Not all who wander are lost

7am. We sit in the canoe waiting to leave camp like grizzled army vets about to be extracted from the theatre of combat. “Man, the things we’ve seen here! Life will never been the same,” says Menna, hands trembling as she rolls a cigarette.
“We’re not the same people who came into this jungle five days back,” mutters Arthur, his blue eyes emptily staring into space from under his bandana. Matilda scowls and twitches, tests the edge of her knife with a thumb, snarls at her reflection in the water.

It’s true, we’ve been deep. Those sunset swims with anacondas. The swirl of bats overhead. That boat trip after dark where we shone torches down into the water and found ourselves floating right above a giant black caiman, silent and menacing; as long himself as our ten-man canoe.

We’ve stood our ground to marauding monkey troupes. Our blood has nourished more winged and slithering creatures than we can count. We have bared our souls to the shaman in a smoke-filled hut while thunder boomed outside.

As we sit in the boat we are weary, saturated, still processing crazy visions. Goodbye to the Amazon! I am somehow deeply sad. We are leaving this wild crucible that seems like the heart of the world. We may never see such things again. Perhaps in a few decades much of this will be gone. I have my bags by my feet and my poncho folded neatly on my lap.

The Ecuadorian girls behind me start scuffling, they stand suddenly, rocking the canoe, their voices go high. We are used to this – they are of a nervous disposition. Diego looks over and his sharp intake of breath is much more worrying. Diego is the most calm and implacable guide you can imagine. This inhalation is the only sign of worry I have ever seen him exhibit in the whole week.

“This, my friends, is the Banana spider that I have told you about” he says, “Also known as the Brazilian Wandering Spider. Will, perhaps you can move slowly away.”

Diego has indeed told us about this spider. Aggressive, fond of humans and one of the most venomous creatures in the entire jungle, it now sits on the gunwhale of our boat, some centimeters from my thigh. It was not there moments before, because it has only just emerged from within my poncho.

(I tuck this fact away for later, promising myself to spend some good time, ideally late at night, dwelling on what might have happened had I put that poncho on with the spider still inside)

I shuffle away and watch as Diego carefully inches forwards, places a paddle underneath the beast and flicks it away.

In balletic slow motion the spider tumbles in a low arc, turning two or three times in the air before executing a perfect landing with all eight legs on the river surface. It them proceeds to run lightly over the water back to the boat, where it disappears from our view, climbing somewhere up onto the underside of our hull.

We have now pissed off a highly poisonous spider who is hiding, biding its time, waiting for revenge somewhere on the boat. None of us is going to relax much during the three hour journey downriver.

And this is our jungle farewell. The Amazon breathes and moves and whispers all around us. “You see,” it sighs, “I could have taken you at any time. Run away back to your civilisations now, you foolish mortals. But be sure to dream of me.”

“Symptoms may appear within 10 to 20 minutes after the bite, and death within two to six hours, where severe pain radiates to the rest of the limb, systemic effects include tachycardia, increased blood pressure, vertigo, fever, sweating, visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing and paralysis.

Death is usually caused by respiratory arrest.”

Brazilian Wandering Spider. Wikipedia.

Beware the Otter

Today we have left the motoroised canoe behind and we are progressing upriver Indian style, by paddle, at dawn. We are on the trail of the giant Amazon river otter.

Diego has a lead. He has heard of a suspected otter nest a few miles upriver. We will approach it by stealth, paddling silently through the swamp waters and hopefully catching a sight of this rare mammal.

The giant otter is the largest of the mustelid family, a beast that grows to roughly the same length as Menna (though at 35kg, it is somewhat more svelte). Over the last few decades the population of giant otters has been decimated. It is the usual story of encroaching humanity: fur hunters, mercury poisoning, loss of habitat. It is now listed by the UN as an endangered species.

A ‘few miles upriver’ turns out to be a couple of hours of hard paddling. It is a fairly intense early morning workout. We make our way up the main Cuyabeno, then we branch off to follow a section of smaller tributaries and channels deep into the jungle. Branches hang down all around us, bromeliads spurt up from the banks, occasional orchids hang down and there are some bright red flowers I don’t recognise. We find ourselves paddling through wide muddy pools then punting our way through interconnecting passages that are really no more than muddy ditches.

“Quiet!” says Diego, as he so often does. Our kids are arguing and hitting each other, they need a swift kick. There is a hoarse shouting sound somewhere up ahead. “We are close.”

We pull through a curtain of branches and suddenly there they are: dark shapes rearing out of the muddy water, spinning and slithering around in the sunlit shallows. It’s hard to count them because they are in constant motion, but there must be five large adults and a couple of tiny pups.

The otter group spots our canoe and they collectively freeze for a second. Then a delegation of three males turns and heads over towards us.

Otters are like pretty much the cutest animals in the world right? Furry, intelligent, playful. They float on their backs and hold hands. They slide down mud banks. They have expressive eyes and funny whiskers.

But not these frickin otters.

These ones are large and scary.

Diego mentioned the other day that the giant otter could take on a jaguar, but I didn’t really get the implications of this. Now I very clearly see what he means.

They come straight for the boat, rearing up out of the water like aquatic prairie dogs, barking and shouting in a very unfriendly way. Their teeth are yellow, their eyes are red and and their claws look sharp enough to rip your stomach open with a single swipe. The Spanish name for the giant otter is lobo de agua, the water wolf.

“We are too near the pups. We will back off gently,” says Diego quietly. “They can attack the canoe from underneath and sometimes they are strong enough to turn us over.”

Images of the seven of us thrashing around in the dark waters while sinewy fur streaks slip and swirl around in the gloom, scratching, biting, butting. Blood clouds, bubbles, piranhas clustering, alligators slipping in from the shores.

We retreat back some meters and then the otters all submerge, and unsure whether we are about to get torpedoed from beneath, we brace. The rest of the family melts away back into the mangroves. The sounds of the forest return. No otter faces emerge and we are left in stasis, silent, slightly shaken, awestruck by this close-up encounter with such an magnificent mammal.

Onwards we paddle down these lost waterways, heading deeper into the wilderness, or so it it feels though I have no cardinal reference points. Have we crossed into Colombia or Peru? I have no idea how Diego can navigate in this world, so far away from our lodge, where trees are dense and prolific, where water and land merge into unsubstantial floating vegetation, where secret channels hide beyond curtains of hanging foliage.

We push our canoe through gaps between tree roots and bushes, we duck low branches. “Careful!” Diego whispers, “Don’t touch!”

There is a seemingly impenetrable wall of leaves that Diego wants us to pass through at one point. We paddle the canoe straight for it and then like magic we glide right through to find ourselves in a deep and silent black pool encircled by the most ancient looking buttressed trees. It is the stuff of fairy tales. As we look around awestruck, absorbing the enchantment, there is a noise. A yelp, hoarse and high, then another louder one. What is this?

It takes me a moment to realise that this cry is not an aquatic mammal guarding its territory, but my daughter. She is sobbing in high gulps and tearing at her top. The foliage that we just brushed through is home to a colony of fire ants and many of them are now trying to colonise Matilda. They are roaming inside her clothes, biting and stinging her back and chest. She screams.

Then I feel it too. I have several inside my collar and they really fucking hurt. The bites burn, like, like… fire!

We settle, we moor up, we console Matilda, we scratch our wounds. We are tired from paddling so we fish for piranhas, using old bacon on handheld lines. The fish are too cunning for us though. Within seconds of putting the line down into that febrile water, there are tugs and shivers, the bacon is surgically stripped away, but the hook keeps comes up empty. Down in the murky depths beneath us there is a lot of movement.

Matilda is still whimpering and writhing. Menna is bent over her like a mother chimpanzee, stroking her, grooming her, pulling off ants. We have spotted a huge spider lurking immobile on a tree root right next to our canoe and it’s mildly freaking everyone out. I need the loo. We are stiff but we cannot stretch out, any attempt to leave this small craft means stepping into a hostile quagmire, sinking down into a seething mulch of hungry creatures.

This right here, I think to myself, is what exploring is really about. Unimaginable beauty, true wilderness but it must be paid for in the currency of discomfort, fear and danger. I feel proud that my children have paid the price and will take these moments back into the world with them. We go adventuring to collect vivid memories and experience the rush of extreme sensations, but it is not always fun in the moment. No-one is relaxed in our canoe right now – except Diego who is impervious to discomfort.

On our way back we come across another otter lodge. This time we are at just the right distance. Close enough to see the full antics, far away enough not to pose a threat. We see the otters climbing up the bank and slithering down, playing, messing around. They are submerging themselves and rolling, wallowing in the muddy shallows. Sometimes they appear to be laughing.

From this distance they really are quite cute.

Night Walk

Humans are not well equipped to deal with the nocturnal environment. This becomes ever more apparent as we grope our way along the jungle path; leaves, creepers, spider webs tickling our faces in the darkness. We inch forwards following the intermittent light of Diego’s torch somewhere up ahead, weaving through tangled silhouettes like a willow the wisp.

We have seen frogs and spiders tonight – lots of spiders – mainly venomous. Scorpions too. We have watched seething lines of ants devouring cicadas on a thorn tree. I have come face to face with a snake (type unknown) that uncoiled itself and slithered away between the tree roots with impressive speed, leaving me frozen, crouching in an awkward unbalanced position, unnerved and very glad that it had chosen not to insert its fangs in my unprotected nose. There were slithery movements in the rivulets that could have been caimans or anacondas or perhaps they were just forest rats.

Despite Diego’s requests for us to stay together and stay silent, the two Ecuadorean girls in our party are doing a lot of nervous whispery chatter and occasional screams. I am worried that their noise will scare away any of the more interesting nocturnal sightings: armadillos, tapirs, big cats.

Diego stops to give a hushed lecture about a chrysalis and I wander on a few paces ahead. I slip round a corner and then I am alone. I hold my torch clenched in my fist, so my hand glows red and thin spears of light emerge out from between my fingers. It is dim enough to protect my night vision but just enough to make out a ghostly path.

I can still hear the group talking behind me and I have an urge to get away from the voices. I push on down the track. I have this vision of slipping away and communing somehow with the forest, silently becoming part of the ecosystem. A witness to prowling shadows as they slip through the glades. Perhaps I will come face to face with a jaguar. We will look into each others’ eyes and share some timeless moment of mutual understanding. I will come back wiser and wilder, with the faraway look of the forest shaman.

And now suddenly the daydream is real and I am totally alone. No sounds, no lights. I switch off my torch and stand there silently in the utter darkness. I can see a few faraway stars through gaps in the canopy, but their light does not penetrate to the forest floor. I wait to see the jungle come alive.

And all around life surges forward.

In the absence of sight all noise is magnified and takes on a layered texture. Slithering, rustling, croaking, calling, twitching, scratching, trilling, growling, chirping. It’s like a three dimensional world builds suddenly outwards, like a radar view or a heat map. A contoured living landscape all around me, seething and moving.

Then a heavy foot cracks a twig not far away and at the same time there is a significant squelching sound to my left. Something else runs across the back of my neck and immediately all my zen is lost. I am suddenly very scared. Everything around here is predatory or poisonous. I am the only creature here without decent teeth or claws. I have no finely calibrated flight reflexes. All I have is a finely-tuned imagination and it is going wild right now.

I remember Diego’s story about a guide who took a wrong path and was lost in the jungle for three weeks. He emerged like a skeleton, half-deranged, with broken fingers, fungal infections and supporating insect bites.

I switch my torch on and shine it around wildly. Too fast! Was that glittering the reflection of eyes in the torch beam, or was it moisture dripping off leaves? I run back down the track. But is it back? Which way did I come from?

And then I round a curve and I have found a kind of safety, clattering into the group who are now discussing a fungus. “Shhh!” says Diego. I pant and edge my way into the safety of the herd.

“Are you scared Daddy?” Says Matilda. “It’s ok. You can hold my hand”

The Shaman

Diego played a trick on us yesterday. “Press this root to your forehead,” he told us, handing around something like a small spongy potato, “You will feel a tingle, but then the ancient wisdom of the forest will flow into you.” This morning we all have indelible purple stains on our foreheads yet none of us are any wiser.

It seems that we must seek the wisdom of the forest elsewhere. So today we will go to see the shaman.

There is an indigenous community that lives half a day’s hike away, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. There, away the flow of modern life, Siona tribesmen and women still maintain the old traditions.

“But will we corrupt them with our gadgetry and western free-market ideology?” I whisper to Diego.
“They are not children. And they are not so isolated any more,” he says, “they go to upriver to the town sometimes when they have money, and the government have even given the village a computer with internet to educate the kids. Also los petroleros are often there.”
“Really? Oil men? I thought this was a nature reserve”
“Yes, it is. But still there is drilling. Much of the forest here is supposed to be for the indigenous communities but the government is greedy, they squeeze the territory and the oil companies come in. You know about Texaco?”
“I know they have a load of gas stations in the UK.”
“They were the big oil company here, they built Lago Agrio, the town that we passed through. They drilled in the Amazon for many years and during this time they spilled many millions of gallons of oil in the forest and created crazy amounts of pollution. Toxic waste pits, villages abandoned, whole rivers contaminated. In 2011 there was a law suit against them and they were ordered to pay nine billion dollars of damages for the pollution they had caused. But they had already pulled out from Ecuador. They left nothing behind except mess, and still not one dollar has been paid.” I have not seen Diego angry before.

We head out of the back of the lodge, straight into deep vegetation. We cross a tributary river in a small canoe, Arthur and Diego acting as ferrymen for the rest of the group. Then further and deeper into the forest we go. There is muddy path and there is marshy path, and there is the quicksand path which Diego tests with a stick before deciding to take a detour.

It is humid as we walk – oppressively so – we are soon sweating. Mosquitos and flies attack. The jungle buzzes and trills and rustles all around. We must be careful never to grab branches, even when we slip. There might be thorns or poison ivy on those branches, there might also be bullet ants or fire ants, tarantulas, wolf spiders, eyelash vipers, vine snakes or bushmasters. This place is beautiful but deadly.

At one point Arthur screams and we all freeze. He has kicked at a branch that lay across the path, and a cluster of fine thorns have punctured his Wellington boot, going straight through the rubber into his toes. He cannot take the boot off, it is literally pinned in place. Diego has to remove more than twenty needles before Arthur can wriggle his bleeding foot out. I consider what protection our feet have from snake fangs if thorns can slip through so easily.

We make the village by early afternoon, damp with sweat, muddy, scratched. We find a rudimentary set of wood buildings randomly placed around a grassy clearing, some wooden canoes tied to a jetty. Most of the huts are thatched but some have aluminum roofs, “Given by the oil firms” mutters Diego. The local kids run and hide when they see the rabble of muddy ecotourists that have invaded their village. We hear them giggling from behind bushes and outhouses. Someone throws a tamerind over at us.

Diego leads us to a long building in the village centre. There are no windows and it is dark and smokey inside. Despite the heat outside there is a fire burning, red embers heaped up and glowing upon a raised platform. The air is thick with smoke, we see tendrils curling up to the roof illuminated by sparse light beams that pierce the thatch.

An amerindian lady is waiting for us in traditional dress. She says some words of welcome then promptly puts us all to work. Under her grave instructions we pick yams, we peel, wash and grate them, sift and pat the flour into balls which are then flattened out and cooked over the open fire. The result is a dry chewy cassava pancake, which we eat with tuna salad and chili sauce. It’s really good.

The shaman comes in after lunch. He is small and stocky but light on his feet, decked in jaguar claws and floral wreaths, his face lined with druidic wisdom and years of ayahuasca. He takes his place in the centre of the hut, and we, poor sinners, arrange ourselves cross-legged at his feet.

The shaman talks long about the spirits of the forest and cures to modern ailments that might be found in realigning the spirit and balancing natural energy flows. Diego translates for us. He speaks about his peregrinations in time and space. He touches upon Covid and how it ravaged the Indian communities and then he shows us the antidote that he has concocted. A dark jar is passed around in which lie various roots and leaves, some foul smelling liquid, the body of a scorpion. It has stopped the infection and saved many lives we are told. We may buy a bottle for $10.

The shaman shows us his art. He performs purification rituals on many of us. It is a eerie process involving chanting and dancing, hand movements that channel the air around, gentle beating with sticks and leaves, then a finale that involves an iron grip on my temples and long rasping inhalations, as if the shaman is sucking evil vapors right out of my skull. I have crazy tingles running down my spine.

We are all given a thimble full of ayahuasca from another brown bottle that the shaman passes around. It tastes of bitter cough syrup. He tells us about the role of this powerful psychedelic drug in the indigenous community. It is taken as part of a ceremonial passage of manhood and it brings truth and self-knowledge to the tribesmen. As a healer he takes ayahuasca regularly to diagnose conditions of the spirit and understand hidden illnesses. We are not given enough of a dose to trip out properly, no-one journeys to the ethereal plane. The kids are disappointed not to even have any mild hallucinations, but we have a long jungle hike ahead and I suppose it’s for the best.

The shaman asks if anyone among us needs healing. Arthur’s hand shoots up immediately; the shaman gives him a long silent look. “What ailment troubles you child?” he asks wordlessly.
“I have… a bad knee,” Arthur says and limps over to the healing stool. The shaman looks grave. He stands behind Arthur and peers into his soul for a while. Then he starts to chant, placing hands upon Arthurs leg, drawing out the evil. He pulls out a selection of herbs and leaves from his bag, which he ties up into a bouquet. Then he proceeds to beat Arthur’s leg and knee, softly at first and then harder and harder, singing loudly. For a long time this goes on until Arthur is grimacing in pain and his eyes are shiny with tears.

Later outside Arthur shows me his leg. It is red and sore, covered in grazes. The astringent herbs have left a violent rash of raised white bumps like nettle stings all over his knee and thigh. “It burns!” he tells me.
“Artie, I never knew you had a bad knee,” I say with sympathy. “You managed that hike well.”
“Huh, oh yeah. Well. It’s pretty painful.”
“Even worse now I bet!”
“Yeah!”
“You made it up to get some shaman magic didn’t you?”
“No.”
“Didn’t you?”
“Ok. Yes.”
“Foolish child! You thought you could trick him? His ancient eyes can read the secrets of your soul as if it were a kid’s comic! Of course he knew you were faking it. He has beaten you with poison leaves to teach you a valuable lesson in life. Never lie to a shaman!

Amazon

When morning breaks we are stiff and grumpy. We have been tossed around on dirt roads all night, jolted over speed bumps, woken by angry motorbikes buzzing past us in the darkness. We’ve passed through roadblocks and forded rivers, squirming all the while, trying to find comfy positions in the back of the bus while the children’s heads loll like pendulums with each turn. I feel like every spring of that worn seat has scored its curved imprint into my buttocks.

We all spill out into the village at dawn. Buildings on stilts list heavily over the river, peeling paint, warped boards, lianas tangled round gables. The water moves past, thick like treacle. Somewhere above us we hear the metallic skiffle of iguana claws on corrugated roofs.

We eat breakfast in a dusty wood space looking out into jungle: rice and beans, guava juice, a small cup of instant coffee. Talk is limited. There is an outhouse with a toilet back in the woods, but it doesn’t flush and everyone needs to go.

Deep in the Putumayo region, somewhere near the Colombian border, this village has no name on the map. It is merely a stop off point on the Cuyabeno river, a jump-off point into the Amazon, a backwater in the truest sense of the word.

A motorized canoe glides up and moors on the jetty. We board clumsily. We are handed lifejackets and ponchos, our luggage is stowed under tarps. I look around at my companions properly in the daylight. There is my family, looking dazed and pale, two Ecuadorean girls chattering, a young looking boy from Norway and our guide, Diego, a slight, elfin character, alert and bird-like. At the tiller is Carlos, our local riverman. He has broad impassive indigenous features, a wide white-toothed grin, bare feet.

Then we cast off and we enter a new world.

The river is bronze and torpid (“Café con leche water, rich in tannins and sediment,” says Diego) but then we skim through patches of black ink (“Agua negra, poor sediment. See how it is thin…”). All traces of mankind disappear behind us, we see no more villages, just thick curtains of leaves. The canoe glides along with a growl, banking around the bends in smooth lazy curves. Occasionally we cross another canoe and sometimes Carlos waves or shouts a greeting in local dialect. Mainly the river runs slick and silent around us, bubbling and swirling, merging into low hanging branches and shrubbery that in turn blend up into endless stories of green primary growth.

We see many wild things on that first voyage. Diego runs a low commentary, voice rising to signify the rarity of the target, pointing and calling, directing Carlos from one side of the river to the other, doubling back for a missed monkey troupe or to investigate a rustling in the bushes. Six or seven types of monkey we spot, deer, Ananinda birds, ancient prehistoric turkeys, kingfishers, spiders an eagle? Arthur wakes up, becomes more and more animated, pointing and chirping like a little cricket: “Is that a white-throated toucan Diego?”

At one point the grey skies above us open up and we cruise on through a deluge, everyone scrambling to put on black rubber ponchos, peering out from under dripping hoods. All sounds recede beyond the drumming of droplets on wet tarp. Birds disappear, movements on the river are masked by the splashing. Carlos grins and guns the boat forward through vertical sheets of water.

Our lodge is a fairly rudimentary affair. A boathouse by the riverside with a couple of hammocks and some bare wooden steps. A raised duckboard trail leads around a square of cleared grassland wherein lie piles of lumber, home no doubt to various highly venomous snakes. There is a feeling of jungle torpor, the smell of decay and lethargy. A basic canteen area houses a long single table and benches. There is a row of thatched cabins with dormitory style rooms. We have a double bed and two singles in our bedroom, each tented with a mosquito net. The walls are bare, there are no shelves, no chairs, a basic bathroom out back. No electricity of course, except for two hours in the evening when the diesel generator is switched on to charge cameras and essentials. There is no phone signal, no hot water, no WiFi. This is the Amazon. “We are explorers!” I tell the kids, “Not poolside lounge lizards.” Matilda gives me one of her most lizard-like looks:
“I am not an explorer,” she says, flicking out a forked tongue, “long live lounging!”

We’re back in the canoe a few hours later, venturing down sinuous tributaries, spotting an anaconda curled on a submerged branch; pink river dolphins breaching in the distance; a mother sloth with cubs on her back. “Is it a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth Diego?” asks Arthur.
“Show-off” I mutter.

And then we round a bend and we’re at an unexpected lake. It is vast, lost somewhere deep in the forest, encircled by ancient woods. A flood plain, Diego tells us, those floating bushes we see are actually the canopies of tall submerged trees. We dive off the canoe and swim. The water is sweet to the taste and I imagine it rich and dense, teeming with a million bacteria, microbes, nematodes, wild diseases that they don’t even have names for yet. The sun is setting and the lake water is dark around us. We see dolphins breaching in the distance, I am sure that they are not the only creatures splashing here. Arthur and Matilda turn into river otters, they dive in time and time again, duck each other, scream, laugh, try to pull Diego into the water, dive down to find river weed. I am happy to return to the boat after a few minutes. Menna does not go in.

Later over dinner, Diego asks us to guess what creatures were swimming with us in that lake.

Piranhas?
“Of course! The piranhas are everywhere in the river. Maybe we will go fishing for them tomorrow.”
Crocodiles?
“Caimans in fact. Especially the black caiman. It is the largest one – up to six meters long. He will grab you with his jaws then twist and roll to break your bones. Then he pulls you down under to drown. For large mammals like you, he would probably store you underwater a while to rot before eating. What else?”
Anacondas?
“Yes too. They will be hunting once the sun falls. We saw one once the length of three men, round as a barrel in the middle where it was digesting something… big. There are many snakes there in the water too, coral snake, water moccasin, maybe boas.”
Beavers?
“No. River otters though, very aggressive. Will fight a jaguar.
Other reptiles?
“On the mud bottom you will find electric eels. They use low voltage electricity to sense and to hunt, kind of like a radar. Then they can generate a high voltage charge, enough to stun a tapir. They have a suction bite so they clamp on to their prey, then they can shock again and again. No charger needed!”
Oh good. What else?
“The most dangerous of all… the candiru, the toothpick fish. Never pee in the Amazon! He will swim up your urine and right up into your, ahem… penis! And he sticks out his sharp umbrella spines so you cannot pull him out again. Then my friends, he will start to eat…”

When the conversation dies down we go to bed, for there is nothing else to do. It is dark and there are no lights in our cabin. Despite the overnight bus ride and the long day we have just had, sleep does not come easily. We lie for some time under our mosquito nets listening to the sound of the jungle around, imagining snakes on the floorboards and tarantulas under the pillows, feeling river-borne parasites squirming in our guts.

Our dreams when they come are slow and heavy: brown waters and submerged coils, shadowy shapes moving in the murky depths, the lighting flash of the electric eel, that first agonizing bite of the bloody toothpick fish…

A Mental Breakdown. Part III

From: Will Nicholl <willaccio@gmail.com>
Date: Tue, 20 Apr 2021 at 01:58
Subject: Criminal conduct.
To: customerservice@ExxxCar.com.ec; and CEO Caroline Pxxxx <caroline.Pxxxx@ExxxCar.com>

Dear Customer Services,

We have had the worst experience that is possible with your company. It is bordering on criminal. You have stolen money from us. I’m not sure if ExxxCar Ecuador is genuinely part of ExxxCar or some dodgy franchise, but it is certainly bringing the ExxxCar brand into disrepute.

This is what happened to us:
1. We booked a Chevrolet Vitara SUV for 17 days from ExxxCar Ecuador (19th March to the 2nd April) at a very expensive rate. We wanted to go with a reputable brand so we chose ExxxCar – big mistake.
2. When we came to pick it up we were told you only had a Kia Rio saloon instead. We complained. The office then exchanged our vehicle a day later for an old Hyundai H1 Minivan.
3. This vehicle was ancient. The right side door didn’t open, it had rust spots all over. It lacked power, the gears stuck, the alarm kept shorting. It had 207,000 km on the clock.
4. We complained twice about the poor quality of the vehicle and the agent said he would raise our complaint with Customer Services. We didn’t hear anything back.
5. The vehicle then abruptly broke down on the side of the road near Quilotoa. This was 30th April. I had to leave my wife and two children alone on the side of the road as evening fell and hitch hike off in a melon truck to get help. It cost us $70 to get the broken van towed back to our hotel. A ExxxCar agent then came the next day and exchanged it for the SUV that we had booked in the first place – two days before our rental period finished (also very old and in bad condition.). We finished the contract and left the country.
6. On the 6th April, $2,000 was deducted from my credit card with no warning. When I enquired I was told it was a charge to ‘replace the full motor’ in the minivan. The agent somehow inferred that it was our fault that the ancient vehicle had chosen that moment to die.

ExxxCar gave us the oldest most unroadworthy vehicle I have EVER seen in a rental company. It died on the side of the road. Now you are trying to charge me to replace the old worn-out motor. This is not moral or legal. It is clearly a cynical attempt to get an old vehicle refurbished at my expense. YOU should be paying ME compensation for this appalling rental experience.

I am writing to give you a change to make this right and refund the $2000 that you have taken – and also add on the $70 cost of the tow truck that I had to pay.

Otherwise we will have to take legal action. 

Best regards,

Will

——————————————————————————————————

On Thu, 22 Apr 2021 at 17:50, Will Nicholl <willaccio@gmail.com> wrote:

Dear Gina,

Thank you for your email and your investigation. I cannot accept the findings below however. There are some clear and obvious mistakes:

1. “No issues had been reported to ExxxCar prior to the incident on 31.03.2021.” This is completely incorrect. As soon as we took possession of the vehicle we made a complaint about the poor quality and unroadworthiness – including, critically, it’s inability to go up hills (ie a clear indication of an old and worn out engine that lacked power). Please the see attachment below. We were told at the time that our complaint would be escalated to Customer Services. I can now see this was not true.

2. “The vehicle’s engine and crankshaft was damaged as a result of the vehicle being driven across a dirt road as well as over-revving.” This is patently incorrect. We are a family of four driving with two small children in the car. We are not some hooligan offroad drivers! At no point did I ever leave a paved road. I have attached a picture of the car at the time of the breakdown. As you can see it is on a normal highway. The roads in Ecuador are in very bad condition but we as tourists cannot be held accountable for that! If the inspecting mechanic has any proof, please provide this.

We drove safely and carefully at all times. If the crankshaft was damaged then this was already the case when we received the car. I would like to receive proof of your allegations in the form of a pre-rental inspection of the crankshaft.
We revved too hard? Ludicrous! I am a driver with 20 years experience and two small children in the car – not a rally car racer. There is no mechanic alive who would deliver that allegation with a straight face. Again I would like to understand how the inspecting mechanic can substantiate this claim.
May I point out that if you are claiming that the engine died when I revved it, then you are admitting that the engine is old and worn out and has underlying problems.

3. I note that you have not addressed our point about the age and condition of the vehicle. We documented these concerns when we first took possession of the vehicle. It was covered in rust! The doors were jammed! It had 207,000km on the clock! This is not a new vehicle that has been destroyed by bad driving, it is an old rustheap that has been already driven into the ground by hundreds of preceding renters.

At the moment it seems like the local office is making up speculative reasons so that we have to pay to replace an worn vehicle motor which died of old age and overuse. Dirt road driving and revving too hard? Seriously?

I would like to see the evidence requested above please. I’m afraid you must reconsider this clearly fraudulent charge.   

Best regards,

Will

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On Wed, 28 Apr 2021 at 22:23, Will Nicholl <willaccio@gmail.com> wrote:

Dear Gina,

Thank you for your response.

I notice that you have dropped the ridiculous charge of ‘over-revving’. This is a step in the right direction. I’m afraid that once again though you have been duped by incorrect information from your Ecuador ExxxCar colleagues.

Let me put this very clearly: at no point did we ever leave a paved highway. I don’t understand on what possible basis the Ecuador lot could suggest that we did this. I am bewildered. Please can you tell me on what evidence this accusation is made?

You say we drove up Volcano Cotopaxi. This is totally incorrect. We had been travelling northwards from Cuenca towards Quilotoa where the car broke down. Cotopaxi is some distance further North than this. Again, the information that they have given you is completely false. Please could you ask them exactly how they have formed these assumptions? It will show you that they are simply making things up. We can provide a detailed itinerary of our movements – you will see that at no point did we ever leave the highway.

I simply cannot accept a charge of $2000 when we have been careful drivers and have not infringed our rental agreement in any way. I am sure you would be equally frustrated if such an outrageous charge had been take from you.

If we have to go down a legal route then it will be time and expense for both sides. There is still still time for you to do the right thing here.

Did you get a chance to look at all the reviews that I sent you about ExxxCar Quito? There are clear patterns of fraudulent charges and old unfit vehicles there.

Best regards,

Will

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On Wed, Mon, 10 May 2021 at 16:10, Will Nicholl <willaccio@gmail.com> wrote:

Hi Gina, 

Thanks for your response and apologies for the delay responding. I have been travelling home. 

Once again though this response is not adequate. There are several basic mistakes in your statement below that I must correct: 

1.     As I have told you before, at no point have we ever driven the Hyundai H1 on anything but a paved road. As you admit, there is no tracking information to contradict what I say. Therefore on what evidential basis can you say I am in breach of my terms with regard to this vehicle?  

2. Please take a look at both the Kia and the Vitara tracking data you sent me. I do not see any evidence of driving on unpaved roads. You keep bringing up the Cotopaxi volcano as if we were dirt-roading around the edge of the crater. Cotopaxi is a huge region with paved roads all around the base of the volcano. We had a brief picnic by the visitor centre (as you can see from your maps). Take a look at the satellite imagery freely available from Google – the route we have taken is all tarmac.

3.     Please can you show me the Terms and Conditions that say that the car cannot be driven ‘’in rural parts of the country”?  Are you saying that your cars can only be driven in the city? Is it against your terms to leave Quito then once the rental car has been picked up? 

4. You say: “the car was fully checked prior to your hire and was fully drivable for 12 rental days. Therefore, it is clear to us that the engine damage could not have been pre-existing when your hire took place”. This contradicts what you have said below. I quote: “We are unable to supply you with the pre-rental inspection of the crankshaft as this would not form part of the pre-rental inspection check.” It was the crankshaft that failed and you are clearly stating that this was NOT checked.

5.     You say that if there had a pre-existing condition “the vehicle would have been undriveable and the breakdown would have occurred much earlier.”  On what basis do you say this?  I have spoken to my mechanic in the UK and he tells me that any crack in the crankshaft might have been dormant for weeks, getting steadily worse as we drove along.  

6. Looking up crankshaft damage, you will see that driving is not ever listed as a cause.
“Far more frequently, broken crankshafts can be attributed to:
-Mechanical overload of the crankshaft through abnormal combustion, water hammers, etc.
-Sudden jamming of the engine due to a faulty gearbox, loose counterweights, etc.
-Excessive rotary oscillation, e.g. faulty vibration dampers, faulty flywheels or couplings.
-Material weakening due to previous bearing damage or annealed bearing journals, etc.
-Unreliable modification work to the crankshaft bearing.
-Mechanical damage to the shaft before installation”

7.     Once again you have not addressed the fact that you rented me a vehicle that was ancient with more than 200,000km on the clock and rust all over – and clearly a damaged crankshaft that you had not inspected.  This certainly against the rental vehicles code of practice and I believe this makes ExxxCar negligent.  The car broke down on the side of a mountain road in the evening when we were far from mobile reception. I had to leave my wife and children alone at the roadside in a dangerous area and hitch hike for over two hours to find and return with a mechanic. I believe that ExxxCar put my family in significant risk here and the psychological after-effects are still being felt.   

8.     Did you get a chance to look at all the reviews that I sent you about ExxxCar Quito? As I mentioned before, there are clear patterns of fraudulent charges and further evidence of old unfit vehicles there.

This is a clear cut case. I was rented an old and unroadworthy vehicle which should never have been allowed in your fleet according to the regulatory code of practice. The vehicle broke down due to a crankshaft fault, probably caused by age and overuse. The local ExxxCar office tried to profiteer from the situation to have the car refurbished at my expense. In fact it seems that ExxxCar should be paying me damages to compensate for the distress and risk caused.

Awaiting your reply.

Best regards, 

Will

——————————————————————————————————

On Wed, 16 Jun 2021 at 10:59, Will Nicholl <willaccio@gmail.com> wrote:

Dear Gina,

WHY HAS EXXXCAR TAKEN ANOTHER $1750 OFF MY CREDIT CARD?

ExxxCar Ecuador is acting in an immoral and illegal manner. They are a den of thieves! This is so clearly apparent no matter how desperately you try to cover up for them.

One of the ExxxCar company values is: “Integrity: we are open, transparent and honest in our decisions, actions and delivery“. What a joke! You rented me one rusty old van for two weeks with 250,000km on the clock and now you have stolen over $5000 from me.

Do I have to cancel all my credit cards so your colleagues in Ecuador stop stealing my money? Will they help themselves to another couple of thousand every month?

Your explanation below for the first $2000 charge falls significantly short of credible – you have no evidence of off-road driving and you failed to inspect the crankshaft which then broke. Yet you refuse to take responsibility for your poor quality vehicle and hide behind false accusations which you can’t substantiate.

Now you have legitimized this initial fake charge, they have been emboldened to take another – again with no warning or explanation.

Please can you urgently explain this new charge?

Will

——————————————————————————————————

On Fri, 18 Jun 2021 at 07:59, Will Nicholl <willaccio@gmail.com> wrote:

SEE YOU IN COURT ASSHOLES.

A Mental Breakdown. Part II

We pace around the van discussing next steps as the sun sinks in the west. All options seem to involve me trekking off alone into the sunset, either up or down the mountain, for 20km or so. But before I can set off, salvation arrives. And salvation looks like an old and battered pickup truck full of melons. I place myself in the middle of the road and flag it down enthusiastically. It grinds up the road at a walking pace and eventually clatters to a halt pretty much at my feet. Two small Inca faces peer up at me from under woolen bobble hats, eyes barely visible above the dashboard.

“We have a problem! The car is broken. Much smoke, much bang bang! It won’t start any more” I tell the driver in a rush.
“Ah,” he says and nods.
“And our phones do not work here!”
“Oh,” he says and blinks.
“Do you think you can help us?” I add. He gives me a cautious look.
“But I am not mechanic…”
“But you can take me up there to the village. Perhaps I can find a mechanic there who will help.”
“I am not sure. I don’t think so,” he turns his dark eyes towards his wife and a look of reluctance passes between them. This gringo will only cause us problems, the look says, we need to get our melons to market. “The village is very small,” he tries.

There may not be another car for hours and the sun is falling fast. The melons will keep. I open the back door and hop in.
“Let us try!” I say brightly.

I look out at Menna and she gives me a small nod. “Don’t be too long!” she says in that cheery voice she uses when she finds herself stranded in the mountains as darkness falls but is trying not to worry the kids.

Conversation doesn’t exactly flow in the melon truck as we rattle our way slowly up the road. My attempts to engage my rescuers are met with grunts. I find out that the driver’s name is Edgardo, or maybe Gerardo or Eduardo, his wife does not have a name. She mutters quiet things to him, occasionally dials numbers on a cell phone and holds it to his ear, while he grunts and nods and says single syllable words that do not correspond to any version of Spanish that I know. They are heading to a place that sounds something like Loochattychooga. I cannot find it on my map.

It takes us forty minutes to reach a small collection of adobe plaster houses that is the nearest village. We cruise straight on through.
“Wait Edgardo. You are not stopping! I need to get out!”
“Small village. No one here to help you.”
“But where we will go?”
“There is another town. Will go there. My brother can help.”
“Help how? Is he a mechanic?”
“No. But… a friend… a truck”.

Another half hour later we are parked on the roadside in an equally tiny town. I am not sure what is happening. No-one is saying anything.“Is he coming Edgardo?”
“We will see him soon I think.”
“My friend, I am a little bit worried because I have had to leave my wife and my children on the mountain and it is getting dark and it might be dangerous.”
“Yes.”
Is it dangerous you think?”
”Yes.”
”When do you think he will come?”. He thinks a little.
Ahorita…”

Ah, ahorita, ahorita, that word so beloved by the Latin Americans. It means now-ish; a little while ago; soon perhaps; at some vague point in the future or in the past. When did your car break down? Ah ahorita… When will you rescue your stranded family? Pero ahorita! When will you grow up William? Beh, ahorita?

Five minutes pass slowly.
“Edgardo, I think I might leave you now and see if there is anyone else who can help.”
“No-one else.”
“I just feel that I must go back to my car before it gets too dark. Maybe we will leave the car and get a taxi back to our hostel”
“A taxi?”
“Is there a taxi here do you think?”
“No.”
“Ok, maybe I will just go and talk to some people. See if someone will give me a ride,” I get out of the car and look around the deserted town for some people to talk to. There is a sad looking guy sitting on a bench across the road and that’s about it.
“Where is the best place to go and find help?”
“Is ok Don William. Tranquilo. My brother…help you.”

Edgardo whispers something on his phone and passes it to his wife. He gets out and walks across the road to the man on the bench. They exchange a sentence or two, then they stand in silence for a while, looking at the floor, both nodding slightly. Then he walks slowly back to his melon truck.

“Soon now.”
“Oh ok. Are we sure about this? How do we know?”
“My brother’s friend… the truck.”
“He will come… Ahorita?”
“Si. Ahorita!
“So your brother will come together with his friend in the truck?” Edgardo looks confused.
“My brother is there Don William…” He waves a hand at the quiet man on the bench opposite, who looks back but does not make any sign of acknowledgment.
“Oh, I see.”

I have lost control of the situation. My family is abandoned on a hillside far away and I am kicking my heels in an empty town, waiting for a melon farmer’s brother’s friend to arrive in a truck – probably some ancient beast. And I don’t see how a truck is even going to help anyway, unless it contains a new minivan engine. We need a mechanic. Or a taxi. And I don’t like being called Don William, it makes me feel colonial. I consider abandoning Edgardo and… what? Walking another 20km to the next town?

A small group of ladies come walking past and attracted by the pile of melons they stop and cluster round the van. There is some excited chat. Edgardo’s brother comes across the street and the men stand together in silence while the nameless wife haggles sharply and sells a few melons.
“Hey at least you’ve got rid of some melons hey Edgardo!” I say, feeling isolated, wanting some chat. He looks at me, then says something to the crowd and there is a burst of chatter and laughter. For the first time I see my new friend smile.
“Not melons Don William.” He says with an exaggerated slowness, as if taking to an infant, or a naive western tourist clearly out of his depth, “They are squashes!”
And the laughter erupts again.

Then with a sudden roar and a cloud of dust, a tow truck bursts onto the scene. It is like the cavalry sweeping into town. The truck is shiny white with polished chrome, exotic wing mirrors and the name “Rafaelita” written in ornate Italic script on the windshield. RESCATE! it shouts from the door panels – rescue! It gleams with the promise of salvation and redemption. A powerful winch is mounted on the yellow flat-bed. It is driven by a gum-chewing lad of about fourteen.

Knowing now that I will return victorious to my family, riding this roaring chrome beast, I swell up with emotion and gratitude. I try to press a twenty dollar bill upon Edgardo but he throws his hands up in horror, refusing to take it. “No necessary Don William!” So I pump him by the hand and give it instead to his wife, whose hand flickers out like a cobra and secretes the note away before I can blink.

I feel even more like a colonial now. I doubted the locals, I did not trust them. I was unable to understood their quiet patient rhythms. All those secret muttered calls, that silent brotherly communion, discrete SOS messages pulsing through the mountain network. As I thought myself lost and neglected they were working to save me! Rescate!

The fourteen year old driver is called Mario and he is has a welcome no-nonsense attitude. After a brisk negotiation we settle upon a $70 pick up fee, and off we skid, waving fond goodbyes to all of my new friends.

And so, some forty minutes later, I return to my family riding high in the pickup cab, like a returning general at the head of an armoured artillery column. And they haven’t been mugged or murdered but are sitting playing I-Spy in the car, Arthur’s bush knife placed on the seat within easy reach, just in case.

In no time at all Mario has expertly winched up the minivan onto the back of his truck and we are homeward bound, roaring confidently round sharp bends, back to the hostel and our safe beds. Matilda and I drive with Mario in the cab and Menna and Arthur get to ride up back in minivan, swaying around the corners and giving us excited smiles and thumbs up signs through the rear view mirror.

As we drive we watch the last of the sunset disappearing in lurid blazes behind the immense peak of Volcano Cotopaxi. “Sky like this, Don William, we call it is the Ecuadorean flag,” says Mario, who I realise is not chewing gum at all, but tobacco.

He points out at the sunset “See! The bands of gold and blue and red. Like the flag.” He thumps his chest. “This is our country. This is Ecuador”

A Mental Breakdown. Part I

The Quilotoa crater lake is mind-blowing. It glows with a strange blue luminescence as if some nuclear reactor lies hidden beneath that menacingly still surface. Perhaps it hides the subaquatic lair of some supervillain. Perhaps it truly is a bottomless gateway to the underworld, as the locals believe. We trek right down the crater to make sure, but it does appear to just be a lake. We have a picnic beside it and try not to think too much about the impending hike back up the sheer goat path to our car at the top. We are at over four thousand meters of altitude here and breathing is not easy.

Eventually we have to face up to our destiny. The hike up the cliffs is every bit as lung-busting as we feared. Every hundred meters we halt and pant and suck on one of the old Lifesaver sweets that I have found in my jacket pocket. Around one bend in the path we come across a toothless old indigenous lady brewing tea. She commutes here by bus from a far away town, she tells us, and walks down the mountain to this lonely path every day – with all her cooking equipment on her back – to sell refreshments to passing hikers. This is how Ecuador works. We bought a couple of cups of coca leaf brew with my last dollar, and thus fortified we find strength to make the summit.

You can trek the Quilotoa Loop over about five days. It is a meandering circuit through a string of traditional Andean villages that encircle the crater. We are short of time though, and we have wheels, so we decide to drive around the loop over the course of an afternoon.

The landscape is fascinating in the way that photos and descriptions can never quite capture. It’s something about the altitude, the beauty, the excitement, the lack of oxygen, the proximity to the sun. It all combines to give a bubbly visceral feeling, a heightened sensory awareness. Or maybe it was just the coca tea. The pastures are greener than we have seen before, the canyons deeper, sudden drop-offs loom where there is nothing beyond the road-edge but air and gravity. We take in winding rivers, winding roads, huge birds of prey, prismatic sun effects. We pass through tiny villages of white plaster where livestock wanders out of yards and onto the roads. We see men in traditional dress working those chilly sunlit mountain top fields

For a couple of hours we meander along hairpin roads where every turn shows the mountain in new light, folded like origami, some faces bright, others in shadows. We roar down steep descents and then inch up long climbs, grumbling in the low gears. Vultures float on the updraft. The wind roars.

Then we hear a new sound through our open windows. A throaty gutteral whine, a cry of distress and pain.
It grows louder and more urgent.

Our van is singing a sad song, choking and shuddering.
The whine becomes a roar, a scream, then a metallic death rattle.
Smoke pours out of the bonnet.
There is a grinding vibration, a cough, a muffled explosion.

The engine cuts out.
We coast in sudden silence.
Birdsong flows back in through the open windows.
Acrid fumes of burnt oil and solvents float around us.

The wheel gets very heavy in my hands and I have to drop one shoulder and wrestle it.
We roll back down the hill and onto the verge, leaving a mess of oily tracks smeared on the tarmac.
The wheels crunch over gravel. Then we stop.

We hop out and take a look under the bonnet, as if we understood engines, as if we were going to perform some miracle roadside repair using twigs and stones. All we see is a mess of black pipes and pistons shaking and smoking and smelling, a fan still turning, oil dripping down onto the road.

We are in a fix. This is remote mountain territory and Menna’s phone has no signal (mine has not worked for weeks). Our map shows the nearest village is about 20km away and the bunched contour lines suggest that this will be a steep uphill trek. We are on the equator, so the sun sets just after six o clock every day. It is now approaching five. We know that darkness will fall very quickly once the sun drops below the mountain line.

Ecuador is not the most dangerous of all the Latin American countries but it is certainly not somewhere you hang out alone on the roadside after dark

There is a shared memory that floats unspoken between Menna and I. We have been here before. It was back in 2005, up in the northern Nicaraguan badlands near the Honduran border. That day we had driven down from El Salvador, twelve hours straight, with still another four hours to go before we made Managua. Darkness was falling then too when I crashed our jeep into the back of a truck which had abruptly stopped on a hill top and had no brake lights. The impact left our front grill and radiator smashed, the bonnet crumpled, the axel off kilter. The truck had no plates either and it took off again soon after, once the driver had given me some frank opinions on my driving.

We were left deep in bandido territory with all of our worldly possessions in the car. There was no other option but to leave Menna guarding our stuff – armed with our machete and an iron bar we carried for security – while I headed off down the road to find help.

This time we have no iron bar with us, nor a machete. Arthur has his bush knife though. This will have to do.

Wild Water

The river surges around us like angry whipped chocolate. It is muddy, foamy, bubbling, fast. There are grey skies and driving rain above, grey rocks and churning water below. Either side of us the river cliffs loom up into steep forested banks that then fade into mountain mist. We are somewhere on the Rio Pastaza, at the edge of the Amazon Basin, bumping along in an inflatable dingy.

There are six of us in the boat. I’m up front with Spanish buccaneer, Fernando. Menna and Arthur sit in the middle, Matilda and Captain in the rear. It is the end of the rainy season and the water is high and fast. There are no less than three rescue kayaks around us.

We received instructions and a safety briefing before we set out. When the Captain says paddle we must row as if our lives depended on it. Fernando and I must shout time: ‘One-two! One-two! One-two!’ to set the tempo. If any of us should go under water then there is a rescue protocol: don’t panic, float on our backs until the kayak finds us, wrap arms and legs around the nose of the kayak so as not to flip it too. Allow them to transport you to safety. It all seemed easy on dry land. None of us thought to ask what happens if the boat capsizes and all six of us are floundering around in the rapids.

“What is the minimum age for this tour anyway?” I had asked when the minibus picked us up from the hotel at 5am.
“Well. How old are your kids?”
“Arthur is ten and Matilda is nine.”
“Oh. Have they done rafting before?”
“No.”
“Can they swim?”
“Yes. No! Well sort of. In a swimming pool they can swim fine, probably not in a fast moving river.”
“So they can swim. It is ok. They will be fine.”

Now, as we hurtle between rocks and the raft bumps into the hollows beneath standing waves, I can barely maintain my balance sitting up on the hull, one foot hooked under the central thwart. How will Matilda manage? Every time I turn around she looks frozen in fear and misery. She has given up paddling all together. The captain gives her words of encouragement but she just nods dumbly, unhearing, bounced around like a doll on a trampoline.

One member of our rescue team is a real kayak virtuoso. He hits the rapids with gusto, spinning and pirouetting, finding unexpected lines through the waves. He is also our photographer. We see him putting himself right into the middle of the most frenzied torrents, then flicking his kayak around so he can take pictures of us as we come hurtling down towards him. “Cheese!” He shouts as we paddle in fear of our lives. “Cheese!”

We go into a long section of waterfalls and whirlpools where all is noise and motion: ramping up wave faces, scraping past rocks, spinning one direction then another. Then we are in the calm of a pool and we clash our oars above the boat in the ritual high-five. We drift. Arthur behind me whoops and cheers, a huge grin plastered across his face. Is it river water on Matilda’s cheeks or tears?

The youngest member of the rescue team has been flipped though and remains inverted, trapped upside down in the water for a long half-minute, his kayak bobbing around in the rapids. Eventually his helmeted head pops up, spluttering, further downstream. Abandoning his boat he splashes over to shore and crawls into the shallows coughing. He looks scared. “This one is Pancho” Says Captain indulgently, “It is his first time.” Our rescue kayaker has never done this before?

The other two safety boats set off to retrieve the loose kayak, now drifting off downstream. Captain beaches our raft in the shallows and has some stern words with Pancho in some Ecuadorean dialect I don’t understand. We rest for a while before setting off again. “We have no support now,’” growls Captain. “Be careful.”

On we go through smooth passages where we glimpse egg shaped stones scattered like treasure beneath the water, then through angry, ugly sections where craters and boils appear, boulders jut out and the water surges up in white columns, spray and chaos. The rescue team swarm around us again.

We haul ourselves through a whirlpool where waterlogged trunks roll around like turds in an endless flush, and here Pancho somehow smashes one of his blades. He holds his paddle aloft helplessly, shouting out something which I interpret to mean “I can no longer turn! I am scared! Help!”. Photographer is up ahead, he turns and butts his way back upriver like a salmon leaping against the flow. He pulls alongside Pancho and swaps paddles, then skims off again with bravado. Having only half a paddle doesn’t seem to diminish his abilities, he changes his grip and uses it Indian style, holding the good blade down and deploying it one side of the boat then the other. “Cheese!” He shouts, taking a photo over his shoulder as he surfs down a rocky bank.

There are patches of river far ahead where the horizon is a blur of spray and mist and rain so sky and water are indistinguishable. It is the end of the world. There could be some epic waterfall there, white curtains roaring, smashing into dark rocky basins. Perhaps this is Captain’s surprise finale! I imagine our raft floating down white cascades like an Indiana Jones movie: gravity washed away, icy river water in our faces, lives flashing before our eyes.

We survive another heavy section of river. “That was grade IV,” says Captain with grim satisfaction. “From here on we can drift. You have made it. Well done!”

Pancho has a final trick for us. We hear his cries and turn around to see that he has managed to lose his new paddle and has grounded his kayak on a rock in the middle of the rapids. He sits there miserable, while the wild waters churn around him, unwilling to rock himself off his perch and fall back into the seething white foam.

Captain shrugs. We all laugh. “Hey Pancho!” shouts Photographer, pointing his camera, “Cheese!”. And even Matilda manages a little smile.

“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Kenneth Grahame

Ghost Train

We drive up to Alausí to ride the fearsome Devil’s Nose train. El Nariz del Diablo is a hairpin, switchback railroad that winds its way up a vertiginous cliff. The turns, they say, are so extreme that the train must be shunted off into sidings then backed up certain stretches before being refitted to the track. As you inch your way up the solid rock face you stare down into the precipice then outwards down the Avenida de los Volcanes, stretching away to a jagged horizon.

“Over 2,000 people died building this section of track,” I tell the children with relish, “Their bones are buried beneath the pilings. You could say it’s a real ghost train…” I permit myself a macabre laugh to underline this classic Dad joke. The kids are both glued to their screens and don’t respond. “We might be able to ride up on the roof if we bribe a guard,” I try after a pause, “but if we fall off, then we too will join the ghosts! Forever…’ Still nothing. I nudge Menna for a reaction, but she is not listening either. This is how conversations go some days.

We arrive at Alausí around sundown. It is a misty little town where pavements glisten and a hazy sodium glow sits round the streetlights like St Elmo’s fire. We see no humans at all as we drive through it. There is a huge statue of Jesus looming high above the town, he looks down sadly at the deserted streets, singling us out for a forlorn glance.

Our hostel owner is an old-timer from another century, dapper with neat white hair and a courteous welcome. He is assisted by a simple lad who charges up and attempts to sanitise us with a giant insecticide pump before we enter. We shoe him away, it is chill and damp enough already without being spritzed with cold disinfectant spray. “Es por la Covid” he mutters.

Señor Marco was a renowned marathon runner in his day and now coaches running clubs and schools around the district. His high altitude training programs produce top champions, he tells me. I prop up the bar and listen to his stories while Menna and the kids unload the car. He shows me a wall of black and white photos – runners grimacing, winners with arms aloft, grinning skinny kids brandishing medals while Señor Marco towers beaming in the background. There are many beautiful routes that we can run around here, or even – looking critically at me – walk. But we are not here to run, we are going to ride the famous train I tell him. A look of consternation crosses that rugged brow, his moustaches twitch.

“Pero señor William, ahora el tren no circula mas…”

“But the website says nothing about it being closed,” I protest, “they are selling tickets! Google Maps says it’s open – and, and Google knows everything!” I feel betrayed. Señor Marco shrugs apologetically and makes a gesture that somehow encompasses the untrustworthy nature of websites, the impossibility of train schedules, the transient nature of the world. I nearly join in on the punchline that I know is coming:
“¡Es por la Covid!” Of course it fucking is.

“The ghost train is so ghostly that it’s no longer physically here,” I tell the kids. “It’s off running routes in the spirit world, carrying the souls of dead Ecuadorean labourers.” We have driven many miles to this damp little ghost town for nothing, I don’t add.

That night nothing is open in Alausí except a far-off pizzeria, which itself is pretending to be closed. The lights are off and tables and chairs are piled up high against the glass doors like a barricade. We order a couple of pizzas from a suspicious face in a trapdoor, then walk home in the rain, the boxes getting soggier with every step.

“The train is not all that there is here,” says Señor Marco thoughtfully over coffee next morning. He stares into space for a while, trying to remember what else there is too. I hold my breath. “There is a path!” He nods many times.
“A path to where?”
“A path up into the mountains. To a high mirador there where you can see condors. The views are maybe better even than from the train. It is only a short walk.”
“So, how long is that?”
“Short!”
”Short like say, half an hour?”
“Short like say, three hours,”
“Ah. I see. Short.”

Señor Marco leads us over to a large topographical map on his wall. He makes a large sweeping gesture that seem to encompass hundreds of square kilometres of mountain terrain.
“This is where you will walk. I will take you there in my car.”

We argue briefly amongst ourselves. Matilda doesn’t want to go on any walk. Menna wants to get away early and is in some kind of stress about lunch. Arthur would like to scramble up the tracks of the defunct Nariz del Diablo train.

Señor Marco frowns and shakes his head, he does not think that any of these are good ideas. Too lazy, too dismissive, too steep, too many ghosts. His walk is the right option. Better, fresher, the views are the most magnificent. We will see condors, he reminds us, and that is that. “Let us get in the car.”

Señor Marco drives us over derelict rail tracks out to the edge of town. Alausí is griddled with rail line that run along the roads and score the squares. Tangles of tracks and sidings, roadside platforms, empty signal boxes. A couple of old style train carriages sit in the plaza mayor. Jesus is still looking mournful and we try not to catch his eye. In the daylight he appears to have moss growing on his face.

Menna is worried that we will get lost in the mountains, like we always do, but Senor Marco crouches down and traces a map in the dust with a stick. It is simple. We must follow a wiggly line that curls around a small pebble, then jerks upwards, twists to the left and ends in a clump of grass. We cannot go wrong. With this reassurance, we are gently shooed along like wayward children. Off we scamper, up the mountain trail pointing at butterflies and tripping each other over.

The Andes are truly stunning. Even after several weeks here, a sudden turn round a corner brings new perspectives that hit you viscerally. The far off pinnacles above are much higher than the Alps, less rounded than the Rockies. Peaks behind peaks, ravines within valleys. Rail lines score the greenery far below, zig-zagging up the opposing slopes. It is sunny and the birdsong is loud.

“Senor Marco is right!” we say to each other “Senor Marco knows”. We leave the damp town of Alausí behind us and trek upwards into sunlit pastures. We find the ridge, curl around the mountain top looking down upon folds and creases, following topographic swells where huge tectonic forces have rippled the bedrock, gullies where running water has eroded the granite. The ghost train moans it’s way up the opposite escarpment but we hardly notice.

For three and a half hours we trek. We find the mirador, it is a stone promontory jutting out over huge heights. There is a goat shack there and some locals are playing loud pan-pipe hits through a portable speaker. We buy bottled water and hot chocolate while women in ethnic dresses giggle at us. We hang out for a while with our binoculars ready, waiting to see those huge birds with the largest wingspan on earth.

The condors are away with the ghost train though, their mighty shadows circling overhead as it chugs its way over bone and cinder tracks in the dusky netherworld. Here in the sunlight there are only green finches and swallows, a distant falcon wheeling and circling above the valleys below.

We are not disappointed though. We are above the damp despair of Alausi, we have turned our back on sad Jesus. We have done with our legs what thousands of labourers died to mechanise. Between us unspoken is the oldest of all traveller cliches: it is the journey that counts – not the destination; never trophies nor trains nor condors. It is escape and freedom and all those ephemeral things that make kids roll their eyes when we talk about them.

The clouds are rolling in now and it looks like rain is coming, so we turn around and make our way back down the mountain.

 

A Tale of Two Cities

A city visit is like a cardio blast in our otherwise fairly low-impact workout. This week we have two planned. We’ll go in, hit em hard and get out quickly. Maximum activity in a short burst: pounding the streets, circuits of the historic centre, galleries, squares, promenades, fighting beggars, hustling coin, running from the cops, that kind of stuff. It means wearing real shoes, and somehow they seem to be intolerably constrictive these days.

Two days we spend in Guayaquil, the bustling port in the south. It is Ecuador’s largest city, a place of size and verve with a one-way system that you can orbit for days, circling your destination in concentric circles that never quite arrive.

Sometime long ago in another life, I worked all night to grind out an essay on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The book is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, describing the strange and fantastic cities of Kahn’s Mongol empire. “Cities like dreams,” says Marco Polo “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

This is certainly a city of confusing perspectives and hidden vistas: folded over and backwards, layered above itself, running over hills and along the curves of the river. Raised pedestrian walkways float over dark docklands, streets are placed in geometrical grids that abruptly unwind into mounds of spaghetti, a picturesque hillside of coloured houses, when viewed up close, cracks into a network of alleyways and open doorways where voices call us from the shadows.

The heart of Guayaquil is the malécon, the boardwalk, recently refurbished and hailed as a blueprint for Latin American urban regeneration. It is a concrete snake that meanders along the shoreline, looking inwards at high-rise towers and outwards over an estuary where floating clumps of river weed drift like wraiths in the murky brown waters. A cable car is strung like a washing line between the two banks. There is also a giant Ferris wheel onto which we dutifully traipse, then inch our way around a giant hazy arc that gradually exposes all the circuitry of this sprawling urban motherboard. We complete the malécon, then climb a hill, then a city stairway , then a lighthouse for good measure (Menna always finds us a lighthouse to climb)

Satisfied we have reached the highest points of the city we descend to its bowels. We mash up the centuries in the Museo of Anthropologia y Arte Moderna (the MAAC dude!). There are dim rooms where mysterious pre-Colombian figurines glow under spotlights, ancient fertility statuettes loll around with voluptuous curves and spread legs. Deeper we go; further back in time: we find shamanic totems humming with malevolent power; obsidian blades to flay a man alive, shrunken heads grinning at us.

We round a corner and we are wrenched back into the twenty-first century: light, white walls, a pandemic-inspired multimedia portraiture exhibition, video exhibitions, a frenetic mosaic of faces. When finally we are spun around and ejected back out into the sunlight, the kids are inspired, chattery, dazzled.

We roll out of Guayaquil next day and take the switchback road over the mountains. We drive into cloud and thunder on an ominous stretch of road of where rockfalls and avalanches have obliterated the tarmac in several places. We join a ghostly convoy of cars in the mist, edging our way round the destroyed sections, the mud and rock piles worryingly fresh (are there survivors interred within?).

When we finally drop below the cloud line we find sunshine and eagles and all of the majesty of the Andes spread out beneath us. Pastures ripple off into the distance over huge geological folds. We pull over the car and stand in the biting cold, silently looking out at this amazing view. We wind our way down through countryside where great rocks surge out of the fields and llamas (yes llamas!) sulk on the roadside. We arrive at Cuenca, jewel of the south, home of the famous Cuenca Chicas, a renowned girl band of the early millennium years.

Cuenca is a leafy colonial town cut from a conquistador template that has been applied throughout Latin America (Antigua in Guatemala, San Cristobal in Mexico, Granada in Nicaragua…). Think balustraded arcades and walkways, arched squares and fountains, baroque cathedral domes, courtyard gardens behind shuttered walls, ornate street doors, shady pleasure gardens by the river.

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents” mutters Marco Polo somewhere in the distance.

Again we spend a day walking the stone streets. Another art exhibition, at the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderna (the MMAM, ma’am). The spectrum is the theme here – we walk through rooms of green, cyan, magenta that are designed to follow the rainbow, though I am off on a nostalgia trip of the ZX Spectrum colour palate (64bit). We immerse ourselves, we touch, model, paint, we get our hands messy, take insta-friendly shots. We find the permanent exhibition and find more traditional art, primitivist Latin American landscapes with their stick figures, glossy leaf work, flat dimensions and complex textures. They are mesmerising and beautiful.

Menna can’t find a lighthouse so far inland but she takes us on a long walk along the river in search of another museum (closed!). She homes in on the cathedral instead, dragging us on circuits of the sacristy, dodging the beggars and asylum seekers that seek sanctuary in the doorways, trying to breach those great neo-classical towers. Fortunately it is too late, and the doors are bolted, we cannot climb up. It is siesta time.

And then we call time on the cultural tour, the urban diversion. We are going to head back out to the mountains now, see condors, find wild places. “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased” says Calvino’s Kublai Kahn, and so here is our testimony. We will ride out from those great Ecuadorean cities in search of new adventures. Onwards, upwards and outwards we go.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

Invisible Cities. Italo Calvino

 

Three is a Magic Number

Three is a magic number. And today we find ourselves surrounded with symbolic trios and trifecta, errors in triplicate. Three pelicans flying against the mountains, three salamander trails skittering through the car park dust, three bags heavy in my hands as a I count slowly to three, absorbing this news for the third time.

“Three’s a crowd!” we shoo off Arthur as he wanders over to see what’s up.

Three is also company though. The Chinese consider three lucky; representations of the trinity are woven deeply into many religions. Pythagoras, tangled up in triangles, called three the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding. Three graces there are, three witches too, three bears, three blind mice, three wise monkeys, three wise men.

Today we have been three times denied. Three times foolish. We are reminded that bad things also come in threes. Menna has locked the keys in the car for the third time. Just as we did three days ago in Quito, or 3×3 days ago in Brasil. Three four, knock on the door… It’s a triple, a treble, a triad of trying tribulations.
‘Three strikes and you’re out,’ I would say to my wife, except of course the middle strike was mine.

Three divisions of temporal awareness colour the human conscious: the past (we locked the keys in the car three days ago); the present (the keys are locked in the car now); the future (when will we next lock the keys in the car?). The triumvirate, the tripartite, the trident upon whose tines we have been traversed.

Three physical dimensions delineate our world, anchor our visual field, define the spatial attributes of our car as it sits obdurate and cuboid in the patch of wasteland behind the hostel.

The universe itself has no more than three fundamental qualities – time, space, matter – governed by three laws of thermodynamics. Why would we expect exemption from the tyranny of triplets?

Three mistakes, three vehicles, three sets of keys, three forced entries. Three calls to Europcar unanswered. Three minutes of fumbling with a wire through the top of the window. A trice! Three new scratches across our roof.

The third time’s a charm. We are on the road by three for the three hour drive to our next town, (the third one we have visited in three days). It could have been a lot worse. We were third time lucky.

Locksmith #3!

Omne trium perfectum! Everything that comes in threes is perfect

Latin proverb

Ave Maria

“Maria!” calls Angel in a high falsetto. “Hola! Maria.” There is the sound of water trickling over leaves, wind in the canopy, far off birdsong. The forest is breathing around us but of Maria there is no sign. Arthur and I shuffle awkwardly but Angel gives us a reassuring smile. “Sometimes she is far away. She might need some time. Oh Mariiiia!” He cups his hands at his lips and lets out a mournful quavering hoot. “Venga, venga, venga!”

We walk up and down the forest trails following Angel. He rattles the tub of maggots, our gift. He makes his haunting calls. A perplexed note enters his voice, “Maria ¿donde estás? Yesterday she was just here,” and he indicates a thicket of vine leaves, as if we might pull aside that glossy curtain and find Maria crouched there, a wing coquettishly folded over her eyes. You found me!

“Who or what exactly is Maria anyway?” murmurs Arthur again. I shrug, I have no idea. Twice I have asked Angel this but he always responds in his birdwatcher’s whisper which, together with the thick Andean accent, makes things difficult. We should have done our research before the tour.
“He just said something about pitta,”
“Do you think you can just call a bird and it will come like a dog?”
“It doesn’t appear that you can.”

Angel seems crestfallen. Our sighting of the prized Andean Cock of the Rock was only a flash of scarlet tail feathers and now Maria has let him down too. The tour is going badly. Angel Paz is a titan of the birdwatching world and he has a reputation to uphold, even if it’s only in front of two gringos who clearly know little about birds. We might still write disparaging things on Trip Advisor. He mooches along for a while, then he pulls himself out of his gloom, he smiles. “There is still the quails to see,” he says waving at the wooded ridge above us, “We will find the dark backed wood quail here. Very rare. Very beautiful. Come, come!” Onwards and upwards we trek.

But wood quails will not come out to play today either. They are away with Maria. We squat for a long time on a little mountain trail above a clearing where they ‘always’ come. Angel makes new bird calls; lower with staccato throat sounds.

Arthur and I have a moment of mild excitement when it seems that his calls are answered. The response draws closer. The creature that emerges from the bush is no quail alas, but clearly cut from Angel’s genetic cloth. Stocky, dark, dressed in forest green, eyes like woodland pools. “Mi hermano Rodrigo”, Angel mutters to us, and they converse for a while in low voices, pacing, shaking their heads. Then Rodrigo melts back off into the jungle, his clucking and whistling soon lost amid the leaves that rustle in the wind.

It is nearing ten o’clock now and we have been out here in the woods since half past five. Slow dawn hours watching for birds, but all we have actually seen so far is a single fleeting blaze of red tail feathers through a gap in the trees.

The elusive Andean Cock of the Rock

We have not had any breakfast yet, no coffee even. I am getting grumpy and Arthur is bored, snapping twigs and hurling pieces into the undergrowth, badly imitating Angel’s bird hoots. Angel himself is reduced to showing us videos on his phone of other more successful tours when rare and beautiful quails pecked around camouflaged ankles as real ornithologists tower serious and awkward above them, bristling with long lenses and military-grade optics.

After we have had enough of staring at leaves we drive up to the mountain lodge and Angel’s wife brews us a coffee. “We have a bird watching hide somewhere over there,” indicates Angel sadly, “perhaps you might see something. There are plenty of tanagers and hummingbirds who come. They are not rare of course but they are pretty…”

The bird hide blows our mind. Strange crucifix wood sculptures are staked out in the woods with bananas tied onto them. A vivid blizzard of birds swarm around, wheeling, landing, jousting, swooping; fighting balletic midair duels for a peck of gloopy banana. We see a toucan barbet, tanagers of all colours, golden orioles, a fairywren, cotingas, trogons. I fumble around with Menna’s camera, which I have borrowed, but the autofocus can’t cope with the frenetic motion and I give up quickly.

Later Angel and Rodrigo march us back into the forest, down to a gully where to their delight we see both Shakira and Beyoncé. We are told with some reverence that they are rufous antpittas: small round brown birds, neckless, tailless, long blue legs; quite plump and cute as they hop around on the forest floor, but perhaps a little unflattering to their namesakes.

Arthur and I try to look interested but really we just want to go back to that rainbow glade, sit with a coffee, watch those hypnotic streaks of colour shoot across the mottled green like a Jackson Pollock painting in motion.

Angel sits himself down on a stump and a kind of calm settles on him. We have seen antpittas. He has delivered. The trip has been redeemed. Now it is time for a tale. It is about a child from a poor family, one of seven. He has little schooling and is destined for a life of labor in the fields, but a love of birds saved him. A tourist paid the young urchin ten dollars to lead him into the forest to find the Andean Cock of the Rock. A dream was born. A business was started

Then one day tracking deep in the mountains, our hero spotted a strange bird. A giant antpitta. So rare! So misunderstood! “I decided this bird with long legs and a big beak should be my friend” says Angel dreamily. So a strange courtship began, Angel calling and singing deep in the forest, bringing gifts of worms; shunned at first, his resolve tested, before the relationship began to bloom. “The forest was my new home. Day after day I try so hard to make friends with her…”

Shakira

I later look at Angel Paz’s website where this exact story is repeated almost word for word under the bold heading Antpitta Man. He has built a life and an identity around this small nondescript bird. He is famous in ornithological circles. He has created a bird sanctuary on reclaimed farming land. A true legend of the cloud forest.

I look at Angel’s crucifix necklace and think about his faith, his acts of devotion deep in the woods.
“You named her after the Virgin Maria?” I whisper, “Because of her purity, her spiritual nature? She is a miracle!”
“No! Maria I am naming after my wife. She is like this bird!”

I nod solemnly, appreciating the gesture. No greater love can man show his woman than to name a small fat bird after her. God willing I too may one day bestow this honour on my wife.

Maaarriiiia!

The Key to Success

The clock is ticking and we are all feeling it. Time is running fast now, the tempo of our trip has picked up. It is only a couple of months until we need to return to the UK, so we have built a fast-paced and ambitious itinerary to maximise our time in Ecuador. But first we will need a ride.

The car must be of a certain size as we have a lot of luggage – including two large surfboards – and it will need some power as we have a lot of mountain driving to do. Car hire is not cheap in Ecuador. We comb the internet and eventually transfer mucho dollar to Europcar for a small SUV, the minimum viable vehicle for our trip.

When I go to pick up our Chevrolet Vitara in downtown Quito I am told that the vehicle we booked isn’t actually available. Europcar can’t offer me a refund or a discount (check the terms please señor!) but, puffed and smiling with their own beneficience, they will offer me a substitute car. A old and tiny Kia saloon!

I argue, I rage, I bang the counter, but the smiles barely falter. They have danced this dance before. They might be able to exchange our vehicle at a later point – God willing – but then again they might not. They already have my money and from their smirks they know that I know that they have me trapped. Relunctantly I abandon our surfboards in the corner of the Europcar showroom and drive away in a old and tiny Kia saloon.

The driving is fast in Quito and bereft of conventional etiquette. Indicators, lights, signs, road markings: they mean nothing. Here we drive with our horns and with hand signals, we drive with bravado, even in an old and tiny Kia saloon. Pedestrians swarm like ants all over the roads, beggars bang at windows, urchins wash my windscreen then demand coins, masked men sell men’s masks at the traffic lights. Then comes the rain. One of those impressive storms where the water drops down in curtains and you are instantly drenched the moment you step out of the car door.

I burst back into our apartment eager to tell Menna the bad news about our new car. Full of righteous indignation I will replay her the conversation, show that I gave it to them with both barrels, that no-one could have done more! We were victims again of car rental fraudsters with their intransigent bureaucracy and punitive small print that no-one can realistically be expected to read! But she is on the phone and I must pace around for a while before telling my story. There is lunch set out though and I tuck in. Approximately three bites into an epic turkey-cheese-chilli-avocado sandwich it occurs to me that I may have left the car unlocked. With the keys in the ignition.

We are not in the worst area of Quito, there is electricity and basic sanitation here and only mild street crime, I think as I bound down the stairs, but we are certainly not in the kind of neighborhood where you would leave a car open – with keys dangling invitingly from the ignition – for too long. Even if its an old and tiny Kia saloon. I run back out into the rain.

No one has stolen our car. I soon see why. The Kia saloon, with some innate instinct for self-preservation, has completely shut herself up. The keys are still dangling invitingly from the ignition, but every door is firmly locked. I try each one several times but only succeed in setting off the alarm. There is a moment where I find myself alone out in the pouring rain unsure what to do. An old and tiny Kia saloon dangles her keys just out of my reach and jeers at me with two-tone klaxon laughter.

I look up to see my wife at her window, laughing and pointing, photographing me in my misery, relaying the story in realtime to some faraway friend on the phone.

I gather my wits. It was only five days ago that we (she!) locked our keys in the rental car in Brazil, so I recall the drill well. Go and find a ‘locksmith’ who will forcefully lever open the top of the door with crude tools then poke something around in the gap until they manage to hit the unlock button. It’s a long and haphazard process but it’s all we’ve got right now. I’m not getting some extortionate penalty from Europcar to send out replacement keys.

It’s not hard to find some enthusiastic volunteers. Firstly the owner of a hardware store further down the street, then the car-parking mafioso in his high-vis vest who earlier shook me down for a dollar, then a local gangster who patrols the street and no doubt takes a skim off the car-parking racket. They know what to do, they tell me, they are experts in opening locked cars! Various others come and go. As the rain dries up our hotel manager comes to join the party, throwing out ludicrous comments (“Do you think someone could unlock it remotely via satellite?”) to which I strain to answer politely.
“Well, I’m not sure that technology exists yet. If only! Ha ha..”

The gangster sticks a screwdriver into the roof joint with brutal force. I think of a switchblade sliding between ribs.

The screwdriver slips out, scratching the roof and he frowns. The hardware guy grabs the handle and steps in to have a go. The team is enthusiastic, energetic, unconcerned about the large deposit that Europcar holds on my credit card. They try various attacks,

Eventually they breach the top door seal, lever back the metal, and spend a long time taking it in turns to poke the wires around the car interior.

After about forty minutes of bustling, advising, laughing, shouting, taking turns, the activity levels slow down, then stop. One by one all participants have silently come to the same conclusion: it is physically impossible to coax up a smooth knob with a straightened coat hanger no matter how tightly you have twisted a hook at its end. The fallback strategy has also ended in failure: an interior door handle is designed to move horizontally, it cannot be levered open from above. By now there is a deep array of scratches on the roof like a bear’s claw-marks and the metal top strut of our door is notched with screwdriver imprints. Yet no one wants to leave. I have to talk the guys down, thank them, somehow get rid of them. Dollars all round for your trouble guys!

With the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth, I call up Europcar. I explain the situation to them – some kind of internal malfunction surely, it locked itself! Perhaps they could send some replacement keys out a taxi, or I could come to the office tomorrow…

“Don’t worry señor, we have a remote unlocking service. It’s via satellite… Si señor, it is immediate… Si señor, like right now… Señor, señor, please, could you just stop asking questions for one moment. Are you by the car?”

*Click*

“That will be $100 señor.”

With the help of the car-parking mafioso and our triumphant hotel manager, we squeeze most of our luggage and children into the old and tiny Kia saloon, and off we drive on our Ecuadorean adventure.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare

William Butler Yeats

Cold Mountain

“I learn something every time I climb a mountain,” said Michael Kennedy before he skied into a tree and died. Today we are climbing a mountain and we too are learning something: about preparation and planning, about lackadaisical approaches, about extreme weather. We are learning that mountains are cold places. “I learn something every time I forget my jacket…”

Our travel philosophy is simple: we seek out new things, we throw ourselves after adventure, we plan as little as possible, we let luck and impulse guide us. It doesn’t always work of course. We arrived in Brazil in the middle of the world’s worst Covid spike. We got lost in the desert with no water. We found ourselves surfing with sharks. I nearly bled out in an isolated jungle lodge. Now we are trekking through snow on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano with no boots, no gloves and only thin anoraks. At least we have covid masks to keep our cheeks warm.

And somehow now we’re in Ecuador. A blurred night and day journey. Natal to Sao Paolo (Gol Airlines, check-in chaos, arguments about surfboards, no food) Sao Paolo to Panama City (Copa Airlines, 2am takeoff, heads lolling, sunrise over the sea, congealed egg breakfast), Panama City to Quito (Chatty pilot, bumpy flight, The Andes! Hair-raising landing).

It’s our first day here and full of naïve optimism we have taken the teleferico up from Quito. Just on a whim. A simple cable car ride that will take us to the mountain top where we might go for a stroll and drink in the view. It is pleasant and sunny when we climb in the bubble car, but weather moves fast in the mountains and as we clank our way upwards, clouds come rolling in all around us. They look heavy and menacing.

Quito sits 2800m above sea level, the second highest capital in the world (the highest is La Paz, a little further south in the same mountain chain). Now after climbing another kilometre in the cable car we find ourselves at some four thousand meters of altitude, up in thin air. There doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen to fill our lungs.

Our arrival coincides with some kind of cosmic tantrum. The clouds close ranks, the visibility deteriorates, a flurry of snow veils the landscape. Then a heavier spray of hailstones and then a full electrical storm erupts. Lightening bounces off the cloud ceiling above us; percussive booms of thunder make us jump. We splash through slush in our trainers, icy waters drips down our bare necks. We stuff our hands into our wet jeans’ pockets, tuck in our elbows and hunch forwards against the wind.

Matilda is scared of the lightning and after ten minutes on the trail, she is whining hard and so the girls turn back for the lodge. Arthur and I goad each other reluctantly onwards, putting great emphasis on completing our quest. Maybe we have some kind of summit fever. There is a swing somewhere ahead that a taxi driver has told us about. It is positioned on a cliff top, so you can take photos suspended in mid air, high above the plateau where Quito lies spread out, a faraway Lego town on a creased rug, the white bricks smudged and dirty from overuse.

It is only a twenty minute tramp up to the swing but they are the coldest and wettest twenty minutes in recent memory. Our ability to deal with the cold has been diminished. We’ve been softened up on tropical beaches. We make it to the swing at last, panting like dogs, soaking wet, toes numb, Arthur is shivering violently and thinks he might have altitude sickness.

Neither of us fancies actually sitting on the swing – the wooden seat is dripping with slush and the chain is icy. The weather has cleared enough to make out a ghost town below, so I take a quick snap of Arthur standing beside the swing and we agree that this is enough of a summit trophy for us.

We run back down the mountain to safety, squinting into the snow, slipping and sliding in the slush. We find the girls sipping hot chocolate in the cable car lodge, and breathlessly we tell them our heroic stories. Arthur saw something that might have been a mountain hare! Daddy slipped over on the flat path! How wild is it that two days ago we were in the desert and now we’re in the mountains!

Ecuador is going to be a different type of travel experience we all agree, and we head down the mountain to find a camping shop where we can buy some warm clothes.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment…”

Richard Cross and countless other gear-boffins.