Four Days of Paradise

Returning to Ecuador feels like coming home. Bus attendents loudly repeat destinations and ask us where we are going as we stroll through the terminal with our enormous backpacks. Really, it is more mall than terminal. The number of individuals actually catching busses is far smaller than the number of bag totting shoppers. They go from food court to shoe store to sunglass kiosk, rushing their children along in front of them. We build a fortress of backpacks around our table, eat fried chicken and play cribbage to pass the time. The overnight bus to Vilcabamba leaves in eight hours. Tight jeans and high heels contrast our stained fleece sweaters. Running my hands through my hair, I can feel travel grime on every strand. We board the bus at 10:30pm. Reclining makes my knees dig into the next seat, but the angle of my neck is comfortable enough that I have no trouble falling asleep.

Landslides slow our progress. We are stationary for long stints while front loaders push the sloppy dirt off the roadway. Still, we make it to the tiny town of Vilcabamba by 7:00am and catch a camioneta to the hostal, Izhcayluma, in time for watermelon, pinapple, yogurt, granola, toast and fried eggs for breakfast. Napping occupies the rest of the morning. I lounge in one of the hammocks on the patio behind our room. Gentle warmth from an obscured sun calms my sore muscles. True relaxation feels absolutely amazing after two weeks of tiresome travel and hiking. I am content to let my shadow swing slowly back and forth over the red pavers as morning turns to
afternoon.

There is a ping-pong table. Mike and I send spikes bouncing into the lawn behind. We have no agenda, no goals, no idea how to spend our time. Food occupies us for at least a few hours each day. The hostal is home to an excellent restaurant that specializes in German food. The meals are enormous, rich, inexpensive. I fall in love with the spicy red sauce that covers the tender beef of the goulash. Mike can´t stop talking about the Bavarian stroganoff, all cream and mushrooms covering handmade spatzle. Fresh salads accompany everything. Our pregnant tummies drag us deep into the pillows and we sleep as if the heavy flavors and steaming smells have put us into a trance, a coma.

Legs get used to walking if you do it every day. Mine are shaking with desire for a hike. The Mandango Loop brings us to a weathered cross at the top of a wide column of conglomerate. From here we can see every terra-cotta roof in town, every flowering tree in the green valleys, every brown strip of collapsed earth on the hillsides. During the descent, there are places where the trail has been washed into the river. We splash through eddies, avoiding spikey branches that reach for our shoulders. Sunburns, bug bites, weight gain; these are the biggest worries we have.

The three of us, being unaccustomed to such an easy going lifestyle, create pointless arguments just to feel normal. “Well, I mean, you obviously got more wine than I did.”
“Whatever, my first glass was smaller than yours.”
“Yeah, but not by that much.”
“Easily that much, I would say you`re getting more than me in the end.”
“That`s just rediculous. I mean look at your glass.”
“I am looking.”
“Well, obviously you`re not seeing.”
“Oh I`m seeing, you`re just no remembering correctly.”
“Yes I am.”
“No you`re not.”
“I`ll break this bottle and stab you.”
“Now you`re just trying to change the subject.”
The arguments invariably end with imaginative death threats and, as a result, heaps and heaps of laughter. Kelly almost squirts red wine out her nose. My eyes are watering. The stoic German diners stare at the rude Americans. The Austrian bartender chuckles.

Our next day-hike ends in failure. After about an hour and a half of hiking, we take our standard thirty-minute detour, this time into someone`s back yard. There doesn`t seem to be a trail. Eventually we find a dot of orange spray paint that marks the path along a concrete waterway. Soon however, the trail disappears again and we are left standing in a field of waist-high grass. Was that a rattlesnake I heard? We return to the road, beaten and hungry. The spot we were looking for, the confluence of two rivers, lies somewhere in the basin where two enormous valleys meet. We know it is there, but we no longer have the energy, nor the desire, to find it. Instead, we are content to drink pinapple batidos–milkshakes–and argue about whether or not Jim Carrey ushered in a new genre of comedy.

When I was leaving for Ecuador, I made sure to limit my expectations. I arrived with a single goal: to have fun. I didn`t want to begin a trip with the idea that I was going to accomplish all sorts of amazing things, or that I would have an epiphany about myself. I felt like this would ruin the simple enjoyment of the journey. Now, I have experienced more than even my supressed ambitions could have hoped for. But, with these four wonderful days at Vilcabamba, my single concious goal has been met and left behind, so that now it remains only in the background of a scene filled with rich tastes, sweet smells and the sound of laughter.

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