Monday, May 31, 2010

Caught in the Middle

C'mon lady. I know you are obviously pissed at something and need to let us all know about it, but could you let a fellow chica get some sleep one of these nights?

Quechua legend has it that Mama Tungurahua is the jilted lover of another nearby volcano called Cotopaxi. Not sure about the logistics of how two volcanoes can be lovers, but Mama must have been burned bad. Maybe lately he's been flirting with another volcanita right in front of her, and Mama needs to let him hear his wrath. Because boyyy, is She loud. And us poor little weak humans are being caught in the middle of this lover's quarrel.

Mama has on occasion lulled us into thinking that She is over it. On Sunday, as much as two hours passed without a peep. But today has been a different story. The eruptions are not as frequent as they were on Friday (the scariest day), but they are still window-shakingly strong.

Today was business as usual at La BIB. The kids showed up and we enjoyed some books and games of Spanish Pictionary (which I created...and it's a HIT!) When we had an hour left to go, we practiced our emergency evacuation plan and took the kids for a walk down to the zona segura (safe zone). On the way back we had some spectacular views of the volcano (without our camera - d'oh!), and had to hold the kids close when Mama decided to blow and shake the ground beneath us. Some of them screeched with each boom, and others just held our hands a little tighter.

It's funny what a person gets used to when exposed to it for some time. Pete and I have both changed in so many ways as a result of this journey - we've learned to live with little, we've become accustomed to less-than-cozy living arrangements, and now you can add our ability to tolerate a violent and menacing volcano to the list. Bizarre, right? It's not near as scary as it first was, and I think that when She finally grows quiet, I might even miss Her.

Except for at night. I needeth the sleepeth! I hope She obliges soon.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Another Tumultuous Day with Mama T

What a day this has been!

I first started off being utterly bitter at this whole situation, thanks to Mama T's refusal to calm down enough to allow for any kind of sleep last night. Until 2 am we sat staring out the window - the clouds had parted somewhat and we could see the ash plume lit up by the moonlight. The sounds were sometimes deafening and varied - it would be like a string of really loud thunder, or firecrackers, or even waves of rhythmic pounding - who knew an erupting volcano could be so musical?

We finally decided to try and get some sleep, but Mama repeatedly shook our windows and bed, and often woke me up with such a start that I'd have to catch my breath, and take a minute to let my heart rate slow down before trying to fall back asleep.

By morning she had calmed, and we managed to catch some more sleep (by "calm", I mean that explosions were only every 15 minutes or so, not every couple of minutes). We were convinced that the worst was over. Baños had seemed to return to a regular level of activity, and we allowed ourselves to unpack our things a bit.

And then, around noon, She started up again. The "booms" started coming more frequently, and the wind had also changed direction - instead of the ash heading directly south and away from us, we were getting a thin blanket of it in town. While Pete was out on a walk I had decided to head out to find some lunch, but as soon as I opened the door, a wind gust gave me a face-full of the
ceniza (volcanic ash). That was enough to turn me around and keep me indoors for the afternoon. Yesi (an Ecuadorian employee of La BIB) came by, adorned in her breathing mask, and shared her deep concern with the latest events. Yesi claimed that we were on a higher level of alert then the last time the town was evacuated. She reminded us of the evacuation routes, and generally just got me freaked out all over again. By now we had also noticed that there was a huge army presence in town, perhaps readying for an evacuation? Back upstairs to re-pack the bags.

Mama T changed her mind again, and a couple of hours later, She was quiet. There was no more wind, the bustle of the town even seemed to have slowed it's pace. It was all very eerie, but we were also hopeful that this time that the worst had definitely passed.

However, just as we say aloud to ourselves that "it must be over", She contradicts us. Mama definitely still has something to say. Thankfully, this evening her conversation has been steady but not deafening, and is even mixing with the thunder of a rainstorm so that we no longer know the difference.

Before the rain started, we were gratefully taken out of town to a viewpoint by one of the more permanent volunteers that has a vehicle. The lava flow side of the volcano faces almost directly south (Baños is mostly on the other side), and so we hoped to catch a glimpse of some of the action. We had heard the eruptions, had felt their power, but had yet to actually see anything substantial.

We were not disappointed.
As soon as we had stopped the vehicle and took our seats on the tailgate, we were welcomed with a large BOOM and saw the clouds surrounding the crater light up a bright pink. The eruptions continued, not as frequently as the previous night, but enough to allow us to see what all the fuss was about. When the clouds dispersed we saw bright red fireworks - lava rocks flying high into the air and coming down on the side of the volcano with an audible thud. Lightening from behind the volcano lit up it's silhouette and we could clearly see the large plume of ash that hung overhead.

The batteries died in our camera only a few minutes in (d'oh!), but we weren't too disappointed about it. It was amazing just to be able to sit silently and see the power of nature at work like we've never seen before. Mama T has humbled us as humans, while giving us the show of a lifetime.

Some grand experiences in life can never possibly be duplicated, and I am sure that this is one of them.

We didn't get very many good pictures,
click here for some images by newsgroups online.

Picture from Pete's walk in the afternoon.
The grayish cloud in the middle is the ash plume,
the crater is almost constantly covered in clouds.

Our viewing at night - some lava rocks

Karl, Jill, Me and Rob
Our volcano viewing tailgate party!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Courtesy of Mama Tungurahua

Over breakfast this morning, it started. What sounded like harmless low rumblings of thunder turned out to be eruptions of the nearby volcano Tungurahua.

The intensity increased, and the windows of our apartment were constantly rattling, but we could see nothing. Our vision of the volcano is obscured by a hill between us, and we were even unable to see the resulting ash plume because of thick clouds.

So, armed with our cameras, we went for a closer look! Turistas estupidas, right? I am sure that is what many of the locals thought as we made our way out of town to a lookout point. We stopped where we should have been able to see the crater, but unfortunately had no better view due to the clouds. Instead, we only had to be satisfied with actually being able to feel Mama's wrath - our proximity to the volcano meant much louder booms and a resulting increased heart rate!

Throughout town, people seemed to be a little on edge, and many shops were boarded up. Once we got back we were warned that the town was now on high alert, and also told that two towns nearby had been evacuated. We were issued masks (for the ash) and told to pack our bags in case we had to leave. Fortunately, La BIB does have an evacuation plan in place, and so if we hear the town's sirens wailing, we have a secured ride out of town and place to go.

Into the afternoon and this evening, She seems to have calmed down. Eruptions are less frequent, although we still hear some pretty big booms. People in town are going about their business as usual, and some locals we talked to are even planning to get as close as possible tonight to hopefully see some action - if they are not terribly worried about it, then we won't be either.

This is not new for Mama, She likes to cause some disturbances every few months, yet She hasn't caused any deaths or damage to our town of Baños for three generations. What is a little different this time around is that the eruptions started in the morning (they are usually only at night), and the constant intensity of them. A little scary, but we will both freely admit, we also think it is pretty cool to be experiencing this.

Quite an exciting day in our little pueblo! We will keep this up to date if anything changes. And hopefully with some pictures next time!

For more info, click here for one of the more recent news postings.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Odds and Ends

Little time and little cohesiveness to my thoughts means...a point form summary of what's been happening!

- Busy, BUSY days at La BIB. Never did I think that during our travels I would actually have a "to do" list to attend to. But I do. And so this will be short so I can get back at it.

- We have actually made some plans! Plans that extend longer then next week! With all of the fun that we are having at La BIB and in Baños, we have decided to stay here right up until we return to Canada in August.

- That is, if Baños will have us. My slight worry about not being welcomed to stay is due to our collective La BIB performance at a local karaoke bar on Friday. I am pretty sure that the whole town heard our renditions of Four Non Blondes "What's Going On" and The Eagles "Hotel California". I think we attempted every English song they had in the book, and even a few Spanish ones. At one point, I apologized to the bartender on behalf of our group, and he said to me: "Well, at least you have a beautiful face." Compliment? Don't think so.

- Thinking of going on a holiday? Then use to help you plan, and you may actually read some of my "expert" reviews! That's right, I am now a paid contributor to this website and have much to add from our journey in South America. I've made $16 so far (which, incidentally, is my entire 2010 income)! Woo hoo!

- We are a-shakin' and a-rattlin' here. Since we've settled in Baños, we have felt actual tremors 3 times! Nothing major, apparently it is quite common to get tiny tremors resonating from an epicenter quite far away. It is not possible to actually feel them unless we're sitting absolutely still or laying down. The first time was pretty unnerving, and now we just think it's pretty cool.

- I HAVE JEANS! This may seem entirely inconsequential to most of you, but to me, it is a BIG deal. I haven't worn jeans in 9 months, and now I have my very own pair of handcrafted Ecuadorian jeans, for a whopping price of $15. I might go get me another pair. They feel damn good! Next up: perhaps I will find me some sneakers!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Our Kids

If I could fold Angie's tiny self up and carry her around in my pocket, I would. She is so quiet and shy. She barely says a word, except for the daily Buenos Dias upon her arrival at La BIB.

When she wants to play a game, she'll just bring it over and gently tap me on the shoulder. She usually wins. She is incredibly smart, athletic, and as you can plainly see, beautiful.

I doubt Angie realizes what a special kid she truly is. I hope she will someday.

Stalin is just one of those easy going kids that you can't help but beam as soon as you see him. He has a very playful personality, and his face is rarely without a big smile.

Within two days, he had a special handshake with Pete. He must live near La BIB because we have seen him a few times in the area, and he never fails to come over to say hello.

He reminds me so much of Avery. Very easy to love.

I don't know Pamela's story. She is obviously one of the more disadvantaged kids at La BIB. Her clothes are usually soiled, as is her pretty face and thick hair.

Beneath the soil is a sweet girl who loves attention. She is the first one to come in for a hug as soon as the door opens, and she loves to sit on my lap while we draw and color together.

Pamela is one of the many who waits outside for up to an hour before we open the doors in the afternoon. We are happy to be a part of this place that has so much to offer her.

Help us make a difference with these kids! Click here to see how!

Monday, May 17, 2010


Everywhere we are, in every town we visit, Pete and I are in a constant state of evaluation. What is there to do around here? How expensive is it? What is the weather like year round? Could we live here?

We came into this journey with some expectations, or at least some assumptions as to what would have the most appeal to us. Growing up in the frigid, landlocked north of Alberta, we expected that there would be nothing that could compare to the draw of the warm ocean. We envisioned evenings on a beach, watching the sunset with a glass of wine. Sweating from the hot of the equatorial sun instead of from the workout of shoveling snow.

And while that vision still carries a lot of appeal, there is also a new contender in town. And it can be summed up with one adjective: GREEN!

All around us in Banos, there is green. The mountains are covered in lush foliage all year round. And when not set against a brilliantly contrasting blue sky, they are draped in layers of mystical clouds, seemingly close enough to touch. They are alive with the many waterfalls and crystal clear rivers. They are majestic, enchanting and inspiring. I could just stare out our windows all day long and never tire of the view.

Saturday morning we decided to take to the green, and embarked on a hike along the mountainside north of Baños, east and across a large canyon from the one main highway. It was led by Karl, one of our fearless leaders at La BIB, and he took us along an old smuggling route used back in the days of prohibition (yes, it was hard for us to believe that prohibition existed here too!) Karl said he has done this hike several times before, but part way through, we were questioning whether or not ANYONE had ever come this way before.

We walked through some serious, Indiana Jones shit! A machete, whip, or any number of tools would have been helpful through parts of the wildly overgrown paths. We got our fill of "green" - as it smacked us in the face, scratched our arms, and deceitfully covered holes that we then stepped into.

It was a amazingly beautiful setting, when we actually stopped ourselves to enjoy it. It was not the sort of hike that allowed for a casual stroll while gazing at the vista all around us. If it wasn't overgrown with plants, then it was a pit of mud, and we slipped and slid our way up and down the mountainside.

We are tiny little specks against the green mountainside

Check out my mud-encased pants and shoes

After almost four hours of hiking, we stopped for lunch and then continued a little further to one of the regions many tarabita's - a very basic basket style cable car to take us back across the canyon at quite a rapid speed. There are five of them along the canyon around Baños, I would love to just ride back and forth in them all day, taking in the beauty!

Tarabita across the canyon
Our chariot!

Safely on the other side of the canyon and at the highway, we hopped on a bus to our next stop of Rio Verde - home of Pailón del Diablo (Devil's Cauldron) - a waterfall recognized by the National Geographic as one of the ten most beautiful in the world! The area surrounding the top of the waterfall is actually owned by a Canadian, who Karl aptly described as quite...interesting.

That he is! Antonio warmly welcomed us and gave us the briefest introduction of how to enjoy his land: "Just remember the Beatles song - All you need is love! That's all that needs to be said."

And this is what he meant:

After hiking around his property, we returned to the town of Rio Verde and escaped the hot sun for a much needed cold beverage. Enjoying the rest and the shade more then the prospective of any more exercise, we forewent the last portion of the prescribed hike, deciding to save the views from the bottom of the waterfall (in the midst of all the green!) for another day.

For more GREEN (and other pictures) here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Magical Moments

The kids continue to surprise and amaze! I can't decide what my favourite activity with them is. I love drawing and coloring - as soon as I sit down and pick up a crayon, a group of them will patiently wait to see what I draw so that they can try to emulate it. Reading with them is also so much fun, and I don't even mind that I now almost know "Huevos Verde Con Jamon" (Green Eggs and Ham) off by heart. Maybe because I think it's funny that Sam I Am is now Juan Ramon.

Pete and I are also both enjoying the adult English classes more than either of us expected. Three nights a week, we are assisting (and in some cases, leading) classes that are given to the general public. They are very willing participants who are eager to learn, and I have even done a couple of private lessons outside of the regular classes.

English is hard! The classes are making us look at our language in a whole new way. Do any of you know what "count and non-count nouns" are? Or, what about how to use verbs in the "future perfect" or "past progressive" tense? Yeah, I didn't think so. But now we do! Each class is such a challenge for us - in order to be able to help them with what they need to know to build the language, we need to do lots of homework ourselves.

We are also amassing quite an eclectic group of people staying in the apartment, with 2 new arrivals this week and another joining us next week. One of my favourite things about traveling is the diversity of people we are meeting and the opportunities we have to discuss deep topics as a group whilst enjoying cheap beer and good food. And it's even better that one of our new roommates travels with his guitar, and we can break from the meal and deep discussions to just have a good ole fashioned sing-a-long.

And in between all of this, we continue to work hard on the other projects we each have on the go, even creating some additional projects on our own. We have still yet to find time to explore the town and area, but will make more of an effort to do so this weekend and next.

These are magical, live-changing days. And we are so thankful that there are many more to come!

You had to know THIS was coming!

I was going to wait to post this, maybe after a couple more weeks of "wooing" you with stories about what a great organization this is and how fabulous the kids are. But, I have been getting a couple of requests for info from some of you already on how to help, so I am stepping it up and making my plea early.

As with all of these types of places in South America, La BIB runs on donations. Most of the money comes from current and former volunteers that can see first hand exactly how much their money can do - making arts, language and literacy projects happen for a needy group of people. In a town where the kids previously had never been able to hold a book - La BIB has given them this opportunity and will continue to give them more...with your help!

Why donate to La BIB? Because you can. And because you lovvvveeee us. And because it's easy! Follow this link for more info. Or email us if you have any questions!

Here is a couple of pictures of the cute kiddies to "woo" you even further...

Pete playing Jenga (and with the resident mascot - Bibi!)

This little rockstar is named Nicole. Remind you of anyone??

Saturday, May 8, 2010


It's true. It has to be! The cutest kids in all of Latin America have been shipped to the pueblo of Baños and are attending the after school care program at La BIB. And we are a very fortunate pair to get to enjoy them for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Most of them are latch-key kids, who would otherwise be wandering the streets after school while their parents continue to work. Thankfully the doors of La BIB are wide open, providing them with opportunities that previously (and remarkably!) were not available in town. For instance, up until La BIB opened it's doors 2 years ago, most of these kids would never have even held a book before in their lives. Unimaginable to most of us privileged gringos, but sadly true.

It hasn't taken long for a few of them to already have wedged themselves into our hearts. There's Indira, one of the older girls, who is always eager to practice her English and is also most helpful (ahem!) at correcting my Spanish. There's Enrique, who wrote the sweetest poem to his Mamita in the mother's day card we constructed together. There's Karla, whose shy little smile gets me every single time. And then there's chubby little Jocelyn, who gives the best and longest good-bye hugs at the end of the day.

There are many, many more. And while we bounce between reading books to them, playing memory and helping with crafts, we get to know them a little more each day. After only one week here, our departure date, as far down the road as it is, is a sad thought already.

After a very busy week, we are enjoying the quiet of the weekend - relaxing some but also eagerly working on other projects that we have taken on for La BIB. The looming beauty of this town will have to wait to be adored, but it doesn't hurt to see the gorgeous mountains and a waterfall out of our window while we work. We are, indeed, the privileged gringos.

We will add pictures soon! We've been too busy this week to take any!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


And just like that! Free time is now a rare commodity for these formerly carefree travelers!

On Monday we moved into our new home for the next two months. We helped move furniture around, unpacked our bags (that took about 2 minutes!), and we were settled.

Pete is a giant in the wee kitchen!

It's basic but cosy, with a bathroom and kitchen that we're sharing with other volunteers, and with a price that can't be beat ($250 for the month). It is also a nice perk to be living just above where we work, and just below the organizers who thus far are taking very good care of us!

Just three days in, and our time has been quickly filled at La Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños (La BiB) - starting at 10am with various meetings on getting projects started, and finishing after 8pm when the adult English classes wrap up. In between we are helping keep the library clean, reading, playing with and making crafts with kids, teaching English as well as starting to work on some of our many projects! Pete will be helping to update the website (once he learns all the computer nerd language behind it!), and I have several items on the go, including editing some videos of recent events at La BiB.

Already we both feel like very welcome contributors to this worthy cause, and are so excited to be a part of it. Not only for the fact that we are helping to encourage the learning and creative minds of people of all ages, but also because it is truly our pleasure and honor to become acquainted with the organizers as well as some of the amazing people in this community.

I encourage you to take a look at this website to better understand what we are committing our time to. (And you'll have to look at it again later once Pete has prettied it all up!)

Different - for better or for worse!

There have been so many times in the past 8 months where Pete and I will look at each other and say: "Wow, that's sure different!" Whether it's because of the fact that people in Argentina are responsible for building their own sidewalks (imagine the variety), or the fact that each and every city in South America somehow has a damn rooster population magically situated beside every hostel we've stayed in. Stupid roosters.

These interesting aspects become even more apparent when we spend more time in a place, and really get to participate in the daily life of the locals. Some of it is for the better, others for worse, but in so many cases, it is vastly different from anything we are used to!

Case in point #1 - Milk distribution. Yes, milk is available in the supermarkets, but it is only "dead" milk (does not need to be refrigerated). Not entirely on board with ingesting it in this form, we instead are buying our milk from the back of a truck! Every morning, a pick-up truck drives down our street with large vats of fresh cow and goat's milk for sale. We take out our own container and get one litre filled for $0.50. This is obviously fresher then fresh, and so is way healthier, and also way cheaper. I don't know if this sort of service exists anywhere in Canada - it is definitely a difference for the better!

Case in point #2 - Disturbance of the peace. You can damn well bet that if in Canada I was woken around 6am everyday by a group of runners who were also loudly chanting, the local police would be getting a call from me to put a stop to it. So, what do I do here when these running chanters ARE the police? Baños is home to a police school, and part of their training includes running early every morning - I get that. But why chanting? And why down the main streets in town? I miss my cosy, largely undisturbed neighbourhood in the Canadian suburbs for this reason.

I guess we gotta take the good with the bad. At least there are no roosters waking us up. Yet.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

At "Home" In Ecuador

We had an uneventful travel day on Wednesday - with flights to Bogota and then Quito, where we spent the night before catching a bus to Baños the following day. We thoroughly enjoyed our first night away from the Caribbean heat - actually being able to use our bed covers and not worry about the multitude of mosquitos that would surely feast on our exposed skin. That had to be the best sleep we had in a long time, and we took our time getting up and to the bus station.

And what a welcome back to Ecuador we had! On Thursday morning we couldn't have been in better spirits - as we drove through the lush green mountains, we were reminded again how incredibly beautiful this little country is, and how lucky we are to be able to call it "home" for the next two months.

And perhaps it was these euphoric, comfortable feelings that caused us to just let our guard down oh-so-slightly - just enough so as to have our first theft occur in our 8 months of travels. On the rack just above our heads on the bus, we placed our smaller travel bag, which is something we normally never do, knowing that it leaves it entirely susceptible to sneaky thieves. Sure enough, within an hour of our journey we became concerned as another pair of gringo's beside us realized that they had been thieved from the bag above their heads. Luckily, we had ensured that it didn't contain anything too valuable before placing it up there, but some ladron still managed to take the most valuable thing in the bag - my North Face rain jacket. Such a thing is not easily replaceable where we are, and I am hoping that it won't be needed in our few months left.

It feels a little weird to be back in a familiar place, without the awe of seeing something new for the first time, or the required deciphering of a map to get to where we need to be. We checked back into La Casa Verde - still our favourite hostel in South America - and let the tranquil comfort of it wash over us. I slept. And slept. And slept! No rush to see the sights, no pressure to fit it all in to a few days before moving on to the next place. It has been a long time since we've been able to relax like this.

It feels good. And it feels right. After six months of constantly being on the move, we are so excited to put our bags away for awhile and immerse ourselves in the community and the culture.

On Monday we will really dig in our roots here, as we move into our shared apartment for the duration of our stay (at $250 a month). It is basic, but comfortable, as they reportedly bought a new bed for our impending arrival! We will be sharing it with other volunteers at Arte Del Mundo - and on Monday afternoon we will join them in our first day of duties.

We have had a couple of meetings with Jody (one of the organizers) since we arrived on Thursday. She is as excited to have us as we are to be here, and we are sure that our time will be well used. Gone are our carefree vagabond days, we have a job to do! We can expect to be reading with the kids, changing the organization's website, cataloguing books, teaching English to people of all ages, among many other things - I am sure! We are both very excited to have "purpose" again, especially for this very worthwhile cause.

And so, now that we are "stable" for the next few months - it sure would be GREAT to feel a little love from home in the form of a care package (Hi Mom!) We'll forward our address to any of our loyal readers who would like to share a bag of Dill Pickle Chips, Dentyne Fire Gum, leftover Mini-Eggs, or any other yummy treats we miss from home (We love you Mom!)