¡Hola a todos!
Well, time is relentless and so the inevitable finally has come to pass. This will be my final entry from Ecuador and so from South America. It has been a truly incredible six months and my mind is still in the process of trying to understand all that has befallen me and all that I have seen, learnt, felt, smelt… I am sure that you see the picture. I write this entry from a blissfully air-conditioned internet café in Panama City, mere hours before I am due to take a plane to Los Angeles, thus heralding the end to my authentic Latin American adventure as a whole. It falls to this then: I must attempt to convey a sense of my emotions at this significant juncture but, before I offer any quasi-final thoughts on this fantastic series of memorable experiences, I must fill in the few remaining pieces of my Ecuadorian jigsaw of time and space, action and reaction.
My last days in Quito passed quickly yet, perhaps because, they were very busy. I took a trip up the TeleferiCo, a popular aerial gondola ride up the slopes of Mount Pichincha, an active volcano that overlooks the city sprawling down two valleys, spilling forth in a disorientating manner yet, clearly following the natural parameters set by the region’s earthen undulations. I completed the ride alone: the weather was cold, with a piercing wind at the summit to the cable-car and I tarried only briefly, satisfying the need for a few swift photographs, before warming myself with a snack in the compulsory cafeteria and then descending once more into the hazy city limits. The same afternoon I spent soaking up some of the Mariscal district’s languid café-culture and writing up some final thoughts in my personal diary regarding the brilliant trip to Galapagos.
Based once more in Mariscal, I rendezvoused with Arnaud and Emilio, a Spanish acquaintance of his from the same hostel, and together we three spent my final Sunday in South America enjoying a short trip north to the Mitad del Mundo monument; that which marks the centre of the world. I had heard much concerning this tourist trap before our visit and all three of us were aware of the erroneous marking of the equator, which is not actually on the spot commemorated by the Mitad monument. Nonetheless, we paid the two dollars entrance fee and ticked another box so to speak. My entrance into the monument’s complex was compelled by one further, much more important stimulant: upon returning from their trip just over one year ago, Mum and Dad discovered – particularly to the dismay of Mum – that a favourite sun-face souvenir had been broken in the hold during the flight home. I had promised to seek out a replacement while visiting the site from whence the memento came; Mitad. Such was a small gesture after all, to two wonderful parents and I intended to visit the site in any case. So it was that I came to pass a frustrating, demoralizing yet, ultimately, hugely rewarding hour seeking out just such a sun-face to buy. I visited over thirty artisanal shops and found what I was looking for in the final two, the first not quite offering specifically what I wanted, the second serving up all the choice that I desired. This pilgrimage to find a sun-face reminded me of my toil in Cusco, where I spent over three hours seeking out a matching pair of gloves and hat, both in alpaca wool, for Beth. There were, literally, hundreds upon hundreds of items to choose between but, it took me that long to find two such items that matched each other in colour and pattern. Such are lessons in patience, in perseverance, in the joy of carrying out a chore – of sorts – for the intended benefit of another.
Later that afternoon, after parting ways with Arnaud and Emilio, I went roaming the streets of Quito’s old town, passing an enjoyable night at a hostel famous among backpackers, mere minutes from the main plaza. ‘Secret Garden hostel’ serves up fabulous aerial views out over the illuminated spires and statues populating the ancient cobbled streets from a relaxing bar terrace. I made the acquaintance of some friendly fellow travellers, one of whom asked to join me the following morning, when we explored further a little of what the colonial centre had to offer to visitors. The monastery of San Francisco, the largest religious complex in all of South America, provided a welcome distraction from the hustle and bustle of the outside world for an hour or so, although I was left feeling slightly disappointed by the relative lack of space that is open to visitors: certainly, I saw much more at the equivalent complex in Arequipa, Peru for instance.
After returning once more to that home-from-home, the ‘Blue House hostel’ in Mariscal, I spent the remainder of my final full day in Ecuador and South America tying up one or two loose ends. I visited a post office to send home a couple more CDs of photographs: I upload photographs to my blog-site and to Picasa; I send home CDs of these same photographs also – one can never be too careful with such fragile yet exact memories. Of course, I passed a little more time in front of a computer writing up another entry as well. Just as I was contemplating a final evening meal alone, I received an e-mail from Frauke and Meike: they were returning that same evening from the hostel beside Cotopaxi and wondered whether I was still in town. The gods were smiling upon me: rescued from a potentially drab end to my adventure in the southern hemisphere, in stead I enjoyed the company of two wonderful friends on my final night. As it was my last night, I was allowed to choose the venue for a meal out: I had just such a memorable location in mind, recommended – yes, you guessed it – by Mum and Dad. In a trip that had played havoc with my father’s stomach, I knew that any restaurant highlighted by him must be nothing short of divine.
We heralded a taxi and headed in what I knew only to be the general direction of the establishment. Mum and Dad had remembered the street that they thought the place resided upon, although not that street’s name so, I was following verbal directions. Let it be known that I am very impressed with my parents’ instructions regarding all that I have followed them in experiencing while in Ecuador: they were here for just one month (a week of which was spent on Galapagos), flying through some of the places we have visited yet, their memories – often without a map or any other visual aid – have been superb. This evening, however, communication fell slightly short and after a fruitless tour of the street on which I imagined that the restaurant to be located, we returned to the hostel. Here we were able to look up the restaurant on Google maps and I had opportunity to inform two other friends, who intended to join us later for a drink, of the change in address. Alas, Google maps saw us in the wrong direction completely and so we took a third and final taxi to the ‘Swisshotel’, on the advice of a doorman at another prestigious hotel.
As we walked into the foyer of the ‘Swisshotel’, my eyes opened a little wider: this was a world away from mine to be sure. Gold leaf glinted from the capitals of ornate Classical columns; a chandelier illuminated the scene from above. I crossed the luxurious, deep carpet and politely besought the help of an immaculately dressed bell-man. He knew of the restaurant and, raising a hand discreetly covered in a white glove, he summoned a giant of a man, equally pristine in his attire. Turning to me, the first bell-man informed me that this second fellow would guide us to the restaurant. We crossed a busy road, walked barely two hundred meters and arrived outside ‘Pavarotti’s’, our desired destination. The giant, who walked akin to one who has known controlled violence and is perfectly at ease with such a boisterous companion, accompanied us the whole way and even enquired into the securing of a table on our behalf. This is the service one could reasonably expect from such a plush accommodation, I suppose.
We settled down at last to a simply splendid final meal. The setting was suitably elegant yet, relaxed; the food was delicious; the company was perfect. Feeling slightly reckless on this fine evening, I asked for the wine-list: there was no a single bottle less than thirty dollars US. Frauke seized the list from my hand and, scanning rapidly, she found a back page where we could purchase quarter-bottles for a much reduced price. The waiter looked rather affronted and asked as to how many of these miniature bottles we required. After some brief hesitation, we decided upon two: it is lucky that we pushed the boat out as such – each “bottle” contained enough nectar for barely one full glass (perhaps the waiter thought that we were hedonists gone slightly awry in our revelry). This episode of the wine fairly summed up our experience of the night, one that was full of surprises but, ultimately, transpired to be rewarding, tasty and affirming.
I am sure that I could extend the above metaphor to reflect to a degree my experiences, by and large, across South America these past six months: after a few wrong turns, confused communication and much wearing of patience and morale, the end result often reveals itself to be well worth the ordeals undertaken to reach such a pass. Nevertheless, I realize that such reasoning might seem a little superfluous and it would be erroneous indeed to imagine that such a metaphor fits neatly when describing all of my experiences. There have certainly been moments when I have felt like howling in frustration, perhaps even giving up (in a far from exaggerated sense – for example, giving up in my search for a particular restaurant, rather than giving up on the trip, life and the like). For all that there have been – few – moments like these, I have been truly blessed thus-far in enjoying a trip that has been wholesome, fulfilling and relatively less traumatizing than I had imagined when first embarking upon my route here from home. There have been lows, some expected and others not: homesick has appeared from time-to-time, though with a lessened and altered impact lately compared to in the first couple of months – these days I miss people in a much more tolerable manner, knowing that the time approaches when I shall see many of you again. The situation runs deeper: I feel that a significant step of disconnection from “home” has been taken. I miss home even now yet, I carry it with me in some sense, however contrived, however romanticized. No doubt also that ‘Skype’ has been a wonderful help, allowing frequent and marvellous audio and visual communication with Mum, Dad, Beth and extended family even.
While I dwell upon these feelings of loss and of separation from home, I am reminded of a much more immediate, though perhaps less forceful, sense of deprivation towards South America and my time spent, memories made, experiences felt there. It is too soon to fully comprehend my tumultuous emotions concerning all that befell me in that subcontinent these past six months: time and meditation are required to provide some sense of closure, of understanding and, with it, acceptance of its consequences and subsequent loss. No doubt I have changed as a person: some of these changes I recognize in myself even at this early stage in my reflection, others may perhaps be identified by those who know me well at a later stage or arrive in my own mind at a future date, triggered by as yet unforeseen circumstance. As I have had cause to type, write, say so many times previously on this trip, I am incredibly grateful for every experience, for every moment that has contributed to an overwhelming sense of humility, of thankfulness and of love. I have undergone adventures that have previously visited me only in my dreams, in my mind’s eye. I have met wonderful, beautiful people, made many exceptional friends, seen tremendous sights, tasted… interesting foods, indulged in fantastic activities, stunning in their content and array. My horizon has been broadened; my faith in others as well as in myself has been strengthened, as has my love for all things that I hold dear – this range of people, places, emotions has similarly been broadened by the vast multitude of experiences themselves.
I have little idea how I shall fare in the coming days, weeks and months. I do not know how I shall try to reconcile myself to the loss of all these things of which I type, although I have some thoughts already: just as I carry my love for home and all that such a concept entails, so too I carry my South American experiences, from a precise time and space to which I can never return – perhaps knowledge and acceptance of this fact can be a strength to me as I come to terms with an altered routine ahead. Other travellers to whom I have shared such musings have responded in a variety of different ways, reminding me that we are all the same and yet, we are all so different, so wonderfully unique, so special. I find it more than a little ironic that after I have repeated so many times that I do not intend to overly compare, to rate or rank my experiences against or alongside one another, I find one of my closest travel companions of these past months doing that exactly. Seb has compiled lists of his “top tens” – places, people, nights out, meals out: the lists themselves seem endless. This helps him to cope, helps him to assimilate such an overwhelming plethora of data in his mind. We all have different ways in which to cope and I am eternally grateful.
A wonderful, amazing, fantastic, fabulous, life-changing, life-affirming, love-sensing, love-strengthening miracle of an adventure – and it is not over yet!
¡Saludos a todos!