Leslie lives in St. Louis. I never thought much of the city. It's in a part of the country I typically pass through at 2 in the morning. But it happens to have a 13-story playground made of old aircraft, schoolbuses and dinosaurs. And a farmer's market that sells 7 plums for a dollar. And nearby is a climbing gym built from five grain silos that they cover in ice in the winter to make 150ft-high ice climbing routes.
Leslie plans to join the Peace Corps in September, most likely working on a healthcare project somewhere like Peru, or Mali, or Laos. I traveled to Peru and Laos many years ago, but I didn't meet her in either of these places. It wouldn't really have made sense for me to meet her years ago in a place she would only possibly go nine months in the future. Nor did I meet her in St. Louis. My first real meaningful encounter with her was standing on my head in a small town in West Virginia.
I had just spent some time watching a pickup truck with a dumpster in the back circle the neighborhood picking up trash. I lied just a second ago when I said I was standing on my head. Emily was standing on her head. I think Tomas was as well. I was only attempting to stand on my head and was failing at it quite terrifically. Leslie couldn't stand on her head either. And she had spent some time in Ethiopia. We had quite a lot in common.
So three months later, we bought two tickets to Ecuador. Neither of us knew the first thing about Ecuador. I had heard Bolivia was better. The cheap tickets to Bolivia had sold out the day before.
Official tags? Check. Door handles? Check. Despite underbidding every other cabbie's lowest offer by 50%, this guy seemed legit. We weren't sure if there would be a bus waiting for us at the southern terminal. It would be safer and cheaper to sleep at the airport til 6 in the morning and pay a quarter to take the trolley down in the daylight. But this would turn out to be the best $4 I ever spent.
I was prepared for a kidnapping, so there was a moment of apprehension when the driver pulled on to the main road going north, but in the first few hundred feet, he yanked the wheel abruptly to the left, jumped the curve, straightened into the middle lane, and accelerated to 90kmph.
Not for a second did he slow as he rose over the steep hills, rounded the abrupt curves, and dove into the narrow tunnels that snaked through Quito's quaint old town. Halfway through an intersection, he swung through a space in the ridges demarcating the bus-only lane and bam!, we were now a trolley. Red lights don't apply to trolleys so we proceeded to drive straight through about 15 of them, never slowing enough to give so much as a nod to oncoming traffic.
The book's predicted times for getting to the terminal were two hours by bus and 50 minutes by taxi. We made it in 12.
The apocalypse had come a few days early to Banos. We stepped off the bus to find the town painted in a pale grey. Children and adults alike walked the streets in surgical masks in defense against some invisible threat. On every corner, brooms worked fastiduously to sweep up the layers of dust that blanketed the streets. Was this the detritus of victims of a deadly air-borne disease that had slowly disintegrated, their family and friends unable to offer any response to their enfeebled cries?
Had it not been for Leslie, I might have spent my whole time in Banos believing I was in mortal danger of becoming the next hapless victim of a horrible epidemic, but with her amazing ability to converse with people, in spite of the absence of English speakers , the mystery was unraveled in a matter of minutes. Banos was at the base of an active volcano and, as luck would have it, we had arrived the day after the biggest eruption in the last 7 years. Our hotel, Hostal Erupcion, issued us masks alongside the normal assortment of soaps, shampoos and towels.
The weather forecast had called for a 60% chance of rain for the first ten days of our trip, and so, each time a mighty rumble echoed across the sky, shaking the ground under our feet, we assumed it to portend an oncoming storm. But each time it was only the volcano, venting some of its pent-up fury. The locals said this was a good thing - as long as it kept up these regular releases, there was little risk of a catastrophic explosion.
We rented a pair of front-suspension mountain bikes with disc brakes for $5/day and began the fully paved Ruta de las Cascadas towards Puyo. The big appeal of this route was that it was almost entirely downhill. The waterfalls were a nice bonus.
There were two ways to access the first of the waterfalls. For $1.50, you could take a cable car that soared high above the top of the falls. For $10 you could take a zipline that flung you at 20mph over the immense canyon and deposited you on the opposite side. An undocumented third option was to take a sketchy, unmaintained trail to the base of the falls.
Naturally, we opted for the latter and bushwacked through hosts of stinging plants, down a steep, dusty slope, occasionally assisted by threadbare ropes and rusting ladders, to the floor of the canyon. Leaping from boulder to boulder, we finally reached the secluded pool at the base of the falls and stripped down to enjoy the infinitely refreshing waters within. But when we drew close, we quickly recoiled at the stench of manure and garbage that rose up from the immensely polluted stream.
We returned to the road and continued eastward to find many more waterfalls, ziplines, bridge swings, and swimming holes. After 30km, we threw our thumbs up and the first truck stopped and picked us up. The driver grabbed a couple giant jungle pea pods from a roadside vendor and we all enjoyed the delicious sweet fruits within.
We arrived in Mindo around noon and went straight to the nearest tourist office to inquire about tubing. It turned out there was a tubing trip leaving in 10 minutes and they would pick us up from our hostel. No matter that we did not yet have a hostel – we gave the woman a name from our guidebook and raced across town to see about getting a room. The hostel was a wooden shack on the edge of town, eagerly encroached upon on three sides by the verdant, boisterous jungle. We changed into our swimsuits and, moments later, a pickup appeared at our doorstep. We jumped in the back and sped down a bumpy mud road to the outfitter, brightly-colored birds flitting out of our way as we bounced along the riverbank. At the rafting shop, our truck was outfitted with life vests, helmets, and an amazing contraption composed of seven truck tire tubes tied together in a hexagonal pattern. Along with a random Ecuadorian family, we geared up and jumped in the frigid river and planted our butts in the tube junctions and our feet on the walls.
It takes a decent amount of skill and practice to guide a proper whitewater raft down a river, but the technique employed by our guide on this floating rubber honeycomb was a veritable work of art. As we bumped, bounced and squeezed down the shallow, boulder-strewn rapids, the guide effortlessly shifted his weight to and fro, dancing across the tubes, flinging his body over us in graceful arcs and spins. He would pop on and off of the raft, pulling and pushing as he did so, perfectly timing each move to insure that we made it through each of a thousand different rapids with zero effort on our part. He had memorized an intricate 45-minute-long ballet, or perhaps he had learned to read a rapid in an instant and, without a moment to think, translate it to the perfect sequence of moves that would guide his craft safely through.
Just as we were nearing our cold tolerance threshold, the ride ended. We pulled over to the side of the river, stripped off our safety gear, bid farewell to the family and our dancer guide, and jumped into the back of the waiting pickup. As soon as we were onboard, the truck zipped back to our hostel, depositing us a mere hour after we had left.
We stood there dazed, in the exact same position we had been just a short time before, unsure of what to do next. Had it really happened? Or was it just a crazy daydream? My still ice-cold posterior would vote for the former. We pondered this for a moment, shrugged it off, and promptly set off to figure out the ziplining tour. Mindo was a surreal place indeed.