¡Hola a todos!
I returned to Quito from the Galapagos Islands on 21 August, intent upon spending a couple of days and nights relaxing with friends from the boat and with my diary. So mellow, so peaceful was this time that my diary finds itself in the unprecedented position of being up-to-date! I wish that I could type the same regarding my blog but, alas; there is much work to be done!
After enjoying a fun-filled couple of nights out with some of the crew, as well as a jolly wander around Quito’s impressive old, colonial centre with Dan and Mark – my cabin-mate and a hilarious northerner respectively – I planned a solo trip north out of Quito to visit the much quieter, more sleepy towns of Cotacachi and Otavalo. The fun began before I had even reached my first destination, as the bus-driver and I had a rather unfortunate breakdown in communication: I had hoped that he would drop me beside the road, at the turn-off from the Panamericana to the country lane leading into Cotacachi. Clearly, this was not the accepted protocol; it was up to me to shout when I needed to depart the bus. By the time I had plucked up the courage to stumble to the front of the vehicle and enquire as to where we were, Cotacachi had long since passed. I disembarked, crossed the road and flagged down every bus I saw until eventually I succeeded in stopping a bus heading directly to Cotacachi, heralding a swift and complete turn-about in my hitherto dismal luck.
Cotacachi is a particularly quaint, slumber-filled outpost of a town, its twin tourist-pulling powers lying in a beautiful nearby lake, the water-logged caldera of a long-dormant volcano and its leather-making industry, boasted of as unsurpassed throughout Latin America. I must confess that by this stage of my trip, any such boasts normally fall on – at best – unimpressed ears: such claims are made anywhere and everywhere and concerning all manner of saleable goods. Nonetheless, it was to the town that I turned my initial attention, arriving too late in the afternoon to contemplate a fulfilling trip to visit the lake. After an hour or so meandering through the sullen streets, I decided to end my woefully inadequate love affair with Cotacachi – a pleasant distraction for an hour or so – and journey on to Otavalo. I boarded a bus, this time altogether more successfully, and soon found myself deposited in the town’s main bus station.
Otavalo holds a considerably more substantial claim to a handicraft heritage than Cotacachi, known popularly as the centre of Ecuador’s market-stalls, selling just about every indigenous textile, pot and carving imaginable. Mum and Dad had tipped me off to the location’s potency after their own visit to Ecuador and it was upon this burning effigy that I had fixed my hopes of obtaining significant travel-presents for loved ones back home some months previously. Otavalo seemed perfect: it is towards the end of my trip, so I have less distance in which to carry the extra weight of these gifts. I would hopefully have arrived at some firm decisions as to which gifts should be bought and for whom. All things considered, I was in high spirits for a body that breaks out in cold sweats when even the mention of a shopping trip is aired: it is a distracting yet wholly unpleasant experience to actually witness the changes wrought in me should anyone physically succeed in luring me into any such capitalistic dwelling. Thus I was both surprised and delighted to be able to contemplate just such an undertaking and all by myself as well!
I had arrived in Otavalo too late in the evening to embark immediately upon my intended shopping spree and so I contented myself with a leisurely stroll into the centre of town for some picture-taking with my faithful camera. I sought out the hotel used by my parents during their one-night stay here last year but, I decided swiftly that such accommodation was far beyond my own meagre budget. The hotel staff was friendly folk and directed me to an alternative but two streets further down the road: here I was able to secure a private room with en suite for half the usual price. This bargaining was not intentional, I hasten to add: quite simply, I told the kind lady behind the desk that I could not afford her daily room-rates and so she lowered the price, just like that. A spring in my step, I took to the street once more in search of a likely establishment in which to satisfy my hunger for food and for tackling another cryptic crossword from home. I settled upon a modest entrance-way that yielded a flight of stairs and a menu on the door that promised both Italian- and Middle Eastern-inspired cuisine. Arriving in the restaurant, I took a table across from another that was occupied by what looked to me to be a fellow traveller.
It took me the whole duration of my meal to decide that whether or not the young lady sat across from me was a fellow journeying soul, I would appreciate some conversation after spending much of the day alone with myself. Alas, I have never been good at striking up such impromptu conversations and she seemed so engrossed in her book. I found it altogether too easy to take out my crossword and settle down into a restive repose. Thank the gods then that she took the initial, asking whether I spoke English (it transpired that she assumed me to be German…). So it was that Hannah from Seattle and I came to share a table, a drink and much interesting conversation that evening, in a small café-restaurant, continents (or so) from our respective homes. Hannah proved to be wonderful company and it was past midnight when we finally departed the establishment and I saw her safely back to her hostel. We had exchanged contact details and already I looked forward to meeting her again whence finally I arrived at my last destination of Seattle before my flight home. I traipsed along, following my footsteps back to my own hotel for the evening, which transpired to be closed and dark upon my belated arrival at the front door. The way barred against me, I had no alternative but to ring the bell – just once. It took no more than that, the hotel owner arriving speedily at the gate to turn a set of keys and welcome me inside. I was soon to discover that the goodwill shown to me so far in Otavalo was not simply a happy coincidence: everyone I met in this delightful little town displayed nothing but courtesy and warmth towards me during my short stay, endearing the place and its residents to me very strongly.
I enjoyed a peaceful, protracted slumber, ensconced in my own room, away from the constant disturbances that are, inevitably, wrought by fellow dormitory users. No loud snoring with which to contend, no constant flicking on and off of the lights as sleepy dormice and nocturnal owls come and go about their business. I rose to a swift, modest breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread, before taking to the street, courage in hand, to frequent the artisans’ market and seek out some of the gifts already formed inside my head (some ideas rather helpfully placed there by Mum). As I walked along the street, still awaking to the early morning sun, I heard my name shouted from a small café entrance. Of course, Hannah was inside, enjoying her own hasty breakfast, before engaging the crafts-people one more time on her way to the bus station and transport to Mindo, a town to the west boasting some impressive forest and nature. It was lovely to see her again and certainly I appreciated some company entering into the already rather grandly bedecked stall area. Mercifully, we had still arrived rather early in the day, ahead of the largest crowds. We were also in Otavalo mid-week, on a Wednesday, rather than the far more popular weekend days. I enjoyed a leisurely, calm introduction to the stalls and their genial owners as I followed Hannah around in her search for some specific gifts.
Alas, the moment came, all too swiftly, for Hannah to depart for her bus and I was left to fend for myself in the burgeoning market-space. I need not have feared so: the process of browsing the stalls, seeking out the best goods and then bartering good-naturedly with the crafts-people was all a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I had been fore-warned both by Mum and by one or two guide-books that bartering is crucial at these markets and that not to do so is somehow considered ill by the stall-holders; a personal slight if you will. It was thrilling, certainly, to purchase a gift for half the price originally asked, although not all goods yielded such heavy reductions. The positive effect upon my mentally was dangerous, encouraging me on in my pursuit of what my mind had swiftly come to portray as profitable deals – of course, they were no such thing! Thankfully, my discomfort regarding such an activity returned to me belatedly and, fatigued by an entire morning of browsing and buying, I quit the markets rather relieved and quite proud of my purchases. I had found nearly everything that I set out to seek and I had retained the whole afternoon to enjoy a little more of the town, away from the worryingly addictive stalls.
So content was I with Otavalo, so elated after my purchasing, so at ease with the hospitable people and cosy streets, that I informed my wonderful hotel-staff of my intention to remain a further night, before setting off on a walk to the ‘lechero’ tree, a very old specimen with a curious, unverified legend surrounding its birth. The story goes that an old man was walking in the hills above Otavalo one day when suddenly he came upon a strange man, who ordered him to leave the area at once and never look back. Of course, though initially complying with the odd request, the old man nonetheless grew curious and turned to regard the fellow once more. At once he metamorphosed into the ‘lechero’ tree and stands upon the spot of his curiosity to this day. The tale was told to me by Hannah, who had encouraged me to seek out this tree, complimenting the route to it for its picturesque scenery. I had walked but two streets from my hotel, heading out of town towards the head of the trail, when I was hailed by a young, indigenous lady. The welcome took me quite by surprise, being altogether too familiar, emanating from a person I had never previously met. My first thought was that this girl wanted to rob me, a feared that was fuelled further when she – seemingly innocently – asked me whether I had a camera. Suspicious, my answers were guarded and not altogether friendly. The girl persisted, asking me where I was from, why I was visiting Otavalo, whether I liked it. We walked on some three or four streets, the conversation mostly one-sided (and, a rare situation, it was my companion who was doing most of the talking!). We reached the cross-roads signalling my turning off to the tree quickly but, as I was about to wish the girl good-day, she enquired as to whether she and her young cousin could join me on my hike. Thinking slowly, somewhat intrigued and polite as most people are generally towards strangers, I found myself accepting her request: so it was that my solitary hike became one joined by two locals; one a sprightly young chap, the other a chatty young lady.
The walk transpired to be one of the highlights of my trip, offering me one of the fullest opportunities for conversing with locals that I have been lucky enough to undertake these past six months. The young lady, Estrella (Spanish for ‘star’), is a lovely character, full of confidence and curiosity towards cultures and languages different to her own: I was reminded of myself and fellow travellers rather strongly. Asking innocently how old she was, we discovered that we are the same age: I sought her birthday and, quite remarkably, we were born one day apart – I am less than twenty-four hours older than she. At this point, Estrella looked surely akin to a soul who has just heard that they have won some important national lottery and I marvelled too: how different the locations in which we entered the world, how different our very worlds! Estrella’s cousin was much younger and more difficult to address, displaying a shyness and eagerness to impress that I recognized well from my own youth, when I would find myself in the company of older boys from whom I desperately wanted respect. Mindful of my own mixed experiences in this field, I was careful to engage the happy lad wherever possible, though the majority of conversation flowed between Estrella and me.
Estrella displayed particular curiosity towards my trip thus-far and customs from back home in England. In turn, I wanted to learn more about the life of an indigenous Indian living among the mixed up ethnicities of South America. The walk to the tree, when I glanced at my watch, had taken roughly thirty minutes more than I had anticipated and yet, we seemed to arrive in no time at all. The scenery along the route was breath-stilling indeed: roving pastureland and ploughed fields dotted a gently undulating landscape; trees rose skyward from a small coppice, to lay a crown of green against a deep blue bowl punctuated by fluffy clouds of white. A slight breeze ruffled the trees, my suddenly abundant locks and Estrella’s blouse. The way was largely cobbled stone, interspersed among dirt track, the sand of which was periodically whipped up into a nebulous cloud by the tempestuous zephyrs. We passed by locals working and resting in the fields, besides cows labouring for breath, mounds of freshly-gathered hay littered round-about: Monet would have been in his naturalistic element here. In time, the tree itself rose up before us, painted upon a backdrop of a particularly grand mountain, its peak encircled by cloud and a voluminous lake stretching out to small, quaint hamlets in the valley below. The tree itself breathed antiquity; its limbs twisted and gnarled; a full life-time of struggle with the bitter elements marked upon its bark. It stood alone upon a small rise, all the more exposed to wind and rain but, also to our seeking eyes, framed wonderfully before its bucolic background. We took photographs, danced and capered around its trunk and placed small coinage in cracks between pieces of bark, Estrella adamant that such a practice would render true our hopes, wishes and dreams. I regaled my companions with the legend of the tree and they appeared suitably fascinated. The scene remains imprinted upon my pictorially useless memory; a happy day among many such happy days.
The return to Otavalo consisted mainly of a language lesson, as Estrella sought to learn some words of English: she had none and so our entire conversation over the three hours or so in each others’ company was conducted in Spanish; my longest and dearest work-out in the language to this point. We exchanged e-mail and I promised to send further pointers as she began along the arduous yet liberating route of learning a foreign language. Otavalo crowded in upon us all-too-quickly and so, after a parting full of good-will, I returned to my hostel, before heading out for a solitary final meal in Otavalo, intent upon regressing to Quito the following morning. It had been a wonderful interlude in and around Otavalo, exemplified in my meeting two engaging, interesting young ladies in as many days and enjoying in particular a lovely stroll to an ancient tree and a unique experience among the stalls of the blossoming handicraft market. It is yet another beautiful excursion for the memory-bank.
¡Saludos a todos!