- Tales from Ecuador 1977-78
It was always pleasant and exciting to begin a bus trip. We were usually going to a new area, with different expectations, and, if it was in the morning, our bodies and minds were as fresh as the sun-soaked air out the windows. We headed south out of Cuenca for the first time, through fields and pastures, dairy country. We paused briefly at a small town market where some people disembarked for a snack. One of the tasty treats was bits of pork fried in their own fat, all brown and crispy.
The road was hard-packed dirt and as we climbed out of the valley, the scenery was typical Ecuadorian Andes: precipices and cloud-wrapped peaks, mud-walled huts here and there with their thatched roofs, and fields of corn waving in rows on the steep slopes. As we traveled further, the land became more barren, with patches of scrub brush and little evidence of water. There were very few dwellings here. Down in the clefts and valleys that we viewed over the road’s edge, the land seemed more alive, the grasses greener and the growth thicker. We began to see black spots on the mountains where the brush had been burned away, presumably to prepare the ground for new growth.
We entered the town of Ona in the afternoon for a quick lunch, and purchased a cup of brown liquid called “coffee”. It had considerably more body than some of the other coffees we’d been served lately, as if it had been steeping on the back coals for several days. Outside the restaurant, there were women sitting in the shade near the street with selections of fruit layed out on cloths before their folded legs. We bought some guabas, a totally different item of food to us. The Ecuadorian method of consuming it was to break the hard green outer skin of the pod and extract the white fuzzy lumps inside. This softly fibrous mass, the guayabas’s meat, was sweet and juicy, and concealed a large, slippery black seed inside, which was discarded.
The bus continued on its way over the rising and falling road, and we began to see the Indians who inhabit the area around Saraguro. The men were distinguished by the short, black pants they wore that barely reached their knees. Their black hair was worn long and, on the older men, was topped by a thick felt hat with a very broad rim and a rounded top. The younger men tended to prefer a little sportier model of hat of a thinner felt. Many of the men carried with them a set of woven bags that resembled the leather saddle bags of cowboy renown, but were usually thrown over the shoulder rather that a horse’s hindquarters. The women dressed in a colorful blouse, a black skirt, and a black cape held closed with a long, dangerous-looking silver pin with an ornament on its end. They wore a mound of beads around their necks and a short-brimmed, white felt hat. We paused for several moments in the town of Saraguro, and some young boys invaded our bus, hawking the popular helados, or ice creams, which we found irresistible refreshment on such a hot and dusty bus ride.
In the afternoon we arrived in the town of Loja, a large city and the capital of the province of the same name. Loja attained some fame in the medical and botanical world in the early eighteenth century when it was discovered that the bark of a certain tree that grew in the jungles nearby, the cinchona tree, yielded a drug effective in combatting malaria. The drug was quinine and, for a time, supported an industry that consumed itself. The cinchona trees were cut down and stripped of their bark without regard for replanting or systematic cultivation. This was eventually accomplished in other parts of the world with the seedlings of parent trees from this area.
We obtained a room on the top floor in the Hotel Paris, deposited our packs, and went out to explore the town. Loja had paved streets and was one of the few cities that already had “agua potable”. Not surprisingly, it tasted much better than the boiled water of Gualaceo that we carried in our canteen. Looking down the narrow streets in the main shopping area, the space between the buildings was riddled with the signs that stuck out from the walls, identifying by name the assortment of shops and goods. Loja sported an unusually large number of book stores which we attributed to a sizeable population of students and better-educated people that a capital city might attract.
When we returned to our hotel in the evening, we were looking forward to a hot shower, since the establishment had advertised “agua caliente” as one of its finer attributes. It sounded great, a welcome change from our sponge baths with water heated on the camp stove. The bathroom and shower were in a drafty room down the hall from our own. The shower worked like this: the heater was a device attached to the shower head and activated by a switch on the wall. It seemed a little risky. The harder the water was turned on, the faster it came out of the heater, and the colder it was. The obvious solution was to dribble the water through for a lukewarm soaking and rely on shivering to keep from freezing.
We arose early the next morning, but had trouble finding an open restaurant. We finally did find one with “colonial” décor and American music emanating from the phonograph speakers. As we were leaving after a pleasant breakfast, an army band came marching past us down the street. Soon after came three truckloads of soldiers in their olive-drab uniforms and guns in their hands. They jumped down from the trucks and performed some exercises in the street before assembling in a double line. In unison, they attached bayonets to their gun barrels and raised the points in the air before them, and the band struck up a tune to which they all knew the words. This was accompanied by the measured raising of the Ecuadorian flag from the second story balcony of a nearby building. After the song was finished, they remounted their trucks and disappeared. We were unaware of the significance of all this until later in the day.
We took a taxi to the spot where buses departed for Vilcabamba. We had a two-hour wait, so amused ourselves by wandering further through Loja’s streets. We passed through a square where music was blaring from a loudspeaker, and a small crowd of people milled about. Along the side of the street bordering the square there was a row of vendors with boxes and bags full of sweet-tasting confections. Nearby were some Otavaleño Indians selling their usual woven goods. The Otavaleños are aggressive salespeople with a knack for the art of commerce. I had avoided photographing them because I would have felt obliged to buy an unnecessary poncho. However, there was a particularly colorful-looking woman near the weavings with a baby in her arms. I attempted a picture, but she turned and looked at me just as I’d snapped it. I pretended not to notice and strolled away, but very soon behind me came the man who had been sitting next to her and, probably at her instigation, demanded payment. We negotiated and settled on five sucs as reasonable compensation.
Further up the street was the beginning of stalls with cloth and plastic awnings. For a block or so, all of the booths had quantities of the same sweet treats that we’d seen earlier. The next section of booths was selling pots and pans, the next woven goods, and then clothes. Most unusual were two stalls selling charms and herbal medicines. The tables were hidden by boxes and bags of leaves, twigs, bark, branches, seeds and beads; there were feathers and the bodies and beaks of toucans and other brightly-colored birds; and there were little bones in bottles, and vials of potent-looking black fluids. Many of these were gathered from the forests of the oriente or Peru, and exuded the exotic atmosphere of their origin.
Down in the square, officials were shooting off rockets that exploded high in the air with retorts that thudded around the city streets and walls, and the music still blared piercingly. We finally discovered what all the celebration was about. Today was the 431st anniversary of the founding of the city of Loja by the Spanish in 1546.
We returned to the bus station and began the two hour trip to Vilcabamba. Along the way we passed a couple of billboards announcing that we were approaching the “Sacred Valley” or the “Valley of Longevity”, population 4600. Vilcabamba is world-famous as one of those few places on earth where the inhabitants tend to be very long-lived. It’s been host to a number of teams of doctors and aging specialists attempting to deduce the secret. We were deposited in the town square on our arrival, and checked into the only residencial that we could find. It looked fairly new. The owner proudly showed us his register book, and pointed out the different nations that had sent emissaries to visit there.
We wanted to buy some fresh food, and asked our host were the market was located. He took us to a gate and pointed up the road to some buildings where, he indicated, the market was held. He took the opportunity to point out an old woman sitting in the shade of a nearby building. “She’s 102”, he said. We were glad he told us, because we weren’t about to go asking every wrinkled man or woman how old they were.
Vilcabamba was a pretty and quiet place, a small town situated among the mountains rising in every direction. It was a warm day, and we went walking down a road that led out of town. Most of the vegetation was bushy, with some occasional trees. Small troops of brightly-colored birds flashed by the fences and over the fields. The sun was mostly hidden by a mottled mask of clouds, and the wind opened and closed occasional holes in the vapors that directed beams of light through to highlight fields or mountainsides. Once the light struck an isolated shower and spilled a rainbow over the town.
The next morning I went walking through the town and up a mountain canyon. Donkeys, a common beast of burden in this area, grazed on the steep sides of the mountain. I walked a meandering path through waving stalks of corn, and fields of stumps, recently burnt over. As the canyon narrowed, agriculture ceased, and the natural vegetation thickened and convinced me to turn back.
In the afternoon we walked again. The day was warm and there was an occasional light rain. Vilcabamba, with its dirt streets and wood, mud, and brick buildings, somewhat resembled what we’d imagine a town in the American “Old West” to look like. All it needed was a few horses standing about, and the ring of jingling spurs. We left town on a road in a different direction from the day before, passing more trees and thicker vegetation. We walked down near the river where there stood fields of sugar cane, and occasional banana trees. Multi-colored butterflies bobbed among the flowering plants and irrigation canals, and barbed wire marked the property boundaries or grazing limits of domestic animals. The trail dipped through shady cool patches of trees and plants, and up into scrub trees full of thorns. Our path ended at the river. Across the water was what appeared to be a park, with thatch-roofed huts, garden, and playground equipment. The sight prompted us to remember the signs we’d seen near town for a recreation area. As we walked back, we passed the site of what was to be a large building of brick and cement. Time marches on, even in the Sacred Valley. We slept that night with difficulty, for the day’s heat lingered on, and the buzzing mosquitoes came searching for sustenance.
I climbed a nearby peak the following day for a view of the valley. Much of the vegetation consisted of cactus and short trees with rather large thorns. On the lower part of the hills, there was a large amount of water running off in streams to join the river below, or be channeled for thirsty crops. I came across still more blackened areas that were destined as corn fields and cow pastures. High on the hill was a man, a woodcutter with a large stack of limbs that he would haul down for his own use, and the surplus to sell. I lost the trail after a while, but it was easy to see my destination, though not so simple to reach. Still, I noticed that some cow had always been there before me. From the peak I looked out across the mountain ridges, and at the town in the valley below. So why do people live so long in Vilcabamba? The air is clean and clear, and the country is quiet. It walks into the future, rather than riding full-throttle. I read somewhere that the secret of its life is in the water that bubbles from under the earth and rushes among the rocks, in the minerals it carries that strengthen and fortify the body. And I heard that the people really don’t know how old they are, they don’t keep those kinds of records. And I remembered that the white headstone in the cemetery only gave one date, that when death arrived. And I thought maybe the people live long in Vilcabamba because they love it so much, they can’t bear to leave.
We returned to Loja that afternoon and checked into a different and less expensive hotel. That partly explained why the shower was a simple pipe protruding from the wall. Our room had windows overlooking a street, down the center of which were the booths of the market vendors. Directly across the street was the building housing the Comedor Popular, or ”dining room of the people”. It was one long room inside with walls and floors of concrete. When you stepped out of the bright sun, it seemed very dark inside, and soon you noticed that the walls and ceiling were blackened from the cooking fires. Lining the walls were a series of sinks, tables, and benches corresponding to each cook’s territory. As we sat at a table, the sun slanted into our faces through the bars on the windows high on the wall, and reflected from the flies and the dust motes that floated like tiny balloons in the air. Before us sat a tray of hard-boiled eggs and fried fish. We ordered the soup of the day, which happened to be bean and plantain. A woman sat on the bench opposite us nursing her child. The old man next to us raved about the quality of the meriendas served there. We recalled that when we go into a restaurant, the people sometimes act as if we’re keeping them from doing something more important, as if they’d rather be drinking beer or watching television, which may be understandably so. But the people in the food stalls of the market or the Comedor Popular were often much friendlier. The food was less expensive and as good or better. The main difference was that in the market or Comedor Popular, the kitchen was in plain view, and dubious-looking cooking conditions revealed to all, while in the restaurants, the kitchen was hidden from casual observation. We seriously doubted the existence of a health department in charge of prepared foods in Ecuador.
We left for home in the morning rain, walking to the station with our packs. When the bus departed from Loja, it was about ¾ full. By the time we reached the outskirts of Cuenca, the vehicle was bulging with the passengers that we had picked up along the way. They were standing in the aisles along with their luggage of bags and boxes. The Ecuadorian police attempt to control bus transit, and disapprove of overloading. When starting any bus trip, everyone adds their name to a passenger list. There are police traffic control points throughout the country. The usual practice is for the bus conductor to put on his conductor’s hat, and carry the list to the small control building. At this point he often slips a tithe to the officer in charge to smooth the way. As we approached control on the outskirts of Cuenca, the conductor had to request that all those people standing in the aisle should please duck. They did until we had safely checked through. We disembarked in Cuenca and shouldered our heavy packs through the heat across town to make our last connection for Gualaceo.