This weekend was the celebration of Carnival, the traditional holiday preceding Lent which we call Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, in the US. In Ecuador, as elsewhere, it is celebrated with parades. Ecuador has a take on the holiday, though, which I believe is unique to South America: water and foam fights! Starting the week before, and building up gradually, Ecuadorians start flinging water balloons, throwing water off balconies, and eventually spraying each other with a harmless foam product called espuma sold expressly for this purpose (mostly sodium lauryl sulfate in water). I learned last week it was smarter NOT to stand next to a pretty teenaged girl at a bus stop; they are a favorite target of teenaged boys throwing water!
So, this weekend, Carnival weekend, was when we decided to make the hop over the Andes to the eastern side of Ecuador, called el Oriente, where the Amazon river basin begins. It’s called the High Amazon because it’s at an altitude of 1,000-4,000 feet. We’d been meaning to visit since we moved here, but my doctor’s recommendation that I try a short stay at lower altitude to lower my scary blood pressure was the nudge we needed to actually make the trip. We chose a two-night, three-day “ecotour”. The many rivers through the region run east into Peru, eventually to join the Amazon river proper. Even though it’s a short distance on a map, really getting down into the selva, or jungle, is a long and difficult trip because of the poor condition of the roads. Indeed, just getting down into the fringes to meet the relatively gregarious Shuar was quite a bone-shaking drive! There are still tribes in some more remote areas who choose to remain out of contact with civilization and kill trespassers on sight.
Our tour guides, husband-and-wife-team Svenya and Xavier, picked us up Saturday morning for the 3-hour drive. We hopped in with them and their dog Chispa (“Sparky” in Spanish) and off we went. Starting at Cuenca’s 8,300-foot elevation, we went up…up…up…I felt my heart pounding and started panting…we crested the highest pass at around 11,000 feet elevation. Then it was downhill to Limón-Indanza. Getting out of the car, my sinuses welcomed the soft humidity and warmth. A hillside was covered with Laeliocattleya orchids in profusion like daisies.
My blood pressure had dropped to 149/99…the altitude definitely seemed to make a difference! We left our things at the hotel and headed to the Shuar village for lunch: yuca (potato-like) and ayampacos, leaves filled with chicken and roasted, were delicious, accompanied by the chickens’ cousins running around underfoot, of course. The holes in the roof of the shelter added to the rain forest experience, as it took the men a few tries to position the table so that no one was getting drenched. Our itinerary said we’d be participating in a minga, or community work project around the village, but the pouring rain canceled that plan and only a few people were hanging around the village, munching fresh bananas and naranjillas harvested from their community trees.
The Shuar guide, Carlos, took us on a hike to a waterfall near the Zamora river. Xavier had grown up in Limón and he lamented the way the gold miners and their big yellow bridge had driven the birds and monkeys back further into the jungle.
But Carlos took us to the waterfall and had us purify ourselves by snorting tobacco tea from our palms. We saw orchids and butterflies, oropendente birds with yellow tails, a toucan, and a cuckoo. My knees rebelled against going down the steep riverbank in the slippery mud, so I waited at the bridge while the rest went down. The river was swollen with rainfall.
We returned to our hotel. The room overlooked the park. Of course there was no A/C. It was very basic: niceties like a shower curtain were missing. The towels were hand-towel sized and frayed at the edges. But the mattresses were new and comfortable and there were only a few cockroaches, so after our long day and our hike, we pulled the net curtains and slept like babies. For about fifteen minutes. That’s when the amplified music began playing outside our window; after all, it was Carnival! Motorbikes without mufflers and loud laughter and partying went on until almost dawn. The next morning, we dragged ourselves to breakfast (instant coffee; the real stuff apparently is not commonly used in the area).
Next up: the parade! We were armed with cans of espuma and joined the eager crowd waiting on the sidewalk and on the overhead patio of the local church. Xavi was in his hometown, so he had Carnival scores to settle with cousins and childhood friends; he was soon covered in foam and he pulled Steve into the fray!
Then a little girl crept up on me and Steve and started hit-and-run charges with the foam. Then things went crazy! Water balloons fell from windows and at times the foam was falling like a blizzard! The announcer requested that the Orchid Queens on their float be spared for the sake of safety, but that request was only minimally honored. Steve took a break from his foam fights to give the girls a napkin to wipe the foam off their ornately made-up faces. Everyone got into the action, even little old ladies and tiny toddlers. It was like being a kid again, and all in good fun. The dancers were all very good, and included a group of Shuars as well as different groups from the city itself.
Afterwards, we ducked back into the hotel for dry clothing and then met for lunch. I realized that, between the lack of sleep and my now gout-throbbing toe, I was NOT up for the afternoon’s planned hike. I asked to be dropped at the hotel while Steve went with the guides. But on the way, we passed an accident: a girl lying in the street with a crowd of people around her. They had just lifted an overturned four-wheeled ATV off her and no one was looking like they had any idea what to do. I am first-aid certified so I jumped out and crouched by her. Other than a few scratches and some road rash, she had no visible injuries and she was breathing with a strong pulse, and moving her limbs. She was fading in and out of consciousness and wincing when she turned her head. She kept trying to get up and go home, so my “aid” consisted mainly of telling her not to move and pressing her shoulder to the pavement every time she woke up and tried to rise again. Fortunately, the hospital was only a few blocks away and a well-equipped ambulance didn’t take long to arrive, load her on a spine board with a hard collar, and whisk her away. She kept telling the paramedics “Yo caí! Yo caí!” (“I fell, I fell”-which was plainly untrue). Later, Svenya told me she had disappeared from the hospital because she’d been drinking before driving a four-wheeler and she was afraid of going to jail.
The tour guides then dropped me off near the hotel and sped away. To my surprise, the main entrance to the hotel was locked and my room key didn’t fit. The shop downstairs was owned by the same family, but their corrugated barrier was closed and there was no one inside. The hotel wi-fi was turned off and my cell phone carrier has no service east of the Andes. The owner of the shop next door had their number, but they didn’t answer. I was confused: how had Svenya and Xavi found this hotel anyway? Would I be able to get my stuff out if they never came back? It started to rain.
I found a bench in the park under a tree which kept me mostly dry. I propped up my bad foot and meditated for an hour or so. I was safe, relatively dry, and warm but not hot; with the sun behind the clouds, the air was temperate even here at the Equator. The local people nodded stiffly as they went by, not as welcoming to strangers as my beloved highland Cuencanos, but I felt safe and basically comfortable. I closed my eyes briefly and images of butterflies, golden birds, and waterfalls played behind my eyelids. I reflected on the ways in which this small town reminded me of other small towns I’d visited in the South: not the gentrified villages where the cotton warehouses have been converted to upscale wine bars, but the ones off the main roads, where people live in small, simple houses and trailers and keep chickens in their yards. Country people, it seems, are the same the world over.
A whistle! The neighbor shopkeeper calling out to me to let me know the hotel owner had returned.
I collapsed into bed, tissues stuffed in my ears for earplugs, as a downpour began. I woke briefly when Steve brought me a portion of arroz con pollo for dinner, but overall I slept a solid 14 hours (the party in the park that night was lower in volume and ended not too long after midnight) and woke up the next day feeling terrific!
Our agenda for this, our final day, included tubing and a nature walk to view petroglyphs. I dutifully dressed in bathing suit, shorts, and fisherman sandals. Unfortunately, it was still pouring down rain, and the rivers were swollen well past their banks with rushing, chocolate-milk-colored water. Also, the restaurant where Svenya and Xavi had arranged for us to have breakfast was closed. Xavi instead took us to his aunt’s house, where the two of them were staying, and we met a few siblings and in-laws as he scrambled eggs for us. There was an adorable kitten
playing there, and one of the important tenets of my life philosophy is: never pass up an opportunity to cuddle a kitten or puppy. The kitten’s brother had been run over by an opening door a few days earlier and it was half-paralyzed in a basket in pain.
In lieu of the tubing trip, our tour company took us to a place on a back road marked by a hand-painted sign as “Club Palmas.” They had a sugarcane mill set up under an open-air roof. There was a whole roast pig hanging from the ceiling of the shelter by its neck. A little girl, perhaps 2½, was standing next to it peeling little shreds of skin off to eat, while a puppy lapped at the puddle of blood on the ground, and men in rubber boots processed the chitlins on a table close by. We got a chance to push the sugarcane mill. It produced dirty-looking, sweet water, with a faint molasses taste. Then one of the owners pulled down some citrus fruits which he called limones, but they were green, tangerine shaped, orange on the inside and very sour. Here in Ecuador, it seems most sour citrus fruits are called limones regardless of size, skin color, flesh color, or flavor of the meat and juice. These were squeezed into the pitcher of sugarcane juice to make the absolute best lemonade I have ever tasted in my life! We stood at a table to the side and were brought a bowl of mote (soft corn kernels) and a pile of the crispy roast pig skin, which we stood around munching blissfully.
A truckload of locals pulled up. One of them had a stocky, scarred pitbull with him. He and Chispa immediately got into a serious fight. Chispa, despite his fluffy-border-collie looks, got a grip on the pit’s ear and would not let go. Svenya yelled and tried to break them up while avoiding getting bitten. The man chopping sugar cane began to flail at the brawling, snarling, biting dogs with the flat side of his very sharp machete, at which point I am totally unashamed to admit that I skittered away as quickly as my stumpy little legs would carry me! But the fight was resolved and the dogs put in vehicles. Other than a few specks of blood, Chispa, at least, seemed fine.
One man took a propane flame-thrower and heated up the outer layer of the pig with it, and then a crowd clustered around it and peeled off the remaining skin, eating it on the spot. Despite the fingers of a dozen pairs of hands in close proximity to sharp knives, the process was orderly and quick; the pig hung naked of skin within five minutes and the whole crowd, from grey-haired abuelas to angelic niños, smiled greasy, satisfied smiles as they licked their fingers.
Then we were off to Xavi’s mother’s finca (hillside cottage). It was country-style, grab-a-plate dining and I had some yuca and two chicken wings. Afterwards, she pressed plates of candied figs on us. I took one taste. Wow! My guess is that the large figs were picked almost green, seasoned with a little cinnamon, and cooked in sugarcane juice until it became a thick syrup. The flavor reminded me of my grandmother’s best fruitcakes, and I had to resist temptation: I could have easily eaten twelve, but I stopped at one. Then we changed out of our sadly unused swimsuits and headed to see the petroglyphs.
The petroglyphs were on large boulders dotting the meadows. I’d mentally noted their presence earlier, perplexed since surely glaciers never came south as far as the Equator. Xavi explained that they’d exploded from the nearby mountain tens of thousands of years ago when it was still an active volcano. Some of the petroglyphs had been dated as old as 9,000 years, while others were only around 2,500 years old. No archaeologists had worked with them beyond assigning a rough date; the culture that created them has not been identified. However, local Shuar legend says they were created by a race of giants who protected the mountain; this was thought until the recent discovery of some 7-8 foot skeletons, to be fairy tales, but it may just turn out to be true. Some of the carvings looked like snakes, some looked like Easter Island heads, and some could have been frogs. We saw butterflies and birds and a strange white insect. We visited the swollen river we would have been tubing on: it was a violent torrent, completely flooding the beaches on its bank. We came to a bridge, once solid with thick metal cables supporting sturdy wood planks. Now, those planks were half-rotted, some loose, some missing entirely, and all were wet and slippery with black mold. The wind rocked the bridge, and the coursing water below added to the disorientation. I turned around halfway across and headed back, while Xavi, a rapeller and rock climber, blithely hopped the gaps in the bridge with Chispa and then hopped back to our side. I slipped on the last plank and skinned my knee, but I’d brought a first-aid kit.
A nice hike back to the car and we were headed back to Cuenca!
The injured kitten was coming with us, because there was no one to care for it in the aunt’s house. Svenya had it nested in old clothing in a small plastic laundry basket. I spotted bungees in the back of the SUV and came up with an idea for navigating the horribly bumpy roads with the poor little thing: we suspended the basket by bungees from the handholds on the ceiling of the back seat, so all we had to do was stabilize it and keep it from bottoming out on the biggest potholes. Svenya and I took turns stabilizing the kitten and Chispa crowded us on the back seat most of the way. Did I mention the roads into the Amazon are in terrible condition? The couple told us that they had been repaved under government contract a few years ago, but apparently the work was substandard, the contractor disappeared after collecting his money, and the roads are now in worse shape than before they were paved, as the smooth gravel has been replaced by a cratered moon landscape punctuated by short stretches of pavement. Xavi was used to navigating these roads at moderate speed, though, and by the time we got to the smoother roads of the sierra, I felt like I’d been beaten with a baton.
I felt a little lightheaded going over the highest point of the pass, but not horrible. I think the break from the altitude did me a great deal of good. Now time to try the medication my doctor recommended to see if I can nudge my body into tolerating life at 8,300 feet. I enjoyed the steamy moist air and the lush, colorful forest for a few days, but coming back into Cuenca with its friendly people, street art, culture, and back to my cozy apartment, felt like home. Real, locally-grown coffee in the morning! I sighed in relief as I settled in with my sweet Siamese cat, Tapioca, on my lap.