Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Viva España!

Guess we can't stay put too long, even in beautiful Oregon. Next stop: Spain, where we will spend eight months teaching English in Asturias (and more than a few weekends roaming the rest of Europe). If you enjoyed keeping up with our South American adventures, please visit for new postings and pictures beginning October, 2008.
Hasta entonces, pura vida!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Pilgrimage to Picchu

Frogs croaking, hamstrings tender, hot cocoa in hand and rain beginning to fall, we settled in for our second night on the Inca Trail. It was a trying, but rewarding, day for everyone. We awoke at 6am to begin the 3,000 ft ascent up Dead Woman`s Pass which summits at 4,200 m (12, 600 feet), and racked up a good 18 km (over 11 miles) before hobbling into Camp 2 around sunset. The mileage didn`t weigh on us as much as the 3 consecutive mountain passes that had us climbing and descending for hours on end. The knee-jarring Inca Steps got the best of even the toughest hikers. But the views of alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks kept us going, eager to know what lay beyond the next bend.

It`s difficult to sum up the experience in words. The pictures don`t even do it justice. The image of Machu Picchu, plastered on postcards and airport walls and singed into our minds since childhood, finally became a reality. Watching the heavy mist lift at sunrise to unveil the treasure we`d hiked 4 days to reach was completely surreal. But it was the challenge, friendships, dramatic scenery and ruins we saw along the way that made the trek what it was -- every hour spent hiking a puzzle piece of the big picture.

Km. 82 greeted us with heavy rain as we began our trek early Saturday morning. Clad in rainbow-colored ponchos, our team of 16 internationals dredged up the muddy trail, all the while thinking ¨better now than Machu Picchu¨. The weather cleared by midday, and our damp bags dried in the sun as we munched on a delicious lunch that kept the group´s spirits high. Ruben and Edwin, our comedic and knowledgeable guides, gave us the game-plan for the next few days while we sat overlooking the Urubamba River Valley and ruins at Llactapata. Surrounded by steep green hills leading up to two jagged mountain ranges, the valley was only a taste of the beautiful views we would take in over the next few days. Clouds hovered around their razor edges as we continued past Camp Wayllambamba (where most companies set up the first night) and up the start of Dead Woman`s Pass. The serene campspot, and the edge we gained on the other groups, was well worth the extra hour incline with packs fully loaded.

The second day had us ¨knackered¨, as our Aussie and Brit companions said often, bringing us from 3,200 m up to 4,200, then back down to 3,600 where most groups camped the second night. Ruben, our guide, had a different plan. With a smile stretching across his animated face, he said, ¨We keep climbing, arrive at 2nd camp, worth it, y´know, it´s beaauuutiful, you got it??!!¨ We groaned, grabbed our packs and started the climb, all the while Ruben repeating, ¨you know, you on Inca Trrraaail, you can DOOO it!!¨ And we certainly did, but not before the 21 porters carrying our tents, cooking gear, and extra sleeping bags jogged by us in sandals. We were amazed by their strength and effort. Even the 65-year-old porter only managed to stop and rest a fourth as much as we did. We paused at the Runturacay Ruins, an egg-shaped lookout point above the deep valley, just as the rain began to fall. The peaks rising steeply from the valley reminded Ryan of Haleakala Crater in Maui. By the time we arrived at the ruins of Sayacmarka, the strong Andean sun had broke out and warmed us.

Rain poured hard on the second night, from dusk till dawn, and we started our third day as Team Rainbow... again. But the skies cleared quickly, and made the 3.5-hour-long descent from the third pass at 3,700 m less slippery. We made it to Camp 3 by midday for hot showers and another amazing lunch. The meals that were provided were always excellent. We then tirely trekked to the nearby Wiñay Wayna at 2,650, the ruins known as the little Machu Picchu and meaning ¨Forever Young¨ in Quechua. It was there we witnessed the clouds parting and the sun casting its brightness on the white peaks opposite us. They looked straight out of the Himilayas. Ruben explained that it was a center for meditation practices of the ¨childrens of the sun, knowledge peoples... like me,¨ which made sense with such a drastic landscape. Blue sky with spots of grey clouds met jagged peaks abruptly turning to jungle before slamming into the river valley where the mighty Urubamaba flows. Just as he explained the flag of the Inca, comprising all the seven colors of the rainbow, a huge rainbow painted itself between the mountains and valley. He quickly took us to the main quarters where he explained the strategic position of the seven windows facing that same valley; each time a rainbow forms, it is in the same spot.

It wasn`t until nightfall when the other tour companies dragged themselves into camp after a day twice as long as ours. We were glad Ruben decided on pushing us the second day, as the third, he said, was a ¨piece of lemon pie¨. We followed his orders exactly and slept like ¨alpaca baby, not thinking anything, nothing¨ for a few precious hours before our 4am wake up call began our FINAL day!!

Flashlights in hand, we left camp at 5am to complete the last 2 hours of the 49 km (31 mile) trek to Machu Picchu. When we reached Intipunku, the Sun Gate, by 6:30am, the sky had become light but was covered in heavy mist. We could hardly see 20 m ahead. As other tour companies marched on discouraged, Ruben proceeded to stand on the ledge and blow exasporatedly. ¨I blow clouds away, you got ITTT, the view, it`s incrEDIble.¨ Sure enough, the mist was gone in a matter of minutes, exposing the ruins we`d pushed ourselves so hard to get to, far below.

We honestly lack the words to describe the journey from here on out. We descended to Machu Picchu as the sky grew brighter and clouds thinner. We marveled at the stonework, only 80% complete when the Spaniards arrived in Cuzco (never to Machu Picchu) in 1533 and the Incas fled to the jungle. Ruben gave another enthusiastic tour before we were given free time to bask in the sun on the terraces; the 10:30am sweet-smelling crowds from Cuzco had yet to arrive. Ryan surmounted the energy to ascend the steep Wiñay Picchu, and got to see the birds-eye view of the condor-shaped ruins.

We all know how much Ryan likes to take photos, and each one tells a bit of this story. Hope you enjoy! They may appear cloudy, but we actually lucked out with a sunny final day at the ruins. We´re headin´ home! See you Monday! For the photos:

Friday, March 28, 2008


Breathing heavily as we ascend Cuzco`s steep, narrow streets has become our daily training circuit before the 4-day Inka Trail hike which starts tomorrow. At 10,200 ft (about the height of South Sister) Cuzco is one of the world`s tallest cities... and one of the most unique at that....

... but before we disclose it`s many wonders, we should describe the long, haggard trip that brought us from Ecuadorian highlands down the deserted coastline of Peru. Cuenca, Ecuador`s most colonial city, was our first stop after Rio Verde. The three rivers dissecting its heart and mountains (yes, MORE mountains) rising from all sides presented an intresting contrast between the red-roofed, heavily populated city. We stayed just long enoug to visit two archaeological museums (one with an Incan site, Pumapungo, in its backyard), see our first Ecuadorian soccer game (Cuenca vs. Macara... and a tie....), and dine with a special friend from back home, Jaclyn, who`s been teaching at an orphanage for the past two months.

From there we began our trying trip south through Loja and across the border. The 32 rushed hours of bus travel in 72 hours didn`t leave us much time for the paramo, Ecuador`s southern highlands reminiscent of Eastern Oregon. Crossing the Peruvian border at 4:30am went smoothly, and we continued another 19 hours down the coast time Lima. The bus – complete with coche camas (car-beds) and meals – broke down at 1am, and we were crammed into an ¨economic¨ bus for the remaining 13 hot hours. The incident was actually a blessing in disguise; it delayed our trip just long enough to see the sunrise over Peru´s Sahara-like desert that meets the vast, blue Pacific.

¨We were, in fact, traveling south along the desert coast... to our left loomed the great dry fingers of the Andes. To our right, the caps of great Pacific roller far out to sea flashed silver in the same moonlight. This was the edge, a thin line betwen two great emptinesses: the ocean and the mountains... things magnificent in themselves, yet unnamed ans uncelebrated, only the fringes of what lay out of sight. It is the feeling that what lies within vision is only just the beginning of what waits beyond.¨
-Inka Cola
Lima greeted us with ocean breezes and scorching sun, and brought us full-circle back to the coast. We reunited with the waves after 3 months of highland/jungle travel, and reflected on our journey from the hostel´s quiet backyard. Its sheltered courtyard shut out the noise of the 9.2 million locals and tourists sipping Starbucks and downing Happy Meals while shopping in the expensive botiques of Miraflores.

Cuzco´s shops, on the other hand, are lined with hiking boots, backpacks and tents. Women offer cheap massages on every street corner (a deal we may be hard-pressed to refuse after the hike). And you can`t leave Cuzco before layering yourself in colorful alpaca sweaters, scarves, hats and socks that occupy every third tienda. The city`s homes are built entirely of tiled red roofs and whitewashed walls, and surrounded by slithering, snake-like hills spotted with eucalyptus forests. A few jagged white peaks loom in the distance. We saw these same mountains up close on our plane ride from Lima, peaking through the clouds like immense giants dominating the heavens.

Known as the capital of the Inca empire, there are multiple ruins throughout and near the city. It is quite common to walk out of a restaurant to have your vision bombarded by gigantic stones (some are 5 x 2.5 meters and weigh over 120 tons) cut so precisely you cannot put a knife between them. The Spanish, rather than toppling the stonework, built cathedrals and monuments right on top of them. It wasn`t until an earthquake in 1950 broke some of these colonial buildings and exposed their ancient foundations once again. Aside from the historical and religious significance, the town is truly beautiful. Cobbled streets and tiny corridors give a labyrinth-like impression, and just when you think you may never find your way out, you arrive in an open plaza, complete with fountains and a cathedral.

Check out these photos now, because there will be plenty more after Machu Picchu:
Sending our love! See you soon!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Vida Verde - Life in Green River

The alarm rings at 6:30 am and we hit snooze, once….twice…three times before we finally roll out of bed and hustle to get dressed – breakfast was the usual fried eggs and rice, so we didn`t miss much by ¨sleeping in¨. Our last day at El Placer (the school we`ve appropriately named ¨el zoologico¨) has arrived. We should have worn pads under our clothes to prepare for the borage of students who nearly held us captive at the end of the day. ¨No se vayan – Don`t leave!!!!¨ they pleaded.

We could have never predicted how a small town teaching experience would be. The teachers were kind and fairly helpful when it came to disciplining the students, who treated us like most students around the world treat substitute teachers. Having received no grades from us whatsoever, the incentive was personal for each child and depended on their individual motivation to want to learn the language – a skill that could potentially earn them job security in the future. We found the best teaching method was through play, by relating a new language with fun tasks such as mask making, color-by-numbers, songs, useful dialogue and fortune tellers, of course all in English. In the short month we´d hoped to have left the students with a basic knowledge of the language, but primarily attempted to peak their interest while exposing them to a new culture.

Our instincts were right on when we chose to volunteer for a month in Rio Verde. By doing so, we achieved a middle ground between travelling and living, having unpacked our bags and left our Lonely Planet to collect dust in the corner. In exchange, we picked up local friends and a family. We had a home and a job with responsibilities, but still managed to get off by 1 pm, at the latest, to enjoy the same freedom we had before as travellers.

Daily treks down the lengthy trail to El Pailon, with its picturesque ¨Land Before Time¨ feel, irresistibly delicious food, and great company, got us ready for the upcoming Inca Trail hike. Irma and Diego, two amazingly friendly Argentines who ran the restaurant ¨El Otro Lado¨, offered us a second home by allowing us to stay gratis (free) in their exotic cabañas in exchange for lending a hand in the restaurant during busy weekends. Claire took full advantage of the opportunity to waitress in español, while Ryan did his best to avoid taking photos every 2 minutes of the ¨straight-up-Sidhartha surroundings¨. Bonnie would have been in heaven, gardening in an ideal year-round climate and cooking up her famous Chick-a-Curry for an international crowd. Maybe she can take over the lease when the Argentines finish in August.

The longest friendship we had in Rio Verde, having been established on our first visit there as tourists, was with two artesanos: Oscar from Ecuador and his novia (girlfriend) Ruth from Germany. Their caring personalities not only showed through in the custom-made necklaces they crafted for us, but also in the form of generous tidings of homemade strawberry marmalade and garlic butter—which we took the utmost pleasure in accepting. They were such kindred spirits, helping us feel like a big part of their lives even if our stay was short.

Above all, the long nights with these amigos spent storytelling about travels and adventures will remain the highlights of our time in Rio Verde. As the following Oda al Rio Verde states, we`ll be near at heart even with continents between us, and awaiting future visits with open doors.

As for us, we`re on our way south to Peru, stopping off in Cuenca and Loja to take in more mountain scenery before dipping down to the coast for a 20+ hour bus ride to Lima. The grand finale of our journey: the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. See you all soon to do more story-telling in person!!

For more Rio Verde photos:

Oda al Rio Verde

(This is an ode we wrote for our dear friends of Rio Verde.)

Suena la campana y salimos cansados
de un día largo con todos malcriados,
por suerte vivimos en un paraíso
en cual descansar se hace facilito

(The bell rings and we leave tired
after a long day with our crazy students,
but luckily we live in paradise
in which resting comes easy,)

A pasar por la calle saludamos a todos:
los vecinos, los niños y hasta los perros,
no nos hace falta la vista del puente,
(debajo de cual corre agua verde),
las montañas al fondo del mismo color
entre ellas combinan las nubes y el sol,
(Walking down the street we greet everyone,
neighbors, children and even dogs
we don`t miss the view from the bridge
[under which green water flows]
the mountains in the background of the same color
between them clouds and sun combine)

Al Jardin de Eden pasamos mucho,
la tranquilidad nos ofrece descanso,
entre flores y césped sentamos a leer,
dibujamos el paisaje para mejor conocer,

(To the Garden of Eden we go a lot
the tranquility offers us rest,
between flowers and grass we sit to read
we draw the landscape to better know it)

¨Al Baños,¨ nos gritan cuando salimos
aun no saben que no somos turistas,
¨vivimos aquí,¨ hemos dicho cien veces
(aunque no pudimos quedarnos por meses)

(¨To Baños,¨ they yell to us when we leave
they still don`t know we aren`t tourists,
¨We live here¨we`ve said 100 times
[although we weren`t able to stay for months])

Al Pache seguimos para compartir
historias cómicas que nos hacen reír,
las artesanías brillantes y creativas
hechas siempre por manos cariñosas,
(We continue to the Pache to share
funny stories that make us laugh,
the brilliant and creative artwork
is made always by caring hands,)

Como picaflores bajamos al Pailon cada día,
para tomar te dulce y coger energía,
la cascada – orcestra del agua y piedra –
cae sin fin con toda su fuerza,
comidas, sonrisas y muchos amigos
hacen que la subida dure solo ratito,
Diego i Irma nos brindan bienvenidos
y Camila nos saluda con muchos carisias,

(Like hummingbirds we go down to the Pailon ever day
to drink sweet tea and gain energy,
the waterfall -- an orchestra of water and rock --
falls without an end with all of its force,
food, smiles and many friends
make the climb last only a moment,
Diego and Irma toast us welcome
and Camila greets us with caring licks,)

Por la noche pasamos donde dos amigotes
cuyos gatos se llaman ¨mio¨ y ¨frejoles¨,
sobre mermelada de Ruth y papas fritas de Oscar
hablamos del viaje y las grandes aventuras,

(At night we head towards two friends
whose cats are called ¨mine¨ and ¨beans¨,
over Ruth`s marmalade and Oscar`s french fries
we talk of travel and grand adventures,)

Estas amistades nos llenan con alegría profunda
que la distancia entre nosotros dañará nunca,
quedaremos con recuerdos, collares y fotos
cerca en corazón aunque estemos lejos,
(These friendships fill us with profound happiness
that distance will never damage,
we will stay with memories, necklaces and photos
near at heart although we are far,)

No podemos creer como vuele el tiempo
cuando cada día parece un gran regalo,
te despedemos, Green River, sin mucho dolor
prometemos volver con todo amor.

(we can`t believe how fast time flies
when each day seems like a big gift,
we say goodbye, Rio Verde, without much pain
we promise to return with all love.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Reun-IAN and Rio Verde

Upon returning to Baños, we realized we had both on the same night dreamt of running for our lives from an exploding Tungurahua, a week before the evacuation!!! Talk about Claire-voyancy! We`ll be sure to post any foretold disasters on the blog in the future. But the volcano wasn`t all bad....

It brought us back to Quito, where we reunited with our international amigos at Casa Bambu, a hostel that seems to grab you and makes it tough to leave the capital city. The biggest reunion yet came that Tuesday evening, when Ian, Ryan`s roomate, lived up to his word and arrived to spend a week with us during his own travels through Central and South America. It was a week of unplanned perfection which began with fiestas and parillados (BBQ´s) at Casa Bambu and ended with us back in Rio Verde to begin our month of volunteer teaching. The week was a much-needed reminder of our beautiful friends and family, as well as an opportunity to show Ian the best of our home for the past two and a half months. Between heavenly hikes and high altitude beer pong, cook-offs and concerts with compañeros, the short stay was over before we were ready to say goodbye. However, seven days were better than nothing and we split paths with Ian as he traveled to Argentina in search of work teaching English; us on the other hand, began our job that very next day.

Despite many materials and weeks of anticipation, we could have never predicted how the first week would go. Upon arrival we had the slightest hesitation about the prospect of living under another family´s roof at our age and after having graduated college. But our worries were immediately extinguished by their generosity and warm hearts. Polivio, his wife Luisa, and family take genuine interest in us and are so great at giving us the respect and freedom we deserve as adults. The apartment-style living situation allows us our own cuarto con baño privado (room with private bathroom) and door of entry to come and go as we please, as well as provides us with a communal kitchen to interact with the four families that share the living space. We are also fortunate to live with a small number of our students, including our host ñaños (brothers and sisters) and cousins who have taken interest in learning guitar and acting as guides on nature excursions around the area.

Speaking of which, we forgot to mention that Rio Verde is the ideal location for two nature-loving Oregonians (don`t worry, it`s a safe 20 miles from Baños!). Endless layers of clouds dance between steep mountains; intersecting rivers and numerous waterfalls careen through narrow passages to collide with the Rio Pastaza`s brown and white churning water. The pueblito (small town) is home to roughly 1,300 residents, all of whom are unbelievably amable y tranquilo (kind and peaceful) because of having been raised amidst such scenic surroundings. We find it impossible to adequetly describe the various natural wonders of Rio Verde. Among them the ¨Garden of Eden¨ and ¨Pailon del Diablo (Ecuador´s most famous waterfall)¨ are two of our favorites places to unwind with quality journaling and pleasure-reading after a long day of teaching.

The students... oh the students..... Each week is divided between three schools in two towns: El Placer, appropriately named ¨the Pleasure¨ as most families have at least 6 children (one with 13!), La Escuela Puerta Dorada in Rio Verde, and la Guardaria (daycare) our ¨favorite¨ part of the week. The estudiantitos (little students) do not hesitate to envelop us in a borrage of hugs every morning when we arrive. A chorus of assembled ¨good morning, teacher!¨ or ¨Profe, profe!¨ compete for our eyes as we arrive at 7:30. At any given moment, a five-year-old is pulling our shirts from behind, a 12-year-old wraps completely around Ryan´s waist, a seven-year-old offers Claire a soggy breakfast cookie with one hand while the other clings to her leg, and a curious nine-year-old pets Ryan´s blonde arm hair and searches for his remaining unoccupied fingers.

The first week was beyond successful: We initiated mask creation for all grades from Kinder-7th, resulting in monkeys and cats of vivid colors prouling around both towns after the dismissal bell rings. We hope the students also gained an understanding of the English language, having used games and songs to review colors, animals and computers. Perhaps by the end of the month we will have also allowed them a broader perspective of the world, slipping in lessons that include nature conservation tecniques (¨Your trash goes in the garbage can!¨,) as well as cultural differences (¨Not all of what you see in Hollywood movies accuratly portrays the U.S.¨). However, not all was completely successful: Our attempts at teaching English to a group of 25 energetic three and four-year-olds proved frustrating this Friday afternoon. A needed break for the poor teacher, the hour and a half-long locura (craziness) makes us so glad for the weekend.

Last, but certainly not least, wonderful new friends have been easy to come by. Chats with neighbors delay arrival to any destination around town, with five-minute walks taking upwards of an hour between dozens of ¨buenas tardes¨ and sonrisas (smiles). The artesanos (artists), who set up shop above the entrance of the main attraction, make a meager living off their beautiful jewelery and handbags. We enjoy afternoons sharing music and travel tales with these international amigos. Two young Argentines also welcome us into their home, the restaurant that they manage (which doubles as a living room and jam spot) and overlooks the raging Pailon del Diablo. The mix of mellow music and rushing water compliments the amazing food they dish up, a much-needed break from the typical (but delicious) Ecuadorian beans and rice served at ¨home¨.

We´ll be sure to post again before we finish teaching in mid-March and begin our trek through southern Ecuador and into Peru, to ascend Machu Picchu by way of the 4-day-long Inca Trail! And then home early April, just in time for spring.

For photos:

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Volcanes: Tienen nuestro respeto!! (You have our respect!!)

Never before have we had to flee from a natural disaster, however, this morning we were forced to leave Baños in a flash of fury. The song on Ryan´s Ipod couldn´t have been more appropriate than Dave Matthews´ ¨Lie In Our Graves, ¨ which was the first to appear on random shuffle as our bus left town.

Maybe we should have knocked on wood when we wrote the previous blog title ¨Mushroom Clouds, Mi Culo: Volcanoes Don´t Scare Us.¨

The Virgen de Agua Santa lived up to her name and helped us to escape a rumbling Baños minutes before the road that leads to Northern, Southern or Western Ecuador was closed. It all began around midnight when we awoke from a deep slumber to Bolivar, the hostal´s friendly night watchman, pounding on the puerta. He relayed to us the message blaring across all the radio stations: ¨The Volcano Tungurahua has increased activity and we need to get our clothes on and get ready to evacuate.¨ We scurried around the room to gather our most important things, before rushing to the hostels common area where we learned more about the situation at hand. Plumes of ash 10 km high (6 miles) and tremors that rumbled windows and doors were occurring over 30 times an hour. Roaring booms echoed between the surrounding mountainsides and struck fear in the eyes of everyone around us.

We spent the next two and a half hours deliberating as to whether or not we should join the masses of fleeing tourists and Baños residents. This was the first time we´d been faced with such a prospect. Should we run to the safety zone, only a few kilometers away or wait for the ¨official alarm¨ to evacuate? Probably against our better judgement, we decided to wait it out in our room with the light on, thereby avoiding doing the same thing at a shelter a mere 3 km away.

We closed our eyes and awaited a siren or a shower of rock and lava, whichever came first. Dozing intermittently between booms, Claire dreamt that we left town. Just the definitive answer we were looking for. By then it was 5 AM, and the explosions and booms had intensified. We rapidly packed our bags and checked out, saying goodbye to Bolivar, who admitted he was finally becoming fearful but felt it was his duty to stay put until all the tourists had either left town or were in the safety zone. He confided in us that in all his life spent in Baños, he had never heard such loud and constant booms from the volcano. Tungurahua first became active in 1999, after an 80-year lull, and had an equal size eruption in 2006, killing six people and displacing thousands.

This photo, taken today, shows the ash (not snow)
on the dangerous side of the volcano

We hurried through deserted streets towards the bus terminal to tremor rattling storefront doors, seemingly applauding our decision. From the bus terminal, we could see the flames and red clouds looming in the darkness just above the tiny town of Baños. The bus we boarded had no music playing as it usually does, and the air was filled with increasing tension, as we awaited police permission to drive the dangerous road which passes the deadliest side of the volcano. A road of ash and rubble from previous activity and landslides.

Finally, after demanding ¡Vamos! (Let´s Go!) in multiple languages, we were off and avoiding a 15 hr detour East and through the Orient. It was a tiresome ride but we arrived safely in Quito at 10:30 this morning, happy to be alive and not to have waited any longer to see what one of natures most powerful and unpredictable forces on the planet was going to do next. Ecuador´s President, Rafael Correa, has declared a 60-day state of emergency, which will allow 3 million dollars in aid for evacuees and residents. We only hope for our friends and the residents of Baños that all quiets down shortly. For more info Google: Tungurahua, Ecuador