Part III Trapped Abroad

The first few days of hosting my family were spent close to home–as within walking distance. My brothers’ arrivals were staggered, and each time a new part of the group arrived there was a day of acclimation and recovering from the day of travel.  We spent most of our time shuffling kids and juggling nap times and walking around “La Carolina”.  La Carolina is Quito’s “Central Park”, is 2.5 miles in circumference and is across the street from my apartment.  My parents and one brother (+ his family) rented an AirBnb for the time we had planned in Quito which was directly across the park from my apartment.  

Airbnb

We ate street food, explored the nearby markets, and my 4-year-old nephew played on all the playgrounds, and there are a lot of playgrounds.  Little did we know that this was going to be the only time we had for any sightseeing.  Sure, COVID was all over the news, but it still didn’t seem to be an immediate threat.  There were no cases reported in Quito, and flights were still coming and going.  I was in close contact with all of my providers who I had made arrangements with for my family and everyone was reconfirmed that all our plans were still on.  

On the night of March 14th, the last of my family arrived in Quito (after a series of stressful events that are not relevant to include here).  Within an hour of my final brother’s arrival in Quito, the government announced that they were closing the border and not allowing any foreigners to enter the country by land, sea, or air.  Ecuadorian citizens abroad were given 24 hours to return home before the border was closed to them as well.  We were concerned by that news, but still, our plans remained in place.  

Sunday, March 15th, was the one day that we actually spent touring.  And even then, we only spent half a day wandering Quito’s Colonial City Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were limited by babies, our 4-year-old, and increasing anxiety amongst the adults.  My brother who had just arrived 12 hours earlier received word that his (and his wife and daughter’s) flight home had been canceled.  We returned to the AirBnb in the afternoon to sort out that situation and regroup.  

Sadly, my brother, a doctor, decided that he and his family would be departing for home on the next available flight.  They were concerned that they would get stuck in Ecuador and my brother needed to get home within 10 days for his job at the hospital.  They were able to book passage on a flight that left the following night (Monday night).  Despite our disappointment that part of our family would be departing early and missing the planned trip, we had a wonderful afternoon and evening in my apartment.  We were all together, in Ecuador–that in and of itself was miraculous.  My partner, A, gave a salsa class; the babies rode around on my Roomba, I ordered an absurd amount of Venezuelan food to feed the masses, and all was well….for a few hours….  

As of Sunday afternoon, we were still planning on traveling to the cloud forest town of Mindo the following day; however, our itinerary began to deteriorate that night as I received a series of announcements.  The first few cases of COVID had been detected in Quito, and, at that point, the government took swift and decisive action.  On the night of the 15th (Sunday) it was announced that as of 5am on the 17th, the entire country was going to be locked down.  Essentially, we had 24 hours to prepare for an indefinite and complete quarantine lockdown, and everyone, all 13 members of my family, were depending on me, the “baby” of the family.  

Trapped Abroad Part 2

My task was simple–coordinate international travel for 13 people ages 1 to 69, and design an itinerary that is interesting, fun, and, most importantly, safe, for all.  Luckily for me, this is what I do for a living.  I decided on a variation of my favorite and most basic itinerary–

Yunguilla Cloud Forest

Day 1: Full Day Quito Tour

Day 2: Mindo–tubing, chocolate tour

Day 3: Mindo–butterfly sanctuary, waterfall hike

Day 4: Yunguilla Community–make cheese, waterfall hike

Day 5: Yunguilla Community–Pre Inca trail hike, cooking class, an evening of music and dancing 

Day 6: Yunguilla Community (milk cows, etc), Mitad del Mundo, Quito for a night of salsa dancing

Day 7: Take the Teleferiqo (gondola) up Rucu Pichincha Volcano (optional hike to summit), artisan market.  

If you have no idea what this itinerary means, click here to see more details!

Half of my family was planning on coming early and staying late for a total of a 2-week trip, so there was an extended version of this itinerary that included some other activities and destinations.  I wrote to all of my providers explaining that my family was coming to visit and pestered them confirming every detail, rooming list, detailed itinerary, and explained that this was a very special group.   

In addition to planning every second of our week together, I also designed a custom “Trip Notes” (hand-illustrated booklets with important trip information and writing prompts that we make for all of our groups) just for my family.  The illustrations included each member of my family, and I also made a special book for my 4-year-old nephew with pictures for him to color and words for him to trace, as he is learning how to write.  I bought handwoven baskets and filled them with Ecuadorian snacks, a water filter, the Trip Notes, and T-shirts that I spent weeks designing and had made for everyone in my family.  

My amazing Ecuador T-shirts

In the months leading up to the big trip, I also completely organized my house, bought a dining room table, a coffee table, and all new living room furniture–couldn’t have my family thinking that I still live like a college kid.  I deep cleaned everything, multiple times.  I even built and mounted nearly a dozen shelves on my walls and updated my flock of houseplants.  To top it all off, I had a painting commissioned to hang over my new sofa–a really awesome custom piece by Daniel Reinoso, a local artist here in Quito who I highly recommend.  

Everything was planned; everything was squeaky clean and organized; I was totally prepared (and also very tired and more than a little bit anxious).  Finally, finally, finally, the day arrived that the first batch of family members would travel to Ecuador.  

Now, there had been some chatter leading up to the trip regarding the unfolding COVID-19 situation.  In the final days before the trip was set to begin, I emotionally braced myself for news that at least part of my family was canceling due to COVID fears.  Departure day was March 11th, 2020–before the Pandemic was declared, and before the World turned upside down.  I was relieved when my parents and brother sent me pictures of them boarding the plane along with my nephew, niece, and sister in law.  It was happening–they really were on their way! 

LOCKED UP ABROAD PART 1

By Alexandra Osetek

When my Dad retired last fall after a remarkable 40-year career as an oral surgeon, I struggled to come up with a gift worthy of commemorating his lifetime of hard work and dedication.  I googled “retirement gifts for dad”, but everything I found fell short of what the occasion merited.  Then, when I thought about what my Dad would cherish most and would be the most meaningful to him, the answer became clear–time with his family.  After all, all those years of work went to support us, my 3 older brothers, my Mom, and me.  

Family Photo with custom Ecuadorian T-shirts

So I threw together a Whatsapp group for my brothers and sisters-in-law, and proposed that we give the gift of time in the form of a family “retirement trip”.  To my surprise, everyone thought that it was a good idea.  So everyone, my 3 brothers and their wives and children (we are a family of 13) committed to a week-long family trip.  I immediately suggested that we go to Poland.  My Dad’s family is Polish, he has always wanted to go, and I love Poland and would love to return and spend more time exploring.  I was quickly shot down with multiple responses of “Why don’t we just go to Ecuador?”.

Yes, Ecuador was a logical destination.  I live here; it is inexpensive and easy to travel to from the States; I am a professional tour operator here; plus I had been trying to get my brothers to visit me for the past 5 years with no success.  So, Ecuador it was.  My hesitation with the family retirement trip to Ecuador is that it put an enormous amount of pressure on me….or rather, I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself.  Some things you should know about me: 

  1. I am an obsessive, self-critical perfectionist to an unhealthy degree.
  2. I am the youngest child of 4 and the only girl–a tough combo that has resulted in a lifetime of trying to prove my value and win the praise, approval, and admiration of my male family members.  I’ll leave it at that and spare you the therapy session. 
  3. My career is operating group trips in Ecuador–it’s my job!  
Alex and her amazing ,perfect , birthday cake.

Those three points accumulate to mean: THIS TRIP MUST BE ABSOLUTELY PERFECT AND AMAZING AND MAGICAL AND NOT EVEN ONE LITTLE HICCUP CAN GO WRONG!  MUST. BE. PERFECT.   I cannot emphasize that enough.  Perfection.  It was completely on me to design and execute an amazing, flawless international family vacation for a group of 13 people ranging in age from 1 year old to 69 years old.  This was no small task, but if ever there were someone up for a challenge, it would be me.  Thus, the planning began….