bienvenidos al ecua-dor

cuenca, ecuador

july 9, 2003

“bienvenidos al ecuador"

that's what the huge, cranberry and gold banner says hanging over the road as we de-board the bus - and walk the no man's land between the peruvian and ecuadorian borders. that's the way they do it by land. no airports. first de-board and line up to see peruvian immigration, get stamped "out", then another hundred meters by foot (fortunately they have enough mercy to allow your bags to stay on the bus), then over the border - usually a river - to get stamped "in" by ecuadorian immigration.

of course this usually works smoothly and without incident for most gringos, europeans, unkempt backpackers, and the like. but when your passport is - indonesian - well that's another story. fact is, they haven't seen many indonesians. so when they do (ie. wati), they suddenly look up from their assembly line, nervously pull out their lists, consult officiously with each other, have us wait off the line while the rest of the tourists go back to the bus, and finally - when we're lucky - do the pfft pfft pftt - you know that very particular sound of immigration officers stamping your passport, your entry visa, your exit visa - and the internal smile in the pit of your belly that silently acknowledges that you've been allowed into another foreign country. that somehow you've fooled them again. that somehow they've missed you, your history, your eccentricity, your anti-political-social-religious essence. they're made another bureaucratic booboo and - somehow - allowed you in.

as i said, that's when you're lucky. peru to ecuador. ecuador to peru. but bolivia? mea culpa! i forgot to call the bolivian embassy in LA. didn't plan on going. so naturally, whereas i did call both the peruvian and ecuadorian embassies and neither require a visa from indonesians, of course bolivia does. this we find out after they've already stamped wati's passport, we've walked over the bolivian border, and now we're buying some snacks for the bus. when out of the shit happens blue, getting back on the bus, the driver anxiously asks, "espanol espanol indonesia?". "si." "lo siento, la senora necessita una visa." "shit!" we're now supposed to wait at the border for 2 days to get her one. shit shit. never mind, the bus driver indicates, just get back on the bus. everything will be fine. okay.......... what about coming back to peru 3 days later? no problema. no problema, he smiles. okay, if you say so -- on to copa cabana, bolivia ............

except when we do come back across the border 3 days later with no entry visa, si, hay una problema. we once again hold up the works while the heffes consult with each other. how did she enter with no visa? "lo siento, senor, no se." i didn't know we needed a visa. lo siento mucho. they consult. we wait. they can't let her out of the country when they didn't let her in correctly. but the bus is waiting. they consult. ok, okay, turkeys. pfft pfft pfft. move on. hasta la vista, bolivia. hola otre ves, peru........

and now we're finally in ecua-dor - 3 or 4 weeks later. having spent 6 weeks of our 9 in peru. much longer than i expected. but when i find out that our ecuadorian connection, sancho ponty, from my new york clown troupe -- and the reason we came to south america -- isn't going to show ("mea culpa, mea culpa") -- i decide not to rush north, but instead to take our time in peru where we can graciously stay with servas hosts about 50% of the time.

but now we've just crossed ecuadorian border and immediately started climbing. back up into the andes of southern ecuador. for some odd reason called the "austro". in my mind, sounding like - "austria". and for some strange reason - after the surprising wet, green rice fields just across the border, the more we climb, the more these wet, green, rolling southern ecuadorian andes do look like switzerland or austria. si. the alps of south america. or so my euro-centric mind wants to say. but no, these are the andes of southern ecuador, full of brightly dressed indigenous tribes, changing costumes every few new villages; cows, not llamas here. sheep. the ubiquitous sapono andean pipe music again. we're finally in ecua-dor!

it's about an 8 hour haul from piura, peru to loja, ecuador. we arrive at dusk and instantly decide that instead of waiting 'til the next day to take another mini-bus to the highly touted little town of vilcabamba, that we'll ford the rain, and do it now. so in we go - into the local collectivo. "an hour" to vilcabamba. they tie our muchos "maletas" (bags, now expanded from 4 to 5) on top of the van and cover them in plastic to protect them from the rain. an hour and a half later, it now completely dark, our collectivo is hurtling down the mountainside (after painfully climbing it at say, 15 mph) towards vilcabamba, the mucho tranquilo best kept secret of southern ecuador. all the locals have gotten out, the rain has just subsided and i'm able to pay the driver and extra dollar fifty to take us directly to the hosteria las ruinas de quinara. translation? i'm not exactly sure. but the place is anything but a ruin. get this. the place promises clean room s with private baths, breakfast included, free internet, bicycles, swimming pool, billiards, badminton, jacuzzi, turkish baths, horse rental, tourist info ad infinitum -- all for 7 bucks a night! and if you don't like what you see, the owner drives you back to the central plaza to find another place. needless to say, we like it. our maletas survive, miraculously unscathed by the jubio, and we stay several daze - mucho tranquilo.

except for the horses, of course. now what can i say? me and horses - we just don't much get along. between my balls taking a beating in every saddle i've every trotted, cantered, or galloped in, and every horse i've ever ridden knowing full well who was completely in charge (not me), let me just say, horseback riding is not one of my favorite past times. but hell, we're in vilcabamba - and all the tourists do the horse thing -- and young wati really wants to do the horse thing - so who am i or my balls to say no to the horse thing. now wati and i, she reminds me, have done this before - in java - we've "ridden" horses up into the crater of an active volcano in mount bromo. and it was spectacular. and we had a good time. but -- i point out to her - those horses - walked up the crater - at about 1 mile and hour. but young wati insists; she now has "experience", so simply put, "let's just do it!". well......... we do, and of course me and mi cujones take the usual beating, while young wati, after nearly being scared out of her saddle with the aforementioned trotting, cantering, & galloping, is by the end of our 2 hour tour, now riding one handed, laughing and squealing like a happy child. while i, of course, am holding on to the saddle horn with all my might, just waiting for the glorious and interminable ordeal to end and mercifully return me to the swimming pool and jacuzzi.

we discover that vilcabambans regularly reach the ripe old age of 100 and more. people say it's the mineral-laden water that they drink, the diet of low fat and high fiber, the regularity of steady exercise (mountains. mountains.), and mildness of the climate. well, we’re hip to the diet, climate, and exercise, but our guide books tells us yet again not to drink the water. we deliberate. nah, better not. besides, neither of us has the time to reach a hundred -- so we push on. oh, and it's seven bucks - each. and 22% tax. 12% to the government, 10 to the employees. ah, c'est la vie. en enspanol....

cuenca next. reportably the most beautiful and gracious city in all of ecuador. and we will not refute the claim. cuenca is cool. full of old colonial churches, spanish balconies, cobblestoned streets, good restaurants, cheap hotels, excellent tourist services, and lots to do and see. we stay at “el monastario” bed and breakfast, right near the central park, blue-lit main church, flower market, and san francisco plaza. the plaza, it turns out, is a great place to find fresh fruit juice in the morning (papaya, tomado, melon, pineapple, and the ubiquitous sugar cane), buy eggs for 10 cents each, and to see the locals gather in the morning to look for work. like the hardware stores in LA and echo park. but lots more people here. one day we hear a commotion and look down from the monastario's balcony and see - the entire crowd up in arms about a runaway thief. about fifty men are running through the plaza - through the streets - after the culprit. the crowd is buzzing, rumbling - things settle for a moment, and then about ten minutes later we hear another roar - when the 50 men have caught the bandito and are now dragging him back through the square where, men, women and children are kicking, hitting, and spitting on the poor wretch - who now apparently is going to be brought to the local policia for official punishment. reminds me of jean valjean, les miserables, some other folksy and more primitive kind of justice.

we go to the nearby cajas national park, now completely off the gringo tour circuit and bussing our own way through the andes. only problem - at an unexpected 4000 meters, wati gets soroche again - altitude sickness - and our well intended hike is limited to about a 300 hundred meter walk - where we find a local meadow and she sleeps - while i burn in the too close to heaven beauty of the glacial lakes and surrounding tundra. we hitch a ride back into town where, after quickly recovering quickly due to the reduced altitude, we are able to make it to "paseo barranco", the three generation museo, workshop, and gallery of rafael paredes e hijos, maker of handmade and fine torquilla straw hats. escuche. listen to this. did you know that panama hats aren't made in panama? that's right. they're made in ecuador. right here in cuenca. turns out that the name came from all the ecuadorian workers who came to panama to work on the canal - wearing all those fine, sun-protecting sombreros. pronto. the "panama" hat. well, thusly informed, we tour paseo barranco and gobble up as many panamas as our budget - and maletas (now 6!!) - can afford.

you will catch us wearing one or two - back in LA - not much more than a week from now...

in the meantime, we bus and bump northward….

mucho maletos
i mean,
much love,

don enrique y dona wati de ecua-dor