Greetings from Huacachina – an oasis of 113 inhabitants in the southern Peruvian desert! I am currently reclining on a lumpy little sofa in my hostel, recovering from an evening of several pisco sours, numerous rounds of bilingual shit-head and one very intense marriage proposal (more on that later…). Before we get there, however, I’ll rewind to my last week in Ecuador, as it was rather a good’un!
White water rafting. Tena is considered Ecuador’s rafting hotspot, so it wouldn’t have been right to have left without giving it a whirl (whirl being the operative word – turns out that getting thrown down a series of rapids in a large dingy is pretty dizzying!) After negotiating a decent discount through Misael and co, Michaela, Ben and I hopped in the back of a truck with the raft and several kayaks strapped precariously to the roof. We chugged down to the Napo River, possibly a little faster than was wise given said cargo, but made it to the launch point in one piece. We were greeted by our instructor, and were soon on the river, paddling and ducking inside the vessel on command. It was MENTAL – we all got regularly thrown into the water before getting hauled back into the boat by whoever had managed to stay in it, only to face a new set of rapids and get chucked straight out again. At one point, instructor Andy decided to flip the boat completely and I found myself under the boat itself, my brain struggling to catch up with the reality of my situation. I finally surfaced, gasping for air and laughing hysterically at the same time (I have learnt that this seems to be my standard reaction to high-adrenaline situations – see skydive post), so much so that my strength was sapped from my body and I was literally paralysed with laughter. I remained sort of flopped on the side of the boat, my legs flapping weakly in the water like some demented, freshly-caught fish. We eventually made it back to Tena some hours later, buzzing, breathless and a little burnt – what a total hoot!
Baños and back to Quito. After two wonderful weeks in Uchuculin, I bid a sad farewell to Ben and Michaela, and to the community who had taught me so much and shown me such warmth and kindness – I will carry the memory of these wonderful people with me far into the future, of that I am sure. They waved me off at the bus stop, and I pressed on southwards to Baños, a great little town nestled in the lush Ecuadorian hillside. I only stayed there one night, but had more than enough time to jump on a chiva bus and get up close to some of the region’s stunning waterfalls – really quite jaw-dropping in their majesty and power. I returned to the town and headed down the road to try out the famous thermal baths from which Baños takes its name. These were unfortunately a little disappointing – one pool was heated to 50°, so hot I couldn’t get in it! Another pool was more enterable, but so rammed with people that there was barely room to squeeze in amongst all the bodies. Nirvana it was not I’m afraid, Mum! Glad I scoped it out anyway though. Come morning I took a short hike up the hillside to get a great view of the town, before getting on a bus bound for Quito. I had just enough time to pop down to the equator at Mitad del Mundo (a bit touristy but worth a look) before waking up a loco o’clock for the flight to Lima. Phew!
From Lima to Huacachina. The whole of Friday was spent in the air/on the road: I arrived in Lima at 8am, where I caught a rip-off but licensed taxi to the bus station, which took me on one of the most depressing drives of my life. I have since been told that I judged Lima too harshly and only saw the nastier part, but MY GOD it was grim. The half-built/half-demolished buildings were enveloped in a blanket of grey, drivers jolted menacingly at each other, fumes billowed from the exhaust pipes of ancient, un-roadworthy trucks. Bridges sported billboards of scantily-clad, excessively well-endowed young models, presumably to offer drivers something slightly less depressing to look at than their otherwise dismal surroundings. Everybody we passed looked deeply morose. Perhaps it was sleep deprivation or disorientation that roused such a strong negative reaction in me, but I was very much struck by the tragedy of it all. All cities have their less pleasant areas of course, so perhaps I should give Lima a break. It’s important to record the less wonderful experiences alongside the positive ones though, I think. ANYway, I finally caught my bus to Ica, where I got a security guard to flag me down a reliable taxi to take me down the road to Huacachina. By this point I was exhausted – it was 9pm, I hadn’t slept properly in almost 24 hours and I was starving. So imagine my delight when my taxi driver, after rechristening me ‘Kata’ (all Catalinas are called ‘Kata’ for short in his native Colombia, apparently) whacked on the radio, sending reggaeton blasting through the car, all the while yelling “DANCE, KATA, DANCE!!!” and rocking about wildly in his seat. On acknowledging my reluctance, he said he’d change it to something I might like more, and Backstreet Boys’ ‘Everybody’ promptly burst out of the speakers. So Backstreet was back that night, but it was most certainly not ‘all right’ – my head hung and pounded all the way to Huacachina. In retrospect it was utterly hilarious, but in that moment my sense of humour deserted me somewhat – I managed a friendly parting exchange with my exuberant driver before checking into the hostel and falling asleep almost instantly.
Sand-boarding. After a good sleep and decent brekkie, I was much restored and ready for a day in the oasis. I jumped on a dune buggy with fellow hostel-stayers Sofia (Argentina), Inés (Spain) and Ruth (Mexico) and we headed off into the sand. The desert is stunningly beautiful, whipped into silky ripples by the wind, rolling away far into the distance. The buggy took us roller-coaster-styly over the dunes, making us shriek with glee at every dip and skid. The driver stopped at a few points so that we could dismount, lie flat on the sand boards that had been brought for us and be pushed down-hill at great speed. My adrenaline-triggered hysterical laughing kicked in, and I giggled my way down every slope, each time trying to go further than the last. Before returning to the oasis to shower off the sand in which we were all completely caked, we stopped to watch the beautiful desert sunset – glorious.
Pisco-induced madness. The hostel greeted us from our sand-boarding escapades with a tray of complimentary pisco sours – the official Peruvian tipple. Tastes a lot like tequila, which might explain how much it went to my head in a very short space of time. Much of the evening was spent teaching a group of the other hostellers how to play shit-head, which I’m amazed was achieved given the amount of pisco involved and my messy hybrid English/Spanish explanations. We then rocked up to Huacachina’s only club, where I received a very heart-felt marriage proposal from a Peruvian bloke (“My life is not complete without you, Catalina! Do not break me with your rejection, I am your servant and protector for ever, Catalina!” etc etc). Just when I thought the hilarity could not increase, from behind me a voice bellowed “Kataaaaaaa!!!”, and my insane reggaeton/Backstreet-loving taxi driver lumbered drunkenly across the dance floor towards me. The rest is a blur of dancing, singing and toasting anything and everything under the sun. Not sure where my would-be fiancé went, but judging by the lack of ring on my finger this morning, I am assuming that I said no and that he sensibly gave up the ghost. Needless to say, today I am not at my perkiest. My Slovak room-mate Vlad and I have spent the day eating ice cream by the lagoon, speaking only to curse the inventor of the pisco sour. Bloody good night though 😉
Onwards to Arequipa tonight – more photos from the past week will be up soon!
Thinking of everyone back home, love you ever so much! x x x x x
It’s 6:30 a.m., the florally-decorated kettle is boiling away on the stove and the rain is siling down outside; were it not for the sweltering heat and the huge banana trees outside, I could be in an episode of Lark Rise to Candleford. Indeed, we’ve all been embracing the provincial life here on the edge of the rainforest. A young lad cycles past with fresh bread at the crack of dawn every morning. The house witnesses a varied daily thoroughfare of chickens, semi-naked children and semi-stray dogs (including a dopey Rotweiler by the name of Rocky), all of whom wander in and out at their leisure. There is no internet and a single plug socket. At night, I am lulled into a sticky slumber by an ensemble of crickets, frogs, birds and countless other jungle inhabitants emitting various buzzings, squawkings and patterings. They are keeping up a solid fanfare despite the current rainstorm, which is the first real downpour I’ve seen since leaving the UK. Really quite enjoying it!
I am in Uchuculin, a tiny indigenous Kichwa community nestled in the dense greenery of the High Amazon. It’s about half an hour from the nearest major town, Tena, which is itself a 5-hour bus ride from Quito. I based myself in Tena last weekend, before heading out to Uchuculin and rural bliss. But let’s back-track a wee bit and get a decent coverage of the whole Ecuador leg so far.
Quito. As briefly alluded to in the previous entry, I had a day in the Ecuadorian capital following a smooth transition from LAX, via Panama. Australians Jim and Jess made for great company that day, and together we scoped out some of the city’s beautiful buildings. I had my first taste of the through-the-floor food prices here when we sat down to a quality three-course meal which cost us $4 each (about £2.30 – and I have since found out that that was one of the pricier options in town). My Quito encounter was brief but extremely pleasant – and I may hopefully have a little time to see some more of it before leaving for Peru next week.
Tena and Misahuallí. I arrived in Tena last Friday, and was met by Misael, a local man about town of Kichwa descent with whom I had organised my volunteering stint in Uchuculin. I stayed at the volunteer flat on Friday night with the other volunteers – two Argentinians (Stefi and Clara) and French Rachel (Ra-kel). As volunteers are given no work at weekends, the four of us decided to hop on a bus and spend Saturday in Misahuallí, a beautiful, sleepy jungle town down the river. We were greeted by a host of the local trouble-makers: monkeys. A lot of fun to watch bouncing about the main square, but the little sods are infamous for pinching your belongings (which we therefore guarded closely). After a wander around town and a dip in the glittering River Napo, we jumped on a canoe which took us upstream to Shiripuno – the home of the indigenous community of the same name. The village comprises a collection of little huts and sandy pathways, and is surrounded by towering Amazonian vegetation – incredibly pretty and peaceful. It was there that we met a parrot named Nina (which I found out means ‘fire’ in Kichwa) whose behaviour was hilariously cat-like: he flapped down to the floor and obligingly allowed himself to be stroked behind the neck, leaning right down into the pressure and practically purring. The villagers themselves were shy but smiley, and showed us some of their jewellery and natural remedies. Stefi bought some ‘dragon’s blood’ (which is actually tree sap) to alleviate the irritation caused by her numerous insect bites. The day was scorching, the scenery was enchanting and the company was excellent – overall a wonderful introduction to the Amazon.
Laguna Azul. Rachel and I spent a great Sunday afternoon down at the Blue Lagoon, near Uchuculin. For $3 dollars, we entered a paradise of myriad natural swimming holes full of fresh, crystalline water – the perfect antidote to the intense humidity. We were quickly befriended by a group of Ecuadorians, and ended up chatting away over a few drinks on one of the bamboo verandas overlooking the pools. Great chat, great setting, great people. Only downside: the insects went for us as soon as we stepped out of the water and my legs now look like they’re donning a pair of polka-dot leggings (thank gawd for that Anthisan, Sophie Price!)
Uchuculin. This is the bit where I run the risk of sounding obnoxiously Gap Yaaaaaah, which I will try to avoid as much as possible. The week here in Uchuculin has been varied, fascinating and incredibly enjoyable. Misael’s brother, Rami, comes to our volunteer house every morning and leads us off to do whatever needs doing during the morning, and we then traipse back for lunch and spend the rest of the day entertaining the kids, cooking, reading and dozing in our hammocks. Jobs have included sowing yucca, beans and corn, gardening in the banana patch and hacking up lots of wood with machetes. The latter has proved the most challenging, I would say. Remember watching Poldark slashing about in those Cornish fields with his scythe, glistening with sweat and looking moodily out at the horizon? Let me tell you: actual manual labour is nowhere near as romantic as all that, and I must admit that a part of me had definitely idealised it. It is bloody HARD WORK. For a few days now, I have watched in awe as Rami and the other lads chop a hefty branch in half in about three blows, then, as I attempt to imitate them, my machete makes little to no dent, I am soon red in the face, my clothes are completely stuck to my body and in about fifty blows I have made pitifully little progress. The feminist in me screams in frustration, then retreats sulking to a corner of my brain to contemplate the annoying reality of man’s superior physical strength. However, said inner feminist has been somewhat comforted by my discovery that technique also plays a sizeable part in the process, and my latest machete-wielding attempts have been much more successful. The progress is most satisfying, and Rami’s Mum now has about a year’s supply of firewood stacked up behind her house. HA.
Beyond the work and scenery, as ever, the people around me have ensured that my experience of Ecuador has been an absolute delight. Rachel’s departure on Wednesday was a sad event, as we are so like-minded and had so much more to discuss (TBC in France sometime soon I hope!), and Bristolian couple Ben and Michaela have also been great fun to get stuck into the work with! The word gentle keeps resurfacing in my mind when I think of how to describe the Ecuadorians whom I have so far had the pleasure of meeting. I have had so many conversations on buses, at the lagoon, in the community and on the land, which are filled with gentle humour, curiosity and enquiry. People greet each other with a gentle handshake or a gentle squeeze of the shoulder. Rami’s answers to my many questions are always thoughtful, considered and delivered with a gentle, knowing smile. Even the kids, boisterous though they sometimes are, muck about so good-naturedly and, well… so gently! There is a kind of muted vitality that runs through the community here, one that is so quietly respectful of the natural world and protective of its traditions, a vitality that says: “we don’t need to go about declaring our love and pride and passion to the world; we love our lives, and that is enough”. Admittedly, life here is most probably not this idyllic 100% of the time and perhaps does not seem so from other perspectives, but this has been my experience, and I have felt entirely safe, welcome and valued (despite my mad machete skills).
Will love you and leave you all for now. Coming up: Baños, the return to Quito and then onwards into darkest Peru…
All my love from the edge of the jungle x x x x x
P.s. I have almost finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything during my afternoon hammock sessions, and I urge you, nay implore you, to read it. I believe that what I am reading is a game-changer which articulates the climate crisis and its solutions magnificently. Just have a little gander if you can, to please me 😉