Traveling long-term is exhilarating, full of surprises, new experiences, foreign lands, and friends from faraway places, but it’s also tiring. We have very little routine in our lives, no comforting standard breakfast, no steady friends (besides each other) to ground us, no favorite couch to curl up in to read or watch TV when we’re tired.
Instead, Andrea and I are always learning our way around. Most mornings, we wake up in a new place and figure everything out from scratch. What do most people eat for breakfast here? How much should it cost? Do we have any groceries left from our last trip to the supermarket? Is there even a useable kitchen to make food in? How much water do we have left?
Once we’ve gotten ourselves fed for the morning, we turn our attention to the day’s plans. We generally map out what we want to do at least 2-3 days in advance, or more if we’re under time pressure, but there are lots of details that you really just have to work out in real time. Andrea and I love this constant challenge, the process of grafting our plans onto the reality of a foreign place. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much research you do, things just don’t work out. Someone swore to us that buses left from 8:00 AM to 20:00, but they don’t. Some days there are strikes, some days bus drivers just go home early, some days you just have to make a new plan on the fly. That’s life, we adapt.
Given all this constant change, sometimes it’s nice to fall into a little routine. Our pace of travel has slowed down a bit since our rushes to catch flights in Mexico and Central America and we’ve come to enjoy spending 2-3 nights in a place before moving on. It’s nice to wake up in the same place twice, already have a plan in place for breakfast, not have to learn the main streets in the area, and so on.
During our two weeks in Ecuador, we almost burned ourselves in the famous hot springs in Banos, visited South America’s largest market and bought plenty of souvenirs in Otavalo, hemisphere-hopped over the equator itself at Mitad del Mundo, and hiked down to an eye-wateringly-blue volcanic lake in Quilotoa, but we always used Quito as a home base. As we toured around, constantly leaving and coming back to Quito, we fell into a comfortable morning routine that really made the city feel like a home away from home.
Our very first morning at Friend’s Hostel in Quito, we were a bit underwhelmed with the breakfast they offered and a bit shell-shocked by the price. So, as is our morning tradition, we went out to explore with empty bellies. This particular excursion was much shorter than most as we found a Venezuelan family-run restaurant just one block away from the hostel with a scrumptious and affordable breakfast: coffee, juice, and two arepas stuffed with egg, chicken, avocado, and salsa for $2.00 USD. Although we’d heard plenty about Venezuelan arepas from our friends in Colombia, we’d never had them before. We were very pleasantly surprised by the crunchiness, warmth, and corn flavor of the arepa itself and thoroughly enjoyed the moist, shredded chicken inside.
As we were sitting there enjoying our breakfast, we glimpsed two small children running through the kitchen, weaving through their daddy’s legs and generally making a ruckus as he tried to serve other customers. We finished our breakfast and sat there sipping our coffee and planning for the day when the young boy came over to our table with a toy car. When I asked him his name, he said he was “Lightning McQueen,” the main character from the Pixar movie “Cars.” I asked him his age, which he replied was 3. A minute later, his older sister, about 7, came over and asked us how old we were. Andrea and I decided to have a little fun and said we were both 12. The little boy accepted this without question, but the girl was quite skeptical. With a furrowed brow and some quick finger-counting, she declared us “mentirosos!” (liars). Andrea and I slyly concealed our smiles and reassured her that we were in fact only 12 years old. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t convince the young girl and her brother joined in the chorus of “mentiroso! Mentiroso!” Their father came over to take away our empty plates and quietly scolded the children to not scream at customers. We laughed it away, paid our bill, and headed to the airport to pick up Andrea’s good friend from UWC, Ingunn.
Over the next few days, as we explored Quito with Ingunn and caught up on the last several years of life events, we tried several restaurants and attempted to cook in the hostel a few times. Through trial and error, we found that the Venezuelan restaurant across the street not only provided the perfect gluten-free fuel for the day (Ingunn is gluten-intolerant), but also warmed our hearts. With Ingunn’s help, we managed to repair the lost trust with our two young Venezuelan friends. We shamefully admitted our age and solemnly swore not to lie anymore. Once I explained that my coloring was natural (after several questions) and let Lightning McQueen touch my beard, he accepted me as a friend and even lent me his toy car for about 15 seconds!
Slowly, we got to know the family. We listened to their stories of the unrest in Venezuela and the lack of opportunity that drove them to Ecuador. With echoes of Cuba in our heads, we heard how the supermarkets are practically empty, business owners are chaining up their shops, and how no one dares use a cell phone in public for fear of robbery. We also heard about their experience adjusting to life in Ecuador. The cold, the altitude, the cultural differences, the price differences, the safety of the city, the abundance of products for sale, the booming tourism and restaurant industries, and the sheer number of opportunities to move forward. We played with the kids every time we stopped by, playing jokes, singing songs, and racing toy cars over the tables, under the chairs, and on the walls.
But we didn’t just stay in Quito for two weeks. We made day trips to Otavalo, Mitad del Mundo, and Quilotoa, and spent a few days biking around Banos. Every time we came back, we brought stories and photos of the things we’d done and seen. The family, having just arrived in Ecuador a couple of months before, hadn’t been outside Quito and were very excited to get tips for weekend trips in the future. When we popped in for an early breakfast some days, we got to see Lightning McQueen’s sleepy face, and when we swung by in the evening after a long day, we got to hear all about the day’s adventures.
After two weeks of fun, we finally had to say goodbye to our favorite Quito family. We stopped by for a final dinner before Ingunn’s morning flight and explained to the kids that we were going. As he took away our plates one last time, the father quietly asked us if we could come by again the next morning for a little “surprise” from the kids. Andrea and I immediately agreed to have lunch again the next day before our afternoon departure. The next morning, we said a tearful goodbye to Ingunn and busied ourselves with packing, planning, and preparing for our next trip. Once we’d checked out of the hostel and contained all of our Otavalo souvenirs in a new bag, we walked over to our favorite restaurant. The kids were excited to see us as always, telling us stories and arguing about their favorite dishes as we ate. At the end of the meal, they ran back to the kitchen and tripped over each other coming back out to the table with gifts in hand. Lightning McQueen proudly presented me with a black, rubber bracelet and his sister gave Andrea a pendant decorated with a little boy and a little girl, all to remember them by. With ear-to-ear smiles, we accepted their gifts and returned the favor: a hackey-sack from Otavalo for the boy and an embroidered Mexican hairband for the girl. As we were in a bit of a rush to catch our bus, we said a quick, but heartfelt goodbye and wished the family all the best. When we were there in June, the kids had just been registered for school, so they should be in classes by now!
Long term travel has been wonderful for us. We’ve seen 9 countries in Latin America so far and are hungry for more! We love the change, the challenge, and the constant surprise that comes with always being on the move, but we do occasionally miss knowing our way around and having a little predictability in our lives. Stumbling upon this family-run restaurant in Quito helped us feel grounded. We found comfort in their food and their company and felt truly welcomed in their humble restaurant. As we’ve traveled, we’ve accumulated quite a collection of spectacular memories, but sometimes what seem like the most banal, everyday moments, like having breakfast, can become some of the most powerful, if you’re open to it.