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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Rabida Island

The engines roared into life at six this morning and, wide awake I went on deck to see the sunrise. I was surprised to see the woman who cleans the rooms at the wheel but I guess they all take turns so the captain can get some rest. We were heading past a long low island like a turtle topped with cloud. On the other side was a much bigger island being rained on heavily but it never got to us. Our destination was Rabida Island and we watched a couple of sealions rolling around in the surf just offshore. The pangas took us to a black sand beach with its usual compliment of dozing sealions. Behind the beach was a salt lagoon and there were a couple of flamingos snoozing away with necks, heads, beaks and a leg all tucked away under their wings. From a distance they looked like two candy flosses that someone had stuck in the shallows.

This was another chance to snorkel and P and I took turns to take Tom out with us to a couple of rocky atolls just offshore. There, the sea life was simply amazing. I watched a huge turtle nibbling away on the grassy fronds on the reef and he was completely unconcerned about my being there. His beaky head snatched and nibbled while his flippers held him in position. I floated over him for a bit and then something else caught my eye - it was the sealion that we had watched flipping about through the waves. It moved with such tremendous speed and agility, vanishing out of the water in a stream of bubbles and splashing back into it. I don't know if it was fishing or playing but I watched it zip about for several minutes, before it shot back towards me and away to a different part of the reef.

I swam back to get T who was resting on the beach and took him back in the hope of seeing the turtle. It had gone, but all of a sudden the sealion appeared right underneath us perhaps two feet away. I could hear Tom shouting through his snorkel "Look! Look!". The sealion flicked around us and swam away, with Tom in hot pursuit. He didn't catch it (probably that was a good thing...) but it was thrilling to be so close and feel like we were with it for a while.

Without flippers, the snorkeling is hard work for Tom and I dropped him on the beach and went to find Philippa. She was on the other side of the atoll and as we met up we suddenly saw a sealion hunting about six feet beneath us. It was motionless apart from its head which slowly scanned left and right looking for fish. We floated right over it, carried along at the same speed as the sealion and it didn't give us a second glance. Everyone else had gathered on the shore waiting to go back, so we left the sealion hunting and swam back to the black beach, feeling we had been let in on a secret that no-one else knew about.  

Here be dragons (well, penguins)

Another hot morning and a panga ride to Dragon Hill. We had hoped to see flamingos here but the lagoon was flamingo-free so we had to settle for more big Iguana. How jaded does that sound? Nothing but unique sightings will do for us!

There really is life everywhere here and almost none of it is scared of us. Birds will let you walk right up to them and sealions can barely be bothered to look at you. The terrain around Dragon Hill is fairly flat with occasional volcanic vents creating little puckered mounds, squiggly with cooled lava. We have two guides, Diego and Margot, both of whom are extremely knowledgable. Margot is perhaps more so, but also inclined to serve it up in 20 minute verbal essays while we desperately long for shade, Tom walks in small circles and Diego's group skips past, heading for a gambol in the surf with pina coladas.

At our second stop, on Bartholomew Island we hoped to see some of the rare Galapagos penguins, of which only 800 pairs exist. We saw one little feller looking lonely on the lava-rock shoreline and he stared at us as we stared at him. We had to shoo some obstinate seaions off the jetty where they were soaking up the sun and not inclined to move. They barked at us for a bit before flopping into the water. We climbed a twisting boardwalk 360 steps up a martian landscape. The soil was red and black and the vegetation had barely taken hold. You could almost feel the rocks cracking in the heat so the breeze at the top felt like a cool stream. The view down a green neck of land with crescent shaped beaches either side had a pleasing symmetry to it.

There was more snorkling later on but P and T opted out and with the sky now clouding over and the sea turning into an unfriendly grey swell I nearly did the same. I'm very glad I didn't though. The water was clear and cool and within a few minutes I was looking down at the unmistakeable outline of a shark sleeping on the bottom ten feet below. It was a white-tipped shark, four or five feet long. A moment later a big eagle ray flapped past and then another shark which I followed for a while. Green and orange parrot fish looked up with their pursed lips and three little penguins wizzed past my face like fat torpedos after a school of fish. It was glorious.

Under way

Sometime around 4am, through our Dramamine comas we heard the engines come to blissful stop. The waves had flattened too and we dropped back into a more comfortable sleep. We woke a few hours later to a bright, clear morning to find we had traveled south east to the tiny island of Santa Fe. Fortified by a magnificent breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, cereal, yoghurt and thick black coffee we were ferried in the pangas (as they call the zodiac boats) to the beach. It was not large and it was pretty much claimed by a large group of sealions, lounging around in the sunshine and not the least bit bothered by us.

The sun was fierce now, even at eight thirty in the morning. We began a guided walk through a scorched landscape with prickly pear trees ten feet tall. Often there was a fat iguana underneath, claws like long fingers and a brilliant yellow crest like a cockatoo. They wait for the cactus fruit to fall out and we watched an iguana rolling a prickly pear around under its gnarled hand, scraping off the spines before snapping into it with its angular little mouth.

Back on the boat they equipped us with snorkel gear. Well most of us. "We don't carry snorkel gear for kids" said Ricky wth an irritating smile. P and I told him in no uncertain terms that that wasn't good enough. If you sell an expensive cruise to adults and kids alike promising that snorkel equipment is included, then you should include it, or at the very least make clear while we can still make other arrangements, that there isn't any for kids. Telling us when we are on the way is no use at all. Ricky's smile vanished and he looked somewhat chastened as he realised we weren't to be brushed off. Stiff letter to cruise company is on the way... Anyway we found a mask that almost fit Tom (but no fins) and went off snorkling, but the sea was choppy and T's mask didn't really work and, frankly, it was all rather trying.

No more 1am starts though. In the evening after supper, we did our "navigation" to South Plaza on Santa Cruz, in calm waters. All was quiet when we went to bed and we slept like the dead.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

In the Galapagos

We weren't due to meet our boat until noon, so after breakfast of fresh-fruit and home-made apple-cake in a sunny courtyard, we walked back into town. On the key, fishermen were cleaning silver tuna under the noisy scrutiny of a couple of dozen scruffy pelicans. There were sealions too waiting patiently under the tables for whatever was thrown away. One was leaning against the leg of a busy fisherman, looking at him like a faithful labrador. Another raised itself up, with its flippers on the work-table sniffing the fish and squeezing its eyes at the fisherman. The man told it off and it reluctantly got down to wait its turn, glossy flanks shining. An Iguana lay at the base of a dry fountain and the trees were full of pelicans.

We got coffee and ice-cream at the place we had eaten at the night before and were served by the same waitress who couldn't keep her eyes off Tom. It was a nice easy way to spend the morning before we collected our bags from the lovely Josy and took a two minute taxi ride to the ferry port. There was no boats called the Galavan that I could see and no-one to meet us, so I called our agent Lilian who assured us that someone would be there, and eventually a Zodiac boat cruised up to the jetty and Rodolfo, the driver loaded us on. We sped across the  choppy bay to where the Galavan 1 was rolling in the swell. An older couple was already on board, Chris a short man with humour in his eyes - from Perth "the best kept secret in the world" and his elegant friend Cecilia from Brazil ("Brrrazeew") As the boat heaved at anchor, lunch was served. It was plentiful and good: fish spiced with curry, rice, salad and lots of fruit.  Neither P nor I could stay in our little cabin for long as the world rolled under our feet. T, who seems invincible to motion sickness was happily oblivious and thrilled that he got the single top bunk above our bed.
 
The fourteen other passengers and our naturalists boarded a little later and had their lunch at which point we assumed we would get under way, envisaging that our next stop would be some remarkable Galapagosian atoll where we could roam among giant tortoises and dragons. But instead we all got back in the zodiacs and went back to Puerto Ayora.  It felt like a bit of an anti-climax, as we climbed onto a waiting bus and began climbing between farmsteads dripping from a passing shower. But the first stop made it all worth while. It was a lava tunnel that could easily fit an underground train. It snaked along for four hundred meters, its arched ceiling sometimes soaring up to church heights. It was formed by a tube of lava which had cooled at its outer edges leaving a tunnel in its wake. Even Tom, who can be blase about these things, was impressed - especially when the lights went out briefly leaving us in total darkness. "I can lead us out by the light from my watch" he piped.

Once out, and ten minutes further along the red dirt track was a farm where some of the wild tortoises like to gather because it has a number of mud holes. We found a few wallowing in the murk, eying us warily. Another ambled past us (perhaps that is unfair, he could have been galloping for all I know) and what followed was a tortoise face-off. Two leathery necks extended and the two biggest tortoises hissed at each other for a bit, before, presumably exhausted, they each settled down into the mud.

There was a small display of tortoise shells which were big enough for Tom to get into, and then we all sank back into the bus for the port and a rather precarious journey through the harbour swell to the boat. We had another huge meal (with much concentration on the horizon by me and P). Laced with Dramamine we followed T to bed and were rolled around in our beds as the boat sat at anchor - until 1 am when the engines started up, apparently they were bolted to the foot of our bed. The noise filled the room and bounced around our heads but at least we were under way.

To the Galapagos

Our departure this morning was a comedy of manners. Our Galapagos cruise included being picked up from Pablo's home and taken to the airport, but somehow in confirming the arrangements with the company yesterday Patricio, Pablo's assistant, had decided that was an unreliable arrangement, cancelled the cab and asked Roddy to take us to the airport instead. So at 7am Roddy backed us out of the drive under the rather hurt gaze of the man with the smart minibus who had been sent to pick us up and hadn't been cancelled at all. So we unloaded our bags, reloaded them in the new cab, apologised to both Roddy and the new cab driver, and got going for the airport.

Quito airport was the model of efficiency. The queues were orderly, the check-in staff courteous and helpful, security was secure, but allowed you to keep your shoes on and didn't make you feel like you were somehow getting in their way (a la just about every airport in America) . In short it was the antithesis of the stereotype "South American Airport". But the flight itself, well that was something. After several years experience of the best that 21st century commercial aviation has to offer, Aerogal was a bit of a shock. It really was from a different age. An age where you could still get on a brand new plane for one thing, and a plane where the seats had plenty of legroom and free widescreen entertainment, an age where the cabin crew were immaculately turned out and delivered free hot food and drinks, an age where the the planes took off and landed on time. It was, in short, unbelievably good and a quality of air travel that is but a misty memory in the US and Europe.

We had a brief stop in Guayacil, which from the air was a gleaming patchwork of rice paddies with tiny farmhouses perched on little islands. As we loaded more passengers the crew sprayed some kind of disinfectant into the air. They are very concerned about not introducing contaminants into the Galapagos and all our luggage had to be screened before we checked it in in Quito.

Ninety minutes after taking off again, the islands appeared in the Pacific, low and tawny in the deep blue of the ocean. The little airport at Baltra (once part of a US Air Force base) was muggy and crowded but our driver was there with a placard for us and ushered us onto a bus for the short ride to the ferry which takes you to the main island of Santa Cruz. The drive was broken only by a large Iguana that didn't want to get off the road and had to be shoo-ed off. It hissed at the driver before sauntering into the scrub. There was little to see along the road to the ferry; deserty scrub and the occasional ruin of an old building. The Galapagos weren't even pristine when Darwin got to them of course. Pirates had been using them to hole up and take on provisions in the 16th century and then whalers discovered them and killed perhaps a hundred thousand giant tortoises. Farmers came to clear the native plants and grow bananas and other crops. The middle of the main island is still privately owned by farmers and is full of non-native species, even as the park service tries to restore the rest of the chain of islands by removing non-native species as far as they can, and particular the rats and goats which have destroyed so much habitat. On one island alone they have culled something like 200,000 goats. On the drive from the ferry to Puerto Ayora - the main town on Santa Cruz, there was still an other worldliness to the landscape. V-tailed frigate birds soared around above us, and we passed stands of curious angular trees.

Rosy at the Galapagos Suites was every bit as friendly as her emails and her little hotel was everything the rave reviews on TripAdvisor had suggested, complete with a hammock strung up across a corner of our balcony.Puerto Ayora has the feel of a low key Caribbean town, mostly low-rise plain buildings and one-room storefronts packed with t-shirts and flip flops, dusty streets humming in the sunshine. We walked out to the Charles Darwin Research Station which looks into the best way to preserve the Galapagos and its species. Its best known for its tortoise breeding program and they have learned how to dig out the eggs and transfer them to incubators, such that 98% of the eggs they move now hatch. We saw them taking some of the baby giants  out of boxes, painting numbers on them and etching a groove in their shells. The island-specific species are returned to their native islands once they are a bit older. The Station is also the permanent home of Lonesome George, the last of his sub-species and perhaps two hundred years old. No-one has found a way to date these giants accurately yet. He was asleep, with his long neck stretched out in front of his impossible shell. It was like watching a dinosaur and elsewhere at the Station, on a walking trail we were surprised by a few more giants with their elephant feet, grumpy expressions and watery eyes. Some may have been spared by whalers a hundred and fifty years ago as being too small to eat. They are lumbering time travelers, plodding their way through the decades.  

Back in the town, we explored a bit and had supper overlooking the harbour. As night fell snatches of salsa music and laughter drifted up from the street below and dogs set up a barking relay. How do people live with dogs like that? When disturbed by, I don't know, someone sneezing in a different part of the town, they will bark for five minutes straight, and then another one will become aware that there is a rock in the yard and start barking at that. Hello earplugs.

El Teleferiquo

It was the Fitzgerald's last day in Quito. Sui Fun and Robert had left early for Peru, so the rest of us got into tourist mode. El Teleferiquo, a gondola up a mountainside overlooking Quito, soars up to  4050 meters ( about 13,365 feet in the old money). We flagged taxis to the base and on our way caught a cloud-free glimpse of one of the snow-topped volcanos that ring the city. The taxi, grinding along in first gear, only just made it up the steep access road. P and I looked at each other as the revs dropped and dropped, but we got there in the end.

El Teleferiquo has a slight air of dreams unrealised about it. The "craft village" at its base is a sad cluster of empty shopfronts; doors gaudy with Visa and Mastercard stickers for tourists who were intent on just getting up the mountain. People don't come here to buy CDs of panpipe music or Panama hats, they come to ride the gondola and get a thrill from the thin air at the top. That's what we did anyway.

We emerged at the summit into a cool wind with much less oxygen in it. Anything uphill was an effort, but the views were well worth it. As if sensing our presence, Cotapaxi had pulled the cloud hat over its head, but the sprawl of Quito far down in the valley below was fascinating - particularly watching cigar tube jets come into land at the airport. In the other direction , the jagged outline of the mountains were crisp in the clear thin air.We puffed and gasped a little way up the hill to take photos and enjoy the sharp breeze and the piercing sunshine. Lunch was at a gaudy cafe, once part of a now defunct hotel. We sat in mauve vinyl boths looking through grimy windows at the pristine mountains around us.

At the bottom of the gondola was a nearly deserted funfair - The VolQano, which acted as a small-boy magnet. For an hour or so, weary staff trailed after us to start up silent rides for the boys' benefit.

Back down to a mere 2600m in Quito, jammed into a minibus at rush hour, with diesel fumes wafting through the windows, cars flitting past and cutting in, a smiling woman in a trilby hat selling oranges by the roadside, sunshine boring into our necks. The Fitzgeralds and I went map shopping while P took a hot t home.

Later, as the Fitzgeralds finished up their packing and souvenir buying I hustled out to the pizza place at the end of the street. Its been particular fun for Tom to travel with the two boys and he will really miss Jon and Aiden. We all hugged and wished each other well and they left for the airport. Another part of our Cambridge experience drifiting away. So now we are three again, with three weeks left to go.... 

In the Cloud Forest

The cloud had lifted from the forest this morning and hummingbirds are apparently late risers. Hard to imagine them taking it easy with a cup of coffee, but but all was quiet at the feeders. After salty scrambled eggs we changed into Wellingtons (what would the noble Duke think of his legacy to the world...) and met our guide for what was billed as a three hour walk through the forest. Our guide was a bony young chap, tall and skinny and carrying a machete with him. A little way into the forest he swung it at what he described as a blood tree, leaving a small slit in which welled a crimson jewel of sap. He smeared it onto our hands whereupon it turned into a smooth white paste, which he said was used to relieve mosquito bites. The boys were impressed and Tom started seeking mosquitoes in order to test it out. They had a great time in fact; there was a lookout tower with terrifying open bamboo ladders to climb, a rope swing into the trees and a couple of ziplines across small valleys. On the first one we came to, I went and then Tom went. Most of the way at least. I watched him come to a dangling halt about fifty feet from the end and at least a hundred feet from the ground. He was absolutely thrilled. We threw a rope to him but it fell short and so he was pulled giggling back to the launch point where P was clipped on to the pulley as well and their combined weight finally got them across. "Can I do that again?" asked T.

The forest was damp and earthy and quiet, we saw - or heard at least - a couple of hummingbirds but for the most part all was still. At some point we realised that our three hour hike had passed the four hour mark and Roddy, the driver, told us that Pablo's car had to be back in Quito by four o'clock in order to avoid a hefty fine, as different cars are banned from rush-hour driving on different days of the week to ease congestion. That meant we had two and a half hours to get out of the forest, pack up and get to Quito. We raced along the last part of the walk phoning in orders for sandwiches for the road. Yes, the Cloud Forest has a mobile signal. We threw passengers, bags and lunch into the cars and raced away, now with ninety minutes to do the drive that had taken us two hours the day before. It was a white knuckle ride as I struggled to keep pace with the more powerful Disco. I thrashed the little car back up the 6,000 feet we had descended, dodging past trucks labouring up the steep inclines in clouds of exhaust. As we got into Quito, the usual racetrack became even more competitive as we were now part of the race - not just observers. We slid into the most marginal of gaps and cut everyone else up mercilessly  - though to be honest that is just normal driving behaviour in Quito. Two blocks from Pablo's house at 4.05, Roddy spotted a traffic cop on the corner and quickly pulled into the car park in front of a row of shops. He had a chat with the policeman, but he refused to let Roddy continue so the car had to stay where it was until 7.30pm and everyone in it had to walk the last bit to Pablo's.

It was strange to be in his house without Pablo but we worked up a pile of pasta  and sat in the formal dining room surrounded by his wonderful pictures of South America.

Back in Quito (and then off again)

We got to Pablo's late last night after stopping for a pizza at a place that was crowded when it was a shack (said Pablo) but had lost all its customers since moving into bigger premises. The food was good, but there was only one other table of people there.

This morning we were off again, to the cloud forest at Mindo a couple of hours away. While I was loading the car I noticed that Sebastian's temporary exhaust fix had been exactly that and the tailpipe was hanging loose again. I called Diego at Simon's Car Rental and within forty minutes he had delivered us a new car and taken away the old one. I'm not sure there are many car companies - anywhere - that would have been as efficient. 

Pablo had to return to Cambridge and so we said goodbye to him with big hugs all around (Pablo's trademark). We were very sorry to leave him, and sad too that a little bit more of our Nieman group had been chipped away.  Doors slammed, arms waved, farewells were shouted and we were on our way to Mindo, with a friend of Pablo's driving the Fitzgerald's in Pablo's Discover and P, t and I sharing our car with Robert and Sui Fun.

Mindo is 6000 feet lower than Quito and once we left the highway we were weaving down a twisting mountain road trying to go easy on the brakes. The plants either side of us grew taller and broader as we descended and everything became more lush. Mindo is a flyblown little town with dogs hanging around street corners waiting for a bike to chase, and teenagers leaning on parked cars talking about whatever teenagers talk about in Ecuador (probably the same as everywhere else). All of us were feeling weary after all the driving of the past few days and we slumped into a restaurant feeling hot and irritable. The place was called "El Chef" but the expensive wood inlay in the chairs and tables spelled out "El Cheff" I wonder what the owner's reaction was when his brand new, custom made dining room set arrived... The food though was generous and good; trout for some, pork for others and Sui Fun and I almost finished the bowl of hot sauce on ours.

There is a definite disconnect between Ecuadorians dealing with Ecuadorians and their financial dealings with foreigners. They are friendly and helpful (without exception so far) but at the Sachatamia Lodge, the 20% discount for cash and upgraded rooms that Pablo had agreed, turned into a ten percent discount and no upgrade when we actually arrived minus the only Ecuadorian in our group. It didn't matter though. The cabins were new and cosy with big windows looking directly into the forest; a dark tangle of crooked trees, vines and elephant ear leaves. Creepers creeped, butterflies pranced and hummingbirds buzzed. Their wings really do make a racket. Feeders were set up all over the grounds and were always surrounded by electric sparkles of colour, as birds ranging in size from sparrow to bee dipped their long beaks in for a drink; their wings no more than a mist with a tinge of colour. Sometimes they would freeze-frame to a stop, their tiny wings held vertical for a moment as if cooling their hummingbird-armpits and then folded away. They are aggressive little things too, chasing each other away from popular feeding points. 

The three of us headed down a dark path into the, lined with deep mossy banks. Faint slivers of late afternoon light reached through the canopy but the forest remained cool and gloomy. A bigger walk tomorrow. We slept that night to the sound of a raucous orchestra of frogs and insects jamming together into the night.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

El Quinche

Tom loves having two boys to play with and they vanished off into the gardens before breakfast, while we fried up eggs and last night's potatoes. The morning started clear and blue and Pablo dropped us off at the start of a trail along an abandoned rail-bed, which ran around a river valley. The engineers had dug out cuttings in places, revealing a soft white stone that local people would dig out and sell for making a kind of whitewash. The land fell away, sharply in places, into a green gorge with a river rushing along its spine with a sound like distant applause. There is such rich greenness here and it is a constant surprise to see so many house plants growing wild; vast yuccas with towering central spears like a jouster's lance. Across the gorge, the town of El Quinche sat in the sunshine, the blue domes of its enormous church shining.

The walk took us splashing through a muddy tunnel, the boys hooting echoes off the cool walls. We came to a bridge spanning the gorge with broken sleepers in the middle revealing the sparkling river far below. Ont he outskirts of El Quinche we were met by a curious man, roughly dressed and with a wild expression who brandished some kind of multicoloured cards at us. He didn't speak and we couldn't work out what he wanted. It was vaguely unnerving though and we turned back the way we had come.

Pablo had ordered a vast paella for us with big pink prawns staring at us with their beady grape-seed eyes. The sky was darkening and thunder crackled in the distance but we sat under umbrellas in the courtyard and willed the storm to stay away. Some of Pablo's friends had joined us and Sebastian, a mechanic made a temporary fix for the exhaust to get us home. We packed, loaded and left the farm, driving back up the track in the golden hour before sunset. Instead of turning onto the main road and heading for Quito, Pablo led us further up the hill, the fading sunlight bouncing pink off the clouds and painting a white farm across the valley. Cotton wool mist was tumbling slowly down the hillside and at the top of a bluff we watched the day draw to a close. One one side were hills slowly being smothered by cloud, on the other, far below us, El Quinche sprawling into the evening light, flashes of sunlight bouncing from windows and ponds. Pablo wants to buy some land up here and he spoke to the old man who greeted us from a hut on the end of the bluff. Pablo said he's spoken to him many times, but he wont sell. It is an idyllic spot and keeping it clearly means more to the old man than money. Back down the track we jolted and before we finally made for Quito we turned into El Quinche to see the church. It is one of the most famous in Ecuador and as evening set in, it was busy in a way it must always have been with stalls selling candles and devotional trinkets out front, quiet beggars in the doorway and people inside crossing themselves and murmuring at the altar rail.  

To El Quinche

Our last morning in the Hacienda and we rushed to breakfast, drooling. The maitre d', chef, head waiter (I am not exactly sure which - perhaps all) has taken a shine to Tom and ruffles his hair at every opportunity. He also insists that Tom speaks to him in Spanish, so T has been muchos graciasing and por favoring at every opportunity. Breakfast was every bit as good today, and we staggered back to our rooms to pack before the drive to Pablo's family farm at El Quinche a little way north east of Quito. The tarmac felt unrealy smooth after yesterday's rock and roll. We swished through charmless concrete hamlets,  stalls with fruit hanging on strings, barrows full of watermelons and people everywhere. They are small, the people here, high cheekboned and serious. The women wear hats, sometimes we see clusters of schoolchildren in matching uniforms waiting by the roadside. People cross the busiest fastest six lane roads barely giving the traffic a second glance. Youths lounge on little motorbikes with looks of disdain common to youths lounging on motorbikes everywhere. Goats and cattle graze on the verges and the median. The houses are flat roofed and meager. There are no signs of wealth along these roads. At a point where the road narrowed to two lanes, a woman sat on a speed bump, an open hand outstretched to the cars passing either side of her.

Pablo's farm is down an ancient cobbled road, deeply gouged by heavy rain and jolting wheels. There are squat bungalows - a door and two windows - either side of the track, with brightly coloured washing strung out like bunting. Entering the gateway to Pablo's farm was like entering a cool green oasis; serene lawns punctuated with fruit trees and a couple of fat palms. The farmhouse sits around a red-tiled courtyard with a small chapel to one side. It was built by Pablo's parents and he shares it now with his brother and sister.

From here we intended to go to the market at Otavalo, ninety minutes away. But halfway back up the track an ominous clanging from under our rental car announced that the rubber tailpipe clamp had said "enough already with the bad roads". We turned back, put Robert and Sui Fun in Pablo's Discovery and settled in to a quiet afternoon with pot noodles, books, puzzles, g and t and peanuts. Rather nice in fact. I walked around trying to free up a stiffening back and spotted a very large wasp struggling to drag what could only have been a small tarantula across the patio.

The sun goes down like clockwork at 6.30pm and darkness falls on Ecuador like a cape. The rest of the crew arrived back from Otavalo at about nine with a big bag of fried chicken and boiled potatoes. We ate, and slept.

Cotapaxi

We woke feeling somewhat desiccated and breathless. Pablo told us he never sleeps with a lit fire in the room at this altitude (about 11,000 feet) as it tends to use too much oxygen. Feeling thick headed and slightly dizzy, we learned our lesson. A thin light was streaming through the slatted shutters and everything smelt of woodsmoke.

Breakfast was a magnificent affair in a bright room painted with scenes from the rainforest. Our hovering waiters had set the table with Ecuadorian cheeses, a bowl of cubed fruit, a jug of yoghurt, brown sugar, a smaller jug of syrupy coffee and some hot water and milk to go with it. They brought us foamy green glasses of Naranjita, a sour fruit rather like a cross between passion fruit and an orange. Pablo had one brought out for us on a plate and it was mouth wateringly bitter on its own. Then there were eggs of course, with rich orange yolks, and bread with freshly churned butter the consistency of cottage cheese. It was a noisy feast with many "I couldn't - well go on then"s.

So, on to the Cotopaxi National Park a few miles drive along a dirt track, and over a wooden bridge with no sides, barely wider than our cars. The great snow-capped volcano was still obscured by cloud and in the car park at the entrance we were joined by two multicoloured buses with grimy children grinning through the open windows. After a brief verbal tussel with the gatekeeper who thought we should have a guide (Pablo knows the place inside out) we drove up and up along washboard roads, climbing to about twelve thousand feet. onto a wide plain - a filled-in caldera - studded with rocks of all sizes which Cotopaxi had spat out over the years. I imagined them landing red hot and crackling with heat, the sky full of ash. The track picked its way between them and sometimes over them, great hunks of basalt threatening to rip out the differential. The wheel ruts had worn into small gorges in places and we jolted and bounced along under clouds which glowered at us, spat rain and ocasionally threw down cold handfuls of hail. A herd of wild horses galloped past wet and shiny, one or two stopping to roll in the the damp tundra. We rocked on across lava beds covered in a layer of fine ash, the great volcano itself still hidden and mysterious, only its lower slopes visible.

At the point where the road crossed a river and climbed a sheer black mud wall we stopped and walked, following the river upstream to its source; a magical clear spring with water jetting up from the ground as if escaping from something terrifying deep below. We spread out. Michael, his boys and ours climbing a perfect cone-shaped volcanic vent covered in vegetation and very steep. I went for one on the other side of the spring. Philippa and Pablo walked towards the plain and soon we were all the tiniest little specs of colour, virtually invisible in this gigantic landscape. The rain fell in a fine mist and after jumping back across the stream with much hilarity and only two wet feet (Tom's) we made for the vehicles. Unbelievably in this remote and forbidding landscape there is rather a nice little restaurant; salmon pink and thatched, with a view across to the invisible volcano. There was lots on the menu but they made it clear that there was really only the menu of the day in fact so we had that: quinoa soup with hot sauce, chicken, rice and vegetables and some kind of sweet and foamy mousse for pudding. Then, the clouds lifted and lifted some more and we could see the vast bulk of Cotopaxi. The snow on its slopes was ridged and tumbled, revealing ancient glaciers. We snapped away and that was all folks, the clouds rolled back into place. Tom wondered what would happen if it chose this moment to blow its top. "Would we be OK?" Well, probably not in fact...

We drove up the road which climbs Cotopaxi's lower slopes inthe hope that the clouds would clear again, but at just under 14,000 feet with light heads and blowing mist all around us we turned around and headed back for the Hacienda.

There we pleaded for a truly light supper and Mignon arranged for a dark green vegetable soup, plates of cheese and ham and baskets of warm bread. The kids had theirs at one end of the room, chatting happily about Nintendo strategies, while the adults sank into sofas at the other end with glasses of wine and a delve into some of the history books Mignon has collected which refer to visits to the Inca Palace we have all enjoyed staying in for the past couple of days. Its a remarkable place.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A month in Ecuador - May 28th to June 28th 2011

I'm lying on a creaky leather sofa, feet pointing towards a fat black stove humming with heat, the logs popping and cracking and giving the room a faint tang of smoke. The walls are the colour of ochre, the wood floors dark and burnished and the ceiling has heavy beams running across it. The doorway to the bedroom goes through a wall two feet thick and in there another fire is fizzing away. Through the next doorway the bathroom has yet another fireplace glowing in the corner while P has a bath in the claw-foot tub.

We are at the edge of the Cotopaxi National Park in Hacienda San Augustin de Callo, a handsome farmhouse which incorporates an Inca palace. From where I sit I can look over the Spanish stone courtyard which was full of llamas this morning, eating carrots from our hands and staring at us with their goaty eyes. Heavy-tiled roofs, black and wet with rain, overhang the edge of the courtyard on two sides creating a sheltered walkway. One the other two sides are Inca walls with dark stone blocks that fit together so perfectly that you couldn't insert so much as a piece of paper between them. They used no mortar and no-one quite knows how they did it. This is an ancient place in the shadow of Cotopaxi, the tallest active volcano in the world. If it wasn't obscured by grey-white cloud I would be able to see it through the window of our bedroom.

Our day began in Quito, ninety minutes north, at the home of our Nieman friend Pablo. His house in the newer part of the city is a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Japanese Ryokan. The hardwood floors are as solid as steel and the brightly coloured walls are filled with Pablo's photographs for National Geographic and others. Quito is around ten thousand feet up and climbing the stairs leaves you panting for breath and slightly dizzy. We've had headaches but on the whole the altitude hasn't been too much of a problem.

Quito is less frenetic than I thought it might be. The airport was calm and efficient, the people we've met restrained and courteous. Our cab driver, so often the bane of foreign airports could not have been more helpful with our piles of bags and our lack of Spanish. Arriving at sunset and into the rush hour, the streets were packed with darting yellow taxis, thundering blue buses billowing black diesel fumes with conductors standing in the open doorways. At stop lights, scrawny children juggled for tips, and women in skirts, shawls and porkpie hats sold tubes of pears, oranges and bags of nuts. There is none of the insistent, relentless, in-your-face "I give you good price" hustling. Here if you don't want to buy, you don't catch their eyes and they move on.

On our first full day after arriving we went to Old Town Quito a bouncing cab ride away from Pablo's house. Its a place of modest grandeur, of squares and colonial buildings with fancy stonework picked out in peppermint and peach. We went into a couple of churches with dark stone facades slotted with narrow doorways. Once inside though, the entire altar wall was covered in gold leaf; every corkscrewed piller, every niche, every section of wooden lattice was gleaming gold in the dim light. I remember reading someone's account of travelling through South America and noting how Catholicism had to be even more vivid here to catch people's eyes in countries where their daily lives were already full of colour and extremes.

Outside on the sidewalks everything is bustling. Smart city types in suits and perfectly white collars walk importantly past people selling clockwork toys, lottery tickets and baskets of rambutans. Cars race and beep, buses compete for passengers, a man with no legs lies on a wheeled bed accosting people with a megaphone.

Here though, in the serenty of the Hacienda there is just a feeling of ancient calm. A rooster is crowing confidently somewhere. We ventured out briefly this afternoon to a hill so perfectly conical it too was thought to have been built by the Incas. Its a natural feature in fact, but was used as a lookout by the Incas and then the local nobles. We drove up it in pouring rain hoping to walk around the top, but the rain pounded on the car roofs and the muddy track began to turn into a river so we slithered back down and into brilliant green fields, past steaming black horses and fighting bulls, past the bull-ring on the edge of the Hacienda and into our rooms, mellow with firelight.

Dinner last night was in the black-walled stone room built by the Incas as some sort of ceremonial hall. Its just large enough for a long wooden table and serves now as a dining room. Our group filled it: the Fitzgeralds from Cambridge, Robert and Sui Fun from Hong Kong, Pablo and the three of us. The three kids (Tom and two Fitzgeralds) got there earlier and were eating spaghetti, delighting and exasperating the white-tuniced staff. The staff are a friendly and sincere bunch, dedicated with some seriousness to ensuring our every need is met and a little unsure about how to deal with our inclination not to put them to too much trouble. We are eating like Lords. We'd had a three course lunch and so were served a "light" dinner, starting with moist balls of deepfried cornmeal with a froth of avocado puree followed by buttery chunks of sea-bass and then a range of perfect deserts: rich chocolate cake, a wicked little chocolate mousse and a passion-fruit cake that woke up the salivary glands. Mignon, the aristocratic lady who owns the place, joined us for dinner. She is the niece of one Ecuadorian president and the granddaughter of another. Her father was a noted amateur bullfighter and black and white photos of him show a tall, charismatic man entertaining a group of friends from behind a bar in the Inca Great Hall, a mounted bull's head on the wall behind him and a tall gundog in front of him with its front feet on the bar. They are all in baggy suits with open collars. Mignon is very definitely of this stock, fizzing with energy, all flashing green eyes and unlined skin. She loves this place and wants to share it. I get the feeling she enjoys having company too.

When, after brandy in the low ceilinged sitting room we finally ambled back to our rooms we found the ever-helpful staff had stoked up all three fires to industrial levels and heavy wooden shutters had been closed over the windows. Tiny merangues in paper cases were gently melting beside our beds and Tom was soon asleep with flickering firelight reflected on his face.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Goodbye Harvey.


A couple of months ago, as the last of the snow was vanishing into gray and gritty puddles, I pulled the cover off Harv with a sigh, knowing it was time to spruce him up and find him a new home. I had envisaged a difficult couple of months with internet ads, tyre kickers and lowball bids. But what actually happened was that the moment Harv's cover crumpled to the ground, our next door neighbours Frank and Peggy looked over the fence and asked whether we would ever consider selling...

To be honest, that sums up our experience of GMC ownership. We have been blessed with good luck throughout the whole process of finding, buying, travelling in and ultimately selling our GMC. From the moment the Michigan snows melted just enough for my Dad and I to drive him down from Traverse City Michigan, to the parts and advice that were all in easy reach on the 'net as I tidied him up, to the community of owners who got us going again in a matter of hours in Halifax Nova Scotia when we lost a CV joint, to the house in Cambridge that came (by chance) with a drive just big enough for Harv, to the people next door who had admired him from afar from the moment we drove in. And as much as anything our fun with this old boy has been about the people he has introduced us to along the way; the Jerrys in Michigan who got us going in the first place, the unbelievably knowledgeable enthusiasts at GMC.net who were never short of advice or humour, Jim and Elly Brennan and the kindhearted folks in the Tidewater Crabs, Paul and Nancy in Halifax wwho opened their home and garage to us, and the many, many unnamed people along the way who made space for us at busy junctions with a smile and a wave, or who came to chat on a garage forecourt, or in a newly found campsite. What a delight to drive something that seems to kindle warm feelings in those around you.

Harvey has taken us into places popular and quiet, mountainous and flat, wooded and barren, coastal and inland. He became a part of our lives in a way we hadn't expected. Philippa found it hard to be inside our GMC when she knew it was about to be no longer ours - there were too many good memories embedded there. I found it impossible to believe that the motorhome I had spent so many hours in, under, and on top of', wrestling with, being perplexed and occasionally soaked by was not going to be ours forever. But he isn't. In fact he isn't even ours now. Peggy and Frank have already taken Harv on an inaugural drive and will park him in their own back yard just as soon as they have made it ready for 26 feet of seventies gloriousness.

So, thanks for everything Harv. The journey that began in a musty GMC in Virginia when Philippa and I looked at each other and "just knew", went on to a chilly Michigan barn and Harv, followed by a great roadtrip with my Dad through the backwoods of West Virginia, then to Washington DC, the mountains of New York State, Quebec, Gaspe, Nova Scota and Maine, has ended with our next door neighbours driving our pride and joy off into the sunset in Cambridge, Mass. There was a lot of fun on the way and hopefully too the inspiration for a book I will write one of these days...

And what of this site? Well I think the GMC-related posts have probably come to an end, but this blog is really about a state of mind and the story of a journey - many journeys in fact. So I will keep writing here about other trips, other adventures and other ways to ride the Magic Bus. Thanks for coming along. We've enjoyed every minute of it.