Day 1 - Sat May 19, 2007 – Minneapolis to Miami to Quito - No photos
Since we haven’t gotten there yet, I can’t write too much about the trip so far, so instead I’ll bore you with what happened on Thursday. My goal for the day, besides wrapping up things at work, was to get travelers cheques for our trip. We’re members of Affinity Plus Credit Union and they’re great, but there are very few branch offices. Rather than drive to my normal Roseville branch office at lunch, I decided to look up branch locations on their website. Much to my surprise, there was a new branch location I’d never heard about before in downtown Minneapolis. Since I work near downtown, I decided to walk there during my lunch break.
Ever since I started working at Red Hat, I always bring my lunch to work and eat at my desk, except on Thursdays. I started a tradition of walking to a nearby restaurant (Chipotle) that has yummy Mexican food. I love Mexican food and could eat it every day. I could eat Taco Bell for breakfast, Taco John for lunch and Chipotle for dinner; too bad Kathy doesn’t love it as much as I do. Under “location” for the Affinity branch there was a note saying it was right next door to another Chipotle restaurant. Lucky me, I thought, I can get my usual fix.
At noon, I locked my computer and headed out the door. I walked across the Hennepin Avenue bridge over the Mississippi river into downtown Minneapolis. I continued to walk straight, past the big AiG Insurance building until I got to Nicollet Mall, which is a street downtown where the Credit Union Branch is located within the forest of tall skyscrapers.
As I neared the Credit Union, I discovered that they turn Nicollet Mall into a big farmer’s market every Thursday afternoon! Walking among the enormous concrete and steel business monoliths, it was strange and incongruous to see tables overflowing with fresh green vegetables and flowers. It was quite refreshing.
The Affinity Plus branch office is located on the second floor (Skyway Level) of a building between Fifth and Sixth street. I took the escalator to the second floor and as I came down the hall, I saw the Chipotle restaurant. The problem was, there was a line of at least thirty people! At the restaurant near work, there’s never a line of more than four people at the height of lunch hour.
Discouraged by the line, I continued down the hall until I saw Affinity. There was a line there too, and only one teller working. I waited in line for several minutes, finally reaching the front of the line. Then a bank manager appeared from a corner office and said, “I can help the next person in line.” Young, pretty and sweet, she waved me into her office. I sat down at her desk and she said, “May I help you?”
I told her that I needed some travelers cheques and some cash because I was going on vacation on Saturday. She asked, “Where are you going?”
“Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”
“Really?” she said, looking surprised. “I’m from Columbia!”
Columbia is just north of Ecuador. I replied, “So you’re a neighbor.”
Her face lit up in a smile. “Why did you choose Ecuador?”
I proceeded to explain how we like to travel all over the world and see different cultures.
She explained about how her lifelong dream is to travel around the world.
What followed was a wonderful hour-long discussion about people, culture, and travel. We traded stories. I told her about my friend Ann after college who urged Kathy and I to “Just do it” when we dreamed about our first trip to Europe. I urged her to follow her dreams. She told me about her encounters with ignorant Americans who thought badly about her country; how Columbia has a bad reputation for the drug trade. She said she had never even seen illegal drugs until she came to the United States.
After a pleasant talk, she recommend that I don’t bring travelers cheques (too hard to cash them) but bring cash instead, and she even recommended the amount of money to bring and even the denominations. She gave me her business card and said that I could call her if I never need her help.
By the time left, I felt like we had been good friends for many years. I had to believe this “chance encounter” was not an accident; it was a message from the Universe that this would be a wonderful trip.
Unfortunately, the line at Chipotle was still thirty people long, so I decided to walk back to the restaurant near work. As usual, there was nobody in line there, so I got my food right away and headed back to work with my pockets stuffed with an uncomfortable amount of cash.
Well, we made it to Ecuador. As I write this, I’m sitting in the courtyard of the Hotel San Francisco de Quito in the capital city of Quito.
As our plane approached the Miami airport, I peered out the window in disappointment. The skies weren’t a bright, beautiful blue. They were brown and laden with smog. All those episodes of CSI Miami on television had misled me all these years! Miami looked dirty and polluted. What a bummer!
When we got inside the airport, my disappointment widened. The whole place looked ugly, dirty and run-down. I wouldn’t classify it as coming from the 1970's but 1982 is not too bad of a description.
We were hungry and decided to find food before our flight to Quito. I asked a man where I could find food and he recommended a particular gate number in concourse E. We had a three-hour layover, so getting there and eating shouldn’t be a problem. So Kathy and I walked through the airport down the dirty corridors with torn and warped carpet, and crumbling walls with peeling paint. (There were signs saying that the airport was being gutted and completely remodeled and from the outside, I could tell they were dumping a massive amount of money, time and labor on fixing it.)
We walked and walked a very long way, only to find a disappointing food court consisting of three fast-food restaurants. We settled on the Chinese restaurant but it wasn’t very good.
I heard more Spanish spoken in Miami than I heard English, which made me feel like I had already left the United States far behind.
After we shuffled onto the plane in Miami, the captain came on the speaker to announce that there was a problem. He said the luggage was all loaded onto the plane and then there had been a shift change. The new baggage shift manager insisted that the luggage wasn’t ready since he wasn’t the person who signed the paperwork. The only solution was to unload all the luggage from the plane, weigh it all individually and re-load it all, a process that would take 45 minutes.
Several minutes later, the pilot came on the speaker to apologize again. In the time they had been debating what to do about the luggage, a thunderstorm had kicked up and there was lightning on the ground. That forced the airlines to recall all the ground personnel into the building until the storm passed. That would also take an additional 45 minutes.
The bottom line is that our plane was delayed by three hours and we weren’t allowed to get off the plane. Instead, they showed us a movie: Bridge to Tarabithica. It was a very good movie. I had once heard an interview on Minnesota Public Radio with the author of the book and her son, who (I believe) produced the movie. So the movie had special meaning for me.
Eventually the storm passed. The luggage was shuffled off the plane and weighed, then shuffled back on again. And eventually we took off. Shortly thereafter, we watched another movie, The Pursuit of Happiness (another very good movie).
Three and a half hours later, we landed in Quito, Ecuador. Much to my surprise, even though it was dark outside, Quito looked industrial, modern and clean. The Quito airport was brand new, clean, sparkling and professional. I was impressed, especially after Miami’s airport was so bad.
Our first order of business was to find the ticket counter for the airline that is supposed to fly us to Cuenca Monday morning. We had called and emailed for plane tickets but they never took our credit card information, nor any payment and we didn’t get any kind of official documents regarding the flight, so naturally we were concerned that we might not have tickets. So our goal was to find their ticket counter, make sure we had plane tickets to Cuenca and pay for those tickets. When we got into that building, we discovered that their office was closed. Remember it was Sunday night and our plane was three hours late.
We paid our $7.00 for a taxi voucher and got into a taxi. That’s when we encountered our next problem: The language barrier. Neither of us speak Spanish and not many people in Ecuador speak English. This was surprising to us. In the eighteen years or so that I’ve been traveling internationally with Kathy, most people we encountered around the world spoke good English with very few exceptions: Belgium and Japan come to mind. We didn't have any of these problems in Peru.
So communicating to the native people isn’t going very well. We’re getting by as best we can.
We explained to our taxi driver to take us to our hotel and off we went. The taxi took our voucher and drove us to our small hotel. The ride took longer than we expected.
We went to the reception desk of the hotel–who also didn’t speak English–and told him about our room reservations for two nights: Saturday and Sunday night. He looked and looked on his computer, but there were no reservations under our name. Apparently when Kathy called the hotel and talked to a receptionist, she just said, “Si, Si, Si” and didn’t really understand what Kathy wanted, so she did not really reserve a room for us.
Now we were in a bind: our taxi had left, it was late at night, we didn’t have a hotel room and we were in a semi-dangerous part of Quito. Luckily, the hotel had one room open and gave it to us for one night, which apparently is “Uno Noch” in Spanish.
Kathy and I spent the evening planning our day tomorrow and researching hotels on the Internet. The hotel has free wireless Internet access, but for some reason the Windows partition wouldn’t talk to the Internet, even though it did connect to the wireless network with the proper WEP key.
It’s a good thing I brought an external USB hard drive with Red Hat’s Fedora Linux on it. With Linux the laptop connected to the Internet just fine. I brought the drive for several reasons: (1) I could use it for extra space for photos so I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of hard drive space. (2) I could use it to recover the laptop if there were problems with it. (4) I copied all my mp3 music to it so I can listen to music if I want. (3) I could use it for work in case of an emergency.
As we played on the Internet, a Catholic religious order from San Francisco, California shuffled into the hotel. This was a large group consisting of two priests and a whole bunch of nuns of all ages; girls of about six to older women in their forties, all dressed in formal nun habits. It was interesting to watch.