Lost in Translation

Trip Start May 04, 2007
Trip End May 25, 2007

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Yesterday was a trip to a mountain town called Otavalo, famous for its daily market. Rather than navigate the public bus system, I went with a small group day tour that included transport from Quito. There were a couple of interesting stops along the way for views of the valleys, etc. The drive up the Pan-American highway was scenic, but quite treacherous, despite the brand new smooth pavement. All vehicles, including ours, totally ignored any solid double yellow lines or other indicators of no passing zones, even on the craziest hairpin turns with sharp drops. It was best for my peace of mind just not to pay too much attention.

Our guide Santiago was fortunately good at distracting us by pointing out landmarks and telling us a bit about the history of the area. He told us that Ecuador has a whole lot of volcanoes packed within its borders - 80 or so, I believe. The vast majority are in the Galapagos Islands, and most are not active, but one near Quito erupted just a few years back. We saw three of them on the way to Otavalo.
After some time at the market, where I bought some parchment artwork and soft alpaca wool items, we went to another town called Cotacachi for lunch and more buying opportunities at its famous leather shops. Santiago waved a hand in the general direction of the shopping area and told us to meet at the plaza in an hour. I headed off on my own, getting quite absorbed in browsing around various shops. I decided not to buy anything and headed to the plaza early. However, a couple of minutes before our meeting time, there was still no sign of anyone else from the group. With a sinking feeling, I suspected I might be at the wrong place. I walked up to a group of taxi drivers to ask about other possibilities. No English at all, so in my terrible Spanish, I asked something like: "Esta plaza solamente en la ciudad?"   "No, muchas otros plazas", one of them said with a wave of his arm, and they all went back to their card game, realizing I was not going to give them any business. 

 Panic set in. I was lost in a town two hours from my home base of Quito (from where my flight was to depart the next day), unable to communicate effectively. The one day I really needed my Spanish phrasebook, it was left on the bed back at my hotel room. Adrenaline pumping, I started running back up the hill I had come down and searched for the restaurant we had started from. The streets and shops all looked the same, so I felt like I was walking in circles. Finally, I found it. In broken Spanish again, I managed to ask the restaurant owner where the plaza was to meet my "grupo".  Thankfully he knew and pointed me in the right direction. I sprinted the three blocks and was relieved to spot the van with my group members casually making their way towards it.  Whew!  Thanks to the Latin tendency not to be worried about punctuality and my smart decision to wear practical shoes, I was not left behind.

This morning, I headed over to Quito's old town to wander around the narrow hilly streets and take a look at the colonial architecture. It's was as pretty as advertised, and I just sat on a bench for a while to soak it all in. 
Compared to Peru, there are more new cars on the roads in Ecuador, and people generally seem to be more financially well off.  Santiago said yesterday that since a lot of people lost money back in 2000 when the country shifted from their old currency to US dollars, they no longer trust banks and prefer to spend their cash on cars and other consumer goods vs investing. Whatever the reason, the whole country has a slightly richer feel than Peru. One thing the countries DO have in common is the presence of armed guards in bullet proof vests guarding all major stores, hotels, banks, and ATM's. I'm not sure whether to feel safe or afraid! Although this has been an amazing trip, that is just one more thing that makes me appreciate home.  

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