Que te vaya bien // May you go well

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Several months back, I proclaimed that “the thought of leaving this land pains me.” Although that sentiment hasn’t changed at all, the time has come where I must say goodbye to Ecuador, the country that has changed everything. It’s the first country that I’ve inhabited for a bit where I actually feel I might like to settle down here, in some far away future. Saying goodbye seems surreal, and as I have bid farewell to my friends, my family, my places, the question has arisen: what will I miss the most? What is it that I love the most about this Ecuador? Those who are from here, who have lived here, or who have visited here, may understand that there’s something special and magical about it, that you can’t really feel until you are really here. It’s hard to put into words, but since I’ve been pondering this for some time now – eight months actually – I will do my best to explain it. In attempt to organize these musings, I’ve crafted a two-part ode, a continuación

*~*~Ode to Riobamba *~*~

In the morning, as I get ready, the bus passes in front of my bedroom window and for a split second I can peer into the locals’ lives and wonder where they are going, where they are coming from.

In the evening, I pass by Agua Potable and arrive to the soccer fields at la Ciudadela Politecnica. It’s there where I have the best view of Chambo, my absolute favorite view in Riobamba and something that I marvel at as if I were seeing it for the first time always, whether it be a tiny glimpse in the background while passing through the city center’s streets or as I get closer, approaching home or the Mercado Mayorista.

It’s there, in front of Abastos Anita, where I see my favorite street dog, always curled up and sleeping in the same spot or nearby it. Crossing la calle Madrid and almost arriving home, is another familiar canine face, intently keeping guard in front of his territory, marked by a spray paint mural of a motorcycle and the dog himself at the motorcycle stop next door. Sometimes down the street there is a wook doggy, with the biggest dreadlocked coat, roaming in the same area but always looking homeless.

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On a lucky day, you can get a glimpse (or even a complete view, depending on the month) of Taita Chimborazo.

On a luckier day, Mama Tungurahua hovers silently, a cone-shaped monster, sometimes spitting ash, sometimes snow-capped.

On an even luckier day, El Altar allows himself to be seen – the most breathtaking view in Riobamba and my favorite of all the peaks.

On the luckiest day, the sky is completely despejado, and you can see all of the mountains. This has happened maybe three times in the six months that I lived permanently in Riobamba. And it always seems to happen when I am close enough to make it to the Parque 21 de Abril, one of the higher spots in the city, to enjoy the sunset and appreciate Riobamba in its full glory.

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What does Riobamba mean to me? Haphazardly discovering a new BLESS mural, looking at the replicated-yet-oh-so-human eyes and becoming more and more intrigued by the mystery artist. Riding bikes through the streets at midnight with Wellington and racing the dogs or stopping for tres leches on the way home. The sunsets, the unbelievably marvelous sunsets, and watching them from the seat of my bicycle or from my bedroom window. Strapping my laundry bag on my back with my sarong, embodying the indigenous’ baby or goods carrying method as best as possible, and returning to the lavanderia later on to october-2016-002discover that Alejandra has found yet another way to spell my name (Chelseea, Chelsi, Chelsee, Chealse, etc.). The fact that I can return to Rio after a couple weeks on the road, walk into a bakery with my huge backpack on and they will still call me “veci.” The simple act of a morning run to the corner store, still in my PJs, to pick up anything that’s missing for my breakfast. Arriving at Winchy’s yoga class months after the last one I attended, and still feeling like part of his community, staying afterwards to share an aguita de jengibre or to record my farewell video. Riding down the steep hill to the Parque Ecológico, having coffee by the river, journaling on the lookout deck, or enjoying a lazy afternoon on the lawn, accompanied by a black dog who we named Blanca.

Riobamba, it wasn’t love at first sight – but you slowly crept up on me and showed me your beauty in silence. Además de ser matagalpina, ya soy parte riobambeña también. Gracias por compartir tus calles, tu mágica, y tu gente conmigo.

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*~*~Ode to Ecuador*~*~

I’m fresh on a bus, my head against the comfortable seat and staring in wonder towards the green rolling hills that look as if you could just melt into them, spotted with cabulla cactus plants or palm trees. White clouds hovering in the blue sky and casting shadows over the patchwork quilted valleys: this view reduces me to tears. I smile with awe and reverence at the red rock slated along the road that carries me through this beloved Sierra.

Even throughout eight months I always lived in wonder, even without conscious effort to approach things with beginner’s mind, it was impossible for me to get used to the beautiful views; I was eternally astonished, frequently exclaiming profound oohs and ahhs, deep exhales that would often startle my travel companion.

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What is it about Ecuador?

It’s the typical views in the country: cows, sheep, horses, children playing, clothes hanging on a clothesline, women working the fields in their brightly colored shawls and skirts, fires burning in the middle of nowhere.

It’s the typical views in the city: signs for sanduches and burguers, dogs on roofs, car alarms sounding the same 12-part melody that every vehicle in the country must sing, each person you pass on the street eating an ice cream cone (even cars stopping traffic to pick up a drive-by treat), classic Volkswagen bugs parked on the streets, Ecuador’s white with black license plate painted on the sides of truck beds in addition to the placard on the back end.

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It’s the customs. People walk into a restaurant and wish “buen provecho” to everyone that’s eating, no matter if you’ve ever seen that person before in your life. They say they are going to “tomar café,” which means to drink coffee – oh no it doesn’t, apparently it just means to drink whatever is available and eat something with it (bread, always bread). Everyone greets everyone, and I mean everyone. Greeting happens with a kiss on a cheek, and nothing will stop it from happening, you even have to bend down if someone is sitting down. See a group of friends walking down the street? Stop, give them a hello kiss on the cheek – each and every one, even if you don’t know them, – chat for 30 seconds, then give everyone a goodbye kiss on the cheek and continue on with your day. The man next to me on the bus crosses his heart in the father-son-holy-spirit-cross every five minutes as we pass loads of churches.

It’s the phrases. Siga no mas, chévere, deme trayendo, verás, saying but at the end of a sentence, and many more. If you want to know more about these words and their meanings, you only have to wait 30 years for me to finish my in-progress dictionary of different Spanish vocabulary and dialects from each Latin American country, collected through my own explorations.

In its own category, it’s the intonations of Ecuadorian speech and the way they say “mm hmm” or “uh-uh,” implying a “yes” in what I, as a North American, would typically understand as “no.”

It’s the food. Humitas, soups, quinoa everythang, pancito, chochos con tostado, so many potatoes, more pancito, coladas galore, quimbolito, bolon, empanadas de verde, tortillas de maíz, tortillas de trigo, ceviche de chochos, empanadas de viento, morocho, jugo de mora, and much more.

It’s the contrasts. One day you can be on a bus in the Sierra, rolling through fog covered mountains with cold air entering through the window – and the next day it’s warm air, through tropical high trees with birds circling above: same country, stark differences. Even throughout the same region it feels different; a written description doesn’t do justice to the green rolling hills of the south, which have a different feel than in the central Sierra. Either my favorite or my least favorite part is that the beautiful, tranquil landscapes are normally complemented by screaming sounds of violence in movies they show on the bus.

Perhaps what I will miss most are the random, unexpected occurrences of daily life. Arriving to the bus station, looking for a taxi and being told that we can’t be accommodated in the van because there are loads of tomatoes under the carpet in the trunk and our suitcases will squish them. Walking down the street and being hustled to purchase a set of mini plastic table and chairs. Heading over to the corner store, conversing with the shopkeeps and accepting their offer to try a new fruit I’ve never seen before called obos – they even gave me some salt to add. Maybe the best thing about this is that it’s not only in Ecuador where these random, amusing things occur – it seems to be a recurring theme throughout life in Latin America.

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Ecuador – or what I prefer to refer to as EcuAMOR – is magical, beautiful, wonder-full, incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to love every where I’ve lived, but this was different – a week in Ecuador, and it just felt good, it felt right. Before I get carried in rambling more about its beauty, me voy a despedir, it’s time to say goodbye. Ecuador, gracias por invitarme hace más de un año, gracias por compartir tu belleza conmigo, e igual, tu gente… estoy eternamente agradecida por haberte descubierto, y un día, regresaré.

And so, another Latin country has woven its threads among the strings of my heart – this time, even tighter than before. I hope this may have been the beginning of what will be a long love affair, that I will return to this soil time and time again, and that it will welcome me with arms as wide open as it has my first time.

chao ~ chels

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La vida mochilera // Backpacker life

I once had an article published that proclaimed my firm stance against backpacking and the likelihood that I would never do it. Well, the time has come for me to rescind that statement.

Being a backpacker is an amazing and humbling experience. Reasons why: the sheer freedom of carrying all of your (current) earthly possessions on your back, confirmation what it is (and how much) that you really need to survive, the somewhat meditative repetition of unpacking and repacking every few days – mostly in the same way, but always a bit different – the excitement of always glimpsing unseen territory, and perhaps most of all, the instant camaraderie and buzzing intrigue of constantly meeting new, amazing people who come from many different corners of the world but are connected by one same love of travel, among whom one can instantly connect, probably on a deeper and faster level than you could with a stranger in your own land or city.

 

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There’s a simple satisfaction that comes when everything works out perfectly: you can get your bag from the checked luggage station, have a vegetable soup and buy snacks, buy your bus ticket, make it through the vestibule and put your bag in the storage under the bus, all in time just to have it pull away as soon as you sit down. Obviously it doesn’t always happen this way either, and you must surrender to the ever-present lessons in having patience and going with the flow.

You become oddly used to sleeping among strangers, and going through the motions of arriving, getting settled, leaving again – learning the bare minimum of things you need for personal care, and the bare minimum of time you need to be connected to the internet.

Bus rides are the most inspiring, zooming along curves of the Pan-American, a road I’ve ridden many a time – but now I’m farther south, its familiar and brand new at the same time. In one 4-hour bus ride you can see three different rainbows – my days are filled with wonder. Every day is so new and different. One morning I am playing in a swimming pool with a bearded Scot, the next day I’m hiking in a national park and laughing over Indian food with girlfriends from the U.S. and Israel.

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There are so many lessons along the way – backpacking is challenging, it’s not like a vacation as many people may assume. My biggest teaching from this trip was a lesson of privilege and gratitude; I found myself without my smartphone for almost the whole time and was forced to contemplate what’s really important in this life, to remember the moment without snapping a photo. I am so grateful for everything that I possess, and even more grateful for having had my phone stolen, as it taught me to be present and really make the most of the moment, the day at my feet.

Even better is going backpacking in the same country you’ve been living in for half a year. I’d loved it for just as long, but now I was seeing it in a new and different way, through tourists’ eyes.

I was able to find nuances in new cities, learning that in Loja you pay the public bus when you get off not on, and the taxi minimum charge is different. I had hit a lot of destinations on the tourist track, but there, it was refreshing to stop and get to know a new city where I returned to being the only blond person around.

And not only did I go from living to traveling in the same country, I also went from exploring Ecuadorian culture to many others, through meeting so many international folks – conversing with Brits, Scots and Australians at the same table and arguing about the correct way to say jelly (it’s jam).

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Ever-present is the reminder that everything intertwines in the school of life. When visiting the house and museum of Oswaldo Guayasamin, a revered Ecuadorian painter, I could appreciate the references to other historical figures, and not just because I had read about them in a book. I’d been to Neruda’s house in Chile, I’d befriended Nicaraguans who fought against Somoza in the revolution.

Sometimes I have to keep my mouth shut when I meet someone who’s been in the country for weeks or months and doesn’t know what chochos are. And the typical backpacker conversation becomes more complicated, in response to “what’s your route” or “how long have you been traveling for?,” I can’t simply say “three months, coming from Peru and heading to Colombia.”

Instead it’s more like, “Oh, I’ve actually been here for six and a half months, but I haven’t been traveling the whole time, I was living in Riobamba for a while and now I am traveling around and my route is really complicated, I keep going back and forth between the same places.” And let me tell you, this is not a question-answer dance that happens just every so often but rather about five times a day. It goes a little something like this…

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with Global Glimpse, it’s a program based in the U.S. that brings groups of high school students down here for three-week educational and leadership programs.”

5 minutes later:

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with Global Glimpse, it’s a program based in the U.S. that brings groups of high school students down here for three-week educational and leadership programs.”

10 minutes later:

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with Global Glimpse, it’s a program based in the U.S. that brings groups of high school students down here for three-week educational and leadership programs.”

1 hour later:

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with a high school exchange program.”

These conversations can get old and tiring, and sometimes you just don’t feel like talking to anyone. However, one of my biggest takeaways from this particular backpacking stint has been the breaking of the stereotype that conversations and friendships can never go deeper than that. Yes, sometimes you’re only staying in a place for one or two nights and don’t have the chance to connect with someone on a deeper level. But three nights with same group, and you feel like you’ve known them for years – or one long conversation to discover that you have so much in common with someone, and several hours after meeting it may feel like you’ve been traveling with them for weeks.

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Here’s a glimpse of my crazy route (within Ecuador only, excluding day trips as well as bus transfers), and a small taste of some of the new destinations that I visited and have not yet mentioned on my blog (it’s in shorthand, just what sticks out to me about each place).

Riobamba -> Quito -> Canoa -> Puerto Lopez -> Quito -> Secret Garden Cotopaxi -> Quito -> Mindo -> Quito -> Loja -> Vilcabamba -> Cuenca -> Guamote -> Riobamba -> Quito -> Secret Garden Cotopaxi -> Riobamba -> Latacunga -> Isinlivi -> Chugchilán -> Quilotoa -> Latacunga -> Riobamba -> Baños -> Puyo -> Tena -> Papallacta -> Quito -> Riobamba -> Cuenca -> Quito ❤

  • Canoa // a laidback beach town, devastated by the earthquake but strong in its rebuilding efforts, delicious seafood, morning walks on the beach, the ugliest sunburn I’ve ever had, picking up huge sacks’ worth of trash to earn free cocktails.
  • Puerto Lopez // fishing town, cabanas on the beach, construction, delicious Italian dinners, whale watching – calm, peaceful, humbling – Isla de la Plata, snorkeling, walking, seeing birds, rainy days.
  • Secret Garden Cotopaxi // serene, tranquil – a place where I set foot onto grounds and I am automatically at peace. The most beautiful place I have had luxury of spending time in. There are no words – it’s the kind of place you want to keep secret. A chorus of frogs sings you into meditation as you muse over the perfect, green hills, round like women’s breasts.
  • Mindo // sleepy town next to a cloud forest. Birds, butterflies, river – flowers, hummingbirds, quinoa burgers, biking to a waterfall, solo explorations. Napping on a rainy afternoon.
  • Loja // where I would love to live if not Riobamba. Hilly, trees, laidback, coffee, pretty city with an authentic feel, music and culture, a river.
  • Vilcabamba // a magical place, and not just because everybody thinks so – deserty feel, more so than rest of Sierra – valley of longevity, beautiful hills that don’t seem real – health, spa, yoga, pool, beautiful humans.
  • Cajas National Park // peaks and valleys, long rock faces, cloudy and gray but beautiful, magic Polylepis forest, reminds me of Ireland, mystical and magical, traverse up-down, lakes and squishy paramo.
  • Quilotoa loop // walking walking walking through valleys, a turquoise house on the hill, crossing rivers and fields with horses, passing so many fields of purple chochos (a beautiful, elusive plant, my first time seeing so many), interacting with locals (walking away to the sound of them repeating my name over and over, trying to pronounce it right), breathtaking, indescribable beauty.
  • Puyo // somewhat of a concrete jungle within the actual jungle, yet a good hub for day trips deeper into the Amazon, beautiful river walk in the city, a visit to the breathtaking mirador Indichuris.
  • Tena // beautiful Amazonic city, river stroll. being immersed in flowers, beautiful butterflies and birds. Hammock above the trees.
  • Papallacta // hot springs in Andean foothills, used as a respite from a long bus ride to Quito.

This was my first real backpacking stint of more than two weeks, but of course I did it a bit unconventionally. Luckily, I still had my home to return to in Riobamba, that provided not only a refuge for me to return to for a few days and re-charge every once in a while, but also a place to keep some of my stuff. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to return to Riobamba for the first time after several weeks on the road, to return to my neighborhood and the home I’d held for six months previous. Having Quito as a sort of home base for my travels as well as receiving my visitors was also amazing – I stayed at the family-owned hostel where we had stayed with our students. They were so welcoming and I always felt at home when I stepped in the door, a simple feeling that is hard to find when you’re on the backpacker trail and always visiting new places. In my explorations of Quito throughout that time, I also really got to learn my way around much more than I had before; I revisited new places but also got to see new things (as well as find new favorite places to always return to and devour their chocho hummus).

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Another unconventional adventure was when I went straight from backpacker life to the most culturally immersed I have ever been, a weekend in the home of the indigenous family where I was made godmother of their youngest child. It was a humbling experience, and made me realize that you can still have culture shock even after seven months living in that culture as a foreigner. It kept me on my toes, and confirmed for me that although I’ve discovered why people go backpacking, you must live in a country and develop relationships to find a deep, authentic connection within it. I am so grateful to have had such a unique experience and to have created strong ties with the people of Ecuador, and maybe this is even more apparent to me after having had that stuck right in the middle of my time as a tourist.

So, my ideas and travel philosophy have changed a bit – how beautiful is that? It’s a great reminder to keep an open mind and open heart to new experiences, surrendering to life and being open to something that serves me now even if it didn’t serve me before. As always, it’s in my Libra nature to find a balance in everything, and I plan to do just that from here on out: discover a beautiful balance between nomad-ing and being stable, and exploring countries in more ways than one.

chao ~ chels

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