Riding along the fringe of a jungle, forty hours ago as trembling cold as I’ve been, now sweating motionless, listening to whirs, hoots and clicks of outlandishly plummed birds. And a plume of a different sort, the volcano Sangay above the treetops, puffing from its apex, I can’t stop looking at it. Gravity and desire to be near the Amazon dropped me from the soaring Andean ridge, and I can’t stop looking back up. Small village roads parallel to the new highway, I receive waves and good wishes, sometimes teens ride alongside on their bicycles, we’re all of us defined, defied by the need to achieve only the most efficient motions in thick clouding heat, though these may be in the spirit of sociality, of effortful connection. Eighty five miles, finally headlamp against the gnats and ink.
Another day, I’ve been riding for more hours than I’d hoped I’d have to, inattentive navigational error to a charming dead end village that wasn’t on the itinerary. But I’m in this park, this glorious Parque Nacional, and just like that, like a bounce, ascending from the palms and ferns through strata that I know are ecologically more finely grained than I have perception for. Elegant black with yellow tails and heads, contrasting color wheels of green, enormous spherical flowers pink and blue, or lively yellow edged red in a freeze frame flame. It’s been raining on and off, refreshing and welcome during the interminable ascent, but a chill enough to leave my fingertips numb by the time of a short downhill to the town I’ve been eyeing on the map, sources confirmed that I would find a simple hostal there, a bed and a roof, anyway. I ask around and folks are friendly but puzzled. A place to sleep? No, you better ask the police officer in that concrete shack over there about that. He’s maybe 25, clean cut with a pressed uniform. No, no hostal, his look suggests it’s a daft thing to suppose.
I shrug, mention the tent, might I put it up somewhere? Sure, he gestures at a kind of concrete corrugated metal roof gazebo, a third of a basketball court, benches along the edges. I’d seen plenty of these over the last days, though usually much bigger, built for games, for community gatherings, whatever. I had mused I’d find myself sleeping in one. “Tell people the police said it is okay. My name is Fernando.” Eating? I should come back to the station at 7. I do, and together we head over to a house where the woman there has evidently made enough for all of us, her little ones cute, friendly.
Back at the gazebo after dinner, well, it is the town center, so I meet lots of folks wandering through, old men walking and gossiping, children unable to resist the fat tires, younger men with beer. Headlights pull up, it’s a family in a vintage ’84 school van, three adults, three kids. They’re going to sleep in the gazebo too, if it’s okay with me. I laugh. We spend the next hours talking, they’re on a journey, kind of Ecuador hippies. He’s been working in Spain but it was hard and not profitable so now he’s back, traveling with his sister and his one kid and her two. The adult siblings with their grinning nodding father. They are kind and curious, fascinated and relieved that Minneapolis is not cold absolutely all the time, he has a job lead there. I’ve heard that work is hard to come by, immigrants from Colombia, not said with resentment, after all, “…mas tranquillo aqui.” Tomorrow I’ll see them three times as we cover the same uphill, once filling the van from a beat up plastic container, once stopped on the road picnicking (in the van, in the rain), and once picking up two exceedingly old women who were walking up the road at about the same pace I was pedaling.
Two dump trucks arrive. They park close and the drivers shuffle out, they are hoping to sleep under the gazebo if that’s okay with us, and we all laugh. They’re tired and aren’t chatty, they have their blankets and apologize for retiring so early. There are packs of dogs all around, sometimes they snarl yelp. Later, as I drift to sleep, there is a techno version of “Stand by Me” playing. It is a party night and the place with the pool table is just across the way. Before that, I recall Kiss’s “I Was Made for Loving You,” the original.
The next morning I am lazily last to leave. Near a construction camp a woman waves at me. I circle back to her, ask after the possibility of breakfast and she brightens, hopes I’ll wait for a fried trout. Her twin 8 year old boys whirl about me, practicing their English, “oso is bear! We are learning the Bible…,” soon we’re running around in the lot and I swing them around in turn. The food is delicious and I’m hesitant to leave but have 8000 feet ahead of me, hugs see me off.
Midday the unambiguous joy of the early hours is gone, slogging through a frosty cloud. The scenery inspires, but my legs are protest and absence. Soaked, non-negotiable shivering, into a mountain Refugio, cup after cup of tea before I can feel my fingers. The people remind me in habit and demeanor of Tibetans or high mountain Nepalis, we all of us collisions of a finite palette of terrains in which to express our natures.