This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dia dos en Ecuador

We have had quite day here in Ecuador. Just back from an excursion out to the Middle of the World monument. Myriam and her son Matteo drove us out to this place. It was quite a drive through neighborhoods of all sorts. Graffiti is a huge problem as it so often is in large cities but many times here it appears to be more art than graffiti. We toured around the grounds of the monument past artisan stalls, museums and finally to the huge towering monument itself with a huge globe of the earth atop it. What with our reactions to the altitude so far, we didn't attempt the climb to the top. It turns out that this huge place dedicated to all things equator is not actually "on" the equator at all. In the day when a group of French scientists came here to decide where the equator line was located, they had pretty crude, though quite accurate instruments, for the time. Turns out they were off by a few hundred yards.

No problem, the ingenious Ecuadorians built another site on what was thought a few years later, to be the actual site of the equator. Wrong again! Myriam next drove us over to that "real equator" site a few hundred yards away. Here you could pay $3 for the privilege of attempting to stand an egg on end, which is apparently only possible at the equator. We declined and headed back to the car for the drive back into Quito for lunch. So if neither site we visited was actually "AT" the equator, where is it? Well, to get there you had to pay $25 for a guide to take you on an uphill hike to the actual spot. We declined.

It wasn't all just a big rip off, though it was decidedly touristic. The monument park was filled with just as many locals as foreigners. We purchased a beautiful hammock from one of the artisans who Myriam happened to know and so we wound up getting a "much better deal" than what the salesperson was asking for in the beginning. We also bought two lovely birds made of clay and painted beautifully. Also, at the same shop we bought a wall hanging of a local scene sewn into a colorful design. You have to go. The Mitad del Mundo is worth an afternoon or morning visit.

Back in Quit
o we went to a local "hole-in-the-wall" and had a lunch of Cebiche, fresh seafood (in this case shrimp and conch) "cooked" in lime juice. So actually it never touched a hot pan but rather was cooked through the action of the acid in the juice. It was fabulous! With it we were given little baskets filled with popcorn, plantain chips and tostadas, a kind of partially popped corn that had a sort of Corn Pops cereal taste. Another surprise was the empanadas verdes made of plantain and filled with cheese. Fantastico!

Myriam next drove us to a rehearsal hall and took us backstage in one of Quito's concert halls. Her husband, Eugenio was running a rehearsal with his choir and a guest German choir on tour here. They moved into the concert hall after a while and sang to a sparse audience. They are eventually going to sing the pieces they rehearsed in a combined concert sometime after we leave for the Galapagos.

That evening we were hosted at Eugenio and Myriam's home for dinner and to meet other directors and presenters at the symposium. Unfortunately, the others were unable to get to Ecuador in time so dinner turned out to be just us and the family. We were driven to Eugenio and Myriam's beautiful home for dinner. We were ushered in with the words, mi casa es su casa, handed a glass of a terrific pilsner style Ecuadorian beer and sat down to talk while dinner was finishing.

Dinner consisted of cheese, corn on the cob, a large fava looking bean, whic
h was followed by a bowl of roasted pork chunks, white hominy called mote, which was combined by each person with a tomato and red onion relish, and avocado slices. Delicious, simple and wonderful. The dinner was followed by a postre of a corn cake topped with a couple of raisins and baked in a locally grown leaf. Coffee accompanied the dessert. More conversation in their comfortably furnished living room before they drove us across town to our hotel. Es un buen dia! Buenos noches!

Dia uno: Arrivo en Ecuador

At the end of April 2011, Leslie was invited to be on the faculty of the 7th Choral Music Symposium and Festival in Quito, Ecuador. All her expenses would be paid and she would also receive an honorarium for her work there. The organizers were thrilled when she insisted she would be teaching in Spanish. She had about 2 months to learn how! From the time she finished her school year she set about spending 8 hours a day studying Spanish. We had a lot of planning to do along with her preparation for teaching five, four hour classes. A total of 20 hours of teaching in Spanish! As you will see, she was very successful not only in her goals for learning the language, but also in the impact she had on her students.

We went on line to the United States State Department website to check on the safety or going into a country like Ecuador and were shocked to read about the crime there. U.S. citizens were all but told not to go and if you do expect to be robbed at gun or knife point, mugged, ripped off, you name it. It scared the hell out of me. So I went to Ecuador with a lot of apprehension.

We also decided to spend time in the Galapagos Islands so we researched, planned and made reservations for that part of the trip as well.

This is the journal of our adventure to Ecuador as it happened and I logged it each day. Along the way I also spend some time venting about aspects of the trip that weren't positive experiences for me and I include some suggestions and advice for those thinking of a trip to Ecuador. So if my rants get to be too much, just skip ahead. I have divided these op-ed sections with ++++++++++++ signs, so you'll know to either read on or skip ahead.

Well, here goes.

We drove from our home in Bellingham, Washington to Seattle and spent a couple of hours with our daughter and son-in-law, Kate and Nick, before
Nick dropped us off at the Seatac airport. They will keep the car at their place while we are away. Kate stayed behind to prepare for friends who were to arrive for the weekend.

Our flight to Miami, the first leg of our journey, was scheduled for 10:45 PM. Yikes! Check in went quickly and so we decided to have dinner at
Anthony's. We had a leisurely dinner and by the time we finished we had only about an hour before boarding.

Our flight took off on time which is about all I can say positive about the flight. We were aboard an Alaska Airlines flight which, as an attendant proudly mentioned over the loudspeaker, was recently proclaimed by JD Powers and Associates, for no less than
the fourth year in a row, the best airline in America.

I have something I'd like to say about this award. What criteria is J D Powers and Associates using to base the awarding of this honor? The best what? Leg room? Seat size? In-flight service? WHAT? Because if Alaska is supposed to represent the best in the industry, then I have a real problem with the industry!

This is an industry, as far as I am concerned, that is obviously listening to only one constituency, that being their stock-holders. Airline travel, even within my memory, used to be enjoyable. The seats were wider, yeah, I know I'm wider, too. There was more leg room. The in-flight food and entertainment were free. You brought your luggage to the check-in counter, it was weighed and then loaded on the plane. No more questions OR charges asked. There was always space for your carry-ons in the overhead bins and if you needed help to get it in the bin, there was always a friendly attendant who gladly helped you out. Magazines were passed out, a blanket and pillow were always available for the asking if they weren't already waiting for you in your seat. If you turned the help light on a smiling attendant was always johnny on the spot to help out.

Today, attendants are of little help at all when assistance is needed. I have even overheard attendants state that they will not help lift objects into the bins because they don't want to throw out their back. Sorry no blankets or pillows on this flight. Only international flights. Yeah we serve food but it'll cost you. You mean now I actually have to pay for the opportunity to eat lousy airline food? You are squeezed into a cabin like cattle with too little air circulation and if you attempt to get out of your seat to stretch your legs you are scolded and asked to please take your seat as the airline's rule is that you should stay in your seat with your seat belt fastened unless you need to use the bathroom.

Of course, that isn't a concern in the business cabin where only 2 seats take up the space of 3 in e
conomy and where there is nearly twice the leg room of the coach cabin. No entertainment unless you want to pay $15 to watch or listen with horrible fidelity and screens difficult to see. Only one free bag. Anything more costs you, big time. I have seen fees as high as $50 for additional bags. No wonder it is nearly fisticuffs in the economy cabin when passengers board to find no space in the bins above their seat or anywhere else for that matter. As these humiliations mount passengers have become less tolerant and short tempered leading to arrests and some even banned from flying on an airline.

So what about passenger rights? Why not address the real reasons people are becoming so dissatisfied with flying? It may be one reason for the increase in train travel and why cruise ship lines are building new ships as fast as they can. People want to be treated, dare I say, like human beings and it doesn't take much to meet most folk's standards. Airlines simply aren't doing it and I for one go out of my way to spend my travel dollar where I know I am going to be treated right.

I fly only when I have no other reasonable option for getting where I need to go.
So, Alaska Airlines, don't brag about being the best in an industry that already has few standards above that of a cattle car. You have nothing to be proud of other than the fact that few of your planes fall out of the sky. If you didn't notice, there was no applause from a soul when you made that announcement before our flight, though I'm sure your stock holders busted there buttons. That's my soap box rant about the airline industry. Excuse me but I needed that.

Having said all that we did arrive in Miami on time albeit at 6 in the morning after a night of no sleep. We made our way to the concourse where our connecting flight to Quito aboar
d LAN airlines was to depart. Having about 7 hours to wait, we attempted to find a quiet spot at an empty gate area to stretch out on the floor and get a little shut eye.

Have you ever noticed that even at empty gates there is still the background noise of a TV blaring along with elevator music from additional speakers interrupted frequently by public address announcements? There is no quiet place in an airport. And the chairs. Ever notice that they have conveniently made sure they have arms on them so they can' t be slept on? So we fashioned a spot on the carpeted concrete floor... and slept. Well, I did anyway. I think Leslie used the time to study and prepare.

Before long though, the gate area began to fill up with passengers waiting a flight so nap time was over.
We headed for our gate and soon boarded our flight. WHAT A DIFFERENCE! My goodness, we walked into an aircraft that was more spacious, wasn't packed to the gills, had room in our overhead bin, gracious attendants, free food and entertainment, and get this, a bag with a clean pillow and the loveliest fleece blanket. American airlines, are you listening? A little country like Peru can do this and at a cheaper cost than our flight across the U.S.? No, you're not listening are you? Viva Peru!

I slept for most of the 4 hour flight to Quito.
Our arrival was dramatic as we banked over the mountains surrounding the city, seeming to barely clear the peaks that towered over a city which was itself nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. Worn around the edges the airport is scheduled to be replaced with a new facility in few years a safer distance from the city, but the economy has set back the project.

Myriam, the wife of the organizer of the music symposium, met us at the exit after we had passed through customs without any trouble. It was good to see a smiling face holding that sign reading "Leslie" in big block letters.
She whisked us off to our hotel. We decided on a pick up time for the next day and then went up to our room and slept through the night.

New Photos Posted!

Take a look at the right side margin and you'll notice a slideshow of photos taken while Leslie and I were in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. We are just back and my first priority was to get those photos loaded up. Done!

Now on to the journal I kept while away. I will post these as I get them edited and embed static photos that go along with the content of the blog entry. So stay tuned. I have some great stories to share of this fantastic trip, filled with adventures all over the country, where we made new friends, both Ecuadorian and others from all over the world and saw some amazing things.

Our main purpose for being in Ecuador was for Leslie to be on the faculty of the 7th Annual Choral Music Symposium in Quito. She was invited to teach students and teachers at the symposium about her method of teaching conducting and how she incorporates that into her choral rehearsals at Western Washington University here in Bellingham, Washington. I won't be going into much detail about that since that is far from my area of expertise. However, I will share our plentiful and colorful experiences while in that country for three weeks.

So, take a loo
k at the photos for now and in the days ahead stop back by and read my thoughts about our time in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. You can subscribe to this blog over there on the right margin as well if you'd like to be notified when the next blog entry is posted. I write and share my thoughts on food, travel, photography, boating, and life in general. I'd also welcome your comments or rebuttal!

By the way, if you'd like to see the photos in a larger format, just double click on the slideshow and it should open up to a size that makes the experience more fun. I'll warn you, there are about 400 photos and that is after editing heavily! I just couldn't delete anymore. So quit if you get bored or enjoy the show!


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coming Home!

This is a bass ackwards way of writing about our adventures in Ecuador, but we are packed and ready to fly home from Quito after nearly 3 weeks. I have had no access to a computer other than the Nook Color we took along which turned out to be pretty worthless when it came to accessing the web. I was able to use it to keep my journal and we took dozens of great photos so I will be reporting on the trip beginning when we arrive home on August 4th. The reports will be transcribed, edited as needed, then posted chronologically.

As a preview, you should know that the trip was fabulous. We spe
nt 1 1/2 weeks in Quito initially while Leslie taught at the International Choral Music Festival here. She taught her daily classes (4 hours a day) in Spanish! Then we always spent the rest of the day with new friends and students where it was necessary for her to speak Spanish as well. My Spanish even improved out of necessity, but it was pretty intense!

Part of these days were also spent traveling to the outskirts of Quito, even several hours out to visit small towns, sometimes as part of the entourage on mini choir tours and sometimes just being tourists. We traveled to Ambato where we ate Chuy or guinea pig. We visited Midel del Mundo, where we stood on the equator. We traveled with a former student of Leslie´s to Mindo, where we took a harrowing ride hundreds of feet over the canopy of a rainforest, saw colorful butterflies, orchids of every color and size, and dozens of hummingbirds zipping about feeding. On our bus ride to get there we watched, heart warmed as her student patiently sat with a local teenager, who had hopped on the bus to sell candy to make a few pennies. She read, at his request, the Bible because he didn't know how to read.

The next 5 days were spent cruising through the Galapagos Islands. This segment of the trip is
worth reading about if you have any notion of going there. We had snorkeling adventures where we had up close and personal encounters with sea lions, sea turtles, fish of every size and color, sea iguanas and cormorants diving for food, Blue Footed Boobies sat on their nests. Fantastic! Then we returned to Quito for another 3 days before our departure home.

I hope you will join me as I try and retell our amazing adventures here in Ecuador.
See you soon!