Entry #076: Saturday, April 19, 2014 (Torrance, CA)

Alright, here we are: the final normal narrative entry! Don't worry; I'm not going to stop here! Truth be told, I'd hate to close this out on such a dull note. I might be posting another entry about my re-acclimating to life in the US (if that turns out to be a thing), and I'll definitely be posting a retrospective entry, giving my overall impressions of the trip, plus some interesting factoids (seriously, try to guess the total word count of this blog). But let's not focus on the future, let's focus on the past! What happened in the last few days of my trip? Uhhh....not much. But let's check out what that "not much" entails!

I'm just going to start off by posting the links to all the photo albums I put up in the course of everything written in this entry. Trust me, it's infinitely more interesting to look at these photos than to read about me posting them online. So have a look, and if you want, you can come back afterward if you so choose.
New Zealand 15 - Auckland (2/5-10)
And the final portion of everyone's favorite, Factoria the Monkey Travels the World

...Yeah. Quite a bit. I'll discuss the actual numbers a little further on (don't worry, this'll be a short entry overall), but needless to say, I was a bit behind, and I needed to upload a lot of albums (each containing a fair number of photos), and as I've mentioned before, each one is a lot of work, since I like to actually add somewhat meaningful (or at least somewhat explanatory) captions for each photo, so I needed to be pretty damn disciplined if I wanted to get them all up before I flew back home. (And you might be wondering: why was I so obsessed with getting all the photos up before heading home? Well, I basically wanted to focus on different things when I got home. First, I wanted to focus on re-familiarizing myself with normal life, as well as reacquainting with my family and friends [and seeing if my old job is available, which I'm currently putting the likelihood at 7%]. On a more specific note, though, I also want to go through all my photos again. See, the photos I post online are filtered down from the whole of the photos I've taken on this trip. That said, they still are there to form a bit of a narrative, and so there are photos that aren't necessarily spectacular, but are there for the sake of telling a larger story, and giving a slice into some of the little moments and anecdotes of the trip. [Example: I have a terrible photo of a terrible sign outside of a convenience store in Australia's Red Center of "gourmet sausage rolls", complete with a martini glass filled with ketchup. Artistically, it may compete for the least worthwhile photo ever, but it was a funny little moment for everyone there, so I decided to, as I'm constantly suggested, "take a picture; it lasts longer".] Having done that, I now want to go through and do a super edit, or maybe two [the second one would be for photos with me in them]. This would be a best-of-the-best album, filled with only my best and/or favorite shots, literally just a few hundred, with no quotas of any country or topic. And I'd love to make a photo book with this: at least a personal one, and if I'm feeling confident enough, try to get a small run published. And if I'm feeling really confident, I might want to send in some series of photos [perhaps my pictures-of-people-taking-pictures series] along with a small essay to National Geographic. Who knows? The point is, there are other things I want to be doing with my photo collection when I get home, and I don't want to get bogged down in the drudgery of posting the larger batch online. Also, to close out this overly-long parenthetical, I had the time available to me, so why not be productive with it?)

So that uploading process, which we began on Monday, actually continued after I finished posting Monday's entry. No time to waste, I say! I basically continued uploading until I started doing the sleepy long letter presses (y'know, when you suddenly find yourself with type like thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii). So, I went to bed at that point. I woke up just shortly before 10am. But thankfully, they were still serving breakfast. While I still didn't get a plate of fruit like my first visit to the hotel, I did notice that the quality of the food and presentation did definitely improve when I was the only person there. In any case, after having breakfast, I went back to my room and lit another of my mosquito coils. (I probably lit five or six of the ten I bought throughout my stay. By the end, the room smelled noticeably stuffier than the outside room, but I didn't see - or get bitten by - a single mosquito for the remainder of my time in there, so I'm happy.) I then uploaded photos for the next, say, three hours. I then went to lunch. (See, I told you this was going to be a short entry.)

Now, I think it was at this lunch that I came to a couple conclusions. And they might be wrong conclusions, since I've not visited terribly much of Ecuador, but they're conclusions nonetheless. First of all, despite what the books try to tell you, it seems to me that Ecuadorians are not friendly. In fact, I've found that not only are they the least friendly people I've found in South America, they're the most actively unfriendly. At first I thought it might have just been the lady at the hotel reception, or maybe just her and the taxi drivers, or maybe just them and all the people on the Galapagos, or maybe all them and just the people at McDonald's. But no, when I was eating lunch at the small set menu place across the street from the hotel, it was clear that the owner lady who was serving me was only tolerating my presence; she made absolutely no effort to be kind, or even to hide a grimace whenever she saw me. And at that point, I realized that I had not met one Ecuadorian I would call flat-out "friendly". Not one. Okay, I guess maybe you could say Jose was a friendly guy, but he had serious issues of his own. But yeah, in my experience in Ecuador, there's a very unfriendly populace. Second conclusion - and this one is also surprisingly different to what I read in guides - Ecuadorian Spanish (especially on the mainland) is really difficult to understand. At first I couldn't put my finger on it, I was starting to feel really comfortable speaking to people, and then suddenly it all sounds like gibberish, and they're literally laughing whenever I talk. Then, at one point during this lunch, I asked to confirm with the owner lady, "Dos dolares?", to which she rolled her eyes and said, "Thi, doth." At that point, I realized they had a stupid lisp similar to Spain, and had a number of other pronunciation differences from the easier varieties (Mexican, Bolivian, Peruvian). All this together did make it all seem like gibberish, and so I felt a little better about the whole situation, although I still didn't care for how people made fun of me whenever I pronounced an S like and S.

Anyway, after finishing up at that unwelcoming place, I went back to my hotel room, and began doing more uploading. And I continued doing that for about five or six hours. One useful part of all this was that I was able to catch up on my backlog of podcasts (and I only then realized that all the podcasts I listened to featured people I know in person; maybe I only listen to them because it feels like I'm actually with them, just being unusually quiet in a conversation). But yeah, that's all I was doing, and then for dinner I decided to head back to that other place where I had gotten the burger a couple days before. I got a chicken breast and some fries; it wasn't nearly as good a value as the set-menu place, but I could just bring it back to my room, eat in peace, and not have to deal with ladies who don't even bother hiding their distaste for me. And the chicken was really good, so I can't complain. After finishing the food, and messing around a bit to continue to let my fingers rest, I continued on uploading until about 2am or so. I had to hit a certain quota of photos/albums uploaded to stay on track with my goals, so I couldn't stop until I felt I had met that quota. Once fulfilling it, though, I immediately went to bed.

I woke up a bit earlier Wednesday morning, and in the most irritating way possible. I had an interesting dream during the night, and I woke up well aware how interesting it was, but only remembering brief flashes of it. The more I tried to focus and remember it, the more it slipped away, until there was nothing left. Oh, well, you can't win them all. Anyway, since it was only around 9am, I decided that I wanted to take full advantage of the day and do...all the same stuff I was doing before. After having breakfast, I got straight to work, and then did more uploading (which, again, the time consuming part is adding descriptions) until lunchtime. I then went out to get lunch - during which time I also got myself another jumbo bottle of water to last me the remainder of my time there - and decided I'd give the set-menu place another try. The owner lady there saw me come in, and she smiled. Wait, no she didn't. She approached me gruffly, and pointed at the sign with the two available soups, waiting for me to tell her which one I wanted. After I finished with lunch, I went back to my hotel room and, surprise-surprise, did more uploading until dinner. (Man, I should have done this every day; it's so much quicker to write about!) For dinner, I actually decided to go back to the set-menu place, I think more because of the particular money I had available to me and wanted to spend. But after getting more of the same unfriendly treatment by the folks there (another example: there was a container of ají hot sauce on another, empty table. When I received my food, I asked if it was okay if I could use it. The lady rolled her eyes, and actually got the container herself. She handed it to me, and stood by, watching me as I put some on my food. When I was finished and closed the container up, she quickly grabbed it and took it to the back, out of sight), I didn't want to give them any more of my business/money. I then walked back into my room, which I noticed had been straightened up, meaning they clearly didn't need us to leave our keys for that. Everything seemed to be in order, so I wasn't too concerned about it, I just found it funny that I had previously told them "I don't need my room cleaned daily," but they were still going for it. Or maybe they just didn't understand my accent. Anyway, I continued uploading for the rest of the night, and to my pleasant surprise, ended up ahead of my own schedule. So I went to bed with the smuggest feeling one can possibly get for uploading photos.

I'm not sure why, but I woke up even earlier the next day, at about 8am. I tried at first to go back to sleep, but that wasn't happening. So, I just decided to start getting the day's proceedings going. I got cleaned up, booted up my laptop, and began uploading my first batch of photos for the day. While that was processing, I went down at 8:45 to get some breakfast. They should have been open; in fact, if you remember correctly, they woke me during my first visit there at 8:30 to have breakfast. But all I could see down there were two older white people waiting at the cafeteria door, complete with a sign saying Cerrado ("Closed"). Were I a smart person, I would have just gone up to do more work and then come down later. But I'm not a smart person, and so I was waiting there with them, randomly browsing on my phone to pass the time. The maintenance guy (begrudgingly) unlocked the cafeteria so we all had a place to sit down, but the lady in charge of breakfast didn't show up until 9:20. As far as I could tell, this lady had one job at the hotel, and she was nearly an hour late for it (and the couple told me it was the third time it happened). By 9:45, all I had received was a fried egg, and I was well beyond caring at that point; I just wanted to go back and continue my work. I could see that she was just starting to make some juice, but I didn't want to have to wait another ten minutes for that, so I tipped my proverbial hat and went up to my room. And, again, I did more uploading - most of it, in fact - before lunch. As I had decided the prior night, I was no longer going to go to the set-menu place, so I decided to head over to the quick takeaway place and get another chicken breast. But when I got there...it was closed? That's another thing about Ecuadorians (or South Americans as a whole): their open hours just don't make much sense. A takeaway place with burgers, chicken, and fries is easily one of the best places to be open for lunch, and yet this place decided, Nope, we don't need that money. Anyway, I had to find someplace else, but most of the other local eateries were all sit-down set-menu places, which I didn't want mainly because I wanted to finish quickly, and because I had left my drinks in the room and didn't want to buy more. I continued walking around until I saw a guy selling sandwiches. Turkey sandwich: $1.50. Seemed like a good deal, so I ordered one. Except that the roll he took out was about half the size as the imagery used on his cart. I should have expected it, but still, shenanigans. Anyway, to compliment the tiny (and thus pretty expensive even by North American standards) sandwich, I also got a big chunk of watermelon. I brought this all back to the hotel where I ate, and then continued my work.

Funnily enough, even though it wasn't the largest number of photos, finishing up my "Factoria the Monkey Travels the World" was actually one of the longer portions, just because I had to look up where each of the pictures was from, either by visual cues or by the dates, and note each of them in the description. Not gonna lie, this blog proved its value there, because I was able to cross-reference old entries with those cues/dates to see exactly where the picture was from (especially in Southeast Asia). But, at 5:30, with that album completed, I was done. I had uploaded everything. All of my travel photos were online. And it felt good. Now, to give you an actual number, since Monday, I had uploaded just a hair over 4,000 photos. Four. Thousand. So believe me, I'm not exaggerating when I say this was a process. (And here's a preview of my retrospective/factoid entry: My filtered-down travel photos for the entirety of this trip - from flowers to people taking pictures to the Himalayas - come to a grand total of 9,900, or an average of 26.4 a day. How many photos total did I take? Well, you'll have to tune in for that. But the point remains, finishing this was exceptionally cathartic; both from the more basal level of finishing a large load of work, and from the more spiritual level of feeling that I've put a cap onto my trip. While this among of my intentional reasoning for trying to finish uploading before heading home, I now feel that if I would have been uploading the photos in California, I wouldn't really be able to feel like I was done. But here, I was. All the images documenting my trip were now out there for the world to see; there was no more for me to share - pictorially - with the world. It made me feel that, Yeah, maybe it is all done. And that felt good. I'm sure I'll still be getting the feels in the upcoming weeks, but nothing about the trip feels incomplete at this point. So I was exceptionally pleased with myself. Well, except for my fingers. They weren't too pleased with me, as they were all exceptionally sore (in particular my left pinky, which was instrumental in a lot of Ctrl-V actions). I had actually been considering doing some writing afterwards, but my hands needed a break. So I just watched some hands-free videos instead to pass the time before dinner.

As promised, I snubbed the set-menu place across the street one last time, and instead went back to the takeaway place, which was now in their open hours. I ended up getting a hamburger, and fitted it with exactly the right ingredients to use up as much of my loose change as possible. See, while Ecuador actively uses American currency, they also have their own centavos when you have to break a dollar. Oh, they'll accept a Thomas Jefferson nickel, but if you're getting change, you're more likely to receive a Juan Montalvo five-cent[avo] piece. And I'm pretty sure they ain't gonna accept that in the States. So I wanted to use up as much of the Ecuadorian change I had, and successful managed to pawn off all but a five-cent piece (which is how I knew it featured Juan Montalvo), so I think that's fair enough. I went back to the hotel, had them book a taxi for me at 2:30 in the morning, and then went back to my room. Not having any more immediate objectives, I just ate and messed around for some time. Eventually, I packed most of my bags, and then spent the later part of the night reading the last hundred pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And, true to my word, I finished it before my trip ended. My quick review is that I liked it - some story arcs much more than others - but I felt it could stand to be a hundred pages shorter, as there's definitely some chaff in there. Also, the descriptions of some products in that book were so oddly specific that I would be surprised if they were not paid placements. But worth a read, I'd say. Anyway, by the time all this was done, it was a little before 1am, so I decided to get a little sleep (with the light on; couldn't get too comfy). I managed to get about an hour of rest before my alarm went off. I got up, got dressed, triple checked the room to make sure nothing was being left behind, and did some last-minute packing as a knock came at the door. It was the old hotel owner, telling me my taxi had arrived. I grabbed my bags, handed him the key, and then went into the car. To my genuine and pleasant surprise, he was willing to take me to the airport for $5, same as the daytime rate for these private cars. I tried keeping track of all my yawns on the way over, but lost count.

I got to the airport at about 2:50, and immediately walked to the Avianca line, which was the only populated one in the terminal. Unfortunately, I was just standing around for most of that time, since there wasn't anyone at the desk until 3:30. I then made the slow march to the front of the queue, and then got my boarding passes. The moment the guy saw my passport, he began speaking English to me. In the middle of the day, I may have insisted in speaking in Spanish - I've come this far, dammit! - but I was way too tired to care, so I just let it rock. I got my passes, checked in my big bag (I figured that, if it got lost, it would really make little difference at this point), and then headed to the gate. At Immigrations, I managed to coax a smile out of the girl behind the counter by ever-so-slightly lifting the brim of my hat when she was comparing my face to the passport. So that made me feel good, brightening someone's day for a second. I then went through security. I had actually brought with me a full bottle of water and one with some leftover soda. The thing is, despite what the signs say, every airport security seems to have their own rules about everything. This place, for example, didn't care one whit about me taking my laptop out of my daypack. And some airports will let you pass through with a full, very liquid drink. I figured my options were to either have thrown the drinks out before arriving, or take them through security, where I could either keep them, or would have to throw them out regardless. It turned out to be the latter, but I wasn't particularly torn up about it.

At the gate, a lot of people were lying across the seats, sleeping. It seemed like a pretty good idea, so I found a couple seats on the end of one bench, put down my daypack as a hard pillow, and lay down. It definitely wasn't a great nap, but I know that I slept at least a little, since I had that distinct feeling of startling awake. Anyway, the plane boarded at about 5am, and by the time the hatch was shut, it seemed as though I was the only person in the entirety of the emergency exit row. A big responsibility, but I feel I was up for it. Actually, what I was really up for was more sleep. My chair barely reclined at all, but I made use of every degree, and slept through the majority of the flight, except for a small window when breakfast was being served. I checked out the window during that time, and saw that the view was too hazy to see anything, so I figured I wasn't missing much in my slumber. The landing process was pretty hot and fast - these pilots seemed a bit like mavericks - but I never had to put my emergency exit row skills to use, so I guess all ended fine. We landed in San Salvador at about 8am local time, and I had about 6 hours before the initial boarding procedure was about to begin. Now, way long ago, I had considered trying to pay to get into the VIP lounge at the airport. I had even sent an email asking how I could do it. It was another of my "I should splurge in my last moments" endeavors. However, they never got back to me, and upon arriving, I didn't even see the VIP lounge immediately, so I ended up dropping that whole notion. I walked around the area, getting a feel for everything, and then eventually found a spot where there was a seat next to an outlet. Perfect. I sat down, and while WiFi was only usable for a short time, I was able to do a bit of writing before lunch.

There were only a couple options available for lunch. The first was a Subway. Normally, I wouldn't even think twice about defaulting to Subway, but I was a bit hesitant when I saw the prices. For the cheapest sandwich (a veggie), a small bag of chips, and a drink, you had to pay $8. I know it's an airport, but yeesh. So, I walked around, to see if I could find anything cheaper. And again, being an airport, I really couldn't for a full meal. So I went and got a sandwich (and ended up getting...blech...white bread, because I don't know the Spanish term for wheat bread). But it had a nice little private seating area, with outlets, so I thought I'd just get set up in there, and hole up for the next two hours. Except, no electricity. So, I just finished my food and headed back to the same spot I was waiting before. There was now a woman sitting there. We exchanged some pleasantries in Spanish, and it turned out she was going to San Francisco, to which I told her that's more-or-less where I live, and a little more back-and-forth before we both got caught up in our own little worlds. So that was a nice little end to regular Spanish conversation for me.

I proceeded to mess around on my computer for a little while until it was just before 2pm, at which point I figured I might as well head to my gate. And it was kind of weird, I'll admit - some of the gates required no security, others...did. I wonder if mattered where the planes were heading to. For example, all the gates at the end of the terminal, where there was a big security checkpoint, were all heading to - you guessed it - the United States. I'm sure there's some special agreement between the El Salvadorian government (hell, probably the governments of all countries) that anybody heading to the US gets screened. To prevent terrorism and/or illegal immigration, donchaknow. Anyway, it turned out that this wasn't just your normal security check. There were no X-Rays or anything like that. There were though, a bunch of tables, and you would just step up to one, and have your carry-on completely dismantled. I got a little worried when the lady took out Factoria the Travel Monkey and, after giving me a sideways glance, began squeezing it, probably for hidden drugs (which I can understand; I'm a grown man carry around a small stuffed animal, which itself is kept safe in an old Ziploc bag). Thankfully, she put it, and everything else, back into the bag. Then she wanted to give me a pat-down, but I gave her my vest first, and it was genuinely hilarious watching her sigh as she went through each of the 27 pockets. Then came the pat-down, and then I was free to go. Oh, wait, no, there was also a shoe inspection. A guy stood in front of me, and I handed him my shoes, which he stuck both his hand and face into to check for bombs and knives and what-have-you. Not gonna lie, I felt bad for this guy, having to stick your face in freshly-taken-off shoes from sweaty travelers has to be the worst.

Once all that was taken care of, I got to the gate, and waited there for a bit. I suddenly noticed that there was already a line to the plane, specifically one made of about thirty wheelchairs. No hyperbole there; I've never seen so many wheelchairs going onto a plane in my life. Anyway, it took them a long time to get everything ready (there were a dozen people standing at the desk, and none of them were doing anything until about 15 minutes before the scheduled takeoff), and then we boarded. On the whole, the flight was relatively full, but thankfully, the middle seat between me and a sleepy old woman was empty, so I was able to spread my stuff around a bit. The flight itself was a pretty basic flight. I first struggled to find out where to plug in my headphone (turns out there was a jack on my seat, behind my head), and then fell asleep for some portion of it, probably not more than a half-hour, max. I then spent most of the trip watching the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, which is really long. Pretty good, though, in presenting what it's presenting. There was also a new Coen Brothers movie I was interested in seeing, but I only had an hour-point-five left, not long enough to finish the thing (and I'd have to finish it). So, instead, I plugged my headphones into my phone and listened to another song on repeat from the Bastion soundtrack (which again, may have been one of the official soundtracks of this whole trip). The song in question is called "Setting Sail, Coming Home", which - as you can probably tell from the name - is very appropriate to my situation, in addition to being a good song. Even the first few lyrics are as follows:
I set my sail,Fly the wind, it will take me,Back to my home, sweet home.Lie on my back,Clouds are making way for me,I'm coming home, sweet home.
It was particularly nice because there were some beautiful clouds outside that we were sailing through. I also used the opportunity to do some more writing. There was a little bit of turbulence in the last forty minutes of the flight, which made me think how ironic - hilarious, in a dark humor sort of way - it would be if the plane crashed and I died literally less than an hour from home. I wouldn't have minded it all that much, except for the fact that I this entry would have never have been posted, meaning I would have wasted my last hours writing something nobody would ever read. (Well, people aren't necessarily reading it when I'm alive, but you get my point.)

 Anyway, no crashing or dying took place, and the plane landed safe and sound (and even had a nice view of the sunset while doing so). Once we touched down, I headed out of the plane, and went straight to the Immigration center, after waiting in line for some time, I was called up to a desk. The guy looked at my passport, my custom form, and my face, put down a stamp, and gave it back to me, all without saying a word. I was...actually really disappointed. No joke, I have been waiting for months - for months - for someone in this position to say two words to me: "Welcome Home." That's all I wanted. And this guy didn't say a goddamn thing. I was even considering saying to him, "This may sound trite, but can you welcome me home?" but I feel it wouldn't have had the same cathartic impact at that point. So I just continued on to the luggage carousel. As always, I was one of the first people there, but as is the way, mine was one of the last pieces of luggage to come out. It could have been worse, though; somebody's rolling luggage must have gotten it's handle caught on something, and so the entire back of it had been ripped and bent up, exposing all the internal mechanisms. It went around several times before being picked up, and it was the talk of the luggage carousel, I tell ya!

Once I got my bag, I quickly whisked through Customs (where the guy seemed a bit tickled that I lived in Lomita, for some reason). I then went through the exit and into the arrivals hall, and after a few quick seconds of searching, saw my welcome party, which consisted of my dad, one of my sisters, and my two nephews. My mom came in less than a minute, and we all had a nice little hug session. After a little while, it was time to go home, so I said goodnight to most of them, and then headed home with my mom. There, I eventually met up with one of my other sisters, who had kindly gotten some dinner. We then sat down, talking, and I already knew that it was gonna be difficult for me to have a conversation in the near future without bringing up an anecdote once every five minutes. After that, I went to bed, and slept for a full-on twelve hours, and with that, my trip was over.

And that's that.

As I said at the beginning, there's some more coming, but if for some reason you enjoyed reading me talking about my life on a daily basis...sorry, folks. I'm not gonna keep doing that for my time here. 'Cause, y'know, I'm not traveling anymore. So I hope you enjoyed it! Come back in a little bit for my big retrospective post, and I'll have plenty to talk about.

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