Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Los chorros

Pictured above is the author standing near the calm and beautiful stream that flows just below one of several massive waterfalls that are referred to unassumingly as los chorros. The name translates more or less as "the spurts," but as you'll see, the many waterfalls in this cloud forest outside of the village of Giron, about 45 minutes by bus from Cuenca, are a far cry from a mere sputtering of water. But then, Ecuadorians, as I've noticed, have a penchant for diminutizing everything. For a commonly encountered example, I present to you this conversation I might have on any given morning as I go downstairs to the market for some eggs.

"Diez huevos, por favor," I'll ask.
To which I'll hear, "Claro mi patron, diez huevitos." Ten little eggs.
And in regards to payment, I might ask: "Y cuanto le debo?"
In reply: "Ochenta centavitos, no mas." Just eighty tiny cents. How could I refuse an offer like that?

So it should come as no surprise to you to see what I saw one morning as three fellow teachers and I made our way up a hill into a tropical rainforest. A rippling torrent of water pouring down a sheer cliffside, soaking everything around it with its freezing mist as it pummels the rocks below, before transforming itself into a quiet brook and rambling peacefully downhill.

I could have sat for hours watching the shapes that constantly evolved from the cascade of a river seized by gravity and pulled suddenly straight down, like the flames of a fire flickering in the opposite direction. No less impressive was the backdrop of a mossy cliff surrounded by hills that were almost dripping with vegetation.

But we had a day of hiking still ahead of us and another waterfall to see. And we were still buoyed enough by the events of the night before to hold still for very long.

The plan to take a trip to Giron had begun months before. Just weeks after I had arrived in Ecuador, in fact. But this plan went forgotten in the whirlwind of obligations and frenzied sightseeing that ensued as 30 some gringos descended simultaneously on a foreign land, intent on witnessing as much of it as possible in the short months they allotted themselves to teach and travel.

Finally, during one of my first long weekends after New Year's, it seemed like the time had come. Five other teachers decided it was time as well, and we made a plan to leave in the early afternoon. At 1 o'clock we'd meet and get a bus soon afterwards. That morning, though, a few text messages informed me that 1 o'clock wouldn't be possible, it'd have to be later. But how much later?

As two of the teachers backed out and the afternoon began drifting by, I sat patiently waiting in my apartment with my guitar and some carefully measured quantities of my favorite mezcal brought with me from Mexico. Some further correspondence led me to believe that at first at 3 and then at 4 o'clock we could finally meet and get on the road. Sure enough, my roommate Vince arrived shortly before 4 and we made our way across town to the house of Heidi and Lauren, who were almost, but not quite ready to go.

Then there was the question of provisions. There was shopping to do, for such sundry goods as an avocado, a little 10 cent loaf of bread, and a box of wine. Then, thoroughly outfitted and prepared, we arrived at the terminal terrestre and found our way onto a bus bound for Giron in just half an hour. As it turned out, however, the bus was taking a detour and our anticipated 45 minute trip was some duration of time greater. Greater enough, as it turned out, combined with the various other delays, to bring us into the village after dark under a light drizzle of rain.

Fortunately, Heidi, a British lady married to a Peruvian fellow, had been living in Ecuador for a few years and had been to Giron and los chorros before. She knew what to do and what to say in order to get us where we needed to go. What that was was waving to a pick-up truck driver, saying "los chorros" and then hopping in the back of the truck. The rest of us did the same, and the truck driver proceeded to drive us along a muddy and winding road up a steep hill for 20 minutes or so. At the top he collected his fare, and pointed to the only two buildings anywhere in sight, indicating we could spend the night and have a bite to eat at either one of them. Without another word he drove back down the hill, leaving us at the end of a country road in the now-heavier rain.

We approached the closer of the two buildings, which had a covered patio with a large wooden table. We knocked on a door and waited, but there was no sign of life. No lights, no noise, just a sleeping dog on the patio. So we walked the quarter of a mile over to the other building, which was also conspicuously dark, and pounded on a few windows. Again, no response. In 15 minutes, we had systematically exhausted our two options for a place to stay at los chorros, which left us at something of a loss for what to do next. But, becoming increasingly wet, we opted to go back to the first building, have a seat around the table, and get dry.

It turned out that through all the preparations that had been made that afternoon, none of us had gone so far as to eat lunch. Once under the covered patio and seated around the table, we opened the box of wine for nourishment, began passing it around, and broke our little loaf of bread. There was enough of a loaf for about 3 or four bites each, it looked like. Lauren, who'd made friends with the dog who awoke to the smell of bread, began feeding it some. The rest of us decided that her generous offer came out of her portion of the bread ration, and we began spreading avocado on what remained, while the dog, appetite now whet, began begging shamelessly for more.

At this point, with no indication that we'd be finding any accomodations for the evening, and having discarded the idea of walking back down the long, dark and muddy road to Giron, we began sizing up our surroundings for a way to pass the night. None of us had brought anything like a pillow or a blanket, but the wooden table and benches seemed large enough for the four of us to all lay down on, which seemed better than the cold and wet dirt floor. A grim assessment for the night ahead, but a realistic one. We continued drinking the wine and I began to discern a pattern emerging from the events of the past few months: when I go into the woods, I find myself in some sort of unexpected and arguably risky situation, bringing others with me for the duration. At least I never go alone.

After an hour or so, as the chill of the night settled into our bones, we nonetheless began making our peace with the idea that we'd be sleeping on the table. Then we heard a phone ring in the house and some rustling of life. Interesting. I should mention that before we had made our peace with the situation we had first banged loudly on every door and window we could find. And yet, a few minutes later, an drowsy but amiable woman opened a door and explained that she had been sleeping upstairs but she eventually noticed that we were here and had just called her brother, El Negro, who owned the lodge but was down in Giron at a party. He was now on his way home to set up our beds if we wanted to stay the night, and in the meantime she could offer us trucha and canelazo. If you've been keeping up with my postings, you already know that trucha is trout, and for a detailed explanation of canelazo you'll have to scroll down a story. But suffice it to say that it's served hot and it's got alcohol in it. Which seemed perfect right about then.

About the same time that our trout was served (fried, and whole, complete with scales, head and tail), El Negro arrived in his Chevy Blazer. He made sure we were comfortable, and then explained the accomodations. He told us that he had just one bed, but he was sure it was plenty big enough for him, his sister, and the four of us. He let that idea soak in for a minute before laughing and telling us in English that he had lots of rooms, and a bed for each one of us. Funny guy!

Then he went inside, put on some Simon & Garfunkel at high volume, and turned on a disco ball above our heads which had somehow escaped our notice. El Negro knew how to entertain. He also came back outside and joined us while we ate. This wasn't the first time I'd been presented with a whole trout, and I knew what to do with it. But I have to admit, while I did take a bite out of the head I didn't eat it all, though I did enjoy the crunchy tail and fins. Vince, on the other hand, relishes the idea of eating a fish down to the spine and did so with gusto, especially enjoying the head and eyes, if his detailed description of the texture and flavor was any evidence. The meal also came with mote, a variety of large-kerneled corn similar to hominy, in this case fried with egg. I found out later that this was an unusual pairing of foods, fish obviously being eaten more on the coast and mote a traditional crop of the high mountains. But they went well together on my palette, and the canelazo rounded out the meal nicely.

El Negro, for his part, had emerged from the building with a large frothy mug of yellow beverage which he explained was a Pilsener blended with a raw egg. The rest of us opted not to sample this drink but we did enjoy his company and the ambience, which had shifted again with the change of music from 60's singer-songwriter folk to dancehall reggae, played even more loudly. I suggested that we play some cards and we settled on a round of rummy. El Negro played as well, often remarking about his malas cartas and other examples of his rotten luck.

As the weather cooled off further, El Negro thought it might be a good idea if we retired to one of the rooms where we'd spend the night, to stay warm and keep playing cards. We went to the room Vince and I'd be staying in, and upon seeing that there was a nice comfortable bed and a sorry-looking bedroll on the ground for sleeping, we both agreed that whoever won a round of rock-paper-scissors would get the bed, which I won, best two out of three.

After we'd played cards for a few hours we reached a natural pause in the game and I noticed El Negro was shuffling the cards with some dexterity, so I asked him if he knew any card tricks. It turned out he did, and he showed us one that stumped us all. I did happen to know a trick that it reminded me of, though, and I asked him if he'd show it to us again. He said he'd do better, he'd show me how the trick worked once and I could try to do it again myself. Luckily, the trick worked similarly to the one I knew after all and I was able to reproduce it without any trouble. Heidi had already gone to bed at this point, but Vince and Lauren both remained stumped by the trick, which I still haven't gotten around to showing either one of them.

Then El Negro mentioned that he knew another trick, this one involving a banana. He explained that he could slice a banana from the inside, using a knife that would never actually touch the fruit, and while the peel would remain intact, upon opening it, it would fall into evenly and cleanly sliced segments. He proceeded to demonstrate the trick with a whole banana, which he let us examine first. Sure enough, it looked like a regular banana, nothing unusual about it. Then he stood a few feet back from the yellow fruit, now resting ominously on the card table, made a few cutting motions with a knife, and told us to look at the banana again. There it was, same as before. Didn't look any different to us. But when we opened it, sure enough, it fell into slices. The peel on the inside was cut, but on the outside it was whole and smooth. Then El Negro wiped off the knife on a towel, where some banana pulp was left behind.

El Negro, for whatever reason, had deemed me worthy of learning this trick as well. I managed to learn the trick pretty easily and recreated it for Vince and Lauren a second time. They were thoroughly confused by this piece of trickery and a bit upset that I became the sole inheritor of our group. I pacified them with the explanation that before they returned to the States I'd show them how it's done. While I won't reveal the mystery to you here, when you see me I'll be happy to demonstrate this piece of mystical know-how I learned in the rainforest of Ecuador. It gives me a bit of a headache to perform, but if you're entertained enough to offer me a beer afterwards I'm sure that ought to relieve it.

At this point we were well into the early morning hours and we all decided it was time to call it a night. I slept great in the big cozy bed and it seemed as though Vince did as well on the floor. That morning, I got my first true glimpse of our surroundings, unfettered now by the cover of night and rain, but still enveloped in a thick layer of clouds:

The cloud cover proved relentless throughout our day of hiking, from this early morning view seen from the patio where we had spent our time the night before, to the first waterfall where this story began, and all the way up a mountainside to a second waterfall. Walking around inside of a cloud gave everything we saw a surreal quality, as though we were exploring the threshold of someone's dream about the Ecuadorian countryside.

Indeed, after a few hours of hiking it dawned on me that finally, after nearly five months of living in Ecuador, I'd stumbled upon a near likeness of my own dream from before arriving here, of what this mountain country must look like. Sure enough, I guess my pre-conceived notion wasn't too far off the mark after all. Except that besides this one particular landscape, Ecuador offers virtually every other type of countryside I'd ever seen before as well, plus several that I never had.

During our walk to the second waterfall, having climbed up a steep and slippery trail that more than once demanded that we humbly get down on all fours and trudge along, we found ourselves in a sort of foggy, high mountain prairieland.

This dreamlike pastoral setting was complete with various livestock. It seems like no matter what mountain I climb here, regardless of how steep and strenuous the ascent, there's always a cow at the top leisurely munching the grass, serenely looking at me, its very presence humbling my once-great physical achievement of the climb.

The clouds seemed thicker here than anywhere else, and besides contributing to the mystical quality of the environment, they also added to the element of risk. We had to hike up two or three level plateaus like this one, each stretching out to the left and the right as far as the eye could see, which here was only a few dozen yards. Our trail disappeared once it led us here, and another one, which would lead us to the falls, laid somewhere at the top, amongst many other trails just like it. Getting turned around anywhere in the woods is disorienting, but with clouds as thick as these and with surroundings that all look the same, we could easily wander around for hours looking for the right path.

Fortunately Heidi's previous visits here were still fresh in her mind and she led us to the correct trail with little hesitation. The second set of falls, not far from these open and misty plateaus, was no less impressive than the first, and if these cascades were not as picturesque as the first we saw, they dropped a greater a volume of water and were all the more amazing to us after our long and beautiful hike to reach them.

We spent a good deal of time at these falls, enjoying the refreshing mist that they sent flying everywhere as they rolled down the cliffside, and also enjoying the opportunity to take a break from hiking before we began the descent back down the muddy mountain trail. Our return journey was spent largely in silence, all of us in an almost meditative state engendered as much by the serenity of the foggy green hills as by the mighty waterfalls at the top.

Once we reached the bottom we found El Negro and his sister feeding a group of teenagers who'd arrived to enjoy the nearer of the two falls we'd visited. To entertain them, our hosts had put on some Cumbia music played at an even higher volume than the music we'd been treated with the night before. It seemed El Negro had a library of albums for any occasion or perceived taste in music of his guests. We were fed another delicious and fortifying meal, and were then offered a ride back to Cuenca in the Chevy Blazer, as El Negro had some family business there and would be driving there anyway.

Our drive back seemed to take minutes, and we even got a ride downtown, just a few blocks away from each of our two apartments. Another free ride from the country to the city, twice in a row! But I'd better not talk too much about my luck. Instead, I offer you a photo of our host, here pictured with Lauren, in front of his kitchen: