Monday, December 30, 2013

Creches at the San Francisco Monastery

Linda has a sprained ankle, so touristing is on my own or with Danette and Taylor. I revisited the San Francisco Monastery to see what is in their museum. They charge all of $2 to enter.  The museum is mostly a collection of paintings, several of which were of St. Francis of Assisi. They were interesting to look at, but since I don’t know the stories, they didn’t have as much meaning for me as they would have with an English speaking guide or brochure.

After going through the museum, I saw that there were several tables set up selling food and other items including some crèches. I ventured through the open door and was greeted by a fabulous display of crèches made for this display. I gather that this is an annual event.

They ranged from traditional Holy Land scenes to some that were as if the birth had taken place in other parts of the world. Some would fit on a dinner plate. One would have taken up our entire living room. In most of the buildings, there are very explicit signs forbidding pictures, but here almost everyone had a camera out so that I could share with Linda and with you. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Arriving in the Amazon

Today was a very long day. Last night, the band in our plaza played until 2:15. The hotel is not insulated for that kind of loudness, so sleep was nearly impossible until they finished. At least, we liked the Ecuadorian Rock and Roll. We were up at 5:00 to catch our taxi to the airport. We had to be there by 8:15 and wanted plenty of time to beat any traffic problems. We won that race in spades. The driver took the new road of which our previous driver had nary a clue. So we arrived at the airport before 7:00. Then our flight was delayed until 11:50 so we got to spend several hours in the airport. Fortunately, Quito’s new airport is well-appointed and comfortable. The flight was anything but comfortable. Our seats were in the back of the plane and while the flight was only 40 minutes, it was the roughest we have been on in ages.
Downtown Coca
Our Canoe Awaits
We arrived in Coca where we got on a bus for a short ride to the Napo River. The Napo, one of the Amazon’s major tributaries is wider than the Columbia or Mississippi for most of the 15 miles we traveled it in our motorized canoe. Coca is the capital of this province and the hub for the oil exploitation that is happening in this region. Our ride took us past on of their sites. Sadly, they are still burning off the natural gas instead of using it in Ecuador. Ecuador actually imports natural gas which is frustrating for the Ecuadorians who know how much is being wasted. Hopefully the government will change this behavior in the next few years. Oil companies do have a lot of power however, something we are well aware of in the US.

Coca Bridge over the Napo River

An oil company barge. Everything travels by water.
After two hours on the canoe, we landed and walked about 15 minutes where we got into another canoe, this one a dugout. It came with a paddler instead of an engine.  Another 15 minutes and we were at the lodge where we were greeted with a cold drink and a presentation on the lodge and its amenities. By this time I had already seen five new birds. 

The view from our dock
Evening falls after a long day

Friday, December 20, 2013

Second Day In Quito

Linda and I spent the morning with Danette exploring a couple of the many churches in the area. I’ll write more about them when we return to Quito after our four days in the Amazon. We will be on the border of Yasuni National Park in the northeast corner of the country. We have a 45 minute plane ride followed by a 2 hour canoe ride to get to the lodge where we will spend the next three nights.  
A restaurant we will eat at next week. La Ronda was an arts center centuries ago and is once again home to traditional arts. Very quiet with shops during the day, it supposedly is hopping at night. We will see. 
We had hoped to see the cathedral on Plaza Grande, but it was closed for the day. This has been a very busy day for Quitanos. The last Friday before Christmas is not officially a holiday, but we saw numerous informal parades and all three squares in the area are having festivals with music.
The main courtyard at the Cultural Museum. The train is both part of the Christmas decoration and symbolic of the Endara works (I think).
We did spend some time in the Cultural Museum. We enjoyed the art even without being able to read any of the explanation signs that were in abundance. Few of the places we have visited so far have much of anything in the way of guidebooks and almost nothing in English. This is quite a contrast from what we often see at home and in Europe where things are printed in several languages. One large gallery had about 40 paintings by Gonzalo Endara Crow. He is a contemporary artist whose works were worth the time. His precision is excellent. Most of his work is a cityscape highlighting the adobe buildings and tile roofs. One series of seven has a train crossing the sky dropping various fruits and other objects to the town below.  We did see that there is symbolism in this because one of the signs explained the symbolism of the various colors. Our Spanish was just good enough to figure that out.

Daytime views of El Panecillo

The real highlight today was the taxi ride we took to the top of El Panecillo, the hill overlooking the city as the sun went down. Atop the hill is the Virgin of Quito, a huge statue overlooking this part of town. 
The Virgin of Quito
The view from El Panecillo. Notice the grid pattern of the Old Town. The newer part is more haphazard.
For Christmas, the city has added a number of beautiful lighted objects. The taxi ride up took longer than normal because they are also having a festival. In fact, I am still listening to the band on Santo Domingo Square from our room as I type this.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

First Day in Ecuador

We are on a three week Christmas trip to Ecuador. Everything is arranged and we will spend time in Quito, Guayaquil, Yasui National Park on the upper Amazon, the Mindo cloud forest, and the Galapagos before we return home on January 9. Since we have never been to South America before, we are really looking forward to this new adventure.
Our flight to Quito from Atlanta was uneventful other than we had to do the full security scan. We are TSA pre-flight rated now so at PDX we no longer have to remove shoes, jackets and computers before we go through the x-ray machines. In Atlanta, I asked about that and they said, “Next week.” Oh well.  We were green-lighted (they really do have a green light) through customs in Quito, so we didn’t even have to answer any questions.
Our Hotel - The Quito Airport Suites 
Hotel Grounds

Arriving about 11:00 pm, it was nice to see Linda’s name waving amongst the throng of people that always seem to be waiting for international arrivals – no matter where you land. A 15-minute ride took us to our hotel. It was small, but friendly and convenient for a late arrival. We will stay there again when we have to be at the airport early for our flight to the Galapagos. After a short night’s sleep, I awoke to the daylight only to discover it was only 5:30. I remembered that the days get longer in the winter as you travel south and fell back to sleep for a much needed additional rest. When I got up for real, I took advantage of the rural setting to watch for birds as they fed amongst the trees on the property and the nearby farmlands. Ecuador is famous for its hummingbirds and I saw three, one of which I identified as the Black-tailed Trainbearer. Its tail is longer than its body, making it a striking bird. The sight was too fleeting for a picture, but I did get some of another one. 
Green Violetear Hummingbird
I found the other one in my bird book, but still have a couple unidentified.  I will try to get one of the experts we meet over the next three weeks to help identify it and a couple of other birds I have yet to find in the book. With over 800 birds that have been sighted in Ecuador, picking one out of an unfamiliar setting is not easy. The other exciting look was at a nesting pair of Vermilion Flycatchers. We see these beautiful red and black birds in the US, but to see them nesting here in Ecuador is also exciting.
Unidentified so far, but this one spent about five minutes gathering this finery for the nest.
Also unidentified, but a pretty one
Our taxi to El Centro Quito took almost two hours making us even happier to have stayed close to the airport last night. Traversing three canyons to get here made it clear that we are in the mountains. Quito’s elevation is almost 10,000 feet. Before we arrived in the central city we passed miles of strip mall type areas, not that dissimilar to strip malls in the US. The stores here are closer to the road leaving little room for parking and the buildings are mostly made of adobe and brick, but the feel is the same as driving down Hazel Dell Avenue in Vancouver. It’s not really a place that is inviting unless you have a need for what they are selling.
We passed one amazing spot that I would call Hummingbird Boulevard. For about three blocks we were delighted by the human-sized hummingbirds painted in all sorts of fabulous designs and colors. They reminded me of those fund-raising projects many cities have taken up where many local businesses or organizations will purchase a statue of a local iconic animal and decorate them for display. As I remember, I have seen pigs in Seattle (to honor the one in Pike Place Market), cattle someplace in Texas, and others that don’t come to mind. This summer, Vancouver did a similar thing with hearts – something to do with healthy hearts.
Finally we arrived at our hotel after a few missteps by the driver who was getting help from his GPS and his girlfriend who was along for the ride. The location of this hotel which Linda also found on the internet after getting some outrageously expensive quotes from the travel agent is perfect. It opens onto one of the old squares that older southern cities have in abundance. They continue to be gathering places for people and events. We have three within a short walk from the hotel. Since this is the old part of town each has a church along with shops and restaurants.
The view from our hotel of Santo Domingo Plaza and Church

After checking in and having a lunch in the hotel overlooking our square, we took part of a walk recommended by Lonely Planet. We barely got started before we were walking down one hill and up the other side. It’s harder to do that at 10,000 feet than at home where we aren’t much above sea level. Along the way we window shopped and noted a couple of churches and museums we will come back to. The other two squares that we visited were both being set up for celebrations, for Christmas or New Year’s or both. Since we will be at this same hotel on both days, we will find out. One thing that surprised us about the squares is that we only saw one outdoor eating venue. Every square that we have seen in Spain had several restaurants with tables outside for patrons. Somehow that custom does not seem to have traveled to this part of Quito. Too bad as that is a great custom.
Life-size creche under an overpass

Among the few vendors we saw along the squares were these shoe-shine stalls. At least a dozen here and we saw others elsewhere. Every stand is exactly the same.
I am writing this at 6:15 and there is still light in the sky. That same light disappeared at 4:45 at home the day we left. I’m glad that when we return home the days will be getting longer. Danette and her daughter Taylor should be arriving soon and we will be off to dinner. Linda and Danette worked together for many years at iQ Credit Union. Taylor spent this fall University of Oregon term here in Quito. When Danette’s husband Don said he did not want to come, Linda offered us as additional travel companions. I’m sure that Danette had no need of us since she has already been here a week with her built-in guide, but she did graciously agree to our company. So we will spend time here in Quito and travel to the Amazon together.

More later. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

CycleOregon - Day 7 - Seneca to John Day

Today was the most fun I had all week on the bike. The day did not begin auspiciously however as the night was cold, hard, and wet. Not only was it the coldest night of the week, but my air mattress gave up the ghost and I got to sleep directly on the hard ground. Then at some point, I did not get the lid back on my water bottle securely enough and most of it leaked out. Fortunately, the bottle was on the opposite side of my clothes, so I still was able to get off to a mostly dry start. More moisture did come from the heavy dew we had during the night, too. Finally, I did not get as much sleep as expected because a couple of people were celebrating the final night in camp until about 1:00 am.

Entering the forest

Sleeping in was not an option this morning so I was up before 5:00. Still, with all the darkness and cold, I did not actually leave camp until after 7:00. The ride quickly made up for all the evening’s problems. After a short seven miles on Hiway 395, we turned off into a woodland meadow for another five miles. Then we turned up into the mountains for a short climb and a long downhill to Murderer’s Creek Work Center. The center includes one of the Forest Service’s rentable cabins. This one includes a full kitchen a nice double bed in a beautiful meadow in the forest. Close by lives a herd of ‘timber horses’. These wild horses have evolved heavy coats to survive the cold winters. We will have to try looking for them another time when there is not a large crowd chasing them away.
Murderer's Creek Work Camp and rental cabin

From Murderer’s Creek, we began the last climb of the ride, a steep four and a half miles. Then we began the longest and steepest downhill ride of the week. Ten miles later we were at the bottom of the hill and headed back to John Day on Hiway 26. When I saw people stopped on the way down, I wondered why until my hands became a bit numb from the pressure of leaning on the handlebars and I began to worry about being able to control the brakes.

Our final climb

Back in John Day Linda was waiting along with lunch and a shower before we headed off to Klamath Falls for the next few days.

Forest meadow at the end of our descent

Our final rest stop

Hiway 26 on the way to John Day
I probably won’t be able to go on the ride next year as we are headed back to South Africa for a couple of months. Perhaps I will be able to do the equivalent Ride Around Washington. This year they rode from Curlew to Maryhill in early August. That would have been a fun ride, too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

CycleOregon - Day 6 - Crane to Seneca

With 24 miles of climbing out of the 73 total and most of that over the last 20 miles, this was supposed to be the hardest riding day. However, I still think the hardest day for me was the first as I acclimated to the elevation over the first 20 miles of slow climbing. Much more interesting than yesterday after the first flat 18 miles to Buchanan and the first 4 mile climb on Hiway 20. Buchanan seems to be little more than a museum/Indian arts store. Next time I am in the area with Linda we will definitely stop there. Several of the ladies purchased some of the beautiful and reasonably priced jewelry.

Buchanan, Oregon
After a stop for lunch at Pine Creek Ranch and its one-room school in the rolling farm valley lands, we headed up into a pine forest on a long climb of about 20 miles. Students from Pine Creek are among those who attend high school at Crane. As expected the ride up the mountain was beautiful among the pines with magnificent vistas. At the top we were greeted by a couple of entrepreneurs selling Gatorade, bottled water and beer. Gatorade seemed to be the most popular drink. At least I did not see anyone purchasing any beer.

As we flew down the other side, we passed a trio playing music under a canopy. Unfortunately, most of us were moving too fast to even catch a hint of the music, let alone stop. They should have been up at the top with the liquid sellers.

Gravel can be a bit scary

Today’s route also included 1.6 miles of gravel road. For most of us, gravel is not a lot of fun although it isn’t hard as long as you are careful. This was a bit harder because it included several ups and downs over the route. For the mountain bikers on the route, this may have been their favorite segment.

Our camp on the Seneca golf course was pleasant enough although it would be the coldest night of the ride. Seneca has the ‘honor’ of having the coldest recorded temperature ever in Oregon. It reached 54 degrees below zero in 1933.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cycle Oregon - Day 5 - Diamond to Crane

Today was about as flat as can be with only a few short rises in the landscape of less than a few hundred feet. While it makes riding easier, it also makes the ride less interesting. One can only get so excited about more wheat fields and more sagebrush.

Rest stop at the Round Barn

Round barn interior
We did have the opportunity to stop at Pete French’s Round Barn, one of the highlights of the region. French built the barn in the late 19th century to have a place to train horses during the cold winters. By building a round barn the horses did not have to make sharp turns as they were learning. Upon entering the barn, I am most excited by the intricate design of the ceiling.  Cycle Oregon donated some money to a barn restoration project a few years ago.

Scenery on the way to Crane

Lunch was set at Crane Hot Springs, a natural hot spring with a few rooms and a pond filled with mud. Our camp was only a few miles away so many of the riders stayed for hours or finished the ride and then returned to the hot springs for the rest of the afternoon. After 55 miles, I just soaked my feet and then headed to camp arriving early enough to catch the early show on the stage. The singer was a local whose stories reminded me of the kind of songs Jim Croce used to sing with a  religious cowboy theme. His wife and mom were part of the audience so I chatted with them a bit. His wife, a rodeo champ, said that he has no desire to do anything other than be a rancher. He has no desire to become a full time entertainer whatever his talent might allow. Our headliner entertainment, the Dave Cooley Band, played piano-based rock and roll.

Crane Hot Springs

The small town of Crane is home to perhaps the only public high school left in the United States where students actually live in dorms. Students come from up to 150 miles away, too far to commute on a daily basis so they are bussed to Crane Sunday evening and return home for the weekend on Thursday unless they have a game. The 62 Mustangs have a prodigious sports record with several state championships. We met several of the students as they carried our bags from the storage truck to the campsite. With a suggested tip of $2, it was well worth it to us and earned each of the teams a significant amount of money to improve their facilities. The wrestling team is working for a new mat and the volleyball team will get new nets to give just two examples of how the  money is used.