Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Land of Eternal Youth

I meet Isaac on the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba, the day before yesterday. He was on the five-hour ride from Cuenca to Loja, too, but we left so early that everyone dozed for the first half of the ride, and watched the featured film, ‘Big Momma,’ for the second half. Still, I eyed Isaac, wondering where he was from, guessing that he was American when he pulled out a thick book with reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle on the back. I didn’t catch the title—he read it for only a moment before tipping his head back and closing his eyes. And so I watched ‘Big Momma’ in Spanish, and I was glad that for once they weren’t playing some gory Italian film, which always fills the bus with sounds of shooting and crying.

Isaac sees me take out my Lonely Planet while we wait for the Vilcabamba bus to leave. The thing weighs a ton, and hasn’t helped me much; still, it's something to look at. Vilcabamba is famous for its residents who just don’t seem to kick the bucket, I read, and then I hear Isaac’s voice. “If you have any questions about Vilcabamba, let me know,” he is saying, leaning across his seat to talk to me. The two young women behind us, both with low-cut shirts and babies on their laps, watch us attentively. “I lived there for a year,” he adds.

Isaac has curly curly hair and wears glasses; definitley Jewish, I remember thinking, maybe unfairly, but turns out he is. I tell him I’d love a hotel recommendation; Isaac knows plenty. As the bus pulls out of the station, I move to the seat beside him, and for the whole ride we talk. He’s a talker. He tells me he taught English in this valley for a year, and it’s been four since he’s returned. He can’t wait, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He points out the little towns that, for some reason, never got famous like Vilcabamba did, even though, he says, they’re just as beautiful. He points out the village with the pretty blue church, and the valley that’s sprung up with houses since he was last hear. And as we reach our destination, he claps his hands. “I love it here,” he admits, unnecessarily.

The hostel Isaac recommends is superb, the cottages designed around a garden. “Anything grows here,” he tells me, and this hostel makes that obvious. They’ve got vegetables, clover instead of grass, and vines of golden trumpets climbing the clay walls. The short Ecuadorian man who answers the door shows me a room with whitewashed walls and a high, angled ceiling, two beds with thick mattresses. “Eleven dollars per night,” he tells me when I ask the price. And then he hastens to add: “including breakfast.”

The Mexican restaurant Isaac tells me to visit is also excellent. I am starving. “I haven’t eaten in days,” I tell Isaac. I admit that the week has been a rough one: a dead man, a car chase, and a bumpy ride out of my relationship stole my appetite. The waitress at the Mexican place serves me sliced chicken, big brown beans, warm tortillas, and a pile of guacamole. That dish, and a cup of strong coffee, cost four dollars. As I sit out on the restaurant’s patio, I watch Isaac climb into a pickup, the vehicle owned by his host father from four years ago. And as he drives out of the main square, perched in the truck’s bed, he catches my eye and flashes a peace sign.


Isaac calls me to hike the next morning. He’s got a few spare hours before he needs to meet another family he lived with, and so we meet at a tiny tienda up the hill from my hostel and walk down the paved road that quickly turns to dirt. This landscape is incredible; the frequent, steep hills form jungled valleys, and a river runs along the road. We pass a house with animal skins tacked to the outside walls; we pass a group of men laying cement for a new house. Isaac notes that many homes have gone up since he was last here. “The gringos love this place,” he says. “For twenty thousand, they can buy a nice piece of land, and for another fifty, they can build their dream house.” He points to the line of homes with red roofs that have gone up on the adjacent hill. Stone gates keep intruders out.

He tells me about the hippies, too, the way they flock from the States and Argentina and Europe to buy up land where they can grow whatever they want. “It’s easy to live off the map,” Isaac says. “But there are a lot of crazies out here, guys who come and live as hermits, or go into the town square to get drunk every day before lunch.” Still, he loves the place; every man who passes us, Isaac knows. His Spanish is still good after four years in Berkeley, and he chats with men who carry machetes strapped to their hips and wear dusty rubber boots. “Sorry,” he apologizes after each eager, lengthy conversation, but I know he really isn’t. He beams.

We climb up out of the valley and traverse the ridge, and you can see that the hills around us have been stripped bare long ago. We can look down to where the river divides the land and see that houses have sprung up, and fresh roads. “Those weren’t there before,” Isaac says many times. He talks steadily as we walk, keeping me entertained, stopping periodically to look around, his hand shading his eyes. “God,” he keeps saying. “Vilcabamba.” We pass an old man with a long, white beard and round spectacles, and his wizened, gray-haired, feisty-looking wife. They’re hiking to visit a friend, they tell us in Spanish, even though their accents beneath are American. We pass a hippie girl with rosaries around her neck and no bra who asks us about the purple flowers we keep passing. We pass two men who are cutting the brush on the sides of the hill with machetes—food for the cows, Isaac says. He cheerily greets them: “How’s it going?” He asks. “Working,” the men grumble, without looking up.

We never end up finding the waterfall Isaac was sure existed down in one of the valleys, but we stumble along the rocky river, stopping once to sit and eat cookies. We get lost, but not very, and eventually clouds come and fill the blue, blue sky. We pass a tree with wide, flat leaves the colors of white stones; “They look like mirrors from far away,” Isaac says. We see birds—little yellow ones, iridescent blue ones, once a toucan sitting perfectly still in a tree, its beak long and curved. It doesn’t stir when we call to it, clap at it, and I wonder aloud whether it’s sleeping. On our walk back towards the village, we pass the same men, hacking at the hillside brush. An orange-brown mutt sits perched above them, looking down, and this time Isaac doesn’t say a word.


You can see why the hippies come. You can see why the old people hold on to their years, and why these little hotels spring up and fill every season. In Cuenca, it rained, and Loja was gray, but nestled in this valley, Vilcabamba boasts an eternal summer. I didn’t imagine rain, hot as the afternoon was, the sun beating down without making shadows, but this afternoon clouds came and spilled over us and then broke open and it poured. The smell of the earth rose up right away as the rain gained strength and then turned to chips of hail. But even as the sky above me darkened, blue sky clung on in the distance. The rain is still falling now, cooling the air and bringing to life all the plants around here that today’s sun dried. And yet the clouds are softening, lightening, and I know that in a moment they’ll turn pink. I’ll sleep one more night in my soft Vilcabamba bed, where outside my window emerald clover grows thick. And then someone else will come, and sleep in this bed, and walk the Vilcabamba mountains to be amazed.

On the Road to Patagonia, one River at a Time

Dear ones, 

I've taken a little hiatus from writing, at least for this blog, but I promise to continue, well, eventually. IN the meantime, here are some silly little pictures to make you miss me. I am writing from the lush village of Vilcabamba, one hour south of Loja and six hours from Cuenca. I came down here for some R&R before venturing into Peru tomorrow morning. Vilcabamba is known for the so-called magical qualities of its water, which irrigate this lovely place so that its inhabitants may grow any manner of crops. It also attracts any number of blond, dreadlocked hippies with blonde, free-looking children who flit barefoot in the town's adorable square. So many hippies! So much broken Spanish! Admittedly adorable nevertheless.

And, the people who live here (supposedly) get to be 120 or 130 years old. I suggest that perhaps they don't know their own birthdays. Isaac, my new friend here, suggests that the people eat organic, simple food, drink clean water, hike all the time to their huts and their friends' huts and their jobs, and don't know their own birthdays. In any case, I've passed a number of viejos, and I always want to ask them their age. I refrain.

So, yesterday Isaac took me up into the hills, in search of a waterfall. We never did find the waterfall....unless, by waterfall, the people mean a pitiful trickle on a hillside that flows into the larger river of Eternal Life. So, don't worry, we never met the grand cascada face to face, but Isaac did make me ford this rushing river twice. I got soaked! It was scary! Here are the pictures to prove it. Thanks for a lovely time of it, Isaac!


Isn't Isaac nice you guys? He kindly documented my treacherous passage. 

Missing you all. Besitos! Kate

Monday, June 27, 2011

And what do we have here?

Ummmm....what is this? Who are they? Seems that in 2009, two Brits ALSO decided to follow Paul Theroux through Latin America. Okay, so they only saw Nicaragua through Peru. But still! How original I thought I was! How naive I turn out to be! Well, props to you, Matthew Barker, and your admittedly cute girlfriend. And thanks for the insight.

Read Mr. Barker's observations, here:


A Sienna Down South

You all must meet my new friends Jim and Ji from Canada. They have far more balls than I do...guess why? Oh, they just quit their jobs in Canada and DROVE all the way from Toronto to here. They put their car on a ferry from Panama to Colombia.

Love it!!!


Saturday, June 25, 2011


For Carlos

Carlos was right about Cuenca. You’ll find what you need there, he told me, when I complained to him about how stagnant I felt in Quito. I’m not writing anything, I told him, anything good, anyway, and he told me, just wait. Wait for the river at nighttime, the glittering lights that run all up and down it. Wait for the hippies, with their jewelry on the steps that lead to the river; wait for the flowers that twist around buildings. A smile played on Carlos’ lips as he sipped his wine and looked out on the gray clouds that lay over Quito’s ugly apartment buildings. You’ll love it there, he said, and closed his eyes.

But I didn’t expect to, not after these last few weeks. I didn’t expect to be able to see past my own two hands, past the tears I figured I’d always find in my eyes, past the loneliness that I’d prepared myself to withstand. I’d be lying if I said that June hasn’t chipped away at my heart. My relationship shifted overnight, it seemed like, then slid out beneath me altogether, and meanwhile I flew back and forth to New Mexico for a wedding in the course of five days. I visited a Target megastore there, and a little stand of cottonwoods, and the tops of the Sandia Mountains. It was all just so much, you know? Then: a midnight arrival in Quito, a ten-hour night bus to Cuenca, and I discover, gradually, that freedom can bring you to life. I ride across countries, over water, and no one knows my name. It can be so sweet, you know? Being alone.

And here, here, in this beautiful city that Carlos loved, I let the air fill me. The ornate buildings, the cobblestone streets, the huge, white churches lift me up. I make sure that the conversations I have with other lone travelers, or the man who owns this hotel, or the friend I call late in the evening, are enough. And in the spaces without words, without my laptop and a cup of coffee in a churchside café (it’s just the one Carlos predicted I’d find), I stroll up and down the streets beneath a constantly shifting sky.

I didn’t expect it, but I find, in this city, my favorite place so far. I find a place I think I could live, a place to which I know I’ll return. I find four-story buildings with delicate molding built on the sides of steep hills, and I find the muddy river, churning and grass-lined and lit up at night. I find little cobblestone paths that lead to crumbling galleries, and everywhere there are the churches, this one blue, this one white, the one at the top of the hill a rich gold. I find a bakery-tienda crammed with raisin-rolls and stacked bottles of ginger ale and the scent of cheese empanadas. The owners live upstairs and look down at me by glancing up at the mirror they’ve tacked to the ceiling. I find, one day, a dead man on the street, the rain soaking him, and then they take him away and the sun comes out and the city turns and continues. That day, I feel the most grateful, the richest in my freedom and family both.

This week is Septenario, a seven-day festival to mark the solstice. Like so many festivals down here, it’s a blend of indigenous and Catholic history both, and each morning, families arrive with trucks full of two dozen kinds of sweets. Cookies, chocolate marshmallows, biscotti, jelly candy; they set it all up in piles beneath white tents that surround the churches. They will do this each day until Septenario ends, and in the nighttime you can hear sporadic fireworks until morning.


I wait in the park, alone. No book, no friend, no phone—just the clouds that darken one half of the sky. I watch the tiles on the roof of the whitewashed building in front of me: some are amber, some are copper, some are dusted with yellow, and some are bleached white. The tiled roof sits beneath the blue half of the sky, and I think that I’ll remember these clear colors forever. I let Cuenca soothe me, let the steady murmur of it loosen my mind, let the river that leads to the mountains and the fruit for sale on the sidewalk remind me of my exquisite freedom. My thoughts run rich beneath the half-and-half sky, and I don’t feel like crying here, after all.

Esta historia está dedicada a ti, y yo quisiera traducirlo, pero ahora no puedo. Quizás mas tarde hoy, o mañana, pero probablemente tu no vas a ver esta historia en español hasta yo publico mi libro y después traduzcolo en español. Entonces, quizás puedes entender un poquito…y si no, hasta ny, cuando podremos hablarnos en ingles. Gracias por tu consejo…tenias razon...Cuenca, me encanta. No quiero salir; quisiera regresar y comprar una casa, tal vez...un día, y hasta entonces volveré a Cuenca en mi mente.

Discúlpame por mi español. Todavia es tan mala...te extraño; necesito mi amigo ecuatoriano, para practicar español…y tantas cosas mas. Espero que todo este bien con tu familia, tu vida en Venezuela…gracias por todo, mi amigo. Un beso…Katy 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tears...of joy

Ok, I know I'm spending a little too much time online tonight. I swear I'm going to put down the box of wine and go out and enjoy Cuenca's Septenario scene real soon...


Gay marriage is legal in NYS! My home state!

Read more here:



In tears.


Beautiful Regina Respects the Now

Are these even real? How lucky you are, to have seen such beauty.

And...love it!!! (Rachael's going to be mad at the last one.....)

And my friend Brook also contributes to the Respect the Now cause....she sent me a bunch of pictures, and I can't fit them all, so I picked my favorites. Her photos include a shot of Whiteface Mountain....I miss you Whitey!!! And some lovely pictures of her family and dear Miss Holly Marina.

We continue to respect the now....

Okay, here's my (slightly buzzin') contribution. I chose pictures that mark moments 
when I felt beyond happy.

I still can't get that man on the street out of my mind, you know?

Feel free to send me yours. Sometimes life can suck so bad, but really, 
how sweet it is.

Respecting the Now...continued

In the spirit of respecting the now, my dear friend Sam has sent me some photos she'd like to contribute to the cause. After a few glasses of wine and a lengthy conversation with my new French friend Raul, I'm all in the mood for living in the present and sharing these snapshots with you all. Because, don't forget: nothing matters more than this moment.

May we raise our glasses to the beloved seconds that make up a life. Missing you all - xoxo

Respect the Now

Thanks Regina's dad! (As the self-proclaimed luckiest man on earth, he appreciates the little things).

And thanks for getting me out of that ditch that one time! Missing you and home and your advice.