The last couple of weeks have been all about surprises and the main one for me, purely for selfish reasons, rotated around my 26th birthday. My fiancée was polite and well-mannered enough to arrange a whole weekend of secretive trips, including a scenic journey to some thermal baths and a trip to one of the most fanatically-supported football teams in Ecuador, arranged around two nights in luxury $5-a-night accommodation in the countries capital, Quito.
Quito is always full of interesting characters, and this weekend proved no different. From female thieves, dressed as prostitutes and working on the city's transport systems, luring unsuspecting passengers into scooping a quick glimpse of their cleavage while losing their money in the process, to US convicts sitting in Internet cafes, on a work-release program after five years behind bars, phoning random women from Myspace and in a thick New York accent conversing the F-word at least a dozen times a minute.
The thermal baths found in the tiny rural town of Papallacta, situated on the edge of the jungle involved catching a 6:30am bus, and from the ride to the bus station, I have come to the conclusion that the youths of Ecuador would be a match for anyone, even the alcoholic might of Finland. Even at this late hour of the night, the street corners are crowded with youths and eager security guards, clutching full bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey, gulping down mouthfuls of the brown liquor to keep them warm from the crisp morning air.
The journey to Papallacta, riding high through the paramo and sometimes snow-covered mountain passes was made to be a torturous affair thanks in part to the bus driver deciding to play the same song on repeat whose only words were a mere 'I'm f****** high, you'll f****** die'. It doesn't really bode well for instilling confidence.
Once at the thermal baths, my naked torso available for all to see—and down to a stroke of good fortune pot bellies are a current fashion trend, so I fitted in perfectly—jumping from the variety of pools on offer ranging in temperature from icy cold to scolding hot. There was even the chance to cool down in a nearby river, but at a height of 3250m above sea level, submerging yourself without feeling a loss of mobility and dizziness was impossible. Impossible for me, but for the women a good 50 years my senior there seemed to be no problems. It puts into perspective how mentally strong Ecuadorian women are. Cold temperatures followed by a night at the hands of a wife-beating husband is a life I don't particularly fancy leading!
While happily splashing around in the waters like a demented five year old for a good three hours, the thick blankets of mist and fog that clung to the surrounding hills had lured me into the false sense of security that any chance of skin damage from the harsh rays of the equatorial sun was ridiculous. I even laughed at some of the older guests, their faces plastered white with lotion. I who was the center of jokes as by evening time my body had turned an ugly shade of beetroot red, the excruciating combination of pain and itching stopping me from sleeping for two nights.
After an eventful evening of watching Kate Winslet's breasts in Little Children, some not so traditional English cheese and chips and partaking in a few games of darts in The Turtle Head, watched by a number of gawking Goths who found such a pub game highly engrossing, probably due to my fiancée having far more fun trying to throw the darts in my foot rather than the board, it was time for my second day of birthday themed activities, centering around a trip to the Liverpool of Ecuadorian football, LDU de Quito, who had the strenuous task of defeating the leagues whipping boys, Emelec Guayaquil.
Arriving at the Casa Blanca ground, luckily in the safety of a taxi’s back seat, I was treated to the sight of two Emelec fans taking an umbrella beating from a group of home supporters. Such a sight with no apparent police intervention probably wasn't the best thing to see when attending as a gringo, but after regular trips to Hinckley Athletic in my teenage years, such scenes left me unscathed.
If the lack of police support outside the ground was disturbing, watching the text message and ice cream eating behavior of the 'men in blue' inside was nothing short of unbelievable, allowing numerous supporters, some as young as five (where were the parents!) scale the ten-meter-high security fence and exchange in the throwing of missiles with opposition fans, and even the burning of opposition banners. Other fans decided that the banging away on their drums was much more an intimidating act of aggression. Sadly, one teeth-clenched hooligan, an Andy 'The Viking' Fordham look-alike lost all hints of menace while banging away on his drum and goading the away supporters, his free hand gripped tightly in the palm of his daughters, her pink Barbie rucksack placed firmly over his shoulder.
In a one-sided encounter, LDU de Quito after wasting numerous guilt-edged chances eventually ran out 1-0 winners, a well-deserved victory in my eyes. Not so to the players of Emelec, who decided to start a brawl at the end of the game with opposing players and officials, which had to be broken up by baton-wielding riot police. Such behavior would rarely be seen in European leagues, but here it seems a common occurrence of post-match activities.
My birthday was completed a few days later with a homemade cake and cookies and the pleasant news that that an old photo of mine had been chosen as the front cover design for the latest blockbuster release from Cambridge University Press, 'Damage to Memory'. Sadly, one of my fellow volunteers decided to emulate the late, great Mother Theresa by giving the majority of the cookies to the poor and needy infants at the day care center. I am sure such an act has put them back in contention for a promotion to glory when the time is nigh, and also allowed the children to learn a very valuable lesson in charity and giving, but the small selfish part of me can't help to be left feeling cheated after eating only six of the 40 cookies made for me.
Other highlights of the past fortnight included an outdoor bonfire, marshmallow, and box wine extravaganza to celebrate the departure of old volunteers. Our celebrating even attracted the attention of the local police, who dropped by to see what all the noise and mayhem was about. After shining a spotlight on the fiesta and seeing it was group of harmless gringos, they left without saying a word. The party proved to be a slightly premature occasion after realizing several days later that the departed had left little presents so not to be forgotten. These included a mouse infestation and a secretly hidden diarrhea-filled nappy in their room, which had filled the house with a beautiful aroma before eventually being found. Not the sort of behavior you would expect from volunteers approaching their 40th birthdays.
Teaching has been uneventful, the highlight of which was giving the homework of writing four words in English beginning with the letter ‘d’. One girl decided to choose the well-taught 'd' word of 'defile' as one of her four. As this was written between the words 'deficit' and 'definable', I have come to the conclusion it was copied straight from the dictionary. I hope so anyway! One morning, a school child arrived at my abode in a distressed state and collapsed on the floor, sobbing that his uncle had just died. The other female volunteers were far more professional than myself at dealing with the situation. All I could think of was making jokes, which I don’t think was the answer. The full story emerged a couple of days later. The poor kid, along with his brother had taken an innocent walk to visit their uncle, only to find him hanging from the rafters when getting there. This family has had a rough time recently; another child’s mother strangled an aunt to death as well. It puts into perspective the harsh lives that some local inhabitants are forced to lead.