We woke up on the second day of our trip in Baños to the light pitter-patter of rain on the roof. Clouds hung low over the valley and mountains when I rolled over to look out the window. I climbed out of bed and opened the front door to see if Tungurahua was visible, or the rest of the valley for that matter. As I opened the door, I looked out earnestly. And then my head dropped…another rainy day in the mountains of Ecuador.
A fellow traveler that I enjoy following is Wandering Earl over at wanderingearl.com. Before I started writing about my own travel experiences abroad, I would stop by Earl’s site every now and then to read his next story. His site, writing, and lifestyle inspired me in 2014 to start my own blog which has evolved into the site you see today (who knows what I was doing when I first started out? I still shake in trepidation when I think about digging into the archives to read — and probably edit — those old posts).
Recently, he wrote an article about the travel blogging industry and the perception of the ‘nomadic’ lifestyle, entitled Why I’m Concerned About Travel Blogging. It’s a great read for anyone I think, especially those who would like to make “travel more” one of their goals in life. A lot of the article focused on travel bloggers and how they build a site that sells a crafted image of the lifestyle–that everything is awesome at all times, that every day is an adventure, that traveling will change your life, that if you aren’t traveling then you aren’t living, that it’s easy making money while traveling, and a bunch more thats.
Our recent trip to Baños warranted such a realistic post about the drawbacks of traveling–it was filled with the flavor of an opportunity missed, disappointed expectations, and how attitude controls your “experience.” However, I was reluctant to be so honest because of how my readers might perceive it: “What an opportunity wasted!” they would comment. Moreover, many of the things I wanted to have happen didn’t–so what was there to write about? What was there to include except a story about my collapse into disappointment and despair?
A couple of days after we arrived back in Quito and returned to our teaching routines, Wandering Earl posted his article and I instantly clicked it. After reading it, I decided that I had to be honest and write about our journey in Baños.
If I or my writing has ever made you feel like a lifestyle of travel is easy or a required ‘check’ off the bucket list, I apologize. I’m still growing and learning as a person, a writer, and traveler. It is always my intention to give the most accurate accounts of our travel experiences. I get joy from sharing my travels with others over the web. I want to help others reach out and explore the destinations I have, and to share in the triumph of the challenge. However, events slip through the cracks. Who wants to read about how I threw a fit because we took the wrong bus or couldn’t find the correct one? Ask Danielle about how many times this has happened and she will laugh–she has either lost count or the tally is so high that I don’t want to know.
Lately, I’ve been getting the impression that my writing has been perpetuating the misconception that living as a nomad is always awesome. Being a life-long nomad isn’t easy. We don’t have a home and most of our belongings can fit into two luggage bags and a rucksack. We always have to leave friends and places behind. Relationships are only maintained through the web and are superficial at best. Familial support is difficult long-distance so when we struggle, we must often bear it alone. While we are blessed and lucky, it doesn’t change the fact that we have worked hard to create and maintain our lifestyle. We did not roll out of bed one day and decide that we would travel the world. I completed two years of rigorous master’s work to prepare myself for teaching–Danielle specialized in ESL for four and a half years which included an internship and licensing. When you read these posts, or peruse our pictures, you are looking at a small snapshot of our life. You don’t see us working 10-12 hours a day to prepare lesson plans, teach, or correct writing assignments. You don’t see the amount of research I pour into finding new places to visit, how to get there, where to stay, or what to do when we get there. A lot of this is done in between grading homework or tests, or while I should be resting.
Our lives are as difficult as yours, we just live them out in a different country with different problems. We are highly qualified international English teachers who are overworked, underpaid, and misunderstood (unless you’re one of us). We must constantly learn to adapt to a new culture, a new language, and a new lifestyle every year. We must open and close bank accounts, explain our problems in a foreign language, and deal with bureaucratic nonsense. In the last three months, I’ve had to spend 4 hours every weekend waiting in a queue to get my visa fixed. When we lived in Myanmar, we had to take freezing cold showers every morning for two months. We washed our clothes in a sink for six months. In the end, we have always come out better people because we learn to appreciate what we have, understand others when they don’t have, know that we can go without this or that convenience, deal with this or that situation, and have the knowledge that we can suffer and overcome difficult challenges together.
We love our lifestyle, and you might too, but dreams extrapolated out of other peoples’ experiences do not mirror a truth within yourself. You read something, see how much we love and enjoy it, then think, “Oh, I would love that too! That would be perfect for me.” And while I am all for trying out new things or confronting the unknown — I wouldn’t be a great teacher if I didn’t believe that — I also realize that what is a truth for one person is a lie for another.
“Bing, bong, boong, bang!”
“Bing, bong, boong, bang!”
My hand darted out from under the covers, targeting the “Off” button on my Kindle alarm. All I can remember is this number: 4:00. The previous night we hadn’t finished packing our bags until midnight. I crept out of bed and into the shower, hoping I moved enough like a ninja not to wake Danielle…
As our taxi cruised down Simon Bolivar, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise off to the east that cast its glow over the valley below us. The Cordillera Oriente lit up like a million candles burning brightly. By the time the taxi exited off Simon Bolivar to drop back into the city below, Quito was just waking up.
At 6:30, we were on the bus headed to Baños. For all the countries Danielle and I have travelled, I have to say that Ecuador has the timeliest departure schedule (which is especially strange since the culture is not time oriented and being 15 or 20 minutes late is generally accepted). With a four hour bus ride ahead of us, we both withdrew into ourselves, our seats, and Danielle dozed off.
Like a child, my face was glued to the window as I hunted for the volcanoes that tower over the Panamericana, Ecuador’s main highway. Pasochoa was shrouded in the volcanic ash of Cotopaxi, its peak poking out of the top like a baby’s swaddled face. Behind Pasochoa, Rumiñahui’s towering edifices blocked the ash from climbing over and down around her flanks.
Next would be Cotopaxi. My eyes burned as my mind fought exhaustion with anticipation. In the distance, the land was shrouded in a grey fog. Slowly, as our bus wound its way across the hills and entered the valley between the Cordillera Oriente and Cordillera Occidental, I was reminded of another land.
I am traveling through Shanghai’s outskirts. I am on a high-speed rail line, headed toward Huashan Mountain through the wastes of Xi’an. Moving deeper into the timeline, lines from T.S. Eliot flash like ticker-tape across my vision. 15 minutes later and we were in the thick of an ashy blizzard.
It is difficult to imagine that the people (~300,000) who live throughout the valley between the Cordilleras suffer the choking ash that Cotopaxi has been spewing out of its mouth for the last couple of months. The dust chokes the air and covers the land in soot, killing off crops, toxifying pasture land, and poisoning livestock. While people who live close to the volcano have been moved to camps outside of the lahar flow zones, there is no tenable option for moving the +200,000 people who are left in the valley since Cotopaxi could spew ash for the next 50 years. Or it could erupt tomorrow. No one knows. And this is the problem.
Every couple kilometers we pass another sign warning that this area is a volcanic flow zone.
Passing through Ambato and turning east off the Panamericana, the highway turns into a two-lane road that hugs the southwestern side of a narrow valley. Eventually, the road will bend to the east and cut through the Cordillera Oriente into the Amazonian forests just beyond the mountain range. Two feet beyond the guard-rail, the ground drops down a thousand feet to a valley floor dominated by agricultural land, small houses, and townships. Like all places in the Ecuadorian mountains, the vistas are amazing. I call for Danielle, who is across the aisle now, and then turn my head–she is dozing. I let her sleep, turn my head back, and drink in the world outside.
We are five kilometers outside of Baños and the bus stops. The driver parks the bus and hops out along with the attendant. They are standing in the middle of the road and talking to the other drivers who have also parked in the road. I crane my head outside the window and see a long column of immobile cars winding down into the valley. I sit back down and wait patiently–it was probably a wreck. Getting stuck on mountain roads is a common occurrence while traveling — and one we have become immune to — so I continue reading Ender’s Game on my Kindle.
While we wait, the bus begins to fill with the humming sound of rain. I take it as an ill omen but continue reading, knowing that I have no control over the rain or the situation we are in. Eventually, the column of cars begins moving again and we arrive in Baños at approximately 10:30. Our AirBnB host meets us at the bus terminal and takes us on a quick tour of the thermal baths, the town, and then to their house. As he drives around, he asks the usual questions, first in broken English, then slowly slips into Spanish once he realizes I am competent enough to have a basic conversation. As we walk from the car to the thermal baths, he casually remarks, “It was sunny this weekdays, but now it’s rain.” My soul crumples a bit more as we don our coats and the smell of rain fills the air. Another ill omen.
We spend the rest of the day exploring the town while it drizzles. The town gets its name from the volcanic springs that are located throughout the area, as well as a religious site where it is reputed that the Virgin Mary appeared near a local waterfall. We visit the waterfall and climb up the stairs that take you under the bottom fall. We get soaked and the water’s cold, but we laugh and enjoy the first elevated view of the city. I spot the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Santa Agua and we decide to visit the church next.
Construction of the church started in 1904 but wasn’t finished until 1944 and was built using volcanic rock from the surrounding land. The area became a pilgrimage site after one of the Dominican priests saw the Virgin Mary leave their hut and make her way toward the waterfall one night. She commissioned the priest to build a church for the area so that she could bless the thermal baths to heal the sick and infirm. Many people believe she is responsible for protecting Baños from the eruptions of Tungurahua throughout the town’s history. Lastly, the basílica features a museum that is on the second floor of the courtyard attached to the west side of the church.
We left the basílica and walked up the main tourist drag, checking out menus for restaurants, the local food market, and watching old ladies cook cuy (guinea pig). We returned to our apartment and prepared for an evening hike up the southern hill which towers over Baños. On the western edge of the hill, which drops down into the valley formed by the Bascún river, is a path and staircase that leads up to the Mirador Virgen. My plan was to hike up to the virgen, cross along the inside rim of the hill, and arrive at Cafe Cielo just as the sun set.
As we hiked farther up the hill, I grew hopeful about the weekend. With each step we took, the clouds seemed to clear, the rain stopped, and the sun began to shine down upon us. I could even see blue sky when I looked up. By the time we reached the virgen, the sun was just disappearing behind the mountains that surrounded us. We snapped some pictures and took in the view. The statue reminded me of being back in Myanmar where you could hike up to a gigantic Buddha that was perched atop each geographical prominence throughout the country. Even the plaster, paint job, and pigeon poop were the same. The only difference was the type of holy person being venerated. How similar humanity is even when we are separated by huge geographical and cultural differences.
Looking at the trail that led across the rim of the hill, I became skeptical about our journey to Cafe Cielo. The path was overgrown, half eroded, and difficult to see. We would be hiking along the edge of a 500 foot drop in the dark without a flashlight. My outdoor experience and common sense both told me it wasn’t a good idea so we abandoned Cafe Cielo, hiked back down to Baños, ate, and headed home to rest up and prepare for the next day.
You might be wondering at this point what is so awful about this trip. What’s disappointing? What is there to despair about? If you’re thinking that, you’re right. And I feel like a fool. But that’s what retrospection is–that’s what learning and growing is about. I have expectations and I’m a passionate person. I envision my life and make it reality. However, this causes problems. When my visions don’t match reality — or I try to force reality to fit my vision — , I don’t deal with it well. I struggle and collapse in on myself. Which is exactly what I did when I opened that apartment door on the second day of our trip.
Even though I was in a dismal mood, our bodies still required nutrients. We decided to get some breakfast and then decide what we would do for the day since all of my plans had been gunned down by that fickle mistress called Nature. As the waitress laid out pancakes in front of me and a fruit platter/pancake in front of Danielle, I put on my grumpy face. The waitress seemed unaffected as she poured our coffee out from a tin pitcher. Danielle tried to passively change my mood, but I wouldn’t be placated like child. I was determined–if I couldn’t make nature bend to my will to make me happy, no one would be happy.
After approximately twenty minutes of this attitude, Danielle was done with me. She put down an executive order–pick an activity to finish out the rest of the day and follow through with it. In general, Danielle is one of the nicest people in the world and she will do everything in her power to try and lift my mood when I’m down, but she doesn’t tolerate excessive displays of ridiculousness. I knew I was pushing the limits of child-like behavior. In fact, that had been my intention. I’m not really sure what pushed me over the edge this time–Danielle and I have been in far worst situations. Looking back on those moments during breakfast, I think it was because my expectations had grown wildly ambitious, and we had been traveling almost every weekend. Little, inconspicuous disappointments had accumulated over time. Lastly, I was disappointed because what would I write about on my blog? We had spent all that money, time, and effort which produced nothing for me to package and post.
After Danielle’s executive order, we went to a local adventure agency and booked a canyoning trip for the afternoon. During the two hours before canyoning, I ended up apologizing, explaining, and excusing my behavior. As I explained myself, Danielle and I came to many conclusions about my frustration. She asked me hard the hard questions: Why are we traveling? Don’t you enjoy our time together as long as we’re together? This is the situation–what do you want to do with it?
It’s a lesson that comes up commonly as you grow from a weekend tourist, to a semi-experienced traveler, to a life-long nomad. Travel tests your abilities to deal with situations that you are completely uncomfortable with, as well as unhappy with. Don’t like the fact that your bus broke down on your way to your next destination and you wasted a whole day of exploring? Too bad. Suspended flights for the next two days? Too bad. Poisoned by food? Too bad. How do you deal? There is no right or wrong answer, there is only the question.
While trucking out to the Rio Blanco with our guides from Geotours, I ruminated on the questions that Danielle had asked me. ‘What have we been traveling so much for?’ I asked myself. There was a lot of motivation for me to provide content for my blog. Before Ecuador, my blog had blinked out of existence and my motivation to write withered as we focused on transitions in our life: another teaching certification, moving from Myanmar to Thailand, then Thailand back to the States, getting married, then finding our next job. In Myanmar, we had spent a lot of time focusing on our jobs rather than exploring such a wonderful country. In Thailand, we had no time to explore. The most we ever saw of it was from the window of the SkyTrain. When we arrived in Ecuador and I realized the potential for exploration, I vowed that I would take up writing again. I wouldn’t let my job compromise my conviction. And it hasn’t, but I was blinded by my goals to write for my blog rather than why I chose traveling in the first place: to learn from other cultures, to know the world for myself and for its own challenges, its own inner rewards.
By the way, our canyoning trip turned out to be awesome. We spent two hours rappelling down waterfalls, getting soaked, and nearly breaking our bodies. At one point, Danielle’s leg got caught under my body as we slid down a rock face together and it nearly snapped. I bruised my bum by acting like a child and shooting down a rock face without using my feet to brace or brake myself. Danielle slammed her hip and hand into a rock face when she came up short on one of the rappels. Even though we walked away from the waterfalls limping up the hill, we were happy. During the adventure, I realized I had a huge smiled pasted on my face in contrast to my mood only hours before. What happened? I had forgotten about the blog, forgotten about chronicling the experience, forgotten about the future or the past. I was in the moment with my favorite person in the world, in a beautiful place of the world, and sharing it with strangers who loved what they were doing just as much as we did even though linguistic barriers stood in our path.
Our last morning in Baños was spent in bed. Danielle suffered from food poisoning the whole night before — I think it was the melcocha (taffy) made from sugar cane which is produced and sold in copious amounts around Baños — and needed to recover so adventures were out of the question. Moreover, it was still raining. As I laid in bed and listened to the rain, I was afforded the opportunity to finish Ender’s Game–a great book that lays the foundation for the philosophical books which follow after it in the series. Later in the day when Danielle had recovered (she’s like a soldier), we did some light hiking and watched people go puenting off the San Francisco bridge. For the next two hours, I wrestled with the idea of whether or not I would participate. I visualized jumping from the platform, free falling toward the river below, then the pull of the rope on the harness as it tightens and jerks me upward. For the first time since learning to climb over seven years ago, I had the deep fear. I quickly came to the realization that I hadn’t mastered all my fears like I had originally believed. For some reason, dangling thousands of feet above the ground doesn’t frighten me, or even falling from a rock face while climbing, but jumping head-first off a bridge to dangle upside as you swing from one side of the bridge to the other scares the #&!% out of me. We watched over six or seven people jump off the bridge that day but I still couldn’t muster the will to overcome the fear. In addition to my lessons the day before, I was now served with a healthy dose of humility, as well as the proposition of a new life challenge. For me, it is usually never the question of whether or not I will try something, but do I have the ability to overcome the challenge. I relish the prospect of a difficult situation, failing, and trying again. It’s why I love climbing and hiking. However, the true challenge, the life challenge, is the question of whether or not I will try something, even under optimum conditions. If I have the money and means to climb Everest one day, I will try it. If I have the money and means to journey to one of the poles, I will try it. If I have the means to go puenting, which I do, I’m still not sure I will do it.
That is the challenge.
I can process our trip to Baños in two ways: a failure and a success. It was a failure in that I let my mood, expectations, and motivations blind me from our purpose for traveling, as well as taking a good trip and turning into a miserable experience. I failed to overcome a fear I didn’t know was within myself. It was a success in that my purposes for travel have been realigned to the path I want to follow. It was a success in that I learned I have new fears that are yet to be discovered and overcome.
Let me be very clear about my final point: traveling is and isn’t important. It will and won’t make you happy. It will and won’t complete your life. It will and won’t change you. It will and won’t be fun. It will and won’t be easy, awesome, life-changing, and any other adjective you can think of.
You see, it just depends on your attitude.
What makes you happy? What do you want to do? What do you want to learn? What do you want to experience?
How to get there:
Our trip started in Quito so if you have questions or comments about how to get to Baños from another location in Ecuador or Peru, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will supply you with the best information I have.
If you are planning to travel to Baños by bus from Quito, there are a couple of bus companies that have a direct route there. The buses leave every thirty minutes so you can arrive at Terminal Quitumbe whatever time you wish. Most bus trips take approximately 4 hours.
To get to Quitumbe from anywhere in Quito, you must take a taxi or find the nearest Ecovía station. Once you find the nearest Ecovía station, wait for the buses marked ‘Quitumbe’ or ‘C-1’ on the placard in the window.
The bus terminal in Baños is in the center of the town so you shouldn’t have any problems finding your way around once you arrive.