/*from pinterest*/


In my last Ecuador installment, I talked about the bike ride on Cotapaxi. When we finished that ride, we loaded into the Land Rover and headed for Quilotoa.

Quilotoa is the name of a pueblo, a volcano and a lake.
We arrive on the Saturday after a long drive from Volcan Cotapaxi. Besides Rolf and me, there are three other couples—two from England, and an Irish Swiss combo. The others think we are cool, being so old and doing this. Actually only two of the couples are in their twenties. Johnny from Ireland is forty-five and Patricia is in her thirties.
I am muy cansada, very tired, after my bike trip. We are in the back of the Land Rover with two of the couples. The other couple rides up front with the driver. Our guide, Fernando, is in the back with us. There are a few photo op stops. Then about 6:30 pm, just after sunset, we roll into the tiny pueblo of Quilotoa, at about 4000 metres (about 13,000 ft). Here the average daily temperature is 9 to 12 Celsius. I think it goes lower at night, but not to freezing. There’s no snow but it’s windy.
We take our packs—day packs—into the big room where we will all be sleeping. I have brought my night gown, fresh socks, toothbrush and paste, comb and sun block. I’m wearing my convertible pants (which will only be converted in the Galapagos), a t-shirt, my MEC long sleeve shirt with all the pockets, my MEC purple fleece, and my MEC Gore-Tex jacket, as well as MEC head band and mitts. MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) marks you as a Canadian the way maple leaves used to.
This casa (house) has many rooms as it has been added on to over the years. The roof is tin, and so there is a thatch mat strung up under the roof. Otherwise the condensation would drip on you at night. There is also electricity. The wires are laced through the thatch and the light sockets are not attached to anything. They dangle there, and the light browns out about every fifteen minutes.

There is also running water and flush toilets—with the usual “put the used paper in the waste basket instructions”. This is due to low water pressure. There is also Hot Water—which is advertised as “hot water 24 hours”. This means an in-line water heater. I skip the shower. We all do. And anyway, the drowned moths in the shower stall just don’t work for me. I keep my eye on the huge spider on the bathroom wall while I am using the facilities.
I can even wash my hands after. There is this tiny sink down the hall. A pipe drains away water, and over the sink another pipe comes out of the wall with clean cold water. But don’t drink it or use it for brushing teeth. This high mountain area has a water problem so they have built a big underground reservoir and they have water trucked in. You’d think they’d move but they have no options. They own this land and that is all they own. Up here, they raise sheep and each day they take them down to the lake for water. More on the lake later.
These are the indígenas (indigenous) that you see in the Andes pictures. They all wear those felt hats that don’t blow off in the wind, like my Tilley hat does. The women have a “uniform “ which is the hat, the colourful shirts, the black skirt that goes to the knees, the white stockings, and the black shoes with inch heels that look like they belong to a conservative business dress. The woman’s long hair is pulled into a pony tail and wrapped with multi-coloured strings. A scarf is worn over the mouth and nose to keep out the cold.
Enough of description. Now it’s supper time and we are in another big room, the main room of the house. It has a tiny stove throwing tons of heat. The German shepherd dog, Rambo, is next to the stove with the two cats. The men and the women are sitting around talking to Rolf (he was here two years ago) and the guide Fernando (who was also Rolf’s guide two years ago). The rest of us are experiencing serious culture shock.
But then we have dinner. We are sitting at one long table, and a group of students from Boston University are at the other long table. The students are here for a six month semester of immersion, studying Spanish and other subjects as well, like micro economics. Our guide serves us dinner which was prepared by the indígenas in the big kitchen. Soup, spaghetti and your choice of meat sauce or tofu sauce, followed by a tiny dessert of sliced banana and pineapple. You can buy agua (water) or tea for 50 cents. Or cerveza for a bit more, and the beer comes in super-sized bottles.
And here’s the thing. There is something about being with a group of people when you are tired, cold and hungry, and borrowing toilet paper and asthma inhalers. You bond very quickly. You learn about what the Colombian countryside is like, if the trek up Machu Picchu is worth it, and what it’s like to take a bike tour of Ireland. You tell very strange jokes and talk about how your bowels are performing. It’s not your usual dinner conversation.

Meanwhile the American students are having their conversations. The children play cards by the fire. Rambo the dog looks for attention, and Rolf teaches Roberto and his wife and a bunch of their kids how to use a video camera. (Rolf gave them our old Canon video cam. I took some footage of the lesson.) They are all mega happy.
About ten, it’s bedtime. A young boy stokes the fire in our room. Two young indígena girls are looking at the photos on Chantal’s iPod. Then we settle under layers of blankets. It’s hard to fall asleep because my legs are aching, but at least I can breathe. Rolf has trouble getting enough air. He has to think about breathing. And overnight, Michelle develops full blown altitude sickness with headache, vomiting and diarrhea.

We wake up about 6:30 am and dress quickly because the fire in the stove has gone out. Breakfast is buns, very hard margarine that has sat on the table overnight, raspberry jam they make, scrambled eggs, and milky oatmeal. Now we are ready to go to the lake.
The volcano blew up near the end of the 1700s, and now a hot spring feeds the lake in the crater. Andy and Chantal, Patricia and Johnny, and Rolf hike down with Rambo the dog. Steve stays up to look after his girlfriend Michelle. The guide Fernando stays as well. I stay because the hike down into the crater is 900 metres and my knees would not make it. And even if I did make it down, I don’t think I would have been able to hike back up. It’s almost a kilometre of climbing and every time I try any elevation, I am out of breath.
I do go down the trail a little way, with the sheep and the boy shepherd. Then I stand and listen and it feels as if I have stepped through a time portal. The mountain is silent, like a sleeping giant, waiting to erupt again. The rim is jagged from the blast over 200 years ago. The water in the crater is green and inviting. If you swim near where the hot springs feed the lake, you are warm.

I take my time and climb back to the top, then I walk along the path at the edge of the mountain. The wind blows over a bleak land. An indígena woman in traditional dress passes me. She is collecting some kind of greens that look like weeds to me. In the distance I hear what sounds like those pan pipes, but that’s not what they are. It’s an old man whistling, out walking with his dog.
Around 11 am, a big tour bus arrives, downloads the sightseers, and they stand by the fence above the crater and take pictures of each other. Watching the tourists, I feel like I know, like I understand something, that those people on the tour bus will never know. They have not eaten with an indígena family and slept in their house.

I’m not doing a very good job of describing this. I’m afraid it’s one of those things you have to experience.
And now it’s about noon. Rolf has made it back from the lake. The rest are still down there swimming. Our guide Fernando drives Rolf and me to the top of the first big hill and we start a downhill part of the bike trip. This portion of the bike trip takes us over several valleys and past the tiny dwellings of the indígenas. They live all over the hillsides, probably the same way they have lived for over a hundred years.
After about an hour and a half, the other bicyclists are passing us. The Land Rover and Fernando, on his bike, catch up with us. Michelle with the altitude sickness is sleeping in the front. Chantal wasted herself climbing up the 900 metres from the crater lake so she is sleeping stretched out in the back. Fernando asks how I am doing. I err on the side of caution and end my biking for the day. Rolf goes ahead. The driver and Fernando load my bike, and I climb in the back. The Land Rover ends up following behind Rolf for the rest of the trip, so I am going the speed of his bike, and snapping dozens of photos. Fernando stays with Rolf to make sure he gets up the last big hill, and then he goes ahead.

As we descend to lower altitudes, Michelle revives. About 3 pm, we end our trip. We have a roadside picnic, take groups shots and exchange email addresses. Then we load back into Land Rover. Along the way, we stop to let Johnny and Patricia break off from the group. They don’t want to go back to Quito because they are travelling further south. Same with Steve and Michelle who break off a bit later. In the back, Andy and Chantal, and Rolf and I listen to Fernando’s stories and tell some of our own. And finally we reach Quito, tired and hungry but full of new experiences.
Rolf and I finish off the day at Tomates with pizza that tastes very Canadian. I feel like I know the world a little better and love Canada even more.

Have you ever visited a place that is very different from your home? Did you find it overwhelming and extremely interesting at the same time?

Cotopaxi Bike Trip

Cotopaxi Bike Trip

Last week, with the weather so cold in Calgary, I decided to write about a warmer climate and my 2007 trip to Ecuador. It’s still very cold in Calgary—at the moment minus 20, with a wind chill of minus 29. (That’s – 3 and – 20 Fahrenheit, respectively.) And so, back to Ecuador!

Cotopaxi Bike Trip

I think I’m hitting my stride and settling into Ecuador. This past weekend we did a trip with the Biking Dutchman—a business that has been running for 15 years here.
We met at 7 a.m. on Saturday outside the Magic Bean. They had two Land Rovers with bicycles loaded on top. The Americans (embassy and air force guys) were going for the day trip. We were in the truck with three young couples going for the whole weekend.
Day 1 of the trip was biking down Cotopaxi mountain. This is the beautiful snow-covered volcano we can see from Quito. Apparently, the thing has not blown up for a while, a hundred years or so. There are ways of telling when it might blow but someone said that the government does not like releasing info like that because it’s bad for the tourist business. When asked about the safety of the trail, our guide (who has a degree in ecotourism) told us that the main danger was the volcano. But hey, you might as well go out while you’re having fun. (I said that, not him.)

We are only biking down from the parking lot, not the top. The top is for mountain climbers, and you don’t go into the cone because of the fumes. Anyway, the parking lot is about 14,760 feet and I am feeling dizzy. Quito is about 9,350 feet so I have not acclimatized yet.
Our guide gives us our bikes. We’ve already got helmets. Some of the Americans have knee and elbow pads. They plan on whisking down. Our guide checks each bike, tells us how the gears work, how to hold on to the brakes, with just 2 fingers. It’s cold and windy up there. Soon the 16 of us are ready, and off we go.
Two of the girls decide against the trail right at the start because the volcanic soil is soft and slippery. I figure, we’ve travelled about three hours to get here, I might as well try.
The Americans disappear down the trail, but I take my time. And if I had known that squeezing brakes was so hard, I would have done some hand exercises before trying this. Yes, I know you are supposed to cruise down, but the ruts are quite deep, the trail is steep, and I have never done this before. My hands are soon tired and cramped, and I need to use all four fingers to brake. After about an hour and a half our guide tells me I have to ride down in the truck to the meeting point. I feel like a failure.
At the meeting point, the other driver is busy repairing bikes. One of the Americans blew a tire. Another popped a fender. Rolf broke a chain. After everything is repaired, we continue down the mountain.

Since it’s a flatter part, I try again. With one vehicle following me all the way, I make it to the lunch place. The guys cheer when I finally arrive and the two girls in the truck are proud of me. One of them says she doesn’t think her mother could have done this.
We have an excellent lunch and I figure out that food is one of the main attractions of mountain biking.


Cotopaxi as seen from the air

There are three other women on this trip, all in their twenties. Patricia (Switzerland) has been travelling about six months, is acclimatized and fit. She rides the whole way. Michelle (England) starts to ride after lunch, now that it is not so steep. But Chantal (England) decides to stay in the truck because she is having some stomach problems. Feeling more confident, I continue riding after lunch. I still have to keep stopping to flex my hands, because they’re cramping from all the braking. And then finally, I get to a part that has a hill.
I had been following Rolf and our guide, but at the hill, I need to get off and push the bike up. In Canada, I can do this—climb a steep hill, one step at a time. I know my legs are strong enough, but I’m breathing really fast. Step, step, step. By now, our guide has come back down the hill on his bike and is following me up. I tell him poco y poco (little by little) as I continue to walk the bike up, and breathe fast. I don’t want to stop. I want to get to the top. Step, step, step. I know I can do it.
But it turns out I can’t. I get to the top, stop walking, and stagger. Next thing I know, the guide is getting me to sit by the side of the road. He takes off my helmet and I flop down on my back, breathing very fast. I can’t get enough air—it feels like I’m breathing through a straw, and I’m wheezing. He makes me sit up. Then I hear Chantal’s voice.

The truck has been following me and she’s still with the truck. I hear her say ”inhaler” and I try to tell her I’m not asthmatic. A second later, I’m puffing on her inhaler, and I can actually feel the tubes in my lungs expand. Suddenly, I can breathe again. It’s a very strange sensation.

Our guide says, “altitude”. I sit there for a while and gradually my breathing gets more normal. Then I realize that I’m shaking, though I don’t feel cold.

The guide says no more biking for me today. I get in the truck, sitting in the front with the driver. The guide tells me to loosen my belt. He loosens my shoelaces. Somebody gives me something sweet and wraps me in a down jacket. My resting heart rate is 120.
I don’t remember much of the drive but a little later, the Biking Dutchman (who was on the mountain with another tour) stopped by to see how I was doing.
Finally, I stop shaking, even though I don’t remember feeling cold in the first place. I say to the driver “no necesito calor” and he turns off the heater. When we get down to the parking lot, the gung-ho Americans are packing up for the day. Rolf gives me a hug and says, “don’t worry, you’ll ride better tomorrow”. He doesn’t know I sort of fainted and I don’t have the breath to tell him.
On the drive to Quilotoa, our guide tells us they get all kinds of reactions to altitude. He keeps checking to see if I have a headache but I don’t. I’m just very tired.
And that was my bike trip down Cotopaxi.

Do you enjoy bicycling? How about mountain biking? Have you ever reacted to altitude?

snowflake from photos dot com

Monkey as Villain

Monkey as Villain

In Calgary right now, it’s -19 degrees Celsius (-2 Fahrenheit) and with the wind chill that makes it – 27 and – 17 respectively. It’s cloudy with flurries and north winds. What can you do in the dark days of February but dream of a warmer climate?

And so, for the next few posts, I will go back in time (2007) to a trip we took to Ecuador where, unless you are climbing Cotopaxi, you don’t need to worry about the cold.

considering Point of View considering Point of View  considering Point of View

Monkey as Villain: considering Point of View

The Yarina Lodge near Coca, in Ecuador

The Yarina Lodge near Coca, in Ecuador

Rolf and I are on a tributary of the Napo River at the Yarina Lodge in the Ecuadorian rainforest. We study Spanish and then hike on the trails or float on the lake or river with the naturalist, observing the endemic plants, animals, birds and insects. There is a small reserve near the Lodge where injured animals recuperate until they can be reintroduced to the jungle.

A Spider Monkey lives in one of the enclosures in the reserve and lets Rolf pet its hand and tail. Rolf asks our Ecuadorian guide, Eduardo, why the monkey is still at the reserve and not set free.

Eduardo says the police brought the monkey here. It was a pet and it is illegal to own this species as a pet. They tried to release it but since it has become domesticated, it will not leave.

“Why not let it roam freely?” Rolf asks. “Even if it only stays at the reserve near people?”

Eduardo tells us that didn´t work — because the monkey was taking tourist things, like sunglasses and cameras, and the tourists did not appreciate this.

Rolf reacts to this information with disdain for the tourist. “Since the whole point of coming to the jungle,” for him, “is to play with the monkeys.” (Rolf has always related well to small animals and children.) Rolf casts the tourist as villain and sees the imprisoned monkey as wounded hero.

I attempt to enlighten Rolf. I say, “Let´s pretend you´re a writer and you want to create a scene where you can understand the distress of the tourist when the monkey steals the camera.”

Rolf says the tourist should not leave the camera lying around.

I agree and try again. “But let´s try to see this from the Point Of View of the tourist. How would you write a scene where the tourist is the hero and the monkey is the villain?”

Rolf is adamant that this is the tourist´s fault, the monkey is blameless and it is not possible to see this in any other way.

Which is why Rolf is not a writer.

The hero and the villain are flip sides of each other. Until you can rewrite the scene from the “villain’s” point of view, casting him as hero, your villain is just so many words on the page.  Not real.

The next time you are stranded in a flat scene, try the role reversal. Change your villain into your hero, write an event that portrays him that way. Become him.  Be the elderly grandfather (tourist) who has saved for years to make this trip and who treasures his photos far more than that camera, and who sees his memories grabbed from him by a marauding pest.

There are at least two sides to every story. Even if you only write in one POV, create several scenes where the plight of your villain makes your reader sympathize.

And don´t bother trying to explain the concept to a non-writer. 🙂

snowflakes from photos.com #452594187
monkey from bigstockphoto.com #237552055

Second Blogiversary

Second Blogiversary

The year has passed quickly. I still feel like my little blog is in its infancy . . . well, it is, since it’s only Two.

In this past year, I’ve put up a short post every Tuesday. Sometimes, it’s a longer post. Next week, it will be a Survey.

What do I get out of doing this?  A deadline. A little writing. Some chatting with fellow bloggers. And pure and simple fun.

Since it’s my Second Blogiversary, I know what you’re thinking. You know that the Traditional Gift for a Second Blogiversary is COTTON.

The Traditional Gift for a Second Blogiversary is COTTON.

 So what’s it gonna be? Towels, aprons, oven mitts? Or maybe you were thinking some of those pretty cotton roses . . .

My favourite piece of cotton is a hammock, and here I am in Vilcabamba.

My hammock in VilcabambaIf you were having a “cotton” anniversary, what would you want?

cupcake from iStockPhoto.com #000002992027
cotton from photos.com #80408292

hammock from the barista

Carla Roma in the Galapagos

Carla Roma in the Galapagos

Hello everyone. I’m Carla Roma and I’m here with Suzanne Stengl, the author of THE GHOST AND CHRISTIE McFEE.

I found Suzanne in the little village of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal in the Galapagos Islands. Or as they say here, Las Islas Galápagos. 

 We’re enjoying some ice tea in an open-air restaurant beside the ocean and watching the sea lions lazing on the beach.

Carla Roma in the Galapagos watching the sea lions lazing on the beach

Carla: I’m glad to finally meet you, Suzanne. Do you have time for a few questions about your upcoming release?

Suzanne: (pouring a pitcher of water over her head…) I have all the time in the world.

Carla: It’s really hot here, isn’t it?

Suzanne: It sure is. Forty-five degrees Celsius. In the shade.

Carla: Whoa. (fanning herself) What’s that in Fahrenheit?

Suzanne: You don’t want to know.

Carla: I understand you have some pretty authentic details about scuba diving in your book?

Suzanne: Yes, authentic. I’ve experienced every one of them.

Carla: I’m beginning to understand how hot it would be wearing a 7 mil neoprene wet suit in this heat. Do you really need a wet suit? The water doesn’t look that cold.

Suzanne: The water temperature here ranges from 64 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface, depending on the season. Of course it gets colder as you go deeper. So you need a wet suit.

Carla: If it’s as low as 64 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s similar to the temperature of Lost Lake, isn’t that right?

Suzanne: Yes, it’s similar. And in both places, in a wet suit, the temperature is perfect – once you’re underwater. It’s beautiful. (She looks out at the ocean.) There’s a wreck right here, in the harbor.

Carla: A wreck?

Suzanne: A sunken ship. It makes an artificial reef. A place for algae to grow and invertebrates like barnacles and corals and oysters. They provide food for the smaller fish, and then the smaller fish in turn provide food for the larger fish.

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Carla: (fanning herself) I don’t know how the tourists can stand wearing a wet suit until they get in the water.

Suzanne: Most tourists live aboard boats and dive from them. Their sleeping quarters are air-conditioned. (She dumps another pitcher of water over her head.)

Carla: Do the staff care about you doing that?

Suzanne: No, they’re used to me.

(The waitress brings another pitcher of water, and another pitcher of ice tea, and sets them on the table.)

Suzanne: Muchas gracias.

Carla: OK, let’s talk about your book. The opening scene in GHOST has your heroine on a dive boat. And she’s seasick. Have you personally experienced that?

Suzanne: I sure have. We did an 8-day tour aboard the Yolita here, in the inner islands, with a group of 16 passengers and 5 crew. Every one of the passengers got sick on the first day. Including Rolf.

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Carla: Rolf is your husband?

Suzanne: Yes, he is. He’s a traveler.

Carla: You’re quite the traveler too, I must say.

Suzanne: No, I’m not. I’m a tourist. There’s a difference.

Carla: Then, you’re quite the tourist.

Suzanne: I’m the tourist from hell. (She dumps more water over her head.) I should have known I’d get seasick, since I also get carsick, and bus sick, and avoid roller coasters. And like I said, everyone got sick for a day. But since I’m so good at being seasick, I did it for the full eight days.

Carla: That must have been horrible!

Suzanne: Parts of it. Parts of it were great. The food was excellent. Although it would have been even better if I hadn’t been so nauseous. And the passengers aboard the Yolita were incredible. Mostly young travelers, all interesting people. The sixteen of us would sit around the big table for meals. For the first few days, French was the default language and then we changed out a few passengers and the default language became English. We had Italian, Swiss, British, Swedes, one guy from California, and the French.

Every day we walked different trails on different islands and saw the endemic plants and animals.

Blue-footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby

It was a mixed blessing, being on shore. No seasickness, but the heat was extreme. For me, anyway. Before I left the boat, I’d soak my shirt so I could be cool for a time. At the end of the hike, I’d walk into the ocean. I love my Tilley hat . . .

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. . . because I can dip it in the water and douse my head, when it isn’t possible to jump in completely.

Carla: When would it not be possible to jump in completely?

Suzanne: If it was a beach that the sea lions had claimed. They can be territorial.

Carla: (glances uneasily at the sea lion occupying the bench in front of her.)

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Suzanne: I don’t know why they love those benches, but they do.

Carla: Okaaay . . . So, you slept aboard the boat? Weren’t you seasick while you were trying to sleep?

Suzanne: Yes. Some nights, when we were making a long open water crossing between islands, it was especially rough. Many of us would lie on the sundeck and watch the stars.

Carla: And that helped the seasickness?

Suzanne: Yes. The stars don’t move so they are a reference point. It’s like focusing on the horizon in the daylight. And it was fun, lying there with everyone. Kind of like a pajama party.

Carla: Hmmm. But with being so seasick, weren’t you afraid you’d be sick while you were diving? That couldn’t be good.

Suzanne: It’s a real leap of faith, for someone like me – a non-adventurous tourist – to sit in a zodiac fully loaded with dive tank, 7 mil neoprene and 13 pounds of weights. And feeling nauseous. If you throw up underwater, it’s important to keep the regulator in your mouth.

Carla: ewww.

Suzanne: Otherwise, you’ll drown. But I learned to deep breathe until we tipped over the side. And then all of a sudden, I was underwater and no longer rocking and I was out of the heat. My head was instantly clear and, for about 30 to 40 minutes, life was normal. At least, it was normal for my head and my stomach. The rest of the world was not normal.

Carla: Not normal?

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Suzanne: No, it was amazing. Sea turtles, sea lions, penguins, sharks, rainbows of fish. And when we weren’t diving, we were snorkeling. Snorkeling with the little penguins is something I will remember forever.

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Carla: Too bad you can’t forget about this heat. Can you pass me that water jug?

Suzanne: Sure. Help yourself.

Carla: (dumping water over her head) I’m glad it’s not this hot in Bandit Creek.

Suzanne: ¡Yo también!

Carla: Does your heroine Christie McFee get over her nausea and learn to love diving?

Suzanne: You’ve just read the first chapter so far, right?

Carla: Yes.

Suzanne: Then you’ll find out in chapter two. More ice tea?

Carla: Please!

Galapagos PenguinTHE GHOST AND CHRISTIE McFEE is available from Amazon on August 1, 2012.