Monday, May 25, 2015

"Spoiled in Spain" and "Moms are Incredible"

When I found out I had an opportunity to head back to Europe, my cousin Sarah (See "A Cousin Connection" from December 2013) graciously invited me back for another visit to Germany. Spending some more time with her and her family was something I had no intention of passing up, but then she sweetened the deal by planning their last European vacation before their expat assignment came to an end in Mallorca, Spain. Twist my arm. 

Sarah spoils me. She know that I'm living a backpacker lifestyle but I'm not sure she fully understands all that this no-frills way of travel entails (coping mechanisms include rules such as "don't look in kitchens if you want to enjoy your meal" and opting for a big meal at lunch instead of dinner because the three-course meal is only $3 at lunch instead of $6 at dinner) . But she knows enough to make sure I feel more than at home.  This doesn't require much but her touches of fresh cut hydrangeas in my bedroom with perfectly clean crisp linens and a gloriously hot shower were not lost on me.  

My first week and a half was more or less "living life" with the Ouimette fam. Getting Sam and Viv off to school (although jet lag issues rendered me rather useless in morning routines), grocery store runs (truly one of my favorite things), making sure Teddy got his nap around noon and resting up ourselves for when 2 bundles of energy came bounding through the doors after school. In the end I found myself the most useful in the kitchen, happy to be cooking again considering opportunities were few during my time in South America. 

Sarah did manage to take me to one of her favorite coffee spots at the Schloss Friedrichshof, lovely grounds that belonged to royalty in the picturesque hillside villages outside of Frankfurt. This was just one example of the idyllic little haven Sarah and Tom have called home for the past two years.

She was also excited to take me to Viv's horse riding lesson the day I arrived. When Viv's instructor found out that Sarah used to drive horses (something she and I shared while growing up together and spending the summers at our grandparents' farm as well as traveling with them to horse shows) she was happy to put one of the ponies to a gig for Viv to try out! Fun!

And I snuck away for a lovely heart-thumping, thigh-burning stroll up the "hill" behind Falkenstein. After I was done I wished I had done that everyday I was there, especially after enjoying the famed German sausages! The Germans love their nature almost as much as their sausages, so I shouldn't have been surprised to find 50 or so of them, families of all ages, enjoying their picnics at the summit on one of their national holidays. 

But really I was just happy to be in a home. A home where I didn't have to get out of my pajamas just to eat breakfast, or where I didn't have to get out of my pajamas all day for that matter. A home where I could curl up on the couch with a cup of hot tea and my book and maybe "rest my eyes" for a few minutes. Not to mention, a house that my cousin has lovingly made into a home for her family, and any visitor that is blessed to spend some time in. 

And then we were packing up the fam for a holiday in Spain. At one point Sarah apologized for the chaos that is traveling with three kids aged 5, 4 and nearly 2. I reassured her that I'm thankful I've had a little experience in traveling several times with 15 to 25 teenagers to Washington DC as well as Europe and Costa Rica. But in all honesty, 3 little ones might be more of a challenge. 

After a relatively painless flight (unless you were 20-month-old Teddy, who did not enjoy the flight a bit, although he couldn't explain why he wasn't enjoying it, he was very vocal in letting everyone onboard know that he was not a satisfied customer) we arrived at our island destination.  And as we came upon our new "home" in Selva, a picture perfect Spanish town with a beautiful church perched on the hill, I was reminded how much I love Spain! All of it! Well... most of it... the language, the food, the wine, the siesta, the timeless towns, the candy, the people... I'll come up with more reasons in the month to come I'm sure!  And then we opened the doors to our home for the week. The pictures don't do it justice.  But let's just say the kids were psyched about having their own pool, I instantly began dreaming up the meals I could cook in the kitchen and we were all pretty excited about the lemon trees growing in the back yard. 

The next morning I wasted no time perusing the library for some cookbooks for a little kitchen inspiration. And that is when I discovered my new favorite cookbook. (Don't worry, Barefoot Contessa. You'll always be first love, but I've just discovered Jamie Oliver and I think I need to get to know him a little better...) Ceviche, gazpacho, risotto, tomato and chorizo salad... I thought there would be some great potential. And I was not disappointed!  My one regret was only discovering Mario Batali and Gwenyth Paltrow's "Spain" on my last night there. Sad. But there is always next time! 

Sarah and Tom took me to a few of their favorite spots they had discovered in their trip here last year as well as exploring some new recommendations as well. And when it comes to traveling with kids, ice cream can buy you smiles for days!

But I have to say, the thing I keep coming back to as I reflect on my time with Sarah and her fam is that moms are incredible. Dads are too. I saw this in Tom in the way he plays make believe with Sam and Viv and in his relentless pursuit (that seems to be paying off) to make the best playlist of "Music to Raise your Kids to".  But for now, I'm going to shine the spotlight on the madres.  I've known moms are incredible for a long time, mostly because my mom is incredible. But I've been a little out of touch with "mom world" during my travels. Not that I've ever been fully in touch with "mom world" but I've spent a decent amount of time around family and friends who are very much in "mom world" and when you have people close to you immersed (or maybe drowning) in "mom world", you are bound to hear a thing or two about "mom world."  And I must say, I've missed it, and I'm looking forward to reconnecting with all my friends in "mom world" in the months to come. 

But the moment I realized how incredible moms really are occurred to me, oddly enough, on the night before Mother's Day. I was watching the kids that Saturday evening so Sarah and Tom could enjoy an evening out, celebrating friends who were also ending their own overseas assignment. I had just put the kids down to bed when I went to make myself a cup of tea so I could curl up on that couch and enjoy my book. But before I could get around to making the tea, I began to feel a little queasy. So I laid on the couch. And then I could barely move. After about an hour, the nausea subsided and I made my way for my bedroom. I had just closed my eyes when I heard foot steps out my door and Sweet Sam informed me he was feeling sick. Immediately I had to forget about my own condition and take care of this little man. And it was at that very moment, as I walked Sam upstairs to their bathroom and sat on the floor with him with a cool wash cloth on his forehead that "mom world" hit close to home and I realized that moms are incredible. Seriously. Awesome. How do you guys do this stuff? You wake up to take care of sick kids when you are sick yourself. You wake up at the butt-crack of dawn and make lunches for your little ones before you've even had a cup of coffee. You wake up in the middle of the night when your munchkin "needs" a glass of water (aka: a snuggle).  (Clearly the lack of sleep thing weighs heavy on my mind as I ponder the thought of having a family of my own someday... almost enough to scare me out of the whole business all together.)  And then you have SO many decisions to make. I thought I had a lot of decisions to make as a teacher. And then, in this traveler world I live in I make decisions like which bed should I choose at the hostel - top bunk with steps (not if I can avoid it) or bottom bunk and dealing with the saggy bed above you?  Or which coffee shop should I get my morning wifi (and latte) from today?  But moms? Moms have to make decisions for themselves and then multiply it by however many kids there are and the ceaseless questions they ask, mostly having to do with whether or not they can have a snack or watch a show or something. And these are not just "yes" or "no" questions, people. Each one of these answers will be questioned again if the response is not what these little people had in mind. And then these incredible moms have to decide how to respond to the questioning of the decision they have previously made.  Yes. Moms (Sarah), you have my utmost respect. 

But if it makes you feel any better that there may be a reason for doing the things you do, I truly believe that no matter how old you are, when you are sick, all you really want is your mom. This was my other realization on that Saturday evening, the night before Mother's Day... just a few weeks ago.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Almost Perfect in Ecuador

I didn't intend on visiting Ecuador (which would have been my loss) but sometimes people come into your life and change your plans. And so my journey to Ecuador actually started in Valparaiso, Chile at the end of February.

I had enjoyed a fun couple of days touring around Valpo and was waiting around for a wine tasting hosted by a guy from the hostel.  I was sitting on the couch, minding my own business (AKA - checking Facebook) when a friendly American asked me if I was waiting for the wine tasting. I confirmed his suspicions and asked if he was doing the same. He explained it had been a rough night the night before and his plan on this Friday night was to go to bed early.  But he managed to squeeze a quick conversation into his busy schedule. We covered the traveler basics: Where are you from? Where have you been (on your travels)? Where are you going?  His answers: Buffalo, NY but Oahu has been home the last 12 years. Started out in Argentina in January and was working his way north through South America, ending in Colombia in June. Somehow the conversation turned to talk of tiny houses and Colorado which piqued his interest. But I had some Chilean wines to learn about so we promised to catch up later. 

Later became sooner when I found out the wine tasting required 4 participants and we were only 3, my companions being two fun Canadian girls, one of whom was celebrating her 23rd birthday. If we didn't find a 4th, Jalisa's birthday plans would be ruined. But I had a feeling I could find a 4th. And I could hear his voice down the hall.  Typical American. I went to find the source of the voice and heard him Skyping... with a girl.  My boldness quickly turned to timidity so I lightly knocked on his door but it was apparently not loud enough. I went back to my Canadian friends and proposed that the birthday girl should try and recruit our 4th wine taster.  He seemed too nice to turn her down. From down the hall I heard Jalisa explain the situation. Next our 4th wine taster is explaining the situation to the girl he is Skyping with: "Sis! 3 beautiful women are begging me to go drink wine with them. Gotta go! Catch you later!" 

And this is how Jamie from Hawaii became wine taster number 4 and a fun night with new friends began.  He and I had so much fine that evening that we decided to spend the next day together as well. We wandered around Pablo Neruda's house, Chile's poet laureate, and took in the incredible views of the city from above. We talked of our travels around the world and leaving our jobs and living simply and discovering so much more we had in common. Not gonna lie, it was pretty exciting. 

And then later that afternoon, out of the blue, Jamie asks: "Are you religious?"
My response was my typical response: "I don't like the word 'religion' but yes, my faith is important to me. I'm a Christian."  

Jamie expresses a dejected "Nooooo!" And then adds, "Almost perfect."  Followed by "I'm and Atheist."

My response. "Noooooo! Almost perfect!"

We immediately decided it would never work out between us. He could never be with a Christian, not to mention the fact that his friends would never let him hear the end of it after being such an advocate for atheism. And I could never be with an Atheist. After all "Christian" is at the top of the list of the "9 C's," the 9 things I'm looking for in a husband... all of them start with C. (If you know me well, you've probably heard me talk of them. As you can see, it's working out really well for me. I know you are wondering... it's been considered as blog material.  We shall see...)  

So, where do we go from here?  He was leaving for Bolivia the next day and I was headed to my last Workaway assignment in Santa Cruz. We decided to make the most of it and enjoyed our last night in Valpo, walking around, continuing our conversation, sharing our books on our "To Read" lists catalogued on our phones. And I managed to send his blood pressure rising by explaining who Jesus was and why he had to come to earth and then that I also agreed with science but just that God created all that science has been discovering since man started to wonder. I could see I had my work cut out for me if he was ever to have a change of heart. 

We promised to keep in touch and went our separate ways. 

Long story longer...

We kept in touch.

Then I began to plan what I would do with a two week window of time after Moms and Pops South American Adventure ended and I had a flight to catch out of Buenos Aires on May 3. It just so happened that Jamie was going to Ecuador and it was one country in South America that I had missed. After much contemplation, we let a coin toss decide if I should join him. Well kind of. But that's another story.  So I booked a flight to Quito!  I think my Dad's response to this news was "Well, that's a good way to mess with your emotions."  But I was confident that I knew this relationship would never happen and it would just be a fun 2 weeks with a great travel buddy in a new place. 

And that's exactly what it was. 

Neither of us had many expectations of Ecuador. And maybe that made the experience even better. 

We started out in Quito and enjoyed the city's free walking tour and some good food as well. 

Basilica in Quito

Guarding the Presidential Palace, where the President doesn't live...

Protesters gather in front of the Presidential Palace

The Virgin watching over the city

Oldest street in Quito, renovated

Quito at night

But neither of us are city people so we were excited to leave the city behind and head to Mindo. Lonely planet made it sound like heaven on earth.  And it was pretty close... Although Jamie might use another phrase to describe it.

An awesome chocolate tour from El Quetzal

Chocolate - from beginning to final product!

Cacao beans

Tiny House inspiration...

It's a "Gypsy Wagon"

Butterflies fluttering about...

Hummingbirds buzzing...

Incredible Orchids... Although microscopic which made them that much more amazing.

If you look closely at the center its a perfect heart!

Isn't God's handiwork incredible??
And running into fellow traveler Cath from Quebec whom I met at a campsite in Cerro Castillo and was now giving Chocolate tours!  Again... "don't goodbye, just see you later!" 

We extended our stay in Mindo we liked it so much. Especially after eating the "best burger ever", Jamie decided we should stay one more night so he could eat at Inti Killa again... a little hippie joint run by a sweet French woman and her Ecuadorian boyfriend. It was so hippie, in fact, we were surprised when burgers were the only thing on the menu when we expected vegetarian. 

Our next destination was Latacunga as a jumping off place to hike to the glacier of Volcan Cotopaxi. 


Guide Diego and new friend, Bianca from Berlin

And to take off on a stunning 3 day trek known as the Quilotoa loop. Jamie was thinking hanging out in coffee shops would be a better way to spend a few days, especially after I made a rather grueling 3 week itinerary for him in Peru including the Salcantay trek to Machu Pichu, the Colca Canyon trek and the Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca... all during the rainy season. I forgot that I had done all these things over the course of several months. Whoops. 

Regardless, for me, Quilotoa was the highlight of Ecuador. If you have a trekking bone in your body, I would say, "Get thee to the Quilotoa Loop!" Start early for a beautiful view of Volcan Quilotoa which helps to avoid the rain that comes in the afternoon. 

I found my tiny house!

Stay at El Vaquero in Chugchilan. Norma and Victor have built a spotless hostel with incredible views and great food! $15 per person includes dinner and breakfast. We were expecting pretty meager accommodations and were blown away! But nothing compared to our next stay. 

Victor is a thumbs up!

We made our way to Isinlivi but were delayed an hour when Maura, an opportunistic young girl, saw gringos heading her way and realized that her English homework could be completed much easier with the help of a native English speaker. An hour later I had translated the fairy tale of the poor couple who had three wishes that were wasted on sausages. And then Maura wrote her own fairy tale I translated to English for her. I'm pretty sure Maura was thinking she could get the rest of the semesters worth of homework done that morning, if I hadn't explained that we had to be on our way. 

Just another morning in Chugchilan... our new friend "Princesa" awaits and homework is getting done!

I would never do this at home!

Greatness awaited at LluLlu Llama hostel. Our host, Jasper for the Netherlands, made us an incredible sandwich and then we settled into a cabana with incredible views... More tiny house inspiration!  Dinner was great and shared with new friends from Denver, Portland, Toronto and Myanmar.  I left by inquiring about Jasper's job. He was volunteering there to get the feel for running a hostel as this is a career his is considering for his future. Hmm... sounds familiar. 

Along the way we drew the attention of a few street dogs. Princesa followed us from Chugchilan and Mama Negra (we named her for the festival that is celebrated in the area) found us an hour before we arrived to Isinlivi. When we left on our 3rd and final day, they were both waiting for us outside our cabana to continue the trek. But we discovered that Princesa was actually a boy so I changed his name to Pat the Perro. Anyway... Pat hung with us to our destination in Sigchos. Mama Negra decided to return from where she came.  

Amazing trek. Backpacker luxury. Quilotoa... Where dreams come true. 

Next stop Baños. It seems every traveler through Ecuador goes to Baños.  I don't think it's quite the same during rainy season but we enjoyed some good cafes and movie days. Although we did manage to squeeze in a spa day at Luna Runtun where I had the best massage of my life. Seriously. And the views weren't bad either!

The extent of our adventurous sprit in the Adventure Capital of Ecuador was a hike to Pailon del Diablo (Devil's Caldron). It really was an incredible sight. On the way we took a little cable car across the canyon, the standards of which I cannot imagine would meet US safety codes. But this could be said about many "adventures" in the rest of the world. 

And the sun managed to clear on our last afternoon in Banos, perfect for a swing from the Casa del Arbol (Tree House). 

Last stop: Cuenca. 

Our first morning in Cuenca, we ventured to Cafe Nucallacta, recommended by Cassie, my workaway roommate in Santa Cruz who lives in Cuenca. (Another "not goodbye, just see you later" story... Got to catch up with Cassie over pizza at the incredible Fabiano's!)  

But at this cafe I became convinced that AARP must have published an article about the Top 10 Places to Retire To. I wasn't too far off:

We spent most of our time in Cuenca bouncing between coffee shops. But we did manage to squeeze in the bus tour and a trip to the museum.  Nice town... And great community if you are 65 or older and looking for a foreign country to land in!

So Ecuador in a nutshell: 
It's a beautiful country that has invested a lot in tourism recently and one you should visit. 

Jamie is still an Atheist. 

I am still a Christian. 

And we are still friends. And another person I'm sure I can add to the "Not goodbye, just see you later" Hall of Fame. 

But one last thing...

I've spent one year of my journey in South America.  I will be leaving here in a few hours. And even though I've been here so long, there are places I still plan to return to, namely: Bolivia, more of Patagonia and Brazil. Of course I'd love to revisit friends in Colombia, Peru and Chile as well. I'm thankful to have improved my Spanish during my time here. I'm thankful to have learned more of what it means to live simply and intentionally during my time here. I'm thankful to have explored some amazing natural wonders from north to south in this continent. I'm thankful that I've been immersed in a rich culture of music and dancing...things I've loved before but love even more now. But above all, I'm thankful for the people I've met along the way, both fellow travelers and locals. As always, I've discovered that this is what the journey is all about. 

Until next time South America... Next stop Germany!  It will only take 25 hours on 4 planes (3 of them overnight) over 3 continents and 35 hours waiting in airports.  But I know what awaits on the other side will be worth every minute of it!