See now, it’s things like this that make me afraid of travel.
We’ve got it so lucky in England, we must have the least frightening insect life on the planet – lets face it, some of the spiders are big and scary, but nothing compared to this beastie.
Take a look at the rest of what he has on show – I can’t wait to read about it when he finally gets around to writing the trip up.
Here’s an email I recieved from him at the start of his trip this time (for those of you who’ve been around awhile, Sean is the filthy housemate mentioned in many of my posts)
A quick note before I go onto the trip out to Bilsa – My usual day in Quito goes something like this:
Get up in the morning, shower and head out to find some breakfast. More often than not this ends up being breakfast at a place called the Magic Bean, which has great coffee and overpriced pancakes.
After that I tend to go track down an internet cafe as this is usually around eleven or so in the morning, early evening in the UK so there’s usually people on. I check e-mails, check news, check pretty much everything I can to waste some time. I’ll talk to people over MSN for a while and drink more coffee.
Once it gets to about midday, sometime past that I’ll go hunt down some lunch (which changes on a daily basis as there’s an unlimited variety of food to eat around here. The only problem is the gringo prices. There are plenty of places that I go to from time to time with the intent of being frugal that serve meals of cheese/chicken soup followed by a plate of plantaines, rice and beef/chicken/vegetables. It’s more than enough to keep a person fed and only runs at about a dollar for the whole thing, including a glass of fresh juice) and then walk around the city.When I first got here I walked for miles every day, as far as I could in one direction then as far as I could in another direction, then turn around and come home. Frequently it was beginning to get dark as I got back, so I’d either get dinner or check e-mail again (but never the both together) and head over to the Reina Victoria.
The Reina Victoria is a small pub near the outskirts of Gringoland run by an Australian (who I’ve never seen) and Dorothy, from Chicago (who is there every night chatting quite happily to the clientele). Sean, the usual barman, is from Dover and I get to chat to him quite a bit. He’s what could be referred to as a thouraghly decent bloke, though he is slowly beginning to show weariness at having to live in this city.
Chad and Luis are the two ‘waiters’ I see most often there, although there are five who rotate shifts. Chad’s probably the most laid back person I’ve ever met. He’s normally a ski-instructor in Colorado but his girlfriend is teaching in a school here so he’s here for as long as it takes for them to move on. Luis I know little about other than he’s an Ecuadorian working in the Reina to pay his way through school. He’s usuallly a decent guy although he has less to say for himself, probably the result of being in a bar where English is the preferred language. Anyway, this is the place I come to drink. There are a couple of pictures up in my Flickr page you can see and yes, it looks like the most stereotypical English pub in the world. I go there for two reasons – First, they have the best microbrewed stout in the world which is made by some guy down the street. It’s completely lacking foam but delicious stuff nontheless. The only problem is in the 7% alcohol content, which knocks you out slowly and painfully if you’re not careful.
The other reason is the interesting people I get to meet there. I’ve met old men from Yorkshire with a penchant for getting several hookers at once, taking them for a drink in the pub then heading home with them.
Alledgedly he’s here to write a book about the history of genetic reserarch but I’ve never seem any evidence of this barring a few drunken ramblings about how women from Aberdeen have been genetically proven to be the ugliest women in the whole of the British isles.
The other night I met a guy writing a book about the 90’s being the beginning of cultural dissillusionment in England. He had his house in Birmingham blown down by the tornado last year and I became the youngest person he’s going to interview for the book. I’ve met journalists from New York, mobile phone software engineers from Sweden, archaeologists from Minnesota, teachers from all over working as English teachers here and an uncountable number of backpackers from the UK feeling homesick. Every night I go there I get involved in some several hour long conversation about something or other, which normally ends when Sean closes up the bar at midnight, usually giving us a free one for the road before he turns off the taps.
It was only after I came here back in January that I noticed the newsweek article outside the bar that lists the 22 best places to meet people in the world – of which the Reina Victoria is one. Figures.
Anyway, back to that point I was going to make. The night before I headed out to Bilsa was pretty rough. I was only going to have a beer or two in the Reina then go back to the hostel and get an early night (the bus is at eight in the morning and if I miss it there’s bugger all chance of me getting to Bilsa for another three days). Of course then, the Reina being what it is, I get caught up in a conversation about the merits of sports in Ecuador with the old man I mentioned earlier, Sean, Chad and Luis. It’s a friday night and Sean makes a passing remark to Chad early in the evening that he wouldn’t mind going out and getting “…totally rip-roaring drunk…”. At closing time I take out my wallet and pay the bill. Sean invites me along and I’m half pissed so stupidly I agree. The old guy drives us to a bar a few streets down that’ll serve us until three(sorry, I can’t for the life of me remember his name at the moment. It’ll come back to me later on) despite the fact that he’s obviously a bit worse the wear himself.
“Are you sure you want to be driving?” I ask.
“I’m still a better driver right now than the majority of these buggers on the roads in this city” he mutters with a broad Yorkshire accent. I’m actually in agreement with him.
We get to the bar and Sean gets the first round in, cold bottles of Pilsener. I’ve only ever seen Pilsener come in these massive 650ml bottles. I get the second round. I forget who got the third.
I woke up the next morning with a pounding bloody headache and – lacking a watch – turn on my ipod to see the time. It’s half seven. Oh, crap. I run like a mad bastard to pack up everything into my large backpack, packing only the really important stuff in my smaller one. I run downstairs (having paid my bill the night before, prior to leaving for the pub) and get a taxi on Amazonas. We get to the bus terminal maybe five minutes before it was planning to leave. I stick my larger bag into the the luggage compartment under the bus and climb aboard.
After the conductor collects the tickets and we collect a few more people on the way out of the city we’re finally along the long, winding streets with suicidal drivers that lead out of Quito. I sleep like a very ill baby. I wake up when we stop to get petrol just outside of Quininde, which is my destination. There’s not a cloud in the sky and the heat this low down and this far inland is so intense that I can only stand five minutes of it before I feel like my head is swelling and I need to go find a place to sit down in the shade. Thankfully, we’re not there for long and soon it’s back on the bus and into the city.
Quininde has nothing special about it whatsoever.
Seriously, nothing. It is a desperately poor place and serves as the closest place for people who live out in the countryside to pick up provisions. Aside from that it is never worth visiting unless you need to get somewhere else afterwards. Worse than Quito and hotter, too.
I ask the driver to drop me off at Cinco Esquinas (five corners – it gets its name from the fact that it’s a small junction with five roads leaving away from it. Bet you couldn’t have seen that coming, huh?) and walk to the Farmacia Barcia – still somewhat fresh in my memory from the first time I was out here. The Farmacia Barcia is a big pharmacy at one side of the road where all the flatback trucks going out to the countryside go from, by the way. Someone sees me and instantly recognises me as a volunteer.
“Bilsa?” he asks, pointing at me. “A la Ye?”.
“Uh… Si.” I say, still suspicious of anyone who wants me to get into their car or onto their truck unless I have some assurance of them telling the truth.
For lack of a better option, I load my bag onto the back of the flatback and wait about an hour and a half in the shade of a nearby store canopy for some kind of sign that the bus is going. People stop by every once in a while and talk to the driver, who wanders around the area not really doing anything in particular. They load things onto the back. Massive sacks of potatoes, rice, chickens… I’ve heard of goats on there but never seen one. An enormous drum of petrol is loaded onto the back as well.
This’ll be a fun trip, I think to myself. These people drive like total maniacs around the dirt roads in the countryside. This way if we crash we’re not all just going to be badly injured – we’ll probably explode as well. Well, if I had to choose a way to go at least this would be dramatic. Eventually the engine starts and people start piling on. I get shoved into a space right next to the petrol drum. Gringo luck. First I count eighteen people packed onto the back with all the bags, food and the drum. Then we set off up the road. I put on my hat to shield from the sun and strangely the hangover slips away and I smile to myself, confident and happy to be on my way.
There’s a certain elation to this part of the trip whenever I’ve taken it. Here you are, in a strange country. You’re on the back of a truck with seventeen other people and a box of chickens, soon to be bouncing along dirt roads in the Ecuadorian countryside. And it’s not just that. The most incredible views I have had of this country have been on this truck. It’s never rained when I’ve made the trip and it’s just two hours of sitting in the sunshine and looking at the landscape that stretches out for uncountable miles in the distance, vast lush greenery split up only by the occaisional wooden farm. Then of course, you look to your left rather than your right and see a massive area of forest cut down and slowly smouldering as the fire eats up the last of it. Of all the possible ways to arrive in a biological reserve, this is the best. You see first the most incredible, beautiful scenery of your life – cicadas buzz in the air, hummingbirds dart along in front of the truck and butterflies congregate at the side of the road. But then turn your head and you see exactly why you’re here – to lend a hand saving all this. In affirming personal enviromental philosophies it’s unbeatable.
But that all comes in a little while. First the driver takes a wrong turn and I start worrying.
Did this guy lie to me? Am I going to end up in the middle of nowhere because this opportunistic bastard decided to lie to me to get me on his truck? Of course, these thoughts are unfounded. We’ve just gone into one of the slums of Quininde to pick up his three year old daughter, who gets into the front seat beside him. THEN we’re off. But not before we swing by the Farmacia again and pick up even more people. As we finally, FINALLY set off I notice that one of the new arrivals is none other than Jose, one of the Bilsa staff. I have trouble putting what he does into words as it’s so varied that it defies any single description. Juliette once described him and Antonio as “Guides-slash-security guards-slash-labourers” but often they were more than this, helping out with literally everything at the station. I shake his hand as he gets on. I’ve been practicing some Spanish for the last couple of days but I’m nowhere near proficient enough to do anything but ask for what I want and even that is done badly. We share a couple of informal greetings, him smiling broadly as usual. He asks if I’m going to Bilsa, and I say I am. “Y tu?” I ask and get a reply too complicated for me to understand. We don’t really talk for the rest of the trip. Bit frustrating.
So, we get on our way. The trip is incredible, and rain spatters lightly on the brim of my hat for maybe ten minutes before it dries out. The road looks slightly muddier but surely not muddy enough to be known as the rainy season. Surely it should be pissing down on a regular basis? I’d find out more about this later.
We pass through a couple of communities on the way to La Ye. In one of them I see Fernando (boyfriend of one of the Canadian volunteers I was here with back in December and a regular fixture helping out with the bird studies at Bilsa) leaning out his door. He gives a smile of recognition and waves at me and Jose as we drive through.
We reach La Ye about four or five in the afternoon. Time is a bit of a hazy affair on this trip because of my lack of a watch. I get off, pay the driver the three dollars for the trip, unload my bag in front of a store at the side of the main square and get out the little piece of paper that Felipe at the Jatun Sacha office had given to me with instructions on how to reach Bilsa.
It was so much easier in the dry season. The roads are so dry that you can get all the way from Quininde to right outside the gate of Bilsa. In the rainy season though you need to first get to La Ye, then stay the night in nearby La Laguna, then the next morning Don Armado (who lives halfway between here and Bilsa, working primarily as a farmer and secondarily as a guide to Bilsa) arrives with your mule and takes you the rest of the journey. Bit more difficult.
Let me describe La Ye for a minute. It’s a small community (too small and spread out to be considered a village or town) maybe four hours walk from Bilsa. Not many people live around here but it’s constantly a bustling place just because it serves and sort of the general hub for trucks to Quininde. Quininde is, of course, the nearest place with a doctor and shops where you can buy the essentials. La Ye looks like it was pulled straight out of the wild west. A dusty town square is surrounded by wooden and simple concrete buildings, most of them just open with a large metal shutter on the front. Toothless old men sit outside wearing panama hats, spitting and cackling in the sun. There’s always some of the usual folk music playing somewhere nearby and stray dogs, cats, goats, cows and mules are all common in the centre.
For anyone from a different country, this is kind of a shocking sight. This is the level of civilisation you’ll be living in for the duration of your time here. Gringo culture shock.
My piece of paper says I’ll be staying with the Zambrano family in La Laguna.
This information is useful but what would be even better is knowing who the Zambrano family are, where La Laguna is and even better – knowing enough Spanish to ask people in La Ye these questions.
Well, actually that’s not really true. I did know enough Spanish to ask them. I just didn’t know enough to understand their replies. Luckily José was there to help me out, pointing me in the right direction and even walking part of the way with me.
La Laguna is just what it sounds like; a massive, placid lagoon at the bottom of a hill maybe twenty minutes walk from La Ye. This was my first exercise since my previous time at Bilsa a month ago so walking for twenty minutes first down a steep hill then back up another steep one was harder than I expected.
So, I get outside the Zambrano family house and walk up to see if anyone’s around. The house is a typical Ecuadorian home – wooden house, no windows up on big wooden stilts. A dog runs out from underneath the house and stop just before me, barking loudly and baring its teeth. It’s been a pretty long day already so I’m beginning to have second thoughts about the whole thing. I’m on the verge of kicking the dog and running away when a woman, probably in her fifties, sticks her head out of a window and asks me what I want. I go through my memorised spiel about being a volunteer for Bilsa and is it possible to have a room for the night? She says something I don’t understand in Spanish and after maybe fifteen minutes of back and forth, with her explaining where I was to stay in the simplest possible terms and me not understanding a word of it she just walks with me to show me where I’m supposed to go.
This was the difficult part of the walk, purely because I was carrying an alarming amount of equipment on my back, the sun was still beating down intensely and the walk up to the ‘guest house’ was all uphill. By the time I finally reached the porch of the house I was literally drenched head to toe in sweat and panting so heavily I was worried a lung was about to give out.
I rested for a while, me and Lillian Zambrano (so I got the right place after all) had another confused back and forth about whether I was allergic to anything, after which she headed downstairs to make some food. I dragged my bag upstairs into one of the rooms and was shocked at how… Well, how pretty it was.