“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to” – Bilbo Baggins
How on earth, did I end up at an Ecuadorian cock fighters training grounds? It was an amazing sight to see, but I thought it was illegal everywhere… actually come to think of it, the whole place did seem kind of clandestine and had a certain “this isn’t technically legal” feel about it, nobody offered a straight answer when I asked, so I wasn’t going to ask again. I didn’t know people still bet on fighting chickens, nor did I realize they took it so seriously. Lets recap how I got here.
Our flight left New York early in the morning of the 16th, a Friday. It landed late in the day in Quito, Ecuador. I was tired, confused, and a little hungry. It was at this point I started to realize just how hard it might be to travel in a Spanish speaking country. Luckily airports are well labelled with pictures and multiple languages. We essentially walked through customs, which was strange, I half expected a tricky line of questioning and a search. I guess trust is an advantage given to Canadian travellers, because I have never had more than about two questions asked while crossing a border. We were told that a long time friend of Erin’s aunt would pick us up at the airport and we would stay with her in Quito while we took Spanish lessons.
We walked out of the customs area to find that there was no one waiting for us. My initial instinct was to worry, but I figured she was just running a few minutes late. I used the bathroom while Erin watched the luggage and then we switched. While I was watching the luggage I saw a woman and a young man point at me and wave, Erin’s aunt had sent them a picture and I guess I wasn’t too hard to spot. They came over just as Erin came back. We did some introductions, their names were Liz and Paulo, and we chatted for a moment. Their english was very impressive. We loaded our gear into their car and made the lengthy but scenic drive from the airport to their home. Shortly after we arrived at the house, I went with Paulo in the car to get some chicken and pizza. The chicken was delicious and I believe the pizza was better than what I had in New York. Erin maintains the New York Pizza is superior, but honestly, who are you going to believe? I finally pulled my shoes off at 10 pm, and it felt great. It was time to get some sleep, I had a feeling Saturday was likely to be something exciting.
My initial thoughts on Quito is that it is an old city (ok thats more fact than thought) with narrow streets, and the driving system is essentially chaos. The driving on the road is much like a mix of fish swimming in a stream and people walking on a sidewalk, there are no real rules and everyone is just watching for everyone else and doing their own thing. Its surprisingly efficient and after two weeks, I am yet to see any kind of accident.
The next morning began for me at about 9:30, I got out of bed and had a quick shower, which is about the best thing you can have after a long flight. I then had a chat with Liz about anthropology, as she works as an anthropologist and I have an anthro degree. Her younger son Mateo, 18, made us breakfast and chatted for a bit. He explained that he might want to train to be a chef, based on his breakfast, I’d say he could pull it off. Over breakfast we also discussed options for what to do for the day. Eventually it was decided the we should take a bus to the older part of Quito, known in english as “Old Town” and in spanish as “Ciudad Antiguo”. It was amazing to see the architecture of the various churches and museums in the area along with all the unique shops. Towards the end of the day we decided that we should take a taxi home. We flagged one down, hopped in, and then I realized there was no seatbelt on my side. The taxi took off and began weaving through traffic, running red lights and passing cars on a solid line. I watched in amazement that we hadn’t gotten into an accident. When we arrived back at the house, I unlatched my hand from the handle on the roof and we got out. I looked at Erin and said “Quite a ride hey?” to which she replied “Oh I didn’t notice, I fell asleep”.
The next day, Sunday, we figured it would be a good idea to walk to our chosen Spanish school to verify its location and existence, as we would be starting lessons the next morning. Paulo offered to chaperone for us while Liz stayed at the house and took care of some things for work. We walked down the street it was supposed to be on and couldn’t find it, so we walked up and down some of the neighbouring streets in case there was a slight typo or it moved. We couldn’t seem to find it, so we walked back to the house to email the school and ask if they had moved.
When we got back to the house, Liz offered to drive us and have another look. She said she was procrastinating her work and wanted us to enable her, being a former student I was happy to oblige. We drove to the address, where upon we realized that the sign and entrance for the school could only be seen from the west side. We had walked we walked from the east.. oops.
Liz then offered to take us to a book store as I had previously mentioned that I had finished my book while on the plane from New York. We went, and luckily the book store had an english section. Sadly its selection resembled that of a grocery store book section. I finally found something that wasn’t a bad romance, “Call of the Wild” by Jack London, I had never read it before and it looked good. Erin and I also grabbed a children’s book in Spanish to attempt to read later.
The following Monday to Friday we had school from 8:30 to 12:30. Heres a quick recap. Monday morning when I first woke up Liz told me to go on the balcony to see Cotopaxi. I ran up and saw in the distance a volcano billowing smoke. I immediately ran to the bedroom and grabbed the camera to get some pictures. I was assured that it had been doing this for months already and that we were well out of the danger zone. After class we went for lunch where I accidentally mistook hot sauce for ketchup, which thoroughly unpleasant. After dinner Mateo showed me some yoga, he is very into it and wanted to show me some techniques that might help with my stomach aches. It was a pleasant experience and I see why so many of my friends back home do it. I also had to chuckle because I wonder how many of them would be jealous of me having a handsome young man with a Spanish accent as an instructor. After yoga we realized that everyone else in the house had gone to bed and the car was still on the street. I guess its not safe to leave a car on the street over night in Quito. Mateo asked me to drive the car for him to the garage they were renting a few blocks away. I jumped at the chance to say I have driven in another country. Its just a good thing I can drive manual.
After school on the second day we walked to the local museum and then relaxed. Third day, Wednesday, after class we went to a post office and sent a few post cards as thank yous from our wedding. We then headed back to the house and had some lunch. Erin went back to the school to meet up with classmates and take a city bus tour, I got some rest and watched a movie. Fourth day, Thursday, we had a school field trip to a cultural museum just north of Quito. Along the way we stopped and did a hike to some waterfalls. The bus ride was amazing, it was all roads on the edge of steep mountains, we made one corner and the landscape went from what looked like the Alberta badlands to lush jungle. The museum wasn’t too great as my Spanish is too limited to understand it.
On the Friday, we met up with a friend from school and had a few drinks in some bars in an area of the city known as Mariscal. Its the main area for things like hostels and bars. I had 2.5 oversized Ecuadorian pilsners and bored our English friend with stories about hunting, oil rigging, and maple syrup. He seemed interested, but maybe he was just being polite. He also informed me that I fit nearly every Canadian stereotype he knew… not sure how I feel about that… flattered? We took a cab home from the bar, despite home only being a few blocks away we were told several times that walking home at night is a sure-fire way to get robbed.
At 6:15 my alarm began screeching at me. I stood up and was immediately reminded why I drink so rarely, I also learned that drinking at a high altitude increases the effects of alcohol both in the fun stage and the recovery stage. Why on earth were we up this early on a Saturday after a night out? Well, we were headed to Mindo. Liz has a friend who owns a farm out there and we were invited to visit. We were told we would be leaving at around 7 am, and until about 6:55 am, we were under the impression that it was only for the day. When we found we were staying overnight, Erin and I scrambled to pack tooth brushes and a change of clothes. The two hour drive through the mountains would have been amazing had I not been hungover, in a country short on public toilets. Luckily that didn’t turn into a story in itself.
We arrived at the farm and were both amazed at how beautiful it was. It consisted of multiple buildings: a main house, the workers house, a kitchen, dining hall, several cabins, and a swimming pool. We later found out that the original plan had been to convert the farm to a resort but the idea never got off the ground. We were given a quick tour and shown the three Tilapia ponds, suspension bridge, and banana orchard. I went for a quick dip in the pool with Paulo and Mateo. Afterwards, I went for a short walk and was able to get some photos of Toucans. We had a big lunch at about 3:30 served on a large table set up on the lawn. It reminded me of the big farm lunches you see Amish people have in movies.
During lunch, it was mentioned that the care taker for the property also made money in rooster fighting. He raised and trained fighting roosters. After lunch we were asked if we wanted to see the roosters. I said sure, assuming they were somewhere on the property. I was mistaken. We loaded into two vehicles and drove through town and then to another farm where the care taker and his business partner raised the roosters. On the drive I asked, off handedly, if rooster fighting was legal in Ecuador. I couldn’t get a definitive answer. As best I can tell, its not illegal, but only because people know a ban on it wouldn’t work. The man showed us all of his various roosters, about a dozen, and proudly explained little details. They remove the feathers form the roosters legs to increase speed and mobility. When they roost, they do so on a soft rubber hose suspended a foot or two off the ground, so that they strengthen their legs and increase their balance. Spikes are attached on the backs of the legs during fights (I’m told in Peru they attach blades). There are also different hair styles for the fights, for example sometimes they shave a strip of feathers off of the roosters back, purely for aesthetic purposes. Some of the roosters even had microchip trackers on them because they were worth so much. I would later find out that a champion rooster is worth up to $10,000 USD. On our way out of the rooster farm we came across another rare sight, a blind snake (imagine a two foot long earth worm, with a snakes head devoid of eyes) eating an earthworm. We took some pictures but none of us were brave enough to touch it.
Later that night at supper we were still discussing the finer details of cock fighting. I learned that the owner of a winning rooster could make up to $5000 USD in a fight. After dinner, the caretakers wife, who also lived and worked on the farm, ran to their truck and grabbed the spikes to show me. They had a silver base, and a long curved spike, a little thicker than a tooth pick, and about the length of my pinky finger, I was told it was made out of tortoise or turtle shell (there was a bit of a language barrier).
The following morning we had a large traditional breakfast. It was eggs, cheese, and onion all fried with “verde” a type of green banana. It tasted like really good scrambled eggs. Erin and I went for another quick walk up a nearby mountain, and then we all hit the road and headed home to Quito.
En route to the city, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. The owner clearly knew our companions. He greeted us all with a big smile and a hearty handshake, hug, or kiss on the cheek, depending on who you were. I only got a handshake. The food was good but more interestingly, there were about ten bird feeders surrounded by humming birds, and they weren’t afraid of people. We walked right up and watched them, after a while I stuck my hand out and got one to land on my finger, but only for a moment. All in all, it was quite a week. My Spanish has only improved slightly, but I now know a lot about Ecuadorian Cock Fighting. Hopefully that information will never be useful to me.
I do not support forcing animals to fight each other and I have even less interest in betting on it. That said, I was surprised to learn how important and useful it is to the local culture. I was told that it is a great way for men to make money, but more importantly it prevents a lot of violence. It supposedly does this two ways. First, it gives men an excuse to get together and discuss their problems, instead resorting to violence. Secondly, in some instances, they will let their roosters do the fighting for them. The most important thing to remember, and I have to remind myself of this sometimes, is that I am simply an observer, my role is to watch and learn and I have to do my best not to judge, or worse, speak, through the lens that my society has given me.
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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche DuBois, Streetcar Named Desire
We flew from Edmonton to New York via Toronto ten days after our wedding. We left our friends, families, jobs and home behind in the early morning twilight hours. We arrived in New York at 8:30 pm. From the airplane window, the city appeared to be an endless blanket of lights. I don’t know that I have ever seen anything so big, so intimidating.
We struggled to get directions to our hotel, but luckily New Yorkers are far nicer than their reputation would have you believe. It should have been a shuttle to a subway, to another subway, then a walk up the stairs to our hotel. Everything was fine until I decided we were on the wrong train. We jumped off at the Aqueduct Racetrack and debated our options until I realized I was an idiot and we had actually been on the right train all along. So we waited twenty embarrassing minutes for the next one to come along. We eventually found our way to the hotel and checked in without issue. After walking a few blocks in each direction looking for a place to grab some food, we finally settled on pizza. It was Broadway Pizza and Brooklyn beer, a highly recommendable combination after a long day of traveling. Or anytime really.
Day two began with Erin waking me up at 10 am saying she had already gotten coffee, called her mom, and bought us tickets to a broadway show. It was a lot to wake up to. We grabbed bagels for breakfast (because, New York), then walked south along the west edge of central park to the American Museum of Natural History (cue girlish sqeal).
The park was nice and the museum was huge. I could have spent days there if Erin would let me. We then walked down Broadway to Times Square. We briefly wandered into Macy’s, the worlds largest store (not fact checked), and it was terrifying. After Erin saw the line for the women washroom, we decided to exit Macy’s post haste. We then went to check out the Empire State Building, from the bottom and lobby only, since a ride to the top will set you back $32.
That evening, we grabbed some dinner from a street vendor, and headed off to see the Broadway show that Erin had bought tickets for that morning. The show was titled “Wicked” and based on the “Wizard of Oz”, mostly the relationship between Alphaba, the “wicked” witch of the north and Glinda the Good, witch of the west. It blew our minds. Highly recommended. We then walked the 50 ish blocks (yes) back to our hotel, stopping at a diner for a much needed late night meal.
On day three, we had bagels again and took the subway south to the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry is free and provides an excellent view of the city skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Many tourists take the ferry to Staten Island, then turn around and get on the next ferry back to Manhattan. We wandered around Staten Island for a while before heading back to Lower Manhattan to see Wall Street.
It amazed me how tall and close together the buildings were. At the end of wall street was Trinity church, complete with its weathered grave stones. From there it was a short walk to the 9/11 memorial. We then walked back to Times Square and grabbed some food from a street vendor. Erin needed it. She was losing steam fast. Next, on a whim, we walked to the Rockefellar centre, which took us right past the Time and Life building where they filmed for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, a personal favourite of mine. Rockefellar turned out to be quite a sight to see, complete with statues and a skating rink. We walked back to central park so I could search a candy shop for coconut M&Ms (no luck) and then to Best Buy for an external hard drive for all the pictures on our trip. From there it was a short subway ride back to our hotel, some more pizza while we got organized for our early morning departure.
Day four began at about five am when I rolled out of bed and laced on my shoes. Erin had mapped a 66 minute route to the airport via the subway and an express train. I failed to realize that the express train and the E train were two different trains, going to the same location at very different speeds. My foolishness added a half of an hour of travel via a very crowded subway. I’m talking New York Subway during morning rush hour crowded. We finally made it to the airport, but our problems weren’t entirely over yet. While checking in for our flight, we were informed that we needed proof that we intended to leave Ecuador before they would let us on the plane. Erin and I had not planned a return flight or a bus out, planning to travel on a more open ended trip. The Ecuadorian government, understandably, doesn’t care for this particular approach. Luckily, the airline bookings counter let us use their computer to book a bus ticket, talk about supporting the competition, and the lady at the airline check in let us use her personal phone to retrieve the confirmation from Erin’s email. We were finally on the plane and airborne, Ecuador bound… But thats another story for another week.
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