I have to say, the last two weeks have seen more high profile celebrations than any other during my stay in Ecuador, and it's still a week to go to my birthday! The obvious reason for these joyous days was after almost five months of nothing but inconsideration, selfishness, and rudeness, to mention just a few faults, the family that I have been sharing the same roof with have finally left. As they said their last goodbyes, the relief on my face was more than evident, as no longer do I have to worry if the pot I’m cooking in has just been used as a vomit bucket, or about stepping my little white naked foot into a pile of children's feces.
Now they have left, I feel free to ask if it's normal for a thirty-three year old man to have his wife read to him every night until he falls asleep. Personally, I find such an idea slightly self-deprecating. Surely, the next step is to wear adult diapers? Their inconsiderateness was summed up in their last week here when they were shell shocked to learn the school, where they have been volunteering their services, wasn't prepared to pay $200 from their budget (for the children) to pay for their souvenirs to be sent back home, and then, to add insult to injury, they tried to steal the house phone.
Alongside the departure of old faces, a week's vacation was also undertaken to the south of the country, a place where I was hoping to participate in the eating of local delicacies such as horse, cat, and dog. After searching high and low for these tempting snacks, I've come to the conclusion such a boastful statement was nothing but a despicable lie, as my palate remained empty throughout my trip here. Only copious amounts of Mexican food stopped me from spiraling into depression.
To reach the first destination, a tiny village by the name of Vilcabamba, a beautifully luxurious sixteen-hour bus journey was needed, using the reliable bus company of Viajares Internacional, who took the racing line around every bend of the mountain roads as though racing F1 at Silverstone. The only comfort was knowing the avoidance of a head-on crash would only lead to a 300m drop down a sheer rock face to an almost certain death.
Unlike the last time I rode a night bus, this time around was a pretty uneventful affair, and I managed to sleep for the majority of the trip, awakening only once at the bus station in the city of Cuenca to see two people dressed like Laurel and Hardy taking a hard earned beating from the security guards on patrol. By the time dawn came around and I had risen from my slumber, the views on offer were nothing short of breathtaking.
In recent decades the village of Vilcabamba has gained the nickname 'The Valley of Longevity' and has become a honey pot for gringos, due to numerous claims of people living to the ripe old age of 135 years old, some even older. If you ask me, I think the locals have been snorting a little too much of the white stuff, not the cocaine variety found in both Peru and Columbia, but the less harmful hallucinogenic substance of cactus powder, found in abundance here. Due to it's position in the eyes of Ecuadorian Law and the reaction I got the one time I have hallucinated, on the prescribed malaria drug of larium, I decided to stay well clear of it.
A number of hikes were ventured upon here, to the nearby Cerro Mandango, Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve and Podocarpus National Park, which ended in being chased by a bull and, in the confusion, slipping down an embankment straight into a fresh pile of cow turd. But it was one of the joys that comes for free, the activity of people-watching that proved most entertaining, due to the villages eclectic international flavor. From obnoxious Scottish hikers to bragging Antarctic researchers, you certainly have the full spectrum here. Personal favorites included a gringo woman crawling on all fours and howling like a dog on the main square (obviously too much cactus powder!), creepy guys hitting on girls young enough to put them behind bars for life, and two guys dressed in the same Victorian clothes as those strange American cult religions. Even the policeman spent most of their time sitting on park benches eating ice cream and eying up the young foreigners walking past.
Nightlife here was also a strange spectacle. On Saturday evening, as the first star lit up the night sky, people from surrounding villages and towns arrived in the main square drinking a variety of high percentage alcohol. Instead of congregating together though to form one big evening fiesta, anti-social behavior was the order of play. Each group huddled together in the back of their brand spanking new pick-up trucks. At least 20 of these vehicles pumped up their stereos and rocked to hit classics like 'Hit Me Baby One More Time', not by the legendary baldie Britney Spears, but by the equally impressive Travis. Why would anyone choose to have the same haircut as Gary Glitter?
Following a few days spent in Vilcabamba and admiring old Incan faces carved into the surrounding rock faces, two quite uneventful days were spent in Loja, a town which seems happy to place its Alcohol Anonymous organization above the towns premiere nightspot, 'The Beer Factory'. Not the best pieces of judgment I have ever seen. One night in a hostel that seemed to double as hospital lodgings (Hostel Londres, Calle Sucre 07-51, Tel: 07/561936) was more than enough, and even the sights of the local zoo, highlights of which included having monkey poo thrown at me by the cheeky cretins themselves, having my hand snapped tight inside an ostrich's mouth (their reflexes were faster that I was expecting) and stroking a lonely giraffe wasn’t enough to prolong my stay here, plus I was highly allergic to something and I doubt my sanity would have held out for another day of constant sneezing.
After watching enough freshly squeezed, unpasteurized goats milk eagerly gulped down by the local inhabitants, it was time to move on, past ancient towns like Saraguro, full of indigenous Indians, where the Incan bloodline still runs strong and stuck in a pace of life from centuries past, arriving in the city of Cuenca a good six hours later. Still holding much of its colonial charm, Cuenca is deemed by many to be the country's most beautiful city and home to the world famous Panama hat, a fact not known by many people. Indeed some of the most famous Panama hat makers reside here including the voiceless Alberto Pulla, whose workshop is located on Calle Tarqui 6-91. Alberto has been making these posh accessories for over 70 years, and I had the pleasure of meeting him. For some reason, conversation wasn't really forthcoming.
If you are a religious nut and get highly turned on by copious amounts of colonial churches, such as the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and the churches of San Francisco, San Sebastian, and Santo Domingo, to name but a few, then Cuenca is for you. For me, after previous church encounters in Quito I didn't really get the buzz or the 'almighty forgiveness' I was wanting and found other local pleasures such as the old Inca ruins of Ingapirca, the stunning scenery of El Cajas National Park and the cities wide variety of museums like Museo del Banco Central far more interesting. Visiting the churches and getting past the huge number of cripples and homeless beggars living in the church doorways was more of a daunting task than I imagine avoiding Michael Barrymore's hotspots would have been in his heyday. I wonder if these poverty-stricken members of society have ever thought upon the unique idea of actually entering the church for a dose of praying and repenting, instead of surviving on a few measly cents and charity each day? I'm sure they have!
The week's traveling was over before it had begun and upon the return home with the prospect of returning to work, I drowned my sorrows by turning my weeks facial hair growth into something Hulk Hogan himself would have been proud of. Sadly my fiancée didn't share my enthusiasm for it. On my return back to school I’ve spent a good amount of time amusing the children (and myself!) by teaching them the rather easy lyrical song of 'Barmy Army', made famous throughout the world by England's traveling army of cricket fans. A few more practice sessions and they will be ready to perform before parents galore at the end of year performance spectacular.