San Agustin Colombia

Helpful Authorities and Whether Coincidence Plays a Part – The Road to Ecuador

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Bogota. Sofi and Lucas and I went out on the town one night, bought a bottle of aguadiente, and made merry in the streets. The scene was modern and clean and bizarre. Later, when I had jumped on the transmilenio public transit to see the center, I was surprised by simply looking out onto some of the streets we passed by. The ugly transvestites in the doorways were not tempting in the least, nor were the smoky surrounds the gruff bums waded through. And I cannot say that Bogota itself tempted me much. Granted I only stayed for two nights, but I felt like leaving all the same.

You have to follow your instincts, for the most part. “Dig the vibes” is not so far from the truth of it. You have to trust what your body tells you, and then let your mind conspire. This way, perhaps you can avoid prejudice, or even promote fairness for yourself and others. I have only ever turned down two rides. One was in Nicaragua. The other was in Mexico, somewhere in the desert. The car was normal enough, and so were the men inside. But there was something, something that did not sit quite so well, so I declined the offer of a ride. Then again, who knows.

In the morning of the third day in Bogota, I ate a brief breakfast with Sofi and her boyfriend, who is an artist and so is my people. I had walked half the city the day before and purchase new drawing books so that I could get back into my habit of traveling for drawing.

I bid them farewell and put my boots to the pavement. Back to avenida 68, back on the bus, and back to the bus terminal to catch another bus once more to Silvania. What should have been an hour bus ride was a 3 hour bus ride, since the greedy driver and his hound tried to fill the bus from anyone walking close enough as we snuck by. I thought I was being impatient until I heard every passenger on the bus yelling “come on man lets go what’s the holdup?”

In Silvania I greeting the patrons at the panaderia, who had helped me find a place to camp the last time around. Then I walked to the other side of town and waited several hours for a ride out. That ride never came. I saw a dog sprint across the street, but not quick enough, and he was hit by a truck and sent flying into the air, landing and flipping ten times on the road. He got up and walked away as though there wasn’t but an afterthought.

It was Sunday, and there were no semi trucks. I watched the clouds. They only seem to move when we’re not paying attention. I sat heavy hearted near Panaderia Peter Pan. I thought it was clever until someone told me it is a very common name given to bakeries.

Finally some cars pulled up to the small tienda nearby. The second person I asked agreed to drive me three hours to Girardot. And so it goes hitching in Colombia. You have to talk with the folks.

The way was not through the modern tunnel (which, by the way, is the talk of the country), but down into a canyon I could almost call a giant crevice. The chocolate beast of a river down to our right as we were passing under eaves dropping cliffs. The man’s wife offered me chicken flavored potato chips.

In Girardot I walked for an hour and a half, into the night. The young policemen told me to guard my bag close, that I shouldn’t be walking there. I knew that, I didn’t want to be walking there anyway, but I was tired!

I finally made it out of town and found a gap in a fence surrounding a field. I will call that night “bugs and bumps” and leave it at that. In the morning I hopped a bus to Espinal, where I then walked for two hours to the other side of town. I drank a “aromatic” (tea) to soothe my still aching throat. Later, I would buy some antibiotics, Lucas having told me a horror story about his friend who had month long swollen glands as well.

At Espinal there were few semitrucks and no cars were stopping for a few hours more. I was more than anxious to leave, to enter Ecuador and once again be invited into the back of pick ups!

Two policemen came over to me.

“Oye gringo, adonde vas?”

“I’m heading to San Agustin”

“Vacano, cool, very cool. But you know you’ll never get picked up here.”

“I know that. Someone has to stop or something lucky has to happen.”

We talked and I regaled them with stories from my trip down from Oregon. We laughed about things unimportant but strategic. They liked me.

Before long they were using their authoritative powers to stop cars to ask if they could take me. And here was the luck I was waiting for, because not 15 minutes later a trucker agrees to take me 4 hours to Neiva, the next big city south of Espinal. I bid farewell to my new cop friends, and met Diego, the driver.

I made sure to excuse myself for having let the cops help me, that I knew it was intrusive and I was sorry. It was only politesse, because eventually he didn’t care, and we chatted on and off.

“You’re going to San Agustin gringo?”

“Yeah.”

“Very dangerous down there, you shouldn’t go in that area. Mucho guerilla. Mucho FARC.”

Neiva, Colombia.

Neiva, Colombia.

 

Travel sketch in Nieva Colombia

Hitchhiking to San Agustin, I stopped to make this travel sketch of a statue in boiling Nieva.

 

The couple that first brought me to Silvania days before, and the couple that brought me to Girardot had both said the same thing, that the rebels were kidnapping people around San Agustin. San Agustin is a small mountain town where tourists go, and where there are paths to hike to find waterfalls and statues and other sorts of things tourists enjoy (and we do).

“It’s alright, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Hours later I was again crossing a city by foot. It was sweltering heat that pulled at my socks within my steamy boots. I stopped to draw a statue of a minotaur being impaled. I ate a cheap meal of rice and beans, and was gifted a sweet juice and a clunk of ice for my water.

Another long walk out of town, down a forest road where the only things I found were a transvestite hooker and a drug deal, but no rides. Later on, much later on, I was picked up by a kind couple who owned a sushi restaurant in Neiva. They said they felt sorry when they saw me walking in the heat with my umbrella to guard against the rays.

“Why were you walking down that road man?? It’s dangerous, did you see that transvestite? She’s a robber man.”

These folks brought me to an intersection near Rivera, down the road 15 kilometers. A few hours waiting here before another ride and then more waiting and another ride. Basically it went on like this for the whole day, so I won’t bore you with more details. In short, I got to taste a lovely wheat drink, I seemed to cause an engine to die, and more police treated me kindly. By the time night was falling I found myself walking for 10 kilometers up and around green hills, under a loose canopy. I was outside of any town, trying to find the river to camp next to. I must remember, for the next time, that when someone says it’s a 20 minute walk, it’s really a two hour walk.

Eventually I found a small path that led into the forest, and opened up on a wonderfully pleasant view of the valley and the road I’d just climbed. Here I camped for the night, cussing the mosquitoes that followed me into my tent.

In the morning it was more walking. I had a good sleep that night, even though some people were walking by the tent in the dead of it. I guess you’re only truly hidden when you don’t think you are and never when you’re sure you are.

I walked out of the town of Garzon, into another little town. All these towns, by the way, are short and white, with cobblestone streets and smiling old ladies. Basically, they are quite lovely. I wandered around some of them. Hobo was the name of one and I felt good there.

I eventually began a long walk, again under the blazing sun. And eventually someone took pity on me, Luis, he took pity on me. He took me to Altamira, where I helped him and some other unload orange bricks into a house under construction. When he left me on the outskirts of town I was again prepared for hours of walking and little luck.

Ever since the army “made safe” the cities and the highways, the thumbs up sign has been hijacked. Now, they use it to mean “ok, we did it, good for us, good for everyone, good for you, and you too”. So, sometimes when I give someone the thumbs up, they just smile and give it right back at me. Hours. Then I met Robin Hood. At least, that’s how he introduced himself. I was standing under the shade of a crooked tree and he came up from the other side of the road.

“Hola amigo! Eres gringo?”

“Yes I’m a gringo”

“That doesn’t offend you?”

“No, I get it, and it’s fine by me”

“Ok my gringo friend, I’m Robin Hood”

“Nice to meet you Robin”

“Yea, yes. Im on vacation, heading to Pitalito on an errand for my mom, but I’m from here.”

“I’m heading to Pitalito too. But I hitchhike.”

Robin was surprised and we talked on the point for a while. Eventually we began talking about poverty, and somehow, we began talking about death. I changed the subject.

“So what do you do Robin?”

“I’m a soldier. Based in Antioquia, near Medellin.”

“Right on right on. Soldiers and police are pretty nice to me in this country.”

“We should protect the people who visit our country, you know, so yea of course. Hey you wanna see something cool? I was recently with my company hiking the hills 20 kilometers from Antioquia and some rebels started shooting at us. We shot back and killed on of them. Look.”

Robin had his mobile with him. He showed me a video. It was a bunch of guys in army uniforms gathered around a bloody corpse. Robin explained that it was a FARC rebel.

“You see he has a civilian shirt and army pants. That means he’s guerilla.”

Robin was kind of strange, but he seemed nice enough. He decided to come with me, foregoing several buses soliciting our business. If not for him, the next ride would not have stopped for us. He called out to a Suzuki Samurai “oye! Haganos el favor, mi amigo esta viajando a pitalito, llevanos una distancia porfa!”

We got in the car with a small young family. We sat in the back. I used to drive a Suzuki Samurai. I thought mine was beat up, but it was not, if compared to this particular Samurai. We drove over harrowingly steep roads, I couldn’t believe it was the main road, and I was even more astonished when I saw semi trucks climbing them with us. It was a beautiful area, and the cliffs were vertical beasts, falling down and down until they skirted the grand river, the Magdalena.

We drove until a town called Timana, whose central plaza was marked by one enormous tree to shade the whole square. The church was 300 years old, and it looked the part. We sat with the family at a nearby café and Robin bought me a coke. After the family ate they took us further on, and when we were let off Robin insisted that since I “let” him come with me he should pay for a ride for us the rest of the way to Pitalito, the next big town. And so it went.

After a quick meal in Pitalito, I was ready to walk out of town. Robin said that it was far, that he would put me on a city bus. “How much is it Robin?” It was 1000 pesos. I said dont worry about it, I could walk. When he insisted I said dont worry about it, I actually do have 50 cents. But he wouldn’t have any of it. The people who help me don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear that you don’t want to accept their offer of help. Whatever their reason is, your counter insisting and counter insisting is going to wreck their day. Let a body help you.

So I took the bus. On the bus I met Anibal, who told me that he had a tour agency in San Agustin, that I should go with him. I thought the bus would cost 6000 pesos to get from outside of Pitalito to San Agustin. With Anibal it was only 2000 pesos, since he knew the taxi driver.

On the ride out to San Agustin in a the back of the pick up truck taxi, we chatted with one of Anibal’s friends, a sugar cane farmer. We talked about modernity, and happiness in the world changing. The cane farmer was happy in his work. He said that knowledge is disappearing because of the uniformity of modern desires. Children and adolescents in the village are not interested in their heritage or their parents’ work. Instead they want television. They want the city and the lights and the big round sunglasses and the glitz and glamour of fame or clout and image. They want money. They want what the TV tells them they should want. And maybe the knowledge of their ancestral roots will be lost.

We arrived in San Agustin. It’s a medium sized village high in the mountains. It is not surrounded by extravagent peaks, but instead feels like it peaks a plateau. I knew that Lucas was headed here, and that he would stay three nights. So I went to the internet cafe after Anibal offered me a coffee, or, tinto. Sure enough Lucas had sent me a message informing me he was in Hostal Maya. I decided I was going to spend some more of Sierra’s gifted bills to stay in a hostel. But I was going to camp, so that I could still save some cash and be able to use the facilities (kitchen, bathroom, wash board). Anibal’s son drove me around on his motorbike to see different places to camp, but I finally decided to stay at Casa del Japones, owned by a friend of Anibal’s, to at least show my appreciation for Anibal’s kindness.

San Agustin Colombia

San Agustin Colombia. Source.

 

So I climbed up a dirt road, scrambling to a position overlooking the town; the church steeples, the round hills beyond. At the hostel I met “el japones”. He was increbily friendly, ending every utterance with “si mi amigo, yes my friend.” The friendliness, though, is perhaps not an authentic feeling. I felt liked. But getting at the heart of it, I was this man’s client. I was paying him for his business. I do not doubt that his kindness was sincere, but with a relationship where one pays another for a service, there is always some hint of doubt, and therefore distrust.

My tent I perched high on a concrete platform that would one day be another room, and I had an unobstructed vista over the town.

And as though we were travelling together, I once again met up with my French friend Lucas at his Mayan hostal, or whatever. He came back to my hostel and we cooked a pot of potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and my spices. I made chilapees from the common dough of flour and water and oil and salt. Add a little baking soda in there and I think you’d end up with the soda tortillas I fell in love with in Nicaragua. I feel like a made a real new friend of Lucas. We discussed late into the night. He recounted his bizarre sexual exploits in Latin America, and I laughed ceaselessly. The girl in her grandmother’s bed, the Chilean princess throwing his shit around the room, the free prostitute who fell for his Frenchy charismatic charm!

Travel drawing in San Agustin Colombia

Finally arriving to San Agustin, I’d meet my French friend Lucas, draw the church, and hike.

 

Then we talked about killing and the wrongness of it. The wrongness to kill something that is you. We talked about that, we talked about the existence of right and wrong in the first place, or the meaning of existence at all. We talked hypnosis and hallucingenics, and of course we contemplated the meaning of it all. We talked of what matters and what doesn’t. Antipathy is easy, it’s alright, right? Who gives a shit about what is happening in the world, because why should it matter when we don’t even know if we’re really here? But Lucas was sure of his soul, sure of the importance of being. He is unsure, he doubts. “I doubt man, I doubt it all. But that’s just it, man, it’s like Descartes said!” Because he doubts, it means he thinks, it means he is. Je pense donc je suis…I think therefore I am. And we laughed, because I muttered je chie donc j’essuie…I shit therefore I wipe. And the night was spent.

In the morning Lucas left for Quito, and we said our goodbyes since Quito was several days away and I doubted I’d make it in time to hang out one last time, but Quito was my direction.

I spent another night in San Agustin, walking around, seeing some old sculptures, drawing in my new little sketchbook, and cooking more meals back at the hostel. But San Agustin did not do it for me. I felt like moving, like getting out, continuing on the journey, the big grand adventure that would eventually bring me some kind of renewed lust for life and I would love it fabulously.

I walked out of San Agustin for an hour only to discover that I’d taken the wrong road. A bus driver decided to give me a free ride back to town and put me on my correct way. The clouds were low in the sky but the day was still early. I walked with a skip almost. Out of town, walking walking. I came upon a group of police officers, who were the first to notice me and call me over. They were cheerful and gave me some coke, and one wanted to give me 5000 pesos. I didn’t mind taking money from the cops at all. They were gracious, but you have to remember that most cops in Colombia, and in Mexico in particular, are corrupt. They will pull over a car and find the smallest thing to pester the driver until the driver offers them some kind of bribe. If you don’t bribe the cops, they slap you with an even more costly multa, ticket.

I decided not to jump on one of the taxi pick ups headed to el cruce, where the road diverges and heads to Popayan 7 hours to the west, and instead I walked the 8 kilometers. It was a perfect decision. When I was arriving to San Agustin I was so deeply in the conversation with the sugar cane farmer and Anibal that I did not notice my surrounds. The walk was downhill, around the faces of deep canyons. Dark green coffe plants scaled the steep slopes reaching all the way down to the skinny rough water of a young Rio Magdalena.

At the crossroads I sat beneath a tree filled with giant midnight black cicadas, but moved when I learned that the drops of misty water I felt were actually their piss. The road to Popayan on my map looked like a main highway, but from the looks of the road, this was more of a backcountry trail. Lucas had come here in hopes of getting on the bus for 15,000. I learned that the bus was 25,000. I had 5,000 new pesos from the police officer, and when the bus arrived I negotiated him down to 15,000 by explaining that it was all I had (and indeed it was all I had on me, the rest was burried in my pack and I had flojera to get it.

And so it was that I got to go on a beautiful ride through fast changing scenery, albeit squeezed between seats, sitting on a cushioned plastic crate in the aisle of the bus. The ride was 7 rough hours, but that was fine by me. First it was densely packed jungle and tight hills, then a vast volcanic landscape with interesting palm trees no taller than a fire hydrant and topped with a aloe vera-looking plant. Then we entered a land I would liken to a mini hobbit shire, with dozens of streams and grassy knolls congregating in bunches and twirls. After a lunch that a Mister Luis Carlos, another passenger on the bus, decided to buy me out of the blue (he told me he was once helped by a gringo, and wanted to pay it forward), we were back on the trail, this time among towering green pasture climbing the slopes of almost vertical land, the cow trails zig-zagging down and among the streams and waterfalls. And night. And the bus terminal at Popayan.

I knew I wanted to sleep in the bus terminal, because I had just come from a comfortable stay at a hostel, only the 4th hostel I’ve stayed at in over a year and a half. But it was only 8 oclock and I was hungry. I sat at a chair among waiting passengers. Terminals of buses and boats and planes are like that. Everyone’s waiting. There’s nothing else but the time.

The road from San Agustin to Popayan.

The road from San Agustin to Popayan. Source.

 

I lost a pencil and I asked a cute girl near me to watch my bag as I searched the bus without luck. On returning, we struck up a conversation. We spoke of her studies, we spoke of gringos and I tried to convince her to give us a break. Think outside the politics and the system and the big great politicos that run the world from their US base, and to consider the variety of 300 million souls in a land far larger than most. To many the international reputation or even the international operations of their country does not matter, but that does not make them bad people. Consider that.

When I went and negotiated a 2,000 peso meal of rice and beans I invited the girl to come with me. She wasn’t hungry. She said I gave her a good feeling, that I had una buena onda. I liked her also. We talked about our business. She was 22, a student of something, and was headed back on the same route I’d just arrived on to see her 3 year old boy in Pitalito. I smiled but was not surprised. My plan was to crash somewhere in the terminal and in the morning hitch to Pasto, 6 hours south. She smiled and suggested I get a hotel. The thought crossed my mind, that we were having such easy conversation, that we were likeminded and the rest, perhaps she could miss her bus if I were to suggest it, and we’d go to that hotel together. She wanted to pay me a hotel room and when I insisted she not, she called a friend to host me but her friend could not and I insisted the terminal would do and things would fall where they may. We smiled at each other, and her bus was leaving, and I could not break the positiveness our meeting created by suggesting something that my second mind below would appreciate.

And so she left and I began to wander the open-air terminal to find where to crash. I wandered up some stairs and winked at the security camera. Around a corner I found some dark areas that looked pormising, but I decided to inquire of the legality of it in an uber-clean office nearby. The women said the vigilantes would bother me and make me at least sit up in a chair, because you could not lay down. To my surprise they suggested I sleep in their office. Of course I would, especially since the closet where I laid out my stuff had a view over the rest of the terminal. Public vehicles have their license plates displayed on their roofs it turns out. That night, the only noise was from the bus drivers entering the office to test their blood alcohol levels. I began to nod off.

A few minutes later I heard many voices in the office and I peeked in to see 5 or 6 security guards asking about where I was. The gig was up, I was about to get cast into the waiting room, banished to a night of uncomfortable chair-sleeping. A man in a suit approached me and, surprisingly, said in English: “Hey buddy!”

I sat up “Hola, como esta usted?”

“Where are you from?” Again in broken English.

“Chicago.”

“Oh really, I know it. I studied at DePaul.”

“!”

And so it went. Holmer was his name and he was the boss of the whole terminal. I stood up, he shooed away the security guards and we began talking Chicago. Holmer was excited to be talking about his alma mater. I learned that he studied business there. He spoke somewhat shyly but his face was lit up with anticipation. He was young for being 40. He had lived on Fullerton, and also near Lincoln Park. We discussed El stops on the red and brown lines, we talked downtown museums, we talked Wrigleyville and winter. By the time our conversation was over, Holmer had shown me another room with a bed where I could sleep, although I decided to stay at my perch in the office, he had brought me to a cafe where he told the bosslady to give me food in the morning, and he insisted I come visit him in his office after 8 a.m. the next morning.

So it goes.

The town center of Popayan, Colombia.

The town center of Popayan, Colombia. Source.

In the morning I raced to the bathroom, almost crapping my pants (maybe the beans?). Later, I wandered around Popayan, a pleasant white colonial city, drawing pictures, and thinking about the way of things. I returned to the terminal to say goodbye to Holmer before my big hitch south. I rang at the office and sat waiting on a leather chair, the secretary recognizing me as “Holmer’s gringo.” Holmer showed up and he was sporting a DePaul hoodie.

By the time an hour had passed by I had helped Holmer create a profile on couchsurfing, because he was obviously the type who would appreciate such a thing, and we had exhausted the topic of Chicago. I stood and shouldered my bag and began to wish Holmer well before I was off. He would have none of it.

“You know, when I first got to Chicago my American friends were really good to me. I didn’t know much English and I didn’t know how things worked. They bought me beers, they treated me respectfully, they became my friends. I go back once a year, I even still have a small apartment there. You’re going to Pasto? I will send you there.”

And so my new friend Holmer from Popayan who studied in Chicago pulled some strings and put me on a free bus ride 6 hours south to Pasto. And so it goooooooesss…

Travel drawing of Popoyan statues

I slept in the bus station in Popoyan, Colombia, and drew the statues in the center.

 


 

I ate another cheap meal before the bus left. Traveling on the cheap means you can never trust a menu. Always negotiate. More plates exist than meet the eye.

This was the first large bus I had taken in all my travels. Reclining seats, a bathroom, a movie about Cuba Gooding Jr. being a smart doctor, tranquility. Buses are big and you think it’s safe. I feel safer hitching. My Canadian friend Matt had his stuff stolen while he slept on a bus. Ken, the big American at Ivan’s in Campeche, had his bag pulled from below the bus at a rest stop. In Guatemala and Honduras while I was there there were incidents of gangs members getting on a bus to rob everyone, and one case of a shooting wherein eight people were killed. I also heard a story about a guy in Canada cutting someone’s head off who was sitting next to him. There you are. If you only hear horror stories about hitching you will think it’s dangerous. Do I think buses are dangerous? No.

The bus was underway. It was raining in the hills. But the rain here never lasts. The bus zoomed around the curves, hugging the bellies of the hills. I could see in the distance the cliffs where roads were cut into mountains, as though skirts of the beasts. We climbed high into different mountains, which themselves surrounded minimountains. There in the sky were sun-kissed bald peaks, warm and almost welcoming, there on high looking down on us like guides. The beauty continued until smote by the dark of night.

The road to Pasto, Colombia.

The road to Pasto, Colombia. Source.

 

And then I was in Pasto, and again wandering around a terminal. Latin American terminals are orange with their street lamps, with their casinos, their bakeries, their internet cafes and shady waiting rooms, bus companies and the patrons yelling destinos. Here I found candles lit in front of a picture of Jesus. Jesus is very present in Latin American travel.

I bought some bread and sat to feast. I noticed a guy about my age, his face burried in his hands. He had a slim backpack and bedroll. When he looked up I saw that his lips were chapped and his eyes tired. I leaned back toward him in my chair.

“Oye amigo” I said.

He looked up and I handed him one of my bags of bread.

He smiled and whispered, “que dios le bendica.”

Although I might not belong to a religion, there is meaningful apprecation that comes with being on the receiving end of such a wishful comment. “God be with you..”

It is always better to sleep lying down. It is a waste of sleep to use it sitting up. The security guard at the Pasto terminal let me use the free bathroom (I hate paying to piss).

Like anywhere in Colombia, this city “is dangerous.” I don’t doubt it. The night is cold, and the people are sparse. But I wanted to lay down. That night I wandered outside. The attendants at the Terpel gas station let me sleep behind some boxes back in the garage. It was a chilly night in my sleeping bag.

Morning light, that hazy blue that, were you too tired to tell, might be close of day. I woke and strolled out of town slowly, every once in a while someone warning me that I shouldn’t be walking there, that perhaps they would steal my shoes. But I walked out, the drizzle fresh on my nose and blurring my view through my glasses. The rain always gives an unenthusiastic and lame demeanor to any city.

There is no luck in hitchhiking. There is only bad luck, and of that I have had my fair share. This morning there was no bad luck. The first car I approached, the driver agreed to take me a bit down the road.

After chatting with John and Daniel, they decided they wanted to take me all the way to the border with Ecuador, three hours away. More mountains to which my words can only do little justice passed, and at the border I waited 3 hours in lines. There isn’t much to see from immigration lines. The money changers, usually older men with giant wads of cash, constantly counting it in front of each other as though to show off their skills in thumbing the bills. Various signs warning about terrorism or narcotics. One sign read, “The sexual exploitation of boys and girls and adolescents is punished in Ecuador with up to 35 years in jail”.

Other white people looked impatient and tried to get in front of the line. I, too, only needed a stamp, but I had decided that if an official had approached me to say that I could come to the front, I would decline and declare solidarity with all travelers present!

The bridge border between Ecuador and Colombia.

The bridge border between Ecuador and Colombia. Source.

 

But my ego would not get such a boost, instead I simply waited the three hours, and then I was asking some immigration soldiers to flag me a ride to the next town, which wasn’t too far away. The soldiers, wearing the same uniforms American soliders have, were all too happy to oblige me. I arrived in Tulcan, my first Ecuadorian city, with a Colombian who was glad to take me there.

Walking across the city, like so many cities passed. I saw a woman roasting nutria. Perhaps it tastes like chicken. I passed kids playing pogs, do you remember those? I went to an asadero and ordered a buck fifty meal of chicken and rice and salad. In the soup (which you always get before the main course), there was a chicken foot.

I caught the eye of the man sitting two tables in front of me.

“Where are you from?” He said in English.

“Chicago.”

His name was Julio, and he came to join me at my table. “Did you study?”

“Yes I studied French.”

“Tu parles le francais?” He spoke French with a thick Spanish accent.

“Yes yes. Actually I’m reading a book a friend gave me right now so that I don’t lose my French in learning Spanish.” I showed him the book Lucas gave me, called Candide.

The chicken foot in my Ecuadoran soup.

The chicken foot in my Ecuadoran soup.

Julio looked at it and just smiled. He pulled a book from his bag and showed it to me. It was a Spanish version of the same title, Candide. And so it goes, the bizarre coincidence of things. Or whether it is coincidence or not, who can be sure.

It was time for me to get on the road, as I told Alvaro, the CS I was in contact with, that I would arrive in Quito that day or the next. I gave my version of Candide to Julio, as I could tell he desired it. He held it to his chest and muttered about how lucky he was. “No such thing,” I told him. He gave me his card and I was gone, gone down the road.

I ran up to a car with an open window at a stop light and asked for a ride out of town. The Colombian inside agreed, and before I knew it I was out of town. The Colombian was living in Ecuador, he said, because life was more tranquil. Indeed I could feel the difference already. The tranquility of the middle of the world, perhaps. Although, I remembered a fact my best friend gave me, his dad being an expert in terrorism. Apparently Ecuador has one of the higest kidnapping rates in the world. Indeed, I thought about it for a moment and remembered that Simon the German in Campeche, had been kidnapped from the street in the port city of Guayquil. He had two guns held to his head for two hours as the thieves withdrew money from his account. Also, Lucas told me a story of a girl who was being stalked by three men there, and when she began to run they ran after her, and she barely made her escape in a cab. These would not be the only stories I would hear. But all in all, Ecuador did feel more calm.

I waited for a ride at a speedbump outside of town. And the ride, it came in 5 minutes. Hitching is working like should again! And what a beautiful thing it was that I would get to ride for three hours in the back of this pick up truck. A ride is always more beautiful from the back of a pick up truck. Remember that.

And what was the beauty, but rolling green hills. There were no fences, but dark green hedges separating the different greens of parcels, hundreds of them blanketing the wide pastures on the bumps of land. The hills were like frozen waves of earth, and I was surfing under the sun, the wind blowing hell of my hair.

Rural Ecuador in the state of Tulcan.

Rural Ecuador in the state of Tulcan.

 

I thought to myself, “these are the Andes” as we climbed to higher elevations. I saw snow capped peaks many miles away. I breathed new air and my consciousness seemed to slow as I felt that ecstatic elation of happiness, beholding the vastness of this new kind of range. I saw towns from many many miles, and perceived the smallness of our efforts. There is more of everything than we can possibly imagine. The It is bigger than anything we can think of. It’s dizzying and dazzling and disastrous! But thankfully we don’t have to consider it constantly, and I came down from my high as the truck came down from the heights, into valleys, into endless seas of grassland below and cloud above.

We arrived finally in Ibarra, 2 hours out of Quito, and as the family wished me good luck the woman grabbed my hand and filled it with candy. Coincidence or not that I have a soar throat and tehse would serve as perfect losengers?

Another run up to an open window of a pick up truck at a stop light and I was in the back of another pick up truck for another hour. I was relaxed. I noticed some new things. Ecuadorians play volleyball, it seems. The clouds here are so low you could throw a baseball into them. If mountains were spiders, they might look like the volcanoes near and around the city of Otavalo. The landscape never failed to surprise or motivate me. It might be one of the most beautiful I have seen up to this point. Unbiased as can be.

In Otavalo two other travelers jumped into the back of the pick up. They were dressed what you or I might call “hippy”, that horrible term that places so many different kinds of people into one category. But what else can I do, you probably have the image that I want you to have.

These were lovely people. They were an Ecuadoran couple around my age, and very spiritual and into yoga and meditation and cleansing. I enjoyed speaking with them, telling them what I was up to. They told me about the “Tibet of Latin America” in the Colombian mountains, where 500 people live in an alternative community. I was sad to have missed that.

We were let off all together at a horrible hitching spot and night had fallen. We decided to negotiate with the next bus that passed. So we got a ride for a buck all the way to Quito from an hour out. He played the flute and I played with my African thumb piano, and the others on the bus smiled or frowned in amusement.

When we arrived in the terminal, my new friends were to go in another direction. We exchanged emails and they invited me to their farm at the “Mitad del Mundo”, the middle of the Earth. As soon as they were gone I met a Spanish couple who were going in my direction. They too invited me to their apartment in a city south of Quito when I would be under way again. I was having a wonderful first day in Ecuador.

I jumped on two city buses to get to where I was going. I hadn’t looked up where the address was on googlemaps this time. I just asked some folks and eventually I figured out which stop I had to get to and from there I would ask around some more. And so it was. It was 10 pm. Quito is very long but not very wide. I would discover come dawn that Quito was nestled high in the mountains at the base of several volcanos. It would remind me of Salt Lake City in terms of how the city climbs the mountain slopes. A famous Ecuadoran poet called the city the capital of the clouds.

The volcano towering over Quito, Ecuador.

The volcano towering over Quito, Ecuador. Source.

 

I made it to my stop and after walking in some lonely dark streets for a while with no luck of finding my address, a cop car happened to stop. The cops looked at me blankly. “What the hell man, you can’t walk here, it’s dangerous!” It was a short conversation. They gave me a ride to the address. I just can’t seem to get away from “dangerous.”

So now I write, on my hosts’ computer in her flat in the city of Quito. Her name is Diana. It turns out Alvaro is also staying with her for three weeks, so he also put his couch as available. Diana is a funny girl, extremely prejudiced against Americans. I’m not surprised, and that’s fine by me. I’ve been slowly gaining her respect. I also have been implanting the idea that gringos are not their government. We are not our politcs. We are not what you see in the news. We are not Hollywood either. We are too many and too different to fit into a category “gringo”. If I judged Mexicans based on what I saw in the news, I don’t think I would like Mexicans. Another girl eventually came to Diana’s and she too seemed to give me a cold shoulder after learning I was gringo. I stirred things up by suggesting I was proud to be American. “You guys would pass as Americans. That’s one of the beauties of the country.” I know as well as the next person about all the fucked up shit that happens in the states, and I know more than most about the fucked up shit that our systems and policies have done to the rest of the world, but anyone who believes that most of the country’s occupants are ok with or even aware of half of the country’s doings, is misinformed. Diana simply does not consider the good things that come out of the country, or she doesn’t consider that maybe, just maybe, some of those 300 million people are good people and have interesting customs or opinions.

Anyway, it’s been two days since I’ve arrived and Diana seems to like me, hugging me and calling me “gringito”. She hasn’t let up on the gringo-bashing, but I can say I’ve been with the upper hand on most topics, since I know the States a little better than she! Not to mention, I agree on most of the points she brings up about the bad stuff “we” do. I’ve just been helping to introduce her to the other side of my country.

This has been the realist Chael talking. When it comes down to it, I don’t believe in borders and I don’t think countries should exist in the first place. I also believe in aliens.

The pastel-hued colonial homes of Quito, Ecuador.

The pastl-hued colonial homes of Quito, Ecuador. Source.

 

Otherwise, I’ve been wandering around the capital of the clouds. It’s cloudy most of the time, and it always at least looks like it just rained, is raining, or is going to rain. The historical center is a beautiful palette of pastel spackle on colonial buildings. A giant statue of an angel plays overlord to the city from atop a hill to the south. In the large park near where I’m staying, on Sunday there were dozens of soccer games, and four wheel rent-a-bikes. There’s some kind of national fetish with little white poodles. The city has 2.5 million inhabitants but looks bigger from the angel. I climbed to the angel, with none other than my French buddy Lucas. Against all odds, we happened to arrive to the city both on Saturday. I met his Ecuadoran sweetheart, and we hung out in his hostel with another French guy with bizarre stories about getting stripped naked by a group of robbers in Guayquil, getting put in prison for weed in Lima which saved his life since the flight he missed due to his incarceration crashed and killed everyone on board in 2007, and various other stories about partying and getting in car crashes. Also, he lives in San Agustin and works with Anibal. Coincidence?

Since last I’d seen Lucas in San Agustin, he’d been jumped by three guys here in Quito but got away unscathed as he threw up his fists. He also had his camera and money stolen from his bag as he slept on the bus from Popayan to Quito. That justifies my earlier point to some extent, I think.

Drawing of gold in museum in Cuenca Ecuador

Drawing of gold in the National Bank Museum of Ecuador in Cuenca.

 


 

Diana’s house is full. There are three Argentinians, a Chilean, a Spaniard, a Slovak, a Swede, and me the gringo. Alvaro’s sweetheart is Diana’s friend who was a contestant in Miss Ecuador. All the house gathered around the computer as we watched a slideshow of pictures from the swimsuit portion of the competition.

Travel drawing in Quito Ecuador of the Angel.

A travel sketch of the Angel in Quito, Ecuador.

 

Tonight I’m going out with Lucas, his girl, and some of his girl’s girlfriends. Then, I don’t know. I never really know. I feel good to be out of Colombia and back to where pick up trucks pick me up. I enjoyed Colombia, but now I’ll try to enjoy Ecuador. Here’s to hoping there will be no kidnapping! Until next time..

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