The Grim Reaper

The bus to Santa Fe de Galán was the only Burma-style deathtrap I’ve taken so far in Latin America: Ecuador has spoiled me. For this one, I waited a couple of hours on a dingy street corner in Riobamba, next to a flock of chickens they were stuffed into a flour sack whenever they got nervous. Bus rumors floated: the ten o’clock was cancelled for Holy Week. They might run an extra at eleven, or they might cancel the midday service, too. Campesinos piled onto tiny trucks instead, but I stood grimly. Eventually the bus came back at eleven, having teased us by driving around the block at 10:30.

Because I never learn, I put my rucksack at my feet on the front seat. By 11:45, we still hadn’t moved and the bus was more packed than any I’d seen here. I felt guilty as people clambered over my bag, which was now wedged in and taking up the space of a person.

A granny with a hooded shawl and face older than time waved a rusty sickle with menace whenever anyone tried to open the window. A cheerful young woman shook her head in disbelief when I told her we had children late in my country. She was 22 and her eldest was eight next week, and that, she told me, was how it should be. A small family discussed my hiking plans and assured me, as usual, that it was much too far to walk.
   ´How many seasons are there in Ireland? How long does it take to fly there in a plane from Ecuador? How long does it take to fly to America?‘
Their kids were filthy, as usual, though cleaner once they’d wiped their hands on my knees. This bus was very friendly, and I began to feel I’d left the dour central sierra behind.
   ´!Vamos!´ someone shouted at the endless delay.
   ´!Vamos a morir!’ some wit added at the back. But we didn’t. We made it to Galán just fine, in our sputtering, overcrowded little bus.

Jungle ride

On Easter Saturday, I rode a bike from Baños to Puyo, on the edge of the jungle. I hadn’t been on a bike since I broke my hand in December, and this shiny Bianchi was far nicer than my own much-missed New York bike. I needed it, for the road surface was dreadful much of the way. The road was clogged with Ecuadorian tourists on the route of the waterfalls for Easter weekend. Every vehicle threw up huge clouds of dust on the unsealed road, and at certain spots drivers switched on their headlights despite brilliant sunshine.

I stopped to see various waterfalls in the valley of the Rio Verde/Rio Negro. It’s spectacular. Troops of Ecuadorians trotted down steep slopes in city shoes, with not a bother. They were very cheerful, even the wealthy Quiteños, compared to gringos, who whine about hunger, thirst, and boredom on holiday.

There is nothing like the thrill of travelling from one climatic region to another under your own power. You can do it in a bus or car, and in most countries the distances involved are so great that you have to. But to experience the change fully, you need to feel the air on your skin—and not roaring past you on a motorbike, either. On foot, or on a bike, you feel the air warming or cooling, you have time to notice the vegetation changing, and to see how the mood changes with the temperature. Ecuador makes it easy: it’s a scant 60 km from Baños to the edge of the jungle, manageable even for my saggy backside. Truly, this is the first three-dimensional country I’ve ben in, where height counts for as much or more as length and breadth.

I stopped in Rio Verde for lunch, and the restaurant was taken over by a raucous family form the coast.
    ’What’s your name, sweetie?’ beckoned the ringleader.
    ‘Ramón,’ said the waiter.
   ’Well, Ramoncito, I’m going to have the special,’ she teased, and the whole family, down to the toddlers, hooted as he blushed.

I pedalled on, over rocky surfaces that threatened road rash at every curve. At Rio Negro I stopped again for blackberry juice, and was greeted by two lovely resident babies.
   ’This one’s a gringo,’ said the café owner, while the mother scowled. ‘Look, he’s as white as you.’
   ’With ten layers of dust and sunscreen I’m not so white any more,’ I said.
   ’True,’ she agreed, ‘there’s a sink out back.’
She told me it was 35 km to Puyo and I lost hope: I was already saddlesore. But the road was paved from here on out, and it was mostly downhill.

And it was, except for the uphill. A few hills were excruciating. With all my Manhattan commuting, I’ve never had much call for hill legs, and I, sir, am no Adam Stein. At the top of one killer I broke my own rule and gulped from a waterfall, untreated. Sometimes iodine water just won’t do.

But the downhill stretches were glorious, crouching low to minimize wind resistance and swooping around hairpin bends. I was exultant. The freedom of a bike, where your own pumping legs swallow distance, is something you never forget.

The vegetation changed, and I recognized fewer and fewer plants away from the gorse and heathers of my childhood. Flowers were frothing again; bougainvillea and fuschia. I passed a tea plantation and felt I was back in Vietnam. I whooped and hollered: jungle!

At Shell Oriente, my passport was checked and as usual they carefully copied down the details of my US H1-b work permit, which looks much more official than the real passport page. The word ‘Ireland’ has worn off the cover from being in my sweaty leg pouch, and I’m ready to start making up interesting nationalities. Shell is strange, a military base with a Microsoft distance education college, several air taxi businesses, and missionary headquarters.
   ´I think we just passed the highest point,’ said another biker, ‘I read somewhere that for the next thousand miles it just slopes an inch a mile down to the sea.´
   ’Don’t say that!’
Sure enough, we turned the corner into a tortuous, endless climb. The light was changing and ahead a boy was silhouetted against a pinky-yellow cloud at the top of the hill. By the roadside, and father and son gathered sacks of a leafy plant.
   ’Is that to eat?’
   ’The guinea pigs eat it.’
A final fattening for Easter Sunday.

Eventually, I skimmed down into Puyo, a non-descript town that lives as a base for jungle trips. At the bus station, the driver sighed: yet another damn gringo bike to haul onto the roof. I was grinning and caked with dust, and I had just enough time to run to the bakery for a bus snack.
   ’Any bread left?’
   ’Bread makes you fat. If you like bread, how come you’re not fat?’
   ’I just biked here from Baños.’
   ’In that case, darling, you better have two.’

In Pelileo I stayed at the nicest whorehouse I’ve ever been in. Wooden floors, lemony walls, brand-new beds and bathrooms. Only the crackly plastic sheet below the linens and the constant creaking of the beds on either side gave it away. That, and the fact that a man I watched say goodbye to his wife 15 miles down the road in Huambalo checked in for the evening at 5.30, when the market closed. It was entertaining, but I was glad to head to Baños next morning.

Baños was a surprise: not gringolandia as I had feared, but full to bursting with local tourists in for Easter weekend. I’ve never seen a more festive Good Friday. In Ireland, hard cases take the train on Good Friday, as it’s the only place that legally serves liquor. In Baños, people reeled and danced in the streets, and the ferris wheel turned all day. Street stalls sold canela: cane hooch with hot, cinammon-flavored naranjillo juice. Little guinea pigs roasted on open air grills, their sharp little teeth clenched.

I drank at a tiny bar in the market, where music nerds argued about Willie Colón and Ruben Blades, and Cuban music played until late. Gangs of little kids ran among the closed stalls, hatching plans and free as air.

I dumped a whole bagful in the first laundromat I saw—I even went to the bathroom to change into my only skirt so that I could include the socks and trousers I was wearing. Fausto and Nubia, the laundry owners, didn’t look thrilled at the Easter crowds; only backpackers bring loads to wash. She was from the coast, he was from Quito, and for three years they had run a lodge on the slopes of the Tungurahua volcano. They were evacuated in an eruption, and their hotel was looted beyond recovery in their absence. Rent had gone up five times since 1999 and was no $400 for their small space. I couldn’t see how they were breaking even with two washing machines.
   ’If you find all the hotels are full,’ said Fausto, ‘we have a spare room upstairs.’
Their apartment was dark, full of knick-knacks, and immaculately clean. It reminded me of homes I’d visited in Spain. They went downstairs at seven every morning to open the shop, even on Easter Sunday, but I couldn’t see how they would survive. Baños is already so crowded and competitive that town water pressure falls in the even to the point where a shower isn’t possible. It’s also directly in the path of a very active volcano.

In a café opposite the station a large Indian family arrived for almuerzo, or set lunch. They were all dressed up, with new peacock feathers in their trilbies and magnificently embroidered blouses. One woman wore layer upon layer of gilt necklaces, like the long-neck tribe of Burma. I watched them carefully calculate the cost of so many $1.50 lunches before ordering. The reminded me of an Irish farmer’s family on a once-a-year trip to town for the Feast of the Assumption on December 8th.

I ate tortillas, where here are small eggy potato cakes, like flat croquettes, served with rice and yet more potatoes cubed with tripe. In case I ran low on carbs, it’s also served with morocho, a maize drink that tastes just like milky rice pudding.

The cathedral was a riot. It was packed for Easter yet seemingly just as informal as the town itself. It is 1920s brick, and looks like a two-dimensional film set against the mountains. Baños is a valley jewel. As the buses here say, ´There’s a little piece of heaven on earth, and its name is Baños.´ The cathedral houses the Virgin of the Holy Waters, an object of pilgrimage throughout South America. The cloister walls are decorated with cheap plaques, Employee-of-the-Month style, which fervently thank the Virgin for favors granted. Some are heart-breakingly specific.

‘On August 9th, 1997, a red truck belonging to the son of your most devoted servant, Jorge Castillo, was stolen on the streets of Quito. His father prayed fervently to the Most Holy Virgin for the return of the truck. Some days later it was recovered outside Quito.’

Others verge on schadenfreude, notably an enormous painting of a street on fire. The caption explains that a house fire in Guayaquil spread to a whole street. As the grateful subject fled his house, a friend shouted that his home would be spared because there was a picture of the Virgin of the Holy Waters in the window. Sure enough, the flames jumped his house, which was on the corner, and completely destroyed those of the heathens on either side. In gratitude, he had painted this picture.

Inside the chapel, further miracles were illustrated—mules falling off log bridges, plunging their riders to certain death until they were spared by invoking the Virgin. In my favorite, a nun was cured of the rheumatism that had all but paralysed her when she was brought on a pilgrimage to Baños. Four years later, the caption notes, she died of bubonic plague. The Virgin could not be reached for comment.

Motionsickness

Ireland is dotted with prehistoric burial mounds covered in stone cairns. In folklore, these are known as Diarmuid and Gráinne’s beds. She was a princess, as far as I remember, married to Conor MacNeasa, the high king of Ireland. Diarmuid was one of his soldiers. Like Launcelot and Guinevere, they ran away together, and to avoid Conor’s wrath, they cris-crossed the country, sleeping in a different spot every night.

I’ve been travelling for ten months now, and in the last month alone I’ve slept in 25 different beds. I’m beginning to feel like a fugitive myself. I solve the same problems over and over—which hotel, which campsite, where’s the bus, how can I get my clothes clean. It still takes me half an hour to pack every morning, especially camping, as I try to cram all my gear into a too-small bag. I fret what to do when my current book runs out and I can’t find a new one.

Oddly, it was Quito that made me feel homesick. At the Casona de Mario, I had access to a full kitchen for the first time and was able to potter about making toast and coffee, pasta and salad, whenever I liked. I could sit in a comfortable living room drinking Chilean wine and watching HBO, or eat breakfast in a sunny room that reminded me of my Brooklyn apartment. I could even put music on the stereo. There were no other guests.

And those few days of domesticity nudged a craving for home that I’d managed to keep dormant for a good long time.So I bought a little in-cup immersion heater (which will surely kill me, given Ecuadorian wiring), and I make tea with bathroom water and powdered milk every morning. It’s immensely comforting. In my culture, milky tea cures all ills; home in a cup.

Then I started to buy cornflakes and UHT milk, which are cheaper here than they were in Asia. Breakfasting in private has become a treat. The traveller has to live in public, in other people’s spaces, and hugging a plastic bowl of cornflakes I feel I’m clawing something back.

I am still excited to be travelling. How many 30-year-old women get to shriek down Andean roads, freewheeling, or to learn to whitewater kayak in the headwaters of the Amazon? I know how lucky I am, and this is a country that would constantly remind me, anyway. But the official version of this trip, if one exists, is that it is a year-long absence from the United States to allow me to reset a work permit allowance. As the ‘official’ period draws to a close, I am looking forward and wondering just what home to be homesick for. So far, it is just an imaginary apartment where my books and clothes will live. Soon, though, I’ll need to narrow down a country, or even a continent. And I feel less American now than I once did.

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.