Friday, January 29, 2010

Health and Well Being in Ecuador

I woke up this morning and after walking the dog and getting my first cup of coffee, I sat down to read my email as I do every morning. My Sister-In-Law Phyllis had sent me the funniest email. I don’t usually pass these type of emails along, but the timing was so appropriate in conjunction with this entry that I just had to include it so here it is...

Women & public loos

When you have to visit a public toilet, you usually find a line of women, so you smile politely and take your place.

Once it's your turn, you check for feet under the cubicle doors.
Every cubicle is occupied.
Finally, a door opens and you dash in, nearly knocking down the woman leaving the cubicle.
You get in to find the door won't latch.
It doesn't matter, the wait has been so long you are about to wet your pants!
The dispenser for the modern 'seat covers' (invented by someone's Mum, no doubt) is handy, but empty.
You would hang your bag on the door hook, if there was one, so you carefully, but quickly drape it around your neck, (Mum would turn over in her grave if you put it on the FLOOR!) down with your pants and assume ' The Stance.
In this position, your aging, toneless, thigh muscles begin to shake. You'd love to sit down, but having not taken time to wipe the seat or to lay toilet paper on it, you hold 'The Stance.'
To take your mind off your trembling thighs, you reach for what you discover to be the empty toilet paper dispenser.
In your mind, you can hear your mother's voice saying, 'Dear, if you had tried to clean the seat, you would have KNOWN there was no toilet paper!' Your thighs shake more.
You remember the tiny tissue that you blew your nose on yesterday - the one that's still in your bag (the bag around your neck, that now you have to hold up trying not to strangle yourself at the same time).
That would have to do, so you crumple it in the puffiest way possible. It's still smaller than your thumbnail.
Someone pushes your door open because the latch doesn't work.
The door hits your bag, which is hanging around your neck in front of your chest and you and your bag topple backward against the tank of the toilet.
'Occupied!' you scream, as you reach for the door, dropping your precious, tiny, crumpled tissue in a puddle on the floor, while losing your footing altogether and sliding down directly onto the TOILET SEAT.
 It is wet of course. You bolt up, knowing all too well that it's too late.
 Your bare bottom has made contact with every imaginable germ and life form on the uncovered seat because YOU never laid down toilet paper - not that there was any, even if you had taken time to try.
You know that your mother would be utterly appalled if she knew, because you're certain her bare bottom never touched a public toilet seat because, frankly, dear,
'You just don't KNOW what kind of diseases you could get.
By this time, the automatic sensor on the back of the toilet is so confused that it flushes, propelling a stream of water like a fire hose against the inside of the bowl and spraying a fine mist of water that covers your bum and runs down your legs and into your shoes.
The flush somehow sucks everything down with such force and you grab onto the empty toilet paper dispenser for fear of being dragged in too.
At this point, you give up. You're soaked by the spewing water and the wet toilet seat. You're exhausted..
 You try to wipe with a sweet wrapper you found in your pocket and then slink out inconspicuously to the sinks.
You can't figure out how to operate the taps with the automatic sensors, so you wipe your hands with spit and a dry paper towel and walk past the line of women still waiting
You are no longer able to smile politely to them..
A kind soul at the very end of the line points out a piece of toilet paper trailing from your shoe. (Where was that when you NEEDEDit?)
You yank the paper from your shoe, plunk it in the woman's hand and tell her warmly, 'Here, you just might need this.
As you exit, you spot your hubby, who has long since entered, used and left the men's toilet.
Annoyed, he asks, 'What took you so long and why is your bag hanging around your neck?
This is dedicated to women everywhere who deal with any public rest rooms/toilets (rest??? you've GOT to be kidding!!).
It finally explains to the men what really does take us so long. It also answers that other commonly asked question about why women go to the toilets in pairs.
 It's so the other gal can hold the door, hang onto your bag and hand you Kleenex under the door.
This HAD to be written by a woman!
No one else could describe it so accurately.
Send this to all women that need a good laugh.
A Friend Is Like A Good Bra....
Hard to Find
Always Lifts You Up
Never Lets You Down or Leaves You Hanging
And Is Always Close To Your Heart!!! Share this with a friend!
I Just Did!

O.K. on with my entry. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about whether or not the water is safe to drink in Ecuador. Everyone pretty much agrees that any of the better hotels are safe as far as the water goes, but beyond that is a debate. In light of that information just to be on the safe side we will only be drinking bottled water and no ice please.

Next make sure that you only eat fresh fruit and vegetables that can be peeled unless you are certain that the establishment serving them has very strict levels of food handling. I know at least one of the hotels we are staying at advertises on their website that their on premise restaurant uses produce only grown in their very own gardens and they take great care in the preparation of their food.

My best advice would be to steer clear of the street vendors unless you are certain they are safe.

Below is a list of some of the things we will be taking with us to hopefully minimize the risk of any health issues.

1. Antibacterial wipes 

2. Toilet paper (we hear that some of the public restrooms leave a lot to be desired).

3. Charcoal Caplets (The altitude can do some pretty unpleasant things to your  system).

4. Cold Medicine (apparently very hard to come by).

5. Acidophilus tablets - start taking these a week before you leave and continue for the remainder of the trip as this will help head off any nasty stomach problems that are usually a part of travel and a change in diet.

6. Sunblock and hats - The Ecuadorian sun can be brutal. Especially on a cloudyday you can be fooled and end up with a terrible burn.

7. Appropriate clothing - This ought to be really interesting as the average temperature in Cuenca is in the 50’s at night and the low to mid 70’s during the day. Needless to say we will be packing a little of everything. The key is to layer your clothing. Rather than  bulky items it is best to layer items such as T-shirts and lightweight jackets and remove layers as the weather warms up. my rule of thumb is no clothing that can’t be tied around my waist or shoved into a backpack. My concern is that I get really cold very easily. Lindsay says I need a jacket when it’s 75 out and the sad part is she is almost right. I’m just hoping I don’t spend my vacation shivering.

8. Last but not least I can’t stress enough how important a good pair of walking shoes are. Especially when walking on uneven surfaces such as cobblestone streets. Make the investment and you will never regret it. The only shoes I will be taking are a pair of walking shoes for the days we will be sightseeing and a pair of tennis shoes for walking around the hotels and their  grounds. I will also take a pair of flip flops for lounging in the room as well as around the hotel.                      

Our First Disaster & We Haven’t Even Left Home

While we were in Santa Fe over the holidays my mother had given me her credit card information so that I could pay for any reservations I booked for our trip. Once our itinerary was set our tour company sent us both an invoice with the option to pay using paypal.

My mother did not have a paypal account so I set one up for her and once it was activated I told her she would be able to log in and pay the invoice. The next morning I got a call and it was my Mom, apparently she was having difficulty with the paypal payment process. Being the helpful daughter that I am I gave her the phone number to paypal and told her to give them a call and they would walk her through the process.

I even went on to say how helpful they were and that I had always had a good experience whenever I had called with questions. Well it wasn’t long before my phone rang again and it was my mother this time sounding very frazzled. Apparently she had called paypal and they got the payment through, but they failed to ask her how she wanted to pay. Instead of using her credit card, they used her bank account.

She immediately called her bank and put a stop payment on the funds which ended up costing her $35.00, but better than wiping out her bank account. I then emailed Juan our tour coordinator to alert him of the stop payment so that he didn’t worry. Juan then turned around and canceled the invoice and sent us confirmation of the cancellation. Problem solved.

This morning I get another call from my mother alerting me that the payment had in fact gone through and she was headed to the bank to see what could be done. I told her to call me as soon as she found something out. Later on this morning she called to tell me that the bank had taken care of it and reversed the debit, so once again I emailed Juan to let him know what happened.

We are now waiting until Monday morning to make sure everything is correct before we try this again. This time Mom is forwarding the invoice to me to pay (yikes!) I hope this isn’t any indication of how our trip is going to go.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Getting It All Together

I had my list in hand as I walked out the door this morning, ready to tackle the day. I drove to the post office box to pick up our mail on my way in to work and there was a very ominous letter from the State of Alabama addressed to Rod. Thinking it was something to do with the business, I carefully opened it only to discover Rod had been called to Jury Duty while we are supposed to be in Ecuador (uuugh). This is the first time he’s ever been asked to sit in on a jury and wouldn’t you know it had to be at the same time we are traveling.

I immediately got online, filled out the necessary forms and asked for a dismissal. I typed in the little explanation box that we had already had this trip scheduled  for 6 months, that we were traveling with another couple and that we already had our hotel reservations set...well that part was a little white lie, but I was trying to sound as pitiful as possible. I will have to log in to the website in a couple of days and see if the dismissal is granted. I would hate for Rod to have to go to jail for not showing up and being in contempt of court, but the State isn’t coming between us and our trip, besides I told him I would bail him out (haha).

This has been one of the most labor intensive trips I have ever planned. It seems that there are so many things we need as well as things that we have to think about. When we went to Santa Fe over the Holidays I was so determined to only check one bag that I overstuffed the suitcase we had and when it arrived in Santa Fe the handle had been ripped away from the body. Well now I had to buy a new set of luggage. I needed something that would survive the airline baggage handlers and be easy to identify as our own. So I did what anyone in that position would do and purchased neon lime green luggage with matching locks, packing cubes and identity tags. No chance of losing this luggage. I would dare someone to try and steal it.

Early on we realized just how many things we needed and didn’t have. Weeks ago we began a massive online search for all those incidentals we would need for our trip. Thanks to Rod the ebay King, we were able to acquire the needed items for a lot less than retail.

One thing that was becoming quite obvious was that the language barrier could present a real problem. I had made a few phone calls trying to book hotels before we decided to use the tour company and I had to give up. I kept repeating “No Habla Espanol” to the reservations clerk on the other end and they just kept talking to me in broken english with some Spanish sprinkled in for good measure. It was pretty hopeless and since we only knew about ten spanish words between the four of us, Rod decided to invest in a really nifty electronic translator. You just key in a word in English and press a button and the translator then speaks the word in Spanish. It translates in other languages as well which will be perfect for our future travels. Of course the goal is to learn Spanish, but for right now the translator and our bilingual guide will have to do.

We have also ordered walkie talkies, this was Rod’s idea and I have to admit a brilliant one. If we carry walkie talkies with us and we get seperated, we can find each other relatively easy. No worries about cell phone coverage, besides Mom and Bob aren’t taking their cell phones so that would not have been an option. The walkie talkies will be especially useful in the markets.

Just like any place you have never been to before, There are certain precautions you should take when traveling to another country that you are unfamiliar with. One of the things that we did discover about Ecuador is that there is very little violent crime to speak of, but petty theft can be a problem, especially for the Gringo. While in Santa Fe we had many discussions on the best way to secure our goods as well as our money and credit cards. We have heard that it is very difficult to cash travelers checks in Ecuador and that you need to carry smaller bills unless you don’t really care if you ever see that $75.26 in change from the $100.00 dollar bill that you handed the merchant in exchange for that really beautiful poncho. So Rod is immediately thinking of every place he can stuff ones, fives and tens and that’s a scary thought. I envision him walking through the streets of Ecuador looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Lindsay had given Rod a neck wallet for Christmas. It has a slash proof neck cord and you can conceal it under your shirt. I ended up purchasing an ID holder also worn around the neck. It holds your passport, visas and ID’s and makes for a speedy pass through airport security and customs. On second thought... speedy and airport security is a contradiction in terms. At least everything I need to get through customs will be right around my neck, no fumbling for documents. My Mother and I also picked up two secure shoulder bags that are worn close to the body and under the arm. They have all sorts of pockets and compartments to hold everything from maps to cell phones to water bottles. These will definitely eliminate the need for a purse which is never a good idea when traveling abroad.

Rod found a leather shoulder bag that he will be carrying in addition to his money belt and his neck wallet. Did I mention the Pillsbury Dough Boy? All of his pants, jackets and shirts also have zippered compartments on them as well. I purchased several luggage locks, a laptop lock and luggage tags, but my most important buy was a backpack that will hold my laptop. I have to admit taking my laptop makes me very nervous, my whole life and all of my work is on it, but I have taken extreme precautions in keeping it safe. I have a lock for the backpack and then a lock for the laptop itself. I will not be carrying it during the day other than to get from one hotel to the other. I will be depending a lot on using  my laptop to communicate with home. I will be Skyping Lindsay to save on the phone bills, keeping track of the business and our banking as well, not to mention blogging.

My New Backpack

I also hesitated about bringing my cell phone, but after careful consideration decided it would be a lot easier and cheaper than purchasing a preloaded phone in Ecuador and entering all of my contacts into that phone and notifying everyone of the new phone number much less having to mail it back when I return home. Luckily there is a zippered compartment on the shoulder strap of my bag made just for a cellular device. Before we leave I plan to contact my cell phone provider and pay for one month of the International plan in order to keep my phone usage charges down.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Itinerary

The countdown is on and I’m starting to feel the pressure. If Rod counts down the days until we leave one more time I’m going to scream. There is still so much to do and even though I have been whittling away at it daily, my lists seem to be growing instead of shrinking.

I ended up breaking my list of To Do’s down into four weeks and I am now working on week two. I have concentrated a lot of effort into working with TerraDiversa, the tour company that we have chosen. We have been fine tuning the itinerary and last week I was actually able to talk with the Managing Director of the TerraDiversa via Skype (what a great invention). Together we worked out a plan that we thought would be suitable for our needs and then Juan our tour coordinator put together the first draft of our itinerary and emailed it to me. I then forwarded it to my Mother for her input. Once we agreed on the itinerary our tour planner worked up a more formal plan with prices and once again emailed it to me for our approval.

One thing we did find out is that a big celebration called “Carnival” will be going on for part of the time that we will be in Ecuador. Carnival is celebrated with parades and abundant water throwing, not to mention the occasional egg or box of flour.  In light of this big celebration we ended up changing some of our original plans.  It is really imperative to book our hotels asap because a lot of people come to visit Ecuador during Carnival.

Water Fight During Carnival

We fly into Quito on the 9th, and stay at the Fuente de Piedra. We didn’t originally plan to stay in Quito for more than one night, but Juan has convinced us to stay for a total of two nights because there is so much to do and see. The first night we get in so late you can’t even really count that. We will have a driver in Quito to show us the hi lights and frankly I’m glad to have a couple of days to adjust to the altitude and recover from the fast and furious previous weeks of planning. At this time I’m not sure what we will be seeing in Quito, but I do know there is a lot of history and beautiful architecture. There are also a lot of art galleries and since my mother works in an art gallery I know she will enjoy viewing other styles of art.

On February 11th we will head towards Otavalo, famous for its textile markets. We will spend two nights at the Dona Esther. Our plan is to take a little side trip to the Cuicocha lake which lies at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano. We will also visit the town of Cotacachi for a real estate tour as well as the wonderful leather market that we have read so much about.

Textiles at Otovalo Market

Lake at Cotacachi


On the 13th we are off to Banos heading south on the Pan-American highway which follows a beautiful valley of lush farmland flanked on either side by a dozen volcanoes. Cotopaxi is the greatest of them and is the centerpiece of the Cotopaxi park.

Banos Waterfall

The 16th finds us back on the road and heading towards our final destination of Cuenca. The city of Cuenca will serve as our home base for the remainder of the trip. We will be staying here the longest as this is where we want to concentrate our efforts in our search for a second home and/or retirement spot. We will be staying at the Casa Ordonez while in Cuenca. We have read great reviews about this hotel and are anxious to see if it lives up to its reputation.

Catedral de la Inmaculada

Once we get settled in Cuenca we plan to take a tour of the city and familiarize ourselves with our new stomping grounds. We will organize a real estate tour of Cuenca itself and then take a trip to the country side and the Yungilla Valley and view some more properties. Juan has recommended that we relax in the Banos Hot Springs at the Piedra De Agua spa (Oh darn another spa treatment).

Some of the other things we plan to do while staying in Cuenca is to tour the craft making villages of Gualaceo and Chordeleg. Of course we can’t wait to visit the cathedrals, markets, museums and view the Colonial architecture while in town.

Kitty Goes To Market

Church in Chordeleg

On the 23rd we catch a flight back from Cuenca to Quito and spend the night in Quito before we fly out the next day and head home bringing a close to our long anticipated Ecuador trip.

Now stay tuned as we get closer to the real deal......

Friday, January 15, 2010

Planning Our First Trip To Ecuador

I can't believe it is already 2010. We have just returned home from Houston Texas where we spent the Holidays with my Husband's Parents and Sister and enjoyed a relaxing quiet Christmas. 2009 proved to be a pretty hectic year with the opening of our new automotive business. I am happy to report that our first year in business went extremely well and we survived in one piece. The Holidays were a welcome relief from the everyday hustle and bustle and it was nice to unwind for a change.  

Our Business

We spent a total of two and a half weeks away from home, the longest we have been away since I can't remember when. We drove our Jaguar sports car to Houston and we were packed to the roof with luggage, Christmas presents, computer equipment, as well as our Daughter Lindsay and our dog Buster. There was not an inch of space left. We looked like one of those crazy circus clown cars where the clowns keep piling out of the tiny car and you’re left wondering how in the world they all fit in there in the first place.

Our Very Small Jaguar XJR

 The first part of our trip was spent relaxing with Family, watching T.V. and cooking. Rod did a few projects around Mom and Dad’s house and I picked up some things that I had bought for my online business. Shortly after Christmas it was time for the second leg of our trip and off we went to Santa Fe, New Mexico to visit my Mother and her Husband. Rod’s Dad drove the three of us to the airport and we boarded a plane to Santa Fe while Lindsay caught a flight back home so she could help take care of the business for the week that we would be in Santa Fe. Buster stayed at Mom and Dad’s for the week that we would be gone.

Lindsay Hard At Work

New Years week my Mother, Bob, Rod and myself started busily planning our upcoming February trip to Ecuador. We will be flying out on February 9th and returning on the 24th. Up until that time we were learning as much about the country as possible. We had previously purchased several travel books and Rod had been and still is reading internet blogs, websites and anything else he can get his hands and eyes on. Weekly emails were circulating between the four of us sharing any tidbit of what we deemed important Ecuadorian information. So now it was time to get down and dirty and really start mapping out our plan of places we wanted to see and stay in while in Ecuador.

A Small Portion Of Our Ecuador Books

We did manage to carve a little time out to do some fun things around town. One of the things that we always do when we visit Santa Fe is go to Harry’s Road House. Bar none they have the best comfort food around and the portions are large. You can get anything from Breakfast Burritos with Green Chili to Roadhouse Turkey Meatloaf. The menu has something for everyone and they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’re ever in Santa Fe make sure and visit this fantastic restaurant. They’re a bit off of the beaten path, but well worth the  drive.

While we were in Santa Fe we were fortunate enough to meet with some friends of my Mother's who had previously been to Ecuador. They were a wealth of information and we truly were thankful for the time they spent with us. I  think we all left that night feeling much more at ease. We were relieved to find out that if you have an adventurous spirit you can get around quite easily in the areas we plan to visit. Renting a car is relatively easy, although not necessarily inexpensive and off you go, but since this was our first trip to Ecuador we thought it made the most sense to hire a bilingual guide and leaving the driving to someone else made the most sense.

The absolute high light of my evening was to learn that I didn't need to get any vaccinations (I was absolutely ecstatic). I don't have a needle phobia, I have a pain phobia. Anything that I anticipate is going to inflict pain causes me great anguish and of course needles fall under that category. In my opinion they ought to administer anesthesia before giving you an injection. According to our research the only time it is really important to get vaccinated when traveling to Ecuador is if you plan on going into the jungle. Of course use your own judgment as we are by no means endorsing that you travel without vaccinations. Our plans are to stay in the highlands and out of the Amazon so we are good to go.

After a lot of research and our travel books spread before us we carefully made a progressive list of the towns that we wished to visit as well as accommodations. We outlined the dates, the towns we planned to be in on those dates and the hotels we would stay at. My Mother and I discovered a spa resort in the town of Banos called Luna Runtun This particular spa offered Rose Petal baths, Volcanic ash exfoliations, and massages all at a fraction of the cost that you would pay in the States, “Be still my heart.” My Mother and I decided in order for us to be happy Campers we definitely needed to stay at the Runtun and indulge in some pampering.

View From The Luna Runtun

The rest of our time was spent Skyping, emailing, researching, and filling our notebooks with endless information. Rod always makes fun of me because I always have a notebook in hand, he says I need notes to find my notes. I have tried to be more computer savvy and keep all of my note taking on my laptop, but somehow an old fashioned pen and paper just feel more comfortable to me. I'm forever stuck somewhere between the high tech and the old world way of doing things. It must run in my Family though, you ought to see my Mother and myself trying to get out the door in the morning. It's like a fire drill, only instead of running from the blaze we create our own blaze trying to locate our planners, calendars, phones and notebooks.

One Page out Of My Overflowing Notebook

Time was running out and the rest of our itinerary would have to be worked on when we returned home. I volunteered to be the travel coordinator and keep everybody up to date via email. My first assignment was to locate a tour company that met our needs and at the same time was reasonable. The last couple of days we were in Santa Fe I must have literally sent 40 emails trying to find a guide or tour company.

I did end up finding a site called which was really neat. It's sort of like a forum where you log in and enter the area you are interested in visiting. You post your question, such as “How do I get from the airport to the hotel in Quito?” Your question is posted and then members of the site answer you. Some of the answers are good and others not so good, but you choose the answer or answers that make the most sense to you and then you can start a one to one email correspondence with those individuals. You can then decide if you want to use their services.

Just be aware that a lot of the people who respond to you are not necessarily “experts”, they may just be a student working their way through college or they may actually be a legitimate company, it is up to you to decide. My thought was what better way to get a feel for the local way of life than to hire someone who lives and works amongst the locals.  In the end we decided to go with a bona fide tour company, but only because we were looking for someone that could give us the whole package (driver, air and hotel). We also wanted to take some real estate tours while there, so we needed someone to help us set those up as well.

After a whirlwind week in Santa Fe it was time to return to Houston where we would celebrate Dad's 80th Birthday. Dad decided we should all go to Galveston, so we packed Rod, Dad, Mom Rod's Sister - JoAnn and myself into Dad's BMW 330. Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Don't ever believe the car manufacturers when they tell you their vehicle seats five adults comfortably. We were packed in like sardines and it was an unusually cold and blustery day, but in spite of the leg cramps, numb body parts and frigid temperatures we thoroughly enjoyed the day. We stopped and ate at Landry's for lunch and a few pounds later we piled back into the car and drove around the Island and looked at the lingering devastation left by hurricane Ike. It's amazing how many places were still vacant and in disrepair. We did look at some beautiful homes on the bay and the ocean side. On the way out of town we stopped at the Rainforest Cafe for a sinful dessert, Rod and I split this yummy dessert and we still couldn’t finish it, but it was just what we needed for the long ride home.

Chocolate Indulgence

A couple of days later we made the 12 hour trek back to Sweet Home Alabama and started tackling the new year and once again preparing for our trip to Ecuador.