Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Journey Home

Surprise! I'm home!

My original return date to Canada was slated to be July 2nd, but thanks to continuous screw-ups by airlines and travel companies, I was booted off of that one, scrambled, and found a decently priced flight to Calgary on Wednesday. Unfortunately, that final flight was not without it's own issues either (resulting in a crying/screaming fit at the airport by yours truly) - but I will delve into more details on that later. For now all I will say is that you will never again find me using Delta Airlines, Santa Barbara Airlines, or Ever.

First, the days leading up to my departure from South America!

My last days in Baños were as to be expected - they were very busy, and very sad. It was hard for me to believe that this adventure was winding down, so I was grateful for the distraction of my many tasks at hand - buying last minute souvenirs, packing, finishing up projects for La BIB, and saying goodbye. After only 2 months in this little city, I had amassed enough of a little "family" in order to make this last task quite difficult. It was not without tears, successfully extracted from me by the kids at La BIB, and an Ecuadorian member of the staff who said that "mi ciudad es su casa" (my city is your home). For everyone else, I just ran away fast enough to avoid needing any weakness tissue for my eye water.

And under the usual low shroud of clouds and a light drizzle of rain, Pete and I boarded a bus on Saturday morning and I sadly said goodbye to the beautiful city of
Baños. One final exploration of Ecuador was still to be had though - we had booked ourselves 2 nights in the honeymoon suite of a hostel in Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi being the name of (you guessed it!) another volcano.

The hostel we stayed at deserves all the praise heaped upon it for it's astounding setting. Literally, it is in the middle of nowhere - a bouncy 1 hour ride from the nearest town of Machachi finally got us there. Out it's front door are pastures of lush green grass, spotted with random rock formations that are remnants of Cotopaxi's violent past (He hasn't majorly blown since 1904). And then there is the elusive volcanoes and other mountains set off in the distant - not often visible because of the constant clouds, but breathtaking when they were finally revealed.

And, speaking of mountains and volcanoes, with only a few days to go in Ecuador before returning home, I thought it might be a decent idea to try and climb one of them. Sounds good, right? Finish off with one last exciting adventure?

Well. Let me show you the conditions of this hike up Cotopaxi.

And you can guess how excited I was to do this climb.

It was difficult enough to begin with - the starting elevation was 4,400mts. With the little oxygen available at that level, I was out of breath with each step. Add in snow, and strong gusts of wind, and about half way into the climb, I decided it was no longer vale la pena (worth it). I had started to hyperventilate from the lack of air, and I no longer believed the guide when he said he was sure that we would be above the clouds at our destination. I turned around.

Seriously. What in the hell was I thinking? I had successfully (and proudly!) avoided a snowy Canadian winter, only to find myself being blasted with the cold white stuff with only a few days to go before returning to Canada. Where was my beach??

It turned out that my decision to go back was a wise one. The guide was wrong, there was no ascension from the clouds when the refugio was reached by the others at 4,800mts. No views were available from the top, and when the group pushed a little further to be able to view and walk on a glacier, they couldn't even tell where the glacier was.
This was the best view Pete got on the whole journey.

Meanwhile, I was safely snuggled in the vehicle at the bottom of the hill, breathing easier.

Aside from this adventure, we spent most of our time in Cotopaxi cuddled against the warm fire to escape the cold. We enjoyed home cooked meals, some seriously competitive Monopoly that almost turned fisticuffs between an American and a Brit, and the candlelit tranquility of our honeymoon suite. Pete and I reluctantly left on Monday morning to my final stop of Quito.

Ugh, we've spent way too much time in this big noisy city for some reason, and so there was nothing of note to my last few hours here. We checked into a very nice boutique hotel for our last night together, enjoyed an average meal, and I was up early the next morning to set off for my 10am flight to Miami.

Pete saw me into the cab and we said our sad, tearful goodbyes. Off to the airport I went, ready to say hasta luego to South America and get on the north bound plane, where I would spend the night in Miami and then continue my travels the following day to Calgary. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.

My ticket on the Venezuelan airline to Miami was declared VOID. Thanks to a mix-up courtesy of paypal, the money had been taken from our bank account, but not paid to the airline. Not knowing that at the time, my pleading, yelling and crying was not getting me anywhere. At one point, I even sat on the ticket counter and said I was not going anywhere until they gave me a ticket. Yeah, that didn't work. It was not my finest moment.

The rest of Tuesday was spent scrambling to try and get a flight to Miami in time to make my connection on Wednesday afternoon. I lugged my baggage back and forth to different airline offices across the city, and missed out on a seat sale by two hours on American. Finally, I checked back into the boutique hotel and sat myself down on the computer to research all possible angles.

I shelled out an extra $300 compared to my earlier ticket (which I am still waiting to get a refund on), but I made it. Wednesday was a incredibly long day - 18 hours spent in airports and on planes, but I finally rolled into Calgary, even a little ahead of schedule. I half expected to be pulled aside by customs given how long I was gone and some of the countries I had visited, but I breezed through without issue. The man either had pity on the look of my sad, tired face, or he appreciated the low cut shirt I wore especially for this occassion. Either way, I was happy to get through quickly.

And waiting on the other side for me was my teary Mom, and an excited Avery, who tried to surprise me by hiding behind a statue. Didn't quite work, but I didn't care. I was so happy to finally arrive and see my welcoming party!

And so now it has been a couple of days back "home". What an incredibly odd feeling to be here, likely compounded by the fact that I am alone, while Pete continues the valuable work he is doing in Ecuador. Every minute brings a new emotion, as what was once my "home" now feels somewhat foreign.

I am so happy to see my family. I am so sad to be away from Pete and the little life we had built for ourselves down south. I am guilty for now surrounding myself with such opulence - even if my definition of the word only includes the fact that I have tripled my inventory of underwear. I am astounded by what I have, by what we all have, compared to what exists just a few plane rides away. It is an incredible shock culturally, and at moments I feel lost and out of place.

I expect this all to normalize for me after some time, at least I hope that I can find myself feeling more at home instead of in a bit of a purgatory. I had no idea what I would feel, but I really am not surprised by these emotions. It shows the depth of what has changed in me, because of what I have surrounded myself with for the last 10 months. The challenge will be to try to bring some of that to the world around me no matter where I am, to remind us all how lucky and blessed we are to having just been born Canadian.

And such, this is my last blog on our travels, for now. Pete will take over until he returns home in August, and then we will enjoy our reunion in Canada until we decide what to do next. Travel more?
Settle? Where? We are open to suggestions. =)

Thanks for taking this journey with me. It has been my pleasure to share it with you, and I hope to see you all soon! Dalene

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


One of the best things about sitting still in one location for awhile is immersing ourselves in the culture and getting to know some of the locals. We feel totally at home in this small city and a real part of the population. Kids from La BIB run up to us on the street, eager to say hello and give us hugs or high fives. Pete even had one of his English students track us down at our apartment to get some of her homework corrected - we aren't sure how she found out exactly where we are living - but in this small and busy town, we weren't really surprised that she could.

One of the most fascinating people we have met is our new friend Alfonso Morales. A regular student of La BIB's evening classes, I have had the pleasure of helping him work on improving his spoken English. By his invitation on Saturday afternoon, we ventured out of town and across the river to his beautiful hostel Las Granadillas (means passionfruit) for an afternoon of World Cup Soccer, volcano viewing, and great conversation.

Beautiful views of Baños from Alfonso's hostel patio

Alfonso has been confined to a wheelchair for 23 years, due to an accident he had while working on the dangerous highways surrounding Baños. Such a tragic situation would break and traumatize most people, however he is one of those amazing spirits that has turned a bad situation into something really beautiful.

He is a paralympian - having competed in the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. He has traveled all over the world - throughout South America, much of the USA, and even to Switzerland (it is VERY rare for someone from around here to be so well traveled). Much of his travels have been to attend (and present at) conferences on overcoming disabilities. He spent two months at school in San Francisco studying wheelchair design, to hopefully bring improvements for people who are disabled and living in locales with difficult accessibility. He even served on the Baños town council for four years, and was responsible for the wheelchair ramps on sidewalks all over town (another rarity in South America).

We were treated like royalty while Alfonso and his mother busied themselves in their hostel kitchen, preparing us coffee, snacks of roasted split bananas with melted cheese and raisins (so good!), and finally some tea made from plant leaves they picked right from their front terrace. Alfonso has some really great stories, and to get to know him in this way has been a real joy.

After such a lovely afternoon, we will even forgive him for citing the Village People as one of his favourite musical groups! We are making him some new CD's to correct this issue =)

And then...

I had written the above portion about how-great-it-is-to-be-a-part-of-this-community right after our beautiful Saturday afternoon. Before Sunday. Before the incident that introduced us to the not-so-friendly-community of our local bus terminal.

Sunday afternoon we decided to be tourists for a few hours and strapped on our hiking shoes. Our destination was Rio Verde - a small village about a 15 minute drive from Baños, and home to one of the top 10 most beautiful waterfalls in the world (as decided by National Geographic). We had seen only the top of El Pailón del Diablo waterfall on a previous venture, and this hike was going to complete the picture.

The bus station was very busy, and the four of us (two other volunteers with Pete and I), took our spot on the sidewalk, waiting for one of the next frequent buses to take us north out of town. While we waited, we were exposed to a little drama that borderlined on the scary.

Buses were backed up outside of the parking lot, and had been for several minutes. Instead of waiting for one of the parking spots to open up, one bus opened it's doors and the passengers started pouring out. The undercarriage baggage gates were lifted and people rifled through the luggage to find their bags.

Meanwhile, spots started to open up. The first bus behind the unloading bus got impatient. Horns were honking, drivers were yelling. Finally, the small driver from the second bus had enough - he stormed off, and proceeded to get in the face of the driver of the unloading bus.

It didn't take long before flying curses became flying punches, and the belt of one of the drivers soon also became a weapon. With a bloody lip and nose, the second bus driver returned to his bus, and came back wielding a baseball bat that had been hidden behind the seat.
The crowd around us grew, and everyone was very anxious as to what would happen next via the angry young man with the bat. As he approached the unloading bus and tightened his grip, he suddenly stopped short. The driver of the first bus had reached behind his seat too. And the angry young man realized that his bat would be no good against a machete.

That was the end of that. Dirty looks were the last things exchanged, and everyone went back about their business.

Okay then! That was some interesting excitement in our day - the first almost-machete-fight we've ever seen. Hopefully, the last!

On the bus we went, off to see this waterfall:

Very purdy! And a good burst of exercise to get there and back. Totally worth all the excitement!

Oh Mama, I miss you.

It has been several days since we heard from Mama Tungurahua. While Her daily entry in Her internet diary still says that activity is high (thanks to potentially troublesome ash that is still being emitted every so often), She has become very still and quiet. No more window rattlers, not even a murmur. The excitement of living with an active, life threatening force of nature is apparently over.

Sigh. It was fun while it lasted.

While at Alfonso's on Saturday, we did get to see one of Her massive ash emissions. If only it wasn't for the damn clouds, we could have had some amazing pictures.

The grey puffiness in the middle of the clouds is the ceniza

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Home. Treats. And my Mama(s).

This, ladies and gentleman, is post #100 written by these Hecktic Travelers! And perhaps it is fitting that at this milestone, I now must discuss a subject we have been avoiding for some time.

Arrangements are being made. A flight is booked. The countdown is on.

22 sleeps from today, I will be departing the city of Quito, the country of Ecuador, the continent of South America. 14 hours overnight on 3 different flights will land me in Calgary, and into the loving arms of the family and friends I have missed so much.

For previously unforeseen reasons, I will be home earlier then originally planned, and I will be alone. Pete will be sticking it out in Baños and at La Bib for an additional month to see out the projects that we both started. After having been almost inseparable for nearly 11 months, it will be a difficult time for both of us to be apart, and it is a decision that was not made lightly. But we are confident that in the end, this decision benefits the greatest number of people possible besides ourselves. All I ask of all my friends and family who are reading this - you're going to have to work a little overtime in keeping me busy and feeling loved until Pete returns. I hope you are up for it!

As you can expect, the range of emotions I feel after having made this decision is quite vast. I am nervous, excited, sad, and every feeling in between. I can't quite begin to articulate yet what my time on this continent has meant - what changes it has inflicted on my being, and what it will mean for our future. And I don't expect it will all suddenly become apparent - only time and life's challenges will call to the surface those parts of my personality that have changed by what I've seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, and experienced in this year of living free in distant lands. All I know is that I am not the same person, we are not the same couple, and our future is blown wide open. As this exciting chapter of our life starts to come to a close, I have never been more thrilled to face our future, wherever it may be played out.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Tastes of Home!

O blessed be the grand heart of my Mom, who sent the most tantalizing, abundant care package that ever was sent to these wary travelers.

And yes, the bags of a few things were opened before I took the picture. I have very little willpower when it comes to Old Dutch. And Mini-Eggs.

All wonderful things do come at a price, however, and I'm not just talking about the postage Mom paid (YOWZA, but that was a lot of money! We will be treasuring each expensive chip, that is for sure!) Today Pete and I made the pilgrimage to Ambato, a larger city about an hour from Baños, where the package was held up for mysterious reasons.

And this was not our first trip. On some bad advice, I had made the trip last Monday, only to find out that the office for retrieving parcels is only open on Thursday mornings. We didn't go last Thursday (fearful of road closures due to the volcano), and so finally made the trip again today. I came away with the package, a few dollars poorer, and still without any explanation as to why the package didn't make it all the way to Baños.

Throughout South America we have marveled at the peculiarities and inefficiencies of some of the simplest operations - like having to watch our traveler's cheque move through seven people before finally seeing any money in Bolivia, or Pete having to leave his inked fingerprint just to be able to send a postcard from Colombia. Ecuador is no different.

In Ambato, I visited three different counters in the small post office for various reasons. One counter I visited twice. All of us numerous post patrons also had to wait an additional ten minutes while the entire staff dropped everything they were doing to head outside for a spontaneous group picture. Finally, I sat down to be grilled by a customs official, who only laughed when he opened the box and saw that the contents were almost solely "chicles y papas fritas" - gum and potato chips! I had to explain that the package was from my Mom, and it contained some of the food we were missing from home. Luckily, he let me go with a nominal fee (this office is known to extort funds from wealthy looking gringos - I'm guessing my sob story and the ragged state of my clothes and shoes saved me a few extra dollars).

Oh, but it was all worth it. It tastes soooo good. (Thanks Mom!)

That pesky volcano
Remember when I said that Mama T was done all her erupting nonsense? Wasn't that FUNNY? Aren't I a FUNNY person?

Um, yeah. Who was I kidding? She ain't done. Mama is still at it - even a little more frequently in the last 24 hours then She had been in the last week. Mama's internet diary said She is exploding 3-4 times an hour on average.

She's just...quieter. There are very few "cannon-shot" eruptions (the window shakers), but that doesn't mean that she isn't still constantly churning internally, and regularly spewing ash to reach as high as 5km above the crater.

We just can't see the crater in Baños, thanks to the constant cloud that hangs over Her. And now that we also can't hear Her - it's out of sight/sound, out of mind.

Well, at least now we can sleep without the constant noise disturbing us. This is better. I guess?

(Will keep you posted...again)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

And...She Rests.

Even though the threat alert level still remains "high" on the official Mama T website yesterday, I'm calling it! All is good in the hood! Explosions have been so few and infrequent in the last 24 hours, that I think She is finally done. Mama T has had Her say for almost two weeks, and now She needs Her rest.

And, to borrow a line from a fellow volunteer: We've played a game of chicken with Mother Nature...and we won!

A pretty exhilirating time, but one that I am glad is over. While the view, feel and sound of a blowing volcano made for some exciting days, with it came a constant roller coaster ride of fear and relief, and then fear again. And now, finally, relief.

I hope!

Just got this AMAZING picture from our friend Adam Curtis, taken last week - had to share!

After a month of living over La BIB, Pete and I decided to find some space of our own, and so we moved two blocks away into a cute little apartment - our first real "home" since we sold our Okotoks house a year ago.

I can't even express how amazing it has felt for us to have this space. It is only 600 sq ft, but we don't quite know what to do with ourselves in it, it is so much more then we are used to! We find ourselves still spending all of our time in the bedroom - watching TV on the computer, eating snacks in bed, whatever it may be. We are so used to having only that space be "ours", that it feels weird to do anything else.

But, we are slowly creeping into the living room and actually using the couches. Pete is enjoying having quite a lot of space in the kitchen, and has been cooking up a storm! We have even entertained a couple of times. It feels nice to be somewhat settled, at least as much as we can be...for our trek "home" is close at hand (more on that next post!)

Saturday, June 5, 2010


One scary aspect to being in this kind of volatile situation is the politics at play behind the scenes. While we like to believe that our fellow human making the important decisions will do the best for all humankind concerned, maybe that's not always the truth.

Case in point - the last major evacuation of Baños in 1999. The army marched into town, giving residents one half hour to get everything together and get out. The Baneños , probably scared out of their minds at the uncertainty of the situation (it was the first time Mama T had been active in a very long time), trustingly complied. And while there homes were left empty for 3 months during the evacuation, the army - who are there to protect and serve the people - looted them, right down to taking the animals out of their yards.

These are different times. Image is king, especially for this small town that thrives on the tourists it brings in - nobody wants the kind of bad press that that sort of escapade would bring. While all eyes of the world can be on the happenings of Baños with a flick of TV channels or a quick google search, what image does this mayor of the town want to project?

That everything is fine, of course. That the active volcano smoldering just a few kilometers away is just a nuisance, and not a menace. In fact, it's not even a nuisance, it's a tourist attraction! Come see hot red lava spewing nightly!

And the scary politics at play here? The mayor is not just the mayor. He is also the head of the COE (Committee Of Emergency). The same person who does not want to hurt the image of this tourist town is in charge of making responsible safety decisions on behalf of it's residents. It is not a stretch of the imagination, then, to believe that perhaps his hand rests a little lighter on the evacuation-siren-button - if the town is empty, how can tourism dollars be made?

Thankfully, there is a higher power at play here who seems to be acting with more concern and caution. The governor of this small province of Tungurahua has been stocking the local refuge point with mattresses, food and water. He is watching closely, and has the power to call it as he sees it, over the head of the mayor. There is apparently a long-standing power struggle between these two that perhaps is coming to a head during this crisis.

The result, this casual observer believes, played out in one small form yesterday. At 11:36 am, the sirens blew. There was no panic, we all knew it was coming - it was a "simulated" evacuation of the town. The COE organized it to measure the time it would take to get all of the residents to the refuge.

There are so many things wrong with that. First of all, gringos were not obliged to participate. We sat and watched as scores of school children and others ran through the streets out of town. And like good little tourists, we sat with our cameras ready.

View out our window of the evacuation path

What if the need for a real evacuation was suddenly upon us yesterday? The alarms would blow, and the gringos would have gone nowhere, expecting it was only the simulation. Not only that, but the residents would likely not have grabbed their emergency-to-go bag of valuables, or not even taken it seriously in the first place - leaving them to the same fate as us.

Okay, so none of that happened, and everyone is safe. And now the COE is armed with some valuable information in the need of a real emergency. And the residents maybe are all a little more confident in what to do in a real emergency. These are all good things.

But it is also not a stretch to believe that the potentially erroneous decision to have the simulated evacuation is perhaps a one-up-manship from the mayor back to the governor. Look, I care about my peeps. I'm doing progressive things to protect them in a bad situation. I am a fellow human doing what is good for humankind.

We can hope that this last sentence is sincerely true. Because as the volcano roars again this morning, political chess likely continues to be played, with the residents of Baños as the pawns. But as long as the trend continues to be that decisions are being made to measure and ensure the safety of the residents, then we can all rest in Mama T's shadow for another day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Up and Down

Everytime we think it must be over - She starts up again. And vice versa. Mama is an unpredictable one.

At least we seem to be getting more used to it. During the last couple of nights, Pete and I have had very blissful sleep, despite reports that She had let off some good shakers in the middle of the night. To us, it seems much quieter compared to what we had on the weekend. And by "quiet", I mean that we still get a couple of good booms, but they are much farther apart (up to an hour) and don't usually generate a "woah-that-was-a-gooder" response from anyone.

However, Mama's activity (as recorded by volcanologists), seems to be increasing. An interview played on a local radio station yesterday said that her activity levels were rising, but a little less then they rose on Friday. That's good, I guess? No one seems to be willing to commit to any sort definitive answer about what to expect. And we have learned by now not to even rely on comments from Bañenos. One man's concern is another's man's joke.

This morning they tested the alarms (thank Gawd we knew about it, otherwise - how scary!) and all seem to be working fine.

We are trusting our own instincts, and so are staying put for the time being. Because Mama T is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, all of the top "volcano institutes" are watching her. If there is sincere danger to our little town, I am sure we will know about it. And we will follow all directives when issued. But until then, we are staying put and witnessing one of the most incredible and unique events we could have hoped to experience on this trip!

The Show Must Go On!

Despite the school's being closed due to Mama's activity, the doors at La BIB have been wide open, and we even threw a little party on Tuesday!

Remember as a kid, after celebrating Mother's and Father's Day, asking this inevitable question - when is Kid's Day? To which would always follow, the inevitable answer - every day is Kid's Day!

Well, Ecuadorians do not apparently subscribe to this theory! June 1st of every year is Kid's Day, and the eager kids are even awarded a day off from school. And what better time for La BIB to throw a party - to celebrate the kids as well as take everyone's mind off of the burping volcano in the background.

We had three-legged races, potato sack races, musical chairs, and even a dance competition! There were lots of prizes, and we were FULL of kids, more came then we anticipated.

Getting ready for musical chairs!

It was a really fun afternoon, and I do believe the party well served it's purpose. Once again, we are pleasantly amazed at the good that this little organization does for the community.

Thanks to all that have already made donations to La BIB! For any of those who haven't had a chance to donate yet, follow this link to do it!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

She Gains Some Steam

Like the new header? All we need is the CNN "breaking news" music - DUH DUH DUHHHH!

A voluntary evacuation notice is out in Baños as activity from Tungurahua picks up this morning! She is being fairly violent, and we even had a minor earthquake shake us awake just after 6am.

We are staying put and will do so until it becomes forced. I can't imagine leaving and missing out on all this action!

Will keep you posted!