Part 2 of Why I Am No Fun

I realized a few things while I was traveling that I hadn’t consciously understood before. One was that I’ve spent my adult life accumulating things and systems in order to prevent unpleasantness. Call these creature comforts or the trappings of an unhealthy mind… They aren’t accidents.

I live in the kind of neighborhood where the cops come if your party is too loud. I live here on purpose and if your party wakes me up in the middle of the night, I will call the cops. Then I will sleep, and when I wake up, my mental health will be relatively more stable. I may plot your death while I wait for the authorities, I may seethe at your nerve for treating my front yard like an extension of whatever bar you stumbled out of. But in the end I will know you are an idiot and the law is on my side.

The parties in Banos started at about 11am and quit around 4 or 5am. Easter is an especially big party weekend. The house across the park from our hotel inflated an enormous (two story tall) beer bottle every evening and started playing the dance grooves in the late morning. “Hoy es la Noche del Sexo” was the theme song except when it was “Borrachos Hasta La Amanecer” (these are songs about Jesus rising from the dead, but with a heavy backbeat). The idea of calling the cops was utterly ridiculous for two reasons. For one, there were cops on every corner, armed police all over the place, tapping their feet to the beat.

For another, the idea of offending someone else with your music is simply not on the menu of things to get upset about in Ecuador. Beggars in your restaurant harassing your patrons? Yes. Drunkards fighting over the last tender morsel of cuy? Yes. Armed robbery and picking pockets? Call the cops. Indigenous people fighting the latest trade agreement by blocking off the main roads? They’re on it. Music? Give me a break.

In Ecuador loud is the name of the game. People walk up and down the streets singing out their wares or their pleas for your charity. The dogs roam in packs and have gang-warfare at night. Loud gang warfare. And even the dogs that walk on a leash along side the armed guards for the various hotels and hostels are encouraged to bark a lot. It keeps the guards on the night shift awake, plus it sets off the car alarms. If your car is not parked inside a locked parking facility, it most surely has an alarm. Those alarms seem to be working pretty well, or pretty hard anyway, because they’re always sounding. Roosters start anticipating the sunrise at about 3am, even in the city.

Drivers honk their horn in a conversational way to let you know they are about to pass you on a steep mountain pass. They honk at entire throngs of people because they recognize one person. They honk because you’re blond. They honk because you’re going too slow, because they’re going to run you down as you try to cross the street, or because they want you to go ahead and cross (sucker). It’s a different world.

And don’t even talk to me about earplugs. They are worthless for two reasons: one, they make it possible for bad guys to sneak up on you without you noticing, and two, they expand in your ears and make you feel like your head is going to very quietly explode. Don’t think I haven’t tried the obvious on that front.

At home, my computer is in a room away from other people because I am very private about what I’m writing until it’s done. Even after it’s done, I must send it quickly because I immediately think it’s crap. I am unable to write in front of people. So I don’t.

I also don’t like to do internet research with another person watching. I do a lot of internet research. My daily research is another peak at my potential mental troubles. Since I do a pretty good job at researching until I feel reassured, no one needs to know what I’m worried about.

But in Ecuador there are Internet Cafes. Internet Cafes have all the computers facing the main desk. So if you need for some reason to search “shistosomiasis” or “travel induced constipation” or “water-borne intestinal parasites” or maybe even “noise ordinances in Baños” or“Baños holy week festivities”, your research will be up on the screen for all to see. And all the websites seem to have banner headlines like “Do You Have Shistosomiasis?” or “Don’t be Embarrased About Constipation!”

Just because I’m wondering about symptoms of shistosomiasis doesn’t mean I think my kids or I have it (pretty sure after some research that we don’t). I’m doing research and it’s nobody’s damned business why. It makes me feel better, OK?

So not only was my trip a period of sleep deprivation and nausea, but I couldn’t even deal with the stress by writing about it (Well, I do have a little notebook) or researching it. I might do it again, but not for fun, and not anytime really soon.

Why I Am No Fun. Part 1

I hate to travel.

This is a character defect, a flaw in my personality and one of the many ways I am lacking. It isn’t just a distaste for someone else’s sheets. It isn’t jingoistic love of my homeland. It’s a deep seated fear and anxiety which is glimpse at the mental illness that would be mine but for the grace of god (at this moment). I’m almost dysfunctionally anxious. But not quite. I also have a weak stomach. Nausea and various stomach ailments are regular traveling companions. I struggle against these things, and therefore I do travel on occasion, because I think people should. And also because there are some foods I really want to try. To understand the depth of my distaste for travel you have to know a few things. I’m going to share them with you, but you can’t tell anyone, and don’t be afraid to hang out with me or invite me to your homeland. Agreed?

I just want to make sure we’re clear. I went. I flew. I flew far away from home and then I rode in busses. I used strange bathrooms, ate strange foods and took strange taxis. I spoke in a foreign language for 18 days and rinsed my toothbrush in bottled water. We mixed with the local people ate where they ate and took lots of pictures. So get off my case that I wouldn’t ride in the teleferico (that horrible little cage they slid across on a wire from one edge of a canyon to another). Leave me alone that I didn’t want to drive the 3 hours to Puyo and see the gateway to the jungle. Cut me some slack for not taking a day or two to ride the bus to the coast and take a (retch) boat to the Galapagos. I can only do so much.

I am very prone to motion sickness. More than three passes on a playground swing and I am ready to barf. Driving as a passenger almost anywhere involves a fixed stare at the horizon. Do not ask me to look for something inside the vehicle while it is moving, or I will be toast for the rest of the trip. Traveling by train is tough unless I am facing front and looking out the window. It makes me sick, but it’s not as bad as travelling in an airplane. Take-off and landing are devices of torture which leave me sick for the rest of the day, and maybe the following day. The headache takes at least 24 hours to pass. The nausea is gone in a couple of hours.

Unfortunately, all travel seems to involve not only motion, but lots of motion, in long stretches and short bursts. I especially hate traveling in the mountains. But mountains are beautiful! That’s where people go! And that’s where we went. To the Andes, in Ecuador. We flew, took taxis, rode in death-trap-barf-o-riffic busses. Every trip seems to involve not just the intial voyage, but lots of mini-trips to make sure we’re getting the most of our vacation.

I didn’t have fun. I don’t like to travel. I. Don’t. Like. It. Be my friend anyway, OK?. I will probably leave home again but only if people promise not to try to make me travel while I travel. That’s just mean. I will go. I will land. I will take a taxi to my hotel and from there, I will walk or ride horseback to the grocery store, which is my favorite part of any travelling anyway. I will eat new food and talk to new people, maybe visit some stores and it will make me happy. And that which does not make me happy will surely make me write.

Caperucita Roja

There are two low moments that come to me when I think about our trip to Ecuador. There were others, and there were great moments, too, but they’re just not all that interesting. The lowest of the low moments had more to do with being trapped with my immediate family for almost 3 weeks and being unable to just walk out on them.

But the beggar girl who shamed me stands out as a moment I still can’t shake and can’t quite figure out.

Beggars, mendigos, huerfanos, gente de la calle. Without exception they were indigenas, the descendants of Atahualpa and his brother. Inca people. Dark skinned, dark eyed and very short, they have barrel chests, flat backs and beautiful hooked noses. They have black, straight hair and strong hands. Most of the indigenas wear wool skirts or pants and oddly enough, many of them wear fedoras, both the men and the women. Don’t get me wrong, not all of the indigenas were street people. Most were going about their workaday lives with babies tied to their backs or at their breast. But all of the street people were indigenas or mestizos (mixed with the descendents of Spanish slaves from Africa).

The wool skirts and pants in the street beggars were filthy. The faces of the children and the adults were sunburned, maybe wind burned, but clearly too long exposed to the elements. Their faces were smudged, the creases in their hands, traced by the settled in grime. Sometimes they had deformities of the hands of feet, and maybe just token teeth, especially the older ones.

Children in the street. My god, every block had two or three children begging, selling candy or shining shoes. Or just sitting against a building, maybe with a younger brother or sister in their lap. Young children, sleeping in doorways with their arms over their eyes. And it didn’t even break my heart. I shut down after the first two days. Those first two days, I wanted to explain to each one why I couldn’t give them anything when I happened to be out of change. I apologized to them, begged forgiveness and felt bad for each one.

It can only really fully enter your brain for a couple of days, I think. If you are raw enough to see it for how horrible it really is, unable to shut it out, you might never be right again. Or maybe you are the superhuman blessed with both empathy and strength. I am not. I could feel my own brain deciding to not think about this if I was going to be available for my family. Sometimes it got through. But I surprised myself with how much I could ignore.

They’re such beautiful children, with their white teeth and beautiful skin. Filthy in an almost Dickensian way, but still cherubic and lovely. And sad, and tired and hungry for real food. If they have any food it is either a 3 liter bottle of pop or a box of candy they are selling. Wise in ways children shouldn’t have to be wise. Able to pick out a sucker from a mile away. But you have to see them, to walk among them, or rather, to wade through them for a couple days to understand even the little bit I understood.

I wanted to be able to share this part of the country with the people back home. But I read in The Book (the Rough Guide to Ecuador) that it is rude to take pictures without asking permission (claro que si). And that usually if you offer a small amount of money, locals will gladly consent to being photographed. While we were eating lunch in some restaurant, a little girl came in and started to work the crowd before the staff drove her away. She looked like she was maybe 8 or maybe 10 years old. With a filthy wool skirt and a red felt shawl clutched around her shoulders. She looked like a caricature of a little street urchin. Almost too perfect. I wanted to take her picture, but she was shooed away by the staff at the restaurant.

So when the orphan girl came into the ice cream shop with her cup of pennies the next day, and started to beg in the typical whiney voice that is like a parody of someone begging; when she met my eye, I walked over to her. Thinking back, she probably wasn’t an orphan and it might not have even been the same girl. Whatever, I offered her 50 cents to let me take her picture. She looked down at her feet, and back at me and shook her head no. She looked sad, but resolute. No. She never spoke after I asked her for a picture, just kept shaking her head.

I squatted down beside her. I looked her in the eyes, and tried to sweet-talk her. She looked at me back and stood her ground. She stared at me. I had this notion of hypnotizing her with my blue eyes, and she did have the look of a person worried they were being charmed. Fascinated, but worried. Blue eyed, silver-tongued devils like me are exceptionally rare in Ecuador.

Maybe someone warned her away from gringo perverts who want to take your picture. I told her we’d stay right there and I’d let her see the picture when it was done. Nope. I have to say that after you offer a kid money to take her picture and she says no, the more you cajole, the worse you feel. I started to feel like a pervert. No longer was I trying to expose the plight of these kids. She wasn’t a beautiful little child of god anymore. I was turning into a perverted carnival barker who wanted to exploit this little ragamuffin for all she was worth. And 50 cents, for god’s sake! What was wrong with me?

I blushed, took my ice-cream cone and left her with the 50 cents. She was beautiful, you’ll just have to trust me.