WHILE I WAITED: Traveling in Colombia and Ecuador, an essay by Sean James Mackenney

WHILE I WAITED
Traveling in Colombia and Ecuador
by Sean James Mackenney

Rain hit hard, dirtying the white city of Popayán, Colombia. People took shelter underneath overlapping tin roofs, laughing as they ran in a rare display of urgency. Popayán is a sleepy city where people meander along quaint cobbled streets, acquaintances share an embrace in the main square, adults congregate in groups conversing with both ease and conviction, and children giggle and eat pineapple chunks and taffy from Styrofoam cups. I flashed a smile, looking at people for a reaction. I towered above them, yet still went unnoticed. I tried to involve myself in their joy but it wasn’t mine to share. I was a person of the outside, a dollar sign to some, completely irrelevant to most. I convinced myself of it.

I gave a knowing nod and headed back to the hostel, hoisting my head upright to the clouds above. Rain pinched my face, each drop a quick, cold sensation. I returned to my dormitory, peeled the t-shirt off my back, put it in a plastic bag, and slung it on top of the clothes in my backpack.

“Are you leaving already?” asked an older traveler I’d met the night before.

“Yes,” I replied, before turning to leave. “Limited time.”

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“Ecuador.” I smiled out of courtesy.

“Oh! I’ve just come from there. Whereabouts you heading?” he asked.

“Otavalo. I actually have to run; I don’t want to miss my bus. Take care!” I said, leaving the dorm.

I arrived at the bus station an hour early. Time passed quicker waiting at the terminal rather than the town. Closer to returning home even though I was heading eight hours south to the border, along a road that wove around the green hills of the Andes, a route people were advised not to travel by night because of the bandits that lie in wait. I looked at the calendar on my phone and counted with my index finger the number of days left of my trip. Eleven. No, ten. I’d learned to not count the last day, since I’d be at the airport, excited to be home. When I booked the trip a month prior to leaving, I had the choice of only going for two weeks; instead I committed to a month. I remember thinking how short thirty days had sounded when I planned the trip, perhaps because less than a year earlier I had spent the entirety of spring traveling down the spine of Central America with a man I loved.

I set my backpack against a stool in a cafeteria. The menu featured much of the same food I had experienced between Cartagena in the north and here at Popayán in the south: grilled meat, rice, beans, and a piece of plantain. I ordered a half portion of roast chicken and nothing else. I was convinced any kind of carbohydrate was bad. All I needed was protein. Back home in New York I was a vegan, but with nobody around to reproach me, I cared less. I made excuses to myself. No seitan, no tempeh, no soy, I have no choice, it’s just a temporary fix. The chicken was wet and the meat near the bone was a light shade of purple. I ate the white parts and chewed the small bones, remembering the taste of marrow, the feel of flesh and guilt.

From my stool, I observed the terminal. A blur or noise and movement. I put my hands to my ears and could still hear the blend of people clucking. A man sat directly opposite me, chewing on a rib as he stared at me. Why is he looking at me like that? He scooped up a spoonful of rice, his eyes still fixed in my direction. I stared back, but his expression was blank. I turned around and saw a television screen fixed to the wall behind. The news flashed scenes of landslides that had killed dozens not too far from where I was.

The bus was scheduled to arrive in an hour. I pulled out Kafka on the Shore and read a scene about a man killing cats for their souls. I felt faint, unsure whether the words or undercooked chicken were to blame. A black tunnel started to form at the corners of my vision. I closed my eyes and swallowed air. Please don’t faint. Please don’t faint. Please don’t faint. The last time I fainted was at the vet when I discovered my cat had a malignant tumor. What would happen if I were to faint here? Would people scrum around me and take my money and passport? Would they help? Whom would they call? Whom would I want them to call?  I pushed the plate away from me and slowly the feeling passed. I closed the book and went in search of fresh air. You’re fine. You’re fine. 

A family of four indigenous women and children sat beside me as we waited for the bus. One woman wore a non-brand navy tracksuit and a cap positioned firmly on her head, with two pigtails poking out the back.

“¿Estas esperando el bus a la frontera?” I asked her, wondering if she too was waiting for the bus to the border.

She nodded and smiled, revealing a single gold tooth. The others looked on inquisitively as they shared a bag of plantain chips. Beside them rested eight worn suitcases with dried palm leaves wrapped tight on top of them. I imagined they had a long way to go. I sat next to them, wanting to talk but unsure of what to say. Instead I looked at pictures on my phone: white buildings, dark skies, and flocks of pigeons. One of the women tapped me on the shoulder, offering the bag of plantain chips, but I declined. Nope. No carbs for me.

The bus arrived twenty minutes behind schedule. I followed the women on and claimed a seat beside the window. I reclined my seat all the way back and rested my chin on the windowsill. The bus edged out through the city, which was no longer white, but a collection of concrete and poorly assembled brick shacks. I was surprised by how long it took us to get out of the city. It had once seemed small and uneventful, but life stemmed from it, right until we got onto the narrow road that would take us south. The untamed landscape of the region came into scope. The road cut through undulating hills, the black tarmac striking against the wildness of the green around it. Well-fed cows grazed the grass on the extremities of the road and street vendors waited for business, they all sold the same fruits: pineapples, papayas and coconuts. The bus weaved between deep gorges and the hills towering above. A farmhouse sat atop a hill in the distance; I wondered what it felt like to live in constant isolation.

The clouds became thick and the rain heavy. The tires turning around sharp bends made a slushy sound, the body of the bus winding recklessly around the hills. Two hours into the journey, the bus curved past an overturned bus on the other side of the road, all the windows were broken, nobody inside, no police or ambulance either. Along with the other passengers, I craned over to see the crash. I wanted it to be more dramatic. Where’s the blood and flames? I decided that if this bus were to crash I’d be ready, agile and with nobody to worry about I’d crawl free from the wreckage. But what are the chances of two overturned buses?  

I stared out at the patchwork of greens and browns. An unnerving grey looming above, hills rolling past in a haze, speckles of rain clinging on to the windowpane. Everything was in motion, functioning as it should, except for me. I didn’t want to be this person. My eyes were open and I could see beauty, but it wasn’t enough. What am I doing here?

The bus went as far as the border town of Ipiales. It was as grim as almost every other town on the cusp of another country, but even more so in the dark. I made my way to an overpriced hotel right beside the bus terminal and tried to negotiate a rate. The man at the desk wore a baseball cap low enough that it almost concealed his eyes. He muttered and looked uninterested. It made no difference to him whether I stayed or went. I agreed to the original price and he handed me a key attached to a huge plastic keychain with the room number 617 etched by hand, before giving me a roll of toilet paper. The hotel walls were a collage of faded out blues and grays. The once-white trim of the ceiling was cracked and the wallpaper pulled off at the edges. The buzz from a ceiling fan filled the room. I asked for the wifi code and checked if anybody had messaged me. Nobody had. He hadn’t.

I hadn’t eaten since the purple chicken. With only 12,000 pesos ($4) left, I had to be smart about where I ate. The diner next door charged 7,000 pesos for dinner, meaning, after my meal, I would only have enough money to get a taxi to immigration. Breakfast would have to wait until I could use my dollars on the other side.

I ordered a menu completo, which consisted of grilled chicken, rice, fried plantain, beans, salad, a cold arepa and watermelon juice. I wrapped up the plantain and arepa and saved it in case I got hungry in the morning, then devoured every bit of meat off the bone. I was still hungry so I ate the white rice. It collected in my stomach. I bent over and felt the grains turn the thin folds of skin on my stomach into fewer and fatter ones. I glanced over at the other people in the diner and tried to guess whether they were Ecuadorian or Colombian, why they were there, whether they could tell I was lonely.

It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like that. Loneliness overwhelmed me in the past but the triggers varied. In India it was because I was traveling alone for the first time and the drive from Delhi airport to the hostel proved too much: the people who slept in tuk tuks, the skinny dogs that pulled apart scraps from market trash; the 3 a.m. darkness of the alleyway I had to walk down; the window pane I had to bang on to wake up the hostel owner; the lock on the outside of the metal door to my room; the deathly silence as I lay in bed unable to sleep. In Costa Rica, it was the corner stoop where I sat watching the bus take him off to San Jose, away from me, traveling with him ending with a brief goodbye, the dust that was left and the people at the bus stop who watched me as I cried. This time it was the long, thin light bulbs that illuminated every flaw within the room, the impersonal service, the plastic plate the food was served on, and my lack of interest in doing anything but waiting for him to notice me again.

I carried my shoulder bag and suitcase up six flights of stairs to a corridor of more blue, faded wallpaper. Muffled sounds reverberated through the hallway. I couldn’t tell if people were laughing, crying or arguing; it had been hours since I’d last had a conversation that didn’t involve the cost of something. The wifi didn’t reach my floor so I had to contend with myself. Why am I here? Maybe I should fly back to New York? But I don’t want to quit. Is there anything in New York for me? Why doesn’t he like me anymore? What was it? I couldn’t listen to myself anymore so I put a jumper down on the tiled floor and did four sets of planks and crunches, before turning to the mirror to see if the rice from dinner had burned away. I got in bed, read a couple more pages of Murakami, got bored, closed my eyes, and gave up on the evening.

Before heading to the border, I had planned a slight detour to Las Lajas sanctuary. I crammed in the back of a taxi next to a family of four. I didn’t say hello nor did I say goodbye. I walked down the steps towards the sanctuary, where shopkeepers had set up stalls selling religious necklaces, books and ponchos. Dogs cantered alongside families, desperate for an owner. The steps became longer and steeper and the edge of the valley came into view. I walked a little further down until I was on the bridge that faces the sanctuary; people were piling in to catch a glimpse of the morning service. I poked my head in for a moment, but I felt little. I headed along a pathway that took in the whole site. Once I reached the other side of the valley, I looked for the best angle to take a photo. I tilted my phone upwards to cut off anybody else on the bridge, before briskly walking back to hail a taxi and adding filters to the picture I’d taken.

I packed my bags and headed straight back to the bus terminal to get a collectivo to the border. Otavalo is a market town famed for its colorful merchandise. I wasn’t interested in the goods, but I wanted a pit stop that would allow me to skip the capital city, Quito. I was afraid. I was jaded. I was fragile. I was sick of myself. It was as if all my yearning for him had pushed me to the very edge and my sense of wonder was the first to fall, and then my nerve.

The trip took almost four hours along the Pan-American Highway, and I spent most of it peering out the window. I couldn’t summon the desire to write; I was too far within myself, lost amongst pity. I clenched my fist, rested my head against it with my eyes closed tight. Snap out of this! You wanted this! GET OVER YOURSELF!

Sitting to my right on a fold down seat was a man and his daughter. He wore a tight white t-shirt and I admired the veins that popped out of his muscular arms. I imagined him to be a manual laborer. He cradled his daughter of about four years old. She hung on to her father with one hand, an ice cream cone in the other. The father looked over at me often. Despite our similar skin tone, I was most definitely out of place. Maybe he knew I didn’t want to be there.

An hour later he woke his daughter who had been hanging limply in his arms. I watched them walk off to a small town of maybe twenty buildings, their size overwhelmed by the hills that surrounded them.

Thirty minutes later and I was hurried off the bus. The driver was in a rush. I was the only person getting off at Otavalo. The bus started to accelerate at almost the same moment I grabbed my backpack from the hold. I walked toward the town with my hand out for a taxi. One slowed beside me, the window rolled down. When I started to walk towards it, the driver  sped off. I decided to walk to the hostel. My sense of direction had yet to fail me.

A stout young man called Ramon greeted me at the hostel and showed me around the grounds. The owners, a British man and an Ecuadorian woman, had somehow recreated a quaint English village. On a hill overlooking farmland, nothing but green was visible. There was nobody staying there but Ramon and a pet llama. I decided this was the place to zone in, or zone out. I wasn’t quite sure which. I had to forget about him, but I couldn’t allow myself to do so, I couldn’t stop indulging the fantasy of him even after he was gone. It robbed me off what was happening around me.

Strangers held mugs of hot chocolate with both hands, their backs hunched and facing the fire. It seemed there should have been women congregating in the street, dressed in pleated skirts, thick shawls, fedoras, and knee-high socks, men fastening the buckles to their high-waisted slacks, children playing with a ragged football, birds whistling as the sun beat down on dried paths, but only grey was visible through the window. Fat droplets of rain streamed down the glass pane and the wind echoed through the emptiness of the roof. I had arrived in Sighos, a village near the summit of Quilotoa, the sulphuric lake I would hike three days to reach. My last stop before returning home.

In my hostel were eleven travelers: an Alaskan couple who worked on an exploration vessel in Antarctica, a German couple who kept to themselves, two backpackers from Lithuania (one was a sky diving instructor, the other an advocate for acid), an elderly French couple who didn’t speak English, a cheery English couple, and a Danish guy traveling solo. I wanted to befriend at least one of them because the hike was said to be poorly signposted and dangerous; I didn’t want to get lost or attacked by dogs all alone. I sat in the communal circle and eyed my options. The Germans were dull, the Lithuanians were going the opposite direction, the Alaskans talked way too much about boats and American football, and the French couple were driving. This left the couple from England and the Danish guy.

Niklas, the Danish guy, was attractive. He didn’t look very Scandinavian with his dark features, but he spoke English and had style like every other person I knew from that part of the world. The English couple, Chris and Precious, were from Manchester and had the typical twang to their words. (“Yur fram Lundun, ah yah?!”) They were teenage sweethearts: Precious had been in the electronics department of a supermarket where Chris worked and had asked for an opinion on a computer game she was going to buy for her younger brother. They had been together for twelve years, the last year of which had been spent traveling the world. By the end of the night, the four of us had decided to hike Quilotoa together.

Everybody had something to bring to the group: Precious was as sweet as her name suggested plus she had a functional satellite navigation system; Chris had great British banter and a DSLR camera; Niklas was prone to taking his top off at regular intervals; I was able to endear our group to locals with my fluent Spanish. The trail was famed for aggressive dogs that often terrorized hikers. In preparation, we collected tree branches for walking-and dog-beating sticks. It turned out we wouldn’t need the sticks. At some point a dog with a dirty white coat started following us. He didn’t bark or growl; he just wanted company and was prepared to prove his loyalty by chasing away other dogs. We fed him biscuits ensuring he accompanied us to the next village, Chucchilán.

At dinner, the dog wove between us, poking his head upright in search of food.

“I’ve decided his name is Dolphin,” I said. “He literally can’t close his mouth, and he has the fattest dog neck ever!”

The next day, Dolphin waited for us, along with three other dogs, one of which had a collar. We tried to shoo them away, but they persisted.

“Sabes de quién es estos perros?” I asked a local man dressed in a thick wool jumper, curious as to whom the dogs belonged.

“Nadie y todo el mundo!” He laughed, not in the slightest bit worried about the wandering dogs.

The black-and-ginger dog kept trying to hump the brown-haired dog with the collar. Niklas named the male Charlie and Precious chose Nala for the female. At first, none of us liked the fourth dog, the one who into fields to terrorize horses, cows, and sheep, but eventually we warmed to his idiocy. Chris named him Trouble.

The second day was far more taxing than the first. The trail was muddy and at a steep incline, but the view at the top eased the heaviness in our legs. We sat on a ledge and looked down the barrel of the valley; we could see for miles. It reminded me of the valley in the south of Colombia, only this time I marveled at what I saw, wondering whether the tectonic plates had once shifted right where we sat.

“Where would you recommend I visit in Colombia?” Niklas asked. He was heading there after the hike.

“I would skip past the south,” I said. “There’s not much there.”

“Really? We loved it! Didn’t we Chris?” Precious asked.

“Yeah, Cali is awesome, we danced salsa every night. We went to the Blacks and Whites carnival in Pasto,” Chris said.

“I mean, I didn’t have much time there. I only visited Popayán. I guess I should’ve visited those places,” I said, embarrassed by my judgmental mind-set.

“We straight up loved Popayán,” Chris said. “Everyone was so friendly.”

We were approaching the summit. Would my rediscovered energy fade after reaching the climax? Looking at each of my companions as we made our way up home stretch of the volcano, I doubted I’d see them again, but it didn’t matter. I was thankful to have met them. Through them I once again became the person who had sat in front of his laptop researching Ecuador, eager to make the most of his time there.

The crater of Quilotoa was before us, an eerie spectacle. The still water went from turquoise to algae green whenever a heavy cloud passed by the sun. We sat on a bench and shared our lunch of tuna and crackers with the dogs. The overwhelming presence below stunned us to silence.

After an hour, we ascended to a nearby village and drank cola from a vendor.

“Cuantos veces haces este viaje?” I asked the vendor.

“Todo los dias!” he replied.

I needed to adapt to my emotions the way he did the altitude and hills. A man with a thick mustache offered to drive us to the nearest town in his pickup truck. Dolphin and Trouble jumped in the back and refused to move.

“Don’t worry, the dogs can come! They do this route all the time. They’ll find their way back!” the driver told us.

Charlie and Nala chased behind the car. Precious cried. I felt it too.

“So this is it!” Niklas said as we sat on the highway waiting for the buses that would take us in different directions.

My bus rolled up. We group hugged before I boarded. I sat down by a window, my looking at everything around me. I was part of it: the friends I waved goodbye, the dogs I wanted to take home, the couple smooching in the seats alongside me, the kid peeking through the gap in the seat in front, the reggaeton rattling from the speakers, the smoke pouring out of Cotopaxi volcano, the haze of green as the bus sped by, the rain specks collecting on the window.


Sean James Mackenney is a British writer living in Brooklyn. He is working on his first book, a memoir. Follow him on Instagram @seany.boo

 

 

 

 

 

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