Right Place, Right Time

This is the first time I am writing in days. I knew this week was going to be crazy but then we met our spacey agent and life in Ecuador got crazier!

Yesterday we drove to Quito to return our rental car and today flew back to Esmeraldas. Captain and I are on a bus back to Same. The taxi drivers wanted to charge us $35 to get to our apartment.  “Gringo prices!” Captain says to the driver. Instead, we snuck on the bus taking rich Ecuadorians to the resort in Same. The private bus cost us a fraction of the price and the bus driver is probably pocketing the money! Win win!!

The last few days with Agent have been a blur. The moment we met him, everything shifted.  He helped find us an apartment, lent us his wireless internet modem, and began presenting us to the neighboring villages as prospective buyers.  Agent’s car has been in the shop so we became his “chauffeur”.  It was not until we dropped him off in Quito that I realized that’s what we were to him!!! He was a tremendous help to us so it was a fair trade…

Oh, where to begin?…

Day 6

Captain and I walked the beach in Sua then checked out of Hotel Chagra Ramos. At midday we could move into our new apartment.  We had full intentions to go to the bank, cash our traveler’s checks and enjoy our new space. We soon realized it was Sunday and the banks were closed. Captain and I explained in Spanglish our situation to the landlords and they seemed to understand…

We went for a late lunch at Azuca after getting settled in briefly. We just wanted to have a relaxing afternoon and finish settling in later. I was so excited to write you and tell all my tales but then Agent happened past the local eatery.  “Hey, hey, hey!” Of course, he had another “property” to look at.

I lost a bit of hope when I saw the lot.  It was a one hector lot wedged between the beach and the road. It was a neat plot on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean but not at all what we told Agent what we were looking for, far from our Jungle/Beach/Waterfall vision.  Quickly I lost interest in the property and I noticed a few butterflies fluttering past.  As I relished in the moment and then I realized there were hundreds. We were in the middle of a never-ending, magical swarm of butterflies. Awesome.

Buying/selling real estate in Ecuador is nothing like the States as you may imagine. There are no property listings, open houses, showings, etc…  It is all word of mouth! Our last few days have been spent driving to various villages and talking with the locals about who is selling what land. I have been told many times, when people see white skin, they instantly think “rich”.  At times I feel I am being paraded around. “Who needs money? Whitey wants land!”

The rest of the day was spent showing us the different villages. This was with great intention but if Agent would have told us his plan Captain would have told him we’d already checked them all out! He introduced us to a few friends who were selling land. We all watched the sun set over the beach in the town of Galeria while eating ceviche.  Ceviche is typically raw fish marinated in lemon juice with onions and the likings. This was octopus ceviche, Agent’s “favorite” and a first for Captain and I! What a totally unplanned day…but as always, an interesting day with Agent.

Day 7

Today was yet another day of running with one mishap after another.  We brought much of our money as traveler’s checks. Getting to the bank so we could pay our landlords was our top priority since we were supposed to have paid yesterday when we moved in.  Our landlord’s didn’t want to carry $700 cash on the bus so they suggested they come along and ride the bus back home to Same.

Our landlords are a traditional, Ecuadorian couple living on their land since 1954.  The two do everything with one another-they remind me of Captain and I, a happy couple always enjoying the day together.  The plan was to leave at 9AM sharp. We made our way to the car and The Landlords met us promptly, dressed in their finest.

The four of us drove to Agent’s home.  It seemed awfully quiet…Captain honked the horn! “Yo! It’s time to go!” A moan came from inside the house.  It was very apparent Agent was just waking.  He peaked his bed head out of the front door and said, “Hey, hey, hey!  I’ll be down in a minute!!”

Shortly after rolling up we noticed a chicken-like bird in the trees.  While we were waiting on Agent, she became the spectacle.  The more we honked at Agent to hurry him along, the louder Chicken-Bird’s cluck became.

Twenty minutes later, with an open brief case, loose papers flying, glasses hanging halfway off his face, Agent appears, disheveled as always.  Chicken-Bird is now pacing on Agent’s second story porch and she is furious!  Agent was finally making his way out the door when Chicken-Bird chased him back inside.  Captain was honking the horn, Agent from behind the screen door was yelling at Chicken-Bird and her clucking became a horrendous screeching. She was pissed!

There was a split second where Chicken-Bird took her eyes off Agent and he made a dash for Spark.  Down the stairs and out the front gate, he made it all the way to the car. The moment he thought he was safe, Chicken-Bird glided from the second floor railing.  With full intentions of landing on Agent’s head, she fell short and landed on the roof of Sparky. Agent dove in the front seat, Captain nailed the gas and Chicken-Bird was left in the dust!

A good laugh is the best way to start the day…we laughed for miles!

Chicken Bird

Arriving in Atacames, we stopped at the bank right away.  Our day was running easily an hour behind and we didn’t want to keep The Landlords from their day’s agenda.  The banks in Ecuador are much like the DMVs in the US; a really long line and a sign saying “take a number please”.  The major difference is there are armed guards at every door with their fingers near the trigger.  Most people are dressed formally and there is absolutely no wearing of hats or sunglasses! Agent quickly states, “I know the Bank’s head boss, cashing these checks should be no trouble.”   In the short line waiting for the Boss, it was our turn and our translator is nowhere to be found. Agent was outside buying hard boiled quail egg…

It is at this moment, the headache of traveler’s checks begin.  The Boss wouldn’t cash them but said the bank in Esmeraldas would.  Everyone agreed to the unexpected journey to Esmeraldas which was a 40 minute drive further north.  The quick trip to Atacames to pay our already late rent was turning into a full day excursion.  Imagine Esmeraldas: a third-world, small scale NYC; honking horns, stifling exhaust fumes, unbearable heat, trash and people everywhere!  The Landlords definitely did not have this on their agenda for the day!

Here we are, all 5 of us, walking to yet another bank.   The second bank said they couldn’t cash them either but claimed there was a larger bank down the way that would. Captain and I discussed pulling money out of the ATM. We were very sympathetic to the Landlords with what was to be a quick trip to the local bank.   Agent claimed, “No, no, no. There should be no trouble…I know the Head Banker there, too.” Of course he did…

Despite Agent’s connections, the third bank would not cash them either!  This bank told us traveler’s checks could only be cashed at the main branch in Quito.  Both parties exchanging money were growing restless.  After all this hassle, Captain ended up pulling money out of his ATM account, what we should have done in the first place.  Captain handed over the cash right away, so the Landlords could be on their way.  We were going to offer them a ride, this was the least we could do after dragging them around all day. Captain and I had to make a quick trip to the store but decidedly not to offer the ride. With Agent alongside, there was no promising a quick anything.

The Wal-mart of Ecuador is called Aki.  Food in Ecuador is cheaper than the US but  other items are more expensive.  Even the cheap “Made in China” stuff is expensive.  Captain and I spent an hour or so shopping for some apartment necessities and a few various items we wanted our kitchen stocked with. Agent popped in, here and there and placed a few items on the bottom rack of our cart.  When it came time to pay, he was nowhere to be found, again! We ended up buying Space Agent’s groceries. On our way out to the car, we found him by the bakery. I can’t be sure he had a piece of cake but whatever he was doing, he forgot he was shopping in the Aki!

After leaving to the store, I thought we were on our way home. With all the craziness of the traveler’s checks, this was all I wanted, to be ‘home’. We began making our way back home toward Same, or so I thought. Agent runs his errands differently than Captain and I. The two of us discuss the agenda for the day, plan for the excursion and get home before dark.  Agent on the other hand says there is only one thing on his To Do List but it ALWAYS turns into an all-day event.

Here is how a day of running errands looks with Agent:

“Let’s go out to look at this property…Hey, there’s my friend. Stop the car!…Hey, there’s my uncle. Stop the car!…Wait, wait, wait! Where’s my phone?…I forget my folder. Somewhere?…Maybe it was at lunch?…Or was it at the pharmacy?…Where did I put that modem?…Who was I calling?…Let’s get a shake-these are my favorite!…I hate when they give me gringo prices! Let’s go over to this guy!” And on it went. Agent is self-diagnosed ADHD and I second that! He is quite an eccentric being…

We began, again, making our way toward home when we were stopped by a road block of the Transit Police.  My heart sank, “do we have our passports?!” I realized we had them and, of course, the car’s registration so there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Rolling up in our cherry red, now dusty Spark, the police ask for passports and registration. Captain’s plan was to play the ignorant gringo if there was any dispute. My plan was to pray. Agent, on the other hand, his plan was to make friends with the cop and talk his way out of whatever was to go down. It seemed like everything was going fine until the officer told us to pull to the side. Agent started speaking with the officer in Spanish and I became very confused about what was going on!

Disclaimer: this writer takes no responsibility of the mentioned character’s and their acts that follow.

I was very uneasy…I felt like we could be headed straight to Ecuadorian jail. I got the phone number out for Rent-a-Car.  Agent called them and Rent-a-Car said, “as long as you have the proper documentation”, Spark was legal without her plates. Supposedly new cars owners have 30 days to get plates. Captain and I were sure to hand over all the paperwork that was given to us.

Rent-a-Care then spoke with the police offer.  Agent gets back in the car, says the rental car place was rude to the police and that this is going to cost us. What? Jail time?… No! Just the $9 Captain and I piled together.  Agent took the nine dollars, tucked it in the paper work and handed it back to the officer.

The next thing I know, the officer hands Captain the car’s paperwork.  Agent got in the car quickly and said, “Just drive!” My first thought was, “are we fleeing from a crime scene? Are they going to shoot at us?” They didn’t shoot but I am sure we were fleeing a ‘crime’ scene… “Ha!” Agent boasts, “I told him we would drive to the commissioner’s office to get the ‘paper work’. But for now he could ‘hold’ this 10 dollars for us and we will be back shortly.” It wasn’t even 10 bucks!  We kept driving and didn’t look back.

Agent went on to tell us to be sure to always have cash on us. He says, “$10 will get you out of almost any ticket!” Unfortunately police corruption is common in the country. Captain and I paid that officer’s salary for the day which was much better than the Ecuadorian jail I thought we were going to. We plan on never leaving home without our get-out-of-jail-free 10 dollar bill!

The day was still not done…we ended up back in Atacames and ran 3 more errands. I was already frustrated because half the day had been spent in this city dealing with the banks.  “Weren’t we just here? Why didn’t we run these errands when we were right here earlier!” I had to remind myself to breathe and savor the moment.

Then, Agent  hollers, “Pull over!!! There’s the woman with the property I have been trying to reach for 3 days!”  After hearing more about the property Agent asks, “you guys wanna see it now?!” “No!” Captain and I yell simultaneously! It was nearing dark. The next day we were heading to Quito. Agent was going to be out of town for a week so a “showing” was scheduled for the following week. This is the first property that sounds just what we are looking for: Jungle/Beach/Waterfall!!!

Day 8

The time had come to return our rental car. The car had to be returned back to Quito. The drive back was going to be another long day but we had our apartment and found a real estate agent. Mission accomplished. Agent needed to do some business in Quito. He could help us in Quito to translate, cash our traveler’s checks and get around in return for the free ride to the city. Road trip with Agent-this should interesting…

There are 4 ways to get back to Quito from the coast. 2 really long ways, the route we took out to the coast, and the road through the Andes that is near the Columbian border. This area has a reputation of being dangerous—no gringo should ever go this alone, or so all the travel guides claim! Can you guess which route we choose?!? Because we wanted to go North of Esmeraldas and check out the land, taking the “dangerous” route was actually most convenient.  Captain and I would never have done this just us two. But with Agent co-piloting, we were up for the adventure.

We all agreed to be ready at 830AM, leaving by 9.  Why a part of me believed this would actually happen is beyond me.  We got to space Agent’s house at 845.  I am sure he was just waking up! It was 945 before we left. Agent says, “This is Latin America, Baby. No one is on time!”  Captain in the drivers’ seat says, “We are already an hour behind schedule. I don’t want to be driving at night so there will be no extra stops.” We should have known better…

Within 20 minutes of the drive, Agent says, “Turn left here!”  Navigator Agent was taking us through Atacames to get his hat from some kids and return a camera to a friend.  Once again, I am confused why we didn’t do this yesterday when we were all over this city.  This, of course, was a 20 minute stop.  Agent rolls up with a juice in one hand and pastry crumbs on his shirt.  Geesh…

Not but 20 minutes later, Agent says, “Oh, oh, oh.  You have to stop!  I want to check with this cop to make sure all is well with the route we’re taking.” It was nearing lunchtime so I was not surprised when he “noticed” the road side vendor selling empanadas.  Once again, he claimed these to be his “favorite”.    Empanadas are much like a corndog but with shrimp instead and it’s mixed into the breading.   This woman topped them with slaw, mayo and a bit of picante sauce.  Fresh out the frying pan and indeed delicious…three big ones for a dollar!

As we were enjoying our unexpected snack, Agent begins telling us about a beach that we have to check out.  “Seriously guys, I am telling you as a friend. You won’t ever make it up this way again.  This is something you can’t miss…”  Captain was already perturbed with the frequent stops putting us further behind schedule. I had read about the beach and going there was on my (hopefully) To Do List. The beach consisted of pottery from the Andean tribes and is near the burial grounds of this ancient civilization. Despite hearing Agent speak so convincingly about the beach, Captain still didn’t care to go but he knew I wanted to.  I really did want to see this beach.  Captain caved, made the left turn and we began driving 75 kilometers out of the way.

The road ended at a little village called La Tola. What Agent hadn’t told us is we had to catch a 20 minute canoe ride to get to the beach! Not only that, it was low tide and even if we wanted to take the $20 canoe ride, we wouldn’t be able!  I could see the rage grow on Captain’s face.  Agent says, “well at least you know it’s a safe village here and it has to be high tide to take the canoe ride!” Captain has been so patient with Agent for the last few days.  He took a deep breath and said, “the only stop we are making is for gas and we will be driving 4 hours straight to Quito. Period.”

The drive was beautiful.  With emerald mountains, blue skies and a touch of the high desert, it reminded me of Northern California plus jungle.  There was much less traffic too; very few semis, the occasional farmer’s pick up and rarely a public bus.  This is the way to get to the coast! Though at night time, it would not be a route I would recommend.  I hadn’t been frightened until Agent said, “if any adults string a rope up across the road, just plow through it! They are planning to rob you! If it’s a kid, he’s just playing. Don’t be alarmed.”  Captain says, “I’d plow through that rope too!”

Halfway through our drive in the Andes, Agent screams. “Turn around!  I swear I saw a condor!  These things are near extinct!  You won’t ever get the chance to see one again!!!”  Captain hesitated for a minute or so, he had swore no more stops.  But all of us wanted to see the condor so he spun the Spark around for the last time. So here we are, on the steepest, curviest roads in the Andes busting U turns for what Agent claims to be a rare sighting of a condor.  While making our second turn around, a farmer was coming around the bend and had to slam on his breaks to prevent a collision. Spark was pulled half-ass to the side of the road and Agent points out to the “condor”.   I scream, “That is a tree man! Seriously, you thought that huge tree on that huge mountain top was a condor?!”  “They are really big guys. Sorry, I don’t have on my glasses on,” Agent says. It was this moment that Captain declared he would never believe another word that comes out of Agent’s mouth!

As we neared Quito, we were able to accomplish the ONE thing on our To Do list: the Otavalo Market.  The market was in the city’s center and had so many beautiful Ecuadorian products; hand woven hats, thick wool sweaters, knitted slippers, and the softest blankets made of alpaca fur-it was so fun to see what Ecuadorian’s spent their time creating.

Because we were flying back to Esmeraldas the next day, Captain and I wanted to buy our tickets. Throughout the whole road trip, getting our plane tickets was the topic at least 7 times. Each time it came up, Agent would offer his input. “Oh I have the flight schedule in my bag…what’s the number to the airline? I will call them…Where did I put that schedule?…I think it leaves at 3PM…What was that number again?…”

Though it was past dinner time, getting our tickets was highest priority.  Agent had told us he could make a reservation.  Captain and I could be on standby tomorrow when he would cancel the reservation for 2, and we could get a ticket for significantly cheaper.  Agent is always looking for the greatest deal! This sounded tempting but Captain and I opted to just buy the tickets.

On the road trip, we mentioned calling the airline to purchase tickets many times and every time, Agent would get side tracked.  When we finally got his attention long enough to call, the airline said they could not book tickets over the phone. Our only option today was to drive to the airport and tickets sales were open until 8PM.

It was past seven and we just wanted to have peace of mind knowing tomorrow we would be flying back home to our new apartment without the Space Agent!  This week had been long enough and we were ready to get settled! With Agent as our navigator, it was a race against the clock! Captain was cutting drivers off left and right, beeping his horn at everyone and following Agent’s scattered directions.  “Wait! Turn left, no right! Oh no…this is a one way! Keep going! I took you the wrong way.  Go back this way!”  Despite Agent’s inattention to navigation and his poor co-piloting skills, we had 30 seconds to spare before tickets sales ended. This is no exaggeration…

After the eventful road trip and exciting excursion through the streets of Quito, all I wanted to do was get to the hotel.  Dinner was essential and at this point I didn’t care what we ate! We ended up at one of Quito’s finest restaurants over-looking the city.  The sun had long ago set so the city was lit up with lights.  Quito is the capital with a population of 2 million people and sits at 9,000 feet in the hills of the Andes.  What an incredible view. Epic…

First we were introduced to a gentleman selling his small lot along the ocean.  We finally sat down to have dinner when Captain and I realized Agent wasn’t going to eat with us.  “I am going to eat at another place. I just wanted to bring you here for the view.” I knew this was the excuse he used, but I am pretty sure the business meet and greet was really why we were there! Nonetheless, that was a romantic gesture that was much appreciated. Captain and I laughed and said, “Thanks man! But let’s get out of here and go eat!”

With the Agent knowing the city so well, he claimed to know the best budget hotel in Quito. He knew the owner… and I wasn’t expecting much.  He said it wasn’t the nicest but it was a good deal. Of course!  After the long day of being in the car and on the go, I was so excited to lay myself down to sleep…until I felt the mattress. It was stiff as a board. Laying on your side too long caused painful pressure points within minutes.  I envisioned the pillow as a fluffy white cloud.  Wrong. It felt like the pillow case was stuffed with golf balls.  I switched pillows with Captain in the middle of the night and he chipped his tooth on it.  Just kidding but this easily could have happened, it was so hard. Awesome deal Agent but for 15 bucks in the ‘big city’ what do you expect?

Mindo, near Quito, is where I hoped to go and see the notorious butterfly gardens and bird watchers’ paradise. Our flight was at 330PM. Agent stated as long as we were at the airport by 230P, we’d have plenty of time.  Captain and I woke early but as the minutes passed, we decided we didn’t want to go to Mindo and rush our day. Having spent the last few days with Agent, the last thing we expected was for him to be timely!

We heard Agent in the room above stirring for quite some time. He eventually made his way downstairs and we peeked our heads out of our room.  “Hey hey hey! You guys are awake?” he asks.  “Hell yeah man, we are ready to get the show on the road!”  Needless to say, it was another 45 minutes before leaving the hotel.    If we would have got on the move this morning, going to Mindo would have been reasonable.  Agent really wanted to go and kept saying we have ‘plenty of time’.  “Sorry Agent, but we know better than that.”

The one thing we had to do was cash our traveler’s checks and we were going to do this first thing! We ended up going to 3 different banks, yet again, and none of them would cash our traveler’s checks.   DO NOT BRING TRAVELER’S CHECKS TO ECUADOR.  IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO CASH THEM!

I was ready to get on that flight and leave this madness behind!

There may have been 90 minutes to spare before boarding our plane. Plenty of time to go to Mindo…yeah right!

Agent says Jungle/Beach/Waterfall will be difficult to find in our price range but I feel this is his “agent” persona talking. At this very moment I notice Captain peering outside of the bus window at the miles of green uninhabited land. Captain says to me, “Like we can’t find land…yeah right.” I am going to keep telling myself the universe will take care of it…at some point, we will be in the right place at the right time.