A Day Walking in Quito

The Basilica in Quito

The Basilica in Quito

The Mirador de Panecillo statue, which looks down from a hill in Quito.

The Mirador de Panecillo statue, which looks down from a hill in Quito.

Restored buildings in Quito's historic district

Restored buildings in Quito’s historic district

The Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, marker and museum outside of Quito.  The yellow line represents the equator.

The Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, marker and museum outside of Quito. The yellow line represents the equator.

A Quechua woman selling strawberries, one of dozens who come into Quito every day to seek produce

A Quechua woman selling strawberries, one of dozens who come into Quito every day to sell produce

I’m not much of a city person  anymore.  Too many years living  on a farm where owls and foxes provided white noise at night, where I never took the car key out of the ignition and couldn’t remember if there even was a key for the front door, changed me.  Whereas I used to love the relentless bustle, noise and swagger of big cities, now I find most of them overwhelming and insufferably self-important.  Whether in London, New York or Bangkok, I find most cities dirty to an appalling degree, unsustainable in almost every way and pricey beyond what most normal people can afford. Cities also tend to exacerbate economic schisms, resulting in really rich and really poor neighborhoods, with little in between and not much interaction.

Still, I am a sucker for nice architecture and I love walking around neighborhoods people watching and peeping into other people’s lives. Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, features lots of diversions on both fronts, and I spent a very happy day exploring it solely by foot. With the historic center dating back to the 16th century and built on Incan ruins, Quito is not only an old city, but at 9,350 feet it is also the world’s second highest capital city behind La Paz, Bolivia and so is breathtaking in the literal sense.  Having flown in from sea level the night before, I started the day in my fusty historic hotel, the Sierra Madre, with a mild headache that I flushed out with copious amounts of water. That necessitated many bathroom visits over the course of my eight-hour perambulation, ranging from those in historic churches and convents to parks, local pastry shops and family owned restaurants, where I sampled all manner of local food.  The first piece of good news: there are plenty of clean bathrooms in Quito. The second: Ecuadorean cuisine is wonderful.

The local parks and streets are filled with vendors selling all types of food, from fresh fruit cups with mango, papaya and pineapple that school kids and businessman alike walk around snacking on, to plantains and chicken freshly cooked on small, wheeled grills with propane canisters, to little stands that featured a huge variety of fried foods, both savory and sweet. Just about every corner of Quito also featured Quechua women who come in from the provinces every day to sell their local produce in plastic bags, so that if you weren’t hungry right then, you could buy a bag of eight avocados, say, for the princely sum of $1.  Other similarly priced bags that the women hawked in sonorous, repetitive chants included grapes, strawberries and cherries, all of which looked delicious.

Food was everywhere in Quito. Virtually every street in the city features a bakery or panaderia as they’re known here,  with delicious smells wafting from open doors or tiny stalls no wider than six feet. In addition, big streets usually also have a pastry shop with home-baked sweets and European pastries, as well as a local restaurant or two with typical Ecuadorean fare, which melds European and Latin American influences. The cuisine here includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a lot of rice and other starches, and includes everything from chicken in many forms, to beef and pork dishes, often served with freshly fried yucca chips. Dishes of fiery salsa were a staple at every stand or restaurant.  When I stopped for lunch, the chicken soup that I had as a starter for my $3.95 lunch featured an entire chicken foot, which seemed to be staring at me with every spoonful I took but was scrumptious, laced with fresh thyme and filled with vegetables and onions in its savory broth.  A dash of salsa made it a little more picante.

My meandering eventually took me to the historic district, where I did visit the beautiful but still unfinished Basilica del Voto National, as well as the Monastery of San Francisco, built in 1534, both very European in style and imposing.    Mostly, though, I made random turns down narrow alleys and found myself in the warrens of Quito, where the city was divided into whole streets that featured nothing but car parts, for example, or kitchen appliances or soccer uniforms or floor tiling or sewing notions. It was one of the most interesting discoveries of the day, especially because it seemed as though there wasn’t a thing that you wouldn’t eventually find if you needed it and knew which alleyway to turn down.

A lot of life is lived outdoors in Quito, I discovered.  All over I saw women casually nursing their infants on benches or while they stood talking on cell phones; large groups of school children in their uniforms playing tag and soccer in the streets after lunch; business people conducting transactions at open air and stand up cafés, and tourists crowding the main square in the historic center, as tourists worldwide always do.  Though the weather was overcast that day and so the view of the Pichincha volcano was obscured, the temperature was mild and pleasant. As I walked back to my hotel, the parks were packed with dog walkers, musicians, chess players and soccer players entertaining people on their way home from work.

Like most big cities, Quito has many different faces, from the alluring and well-to-do façades of meticulously restored colonial architecture and luxurious modern buildings, to the simple, even shack-like homes found not all that far away from the city center and seat of government.  Quito certainly has its share of impressive museums and cultural institutions, but it doesn’t wear its history ponderously, as does London, say.  It seems and is a city that is still defining itself as it sprawls outward onto the surrounding mountains and climbs to two million people in population. Having received many accolades in recent years for its beautiful historic center and surrounding natural beauty, Quito struck me not as a beautiful city first and foremost, but as a livable city, one in which rich and poor co-existed far better than in most other capitols I’ve seen.  It’s a city I’d gladly spend more time in.

Why I Bird

Red-capped cardinal

Red-capped cardinal

A yellow-crowned Amazon parrot

A yellow-crowned Amazon parrot

Booted racquet tail hummingbird

Booted racquet tail hummingbird

 

A channel-billed toucan

A channel-billed toucan

 

Birds enchant me.

It’s that simple, my reason for birding. I don’t bird to maintain lists, memorize all of the bird songs of a given continent or even ingest vast amounts of information about birds, though I respect and rely on those that do.  I bird because birds can lessen any pain, even if just for a moment, and brighten even the happiest day. They bestow on me the gift of living in the moment, which has never been my forte. For that and many other reasons, I love them.

I birded for most of my life without even knowing there was a term for it. I didn’t even own a pair of binoculars until I was in my 30s. As a lonely child growing up on the shore of the Long Island Sound outside of New York City, birds fascinated me.  Come spring, flocks of Canada geese ( though we called them Canadian, perhaps because we were immigrants from another country, too)  arrived to breed and nest on our property, which lay on a small peninsula.  The whole cycle that played itself out year after year on our front and back lawns riveted me: courtship, mating, nest-building, egg laying, brooding and finally, for an impatient child, hatching, after which the real fun began. Occasionally there were tragedies  when raccoons and other wild animals ate either the eggs or some of the nestlings. I was horrified, but in an odd way I was also fascinated.  Apparently I wasn’t alone in experiencing a great loss early on in life. But most of the time the goslings evolved safely from lemon puffs to glossy chestnuts in a matter of just weeks, and I cheered the young geese as they learned to fly and wept when they all left us every fall.

Birds taught me many things before anyone else ever did: that parents could be fiercely protective of their young to keep them from harm; that families had fun together, as the swimming and flying lessons demonstrated; and that life was naturally cyclical and rhythmic. Shy by nature, I loved that birds dressed in gaudy colors and were unapologetically loud and raucous, sometimes for no reason at all.  And of course I adored that birds could fly, that they could save themselves from predators and pedants alike simply by taking to the air.  Even today, my happiest dreams are flying dreams.

The very first piece I ever wrote and had published was about birds. It was a letter to The Standard Star newspaper in New Rochelle, New York. I was seven at the time, and  it was about the goings on of a nearby swan family that had been pictured in the paper one day.

Today as I write this at a birding lodge in the eastern Andes of Ecuador, the sun is setting and I hear the call of  exotic birds in the background: a Highland motmot and a green toucanet  and the buzz of several species of hummingbirds as they tank up for the cool night ahead.  Anyone would be enchanted by these birds, not just me.  But I also hear a mountain wren shrilly chiding something else out there.  She reminds me of my annoying house wren back home who, no matter how irritating I find it that she wants to nest in my hanging plants, still stops me every time I see her. Just for a moment, plain as she is, nothing else exists but what I see right in front of me.

Lessons Learned

A toucan barbet, an endemic bird and an avian beauty

A toucan barbet, an endemic bird and an avian beauty

Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself because there is no one else to do it for you. I’ve learned that the hard way from living on my own again these past two years, and I was reminded of it once more yesterday. Not only was it pouring buckets and downright cold, not only was I wearing everything that I had brought with me and still felt chilled, churlish and damp, but the place that I was booked into for the night was a dump, plain and simple.  I am not a woman who enjoys dumps, though I am not averse to a good dumpster dive when there are free wrought iron trellises to be had, for example. I just don’t want to sleep in one.

The trouble was, I didn’t have anyone else to volunteer to deal with the fact that when I set foot in the room it smelled like a crime scene after a toxic chemical cleanup. Then when I took off my shoes, I noticed that my socks quickly absorbed more liquid than seemed reasonable for anyone who hadn’t just had her water burst in anticipation of childbirth. A cursory glance at the ceiling identified a healthy leak that had already wet the bed in addition to the floor, so no wonder the man who had carried my bag upstairs and gave me the key didn’t himself stick around for the welcome tour. In fact, when I went looking for him moments later, he had disappeared into the nature reserve, which he manages, and I never saw him again.

In truth, I felt like a good cry, but since I’ve sworn off crying for 2014, having done so much of it these past two years, I gritted my teeth, put on a fresh pair of socks and my hiking boots and went in search of Marcelo, my birding guide, whose room miraculously didn’t feature a lake among its amenities. I don’t intend for us to stay here, I told him, and then asked if he had the cell phone number of Monica, the woman who had organized most of the travel arrangements for the trip. Ten minutes later, we had it all sorted out: a new place to stay and a better set of guidelines from me to Monica about what constitutes an acceptable place to stay. Now I’m in a wonderfully cozy lodge called Sachatamia (www.sachatamia.com), where the sheets are crisp, my bedroom is toasty warm and as the starter for dinner, the dining room served piping hot cream of zucchini soup with my favorite Ecuadorean accoutrement: popcorn, which you sprinkle on top, like croutons.

 

Los Bancos in the rain

A very wet hummer

A very wet hummer

Green crowned wood nymph

Green crowned wood nymph

The brown violet ear, one of my personal favorites

The brown violet ear, one of my personal favorites

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Purple throated woodstar

Purple throated woodstar

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It’s a cold and wet day in the cloud forest of Ecuador. We’re at about 11,000 feet and it is pouring rain, which is not surprising in the cloud forest, but when you are here to bird, it is a little bit disheartening as there is otherwise very little to do, with the emphasis on very. It is also one of the few times that I regret not having packed more clothes, as I am wearing the same sweater and layers day after day, while the tour group that came through the last lodge I stayed in had huge amounts of luggage, all of which I assume they are not schlepping themselves. Hence, they are gussied up in the evening, for each other I suppose, while I am clean but certainly not gussied and most definitely not hair-dryer or curling iron styled, which of course I never am anyhow.  In Guyana, where it was hot and 90 every single day, I was cursing myself for the rain jacket and sweater and cashmere shawl, but today I am not only thankful for them, but I would love nothing more than to jettison my shorts and hot weather accoutrements, but of course I can’t, because I have weeks to go and two trips to the Amazon, one in Ecuador and one in Peru.  But at the moment, heat seems very illusory, if inviting, as it is cold, cold and colder.

I am moving from lodge to lodge, a night at a time, sometimes two, which today feels like a royal pain in the ass, because I really just want to stay in bed and be warm and read a novel, but instead we were up at five and out by six this morning, ostensibly to see all the fabulous birds that are only up at that hour.  To no one’s surprise, even most of the Ecuadorean birds don’t want to be out from under the canopy when it’s pouring, either, and I am already pretty much perpetually damp enough to not want to get even more so. We stuck it our for an hour of somewhat fruitless birding, though we did see this pale mandibled aracari, who looked pretty unhappy, too.  Finally, I persuaded the guys that I would buy cafecito and empanadas if we could find a town and a café, and they went for that.

The guys are my intrepid guide, Marcelo, and our driver, Manuel, both of whom obviously feel that a woman traveling on her own, especially at my age, is eccentric, to say the least, and loco, in all likelihood. But, they humor me, as they are used to eccentric birders, and we get along well since I make them laugh so much with my terrible Spanish, which is only a shade worse than Marcelo’s English. Basically, we all crack each other up and they chat nonstop between themselves, and I pick up as much as I can, and probably some that they wish I didn’t. Here in the café, Marcelo is on Facebook and is giggling like a girl.  He is only 31 and I’m sure has more exciting people to talk with than me, even if only virtually.  When I told him that I had a son who is 31, along with one who is 28, Marcelo repeated the ages as though it was simply unfathomable that I could be so old.  But I digress.

Marcelo is an amazing bird guide.  He knows all 1600 of Ecuador’s birds by call and of course by sight, but as any good birder will tell you, it’s hearing the birds that makes all the difference.  We’ve stopped the car for the sound of an especially rare bird, like the toucan barbet, which is an endemic only to this region and part of Colombia, and it’s very hard to spot them.  As is his wont though, Marcelo succeeds in calling most birds to us, though in this case not by whistle or call, which he can do perfectly, but with his iPhone, a prerecorded call and a little portable speaker.  It’s actually hysterical to me that this practice has caught on here, too, but it works perfectly when all else fails and there is a toucan barbet in the area, which fortunately for me, there happened to be.  It is a simply gorgeous bird.

Of course, as anyone who knows me know, I am especially enchanted with the hummers and also tanagers here.  There are 132 hummingbird species in Ecuador and about 70 in this region of the West Andes, where we are at the moment.  They range from the great Sapphire wing (pictured above) to tiny emeralds, pufflegs, which truly sport little cottony puffs on their diminutive legs and all other manner of beautiful hummers.  There are hummers with sword bills, hummers with racquet tails and hummers just about every color variation you can imagine.  All of the lodges that I stay at have humming bird feeders out, usually about ten of them, and I love sitting for long stretches of time watching them all flit in and out like tiny darts, squeaking mightily and contesting their territories from morning until dark.  Some, like the white-necked Jacobins, are quite aggressive towards other species, while others are more peaceable and share the feeders as a matter of survival, especially when’s it’s really cold and wet, as it is today.

Another Giant, This One an Anteater

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Ok, so this isn’t the best picture of a giant  anteater, but it was all I could  manage when I  finally got to see one.  We had gone out twice in search of the anteater, and while the guides and vaqueros gave it a valiant shot and we spent hours looking both times, Karanambu ranch is huge and unfenced, and there simply aren’t that many giant anteaters left to see in the wild.  Even if there were, you obviously can’t order them up like eggs for breakfast; that’s why they’re called wildlife. But even though we saw some awesome birds both times we had gone out looking for the anteater, including the cutest burrowing owls that popped up like cardboard figures in a shooting gallery, seeing the giant anteater was my top wish at Karanambu, and I didn’t want to give up on it. I had one last chance at it the morning I left, and I was helped by the fact that Salvatore clearly felt it was a matter of pride to produce an anteater, since he swore that they had never had people go out three times without spotting one.  Though we had planned to go birding in search of the capuchin bird that the Dutch wanted on their list, I persuaded them to give up on their dream that morning so that we might ride out one more time.  Capuchin birds are a dime a dozen compared to giant anteaters, at least in Guyana, and thankfully Hilda and Otse, the Dutch birders,  were graciously  game.

We were up and out long before first light, driving to the farthest part of the ranch, close to the Brazilian border on a wide open patch of savannah.  Giant anteaters, in addition to being in exceedingly short supply, are notorious for their ability to curl up into big balls and hide themselves in plain sight, imitating termite mounds and tree limbs, so the best time to see them is very early when they are still up. Between the darkness, the jolting truck and the silhouettes of termite mounds, I was sure that each form I saw in the distance was the elusive anteater on his way home.  They weren’t.

After about forty-five minute of searching by flashlight, it was the fabulous guides Jasper and Leon who actually  spotted him. One second we were lurching along and the next, the vaqueros and the guides leapt out of the truck and began running into the savannah.  “He’s there, he’s there!” one of them said.  “Get out, and  stand near the truck and be quiet!”

Quickly doing as we were told, we could just discern a dark form in the distance swinging a long black tail like a dust mop being shaken out, his tube-like nose close to the ground.  Afflicted with poor eyesight, anteaters navigate with their noses, but this anteater had the wind at his back, and so didn’t smell us at all.  He moved oddly as he loped, actually running on his knuckles, because of his formidably long claws, which can take down a jaguar and kill it.  The vaqueros formed a gauntlet through which the anteater ran, and before I could even fully react, much less take a good picture, he was right in front of me, less than three feet away, snuffling loudly as he passed, never even lifting his nose or looking at us. Hilda and I stood there with huge grins on our faces as we watched him head off in the distance, eventually disappearing again into the savannah grass. By then it was light and the anteater’s day was done.  No doubt he was heading in search of a sheltered spot to curl up and sleep out of the hot sun, and we wanted him to have that, too.

When we got back to the lodge, Andrea looked at us anxiously. We gave her the thumbs up, and Salvatore crowed about his unbroken record, which I was very glad he could.  As I packed to leave, I found myself going over and over the encounter like a scene from a movie.  In the end, the one still photograph I took was poor, but the film itself was truly spectacular and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Tribulation, the Baby Giant River Otter

 

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DSC00086DSC00088Rumor had it that the night of my arrival at Karanambu was to coincide with Diane’s return from somewhere in the interior.  Naturally I wanted to meet her, but it was the news that she was coming back with an orphaned four-month old otter – the first in two years – that had me really giddy. Details were sketchy about how the otter had been orphaned, but all of us at the lodge were excited that it was safe and coming there. All of us, that is, except for Salvatore and Andrea, the innkeepers.  What could be bad about having an otter on the premises, I wondered aloud.   What fun to think of it gamboling around the place, little otter paw prints everywhere! Salvatore looked at me darkly. “Do you know what it takes to raise a baby otter?” he asked in his Créole-suffused English. “Dat’s all we do then. Someone’s got to get de fish three times a day and den the otter’s got to go swimming and den she need to be toweled off so her belly don’t stay wet. It just goes on and on.” I nodded in faux sympathy, but the truth of it was that I wasn’t the least bit concerned.

It was late when the party arrived and most of us were ensconced in our netting by then, so it was morning before we saw the new arrival.  Crossing the reddish clay yard for breakfast, I saw a sight I’ll never forget: a gorgeous, brown and grey otter cub about the size of a small dog, lying belly down on the dining room floor, her comically large and webbed feet splayed in front of her. As I hurried over, camera in hand, the otter spotted me and immediately headed in my direction, long eyelashes blinking up at me flirtatiously, yelping in excitement.  Tethered as she was in a makeshift string harness, the moment the otter moved, she all but yanked a slender and somewhat stooped and fragile looking woman right off of her feet: the legendary Diane McTurk.  Hasty introductions were made, Diane introducing the pup’s try-on name as Tribulation, for all that she had already been through. Though I wondered by the end of my stay whether it wasn’t for all of the tribulation that she caused, instead, I was immediately smitten. Diane talked about otter care 101 while we watched with pleasure as the pup explored her new home.  She rolled lustily in the gritty soil, bathed happily in a temporary pool that Diane arranged for her, and nosed her way into just about anything, from the kitchen to Diane’s bedroom.  I watched her chomp her way noisily through numerous freshly procured fish, her already powerful jaws and teeth clamping down on their heads with great and deliberate force.  If I needed a reminder never to get too close to a wild animal, no matter how adorable, the fish pulverizing demonstration was definitely it.  “Oh yes,” Diane said mildly as she gazed adoringly at her new charge, “they can inflict a very nasty bite, can’t you darling?”

Meal times were now rather more entertaining affairs, as even if the pup was in her little den of towels in the bathroom next to the dining room, the moment she heard Diane’s voice, she began demanding attention. This then resulted in Tribulation paying us a visit while we were dining, weaving her way among us, begging to be fed.  Salvatore and Andrea both looked aggrieved, but Diane was in her element, happily seeing to Tribulation’s every need, 24 hours a day.  “They sleep rather on the same schedule as human babies,” she assured us cheerfully.

She explained that Tribulation would be taken down to the river, which was just a matter of yards from the lodge, every day for supervised swims, both to allow her to be in her natural environment, but also in the hopes of eventually attracting a family of other giant river otters that might take her in.  That was a practice Diane deemed common and highly likely and that had been successful in the past.  “Other otters will be drawn here when they hear her calling, and she’ll socialize with them and then decide not to return one day.” She told us that she never really “releases” the otters she raises, because they make the choice themselves when to leave.  In the meantime, she would be doted on, catered to, examined regularly and monitored to ensure that she was healthy and thriving. A veterinarian  was due to arrive from abroad the next day to give her a through check up.

I loved the idea that other otters might take Tribulation in, and that she had a role in choosing her own family and mate. I thought back to the giant river otters we had seen in the Rupununi just the night before and was curious whether one of them might have been a former resident at Karanambu or whether they might come calling, drawn as I was to this irrepressibly energetic pup. Despite the loving care that she was given, it was obvious that she was already eager to return to water, looking for much bigger fish and a much bigger pond. It was an eventuality that Diane not only accepted gracefully, but welcomed.  I left not just with Tribulation seared into my memory, but awed by the love and fierce dedication of Diane McTurk, a true naturalist to whom not just Tribulation owes thanks.

 

 

Like any baby, Tribulation seemed to require almost non-stop attention, at least from Diane, whom she quickly imprinted on.  No doubt, though, she was about the cutest thing I’d ever seen, even with her non-stop begging for attention, which she did in a guttural and raspy series of loud barks