Going Hemingway

Quito to Baños and Back Again/8-12 April, 2008

Is there a more harrowing opening scene in modern cinema – outside Saving Private Ryan – than the first ten minutes of Alive?  Is there one among us who didn’t experience an empathetic tightening of the glutes, an involuntary clenching of teeth, a collective release of breath once that doomed plane skidded and tumbled to a snowy stop?  The 1972 crash – loaded with an Uruguayan high school alumni rugby team – resulted in 29 dead and 16 survivors spending 72 days high in the brutally cold Andean cordillera before they were finally rescued.  In addition to the 1993 movie, the post-crash events spawned the delightfully macabre bumper sticker Rugby Players Eat Their Dead, which is, in fact, how those 16 survivors lived to tell their grizzly story.

As I readied for my two-week trip to Ecuador and Peru, my own desperate thoughts of how I might live should my TACA Air airplane crash-land in the Andes had taken refuge in my traveling companion for the total of my nine flights over a two-week period: Mac would provide me plenty of much needed sustenance, if need be, because he’s a good friend, and because I could – I would – eat him.  I would.  Mac is a big man.  Or at least he was.  It seems Mac is in love – to a vegetarian, to boot – and he’s a good twenty pounds lighter than the last time I saw him.  Fortunately about every third Latino getting on our flight carried a box of fried chicken,[1] so I wouldn’t have to eat Mac after all.

Mac and I had but two goals for our trip to Ecuador and Peru – to see a soccer game and to see Macchu Piccu.  The rest would be unplanned, allowing us the freedom and flexibility to go where we wanted when we wanted, to stay or go, to take the backpacker-highway or the road less traveled, to drink heavily or not at all.  We opted for each.

Ecuador: Land of Little People

Our first stop is Quito, the capital of Ecuador and at 9,200 ft, way too close to the sun.  It takes me less than a day to get a solid base burn that lasts throughout our trip (none of my Latino DNA, apparently, is in my epidermis, and by the end of the trip a cloud of dead skin sloughs off me each time I remove my fleece).  But our first afternoon starts overcast, so we kill time with a bowl of ceviche and the first of our many, many Pisco Sours.  Bitterly and legally disputed over, Pisco is a native drink of both Peru and Chile but served everywhere in the region.  During Spanish colonial rule, imported grapes were the beginnings of what became a hugely successful wine industry.  But in 1641, King Philip banned the import of wine, causing the Peruvians (or was it the Chileans?) to find an alternate, yet still alcoholic, use for their grapes.  Voilà, Pisco.  Add some egg whites, Simple syrup, lime juice and a dash of bitters, and you have the Pisco Sour.  Though it tastes like a more acidic Margarita, it sneaks up on you like jungle juice at a frat party.  I blame it on the altitude, but the three drinks we had as we waited out the rain, sounding all the world like machine-gun fire as it fell on the fiberglass covered courtyard, left us both feeling adequately prepared for our two-weeks in South America.

It did not, however, adequately prepare us for our first South American riot.  There are a lot of cabs in Ecuador – far more cabs and buses, it seems, than private cars – some government owned and operated, some not.  The drivers of the some not, on this Tuesday afternoon, are restless, and express their displeasure by clogging the streets and hurling rocks, bottles, fists and feet at every passing yellow cab.  There are thousands of men chanting and kicking yellow-cab ass as the cars accelerate through the gauntlet of protesters, and Mac and I get close enough to film but far enough away to stay out of the way of the frequent errant projectiles.  We stand safely, we think, next to the sole police officer we see, who is acting on the situation largely by looking the other way and texting messages on his cell phone.  An ice-cream truck drives by, “Jingle Bells” drifting lazily from its loudspeaker.

The average height of a Brazilian male, says www.shortsupport.org,[2] is just about 5′7″.  The vast rain forest and towering Andes Mountains separating Ecuador (and Peru) from Brazil must include a genetic decline, because Ecuadoreans seem to me to be much, much shorter.  Mac and I look like genetic freaks, never more so than when we fold ourselves and our backpacks into public transportation, be it the hilariously miniature Daihatsu cabs – we frequently bottomed out over speed bumps and potholes – or the back seat of the Quito-Ambato-Baños bus we took after our third day in Ecuador.  The four-hour journey began with a Tourettic DVD salesman pacing the aisle of the bus for the entire first half of the trip, talking to no one in particular but repeating the same sales pitch with the dedication and regularity of a time-condensed call to prayer coming from a minaret.  He would start at the back of the bus, dropping cellophane covered DVDs on each passenger’s lap, making his way to the front.  A passenger indicated his interest by picking up the DVD – no matter if you were picking it up simply to give it back.  On the salesman’s return trip, untouched DVDs went back into his canvas bag, touched DVDs invited the hard sell.  He warmed to us after he found we were American, and we learned from him that a) Columbian women were hot; b) he had family in Florida; c) Columbian women were hot; d) Columbia was the third largest country in South America; e) Columbians liked war; and f) Columbian women were hot.

We rolled into Baños around ten at night, and our desire to both get us into a beer and out of the rain prompted us to break routine and follow the first teenage hucksters accosting us.  They took us to the Hostel Freddy, where we were given two rooms – mine smelling like farts and cigar smoke –  for $5 each, a pretty good deal until I was woken by the sounds of the bus station, just a block from my single-pane windowed room.  Mac, no doubt, slept through the night, lulled by the sounds of his own snores.  Five dollars a night might compensate for farts and cigar smoke, it does not make up for unwanted wake-up calls.

Baños, named for the natural mineral baths spread throughout the town, is hemmed in by towering mountains and the Tungurahua volcano, active enough that this city is still clearing eruption residue covering a part of the only paved road leading to town.  Mac and I climbed to the top of one of the ranges, braving muddy trails, no trails, thirty degree inclines with no trails, jungle-thick flora, fifty-cent piece sized spiders, diving vultures, and an overzealous guard dog (after starting down the wrong trail, we asked a local woman how to get to the “antennas.”  Her prophetic answer: “take a cab”).  We walked the road back down, unsuccessful in our attempts to hitch a ride from either of the two cars passing us, pausing only to accept the offer of a local farmer to take one of his granadilla, a fruit looking like an orange on the outside and a pomegranate on the inside, but with the consistency of mucus.[3]

We spend the afternoon as the only customers in a vitriolic Dutch woman’s café, listening to her espouse her theories on American politics and calling George Bush a “fucker.”  Her Ecuadorean husband walks past us hangdog, and I am grateful I am not him.  On our second and last night in Baños, we visit the mineral baths, where we account for all four hundred something pounds of gringo, our board shorts looking like Capris in comparison to the locals’ Speedos and boy shorts.

The morning brings us symmetry: As we get into our cab taking us to the two and a half hours to the Quito airport, the radio plays Europe’s The Final Countdown, that traveler’s anthem we’ve heard in Mexico and all over Scandinavia.

la vaquera

[1] KFC is the Starbucks of Ecuador, but every box of chicken on our flight was an unknown brand.  If anyone knows this phenomenon, please let me know.


[2] Short Persons Support’s mission is to a) Support and provide reference material to persons of short stature; b) Raise awareness of the social and economic issues facing short people; and c) Provide inspiration to short people to help better their lives and attitudes.  All I want them to do is tell me the average height of an Ecuadorean male.

[3] Later, in Lima, we explained this story to some other travelers in an attempt to recall the fruit’s name.  “It’s not fruit,” stated a sassy Canadian.  “Don’t tell me it’s not fruit,” I answered, “it was sweet, it had a peel, it had seeds on the inside.”  Or something like that.  “No,” she answered back, “it’s snot fruit.