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.”
”Is it dangerous you think?”
”When do you think he will come?”. He thinks a little.
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.”
“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”
“Is there a taxi here do you think?”
“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.
“Oh ok. Are we sure about this? How do we know?”
“My brother’s friend… the truck.”
“He will come… 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”