Ecuador

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Shades of Green

By Tom Larsen

 

 

T. S. Eliot said: “The journey not the arrival matters.”

Most of us, I think, would agree. I’ve certainly taken it to heart—backpacking through Europe in the Seventies, hitching from Fairbanks to Anchorage on the old Richardson Highway, flying in a small cargo plane over the jungle to reach the San Blas Islands off the East Coast of Panama.

None of these trips had much to do with the destination. They all had to do with the journey, and escaping the triviality, the daily tedium that makes up the majority of our lives.

But, our new home—Cuenca, Ecuador—it’s just different. In this case, it is the destination that matters.

Cuenca is a cosmopolitan city with a population of 450,000. Perhaps 500,000. More? Less? It’s hard to get solid information here, two hundred-fifty miles south of the equator.

The capitol of Azuay province, Cuenca lies at an elevation of 8,300 feet. The Cajas, a craggy fog-shrouded appendage to the Andes with peaks that reach to 14,000 feet, surround it like the sides of a bowl. In fact, Cuenca is the Spanish word for basin.

“What do you do down there?” is the most common question we hear from the folks back home.

“Uhm, well …” I say. “We like to go to the mercados—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Lots of museums. We walk a lot; through the Old Town, or down by the river. Practice our Spanish with the locals. Oh, and the buses. Riding the buses; that’s an adventure.”

“Oh,” they’ll say, secretly disappointed I think, that we aren’t living in thatched hut in the Amazon.

I don’t tell them about my newfound fascination with the color green.We’re from Portland, Oregon, after all, where green was invented. Or, so we used to think.

How many shades of green can there be? Sixty-three according to Wikipedia. An infinite number, say the scientists.

I try to concentrate on this article, struggling to define the profound sense of peace that we’ve found here, but mostly I stare out the window, trying to identify all the different shades of green.

From the vantage point of our apartment on the western edge of town, I can see the Dark green eucalyptus trees that line the banks of the river. Stands of field corn—Pakistan green (who knew that was even a color?)—cling stubbornly to the steep flank of the mountain. The small plots of cabbage and potatoes have a sort of purple cast to them—Asparagus green according to the chart. The pasture lands are as perfect a shade of India green as any well-tended suburban lawn.

Higher up, the dark Hunter green of the dwarf pine and quinua (paper) trees provide a stark contrast and higher still, above the treeline, the native grasses are just slightly more green than brown. A light Olive green?

Of course, there is more to Cuenca than the colors of the mountainside. Stunning Colonial architecture; the four rivers that flow through town, threatening to overflow their banks within minutes of every cloudburst. Beautiful murals painted on the sides of buildings and highway underpasses. Wonderful people.

But with all of that, I find myself drawn back to the shades of green. Are those potato plants really Asparagus green? Maybe Artichoke? No, I decide. Too much purple. Asparagus it is.

But, then the clouds move, casting a different type of shadow across the landscape, and the shades of green change.

We’ve been here a year, and we’ve yet to make it to the Galápagos. We haven’t experienced a shamanic healing ceremony in the Amazon either; but we will.

Or, we might not. Who knows? Will we make it to all of the 100 PLACES YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE? Probably not. But, that’s okay.

Our traveling days are far from over, but the sense of urgency is gone—the need to see, and do, and experience; which can be as addictive in itself as any quest for fame or fortune.

Here in Cuenca, we’ve found a place where it’s okay to just be.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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As the result of a devastating brain injury sustained as a teenager, I am fortunate to still be alive.  However, this ultra rare anomaly did so much damage that I was essentially written off, told that I would never accomplish any of my many dreams or even take a step under my own power.  Day in and day out, “experts” bombarded me with the concept that I was now relegated to a limited life that consisted of watching television while lying in bed or sitting in a wheelchair.  I would not go to college, I would not be able to do any kind of job, no woman would ever take any interest in me, and a family of my own was out of the question.  I had a simple choice to make, either listen to strangers tell me everything I cannot do, or listen to my heart and accomplish more than they could possibly imagine.  I chose the latter. There is simply too much to see and do in this world to just reside myself to a life of hospitals and caregivers. 

Growing up I dreamed of exploring exotic lands, finding hidden treasures, and solving age old mysteries.  I poured over books and documentaries that detailed such adventures.  However, of all the places I studied, I was drawn to one place in particular, the Amazon.  The idea of such a vast and untamed place fascinated me.  I dreamed of trekking through deep jungle that no Westerner has set foot on, seeing animals that are unknown to science, and stumbling across ancient lost cities.  There is no way that a brain injury will stop me from doing just that. 

Hard work and pain have become my daily companions as I struggle forward in my recovery.  With every wobbly and rigid step, I know that I am that much closer to going to the place I have dreamed of since I was a child.  When I fall, I pull myself up and keep pushing no matter how bad it hurts.  My current surroundings might be concrete and buildings, but in my mind I am surrounded by lush, green foliage.  I can hear the noises of jungle when I close my eyes and I can smell the hot, musty air.  That keeps me going.  That keeps me pushing. 

As time has passed, I have achieved goals that I was told were unattainable.  I have had to learn to face fears and overcome nearly insurmountable odds.  I have a Masters Degree and a well paying job.  I am even fortunate enough to be married to a beautiful Ecuadorian woman and we have a family together.  It seems that my course has been set since my wife’s native country is exactly where I have been longing to go.  My goal is to show my children that dreams do not have limits set upon them.  I have learned that the only thing that can hold me back is myself.  I know very well what I am capable of, which is being in peak physical condition, and I know very well that I will continue to achieve my dreams. 

Though I have not set foot in the vast Amazon jungle yet, I will.  I will make my way through the jungle under my own power and as I am doing so I will be all the more appreciative of where I am at because of the long and winding road I had to take to get there.  I find it somewhat strange that a remote and isolated place that I have yet to set foot on inspires me so much as to keep trying hard every day, but it somehow does. 

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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As the result of a devastating brain injury sustained as a teenager, I am fortunate to still be alive.  However, this ultra rare anomoly did so much damage that I was essentially written off, told that I would never accomplish any of my many dreams or even take a step under my own power.  Day in and day out, “experts” bombarded me with the concept that I was now relagated to limited life that consisted of wathcing television while laying in bed or sitting in a wheelchair.  I would not go to college, I would not be able to do any kind of job, no woman would ever take any interest in me, and a family of my own was out of the question.  I had a simple choice to make, either listen to strangers tell me everything I can not do, or listen to my heart and accomplish more than they could possibly imagine.  I chose the latter.There is simply too much to see and do in this world to just reside myself to a life of hospitals and caregivers. 

 

Growing up I dreamed of exploring exotic lands, finding hidden treasures, and solving age old mysteries.  I poured over books and documentaries that detailed such adventures.  However, of all the places I studied, I was drawn to one place in particular, the Amazon.  The idea of such a vast and untamed place fasicnated me.  I dreamed of trekking through deep jungle that no Westerner has set foot on, seeing animals that are unknown to science, and stumbling across ancient lost cities.  There is no way that a brain injury will stop me from doing just that. 

 

Hard work and pain have become my daily companions as I struggle forward in my recovery.  With every wobbly and rigid step, I know that I am that much closer to going to the place I have dreamed of since I was a child.  When I fall, I pull myself up and keep pushing no matter how bad it hurts.  My surroundigns might be concrete and buildings, but in my mind I am surrounded by lush, green foilage.  I can  hear the noises of jungle when I close my eyes and I can smell the hot, musty air.  That keeps me going.  That keeps me pushing. 

 

As time has passsed, I have achieved goals that I was told were unnattainable.  I  have had to learn to face fears and overcome nearly insurmounalbe odds.  I have a Masters Degree and a well paying job.  I am even fortunate enough to be married to a beautiful Ecuadorian woman and we have a family together.  It seems that my course has been set since my wife’s native country is exactly where I have been longing to go.  My goal is to show my children that dreams do not have limits set upon them.  I have learned that the only thing that can hold me back is myself.  I know very well what I am capable of, which is being in peak physical condition, and I know very that I will continue to achieve my dreams. 

 

Though I have not set foot in the vast Amazon jungle yet, I will.  I will make my way through the jungle under my own power and as I am doing so I will be all the more appreciative of where I am at because of the long and winding road I had to take to get there.  I find it somewhat strange that a remote and isolated place that I have yet to set foot on inspires me so much  as to keep trying hard everyday, but it somehow does. 

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

quito basilicaTime is an illusion; a man-made restriction set upon ourselves to dictate order and retain control. We attach verbs to it like spend, save, waste, kill, take and run out of, hoping to grasp onto time as though it were some tangible thing. We define life itself as a certain amount of time spent upon the Earth. The Basilica del Voto Nacional, however, showed me that life is not so much about spending time, but rather about creating moments and building memories.

It was the first building I saw when the taxi approached Quito’s historical center. With frontal towers reaching 115 meters toward the heavens, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, looming over the rest of the city, was hard to miss. Immediately I decided that the centuries-old, neo-gothic church warranted a closer look; little did I know, that it would be where I would spend the rest of the day.

A 15 minute walk took me to the gates of the basilica and I stared up, up, up in awe of its sheer size and dark beauty, wondering what stories and mysteries its walls had seen, heard and kept. I snapped a few photographs and then ventured into the grounds to take a closer look still. The church itself seemed closed and I had just mentally settled for strolling around the perimeter, when a woman approached me from within and asked if I wanted to go up into the tower. She laughed openly at my childish, excited response and reconfirmed that yes, I really could. After exchanging USD 2.00 for a ticket, I made my way over to a rickety elevator and rode it to the “third floor.”

Somewhat confused, I stepped out of the elevator and into an empty room, all its windows closed, cracked and dusty. Then, relieved, I realized the room ended on the other side through a small opening, onto the rafters of the church roof. A wooden walkway across the center beam led to a ladder going in the direction I sought – up. Victorious, I climbed the ladder and found myself on a balcony encircling tall, hexagonal stained glass windows, and overlooking the town. I was thrilled.

As I looked down and around, taking more photographs, I realized that more and more people were emerging on this small balcony and heading back down the ladder from which I had emerged, than could have possibly been there before without me noticing. Curious, I walked around to the opposite side of the platform and came across a steep set of stairs going upward. There being nothing and no one to stop me from going up, I did. For someone who is not afraid of heights, I was a bit apprehensive! The stairs were steel, steep and quite far apart, with nothing but a flimsy, slack stretch of chicken wire between them, and nothing below them but air and eventually, the ground. Excited nonetheless, I laboriously made my way up and was well-rewarded when I found myself standing in the spire of the transept, and had it all to myself. Seventy-four meters up, I had a lovely view of downtown Quito and the surrounding hills.

I cannot say how long I spent up there, alone, breathing in the wonder of the city and marveling at the colossal structure surrounding me – holding me up and giving me new perspective. When at last I had had my fill, I clambered back down and headed in the general direction of the clock towers, as I was sure I had seen someone in one from my view from the spire. I quickly found a set of stairs with a sign indicating they led to the clock tower and with renewed energy, I once again began to climb. Stair after stair – some concrete, some steel, some straight, some spiral – I wound my way up and up until I was in the clock.

I was inside a clock! A machine that gives meaning to time. A time machine. I reveled in that fact for a while, before noticing the broken mechanics and stationary cogs. Time was not ticking. Pulling out my camera I quickly flipped through the digital images until I found what I was looking for – the shot I had taken of the clock towers, from the spire. Sure enough, each clock showed a different time.

Time was frozen; it had no meaning here. I did not know when I had arrived at the basilica, or how long I had been there; it did not matter. I had only a sense of great calm and contentment, free from all constraints. Smiling, I basked in the silence of time’s stationary state, and walked on toward the bell tower to continue creating my moment, that I would later build into this memory.

About the Author: Sophie Leroy was raised in the British Virgin Islands, where she still currently resides. She loves the ocean, reading, pizza, the colour blue and her dog, Bear. At present, she is avidly exercising her passion for writing so that she may someday quit her day job.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Marine Iguana - GalapagosI went to the Galápagos off the coast of Ecuador for dinner.

As a consenting adult, I agreed to be part of a grand prize for a sweepstakes offered by LAN Airlines. The winners could choose a free trip, for two, to one of four destinations in South America (Iguaçu, Easter Island, Machu Picchu or Galápagos, Ecuador), and have dinner with me at the chosen spot. Of course, I encouraged my friends to enter, but they have dinner with me regularly, and so the prize went to David and Susan Carr of Virginia.

I spent more time in the air, jetting from Los Angeles to Lima to Quito to Guayaquil to Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos, than I did on the ground. So, I had a lot of time to think about South American carriers, and my destination, the Galápagos, Ecuador.

The company I co-founded, Mountain Travel Sobek, started offering trips to the Galápagos in the 70s. Back then we used Braniff International Airways, with the Alexander Calder painted planes, the “flying colors” that served all the major posterns of South America. Most countries had “siloed” national carriers, airlines that served direct routes to their capitals and major cities, but not other countries without first going through their own gateway. So, Braniff was brilliant, in that you could wing directly to the country of your choice, in leather seats and with fashionable service. For US travelers, it became the Pan-South American carrier.

But with deregulation in 1978 coinciding with a huge expansion in planes and routes, Braniff faltered. And on May 11, 1982, it declared bankruptcy; the next day its jelly bean splashed planes were grounded.

LAN Airlines is an outgrowth of LAN-Chile (Línea Aérea Nacional de Chile), with whom I started working in 1978, when I set out to make the first descent of the Bio-Bio River. I was in my 20s, shepherding my young company, Sobek Expeditions, and had my heart set on an exploratory raft trip down the most spectacular run in the Andes. But I didn’t have the monies to fly a crew and gear to Santiago. I approached Braniff and Pan Am for assistance, but they turned me down. My last chance was LAN. So, I flew to L.A. and met with the District Sales Manager, Diana Samper, and made my case over a long lunch. It was my last shot. Somehow, and against the odds, Diana sensed in me a passion and a vision, and she agreed to provide air tickets for my crew for this wacky idea. It was a gamble, but it worked. The expedition was a fine success, and the Bio-Bio program went on to become the most popular river run in South America, and reimagined Chile as a major adventure travel destination. And LAN benefited mightily with this new and robust vertical market.

In 2002 LAN set out to become the continental carrier for Latin America. It started LAN Perú, Lan Ecuador, and a little later, LAN Argentina and LAN Columbia. It unified under a single LAN brand, and opened up direct service from key US gateways, including LAX, Miami, NY and SFO. And last year it merged with Brazil’s TAM, so it’s well positioned to be the carrier of choice for the upcoming World Cup and summer Olympics.

Now, with more subdued colors, it has taken the Braniff mantel, and bettered it. The beds in business are completely flat, and the wine is fine Argentinian Malbec and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. It is leading the way in the continent in sustainability practices, and runs among the greenest airports in the world, in Easter Island (where it is the only carrier with commercial service).

Its main hub is Lima, which makes sense, as its central location makes an ideal concourse for much of the continent, and allows a seamless transition from its international flights to its local connections to Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, the most famous attraction in all South America.

The great measure of airline is when you want the flight to end. I didn’t.

The path I take routes from Lima to Quito, which boasts a new airport about 90 minutes outside the capital. LAN’s partner, Gray Line Latin America, makes the smooth transfer, where I spend the night and explore the city spread across an attractive Andean valley flanked by volcanic peaks, and its ‘old town,’ a maze of colonial splendor that’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978.

Then, in the eager pool of morning light, I connect to Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos, where I will share my prized dinner. I transfer to the Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge, lipped on the sea-lion-filled waters of Puerto Ayora’s bay, and meet up with the winners, David and Susan Carr.

As we settle in for the buffet dinner on the deck, David shares that he spent a career as an attorney defending drug dealers, con artists, and hit men, so he was naturally suspicious when he received the email announcing he had won the LAN Sweepstakes. He thought it was a scam, so he reached to delete, when a second away he paused, and reconsidered. He had, he remembered, entered a sweepstakes for South America, and maybe this was legit. So, he held his breath, and opened the email. And now he is here supping with me, sun setting over the equatorial Pacific, a drove of marine iguanas crawling around the legs of his chair.

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Photo by Richard Bangs

I share a Galápagos story from my history. I once sold a book idea to Macmillan called “Paths Less Travelled” in which I would send well-known authors on various Sobek trips around the world, and each would contribute an essay. I dispatched writers such as Edward Hoagland, Jay McInerny, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tom Robbins, Barry Lopez and others to the far ends of the earth, with no restrictions on what they penned. I also recruited one of my favorite writers, Daniel Boorstin, head of the Library of Congress, and author of The Discoverers. But he said he would join the project only if he could visit the Galápagos over the Christmas holiday, and only if his wife accompanied. Christmas is high-season, but I moved mountains and clients around until I finally got the two spaces. And I booked them on Braniff.

A few weeks after the trip, as the book deadline drew near, I called Daniel, but got his wife. She said Daniel would not be contributing to the book as the flight to Galápagos was shoddy with bad service, and on the boat they were paired with a loud couple with whom they didn’t get along. And, the cabin roof leaked. I pleaded, cajoled, and pointed out there were no editorial restrictions on the tone or content of the essay. But for naught. The book was published without Daniel’s participation, and went on to be a minor hit. Yet now I wish LAN had been around then, as history might have been written differently.

Our dinner seeps deep into the night, with lively stories of travel, careers, wrong turns, and the twists that brought us together at this wonderful inflection point of time and place.

The next day I join the Carrs for tours of the Charles Darwin Research Station (a short walk from the Red Mangrove), to a lava tunnel the size of a subway, to a giant tortoise preserve, and the beach at El Garrapatero Parque Nacional for sunset. Then it’s time for the Carrs to move to the next island in the chain, Floreana (in addition to dinner with me, they won a week tour), and for me to start the journey home, once again via LAN Airways.

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Winners David & Susan Carr in the Galapagos. Photo by Richard Bangs

It is just a happy coincidence, but a few weeks before the Carrs chose their South American dinner destination, I produced a little video citing what I thought would be the top ten adventures for 2013. Guess which place won the top slot:

By Lee Abbamonte

Travel opens your eyes and your mind to a whole new world.

Travel enables you to see the world through other peoples eyes and from other points of view.

Travel increases your awareness of other cultures and people.

Travel makes you smarter.

Travel is the best education you can receive.

Travel enables you to speak intelligently on a variety of global topics.

Travel shows you how global policy effects different countries and different types of people.

Travel brings you to places you’ve only dreamed about seeing.

Travel shows you landscapes you never thought were possible.

Travel shows you what real beauty is.

Travel shows you that everything is beautiful in its own way.

Travel makes books and television come to life.

Travel makes adventures happen everyday.

Travel makes dreams come true.

Travel gives you a sense of enormous accomplishment.

Travel gives you something to look forward to to.

Travel gives you options.

Travel is a lifetime journey that is never the same twice.

Travel makes the big world small.

Travel humbles you.

Travel puts things into perspective.

Travel shows you what poor is.

Travel shows you how unfair this world can be.

Travel shows you people overcoming the longest odds to live their life to the fullest.

Travel shows you triumphs of the human spirit.

Travel teaches you how to say “Cheers” in 30 different languages.

Travel teaches you the International language of beer.

Travel teaches you to appreciate wine and the beauty of vineyards.

Travel teaches you to try new things.

Travel makes you yearn to do new things.

Travel teaches you the difference between a traveler and a tourist.

Travel teaches you to become a traveler and not just a tourist.

Lee Abbamonte is the youngest American to visit every country in the world. I am a travel writer, travel expert, global adventurer and have appeared on NBC, CNN, ESPN, GBTV, Fox News, Jetset Social and have been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Smart Money, Slate, OK! Magazine, Peter Greenberg radio and many others. I’ve visited 306 countries and am one of the world’s most-traveled people.

“I believe in globalization of everything including people. I believe that I am a citizen of Earth. I believe that people around the world are at their core, basically good and the same. I believe that more people should experience the world and the way traveling can open their eyes and minds to different and exciting things. I believe in just being myself. I believe in life.” – Lee Abbamonte

As we begin our journey in South East Asia, I have been reflecting on my goals for this year. I wanted to share Ken Budd’s book, The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. Perhaps it will inspire you to take your own trip after reading about his tales of travel:

The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem by Ken Budd starts with the line, “I want to live a life that matters,” and so he does. Inspired by the need to deal with the loss of his father, he searches for answers, but this quest requires a passport and patience. Patience to wait in line at customs, for airplanes, for young children in China and Costa Rica, for Ecuadorian birds to fly in the cloud forest, and for all things in Palestine.

During his journey, he states, “I’m not only working for free, I’m paying for the privilege.” From his first moments scraping paint and mold in the lower Ninth in New Orleans, he bemoans, “How can I live up to my father’s life when I’ll never be a father myself?”  This juxtaposition of trying to have a life with meaning, and involvement with children as a route to that meaning, are essential parts of his journey and inner monologue. Clearly enamored of his father’s life and how he managed his life and work, Budd states “It’s not even dying that bothers me. It’s dying without making a difference in the world. Without doing a damn thing that matters.” Most people want to make a difference but they have no idea where to start. Budd’s book points out that you can start anywhere on the map and even with only two weeks at a time. He is a fantastic role model for getting out there and making a difference. And his father’s death is a reminder that we all have only a limited time — at the end of our lives no one sits and thinks, “I wish I spent more time at the office.”

READ MY FULL REVIEW