Quito.

I haven’t written since mid-April for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I made my way from Mancora, Peru up through the entire country of Ecuador, and finishing in Quito, in ten days. There wasn’t much time to write. When I did feel called to write, I was reminded of why I couldn’t easily pick up my small Chromebook that I have been using the past five months to write my posts. I am writing to you from a computer at a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Unfortunately, my Chromebook is now in the hands of an anonymous Ecuadorian who expertly removed it from my backpack. As I dozed off on a short, 3.5 hour bus ride from Baños to Quito, the man sitting behind me broke the lock to my day-bag that sat by my feet, removed my computer from its case, opened my money pouch to remove just the cash, and then closed my backpack before leaving the bus halfway through the ride, leaving me clueless until realizing what had happened in the middle of the night as I arrived in Ecuador’s capital city. It was the first time on the entire trip that I forgot to wear my cash and passports on my person. I am incredibly grateful that he left my passports in the pouch. I had heard multiple stories of theft on Ecuador’s busses, and of the general dangers of Quito itself, but I didn’t think that someone like me, someone who is so careful with her belongings, would be robbed at my feet. I wasn’t so much upset as I was frustrated with myself. I should have kept the backpack on my lap, hugging it in my sleep. I should have worn my cash and passport on me directly. I became a complacent traveler, forgetting simple safety rules in the context of my surroundings. Have I been traveling too long? I’ve realized now that maybe it’s not entirely a mistake I’ve made: it is merely the reality of traveling, of the types of people who are dexterous professionals who can easily pick out those who seem vulnerable at any given moment.
The other reason I haven’t written much is that I haven’t felt inspired by Ecuador as much as I had hoped. The rushed pace and the loss of my belongings at the back of my mind didn’t offer me the chance to slow down and reflect on the current state of my journey. But I can offer a quick summary of my thoughts in the places I visited.

My first stop was in Cuenca, the lovely colonial town that is known for its handmade Ecuadorian hats, a misconception known by most people as “Panamanian” hats. These Toquilla hats are in fact produced in Ecuador, using a traditional straw weave technique. From Cuenca I took with me memories of delicious coffee, quaint little artisan shops, expat-owned health conscious cafés, street art, and a generally livable and relatively safe city. Although expensive, just as the rest of Ecuador would turn out to be (the country’s currency is the US Dollar, making everything more costly relative to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia), I wholeheartedly found Cuenca to be a nice city to explore for a couple days. A fun fact: one of Ecuador’s biggest exports is cut flowers, of which 75% go to the United States (another 10% goes to the Netherlands). In Cuenca I could see how the cut roses, sunflowers, and lilies were of top quality. I was also lured into one bakery after another in the city, the smell of fresh bread flowing into the streets; I realized how scarce high-quality pastries are in South America (except in Argentina, where the chocolate croissants left me feeling like I was in Paris again.)

Flower market in Cuenca

Ecuadorian hat factory and shop.

Saddles and horseback riding gear for sale at a local market.

Spotting street art on a rainy day.
Next I made my way by bus to Baños, a small adventure town at the base of the volcano Tungurahua complete with thermal baths to be enjoyed in the evenings. We rented an ATV and made our way up to the highly photographed swing at the “Tree House,” where on a clear day you can see the volcano as you’re pushed over the countryside while friends are snapping your next instagram photo. The ride to the Pailon del Diablo, an immensely powerful waterfall, was beautiful. Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa is the main neo-Gothic style church named after the vision of the Virgin Mary seen near the town’s nearest waterfalls. It is a place of pilgrimage, was built with volcanic rocks, and is lined inside with paintings depicting the Virgin’s miracles in Baños, which include saving the church from multiple volcanic eruptions. The Piscinas de la Virgen thermal baths, at the base of the miracle-laden waterfall, were a lovely way to end the evening, where you can move from an extremely hot bath to a freezing cold one in an effort to stimulate the nervous system and help remove any toxins from the body.

Swinging from the “Tree House” in Baños.

On a clear day you can see Tunguharua volcano in the background

Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa.
After I had gotten over the moderately traumatic incident that occurred from Baños to Quito, I found myself in a capital city where I felt unsafe nearly all the time. I hadn’t felt this energetic heaviness before on my trip, and it was a surprise how unease I felt, even during the daytime. Perhaps it was still too soon after the incident, but I actually felt the danger that I had been warned about. Other cities always turned out to be less foreboding than what I had expected, but not Quito. The historic center is the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in  North and South America, and was the first (along with Krakow) World Cultural Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1978. This historic center of the city was also not the safest neighborhood. Nearby Bellavista, with more restaurants, nightlife, and upscale residential housing along La Carolina Park, was far more enjoyable to walk around.

 

Basilica del Voto Nacional.
 
View of Quito from the Basílica del Voto Nacional
Otavalo, known for its famous Saturday market two hours away from Quito, was a disappointment. Outwardly a tourist shopping destination, it didn’t have the feel of an authentic marketplace I had seen in so many other cities in South America. Another well visited site taken as a day trip from Quito, the Mitad Del Mundo, was worth seeing for the photo opportunity, but if in a rush it’s easily skippable. The “Center of the World” is at 0’0″ Latitude, at the equatorial line. There are two sites: one that is supposedly the true equatorial line according to exact GPS coordinates, and another that houses a large monument and Disney-esque park activities.

The old town in Quito.

The Mitad Del Mundo.
However, Quito had some redeemable qualities. First and foremost was the Guayasamín Museum and Foundation, where we visited the late artist’s house and studio, as well as his Capilla Del Hombre, which housed some of his well most well known large scale paintings, of which I find absolutely incredible.

The artist Guayasamín’s home, now a museum in Quito.

Capilla Del Hombre
The capital is also the launch point to the hiker’s hideaway 50 km south of Quito called Cotopaxi National Park. I stayed for two days at a lovely hostel looking out to Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest summit in the country at 5,897 meters above sea level. Unfortunately the volcano was closed for climbing due to recent volcanic activity, but the nearby inactive volcanoes were open. It was a beautiful area with lush countryside, and I was thankful for the brief but tranquil escape from Quito .

Cotopaxi Volcano

Hiking in Cotopaxi National Park.

Our lodge overlooking Cotopaxi Volcano.    
Ecuadorians are some of the nicest people I have met in South America. They were so friendly and helpful, and even the tourism police were extremely quick and compassionate when I had to fill out a police report my first night in the city. Overall, it was a country where I had felt only the extremes: at times I was terribly frustrated, unable to understand how on earth their country made it through the day, and other times I was just so happy to be there.

Night view of Quito.
Unfortunately, my time in Quito ended on a low note; at the airport, ready to take my flight to Panama City and then San Jose, I was almost made to miss my flight due to two completely absurd reasons not worth talking about here. It didn’t make my farewell to the country all that difficult. However, I am thankful that things could have turned out far, far worse than they had, and I am also grateful that I had traveled relatively painlessly throughout the whole of South America until that point.

And so, after arriving to Cartagena, Colombia on December 1st 2015, I left South America, exactly five months and six days later. I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, though. My original plan was to visit Costa Rica at the end of February, when I first imagined my backpacking trip to last only about two and a half months. I was a little behind schedule, but I would finally head to Central America to explore what Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” is all about.

Torres Del Paine

Camping in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was an incredible experience. It pushed my limits physically; we had two 8 hour-long trek days totaling in over 37 km (22 miles). I am not an experienced hiker, but I found the Torres and French Valley treks not at all as difficult as I had imagined they would be, and they both had incredible viewpoints that awaited us at the summit. I related hiking to people’s experience with running; for them, it is a form of meditation, a way to clear their mind and just allow the body to move itself automatically. I had plenty of time in those hours to hike in silence and was easily able to switch off all the thoughts in my head as I stayed focused on the trail. Hiking also gave me time to think about just about everything in a clear and non-emotionally cluttered way. I realized how people can become life-long hiking addicts in seeking both the adrenaline and the meditative reflection that comes with experiencing the outdoors in such a physically demanding way.

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Sunset in Puerto Natales, Chile.
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Grey Glacier icebergs at Grey Lake.
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Grey Glacier in the background, Torres del Paine.
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Beautiful yet bizarre Patagonian cloud formations.
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Paine Massif pink sunset after 18 hours of daylight.
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View of the Torres tours after a 5 hour long hike along the Torres trek.
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Peering into the valley at the end of the French Valley trek.
Panorama of the French Valley.
Panorama of the French Valley.
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The lagoon’s piercing blue color comes from the minerals of the glaciers.
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The Paine Massif.

And now I’ve made it to 2016. It’s New Year’s Day, and the city of Punta Arenas (four hours drive from Puerto Natales, the home base of Torres Del Paine National Park) is a ghost town. We were warned that the Chileans close everything on New Year’s Day, and they weren’t kidding; merely two restaurants and a cafe are open in the vicinity to our hotel, and not a single store, bank, or supermarket is open. So today is a much needed day of rest in Patagonia.

My first reaction as I looked back on this past year was that so much has happened, too much, and it’s truly mind blowing. It was a year of so many changes, new experiences, and hardships. I thought, if I continue at this pace each year, I would certainly burn out by the age of 35. This year was a roller coaster on every level. But I am grateful for all the highs, the lows, and of the swinging pendulum of feeling secure and of being thrust into the unknown.

I traveled and then I came home. I celebrated the coming of 2015 on a small island called Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, sleeping directly under the stars on an empty beach with only 30 others to see the gorgeous sunrise with me. I was completely engulfed in nature and in beauty, and although I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing with my life, I had the reassurance of my immediate next steps, which was going back to New York to begin working full time for a startup. I spent the rest of January in Cambodia and Vietnam, and despite the career that awaited me, I came home to a freezing February storm completely heartbroken. I had spent the previous six months traveling on and off across three continents. I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Southeast Asia to achieve any sort of closure in my adventures, and upon my return I didn’t have a chance to process what I experienced. And so one of the many reasons why I am taking the time now in South America is because I made that mistake a year ago.

I worked and then I didn’t. I began working at the startup in February and dove right in, kicking off in San Francisco for two weeks with the startup’s founder. I learned what it took to grow a company from the ground up, and I also learned of the risks involved in joining a tech startup while it was merely a seedling. Unfortunately this startup, among the 99% of new businesses, had come to a standstill, and I had to leave. And so I decided to reset and travel to another region I had yet to explore.

Friendships showed me more about myself than ever before. Some old friends faded, some were rekindled from the past, and some grew even stronger, becoming family. My friends are growing into themselves by taking different paths, some of them intersecting with mine, and all of them beautiful and scary in their own right. It’s been fascinating to watch my friends grow up in such a variety of ways, and it’s given me the chance to evaluate my priorities and how I fit into the conventional cycle of adulthood. This year was also marked by a new set of people that entered my life; I found community in a group of people who share similar values, who are there to help me, and who embrace the path I am taking. Through these friends I expanded my world of music, dance, spiritual practice, and self expression. I went to Burning Man for the first time, and learned what it was like to live completely in the present.

I have struggled with family, those whom I share my flesh and blood, for the majority of my life. This past year I chose to deal with family obstacles in a different way. I chose to put myself first and to live my own life. Although at first that may sound selfish, I have become far more aware of my own faults and of my role in both my nuclear and extended family units. A proper and fully functional family sphere cannot ever be defined as black or white, as there is no right or wrong way to deal with family relationships. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s the imperfections of a so-called “dysfunctional” childhood family that, whether we chose to admit it or not, take part in defining how we live our adult lives.

Far more has happened that I choose not to write about here. What I know is that last year, I thought I had a lot figured out about my immediate future. I thought those feelings of not knowing were relatively resolved. What followed was far from what I could have imagined. It was an adventure: crazy, beautiful, and surreal. Everything happens for a reason, and I am learning to trust that the sequence of events, the causes and effects of my actions, are all lessons. This year’s moments have both given me joy and have challenged me. They are riddles that I’ve been given an opportunity to explore and to one day be able to solve. Things are more unresolved than ever before, but what I realize is that embracing this fact, in the end, is actually the whole point of it all.