Week 13-16:La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosi, Uyuni

Shortly after our last post, Tyler and I split up. He stayed in La Paz for another week while I, Jeff, took the bus to Cochabamba.

Written by Tyler Depke

This was the most non-touristy part of my journey in South America as I spent a week going around offices in La Paz distributing the documentary that I had completed the year before. The most exciting part about this was remeeting the same people who were excited to see the documentary that had been sitting within the city itself the entire year, but needed me to talk to them about everything that I had done.

Upon my first remeeting with my public relations contact for the water management company, I arrived 45 minutes later than I had expected, and was welcomed by a surprise lunch (trout with rice and salad) with my contact, another PR lady, and the CEO, who I had waited a week and a half for an interview the previous year. We watched my documentary while the CEO was interrupted every 5 minutes by a phone call or someone knocking at the door. After watching the documentary, they helped me organize a presentation for ABIS the Association of Sanitary Engineers as well as anyone I wanted to invite.

After hanging around La Paz with, Dan, his roommate Travis, and some of the new friends (for some reason when Jeff left I met all these girls…) I made, I gave the presentation, got some decent feedback, and headed on my way to Cochabamba, almost missing the bus and running in the rain to catch it.

Written by Jeffrey Vredenburg

I was put up by some friends who work as missionaries in the area, and helped out when I could.  To accommodate the groups that travel to help out the mission, they own a hacienda on the northern hills overlooking the city. That is where I hung my hat for two weeks, and besides the time that I was helping out with the mission, I made fruit smoothies in the fully stocked kitchen, hung in the hammock, rode mountain bikes, and read novels from their stocked library.

Tough Guys 2

Tyler, Ted, and Jeff with Cochabamba in the background.

La Hacienda

La Hacienda where we lived in Cochabamba.

Cochabamba is the city that Tyler studied abroad in last year, so he was keen on spending some time with his friends that he madelast time he was here.  When he arrived we met up with his family for lunch and played frontón for an afternoon.

Frontonis what the Bolivians call a version of racquetball played on an outdoor court with three walls, the highest being 50 feet. We played doubles, each team placing one player on the front half of the court and one in the backcourt. Each player´s task is vastly different, the front guys needed agility and to be cunning, as they could often tap the ball (same blue balls as in racquetball) to win on an angle, while the backcourt players wailed on the ball to set up the points or tried to hit winners down the lines (which could have been as far as 100 feet.)

After a few weeks of resting up in the Hacienda, we were ready for more adventures.

We set out for Potosí but had to make a pit stop Oruro because all the overnight buses to Potosí were full. We arrived at two in the morning and went on a wild goose chase to find a hostel in a town that is only known for the second most exciting carnival in South America.  The fourth hostel that we stopped at also seemed to be a screaming dud. The teenager that answered the door squintilyclaimed the rooms to be filled. Already frustrated by our unfruitful search that was getting more expensive by each taxi jaunt, I interrogated him, “But why are there no rooms anywhere in the city? It’s not high season, this is not a tourist town, and we are not at the main hostels.” He looked at me sheepishly and grudgingly allowed, “OK, we do have a room, you can come in.” Dumbfounded, Tyler and I walked in and promptly went to bed.

The next day we left after breakfast of an omeletteserved on a bed of rice (Seemingly, a meal without rice is no meal at all) and a five-hour high-altitude bus ride through the Altiplano left us in the highest city in the world and on the doorstep of Hell. Potosí is a mining town that used to be one of the richest cities in the world. In the 15th century, silver was found on the mountain ”CerroRico,” the town was built and the Spanish Monarchy was quick to jump on the mining/stealing bandwagon. The town grew to more than 200,000 people during the Spanish Colonial rule and exported thousands of tonnes of silver back to the motherland to fill Spanish coffers. Since the price of silver has dropped in the last decades the town has slipped into disparity, and the still gruelling task of mining the mountain has shifted gears from only concentration on silver to silver and other minerals such as Zinc, Magnesium, Tin, and Borax. Some silver remains, mostly in impure form that needs refinement. Everyone in the town has connections to mining, and it’s a vicious cycle withan average life expectancy of 40 years for the miners whose deathleaves their kids fatherless and needing to go work in the mines to provide for their family. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Over the course of the life of the mines, more than 5 million people have died from terrible working conditions and overwork. A real Hell on earth.

Of course, we wanted to see what all the media was about, so we signed up for a tour of a working silver mine. Thirteen dollars got us all that follows:

To prepare for the mines, first we had to gear up in full mining equipment: pants, jackets, helmets, headlamps, and most importantly, scarves to filter the dusty air.

Tough Guys 1

Enuff Said.

Our next stop was the miner’s market. There our guide gave us an intro to the life of the miners. They haveno set hours, just quotas that they need to fill. Usually they work fivedays a week and take off the weekend. Sounds normal right?   Depending on how lucky they are during the week, they make up for the missed days by working up to triple shifts on Friday (and put up withit by drinking pure cane alcohol all day). That’s right, to alleviate the monotony and horrible conditions of the mines, the miners chew coca to kill fatigue and hunger, and drink 96 percent cane alcohol to pass the time.  Then they go and operate heavy machinery and blow things up.  We bought these products to take down into the mines as an offering to the miners.  Most shocking was the readily available dynamite. Our guidewas more than willing to prove how harmless it was by taking it out of its wrapper (it had the consistency of Playdough) stomping on it, mashing it, and asking for a light to prove that it could not be set off by mere flame. This would not have been very useful to the miners, so we also bought a fuse (three minutes, madein Bolivia. They also sold Peruvian fuses but they burned too fast and were of shoddy quality) and a catalyst.  Ready for the mines, we had one more stop at a refinery where raw chemicals were hooked up to seemingly perpetual motion machines that spun, cranked, and whirred to purify the ore every step of the way. This process produced pure silver dust ready for transport. Chemists that had never attended school overlooked their chemicals with hawk-like concern; if something went wrong they would have to pay for the ruined silver.
Potosi
Potosi from near the mine entrances with Cerro Rico in the background.
Potosi Mine Entrance
Mine Entrance.
Finally, we drove up to the mountain and entered the mines, walking deeper and deeper along mining-car tracks withan ever present worry that one would come around the corner before we could get out the way and the 1 tonne cart would careen into us with its precious cargo. That never happened, and the discomforts we faced were low ceilings, never-ending dust and ever increasing temperature (It can get as high as 131 degrees Fahrenheit.). We went down three levels, almost 250 feet and saw a few crews working on extracting new veins, pulling carts, and loading an elevator that would take the ore to the surface. We also learned about the culture in the mines. We learned how the miners believe that God does not exist under the ground and thus worship the devil. Each mining cooperation has their own “Tio de la mina” (Uncle of the mine) which is represented by a statue of the devil adorned with offerings of alcohol, coca, cigarettes, and even llama fetuses all for protection under the ground.  Ironically, the word “Tio” comes from when the Spanish called it a “Dios” or God. The Miners could not pronounce the D and used a T instead, giving the word uncle instead of God. Week 4

El Tio

As sobering as the experience was, it was a great opportunity to see what the lives of the people of Potosi consisted of and was  educational.  We were happy to leavethe mines, to breathfresh air, and to see the sun. Our guides had one last surprise for us, and we prepared the dynamite that we had bought earlier, lit it, and even posed for pictures withit before running it over to a side of the mountain to watch it blow four foot craters where large rocks had been moments before. As they say here, “In Bolivia, everything is possible, and nothing is safe.”

We were planning on going to the Salar de Uyuni after tour, but when travelling, you must be flexible.  Sunday, the sixth of December, Bolivia had its national election. Everything in the entire country shuts down so people can go back to their home villages to vote. There are no cars on the streets unless they have been given permission by the government and havea special permit. There are also no public gatherings besides the voting locations, and things such as church are strictly forbidden. No transportation leaves or arrives in the cities, and all businesses are closed except a few restaurants. Withnothing to do, we stayed in our hostel which thankfully had a theatre room and watched 5 full length films. Livin´ the dream…

PS. Evo won

Written by Tyler

So after leaving Potosi, we continued on the geologist playground to Uyuni, the largest Salt Flat in the world. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon, the Salar de Uyuni was one of the only places on the Earth that they did not recognize.  Now is most widely known for its lithium deposits.

We walked into our guide book’s recommended agency, and the lady who was in there greeted us and before saying anything else she told us, “There are four beautiful girls going on a three-day tour leaving tomorrow morning.” We looked at each other and smiled and as she continued whispering, “They aren’t Israelis!”

So basically Israelis have developed a bad stereotype around other travelers in South America because they often travel in large groups, they are loud, sometimes rude, do not speak very much Spanish, and exclusively speak Hebrew among themselves which no one else really speaks so other travelers have a very low patience for them. We have had the privilege to run into some that fully fulfill this stereotype, and others who are just about the nicest and funniest guys you ever wanted to meet (that would be the non-Bolivians, non Tyler, Jeff, or Dans, in the group jungle pic from the last post).

All in all, after the three day tour we spent most of the time in the car driving the some of the most remote places I’ve ever been, but probably would have been better to only do one day. The first day was the only day we went to the Salt Flat, got some pics, went to an island in the middle, and droveout of it. We stayed at a cool salt hotel with one of the nicest bathrooms in South America, and managed to throw a frisbee around for a little bit, before the salt flats wind engulfed any skillz we thought we had.

Salt Hotel

Salt Hotel, Salt Beds, Salt floor, Salt Light Fixtures. At least we had real pillows.


Isla de Pescado

Cactus at Isla del Pescado with the Salt Flat in the background.


The group!

Group of new friends

Nice Reflection!

Reggaetonero Glasses…Check.       Sweet Reflection…Check.
Don´t go closer!

Jeff says STOP so you should STOP!


Don´t climb this Rock.

The Guide Book says “YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO CLIMB IT”, so what does Jeff do…yeah, he’s a rebel alright.
Nice Rocks

Jeff with pile of rocks that he made.

Geologists ROCK!

So “geologicos” translates to either geologists or geologic figures. Literally it would translate as attractive geologists, but it’s actually geologic attractions.

Tough Guys 3

You should see the OTHER pictures.

Jeff in Salar de Uyuni

Oh Yeah! (Nice roots!)

The next two days consisted of driving around (NOT in the salt flat) in a mountainous region looking at colored lagoons, with flamingos scattered about. The lagoons were quite low, flamingos aren’t that exciting, and most of the time was spent in a jeep. The final day we say some “geysers”, which for anyone who has been to Yellowstone, or looked into a good geology book, were something that could have been easily blinked over. I was unimpressed, Jeff was “indifferently curious” as we continued to a hot springs, which was not as good as Baños, Ecuador. The rest of the day we basically drove back to Uyuni for 9 hours. The fact that our guidewas not enthusiastic, spoke the usual poor English, didn’t explain in nearly enough detail anywhere that we went, and the cook we had said maybe 5 words that Jeff had prod out of her. Besides that, we got some great pics, met some awesome people from our tour, a Danish couple and two Australian girls, who we are now traveling withto Argentina with another Australian guy and a New Zealander.

For those of you who have not traveled, here is a little breakdown of group dynamics. Many times, people who are traveling solo, or small groups will unite, and travel together for a while, leave on a different path, and everyone goes their own way in the end. Jeff and I have yet to “travel with” another group or anyone for any extended period of time, until now. We didn’t come on this trip to make friends with other tourists, but to immerse as much as possible into the Latin American culture to get the most out of that particular culture. Although playing some of the best cards I’ve played in a long time, having ridiculous discussions about Australian, New Zealand, Irish, and American accents, and overall having a fun time, Jeff and I have done a good job improving our Spanish, and really trying to get away from the gringo tourist stereotype.

We have to be in Buenos Aires for a flight the 17th of December at 11PM and we are nearly to Argentina.  We will cross over tomorrow afternoon and make our way to Buenos Aires.

Llama, Llama, Duck
Llama!

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Week 10-12: Lago Titicaca – Isla de los Uros, Huayna Potosi, Biking the Death Road, and the Jungle at Rurre

From Cusco, we took an 8 hour bus to Puno where we joined a tour to Lake Titicaca and La Isla de los Uros. It was a day trip to an area of  islands where they took us around and showed us what the different islands were like. Some of the islands have been there for 70 years, and they are entirely made of reeds taken from the lake. It is a continual process to pick more reeds and add them to the islands so they do not break apart. If there are more than 10 or so people on an island they can decide to divide themselves in half and make two islands! It was amazing to see the people that lived on the islands have solar panels to run their TVs and lights, almost all of the comforts of home!

La Isla de los Uros
Isla de los Uros Tourist Market

Julio Isla de los Uros

Solar panel!

Isla de los Uros Solar Panel

Next, we went to the Bolivia side of the Lake, and took some pictures of us at the lake (The highest navigable lake in the world!)

Julio Lago Titikaka

After staying in La Paz for a bit, we decided to continue our adventure and climb Huyana Potosi, a 6,088m mountain that is visible from the valley of La Paz almost 2,500m below. It was a three day, two night ordeal, with the first few days used for training on how to climb with crampons and ice picks, and acclimating to the altitude. The last day is explained in (maybe too much) detail by Tyler here:

Basically we woke up at 12:30AM, ate breakfast and started our ascent at 2AM. In the middle of the snow and a lightning storm we walked up the glacier with our crampons, ice axe, and harnesses all ready for action only a little nervous about the lightning. Our headlamps showed us everything in sight of about 10ft, while the lightning overhead would light up the entire sky for about half a second revealing the monster of a mountain range that surrounded us. At about 3AM we came to a point where we could see the lights from the city of El Alto lighting up the adjacent mountain range. The sun began burning a deep orange and pink at about 4AM giving the entire backdrop to our hike a sensation of hope.

It took 4.5hrs to get to the top and we stopped for a half hour in total. Our guide kept saying that all the other guides would constantly pull on the rope (which was attached to each individual via harness) forcing the group to go, while he was more calm about things and would let us take breaks whenever we wanted. His actions were very contradictory to his words as we passed every other group that started before us except for one, and were only passed by one guy who flew up and flew down by himself. Close to the top, about 150m from the summit, the guide told me that I couldn’t go any further, that I wouldn’t have enough energy to get to the top from the last steep part. If I hadn’t had known Spanish, I probably would have had to stay there, but I argued with him, refusing to stay there and wait for them to come back down. The guide was in a hurry the entire time, insisting that we needed to get down, while the people that we initially passed took up to 9.5hrs when our total was only about 7.5hrs. He really was quite contradictory, and although we had quite a bit of disputes, we all arrived safely back to the high camp at about 10AM exhausted.

On the way down, I was on the edge of fainting nearly the entire time. There was a thin path of solid ice that if you stepped to the side, you would fall 3ft into the snow, which I did quite frequently as I couldn’t move my legs very easily, but more because I just couldn’t keep my eyes open and think clearly. As soon as we arrived to the high camp I lied down on some semi comfortable rocks trying to take a nap, but not making any progress I basically walked to the little house. WARNING NASTY GOODNESS SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DONT LIKE NASTY! As I arrived inside, it was too loud with all the other people so I went back out, tried to talk to some friendly Norwegians, but started dry heaving. Basically I hadn’t drank enough water on the accent or decent and was not only feeling the effects of altitude sickness but was quite dehydrated. I drank some water which helped me puke a little bit. I tried to eat some high quality chocolate, but couldn’t hold that down either. After puking again I just tried to go and sleep. Waking up 30 min later I felt much better, as before I couldn’t even hear myself think if I moved at all, but now I was good enough to put a pack on and walk down to the other refuge. From here on out it was all easy as I rehydrated and dropped in altitude. Overall, we are all glad we did it, but our mountaineering careers may not continue into the future too much. We also now have a greater appreciation for all those people who mountaineer.

View from the High Refuge at 5,200ish m

DSC_0149


Huyana from the drive up.
Huayna Potosi

Dep practicing climbing.
Dep Ice Climbing

Jeff Climbing

Photos from high camp with a Glacier in the Background. If thats not a good Chrstmas card I don´t know what is!
High Camp Huyana

The four of us almost to the top! Check out that background!

Summit of Huayna Potosi

Sumit pic. Epic.
Julio y Tuhu @ Summit

Other summit
View from the Summit

Our next adventure, only a day and a half later was down hilling the most dangerous road in the world. We rented bikes and descended around 3000m in 5 hours, starting in sight of glaciers and ending well into the jungle. There were some scary parts where we were reminded to be cautious (1000m drop off the edge of the road) or the intermittent crosses from those that took the turns too sharply.

Death Road

Death Road

That is a Coca plantation in the background!

Jeff and Coca Plantation

World's Most Dangerous Road

Car body at the bottom of the cliff, totally wrecked.

Car Body At the Bottom of the Ruta del Muerte

Continuing the trajectory of our bike ride, we were able to catch a bus to Rurrenabaque , a jungle town northeast of La Paz. Some of the best jungle in Bolivia is found there, and after a few tips on who to use we found a tour group and set off in boat. We went up the river Beni for three hours until we arrived at our camp, where we were able to rest for a bit and dry out (rain-forest? Makes sense now). The rain did stop, we met our guide, and set out to find some animals. Over the three days we were able to see Howler Monkeys, wild pigs, tarantulas, tucans, turkeys, chickens, at least ten different species of biting ants, and lots of BIG bugs and unique birds. We even had a chance to fish for piranha, but did not get anything except our bait stolen. Our guide turned out to be an amazing guy, his dad was and had taught him all that he knew about tracking and jungle medicine. Between animal stalking and sightings he would explain how the indigenous people would use the plants to cure all sorts of diseases, and even let us try some of them.We drank water from a root of a tree and it even tasted pretty good.

Jeff putting on a Henna Tattoo from a jungle apple. It goes on clear, and in an hour appears as dark blue. The guide said that it stays on for a week, but after 3 days,  havent seen very much of it fading so yeah…
Jeff Getting a Henna

This is definitely my favorite people picture of the entire trip. Everyone is smiling, the Israeli guy on the left is wearing his “swim trunks” and the smiles really do show how our time was with the guides there and talking with those two Israeli guys.

The Jungle Boys

Jungle hats!
Eddieberto y Daniel and Hats

Written mostly by Jeff Vredenburg and edited by Tyler Depke

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Week 09-ish:Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Rafting

J and T at Wayna

An update from Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain inside of the Macchu Picchu park itself. So the adventure to Macchu Piccu is a little confusing and is basically a big tourist trap so if you plan on visiting it in the future and you want to save a few bucks here is how it all works. Most people take the train to Macchu Piccu owned by the company “Peru Rail”. This is basically an option for anyone that doesnt mind a little cramming into public transport vehicles for extended periods of time or walking for 2+ hours along the train tracks. The cheapest price the train offers is just under $50 each way for what they call the “backpacker” option, while if you go the way that we did, you can get there for $8.33 each way…granted the more expensive option will get you there in 3hrs 9min (from what the website says) while our option took from the bus leaving at 7:15AM and arriving at 7-8PM. So if you are considering this option, make sure you are willing to spend all day. It is basically a question of time vs money. Our journey began waking up at 5AM getting to the bus station for a 6:15Am that apparently doesn’t exist. We took the earliest bus from Cuzco to Santa Maria leaving at 7:15AM and after a painstakingly curvey mountainous road we arrive in Santa Maria 7 hours later. From there we waited about 30 minutes for a Cumbi (public transport minivan) to fill up and we drove about 1.5hrs along some cliff roads to Santa Teresa. From there we paid a taxi to take us to Hidro, a hydroelectric dam, which took about 30 min to get to and is where the path to Aguas Calientes or Macchu Picchu is located. From here we walked for 3 hours along the train tracks dodging only one train that passed and getting some good views in before it got dark.  We met some people on the way that we roomed with and were able to swap stories about travels for a bit before going to bed around 10. The next morning we had another choice to make, take the bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu for $7 (each way) and arrive in 15 minutes, or walk up which was free but took an hour. We weighed our options and decided that it was not worth taking the bus because in order to arrive at the park at a decent hour we would have had to get up early enough to queue up. We bought bread, Oreos, (Pops I can´t get rid of this darned sweet tooth you gave me) and Ritz to eat along the way and walked – climbed is more like it, up 16 levels of stairs lasting from 50 stairs to 500 stairs each. Panting and sweating we reached the entrance to the park with the bus-ers giving us looks (Come on, we had showered the day before) and we entered the park. I am going to let the photos and video do the talking.  Machu Piccu from Wayna Piccu Llamas Window Machu Piccu and Inca Face face

So here Jeff and I are at our fanciest restaurant yet. We dropped $15 on dinner, which is huge when sometimes we spend that much in a day. Yum Yum Yum Guinea Pig and Alpaca steak.

 

After a few days of lying low in Cusco, we decided that we needed some more adventure in our lives. Tyler´s friend Dan recommended a rafting agency staffed by guides that used to work with the US rafting team in the States for 9 years, and when we heard that we were going to be braving some Class 4+ and 5 rapids, we decided that guides with that much experience would be a great way to go. Unfortunately, they were not our actual guides on the trip. Instead we had a guy named Segundo, who turned out to be even better than we expected. He had ten years of experience on the river we were rafting, and was an ex-marine who loved his job and was willing to do anything in his power to make sure his clients were safe and happy. At night he would tell us stories from his experiences on the river, here are two of them that we found especially funny…    

Background: There were two Israeli girls on our trip that were very scared of rapids, flipping, getting wet, and anything that involved speed. To get their goat, our guide Segundo started telling us stories about the people that have died on the river. One of these incidents happened seven years ago, a Canadian girl fell in and did not grab the safety rope and dissappeared under a class 4 rapid and was never found even though they searched for her body for a month.  After this story, the two girls did not want to run the class 4s and 5s that we were planning on running the third day, and he offered this anecdote:   “We had four girls that came out a few months ago that had never rafted before. They were gung-ho about it, and were with a large group of friends who gave them lots of support.  When they heard about the Canadian girl, they decided to walk the class 5 rapids the third day. It took them two hours to walk the rapids, and we ran it in 25 seconds…two hours it took them I mean, they could have died in that 25 seconds, but it would have been much faster…”   Seing the shocked looks on the Israilies faces, he decided to give a personal anecdote to make them feel better.   “Once I almost died.  I was guiding a class 5 and hit a rock poorly and flipped the raft. I was not able to grab the rope, and was thrown into an area that another raft has been lodged and stuck at the bottom. There I was, 5 feet below the water, tangled in the safety rope of a sunken raft. The weight of the rushing water was so strong that I could not even move my arm an inch.  I had a knife strapped to my chest for these kinds of situations, and I was helpless.  But the human body is an amazing thing, you know, they say that humans have three forces when they are in a life or death situation. The first one is a normal response and is weak.  That is why I could not move my arm. The second is much stronger, almost superhuman. With my second force, I was able to rip my arm from the grasp of the current and cut myself free with my knife.” The girls stared in disbelief and fear, and someone asked, “What about the third force?” He smiled. “With my third force I arose from the water with my knife in my teeth and fish in my hair. ”   Luckily we had no experiences like that, and the only flips that we did were on purpose. In the three days we rafter a total of thirteen hours through every class (except 6) and even had some time to fish, roast marshmellows, and sleep hard.  We camped out at night and even though there was intermittent rain we still had a great time. Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (111) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (82) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (80) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (48) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (37) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (34) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (28) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (129) Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (128) Jeff, Segundo, Tyler Apurimac 03 noviembre 2009 (139)

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Week 7-8:Baños, Biking, Buses, Concert and Cuzco

Written by Jeff Vredenburg

Baños is one of my favorite cities in the world. It is a small town that would be perfect either as a weekend getaway or a month long escape from reality. Situated on the side of a 19,000 foot active volcano and at the top of a 60 km valley that leads down to the jungle, it is perfectly situated to give adventure seekers the maximum amount of options. Rafting class V rapids, mountain biking up and down mountain paths, canyon jumping, rock climbing and jungle tours are all available and plausible within 30 minutes of the city, and the plethora of tour operators means that it never hard to find a tour or bargain the price down. Of course, icing on the cake is that after a hard day of climbing or jolting your muscles from a rocky course ride, you can go soak in the geothermal springs that are found all over the city and up the mountain. And with an admission cost of $2 for four hours, it’s hard to resist going every day…or twice a day.
 
Our first day, Tyler and I rented mountain bikes ($4 for the entire day) and rode down from the city toward the jungle. Most of the ride was downhill, including one section where we did not pedal for at least 10 minutes as we zipped through small villages and along gorges with a river far below. We stopped at one of the gorges to see a waterfall accessible only be cable car or a rickety bridge. The bridge was free (terror was the only charge) and we were more than careful crossing it when we saw the broken planks and signs warning against running and jumping.

After a quick snack of tuna fish and Ritz crackers, (I love America) we were back in the saddle and on our way. We made it 45km before it started getting too dark, and we decided that we would hitchhike back to Baños. We waited 20 minutes before a suitable car, a pickup with an open flatbed, passed, and we hopped on.  We wore our helmets (like THAT would have helped) as we tore through the countryside through dripping tunnels and over precarious bridges until we arrived at Baños wind ravaged and hungry.  Hot springs have never felt so good.

 

Day two was a hike, and we started up on the south west side of the city going up stairs reminiscent of the Great Wall. We gained 200m of altitude in 10 minutes, and were only one fourth of the way to the top. The last 600m took the better part of three hours as they wound up the mountain through villages, cow pastures and orchards. The view from the top was spectacular; we overlooked a huge valley that led up to the snow capped volcano Tungurahua.
 
Day three was rock climbing, immense basalt cliffs provided a decent amount of handholds for a few 5’9s and 5´10 climb. The 5´10 was a bit too difficult and when the guide climbed it without ropes in about 15 seconds, we felt all the better about ourselves. Our forearms completely dominated, we returned to our hotel, ate some food and headed to soak in 107 degree water. Next to the hot pool at the springs was a 60 degree pool that we had not dared to enter the first few days, but at the urging of a few natives that praised its health benefits, we started to experiment with the hot-cold treatment to find it extremely soothing. There is nothing quite like being submerged in water so cold that you can´t feel your toes and then jumping into water 50 degrees warmer. 
 
Basalt in Baños (Jeff)

Basalt in Baños (Tyler)

Our last day in  Baños we rented bikes and decided that we were going to bike the trail that we had hiked down a few days before.  We asked the people that lent us the bikes how to get to the trails, and they explained that the trails that we wanted to go down were only for walking and that the bikes that they rented were not for trail riding.   They had decent shocks and were in good condition, and we figured that as long as we took it easy, we would be fine. We found the route to get up the mountain by road and started climbing, 7km and 2 hours later we reached the top, tired and thirsty but ready for the descent. It took us 34 minutes to go down over the steepest terrain I have ever ridden, but except for the path´s lining of barbed wire backed by sheer cliff and the occasional cow or sheep, there was minimal risk involved.  That night we said goodbye to our beloved hot springs and took a night bus to Guayaquil, vive reggaeton.

Vista de Tungurahua arriba de Baños

Candy in the Park (Baños)

 This kid came up to us while we were biding our time in a park in the center of Baños. He was super curious as to what we were up to, and went through all of the things that we let him handle. He didn´t speak coherent Spanish, we think that he might have spoken a bit of Quechua but it may have been 2 year old babble. Anyway, In the midst of our conversation, he was like, ¨Peepee!!!¨ and he started unzipping his pants to pee on the bench. We asked him where his mom was, and after a good deal of arm guestures convinced him to go to his mother so she could take him to a restroom. To our amusement, she unzipped his pants and pulled them down for him, and let him pee in the center of the square. Well, we tried.

Livin the Dream

This is a picture that I snapped of Tyler after he crashed at 2030 one night. It seems like every night after dinner we go back to our room and one of says, “I am just going to rest for a few moments…” and before we know it we are both out cold with our clothes, books, cameras and toiletries all around us. Usually we wake up in an hour or so with enough time to go and enjoy some night-life, but a few times we have just slept through the whole night and awoken the next morning after upwards of 12 hours of sleep thinking, “Was I really that tired?” I believe that this is what people call, LIVING THE DREAM!

Tyler at Las Peñas

Hilarious picture of me being followed by the police

Guayaquil Las Peñas Cityscape
 Overview of Guayaquil from Las Peñas

 Written by Tyler Depke

So in the cloud forest, the only access to the outside world was radio, and good thing, otherwise we wouldn’t have known about the most romantic concert in the world that was about to happen a week later in a city relatively close.
 
Makano and Nigga are two reggaton artists that are less hardcore reggaton and they do more slow lovey songs that is comparable to old backstreet boys or NSYNC stuff, but obviously in Spanish. Nonetheless, being the cool gringos we are, we entered a collesium filled with about 10,000 people, a majority of which were teenage girls. Although it was dominated by girls, teenage guys were not shy to make an appearance or stand of screaming the lyrics during the songs. The guys sitting next to me didnt even look like he was with anyone, but still obviously lovin it. There wasnt a gringo in sight. The only thing that wasnt worth the $16 was the 1hr 45min pre concert of stand up comedy and bad intro rappers that we couldnt understand. Other than that, it was everything I expected. For any reggaton fans, Makano doesnt sounds as good in concert as his CD, and Nigga is MUCH better live than he is on his album.

 

In Cuzco (by Jeff)

The other night Tyler and I were walking from our hostel and I was talking about people that bleach their hair and how I thought that sometimes it looked cool. He asked me why I thought of that, and I explained that, ¨The other day while I was waiting for you to go get something from the room, I was people watching and I saw an Australian with blond hair, and I thought that he was hot out of his fricken mind.¨ And as I completed that sentence, the girl walking in front of turned around laughing, ¨I am Australian, and I couldn´t help but overhear your conversation, and I think that it is hilarious.¨  After laughing at how ridiculous it was that she overheard my comment, we walked with her through town and she showed us her favorite restaurants and explained that she had been working in the city for over a month. Probably the most ridiculous way to meet someone EVER!

 

Volunteer Programs in Ecuador South America

Written by Tyler Depke

So I figured I’d put this information up online because this is the kind of information I was looking for before I left for South America, but can really only be found on the streets because budgets dont allow these programs to advertise online much. Here are four pictures of flyers that we f0und in Baños. I will post more later, but if you have any kind of information like this please comment or leave a link to a site where we can find more information. If this section gets a lot of hits, I might dedicate more time and put more things up. I feel like blogs would be the place to find this kind of information.

    Volunteer in Ecuador Project 1

   Volunteer in Ecuador Project 3 Volunteer in Ecuador Project 4 Volunteer in Ecuador Project 2

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Week 6: Ecuador's Cloud Forest at Project Chiriboga

BATS IN THE WALLS!

 

Written by Jeff Vredenburg

Tyler and I in the past week have taken apart a house brick by brick, hiked a trail through a cloud forest to a secluded waterfall, slept in a house whose roof was filled with bats, eaten more rice than we had ever before, cleaned freshly caught trout, hunted for the elusive crystal frog, taught a class (with kids from 4-12 in one room) about climate change, deforestation and CO2 levels, made chocolate chip cookies without chocolate, brown sugar or measuring utensils, used machetes to hack our way through dense underbrush, and drunk fruit juices we never knew existed.

 

Last Sunday, we took a bus from Quito to Chiriboga, a town of 200 people that is in the middle of the cloud forest 30 miles from the Capital. Don’t let that distance fool you, it took a good 2 hours of hair-pin switchbacks and white-knuckled drop-offs. At some points, our bus was scraping cliffs on one side and was close enough to a drop-off on the other that I could not see the edge of the road while looking straight down from my seat.  The  only thing I could see was hundreds of feet and then the valley bottom. We arrived kissing the ground and glad for the mile walk down a field-lined road to the cabin. Set up as a base camp for volunteers, the Chiriboga project is devoted to reforestation, education of the locals (who more often than not make their living through deforestation) and self-sustainability through their on-site trout farm, cows, and fruit trees. Needless to say, there is more than enough work to be done repairing old buildings, tending gardens, feeding fish, and making sure everyone is fed and warm. This week there were only three of us, Tyler, Ines (the German girl that was also in Jipijapa with us) and me. We started out by helping tear down a 40-year old brick building to prepare the way for an educational classroom. One of the goals of Project Chiriboga is to be able to take in students from elementary schools and teach them about the importance of the cloud forest, and the classroom built on that spot will serve that purpose. Later in the week we were lucky enough to have an invite to the local schoolhouse to chat about the environment. It’s surprising how easy it is to walk into a new place only knowing one person and being able to expand your social network within minutes which in some cases leads to us giving these environmental talks.

 

There isn’t much I can say in words to describe the Chiriboga experience and there wasn’t too many things that are worth writing about, but were  were gorgeous and working with people dedicated to advancing similar beliefs was great. The work was usually repetitive, tough, and long, but getting to know Geober and Javier, the two groundskeepers, and simply enjoying the nature around us was more than worth the experience.

Written by Tyler Depke

 

 

So for those of you who dont know I’ve had a bat fear for most of my life because of an incident that occured when I was camping. Basically a bat landed on me, got caught on my shirt for half a second, flapped its wings a few times against my shirt and left. I started crying and ran inside and was afraid to go outside at night for a while and to this day my older brother says it was a big moth and Im sure that other family members who were there are still skeptical. Anyway, I was watching TV one night in Jipijapa when a larger black figure flew down from the upstairs and started darting around where I was watching TV. It freaked me out pretty good because everyone else was sleeping and it wouldn’t go away and all the rooms are connected so it could just fly into my room, the bathroom, wherever it wanted. The next morning at breakfast I mentioned to the family that the night before there was a bat inside the house. They were all surprised and told me, “A BAT?! It was probably just a big black butterfly, we get them all the time.” Inside I was laughing at the irony of the argument exact same with my brother 10 years earlier as I asked, “Do bats make this chirping sound (chirp chirp chirp)? I still think it was a bat.”

As we walked into our new housing for a week long stay at the Chiriboga Project we noticed there were bits of poop on the ground near the wall, and even sooner we could hear chirping noises. It didn’t take us long to figure out that there was clearly something living in the walls. One of the directors came up soon to tell us, “Did you hear them? Don’t worry, there aren’t any rats, just bats!” OH GREAT! JUST bats…The first two days every time I heard a chirp or walking (yes, you could easily hear the bats walking through their little tunnel) I would duck down to my bed looking up for anything. I easily overcame this fear of bats because out of the 10+ minutes of noise I could hear everyday, whether it was 3AM, 8AM, 4PM, or 10PM I would usually just laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and knowing that they couldn’t even enter the room. Nonetheless, we didn’t even see a bat the entire time at Chiriboga.

Natures True Colors
Nature at its Finest!
Shorter Perspective
Yet Again…
Sangre de Drago
Sangre de Drago Tree (Oh Yeah…its BLEEDS…like in Ferngully)
Thats a BIG...
Found this bad boy hiding under a board in the house we were tearin down
Just Past Dusk
Birds relaxing in a palm tree just after the sun went down
Mountain Dew
Morning sun + Fresh Dew = Killer Combo
Untitled
Killer Combo x2
Sun Angles
Killer Combo x3
Dense Forest
Yeah, it’s green, and it’s dense.
Why do I Always have to GO!?

Petroleum workers doing pertroleum work stuff… I guess he drew the short straw…
Jeff Pummeling
Raisin the roof, and bringin down DA HAUS!
Best Lunch Ever
Fried Trout and Flan with the normal rice and salad…delicious!
MMM...Trout
Cleaned that puppy

Our next plan of action is to head to the town of Baños to chill out in the hot springs, mountain bike, and hike around the active volcano. Then we are going to Guayaquil for a Reggaeton concert on Friday. After that we might head to the lowland jungle for a tour or head straight south to Maccu Piccu.

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Week 4-5: School's Out, Surfs Up

Jeff Surfboard

Tyler Surfing

Oh yeah, we spent a weekend in Montañita, a surfing town where our Ecuadorian guide told us the best way to surf is to “Feel the velocity!”

DSC_1290

DSC_1284

DSC_1293

Above: Fresh fish on the beach at Porto Lopez
Below: Handwoven tablecloths at Otavalo, one of the biggest markets in South America

Table Cloths

Strong Bridge INDY!

“Yes, my name is July and this is my friend, Eskimo. No, those are not our given names. It’s just easier for you to remember and pronounce.”

- Direct translation of South American saying

Written by Tyler Depke

Leaving Jipijapa was emotionally harder than I imagined it would be. The final day was quite busy from the start to finish. Waking up in the morning was different knowing this would be my last day volunteering in the schools, giving lectures about the environment, and going through the daily routine I had adopted. I felt like I had made some solid connections with the people there, especially my family. Not only this, I’m definitely going to miss the friendly atmosphere of the people there.

After finishing class at the first school, we celebrated with a little bit of reggaeton and Michael Jackson while the kids ate some kind of freeze pop and I ate the usual meat, rice, and banana that they gave me everyday after class. This time I was able to enjoy a little bit of time with the kids who were in my class and the younger kids. My second school, which was always more strict, gave me an official send off speech from the director of the school, the teacher, as well as one of the 6th grade girls who was nervous to say anything, but basically said, “Thanks for everything. We hope your travels keep you safe and that you may return someday.”

During the afternoons of our last week we were busy by giving seminars about the environment and the current political situation surrounding the dump and trash in Jipijapa. We went around with an engineer and a biologist from the Jipijapa Municipal Environmental Department (The same people that we went to the dump with, Jeff is going to talk about that later). We happened to be here while they were starting a push to get information out to the barrios around the city about trash, so we jumped on the opportunity to talk about global climate change, recycling, trash disposal and organic waste disposal. Our audiences were girls at a technical school, trash collectors, mothers, hard laborers, and other engineers working on similar projects. Although there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is being done and almost no funding for future projects, there is knowledge of the problems that will be faced if we do not change our habits now. The audiences almost seemed dejected that we were not going to be staying in Jipijapa to continue our efforts, and we are planning on going back to hopefully educate a few more neighborhoods.

As I reflect on the outcome of my English classes I honestly think that I made a difference in the lives of some of the kids. The hardest obstacles to overcome were that 90% of the kids did not do any of the assigned homework, no books were available, and the children are terrible at copying notes from the board. This along with other problems like: fighting in class, no morals about cheating, FREQUENT and daily distractions, and some serious problems regarding scholastic expectations (mentally handicap, kids who cannot hear and do not know sign language, and kids who cannot read) create a diverse set of learning abilities in an underfunded situation.

After two weeks into teaching, I found out that one of the kids in my class couldn’t read at all and could barely talk because of some kind of speech impediment. How does one not trained with any “educational” background go about teaching someone like this in a class of 15 other students? Well, although he didn’t write a single word on the test, (along with 2 others from my other school) having him participate and win a few rounds in the “Write This Word in English on the Board” game, a team-based competitive writing competition in front of the class with the help of his teammates made me feel as though I had accomplished something with what I thought was impossible.

The better students were able to memorize 85-95% of the words I taught which included, numbers, dates, months, days of the week, parts of the house, things used to eat, a few pronouns, the verbs to be and to have, as well as the rule of using adjectives before the noun it is describing (in Spanish it is the other way around), and a few other basic grammatical rules. If 3 of the 35 kids were able to learn this in 2 and a half weeks, I would definitely consider it a success. If even ONE of the kids goes on to learn conversational English later in life or that it’s not worth cheating in school, I would be proud that I was able to create even the tinniest foundation for them to succeed.

Gringo Goodness

Written by Jeff Vredenburg

Tyler’s crazy host uncle invited us to play soccer with the locals. We played outside the police headquarters on a 45×100 foot cement court. The ball that we used was a size 3, which is about the size of a large grapefruit and weighted so that it does not bounce.  Two gringos showing up to the neighborhood game raised quite a stir, and as soon as they knew our names, all we heard was Julio! Eskimo! Since they could easily kick the ball the length of the court, most of my goalie’s time was devoted to trying to use my height as an advantage for an easy header. Unfortunately, he overestimated my head-eye coordination, and all I managed to do was miss it enough times that he gave up. The other big change with sports here is that there are always bets on the pickup games.  Usually the first game starts at 50 cents a person and sometimes the emotion involved in loosing forces the bets up to 1 or 2 dollars. Luckily, Tyler and I were always on opposing teams and thus always came out even. What was great about playing with the locals was that after, when walking downtown or in the barrio where we played, the guys would stop and say hi and make sure to let us know when they were playing next. Jipijapa only has 18 thousand people in it and by the end of three weeks we were already able to feel like we were home.

Which brings me to Eddie.

I was walking home one day last week when I heard a distinctive Brooklyn accent, “Yo, where you from?” Turning around I saw a giant of a man waving me over.  “The States? Oh Yeah? I’m from New York. Stop by sometime and we can chat.”  Over the next few days on my way home I stopped by and talked to Eddie, the storekeeper in Jipijapa that had lived in New York for 20 years. I thought that he’d appreciate meeting another gringo, so I introduced him to Tyler. Before I could say anything he nodded as we approached, “Yo Jeff, who’s your friend?” “Oh yeah? Well my house is your house, come over and we can chat sometime.” Needless to say, we had a good laugh over his accent and the ridiculous coincidence of finding him among all the people of Jipijapa.

My host family demanded that before I leave, I make them dinner. Now I have cooked in other countries before, and it’s not always easy. For one, measurements are different, cups and teaspoons turn into actual cups (yeah, that looks about right…) and spoons meant for tea. I decided to keep it simple and easy, and went with Sloppy Joe’s, Potato Salad, and for dessert, chocolate chip cookies. I had almost no trouble finding the ingredients for the cookies, except baking soda. None of the stores seemed to have it, they all directed me to the pharmacies, where I was told that it was now being considered a medicine, and could not be sold without a prescription. Luckily, the last place I stopped had it, and I believe that the woman disappeared to her kitchen to get it for me in a little plastic bag, but hey, good enough for government work.

Següe: I think that the proximity of work and home life here is a very interesting aspect of the society. In the United States, most people live and work in different places. Here, most people that I see have a little workshop attached to their house, or their family kitchen is also their restaurant’s kitchen.  Sometimes seeing that makes me a bit uneasy, I don’t know if I would be able to live, work, and raise a family in the same place for my entire life, but it sure does make home and family a much more valued place than in the States.

The dinner went well, and although we had more people eating than I expected and 14 people ate, all seemed to enjoy it and of course, the chocolate chip cookies were gone as soon as they came out of the oven.

Last Friday, Tyler and I went to the dump in Jipijapa with a few people that work in the Municipal Environment Department. They wanted to show us their new project, and we wanted to get some pictures and video.  On the way, we stopped at a few parks and collected trash and tree clippings to take, and drove 20 minutes out of the city to our destination.  There was a dirt drive leading up to the actual dumping area, and there was no doubt that we were in the right place. Plastic bags, boxes, used diapers and tin roofing were lining the streets like it was Palm Sunday.

Then came the smoke. At first they were burning the paper and cardboard, sure the fumes were noxious, but we could deal with it. We drove back to the part where we could dump our trash and climbed a hill of dirt to get a better view. In the distance, there was a backhoe digging new holes and filling in others. The smoke from burning trash rose from all directions like a foggy backdrop in some macabre drama.  Vultures circled as the smoke turned from white to black as the next polluter was chosen; now they were burning plastic. The fumes from the plastic were strong enough to sting our nostrils and burn our eyes, the masks that we had did not seem to be working.

Then came the animals. Pigs, cows, goats and donkeys all arrived in procession without a human hand to guide them. It was feeding time. We turned to our guide and she shook her head, “The local farmers bring their animals here to eat, that way they don’t have to pay anything for feed.  The animals are so used to it thought that all the farmers have to do is open their pens and they come here from kilometers away by themselves.”  Even though I was scared of the answer, I had to ask what the animals were used for, “They are sold as food of course. Here outside of the city and in Jipijapa itself.”  We walked a bit further and there was a giant hole that was only partly filled with trash. “That,” Our guide said, “is the hazardous waste disposal area. All of the medical, chemical, and other hazardous waste goes there.”  We climbed down into it and sure enough. Dirty syringes and bloody cotton swabs mingled with record players and batteries. None of this area was restricted, nor was anyone around to prevent access.  It was absolutely shocking, and something that I will never forget.

Botadero Dump Jipijapa

Hazardous Waste Jipijapa

Hazardous Waster Disposal Area

Chanchos Pigs Eating Basura Trash

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Trash In Trees Jipijapa

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Week 3-ish: Gringos, Niños and Water

Written by Jeff Vredenburg and edited by Tyler Depke 

Jipijapa is a town of undulating hills that drain (if there ever were water) into the center square. This is where everything happens, the market, the church, the pharmacy, the bus station and the people are always here. Every time I need to use the internet, buy a phone card, or catch a bus, I have a 15 minute walk down from where I live to the center where I can go about my business. A municipal water system doesn’t exist so people are used to procuring their water from giant water trucks and boiling it before cooking or drinking.  The big news lately though is the government finally approved a water project to install water mains to create a city-wide water system. In the meanwhile, this means that there are huge chunks missing from every street all over the city. I think that somewhere in the planning stages they decided to start the pipes in random places and then eventually connect them, which makes navigating the city a maze of holes. The buses that we take to work never drop us off in the same place because they are constantly being re-routed because of construction.

It is also a town where trash is common. There are very few public trash receptacles, and I am not sure if the trash that people throw in them is ever collected. Instead, it is just burned every few days along with the trash from private residences, that is, if the trash even makes it into a receptacle. Nobody here ever thinks twice about throwing trash out of windows, on the street, or in the neighbor’s yard. In my class, the students wad up paper and throw it out the window where it winds up in the creek behind the school.  This makes the city smell like smoke and creates a haze that lingers over everything which mixes with the dust for a great breathing environment.

Last weekend we went to Porto Lopez, a seaside town no more than an hour west from Jipijapa. Friday, after settling in to our hotel, which came complete with hot (well lukewarm) water, a dart board, a pool (table) and tables of people smoking weed (for which the minimum sentence is 15 years), we set out for dinner. We ordered Ceviche, a dish made with raw fish marinated in lemon juice, vinegar, and seasoning, and eaten cold. It hit the spot with the warm weather, and after an extended night photo shoot of stray dogs, fishing vessels, and the beach, we retired to our beds and wrestled with our mosquito nets until we fell asleep.

Jeff Jumping 

Tyler Isla de Plata 

Awkward Blue-Footed Boobies 

Ugly Pelicans 

 Saturday we woke and after a breakfast of fried eggs, rice, and fresh pineapple juice smoothies, we made our way to the beach to board our tour boat. We were going to La Isla de Plata, or Silver Island, so named because of the treasure that Sir Francis Drake buried during his short stay on the island (Marooned).  For those looking for a less fantastic interpretation of the name, the bird guano that piles up on the rocks gives the island a silver color.  On the way to the island we stopped and saw humpback whales playing in the surf. They can grow up to 33 tons and every year migrate from Antarctic waters to the waters off the coast of Ecuador to mate, birth, and raise their young.

After a few people lost the battle to keep their cookies, we went to calmer waters (some of the swells were around 15 feet) where a group of sea turtles met us, poking their heads out of the water and diving down again, almost as if they wanted us to jump in and play. We debarked to land and walked the paths of the island, seeing blue-footed boobies, nasca boobies, and other species of birds and lizards that gave the island its nickname, “Poor Man’s Galapagos.”  Silver Island is the closest land mass to said infamous islands, and many of the birds and plant life from the Galapagos have come to inhabit the island – birds by air and plants by air and water. Our tour group had warned us to wear comfortable hiking shoes for the tour, since we would be walking up and down steep, rocky hills on a dirt path.   Heeding these warnings we were surprised to find that our guide choose not to wear shoes for the entire 2.5 hour tour. I took my shoes off for twenty minutes or so because my shoes were rubbing my heels (why did I forget socks?) and went barefoot on the paths. This man must have had heels of steel. I had to pick my way carefully through the rocks and dirt while he was able to walk unfazed through the toughest terrain.

Written by Tyler Depke and edited by Jeff Vredenburg

There is something fascinating about being the minority in another culture. The minority I talk about is us, gringos in a town of morenos.  

When most people think about being a gringo in South America, the first and most common stereotype that comes to mind is money.  People see the white skin from a mile away and try to charge more, take advantage of you, etc. They don´t have anything against us, they are just trying to get more out of what they are given. Once they get over this ´rich gringo´ stereotype they start seeing other things that are different about gringos that they usually don’t see everyday. 

We were all sitting at dinner one day and my family asked me how tall I was. Of course I know how tall I am in standard, but in meters, not a clue, only that I am between 1 and 2. They asked me to walk into my room which is conveniently located right next to the dinner table. As I entered my room I heard the entire family laughing and as I turned back I was very confused as to why they were laughing. I guess it was because when I enter my room I have to duck to walk through the door because the doors here are smaller…they thought that it was the funniest thing they have ever seen.

I had my shoes off the other day while we were watching TV when I looked at my host who was staring wide-eyed at my foot as she nearly yelled, “Gringo’s feet are so weird! Look at your toes!” She pointed at my pinky toe counting them towards my big toe but stopping at my second-to-biggest toe laughing and saying, “What is that!?! Why is that one so long?” Well not all gringos have their second-to-biggest toe longer, but I will say that the average gringo who is a lot taller than the average Ecuadorian is going to have a lot bigger feet than the average Ecuadorian. 

Now let’s look at the reaction of children to gringos. Baby’s usually stare at me like I look weird, but is there really ever a time when babies DON’T stare at someone new? After babies we have the 3-ish year old. They walk around without really knowing what’s going on, and THESE ones, OH, these are the ones that stare at me for 10-30 seconds trying to make up their mind if I’m actually human. My host niece here looks at me and if I attempt to make eye contact she looks towards her mom running to her as if I were going to kill her. I approached her trying to dance with her once and she immediately ran to her mother pushing the entirety of her body into her mothers stomach on what looked like the edge of tears. Finally, we have the 5 year-olds and up. Initially very shy and anything more than a “hello” makes them giggle. My host nephew qualifies in this category as he would run away from me with a big smile on his face, but eventually he even showed me his dance moves including a pretty decent moonwalk. With these kids you could literally say anything and they would smile. These are the interactions are the ones that make me feel welcome here. With all of these staring children, we often feel like we are in a zoo, and every move that we make is something either to be laughed at or documented. The best thing that we have found to break the tension is to dance, it`s universal and come on, who doesn´t laugh at gringos dancing?

 

Light Pole 

 This picture represents how South America operates. “Is it safe? Well that depends on who you’re asking.”

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Week 2: Thats a lot of BUS!
September 19th, 2009

Week 2: Thats a lot of BUS!

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Written by Tyler Depke

As we left Nazca, we didn’t realize that we wouldn’t even have a semi-permanent home for the next week and that we would also be traveling over 50 hours of buses to our final destination: Quito, Ecuador.

So basically our adventure started warming up as we left Lima heading north. The sandy desert continued for the entire day as we followed the coast up to a town called Chicalyo. This was the first stop that we´ve ever been that we hadn’t read anything about because it wasn’t in our guidebooks, and now we know why.

We arrived quite late into the evening and once again got a nice taxi driver that took us around to multiple hotels looking to get the best price as he solicited his personal transportation service to the nearby city of  Sipan, which has a whole bunch of archeological remains, pyramids, etc. Jeff and I walked the streets to find a good restaurant. We found construction workers digging up an entire street, casinos on every other corner, kids playing spin the bottle in the plaza, and finally a mediocre spot to sit down and have dinner at about 11PM. We ate duck and goat with the usual side of rice and some kind of salsa. After our meal, we walked down the main street back to the hotel where we were surprised to see that the only people on the street were prostitutes on every other corner soliciting themselves to everyone, including us, the two six-foot gringos that they probably don’t see everyday (or night). It felt pretty awkward to see this kind of thing in real life, especially as we passed by having them say things like, “My love, lets go to your room”, whistling at us, or borderline stalking us when we made eye contact for half a second across the street. We woke up the next morning to find the city quite different with everything and everyone walking around, selling trinkets, food, live ducks…etc. We found our cheapest and rarest breakfast, which cost just under $2 for both of us.

Another 8 hours north we found ourselves in a town called Tumbes, which seemed a little nicer, so we decided to stay two nights. Most of the day we spent walking around, although the highlight of the trip was that Jeff got a haircut and a massage, while I enrolled in an Afro-Peruvian dance class. I basically got a private lesson for 15 minutes where the instructor did the best he could to teach a gringo his smooth moves. I almost fell over multiple times because my legs were so tired within 3 minutes of dancing. For the next hour I continued being taught by little girls who all wanted to teach me different things at the same time, most of which were not the guys dancing parts anyway. The dancing is pretty epic and I basically learned that I need more leg muscles and I actually learned how to pop my chest like I mean business.

Another 10 hours north from Tumbes across the Ecuador border and thousands of banana trees later, we stopped in the industrial city of Guayaquil. Nearly starving all day left us with big appetites so we walked the main strip to dominate some food. Spending US dollars in a place other than the US is definitely a weird feeling, especially when we bought tickets to the IMAX (the only one in South America) for only $4 a piece. I must say Transformers 2 dubbed over in Spanish without subtitles is about as good as it is in English. We also found something that I haven’t had in over a year since Sweden…Magnum Ice Cream Bars and instead of paying $3 in Sweden for one, they are $1.25. DANG!

Upon arriving in Quito, we made it to the foundation`s housing with only a little bit of trouble where we met Virginia, the leader of the project. She gave us the low down on everything in the house, and we immediately learned that she was going to enjoy our cheesy jokes and ridiculous sense of humor as much as we were going to enjoy hers. We ALSO learned that the entire house was inhabited with 7 German chicks (and one Polish) who were all stationed there volunteering for projects in the city. Jeff and I woke up to eat breakfast with an entire table filled with girls our age speaking in German with some Spanish while Jeff and I tried to comprehend how ridiculous the situation seemed compared to the previous week where we only talked to people on the street. We spent the weekend hanging out with them, went to a reggae, funk, and rock concert which was pretty cool, and later celebrated one of their birthdays. It was a tough day without knowing any useful German although if we really wanted to, their English was perfect, and most of their Spanish was workable or otherwise fluent.

Written by Jeff Vredenburg

The leader of the Chiriboga Project is also a tour guide, and wanted to take us on a tour of the area around Quito. We started at the statue of the Virgin Mary, way above the city where she described the areas we were seeing and the volcanoes that surrounded the valley where Quito is located. The city is surrounded by seven or so active volcanoes, some which if they erupted would destroy huge sections of the city. After we were done there we traveled 60 km out of the city to the museum of the center of the world, where they have measured the exact line of the equator. The museum had sundials and other tools that the Incas used to calculate where the line was thousands of years ago as accurately as modern science can now. There were also some examples of how the indigenous people lived and their customs. A real shrunken head attested to their practice of taking heads as trophies of war; there still exist tribes that continue the practice to preserve the custom, although they use animals not people. The most impressive thing that was there though was the tests that we could do to determine that we were standing on the equator. We all were able to balance an egg on the head of a nail with little difficulty. (The wind was a factor) and what I thought was the best, they had a bin of water with a plug at the bottom. Our guide started with it exactly on the equator, and when she pulled the plug the leaves floating in the water went straight down the drain. Next she moved it 5 feet to the southern hemisphere, refilled it, and pulled the plug. The water spun clockwise. Next, she moved to the north and the leaves swirled in the opposite direction. The most impressive thing was that the difference between the two directions occurred within 10 feet of each other.

Concentration at its finest 

Concentration at its FINEST

Perfect Balance 

The Result…Perfect Balance

We arrived in  Jipijapa early last week, which is the city where we are stationed over the next few weeks to teach kids in the local schools computer skills, English, and talk to them about the environment. Jipijapa is a coastal city in Ecuador that has the worst education system in the country, so bad that none of the teachers from the area could achieve a 50% on the state-issued test to certify teachers. (The new government wanted to see the level of teachers that were in the school and issued the test a few years ago.)

Tyler and I are each staying with different families, each wonderful, and they are a great resource for our Spanish. We eat their traditional food and we are learning a lot about the local customs and normalities including the wide variety of banana types used to make gravy, chips, salsa, mushy goodness, fries-ish, and to add extra flavor. Also noteworthy is the lack of water in the city, every drop of water used has to be purchased in giant tanks or is put in cisterns by water trucks that come around a few times a week. Needless to say, every drop of water is used to its maximum potential, and showers must be kept short (and hot water is not common).

The program we are doing is trying to fill in the gaps that the teachers leave (some even cancel school for parties and travel without warning.) We each teach in two different schools every day, as to cover the most ground. We stay here teaching until the 1st of October, when we travel to a cloud forest near Quito for a conservation project.


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Week 1: The South America Innaguration

Last Sunday we flew from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale to Lima. Since then we have traveled to Ica, Huacachina and Nazca. This is not your weekend adventure. No guide book, interview, map, or website can completely prepare anyone for a different country, let alone the change that comes with 3780 miles and changing continents. After clearing customs in Lima we met Stephen, (brother of a good friend from Hope) whom I should not have been worried about finding. He has blond hair and is taller than me, that is to say 6’4 or so, and towered over the Peruvians that were all gathered at the airport to pick up friends and family.

That which greets every tourist at any foreign place was the first thing we noticed after Stephen, “Taxi? You want taxi?” We fought through the throng and met Stephen’s family who accompanied us in a cab back to their place. They live in Miraflores, a barrio south of the center of Lima.  We had an informative ride through a not-so-nice part of town and were cautioned about certain parts of the city, “Watch your bags, don’t go out alone at dark, careful of cabs…etc.” Standard warnings. After we settled into our room we talked with the parents for a while, who, along with being extremely informative (as they have lived in Lima for almost a decade) were able to steer Tyler and me in the right direction for food and sights. We decided our plan of attack for the next morning, and went to bed.

The morning after was softened by the lack of time-change and our excitement to get out and see the city. Three blocks from the house led us to fifty foot cliffs and fifty feet down the Pacific Ocean roared. We walked along the water (west of the city) and then headed into the center of our barrio for lunch. One of the culinary specialities of Peru is their Chinese food, which is found all over at restaurants called Chifas, yes Peruvian Chinese. [Ironic Pause] We found one (not hard) and they showed us the menu where the prices were 20-30 Peruvian Nuevo Soles (3 soles = 1 dollar) which we thought was fishy. I looked at the wall behind the waiter and saw the menu in Spanish with prices from 5-15 soles. When I asked him about the disparities between the two menus, he murmured something about the tourist menu and flipped to the real menu with lower prices. Tyler and I shared a silent chuckle and sat down victoriously.

The next day was a different adventure, something more of what I had been expecting when reading and hearing about South America.  We were looking for the American Embassy, and accidentally boarded the wrong bus. We ended up in a part of town that was not advisable to visit, yet had to press onward to catch our next bus.  Tyler pulled out his cell phone on a bridge to call the embassy to ask for directions and as he did an older gentleman walked by yelling, “Put it away! Hold your things tight!” We explained to him our situation and he walked us through where we had to go, and left us with a few more warnings about having our things stolen.  We crossed the bridge and at the bus stop confirmed with two policemen that the directions we had were correct, and they also made sure to tell us that we should be extremely careful with our things. Thoroughly scared, Tyler and I both hugged our bags as we rode in a combi, a public bus-taxi, clearly not built for anyone taller than 5´6”, as several more people warned us about pickpockets and robbers.  Later on, while walking downtown a pair of middle-aged women stopped us and told us not to continue walking in the direction that we were going, that if we continued it would be dangerous to us.  We turned.  In the end, we had no problems and laughed about the situation, but the day gave us a healthy respect for being vigilant of our belongings.

Pigeons, Lima Peru Catacombs

Pigeons, Lima Peru Catacombs

Child with pidgeons, Lima Peru Catacombs

Our plan is to travel by bus as much as possible. They are much cheaper than planes and will take you anywhere at any time. One of the things that we were most nervous about was safety on busses. Reports of busses going off cliffs in South America are not uncommon in the US media, and we wanted to be sure that we were with a reputable company. The general consensus was to go with the more expensive companies when travelling on the mountain roads, and it doesn’t matter on the others. The more expensive busses don’t let their drivers drink and drive, and also sometimes have a guard on them to make sure they don’t get hijacked.  To make us feel better, one girl we talked to told us a story about when she lived in Guatemala, and none of the bus drivers would turn on their lights at night, even when they were on deserted roads with banana trees on each side.  She dealt with the anxiety of not seeing anything, oncoming tree or taxi, by striking up conversations with whomever she was with about which would win, banana tree or bus.  What do you think? What about bus vs. 200 foot cliff? Me, I’ll take that expensive ticket please.

One taxi driver shared his thoughts on bus safety in Peru, “If it’s my time, it’s my time.” I think that this is a good summary of everyone’s attitude towards death.

After being in Lima for a few days we headed south, destination Nazca.
The drive took longer than we anticipated, so we stopped in
Huacachina for the night.

On our way from the Ica bus station to Huacachina, our taxi driver was nice…too nice. He was talking about how we should not worry about anything and how he would take care of us…as he drove us into the dark. We went from the bright lights of civilization to roads with nothing and nobody in a matter of meters. Suddenly all of the warnings about taxi drivers and being taken advantage of surged adrenalina into our veins. We looked at each other with the, “Where are we going? “look and watched the cab drivers every move not knowing what to expect. Fortunately, we rounded the next corner and saw Huacachina in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. He took us to a hotel where we wanted to stay, which turned out to be too expensive, so he took us around to the rest of the hotels until we found one that was suitable. He turned out to be a great guy… just like everyone we have run into here. It´s too bad that the media only reports the bad, and the stories about the good in humanity are so few and far between, especially in places like South America.

After settling in our hostel we went outside to look around. Huacachina is a desert oasis surrounded by sand dunes where the main industry is tourism. City might be an overstatement, it was three streets wide and the lagoon in the center took up a third of the city. After befriending the waiters next door that shared our love of reggaeton, we climbed a dune outside the city (at midnight) and took some awesome pictures of the lights.

Huacachina at 1AM with Ica in the Background

Huacachina Lagoon at Midnight

Crazy 10 second exposure!

Even though our midnight hike lasted over 2 hours, we woke up early and had a great time sandboarding and dune buggying. The dunes were bigger and the desert view more expansive than I´d ever seen. Impressive mountains of sand could be seen as far as the eye could see. The tallest sand dune we boarded down (on our bellies) was over 150m tall!

Duo Dynamico

OWNED

Buggy Goodness

Epic...?
Yesterday, after the dune buggies, we headed to Nazca, a city famous
for its enigmatic lines left thousands of years ago. We flew above
them and marvelled at the shapes: monkey, hummingbird, astronaut, dog,
and others, all staring up at our Cessna challenging our imagination to wonder their true meaning.

DSC_0416 Albatross

DSC_0445

Central Circle Fountain

Newly Innaugurated Plaza in Nazca

Nasca Line Tiles

Plaza de Armas, Nasca

Nasca Festival Fireworks

Nasca Festival Fireworks

Nasca Festival Fireworks

Fireworks > Safety = GREAT TIME!

Other details: it has been cold at night, as low as 45, and we have only worn shorts a few times. The people here still call it winter, although it is in the 60s during the day. It has not rained, but we are in one of the driest deserts in the world, just south of here gets only 1 inch of rain per year. The food is good, we eat lots of chicken, rice, french fries and potatoes. With every meal there is a tray of sauces: ketchup, mayonaise, mustard and ahi, a salsa picante that is different in every restaurant. Also, to put Peru in perspective, it is three times the size of California.

In the next six days we will travel 1050 miles north to Quito to start our service program. We are going to stop in Lima to pick up some supplies and may also make a pit stop in Huaraz, where the second tallest mountain in South America is tempting us… If that does not work out, no pasa nada…hey, we´re flexible.
Until next week,
Jeff Vredenburg and Tyler Depke

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Week 0 : Checklist?
August 30th, 2009

Week 0 : Checklist?

Jeff Vredenburg and Tyler Depke have again decided to flee the country and take on the world. Their previous travels have only half-prepared them for the adventure that awaits: four months in South America with backpacks, a list of contacts, and two cameras.

Their travels start out in Lima, Peru and will continue to evolve as they meet people and figure out the best places to visit and sights to see. After a few weeks in Peru improving their Spanish and adjusting to altitude (Much of their time in South America will be spent above 8000ft), they will travel to Quito, Ecuador where they are participating in a month-long volunteer program. They will start out in Jipijapa, Ecuador teaching English, computer skills and habitat conservation to middle school students and taxi drivers. After doing this for three weeks, the Chiriboga Ecological Project awaits their brawn; they will be doing manual labor in a Cloud Forest for a week at a nature preserve.

After this their itinerary opens up. They know that they are going to head down farther south, but the duration of the time they spend in Ecuador after their program finishes is uncertain, as is the path they will take. Nevertheless, they will somehow end up in Bolivia. Tyler, who spent the fall semester of his senior year there, has host families in La Paz and Cochabamba that are willing to open their doors to them. Jeff and Tyler’s time will be split between sightseeing and helping out where needed with missionaries in the area. After this, they will be traveling down through Chile where they are visiting a few friends in Santiago, and then probably cutting across the Argentine Pampas to Buenos Aires. Uruguay may also beckon them to visit its golden beaches.

Although not sure how they will be traveling, busses, taxis and an occasional airplane are not out of the realm of possibilities. Depending on the situation, hitchhiking, swimming, parachuting, and bush-planeing may also be necessary.

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