Dear Friends and Readers: The saga of Ecuador returns, but only to take me into the Mystery of Peru. If you wish to comment on the journey, please do so!
In 1985, I left Ecuador right before Christmas. In an unexpected turn of events, I’d accepted an offer to teach sixth grade at the Quito Colegio Americano two days before my departure. Before that I’d spend four months touring and exploring Ecuador, often staying with Peace Corps workers in remote sites. At one point I almost went into the depths of the Amazon jungle in search of the Canelos Quichua ceramic makers. However, due to a meeting with the president of the local Indian organization, I changed my mind. A previous commitment to return to Iowa and finish my graduate studies hung suspended like a forgotten pair of shoes, dangling by its strings on a hook in the back of a closet. Instead, very shortly I would return to Quito to begin my new duties at the American school.
I often wonder what my life would have been like had I spent more time asking why the previous teacher had left her position so abruptly, breaking a two-year teaching contract. The woman had snuck out of the country like a thief in the night, booking a midnight passage to the States. At the airport gate she encountered furious Colegio Americano officials who attempted to physically prevent her from getting on the flight. This tidbit of information would later prove to be rather significant, as a flock of teachers followed in her footsteps, conniving to leave a country and a job, both which had proven to be overwhelmingly challenging.
My own situation began with a bang—literally, for there was a military takeover of the airport, which put the country at a standstill. At the time I was holed up in the Santa Clara, a boarding house pension, while trying to find an apartment.
Five days of being in a state of emergency was frightening as well as surreal. It seemed as if the entire country had gone into a lockdown--- the grocery stores were stripped of canned goods and water, leaving long, lonely stretches of empty shelves. If you went outside, you felt as if you were taking your life into your own hands, what with early curfews and military personnel on every street corner, not to mention the army tanks. Teachers from the school gathered in each other’s apartments, hovering together on couches and at tables, in an unconscious effort to find comfort through physical proximity. We were like golden butterflies caught in a dark net, our adventuresome souls trapped in foreign confusion and fear. During those five days I felt constant fear, for my passport was in the extranjeria, the government visa office. How could I ever leave the country without my passport? Compounding this concern, the lieutenant colonel that led the coupe captured and laid claim to the Quito airport. In true Ecuadorian style, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Vargas was finally discovered below an airport cosmetic counter, huddling among the perfumes. Undoubtedly, no rebel had ever smelled so sweet.
The Truth About Ecuador
My reluctance to embrace Ecuadorian culture may well have commenced with their coffee. No delicious café con leche here. Instead, a miniature glass pitcher filled with esencia de café was placed on the table. You would then be served either a hot cup of water into which you poured the rather tasteless black liquid, making a languid drink that failed to stir the senses. Like the Ecuadorian coffee, I found many aspects of living in the country difficult to swallow. Apart from the political instability, I always seemed to be sick, as were many of the teachers working at the Colegio Americano. Shortly after arriving I developed a cold, which threatened to turn into bronchitis. Consequently, all my extraneous activity, which included 45-minute bus rides to and from the school, as well as searching for an apartment for almost two months, were accompanied by wheezing and fists of Kleenex. Perhaps the weakness of that coffee had been transferred into my body. The challenges mounted daily, including the difficulty of trying to become part of the close-knit group of teachers.
I don’t remember all their names, but I do recall that they acted like a membership-only country club, and that Margot was the centerpiece. She and her boyfriend, Ernest, had signed up for two years, and were considerably vocal about issues that were brewing at the school. Indeed, as the months passed by, even more teachers snuck out of the country, which made teaching at the colegio seem more and more like a prison sentence. While walking the streets of Quito, an intense desire to be somewhere else would unexpectedly arise, like a swift yank in the solar plexus, and I would vehemently wish I weren’t teaching. Curiously, I’d often envision myself dancing, for the yearning at the pinnacle of my soul cried out for creative expression. During the day, as I struggled to get control of unruly Ecuadorian children, my shoulders became increasingly slumped, manifesting internal feelings of defeat. What was I doing here? It seemed utterly senseless. Even when I eventually got an apartment in what I thought was the lovely valley of Guapalo, my life continued to be problematic.
Guapalo Valley, located at the bottom of a long, winding road, was oddly peppered with Eucalyptus trees imported from New Zealand. Quaintly furnished by a British teacher on leave for six months, the apartment had a fantastic view but was so isolated that no one came to visit. In fact, only one teacher made the attempt, arriving unexpectedly on a late day hike. The older married man wanted to determine just how secluded I was, distinctly giving me the impression that he might return again if I was up to sexual intrigues. What seemed truly intriguing, however, was the fact that even the taxi drivers were reluctant to go down into the valley of Guapalo. Unbeknownst to me, Guapalo held high fame as a sleazy, red-light district.
As I the days unraveled, I became more and more depressed. The school politics, the children who saw teachers not unlike their servants who brought them cookies and milk at the end of the day, and feeling like an outsider, all contributed to my heart’s dismay at having returned to Ecuador. Living in the charming but far-way apartment, and the drudgery of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus two hours before classes began, were gnawing reminders of my premonition that returning to work in Ecuador would not be an easy task. Yet, who could guess that the grueling lifestyle I had chosen would lead me into the magical, ancient kingdom of Cuzco, Peru? The gift of teaching in Ecuador was having two weeks paid vacation during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. As luck would have it, an American student teacher, Diane, was also interested in visiting Cuzco and the compelling, mystical ruins of Machu pichu.
Winnie and the Silver Ring
Everyone I know who has visited Machu pichu has related to me some type of mystical revelation that occurred during a visit to the famous Inca ruins. Set high above Cuzco, itself a former Inca capital, the ruins jut upward in majestic splendor, hovering among the sparse clouds. Many people walk the Inca Trail in order to more authentically approach the lost city of the Incas. However, most prefer to come by train or bus, arriving in eager anticipation with cameras clutched in their hands and broad-rimmed hats perched on their heads. Many arrive at daybreak, just as the sun is spreading an uncanny light upon the chiseled stones that to this day manifest the superb engineering abilities of the Inca people. But all arrive with one thing in their hearts—the hope of entering into Mystery, that tantalizing feeling which modernity too often obscures. Mystery is at the core of Machu pichu and reigns over the ruins like a clever queen. She draws into her kingdom all who long to create a velvet entryway into the soul.
At least, that is how I felt when I left Quito alone, a few days before my fellow traveler, Diane, was to meet me at Winnie’s Bed and Breakfast in Lima, Peru.