Tuesday, 15 April 2014

23) Last Minute Plans and Montañita!

The next morning slightly worse for wear, we were awoken by Paul coming back from another last minute meeting. Him and Alejandra would be leaving that day and we could either accompany him to Quito or have the weekend off.
The Gods were working in our favour that day. I'd had a message that very morning inviting us to a place on the coast called Montañita with a whole flock of Americans, and we'd been told enough about the place (probably Ecuador's equivalent of Magaluf) on our travels to chalk our names up there and then, so we let Paul know that as much as Quito beckoned; we'd be taking that weekend break.
Before disappearing, Paul gave us each a Zapote which is a fruit that I won't be able to describe accurately at all so won't bother trying other than it looks like an elephants nutsack. We managed to offload some equipment onto him to take on ahead before he went, and then it was just a case of waiting to meet up with the yanks and get the bus they'd booked for the weekend (complete with driver). Our appointment wasn't until 3pm, so I decided to go sit by the river and collect my thoughts in the sunshine. It was a warm sunny day, and I didn't fancy carrying around all my baggage so left it in the hostel after we'd checked out. Checking out was a little more difficult than it should have been. First off they wanted to charge $10 for the cost of fixing the front door, which Jamie was refusing to pay, and then they wanted to charge us $8 a night instead of the $7 we'd paid before. It took a lot of poorly executed Spanish and some waving of arms, but they eventually settled on the $7 telling us not to let on to Paul and Ale (who's paid the $8) and a slightly reduced bill for the door...
It was tranquil down by the river, pretty blissful just laying there listening to the water and the passing of the occasional group of school kids. I thought about Cuenca, and decided it's one of my favourite cities and that I would certainly miss it.
3pm came round before long so we grabbed our gear and headed to the meeting spot. There was a bus already there, not particularily big and completely empty when we arrived, but we slung our rucksacks in anyway concluding everyone would think we were weird for bringing so much. Plonking myself down, our new entourage began filling the bus greeting us and confirming that we were indeed "the Brits". The journey got underway and I tried to take note of peoples names (with limited success). There were just 5 guys including me and Jamie, a towering black guy called Abdulie, a small quiet guy who's name I don't remember, and then, sat behind me, a very stereotypical American from New Jersey called Sean who was pretty funny just to watch. The rest of our 15 or so strong group were girls, and everyone was from somewhere different in the US. I'd never been on a bus filled with Americans, and it was quite the experience. I assume the driver had some experience of this, because to his credit at no point did he intentionally roll the bus off the mountain. The 6 hour journey involved lots of singing, with some songs I'd never heard of (these guys love hip-hop), general banter about culture differences and the passing scenery was also fantastic including driving through Cajas once again. Whilst we were hurtling through the mountains a really thick mist descended and this too didn't phase the driver with our speed barely dropping below 50 despite vision being limited to about 10 feet, but after a hair-raising while we were out and down to sea level. It was HOT by now and the bus wasn't exactly generous with legroom. This was compounded with us crawling through Guayaquil because of the traffic. I also noticed that Cuenca is very much the exception in terms of urban beauty for Ecuador. Gone were the well kept colonial buildings, and in their place sat the same depressing poverty that we'd seen throughout Peru. A thousand hours later we rolled up to the hostel. Us tag alongs and two others didn't have a booking there so were lead off to find another one across the street towards the beach whilst everyone settled in. It was called something like "the Chill hostel" and was pretty cool, with hammocks strung left right and centre, and in the middle a low table where the French owners and a couple of other guys were playing drinking games when we arrived. Me, Jamie, Liana and Julie were given the tour and set about getting ready to go out and meet the rest. I made the mistake of trying to have a shower, which was in a room just off the courtyard. Switching it on caused a taped on feature to burst off and make the pitiful amount of water coming out dribble down the wall instead. Fiddling with the taps provided a surprise in the form of an electric shock, as did touching anything else. I stood there in the cold drizzle for 5 minutes before giving up and heading out. Ah well, I hadn't expected the Ritz. Liana passed around the "Zhumia" whilst we got ready, and it was perfectly nice actually and went down easily, the kind of thing you could chug and then regret. We met up with Renee and Hayley and wandered to the town to try find the rest of team America. I say town, it's essentially one wide road leading to the beach with a couple of main roads leading off of it, covered in clubs and resturants aimed at tourists. The night was filled with thumping bass and the chatter of a thousand people, Ecuadoreans and tourists from further afield, all well on their way to merriment where we should be. The wide street turned into "Cocktail Alley" about half way to the beach. Either side was literally packed with market stands covered in booze, with each vendor calling out the names of exotic cocktails you could buy by the pint. We stopped for a couple and then resumed our mission, eventually bumping into them on the beach. A man came over with a snake wrapped round his neck and started offering it around like a joint, of which was another favourite of our entourage! Montañita is kind of like Amsterdam in that respect. It's all still illegal, but I get the impression the police just give the entire place a wide berth, particularily on weekends. Hippies wandered around with baskets full of "homemade brownies", and people were nonchalantly taking hits from bongs on the beach. It was a cool place to be fair, the drugs didn't bother me but I was a little put off by the number of people that were perfectly fine with getting their cock out and just pissing either into the sea, or a few, where they stood. We messed about on the beach all night pretty much, at one point debating whether to go to a kicking club on the beach front but deciding against when we realised it would be $15 to get in. It was fantastic, and they're a great bunch, but a little lacking in the stamina department! Too soon we were heading back, but I thought fair enough because we'd been travelling all day and I was quite pooped myself. Round two to follow!

Monday, 14 April 2014

22) The imminent arrival of Mr Ramsay

Wednesday passed without a great deal of excitement. All three of us went to the market for breakfast this time, and having tried some the previous morning, I got "tortilla de choclos". Choclo is in fact the kind of corn they love here (not chocolate like you might think), and the tortillas were thick toasted and slightly sweet cakey type things which I fell in love with. Ale also persuaded us to try "Morocho" which is a rice pudding drink with cinnamon and a hint of aniseed, served hot and again fantastic tasting. We mostly ambled slowly around town, and checked out the planetarium we'd stumbled across the day before but unfortunately there weren't enough people for a showing despite it being free. Me and Jamie fancied a beer and decided to check out a place we'd passed a few times called "The Beer House" (what better place to find beer?). They produced their own, and the medium I got must have been nearly a litre glass and was mighty fine.
I left the bar before Jamie and went to an Austrian cafe to indulge in cake and coffee, and later when I got back to the hostel he still wasn't there. I killed time before hunger set in by watching awful, awful Ecuadorean soaps and government propaganda with Alejandra in her room next to ours but still no Jamie. Part of me wondered whether he'd been bungled into the back of a van and driven off into the countryside, part of me was just hungry. I figured I'd never find him in the city and Ale wasn't keen for food so I set off into the darkness in a bid to find one of the many cheap places to eat around the place. Wandering the nearby streets for a while revealed the cheap ones to be closed, leaving me with just a handful of expensive touristy places. Undeterred, I changed course down a side street and struck gold. "Asi es Cuenca!". By Jove they even had 3 self awarded stars plastered on the sign. Inside I took my seat and a girl with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp and a garish tracksuit on came over to take my order. It felt like home. I asked for the $2.50 menu of the day and she came back with a small bowl of popcorn and some mysterious green soup. The soup was pretty tasty and was clearly the majority of the cost as the next plate was rice, 8 chips, an egg and 5 small chunks of mystery meat in a sauce. I'll never know what the meat was as the girl seemed in no mood for questions. I polished it off and got out of there. Still no sign of Jamie so I took matters into my own hands, slid the window open and hopped in and got into bed, fairly certain he'd turn up by the morning.
Sure enough he was there when I rolled over the next day. It wasn't long before a small commotion downstairs signaled the arrival of our supervisor from Plymouth; Dr Paul Ramsay. We both went to greet him and he commented that I no longer looked like the ruined Italian Jesus fresco that that maid had tried to wipe clean. Thankfully his impressive "profesor" status meant they were going to give him his own room so that he didn't have to share with us! It wouldn't be ready for another few hours however, and a busy day lay ahead so he bunged his things in our room and we all headed off to the market again for some much needed breakfast. We caught up and listened to stories of past South American excursions over some more Tortillas de choclo, and there were quite a few colourful ones to say the least. Following that we browsed the market a little, and Paul found the stand he was after. It was a small old woman (as most are here it seems) with all things cocoa and chocolate spread around her stand. She handed us some to try and it was foul. Chocolate in it's purest form, and great big slabs of it too. Nothing like the refined, ultra sweet stuff we have back home. I know which one I preferred and my face gave the game away as the woman started chuckling. Paul handed over some cash and left with a patio slab sized wedge of the stuff! Apparently it would last the year and is good for cooking with; I don't doubt it because it certainly ain't for eating.
He and Alejandra had to go meet with Pablo and José to discuss our work in Cajas and various other projects. Because they were off for a while I figured I'd check out the other side of the old town that I hadn't been to before, having mostly gone up and down.
This turned out to be quite the mistake. I did find another market, about the same size as the one we'd been gorging ourselves in and filled with a similar variety of foods (though this one also sold pre-skinned guinea pigs by the dozen). I then stumbled upon a vast, seemingly underground market filled with stalls selling just about everything else. It was in here that I got hopelessly lost,. It wasn't until an old woman who'd watched me bumbling around (unintentionally) in what appeared to be the lingerie stalls section came over and guided me to an exit, that I found myself back outside on an unknown street with no visible landmarks to guide me. I wasn't fussed really, I had a couple more hours to kill and walking for miles on end had become somewhat normal lately. This was very much a locals area, and I mingled with the crowds of traditionally dressed Ecuadoreans like a lone marshmallow in hot chocolate. The quality of the shops began to deteriorate and I realised I must have been heading in the opposite direction to the centre of town so I made an about turn and headed back.
Paul and Alejandra arrived at the hostel not long after me, about 6 hours after their meeting had planned to start (the man can talk). We'd been invited to drinks with the suits from ETAPA that evening, at a German bar that brewed their own beer. We did have a meeting of our own planned that evening with our new and exotic friends, so there'd be no time for tea then! We got to the bar and there were already a few people there including Pablo and Jose. It was a dinky little place and they'd let you create a playlist from a great big book of the songs on the jukebox. Me and Jamie set about doing so after ordering a selection of beers, to try and drown out the grating voice of the Guiness World Records "Most American Woman" sat at the bar. The group were all very friendly, and handed out some books of Cajas fresh from the press. Paul told us all another reassuring story about a past experience in Quito, in which another professor from the university ended up in just his pants after mistaking their muggers for students fooling around, leading them to believe he was hiding something of value. His only gripe was that they'd thrown his chips on the floor! We were there for a couple of hours before everyone started making a move, which was lucky as we were cutting it fine for our rondezvous. Me and Jamie slunk off before Paul and Alejandra and set off at a fast pace back towards the hostel. 10 minutes later we established that we'd been going the complete wrong direction, and at the end of the correct road we could see Paul and Ale gathered around a street vendor selling Churiscos (meat on a stick). We joined them to their mild surprise, bought a couple ourselves and walked back to the hostel with them. Earlier in the day the folks that ran the hostel had invited us all to join them in some sort of Catholic ritual involving a shrine and rosary beads, but we decided to hit the bar instead. When we got back there was a gaggle of old women in the main area, and before we could stop him Paul had sauntered into the crowd to introduce himself. They absolutely loved it, and it was pretty cringey to see as I made my escape...
That evening, Jamie had the idea to bring our company back to the hostel. Needless to say the woman hit the roof, made perhaps worse by him breaking the door as we tried to back out, but apart from that it was an excellent night, including karaoke, gin and tonics galore and even a free umbrella!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

21) More of Cuenca!

Tuesday morning me and Alejandra went to the chaotic market for breakfast. I followed her lead to one of the many vendors on the second floor, and ordered a "Bolon" and some Humitas like we'd had on our way back from Quesh Que. A dumpy little woman came over with our orders a couple of seconds after we'd sat down. A bolon turned out to be a large ball of cooked potato and green banana (one of the many types of banana here), and probably some of the shit cheese they have here too because they put cheese with everything. It was quite nice, if a little dry, and didn't taste overwhelmingly of banana. It went down well with the coffee and followed up with Humitas, which I may have explained before is a sweet cooked maize meal steamed in a leaf. After the exceptionally cheap breakfast Ale took me around the market pointing out various fruits and vegetables I'd never seen before with names I couldn't hope to remember. I've got to hand it to the South Americans, they do fruits very well. We figured we'd find and check out "Pearla Cuenca" to see if they had rooms spare. A quick google showed us where we'd missed it before and it looked awesome so we headed over. It was down an alley and up some wooden stairs and frankly "Pearla Cuenca" is quite the pseudonym. Inside the predominantly wooden place was a faint musty odor and as far as I could tell, no one else aside the uninterested receptionist. The pictures we'd seen on the internet had presumably been taken some 30 years ago. The communal area was a battered old sofa and not much else, and the rooms had great big antique beds in and more wooden cladding everywhere. On the way out I had a brief look in the bathroom which was grim. We exchanged a glance which said everything it needed to and got out of there.
Later that morning we both went across the river to the Medical Museum. It was in a huge colonial complex that was previously an asylum, with a garden in the middle of it and lots of rooms off the garden with various equipment throughout 1800s to the early 1900s. The first one we went in was dentistry, and if people think they have phobias now I'm sure they would have died back then. It was well laid out and I tried a couple of the chairs that looked like they belonged on the set of a "Saw" movie. We ambled from room to room, and it was quite cool seeing the retro versions of a lot of the equipment I had been using whilst on placement in the lab back in Plymouth. To be honest everything looked a lot more fun than modern instruments, if a little haphazard. There were hand powered centrifuges, great big DJ deck style controls for x-ray machines, giant iron autoclaves (some that had wood burners underneath), and chemicals galore. In fact, I'm sure the chief of my placement, Dr. Rich Boden, would have had a field day in some of the rooms smuggling the reagents out for his ever expanding collection (some of them looked younger than a few in the cupboards in Davy)! There was a decommissioned "Iron Lung" from who knows when that was essentially a giant coffin with all sorts of valves and things, and a glass dome that would be brought down over the head of the unlucky patient inside; Ale practically had an asthma attack when she saw it. Upstairs was also being used as a work station for something, with people sat at desks doing paperwork outside some of the rooms containing all the weird old gear. It didn't seem to be relevant to the museum, and Alejandra told me that people rent these buildings for working in too. Considering we were the only people wandering around the place I suppose it's a good idea, a quiet and  pretty epic work place. Another of the rooms contained old gynecology instruments and that freaked me out a little bit. Women must have had some balls to go see a gynecologist back in the day. All in all it was a pretty impressive museum and if it wasn't hidden within the courtyard of another building I'm sure it would be more popular. On the way out we pinched some free papers to stuff in my boots in a bid to dry them out.
It was still quite early, so we headed back across the river to the museum I'd unsuccessfully attempted to visit the other day. It was fancy inside and specialised in textiles and their subsequent creations throughout Ecuador. Alejandra was a pretty useful guide there, explaining what various things were and where you would find them. It wasn't very big and after all the wicked contraptions in the Medical Museum fell a little flat but killed some time and was free to visit. By now it was lunch time and I let Alejandra lead me to a small Colombian place at the other end of the old town. It was very popular and we were waiting for a while for a seat, but when we did get one it was easy to see why. It was another "Menu of the day" place, and very satisfying indeed.
After a brief stop back at the hostel we headed to a big supermarket in the new part of town. We passed through a quaint park called "Parque de Madres" (Mothers Park). This area looked almost brand new and had a running track, Planetarium, basketball court and all sorts of features including a McDonalds (the first I'd seen in SA). We found the "SuperMaxi" a little further down the road, and inside I had to leave my backpack with a man who's job it was specifically to look after bags. It was a pretty standard supermarket affair to be honest, though the foods were a little different. Lots of processed meat, little good dairy (no proper cheese), and absolutely no shower gel for some reason. Alejandra hadn't been very impressed with our version of porridge in Cajas, and showed me why. Apparently it's normally eaten in Ecuador as a drink with juice! Imagine! The savages. There was a good half an aisle dedicated to little juice cartons of porridge. Except it wasn't porridge it was juice with oatmeal in. She picked one up for me to try and then we hit the alcohol aisle. The alcohol aisle was quite a polarised place, with any imported brands such as Jack Daniels costing anything from $50-$100 a bottle, but any rip off brands or local spirit (such as Zhumia, made from sugar cane) costing as little as $5 for 750ml. There was also a sign noting that the purchase of alcohol on Sundays is illegal, which is true for all of Ecuador.
After the excitement of the supermarket we strolled back to the hostel in the blazing sunshine with our assortment of goodies. Porridge-juice wasn't too bad actually, and not chunky like I'd been anticipating.
Later, we went for food at the only Indian restaurant I'd seen in Cuenca at Jamie's request. Well I say Indian restaurant; it was called "The Taj Mahal" but the menus proclaimed to offer the best "Pakistani food in Cuenca" so who knows. I wanted to see if their Tikka Masala was up to British standards because I got the impression they were actually English in the first place. The chap came over before long with an unexpected appetiser of plain popcorn and some sauces. After 6 or so weeks I was no longer surprised at odd things turning up at the dinner table, so began dipping and munching whilst we watched utterly bizarre music videos to Bollywood style music. The food was good though not quite the same as back home, but hey with the only Indian in a thousand miles you can't complain. Another early night ensued. 

20) The Eternal rain of Cajas

Sorry for the lack of blogging folks, I've been busy and without access to a keyboard! Anyway, back to Cajas.
The next day we began our journey back to Laguna Mamamac. It took us longer than on the first day. Looking at the map we worked out that Wilson had taken us on a huge a shortcut the day before. Some hours later we got down to the edge of the lake and set up camp, encountering some difficulty with Paul's novel shaped tent. Despite not seeing anyone both days the spot was apparently popular for randy campers, with the remnants of a fire and some condoms littering the area. By this point we were already soaked and we decided to batten down the hatches and set about work the following morning. That evening an eagle of some description crash landed outside our tent and made a massive commotion which was pretty startling!
You don't say.
Jamie set about finding more Puya to sneakily gather seeds from, and myself and Alejandra went to find a suitable wetland for her PhD work. Just over a hill from the lake was perfect and before long we had the job done, using a GPS to mark the borders and any large pools and streams within the wetland. Jamie needed some help collecting the seeds, and in the absence of a ladder we used our combined heights (me on his shoulders) to grab as many as possible without me plummeting to an inevitable death in the rushing river below.
Jobs done earlier than anticipated we decided to stay that night and head off early the next day as we wouldn't make the refuge before nightfall. It rained hard that night, and I was already down to my last pair of dry socks, having totally given up hope on ever having dry shoes again. Dawn crept over the mountains and we shook off the night's damp sleep, eventually got the tent packed up in the tiny sack it came in, and headed off into the mist back to the trail. About half way back Alejandra found another wetland that needed mapping and we stopped whilst she disappeared into the never ending fog. After 20 minutes we were bloody cold and starting to worry a little, but just as we were discussing our chances of finding a body in the bogs, her baseball cap appeared over a hill and I breathed a sigh of relief. Back on the trail again and having stood on the wrong patch of mud a couple of times resulting in every footstep squelching, I gave up trying to avoid puddles. The final slope before the downhill part to the road was visible and seemingly close, but there felt like a limitless number of ridges to climb up and over before we finally reached the last one. Two hours after the last wetland, we sat atop this final ridge catching our breath, eating peanut butter for sustenance, and looking back across the park. Where the mist thinned you could see the track that we'd followed to Mamamac and it looked deceptively close.
Base of operations
Finally down the slope and back to the road, we headed back to the refuge. I noticed the sign for a restaurant and we all cheered when we found it open and serving food. Back at the refuge we dumped our stuff, and I put on the only dry things I had, which we had left in the care of the park guard. These consisted of a jumper, some baggy trousers and flip flops so needless to say I looked like a right twat. In the small park restaurant we ordered hot chocolate and a badly translated meal. I could have kissed the woman when she came over with two steaming mugs. Unfortunately Ecuadoreans don't do hot chocolate like we do, and it was a bit of an anti climax, but it was hot and with some sugar in tasted pretty good and for a moment I was in heaven. It's surprising what 3 days spent cold and wet, certain of getting trench-foot will make you appreciate. From the warmth of the restaurant you could see out over the park. It looked deceitfully tranquil and dry from up there. Bellies full and feet aired, we packed up our stuff in the refuge, I slung my sopping boots in a carrier bag, and we went to the bus stop to wait for one heading in the direction of Cuenca. There was a small shelter covered in messages from people all over the globe, mostly joking about freezing to death waiting for a bus. It wasn't raining and luckily it wasn't long before we were hopping onto a coach, having left our own message in Spanglish on the stop asking anyone who found any lost toes/fingers/dignity to return them to Bristol, England.
Apart from the rain it was epic
Back in Cuenca, we asked the taxi man to take us to Hostel "Pearla Cuenca". It sounded alright (Pearl of Cuenca) and was cheaper than the previous one. He agreed but after 10 minutes it became clear he didn't have a clue where he was going. He also didn't realise that Alejandra could speak pretty good Spanish (being Ecuadorean), and tried to tell us that a totally random building said "Hostel" on it. Realising that he couldn't mug us off any longer he admitted he didn't know where he was going, and neither did we, so we just told him to take us back to the previous hostel. They were glad to see us again, and this time me and Jamie got a much better room (it had a door handle and was also right above the wifi). That evening we found a tiny Mexican diner that was suspiciously dead. Inside was just about as stereotypically Mexican as you can get, all sombreros, piñatas and mariachi. I was a little disappointed when the man didn't come out from the kitchen on a donkey with a huge moustache but ordered a chimichanga none the less. What I actually got was a burrito, but as it had taken nearly 40 minutes to arrive I didn't complain, and it tasted great anyway. Afterwards Jamie went off to a bar, but being laden with Mexican goodness I couldn't stomach the thought of gassy beverages so waddled back towards the hostel with Alejandra. In the beautiful central plaza in front of the cathedral, a choir of women were singing and dancing. They were dressed in traditional Cuencan clothing consisting of a long dark blue skirt, white blouse and broad hats. They were being filmed and were excellent so we watched for a while as they drew a crowd. The conductor stopped them and made them lose the hats before starting them again, although one in the middle was totally out of time with the dancing and it was the same song so we decided to leave at that point. 
Cajas had been stunning, but hard work, and that night I slept like a narcoleptic log in my warm and dry bed.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

19) Cajas here we come!

The taxi arrived at 6.30am. Annoyingly we'd had to pack up all of our stuff to take with us, including all the bits that we wouldn't need in the field. With our rucksacks slung in the back of the pickup we were ferried to the bus station where we paid the $1.50 for our tickets to the park. The bus wasn't bad and for an hours drive was damn cheap. The change in temperature was instantly noticeable when we were deposited outside the "Toreadora" section of the park. Nearby was the small refuge, recognisable from the pencil drawing on Paul's ´85 paper, though thankfully with a proper roof as oppose to the thatched one from back in the day.
Inside was a compact but functional kitchen and table, 3 rooms with bunk beds, and upstairs was a loo (minus the seat) and the gaurds quaters. It was by no means warm inside the refuge and you certainly felt it on your cheeks on the toilet, but was at least out of the wind.
Me and Jamie claimed the bunks by the kitchen, unloaded some of our stuff and waited outside with Alejandra for our guide called Wilson Puya, funnily enough.
This guy knew what we were in for
A short and stocky chap came over and introduced himself as Wilson. He would be taking us to the mapped areas to help find some suitable wetlands for Alejandra's work. He started limbering up and I wondered what we were getting ourselves into. Out of the refuge area we were met by a herd of llamas blocking the road. After shooing them off back into the park we followed Wilson slowly along the busy road bisecting the park until we reached a sign denoting a path for us to follow, and as soon as we got onto uneven terrain Wilson upped the pace so that it was a swinging arms kind of walk to follow. It wasn't a very well trodden path, and before long I was swerving left and right of deep muddy pools and leaping over boggy land. Before I go on I should mention that the park is absolutely stunning. It's very different from the "puna" terrain we were working on in Peru, with much greater diversity of plants and geography, and contains over 200 glacial lakes. From the moment we'd entered the background noise of cars faded, and was replaced with a constant ribbeting of unseen frogs, the trickle of countless streams and the wind whistling through the grasses. It's pretty special.
We trekked for a good couple of hours until we hit a sign pointing N,E,S,W. Here we had some options apparently. South read "Moderate, 3 Hours" North (the way we came) "Moderate 2 Hours" West "Difficult 6 Hours" and East "Difficult 8 Hours". Well you can imagine which one we took. At Cajas, when they say "Dificil" they aren't fucking around. They don't mean "Not suitable for wheelchair users", they mean "Not suitable for anyone other than hardy mountain goats with something to prove".

"Wilson I'm sorry!"
We followed Wilson up and over tall ridges, down near verticle grassy slopes, through deep and drenching bogs and streams, over white water rivers, through Polylepis woodland and along cliff edges for hours. At the start we joked that we each had three "lives" for slipping over, and I'd burned through mine in the first 4 hours, as had everyone else.
At one point Wilson slipped off of a rock and nearly rolled off a cliff edge, and I have to say I was a little disappointed that I couldn't scream "WILSOOOOON" like Tom Hanks on Castaway, but that's just because my brain was fried from concentrating on the ground for so long. Also, since I'd recovered from my bout of explosively discharging food my stomach had gotten quite used to the idea of lunch and was protesting loudly at missing it. We stopped briefly at one of the enormous lakes; "Mamamac" and Wilson pointed out a rocky outcrop we could camp on, telling us we wouldn't even need a tent (fat chance).
Level: Jurassic park
It was another 3 hours of navigating all sorts of obstacles before we hit the end of the trail and the guard post at this entrance to the park. The hike had been quite fun, but damn exhausting. If someone had asked me if I wanted to walk for nearly 8 hours I'd have told them to do one, but we had all managed it and had seen a lot more of the park than the average tourist does. At the gaurd post we plonked down in rocking chairs and assessed the damage. All caked in mud, feet sopping and knees creaking, we chowed down on our food stash. Turns out 50c noodles don't include flavouring but they disappeared soon enough. The next issue was getting back to Toreadora. Luckily shortly after setting off down the road a pickup came trundling by and stopped for us to hitch a ride. We climbed up into the back of it and we were off. The cobbled road wasn't exactly forgiving on the derriere, but I was glad of the lift because the route back to the main road was a good 15 minute drive and it was also quite nice looking back and watching the scenery retreat as we bumped along. As we approached the main road it started spitting with rain. The truck was going right and we needed left so we hopped out but Wilson stayed in; his days work was done. We crossed over as the rain really started and hoped to hitch back up to Toreadora. It was a long and fruitless wait, gradually reaching that "wet as possible" threshold as even buses raced by. Thankfully after half an hour one did stop, and we dragged our sopping wet and aching bodies inside. It was a further 20 minutes drive back to the refuge. Getting inside I threw my stuff down and changed immediately into some dry clothes though it was still cold, and by now getting dark. There were a new couple around the table, a Dutch woman and an Italian-Ecuadorean. We ate our soup and chatted with them to will away the time in the freezing refuge. The man was very animated and also spoke good English, and he was particularily impressed by the English culture of drinking from 7am - 6am. We spent the evening watching our breath come out in clouds, talking mostly in Spanglish (switching between the two at random), and drinking several cups of tea to keep our hands warm.
Come 10.30 we all retired citing early starts to do the same thing again tomorrow.
I slept badly due to my feet being frozen solid and the Dutch woman getting up to chunder a few times.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

18) Sorting out the paperwork

I'd awoken with what I thought was plenty of time (15 mins) and was stood outside the room taking advantage of the wifi. Someone said something in Spanish and I automatically replied "Buenas" as is custom before returning my attention to facebook. I felt like a mug when what was in fact Alejandra then said "Are you Tom", and apologised for being so rude.
We hastily got ready and settled on heading to Chipotle for some breakfast. On the way Alejandra told us about herself; 35 and trying to get into the UK to begin her PhD on the paramo wetlands of Ecuador under Paul Ramsay at Plymouth, but currently having some difficulty with the English exam. I don't think she was particularily impressed with Chipotle and I could appreciate that as it was food aimed at gringos, so we agreed to go to the market for lunch. We sat and drank coffee and discussed plans. Essentially she was as clueless as we were with regards to us being able to work in "El Cajas" National Park in the nearby mountains, but shortly after that very conversation she had an excited phonecall. We were to meet a couple of guys from the park authorities to discuss what we could do and where. The park is owned by ETAPA; a company that seems to pretty much run Cuenca (I don't know if they are nationwide). They control the communications, electricity and water supply to the city and surrounding areas, their main source of water is the park, and we were to meet them at their Cuenca HQ at 11am.
We found our way there with quite some ease and went up some ten flights of stairs to a posh looking office to wait for Jose and Pablo. Alejandra explained that Ecuador has a notorious reputation for pointless bureaucracy, sometimes as a cover for corruption, but that ETAPA are a good egg. Jose showed up and we went to a meeting room to thrash out the details in Spanish that was entirely beyond my comprehension, though what I did get was that they would rather have Alejandra map three different areas of the park than three different wetlands in Ecuador. I could see where they were coming from as the park is huge and has all sorts of variations in geography and influences of weather, altitude and the pacific ocean but it was dragging the meeting out. They eventually caved and we agreed to meet Pablo again at 2pm to decide on some possible paramo sites to check out.
Alejandra took us to the bustling market for lunch, and persuaded me to try "Tomales". I don't know whether these are strictly Mexican, but they are meat and ground corn wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. They weren't particularly overwhelming but certainly different. It wasn't long before we were on our way back to ETAPA and sat at the top of the stairs waiting for their arrival. Alejandra went on to explain that time keeping isn't big on the average Ecuadorean's agenda, and it isn't uncommon to meet up to an hour past the time agreed. 30 minutes later and we were in Pablo's rather nice office looking at a satellite view of the park. He was layering all sorts of things onto it including weather and altitude, and after quite some time and a fair bit of yawning on my part, we'd ended up with a paper map with several circles indicating potential wetlands (or "humidals") to hike to when we hit Cajas. There was also some talk of continuing Puya work, and Pablo told us he was undertaking a PhD and he'd take us to his university to meet the experienced botanist that was his supervisor to gain more insight.
We followed him to his suprisingly expensive 4x4 and drove the short distance to the Universidad de Azuay just outside of the new town. I kept my eyes peeled but no sign of an SU to get plastered in, and the place had more of a secondary school feel than a uni. We headed upstairs to the Herbarium, which was pretty cool actually - Plymouth doesn't have a Herbarium that I'm aware of! We wandered through the aisles randomly opening lockers and checking out the handi work of students such as the few girls in the main part that were preparing new reference samples. Pablo introduced us to his professor who looked remarkably similar to a friend back home, if a few shades darker. He sat and talked for thousands of years about every last plant that you would find in Cajas, and then Pablo got out his laptop and showed us a paper of Paul Ramsays from 1985. It was funny to see, with pencil drawings of the crew and refuge, and I was surprised that Paul had lead the expedition in question aged 21, just a few months older than me!
After flicking through the paper we were dropped back near the hostel and went to a small cafe to eat our final meal before our mission to the park the following morning.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

17) Further exploration

Wednesday came round all of a sudden and I made a determined effort to see more of the city because Alejandra was due to arrive the next day. I found a cafe with pictures of pancakes on the door and that sold it for me. Inside the place was totally bizarre, consisting of royal looking sofas, a large American jukebox, an assortment of things on the walls ranging from guns to license plates, and in the middle a cage containing two pampered budgies. I plonked myself down (though not on one of the sofas), the only person in there aside from a young girl behind the counter. I ordered myself an American breakfast, not really sure what would come out and wandered around the place finding more oddities including a boxing challenger thing and a billiards room. When it did arrive I was impressed. Coffee, fresh pineapple juice, a stack of pancakes with a bottle of syrup and a separate plate of scrambled eggs and bacon. If every American breakfast is like this it's easy to see why they're notoriously large.
Quirky place for brekkie
Waddling out at midday I made my way back to the river trail and followed it down to Parque Pumapungo. Through the fence I could see llamas and hear all sorts of birds and it looked pretty cool. What I couldn't see was the entrance. A woman walking the opposite way approached as though I was going to explode, and I asked where the entrance was. She quickly replied that it was up around the corner before hurrying off and I double checked that I wasn't wearing a hockey mask or wielding a machete. By "round the corner" she actually meant a kilometer or so up a hill around two corners, behind the Ministry of Culture building. I decided to check out inside first, because entry was free. They took my bag and passport number and I set about exploring the building. It's really fantastic in there, 4 levels of Ecuadorian history and culture charmingly exhibited. The first floor contained interactive pre-colonial exhibits in English and Spanish, and even braille, and across the hall were lots of very weird art models of people with some drastically enhanced features. Some had massive hands, some had huge saggy boobs with babies hanging off of them. It was all very strange. Upstairs was back to normality, lots of stuff about the people through the ages and the indigenous in the Amazonian basin. I was suprised at how empty the place was of people because it was all very cool. Maybe I'm just a massive nerd, but they had shrunken heads on display, who doesn't find that cool?
Part of Pumapungo
On the top floor there was a cafeteria, public library, and lots of glass walled offices where you could watch people work on items for exhibits and such like.
The basement level was all about Ecuadorian currency since the start of coinage, but was all in Spanish. I read the bits I could and it was pretty interesting. Before the US Dollar, the Ecuadorean currency was the Sucre, and you could see throughout the 20th century the increasing rate of inflation through the bills displayed. The final bill displayed was the 500,000 Sucre note, common come the end of the century. In 2000 they finally broke and switched to the buck.
These latinos can GARDEN
I spent a lot longer than anticipated inside and moseyed out into the afternoon sunshine into the park. Considering it is only just outside of the city centre it is enormous. Perched on top of a hill are more stone ruins of temples to Sun Gods and whatnot that the ancient cultures worshiped. Though these are just really the foundations it's still neat to stand amongst them and soak in all the ancientness (definitely a word). At the foot of the hill down a winding track there is an area dedicated to growing the various native crops of the Andes, and a wide variety of ornamental shrubs and trees. The park attracts lots of wildlife, and I sat on a bench for a while watching the many birds and insects darting about the foliage, convinced I'd seen a couple of hummingbirds (Green violetear are the ones here). They didn't reappear so I followed the track through a wooded area and that's when I spotted one again. I tried for ages to get a decent photo and at one point it was in the tree directly above me. Staring upwards and trying hopelessly with my cheap digital camera to hold it steady for it to move into a better position, I watched as a cascade of poop splattered onto the plant next to me and across my left shoulder. He knew what he had done, and with that sped off again leaving me cursing the sky, photo-less. The rest of the park was equally as beautiful and well kept, and included several big aviaries housing parrots, toucans and other exotic birds all of various species. It was a short walk from the birds section to a hill covered in llamas, each tied to a post and quite happy just chewing the cud. I didn't fancy petting one though because they stank, so made my way back up to the culture ministry and out of the park.
The way back to the old town took me past the university of Cuenca, where I was met with interested stares from students - a lone gringo wandering through their patch. Their uni only has one bar bless them, though to be fair to them it was packed out. I made my way back into the old town and stopped of in the Cultural Museum of the Indigenous. It's a privately owned affair, and the lady buzzed me in and handed me a booklet to read as I guided myself around their collection. Personally I don't think it was worth the $2. There were a few interesting articles including one ancient groups obsession with making statues of deformed children, but it was mostly pots and all the typical stuff like bits of flint and things, and it wasn't long before I was on my way back to the hostel.
That evening I ate "Seco de pollo" at a resturant beneath the grand central cathedral and it was as beautiful as the city it was constructed in. Another early night followed as Alejandra was expected at 9am so no 10am lie in for me!