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Thursday, June 15, 2006

"Marie Elena...Como Estas?"

After a month plus of New York City, wherein I came to find that manicuring, lunching, gyming and gossiping with people you run into who ALSO don’t work on the Upper East Side wasn’t doing it for me, I decided to head back out for a quick June trip. Itchy feet, right, Sar? I debated on the possible wheres over and over again in my head; it needed to be somewhere close because I needed to be home over July 4th, it needed to be stimulating both culturally and intellectually (Belize just left a bad taste in my mouth), and it needed to be Latin (b/c as you all know, I’m pretty Latin obsessed these days). So, after settling on Panama and Colombia, I found myself back in touch with Ecuadorian legend, Jose Luis, and after much prompting, decided to make a quick first stop in Ecuador for five days to see him and the Galapagos friends who helped me start this whole adventure eight months ago.

I was able to book my flights on miles, thrilled that they only space left open on the flights were in first class. So after a night without sleep, I headed onto my five hour flight to Panama where I was completely ready to doze for the duration. But, alas, the first class mantra on Copa Airlines (Panama based) isn’t at all what one might expect. That being, leave the passengers alone, keep the noise to a minimum, and do not encourage inter-passenger friendships. Yeah well, I guess I have to remember that the Latinos are a bit different. First of all, the stewardesses (stewardi?) had a practical convention in the galley of first class. They were rat-tat-chatting like a Telemundo soap opera about the misdeeds of their muchachos the entire trip. Dish your dirt in the coach galley, senoritas. Not here, chicas, not here. Add to that, a rapper (who I cannot place) who had his ‘wo-man’ (as he referred to her) sit in the row in front of him with his child who screamed and cried the whole time, giving the rapper-I-can’t-place the pass to lean over the seats every few minutes (did I mention he was as big as a house and when he moved, the whole plane moved?) to try to get the wo-man to quiet the kid. Why are children allowed in first class, mind you? All people traveling with kids, the rich and rap moguls included, should NOT be allowed to purchase a first class ticket. It should be coach all the way. You have a kid, you’re in coach. I mean, fancy boutique hotels in fabulous places don’t allow children under 12, why not first class on the airlines. I didn’t sleep a wink, I was irritated the whole time

Now, the upside to my first class Copa ticket was the VIP lounge in Panama where I got to spend my 10 HOUR layover to Quito, happily ensconced in their overstuffed chairs, using their internet to plan my next legs, watching the World Cup, eating their muffins (AM) and crackers and cheese (PM), and loading up on their excellent Panamanian coffee. Had I not had the first class ticket, I would’ve been stuck in either the crappy “Lo Siento Por La Construccion” war zone of a terminal or spent the day schlepping around Panama, possibly a Canal Zone tour, lugging my overstuffed backpack and sweating my ass off in an outfit suitable for the 60 degree Quito climate, rather than the 99 degree Panama climate. Yeah. All of this would NOT make for a pretty sight when greeting Jose Luis upon exit from the plane. Thank god for Copa first class. Funny how fast it all changes, right?

Arriving in Quito, I found myself smiling out the window. This was where my whole trip began last year. Here was where it all started. I remember feeling unsure, apprehensive, elated and anxious at the same time when the plane touched down last October. I remember my first hours in Quito, in my little hotel room in a strange South American city, sleeping off the anxiety of what I had embarked upon. My phone rang while I feigned slumber, it was Cohen calling, making sure I landed alright, wishing me luck and love one last time. The relief of seeing a familiar number, name at that moment had me immediately emotional. I remember staring at the stucco ceiling for hours afterward, paralyzed by the decision I had made, semi-scared to leave the cocoon of the room, Quito beckoned but I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I remember wondering how I’d make each day count, how I would achieve a sense of place, culture and education in each new surrounding, how I would be received by people, both natives and other travelers, how I would survive feeling lonely. And yet, by the time I arrived in the Galapagos, I had realized I would succeed in my adventures, I would make new friends, I would accomplish all I set out to do.

Ecuador holds a special place in my heart for that reason. It was in Ecuador, in Galapagos specifically, that I started my trip. I made friends who I am so excited to see this week, who are excited to see me. Over the past eight months, we’ve been in touch, we’ve kept up. They helped me understand how strong I was, how anything is possible once you set your mind to it. They embraced me in a way that I hadn’t expected, especially that early in the game, and helped set the tone for the future travels. Sometimes it’s that initial tone that can make or break a situation. And, I truly feel that my first experience in Ecuador helped me to experience the rest of the world. All of the fears I had that first day in Quito never resurfaced, and it’s been smooth sailing since. So, now, landing in Quito, I’m ecstatic. It’s just fitting to be starting the second half of my travels back here. It feels right. Going through customs, getting my baggage, walking out of the doorway to a sea of Ecuadorian faces greeting their loved ones. And there, off to the right, pokes a familiar face from the beginning, eyes welcoming me back to Quito….

“Marie Elena... Como estas?”

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