Living Like a Quiteno

Wherever we go, even the most touristed cities, we make an effort to get a bit off the most beaten of tracks. We find the local restaurant and have the set lunch menu, surrounded by families and business people. We wander around the neighborhoods, shop in the weekend food markets, and whenever possible, try to talk to locals. But regardless, we are tourists.

In Quito, we’ve had a bit of a different experience, however; here we’ve seen the city through different eyes, all thanks to a connection first made thirteen years ago. You see, during the 1996-97 school year, my uncle and his family hosted an exchange student from Quito, and I thus gained an Ecuadorian cousin, Sole. Through the years since Sole lived in Louisville, our family has kept in touch with this long-distance extension of the family, and now many years and many life changes since our gatherings around Zimmerman dining tables, we have managed to reunite.

As her American cousins, we have been welcomed into her home and treated with the warmest hospitality by Sole, her husband Fabrizio, and their son Nicolas, not to mention her parents, sisters, cousins, and other family members who live near by. Essentially now not only is Sole a Zimmerman, but Jeff and I are also Naranjos.

And while Sole has been the best tour guide we’ve had—through the Old Town of Quito, to restaurants in La Mariscal and much less tourist-frequented areas, on day trips to Mindo, Mitad del Mundo, Otavalo, and Papallacta, and even on an exclusive tour of the only wool hat factory in Quito (owned by her husband’s family)—it’s not the sites that will stick out in our minds say another thirteen years from now. No, instead what we will remember is the comfort of being in a home where we felt welcome and were able to throw down our backpacks for a while. We’ll remember homecooked lunches at Sole’s parents every afternoon. We’ll remember pillow fights with Nicolas. We’ll remember after-dinner conversations with Sole and Fabrizio. We’ll remember Quito as a well-loved and well-lived-in city. And most importantly, we’ll remember that in a year of being essentially homeless, for a while, we had a home in Ecuador.

I Heart Wong

Nobody likes Lima. At least that’s the way it seems. Save two travelers, everyone we met prior to our entering Peru, told us to spend as little time there as possible. Even National Geographic, in an article on Peru, says to leave Lima behind ASAP. And hey, they have their reasons.

Lima is a sprawling, chaotic city. It seems to stretch forever, without any real rhyme or reason to its construction. Getting around is a pain in the butt. Sure, there are buses, but you have to know exactly where you’re going and which bus goes there if you’re to have a chance to make it to your destination. And talk about overcrowded. People are on top of each other, hanging out the doors. Taxis, well, they aren’t particularly cheap (especially if you are a gringo), and you’ll sit in traffic forever. The attractions—a few museums, some churches, a plaza or two—are nice but nothing special. You’ve seen better elsewhere. So yeah, Lima shouldn’t top any travelers list of place to go.

But me, I like Lima. Why? Well, it’s pretty simple. Wong.

Wong is the name of one of the major grocery stores in Lima, and to put it simply, it’s awesome. In all of our months of travel, it’s by far the best grocery store we’ve found. They have everything. Want to have a Thai cocount curry? They’ve got the ingredients. Want pita bread, croissants, ciabatta, foccacia, or any other type of bread you can imagine? It’s all fresh-made, warm from the oven. Want fruits that you have never heard of and can hardly even imagine? They’re at Wong, and they just might be sized bigger than your head. Fresh-squeezed juice? Just let them know what size you want. Pre-made lunches? Good luck choosing between the Asian stir-fries, the Italian food, and the ceviche. Oh, and don’t forget a piece of chocolate cake for dessert. And while you’re trying to decide between the million and one pieces of deliciousness in the Wong, go ahead and take one of each of the thousand free samples they’re handing out. Maybe it will help you decide; maybe it will just confuse you more.

Lest I shortchange the Wong, let me tell you that it’s not just groceries you can buy there; you can also get any other item your household might need. Plus essentials such as bus and air tickets. In sum, everything; you can get everything at the Wong.

And while normally I lament the supergiants that take over, driving mom & pop out of business, I have to admit that when I went into the Wong, my first words were “Jeff, I think we’re in heaven.” After months of supermarkets without any selection, bakeries out of bread, and meals concocted from what we could scrap together rather than the ingredients we really needed, the Wong was just what I needed.

Delightfully Tacky

You might think the middle of the world would be deep within the earth’s core (that is, assuming you believe the world is round). Well, you’d be wrong. Turns out, the middle of the world (Mitad del Mundo, as it’s known here) is just outside of Quito, Ecuador. And my is it a delightful place.
You might begin with the Colonial Quito scale model, and follow it up with the model versions of Ecuador’s two other largest cities, Guayaquil and Cuenca. Or perhaps you prefer a history of French expeditions to determine the equitorial line. Or maybe bugs are more your thing, there’s a great insectarium with all sorts of gross creepy crawlies (seriously, they’re so big here!). You can hold your favorite and have your photo taken for only $2! Seriously, I can only feel for the guy that had to capture these bugs, then stick a pin through their exoskeletons so they could be pinned up on the wall.

But don’t worry, there’s more. There’s a planetarium that unfortunately costs extra so we didn’t go. But the highlight is the 30 meter tall tower museum of indigenous cultures (also extra, so we also didn’t go in) that stands right on the red line indicating the equator.

Just into the northern hemisphere are a wide variety of souvenir shops, while just into the southern hemisphere¬† you’ll find restaurants with touts galore! There’s even a bull fighting ring.

And here’s the kicker of the whole thing … it isn’t even the real equitorial line. The French were about 150 meters off (though, in defense of the French, this is still quite accurate given the measurement was made in 1736, well before GPS’s exposed their error). The real equitorial line runs through the Inti-Nan museum next door, an even more delightful place.

The Inti-Nan tour starts with a guinea pig coop followed by the guinea pig roaster. Moving on, we witness the immense size of Ecuadorian tarantulas and anacondas. Not for the faint of heart. The highlight are the authentic shrunken human heads on display, complete with a short recipe for how to do it (we may share after we’ve tried it!). This is followed by poison dart shooting practice and life size models of naked indigenous people. Brilliant, eh?

But what was actually really cool (as if we hadn’t had enough coolness for the day) was the demonstrations of various things that happen on the exact Equator. Toilets really do flush clockwise south of the equator and counter-clockwise north of the equator. We proved it. And on the equator, water just rushes straight down, no spinning involved. You can balance an egg on the head of a nail (although apparently I defy laws of physics because I still couldn’t).

You also weigh less and can jump higher on the equator because of the bulge of the earth (hence you’re farther from the core and gravity is weaker) and you’re not as strong. While standing two feet from the equator I could keep Theresa from opening my hand, right on the equator she had no trouble pulling apart my fingers. It all has to do with the fact that the only force pulling on you at the equator is straight down, there are no sideways forces. It’s really a pretty magical feeling.

So in summary, in the last year:
Top of the World: Abisko, Sweden
End of the World: Ushuaia, Argentina
Middle of the World: Ecuador

I think I’ve covered it.

Bad News Book Exchanges

I have never thought of myself as a book snob. I was an English major and have thus read a large majority of that which is classified as “classic literature,” but I’ve by no means restricted myself to reading just high-brow literature. Along with the Secret Garden and Little Women, I loved, as a child, the Babysitter’s Club and all the R.L. Stine horror books. I cried reading The Notebook, and I’ve laughed at all kinds of low-brow “literature.” I read books that end up on the NY Times Bestseller List and books from the Washington Post Book Review’s year-end best lists. I like to read. Period.

Or at least that’s what I thought. Then I met the book exchanges of South America. Dear Lord, I’ve never seen such crap—and I’m not just talking about the one or two shelf exchanges; I’m also talking about the full book store exchanges.Every single Danielle Steele book ever written, plus every single knock-off of a Danielle Steele book, has made its way onto a book exchange bookshelf. The best of chick-lit, oh yeah, that’s there too. John Grisham, Dan Brown, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy are the Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez of the traveling world. Given, all of those guys are popular and they aren’t terrible per say (aside from Dan Brown’s dialogue), but they aren’t exactly quality. And who the heck is it that’s carrying around the hard back versions of these books? Seriously, in nobody’s world are they good enough to be worth adding a good 5 pounds to your backpack.

As for good books, well, on occasion we do find them. The problem? Well there’s two. The first is that I’ve probably already read it. That’s the downside to being a prolific reader. The second problem is that it’s probably in Dutch. Apparently people from the Netherlands have good taste in books. Unfortunately, that’s a language I haven’t yet mastered.

So here I am languishing away in bad book world, forcing myself to put down the few good books I read after just a chapter or two rather than devouring them as I normally would, because then I’d be left with nothing. It’s tragic. Really, if you asked, it might be the worst part of the trip so far. Fingers crossed, African and South East Asian travelers have better taste, but I’m not holding my breath.

Off to the Galapagos

Since we left home in October, we’ve had multiple experiences in which we’ve gotten to see some pretty cool animals: penguins, whales, dolphins, monkeys, llamas, alpacas, lizards, snakes, bugs, and much of what falls in between.

But I can pretty much guarantee that not one of those experiences can hold a candle to the animal encounters we’re having right now. Yes, that’s right, we’re currently in the Galapagos. For eight days, we will live aboard the Nemo II, a catamaran that will carry us to many of the Galapagos islands. In the process, we will get up close and personal with sea lions, swim with penguins, watch marine iguanas dive for food, witness the saga of Lonesome George, take note of the finches that helped Darwin formulate the theory of evolution, and photograph the beloved blue-footed booby. Expect plenty of pictures and stories when we return. This week, however, enjoy some posts about our recent adventures in Ecuador as well as a throwback post to Peru.