I woke up to the screeching of an alarm and Julie jumping on my bed. “It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday!” I rolled over in my small twin bed and pulled the blankets over my head.
“Don’t remind me…” I mumbled as I tried to ignore the fact that I was turning 30. She continued to bellow about what a great day it was and how she couldn’t wait to celebrate. I laid in the large suite with the bleach white blankets pulled tightly around my head and thought about my last 30 years, or at the least the ones I could remember. Then I realized how lucky I really was…all the places I’ve been…all the amazing people I’ve met. And my god, most people turn 30 in a trashy bar or at home with kids running around. I was in Ecuador! I had exactly the life I wanted to have and I was going to celebrate it. I threw the blankets off and jumped out of bed, excited about our last day in South America.
We made our way to breakfast, and as I casually mentioned that I didn’t want the whole tour group knowing it was my birthday, Julie looked at me with concerned eyes and asked, “What would you do if they found out?” I knew she was up to something.
We boarded the bus after breakfast, and before taking off, Antonio made an announcement to everyone that it was my birthday, which was followed by two versions of Happy Birthday – one in English and one in Spanish. Julie quietly moved to a seat on the other side of the bus and winked at me with ornery eyes. Of course this wasn’t the end of the birthday celebrations either. Later that night, I was serenaded by an entire Ecuadorian singing group. I also had my first experience with Torta Mil Hojas, a very famous South American dessert made of layers of pastry and caramel. It was delicious! And my most favorite part of my whole birthday was the small, foam globe one of our fellow tourists had gotten me. They handed it to me and said, “Here is the world. Let it surround you on all of your travels. It is all around you.” I think of this quote every time I travel.
We rode the bus for a few hours that morning, making a couple of stops. We visited the largest rose farm in Ecuador. I had always known that the majority of roses imported into the USA were from Ecuador, so this was intriguing to me. It was almost exactly as I had expected it. Rows and rows of roses, buildings chilled to just the perfect temperature, and boxes filling each room, just waiting to be sent away.
We stopped at a dairy farm, and since I grew up on a dairy farm, I didn’t think this would be that thrilling. But I had never milked a cow before. I hadn’t even touched a cow! So when we had the chance to squirt milk from the cow’s udder into a bucket, we all hopped on up and began pulling and squeezing, of course with latex gloves. We did have some limitations.
Our last stop before Quito was a local school where about two dozen children performed for us, singing and dancing. The school was very different from the elementary school I attended as a child, and I felt lucky to have the education I did.
Finally, our trip was coming to an end. We arrived in Quito with the afternoon to explore before our late night departure. We spent some time in the local park, where the word QUITO stood in tall, red, block letters. Tourists were climbing all over the letters, taking pictures and enjoying the park. I started out sitting in the scoop of the “U,” but I wanted to get to the top, like everyone else. It was a tough climb, but with the help of Matt, and some lifting over his shoulders, I was able to make it all the way up. And the pictures turned out wonderfully.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we were enjoying the park. We found a teeter totter and enjoyed our time there as well. I hadn’t been on a teeter totter in years, actually decades. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – it really is the small things in life that are the most thrilling. Seriously, go find a teeter totter. I guarantee you’ll have fun!
After the park, we were hungry and headed out to find some food. It was a Friday. The Friday before Election Day in Ecuador. And in Ecuador (and many Latin American countries) it is illegal to drink the few days before an election. So we headed out to find a restaurant, knowing all too well that we would be having bottled water to drink.
We roamed the streets casually, just taking in the last few moments of Quito, when we stumbled upon a liquor store. We found it odd that this store was even open, and our curiosity couldn’t keep us away. There was a very large step to get into the very narrow doorway, so Matt and I just waited on the sidewalk while Mike and Julie went to “check it out.” We knew they wouldn’t be long and didn’t mind the few minutes outside. There was a potent odor coming from inside the small store too.
A few quick minutes later, Mike and Julie came rushing out, handed me a black plastic bag with two large bottles of – something – inside, and told Matt, “Push! Push her fast! Back to the hotel now!” We rushed the four blocks back to the hotel and up the elevator, all the while confused on what kind of contraband I was hiding underneath my jacket. Once we were behind the privacy of our hotel room door, I pulled the plastic bag out and peered inside. Two bottles of wine. Two bottles of illegal red wine.
Julie and Mike started to tell the story, panting from our jog back, but filled with adrenaline. They had walked into the store, expecting nothing. It was illegal to drink on this given day, more or less buy and sell alcohol. But once they got inside, the owner, who they thought appeared to be Jamaican, asked, “What would you like?”
Mike responded, “Dos vinos.”
“Where are you from?”
“Ok, you buy and go straight back to hotel.”
“Ok.” And they exchanged a few dollars for red wine. And instantly I knew why there was a woman standing in the doorway of the store, looking back and forth, up and down the very vacant street, as Matt and I waited outside for our friends as they committed a crime.
But now we were safely at our hotel, with two bottles of corked wine and not a corkscrew to be found. We tried everything. Banging the bottles on the wall. Shoving pens into them. Using paperclips to create holes in the cork. We finally decided to risk our luck and ask the front desk to help us. The hotel worker came into our room carrying a silver plate with a corkscrew on it. He looked at us and asked when we were leaving. We told him in just a few hours, and he explained that it was illegal for us to drink but that since we were Americans and were leaving, he would open the wine for us.
While we enjoyed our illegal red wine and reminisced about the trip, Mike went to pick up a few pizzas. And when he came back, he had a third bottle of wine. He said, “I just couldn’t resist seeing if they would give me more. And they did! And it was a different person this time too!”
We finished our wine just as the sun was setting, and it was time to go. Our time in Ecuador had come to an end. We somberly boarded the bus, wishing Antonio and Carlos farewell and promising to stay in touch. We shuffled through the airport lines and boarded the plane, and just moments after we took off, we were all sound asleep, exhausted from the adventures in Ecuador.