The bus to Ozogoche slowly filled with forest green, navy blue, and other dark colored felt hats, pink, green, and blue skirts and shalls, and tiny-little penny loafers worn with wool stockings. All adorned by dark, little-tiny Quecha's.
They have century old faces sketched with unknown years of herding sheep and grazing cattle, cultivating land and diverting streams. They don't concern themselves with modern inventions like Super Mario Bros.; they barely have electricity. Their concern is gas for cooking and whether or not they have a freshly slaughtered Cuy to feed the children. Oh, and sugarcane liquor.
It was decided a few days before that Marta and I would take a romantic excursion to the southern highlands. We visited the beautful colonial city of Cuenca, where there is no hiding romance. From the pansies that grow in the square to the rose petals that fall to the floor of the mercado de flores, romance is around every bend. There weren´t even bums.
After Cuenca, we went to Alausi and found out about the Lagunas de Ozogoche. The next day, there we were on the bus to Ozogoche, waiting as it filled with Quechas.
We were supposed to leave at one. It was approaching two-thirty when the bus made its first spurt of diesel exhaust into the soft mountain afternoon.
It didn't take long for Marta to pull out her Canon. She beamed with excitement.
"This is amaazing," she said referring to the ratio of Quechua to gringo.
She made me switch seats with her, so that she sat on the aisle closer to conversation with the indigenous. She didn't sit long. Within minutes, the entire Quechua population on the bus stared at Marta and smiled as she worked her way up and down the aisle asking about their families and their lives. She told them about Spain. They watched her like she was flying on a trapeze in Cirque de Soleil. She asked them questions, flirting, using her giddy laugh and perfect western smile. She gave away pictures of herself,showing them her family and friends, all to make the indigenous feel more comfortable about the camera.
It was a well-choreographed act she had used before, and when the trust of the indigenous was gained, she curtly asked to take a picture.
The Quechua are much different than your average seventeen year old American girl who lives for taking countless self-portraits to post on facebook. Quechua's don't trust the camera. I think the camera has exploited them one to many times, from the billboards in Quito to the Ecuadorian travel magazines where their likeness appears quite often. They are right not to trust the outside. Although my knowledge is finite, the Quechua's, in comparison with other local cultures I hav seen, have guarded their culture quite well, especially in the Nacional Parque Sangay in a high Andean village where we stayed and experienced it first hand. Many spoke only Quechua and a little poor Spanish (right at my level).
I didn't see Marta for the rest of the bus trip, except every now and then when she would come back for a kiss. Everytime I would give her a lousy one, she would say in a spanish accent but with a suprising, direct Puerto Rican tone, "If you don't give me a good kiss, then don't give me one at all." I couldn't help but laugh. She's not Puerto Rican.
She eventually returned to her seat as we approached our destination, a sleepy mountain town. She brought a friend. He smelled of something familiar. He stood swaying, trying to hold onto the seats, but lost his balance because he couldn't let go of the clear plastic cup in his hand.
This is when I realized that everyone on the entire bus was hammered from the local sugar cane guarro. That was the familiar smell.
They were all real nice to us, trying to help us find our way, but they were too drunk to make any sense, so we were confused.
Our choice was to go with the bus down to the sleepy mountain town or go up to Nacional Parque Sangay on a taxi-truck for 1 dollar. We weren´t sure where we could stay. One drunken Quechua told us they had cabanas in the park; one told us that the only place was in town; and another said there was no where to sleep, but we could call his friend.
As much as I wanted to call the drunk guy´s friend, we decided to go up to the park on the back of the truck. I was on one side, Marta on the other. In the middle sat a Quechua boy, girl, and mother. On the back end there was a cow with it's head tied to the metal railing of the truck right next to my shoulder. It stared intently at me, huffing, occasionally grinding its horns into my shoulder.
“The cow either really likes me or wants to kill me.” I screamed to Marta over the wind.
“He wants to kill you. Hahaha.”
The cow wanted to kill me, but it didn't scare me. The single rope, that divided Marta, me, and the Quechas with the thousand pound cow, was what scared me. If the driver slammed on the breaks, the cow would snap the rope, slide towards us, slipping in the wet feces that covered the bed, and crush our collar bones and sternums and maybe our heads.
I wouldn't make eye contact with the cow, but I sure made eye contact with Marta as I kept moving around, slightly panicking about the cow crushing all my organs. She just laughed.
"It's not funny." I said.
Two giant lakes appeared underneath jagged peaks; the peaks had a slight dusting of new snow.
We made it to the lakes and the park without being crushed. We stopped and paid the money and the driver pointed to three little huts and a small fish farm in front of a small river. He said those were the cabanas. I've seen cabanas before; these were not cabanas.
We walked down the road to the three little huts and small fish farm, and a tiny old toothless Quechua, dressed in the traditional bright skirt and dark felt hat, greeted us. She was about four foot tall. She told us they had beds, and told us to follow. We asked her how much. She didn´t know.
She waddled over to one of the huts and unlocked the door. There were about 16 bunks, but the place was completely empty. It was cold there, maybe about five degrees C. We asked her about food; we hadn´t eaten.
“Oh,” she said, “no comida?” She stood and looked back and forth at both of us, slowly contemplating. “Tengo papitas.”
“She has potatoes.” Marta said.
It looked like we were going to eat a lot of little potatoes. She waddled back out of the dorm and we followed. She then went to another hut and opened it up. It was fully stocked. Tuna cans, pasta, crackers, cookies and other dry goods sat on the shelf. They even had beer.
I grabbed a can of Tuna, pasta, some eggs, and two beers. It was perfect. She locked up the store room, waddled over to the other hut and opened it up. It was a full kitchen. This is when the other little woman showed up. They talked and came to the conclusion that there was no gas for the stove. They wanted money to go fill it. I offered to go fill it. I grabbed the tank and she brought me a wheelbarrow. We had to go about a half of a kilometer to the nearby village of about sixty people.
When we got half way there, the old woman said, “Espera!” Then she sprint-waddled all the way back to the huts. She ran inside, then outside, and sprinted towards with a big bag of something on her back. She didn´t waste a minute. Why was she running? We wondered.
We got to a very plain wooden building, the store. Children and sheep wandered around in the dirt yard surrounding the building , the children laughing and staring at the two foreingers, the sheep baing . Behind the building, if you looked up, the devilish peaks ominously loomed over the two lakes, and if you looked down, our three huts sat at the bottom of the hill. The air reminded me of Colorado, crisp and clean, yet it lacked the smell of pine. There were no trees on the mountains, just brownish grasses.
We filled the gas tank and I walked the wheelbarrow back down while Marta talked to the little old woman. We made dinner and planned on hiking in the morning. We had to return to Quito the next afternoon. The two old women told us to go to bed at seven thirty, so we did.
We had a nice hike, and an uneventful trip back to Quito. When we arrived at the bus terminal, I felt like I had returned home. And in some ways I had. Quito was the place where I gave birth to a bus, an idea and a lifestyle. I pray now to the gods of bus, SAVE OUR BUS. I hope I didn´t push a bus out of my mangina for nothing because , frankly, it isn´t easy, especially with Ecuadorian medicine being the way it is.
Photos by Marta Anglada