I'm sure that we gringos have a smell about us that isn't very pleasant to those who aren't gringo. Likewise, there is a prevailing aroma that permeates the air when you are mashed like potatoes in a bus full of indigenous families that have recently gutted and smoked their pigs. God bless them all. They are hard workers and have faced much adversity with a stoic and single purpose mindset. I'm sure that clean clothes and body is a luxury that is neither practical or even possible before jumping on the bus. I was an Iowa farm boy after all and anyone who has worked with pigs knows that hog smell becomes a part of you no matter how many times you shower. Add a shot of smoldering ash to that flavor and you have a smell that will overturn a sewer rat's innards.
So here we are, most reserved seats filled, chugging merrily along in our underpowered bus crawling up the insane inclines of the Andes. The views along the way are at times spectacular with the carpeted slopes of vegetables and fruits. It is best not to look at the side of the road where littering is not yet a cultural taboo. More on that later. Up ahead I see a crowd of indigenous massing at the side of the road, obviously intent on sharing the stagnant confines of our mobile vessel. The bus stops and the people crush ensues. I am reminded of a food processor and we're all in the tube with the giant's hand pushing the plunger down. The remaining unbooked seats quickly fill and like the locks in Panama, our canal is brim full and two times human capacity in moments. Red lights, traffic lanes and legal bus capacities are largely a suggestion in Ecuador. Sitting on the aisle seat, memories of high school wrestling filled my brain. Your adversary was sweaty and sticky and there was no polite 'space' provided for your personal comfort. Like wrestling, this was just a competition to survive and not be pinned. Unlike wrestling, there were no winners. Everyone gets pinned. You were already on your back, so a neck bridge seemed like the only defensive answer. After a while though, your neck just gives out and you get pinned. I kept waiting for the whistle to blow so I could breathe at last, but the whistle never blew. The pungency of the aforementioned odors was now being branded into my clothing and skin and I was one with the slayers of hog. I knew we were only two hours into our ten hour odyssey. Enter claustrophobia. Could the breasts of my matronly tormentor, perfumed au swine be suffered on my breathing orifice for eight hours? I confess a bit of panic. Thankfully Rachel was on the window seat and was still smiling from the adventure. She pulled the little camera and snapped a picture of the darling baby strapped to the back of the woman whose maternal organs were slowly suffocating me.
I guess I like high places because the other ‘must see’ was the exciting ride up the cable teleferico (mountain gondola) to have an even more panoramic view of the city and also to have fabulous views of Pichincha. At around 14,000 feet, you need to limit your time up there both for the cold and the thin air, but the views are worth it.
We went outside at midnight to watch the fireworks. This city likes their fireworks. It must be that every family that can afford one buys a fabulous firework and shoots it up at midnight because they were going off all over the city and it was crazy colorful and beautiful. On the streets were little fires of burning effigies. There’s a lot of traditions here around the effigy burning, but mostly I think you burn your political enemies, your most disliked teachers, the taxi driver that tried to run you over, and anyone else that you need to get out of your mind before you start the new year. You see racks and more racks of masks of all types and demeanor that are for sale before New Years. It is your duty to buy the mask that looks most like your adversary to put on a scarecrow-like figurine and soak it with a bit of blazo for holiday cheer. It truly seems like an odd custom, but they do it all over the country, perhaps most especially in Quito. Perhaps that's why Ecuadorians are by nature such kind and sweet people. They wholly expunge their angst each year. Next year I'm making a cardboard blue bus and yellow taxi and I'll have a fire that will foster a calm in me that will surely make me as my kind Ecuadorian brothers. Nah.
We found a yet unnamed start-up cafe next door to El Arbolito that served us well when we wanted our extended morning coffee and breakfast. Blanca was an exceptionally sweet gal who treated us like we were her only customers. We were. I'm really not sure many people know they're even there. We had huevos (eggs) con queso, tocina (bacon), jugo (juice), and multiple hot queso sanduches along with unlimited coffee for $2.
Cotacachi hasn't changed much since I was there a year ago. It is still extremely clean, quiet, friendly, safe, and the views of Mt. Cotacachi and Mt. Imbabura are just incredible. I fell in love with it a year ago and the feeling hasn't changed. It is certainly NOT for everyone. If you like night life, it's not for you. The streets temporarily roll up for siesta at 1PM, again at 6:00PM, and don't exactly get up with the roosters either. Commerce is an accidental biproduct of pedestrians walking by the right tienda at the right time. Too much commerce would cause chaos, and chaos isn't wanted here. The quiet streets are safe to bicycle on, the sidewalks safe to walk on. There's no buses belching their toxic fumes and the sky is so clear and blue you'd swear your life is in high definition. The streets are paved in brick and cobblestone, the sidewalks in a colorful and tasteful mosaic. Calle Cuero (Leather street, officially Diez de Agosto) is teaming with clean, modern, tiendas tastefully presenting articles manufactured by local artisans. I simply had forgotten how nice these shops are. There are droves of attractive cafes, some quite upscale with prices approaching the gringo level, and others that offer really good food at a very reasonable price. One night we each had a thin personal pan pizza with a drink for $1.
What really separates Cotacachi and the Imbabura Province in general from everywhere else we've been in Ecuador is the number of available properties in secure settings with gorgeous views, huge yards, infrastructure, and quality construction for nominal cost. There again, if you like the nightlife, this place isn't for you. We decided that while we were there we would allow ourselves the notion that two country people like ourselves are really meant to be living in a setting where the biggest event of the week might be Pedro's errant cow running loose in the street! I could help Pedro rope that vaca and become a local gringo legend. We've been in Cuenca for months where culture, music, fine dining, history, and colonial architecture pulse through the city like the Tomebamba and we simply don't use it. We ride our bikes, but it's with the understanding that we must be on high alert or perish. As we sat on the bench in the quiet little park in Cotacachi with the warm Imbabura sun drenching us we took pause, looked at each other, and with a knowing look submitted to each other what was already in our heads and hearts. This was home.