Drunken Psychiatrists in Ecuador

I return home from my Quilatoa trek to a very quiet hostel. The boys are still at the beach, there is nothing on television and I soon get bored. Answer; wander down to the local pub to have a few beers and to see what the night will bring. Within one hour I am in a very loud pub comparing our respective governments and healthcare systems my new friend Dr Ricardo alberto hidalgo Molina. Dr Ric is a very intelligent and currently very drunk psychiatrist from Chile. It would seem that he owns a never ending bottle of whiskey. Many people come and join our table, this man knows everyone despite being a long way from home. I do not dwell on this fact. Dr Ric is very short of stature, has a big beard, big heart and is everything a good psychiatrist should be…..crazy and smart and with zero inhibitions. His lack of inhibitions is beautifully displayed when, despite my protests, he forces me onto a stage to salsa dance with some friends of his.

The night and whiskey flows by, at around 2 am I decide it is time to go. Whilst waiting for a taxi Dr Ric decides to analyze two rastifarian drug dealers to find out what “makes them tick”. Thankfully just as he is hitting some raw nerves a taxi arrives to our rescue. The two mean looking men realizing a sale is not going to happen look about ready to really loose patience with their impromptu psychoanalsis. We bundle into a taxi and head for home. So I thought.

Dr Ric joins me and two new friends of ours in a taxi. Ric downed a few quick whiskeys just prior to leaving. The effect of which is that he has no idea where he is staying and is confusing his french, spanish and english. After about an hour of dead ends and last minute U-turns we see Dr Ric safely to his hotel and out of our care. He leaves telling me I must come and stay with him for christmas in Chile. I thought this was an empty promise.

My two new friends, both students keen to practice their english, invite me to their home for a night cap. “It is not far away” they assure me. Soon I am in a student apartment 45 minutes out of town in a very shady looking neighbourhood. We share two beers between the three of us, tell a few stories and soon we are ready for bed. It is 3am and not one car is on the road, I have no intentions of walking anywhere apart from to the bathroom. My student friends kindly offer me their guest room for the night. The guest room is a closet sized room about one meter high, under their stairs with just enough room for a single mattress. I crawl in and fall asleep clutching my money and jacket. I am slightly concerned that I will be robbed. Last week I had my wallet stolen along with $300, my credit, bank cards and my drivers license. Needless to say I am hesitant to trust anyone at this stage. My new friends seem ok though…..

I wake in the morning, promptly bash my head on the very low ceiling and emerge from my hobbit hole somewhere in Quito. I am slightly disorientated and thankfully still clutching my money and jacket. I wake my friends, thank them for a great night, share empty promises to catch up again and bid them farewell. They still do not believe that we eat kangaroo in Australia.

Back at the hostel I have two days of spanish classes. My classes involve walking around the beautiful town of Quito with my teacher, hanging out in parks and asking strangers for directions and the time. If only pharmacy classes were as pleasant.

In these two days I manage to find an orphanage to deliver some donations for two friends in Tasmania. A very rewarding and sobering experience. Despite help from Ecuador’s postal employee I also manage to send a package of presents home to my beloved niece and nephew to fill their christmas stockings. The postal lady seemed more interested in opening all the presents to find out what is in them. Hopefully she decides that my family need the presents more than hers!

Baby Teresa Quito, Ecuador

grey Baby Teresa Quito, Ecuador

Prior to leaving for South America I was given the opportunity by Sammy and Kirsty to bring with me 20 Baby Teresa outfits to donate to an orphanage in Ecuador. Quito, the capital of Ecuador has a large population of underprivileged and abandoned children due to its underemployment rate of 43.8%. (census 2001). The poverty in this town is hard to miss as beggers frequently approach tourists, many holding infants or young children.grey Baby Teresa Quito, Ecuador

My friend Victor, a dutch medical student who speaks far better spanish than I offered to help me to find a suitable orphanage. After two hours of fruitless searching on the internet for an address we decided to just walk into a church and ask. Four churches later we were on the way to an orphanage call “San Vincent de Paul”. Located in a poor neighbourhood one hour out of the city centre San Vincent de Paul is currently home to 65 infants aged 2 months to two years.

grey Baby Teresa Quito, Ecuador

Initially we were greeted with some suspicion by the head nun at the orphanage but after we showed her the Baby Teresa outfits and managed to explain why we were visiting she was quite happy to show us around. Each bedroom held about twenty cots, infants and small children were everywhere. I saw six very hardworking volunteers feeding, changing and playing with infants and trying to maintain the peace.  grey Baby Teresa Quito, Ecuador

The play area had few toys which the children were all sharing. An excited volunteer offered to dress some of the children in their new clothes for some photos. The other children crowded around wanting to be part of the action. After a few photos we left the workers alone who were busily dressing the infants in their new clothes.

It was a great experience to deliver this donation to such a worthy place. I found it immensely rewarding when I left to see a room full of little green and orange “tiggers” sporting their new jump suits.

Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador Volcano

grey Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador Volcano

My Dutch friends and I walk downtown as people stagger past rapidly shedding their Saturday night fevers. A big Land Cruiser picks us and six others up for a one hour drive through increasingly mountainous country. Our bike laden Land Cruiser stops just below the snow line of an active volcano, we are about to go bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador Volcano.

Excitement has overcome our expected breathlessness at this height. We each choose a steed from the bike rack and spend a few dizzying moments racing around in the thin air before stopping to gasp for breath. Cotopaxi is more than just a volcano, it is the third highest active volcano in the world, home to one of the few glaciers on the equator. Due to the earth’s bulge and our proximity to the equator we are currently riding around one of the farthest point from the earth’s centre, Chimborazo is the furthest.

We take in the commanding view down the valley and over the expansive national park as tired mountaineers return from overnight summits. Three photos finish my camera batteries, I make a mental note to again listen to my dad and only buy quality lithium batteries. Bus loads of other tourists stop to either look at the view from the car park or to trek four hundred metres up to the hiking refuge, the staging area for summit attempts.

Before we are fully awake and without the support of caffeine we straddle our mountain bikes and set off.

“Race ya down Victor”

“Oh, this is going to be fun, what about this view”

“Yeah man, expansive hey, bit bloody cold though!”
grey Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador VolcanoThe road is more a dirt track than road sporting very slippery volcanic dust and rocks at the edges. Two Canadians on our tour have exuberantly spent the entire drive bragging about their outdoor and biking prowess. I am very conscious that my bike has brake levers reversed to what I am used to, my front brake lever is on the left side not the right and vice versa. Bouncing down the road I feel like I have shot back in time seventeen years to a time when my dad and I spent many blissful weekends racing our bikes around local mountain tracks.

I am giggling and whooping like a lad. My mouth soon fills with black dust as I am laughing, hooting and breathing in the dusty, cold air while passing busses with squealing brakes. Feeling very energised I stop to wait for the others. Two Brazilians pull up behind me, followed by Victor and Vincent. Vincent is covered in black dust and is bleeding. He looks like a smashed up Black Mistrel and spitting dust out of his mouth,

“Que Pasa Vincent?”

“I pulled what I thought was the rear brake on too hard, went over, bounced a lot”

“Woah, you okay dude? Your pants are shredded! Let me check your knee mate”

“Nope, that will just make it hurt more, let’s keep going”

“Tough man, go easy hey bro. Hey here come those Canadians, looks like someone else had a fall – what’s up guys?”

“Bad crash, my handle bars are bent. What a rush!”

“Hey Victor looks like we are the survivors!”

grey Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador VolcanoVictor and I take off again racing each other down the last section of descent, the others follow slightly more conservatively. We are dodging cars and busses, ruts and rocks. Occasional patches on the road are like powder snow where the fine volcanic dust has gathered. I muse that skiers spend tons of money and time trying to find powder like this, however it is not as highly appreciated on a pushbike.

My mind has a running commentary, ‘Front brake equals rear brake…wow what a view…rock…dusty spot…they drive on the wrong side of the road here…what a view; bus!…dad would love this…front brake equals rear…bounce, bounce, shit another bus!…what a view…don’t get carried away with racing…cool just passed Victor…take that sucker…‘

Soon after forty-five exhilarating minutes we arrive at the junction where we are told to stop. One of the Canadians has taken a second tumble over the handlebars bruising both face and ego. Now at the base of the volcano, sadly obscured by cloud, we set off through an increasingly fertile valley which follows a growing stream of meltwater. Trying to jump over ruts and ramps Victor and I hold sprint races which finish when our breath runs out. Maybe I am a teenager stuck in a grown up body, for one whole hour I am totally engrossed in trying to jump my bike and simply enjoying the view across this Eden-like valley.

grey Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador VolcanoWe stop close to the stream for a rest and drink. There is a flat grassy plain to our right looking up at the snow capped peaks and down the valley. Victor and I decide that this would be the perfect spot to just pitch a tent, light a fire, drink some whiskey and solve the problems of the world. It would be hard to think of many problems that need solving in this place, however. The two chaps strip and jump into the stream, they sit and laugh in the milky testicle shrinking waters.


I splash some water on my face and feel that wonderful buzzing sensation as the sun slowly warms my goosebumps. We pedal along the valley, wild horses are everywhere eating lush grass and looking like they are enjoying life as much as us. Cotopaxi slowly revolves as we ride but keeps her summit shyly hidden in cloud. Vincent has a moment of madness when he says that riding for days around this amazing country may be a good idea. When we stop for lunch our sore bums promptly cease grand ideals of any extended riding.

With full bellies we join the main road again, leaving our equine companions and the green fields behind. The main road has much quicker, smoother downhill runs but is more crowded with cars and far more dusty. We get to the park entrance and bundle our bikes back on to the Land Cruiser. Back in Quito we eat bad Mexican food and relive the day.

grey Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador Volcanogrey Bike riding down Cotopaxi Ecuador Volcano







Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador – Latachunga,

grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,

I am in Latacunga, a rural city two hours out of Quito and feeling rather alone. I do not have my english/spanish dictionary nor any maps. I didn’t think that I would need either as my friends have maps and both speak very good spanish. We are here to see one of the most famous festival in ecuador

Unfortunately I was unable to squeeze onto the first bus. The last I saw of my friends was two hours ago as the bus pulled away with them on board leaving me stranded on the platform. I decided to just continue catching busses with the hope of meeting them again. grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,

We have decided to go to the Mamma Negra festival, this is apparently a must do if you are around town in September. The people of Latacunga live very close to Cotopaxi volcano. Once a year they hold a festival which is an eclectic mix of traditional and christian beliefs to appease the gods and to stop their town being destroyed. They think this works and have clearly forgiven the four times it didn’t work and their city was destroyed. Just as I was getting ready to write off the day as a loss and by pure chance I bump into my friends amongst the throngs of revelers and we set about finding the action. We had a few false starts then follow the music to a street corner where we buy a liter of beer each for $1, beer is a necessity in the sun. The lonely planet reads that once you find the festival it is impossible to not join in. This is very true. grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,

Soon we are in the street amongst thousands of colorfully dressed people dancing, drinking and enjoying themselves. The parade winds its way through the street helped along by a cacophony of sound provided by countless marching and salsa bands. The atmosphere is electric, everyone is having fun and dancing. Drunk people dance in between trumpet players and guitarists. An army marching band passes us trailed by its own alcohol cart. The band master is holding a half empty bottle of spirit rather than a baton. Couples kiss and dance while we sip our beers and snap away on our cameras. grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,Even the police are spotted enjoying a sneaky dram. Random paraders regularly approach us and pour various concoctions down our throats. This is for good luck, soon we are feeling very lucky indeed. A foursome dressed in pure white do a cleansing dance around Victor and Vincent. This ends with a man spitting a mouthful of spirits all over them. They are cleansed. A man behind us is passed out clutching an empty bottle of whiskey. We have had about 6 shots of various strengths forced (bend my rubber arm!) upon us and decide it would be wise to leave early rather than risking being drunk and homeless in a foreign, crazy town.



grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,grey Mamma Negra Festival in Ecuador    Latachunga,Our good luck with busses continues, we quickly find a bus and soon we arrive at Quito, exhausted but still enjoying the moment. Victor realizes that his wallet has been stolen. It has been a bad week for him with Ipod, camera, jacket and now his wallet growing legs. Back at the hostel I think to myself that the festival would be quite effective. The noise, chaos and mess of that parade would be enough to make any god think twice before messing with the people of Latacunga.

Quito, Ecuador homestay

Mum is currently ironing Ando’s shorts and pants to get him ready for a flight to New York. It is refreshing to be surrounded by such domestic normality. However I do not pass the opportunity to tease him about being ‘madres poco nino.’

I am enjoying torturing my new family with bad Spanish while sleeping with my pack in a room the size of a beer carton. There is no floor space and to sleep I have to spoon with my pack. Spooning with big red has not become weird yet, we have shared some highs and lows this year and have formed a strong bond in the process, there are no secrets between us.

Mum is the head of the household and compensates for an almost empty nest by taking in lost Spanish students. Mum comes up with a new nickname for me every time I see her. This morning I was a ‘povrito’ (poor little boy), this afternoon ‘delicisio’ (self explanatory) tonight I have been promoted to ‘cholito’ (Spanish version of nigger). Dad makes the odd tired and grumpy cameo appearance between shift working. Their son Ando is a very muscular and very gay flight attendant. I spent much of last night teaching him how to say platypus. This is a very difficult word for the native Spanish speaker to wrap their tongue around, “Try again mate…Plat-a-puss.”

“Plant-i-pies….plat-u-pees…..plat-a-push, oh, just forget it Ben. Hey do you like to party?”

As well as improving my Spanish I have learnt that when a gay flight attendant asks if you like to party the correct answer (for the straight man of course) is “No.” Confusion reigned supreme after Ando got the wrong impression with my reply, “Yes, a bit, depends on my mood mate. I used to go out and party with just about anyone at every opportunity you know, but these days I mainly just enjoy staying in on weekends and partying with a few friends.”

My new home is in a very secure compound which from the outside closely resembles a gaol. This is some comfort to me as Shaun recently had his house entered by four armed robbers. He and his family were tied up for four hours and held at gunpoint while the men casually loaded televisions and anything of value into a waiting truck. Suffice to say I do not begrudge having to open three separate locks to arrive home.

Walking to Spanish school and watching the psychotic traffic I think about the little differences that make Quito such an interesting town. Young people walk with salsa songs squeaking from mobile phone speakers, they strut along the cracked pavement like it is their private WWF walk on music, “aaaand In the blue corner is the Juan Bigflank!”

People more dance than walk about their way, this is a skill I am working on and have only mastered after one too many Mojitos, similar to dancing and karaoke.

It is impossible to get a decent feed of vegetables without paying some kind of gastronomic tax. The weather is very stable and the scenery spectacular. Things are cheap; one litre of beer is one dollar, mineral water only forty cents. Police do not equal safety, if you were in trouble they would just as likely watch the action with nonchalant disinterest and wait for a payoff from the aggressor. One really comes to value friendship with a walk to the ATM becoming two vastly different experiences with or without friends, as does catching a bus or going to the shops.

That said the city is beautiful, it is bristling with parks and old colonial buildings. There are some truly spectacular sights to enjoy whilst firmly clutching wallet and camera inside coat pockets.

People are happy and do not know what an ab-blaster or toasted sandwich maker is. They do not care much for material things. Group them together on a sunny day and press play on an old scratchy stereo and they morph into one single, stomping, ecstatic entity. Compare that scene with the unhappy house wife in suburbia. She is surrounded with shiny big screen watsits and plug in thingamies all pre-ported to make life both easier and happier. She waits all day for her husband to return from work with more funds for that much needed 20 000 amp poo-wizzer. She whiles away her time pushing a Dyson 3 000 and trolling the internet on her brand new 100 inch Dell million giga-thingo deluxe ‘master hub’ searching for the secret to happiness.

I wander into the Spanish School very glad that I am off that bus, red rucksack, crappy old camera and myself are doing just fine. I am slightly disappointed I have never seen a

20 000 amp poo wizzer in action though.

My last week of lessons are very difficult. Having mastered present tense and obligatory statements my teacher and I have moved on to tackle future and past tense. I would be happy to just walk the parks asking people for directions with my teacher laughing from a safe distance like last week. Thankfully I now possess enough Spanish to upsize my KFC meal and to order more than one beer at a time. The more Spanish I learn, the easier it is to learn. My current work is to translate a paragraph and answer some questions. My translation reads as follows;

‘Such how agree tomorrow. Seven months, ten to reunite the people plaza. Think morning delicious and the day is presented. On seven point arrive the bus immediate sound first gear. Hurrah! Mr conductor. Roll up your rucksack and seat occupants each trip results in singers of songs. Own the occasion, for some count jokes and laughs…’

My confidence about navigating South America alone is high as written Spanish is harder than spoken. I think.

I hope I never need to reunite the people plaza or I will be in big trouble. Staring at my books I have reached an executive decision not to learn past or future tense, it is much more fun just living in the present.

Own the occasion for some count jokes and laughs.

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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