Friday, October 15, 2010


Andes above the clouds

Ecuador had won our hearts.  It had also stolen our children; well one child to be exact.

Daughter Jenny and  husband Chris formerly of Homeleigh in northern New South Wales had found their personal El Dorado converting a run down building in the historic centre on Calle Larga  into a welcoming haven for locals and visitors  to Ecuador’s hidden secret, undoubtedly the jewel in its mountain topped crown, Cuenca.

We had made the long trek from Australia and stayed with them for three delightful months.  Delightful except for the havoc wreaked by our travel agency in Brisbane when they blithely changed our return flights without first informing us.   But all that was now just a horrid nightmare, we were back on track and heading down to Guayaquil to start our return flight home.
The twisting road led straight down

Tearful goodbyes behind us we first piled on extra woollies as our hired car crested the high altitude peaks  only to throw them off as we approached the tropical coast and Guayaquil;  Ecuador’s largest city.

We were back in sprawling suburbia,  high rise and concrete everywhere, humidity and heat.  We were both in shock.  For three joyful months we had been neither cold nor hot, we had walked literally everywhere, been assailed by colour and character, had delighted in conversations  and friendships with the locals.  Cuenca had come very close to stealing our very being.

With limited time to explore and luckily not able to see what lay ahead at its airport we set off to walk Guayaquil’s city centre.  This obviously was no Rome or Athens nor was it a smaller version of San Paulo;  or for that matter, thank goodness,  a soulless variety of any number of major cities back home.

Guayaquil was indeed a city of Spanish inheritance, it had pockets of grandeur and colour and surprise. 

For a start it had iguanas.

Did your thoughts immediately spring to Elizabeth Taylor and the ‘Night of the Iguana’.  No? Obviously you're  far too young for  Hollywood trivia;  but no doubt  you have seen the marvellous documentaries about the Galapagos and the not so little creatures that run amok there.
A squirrel passing the time
Well now, as we soon found out together with squirrels and tortoises, iguanas also have free run of a small park right in the centre of Guayaquil’s highrise central business area.  Parque Simon Bolivar is a neat  handkerchief sized  parcel of clipped lawns, massive shade trees, small ponds  and an enormous and growing family of free ranging Green Iguanas that can reach two metres in length.
Lunch time in the park

At this stage I hadn't checked the trees above
The park is bounded by busy traffic laden streets, overlooked by the city’s Cathedral and within a few blocks of the Malecon or waterfront.

The day we were there at least two school groups,  youngsters immaculately dressed  in school uniform, were busy teasing and in turn being teased by the resident iguanas.  Not that the kids were scared, like youngsters everywhere they shrieked with delight when the slow moving prehistoric looking overgrown lizards  lumbered anywhere near them.
Just two friends passing the time

Park workers ensured the Iguanas had plenty to eat with mounds of vegetable greens piled in various locations though I did see at least one being fed the remains of an icecream  by a generous  toddler.  

We also discovered the hard way that iguanas climb trees and spend a lot of time lolling in a heat induced slumber upon tree branches high above.  Some of the shrieks I imagine, were the result of a smelly discharge from those tree trunks.   I know mine was.

The day we were in Guayaquil coincided with a student demonstration and the streets were at various places blocked by police in riot gear.  But I noticed the general population seemed impervious to what was going on and continued through and past the police cordons as though they didn’t exist.

I liked their approach, treat a problem as one would a  storm in a teacup and it quickly becomes one.
A storm in a teacup

But there was another part of Guayaquil’s make up that intrigued me. In Cuenca where I’m told there are 52 churches, one for every Sunday of the year, religion plays a huge part  in the lives of the local people.  Barely a day goes by in that Andes city without a religious parade or demonstration enacted by devout and humble people.  It seems their religion is an everyday affair with direct ties to families both past and present.

Here in Guayaquil, I wouldn’t have the chance to observe their church going ritual,  and I  guess  on such a short visit such deep thoughts really never entered my head.

But then as I rounded a corner in a busy office lined street thronged with people scurrying each and every way, and hesitating to cross against the traffic of buses, cars and honking horns I glanced up  at a building opposite.   What I saw immediately transported me back in time to a childhood  of catholic schools and colourful prayer books.

The building that caught my eye was some four or five stories high, and on two of its visible walls were a collage of  beautifully crafted murals of the Nativity, of Mary and Joseph, and of Jesus.

Yes religion is alive and clearly evident on the streets in everyday down town Guayaquil.

©Robyn Mortimer 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010



 The actual day to day business involved with travel often touches on various necessary domestic chores. Beds and sleeping we’ve already covered, transport? Hardly  described as a chore, but hey, hair and there is an interesting subject.

I’ve taken you through my daughter’s experience in Bombay  when a shampoo and dry involved a vacuum cleaner and a quick rush to the lady’s loo to douse her head under the cold water tap; On supermarket shelves I’ve searched shampoo articles in foreign languages invariably agonising on the wrong choice. 
 And I’ve shown you the itinerant barber and his tools in a remote open air market in China, but the most interesting and entertaining  anecdote would have to be the Reluctant Travellers experience in Ecuador.
The Reluctant Traveller is a no fuss person, back home his greying hair is butchered by a retired barber friend who does the work,  short back sides and top, in our front sun room along with other local cronies who front up for the gossip and the convenience.

The barber also a neighbour and old friend is particularly fond of a scotch or two so its always wise to grab him long before the sun has risen over the yardarm.

So faced with a three month stay in South America it goes without saying  my Reluctant Traveller will at some time be in need of shearing. The inevitable day arrived, son in law Chris offered to tag along to interpret and get himself a shave at the same time.  I tagged along to photograph proceedings.

My daughter had spied a barber shop up past the local  vegetable market that appealed to her sense of antiquity.  Original furniture, implements, advertising and obviously original owners as well.  

This would be fun I remember thinking, an eighty year old customer being attended to by an 80 plus barber.  At least I couldn’t see any scotch bottles lying around.
A close shave

While I read the local papers

Son in law Chris scored the younger of the two men in attendance, while the older, almost a clone of my golden oldie, installed my husband in a grand old chair first used, as he pointed to a picture on the wall, in Chicago at some time before the war.

I assumed he meant World War 2.

My mind immediately tuned into Chicago’s St Valentines Day Massacre and I took another glance at the kindly old man wielding his scissors and tucking a towel around my husbands neck. Surely he couldn’t have been around in the days of  Al Capone...early 1920’s?  No, not even the Reluctant Traveller is that old!

The job in hand proceeded with bilingual conversation involving Spanish chatter from the barber and Aussie monosyllables from guess who.  Chris was trying to interpret but his barber was flying, or should that be shaving, rather too close to the wind and my son in law was wishing himself anywhere but in that chair.

I picked up a Spanish language newspaper and couldn't make head nor tail or it, following instead the pictures.

At last the job was done.  Stan’s haircut I thought was better than our friend's effort back home; Chris’s face though was beginning to look rather raw. We paid our money, an unbelievably cheap couple of dollars, and with much Gracia's and smiles departed.

The fun part came some weeks later when the Reluctant Traveller and I passed down the same Cuenca street and glancing into the barber shop saw the older man hard at work with a customer, and  his off-sider, younger by no more than ten or fifteen years, snoozing away fast asleep in the old Chicago barbers chair.

Snoozing on the job

©Robyn Mortimer 2010

Sunday, October 3, 2010


    Having at times made the statement that money isn’t everything, any committed traveller, however really needs to think carefully about one absolute necessity; cash.  No matter how thrifty you are there is still a need for a healthy lot of folding money.

     Following an early solo venture when I foolishly set out with my first ever credit card, I vowed there and then to cut the plastic night-mare into tiny pieces; the amount owing was beyond belief.
Aghast at a huge bill I needed to conceal from the husband I sometimes call the Reluctant Traveller, I was forced to sacrifice my entire collection of early edition National Geographic magazines, a chunky gold bracelet and an antique Royal Doulton ceramic, a rare birthday gift from him the year before.  Luckily it took many house moves and even more years before he finally noticed the Royal Doulton was missing. 

     I realised it was time to find a paying job, something that might help me continue the fancy free and foot loose persona I had suddenly acquired and desperately wanted to continue.

    A job behind the scenes on a television show opened new doors; a summer perk entertaining passengers on a Russian cruise ship, the Feodor Shalyapin, meant the whole family minus the Doberman could tag along to Singapore as well.

   The Russian vessel had been purchased from the Cunard Line mere months prior to sailing for Australia.  Known in its previous life as the posh Franconia, the ship had been lying at anchor in a UK river for a considerable number of years and wasn't in the most pristine condition.  In fact we would later see proof of this when crew attempted to lower the life boats to transport passengers from ship to jetty at Bali and one motorised boat crashed through the deck rails instead.

Two surviving life boats in Bali

    This was also the Russian crews first time out of the Soviet Union and while the captain appeared to be senior officer in charge that title and responsibility actually belonged to a  female KGB officer who outranked him and operated from an office somewhere below deck.

    The liner sailed into the tropics and before long I noticed the ships large and jolly seamstresses working non stop on what appeared to be new poolside uniforms for staff.  The sewing machines were set up in the ships laundry and every time I went down there I was amazed at the number of laughing jostling crew, both women and men, striding around modelling newly made distinctively patterned bikinis and swim trunks; somehow the fabric seemed vaguely familiar.
    A few nights later while trawling the decks for my thirteen-year-old son who apparently had won the motherly affection of the American entertainer, vaudeville violinist, Edith Dahl, ‘a busty blond well past her use by date and old enough to recall prohibition’, I came across a puzzling sight.  Stretched out in the ships wake, bobbing up and down and clearly visible in the moonlight, was a long line of wooden deck chairs. 

    Immediately the penny dropped.  The crew were stripping off the woven fabric covers and throwing the denuded skeletal evidence overboard.    The covers made snappy, though brief swimmers. The Feodor Shalyapin was a wacky ship with an even wackier crew. But that wasn’t the only weird thing that happened. 

That's my errant son flying through the air as we crossed the Equator.
     It was suggested passengers not converse with ship’s officers because they spoke no English, but when the Reluctant Traveller and I joined the captain in his cabin for a memorable Russian feast complete with endless vodka toasts both he and his charming first officer spoke perfect English. 

    Then late one night while searching the decks for the errant son who had again overstepped his curfew, this time playing cards with the crew, I saw the dark shadow of a submarine emerge from the depths; very quietly shadowy figures were transferred back and forth from the sub before it moved off out of sight.  

   Next morning I ran into the second officer and bubbling with curiosity asked him about the submarine.  He looked at me for a second or two and then said, ‘what submarine?’  It was the last time I heard him speak English.  It was the end too of our cosy little dinners with the captain.

©Robyn Mortimer 2010