Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Passports with Purpose
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When I look back on the years when I was immersed in the culture of corporate America, my biggest regret is that I didn’t do more to help others. Though I earned a healthy income, I am ashamed to say that I never volunteered and rarely gave to charity. Strangely, now that I am a struggling travel writer with barely enough income to keep me on the road, charity and volunteer work have become a much more important part of my life. More often than not, my philanthropic efforts occur when I am in Nepal, since that is the country where I spend the most time each year. After months there last year, I discovered that many of the orphanages and programs that place volunteers into the schools were totally corrupt; in many cases not a penny of the money donated actually reached the children who need it the most. I learned that the most important part of giving is choosing a worthy organization and began writing a series of articles about agencies that provide voluntour opportunities or raise money for charitable organizations, both the good ones and the corrupt ones.

Help PwP build libraries in Zambia

Help PwP build libraries in Zambia

One of the programs that I have been most impressed with is Passports with Purpose, the joint effort of travel bloggers who raise funds once each year around the holidays. In 2009, we raised almost $30,000 to build a school in rural Cambodia and last year we raised over $58,000 to build a village in India for “untouchables” who might otherwise never have a place to call home. This year our goal is even bigger and I am even more excited by it. We hope to raise $80,000 for Room to Read, an agency that builds schools, bilingual libraries and provides scholarships around the world. Communities receiving schools or libraries must pay for a portion of the materials or provide “sweat” equity to build facilities. Why am I so excited this year? Because I have personally witnessed the effects of Room to Read. During a home stay in the high mountain village of Puma, Nepal, I toured schools that had been the beneficiary of a Room to Read library and spoke to kids who were learning to read in Nepali, Gurung, and English as a result of the reading material supplied. I believe that education is the single most important thing we can provide our children, and that education creates the best and longest lasting benefit to our world.

A library in Puma, Nepal, built with the assistance of Room to Read

A library in Puma, Nepal, built with the assistance of Room to Read

Plaque in Nepal school broadcasts the efforts of Room to Read

Plaque in Nepal school broadcasts the efforts of Room to Read

So lets get down to the nitty-gritty. Am I asking for a donation? Well, yes, in a way. But there’s a twist in this campaign. Travel bloggers around the world have solicited prizes and gift certificates from travel related companies around the world, which are being offered as prizes in this year’s effort. The impressive list of prizes can be found here. Donors choose which prize or prizes they want to have a chance to win by Read More

This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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Quito enjoys a fair share of fame. Its elevation of 9,200 feet makes it the second highest administrative capital city (after La Paz, Bolivia) and the highest legal capital in the world. It is also the only capital located directly beneath an active volcano, Pichincha, which erupted as recently as 2006, sprinkling ash over the city and disrupting activities, including closure of the international airport. Old town Quito, one of the largest, best-preserved historic districts in the world, was selected by UNESCO as one of the first two World Heritage Sites in 1978. Even its reputation as a dangerous, crime-ridden city imbues it with a certain notoriety. But it was Quito’s distinction as the “Middle of the World” that most fascinated me.

Beautifully restored buildings grace Quito's historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage site

Beautifully restored buildings grace Quito’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage site

In 1736, French scientists set out to determine the exact point on the globe that was located midway between the north and south poles. This was no easy feat, since so much of “middle earth” is ocean, swamps, and jungle. Their search for dry land led them to Ecuador, a short distance from present day Quito, where they established La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World), also known as the Linea Equatorial or Equator. Two hundred years later, in 1936, a monument was erected on the spot and a line painted on the ground to mark the Equator, a site which is today one of the top tourist destinations in the country.

Each year, thousands of tourists straddle this line, believing they have one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere. Many have no idea that actual Equator runs through the middle of a pre-Inca ruin located approximately 1,000 feet to the north of the monument, a fact confirmed with the development of satellite Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that allowed for more accurate mathematical calculations. Read More

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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I have few remaining vices in life. I don’t smoke, drink, use drugs, gamble or even eat meat, but when it comes to chocolate I am a self-confessed addict, so when master chocolatier Jeffrey Stern left a comment on my blog inviting me to “come by for some chocolate and to learn about the fine flavor cacao industry in Ecuador,” I could barely contain my excitement. Of course I was interested in his story – how a young man from San Diego ended up owning a gourmet chocolate factory in Ecuador – but I must confess it was the prospect of free samples that had me in a taxi, bound for his factory, the morning after arriving in Quito.

Chocolatier Jeffrey Stern displays trays of handmade bonbons

Chocolatier Jeffrey Stern displays trays of handmade bonbons

Stern came to his passion quite accidentally. He arrived in Ecuador fresh out of college in 1994, newly hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Two years later, disenchanted with the integrity of foreign aid work, he returned to the United States with his Ecuadorian wife, Maria, and went back to school to pursue his interest in culinary arts. After graduating in 2002 he worked for restaurants, catering services, and as a personal chef, but it was his part time position in a chocolate shop that changed his life forever. “I got really interested in chocolate and started playing around with other methods and creations,” says Stern.

About that time, he and his wife and two children decided to come back to Quito for a visit. “At the time I had no idea that Ecuador is the world’s largest producer of fine grade cacao,” Stern admitted. He checked out the local chocolate stores looking for new ideas and soon learned that Ecuador was the leading source of Arriba Nacional Cacao, a native bean that produces the world’s most flavorful chocolate. Shortly afterward the couple decided to relocate to Quito and open a gourmet chocolate factory that they named Gianduja Chocolates.

I arrived mid-morning and knocked on the steel door marked only by the address Stern had provided. He buzzed me in and met me at the door of his tiny shop, from which emanated the most heavenly smell on earth – melted chocolate. Maria and the firm’s only employee were hard at work, placing chocolate ganache squares on metal rollers that carried the bonbons beneath a drenching machine in a scene eerily reminiscent of the famous “I Love Lucy” episode. When the chocolate-coated bonbons bounced out the other side, small squares of plastic known as “transfers” were applied to the top of each piece. Some transfers sport multi-colored designs in cocoa butter; the plastic is pressed into place on top of the hot bonbon and peeled off when the chocolate has cooled, transferring the design to the candy. In this case, however, Stern was using a transfer with a geometric design that left a checkerboard design on the finished chocolates.

The chocolate is "tempered" when it dries to a shiny gloss

The chocolate is "tempered" when it dries to a shiny gloss

Peeling the Mora jelly filling out of plastic molds

Peeling the Mora jelly filling out of plastic molds

A la "I Love Lucy" bonbons are placed on a moving belt for drenching with chocolate

A la "I Love Lucy" bonbons are placed on a moving belt for drenching with chocolate

Working the chocolate assembly line, with every step done by hand

Working the chocolate assembly line, with every step done by hand

Finished bonbons are set out to dry

Finished bonbons are set out to dry

Chocolates with geometric transfer sheets on top

Chocolates with geometric transfer sheets on top

An hour into the interview and tour, my mouth was watering and I was beginning to wonder if samples would be offered. Something in my face must have given me away, for Stern suddenly grinned and asked, “Would you like to taste one?” He handed me a bonbon that could not be sold because the transfer had accidentally been applied upside down. “It’s one of our specialties, blackberry pate de fruit (a jelly made from the local Mora berry), topped with a milk chocolate ganache and enrobed in 70% dark chocolate made from pure Nacional cacao beans.” My eyes rolled back in my head and I almost swooned. It was the best chocolate I have ever tasted. Read More

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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If you’re looking for a party, don’t go to Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. The loudest noise I heard during my week stay in this tiny coastal village was a rooster crow and many of the shops that cater to tourists were closed during the week. But after eight days of cruising in heavy seas around the Galapagos Islands, I needed a quiet place where I could drop anchor and let the ground stop rocking. Puerto Lopez turned out to be the perfect choice.

I arrived in darkness after a five-hour bus ride, took a 50-cent moto-taxi to my hotel, dragged my weary carcass to my room and collapsed into bed. The next morning I wound through spectacular gardens at Hosteria Mandala to the main lodge and sank into a chair on the wrap-around deck. Spread before me, as far as I could see in either direction, was a stretch of pristine golden beach dotted with precisely planted palms spaced perfectly for hammocks. I sighed contentedly and kicked off my shoes.

Beach in front of Mandala Hosteria, sweeps for miles in both directions

Beach in front of Mandala Hosteria, sweeps for miles in both directions

This sleepy little fishing village located in the center of Ecuador’s coastline is best known as a gateway to other attractions. A short ride to the north are beautiful Los Frailes Beach in Machililla National Park and the indigenous community of Agua Blanca. I visited both in one day, starting with Agua Blanca. Residents of this communal village are all descendants of the Manteña Culture that inhabited the area from 800 AC to 1532 A.C. They provide personal tours of a small museum that houses a collection of artifacts dating back to 3500 B.C., all of which were discovered in archeological digs around the area. After the museum, a half-hour walk through brittle forests and a bone-dry river bed led to an unexpected sulfur lagoon, the last remnant of an eroded volcanic caldera. Gratefully, I stripped down to my swimsuit and began spreading mud from the bottom of the spring on every square inch of exposed skin. The slate-colored clay dried quickly in the sun and I jumped in the warm water to wash it away.

Mud from bottom of sulfur lagoon is great for the skin

Mud from bottom of sulfur lagoon is great for the skin

Later that afternoon, refreshed from my swim and sporting silky smooth, baby soft skin, my moto-taxi driver whisked me to Los Frailes Beach, part of the greater Machalilla National Park. At the end of a short sand path I mounted a low rise and a surveyed a perfect crescent of white sand. A lone sun umbrella, gleaming sea-foam green in the dazzling midday light, canted toward the ocean at the edge of the surf. I sank into the powdery sand and wriggled my toes, reveling in the feeling of having the exquisite beach all to myself.

Los Frailes Beach in Machalilla National Park

Los Frailes Beach in Machalilla National Park

Another day I headed south to the tiny fishing commune of Salango and its small but impressive museum, the first in-situ museum in Ecuador. Its extraordinary collection of authentic pottery and artifacts tells the story of pre-Columbian peoples who inhabited what is today known as the Spondylus Route. As early as 3500 B.C., coastal inhabitants valued the Spondylus shell for its vibrant red color, diving to great depths to find the coveted mollusk. Initially used to craft elaborate necklaces and highly polished ornamental pieces, Spondylus eventually was as highly valued as gold is today. In addition to being great divers, the ancients of Salango were excellent navigators. Abundant sources of balsa wood and the cultivation of cotton allowed them to develop elaborate balsa wood rafts, in which they sailed from the southern tip of Chile up to present-day Acapulco, diffusing their new ideas and technologies to the diverse people with whom they came into contact and spreading the use of Spondylus as a currency. Read More

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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While my words may have painted an intriguing picture of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, there is nothing like video to get a true feel for a place, so I’ve put together a video of many of the animals I saw during my recent cruise and set it to music. Hope you enjoy.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the animals of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador? Click here.

Ecoventura kindly hosted the author’s visit to the Galapagos in Ecuador. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In this case, I highly recommend Ecoventura, not only for their excellent facilities and the smaller, intimate size of their yachts, but also for their devotion to conservation.

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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After five days of sailing and shore visits to eight different islands, our naturalists suddenly announced that we hadn’t yet “seen” the Galapagos. Though the islands are famous for uber-friendly sea lions and Blue-Footed Boobies that perform a unique dance as part of their mating ritual, they are best known for their giant land tortoises. Even the name of the archipelago derives from these behemoths. The first humans to visit, 16th century Spanish sailors, dubbed the islands Galapagos, a reference to a type of saddle that resembled the shells of the tortoises. The name stuck and so did the fascination. No visit to these remote volcanic islands is complete without seeing these giant lumbering creatures.

Giant land tortoise in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island is brave enough to check out my sister, Nancy

Giant land tortoise in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island is brave enough to check out my sister, Nancy

The following day our yacht anchored off Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz and we boarded a bus for the lush highlands where the giant land tortoises spend most of their year. Stepping quietly through thick grasses, we approached the slow moving creatures from behind so as not to startle them, since they are one of very few species in the Galapagos that exhibit a fear of humans. Considering that their original numbers, estimated to have been in the 250,000 range, were reduced to a mere 3,000 as a result of uncontrolled hunting, it is amazing that they tolerate our presence at all. Most withdrew into their shells as we drew near but a few continued to munch contentedly on the thick, juicy grass and one even stuck its neck out all the way to check out my sister when she squatted down nearby.

Dome-backed tortoise in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island

Dome-backed tortoise in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island

Later that same afternoon, at the Charles Darwin Research Center, we learned about ongoing efforts to save the various species of Galapagos tortoises, two of which are already extinct and an additional two that are still in severe danger of extinction. In 1965, on Santa Cruz Island, the Charles Darwin Research Foundation began a breeding and repatriation program for the giant tortoises of Pinzón Island. Over the ensuing years, efforts were expanded to include threatened populations on other islands, including Española, where the population of 15 tortoises had remained static for a number of years.

Diego, a male from Española who was discovered at the San Diego Zoo, saved his species from extinction

Diego, a male from Española who was discovered at the San Diego Zoo, saved his species from extinction

When the government decided to eradicate the invasive population of rats on Española they removed the remaining tortoises to the Research Center, hoping a controlled environment would induce them to reproduce. But all efforts failed; for some reason the males refused to mate. They had almost given up hope when the San Diego Zoo called with an unexpected bit of news. Read More