11 October 2011

Last days in Ecuador

After a night of rain, the river is a strong brown god [1]. A rat scampers along the lawn-like grassy banks where a stormwater drain discharges into the turbulent water just above an arched bridge paved with rain-slicked dark wood. A few people walk, jog, are led by dogs or just sit by the river, but in this still-early morning the town seems only to be waking. Metal roller doors close most of the openings where last night shops and bars and restaurants invited customers in, and only a few panaderias have opened, their delicious hot-bread smells reminding me I've had no breakfast. But Bananas, open every day except Christmas, is closed. Apparently, Sunday doesn't count as a day. I buy a couple of croissants from a little panaderia and make a mug of tea at the hostel.

In El Cafecito the sun comes out and throws shadows on the pale green and taupe and white walls and doors, lights up the hanging Boston ferns, catches one of the sprays of flowers  — real, not fake — on each of the well-worn wooden tables. This place has the reputation of being constantly packed, yet in the time I've been here only 4–6 others have visited. I discover the likely reason later: La Cigale, a few doors up the street, has cheaper food of wonderful quality; this is where the crowds have gone. Here, though, I'm enjoying the cafĂ© con leche and thinking about Cuenca: how I've loved the responses I've had from greeting people — everything from a gracious nod and smile to a big genuine buenos dias from a wrinkled old woman knitting in a doorway; how so many of the people here are so tiny  — I remember a small, gnome-like nun stepping slowly down the morning cobbles of Calle Largo, a vision like a scene from a mediaeval story; how I found a small stationery shop and knew instantly this was the place to buy a pen when I saw the small tabby cat washing its face on the counter; these and so much else.

Now, though, my time in Cuenca has to end.

The bus to Loja fills with the smell of moist, fungal footwear; at a stop nowhere in particular, three small people smelling slightly of stale fish occupy the seats in front of me. The man behind me coughs and from deep in his gut the smell of old liquor escapes. The bus climbs steadily into mist, the air grows colder and the windows steam up. We descend from the wet scrublands into an arid, steep, enormous landscape; later we climb again into the mist, then descend. So it continues. From time to time I drop off to sleep but try to stay awake, partly to keep an eye on my bag which I've hung over the back of the seat in front of me — the safest possible position — but mostly because I love this huge landscape with its suggestion of wildness. But even here, the land has been extensively grazed and much has even been cultivated.

At Loja I take a taxi to the Hostel America — the most expensive room so far on this journey, by far — and after settling in, walk to the Pizzeria Forno di Fango where I have a tiny woodfired pizza and a glass of beer. Despite the excellent food and welcoming atmosphere, I'm slightly melancholy. Perhaps I miss Cuenca and the friends with whom I shared some of my time there; perhaps the woodfired pizza reminds me of particular, wonderful evenings back in Aotearoa; perhaps today's landscapes also remind me of New Zealand. This is not homesickness, at least not in the usual sense of longing for somewhere familiar and comfortable, it's more a reminder of how lucky I am to have a place as wonderful as New Zealand to return to, more a kind of enjoyable anticipation. In any case, looking out the bus window and these almost-familiar landscapes seemed close enough to a homecoming, and while my friends and family might not be with me in person, they accompany me constantly.
I like Loja — it has the feel of a real city with only a smattering of the usual concessions for tourists (like, I admit, this pizzeria) — but I'll never forget Cuenca . The last thing I did before leaving the hostel was to hand to the duerna the The Birds of Ecuador and the guide books I no longer needed. The offering seemed as much symbolic as practical.

Tomorrow, Vilcabamba, the last stop in Ecuador.

1. "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god" — T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages.

1. The Tomebamba runs through Cuenca.
2. Rooftop sculpture, Cuenca.
3. Street art, Cuenca.
4. Black-chested buzzard eagle, captive in the avifauna centre in Cuenca.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
With your writings, photos, and observations it seems to me that you give far more to places than you take. That is something I take much inspiration and consideration from in knowing you. Shall look forward to seeing you once again in Aotearoa. My friend Adam is back from Ireland and his fiddle is getting itchy for a session around the fire :). Travel well and safe the rest of your journey e hoa.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

i have to admit that i've been saving these posts for a moment when i can truly sit down and enjoy them. I've been following the photos though and they are utterly amazing

You are an incredible writer and photographer :)

pohanginapete said...

Robb, that's a wonderful compliment — thank you. I try to remain conscious of how I'd feel if I had a bunch of tourists gawking at me and photographing me as if I were an exhibit instead of a human being. Even a small mark of acknowledgement and respect — a smile, a simple greeting — goes a long way.
    I'm greatly looking forward to that get-together and musos' session, too. E noho ra, e hoa.

Hungry Pixie, thanks so much for the encouragement. I love knowing that what I write and photograph conveys something of what I'm feeling — a life not shared is a life not lived.

butuki said...

I was wondering how you got that last shot of the eagle! Had to read the footnote to be reassured that you weren't some photography god! (though you're close...)

I loved this post because it reflects so much of how I feel when I travel. The evocation of little things like the steamed up bus windows, or the cat in the stationary shop, or the beaming smile of the elderly woman, really gives the sense of what it must be like to stroll around there. I love these little details you pay attention to, and they tend to be much more important to a journey than the grand vistas. It's partly why I travel, too.

The first impression when I saw that first photograph was, "Chamonix!" It really looks similar. Then I read about the rats, and saw the graffiti and I knew it wasn't. I guess the towns around very big mountains tend to look like that.

Anonymous said...

Pete, I know what you mean when you say your friends and family accompany you constantly. Familiar landscapes will invoke those connections. What's esp. wonderful are those new friends you will meet. :-)

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Miguel! I suspect details are important to everyone travelling, but the importance is often subconscious. Mentioning them in writing, however, rescues them from the subconscious and goes a long way towards evoking the feeling of being there (well, I trust it does).

Maureen, I've made some wonderful friends on this journey. I miss them already.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Pete, it is always sad leaving a country that has given you much, but the joys of being home and sitting back in a chair and dozing and thinking of the great times, and occasionally looking at the images you took, fills the void.
Thanks for taking me with you on your path.

pohanginapete said...

You're welcome, Bob. I thought of you and your mountaineering in the Andes when I was in Huaraz; of all my friends, you're probably the one with the most direct experience of those amazing mountains.

Relatively Retiring said...

It's a great joy to be able to catch up with you on your wonderful journey. The melancholy on leaving is a sort of bonus - I think you know what I mean?

Lydia said...

Like Pixies, I saved these posts for when I could devote the time to them that I knew they would deserve. I have loved every perfect description, Pete, and every glorious image. I think you do not have a real idea of what a great, great writer you are.

Thank you for sharing your trip with us. I hate to leave, and will treasure the memories.....

pohanginapete said...

RR, I know exactly what you mean. From another perspective, to leave a place without that feeling suggests a lack of connection between the place and the person.

Lydia, thank you :^) These posts are just selections — I couldn't possibly write up everything from my journals (that will have to wait until I'm back in Aotearoa). However, I'm partway through preparing another post, although the next few days will test my ability to find the time to finish it — I'm in La Paz, travelling tomorrow to Uyuni and the fabulous salt flats.

vegetablej said...

Another bird with magic powers in its eyes.

I felt much the same when I lived in Japan, each encounter, each small shop a meeting with wonder. Though I knew at the time that I wanted to try to remember everything, I haven't managed to. In retrospect, a journal would have been a good idea.

Perhaps some of the regret of leaving is that there is so much that you will never know, that the life of that place carries on without you being in it. It's like leaving a part of yourself behind or the person you might be if you stayed in that place.

With your stories and pictures, you have made a record of the person you were at the moment you lived there, and communicated his thoughts not only to us, but perhaps to your future self. Time travel for the once and future Pete?


pohanginapete said...

VJ, I think you've touched on something crucial when you say, "the life of that place carries on without you being in it." This is something I can't comprehend about the death of someone loved — that the world carries on but that person is no longer part of it. Perhaps in that sense, each departure from a place resembles a kind of death, and it's even harder when the parting involves a person you might never again see. All that makes those partings bearable is hope, and the possibility of uncertainty.
    Thanks for the very thoughtful comment :^)

Anne said...

I am catching up with blogs following big upheavals in my own life. Reading yours is pure pleasure and a wonderful escape from present troubles. Your words and pictures evoke the essence of the place and you are generous with your own deeply personal and sensitive responses to it. Your comments about the home feeling really resonated with me. I thought I wanted a trip to Patagonia for my 80th birthday, but I find I am begging now for New Zealand because the home feeling of my childhood year there, my grandmother, mother, aunt and cousins -- that all calls out "home". It may be my last chance to see it.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, thank you, and I do hope your difficulties resolve well. You know, of course, that you and Jerry are always welcome in the valley. I'd love to see you again. :^) (All going well, I'll be back there just before Christmas, and will be there for the forseeable future.)