Category Archives: Travel Stories

Walking to Remember Those Who Perished

I return from The Migrant Trail walk very tired, very sore, but very happy. The experience was quite difficult at times, but so moving that I cannot imagine my life without having done it.  I am pretty sure that I would like to do it again.

I actually ended up only walking 50 miles of the 75 miles. For the first part of the walk, I was on the “enviromental team”, the team in charge of latrines. This meant that for the first half of the Walk, we only walked around half the distance each day. We rode ahead on the support vehicles on every other “leg” of the trip, to prepare the latrines for the “water stops” and the “rest stops”.

The “logistics team” and the “food team” would also send some of their members to ride ahead each leg, to prepare the snacks, erect the “easy-up” shade covers, and spread tarps under them.

*each day had ‘rest stops’ (15 minutes, snacks, gatorade) and ‘water stops’ (five minutes, fill up your water bottle, the distance in between those stops was called a a ‘leg’


At long rest stops, the food team had snacks and gatorade wating for us

At long rest stops, the food team had snacks and gatorade wating for us

1116 rest stop  1119

The second half of the walk was on the highway. We on the environmental team now had the opportunity to walk the entire way, because on the highway the group had porta-potties on a flatbed trailer drawn by a small truck.


At long rest stops, we also had shade structures set up by the logistics team

At long rest stops, we also had shade structures set up by the logistics team









We always walked at a good clip, at least three miles per hour, keeping the line together with no gaps, no talking, and if we were on the highway, following the white line exactly. The banner was carried somewhat back from the front of the line, and the people carrying it were rotated so it wasn’t too much of the burden on any two people.  It was important that we give the impression of a dedicated, energetic line, not a bunch of stragglers chatting away to each other.

A prayer stick wound with a long string of green yarn with many red ties on it, one for each person who has died on this trail this year. We were each invited to carry it and be at the front of the line for a time, if we wished.

Also, by starting out at 6 AM and moving at a good clip, we could be at our next camp by around noon and avoid walking in the worst heat of the day.

I did walk the entire fourth day, which was the longest day,  15.9 miles and over 110 degrees.

should this following go here, or be put where it fits consecutively….really, the first part is a summary and the rest is more detail



When we had one mile left, someone made a joke and said it would be four more miles. Immediately they said, “just kidding”, but tears came to my eyes as I realized that if it really had been four more miles, and if we had not had the support vehicles we had, I could not have made it if my life depended on it. This made

I did make it into camp with the others, but I found that all I wanted to do was lie down under the shade covers, too tired to get up to eat lunch or to talk to anyone. Several people noticed, and my team leader took my water bottle and filled it with cold Gatorade.

The heat of the pavement came up through the soles of my tennis shoes, and that day I got my first blisters, right on the bottomS OF THE BALL OF EACH FOOT of my feet.

The remaining three days, I rode on the support vehicles for one of the “legs” each day, and learned to chug-a-lug my entire water bottle at each and every stop.”

That long day  so thoroughly tired me out that for the remaining three days I found it necessary to ride a few miles of each day in the support vehicles. It was stressed to us over and over that it would be much more difficult for the support vehicles to circle back and pick up someone. They asked us to opt for riding if we did not feel 100% confident that we could make each “leg”.

The person who encouraged me to participate in the Migrant Trail Walk was my friend Ann, whom I met through my travel club. She had walked it the year before, and she’d impressed them so much that she’d been asked to be one the organizing team: one of the two leaders of the Food Team.

*1189 Ann and me

I was so impressed by the caliber of the people I met, doing this. So many of the participants do so much good work on border issues.
One couple, when they retired, moved down to Douglas, Arizona, where they spend their time volunteering on both sides of the border. One lady, Margo, is one of the top immigration lawyers in the country, and has helped hundreds of immigrants get their citizenship, or get out of jail. I’d say 3/4 of the participants on the walk are people who do some kind of work or volunteering related to border issues.

At night the stars were so fantastic! And we all happened to be looking in the same direction when the asteroid came down to earth, and we all saw it! A brilliant ball of fire.

I played harmonica at the talent show, accompanying Jack, who played guitar and sang a couple of rousing blues numbers, and people went crazy. I also played an Arabic song on tambourine to accompany two girls who did poi dancing, to great response.When people have gone almost a week without recorded music, movies, or TV, everything sounds good to them!

Well, that was an overview. The rest of this blog post is a day -by-day account of that week on the Migrant Trail Walk.

Tucson, First Night: Dinner and the Organizational Meeting

The Walk officially started on Sunday, May 28 with a meeting at a Presbyterian Church in Tucson. My friend Ann’s friend Barb volunteered to drive the three of us down to Tucson. Dale Sr. drove me into Tempe. After attending the service of the Guardian Angels Catholic Congregation (a congregation which uses the traditional Catholic prayers and service, but is welcoming to gay people and has a female, married pastor instead of the traditional celibate priest), we left for Tucson.

There we got our name tags and officially registered for the Walk. We had a delicious dinner which was provided for us by one of the groups who works for more humane border laws.

The people sitting around me at dinner were all so impressive! Jack and Linda had moved down to Douglas, Arizona when they retired, just so they could work on border issues. They spent their time doing volunteer work on both sides of the border.

Jamie was a professor who taught border issues. She had with her two students, very impressive girls named Marija and Flor. Because she had been so impressed with these two students, she had applied for a grant to take them on the Walk, and also to spend some time before the walk learning about border issues. They had spent the last few days on something called the BorderLinks tour.

1082-first dinner together at church

Then we had our “organizational meeting”.

There are different “teams” which each are responsible for some aspect of this 80 person walk. There was the Safety Team, all wearing orange vests, which used two-way radios and walked beside the other walkers, sometimes needing to do extra jogging to get to the front or back if there was a problem. Ann knew that Barb, quite the organizer at their church and also an avid hiker, was very capable of being on the Safety Team, so she suggested that Barb volunteer for that one.

1090 Barb in Safety Team Vest

As I was not even sure I could make the entire Walk on my own, and feared that even if I did I would be too tired to think responsibly, I of course did not sign up for the Safety Team!

The “Medical Team” all carried first aid kits and were responsible for all first aid, the most common of which was piercing blisters and taping up peoples feet.

Ann had been on the food team the year before, and this year she had been asked to be one of that “teams” two leaders. I had decided I would not ask to be on that team, because if I had a melt-down from the difficulty of the walk, I did not want it to affect my friendship with Ann!

Here’s Ann giving a presentation about how the food set up would work. She did a really great job as leader of the food team, and it was inspiring to watch her leadership skills.

1084 —Ann giving presentation.

The Logistics Team was responsible not only for loading up everyone’s gear in the morning, and also for riding ahead and setting up camp in the evening. As they had only half as much time to pack up their own stuff and eat breakfast as the rest of us, I decided against that team.

The Support Team was not one of the options, because it was made up of those who drove the support vehicles: two vans (both of which happened to be driven by immigration lawyers) a truck with the food trailer, and a truck with a trailer full of all of our gear, and the all-important “water truck” with a trailer of huge blue jugs of water, and (strictly separated from the water) the latrine supplies.

So that left me one team, the Environmental Team, whose responsibility was the latrines for the first half of the trip. I really liked everyone on this team. Our team was divided into two halves, “Number One” and “Number Two” (I know, heh heh). Every other “leg” of the day’s walk we walked with the group, and every other “leg” we rode ahead and dug holes, set up the latrine tents with sawdust, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, buckets with toilet seats, all at great speed. There was a lot of pressure to have the latrines ready when “the walkers” arrived.

So what this meant was that for the first half of the trip, the part where we were not on the highway, I only had to walk half of the distance each day. On the second half of the trip we were on the highway, and we had two “portapotties” on a trailer pulled by a little blue pickup truck driven by one of the Environmental Team.


One of the things they told us was not to take any photos, nor to leave the group for any reason, when we were in Sásabe, Mexico, because the town was controlled by people-smuggling gangs.

Barb, Ann and I had opted to rent a motel room for Sunday night, so that we could have a shower before we started on the walk. Unfortunately for Barb, I was just getting over a cold and snored even louder than usual.

The next morning we drove back to the Presbyterian church, which was also in the process of giving a huge group of homeless a hot breakfast (it looked a lot better than the spread in the breakfast room of our motel, actually!). We put our gear in the pile to be loaded up, and went in the church for one last meeting.

banner 1078

Here’s Tom, driver of the water truck and leader of the Support Team, addressing the group the following morning. Tom reminded me a lot of our brother Joseph. Rather brusque and intimidating, he has a heart of gold. He is affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee in Denver, Colorado.

Tom addressing group 1092

There were speeches by group leader and one by the youngest member of the group, a high school girl named Ruby who was doing the walk with her mother and her grandmother.

News photographers present included the local news of Univision, and the local Fox affiliate.

Then we all piled into the vans, to be driven to Sásabe, Mexico.

PHOTO 1098 Mike drives us to Mex

Next to me in the van was an older man from Guatemala whose name was Manuel (call me “Meme” he said)., who had made the same walk we were doing, 20 years before, with his son and another family member. He said that crossing that stretch of desert was more difficult than all the rest of the trip from Guatemala combined. He was able to tell me how to pronounce the Quiche surname of the person whose name was on my cross, “Tambriz-Xum” and also was able to tell me that all the people with that family name came from one town in Guatemala, Nahuala.

Me with the wooden cross

He said that some towns in Guatemala are safe to visit, and some are not. Antigua, famous for its colonial buildings, has many tourist police, he said.

Meme also told me, quietly, when we were standing together after getting out of the van, that every person who wants to cross the border at Sásabe has to give a certain amount of money to the gangs who control the town. I do not remember the exact amount, but I do remember that it was a huge amount.

Meme was only going to walk with us for the first day and the last day, as he had to be at his job at the Tucson airport during the week. He told me that after he had been in the US long enough to get his citizenship, he had been able to bring his wife and his daughter in also, and that they were all citizens.

It meant a great deal to me to be able to talk to someone who had made the same trek which were were making, without any help or support that we would have.

It was a very wierd sensation to cross the border and go a few short blocks through this desolate little town, and get to the church. Later I heard that the priest only visits that church once a month.

I of course followed our group’s leaders admonition to not take photos of Sásabe. You can see it on Google maps, not much to see.

We were given a lovely lunch by nuns and other church workers. Standing around were older Mexican men, and all of these wonderful people came from the town of Altar, seventy miles away.

1101 Church Sásabe prayer

We all filed into the church and were given a speech by the local priest, who was not wearing his habit but rather jeans and a plaid shirt. Flor, one of the students on the walk, translated and did a good job of it. The speech was gripping. One of the saddest things I remember is that the priest said that of the women who make the crossing, 80% were violated by other men. Because of this, he said that women routinely take a contraceptive before they make the trip, a contraceptive which lasts an entire year.

1104 Priest addresses, Flor translates

After the priest talked to us, we walked through town, swiftly, silently, single-file, carrying our banner as pick-up trucks drove slowly beside us. We had been told that we would be protected by a “police escort” but these were unmarked trucks, and I would not be surprised if they were driven by the same guys from Altar who had been with us at the church in Sásabe. Do actual government police actually ever set foot in Sásabe?

A desolate little town. There were a few fancy houses, and I shuddered to think how the owners of these houses got their money. Once out of town, we walked on silently until we got to the border, where we all showed our passports, which group leaders had asked us to have ready.

We actually had two sisters on the walk with us, Naty (for Natividad) and Lupita, who had originally lived in Sásabe as little girls. When they lived there it had been a nice little town. She said that many of the men worked making adobe bricks, and others worked on a big American ranch just north of the border.

Natividad and Lupita:
PHOTO 1134

“When we would cross,” Naty told me, “The  border agent would just wave us on across, just smile and wave us through.”


Once we got off the highway

PHOTO 1115 Starting Out

long stop

PHOTO 1116


There were three young people on the Walk. It was fun to see how they bonded with eachother. All of them had older relatives on the walk. The girl on the right was a third generation: both her mother and her grandmother were walking!


Because these kids were on the food team and I was on the environmental team, we would sometimes end up riding in Mike’s van together. It was fun to hear them chatting, singing songs from musicals they had performed in in high school. Chayanne is he grand-daughter of one of the two ladies from Sasabe, and is involved in ROTC as well as drama activities.


Add paragraph about calling out names

I think it was our third night that we slept among the mesquite trees. Lupita said, “There is no shade like the shade of a mesquite tree.”

Among the chatter of voices after people set up their tents, you could hear guitar music: Jack playing blues and country, I was drawn to the sound of a latin song and near the kitchen Saulo was jamming with ______ and Lupe and Nati were enjoying it. I went to get my tambourine and it seemed to fit. I particularly loved one of the songs they did “Esa Negra Tomasa”, especially loved the part where the rhythm ramped up as it went into the chorus.  I asked Saulo for the name of the group which recorded it, so that I could buy the recording and maybe learn the song.


Later in the afternoon, a truck arrived from the organization Humane Borders and sprayed us all off with water! There was water dripping off one side of the truck, so I ran to get my shampoo and soaped my head there before I got in line to get sprayed off: clean hair! (I have very oily hair, so it itches if I go without washing it.) Everyone was so happy, feeling so refreshed in their dripping wet clothes, which soon dried in the heat.

PHOTO 1137 Water Truck

Fourth Day

The following day would be our longest day, almost 16 miles, and the weather forecast was for almost 110 degrees. CHECK WITH ANN Because it waould be such a long day, we woke before dawn for an early start.

When we all lined up, we were suddenly treated to a breathtaking moment, a huge flash of light on the blackness of the horizon. Some pooh-poohed it, saying, “Someone shot off a flare.” It wasn’t until the last day, when many other people joined us for the seven-mile leg into Tucson, that we found out that what we had seen had indeed been a meteor landing from outer space. It had come down in Cibicue, Arizona. No earthlings had been injured or killed.

1140 Starting off in the AM

One of the few times that the Migrant Trail group makes a stop just for aesthetic reasons is at sunrise of this long day. This is a long-standing tradition We all stopped to photograph it. Here Brother Sam takes a photo.

1140 Sunrise

1144 PHOTO Brother Sam

1146 PHOTO Starting out

This was not only the longest day, but XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Paragraph of what it was like to walk my first long day

When we had one mile left, someone made a joke and said it would be four more miles. Immediately they said, “just kidding”, but tears came to my eyes as I realized that if it really had been four more miles, and if we had not had the support vehicles we had, I could not have made it if my life depended on it.

Not pleasant to experience. However, going through this added hugely to my understanding of what those poor souls went through. Nothing even remotely like what they went through, nothing even remotely like it. But an understanding which is far greater than what I felt before when I heard of someone dying in that fierce environment.

I did make it into camp with the others, but I found that all I wanted to do was lie down under the shade covers, too tired to get up to eat lunch or to talk to anyone. Several people noticed, and my team leader took my water bottle and filled it with cold Gatorade.

The heat of the pavement came up through the soles of my tennis shoes, and that day I got my first blisters, right on the bottom of my feet. Robert, of the medical team, did a nice job of fixing my feet,

PHOTO 1149

It was kind of Ironic (XXXXXXXXXXXREWRITE THIS) that I was so wasted, because this was the most “luxurious” of our stops. Way out in the desert, it still felt remote, as the hilly terain and the mesquite trees hid the few other campers from our view.It was actually an RV camping spot and up on the hill was a little building with two shower rooms, one for men and one for women. By the time I finally got the energy to walk up there, it was really fun because it was a room fullof women all so chattering and happy to have their first shower in three days.

Adding to the jovial atmosphere was the happy sound of Saulo next door in the men’s shower, singing “The Lion Sleeps tonight” loudly and cheerfully”

I still felt really shaky and it seemed so much effort just to remove my clothes (really glad to have the long shirt I’d made for sun protection, as I could use it as a kind of short robe) and I stood there shakily and waited until all the others were finihed before taking my own shower. Every movement seemed to take a lot of concentration and effort.

But the shower felt so good, and I even made my slow shaky way down the little hill again to get my little bottle of dish soap so I could wash out a few items.

I learned my lesson from that experience of getting so dehydrated.  The remaining three days, I rode on the support vehicles for one of the “legs” each day, and learned to chug-a-lug my entire water bottle at each and every stop.

The trailer park provided this pipe structure perhaps for campers to use to mount tarps on for shade. As we already had our shade structure, people used it as a clothes dryer.

1148 PHOTO clothes dryer (you already used 1149)

Every evening, volunteers from different churches or organizations brought us dinner. There is a photo of sister Judy with two of these wonderful people.

PHOTO 1150-Judy with volunteers

In the early evening, we were treated to a talk by Lupe, who drove one of the support vehicles for us, about the history of the Mexico-US border in the southwest.

PHOTO 1151-Lupe’s talk

One of my worries about the trip was having to get up and pack my things before even having a cup of coffee which I seem to “need” when I am at home (even when traveling, I take packets of instant cappuchino and a coil-in-the-cup water boiler, and set my alarm early so that I can have that half-hour to just sit and slowly wake up.

On the Migrant Trail Walk we had to be up and packed within a half-hour after we were awakened at 5:00 AM. Coffee was gulped as part of breakfast. It wasn’t as miserable as I’d feared it would be.

PHOTO 1153 early morning packing up

There is a southwestern artist who creates metal crosses out of found objects on the migrant trail. One of the most poignant times on the Walk was when we stopped at one of these crosses, one which was located only 6 feet or so by the highway. Tears came to my eyes what a sad place to die. My own physical difficulty the day before allowed me to attempt to understand what it would be like to die right by the highway, unable to take one step further.

PHOTO 1154 cross by road

Our stop that evening was the first stop within a town. It was in a beautiful Southwest-style church, Serenity Babtist Church. Those of us who road in the vans the last leg of the trip arrived before everyone else.

PHOTO 1155 Serenity Babtist Church

Dale and Carlos fell asleep in the alcoves of the church.

PHOTOS 1158-9, Dale and Carlos sleeping

A couple of hours later, everyone else arrived. We all found places for our sleeping bags, either within the church or outbuildings.

PHOTO 1160 everyone else arrives

Everyone had been talking about the wonderful Thai food we would have that night. There are two things which are “traditions” of the Migrant Trail Walk when they stop at Serenity Babtist. One is that a wonderful vegetarian Thai dinner is cooked by Buddhist monks and brought to us. The other is the talent show.

1162 PHOTO Brother David and Thai Priest

Checking Into a Hotel Where No One Speaks English (An Ipso Facto Spanish Immersion Experience)

 Checking Into a Hotel Where No One Speaks English
(An Ipso Facto Spanish Immersion Experience)

This article is not a day to day, detailed travelogue of the sights of Ecuador. What I tried to explore were those aspects of our trip which were different from that of the average traveler, whether different because we were speaking Spanish, or different because we were traveling independently. Spanish. By plunging ourselves into situations where we had to speak the language, we also found that there was a real difference in the depth and quality of our experiences, in other ways as well. I have tried to concentrate mainly on those aspects of the trip which were different for us because we chose (immersion) (not to travel with a group. In additon, I also refer to the book, “Crossing Cultures” and exploor how the ideas found in that book were relative to our experiences.

For a more completely detailed, day by day travel account of the trip, click <here>.

Early in 2013, my sister-in-law Kathy came to me with the idea of taking a trip in the fall, to somewhere in South America, with a focus on practicing our Spanish. I myself can get along pretty well in Spanish at a basic level. Kathy is far more proficient than I.


I was delighted at the idea of the trip, but a tiny pin-prick of worry kept intruding into my thoughts: “Would my relationship with my sister-in-law survive the stresses of independent travel?”

We had been friends since the seventh grade, long before we were sisters-in law, and in our youth, we had embarked on many a mini-adventure together. But now we were in our mid-sixties. For several decades, we had seen each other only a few times each year, and always within the setting of a large family group. If things did not go well, would we end up being uncomfortable with each other for years?

I decided to throw these worries aside, and focus on the delightful prospect of visiting my first South American country with a travel companion as knowledgeable and fluent in Spanish as my sister-in-law Kathy.

From late summer through early fall, she and I e-mailed and telephoned back and forth, tossing around ideas. She researched different tour companies, and found a couple which looked promising, due to small group size and intelligent itineraries. But I remembered that he first thing she’d said about the trip is that she wanted to practice her Spanish.

“If we go with a group of Americans,” I said, “We are going to end up speaking English most of the time.” She did agree that we travel independently.


Kathy e-mailed me that she had found a promising hotel on-line, the Hotel Mi Cecelia. I clicked the link she sent and replied that it looked good to me.

We had agreed that our main “home base” would be Quito, and that we would also take several overnight side trips to various other parts of the country. The difference was that I wanted to plan out our itinerary before we set out, and book all of our hotels in advance, as it was hard for me to let go of the security of knowing that we that we would have a definite place to stay each night. Kathy urged that we book our first hotel for a few days only, giving us the freedom to adjust our itinerary once we were there.

logoShe had gone along with my idea that we should travel independently instead of with a group, so I felt I should go along with her on this one. She went ahead and booked us into the Hotel Mi Cecelia in the old town part of Quito, and she told me that she had made the reservation in Spanish because no one there seemed to speak English!

“Good”, I thought, I always love a hotel near the historical part of town, and even better if we will be forced to speak Spanish!”




So, after a couple of long plane flights, we found ourselves taking a midnight cab ride into the city. The street lights shone through the mist of rain, and onto the ribbon of brick road, which undulated up and down along the top of a steep canyon. The lights of homes dotted the other side of the dark
canyon like tiny stars. We were lucky to have a great driver who talked to us non-stop, in rapid Spanish, answering all of questions. We understood most of it.

Because I had known we would arrive late at night, and knew from the guidebook that Quito’s new airport is almost an hour out of town, I’d been nursing some apprehension about this airport-hotel transfer ever since we left San Francisco airport. I was very relieved to find that the airport had an official system for “vetting” the taxi drivers. There was even a young woman in a smart uniform, writing down taxi-cabs’ license numbers and the time each cab lft the airport.

The cab driver let us out next to a tiny plaza where a thick-trunked Canary-Island palm, set in a little triangle of dirt, was surrounded by a neat wrought-iron fence. In the dim light, multi-storied colonial-era buildings loomed on three sides.

“This is it,” said Kathy, and we were standing before a high, heavy wooden door. As soon as we got out of the cab, I felt like we had gone back in time.

It was a locked door. We pounded on it with our fists, as though we were in a BBC drama set in medieval England. (Later, we found out there was a buzzer.)

Almost immediately, we heard the thundering steps of someone (someone young and spry) running lickety-split down several flights of stairs! “Jonni” as his name turned out to be, was the night clerk of the Hotel Mi Cecelia. We were to hear his rapid-fire steps going up and down the wooden staircases of the hotel, many times during our stay. A slim, friendly, energetic youth with glasses and longish wavy black hair, Jonni was a student by day who moonlighted as night clerk at the hotel. A loud buzzer, connected to his third-floor bedroom, alerted him to guests who arrived late at night.

Mounting the stairs rapidly ahead of us, carrying both of our carry-on bags, one in each hand, he led us up the two flights of steps to our room. We closed our door, and I sprawled on my bed with a sigh of pleasant relief at finally making it to our destination.

Which suddenly turned to aggravation, as we realized that we had committed a truly “royal glitsch”: in forgetting to buy bottled water at the airport. And it was too late to go out and get any! So we had to go to bed thirsty, without brushing our teeth, because we did not want to drink the tap water. Ugh!

Then, in the morning, another unpleasant experience caused by a laughable linguistic misunderstanding: I shivered through a freezing cold shower, because the knob on the right said C for “caliente”, not C for cold like it is at home! Kathy was smarter, but even though she used the correct knob,she got only intermittent warm ater. Oh well, we remarked to each other, it was character-building! Dressed and ready for our first day, we ventured down to the lobby for breakfast.

IMG_4286The interior of the Hotel Mi Cecelia was charming. In a former century, this building must have been the residence of a very wealthy family. Three stories high, it was built around an interior courtyard which was probably once open to the sky. Staircases led to three tiers of wooden walkways along three of the four interior walls, walkways with wrought-iron railings, supported by stout wooden posts. All of the individual rooms faced out onto these walkways, and each room had a door and a large window. Set into the fourth wall
of the lobby, the wall nearest the entrance, was the reception window, and above it a stunning collection of mounted wrought-iron crosses stretched all the way up to the ceiling, three stories above. All of the crosses were different, and some were quite large.

Everything was painted a cheerful combination of ochre, burnt-orange, gray-blue, and white. Soft tropical ferns, hung here and there along the walkways, added a homey touch. A couple of comfortable couches were situated near the reception window, and the rest of the small lobby was filled with a half-dozen square tables, each with four wrought iron chairs. A small window at the back of the lobby turned out to be a pass-through to the breakfast kitchen.

There was a nice breakfast set up in the lobby, and everyone was very friendly. The other diners would nod and smile and everyone would say a warm “Buenos Dias” to each other. First, a tray of different breads was brought, with butter, and if one wanted, one could get eggs cooked to order by bright-eyed little Monica, who was busy in the kitchen behind the little pass-through window. The word “tortilla”, here in Ecuador, meant an omelet, as it does in Spain.

When coffee was requested, they would bring hot milk and a little jar of nescafe, and we mixed the nescafe into the hot milk. The fresh juice looked great, but we feared to drink it.

Kathy in front of the Hotel Mi Leticia

Kathy in front of the Hotel Mi Leticia

After each side trip to other towns, we would always return to the Hotel Mi Cecelia as a home base, so there were many mornings when we breakfasted in that cheerful lobby. I do have to admit that on some mornings, when the other guests were particularly friendly, it did seem a little difficult speaking Spanish before I’d had my first cup of coffee! But it came with the territory.

The only time I remember being really overwhelmed by having to speak Spanish first thing in the morning was when I encountered a very large, exuberant and friendly family of Venezuelans. I had come down about a half-hour before Kathy, and they all started chatting with me. Just making conversation, I told them that it had always been a dream of mine to visit Venezuela. For the next quarter-hour I was bombarded with enthusiastic descriptions of all the sights not-to-be-missed in Venezuela! I never was so glad to see Kathy coming down the stairs.

I only remember one time or two times when we encountered other English-speaking guests at the Hotel Mi Cecelia.

It was a great relief to us to find that our Spanish was more than adequate for talking to the hotel staff. Besides Jonni the night clerk, and Monica (breakfast cook, hotel maid and laundress) there were two ladies, Marcia and Inez, who staffed the hotel during the day. They took reservations, manned the reception desk, and were most helpful answering our many questions. Inez, the younger, was a university student, like Jonni. They were both studying in the field of tourism.

During the many times each day when we had to communicate with someone in Spanish, Kathy and I made a pretty good team. On the one hand, her vocabulary is much greater than mine (she can actually read Spanish literature, which could never plow through). Yet I sometimes had an easier time understanding people who spoke in regional accents.

Typical street in old Quito

Typical street in old Quito

Kathy buying a cell phone at the mall

Kathy buying a cell phone at the mall

Our first day in Quito was more exhausting and disorienting than we expected. We didn’t end up seeing any of the museums or churches we had planned on seeing. By the time we took the crowded trolley (the “trolebus”) to a mall to buy a temporary cell phone, had walked part of the way back because the street was too torn up for buses or cars (a sea of uniformed students, just let out of school, coming in the opposite direction), encountered a big fiesta in the Plaza Grande with a live cumbia band (the government had given the party in honor of Ecuador’s getting accepted to play in the world cup, but by now they’d already lost their first game and were out of the running), and had a meal at a little local place, we were exhausted and ready to come back to the hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Fiesta in the main plaza, with cumbia band

Fiesta in the main plaza, with cumbia band


These three guys were part of the audience

Part of our exhaustion was due to the high altitude. When we walked up a hill in Quito (which was often, because the entire city is hilly) I felt like I was fifty pounds heavier than I am.

IMG_4323IMG_4325Awakening in the evening, we felt refreshed, and treated ourselves to dinner at a nearby restaurant which was recommended by Jonni, the night clerk. It did turn out to be the most expensive restaurant of our entire trip, but it was an enchanting experience. From our roof-top table, we dined on typical Ecuadorian dishes as interpreted by a top chef, serenaded by tasteful versions of Ecuadorian folk-music sung and played by two older gentlemen on a harp and a guitar. All around us were panoramic views of the city lights on the hills surrounding Quito.




Kathy with guidebooks, as we plan out the rest of our trip

Kathy with guidebooks, as we plan out the rest of our trip

By the second day, we both had begun to feel that it was high time we planned out the rest of our trip. We found a “real coffee house” close to our hotel, where we could retreat into a quiet, familiar atmosphere and drink excellent cappuchinos (All of the little local restaurants seemed to serve Nescafé). There was a room in back with a view of a peaceful courtyard. There we sat and spent a couple of hours, nursing our cappuchinos and planning out the rest of our trip, tossing different ideas back and forth, our guidebooks and notebooks spread out on the table.

After our long first day, during which we were constantly inundated by all of the unaccustomed sights, sounds, and mannerisms of a foreign culture, we realized that we wanted to simplify our original plans. We would reduce the number of side trips we’d thought we might attempt. We did both definitely want to visit at least one city on the coast, because the tropical flora, fauna and way of life there was said to be so different. We decided to stay at least one night in one of the smaller towns on the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” (the highway that runs down the high mountain spine of Ecuador), so that we could see what life in a small-town mountain town was like. Lastly, we wanted to visit the town of Otavalo, north of Quito, to see the world-famous market that is held there every Saturday.

First we discussed which coast town we would visit. The guidebooks said that the beach towns on the northern coast, near Esmeralda, were less safe for tourists than those in the south. I suggested Guayaquil, the largest coastal city in the south, but Kathy had read that it was large and dirty. On her suggestion Bahia de Caraquez, about halfway down the coast, and decided, for a change, to stay in a hostel there instead of a hotel: the Hostal Cocobongo.

For our other two overnight side trips, we chose Latacunga, a small high-altitude town on the high altitude highway, “La Avenida de los Vulcanes”, and the famous market town north of Quito, Otavalo. Using the guidebook, we found hotels there also.

We went back to the Hotel Mi Cecelia, where Kathy made all the reservations we’d decided on, with the help of Marcia and Inez. (She still had not been able to get the new cell phone to work.) Luckily no one was waiting to check in or out, because it took quite a while! Besides making the reservations, we had to make clear to Marcia and Inez exactly which nights we would be in Quito, and which nights they could rent our room to someone else. Finally we got it all straightened out.

Or at least we thought we had…

I was really glad that we had followed Kathy’s suggestion and waited until we were actually in
Ecuador before we finalized our itinerary and booked all of our hotel rooms.

Many people have asked why we did not visit the Amazon or the Galapagos? True, these destinations had been tentatively considered in our original plan. But according to the guidebooks, it would have taken a vey long bus ride to reach the Amazon, only to reach rather rough towns which were described as heavily influenced by presence of large numbers of American oil workers. The Galapagos Islands, so fascinating because of their unique flora and fauna, are likewise altered in character, because they attract
so much international tourism. We wanted to stick to the main purpose of our trip, which was to speak a lot of Spanish and to experience the culture of the people of Ecuador.

There was one destination we did really regret giving up: a visit to the colonial town of Cuenca , much further south on the Avenida de los Volcanes, so famous for its lovely old buildings. But we only had a certain number days in Ecuador, and we knew that, for us, it would be more satisfying to visit fewer places and manner and be able to explore them in more depth.

I and the musician who serenaded the lunch crowd at the café

I and the musician who serenaded the lunch crowd at the café

Finalizing our plans for the week seemed to settle our minds, and we got a great deal more sight-seeing done in what remained of that second day. Everything we saw was in the “old town” area, within walking distance of our hotel: Lunch at a delightful outdoor cafe connected to a crafts gallery (serenaded by an excellent young singer guitarist/panpipe player with strong native-American features and very long black hair), an excellent museum called the Museo de la Ciudad, the gorgeous, gold-encrusted cathedral of the Cumpania de Jesus, and an evening meal in the lively area called La Ronda.

As were were sitting in that cafe eating lunch, we noticed a tour group of “gringos” stringing along after their tour guide across the Plaza, chattering to each other and looking a little uncomfortable whenever they did glance about. I couldn’t help feeling that we were getting a much more vivid and interesting experience!

This woman, a doctor, showed

This woman, a doctor, showed us exactly which “trolebus” to take back to the hotel

I continued to be so impressed by the friendliness and courtesy of every Ecuadorian person we encountered. I wrote in my nightly e-mail that evening, “Every single time we have asked someone for help they have been so friendly and helpful, beyond my expectations.”

Setting out the following day on our side-trip to Latacunga, we did find that buying the bus ticket and negotiating the large gleaming bus terminal was rather frantic and confusing. I was taken aback when the spiffily-uniformed young lady at the ticket window demanded to see our passports when we bought our tickets, so that she could write down our passport numbers. (All I can think of is that the Ecuadorian government is keeping tabs on where foreigners wander to when they spend time in the country.) But it meant that I had to take a trip to the bathroom before buying the ticket, to get my passport out from under my clothes, and another after we’d bought them, so that I could sequester my passport again.

It seemed to take forever before we got onto the bus, and the only seats were way in back. But we had a great conversation (in Spanish, of course!) with a nice young woman who was on her way to visit relatives.

The small mountain town was lovely in the late-afternoon light

The attractive dress of the indigenous women of Latacunga

The attractive dress of the indigenous women of Latacunga

Our afternoon and overnight stay in Latacunga did indeed give us the experience we’d hoped for: a small-town version of the mountain culture, which is so influenced by the indigenous people. We felt more relaxed to roam around in the evening than we had in big-city Quito.

On the back of our hotel-room room door was a tattered list of regulations in Spanish, each followed by the funniest bad English translation I’d ever seen, starting with the fact that they had decided to translate the word “guest” as “hostage”. Kathy wrote down a couple of these translations, and I quote:

“The hostage is responsible for of normal use of all furniture put on your service, and to maintain an adequate suffer during all moment in hotel”
“It is forbidden to listen music on hing volume or doing strong voices that disturb the resting of other hostages”.


Down, down down through the cloud forest

Down, down down through the cloud forest

Our next side trip was down to the coast! A nerve-wracking, gorgeous eight-hour bus ride down through a road which, hair-pin turn several climate zones: first the intensely green, cultivated, high-altitude fields with their backdrop of snowy mountains, then wild hair-pin turns down through the dense, misty cloud forest with its lush variety of plants; by late afteroon, we started to see banana trees.

The driver began to stop the bus more and more often, picking up one personal friend after another. These people rode standing up in a little group at the front of the bus, loudly socializing and erupting into laughter his jokes, delivered in a monotone out of the side of his mouth. “A la playa!” (to the beach) he yelled suddenly, and his friends all cheered.

Bamboo-walled houses, on stilts, with banana trees in the yard and hammocks strung up on the porches

Bamboo-walled houses, on stilts, with banana trees in the yard and hammocks strung up on the porches

I am not exaggerating that if I didn’t know where we were I would have thought we were in Cuba or Haiti. The small houses were built high on posts, and they were sided entirely of halved bamboo poles…with front porches (also high off the ground) every one hung with hammocks. A larger percentage of the people appeared to have some African ancestry, as well as Native American and Spanish.

In Bahia, high school girls practice a baton routine as the boys drum-line rehearses

In Bahia, high school girls practice a baton routine as the boys drum-line rehearses



Compared to the cities we’d seen in the interior, these little coastal towns were shabbier and more cluttered, and more people were hanging out Compared to the cities we’d seen in the interior, these little coastal towns were shabbier and more cluttered, and more people were hanging out on the streets. Once could hear loud voices, these coastal Ecuadorians calling to each other and joking with each other. Shorts and tight tank tops (and very tight stretch pants, worn with teetery high heels) were common on the women, along with a swaying walk never seen among the reserved, correct young “inigenas” of the high-altitude regions.

Entrance to the Hostal CocaBongo

Entrance to the Hostal CocaBongo

I have to admit that we both felt a sigh of relaxation when we arrived, after dark, at the Hostal Cocabongo in Bahia del Caraquez. We had clearly checked into what is called “the gringo trail”! We were shown around by the barefoot young Swiss manager, with her long blonde hair and her short, loose, cotton ethnic-print dress, who chatted away about house rules in fluent English. The other hostel guests were all young, friendly, English-speaking travelers, from the U.S., Australia, England and Europe. It sounds silly, but I felt as though I could stop being on my best behavior for a couple of days. How I relished sitting on the patio couch with my morning coffee, bare feet up on the coffee table, constantly bothered by kittens!

relaxing with morning coffee (and kittens) on the patio of the hostel

relaxing with morning coffee (and kittens) on the patio of the hostel

Yes, we had come to Ecuador to immerse ourselves in the Spanish language and in a foreign culture, but it was nice to have a bit of a break from all of that translating, both verbal and cultural, and hang out in a familiar atmosphere for a couple of days.

Each afternoon several retired American expat gentlemen, who lived locally, would show up, sit and drink their beer, and exchange mellow, laid-back desultory conversation until dusk. It was off-season for Bahia de Caraquez, we were told; the mass of tall apartment buildings and hotels at other end of town only filled up from January to April.

IMG_6711Several months after our Ecuador trip, I read a book called “Crossing Cultures”, by Craig Storti. (click <here> for review). The book is aimed at people whose employer has assigned them overseas, so it was surprising to me that so many of his main points made me understand what I’d experienced during our Ecuador trip.

Mr. Storti’s book, his consultation business, and his training center in Washington D.C. are all based on this premise: that it is the overwhelming tendency of ex-pat employees to socialize exclusively with others from their home country, and that this fact results in these employees being much less effective in the business they are conducting overseas, because they relate less well to business associates from the “other” culture, and also are less effective in dealing with co-workers from the “other” culture.

Craig Storti, author of "Crossing Cultures"

Craig Storti, author of “Crossing Cultures”

Reading the book, I thought, “It’s the same with people who travel for pleasure. When they give in to the more comfortable experience of traveling with a group of people who share their own background, the result is that they have far fewer interactions with people from the country they are visiting, and end up learning far less about that culture.”

There is a pattern, Storti writes, which happens over and over:

First, the ex-pat employee experiences a few unpleasant interactions with people from the country they have been assigned to. (Different cultural norms lead to misunderstandings.)

Second, the employee retreats to the comfort of socializing with others from a similar background, usually from his or her own country.

Third, the pattern is reinforced because the expats commiserate with each other about how difficult the locals are, and ex-pat “communities” tend to create a social calendar of events which make it more and more likely that their members become caught up in that ex-pat community and that ex-pat community only.

I thought of the first rather nerve-wracking day that Kathy and I had spent in Quito, and how the next few days went better. I thought of the expats hanging out in the bar of the Hostal Cocabongo every afternoon, and of the middle-aged American sailor we talked to who referred to “the community” and meant the “gringo” community. The ex-pats we saw were following the pattern that Mr. Storti describes so well, retreating to the company of their own kind.

By staying for most of our trip in the Hotel Mi Leticia, where no one spoke English, Kathy and I placed ourselves in a position where we could not retreat to what was comfortable and familiar, and this situation caused us to do just what Mr. Storti urges in his book and in his classes, which is to perservere and continue interacting with people from the “other” culture until you get past that first feeling of discomfort and strangeness.

He also advises that any effort made to learn the local language is most worthwhile, and we were certainly evidence of that!

Marcelo, our guide at the Reserva

Marcelo, our guide at the Reserva

At the Reserva Biologica Cero Seco

At the Reserva Biologica Cero Seco

Although it is true that we spoke no Spanish at the Hostal Cocabongo, our daily outings gave us a lot of Spanish lnguage practice. The guided nature trail hike at the wonderful Reserva Biological Cero Seco was all in Spanish. Marcelo, our college-educated guide (and fervent “eco-loco”) knew how to slow down his words a little, or repeat, or try other ways to say the same thing when he saw any confusion on our part. The variety of plants in that area is incredible.

Kathy behind me in the canoe going through the mangrove swamps

Kathy behind me in the canoe going through the mangrove swamps



On our second day on the coast, we spent the overcast morning in a shallow boat propelled by a guide. gliding through the mangrove swamps of the Isla del Corazon. There we saw the famous frigate birds, the males guarding their nests with their puff-ed up red chests. Our little guide kept up a rapid-fire schpiel, also in Spanish, and we had no trouble understanding him.


Prow of the canoe, through the shallow stream running through the swamps

Prow of the canoe, through the shallow stream running through the swamps


Later in the afternoon we visited the excellent local museum, where an older gentleman was our guide. He seemed quite relieved that we could understand Spanish. He started out with a practiced schpiel, and by the time we g ot to the rooftop view of the city, he was telling us about his divorce.



Kathy on the shore promenade in Bahía de Caraquez

Kathy on the shore promenade in Bahía de Caraquez

Kathy noticed that I had an easier time understanding the coastal accent than she did. (Her Spanish is much more advanced than mine, and she has a great deal more vocabulary.) Perhaps the reason I could understand the different accent is that I learned most of my Spanish from watching TV, rather than at school. (I did have one term of Spanish at a city college, decades ago.)






Rain on a typical street in old town Quito

Rain on a typical street in old town Quito

It felt good getting back to the cold crisp air of Quito, and back to our “home base” the Hotel Mi Cecelia. We rested for awhile before going out for a bite to eat.

On our way back from the restaurant we saw a doctors’ protest, which we had read about in the newspaper. All the medicos were wearing their white coats, and one of them was beating a very loud drum which echoed up and down the street. Knowing Spanish allowed us to stop one of the doctors to ask what it was all about, and we learned they were protesting a new law which punishes malpractice more strictly than before. Following after them, calmly and at a slight distance, was a busload of police in riot gear,

Demonstration protesting the plight of the Yasuní

Demonstration protesting the plight of the Yasuní


Earlier in our stay we had encountered another demonstration, and were also able to ask what that one was about. This other demonstration, we found out, was protesting what was happening to an indigenous tribe called the Yasuni, who live in the Amazon, in the area where all the oil drilling is going on.


 IMG_4336We saw large government signs. One says that the Yasuní are living, and millions of Ecuadorians will be living better. The other asks, “And you, what have you done for the Yasuní?”


Kathy chatting with the Argentinian professor, in the lobby of the Mia Leticia

Kathy chatting with the Argentinian professor, in the lobby of the Mia Leticia

Our morning chats with other travelers led to our joining forces, for our last side trip, with two Spanish-speaking tourists, a young female architect from Venezuela, and a long-haired professor from Argentina. We had told the professor that we intended to visit the famous crafts market at Otavalo, which the guidebooks said should not be missed, and he suggested that we join forces. On the hour-long bus ride north to Otavalo, Kathy sat with the professor and I chatted with the young lady. It was interesting hearing about her work. (If I understood correctly, she was a government employee, and her job was to check buildings to make sure they were up to standard.

Scenery on the way to Otavalo

Scenery on the way to Otavalo

It turned out that we were quite overwhelmed, and rather unimpressed by the huge market at Otavalo. It was indeed huge, not only a huge plaza full of stalls but vendors lining all of the little adjoining streets. A lot of the merchandise appeared to be made in Asia. I did find a couple of items which I was pretty sure were locally made: a hand-knitted watch cap which I still treasure, and some beautiful traditional striped fabric.

The vendor gave me too much change due to a multiplication mistake, and after pointing out his error, I laughingly told his friend to “tell his friend he needed to go back to school”.


A family group walking toward the cathedral, on a quiet Sunday morning in Otavalo

A family group walking toward the cathedral, on a quiet Sunday morning in Otavalo

People gathering in front of the cathedral in Otavalo

People gathering in front of the cathedral in Otavalo

My favorite part of our side-trip to Otavalo was the Sunday morning we walked from the hotel to the bus station. It was overcast, and the town was quiet due to a power outage. All around us, small family groups of indigenous people walked towards the cathedral, dressed in their traditional dress.


Trendy restaurant in the new part of Quito

Trendy restaurant in the new part of Quito

Our last two days in Quito we made expeditions to the “new” part of town. It was like a different world: tall gleaming apartment buildings, modern coffee shops and restaurants which were identical to similar establishments in the US, whole streets of counter-culture looking hostels which were obviously aimed at young gringo backpackers.



An orchid in the botanical garden

An orchid in the botanical garden

We went to the tiny jewel of a botanical garden, then to a street of bookstores which Kathy wanted to see and bought books in Spanish, which we read while relaxing on the terrace of a trendy coffee shop.

Reading in Spanish in a coffee house

Reading in Spanish in a coffee house

The next day, our last full day, we went to the splendid archaeological museum, which was incredible, and also to the Plaza de las Artisanias, a block of little vendor’s shops which had a selection much more authentic an had Otavalo. It was the best shopping place we had been to and I bought quite a few items there.

A funny thing happened at the museum, as we were coming up upon a group of high school students who were being taken on a tour of the museum. Two of the boys at the back of the group were giggling, sharing something on their phones rather than listening to the museum guide. I worked as a classroom aide at the middle school level for twenty years, in my home town of Apache Jct., Arizona.

Without thinking I said to the boy texting on his phone, “No debes poner attencion?” (Shouldn’t you be paying attention?) He looked really surprised and put his phone away. Kathy later told me that this was one of the funniest moments of the trip for her.

Recently, I e-mailed Kathy that I was writing an article for my travel website about our staying at the Hotel Mi Cecelia, and asked for her input on how this made our experience different than if we had stayed in a hotel which catered to English-speaking tourists, she replied, “Well, probably the most different aspect was sharing a smallish double bed in the staff bedroom on the top floor, with the bathroom down the hall! I kind of doubt that they would have done that if we hadn’t been so friendly earlier on. But it was funny.”

Each time we returned from one of our side trips, the staff had put us in a different room. So when we returned from Otavalo, we were sitting in the couches near the reception desk window, we waited to see which room Inez and Marcia would put us in for our last night. Inez seemed to be rather nervous, they kept talking back and forth in worried voices about this room, or that room.

“Hay problema?” I said.

“No….” she answered with a rather strange tone to her voice, which made me a little suspicious.

“No hay una habitacion para nosotros?” I asked. (Isn’t there a room for us?)

There was a pause, and one of them said, “Pues, hay una habitacion muy especial para Ustedes!” (Well, there is a very special room for you!) She led us up to the third floor, and we looked at eachother with raised eyebrows as we followed her past the door which said that only staff was allowed past that point. We passed a little kitchen, a laundry room, and she opened the door to a room with a huge stereo system, ticket stubbs from rock concerts (all of American bands) on the walls, and photos of the night clerk and his friends diving into a river. Yes, this was the night clerk’s room! He was going to sleep in the laundry room, “no problem”. (Except that we would all share the staff bathroom down the hall.)

They looked at us expectantly. We were still too surprised to say anything, so the ladies added that we could cook in the kitchen, and use the stereo system if we wanted. We agreed to the room (what else could we do), and I told them, “Gracias, pero no vamos a tocar nada.”
(Thanks, but we will not touch anything.)

When our suitcases were brought up and we closed the door, we couldn’t help but giggle. On Kathy’s suggestion we decided to ask if we could rent the room for a second night, even though we would be flying out in the evening, so that we could have until later the next day to pack. (They ended up not charging us for the second night anyway.)

Taking our showers in the shared bathroom down the hall, wasn’t as awkward as I feared, because the door did lock. But around three in the morning, I got up and padded down the hall to the bathroom, only to find the door was closed. ‘Jonni the night clerk must be using it’, I thought, and went back to our room. I tried again a little later, and he was just coming out of it. As we passed in the hall, he said, “Esta bien?” and I answered, “Si”. It seemed so strange to have that polite common-place exchange with a young male staff member 3:00 AM on the way to the bathroom, and I started to chuckle so much inside that I could hardly chuckle silently.

The next day as we packed, I took that look under the bed to make sure something hadn’t been left there. The entire space under the bed was taken up with suitcases. They must have made him pack all of his stuff into these suitcases so that we could use the room!

IMG_4742At the airport, we had to laugh at this sign on the inside of the door to the toilet stalls in the restroom. All during our time in Ecuador, we’d seen over and over again signs saying not to put toilet paper in the toilet, because the plumbing system can’t handle it. So, in the airport, they had to make sure that Ecuadorians knew to put the toilet paper in the toilet.

As I finish this article and look back on our whole trip, I do indeed see that by choosing independent travel to a third world country such as Ecuador, we did let ourselves in for some extra stress. And yes, our stress level was greater than if we’d stayed in a hotel which catered to “gringos”. But I firmly believe that the experience we had was so much more intensely interesting, and much more educational, than it would have been if we had traveled with an organized tour, or stayed in a hotel where the staff could speak English with us.

My fears about whether the good relationship I’d always had with my sister-in-law would withstand the stresses of independent travel turned out to be groundless. It is true that we did have to endure two very difficult experiences. One night she was laid low with severe digestive upset, and on another day, my purse was slashed on a crammed, rush-hour trolebus.* Looking back, I realize that when one of us was suffering a particular difficulty, the other one was all concern and helpfulness. I learned a new appreciation of her character , and also of my own.

And our Spanish did improve! By the end of our stay in Ecuador, we were both talking faster! Kathy said that she especially noticed that her verbs had improved.



*For a detailed description of this incident, read <Rip-offs I have Known>, also on this website.

Photos Used to Make Drawing

Donkey and wagon bringing goods into Cairo

1. Donkey and wagon bringing goods into Cairo, seen from window of taxi cab

The non-tourist side of the Khan El-Khalili Souq

2. The non-tourist side of the Khan El-Khalili Souq

3. Musicians at the Café Darwiish

3. Musicians at the Café Darwiish

"Madame min Maadi" and myself, enjoying the music at the Café Darwiish

4. “Madame min Maadi” and myself, enjoying the music at the Café Darwiish

Our guide Ahmed "el gentil" smoking his shiisha

5. Our guide Ahmed “el Gentil” smoking his shiisha

6. The famous El Fishawi coffee house, in the Khan el Khalili souq

6. The famous El Fishawi coffee house, in the Khan el Khalili souq

7. A felucca (traditional Egyptian sailboat) on the Nile

7. A felucca (traditional Egyptian sailboat) on the Nile



A Local Wedding

A “Local Wedding”

The wedding was in the garden of a villa by the Nile.

The wedding was in the garden of a villa by the Nile.

I was staying at  my friend Leyla’s rented apartment in Giza, the suburb of Cairo which is out in the same area as the great pyramids. Every summer Leyla, a California belly dance instructor, would attend the famous Ahlan Wa Sahlan Belly Dance Festival, as many other dancers do from all over the world. But Leyla would, every year, spend an entire month in that lively, ancient city.

Ahmed had been her guide so long in Cairo that he had become a good friend. Through him she came to know his family well, and ended up visiting many parts of Cairo that the usual western visitor never sees.

Several different summers, I had spent a week with her there, in the apartment in Giza which Ahmed rented for her, and I always loved my visits with her. From the balcony of the apartment one could see the colorful vegetable market, all the shops, and the mosque on the corner, which the neighborhood residents had all contributed to, building a new story onto it whenever they could raise the money. The first time staying there I woke early in the morning and delighted in just watching the street, for hours. Before that I’d stayed in hotels, and had no chance to watch a local neighborhood.

We always included a visit to the Café Darwiish, where wonderful musicians and singers played every Friday evening from after the evening prayer until midnight, the promenade on the edge of the Nile where Egyptians strolled, a ride in a felucca or in a party boat, and hanging out at the Khan el Khalili souq until early hours of the morning.

The day after I flew in, Leyla said, “We have a special treat tonight, Ahmed is going to take us along to a friend’s daughter’s wedding!” I had seen wedding processions in the street, the groom and the bride (in her white western style gown) followed by a band of musicians and joyful, decked-out family members. In old movies and in new Egyptian TV series I had seen filmed fancy wedding receptions with uniformed bands, the bride and groom sitting on a dais and the many guests.

Ahmed’s wife and their youngest son accompanied us on this evening, Ahmed driving the rented car which he always arranges for during Leyla’s visits.

I was surprised when we turned off on what felt like a dirt road, the night darkness obscured where we were going but there were lights in the near distance. Some other cars were parked here and there in the dirt and grass outside a tall wall, through a large gate one could see lights and activity.

We entered the walled back garden of one of the formerly grand villas, probably built in the 40’s or 50’s, which had been fitted up to rent out for events such as this.  Along one end of the walled former garden of the villa, a wooden stage had been built, in several levels like a series of giant steps. A wide strip of steps ran up the center of this structure, to allow access to all the levels, and the fact that there were several levels gave the band which was playing a greater visual impact, as each musician could be completely visible.

The music was highly rhythmic, without the beautiful nuances of the Egyptian music we’d heard either at the Café Darwiish or on the elegant stages of the ballrooms at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Belly Dance festival. It seemed to be mostly drums such as the doumbek and the riff, and a man on a microphone who kept a patter going, keeping the crowd amped up while calling out names of the guests who brought up cash to donate to the newlyweds.

Long tables were set up before this stage structure, and seated at these tables, or jumping up and calling to friends they caught sight of, or running from one table to another to greet friends and acquaintances; there was a great sense of excitement in the air.  Most of these men were wearing the galabeya, the long shirt worn by many working-class Egyptian men.

In a corner by the stage was an enclosure made by stringing up tall unbleached cotton drapes, from which tantalizing smells wafted. A parade of waiters, in casual jeans and shirts, carried out trays of roasted meat, vegetables, and Arab bread, and every guest was fed.

Leyla and I and Ahmed’s wife Fa’iza sat at a little table a bit removed from the general crowd, and Ahmed and our host sat in chairs near to us. On the terrace of the villa, somewhat removed from the action, sat the bride and groom and the women of the host’s family.

I wasn’t quite sure how to behave, as we were the only women down on the same level as all of the other guests. I noticed that Fa’iza was sitting proud and still and very reserved, so I followed her cue. I noticed that Leyla’s comportment was along the same lines.

Usually Fa’iza is completely covered up in public, with a long dress and a headscarf which covers her neck and shoulders, but this evening, at Ahmed’s urging, she was wearing a fashionable headwrap and matching tunic/pants ensemble in a dressy fabric.

I asked Ahmed to ask Fa’iza why she did not choose to sit with the women of the family, up on the terrace, as there were no other Egyptian women down on the ground level. Ahmed explained that she chose to sit with us as she didn’t know any of those women.

Only five years previous to this, Fa’iza had dressed in western clothes, even in public. But as more and more women in Cairo adapted the headscarf and long dress, she followed suit. Ahmed did not ask her to cover up, on the contrary; he wished that she would still dress as she had before.

Our host was a merchant in the Khan el Khalili whom Ahmed had known and dealt with for years. Both he and Ahmed were wearing pressed shirts and slacks, and shined shoes.

One of the waiters brought food to our table, and I found it delicious, especially the roast meat.

There was a hush in the crowd when they became aware two young ladies, the dancers who were part of the featured entertainment, were making their way up the center aisle, wearing belted robes, moving with the drums in a measured, rhythmic walk, with the most absolutely blasé attitude, looking neither to the right nor to the left.

The drumbeat seemed to get more insistent as the dancers made their way, every eye in the crowd upon them, to the middle level of the stage structure, where chairs were rushed to be placed for them to sit on, cigarettes offered to them, and those cigarettes theatrically lighted.

For a while, the two young ladies sat and smoked, as if they were the most bored people in the world and had not a whit of an idea of all of the hungry eyes glued upon them. Then suddenly, the brown-haired one dramatically threw open one side of her belted robe, revealing the bra top beneath. There was a collective intake of breath from the crowd.

Soon both dancers had shrugged out of their robes, and the robes and the chairs were carried off the stage structure. The black-haired dancer, who was actually a very elegant dancer,  was wearing a long clinging gown, sleeveless and low-cut. The other girl wore only a bra top and a very short skirt, and had not much class as a dancer: basically all she could do was shimmy. Both seemed to be very enthusiastically received by the crowd.

“I like a ‘local’ wedding better than a ‘class’ wedding,” said Ahmed. “More fun!”

A man in a dingy galabeya and run-down “ship-ship” (that’s what Arabs call slip on sandals, because of the noise they make) mounted the steps of the stage structure and started showering the dancer with the long dress with money, the bills floating down all around her.

Ahmed’s wife Fa’iza made a terse comment and her husband, her son and our host guffawed with laughter.

“What did she say,” I asked Ahmed.

He turned to me with a grin. “She say, ‘he throws money away and he needs new ship-ship!” We all cracked up.

After we had been there an hour or so, we walked back to the car. As we left, groups of men, were still arriving, mostly wearing galabeyas or drab western clothes. More cars had parked right around us, and it was cute to see little Osama, the Ahmed’s youngest son, directing his dad with loud and proud voice as he inched his way backward out of the tight parking place.

So that was a “local” wedding. Even today, I treasure the memory, and I am so pleased that I had the opportunity to attend a type of wedding which few westerners have had the opportunity to attend.







The Yasuní

A protest on behalf of the Yasumí

A protest on behalf of the Yasumí

Article about the protest we encountered in Ecuador for the Yasuni, with one drawing and two photos of the posters the government put up

Earlier in our stay we had encountered another demonstration, and were also able to ask what that one was about. This other demonstration, we found out, was protesting what was happening to an indigenous tribe called the Yasuní, who live in the Amazon, in the  area where all the oil drilling is going on. We also saw government posters, saying that “the Yasuní were doing fine, and 99% of Ecuadoreans were doing much better”. It was true that we did see a great deal of evidence of money being spent on new public works, presumably paid for by the revenue from all the oil drilling.





Government poster: "And you, what have you done for the Yasuní"

Government poster: “And you, what have you done for the Yasuní”








"The Yasuní live, and millions of Ecuadorians will live better."

“The Yasuní live, and millions of Ecuadorians will live better.”

Careening Down Through the Cloud Forest to the Sea

Careening Down Through the Cloud Forest
to the Pacific Coast

I will never forget the eight-hour bus ride from high-altitude Quito, the high-altitude capital of Ecuador, to Bahia de Caraquez, down on the Pacific Coast. coast.

We took the crowded “trolebus” (trolley-bus) ride to the station. As usual, security is an issue on the “trolebus” as they are so crowded. I had one hand clinging to the overhead bar, the elbow one my other arm over one bag, and my carry-on size bag wedged between my legs to keep it secure.

This was our second side-trip by bus, and the huge, glass and white gleaming bus station did not seem so intimidating the second time around. After buying some snacks and water, we boarded the luxurious bus. The bus driver was one of those serious-faced men who crack
wicked jokes, judging from the reactions of those whom he interacted with.  The bus was called “La Reina del Camino” (the Queen of the Road) and our driver drove as though he were the king of the road!

High altitude landscape

High altitude landscape

In fact, soon after we turned off of the Avenida de los Volcanes highway, he was pulled over for a speeding ticket (” exceso de velocidad”). He was so angry, he was wildly gesticulating and theatrically imploring the two police officers in their reflective vests, who calmly continued to write the ticket.



Typical decorated bus

Typical decorated bus

This bus is protected by the Baby Jesus

This bus is protected by the Baby Jesus

There was another employee at front of the bus, in the same white shirt and slick tie as the driver, who was called “El Controlador”. He made sure that the everybody paid, handed out the toilet key to ladies who wanted to use the on-bus toilet (guys were expected to wait until the next station) and handled any other problems that came up. This guy was a tall, dark-skinned muscular man who could have been a bouncer, but unlike the driver, he often broke into an amused grin. Both he and the driver had rather rough personalities, very different than the courteous people whom we had so far encountered in Quito.

Down, down down through the cloud forest

Down, down down through the cloud forest

The scenery was so gorgeous and went through so many changes during the day that we were both entranced, staring out the window under a spell. (Though it was a little hair-raising when the bus went around curves with the precipices far below). At first the landscape was similar to around Latacunga, with intensely green, almost vertical tree-bordered fields, stretching up to the snow-covered volcanic peaks. Then we descended into the cloud forest, so green and dense, with so many varieties of beautiful plants we did not know, growing up the steep valleys up into the low-hanging clouds. We particularly noticed the many vines, and a kind of tall tree with an umbrella-shaped crown of white flowers.

“At least for our return trip on Thursday”, I thought, “We will be on the inside lane, closer to the upward cliff!”

Bus drivers chatting with the station manager at one of the stops

Bus drivers chatting with the station manager at one of the stops

Now and then, few and far between, the driver would stop to let a passenger get on or off. Sometimes vendors would get on the bus, each with their bucket or basket of sweets, potato chips, or soft drinks…I’m sure these vendors got right on the other bus going the other way and rode back and forth between the same stop, every day. I can’t remember whether they paid a fare or not.

During one of the stops I got off to use the spotless bathroom within the station. As is the custom, there was a woman sitting there selling toilet paper, with a little sign saying “15 centavos”. This particular attendant took my dollar coin, and then seemed to ignore me. Only when I said “cambio?” did she give me the change. I think she was hoping I was one of those tourists who didn’t know what a dollar coin was.

These women keep the bathrooms so clean, and the coins are their only pay, I believe. If she’d offered the change I might have waved it aside, but as she didn’t offer it, I sure did ask for it!

At lower elevations we started to see banana trees

At lower elevations we started to see banana trees

They had insisted on taking our bags to put under the bus, which worried Kathy considerably. She had been told by friends to keep her bag with her and to absolutely refuse for anyone to take it. I said that we would just have to get off quickly so that we could make sure no one grabbed our bags. (What did happen was that the “controlador” handed both of us our bags personally as we exited the bus, remembering which bags were ours.)

Bamboo-walled houses, on stilts, with banana trees in the yard and hammocks strung up on the porches

Bamboo-walled houses, on stilts, with banana trees in the yard and hammocks strung up on the porches


As we got to the lower elevations, something in the entire atmosphere went through a profound change. I am not exaggerating when I say that if I didn’t know where we were I would have thought we were in Cuba or Haiti. The vegetation was tropical, including plantings of banana trees. The small houses were built high on posts, and they were sided entirely of halved bamboo poles…with front porches (also high off the ground) with hammocks hung from post to post. In the higher elevations, we’d seen people who were mostly of Indigenous heritage, as well as some Mestizo. Here, closer to the coast, the people appeared to have, added to this, some African blood as well.

IMG_4541Compared to the cities we’d seen before, these little coastal towns were shabbier, more cluttered, and more people were hanging out on the streets. Once could hear louder voices of people calling to eachother and joking with each other. Shorts and tight tank tops (and skinny stretch pants) were common on the women.


In the late afternoon, the bus stopped in front of a restaurant, a little rose-colored bulding with a lot of dusty tables outside under a ramada, pretty well filled with patrons. Judging by the familiarity which the staff greeted the driver and the “controlador”, it seemed to be their usual stopping place. The controlador” announced “hay tiempo para comprar algo de comer” (there was time for us to get something to eat). I went back to ask at the kitchen, back in the corner and bordered by a back and side wall, if I could get coffee. The answer was no, and that kitchen was the messiest restaurant kitchen I had ever seen!

Field of banana trees

Field of banana trees

“A la playa!” (to the beach) shouted the driver, when we all got back on the bus. They turned down the sound track of the movie (the third violent Jean-Claude Van Damme/”The Rock”/Schwarzenegger movie in a row) and turned up the salsa music loud. There were many more stops and more people got on and off. One of these was a very pretty, very large woman who stood by the driver, her ample rear end leaning against the ledge at the front of the bus, facing the rear. She carried on a lively conversation with the driver, which we couldn’t hear, but it was punctuated by loud belly-laughs from her in response to comments from him.

It was so obviously a completely different culture than in the high-altitudes of Ecuador.


The bar at the Hostal Cocabongo

The bar at the Hostal Cocabongo

Dusk was falling as we reached the bus station in Bahia de Caraquez. We walked along the beach road, savoring the relaxed small town feeling as we looked for the Hostel Cocabongo. A home-made sign stood before a place which was completely open to the the street, wooden tables and a bar with colorful tiles and a profusion of interesting collectibles.


A Swiss woman with long blonde hair and a short India-print dress came out to check us in.

We had clearly checked into “the Gringo Trail”!


When My EgyptAir Plane Changed Directions over the Mediterranean


The day started out well, sharing a taxi to the Rome airport with the tour group leader of the Rick Steves tour I’d just been on. She was interested to know of my experiences traveling in Egypt, and I loved talking about them to her.

Everything went well until the EgyptAir flight was canceled. They put us on a later flight to Sharm el Sheik, the resort on the red sea, saying that we’d just stay on that plane, and after Sharm el Sheikh, it would go  to Cairo.

I asked a Egyptian businessman who often traveled to Italy, if he could call my guide to tell him what had happened. He couldn’t get through to Ahmed. But the businessman assured me that if Ahmed called the airport, they would tell him that the passengers from our plane had been transferred to the plane which went first to Sharm El Sheik and then to Cairo.

(I found out later that Ahmed could tell from his phone that he had missed a call, and that his phone told him the businessman’s number. He called the businessman, who told him that my flight had been canceled.)

Then mid-flight, the captain announced that he had decided to go to Cairo first after all! Through the flight was officially a Sharm Al Sheikh flight!

All the Egyptians on board cheered!

The stewardess then asked the sexy Italian wife of an Egyptian to go to the microphone and say, in Italian, what had happened. Of course the Italians, who were all going to Sharm, all groaned!

So the plane turned around, midway across the Mediterranean, and headed for Cairo…

Once at the Cairo terminal, I tried again to let someone to call for me. This time a young lady, very nice and helpful, but she again couldn’t get through. So I just waited and waited. The cavernous main hall of the Cairo airport got emptier and emptier as people were picked up, and more and more dreary. I figured that Ahmed might arrive at the time that the Sharm El Sheik plane was originally scheduled to get to Cairo. But no one arrived. I was the only western woman in that part of the terminal, and the only unaccompanied woman.

Finally, at 1 AM (because the flight would have indeed gotten there by then if it had gone to Sharm el Sheik first) I finally decided that I would get a little more pro-active about things. I asked about whether there was an internet cafe. I was told that there indeed was one, but it took awhile to find it, going from terminal to terminal and asking for directions. I was very pleased to find that there was one, because I hadn’t been able to find one at all in the Rome airport, I kid you not.

After waiting, and then wandering around the late night airport, it was so great to find the internet cafe, brightly lit and lively with chatting young Egyptians of the educated type. They charged me twenty Egyptian pounds to get on line, which was equivalent to what I had paid in Italy (though I later found out that the going Egyptian rate was one pound!)

And what a huge relief, there was an e-mail from Leyla saying that Ahmed had seen that someone had tried to call him but had been in an elevator where there was no reception. When Ahmed called back the businessman’s number, he told them that my plane had been cancelled, so he and Leyla assumed I would be staying in Rome overnight. So I tried asking the young men to call Ahmed, and they did get through! I headed out in front of the terminal to meet him.

It turned out that when one calls from a cell phone in Cairo one must put an extra “o” had to go before the number. The Egyptian businessman in Rome did know this, so he had gotten through (except for the elevator) but the young lady who so kindly helped me when I arrived at the airport did not know this, and just dialed the number I’d given her, so she did not get through. The young men in the the internet cafe did know it, so they got through.

Ahmed was quite upset that I’d waited so long at the airport. I was just happy to finally be on my way to where I was going to stay for the next week.

It was great to see Leyla, she was so concerned about all of my problems getting there. She arranged with Ahmed to have some fish delivered to us, and it was half an hour until the delicious grilled fish arrived, with a container of tahine and a container of fresh bright red tomatoes and green herbs, chopped. I took the chance of eating them because Leyla said that Ahmed knows which places really wash the fruit and vegetables. We chatted a little more but I could hardly stay awake, my head was no sooner on my airplane neck pillow (because the Egyptian pillow was so thin and hard) and I was asleep.