This post is rather unrelated to my research, however yesterday I had perhaps the weirdest travel experience of my life and it's too strange not to share. As part of our unexpected stay in Quito we've been exploring the surrounding areas. Yesterday we decided to take a short trip to Otavalo, a nearby market town. We got there with no issues and spent the day browsing the wares and hiking to the nearby Peguche waterfall. The trouble started when we tried to catch a bus back to Quito. Around an hour into our journey the bus suddenly stopped and people seemed to be arguing with the driver. I could tell they were saying something about not being able to return. Eventually they made us all get out and gave us a dollar. So there we were, an entire bus full of people dumped unceremoniously on the side of a highway somewhere between Otavalo and Quito. I know that in A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche's "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" is tragically ironic, but I've always felt it was a pretty good description of being a traveler, especially when things go wrong and you have a fairly limited grasp of the language. A very kind woman carrying a tiny white dog told us she was also going to Quito and hurried us onto another bus, where we proceeded to drive to somewhere called (I kid you not) Jerusalem. Our second bus then stopped midway down the highway, turned parallel to the road (accidentally T-boning a cop car and crushing its back light in the process), and we we're kicked off again. This time our savior with the dog told us we all had to walk to somewhere near Quito where we could then catch a taxi into the city. We still were having trouble grasping what was going on; we kept asking - was it an accident? A landslide?, and kept getting negative responses. Our companion was nice enough to find someone who spoke english to explain it to us. Apparently there is a pilgrimage that occurs every year around this time, where the people of Quito walk to the shrine of the Madonna de Quinche many, many kilometers away. So many people participate that they actually shut down the highway leading to Quito until 6am the next morning. So with no other options we started walking. At first it was kind of nice - the night was clear, the air crisp, and we had some amazing scenery to walk through. After an hour and a half it became clear that we weren't going to get a cab anytime soon. We eventually ran into the people headed to Quinche, first just a trickle but soon the whole highway was full of people of all ages walking. And on we went... for nearly five hours. Every once and awhile we'd stop and ask a cop how much further, unfortunately for us the answer always seemed to be "ocho o diez kilómetros" regardless of how far we'd come. Walking the opposite direction of what seemed like the entire city of Quito proved to be difficult as we found ourselves continually jostled and crowded off the shoulder of the highway. We eventually made it to Quito and walked through the tollbooth into the city, but even then the roads were closed. Finally we asked some cops in a car how much further and they took pity on us and drove us the final 5km to where we could catch a taxi. Overall it was quite an unexpected journey. We tried googling this event afterwards but surprisingly little information was available. A warning to anyone thinking of traveling to Quito - don't leave the city on the 21st or if you do, plan to make it an overnight trip. Oh, and apparently this coming weekend they do the same thing.
One of the rather frustrating things about fieldwork is procuring the necessary visas. Rules seem to be ever shifting. The last group of researchers got their visas in around one and a half weeks; needless to say I was a little taken aback when we were told ours would take a month. Despite the frustrating wait to begin fieldwork it has given us ample time to explore Quito and the surrounding areas - something I'd not gotten to do much of on my previous trips which usually consisted of just a brief couple of hours of sleep en route to TBS.
Ecuador is really a beautiful country... it packs in quite the range of climate, landscape and altitude. Quito is nearly 10,000 feet a.s.l, situated near the Pinchincha volcano. Consequently the whole city is very hilly and your breathing tends to be a bit labored from the height. Old town has some beautiful architecture and seems to consist of a series of plazas. We've been to several museums - including the Casa del Alabado, which houses a small but very well displayed collection of precolombian art. La mariscal neighborhood (also called gringo land) is where the most restaurants and bars are and is perhaps the liveliest part of the city. Plus it has a nice little artisan/handicraft market if you don't feel like making the two hour journey to Otavalo. A trip to Ecuador wouldn't be complete without buying something made of alpaca or some tagua (tree ivory) jewelry.
Outside of Quito, we've taken a trip up to Cayambe (~ a one and a half hour drive from Quito) to go horseback riding. The landscape is quite undulating... our horses got up and down some rather impressive hills. We were told Cayambe is best known for bizchocos (a kind of flaky biscuit) and the roses that are grown there (apparently $2 or less for a dozen). Mitad del Mundo is definitely worth a trip; besides the monument to the equator there are a bunch of museums and it isn't a far ride to the rather quirky Intiñan Solar Museum.
We've also had ample opportunities to sample the local cuisine - as a vegetarian, I've been pleasantly surprised that finding food hasn't been too difficult. The fruit here is unsurprisingly amazing and very cheap. In addition to the more standard pineapples, papayas and mangoes, there are the more unusual cherimoyas (custard apples), granadillas (passion fruits), pitahayas (dragon fruits), guanábanas (soursop), mameys (no idea if there's an english word for it) and of course the infamous tree tomato (it's an acquired taste). If you're a fan of coffee or chocolate (and who isn't) this is certainly a good place to be - I've yet to have a bad cup of coffee here. The local coffee chain called Sweet & Coffee is particularly good and sells a variety of desserts. There seem to be two main chocolate brands here - Republica del Caco and Pacari. Both are good, but Pacari is more reasonably priced. They offer some unusual flavors I haven't seen anywhere else, including rose petals, lemongrass and goldenberry. Lunch in Ecuador is an involved affair and always starts with a soup course. The ceviche here is good and they even make a veggie version with palm hearts.
Overall it's been great getting better acquainted with my host country, that said, I'm more than ready to get data collection started.