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We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label vacation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vacation. Show all posts

September 20, 2010

Day 2.2: I'm Riiiiiiiding In The Rain

Each day we ride, Gaspar and Tostado lead the way.  Then myself, mum, and Anna fall in line behind.  Bringing up the rear is Christian, a chagra (Andean cowboy), riding a bright dun Criollo/Columbian Paso cross who gaits along smoothly.  This afternoon, we are only doing a short loop of a couple of hours so everyone can get to know their horses.  After lining up five horses to cross the PanAm Highway (holy logging trucks, batman!), I follow Tostado as we climb up cobblestone streets into a village, heading for the slopes of Imbabura.

We picnic in a eucalypt grove around 3,000 meters high after picking our way through the fields and huts of the village. The horses catch a nap as we toss our chicken bones to the hungry dogs who miraculously turn up at the unpacking of saddle bags.

Here, Gaspar and Christian are readying a scrumptious lunch while we have just discovered the tasty treat that is salty banana chips. In the US, our banana chips are tough and sweet; these are much more resemblant (is that a word?) of potato chips!  After lunch though, a sudden freezing cold rain blows in and we discover a new miracle in the saddlebags -- giant ponchos!  Little Capuli would rather turn his tail to the wind and wait out the storm, but we must get down off the mountain before the mud becomes too slick for the horses.  Luckily, it's a short journey back to Hacienda Pinsaqui and warm drinks!

After a hot shower, I wander out behind the main building to explore the acres of garden paths.  It comes with its own baby llamas!!!

Just say awwwww! The gardens themselves were lovely, full of unique blooms. Ecuador, with its equatorial climate, is big business for commercial flower companies. Huge greenhouses are everywhere because apparently, flowers will bloom all year 'round here, which then can be shipped all over the world. Here's a funky datura, who has a hallucinogenic aroma (I tested it, but I was apparently immune. Maybe I should have stood there longer.).

There were lots of other lovely things to look at in the fading light.

As the clouds crept up the volcano Cotacachi, the light disappeared and it was time to make my way to the evening reception. There was a bar hidden in a cellar, bedecked with horse show ribbons (the hacienda's owner was a successful breeder of Arabians and jumping horses). We chased the chill away with a welcome drink made of sugar cane and cinnamon steeped for a day, then topped off with sugar cane liquor. That was followed by a shot of anise liquor that made my entire body tingle all the way to my fingertips. So it must be good.

Then, a group of musicians entertained us with the traditional music of the Andean highlands. It had a unique, wild, and joyful flavour to it, even though I didn't understand what the songs were about (damn my pathetic Spanish). Note the young boy who is deeply intent on shaking that rhythm egg JUST RIGHT.

By this point, I was liquor-warm and dog-tired. After a beautiful pork fritata, I managed to slither under my (400) blankets (old houses are freezing!) with my new bestest friend: Mr. Hot Water Bottle who awaited me faithfully with his foot-warming goodness. Tomorrow: we would cross Imbabura to the Zuleta valley!

September 19, 2010

Day 2.1: Hacienda Pinsaqui. And Horses!

Otavalo market was a lesson in variety.  I saw one wizened woman crouched in a doorway, proferring a live guinea pig (they are a staple meat there, called cuy) by the neck.  The unfortunate brown creature hung from her fist with dull eyes, resigned to its fate.  Around a corner was this poster (left).  Yes, it is an announcement for an international conference on the commercial production of guinea pigs.  I was most amused by the long list of "Dr.'s" listed as speakers -- I would love to say I had a doctorate in guinea pig farming.  Alas, I never did get to see a guinea pig ranch -- perhaps their cutting horses are tabby cats!

The landscape had changed dramatically since leaving Quito. In the environs of the city, concrete houses were crammed into every available space. Now, the landscape had begun to open around Otavalo, nestled next to a lake and the volcanic presence of Imbabura.


Looking toward Imbabura and the town of Otavalo:

Up to now, human development has oft resembled a war zone, no patch of land untouched by hard-scrabble subsistence living. Half-finished, crude buildings of cinderblocks with untrimmed rebar protruding six feet into the air haunt the landscape. Cattle are tethered by their horns to metal stakes hammered into the ground to forage on stubble and ribby dogs slink around corners.

So it's a blow to pull off the PanAmerican Highway into green lawns, hydrangeas, and an exquisitely maintained 18th century hacienda (ranch). It sprawls long and low, seemingly going on forever. I am spun back and forth between guilt and wonder. Heavy oak doors are painted a deep, rich blue and our room key looks like it unlocks someone's dungeon cell.

And it's finally time to meet the horses! I am about to burst from excitement as we change and then hustle down the path to the designated paddock. They are already awaiting us and watch curiously as we are briefed on the rules.

I am introduced to Capuli, a dark bay youngster (only 5 years old) with a gentle face and small fuzzy ears. He is mostly Criollo, which is the native breed of tough little horses who work at South America's extremes, and he has a little Spanish horse thrown in somewhere. He is also best friends with Tostado, who our guide Gaspar will be riding, which means that I must bend to the will of the horses and stay up front.  It's hard to take a picture of a horse when you are standing uphill, so here's the little guy with some crazy camera distortion!

Mum was matched up with a sturdy little roan named Antares (yes, after my favourite star!).  He was an excellent horse, always taking care of his person with patient experience.  Doesn't she look excited (apparently dorky grins of glee do not run in the family)!?

And Anna, the lovely Finnish girl who made up the third member of our group, started out with Gitano, who completed the colour spectrum with his white coat (although we later learned he loved to turn himself brown with cowpies and mud).  And yes, she thwarted the Helmet Nazi and wore a hat!!  The Finns are brave and hardy souls...  Doesn't Gitano look excited too!?

At last, it was time to RIDE!!!

September 17, 2010

Day 2: The Faces of Otavalo

The Otavalo market is the largest in South America and it's where we ended up after about two hours of driving north of Quito on Saturday. A large part of the market is just the same mass produced stuff repeated about 400 times for silly tourists, but along the outer edge you see the food stalls that the locals frequent. Most interesting to me was watching people, as per usual.

In Ecuador, you generally have two ethnicities: (1) the indigenous people and (2) mestizos, who are of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent. Most indigenous folks maintain the traditional dress of their culture. I will let their faces speak for themselves.

These women are tiny -- they came up to about my hip bone.  Some older women were begging for coins with plastic bowls.  Many people in Ecuador are subsistence farmers, scratching a living out of the land as best they can.  As in many places where poverty abounds, women do much of the hard labour here, carrying massive bundles in a piece of cloth tied around their torsos.

Tables were covered in every kind of fruit and vegetable you could imagine.  And many I couldn't.  Here, our guide, Gaspar, haggles for a bag of large beans.

Chicken anyone?  Another interesting phenomenon was the sale of pork -- pigs were roasted whole and then presented in varying poses, often with celery or carrots stuck in their ears and mouths.  Sometimes, they even shared a macabre smile.

September 13, 2010

Day 1: Arrival!

*cue dramatic opening music*

We left Miami about half past four on Friday the 3rd and hopped across the gulf and the isthmus of Panama to curl south into Quito.

Long river deltas reach silt fingers into the Gulf beyond Miami and clouds hover over salty marsh systems. Before we got to Panama, though, the sun set in a blaze of fire over the wing and I didn't get to spy on that skinny little country from above.

Quito welcomed us around 7:30 pm (Ecuador is on Central US time); a long string of lights nestled between two strings of mountains. First impressions: I am a pale giant. And the first thing I see as I step of the plane is a person wearing a pair of pale blue crocs. It appears tastelessness and a penchant for ugly shoes is a global phenomenon.

Gloria meets us after we pass through customs and fills us in on life in Quito, the capital city which is her home. Traffic is typical of Latin America; signs are merely for decorative purposes and horns are used more often than brake pedals. "Passing lane" means any lane into which your vehicle will fit, whether or not you can actually see oncoming trucks. There are trams and buses at $0.25 a fare, but not enough to carry the bulging population with no room to expand within the narrow valley.

Gloria tells us that there are no jobs here in Ecuador and many have chosen to go to Spain to work. Children stayed behind, living with relatives or even on their own as parents struggled to make a living an ocean away. However, the European markets have fallen as well, especially in construction, and now there is no work there either. The government of Ecuador has offered incentives for workers to return home, allowing them to bring any goods they have acquired, including vehicles, and many are cashing in on this offer.

Our van finally (and somehow safely!) arrives at Cafe Cultura, our hotel nestled in a garden in Old Town, a section of Quito that dates back to the 16th century. As the gates are unlocked and we walk in, I stagger back with mouth open. I am sure I heard the porter giggle as I breathe, "Holy crap," unable to contain myself.  Everything is beautiful.  It is all frescoes and creaking wood floors and balconies and a Taj Majal room with gauzy curtains and a claw-foot tub and candlelight.  We eat dinner in a candlelit hush, feeling like we are in a church, afraid to breathe too loudly and break the spell.

The white doors lead to the library, where lilies set in front of a fireplace. The candlelit angel fresco flew above the fireplace in the dining room.

Our room:

Tomorrow:  we transfer to Otavalo and the adventure truly begins!!

September 12, 2010

The Big Tease

I am home!  I have not seen Solo yet, sigh.  But reports note that he is fine, if a bit sad.  I have downloaded the pictures from the past nine days.  Now to work on sorting & editing & recounting!  To keep you salivating until then....  (I shouldn't post my favourite picture first, but I love it too much not to)

This is me & Sam in Cotopaxi National Park, south of Quito.  Cotopaxi is the jaw-dropping volcano you see behind us.  Yes, it is real, & yes, it is active.  We were not far from the lower slopes, my little camera just sucked at metering in contrast situations. 

You can climb the volcano if you want.  Except you have to start at midnight & summit by sunrise so you are off the ice by 10 am.  Because then the ice bridges start to get brittle in the sun & you die.

But other than that...oh, & the fact that the summit is at 5,897 m (19,347 ft) & I couldn't even walk uphill for ten steps at 4000 m after a week of's easy as pie!

September 11, 2010

Time´s Up Already ¨´imagine question mark here because I can´t find one on this keyboard´´

We are back in Quito.  I am itching to run down the street & go find the horses again.  The riding was beyond incredible.  There are many pictures tucked into my camera & we will also get a DVD of photos from the outfitter that she & a professional photographer took while we rode.  So, I will warn you now -- many posts of stories &pictures are to come as I drag entertain you with the trip. 

But none of the pictures will be able to truly capture the magnitude & scale of the neverending rows of hazy volcanos & wide high plains watched by hawks and condors.  I think I pulled a muscle in my neck trying to look at everything at once. 

And the horses....amazing.  Name a horse you know that can trek all day & canter along ridges at 4,200 meters above sea level (about 13,800 feet).  Whenever I tried to walk up a hill, I was about to collapse after five steps, even after a week of acclimatization.

So, back to Miami in the morning, then home to NC tomorrow.  I am sad to go, but twitching to see Solo.  Who will feel like a giant after these tough South American ponies.  Once I am back, I can begin the laborious process of sorting 600 pictures & uploading!  Till then, go hug a horse & enjoy the ride!

September 5, 2010

I Am In A Parallel Universe

And in said universe, I am typing on a Spanish keyboard, so forgive me in advance for strange characters & typos, should they appear.

At present, I am sitting in an exquisite 300 year old Spanish colonial hacienda that sprawls in acres of long, low stucco through breathtaking gardens of bouganvillea, datura, & spanish moss.  Deep blue doors are locked with keys that look as if they would unlock someone´s dungeon.  Century-old art & furniture that smells of history surprise us around every corner.  I am sure the porters go off to giggle every time I walk into our bedroom & go Holy crap!

This does NOT bear any resemblance to my actual life, so I have obviously been sucked into someone else´s.

I can´t possibly encapsulate even the last two days here, so I will stick with summary:

Everywhere we go, we are ringed with green volcanos sheathed in clouds at their summits.  The indigenous people trudge at the roadsides with the long braids & swaying skirts catching the air as they carry huge bundles or haul reluctant pigs to market.

And the horses (because that´s what we all really care about, right?) -- mine is a little dark bay Criollo with some Spanish blood thown in and with his little fuzzy ears, he reminds me very much of riding lifeshighway´s horse, Pete.  I am still trying to reliably remember the little booger´s name, but I think it is Capuli (you put emphasis on every syllable of names in Ecuador). 

He is only five, so he is still learning the ropes, but he has a good mind & a sweet face that I can´t resist petting.  He is best friends with our guide´s horse, Tostado, who is a striking bay roan Appaloosa/Criollo/Columbian horse, & as a result, I am constantly reminding Capuli that he is not to stick his nose right under Tostado´s tail.

We are off today for about a six hour ride traversing the side of a volcano (Imbabura) to reach our next hacienda.  If it is as mind-blowingly incredible as this one, I may simply pass out from sheer sensory overload.

If there is more free (although shudderingly slow) internet, perhaps I will be able to share more later in the week!  For now, I must go fill many water bottles & stock snacks into my packs so I can keep the blood sugar up all day!

September 1, 2010

Run Away, Run Away!

It's T-36 hours-ish until Ecuador Adventure 2010 begins!  Which means Flying Solo will be, uh, not so flying for a whole week.

I could be like a real blogger & write several posts & then set them on timers so it looks like I'm really blogging. But let's face it, ain't gonna happen.

I'm checking & re-checking the passport, looking up the weather for Otavalo (where the ride starts) for the 37th time -- like Weather Underground will accurately be able to predict equatorial weather at 10,000 feet above sea level. *snort*

I'll have two enormous memory cards in the camera, so if the gods are kind, I hope to have many exciting things to show you when I get back.  I left Solo in good hands, although I shall miss him TERRIBLY & I will be wishing every step that I was riding him instead.  The bad part about owning your own horse is that other horses then never quite measure up....

Everyone stay out of trouble until mid-September, at which point I expect you will all have new & exciting horse tales to share that I missed out on! Till then, get out there, hug a pony, & enjoy the music of hoofbeats on dirt; there is surely no better note in the symphony of days.

August 31, 2010

A Peaceful Mountain Weekend. Now With Less Peace.

We had a lovely evening Friday.  Camp was set up along the edge of National Forest, burgers were grilled, horses settled in their pens, and beer cans duly emptied.  I fell asleep watching fireflies compete with constellations for the right to bejewel the trees. Saturday morning dawned clear and sunrise brought birdsong with a chance of omelets (yum!). Lifeshighway and I studied maps, checked our stored waypoints in the GPS (we may or may not have a history of misdirection) and stuffed our saddlebags with beet pulp, apples, and beef jerky in preparation for a day of mountain exploration. Pete and Solo fueled their tanks with clover. Lifeshighway has generously shared her endurance expertise (and supplies!) with us; we have learned the value of bringing along pickmeups for the horses. Just like people, they burn up their calories and run out of steam, but a bag of beet pulp at lunchtime gives you a whole new horse to continue your day with!


The ride itself was fantastic; five hours of streams and ridges, valleys and rock outcrops winding through the Uwharrie Mountains. Both our boys picked their way calmly through the rock-strewn trails with patience and confidence no matter how steep the challenge.

That's when it happened: I made the deadly error of speaking (it happens to the best of us). "Wow, we actually had a riding trip with no disasters such as getting lost or hurt!"

Then we got back. My first discovery was that my dressage saddle had created two huge pressure welts behind Solo's withers (horror!! shock!! anger!!). Apparently it is time to move on to saddle fitter number four. Sigh. A much more pleasant discovery was that his SI region, which was historically a trouble area, was NOT sore at all (cheers! glee! excitement!).

Second discovery, we got to spend all Sat night in the emergency room with someone who shall not be named (no horse riders or horses got hurt, everyone is completely fine now). By the time we got everyone back to the campsite, it was 2 AM and all were bleary-eyed. So instead of riding on Sunday (which I wasn't going to do now anyway due to aforementioned saddle issues), we headed home.

Aside from our foray into emergency medicine, I can happily say mission accomplished -- we completed a nice long ride I was hoping for in prep for next weeks tackling of Ecuador and I ended up with very little soreness. Solo did very well considering the humidity; I made sure to give him plenty of breathers and a good spongebath in a cold stream midway. And of course, there is nothing better for the mind and heart than this: