Reflections on the Trip

June 24

Our last day. After breakfast, Carol decides to go to a nearby Pre-Colombian art museum. I opt to sit in the lovely Casa Gangotena hotel atrium, where I’m starting this final blog entry. Diana, who showed us around Quito on our first day is to pick us up at 10:45 for our 2:05 flight to Miami, where we have a 2-hour layover before connecting for our flight to Chicago, arriving just before midnight. Our cousins, Steve and Rae Sweet, have been staying at the condo and looking after our dog, Judson, who turns one today. Happy birthday, Judson, if you’re following the blog.

Travel tips. I offer these as a reminder to myself, and because some of you may want to consider them. Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. You never think that the airlines will choose to lose your bag. But they do. Also, pack an extra small bag in your large bag. If, as was the case for us on this trip, you are coming back to one or more places you visit, taking a small bag allows you to just take the stuff you need before you return, and to check your larger bag at the hotel. I managed to do that for one leg of our trip, but Carol did not.

Reflections on the trip. Considering that we experienced lost luggage, landslides, bouts of no electricity or hot water, pouring rain and chill for days, thin air, muddy and slippery trails, bumpy roads and a collection of bugs, beetles and spiders in one of our rooms, it was a helluva trip. In retrospect, those all seem like character-building blips on a delightful 8 days.

Best part was taking this trip alone with Carol. It was a sort of reprise of the fabulous 11-week honeymoon trip we took fifty years ago to Europe, Greece and Israel. Of course, we traveled at a luxury level on this trip that we did not as 22-year olds, when we pretty-much traveled on $5 a day.  Were we to do a trip similar to our honeymoon today, we would be traveling in a way that would make for a totally different experience. Both youth and senior status have their benefits.

We went to see the birds. And the birds were great. But it won’t be the birds we remember most about this trip. We met some amazing people.  

Our 22-year old guide, Josue, was mature, knowledgeable and wise way beyond his age. He was an ideal guide and companion in every way, from identifying and explaining everything we encountered to handling and catering to all of our needs to finding a deck of cards and playing with us, when rain prevented outdoor activity. We hope to stay in touch with Josue, and perhaps even to help with his career.

Along the way, we met local people who were committed to preserving and helping others to enjoy Ecuador’s unique environment. Alejandro, Angel and Mercedes were all unforgettable characters, even though we were able to spend only very limited time with them.

Fellow travelers, Allen and Carol from California and Luis and Sylvia from Barcelona, were fun to share experiences with. It’s possible our paths may cross again. Susi and Franklin, with whom we had dinner in Quito, were personable and fun. Our paths will certainly cross again, because of their daughter and son in law in Chicago. Finally, Diana, who showed us around Quito and drove us from and to the airport, was quite delightful.

Two things about Quito stand out. The amazing Casa Gangotena where we stayed, one of our top couple hotel experiences anywhere, including both the facility and the service. And the Chapel of Man that houses the work of painter, Guayasamin, which blew us away.

The birding was interesting and fun. Neither Carol nor I is likely to become the type of avid birder we encountered on the trip. But I definitely can see us doing more of it. Carol is more into identifying the particular species we see, and I’m more interested in recording the experience with my camera. I’m very happy with the decision I made to get a new and relatively inexpensive camera to allow me to photograph birds on this trip,

The kind of birding we did on this trip was easy birding, much of it involving seeing species that had been attracted to the area through feeding, and relatively little of it involving finding the species along trails. While “real” birders might consider what we did cheating, I don’t fully buy that. These birds were not captive; they were in the wild, but attracted by food.  

I suppose it depends on whether your emphasis is on finding the birds, or seeing them. If it’s the latter, what we did certainly fits the bill. Fact is, we would have done more of tracking birds in the wild except for several factors–the cold and rainy weather on some days, the muddy and slippery conditions, and the physical ability necessary to do some of the trails (which was made more difficult by the altitude). I’m also suffering from two disabilities. For more than a month, I’ve had planters something-itis that causes pain in the heel and makes walking painful and difficult. Perhaps more serious, I’ve been suffering from fatness, a self-inflicted condition caused by love of the wrong foods and drink.

Birding seems a bit like golf for me. I can enjoy it, as long as I don’t get hung up on needing to be really good at it. It’s something that takes you to lovely places in which you can enjoy the landscape and just being outdoors. And it’s an activity you can continue as you get (or have gotten) older. It’s also a social activity that you can enjoy with people at different levels of interest and experience. One nice thing, to me, about where we are in birding is that we are at such a preliminary stage that almost everything is new, and we are almost sure to improve.

There’s also a certain spiritual aspect to birding. As our friend, Susie Kiphart, wrote in a comment to the blog, “I cannot possibly get why these birds would be this varied and beautiful if the Great Weaver God did not create it all this way –and of course want us to love the earth and have “dominion” —take good care of it. I have heard it said that if we do not grow to notice and love it then we can’t have the motivation to take care of it. Thanks for helping us notice!!!” Personally, I don’t think you need to reach this conclusion through belief in a God, though I certainly see how that might fit. Seeing these birds and the beautiful landscape in which they reside gives one the feeling of something larger than yourself. And for those of us who have children and, perhaps especially grandchildren, it evokes a feeling of wanting to preserve this for them and their progeny. It’s not ours to use up. I’m thinking that maybe I should run for Pope. Whaddayathink, should we start an Arnie for Pope PAC?

I’m writing this aloft from Quito to Miami, grateful once again for the good fortune that has allowed me to travel like this. Thanks for following, and for your comments. While Carol and I have many trips planned, those in the short term are not the bloggable type (for me, any way). Next time I see you in the blogosphere will be in Colombia next February, where I’ll be going (without Carol) on a photography trip.  Hasta luego.

Mountain Toucans, Tough a Bargaining and Ray Charles

June 23.Our last full day in Ecuador starts with a mile walk uphill on a road in an attempt to see Mountain Toucans. As I’ve always said, sometimes when you set out to see Mountain Toucans you see them and sometimes when you set out to see Mountain Toucans you don’t. This was one of those don’t times.

Breakfast at the lodge, then we drive back up the road to try to see Mountain a Toucans again. As I’ve always said, sometimes when you set out to see Mountain Toucans you see them and sometimes when you set out to see Mountain Toucans you don’t. This was one of those do times. I didn’t really get that good a look, but Carol and Josue did.

We drive down to a private site Josue knows about, which he says is just down the road a little way. Well, the little way turns out to be half an hour down a very bumpy road. When I confirm with Josue that we will need to drive back up to the lodge to get our bags, then drive back down the same way, en route to Quito, I allow as how I think this is crazy. Josue volunteers to drive back up himself to get all of our bags and then return to join us. While Carol is a bit reluctant to agree to this, I accept immediately.

Carol and I spend a very pleasant hour watching birds at the reserve Josue has left us at. He returns with box lunches that the lodge has prepared, which we eat outside, while watching more birds. Here are some of the birds we see. 

                            We take a pleasant walk down by the river in search of some terrific ducks, which we do not find.   

 Then we set out for the approximately 2-hour drive to Quito, enjoying the spectacular mountain and forest scenery in the sunshine.

We arrive at our home, the Casa Gangotena around three, and say fond farewells to Josue, who was fantastic. He vows to stay in touch, and my bet is that he will.  

We rest and clean up, then set out for a large artisan market. Carol is in her element, bargaining in a way that I need to walk away from, and winds up getting a slew of stuff from five or more separate vendors for about seventy-five bucks. Wouldn’t be a trip without Carol doing her thing in the market. (I do my own damage, buying a small leather pouch in which to keep hearing aid batteries. Egads, it’s come to this. Cost is one dollar, and I’m quite thrilled with my little pouch.)

We take a taxi to a restaurant tat Josue has recommended, with great views of the city, but it’s hosting a noisy bus load of people, so we walk out. We wander next door to Vista Hermosa, which is quiet, and has even nicer views of the city. The only trouble is that it up has strings of blinking white, sort of Chrismassy lights, that we are quite sure will cause us to have strokes. Our solution: we don our sun glasses, which work perfectly. I tell Carol that I am in my Ray Charles period. After a very good meal, we taxi back to the hotel, read/blog, check out the Cubs score (0-0 in the top of the first, against the Dodgers) and retire.


Riding Above the Trees

June 22.

This morning is a change of pace, moving from just birdwatching to exploration of nature more generally.  

We start with about a 10-minute walk to a place where you can zip line on a wire above the trees over a portion of the forest. You are fastened into a harness, which is attached to the wire, step off the edge and zip to the other side. Carol is ambivalent, but after I go, she agrees to do it behind Josue, which is why you can’t see her in the photos. I decide I’ll do my Tarzan act swinging out and back over an open area, holding onto a rope, but there is no way Carol is going to play Jane. She does have video of me, though, which I’m planning to send to studios who may need a senior citizen Tarzan. 


We then walk back about an hour through, beautiful, cool tropical forest. The few photos don’t do it justice. There are ups and downs along slippery muddy dirt and rocks. I don’t do well on the way down on slippery muddy dirt and rocks, but fortunately had Josue to assist, or I would now be wearing very muddy jeans, perhaps in a hospital bed. I don’t plan to do anything like that again for a good, long time; maybe never. 

         Okay, it’s not that we’ve given up birdwatching entirely. Both before and after our nature exploration, we spend time seeing some great birds around the lodge. Here are some examples. 


Okay, do there’s a squirrel.  Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

Before lunch at the lodge, Josue gives us a comprehensive, but concise overview of the geography of Ecudaor, including both where we’ve been and where we’re headed, on a large map at the lodge. After lunch, we chat briefly with Luis and Sylvia, who have gone off on their own birding adventure this morning, then say goodbye to them, as they are staying on. We’ve exchanged contact information, and may well stay in touch. We drive into Mindo to look at shops, and spend maybe five minutes there, a waste of a half hour drive to and from Mindo.

Returning to the lodge, we pack up the truck. (I should admit that “we” is an overstatement, as Josue, sometimes assisted by lodge personnel, has packed and unpacked us, including taking bags to and from all the lodges. C’mon, give us a break. We’re old, I mean we’ve been married for over fifty years.). We head from our lodge up the mountain on a very bumpy road, moving from the tropical forest back up to the Bellavista Cloud Forest, with it’s cooler and thinner air. We stop a few times to spot birds, with only modest success. It’s a whole lot easier to find them around the lodges than it is in the forests.

We check in to the Bellavista Lodge, where we have a large second-floor room in a separate building. There is a patio around the room and it feels like we’re living in a treehouse; it’s modest, but funky, and we like it. We have a couple hours to relax before dinner.

Dinner with Josue is quite acceptable. As we complete our dinner somebody comes in to ask if we want to come try to see an Olingo. Of course we do. What’s an Olingo? A rare animal, sort of looks like a combination of animals, including a wombat, a lemur and depending on your imagination, a bunch of other animals. A new species of Olingo has been identified recently, so, as you would expect, there’s quite a bit of excitement about that.

Anyway, we troop out to an area and dutifully look up into the trees. Nothing. A bunch of bananas has been placed up in a tree. Our patience is rewarded, and, eventually, the Olingo shows up. Here are my best two Olingo shots (of probably twenty-five or more). Good night now, and enjoy the Olingos. (When we get up to our room, we discover that we could have benefited from the services of an entomologist to help identify the co-occupants of our room. Oh, well, it’s only one night.) 


A Bird Whisperer, Butterflies and Many New Species

June 21.

First, a report on last night’s anniversary dinner. Food (and company) were terrific. The restaurant comped us on champagne cocktails and dessert, which was nice. Very good view of Independence Plaza. We had not anticipated that a husband and wife operatic duo would serenade the guests with a (too wide) selection of arias. They weren’t bad, and had a nice presence, but there was too much of them for the talking we wanted to do about the many highlights of the fifty years we’ve spent together.

Up at 3:30 for our 4AM pickup by Josue.  We continue to find Josue completely delightful, amazingly mature (he’s 22 years old), knowledgable on and interested in a wide array of topics and completely committed to do whatever it takes to make our trip enjoyable.  We definitely would not trade him for a more experienced guide.  When we get home, Carol,and I are going to contact an ornithologist we know at The Field Museum to see whether there’s any possibility of making an arrangement for Josue to spend some time at the museum.  Probably a big long shot, but worth a try.

We  drive a couple hours to Paz de las Aves Reserve, where we are led by the amazing Angel Paz, whose reputation as a “bird whisperer” we’d heard from three sources and was fully confirmed by our morning with him. There were two other couples, one from Barcelona and one from England with us. Angel led us on hidden, muddy paths to see the spectacle of male cock of the rock birds screeching and showing off to try to attract the female. This lasted for over half an hour as we watched and tried to find spots to take photos of the red, weird-looking birds.

After this, Angel led us to other spots we knew, where he called three varieties of Antpittas by the names he’d given them, and coaxed them out of hiding. Some of the hiking was a challenge and, in fact, one was steep and muddy enough that I stayed with Josue and looked for birds (a good decision, Carol said, though she liked what the group saw.  Carol took video throughout the day.

After three hours, our group went up to a spot that was the headquarters of Angel’s birding operation, where we had breakfast, chatted and saw an amazing array of Tanangers, Hummingbirds and some other birds. After lunch, Carol, Josue and I drove to the Sachatamia Lodge, where we will spend the night. Our room is not ready, but we drop our bags and drive on to Mindo, where we visit a butterfly preserve (two photos, of us and Josue, below), then have lunch at the restaurant attached to the preserve. From the restaurant window, we are able to observe more species (we are up to fifty for the trip, so far) and photograph them.

We drive back to the lodge, wait for Carol and my large third-floor room to be ready, check in and spend three hours getting settled, emailing, blogging, etc before going down to meet Josue and the couple from Barcelona we met this morning for dinner at the lodge.  Luis is a biologist who spent years putting a world bird guide together and painting birds.  He now runs small trips all around the world.  His wife, Cecelia, is a gastroenterologist.  That just spent 19 days in the Galápagos.

This was a long, successful and fun day of birdwatching. Though I haven’t yet learned the ins and outs of my new camera and there is one significant problem with it–it is slow to focus (which I’d read about in the comments on the camera)–on balance, I am very glad that I bought it, as I’m able to take photos of birds that I simply could not have taken with my regular camera. Though I’m not about to become a committed bird photographer, taking photos adds a big element of pleasure for me, and some of the photos I’ve taken are not too bad. Here’s a rather large sample from today. 


Anniversary Landslide and More Birds

June 20.
A rather auspicious day–our 50th anniversary. Yes, we think it’s a bit amazing, too. I feel so fortunate–blessed–to have gotten into something neither of us could possibly have anticipated or understood fully at the time that turned out so incredibly well. It’s been quite a ride, and, after some deliberation, Carol and I have decided to go for fifty-one.

Now, back to the business at hand. Morning birding was supposed to be on the beautiful Guacamayos ridge trail, but, because the rain will have made the trails extremely muddy and difficult, we change our plans and head to Puembo Birding Garden. It continues to rain and we pass many landslides that have been cleared from the road. There are many groups of men and trucks who patrol the roads to clean up the landslides, much as we would have snow removal crews. From time to time we are delayed by theses landslides as only one lane is cleared. The experience is actually sorta interesting for us, a view of Mother Nature wreaking havoc.  The landscape is covered by clouds, but we get glimpses of how beautiful it would be in the sun. 


Puembo Birding Garden turns out to be a great choice, far better than trying to schlogg through serious mud. The sun is out–really, really good news, so we shed several layers of clothes. The Garden is run by a dynamo named Mercedes, who spent time in the US at age five, and so speaks perfect English. She and her husband run a small inn, attached to the beautiful gardens and have a business running birding trips around South America. Judging from the time we spent with Mercedes, these trips would be a gas, and staying in their inn would be a pleasure. The garden is a haven to numerous species of birds and we spent about three hours there, eating a delicious lunch (that included a drink that mixed, orange, carrot and pineapple juices that I had three glasses of) and looking at birds. Here are some photos. 


 We drove the hour back to the Gangotena Hotel, chatting with our delightful guide and listening to music. We sign back into the Gangotena and are told, “Welcome home.” I told Carol that I think I want to live in this place. Spectacular in its own tight, the contrast to a place that had no heat, electricity or hot water for a day and a half is, shall we say, dramatic. We have three hours to clean up, relax, repack (I’ve decided that I’m going to figure out a way not to take my large suitcase for the next three days we’ll be away) and do internet and blogging stuff.

Around 7:45, we’ll walk three blocks for an upscale anniversary dinner at La Belle Époque, which I’d asked our travel agent to book for us. I’m going to go ahead and post this now, and report on our dinner tomorrow.