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Over the Volcanoes and Through the Ruins

The morning we left cuenca it was cool and foggy. We were heading north, through Riobamba and on to the mountain settlement of Otavalo. But heading due north in Ecuador is no easier than finding your way out of that maze in The Shining.

The "main road" seemed to disappear and reappear like the Cheshire cat's grin. As we ascended into layers of damp clouds, Indian women carrying loads of firewood or tending flocks of sheep crossed suddenly in front of us. At times, the haze was so thick we could only hope that there was actual road ahead and that we were not driving off the edge of the highway. Luckily, there was little motor traffic—primarily hulking Coca-Cola delivery trucks en route to unmapped villages, villages where electricity to refrigerate the bottles had arrived only within the past few years.

Throughout Ecuador, old haciendas have been turned into guesthouses, and we were booked into them at 150-mile intervals between Cuenca and Otavalo. On our way to Hostería La Andaluza, near Riobamba, we detoured to Ingapirca, Ecuador's most important archaeological site. The remains of a settlement built by the Incas, it is still largely intact. We bought an admittance ticket from one of the site's two employees, and then a bent and toothless old man energetically waved us into a parking space, though ours was the only car in the lot.

It was a great privilege to wander through in privacy. The silence was so profound, we felt as if we must have been breaking some kind of law by being there. We ambled down each pathway, examining the crumbling 500-year-old walls of temples and storehouses, all erected with that Incan genius for mortarless stonework. In our solitude, it was easy to indulge fantasies of having discovered a lost city.

From Ingapirca we drove to the village of Guamote. It was market day there; but since the action begins in early morning, and we didn't pull in until 4 p.m., we worried that we might have missed it. Trucks were leaving the town's center, filled with brightly bedecked Indians carrying pigs and sheep and huge quantities of food that they either had just bought or had failed to sell.

We may not have been there for the market's peak hours, but there was still plenty of life in the streets. Near the abandoned train tracks at the village's southern end, we found ourselves in a crammed and festive labyrinth of booths, carts, and blankets, where hundreds of Ecuadoran farmers sold fruits and vegetables, pins and needles, pots and pans, mouthwash, lambs, piglets, potions, and hot meals of beef, carrots, and potatoes. In the Andes, the market is as integral to the Indian way of life as the New York Stock Exchange is to the life of corporate capitalism. And for people who spend most of their time working isolated patches of land, going to market is also a social occasion. It's a chance not only to buy and sell goods, but also to visit one another, to exchange stories. In places like this, it strikes me what a gross oversimplification it is to think of Ecuador as merely poor. Our own post-industrial longing for community makes these markets seem enviable.

As far as we could see, we were the only non-Indians in attendance; but our appearance seemed to excite neither animosity nor extreme curiosity. We bought a few items—oranges, a couple of embroidered belts—and tore ourselves away so that we wouldn't be on the Pan-American Highway past nightfall.

And then: our first glitch. After hours of successfully negotiating potholes, I ran over a depression in the road that was as deep as the kiddie end of a swimming pool. The car shook as if we had been hit by artillery, and a moment later the shredded rubber of our blown tire was lapping like 10 rubber tongues against the road. There was no village nearby; we hadn't seen a public telephone since we left New York. My most fervent wish was for there to be a spare tire and a jack in the trunk—and there was. (Had there not been, I would probably still be in Ecuador.)

I'm not the type to exaggerate the difficulties of changing a tire, but changing a tire at some 12,000 feet above sea level could one day be an Olympic event. The physiognomy of the indigenous Andean people has evolved so that they can walk long distances at a sharp incline in the thin mountain air. They are compact, with powerful muscles and jumbo lungs, whereas I am the product of hundreds of years of irony. By the time the car was raised off the ground, my shirt was soaked with sweat and my breath was coming in little sonic bursts: I felt like a machine made by an unsuccessful inventor. The concerns with which I had come to Ecuador—that not traveling on the cheap would separate me from the reality of the country's daily life—gave way to a far larger issue: that I would be found dead at the side of the road.

I'm not an expert on cars, and for all I know the Hyundai may be a terrific machine, but I doubt that its engineers had the Ecuadoran Andes in mind when they designed the perky little sedan. Perhaps taking its cue from my own battle in changing a tire, our car began exhibiting alarming signs of failing health, and soon driving it was an exercise in undermined confidence.

Eventually, we bumped our way into a small mountain village. There was no garage, no mechanic; and even if we could have found a phone, whom would we call?Our presence was apparently a source of speculation. Knots of teenage boys in dark ponchos, smoking and drinking Cokes, looked at us with suspicion. A woman hurried a sheep out of our way, her body language suggesting fear, as if we might attempt to steal her flock.

A few miles after that, our Hyundai's engine became as quiet as the stones of Ingapirca. On our right was a rock-laden, nightmarishly unstable mountainside, on our left, a drop of several million miles. I thought for a moment that the car was making a kind of throbbing noise, until I realized that was the sound of my heart beating between my ears.

"Scott?" my companion said. I shook my head and turned off the ignition. The world beneath a car's hood is the dark side of the moon as far as I'm concerned: all I could hope for was that if I let the engine "rest" for a few moments, the difficulty would somehow take care of itself. "Scott?" she said again, this time investing my name with more anxiety than I thought a word with only one vowel could hold. I raised my hand in what I imagined was a masterful gesture. We sat in silence for a minute, and then I turned the ignition key. To our immense relief, the engine started and we continued on our way for another mile. Then the car went dead again.

We proceeded like that for another hour—stalling, letting the car "rest," and starting up again. Then suddenly whatever armor of affluence we wore was stripped away, and the countryside and its inhabitants had never seemed so beautiful or mysterious. We rolled through another little village, breathlessly high in the southern sky, where goats and sheep poked aimlessly through the town. Our fear began to subside as we realized that the slowness and even the uncertainty of our progress was heightening our senses like a drug. It seemed as if we had been given a backstage pass to the pageant of life. A burst of cerulean uniforms as a grammar school opened its doors. A copper-skinned woman sitting on a stone stoop, in her lap a lamb whose frown exactly mirrored her own. Fields of wildflowers bright as fresh paint in the sunlight. Snowcapped volcanoes pushing their shattered peaks through the clouds.

Naturally, we did not perish on that Andean slope—the car somehow resumed behaving and managed to make the rest of the trip—but those hours of wandering in a seemingly dying vehicle reminded me that, for all its diminutive size, its lack of clout in international affairs, and its relative obscurity in the world of tourism, Ecuador has the power to shake you loose of your credit cards and hacienda reservations. Unlike so many places, Ecuador is a country you can't buy your way out of. There is no golden ghetto of Hiltons and Harry's Bars and Benettons. You must take Ecuador on Ecuador's terms.

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