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By the beginning of July, our journey was close to an end, so Ellen and I started to make our way to Lima. Of course, we wanted to go the slow way, so after getting off the riverboat in Yurimaguas, we planned to hitchhike our way through the mountains for a week or so until we ran out of time and had to hightail it down the coast to Lima. Ellen’s flight was scheduled for the 16th of July, and I was looking for a job starting around the same time. To my surprise, a couple of hours of internet time rewarded me with four job offers in my inbox, and on very short notice I accepted one of them and booked myself a ticket to Taiwan, leaving on the 9th of July. Suddenly, our leisurely trip through the mountains was about to acquire a note of urgency.

We started our travels with a couple of excellent free rides, ending up dropped off in a valley right on the border between the jungle and the mountains. The fields nearby looked a little swampy for camping in, but an abandoned-looking dormitory had several open rooms that looked quiet, and even the locked rooms were visibly empty when we peeked in the windows. Ellen and I set up our sleeping mats and got down to relaxing in the hot afternoon sun. About an hour later, though, the owner showed up and discovered us, and naturally invited we intruders to join his family for dinner and stay at their house. We were originally unenthusiastic about the suggestion, but as he was insistent and we were squatting on his property, we agreed. His place turned out to be a sweet setup indeed.

It turns out our host was running a camp for workers at the nearby Stevia farm, and had an empty dormitory/storeroom for us to sleep in, and plenty of food to share. We sat with him for an hour shelling peas, and chatted about the area and our travels. After dinner, he invited us into the family home to watch TV before bed. I was wiped out, and would have gladly refused, as I still wasn’t sleeping well at nights due to tweaking my back a few weeks earlier, but I’m glad we joined him. Not because we watched anything interesting, nor had any conversation, but upon seeing his house we were able to recognize that the family wasn’t at all short of money and we had no reason to feel guilty for accepting his hospitality. The leather couches and big-screen TV in his living room assured us that we weren’t taking advantage of someone who couldn’t afford to be generous. When we left the next morning, not only did they feed us breakfast, but they also packed us a lunch to go and pressed a twenty into Ellen’s hands (worth about $8).

The next day’s ride was just as nice. A trucker who was driving through to Chiclayo on the coast, our driver was full of interesting conversation. He stopped to buy us lunch, pulled over for a scenic lookout he thought we’d like to see, and spent the time playing ridiculous music (Backstreet Boys? Really?) rather than harassing us about our life choices as Peruvians are wont to do. We got off on the road to Chachapoyas, intending to go through that town and Cajamarca on the way to Lima.

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn't advance us in our trip!

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn’t advance us in our trip!

Sadly, life had other plans for us. Upon getting halfway to Chachapoyas, we found out that the mountain road to Cajamarca was closed for repairs, and we had to double back and take the coastal route from Chiclayo to Lima after all. That delayed us most of a day, and we ended up stuck in the mountain town of Baguas, where no truck drivers seemed to be passing by on the same highway that had been so busy the day before. Finally, Ellen checked with a local bus company and got us tickets on an overnight bus to Chiclayo, from which city we intended to hitchhike to Lima. After a full night on the bus, though, a cheap ride on another bus line direct to Lima seemed easier, and so our last travel day ended up being 23 hours of bus time. We arrived at our couchsurfing host’s home around 9pm and were grateful for the welcome – and for bed!

I had two days in Lima before my flight, so Ellen and I set about exploring the city. We wandered around downtown seeing the sights, and came to recognize that we were ready for our trip to be over. We were done with admiring the architecture, uninterested in the hustle and bustle of the city, and unable to pay for any of the tourist sites. We still enjoyed exploring the markets, and I managed to buy myself a pair of shoes and a blouse for when I started working in Taiwan. I felt a bit silly that we stopped for lunch in Lima’s Chinatown the day before I got on a plane to Taiwan, but the food absolutely satisfied a craving.

What we really wanted to try was cuy, the Peruvian mountain specialty of fried guinea pig, which we’d never had the chance to try while we were in the mountains. Of course, it’s not traditional on the coast where Lima is located, so it took a fair amount of effort to track down a restaurant that served it. It took an internet search and careful cross-checking against a map to locate a tourist restaurant near us, and the day of my flight we went out at lunchtime to seek out the elusive dish. Our efforts were rewarded, though, and the tender meat reminded me of a cross between duck and rabbit, and certainly didn’t bring to mind a household pet.

The little cuy's head on Ellen's plate. I'd heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren't bothered.

The little cuy’s head on Ellen’s plate. I’d heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren’t bothered.

I finally got to try cuy!

I finally got to try cuy!

Soon enough it was time to go. From our couchsurfing host’s house, it was a quick one-sol ($0.30) transport bus ride to the airport. Speedy it was, easy it wasn’t. Luggage is forbidden on transports in Lima, so I was squished into my seat with my bag on my back. The bus driver swerved sharply between lanes, floored it without warning, and screeched to a halt at random intervals, launching me into the laps of the passengers facing me every couple of minutes. I’d have apologized to them, but the locals without bags were equally uncomfortable and crashed into strangers just as much as I did, so I assumed it was par for the course. The woman next to me spent half the ride shrieking at the driver to slow down. When I got to the airport, four hours early for check-in, my flight had been cancelled and my itinerary changed. Thankfully, I was bumped up to an earlier flight, and was still leaving that night. As I watched my bag roll away behind the check-in desk, I smiled. My trip was over. Or so I thought.

Ellen and I spent five days on a riverboat, on our way to the Amazon Jungle. We’d wanted to visit the Amazon but hadn’t thought we would have time. However, as the Andes were getting a little cold for us, we decided to head east into the jungle and see where we ended up. We arrived in the river town of Pucallpa last Saturday, where boats trundle their way toward the Amazon. The locals were quite insistent that we leave right away, as there wouldn’t be a Sunday boat. Ellen and I resisted for a few minutes – the Amazon is north, and we had planned to go south – but in the end agreed that a trip into the Amazon jungle would be pretty awesome. The trip was to cost $30 each for four days’ hammock space on the deck and food. This was a little over our $5 a day budget, but we splurged on the experience.

We were packed in tightly, but not as badly as I expected. Three rows of hammocks lined the decks, most of them thick cloth rather than the woven tourist hammocks we’d seen in Central America. Ellen and I had clearly purchased the bargain basement version – narrow nets of knotted cord. I lined mine with a blanket for comfort and to avoid mosquito bites, but it was too hot to sleep in and the angle of my back was too sharp. I gratefully lay out my bed roll on the cool metal floor and slept under my sarong instead. Ellen slept on the upper deck under the stars, an option I later decided to try when the weather cooperated.

Although the boat was almost a full day late leaving, people were in high spirits. The first night we had to go to shore to buy dinner because the boat didn’t provide meals when we hadn’t left yet. The guys in our section came back with beer and cigarettes that they passed around to all takers. Music played well into the night as groups sat up at the dining table playing cards until the power was shut off in the early hours before dawn. I slept restlessly – I’d had a sore back for days – and eventually gave up in favour of reading.

A variety of locals wander up to talk to me and Ellen throughout the days on the boat. They are eager to check that we’re having a good time and are getting a good impression of Peru. The resident children spend much of their time sitting next to us watching us play cards. They also swing wildly from hammocks and life jackets hanging from the ceilings, hare around the decks giggling and shrieking, and run through the captain’s steering compartment. Nobody seems to be bothered by them at all.

The journey is a mixture of relaxing and annoying. There’s no escaping the people. Whenever Ellen and I sit, a crowd gathers to watch us play dice or cards. When we stand and look out over the river, our tranquility is disturbed by a constant stream of people wanting to chat with us. It’s very sweet, but privacy and quiet time are clearly undervalued here. I moved out onto the deck to get some sleep, and someone stole my phone while I was unconscious. On the other hand, we had nothing to do on the boat but have fun. We had no commitments: we didn’t have to procure or cook our own dinner, as three tasty meals a day were provided to us. Our bags were not on our shoulders, and we didn’t have to set up camp for the night. All we needed to do was admire the scenery, nap when the mood struck, and play games. We taught our dice games to a group of guys, and spent many lively hours laughing, cheering, and groaning. They taught me a dice game in return, which involved rolling to win a house, then a bed, then one or more bed partners, the object being to win more lovers than your opponents. Much joking and laughing was involved. One guy insisted on me teaching him cribbage, which I managed to explain passably well – it’s complicated for beginners!

On our last days on the boat, we wished for a stop in a port. We ran out of water – somebody stole one of the several bottles we’d prepared – and the drinks on the ship were pricy. In the first few days’ stops, vendors sold water and pop, but in the last days they were absent. We stopped at a port in the middle of the night, and several of our gaming partners decided to get off to buy beer. The boat left without them, and Ellen and I felt grateful that we stayed in bed. We, at least, arrived in Iquitos, in the Amazon jungle, as planned.

When Ellen and I were first planning this trip, we expected the roads in Latin America to be awful. We envisioned winding dirt roads surrounded by jungles. In my head I saw sharp curves right at the edges of mountainsides, where a misjudged turn would send you tumbling down cliffs. I pictured roads wiped out by mudslides and bridges on the verge of collapse. I imagined we’d be taking our lives in our hands every time we got into a vehicle.

A winding mountain highway

A winding mountain highway in Peru

Now that we’re here, walking and driving these roads, they don’t seem nearly as terrifying as we anticipated. Yes, many of the roads through the mountains and jungles are unpaved, full of potholes and large stones to avoid, but they aren’t much worse than the logging roads we regularly drive on in the forests of British Columbia. The roads through the mountains are indeed full of switchbacks, hairpin turns, and blind corners, and they have no barriers to prevent you from driving straight off the edge of the road into the valley far below, but they really aren’t so difficult to navigate. The drivers honk their horns at most corners, and keep to the centre of the road rather than approaching the edge. The roads are often too narrow to let two cars pass each other safely, but there are ample pullouts, and most drivers pull their vehicles over as soon as they see another car approaching, rather than risk not being able to get past an oncoming car. Our highway from the coast to the sierra was full of long tunnels and bridges where only one car at a time could pass, but a honk of the horn was enough to determine that no other vehicles were approaching from the other side before we drove on. As for the condition of the roads themselves, we regularly see road workers improving the surfaces and clearing obstacles from the road’s edge. In Colombia, where a few highways didn’t seem to be under anybody’s control, local residents filled potholes and held their hands out for change from passing cars. Here in Peru, we see more highway workers than private cars.

Oops! Not enough room in the tunnel for the both of us!

Oops! Not enough room in the tunnel for the both of us!

Even with all that work, though, accidents still happen. I’m convinced the cities are much more dangerous than the mountain roads, with more cars, motorbikes, trucks, and pedestrians all vying for their share of the streets. However, it’s in the countryside where you see the reminders of the accidents long after they’re gone. I suppose in the city all traces of collisions are cleared up right away, while in the mountains people have space to memorialize the victims. It’s sad, but strangely fascinating to see how different the roadside tributes are from country to country. In Colombia, they reminded me of those at home: a simple white cross with a name on it was the most common marker of a life lost in a collision. In Ecuador, somebody painted a blue heart on the asphalt surface of the road at the scene of each accident. I liked that – even if a driver wasn’t looking at the crosses on the road’s edge, he could still be reminded of the danger of this place in the road. Here in Peru, the people build little shrines for every life lost on a mountain highway. Every now and again as you drive, you’ll see a tiny house open to the road, just big enough for a garden gnome. Some are filled with flowers, others a cross, and many hold statues of Jesus or Mary. The most moving part of the display is that the tiny shrines are rarely alone. Very few people drive private cars here, so most traffic is communal. Sadly, when an accident happens, the car is usually holding from eight to twenty people. One place I noticed had thirteen matching shrines in a row, followed closely by six more of another design.

Despite the road conditions and the reminders of accidents past, Ellen and I feel very secure here in the mountains. Nobody here questions whether it’s safe to hitchhike – the worst the driver would do is ask for money. When we tell people we’re travelling on foot and by car toward the south, they don’t see any cause for concern. We’ve had a few people voice objections to us camping, but mostly due to their fear that we’ll get too cold at night. (That’s a reasonable objection here near Huaraz – I’m going to buy an extra blanket!)

Snowy mountain near Huaraz - Ellen and I shivered in our shared one-man tent and decided to invest in a warm blanket

Snowy mountain near Huaraz – Ellen and I shivered in our shared one-man tent and decided to invest in a warm blanket

Unlike on the coast, where robberies of tourists aren’t uncommon, in the mountains not much is likely to happen to us. We try to camp away from the road and prying eyes, but the small towns police their own and nobody would risk stealing. In a town of a few hundred people, you wouldn’t want the reputation of a thief. Our biggest fears while we’re hitchhiking are usually minor issues: whether we’ll find flat ground to camp on before dark, whether there’s enough dry wood around for a campfire, and whether we brought enough drinking water with us to spend a couple of nights in the same place. It feels liberating to worry about such basic, essential issues. There’s no radio, no television, no news, no politics, no crime – just feeding and sheltering ourselves, and choosing the next place to rest and explore. It’s easy to feel relaxed and free when we travel like this. The only reminder of the more serious side of life is the occasional cross on the side of the road.

If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I wanted to go trekking in the Andes, I’d have answered “absolutely not!” I don’t particularly like walking up hills, never mind carrying all my bags up the mountains with me. However, as Ellen and I have been hitchhiking through the Sierra in Peru, everybody has been asking us whether we’re travelling on foot. When we explain that we’re hitchhiking, the locals look at us blankly. There are no cars here, they insist. We must be walking. End of story.

A stunning viewpoint that we might have missed from inside a bus or car

A stunning viewpoint that we might have missed from inside a bus or car

After a few days arguing with the locals about whether hitchhiking is possible, Ellen and I have just started walking out of town rather than searching for rides. Here in the Sierra, there really aren’t many cars. We could wait by the side of the road for hours and not have a single vehicle bigger than a motorbike or a mule pass us by. If we pass the time trekking rather than standing still, we have the chance to see the countryside and meet more people. We’re not going very quickly – neither of us is in good enough shape to be speedwalking up the Andean hillsides with all our gear – but at least we’re getting somewhere. Our progress is also slowed by stopping to chat to the locals. On the road, we get people stopping us every ten minutes. Some want photographs with us, others want to know where we’re from, and many give us food (fruit, bread, and water) or advice (most of it conflicting) about where to go from here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Peruvians are ridiculously nice!

World class hikers, right here! Stopped by locals to take our picture, yet again

World class hikers, right here! Stopped by locals to take our picture, yet again

Some days we’ll walk for several hours before a car passes us, whereas other times we won’t even make it out of town. Here in the highlands, though, almost every car that drives by stops, and even the ones going the other way pause to apologize for not stopping. In the past few days, Ellen and I haven’t had a car refuse to pick us up. The drivers and passengers are eager to be part of our journey and to give us a good impression of their country. They don’t get many travellers in these mountain villages, but that we should be here, hiking to the next town, is taken as perfectly reasonable.

A winding mountain road that the locals assume we can trek with ease

A winding mountain road that the locals assume we can trek with ease

We’ve taken to telling people that we’re walking to Bolivia, little by little. “That’s a long way to go on foot,” they’ll say. “Yes,” we say, “but we’ll take rides in cars when we can.” The locals nod seriously. “Oh yes, that’s good. But there are no cars here on Mondays.” “Then I guess we’d better start hiking,” we say, and Ellen and I smile at each other. We’d never have expected to be in Peru trekking in the Andes, but now that we’re here, we’re loving every minute of it.

After the chaos that was the city of Trujillo, Ellen and I decided to take to the back roads of the Andean Sierra. A variety of people warned us that hitchhiking is impossible here, but it didn’t take us long to get a free lift once we were outside of city limits. Within a couple of hours, we had left the desert wasteland surrounding Trujillo behind us and were high in the mountains. Our driver dropped us off in a quiet mountain town and told us to turn left at the crossroads. Instead, we decided we liked the look of the place and didn’t fancy waiting for a ride through the construction zone on the way out of town. It didn’t take us long to find a family willing to have us camp in their back yard.

We shared our campsite with these adorable donkeys

We shared our campsite with these adorable donkeys

Paula, our host, was ridiculously kind to us. We arrived at four and I promptly fell asleep in my tent. At 7pm, it was cold and rainy out, and Paula came over to our campsite to invite us in for hot soup. Their home was spacious and the kitchen was warm and hospitable. Paula served us cups of hot water followed by a vegetable soup. She sent us off to bed again with thick wool blankets to keep us warm. I slept better than I had in weeks. In the morning, she served us another helping of soup for breakfast and wished us well on our journey.

Our second day of mountain travel was just as good. We got a ride to a mining town, Shorey, where over a cup of hot coffee we learned that the road north we were planning to travel on was closed and wouldn’t reopen for some time. We had picked our destination, Huamachuco, from a map, having no idea of the lay of the land or conditions of the road. Unconcerned with this obstacle to our plans, we paid for a ride south to a town called Santiago de Chuco instead, where the temperature was slightly warmer (12 degrees instead of 5) and the views were incredible.

Some of the afternoon's visitors to our campsite

Some of the afternoon’s visitors to our campsite

Our attempts to find a place to camp were less immediately successful – people kept pointing and saying “that way” – but paid off big-time. We eventually found a grassy meadow where (unbeknownst to us at the time) the local children take their families’ sheep and donkeys to graze. We set up our tents and were soon surrounded by a dozen kids asking us to teach them card games. A gorgeous view of the valley and a bottle of merlot that Ellen was able to open with her pocket knife added to the pleasant atmosphere. At the end of the day, Ellen and I decided to watch a movie on my laptop before bed, which we did with several kids’ noses pressed against the screen door of my tent.

Opening wine without a bottle opener - Success!

Opening wine without a bottle opener – Success!

In the morning, Ellen went into town to buy breakfast and find out about traffic south. The roads were almost deserted, so we paid for our spaces in a van heading to the next town over, which was locally famous for hot springs. We stopped and paid a dollar each for our first private hot bath since we left Canada. Leaving town was a bit more difficult, as no cars seemed to be driving after lunchtime, whether we offered to pay them or not. We sat down at a little bar for a noontime beer while we decided what to do, and a local girl offered us her aunt’s yard to camp in.

Little did we know when we accepted her suggestion that Auntie’s house was an hour’s hike up a mountain in the rain. We trudged up the hills with our heavy packs and half-slid down the muddy trail down again. We’re lucky we took her up on the offer, though, because we ended up in another amazing valley. Tia Sabina, our hostess, turned out to have a raised covered platform with a splendid view, right across from a natural hot spring with seperate pools for drinking water and bathing. The springs were sourrounded by earthen walls for privacy, so Ellen and I closed the door and soaked our aching muscles after our unexpected hike. With our tents kept dry by the grass-covered roof of our sleeping platform, and our makeshift hot water bottles filled from the hot springs, Ellen and I were warm and comfortable in the brisk mountain air. We may not be going very far each day, but we’re certainly living it up in the Andean Highlands.

The perfect campsite, right by the hot springs!

The perfect campsite, right by the hot springs!

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.

After nearly six months of travelling with my sister, we’re splitting up. As I write this, Ellen is on a flight back to Saskatoon, where she’ll be for two weeks. Her plan is to go home, catch up with old friends, have a few nice beers from the local microbrewery, go shopping for things she can’t easily find in Latin America, and catch a couple of poetry nights. She’s considering it a vacation from her vacation. And why would she go to all this expense? While she’s there, she’ll also interview for a place at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, the next step toward her lifelong dream of becoming a vet.

While Ellen is back in Canada getting her life together, I’m hanging out here near Quito. I wish I could say I was doing some lone adventuring while she’s gone, but instead I’m working on putting to rest those nagging worries that keep me up at night – making a dental claim on my insurance for the root canal in Popayan, getting my taxes done, and putting my banking in order. I also have to decide what to do about my tourist visa in Ecuador – I have three weeks left and need to figure out whether I’m leaving Ecuador as soon as Ellen gets back, or whether I should go on to Peru for a few weeks while she’s gone and try to get back in with a new visa. I’ve been assured that overstaying one’s visa isn’t considered serious here, but I know I’d be uncomfortable being in the country illegally.

My life over the next week won’t be nothing but errands, though. I’m going to take a day or two to explore Quito (first impression – UGLY!), find somewhere inspiring to do some writing, and maybe sit in a park with a sketchbook. I’m tempted to hitchhike somewhere new for a day or two as well, just so I can see more of Ecuador before my visa expires. Guayaquil sounds tempting – I’ve heard that while Quito is the conservative, business-minded city, Guayaquil is the liberal centre of the country. If that means Guayaquil is the San Francisco of Ecuador, I think it might be more up my alley. I haven’t made any plans, though. We’ll see where the wind blows me. And if that means I end up back at the farm in Mindo, that’ll be nice, too.

The not-so-pretty city of Quito, as seen from my hostel's amazing balcony

The not-so-pretty city of Quito, as seen from my hostel’s amazing balcony

A couple of weeks ago, Ellen and I hitchhiked to the beach in Canoa and back to the farm. Our rides on the way home stood in stark contrast to the amiable drivers who ferried us to the beach resort town at the beginning of the weekend. If you’ve ever considered picking up a hitchhiker or two, especially a backpacker or tourist on vacation, let me pass along some advice on the topic!

On Route Planning:
Do: Ask where they’re going and offer advice or suggestions on local activities, foods, and attractions. One friendly truck driver actually pulled over to let us sample local fruits from a roadside stand. We love talking about local food and culture, so meeting someone with knowledge of the area is always a plus.
Don’t: Try to demand that the hitchhiker change their plans to accompany you instead, or insist that the road you’re planning on taking, miles out of the way, is just as good for them as the route they’ve named. One couple who drove us home from the beach took us hundreds of kilometers in the wrong direction and informed us that it would be fine for us. This kind of helpfulness is not appreciated by weary travellers hoping to get to their destination in time to get dinner and a hostel room.

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

On Conversation Topics:
Do: Start a friendly conversation about their travels or careers, and your country and culture. Pick a topic that you’ll be comfortable discussing for awhile, especially if you’re taking them a long way.
Don’t: Interrogate them about their life choices while rapidly speaking in local slang, refusing to allow them to change the subject. (Why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you like men? Aren’t you getting old? Don’t you want children? Would you object to dating an Ecuadorian man? I know a few men who might like to marry you. Can I introduce you?)

On Stopping for a Meal:
Do: Offer to buy them a meal or snack, if the mood strikes you. I’ve shared many a hot meal with travelling companions, and been able to call them a friend by the end of the meal. There’s something special about breaking bread with people that brings them closer. Ellen and I have fond memories of the awkward rides that became much more animated when we opened a box of cookies or other snacks.
Don’t: Repeatedly ask them to go out to dinner with you, date you, or justify their refusal to do so, announcing that you’ve fallen madly in love with them in the half hour you’ve spent together. Seriously. This happened.

On Keeping in Touch:
Do: Offer to exchange contact information if you’ve hit it off. You never know, the hitchhiker may be passing through town again sometime.
Don’t: Beg to know when you can see them again, repeatedly asking them for an address where you can drop in to see them unannounced. This is creepy.

On Parting Ways:
Do: Let them exit the car where they ask to be dropped, letting them off safely on the side of the road. Most hitchhikers have looked at a road map and have planned their route.
Don’t: Refuse to stop to let them out because of the weather or because you don’t know if they’ll get another ride promptly enough. This is not cool. If I want to get out, it’s probably because I have to go this way, in which case taking me elsewhere doesn’t help. The other reason I ask to be let out of the car is because you’re creeping me out or disturbing me, in which case refusing to let me get out of the car only makes it worse.

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Really, I feel as if this advice shouldn’t have to be given. Ellen and I hitchhike because we usually find it more pleasant than taking a bus. We aren’t restricted to schedules, we get to take the scenic route, we have a larger choice of destinations, including those off the beaten path, we tend to meet more people and have better conversations, and we usually have better leg room and a more comfortable ride in private cars. However, I think after our experience the other week, we won’t be accepting rides from lonely Ecuadorian truck drivers again anytime soon.

 

Yesterday, Ellen and I left the farm in Mindo, Ecuador, for a few days at the beach. We were having an amazing time volunteering, but it was exhausting work and there was a stomach bug going around that I didn’t want to get, so we figured a few days off would allow us to return to the farm refreshed and ready to get our hands dirty all over again. I think we’re overdue for a little beach time.

Before we arrived in Ecuador, a friend of Ellen’s strongly recommended we visit Canoa, a place that also came up in my searches for cheap camping spots in the country. We checked with the farmer, and he agreed that Canoa was a great location for a weekend getaway – as long as we weren’t planning to get there by bus. The bus from Mindo goes to Quito, a three-hour detour in the wrong direction, where we’d have to take a taxi to a different bus station and transfer to a different bus to Canoa, turning a five- to seven-hour drive into an all-day transit nightmare. Instead, Ingo assured us that dozens of his volunteers had successfully and safely hitchhiked to Canoa, and wrote out the names of the towns on the route so we’d know which way to go.

We left the farm promptly at 7:30 on Thursday morning, along with Ingo, his wife and daughter, and six other volunteers leaving for Quito that day. The eleven of us piled into the vehicle, along with everyone’s bags and luggage, the farm’s returnable beer and pop bottles, garbage, the neighbour’s chainsaw, and the propane tank needing to be refilled. Even with the roof rack fully loaded and two guys hanging off the bumper, it was a tight squeeze, with the smallest volunteer sitting in the two-year-old’s carseat while the toddler sat on the passenger-side windowsill, with her head leaning out the window, her tiny hands holding on to the “oh shit” handles, and her mother’s arm around her waist making sure she didn’t fall. Ellen and I were crammed into the very back seat, with a German girl sitting on our laps facing us, her knees hanging over the seat behind our shoulders. The ride was an adventure, to say the least. The 40-minute trip to Mindo took twice that time with the car so overloaded, and when we got to town Ingo ordered the two volunteers riding on the bumper to squeeze into the car as well, so we wouldn’t get in trouble on the road to the ygriega, the Y, where those going to Quito were catching their bus. Eventually, we made it to the junction and unloaded the other volunteers and their bags, a good two hours after we’d left the farm. Ellen and I drove onward with the family to Los Bancos, where we had a nice breakfast before hitting the road.

Hitchhiking with Ellen in Ecuador was just as fun as it was in Canada twelve years ago. The first car that picked us up had three middle-aged guys, who warned us of the perils of travel this way, and then proceeded to compliment us on our bravery and ingenuity the rest of the trip. The next few legs were just as amusing – locals stopped to ask where we were going, and offered to take us for beers, and we had little difficulty getting rides with only a few minutes’ break in between each. We were hardly the only people hitchhiking, either. In one place, we were hitchhiking next to a family of six and a guy on his way to work. The truck that stopped for us already had three young boys riding in the back, and took all twelve of us along the road to our respective destinations. I felt a mixture of amusement and horror when the youngest child, not yet two, fell over as the truck went over a speed bump, and his mother just laughed. The family, when they got out, paid the driver a few coins for his troubles, but none of the other riders did, so Ellen and I just got out at the junction toward the next town on our list.

We didn’t even have to stick our thumbs out for the next ride – a gas tanker truck that we’d dismissed as not being a likely ride pulled over and waved us into the cab. Inside, the driver and his wife were easily the most welcoming people we met all day. She moved into the sleeper part of the cab, with their sleeping baby, and Ellen and I enjoyed the view and leg room in the front seats. They asked us about our travels, described local fruits and attractions, and even pulled over at a roadside stand to buy us what the locals call guava, a large green bean-like pod from which you eat the white flesh surrounding each bean. They invited us to ride back with them on Monday, and spend the night at their family’s farm. The wife was quite excited to think of all the fun places she could take us if we meet them. They dropped us off at the gas station where they were making a delivery, and reminded us that if we were there at the designated time on Monday we were welcome to stay with them.

Guava - what we know as a guava is called guayaba here.

Guava – what we know as a guava is called guayaba here.

The gas station was in a town on the coast, and we immediately noticed dozens of moto-taxis driving people all over town. We couldn’t imagine how the town could support so many – more moto-taxis passed us than cars. One stopped for us, and for the grand sum of fifty cents, drove us across town and left us in a good place to hitch a ride to Canoa. Within minutes, we were in the back of a truck taking two couples to a weekend at a different beach. This was a pretty drive, through farmland along the coast, dotted with cows, trees, and beaches. They dropped us off in Canoa an hour and a half before sunset, giving us time to set up our tents and still play in the waves in the setting sun. It’s a good feeling.

Ellen enjoying the ride, with the wind blowing in her hair.

Ellen enjoying the ride, with the wind blowing in her hair.

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This week, Ellen and I are volunteering on a farm in Ecuador, which we found through Workaway. We’re in a cheap hotel ($6 per night) in a village 15km away from where we’re meeting the farmer for lunch today. The exciting thing about volunteering is you have no idea what to expect. The farm writes a description of itself, of course, but it’s very hard to be sure what you’re getting yourself into before you get there.

What we know about the farm is this: it’s in the cloud forest in Ecuador, it’s near the town of Mindo, and it has no electricity, internet, or telephone, although it’s possible to drive into town twice a week to check messages. The family grows bananas and coffee, and has a few animals, including a donkey. They recommend we bring boots.

We are absolutely delighted to be exploring the unknown again. There are so many details we don’t know – does the family speak English? Their e-mail to us was in English, but it was a form-letter, copied and pasted, so they may just speak Spanish. What will we do all day? They say they require six hours of work a day in exchange for room and board, but we aren’t sure what kind of work it’ll be. Presumably, much of it will be garden work, but they didn’t mention a garden. They said they wanted to raise more animals, so perhaps there will be building of fences or barns, but we have no way of knowing. What I love about not knowing is that absolutely everything seems possible.

What won’t be possible, of course, is checking my blog every day, which will be a challenge for me! I still plan to write, so I’ll probably try to type three or four posts at a time, and schedule them to be published daily. Since we won’t have electricity, Ellen and I bought five Spanish paperbacks to improve our language skills and keep us entertained in lieu of reading books on my phone. I’ve got Arabian Nights and Origin of the Species translated into Spanish, and Ellen is reading Call of the Wild and a book on comparitive religions. We’ve also got a good supply of art supplies and plenty of room in our journals, so I’m sure we’ll keep ourselves entertained. Judging from the weather outside the window tonight, we’re going to need indoor amusements!

A little something to read while we don't have electricity

A little something to read while we don’t have electricity