Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The continent didn't want to let go of us a.k.a Arriving back home

Actually leaving my parents' house on this picture because we don't have any pictures of arriving (we arrived in different airports at different times)

At the time of writing the last post, we had already had our first obstacles on the journey back which we thought that we had tackled as best as we could. What was about to follow was something that we simply couldn't have predicted. It seemed as it either the American continent didn't want to let go of us or the European continent was not yet ready to receive us back. Or maybe we had hurt the feelings of Europe by staying away for a total of 21 months.

Taganga, where we started encountering our problems in leaving the continent

We were in Taganga (North of Colombia, on the Caribbean coast. A small fishing village invaded by tourists) with the purpose of having a week of rest and selling our motorbike. We had already bought our tickets back to Estonia and didn't have much worries in our head. Most if the flights going from Colombia to Europe fly through the USA. So after a bit if research and finding out that Estonia is part of the visa-waiver program we did not think twice before buying our tickets through Miami and Providence. The visa-waiver program means that even though you don't need a visa, you can apply for an ESTA online, which is basically a fast and easy online permission to enter the USA for tourism or transit reasons (yes. you still need it even if you don't leave the airport) easy enough right? Well apparently not.

Selling our bike

We applied for ESTA online and being from the Almighty Leader of the Free world (can I please laugh), it demanded some pretty specific information. I filled out most of it (didn't give them my social media accounts that they also asked for) while Erik was a bit more reluctant and filled out only the required fields. Because why should he give them his former employer's phone number and address if it is not compulsory.

The answer for the application came back within minutes and as it turned out, I had been granted the permission to fly through the great US of A but Erik had not. So at this point we (he) had two options. The first option was to go to Bogota right away (a 16-hour busride) to try and apply for a visa. That option would have meant that we wouldn't have sold our motorbike, would have had to pay for the visa even before finding out if there was a visa-interview time available and then they still would have had 60 days to decide whether they would give it to him or not. So wasting all that money and still probably not getting the visa on time and having to buy a new ticket (so actually probably spending double the money). The second option was to spend the same sum as the visa-hustle would have taken us and just buy a ticket that doesn't fly through the US. Which is what we did and got a ticket from Bogota through Mexico (I was still flying out from Medellin).

So we stayed in Taganga and and extraordinary thing happened. We were in the only club-like establishment that this little town has when during a casual conversation (in Spanish) a girl asked Erik where he was from. Erik's answer left the girl with such a surprised expression and open mouth that we were both quickly weighing the options in our head: is she Latvian? is she Finnish? But what had happened was something that we had completely given up hope for. We actually met another Estonian in South-America. Less that two weeks before leaving the continent it finally happened :D So we could actually celebrate my birthday speaking (part of the night) in our own language. I just thought I'd bring out one positive thing about our final weeks before I go on to the obstacles thrown in our way. We actually did have a good time as well and did end up going to the beach almost every day. Something that we hadn't done the whole trip.
Three Estonians in one picture in Taganga

Since I had not been to Bogota yet and had kind of developed an obsession of finding a nice warm poncho (so many cool ones in Bolivia and Peru, only very thin warm-weather ones in Colombia so far) then we attempted to buy two plane tickets to the cool and mountainous capital of the country. That turned out as expected - the web page announced that the "payment was not received" followed by "the booking is canceled" but when I decided to check my bank account on a hunch, the money had disappeared. I, of course, sent them an e-mail trying find an answer. They managed to send me an electronic, automated reply three days later. Another few days later I was sent a form that I had to fill out with exactly the same information that I had already given them. They literally didn't ask anything that I had already told them. I sent the filled-out form back to them almost immediately and have been waiting for either a refund or a reply for six days already. Customer help my a**. If possible, avoid VivaColombia, because I later found out that they are known for causing problems. (after all the hustle, did manage to get the money back)

Dancing on the bar did occur at my birthday party. Luckily Erik\s broken phone is hiding the rest of the pictures :D

With that much money lost already I decided to go straight to Medellin to wait for my flight. Now of course the trouble didn't stop there. When Erik was trying to take his flight from Bogota, it was canceled with not much information given for a very long time. When they finally git him to Cancun (almost a day later), with a promise if a new ticket to Manchester it turned out that they were not exactly keen on keeping their word. With a lot if hustle, he did finally make it to Manchester (kiwi. com does keep its promise and gets you to the destination and even covered some food and accommodation so another tip – feel free to trust them. They actually do keep their promises) it was almost two days later. He also managed to drown his phone in the hotel that kiwi had given him for one night and they threatened to send his last plane to Riga instead of Tallinn because of extremely thick fog (which they had done to all the morning flights arriving in Tallinn) It took him “only” 5,5 days but he did finally make it back to Estonia.

When Erik had just finished arguing with different airport officials and gotten a ticket to Manchester, I reached the airport in Medellin. They scanned my passport through, immediately announced that "you will not be able to fly through the US. not with us, not with anyone else". They were unable to give any explanation but "the US immigration has decided not to let you fly through" and "you have to go to the embassy in Bogota to find out any information". On the ESTA page, I still had "application approved" so I refused to leave and demanded to see a supervisor. The supervisor came, asked me quite a few questions, spent half an hour on the phone with someone (presumably the US immigration office) but I finally got on the plane.

My journey back was actually quite uneventful. They only confiscated all my palosanto because apparently it was a threat to the nature of US, when I carried it through their third-world-country airport. Colombian and Mexican airports had functioning wifi. Miami and Providence airports did not.

On the second night back home my mother came into my room and said “I have someone in my ear. Come with me”. I got handed a pair of tweezers in the bathroom and the chase begun. I managed to catch a 1-2mm black little insect from inside my mother's ear. Unfortunately I didn't get a good and long look at it because when I caught it, it was not very securely held with my tool, so I had an immediate reaction of running the water tap and sticking the visitor under the running water.

A few weeks earlier (if I should guess then since the night in Popayan when we didn't get into our hotel for the night and ended up sleeping in tall grass next to a park), I had had a tickly feeling in my ear. I even mentioned to Erik after seeing that one of our friends had caught an insect under his skin that “I should get a thorough check-up when we get back because I have a paranoia that there is someone living in my ear”. Although I did say that I was always quite convinced that I had caught a cold or something like that. But coming back to the moment of discovery, I still had a couple of hours to wait until the morning (my mother is a doctor and actually shares the cabinet with a nose-throat/ear doctor) and my mothers “Let's go and sleep some more before morning” wasn't very convincing. Instead I spent the remaining hours trying to google about insects in ears, but the closest thing that I found were videos of an Indian woman who had a spider pulled out of her ear. So I had these horror-film scenarios running through my head, with a swarming nest in my head with tunnels going into my brain and so on. But after all the tests (including a small microscope in my ear and a pressure test) the doctor concluded that even if there was something before, then my now it is gone and there are also absolutely no signs of anyone moving past my eardrum (the pressure test showed that) in the past few months at least.
My "little" sister and brother

Had to pose for many pictures before we were allowed to leave Parnu

My mother was in a happy mood :D

A big part of the family

I spent a few days in Parnu, visiting my parents, who had organised a birthday party as well, as I wanted to see all the relatives and friends of family and they wanted to see us as well. It is easier to do the first meeting with a big group. Since we are only renting a small room in Tartu at the moment, we are meeting all our friends one-by-one which is better because we can actually talk to the one or two people more but it is also tiring as we are meeting someone almost every day. We are both also trying to find a job as the mishaps on our way back drained us of a big portion of the money that we intended to use for living in Estonia. Actually Erik already found a job but I haven't found anything yet.

Maybe I am being a bit picky but I really want to find something that I could enjoy doing for the next couple of years at least so I don't want to settle for anything less than what I am looking for. It is made harder because I am not entirely sure what I want to do. At the moment I don't see myself going back to a big public school for several reasons. The biggest being that I believe that Estonian educational system is a bit too fixated on learning grammar and instead of testing and ranking students all the time and giving too much attention to grammar, the students are not developing to be as good and confident speakers as they have the potential to. Other reasons are not wanting to be in the same classroom five days a week and not wanting by schedule to be that determined by the schoolbell ringing in my ears. I would still love to work with young people and language but I am hoping to find something where all my international experiences would be useful (I have visited all the continents by now). So if anyone has any organizations in mind, let me know. They don't have to be looking for a worker either, I would contact them anyways.

So what about first impressions since coming back to Estonia?

*the first time I felt warm water coming out of a tap, I almost jumped back. For nine months, the only place you SOMETIMES encountered warm water was in the shower. Even if you did have the electrical warm water shower, it was occasionally a good wake up call, when the tap electrocuted you every time you touched it.

*I thought I would blend in a bit more, given that I now have a similar skin color to the locals but not really. Almost everyone is wearing black or grey colors and I am still at least as colorful as before, if not more :D
First meal: buckwheat, black bread, kefir and sour cream
...and more sour cream. Estonian sour cream is definitely the best. One thing that I didn't have false memories of

Parents' fridge. A picture on the first day - look at all this food! :D

*The other day we were driving past the most popular place where Estonians go to downhillski or snowboard. When Erik finished the sentence “So I guess that there is Kuutse mountain” we both looked at each other and started laughing. Although the sentence was not meant like that (to mock anything) it feels really strange to call any of these bumps in Estonia “mountains”. The highest point of Estonia is 317m from sea level, the highest we reached with our motorbike was 4600m. We had a half-kilometre drop next to the road more than once or twice or ten times. Estonia is so sweet and small.

*It is true that you could eat much cheaper in colombia, for example, than you can is Estonia. But in Colombia it meant eating rice with a little salad and meat. Even if you found a big supermarket, you usually just had a lot of the same thing, sometimes by a different company. And if you wanted to have anything different, then the prices were ridiculously high. Over here, I can spend an hour in a grocery store, exploring all the interesting things. You should see the selection of cheese! And so much ready-made stuff (don't really buy this stuff often. Maybe once a week but it is so good that you have choice to buy something when you really don't have to time or the energy to cook and can't afford a restaurant).

*The spring is here but the leaves are not here yet. So it is strange to see how empty and bare everything is. Strange to see through bushes and trees.

*The technological advancement is loco. I only need my smartphone and I have already done all my banking or other legal stuff. It takes me a minute (maybe two the first time) to transfer money or check if I have a valid medical check-up for my drivers license. And it is much cheaper as well. I managed to get a deal where I pay 2.5 euros to get a deal for my phone with 15gb of internet, 1000min of calls and 1200 messages. Beat that.
*For the last ten months my only electronic device was my phone (so all the texts from South America were also written on that). When I got back, it took me 1,5 weeks before I discovered that “Hmm... maybe I can open my Facebook in the computer as well”. But now that I did switch over (typing this text on a laptop already), I think I will get used to it quite fast.
*It feels wonderful to have a home, although we are not at our home yet, but are renting a room for two months until we can get to our home. But just the feeling of not having to pack and unpack your stuff every day. Wearing a new pair of underwear every single day is a luxury. Having a frying pan that doesn't decide for you that “Nope. You are not making an omelet today. You are making scrambled eggs” (every single frying pan in the hostels looked like it had been used to hit nails into the wall)

*Walking on the streets and seeing familiar faces. My face lights up even when I see a familiar bum begging money on the street :D And having actual friends is a luxury. Some have moved on, some have actually done something with their lives, some are still the same, some think they have gone somewhere with their lives and feel like they are better than the others because of that... we still have to figure out where we belong. But before we begin figuring that out, the first aim is to meet all the ones who want to meet us.

*Dressing for the weather is impossible. It was 20 degrees one day, then snowing on the other. You go out and it looks like autumn and then it turns into Spring. Then you enter a bus and it is so unbelievably hot that I don't understand how people can ride them without taking all their clothes off.

*The cars stop to let you cross the road. The pedestrians actually have some rights in this part of the world - like a right to exist, live and even cross the road. I usually stop to let the cars pass in front of the pedestrian crossings and then I am surprised when the cars actually stop.
Our house for the next two months and our new ride. A bit more comfortable than Starcraft

Snow was threatening to cover the ground again

New wall-art in Tartu

And some new walkways

Leaves are ready to come out

Don't get me wrong. I do not regret any part of the trip that we did. We had so many cool experiences that probably for the next months and years to come, many of our stories will start with “This one time in Bolivia/Paraguay/Peru/...”. And there are many to tell. So many that already now we have forgotten and rediscovered some of them. We have both grown as a person and learned a lot about ourselves and of course about the world. But the last few months were very difficult because we were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Now we just need to rest and process it all because this was not one trip. This was ten different trips coming right one after the other. So we are just really glad to be back home as well. But the travel-bug is still within us, hibernating for a while now. Although it already woke up last weekend when we visited Latvia :D

Visited a Latvian castle. Half of it had been carried away in the soviet times

I have been writing in English so far so that the people that we met on our way could also keep an eye on how far we have gotten and so on. And I am definitely planning to make at least one more big post in English about South-America, where I compare the countries and try to make an overview of what is similar and what is different (tried to find something like that before the beginning of this journey but didn't find one). But after that... how many people are there, who don't speak Estonian but would be interested in reading about my/our doings in English? Please let me know under the comments of this post or write to me on Facebook. If there are enough of you, I will continue in English (probably if 5-10 say that they would keep on reading, I would already write in English). If there is not much interest, I will switch over to Estonian after the next post.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Exhausted in Colombia

So we are at the end of our trip now. We are more exhausted than ever and really are not interested in seeing any of the tourist attractions anymore. We have literally seen two sights in almost a month in Colombia. But at the same time I don't feel too guilty because you see a lot of things about a country also when you just travel through it. Right? (ok. so maybe I do feel just a tiny bit guilty at the same time).

Things are made harder by the fact that we never seem to really fit in. We have actually felt it for most of the time since the beginning of our trip but it wasn't untin now that we really started to understand the reason behind that.
 It has been impossible to find the people that we really want to chill out with and the problem lies within ourselves. We are finding ourselves in a limbo between a European traveler and a South-American traveler. We don't really 'click' with any of the backpackers and tourists. It is firstly because they have plans and itineraries and time limits and that spark in their eyes that wants to visit every attraction possible - we have seen so many that don't really have it in ourselves to be amazed about many things because "there have been many waterfalls that were much cooler and many cities much more picturesque". And that is not really the best attitude for traveling because there will always be "better" things, you should just appreciate the moment at hand.  But mostly it is because they live in the hostels that you find on or bookinghouse or whatever they use (and they only leave them to take part of their excursions), that they pre-book in advance without ever venturing to the local hostels (that usually don't have a web-page at all) . The problem with these places is that the rooms are so extremely overpriced compared to local prices (local place is 5-10 dollars for a private room, a gringo place 6-10 dollars for a dorm bed, 25-30 euros for a private room in a "cheap" place) and the food is also at least double price (but not two times better). So we just refuse to stay in these places (everyone looks at us weirdly if we mention that the prices are too high. for them they are cheap. for us they are ridiculous). Plus these places also only allow you to consume beers bought from their bar (also 3x the price of the shop). I guess the poorer kind of European travelers just usually don't make it over the ocean and head to a cheaper areas of Europe.

We have a lot more common ground with the young South-American travelers,  but the problem is that as soon as they start speaking to each other we are out of the conversation because they start speaking Spanish way too fast and with way too much slang for us to understand (not blaming them. I wouldn't like speaking Estonian in slow-motion baby language for the whole evening either). Plus they never have money (they earn enough to survive every day and not a dime more by selling their handicraft or juggling on crossroads etc) so everything we buy goes to sharing between ten people (they share everything they have with us so it would be strange not to share back). It is fine short-term but long-term we end up spending as much as we would at the "gringo-places".  We,  of course,  feel an immediate connection with other bike-travellers but they are definitely the richer kind (have brought their big and expensive touring bikes from Europe) plus you don't meet them that often. But with them, the difference in wealth doesn't matter that much because we have so many similar experiences to bond over with. 

So with all that put together we are more tired of everything now than ever. And we usually still end up chilling with the Colombians and Argentinians.

Now getting to Colombia. Even though we had chosen the small jungle-border for entering the country, they weren't really impressed with us not having any legal documents (same old story).  So even though we were officially already in Colombia, we drove back to Ecuador and had a notaries office write us a document for 20 dollars that said that we have all the rights for the bike. It was as simple as that. No problems entering colombia the next day. Should have done that ages ago. Like 12 000km ago. 

So yeah! In your face, everyone who were laughing at us six months ago when we told them in Brazil or Bolivia that we were going to Colombia on our bike. Ok, so actually we didn't have much faith in the possibility of that journey either in the beginning. I think Peru was the first place where we actually dared to hope that it is possible to make it to Colombia. And it was.
Colombia for me is kind of like a mix of Ecuador and Brazil. Colombians love to party and love their drinks and drugs. The party starts on Thursday and ends early on Monday morning. They also love colours - there are many brightly coloured houses, clothes and bright-coloured anything anywhere. It has a very wide variety of people from descendants of Spaniards to Indigenous to descendants of black slaves - so a really colorful mix of cultures and races. Colombians are well-known for their incredible friendliness and welcoming spirit. We have not felt it that strongly because we already felt it a lot (if not more) in Ecuador. And Ecuadorian people were calmer and more reasonable while being friendly. 

So what have we been up to over here?
We visited San Agustin, which is a small town in the mountains. It is known for its ancient sculptures, which we visited mostly because we found ourselves staying in the town for almost a week. Didn't regret going to the sculpture park though. They were actually quite cool, most depicting some deities with a monkey-like face. The oldest ones were up to six thousand years old but most of them "only" one or two thousand. There was even an ancient couple shagging :D

One day in San Agustin I looked at and decided to just walk down a road that I saw on the map close to our hostel that seemed to go over a river. Well, about a kilometer in, the road turned into a narrow track which lead to an edge of a steep river valley. The view was just breathtaking, especially because it was very unexpected. I had no idea that our hostel was so close to such a spectacular valley. But that made me think - there are thousands of places like that. And for me it seems like a totally random choice, which ones have been marked on the maps and tourist guides as attractions and which ones are totally unnoticed. The waterfalls that just exist by the side of the road, with no name or any attention would be the biggest tourist attractions in another place (in Estonia for example). Thanks to that train of thought I know that our lack of visiting many of the "official attractions" really hasn't deprived us of much. as we have found heaps of breathtaking places just because we  venture to unknown places on our bike. 
Accidentally found a view

To continue our way we had to take a road that had 50km of the most horrible gravel in the middle of it. Most of it looked like it was old bricks kind of broken into pieces. Impossible to drive faster than 15-20kmph. The road led us to Popayan, which is a town on our way with almost all houses painted white and colonial-style. So the town itself was quite nice. Unfortunately the brightest memory of the town was not getting back into our hostel at night. So we ended up sleeping in long grass by a park and were woken up by rain. As a result, for about two weeks after that I was ill as well. It is strange to have a cold and a fever in a hot country, you can't really always feel the fever but just the out-of-breathness and chills. 
One of those waterfalls that was way too unimpressive for people to appreciate 

We also stopped in Cali for two nights but didn't even go to the center of the city. One of the reasons was probably because the traffic suddenly became horrible again. The buses and taxis are the worst. They just randomly stop in front of you, with no warning at all and block up the whole road. I think that they intentionally want to be assholes because to me it seems like a special effort to park diagonally across the road to block as many lanes as possible. Normal people are not that inconsiderate of other people. Unless you are a South-American. Then taking other people into consideration isn't even something that would cross your mind. (the friends that I have made in this continent AND are actually capable of reading this text, probably don't belong to that group, because with the language, they usually have obtained some understanding also of how the English-speaking world sees the world and a bit of the values as well)

Salento was also a sweet little town, very colorful and in a picturesque place in the muddle of valleys and hills.  When we had seen enough of the brightly-colored houses we decided that we kind of have to go to the national park close-by as well to see a 'palm-forest'. A 'forest' is maybe a bit too flattering of a name for the sparsely located palm trees. But the views were quite spectacular and the palms were the tallest that I have ever seen. Two tourist attractions in Colombia. Check. More than enough. (actually if we count in the towns themselves then we have visited more).

Coffee plantations
The tree is slightly taller than me... 

We also spent a few days in Medellin. Over there we even visited the center and used a cable car to try to go to a park on top of a hill (Medellin is very proud of its cable cars and advises all the tourists to take a ride). The top half of the cable cars was unfortunately closed for maintenance so we didn't actually get to the park. As a result we found ourselves in a less-than-nice neighborhood instead. Most of colombia has actually been pretty clean with very little trash on the ground. But if you accidentally make your way to the poorest barrios (neighborhoods) then the amount of trash and the smell are pretty horrible.

One night, when we expressed our disappointment in the most popular party-zone of Medellin (super high prices, music from each bar so loud thet we didn't even want to go close to them and drunk gringos everywhere) we were taken to an alternative party zone. It was the kind of place where you wouldn't wander even one bock into the sidestreets unless you have a trustworthy local with you. It was exactly like in some movies - gangs on streetcorner doing their drugdeals, prostitutes with extremely high heals and extremely big bottoms (I am still impressed that you can naturally have a butt that big :D), reggaeton blasting from every gangsta's car window, no cops to be seen anywhere. We were invited over to a crackhead's apartment for a visit as well. I just hope I didn't pick up a horrible disease from there when I tried to use the glogged toilet that had human feces lying around it.

It is astonishing how there can exist so big differences within the same city - the part for the rich and the gringos and the part for the poor people.

Our next aim was to make it to the Carribean coast and find a town to rest for a while. When we started reaching the coast we suddenly found ourselves in Africa. The reason is that the descendants of the African slaves have mostly made their life in this area. In the small towns that we drove through, I got a real feeling of being back in Kenya because of how the streets looked and also because 90% of the people looked totally and completely African(the rest of them were a mix of Hispanic and black).

We wanted to stop in Cartagena as well, as the old town looks very cool, being the second oldest Colonial town in the whole South America (colorful houses again but with much older style). But because we couldn't find a cheap hostel (didn't want to spend hours looking either as we were only going to stay for one night) and because motorbikes were not allowed in the whole island of the old town (cars are allowed though,  for some reason) then we decided that if the town does not want us, we will not stay.

At the moment we have made it to Taganga, which used to be a small fishermen's town. Nowadays, a big part of it has been taken over by tourists. There is actually nothing special here (the beach is small and unimpressive, the streets are horrible dirt and the houses are not picturesque either) but it serves our purposes well, as it is less crowded and cheaper than Cartagena, plus the location of the town is pretty nice - it is nestled between some cliffs.  And the sun sets directly into the sea between the cliffs that surround the bay... well not directly, it kind of fades away before it can touch the water, as it does in most places on this continent.
The town of Taganga

We are here to rest for a week or so, sell our bike if we can and just chill out. Fortunately there is enough of the local people left that you can get a cheap lunch from the side-streets and the town is small enough to walk everywhere. The plan is to chill on the beach and read a book and rest before heading back because after getting back to Estonia we should probably find jobs right away as we don't have much money left. So resting and doing nothing for one more time before coming back to Estonia and trying to sort all my life out.

Of course before we get to the sorting life out in Estonia we still have to make it to Medellin/Bogota for our flights back which will be several days of different airports and planes and security checks and so on. So after our vacation it is a total of at least a week of hustle and inconveniences.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Life in Ecuadorian jungle

When we got to the border of Ecuador, we were first directed to stand in a queue to get the exit-from-Peru stamp and then to stand at another one, even longer, to get the entry-to-Ecuador stamp, the officials literally sitting right next to each other, behind the same table. All that done, it was time to get our bike's papers sorted. The only problem was that the lady at the transportation office didn't even want to discuss the possibility to let in a Paraguayan motorbike with no proper paperwork. So we were officially in Ecuador and the bike was officially out of Peru but not allowed to enter Ecuador.

This is what 6.50USD gets you in Ecuador (twotmeals and a beer) 
We spent about a minute discussing our options:
a) skip Ecuador, go around it and enter Colombia directly - no roads between the two countries, only rivers, so a bit difficult
b) go to another border crossing and try our luck there - but that would have meant waiting the two lines again (to exit Ecuador and enter Peru) and get the entrance papers for Peru for the bike again (slim chances at the other border crossing as well)
c) sell the bike. to who? in the border zone? we are not legally allowed to sell it so doing it right under the eyes of border officers was probably not really a good idea
d) drive into Ecuador and see how far we get. there is always a possibility to pay off the cops...

Naturally we chose the last option, because we save a lot of money by traveling that way (5 dollars buys us 300km) and we  don't want to give up our freedom just jet. Not before we absolutely have to.

We passed quite a few different check-points during the weeks in Ecuador, including the transport-office one right after tho border, and one where they were confiscating motorbikes for lack of paperwork, but luckily we have either been waved pass or we have sneaked pass behind a truck/bus. The fragility of our situation did make us cross through the country in quite a straight line, in order to minimize our possibilities to encounter any more police checkpoints than we had to.

Back in Peru (a few weeks earlier), when our clutch's cable decided to break just as we were hitting the road out of town, we were lucky enough to meet a fellow motorbike enthusiast on his way home from Dakar (the famous desert rally). He leant us a helping hand and while he took Erik to buy the missing part, he also invited us over to his place in Ecuador. So his house in the town of Cuenca was where we were first headed after our illegal sneak-in.

The centre if Cuenca was pretty hip
On our way to Cuenca (climbing up to the mountains again of course) we found a fairytale land - everything was incredibly green, from the lush tropical forest near the coast to the field- and meadow covered hills. All were dotted with houses that were not all rich, but all taken-care-of (some paint in the last 10 years and quite neat) and the fields had white and black cows who looked like out of postcards. Higher in the mountains, there were white foamy clouds forming different shapes around us. In addition to that, the wind wasn't freezing cold even at 3500m, which was pretty nice.

Everybody put their best clothes on to go to the elwctions

And then we were welcomed to Cuenca which was like a breath of civilization and European culture. The feeling was further enforced by the fact that we were staying with a higher middle class family (cleaning lady/cook, collection of vintage motorcycles etc), who of course claimed to be middle class. We felt very welcomed and at home both at our place to stay and in the town itself. There were some alternative people in Cuenca, clean and modern supermarkets (of course we still could not find many things we were graving for, but a few basics) nice architecture and many people who had some level of English.

After pampering ourselves for a few days, we started heading towards the jungle town Puyo, where we had promised to become volunteers for a while through workaway to experience something new and cut our spending for a while as well. Of course we had some tourist-stuff to see on the way as well - the incan temple of Ingapirca and the town of Baños, where I made us climb on a top of a hill in search for a nice walk. I hoped that the hiking track would be sometimes upwards, sometimes level... but it turned out that every single step was so steep and up that we couldn't even properly walk on straight ground after all the climbing. But we found some more amazing views and a swing at the end of the world.

Ingapirca - an aincan temple

BañosBis surrsurrounded by waterfalls

After the touristy stuff, we made our way down from the mountains on the western side, where the Amazonian rainforest starts. We found the house that we were supposed to be starting our voluntary workers career and talking to one of the volunteers living there, discovered that the conditions of work and living were less than perfect, to say the least. There were two shacks with bunk beds in them for sleeping (not better than a tent), a gas stove to cook on, an outside shower with no hot water (pretty standard here) but the worst part was that there was even no electricity. And for having the privilege to use all these wonderful facilities, the owner of the place expected us to work five days a week, four hours a day without providing any food, drinking water or anything else. And the work itself wasn't even for some greater cause - it was just this lady's garden (if it was for some local community or nature restauration project etc. it would have been different) . She had actually written about the living conditions on her workaway profile but since she was the one who offered us the position, I only read through the text that she had written me about the job in her e-mail, where she had conveniently not mentioned that we won't get much back for our work. In addition to that, she had stopped answering my e-mails just after I had asked her "is there anything else we need to know about of bring with us?", which we assumed was because of a bad connection (she did have internet at her own house. and electricity) or being very busy.

So we weighed our options for about half an hour in front of her house (luckily she wasn't at home at that moment) and decided that we will have the same (or better) living conditions camping randomly by a river... and we don't have to work 20 hours a week for it. Besides, the cheap camping options around here cost 2,5 dollars per person per night and for that price you already get electricity, wifi, proper kitchen and sometimes even hot water. So we did something that neither of us have ever done before. We just turned around and ran away from the promise we had made. So much for our careers as volunteers. But sorry lady, you have to give at least something back.

Instead, we chose a random town on our way north to stay for a few days to rethink our life and make plans. When we settled in our little hostel (camping for 2,50) in a small town called Puerto Misahuallí, it turned out that we were only one day away from The Carnaval and of course we had chosen the most famous town for the carnaval in whole Ecuador. A reminder: we have a history during this trip of accidentally being at the place where masses of people gather during some important celebrations. So unknowingly we visited the Iguazu falls during the first weekend of school holidays (you actually had to fight for a spot to see the falls); Alto Paraiso in Brazil during some big long weekend holidays, (half of São Paolo had invaded that small town); Cuzco during Christmas and New Years (the Inca capital - most famous place in whole Peru to be for New Years); the small coastal town of Huanchaco just before the Pope's visit  and now Puerto Misahuallí for the carnaval.

Since we had found a pretty nice place to stay, we decided take our curse as a blessing and stay for the carnaval. Now what exactly is the carnaval? The most famous ones are in Brazil - the Rio de Janero one, with all the semi-naked people dancing in a big parade. We had the parade as well, although it was pretty small (the whole town is about three streets wide in each direction) and well... not so naked or so Brazilian (Brazil = showing a lot of skin, big round buts with not much cover, glittering make up and exquisitely big fancy head dresses). Of course you had food stalls, farmers market, bands playing, people drinking and dancing, some competitions and many other ways to celebrate. But the main object of all the celebration seemed to be to make each other as wet, colorful and messy as possible.

I happened to be at the beach during the main day of the carnaval (the celebration goes on for four days) and during that time I saw people splashing each other with water (followed by pouring flour over people in some places), throwing eggs, spraying special carnaval foam on each other, smearing different colorful or shining powders on each other's faces, throwing eggs and so on. Of course I was a special target with my blonde hair and white skin. It was all fun for a few hours but after a while I grew tired of it. Plus my Colombian companions started to get excessively drunk and repetitive, so I headed back to hide in the hostel for the rest of the carnaval. I still have some blue in my hair as a reminder of the celebrations, which doesn't seem to wash out as easily as I expected.

Next, we headed just 30km away from Misahuallí to visit a local guy that we had met during the carnaval. He lived at a house, right at the edge of a jungle, which they had once used for organising jungle adventure tours and some voluntary projects. The house was right next to a river, surrounded by lush plants of the jungle with drinking water coming straight from the ground. So we decided to do our voluntary work there instead, as we actually had our own room with electricity and everything, plus a nice crowd of people (a Spanish girl and two Argentinian guys also visiting and volunteering for a place to stay) and a really relaxing atmosphere. We took turns cooking and helped around in the garden or building a cabaña for an hour or two a day.
The difference of jungle and other climates is of course the humidity. So after washing our clothes we had to wait for four days until they actually got almost dry. And of course there are more insects - trying to get a grasshopper out of your bedroom with a body as long as your palm is quite a challenge and meeting a spider of the same size in the kitchen can be quite startling. And of course the closest shops (5km) don't sell things like cheese or sausage... and the choice of vegetables was limited to onion, potato, tomato and capsicum. And of course there is a lot of what you would get in a RAINforest during the RAINY season. My helmet started molding after being inside a house for three days even though half of the walls were made out of nets to make the house breathe more. Nothing was ever completely dry in the jungle. But all in all, it was a nice and relaxing time. The barefoot local jungle people chilling by the roads already started nodding to us and got used to us as well.

Prices for gallon in USD
Ecuador left us with quite pleasant memories - the friendliness of people was a whole different world compared to Bolivia or the south of Peru. We actually felt welcomed in Ecuador. 5 dollars worth of petrol bought us more than 300 km and everyone was happy to sell it to us (another reference to Bolivia). The food still has a lot of rice and chicken but you have also some choices with a sauce instead of just meat and some inventive ways of preparing things (like making a sauce out of vegetables and meat, plus I guess we are getting used to the rice as well. Although we still try to avoid it, if possible because we know that in most cases it is not avoidable anyway.

But the biggest difference is the traffic. In Ecuador, they have the 'give way' and 'stop' signs in front of roundabouts and big roads. Ok, they are still South-American, so they may not always follow it, but they have an understanding of the concept that "sometimes I am not the most important one; sometimes I really need to give way to the person on the other road". And that changes so much. The roundabouts actually work around here (without having to install traffic lights both before and in the middle if roundabouts) and when you are driving on a big road, cars are less likely to suddenly appear in front of you so that you have just a few meters to stop or dodge them (again: still happens, but about ten times less likely).

In addition, Ecuador has such a variety of different climates on a relatively small territory. They love to say that you can have a breakfast on the beach, a lunch in the mountains and the dinner in the jungle. It would be a lot of driving for one day, but it is true - it does serve many tastes.

With all these positive qualities put together,  if anyone told me that I have to choose one South American country to live in, I would choose Ecuador without even thinking about it.

But I don't think I have appreciated Estonia as much as I do right now ever before.
-we have the freedom and possibilities to travel
-our bureaucracy has been made much easier thanks to all this e-riik network - the fact that you can do most procedures of government-related stuff over the internet. we took part in the last elections while in Brazil
-The supermarkets have such a choice of food (although in Ecuador, you have limes the size of melons and fresh lemongrass growing in the garden). so easy
-people are more educated and know something about the world. even the ones that aren't the smartest ones have some wider knowing that there is a world outside our country and it is different
-people dare to be different from others - a lot of alternative culture
-the houses have to be pretty-damn-well-built to keep the cold out and have a heating system. Everywhere all over the world, in the "warm" countries, they have to put all their clothes on when it drops under 10 degrees because you can see through the houses. And chilly weather is not something that happens only rarely
-people respect each other, privacy and each other's time more. promises are kept more
-many other things as well