Monday, August 23, 2010

I landed on San Cristòbal having flown through clouds piled on top of each other like mashed potato sculptures. If you've never sculpted mashed potato I recommend giving it a try. If you mash sweet potato or other root vegetables you can make a variety of colours with which to sculpt. The peaks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo – Ecuador's two tallest volcanoes – interrupted the windless skyline. All the way from Quito to Guayaquil the clouds made shadow pictures across the hills, which rippled like oceanic clefts and hid Andean stories in the belching belly of the earth. And then Guayaquil across the pacific buried these volcanic archipelago under a trampoline of white clouds through which I caught glimpses of randomly placed lumps of rock and thousands of outlines of sea creatures.

On first arriving in Ecuador I was tired after all the travelling and had a small chuchaqui from drinking beers watching the world cup final with Mr. Hot Doctor in Miami. It was dark, humid, late and pregnant with promise. I struggled to find a cash machine to accept my card which sent small beads of panic down my mochila-clad shoulders. I got into a taxi anyway and asked that en-route to Nucapacha, my hostel, we could stop at a bank. I tried three. Nowhere seemed familiar with my visa debit card. I ended up paying the cab driver with a five pound note; explaining that when he changed it he'd find it worth about twice as much as the original fare. Luckily he seemed to believe me. Further along in my trip I have found most Ecuadorians to be similarly trusting and really friendly.

The hostel was locked up with wrought iron gates and a dog who guarded the front entrance. Everything in Guayaquil was unsettlingly safeguarded by broken glass, barbed wire and iron gates, but I was too tired to notice or care. The hostel was clean, had a fan and a place I could charge my phone. And best of all; the $10 included breakfast. I slept comfortably under the rotating blades. When I awoke the new day was just around the corner and I realised the unforgiving heat and relentless bag carrying had transformed my hair into one big sweaty slug, which desperately required cleaning. I ended up being distracted downstairs by my breakfast of scrambled egg on toast with sweet tomato juice before venturing into the city to try once more to obtain money. With the new day arrived a new confidence and I found banRED, which ably distributed the funds I needed for the day. All I had to do was to get to the Estacion de autobuses and I could get my boleta outta here.

Luck, fate or maybe just good old Ecuadorian friendliness would have it that I met Roy Aguilar. He was taking the same bus from Guayaquil to Quito and we started our conversation in Spanish, of which mine was broken and pretty terrible. In the rush to get the bus, which was luckily running late, I asked Roy what he was doing in Guayaquil or in Quito? He replied that we had 8 hours to get to know each other so there was no rush, which gave me comfort and a few rising butterflies.

The journey through coastal towns and the incline to Quito passed me by in a hot haze of laughter, secrets and shared experiences. Roy was the same age as me, vegetarian and refused to define his sexuality on account of finding labels restricting. He thought that the term 'bi-sexual' signified too much that a person enjoys relations with 'both' genders at the same time, which he decidedly negated by saying that when he loved his girlfriend he loved only her, and when he loved his boyfriend he only had eyes for him. He went on to say the term leaves little room for transgender relationships, with which I am in agreement. Roy had met some LGBT co-ordinators on a project in the Amazon and surprised me with his open mind. That's not to say that I had specific expectations of Ecuadorians, but I hadn't thought I'd meet such a like-minded person on this 8 hour bus journey. Added to similar views on sexuality, meat and travelling we also shared interests in loads of films, music and books and I found talking with Roy made the journey pass by so quickly I'm not sure I really had the chance to watch the landscape change from coast to mountain or the day turn into night, or the intense sunshine recede into lashings of cold rain.

Roy let me use his phone to call the project co-ordinators in Quito and ascertain where I was staying. He said Avenida Eloy Alfaro, named after a president who led the country's independence, wasn't far from where he lived and we could, therefore, split a taxi. It took some more phone calls and Roy running around in the rain to finally locate my place at the cross section of Luis Coremo where Cèsar was waiting for my arrival and I said an exhausted and extremely grateful farewell to my new buddy. All streets in Quito are referenced by the streets they bi-sect with, which makes them a lot easier to find once you know a few of the bigger ones.

Cèsar showed me into my room, which I was sharing with a guy from England; if I'd have known he was from Solihull I'd have maybe requested a room change, but then I would've missed out on having the funniest room mate of my trip. Duncan was sleeping when I arrived, but he soon woke up when he heard me crashing in. He was relieved to hear an English accent as his Spanish wasn't very strong and he'd been in the house for a few weeks, with mostly Spanish speaking people staying. He wittered on about the buses to school, and the Mariscal and having had his camera 'half-inched' and how he'd just come to Ecuador straight after being in South Africa for the World Cup...

I woke up the next morning having to get ready to go to school, but still feeling as though my feet hadn't really touched Ecuadorian soil. Duncan informed me that I'd asked him about the World Cup in Africa and promptly started snoring. Immediately our brother/sister relationship formed and he would continually rip me for being dizzy and gullible and teach me rhyming slang. He was teaching in the daytime and I was attending a language school. To say I was learning any Spanish would be something of a romantic exaggeration as I was very disappointed by the deliverance of my lessons, but poco a poco I was gaining confidence and also was taken on some interesting trips around Quito. Of an evening we would cook something and quite often watch dubbed TV shows and laugh with Cèsar in Spanglish with wild gesticulations.

One night we went out for dinner, but somehow our plans for all three of us got lost in translation and César went to do some work. Duncan and I talked loads about our respective relationship worries and he gave me some good advice concerning things with Mark. I was quite blown away by how much he seemed to be in love with Tasha – his girlfriend – and his reactions to her neediness reminded me of how Mark had once been with me, and how I completely misjudged it at the time. I hope this girl has more sense than I did. Having recently re-read deBotton´s Essays in Love I was remembering the part in which love in its initial stages can be likened to Marxism gone wrong. I never wanted to be part of any club that´d have me as a member. If you haven´t read this book stop reading this crap and buy it immediately.

Duncan told me he'd heard that Baños, four hours south of Quito, was worth a visit and asked if I wanted to come with him at the weekend. I had been chatting with Alex, an Austrian girl, at school so she came along too. It was grey and oppressive on the Friday when we left for Quitumbe bus station in the south of the city. We found a bus leaving for Baños within half an hour, and it was well lit and really comfortable – as had been the bus from Guayaquil to Quito with Roy – and only cost $3.75, which equated to about $1 per hour. It was still raining when we arrived in Baños, but we found a cheap hotel with 3 beds in one room for $6 each a night right by the bus stop, so we unloaded our stuff and went straight out into the damp night to find something to eat and drink.

We naively went into the first place we found in which we managed to get a caña based cocktail for $2 each, which is as yet unrivalled, but the food was overpriced and nothing special. The worst news, however, came after we ordered. There was a $2 EACH cover charge for the music. This might have been acceptable should the music have resembled, well music, but instead it was 'traditional' Ecuadorian panpipes. Perhaps these still are traditional in some places; there's definitely a time I would've considered it 'quaint' or 'authentic', but it felt like a cash cow and reminded me too much of the South Park episode 'Pandemic'. We paid the bill leaving only $2 in total, and feeling ripped off at that. Maybe it was the citrus overload in my cocktail, but the evening left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.

The weather hadn't really improved the next morning, but we took a chiva tour for $4 round the waterfalls and caught a cable car that passed right over two of them. A chiva is a tourist bus that seats around 30 people inside and another few up top. It wasn't difficult to make the association with the chicken buses of Central America, although chivas had moderately more room, but the ride was definitely no less hairy when we rounded mountain corners with the thing hugging the road using only two wheels. Later we had the chance to follow a waterfall through a jungle for 50 centavos. At the bottom the force of the water provided a much needed breeze whilst weaving a beautiful arco iris throughout the Ambato jungle. Duncan paid $5 to do a zip wire across the jungle, which looked amazing. I didn't join him on his venture, but stood at the side marvelling at the mariposas fluttering soundlessly through the palette of fecund greens and watching large clouds forming and effortlessly precipitating in a parody of geography classes at school. As hard as I looked Mr. Tucker's blue anorak was nowhere to be seen.

The journey back to Quito rivalled its predecessor due to the ever changing weather and landscape. This time I was less distracted by conversation and more so by vendors hopping on and selling their wares. For 50 cents I bought delicious steaming banana bread with raisins and spices from a man with a gruff stubbly face you could climb up. Its crags and boulders mimicking those of the Andes rising around pueblos in the distance. To relieve my parched throat as the weather improved another 50 centavos bought me a small bag filled with coconut water, rich in potassium and irrigating the root of my thirst. There was a small slither of young coconut meat to chew on, which guarded against travel sickness.

In Ambato two men joined the crowded middle aisle. One mumbled buena' dia', whistling through his gapped teeth and ratty moustache. He had a bottle of aguardiente ensconced in his dirty jacket tied on with bailer twine, and took advantage of the first available space to nestle his head into the bristly seat cover. The other man preached how dulce his chocoballs were; likening them the bread of Christ at one point and requesting only 10 centavitos for each 3 balls of artifice. I rejected his holy orbs in favour of chatting with my neighbour about the lake at Cotopaxi and the perpetual rainbow thrown into the sky from it. Duncan interjected to inform me that the rainbow was the 'straightest one he'd ever seen'. I replied that was because we were inside the rainbow and couldn't see all of it, which linked synaesthetically that moment and its imagery with Radiohead's 'In Rainbows' album; soft chorales and glitchy syncopations that seemed to match perfectly the reflections to date of my time in Ecuador.

Returning to Quitumbe, darkness had seeped in from the edges turning the sky black and the cityscape into a grid of LEDs framing faster moving lights with the erratic motion of phosphorescence. The surrounding hills disappeared; surrendering the landscape to the imagination and changing the narrative of the city. We decided to save some money by catching the Trolébus back to Colon in the centre and then splitting off our separate ways to return to our respective establishments. The Trolébus is incredibly cheap – like all transport in mainland Ecuador – at only 25 cents to get from anywhere within the city to any other place on the many routes. Even from one side to another it's possible to pay just two and half dimes for an hour and a half's travel. Like London's tubes; the buses can get crowded and therefore a hotspot for thieves. Duncan fell victim to the loss of both his wallet and camera on two separate occasions and I've heard other tales of similar incidents. My advice, then, is not to be complacent and always keep things on the inside pockets or out of reach.

This evening we were not bothered in that respect, but unfortunately after getting near-ish to our destination on one bus, we all had to disembark due to its termination and were on another bus for an almost equal amount of time before realising that we'd gone back on ourselves and were nearly at Quitumbe once again. We were tired, it was late and still raining so we split a cab back for only $8 wondering why we hadn't just done that in the first place.

On our way back to Eloy Alfaro, Duncan and I stopped off in Supermaxi to get some filthily cheap pre-mixed Sangria and I forget what equally cheap and cheerful food. We had a drunken night of playing cards, listening to tunes on youtube and imbibing oversweet, but fairly potent sangria and planned to visit the botanic gardens the next day. Luckily Sunday delivered some equator sunshine and before getting the bus into the centro I was able to do a load of washing by hand up on the roof and hang it out to dry under the same sun that dries the rivers of San Cristóbal causing the mud to crack; etching maps and pictures on the shores. It was on the roof, overlooking the city of Quito, the favelas rising into the surrounding ring of mountains, that I was really aware of how close the planes fly to the houses and city. Without concentrating on the hills in the background it's similar to watching action replays of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, each time fearing some houses in the hillside will meet the same fate. This year a new airport is opening in Quito, some 10km from the city, which is set to be safer, although it's still going to be built in a ring of mountains...

The botanical gardens were not easy to find, although the park in which they are set takes up a fair space in the city. I think we may have circumnavigated it at least once before finally locating our target of the said gardens, but by this point we'd come across several food stalls predominantly boasting ceviche de chocho or salchipapas for only $1. We both decided to try the ceviche de chocho, which is basically corn, tomatoes and onions marinated in lime juice, with roasted corn kernels and banana chips on the side. I thought it was delicious and very healthy, but Duncan was less keen. I've no idea really why he didn't go for salchipapas, comprised of sliced chorizo deep fried with chips. I was relieved that not eating meat didn't seem to be difficult here and impressed with how cheap food was in Quito. The gardens were also affordable at only $3 entry fee and it was great foraging around in giant gunnera plants and peering into the slightly yonic triffid-like head of a banana plant. A pond had a little bridge across in a pastiche of Monet's lilies and was home to a school of large koi carp.

We walked back to Eloy Alfaro, relishing the hot weather and realising it only took about 15 minutes. OK we'd only made a saving of $0.25, but walking put the city into a neat little box and instantly diminished the size of it. A small chuchaqui made its presence known to me upon return, so I decided to catch up on some seemingly long overdue sleep. It had been pretty much non stop since I'd left Cornwall 9 days before and my ageing bones felt the burn. When I got back up Duncan was looking extremely pale and soon was ejecting the ceviche from the park. Luck would have it that when César returned he brought Samuel (pronounced Sam-well in Spanish) with him. He spoke softly as he prepared a herbal remedy; picked that morning around his home in Cotopaxi. He told me the father of the place he was staying at was teaching him about native plants and their uses, so he couldn't translate their names for me. He said the tea would help with Duncan's sickness and would be good for internal cleansing and for the mind. I was really interested in the preparation of the herbs, and tried to memorise their appearance should I come across them in future; especially when they seemed to work and Duncan felt a lot better, and wasn't sick again.

Samuel was volunteering in Ponce, a small community in rural Cotopaxi. He said it was very cold there because of the altitude. He was from Texas, but would be living in Ponce for 6 months teaching at a small school. It was very inspirational meeting Sam and it was a shame we didn't get to spend more time together. His was one of the most moving stories I have encountered, and I have much respect for his attitude. When he was about 7 years old Sam was found roaming the Andes in Peru, where he had left the care home he'd ended up in after his birth parents had abandoned him. He was found by a couple who were both teachers from Texas who decided they wanted to adopt him. This was some years ago now so the adoption process was not as laborious as it would be now; and the only information the boy had to give was his name Samuel. The judge therefore had to award the boy an age and a birthday so he guessed at 6 years, barely even casting his eyes over Sam. The adoption went through and Sam spoke very fondly of his mother and father, who had provided for him, and his sister – an adoptee from Guatemala – very well. When he was '12' he went for a bone-scan, which revealed that he was in fact 13.5 years old and illuminated the judge's error. He said this didn't really affect him because age wasn't important to identity; a conclusion it has taken me 30 years and an English degree to agree with.

What had brought Sam to Ecuador to volunteer, then, was to feel closer to his people, perhaps in a search for identity. But much deeper was his want to contribute; he felt fortunate to have been given the life he was, and wanted to give something back to those mountains that had raised him. Once he became involved in the community of Ponce, he was quickly spending his spare time helping with other projects in the area, and had, rather nobly, written to the wealthy parents of people from his school to request donations for the projects. He explained that not much money was used in Ponce, it worked, rather, on a system of exchange. The people grew crops and exchanged what they didn't have with those who did. They also made their own clothes, so they had no need to buy clothing, and what money they did make was from taking their produce to markets to sell. Whereas this in part sounded idyllic, it was not without its problems as Sam said that most children didn't make school past the age of eight because they were needed to tend the farms and help sustain the community. With the help of volunteers, their education could be improved and money raised to help the community. I was full of admiration for him when Sam said that he'd requested he be placed somewhere that the people most needed it and it sounded as though in Ponce he had discovered a lot. He said several times that he'd like to have his family in the Andes, rather than in the US.

Back at home in Texas Sam was a student of sculpture and even his approach to this was unique. He'd been looking into ecologically beneficial sculpture, where an installation may be put into areas, for example, where the water is polluted. The use of certain plants could not only counteract the pollution, but provide the aesthetic pleasure of sculpture at the same time. He mentioned his interest in Andy Goldsworthy, a favourite nature sculptor of mine, and also mentioned Nils Udo, one of the pioneers of econatural sculpture. Having encountered the miconia plant in Galápagos, which has water cleansing properties I understand Sam's work more and am interested to see where this takes him.

The next morning Duncan was absolutely fine after his episode the day before, and so the two of us, and César shared a taxi into the centre. It cost about $1.50. I met Monica, one of my teachers, at the school and we set out to visit Mitad del Mundo; the middle of the world. It was only $0.40 to catch the bus there and we arrived on a dusty road surrounded by mountains. Even this short distance from Quito there were more flowers and other species of interest growing in the gardens of the Intiñan museum at latitude 00°,00',00''. Inside the grounds of the outdoor museum was the line dividing north and south and as well as demonstrating the flow of water on, and to both north and south of the line, the staff showed how the magnetic pull affected personal strength and resistance. It was proper tourist stuff, but it would have been ludicrous to have come this far and not visited, and it was another cloudless sunny day.

Upon returning back to Quito Monica first showed me around the markets as I wanted to buy an Ecuadorian hat. There was everything from handmade alpaca sweaters and rugs to earrings and ponchos and many stalls selling the hats for $12-15. Later that afternoon I returned and bartered a hat down to $8. After looking round the markets Monica and I went to a cocina to get some lunch. For $1.50 each we had a set almuerzo, consisting of a delicious verde soup with yucca and fresh tuna. The main base of the soup was made with muddled green plantains, hence the name verde. The main course was a ceviche de camarones which was served with rice and popcorn, and included was also a glass of fresh tree tomato juice. This juice is commonly included in set menus and comes from the sweet tree tomatoes, which contain antioxidants and more vitamin C than oranges.

For my last night in Quito we went to a casino situated downstairs in the hotel. Duncan and I had each decided to spend only $5 each, but to just have fun. When we arrived initially we were refused entry until we'd gone back to the apartment to get our passports. Upon re-entering we were sad to see we couldn't play the tables at all since the minimum bet was $10, but César said that he only played the 'one-arm-bandits' and always came away with good money. We were disappointed to see that a law had recently passed banning casinos from serving alcohol, so we had a soft drink and let the battle commence. Reminiscent of my time and my Dad's money wasted when I was a youth on Brighton pier, my $5 lasted me very little time at all and with few significant wins, but it was still fun. Duncan doubled his money, but decided to pocket it rather than up the pace and gamble on the big tables and César called it quits when he'd made $50, so a bit chirpier we all returned to the house and went to bed; César awaiting the arrival of a visitor coming from Spain. I made sure most of my packing was done so I could just get up and go to the airport in the morning; ready to spend 6 weeks on San Cristóbal island...

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