We have always tried to balance out the priority placed on quality paddling sought by our trip members with the opportunity of at least a bit of immersion into the local culture found in the country being visited.  Both here in Ecuador and Costa Rica one of our solutions has been to stay in a town if possible so that a group can see what life is about in the country they are visiting.  In Costa Rica the town is Turrialba.  Here in Ecuador, we have finally settled into the town of Borja for part of the week.

While a bit of immersion is important, so is staying somewhere comfortable.  This is a vacation—and there is nothing better than a hot shower after a good day of paddling.  And a good night’s sleep is important for feeling good on the river.  With that in mind, once a place is found it is time to take a walk about town and immerse oneself in the local community.  Just wandering about town can be enlightening—even without a lick of Spanish.

You wander by the butcher shop and notice today’s hog hanging from a hook.  You stop by the town’s catholic church to admire the stained glass windows.  Checking out the local merchants, it does not take too long to ascertain that latinos like shoes—as the number of shoe stores in any/every town is impressive!  And if you do understand a bit of Spanish, you pick up on the fact that nicknames are very commonly used here—nicknames that would get you in big trouble back in the States.  A husband might fondly call his wife “gorda/chubby�? and a brother call his sister “flaca/skinny�?; while a wife might use “negro/dark one�? as a nickname for her husband.  Sure that would go over at home!

And speaking of brothers and sisters, it is amazing for a parent to spend time observing kids at play here.  There are no play stations. Kids play outside with their brothers and sisters using jump ropes, scraps of cardboard, or just a bit of grass at the park.  And when you walk by a group of kids they will shyly call out “hello�? and then run away giggling if you say something back to them.  It is not difficult to guess that as a gringo you tend to stand out a bit in a small town (something about the teva sandals, height over 5’5, hair color anything but dark brown, and fact that everyone knows everyone in a small town).   It is fun to pick u on the fact that everyone takes the time to greet anyone in passing with the minimum of a “good afternoon/buenos tardes�? if not a handshake and the standard double cheek air kiss. And that includes greeting you even as a stranger.

You also notice that sense of space is a bit different here.  Few have their own transportation, so homes are found sequestered between shops, lining the main streets. There are very few long driveways leading to a distant house because that would be a long way to walk carrying an armful of groceries at the end of a long day milking the cows.  You observe that there is not a restaurant in town that does not have a television squarely displayed with the volumn up.  And you do not want to miss out on the “driving billboards�? that parade through town.   Take a small ratty car, put a huge pair of blown out speakers on top of it, and make unintelegible announcements about the weekends special events/the latest sale on shoes/who knows what they are saying as the speakers are so blown out.  And then there are car alarms; ubiquitious and completely ignored, which makes one wonder why they exist except to make a lot of noise!

In front yards are little gardens of vegetables that are hard to identify if not familiar with local vegetables.  And a glimpse into the houses yields a view of very sparsely decorated, small living quarters.  But then step away and admire the use of a vastly more creative choice of paint colors than would ever be permitted in the covenants of the gated community back home!

Taking one more glance at the homes here and you take note of the fact that scratching about every yard is/are the family chicken/s.    In sixteen years spent in Latin American countries we have had more than our share of time to mull over the latino rooster.  It has to be a special species of the rooster family. It can crow earlier/later/louder/longer/raspier than any other specie.  In any country south of the border, the notion that the family wakes to the early dawn crow of the household rooster is thrown to the birds (bad pun intended). Maybe here things are messed up because there is no such thing as dawn and dusk.  There is a magic light switch south of the border that is turned to either daylight or dark. No in-betweens.  It must be similar to the magic switch you seek out when trying to figure out on-demand showers here.

On-demand showers–another interesting design south of the border. Once out of a “gringo hotel�? found in a tourist-populated area, most showers here are designed as heat-on-demand. This means you enter the shower and look up to see a shower head with a bunch of wires going to it. Electricity and showers should always go hand-in-hand, yes?  You turn the shower on and the light in your room will dim a bit, which indicates that it is time to adjust the water pressure a bit (water pressure being defined a bit differently in itself)  and voila!  you have yourself a hot shower. Really. And it feels great. But don’t pull up a chair and think you can sit down for a massage—especially if you still have soap suds in your hair.  That heat on demand seems to have a way of telling you when you are being wasteful!

Paddling down the rivers here would never give you the cultural experiences you find wandering about in town—mostly because you will rarely/if ever see another soul on the river aside from the random fisherman/gold miner.  That alone makes the trip worthwhile.  You are on a river of a caliber almost nonexistent at home, and no one else is on it—not in kayak, nor raft, nor canoe nor innertube (well, correction: sometimes there will be a small herd of nearly-naked children that will join you floating downstream).  Then add to the ream paddling experience the chance to expand your knowledge of another culture and you have two good reasons to get off the couch in the middle of the winter and paddle in another country.  It will rock your world—both in the kayak and out!