"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Saturday, December 31, 2011

List of all the exciting stuff I did in 2011


-Moved to Ecuador to serve in the Peace Corps
-Started learning Quichua
-Took a tram ride in Quito to Guagua Pichincha (13,??? feet a.s.l.)
-Saw frigate birds in Bahia de Caraquez
-Climbed Pasachoa (13,something feet a.s.l.)
-Saw all the major mountains of Ecuador: Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe, Carihauyrazo, El Altar, Tungurahua, Imbabura, Sangay, Ilinizas, Pichincha, Ruminahui, Cotacachi, etc.
-Was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer
-Knit 18 socks, 1 rug, 1 sweater, 2 hats, 2 mittens, 3 toy balls, 1 rag, 2 stockings, 2 gloves
-Read 30 books
-Was sick 7 times
-Saw Tungurahua explode (volcano #7)
-Found 6 geocaches
-Started a garden with peas, cabbage, radishes, carrots, beets, and potatoes
-Got a pet rabbit named Moo
-Started learning Nepali
-Took a train ride on La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose)
-Saw a bullfight in which the bull was killed in the end
-Got my cell phone stolen
-Attended lessons every Saturday to learn the quena, a pre-hispanic South American flute
-Climbed La Torre twice (14,200 feet a.s.l.)
-Saw a humpback whale jump completely out of the ocean
-Visited the Tsachilas, a coastal Ecuadorian indigenous people
-Ate a radish straight from my garden
-Reached 17,700 feet on Cotopaxi
-Got a kitten named Misi
-Saw 3 rodeos
-Found all my veggies except the peas stolen or thrown away
-Reached the crater rim on a snowy Imbabura (~14,400 feet)
-Got my personal journal stolen (every day recorded between August and October)
-Grew tomato plants in the high sierra
-Picked cacao
-Pet a tiny bat
-Saw Sangay volcano explode (volcano #8)
-Learned to crochet
-Climbed El Corazon (15,718 feet)
-Climbed Iliniza Norte (16,818 feet)
-Was in ashfall
-Went to the U.S. to visit for 2 weeks
-Rode a miniature train through a mall. YES. The proper way to end a year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Northwest Herald

Thanks Northwest Herald for writing about the Peace Corps again! Check it out: http://www.nwherald.com/2011/12/29/cary-resident-home-from-ecuador-for-the-holidays/aykebtf/

And hello Chicagoland readers! :)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A better day

So still reporting from the U.S. in northern Illinois.

Started the morning with a quick interview with a Northwest Herald intern at Conscious Cup in Crystal Lake about service so far in the Peace Corps. Should be appearing tomorrow in the paper! Afterwards dad and I still had a lot of coffee left, so we sat around and talked for an hour. It was healing and at the end of our conversation, I felt a bit more optimistic. I asked randomly if he'd like to go to Evanston (a lengthy drive) just to check out one tiny store because it probably had the greatest likelihood of having Tibetan prayer flags - which I'm using to decorate my Ecuadorian room, despite the fact they should actually be hung outside. He jumped at it and said "Let's go!"

And our afternoon adventure began. We went home, hugged mom and went back out the door. First stop: His workplace, though it was mostly shutdown due to the holidays and lunchtime. Said a few hellos and continued on our way to Subway, getting a treat thanks to my family in Ohio!

Along the way we picked up just a few geocaches - those that were right along the road and quick to find - with a combined effort of his iPhone and my GPSr. 3 attempts; 3 finds.

Time was slipping so we skipped a bunch of other close caches and went right to the shop in Evanston. Despite its teeny size, it contained more books on Tibet, Buddhism and yoga than I ever thought existed. And what luck - they had strings of prayer flags.

Rush hour was fast approaching (present even during the holidays I guess) so we went almost straight home with a quick stop at REI to look at the clothes on sale and stare at climbing things to jog my mind and think if I needed anything. Nope. Pretty much set! Did find a small pair of my favorite pants of all time. It'll be nice to have pants that actually fit...

Right when we got home we rallied my mom and got ourselves over to Algonquin for some Indian food. Ohhh was I craving this stuff! The place was small, a bit crowded, and only had one guy cooking and one guy taking orders. Our order was... confusing. And didn't come quite as we'd planned. But it was tasty and I have a ton of leftovers. Though the price shocked me - for a small Indian place with ok food, I wouldn't have expected to pay almost half of what I get from Peace Corps each month to buy food and other necessities. I'm sure most Ecuadorians in my site would fall over backwards at such a price for just ONE meal.


Tomorrow: I fight the urge to run away from shopping. maybe.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The catching-up post of our first 5,000 meter peak

How about a happier post about a past experience? This happened weeks ago...

We (PCV Caro and I) summitted both mountains - El Corazon (15,718 feet) and Illiniza Norte (16,818 feet) right in a row. Both pummeled us with bad weather, they challenged our endurance, they tested our route finding skills, and they let us summit.

The more I do this, the closer I feel to knowing myself.


The hike to the top of El Corazon begins generally at the new but unused railroad station in Aloasi. At the very start of the trip we could see all the mountains around us completely clear - Cotopaxi, Ruminahui, Sincholagua, Pasochoa - except El Corazon, which had an ominous gray crown of stormclouds. We began later than we would have liked, around 7:30 or 8 a.m., and set off on a cobbled road to look for a dirt road turn off. Neither of us seemed very positive we'd summit and were resolved just to enjoy a nice day of hiking. The first dirt road was wrong and we just met a bunch of mean dogs. The second dirt road was right, and it led to a big gate operated by some random guard who wanted $2 from each of us to pass.

The dirt road climbs up and into farmland where suddenly we reached a hub of paths not described in the guidebook. We had four options besides the way we came, and decided the direct path was right. Sure enough it kept climbing up, then took us alongside a potato field. At the top of the field the path ended with a T intersection - we could go right or left, but not up in the way we wanted. We went right, and this road slowly began switchbacking up the hill.

At this point we were more enthusiastic we might make it to the mountain - the switchbacks were easy and brought us to the top of the hill feeling not so bad. Then one more switchback around the hill gave us a perfect view of Corazon rising up between the notch in the hill we were hiking. It was...shocking. A perfect resemblance of Strawberry Peak in New Mexico, totally perfect. And it was still really far away.

One more switchback and we came to the 'plateau', the hilly base of the actual mountain. Clouds rolled in and out, at once covering the mountain and then in a second completely gone. They weren't yet to the point of being a threat - no rain, no snow, no lightning. So we went on towards the saddle of Corazon and minor peak, here losing a great deal of enthusiasm and energy until we popped out of a long gully and saw again how much closer we were. We rallied each other to push ourselves to the saddle and eventually made it, though by this time a cloud had settled over the mountain for good.

We followed the path from the saddle up into the fog, through pincushion plants and eventually scree. We had a rough idea of where we had to go but it was a lot more difficult not being able to see our next move. Cairns were everywhere...reassuring and not so much. The scree lasted ages until finally we reached the base of a ridge and followed that around to the left and soon gained the rocks. Much easier to follow. Faded white arrows sometimes appeared to point the way. The summit was supposedly guarded by a 30 meter high class 3 scramble so when we reached a rock scramble we thought maybe we'd arrived...but it was too short, and the route continued on. Freezing rain began falling and the wind picked up. At this point I really wanted to be off the mountain.

We came up to 5 or so false summits, each tricking us into thinking it was finally over and we could turn back. At one "top" we left our bags, and shortly after we finally reached the true scramble section and left our poles. The scrambling wasn't hard but I worried about finding our way back the right way. Beyond that was a bit more easy walking on sloping gravel until the ground became flat and wide. All the rocks were covered in yellow graffiti...and then we spotted the giant summit cairn with exhausted relief. We took some pictures and began descending. I was freezing cold and wanted nothing more than to be safe.

Following the way we came wasn't too hard but we ended up getting off the ridge too fast and descending the scree too soon. We ended up locked by cliffs unable to go down. It turned out we weren't far from where we should be, and I used my GPSr to help us get exactly back to our familiar route. From there we let it guide us back to the other few points I had, significantly reducing the time it would have taken trying to get back blindly in fog. We reached the saddle soon enough and followed the trail back to the road. Except near the road the trail branches into dozens of possible pathways - luckily again, the GPSr led us right to where we needed to be despite heavy fog.

I had deliberately avoided knowing the time, but now it was obvious - we had to hurry. It would be dark in an hour. We speedwalked down the road and over the edge of the plateau, began switchbacking for an hour and half or so until the light really faded. We tried hiking as long as possible until it was really dark, and decided to bring out the headlamp. Except, there was no headlamp. Really panicked, totally freaked and unwilling to spend a night outside, we nearly ran in the twilight. We still had a few long switchbacks to go, and now the brush alongside us was just black outlined slightly against a deep black-blue sky. We reached the T-intersection and made a left, following the field down, then the road, until the tunnel-like path. It was solid-black now, and I brought out a crappy $1 flashlight I bought from a bus salesperson. It got us beyond the tunnel and a eucalyptus forest before it began fading. The road turned back to old cobblestone, and we reached the guard shack. It was totally dark, not a light on, and worried I called out "A ver!" when two guards hiding in the shadows called back. Creepy! But they let us through.

Streetlamps lit the way now and the dirt road again turned off to the main cobblestone road, and then another, leading right to the Hosteria La Estacion where we ended the day with the most amazing cup of hot chocolate ever.


We spent the night in El Chaupi, in a hostal called La Llovizna ("the drizzle"). The family was just putting up Christmas decorations, but without a fire in the fireplace, it didn't feel quite there. They had a large flatscreen mounted on the wall playing Timeline in Spanish, and a gas-powered slightly terrifying but wonderfully warm furnace was lit. It had the feeling of a rustic lodge, but no one else was staying there so it felt a little lonely.

At 7 a.m., our guide (required by Peace Corps) showed up at the hostal and waited for us to finish breakfast. We piled into the hostal owner's new truck and made our way up to La Virgen, the high parking lot. Pretty long, rough road. At this point all the surrounding mountains were visible.

Feeling good, we took off hiking. The guide set a great pace and liked to talk and chisme, and pointed out things of interest. When it got to decision point about what route we'd take - the "normal" route that takes the ridge to the summit, or the "direct" route that climbs up in steep scree - the guide decided to go direct. The normal route would be wet and slippery, and the direct route would be wet enough to make scree climbing not unpleasant. So... around and up we went through the scree. It was normal going until we reached the large gully to the top which suddenly went straight up - just like the scree on Cotopaxi, only without any kind of switchbacking. It was just ridiculously steep scree. This part took us a while but with relief for our legs we finally got on rock.

We hiked a bit and then stopped to rope up the guide and Caroline together - he had me climb free. At this point with total shock I realized my camera wasn't in my bag. My good camera, the one I use to sell prints and such...I was suddenly numb. How could I have been so stupid...? The guide assured me no one else was climbing this route today and we'd find it... but where? I wanted to go back but I wanted to go on and trust that it would be somewhere, waiting. So I pushed it totally out of my mind because this was the hardest part of the climb. Thunder began rolling around us and hail started falling. Scrambling got a bit more difficult but it wasn't anything too bad for me. But the hail got bigger and the thunder closer. Our guide kept listening to metal objects for humming sounds and told us that if we didn't make it to the summit, it wasn't the end of the world. We kept on, though, and it felt like we were close as the route began turning tighter and tighter...and then I saw the summit cross! And I admit it, I squealed for joy and surprised Caroline, who hadn't seen the cross and didn't realize yet we had done it. Our guide took our picture and we began down immediately.

It wasn't as frightening as I thought descending some of those rocks. For me, actually, it wasn't bad at all. The bad part was the weather. Our guide nearly had us sliding down the rocks when suddenly he heard a buzzing in his ear. Shortly after, a loud, short crack told us Illiniza Sur was just hit by lightning...suppose that's what it feels like to be genuinely afraid of being struck by lightning. A thick layer of snow had fallen, making the descent ever trickier. But with each foot lower the mountain calmed and soon we were on safer ground with snow lightly falling around us, the summit behind us clear and coated white.

It was fast going after that, and now I could only think of one thing. I nearly ran along the path, hoping my camera was beyond the turnoff from the main trail so no one else would come across it. And sure enough...there it was. Relief washed over my immense feeling of stupidity and I just wondered how that could have happened.

Back at La Virgen, both peaks were completely clear and covered in a new mantle of snow. Really gorgeous.

So that's how we finally reached the summit of our first 5,000+ meter peak. It's really a sentimental thing; Illiniza Norte to me will always be an extra special mountain. It's funny too because that first mountain was supposed to be Cotopaxi.

But there's always 24 January 2012 for that. YES.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Waiting for bread to rise

One of the most exciting parts of being here in the States is having an oven. Though I've been told it doesn't work so well nowadays and makes a huge "thump" noise starting up. But taking on faith that it will bake, I decided to make 3 loaves of honey wheat bread super late into the night so I we have fresh stuff in the morning. And I think bread-making will melt into homemade cinnamon roll making.

...seriously, yum.

Not too bad. Reading a book, warm, in pajamas; I could get used to this.

First picture on the new camera with the new hat that actually fits.

Rocky, my parents' puppy. Their ugly but sweetheart puppy. That ate something and had to go to the animal ER overnight two days ago. The next night I had to watch him for 4 hours, during which he peed on the wall and the couch, prompting me to send my mom cryptically tautological pleads in texts such as "BAD DOG IS BEING BAD."

Gizmo, my parents' other dog, gives some love. Sometimes.

Friday, December 23, 2011

How I don't wake up in the States

So it's boreal winter up here in the northern hemisphere... meaning hardly any daylight compared with my usual 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. ecuatorial light. In Ecuador I wake up early to all kinds of things - donkies, roosters, Quichua women congregating in my yard roasting llamas, parades, fireworks, airhorns, you name it. In the U.S., my room is relatively peaceful and the window faces west. So whatever sunlight does escape through this thick mantle of gray blah doesn't reach my room, and thus I don't wake up.

But I'm not complaining. I could use a break from this:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wait, where am I?

On Monday I hopped in a taxi, went to the Quito airport, hung around for a while with another PCV, flew to Panama, and flew to Chicago to visit the family for the holidays. It was a trip I'd been looking forward to since August.

But right from the start, things were not quite as I expected them to be. Some things haven't changed, like the super awesome and friendly welcome my small group of people received from a TSA woman, my very first American in America in more than 10 months. Oh wait, this is Chicago. And it's the TSA. And it was nighttime, which must have some influence on peoples' moods. Anyway, her welcome was less than cordial...in fact, it was sort of scary how she snapped at us all and made us walk backwards through the maze of empty aisles we'd just wandered through the wrong way...and gave me a bad taste for what was to come. "How long were you in Ecuador?" "Hmm...since February." [flicked eyes up at me with face still down] "Why exactly were you there so long?" [explained] "Welcome to the United States," with a monotone voice as she waved the next person down.

Things weren't obviously strange for me, except all the signs were subconsciously easy to read and overhearing conversations is a lot easier without even thinking about it. There's a lot of food and a lot of things very easily accessible. But suddenly now that I had my enormous list of exciting food possibilities at my fingertips, I hardly wanted anything.

We've been to a few stores now for various errands... one of my top chores was to get a replacement digital camera, meaning some giant store like Best Buy or Target. But for this time of year, they were empty. The streets are kind of quiet - the only real interaction I've had so far with Americans outside of the house has been with a couple waiters. The sky is gray with clouds high above us, not floating around the mountaintops like where I live to at least give a sense of depth and dynamism. All the trees are dormant and the grass is dead, no bright snow to cover anything up. In all, it feels very, very strange. Driving along today, I realized that now I feel more isolated than I ever have realized. American life is isolated. And so I felt kind of sad about it all, suddenly, and wondered if I would ever adjust back to how it was before. In Ecuador I felt stifled sometimes by how seemingly intrusive Ecuadorians are, but here I feel so alone.

So...what is it I want? What is best?

Also, I got sick again with a really bad cough and a fever. Horray! Sick during vacation. Leave it to me.