The road led east. On my map it looked straight enough. It touched light green, a beige color, and dark beige, and skirted a pastel purple with a little plus sign that read “5300 meters”. But a map can only revel so much. Ecuador is still the unknown, it is still something mysterious and wherever I go I cannot form expectations because I know nothing about the places. And I love it…
Though, the idea of what I wanted to do was clear. I wanted to see monkeys. Where are the monkeys? Every time I think I’m going to see a monkey I’m disappointed. I didn’t get to see my monkeys in Palenque, Mexico, after taking the pains of sneaking in not only to the ruins but to the park itself (swimming a glass-filled creek), nor did I get to see monkeys in Quepos, Costa Rica (instead getting rocked by that damn earthquake). I think my time is due: I deserve to goggle at some monkeys.
At Diana’s I met Tony, a Spanish guy who’d been living and volunteering all over Ecuador for several months. He was my inside man, he gave me the hook-up, he opened my eyes to the bigger something. He knew where I could get my hands metaphorically on some monkeys. Misahualli. Mi-sa-wah-yee. The Amazon!
I left the house on good terms with everyone, more or less. I walked north through the bustle of town and dreaming of little humanoids causing havoc in the canopy heights. My road was blocked by a no-pedestrian tunnel, but not 5 minutes of waiting and I was riding in the car with a beautiful albeit hidden-eyed woman accountant. She was skitty but kind and drove me through the tunnel to Cumbaya. There I jumped on a city bus and rode it beyond the rest of the stubborn outskirts of the capital city. Stubborn is the word, and outskirts of cities are. They’re always the same, and they never seem to want to end.
But the hitch was beautiful, because hitching is Ecuador works almost like clockwork. A pick-up ride here, a short jaunt in a free taxi ride there, and before I knew it I was high up in the mountains away from cities altogether. In fact I was in the middle of nowhere, at the entrance to a nature reserve called Cayambe. The road was a curve and the droplets of rain distorted my vision through my lentes. I took off my glasses then, and took in the scene. It was like the Gap of Dunloe at the Ring of Kerry in the south of Ireland. No, it was like a hilly and wetter Rohan, or New Zealand, whichever is more recognizable. The mists moved fast with the wind. And, wouldn’t you know, I felt cold for the first time since home! It was a cold hitch. I was smiling when I decided to put on my raincoat.
I didn’t wait long for Juan Carlos, an off-duty policeman from Ibarra, picked me up and informed me he was heading to a city beyond my turnoff. And so it went that I had my ride, and away we went.
We didn’t talk much but it didn’t matter. We swooped like bats on speed, cutting the corners down the cordillera. From Rohan the scene changed and suddenly it was endless cloud forests, hiding behind their wisps of moisture. Water fell from every ledge like a traveling lake, eager to get somewhere different. Splendid.
And down down down, into the lower elevation of the humid forests. And then it was the heat returning with a vengeance. It bit at my neck and as for my head, well, my scalp was crammed with hair which did not help in the least. I am stuborn in that I will not pay for a haircut and I am still unwilling to go at it by myself without a buzzer. So for now I’m stuck with a scorching head when the steamier climates beckon.
Juan Carlos left me at the crossroads at a town called Puerto Napo. A port? Napo? What is that? I walked into town and had a 2 dollar meal. Soup first, always, then a plate with platino or yucca, rice, and a meat of some sort. And always with a juice. This juice was guava. I caught the older couple who owned the place looking at me.
“I’m going to Misahualli” I said. They smiled and nodded their heads.
“I wanna see monkeys.” Blank stares.
Meal finished, the road, walking. Ohh! How it hurts to walk with this pack in this heat! Oh dear me oh my! There was so little traffic, and it was about 3 o’lock in the cloudless day. The sun has a long reach, and like that overzealous friend who loves too much, it gives the biggest hugs. I walked for many kilometers and eventually it was 4:30. 4:30 was great because a minivan filled with woman decided to give me a short ride closer to my destination (15 kilometers away by the by). And women! They’re picking me up again, what joy! Ecuador my friend, I’m glad we met.
More walking, finding a small creek and splashing my face with cool water, and more walking. And then Victor allowed me to flag him down, and it was my first back-of-the-motorbike ride in South America. Que lindo. After a long walk in high temperatures, when we’re drenched in sweat and it is fatigue that decides our disposition, a ride in the open air on back of a motorcycle is the most welcome of rides. We passed tall palms and hauntingly tall banana trees, and out in the road protected by large rocks on all sides were laid to dry thousands of cocoa beans. I thought briefly about the price of those fruit, given the current state of the largest producer of cocoa in the world, Ivory Coast. But apathy did not allow my mind to linger long on that thought.
I arrived in Misahualli. The Amazon. The gate to a breadth of forest so grand it confounds the imagination. My map shows two levels of green; light and dark. Misahualli is the gate to that dark green, as it resides in the light. What is Napo, by the way? Napo is the river, and it passes here. I discovered that the Rio Napo can be navigated all the way to Iquitos, Peru, which is the furthest inland the first adventurers were able to get on the Amazon River from the Atlantic coast of Brazil. And so my imagination was confounded, considering possible adventures beginning in this relatively easily accessible town. But enough of that!
I gracias-ed Victor as he dropped me off at the town center. It is small. The center and no else, it seems. I walked toward the river, and found that Misahualli sits at the convergence of two large rivers. I scanned my surrounds in awe. The forest loomed heavy over the banks of the river, the incredible height of the bright white stems of the skinny trees like masts in a sea of green. They trees like matchsticks blooming a deep green canopy. The air was humid but pure and I took in as much is as I could. This is my first time in the Amazon.
But WHERE ARE THE MONKEYS!? Tony had informed me they were in the center of town. I was suddenly thrown into a mild depression. Strike three, and I’m such a loser! No monkeys again. Oh well, I guess I would have to make due with the awesome little Amazonian town.
I walked down some steps passed the malecon of the town, down to the water. The junction was large and one can see far down the Napo. At the bottom of the stairs began the beach. Someone had piled thousands of rocks across part of the smaller river upstream a bit, and it had created a vast swathe of sandy bank for the residents of the town relax, for tourists gape at, and for me to camp. I arrived around 5 pm, and so I relaxed and washed my shirt in the river, skipped stones, and balanced big rocks on top of each other like Rory in Baja California loved to do.
Later as night approached, I strolled back into town to search for something to eat. Rounding the corner to the main plaza and behold a site that sent joyous shivers throughout my body. Monkeys! But not just monkeys, I mean lots of monkeys. There must have been a dozen or so running around right there in front of me in an area no bigger than a third of a football field. This was my moment of zen, that I had finally found real live and aggressively arrogant monkeys! And they were so cute and fuzzy and with their little scrunched white faces and beedy black globes for eyes looking up at you like a newborn baby. They are such cute little creatures, little people, little… thieves! These little fools were thieving anything and everything. They snagged bags of chips from a store nearby and then retreated onto the roofs. They snatched a pair of glasses from a man admiring them up close, and then climbed on a girl’s back and pulled a band out of her hair! The hairband the monkey converted to an armband, and the glasses the monkey just threw on the ground from a story up.
I was distracted briefly by the going-ons when suddenly I spun around to find another monkey tugging at some straps of my backpack! “Hey monkey! Bad monkey! No!” I passively waved my hand at the monkey and he grabbed my fingers and looked at them like I was hiding something between them. He was a silly little guy, and I patted his head and then, when he lost interest, he hopped away and pulled himself effortlessly up onto a roof.
I hung out for an hour or so admiring their bizarre intelligence. A family of 3 monkeys, the baby clinging to mommy’s back, came and sat in front of me. The third picked insects from the mom’s back and ate them. The baby climbed off of his mom, hobbled over to me, and untied my shoe. Another monkey was obsessed with rocks, and kept pushing them around. At one point he found a bottlecap, picked up a large rock and smashed the cap on the pavement with it. When after he decided the cap was not for eating and left it, I stole it and put it in my backpack as a souvenir.
The monkeys’ shananagans continued into the night. They jumped all over the place and played like kids, tackling each other without merci. When they were sick of the ground they flew to the roof, and when they were sick of the roof they slid down a shaft like tiny hairy naked firemen. They got along well enough with the dogs around, but one dog they ganged up on and sacred away with their warrior monkey cries. Monkeys, man… monkeys.
I approached a dimly lit restaurant. The bosslady sat in a plastic chair out front, surveying the plaza with a stern frown. I asked if she could put together as much food as one dollar would buy. I had only 20 dollars and I wanted it to last. A smile came across her face and she spoke swiftly to a girl in back. I took off toward the beach with a plastic bag filled with rice, scrambled eggs, and a big sack of juice. Through the pleasant trees shading part of the beach near the stairs, where also a hostel sits, and beyond to the the makeshift dam of rocks and up onto a small dune at the edge of the rainforest. Across the rapids of the river, a chorus of high pitched whistles from some creatures. The canopy up high lit by the reflecting moon, and the long vines dangling like tickling fingers while I pitched my tent. And finally sound sleep, content to have arrived and content to have played with monkeys.
In the morning light I examined the tree I slept under. It could be considered a jungle all by itself, with vines as thick as anacondas raveling up the trunk into the heights above. And who should I see up there, but one of the monkeys, staring right back at me. A rustle and I look to see more monkeys up there, in fact dozens of monkeys. Monkeys galore! Monkeys jumping from branch to branch, and the leafs shook from the tree fall to me gingerly.
I decided to spend another night here. I spent the day at the beach, drawing or slapping at little chiggers blood-thirsty for gringo. Their bite goes almost without notice but the itch is more appealing than that of mosquitos. I try to resist but cannot, and I scratch at those little bloodspots surrounded by reddened skin.
I had another dollar meal from a different restaurant, and took a second to go. The clouds rolled in swiftly, but I was able to set up my tent before the downpour began at around 4pm. It rained for the rest of the day. But they do not call the rainforest rainforest for nothing, for when the rains from the sky cease, the rains from the high canopy begin, in the form of sustained but indecisive drops. A natural faucet that never quite shuts all the way.
The morning arrives wet, and I pack and leave. I underestimated the sun here, and neglected to put on sunblock. I don’t have sunscreen. I have sunblock. But it doesn’t matter because it slipped my mind and now my shoulders were pink and my backpack weighed twice as much because of it. There would be as little walking as possible this day.
And so it was. My route was south to a town called Puyo and then west along a road said to be beautiful to arrive at the complejo turistico of Banos, Ecuador. A quick ride brought me back to the highway from Misahualli. Perhaps one day I would return with a renewed interest in paddling the Amazon from here, but I have to admit that although the forest is mysterious, I am deterred by the wet heat and the incessant bugs that bite.
A range rover with two crazy men inside it turned around after passing me, apparently they’d changed their minds. The car was already on it’s last leg and the se vende sign in the windshield was proof they too wanted to rid themselves of it. The driver was a little guy with a high voice and very pretty eyelashes, if I may say so. The passenger was interested in why I was doing this trip, and I explained again my purposes. What, you ask? Pick me up one day and I’ll be able to explain perfectly.
Two hours later in Puyo, the city of woodworkers. The drive was nuts, because the little high voice guy took curves faster than they do at Indy. We even had a tired blow out and had to replace it. Anyway though, in Puyo. But I did not stay, I quickly jumped into a taxi pick-up truck who wanted to give me a free ride to Shell. On the way, we saw a hellish car crash, and I thought briefly about what it would have been like to be in the back of the mangled black Tacoma we saw on the side of the road. Only briefly.
In Shell there is an army base, and many army men. I walked from one side to the other, like so many cities in months passed. The heat was behind me now, and it was more pleasant to walk. Although, the sunburn compensated for the pleasantry by giving me the sensation of having sandpaper for backpack straps. I inquired about a dollar meal at a small restaurant and the senor surprised me with a full meal that cost at least 2. It was rice, sausage, yucca, potatoes, salad, juice, and llapinachos (fried mashed potatoes). Outside of town finally. The most interesting thing about that town was the “Stop. Plane Crossing” sign in the road.
Waiting is almost nonexistant. The pick-up truck pulled over and I ran up and hopped directly into the bed. I sat on my umbrella and leaned on my pack, and slapped the cab to let them know I was ready to go. The drive took me all the way to Banos. The road climbed back into the cordillera along a deep vertical canyon which I found later to have been exposed by the building of a dam. There were large cascading waterfalls all over the place, almost everywhere you looked there was moving water of some sort, the beginings of great rivers or great expeditions. The road turned around blind corners and shot through long tunnels during which I tried to hold my breath, humming the Batman tune. And then we made it to Banos and away went the truck.
Banos is very touristy, but for a reason. It sits in a bowl of sorts, surrounded by very close and very steep hills. It also holds sway at the main entrance to a national park wherein lies an active volcano. Everywhere in the city are signs for “aguacatal”, the escape route in case of eruption. I decided to go check out a thin waterfall that caught my eye from across town. I walked passed dune buggies and every storefront seemed to offer tour guide services, pictures of that perfect fun adventure taped in every window. Look! You can go bungy jumping! You can ride under a waterfall in a bus! You can drive dune buggies all over the place and make noise and be drunk and enjoy everything and pay me and give me your admiration for introducing you to the real Ecuador, the dune buggies and smiles and fun! Blah.
Long flatbed trucks with wooden seats mounted on them drove by puffing black smoke. At the waterfall were some thermal hot springs, but like almost every thermal hot spring I’ve seen in Latin America, these were completely developed and cost a bundle to enter. I climbed up a staircase near the falls and took a piss behind some tall grass. I could see into the hot springs. Always really old men and single mothers chatting away. The water was sulfer yellow but I could not smell it.
There were a few maps of the city and nearby trails on billboards, and I decided to walk up toward the national park. First I had to take some food for the evening. I went to a restaurant and asked for as much food as they could give me for a dollar. I received a strange stare and a bag heavy with rice. This was the first time I’d been given just rice, but I wasn’t surprised. The kind of tourism in Banos tends to change humanity for the worse. It reminds me of when I was near a Mayan ruin in Mexico, and suddenly was hit with thirst. There was no town, only tourist traps, but when the girl at the kiosk told me a bottle of water was 3 dollars I gasped. I said why not sell it to me for a dollar like she did the previous customer. “No, tourista no.” Shaking her finger in my face. I leaned in close and said, “I am not a tourist if that’s what you mean. I am a traveler.” And pointing at a group of older white people, “they might not have a problem with 3 dollar water but I do. Sell me this water for a dollar.” The girl sold me the water for my dollar and I walked away without missing a beat.
So here I was at break of day in Banos, Ecuador, bag of rice in hand, backpack digging at my crispy rosy shoulders. I began the walk up the hill into the mountains, where I would pitch tent and enjoy the last hours of light.
I looked over and saw two people smiling and waving me over. They were on the other side of the street near a woman grilling wooden sticks of potatoes and meat; chicken, beef, or guinea pig called cuy. I pointed at myself and gave the quizzical look. They waved me over, and I crossed the street to meet them.
The girl said, “Where are you from?”
And her boyfriend asked in English “where are you going man? are you hungry?”
“I’m heading to camp up toward the volcano. Gonna feast on my bag of rice when I get there,” proudly holding up the bag.
“You wanna eat something from here man?” He motioned at the woman’s grill.
“Thanks I’m trying to not spend so much, so I got this big bag of rice.”
The girl smiled, “my boyfriend is from South Africa.”
I looked at the man and he smiled, saying, “I see you walking there, I know you’re traveling, I traveled a lot too man. Come on, I invite you, want do you want?”
I looked at the sticks of chicken and beef, and glanced at the woman grilling them, “give me whichever is cheaper.”
The man laughed and interrupted, “no, give us the most expensive.” His girlfriend smiled and took my hand.
“It’s alright we want to treat you,” she insisted.
The woman put the stick of chicken into my bag of rice. I smiled at my benefactors and thanked them for this random act. Then again, I don’t necessarily think it was random, actually. Travelers help travelers, from what I have been able to gander. It goes without saying that if one day I do stop moving, and have a job and money and Will, I’ll help the travelers I happen to meet. Sometimes I’m impatient for the opportunity.
Up the hill I went, until I could see back over the town and admire the cradling mountains. I walked for a time until I came to what was once a small quarry where they dug out dirt for use in who knows what. I saw that I could scramble to the top, which looked like a wonderful place to camp. And it was. I pitched my tent and I had a view up a vast canyon, a stream far below, and the the canyon rising toward the awesome volcano hidden behind the clouds. My feast was just. A sunburn somehow makes you more tired than you are. And so the day ended a few hours later with a deep sleep and satisfied tummy.
I slept passed the sun, and wake to its rays. A welcome routine of packing my tent ensues, and within 30 minutes I’m painfully shouldering my backpack and beginning the walk back to the highway. My beloved bed of pick-up trucks brought me an hour and a half to Ambato, and without even a chance to blink my thumb attracted a trucker to pick me up on the road north to Latacunga. My new destination was the Pacific coast at Bahia de Caraquez. At Diana’s I was able to contact the jefe of the port at Bahia de Caraquez through e-mail. I had read that sailboats tend to spend time in that port before continuing on to the Galapagos islands. The idea would be to hitch a ride to the islands. The port boss had already pinned up a message for me for all the veleros to see.
The trucker drove me up through the valley back in the direction of Quito. Large volcanos loomed in the distance. The trucker regaled me with stories of tourists on treks falling into crevices never to be found. He was a kind man and with him I spoke the whole way to Machacha, where he’d convinced me to go, since there was more traffic on that road than the road from Latacunga.
Fast forward passed the dollar meal and hike to find a good hitching spot, and let’s begin somewhere in the middle of my ride with Patricio in his little jet blue Corolla (I mean exterior and interior). He was a quite man and we didn’t talk the 3.5 hours to El Carmen. The road was a 4-lane highway down through the cordillera west. There were landslides all over the place. The road seemed fit for forumla 1 races, not regular traffic. In El Carmen the heat was once again on, and hotter than Misahualli. I thought back to my months of traveling in Central America and southern Mexico, and used that as an excuse that yes, I could handle this. I had talked with Patricio enough to know that he was on his way to Portoviejo to pick up his wife and young daughter, which would put me in Chone, a town an hour and a half from Bahia de Caraquez. But first he had to stop in El Carmen.
“A girl invited me, I’m gonna see what I can do with her… mmh hmm!” He smiled wide with wild eyes, his lips splattered with wax, chewing gum for his breath but smoking a cig for his nerves, the wax from his lips clinging gewy to the filter. It did not gladden my heart, but I knew I could at least make it to Chone before nightfall, because he’d pick me up from the road when he finished with this girl.
I began walking out of El Carmen. Hot, sunburn, backpack, synthetic shirt, boots, sweat, sweating rivers and streams and even the occastional waterfall. Ugh. But the town was alive with activity, people running to and from. There were no Andean women here, because these are not the Andes, this is the coast. People from the Andes had told me to watch out for people from the coast, but not I was hearing the same thing about the people frmo Andes, that they’re the dangerous ones. Oh, that’s the way of things. Humans protect what they know and fear what they don’t.
I passed impressive fruit stands at a market and more roasted cuy. The buildings were not interesting, the same cinderblock construction I’ve seen in most cities in Latin America (although I’d forgotten to mention that int he Amazon the buildings were built of wood). Electrical wires seemed strung about indifferently, but everything works out. So I walked on. Everyone stared at me, not like the hard stares of Honduras, or the indifferent glimpses in Costa Rica, but more of a balance of curiosity and suspicion.
I decided it was fruitless to walk, so I hung out at a stoplight in the city center asking for rides out of town. It didn’t take long for a man to agree to take me to a roundabout just at the edge of town. And not 2 minutes waiting at the roundabout there came a small blue jeep with two women inside and I threw up my thumb with a big smile. The woman smiled back and pulled over. Ecuador. Amazing. And the only thing that truly sets it apart from Colombia is an imaginary line you need paper to cross.
“Hola! Como estas? Que estas haciendo aca?”
“My name’s Chael.”
“No Chael, con ‘l’ de lavabo.” It is always an adventure in itself explaining how to pronounce my name. Here’s how you pronounced it. “Kay” and then the “uh” of gull, and then the “L” of fall. The “uh” and the “L” sounds do not exist in Spanish. So I usually introduce myself as “kel” with the “e” of Mel and the “L” of like.
“What a bizarre name you have!”
“Yea it’s pretty bizzare, blame the ‘rents.”
“Well I’m Mary and this is Estelita my daughter.”
This was a rare thing. Very rare does a mother pick up a hitchhiker with her daughter alone in the car. I felt honored somehow, but it would be pointless to explain.
“Thanks for picking me up, it was getting really hot in the sun.”
“It’s brutal! So what are you doing?”
“Traveling around, hitching to Bahia de Caraquez to look for a boat that will take me to the Galapagos.”
“Reaaally? How bizaaarre, but very vacano (cool). So hey, I have to go pick up my mother and sister and drop them at the family farm. You come with, and what do you think, take a break and go see the farm?”
This is the first time I’ve been invited to someone’s place in South America, and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to make new friends. “Sure I’d love to.” A smile couldn’t be supressed if I’d tried! “Have you picked up travelers before?”
“Nope you’re the first one, but I said to my daughter ‘look there’s a cute gringo let’s grab him’ haha.” Mary was full of smiles. She had dark black hair and painted on eyebrows and thick clumped lashes. She must have been around 45 years old. Estelita I learned was 14 and fit the part perfectly, with pleading pitchy cries and self-involved texting. Otherwise she was adorable and friendly.
We arrived to a house at the edge of town with high white bars enclosing the first floor patio. Upstairs I was introduced to Mary’s mother and her sister, Vicenta. They explained that one of their other sisters was married to a gringo and lived in Bay City, Michigan. Vicenta looked a lot older than her sister Mary. And so it was, that I learned that they were 9 sisters. They told a brief story of their one brother who died many years ago. He got gangrene in his leg when a man working for him got angry and slashed the leg off with a machete.
We all jumped in the car and drove out toward the family fincita. The road was concrete slabs curving gently around green hills covered in tropical grasses and trees. We saw several dead snakes alongside the road and the women explained to me that there are many poisonous snakes in these parts, that indeed recently a nephew had the meat in his leg removed due to the venom from a bite.
“How big is the farm?”
“It’s 800 hectares” over 400 acres! That’s huge, I said. “Our father, god bless his soul that he’s no longer with us, started it, and right now my son and his wife and their 8 month old boy live there,” replied Vincenta.
We pulled into adirt road. There were a couple of buildings, a large concrete area with a volleyball net, and a bunch of mules tied up to high wooden fences. We drove up the hill to another area only with a church, and the women bought some pepsi. We would walk the rest of the way. I crossed my fingers that there was some kind of lagoon I’d be able to jump in on arrival.
Mary and her mother left and I continued with Estelita and Vincenta to the finca. The earth was bright red and had dried into minimountains. It made for very harrowing trekking. Vincenta surprised me with her ardor, as she was a stout woman with bags beneath her eyes, leading me to believe that such a trek would not suit her in the least. We walked up and down and around more gumdrop hills, avoid places where water from rains passed still lingered. I tried not to imagine leaving the next day if it rained during the night. It would be impossible.
We passed a sad lifeless structure of wood, filled with lost memories of some kind.
“All this on this side of the fence is the finca.” Vincenta motioned out beyond what we could presently see.
“What kind of farm is it?” I heaved a breath after asking.
Vincenta spoke with fatigue, “Ohhh, it’s..” She sighed with a grin. “Woo! Oh it’s all sort of things. There’s corn and fruits and the cows. They make cheese and sell it, raise pigs and chickens. You’ll see you’ll see.”
We came to a concrete building with gallinas and their chicks running around the front. Here I met another of the 9 sisters, who refreshed us with watermelon before we took to the “road” once more. 30 minutes later we arrived to the finca, situated at the bottom of a hill with a view half a kilometer out over some of the property. I met Vincenta’s daughter-in-law and one of their workers, 10 year old Eddy, who has a mouth full of teeth and sparkling eyes. The daughter-in-law was named Suzana and was very pretty. She held her baby boy in her arms. She was 20 years old, but like in most all cases of young mothers, motherhood has aged her into a mature woman already.
The house was lifted on concrete stilts. The walls were of cinderblocks and the floor is of wooden planks. The roof is tin. Nearby was an outdoor bathroom with a giant bucket for showering, and further away the pig pen rang with raucous renditions of Orwell’s Animal Farm. The chicken coop was below the house, and a pair of dogs guarded against intruders.
Inside I found an exotic kitchen. Two large pots were welded into a central island made of wood, one pot of clay and one of metal. There was a sink that drained down a pipe and out onto the hill. There were several rooms with simple beds and I had a room to myself. The floorboards were open to the air below. The house was open-aired in general. The main family area had a balcony looking down the road, and a flat screen tv mounted on the wall. We watched movies like Rumble in the Bronx, The Omen, and Sinister Mirrors 2. There was also a table decorated with crosses and effigies of Christ.
After trying the warm milk pulled fresh from the cows that morning, Eddy showed me to the bucket shower.
“Maybe after we can feed the pigs,” he said suggestingly. Eddy turned out to be a very enthusiastic host and wanted to show me everything on the farm. I liked him, even during the times he was annoyingly pinching me.
Vincenta and Suzana got to cooking as dusk fell. I asked if I could help but they would not have a man helping them cook. The sky outside was that eerie grey and orange matte color that hints of storms. The thunder beats that arrived from afar gave away the night’s plans. I sat on the balcony listening to the common pur of the evening creatures accented by the distant claps. And the drops began to hit the roof, and the thunder was talking closer.
Suddenly the lights went out. I used my headlamp to light the way for Vincenta to fire up some candles. She placed them first at the effigies. The baby began to cry as the thunder drew closer and the rain fell with greater fury on the metal roof. My soundtrack was bizarre, and the candlelight flickering on the rostros of the Christs made them look even more sad and ominous.
When the storm was at its greatest Jose Luis, the son of Vincenta and father of Suzana’s baby, returned on a mule with his worker Estalin. I went down under the house to greet them and introduce myself. Estalin rarely spoke more than half a sentence at a time but Jose Luis was gracious and talkative with me. I later joked that Estalin, who was always transfering songs between two cell phones, and Estelita were perfect for each other. Estalin was only 3 years older anyway.
That night we ate dinner under candlelight. Candlelight makes any scene more pure. The meal was egg and cheese tortillas over rice, the important being that the egg and cheese were both homegrown. Jose Luis and I had a nightcap, an aguadiente mixed with strawberry, cinnamon, banana, and apple juices. There were few mosquitoes, so the sleep that night was good.
“Oye! Get up gringo! Hey get up! Kel! Vamos, vamos vamos.” It was Eddy. It was 5:30, but I was already awake, woken by the roosters below, screeching like two arguing witches.
“Yea yea I’m up I’m up. Yes, let’s go.”
Eddy had a pair of rubber boots to lend me. The ground was drenched with rain, the rain from the night was continuing that morning. I threw on the boots and my cap and we trudged out into the mud and pouring. I followed Eddy down a trail passed a dirty stream and up and around the soggy fields until we came to an expanse of land where cows were busy grazing.
“Zeeeeeeeep! Hayyy hay!” yelled Eddy. The cows knew the score. They gathered and filed along the trail toward a corral perched up top one of their grazing slopes. I followed them with my eyes in the cloudy drizzling sky.
At the corral Eddy herded the young calves into a corner enclosure. Estalin appeared on a further slope where the big mommas were, and herded them into the corral as well. One by one they let out the calves to go find their mom. They tied the mom’s back feet together and tied the calf to a pole but close enough that the mama was pleased. They placed a bucket under the udders and pulled at the teats, and the warm milk streamed out. I got to try my hand at milking, and Jose Luis was surprised to find that I could do it, saying that most new timers don’t have success. I milked a good 5 or 6 six liters out of my cow. Jose and Estalin milked the rest of the dozen or so momas.
What a strange place to have ended up. Sometimes when I have too much time to think, my mind thinks back and considers my route. I hitched to here. This could very well have been my goal. That’s it then. I’ve finally accomplished my goal, I’ve milked cows in Ecuador.
I stared out from the corral at the dark day, horns and giant bodies silhouetting the bleak color of daylight. One animal was bigger than the rest. This was the toro, the bull. He was huge. He stalked around the corral sniffing the cows’ vaginas as though thinking to himself, “oh yeah I remember this one. Good fuck.” Big macho mother fucker.
When the business was done and we’d returned to the house the women had cooked desayuno. That was the way of things. Men at work, woman at home cooking and watching the baby. I wasn’t going to suggest it be any other way, because it is not my place. We sat to breakfast. Delicious eggs with cheese over rice, but quite different from the dinner anoche. The smoke from the wood fire in the kitchen drifted into the rest of the house, pleasing the senses. I sipped on a coffee and ate a bread Vincenta had baked from the yucca plant they grow on the farm. It melted in my mouth.
I’d been invited to stay as long as I pleased, as they insisted it would please them. I did not want to linger too long, but I did want to stay another day. I had already milked a cow, and surely I’d get to mount a mule too. Jose Luis and Vincenta were becoming friends and Eddy was like the little annoying brother I never had (this being a compliment to his nature).
After breakfast and a movie, I jumped on a mule. My first mule. Won’t be my last mule either. Jose Luis thinks I’d done it before. “Tak tak tak!” I dug my spurless boots into the mule’s side and we were off, a simple tug at the reins to steer her left or right and a tug to bring her to a stand. I felt comfortable in the stirrups and never once felt I might’ve fallen. (Given, we were walking not running, but remember that the road is a small mountain range of mud pinnacles). We muled up a few hills to their greenbean and corn patch. Eddy and I played toss the corn at Chael, apparently. I grabbed little Eddy and spun him around and he just giggled and giggled. Jose Luis thought it was amusing as well.
We packed the sacks of corn onto the mules and started back.
“Jose Luis what are the mules’ names?”
He laughed, “we don’t give them names.”
“Well this here mule is now gonna be Maria Antoineta.”
Jose Luis had a good long laugh at that. “And this is Carmelina,” he replied.
Later, to bother Eddy we decided to name a third mule Eddina. The names stuck, and apparently the family would be the first in the community with properly named mules.
Back at the house almuerzo was ready. It was fried beef over rice with the greenbeans from the farm in a creamy sauce to complement it all. We drank fresh juice made from passion fruit. Vincenta’s sister, who’d given us watermelon on arrival, was in the house, as was her son, 23 year old Alfo. Alfo was expecting a baby. Jose Luis, by the way, was 33. The lunch conversation was interesting, and mostly one-sided, but I didn’t mind. The consensus was simple. I needed to stop traveling, meet a woman, and start having babies. The women decided I should meet an Ecuadoran girl and take her back to the states like their brother-in-law did. They also decided that it was too dangerous for me to be traveling like this. I suggested that if not for my way of life I would never have met the family, and thus the mules would never have been named.
Suzana showed me the giant bucket of milk from the morning’s drawing off. She opened a small packet of the thing that turns the milk to cheese and dumped it in. After a series of stirrings and of drainings and settings, there was a big hefty loaf of cheese.
Jose Luis, Eddy, Estalin and I went back to the highway to sell cheese and cocoa beans that had been drying above the pig pen. It was Saturday and the place was packed with mules and people. An intense volleyball game was underway and the men looked frantic in their rubber boots and jeans. Everyone stared at this triumphant-looking gringo arriving like some kind of cultural conqueror on his mule. I received a few laughs but that was fine by me.
Due to the crisis in Japon the price of cocoa had gone down, but there was nothing to be done, he had to sell the sacks. I sat and drew part of the scene. Jose Luis said that sometimes tourists arrive here, get out of their cars and take photos of the men before driving away. I suppose that’s the way it is sometimes. But I suppose I was the first foreigner to hang out here.
Aside from volleyball men were at the billiard tables or just sitting around drinking Crystal, a brand of aguadiente. Before long, men were handing me the little plastic shot glasses filled with the stuff, the ritual I had gotten used to in Barranquilla. Jose Luis bought a 40 ounce of beer and we got to drinking. There were no women here, only the men. And everyone was drinking. I was feeling pretty tipsy after the 2nd 40 oz. After the 4th I was very full and happy.
Ranchera music was blasted from the store, and I was spinning glad in my weird little world. That ever present question of “how the hell did I get here?” always sneaking into my thoughts. Jose Luis knew and saluted everyone. I was shaking hands left and right. Grand rough hands of workers, making mine look feminine. That’s fine by me I suppose.
Eventually it was time to go, if we were to make it back to the finca before nightfall. I jumped on a mule with Eddy, and to my unhappy surprise Maria Antoineta had enough energy to galop up the hill and up another hill to Eddy’s house. My insides were rumbling and I pleaded.
“Eddy, no ooooooo, nooo, stop kickin’ the babe man my stomach is too full, I’m gonna explode!” This would be my first MUI if there were a rule against riding a mule drunk.
Eddy squealed with amusement and slapped Maria Antoineta’s ass and we went flying! “AAaahhhh.” Down the slope again to meet Jose Luis on Carmelina. I rock back and forth. “Oye, just so you know, I’m not used to this here movement…oooo…oooooo. Entonces, if something happens and I gotta barf, that’s just the way it’s got to be, aight?”
Jose Luis threw his head back and laughed and laughed, and Eddy kicked our mule and we galloped until the mud was too thick for it.
The sky was closing quickly but the mules knew the way by heart. Jose Luis had many drunk stories about the mules. Basically, if your car could drive itself home, then it would be equal in value to a mule.
Another night passed mosquito-less but filled with stormy sounds. The next day was a lazy day of Sunday movie-watching. I took a morning-after cold bucket shower and felt right as rain (?). Today I would leave. Or so I thought. Instead, I ended up back with Mary and Estelita and husband Efren (Frank perhaps?) in El Carmen. We all rode out on the mules and I said a true goodbye to Jose Luis and Eddy. We jumped in the car and dropped off Vincenta at her mother’s. Then we went to Efren’s and Mary’s.
Efren is a doctor and has his own clinic. It’s an entire building right downtown El Carmen, and the family lives above it in a vast apartment. I would sleep in Estelita’s older brother’s room, who was away at university. We walked up the stairs, and I complimented the spaciousness of the place as I am programmed to do. Efren showed me where I could wash off the mud from my boots up on the roof, and as we walked toward the washing sink I saw out of the corner of my eye a thing covered with a sheet. I couldn’t believe it. This was not happenstance, this was meant to be. A drumset!
And so it was that before I washed what sweat there was from my body, I added a healthy amount more by beating the hell out of a drumset for the first time since Mexico City. I slept like a baby that night.
The next day I spent with Mary and Estelita, as I decided to hang out one last night. I discovered a tick on my chest, and looked up on the internet to find out that most ticks here are harmless.
For the first time my cooking was not as pleasing as I’d expected. Normally I lower my personal expectations, but I’ve had such a good record so far that I almost expect people to be surprised by my “cooking” (mostly just cutting vegetables). Alas, no worries mates. All is well. They ate it.
So the windy curtains seem to whisper the sounds from the street, the rains continue and I consider the journey. The next day I left early, back on the road to see about Bahia de Caraquez after a very, very welcome encounter with the family in El Carmen. I left with water and gifts of dried banana chips and a candy cream made from the fresh cow milk called manjar.
Efren had a buddy who drove one of the flatbed trucks that acts as a blue yellow and red open-air bus. He wanted to show me another side to Ecuadorian hospitality, so he pulled those strings and before I knew it I was feeling the wind through my hair on the exhilarating ride, my first, in a bus like this. Efren had shoved two more dollars into my hand before the bus pulled away and I lost my grasp of his handshake, and so we waved goodbye. On the road again.
In Chone, 2 and a half hours later, I walked through the dusty town toward where everyone was telling me was the direction to Bahia de Caraquez. It was hot, but there was no rain. Is it rain I want or is it a clear sky with blazing sun? A brilliant thing, that yellow orb. Fierce. Penetrating. I sweated my way our of town, a quick pick-up ride to dry off the exertion. Then a quick ride in a disguised taxi, but the man decided to take me anyway. Outside of town I score a quicky in the back of another pick-up. They eventually invited me into their air conditioned cab. Thank God for deodorant, it might have been a moment of tension otherwise, since I doubt the couple would mention anything about the odor (although one Mexican trucker in the beginning of my journey, somewhere in the Yucatan, sprayed me full-on with his own deodorant! I guess that’s one way of telling you that you stink).
The police officer driver and his wife didn’t talk much, and an hour later I was waiting again. I chowed down the rest of the manjar as I waited at the crossroads toward Bahia. There was very little traffic. That orb beat down, but there were a few clouds in the sky, taking pity on the Earthlings.
One last hour and half-long crazy ride in a Geo with two crazy-eyed guys and I was in Bahia de Caraquez. Not only that, I was no 100 meters rom Puerto Amistad, where I would expect to find my message about looking for a boat to the Galapagos posted on the bulletin board.
My heart was glad and my spirits lifted as I approached the marina. The bay itself was immense, and a 2 kilometer long bridge spread triumphantly across to the other side. There were plaques all over it. It was built, obviously, by the Ecuadorian military. I passed a memorial to the effort to build the country’s longest bridge. I found it strange that everywhere I go, everything is always turned into a patriotic tool to rally the people. A breath of satisfaction and, “ahhh, look at that beautiful bridge. God I love my country, look what my coutnry can do. I wouldn’t have it any other way. No where else in the world, I tell you. What beauty, what sustenance, what unity!” I struggled to remember whether it is the same in the States.
I strolled, lightly swinging my handlebar umbrella in my hand, and peered into the front gate of the marina. It was chic. There was a bar and restaurant, I could see, out on the pier, and the entryway was flagged by two large peach colored buildings, one an office, and one the restaurant kitchen. There were a few well-dressed waiters running around and a couple customers. The scene was a higher class than my clothes represented. Perhaps I should throw on my yellow and blue striped polo shirt…
I tip toed up to the office and stuck my head in. There were a few computers and two Ecuadoran women sitting at them. “Hello!” They started.
“Oh, helloo, what can we do for you?” I wasn’t surprised. With my appearance, I couldn’t imagine that I would even get through the front gate of a yatch club stateside, but here, my white face is like a VIP ticket. It’s sickening, but what else can I say?
“I contacted Trip, I guess he works here.”
“Yes he’s the owner.”
“Trip isn’t a very Ecuadoran name” I offered.
“He’s from Alabama.”
“Ahh, ok ok… never met anyone from there before.” She gave me a puzzled look. “Oh, anyway, I contacted him to ask about boats looking for crew for the Galapagos crossing.”
“Well right now, there really aren’t any boats heading toward the Galapagos.”
I wasn’t supposed to be surprised, but with me streak of good luck in meeting the El Carmen family and the incredible hitching, I had let me guard down. But that was alright.
So, I hung out at the club. It was on the bay and had a view that followed the bridge across. At night, the bridge lit up blue and green. Later on I met Trip’s wife. She had a strange air of entitlement but was decidedly kind to me, despite the long Cruella Davilesque cigarette holder. She not only let me camp on the property, since the Yacht club was an outdoor establishment, but she showed me where the bathroom and the showers were. There was a large shade structure where cruisers could plug in their laptops, and I spent most of my time there. I decided to wait around for a few days to see if the traffic in the harbor changed much. There were only 10 boats.
I stayed in Bahia de Caraquez three nights. I wandered around the city some, had my dollar meals where I could find them, and drew the lighthouse at the point. Before the second night, I had already lost hope of finding a boat to take me to the Galapagos. The cruisers were few, a stark constrast to the marina I had visited in La Paz, Mexico, where I’d eventually met a Canadian boater family that took me across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan, on the mainland. At that marina, not only were there dozens of boats and captains walking around, but in the mornings there was a radio broadcast in which, during one section, crew looking for a boat and boats looking for crew could give a shout out about it. For 3 mornings I’d introduced myself on the CB to hundreds of strangers, asking for a ride.
Bahia would not bear the same fruit. The place was practically empty. But there was a library, so I naturally got stuck for those couple of days. I read two Star Wars books: Jedi Search and The New Rebellion. I was sucked into both of them, one written by a guy and the other by a woman. The guy wrote about gadgets to an impressive degree, describing in such detail that I might’ve missed the fact that he made up a lot of words if I wasn’t also a guy who cared about it. The woman writer likewise was an impressive writer, but I couldn’t keep myself from writing down things she included in her book that I knew a man would never touch on. Here’s my list:
- “It’s time for honesty,” when she was writing about Han and Leia.
- “Han kissed her warmly and passionately
- She had Lando Calrissian in a bathrobe clutching his mug of tea for warmth.
- The details about the debate in the senate were mind numbing.
- Han cares about the food in Smuggler’s run. His favorite chef died in a hot greese duel with another chef.
- The sith lord has sexual feelings.
- Suddenly Leia’s weight is a factor in the storyline.
- The new droid-less X-wings will lack “companionship”.
- Luke Skywalker almost gets killed by giant floating pink bubbles.
- The furniture in Leia’s apartment doesn’t match.
- Beginning of chapter 15: “Leia sprawled on the center of her bed, flimsies spread before her. She wore an old pair of fighting pants, and one of Han’s shirts. Her hair was loose except for two braids in front to keep it from falling in her eyes.”
The morning of the fourth day, I woke early, packed, and began my journey south toward a different town, called Puerto Lopez. The night before, when I’d come out of the shower and noticed plates of food half-empty, I asked the lady in the kitchen if I could take the french fries. When I came back with a little bag to carry them in, she had a big plate of fresh food for me. “I like to help when the owners aren’t around,” she’d said. I took the french fries and the big palte of food.
But it wasn’t worth it to stay longer at Bahia. I wasn’t meeting anyone, almost at all. There was one boat leaving in 15 days, and another with more space aboard leaving in a month, but both were heading north to Panama. I would try my luck elsewhere.
Intuition, perhaps it was, that allowed me to wake before the sun, and spend an hour and a half walking out of the city. Sometimes I just walk, not because I feel like it, but because it is what my legs are doing. I didn’t even bother hitching. I walked clear out of the city. When I finally decided to throw my thumb out, the second pick-up to pass took me.
The intuition saved me from walking under the pressure of heat. Soon that glowing giant in the sky was no longer hindered by the clouds or the angle of morning. It stared down at the Earth like an angry dog on a leash stares at a passerby, drool dripping from it’s shivering lips. I felt it all over my body, so I lathered on the cream (the cream I’ve had for over a year but it still works). The back of a pick up is still the best way to go, regardless of the heat. After a long walk, a few minutes in the bed with wind swooshing everywhere, and you’re dry.
I was in a half-dozen beds of pick-ups that morning, finally making it to the far side of the city of Manta, still on the coast road heading south. Goddamn son, it’s sweltering. It was so hot. I looked around me to check if anyone else had a face of pure anguish under this brutal eye. Of course not, everyone was accustomed to such heat. Then again, I did learn that this is one of the hottest months of the year. Great.
I stuck out my thumb as a car flew by without a second thought. But the next car, a giant Dodge Ram, beeped and pulled over. I threw my stuff in the bed and climbed into the cab. There I met a group of people my age. They sported checkered sunglasses and wife beaters, except for the girl to my side, a cute Spanish girl with a small mouth that curled up shyly when she smiled. Catia was her name. The others were Jorge, Jefforey, and Eric. The only name we had trouble with was mine. Figures.
We drove up and out of Manta, over the coastal ridgeline and down into arid, brown hills, almost lifeless except for dozens of pudgy lime green trees that looked like the offspring of an Ent and Gumby. Turning around a curve, the giant blue of the Pacific appeared like magic, and filled the windshield. A magnificent thing.
I went with them to a beach called San Lorenzo. Catia and I hung out while the guy ran into the wake with their bodyboards. The swells were large and each time one of them was caught in the break, it looked like it would tear them apart. But alas, my story doesn’t get that interesting.
I couldn’t handle the sun, so I used my umbrella for shade. Catia and Eric ran down the beach, which looked like it was moving as they went. Then I noticed the thousands upon thousands of little red sandcrabs fleeing in front of them. They tapped the sand with their little thorns of legs and almost hovered their way back to their burrows.
After a few hours hanging around with them, they left back towrad Manta and I continued on my way south to Puerto Lopez. A semi gave me a ride into the next town (if it could be called that; it was more of a secret meeting of houses). This semi was officially my shortest semi ride ever. I was with him for two minutes. In the town where he dropped me I had a dollar meal; fish soup with rice and mandarin juice. Of course it would be fish, the place crest a ridge right on the beach!
Fast foward and I’ve been with another trucker, and a couple of pick-up trucks, and walked across the town of Puerto Cayo. The coast is dry here, and there are very few settlements. There are a number of squattable constructions that look abandoned hace mucho. There would be no trouble finding a comfortable place to sleep here when I need to. My last ride to get to Puerto Lopez was with another Jorge, but his friends call him
“Hi Mono, I’m Chael.”
“Where you from?”
“Chicago. How is it that you speak English so well?”
“I studied at Evergreen State College.”
I chuckled, having heard of this school. Actually, having visited it, and having a few friends who had gone. “I know it. How was that for you Mono?”
“Crazy man. Really liberal, but I loved it. There were three witches, a hippy, a gay, and some nihilists and masochists on my floor.
“I believe it.”
We talked on and on in English and laced with my Spanish here and there. He told me that his family owned a construction company that he worked for, and they were in charge of building the smooth highway we were rolling down. He probably had sparkling eyes, if his charisma was any indication. I learned that he had constructed a hotel in a town 15 minutes passed Puerto Lopez, and he invited me to camp there if I wanted.
“I have an Argentinian too.”
“I mean he’s camping there too. I used to love to hitch. I found him on the road yesterday, and he’s camping at my hotel. When you get there, tell my friends you know me, cause they’ve been suspicious of my bringing people in off the street. Anyway, I met them on the street too. They’re artists, like me.”
“Hey me too, I draw.”
“I carve wood. My statues are all over the hotel, you’ll see.”
Mono dropped me off on the malecon of Puerto Lopez, and I said I’d see him later, with the plan to go to his hotel before the close of day. He drove off.
I was feeling good. I just made a new friend and before the day was over I was sure to make a few more of his friends at the hotel.
I strolled around Puetro Lopez, not seeing a marina of any kind, only dozens of fishing boats dotting the sparkling sea. The sun came low and it was a respite, finally. The town was small, touristy, but not too touristy. It was pleasant. The only bizarre thing was that every restaurant and bar on the strip was the exact same: open air bamboo construction with the same menus. A shrug put that curiosity behind me.
The ragtag fleet of fishing vessels and diving boats was not going to be my answer for getting to the Galapagos. I decided to take up Mono’s offer of a place to camp, and as dusk settled down across the bay, I began the hitch south to his town, Ayampe. The warm air was cooled slightly with the arrival of night. I sat on my pack out of town next to a speedbump.
Luck doesn’t exist in hitching, unless you get picked up by a good friend of the last ride you had. Andres pulled over and I jumped in the bed of the truck. Down the road I explained that I was going to el corviche in Ayampe, to a hotel owned by Mono. Andres knew Mono. In fact, Andres built the hotel. His old eyes lit up at the mention of his friend, and he decided to take me to the front door. As we drove down the road he pointed out all of the pieces of land that belonged to him. By the time we arrived at the hotel and night was upon us, I was half convinced that he owned this province in general.
I said goodbye and Andres pointed me in the direction where I’d find whoever was around. The complex was very large. The central drive was flanked by rows of plantain and banana trees. Wide empty concrete canals separated the various bamboo structures. I pushed passed the lazy leaves of the banana trees toward a light. I came out onto an open space. There were two trailers shaded under thatch roofs behind another long shade structure guarding a table and a brick fire pit. Perpendicular to the trailers was a 100 meter long 20 foot high open air bamboo shade structure sheltering a woodshop. There was wood of all different sizes lining the railings, some carved into gorgeous tribal art, or women dancing in fire, or animals, while others seemed to be awaiting attention. I walked toward the one person there.
“Hola como esta usted? Un amigo me dijo de venir aca y-“ I began.
“’Allo mate would ya mind there speakin’ in English? I don’t understand a word of Spanish.” He had a thick Australian accent, but it turned out to be a New Zealand accent. His long jet black hair fell in a clump, and his dark green eyes shone from the shadow of his cap. He was a bit shorter than me, but a stout man, and as we shook hands I took note of the years of work his palms and thick fingers had seen.
“Oh, yeah, hey there, nice to meet you I’m Chael. Mono picked me up from Puetro Cayo earlier today and he said I should come here, that I could camp out for a spell.”
“Good deal man, good deal, you want a beer?” He disappeared into one of the trailers and came out with two Pilsen’s.
“I’m Tono. Welcome welcome, cheers mate, feel right at home.”
“Thanks Tono.” I took a chug of the cold beer and wiped my face. “Wow after a hot day a beer is It.”
“You said it mate. So what’s you’re story where are you comin from?”
“I’m from Chicago.”
“Right right, but what is it you do? What are you trying to do, are you an artist?”
“I can see that you are, this is very impressive, did you carve all this yourself?”
“Yea man, sure thing. Been doin’ it my whole life. I love working with the trees. I only take trees that have already fallen, you can’t take a tree that’s still got life flowing through it. But I wanna know mate, where are you at, what do you want to do with your life?”
He was more serious than I would’ve liked the person asking me that question to be. “Well, right now I’m just traveling around, trying to learn Spanish and drawing.”
“Good deal mate good deal. But you know you gotta be doin’ something that you love to do and that helps other people. When 2.0.12 comes around you’re going to want to be accepted by the tribe man.” He smiled a wide smile, and the wrinkles on his cheeks turned to dimples. I guessed he was about 50.
He continued. “You have to be ready man, cause the world isn’t, that’s certain. You have to find the right frequency because when the change happens, you aren’t going to have your computer, no ipod, no cell phone, no planes, no nothing like that mate. America is the least ready of them all. They have more things to kill people than anywhere else. The international banking system, that’s nothing man. When the high banker fires the lower banker, what does he have? Nothing mate. He has no skills, he can’t offer the tribe anything. Look around you mate.” I glanced around me. In the dim orange light flickering on thanks to a loud generator somewhere in the distance, I saw wooden faces staring back at me. It was almost surreal.
“You see, what did you say your name was again?”
“Right mate, see, I carve.” When he said the word carve his New Zealand accent pulled the ‘a’ into a long r-less ‘ahhhh’, giving the word a sort of special prodigy. “I carve this stuff. Feel this, this here is the hardest word in the world man. It’s amazing to work with, like I can see and follow the grains and it gives me the good vibes man. How much do you think that piece there is worth?”
I looked over a lanky wooden women with chiseled arms wrapped high above her head. “I’m not sure, I don’t know that market.”
“Exactly man, I don’t play the money game. I do this because it’s my art. Mono has done a good thing here providing me with the space to let the art free, to let it happen without the bullshit of the market getting in the way. This is a tribal peace man, and when the temples are up, cause that’s what I’m building for, and when they’re up they’re going to radiate the purity of life mate. I’m a part of this, I’m doing it for others and that’s what’s beautiful about it.”
“I dig it. That’s how it’s gotta go I suppose.” I didn’t quite know what to say. It was an impressive setup he had here. Later, his son Coa and friend Libya came back from the beach. That night I stayed up a bit later with Tono as he explained more of his ideas to me. I sat passively and cooked a couple of plantains over the burning hot fire. Sitting next to a fire in this burning sweaty hot coastal air was the last thing I had in mind, but it was preferable to the alternative swarms of mosquitoes. I set up my tent under a nearby tree and lay down to let the night lead me into dreams.
In the morning I met Julian, the Argentinian hitcher who had arrived here the day before I did. I learned that he was 24 and traveling north and that Mono had picked him up not far south of Ayampe. We were like minded and got along well. Libya was a quiet girl from Mendocino county, and I don’t think she appreciated my reference to trimming as the economic staple work. Coa was an interesting guy, and very protective of his personal information. When I asked his name he told me it was Zephyr, and later when I asked how old he was he told me something about a sphinx and fields of ambrosia. At one point I asked what time it was, and he countered with “time doesn’t wear a watch,” and I said, “how do you know?”
Coa also carved, and was always working just outside the trailer with some small pieces of discarded wood his father had cut. He gave me and Julian each some lovely talismans. During the days Julian and I sanded some of the large carvings Tono had cut. The sawdust clung to my sweaty arms and chest, and my one pair of pants was rendered beige. There was an unspoken agreement that this was our work in exchange for a place to camp, bathroom, fire, and warm shower. I decided to stick around a few days, despite the incredible swarms of mosquitos.
As I understood the father son pair, the father was a well-known global wood artist and the son was the apprentice. Tono said something about a venue in California where he has a giant totem outside for concert goers to climb over. He said the Dead play there a lot. Father and son also try to hit up Burning Man every year. I told them I’d bought a ticket, and that’s as far as I’d gotten.
One night I felt a calling, the call to the south. Montanito. Ecuador’s Playa del Carmen. A mini Miami, as it were. Or maybe not. The night was fresh, and the bus was cheap. The town was small but the streets moved like rivers. People everywhere, drinking or laughing at something, or singing loudly about soccer matches. There were artisans in the streets at every corner, they sold pretty jewelry or carvings or drawings, and something in me thought I might fit in someday with that crowd. But the night wasn’t for pondering such things, the night was for… splitting a fifth of rum with Julian.
Out on the rocks on the beach, looking into the blackness empty of the Pacific, only the approaching white barely visible in the reflection of lights of clubs. The drinking was slow but righteous. Girls were everywhere and I felt an inkling. Julian spilled his heart about a lost love perhaps waiting for him in Buenos Aires. He said she pulled at his heart and he was torn whether to continue his journey north. “You can’t be in the journey when your mind is at home,” I said. We shared some strong shots and went wandering around, jumping into that river of bodies.
The night progressed wildly. It’s a mad thing, the whole mad thing, and it’s always dragging at your senses. The world unsets itself at night. You’re never ready for it but it’s great, because you don’t care, you take a swig you offer a swig and you’re happy and dancing or at least stumbling as you try to introduce yourself to strangers. But they’re still strangers when you part, because to hell with names, they’re so damn slippery anyway!
And in the haze of it all I find none other than Catia, Jeffery and Eric who’d given me a ride days before. I buy them beer from the store and we stand observing the hectic routine of the human mating call that is clubbing. Boom chica boom chica BOmm chica BOM BOM!
At one point I’m alone and wandering and I find an open air club and in my personal swamp I trudge through the front door when the guard wasn’t looking because 5 dollars is asking too much! A strong hand suddenly grabs my wrist and tugs fiercely and I’m pulled unsympathetically through gaping crowds of gringos grinding chicas. Kicked out of a club, what bullshit. I let the front guard know: “que pasa amigo por que … why the hell man, this is such bullshit look at all of these fucking rich tourists in here 5 bucks is nothing to have a good time but it’s something to me man why can’t I get in man, damn man, I’m traveling all this way and I travel on the cheap but when I want a good time with shitty music I have to pay for it but it’s two days of living man it’s fucking lame-“
And in my drunken rant whether because he agreed with me or because he doesn’t want this annoying sweaty guy yelling in his face about why he should get let in, he let me in. And party for a time in a club, but it was nothing. Fuck clubs, and I left.
Darkness. Blackness. Empty hours. What happened to them who knows, who ever knows and who ever really wants to know? Lost time. But alas I come to my senses, walking the street and holding someone’s hand. We’re almost outside of town and near a camp site, and I ask if she has a tent there. And the night rolls on like that.
In the morning I make a conscious effort to will open my eyelids. She was a beautiful naked morena, but I taxed my mind to remember a name that never came. Perhaps I never found out. I did not know. I bit into the humid air, and gasped for a breath outside the tent. My mind wandered… What a crazy night.
Back on the highway I hitched back to Ayampe and after a frustrating two hours, I fell hard into a couch at the hotel, and slept all day long, unwilling to brave the scorching heat.
I spent in total 5 days with the carvers, as I came to consider them. Tono was reserved and light hearted, but he was serious when he spoke. Trivial things were just that: trivial. Coa was a wordsmith and was constantly rapping poetry as he carved scraps of wood. He talked about tea and herbs and meteorites and what the hell coincidence has to do with anything. I decided that I liked the father-son pair. But hanging around sanding the pieces of art that Tono was so passionate about was not my road. My road led elsewhere. I’m not quite sure where, but after the 6th night, I packed my bag, threw it over my shoulder, and hiked back up the long dirt road to that scorching highway.
The twinge of leaving was sharp. I knew I’d miss the comfort of a cool outdoor shower and using the hotel’s pool. I’d miss the sincere care that the family showed to their art, and I’d miss Julian’s funky jitters when he got high. I’d miss our adventures to find dollar meals, or our trying not to get swept out to sea at the beach. But that’s the way of it, the road. It goes on, and so it goes!
Here I sit about an hour south of Ayampe in a .50 cent an hour internet cafe. I hitched a ride in an AC pick-up, and he brought me to a town called Santa Elena, and from there a cop brought me to La Libertad. Mono had told me that from here sailboats go to the Galapagos, but he had shook his head at my idea. I walked to a private marina, the only marina around. No luck. All that I’d accomplished was to soak my shirt in sweat. I thought to try to make it to the next town down the peninsula, called Salinas, there to try their private yacht club. But looking down the road, I said to myself aloud, “I don’t like it here. I’m leaving,” since the vibes were off. And as I turned back in the direction from where I’d walked out, I felt instant coolness. I was getting on the road again. The Galapagos could wait.