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a month at the middle

The fun of the weekly market at Saquisilí began for me at around 4:30 AM when a baby sheep fell off the roof of the bus.  It dangled, hooves desperately seeking purchase on the smooth glass of my window.  I’d watched it (and eleven others) being hauled up, baaaaaing all the way, an hour before, during one of the bus’ frequent stops along the rough mountain pass between Isinliví and Saquislí, in the central Ecuadorian highlands.  I elbowed my seat partner to wake her up, pointing insistently out the window.  4:30 in the morning is too early for me to figure out how to say “a sheep fell off the roof and is being strangled!” in Spanish.  My seat partner shouted to the driver, we stopped, and the sheep was rescued.  Susan, savior of the sheep.

Two weeks after writing my last blog entry, here I sit, back in Perú, the month and a half spent in Ecuador a brief blip on the radar of my memory, an excellent interlude, but wedged so tightly between the wonders of the Peruvian mountains and jungle that it’s hard to truly savor, like a thin slice of mild cheese between two slabs of hearty seed bread.  Alison, the little sister, had been studying in Quito, Ecuador on an exchange program since February, living with a local family and making weekend trips with her class to cloud forests and the Galapagos Islands.  June was her last month in the country, and I showed up on the first to share it with her.  Alison was my city guide, teaching me to use the public transit system and orienting me so I could find my way back home.  I watched with pride the ease with which she navigated the city, always three steps ahead of me, confident, fearless, direct.  In the evenings, after classes and homework, we talked, shared photos, watched DVDs.  We took a weekend trip to the famous artisan market at Otavalo, and she brought me to La Esperanza, a tiny mountain town where an afternoon fog drifted between the eucalyptus trees and the cobblestone streets.  One afternoon we climbed to the top of the tower in the city’s basilica, and another weekend we spent at a friend’s cabin outside of the city, riding horses and dancing late into the night with the local boys.  The stress of finals and a busy university schedule restricted our excursions, but I was happy just to be there, to experience a bit of Ecuador at my sister’ side, and even more happy to learn more about the vibrant young woman that my little sister is becoming.

While Alison was in classes, I worked on photos, wrote, and played city tourist.  I dutifully straddled the equatorial line at “La Mitad del Mundo”, spent hours in the Museo de Guyasmín, Ecuador’s most famous artist, and twice attended classical concerts.  Through sheer dumb luck, I ended up front row center for the Ecuadorian National Philharmonic Orchestra, with featured performer Joshua Bell, one of the premiere violinists in the world.  This alone made it worth spending a month in the city.  After Cusco, Quito was disappointingly modern: cinemas, Chinese restaurants, shopping malls, modern city buses, KFC, Payless Shoes.  Modern, and filthy.  People on the streets held scarves over their faces to breath when the soot-spewing buses passed, or wore surgical masks.  Volcanoes surround the city, but they were only visible through the smog for an hour or so at sunrise.  I got pickpocketed for the first time ($5) and had my bandanna stolen out of my bag.  Minor, but unpleasant.  Saying goodbye to Alison at the airport on the 21st was remarkably easy, for both of us.  She was excited to be returning to California, and I was glad to no longer have a reason to stay in the city.

For a week or so I tramped around the central highlands south of Quito.  I summitted El Corazón (4790m) and hitchhiked into the Parque Nacional de Cotopaxi and slept in the refugio (4800m) on the edge of the volcano’s glaciated cap (5897m – Ecuador’s 2nd highest).  The altitude had begun to wear on me, and for once in my life, the peak didn’t tempt me.  I nestled in my sleeping bag in the kitchen area and talked to the ice-encrusted climbers as they returned, one after another, foiled in their summit attempts by high winds and fresh snow.  Breathing the icy air as I crossed the frozen volcanic rocks to reach the separate bathroom, I remembered Antarctica.  Recently, everything reminds me of that place.

In the city, and on the mountain tops, Ecuadorian culture was elusive, distant.  I missed the closeness to the people I’d had in Perú.  Ecuador is much smaller, the size of Colorado, and three fourths of the population lives in less than half of the land.  It feels more crowded; the hills are patchwork quilts of farmlands, whereas in Perú there are more trees, more uninhabited spaces.  The predominately cement construction lends the countryside an unfinished look.  Re-bar spikes protrude from the roofs, and roofless or windowless houses stand empty.  Pollution clings to the walls, staining them dingy gray to match the perpetually cloudy skies.  Winter means rain in the highlands.  As I moved south from the capital and down from the alpine region, however, the country gradually opened up to me.  There were more days of sunshine.  I discovered the market in Latacunga.  I learned a few words of Ecuadorian Quichua, caught some rides with local families.  Sebastien, a Frenchman I’d met in Quito, caught up with me in Latacunga, and together we traced a six-day circuit through several small towns in the western Andean foothills.  It was a smaller, less remote version of my adventure in Perú with Wilson, and here more than anywhere else, I felt like I was finally experiencing Ecuador.

Our first stop was Laguna Quilotoa, a massive emerald lake at the bottom of the crater of an extinct volcano.  It is an enormous tourist attraction, and the Quichua communities that dot the rim of the crater have learned to do business with the busloads of Europeans and Ecuadorians who pass through on day trips.  We spent the night in the cabaña on the beach next to the lake, inside the crater – incredibly – alone, except for Janeth, Ivan, and Juan Carlos, the three Quichua children from the community who prepare our dinner.  There were no other overnight guests.  Completely isolated, 400m below the village, the five of us huddled around a candle on the table and traded words in English and Quichua, giggling together until the milky way brightened overhead and the green water glowed.
From Quilotoa, Seb and I continued our circuit on foot, crossing a massive ravine, making some of the distance between towns on the back of trucks or on buses.  We passed a memorable night with John and Lynette, a fabulous, adventurous older couple on their round the world honeymoon, and Lacy and Brandon, professional actors from Chicago who reminded me of my own theatrical dreams, once upon a time.  Between Chucchilán and Sigchos, we caught a lift with the daily milk truck – a regular pick up truck with high metal railings around the bed and two blue plastic barrels strapped behind the cab.  Seb and I passed our bags up to the other passengers, planted our feet, and we were off.  A deaf man in gumboots doled out liters of the steaming fresh milk to the people along the road, and likewise accepted it in bucketfuls from the farmers and kids who waited in front of their houses.  We passengers balanced in the back, bending our knees in tune to the potholes, humps and dips in the muddy road that wound along the edge of the ravine.

The market at Saquisilí, the one that began with a bang, or rather the clatter of hooves on the roof, was the other highlight of our circuit.  We wandered through the animal market, watching the interactions, the bartering, the posturing, and the exchanging of wads of greenbacks for the tethered, terrified sheep, goats, cows, llamas, pigs and their young.  Cuys (guinea pigs) and chickens chirped in net bags on the ground and herbs and grasses lay in huge piled hedges to be navigated.  The rest of the market spread across four different plazas and spilled over into the streets and alleyways.  Under tents and behind booths, men, women, and children hawked their wares.  Fresh butchered meat, health drinks, veggies, fruits, fried fish.  Grains and pastas in great sacks, spices in colorful piles.  Enormous cauldrons of soup and rice and boiled chickens.  Utensils for the kitchen, the office, the car, the bathroom; things for cleaning, locking, organizing, decorating, chopping, storing, and hauling.  Shoes, clothes, jewelry in piles, batteries and pens held out between arms draped with shoelaces and ribbons.  Pickpockets and shoeshine boys and beggars plied the crowd.  Uniformed ice cream salesmen raised their voices to compete with the aproned “gelatina” ladies.  And everywhere, the crowd of buyers, indigenous and modern, the purposeful and the gawkers, dodging, ducking and weaving, mingling in a tapestry of culture and commerce.

Thoroughly charmed by the Quilotoa – Saquisilí region, I still felt lukewarm about continuing my explorations in Ecuador.  I heard about the whales on the coast, the luxurious jungle lodges in the east, and the divine thermal baths at the foot of Volcán Tunguragua.  But none of it made my heart beat more rapidly, nothing inspired me.  Perú was like a song on the radio that had stuck in my head.  I started making inquiries about buying passage on a cargo boat to cross back to Perú via the Amazon, and like that, just like it was meant to be, the way was clear.  There was a boat leaving from Pantoja, on the border, in two days, and if I could get there in time, I could be on it.  Serendipity, my favorite word, has wandered back into my life…anything can happen, and if it’s meant to be, it will.
Stay tuned for the Amazon story!

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