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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Cajas on My Mind

Last Saturday, our hiking group decided to do a nice 8km hike through the Cajas which ended up as 13km, with a few of the group sleeping over night in a lovely grove that would be well sheltered from the weather, if lacking in amenities. I wasn't going to go. The Cajas are notorious for cranky weather, uneven and poorly marked trails and I'm still recovering from my injuries.

That morning, the skies looked quite clear, I could see the mountains and just couldn't stand the thought of staying in the house one more day, so I geared up and off Ron and I went to the meeting point. We had to wait for the bus for over an hour...this is Ecuador, after all and my tendon started cramping up, but I persevered.
Lady of the Waterfall
The delay didn't do us much favours with the weather. After about 40 minutes on the bus, we debarked (de-bussed?) and were met with hail. Thankfully, most of us had dressed appropriately and it was but a minor irritant. Side note: layers are important under these circumstances, I only had a running shirt on and they my rain jacket and could feel the little pellets binging off my shoulders. It hailed so much that the ground was white and though none of us suggested not continuing, I did wonder what I'd gotten myself into. I added another layer between me and the projectiles and found myself far more comfortable.
Thanks LT, for the photo..the white stuff is hail.
The good news was that the sky eventually relented and we dried out and made it to the camping spot with only one member taking a tumble. (It wasn't me.) The scenery was stunning; filled with lakes, waterfalls and empty vistas that make you feel like there's no one else on the planet. (Except the 14 people we were hiking with, of course.)
The shelter of the wooded copse

Paper trees - one of the few that grow well at
high altitude

Some witty person said we're like the children of Isreal
spreading out across our land
Those of us that weren't staying over had another 3kms or so, to get back to the main road and try and catch a bus. The passage took down two more of us, myself included. (This is bad news, the last thing I need to do is fall on my broken bum, which bears the question why was I there in the first place? Hind sight is 20/20 as they say.) 
A gentleman fisher
Lone tree

One of the many river valleys through the Cajas
We were incredibly lucky to catch a bus only minutes after arriving at the highway and as we headed back home the sun started breaking through the cloud cover, just in time to welcome us back to Cuenca.
Credit John Keeble - Master of the Action shot

Actual footage of me going down on my butt
I'm suffering for the fall, or possibly, just because that's how this healing process goes, but it was worth it. There is no better balm for the soul than being out in nature, but for the time, my big hike days are on hold. I can't wait for the time when I can fearlessly strap on my boots and get back out into the wild.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

You Can't Keep a Good Computer Down

Life has been traumatic lately - in a first world sort of way. I'm still recuperating from the torn muscle and tendon. It makes sitting, standing and generally existing hard a good part of the time, but at least I had my trusty computer to nurse me through the doldrums...

Or did I? When I came home after grocery shopping, my laptop had gone to sleep...permenantly. I blame the Windows 10 upgrade, but what do I know? Being the responsible computer owner, I had diligently created recovery discs in the event of catastrophic failure. I was feeling pretty smug about it, to be honest. I transfered all the important stuff to a zip drive and started the recovery process. The boot repair failed, files were missing and my only option was to start from the beginning. This entailed basically wiping the hard drive of everything and reloading the initial programs. I doubled checked that I'd removed the important files and bit the bullet.

The function failed. My hard drive was mostly empty and my recovery discs wouldn't reload any of the programs. Argh. Black screen of death...

So we packed up the shell of my laptop and found a little tienda with a nice young man named Fernando, who said he'd do what he could. The good news? Obviously, I'm back up and running, with Windows 8.1 and Office 2013 all for the low price of $35 USD. I am happy, but Fernando says the hard drive is on its last legs and could die at any time. He says he can hook me up with a 500GB drive for a good price, so I'm thinking on it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Hills are Calling

Chimbarazo - one of Ecuador's many volcanoes.
It's been three and a half months since I was assailed by my horrible affliction. Through trial and error, I finally started (real) recovery at the very beginning of the new year. It has been a long road and I'm still struggling with morning stiffness, discomfort through the night and various little surprises that make me know that I'm still not repaired entirely. Be that as it may, I'm up and around more, trying to get back to normal. It may be the hardest part of the recovery. I can't do all the things I want, nor even most of the things, but I can do some things (like make the bed, do the house cleaning, walk (very carefully) around the city) and that makes it dangerous.

The hills surrounding Cuenca
I scared myself recently. The laptop started to tip over and I reacted instinctively to try and grab it. I felt a sharp pull in my damaged tendon and then the throbbing set in. It's been a couple of days and I know I've "tweaked" something, but not so badly that I'm back at square one. It's probably a good thing that it's rainy season, as I can hear the hills calling and I'm desperate to get back out on hikes, long walks to unknown places and getting my body moving again. In the mean time, I'm learning new things, like how to knit (at which I suck), making pasta (I did better at that), but not writing, no...why ever would I fill my time with something like that?
El Cajas - something not to be missed
It might be a bit of time yet, before I tie on my hiking boots, but I'm pretty sure I can see it happening. The mountains surrounding Cuenca are buried in cloud today, so they aren't as tempting as when the sun is shining; highlighting the amazing greens and golds that make the Cajas so spectacular. 

And so I heeded the call. It was a simple hike, more a gambol through the countryside, than trekking, but it was good to be out in the fresh air, away from the city. We arrived in Llacao after a 30 cent and 45 minute bus ride and wandered around the hills surrounding the town.


Political Advertising a la Ecuador

Although it was overcast, I still managed to get sun burnt. I guess my poor pasty skin just couldn't handle the UVs, no matter how filtered. It was a good. day and I will be grateful to lay my head to rest tonight.
The crazy crew that put up with my hobbling.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Faith and Foam

It's always an interesting time, experiencing a culture that is completely different from your own, but when a significant religious holiday rolls around, it kind of makes you sit up and notice. I've been asked a couple of times, by locals, what traditions Canada has for Carnival; the days before the Lenten season. I don't have much to say. We don't have a huge dance festival like Brazil, nor do we have water and foam fights  like they do here.
Elusive foam monster only come out at
Carnaval - our dear friend John
It's very difficult to explain to a predominantly religious (Catholic) society that I come from a country were religion is a very personal thing and that many types are practiced. It's even harder for them to understand that I'm unaffiliated with a recognized belief system. My lack of faithful practice doesn't take away from my joy or curiosity about their own beliefs. I've said many times that being Catholic in Ecuador is a kinder gentler practice than what I'm familiar with. There seems to be a lot of room for other influences.

Aya Huma the Quechuan spirit guide

So comes Carnaval and Mardi Gras. It's celebrated here with water, espuma (spray cans filled with (fairly) harmless foam), corn starch, confetti and the occasional egg.There are parades, loud music, fire works, and general levity. As a visitor, if you aren't in the know, it can prove surprising. Water balloons, drive by foamings and unexpected starch bombs can take you unawares. It's all in good fun and Cuencanos generally respect our gringo ignorance. We've been asked if it's okay to shoot us.

Parque Calderon is a hotbed of foam fighting activity
Now comes Ash Wednesday. A lot of the population wanders around with ash crosses on their foreheads and prepares for the restrictions that come with Lent. Many restaurants will offer fish on Fridays and parades, fireworks and music will be so much less over the next forty days.  It's the only time that Cuenca seems fairly subdued.

I don't know much about faith, but I can see that it drives many of the people here and makes their lives richer. It doesn't seem like they hold differing opinions against people and I suspect that many prayers are said for the faithless, but in the kindest way possible.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Goin' to the Polls

It's election time in Ecuador. After 10 years of stable government, Ecuador's constitution requires a change. Currently a president can only sit for two terms, much like the US and unlike Canada.

El Presidente Correa, both loved and maligned, is stepping down and the country's control is up for grabs. Voting is mandatory in Ecuador for citizens (with some exceptions) and fines can be levied and contracts can be scuttled if you don't do your civic duty. Extranjeros (foreigners) that reside in the country can choose to vote or not, assuming they've been in the country a sufficient amount of time and are registered to vote.

The campaign period is blessedly short, just over a month or so and the vote takes place on a Sunday, to make it easier for everyone to get out to the polls. The thing that surprised us the most is that the whole weekend is dry. We had planned to meet friends at the local craft brewery on Friday, but it was closed. (Now, being Ecuador there could be several reasons for this, but the REAL reason was that alcohol sales are banned over the election weekend.) Even restaurants are prohibited from selling booze...can you imagine?

The polls are only open for 10 hours (7 am to 5 pm), but it seemed a sufficient amount of time for the populace to get out and participate in democracy. At the polling stations the men and women are separated...there are voting booths for each sex and nary the twain shall meet, as the saying goes. The ballots are numerous. There is a sheet for the president, a sheet for the assembly members, regional representatives and provincial (parochial) representatives. There was also a special ballot specific to whether elected officials should be allowed to have offshore accounts.  The ballots include photos of the representatives, in case of illiteracy and are in full colour. It's pretty impressive.

Once you place your vote, you receive confirmation of having participated so you can avoid those nasty fines and problems that come with not adhering to the law. For fifty cents you can have the paper, that includes your photo and personal information laminated for posterity - for easy keeping in your wallet. 

Other than that, everything is pretty standard. You need ID to vote, then you sign the registry and then cast your ballots and place them in the ballot boxes. It will be interesting to see if the country goes with the status quo or chooses to go more conservative. We await the results with slightly baited breath. 

Guillermo Lasso Mendoza
Lenin Moreno Garcés
Four days later - after protests in the street for the delay to count EVERY ballot and accusations, from all sides, of voter fraud and shady dealings - and it looks like we're going to have a runoff vote, which means we go back to the polls. For a president to be elected, they must achieve 50% of the vote or 40% plus a 10% margin over the next most popular candidate. The incumbent party's candidate is sitting at 39.3% with the challenger at 28.1%. What does all that mean? That the burden of majority (as outlined by the law) has not been achieved and there will be a second round of voting between Moreno and Lasso on April 2nd. (Yup, Goin' to the Polls 2.0!) Who'da thunk?
The bizarre outcome (from my perspective) of this, is that the man that was trailing by more than 10% in the original vote could wind up winning the election, if the populace that voted for losing third parties switch their vote to Sr. Lasso, despite the fact that Sr. Moreno actually had the majority vote, as does his cabinet. (I guess that makes for a minority government, should Lasso win.) If Lasso does win, he's sworn to throw Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian consulate in London, England; Moreno has indicated that he's willing to continue providing Assange with asylum. I don't expect that this has much influence on the election, it's more of a pop culture tidbit.

Stayed tuned! 

Friday, February 17, 2017

What Cost Wealth?

This whole popularism thing has gotten me down. I see all these wealthy politicians in  first world countries scrambling to grasp every last cent and protect them from "undesirables". They're rhetoric is freaking out the regular population and people are losing their heads. Does it help the people that they're scaring? No, all it does is line the pockets of the sabre rattlers and make the gap between that vaunted 1% and the rest of us plebes greater.

Our fancy Vancouver loft
Don't get me wrong - I grew up in the "ME" 80's. Partying, fast cars, designer clothes. I wanted it all. I came from a lower income household, but I went to a high school in a wealthier part of town. I was the kid in the no name clothes, without a car (sometimes we didn't even have a phone) and my only spending money was for buying lunch. (Usually around $20 a week, but a lot of the time that also had to cover my dinner, too.) Forget the "class" trip to Hawaii for spring break, forget shopping at Aritzia or Guess, that was definitely out. So that made me hungry for the "good" stuff. I was going to have a big house, Porsche and a huge (dare I say YUGE?) wardrobe with lots of accessories and a billion shoes. (Confession: I got pretty close on the shoes.)

As an adult, I've lived (for a short time) the jet set life, where I could buy what I wanted, spend stupid amounts of money on a single dinner and not worry too much where the money was coming from. But that's a voracious thing. Suddenly standard brands weren't good enough, I wanted Pink Tartan and Luis Vuitton. Sure, a BMW sounds good - we worked hard didn't we deserve it? One day, my husband and I looked at each other and we realized that we'd been sucked into the vortex that is consumerism. We were working to amass STUFF. It wasn't the life we wanted. 
First attempt to simplify
Fast forward to now. I'm quite a bit older than that 18 year old girl with dollar signs in her eyes. We live a pretty low key life on a small pension that would astound most people. Our clothes are the best quality we can afford, but most of our money goes to traveling; to building up EXPERIENCES instead of that intoxicating, addicting STUFF that seems to have its grip on most of the world. I see no sense in paying $6000 for a something that I can pick up for $25. Having Louboutins doesn't define me as a person - and why should it?

How have I come to this? Part of it was just personal revelation, but having seen many poor countries, I've come to realize that the accumulation of wealth has very little to do with happiness. Of course, having no money sucks...worrying about how you're going to feed yourself or your children is a nightmare, but once you have a place to keep you safe and sheltered (whether you rent or own), a reliable stream of sustenance and a means to educate your kids, you don't really need a lot more. (Okay, I'm fan of hot water and internet access, but I'm a spoiled North American.) 
The new digs...still not shabby
In my work, I saw people clawing and grasping to keep every penny that's in their account and I'm not talking about the poor folks. I've talked to people whose only purpose in life is to accumulate more: money, cars, houses, and for what? I've never met anyone who thought they had enough money, myself included. I've seen VERY large bank accounts and balance sheets and still it wasn't enough. What's worse is they were willing to throw less fortunate people under the bus to acquire more. Ironically, the more they had the more they were terrified of losing it. They were losing sleep, getting old and making themselves sick with the pursuit of it.  Sort of like drug addicts, actually, now that I think of it.  It is the thing that drives the world's problems today. If only we could all step back, look around and say "it's enough, I have enough" then we could make the world more peaceable, kind and just.
Travel is AWESOME (when we can afford it)
I know a lot of you are fighting the hard fight - that the ends seem so far apart that they'll never connect, I've been you and my only advice is that you must believe that you can do it. For the rest of you, caught in the hamster wheel of status, maybe take a moment and just be. Be grateful for your health (if you have it), your loved ones, the clothes on your body and the food in your cupboard. I'm going to paraphrase something I read online, but can't source now: "If you aren't happy with everything that you have now, why do you think that buying more will change that?" (If you know the source, please let me know!)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Spelunking in Baños de Cuenca


As most of you know, I'm on the sidelines for a while with a stupid injury/sciatica, but that can't keep a good man down. Ron headed out to the "bedroom community" of Baños de Cuenca for a challenging hike and a bit of spelunking. (Also known as caving.) I leave it to Ron to share his hike with you.

Our group of intrepid hikers met in El Centro and then caught a bus taking the 10 of us in the direction of Baños for our newest adventure. 

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View of  Bañosfrom the trail
Brian Bitner, our guide, had discovered these caves while wondering the hills and cliffs around Baños, so he invited us and we responded with enthusiasm. It had rained heavily the night before so the trails were a little more slippery and treacherous than usual especially for us, who are not in their twenties anymore. We persevered and made it up the steep slippery trails and arrived at the first of two caves. 

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Inside were the remnants from people that were obviously mining the caves, as well as the ones that decided to use it for romance and partying (the places we find in our youth). For anyone interested in geology, the veins of quartz and other minerals inside were equally fascinating.

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After spending some time exploring the caves it was time to head back and that is when the adventure took a turn for the silly and a time for some of the group to revisit childhood thrills. As I mentioned early, it had rained heavily the night before and the trails were fairly muddy which made the descent far trickier than the ascent and a number of the group decided it was a lot safer and quicker to just slide down the steep trails on their backsides, which obviously made for a lot of hilarity.

By the time we reached the bottom of the trail some of the group looked like little kids who had been playing in the mud with their behinds and legs totally drenched and laughing histerically. All in all, it was a fun adventure and a great hike.
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From there we hiked off to Baños for a cold beer and some sustenance after our workout. Afterwards, some decided to partake in the hot baths in Baños to sooth the muscles and others of us set off home and other destinations.

Tomorrow: repelling and who knows what awaits the future, the world is full of adventure waiting to be experienced.