Tuesday, December 1, 2015

South America!

Our last few days in Panama City were almost like we were just students again. We woke up, ate breakfast, headed to class, combined learning with joking around, scrounged up a cheap lunch, did some sort of hike or activity, went home for dinner, completed our homework, and went to bed. Jonathan even had a migraine one morning so I got to re-live him skipping class, even if it was a legitimate excuse. Since Jon felt so miserable, I took it upon myself to relax for the both of us by investing in a roll of cookies, carton of milk, and settled into my book.

Our last day of classes was a lazy student's dream. We did a bit of work in the morning, then got out of the classroom to "experience culture" on the bus and "learn new foods" by exploring a market. It was essentially the same cop out of teaching as putting on the magic school bus in elementary school. It was even better since we bought some of the fruit and brought it back for smoothies with milk called batidos. To finish up the day, we got a ride into the old part of Panama City called Casco Viejo. It was absolutely beautiful to walk through with old colonial buildings, small coffee shops and restaurants, an ocean view with the downtown skyline in the distance, and lots of artisian vendors on the street. It was full of history and interesting sights, but only half of the city was reconstructed. They are currently in the process of fixing it up, and it is amazingly apparent where they have made alternations and what has yet to be touched.

With our language school over and a diploma in our hands, it was finally time to face the real world again. We had the task of getting our bikes on a plane for Ecuador looming in the future, and not much excitement to make it happen. The to do list was long enough and there were enough variables to make it a real pain of an experience. With a variety of googled bike shops saved on our map, we started out the door in search of three boxes to use for the plane. Stopping early on to check directions, in our true lucky fashion we saw a bike on top of a car pull into a bike shop just in front of us. Checking it out, they didn't have boxes but they spoke English, were willing to give us discounts on a full bike cleaning and replacement parts, and recommended another shop that might have boxes we could use.

Navigating the twisting ramps and traffic, we found the store they were talking about and were blown away. It was the biggest, cleanest bike shop I've ever seen. Thankfully, they had three boxes we could take, but sadly they were small, medium, and large. Now that we had our boxes taken care of, we had to find a hostel nearby so we could carry the boxes there and dismantle the bikes at our leisure. With things working out surprisingly well as usual, we rode back to the first shop, got a thorough cleaning and replaced some parts, then headed back to the hostal.

Packing the bikes was... creative. The big box worked great, the medium was okay, and the small was a problem. We ended up taking off handlebars and front racks for all of the bikes, placing an extra front tire in the large box, removing the rear rack and fork for the small box, and all deflating our tires and pulling off derailures for protection. Stuffing clothes and gear in the sides, the whole process took about 3 hours. Our plan the next morning was ride the bus with these giant boxes, but the man who ran the hostal thought it was a terrible idea and made some calls. We ended up getting a pickup truck to give us a ride, greatly simplifying our transportation situation. Thanks hostal man.

At the airport, we had the moment of truth and failed. The boxes needed to be under 32 kilograms, but only one of the three was. Also, on the airline site it says boxes must be under 64 inches. What they don't say is that is a sum of length, width, and height, not just length so we all got to pay a $107 oversize fee. To avoid the overweight few as well, we opened up our gear, mixed and matched items, eventually all being under 32 kilos although the box the furthest under the limit was by 0.8. Professional packing all around. Hoping for the best, we said goodbye to our gear and tried not to imagine the possible damage done from them getting tossed and smashed.

Luckily, the flight gave us plenty to keep our mind on happier things. Fully appreciating a soft seat, air conditioning, a mid flight snack, a small glass of wine, and the piece of mind that the whole packing process was over, we felt like we were getting the royal treatment. All three of us were by the window right after one another, keeping our bike drafting formation constant. The best part about our flight, however, was the view. We had a beautiful day of flying with the most tranquil blue sky interspersed with large fluffy clouds. I don't know if I ever remember such perfect flying views, and we all agreed maybe piloting is in our futures if it is anything close to that.

Tired from travel and arriving late, we were so thankful to have a ride waiting for us on the other end of customs. Friends of my dad named Santi and Carolina that I have been fortunate enough to meet live in Quito, and somehow graciously thought that housing three guys and their girlfriends sounded like a fun time. We left the airport in their cars, stuffing the bike boxes in one and people in the other, and made the trip back to their place. Walking in the door, it is immediately obvious where at least one of their passions lie. Half of the main room is a fully stocked industrial kitchen with every appliance you could possibly need to make any sort of food. For three guys traveling on bikes and trying to cook over a small stove, having people that can make quality food and all the tools to do so is essentially like a toddler in a candy shop. Throw in the realization that we were staying for Thanksgiving and you might as well call it heaven.

The next couple days, we put our bikes back together and were amazed to see no severe damage although the boxes had been a bit crunched. With a few parts still looking a little off or rolling roughly, Santi recommended us a bike shop that gave everything a finishing touch on the bikes, including repacking bearings in our hubs and pedals for a grand total of $8. Deal.

As Emily and Katie arrived, we got familiar with the bus system and explored downtown Quito. The number of cathedrals in this city is astounding and they all have a different feel. Some are well painted, one is entirely gold, one is a gothic structure with local animals instead of gargoyles, and many more we didn't have time to see. Since Quito is in a valley, it is extremely long and not very wide. To get a better vantage point, I climbed 900 stairs to an aluminum statue of the virgin Mary that looks over the town. Absolutely an incredible view but the hike made me realize we were back up at elevation and on the way down I must have smelled bad because the neighborhood pack of dogs went insane. Armed with my waterbottle as a squirt gun, I yelled, pretended to throw things at them and made some kicks to keep them from getting closer as I scurried away from their territory.

Coming back to the house, we prepared for a Thanksgiving feast. Santi and Carolina invited a few more friends and we had a night to remember. Trying to contribute, I made a sausage stuffing our family generally makes. However, knowing that there is a great standard for quality food here, the fact that I've never made it before, and not having the same ingredients made me a little nervous. For example, instead of sausage I got freshly ground pork and was tasked with seasoning it myself. All things aside, I think it turned out since it got eaten during the meal, although far from the highlight. We also had an Ecuadorian version of the sweet potato and marshmallow dish, but it used local purple yams, green beans, a mango base sauce for a gravy, a deep fried turkey, and Kai and Katie made an apple crisp with Carolina's vanilla and chocolate frozen yoghurt for dessert. Complete with craft beer, wine, champagne, and excellent company, we had a wonderful night and had the satisfaction of sitting around a large table like a giant family.

I don't know what everyone else thought, but I was amazed by the turkey cooking process. A giant pot outside was filled with oil and heated with an industrial burner attached to a long arm. The turkey was then put on a long rod and slowly lowered into the vat of oil, amazing cooking it to perfection since the crisp outside held in all the juices. Santi monitored the temperature to ensure it was done properly and we stood around it like a campfire. Incredibly fun and tasty.

Wrapping up our Quito stay, I cannot say enough about the graciousness of our hosts. They went well out of their way to pick us up from the airport, opened their home to three people they hardly know, found time to show us parts of town, local cuisines, markets, and sights despite working full time during the week, cooked amazing snacks and put on an unforgettable thanksgiving party, researched bike shops for us, and mastered giving us space while still being helpful and accommodating. Their hospitality has been inspiring and just another encouraging example of the kindness we have felt on this trip. Their flexibility to allow us to stay despite a concrete departure date has been incredible. The two of them have given us a perfect entrance into Ecuador, and provided an experience we will never be able to repay. I can only hope that they continue to live such amazing lives full of activity and delicious food, and I know I will take with me lessons on how to be wholly welcoming and accommodating. In a season of thankfulness, they have made it easy to realize what we have to be thankful for.

Looking to the future, it sounds like Jon and Emily, as well as Kai and Katie will be traveling around Ecuador by bus and taking in as much as possible. As for myself, I've been itching to get back on the bike and see the whole countryside. Realizing that biking alone is different and there are suddenly mountains again, I'm excited to accept the challenge. We are planning to meet back up in southern Ecuador to continue the journey. I will be keeping the spot beacon with me so you have to follow and hear about my experiences instead of theirs. Sorry in advance. Thanks for reading and can't wait to see what else lies ahead! If the rest of South America is anything close to as friendly and comfortable as our stay in Quito, we may never leave. Thanks as always for reading and hope you all had a Thanksgiving as happy as ours!


  1. Its really awesome post!!!!Be an American who has been living in Europe for most of the last 10 years here are my two cents:

    1. I agree with the person below about driving. Don't do it. The distances are long, gas is really expensive over here (8 - 10 bucks a gallon). Take the train. Plus they drive quite a bit faster on their highways over here and it can be intimidating if you're not used to it. Look into how a Eurrail pass works. know more visit here.Thanks:)

  2. Thanks for sharing the details. Well, currently I am very busy so I can’t attend such outdoor events. You know my family just had a small party at best event space nyc last weekend but I couldn’t join them and now feel so bad for that!