Published: February 20th 2011February 20th 2011
Hold on true belivers, this may be a ramble. [note added later - i swear future entries will not be bible length like this one] I've been in Cuenca for just over 26 hours but let's start from the beginning. On Thursday the 17th my father drove me to the airport. Here's how the day went down.
Flight #1: Hartford to LaGuardia. A quick flight on a puddle jumper had me cranking the headphones to try and avoid the two women behind me, mind you educated women, talking about neuropsychology job opportunities. One of them was clearly trying to set the Guiness record for per minute usage of the word "like." My brain hurt. In the NYC airport, awaiting the next flight, I thought about how New York has way too many attractive people, even the airport. So much so, they appear completely dismissive about it. I read my iPad (The Book of Basketball - needed something relatively non-brain taxing for long day).
Flight #2: NYC to Charlotte. Only thought worth telling (maybe): learning to love Pink Floyd later in life is MUCH different than learning it early. For many reasons I won't go into. Addendum: For the last 18 months I've been trying to classify 'good to go to sleep to' music for myself. It's been a fairly small category, soft but not too soft, something that demands a little attention from the active brain, but no so much it prevents sleep. Air, Mazzy Star, Bohren and Der Club of Gore, Spiritualized, Martha Argeritch's Rachmoninov renditions. But I need to expand at this point. Periodic insomnia creates these tasks. Suggestions rewarded with silent praise. Also, Charlotte airport has bathroom attendants. I struggled with tipping for the guy just telling me the particular sink I chose doesn't work...like I wouldn't discover that quickly. I tipped anyway. Bathroom attendants in the South feel strange. But at least the airport didn't have the new seating design many airports have now with every seat in a cluster of four, none next to or facining each other. I like the rows. I'm getting old.
Flight #3: Charlotte to Miami. More Pink Floyd. I daydream about Syd Barrett going insane from drugs, going fat and bald and living with his mother in-between bouts of sleep. An extremely thin black female model is across from me, wearing a head scarf and those super-large 70s sunglasses. I realize I've never seen a positive potrayal of someone in that outfit. I also reflect on not having a phone currently (left it at home) and how media-tether is truly addictive. i can't check email. I can't web browse. It's strange, it makes me physically jittery and I feel really good about it. I indulge daydreams of childhood when daydreaming was bountiful, observation of the world razor-sharp, and self-reflection unavoidable. The lack of media-tether helps this nostalgic deception. I can't imagine what it is to be a kid these days.
Flight #4: Miami to Guayaquil, Ecuador. I sit next to a short, angry looking Ecuadorian. He ignores my hola. Later, when we're filling out forms, I notice he doesn't have a pen and hand him mine. Then I use my iPod to shine a light on the form since he's having trouble readiing. This earns me a gracias and later on, when another woman needs me to move away from the luggage compartment, a joke from my seat mate about how I'm too tall (Yes! Ecuadorians are fairly short. I've never been tall before. Except in Boston). By the way, LAN airlines has better service than any American airline I've been on. Easy bilingual use, good meals, helpful stewards, and free cerveza or vino. When we land, the first thing I see from the window is a set of golden arches. This is phenomenally depressing.
But I'm here! Actually I had pegged the first day as the likely shitty day of the trip. Nervous about over-reported kidnap cabs in guayaquil, about lost luggage (especially after my last trip to Mexico resulted in stolen items from my luggage - really guys, my shaving kit and a flask?), about the hostel that was supposedly sending a cab for me (while never confirming it despite inquiries), probably about the tough looking Ecuadorian men littered everywhere, about being alone, without a phone, without any real understanding of the language. But I knew everything was likely going to be fine and my Woody Allen brain was just flexing.
Customs? No problemo. Luggage? Opps. My luggage never made the flight. Fucking christ. Not a good sign. Helios the LAN airline lost luggage guy seemed friendly enough and promised they'd locate it and send it to Cuenca. Ah well. Keep moving. It's just clothing (for 4 months), toiletries, batteries, medicine, travel aids, sunblock, hats, shoes. Nothing important. But hey, the taxi driver showed. Found him amongst a throng of families excitedly peering over the barrier for their loved ones. It was pretty sweet actually. We get in the cab, I take one paranoid precaution, stuffing bank card and some money into my sock *just in case.* Downtown Guayaquil is not particularly attractive at night. Some blocks look like City of God. Whatever. It's a stop over. We get to the hostel and I get checked into my closet, I mean room, with the brick bed and the missing shower curtain. But at least you could hear the cars honking. You get what you pay for. But it was fine. No problems really. Except my camera had dead batteries. Replacements? In the missing luggage.
Wake up on day 2. Air conditioner actually kept the room cold. Shower is frigid. I realize I will be spending 3 days, 5 flights and 55 hours in the same clothes. Ug. Keep moving. Leave the hostel and decide Guayaquil even in the day isn't worth walking around too much. One hill on the way to the airport reminds me of San Francisco and I miss being there. GYE is pretty nice though...there are koi fish in an outdoor pond that reminds me of a spot near the Tokyo Dome in...Tokyo. Food options turn out to be a KFC and China Wok combo. Too much America in this trip already. LG has a giant video display. All the stores use American white models in their ads. America will win the cultural war one Starbucks at a time. I half expect to descend into the Amazon jungle (or Oriente as it's known here) and find indiginous tribes sipping a sponsored latte. Is there no getting away from America anymore? China Wok has shockingly great service, like LAN airlines. I realize that America uses skeletal staffs nowadays, just enough to get by. Here, for 20 seats in a fast food place, they have 3 hostesses getting you to a seat, handing you a menu and waiting to charge you (like a nice restaurant). A couple busboys, more workers behind the counter. In America, this would be 3 people and they'd likely be surly. Service is under-appreciated. Even with my sucky Spanish and over use of "gracias" they gave me great service.
While waiting for my flight, I read two Esquire articles that move me...one a fairly familiar tale of a black man in the 70s falsely accused of child rape who spent about 30 years in prison before DNA evidence got him off. The striking parts are the way he used his time in prison - studying painting, organizing bands and a million other activities (much more impressive than I can describe right now) and how he got to view the world when he got out. He was shocked by the racial mixing at work (with no unease), at the changes in technology, etc. In a weird way, it made me jealous that as an adult he gets to experience the world with unfamiliar eyes, the quality of fresh observation that is so palpable. Not that you'd ever trade places with him.. The second article was about an Iraqi terrorist hunter, trained by America, responsible for bringing in more big name terrorists than you can count. His story is so cinematic it's almost unbelievable. A driven man who saved his future wife when she was attached at her home by driving there with an AK-47, shooting four of the attackers, getting wounded in the leg, shooting the last attacker while wounded and then stumbling to and helping the future wife out of the closet so she would know it's his voice. My life is exactly nothing compared to this guy. I teared up thinking about it because I'm a sap. Read the article if you have the chance.
I wasn't kidding about the ramble. Next, I got hit on by a prostitute at the airport. I told you service was good in this country. About 40, reasonably attactive if not pretty, she spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish. But she handed me a torn out weight training or diet ad with her number on the back and told me to call her. We shook hands and said goodbye. Prostitution is legal here. Just saying. I'm sure her pimp would rob me five minutes into our date. Not that that's the reason I'm not calling her if I ever get back to Guayaquil. I don't fancy bad blonde dye jobs.
Side note: the iPad was the best purchase ever for traveling. Compact, loaded book reader capabilities, games, wifi, etc, etc. Just perfect. Except for the lack of USB port, which means there's no photos for this blog since I'd need to find an internet cafe to upload photos and I didn't have the chance today. Photos in the future.
Side note 2: It just hit me. I keep thinking Ecuadorians look hard, chiseled, tough, worn and tested, especially the men, but "stone" isn't right. They're hardened clay. Just baked in the sun. Perfect. [side note addendum: i mean the older men. The younger ones wear hip designer clothes like the worst sections of LA or Jersey and have the same agro-male douche bag look on their face - why do douche bags look the same in every culture?]
Side note 3: Tons of reading about Ecuador found testimonials about what friendly people they are. Bullshit. They're completely normal like every other country. Some people are friendly, helpful and just perfectly pleasant, even with the language barrier. Others roll their eyes with the "not another foreigner" face. I say this fully understanding I'm a privileged white male american who has no concept of being an other in a society.
By the way, it's hot here south of the equator and I'm sweating through my only clothes whenever I head outside for a change of scenery. Sorry future flight mates!
Unfamiliarity is such a nice feeling. It stretches the brain a bit to figure out basic things again. It's a living crossword.
No shoes need be taken off during airport security. Sanity.
Cuenca is a quick 30 minutes flight. No need to even mention electronics being available, we're done that fast.
Got the cabs figured now. Ask the price first ($3, which later when i go back to the airport is $2, and then $1.50 on the way back. Frequent driver discount?), realize almost no cabs have seat belt holders and just get there. Cuenca immediately reminds me of a larger, slightly more modern San Miguel, Mexico. Wider streets, less cobblestone, some of the same charm, older stucco buildings with a mix of christian antique and modern electronics (mostly phones) stores. There's more here than I had guessed...more people, more cars, more stores. Then again, my hostel (Barranco, which means "cliff" because the back overhangs a lovely river that runs through the city) is seemingly on a main drag. It's friday night, and young people are strutting with their boys and their girlfriends and their douchy shirts. Tons of bars and restaurants. The hostel is decent, great view of the river from the back porch, more room than the Guayaquil hostel, better bed, nice breakfast area below my interior window. Only taking cash the guy at the desk lets me slide on the payment for the night when I'm short - $175 for a week here. Not bad. Surprisingly it's chilly. In and outside. But when you only have one outfit and two bags, containing mostly books and writing pads, what do you do? Screw it. You head out to explore and forage. First thing I get stopped by two teenage girls and asked if I can help with their homework assignment. This consists of me answering 10 multiple choice questions about the first Twilight film (seriously, and yes I saw it on an airplane) while they film me with a flip phone. Random. Stop at the nearby Monday Blue, a cheesy Mexican joint littered with americana detritus - license plates, photos of white guys in front of aquariums, beer cans and cigarette packs nailed to the walls. I manage to order a burrito (i know, but i was hungry and they weren't a great place) and a cerveza. Neat ordering system at the table. One button to order, another for the check. Efficient. Brahma beer isn't great, but right now it's fine. Decent after bite. I order a mixed drink afterwards and curse myself for forgetting to ask for no ice (don't drink the water). I chance a sip, warding off dysentery, and discover the tequila, whiskey, frujillo and limon combo is way too sweet for me. I skip it and head out, only walking a few blocks before deciding I'm done for the night. Traveling solo at 35 is much different than doing it in your 20s. But this blog is too long now so I won't go into it. Oh, and the restaurant was playing the Ghostbusters song. I was sick of Americana. (Ok, they played "Another Brick in the Wall II" and that was alright.)
I just realized I have four more pages of notes to cover Saturday and no one is reading this far into the ramble anyway, so I'll save that for the next entry, which will have more description, more punch and less prostitutes. But it will have the best lunch deal I've ever had. And descriptions of Cuenca in the day I suppose. If you stuck with this, you're as exhausted as I am. Night all.