My Excellent Ecuadorian Adventures, in six, easy-to-digest sections.

Tales of Manliness part I–Oso Grande/Pasochoa

In June 1999 my old college roommate Steven Boulter asked me to go mountain climbing in Ecuador with him that summer. He denied a mid-life crisis, even though we are both 45. Since I am a lawyer, and required by my profession to make ridiculous arguments on a regular basis, I agreed that he was not having such a crisis, nor was I when I agreed to go with him. I did however, add the condition that we spend some time in the Amazon, which has fascinated me for decades. We also invited Steve’s son Joshua and our mutual friend Ron “Kazzie” Kass to come as well.

Steve and I have known each other for close to 25 years. I handle his U.S. legal affairs, but he spends most of his time overseas for Geoquest, working as an oil exploration geologist. In the past decade he has lived everywhere from Beijing to Cairo, and has resided in Venezuela for the past two years. Since he travels so much, we put him in charge of making all arrangements for the trip. Kazzie has a Ph.D. in botany, and mostly he prepares environmental impact statements for government agencies. He spends a great deal of time hiking around in the field looking at plants, and even though he is 48 he is in great shape and an ideal companion for a trip like this. Joshua has been Steve’s son for all of his 18 years. I must admit that I was a bit concerned when Steve said Josh was coming, because Josh had some “difficulties” of a fairly standard type during his teen years that made me question how good of a companion he would be on such a trip. I can report that Josh has grown up tremendously, and that he was enjoyable to have around at all times. As the teenager around three adults, I can further report that we teased him mercilessly, especially after he tried to “shock” us unshockable children of the 60’s a few times. Both Kazzie and Josh live in small towns about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City, where I live. As for me, I am just a lawyer who likes to hike and camp. I am also president of a non-profit organization that provides rehabilitation and adoption services for parrots, sort of like the Humane Society on a much smaller scale, hence my interest in the Amazon and the birds therein.

I got into Quito late Wednesday night 11 August 1999, and met Steve and Kazzie at the Hotel Café Cultura. I was excited and waaaay too wired to go to bed, so we went bar-hopping, starting at the Arribar, then to Mr. Frog’s, and ended up at a place called Club Ecstacy, which we found by telling a cabdriver we wanted to go where we could meet some “chicas.” Along the way we stopped to get some cigarettes from a street vendor and I was accosted by a streetwalker, who tried to arouse my wild tourist passions but failed by a considerable margin. Keeping in mind my upbringing as a Southern Gentleman, and ever mindful of my need to show Christian charity to the desperate creatures of the night, let us say that she was “ill-favored.” I felt sorry for her and gave her three cigarettes to make her go away. It must be a very hard life to be a Quito streetwalker.

The Ecstacy was basically a fortress, we had to get by two armed men who let us enter a locked gate which led into a courtyard with several more armed men. This second group escorted us to another locked door, but not before looking askance at Kazzie’s shorts. They clearly did not feel their distinguished establishment, which appeared to be a mob hangout, deserved befoulment by the likes of some gringo in casual attire. However, the heady lure of yanqui dollars apparently counteracted their strict fashion sense, and we got in. Immediately an extremely friendly girl came and sat by me and introduced herself as Carla. The club was very loud, and even if my Spanish had been decent we would have been hard up to communicate. Since my Spanish doesn’t even rise to the level of lousy, and her English was even worse, all I could do was order drinks for us and try to use sign language. She nicknamed me OSO GRANDE (big bear). Carla was intent upon us becoming friends, so much so that I was certain that eventually the subject of money was going to arise. However, it was about one a.m., I had been on planes for over 12 hours that day, and was feeling the effects of the tequila Steve had been distributing with a lavish hand. In other words, in no position to succumb to her many charms. I dug out the old Spanish phrasebook and learned how to say “Yo soy cansado.” (I am tired.) She seemed displeased at my lack of stamina.

About 1.5 hours south of Quito is Mount Pasochoa and the Pasochoa Bosque Protector, an area that was formerly cultivated but was taken over by the government of Ecuador to turn into a nature reserve. All of the area around Quito, and in fact every portion of the country I saw, is very heavily cultivated, even up to the mountain tops. Quito itself is very high, about 9000 feet, so even though it is only about 20 miles south of the Equator it gets fairly cool at night. On Thursday morning early we went to climb Pasochoa to start getting acclimated for our main goal, the 20,000 foot Cotopaxi. The park is not particularly old, and even though it is billed as a cloud forest there are no big trees yet. It will take many years before it reverts to a natural state and the animals return. Steve, Kazzie and I started out gamely, but we hadn’t returned to the hotel until about 3 a.m., and we were all hung over, so it was not an auspicious beginning. Our guide, Jaime Avila, took us up to between 14,000 and 15,000 feet, and Josh wanted to keep going, but Jaime the Magnificent felt that we had been punished enough. Jaime was hired by Surtrek Travel in Quito to squire us around and get us to the mountain tops. He is a small (by U.S. standards) wiry man of 33, with a good command of English and a ready wit. A native of Quito, he has been climbing most of his life, and swore that he had climbed Cotopaxi hundreds of times. We teased him almost as much as we teased Josh, but he had his vengeance on us on the long hard hikes. Since the farmers who were displaced by the Pasochoa reserve are still upset about it, they come in and start fires periodically. We came across heavily armed patrols occasionally on the hike, and Jaime explained that they were there to try to stop the fires.

Armed guards are everywhere in Quito. Every decent restaurant and hotel has an armed guard, and there is one on every downtown street corner as well. It’s rather daunting. Thursday night after Pasochoa the four of us plus Jaime and his Uncle Franklin (who was our driver for most of the trip), went to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant. The food was excellent, and we washed it down with considerable amounts of beer and wine to aid the feast of reason and the flow of soul, finishing up with dessert. The entire bill including tip came to 1,200,000 Sucres, which is about $105. Prices are cheap in Ecuador, e.g., a shoeshine is nine cents. I wandered around Thursday quite a bit after dinner, and chatted up some of the locals as best I could. I told many of them I was from Salt Lake City, Home of the Olympic Scandal. Several of them tried to ask me about something that sounded like “tornado” but I couldn’t make any sense of their questions, and certainly I was misunderstanding the word “tornado”. Why in the world would they want to know about a tornado, and who ever heard of a tornado in Utah? I wish I knew this language better.

Tales of Manliness II–Iliniza del Norte/Latacunga

After our poor showing on Pasochoa, Jaime decided that we needed to start out on the next day’s hike even earlier. He told us to be ready at 5:30 the next morning to climb Iliniza del Norte, the northern of the twin peaks of Iliniza. He told us it was 17,000 feet high and that it was going to be very hard. He then went off to salsa dance the night away. Although Iliniza is not that far from Quito, most of the roads in Ecuador are in such poor shape that it took us two hours to get to about the 12,000 foot level of Iliniza, where our hike began. The cast was the same as yesterday, and driving once again was Jaime’s Uncle Franklin. Franklin stayed with the van to protect our stuff, and the five of us took off.

The first part of the hike was wonderful. Kazzie and I spent all morning looking at interesting plants and a few animals as we hiked along, but he began to run out of steam as we approached the refuge towards the top of Iliniza at about 15,000 feet. The government has erected huts near the tops of most popular mountains, with space for sleeping and primitive kitchens and bathrooms. A friendly Indian was staffing it when we got there, and he gave us some hot tea. A German couple, Michael and Marian, came in on their way down from the top, and they were astoundingly fit. Michael was 69 years old and looked fresh and strong, as did his wife. I spoke briefly with them in my poor German, and their English was no better, but I managed to glean that they were headed to Cotopaxi just as we were.

Kazzie was feeling weak and dizzy, and it seemed clear to me that he was having a mild attack of mountain sickness. Nevertheless, after drinking some tea and eating a sandwich, he decided to press on with the rest of us. After we left the refuge the hiking conditions rapidly worsened. What had been soil turned into very loose volcanic ash, and we had to dig in with our feet with every step or risk sliding down the mountain. We came to an icefield and Jaime said we had to hike above it because it was too slick without our crampons, which are like golf spikes on steroids that you strap to your feet for glacier work. Without even the semblance of a trail the loose ash became horrible, and Kazzie’s legs were trembling from the effort. At 16,000 feet he said he didn’t know if he could go on, but promised to try for 15 more minutes. Since we were basically bushwhacking to get away from the ice we were going mostly on instinct at that point, but Jaime said he could find a way. At about 16,250 feet we came to a long narrow ridge which was heavily segmented like a backbone, with steep dropoffs on either side, and I strongly recommended to Kazzie that we stop. I later found out that this section of the mountain is called “Paso del Muerte” (way of death), and it looked it. Josh, who was hiking strongly, was clearly upset with Kazzie’s decision, but even if Kazzie could have gotten over the ridge on his way up, I wondered how he could do it again when he was even more tired on his way down. Steve and I got into a little tussle about this. I thought he had pushed Kazzie too hard when he was feeling sick and the path was too dangerous, and he countered that Kazzie was a big boy and had said he wanted to go on. It was the only disagreement any of us had on the trip. As we rapidly lost altitude on our way back Kazzie recovered dramatically, and we returned to the nature aspect of the hike.

We went south from Iliniza to hotel near Cotopaxi called La Cienega. It was incredible, a huge old mansion with beautiful gardens and fountains everywhere, and a beautiful old church in the back. The price was only $20 apiece. We ate an excellent dinner and were all in bed by 8:30 like good little (extremely tired) boys, including Mr. Salsa himself, Jaime. The next morning, Saturday, dawned dark and gloomy. I took one look at the low grey clouds and knew we were in for rain for the long haul. The plan was to go to Cotopaxi National Park and set up a base camp at 13,000 feet, and spend the day resting. It was Saturday, and I suggested to the group that hanging around in our tents while it was raining had limited appeal to me, and that we ought to go find a market somewhere and check out the native scene. Our cook/porter Raul met us that morning and we sent him on to set up camp; and the rest of us went to Latacunga for market madness. It was just like in the movies, the town square was crammed sardine-style with little booths of cooked food, fresh fruits and vegetables, clothes, hats, and on and on and on. I spotted a stand with t-shirts of Marilyn Manson and various wrestling degenerates, and was never prouder to be an American. People wandered through the crowds trying to sell the oddest things, particularly popular were TV antennas and socks. I found a booth with two little parrots I had never seen before, and by process of deduction concluded they were Orange-Chinned Brotogeris. A little boy hounded me until I agreed to let him shine my shoes, the tariff was 1,000 Sucres, or 9 cents. We found a couple of pretty girls with a flat tire on a narrow street, and we sprang into gallant action, no doubt vastly improving relations between our great nations. You can be certain that if Ecuador does not declare war on us you will all have me to thank. We then tried to get the pretty girls to come have a drink with us, but I guess they learned better at their mother’s knee.

In Latacunga I determined that people in Ecuador have an extremely casual attitude about public bathrooms. There are no doors, and the open bathroom faces out into the street. There are women in front who sell toilet paper, and they think nothing of just waltzing in to the men’s area to conduct whatever business occurs to them, regardless of what the men therein might be doing. It took a little getting used to.

We got to camp about six that evening, and enjoyed some incredible avocado soup courtesy of Raul, then beef stew with various exotic vegetables and cheese. The Ecuadorians eat a LOT of good soup. Josh had rashly challenged the fogies to a game of poker, but when I pulled out the deck he remembered a date he had previously made with his pillow, and thus ended our first night of camping in Cotopaxi National Park. All four of us crammed into a big tent, and snored our way into dreamland.

Tales of Manliness III–Cotopaxi

Sunday August 15th: We awoke at the Cotopaxi base camp early to the sound of the drizzling rain which had been following us for about 36 hours. The snow line was down dramatically from the night before. I stumbled into the mess tent for some of Raul’s hot coffee and Muesli and prepared to face the day. Our plan was to climb up to the glacier’s edge at about 17,500 feet and practice our ice ax safety and self-arrest techniques, in preparation for the full assault the next day. About nine a.m. we took off up the dirt road which leads to the parking lot at about 15,500 feet. As we drove up the mountain I started to get a bad feeling when the drizzle turned to windblown snow. Since it was a Sunday a lot of locals were taking drives up to the top, and were getting stuck in the snow without much idea of how to get out. Ecuadorians are not used to snow. Franklin was driving once again, and did a great job, but there was no way he could get that loaded van all the way to the top parking lot, and we had to stop at the side of the road at about 15,000 feet and hike the rest of the way. Because we were starting from an unusual spot, the trail was very rough and brutally steep at the beginning, and once again was loose volcanic ash. Josh was very excited about being on the mountain, and in his teenage way began pushing himself too hard to get up to the refuge, making himself sick. I was feeling surprisingly strong after a good night’s rest, and kept a slow steady pace that eventually got me up to the refuge first, making me pretty proud of myself.

The refuge was at about 16,000 feet, and painted bright yellow so you could see it in the snow, which was exactly what we were dealing with. It is a large building with a kitchen staffed by local Indians who would ride their motorcycles (!!!) up to work. I had seen two Yamaha dirtbikes out on the porch when I arrived, and was surprised that someone could have gotten them up their through all that steep loose ash (let me interject here that I began riding motorcycles at age nine, bought my first moped at 12, and have put at least a hundred thousand miles on street and dirt bikes in the last 36 years, my current bike being a Kawasaki Ninja 1000). When I realized later that the bikes had just gotten there, and had been ridden not just through the ash but the snow as well, I was astounded. The kitchen faces into a communal dining area with a fireplace and about 7 tables with chairs. I had no money, but I was sure Jaime had some, so I ordered herb tea to warm me up. They had a small store in the kitchen, and I laughed when I saw the cigarettes for sale, wondering who would smoke at such an altitude. When I asked the Indian if he sold a lot of cigarettes, he lit one up himself and we laughed together. As I sipped my herb tea I looked over the menu more carefully, and noted legal coca leaf tea on it. I thought about ordering some, and to be honest I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I was figuring I would try it somewhere else where I could note its effects without factoring in mountain sickness and cold, etc. When the Pope recently visited Bolivia they served him coca tea, so if it’s good enough for the Pope, it’s good enough for me.

The others arrived a few minutes later, and we sat around for about an hour to let Josh recover. It continued to snow outside and the wind was HOWLING. Little piles of snow driven through cracks in the building were everywhere. A group of Germans came in, and I soon figured out who was buying all those cigarettes. There are a lot of German tourists in Ecuador, more Germans by far than any other country. Most of them were nice, but these were young punks and their smoking in the confined space irritated me, especially with Josh being sick. Jaime was angry about it too, and went to discuss it with their Ecuadorian guide, who was also smoking. It did no good.

The back part of the refuge and the second floor was all taken up with bunkbeds, 35 in all, so room for 70 people to sleep. Cotopaxi is the easiest 20,000 foot mountain in the world, and a lot of people come. Actually, I don’t know how tall Cotopaxi is. The guidebooks give differing figures, ranging from 19,300 to 19,700 feet.

We left our packs with Franklin in the refuge, and started hiking to the glacier with our ice axes. It was becoming more and more apparent to me that the Cotopaxi effort was doomed by the weather. You could just tell that the storm system was going to hang around for a few more days, and it was incredibly miserable on that mountain. The wind had to be gusting at 60-70-80 miles per hour, driving the snow and volcanic ash into our faces. We got to about 16,300 feet, and Jaime said we had to go back. I had a very strong feeling that I would not be returning the next day, and told Jaime I wanted to get to at least 16,500 feet, so I took off. When my altimeter got to 16.5 I looked back and they were following me, so I decided to make a dash for 17,000. I was feeling strong, even exhilarated. Come to think of it, maybe that Indian gave me coca tea after all. At 17,000 I waited for them to catch up, and Jaime insisted that we go down. I told him I was afraid that we would not make it back up the next day and wanted to go as high as I could, but he said Josh was too sick to go on, and with only one guide we had to stick together.

We split up at the refuge. Josh had said that he wanted to climb Cotopaxi twice, so the plan was that he and Jaime stay the night at the refuge and climb, and the rest of us go back down and meet them there at noon on Monday for our own climb. Since Josh was mountain sick I thought it was silly for him to stay, but he insisted that he would get better, so Steve, Kazzie, Franklin, and I hiked back down to the van. On the drive down we came upon a jeep stuck in the snow. We waited for several minutes while the driver messed around outside the car, and then Franklin went down to see what was going on. It was starting to get a little dark, and the snow and wind were increasing. I was getting nervous, I definitely did not want to sleep in the van, and there was no way around that jeep. Steve and I got out and walked over to help Franklin dig this guy out, and I noticed three able bodied mountain climbers just sitting in the jeep letting their driver and us do all the work. I was absolutely fit to be tied, and if I had known any decent Spanish insults I would have unhesitatingly displayed my fluency. Finally Steve ordered them out and insisted that they use their ice axes to help dig, and they acted like that was the strangest request anyone had ever made of them. They were from Spain, and apparently they just expected their guide to do everything. It was dark and miserable when we got back to camp, but our buddy Raul had hot tea and dinner waiting for us in the mess tent.

It rained most of the night, and the shrieking wind aroused me many times. When I got up in the morning it was raining and when Steve awoke I asked him if he knew what that sound outside the tent was. He said he didn’t, and I said it was the sound of us NOT climbing Cotopaxi that day. He reluctantly agreed, and started worrying about Josh. I told him that in view of the weather in camp, there was absolutely no way that Jaime and Josh had taken off the night before and we should just wait for them to come down. However, even my clients whom I charge $120 an hour seldom heed my wisdom, and Steve was not about to take free advice from a goofball like me. Steve and Franklin went off to find a phone to call the refuge and see how Josh was, and Kazzie and I helped Raul break camp. We sent him on his way and just hiked around, waiting. The older German couple we had met on Iliniza, Michael and Marian, showed up at the campsite while we were waiting, and invited us into their small motorhome for tea and Schnapps. Gotta love those Germans! Finally at about one p.m. Jaime and Josh returned with the second guide in his jeep, and Steve and Franklin got back from their fruitless effort to call the refuge. We all piled in and headed to the resort town of Baños, while Josh enthralled us with stories of how miserable it had been all night in the refuge, with a special reference to the bathrooms. Needless to say, none of us made it to the top.

Tales of Manliness IV–Baños/The Ugly American/The Animal Prison

Baños is a small resort town a few hours south of Quito. Whenever I asked someone how far something was in Ecuador I was always given an approximate figure in hours. No one ever answered in miles or kilometers. I eventually figured out this is because the roads are so bad and traffic so unpredictable that speaking in terms of distance is pointless. Baños, while still in the mountains, is set in a deep river gorge at about 6,000 feet altitude. The climate difference from Quito is dramatic, it is hot and humid, more like what you would expect on the Equator. It is famed for its hot springs and public baths, hence its name. We stayed at the Hotel Sangay, one of the nicest places in town, right across the street from the baths and a dramatic waterfall falling from the incredibly steep cliffs surrounding the town. Unfortunately, much of the staff at the Sangay did not live up to expectations. Going to the front desk to make a phone call, get an extra pillow, clean towels, a map of the city, checking on messages, or other such mundane needs was basically an exercise in futility. The front desk was infested with what I call the “Mañana Syndrome,” and they just didn’t care. They had a nice bar, however.

The center of all towns like this is the church, and Kazzie and I walked downtown to check it out. It was called something like “The Church of Saint Mary of the Holy Water,” and was full of crude but sincere paintings showing local miracles for the past 300 or so years attributed to Mother Mary. It would seem that Mary was fairly busy in the area during that time, intervening in the fire that swept through the town, various bridge collapses, and commanding the volcano Tungurahua to stop erupting and spraying messy lava all over. It also had the bloodiest and most ornate see-through coffin with Jesus in it that I had ever seen, and I have seen quite a few of these small-town Latin America churches. It didn’t have any stained glass that I noticed, but overall I liked it very much.

While Kazzie and Steve relaxed at the bar, Josh and I went exploring before dinner. Josh was sick of ethnic food, and turned up his nose when I suggested we try some of the local delicacy, guinea pig. We were both very hungry and decided to share a small pizza, to see what the Ecuador version of this might be. I tried to order one with cinnamon and almonds on it, but Josh would have none of it, so we got something fairly traditional. To that point I had avoided getting sick, and was extremely careful about water. We asked for bottled water with our pizza, and the girl delivered it to the table already opened. I took a couple of sips before this information sunk in, then realized there was nothing to preventing some thrifty Ecuadorian from refilling a bottle with tap water and charging us 40,000 Sucres for it. I made a mental note that thenceforth I would order my water sparkling (con gas) so that there would be no possibility of the old switcheroo. I slept miserably that night, my stomach growled and grumbled, and I feared that I was coming down sick. In the morning everything was fine and I decided to stop worrying.

The first night in Baños we decided to go bar-hopping again. The first place we entered was a disco playing rap music. Many of the bars played rap music, and I found it very disturbing. I hate rap music, and I really was upset that this was the culture we were exporting to these little towns. They did occasionally break into some James Brown (Sex Machine) and the Commodores (Brick House) so it wasn’t all bad. This disco also had a mirror ball, and some of the worst paintings I have seen in my entire life. The local boys sure liked to get up and strut their stuff, however. That is one of the many big differences between North and Latin America. Northern men like me dance (?) with exceeding stiffness, and consequently hate it, at least I do. Latin men as a group appear to love to dance, and are quite graceful. I finally got us out of Rap-O-Rama and we found another bar where local musicians were playing traditional music, which was infinitely better. After slugging down several bottles of the crude but potent local beer I was ready for bed, so I missed the adventures of the rest of the group when they went to the local “Hard Rock Cafe.” Although the sign outside the Baños Hard Rock looked a little like the sign outside the Salt Lake version, I have $1,000 that says that the Hard Rock in Baños is not an officially franchised branch. I don’t know what those boys did there that night, but I do recall waking up at about 3:00 a.m. when Steve returned to his room (which was next to ours), banging on the door and asking Josh to let him in.

The next day, Tuesday the 17th, our party split up. Originally we had all planned to go to the Amazon after we left the mountains, but Steve decided he needed some time to rest before returning to work, and he wanted to go hang out on the beach for a few days. Since Steve lives in Venezuela he gets a bellyful of the jungle. Franklin drove Steve and Josh back to Quito to catch their flight to the coast, and Jaime stayed with Kazzie and I. The three of us had a day of rest penciled in, and planned to drive to the Amazon the next morning with our Amazon guide, Dutch ornithologist Joep (Yoop) Hendricks. Somewhere along the way our plans changed. About an hour south of Baños is “El Altar,” a treacherous mountain. Tuesday morning Jaime learned that two friends of his were pioneering a new route on El Altar, and had been due back on Sunday. A rescue party was organized, but Jaime was afraid to go with it because he was supposed to holding our hands, and he didn’t want to get in trouble with the tour operators. Kazzie and I emphatically ordered him to go, saying we could take care of ourselves for one day until Joep got there, and promising to square it with the tour people. He took off, and we bought a map of the town, looking for something interesting.

While walking around looking for a bug shop we had seen on the way into town we ended up in the cemetery. It was beautiful and surreal. Families build “coffin condos,” and as people die they open the doors in them and insert the coffins. Some of them even have little chapels where you can pray. Many of these are ornately decorated, and it is obvious the families put a lot of money and effort into them. It was really very nice.

As we looked for the bug shop I discovered that the bottled water I had been drinking so copiously had caught up to me, and I urgently needed some privacy. Privacy was in very short supply, and there were no businesses that I could retreat to. Since I had seen people letting fly along busy highways, without even bothering to turn their backs (to say nothing of the adventures I had had in the Latacunga public bathroom), logic told me that I should just throw caution to the winds. However, I was concerned that they might have different rules about indecent exposure depending on whether you were a local or a millionaire (in Sucres, anyway) gringo, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way. I was further loathe to have to explain a foreign criminal record to the Utah State Bar if the issue ever came up. We finally found the bug shop, and not a moment too soon. Since we were authentic paying customers, buying bugs for the collection of Kazzie’s son “The Mitch Monster,” I felt comfortable requesting to use the “baño.” The nice lady took me up four flights of stairs, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, and tried to hand it to me. When I several times handed it back saying that I didn’t need it, she seemed perplexed. Apparently it is just accepted that you are not going to bother with a bathroom except for something really important.

I had been in Ecuador for a week at that point, and wanted to get in touch with some people in Salt Lake. As my top priority I wanted to talk to my former girlfriend Kristine, who was staying in my house and caring for my parrots. You might think that making international calls from small Ecuadorian towns like Baños would be easy, but you would be wrong. The calling card I had from MCI was useless, all phones required prepaid calling cards. Unfortunately, there was only one place in town you could buy a calling card, and they sold cards for 20,000 Sucres. Further unfortunately, they were out of 50,000 and 100,000 Sucres cards. Also unfortunately, a call to the US cost 17,600 Sucres per minute. What this meant was that I could make no calls longer than about 75 seconds, and if there was any delay in getting the desired party to the phone you were screwed and had to unwrap a new card and start over. At least I was able to call, however. Some German tourists I ran into were upset, because a call to Deutschland was 25,000 Sucres per minute, and without larger calling cards they couldn’t even get started. Anyway I called and called Kristine at work and at my home, but never got anything except a phone answering machine, which disturbed me deeply. I did manage to reassure my mother that I had not died on Cotopaxi, which was presumably important to her. We were also able to find a “cybercafe” in Baños where I sent and received a lot of email on the Flashmail account I had set up especially for this trip. No email messages from Kristine, either. I did, finally, determine that the rumors I had been hearing about a tornado in downtown Salt Lake were true. I felt so stupid.

On the map we noticed something marked “Animal Prison,” and discovered that this was a zoo on the outskirts of town. That afternoon we decided to rent a couple of mountain bikes and check out the “prison.” There were many places in town that rented mountain bikes, almost all of which were completely worthless and appeared to have never been given even the most basic maintenance, or even cleaned. We found the best looking bikes we could, paid our $4 each to rent them for the day, and took off for the zoo. We rode about four blocks and then the left pedal and crank fell off my bike. I jammed it back on and we returned to the shop. The pedal refused to stay on for more than a few pumps, so every hundred feet I had to dismount, retrieve the pedal, and pound it back into place. It is an ill wind that blows no good, and I was gratified to be able to inject a little sunshine into the drab lives of the locals, who had a lot of fun laughing at my antics in trying to get the bike to stay togeher.

Although several different Quito streetwalkers had been unable to arouse my wild tourist passions, this bike succeeded admirably. Descending upon the bike shop was “The Ugly American,” and I was ready to rumble. I was angered by the Mañana Syndrome I had been dealing with at the hotel, and I was not in a position to forgive and forget someone who must have known that this bike had a loose pedal before he even rented it to me. When I got back to the shop it was shuttered and closed, and that sent me over the top. I jumped off the bike holding the loose pedal and threw it to the ground, then threw the bike to the ground, hopping up and down and shouting “TRES MINUTOS!!!” over and over again, to signify that the bike had failed within three minutes of me riding away on it. While all this was going on Kazzie was across the street laughing and taking pictures. I am glad he is so easily amused. The proprietor showed up a few minutes later, I hopped a little more for his benefit, and he found some decrepit tools and a nut and began to work on the bike. While you and I and everyone else in the world might be satisfied with bike pedals that are parallel, or 180 degrees apart, he was not bound by such crippling conventions. He started putting the left pedal on at a 90 degree angle to the right. I watched in stunned disbelief for a minute, then insisted that he put the pedal on the way the makers intended. I think he may have been frightened of me; the Ecuadorians, especially the Indians, are a small people, and I towered close to a foot over him. Anyway he finally got it on right, I gave him a warning look that said I better not have any more trouble, and we set off for the animal prison again.

I have been to a Mexican zoo, and I was prepared to be depressed by the Baños zoo. I was pleasantly surprised. They handled it very intelligently. Instead of trying to do too much, and import lions and elephants and do other expensive things, they concentrated on what they could do right. The zoo was set on a couple of hillsides, and they would stretch iron mesh over natural hollows and use them for cages. It worked exceedingly well, they have a nice enclosure with about six condors in it, and they had room to fly around a bit. They had a lot of other local birds, hawks, eagles, parrots, and so forth, all well done. The eagles looked a bit crowded, but not badly. They had a parrot misidentified, what they had marked on the cage as a Scarlet Macaw (Ara Macao) was actually a Green-Winged Macaw (Ara Chloroptera) but other than that I had no real complaints. They also had a mountain lion, ocelot, some Galapagos tortoises, a Spectacled Bear, tapirs, capybaras, and a lot of monkeys. Most of the interesting local animals were on display, and in several ways this was one of the nicest zoos I have ever been to.

It had been a fairly long steep grind on those wonderful mountain bikes to get to the prison, but I comforted myself with how much fun it would be to whiz back into town on our return. I let Kazzie get ahead of me because I wanted to go more slowly and enjoy the scenery on my way back. After a few minutes it occurred to me that I had come a hell of a long way, much longer than I thought was necessary. I found some schoolgirls and pulled out my map, asking them in my non-existent Spanish to show me where I was on it. I had been so moved by the scenery that I was halfway to the next town! I had somehow completely missed the turnoff into downtown, and I was way past where I was supposed to be, several miles down a hill that I now had to grind back up. I knew if I could find the church I could find the hotel, so every few minutes I would ask something like “Donde est la iglesia de Santa Maria de Agua Santa?” and apparently that was close enough to a proper question that the locals understood it. It took me almost an hour to work my way to the Hotel Sangay, but I am happy to report I eventually did.

That night Kazzie and I had dinner at the Cafe Dusseldorf, eating fine German fare of rice and beans and pizza. I was really beat from the bike ride of the day and the poor sleep I had had before, so we racked early. I slept like the dead.

Tales of Manliness V–Isla Amazonica/Julie

Kazzie and I awoke early the morning of Wednesday August 18th and began rearranging our clothes to reflect the fact that we were leaving the mountains and heading for the Amazon basin. Our second guide, Joep (Yoop) Hendriks, arrived about 9:30 and we piled in the Land Cruiser and took off for Isla Amazonica, a jungle resort in El Oriente, which is what the locals call the beginning of the Amazon in Ecuador. On the map it didn’t look that far away, certainly no more than 100 miles, but Joep said it would take at least five hours. The roads were very bad, and the scenery depressed me. As we inched along hour after hour all I could see was jungle that was either cleared, or in the process of being cleared. Humans are a cancer on the rainforest. As soon as any kind of road is put into an area it is swarming with the overpopulated hordes of South America who immediately start clearing as much land as they can, regardless of the effects. You can’t blame them, they want to have a place to call their own, and homesteading the jungle is the only way they can do that. But the soils are so poor that within a couple of years they are played out, and they have to move on and ruin a fresh area. Those stories you hear about the destruction of the Amazon are true. You can forget all those miracles by Mary of the Holy Water commanding Tungurahua to stop erupting. I want Mary to protect the Amazon, and to do that, Mary is going to have to promote population control. That would be a REAL miracle.

In due course we arrived at Isla Amazonica, which was very cool. It looked like a particularly ornate set for a Tarzan movie, all the materials seemed to be natural, thatched roofs and so forth. Our host was Christian Albers, an intense but congenial German who also owned a hotel in Baños. Christian was obviously one of those guys who is extremely detail-oriented, and I immediately trusted him to make certain everything was going to go right. I trusted him so much that when he served us lunch which included some fresh fruits and vegetables, I ate them even though I had previously refused to eat these things anywhere in Ecuador. Mistake. I don’t blame Christian or his staff for this, I am sure they were careful, but I think it is virtually impossible for a Norteamericano to eat any kind of fresh fruits or vegetables in Ecuador and not get sick. In any event, I had purchased a liberal supply of Imodium, and it worked just fine, with only two accidents to liven up my trip and help me polish my skills at hand-washing clothes.

Christian had bought a few hundred hectares of jungle from a fellow German, and had proceeded to fix up the few buildings on it to make his resort, plus added some. It had only been open for a few months, and I was really impressed with the layout and the gardens. It was on a riverbank overlooking the Rio Napo, and Kazzie and I had a private veranda and hammock where we could enjoy the spectacular view. The place was about as plush as you could make it in view of the primitive surroundings, and it was plenty good enough for us.

About 5 p.m. we took an evening walk on the wooded portion of Christian’s land (on the equator all days are equal, sun rises at six and sets at six every day), and once we got back far enough we found some forest that didn’t look too disturbed. We even caught a quick glimpse of a monkey, which thrilled me. As for Kazzie, he was in heaven, looking at all the plants and noting how much of what he was seeing he had been reading about for decades and was only now seeing for the first time. As I initially started the walk I remembered that I had not put on any insect repellent, and I was angry at my stupidity. I quickly realized that this area was so disturbed that even the insects were missing. I spent 2.5 days in Amazonia, never put on any repellent, and never got ONE SINGLE mosquito bite. Kazzie never used repellent either, and he got precisely one bite himself. I spent $40 on malaria medicine, what a waste.

The next morning we met with our guide, a local member of the Quechua tribe named Sandra, who was going to walk us through the jungle and show us medicinal plants. Sandra spoke only Spanish and Quechua, so Joep, who speaks German, Spanish and English as well as his native Dutch, was our interpreter. To say that Kazzie was excited about seeing the medicinal plants is a huge understatement. Even in the secondary forest, secondary being things that have regrown after being clearcut for logs or agriculture, the range of plantlife is astounding. Ecuador holds the world record for different species of trees in one hectare (about 2.47 acres). Joep told me the number, I can’t remember now but it was something huge like 500. In North America we are used to fairly uniform forests, we walk in the mountains and it will be all Aspens or all Douglas Fir, but the rainforest is completely different. At the beginning of the walk we came upon an opossum lying in the trail, obviously near death. Wasps were feeding on its prolapsed anus, and it had a tumor on its belly. We looked at it for a moment, and poked at its marsupium, then I asked Joep to ask Sandra to kill it with her machete. She apparently thought that was bad luck, so Joep drew the short straw and finished it off. This was to be the largest wild animal we saw all day. For the first two or so hours of the hike we were in secondary forest, but finally we started getting into some giant trees, but still no wildlife, hardly even any insects. We found a very cool Walking Stick, I pronounced it family Phasmidae, and it was so.

We stopped for lunch along a stream, and I hiked up and down it a few hundred feet in my rubber boots, but never saw any fish or much of anything in the water, just a few Water Striders. Even three and four hours into the hike we could always hear the whine of chainsaws in the distance. After about six hours of hiking we came to the Rio Napo, where a motorized canoe was waiting to take us to an Amazon wildlife refuge. It had some long Spanish name that I can no longer remember, but it was known as Amazoonica for short. As we motored down the river for two hours I still looked for wildlife, but only saw a few birds. About every half mile we would see an Indian family on the shore bathing and washing their clothes, for pretty much the entire length of our trip. It was no wonder there were no animals.

We finally came to the Amazoonica dock, and walked up to a little gift shop they had. It was being manned by a decidedly un-Ecuadorian girl, whom I immediately determined to be pure Aryan. I can’t remember her name, but I think she said she was from Munich. She was rather pretty, but at age 18 was already tending to heft. She looked like a charter member of the Munich Wienerschnitzel Appreciation Society. She told us that the refuge was run by a woman from Switzerland named Angelika, and that it was a popular working vacation resort for teenagers from Europe. She said our guide to the refuge would be with us shortly, a girl from Denmark named Julie. While we waited a Coatimundi climbed all over me and tried to get into the Powerbars that I had in my fanny pack. I shooed it away and looked up into the eyes of Julie from Denmark.


The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of still waters at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.

Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow, like ripe corn.

Although Dante Gabriel Rossetti was writing about the Blessed Damozel when he put down those words, they apply equally well to Julie from Denmark. I fell instantly and ridiculously in love, and wandered around the refuge with her with in a daze. She was one of those impossibly beautiful Nordic women, and it was all I could do to avoid making a fool of myself. In fact, I am not certain that I didn’t make a fool of myself, but I had the swift presence of mind to say very little during the tour, to minimize those chances. She probably thought I was stuck up or not very bright. I said a few things about the parrots they had, but don’t remember much about all the monkeys, capybaras, caimans, tapirs, etc., that we saw. She told me that Indians bring animals to the refuge and want Angelika to buy them, and it is a struggle for them do the right thing because to buy the animals encourages the Indians to capture them, but if they don’t buy them the Indians will kill them for food. All the while I cursed my age, the grey in my beard, my ridiculously thin hair (minoxidil and Proscar don’t work!), and the fact that I couldn’t just dump my life in the real world and stay there with her. Yes, it was pathetic. I made a donation of 400,000 Sucres (about $37) to the refuge as I was leaving, but not even my extravagant American ways swayed her to chuck it all and come with me. Not that I asked, of course.

That night at dinner Kazzie told them I fell in love, and everyone got to have a good laugh at my expense, which was no more than I deserved. I had noticed Christian running around with a small Leatherman tool on his belt, which he was using constantly. I showed him the very heavy-duty Schrade Leatherman-tool-copy my sisters had given me for Christmas, and he looked at it the way I was no doubt looking at Julie that afternoon, so I gave it to him. Although I like the Schrade, I really didn’t use it very much, and I knew that Christian could never find something like it in Ecuador, and further that he would put it to good use. They run about $100, but he was a good host and I was glad to share. Besides, he said he wanted to start breeding macaws and other parrots there in his jungle and reintroduce them to the area, so I was prepared to be generous. Joep, Kazzie, Christian, and I stayed up drinking for quite a while after dinner, but my bowels were starting to protest again so I crawled into bed around ten.

The next morning as I was packing my stuff into the jeep one of his employees came up and asked me to pay my bar bill. I was surprised. It was only about $15, but considering that I had given Christian a $100 gift the night before, and further promised to send him parrot breeding materials from the United States, I found it annoying that he would stick me with this measly bar bill. Oh well. We got done about 8:30 a.m. and began the long trip back to Quito.

Tales of Manliness VI–The Condor/Quito/Home

We left the Amazon for Quito early on Friday the 20th, heading out over rough roads in the Land Cruiser. The trip was relatively uneventful, but at least at noon on that day it was clear for the first time of the trip, and I was able to experience having the sun straight up in the sky and seeing no shadows, which was kind of neat. We stopped for lunch on a high mountain pass, the last major pass before descending into the valley where Quito is, at the Papallacta Hot Springs. This is a popular resort built around natural springs, with a very fine restaurant. We sat in a glassed-in veranda area with a good view of the mountains and the pool, where I was able to satisfy my curiosity about whether the average Ecuadorian woman is really bikini material. Gentle reader, it was not good.

After lunch Joep excused himself to go to the bathroom, and of course that is when it happened. I was gazing up at the mountains when something HUGE swooped across the hillside maybe 200 yards away, and I was electrified. I jumped up from the table and ran to the window pointing and shouting at one of the last Andean Condors on earth. It was magnificent. It floated around for maybe a minute, and then disappeared around the edge of the mountain, just as Joep returned. I am not sure he really believed me at first, but I think eventually he did.

We arrived back to the Cafe Cultura Hotel in the late afternoon, and I made a beeline for the hotel phone, where I figured I could use my calling card without a huge hassle. I had heard nothing of the status of my parrots for over a week, and had been upset about it for days. Of course everything was fine, and all my worry, although not entirely unjustified, had just been a waste.

Joep had told me of a parrot refuge in Quito, and I was anxious to check it out. The owners, a German couple, were out of town on business, but somehow he got permission for the caretaker to let us in, especially after I said I would submit an article about the refuge to BirdTalk magazine. The refuge was on about two acres of land, with maybe 30 very large flights full of parrots. The caretaker said there were about 175 birds there, and I quickly lost count of the birds I had never seen before. Many people in Quito work in the Amazonian oil fields for a few years, and it is something of a prize to come back with a parrot as a pet, to prove you were actually out there. After a few weeks or months a lot of them get tired of their pets and just dump them wherever they can, hence this particular refuge. There were Macaws, Amazons, Caiques, Conures, Pionus, plus miscellaneous toucans, rails, an eagle, and so forth. There was also a huge cage full of monkeys.

My last 24 hours in Ecuador were kind of a blur. I was tired, my bowels were in full revolt, and I was ready to go home. I wandered the streets trying to find something to get excited about, but all I could think of was sleeping in my own bed and drinking water straight out of the tap. Steve and Josh returned from the coast Saturday morning, but Steve had gone crazy on the fresh (?) fish and was even sicker than I was. Saturday night about 9 Jaime dropped Joshua and I off at the airport, and we slowly worked our way out of the country. The airport bureaucracy worked with the legendary efficiency of the South American civil servant, but we did, in fact, finally get off the ground after showing my passport to at least 57 different people, all of whom gave the impression of wanting a tip, and all of whom were no doubt disappointed by my stinginess. The Houston airport was wonderful, the bathrooms were clean and had real toilet paper in them and doors that actually closed so I could have some privacy, and there were real drinking fountains with clean water! Do not underestimate the beauty of a drinking fountain. After thirteen hours of flying and hanging out in airports, Josh and I landed in Salt Lake. It was good to be home.

Some recent updates on the tragedy in Baños

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