They say that Santa Fe will take you in or throw you out. I think Ecuador is the same way. Some days I wish I could be thrown out, or rather thrown up, with more definitive force. Instead, it’s more like that hairball stuck in one’s throat that just won’t move—or so it’s felt like to me after almost two months in this country. I couldn’t possibly leave earlier because, well, I had already purchased a flight to Medellin, Colombia, for a great rate, and I’m nothing if not a sniffer of good deals. I didn’t want to lose that deal only to pay double to leave earlier. Not always smart when it comes to my own intuition, but definitely thrifty.
But here I was stuck in a country that did not like me. And the feeling was mutual. It might be that my expectations were too high. I had read all sorts of retirement articles that touted Ecuador as the Holy Grail of elder years and easy living options: great weather, medical care, low prices and safe streets. Plus, a couple friends from Santa Fe had already spent years there, and said it was awesome. So what could possibly go wrong?
Well, first off, Peru spoiled me immeasurably. Peru was so dramatic and fabulously beautiful, that the dusty hills of Ecuador just didn’t quite compare. Plus, and this is a big one cause I really shouldn’t fault Ecuador –I take all the blame myself, really –but it was the rainy season. And while I did expect a bit of rain, perhaps even a bit every day, I did not expect it to rain buckets on a regular basis every damn day. If I had wanted rain I would have gone to Seattle for a few months! Almost without exception, each person I spoke to said it was unlike any other year. There was more rain than they’d ever seen. It didn’t help that the apartment my friend Wanda and I were going to rent was no longer available. This, after already making a down payment and spending many an hour with the home’s owner (apparently this is not uncommon). And yes, of course, it’s all for the best; I was not meant to spend many months in Ecuador. But at the time, I just couldn’t understand why it was so HARD. I say this despite being taken in by a dear friend from Santa Fe who snagged a fly, sprawling penthouse apartment overlooking downtown Cuenca. It kept us high above the smog-spewing trucks and buses, but inspired more netflix viewing than city engagement.
Ecuador is also expensive. After Mexico and Peru, Ecuador, whose currency is based on the US dollar, was about double the price of other countries. And it only works in cash. If you want to pay for anything with a credit card, you have to fork over another 6-14% charge! So cash was king, and a lot of it was needed.
I decided to explore a bit and, as the Buddhists say, Change my Mind, in an effort to maintain my oh-so-optimistic disposition that was being frayed by the day. I went to Vilcabamaba, a small town in the mountains with spectacular views. My mountain nirvana was rudely disrupted when the owner of our hotel leaned over our dinner table on day one and began to spew pro-Trump, anti-Obama rhetoric for practically our entire meal! He literally did not leave our table for a good 40 minutes despite such comments by me as: “Well, one of the reasons I enjoy being out of the country now is not having to engage in this kind of conversation. Do you mind?” Indigestion ensued, helped by the fact that few people eat salads here, and I was on my umpteenth portion of fries, rice and greasy meat. (Restauranteurs say that salad ingredients purchased merely go to waste. Alas.)
Still, the mountains helped me. Exploring might be just the trick, I figured. So I made a plan to go to the Galapagos Islands for some immersion in nature, sun and sand. This was an exceptional if outrageously expensive option. It also was the basis for my decision to halt travels earlier than planned, skip my long awaited French family reunion, and return to Santa Fe for the summer. (See earlier blog post on Galapagos.) Empty pockets can change plans faster than gut feelings, apparently.
Next I went to Banos, known for its thermal baths and high–action sporting activities. The bus ride over was strewn with cracked pavement (a new highway, I was told), enormous sinkholes, and mudslides both massive and minor. Seems like roads were built here with little consideration of gravity. Curse of the weather is that when rain falls, the completely denuded sand and dirt hillsides simply slide into the roads (wait, was that huge boulder there when we drove by ten minutes ago???).
Luck must have been with us a bit as one fridge-sized boulder crashed to the ground and merely nicked the back of our van. Once in Banos, Aiden and I spent hours watching people throw themselves off a bridge attached to a not every flexible rope, a kind of bungee jumping without the bounce. And we found some thermal pools that were a bit less pee pee filled than others. So good times were had.
I also took a day trip into the jungle and had a fabulous time. Jungle! That’s what I needed to turn the table on my Ecuador mindset. So I plotted to head up north for a “deep jungle” experience. I went with what I thought was a respectable outfit, one of only two agencies listed in the Lonely Planet Guide, and shelled out many hundreds of dollars for a 4-day jungle immersion. The overnight bus/disco/high fidelity violent movie house would not have been so dreadful had someone actually been at the station to pick us up at 5:30 am when we finally stumbled out the door and onto the dirty platform of the abandoned bus station. But no one was there, and the feeling of dread in my stomach started to rise. Was Ecuador once again kicking me in the proverbial groin? In a sense, yes it was. The tour I had paid for was not the tour I received, and while I tried to stay positive throughout the jungle journey, I couldn’t help wondering if I was trying to make something work that really was not supposed to be working. When you feel the gut talk to you, listen to it type thing?? Still, I had some amazing experiences in the jungle and wouldn’t trade them for the world. I had them in my mind as we left the jungle and headed toward the entry and exit town of Lago Agrio. But as I looked out the window, holding, white-knuckled, onto my seat so as not to fly into my neighbor’s seat while swinging side to side on the swerving road, I felt bombarded by imagery of oil pipelines. Pipes everywhere. Gas trucks and signs that read: “El Petroleo mejorera tu communidad”, basically, Oil and gas will make your community better. The Cuyabeno Reserve I had just come out of isn’t quite as famous as it’s southern neighbor the Yasuni National Park, but it’s just as popular with the eyeing, sucking, probing oil and gas companies trolling for new places to stick their pipes. In fact, one oil and gas exec I met from Brazil said it was “all in the jungle now”. Even if it is a national preserve? I felt sick. Not lost on me were the Big Science marches around the US. After spending time in the jungle one realizes how rich and diverse this land is: a medicine cabinet, a pair of lungs, and a home to millions of creatures and plant species.
I had in fact left my jungle tour early, completely broke (after purchasing one more day in a vain attempt to recover what I had initially been promised. but it rained – Amazonian Poured—all day, and I never left the lodge). And because I had been devoured by mosquitos. Somehow my ribs and groin area were of special interest (if anyone has seen my photos, you might not that I was always wearing long pants, long sleeves, hats and scarves for goddsake!!!). yes, I was ready to leave, but not before getting some money from an ATM. Well, seven attempts later I had $200 in my hand and $500 taken out of my account. The bank in question threw up its hands and handed me a list of bureaucratic paperwork by which I was to document their theft. The gut punch was getting stronger: Ecuador was trying to spit me up and just didn’t know how many ways to do it. Luckily, I had another 8 hours of swervy bus ride to contemplate it.
Amazingly, I loved Quito. Enormous and busy, dirty and crowded, I loved it. I loved its beautiful old neighborhood architecture, it’s energy and life, and it’s fantastic parks. Must be getting close to closing time, I thought. Things always look better just before I’m about to head out. Back in Cuenca, for the first time since I had arrived almost two months earlier, the sun was blazing and the sky clear. It, too, was beautiful. Hence, the hairball. Won’t cough me up yet. To make matters more interesting I met a couple who previously lived in Santa Fe and moved to Cuenca to remodel (apparently for a daughter who then changed her mind) a 13,000 square foot historic house where they now lived with their three cats, throwing lavish parties for local orphanages and well-heeled Cuencanians. Fate knows how much I love a good story, and this was a darn good one. But it wasn’t going to swallow me. Cough me up, I demanded! I’m heading out! Following the Sun! On Saturday we head to Colombia.