Bearshapedsphere and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, long-lasting voyage. With an invitation to group post at the end.
I was in Ecuador, which means it was 1996, and I was running away from the bar exam. I’d been living in Cuenca, studying Spanish and teaching English and eating a whole lot of llapingachos and quinoa soup and locro de papas, and quimbolitos and avoiding the dreaded mallocos (clearly the baby of a potato crossed with a bean, and a word I confused with the word for fraternal twins (mellizos) for some time) and the similiarly dreaded tomato de arbol and drinking naranjilla juice and canelazo, when I found myself with a few free weeks to explore the country. I’d already seen parts of the coast and decided it would be a good idea to check out the jungle zone, which I did, and I may have fallen up and down over a few roots n things, and had mud suck in over my knee-high wellies that they insisted I hike in, and have my feet sweat right through my socks on a daily basis (see wellies) but for the most part, I was doing well.
And then began the next 48 hours, in which I traveled by private and public bus, boat, 4X4, tractor trailer and my feet, and experienced lies, trouble, poor nutrition, communication breakdown, transportation breakdown, heat, cold, torrential rain, two questionable sleepspots, a concussion and a partridge in a pear tree. Minus the partridge. And the pear tree.
I had been in a little jungle/tourism hamlet on the Rio Napo that involved a two hour 4X4 trip plus ferrying across the river in a dugout with a rope strung across, that the boat captain pulled us across hand over hand, and then an hour or so walk upriver to where the family stayed, with kids that were still amazed to see flashlights and the aforementioned bean/potato baby were served at every meal.
After my jungle whatsis where I saw phosphorescent fungus and felt the meeting of the tropical river with the snowmelt river as I floated down the Rio Napo on a tube and had one leg that was suspiciously warm and another that was freezing beyond recovery, a shamanic cleansing ritual that I probably won’t talk about here and some Israeli girls that had really bad nightmares, it would seem, I got dropped off in some town or another, consumed animal protein (fish, tilapia if you were wondering) for the first time in a week, and weaved a plan. I wanted to see more of the river, the broad part, where it was used for transportation. I remember wanting to get to Misahuallí, and driving to a town up the wrong side of the highway, because the correct side had been blocked by fallen trees and other highway mishaps. When I got to the town, my two German travel buddies in tow, we were told that where we’d wanted to get to by boat was not possible because we needed either four tourists or eight Ecuadoreans (who paid half price) to get there. Ever discouraged, we looked at the map and asked if there were any busses from any of the wide spots in the river that claimed to be towns. Sure, sure, they said, and pointed to a spot that seemed wider than the rest.
We snuggled down into the dugout, spacily passing the hours and oranges back and forth, and watching as the driver pulled over to the side and delivered case after case of Fanta and other necessities to what appeared to be empty river banks, or picked up empty soda bottles from other river-dwelling communities. The trip droned on and on, and my legs grew a shiny pink, from sweat and sun, and finally, we’d reached our destination. No sooner were we off the boat than we realized that this wasn’t so much of a town as it was a future town. There were buildings, but no stores, no people. In short, we were screwed. And the boat motor slowly faded out of earshot, like in a movie. We figured out which way the road went, an easy task since it dead ended into the “town” and led away from the river. And away from the river we walked. Several hours later, we were picked up from the road by a road surveying team which allowed us to perch precariously in the back of their white pick-up truck as we shared more oranges, and the occasional improvised conversation in imagined and creative Spanish of the just-add-an-o variety.
When we finally arrived in Lago Agrio, the surveyors’ final spot, and which we knew nothing about, other than that it was a oil drilling boom town and that the name meant “bitter lake,” we found out the truth. It was an oil town, true, and full of prostibularios. You do the math on what that one means. So we hunkered down until the next day, listening to ranchera music and trying not to slide off the slick polyester sheets on the strangely twisty beds as the rusty fan blade struggled to make its journey around and around. It was dank and hot, but openng the windows invited stares from the people in the next building. So we sat in our own sweat and willed the fan to pick up speed. Which it never did.
The next day came, and we decided to try to get to Quito, deciding that we would first stop at San Rafael Falls, one of Ecuador’s natural wonders, of which there are many. Lonely Planet assured us that it was beyond a bridge a whole bunch of km from anyplace useful. And so we went. And we left our big packs and hiked happily to the overlook, seeing the giant maw that was the waterfall and the stunning flow of water that poured endlessly from it. What seemed like a fine mist of spray or rain turned into a ferocious rainstorm that soaked us to our filthy, travel-worn skin. But at least we weren’t in Lago Agrio any more, and the falls? They are lovely. These are two actual photos that I took of the falls, all those years ago. And yes, I found them, just so I could show them to you. See? Pretty. Even on film and disjointed because who can be bothered to stitch stuff together? Trust me, they overlap.
When we’d had enough of the waterfalls, we decided to walk back out to the road and flag down a bus to take us to Quito. The park warden offered to let us stay, but he was looking at me, the itinerant single gal, with a bit too much interest, and we decided to get out. A bunch of his amigos were coming over that night to party, and I didn’t relish even more attention, so I was really urgida (in a hurry).
We sat and sat in the bus shelter, waving frantically at every bus that came by, and sucking down their exhaust fumes as they zoomed past us. Something was amiss, and we had no way of knowing what it was. In retrospect, it must have been a holiday weekend. Also in retrospect, I must have blacked out when I heaved myself up onto the window ledge and whomphed my head into the top of the window frame, crafted in cement. My head swelled and ached and my vision went blurry. As it got dark, and the snaky black wide-bore Amazonian oil pipeline was no longer visible and not just because of my newly-concussed head, we realized we had a problem. I was the only one with a sleeping bag, and we weren’t sure that the drunken amigos wouldn’t come out for a looksee later in the evening. We decided to get aggressive with the hitchhiking. Another hour or two passed, with me clutching my head and occasionally thrusting my thumb out into the darkness.
A truck that was very slowly hauling a heavy load finally stopped for us, taking pity on us and throwing two of us back in the extended cab, and me between the driver and his helper, moving my left thigh every time it was time for him to shift. We went over hill and dale, and six inches of mud, into which we spilled in a heap upon arriving to our destination for the evening, a town about 40 km away with a truck stop “hotel” behind a nonfunctioning restaurant and gas station, which cost us a cool $1.50 to stay. Dinner was a slop across the road in mid-calf-depth mud to the one snackbar that still had some food. I ate frenchfries and told myself that Sprite, by virtue of being lemon-lime flavored, was just like juice. I could have opted for potato chips, but the french fries seemed so much more nutritious, since they didn’t come with packets of ketchup and mayonnaise inside. To be fair, there was meat. To be honest, I don’t eat it, and I especially don’t eat it in the middle of a nowhere town on a wobbly chair at a formerly white formica counter that could use a good scraping with a putty knife.
We awoke in the morning and got a tiny bus taking friends and families and boys with cowboy hats and white knuckles from gripping each other having seen three gringos in the muddy truckstop town. They were going to church. We were just getting to a bigger town, with more possibility of getting on a bus, that might get us to Quito, or so we hoped. It had been nearly 48 hours of transit, with many a mishap, aching head and poor nutrition included.
Busses came and went, and we finally grafted ourselves onto one, intermingling our very cells with the people that surrounded us. This was a problem of conservation of matter. We simply did not fit. But the driver took our money, and we squirmed and wormed our way on, with me announcing to everyone that would listen that we’d been trying to get to Quito for the last 21 hours and that we’d been having wicked bad luck for about the last 48. If they listened harder I told them the story of the bus traveling the wrong side of the highway, the boat to nowhere, the lies about transportation, the tippy boat, the sunburned legs, the tuna I ate with a fork right from the can, the abandoned town, the bouncy hitchhike, the creepy brothel town, the long bus ride to hiking in the driving rain, the unscrupulous park ranger and his amigos of dubious intent, my concussion and double vision, extreme cold, hitchhiking three hours to go less than 30 miles with a man who brushed my thigh with glee, and the sticky mud and the french fries and Sprite and the truck stop sleeping arrangements. And sometimes I complained a little bit about my German travel buddies who were really dour about the whole thing and spoke about four words of Spanish between them.
And then the people on the bus smiled and nodded, and explained to me that where we were right now was often attacked by armed bandits. And me? I just laughed. I laughed all the frustration and fear and annoyance and headache and Sprite and Germans until I almost peed my pants. Which would have been the only thing missing. Oh, and the armed robbers, who never came.