26 August 2011

The summit of Rucu Pichincha

Near the summit of Rucu Pichincha, after the hard, slow slog up the soft sandy ash scree — each step a fight to stop from slipping back — I reach solid ground and the walking becomes easier. The man a little way ahead leans on his poles, then heads left, but to the right, splashes of paint suggest a marked route. A small cairn confirms the way, and even if leftwards might be easier, this crosses solid steep rock — apparently not difficult or dangerous, but enough to provide the feeling of active climbing rather than mindless trudging. The route veers across the face, towards the ridge, and as I approach the edge, the feeling of height grows; the land seems to fold away, leaving me closer to sky and swirling cloud. Here the rock steepens, requiring hands as well as feet, and the feeling of easy climbing on sound rock on a high mountain delights me, bringing back memories of the Otira Face of Rolleston years ago with Jono. Different worlds, similar emotions.

Sunlight breaks through the cloud, warming my back. A sudden shadow passes over; I look up and there, only a few metres away, a bird — a raptor of some kind — slips sideways in the air, looks down at me and sails out of sight beyond the summit ridge. In this barren place of dry rock and sandy ash, to see something so alive seems both incongruous and an unqualified joy. What was this bird doing, sailing so close, apparently checking me out? I can't resist the thought that it was waiting for me to fall or just checking to see whether I was dead enough to eat, although this is clearly ridiculous. Later, when I've identified it as probably being a juvenile northern crested caracara (I see two unmistakeable adults later, from the summit), I decide it's probably checking to see if I've discarded anything edible (I haven't, and don't).

A short section of steep rock with enormous holds, then the summit — almost an anticlimax, with its enormous "Bienvenidos" sign, graffitied, lumpy boulders and earth packed hard by the feet of thousands of visitors. The man with his walking poles has just arrived and is already sitting, looking slightly  flushed, with his daypack resting nearby. He removes his large watch, checks it, makes some adjustments, then gets up and hangs it on one of the splintered poles holding up the welcome sign. He wanders off, returns, photographs himself with his phone. I glance across at his pack and notice his Teleferico ticket lying loose on the ground.
"Su tarjeta?" I say, pointing.
He exclaims and rushes over before it blows away. As it turns out, the ticket isn't necessary for the descent, but I don't know that, and judging from his reaction, nor does he.

I drink water and wander around, eating a banana and packing the peel away carefully in my bag, not wishing to add to the orange peel  and other reminders of how many people visit this summit each weekend. Another man arrives and sits a little way off. We've passed each other a couple of times — he taking the slow and steady approach, me the not-quite-as-slow but stop-and-photograph approach. We've exchanged a few words and smiles of acknowledgement, and already he seems curiously like someone I know, someone who could become a friend if my Spanish were much better. Even in his positioning himself at a little distance he seems to share something of my own preference for visiting these places either with good friends or alone.

The latter, however is not an option today. After 15–20 minutes and a few photographs, I hear someone talking below; shortly afterwards a man in his twenties arrives, ebullient with success. He starts calling out instructions and encouragement in English to his friends below, pointing out the easy way up, congratulating them on their accomplishment when they arrive bent over and puffing. Further down the slope, groups of people plod slowly upwards.  Cloud swirls overhead and sends wisps trailing over the pass between Rucu Pichincha and the nearby summit; patches of sunlight race over the páramo between Rucu and the fractionally higher Guagua Pichincha. My hands have begun to chill and the relative solitude of the summit has vanished like the caracara — now only a memory. I sling my bag over my shoulder, put my hands in the pockets of my jacket and start down the mountain.

1. Rucu Pichincha is an extinct volcano near Quito, Ecuador. The usual route is to take the Teleférico (gondola) from the outskirts of the city to the páramo grasslands at 4100 m, then follow the very well-worn trail to the summit at 4696 m. While the power pylons, occasional trail bikes and crowds mean the route feels only marginally like a true mountain environment, the weather's a different matter, and visitors should go prepared for anything.

1. Rucu Pichincha from the lower part of the trail.
2. Mike and Serena enjoy the Avenue of Volcanoes from the top of the Teleférico.
3. One of the Bar-winged Cinclodes we watched foraging near the rent-a-horse place.
4. The summit of Rucu Pichincha.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

17 August 2011

On the bus from Otavalo

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

15 August 2011

The first hummingbird

Outside the El Colibri cafe last Sunday I took a deep breath and walked in, through the tree-shaded courtyard where apparently one could watch the hummingbirds (hence the name: el colibri, the hummingbird) and into the pleasantly cool main seating area. At the counter I explained in Spanish that I didn't speak Spanish; the attempt must have worked because the waitress said no more and slid a menu across to me. At least I understood most of the components of the dishes, so I eventually ordered a vegetarian tortilla and mineral water. The waitress said something I had no hope of understanding.
"No entiendo," I said.
"Sit down," she said, carefully. I assume her English was as rudimentary as my Spanish.

I found a little wooden table under the trees and sipped the water, glad I'd chosen the most effective form of rehydrating. A Great thrush, strikingly similar to the blackbirds I know so well, flew across the courtyard; an Eared dove padded about on the ground. Above me, a small, unidentifiable bird flitted through the foliage of a broad-leaved tree and somewhere else a bird made a sound like two stones being struck together.
"Dondé estan los colibries?" I thought, trying not to translate it into English but understand it directly. "Where are the hummingbirds?"

Still, even if they'd preferred somewhere else, this was a lovely spot —quiet, attractive, with birds clearly used to the close proximity of humans, and with enough trees to diminish the sense of being in a large city.

Another small bird flew across beneath the canopy and settled on a twig. This one, however, wasn't unidentifiable; on the contrary, as soon as I saw the long bill, the posture as it sat upright on the twig, and noted how small it seemed, I knew I was looking at the first hummingbird I'd ever seen. Un colibri at El Colibri, I thought. I watched, fascinated. I couldn't see the colours clearly because I was looking up and the bright sky, even broken up by the leaves, made the shadowed bird difficult to see. But as I watched, I saw it calling and realised this was the bird making the two-stones call. Later, after having enjoyed seeing it in better light and having consulted The Birds of Ecuador, I felt confident identifying it as a Sparkling violetear, and the persistent and potentially annoying "tik tik tik ..." call confirmed the identification.

I sat there, savouring my tortilla and drinking my agua con gas on a quiet Sunday afternoon with a mild breeze on a warm afternoon in the leaf-filtered sunlight, watching the pair of Great thrushes, the Eared doves, the Rufous-collared sparrows, and the little Sparkling violetear, and I thought, this place is idyllic.

When the waitress cleared my table I said, "Me gusta," then "Me encanta los colibries" — I love the hummingbirds.
"Ah!" she said, and thought for a few moments. "Is beautiful."

I couldn't have agreed more.

Photo: A poor photo, but the best I can do for the moment. The problem at El Colibri is that I'm trying to photograph from beneath the bird, with a bright sky in the background. Fill flash might be a solution, but would draw attention to me (not something I'm keen on in Quito) and in any case I have only the little built-in pop-up flash on the GH1 (a definite failing of this camera, which has no capability for off-camera flash, thus greatly constraining macro photography).

Update, 19 April 2012: I've posted a slightly better, larger photograph on the photoblog.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

09 August 2011

Pohangina valley, Aotearoa, to Quito, Ecuador

Last Tuesday I caught a bus from Palmerston North to Auckland  — eight hours through the centre of the North Island, arriving after dark on the first stage of a journey that will return me four and a half months later to the country in which I've lived most of my life. Late on Wednesday afternoon I flew out of Auckland; eighteen hours later I landed in Quito, Ecuador.

My first priority is to improve my rudimentary facility with Spanish; the second..., well, I don't have a second, but if I had a list of priorities, seeing a hummingbird for the first time would be high on it — in fact, so would seeing some of the birds and other wildlife for which Ecuador and South America are famous. Some of that wildlife, like certain spiders, I intend appreciating from a comfortable distance but, perhaps surprisingly, snakes don't bother me — I love them (although I'd draw the line at sharing my tent with an eyelash viper).

Other priorities? Mountains, of course, although my engagement with them will be limited to trekking, possibly a non-technical climb or two, and of course simply appreciating them. When I eventually get to Patagonia I'll do my best to see Cerro Torre — to my mind arguably the greatest mountain on Earth: Reinhold Messner aptly described it as "A shriek turned to stone". However, I'm resigned to the possibility I might be as unlucky as one party who camped near Cerro Torre for a fortnight and never saw it once: Patagonian weather is infamous. Still, since I intend spending most of November in Patagonia, I'll have the time to give a sighting of Cerro Torre my best shot.

But I've leaped from the start of the journey to near its end — although who's to say when a journey begins and ends? So, back to the start. For the first three weeks I'm in Ecuador, I'm at a language school. On my weekends off, I'll be finding my feet and employing them doing short exploratory trips. In fact, on just my third full day here, and still not completely recovered from the debilitating flight nor fully adapted to Quito's altitude (about 2800 m), I visited the lovely little town of Mindo in the cloud forest, a couple of hours' bus journey from here. I'd been lucky to tag along with a couple of students from here; Shannon had spent a year in Spain and therefore spoke fairly competent Spanish (from my perspective, she was fluent), so I avoided the hard work of interpreting signs and attempting to make myself understood (more to the point, I avoided the near impossibility of understanding the replies). A great day with excellent company, and although I didn't make the most of Mindo's great reputation for birds, I'm sure I'll be back.

Now, the jet lag's gone, as have the sporadic but intense headaches (I'd have said they were mind-numbing but they were just the opposite) and today's four-hour lesson proved less challenging than the first two. I even had the faint but highly encouraging feeling that the language was becoming familiar; that even if I got it wrong, I might be roughly right. Doubtless I'll have days when I feel I'm going backwards, but for me the biggest form of encouragement when I'm trying to learn is the feeling that I am in fact learning, moving towards a goal, becoming more proficient.

More updates will follow, although I won't promise they'll be regular, and from time to time I'll post a photo on The Ruins of the Moment (they, too, are unlikely to be up to what I trust is the usual standard, given the shortcomings of this little netbook). To keep you keen, the next post  — when I manage it — will be about the first hummingbird. Whether I can manage a usable photo remains less certain.

Hasta la proxima vez (until next time).

1. The rapids Serena, Shannon and I visited below the Cascada Nambilla, the waterfall at Mindo where one can pay to leap from a potentially crippling height into the pool below the waterfall. We didn't, but others were less imaginative. A lovely place in a lovely, albeit increasingly tourist-frequented area.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor