Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Our little run in with the Ecuadorian border patrol

We left Quito this morning with the very basic hope of entering Colombia tonight. This did not seem much of a feat as Colombia’s border is only 5 hours north of Quito. So we woke up not early and not late, had some breakfast and caught a bus to Otavala (2 hrs north of Quito) to do some sightseeing and shopping. After a brief stint in Otavalo and an amazing cheeseburger, we headed to the corner of the street where we were assured a bus would come by for Ibarra (the next large town to the north of us). We sat in the rain on the corner of this street for a few minutes when sure enough a bus drove up with a man hanging out of the doorway screaming “Ibarra, Ibarra, Ibarra”.  We got on and about an hour later the bus pulled up and parked at the main terminal in Ibarra. Again waking through the rain we asked and looked for a bus to the border, to a town called Tulcan. So this town is spelled Tulcan but pronounced “Toocaan” and so it took us a while to find anyone who knew of a town by this name. Once we established the correct pronunciation of our destination we were told that the bus for that location leaves outside of the terminal. Actually what we understood was that we should ride a bus headed in that direction and then get off on a road where the Tulcan bus drove by. We hesitantly and surprisingly agreed to this plan and hopped onto the bus. About ten minutes later we found ourselves, sure enough, on the side of the road waiting for a bus we were not sure would come. We waited for about a half hour in the rian when the Tulcan bus pulled up and about 30 people appeared out of nowhere and clambered onto it. Unfortunately we did not clamor hard enough (you would not believe the elbows little old ladies and very young children can throw!) and so we returned to our rainy street side. With this, I (Jynene) decided I was unwilling to wait in the rain for a moment longer and begin hailing a cab so we could return to the bus terminal and see what our other options might be. Truthfully, I had been skeptical that waiting on the street would work anyway and thought the bus terminal was probably better.  But, the cab driver explained to us that the bus terminal was not the place to catch the bus to Tulcan and encouraged us to return to the street but he said he knew a better place to wait. The moment he pulled into this spot on the street, the Tulcan bus pulled up and he got us on with a quick yell to the bus assistant (the guy who manages fares and yells out the door yelling the bus route so the driver can focus on driving).  At this stop, we were the only ones headed to Tulcan, so we didn’t have to throw elbows.  We did later pass the place we had been waiting before and saw the ensuing elbow-throwing event from inside the bus. Two and a half hours later we were finally on the border with Colombia. In Ecuador- it is important to remember-the sun rises at six and sets at six all year and so it was very dark when we arrived. The one thing our travel book says about the border crossing with Colombia is; “don’t do it at night.” So we were a little concerned about our late (well, more dark than late) arrival.
On the border of Colombia, we walked into the Ecuadorian immigration office and a very nice young man flipped through our passports and told us he couldn’t stamp us out of the country because we had never been stamped in. Why had we not been stamped in? Because the stupid border official at the southern end of Ecuador, coming up from Peru, did not stamp our passports two weeks earlier. We explained to our current border patrol officer in very broken Spanish (suddenly the stress of the situation made us completely forget how to speak even our very basic Spanish) that we asked the border guard on the Peruvian border to stamp us in but he told us he didn’t have the stamper. The current agent told us that this was a big problem. He said it was illegal to enter the country like that and that we should have known better.  He said that because it was illegal, he could arrest us (not that we know the words for arrest, but he held his hands out like they were handcuffed)!  We told him that we tried but there was nothing to do (also, we have been to many counties where a stamp in a passport is completely unnecessary…really just so the tourist has something to show off. We actually travelled through four countries in non-EU Europe where Buffy received no stamps at all while I received many. We figured is wasn’t that important) We showed him our entrance stamps for Peru proving we had not been in Ecuador for more than the legal 90 days but he was not happy. He told us to sit and left the room for a few minutes.  When he returned, he told us to follow him and he led us to a hallway away from other travelers and asked us if we spoke Spanish. We said that we could speak some Spanish and so he started to talk but very fast. (I think it is important to explain here that we actually speak Spanish reasonably well at this point but for some reason neither of us could speak any Spanish at that moment). We asked him to slow down and when we couldn’t understand a single word he said we asked a French girl in the other room to translate. She said that he said they would stamp our passports and everything would be fine (which, I should point out, did not seem to be what the officer had been saying to us.  We thought he was telling us something less official, like we should try and get Columbia to stamp us out of Columbia so Ecuador could stamp us in.  Or something equally confusing and un-official) Then the French girl left and the officer left and another, older-looking and higher ranking-looking agent came over. This agent told us we were in big trouble but that they would stamp us in.  Then, with our passports in his right hand, he stuck his left hand out and started to talk very fast. Here our Spanish failed us again-nothing he said made any sense and we said we didn’t understand. So he walked over to a sign that said $200 dollars payable at the central bank for all travelers who stayed over 90 days. He said we would have to wait until the morning until the bank opened to pay the money.  It was very clear at this moment that we could either sleep in the immigration office and wait to pay the fine at the bank in the morning or we could put something into his left hand and have our stamps. However, because we were slow on the uptake (and apparently speak no Spanish) he walked away frustrated and told us to wait again. He came back a few minutes later and again we showed him our paperwork showing when we were in Peru proving our stay in Ecuador was less than three weeks and so again he said “wait”. About an hour later we had two stamps in each of our passports.  He had placed our into Ecuador stamp one over another previous stamp making it impossible to read, and the other stamp he placed nice and clear on one of the last fresh pages of our passports.  So, thanks to our nerves, we forgot Spanish, and because we didn’t understand Spanish, the border agent decided it was too much work to extract bribes from us.  Who knew it could pay to be mono-lingual?
This was sort of just the beginning of our night… After we got stamped in we were hounded by many taxi drivers offering to drive us across the border but it looked like a short hike so we decided to hoof it. We asked the security patrol at the border (two very young looking guys) if we were able to walk across the border and they said yes (by this time our Spanish had returned a little). We walked across a very dark bridge for about a hundred yards to Colombia. This was probably the creepiest bridge on the planet. As we walked across it a few trucks drove super fast over it without stopping on either side of the border. On the Colombian side, the border got even shadier than it had been on the Ecuadorian side. Here, men were waving wads of American dollars (massive wads) to trade for pesos and there were absolutely no Columbian police guarding the border.  Off to one side was the poorly-lit immigration office.  But, the Columbian border agent was completely professional and it took a quick few moments to get stamped in to the country.  Luckily, there was a Colombian couple who we met on the Ecuadorian side who offered to share a cab to the Columbian border town a few kilometers away (they also seemed a bit worried about the border situation). This was good because there were no properly marked taxies there. So the Columbians negotiated with a driver and got us a ride in a very shady appearing black Soviet-bloc looking car. The driver showed us a few hotels and dropped us off on the side of the road near these hotels (another few minutes for us to spend in the rain) in the middle of Ipiales- our first Colombian city. Everything worked out and we are now sitting in a pretty nice hotel planning our next bus ride that should get us half way across the country over the next two days. I personally blame our problems on the fact that we are back on the Northern hemisphere and therefore our summer is officially over.
This was by far the creepiest border we have crossed, but it is also our last border before we get to the United States.  All in all we have been to 16 countries in the last 7 months for a total of 32 stamps, three of which we received in one hour. Actually, Buffy only has about 20 from this trip…border guards always seem to skip over her. J

Monday, February 7, 2011

Our week with Shane

We made only a few friends while in Colorado Springs, but the few we did make are of high quality. Shane is one of those really good friends of ours from Colorado Springs. Back in the Springs he is a manager at the chemistry lab at the city hospital. We met him originally through a game group our friend Julia is part of. This game group was made up of some super interesting characters from C.Springs and a large number of our friends were made there. So anyways Shane is this super interesting friend who we invited to join us Ecuador like a year ago when this trip was still in the planning phase. Surprisingly, he agreed to join us and met us in Quito last Saturday night. We stayed in Quito Sunday and Monday and were able to do quite a bit of sightseeing in those two days. This was good because Buffy was still recovering from a severe Ecuadorian Illness, and needed some time to rest while Shane and I explored Quito.  All three of us climbed up to the roof of a beautiful church in the old down town.  We got to see how the metal roof was attached to the cement structure of the building, and walk in between the external roof and the internal ceiling.  At the end of this gang-plank type structure was a beautiful overlook of the city from one of the church spires.  Then Buffy went back to the hotel to rest, and Shane and I walked around the Sunday artisans’ Mercado and went to an awesome Cuban food restaurant.  Monday morning we went to the Amazon Basin. We took a thirty minute flight from Quito to Lago Agrio and then a two hour bus and three hour boat ride to some cabins in Cuyubeno reserve near the border of Colombia. The boat ride was pretty spectacular we saw tons of birds along the way and were able to really see the jungle for the first time. That night it was raining quite a bit but the guide took us on another boat ride to see caiman. Caiman are a type of fresh water alligator that live in the Amazon River and its tributaries.  We saw quite a few of the alligators and got frighteningly close to a very large and angry looking one, but returned to the cabins without incident. Our boat mates were made up of two Danes, Two Australians, one German and two Slovenians. Everyone with the exception of the Slovenians turned out to be super cool. The Slovenians gave the rest of us a common cause to rally around: the Slovenians were extremely serious and didn’t want any talking at all, because it might scare the animals away, while everyone else preferred a balance between quite and socializing.  What was interesting is that the way the Slovenians handled the dispute was by insulting everyone else in the boat….which everyone else in the boat took in good humor.  Anyway, this was an ongoing interaction during the four day trip, so on to day two: we went trekking through the jungle to see trees and plants of medicinal and nutritional purposes. We also went trekking through a swamp that is part of the river in the rainy season but is only mud in the dry season (now). This was supper fun! Everyone was slipping and falling and sinking into the mud. We all got soooo dirty and wet and smelly. Veronica (the German) had really bad balance and showed us all what not to do when crossing from tree to tree but we all fell anyways. Michael the Australian (and largest of our group) kept slipping out of his boots and so would get stuck every few feet. When he would finally get himself unstuck he would have to continue floundering in the mud trying to get his boot back on. Shane served as part of the rescue crew throwing branches on the mud to provide some traction and going in after Veronica, Buffy and myself when all of us were stuck or sinking. It was actually quite hilarious. It was kind of like one of those team building exercises, like “ropes” or something…we all (except the Slovenians) struggled through the mud and we all helped each other get across, bucket-brigading backpacks, taking turns going first, forming human chains, pulling each other out of the mud. In the mud lagoon we were able to see a few toucans, parrots, cranes, frogs, caiman, and looked longingly for anacondas but found none.
 On the way back to the cabins we saw loads of birds and monkeys. That evening we went Piranha fishing.  Piranhas are carnivorous fish with a reputation that precedes them, but seems a bit outsized compared to their danger.  The Piranhas didn’t jump out of the water bearing their teeth and nipping at boat occupants…they didn’t seem so vicious.  To fish for them, we dropped fishing lines baited with little cubes of beef.  It was probably 45 minutes before Shane caught the first fish for the boat.  I caught one and two or three other folks also caught fish.  Overall, we definitely gave more meat away to the nipping Piranhas than we gained in fish caught (which, but the way, were subsequently thrown back into the river once the requisite pictures had been taken). We didn’t eat the piranha because they are reputed to have high levels of parasites; even the locals don’t eat them because they are small and bony.  Ironically, at dusk, we were in the boat headed back to camp and all sorts of fish started flying through the air trying to catch mosquitoes, and one fish landed right in the boat!  After spending almost an hour fishing and not getting a bite, this stupid thing jumps right in!  On the third day, we went to a local village. The villagers showed us how to cultivate yucca (not the same as in the south western US) and we made traditional bread.   They make their bread out of yucca.  First they shread the root up, then they dry out the shredded pieces by twisting them up in a two-sided reed-mat, then they cook them on an iron pan.  They’re pretty tasty.  We also got to play with a very nice but flea-ridden monkey. While we were in the village, a woman walked by with a monkey on her head.  She stopped and let us hold and pet the monkey.  Turns out it’s one of the smallest monkeys in the world.  After visiting the village, we went to another spot on the river where a medicine man, or Shaman, lived.  He was dressed up in his traditional Shaman robes, complete with ornate necklaces and beautiful parrot-feather head-dress.  He showed us all sorts of plants that he uses to diagnose and treat diseases.  How do you use a plant to diagnose a disease?  Well, the plant used for this purpose is a hallucinogen.  The Shaman imbibes a tea made from the leaf and concentrates on the sick person while he hallucinates.  The hallucination helps him to see the sick person’s problem and helps him to figure out the best way to treat it.  It was a pretty interesting visit and we ran into a few tourists who planned to stay the night with the shaman to try these hallucinogens.
 On the last day, we headed back to Quito, repeating our original trip but in reverse, but this time the river was very shallow and so Buffy and Shane had to get out and push the boats.  Actually, Buffy and I ended up on a boat by ourselves with the luggage and boat driver, while Shane was on another boat with a bunch of other tourists.  Shane again served as the rescue team because he was the only able bodied person on his boat, so he helped push the boat through the dry spot. Buffy served as rescue on our boat as I took pictures of her. J
Here is the animal count of our trip:
5 types of monkeys, dozens of birds including four types of Toucans, Three types of frogs, one anole (lizard), tons of spiders including three tarantulas in the dining “room”, two types of caiman, one pink river dolphin (which was grey because it was a baby), one manatee, one millipede, lemon ants (which we ate), and dozens of other types of insects including massive cockroaches in our hut that really liked our toiletry kit.
Back in Quito, we spent one day hitting the major museums and monasteries in Quito, and one day going to the equator.  The equator trip was interesting, because there were a bunch of experiments to demonstrate the oddness of the equator.  First, there was a demonstration of the Coriolis effect: a sink filled with water that had a plug in the bottom was unplugged with the plug directly over the equator, and there was no spin.  One meter to the south, the water spun clockwise, and one meter to the north, the water spun counterclockwise.  The second experiment was balancing an egg on a nail….apparently this is easier on the equator than anywhere else because gravity pulls the egg straight down onto the nail head instead of off to the side a bit, as it does if you are anywhere else, since the earth is a bit warped.  Finally, and most dubiously, we experimented with the diminished strength of people standing on the equator.  We paired up and stood to one side of the Equator.  One person interlocked their hands and held them up over head, while the other person pushed their hands down.  Repeating this experiment while standing on the Equator, the person with interlocked hands were very weak in holding their hands above their heads….it was easier for the other partner to push their hands down.  If I had just seen the experiment demonstrated, I would not believe it, but I felt it, as did Buffy and Shane. So, are any or all of these experiments valid, or good showmanship?  I need some more time with Google to find out.  In those last two days before Shane (sadly) left Ecuador, he tried Cuy (Guinea Pig) and Ceviche (fish cooked chemically rather than with heat).It was an amazing week and one of the most interesting adventures of our trip.
Our Amazon Crew

Little tiny wear on your head monkey

Shane trekking in the mud

What to take and not to take in the Jungle

Buffy pulling our boat along

Yucca bread