We start walking as the morning sun makes the dark earth steam. The trail is a road, but no car could possibly drive it. Switchbacks along farmed hillsides, tiny lambs, oinkers, the smell of dog shit. We reach a soft ridge and rest for a moment. There are so many different shades of green in the valley that it is impossible to count. Kelly describes it as a patchwork blanket. There are great tears in the fabric though. Deep canyons with beige walls end in skinny rivers. The only citys are towns. Communities. Three buildings, two yellow roofs and one red, are the largest eye-sores visible.
We detour up a rolling hill that is the highest around. The "summit." We pass horses and cows. They moo. When we reach the top Kelly breaks out her compass and we orient ourselves in relation to the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific. There are so many mystical names surrounding us. We are a part of the names, a part of the countryside, a part of the mysticism.
We continue along the road as a dense, afternoon fog envelopes us. A small community appears ahead. Children laugh at us and stare. We pass a few roads and a few trails that look like they are heading back towards Chugchilan, our starting destination. It is impossible to tell where they lead in this fog. We sit down for lunch on a hillock by the road. Ubiquitous tuna and white rolls. There is no mayo in this valley. How can they survive without mayo?
Mike, Kelly and I have a way of talking that is extremely stupid and eternally hilarious to all of us. We have determined that approximately %75-%85 of what we say is absolute bullshit, but we have also determined that we are laughing pretty much constantly. As we sit and discuss which trail to take, our conversation goes like this:
"Well there was a road back there that looked like it went where we wanted," says Kelly.
"Yeah, this trail also looks like it heads in the right direction," I reply.
"We could continue this way too?" says Mike, pointing further up the road we have been following.
"Well, which do you think we should take?" I ask.
There is a short pause and then Kelly says, "I don`t really care."
Mike and I look at each other. "So what you`re trying to say is..." says Mike.
"So what you`re implying by saying those words is..." I say.
"So what you are intending to impart by speaking those words out of your mouth to us is..." continues Mike.
"So what you mean to describe by using those phonemes that signify words which have a certain meaning in our language is..."
"So what you wholly wish to imbue to us, these humans sitting here on this earth, with these sounds that you create by expelling breath from between your lips, which combine to form longer, more complex sounds, which we then interpret by having them pass through our ear canal and travel to our brain all in an instant, is that...you don`t care."
We are all in tears. Just rolling on the ground. Dogs stare at us.
We get lost for a while trying to return to Chugchilan. We end up on someones farm, stomping through deep mud, wondering where the hell we are. This is pretty much our modus operandi. If we don`t get lost for at least half an hour on each hike we feel unfulfilled. We eventually return to the road and find the right way down. The walk back takes us a few more hours.
The Hostal Cloud Forrest makes killer french fries and hamburgers. Grease drowned in ketchup. We play cribbage and drink beer. There are foriegners from all over the world. We meet a young woman from France, Solene, and her friend, Andre, from Quebec. They are very nice, funny people. We hit it off immediatly. We teach them how to play cribbage. Mike and I challenge them. It`s France versus America. They start singing the French victory song, even though they are losing. I start calling the french fries "freedom fries." We talk mostly in Spanish, but the game is conducted in all three languages. When a German woman, who is volunteering at the hostal, gets involved, there are four different languages flying across the table at once. We play until someone calls us to dinner.
The next morning we wake up at 6:20 and catch a camioneta to the town of Quilotoa. There is a crater lake here, like in Cuicocha, only this one is salty. A cab driver once explained to me that scientists thought the volcano was originally formed in the ocean and that as it rose from the sea floor, the water was trapped in the crater. We start the hike by getting lost, obviously. After wasting about fifteen minutes heading directly downhill, we realize we are not on the right trail. We`ve wasted about half an hour by the time we find the correct trail and begin the hike around the crater rim.
Slippery volcanic sand shrouds the rough grey stone beneath. The trail rollercoasters along the ridge as it circles the lake. There are some clouds and it is windy, but we are comfortable. The gust`s footprints race from shore to shore. It takes us about three hours to get three quarters of the way around the lake. We stop for lunch, hidden from the wind behind a wall of crumbly rock. I am sure we are going to get mercury poisoning. Mike and I try to throw rocks into the lake from the ridge, but none of them go far enough out to reach the water. They fall hundreds of feet towards the base of the crater before they disappear in green. "That makes me reconsider jumping," says Mike.
"Yeah, but hang gliding?"
"Yeah, or parasailing, or paragliding, or whatever?"
"Right, maybe we could just glue condor feathers to our arms."
A low, sandy spot in the ridgeline approaches. There is an enormous cairn marking the trail back to Chugchilan. We turn right and head steeply downhill for a few miles through dusty pastures. Little dogs bark. We carry rocks.
Unlike the frequently touristed town of Chugchilan, the tiny community of Guayama has mayonaise. I ignore the rediculous stares from the shopkeeper and purchase a small jar. Now I`m looking forward to our second lunch. We pass a cemetary and watch for the third right. "I think that was the first right," says Kelly, as we pass a right turn immediatly after the cemetary.
"So what your speaking with your words is..." says Mike.
"Let me get this straight, according to the thoughts that you are now transforming into words in an effort to communicate to us your logical deductions, you seem to be calculating that as the first right, which means this is the second," I say.
"So what you`re saying here before us in the presence of God the almighty while he sits in his shining cloud-seat of heaven with rays of light illuminating his pointing finger, is that you think we need to turn here."
It is the correct right, the right right. We descend towards the canyon. This time the mercury and blonde bread is actually delicious. We dip crackers in mayonaise. I dip pinapple in mayonaise. The sky begins to drizzle. A tunnel-like trail leads us steeply down the canyon walls. Black sand pockets drip from the otherwise tan faced stone. The smell of Eucalyptus.
We cross a little bridge that spans the river. Three eucalyptus limbs lashed together. Now we must climb our way back out of the canyon. By the time we reach the Chugchilan plataeu, it is afternoon. The hike has taken us about six hours, not including the obligatory half hour detour. We buy a bottle of whiskey. Whiskey cokes and trilingual cribbage. I play cards until very late. The French are leaving tomorrow and I am sad for it. We have a strong connection. We exchange e-mails and talk outside their room for another hour. We part ways with hugs and kisses on the cheek. I am shivering from having stood outside for so long.
I cannot get warm. My body convulses epileptically. Eventually I calm my shivering and my heart rate. Breathe deeply. Sleep never really comes. Hallucinagenic visions, tossing, turning, soreness everywhere. Somewhere, a rooster crows. Its morning but I don`t care. I cannot move from my bed. I feel horrible. Sick, weak, cluttered. Mike and Kelly take care of me. We play card games all day, drink water, sit in the sunshine. I feel a bit better by dinnertime. The soup helps my fever. We go to bed early and I sleep a bit, but we awake at 2:30am to catch the bus out of here.
This bus goes the opposite direction but ends up at the same place. The road is much better this way. I sleep through the worst of it. We arrive in Latacunga at 7am, groggy. My stomach hurts and my energy level is in the gutter. We catch a bus to Ambato. From Ambato to Guaranda. After about 8 hours of travel it is noon. We find a hotel on a bustling Saturday street. I throw my bag on one bed, throw my body on the other, and fall immediatly to sleep.
(Postscript: I am now feeling much better from my sickness, although I am still battling occasional stomach pain and diarrea. We are in Riobamba now and will be heading to Peru tomorrow. Our trip to Machu Picchu has been pushed forward due to various circumstances. Therefore, my next post will likely be from Cuzco. Ciao!)