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Cotopaxi

Our final hike of the trip is up to the Cotopaxi Refuge, which more serious trekkers use as their kicking off point to climb Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest volcanoes at over 19,000 feet.  Superficially, we aren’t too worried about the hike as it’s about 2 kilometers long and about 1000 feet up; however, on our way to the starting point, we get out of our vehicle to walk about 100 feet of particularly rough road, and we start to really respect how thin the air is.

We eventually hike up to the Refuge at 15,748 feet, all of which we realize count once we get up that high.  Our heads, stomachs, lungs and muscles are all feeling the altitude.  With the weather forever changing, the volcano towering ahead of us, and a vast landscape behind, we slowly and steadily make the trip up and down the short trail.

Ponchos and chaps

Atop our horses, them wearing saddles, us wearing ponchos and chaps, we set off towards Cotopaxi Volcano.  The fog has fully settled and visibility isn’t much more than 50 feet.  Just when leaving the stable, we spot an owl resting on a post swiveling its head to follow us as we pass.  The scene is beautifully eerie, and at the same time as the clouds begin to lift, the sun starts to set causing a very warm afternoon hue to welcome us back to our lodge for the evening.

Swing at the end of the world

Mora, mint, gooseberries, and babaco

We are generally strong hikers, or so we like to think, but on this trek we held a consistent spot in the back of the pack. The destination was the journey, and we were in no rush to leave the trail behind us. We were on a two-day hike through the Llanganates National Park, dressed in wellies with the imminent threat of rain that never came.

One guide led the way, the other tailed. Andrew, in his persistent habit to make fast friends everywhere he goes, began conversing with Juan Carlo. Juan Carlo steadied every flower I spotted for Andrew to photograph on his iPhone. He pulled fruits and plants from the ground to share with us – mint, gooseberries, babaco. We laughed as we compared the $.10 price of an avocado in Ecuador to the $2.00 price of an avocado in California. You could almost see the pain on Juan Carlo’s face when we told him an avocado may be closer to $4.00 on the East Coast, so we didn’t even broach the subject of avocado toast. Our favorites were the mora berries. They grew in abundance, naturally and farmed, and were shipped across Ecuador to make jugo naturales and vino.

Juan Carlo saw his family friend on the path, an older gentleman who owned a farm large enough to house fruit and livestock. Arnaldo was carrying a machete, and excitedly abided by Andrew’s request to look strong for a photo.

Before sunset we arrived at our camp, a covered flat in the middle of the park where our guides had squeezed together ten tents. The land was owned by a family who farmed trout, so as promised, we fished for our dinner in a pond containing hundreds of trucha. The family got to work, skinning and deboning to create an Ecuadorian feast for the group of us. We ended the night by dipping marshmallows in moonshine to watch them be engulfed by flames over the hot blaze of our campfire, with the rain that had held off pouring onto the tin roofs.

And the next day, we began again.

Chasing waterfalls

The city of Banos, Ecuador is known for its thrills, including some that just seem silly and nauseating like putting yourself in a ball that rocks like a pendulum while spinning.  From the menu of activities, Lindsey and I choose canyoning not fully knowing what to expect yet still having confidence we’d love it.  And like any good adventure, it starts by putting on all sorts of gear.  We have booties, wet suits, helmets, harnesses, carabiners and more.

We know we’ll be repelling down five waterfalls, a measure by which I try to control my anxiety levels as we go.  Heights aren’t exactly my thing, but when being pelted by a strong waterfall and controlling my descent by feeding rope through closed hands, at least I have some things to keep my mind off of the 3-story tall waterfall.  With that, I can report that by waterfall number 5, I felt much more confident, but I’m pretty sure I was still gripping the rope roughly 10x stronger than I needed to.  All of my muscles are sure to be sore from this one.

Throughout the adventure, Lindsey chooses to be afraid during the times when I’m not.  We take turns.  She checks and rechecks every piece of gear we put on.  Takes a while, and I’m not sure it makes her feel too much better, but it is something to keep us busy.  By the time we get to the top of the waterfalls, however, Lindsey settles into her role making me feel better about what we are about to do.  She is able to zip down most of the waterfalls and even graciously captures me in action as it takes me about twice as long to get down.  Thanks Linds!

Inspirational species diversity

Coming to Ecuador inspired me to read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  And at the end of his argument that evolution takes place through a process called natural selection, he writes:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859

It is humbling and incredible to think that evolution encompasses all life for over 3 billion years.  Although evolution is often pitted against creation, there is something wholly, not to be confused with ‘holy’, religious about the evolutionary process.

In a recent read of the “Evolution of God” by Robert Wright, Wright describes religion in many ways, but one that stuck with me was a definition developed by William James: religion consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.  Given our short lifespans, it does not seem a far stretch to call evolution an ‘unseen order’.  And although a Lamarckian inheritance might be closer to us being able to conspicuously adjust ourselves to the evolutionary order, I view the Darwinian inheritance theory to be much more harmonious.

And harmoniously adjusting ourselves is a critical component to James’ definition.  Being humble while adding to and protecting the world’s beauty is how I believe we can fit into the unseen order described by Darwin’s famous theory.

Jorge de la selva y el Rio Napo

The views from the Napo River are of the same jungle we trekked through yesterday, but this new perspective makes them seem even wilder.  The species of trees and plants easily number in the tens of thousands, and the texture that such diversity paints along the banks of the river is other worldly.  At times we find ourselves lost in our raft games led by our guide, George of the Jungle, a.k.a. Jorge de la selva.  These games include getting stuck on rocks, surfing, spinning in circles, being human hood ornaments and more.  At other times, we navigate exhilarating rapids.  And then at others, we pause, and we get to look around, take in our surroundings, and try to absorb as much as we can, not including inhaling the water through the rapids.

Shimmying with vipers and bats

To set the scene, our first full day in Ecuador is in the Napo Province on the edge of the Amazon jungle.

Pushing away Jurassic leaves, we walk over rooted rocky paths through a humid rain forest where we hear the sounds of water overhead but because of a dense canopy, none is really felt.  At first glance, the hike’s excitement comes from dodging “bullet” ants whose bites sting for up to 24 hours and admiring vines that are perfect monkey ladders.  The path is a bit slippery which challenges my balance now and again, and I find myself running into spider webs seemingly none with spiders attached.  Once we get down to a slow-moving stream, our nature walk quickly becomes more of an Amazonian trek.

The so-called wellies that we were given are starting to make more sense.  We walk through the calf-high stream and suddenly stop when Jose, our guide, comes to a halt.  It’s a baby viper snake.

Jose finds a long stick, splits the end into a fork, and traps the snake’s head in the “y”.  Not sure exactly what his plan is as he wrangles the snake with his stick in one hand while wielding a machete in the other.  After about 10 seconds of chaos, the snake wriggles its way out of Jose’s hold and starts swimming downstream.  I learn that when a frightened viper swims, it keeps its head above water creating a very intimidating s-shape as it goes.  It finds a fallen tree trunk and climbs up, but not too high.

As it sits there watching the path, Jose stands between the snake and us hikers while we tip-toe around.  Luckily, we’ve learned that we have a full 2 hours to get to a hospital after being bitten before we’d have to amputate a limb.  So, worst case scenario, we’re probably screwed.  The guide’s sweat seems only to be from the weather and not the stress, but all of us are holding our breaths nonetheless.  We remain on the lookout for the rest of the hike, but are pleased not to be greeted by any other slithering reptiles.

Next on the tour, we approach caves of bats.  While I’m enjoying my full Bruce Wayne awakening moment, I find Lindsey in a fetal position far back on the trail.  Apparently, Lindsey suffers from chiroptophobia.  I thought we’d shared our phobias before marriage, but I guess we continue to learn more about each other every day.  Marriage truly is a gift.

I manage to only get slammed into by two bats, one of which comes in with quite some force.  So much so that it ricochets back towards Lindsey who ducks just in time; actually, I think she was down the whole time, but so goes the story.  Lindsey, from her squatted position, avoids all contact from these creatures.  Jose tells us repeatedly that these are just fruit buts, but that still doesn’t help alleviate Lindsey’s fear that they’re human flesh-eating nightmares.

And if the final phase of the hike wasn’t going to be difficult enough, we need to now shimmy up a crease between 2 shear rocks keeping a look out for the blind bats just waiting to poop on us.  With our feet pressed on one rock and our back against another, we make slow and steady movement upwards.  And because of my healthy fear of heights, I psych myself up to conquer this, but frighteningly our trip-mate right just ahead falls from over 7 feet up.  After a slow-motion fall, I hold my breath waiting to assess the damage.  She jumps right up with spirits still very high.  But my adrenaline is now at code red.  I try to slow my breath as this moment isn’t about me, it’s about her.  Luckily, besides a couple bruises she’s actually totally fine.  I’m not convinced if I attempt the same fall, I would get the same fate.

Without looking too far down for fear of falling or too far up for risk of getting bat poop in my eye, I just keep making progress.  Relieved when we get to the top, this is just the first 20 feet of shimmying, and we have another half mile before reaching solid footing.

We survive, the viper survives, the bats survive, and as we wrap up our first full day in Ecuador, we gain a whole new appreciation for the Amazon.

Honeymooning in Venice

Wining and dining in Portugal and Venice

One of the true highlights of this trip are its meals.  And not only because the food, the wine, and the atmosphere of so many of them are beyond special.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all times that Lindsey and I get to completely slow down, be together, and just talk about our honeymoon, our wedding, and our future plans.  I’ll try to capture our favorite spots:

Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa – the small tastes at the start of the meal might have been my favorite, but the sardine and suckling piglet still make my mouth water.  We highly recommend this small Lisbon restaurant.

O Paparico in Porto – knocking on a door to enter into a restaurant that brought us back in time, it almost doesn’t matter how good the food is because the experience starts off so well. The food doesn’t disappoint either.  A couple favorites from here are the terrine and the clams in a pork sauce.

Pedro Lemos – We get the corner table so that we can watch as the restaurant fills up because our 8:30pm reservation is a little on the early side.  The standout dish from PL is the seared tuna with wasabi pearl onions.

DOC by Chef Rui Paula – Sitting right along the Douro river, we split several apps and mains, and this may be the best octopus we’ve ever tasted.

Six Senses – Right at our hotel in the Douro Valley, we have one of the best lamb shoulders we’ve ever had (not sure I’ve ever had one before).  The view isn’t bad either.

Trattoria alla Madonna – We hear this place hasn’t changed in the last 50 years, and decide to try it out on our first night in Venice.  The fish risotto, branzino, and tiramisu can’t be missed!

Osteria Acquastanca – A surprise hole-in-the-wall on the island of Murano.  It was quiet, cool, and the food, especially the gnocchi, is homemade and great.

Antiche Carampane – Super small and Italian and away from the tourists of Venice, this spot had some delicious squid ink tagliatelle followed by some bite-sized soft shell crab cooked perfectly.

Al Covo – A beautifully done Americanized restaurant in Venice.  The excellent service was the most familiar to us, and the food was great with our favorite being a meat rigatoni dish.