Wednesday, July 06, 2016

(Part One) Trip Of A Lifetime: South America On A Dime . . . No, Make That A Nickel!

We (Catbird, Tom, Mac, Dr. Duck, Fred Muller and I) started out from Medford Farm, the place where the local cool crowd — known as hippies to mainstream America — came to party.  We stopped in Newark to pick up Simon  and another fellow whose name I cannot recall.  Oh, by the way, we had 20 gas cans tied to the roof of my Chevy wagon because we could only buy gas every other day.  It was January 1973 and the first gas freakout was just starting.  
I had bought the old Chevy off of Fred for $100.  She ran pretty good, and other than hauling seven hippies, three backpacks and assorted other gear, was fairly comfortable.  I don’t recall the ride down being eventful, but the wait at the Miami Airport for the Ecuadorian Airlines flight that Mac, Simon and I would take on the first leg of our journey to South America and eventually on to Machu Picchu was lengthy.  We finally boarded a prop plane for a 12-hour hop
to Panama City.  I remember that one of the stewardesses was 50 and heavy and the other was 25 and beautiful. 
We arrived in Panama City, which is on the Pacific Ocean, tired but proud, and decided that a cross-country train trip to Colon on the Atlantic side, which is actually west of Panama City because of the weird topography of the isthmus, was the ticket.  Colon is the most aptly named city we visited, and I unaffectionately called it Lower Colon.  Rough, thrown together thatched huts, mostly connected, with dark, forbidding alleys running throughout. 
When we tried to purchase some local herb (the famous Panama Red), we were greeted by machete-wielding toughs.  (Really.)  After forking over $30-$40 American we eventually got $10 worth of quite tasty "red."  Enough of Lower Colon! 
We headed back to Panama City and our air connection to Ecuador.  We were in another prop plane, this one with limited power, and I remember coming almost straight down into Quito, directly on the Equator and roughly at 10,000 feet in elevation.  
I caught up on some sleep while Mac and Simon went to the Equator.  I was sorry to have missed this most amazing part of the trip. (!!!)  With a good rest and most of a country to explore, we started out for Cuenca, a mountain city and center for ancient Incan history.  This was also the town  where father Crespi resided, the parish priest with the ancient relics who was mentioned in Eric von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods 
We arrived in Cuenca (elevation 8,400 feet) after the first of many long bus rides.  Mac and Simon sat together on these tiny little buses, while I usually sat with the smallest person traveling — usually elderly Indian women.  One trick I learned is if the bus wasn't totally full, which was seldom, I could put our borrowed, expensive 35mm camera and case on my chest, wrap my arms around them, and often get to sit by myself.  This was about the time I decided to start growing a beard back because of the lack of agua caliente.  To this day, I still have a full beard! 

We started our exploration of Cuenca without much of a plan and basically just wandered the streets.  I thought I would show off my great innate sense of direction and started noting the turns into different streets.  After the second Primaria and the second Secundaria, I realized these weren’t street names but rather the designation of primary and secondary streets.  Duh! 
We worked our way to the University of Cuenca where we met a slight and attractive young lady from Oregon who was teaching English at old U of C.  I can’t remember her name or the name of one of her students who had been an altar boy for the famous Father Crespi.  With that contact we met the good father himself at his parish church.  Simon remarked that he smelled like he hadn't bathed since he took his vows and that perhaps he had sworn to poverty, chastity and stinkiness. 
But what a surprise awaited us!  
We tried to overcome the language barrier, and with the help of the English teacher, her student and Father Crespi’s equal-parts Italian (born there), English (unbelievably, he had served in Chicago in the 1920s and early 30s) and Spanish (he had been in South America for 20 years) we related that we were interested in seeing the artifacts he had procured from the local Indians.  These Indians still guarded the ancient burial caves and would make gold and silver offerings to the Catholic Church when they were converted.  We were shown some of these piece by piece and had no idea how extensive the collection was.  Father Crespi kept disappearing into a storeroom and bring something to the door to show us.  
What broke the ice was Father Crespi rolling out an iron-nickel meteorite inset with a giant ruby.  I used my pidgin
Spanish — I think I said "uno momento, uno momento" — and reached down and picked up the meteorite (maybe 100~120 pounds) and put it out in the sunlight where we could take good pictures of it.  This impressed the good father and he came over and felt my arm muscles when I returned the meteorite to the courtyard.  We were now invited into Father Crespi's inner sanctum.  It was amazing!  Life-sized gold and silver boats -- really.  Armbands, shields, headdresses, etc.  Awe inspiring to be sure, but what got me the most was a machined, cam-like ultralight piece of metal that was totally incongruous with all the other artifacts.  Go figure.   
This was about a year after I read von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods.   He now trusted us and we were ushered over to a large drafting table covered with hundreds of loose gemstones, which he let us pick up and examine.  
Back on the streets of Cuenca, I became the largest Pied Piper ever seen in those parts.  At one point, I stopped suddenly and the first in line of the niños pequeños dogging my heels bumped into me.  I reached down, grabbed him and threw him over my head with one arm and shook him.  I put him down and he went squealing over to the rest of the pack, which soon lined up and wanted the same treatment.  I obliged, lifting the smallest boys two at a time, and quickly made eight little Ecuadorian friends.  
I have little recollection of the rest of our time in Cuenca.  A party.  A side trip to a mountain village where I ought a llama wool sweater for $7.  My bargaining chip was that they would never see another person come through their village as big as I was.  The merchant laughed and said that I was definitely right.  
An interesting sidelight to our Cuenca trip: When we got back to the States and had our film developed, we were surprised to find photos of our hotel boys posing in our oversized backpacks.  At least the little rascals didn’t steal our camera.  
From Cuenca, we went back to Quito, and from there to the port city of Guayaquil to Lima.  From Guayaquil to Lima was straight down the Pacific coastline.  An archaeologist pointed out the ruins of old civilizations and a now defunct canal system.  Once in Lima, we hung around the Plaza des Armes — the main square in this large capital city.  Prominent were the armed soldiers posted everywhere.  Peru was obviously in a heightened state of awareness, and three weeks after we got back to the States, the government was overthrown.  

We left Lima by train on a journey that eventually would take us to Machu Picchu and points east, and immediately started the long climb up the Andes, the second highest mountain range in the world. 
The grade was pretty steep and included many switchbacks, which slowed our ascent to a 20 ~ 30 miles per hour crawl.  I went to a window on the train and watched the slowly changing landscape, then turned away and noticed that a pretty little Indian girl with a big smile on her face was sitting next to me.  She spoke no English and I only a little Spanish.  
In an attempt to communicate, I pointed out the window and said "cactus," to which she replied, el spina.  This opened things up and we enlarged each others' vocabulary and friendliness to each other appreciatively.  
After a half hour or so, she went back to her mother and grandmother and I to my traveling companions — Simon, Mac and three or four Frenchmen we had met in Lima.  
A few minutes later, the pretty little Indian girl returned, blushed and handed me a short letter — in Spanish.  I couldn’t make it out, so I gave it to one of the Frenchmen, who spoke five or six languages.  He read it and started laughing.  It seems that the pretty little Indian girl wanted to go back to America with me and have my babies!  She was so sweet, and I didn’t want to be mean to her, so I told her that I'd see her on my next trip to Peru.  I hope she had a nice life.  
Climbing ever higher, we continued on to Huancayo where we switched to buses.  I mean bare minimum buses — small seats and full capacity, including live chickens on the roof.  Somewhere on our long, two- to three-day bus rides we crossed the Continental Divide and drove into the humid, Amazon basin side of the Andes where the coca leaf grows.
We, of course, were curious to see what chewing coca leaves was like and stopped at the first bodega in the first village where we saw leaves.  This tiny one-room store had five or six loaves of crusty bread, a few small tins of dried beans and a half a freezer box full of coca leaves.  I wonder what their primary business was?   
I asked the elderly, nearly toothless couple running the store, "Quanto?" (How much?) 
They gave me the price per kilo.  No, not a kilo, I said, "En toto."  They laughed at the gringo loco. 
We bought a half kilo and some lime, which is necessary to release the alkaloids, to try to learn why the natives could eat little food and never seemed tired.  The effect was pleasant but not overwhelming.  Chewing leaves eased the altitude sickness and stemmed the appetite, but there was no rush as with refined cocaine.
We continued south.  I usually sat with one of the older, smaller Indian women while Simon and Mac squeezed into the school bus-sized seats.  At one point, I sat up front behind the driver and tried to keep talking to him because he kept falling asleep, which was disconcerting on a road with no guardrails and 2,000-foot dropoffs.  At another point, the headlights went out and he used my Barlow penknife to splice some wires.  
I eventually fell asleep and suddenly awoke to a stopped bus, with buses stopped ahead of us and behind.  There were only four or five people still on our bus.    
I stepped down from the bus and took in the scene: About 60 yards of mountain had dislodged in the wet weather and slid across the road, blocking it.  In the debris were some very big rocks, some three to four feet around.  Ten or so men were down in the mud trying to move these rocks, but other than Mac, who was a comparatively hefty 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, they averaged about five-foot-six and 140 pounds and weren't getting anywhere.  
Simon was standing atop a large rock directing the operation, and when my oversized 6-foot-1, 270 pound self emerged from around a bus, he pointed to me and shouted, "El Grande!," which was greeted with a chorus of oles from the hundreds of colorfully-clad natives.  I seized the moment, took off my jacket, handed my wallet up to Simon, and jumped into the mud.  
After much effort, we were able to roll the rocks off the road, and one by one, they went crashing down into the rain-swollen and raging Ururamba River.  
Then the real fun began. 
A rope about 150 feet long was attached to the back of the lead bus and then to a tandem of buses behind it.  The bravest (or most foolhardy) of the drivers got into the lead bus and started across the mud-filled stretch of road.  He somehow kept the bus from sliding into the Ururamba and then went back and drove the next bus through the mud.  With each succeeding bus, more and more of the mud was pushed over and the road became a little more passable.  
As a reward for our efforts, the passengers bought us the best at each subsequent stop — chicken soup with the feet still in it.
Tomorrow: On To Machu Picchu

1 comment:

Red said...

"If you’re looking for the world’s best place to retire on a budget, Cuenca should be at the top of your list" ... Kathleen Peddicord, Huffington Post. While being mere miles from the Equator, it is perpetual Spring year round.