At the Cascada de Peguche on the outskirts of Otavalo, people swarmed everywhere along the foot-polished trails; they scrambled over the worn-down rocks edging the big pool and stood triumphantly with upraised arms in front of the waterfall to be photographed; they jammed the wooden bridges. The place seethed with humans, or so it seemed to me. Perhaps I'm too used to places where another person or two comprises a crowd. I tried to look past the crowd, to see the falls, and for a moment saw something incessant, inexorable, something still unaffected, that might outlast us or, if eventually destroyed, would disappear without surrendering. For the moment, the water still keeps falling, even in the dead of night in the middle of the week when the people, presumably, have gone.
But then the crowd reappeared and I turned away, looking towards a tangle of dusty vegetation where a few butterflies flitted about. I'd noted long, orange-yellow flowers, and turned to Sandra.
"I'd have expected to see hummingbirds around those flowers," I said. I'd hardly finished speaking when a tiny bird, hardly bigger than a bumblebee, shot past and disappeared into the tangle of foliage. We watched intently for a few minutes until the hummingbird reappeared. It hovered, darted, hovered again, then shot up over the canopy and disappeared somewhere into the other side. I had no idea what species it was, but the delight of watching it fly, of seeing something so intensely alive gave me a little hope. One of the things I love about birds is the way they so often either ignore us (within the limits of safety) or regard us as an opportunity to be exploited — in short, they live largely on their terms, not ours. The little hummingbird at Peguche exemplified this perfectly.
Near the entrance to the main trail, youths kicked a football around; fires burned down, perhaps readying themselves for the evening's grilling; large tents occupied spaces between the trees; dogs wandered around, sniffing hopefully. Smoke drifted across a line of stalls packed with colourful souvenirs. We walked on, stopping to look at a small black pig tethered by a much twisted rope knotted around its middle. It tossed aside a disintegrating board with its snout, but in that dry and dusty yard the chance of finding anything edible seemed remote. On the other side of the yard a small, scruffy sheep, also tethered, gnawed at a few dust-smothered weeds. Then, incongruously, a beautiful, lithe grey cat stepped out onto the cobbled road, crossed it and slipped through a high, iron gate. I went over to say hello but in a manner suited to its bearing the cat ignored me and strolled further into the yard. I didn't mind the snub.
Further on, we passed a long, open food stall — little more than a back wall, one end and a roof, sheltering a collection of simple tables and a cooking area where a middle-aged, weathered woman worked at an enormous pot.
An old lady sat eating at a nearby table and looking out at the passersby from the elevated terrace on which the stall stood. I smiled; she smiled back and waved. On the spur of the moment I started walking over, realising as I did that I had no idea what I'd say, other than "Buenas tardes".
When I got closer I saw a black and white cat under the table, at her feet. Without thinking, I pointed and said "El gato," and the cat immediately rose and came to the edge of the terrace to bump against my hand. I rubbed its neck and head with my knuckles, trying not to think too hard about what I might be catching and consoling myself with the thought it probably would be nothing worse than something a fungicide would clear up in short order. The old woman was grinning; so was the woman at the pot.
"Bonito," I said, indicating the cat and hoping it was the right word.
They seemed to appreciate it; I said goodbye and left them laughing, but I needed no knowledge of Spanish to understand the good humour.
On the bus back to Quito I tried to ignore the sporadic stench of some kind of solvent and the hideously awful movie on the screen at the front of the bus — a film seemingly about little more than steroid-poisoned men smashing each other into bloody pulp in variations on cage fighting — and instead looked out the window at the real lives going on in the late afternoon. The pigs in yards; the tom turkey displaying hopefully and futilely to an oblivious chook; a child running with a couple of dogs to a small stream at the bottom of a sloping paddock partly obscured by wild vegetation. What was the child feeling? The freedom of running in a half wild place, perhaps? The delight of being released temporarily from homework and chores? Maybe, without knowing it, the child was simply enjoying the freedom of not knowing enough about the wider world to be trapped into coveting it?
Later, I saw huge earth-moving machines with work-polished blades devouring the mountainsides, widening roads, straightening corners, improving bridges — gnawing at the Andes — and I felt momentarily overwhelmed by the relentless, inexorable destructiveness of human beings. The bus drove on into the evening and the lowering sun threw a longer, warmer light. On the side of the road I saw striations in the soft earth — the marks of the blade of a massive digger. A swirl of wind, and sand fills the marks a little more; the glancing evening sun accentuates the textures — the raw, brash marks of the machine; the fine, dusty texture of the sand slowly hiding those human-made marks. In the distance, the white cone of a volcano; here, the deep valley with its swift, turbulent river churning far below. A sere, arid landscape of steep mountainsides thorny shrubs, cacti, dust and the long, deep shadows of evening.
The bus drives on, taking us back to Quito, but to what future?
1. The Cascada de Peguche.
2. In the Otavalo market later in the day, when the crowd had thinned.
3. The view from my room one evening. The mountains appear smaller in the photo.
4. Same view, telephoto; this (I think) is one of the routes to Rucu Pichincha (not the usual one, which starts from the top of the teleférico).
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor