Caminante, no hay camino

(A short, slightly whiny entry to indicate that I’m still alive despite silence since Quito; thanks to those who asked. Suitably rapturous entries will follow—despite complaints below I’m taking to roughing it in Ecuador surprisingly well. A tent is not that much smaller than a Manhattan apartment.)

I have a new fear to add to my already long list. I am afraid of falling arse over tip off the Andes while still strapped to my large backpack. Unlike most of my other worries, which are mental chewing gum to keep me from accomplishing anything useful, this one has some basis in reality. On the ‘Moderately Difficult’ Quilotoa trail from my Hiking Ecuador guidebook, my backpack skidded down a near-vertical scree slope and bounced gently to the riverbank a thousand feet below. I was not strapped to it at the time. Nothing broke. Still, it’s clear the thing is incompetent, and shouldn’t be on the mountains.

Hiking Ecuador keeps quoting an Antonio Machado poem: “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.” (Traveler, there is no path. You make the path by walking.) This is not uplifting in a trekking handbook, especially a copy whose pages are now soggy with sleet. Twenty minutes after I retrieved the backpack, I was trying to follow a ‘very faint trail’ up another near-vertical slope. Though I couldn’t see a trail at all, I was optimistic that sheep footholds and the odd flattened tussock counted, and reluctant to waste my investment in the dreadful scree slope. So I inched straight up on my hands and knees, clutching at razor grass and wondering why in the name of God I was carrying lipstick and mascara—not to mention a tin of smoked mussels and a Carl Jung collection—on my back in the Andes. I knew that if I lifted any part of my body more than six inches off the ground I would tumble backwards into space. So I didn’t look around until the very top, when I saw the so-called ‘very faint trail’ zig-zagging clearly up the next slope over. The scree and the sheep meadow, which had taken me more than two hours to climb, were not on the program at all.

I cried like a nasty supermarket three-year-old, snotting and swearing and blaming. The women tending sheep down by the real trail giggled as they watched me inch back down on my bum, no longer caring about ripping my sister’s Miss Sixty trousers.

I’ve lived all my life at sea-level. On the third and last day of my trek, gasping on the sandy caldera wall of the Quilotoa lake, I realized that I’d once sky-dived from a point lower than this. I would count ten steps and rest, and each step was a pitiful shuffle that sometimes ended with me sliding lower still in the volcanic ash. When I reached the rim of the crater, a hundred-mile-an-hour wind nearly knocked me straight onto my backside, pack and all. I would have welcomed the rest. I was filthy from three days of camping, and nearly insensible from the fatigue of actually carrying my own stuff for once, let alone to 3800 meters.

Ah, but a sight like this has to be earned. A bus window is the wrong lens.

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