecuador led sellers to the bustling port of Panama where they sold many more, and the name Panama hat took. They come in many different levels of quality, having mostly to do with the tightness of the weave. The ones on the street were $15-$30. Most of the ones in the museum were more in the $50-$70 range, but the really good ones go for $1000 and are so tightly woven they can hold water. 

We took our taxi home after the museum, had our rest time, and then headed back downtown to try and catch the tour bus. It was kind of funny- we pulled up in our taxi, having a vague idea when the next bus would leave (and which one we wanted to be on to maximize a view of the city lit up at night). We got out, and the tour bus was pulling up. I said something about what we were supposed to do about tickets (had read online that there wasn't much of a booth or anything, just find them on the square), and the nearest street vendors, selling chewing gum and candy and odds and ends whipped out an official-looking ticket book. 

I was skeptical, but I inspected them a little and paid cash (all while the bus is pulling around past us). She spent a decent amount of time filling in information on the tickets. Once in hand, we kind of jogged over to the other side of the square as the bus was pulling up. Most everyone else was getting on and paying as they got on. I handed the person taking money the tickets, and at first she responded with "No!.... something else I didn't understand..." (I'm thinking it's not going to be hard to walk back to the same vendor and demand my money back)... but then she gets the attention of another woman who speaks English, who says we just need to keep the tickets with us, and we boarded. Off we went!

It's not a terribly long tour, but we enjoyed riding on top of the double decker and ducking when we went under low-hanging power lines. Guidance was given in Spanish and English, and the tour highlight is climbing a hill to the Mirador de Turi, a church, for the view of Cuenca. We were too early for the lit city view from the hill, but it was still pretty.

As a nice bonus, they served us a small sample of warm canelazo (it was fairly chilly), and on the ride back we got to see a bit more lighting.

For dinner, we'd made reservations at the Jazz Society Cafe. It sounded like a nice little place with the combination of jazz music and Italian food, and we were happy.

December 23 was Joanie's birthday, and so Alli was extra happy that the jazz trio played Santa Claus is Coming to Town, a favorite of hers. 

We would have been happy to stay longer, but the kids called curfew on us. I had another fun moment when I donated some cash (part of the cafe focus is supporting a program for students) and then realized the restaurant did not accept credit cards. I had to leave and find an ATM. The first one I was directed to would only accept a 4-digit PIN--which mine is not--and also only spoke Spanish. It took me a couple runs through to figure out what the problem was. Then I ran a couple blocks to find one that would work. In the end, Alli and kids were only unaware of my whereabouts for about 10 minutes, and the kids remained entertained with their food, music, and eventually their little Dover activity books.

We took our taxi home and made plans for the big Christmas eve parade...

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

12/21- Last day in Quito

We got moving pretty quickly in the morning and took an Uber to the TelefériQo, a gondola ride up the east side of the Pichincha volcano. Quito on the whole sits about 9,000 feet above sea level. This elevation didn't affect us greatly, but I think Alli and I did both notice on our first day or two there. It's hard to tell with the kids; they seemed to take it in stride. If I was worried about elevation, though, it was this part that made me unsure. The TelefériQo goes up to about 13,000 feet, and they say the ride up takes 18 minutes. Some common wisdom indicates that 10,000 feet is a point where a lot of people are more likely to experience altitude sickness (I read that at this elevation your hemoglobin is 90% saturated by oxygen; the air is simply less dense, and on any inhale you take in fewer molecules of oxygen.) And when buying tickets for the gondola, there was a good bit of signage with warnings. A lot of it we knew and were prepared for-- acclimate yourselves, for instance, less alcohol, and of course just taking it easy and listening to your body. There was advice that starchy sugary foods could help... But there was also a sign saying they didn't recommend taking children under 4. Hmm. We'd pushed this to our last day in Quito to maximize acclimation, hadn't noticed any problems yet with kids, and we'd read up elsewhere and not seen anything special about under 4, so we pressed on. I still felt a little nervous, said a couple of prayers. My biggest concern was that someone might start feeling unwell on the way up, trapped in a gondola for the next 18 minutes.

However, I think the only thing felt by anyone was me and my nerves. It felt normal up there.

I think a lot of where people experience problems is heading up here on their first day in Quito and not listening to their bodies.
There is further hiking that will take you to 15,000 feet on a 5-hr round trip (they recommend not starting after noon), but we weren't about to do anything strenuous up there. We popped into a cafe for a donut and some coca tea for me.

So, coca tea. This is tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. Another, perhaps more well known use for these leaves is in preparing cocaine. The leaves contain cocaine along with several other alkaloids, though the cocaine quantity is small. Because of this association, coca tea is illegal in the U.S. So why would I try it? It's said to be very effective in staving off altitude sickness. Also I'm the curious type. According to Wikipedia, a bag of coca tea contains about 4 mg of cocaine, whereas a line of cocaine is 20-30 mg. As such, you might think that drinking coca tea would produce a mild high, but this is not the case. There is no mouth numbing effect like what happens when the leaves are chewed (indicating released alkaloid). It just tastes like green tea. Understanding exactly why the effect isn't the same as cocaine isn't the easiest task, but from what I can tell, the alkaloid is hydrolyzed pretty easily in the stomach unless there is a base present (so when people chew the leaves, they do so with some sodium bicarbonate or lime (calcium hydroxide)). Oral ingestion overall is pretty ineffective. The cocaine is also catabolized in the liver. I suppose that by snorting, smoking, or injecting, some of that first-pass metabolism is bypassed and the drug can have effects on the brain more easily. Anyway, all research suggests that you just really can not get a "high" from the tea. At best, you get effects similar to coffee- increased heart rate and blood pressure and vaso...dilation? that can relieve your headache? It is worth noting that drinking coca tea can still make you fail a drug test in the very immediate future, but I don't feel like this will be an issue for me.

You may also be aware that Coca-cola originally used coca leaves that contained cocaine in the same way as my coca tea. Here's an interesting article on the topic. They apparently continue to use de-cocainized coca leaves to maintain legality.

Despite all of this, according to wikipedia, the use of coca tea is discouraged by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but this seems to be a small-minded, backward, ill-informed stance.

Anyway, we got just a little exercise by walking a little way down a path up there.

And pretty soon we headed back for our 18-minute ride down.

At the bottom, we had to visit the amusement park that is so well located. It was weird-- granted this was a Thursday-- but the gondola was pretty quiet, and we weren't sure on approach whether this amusement park was even open. But we had to check it out, as we'd read that they had 10 cent carousel rides and similar.

We walked on in, and a nice man approached us and explained in great detail and 100% Spanish what we needed to do to ride the rides. It involved a digital card that actually cost $1 (but we could use for everyone) and then putting however much $ we wanted on it. I think we started with putting $5 on it and headed for the carousel.

$4.60 left.
It was actually kind of nice that a class field trip showed up about then, so that we were not 4 of the 8 people in the park. That nice man who greeted us was pretty much the only one manning rides, so you needed to wait if the class was riding one ride and you wanted to ride another.
They were also just a little bit tricky with the rides. A few had big advertisements on them indicating 10 cents. Others would randomly cost something like $2.37. But there wouldn't be a sign, you'd find that out after your card was swiped. Even so, in total I think we spent $11.

There was a sad bit. There were height requirements for the rides, but in most cases, if we rode with the kids, it didn't matter. But the roller coaster actually required meeting height. Hamish did, Manimal did not. I asked Hamish if she still wanted to ride, knowing Manimal could not, and she still did. I rode with her, and Manimal sulked.

I think Hamish still enjoyed it, but I'd look at Manimal as we went by, and he would just display the most dejected countenance, so I could not enjoy.

Luckily, his depression was short lived. He quickly found another ride that he was tall enough for and wanted sissy to ride with him on it. No hard feelings.

One final carousel ride, and then we moved on. I couldn't get an Uber from there. We waited at the bus stop a few minutes, but a taxi dropped off a fare, so we hopped in and asked him to take us back to the market. We'd thought of just a few more things we wanted to buy as gifts and such. This taxi used his meter appropriately and escorted us safely.
We got to the market and decided to just find the quickest, easiest food we could nearby. We chose a local burger place that also had a fixed sorta Ecuadorian lunch. Their burgers were all superhero-themed. Manimal and Hamish split a burger, and Alli and I got the set lunch- a sort of fried rice with chicken and pork:

I ate mine quickly, settled the bill while everyone else finished up, and headed over to the market with a mission. We agreed to meet in the middle of the market once my shopping was complete.
Here's Manimal waiting by a Christmas tree and a nativity of a sort:

And then there was more Pooh reading.
Once shopping was complete, we got an Uber back to our Airbnb, put Manimal down, and went to work packing up. Our evening flight wasn't until 7:30 p.m., but we knew it could easily take an hour to get to the airport. We used pretty much all of the time we had packing up and cleaning and woke Manimal a little bit early when we decided to move our departure time up a bit to try and beat rush hour. Once again we ended up taking a regular Uber. This was a little concerning because we wouldn't know until they got there whether their vehicle would likely fit all of our bags (they don't have the Uber-XL or whatever options there, and I'm not too knowledgeable whether a Chevy Sail is likely to be tiny or huge). But we ended up with a just-right size. We beat rush hour and made it to the airport in about 45 minutes.
Check-in and security were a breeze, and we were at our gate close to 2 hours early. We ate dinner at a Mexican-ish restaurant in the terminal--chips and guac, quesadillas. I wasn't feeling too hot. My stomach was hurting, though nothing was coming of it, and I only took a few bites. Manimal indicated that his belly was hurting, and during the course of the meal, I took him to the bathroom 3 times, over which things were progressing to indicate an upset stomach. But he seemed to get relief.

Then, our flight got delayed about 2 hours. Luckily, this was when we realized there was a little playground tucked away in the terminal. We spent at least an hour there.

The kids ran and jumped and played hard.
Finally, we boarded our plane. As we waited to board, Manimal was saying his tummy hurt, and Alli carried him onto the plane. We had just gotten seated good when he threw up on himself... and Alli caught a good bit of it while I searched for ziplock bags. That worked out well- we'd carried those bags primarily for the rain forest, but they were optimal for cleanup, disposal, and clothes quarantine. And the disinfectant wipes I'd purchased when I couldn't find regular baby wipes worked out quite well too. Mercifully, Bek was spared, and our naked sad baby could wrap up with his Bek for the ride. Further mercy: it was a very short flight.

sad, sick little bug.

In flight, his symptoms progressed, but he was able to make it to the bathroom. When we landed in Cuenca and got our bags back, we got him into some jammies.

We got the first taxi that rolled in (there was no line, we waited a few minutes for one to show), and after some explaining (and showing my GPS-enabled map), we were off and to our home exchange within 15 minutes. Neighbors met us at the door and showed us to our apartment. Manimal's symptoms kept going-- there was a little worry about showing up at night in this new place with a sick little one, but it was nice knowing neighbors were there that could help if we needed it. I emailed them before going to bed to say if things got bad I'd probably be knocking on someone's door in the middle of the night. We slept the kids in different rooms. Manimal's room had two twin beds, so Alli stayed in one of them in case anything got worse. He slept well through the night though. His stomach was upset for a few days, but he was not bothered by anything and acted himself from then on, never developed a fever, lethargy, or anything else. My stomach continued to hurt that night, but thankfully, I did not develop any of the same symptoms and was fine after a good night's sleep. We don't know after all is said and done if it was related to something he/we ate or the inadvertent swallowing of water or simply picking up a virus from a surface he touched in the city.

Thankfully we were moving on to the most restful portion of our trip.