Visiting the Sahara*

Last weekend we all packed a bag, piled into the bus and drove 4.5 hours to the desert (plus a couple of pit stops for juice and a bathroom). At a gas station just on the edge of where the desert began we switched into four-wheeled vehicles and went off through the dunes, past some wild camels and up to a circle of square cube huts and rugs in the sand. Truly a retreat and my mind was ready for it because of all the Arabic letters and words swarming loudly inside it. We arrived just before sunset and after we grabbed our keys and dropped our bags on our beds, we booked it up a giant dune to watch the sunset.

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Many of us heaved and breathed deeply when we reached the top of the red sand mountain. On the other side was nothing but cream pie meringue waves of sand. The wind whipped across my cheeks carrying grains of sugar sand across my cheeks and nose. Directly west the sun had left winking behind rocky mountains and to the east the moon was confident on the dusk screen of sky. It was a full moon feature night.

I posed for pictures then pocketed my phone and ran my palms against the sand. There was not a sound other than the pull of the wind through my ears. Eerie because not much lives in the desert (although, we were warned of snakes and scorpions before coming). The only movement were the streams of sand winding around my ankles. My friend Ben posted on his Instagram the other day that the experience of the desert helped him understand why Jesus would retreat to the wilderness to spend time with the father. I cannot agree more.

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Jessica and I rolled down a hill on our sides and made sand angels that didn’t last more than two minutes before the next wave of sand rolled over them. Truly the dunes looked like waves yet felt like heavy dust. Sand weighed down the bottoms of my pants and spilled out of my pockets. That night, I emptied my boots into two large anthills outside of my concrete room. Every freckle on my face had doubled by sticky sand powder. The desert wasn’t going to let me leave without a piece of her with me. I keep finding twinkly red sand stuck to my clothes.

Later that night after a full meal of camel kabobs, lentils, rice and chicken, and fruit and Karak tea for dessert, we all gathered around a bonfire. Hefty jeeps charged up the side of the dunes and raced down noisily next to our camp. I imagined they were caravans of camels instead, carrying silk and spices and silver to the next city. We chattered on and on, and I stayed up way too late because of it. But, when I got back to my room, I smelled like earth and still felt windy ghosts in my hair and through my fingertips. I went straight to bed happy. So, so happy to be there.

*Sahara is Arabic for desert

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Hiking and Carnaval Festivities

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The beginning and ending place to our hiking adventure at El Altar.

Well, amigos, I finally had the opportunity to hike and camp on the top of a mountain (or close enough to the top). This weekend, three friends and I climbed El Altar which is close to the small town of Candelaria, Ecuador. To get to Candelaria, we first had to take a bus from Quito to Riobamba then from Riobamba to Candelaria. I thought the bus rides were gruesome because they took a few hours, but the hike was even more treacherous!

For any first time hikers out there, make sure you research the place you will be hiking beforehand. This tip was brought to you by Brenda, who didn’t pack enough warm clothes and underestimated how much it would rain and how cold it would be to sleep at a high altitude.

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El Altar is beautiful with its glacier-covered mountains and mint-colored lakes. Its tranquil paths up to the camping place above the lake were only interrupted by the sound of birds, horses, dogs, and the occasional back-packer. I felt a little more at ease knowing that there were others out there venturing just like us.

Since this was my first time hiking up mountains, my lungs and corazĂłn were having a hard time keeping up. My legs didn’t even hurt, but my lungs were killing me as we went up the steep trails. I fell only a little behind, yet my friends would wait and encourage me even more. It felt really good being praised for my efforts; their words kept me going. After nine hours (from 8:30 AM till 5:30 PM), we made it to our camping site overlooking the lake.

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¡Hasta luego, El Altar!

The rain and cold temperatures made sleeping difficult since I was up for most of the night trying to stay warm. When we woke up the next day however, the sun greeted us with its warmth. I decided to stay dry and not jump into the freezing lake, but I took pictures of my travel buddies as they did. It took us only about five hours to hike back down to the town of Candelaria, where we first witnessed some of the Ecuadorian Carnaval traditions.

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To really experience Carnaval, we figured we would travel to one of the best Carnaval towns in Ecuador: Guaranda. To begin, I must define a few key words regarding the festival and its celebrations.

Carnaval – A religious festival that occurs before the Lent season. A big celebration is in Rio de Janiero, Brazil; Guaranda’s Carnaval is not as big, but it’s big in the sense that the whole town comes together to celebrate. And how do they celebrate? By spraying carioca all over each other.

Carioca – White or colored foam in aerosol cans that is used to spray on random people on the streets. Foam wars will ensue. Young children will spray you in the eyes and you will most likely retaliate by spraying carioca all over their faces or the backs of their heads as they run away. This was probably the most fun part of the whole festival because my competitive side came out; if the Guarandans messed with one of my friends, they messed with us all. I got sprayed in the eyes a couple of times which only hurt because of the pressure of the foam and momentarily blinded me. I also did not like getting sprayed in the ears because the whole world became muted and I could only hear the sound of tiny foam bubbles bursting in my ear canals.

Polvo – Powder. Powder that goes on your face/hair. This is often white powder but can also come in an assortment of colors such as red blue, yellow, and green. I was blue-faced for a while after I was attacked with polvo from a stranger. I couldn’t just let it happen… I had to do it too! I bought a small bag of polvo for 50 cents and smeared it on people’s faces all during the night. It was awesome!! Plus, the people who got powdered by me all cheered afterwards and gave me free stuff. They really enjoyed seeing my foreign group partake in all of the Carnaval traditions, so they just laughed and sprayed us with some more carioca.

The night ended with some great Latin Pop music at a concert in the center of town. It rained and we were sore from the hiking, but with all of the positive vibes from Guaranda (and the awesome music) we ended up dancing all night long! This festival is one that I think everyone should go to at least once. Would recommend 10/10.

I’ll say this was one of my best weekends in Ecuador so far! One tiresome hike followed by a huge, small-town party!! I’m excited for what other wonders Ecuador has in store for me, but until then: ¡cuĂ­dense, amigos! ¡Ciao!