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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cotopaxi means "Neck of the Moon"

Oy. Having completed this entire trip, I think we can also safely call it the "Toilet Paper Caper." Although we didn't know that when we started out.

As I mentioned, I didn't have any internet-enabled devices with me, so I just took notes by hand in an old steno pad. This means that sometimes my scribbles are somewhat cryptic, so I was having trouble translating this bit of wisdom: "Toilet paper - one swatch. Laughed a lot."

I had to ask Joyce, and we began to re-visit our vari0us encounters with the sanitary facilities, but this one didn't click right away. Then it struck me. It happened on either the first or second day in Quito, before we went to the bathroom anywhere else in Ecuador. It was probably after dinner in the Japanese restaurant, and Joyce said, "Go to the desk and ask for more TP," or words to that effect.

My Spanish sucks, which is to say, were it not for my knowledge of Italian, I wouldn't have any clue at all. So I worked out a sentence that seemed to me like, "May I have some bathroom paper?" But for some reason, this elicited an offer of a tissue. I mean A tissue, not even a box. So I attempted, "The OTHER kind of bathroom paper," which elicited a wad torn off a roll they had behind the desk. At this, I gave up, because if she understood what kind of paper I needed and wouldn't give me any more than that, I didn't know how else to get it. But she had given me another idea: the box of tissues in the bathroom was a suitable substitute, so we let it go for the night. So I thanked her for the wad and went upstairs to show Joyce what I had accomplished.

That was just a little sample of the tissue issue in Ecuador. We learned a great deal about the servicios hygenicos on our little trip, and the very next day, when we went to visit Cotopaxi, we had several more lessons.

Of course we have traveled in enough places NEVER to go anywhere without tissues. We have used the most primitive facilities in places like Kenya and the San Blas Islands, and have gone tactical many times. But, silly us, we still prefer a good, old-fashioned ceramic pot with a seat you can sit on, a door that closes, a functional flushing device, and gratis papel del bano. Oh, yes, I learned it pretty darned quick.

So it was off to Cotopaxi National Park (or whatever the official name of it is) with our new private guide, Jose-Luis, a long-suffering young man with excellent English. He picked us up in a 4-wheel-drive Chevy which had air conditioning, but not a lot else, especially, not enough room for five people. Luckily we got in first and I grabbed the front seat, and the couple we collected after were skinny. They were, in fact, military skinny. Army skinny. Triathlon skinny. And there still wasn't really enough room for them in the back seat with Joyce. They were just lucky my fat ass wasn't back there, too.

We drove out of Quito on the Avenue of the Volcanos, because you can see seven of them as you drive along it, including the only one in the world directly on the Equator. It was foggy so we didn't see any of them at first. Jose-Luis said there was no point going up Cotopaxi until after noon when the fog would likely burn off, so we went for a hike around a lake instead. Honestly, it wasn't much of a lake, but that's not Ecuador's fault. It has shrunken drastically in recent years due to global warming, which is also why a snow-capped volcano is more rare than it once was.

Now, when I say "hike," I mean a brief walk accompanied by a lot of gasping. There's not a lot to see, except some neat flowers. Here are some.

Also, this lake is at the same altitude as Quito, roughly 10,000 feet, almost twice as high as Denver. So given there wasn't much to see, and the triathletes wanted to save time and energy for their little stroll up the volcano, we didn't go very far around. Instead, we went to a hut, generously termed a "museum," where we saw some of the seismic and gelogocal history of the park. Here we also drank coco mate tea and visited el bano.
And so we discovered many things:

1. Coco mate tastes like piss, and is served in terra cotta cups of hot water.
2. After you drink the piss-flavored tea, you go to el bano where you can rent some papel del bano. Actually, you buy it, or you buy the privilege of using the toilet.
3. You may not put the paper INTO the toilet, Instead, there is a lovely basket of used toilet paper that would gag a maggot. I confess, sometimes I was a good citizen of the world, and sometimes, not so much.
4. When you come out to wash your hands you may find:

a. No soap
b. Liquid soap
c. Community soap on a stick.

Of course we were carrying some sort of germophobe gel so that got a lot of use.

In addition to these ways that an Ecuadoran National Park is unlike a Canadian or USAian park, there are other differences. One is the attack of the vendors, which everyone has experienced even if they've been no further than the Bahamas or Mexico. Then there are the vendors of charity, which means beggars, and honestly, I don't always resist those. Another is the peculiar lack of safety features. In some places, the floors inside the official buildings were so uneven you had to straddle the various irregularities, made somewhat more challenging by lack of lighting. Steps indoors and out are often in pieces and can be anything from a little lip to a grand jete. As far as safety railings or anything else to haul yourself up, or along, or to keep you from falling into an unexpected chasm, forget it. Luckily we had walking sticks but these tend to get stuck in crevices and can cause parts to whack you in the jaw when you wrest them loose.

At any rate, we completed our tour and proceeded up the side of the volcano on a dirt road. "Up" in this case meant adding on 9,000 feet in about 45 minutes. We arrived in the parking lot below the Refugio. There are no banos in the parking lot, only in the Refugio, which is a good 600 feet straight up. So we were treated to the sight of many people relieving themselves in the gravel. This ought to give the government of Ecuador a hint, but it probably doesn't.

The primary reason for the park, other than to set aside land, is to provide a place for climbers to acclimatize themselves before attempting Cotopaxi. The lake is one place to do this, and then after that, the Refugio, after which one makes a last push. Apparently many more people attempt to climb Cotopaxi than just visit or look at it, because there were no facilities of any kind for the people who didn't go as far as the Refugio (or the glaciers 20-30 minutes past it). If you can climb up there you can get some more coco mate. Well, wouldn't it make more sense to provide the tea at lower altitudes, rather than the last place the casual visitor is likely to go?

Here is one of a zillion shots we took up there, but it nicely demonstrates what was going on.

In the first picture, you can't see the Refugio because it's hidden in the fog. Instead, you can see the parking lot below and the crater above.

In the next one, you can see an orange box, which is the Refugio, taken from the parking lot when the fog parted. Don't forget to click the pictures to make them large enough to see the details.

The crater is the dark spot, and the reason it's dark is, it's too steep for the snow to adhere to it. Keep in mind we are right on the equator here, and it's late May.

Moving right along, and in order to satisfy my detractors, I'll explain WHY Cotopaxi means "neck of the moon" in Quechua. It's because from a certain angle, way down the mountain somewhere, sometimes, when the moon is full, it looks like it's sitting right in the crater. Of course I hunted for a postcard demonstrating this but the only image I could find while there was a photo of it in the hut where there was no lighting. And a search of the internet has failed as well. You'd think someone would try to cash in on this image but apparently not. If anyone's got a picture of this phenomenon, I'll gladly post it here for you.

In the meantime, I scanned this image into my computer. Put a blob of shaving cream on there and you'll probably get the general idea.

So Jose-Luis and the Army triathletes set off up the volcano, Joyce lay in the car gasping, and I ran around and took pictures. I'm not saying it was easy; just barely possible. And even Joyce roused herself when a family from New Jersey pulled up next to us and offered to take our picture. See how happy she is!

If you've read previous blogs, you will recognize Lucky, Plucky and Trip. They kind of stand in for our dogs when we have to travel without them.

And this next one is just the clearest of all my shots.

About 45 minutes after the triathletes left, they returned, and we drove down to the banos and then out of the park to a hacienda, which in Ecuadoran Spanish means "lunch." No, just kidding. Haciendas come in three varieties: working ranches, ranches with gardens and restaurants in the original buildings, and just the buildings functioning as restaurants and hotels. You get excellent food in a very nice setting. They tell us Ecuador has fast food, but we never saw any, just the ads.
The village we were supposed to go to next to see a market was closed. But we'd had enough, so we bid a fond farewell to the Army triathletes, who were kind enough to update us on the status of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Hold Your Breath." On the way to the hotel, we asked Jose-Luis who was coming to get us for our "Welcome Dinner" and he said "Wha'?" so he called the agency and left a message about it.
With no prospects of dinner out, we went swimming and then to the Swiss restaurant, and when we got back to our room, we had a message that they had messed up, and the dinner would be the next night.
It may sound as though the travel agency was a complete screw-up, but withhold judgement for now. As it turns out, they were real heroes, and all that will play out in subsequent postings.
One last bit of trivia. Jose-Luis told us why the hotel lobby was filled with enormous bouquets of fresh roses every day. They grow roses there, for world-wide export, and the local price is a dollar a dozen. They are called "the cheapest gift," and a sure-fire way to make your date mad is to show up with a dozen long-stemmed roses.
By the way, I'm putting this link to Galasam, our travel company, throughout the blog. If you want to go to South America, these people are the best. They really can make lemonade out of lemons. If I were going down there, again, I wouldn't use anyone else, seriously.


  1. Cotopaxi does not mean neck of the moon! Cuello de luna is neck of the moon.

  2. I'mTheBloggerJune 17, 2010 at 9:31 PM

    Yeah, it does, in Quechua, not Spanish. Never said it was in Spanish.

    In Ecuador, they are now teaching Quechua as a second language. And in Peru they teach Quachua.