Editor’s note: Curious what day-to-day life is like while studying abroad? Interested in off-the-beaten-path locales? Danny Dyer has you covered. Danny kept this journal recapping each day of an unforgettable journey to Ecuador this summer.
July 6, 3:20 p.m.
The airport is brimming with life. People of all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds, minds and stories; all bustling around my hunched over self. A crackled female voice permeates the air waves on occasion, asking for certain passengers to come to the flight entrance area to validate their passports and such. Ricardos and Hernandezes are called forth, familias y personas, names that remind me of my destination. Today we traverse the clouds to South America. Today we (my brother Petey and I) are the foreigners, the outliers from a distant land and a distant culture. I’ve been bracing myself for this ride for as long as I could instill it in the forefront of my thoughts. My stomach has trembled with a wild concoction of nerves and alacrity. But now? Now I am vulnerable — voluntarily open, actually — to whatever may or may not unravel on this adventure south of the Equator. Or, I should say ON THE EQUATOR.
Next stop, Mexico City, the one after? Ecuador.
In other words, next stop: LIFE.
P.S.: My thoughts spark like vibrant circuits, intertwined in bundles of intricate simplicity, desperately trying to transmit through my pie hole. Hopefully this journey will hasten their voltage.
Chapter1: The Genesis of El Grupo de Gringos
July 7, 6:39 p.m.
Hotel Baltra, Quito, Ecuador
Car horns whine in high octaves from the street below. Petey stretches on the floor of our room as I’m penning my accounts of the exhausting day. We are here at last, fully submerged into the metropolitan plexus known as Quito. Life here seems to circulate in similar fashion to back home, with people strutting the sidewalks engulfed in their own lives and worries and joys. But it is so very different at the same time. Here I am a towering gringo; camera strapped in palm and bandana coiled around head.
Hell, we’re all towering gringos, partially the reason I came up with our group moniker, El Grupo de Gringos. Locals stare at us as if we are extra-terrestrial giants. They also laugh and point as we dumbly wander the streets, their home, with expressions only outsiders can conjure up. This is our first night being in a new world. One where the policia swerve around traffic-clogged street lanes with an instinctual ease. A place where nearly all experiences are ones of a new, revitalizing nature.
“It’s dark outside now, huh?” Petey questions in between deep breaths on the carpeted floor. “I guess so,” I reply. I hadn’t noticed really. I was too immersed into this page of blue lines and scribbled recollections.
P.S. It appears I am the most knowledgeable Spanish speaker in our group. That alone tells me it is going to be one interesting trip. Hasta luego, for now.
July 8, 7:11 p.m.
Hotel Baltra, Quito, Ecuador
We congregated in the breakfast hall of Hotel Baltra this morning. All 12 of us are here now — Brandon Gallagher being the last to arrive at the brain numbingly late hour of 12 in the morning. Upon meeting our guru of local culture and happenings, Francisco Pastor, and absorbing a few cautionary tales about Amazonian society and their indigenous punishments, our day was ignited.
We huddled in an enjoyably cramped van as our driver aggressively sifted through the chaos of Quito’s traffic. It’s only the first full day and we’ve already ascertained so much fresh information; so many genuinely new perspectives on life and the art of living. The Ecuadorians seem to grasp the art form well, gleaming with smiles and hospitality at the strange looking foreigners. Difficult to not mention is that we also trekked to the center of our planet today. Yup, directly smack dab in the middle of this colorful pebble we call Earth. There’s a climate of simplicity here that is nonexistent back home. The natives seem to understand this, as well as cherish and cultivate such a special thing. As I scrawl this down my mind yearns to obtain such a blissful purity. But I grin at the succeeding thought that I have already grabbed hold of it.
P.S. Brandon’s parent’s names are Frank and Monica. You read that correctly, Frank and Monica Gallagher. Just like the characters in Shameless. The funniest thing is Brandon shares a striking resemblance to Carl too. We had fun with this notion all day long.
July 9, 5:08 a.m.
Hotel Baltra, Quito, Ecuador
I was about to pen down that I am the only one awake, but alas Vinod just spilled down the staircase in typical Vinod fashion: luggage bulging from his gripped hands and a smile smeared across his face. His hair is tangled in curly black knots, sharing a medusa-like similarity that has quickly become iconic among El Grupo de Gringos. Alex, the hotel employee, is perched behind his desk. He just removed the lock from the main hotel glass door — baton wedged between the handles. A rooster makes its presence known with powerful squawks. My eyes struggle to open through encrusted gunk and minimal sleep.
The lobby is starting to swell with dazed conversation as more of our group leaks onto the first floor. My brother sits next to me nibbling on some sort of orange bread. The Doors lull into my ear drums. My mind is stretching awake as I realize this is what it’s all about. Life doesn’t halt in its tracks whenever we decide to idle out, quite the contrary. Life is in the hotel lobby at five in the yawning morning. Life is hilariously attempting to converse with Alex in his native tongue. Life is a snug beanie and protruding backpack.
“There’s big spiders in the Galapagos,” cautions Vinod. “The best way to end your fears is to face them,” he pleasantly adds. I chime in with, “And then to step on them!”
We share a laugh.
P.S. Roosters are the best damn alarm clock the natural world has to offer.
CHAPTER 2: Darwin’s Playground
July 9, 1:23 p.m.
A symphony of chicken clucks and rooster caws flood the outside of our room. We are staying in the most basic of shelters, where the dense shrubbery and lime green plains aren’t near us, but engulfing us. Here we are amid Darwin’s playground. Laughter rings from outside my door. Goats gracefully scale the nearby rock mounds.
I have finally arrived in the Galapagos, and their glory is only more prominent in the physical form. No google image could even remotely compete with the sprawling wonders of our homestead’s view. Past this land mass of exoticism is the fog-lapsed ocean, churning in a mixture of blues and soft whites.
“I don’t hear anything,” Brandon remarks.
“That’s the point,” Petey responds.
I couldn’t have answered it better myself. But then our newest member, Marie, a British student here for four weeks to teach the local children English and math, managed to one-up his response.
“Maybe you’re just not listening hard enough,” she said in an accent coated with a confident fragility. Well said, I think to myself. Well said, indeed.
I trek forward on this soul-rejuvenating journey now, trying now more than ever, to listen.
P.S. The clatter of pans and pots chattering outside teases my stomach more and more. La comida come faster.
July 10, 12:46 p.m.
I fed a turtle this morning. Its shell is streaked with deep crevasses, as if they are flaunting its old age. Its neck is wrinkled with canyons of flesh. I’m humbled to say this is only one of a litany of highlights the morning provides for me and the rest of El Grupo de Gringo. Carlos, our local jungle guide, lugs around a duffel bag of machetes. My eyes widen with anticipation when I learn that we are to use them in the nearby field.
A battle quickly surfaces to reality. El Grupo de Gringos pitted against the ever-threatening encroachment of the invasive plant species. Sweat accumulates on my reddening forehead as I tip-toe around dung wads and needle-veiled shrubs. Strains of moss drape down from the trees. Mother Nature’s curtains. The battle is tiring but our fearless general, Carlos, relentlessly urges us to prevail past our growing fatigue. We are victorious in my book, at least for today. Tomorrow the plants will reassemble, counter attacking with their rapid growth.
Our celebration consists of a 10 minute foot-trek to the nearby beach and a more-than-rejuvenating dip in the ocean. The waves crash with a merciful kiss. It’s only one o’clock in the afternoon.
P.S. I wasn’t kidding about roosters being the best damn alarm clock around. Those guys can belt some tunes, and prefer to do so in the wee hours of dawn. It’s lunch time now and chicken soup awaits in a steamy concentration. Adios.
July 10, 10:09 p.m.
San Cristobal, The Galapagos
Our fourth day is simmering to a close and my mind sprints with the type of revelations only the natural world can spark to life: this world is beautifully flawed, I love adventure, my brother is my best friend, knowledge is my safety jacket when I find myself treading in the oceanic depths of fear, and man is snorkeling fun. These are things my cognition has fortuitously stumbled upon before, but all the same, their reaffirmation is just as comforting now.
The mosquitoes and gnats and other buzzards cling to the refulgence of the dangling light bulb. It veers my thoughts toward the notion that we’re all just winged mosquitoes, trying so hard to fly and cling to our light. Whatever that may be.
Thus far Ecuador has been the most enlightening teacher my moldable brain has ever been sculpted by. We’ll all go back to the states and tell people that we went to Ecuador — a commonality among recently world traveling college students — and people will have no idea what that means. But it means a lot. It’s like a secretive privilege, one that I’m honored to be in on. Other revelations brought on by this twenty-mile island include: bug spray is as crucial as oxygen, I still have a rampant love for words and writing and damn am I one lucky guy.
P.S.: As we are merrily tossed around the bed of a taxi pick-up truck earlier today I caught a passing glimpse of a young girl standing outside of her one-room house. She is fixated on some small gadget in her hand. It was a fidget spinner. I guess some crazes have a boundless reach across the globe.
P.P.S. Seals are essentially aquatic puppies.
July 11, 4:07 p.m.
The Galapagos, San Cristobal
This morning is one for the books- this book apparently. Waking at seven we devoured a quick breakfast before we trudged a two-mile hike to a local farming area. Awaiting us once more was the proverbial nemesis of the Galapagos, the invasive plant species. Once more machetes were brandished, this time against a more stubborn foe. Thick-stumped trees resisted the rustic blades as each swing cleaves deeper and deeper into their wood. The weapons bounce glimmering reflections back to the sky as the sun peers through the drifting clouds. This sporadic rant must now come to an abrupt close. Partially because this is the last line of the page of my journal, but mainly because Vinod is now looking at me.
July 11, 8:01 p.m.
San Cristobal and Luis’ Barro, The Galapagos
Upon the conclusion of Vinod’s lecture Petey, Jane, Courtney and I decide to capitalize on the hour and a half of free time Vinod generously offers us. It turns out to be the best hour and a half of the trip thus far. After conversing with a group of European teenagers who are staying at a homestead down the gravel road from us, we notice a wooden sign jutting out of a rocky intersection. It reads quite plainly, “El Barro.”
Just the thing to quench our thirst.
Aimlessly walking down this path our ears begin to hear distant snorts. Before we know it two tiny piglets waddle out of a hacienda, easily dipping under the barb-wire fence that, I assume, is supposed to prohibit their escape. As their snouts inspect the foreign strangers a man and his wife aptly follow behind, chuckling with widening smirks at their pets and their animalistic curiosity. It isn’t long after a conversation of shattered and bent Spanish that we are invited into their place. The obvious smacks us all in the face when we realize that this is the bar! As Luis (the farmer) and his wife coax us to play music and enjoy a game of billiards the environment transforms into an intimate fiesta of six. Tom Petty and Stevie Wonder blare from the sole stereo as we all clank our drinks in enthusiastic unison.
If it wasn’t for the enticing piggies, we never would have found the bar, made new friends, and taken a hardy bite into the local culture of this mystical island.
P.S.: Luis didn’t know that the eight ball is supposed to be made last; his expression of unbridled joy when he sunk it before the yellow ball was enough for all of us to let it slide. It seems he was as happy to have us as we were to be there. Tomorrow the island of Santa Cruz beckons, and we will most assuredly answer it’s call. Hopefully more folks like Luis and his charming farm await.
July 12, 6:05 p.m.
La Casa de Norma
I stare into a mirror crookedly hung on the faded dry wall. My feet are flushed with a sunburnt tint. My shins moan and creak in their tattered soreness. I consider all these ailments to be natural side effects of this Ecuadorian excursion. I wear them with pride, much like the shouting ninos and ninas across the street from Norma’s house, parading around their cement futbol field in their hometown jerseys.
I sit in my pose while I frantically scrawl down these accounts — curled forward in a near-impossible hunch, cross-legged and transfixed on the page that haunts me with its blankness. By the grace of being the first one up the stairs when Norma is ushering us to the boys’ quarters I manage to snag the only single person bedroom. Its solitary climate is refreshing after sleeping in a four-boy room that wreaks of a gag-inducing miasma of bug spray, B-O, and flatulence.
When we arrive at the heavenly white sands of Tortuga Beach, Petey and I don’t hesitate to rent a kayak. Our oceanic discoveries include a family of sand sharks that silhouette murky shadows in their deep lair, and two friendly sea turtles who pop their heads up to the water’s surface on occasion like a couple of aquatic whack-a-moles.
P.S.: The city streets of Santa Cruz pulsate with a liveliness that did not circulate in San Cristobal. Tiny stores line the sidewalks as children and adults alike go about their day. The night scene here patiently awaits the chaotic cluster that is El Grupo de Gringos.
P.P.S. The cobbled path of life is great for the soles of my feet. They strengthen with each callus and blister, each tumble and fall.
July 13, Sometime around 7 p.m.
La Casa de Norma
Today I snorkel with a swarm of sharks. I learn that sharks get a bad rap. People tend to think every shark is a 20-foot behemoth of the sea, teeth lined in jagged viciousness, eyes blackened and soulless, prowling the reefs with an ever-expanding appetite for human flesh. The apex predator of the ocean. The lion of the sea. These sharks are quite the opposite. They are small and curious, as harmless as they are timid.
The minute the dive-guide announces we can jump in the water I am over the side of the boat, treading my flippers in the teal tides. The channels and currents yank our bodies at will, steering us in any direction it so desires. I don’t mind this. I let it pull me around. Its control is both comforting and dominant. My chest hovers within touch of the rugged coral. Fish of all vibrancies burrow refuge from the pack of wet-suited humans.
As our boat departs, bobbing with an oceanic ferocity, the waters twinkle every spectrum of blue. Under my shades I begin to cry. I look all around me and just cry. I would say I don’t know why, that it is some compulsive flood of emotion, but that’s a flimsy lie. I am crying because I am right where I am supposed to be. This sensation, this feeling, reverberates to the very marrow of my core. I am embarking on the adventures that my younger self only dreamed about. I am living a life worth living, I think to myself. It is the best thought that has ever trickled into my mind.
P.S.: The sailor on our trip looks like he is having the best time out of all of us. His laughs come from the belly and he snaps his fingers every time the slightest of jokes leak from his sun-crinkled lips.
July 14, 11:09 a.m.
The Galapagos Airport
The airport breathes with an aura of opportunity. Faces fresh off landed planes gleam with an excitement for all the possibilities the Galapagos contain. Our time at Darwin’s stomping grounds is almost up. Once the aircraft’s wheels ascend from the ground we will have officially gone onward, perhaps to never return.
I think back to Norma. My mind sees her plump face and organic smile with a vividness that makes me feel as if she was here us now, conversing loudly in Spanish dialect. When I woke up this morning I greeted her with a customary embrace. In broken English she told me, “Uh, when you get up. It’s, uh, you always are happy. And it make me happy!” That compliment alone, as simple as it may be, already made my day. I was — and still am — proud that I emit a joyful radiance. Much better than the other way around, I figure.
It’s now 11:22, one hour till takeoff. I think I’ll go outside one more time and inhale a final gust of this island’s crisp coastal air.
CHAPTER 3: Intermission in Quito
July 15, 12:34 a.m.
Hotel Baltra, Quito
My head pounds with an exhaustion one can only endure after a daunting day of travel. Today was a patterned process of drop off luggage, pick up luggage, take off backpacks, strap on backpacks, hop on plane, walk off — I think you get the general gist. All the same I don’t mean to come off with a tone of complaint nor irritation. These menial tasks are the mild side effects of such grandiose adventures. And besides, our dinner in Quito salvaged the laborious day. Combining three tables at a restaurant El Grupo de Gringos swiftly took on the form of the 12 foreign disciples, with Francisco being our Ecuadorian Christ.
Across the restaurant was an Ecuadorian man sitting with what appeared to be his wife and two daughters. I found out that he was the owner of the establishment; he looked as suave as he did important. As the live singer goaded the packed restaurant to get up and dance he and his stunning wife were the first out of their seats. They danced with a fluidity that is either extinct or unknown in the states. Their tango oozed with a sensual essence that grinding and other low-grade American dances could only dream of capturing. But that sure as hell didn’t stop Pete and I from trying. As we stomped our feet in clunky stiffness and clasped hands the whole restaurant gawked at the hilarious spectacle. We may have not rolled our hips with the same sleekness as the owner and his wife, but we undoubtedly put on a show.
P.S.: What only amplified the sight more was that we were virtually wearing the same outfit. I can only imagine the perplexed thoughts of all locals in attendance: two gringo doppelgangers clumsily making fools of themselves? That USA truly does birth odd additions to this world.
July 15, 6:16 p.m.
Quito, Hotel Baltra
This morning the gondola carried our aching bodies to the highest elevation in Quito. Active volcanoes mottled the countryside. Apparently if they were to erupt, spouting their astringent lava over their beaker brims, the sky would be brushed with strokes of apocalyptic orange. What a sight that would be I thought to myself. Both spectacular and terrifying bundled into one ominous sight.
After this we waded through heavy traffic into the nerve-center of Quito’s city life. Stray dogs meandered behind us as we were the only ones to give them attention and love. As we navigated the busy town center I caught glimpse of a picture pinned on a wooden wall. It was the face of a rather ugly looking man, scowling in black and white. Above his head read in black emblazoned font, “Se busca.” I asked Francisco what that meant and he replied with a wiry grin and the word, “Wanted.”
Next was the visit to an extravagantly large church. Edifices of religious figures — presumably the Catholic Church’s all-time heavyweights — glimmered with a gold-plated brilliance. In fact, everything in the building seemed to be made of gold, minus the wooden pews.
Alas, the Amazon ekes closer and closer. I anticipate abnormally sized insects and merciless humidity, overhanging trees and muddied rivers. In other words, I anticipate more exploration. The intrepid kind, if you will.
P.S.: I hope to see an Anaconda. Preferably not under my feet though.
Chapter 4: Exploration of the Amazon
July 16, 7 p.m.
A harmonious buzz infiltrates my ear drums. The bugs are plentiful here in the hinterlands of this untamed Amazon. Or should I say, partially untamed.
After arriving at the local family’s house that we will stay at for the night I played catch with two chicos from across the green-watered river. We used a mango and they cackled with childish glee every time I dropped a toss. I marvel at these children. Here there are no TVs. Here the only electricity is called the sun and the only washer and dryer being the river channel. I fear that American kids of the same age, 10 to be exact, wouldn’t find wonder in the fertile landscape and unbridled wilderness, only fear. A fear brought about from not having a Wi-Fi connection, or the electronic cushion of a video game. A fear of the dense unknown and undiscovered.
I sigh with relief that I don’t align in that category — or try not to, at least. After settling in we embarked to the startlingly close oil plant. At long last all of the fabled evils and gossiped toxicities of such extraction plants took physical form. With cameras and phones inarguably prohibited, we were bluntly welcomed by men with rotund figures and mean faces. It was clear they didn’t want us there, and quite frankly, I shared the same feeling. It just didn’t look right, didn’t sit well in my unfed stomach. These massive black vats with oil-company encryptions printed in big white numbering. These serpent-like hoses slithering above the grass, guzzling more and more black gold out of the ground.
And yet, surrounding this dismal sight were ancient trees, all patiently waiting to regain their territory, to heal their thirty-year scab that keeps being pried open by the parasite known as the human.
P.S.: I have had a thirst for the wild for quite some time now. I can confidently, no, certainly, say that I have found such a marvelously intimidating thing.
July 17, 9:20 a.m.
The Amazon River
We glide atop the Amazon River. The adventures up to this point were all footsteps to this magnificently rainy moment. I awake at five in the morning to the loudening patter of rainfall. The drops plunged from the sky in thick liquid globs; their impact heavy and continuous.
Cramming in the van with all of our belongings wedged between our feet and strapped to our laps we were prepared to venture to the very boat I sit in now. I saw a tiny schoolgirl on the way, as well as buildings gashed with construction holes and telephone lines clothed in fertile leaves and vines. Now all I see to my left and right is compacted jungle, a forest that practically bleeds into the river bank. An eerie mist droops lazily above the waters. My mind skips about in fuzzy spurts. I am tired yet anxious, satisfied yet hungry for more, entangled in a gorgeous paradox of complacency and longing.
The life jacket suffocating my chest is a surprisingly useful pillow, my left cheek nestles on its orange softness. The skies now weep with rain. I try to gaze through the moistened window to no avail. I suppose I am stuck with my thoughts. That and this canvas called the unwritten page.
P.S.: I stand corrected, the pitter patter of Amazonian rainfall is nature’s best damn alarm clock. Step aside, rooster.
July 17, 3:27 p.m.
Sacha Nampi, in the Amazon
We all rest contently under the bamboo-roofed protection of our new homestead. I sway rhythmically in a netted hammock as rain plummets from the clouds in an equally rhythmic melody.
We have arrived.
The Amazon swallows this fantasy-like housing commune and I am more than pleased to be engulfed in such a wondrous entrapment. Petey cheerfully offers granola to the rest of our group only to be answered with faint murmurs and hushed grumbles. A high-octane concoction of excitement and satisfaction bubbles in my brain as I think about how such a destination as this one is a distant dream to countless around the globe. A scribbled wish, far, far down someone’s unchecked bucket list.
The rain has just now mellowed to a placid trickle as we wait for our home-cooked lunch. We are supposed to begin the process of chocolate making this afternoon but our schedule is entirely dictated by the natural elements. I am more than fine with this. No teacher nor agenda can compete with the almighty scheduler that is the jungle. Two puppies — or should I say perritos — have trampled up the stairs to our congregated area. I’m off to spoil them with attention.
July 17, 9:08 p.m.
We sit in our tents ambushed by the chirping insects and shadowed animals. Laughter spouts from the tents on occasion, followed by more conversation, and then followed once more by chuckles. It’s a campy pattern of enjoyment shared by us all. I stray from such a community now however, earphones dangling from the side of my head with my pocket-size flashlight illuminating this very page.
We dwell in this rain forest, inferior to its glory. We are so insignificant in its presence. It is indifferent to us as we nestle in its green confines. It’s as humbling as it is terrifying. I shudder at its unfenced magnitude and eternal depths. Today the homeowners ascended the rickety wooden staircase with an ease only learned/gained through experience. They trudged upward in sandals and t-shirts. We hobbled up it in mud-caked boots and rain-drenched windbreakers. They scaled the paths effortlessly. We slipped and fell countless times in our struggled pursuit.
A phosphorescent tint of blue now beams from my light. It probably has been doing this the whole time I’ve been writing this but I just now have noticed its glow. I’m not sure how to conclude this passage of sporadic thoughts, so I believe I’ll just stop.
P.S.: Surprise! One last contemplative thought… My life is an adorned and enriched by experiences, no artificial profundity attached. Was my existence on this planet destined for such happenings? Or has all I’ve done been an unmapped, unraveling coincidence? I believe it is an interweaved combination of both. Goodnight.
July 18, 6:46 p.m.
This jungle only gains more of my admiration the farther we wade into its depths. A four hour-plus boat ride ensued today. The reflection of the water was so strong you couldn’t decipher where the jungle ended and the river began. Mother Nature’s very own mirror. The river itself pulsated with life, vegetation sprouting from its waters.
A toucan was perched on a wire-thin branch that could have easily been the brand ambassador for Fruit Loops. The trees were peppered with vibrant leaves that gathered the thick rainfall as we fished for piranha. It turns out those little carnivorous fishies taste like chicken. I’m now a fan. Upon our return, we foot-trekked into the Amazon itself. Wooden tentacles jutted from the stumps of the gigantic trees. Termite nests swelled on the sides of a few of them like parasitic tumors. What are simply wooden plants to us are convenient ladders to the monkeys, I think to myself as we hike.
The suction of our boots became an intoxicating noise for us all, along with the moist crunch of brittle underbrush/wood. On our hike I stopped to ask how my now good friend Francisco was holding up. His usual smirk arched up his lips as he said in his likable Ecuadorian lilt, “Everything is perfect.”
July 19, 6:30 p.m.
I feel metamorphosed. A larva that has transformed into a tropical winged insect. I have stepped foot into this South American land as timid as I was untouched, cleanly oblivious. I now walk around the Amazon in shorts and my trusty sleeveless adventure jacket, conversing with Fernando in his native vernacular, folding pre-cooked piranha in girthy leaves like a safarian tortilla. Fernando and Chelsea have titled me “Rambo” and Petey is appropriately “Rambo Dos.” I am honored to have been bestowed such a moniker, although I’m doubtful Stallone would agree with my new nickname.
We now huddle around a metallic grinder, taking turns crunching up the cacao into a dark brown dust. Its aroma permeates the humid air with a delicious comfort. The Andes are next on the list, but this bamboo-roofed haven will be hard to leave behind. All the same we must travel onward. And in this case, upward.
P.S.: A bat fluttered into the dining area last night. Someone said they’re flying rats. I like to see them as rogue birds. Much like the shark, they too get a bad rap.
July 20, 7:47 a.m.
The Nepal River
We have boarded a tented boat. Tired and shadowed faces stare at us, veiled under windbreaker hoodies and scraggly beards. Some of these characters look particularly thievish with their stoic scowls and crossed arms. Almost like prison escapees. Two of the characters went out for a smoke when we made a stop. They wore the baggiest pants I have ever seen as they sagged with a lacy flow.
A couple of Ecuadorian military soldiers boarded our boat when we docked at this port. They were decked head to toe in camouflaged print — even their Iphone cases. Last night was as strange as it was memorable. We underwent a traditional shaman ritual to rid ourselves of all vile spirits and specters that may have clasped hold of our souls during our stay in the jungle. Our shaman guide rattled a tight bundle of cleansing leaves like an Amazonian maraca. As he spouted tobacco smoke onto our faces the leaves chattered with a rhythmic shudder. We are to leave this forest unscathed of all bad entities he assured.
As we arrived in good health we are to leave the same.
July 20, 7:17 p.m.
As we pulled up to Lago Verde we were greeted by ecstatic ninos sprinting in a flurry of excitement to our van. Petey and I promised to host a game of futbol after we ate lunch. Our pre-game training consisted of collective laughter as we chased the ninos around the grass field, taking animated steps and lunges like the gringo giants we are. Their cackles rung with the tone of joy only a child can summon to life: from the gut with an unrestrained enthusiasm.
I now lounge in my bunk bed, arrayed in the netted protection of a mosquito blanket. My thoughts are dribbling from their cognitive faucet, exhaustion is gradually washing over me. The insects still creak and croon all around me. Mother Nature’s playlist. It tops anything I’ve ever found on Spotify. I wonder how Fernando is doing, as well as Roberto and Chelsea and the rest of the friends I have made on this safari. I hope they are thinking of me too. Pondering over what that loco gringo Rambo is up to at this moment.
Time here drips by in irrelevant slowness. Clocks are meaningless when you have the sun. This is just one of the several simplicities I have noticed while here. I intend to bring such lessons home with me.
P.S.: Ah, home. The word sounds equally foreign and familiar. I can’t wait to see my family. There are many stories to tell. Still, a part of me can wait for that moment. That same part would be perfectly fine with me missing my flight altogether.
CHAPTER 5: FIESTAS, FIRES AND FARMING WITH THE ANDEANS.
July 21, 7 p.m.
The Andes Mountains
The air is so crisp that it practically stings my nostrils. The farmland is sprinkled with cows and other livestock. These fields sprawl with seemingly endlessly.
Warm soup is now being brought out from the kitchen. Its aroma is as scrumptious as its taste. It bombards my taste buds with a rural flavor, as most soups on this journey have done. The electricity went out a few hours ago. You will not see me complaining about such a trifling first world travesty though. The candlelight tangos in the wispy breeze. Aubrey devised a crafty lantern by dangling a flashlight into her jug of water, illuminating a phosphorescent glow.
As innovative as it may be, she thought it was better to turn it off and be blanketed in the light of the candle. I completely agree with her. It’s fiesta season in these mountainous lands. Tomorrow we shall dance like the goofy gringos we are. The carne is now being served. Hasta luego.
P.S.: I stand corrected. The festival season starts tonight! Festive trumpets and thumping drums echo through the brisk night sky. We will soon join them.
July 22, 6:58 p.m.
The Andes Mountains
I witnessed my first, and hopefully last, bull run this afternoon. Gaggles of Andeans stood nimble and alert as they released different sized bulls to a roaring crowd. Whenever it trotted close by they would flee to the safety of the wood-rigged fences. All I could think was poor bulls. They stampeded the ring in a confusing fury — a rage that I found to be completely understandable.
One bull runner in particular had the audacity to leap over the animal entirely! After his third successful jump, I knew he was pressing his luck. I was right. On the fourth leap his foot tangled with the bull’s rising horn and he suffered the trample of the bull’s rage. He limped off wincing in pain. The saying really is true: you mess with the bull, you get the … I don’t need to finish it.
Our trip is grinding to an end. Two days remain. I sit on my bed flattened with exhaustion. Home is within sight and I am relieved by this thought.
P.S. The farm work today was as backbreaking as it is reputed to be. My respect for such a brutal occupation has magnified ten-fold.
July 23, 1:14 p.m.
The Andes Mountains
The majority of our group gathered around a massive bonfire last night. Tree branches and dry hay ignited with a blinding scorch. Smoke plumed upward to the twinkling stars as jokes were cracked and laugher shared. As my eyes gradually slumped shut in the chilly midst of the night, a group of drunken partygoers danced into our backyard. Dressed in vibrant apparel that included traditional Andean masks and floral-stitched dresses, they strummed their guitars and chirped their hymns with a festive exuberance.
Naturally, we joined them.
Straying from the dwindling warmth of our bonfire we jumped in their dance circle and refused to let up for an hour and a half. No, that is no typo nor exaggeration, I promise. As the singing smoldered to a pause a large tray of leftover food was brought out from the kitchen. The drunken partiers couldn’t understand us and we sure as hell couldn’t understand them, but this created no rift in our spontaneous celebration. If anything, our horrid attempts at Spanish earned us laughter and smiles and high-fives.
The farm-work this morning was just as tiring as yesterday’s, only this time around our efforts displayed rewarding results. Corn, beans and beets now rest in the Ecuadorian soil. I am certain they will usher in a prosperous harvest for this generous family. They deserve it.
P.S.: I cannot wait to employ the lessons I have accrued here back at home. People have muttered comments about “going back to reality” and “back to work.” I find these remarks silly. We are always swimming within the fishbowl of reality. And I am always working. Life is work, and quite frankly, I love my job.
July 25, 6:44 a.m.
The Quito Airport
The Quito airport is brimming with life. This is my final entry on Ecuadorian soil and I’m not quite sure how to sum up this trip in any neat and tidy way. It was a two-and-a-half-week exploration into a world far different from my own. Friendships were rooted, boats and buses were ridden, Spanish dialogue was valiantly attempted, the wonders of the earth were admired and observed, and memories were molded. Pink dolphins and slow-motioned tortoises were fed. Piranha’s were fished and subsequently eaten. Machetes were wielded and jungles investigated. We danced their dances and ate their dishes.
And now, just as I started, I sit in an airport, observing peoples of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and stories, cultures and personalities, and I smile. It’s a fantastically flawed world we live in, but at least we are living in it together. All of us. And I grin at such a thought, such a fortunate privilege. The sun now stretches its rays over the mountainous horizon. Another day on this pebble we call Earth has arrived.
And with it, another adventure.
P.S. My new friend Feather, an energetic pop-up tent salesman at the Ottovalo artisan marketplace, sold me a coin that had the outline of our planet etched within its tinny metal. All seven continents chiseled out of Sacagawea’s bronzed face. I look at it now and only one question bubbles to the forefront of my mind:
Where to next?
Danny Dyer is a journalism and English senior. He studied sustainability in Ecuador over the summer on a faculty-led program.