The Gringo

Trail Revisited

By Carol Antman

Cuicocha caldera and lake in Ecuador

This is a moment when you really love traveling,” Alberto mused in his tentative English. Cuddled next to him and Lluïsa in our own double hammock, my husband Mark agreed, “It’s the ultimate.” Never mind that the dugout was loaded to the gills with gasoline barrels and onions, there was no food for the four-day journey down the Amazon River and (we discovered as the crew bribed their way through checkpoints) we were smuggling contraband. Hitching a ride was the only way to go in 1976.

It was all part of a rich diet of exhilaration and adventure that nourished me during the year my husband and I spent hitchhiking from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego. Reading my journal 40 years later, I wondered if I was the same fearless traveler and what South America would look like now. So I traded summer heat for a month in the crisp Ecuadorian Andes and got back on the Gringo Trail.

My letters home in the ’70s had omitted episodes of police shake-downs, robbery and a coup. This year, I ignored my fearful friends and trekked secluded trails, hitchhiked, went to remote towns and ate street food with the still intrepid Lluïsa who joined me from Catalonia. Locals greeted us as we strolled. Even children. Diners leaving restaurants routinely wished us “buen provecho” (enjoy your meal). In Baños, the hedonistic tubs were as we remembered: steaming concrete pools of green water nestled under waterfalls. Circles of flabby men in black bathing caps looked like a minyan. Quechua-speaking children splashed as their colorfully dressed, Derby-hatted mothers looked on. I chatted in Spanish with curious Ecuadorians who were interested to meet a North American (“Do you like Trump?”), a Jew (“Is that a kind of Catholic?”) or women traveling alone (“Where are your husbands?”). We cranked up our headphones to block out the terribly violent movies on board and rode busses to sprawling markets where we were the only tourists. On the vastly improved roads, canyons and peaks reeled by set to a rock ‘n’ roll playlist.

As a 25 year old, I was surprised that our crazy idea to sell everything, quit our jobs and travel as a lifestyle was actually shared by a whole subculture of people. I named them the Society of Travelers and wrote about “…an invitation to its weekly meeting at the Otavalo market with a hamburguesa eating contest to follow…and prizes awarded for the lowest price paid for a poncho, having the worst diarrhea, buying the fewest souvenirs and the most harrowing Colombian horror story.” We earned cache by winning that round since our backpacks had been stolen in Colombia. Lluïsa and I had stayed quite comfortably at the Posada del Arte for $30 but for Mark’s week with me, he wanted to know, “What can we get for $100?” Casa Mojanda is the Andean luxury we’d only glimpsed from the outside previously. The Society of Travelers meets there too. Over chicken with tomate de arbol sauce, the meeting commenced with bragging about who had the most gigabytes of Galapagos photos, the most expensive poncho and had covered the most destinations in two weeks. Our Colombia misadventure still earned cache.

The artisan market in Otavalo, Ecuador

View of Cotacachi’s church and volcano

Indicative of the world’s startling connectivity, I booked a home stay with a Quechua family through Airbnb. Loma Wasi is a farm in a brick-making community an hour’s walk from Cotacachi. When I arrived, Diana was grinding roasted pumpkin seeds with a mortar and pestle to make a sauce for the purple potatoes she was cooking for me and the four other guests. Goats, cows and pigs cavorted in the garden. Mercedes, the matriarch, was building a fire to cook tortillas. “What animals do you have?” she asked after discovering that we were the same age and both had grandchildren. She was bewildered when I said “None!” Mario, the patriarch, regaled us with stories of using guinea pigs in shamanic curing ceremonies. After breakfast, he took us up the hill to see Cotacachi Volcano’s snow-capped peak. People say that means the mountain had sex with Imbabura Volcano. We were bursting with mutual curiosity. When I initiated a pre-dinner dance session to “Uptown Funk”, Diana actually videotaped it and showed it to the neighbors.

I was happy to see that the beauty and authenticity of Ecuador was still intact. And I was still up for the challenge. When I was 25, we returned to the States road-weary and broke; but also, as I reclaimed this year, feeling brave and filled with wonder.

The Gringo