Monday, November 1, 2010

24 de octubre

Fever,headache and chills. Just 2 days ago I was marveling at how good I felt, just goes to show ya . . .

Back in Ibarra after a week in Salinas and another week of visiting friends and some side trips outside of Riobamba. Salinas was very cold, and as I was packing light was totally unprepared for it. When the sun did come out it was as spectacular as always . . . but mostly it was cold.

One day while in Riobamba I hopped on a bus to parts unknown, one of my favorite things to do. My destination was a small pueblo called Alao, at the foot of the Sangay National Park. There were no direct busses, so I caught one to Licto, and then hiked the several kilometers to Pungala, where I had heard I could catch a bus on up the valley to Alao. The weather was clear and cool as I hiked down the sendero from Licto to the bridge where it looked like I could connect to the road to Pungala.

After 20 minutes or so of slipping and sliding down the loose rocky footpath I made the bridge, and as I slogged back up the steep highway to Pungala, passing by a small hydroelectric plant and a Catholic sanctuary, it began to rain. Luckily my friends in Riobamba had insisted I take a raincoat with me so I reached into my pack and grabbed the trusty thrift store jacket my son Joe had brought for me a couple of years ago. My god I was glad to have that raincoat! As I climbed the temperatures dropped and the rain poured, and when I arrived in Pungala the only thing I could think about was a cup or two of very hot coffee.

Now, as I have no doubt mentioned before, Ecuador is a country full of friendly people. And on this particular day it appeared to me that the friendliest of them all live in Pungala. I drifted into town, feeling like the first gringo to ever lay a boot on the brick paved streets. Of course I wasn´t, as it turns out a young Peace Corps volunteer from New York City lived there for 2 years back around 2001. I learned this from the first person I encountered in Pungala, after inquiring about a cup of coffee. Mariano is a storekeeper/pharmacist who runs a little botiquin, selling 10 cent bags of snacks, 25 cent bowls of chochos and on occasion an aspirin or two. After first inviting me to stay at his house for a few nights (I thanked him and suggested I would stay with him and his family on my next visit to Pungala), Mariano took me by the arm to the little bakery across the street and ordered la dueña to boil some water for un cafecito. We returned to the botiquin and while we waited the half hour for the coffee to be ready we talked of life and the obvious advantages of living in Ecuador as opposed to anywhere else in the world. Well, according to Mariano anyway, who has never been anywhere else in the world, but who does go to Quito every now and again. Midway through our conversation Mariano pulled out his cell phone and had me call the former Peace Corps volunteer, a young woman whose number was on his speed dial. I did, and left her a rambling message in English saying that I was also a former Peace Corps volunteer who had just happened to wander into town and that Mariano and his family wanted to say hello and that they missed her and hoped she would come visit soon or at least call to say hello . . . I wonder if she did.

From across the street the bakery lady called out to say that at last my coffee was ready and I took my leave from Mariano. La dueña, a very round and pleasant woman, sat me down at a table and brought me my coffee, along with a couple of hardboiled eggs and some rolls. We made small talk for a little while and when I was ready to leave, and to pay, she refused me, saying that this was comida de la amistad, a meal of friendship. I argued weakly, and solved the dilemma by convincing her to sell me a bag of cookies and a few pieces of pan for the road.

I still had an hour or so to kill while waiting for the one o´clock bus to Alao. The day had warmed up and dried up, so I stuffed my raincoat back into my pack and wandered around town, which took all of about 8 minutes. I returned to the botiquin where Mariano and I ate cookies and bread and solved all the worlds´ problems until the bus came.

A weekday bus around noon or 1 PM in Ecuador is not usually where any sane person wants to be because they are very often jam packed with about 100 students, give or take, returning to their homes in outlying communities after a grueling academic day of playing soccer and marching in place. My bus to Alao arrived in Pungala already packed to the gills, with about 25 kids on the roof and 6 or 7 more clinging to the ladder. I muscled my way into the bus, and as we slowly got under way an old woman who had a seat pulled at my pocket and told me that she was getting off soon and if I acted fast I could have her seat. So the moment she made a move to stand up I maneuvered my ass into position, and was ready to violently block any one of the little urchins who had ideas of beating me to the seat. Fortunately all went smoothly and I settled into the seat, opened up my sack full of cookies and bread to share with the 10 or 12 kids nearest me who were plastered together like sardines, and we all headed up to Alao, becoming more comfortable along the way as the bus stopped every 40 seconds or so at some random sendero to discharge a kid or two. I imagine many of these kids had another hour or so of walking in front of them, because until we reached Alao I saw only 2 or 3 houses dotting the rugged countryside.

Alao was cold and rainy, very green and very beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Salinas de Guaranda, except that Alao has the advantage of a relatively large and relatively clean river passing through it. This rio is known for its trout fishing, and someday, when I go back to visit with Mariano and his family in Pungala, I hope to get a chance to wet a line and try my luck.

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