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After a day or two couchsurfing in Trujillo, Ellen and I were ready to leave this noisy city on the coast and go back into the mountains. Fernando, our host, convinced us to stay a few days longer so he could take us fishing on Wednesday. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.

The plan was that our host would get everything ready for the fishing expedition, while Ellen and I were only responsible for our tents. We’d ride in a little boat to an island, where we’d camp, fish, have a bonfire, cook outdoors, and drink plenty of beers. We were leaving after Fernando finished teaching on Wednesday, and getting back before his afternoon class on Thursday. Or at least, that was the plan as Fernando described it the day before.

The beach by the pier at sunset

The beach by the pier at sunset

On Wednesday afternoon, we gathered our camping gear and hopped into a taxi to the oceanside, where we were to catch a boat to the island. We arrived at the pier just as the sun was setting. The surf was rough, the pier was almost deserted, and the few locals hanging around kept trying to dissuade us from going out. The town drunk was also there, bellowing at us and at the boats in the harbour, whose captains were not going anywhere near the pier with the seas in this condition. A man in a rowboat finally pulled up to the pier, and Fernando convinced him to take us to the big port a few piers down the beach.

I was totally confused about what was going on – when Fernando told me before that we were catching a boat to an island, I had assumed there were actually boats around. Silly me. Climbing into a rowboat in rough seas in the dark with all my camping gear was not what I had pictured at all. I was getting more and more frustrated with Fernando, who isn’t the brightest bulb in the house and whose plans for the trip, it was becoming apparent, were nonexistent. As the sailor was rowing us to the port, he kept asking us if we were sure this was a good idea, because it seemed dangerous to him, and did we really trust this guy we were with? I trusted Fernando not to assault us, but had no confidence that he wouldn’t lead us into a ridiculously stupid situation, putting our gear and probably also our lives in danger.

Fernando, oblivious to the sailor’s comments and our discomfort, kept asking me and Ellen to go talk to the security guards at the port when we arrived, so we could get permission for our trip. He was completely unable to understand that since Ellen and I had no idea what our trip was, what we were doing, where we were going, or how we would get there, our ability to ask for permission to do it was severely hindered. Finally, our rowboat pulled up to the port’s pier, and we climbed the precarious ladder out of the waves. Here, we discovered that the “island” was actually the private beach in the port’s back yard, only accessible on foot by walking through their property.

We finally got to our campsite around 7:30 at night. Fernando chose a spot that was still wet from recent waves, and Ellen and I had to insist for quite some time before he acknowledged that further from the rising tide might make more sense. While I was setting up my tent, Fernando dumped his gear onto the ground and looked at Ellen expectantly. Clearly, he had never set up his own tent before, but decided that since Ellen knew stuff about camping she’d know how to set it up. Luckily, it had only three poles and wasn’t too difficult to figure out, although Ellen spent most of the time cursing at Fernando, who kept moving the tent poles that Ellen had carefully placed.

Once everyone’s tents were up, Fernando declared it too dangerous to go fishing at night, so better to start a campfire and drink instead. He had brought charcoal and paper, and asked us to search the expanse of sand for driftwood. In the ten-minute walk from the port, there hadn’t been a single twig on the ground; Trujillo is a desert, completely devoid of trees. Ellen and I declined to fetch wood, and suggested we save the charcoal for the morning’s cooking fire rather than try to start it in the high winds at night.

We got down to drinking. This was moderately more successful than fishing – Fernando had brought three beers each, plus a bottle of wine – although the conversation left something to be desired. Our host was completely incapable of carrying on a conversation in either English or Spanish. He’d ask a question and interrupt our response, or answer it himself before giving us a chance. He’d lose interest in stories after two sentences (whether he was doing the listening or the telling) and mentally wander off to some kind of no-man’s-land.

Within a few minutes of starting drinking, Fernando declared his intentions to conquer me, romantically. He was 44, I was 32, and we were both teachers. What more could we want? Clearly, we were made for each other. We could live in his apartment in Trujillo. (I hate his apartment in Trujillo – the bathroom is shared with his bar, and is everything you could expect of a bar bathroom in a third-world country. The apartment has no view in any direction thanks to billboards in front of its windows, but lets in all the sounds of traffic from the main street, in a place where every car honks at every pedestrian every two seconds. His apartment is the last thing that would tempt me.) When I said no, he turned to Ellen to ask her advice (“Forget it!”) and the already awkward and stilted conversation over not nearly enough beer became very repetitive very quickly. Fernando couldn’t imagine why anybody would turn him down. I went to bed as soon as the alcohol was finished.

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn't do any fishing

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn’t do any fishing

In the morning, I slept through Fernando’s failed attempt to catch any fish. Since he hadn’t brought any food besides buns, as soon as I woke up Fernando was too hungry to fish anymore and we needed to go back to town. In daylight, the beach was isolated and pretty, with wide expanses of open sand and several flocks of shorebirds. We hiked off the beach, walked through the port, and caught a bus back to Fernando’s apartment. Ellen and I went out for breakfast, rather than having to cook in Fernando’s kitchen with him there, and over my papaya juice and egg sandwich, I made a mental note: people who seem like idiots in the city probably won’t improve much on a fishing trip, either. At least we had an adventure out of the experience, and one more tale to tell.

Peruvian people are ridiculously generous and pleasant. From the moment we entered the country on Friday, everyone we’ve met has been unfailingly helpful and nice. Even the driver of the collectivo (a private truck or car that serves as a taxi or bus service in rural areas) that drove us to the border refused our payment. We hadn’t planned to enter Peru that day, but since we’d arrived hours ahead of schedule, we went through the almost-deserted crossing and instantly got a ride to the tiny town of Suyo, twenty minutes from the border. After an hour of watching nothing but taxis and collectivos pass by, we headed into the village to find a place to camp. Although the town policemen were more than willing to let us set up our tents in the main square (“Our town is safe!”), Ellen left me guarding our bags while she searched for a quieter place to camp. On a side street by the river was an empty lot, where a sweet neighbour insisted Ellen and I make ourselves at home. She and her friend came outside with brooms to sweep the sandy ground clean before we put our tents there. Once we were camped, they invited us into the house to watch TV with them. Honestly, we were tired and would have gone to bed right away (although it was only six) but we thought we should accept her hospitality rather than be rude, so in we went. She was clearly poor: the house had a dirt floor, the outdoor kitchen had a wood-burning stove made from bricks, the yard was fenced with twigs (decorated with laundry hanging out to dry) and her garbage was swept out the side door into the very same lot where Ellen and I had set up our tents. However, she lived well enough to have electricity and a small television, and to feed the many neighbours who dropped by. Over the course of the evening, half a dozen people came over to say hello, watch TV, and eat her homemade tamales, which she insisted on sharing with us as well. Ellen and I felt guilty for accepting food she probably couldn’t afford (especially since we weren’t able to withdraw any Peruvian money to leave for her), but we didn’t have any polite way to refuse when everybody else was also eating. We were eventually able to excuse ourselves and retire to our beds for the night, exhausted after our day of travel. I slept like a log, but Ellen was disturbed by wandering bands of pigs rooting through the scraps left over from dinner, which had been discarded a few meters away from our tents. At least the policemen were honest in their promise that the town was safe – although we had pigs, dogs, and donkeys ambling past our tents all night, we and our belongings were perfectly safe. The next morning, we headed out early to try to catch the morning traffic from Ecuador into Peru. Luck was with us again, as a beaten up old car stopped, with three men inside. They were only going a few miles up the road, they said, but could take us to the next town. Of course, their trunk wouldn’t unlock, and the key broke in the ignition, so they hotwired the car as Ellen and I sat pinned under our bags in the back seat. At last we were on the road, chatting animatedly with our driver, Nestor. When he heard we were heading south, he was delighted. “I’m driving to Chiclayo this morning, in an hour or so. I just need to return this car to my friend, pick up my jeep from the shop, and eat breakfast. Want to join me?” We accepted with pleasure. Nestor turned out to be ridiculously generous. He worked in international business and threw money around like candy at a parade. When his jeep wasn’t ready, he hired a collectivo and paid our fares for us. From the next town, he insisted on buying us lunch and continuing our journey together by bus, on his dime. He had offered us a ride to Chiclayo, damn it, and he was going to make sure we got there! (Also, he took a liking to Ellen, so he wanted to keep spending time with us as long as he could.) Ellen and I felt a mixture of gratitude and discomfort at his generosity – we got a lot of insight into local food and culture from Nestor as he and his friend showed us around, but we didn’t feel free to explore the city on our own terms.

We were sure things wouldn’t go as smoothly as we set off on our own once more, but again the Peruvian people impressed us with their kindness. Both our rides of the afternoon stopped to buy us a beer, and the second one dropped us off right at our couchsurfing host’s doorstep. Our host here, Fernando, welcomed us into his home with open arms, sharing food and beer with us. I felt grateful for his hospitality, but I can hardly say I’m surprised. In our two days in Peru, I’ve come to expect nothing less from a Peruvian.

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Peruvian beer, Cristal. Also, Ellen has a cup for a hand.

Northern Peru is a land of poverty, much more so than any other country we’ve visited in Latin America. We’ve left the Sierra in favour of the coast, and it feels like nothing could be more different from the cloud forests of Ecuador. Most of what we see from the side of the road is dry and dusty, in stark contrast to the lush green mountains and misty jungles of the last few months. A few fields of sugarcane and mango orchards stand out from the expanse of dry grasses, but the majority of the view here is still sandy brown. Houses along the roadside are the same colour, constructed from sun-dried adobe bricks. Every once in a while, we drive by a half-empty village, with partial walls and bricked-in entranceways in many of the structures. I can’t tell if the walls of the abandoned homes were cannibalized to use the earthen bricks for other buildings nearby, or if their construction was never completed as their owners moved away to more prosperous areas. Whatever the reason, we pass hundreds of shells of homes as we make our way from the mountain highlands of the Andes to the coast.

I can’t shake the thought that Peru reminds me a lot of Cambodia. Both countries have sharp contrasts between the simple lives of the bulk of the people and the glossy magazine images of the nation as presented to tourists. The two countries also share the propensity for livestock to wander freely across the dirt roads, their owners more concerned that they get enough to eat than that they stay on their own property. Both also have a reputation for being dangerous for independent travellers. In Peru’s case, Ellen and I have mixed feelings about how risky our trip really is.

Almost everyone has cautioned us about Peru. We’ve met several people who’ve been robbed here, and on our first day in the country somebody opened my bag in the back of a crowded collectivo (a station wagon serving as an alternative to a bus) and stole a couple of small items. I acknowledge that travelling here has some risk. But I also see the struggling communities on the side of the highway, surrounded by land devoid of nutrients, water, and topsoil for growing food, far from the nearest town with any sort of industry or employment to support the local population. When I look at these hopeless shantytowns, I’m hardly surprised that foreign tourists look like easy pickings and are a temptation some can’t resist.

Despite the actions of a few bad eggs, the people of Peru have been amazingly kind to us. We haven’t met a single local who hasn’t tried to feed us. While paying for rides is standard around here (and we’ve been warned time and again that hitchhiking is impossible and we’ll have no luck trying), we’ve had nothing but success finding drivers willing to take us exactly where we want to go at no cost to us. I’m sure as our trip continues, we’ll have a few unlucky days to balance out the good, but in the meantime, Peru is rapidly becoming our favourite country so far.

On Friday, Ellen and I had dealings with three different law enforcement officers in Ecuador and Peru, and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t live up to their bad reputations. Our first incident came as we were hitchhiking out of Loja, Ecuador, in the morning. We were riding in the back of someone’s pickup when we were stopped at a police roadblock. The officer barked out “carrying passengers in prohibited spaces!” and had the driver pull over and stand on the side of the road to be ticketed. Ellen and I looked guiltily at each other as our very kind driver reassured us that we really hadn’t inconvenienced him that much. While he was waiting for his ticket, another cop wandered over to the truck to chat with us. The jovial officer wanted to know all about our trip and was asking us all sorts of questions, when our driver came back to let us know that the severe cop had ordered us out of the truck. Our cheerful friend was scandalized. “Why?! For riding in the back of a truck? But it’s not like we’re in the city, or anything!” With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the other officer’s objections, cancelled the ticket, and sent us on our way. Ellen and I grinned and laughed about it for the next twenty kilometers at least.

Although we’d planned to spend the night in Ecuador, our good luck with rides continued and we ended up crossing the border to Peru in the mid-afternoon. Here we had our second run-in with the authorities, as I had to get my exit stamp despite overstaying my Ecuadorian visa by eleven days. The immigration officer wasn’t impressed with my excuse: “I was waiting for my sister. I’m very sorry.” However, he didn’t make any serious attempts to solicit a bribe. After asking me several times why I stayed a hundred and one days instead of ninety, he started mumbling things about detaining me. Luckily, Ellen and I knew that the border authorities don’t actually have the right to fine or detain people for overstaying their visa. I answered all his questions with a simple, “I’m sorry I overstayed. I guess I need to leave Ecuador now. Can you stamp my passport?” After a few minutes of grumbling and pretending he couldn’t process my papers, he finally gave me my exit stamp and we were on our way, without even a mention of a fine or bribe.

Once Ellen and I had entered Peru, it took us mere moments to get a ride to the next town, Suyo. From there, though, no cars were going onward and it was getting on for late afternoon, so we decided to ask around in the village for a place to camp for free. A couple of local women suggested the stadium, so Ellen and I thought we’d check with the town’s cops before setting up our tents in a public place. We found a pair of uniformed town security officers in the main square, and once again South American law officers surprised me. When I asked them where we could safely camp, they seemed shocked. “Of course you can camp in this town’s public spaces! It’s safe here. Nobody will bother you!” They invited us to camp right in the main square, if we so desired. That seemed a little too public for us, so Ellen found an abandoned lot next to the house of a friendly woman, and we camped there instead. As the cops assured us, nobody bothered us or paid any attention to our stuff. So far, we’re very impressed with Latin American law enforcement!

Edited to add: After I wrote this but before publishing, someone riding in the car with us tried to steal valuables from my backpack. He got my flashlight, phone charger and cord, and one of my knives, before the person sitting next to him told our companions as the thief was getting out of the car. Our friend instantly punched the thief in the face and grabbed my flashlight and phone charger back, but didn’t realize the knife and cord were mine. Consequently, I can’t upload pictures from my phone until I replace the cord. We’re not too upset, though – it was the first theft we’ve had in six months of travelling, and nothing of great value was taken.

Ellen and I are on the road again, and I’ve come to a realization: we are terrible at travelling in cities. The two of us just don’t know what to do when we’re in any place larger than a town.

The city that prompted this self-reflection is the one we’re in right now: Cuenca, Ecuador. Internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca features gorgeous stone architecture nestled amongst the mountains of the highlands. The historical centre contains dozens of churches with stunningly handcarved wooden doors and bell towers that sparkle in the sunlight. A river rushes through town, and its banks are lined with stone pathways and willows. The city is everything a traveller could want – and Ellen and I don’t have the faintest idea what to do with ourselves. Luckily, we had lined up a place to stay with a French-Canadian couple through couchsurfing, and had the benefit of local residents’ advice to help us figure out what to see.

Our couchsurfing hosts recommended we check out one of the city’s many markets, so our first stop was a huge warehouse not too far from our hosts’ home. We were up too late for the livestock trading, but there were still half a dozen vendors at the market entrance selling poultry, puppies, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Inside the bustling building was a maze of stands and stalls displaying all manner of foodstuffs, housewares, clothing, and restaurant equipment. We came to the market hungry, but had to do several laps of the food stands before we felt ready to decide on something to eat – there were just so many options. I’d hoped to eat something typical of the region, like cuy (barbecued guinea pig), but most of the charcoal grills weren’t up and running yet, so we settled on breakfast at a crowded stall at the market entrance. We didn’t know what half the dishes were and had no clue what to order, but the lady at the stand dished us up some stewed pork skin, potatoes in sauce, rice, corn, and egg for the reasonable price of $1.25 each. Satisfied, we wandered the market one last time to get supplies for the next couple of days’ meals before moving on to the downtown core for some sightseeing.

Market breakfast - inexpensive and tasty!

Market breakfast – inexpensive and tasty!

Our hosts had mentioned a river walk from the market to the centre of town, so Ellen and I meandered along the north side of the waterfront. After a few recent days of rain, the babbling brook was a rushing torrent, but we still couldn’t hear it over the traffic on the road either side of the riverfront green space. At several places, the trail forced us to cross the busy streets without the benefit of crosswalks or signals, dodging buses and taxis as we sprinted across the roundabouts. We felt relieved to reach the stone walls of the historical centre and leave the riverside behind.

The town of Cuenca, once we finally reached it, was lovely indeed. We admired the churches, took photos of the prettily painted buildings, and sat in the park to watch the birds hop between the trees. There were a handful of tourists, but not very many compared to some other cities in South America, and the town had the vibe of an artsy community rather than just a tourist destination on the Inca trail. One of the bars in town was advertising poetry nights, and several portrait photographers were set up with old-fashioned cameras in the main park, waiting for couples and families to pass by. Our Canadian hosts had marked the local microbrewery on our map (knowing our passion for good beer), so after an hour of wandering town we headed over to the taphouse to sample a local brew. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet, and wouldn’t be for several hours.

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca's centro historico

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca’s centro historico

Graffiti in Cuenca - "Without poetry there is no city"

Graffiti in Cuenca – “Without poetry there is no city”

This was the point at which I realized we suck at passing time in cities. We had seen the churches. We had sat in the parks. We had done our shopping. What more could we possibly do? The city was full of people, all going about their business and doing things. What on earth was everybody doing? We were trying to conserve money, but indulged in a fifty-cent coffee for the chance to sit in the tiny Colombian coffee shop and play cribbage for an hour or two. We went back to the park and watched people while discussing the lifestyle here versus at home. We looked at the recommended walking tours listed on the tourist map, and got ourselves slightly lost trying to follow the directions. We found a jewelry market which was not particularly interesting to us, although we stopped to admire some cute stud earrings that were out of our price range. We eventually made our way to the craft and textiles market featured on the tourist map, but again the items were overpriced and very similar to those we’d seen in every craft market from Costa Rica on south. That didn’t stop us browsing, but we were very aware that we were only looking at the handicrafts because we had more time to kill before the brewpub opened.

At long last, four o’clock rolled around and Cuenca’s only microbrewery opened its doors. Ellen and I were almost the first clients in the door of the pub. There were only five beers on the menu (along with a variety of mixed drinks like Irish Car Bombs and Stout with Chocolate), and two of them were stouts (which Ellen and I aren’t that fond of), so we decided to taste the blond, the red, and the amber ales. We didn’t need to worry too much about blowing our budget – half a liter of beer was $2.25. Despite our being the only customers in the pub, it took the waitress a good ten minutes to pull the pints and bring us our drinks.

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I had ordered the La Compa├▒ia Extra Golden Beer, while Ellen sampled the Misionera Irish Red Beer. Both were much nicer than the standard pilsner which is sold everywhere in Ecuador, but slightly disappointing as far as craft brewed beer is concerned. I thought the beer lacked something in its flavour, but couldn’t define the problem. Ellen, who is much more knowledgeable about brewing than me, pointed out that both beers had problems with the balance between malt and hops. She found they were too high in protein, giving them a slight issue in taste and a cloudy look. Ellen’s red beer was a bit too sweet, while my blond ale was bitter but was lacking body. Despite the drinks not being perfect artisan beer, they were more than satisfying, especially after the plain pilsners we’d been drinking on the farm. We couldn’t get any beer to take with us, but enjoyed every drop we drank in the comfortable and cozy pub before walking home in the setting sun.

Mmm! Craft beer!

Mmm! Craft beer!

Today, Ellen and I are leaving Cuenca to go south again, stopping in Loja tonight where we’ve arranged another couchsurfing experience before hitting the Peruvian border tomorrow. One day in the charming city of Cuenca was enough for us. As we think about it, we’re going to avoid staying in cities as we go through Peru. On the road, we’ve derived much of our pleasure from watching the farms as we pass – seeing how the houses are constructed, what crops grow in the region, and what livestock the locals are raising. As we continue on our journey into Peru, we’re going to try to ask farmers if we can camp in their fields, rather than spending our nights in crowded cities. It’s not that we dislike cities, we’re just not very good at finding things to do in them.

Even after almost three months staying on this farm in the cloud forest of Ecuador, we are still undertaking new projects and doing new things every week. Over the past month, one of the neatest has been establishing colonies of honeybees on the farm.

Ingo has wanted to have his own bees for months, and last month when he went to Quito, he finally picked up a starter set of beehives and a population of bees. The local bees here are the same so-called “killer bees” that hit the American press a few years ago – Africanized honeybees – but the ones on the farm don’t seem aggressive at all. Sure, they’ll sting you if you open the hive without protection (bee suits and a smoker), but we can actually sit two meters away from the hives and watch them for hours, and they hardly even approach us. The bees are fascinating to watch as they buzz around, zipping out of the hives in pursuit of flowers, and returning heavily laden with pollen.

A quiet moment at the beehive - only a few bees leaving from the doorway. Sometimes there'll be fifty buzzing around waiting to get in or out!

A quiet moment at the beehive – only a few bees leaving from the doorway. Sometimes there’ll be fifty buzzing around waiting to get in or out!

Over the last month, Ingo has gone from one hive with one population to six hives, some stacked high with extra trays to support honeycombs full of larvae and honey. By the end of the year, he hopes to have ten hives pollinating the farm’s crops and producing honey to eat, sell, and make into mead. I get the feeling I’ll have to come back to see how the project is going – my visa expires next week, so I won’t have the chance to taste the farm’s first batch of honey. I’m sure it’ll be delicious, though!

The  first two beehives nestled amongst the young coffee plants on the cliff's edge.

The first two beehives nestled amongst the young coffee plants on the cliff’s edge.

As of yesterday, I’ve been on the road for six months!

Looking back on my trip so far, here are some pearls of wisdom I’ve discovered:

  1. My favourite things to take pictures of are insects, flowers, and clouds.

    The world's awesomest mantis!

    The world’s awesomest mantis!

  2. I really, really enjoy owning very few things.

    Those few things I do own, I cherish, though. For instance, this beautiful new Alpaca wool sweater I bought in Quito.

    Those few things I do own, I cherish, though. For instance, this beautiful new Alpaca wool sweater I bought in Quito.

  3. Spending six months attached at the hip to my sister is actually quite pleasant!
  4. I don’t miss my parents much because I Skype them once a week, but I do miss their dogs!
    Rupert and Ellen, saying goodbye before we left.

    Rupert and Ellen, saying goodbye before we left.

    From front, Rupert, Milo, and Zoe, our adorable stinky puppies!

    From front, Rupert, Milo, and Zoe, our adorable stinky puppies!

  5. I’m still not tired of endless summer.
  6. Although I’ve enjoyed not working for six months, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to get a job soon.
  7. Sorry Canada – I still love Latin America and I’m not going home anytime soon.

    Have I mentioned it's paradise here?

    Have I mentioned it’s paradise here?