After a group of unknown strangers gathered at Heathrow airport, the almost palpable tension was broken by the discovery that Simon (Quest head office) had already entered the family trees of some of the team. Thanks to his organisation before checking in, we managed to successfully board the flight without the one video camera available.
On arrival in Quito we were met by Pedro, who would soon become the father figure of the group thanks to his chill attitude. After recharging with a spaghetti Bolognese at the Hostal Tutamanda, we went on a chilled tour of Gringolandia and then came back to begin Spanish lessons with our tutors (and Hannah and Joel gave us a lesson in Reggaeton). They were also quite chilled, although, to the disbelief of some of the girls, were conducted only in Spanish. That night Pedro gathered us together for a chill out in the lounge so that could go over house rules, but these would prove to be too much for Katie and Hannah to handle and sent them spiralling into hysterics.
Friday morning saw us visit the historical town of Quito, and the girls were all very pleased because it was the first opportunity for a cheesy team photo; the inside of the Panecillo, however, was also a fascinating spectacle and then we had our first emotional experience at the World Press photo expedition – another good shout from Pedro. After another two hours of Spanish lessons in which we learnt that Emma likes to enjoy herself, we spent the rest of the afternoon doing salsa, Will and Joel, in particular, showing off their agile footwork. That evening we saw a new side of some of the tutors on a traditional “Chiva” bus tour through the city (basically a party bus filled with balloons, poles and alcohol) and we couldn’t help thinking that our antics weren’t doing us any favours in the eyes of the locals, but we did nonetheless get a chance to witness Tom’s dancing prowess first hand, earning him the title of “King of the Chiva.” After an appetising meal hosted by a couple of decaying pigs, we took the bus on to the Mariscal and the Club ‘No Bar’. This gave us all the first glimpse of the talent behind Jacob’s pole-dancing aspirations (we were later informed that he hopes to fund Yale by being a male pole dancing stripper, yet is worried he may not make it as “his d*** isn’t big enough”), and Tom also proved that a language barrier is no obstacle to impressing chicas.
After a very early start to the weekend, we soon learned how sociable girls can be in the morning before Fernando chauffeured us off to the old market town of Otavalo. It was a mixed morning on the whole, Jacob giving a masterclass in haggling before picking a beautifully-made traditional hacky-sack – an absolute must-have in South America. Katie, however, had some bad luck clothes shopping, making the mistake of momentarily leaving her head in the clouds. At lunch the cake went down very well – Hannah showing us how sharing is caring. In the afternoon Pedro took us chasing waterfalls while some of the group got the chance to swim in an authentic green swimming pool, we thought that was that, but little did we know Pedro had another surprise in store for us. Laura volunteered to participate in an authentic ritual of spiritual cleansing, enjoying her fair share of alcohol, smoke saliva and flames to set her in good stead for the future. That night we arrived at a quaint hostel set back in the hills, and the boys had a rough time of it getting stuck with the double-bedded rooms and hammocks. Bella was also kind enough to give us some life lessons “she knows what she likes and gets what she wants.” For the evening entertainment some of us organised a competitive pub quiz, except all competition became meaningless once we discovered that the quiz masters had forgotten to check the answers themselves.
On Sunday our friend Fernando was on hand again to take us to maybe the most scenic location yet, Bella and Katie summing it up expertly as “just some hills and clouds.” It was a test of endurance for a lot of us, and even a chance meeting with El Presidente himself could distract from the terrible weather. That said a lot us did enjoy probably the best shower we’d had so far in Ecuador, with exception of the super-human, impermeable Fernando. After lunch, I doubt the people in the lake-side restaurant had ever served such a bizarre set of customers; Jacob and Joel entering in their trunks and flip-flops, Bella hanging off Pedro’s shoulders and three of the girls drenched through and crouching over the fire. After a highly satisfying meal with chips that night, we decided to stay in for a civilised movie night; however, any trace of this was destroyed once the girls got their hands on the popcorn.
On Monday the Spanish lessons took place after breakfast, and after a trip to the local park for an interesting game of ‘Simon sayz’ as Jess called it, we were all expecting an afternoon at the Museum of Ecuador; Pedro, however, had forgotten to mention that it was closed on Monday afternoons. After several hours of phaffing from the girls either side of destructing a frying pan, Team Tom and the others had masterminded a special Valentine’s Day dinner for everyone. Everyone was pleasantly surprised by how well the cooks had done, particularly Will who was so impressed with the presentation that he couldn’t wait to help clear it all up. However, the night will also be remembered as the moment Jess found her own American boy, after Jacob’s romantic oration. Later we brought the party to the hostel and raised a few glasses, the highlight of the night being the memory of Jess crashing out in front of ‘Step up 2′ and then surfacing while surrounded by several bottles of vodka – do me a favour love.
Tuesday was the day we would get to visit “Mitad del Mundo” and say that we had all stood in two hemispheres at once; the enthusiasm was such that soon after arriving everyone couldn’t wait to sit down at the cafe with a cold drink. At the museum, the boys learnt that urinating in the Amazon is effectively signing away your manhood, and some us became experts in the art of balancing an egg on a nail at the latitude 0’00”00, while others just failed. After a long bus ride back listening to Hannah hum along to her “tunez,” Pedro eventually led us to a local pizzeria – Bella in particular was a picture of happiness afterwards.