It’s great to be stateside again. I’ve reunited with Starbucks, Steak and Stop signs that vehicles actually stop for. I am content.
Our last few weeks in Cuenca were uneventful although, once I realized that local law enforcement insists on being impotent, I never really felt safe again. I just wanted the clock to tick faster so we could go back home.
There were some bright spots. For one thing, I had a ukulele made. It took Jesus Ortega about a month to create her, and she is stunning. I’ve signed up for on-line video lessons and can already play Mozart. Thank goodness he wrote the music we know as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star so I can say that. I named her Mildred, after my great-aunt who we all loved dearly, and took pictures of her during her construction, although some of the pics were lost when my camera was stolen.
To help move the time along we booked a trip to the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador, along several of the tributaries that feed the Amazon River. It was a fantastic trip, and we welcomed the escape. Except that, well, how do I put this? Well, uh, we were robbed again. Although this time there was a happier ending.
I’ve lived in New York my whole life and never had a problem, unless you count the time in the first grade when some kid stole the emergency dime out of my shoe in the bathroom of the Bronx Zoo during a class trip. 53 years in New York, 1 incident. 3 months in Ecuador, 2 robberies. You do the math. Anyway, here is what happened:
After we got through the standard security check, we put our belts and shoes back on and started toward our gate. George was grousing that the person behind him was so impatient he cut in front of George, then proceeded to take off his belt and shoes very slowly. As soon as George told me this, he said “My iPad, I left it behind”. Of course, it was gone.
In contrast to the lethargic Cuenca police, the Ecuadorian equivalent to our TSA agents were great. They immediately called command central who looked at the security footage and saw the theft. The man who had jumped the line in front of George slowed down so that his buddy, now directly behind him, could lift the tablet.
Security told us to wait, and we were getting a bit anxious—plus I now wanted to get the next flight home to New York. After about 15 minutes the security team was suddenly giving each other high fives and turned to us with their thumbs up.
They asked if George wanted to press charges, and he said yes. Then they explained it would take at least two hours. Our flight was leaving in an hour and a half, and if we didn’t press charges now we could not press them later. Since we were being met at our destination by the tour company we had to let it go.
Security led George into a small room where the robbers were confronted. The guards gave them a hard time, but in the end told them that they were lucky that charges were not being pressed. George took their picture with his iPad and here it is.
The moral—even in a secure environment, like when you’re in the middle of airport security, do not let your guard down.
We were met in Coca, Ecuador and taken to our riverboat, the Manatee, in a motorized canoe. It was about a two-hour trip. Once aboard we were issued boots and ponchos for slogging through the mud and the rain.
The Manatee had capacity for 32 passengers but, this being the off-season, there were only two other passengers. Bruce and Sue. Fortunately we got on pretty well with them, or this trip could have been a disaster. Unfortunately we got on pretty well with them, so I won’t be able to amuse you with scandalous stories about them, unless you want to hear about the day Bruce’s bowels took him on a different tour, but I’ll spare you those details.
It was muggy and it was buggy. We were instructed to keep the air conditioning in our room running to keep it somewhat dry, although the Lifesavers in my backpack managed to completely melt and ooze out of their wrapping despite the perpetually running AC.
After dinner we set out on a night tour, and slogged through the mud and the brush. I had no camera, but used my iPhone to take pictures. We managed to see little tiny frogs, giant snails, ferns as big as a house and spiders. Lots of spiders. It was fantastic.
Despite the fact that only two rooms were occupied, the crew of the Manatee insisted on using the intercom to wake us each day, when they could just have easily knocked on our door. Days started early, and after a hearty breakfast we would head out for a morning tour. We’d return for lunch, then head out for an afternoon tour. It was an easy routine and we happily fell into it.
Our first tour was billed as a jungle hike and a visit with a local family to see how they lived. The hike was easy, and we were lucky to see a monkey, but mostly it was more about the flora than the fauna. The jungle is very different from the Galapagos. In the Galapagos the animals are unafraid—you really get to interact with them. They have few, if any, actual enemies, so they don’t run away. In the jungle everyone is a potential lunch. All they do is run away. You might catch a glimpse of something, but chances are that’s it.
As to the local family: They pretty much avoided us. We didn’t really see HOW they lived, we really just saw WHERE they lived. We walked around the perimeter of their house and were ushered back to our canoe. As we parted, their teenage son showed us a monkey way up in a tree. Hard to see, but once you did it was pretty great. He also offered us a chance to eat a banana right off the tree. Amazingly delicious.
Most of the tours were pretty good, although our Naturalist Tour Guide (a term which, I was pleased to learn, does NOT mean he gives the tour naked) was a bit frustrated by the lack of animal sightings. He was a very nice guy, but would get so caught up in trying to find animals for us to see that he would lose track of the time. Once we were so late for lunch that they sent out a search party. Doctor Livingston, I presume?
We had one hike in the forest that was only eventful when our Guide didn’t notice that a crew member was being attacked by bees, apparently due to the fact that he was practically standing on a hive. That was exciting. That and the fact that Bruce was back on the boat locked in the bathroom with a stack of outdated magazines, but I already promised not to take you there.
We had two canoe trips that were wonderful. One involved a long trek along a boardwalk so slippery that Apolo Ohno could have used it for practice. This lead to a small boat where we glided through a beautiful section of the jungle. We then hiked a bit to a platform that was well over a hundred feet high and enjoyed the view. We stayed there a long, long time while our naturalist guide hoped some monkeys would appear, which they neglected to do. We could hear them in the distance but they never came around.
The other was a trip around a lake. The birds were plentiful, Sue and Bruce managed to take lots of pictures, but we didn’t have the right equipment for that. Monkeys ruled the trees—you could see them playing all along the banks. At one point we pulled in close to shore—thick mosquitoes—and our guide pointed out a caiman and her baby—hidden in the overhanging bushes. You could barely see her eyes above the surface of the water.
He found another caiman, too. This time he made the sounds of a bird in distress, and used his paddle to mimic the movements and splashes of an injured bird. This caiman rose out of the water, clearly in hunting mode, with a look in his eye that would freeze your blood. He was about six feet long and he did not look amused. We kept our hands and arms inside the boat.
On the last day our trip by canoe to the airport was very long, about 2 hours. It was raining, and we talked with Sue and Bruce about how lucky we were with the weather. It only rained en route to the Manatee the first day, and now on our way back.
Our plane from Coca to Quito was delayed a couple of hours, and other than the fact that the airport is a basically a dirty shack with a runway, it didn’t really matter to us because we had a six-hour layover in the Quito airport before our flight to Cuenca. We finally made it back to our apartment a little before 9 PM, fifteen hours of traveling. We slept well that night.
After our trip we were able to enjoy Cuenca again. I think the break did us good. We went to trivia night at a local restaurant (we had gone several times before) and finally won first place. George got pretty sick toward the end, so badly that he couldn’t stand up when we had our goodbye dinner with our friends Judy and Jackie. I got sick, too, and we bought some Cipro at the local drugstore.
We enjoyed our time in Ecuador, and made some good friends in Jackie and Judy. We will miss them and Cuenca.
But it’s good to be home.
©Kyle Merker 2015