Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Once a year, during the Christmas holidays, I return to the United States to spend a month with my family. It’s a time when I struggle to answer difficult questions such as: Where do you live? Although my legal residency is in Florida, I no longer own a traditional “brick and mortar” home. When I explain that I am a travel writer and photographer who travels the world perpetually, some people want to know how to do what I do. Most, however, have a different reaction: “Aren’t you afraid?”

Strangely, the only place I ever hear about fear of travel is in the U.S. Granted, many of the places I travel are developing countries, where the local populace is not affluent enough to travel outside their own country, but even in Europe, Australia, or New Zealand, this question never arises. U.S. citizens seem to be the only ones who believe that travel is dangerous. I actually feel safer overseas than I do in many U.S. cities. My answer is always, “There is nothing to fear.

John and LaVonne Kunkel on the Ruth Glacier in Alaska

John and LaVonne Kunkel on the Ruth Glacier in Alaska

Recently I received an email from LaVonne and John Kunkel, friends from the days when I was a real estate broker on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Though I never particularly enjoyed selling real estate, I was blessed to work with some wonderful clients who, like John and Vonnie, became treasured friends. I was unaware that Vonnie had been following my blog until she wrote in response to my story about receiving an uncommon and unexpected welcome in the town of Alausi, Ecuador:

“I agree completely! We have encountered the same everywhere we travel. Just last week,  we were waiting for a bus in Puerto Rico.There was no one else in sight until a limping, ragged looking man approached the very-obviously-American touristos and asked, “Old Town?” When we nodded affirmatively, he pointed across the road at another bus stop and motioned for us to follow him. We thanked him and stopped at the other bus stop. He walked on further and turned again to motion frantically for us to follow, which we did. When we came to a third stop, he waved and walked on. The correct bus came soon after.

Late that evening on our return we got on one bus, but the driver later had us transfer to another bus going in the direction from which we had just come! It was filled with locals on their way home from a long day of hard work. When we got on, I turned and asked, “Does anyone speak English?” and I told them the address of our hotel. Everyone smiled. Read More

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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By the time I arrived in Cuenca I was stressed out and beaten down. Though rewarding, traveling through Ecuador had not been easy. I’d been seasick during my spectacular cruise with Ecoventura in the Galapagos Islands; sweaty and smelly in the Amazon jungle at Cuyabeno Lodge; and sardined into a bus full of Ecuadorians, where a mother and her young son crammed into a single seat next to me for the entire three-hour ride to Chugchilan. I had a severe bout of altitude sickness while attempting to hike parts of the Quilotoa Loop and been targeted by thugs in Quito who’d unsuccessfully tried to steal my backpack. I needed a rest.

Fortunately, I had a plan for making Cuenca seem more like home. Shortly after arriving in Mexico in 2010 I received a comment on my blog from Nancy and Paul Dardarian, American expats who had moved to Mazatlan some years earlier and subsequently launched the popular expat travel blog Countdown to Mexico. We met for a leisurely lunch at an oceanfront palapa and I got the benefit of all their knowledge about Mazatlan. When Nancy and Paul wrote about our meeting, several of their followers became followers of my blog as well. Among them was Ken Smith, an American expat living in Lake Chapala, Mexico. Ken had been “lurking” around my bog for a while but when he learned I was Cuenca bound he contacted me and suggested I get in touch with a friend of his, Regina Potenza, yet another American expat who lived for more than 20 years in Lake Chapala but had moved to Cuenca a couple years earlier. It is indeed a small world.

Meeting up with expats for Sunday Football at the Inca Cafe

Meeting up with expats for Sunday Football at the Inca Cafe

Regina and I exchanged emails and she suggested I stay at the Hotel Milan, which turned out to be a wonderful family-owned hotel in the middle of downtown, affordably priced at only $17 per night for a private room with private bath. But this was just the beginning. I’d barely arrived when Regina phoned with an invitation to meet up with other expats at the regular Tuesday evening get-together at DiBacco Italian Restaurant, which is half-owned by another American expat, John Buskey (excellent food, by the way).

Over the next week, Regina and others among the expat community welcomed me into their fold to such a degree that it felt like instant family. I joined them for Sunday football at the Inca Lounge, tagged along on a furniture shopping expedition, and attended their writer’s group reading one evening. They made sure I knew which attractions were worth the price of admission and which should be skipped; which areas of the city were safe to walk alone at night and which should be avoided; and what nearby artisan towns were worth a visit. Perhaps the best tip of all came from Regina herself, when she told me not to miss the free museum inside the Banco Central, which has an astonishing and thorough display about the various cultures of Ecuador, and the adjacent Pumapungo ruins. Read More

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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High in the Andes Mountains, at the point where the Guasuntos and Chanchán Rivers meet, a gigantic rock known as El Nido del Condor (Nest of the Condor) soars more than 6,200 feet. I sat atop this massif, safely ensconced in a leather seat on board what has been dubbed “the most difficult railroad in the world,” acutely aware that I owed my comfort to those who had perished in its construction. As the vintage diesel locomotive chugged slowly down the steep slope, belching black smoke and causing my wooden carraige to rock to and fro in time with the clickety-clack wheels, my thoughts turned to the reasons this famous ride is named “La Nariz del Diablo,” the Nose of the Devil.

The train makes a brief stop after descending the Nariz del Diablo for photo ops of the zig-zag tracks that slice the nearly vertical rock outcropping

The train makes a brief stop after descending the Nariz del Diablo for photo ops of the zig-zag tracks that slice the nearly vertical rock outcropping

Construction of the line between the southern coast and Quito began in 1871 in the lowlands near Guayaquil but three years later, only 7.6 miles had been completed. Plagued with theft of construction materials, lack of funding, political bickering, debilitating tropical diseases, floods and landslides, efforts were finally abandoned in 1888 with only 65 miles completed. Ten years later, Ecuador turned to the United States for help. Brothers John and Archer Harman were hired and work resumed. Mile after backbreaking mile was slowly completed until the line reached El Nido del Condor. In two miles, the train would need to ascend more than 5,700 feet but unlike the majestic birds for which the monolithic rock is named, trains could not sprout wings and fly down its face.

Can’t view the above slide show about the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil) Train ride in Alausi, Ecuador? Click here.

The solution was a unique zig-zag track design that allows trains to climb the steep grade as far as possible to a terminus, reverse direction and back up a subsequent section of track to a second terminus, then move forward again on a final section of ascending tracks. Hundreds of Jamaican slaves who were brought in to dynamite the hard rock lost their lives in the process; they, along with scores who succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, and poisonous snakes remain entombed in the rubble along the route, earning it the nickname La Nariz del Diablo by the time it finally opened between the coast and Alausi in 1901.  Read More

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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The pickup truck squealed to a stop in front of me and six suit-clad men scrambled out of the open bed. A tall, thin, mustachioed man held out his hand. “Bienvenidos a Ecuador,” he said. Welcome to Ecuador. Surprised, I looked around and realized I was the only white face on the street; it was obvious that I was a tourist. He pumped my hand and smiled broadly, his brilliant white teeth gleaming in the light streaming from the school gymnasium in front of which we stood. I had previously peeked into the gym, where thousands of indigenous Quichua were seated in the bleachers, but had hesitated to enter because I had no idea if I would be welcome. “Where are you from?” He asked. “The United States,” I answered. “Please, I invite you to be our honored guest tonight. We are celebrating the Independence of our town.”

Booming tunes of the Cristiana Cristo Rey Band lured me to the entrance of the gymnasium where Quichua celebrated Independence Day

Booming tunes of the Cristiana Cristo Rey Band lured me to the entrance of the gymnasium where Quichua celebrated Independence Day

The city fathers escorted me to a seat in the second row of plastic folding chairs set up on on the main floor. Music boomed from giant speakers and the room erupted in song. I stood and clapped along, marveling at the passionate faith and the brilliantly colored Quichua costumes on display. Green skirts were topped by pink capes, orange over maroon, red and turquoise; hats and long stockings in contrasting colors completed the traditional ensembles. Groups of Quichua women, each from a different sector within the canton of Alausi, shyly walked to the front of the room, stood shoulder-to-shoulder and recited a biblical verse in their sing-song Kichua language. Their testimony was followed by a song of worship, performed as they rocked to and fro in unison.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video of indigenous Quichua performing at the Independence Day celebrations in Alausi, Ecuador? Click here.

Four hours later, having been introduced as an honored guest, serenaded by a male solo vocalist, and gifted with christian music CD’s, I finally begged off. At midnight, the celebrations were still going strong but I had to return to my guest house before it was locked down for the night. I thanked my hosts profusely for providing me with a unique opportunity to witness Quichua culture up close, cognizant that I had seen in one night what might otherwise have taken months of travel throughout Ecuador.

This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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In 1999, the volcano that towers over the small mountain town of Baños de Agua Santa in central Ecuador again began living up to its name. Seventy-four years after its last eruption, Tungurahua, which means “Throat of Fire” in the indigenous Quichua language, roared to life with a vengeance that required a complete evacuation of Baños for more than a year. Since then it has erupted more or less regularly (see some stunning images of activity in recent years here), but when I arrived last November it had been quiet since April 2011. I gazed up at the 16,000+ foot summit, trying to imagine molten rocks and large clouds of gas and ash spewing from its maw, but its verdant green flanks seemed more gentle giant than sleeping giant.

Luna Runtun Resort, located near the summit of Tunguruhua, lies in the path of the current lava flows

Luna Runtun Resort, located near the summit of Tunguruhua, lies in the path of the current lava flows

Ironically, this “Throat of Fire” spawns magnificent waterfalls that are yin to its yang. In the absence of displays of molten fireworks, I boarded a double-decker bus for a tour of the spectacular Route of the Waterfalls.

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the Route of Waterfalls in Baños, Ecuador? Click here.

On November 26, 2011, the day after I left Ecuador, Tungurahua awoke from its brief slumber and began belching molten lava down its flanks and spewing ash into the air. Today the volcano remains in an almost permanent state of activity, with daily incandescent flows and violent explosions. Ash fall has covered the the streets, parks, terraces and roofs of buildings in the greater Baños area, forcing the closure of schools and businesses; ten explosions and 48 emission tremors were reported on December 7th alone. As if they could forget, Tungurahua continues to remind Baños residents that not even their prolific waterfalls can quench the Throat of Fire.

This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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Still ragged from my bout with altitude sickness in Chugchilan, Ecuador, I dragged my weary bones off the bus and headed directly for my hostel when I arrived in Baños de la Santa. My intention was to climb right into bed and sleep through the afternoon and night but the sight of a spectacular waterfall behind the hostel got the better of my curiosity. I turned the corner at the end of the block and came face-to-face with a long ribbon of cotton candy cascading down the flanks of Tungurahua volcano, at the foot of which squatted the reason thousands of visitors flock to this tiny village in the Andes Mountains: Piscinas de la Virgen, the most famous of the town’s five thermal pools.

Waterfall cascades down mountainside and is channeled into Termas de la Virgen thermal baths

Waterfall cascades down mountainside and is channeled into Termas de la Virgen thermal baths

I had specifically come to Baños for its hot springs, which range from 64 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit and are reputed to have healing properties. Hoping for relief from debilitating knee and hip pain that had plagued me ever since sustaining an injury in a Yoga class in Mexico nearly two years earlier, I planned long soaks in the curative waters. Cautiously, I climbed the slick, spray-soaked rock steps leading to the top of the icy waterfall and stepped onto a viewing platform. Baños spread before me, backed by lushly carpeted mountains that shimmered like emeralds in the golden late afternoon sun. Directly beneath me lay the swimming pools of Termas de la Virgen, filled with water heated by molten lava deep within the active volcano.

Largest pool at the thermal baths has medium-hot water from the volcano

Largest pool at the thermal baths has medium-hot water from the volcano

The following morning, I retraced my steps just as the sun was cresting the surrounding hills, paid my $1.50 entrance fee and took the required shower before using the facilities. Though I had my pick of baths scattered around the town and surrounding valley, I opted for Termas de la Virgen, not only because it is the most famous but also because it is popular with local Ecuadorians. Choosing the hottest of the three swimming pools on the top floor, I eased into the ocher-colored water up to my chin and closed my eyes, allowing the super-heated water to work its magic. Believing that mineral waters can heal maladies is not a stretch for me; I theorize that if Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate crystals) provide relief from stiffness and sore muscles when dissolved in bath water, thermal springs that contain naturally occurring chlorates, sulfates and magnesium must have even better efficacy. Indeed, within minutes my tight muscles began to unwind. I rested my neck on the concrete lip of the pool and let my body float effortlessly, enjoying a blissful state of relaxation.

Termas de la Virgen is the thermal baths most popular with the locals, but they welcome visitors with friendly waves. The pool on the right is medium hot, while the one on the left is hot hot.

Termas de la Virgen is the thermal baths most popular with the locals, but they welcome visitors with friendly waves. The pool on the right is medium hot, while the one on the left is hot hot.

The pools soon began to fill up and I spent the rest of the day chatting with locals who had traveled from all over Ecuador to enjoy the healing waters, learning about life in this tiny country and polishing up my Spanish. Everyone was amazingly friendly and only Read More