The Lord Loves a Tryer March 16th, 2006: Quito, Ecuador Well, after sitting in the most expensive bar in Ecuador (by myself) and watching Tennessee barely squeak past Winthrop (in Spanish, no less), I figured it was time that I bang off an email to let everyone know that I'm still alive, fully understanding that nobody will read this until Monday because for the next four days, you all will be watching basketball for 14 hours a day, the other 10 hours of each day being spent celebrating St. Patty's day, and then recovering from said celebration. Needless to say, I think this is the most painful weekend for me to be on another continent. There is nothing I'd rather be doing than nursing my Cooper's hangover by sitting in my underwear all weekend and watching my bracket being constantly busted. But with that being said, this beats the hell out of working, so it's a trade off you have to make. We left you guys sometime in the middle of last week, and in the meantime, we hit up a great English book store in Quito called "Confederate Books" where the owner, I shit you not, is an Honourary member of the Ku Klux Klan. Normally, I would have an issue with giving the man my business, but he assured me that the "honour" was bestowed upon him simply for the name of his store, and that he had no affiliation with the hood-wearing cowards whatsoever... We then hopped on a bus for a town called Latacunga, where we spent the night and woke up early to hit up the Andean Indian market in a town called Saquisili. Now, this wasn't one of those tourist markets where you buy fancy colourful bags and pipes in the shapes of naked women. This was the kind of market where the Andean natives (each and every one of them; men, women and children; in felt, pork pie hats) catch the bus at 2 in the morning so they can make it down in time to buy their monthly supply of rice and chickpeas. And let me tell you something about the hygiene in this market - not exactly the deli counter at your local IGA. I saw so many pieces of chickens and pigs, parts that I couldn't even identify, laying out in the hot morning sun that it was almost enough to turn a guy vegetarian (or, as they refer to it in Ecuador: "abnormal". Meat eaters are called "normal people"). It goes without saying that we were the only white people attending this Thursday morning affair. But it was a cultural experience nonetheless, and we piled onto a bus full of these same Andean Natives, with their bags of rice piled atop the roof, and headed high into the clouds, the bus driver taking every guardrail-less, sheer rockface cliffside turn like he was Michael Shumacher doing time trials at Silverstone, until we'd come to some patch of grass that was designated as home for a group of these people, and they'd just wander off into the mountain top field with the cows. A totally surreal experience. We eventually came to a town called Zumbahua, which was where the bus let us off, again, in the middle of nowhere, and we then decided to take our lives into our hands again by agreeing to let a complete stranger drive us to Laguna Quilotoa in the front seat of his pickup for $5. Easily the most uncomfortable ride of my life (to that point), as neither of us could properly communicate in one another's language, and I was doing my best as we swerved around curves, bounced through potholes and washouts, and crossed openly visible fault lines (whlie I was sitting between your man and Sandra) not to let him accidentally grab my manhood while shifting gears. Unpleasant doesn't do it justice. Little did I know that that would be the high point of the day. Laguna Quilotoa is this amazing volcano that blew its top however many years ago (many, it would appear), and has in the meantime filled with water (from rain, with no outflow) to form this amazing "crater-lake" that takes 5 hours to walk around. You have to descend about 400 meters (from the top of the crater down to the lake) to get to the water, and it is extremely steep - easy to get down, not so easy to get up. Of course, when we were about two-thirds of the way down, it began to absolutely piss rain, and we quickly decided to turn around, not realizing that the path we had descended was actually just a dried river-bed that the rain rushed down during such torrential downpours. The fact that the crater is at 3800 meters altitude didn't make the climb any easier, and needless to say, Sandra at one point had a "female moment", and essentially gave up, shedding tears right there in the middle of the makeshift river. Good times. We eventually made it to the top, where your man with the pickup was thankfully waiting, and we climbed into the back of his truck this time (believe it or not, it was infinitely more comfortable than the front), where we shivered our way back to where the bus had dropped us off, and eventually flagged one down, where we got to stand, still soaking wet, for the remaining 2 hour gut-sloshing trip back to Latacunga. On this very bus ride, for the first time in my life, I actually fell asleep standing up. The next day, I did something extremely stupid, and booked myself on a trip where I would attempt to climb Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. If the idea sounds awful in writing, you should see what it's like when they wake you up at midnight, after you've been sleeping in a room the size of my parents' kitchen with 20 other people (the phrase "symphony of screaming assholes" simply doesn't do it justice), and then they take you out to this massive glacier at 4800 meters, strap some crampons (large metal spikes) to your boots, tie you up to a rope, hand you an ice pick, and then tell you to begin climbing. The only way I can describe it is, it's like going to your local gym, putting the stair-master on the steepest level, climbing non-stop for 6 hours, breathing only about a third of the oxygen you'd normally be breathing, tripping every twenty steps because you have no idea what the fuck you're doing... and oh yeah, it's snowing, and it's dark out. Well, I guess that all of those Friday afternoons playing squash against Skeeter and Dinner before going out to hammer back a dozen or so beverages just wasn't training enough, because I am sorry to admit that I didn't quite make it to the summit. In fact, I didn't even come close. If they sold a T-Shirt which read: "Cotopaxi Kicked My Ass", I would be the first guy to buy one. By the time I made it to 5300 meters (after, as my Swedish climbing partner so eloquently described it: "3 hours of absolute hell"), I literally fell to my knees, and could make it no further. Rosco, I don't know how you did it, but you are clearly a better man than me. It was at this juncture that I decided I had had it with mountains and snow (particularly on the Equator), and will now be headed for the more sunny climes of the coast. (As a side note, and not that I ever had any chance of making it to the top of that fucking Volcano, but the morning before heading to Cotopaxi, we were awoken at 5:40am, when a brawl broke out in front of our room. It was one of the infamous "rum and coke" nights at the hostel, and after most of the patrons had gone to bed, a literal brawl broke out... over a chess match. Two questions quickly come to mind. 1) Why would anyone want to play chess while drunk? and 2) Is this the first recorded brawl in the history of mankind resulting directly from a game of chess? Am I missing something? Were the chess club members in high school actually doubling as the wrestling team? It just seemed a little odd to me, and reaffirmed my belief that the only safe game to engage in while drinking is Beirut. There. I said it.) After (mercifully) returning from Cotopaxi, Sandra and I headed for this great tropical lowland valley town called Mindo where we hiked to six different waterfalls (Damen understands the fetish), played with the quasi-wild dogs in town, did some crazy white water tubing, and drank beer and rum with some ambiguously gay Germans (Foley, Skeets - now I truly know how others felt about us on our roaddie) who liked nothing more than to stand in the doorway to our room and speak to us wearing nothing but tight-fitting tees and leaving-little-to-the-imagination tighty- whities. Flats, were all the dudes in Germany that forthcoming? Finally, this little jaunt to Mindo provided Sandra with an example of what might be the quintessential McCallumism. As we waited in Quito for the bus to take us to Mindo (a 2 to 2 1/2 hour ride), Sandra suggested that I take some money out, seeing as we didn't really know where we were going, and they might not have any banks where we were headed. I laughed at the idea, assuring her (as I spent my last dollar on a Snickers bar and a soap dish) that we were headed to a tourist town, and that there would be banks in an abundance similar to that of Tim Hortons in the burbs. She pointed out that we were literally standing in front of a bank, and that it would take no more than 30 seconds. I just shook my head, and reminded her that she worried too much, and that she should just relax and let me worry about it. You probably know where this one is headed. When we checked into our hostel, I casually asked the owner if there happened to be any bank machines in town, seeing as I didn't really notice any on the walk through. She just laughed and told me that the nearest bank was in Quito. The next morning, I was up at 6 to catch the 6:30 bus back to Quito, where I stood outside the bank for an hour waiting for it to open so I could catch the bus back to Mindo in time for an overpriced lunch at the Hummingbird restaurant. Needless to say, I was buying. We have to be up early tomorrow morning because we fly off to the Galapagos for a week of Blue Footed Boobies and swimming with the sea lions. And even though it won't be Cooper's with the lovely wee dancers, we'll do our best to have a pint of the black stuff and a wee shot of Jameson for you, provided that some of you promise to do the same for us. Take care, and we'll be in touch when we reach some semblance of the www. PS - In my bracket, I have the all Big East Final Four of UConn, 'Nova, the 'Cuse, and St.John's... Wait a minute, someone is handing me an update... what do you mean St. John's didn't make the dance this year? In that case, take the Zags over UConn in the final, with the second coming of Larry Legend (Adam Morrison) bringing home the tourney MVP.