Even with my fiancée suffering from another mystery illness, traveling, alongside nursing my fiancée back to health, was still a top priority. Such a situation meant for virtually the first time in Ecuador I had to embark on solo journeys, without my trusted 'dictionary with long hair' by my side. Well, that's what Ecuadorians nicely call it when the female of the species has the better Spanish.
Some of the lucky, well-behaved school children were in for a surprise this week: learning that, in a blatant act of generosity and charity from my fellow volunteers and me, they were about to venture into the unknown; a trip to Quito Zoo, widely touted as the best in the country. I fully understand that teachers shouldn't have favorites, but the thought of trying to control the 'wild disobedient' stallions of the education system, passing through the busy and dangerous capital, using nothing but the joys of public transport was a task even beyond my capabilities.
After a stressful day of controlling the excitable, energetic children, for once putting the priorities of other less fortunate people first (the selfish man that I am), everyone returned home safely. I wasn't best pleased at having dropped one child off at his rundown concrete abode, too young to cross the Panamericana by himself, that the last bus home had been missed. This left a beautiful 10km walk home, passing the blue-heart-painted tarmac, representing the numerous people who have lost their lives on this deadly road. In such a situation, as darkness was falling, positives need to be focused upon, which in this instance were the stunning postcard perfect sunsets over the Cotopaxi and Illiniza volcanoes.
A journey to the zoo with children, as to be expected, was full of amusing incidences. Children here in the Ecuadorian Sierra certainly mature faster and are exposed to the ways of the human world at a much earlier age. Never before have I known ten year old boys walk around checking out the rears and wolf whistling young ladies, old enough (in this part of the world) to be their mothers. There also seemed to be various blossoming relationships I was oblivious to before.
The variety of animals on show was slightly disappointing, two African lions—the highlight of a dominantly Ecuadorian affair—to fight off boredom attempted to participate in the ritual of mating. Sadly, the lioness didn't really share the male’s keenness for such strenuous exercise and fought off the advances of her partner with a roar and a snarl, much to the excitement of the children, who were getting a live biology lesson right before their very eyes. It seemed a good time was had by all and even the sight of a bus crash on the way home, where dead bodies were being placed without body bags into a mobile mortuary didn't seem to faze them. In fact they acted like such sights were seen every day.
Being on a field trip and in such a responsible position has certainly reiterated the fact it will be a few good years before I’m tempted to bring my own little creations into this self-destructing world. When the time is right though, I will be in the full knowledge that, for some strange reason, being all fatherly seems only to add to my feeble physical attraction with the opposite sex. I had more women trying to make eye contact with me than any other day here, although all under the watchful gaze of my beautiful fiancée.
The weekend should have seen the riding of a train from the capital, Quito, to the slopes of Cotopaxi volcano, where I live, or a 12-hour round-trip to San Rafael Falls, the largest waterfalls in Ecuador. Due to unforeseen occurrences, both opportunities failed to take place. The train is fully booked up until the end of July by schools treating their students for a hard years work. So much for it being a tourist train! The waterfalls proved to be too long a journey for a sick fiancée to undertake. Frustrated with the lack of activities, I returned home to vent my anger out on a football, which I kicked around, alone, all afternoon.
My saving grace from a weekend of non-activity was a last minute home invitation from the mother whose child I accompanied home after zoo shenanigans. I was slightly apprehensive at this offer as it is widely believed by senior members of the teaching staff that the mother is regularly raped by the father in front of their children. This could help explain the sometimes disturbing behavior portrayed by their three sons, one only the tender age of two. If true, what can you do in a situation like this? A mother not wanting police involvement and a father who would probably fail to testify already proves a big stumbling block. What would become of the children? Foster care? A children’s home? From what I have heard, neither of these opportunities sound like bettering their lives. It's a no-win situation for all involved, except possibly the father.
In the end, the chance of seeing a traditional side to Andean life proved too strong and I accepted this kind offer, arriving to the house early the morning after, fending off attacking dogs, chicken, and geese. Upon arriving, I found their two-year-old son, happily pottering around unaccompanied on the flat roof of the house. After politely sitting in the sparsely decorated living room and watching the feeding of various animals in adjacent buildings, the mother informed me that her eldest son would take me on a stroll to the beautifully haunted paramo, a sparsely vegetated region of Ecuador found at high altitude, normally windswept and bitterly cold.
Being led by an 11-year-old, I was expecting a nice relaxing walk. I couldn't have been more wrong. After stumbling through shoulder-length razor-sharp grass, the young lad decided more enthralling times would be had scaling down a near vertical cliff, clinging to tufts of grass in order not to fall. It took a lot of effort and concentration to make it to the bottom with my life intact! Once in the depths of the lush green gorge, waterfalls cascading down the hill, the path entered upon was deemed too dangerous and steep to use on the return leg, instead deciding to follow the river back towards the main road, where hopefully the gradient would allow an easier climb back to the trail.
This proved to be easier said than done, needing to make our own trails through the thick bush-like vegetation, crossing the river regularly, five meters below, on nothing but rotting tree branches. An hour later, the ordeal was over and all I had to show for this adventure were clothes caked in mud and sweat and the embarrassment of mistaking the sound of a hummingbird for the heavy breathing of an Andean Spectacled Bear who I thought was coming to end my pitiful existence. At this point, I think my student was in the belief he was in the presence of a right 'weapon'.
Such a workout left me with an appetite 'The Fridge' would have been proud of, but after arriving back at the family home and being given a plate of potatoes covered in a mountain of boiled pig skin, it was soon lost, even with bubble-gum flavored soda to help wash it down. Even with the strenuous work-out and dodgy food it was an interesting day. There were no signs of any wrong-doing here, although I doubt such events would take place right before my own very innocent eyes.