How Skiing and Snowboarding in the Rockies Helped Me when Traveling and Living in Ecuador

There is an intangible element to travel and adventure, a force which compels one forward, stretching the boundaries between the known and the unknown. The feeling one gets when boarding a plane to sites unseen; the excitement of finding an undiscovered destination.  The joy of standing in a small Andean town surrounded by vast stretches of lush green mountains all stem from this vague but welcome element.

For me, this feeling first took root when living in mountain towns in Colorado. My first job at a resort afforded the freedom of standing atop a mountain at midnight.  I often hoped to get up early so as to steal a line down the glistening powder before the Gapers cut it into piles of dust.

If someone had told me on a lift up the hill in Colorado, where I lived and worked for eight years that what we were doing would help me travel and eventually live in Ecuador, I would not have known how to respond. How can travel in a small South American country where there is no snow, the language is different and most of the country’s population has never strapped on a board compare to living in the Rocky Mountains?

After dedicating a fair amount of thought to this on bus rides up mountains and down twisting roads in Ecuador where there is nothing but mountains as far as the eye can see, I have come up with an explanation of sorts. The same thrill of boarding down a mountain atop a fresh load of powder is alive and well in Ecuador. Hopping on a bus to new destinations, exploring regions far away from Quito, can easily be compared to jumping a lift, finding an untouched run on the other side of dense trees and feeling the solitude that comes with being fourteen thousand feet up on a mountain with no one around. It is just explaining it that takes the effort of translation.

The more I think about the similarities in the abstract, the more I have found comparisons for the practicalities of living in Ecuador.  Navigating the ins and outs of daily life in Quito to traveling around the country, there are adjustments which my skiing and snowboarding experience has prepared me. If you go to Ecuador to travel or to live, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Lift Lines and Waiting in Line in Ecuador

Ecuador has its own rules for waiting in line. These are such that they change whenever an Expat figures them out, often on the spot at, the place where one have been studying the tiles on the floor for what seems to be an eternity. As a rule of thumb, here are the basics.

Do not expect things to be orderly and organized. Like lift lines with aggressive people pushing and shoving, Ecuador´s queues are a sport. People normally enter a shop, walk in front or around the person in front of the counter and demand cigarettes, phone credit, candies and beer. The fact that you are standing there and about to open your mouth to ask for something means remarkably little.

The tactic that I’ve come up with for dealing with this is the same as I adopted when waiting in line for a lift during a busy day. Plant your feet and poles stoically and refuse to let someone past. While standing firm and politely refusing to yield to an impatient consumer here will work for the most part, there is still that one person who manages to give me the slip. In this case,  it is a decision to call them out or just let it go. Line jumping is such a common occurrence here that my Expat friends have developed a point system for dealing with it. One gets points for standing their ground and calling out the line jumper out and loses points for letting it go!

Lifts and Hopping on and Off Buses.

Anyone who has hopped on a lift knows the feeling right before sitting down and after the lift hauls them up into the air. There is a surge forward where gravity and machinery argue for a moment; followed by the lightness of traveling high above the ground which is akin to an airline taking off. When jumping on and off buses in Quito and at stops in-between key destinations, the feeling is the same. Buses on streets rarely come to a full stop when flagged down.  Once spotted by the driver, the person standing on the road  hops on the bus as it slows down, only to be catapulted down the aisle of the bus as it speeds away the minute the stairs are ascended.

Getting off is the same as getting off the lift. There is an alarmingly similar checklist and procedure. One safely stashes their belongings, nods to the driver with a ¨gracias” and waits for the mutually agreed moment between the bus driver and attendant when the bus is traveling slowly enough to hop off with a few steps in the direction of travel before safely coming to a stop away from oncoming traffic.

The Weather

The weather in Colorado is pretty straightforward at first glance. It snows in the winter and is warm in the summer. The simplicity stops there. Ask anyone who live there what the weather is going to be like for any given day and one receives a smile, and an answer that states, “Wait a half an hour and find out!” This is more of a fact than a brush off! It has snowed in July after a week of sunny days. On any day in the summer, there is sun in the morning, pounding thunderstorms or BIG WEATHER in the afternoon and chilly temperatures in the evening.

In Ecuador, this phenomenon catapults to a new extreme.  For an American, the weather cycles are confusing. The rainy seasons counter the States. Beach season is during the winter and the summer months abound with rain and clouds. Beyond that, the seasons themselves are constantly changing. A few years ago the rainy season failed to produce rain to the extent that there was not enough water to fill the dams and fuel the hydroelectric electric for the country. This year the sunny season waned to a short month or so, and the rains kept coming well past their welcome.

For those trying to plan a trip, this can be a nuisance. For those who live here, it is more about checking to see if the volcanoes surrounding Quito can be seen after waking up in the morning, and making plans accordingly. This is not a far stretch from Colorado as I can wake up in the valley outside of Quito to hot temperatures, take a bus into the city where it is chilly and end up in an afternoon downpour before going to bed beneath a pile of blankets to ward off the cold evening air. Picture driving over a high mountain road where it is sunny on one side, snowing at the top and arriving at the other side to a light rain and rainbows on the horizon and you are on the right track.

The People

I’m taking a risk of sounding like an eccentric anthropology professor  by making the following statement: People in Ecuador are happy and fit. In order to qualify this, I think about the first time I arrived in Colorado from Chicago and jumped in a buddy’s van for the two-hour ride from Denver to the mountains.

During the ride, we discussed the difference between Chicago and Colorado. The consensus was that people in Colorado were more active, healthier and for the most part happy. The reasons listed were the beautiful setting and the amount of outdoor activities available, the resulting lack of obesity and couch surfing and the general appreciation for life in the mountains. When it comes to the people in Ecuador, these reasons still ring true.

Ecuador’s changing terrain stretches across tracks of mountains, miles of remote beaches and through dense patches of fertile rain forests. In any region for some part of the day the sun shines brightly. I think as in Colorado this contributes to the smiling faces seen on buses, people working on farms and those lining the streets of Quito. Ecuador is a beautiful country, and it is people, despite the harsh realities of a third world country, appreciate living here. It is a part of the national identity that I can easily relate to. The sunshine, the constantly changing horizon and the warmth of even a small greeting from a passerby are powerful aspects of everyday life.

To say that one has to try to keep active in Quito or Ecuador is an oxymoron. The nature of living here consists of journeys on foot across blocks, up hills and through the valley that Quito occupies. Even a bus journey is an active endeavor as most of the time it involves standing up and hanging on as the bus speeds up, swerves around corners and abruptly comes to a halt all within a few minutes time.

This is daily life in Quito. Pedestrians are the majority here.  Vendors push laden carts, and Indigenous people carry immense sacks on small backs twice their size and probably almost their weight.

There is a village in Southern Ecuador where it is said that the residents live longer lives because of the water. To the naked eye, more than the residents of Vilcabamba can claim this trait. It is common to see older people swinging hammers, laying stone pavement and walking up steep inclines without slowing or missing a step.

All of these facts remind me of my time in the mountains skiing alongside people my grandparent’s age, hiking up steep and slippery hills and bumpy rides in pickups back down to the valley and town. Within this comparison, there are differences that should be pointed out. The people in Ecuador are not acting out of choice; it is the way things are and their appreciation of the surroundings comes from a collective source, not an individual like of time off or playing around on steep hills in the outdoors.

Karma

Within the appreciation described in the preceding paragraph and the construct of the intangible element of travel and adventure is the concept of karma. Not the watered down hippy idea that love will spread if passed around like water flowing in a river, but the stark, stripped down version whose sister Justice checks in with when pondering the fate of events to come.

In Colorado, karma resides in the immense power of nature with good things deeded to the warmth of sunshine and benevolent power of the forces that be; and unpleasant things conversely attributed to natures harsh, unpredictable side.

A local newspaper in the small mountain town of Breckenridge used to issue good and evil karma alerts daily, praising good Samaritans who returned wallets while wishing the worst for the scumbag who swiped a bike or broke into a local shop.

In Ecuador, this feeling magnifies by the proportion of the population. Here, karma cries out from the speeches of the president rallying the nation down to the peddler whose back was turned and wares plundered in an instant.  To the extent of my knowledge, here is my understanding and appreciation of it when it comes to living in Ecuador.

Day today life in Ecuador can be like running a gauntlet through unforeseen circumstances; trials abound which rattle the nerves and test one’s resolve to get something done well. A protest blocks the way across town, the power goes out, someone decides not to show up, the cash machine is out of money, the cell phone network goes down, there is a national shortage of gas or things just move on a different path than the days or weeks before. This goes beyond things do not always go as planned.

When I first arrived here, this blew me away. More often than not at the end of a day fighting with the language, rattled by the lack of organization and befuddled by my apparent lack of ability to accomplish the smallest task, I ended up at the bar where I worked looking for the first of a few beers. My wise friend and boss would sit patiently with me and explain that things change swiftly in Ecuador and, if not ready for it, I would be back sooner than later to join her again.

The lack of care by the people passionately shocked another friend who taught me the ropes of travelling in Ecuador.  The complaisance in general would leave her swearing at the end of the day.  She would often insist that children whom she befriended begging on the streets to take us home to meet their parents.

An Ecuadorian friend who lived in the States for years finds the general disarray unsurprising. He thinks that eventually the whole world will reflect the same habits, as the economic fall of the west in recent years has to yield at some point. My experience lies somewhere in between the two views and goes back to conversations in the states with a brother of mine who lived in Africa for years amidst corruption and turmoil.

During these conversations, I was living with Joel, who had seen a lot of what the world can do when carelessly approached from his experience in the Peace Corps. I would come home shocked by a situation and aghast at the circumstances that occurred during a day and he would smile as I explained my frustration as if to say, “Why were you expecting something different?” While this may seem jaded at first, He has an activist mindset that balanced this view that I have adopted in Ecuador and karma plays a crucial role in this philosophy.

Hanging out at any Expat bar there is a strong urge to become complacent. A temptation to decide that things are going downhill; and nothing short of a revolution or a change in government will reverse the flow of the day’s events. This is the low grumble of the expat’s experience trying to accomplish pretty much anything in Ecuador.

Working and saving money here is hard and to do so one should expect to work more hours, come up with solutions to problems which will not be found elsewhere on the spot and take situations on with the passion of an activist. It is not enough to try to accomplish something and then sit fuming at the end of the day; there is a skill needed to navigate past belittling circumstances and keep moving towards the outcome that yields the most toward the common good.

There is no way to fake this. I have found that taking on the day with as much positive energy that I can muster tapped into the sense of karma that people exercise every day.   The frustrations I face are not mine alone. Despite the language barrier, there is a communal agreement about how things could work for the best. One that keeps things moving ahead despite the pitfalls and hindrances that can seem impassable on your own.

The random acts of kindness from strangers here at crucial times come unexpectedly and are surprising. The man in the corner shop discounts a purchase instead of jacking up the price, the taxi driver who took off with a backpack in his car returns an hour later with it in hand and the owner of the hostel where I was staying lets me pay when I can after someone swiped my bank card. For every complaint that I hear or mutter about the corruption here and the maze of bureaucracy, there seems to be an act of good will or unprecedented kindness that inspires me to keep trying.

It is this spirit of goodwill that I use as a rallying point and have come to see as the source of Ecuador’s resilience. Underneath the compliance within plain view, there are those who question why things turn out the way they do and go out of their way to help things go better. This is the source of the protests around the capital, the outrage over injustice and pleas for help at any given corner.

The Community

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

When I first traveled to Ecuador, I was lucky enough to have an artist as my guide to the country.  Her sharp insights into the culture were heartfelt observations, drawn from piercing eyes taking in the landscape in front of her. This experience woke me up from a banal drudgery attributed to boredom in the States. Her expertise came from an upbringing of truth with parents who lived in Latin America for years.  She came to Ecuador to perfect her Spanish and step out of the footsteps and a shadow that spread far and wide.

Her belief in the power of the community won over the most ardent of objectors. From taxi drivers who saw her as a gringa to staunch male Ecuadorians who mistaken assumed that she was willing to endure their advances, my friend defied convention and left them wondering how to right the wrongs that they committed in her eyes.

One of the reasons I moved to Ecuador was the positive reactions that she received while wandering vacant roads and struggling to understand the culture around her. What remains of this experience in present day are the heartfelt efforts of the people of Ecuador towards keeping a community despite influences from the western world and circumstances beyond their control.

Case and point.

Taking a bus in Quito is not the dangerous adventure that most travel guides will lead you to believe. Instead, as I find in any city I visit or live in, it is a glimpse into the conditions of the day. No matter how crowded, there are school kids expectantly waiting for the next amusement, workers hurrying across the city, couples immune to all but each other and older people looking on with disapproving glances.

One occurrence that left me humbled and speechless here provides clear insight into the community which is the beating pulse of Ecuador. I have only experienced this in small communities in Colorado when residents would gather to support those in need of medical support or enduring crisis. Witnessing such compassion in the middle of a sprawling city it a testament to Ecuador’s people and their collective heart.

Sunday nights are a quiet reminder that the city shuts early in Quito. Streets are vacant of all but those with nowhere to go; the tourist district is rife with those looking to steal, and only the sure-footed trust themselves enough to step outside the confines of their houses. It is within these conditions that I found myself on a bus headed from the historic center to the new town.  I was meeting a friend for dinner at a Thai restaurant that has the distinction of being one of the few places open.

I made it past the group of lingering Ecuadorians at the bottom of my steps and found my way to the bus terminal. After boarding a bus filled with similar travelers, I thought myself in luck to have a seat on the fifteen minute journey spanning the main street across town.

Buses in Quito have an unknown element to the States as there is a tradition of salesmanship that jars the senses. People board and announce to the passengers that they are selling oils, candies, greeting cards or trinkets. They hand out samples while making a speech and assertively ask if anyone would like to buy their goods.

The flipside to this is those in need of help. Blind men and women, those with disfigurements and those down on their luck make heartfelt pleas to those in attendance.

Being a shy man in a land where the language and set of everyday circumstances often results in a state of intimidation, I tend to steer away from these people. As I know enough not to give handouts as a rule but care enough to be considerate with my fellow-man, I usually find myself torn when turning away from these situations.

On this particular Sunday night,  I reminisced in mass of my experiences with my passionate friend on my first trip to Ecuador.

A woman younger than me and with the resolve of a saint stood up started making a speech. Her voice quivered with sincerity as she explained with sheepish passion how a loved one had fallen ill and despite her efforts, did not have enough resources to fill the gap toward recovery.

As She talked, the whole bus fell silent, listening attentively to the details as she speaks and collectively feeling her frustration at not only being on the bus, but her struggle to do what was right despite overwhelming circumstances.

The typical procedure in these cases is to hand out candy in return for a quarter. True to the custom, she faithfully handed out sweet snacks to the passengers and not one person turned their heads instead of giving a small token of generosity.

This incident is an example of the community found in Quito. Be it Expats or Ecuadorians, there are moments where the individual appeals for help and the community provides in force. This can be in the form of a bus load of people pitching in to help someone in need or a neighborhood in the Mariscal coming together to fight an onslaught of crime on their streets.

It is this sense of a common good that at once reminds me of Colorado and motivates me toward the future in Ecuador. Just as in Colorado’s small mountain towns, there is a period where newcomers have to prove themselves to the people who make up the community. Being a group of Expats from all different places and backgrounds, there is a standard which needs to be set for the coming events. Those that prove that they have higher aspirations than making a buck, randomly finding something to do or using their circumstances for all that they can, make the cut. Others who fall short receive a reprieve until they figure out their circumstances for the better.

As much as I loved living in Colorado, moving to Ecuador has been an adventure and period of growth where my experiences living all over the states have come together.  Elements from the mountains, the cities where I lived and things that I did for the experience have proved themselves worthwhile.  Living in another culture has its ups and down but is never boring.  The people, friendships that I have made and things that I have learned are unique to an experience which has proved again and again to be far from over.

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Comments
2 Responses to “How Skiing and Snowboarding in the Rockies Helped Me when Traveling and Living in Ecuador”
  1. Kyle Kendall says:

    This is your best one yet. Nice post, Jon

  2. Milxkr says:

    I believe this is a outlook. I quite repeatedly mingle with people who instead declare solely the things which they make believe i need to examine. Fine as a consequence perfectly crafted! I most definitely will travel back to your web site definitely !

    As a final note , give permission me thank you for your patience with my English as (I am convinced you have become aware this by now,), English is not my initial tongue consequently I am using Google Translate to shape out what to record what I actually plan to articulate.

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