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! 


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….

The Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020

I know everyone is preoccupied (and rightly so) with the current COVID-19 pandemic, but I have had another global crisis on my mind these last few weeks–the apparent worldwide toilet paper shortage.  The toilet paper situation has intrigued me because, here in Ecuador, we have plenty of toilet paper. The shelves are completely stocked, and there is no evidence of the hoarding that has been reported in countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, and Western Europe in general.  So as I’ve talked to friends and family “back home” and heard their woes of having to scavenge for toilet paper, I was perplexed by why the so called “Developed World” was having such a shortage, while here in the Global South (e.g. “Developing World”), we are well stocked and wiping away!  


After having this dichotomy nag at me for several weeks, I did a bit of googling this morning which resulted in a Eureka! moment. Here’s what I learned:  it’s all about the supply chain. The toilet paper industry is not homogenous–it is split into two distinct markets: commercial and consumer. The commercial market toilet paper is a completely different product than the consumer rolls that most Americans use in their households. 

Commercial toilet paper, typically sold in large rolls that are delivered on pallets, are usually made from lower quality, recycled paper. The way that it is produced and distributed is so different from consumer paper, that most toilet paper manufacturers only produce commercial OR consumer–not both.  

Consumer paper on the other hand, is usually made from virgin fiber, are thicker, softer, and come on conveniently small rolls, sold in packages of 8 or 12.  I’m talking about your typical Charmin or Quilted Northern that you would buy at your supermarket.  

So, why is the distinction between consumer and commercial so important in understanding the current shortage of toilet paper?  Well, currently, about 75% of the population in affected countries are staying at home under shelter in place or quarantine orders.  According to Georgia-Pacific, the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual in their homes while they are staying home from work/school.  Normally, people go to work or school or restaurants throughout most of the day and use commercial paper in those institutions. Now, however, everyone is at home boosting the demand of consumer paper.  And that, my friends, explains the shortage in the USA etc. There might be some hoarding going on as well, but a lot of the shortage goes back to supply and demand and the logistics of the industry.  

Now, the second part of my Eureka! moment brings us to the dichotomy of the shortages in more developed countries and the business-as-usual plethora here in Ecuador.  In Ecuador, as in most of the Global South, everyone has to bring their own toilet paper to use in most places outside of their home. Here, you don’t leave the house without a hearty wad of TP from your own consumer supply because restrooms in offices, restaurants, schools, parks, etc. do not supply free toilet paper.  We take it for granted in the States that if you walk into a public restroom or the bathroom in your office that it will be stocked with a roll of (usually) commercial toilet paper. Down here, that is a luxury we do not have. Therefore, the demand for consumer toilet paper has not drastically increased due to the entire population being in lockdown in their homes, because we always had to supply 24 hours/day’s worth of toilet paper for ourselves anyway–regardless of where we were doing our business.  Our supply and demand remains in equilibrium.  

This may seem insignificant to some people, but I find it fascinating how this global crisis is transforming our world and teaching us about the nuts and bolts of how our society and economy operates.  It is terrifying and devastating, but it is also so interesting to learn about things that we have taken for granted and never given thought to, e.g. toilet paper supply chains and demand disparities across cultures.  So much is changing in our world and it is happening so fast. Even the ripple effects feel like tsunamis; so I hope you are all hanging in there, that you are safe, healthy, and have plenty of toilet paper.  

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