Ecuador Packing Run-Through: Some Tips on Ultra-Light Packing

As many of you know, I’ve been on the struggle bus. I’ve had the Year of Eight Terrible Things.  Not to dwell, but here’s my year in a nutshell:

  1. Our dog Rooster Died.
  2. I was diagnosed with severe chondral defects in my knee (so painful) and was told I would never run again.
  3. Our Dog Penny Died.
  4. My Cousin Ali Died.
  5. John & I were flattened by flu.
  6. John was in the hospital for a cardiac event.
  7. Our puppy Nutmeg was diagnosed with a terminal birth defect.
  8. I was in the hospital for meningitis.

So I’d like to turn this ship around. Literally.

In less than two weeks we are departing for a trip of a lifetime. We will spend a week in the Andes of Ecuador, hiking Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, and exploring the market in Otovalo, the Mindo cloud forest, and the historical center of Quito.

Then we will take a flight to the Galapagos Islands, where in a span of eight days we will visit six islands for hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and the most amazing wildlife viewing in the entire world. I can’t wait to see the place where Charles Darwin formulated many of his ideas about evolution. If you haven’t read On the Origin of Species in a while, please pick it up again. It’s hauntingly prescient. But also very sweet and smart.

So life is seriously looking up!

Except! For the fact that I did my first packing run-through, and I couldn’t get my items to fit. I’ve been traveling “ultra-light” for our past four trips with just a personal item and a carry-on roller, and though I am following all of my rules, I still had a large packing cube’s worth I could not stuff into my bags.

Internet to the rescue! I traded in my 21 inch with 4 roller wheels for a 22 inch with in-line wheels. This was enough to allow me to fit all my gear, including the massive DSLR with long lens. I was going to try to shoot on my iPhone, but I did several tests with each and could not recreate the clarity of my 200 mm lens. I am determined to get a great shot of a blue-footed booby!

Here are my top five rules for ultra-light packing:

  1. Leave the Vanity at Home: I travel with no makeup or jewelry. No fancy shoes or dresses or clothes. I take a “Travel Uniform.”
  2. Pack Leave-Behinds: I take items that need to be replaced anyhow, then shed as I go. I’ll be taking a pair of runners that will stay, a hat I don’t want any more, and clothing that has seen better days. That way I can donate my items, and fill my suitcase with goodies and gifts on the way home.
  3. Packing Cubes Are Clutch: Not only do they help you keep it organized, they also help compress your clothing and gear so that it fit in your bags.
  4. Remove Redundancy: No need for two pairs of black pants or two bright blouses. And pictures only capture the tops, so repeat the bottoms.
  5. Pack for Half: We always do laundry so we can pack as if we were staying only a week. It’s easy to find facilities or even to wash out items in the sink.

25 Days To Go

John and I are ready for a vacation. I mean really ready. Good thing the clock is ticking on our big journey this year, to Ecuador! It is going to be a great trip with good friends–Lori and Joe with whom we explored the Alps. Can’t wait to travel with them. Two more couples will join us along the way! Meg and Alex live in Denver and will meet us in Quito, and Chad and Shawna will be traveling from Phoenix later on.

We are so excited to spend time in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. At 9350 feet, it is the second highest capital city behind Bolivia’s La Paz. Quito boasts some beautiful architecture, and it has one of the best-preserved historic centers in the world . We have chosen Hotel Mansion del Angel as our base there. The property used to be the home of a tobacco tycoon, and it has been  beautifully restored.

We are really looking forward to participating in Ciclopaseo on our first Sunday in Ecuador.  This is when a route of 30 km running from the North to South of the city is closed to traffic. I can’t wait to see the city from two wheels!

From Quito we will be going on several day trips:

Otovala: The Saturday market in this town outside of Quito boasts some of the most impressive textiles in all of the Andres.

Textiles in the Otovalo Market

Mindo: This region is a cloud forest area that covers about 100 square miles and features the convergence of three rivers. It is famous for its birdwatching, orchids, and butterflies.

Lush Life in Mindo

Cotopaxi: This is an active volcano in the Andres that can be seen from Quito on a clear day. We plan to hike to the refuge at 15,748 feet.

Cotopaxi Volcano

Quilotoa: This is a 2-mile wide caldera caused by a volcano collapse. We hope to do the 6 mile circumference hike with a high point of 12,844.

Quilotoa Crater

After eight days in the Andes, we fly to the Galapagos Island. We chose our 16-person catamaran the Cormorant based on amenities and itinerary.  We will get to explore 20 sites of interest across six different islands.

Points of Interest

As you might guess, we are busy getting ready for the trip. I have been swimming and hiking a lot to increase my stamina, especially since I lost so much strength when I was hospitalized for meningitis in May.

I have also been reading a lot of books about Ecuador, the Galapagos, and about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which was formulated here, in the global heart of evolutionary science. Here’s a partial reading list:

Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time

The Origin of Species

Darwin Comes to Town

No Turning Back: The Extinction Scenario

Galapagos at the Crossroads

South Africa: Durban

We had planned to keep the rental car, but after the joys of Uber we decided it was best to skip it. So we dropped off the huge Toyota and Ubered to our hotel, the Southern Sun Elangeni. This was our third choice of lodging–our first hotel was sold before our trip, and the Hilton booked up in the meantime, so Expedia actually called and offered us a room that was double the price at the same rate. I should have run away. The room was run down and the service was terrible. We made up for it right away by having an amazing Indian meal–Durban has the highest concentration of Indians outside of India, so we were really looking forward to a delicious meal. Our choice was the TripAdvisor #1, and it didn’t disappoint. We most enjoyed the Palak Paneer and the Butter Chicken. Again, we were meeting Comrades runners everywhere we met. The couple next to us would be running as well.

The next day we loaded onto buses to start the course tour, which I had to say already sounds exhausting and I was only riding not running. We got some great information about the race and stopped for some pictures along the way. Since it was John’s actual 50th birthday, we had dinner reservations at a lovely place nearby–9th Avenue Bistro. We had a prix fixe and enjoyed the lively atmosphere.

The next day was a rest day so we could gear up for the race. On race day, John headed out to the start early, while I went to find my bus for the Champagne Course Tour. We would be ferried to several spots along the way to see our runners. We had a fun group and we laughed and shared pictures as we each helped each other find our runners–there was a great tracking software that we used to help make sure we didn’t miss any cheers! Everyone looked fresh and happy at the first stop. At the finish, we all sheered as our runners came in. Johnnie did great! He was tired, yes, and we had a nice rest before getting the bus back down to Durban. What an amazing adventure. John said it was unforgettable, and that the crowds were like nothing he had ever experienced.

South Africa: Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge

 

The next morning we had a lovely breakfast in the dining room while the porters took our luggage to the front. We grabbed an Uber, which we quickly learned would be our lifeline in South Africa, and headed to the Cape Town airport. A 2 hour flight on Comair (yes that Comair–headquartered in Erlanger, Kentucky) and we landed in Durban. We went to pick up our rental car, which did not go very smoothly. The clerk was very Expedia-hostile, the first of several people we found who discriminated against us because we used the service. He gave us a good old Kelly Conway for about 20 minutes before we agreed on some terms for the rental and drove off.

I knew about 10 minutes into this drive that it would be a long one. The road was tricky and the car was big–essentially a Toyota Sequoia. John was not feeling comfortable driving the car on the non-divided highway, and the other drivers were super aggressive. It took us 3 hours to get to the gate of Imfolozi Game Park. Then another 40 minutes to get to Rhino Ridge Lodge. We kept our eyes open for game, and I’m glad we did because we came upon a grazing pack of impala who looked up at us as if to invite us to the party. They were in no hurry to get out of the road, so we simply parked and took pictures until they decided to pass. By the time we arrived at the lodge we were so lucky to have staff greet us very warmly, take the keys (goodbye Toyota!) and hand us juice and hot towels.

The lovely Chennai gave us a short orientation and then took us to our villa. It was really stunning. It had a large balcony, indoor/outdoor shower, fireplace, freestanding tub, and lounge area. I wished I could stay forever! The view of the park was wide and expansive, and we could see three elephants in the valley below. I noticed our welcome note was addressed to Dylan and Josh, so I called the desk just to make sure we had not stolen their room! We were assured we were in the right place.

The lodge included full board and two game drives a day. It was chilly, so we enjoyed playing cards by the fire before dinner. Then we ate, had a fire lit in the room, and snuggled up for a good night’s sleep in anticipation of our 5:00 alarm. The 6:00 game drive would come soon.

After some coffee we piled into a safari Jeep with a family of four: Pete, Kathryn, and surprise! Dylan and Josh, who were 10 and 12. We had a nice chuckle about how differently we had pictured them. Then we set off onto the road and quickly came to a stop to watch a family of young lions just off the road in a bush. The young lady was having a rest and it was apparent she had not had her coffee yet. Lots of yawning and drowsy eyes. Behind her were two young males who were also sleepy, though they seemed like they might be ready to move on. Soon enough, they group migrated across the road and down the valley.

Next we went to a watering hole where we got to see some wildebeest, warthogs, and rhinos. This experience was already so different from our last safari in Tanzania, where we visited Ngorogoro crater and Serengeti park. Imfolozi was much more intimate. I felt like I would be able to get to know the animals, even though we had very little time here. They were fewer and far between, but we could remember their faces each time we saw them.

We continued our drive and saw some giraffes at a long distance, more rhinos, and plenty of impala. Soon it was time to head back to the lodge for breakfast.

John and I had already decided to sign up for the bush walk, which started at 10:30. John and I waited for a while until Xolani told me, “Nunu is just getting the rifle from the safe.” I smiled and laughed. Oh of course. The rifle from the safe! Xolani assured me we were fine–that it was just for firing warning shots and for making us look bigger than we actually are.

Soon Nunu, Xolani, John and I piled into a different Jeep and drove to the spot where that very morning we had seen the lions. Hm. Okay! I thought. I’m game. Once on foot, Nunu and Xolani took our hands, the four of us forming a circle. Nunu and Xolani are both Zulu, and they welcomed us to their land. Nunu asked, “Why do you want to enter the bush?” Both John and I stuttered our answers, feeling so humbled. “To be on the ground,” John said. “To be more quiet.” I said.

Once they were satisfied with our answers, Nunu explained we would walk in a single file line. He would be first, then me, then John, then Xolani. We could take pictures but there would be no talking and we were to watch Nunu’s hand signals carefully. Nunu hiked barefoot, and I watched his feet as they covered the same prickly ground as mine. Soon we arrived at the morning’s first watering hole. We could see three huge Rhinos about 20 feet away.

We started walking towards them, and one of the three took off to the left while the other two started walking parallel to us on the right. They were, um, huge. And it seemed like they were gentle and sweet but I’m sure I’m anthropomorphizing. Plus they were snorting and growling a little, clearly wanting to meet back up with that third friend. Nunu made himself extra large by carrying the rifle across his shoulders. That way John and I could get plenty of pictures of the rhinos, who were now about 10 feet away. Then Nunu said to me, “Now would be a good time to get a selfie.”

Soon we came upon the watering hole, and the Wildebeest were not really all that pleased with us. They were grunting and snorting, and a pack of warthogs then started to close in. So we turned and walked the other way. We hiked back to where we had seen the lion that morning, and down a drainage towards a large watering hole. We all sat, and Xolani handed us waters and pears from his backpack. Soon giraffes and zebras appeared at the edge of the water and started to drink. The extra big giraffe was super inquisitive, and kept tilting his neck to get a better look at us. Soon John said, “Um, there are several warthogs about 10 feet behind me.” And there they were! But Nunu and Xolani weren’t worried.

After our little rest we started back up the drainage, and Nunu slowed and asked us to sit. He said he thought he saw the lady lion who had been in the bushes that morning. We sat for a while but did not see her, so we stood up and walked towards a large tree, and there she was! She turned to look at us over her shoulder, then hurried back down her own path.

We got back to the lodge in time for tea, and then we had one more game drive. It was lovely to see some of the same animals again, and the evening ended on a bluff with a beautiful sunset. Our guide set up a bar on his tailgate and we were able to have a proper sundowner while saying goodbye to the park.

At dinner that night, the entire staff sang Happy Birthday to John in traditional zulu. It was really stunning and amazing. We went back to the room and slept like the dead. What a wonderful visit.

South Africa: Stellenbosch

Stollenbosch: My Next Artist Colony

A friend asked recently if I’m going to an Artist Colony this summer. With nearly 40 days of international travel, it isn’t possible this year. But I tell you what. I would like to come back to Spier Wine Farm and stay for a month (or more) to write and reflect.

First, what stunning scenery. The grounds are beautiful, with rolling hills and mountains in the distance and lush vegetation and a river walk. But let me tell you about the art. The hotel has a strong commitment to arts and culture, and the lobby is full of paintings and sculptures by contemporary South African artists. It is essentially a museum. John and I took time to wander through the lobby and dining room looking at every piece, and we pretty much agreed we would love to have any of them in our home. It is such a beautifully curated collection.

And then, we arrived to our room. It had equally beautiful artwork. And it had a large living room, kitchen, terrace seating, large bedroom, and views to the river. Seriously I would love to live there for a month and be inspired and write.

The hotel was so kind to start us off with a birthday cake and a bottle of red wine. John and I enjoyed a small sip while touring the room, but we quickly showered and put on our first new clothes in 48 hours, and started touring the grounds. There are several restaurants, an amphitheater, Segway wine tours, and a picnic shop.

After strolling the grounds we arranged for a trip in to Stollenbosch. It was about a 15 minute journey. We wandered this University town and chose a restaurant for a snack. That’s when we had the first of a repeating experience that was so fun during our trip. We asked the woman at the table next to us a question, and then we mentioned that John was running Comrades. This woman happened to be from the place we were heading next (Durban), and it turned out she ran Comrades twice! She gave John lots of good advice, and when we were leaving we learned that she had her 50th birthday last week! It was a fun encounter.

Back at Spier Wine Farm, we headed back to the room for a short rest before dinner. The restaurant was so delicious with lots of fresh and innovative choices. I started with squid and had a hake entree. John started with chicken livers and got a pork entree. We had a couple very delicious white wines. Then the staff came and sang happy birthday to John and wished us a good trip.

Back in the room, we fell fast asleep. Morning, and our departure from Spier Wine Farm, would come much too soon.

London: The Unexpected Stop

Long story short: British Airways can bite me.

During the nine hour flight from Phoenix to Heathrow, I was seated next to a woman with a pharmacy in her purse. Before take-off she took several pills, and she spent the entire flight passed out with her head dangling like a door knocker. She looked just like the woman at the LA Marriott Amy Lerman and I saw get Roofied and removed by ambulance. The woman’s husband was seated in business class but kept coming back to check on her, which involved asking me to poke her until she shook her head up and grunted.

Our first indication that something was wrong on the ground came when we were held on the tarmac for about an hour waiting for a gate. The captain let us know slowly that BA was experiencing a global IT outage and that all flights up to 6 pm were canceled. Our flight to Cape Town was not set to depart until 9:30 pm, so we figured (hoped?) we would be safe.

Once the plane got a gate we had to wait for a jetway. The captain came on the line to let us know they had no way to communicate with ground, and that he and the co-pilot were calling friends and acquaintances to try to get someone to pull the jetway over. My seat mate used this opportunity to sort through and find some more choice pills, which she swallowed with a large slug a of cough syrup straight from the bottle.

Once we finally disembarked, we knew immediately that the situation was worse than we thought. The hallways at Heathrow are usually packed, but this was total chaos. Babies were screaming, Adults were screaming, and there was not a BA employee to be seen. Some Heathrow officials were trying to direct traffic and answer questions, but the only reply they had available was, We don’t know.

The line for customs is always long at Heathrow, but this day it was terrible. We waited for 3 hours in a snaking queue without any food or water. We passed my seat mate about 30 times as we zigged and zagged through, and each time she looked worse and worse, slurring words and barely able to stand. Her husband finally rushed her through to the front of the line. I couldn’t help wondering about their story.

Once we cleared, the scene in baggage claim was like a horror film. People screaming, crying, cussing, and angry. We were told we could not get our luggage then we were handed a letter saying we must leave the airport and do not call. They said check Twitter for updates.

We still didn’t have confirmation that our flight was canceled, but we decided to behave as if it were. So we tried to find a hotel close to the airport so we could get back quickly if another flight came up. Hotels had clearly gotten word and the price surge pushed rooms to $1500 and more. We normally stay at The Ampersand in South Kensington, but it was booked so we found a hotel nearby and took an Uber into town to check in.

The room was comfortable and quiet. We were so hungry, so we headed out to a pub and we were able to catch the end of the Arsenal Versus Chelsea game while eating fish pie. Not too bad. But then, back at the hotel, we spent the next six hours on the phone trying to get any news on how we would get to Cape Town. No one at BA would answer the phone. We tried Chase Bank, who holds our BA Visa, and they were no help. A friend worked from home on getting help from his Centurion Amex folks but they couldn’t book the flight. When we finally got through to an agent, she booked us on the next flight to Cape Town and told us our luggage would be on it.

We got a few hours sleep before getting up and wandering our favorite South Ken streets. We had lunch at one of my favorite local pubs, Bumpkin, then had a beer at The Scarsdale Tavern. We grabbed an Uber to head back to the airport and enjoyed chatting with the Kurdistan driver about US politics.

At the airport, we were amused by the Heathrow employees telling stories about how the previous day the BA employees had hidden like Sean Spicer in the bushes while they did all the work with the public.

Our new flight was delayed an hour, but once we were finally on I watched two movies then fell asleep and woke up in Cape Town.

Here is what I can tell you about cancelled BA flights: If your flight gets canceled and the airline didn’t give you at least 14 days’ notice, they may be required to compensate you, according to EC 261. EU passengers are entitled to as much as €600 for canceled flights, but there are a number of factors that determine both eligibility and compensation amount.

John and I were entitled for compensation, which rendered our round trip tickets to South Africa free.

 

John’s 50th Birthday: Comrades Marathon

What special event do you have planned for your next milestone birthday? I’m still running ideas through my head for my 50th, which will be here before we know it in 2020. For my 45th I ran the Tour de Mont Blanc and for my 40th I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I think I’d like to pick another adventure.

This morning I had the privilege of chatting with a friend about how she spent her 50th: building homes for the needy in Honduras. When I praised her for choosing such a generous and charitable activity, she generously and charitably (and wisely) said to me that every person is in a different place at various times in our lives, and we will be called to the activities that fulfill us at that moment.

John’s calling for his 50th birthday on June 2 happens to be running The Comrades Marathon in South Africa. It’s a race he has been interested in for a long time, and it falls just near his birthday, so he decided it would be his goal for his Five-Oh. Who wouldn’t want to run an extremely tough 56 mile uphill race to celebrate five decades of living?!

I’m not sure I would! But I would say this race is a good one to choose and it has a long history. It was started to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during World War I. Since the first race in 24 May 1921 to this year on 4 June 2017, it’s the world’s largest and oldest Ultramarathon, and John has had a singular vision to get there.

One of the many, many things I love about John is his ability to set a goal and stay focused on achieving it. I am so proud of him for his dedication to his training. It is hard to even articulate how inspired I am by him and how proud I am of him. This year he has gotten up every morning at 4:15 or earlier to do a long run before his long workday. That’s just one of the amazing feats he has accomplished. Here are some of the numbers. Let’s see if you’re inspired too.

So far this year John has run 1586 miles in 244 hours.

His longest run was 33 miles at an 8:35 pace with 2211 feet elevation gain.

He ran a 50K race with 6600 feet elevation gain where he came in fourth overall and first masters.

He ran a sub-3 marathon where he came in fifth overall and first masters

He ran the Boston marathon as a training run.

Before his taper, his training peaked at 106 miles in a week.

Even more impressive to me is that he has remained injury free, and in a generally good mood! He’s really in the best shape of his life, and I’m so excited for him to tackle this next big adventure.

Congratulations sweetie! I love you so much.

Sixteen Days to Go

I have wanted to go to South Africa pretty desperately ever since our friends Kathryn and Ole told us about their wonderful trip there, and that was maybe 17 years ago? It has been a long time. So it seems impossible (impossibly thrilling) that John and I are living in the month of our departure date!

I am so excited about all of our slated activities. I have printed out the 42 page PDF with all of our reservations and maps between towns. I use the app TripIt to gather all our movements into one easy package. Here is the general motion of the trip:

  • We are using British Airways to fly direct Phoenix to Heathrow, then Heathrow to Cape Town. Usually we use miles to fly, but since this was a far (and cheap) flight, we paid for the trip to get the massive amounts of miles on the cheap.
  • First we are driving out from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, where we are staying for two nights at Spier Wine Farm.
  • Then a flight from Cape Town to Durban, and we will drive out to Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge in Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park for some luxury lodge living and Big Five game drives.
  • We drive back to Durban where we will stay four nights at the Southern Sun Elangeni Maharani for John’s 50th birthday with a celebratory dinner at 9th Avenue Bistro.
  • On June 4th John will run the Comrades Marathon.
  • We decided on two locations in Cape Town so we get a feel for coast and town. We will stay four nights at Rouge on Rose in the Bo Kaap area, then move to the ocean to Cape View Clifton. We have chosen lots of great restaurants and activities for our stay there. One is Foxcroft. Another is Reverie. Can’t wait!

And thanks, British Airways, for this feature that allows me to plan my movies for the 10 and 11.5 hour flights. I have a lot to catch up on!  

Sirmione

It was just a little stressful getting into Sirimone. It reminded me of trying to get into some of the walled cities we visited in Croatia. There was a lot of traffic and parking was far away and we didn’t know where to go. But once settled into our room at Hotel Sirimone, we were able to relax and head out for a tour of the city. It was touristy! Lots of little shops and more per capita gelato shops than anywhere I have ever seen. We hunted for a while for a restaurant, and finally decided on a place that was totally packed–always a good sign. We weren’t super hungry so we walked around while waiting for our table. Guess what? The pasta was delicious!

Lake Garda

We left Verona and had a short drive to our next hotel near the start line for our race. We decided to take a leisurely drive up the east coast of the lake since we would be coming back the west lake on our way back to the airport. It was very windy and it was very chilly. It made for some dramatic vistas.

Soon our friends Xavi and Helena arrived! We met Xavi at a Skyrace in the Dolomites and kept in touch. He and Helena love Italy so when we invited them to the race at Lake Garda they said yes right away! What a wonderful visit we had with them! Helena and I did the short race and stopped to take plenty of pictures. Xavi and John did the long race and it was pretty grueling.

The next day the sun was gorgeous and we hated to say goodbye! But we had to. And John and I drove back down the west coast of the lake, both agreeing we could spend a lot of time here.