Carcassonne is considered one of the prettiest fort towns in Southern France. It’s walled old city, with a river running along the outside is exactly how you would imagine small, French market towns to be. And yet, my time there was mostly met with disaster…
Carcassonne is so small, you could walk around the whole city in a half hour. Since there were no hostels in town, I planned on spending only a few hours there on my way through to Marseille. But when I arrived to a tiny train station with no baggage check, I realized I might have a little problem of what to to with the life I was carrying on my back.
The information office was closed, the tourist office was closed, and there was no place to leave my bag for a few hours. According to an online chat group, one hotel in town would take care of a bag for a few hours for a small charge. When I arrived at the address, however, it had turned into a clothing store…
The other hotels I stopped by at in the area don’t keep luggage unless you are already staying at the hotel, so my only remaining option was to go sightseeing with my 75Litre pack and hope for the best. So I strapped myself in and started walking!
The first 20 minutes weren’t so bad! The town is mostly flat, and everything was so pretty I forgot about the weight of the world on my shoulders. But about a half hour in I started cursing the ceramics I’d bought in Morocco, and the guidebooks I hadn’t left behind in some random hostel. My back was aching, and I felt like I was being pulled slowly deeper into the Earth. I made it an hour and 45 minutes of hiking around the area before retiring in the main square and giving in to exhaustion. I was not made out for trekking.
I plopped down on the ground next to a water fountain with a makeshift lunch from the carrefour: a baguette, some cheese and a few apples and oranges. I was soon spied by a couple of chatty homeless men who joined me for lunch and offered me their prized cheap wine, poured into a 1.5L water bottle… Which I politely turned down. But it’s nice to know wine is so cheap here that even the homeless can enjoy a decent tasting vintage!
I didn’t really think it was strange at first, sharing an apple sandwich with two, old homeless dudes on the dusty ground of a small village in Southern France. All of us surrounded by our worldy possessions that we carry around on our backs. If you think about it, I too am kind of homeless at the moment. And too be fair, I’ve been confused for being homeless on a number of occasions throughout my years of travels, so why not embrace it!
The problem with being homeless though, is that after trekking around for hours, and chugging a tonne of water, you don’t have a bathroom to use. And I needed to pee!
Not wanting to have to buy anything at a neighboring cafe, I said goodbye to my new friends and trekked back to the train station to use theirs. Sadly, when I arrived, ready to burst, I realized there was only a single pay toilet out back by the tracks. 30 cents per use, and the door only accepted 10 or 20 cent coins. I stood there digging through my purse in a desperate attempt to find the cash. I had a million 1s, 2s and 5s but no 10s or 20s. I searched my pockets and the change that had fallen to the bottom of my purse as well: nothing.
All of a sudden the door popped open in front of me and a woman came out. She smiled at me as I was elbow deep in my purse looking for coins.
“Please” she said, and held the door open for me…
My angel!!
“Thank you so much!” I said.
She nodded and walked back towards the station.
I left my pack hastily outside and stepped inside the large aluminum room. The door shut and locked behind me and a motor turned on. I looked around for a light, but couldn’t find one. There was just a dim glow coming from somewhere, otherwise I was in a damp, metal room with a squatter toilet on the floor and a strange, seat that popped out of the wall and hovered over the hole in the floor… Just when I think I’ve seen every type of toilet in the world, I stumble across something new. As I quickly scanned the room for a place to balance my purse, the motor picked up and I heard a loud sound of water on metal.
My reaction time was just not quick enough. I couldn’t quite put it all together that fast. The damp floor, the swooshing sound, the French sign in red on the inside of the door that I roughly translated to “self cleaning”. But then it hit me. Literally.
The water moved steadily across the room like a wall of rain coming in from the ceiling, or the wall or something. It started creeping towards me, spraying so hard it was bouncing back off the aluminum floor and spraying me from two angles!
Turns out, the toilet self-cleans after each use, by washing down the entire room, top to bottom, side to side. Because the last lady had held the door open for me, when it shut behind me, the toilet assumed no one was there, and so, started its thorough cleaning process.
As soon as the whole thing clicked I turned and pushed on the door… Which had locked for cleaning. I turned around, watching the water come closer and closer. I stood for a moment in horror, then turned back in a second, more desperate attempt at the door. This time, I spotted a red emergency exit button. I hit it and pushed on the door and the thing swung open, throwing me back out into the light of day.
I was wet, but I think I’d just barely missed the worst of it. I let the door shut behind me, and listened to the rest of the cleaning inside. Not knowing what to do, I just stood there for a minute. Then, still needing to pee, I went back to ransacking my purse for change. Finally I checked the outside pocket and low and behold I found a 10 and a 20 cent coin right away. I had to giggle a little at the ridiculousness of it all. Then I put in the coins for attempt two.
When I’d finished, I opened the door and saw a man standing outside, waiting to come in. In a natural reaction I smiled and held the door open for him.
“Merci!” He said and started to walk in.
“No wait!!” I yelled at him. He jumped and looked at me, this half wet girl emerging from the toilet, shouting at him. He clearly didn’t speak English.
“Don’t go in there! It will spray you down!” He stared at me, now holding the door open himself. I made a lame attempt at a whooshing sound and flailed my arms (I’ve never been very good at charades).
He still stared at me.
So I risked being mistaken for rude and pulled the door from him and shut it. Immediately the motor started up and within seconds the thing started cleaning itself. I pointed to the sound and the man started laughing.
“Ahhh! Merci!” He said. Then looked me up and down and started laughing some more.
Even I had to laugh as I grabbed my bag and walked back towards the station. My time exploring Carcassonne was over, but the trains took a midday break so I still had over 2 hours to wait. I found a rock by the river and tried to relax. My back was still aching, I felt like I was getting a cold, and a super dysfunctional family decided to sit next to me and scream bloody murder at each other for the next two hours… It was fun.
Considering my day, I would still absolutely recommend Carcassonne to anyone driving through the area. Just make sure you’re a little more prepared and a little less homeless than I was…






Otavalo and Cotacachi: Ecuadorean Market Towns

Ecuador is obviously different from Colombia in many ways. The landscape immediately changed after the border from mountainous terrain to rolling hills. The climate is a lot drier, and thus browner, and there’s less sprawling coffee plantations and more farmland. Sheep, cattle, llamas, pigs, all sorts of wildlife with more flat land and sparser forests. Women stand in lines tilling the fields by hand or carrying bundles of sticks along the side of the road.
  Even though the currency of Ecuador is the US dollar, the dress is much less influenced by North American apparel. Many locals wear the traditional clothing of brightly coloured ponchos or capes, dark pants (long thick skirts for the women) and fedora hats. The women carry their children in swaddled blankets on their backs, and are almost always adorned with thick necklaces of gold and silver chains.

At nearly every stop the bus made, people selling cheap food or trinkets climbed on to sell their goods. Homemade potato chips, apples, chicken, nuts, water, icecream, you name it. The venders walk up and down the isle calling out the names of their goods in rapid succession. “helado helado helado helado!!” “papas papas papas!!!” “un dollar por seis; veinte cinco centavos!” The men or women stay on for a stop or two, then tell the driver to stop so they can jump onto another bus. You will never find yourself hungry on an Ecuadorean bus, that’s for sure!

On our first day in Quito we did very little. We grabbed lunch at a bar in the main square, checked out a park and ventured back to our hostel to wait for Diane to join us! Now that Hilary had gone home to Toronto, Diane agreed to join us for our trip around Ecuador and we were very excited! The three of us went for delicious Mexican food for dinner, then called it a night early to get ready for a long day trip to Otavalo in the morning.

Otavalo is a market town about 2 hours North of Quito. It is a wonderful little town with a plethora of street venders selling food and a beautiful craft market full of traditional Ecuadorean wares. The three of us got up early to start our day. We watched a very entertaining Jackie Chan movie in Spanish on the bus ride out and arrived in Otavalo by the early afternoon. Buses in Ecuador are incredibly cheap: about $1 for every hour of the trip. Such a far cry from Brazil, which are between 8 and 10 times the price!! So we were all happy to reach the town for the cost of a toonie!

The market was quiet on the Monday that we went, but had some great deals! There were tonnes of intricate, hand-carved silver pendants and earrings, wood carvings of native animals, hand held pipes, thick alpaca sweaters, brightly coloured paintings, and traditional blankets and scarves. We had a great time walking from stall to stall bargaining for the best price and checking out the handicrafts. In the end, Diane and I both bought sweaters and Adam got an alpaca blanket that was gorgeous! When we’d properly explored the market, we ventured back to the bus station to catch a bus to Cotacachi. I never would have known that this place existed had it not been for Cathy, who told me about the leather bags she had bought from there. Only 40 minutes and 20 cents from Otavalo, Cotacachi is even more quaint and beautiful! From what we saw, it was only several blocks squared: the bus station went only 2 places, there was one plaza with a church… and a million leather shops! The place smelled amazing, with real leather scents coming out of the stores. Jackets, purses, wallets, shoes! Each place had handmade leather wares for super cheap and many of the shop owners made their products right there in the store. We spent a good hour at least walking up and down two city blocks checking out all the leather in each store along the way. We got some great deals in the end and then made our three hour trek back to Otavalo and finally Quito. We had cheap eats at a local Ecuadorean restaurant of rice, chicken and lentils for $2.75 then back to our hostel for a few beers and games of pool.  Not a bad first day in Ecuador!