The Last of Ecuador
From 24 August 2009
Perhaps the best way to describe my feelings upon returning home would be as such: It was good for awhile. I wasn’t expecting to welcome the civilian modernized lifestyle with open arms for I hadn’t yearned for it while in the jungle. I was so preoccupied about catching my connecting flight from Houston to Detroit that I neglected the fact that I was walking on U.S. ground. I ordered a sandwich in Spanish at some Barry Bagel equivalent in the Houston airport, then quickly repeated myself in English. It dawned on me that the airport chatter was in a language I hadn’t heard spoken natively in quite some time. I was home! I couldn’t wait to see my family, but I didn’t have to take even a breath to realize the cultural shock I was about to experience.
Carolina, the Ecuadorian girl I traveled with for the past two weeks, leads an upper class lifestyle so I was actually backstepping a bit into the middle class sector of my hometown. However, there were still many things to which I had yet to re-accustom. At the forefront of my mind was the calming feeling of being able to walk alone on the street, the freedom to strike up a conversation with a stranger without the fear of being robbed or hit on. Soon enough, that welcomed comfort wore off as well and I began to miss the adventurous lifestyle I had been leading. Of course, I do not wish to be ambushed by a thief in Perrysburg nor get whistled at by a car of high school boys at a stop light. I do, however, miss Ecuador.
The highlights of my last week of traveling include my solo trip to the coast and climbing the dormant volcano Cotopaxi (at a pace slower than a tortoise). After some miscommunication that took place outside an airline ticket station, I boarded a flight from Quito to Manta alone. I was scared. I was worried. I felt vulnerable. The coast is supposedly characterized by more robberies. I hadn’t had exceptionally comforting experience travelling alone up to that point and I didn’t exactly have concrete plans as to where I was going or what I was doing. Despite my anxious thoughts, I managed to calm myself enough to enjoy a relaxing time on the beach. I met a group of three men in their forties and fifties vacationing with a seven-year-old son. They took quite a liking to chatting with the American girl who was sitting on the sand breathing in the smell of the sea. They paid a small token to a traveling duo of guitarrists to serenade three songs for me. Fernando, the man who initiated the serenade, told me to remember the people of Cuenca, their native city, as “nice people who just want to be your friend.” Finally, I thought, a group of men who just wanted to laugh and joke and get to know this foreigner, to be nothing more than friends. From a reader’s viewpoint, the serenade might not sound like a gesture of friendship but I can assure you it was. And I was finally feeling comfortable being alone.
After a few days in Manta, I took a bus ride past a number of ghost towns to Puerto Lopez. Words falter in describing the sheer magnificence and natural beauty of a pod of whales in the ocean. I went whale watching on a boat with a group of about twenty tourists. The first Humpback we saw had just its fluke sticking up out of the water, seemingly frozen in place, in time sufficient enough for the onlookers to catch more than a glance. Not long enough, of course, for the old school, slow-working camera Carolina lent me. But long enough to have imprinted an image in my head. I came to Puerto Lopez to see whales because it was prime whale season when the families swim through these bays once a year. Having witnessed firsthand the enormous tail of a Humpback whale glistening with water droplets despite the overcast skies, I would have been content with just that image. But luckily, we continued our voyage at sea.
We encountered a family of three Humpbacks swimming along, pectoral fins skimming the surface every now and then. Underwater, their bodies looked like the blue of a robin’s egg illuminated against the stark contrast of the midnight blue sea. The whale watching, however, didn’t stop there. We saw another family of Humpbacks, three adults and two babies. At this point in my writing, I do not know whether I should pour out my heart to you or hold back, but I’m taking a leap of faith and going for the foremost. About halfway through the trip, I abandoned the camera. It had worked whatever magic I thought it capable of and I decided I would rather take in these sights with my own eyes than through a camera lens. Hence, I kept my eyes peeled wide open on the water’s surface, searching for water spouting up or whirling about, any sign of marine life.
And it happened. Four times. Something you see on a calendar page but rarely witness in real life. The water parted as the nose of a Humpback whale emerged, on four different occasions, followed by the gigantic white belly with the pectoral fins splayed out, all accompanied by a spray of oceanwater. Each time these creatures hit the water with a crackling belly smack that would leave any human’s stomach permanently red, I felt my own waterworks churning. The sight of these animals and the sound of their bodies hitting the water, assurance that the experience was not just a dream, brought actual tears to my eyes. Maybe you think it’s crazy, crying because of something you see in nature. But just like people shed tears of happiness, I was shedding tears of pure elation.
To top it off, on our way back, we rounded a cliff and saw those birds with the blue feet, Blue-footed Boobies, native to Ecuador. We had passed by here on our way out to sea but I only noticed the white-colored rocks and thought, Hmm, must be some very white sand. No, no. It was bird poop. T hese cliffs were filled with so many Blue-footed Boobies that the rocks looked snow-covered from their excrement.
When I returned to Quito, Carolina and I took a trip with three friends to Cotopaxi. Three of the five of us (myself included) finished the climb to the refuge center. Two hours after we began our ascent, we marveled at the expanse of mountains and greenlands visible from this vantage point. Additionally, we congratulated ourselves on what had seemed an unnatural accomplishment. The winds and cold we battled coupled with the steep incline and sandy terrain that didn’t offer strong footholds translated to numerous power breaks for the climbers. Some of the gusts of wind were so powerful that they forced us backward, sometimes knocked us over so that we rolled a few feet downhill. Losing that much ground, just a few feet, sounded like an added death trek at the time. That small yellow building, our destination, stared us down from above. I’m pretty sure it was laughing at us. Our descent took only 30 minutes. When we were driving away from the mountain, we stopped to read the welcome sign. Instantly our pride level plummeted. We had only climbed three hundred meters… in two hours. We were hoping for at least a mile. Needless to say it was quite a tiring trek.
So now I sit here typing away at a computer that I can have at my fingertips whenever I want. I sit in a room dimly lit by the natural light seeping through the blinds though the darkness is calling for the yellow shine of the lightbulb which I am holding out on. I sleep in a bed with a metal frame instead of bamboo slats and a mattress that doesn’t feel like the entire Detroit Tigers team batted it in for twenty-four hours straight. I walk down the sidewalk alone and in barefeet confident that I won’t be ambushed or step on broken glass. I enjoy air conditioning in this intense heat and humidity. I could go for a run with my iPod if I wanted to but, though I thrive on music, I sometimes find the music of the busy and natural world more inspirational than any break-up-and-get-over-it love song. I eat healthy, planned dinners instead of as-quick-and-easy-as-possible dinners thrown together by volunteers after a long, hard day of work. I don’t have to fall asleep to the fear that tarantulas will crawl across my hair or face when I sleep. I can play with my dog and guinea pig whenever I want. I can drive my car and listen to English songs on the radio while singing loudly with my sister. I am not restrained in the jungle on Sundays and thus can finally go to church in the mornings like I longed to do. I can read a book on a couch (instead of a sand fly infested, stained hammock) while listening to the sound of Dad drumming away in the basement. And I myself can rock out on the drums or play the piano when I feel the yearning. I can use my cell phone. I drink treated tap water instead of questionably filtered water from a stream in the Amazon. And I think my intestines are back on track after two months of confusion with my rainforest diet. Still, despite all the pleasures, the comfort, the material and non-material joys of my USA lifestyle, I can’t erase one thought from my mind: When’s my next trip back to the jungle?
It’s been a long, memorable experience that will undoubtedly live within me for the rest of my life. I have grown immensely as a person, in my values and life choices, having finally experienced what I have long thought to be the key to happiness: simplicity. While you may or may not agree with me, I am so very glad I could at least share my monkey stories and tarantula freak-outs with you all, whether family, friend, or stranger. Thank you for taking time out of our busy go-go-go lives (believe me, I’m a go-go-goer) to read these lengthy paragraphs of text. I’m not sure I would have had the patience as a reader to read every line every week, so I am thankful for any little bit that you read. Hopefully, you enjoyed sharing this experience with me as much as I did with you.
Until my next adventure,