January 16th was my 66th birthday and we celebrated with a party at the house. Isabel went all out with decorations, hanging balloons and tissue paper and streamers in the dining room, over the entrance between the living room and dining room, and over the entrance between the kitchen and dining room. It was so festive that we decided to leave it up until Marilyn's birthday.
This year Marilyn, Isabel, Brayan, Luz, Cesar, Augusita, Patricia, Auri, Anita, Amable, Angie, and Bethany helped me celebrate another year of living. Because my mind tends to be mathematical, I wasn’t sure why the cake had ten candles on it. All I could think of was one for every 6.6 years? The real reason, of course, was that they come in packages of ten. Well, I don’t go to the grocery store! - much.
Isabel and Brayan surprised me with their gift. Actually, they surprised both Marilyn and I because it was a joint birthday gift. Isabel told us not to make any plans for January 24th because she was taking us on a mystery trip. We both liked the sound of that!
During the intervening week, we tried our best to get the destination out of her but failed. She did drop a few hints, though. She told us that it was someplace we had never been before and that we needed to dress "sexy". (Isabel seems to equate sexy with less clothes.) Next, she told us we needed to bring sunscreen and insect repellent. Those hints made us think east or west, out of the Andes toward lower elevations.
The day before the mystery trip, we were told we needed to be at the downtown park at 7:30 am. The weather had been rainy and cold. It would probably be like that the next day. No way was I going to dress "sexy" at 7:30 in the morning. Neither was Marilyn. We'd have to dress like we always do in Otavalo - in layers.
Sure enough, "trip day" dawned overcast with a threat of rain. In a rare event, we actually witnessed dawn because we had to get up at 5:00 am in order to be ready. After a 6:30 am breakfast, and brushing our teeth, Bethany drove us downtown because she was not going on the trip and could take the car home.
The traffic on Atahualpa, a major north-south street, was worse than I'd ever seen it. But then I've never been downtown at 7:15 am on a Saturday morning, Otavalo's biggest market day. I like sleep too much. There were delivery trucks stocking up stores. There were vendors selling fruits and vegetables from the sidewalks and from trucks not always parked outside of the traffic lanes, thus creating traffic jams. I kept looking at the clock on the dash and wondering why we didn't take the Pan American highway around town and get to Parqué Bolivar from another direction. About the time I started to suggest we get out and walk, Bethany turned left.
This was not the way to the park, I thought. Then I saw the new train station ahead and let out a long, "Oooohhh!" Bethany said, "Glenn knows now!" I got so excited. President Rafael Correa had just dedicated the Otavalo train station a week before.
We were going on a tourist train from Otavalo to Salinas (a town which is indeed hot and often buggy). Salinas is still in the Andes, but it's about 2,700 feet lower than Otavalo. It's also north instead of east or west. Why didn't we think of it!?
Inside the train station, Isabel explained where we would stop. There would be museums as well as magnificent vistas to see. She further explained that this was the first tourist train leaving from Otavalo. I got even more excited. She must have been first in line for tickets, because we had seats 1-6.
Everything was accessible, except that my assigned seat wasn't removable. The boarding ramp was a little narrow also. Someone had to hold my back wheels up while another person guided my front wheels up the ramp. But it all worked and the help we received was superb.
Marilyn sat me in the seat and we all waved to people watching this inaugural trip leave the station. Marilyn took lots of photos. We were both smiling from ear to ear, and Isabel, Brayan, and Patricia (Isabel's sister) had huge grins. They all knew Isabel and Brayan had pulled off a huge surprise.
Fruit And Vegetable Market Below Otavalo Train Station
Brayan, Patricia, And Isabel
We saw the route from Otavalo to Ibarra from a different perspective. We've always taken the Pan American highway (either the old one or the new one) before, but this mode of travel was more beautiful. It allowed us to see things we couldn’t see from either highway.
Our first stop was in San Roque. We disembarked at the new train station there and were given maize (corn) tortillas and hot drinks. (It was still cold outside so the hot drinks were really appreciated!) There was also a small museum inside the train station. One of the passengers was a former train engineer in Ecuador and was interviewed for TV at that stop.
San Roque Museum
I Can Look Like A Conductor
All of the stations along the route, with the exception of Ibarra's, were brand new. Everything looked so clean and shiny. There were always employees available to help. There was a guide who kept up a running commentary in our car explaining what we were seeing and the history behind it. The commentary was in Spanish, but we understood a lot. Isabel, Patricia, and Brayan helped us when we heard things that sounded interesting, but didn't quite understand them.
I stayed in my wheelchair after the first stop because I realized I didn’t completely block the aisle. I also figured the train was going slow enough not to worry much about sudden stops. I could also see much better from my wheelchair because I was sitting higher and could look out of both sides of the train. I was glad they allowed me to stay there. What can I say? Another perk of being disabled.
Lots of people took pictures and film of us at various stops. We even saw a car from a local TV station, so we half expected to be on TV or in the paper. If we were stars, however, none of us saw it.
The second stop was Atuntaqui. There, we were given 30 minutes (which turned into 45 minutes) to tour Fábrica Imbabura, located across the street from the train station. It is a museum made from a textile factory that operated for about 100 years. In fact, the train route was originally designed to bring raw materials like cotton to the plant and take away finished products for export throughout the world.
Some Of The Machines
Machine Part Sculpture
The machines used were pretty big. In front, there was a gigantic sculpture made mostly of old machine parts that was really striking. The factory accommodated about 1000 workers at a time. This is a museum well worth showing our friends, even if they choose not to ride the train to get there.
The third stop was in Ibarra. We didn’t have time to get off there. It was only to pick up passengers going from Ibarra to Salinas. They were seated in non-tourist cars. I told Marilyn that if we'd had more time, we could have walked to Rosalie Suarez and eaten some helados de paila. Good thing Isabel, Brayan, and Patricia didn't hear me.
On The Bridge
Begin Tunnel Zone
After Ibarra, there was more open countryside instead of people's houses nearly abutting the railroad tracks. There was a bridge over a gorge that we got good pictures of as we approached. There were also numerous tunnels. Of course, each time we went through the black of a tunnel, people, including us, had to yell, "¡Fantasma! ¡Fantasma!" ("Ghost! Ghost!")
The fourth stop was at a station called Hoja Blanca. At first glance, it appeared to be "in the middle of nowhere". But the town of Yachay was just over the ridge. Yachay is home to one of the five new universities being built in Ecuador. They will all have top-notch instruction. The idea is to keep bright students at home to help Ecuador develop instead of exporting brain power to other countries.
The university at Yachay is still being built out and specializes in the sciences. Part of the train station at Yachay is given over to student experiments. Students are available to explain the experiments to interested passengers. They also make money by selling things based on the experiments, and convinced us to part with some of ours.
Our last stop was Salinas, which gets it's name from nearby salt mines. There was a folkloric dance group performing at the station when we pulled in. We disembarked and watched them finish dancing. Then it was time to be taken to lunch. Our guide to the lunch spot was one of the dancers we had been watching. We noticed all along the trip that people had multiple jobs.
We walked to Centro Gastronómico de Pelenque. It must be a teaching restaurant because everyone was young and we saw a dormitory nearby. The food was very good.
After lunch, we toured the museum of a salt mine to learn how they extracted salt. As far as I could understand, the salt was extracted by inserting tubes (pipas) into the ground. The briny liquid that rose to the surface was then processed into salt. It is not used for domestic purposes, like table salt. It's used for industrial applications. The operation has been in existence for 450 years.
Explanation In Salt Museum
Tools Of The Process
Finally, we boarded a bus back to Otavalo. I dozed halfway there, though I did wake up enough to see where the new road around Ibarra will connect on the south side of the city. We'll be excited when that's done. Having to go through Ibarra to get to FEDICE's work in the Chota Valley takes a long time.
The bus let us off five blocks from our home but, because they're widening the Pan American highway through Otavalo, our street was literally cut off. We ended up walking way out of the way. But the weather had turned nice, so it was a pleasant walk.
We've always taken Isabel and family on trips before. This time, she got to take us on a trip, and she did it in a wonderful way. We never got anywhere near solving the mystery until the trip happened. I know its's always a great feeling for someone to be able to give instead of constantly being on the receiving end. And Isabel and Brayan were doubly proud because they had truly surprised us.