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Over the Volcanoes and Through the Ruins

In the spring of 1972 I went to Ecuador on a journey—barely planned and even more barely financed—with my college bride and a close mutual friend. We left our entry-level New York jobs and rode with the Indians and their animals in cramped, multicolored buses, driven by prayerful teamsters who stopped every 20 miles or so to prostrate themselves before the various saints and Madonnas commemorating spots where fatalities had occurred.

Last June, in the company of a wonderful traveling companion, I revisited some of the places I had seen on that first trip. I was curious to discover whether I'd changed more than they had. Back then, I had taken most of my meals in charcoal-scented, mysteriously silent open-air markets and slept in two-dollar hotels with unreliable electrical power and warm drinks. Now I would be eating in the very best restaurants and staying at posh country inns. Most important, I would be getting nowhere near those little death-trap buses. We would hire a car and do our own driving.

It wasn't as if we hadn't been alerted. That one shouldn't rent a car in Ecuador was common knowledge, almost as common as the warning not to drink the water. The roads are terrible, and the penalties for mishaps involving a pedestrian or another car are said to be draconian, or at least they used to be: prison first, questions later. But the ground we planned to cover—from south to north through Ecuador's spectacular sky-high alley of Indian towns and simmering volcanoes—could be fully appreciated only by land.

If renting a car could be called our first mistake, then choosing our little Korean Hyundai was our second. We picked it up in Guayaquil, a gloomy, vaguely threatening Pacific port where dust and high humidity manage to coexist; an exotic nowhere that could make even a young eco-tourist with a backpack full of trail mix feel like a character in a William Burroughs novel.

As soon as we found our way into the countryside, the landscape became astonishing: orchids in the trees, bamboos waving in the warm breeze, wildflowers pulsating purple and red, moving us the way Bach organ music does in a Gothic church. We were heading toward Cuenca, which is about a hundred miles southeast of and nearly two miles higher than Guayaquil. Cruising comfortably along on the blacktop road, I was thinking, This isn't so bad. We passed miles of banana plantations, marked off by fences bearing familiar supermarket names such as Dole and Chiquita. We later realized that these companies were probably a major factor in the maintaining of the nearby roads: Ecuador is still in many ways a classic 19th-century banana republic.

Though Ecuador's location on the equator gives it what is essentially a perennial spring, we were there in June and it was election time. The Ecuadorans seem as intent on their electoral politics as do the people from my old neighborhood in Chicago, where voting day has an intensity somewhere between that of the World Series and an appendectomy. While we were there, 17 parties were vying to head the government. Competing with the riotous colors of the vegetation was a constant barrage of brightly painted campaign posters advertising the various presidential candidates.

In the lead was the rather aristocratic Jaime Nebot, whose membership in the country's ludicrously rich ruling elite was no secret to anyone. Nebot's closest rival was a former mayor of Guayaquil, Abdala Bucaram. According to an official at the consulate, Bucaram fled the country a while back when facing embezzlement charges, then returned to Ecuador claiming that he had been the victim of false arrest while in Panama and had been held prisoner by CIA agents, all female. He had made love to all of them with such vigor and expertise that they wound up unconscious. He had then made off with a fighter jet; while flying it back to Ecuador he was shot out of the sky. As he tells it, he ejected himself from the burning craft, flapped his arms, and flew all the way back to Ecuador. (The election was close enough to necessitate a runoff, in which Bucaram was elected president; less than a year later, the congress deemed him mentally unfit for the job and replaced him.)

Beguiled by the relative comfort of the road those first few hours, we proceeded down the Pan-American Highway at a leisurely pace, open to any opportunity to get off the beaten path—blissfully unaware that all of Ecuador is off the beaten path. Thirsty, we stopped at a roadside stand where heaps of pineapples and bananas were on display. There, while his wife cored and sliced our pineapples, a small, powerfully built man with the broad features and barrel chest common among the indigenous Ecuadoran people, looked on as his two palm-size children studied their primers.

Though the weather in the Ecuadoran Andes is generally temperate, it's evident why the people of these mountains once worshiped the sun: when it disappears behind the clouds, the temperature can plummet 20 degrees in an hour, sinking one's spirits with it. The Ecuadorans protect themselves from these moments of utter bleakness by surrounding themselves with as much color as possible. Wildflowers cover the meadows like picnic blankets; cultivated flowers in pots crowd around the humblest wood-and-tin huts. The colors of Ecuadorans' ponchos, serapes, skirts, and scarves suggest a profligate love affair with vibrancy and hue. Looking at them is an aerobic workout for Anglo eyes: emerald green, flaming purple, neon blue, all in busy geometric patterns, all thrown together with the abandon of a painter seized by genius.

Despite its great beauty and rich culture, ecuador contains tragic poverty. When I first visited, I was experiencing my own (Yanqui-style) privations: my college bride and I had $2,000 left over from our wedding gelt, which we had vowed to make last a year. We never stayed in a first- or even a second-class hotel, and we never took a plane or an air-conditioned bus, nor did we ever buy so much as a piece of fabric at an Indian market without exhaustive price comparisons followed by bouts of feverish bargaining. We never ate a meal at a restaurant where they accepted or had even necessarily seen a credit card. To reinforce our frugality, we kept a little spiral notebook in which we recorded nearly every penny we spent, on bus fares, Inca Kola, postage, skewers of meat, and No Bite (a prophylactic against bedbugs, pronounced "no-bye-tee"). Ultimately, we were unable to keep our vow to travel for a year, and we headed north after 250 days, not because we had run out of money but because my wife, a small, slender woman in the lushest of surroundings, was suddenly down to 81 pounds. A few years later, when our wedding vows fell as short as our travel vows, that notebook filled with our daily expenses accounted for in nickels and dimes became our only hotly contested piece of community property.

Now, middle-aged and relatively affluent, I navigated our hired car toward Cuenca. As we ascended into the Andes, the canopy of trees was replaced by hardy purple lupine, moss, lichen, and orange duster flowers. Unlike most major mountain ranges, the Ecuadoran Andes are not a continuous series of crests. They are separated by valleys as extensive as the mountains themselves, so you alternate between being high enough to look down at the clouds and being surrounded by peaks. The effect is of a world from which there is no respite, no escape.

The violent topography also provides insight into Ecuador's persistent poverty: the core of its indigenous population lives in an environment where agriculture is almost impossible, a land of sharp angles, thin air, racing clouds, and stony soil. Driving through the Andes, you cannot help noticing that most farming is done on steep mountainsides, while the fertile flat land between the mountains, where it seems the heaviest concentration of crops should be planted, has only a few cows grazing here and there. This is a direct result of a very large loophole in the country's so-called land reform program.

Responding to the urgings of President Kennedy and hoping to stem the tide of Communist revolution that many thought would sweep over post-Castro Latin America, Ecuador's ruling families agreed to part with a portion of their vast landholdings. They kept most of the land where the terrain was not exceptionally steep, however, with the agreement that they could hold on to it as long as they put it to agricultural use. Letting a small amount of cattle graze hundreds of acres of prime farmland is considered putting it to agricultural use, and so the Indians continue to plant their crops at 70-degree angles while a few elderly cows wander over some of the country's most arable terrain.

When we reached cuenca, we were dusty and thoroughly rattled by the Pan American Highway's cavernous potholes. Finding our hotel, the Oro Verde, added a full hour to our trip; but we made the best of it, admiring Cuenca's colonial architecture, the whitewashed buildings, the red tile roofs, the serpentine cobblestone streets. When we finally staggered into the hotel's modern, leafy lobby, we learned there was no record of our reservation. Before we could begin howling, though, a large-boned, glamorous woman quickly assured us, "But you are home here." She gave us each a small glass of amber liquid, which we tossed back without bothering to inquire what it was. It turned out to be apple brandy, and we gratefully accepted refills as we made our way toward hot showers, cable TV, and a patio with a view of a small artificial lake dotted with what may have been artificial ducks.

The next day, the hotel arranged a guide for us, a pleasantly erudite man named Eduardo Quito. We wanted to meet some artisans, so Eduardo took us to an iron forger's workshop, where we watched a Cuenca craftsman hammer scraps into locks and keys of lacelike intricacy. Then we went to the village of San Bartolomé, where the specialty is handmade guitars. We sat in a cool cottage where local woods were being bent into shape and mother-of-pearl was carefully inlaid along the frets. Then we were off to the village of Gualaceo to visit makers of panama hats. Somewhat illogically, Ecuador is the world's main producer of the panama hat, and Gualaceo revolves around this cottage industry. At the church in the central plaza, Jesus himself is portrayed in a stained-glass window wearing a panama hat.

When I mentioned to Eduardo that I owned a few old carved wooden santos, he veered off onto a pebble-strewn path, and we soon found ourselves climbing through fields of flowers and corn to a tidy house on stilts, surrounded by belladonna, where an elderly man spent his days carving passionate approximations of the Crucifixion. He greeted Eduardo heartily, welcomed us with considerable graciousness, and, after showing us around his house (five scarcely furnished rooms, redolent of wood and flowers and paint), invited us to see his work in progress. He was mixing paints in a little pink cup from a child's tea set, trying to come up with the properly expressive shade of red to show the blood seeping from Christ's wounds. He handled each tube of paint with the fanatical care that comes from scarcity and from the knowledge that one's profit margin is as thin as onion skin.

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