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Ecuador Archives

(Click here for background on the Supreme Court Project)

Ecuador provided us with one of our most pleasant and unexpected encounters at the Tribunal Constitutional. We hadn't had much time to plan a visit to the Ecuadorian courts, as the idea to visit various supreme courts popped into my head a few days before we were leaving for Peru. In what would become my standard operating procedure for this project, we looked up some online background information on Ecuador's court system, found the addresses of the courts, and--in the absence of any tourist information--dressed fairly nicely and headed out to see what reception we would get. In places like Ecuador, this worked out better than expected. In other countries, I ended up being menaced by men with guns or indirectly bothering an attorney general. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ecuador set my parameters for this project, both in where I would go and what I'd try to achieve. Like many countries, Ecuador has separated the court that functions as the highest appellate body (the Corte Suprema or Corte Nacional) and the body charged with interpreting the Ecuadorian constitution (the Corte Constitucional del Ecuador para el Periodo de Transicion). In every country, I tried to visit both the constitutional court and the highest appellate court.

Yet merely finding the Ecuadorian courts, let alone trying to understand them, proved difficult. We didn't always have internet access, and when we did, the Ecuadorian court websites seemed to be frequently offline. Pallavi's Spanish is better than my "donde esta el bano?" level, but neither of us is up to doing legal research in the native tongue. I quickly figured out that there was little way to conduct in-depth research for the Supreme Court Project, especially once we entered Asia or Africa and I had even less grasp of the language. So while I hope that these entries will be entertaining, and I'll do my best to provide links to useful sources of information, the Supreme Court Project is more a short excursion into gonzo journalism than a legal project. In other words, This Is Not Legal Advice (and for goodness sake, don't cite to it).

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The Corte Nacional de Justicia, Quito, Ecuador

With that in mind, here's my tale of the high courts of Ecuador.

Faces that haunt our journey

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I recently received a request for a photograph of myself, and was left scratching my head. I actually do have an electronic album of my few decent photos, but that album is on a hard drive in storage somewhere in suburban New York. All I have with me are photos from this trip.

Instead of weeding through several thousand photographs looking for a presentable image, I decided to cheat by relying on Picasa's facial recognition technology. I left the program running overnight and returned the next morning, coffee in hand, to the somewhat tedious task of identifying four thousand or so faces that Picasa had picked out of our photos.

Most of these faces belonged to innocent bystanders, and could be set aside easily. There were a few photos of me, a few more of Pallavi, and several of friends and travel companions whom we've met along the road. In the end, I found a couple of pictures that didn't make me look like a deranged lunatic with a bad haircut. But Picasa also picked out the faces of two individuals who we'd photographed in several countries, and yet weren't friends or family.

It's not surprising that we have multiple pictures of President Obama, whether in a cafe in Ecuador;

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or on a campaign poster in Peru.

But while the President may get a bit of exposure, he's a virtual nonentity in comparison to the man who has followed our footsteps on every continent, in virtually every country: Che Guevara. 

Probably the cheesiest excursion in which we've participated so far was a daytrip from Quito to visit "the center of the world." Ecuador lies on the equator, and has been drumming up tourist revenue for decades by memorializing this fact at an exhibit called Mitad del Mundo. The revelation that this exhibit is erroneously placed did nothing to dampen the showman's spirit; instead, now there are two sites to visit as part of the standard tour if one wishes to see the equator: the original, traditional one and what claims to be the scientifically-accurate one.

The latter is the much goofier of the pair. Privately-run, it features various phenomena that the guides initially tell you are peculiar to being on the equator: eggs balancing on end; water flowing both clockwise and counter-clockwise; humans becoming suddenly weaker.

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Tony and Pallavi stand in supposedly different hemispheres at the Intinan Museum.

Of course, these aren't truly things that can happen only at the equator -- something we know both because you can do these tricks elsewhere, and because this site isn't the "real" equator either. Still, it can make for an amusing excursion, complete with a Totemic Forest and exhibits of pre-Columbian Ecuadorean communities.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are inevitable anywhere that purports to depict Andean Native life.

To build upon the great Benjamin Franklin, three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and the desire of insects to suck your blood out of your skin. In some countries, biting fiends actually constitute a mortal risk, through malaria or dengue fever. In all countries, they're an annoyance. [1] If you travel around the world, you'll get to observe the methods used by locals to prevent bug bites, be they hippie-approved all-organic tomato-based sprays, incense coils that smoke up a room, or the ubiquitous Off!

The most effective thing we've come across, however, is Detar, a mosquito-repelling lotion that we picked up on our first night in Ecuador. In the war against mosquitos, this stuff is the equivalent of nuclear weaponry: we've saved what's in the bottle, using it sparingly, and bringing it out only in locations with the worst of the worst bugs.

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This stuff is uncompromising. It doesn't smell good. It doesn't contain small amounts of sunscreen, like other repellents often do. Mosquitos, however, feel about this spray like Superman does about kryptonite, Jamie Oliver about fattening fast food, or Charles Rangel about IRS audits. I've actually seen little blood-sucking beasts fly near to Pallavi while she was wearing Detar, hover for a moment, and then dash away like they'd smelled the coming of the devil himself.

The bottle's a bit scary, though, especially if you look at the back of the one we're carrying. The concoction has actually stripped the paint off of the back label, leaving only a handful of partially-intelligible warning signs. Although it's hopefully safe to use on humans, I think these mean that you don't want to pour it in the water or use it on animals that might be used for food. This is probably just one more reason for Greenpeace to disapprove of me.

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 [1] Far in the future, I suppose an insect might evolve who not only bites the victim, but injects some substance that provides a pleasant, soothing effect. Anti-drug zealots will then ban being bitten by these insects, probably imposing strict liability.

Quito Eats

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The capitol of Ecuador is not one of the notable food capitols of the world, but we had some good meals there nonetheless. I'm afraid we didn't take pictures anywhere we ate, but we did take some photos of a place where we refused to eat: the internet-infamous Menestras del Negro.

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Despite all the gawking Westerners taking photos of its signage, Menestras del Negro lacks a significant web presence of its own -- its site just has pictures of its meals and numbers to call for local delivery -- so I have no idea what inspired the monkey-with-bone-fork "Negro" logo.

Dollar Dollar Bills Y'all

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When you hear that the majority of U.S. currency in circulation is held outside the United States, you may be envisioning piles of dollars in a Beijing treasury or under a Russian billionaire's mattress. But I've been discovering during this trip how much the U.S. dollar has become either the actual or de facto currency of various developing countries.

For example, if you've ever puzzled over the rarity of the Sacagawea coins, wonder no more: they mostly seem to have ended up in Ecuador, which retired its sucre several years ago and now uses U.S. dollars as official currency. Ecuador still mints some centavo coins for amounts less than $1, and the $1 bill is far less common than $1 coins. This change aroused the contempt of other South American countries, which at various times may have pegged their currency to that of the U.S. to minimize inflation, but hung onto their power to print bills. When we excused our clumsiness in dealing with Peruvian money to a guide by explaining that we'd been spoiled by our home currency in Ecuador, he laughed and said that the Ecuadoreans were the joke of the continent for giving up their own money and having foreigners' faces on all their bills and most of their coins.

And indeed in Peru and Argentina, people generally expect travelers to use the local currency. The one time I saw something denominated solely in dollars in Argentina was the $140 visa fee charged only to Americans. (The small town of Colonia, Uruguay, which gets hordes of day-tripping tourists on the boat from Buenos Aires, is less picky and accepts Argentinean pesos.) The same is true in Indonesia -- even when you were given a price in dollars, you were expected to pay in rupiah -- and of course in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Until recently, the only country we'd visited that wasn't on the U.S. dollar but where vendors were willing to accept it in lieu of local currency was Canada.

Cambodia is the first instance we've encountered of a country that nominally retains its own currency (riels), but operates almost entirely on American money. When we arrived at Phnom Penh airport on December 29 with only Hong Kong dollars in hand, the airport taxi tout directed us to an exchange service that listed various currencies, including Hong Kong's, but seemed to have bizarre prices for them. The Hong Kong dollar was at almost 8 to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar was worth more than 4000 riel, so I expected to see Hong Kong at something like 500. Yet HKD was listed as 7 and change. It took me a moment to realize that the exchange was of various foreign currencies not to riels, but to U.S. dollars.

Travel advisories on making the trip to Cambodia by crossing overland from Thailand all emphasize that one should not be fooled into exchanging money for riels at the border, despite the scam artists insisting that you'll need riels once you enter Cambodia. Visa fees and everything else can be paid in dollars.

Maybe if you aren't a tourist, you can get someone to deal with you in riels, but everything we've done in Cambodia thus far -- riding tuk-tuks and buses, visiting the Royal Palace and National Museum, buying a book in a foreign-language bookstore, getting a massage, even ordering tickets to a New Year's celebration where 95% of those attending were Khmer -- has been denominated and transacted in dollars. Occasionally a vendor will give us riels in change, because they don't have U.S. coins in circulation, so anything less than $1 will involve Cambodian bills. However, I haven't seen Sacagawea here yet.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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As you tuck into your dinner, be thankful for many things. Including the fact that you don't have to feed your children like this:

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A parent frigate bird feeds its child, virtually swallowing the chick's head to keep the food safe

(Of course, it's Friday here in Australia, but it's still Thanksgiving back home.)

One Shirt to Rule the Byzantine Empire

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An important lesson about international travel: bring extra socks. The little b**%#@#s are Madame Bovaries of fidelity. Like carbon dating, I suspect you can tell how long someone has been on the road by the percentage of original socks that they retain at any given point. Socks will betray you, they will leave you, they will get lost, whether you do your own laundry or give them to a service.

Thus on a rainy September day in Cuzco we stepped into a Tipitop, a Gap-like chain of inexpensive clothing offering "MEGA-sales!" And while I didn't manage to find any socks in my size, a couple of interesting shirts caught my eye.

It wasn't that they were stylish: on the contrary, they were in garish colors that would not match any of my other clothes. But the designer indulged in an odd form of collage: he would take bits of old maps, combine them together, and stick them on a shirt as if they actually represented something. For instance, a shirt that declared itself to be a "Map of the Province of Nottingham" [1] turned out to be, on closer inspection, the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire from about 1890. And then there was this:
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The shirt, which bears the title EAST-WEST SCHISM, mostly consists of a map from The Atlas of Middle-Earth. It's all there: the Shire, Gondor, Mordor, each in glorious, copyright-violating purple-and-black. [2] The text below the map, on the other hand, reads:

The origins of the Crusades lie in developments in Western Europe (or earlier in the Middle East Ages, as well as the deteriorating situation of the Byzantine Empire in the east caused by a new wave of Turkish Muslim attacks. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in the late 9th century.

What does all this mean? Your guess is as good as mine. It was odd enough (and cheap enough), however, that I had to buy it. I figure it would make a great prize for a Devil May Care contest.

If you have thoughts on what the nature of the contest should be, please leave them in the comments.

[1] Is Nottingham even a province? Was it ever?

[2] For some reason it comes out as red when shot with an iPhone. I don't know why. Perhaps representations of the Eye of Sauron don't like Steven Jobs. Or perhaps Steve Jobs is Sauron, and iPhones are his version of the rings given to mortal man. The latter possibility is made much more likely if they ever launch an iCanHasInvizibility app.

Before we went to Ecuador, I had never heard of Otavalo. But once there, it and Banos were the two day-trips that everyone suggested. Otavalo, aside from having its own share of tourists, is about as different from Banos as two Ecuadorian towns can be. Banos's tourist appeal is based on outdoor activities and nightlife; it's essentially divorced from the particularities of the people and their culture.

In contrast, the big draw in Otavalo is a weekly market populated largely by people from outlying towns and villages, many of them wearing traditional garb. This consists of bowler-esque hats, embroidered blouses and long black skirts with white or colored underskirts on the women; lengthy braids (allegedly signifying virility) and pajama-like pants on the men. It's no once-a-week costume for the tourists, either, as we saw several people dressed this way going about their business in town on days before the market took place. Many of the products at the market are produced nearby. Tony acquired a jaunty Panama hat that came with its own box in which to be rolled up, and I got a dark red llama wool poncho that occasionally needs to be petted back down when the long strands of wool get ruffled.

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Celebrations with Gaston and Others

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Tony and I recently had all our individual special occasions (i.e. as distinct from general holidays like Christmas) in quick succession: our second wedding anniversary while we were in Quito, and our birthdays while in Cuzco.

Cruising the Galapagos on the Encantada

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I swear that I'm usually a sensible researcher and purchaser of big-ticket items, but when it came to buying a Galapagos cruise for Tony and me, I fell in love with a ship, of which I saw only tiny, indistinct photos, based on its color description: candy-apple red. Somehow the idea of a shiny scarlet sailboat was so appealing, I did pretty much all my comparison shopping based on which agency offered the best price for a one week cruise on this particular ship. They were all in the same range of approximately $2000 per person, including airfare to and from the Ecuadorean mainland but not the various national park fees.

The Encantada appears to be owned or at least directly operated by a company called Scuba Galapagos, but as they were not responsive to my queries through their web form, I actually booked our trip through Voyagers Travel. I was fairly pleased with them overall, though I wish they had put us in the matrimonial cabin as they promised they would do. (In fairness, I have reason to suspect that they put in the request and this was ignored on the fly by the ship crew in order to appease the complaints of other passengers.)

The Galapagos is an expensive destination, but I would recommend it as wholly worth the time, money and trouble. As Tony's posts indicate, we saw many beautiful, extraordinary, sad and funny sights in our one week, and there was never a day that I wasn't glad I had chosen to make this trip. That said, I'm not sure I would tell everyone to book the Encantada; it really depends on what's important to you in a vacation experience.

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While composing this description of our time in Baños, I realized that we took very few pictures in this tourist city. This makes sense: the city is mostly populated by backpackers and the service industry that has grown up around them, and other than amusing sights the city has little to offer to a photographer. It's a city where you do things: adventures in the jungle, hot springs, nightlife. Most of these activities are not camera-friendly, unless the camera is waterproof.

Blah, Blah, Hope

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Although we try to avoid political posts here at Devil May Care (unlike my previous blog), sometimes I wander across something just too good to resist, such as this picture that we took on August 28 in a cafe in Baños, Ecuador.

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From Cafe Blah Blah, Baños, Ecuador

Some context, after the jump....

Sortides

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We've been gradually telling the story of our Galapagos adventure, but another couple traveling on the Encantada have already finished their photolog and, unlike us, seem to be up to date on the rest of their trip.

This cheerful couple were an inspiration, great travelers and (as you can see from their site) accomplished photographers. They recommended that we dive in the Gili Islands in Indonesia, near Lombok, particularly noting the opportunities for underwater photography. Of course, any camera that we have would short circuit if taken underwater, so that would be obstacle one to this plan.

(I have added Sortides to the blogroll.)

No Country for Tall Men

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(I tried to write this in the style of Cormac McCarthy. Even after being woken up by a rat and two cups of coca tea, I just couldn't manage it.)

As I've mentioned before, I needed some new shoes by the time I got to Peru. Not expecting to do much in the way of nice dining, I had brought only my boots, some bright yellow running shoes, and my four-year-old sandals. After Galapagos, those sandals were on their last legs, and I couldn't clean or repair them any further. Given my other options, I thought a cheapish pair of leather slip-ons (casual enough for every day, and that might serve in a nice restaurant) were in order.

The only problem: neither Ecuador or Peru are particularly good places to find shoes for large feet.

Galapagos, Days 3 and 4 (August 10-11)

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Day 3

Galapagos, Day 3

Day 3 was "bird day," and was consumed by the avian life of Genovesa Island. Not fifteen minutes after our early morning landing on a white sand beach, we were surrounded by countless boobies, frigates, pelicans, and finches. The path wandered through the avian version of suburban sprawl, and we had to be careful not to blunder onto a nest. (This isn't actually that difficult, as a parent will quite forcefully honk at you if you get closer than about two feet.) Some parents covered newly-hatched chicks with their underbellies, some fed more mature children, and some boobies and frigates circled the settlement looking for mates.

It was here that the frigate birds earned the nickname "evil bastards." Younger males will circle nests, seeking to quite literally snatch food from the mouths of baby boobies and younger frigates. For this reason, feeding is a complicated matter. A parent begins by looking about cautiously while its child complains with hunger, until the coast is clear. The the parent's jaw flares wide and half-swallows the child's head in order to make sure that the offspring, and not some raiding frigate, will be fed. This thievery culminated in the most disturbing "tooth and claw" view of nature that I had on the trip.

Updated

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I've updated the Places to Stay in Quito entry.

Off to Peru

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This evening, we're off to Peru. Hopefully we can write some updates of our Ecuadorian experience at the airport. But one way or the other, you'll hear from us in Lima.

Oskar's Pizzeria, Otavalo, Ecuador. A pizza restaurant targeting kids and teens, with placemats hawking the local equivalent of the Gap. Their mascot: a cartoon Che Guevara with pizza slices for eyes.

Che! Comrades shall pay for their pizza at the front!

Yes, that's Che, the face that launched a thousand college t-shirts, telling you to settle your bill at the front.

I think it's safe to say that when your leader has been reduced to a cartoon giving instructions to teens on how to pay for their capitalist fast food, the revolution's over.

Legal thoughts from Ecuador

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We're currently catching up on blogging, but our thought is to write posts in parallel: some catching up on the U.S. trip, some describing our time in Ecuador, and some just "fun" posts. Such as this one, which is probably more interesting to our lawyer readers.

Where art thou, Lysol?: After a week on the Encantada (about which much more later), my sandals, some of our clothing, and my luggage was a bit odorous. The clothing was easy to handle--launderias were thick on the ground near our hotel--but the luggage and sandals were a trickier matter. They could be cleaned, but some deodorizer was in order. My go-to tools for this would be Lysol or Febreze.

While the Ecuador supermarkets stock dozens of air fresheners in familiar brands (e.g., Glade), they didn't have Lysol or Febreze. This struck me as odd, because I had seen a Lysol advertisement on cable TV. When I saw the same advertisement later (playing on the widescreen at Red Hot Chili Peppers Mexican restaurant--great margaritas, FYI), even I could translate the fine print from the Spanish: only available in the U.S., Costa Rica, and Panama. I have no idea why this is true, but I assume it's some environmental or health concern.

Galapagos, Days 1 and 2 (August 8-9)

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Aerogal, our carrier from Quito to the Galapagos, provided a particular welcome for New Yorkers: given that they are opening a new flight from NYC, everything from the napkins to the posters in the airport were stamped with "I [Aerogal iguana logo] NY." By the way, one great thing about Aerogal: the seats in economy are far enough apart for a 6' 2" man to sit comfortably.

A note for those traveling to the Galapagos: upon arrival you will need to pay $100 for a National Park "passport" and another $10 entry fee, and these have to be paid in cash. Make sure you have money when you leave, as I didn't see a convenient ATM.

We were met by our guide, Juan, who helped us navigate the airport, and a few of our fellow passengers. (Since we didn't ask them if they could be mentioned, we're not naming names, but some of our fellow travelers hailed from Norway, Israel, Spain, and Denmark.) It was then a short bus to the dinghy, from there to the Encantada, and then on to the events of Day 1. We will write a separate entry about the Encantada itself: here I want to focus on the events of the day.

Day 1: Sea Turtle Safari at Black Turtle Cove

Galapagos, Day 1

[Click on the album to see all of its photos]

Places to stay in Quito

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This is probably not of interest unless you are coming to Ecuador, but I thought it might be useful to give brief review of places we have stayed. Who knows, it might be of use to future travelers. I will update this post whenever we go to a new hotel or hostel, and probably write a similar post for each country we visit. (These are only my opinions: Pallavi may disagree.)

Hotels
Hotel Boutique Plaza Sucre (~$100): A charming boutique hotel we chose for our first night here, the beautiful aesthetics are slightly let down by the staff. While they are not unfriendly, the are certainly the least helpful group of anyplace that we've stayed. The rooms on the first two floors all surround a quiet, bright courtyard, and the top-floor cafeteria (serving omlettes for breakfast) has a fantastic view of the surrounding hills. Good for a night, but not a great value for a long-term stay.

A couple of blegs

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Galapagos posts are coming, but the main impediment is trying to figure out how to manage the pictures. I have never taken as many photos as we did in our eight days in the islands, and sheer volume is overwhelming me. I don't want to upload all of them, I do want to share a few from each day.

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For instance, a Pelican that posed for us

Unfortunately, I'm not used to working with large numbers of photos in Windows. I can't simply upload them to my webhost, as I can't afford the bandwidth. At the moment, I'm using Picasa and Picasa web albums, but it seems to have only 1GB of free space. If you know of a better service, please feel free to leave advice in the comments.

Also, I'd like to set up threaded comments on DMC (so that if you reply to a comment, it is nested underneath rather than placed at the end). If you happen to know of a good "how to" on this, I'd appreciate it.

Greetings from the Galapagos...

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Having a good (although often damp and slightly smelly) time here in the Islands. We'll get back to you on Monday.

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A baby seal rests amidst our snorkeling gear

Off to the Galapagos

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Tomorrow morning we're off to the Galapagos, sailing aboard the Encantada. Spending a week on a boat is far outside my comfort zone, and I'll admit to a little nervousness. Given the tales of jellyfish in the water, I'm slightly regretting the fact that we didn't buy wetsuits back in Texas.

Hopefully we'll bring back pictures and stories, not sunburn and stings. On the other hand, we're unlikely to have internet access, so we're probably off the grid entirely for a week. I can't remember the last time I didn't have cell, internet, or at least land-line access to the world.

Quito Catchup: Why Now?

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It may seem paradoxical that my first opportunity to sit down and catch up on blogging the North American roadtrip is on my first full day overseas, but there are a few good reasons for it:

 

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This post brought to you courtesy of the Wifi at the Quito "Speed & Grill"

Things We've Seen


Things We Like