Margaret and Dick   


April 2015: The Ecuador chronicles
It's no surprise that the Galápagos Islands were on our list of travel destinations.  The Galápagos Islands are on just about everybody's list, and rightly so.  We took a five-day cruise on the catamaran Millenium and spent three days in and around Quito.  We think you should do the same.  Here is the first of a few stories that we were able to write between island adventures.  Enjoy!

Off the grid 
I read it on the internet so it must be true 
 ...more to follow...

Off the grid
Our flight landed at 10 pm, the line at immigration was long, and the airport is a good hour away from Quito, so it was midnight by the time we reached the hotel.  Our host Mario welcomed us warmly into the spectacular colonial mansion that is now the boutique hotel Casa El Eden.

"My wife and I live here, on the top floor.  If you have any problem at any time, you call out "Mario!" and I will be here in three minutes.  Maybe four minutes.  Ah, I must tell you there is a problem with the Wi-Fi.  With the rains last month, something happened, but by tomorrow noon it should be good."

"Esperamos que," said Richard, whose Spanish was beginning to return.  Let's hope so.

I remembered that TripAdvisor reviews of Ecuador hotels made frequent mention of problems with the Wi-Fi related to the previous months' rains. Had we, gulp, booked a hotel without Wi-Fi for our three nights before heading entirely offline in the Galapagos?  Whatever shall we do?

In the early morning hours, as Richard sleeps, I am assessing our predicament.  So many tools lost!  The Ecuador guidebook that I had been meaning to download.  The forums on Quito safety that I had hoped to read.  The Skype call to my mother.  Translation apps.  I'm racking my brain to remember how we used to travel pre-iPad.

We wrote several years ago about third-world Internet cafés, and I realize I miss them.  It was always a small adventure to find them, learn the system, and settle in to the invariably grungy space on a folding metal chair, to work shoulder-to-shoulder on flaky computers with international students who might be Skyping home to family or looking at porn, or both.  Power outages were the norm in Delhi, as I recall.

Maybe we can find an Internet café in Quito.

 (Postscript:  I am happy to report that restaurants and cafés in Ecuador have Wi-Fi, albeit slow, with our hotel Wi-Fi was restored as scheduled, and it was only a bit flaky.  This was strangely comforting.)

I read it on the internet so it must be true

We love TripAdvisor. Their semi-curated hotel and restaurant reviews get us to places we would never find on our own.  You can read reviewers' profiles to calibrate their comments. They love to travel in the lap of luxury? Scroll down to the next review. They write one scathing review of a restaurant in the city where they live, with no other contributions? A vendetta; scroll down.

Then there are the TripAdvisor forums, uncurated Q&As that can be a real mixed bag. I went to the forums to get a reading on personal safety in Quito. The comment that stuck in my mind was: "In other South American capitals, you may be robbed.  In Quito, you will be robbed."

South American capitals are not, in general, the crazy-stupid-dangerous places that Central American capitals tend to be, but this comment got my attention. I therefore picked up the brochure "Guia de seguridad" (Safety guide) that was on offer at Quito immigration. I was particularly interested in the safety tips for travel by taxi. (I knew that in Central America taxis can present a kidnapping risk. I would dislike being robbed; kidnapping I would hate.)  
"Please verify that:
(1) The taxi is yellow and has an orange license plate.
(2) It displays the registration number in the car doors.
(3) It has a security camera and a panic button.
(4) The fare calculator (taxi meter) is visible."

In Guatemala City we had taken the precaution of having our hotel record our taxi’s registration number, and we kept that taxi for the day. Perhaps the same method would be in order in Quito. The test came on a taxi ride to the airport for our Galápagos adventure. Our pickup was at 6:00am, when morning light was just beginning to light the sky. Our host Mario saw us off and wished us a good cruise.

By this time we had a reasonable understanding of Quito geography. The airport is about an hour north of the city, accessed by one of two tunnels that bore through a mountain near the city center. I didn't recognize the route that the driver was taking, but I could tell by the morning light that we were heading south, then east, then south again. The neighborhood became increasingly sketchy. Oh crap.

What color was the license plate? I certainly hadn't looked for the registration number on the door. There was definitely no security camera or panic button. How could Mario have let us down?

I looked at the driver's image in the rear-view mirror, and he seemed like a mature, pleasant sort. Richard, in the front seat, seemed unconcerned. Engage him in conversation.  
"Quanto cuesta para ir al aeropuerto?"
(How much does it cost to go to the airport?)
"Trente-cinco dollares."
(Thirty-five dollars.) He might be kidnapping us, but at least he's not ripping us off. Now several miles from the hotel, he turned out of a crowded industrial neighborhood and began winding down to the bottom of a canyon -- a chasm, really -- and things just kept looking worse. I had no spit. I carefully planned out various scenarios along the lines of "Si, señor, of course you can have all our bags, but would you mind if we walked back to the hotel from here?"

When we reached the bottom of the canyon, I decided to confront him.
"Look, is there really a highway to the airport down here?"
"Si, señora!"
He explained that during morning rush hour all tunnels are closed to outbound traffic, and we instead had to wind through the back roads. He pointed to a highway that suddenly materialized above us, and I soon recognized the terrain of the airport side of the tunnel.  Within moments we were old friends, talking about his family, our visit to Ecuador, and all the wonderful things we would see in the Galápagos.

Back in Quito after the cruise, we spent a day hopping into one cab after another. No emergency cameras, no panic buttons, but more importantly no problems. We had fun practicing our pidgin Spanish with all the drivers.

Take the TripAdvisor forums with a grain of salt.



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