shanmonster: (Purple mohawk)
I goofed up. I'm applying for a travel writing scholarship, and I misread the write-up. I thought I was supposed to write 2500 words about being out of my comfort zone, but it's actually only 2500 characters. Oops. Well, lest it was all in vain, here's what I came up with. I reworked my travelogue about travelling from Quito to Pimpilala, Ecuador. Enjoy!

It’s morning in Quito, Ecuador, city of volcanos. Off in the distance, the great Cotopaxi continues to burp ash into the air. Kyle and I awaken bright and early for a breakfast of plantain, coffee cake, eggs, fruit, juice, and coffee. We meet up with the other ten people of our group and clamber excitedly into a small private shuttle. We are on our way to a bus terminal where we will begin our journey to the edge of the Amazon jungle. Our guide, Carlos, warns us about the difficulties of the five-hour bus ride to come. He gives us a rapid-fire list of caveats and recommendations.

Personal space is not a valued trait, he says. People may lean on you. Just push them off if they do. There will be no guaranteed bathroom breaks, and theft is common on buses. You must never leave your belongings unattended. Never stash anything overhead. Don't carry your money all in one spot: spread it out in different interior pockets and bags. Beware of having things on the bus floor; thieves cut holes in baggage and pull belongings out from the cover of the other side of the seat. Our initial excitement begins to ebb and we look at one another with worry. Is it this bad? It can’t really be this bad. He must be exaggerating.

We drive for about half an hour to a huge bus terminal. It was once an airport and is, by far, the most enormous bus station I've ever seen. I find a bathroom and pay to use it. I take a few squares of toilet paper from the dispenser outside the bathroom stall. Toilet paper isn’t in the stalls in Ecuador. You have to guess how much you’ll need before you actually use the toilet, and then you get to see how many squares the previous stall occupants used. Toilet paper isn’t flushed in Ecuador. It’s tossed into waste paper baskets.

The bus fare itself is only about $5. Transportation is incredibly inexpensive in Ecuador. Our travel group is lucky and we all get to sit together in one section of the bus. I choose a seat where Kyle and I are surrounded by group members. This way, I feel more secure in holding my satchel between my feet. I take the window seat, and Kyle takes the aisle. I buckle my seatbelt, but it won’t adjust snugly across my lap.

Our five-hour ride is much longer than five hours. We must be on the slowest bus in all of South America. Everyone passes us. Trucks, cars, and bicycles pass us. Heck, I’m sure even moseying centenarians with walkers can pass us. The ailing bus randomly farts and belches clouds of thick, black smoke. It smells like it’s burning oil instead of gas. Though we have been driving for hours, we are still in Quito. The bus stops frequently, and people get off and on until there’s standing room only. A man stands beside Kyle and rests his crotch on his shoulder. Kyle pushes him away. Vendors get on the bus at each stop, selling drinks, fruit, sunglasses, and flowers. I pass on all of it.

The huge, metropolitan sprawl of Quito seems to extend to infinity in all directions. Houses dangle from cliffs high above us, and nestle in ravines below us. If there were a landslide (an actual danger here), they’d be destroyed. The local architecture is blocky and distinct, comprised primarily of right angles and chipped, once bright, and now faded hues. Houses every colour of the rainbow cling precariously to the sides of dusty mountains. The demure shades of beige and white, so ubiquitous back in suburban Canada, are a distinct minority here.

We eventually leave the precarious mountain- and ravine-side housing of Quito and make it to rural areas. Cattle, horses, chickens, a multitude of dog breeds wander and graze. I don’t see any cats. Switchback highways are standard throughout the mountains. So are drivers passing with no room to spare going around those turns. Several nerve-wracking and horn-blaring close calls happen, but we eventually reach our next destination of Teno unmaimed. A man sits on Kyle’s shoulder and farts. Kyle pushes him away.

The five hours stretch to seven with just one short bathroom break. I don't get off the bus. I am paranoid of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. The bus is not air conditioned, and the air vents are a cruel deception. For unknown reasons, the heaters are on full-blast for the entire trip. Although some of the bus windows are open, I am not close to them. My window won’t open. It’s stuck shut, and I am overheated. Sweat pours from my everywhere. I am made of stink and the sort of trickling perspiration which makes me itchy everywhere. I sip water slowly, concerned I'll collapse from heat exhaustion before I even make it to the jungle, but also concerned that drinking too much will make me need to pee.

The end of our bus ride is in Tena. Scorching and dusty, Tena sits near the edge of the Amazon jungle. Everyone disembarks except for Kyle and me. Kyle gets up. I don’t. He looks at me questioningly. My seatbelt won’t open. I struggle with it. Kyle tries to open it, too, but to no avail. Like my window, it is jammed shut. I take a deep breath. I’m so hot I feel like I will pass out. I’m not going to die here. Not here. Not now. Not like this. I count my blessings that I couldn’t get my seatbelt fit snugly across my lap. With a huge effort, I am able to wriggle my way out just as Carlos comes back onto the bus, looking for us. Travel-stunned, sweaty, and blinking, I clamber out of the bus and stand blinking and gaping beneath the brutal equatorial sun. Though I’ve lived in a desert before, it never felt as hot as this. My brains feel cooked. I can’t tell if the haze I see is from the heat or from my imagination. There are next to no shadows. The sun is directly overhead.

Carlos ushers us into a tiny scrap of shade under a corrugated metal awning and tells us we have ten minutes to go to the bathroom or get to a store before the next part of our trip. I queue up in the sunshine for the toilet. An attendant charges us variable amounts of money to use the facilities. Some people are charged more than I am. Some less. Some are charged more than once. The bathroom attendant is ruthless, but the need to not piss ourselves wins out over stubborn haggling. I scrabble through my wallet looking for the correct amount of change, finally locating fifteen cents. The relief I get in the stall is well worth the money.

A pickup truck and van arrive. Our bags are tossed into the back of the truck and we wedge ourselves into the van. The seats are far too close together. I only just fit. Kyle, twice my size, doesn’t fit, but must make it work through some sort of mutant ability. I'm presuming his hips retract into his midsection, because I don’t know how he gets in there, otherwise. The van bounces and shudders down a winding dirt road into the Amazon jungle. The dense flora seems determined to swallow up the track snaking its way through. We pass numerous small clearings which look like desperate holdouts against a juggernaut of jungle, but the opposite is true. Deforestation is happening at an appalling rate. Huge swathes of jungle are stripped from the earth leaving desiccated grass, lonely, barren stumps, and millions and millions of acres of lost habitat. Humans are winning the battle, to our ultimate loss. The lushness we see here is a holdout.

We arrive at our destination: the tiny village of Pimpilala. I’m shaky on my feet. I was sitting for far too long. We are greeted by the host family. They are Quichua, one of the many indigenous peoples of Ecuador. Delphin and Estella are the patriarch and matriarch of the family, and their children and a pair of unrelated young women also live and work at the household. Two yellow dogs (Pollo and another who may not have a name) guard the property, and numerous wary chickens roam and roost all around. The property consists of a main building, several thatched sleeping quarters, a hammock area, and a couple of outbuildings with cold-water showers, toilets, and sinks. Kyle and I are given what I consider a spacious room. It holds a bed with mosquito netting, a battery-operated lamp, two benches, and three coat hooks. In comparison to the description I’d been given by Carlos, this place is positively luxurious. The dining area has electricity. There are showers and flush toilets. My quarters in rural Peru were far more spartan.

After we claim our rooms and stash our bags, we are led back down the road while supper is prepared. The chitter, buzz, and siren wail of insects and birds is as loud as rush hour in a big city. We follow a circuitous tendril of a path through thick jungle. One of the host's sons is our guide. He is having a blast and fashions hats from enormous leaves for several people in our group. He plucks small ferns from the underbrush and slaps them against dark clothing leaving perfect ghost images of the ferns behind on our clothing.And then we crest a hill and are met with the wondrous view of a river, mountainside, and jungle at the pale yellow cusp of sunset. Another short walk and we see yet another glorious river view, and a fragile cliff face. Rocks and clay are held in place by vines and sheer will. Someone goes to lean up against a tree, and the guide stops him. “Don’t touch things without looking at them, first,” he says.

“Why?” asks someone.

“Snakes and bullet ants,” he says.

Everyone suddenly becomes more careful.

He takes some mud and uses it to draw designs on all of our foreheads. I get the symbol for mountain, Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Kyle gets the symbol for waterfall, the place where spirits pass through.

Darkness approaches rapidly, and we hurry back to the homestead before the mosquitos swarm us. The screaming insects, which I'd already thought were loud, turn it up to eleven. It is utter cacophony.

We dine on a savoury vegetable soup garnished with popcorn. The Quichua don't really eat bread, so plain popcorn serves in its stead. I'd never had popcorn on soup this way before. It is delicious, and I intend on doing this from now on. A garnish of peppery onions and tomatoes is also used on the soup. The main course is tilapia roasted over coals inside a rumipanga leaf. Rumipanga translates to "leaf from the fire" and is used for roasting chicken, fish, etcetera. It has a unique and delicious flavor. I'm sad I won't be able to taste this outside of the Amazon. We sip on lemongrass or cinnamon leaf tea. Afterwards, some drink Ecuadorean Pilsner. I look off the edge of the dining area. I see a gigantic spider web with a spider almost the size of my hand. I point it out to one of the men who lives here. He tells me it is a young spider, recently hatched, and that it will grow a bigger yet. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

Later, while most of the others in the group continue to hang out in the hammocks chatting and drinking beer, I head for bed, shroud myself with mosquito netting, and sleep deeply.

July 2017

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