Ecuador Postcard

Past days in a row in the tent, next town seems big enough for lodging of some modest sort, roll in, ask around. Get directed about like a pingpong ball, finally triangulate to a tiny restaurant. There’s a woman doing embroidery at the counter with her maybe 10 year old daughter. I rehearse my question, she says there are two, one has bedbugs and the other, not very far, is closed. Hm, oh well, I’ll head on a few more k and wild camp again, easy. I say some polite, small talkish things as a prelude to parting. Her Aunt, it turns out, lives in New York, evidently with a tall American. “She’s super guapa,” the woman says, “like me.” I smile, and a moment later remember to shown my teeth a little so as to seem noncommittally affable. Then she says I can maybe stay at her house. I’m thinking, maybe? contingent on what? and the daughter brightens and nods vigorously. The daughter is scheming out loud about how it will go, apparently we’ll watch some tv, when the woman’s mother emerges from the back room.

The woman says, “This gringo is looking for a hotel.” I only bristle a little anymore at the misguided irony of being called a gringo.
“Well, the one up the hill has bedbugs.”
“That’s what I told him.” This is unfolding more or less as if I’m not there. “So I invited him to stay at my house.” Daughter interjects, “yes!”
“Where will he sleep?”
“Well, I was thinking with me.”
My eyebrows shoot up, but I manage to stifle any other reaction.
Grandmother says, “he knows what we’re saying!”

The woman turns to me and says that she has a plan. The man with the truck next door will drive me and her to find the nice hotel’s owner, he’s probably with his [word I don’t understand], and if we can find him then I can probably stay there, but if not we’ll sort things out with sleeping at her place. (Daughter looks crestfallen.) But I have to give the man with the truck a dollar. Sure, great, wonderful, though the tent would be a lot easier at this point, though I don’t say that out loud. I’m thinking back now to a conversation I had in Cuenca with the chatty pizza man — who lived in Germany for 20 years and apprenticed with genuine Italians, he emphasizes genuine Italians, in their pizza shop before returning to Ecuador, his pizza was uncommonly good — where he said it’s a real problem there and in the surrounding countryside that all the men leave to work in the USA or Spain, abandoning many many women without husbands or boyfriends. I was told this in a certain spirit, but filed it away merely as a bit of sociological trivia. We leave my bicycle with the grandmother, when I return it will have a pink gingham tablecloth over it, and we head off across town in the truck. After a few stops and conversations (“we’re looking for so and so because this gringo wants to stay in his hotel,” which is, of course, now entirely false, thinking of my tent) we find the man. He’s quite jolly and eager to open the hotel. We bid farewell to his [word I don’t understand, but she’s discreetly affectionate in parting with the jolly hotel owner] and beeline in dust and shooting gravel back to the restaurant. It’s settled, then, the hotel will be officially opened just for me, the daughter is unabashedly disappointed and the mother, well, I kiss the air next to each cheek in turn for her generous help and rush off to catch up to the hotel owner.

We arrive at this impossible, wrinkle in spacetime edifice, it’s a relic, like something from a sepia photograph captioned “Hotel Reina Elegante, Main Street 1922” but now all flaking paint, rotting timbers, and plaster repair work. “Gringos always love this building!” Through a rusty iron gate, up creaking stairs, buzzing bulbs swinging free from ceiling wires, this is a joke, right?, I can almost, if I squint my eyes, see parties and gowns and jaunty hats a hundred years ago, but now only ghosts. I’m installed in my suite with an entry parlor and side room, creaky shutters and water stained but fancy hardwood floors. When there are guests the owner sleeps in a suite on the other side of the building, a half floor down, just knock on the door if I need anything, that will be $8, good night, if I want dinner, the restaurant just at the corner is friendly. I stash my things, walk through the pitch darkness toward the open sided cooking area, as much a “restaurant” as your neighbor with a decent toolbox is an “auto repair shop”, where five very old women dote on me as if I’m the seventh son of a seventh son. I return and tuck myself in.