Guayaquil, Ecuador – the Angry Chinese Lady, big bottoms, and new Sharpies

Guayaqauil is a big, gritty city with blaring horns and many dreary facades, but it also has some grand parks – there’s even one with land inguanas! – and many good restaurants…some with a high entertainment factor.

On our first day we ate at Chifa Long Ge, a modest Chinese restaurant around the corner from our hostel.  The waiter was gracious and helpful. I ordered what I thought were two vegetarian noodle soups (“sin carne, por favor”). We heard some yelling in the kitchen while we waited, but didn’t pay much attention. The soups arrived and I discovered that mine had pieces of chicken and pork. When the waiter saw my surprise, he motioned towards the kitchen, where there was still yelling, and indicated I should put the pieces of meat to the side on my plate. Something in his look made me not want to make a fuss, so I nodded and decided to look out for a hungry-looking person to whom I could give the meat. When I noticed that Elise’s soup did not have noodles, I asked if we could order a portion of noodles for her.

Shortly afterwards, the source of the yelling emerged from the kitchen. It was, somewhat incongruently, a cute, blonde Chinese woman in a cheerful pink smock. I figured she was just in a bad mood, and didn’t pay much attention. It would seem, however, that our request for extra noodles had pissed her off.

Our waiter appeared with the noodles. Minutes later, another waiter appeared with what looked like the remaining portion of noodles and said “Shhhhhhhh!” while sliding them into Elise’s soup. There was more yelling and it suddenly became clear that the cute Chinese lady wasn’t just in a bad mood – she was a cute, angry Chinese lady.

A smiling merchant selling smudged magnifying glasses and selfie sticks appeared in the store and I quickly handed him my plate of meat. He looked incredibly surprised, but grateful. As he was putting the meat into a plastic bag, the Angry Chinese Lady stormed over and shook the plate to speed up the process and then yelled at him. Arrrrrrrg. I was expecting her to yell at us next, but instead, she made me walk over to the register to get my change. I left feeling a strange mix of wariness, satisfaction (the soups were good), and amusement. Would she not have been perfect for an episode of Seinfeld?!

Elise later commemorated her in a drawing with lines above her head to indicate that she was fuming. The drawing also included an accurate representation of the restaurant sign, a snoozing iguana, Elise’s newest Littlest Pet Shop figurine, and the Simpsons, which were playing while we ate.

The next day, as we strolled past the restaurant, we saw the Angry Chinese Lady wiping tables and I dared to ask if I could photograph her with Elise. She put her arm around Elise(!!!) and I took a shot. Unfortunately, the camera was on the wrong settings and the photo came out blurry so I dared to ask if I could take a second shot. But by then she was fed up, and let go of Elise to get back to wiping tables. I worried she would start yelling and quickly took one more shot, thanked her, and then we scurried away, giggling.

Although far less entertaining than Chifu Long Ge, the place we had breakfast the next day, Dulceria La Palma, was treat. With high ceilings, black & white photos of Guayaquil, and a wide vitrine with dozens of trays of little pastries, it had great, old-school charm. The breakfast menu included eggs, tiny, crispy croissants, yogurt with granola, tropical juice, and strong coffee. I was a happy camper. At 32 cents a pop, the little pastries were too good to pass up, so I ordered one of each to take with us.

As we walked back to our hostel, we marveled at some of the street scenes. There were shoe shiners with customers reading the paper on nearly every block which almost looked like clones of each other. There were also tangled wires and potholes that would make officers from the Ordnungsamt (Regulatory Office) back in Germany apoplectic. I considered creating an Instagram channel dedicated to such shots, but there was too much other interesting stuff to capture – such as newspaper stands with photos of big, bare-bottomed ladies just above coloring books for kids.

Although our hostel was recommended by Lonely Planet, we couldn’t stand the ornate blue/gold decor and dank bathroom, so I used points to book a stay in the local Marriott. Elise was thrilled beyond belief, poor thing, and vlogged enthusiastically about the room. It was then that I realized what a toll the less-than-stellar accommodations had taken on her.

Since our points freed up a portion of our daily budget, I treated her to a set of Sharpies.

I drew the line, however, on Build-A-Bear-style doggie outfits. I’ve promised Elise a dog when we return to Berlin (we’d both love a Pomeranian), but a doggie tennis dress or embroidered jumper? No. Just no.

Farewell Galapagos

Returning to Santa Cruz from slightly remote Isabela Island felt strangely familiar – a bit like we were coming ‘home’. It was similar to the feeling I had back in 1990-92 when returning from travel in South East Asia to my home in Kyoto and Nishinomiya, Japan, where I could read the signs and easily navigate the trains. It made me think about where home is for us now. We’ve officially unregistered from Berlin, and the last time we lived in the US was four years ago. So, in a way, the address I entered somewhat tongue-in-cheek in my new Leuchturm journal was accurate: “The World” .

And where will home be in the future? We both love Berlin and the friends we’ve made there, and I think the international schools there are terrific. Germany is also on the side of the angels in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Raw documentary footage I’ve seen of Syrian children who’ve lost parents in the war is shattering – their need for help far outweighs our perceived need to keep ‘others’ out.

But Elise and I have also talked about spending a year in Paris. Or maybe we’ve yet to discover our future home? a village in New Zealand or in Vietnam? or perhaps a palm-fringed harbor in the South Pacific? I have a running joke with my niece, Rach (who happens to be both gorgeous and fiercely intelligent). Any time I come up with an idea such as ‘move to Germany’ or ‘travel the world for a year’, she announces that she doesn’t believe that it’ll happen. Even after we’d moved to Berlin, and I asked “Do you believe me now?”, she wrote: “Nope”. Oh the joy of looking forward to many more exotic locations and Nopes from Rach!

In any case, back on Santa Cruz, we fell into ‘old’ habits – we had breakfast at our favorite cafe, popped into the same shops, had an $8 lobster lunch at our favorite restaurant, took a water taxi to a beach we’d visited before and then explored a nearby salt marsh (Elise’s science lesson for the day).

We followed the trail through Opuntia cacti to Las Grietas, a swimming nook in a deep rock crevice. Fearless locals are known to climb the nearly vertical rock walls to plunge into the water below. During our visit, however, we saw only normal folks who were yelping at the chilly water and slipping on the rocks at ground level. My camera gave me a welcome excuse to stay on the platform, but Elise carefully made her way over the rocks and was rewarded with an invigorating swim.

For dinner, we returned to our favorite restaurant for the last time. Our waiter recognized us immediately and, smiling from ear to ear, offered us a great deal on a soup and grilled fish dinner.

The Galapagos are a very special place, and one day I hope we’ll return to explore Floreana and the other smaller islands.

Elise’s drawing of Isabella Island

Elise drew her (part-wolf) alter ego, Sunny, and her sister Ashlyn on Isabela Island, where they mountain biked along the coast, touched a giant tortoise, went body boarding and snorkeling with colorful fish and tortoises, and saw the Wall of Tears (gray volcanic rocks in the upper right). Also depicted are sea lions, volcanic rocks, and Opuntia cacti on the beach, a water taxi in the harbor, and the tiny bird with whom Elise shared an apple.

Isabela Island, Galapagos

This place feels much more remote than Santa Cruz – even slightly abandoned, which is a welcome thing.

With its squarish, concrete structures (many half-finished) and radio towers, however, Puerto Villamol is not especially charming at first glance. The roads around the town square are dirt while the park is paved. Go figure. Just a block or two away there are barren lots strewn with cinderblocks and plastic tubs, which reminded me of deep West VA, except instead of dirt, the ground is covered in black volcanic gravel like a rustic parking lot. Opposite a flamingo pond is what appears to be a 1950’s style power plant.

But the island holds many lovely surprises, such as Concha de Perla, a wooden walkway where sea lions snooze (you have to step over them!) through a mangrove swamp to a bay which is home to marine iguanas and giant tortoises.

There is also a long stretch of beach with turquoise green water, the softest sand ever, and pleasant beach cafes.

The restaurants that looked run-of-the-mill by day light up at night from the glow of lanterns. The seafood is also excellent. We took advantage of ubiquitous $8 set menu options and sampled the grilled fish, lobster, and fish soup and (apart from a mushy seafood spaghetti) enjoyed every bite.

Elise adores pools, and I wanted to give her a special experience during our final days in the Galapagos, so I booked a stay at The Wooden House (3x our normal budget) based on the photos of its big pool. But while the rooms were lovely and Zen-like, the pool ended up being teensy tiny (trick photography).

After one night we switched to another hotel with spacious rooms, gleaming floors, and hammocks on a breezy top-floor terrace. Having essentially won back some of our budget, I looked into guided tours. The options depicted in faded photos at the travel agencies, however, left a lot to be desired. There were tours of the Tuneles, Volcanes, and Tintoreras, but travelers we met said the volcano tour was not worth it, and it was much better to see the other sites yourself. So we rented snorkels ($6 for 2 of us for the afternoon) and swam in the bay with marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and many colorful fish (my favorite was a black fish with electric blue eyes and a yellow mouth), and then rode mountain bikes to see flamingos and tortoises at a conservation center where Elise was allowed by an enthusiastic guide to touch a highly interactive tortoise! It was amazing looking into this 100+ year old creature’s eyes, who shrunk back into his/her shell any time we gestured too wildly.

We then rode a 5k path along gorgeous coastline which eventually turned inland.

There were various scenic lookout points marked with large signs for “Green Ponds”, “Round Pool”, “Hidden Pool” etc (was like shopping for sights at a supermarket), as well as a high platform with 360 degree views of the island.

Elise decided to forego the climb in favor of having a snack, which she shared with two little birds. As a gearhead, I was absurdly pleased to be able to offer her one of our tiny, ultralight camping chairs for the first time.

From the lookout platform, there was sea as far as the eye could see in one direction, and uninhabited, scrub-covered land in the other that disappeared into a wall of fog. I felt the desolation of the place and had a flicker of melancholy.

The path ended at the towering 100m long Wall of Tears, which was built by convicts under abusive conditions at the time of the island’s penal colony (1946-59). The wall appeared to be made entirely of volcanic rocks and was in the middle of nowhere, separating nothing. It provided us with the opportunity to discuss human rights and capital punishment. Without prompting, Elise told me that she believes that even convicts should not be abused since they are already paying for their crimes by being locked up, and that we do not have the right to kill other human beings – even murderers. (Brava Elise! I am less certain about how society should punish child molesters/murderers).

But our visit to the island wasn’t all about heavy discussion. The next day, Elise tried body boarding for the first time. The surf was great and she managed to ride a few waves all the way to the shore. Since this is the precursor to surfing, her surfboarding cousin Nele will be proud!

As we sped away from Isabella, the shape of the island revealed itself. The day we’d arrived, there was heavy fog obscuring the coastline. Elise thought she’d caught a glimpse of mountains behind the clouds, but wasn’t sure. Indeed, we saw a giant, gently sloping volcano as we sped away, one of six that form Isabela’s seahorse shape. There were also smaller islands that came into view – strange, unfamiliar shapes that formed no pattern in my mind. How do the children growing up on Isabela view those same shapes? What stories do they have to describe them?

During the two-hour ride, I held Elise tightly on my lap because she felt a bit of seasickness. I was unable to write or listen to my university courses or read my Kindle as I usually do during commutes, so I spent the time thinking about what we’d experienced. I was pleased that Elise had had a number of firsts – snorkeling, body boarding, mountain biking – and that the island had offered a few terrific science lessons – tortoise breeding and conservation, the function of mangroves and coral, how life can take root on a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, daily rhythms of sea lions and iguanas, and how heritable traits may give offspring an advantage in a particular ecological niche (eg tortoises on the Galapagos developed especially long necks to be able to eat cacti). Elise had also learned a bit about history (European colonization), ethics, sociology (none of the merchants on the islands undercut the competition, and they refused to let newcomers invest in the island without first living there for two years), and even economics (given scarcity and the cost of transporting goods, prices were higher on the island). All good stuff.

I also reflected on the fact that I felt completely comfortable being tossed about by the waves – even though it sometimes felt like a roller coaster ride. I suffer from claustrophobia (made worse when confined spaces are crowded) and misophonia (eating noises, inane TV, etc), but not at all from motion sickness or aquaphobia, acrophobia, aviophobia (alektorophobia, consecotaleophobia, or arachibutyrophobia, lol), or anything else really, so with a wide view of the silvery sea and the roar of the waves drowning out any other sound, I found that I was extremely content and relaxed right up through our arrival back in Santa Cruz.

But now…my imagination is all fired up by the prospect of visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru!

Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

We finally made it to the Galapagos! We arrived at the airport on tiny Baltra island, took the ferry to the main island, Santa Cruz, and then the 40 min bus south to Puerto Ayora ($2! vs $25 taxi). Right away we saw some of the animals for which the Galapagos are famous – a blue-footed booby and manta ray in the harbor, marine iguanas sunning themselves on the sidewalks, a sea lion feasting on a fish in the mangroves, and pelicans hanging out at the fish market.

Later, we saw geckos and little birds at Casa de Lago, a charming cafe, where fruit salad, omelets and pancakes are served at rustic tables to jazz music. We took the time every morning to write in our beloved Leuchturm journals.

We also saw the tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station – little babies munching loudly on bright green stalks and giant, slow-moving adults.

The best surprise for Elise, however, was when a playful sea lion joined us while we were swimming in the bay at Las Grietas!

For me, the highlight was walking the long and winding trail through twisted scrub brush and towering cacti to Tortuga Bay, which has one of the most splendid beaches in South America. The current is quite strong, so I held Elise’s hand tightly while we let the warm waves wash over us again and again.

On our last day, we bought ferryboat tickets to Isabela Island and took our time strolling the main drag and peeking into shops. Elise loved the animal figurines and got a tiny tortoise and ceramic sea lion. I liked the t-shirts that made use of negative space to show manta rays and other marine life. Elise also tried (cooked) shrimp ceviche for the first time and liked it. We’re thinking of creating a cookbook with one special dish from each country we visit. Ceviche is now a contender, as is fish and yucca soup.

Elise drew her impressions of Santa Cruz with her character, Sunny (who’s part wolf), at our favorite cafe with floral vines, the darling little bird who begged at our table, a soft serve ice cream, palm tree, a sea lion and tortoise, and giant orange sunset.

On our last evening on the island, we joined the locals and tourists at the bustling strip of seafood restaurants with outdoor tables and had a filling plate of grilled fish and rice with sopa con queso (cheese soup). It was all rather pleasant, but after four days on Santa Cruz I felt a very strong urge to get away to a quieter, less developed place.

Waiting in Quito to get to the Galapagos

It seems that the website for the local airline does not like foreign credit cards, so we returned to Quito to book our flights to the Galapagos in person at the Tame office. On the bus into town, instead of using Google Translate to attempt to ask a fellow passenger in Spanish where to exit, I used the lazy man’s method – Google Maps – to watch our bus make its way in real time to our neighborhood, La Mariscal. Worked like a charm. But after having spent more than a week in the mountains, it felt rather jarring being back in a big city. Still, it wasn’t a total waste of time because we succeeded in getting our tickets and, in the meantime, discovered a vegetarian restaurant with an extensive menu (The Maple), an Argentine restaurant, and one serving Brazilian and Surinamese dishes, as well as a fun coffee shop. The highlights included quinoa salad, traditional Ecuadoran soup with fish and yucca, grilled corn served with cheese and mayo, grilled chicken in a ginger sauce (which Eise was not keen to eat), and a terrific potato salad with green peas and pineapple. Delicioso! While we were in Quito, I also tried to find a pair of Craighoppers anti-mosquito trekking pants (mine are too loose, but after our culinary escapades, I’m guessing it’s because the fabric has stretched, lol), but none of the camping stores we visited carried them…so it’s off to Santa Cruz in super saggy pants.


Elise didn’t like our hostel, so we switched to CasaZen, a private guesthouse with a tranquil garden with banana trees, exotic flowers, hammocks, and hummingbirds buzzing just outside our window.

Mery, the owner, also offered a range of holistic therapies, including massage, Zen meditation, shamanic cleansing (special plants are used to ‘tap away’ blockages), and even psychotherapy. To Elise’s delight, neighborhood cats and dogs were allowed to visit the garden, where they did pet tricks for a bite to eat. We met a wonderful couple there, Pippa and Matt, who were traveling the world. I noticed that CasaZen was not listed on or even Facebook, so I helped Mery establish a social media presence, and created a video for her, with Elise and Pippa and Matt as models. Mery treated us to massages and delicious food. After the lovely days spent together helping each other, it almost felt like the four of us were family.

Yes, that is Elise somewhere under that mop. 😉

Pippa spent hours making an embroidered purse, and to our great surprise, presented it to Elise as a parting gift. We were incredibly touched, and Elise will always treasure it.

Ziplining in Mindo, Ecuador

After the bumpy start to our travels, we were more than ready for some R&R, and Mindo provided us with exactly what we needed – a fun, dusty Wild West kinda town in the mountains with banana trees and explosions of blossoms at every turn – and a 2.5 hour ziplining course high above the treetops!

We woke up to a view of blossoms and mountains, and to a marvelous breakfast on a treehouse terrace over a river. Elise squealed with delight when a hummingbird fed on blossoms just a few feet from our table. (I wasn’t prepared to get the shot, but made up for it later at CasaZen.)

After a few more refreshments and a bumpy ride in a pickup truck (Elise was thrilled to be allowed to sit in the back), the fun began! We joined a group of Swiss, Americans and Ecuadorans for a series of long zips that zigzagged high above valleys. Elise was one of the bravest in our group, opting to try the ‘Supergirl’ zip (hands free, flying like Superman). Having accomplished that, she decided to go for the Mariposa (‘Butterfly’) – hands and feet-free and upside-down!! She was exhilarated when she arrived at the platform, saying “It changed my life!” and “It felt like I was going to fall into the clouds.” Well, if my brave Little One could do it, obviously I had to give it a go, too. But I’d waited til the very last zip, which turned out to be the longest of all. Eeeek! But halfway through, I sort of just gave into the experience and started to relax. Not something I will forget anytime soon! Afterward, we joined our new friends for grilled trout in another treetop restaurant. Americans John and Molly were visiting their former exchange student, Diego, 26 years after he’d spent a year in their CT home. Love those international connections. All-in-all, a great day.

Fabulous quilts in Mindo’s cloud forest

As we traveled by bus from Otavalo to Mindo, the mountaintops disappeared under a dreamy veil of clouds. Elise was mesmerized and watched the landscape speed by through an open window. But then her little nose started to get red and she started to shiver. I realized that her jacket was locked away in the luggage compartment, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep her warm. But then I remembered that our brand new Enlightened Equipment quilts were in the backpack at my feet. Joy! I took one out and wrapped her up in it. The fabric is silky to the touch and not just ultralight but featherlight (I’m a bit obsessed with the weight of my gear) so you might not expect it to provide warmth, but my Little One went from cold to super cozy within a few moments. #happymom #happytraveler ! The quilts are a cool concept – unlike sleeping bags which restrict movement, they are more like a blanket with straps that attach beneath your sleeping pad, so you have more freedom of movement when sleeping. #cloudforest #enlightenedequipment #campingdonelight #myeequilt

Otavalo’s Traditional Market – tears and discoveries

Today we visited Otavalo’s sprawling Saturday market – one of the largest in South America. I loved seeing the fresh produce piled high at the food market and the handmade ponchos and sweaters at the handicrafts market. Although some merchants wore casual tops and jeans or basic smocks, many wore incredibly elegant navy blue shawls with white blouses and long skirts. I felt too shy to capture what I was seeing, however, and a thousand beautiful photo ops passed me by. At one point, however, near the animal market, I so was taken by a women in traditional dress gently holding a live chicken against her chest that I offered her a coin to take her photo. She immediately turned away, and so I gave up.

Not much later, Elise saw a farmer hitting a squealing pig with a stick to get it to move along the street. She also saw chickens hanging upside down and being placed into plastic bags where she feared they would suffocate. Elise clung to me, crying, and begged to leave the market and Ecuador altogether. We passed a woman sitting on the side of the road with a little child and sign that said she had cancer. We gave her a donation and said a prayer for her. It was all heartbreaking, and the tears streamed down my face, too.

Later, when some of the shock had worn off, we talked about what we’d seen. Having lost her Dad to cancer, Elise worried about what would happen to the little girl. I reassured her that friends or family would care for her and that there was always some hope that the Mom might heal. We said another prayer for them and Elise asked her Dad to help from heaven. When she started crying again about the animals, I explained that they live their lives on basic (not factory) farms and so enjoy sunshine, fresh air, and some freedom of movement…and then have one Terrible Day. Indeed, she’d noticed that the pig had looked quite healthy. Still, she formally announced that she wanted to be vegetarian – exactly like my sister had when she was around Elise’s age. I told her that it was her choice, but that we’d need to rely on my sister’s extensive knowledge of nutrition (double Master’s, extensive postgrad studies) to be sure she’d get all the micronutrients her body needed. I shared with her that I myself had been a strict vegetarian for years for nutrition and animal rights reasons, but that I discovered at a cousin’s organic farm at Lake Constance, where the animals were treated very humanely and fed organic produce, that I had much less of a problem eating a tiny bit of meat if it came from such a farm.

But if all that weren’t enough, when we returned to the hotel, we discovered that Elise’s phone had been stolen out of her zipped coat pocket. I tracked it using Google’s find my phone service, but at some point, the signal disappeared. After the emotional start to the day (not-to-mention the pre-departure phone-related stress), I felt a surprising sense of calm. Seems that fearing a theft can be more stressful than the event itself. But the world doesn’t end, and, just as with any other problem, there are solutions (filed a police report and insurance claim, and will get Elise a hidden wallet in which to carry a less fancy replacement phone). At the end of the day, we unwound over a great dinner – delicious, generous salads with beans and corn at Chimichanga. Although it had not been an easy day, I realized that the two incidents had revealed some core values, and that the theft had taught us how to be safer going forward, which will serve us well for the rest of our journey.

PS Word to the wise: We learned later that Global Nomads insurance (aka Bupa Global Travel) does not cover any thefts of your property that you do not observe being committed. Is that not 99% of all thefts?! If you’re planning to buy travel insurance, it might be helpful to check this particular policy condition before you buy.