That Breath of Fresh Air they Call Colombia

So far, Colombia is the best place I have ever visited. Perhaps because at the time it was my first taste of true freedom and ultimate inner growth. It was November and I was still at my volunteering job, but I was ready to leave. Not only there, but I was ready to leave Ecuador, and my past behind. I had just gotten over getting Giarida, which I might add, is the sickest I have ever felt in my life. I woke up one day and packed my things up in my backpack and left. It was about a 2 mile walk to town, and I had no idea where I was going. I decided the first bus that came by at the bus stop, was meant to be my next location. As I was walking, a camineta, or a truck, stopped and gave me a free ride to town. Right when I was dropped off a bus had just pulled up. It was a bus to a nearby town, which then brought me to the town of Banos, Ecuador. In my mind, that was a sign that was where I was supposed to be going, and that was the path I needed to follow. 

There, I met a Quebec girl, Cynthia, who instantly became my friend and travel companion. She taught me that it was okay to be free, and it was okay to let go of everything that was holding me down. That it was time to focus on myself and do what I wanted to do. That first taste of freedom after being held down so long and manipulated in my past relationship was the most myself I had ever felt. I had a sense of euphoria and happiness that completely overwhelmed me. This was traveling. This was what my experience should have been from the beginning. Each day my state of mind became healthier and better than the day before. I woke up everyday ready to explore, ready to adventure. I decided then I was never going back to the person I was before. 
For the first time in a long time, I felt powerful, and I felt truly happy with myself and with who I was. This was a time of great transformation in my life. It was such a breath of fresh air after being suffocated for so long.

Not only was my state of mind at an all time high, but there really was something truly special about Colombia. In the past, it had been a full of drug lords and a very unsafe atmosphere. When my family heard I was going to Colombia they about had an annuirsm because of all the horror stories they heard about it. At first, I was nervous as well, because of all the negativity associated with that once crime ridden country. However, each travler I met reassured me that it was the most beautiful, lively, friendly country they had ever visited. And it was. The people there were proud of their country, and wanted to share it with all those who visited, so they could see it how they did. Completely beautiful and surreal.

Helpless in a Crumbling World

When you hear about the many horrors of the world, do you ever feel completely helpless? It’s as if everything is falling apart around you, but in your life, you are just fine. I have an amazing life, a wonderful family, and incredible husband. Is it wrong that I feel guilty for having all these novelties in life? 

 There are people around the world being sold into slavery still to this day. It is 2016 and still this world is sick. I understand that it has never been at peace while humans have existed. I realize that power hungry people have always been there in some way, wanting control over small factions or entire populations. Men, women, and children around the world are experiencing genocide, starvation, and dehumanization as they are raped, tortured, or killed. So now that we are becoming more aware of these tragedies and sickening facts, what can we do? What can I do? Go to war? Fight fire with fire? It does not help. So if that doesn’t work, what will? Fight hatred with love? But how? I wish I had all the answers. I wish that I could wake up one day and just know what needed to be done and how to save this world from itself.

Traveling has absolutely turned me into a more democratic, humanistic person. How could I not be? How could I care more about one population of people that live in the United States versus everyone else? Are we not all human? 

“We need to take care of our people first before we take care of others,” people will say. People like this can’t have ever known or loved people outside of their small world they call home. How could you possibly care about one life over the life of another? 

 The US has problems. I know. We have many problems with equality and race that need to be addressed, and need to be changed. However so does the entire world. It kills me when I feel sad or ungrateful because good lord what in the hell do I have to be upset about? I live my life like a queen. I have everything and more I need in life and still I want more. How utterly selfish of me to even think that way when women of my age have virtually nothing to their names. No money, no choices, no freedom. I live such a full and happy life. I go where I want, I do what I want, I love who I want. It is so unfair to me that not everyone can live this way. What can I do? What can we do, as a whole, to better the lives of those who live on the same planet as us? How can we all become one and begin to truly see life through each others eyes and understand and empathize with what we go through on a day to day basis? I have hope that one day the world will heal. That one day the pain will end and with that suffering. Perhaps a false hope. A far off, idealistic thought that will not come to pass. Yet, still I hope.

Yes, I am American, but more so, I am human, and I don’t want to see this world fall apart. I want to see us come together.

Mindo, Ecuador

Mindo, Ecuador
The great thing about Ecuador is that for such a small country, it seems to have every climate and landscape all in one. It has your mountains, beaches, and the Amazon. Mindo was a small up and coming tourist town that was one of my favorite places within Ecuador because the surrounding was so lush and green.
For some reason, it was difficult for my friend Cynthia and I to get a bus to Mindo. We wandered around the bus station for about an hour before we found one that took us near Mindo. The bus stopped about 4 miles from the town. I was ready to walk the rest of the way but my travel buddy said I was insane especially with out huge backpacks. So my budgeting self reluctantly split a cab down to the town. When we finally arrived in the town, the cab dropped us off at a backpackers hostel we had read about online. We had no reservations (as I never once had reservations for anything) but the hostel was completely full. We walked around the town for a while until we finally found the coolest little cabins that we stayed in for about $10 per person per night.

My new friend Cynthia and I found our bonding… Pizza. We ate so much pizza and drank so much beer. One of the greatest things I loved about traveling was how easily you meet people that are total strangers and become lifelong friends overnight. Everyone is looking for friends because most travelers are traveling alone. We all have something in common and love to find ourselves travel buddies.

Mindo has a ton of activities to choose from but we chose to do “tubing.” It was similar to rafting only we had no control and sat on big black tubes with our guides helping them along and keeping us safe. Amazingly fun and thrilling activity, no doubt, but damn was it cold! It was the beginning of December but in general Mindo is a pretty cool place.

Montanita, Ecuador

The first time I mentioned Montañita to one of my local friends he gave a suggestive smirk and said, ahh, Montañita. Little did I know his reaction was perfectly justified as this small town was where any tourist who wants to party would head to. Montañita is unlike any city in Ecuador, in fact it looks nothing like Ecuador. It is a coastal, tiki style paradise. Talk about your mini Hawaiian beach town on the coast of Ecuador.
Arriving there, I absolutely loved it. The first time I visited this town was with my grandparents, who had their vacation in Ecuador and joined up with me to travel together for a couple of weeks. I had just spent the past month or so in a cold, windy place. A sunny, perfectly humid beach town was exactly what my body needed. Not to mention cocktail alley, (yes it’s a thing) which mixed quite perfectly relaxing on the beach. Personally, I would say this place is not exactly kid friendly at night as it’s pretty much just beach, booze, and the apparent leniency on marijuana. The street food was the best. Cheap and delicious burgers, fries, burritos, and more.

The night life lived up to its reputation, even during the week days at famous clubs like the Lost Beach and Alcatraz as well as less known ones like Hola Ola. Every club or bar is centrally located and easily found, just follow the noise!

Montañita is not only about the nightlife, but also offers a variety of activities during the day, (assuming you can move from the the sandy beach and hot sun as I could not.) They offer surf lessons as well as surfboard rentals to go shred the waves. For the easier fun, they offer boogie board rentals as well. All you have to do is walk a few steps and boom, there is a company or booth that offers something fun to do.

Baños, Ecuador

Baños is a touristy, adventure hot spot sort of town that sits right near the foot of the Tungurahua volcano. Baños. A funny name for a town, I first thought, as the word meant “bathrooms” in English. In reality, it was a word for “Baths” as the town had a hot springs right in the town, as well as a few others surrounding. The activities you can do here are endless it seems. You do one crazy, adventure filled activity and you can always seem to find something else to do or explore in this interesting little town.

1. PARAGLIDING

One of the first activities I did was paragliding. It was my boyfriends 20th birthday, so naturally, I wanted to do something big. We did it through a company recommended to us called Natural Magic, who were professional, mostly English speaking guides. The price per person was $60, which seemed relatively fair considering how much it would probably be back in the States. We paid, had training that included putting us in a simulated harness for about 5 seconds with them saying,
“Okay, 2 steps forward, 2 steps back, RUN!” And that was about the extent of our training for our flight in the air. Most people were pretty nervous about the lack of knowledge about what we were really supposed to be doing, but it didn’t bother me, they probably knew what they were doing well enough, I assumed.
We were then off. We all crammed into a van and drove for about half an hour to our destination. We had to wait another half an hour or so for the needed “perfect conditions” for flight. When it finally came time, I understood why such little instruction was needed, it was so simple, and smooth, so I thought. The instructors assume that common sense would kick in with most of us, however that’s not the case with all humans. A couple of the people forgot the simple steps, and barely got off the ground, making the guide do all the work, just in time to get off the ground safely. No injuries at all, but some close calls with takeoffs and landings.

When I finally got into the air, the view was absolutely spectacular. I could see an entire city below me, as well as Tungurahua right in front of me. I was floating, and gliding through the air, as the bird I felt I was. Perhaps that feeling was more dizziness due to the lack of oxygen from being so high up, but no matter. I’ll say it was from the utter awe I felt from the stunning view I had.

2. CASA DEL ARBOL

“The tree house” or better known to most bucket list adventure goers, as the Swing at the end of the Earth. This was one of the big appeals of Baños, for sure, as I had seen pictures on travel blogs and sites, as well as, yes, bucket list sites. This was something that absolutely I had to do. I did it twice, in fact. There are a variety of ways to get to the swing, which is very near the volcano, so quite the upward drive, or walk if you dare. Most would not recommend that. You can take a “party bus” for $5-$10 per person, which was a little too much “party” for me, or maybe not enough, as all it consisted of were flashing lights and blaring music that made most of us on the bus sick. Another way, if you have a load of people, is to get a taxi to the top. We got a taxi there and back for $15, but we also drive a hard bargain. If you’re really a “penny pincher”, like me, then another good way is to take the local bus which leaves at certain times each day there and back for a few dollars. Just ask the local bus station, or any local on the street should know as well.

Volcano Tungurahua

Some days arriving, it will be packed with people, other times it will be quite relaxed. The first time I experienced this epic, end of the earth swing, there was a huge line for the swing, and about a 8 second swing time, just swinging for the picture. This was not the experience I wanted, so thankfully, the second time, was immensely different.  There was no line, and few people. I could actually look out and feel like I was at the end of the earth with this swing, feeling a sense of freedom as I made myself go as high as I possibly could. This was the experience I wanted. This felt like the “end of the earth” had just given me a new beginning. Fantastic.

3. Bike ride to Pailon del Diablo

One of my favorite activities in Baños, by far, was the about 20 kilometer, beautiful bike ride to Las Cascadas, or the waterfalls. I love any kind of adventurous activity that involves working up a sweat or being in nature, so this was the perfect activity for a beautiful day. I didn’t know exactly what to expect at first on this ride, we got directions in Spanish, and understood the gist of it. I figured it would be some kind of path or back road to the waterfalls, but I realized most of the way would be on the regular road. This scared me a bit at first, based on the questionably dangerous driving of Ecuadorians, compared to what I was used to. However, I felt safer on the roads there than I probably would have at home. The road was marked to watch for bikers, as it is a very popular place for tourists. On the ride, we would ride through one tunnel, but bypass the rest and go on our own path, the kind of off road I was expecting from the beginning. This is where the ride became absolutely stunning. From the small road you could see the vast terrain becoming more and more green and lush. There were even mini waterfalls we rode through, soaking us.

On this ride, there are several main waterfalls which you can stop and gaze upon, or even go down to. One, we stopped and took a cable car down to one commercialized waterfall, which ended up being completely worth the couple dollars we paid. The power of the waterfall was amazing. I was able to literally go right up to it, just inches away. I was completely soaked, physically with water, and soaked spiritually with it’s immensity. There are times in life you cannot explain the shear awe you feel, and this was one of those moments.

The true magnificence, no matter how touristy, was last, but not least, Pailon del Diablo, or Devils Cauldron. This waterfall was even more powerful and grand, but what surrounded it was the real wonder. There were beautiful, perfect looking rock stairs around it. There was gollums cave that you had to practically crawl under to get to more sets of stairs. It was such a rush. Not in the way of adrenaline, but just taking in all that beauty was overwhelming. In a good way. I am absolutely fascinated with beauty and nature.

 

Pailon Del Diablo

 

Along the way on this bike ride, there are a variety of activities offered such as zip lining. When you get to Pailon del Diablo, at the end of the town, on your way to the waterfall, there is the worlds best empanadas ran by the sweetest lady for only 1 dollar. If you don’t find the time here, her daughter owns a shop in Baños as well! This was definitely one of the best experiences my stomach has ever had.

4. Stairs to the Virgin Statue

If you’re looking for a butt burner, there are the painted white stairs that take you partly up the mountainside for a magnificent view of all of Baños. I would complain of the amount of stairs to the top, but considering some locals were running up to the top, I’ll go ahead and stop right there.

We were walking around Baños for a while when we saw some stairs along the mountain, so we decided to adventure to find where they started and where they led. It was simple to find, as there were hiking signs leading to the exact location. Take in some beauty, eat a sandwich, drink a beer, all while observing the beauty of Baños, and the surrounding mountains at the top.

 

There are many more adventures to be had in Baños such as repelling, horse back riding, hiking, the zoo, rafting, ATVs, and more! This little town really is the outdoor adventure hotspot. As well as some great clubbing to be had! Don’t miss the bar strip of the greatest clubs such as the Leprechaun, El Volcan, and the Goodbar! Some salsa dancing and free flaming shots was the perfect night after a day of adventure.

Volunteering Katitawa Escuela in Salasaka, Ecuador

Arriving to Quito

Before embarking on our journey, my boyfriend at the time and I searched for Volunteer programs in Ecuador. We found that you had to pay ridiculous amounts of money for your time. Instead, we searched farther and found what we thought was perfect. A small, volunteer ran school in a small village in Salasaka, Ecuador. We would be doing anything from building on the new volunteer house, working in the gardens, or teaching at the school. I figured I would be working in the gardens, and my boyfriend figured he would be doing construction, as we had no experience in teaching.

When we finally arrived in Quito after long, draining flights, we quickly found WiFi and searched for a place to stay. I definitely recommend finding a hostel prior to arriving in an unknown country. Delirious and exhausted, you will want certainty in where you are staying, as we quickly found out. We found a hostel called the Botiquito near new town. We took a taxi for $20, which may have been overpriced, but I was in no condition to argue or haggle, as I felt ill and utterly exhausted from lack of sleep, and not to mention the massive change in altitude. I went from 227 meters in my hometown to 2,850 meters above sea level. It definitely took me some time to get acclimated to this change.

After some much needed rest, we took a taxi to the bus station, which any hostel can help you arrange if you have trouble with Spanish or want to avoid any chance of being ripped off.

Salasaka

To get to the small village of Salasaka, we bought a ticket to the tourist town of Banos for about 8 dollars for 2 tickets with the Expresso Banos company. When someone came around to check our tickets on the bus, we said “a salasaka” to make sure the bus would stop in the town we needed to go.

3 hours later, the bus stopped near a pedestrian bridge where we then found a camineta, or truck to take us to the Rosa Maria Biblioteca, as instructed. The truck took us to a place, which seemed to be empty and abandoned. Confused, we had the driver take us to the actual Katitawa school.  Nobody was at the school but seeing it for the first time was incredible. We would be at this place everyday for an indefinite amount of time. We could not wait to start this new adventure.


However, since there was no one at the school, we decided to walk around, in hopes we would find where we were supposed to be going. We walked aimlessly for about an hour until 2 girls saw us with our giant backpacks on, noticing that obviously we were out of place.

They asked if we were lost and we told them we were looking for the Rosa Maria Biblioteca. As fate had it, it was right in front of us.

Immediately we were greeted exuberantly by another volunteer. Already, we felt at home. She showed us to the Volunteer house, which was right across from the Library.

We then met the man who ran the Library, Robert. He didn’t look any older than 60, when in fact, he was 80 years old. He had been a volunteer for the school for over 10 years, and knows that is where he will stay. An incredible and caring man with some quite interesting views and ideas in practically all aspects and any topic, He is one definitely worth chatting with.

Volunteering at Katitawa, there is a variety of jobs to be done. 18, and inexperienced, I assumed I would be working in the gardens, however, when we arrived, there was a shortage of volunteers, and each new person would have to teach.

Teach??? I had never taught in a classroom setting to English speaking children, let alone Spanish speaking. My spanish was very basic. I had enough to get around but initially, I did not think I was in any way qualified to teach in the school.

On the first day of school, we were introduced to the 16 kids from Kindergarten to 4th grade. I had worked with children prior to volunteering, but I was scared out of my wits to teach. The first few days were definitely a challenge, as I assumed it would be. However, after a week or so at the school, it became much easier. While I taught the kids English, they taught me Spanish. Each day would be better than the last, as my communication with them improved tenfold.
Comedor” of Katitawa

Teaching, you will either go from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the school, or split it up from 8-12 and 4-8, as there is also English classes at night for people from surrounding communities. This was always a great time as almost all the people coming to night classes genuinely wanted to learn English. Of course, when a person wants to learn and has the drive for it, teaching and learning come so much more naturally. Night classes were always a fun time. Each person had a different goal to reach with their English whether it was for school, work, traveling, or wanting to “pick up the ladies.”

Besides teaching, we worked on several projects such as building a new on the new volunteer house. Robert hopes when the third floor is finished, it can be a place for the community to come together for a variety of activities such as concerts and plays.

Various Activities at Katitawa
Craftsmanship of bows and arrows made by the kids on their own time

Dia de los Muertos – Eating guaguas de pan or Ecuadorian
“bread babies”

Every Monday, the children would perform a march and sing with their 3 important flags of Ecuador, their province of Tungurahua, as well as their own indigenous flag.

After about 6 weeks of volunteering Katitawa Escuela, it was time for me to continue my travels onward. Prior to leaving, they held a goodbye ceremony where each kid gave us a drawing or letter as well as sang us a sweet goodbye song. We were given handmade medallions from the director, thanking us for the time and effort we had put into this organization. It was an extremely difficult goodbye after getting so close with all the wonderful children of Katitawa Escuela. I feel quite lucky for having had the opportunity to volunteer at this cultural of a place. The experience I had with the kids, other volunteers, and my own personal growth, was worth every bit of time and energy

                  

Getting out of “Normal” Life to Travel

Getting out of “Normal” Life to Travel.

For my whole life, I had been pushed towards what I was “supposed” to do with my life. Go to high school, graduate with good grades, go to college, earn my degree, get a job. That is the direction my life was heading, just like all the rest of my friends. This is what is “normal.” This is what is “right.” But why is this normal for the United States? Halfway through my senior year of high school, I decided I would not follow that path. My whole life, all I wanted to do was leave. Not at all because I disliked my town, friends, or family, in fact I loved it all. But in my heart, I knew I did not belong there. That maybe I really didn’t belong anywhere. Instead maybe I am meant to be a wanderer for the rest of my life, belonging everywhere, and nowhere.
I was 18 years old when I left to Ecuador. I had just graduated high school and had saved up about 6,000 dollars to begin my trip. I did not know how long I would be away, or if I would ever return.  The idea of it all it all was too crazy for anyone to really comprehend. It was almost laughable to most people. That did not stop me from fulfilling my dreams. To take the first step to seeing the world. I didn’t care what anyone thought about what I was doing because I knew no one could really understand. When I bought my ticket was when peoples doubts were finally silenced.

However, new doubts arose.
My entire family was scared out of their wits, being the blonde haired, blue eyed girl I am.

“You need to dye your hair!”
“Blend in, don’t stand out in any way!”
“You’re blonde, you’ll get kidnapped!”

Over and Over people would pour all sorts of fears into my ear, trying to convince me I was going into some sort of death trap in South America. Is it really their fault for believing that? Most Americans have been led to believe the outside world is dangerous. But is it really that much more dangerous than our own country? In every country and city, there are places you just don’t go. Because they ARE dangerous. The problem is, once we hear one bad thing about a place, it is deemed unsafe. Because all we know is what we hear. So we fear what we hear, because we fear what we do not know.

Not once on my travels in South America did I feel unsafe. Even when traveling alone.

I ignored my initial fears. I wanted to know it all. I wanted the good and the bad. I wanted truth. And with my first travels, that is exactly the kind of knowledge I have started to gain.

Throughout my travels, I met very few American “travelers.” Instead I met people mid 20’s or 30’s who had 2 weeks vacation from their 9-5 jobs. I met many Europeans, Australians, and Scandinavians, most traveling for extended periods of time. Why is this? It is not seen as unordinary or crazy to travel, like it is where I am from. It is encouraged. Traveling has opened my eyes to the world in so many ways. It has made me realize prior to this adventure, I knew virtually NOTHING about the outside world. I feared the outside world. Going to Ecuador, I thought it would be an unsafe venture, because of what I had been led to believe. The cheapest airline ticket was through Bogota, Colombia, which I bought, but was very leery about, due to all the negative things your hear about Colombia such as drugs, violence, and Pablo Escobar. However, almost all travelers I spoke to thought Colombia was their favorite country in South America.

So what is the truth? The real truth? That is exactly what I hope to find throughout my adventures in life.
Knowledge. Truth.