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.