The electrifying bits

Considering what a small (and little-visited) country Ecuador is, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find it pleasant but unmemorable (apart from the Galapagos Islands, which are unique.) 

Parts of our short stay were like that. But four experiences electrified me.

Watching the changing of the government-palace guard in Quito

I’ve seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but the ceremony at Quito’sDSC04702 government palace (the Ecuadorian equivalent of the White House) makes the British version seem dull. Commentators trace its origins back more than 200 years, to shortly after Ecuador won its independence from Spain. In recent years, it has taken place every Monday, though the start time has shifted around a bit. We’d heard it was worth seeing. That’s an understatement.

We got to Plaza Grande, the city’s most iconic square, shortly before 8:30 am a week ago Monday. The presence of  cops and a few brightly dressed palace guards milling around on the second-story balcony made us think something was afoot, but the action coalesced gradually. Guards astride flashy horses appeared, bearing flags. More guards with lances positioned themselves near the rooftop.DSC04719Precisely at 9:00 the strains of stately, grandiose music became discernible, first faintly, then louder and louder, as almost two dozen trumpet- and clarinet- and trombone- and tuba- and bass-drum- and other instrument-playing guards emerged from the inner recesses of the palace. It was music with the power to raise the hairs on the back of necks; music that made me wish I could leave my viewing spot and march along.DSC04711.jpgDSC04718.jpegWhat followed went on for close to a half an hour, and it was too complicated to describe in detail: parading horses and solemn proclamations over a loudspeaker and marching lance-bearers and more and more of the thrilling music. (One missing element was the Ecuadorian president’s appearance on the uppermost balcony, another long-time part of the show. Whether he was just on vacation or worried about his plummeting popularity, I can’t tell you.)

Still it was most entertaining, and I couldn’t help chuckling at this small, not-very-prosperous country putting on such a flamboyant display of stately pomp. (I also thought: better them than us.)

Getting caught in the demonstrationDSC04759.jpegWe happened upon our first Ecuadorian political demonstration, a small group protesting in front of the presidential palace, during our free walking tour of the city. “We Ecuadorians love demonstrations,” our guide declared. “You’re going to see a lot of them.” She got that right. During our four days in Quito, we witnessed at least three or four public protests, and I got a text from the US State Department warning that several big ones were expected on one of the days we were there. We should avoid them, the message ordered, but this wasn’t possible during our hop-off, hop-on bus tour of the city’s major sights.

The bus was a double-decker, and Steve and I were sitting on the open second level. From blocks away, we could see a large crowd down the street. We assumed the bus would detour around it, but instead, we headed straight for the protesters and the police and their snarling canines.DSC04807.jpeg

Within short order, the mob surrounded the bus. People chanted. Vuvuzelas blared. Despite the signs, it was unclear what was angering the protesters (though cutbacks to healthcare subsidies seemed to be involved.)DSC04816.jpegI suspected the State Department wonk who sent out the text message wouldn’t have approved of our being in the thick of it. But the crowd seemed more high-spirited than menacing, and the cops looked chill. DSC04819.jpeg

After a few minutes, the mob parted and the bus rolled along its way. None of our other stops were anywhere near as thrilling.

Meeting the man behind the hacienda

We spent one night in the Ecuadorian countryside, in what Lonely Planet described as a “fairy-tale 17th-century hacienda.” Our friends had stayed there for a night, and we could see why they loved it. The gardens were exquisite.

And the interiors felt like a museum. DSC04661.jpg

The spine-tingling moment for us came when a distinguished looking gentlemen approached us while we were dining in the grand salon (above). He introduced himself as the owner, Nicholas Millhouse, and over the course of the next hour or so, he shared a small part of the saga that began when he bought the hacienda in 1990 and undertook the gigantic art project of restoring it from near ruin to its current glory.

An Englishman who spent his career teaching at a tony private school in Manhattan, he had early developed a passion for South America. For decades, he roamed the continent, collecting exquisite textiles and other works of art. IMG_2072.jpeg

The next morning, we spent more time in his company, enjoying his sense of humor…

Note the political statement in this mural (part of a vast array of them commissioned by Millhouse)

…and learning a little about indigenous art and beliefs.


Millhouse also commissioned this cross, which incorporates important indigenous elements, such as substituting a mirror for the figure of the crucified Christ.

Millhouse still spends most of the year in Manhattan, so it was pure chance that we happened to be at the hacienda when he was in residence there. That blew our minds.

Walking into La Compañia

I’ve seen a lot of churches in my time, but few, if any, have struck me as being as beautiful as the Jesuit one in the heart of Ecuador’s capital. Somehow all the gold makes the place feel cheery and inviting, rather than garish. IMG_5309.jpeg

The trompe l’oeil staircase to the right of the doors was painted to preserve the almost-perfect symmetry.

Supposedly, the Jesuits wanted the worshipping natives to feel like they had died and gone to heaven. Surely they must have succeeded.

Taking in the heartbreaking natural beauty

There’s no single moment I was poleaxed by Ecuador’s physical beauty. Instead it bowled me over and over: upon landing in Quito. Or horseback riding at the hacienda.IMG_5235.jpeg Or drinking in the viewpoint, reached via cable car, near one of the city’s volcanos. IMG_5272.jpeg

It’s one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I’ve encountered, and one of the reasons Ecuador should rank among the richest countries in the world, a South American Switzerland. The land also is fertile, blessed with so many microclimates almost everything can be grown here. Ecuador has more oil than anywhere on the continent except for Venezuela and Brazil. It contains vast gold reserves, not to mention the natural wonder of the Galapagos.

Instead, Ecuadorians struggle with strangling regulation, corrupt politicians, and almost-constant turmoil. (They’ve had 20 Constitutions since independence; 17 presidents between 1930 and 1940). That’s the heartbreaking part.


Will all those demonstrations lead to a better future for folks like her? Will some other force? If the creativity and energy latent in the Ecuadoreans could be unloosed, that would be truly electrifying.

A dark journey

Someone at the gym this morning asked me, “Why are you going to Chile and Argentina in the middle of [their] winter?” It’s a fair question, and we have a clear answer: the trip Steve and I are setting off on tomorrow was inspired by the total eclipse of the sun that will be visible all across southern South America on the afternoon of July 2. We’ve seen two total eclipses before: our first in Germany on Steve’s birthday in 1999, and then the one that swept across the entire US mainland in August of 2017. We caught that event near Portland, Oregon, and like the first, it dazzled us. I wouldn’t say we’ve exactly joined the ranks of total-solar-eclipse fanatics. But we’ve edged close enough to them to plan an entire trip around seeing the world go dark once again.

We will start by flying tomorrow to Mexico City, a capital we once knew pretty well but haven’t visited in decades. After two days of remedial sightseeing, we’ll head to the capital of Chile (a country we’ve never been to before). In Santiago, we’ll meet up with our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie, who joined us for the Portland eclipse adventure two summers ago. Because the skies on the other side of the Andes, in western Argentina, are more likely to cloud-free, we will fly to Mendoza for the actual eclipse, after which Mike and Stephanie have to return home to their jobs immediately.

But Steve and I, being freer birds, will go on to explore Ecuador for about two weeks. (We’ve never been there either, so those two will be my 61st and 62nd countries.)

We’re excited about this itinerary, but it has posed one of the biggest packing challenges I’ve ever faced. As my gym-mate noted, it’s winter in the southern hemisphere. We may see snow, and temperatures at night may approach freezing. Ecuador, on the other hand, is named after the equator because that balmy line passes right through it.


I’ve now got everything for the next four weeks crammed into my carry-on and backpack (save those eclipse glasses. I’ll tuck them in a side pocket.) My fingers are crossed it will be enough.

10 questions I had before our Amazon River adventure to which I now have answers

To prepare for our recent trip down the Amazon River across Brazil, I relied more heavily on blog reports than ever before. But I still had unanswered questions as we began. We learned a lot over the two weeks we were in and around the river. Here are some of the top answers we acquired.

1. What will the food be like?

We wound up taking three boats, and the food supply varied among them. For the first leg between Tabatinga and Alvaroes, our 1200-real ($320) cabin on the Monteiro II included two days of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for both of us, plus purified water. The breakfasts were all carb — bananas, bread, cake, hominy, super-sweet coffee.IMG_2133.jpg Lunches and dinners were much tastier — a meat stew with noodles, pot roast, ground beef. It was simple but hearty food (accompanied by high-carb side dishes.)IMG_2120.jpgMeals were also provided along with our two-day cabin passage on the Fenix (on which we traveled from Tefe to Manaus.) Once again, the food was passable. One dinner consisted of the typical meat hash, very good grilled sausages, white rice, and spaghetti. (We skipped the unappealing vegetable salad.) Lunch the next day was fried chicken legs and wings and more of the sausage.

We took the Amazon Star from Manaus to Santarem to Belem, and our cabin booking on it did not include meals. Food was available for purchase in the galley, but few of the passengers were eating it. Most preferred to buy meals sold at some of our stops along the way. Although we ate the ship’s offerings our first night, it made us nervous. In Manaus we stocked up on picnic supplies, but we should have bought more. Our final night we bought mixto quentes (grilled ham and cheese sandwiches from the little top-deck snack shop). They tasted better than we expected.IMG_2538.jpgAs for the purified water, we drank it for the first two days without incident, but after we both developed traveler’s diarrhea in Manaus, we began to question the sanitation. The water appeared to be coming straight from the river into the refrigerated holding tanks after passage only through a very small filter. We switched to bringing bottled water onboard and had no further intestinal trouble.IMG_2139.jpg

2. Will we drink too much alcohol?

Beer and other alcoholic beverages were less available than we expected. The Monteiro had none for sale (though passengers brought their own onboard). The snack shops on the Fenix and Amazon Star sold beer, and some passengers drank a lot of that. But we found the Brazilian beer to be uninspiring.

3. Will the ships carry lots creepy insects?

They might. The river does run smack through thick jungle. But we sure didn’t see many bugs. I spotted a couple of tiny spiders here and there, but neither of us ever saw or heard any mosquitos. The creepiest moment came when we pulled into Manaus around dawn and were hustling to disembark. Steve felt something crawling on him and brushed it away, with an shudder so visceral it was contagious. He saw a “large” spider disappearing into the gloom on the floor. I checked our belongings compulsively when we got to our hotel, but the arachnid didn’t appear to have hitched a ride with us into town.

4. Will there be mosquito nets?

We never found a hint that anyone on any of our three boats had ever heard of them. And there were none in any of the hotels we stayed at in the towns along the way. The one exception was the somewhat tattered netting over one of our two twin beds at the Casa do Caboclos in Mamiraua Sustainable Ecological Reserve. (Ironically, one of the vacationing biologists we met there said there’s no malaria in that immediate vicinity.)IMG_2261.jpg

5. Will we be attacked by river pirates?

Piracy on the river is apparently increasing. I had read several reports about it, and because so much of the river is so isolated, it’s not inconceivable. Still, on the large boats that we took, it seemed almost unimaginable. Any vessel big enough to attack a big ferry would be awfully easy for authorities to track down, or so we thought. And if ferry attacks were commonplace, a few machine guns would make the big boats easy to defend.

Furthermore, the police presence on the river was notable. Federal cops searched the boat before we left Tabatinga. And more federal officers boarded at two different towns along the way to search for drugs and then disembark.

6. Will I have many opportunities to practice my Portuguese?

Over and over, I felt grateful for every hour I worked to learn some Portuguese (starting about six months before our trip). It enabled me to ask simple questions — and roughly understand the answers. This was invaluable, as almost no one we met on any of the boats spoke English. (Even Spanish was scarce.) One exception was a friendly federal policemen who boarded the Amazon Star in Obidos and cornered us to chat about his upcoming vacation in the Southwest U.S. Steve also conversed with a truck driver who had learned passable English when he lived in London for 5 years. But not a single crew member on any of the ships spoke any English.

7. Will it be hot and steamy all the time?

Surprisingly not! Traveling in late May, we were almost never uncomfortably hot, and that’s only partly because our cabins were air-conditioned. Motoring down the water gave us a breeze that almost always made the days pleasant. Only when the boats docked (sometimes for more than an hour) did the temperature and humidity climb to oppressive levels.

8. Will the ships become disgusting after a day or two?

We were surprised and impressed by how hard the crew of the Monteiro worked to keep her shipshape. Workers were always sweeping up and mopping and cleaning. IMG_2135.jpg When I checked one of the hammock folks’ bathrooms, it seemed respectable even after two days of hard use. IMG_2136.jpg The other two boats were a bit less well-tended. Still, they seemed tidier than most long-distance trains we’ve traveled on.

9. Will there be WiFi onboard?

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! In our dreams. The vast majority of the time we were on the river, there was no phone signal of any sort. Occasionally, approaching or docking at a town, a weak signal would show up on our phones. It invariably took an annoyingly long time to be able to start download data over the signal, and then we’d get headlines: Meghan Markle’s dad will not attend Royal Wedding!!! Trump claims he saved $999,800,000 on Jerusalem embassy! and if we were lucky, email. But then we’d be moving downstream, and the signal would soon evaporate.

10. Will we get bored?

No. The onboard entertainment that I described in my earlier post kept us endlessly engrossed. Beyond that, just being in a place so unusual — so normal on the ship but so alien for thousands of miles in every direction around us — never ceased to interest us. Depending on how the geographers measure it, the river is said to be about 4,130 miles long. We don’t know exactly how much of that is in Brazil, but we figure it’s at least 3,000 miles. We covered that distance at an average speed of 12-15 miles per hour. It takes a river of time. But we flowed with it.