Hello Miami…

December 30, 2006

Arrived in Miami. Almost as much Spanish speaking here as in Ecuador, which is nice.

The only other nice thing is the Art Deco buildings around where we’re staying in South Beach (or SoBo).

Think I’m suffering from culture shock and home sickness for the volcanoes and friendly faces of Ecuador.

Did wonder if I was sabotaging my departure as I went back to Pintag for a last few drinks with the lads and ended up getting a local guy – Hector – to drive me from Pintag to the airport at 4.30am. Sadly, I made my flight. And even though my visa was a day overdue I had a lovely lady on the desk who popped another stamp in my passport and let me out. I guess I really was supposed to leave.

Arrived in super trendy Miami in my cuban healed boots and cowboy hat. Have since modified wardrobe into summer skirts and boho chic. (Or tried).

It’s hard not to spend money here. Katherine and I are doing our very best to keep it cheap. Although today I fell in love with an Art Deco necklace and a twin pearl ring. (Hello credit card). In the interests of keeping it cheap (as opposed to real, we’re deep in the ‘hood here), I had a little scout around the communal areas of the hostel (www.clayhotel.com) and found some random Americans – Chuck, George and a Puerto Rican called Carlos. Chuck and George have guitars. Had a little play on Chuck’s – ’69 Fender Stratocaster, gold – and we drank cheap wine on one of the balconies of the hostel overlooking a trendy street of restaurants.

Because everything is super expensive – especially compared to Ecuador – the guys were showing us some of the cheaper eating spots and some of the free things you can do in town… like getting into nightclubs and cool hotels via the beach entrances…

Seems like there’s going to be loads going on tomorrow for New Years. Fireworks on the beach, Ocean Drive is closed for a street party, as is the road outside our hotel. It’s not going to be the same without you guys, but I hope whereever you are you’re having as cool a time as we are. And – I can hardly believe this – I’ll be home in just over two weeks to see you all for real.

Have a great night tomorrow and… Happy New Year!!


Final curtain

December 27, 2006

I haven’t got time to write this post as I NEED TO PACK!! But here goes, really quickly.

Had a lovely Christmas with everyone out here. Put tinsel on the horses (as opposed to the tree – as we don’t have one), opened a few pressies and even had a turkey dinner (nothing like yours though Mum). We dished out sweets from horse back on the ride to little kids, because at this time of year the roads are lined with kids holding out their hands, begging for sweets, money, anything. It’s completely heart-wrenching.  

Yesterday the group rode from Hacienda La Merced to a small village, Olmeda. I wasn’t riding (only rode on Christmas Eve actually), but I was waiting to meet them in the square at Olmeda at lunchtime with Santiago and the landrover. We packed the tourists off in their minibus and Sally and I said goodbye – I won’t be seeing her again now.

And that was that.

We drove back to the farm in Pintag in the landrover as normal – actually not quite as normal we had lots of little stops to dish out chocolates to the kids and for me to snivel pathetically into my tissues (no quiero salir!!!!) – And this morning instead of getting back into the landrover to go South for the second half of the tour, I got a lift to El Collibri to catch a bus back to Quito – to pack.  

It’s now 11am and I’ve just whizzed down to Mariscal to pick up my new riding boots and a repaired bag that Sally is lending me for all my extra stuff, then I’m off to meet Angie for lunch, print off some photos for Patricio and Santiago then get myself back to Pintag for 4pm for a night out with the lads. The last one. No mascara for sure.

Here’s a few pics of the last tour… no sleep till Miami.



Well actually he’s the ex-minister for agriculture, he was the actual one 4 years ago. Although I didn’t realise quite how important he was when I went sallying into his house calling buenos dias this morning.

A lovely guy, Rodriguez Lasso, probably in his early 60s and a bit like a German army general crossed with an English gentleman speaking some English in a stilted Ecuadorian/American accent.

I went to his hacienda – the name of which is hard to pronounce but means tropical forest – with Ivy, my LA music producer tourist, who’s out riding with us for 2 weeks.

Snr Lasso has lots of Peruvian Passo horses. These are gaited horses, which move their legs differently to regular horses and because of this are super-smooth to ride. However it turned out that of his 28 horses, 4 were lame and so only Ivy got to actually ride a Peruvian Passo. Boo hiss. Snr Lasso rode a quarter horse crossed with a Argentine polo pony, and I had something or other crossed with a trotting horse. Which was rather lively to say the least.

Ivy’s horse had a 2 and a half month old foal at foot and if I’m honest I don’t know whether she should have been riding the mare at all. It was a very marish mare and was only interested in its foal and not so much in being ridden. Whenever I rode near to Ivy it stuck its ears back and kicked me. Actually landing two hard kicks on my foot with its back (thankfully unshod) hooves. (My foot’s fine by the way, we had the traditional Ecuadorian stirrup cups which cover your whole foot and protect you from newly foaled mares).

The hacienda – about 160 years old and a gift along with 2500 hectares from the King of Spain to one of Snr Lasso’s ancestors – is about an hours drive South of Quito, situated in the verdent green valley of Machachi. As I may have mentioned before this area is where most of Ecuador’s milk is produced. Snr Lasso’s hacienda or 200 hectares has 350 dairy cows and produces 3000 litres of milk per day. For which they get paid 30 cents per litre. Although they have had all sorts of problems in recent years as their was a surplus of milk and the price dropped to 25 cents and nearly bankrupted them. (Although they looked pretty rich, so I doubt this bit.)

As with farms in the UK, the Ecuadorians have been under pressure to improve productivity and cut costs and so farms and diary herds have become larger. You can really see this in Machachi as all the dairy herds are over a couple of hundred head, milking twice a day on automatic American milking machines. So sadly, in this instance in Ecuador smaller farmers haven’t done so well. Incidentally don’t have milk quota out here and Snr Lasso sells his milk directly to Toni a yogurt and cheese brand out here. Neither do they need to make silage or hay as the cows live outside on fresh grass all year round.

The reason Machachi has done so well is because it has tremendously fertile land which basks in the warm sunshine and receives rain from the Amazon as it comes over the Andes and also from the sea as it comes in from the coast. Plus I didn’t know this until today, but Machachi is also famous for growing huge cabbages (sorry didn’t manage to get a picture) but they were huge, you’d struggle to hold a whole one in your arms. They grow lots of other vegetables, beans, potatoes, and quinoa – a grain, 17% protein (extremely good for you) – which only grows at altitudes of over 3000 meters. (We had quinoa soup for lunch, very tasty).

In fact Snr Lasso also told us over lunch, and being ex-agriculture minister he should know, that Ecuador is the 4th largest exporter of argritultural produce to the United States behind Canada, Argentina and Costa Rico. Pretty impressive for a country no bigger than Britain.

I took a few pics of the place, but nothing outstanding, as I was on “guide duty”, ie supposed to be working not being a tourist as well, and they’re on flickr. The inside of the house was like something you’d pay a few quid in England to look around. Beautiful furniture, friezes painted on the walls and ceilings, a glass covered indoor patio with fountain. You know just the normal stuff!

Anyway, it was a lovely visit and should I ever return I have an open invitation to pop down and ride the horses. Lovely people out here you know.

Hasta luego Anne!

December 19, 2006

So Anne’s gone, back to the UK to enjoy the family Christmas. Lucky lady.

I’ve shared a room – something I’ve not done before in my life – with her for the best part of 4 months. And – lovely girl that she is – she hasn’t once complained about my mess, the piles of clothes kicking around all over the place and has simply chucked her dirty undies onto the communal pile. It was a mess, but we were happy in it. 

In true form we had a couple of drinks to say goodbye.

Anne in a bar in Guapulo.

Anne in a bar in Mariscal.

We even went out for a meal at somewhere mentioned in lots of the Quito guidebooks… Mama Ecuatoriana or something. I walk past it all the time, but had never been in. It’s been around for years and has on its menu lots of traditional Ecuadorian dishes. It’s pretty similar infact to the food we have in the haciendas on tour… papas, arroz, lomo, locro soup etc. With one exception… you can have the Ecuadorian delicacy – Cuy (guinea pig).

Anne being a brave and adventurous soul thought it was about time she took the plunge and ordered the furry little rodent. (Or half of one, it’s quite pricey, like ordering lobster at home).

It came, whole, deep fried and acompanied by some dubious salad and an avocado. 

For me comparisons with lobster don’t end with the price. It’s a grotesque thing to eat, it looks like does when it’s alive, except covered in batter, but it seems batter doesn’t stick to eyes, little feet and claws that well because they’re really easy to make out. I remember my boss when I worked in States taking me out for a posh meal of lobster and I just hated breaking apart the legs and tail, whilst the little thing looked at me from dead black eyes. I really don’t need to order lobster again and I don’t need to order cuy either.

There’s very little meat on a cuy and Anne spent a good half hour poking around at it with her knife and fork, pulling off stringy little bits of gamey coloured meat. I tried a bit of meat, but it wasn’t really like anything and didn’t have much taste. Fortunately Anne had a filling locro soup (potato, cheese and avocado) for a starter and wasn’t really in need of a substantial main course, because she can’t have got more than an egg-cup full of meat of the sad little hairy carcass. Just like my lobster in Maine, a miserable meal, both in what it is and actual amount you get to eat. Anyway we’ve tried it now (well Anne ordered it, but I can say I’ve tried it) and we don’t need to again.

Spot the head of the cuy…

Changing the subject a little, the day before she left we (Sally, Anne and myself) drove up to Pintag in the Mitsubishi to have a small leaving, multi-birthday and pre-Christmas celebration. (Jose Sebastian turned 5 in November, me, then both Christian and Anne will be 25 next week). Prior to this I had been dispatched to the local and newly opened Supermaxi (aka Ecuadorian Asda), to purchase crisps, fizzy pop and a big cake. (I didn’t skimp on the crisps).

We took up some Christmas presents – though were mildly chastised by Sally for buying Patricio a bottle of whiskey; she thinks he drinks too much, and she may be right – and a stack of excitingly wrapped presents for Jose Sebastian, who on his birthday had just a cake (no presents. People here don’t have much).

After a slow party start (it was the equivalent of an office party complete with boss, but without booze) it turned out really lovely. Patricio loved the photos from the last sixth months that we’d printed out and popped in a presentation box for him and Jose Sebastian was glued to his new Lego. To roundup the party – and what kind of kids party is it without a pass-the-parcel?!? – we taught Patricio, Magdelena, Jose Sebastian and Christian how to play pass the parcel. It was very popular and as the music mistress (a genuine grown up at a kids party for the first time in my life) I stopped the music in all the right places, whilst pretending not to look so everyone got a chocolate hidden in the layers of paper. All in all it was very wholesome and nice afternoon.

me, lego and Jose Sebastian

When it came time to leave and for Anne to say goodbye, she took it all really well and I was the one with tears in my eyes. Thank goodness everyone will be on Christmas holidays or working on the tour when I leave… so I’ll be able to creep away quietly.

The house is now a slightly quieter place, I do the washing up more often, but there’s less of it. And I no longer have to walk at 10 miles an hour to keep with her – for a small girl she walked incredibly quickly.

With a bit of luck some of you will meet her as she has family up in Yorkshire and intends to come up and sample what Leeds has to offer. Once she’s got herself a swanky new job that is. Anyone know of anything in London? I can vouch for her hardworking and hard-partying skills…

Merry Christmas…

December 18, 2006

As this year I don’t have the chance to attend (and embarrass myself) at any Christmas parties… I’ve – foolishly – decided to send you all Christmas greetings via the nifty Elf Myself.


Have a wonderful Christmas and I hope to see you in the New Year.

Your friend,

The elf

A month left…

December 14, 2006

Only 31 days to go until I arrive back in Miserable Manchester. 

At the moment I’m reminded of before I came out here. Counting down the days in a mad panic of packing, note writing and financial organisings before my flight to the scarey unknown in Ecuador.

It feels like years ago.

Wierd, everything back at home is still as sharp a memory as if it were yesterday; walking down the road to the shop, driving to work, sitting in my Mum’s kitchen… but it’s also years and years away. Wonder if Ecuador will all feel like a big dream when I touch down in Manchester. Have a horrible suspicion that it might.

Good job in that case that I’ve got a private tour with an American called Ivy to keep me busy next week and the week after the Christmas tour. I leave part way through the Christmas tour, which should make things easier when I actually have to go. There’ll be no-one to say goodbye to. (Anne goes on Monday, back to the UK, and Sally and the boys will be with the tourists, somewhere galloping around Cotopaxi – lucky people).

So Katherine – although I arrive a few hours ahead of you into Miami – you may have to take me down to the nearest pub and feed me a couple of beers and point out some handsome men to cheer me up. I fear you may have a blubbering misery guts on your hands for the first couple of days. Sorry in advance.

Although one quite nice thing I do have to do before I pack up and go though is the shopping!!! Shopping for gifts which won’t mean a sausage to those of you that receive them, but will mean tonnes and tonnes to me. So prepare yourself for bright knitted nastyness, trinkets and key rings, all plastered with “Ecuador”. If any of you have any ideas already of what you might or might not like – speak now. Or forever be happy with a knitted purse.

Umm… in an effort to cheer up the miserable nature of this instalment so far, I will also let you know that Christmas is also in full swing out here too. You can’t walk down the pavement without tripping over someone (well they are short) selling wrapping paper, cards or plastic kids toys. The shops and supermarkets are playing well known Christmas tunes (all in English – they don’t seem to have their own Christmas songs) and even the radio has got English Christmassy jingles… just waiting to hear Noddy Holder and it will be just like working back in Burtons.

Anne has been busily wrapping up gifts for our Christmas tourists – and (note to self) I really must get her something before she goes – and we’ve had a whole load of photos of Patricio and family, Santiago, Jose Javier and some of the other guys we work with printed out to pop in frames and albums to give them as presents. (These guys don’t have cameras, computers or anything, so pics of their friends and the tours mean a lot.) So it’s all coming along quite nicely on that front.

Sorry that I haven’t managed to send anything home to anyone in the UK to open. I am a rubbish person for that sort of thing. Although I did go and enquire at the UPS office how much it might be to send a package home (ie all the stuff I can’t fit in my rucksack, which I am afraid to say may be as much as a whole other rucksack now!), and she told me it was an incredible $80 for 1 measly kilo!

Well that’s not going to work, clearly.

So then I had an amble through American Airlines website to try and work out the baggage allowance… can’t say I really understood it, but will have to try and get my head around it again later. If only they say I can check in two bags of up to 22kg then I’ll be happy – I should be able to buy a knitted gaudily coloured bag in Otavalo and bring two bags back. Whooo-hoo!

In fact, someone may need to be dispatched to Manchester to give me a sober, thoroughly British, reality check in the airport. As I’ve got so used to seeing people in bright orange trouser suits that I am in danger of coming home wearing yellow and green carrying multicoloured knitwear for luggage.

Hasta luego! 

Cheers guys!

December 9, 2006

Thanks for all your happy birthday wishes guys. Had a heart-warming number of emails to read plus all the messages on the site and a few bits of post waiting for me. Including an email from Jess and Luke who as of Dec 4th are now the proud parents of baby Anna Mae!!!!!!

As usual I’ve been stringing out my birthday celebrations to last a little more than just the official 24 hours. Celebrations began on the 6th in Montañita and continued into the early hours of the 7th with Angie, Virginia and Rena, plus a few others – sweetheart German guy (into Goa Trance, been and DJ’d 7 times!) a Swiss-German girl and a few Americans and a Peruvian chef.  Managed to slip away to do a couple of cartwheels on the beach in private after midnight too.

(Me and Angie having a couple of celebratory Ecuadorian Pilseners on the balcony)

Left Montañita in the morning of the 7th (by bus up to Manta again) and flew into Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport in the afternoon, when I caught a bus to Ibarra (“The White City” – lots of colonial buildings and in a very sunny valley) in the North of Ecuador with a friend, finally making it back to the house in Quito on the 8th where Anne had bought me a lovely silver bracelet pressie and Sally had booked a table at our fave restaurant, Zazu’s. Nothing like packing it all in eh.

My week in Montañita was nice, but to be honest it wasn’t as good as I hoped. A dreadful shortage of men, a glut of Americans and a variety of illness. Angie developed ring worm, I have – at last count – 55 mosquito bites and Virginia spent a couple of days being sick.

(Montañita’s Beach)

(Mosquito bitten legs!)

In addition to that, the lovely Charo’s hostel was far more like a building site, where the builders came in and started hammering at 7am. Sadly this didn’t wake me up, as the local comedy cockerel (something wrong with this cockerel crow) would start just outside my window at 4.30. So most sleeping was done on the beach in the afternoons. (Before the tide came in and ate up the beach. On more than one occasion we got caught by a rogue high wave). 

(Girls on the beach)

I’m certainly not complaining though, as the hotel was clean, friendly owner, had private bathrooms – with lukewarm water (not the advertised “hot” which is like gold dust in Ecuador) – and came in at $8 a night (a bit over 4 quid).

(Charo, the owner, and Angie at the hostal)

They sell fresh oysters on the beach and crack open the rock-like shells with hammers to make super ceviche right in front of you. Although with my stomach history out here I went pretty steady, and made friends with a lovely old guy who would come down the beach in the afternoons selling hot chicken empanadas and squeeze fresh lime on them for you – 50 cents a pop.

I travelled back up the coast road to Manta and the airport on my own. Which was fine – have felt very safe travelling all around Ecuador, had the ocean on the left (West), the dry parched interior on my right (East), with the mountainous shadows of the Andes in the far distance.

After a loo stop in Puerto Lopez (I was drinking loads of water in preparation for coming back to almost 3000 meters in Quito and a 4 hour bus ride isn’t a great place to need the loo) we came into the port of Manta – which completely honks of dead fish and open sewers. With a bit of time to kill I had a spot of lunch in a chifa (Chinese) restaurant and was joined at my table by two retired Americans. The lady in her late 50s had taken 6 years to sail down from California, stopping at places for months or years that she liked on her way. Both Americans, Susan and John I think, had met in the harbour a day or two before hand and had their own boats moored in Manta.

John offered me a job crewing from Manta to the Galapagos and then up to Costa Rica in January. No way I can do it with my visa and coming home, but it did seem a bit of a fortuitous meeting, so if they email me later on (one of the boats is still being done up in dry dock) I’ll be passing the details onto Anne here or sending pestering emails to my brother to see if either of them fancy it. Anyone else fancy it? Laura?

After my uneventful flight back to Quito – where I tried to read the paper in Spanish – I got a taxi to the main bus depot and caught a bus to Ibarra, a bit more than 3 hours away.

Ibarra is where Patricio comes from and is pretty big with over 100,000 people. A lot of Otavaleñons live there because even though it’s only half an hour North from Otavalo, its position in a valley means they have great warm weather and less rain in winter. Found a lovely English pub style bar and stayed at the Hotel Madrid just around the corner. A bargain for $14 as they had… cable TV and English films!!!! Watched Star Wars, Splash, Demolition Man, Erin Brockovich… what a birthday, fantastic.

Back in Quito it was a grey and rainy afternoon, but I soon cheered up as Sally and Anne produced a LARGE chocolate cake for me. Drank a little too much wine, for one so recently returned to altitude in Zazu’s, (remember Sarah, that’s where we went?), and all in all had a great meal of stuffed squid bits and white tuna.

(Me and my dessert in Zazu’s)

And on the subject of birthdays… hope you’re having a good one Russ! 

Today Anne and I… went shopping. (Woefully short of beach-wear for Miami). And for Primark prices picked up a skirt, top and strapless bra. My new hand-made boots weren’t quite right – a bit too large – so they’re making another pair (!), and I’m going back in a week to pick them up.

Tomorrow it’s up to Pintag for 4 or 5 days, then – who knows. We have the Christmas tour on the 22nd, but one guest is a regular and I think I’m riding with her on the 19th-21st as well… have to see. Oh and before I went to the beach Sally gave me a pot of cash for the guiding I’ve been doing so everything’s hunky-dory there too.

Hope you’re all getting set for Christmas and enjoying the string of parties and fancy clothes buying that comes with it. Missed home a little bit recently too, but still gotta watch the old surprise water-works that keep creeping up on me about leaving. Hey ho, catch you all later and thanks again for all the birthday notes and emails!

‘tra, Shirl