Archives for posts with tag: smell

I was sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the pasture far behind Marco´s house.  The moon, waxing crescent, had just set behind the wall of forest to our backs, and the stars were sparkling bright as fireflies.  In one sense, I was alone with just a backpack and machete.  In every other, I was with multitudinous company: one by one, I tried to hone in on each sound in the darkness.  Though I recognized none, I knew the raucous calls spoke of grasshoppers, frogs, cicadas, and a haunt of nocturnal insects.  There, an owl.  Here, a growing swarm of mosquitos trying to poke its way through the shirt I´d tied around my head.  My breath, finally calm.  Layers upon layers of foreign sound; I could barely hear a thing.  Then,

POWWWoooaaaaooo!!!

One single shot.  In the half hour I sat there listening, I had almost forgotten why I was there.  Marco had been sitting silently, as well, just a hundred meters away in the forest, high up on two logs we´d tied around two trees.  From his lookout in the darkness, he was waiting over the feeding grounds of the wanta, a large rodent that only comes out in the darkest hour of night.  Oh yes: it all came back to me before the echo of munitions faded into the animal chants of the night.  Oh yes: we had arrived around sunset to fix the lookout, re-tying and testing the logs, tracking the wantas´ previous feast of forest fruits, calling back and forth to a wakening owl in the distance.  The moon was still high in the sky when darkness set, so we went to fish until the silvery light disappeared.  We dug wriggly worms by the stream nearby, hooking them tightly and letting them sink to the mud under dangling grasses.  We´d caught about six little barbudas, similar to catfish, before Marco went to chase an armadillo that was digging around the hill we faced.  No luck this time…

(…Unlike the time he went wanta hunting last week, when he brought home a fully grown male armadillo in the backpack instead.  I was convinced to de-scale, peel, and clean it that night, concentrating on each square inch of skin or shell in order to ignore the stench.)

I digress.  By the stream, Marco returned as I held the ad hoc fishing pole in the moonlight, waiting for one more nibble.  The night was still young, we already had a bag of fish, and we were still full of energy from the chonta that afternoon (a type of palm fruit that´s orange and savory, boiled and peeled with salt and cup of coffee), so we set off through the jungle to bag more fish in a bigger river.

The sensation of walking at night is dizzying.  I mean, walking even on a sidewalk in pure darkness can be harrowing, ¿no es cierto? And, of course, walking through the forest at Opal Creek at night, hurrying with head lamps to find a campsite, is even more disquieting.  So this night in the selva amazónica— surrounded by utterly foreign smells and sounds and sensations as I passed through brush and stepped over nurse logs– was quite possibly the most alien experience of my life.  On the hunt as we were, I tried to stay alert and aware of all the noises around us, but it was nearly impossible for me to differentiate what Marco knew instantly as a grasshopper or bat.  It was all I could do to keep up with him, tread quietly over the sea of leaves and sticks at our feet, and try to not panic as we crossed slippery rivers and searched for wanta along the way.  We stopped to fish at a larger, slow bend in the river, keeping our lights off to not frighten the barbudas.  Marco called to the monkeys in the distance and huffed deeply to communicate to the little jaguar across the way that we were peaceful.  I sat, utterly stupefied, mechanically stashing each fish he caught in a pocket of the backpack.  For all my time and attention here, I realized I knew practically nothing of this forest.

At the next stream we were along the edge of the trees again, and I waited in the pasture for a moment as Marco fished.  Looking uphill at the sparse tree trunks in the last rays of white light, I imagined I was in the oak savannah of the Willamette Valley.  Bald Hill, or Avery Park, or even down around Mount Tamalpais in California.  For a few breaths, I ignored the jungle air and incessant chant, and I felt safer, steadier, sturdier–  like I could teach Marco something, this time around.  Then the aroma of orchids wafted by, I caught a whiff of my jungle sweat, and the vision morphed back.

Marco always tells me, si tienes confianza en la selva, te puede dar tanta energía, tantas cosas.  If you trust the forest, it will give you lots of energy, many gifts.

Just trust it.

The moon was falling fast along the horizon, so we started back the way we came.  The wanta would be coming out soon to search for food underneath Marco´s lookout post.  Along the way we stopped just once as the wavering whistle of nocturnal monkeys approached.  In the trees above, they bounded and leapt loudly, stopping at a safe distance to watch us watching them.  The size of large cats, they shifted curiously as their beady yellow eyes reflected Marco´s torch. Tan bodies into the trees.  The night was full.  We trekked on.

That is how I came to be sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the night.  After the shot rang the songs of night continued undisturbed, but I was waiting anxiously for Marco to emerge from the forest´s edge.  When he finally did, flashlight bouncing along the tips of pasture grass, I peeked around the smooth leg of tree, squinting into the light, and spotted one delicate paw dangling at his side.  It was a young one, just three months old according to the fat on her belly, soft and warm and heavy.  We were happy, and I congratulated Marco for his long-awaited wanta.  On the long walk home, as we stopped suddenly here and there to listen for armadillos in the brush, I reached behind me to feel the its silky fur sticking through a hole in the bottom of the backpack.  I wished I could have seen it alive, pawing through the forest floor with its little toes, gnawing on pasos or uvas amid the grasshoppers´ crescendo.

But you know, I was also happy to see it scorched and brushed clean the next day.  I was happy to learn how to take its guts out and chop its spine into meaty hunks.  Most of all, I was happy to savor each bite of its fried meat, tender and fatty like prime rib, over a pile of boiled plátano and wash it down with fresh warm milk.

As Marco would say with a thick accent, This is jungle life.

Marco and the wanta.

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Since I can`t upload photos at the moment, I`m going to skip about a week´s worth of stories and pictures from the coast and bring you right up to this morning.  Stay tuned for another post that`ll make you drool over the coast of Ecuador.

I am so, SO pleased to be back in the Andes after two weeks on the coast.  The air is thin, fresh, and cool, sending whiffs of eucalyptus and pàramo grass between puffs of exhaust from the buses.  I spent two days, about 13 hours in all, to arrive in Latacunga just south of Quito.  The town is situated between Mount Cotopaxi and a semi-famous loop of indigenous villages, where many people go to visit the Laguna Quilotoa.  Sleepy and weary, I skipped the loop and stopped in Latacunga for a couple hours to bask in the Andean sun and explore the town.  The difference between the coast and mountains is remarkable: beyond simple factors of climate, flora, and fauna, the people here appear more reserved, conservative, and less curious and outgoing toward me.  That said, I feel more comfortable here as a lone woman because the men don`t gawk (much) and people seem more occupied in general than on the coast, where from every window somebody stood watching, statuesque.

I was planning to stay in Latacunga, but for some reason felt like moving on once I got there: an impulse that hits, I`ve found, when I feel alone and uprooted.  I stopped in the town of San Miguel de Salcedo, just a few miles south of Latacunga, in order to try their famous ice cream.  Just about every store in town sells these layered cones of flavors on sticks, and a couple people were tickled that I´d come just for that reason.  Not surprising, though, since the ice cream was fabulous and made right in town.  Mine was vanilla with some strawberry jam inside, followed by layers of taxo, passionfruit, and naranjilla.  You know me.  I`ll be thinking about that ice cream for weeks.

This morning I hoisted myself out of bed in order to visit a market south of Riobamba, in a little town called Cajabamba.  I had read that it`s Sunday market is huge and colorful, and since I really haven`t visited a market here yet, I was excited to get out and see what was on offer.  The bus dropped me at the main stop, where a long row of vendors stood behind their stalls of potato balls and whole roasted pigs, clients sitting on stools all around.  I passed them by for the time being and bought a couple of beautiful, intensely flavorful red bananas.  An ancient woman sat with a young sheep on a leash as I walked down a side-street toward the market: she was just the first of several I saw, tugging their sheep behind their ponchos and skirts.  The women here (and impressively, even many young women and girls) where different versions of a poncho, sweaters, shirt, close-toed shoes, and fedora-style hat, usually with a peacock feather sticking up from the side.  Sometimes they`ll have a shiny embroidered hot pink poncho and high heels, I assume to be more fashionable, but either way the garb is standard and ubiquitous.  I love it.  Women`s hair is usually long, braided or in a tight pony tail or wrap, and their earrings and necklaces are gold, dangling gracefully around their smooth, steadfast faces.

You want to see a photo, huh?  I am sorry to say that today I remembered and fully accepted my great fault as a travel writer: I simply cannot take photographs of people unless I know them or it comes up somehow.  Some people can do this, and I highly recommend you google search ¨Ecuador Andes indigenous dress¨ or something similar.  I even talked to a few elderly, very interesting-looking people in the plaza today, and I couldn´t bring myself to ask for a photo.  It just doesn´t make sense at the time, so I hope you understand.  Here´s the only photo I have of the market, taken from the booth where I bought broccoli and onions:

The market itself was fairly ordinary, as far as foreign markets go.  Stands upon stands of bananas, taxo, zapotes (which I have yet to try), and avocados surrounded another section of vegetables: tomatoes, carrots, white carrots (a native Andean crop), cabbages bigger than basketballs, onions and leeks and peppers, oh my.  Around the corner, twenty bread stalls.  A section of huge bags of bulk pasta, rice, fresh-ground wheat, and corn.  One of the buildings was full of hanging meat, and I tried to hold my breath as a scurried past the tables of pig heads and rows of cow liver hanging at my shoulders.  The other was full of prepared food, and I stopped for a plate of that potato-ball-pork-rind combo.  Not as delicious as last night´s pile of potato-pancake-fried-egg-pork-salsa on the street near my hostel, but still satisfying.  I sat with a young woman near the stall and was surprised to learn that she was my age and had just one baby.  Usually I feel like an old maid when I speak with anyone, since my marital status and age unfailingly come up within two minutes of the Buenos dìas.

Fortunately today, the elderly vendors I spoke with in the plaza were delighted to hear my story– once we began to talk, they opened up, warm and curious.  I sat down on a long bench, and soon the woman next to me turned and asked where I came from.  I learned that she lives in Riobamba and makes braided nylon ropes to sell every day there, but on Sundays she comes to sell in Cajabamba.  She was seventy-four years old, probably about 4´10¨ (not very short around here), and her smile was contagious despite its showing only four bottom teeth.  She referred to me as ¨mi hijita,¨ which translates to an endearing ¨my little daughter,¨ but is used between strangers all the time.  As she gathered her ropes to continue selling, another elderly woman approached to buy, four for a dollar, and we shook hands goodbye.  The man to my left, in a felt fedora and windbreaker, seemed to speak little Spanish at first, but we ended up talking for a while as well.  He was selling at the market with his wife, smiling and wrapped in a plaid wool poncho, and a couple sons.  They lived just up the hill and had ¨una docena¨ de hijos (twelve or so), where they farmed the usual papa, cebolla, zanahoria blanca, etc.  I was happy to share my farming experience with him, and that I was interested to see this market because I worked at a similar one in the Estados Unidos.  Really, besides the degree of ¨scraping by¨ that farmers and vendors experience here, the market itself is similar to one in the States: people get together, chat and catch up on the week, select and sell and eat, and hopefully go home with some cash.  For me, it was an opportunity to try new produce, stock up for the week, and most importantly talk with some of the locals whose lives seem incredibly different from my own.