With the beach out of our systems and the sand still in our shoes, we sat waiting for a midnight bus from Máncora to Cuenca in South Central Ecuador.
First we were informed that the seats we had been sold by a teenaged representative of the bus company a few days earlier were actually reserved much earlier by someone else and weren’t available. Once again, I had to be an angry customer in Spanish ( not my favorite) and remind them that it was the fault and responsibility of the bus company to fix it and find us seats. Then, after that got sorted, the bus was hours late in arriving. We couldn’t down sleeping pills right away because a border crossing was less than an hour ahead. So, we battled sleep and bad attitudes instead, as the driver whipped around curves and the brakes creaked.
The stop for paperwork at the Peru-Ecuador border was a bottleneck, where we waited hours for our turn to get egress and ingress stamps and tourist visas. Cienna is better at looking on the bright side and passing time in these nocturnal legs of the journey, so she entertained me while we stood, and stood, and stood in line with stories of where our college classmates had landed, from Egypt and lefty DC think tanks on climate change to Portland landscaping business and porn films.
We finally arrived in Cuenca at about 8 a.m. without much of a plan. We asked the taxi driver to llevar (take, or literally carry) us to a hostel near the Tomebamba river on the oldtown side. The place had just rented its last room, so we shouldered our packs and crossed the street to Casa de Cuenca, where the dueña (matron) Marta kindly offered us cups of coffee while she checked on room availability.
She rented us a cavernous room with newly finished hardwood floors, a balcony facing onto Hermano Miguel Street, sweeping gold curtains, a Queen sized bed and a roomy bathroom. Aside from those features, and some interesting architectural details, the room was unfurnished. As is our way after long overnight bus rides, we fell immediately asleep until about 5 p.m., when we waded through our grog and went out for food. Exhausted and starving, our decision making powers were reduced, so deciding on a restaurant was challenging. Eventually we drifted into an Italian restaurant, which served fine. After dinner we walked around Old Town trying to orient ourselves. Cienna and I have eachother well trained by now: she keeps an eye out for rivers, fish and frozen yogurt on my behalf and I look for churches, good cake, tall men and neon colors which she’s bound to be drawn to.
Cuenca is rich in both rivers and beautiful churches, so we had lots to look at. Old town appears roughly triangular on a map, and is situated just above the length of the Tomebamba River. Calle Larga runs parallel to the river, with stone staircases funneling pedestrians between Larga and Paseo 3 de Noviembre.
The river flows fairly clean, with relatively healthy looking geomorphology, but hasn’t escaped human impacts. In a few seemingly established places along the stream, women are seen scrubbing clothes, beating them on rocks and laying them out to dry along the banks. And although the river runs a natural meandering course with plenty of boulders and logs rather than being channelized, several concrete drains input urban runoff directly into the river. Turbity appears in some stretches on certain days, and not just when it rains.
The City of Cuenca has wisely invested millions of dollars in restoring and maintaining the river as a public space. It is a worthy investment. The banks of the river on both sides are lined with grassy knolls, which are frequented by citizens of all ages. Some are studying, making out, splashing with their kids at the water’s edge, while others are sitting to collect their thoughts, practicing yoga poses and sobering up. Plantings of willow, elderberry and datura are nearby. Above the knolls and plantings, pedestrian paths string for miles along the river. We recognized these paths instantly as a safe, peaceful, and relatively flat place to run.
Running has been much more doable with two of us, both because it feels more secure and thanks to the motivation an exercise buddy provides. Running, swimming and stretching in the Parque de Madre across the river on Hermano Miguel Street have become habitual again, which feels great. As with the river paths, Parque Madre is a mark of civilization for this place. It offers gentle grassy slopes and advanced playground and outdoor workout equipment circumnavigated by a track, covering several city blocks in its entirety.
Given the city’s five universities and clearly demonstrated values, it surprises me that the smog emitting from the tailpipes of public and private transport vehicles alike is still thick, black and smelly. Apparently air quality standards here have some catching up to do with the rest of life in Cuenca.
Each of our three initial mornings in Cuenca, we descended to the first floor of Cuenca House for a breakfast of fruit, natural yogurt, toast, jam, coffee and fruit juice. This is where I discovered that Ecuadorians routinely drink a fruit juice they call tomate, which is made, not out of what we think of as tomtoes in the US, but from a fruit with a vaguely tomato like taste, texture and shape. It is sweeter and tarter than tomatoes as we know them, and was a source of confusion on menus for me for some time. Cienna, ordinarily a huge fan of tomatoes, doesn’t like the fruit. I thought them strange at first, but confess I’ve come to like them and their juice (almost as much as a tall glass of blended alfalfa and orange juice, which I’ve come to love.)
We explored the plazas and churches of Old Town, the most magnificent being the Immaculate Conception Cathedral adjacent to Parque Calderón with its awe-in-spiring mosaiced blue and white rotundas. We dipped into markets full of hammocks, hoof flasks, cooking supplies, elaborately bordered velvet skirts with petticoats and jewelery, waiting to be bought.
And we hoofed it to the bus station, asked around about our options for departure times, forked out 16 dollars for two tickets, and hopped a bus for the town of Ambato to the north. Our philosophy about buses has shifted slightly, but basically seeks to pass the inevitably miserable hours overnight if at all possible. We boarded the bus in a hurry, pleasantly surprised that the semi-cama seats seemed nicer than many cama seats we’d seen in Bolivia and Peru. Less pleasing was the realization, in light of new info from the bus driver, that we would get to Ambato at 2:30 in the morning, not 5 a.m. as we’d originally been informed by the bus company. Even if there was an actual bus station (which I had a sneaking suspicion there wasn’t), what the hell would we do until daylight with ourselves and all our stuff?
Of course, Ambato has no bus station. During the day, it’s easy enough to catch a bus from Abato to Baños for 80 cents. But occupying the cold sidewalk there for hours waiting for the first bus wasn’t appealing, so we negotiated a cab fare as best we could at 2:45 in the morning. We decided it would be preferable to occupy a cold sidewalk in Baños instead.
Some 45 minutes later, we had arrived outside the gates of the family-run hostel where we planned to stay. Unwilling to wake the family up so early, we piled our stuff on the sidewalk as improvised bedding, staked out a few feet on the hill slope, and huddled on the quiet street. We drifted into a shallow sleep, waking when a curious dog or person passed by. Chill seeped up into us from our concrete bed. As I said, Cienna is better than I am at situations like this. “At least it’s not raining,” she pointed out. Something to be thankful for, though all I could think of was getting to a bed. A few minutes later I heard a muffled giggle from her direction: “Erica? Are you awake?” she ventured. “Yes,” I said, wondering to myself how slowly the next three hours could go. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” she proclaimed. It was impossible not to laugh and just appreciate the absurdity of the moment.
I counted to 60 over and over to prevent myself from looking at my watch every 30 seconds, and when 6 a.m. arrived at long last, I decided that was a reasonable time to ring the bell and ask to be let in and I leapt up to do so. The dueño rose, as groggy as us, to settle us into a room. The beds were hard ( in fact Cienna’s had just a boxspring and no matress) but we didn’t care. We went directly to sleep, emerging around noon in search of coffee and food.
These times are the ones when we predictably stumble into the first place we find. In this case it turned out to be an Ecuadorian restaurant a few blocks above one of two main plazas in the little town of Baños. We both ordered different iterations of Ecuadorian breakfast. Cienna’s was essentially a fried egg sandwich served with a glass of a warm, slightly cinnamoned oatmeal drink. Mine featured a large fried ball made of verde (less ripe) platanos mashed up, mixed with cheese and fried. Bolonesa, I believe the dish is called in Ecuadorian cuisine. I did not love it. We left feeling like tanks of biodiesel grease.
Fortunately, within a day, we had figured out several places we liked to eat. We are not only suckers for good, strong, black coffee but also free sides of salsa with our food and good service. And the occasional good pancake. Provide those things and you have won our hearts, and our business.
The name of Baños, by the way, refers to the renowned hotsprings flanking the town where people flock to bathe each day and night, not bathrooms as the ignorant gringo might assume. That first night we set off walking down through town towards the giant waterfall illuminated at the foot of the mountain. At the base of the cascade, well established and carefully managed hotsprings draw a large crowd of locals and tourists each day. The first time visiting is overwhelming and chaotic seeming, but by the second visit, you realize there is actually a system in amongst the din and crowds. The large round hot pool on the lower level is not just hot. It’s scalding, steal your breath, stop you in your tracks, make you itch, ache and sting hot. When you first step in your brain instantly starts an inner dialogue with the rest of your body: “What the hell are you thinking?” You suck in a breath, hit the override button, and will yourself down, forward, trying not to think too much of how lobsters and crabs must feel before they become dinner.
The trick, we learned from several soaking sessions there, was to sit in the hot pool as long as you could tolerate (5-7 minutes) before pulling yourself out and ascending a level to the cold pool. Despite signs warning against running or horseplay, youngsters had claimed the cold pool, making it into a splashing, swimming, racing zone until I would get in there and pull auntie status, ruining all the fun. The switch from lobster murdering hot to Butler waterfall cold was shocking in a pleasant way. Cienna describes the sensation in her lungs from the sudden temperature contrast as icy, minty fresh, a feeling she loves and will go to considerable lengths to create. When your teeth start to chatter, go back downstairs and plunk yourself into the hot again. This time, your body will tingle at first, but within about 30 seconds, your body will relax into it, finding release somewhere in the tension between hot and cold. Few things have ever felt better than those next two minutes in the hot pool. Repeat.
On day two we did some homework to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go, then started hiking up the very steep mountainside on one edge of town. Switchbacks, dust, burros, town water supply (plenty of gravity), and tropical plants galore greeted us on the way up. We wandered through a few small towns midslope, with decaying structures draped in melons and vines, signs of agriculture on all sides, large dogs in yards and nearly no people in sight. We lost our way several times as the trails there fan out and reconverge often (and the signage is abysmal, bordering on misleadking) but weren’t in a hurry, so no problem.
It was nice to be so aimless we agreed. We were angling in an imprecise, slow way for Casa de Arbol, and after about two and a half hours, we finally arrived. It’s a grassy ridgetop where visitors find both a wind measuring station and a two-story treehouse with a swing “at the edge of the world” hanging from its branches. We took our turns on the swing, checked out the view from the treehouse and started back down on a different route. This trail was much steeper. Some places we scooched down on our butts. Others we cautiously picked our way. It was one of those times when downhill was not as easy or fun as it looked. My toes were hitting the front of my boots and I could feel blisters developing. Nothing to do but push on. The sooner we reached the bottom, the sooner relief would come. Our leg muscles started to shake profoundly, and tripping and falling became inevitable. Ever downward, past the giant decaying virgin statue overlooking the flat, drab little town of Baños and the surrounding tight, steep canyon walls that hem it in.
Back to the hotsprings that night. The next day we resolved to rent bikes to make the descent past a series of waterfalls along the local river system. It was a good plan, but in implementation phase it had a major hangup. About a mile and a half down the road, shortly after a major hydroelectric project impounds the flow of the river, my bike started to wobble and make a funny sound. Cienna used to work in a bike shop, so I yarded my bike of the road at the next available opportunity and hollered up to her for a consult. The left pedal was clearly working its way off the bike. We hammered it back on with our feet and hands. But the cap which should have anchored the pedal to the bike was missing and the same problem reoccured before the next pullout. We were barely an eighth of the way through the ride, and the bike was a hazard. So we hailed a truck on its way up the hill and returned to the agency that had rented us the bikes. We had checked the brakes and tire pressure, but hadn´t thought to inspect the pedals.
When we got back to town and walked our bikes the last few blocks back to the agency, I verbalized my wishful thinking. Maybe they´ll say, you´re right, it´s all our fault, here´s your money back. A cynical smile. Maybe I won´t even have to raise my voice. Of course, that was not quite the case. The woman who had accepted our money earlier in the day tried to say that they would need to charge us for the time we had the bikes out of the agency. Wait for the dueña, she said. So, I raised my voice and the backpedaling from another employee began. Within minutes, we had a refund in hand, long before the dueña ever showed up.
We crossed the street, inquired anew about renting bikes and conducted a more thorough inspection. This time, the ride was smooth and pleasant, mostly downhill, with conscientious drivers who actually moved over to avoid us since there´s no bikelane or paved margin outside the whitline most of the time. The road diverts around three out of four tunnels for bikers and sight seers. Waterfalls drip overhead, spewing out of mountainsides and off cliffs to the left and right. The scenery is spectacular and the wind in your face and the resistance in your leg muscles pushing against the mechanics of the bike and the gentle grades of the road are lovely sensations. We hitched a ride back up the hill in a truck.
The following day was a designated rest day. That gave us time to arrange for a two day foray into the jungle starting the following day. The tour agency was very straightforward, not interested in selling anything. A noted difference between Ecuador and other places I´ve been down here. Tour companies and guides here are careful to warn that things might not go according to the plan. It is sometimes framed in this way. Welcome to Ecuador, where anything is possible and nothing is guaranteed. I, for one, appreciate the honesty and smart management of expectations from the get. This would be the first experience of being on such a tour without complaints because it was professionally run and basically run as advertised.
You could say I´m a little biased, because I ended up falling in love with one of the tour guides. But that´s another story. Our trip into one very tourist-pervaded edge of the jungle took us to the Puyo and Patanza rivers on a party bus sort of affair, an open air mode of transportation with colorfully painted benches, strings of lights, and pop music blaring.
Hours later, we reached our first stop in a demonstration village with frond-thatched huts across a swinging bridge. A little girl came running out with a monkey, and several others follow. All of them positively adorable and used to being handled, passed from one cooing tourist to another, curling their fingers and tails around whatever could be had. Hair, jewelery, fingers, clothing. One monkey was tiny (a spider monkey I believe), another liked to affix itself to people´s heads and mimic a fur cap, while the third was the largest and most like you´d expect a monkey to look and it liked to curl into a ball in the arms of whoever was holding it. We ventured into a large thatched structure, where the mother of a family was painting faces, regalia was donned by countless flatlanders for pictures and a poison dart demonstration was underway. We engaged in the monkey holding and dart blowing, careful to avoid the other activities as they were more cultural tourism than our consciences would allow. I think of myself as a terrible shot, generally, and after watching numerous other people miss the mark by feet, I was reluctant to try the dart blowing. To my surprise, I was much better at it than I thought.
We boarded our bus again to get to the put in for a canoe ride. Our group divided into two shifts. We went in the first. Our guide maneuvered us back and forth in the shallow rocky edges like a teenager learning to paralell park, and was one of the last of four to get us out into the main current in the middle of the stream, leaving me a bit doubtful about his abilities. Even at home, I usually prefer to row a boat because I feel more in control, though the role comes with more responsibility too. At a minimum, give me a paddle. But this was not that kind of boat trip. We propped our legs up at awkward angles and sailed down the mellow little rapids. The guide´s main job seemed to be avoiding obstacles using a pole, a short, stout wooden paddle and a milk jug for bailing out the boat. That kept him pretty busy the entire time. We avoided most, but not all, obstacles. When we bumped a rock or log, or came close, I instinctively leaned towards the obstacle, wondering all the while if highsiding applies in wooden canoes as it does in rafting. One of our guides later confirmed for me that it does.
We disembarked, making way for the second group of boat passengers. While we waited, Cienna spied another old, wooden foot bridge and urged me to come with her onto the bridge to take pictures. We did, but one of our guides cautioned to keep our feet on the two metal rails running the length of the bridge. It was easy to see why. The bridge recalled certain early scenes from Romancing the Stone, with many of the planks decaying. Someone had died crossing the bridge recently, we were informed. Meanwhile, a construction crew hauled sacks of cement across the bridge on their backs. After that little adventure, one of our guides emerged from one of the bridge footings, holding his hand aloft. It was teeming with minute, orangish-brown bugs. Termites, he grinned. They don´t bite, I asked, incredulous. Try it, he encouraged. They´re a natural mosquito repellent. He lead us to the termite nest, where I squeezed my eyes shut, turned my face away and plunged my palm in. My hand was instantly covered, awash in a faint crawling sensation. He was right, no biting. When you´re ready, just shake your arm vigorously and they fall away, leaving your hand smelling of wood. A remarkable experience, and remarkably simple.
On next to a jungle hike, through vines, over roots and shallow gurgling streams, and past butterflies and bird calls. The destination was a waterfall, but our guides stopped to explain the botanical values of the plants we passed – very enjoyable all along for a plant geek like me. Rubber boots are required for this part of the tour. A few mudholes in, the rule has an apparent rationale. Our guide was lightfooted and selva savy enough to avoid them, but started insisting that we pass through the middle of them for fun. I observed, and managed to pad across without sinking into the squish too much, but others on the tour were mired repeatedly, slowing the group a bit with giggles and squeals and rescues. By the time we reached the waterfall and peeled off our clothes, we were all smeared in mud and sweat. Little rainbows danced off the pool where the cascade leaps from a high cliff above. Diving through and under the beating of the water, I felt instantly closer to home. I focused on trying to do what I do everywhere, get a feel for the place around me.
We went next to a work in progress jungle restaurant and hotel. We cleaned our boots, played with resident puppies and dutifully downed a late lunch of soup, chicken and rice. Next we ascended a series of switchbacks cut into a steep bank to get to a hill overlooking the Patanza River, braiding and glimmering in the distance. Hammocks of the simplest possible kind, seemingly made from a tough type of black fishing net, strung from a canopied wooden platform situated to take in the view. Nearby, one guide gave a push of momentum and then later a halt of momentum to tourists who wanted to swing on a long rope above it all. I took one look and knew I didn´t need to do it. If there was deep water below I´d have considered it. Cienna loved it, however.
As most tourists reboarded the bus, we gathered our belongings, deposited them in thatched huts perched part way up the hill with mosquito nettings hanging over the beds, and headed out into the night with our guide, toting flashlights. We zagged down a steep, slippery trail, leveled out and ended up at the home of a family in a nearby village. The elderly couple who lived there graciously welcomed us in and told us stories of how their lives are. A daughter served us a bowl of a hot corn drink. The ettiquette that goes along with drinking the stuff escaped me, though I was told about it on multiple occasions. In fact, Ecuadorian drinking customs in general mystify me. More on that later. Suffice to say that they are not the same as in the US.
Our guide pointed out some trees with glow in the dark bark, others with bark that could be peeled off, rolled into cylinders and smoked. On the way home we followed an irrigation ditch, again grateful for the rubber boots we had been given for the trip. At one point, the guide flashed his light out to the left over an adjacent lagoon. Glowing orbs stared back. Crocodiles, he informed us. Once he had identified some, he switched off the beam so the only thing lighting the night were the eyes of the reptiles staring back. You can tell how big the crocodile is by the spacing between its eyes, he explained. They don´t go on land though, we queried cautiously. Not at night, he said, attempting a hollow sort of reassurance. Cienna´s flashlight turned out to be the preferred tool for crocodile spotting, since it had the strongest and most concentrated beam which reached the furthest. Don´t touch tree trunks in the dark without first checking to see which types of ants or other insects might be marching up and down them, he warned as we made the slow, clammy march home. Just as with camping at home, everything you have becomes dank and smelly and you just decide not to care.
The next day, I pryed myself from bed, peered out over the steaming, rainy river valley and went in search of coffee. The cook was a curious fellow, wiry, sprinkled with bad tattoos and full of wit and winks. His cooking was as good as his humor. With most of the group of tourists gone, I opted to eat in the kitchen, with the cook´s wife and the three sons of the hotel dueño. The breakfast was filled with awkward silence, but the kitchen had better light and a more interesting environment than the designated dining room. We all watched eachother eat, curious and shy at the same time, then departed to carry on our days. Cienna finished her stretching and then descended the hill for breakfast while I began my stretches while gazing out over the river valley.
Starting out on the second day, our guide made us some palm frond crowns and placed them on our heads. We wore them uncomfortably for a few minutes. Then I took mine off and explained the dilemmas of cultural tourism in Spanish to our guide, as best I could. We marched down the road, delving into the identifications and ecological roles of plants and insects we passed. A few minutes later, we hopped in the back of a pickup to get to the trailhead our guide had in mind. It was, according to the guide, Chilean-Aregentine season. Apparently most of the tourists they receive in this time of year are from those two countries. So we were a bit unusual. I asked if we seemed to our guide like what he would expect from Estado Unidenses. No, he responded. Unlike most of his clients, we were curious about the life of the jungle around us as we walked, we knew about plants, and I at least spoke passable Spanish. So no, he repeated, we were more like Ecuadorians.
As we walked upslope through the dense jungle canopy, the guide stopped to explain about plants, and I would periodically inquire about one. We passed spindly, tough trees with radial limbs reaching out for the ground to form a conical sort of tripod. The wooden limbs are referred to as legs, since they essentially enable the tree to “walk” or move aside to better compete for light with larger trees nearby. We ducked through curtains of carnivorous plants, parasitic plants and plants with various medicinal uses. One in particular I remember because I tried it myself. It was used as an expectorant or nasal decongestant by indigenous peoples of the area. You snort it, and it has a peppery sort of quality, the guide explained. I indicated that I had the hangings-on of a cold, including some phlegm still in my head and chest, so I wanted to try it. He scraped some bark off the tree into a pollen-like substance and offered it to me in a rolled up leaf with a little water added in. The reaction of my body was nearly instantaneous. The stuff burned worse than wasabi and made my eyes water, but just as promised, within ten minutes, I was coughing and expelling snot out of my orifices. It was distinctly uncomfortable, but very effective stuff. Hours later I was still sniffling and hocking.
After hours of bushwhacking along, we arrived at a shallow, rusty-bottomed stream with a little waterfall trickling in. Our guide explained that the hidden waterfall we sought was further up the canyon, and we would have to wade through the stream to get there. Cold water gets rid of bad thoughts, he offered in Spanish. Whereas Cienna does better in middle of the night scenarios, I am the thicker skinned when it comes to icy dips in the water. We stripped off all but our ropa interior (bras and underwear) and our trusty rubber boots and started upstream. The canyon was narrow and twisty and walled with ferns and other green things. It was breathtakingly beautiful. A short ways ahead, we arrived. A log angled down into the pool below the waterfall. Hand and foot holds had been carved out, and are well worn by now, allowing one to shimy up some 10 or 15 feet and jump into the bubbling profundity below. We jumped a few times each. Tranquilo.
Then we hiked hours out, largely in silence, but it was an easy, satisfied silence. We arrived back at the jungle base camp, changed to our last set of relatively dry (albeit smelly) clothes, and crashed in the hammocks for a few hours until our bus back to Baños left. The tour guide I had become enamored with, Ruma, was flirting intensively, so we arranged a date for later that night in Baños. After two days of hiking and swimming day and night, I knew it would be difficult to drag myself out, but there was no saying no. On the way to the jungle, we had been the first to board the bus, and had our choice of seats. On the way back, we were the extras that needed to be stuffed in somewhere. So, I rode in front with Ruma and the driver, while Cienna took the last open seat in back. Ruma may be deserving of his own blog post. In any event, when we arrived back in Baños, we rushed to eat and shower so I could make my date in time.
I met Ruma outside of a church in Baños in one of the plazas. A stop at his humble little room on the top story of a local hotel. (I would later discover that this upper story is dedicated to local guides and hotel staff and is its own little neighborhood of sorts.) Then on to the bars of Baños, all strung out along one street. We met Ruma´s friends (mostly jungle, rafting and kayaking guides like him) at their favorite establishment, where a DJ thumped out rhythms and a cup of beer was passed around, almost as we would pass something communal, but not quite. It took me all night and several explanations above the deafening music to figure out the socially accepted way of drinking here. Essentially, someone pours a fraction of a glass of beer, hands it to you and you are expected to down it in a swallow and pass the glass back to the pourer, who will refill it and pass it to the next person in the circle. For me, this was a difficult concept to grasp, since the ethic I grew up in is more that you should pass something on with some of the contents remaining, not empty. If I haven´t mentioned it before, bars are difficult settings for me as a fledgling Spanish speaker. This was no exception. On top of that, there was the cultural drinking difference to overcome, as well as many rounds of teasing from Ruma´s friends about our interest in eachother. I was glad to escape into the fresh air with Ruma a few hours later.
I think I got home to our hostel by about 7 a.m., when we promptly put off our departure for Quito by another day and set to work researching our options. Quito would be more expensive and less safe than we wanted. We eventually decided it was more sensible to return to Cuenca for the next ten days before heading to Quito, where Cienna would fly out. It proved to be a good decision. We located a studio apartment very close to our previous location for a reasonable price and arranged to rent it. The bus ride back was torturously long, but ultimately finite. The apartment was situated just a hundred meters from the Tomebamba river and our favorite running path, next to the home of the landlady Olga and her family and their dogs. We settled into our kitchen, spacious bed and little bathroom easily, plotting menus as though we had never stopped cooking. I tried and failed at humitas, a slightly sweet version of a tamale made with ground fresh corn and cheese wrapped in banana leaves. Cienna makes and eats salsa habitually, and this became a staple for us. Black beans, rice, 40 clove chicken in mora (blackberry juice) and lime, a mediterranean pasta salad, coconut macaroons, brownies, cabernet sauvignon, champagne with strawberries and raw sugar, yogurt, fruit, maracuya juice. These were the things we survived on. The kitchen gave us an excuse to go to the nearby 10 de Agosto market to conseguir (get) the ingredients we needed.
However, it was just our luck that we were there the week leading up to Ecuadorian elections, when it is apparently prohibited to buy or sell alcohol. For this reason I was forced to substitute blackberry juice for the usual wine which would have gone in the 40 clove chicken. We had learned of the upcoming elections earlier, in Baños, where the son of our hostel dueños was running for mayor. There, the political rallies and parades had been blaring and ceaseless.
I experienced another bout of sickness, and between the drinking ban and the nauseau, we were driven to watch many episodes of Teen Wolf on Netflix. But we also ran, swam,did yoga classes, stretched, mostly avoided buckets of water on the streets during carnaval, befriended the neighbors and dogs using brownies and charm, took in the views and walked around a great deal. When we had left Cuenca last, I had the sense that we were missing out on a place with a vibrant culture. So I was grateful for the opportunity to go back and know it better. It is a destination for both retirees and students, and with good reason.
The day we left Cuenca, a steady rain was falling. We endeavored to do something good with our leftover food, so we walked up the path by the river in search of a homeless man who we had seen sleeping every time we had run there. He was nowhere to be found, so we started the walk home, discouraged. Fortunately, about midway back, Cienna had the good sense to look across the street at his regular spot and find him under an overhang of a building. We crossed and left the bag of food with a feeble explanation that it was extra. He mumbled something incoherent and we continued home, soaked by the time we arrived. Against the instructions on the tags of my Patagonia long underwear, I ironed the wet stuff in an effort to not be soaked through for the 8 hour bus ride ahead. It sort of worked, or at least it was better than nothing.
The bus ride to Quito was forgettable. Cienna had made a reservation for us at Casa Cultura, a mansion which had been converted into an affordable hotel. I think by this point in our travels, we were less into being tourists, more into passing the time in an agreeable way. We managed to achieve that just fine. We found a park to run in, and another park with an artisan market and some of the best street food we had yet encountered. The grilled chicken, lentils and rice rivaled Cienna´s boyfriend´s impeccably smoked chicken from home. For desert mango slices and coconut juice from the neighboring fruit stand. And all for a few bucks.
One night we ventured out to the nearest drinking district around 6 p.m., sat ourselves down in an empty karaoke bar and ordered ourselves a fishbowl of mojitos. (I´m not kidding about the fishbowls- they´re called pezaderas and they´re literally the size and shape of fish bowls.) Before you knew it, we had ordered another bowl of mojito. That amount of alcohol certainly is necessary to get me singing in public, but at some point, it does not improve one´s singing abilities. The poor bartender gritted his teeth, put up with us, and sang along on Bohemian Rhapsody, When I Was Your Man, and Baby Can I Hold You Tonight. Getting home in a city we´d only just arrived in when we were that inebriated was a trick, but we managed it somehow. It was a memorable night. We discovered a restaurant called La Boca de Lobo which we liked so much we became repeat customers. They had novel and delicious dishes (my favorite being stuffed mussels), good service, and a unique and intriguing ambience. Did I mention that Cienna whooped me by more than a hundred points in the final tally of casino? One of the great things about a friend for life: plenty of time to even the score.
Last Friday, Cienna boarded a plane to return to Seattle for a few days before embarking on her next adventure: a month-long writer´s retreat on Whidby Island in Puget Sound. We are already making plans to reunite for the Elysian´s pumpkin beer festival in Seattle in October, which I somehow never heard about or got to. Something to look forward to, and an incentive to start earning money right away when I get home.
With an extra week on my hands, and Ruma still very much on my mind, I headed back to Baños. Although this may be the juiciest part of the story in this blog, I´ll leave you dying for the details for now. Suffice to say that I was in Cuenca, Baños and Quito two times apiece. For this reason, and because it´s the end of my pendulum swing across South America, I´ve named this post Ecuadorian Equilibrium.
If I regeret one thing here, it´s not making the time to travel deep into the Yasuni region in eastern Ecuador to see it before it is completely ravaged and changed by oil extraction. To learn more about what´s happening in the Yasuni and sign a petition to protect the place, visit http://www.yasunidos.org. I can see now that I have completed my hook from the bottom up the West side and nearly to the top of South America that I will eventually need to complete the hook from the top, passing through Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Eastern Bolivia and Northern Argentina. First to rebuild my bank account and my stomach bacteria. Also, I miss home terribly by now and am anxious to get back.
A week in El Salvador to visit the organization EcoViva and then I´m flying back to San Francisco. A few errands, appointments and visits with friends and I will be back on the original rivergorgeous.