magical unreality, high above quito
july 26, 2003
we’re bussing and bumping along. we know the routine by now. we’ve tried to shorten our distances. not bus for ten hours at a stretch. make more stops. banos. amato. latacunga. still on l’avenida de los volcanos. in central ecuador. cotopaxi having replaced chimborazo as the volcano de jour. it’s one of the pleasures of bussing for me – watching the scenery change out the window. while wati tries to snooze her way through these trips - that she sees more as unpleasant, time-consuming ordeals - i soak up the countryside -- the constant turnover of local travelers, the quick assault of vendors at each stop – hawking sandwiches, drinks, tamales, weird fried pork things, lots of other unhealthy-looking food substances, cure-all remedies, and hand made trinkets to consume. it’s a constant smorgasbord for the eyes, ears, stomach, nose, and imagination. what are the daily lives of these poor people like? do they think or feel that they’re poor? yes, i think so. but just as i’m on the bus dealing with its bumps and bruises, so are they. of course i get off and go to the next hostal or tourist attraction, but they get off too. go to work, market, home, church, wherever. we’re all on and off the bus of life. money doesn’t insulate you from pain, loss, hunger (okay, maybe for food it does), emotional duress. comfort, luxury, and the familiar are not the goals or rewards of travel, nor should they be of life.
we’ve spent several days in quito, ecuador’s brilliant jewel of the andes. nestled in a valley of surrounding volcanoes, she’s tourist friendly and a real city at the same time. millions of everyday ecuadorians eating, selling, shopping, living, dying - amidst the still glorious spanish colonial history of monumental but dangerous “old town”, and the vendor-lined streets of trendy “new town”, with her global village of cyber cafes, high end and backpacker-friendly gift shops, and an entirely enclosed artisan village where you can buy in one hour what it would take you over a month to buy traveling todo el ecuador. we’re staying at the little h’othello at the top of rio amazonas in new town, once again recommended by our danish friend from the train to el nariz del diablo. we get the plantos y blancos discount, even though we forgot the promotional card. carlos, the friendly desk clerk, is taking care of our every need, and we’ve made a little arrangement with him to leave our bags at the hotel for several days at a time as we bus in and out of quito. he warns us of the criminal elements on the streets after dark, even here in new town, but we often find ourselves walking home late at night past the prostitutes on amazonas, the same street teeming with tourist trade during the day, now emptied out and abandoned except for some late night local restaurant fare, these late-night street walkers, and their johns.
so we’re bussing between quito and mindo, the little town in the cloud forests northwest of the capital. the town reputed for her butterfly farms, raging rivers, and orchid fields. the roads are winding back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm of interconnecting switchbacks as we climb the roof of the andes into the misty and magical cloud forests. it’s not quite the same as the new jersey turnpike sometime between midnight and dawn (the densest fog i’ve ever seen), but it’s completely surreal and disconcerting all of its own. young wati’s fast asleep. i’m trying to stay awake to soak up the faerie tale-like scenery, but the rhythm of the road and the fact that the bus isn’t making any stops at all are overcoming even my most willful efforts to do so. and as i’m nodding in and out of one of those disturbing transcontinental bus-induced comas, i feel myself sinking into a strange south american magically realistic, never-ending nightmare. i’m seeing, i’m experiencing the places i’ve yet to be. a little like an ayahuasca or san pedro-induced visitation by the ghosts of my ecuadorian future.
we’re staying in un pocita cozy casita somewhere off road in the cloud forests of mindo. there are hummingbird feeders all around us on an outdoor back deck of brown forrest wood and swinging hammocks. the humming birds are in their perpetual feeding frenzy, their wings and beauty as delicate as – insect wings in furious, life-sustaining motion. we’ve just come back from a two hour trek where we never quite find the elusive mindo river for our elysian swim. but we’ve had a foot race to the death, where somehow my arthritic hip has beaten out her youthful, but not yet fully dedicated speed, leaving her sulking once again in a youthful cauldron of pride, spite, anger, and revenge. she’s like one of these active volcanoes all around us, but she’s more predictable, and more – prolific. it’s just a matter of time before she erupts again.
and then it happens. like a page out of our all too familiar book. but this time – it’s a magazine. en espanol of course. being the magazine addict she is, she’s flipping the pages – looking at fashion, advertisements, beautiful bodies - en espanol – when suddenly she asks me, “were any of your ex-girlfriends ever famous?” i think a moment, not suspecting anyone, and i answer pretty confidently, “no, i don’t think so”. she says, “are you sure?” i figure something’s up and i run through my back pages. nada. “yeah, i’m sure.” “okay,” she mutters, blithely burying her head back in the magazine. i’m practiced at this passive aggressive approach, and even in my magically realistically-induced bus coma, i manage to instruct myself out into the yard to take a walk.
the bees are being and the hummingbirds are humming, but my sweet princess from indonesia is stewing. in her magazine. i can see the look on her face. it’s the pre-eruption volcanic look. “i’m going back to the house”, i say, trying to avoid the inevitable tremblor. but it’s too late. “what about ‘so and so’?” (i withhold the name to protect the innocent.). oh no. i forgot about her. she’s not exactly famous. but she was peruvian. and she made a few films. and her family is pretty well connected in the peruvian economic and social hierarchy of things. enough perhaps to get her picture in this magically realistic magazine in mindo, ecuador. “do you want to see?” my honey asks me, all smiles and spite. “no, i don’t want to see.” “why not? you can see her breasts.” oh my fucking god. here we go again. why can’t we go anywhere – and i mean anywhere – even on a magically realistic comatose bus ride fantasy – and not have another petty squabble? is this the price of a new marriage on the road? i mean, it’s enough for any twosome – couple or otherwise – to survive two and a half months of constant roadside companionship. but a 56 year old gringo and his 25 year old southeast asian bride! maybe it’s too much to expect from a journey. or a marriage.
in any event, erupt she does. and erupted on, am i. but being the mature partner in the relationship, and not wanting the bus to kilter off road altogether, i bite my tongue and try not to respond to the bait. this infuriates her even more. and off she goes...
have you ever noticed? that turning the other cheek basically doesn’t work in life? i mean, for example - one time i was accosted by a mad yuppie accountant outside the streets of raleigh studio in LA. we were both late for a big peter brook festival concert, and the mad yuppie determined i had stolen his parking place. i indicated to him in sign language that there was another spot right behind me. but this did nothing to divert his rage – at me – for “stealing” the parking place he had his eyes on. so the yuppie double parks his car – right there on the street - gets out of his car, and runs at me in my car, having just finished a well-made parallel park. his wife follows the yuppie out of his car, screaming at him to control his anger, “get back in the car, stan. get back in the car!” but stan, defying all civilized logic, seeing entirely red, comes running up to my parked car, screaming at me. i, applying the good christian principle of turning the other cheek and not engaging the mad bull in escalating the conflict, roll up my driver’s side window and just sit there. this, as i said, apparently doesn’t work well, and mad stan proceeds pounding on my window with enough force to shatter both the glass and his hand. but before he does either, he shifts gears and starts kicking my car with enough force to dent the metal or break his foot. then, suddenly responding to his still-screaming and panicky wife, he goes back to his car to handle her. during which time, i get out of my car, walk over to the back of his car, run back across the street, take off my shoulder bag, kneel down on the sidewalk, and start writing down his license plate number. the next thing i know, the left side of my face is greeted by mad stan’s infuriated right fist crashing into it from above. mad stan has rushed back across the street, and unbeknownst to me, punched me in the face while i was kneeling and writing.
i bounce up like a deer just released from a headlight and start screaming at stan in a maniacally wounded fury. even mad stan is taken aback by this, and this, along with his wife’s ear-piercing screams, “oh my god! oh my god! stan! stan!” perhaps pierce even his invincible shield of rage at this point; because the next thing i know, mad stan has jumped back into his car and left the scene of his crime in quite a rubber-squealing, tear-ass exit. i make my way to the mahabarata concert, but when my jaw swells up to twice its size, i decide to take myself to a hospital. i discover that mad stan has broken my jaw, and left me no means of identification. soon after having my jaw wired, my two wisdom teeth pulled, and hiring a lawyer and detective to track down mad stan by his license plate, stan, his wife, and i find ourselves in front of a country sheriff’s deposition. during which, stan, the upholding society accountant once again, swears under oath that i attacked his wife and kicked her, and that he hit me in self defense. this enrages me, but his wife corroborates stan’s testimony, and the whole megillah plays itself out with an eleven thousand dollar settlement stan pays to me for dropping criminal charges, forty per cent of which goes to my lawyer and detective for navigating our way through the very realistic american criminal justice system. oh yeah, stan’s last name is markham (not withholding the name to protect the guilty), and he lives in brentwood, not far from his soon to be famous brentwood neighbor, oj simpson.
anyway, the cheek thing doesn’t work. yet i still try to practice it. in reality. trying not to match anger with anger. trying to bite my tongue. trying to go to my room for a time out. but here in ecuador? on a bus? on a twenty-four hour a day, magically realistic trek thorough rain forests, deserts, jungles, and andes. it’s… what can i say? challenging. and now, trying not to set off another wave of volcanic eruptions here in paradisiacal mindo, i go back to the jungle cottage and swing. in my hammock. try to read a book. swat mosquitoes from my neck. wait for the indonesian volcano to die down. but the mosquitoes have little blood-engorged indonesian faces. and they’re buzzing and biting. and talking and swearing. in indonesian and english. and i don’t understand a word. but i get their intent. and they sting and they hurt. and my heart is sunk. and i have no defense. and i can’t live another moment in this perpetual, unresolved emotional conflict. so i get up out of the hammock -- with all my sisyphusian patience -- and all the love in my heart…
until the next thing i know we’re on another bus, on another cloud forest climb into another comatose fantasy. this time to otavalo, the artisan and shopping capital of ecuador. and this time, amidst our blatant gringo consumerism of stuffing two more giant bags full of ceramic chimes, wooden don quixote wood carvings, animated alpaca wall hangings, and various and sundry gifts and house decorations, we’re railing against each other in a small hostal in otavalo. she’s taking off her wedding band and throwing it across the room, and i’m dissolving into a heap on the floor and crying. and begging, and screaming, and begging some more – and we’re going through endless rounds and volleys of rational argument, and childlike accusations, and hurtful threats, and tearful apologies. apologizing for what i never know. and i always know. and what does it matter who’s right. or who’s wrong. because… because - the ayahuasca -- the san pedro -- the huachumba – has made for a bad trip. and here we are in a little hotel room – in a magically realistically bus-induced fantasy. and our marriage is dissolving in front of our eyes. our sweet, beautiful, brief marriage is over. here in otavalo. high above the pristine beauty of quito. in the volcanic cloud forests of mindo. of otavalo. over……….
four days later we’re back in LA. we’ve flown out of quito, stopped in panama city, and arrived back home at one in the morning. it takes us quite a while to get through customs – maybe another two hours – wati’s gotten something called “advanced parole” from the BCIS (formerly the INS) to leave the country while her adjustment of status and permanent residency application is pending. (quite a name, eh? “advanced parole”. quite clear how we treat our immigrants, legal or otherwise). but it takes an additional two hours to get the right customs officer to check her through and stamp her passport. pfft. pfft. by then it’s three a.m., and our promised ride doesn’t show up (turns out he thought we were coming in the next day, the after midnight/am-pm, calendar day thing proving a little too confusing), so we taxi home for the price of maybe four days of touring in south america.
yeah. we’re still together. yeah. we still love each other. that was just a lot of bus-induced, centrifugal paranoia. we open the door and are greeted by our half wolf dog, clay, while our student house sitter, kevin, sleeps through our next two hours of looking around the house, seeing what’s still alive and what’s still in place. miraculously, all is pretty good. the plants are still green and there are only a few chips and scratches on the pictures and pottery. a small price to pay for two and half months of travel and adventure. after all, we’ve seen the mythical “nazca lines” on the southeast coast of peru. we’ve been to machu pichu and titicaca, to the islas ballestos off the pacific coast of pisco, peru, where we saw sea lions and iguanas, and a whole range of darwinian splendor in what savvy travelers call “the poor man’s galapagos islands”. we’ve bussed from northern bolivia to northern ecuador, flown to the amazon jungle in northeast peru, and been baptized in the hot volcanic baths of the andes. we’ve even survived a magically realistic breakup in the cloud forests above quito.
so now – back to reality reality. american style. los angeles style. new yawk and indonesian style. maybe my friend marcie was right, we just should have stayed home and been a little easier on our new marriage.
but then again……………….
your man in lala land,
don enrique de los viajes