When I think about Ecuador now, the memory comes in senses.
The smell of cuy popping and sizzling in an open-air market. The taste of fresh fruit eaten during a much-needed break from working. The constant sound of children, asking me for my name or my age or my shoes. The feel of a sudden downpour drenching your neck and back and then your face as you tilt it towards the clouds.
Ecuador is a colorful place, not only in its landscapes and food and fabrics, but in the faces of its people, who wear different skin and hair and clothes depending on whether they live in the mountains or the plains. I found that while the Spanish of the big city was easy to understand, the Spanish of the rural areas was faster and blurrier. That is, if they spoke Spanish at all. Some places they speak only indigenous languages; some places stay hidden.
I was in Ecuador to build houses as part of a short-term project with Habitat for Humanity. I was part of a team of 13 people – American, British, and Australian – who had come to Ecuador to seek self-sacrifice, or personal change, or life experience. We worked hard, mixing concrete, building wooden forms, laying brick in the achingly humid heat of Ecuador’s rainy season.
On weekends off we rested and recovered, or, if we felt brave enough, sought out an adventure in Ecuador’s tapestry of landscapes. I remember body surfing in the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean. I remember wandering the winding streets of Quito, listening to street musicians and drifting through parks selling local art and food. I remember salsa dancing by the stars because it was still too hot to sleep. And I remember Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi is a 19,000 foot volcano just south of Quito that has been inactive long enough for a glacier to form across the mountain’s summit. It is a paradox: this volcano covered in ice. Cotopaxi looms over Quito like a sentinel, omnipresent and powerful. We had to set out early in the morning to have enough time to climb Cotopaxi. Three of us hired a local guide, Pedro, who loaded us into his jeep and drove us to the base camp in the foothills of the mountains. Then, we ascended the mountain the only way possible, one foot in front of the other. As our elevation increased, the temperature dropped, and by the time we reached the little rest lodge at 14,000 feet, the world was white with swirling snow. We stopped to warm up with soup that Pedro had prepared for us before continuing up another 1000 feet onto the glacier.
Ecuador lies on the equator, so the top of this mountain was the closest I will ever be to the sun. In so many ways, those few minutes of quiet tiny breaths on Cotopaxi’s peak were the top of the world.
Later, while traveling from Quito to the Cloud Forest to spend a few days volunteering at a bio-reserve in the middle of the jungle, I got robbed. I lost my camera, my CDs and portable CD player, and my wallet (containing a hefty amount of cash). My teammate Rich and I had taken a public bus, and since there was no stop for the Bellavista bio-reserve, we simply showed the driver a spot on the map to pull over to let us off. As the bus drove away, leaving us on the side of the mountain road, we discovered our missing belongings. The moment felt alternately hilarious and heart-breaking, like it was the worst turn of events and the thing we needed most all at once.
We went over the events in our heads the whole 12 kilometer hike to where Bellavista sits, nestled at the top of a rolling valley. The Cloud Forest is a magical place, worth every penny I spent and lost getting there. Abundant with hummingbirds and exotic flowers, shrouded in mist, it is green and wet and wild. After the robbing, we only had enough money left to pay a fraction of the cost of our stay, but the manager was generous and sympathetic and let us stay anyway.
When I returned to the States a few weeks later – exhausted, changed – I realized I was unable to share my experience with people. Partly because all my photographs were gone – me triumphantly summiting a glacier, an ancient church overlooking Quito, the last wall of our first build going up – and partly because those kind of experiences cannot be sufficiently transmitted through language.
In the end, those memories live only in my senses, those experiences only in the pieces of my heart that changed during my journey. I cannot even be sure things happened as I remember them to have happened, and in that sense, they could not be more real to me.
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