Friday, October 5, 2007

Little bandits

For about the last month, I've been living in Cuenca, Ecuador. Cuenca is in the southern Azuay province of the country, high in the mountains. The weather is surprisingly cool and cloudy, though on the rare occasion that the sun dissolves the clouds enough to shine through, it does get pretty hot. Being so close to the Equator, the sun rises like clockwork at 6:30 every morning, sets about the same time each night, and bisects the sky right across the middle each day from one horizon to the other. I got here a few days before the equinox, a fitting time to arrive in a place where the days and nights get equal treatment the year around.

This week, I began teaching English at a language institute here known as CEDEI. I've got some great students, almost all of them young teenagers with a lot of talent and eagerness to learn. I was a public school teacher for a short time in Santa Fe, where the long hours and large classes wore me down enough to quickly seek more peaceful employ. Here, I'm not making anywhere nearly as much as a school teacher in the US, but none of my classes number greater than 6 students, and I only teach 2-4 hours a day. Not bad! And the pay's not bad either, actually, when you consider lunch is a 3 course meal for no more than $2 and usually less.

I'll talk more about Cuenca and my work here in another post, because, as the title above would suggest, this one is not about little English students, but rather, little banditos.

Myself and two companions decided last weekend to do a little hiking in a national park west of Cuenca, called El Cajas. It's an hour bus ride from town, up a predictably windy and hilly road. Ecuador being an Andean nation, there really aren't many places you can go without taking a bus along some beautiful but treacherous terrain.

Kristi, a fellow teacher at CEDEI, and I went with the understanding that with our intercultural visas, we'd be able to get into the park for $1.50. Here's a picture of Kristi after we walked out of the ranger station:

Unfortunately, once we got there, the park ranger, while willing to listen to my long-winded and broken explanation in Spanish that our visas were in Quito for registration and that we were here on a volunteer basis to help the youth of Cuenca, patiently tapped the $10 entry form the whole time. It didn't help that there were a bunch of impoverished travelers all trying to negotiate for a lower price, and even though a guy came along who explained - in much better Spanish than mine - that our Censo cards were en route and that we were truly qualified for the local's fee, we ended up paying the gringo rate. Hopefully it went to the park and not the ranger's wallet.
Cajas park is in some incredible countryside, with more lakes than you'll ever see in one place. In a few hectares there are more than 200 lakes, and walking on the turf is like stepping on a semi-moist sponge, which occasionally breaks underfoot and sends you ankle-deep into a spring that seems to flow just below the surface throughout the park. I've heard that the water here in Cuenca comes from Cajas, and it tastes great. While I'm usually pretty reluctant to drink the water when I travel, enough locals have spoken up for their water supply here to convince me.

So myself, Kristi, and Christine, another traveler from Denver who left for Peru the next day, set out on our hike around the first lake. We had planned a route that would take us up and around a range to our north, and would ultimately lead us back to the highway several kilometers to our east. The whole trip was an anticipated 5 hours, although by the time we found the main trail we'd be taking, we had already wandered the pampa for a good hour or so.

Along the way we passed many people on horses and donkeys. They were all very friendly and usually had some sheep and dogs with them as well. The last group the three of us encountered was a group of three boys, probably about the age of my students, looking like some local campesinos. They were all on horseback and had some dogs and burros with them, and all but one of them said hello to us as they passed us. The other boy, wearing a big furry hat as big as his head, only grunted at us and was looking pretty grumpy.

Looking back, that should've have raised my defenses a little, I guess. But we were all enjoying our hike and the scenery so much that I didn't give his reaction a second thought. Plus we had been making a steep and protracted ascent up some rocky terrain, and at that point were well above 13,000 ft, far higher than any of us had hiked in quite awhile, probably. So we rested, the boys passed us by, and Christine began to wonder whether she'd have time to finish the hike we'd planned. Just then a rock came flying at us from up the hill and hit Christine in the back of the leg, in what should have been another red flag to us all. We were immersed enough in our own agendas to still not give it much thought, though.

A short distance up the hill we reached a flat summit and took another breather, and found that the three boys were waiting there as well. A few of their donkeys had proceeded further up the trail, as had the smallest of the kids on his horse. The other two were waiting at the top of rocky portion of the trail that led downhill, and the one kid's horse looked a little reluctant to go ahead. Or so I decided at the time. Meanwhile, Christine snaps a few pictures and decides to turn back on her own. Kristi and I, with no real plans for the rest of our day, decided to finish the hike we'd mapped out. Christine starts walking down the hill, and the other two of us turn to face the trail ahead, trying to decide if we ought to wait for these kids to move along or just go past them on the narrow trail.

I ask the one boy if his horse is afraid to go down and don't get a response. So we decided
to just walk on by them. As I walk by the grumpy kid in the furry hat, I hear him mutter something, and on my way by him I see that he's got a small knife pulled. That's weird! As we pass them, the two boys proceed to follow us, staying right on our trail. We stop to let them pass, and they stop as well. Kristi asks them if there's a problem, and they tell us yes, there is. In their words, we aren't in the national park, we're on their land and we'd better give them something in payment. I apologize and suggest that we could turn back if there's been a misunderstanding. But no, these kids have made up their minds to exact some tribute from us and won't be convinced otherwise. They tell us that if we don't give them something we'll be in trouble when some other people come along the trail.

Considering we'd each paid $10 already, and besides that, we were clearly on the park trail, I tell them that that's fine, we can wait for someone to come along and see who gets into trouble. Maybe they hadn't thought we'd react in that way, because they didn't have much of a response to that besides to wait there with us awhile. We exchanged a few more words before, along the trail ahead of us, two older fellows on horses come into view. There, I told them, are some other people who can straighten out our misunderstanding.

As the two other riders dip down a hill and out of sight for a moment, the boys make one last demand, and two of them pick up rocks as they move ahead of us on the trail. Kristi moves behind me, the boys move ahead a bit more, they raise their rocks, and in a feeble effort the smallest of them chucks a rock at us, which didn't make it halfway towards us before rolling uselessly to the ground. I couldn't help but scoff loudly at their half-hearted attempt at robbery as they rode off up the trail.

So as the boys disappear from sight, Kristi and I collect our thoughts while we wait for the other riders to come our way. We could finish our hike like we planned and risk another run-in with the kids, if they hadn't just kept hiking. Or we could turn back. While we think, the two men on horseback come along, wish us a good day, and continue along. It's at moments like these that I can't help but question how things might have unfolded differently, if for instance we had mentioned our little run-in to them and hiked back with them a ways. But the thing about life is that our experiences only play out in the way that the events actually unfold, and there's not much use in worrying much about what-if. As it is, we let those guys ride on by us without another word, and it wasn't long before the three kids came riding back after us.

We started walking briskly back the way we came, but at a gallop they caught up to us not far from where we saw them in the first place. One of them hurried along past us to see if anyone was coming the other way, and emboldened by our isolation, now demand from us our camera, our backpacks, our jackets, and probably another thing or two as well. No, I tell them, we've got our business, they've got theirs, and we're going our separate ways now. Damned if I was going to let some little kids playing at highway robbery get a thing from either of us, even if they were riding horses.

The kids pick up rocks again. One of them starts untying a rope from his horse. We weren't sure what he planned on doing with that, but we decided it was time to move. The kid with the knife is making demands at us through blue lips and chattering teeth, he was so cold, but he was still the one making all the threats. We jumped up off the trail where their horses wouldn't go and made a path around them. They tried to surround us again, but the terrain was broken enough to allow us to keep moving ahead. At one point I had to walk right next to the kid with the knife, who clearly wasn't willing to use it, as much as he threw the phrase Voy a matar around. As we push forward, the kid with the rope starts swinging it like a lasso, which got another big laugh out of me. What are you going to do with that thing?

The kid with the knife jumped off his horse in order to keep pace with us as we beat a path off the trail. At one point the kids got between Kristi and I, and while I stopped and waited for her, she picked up a bunch of rocks and walked by them and they got out of her way, only to stay right behind her as she caught up to me. We were now making our way back down the steep mountainside where it was impossible to go off trail and confound their horses. From then on we made sure to stay close together and not let them in front of us. Rather than try to get back on his horse, the boy with the knife starts hurling rocks at us down the hill. He was actually a pretty good shot, and managed to hit both of us on our backs a few times, but fortunately never got either one of us on the head.

The kid with the lasso stayed right behind us as we made our way down, and more than once managed to get a loop around our heads. I never would have guessed this kid was any good with a rope, but if we weren't in the middle of nowhere being pursued on horseback, the whole situation would have been pretty funny, as I'm sure it is for you right now. Honestly, there were more than a few times that they were laughing, and so was I. It was half a game, but they certainly would've gotten something from us if they could've.

Each time we managed to get the kid's loop off of our heads before he pulled it tight, except once. The kid got me around the head, and as lucky as I am that the loop didn't get around my neck, he managed to pull it tight before I could shake it free. The kid with the knife ran up and starts helping his friend try to pull me back up the hill, and Kristi and I played tug of war with him for a minute before I got enough slack to pull the rope off my head. I also got pretty pissed off, having been roped around the head, and starting yelling at the kids like I'd scold a dog. At the same time, we managed to get the rope out of their hands, and so now we were running down the hill pursued by little banditos with something of theirs, after all.

Not much further down the hill we caught sight of the other two riders who had now made their way to a lake and were dismounting. They were pretty far away from us, but the kids were reluctant to pursue us within sight of other people, apparently, because they stayed at the top of a ridge and proceeded to hurl rocks and insults at us without following us any further. Once we got out of sight from them, we stopped and caught our breath, amazed by the absurdity of the whole situation. The entire encounter lasted for over a mile and more than an hour, and we managed not to lose a thing to them. I could've kept their rope as a souvenir, but I elected to drop it on the path where they could find it.

The chattering teeth and blue lips of the meanest of the boys flashed in my mind. Were they desperate or just having fun with us? Either way, I'm glad neither one of us elected to try to fight them, as they were, in the end, just kids, however persistent and violent. That we were far from any assistance and that they were on horseback made them the threat that they were, and while it may have been possible to stand our ground against them, I'm sure that had we done so either they, us or everyone would've been injured, and I'm here to teach kids, not try to hurt them! As it is, another crazy story, and besides a scraped-up nose from the kid's lasso, we're no worse for the wear!

Kristi's got her own, more hair-raising impression of the story. Check it out here: