Monday, September 1, 2008

The valley of life

In August we made our way down to Vilcabamba. It's a tiny village in the province of Loja, near the Peruvian border. To get there from Cuenca you take a bus to the city of Loja, a long and winding trip that the people at the ticket counter say will take 5 hours but always seems to take longer. Along the way you pass through several fascinating villages in their own right, like Susudel, where I did a temazcal sweat lodge last November, and Saraguro, where the the men wear their black hair long and braided, and they all still wear their traditional black clothing. The Saraguros, with their black hats, black jackets and flowing black skirts or pants cut above the ankle, are easily recognizable when they come to visit Cuenca. The story goes that they still wear black to mourn the death of Atahualpa at the hands of Francisco Pizarro.

Loja itself is a small but bustling town, and probably one of the most secluded provincial capitals outside of the jungle. Like most communities in the Sierra, it's girded by impressive mountains, but the ones around Loja are still well wooded, unlike in many places where the original high mountain forests have given over to steep cornfields. Its well-appointed historic center is tucked away from the bus routes, so you've got to make a point to check it out if you're passing through. A lot of people, on their way to the renowned Vilcabamba, don't give these other destinations a second thought, but I haven't found a community in Ecuador I didn't want to spend at least a day or two in. Even more, if you've traveled with me before you know that anywhere I go, I start making plans to live there. Hence my year and counting in Cuenca, where I had planned to teach for 6 months when I arrived.

There are buses headed down to Vilcabamba from Loja every 30 minutes, and the ride lasts only an hour. Along the way you realize that if it weren't for its reputation, Vilcabamba would be a hidden mountain village like any other. Far away from any major cities, deep in the mountains and down a twisting, narrow road, you pass through several villages as tiny, beautiful and fascinating as Vilcabamba is. But by a twist of fate, it was Vilcabamba that got famous. As such, it receives an incredible amount of tourists, most of whom unfortunately, in their rush to see as much of the hot spots as they can in the travel time they've alloted themselves, hurry through much of the surrounding countryside to relax there, between trekking to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.

You might be wondering by now, why is Vilcabamba famous? I've heard a lot of varying explanations, but the common thread is that people in Vilcabamba live for a long time. Some people say that the oldest residents have lived to the age of 130 years. The rumor is that it's the clean air and water that contribute to the locals' longevity, but the stories I've chosen to believe say that people there don't actually live longer than people anywhere else do, on average. It's that, because of the way land records have been kept there, titles to property have either remained in people's names long after their death, or that a father and son by the same name end up holding the title, between the two of them, for up to 130 years. Examining these deeds, what with one name on them for that length of time, would seem to indicate that someone had indeed lived for that long.

The other confounding variable I've heard about is that people here haven't historically been hung up on staying young. On the contrary, age is, or at least has been, a source of respect from those around you. As a result, it's been the case that people would exaggerate their ages rather than try to hide it or underestimate it as we might be inclined to do. One researcher had reportedly visited Vilcabamba to meet a man who people said was in his 70's, and returned less than 10 years later to meet the same man who was now allegedly in his 90's.

So it goes. Most of the claims to longevity here in Vilcabamba have been systematically disproven by curious researchers over the last several decades. But the locals are still faithfully making their claims about the healthfulness of their food, water, and climate, and tourists still dutifully make their way here to check it out. The fact is, it doesn't matter to your average traveler whether the valley is a healthy place or not. They come, more than anything, because it now has a reputation as a tourist destination. It's got nice places to stay, established hiking trails, and plenty of other travelers around to swap drinks and stories with. And, like just about all of Ecuador, the surroundings are beautiful and never too hot nor cold. What more could you ask for?

On this trip, we arrived in Vilcabamba in the afternoon, with time enough to have lunch in town and then find our accomodations for the evening. We ended up eating at a restaurant with Mexican food on a corner of the town plaza, and spent our repast drinking Pilsener, eating burritos, tossing a game of Cribbage and watching the people go by. At least half of the people we saw were travelers, coming mostly from Europe. There were also a fair share of other people from Latin America, and even a handful of locals. But if Mexican food in a small Ecuadorian village wasn't the first clue, Vilcabamba is a town that caters to travelers. After we paid our bill and began seeking out a room for the night, we began to find out that the many hotels scattered in and around the town are accustomed to tourists as well. Not only for their fluency in English and well-kept grounds, but also for the unusually high rates for a bed.

When I say the prices are high, I should also say that for $24 a night, you can get a private cabin with nice, hot water and a cozy hammock on a deck with an unobstructed view of the valley. I mean, that's what we did. I had stayed at the same hostel on my previous trip to Vilcabamba with my dad, and while I had hoped to try out some of the other accomodations, it was ultimately the promise of German cooking and beer that lured me back. The beautiful setting is also a nice hook.

Due to Vilcabamba's continued popularity amongst travelers, it hasn't only been locals who've realized that there's money to be made there. The Izhcayluma hostel, for instance, is owned and operated by German expats and travelers, and while they're happy to enjoy the local culture and the fine surroundings, they, like any traveler, like to have a taste of home from time to time as well. And as such, their guests can request a plate of spaetzle and a big, dark beer alongside. Nice! Especially after a year of Pilsener. Not to say I don't enjoy the Pilsener, but given the rare opportunity for an alternative, I'll take it.

So after a night of German pasta and beer, and darts tossed in a bar full of people trading adventure stories in various second languages, we awoke to a chilly morning and breakfast of crepes, overlooking the village of Vilcabamba in the valley below. Then we took a bike ride.

The hostel also provides a small fleet of mountain bikes for its patrons, albeit in various states of repair. After test riding a few around the grounds of the hostel, we settled on a couple that, while occasionally slipping out of gear, did have functional brakes and chains. We then made the rapid descent back into Vilcabamba down the steep hill that separates it from Izhcayluma. My enjoyment of the fast-paced downhill was tempered by the knowledge that what comes down must go back up, and that my clunky vehicle would not be doing so in a very efficient way. Nonetheless, in a few minutes we were back in town and on our way back out the other side, on the road to the entrance of Podocarpus National Park.

We were able to ride on a dirt road that followed a river up one of the valleys adjacent to Vilcabamba, which was dotted by an interesting mixture of countryside and communities, shared by locals and expats. It was a common sight to find signs along the way written in either English, Spanish, or both. Also apparent was a humbler cultural heritage that predated Vilcabamba's present notoriety.

Eventually we reached a bridge across the river which indicated (misleadingly) that it was the entrance to Podocarpus. We found a hidden place to stash our bikes, crossed the bridge, and made our way up the steep trail on the other side of the valley. At this point of the journey we were still well within a small community, and had to wind our way between houses, power lines, small barking dogs, and obstinate donkeys who stared at us from the middle of the trail, with what we interpreted as either menace or callous disregard. But while they refused to give way or stop looking at us, they also never made any attempt to bite or kick as we passed them by.

Once we got past these first few barriers, the little settlement gave way to wide open spaces and the occasional signpost promising Podocarpus up ahead. The name Podocarpus comes from the scientific term for Ecuador's only native conifer, apparently featured prominently within the park itself. I'd like to show you a picture of the park's namesake, but as fate would have it, we never got to a place resembling a forest. While we did wend through some small groves of trees, none spread much further than a few hundred paces. Instead, our environs consisted of the vast panoramas of open hillsides that are typical of a hike through the Ecuadorian countryside, such as the one pictured below, with the lovely and talented Nancy Macas in the foreground:

So went our hike. While there were several signs along the way promising the eminence of podocarpus, we walked for several hours having never glimpsed it. Having had brought only a banana and a bottle of water, we were forced to turn around eventually, vowing to return to Podocarpus in the future by way of Zamora, a jungle town to the southeast of Loja. After we had finished all but a few gulps of the water we'd taken with us, for awhile we played the age-old game of "let's just hike around that next bend and then we'll turn back." It wasn't long before that got us into one last forest grove, which seemed as appropriate a turning back point as any.

When you go hiking, you never really know what's in store. In various hikes of mine I've had short hikes become all day hikes, daytrips turn into overnight camping, and hunts for hot springs prove fruitless. I've had other hikes go the way I expected them to, if not reveal beauty I could have never predicted. If this one had begun with unfulfilled promises of big trees, what it delivered was scenery equally as striking. Which reminds me of the philosophy that there are two basic aspects to our lives. The first, like the scenery you see on a hike, consists of those things which are bigger than ourselves and entirely out of our control. Whether those things come to us through fate, destiny, luck, karma or some other means is also interesting to think about, but irrelevant as they occur in the moment. They can bring good things or bad, but all we can do is let them come. The second, the one that is completely within our control, and which ultimately defines us as human beings on our journeys, is our personal reaction to those first things.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bienvenidos a la selva

For my next installment of belated recollections from the past, I submit to you my first trip to El Oriente, Ecuador's wild west. Or rather, wild east. And while the western deserts and mountains of the United States are tamer than ever, the jungles that make up a bulging third of Ecuador's territory to the east of the Sierra are still, to a great extent, salvaje. And, since I made my way there back in February, during the peak of Carnaval celebrations, it was a lot more wild that I'd wager it is on a regular basis.

Here I am, in Tena, with a monkey. It's a spider monkey, so named for it's ability to maneuver through tree limbs using its tail like another limb. Which makes for five tree-climbing appendages, not eight, but that was close enough for whoever came to the Amazon and christened them long ago. The look on my face might lead you to think that I don't like monkeys. I get along with them pretty well, in fact, but I'll elaborate more on that further along.

Tena is the nearest jungle municipality from Quito, Ecuador's capitol city and a major tourist destination. It's proximity to both civilization and wild jungle makes Tena a town geared to tourism as well, and thus, one of the more attractive of the established communities we visited on our tour. Tena, on the other hand, is one of the farthest towns from Cuenca, where I teach and live. By the route we took, we found ourselves bussing about 14 hours to make our way there, stopping in a couple of other jungle towns on our way. Those two, Macas and Puyo, were worth exploring in their own right, more for the excursions deeper into the jungle that you can arrange from town than the communities themselves. To do a jungle trip right, you ought to have at least a week to get deep into the undisturbed rain forest, for the simple reason that, being undisturbed, there's no roads in and you've got to do some walking. This time around, we had five days free, and so contented ourselves to explore the settlements carved out of the jungle as we did in the jungle itself. We weren't disappointed.

By the time we crawled out of our bus in Tena, it was already late afternoon. So with our packs weighing heavily on shoulders bent out of shape by the bus ride, we walked downhill from the bus terminal to the town center and our beds for the night. Along the way, being Carnaval, we got very, very wet.

Carnaval is what I would refer to as a reactionary religious celebration. In other words, while Carnaval itself is not particularly religious, it wouldn't exist if it weren't for another celebration which is. The holiday that gave birth to Carnaval is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the 40 day Lenten period of traditional fasting, sacrifice and devout observation of the miracle of Jesus' transubstantiation. The prospect of all that fasting and quiet meditation led some Catholics, long ago, to get their kicks in before their 40 day purge. The idea of a party appealed to enough people for these binges to become annual celebrations of their own, manifesting in the French culture of New Orleans as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, so named for the consequence of all the eating and drinking the day before Lent. In many parts of Latin America, we have Carnaval, taking the idea of Mardi Gras a step further. After all, why celebrate for just a day? Carnaval is traditionally recognized as a weeklong celebration, but my experience has been that it starts a little after New Year's Day and keeps getting bigger and bigger. And even if you're not Catholic, everyone gets to play, usually whether they like it or not.

My first experience with Carnaval was a mysterious splash of water behind me as I was walking down the streets of Cuenca. I looked around, but couldn't tell where it came from. There was no one around, just a wet spot on the ground. I shrugged my shoulders and kept on walking. In the coming weeks, however, it became very clear what had narrowly missed me. With a disturbing frequency, I became witness to many personal attacks executed in broad daylight. Often the perpetrators operated from motor vehicles, with a variety of weaponry. Their targets were always the same: unsuspecting passersby. The more unsuspecting, the better. Couples and gringos, wrapped up in their own worlds, were the most vulnerable.

A case study: a group of five CEDEI teachers are walking down a quiet street, too involved in their own conversation to take notice of the attackers waiting, plotting, above. Then, comes the strike, all at once: uncounted water balloons, some off-target, but some bound to connect. Amid the screams and confusion from below, drifts down the devilish laughter of four boys from their upstairs balcony, already armed with another battery of balloons, dripping, swollen and sagging from their hands.

A grim portrait. And there is little we possess in our arsenal of defence, save our own wits. The playing of Carnaval is technically illegal in Cuenca, but as I also witnessed, the police themselves are complicit. One day an armored car was driving slowly down Gran Columbia, a main thoroughfare in Cuenca's center. Through the slot in the side of the vehicle, designed for visibility and protection, jutted the barrel of a watergun, blasting distracted pedestrians with precision.

CEDEI teachers, especially women, seemed to be particularly obvious targets. A group of three of them were walking through parque de la madre one day, enjoying ice cream cones. A driveby hurling of a water balloon left one of them wet in the face, her cone empty, and her beloved scoop of cookies n' cream laying uselessly on the ground. Que pena!

Some teachers, perhaps traumatized and desperate from too many drenchings, choose to join rank and buy some innocent-looking little rubber balloons at the corner store, turn them into weapons at the nearest sink, and mount their own ambushes. The rest of us opt to stay on the defensive. Which is very challenging, especially considering our own places of work are crawling with the most common source of attack, namely, cuencano teenagers. I found that as long as I keep my head up, they stay their attacks. Sometimes, out of respect and fear for those that hold the gradebooks, the group of kids ubiquitously hanging around the front door of CEDEI have the courtesy to ask me if they can throw a balloon at me. Nope, sorry.

Nonetheless, I chose not to take up arms, deciding that if I wanted to stay dry, I couldn't in good conscious add to the water level. That said, I did toss one at a few CEDEI preschool teachers as they walked past our BBQ, but I would've done that whether it was Carnaval or not.

On the street, I developed a strategy for my self-defense. I walk around with my eyes lifted upward to the terraces that lie on the rooftops of nearly every building in town. I noticed that even if there were kids upstairs from me, they wouldn't throw if they knew I saw them, because then I'd just dodge out of the way before the balloon reached me. I stroll slowly, confidently, choosing one-way streets where the oncoming traffic comes in front of me, lessening the chance of sneak attacks from behind. Overall, I would venture to say that my strategem was successful, seeing as how I managed to stay dry throughout my entire Carnaval experience in Cuenca.

But this fortune did not carry through to Tena. Perhaps it was due to the general laid-back lifestyle in Cuenca that helped keep me dry, or that the last days of Carnaval whip the revelers into a heightened frenzy. But we weren't in Tena for more than an hour before getting soaked. Water balloons, water guns, buckets, hoses. Kids on rooftops, kids with big barrels full of water in the streets, splashing it everywhere. Don't stand around and laugh at how wet you are or you'll just keep getting wetter. Even on the bus ride to Tena, kids waited along the sides of the road, ready to hurl a balloon in any window cracked open for relief from the humidity inside the bus. Fortunately, our hotel was several blocks from the main drag, and despite the late hour, the jungle sun had just about dried us off in the calm of the walk on the backstreets.

The next day we wandered out into town, where we met the aforementioned spider monkey.

He seemed, judging from his ample belly, very comfortable living in town, and he probably was. If pea-brained pigeons can make a living in cities around the world, an animal with thumbs and a prehensile tail ought to do pretty well. In fact, smaller villages such as Misuhualli, deeper still into the Amazon, are crawling with monkeys who have adapted to life in towns catering to tourists by stealing their drink bottles as they sit in the town square. Rumor has it these monkeys have developed a habit for the caffeine in soda and know where to get their fix. They don't have any trouble opening the cap, and once they have the bottle they go high up a tree where you'll never get it back.

This monkey, though, was very calm, albeit alternating repeatedly from sitting upright to adopting the more casual pose it struck in the first picture. It also made lots of funny faces for no particular reason, and made all kinds of odd gestures with its hands. After we had communed briefly with him, we walked down to the Rio Tena, which divides downtown from the more commercial district.

The river was wide and calm, flowing slowly down to the nearby Rio Napo, which by and by is a tributary to the Amazon itself. As such, any water here, just about 250 miles from the Pacific Ocean, will ultimately drain all the way to the Atlantic. The Sierra region of Ecuador straddles the continental divide, and any water to the east of it, no matter how close to the Pacific it might fall, will flow inexorably in the other direction.

At the confluence of the Rio Tena and the smaller Rio Pano (not to be confused with the much larger Rio Napo) is a park called La Isla, a small zoo featuring several jungle creatures for the enjoyment of tourists who will never venture any deeper into wilds. And, for some reason, an ostrich. Also in the menagerie lived a few monkeys, most of them running free. One of them, of a much smaller species than the spider monkey we met in town, was very friendly:

He spent several minutes crawling around my neck, head, shoulders, back, arms, and water bottle, doing his best to chew his way through the lid. He never tried using his hands, which were, admittedly, more like paws, and opted instead to use his teeth like a common animal. It's little guys like this that help bridge the evolutionary gap between primate and rodent, probably. His small size proved to be a disadvantage, as shortly after he leapt to a tree nearby, a much larger monkey decided he wanted to take him away. There was little the small monkey could do, as the bigger spider monkey kept a firm grip on his tail and wouldn't let him go. After wrestling for a little while, finally the big monkey just picked him up and hauled him off, in footage resembling a candid sasquatch sighting:

For a moment, it seemed like the small monkey might have been able to make his escape, but the spider monkey once again seized him by the tail and climbed up into a tree. Once amongst the branches above, the little one made his last bid for freedom, but ultimately, it was the tail, that enigmatic fifth limb lost to us higher primates, which was his undoing. In a dramatic display of agility and determination, the spider monkey, dangling from his own, got hold of the white one's tail as he dropped wildly, pulled him up into the canopy, and that was the last we saw of him.

Crazy monkeys. So like us.

Later that afternoon, we went for beers at a little grass hut doubling as a bar. Fortunately we were able to find seats under the thatched canopy of the hut, as the sky soon opened up into a mighty downpour that lasted for hours. The three of us were impressed by the intensity and duration of the rain, but the locals just shrugged and calmly waited it out, sucking down Pilseners to pass the time. That seemed like a fine idea to us, and once the rain subsided we were ready to take in more of the local color.

We walked over to the town square, which in most Latin American towns I've visited is given over to an urban park with stone walkways, benches and colorful flora. The people of Tena opted to build an amphitheater in theirs, and that night, being one of the last nights of Carnaval, there was a concert series with several singers and bands performing. There was also a lot of carioca. Not to be confused with karaoke, which you'll hear about later. Carioca is the name that somehow got applied to those cans of toxic, colorful foam that kids love to play with. Ecuador must be the world's largest consumer of carioca, judging from the quantity of it that circulated even the small town of Tena. A can, once in the hands of a child, lasted about 10 seconds, as he would immediately empty it all over whoever was sitting next to him. The sight of little kids running around with an enormous glob of neon pink foam stuck to his head and face was a common one, and, being the only gringos anywhere to be found, we were easy targets.

It began with the occasional spurt of foam from behind, higher up in the grandstand. At first we all laughed, but bit by bit these infrequent blasts came more often, and in larger doses. We quickly realized that we were surrounded by armed children who were rapidly losing their inhibition to lay seige on foreigners. The first few shots appeared to be to test their limits, and when neither the gringos nor their parents did anything to stop them, they began to thoroughly enjoy attacking their unarmed victims. We got tired of being easy targets and bought a couple of cans. Holding one, I waited for a kid to spray me. Then I spun around and let him have it, dousing him good on the side of his face and then even better on the back of his head as he turned tail.

Unfortunately, now that we could and did defend ourselves, the last vestige of self control came down and we were fully assaulted by children on all sides. We fought back well, turning a few on their heels, but in the end it was a war of attrition and our limited arsenal was no match for their numbers. An image of the fallout:

A look at the crowds around us well illustrates how we were targeted. Only those people who had the misfortune to sit in the crossfire are wearing foam, and a look at the faces of the audience reveals a disturbing indifference to the aggression. My theory is that years of this sort of spectacle have rendered the locals numb to the diablitos (as these little kids are locally referred to during Carnaval) and their shenanigans. As for us, we drained our cans on a few more grade-schoolers and went home. Along the way, the foam that covered us melted in the light rain, into a bizarre and strange smelling film that, thankfully, rinsed off easily in the shower. We all decided that we'd much rather get hit in the face with a water balloon.
For our last full day in Tena we went whitewater rafting on the Rio Napo. The river rapids were frequent but mellow, never once threatening to flip our raft. In order to give us more bang for our buck, our river guide chose to take a few extreme measures to make sure at least a few of us got wet. The first was his offer of River Rodeo, and he insisted on a volunteer before he would explain the rules. Emboldened by the calm waters, I raised my hand, and was promptly ordered to sit up on the nose of the raft with my feet dangling over the front of the rubber boat. All I had to hold onto was a small metal ring which I managed to get a couple of fingers through, and I slid around on the wet nose of the boat with every bump of a rock. We went through some rapids, admittedly small ones, and I got through them without getting bucked off the raft. Even I was able to toss one arm into the air for awhile.
Our guide seemed disappointed and asked for another volunteer. Vince, one of my fellow travelers, got the honor and parked himself up front. Another ride through the rapids left him perched safely on the nose of the boat as well, and our guide, a burly but athletic Ecuadorian raised in El Oriente, jumped up to the front of the boat and with a sudden shove to the back, Vince disappeared into the river.
A few seconds later he emerged alongside the raft and we hauled him back in. We all were wearing lifejackets and helmets, and the river so wide and slow that Vince was never in any danger, even if he hadn't been a trained swimmer. The waters are so mellow and gentle between rapids, in fact, that during a particularly long stretch of smooth sailing our guide proposed another game. This time, he ordered us all to the back of the boat, and, running a rope through the metal ring up front, joined us in the stern and with a pull of the rope, lifted our raft so that it was floating vertically down the river, nose straight up in the air and us hanging on to whatever we could to avoid flopping out of the back of the raft and taking the whole thing upside down on top of us. For a few seconds I wondered if we might try to go through the rapids this way, but long before any came along he let the boat smack down into its proper position in the water and we got back into our places.
I've heard of some other jungle rafting experiences that have left rafters spinning violently in class 4 rapids under their raft, getting dashed against rocks as they struggled to swim up along side a boat equally out of control in the whitewater. In light of those kinds of stories, I was glad most of our excitement was manmade and under control, even as I had hoped for a little bit wilder of a time going through the rocks.
That night we had our last dinner in Tena, at a restaurant open late. While we were eating, we couldn't help but notice the horrible singing that constituted the music we were listening to. Could that possibly be a professional singer? A trip to the bathroom by Lauren revealed a karaoke bar on the other side of the building, and we decided to check it out. The song list was rife with love ballads in Spanish, which one girl was systematically crooning one by one in a broken cadence of long, high notes.
An exhaustive examination of the list revealed one song we all knew: Another one bites the dust, by Queen. I was a little skeptical of this choice, because while we all knew the refrain, there were a lot of other words in that song I'd never bothered to pay attention to, but we came to sing, and this was our only option. One equally shameful display of virtuosity later, and jobs done, we finished our beers and walked out to a resumed performance by the same girl who'd been singing, all night long.
There was something poetic about songs sung so badly but so proudly, late at night at what may have been the only karaoke bar in the province. Amid the songs of jungle birds and insects that make the real music of the Amazon, those off-key lyrics are a fine example. Human beings will never be able to approach the beauty of the jungle with anything that we carve out of it. Right now the only sizable comunities in El Oriente of Ecuador hug the bottom of the eastern cordillera. Further east is the wild jungle, wilder and wilder the deeper you go. With all the oil still waiting quietly under much of it, I hope it stays that way a long, long time.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New Year's in August

Why write about New Year's in the summer months? Is it because here in Cuenca, the few degrees south of the equator that we are, the seasons and holidays are in reverse? Nope. I just haven't written for that long. But don't worry, the events and details of my New Year's experience here have only embellished themselves in my brain in the meantime.

So, I was sitting with President Correa when he got a call from Hugo Chavez about a conspiracy regarding Ingrid Betancourt...

Not really. I promise to deliver to you my experiences, as they happened:

We'll begin here, where I was standing on Calle Larga with a few of my CEDEI colleagues. Clutched in my left hand was a bottle of mezcal I had brought from Mexico. Tucked gently under the arm of Drea was a box of red wine. Had we been drinking? Perhaps. But in fact, these packages of booze were actually mechanisms operating in our defense. You see, according to the long list of traditions associated with New Year's celebrations in Ecuador, if you have a bottle of aguardiente and you see someone who's not drinking, it's your obligation to serve them a copious amount from the same cup any number of strangers may have been drinking from previously. Having learned this the hard way early in the evening, we opted to carry around our own preferred selection of alcohol. That way, when someone kindly offered us some Zhumir (the preferred label of aguardiente in southern Ecuador), we would hold up our own supply, raise a toast and drink a more reasonable quantity than what we were likely to be handed by our generous patron.

What is aguardiente, you may ask? Scroll down a story or two for a detailed description. What, you might also be wondering, are some of the other traditions of New Year's in Ecuador? Read on:

As it turned out, the booze only helped prepare us for the craziness about to unfold around us. Amongst the Christmas lights hanging from the walls, up until midnight on New Year's Eve you'll find these kinds of displays out in the streets of every neighborhood around town. Like the one above. A banner telling you the neighborhood responsible for the panorama before you. It also advertises the substance fueling the pageantry: Zhumir. And, the display itself. Always big, usually political. Here, a graveyard full of the people and organizations better off dead in the coming year, and the added satisfaction of a bagfull of arms in the foreground.

Here, along another backstreet, a stab at the big blue busses and ubiquitous yellow taxis that deliver us from place to place. The message is clear, fuera los buses. Cars, trucks and busses claim the lives of innocent people every day, around the world. In the US, for example, there's often a fair amount of talk about gun control, but year after year, automobiles kill more people in the United States than guns do. Do we talk about car control? Maybe now, with $4/gallon unleaded. Here, the gas is still leaded, and still under $2 a gallon. And the exhaust from the busses is thoroughly black and stinky. I've personally wondered many times, as I walk the beautiful hilly streets of Cuenca, amidst a backdrop of big, green mountainsides, why we contaminate our planet and run one another down, all to be in a hurry. As a spectator from the outside, some of the political commentary of the night was over my head, but this one was hard to misinterpret. It's never been a better time to be car free.

This image might help to better illustrate my position as a first-time visitor to the Cuencano New Year's experience. On the surface, for example, the message is more or less clear even to a newcomer. A shark devouring the bloodied carcass of a man with the initials of a political party on his sleeve and another on his pantleg. Ecuador has a dozen or so political parties, each with differing levels of control. Here a few of them are roasted, with some plays on words that only now, 7 months and a few questions later, have I come to understand and be able to laugh about. At the time, the look on my face was probably more like that of my friend Chris to the left. I'd try to explain them to you, but if you've ever tried to translate a joke, you know that most of the humor is, as they say, lost in translation. Plus, the idea is to lure some of you down here to learn for yourselves.

With all these gruesome images, you're probably asking yourself, is it safe? Do all the bloody spectacles and Zhumir lead to a night of violence? Fair questions. To begin my reply, I first offer you Exhibit A:

Three innocent little girls with their lollipops, up long past their bedtimes, one of them staring a blood-encrusted shark in its paper-mache eyes. What may be going through their heads? Another good question that I won't venture to answer. But suffice it to say that there were countless children on the streets that night, all absorbing the tradition that they will surely help to cultivate and deepen themselves, later in their own lives. For now, they at least all seem to enjoy the loud noises.

Which leads me to the moment that everyone around the world, time-zone by time-zone, looks forward to, no matter where you are. We all count the seconds before, and then, that moment comes. That magical time, no different really, from any other second that passes by, other than our own human observation, when one year ends and another begins. What happens now depends greatly on where you are. Here, that means fire. Lots and lots of fire.

I should probably explain here the real intention and philosophy that underlies the Ecuadorian New Year. The occasion, in Spanish, is El ano viejo. We call it the New Year, but here, the emphasis is on the old. Where we tend to think more about our intentions looking forward, the idea here is one of looking back, thinking about what we want to get rid of, forget about, exorcize, cleanse, and burn. Hence the big displays. All sorts of images, tending toward the dark and graphic, come to life for everyone to see, all to bring to mind the demons and ghosts in our own lives. Then we take power over those things by, at that magic moment, throwing them all into a pile and setting them alight. Now we can look forward to a new year, having cleansed ourselves of our pasts.
To witness it is truly powerful. For several short but exhilarating minutes, every direction you look, up and down Cuenca's gridlike, cobbled thoroughfares, is fire after fire. For a short time, while the fires are still burning, people revel around them. They dance, drink, laugh, and some try to jump over the blazing remnants of paper, wood, and other materials I'd rather not think about. Then, when the fires go out, the party begins. Cumbia music plays at high volume, and people keep dancing, laughing and drinking until long after I go to bed. And, when I wake up late in the morning, I can still smell the night from the smoke that lingers on my collar.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Los chorros

Pictured above is the author standing near the calm and beautiful stream that flows just below one of several massive waterfalls that are referred to unassumingly as los chorros. The name translates more or less as "the spurts," but as you'll see, the many waterfalls in this cloud forest outside of the village of Giron, about 45 minutes by bus from Cuenca, are a far cry from a mere sputtering of water. But then, Ecuadorians, as I've noticed, have a penchant for diminutizing everything. For a commonly encountered example, I present to you this conversation I might have on any given morning as I go downstairs to the market for some eggs.

"Diez huevos, por favor," I'll ask.
To which I'll hear, "Claro mi patron, diez huevitos." Ten little eggs.
And in regards to payment, I might ask: "Y cuanto le debo?"
In reply: "Ochenta centavitos, no mas." Just eighty tiny cents. How could I refuse an offer like that?

So it should come as no surprise to you to see what I saw one morning as three fellow teachers and I made our way up a hill into a tropical rainforest. A rippling torrent of water pouring down a sheer cliffside, soaking everything around it with its freezing mist as it pummels the rocks below, before transforming itself into a quiet brook and rambling peacefully downhill.

I could have sat for hours watching the shapes that constantly evolved from the cascade of a river seized by gravity and pulled suddenly straight down, like the flames of a fire flickering in the opposite direction. No less impressive was the backdrop of a mossy cliff surrounded by hills that were almost dripping with vegetation.

But we had a day of hiking still ahead of us and another waterfall to see. And we were still buoyed enough by the events of the night before to hold still for very long.

The plan to take a trip to Giron had begun months before. Just weeks after I had arrived in Ecuador, in fact. But this plan went forgotten in the whirlwind of obligations and frenzied sightseeing that ensued as 30 some gringos descended simultaneously on a foreign land, intent on witnessing as much of it as possible in the short months they allotted themselves to teach and travel.

Finally, during one of my first long weekends after New Year's, it seemed like the time had come. Five other teachers decided it was time as well, and we made a plan to leave in the early afternoon. At 1 o'clock we'd meet and get a bus soon afterwards. That morning, though, a few text messages informed me that 1 o'clock wouldn't be possible, it'd have to be later. But how much later?

As two of the teachers backed out and the afternoon began drifting by, I sat patiently waiting in my apartment with my guitar and some carefully measured quantities of my favorite mezcal brought with me from Mexico. Some further correspondence led me to believe that at first at 3 and then at 4 o'clock we could finally meet and get on the road. Sure enough, my roommate Vince arrived shortly before 4 and we made our way across town to the house of Heidi and Lauren, who were almost, but not quite ready to go.

Then there was the question of provisions. There was shopping to do, for such sundry goods as an avocado, a little 10 cent loaf of bread, and a box of wine. Then, thoroughly outfitted and prepared, we arrived at the terminal terrestre and found our way onto a bus bound for Giron in just half an hour. As it turned out, however, the bus was taking a detour and our anticipated 45 minute trip was some duration of time greater. Greater enough, as it turned out, combined with the various other delays, to bring us into the village after dark under a light drizzle of rain.

Fortunately, Heidi, a British lady married to a Peruvian fellow, had been living in Ecuador for a few years and had been to Giron and los chorros before. She knew what to do and what to say in order to get us where we needed to go. What that was was waving to a pick-up truck driver, saying "los chorros" and then hopping in the back of the truck. The rest of us did the same, and the truck driver proceeded to drive us along a muddy and winding road up a steep hill for 20 minutes or so. At the top he collected his fare, and pointed to the only two buildings anywhere in sight, indicating we could spend the night and have a bite to eat at either one of them. Without another word he drove back down the hill, leaving us at the end of a country road in the now-heavier rain.

We approached the closer of the two buildings, which had a covered patio with a large wooden table. We knocked on a door and waited, but there was no sign of life. No lights, no noise, just a sleeping dog on the patio. So we walked the quarter of a mile over to the other building, which was also conspicuously dark, and pounded on a few windows. Again, no response. In 15 minutes, we had systematically exhausted our two options for a place to stay at los chorros, which left us at something of a loss for what to do next. But, becoming increasingly wet, we opted to go back to the first building, have a seat around the table, and get dry.

It turned out that through all the preparations that had been made that afternoon, none of us had gone so far as to eat lunch. Once under the covered patio and seated around the table, we opened the box of wine for nourishment, began passing it around, and broke our little loaf of bread. There was enough of a loaf for about 3 or four bites each, it looked like. Lauren, who'd made friends with the dog who awoke to the smell of bread, began feeding it some. The rest of us decided that her generous offer came out of her portion of the bread ration, and we began spreading avocado on what remained, while the dog, appetite now whet, began begging shamelessly for more.

At this point, with no indication that we'd be finding any accomodations for the evening, and having discarded the idea of walking back down the long, dark and muddy road to Giron, we began sizing up our surroundings for a way to pass the night. None of us had brought anything like a pillow or a blanket, but the wooden table and benches seemed large enough for the four of us to all lay down on, which seemed better than the cold and wet dirt floor. A grim assessment for the night ahead, but a realistic one. We continued drinking the wine and I began to discern a pattern emerging from the events of the past few months: when I go into the woods, I find myself in some sort of unexpected and arguably risky situation, bringing others with me for the duration. At least I never go alone.

After an hour or so, as the chill of the night settled into our bones, we nonetheless began making our peace with the idea that we'd be sleeping on the table. Then we heard a phone ring in the house and some rustling of life. Interesting. I should mention that before we had made our peace with the situation we had first banged loudly on every door and window we could find. And yet, a few minutes later, an drowsy but amiable woman opened a door and explained that she had been sleeping upstairs but she eventually noticed that we were here and had just called her brother, El Negro, who owned the lodge but was down in Giron at a party. He was now on his way home to set up our beds if we wanted to stay the night, and in the meantime she could offer us trucha and canelazo. If you've been keeping up with my postings, you already know that trucha is trout, and for a detailed explanation of canelazo you'll have to scroll down a story. But suffice it to say that it's served hot and it's got alcohol in it. Which seemed perfect right about then.

About the same time that our trout was served (fried, and whole, complete with scales, head and tail), El Negro arrived in his Chevy Blazer. He made sure we were comfortable, and then explained the accomodations. He told us that he had just one bed, but he was sure it was plenty big enough for him, his sister, and the four of us. He let that idea soak in for a minute before laughing and telling us in English that he had lots of rooms, and a bed for each one of us. Funny guy!

Then he went inside, put on some Simon & Garfunkel at high volume, and turned on a disco ball above our heads which had somehow escaped our notice. El Negro knew how to entertain. He also came back outside and joined us while we ate. This wasn't the first time I'd been presented with a whole trout, and I knew what to do with it. But I have to admit, while I did take a bite out of the head I didn't eat it all, though I did enjoy the crunchy tail and fins. Vince, on the other hand, relishes the idea of eating a fish down to the spine and did so with gusto, especially enjoying the head and eyes, if his detailed description of the texture and flavor was any evidence. The meal also came with mote, a variety of large-kerneled corn similar to hominy, in this case fried with egg. I found out later that this was an unusual pairing of foods, fish obviously being eaten more on the coast and mote a traditional crop of the high mountains. But they went well together on my palette, and the canelazo rounded out the meal nicely.

El Negro, for his part, had emerged from the building with a large frothy mug of yellow beverage which he explained was a Pilsener blended with a raw egg. The rest of us opted not to sample this drink but we did enjoy his company and the ambience, which had shifted again with the change of music from 60's singer-songwriter folk to dancehall reggae, played even more loudly. I suggested that we play some cards and we settled on a round of rummy. El Negro played as well, often remarking about his malas cartas and other examples of his rotten luck.

As the weather cooled off further, El Negro thought it might be a good idea if we retired to one of the rooms where we'd spend the night, to stay warm and keep playing cards. We went to the room Vince and I'd be staying in, and upon seeing that there was a nice comfortable bed and a sorry-looking bedroll on the ground for sleeping, we both agreed that whoever won a round of rock-paper-scissors would get the bed, which I won, best two out of three.

After we'd played cards for a few hours we reached a natural pause in the game and I noticed El Negro was shuffling the cards with some dexterity, so I asked him if he knew any card tricks. It turned out he did, and he showed us one that stumped us all. I did happen to know a trick that it reminded me of, though, and I asked him if he'd show it to us again. He said he'd do better, he'd show me how the trick worked once and I could try to do it again myself. Luckily, the trick worked similarly to the one I knew after all and I was able to reproduce it without any trouble. Heidi had already gone to bed at this point, but Vince and Lauren both remained stumped by the trick, which I still haven't gotten around to showing either one of them.

Then El Negro mentioned that he knew another trick, this one involving a banana. He explained that he could slice a banana from the inside, using a knife that would never actually touch the fruit, and while the peel would remain intact, upon opening it, it would fall into evenly and cleanly sliced segments. He proceeded to demonstrate the trick with a whole banana, which he let us examine first. Sure enough, it looked like a regular banana, nothing unusual about it. Then he stood a few feet back from the yellow fruit, now resting ominously on the card table, made a few cutting motions with a knife, and told us to look at the banana again. There it was, same as before. Didn't look any different to us. But when we opened it, sure enough, it fell into slices. The peel on the inside was cut, but on the outside it was whole and smooth. Then El Negro wiped off the knife on a towel, where some banana pulp was left behind.

El Negro, for whatever reason, had deemed me worthy of learning this trick as well. I managed to learn the trick pretty easily and recreated it for Vince and Lauren a second time. They were thoroughly confused by this piece of trickery and a bit upset that I became the sole inheritor of our group. I pacified them with the explanation that before they returned to the States I'd show them how it's done. While I won't reveal the mystery to you here, when you see me I'll be happy to demonstrate this piece of mystical know-how I learned in the rainforest of Ecuador. It gives me a bit of a headache to perform, but if you're entertained enough to offer me a beer afterwards I'm sure that ought to relieve it.

At this point we were well into the early morning hours and we all decided it was time to call it a night. I slept great in the big cozy bed and it seemed as though Vince did as well on the floor. That morning, I got my first true glimpse of our surroundings, unfettered now by the cover of night and rain, but still enveloped in a thick layer of clouds:

The cloud cover proved relentless throughout our day of hiking, from this early morning view seen from the patio where we had spent our time the night before, to the first waterfall where this story began, and all the way up a mountainside to a second waterfall. Walking around inside of a cloud gave everything we saw a surreal quality, as though we were exploring the threshold of someone's dream about the Ecuadorian countryside.

Indeed, after a few hours of hiking it dawned on me that finally, after nearly five months of living in Ecuador, I'd stumbled upon a near likeness of my own dream from before arriving here, of what this mountain country must look like. Sure enough, I guess my pre-conceived notion wasn't too far off the mark after all. Except that besides this one particular landscape, Ecuador offers virtually every other type of countryside I'd ever seen before as well, plus several that I never had.

During our walk to the second waterfall, having climbed up a steep and slippery trail that more than once demanded that we humbly get down on all fours and trudge along, we found ourselves in a sort of foggy, high mountain prairieland.

This dreamlike pastoral setting was complete with various livestock. It seems like no matter what mountain I climb here, regardless of how steep and strenuous the ascent, there's always a cow at the top leisurely munching the grass, serenely looking at me, its very presence humbling my once-great physical achievement of the climb.

The clouds seemed thicker here than anywhere else, and besides contributing to the mystical quality of the environment, they also added to the element of risk. We had to hike up two or three level plateaus like this one, each stretching out to the left and the right as far as the eye could see, which here was only a few dozen yards. Our trail disappeared once it led us here, and another one, which would lead us to the falls, laid somewhere at the top, amongst many other trails just like it. Getting turned around anywhere in the woods is disorienting, but with clouds as thick as these and with surroundings that all look the same, we could easily wander around for hours looking for the right path.

Fortunately Heidi's previous visits here were still fresh in her mind and she led us to the correct trail with little hesitation. The second set of falls, not far from these open and misty plateaus, was no less impressive than the first, and if these cascades were not as picturesque as the first we saw, they dropped a greater a volume of water and were all the more amazing to us after our long and beautiful hike to reach them.

We spent a good deal of time at these falls, enjoying the refreshing mist that they sent flying everywhere as they rolled down the cliffside, and also enjoying the opportunity to take a break from hiking before we began the descent back down the muddy mountain trail. Our return journey was spent largely in silence, all of us in an almost meditative state engendered as much by the serenity of the foggy green hills as by the mighty waterfalls at the top.

Once we reached the bottom we found El Negro and his sister feeding a group of teenagers who'd arrived to enjoy the nearer of the two falls we'd visited. To entertain them, our hosts had put on some Cumbia music played at an even higher volume than the music we'd been treated with the night before. It seemed El Negro had a library of albums for any occasion or perceived taste in music of his guests. We were fed another delicious and fortifying meal, and were then offered a ride back to Cuenca in the Chevy Blazer, as El Negro had some family business there and would be driving there anyway.

Our drive back seemed to take minutes, and we even got a ride downtown, just a few blocks away from each of our two apartments. Another free ride from the country to the city, twice in a row! But I'd better not talk too much about my luck. Instead, I offer you a photo of our host, here pictured with Lauren, in front of his kitchen:

Friday, February 15, 2008

A long ride

During the holidays my friend Jules, who I studied TOESL with in Mexico back in August, came down to Cuenca for a few days with his girlfriend. He got a job shortly after I did, working for a school in Quito, and as it turns out, his girlfriend has family here in my new hometown. Over a few drinks one evening on Calle Larga, we made plans to go Cajas the next day. In Cajas, as you'll see if you scroll down a few stories, I had a little run-in with some banditos in September. Despite that, Cajas is a great place to hike and I was ready for another trip.

So in the morning, myself, Jules, his girlfriend Alejandra, her brother Alvaro, and Alvaro's son Pancho all made the drive up the hill to Cajas in Alvaro's car. We hiked around quite a bit, had a good time, and then rewarded ourselves on the way back down the hill with some canelazos and trucha. Trucha is trout, usually served whole and traditionally eaten down to the spine, leaving behind neither head nor tail, and in order to honor the tradition, I dutifully ate the head, which was crunchy on the outside and fatty on the inside, and the tail, which was like eating a fish-flavored potato chip. My willingness to eat a fish from stem to stern may have also had something to do with the canelazo, which is a strong drink made from naranjilla fruit, a type of citrus somewhere between a lime and an orange in flavor, sugar, some water, and a fair quantity of aguardiente. Aguardiente is a liquor distilled from sugar cane, like rum. Except while good rum is distilled in quality wooden casks, I think aguardiente might be aged in plastic jugs and it sells for pennies an ounce. That said, canelazo is a tasty and wholesome beverage as mixed drinks go, it's served hot, and presented tastefully in a ceramic decanter. This batch was a particularly strong one.

By the time we were done with lunch we were even more enthusiastic than when we began, and decided it was time for some hot springs. Our original plan was to go to Bagnos de Cuenca, a resort village south of town, but Alvaro claimed to know of some wild hot springs on the other side of the mountains to our south from Cajas. Well fortified (and yet still road worthy, for those of you concerned), we made our way along a long dirt road to the promised springs, which were there indeed, and were excellent, set deep in a green valley with sheer, lush mountains on either side.

We made our way home that night and already I was plotting my return trip to those springs. A couple of weeks later, I went for it, by bike. I managed to persuade my friend James, another professor at CEDEI, to come along as well. We set off one Saturday afternoon, James having borrowed a bike from a friend and me on the one I bought a few months ago. James, while sharing my enthusiasm for mountain biking, enjoys downhill a lot more than uphill (who doesn't, right?), and was probably a little surly after our first trip up a very steep hill outside of Cuenca. He was surlier still after it turned out we went up that hill for nothing, having taken a wrong turn. But what can I say, I'd had a few to drink the last time and was a little fuzzy on the directions. Fortunately for our morale, the ride back down that same hill was a lot of fun and got us back on track.

Properly oriented now on the scenic dirt road to the hidden springs, we enjoyed a leisurely ride without too many intense ups and downs. The road was, in my view, the perfect country bike ride, reasonably well maintained, very little traffic, and lightly peppered with dwellings interspersed amidst some incredibly beautiful countryside:

In this gently sloping valley, I found the homes and other buildings to be as interesting as the countryside.

This store, for example, features many of the qualities I appreciate in an Ecuadorian country tienda, and what will always be missing from corporate America: a pile of bananas, the ubiquitous sleeping dog, and a sign advertising the most attractive options available for sale, in this case, the mixed assortment of trout, gasoline and cheese. That's a sales strategy with heart.
But, now is not the time for my philosophy on economics. Because, shortly after this picture was taken, my idyllic outpourings of appreciation for my pastoral surroundings began to be increasingly interrupted by James' more pragmatic insistence: "So, how much further is it to these springs we're heading for?"
You see, we left for our ride, as I mentioned before, in the early afternoon. What with a wrong turn and with what was perhaps a gross underestimation of the length of the journey by the author (which may or may not have also been due to my liberal self-administering of canelazo the last time around), we were an undisclosed distance from our goal, a few hours away from home, and with the evening already showing signs of setting in. Worse still, the common sight of evening storm clouds was also looming over our heads.
As some readers have learned from previous outdoors experiences with me, I possess what could be described as an unrealistically optimistic view towards country travel. On foot, by bike, in motor vehicles, I often view the open road as neverending and full of good times ahead. As a result, such details as food, warm clothes, the onset of darkness, for example, have arguably been downplayed in my mind from time to time during my consideration of a given journey. The years and the experiences they've offered me have taught me a lot about this sort of thing, and have taught a thing or two about me to my traveling companions at the same time. Today, as fate would have it, was one of those kinds of life experiences.
After some deliberation, James and I agreed to flag down the next passing vehicle regardless of the direction it was heading. As it turned out, it happened to be a truck heading towards the springs and our goal, driven by three teenage boys. They very agreeably not only told us their estimation of the distance we still had to cover (which, in the end, was on par with my own optimistic, and inaccurate appraisal), but offered us a ride as well. So we threw our bikes in the back of their truck, jumped back there ourselves and went for a ride.

20 minutes or so of driving at high speed on the bumpy dirt road got us to our destination, which turned out to be theirs as well. By bike, that amount of ground would've been traveled in just over an hour or so, at which point dusk would have firmly settled in. Luckily for us, these kids were on a fishing trip on the river that flowed along next to the hot springs and were stopping to fish more or less where we were stopping to soak. Even more luckily, they all lived in Cuenca and were willing to give us a ride back to town as well. So while they went fishing, we spent the next hour relaxing before one last high-speed downhill bike ride before dark, back to where they parked their truck.

The teenagers thought it was great to have a couple of gringos in the truck with them for their ride back to town, and we proved to be entertainment enough to warrant a free ride. Not to mention that they were genuinely buena gente. As much as we offered to pay them, they refused, and even gave us a ride downtown just a few blocks from our respective homes. Once, on the hour-long, dark, rainy ride back down the hill towards town, they shut off the headlights of the truck to show us what a ride home on a bike at night would've been like. Needless to say, we couldn't see a damn thing. No moon, storm clouds, nothing like a street light for miles at a time.

As I may have mentioned before in my writing, I generally view the idea of thinking about how things might have been different as a waste of time. After all, reality works out the way it does and no other way, and we have only to reflect on what has happened to decide how to act in the future, rather than spend our precious time on earth dwelling on the impossible past. Nonetheless, an idulgence: had we not run into those kids, we probably would've ridden ahead a little longer, gotten discouraged, and started riding home. In which case we would've missed the springs, and probably gotten caught in the rain and the dark for at least part of our journey home, had we not broken down and decided to hole up under some awning somewhere in the middle of the night out there in the country.

But, life had another plan for us that day, and it's an understatement to say that we were incredibly lucky to have flagged down a car full of nice teenagers going to the same place we were headed, and returning to the same place we came from. I mentioned at the beginning of this story about Cajas and the three teenagers who threatened us and did everything in their power to rob us. This day on the road to some wild hot springs, three teenagers managed to take what could have been a trying time and managed to work it out to be as close to a best-case scenario as I can think of. I could spend hours of your time reflecting over the forces of the universe that have the power to drive a day in your life into the realm of the truly remarkable, for better or for worse. But for now, let's suffice it to say that I'm thankful for the way that things went.