I want to love Ecuador, but after our unfortunate encounter with the cartel in the morning and an afternoon of relentless climbing through the cloud forests, I’m discouraged. Even when Sam, Sven, and I finally reach the sleepy town of Celica, perched high on an Andean ridge, we’re greeted with a burst of rain.
By the time I shower and leave the hostel, the sun has set and the clouds have settled into a thick fog in the streets. Fluorescent bulbs cast an eerie half-light I associate with ghosts and the London wharves of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. Though I raid pastry shops, watch cheery locals play basketball, and fill myself with warm lamb stew, I can’t escape the feeling that something sinister lurks just beyond my view.
The next day we descend from the cool mountaintops into humid banana plantations. The roads switch from bumpy to muddy, and I have to stop several times to clean a thick layer of clay from my gears. The afternoon drags to a close, I’m glad to catch up to Sam and Sven stopping to rest at a roadside market. They’re chatting with a squat Ecuadorian man. When this stranger sees me he pauses and, with an enthusiastic handshake, introduces himself as Georgie. He’s the owner of the market, and he’s offered to let us stay here for the night.
After Georgie closes up shop, he takes us on a quick tour of his property. Though his market is adjacent to the highway, he owns farmland that stretches further into the valley, where his house sits amidst fields of banana trees and cocoa beans. His wife, Eva, and visiting teenage niece, Pilar, come outside to meet us before we’re brought back our quarters above the market. The building is made of cinderblocks and mortar. We’ll be sleeping on the second floor, which is under construction and accessible from an outdoor staircase. Georgie tell us he’d like to turn it into a hostel, but it still needs a lot of work.
He’s right. We haul our gear upstairs to a nearly empty room with only a small mattress, its mosquito net, and a Disney princess comforter. The windows and doors are unornamented holes leading out to a thin concrete ledge. A large square hole in the middle of the floor opens into the market, and I can’t imagine its purpose beyond terrifying second-story sleepers. It’s perfect.
I set up my tent on the floor and head out to find a shower. Pilar finds me wandering and guides me to a tall concrete basin between the market and the house. A thick plastic pipe arches out of the ground next to it and is suspended at chest-level by a post. I move to aim the pipe into the basin, but Pilar scoffs at me. She turns on the water and angles the pipe even further from the basin. The water pours copiously into the soil. I’ll be washing in the open.
Without the scant protection of the basin’s walls, I’m forced to abandon what few shreds of modesty remain after three months of wearing only spandex. I hover at the edge of the basin, strip down, and edge into the water. I feel lighter as pounds of accumulated grimed fall off of me.
Eva and Pilar chat on the porch nearby. Though they’re ostensibly facing in the other direction, my shower is punctuated by a series of disconcerting giggles. I rinse, wrap myself in a towel, and return to my tent blushing.
Shortly after dark, Georgie comes by and offers to drive us into town for dinner. We agree, excited. We meet the family at their aging pickup truck a few minutes later. Georgie motions for us to get into the back and climbs into the cab with Eva.
The truck has foot-tall wooden walls extending upwards from its bed, and the back is full of cocoa cuttings in small pots and two plastic boxes of trash. There’s no room to sit or stand. I’m baffled until Pilar climbs up a tire to perch on the wooden railing, dangling her legs over the cocoa cuttings and beckoning us to join her. I climb up to my perilous perch, the truck shudders to life, and we jitter forth into the night.
Though we never top 20 mph, the ride is exhilarating. From our high vantage point the valley is a sprinkling of lights under a swirl of stars and scattered clouds. Sam and I are at the front of the bed, resting our hands on the roof of the cab. It’s too loud to hear each other speak, but Sam and I share a grin as the truck sways underneath; we both know exactly how much our mothers would disapprove. We look back to check on Sven and Pilar. She’s trying to explain something to him, but her shouting is muffled by the wind, and Sven can only shake his head and smile.
When we reach the very outskirts of town, its few lights visible but still distant, Georgie pulls the car to the side of the road, opens his window, and shouts, “Throw out the garbage!” Sven is sitting closest to the curb, and I can see his sad realization as Pilar chimes, “That’s what I was trying to say.” We’re all against littering, a disposition that’s only been reinforced by months of camping in the impromptu dumps that grow to the side of South American highways, but Sven is militant. Weighing the responsibilities of citizen and guests, he looks to Sam and I for guidance. We shrug.
Sven upends the first box it into the foliage. I expect him to cringe, but he doesn’t even seem upset. He dumps the second box, returns it to it’s perch, and turns back to Sam and me, smiling like he’s gotten away with something. Georgie honks approvingly and we start moving towards town again.
The town is small but lively. Old men laugh outside the general store, and passersby dot the sidewalks. Georgie parks near one of the few streetlights, and we hop out to eat.
Our dinner spot is a barbecue on the sidewalk. It’s ringed by a few plastic lawn chairs and tended by a smiling old lady. It smells fantastic. Georgie orders us all sausages, which are grilled with plantains, peppers, and grey chunks of something that might be meat. Sam, Sven, and I eat our bowls in seconds, which amazes Georgie and family. Wide-eyed, they encourage us to eat more. We oblige, and after finishing a second round (and a third for Sven) we grab some ice cream at the local market and return to the farm.
We say goodnight to the family and retreat our quarters. I’m woken briefly in the middle of the night by Sven’s curses; his sleeping pad fell through the hole into the market. As I chuckle in my tent, listening to him tiptoe over to steal Sam’s pad, the last of my cartel-inspired distrust melts away. Ecuador seems less a menace than a well-meaning prankster, implicating you in drug crimes one day and offering a room, dinner, and enthusiastic company the next.
It’s not ideal, but it’s beautiful, and I’m willing to suffer a lot for a sausage dinner.