Condors and Reunions

There is something strange about Port Townsendites. The town has ten-thousand people on a good summer day. Surrounded on three sides by water and on one side by mountains, it is, in effect, an island. There is almost nothing for young people to do there. There are only three or four bars and some of these close before midnight on weekdays. It is a cultural and social doldrum (sorry folks, its the truth). However, for some mystical reason that is impossible to explain, the bonds that are formed there are stronger than any on the planet. Wherever we are, us Port Townsendites, we congregate. Suddenly, there are five of us. Inside jokes, nastalgia, age old gossip. I`m the fifth wheel on a two-couple bus, which means that I`m free to rotate any direction I want.

I have dinner with Mike and Kelly the night they arrive. We go out to a place that serves wood-fire pizzas and excellent salads, a rarity in Ecuador. We split a liter of sweet red wine. We talk about plans for the next few days in Otavalo and then for the next month we will be traveling together.
“We were thinking about doing the Quilatoa loop,” says Mike.
“Sounds good,” I reply.
“Then we thought we might go to the Inca ruins at Ingapurca.”
“Sounds good.”
“Then maybe Cuenca on our way to Guayaquil.”
“Sounds good.”
“Anything else you wanted to do?”
“No. Sounds good.”
The salad is amazing and the wine compliments the pizza very nicely. I am already a little toasted by the time we return to their hotel. Giggles and made-up words and excited conversation.

At the hotel we find that Tyler and Nuria have arrived while we were eating. It is about 8pm. They want to go out to dinner. Mike and Kelly, being tired from a day of travel and slightly wine-drunk, decide to call it a night. I, on the other hand, have no reason not to go out to a second dinner. So, approximately fifteen minutes after leaving, I return to the same restaurant with a different couple, sit at the same table, order another liter of red wine. The waiter gives me a funny look. I have a salad and make jokes the whole time. The other patrons give me annoyed looks. Tyler and Nuria tell me they`ve missed me. I`ve missed them too. We talk away the night in wine-stained voices, content.

The next day I wake up throbbing. Chug water. Take Advil. Shower, brush teeth, eat breakfast, lie back down. We decided last night to meet at 10 am. I wait till 9:57 to leave my house. Mike and Kelly have gone to check out the Saturday market. Tyler and Nuria have their windows boarded up like there is going to be a hurricane. Not a thread of light penetrates their room, at least not until I open the shutters. Groans, things flung at me from occupied bed, swearing. I wait for them in a hammock downstairs, reading, swaying in the sunlight.

When Mike and Kelly return and Tyler and Nuria have risen, we all go out to lunch. There is a tiny little feller running around with a pink water balloon in his hand. He fakes like he`s going to throw it at Tyler, but doesn`t follow through. He is the owners son celebrating Carnaval. When we are done with lunch and head out to the street the kid is waiting. Tyler tells him to throw the balloon at me. He tries to do so but I block it with my hand and it bounces back at him and explodes between his feet. Somehow Tyler seems to have procured a balloon of his own and now carries it in his left hand as we meander through the streets. I am on constant guard. He is waiting for the perfect target.

We go to my house where I change into some lighter pants and tell my family that we´re going for a hike to Parque Condor. I tell my “brother” Jorge to come out onto the porch. Tyler is waiting. The balloon ruptures upon impact and leaves a giant wet spot on his pants. He is a good sport though, laughs it off, tells me he will get his revenge. Narrow eyes and long, flat mouth.

Tyler decides not to come to Parque Condor, so the four of us hike up steep dirt roads through Eucalyptus forrests in what we think is the right direction. We pass fields of rusty corn, spider webs with struggling butterflies, snarling dogs, cows. It takes us about 45 minutes to reach the Parque and we take all the right shortcuts. When we arrive we are told by a woman with a comically deep voice that it costs $3.50 to enter. I ask if they have any condors. She says they have three. “So its a dollar per condor?” I ask.

The cages are torturingly small, the birds amazingly big. Sadness and pity mixes with awe. I talk about taking my knife out and cutting the fencing. Its only twine after all. I`m half serious. There are other birds besides condors: hawks, eagles, kestrels, owls. There is even a bald eagle. Our proud national symbol is tied to a length of pipe with a strip of leather. He can move back and forth along the length of pipe, which is about six feet long. Its like a dog wire, only this is an eagle. The condors are the most impressive of all. Not only are their wings and feathers enormous, their bodies are bulky, massive. The strength and grandeur of these animals is easy to see even through the black fencing of the cage.

The next day, Sunday, I wake up at 5:30am. I walk down to the hostal in darkness. Dogs attack me in the street. I scream at them and kick them away. I`ll take the other way from now on. My companions are ready when I arrive. We catch a taxi in the closest plaza, stop at a panaderia (bekery) on the way out of town, the only thing open. Cheese empanadas and sweet rolls for breakfast. I sit in the front, my knees rubbing against the dashboard and the other four are crammed in the back. It takes us about fifteen minutes to get to the hotel at the edge of the Laguna Cuicocha. The sun is just rising, casting ropes of light through the dispersing clouds that illuminate the islands in the center of the lake. Everything is quiet, still, but that doesn`t last long. We hear movement inside the closed hotel, which, I think, is a result of my loud voice. I probably woke everyone up by stretching my lungs with ferocious yawns. However, it works to our advantage because we are not really sure where the trail starts. A head sticks out a nearby window. The man tells us that we can circle the lake in either direction but that it is better to go counter-clockwise because the trail is less difficult going this direction. Apparently, this reguires us to hike on a road for about fifteen minutes before actually reaching the trail. No problem. We climb the nearby hillside and stroll up the road. Hard brown earth, drainage ditches, cows, sunshine, the smell of dung.

45 minutes later Tyler is pissed off.
“We`re missing all the good light and for all we know we could have passed the trail already.”
“Three people have told us that we need to go further,” replies Nuria, brushing back her hair with her hand as she walks.
“No. Only one person has actually told us that it is further up. The guy at the hotel said fifteen minutes and the other guy said we`d be there by now.”
“Tyler! Cut out the negativity,” say Nuria.
“I mean it could be this,” he flaps his hand towards a tiny path behind a barbed wire fence that leads through a cow pasture.
“It says in the guide book that it is well marked,” I say.
He doesn`t say anything but flaps his hand at every trodden piece of dirt we pass. The sun bakes our necks. It is a gorgeous day, but we can`t see the lake.

It is another fifteen minutes before we reach the trail, which is well marked with multiple signs, and we are immediatly treated to a gorgeous view of Laguna Cuicoha. Laguna Cuicocha is a crater lake with two islands in the center. The water itself looks like a giant topaz donut. The islands and surrounding crater rim are a lush green. The trail follows the rim for about 8km of ups and downs as it circles the lake.

Two giant condors emerge from the verdant gorge in front of us. Their black and white markings indicate that they are mature birds, at least nine years old. They never flap, never even move their wings as they soar above the azure background. We never got a chance to see the birds fly at the Parque Condor. Judging from how enormous they were, I was skeptical that they could fly at all, but now, seeing their graceful and effortless movements I am overwhelmed by the beauty of these creatures.

As we hike, Tyler relates his most recent dream to us. The story goes on and on, and we are all amazed by how well he remembers it. He says it is one of the most vivid and memorable dreams he has ever had. The story is too complex and psychotic to describe fully, but it involves a Chilean warship, a rotting pork chop, an imminent German attack, an espionage mission, the Monroe St. hill in Port Townsend, Quito, and countless other insane details. He tells us he feels like he has been up all night.

We reach a small gazebo perched on a hillside about halfway around the lake. We stop for lunch. Croissants, mayonaise, tuna, hard boiled eggs, apples, water. The mayo squeezes out the bottom of the croissant as I bite into it. Oh yes! It tastes so good. We discuss the redundancy of putting mayo on the eggs, do it anyway. The sun is higher in the sky. We can see the hotel where we started on the opposite side of the lake. Boats look like water-beetles as they scoot around the islands. We continue hiking.

We begin passing people going the other direction on the trail. There are many gringos as well as Ecuadorians. We are descending now and I`m glad for it. We pass a group of gringos sitting on a bench beside the trail. On of them, a pale, blonde woman, is hunched over crying. A bandana is wrapped around her knee. She has friends around her and they say nothing to us as we stroll by. I wonder if we should stop but she seems to have enough help if she needs it.

Tyler and I begin a conversation that takes us the rest of the way down.
“Bringing Griffey back? Great move. Excellent move,” I say.
“Horrible move. Horrible. He`s not going to do anything for `em. He`s washed up.”
“Not only will he bring power to the line-up, he will also unite the team and provide leadership.”
“18 homers last year. 18. Thats not power.”
“Whatever, he`s a leader.”
“I mean it was a great business decision. It`ll bring people into the stands.”
“Yeah. And he can have an impact on the team too.”
“When has a washed up player ever done anything in baseball.”
“The Big Unit in Arizona.”
“Not washed up. At the end of his peak.”
“Ok. Shilling in Boston.”
“Same story. At the end of his peak.”
“Well, what`s washed up then?”
“18 homers.”

The argument deteriorates quickly, but we don`t care. We reach the end of the trail about ten minutes before we told the cab to pick us up. The area around the hotel, which was silent and empty when we arrived, is absolutely packed with people. There are booths that contain all the same items you can buy at Saturday market in Otavalo. Hats, bright jewelry, striped pants, incense. It is Sunday of Carnaval. There are two more days of celebration to go. So far, we have not seen much craziness. A few water balloons, some soapy foam being sprayed from aerosol cans. Nothing to get all worked up about. That, however, is about to change.

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