Saturday, 5 October 2013

Mama Negra says free booze and more pocket rape - OK!

It feels like I haven’t posted a blog for quite a while but in reality is hasn’t been that long and it is probably down to the fact that we have been as busy as Rolf Harris and his defence team.
It is also quite surreal that I am writing this post on board the luxurious Beluga Yacht as we float in the middle of the Galapagos Islands; but the details of this mind blowing trip must wait until next time.

So, let’s back track a couple of weeks. Crossing the border from Colombia into Ecuador was the easiest yet; simply a case of stamping out, watching a baby slip over, smash its head and then throw up (it could well be dead now), cross a bridge where we had to navigate by a very excited drug sniffer dog which sniffed with his wet nose all over our toothbrushes (we forgot this and used them later) and then stamping into Ecuador; the entire process lasted a little more than 20 minutes.
From the border we caught a taxi to the nearest bus terminal and walked straight onto a waiting bus that would take us to the market town of Otavalo.
At the bus terminal there was a toilet attendant so adamant on cleaning the toilet at that moment in time that he mopped my feet whilst I was having a wee!

It took us a little over 2 hours to make our way through the dry and desert like Andean foothills to Otavalo to a bus stop on the side of the Pan American Highway where we were unceremoniously dumped at the roadside with no idea of which way to go.
Fortunately we had booked ahead with regards to accommodation so once an available taxi did pass we were able to jump aboard and head to a little piece of Ecuadorian perfection.
We decided to treat ourselves for 3 days (just because we could) and booked into the Rose Cottage, an English owned retreat located high up in the hills above the town with spectacular views across the surrounding valleys, mountains and volcanoes. It really was a dramatic setting.
With regards to our actual room, we had a little (being the operative word) stand-alone cottage that was suitable for persons of a Hobbit-like nature – so alright for us!

We didn’t leave this place on the first day and were content to sit about and watch the world go by. I also tried the zip line which didn’t work and only later saw the sign declaring that nobody over the age of 12 should ride it, which is why it couldn’t take my weight and dragged me though the sheep poo. Arancha spent her time playing with the resident dog, Matthew, which she insisted had the best personality of any animal she had ever met. She spoke of him as though he was a human friend!

We awoke to a gloriously sunny morning and as well as getting a great view of the huge Imbabura volcano we were able to see a snow capped mountain for the first time in 7 months – exciting!
We caught a taxi over to the other side of the valley to visit Parque Condor. One bird we hope to see in the wild here is the Andian Condor, a bird with a 3 metre wingspan, but just in case we miss it we decided to guarantee a sighting by visiting this Dutch owned reserve. As well as housing this magnificent specimen, where 2 of them were nice enough to put on a very good show for us, we got to see a range of eagles, hawks and other birds of prey.
We didn’t hang around for too long as the sand fly population here was having a field day on my legs – I later looked like I had chicken pox – and once we left we decided to walk back to town through the farmlands via the Lago de San Pablo, a cobalt blue lake that sat at the foot of that enormous volcano, which itself had little villages dotted about on its lower slopes.
It was such a lovely walk that Arancha got over excited and took a poo in the bushes.

Along the way we also visited El Lechero, a very old tree believed to have healing properties but the best thing about it was Arancha asking a local “Donde esta la lechuga?” – translated to “Where is the lettuce?”
I don't know why but the guy still guessed that we were after the tree.
Once making it down to town we found the indoor food market and had our first experience of real Ecuadorian food. I am definitely a fan!
How can you not be, when huge spit roasted pigs are on offer and pork scratchings come with everything? Also, who would've thought that popcorn in soup would work? It's delicious.

The main reason for us to visit Otavalo was to attend the world famous Saturday market, allegedly the largest in the whole of South America.
We got a lift down to the animal market, held on a large field just out of town and a place where you can turn up to buy sack loads of kittens, puppies (in sacks), horses, cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and guinea pigs. The field was alive with the sound of squealing pigs, too stubborn to follow their new owners and horny bulls trying to mount the nearest cow.
It was a cacophony of sound and an organised chaos but was a very nice experience as we didn’t really see any animal cruelty; just animals handled with a firm hand.
The streets of Otavalo itself were now transformed into one big market stall and given enough time and financial resources I am sure AJ could’ve bought a new wardrobe of alpaca wool made goods. There was actually some really good stuff on offer and if we have the time and money we may return at the end of the trip to stock.
We did flash the cash ($5) to buy a wooden incense holder for no other reason than it was really cool – a cylindrical wooden tube with an Indian head carved onto it which appears to be smoking when the incense stick is lit. Not trashy at all!
We also made sure to head back to the food market to eat some more of that succulent sweet piggy – which is maybe why they were squealing on the field before??
I would add more pictures of the market but the reasons for this will become apparent later on in this post.

Next on the agenda was Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. All of the guidebooks recommended that foreigners should stay in the La Mariscal area of the city; the ‘new city’ and that advice is a crock of sh*t.
Firstly, every westerner must have read the same book as it took us an age to find a room and secondly, why would you want to stay here? It was devoid of all trace of Ecuadorian life and culture.
The ‘new city’ is a boring and crap place during the daytime and at the night time, whilst the restaurants and bars look nice and are quite glitzy I can frequent those sorts of gaffs when I am back home.
We arrived quite late in the afternoon so just had to deal with the area for a few hours so our first task once settled into a room was to find an alternative one in the ‘old city’.
We moved over to the old city the next day and with the aid of Arancha’s map reading skills and marking an ‘X’ on the spot we got the taxi driver to drop us at the required location, which was in fact in totally the wrong place. Several questions to locals plus a visit to an internet café saw us find our accommodation over an hour later.
In her defence the hostel was marked in 3 different places on 3 different websites – so she tells me!

The ‘old’ Quito is a really nice and vibrant place to spend a few days and is small enough to walk around and see most things in a day.
Now I am really sick to death of looking around churches but Quito has 2 of the best.
First up was the imposing gothic style Basilica Del Voto Nacional – a monsterous place built upon a hill overlooking the city in all directions and quite good fun as you can climb to the top of the spires – a task not for the faint hearted as this is done outside where it is very windy and the steps are iron grate, so you can see down to where you would die if you slipped.
The next church is Iglesia De La Compania – another of those churches which is a disgrace to the so called ideal of religion. This place is massive and is completely covered in approximately 7 tonnes of gold leaf. This place is bedazzled to the max and the alter at the front was so big that we were able to play ‘eye spy with my golden eye’ for a good 20 minutes.

A must do for all tourists when in Quito is to take a local bus an hour north to the Midal Del Mundo – a complex containing a museum, gallery and monument built atop the equatorial line. Here you are able to stand / lie astride the northern and southern hemispheres (the ‘equator’ painted on the ground with a yellow line) next to the sign declaring that you are stood precisely at latitude 0',0',0'.
The place is as cheesy as f*ck but you gotta do it.
The best thing about this place is that it isn’t even at the equator!! About a hundred years ago the French visited Ecuador and declared this location to be latitude 0',0',0' and therefore the equatorial divide despite the protests of the local indigenous population that it lay 250 metres to the north.
Being western and white the French told them that they knew best and that this was the correct site and so built the monument.
The development of GPS in the 1970’s settled the debate once and for all – the French were wrong and the locals of course were correct.
So yes, I did cross the equator when I was on the bus traveling to Quito, but I didn’t truly stand astride it when I paid for the privilege – which is sort of ridiculous isn’t it?

We also decided to summit another volcano and so set off via the cable car that provided us with a bird’s eye view of Quito from an altitude of 4,100 metres, to climb to the top of this extinct beast.
We underestimated how difficult and tricky this climb would be and when we got to within 200 metres of the peak our climb was transformed from a challenging walk into a hair-raising scramble over lose scree and rocks at near 70 degree angles. This is the first time that I have been more than a little worried during a ‘climb’ and Arancha must’ve felt the same because she shouted at me when I disappeared around a corner to find an alternative route and didn’t return for a few minutes.
Apparently she had been hanging to the side of the volcano as the rocks slipped out from under her.
I of course found this really funny and so she shouted more. 
Anyway, we made it to the top at 4,700 metres and the view out across the crater, half of which had been blown away by its final eruption was well worth the effort and healthy amount of fear!
The total round trip was about 5 hours but was quite hard at the altitude so I was well pleased when we got back down and could venture once again to the little Italian restaurant close to our hostel and gorged myself stupid on excellent Calzone – you need to eat familiar food now and again or else you go crazy.

During our time in Quito we became friends with a German couple, Patrick and Agnes and along with them we left Quito the next day for Latacunga.
It was on this bus ride that our travel luck began to turn sour for a few days. When getting onto the bus a guy behind told us all not to put our bags in the overhead compartments as there were known thieves operating on these buses and to instead put them by our feet – which we had also read.
Well, in turns out that this guy was the said thief and within 5 minutes of Arancha’s bag being on the floor by her feet he had been under the seat and removed her i-pad. We obviously only discovered this once we got to the hostel but we know it must’ve been during the first 5 minutes as Arancha purposely moved the bag to sit in front of her feet rather than under her seat. What a complete arsehole.
To say we were annoyed was an understatement; it is just plain horrible that people steal your stuff. I hate thieves.
I would say that we do not work to buy nice things so that others can steal them, but we don’t work!
So our first afternoon in Latacunga was wasted walking between police stations to find the correct one to report the theft for insurance reasons – not a pleasant backpacking afternoon.

The reason for our actual visit to Latacunga was to hike part of the Quilotoa Loop; a 3, 4 or 5 day trek through the Ecuadorian highlands.
Having no desire to hang around in this now tainted town we were on the 8am bus the next morning with Patrick, Agnes and 2 of their friends from home to start the walk.
We decided to do the walk in reverse so actually started at the supposed pinnacle point of the loop – Lake Quilotoa – yet another of those beautifully clear blue volcanic lakes sitting in the crater of a long dormant / extinct volcano.
As far as these lakes go; this was number 4, it was well worth the visit and maybe would’ve have been even more impressive if we had walked for 3 days to get to it.
However, we did it in reverse and the entire hike was excellent – equally due to the surroundings as well as the company we kept.
Patrick, Agnes, Florien and Christian were awesome people to spend a few days with. Like all Germans they speak perfect English, are polite and courteous and have a great sense of humour which was sealed over jokes about the “f*cking French”.
They are also all highly intelligent people with Patrick being a surgeon and the other 3 in their final year of medical school – the knowledge of which would come in useful in a few days time.

I won’t bore you with details of the trek but essentially we traversed and crossed the length of a deep canyon for 3 days passing through tiny villages, farmland along the way, walking along canyon cliff edges and marvelling at the surrounding lush countryside.
For our evenings we stayed in a couple of beautiful villages high up in the hills where the price of a room included dinner and breakfast and one of the nights also happened to coincide with the start of Octoberfest in Munich. With all but one of the guys being from Munich they insisted that we have a few beers to celebrate which were served by the elderly owner who we all felt was like a little old second mum.

Once the trek was complete we needed to catch the bus back to Latacunga and this journey was worth noting for 2 reasons:
1.     We got to see Volcano Cotopaxi close up for the first time – the world’s largest active volcano and an absolute giant. It is the perfect cone shape and is so high that it is covered in perpetual snow. You can actually climb to the top but we really did not want to do another night time trek where beginning at 1am is the only option. I have no photos of this - again I will explain soon
2.     We witnessed a dog suicide attempt – a dog leapt from the window of the moving bus and was only saved because the sleeping owner had the leash attached to her wrist! Giving that we were driving along a cliff edge the vision of a dog hanging by the side of a bus, choking as it swings looking down at a 1,000 metre drop still amuses me (but not AJ). The story ended happily as the owner quickly awoke and dragged the dog back through the window.

We had all planned the complete the Quilotoa Loop in 3 days so that we could return to Latacunga in time for the Mama Negra Festival – and what a party it was. Probably my best travel party ever!!!
The origins of the festival are in honour of the "Virgen de la Merced" and the Virgin is venerated because she stopped the Cotopaxi Volcano eruption in 1742.

The 6 of us headed to the centre of town not really knowing what to expect but it didn’t take us long to find the festivities.
The premise of the early part of the day was to watch the parade which was this:
A group of burly guys would take it in turns to carry a cooked pig strapped to a crucifix on his back, sort of like a Lady Gaga meat style backpack. Along with the pig were skinned, cooked ad speared guinea pigs, chickens and rabbits with a number of bottles full of booze strapped to them to finish the look. You could tell by the way the men were swaying and taking frequent rests that this was a heavy load.
Following these men were a troop of traditional Ecuadorian dancers all trying to out dress the others in as brightly coloured dresses as possible; and these dancers were followed in turn by the band.
Now imagine this one ‘group’ passing you as you stand on the street curb and then try to imagine the sight of over 50 groups. We stood for 90 minutes watching pig after pig, dancing girl after dancing girl and trumpeter after trumpeter pass us by with no end in sight.
Also homemade strong alcoholic drinks are freely passed between one another along the parade route, which can be quite chaotic, closing the road at times and making the route unpassable.

Eventually enough was enough so we made our way up to the finale point to watch the participants finish and thirstily start guzzling beers as we ourselves gorged on spit roast pork and beer.

We decided to leave to try and find something else to see and do and as we headed down the hill towards the town centre we looked down onto someone’s back garden and saw a small ‘family’ gathering that looked quite lively. All of a sudden they looked up, saw us nosing at them and beckoned us to come down to join in – and this is when it all began for us.
So myself, Arancha and the 4 Germans entered the house and found ourselves stood in the middle of 40 or so Ecuadorians who were not actually a family, they were one of the parade groups, and to confirm this there was the pig on a crucifix!!
It was a little too quiet as everyone stared and took the sight in of 6 white people standing in their midst so Patrick asked if there was any music.
“Musica?, Si, claro!” (Music, yes of course!)
And with that the entire band that I had somehow hadn't even noticed standing above us on a ledge began to belt out the official music of the parade.
Before any of us had a chance to enjoy the show we were literally whirled off our feet by the dancing troop and made to dance for the entirety of the 15 minute tune. I was dancing with a really nice and beautifully dressed Ecuadorian girl who guided me through the whole dance but did I feel a tit when I trod on her foot? Yes!
Not only were we expected to dance, we also had to down shots of booze, helpfully poured into our mouths by our generous guests whilst trying to avoid the tradition of getting whipped with a bunch of stinging nettles across the arms.
We entered the house quite sober but within 45 minutes of being there the party was over and we were all drunk.
I upset that it had ended soon but the old dear whose house it was consoled me by insisting that I eat lots and lots of roast pork.
We stood around not really knowing what to do next when a few of the troop ran back in to ask what we were doing and to hurry up. Confusedly, we walked out onto the main street and were dumbfounded when we realised that it was only half time in terms of the street parade. The team were now loading the pig back onto the first unlucky soul, the dancers were limbering up and we were expected to join them!!
Not only was this a great honour but our ‘team’ weren’t just participating, they were leading the whole f*cking thing. Mama Negra herself was riding directly in front of us!

So imagine the scene – thousands (no exaggeration) of Ecuadorians had lined the streets of the town to watch the parade and they were greeted as expected with a Mama Negra followed closely behind by the first pig bearers. Now, instead of the usual dancers they had a line of 6 westerners running about feeding the pig bearers our beer as they in turn fed us their sweet, sweet alcoholic juices. At times we even entered the crowd to feed them.
Closely following us were the dancers and then the band and even when we did try to step aside to watch the band members would insist that we got back into the midst of the party.
It was so much fun and we were all so very drunk. Along the way we collected 2 other Finnish girls to join our merry band of travellers and it must be at about 6pm that my memory blacks out.
I have snippets of memories and they are:
  •  Patrick – he is a big burly German lad who kept running into the crowd and scaring the local girls with his size and also due to this he was allowed to actually carry the pig. It was hilarious as he stood for the first time with the full weight of the meat and the booze towering above him and bearing down on him that he immediately swayed to the side and nearly took out a group of locals
  • Generally being part of the pig bearing male group and sharing alcohol as well as all jumping into each other’s photos. This includes the pig bearers
  • Walking through a particularly busy part of town where the chants turned from one of a religious nature to “Gringos, gringos, gringos”
  • Everyone being so friendly and hugging us
  • Laughing and laughing very hard, for hours

I really cannot tell you a lot more from that day as I really have no memory – so much so that I even lost my camera and have no idea how. Was I robbed? Raped? Gave it away? This why I do not have many great photos to share.
I was totally gutted. I don’t really care about the camera itself but the photos I took during that day were ones that I wanted to keep as that sort of day is rare and a banker for the memory.

Still, I fared better than Arancha and Patrick who both began to vomit in our bedroom at the same time – Arancha all over the bed and Patrick went one better and did it all over himself.
I missed this as I was still out but poor Agnes had to guide them both to the same bathroom so she could use her medical training to keep an eye on both of them and make sure that they didn’t choke and DIE!
I didn’t fare much better. I made it home ok and went straight to bed but I felt so rough the next day that I threw up over myself in the shower. I just couldn’t be bothered to move to the toilet!!
Still aggrieved at losing my camera we left Latacunga with mix feelings – yes we had lost the camera and had an i-pad stolen but the trek was brilliant, we had made 4 good friends and we had been part of a famous festival and lived the Mama Negra dream.

Next stop was Guayaquil. We ventured here only so that Arancha could visit the Australian embassy (for work reasons) but apparently that office no longer existed so that was a bloody waste of time.
Still, it was a good job we did come here because Arancha’s camera lens had broken and with that now being our only camera we could not possibly go to the Galapagos without one. A guy at the hostel knew of a little camera dealer / repairer and not unsurprisingly he was not only able to repair it he could also do it in 3 hours and for $50 – therefore saving us about $800 for a new one.
Guayaquil is quite a non-descript city and I don’t have any views on it except that the backpackers here were the sort of more hard core ones who are really friendly and kind. When they found out about the theft and broken camera they offered to lend us one for the islands.
Now that is a world I want to live in!

So with everything ready and a last minute flight booked and paid for we headed to Guayaquil airport to take the 1hr 50min hop over to the promised land – The Galapagos Islands.
We had nothing booked, no clues and no ideas but as usual it all worked out and all I can say is that I doubt any other trip or excursion will ever compare to the experiences we have had in this very special place.
It deserves a post all of its own and so that is what it shall get.
All I will say is that if humans hadn't existed and the planet was left to its own devices this is how I imagine the planet Earth to be.
It absolutely rocks and we are 2 very lucky and happy backpackers!!!

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