Cloud forest

After two days of rain in Salinas, I woke up in bright sunshine and decided it was time to let my bedsores heal. My hiking book prescribed an ‘easy’ two or three day walk down by the Chorrera waterfalls. I was capable of their easy hikes, I decided, though ‘moderately difficult’ hadn’t exactly been the Stairmaster Level 3 effort I’d imagined. This hike would drop 2000 meters from sub-alpine to cloud forest, down the flanks of the Cordillera Occidental. It promised wonderful views, fog permitting, extraordinary vegetation, and interesting communities.

Well, it’s April. Fog wasn´t permitting. Nor was baleful, bucketing rain.

The first day, I walked three hours down an unpaved road, happy as a Girl Scout in the sunshine.
   “Where are you going?” asked everyone I passed.
   “To Chazo Juan. By the waterfalls.”
   “Why don’t you go by car?”
They were all ready to point out that if they could afford a car, or a two-dollar bus ride, or even a mule, they wouldn´t be schlepping a backpack down a steep muddy track in winter, like the kind of stupid gringa who had got soft from lying in a hotel room eating Salinas chocolate and romanticizing the wayfarer life. Hah, I refuted weakly.

At Las Arranyes, a tiny village, I was proud to find the track first go, fifty feet past the church as advertised.
   “It will take a long time,” called the woman who directed me. The trail descended sharply at once, and I slithered in the mud while above me kids clapped their mouths to make Injun Brave whoops. I filched a fence picket lying in the mud for support. It was almost fun, sliding downhill on slick mud. Irish skiing. I fell on my bum twice and was glad to be out of sight of the whooping braves.

The trail was rocky in parts, but mostly thick with ankle-deep mud and clay. I caught my first sight of the waterfall at three o’clock, around the time it started to drizzle. The first prescribed campsite was near, but there were three curious horses grazing in it. A piglet had bitten me on my last hike—no lasting damage to either of us, but I felt I didn’t have what it took to deal with Ecuadorian livestock. So I trudged and slithered on through rain that grew more insistent. Clouds rolled in.

Clouds have a power here that lowland countries never experience. In my indoor, mostly sea-level life, I looked up occasionally and noticed an especially fluffy cumulus, or a gray bank that looked “threatenin’ “, as we say at home. In the Andes, a wall of white rolls towards you, not above you, like smoke along the floor of a burning building. You watch it swallow trees and ridges ahead of you, knowing that soon you will be walking through a cold sauna, and that taking off your glasses won’t clear the pearly fog.

The book said the next good campsite was an hour’s walk away, but my progress was slow in the churning mud and fog. Eventually, I camped on the only flattish surface around, sliding slowly downhill in my wet sleeping bag. I was too damp to consider anything but three bars of chocolate for dinner.

It was bright the next morning, and I saw the waterfall again as I dawdled over a belated dinner of pasta, mussels, dried Salinas mushrooms, and parmesan. Eating is my favorite part of camping, and it puts off folding a sopping tent. By 10.30 it had started to rain again and I still hadn’t made it to the second campsite after two and a half hours of walking. The falls had long since disappeared in a muffling cloud—or rather, I had. The vegetation was changing—I was 1500 meters down by now—and I found a springy bamboo pole to tripod myself down the worst slopes.

There is something liberating about being completely soaked. To be covered in mud is even more freeing. I’m catlike by nature, and I detest getting wet, but once I am I can accept it fully. It doesn’t matter any more. There’s no need to poise above a puddle, wondering if you can jump it without breaking your neck. Just slosh right through, and feel it lap the top of your boots. The suck and gurgle of mudholes becomes a childhood game of trying to make the most disgusting noise possible. At times my feet were encased in huge chocolatey mud-boots, like Bobo the Clown. At other times, they were washed temporarily clean by swollen streams that crashed across the path. Such extensive treatment would have cost a fortune at the hands of a Manhattan aesthetician.

The ankle-deep ford my book described was now raging white water, but a thoughtful person had thrown a log-bridge across. I unclipped my hip belt and crawled across it on my belly, not caring who saw my pathetic display.

I passed a mud-brick house (what else?) where a colorful line of laundry was hung in a triumph of hope over experience. The three dogs barked in terror at this yeti approaching from the mist, and this drew a string of five dirty little boys in height order, followed by a young mother nursing a sixth. She laughed in disbelief and wanted to know why I didn’t go by car.
   “I wanted to see the scenery,” I said, weakly. Silently, we both gazed at the cloud fog. She directed me to the right path: I had been confused by the fact that it was now a healthy six-inch-deep stream.

Further on, an old lady scolded me for coming in winter, and told me that her son was coming up the path with his cows and I’d have to get out of his way. He was a friendly fellow and full of questions. When was I coming back? August would be great. Never, I wanted to say, does never work for you? I noted the chocolate coating which had by now worked its way up to my thighs.

I found the largest earthworm I’d ever seen, ten inches long and almost as thick as my wrist. With the right agent it could have had a nice career as Ron Jeremy’s stunt double.

I got stuck behind a string of mules, who were not pleased to be shooed down the slope. They churned up the mud even further, until eventually we came to a clearing where I could pass without being kicked.

I began to see tree ferns like ghosts in the gloom. There were lianas, crazy pineapple-shaped parasites, giant palm leaves, and the steady drip of the cloud forest. Parrots squawked, and the barren high plains seemed very far away.

An Indian in a bright yellow rain poncho passed on a mule, and I had to scramble up slick banks to let him pass. He laughed when I said I was going to Chazo Juan, and laughed again when his silent yellow dog lunged and bit, drawing blood. I wanted his mule to buck and send him rolling slowly down the hill, through mud that was now a foot deep. I thought of the trenches of the Somme and was grateful that at least my mud did not cover stinking dead bodies.

It was after five on Saturday night when I finally sloshed in Chazo Juan. The village looked different to all the highland villages I’d seen. The two-storey, porched wooden buildings gave it the look of a Wild West town, though here the gunslingers lazed on their porches and perked up only a little at the sight of a filthy, dripping foreigner staggering up the dirt road out of nowhere.

Then Nestor found me. All smiles and handshakes, he welcomed me to the Community of Chazo Juan. He took his role as a Trained Guide seriously, even though it was out of season. The community could arrange lodgings and dinner. He could explain the main attractions and arrange a tour of the cheese-making co-op and the micro-businesses. The state had paid for Nestor to train as a guide in Riobamba, and he was anxious to be a credit to the village.

A young woman called Alicia led me to the hostel, which was unlocked and seemed to be under construction. There was a lightbulb and fifteen bunkbed frames, and a cold water bathroom. Alicia dragged out a mattress and blankets, and presently Nestor joined us to lecture further on community projects while I dripped and shivered. He delicately explained the community charge—fifty cents—which would ensure the benefits of my visit spread through the whole village, not just to those directly involved. A bed was a dollar, dinner and breakfast another dollar each if I cared for them. We arranged dinner at seven, and I changed into less-wet things. My pack was soaked and I festooned the bedframes with dripping articles.

Nestor came back with a ten-year-old boy named Mauricio who wanted to interview me. Mauricio did not look curious at all, in fact, but with a fatherly hand on his shoulder Nestor expressed determination to mentor the kids of Chazo Juan as tourist guides. They each wove frond baskets for Palm Sunday as we talked. I decided that Nestor possibly the most earnest twenty-year-old I’d ever met.

Dinner was served in a concrete porch on the main street, on a single school bench against a wall where I sat like a bold child. I ate good chicken stew and rice, for which I was to pay Nestor. Breakfast next day was at the same place: hardboiled eggs, lukewarm syrupy coffee, lukewarm syrupy guava juice, and a dish of salt.
   “How much is Nestor charging you for this?” the eating-house lady wanted to know. She hadn’t been paid yet.

Chazo Juan was up and about well before seven, even though most people were just hanging out on their porches. There were carros to Echeandia at six, seven, and eight a.m. These turned out to be broad wagons with wooden seats and open sides, something like the tourist trains that ferry people around Disneyland. Sunday was market day in Echeandia, and Chazo Juan was all dressed up for a trip to town. At ten to eight, I swung my backpack into a nearly-empty carro. At eight, a fellow passenger yelled to a man sitting on a stoop that it was time to go. The man jumped up into the driver’s seat and honked the horn, and bodies poured in from all sides. My pack, now trapped, caused loud complaints.
   “And it’s wet, too! Somebody get it on the roof. There’s no room here. It belongs to the gringa.”

It was hauled to the roof along with yellow crates of empties for redemption in town. I followed, though I was loudly assured there were no thieves in Chazo Juan, not like Town.

Balancing on the spare tire my view was interrupted only by occasional branches flying towards me and the row of six boys on the very front. The biggest—about 16—kept planting smacking kisses on the younger ones and then crowing “Faggot!” as the victims squirmed. Some preoccupations of Latin manhood are eternal.

We swooped down to Echeandia, descending from the cloud forest with perfect views of the waterfall that had been hidden for two days while I tramped past it, sodden. The boys whooped and tried to catch low-hanging oranges, and the driver played ‘You’re the One that I Want’.

Echeandia was buzzing as we rubes were disgorged. We were more than halfway down the western slope of the sierra, and I was warm for the first time in Ecuador. Girls strutted and displayed ample bare bellies, a shock after the highlands where most women wore five thick skirts at once and as many shawls as they own. I admired the wobbly flesh, which gave me a craving for chicharron (pork crackling). Then I caught a bus back up to Guaranda, to dry off.