I could see a street sign out through the hazy glass indicating which town we were in, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was trying to get to Laguna Quilotoa, an old, inactive volcano high in the Ecuadorian mountains that over the course of centuries had filled with water to create a magnificent, deep blue lake surrounded on all sides by towering volcanic rock. As far as I could tell, we weren’t in Quilotoa.
I’d changed bus 4 times that day which was already 2 more than I’d been told I’d need, so I wanted to make sure I was on the right track. The driver continued to usher me off the bus amid a dialogue of rapid Spanish, and although I couldn’t understand everything, I caught the words for “walking”, and “very close”, so once again I put blind faith in what I was being told, shrugged my shoulders and started on foot for what I hoped would be the centre of town.
I was well into rural Ecuador and the town was tiny so I had no trouble finding the centre. Several sets of eyes followed me strolling through, although none of them said anything. This had turned out to be the norm for parts of the country less frequented by tourists, and despite it being a little off-putting at first you got used to it. There was a squat, beady-eyed man sat on the curb watching me pass so I made my way over and asked how to get to Quilotoa.
“5 dollars”, he replied.
So that’s how it was going to be. It wasn’t the money itself that was my issue, after all it’s not like 5 dollars would have broken the bank, but I’d paid less than that for the 6 hour, several hundred kilometre journey to get there, and it was the principle of the thing, you know? I asked a few others and got the same response, so I started insisting on distances and directions instead of just how to get there. There was a young guy behind the counter of his store who after some insistence relented and pointed me 40km up the road, but not until after I’d declined a ride in his friend’s taxi several times over.
I had no intention of walking the 40km but I started down the road anyway, ignoring the offers of transport and lodging along the way. Everything was so green. Thick grass and low shrubs covered the rolling hills surrounding the town, and inside there were trees and plants growing at random and unpredictable angles, cracking pavement and splitting concrete as they went. It was as though the town knew it would eventually be taken over by nature and had given up trying to fight it.
There was a street sign on the outskirts of town that read “Quilotoa 22km”, with an arrow pointing in the direction I wanted to go. It wasn’t quite the 40km I’d been told in town, but I still wasn’t going to walk it, so I put my bag down beside the curb and tried to hitch a lift. The first 3 cars were the same story with the drivers and passengers demanding between 5 and 10 dollars for the trip, and after turning down yet another ride from an insistent old lady I sat down next to my bag and started flicking rocks at the 22km sign, trying to convince myself to just pay the 5 dollars and be done with it.
A flattop truck with a few farmers out on the tray rounded the corner towards me, and although I locked eyes with the guys on the back I didn’t wave them down. I’m not sure why. I thought they’d gone clean past me when I heard a shout out from further down the road. They’d pulled over onto the shoulder and the guys on the back were waving me over, so I took up my bags and jogged ahead to meet them.
“Vas a Quilotoa?” one of them asked.
“Venga, arriba”, he said, holding out a hand to help me climb up.
“Gratis, no?” I asked
“Sí, por supesto”, he replied, of course.
I threw my bag onto the tray and climbed up to take a seat among the grease and woodchips as we pulled away from the curb and started winding our way through the mountains. I went through a course of introductions with the guys on the back and explained who I was and where I’d come from, which was enough for most of them as they leant back against their tools and kit-bags to watch the road pass us by.
Except for this one guy. The moment I took up my seat against an oil covered machine housing he moved himself over next to me. Not that I minded, he was smiling and energetic, and patient with my shitty Spanish, so I was more than happy to chat with him as we moved slowly on our way. He asked about my country and explained to me about his, and I ended up so involved in the conversation that I didn’t notice we’d stopped until he stood and motioned for me to follow him off the side of the truck.
I jumped down and they explained that this was as far as they were going, and that I could hitch another ride or walk the rest of the way into town. Hands were shaken and backs were slapped, and as quick as I’d found a ride in the first place, I was alone again, walking along a worn gravel road winding it’s way through the Ecuadorian countryside. The altitude was a bitch though, and not long into what was nothing more than a soft, uphill climb I was panting like I’d just finished the 4-minute mile.
My jacket felt suffocating but when I took it off I felt both freezing cold and boiling hot at the same time. The parts of me covered with clothes were struggling under the sun and sweaty from the hike, but the air at this altitude bit sharply and numbed any area of exposed skin. On the road ahead of me there were 2 indigenous women wrapped in layers of their traditional woollen clothes, and I thought for sure they must have been cooking under the sun. I caught them up and said hi, and in response I got nothing but silence and stares. Like I said, you got used to it, but it was still a little annoying. They kept up with the staring so I tried again and asked how much further it was into town. I had 5 kilometres to go.
At sea level I might have considered walking it, but my head was aching and my backpack felt like it had gained 10 kilos, so I slowed my pace and tried to chat with the women as I caught my breath. We talked a little about where I was from and what I was doing in Ecuador and they were impressed with my Spanish. By then I’d more or less memorised the phrases I’d spoken to them, but I decided not to let on, and after a while I said goodbye and sat down kerbside as they kept on slowly up the road.
Almost as soon as I’d sat down a little 2-door sedan appeared from over the hill and made it’s way towards me, so I stood up, stuck out my thumb, and hoped for the best. Again I thought they’d gone straight past me, which, given the size of their car I’d have understood, but they pulled over some 50 ahead and started reversing back. They were a Columbian couple on holiday in Ecuador and when I told them I was thought I was going to have to walk the rest of the way to town they just laughed and pulled their seats forward, motioning for me to climb in.
The guy drove like crazy as he pushed the little 2-door to it’s limit on the winding, gravel road, but I was loving it, and we arrived in town in under 5 minutes. They knew nothing about Australia and although I thought about laying the tried and true “drop-bear” story on them I decided against it. They’d picked me up and even insisted on paying my entrance fee into the national park so I couldn’t do it to them. Not to mention I would have been stretching my Spanish to it’s limit trying to give a proper explanation. We shook hands and said our goodbyes, and again I set off alone in a foreign village to try to find a place to spend the night.
There was a guesthouse up ahead of me that looked half-decent, and I couldn’t help but smile as I made my way over. Contrary to what you’re taught as a kid, it appears that you can talk to strangers, you can trust strangers, and you can even get into cars with strangers, and my heart warmed as I thought about the simple generosities humans are capable of. Then again, maybe it was just the altitude. A lack of oxygen can make a person do the strangest things.