I almost don´t want to start recounting the last couple days, because for every detail and event that I share there are thousands more that will be lost in my foggy memory. I recently read that crime witnesses who are asked to describe the incident or perpetrators later remember much less than those who let it all float around silently in their heads--presumably because the details they describe (a red shirt, the sound of a gun) overshadow all other facets of the event. In other words, putting experience into words is not only impossible, but it might make me forget whatever I don´t write here. That said... oh well. A taste is better than nothing. Quito is ginormous, as Marah´s grandpa might say. Yesterday morning, after a quick shower and stretch, I set out with two Canadians from my hostel to go up the ¨Teleférico,¨ a gondola that connects the city to the top of the towering volcano to the east. Our taxi driver was kind enough to point out the fog enshrouding the entire mountain, suggesting we try the Virgen de Panecillo instead. Overlooking the entire city, the aluminum winged Virgen stands 40 or 50 feet tall on top of a serpent and the globe. It was so refreshing to get above the traffic and noise, and get a brief glimpse of what lay beyond the valley. Brief, indeed. We hopped back into the taxi and headed down to the Centro Histórico for a looksy. Not too interested in museums and government buildings (and unexcited about guarding our bags from pick-pockets), we began the hike back to the Mariscal district. On the way, we stopped to explore largest neo-Gothic Basilica in the Americas, from which statues of armadillos, llamas, and anteaters stare down at you instead of gargoyles. Inside, a Christmas display under the main altar serenaded us with electronic carols, amid unbelievably vibrant stained glass windows of Biblical scenes.
We passed right by the Mariscal, following a bike-foot path further north to Parque Carolina to visit the botanical garden. Winding paths through ferns, bromeliads, and cedros gave way to high Sierra grasses and shrubs; later we wandered through several greenhouses chock full of orchids, carnivorous plants, and epiphytes. One in four plants in Ecuador is an orchid: over 4000 species in a country just a touch larger than Oregon. It´s not hard to believe, once you see that the forests here waste no space, each tree covered in other plants and every space between trees half-choked in vines. Life seems overcaffeinated, hyped up, sprawling and thriving in every crack and cranny under near-perfect conditions.
Now I'm in Mindo, a tiny town north-west of Quito that's become famous for its surrounding cloud forests-- meaning one of the most diverse spot in the world, especially for birds. On my first night, I made a decision that has shaped my entire experience here. Hungry and searching for somewhere to eat in the rain, after searching the whole town for a good place to eat, I finally settled on the most obvious and, in many ways, intimidating choice. I stepped up to the busiest diner in town, not a gringo in sight, and ordered a Menestra. No idea what a Menestra was, and vague on the meat I chose, and only one seat left under the canopy. Forcing myself beyond the awkwardness, I asked to sit (¿Puedo?) and found myself among a group of friends: two biology students from Quito and Armando, who is from Mindo. Since that moment, I have spoken only a few words in English here, spending most of my time with Armando and his friends and family. I feel frustrated and completely inadequate with my Spanish, but I know that the only way the change that is to continue feeling frustrated. For the next few months. Word by word, sound by sound, silence by silence, I am learning how to speak again.
Today we rode a dirt bike a few kilometers outside town, past canopy tour operations and fincas, to explore some land owned by Armando's friend. We hopped the gate and descended into the most viva place I've seen in years. I can't describe this forest, not only because I don't know the words for all its inhabitants, but also because they are so multitudinous. Tree ferns from the Jurassic, protected cedros, Sangre de Drago that prevents scars, palms of all sizes and shapes, tiny purple orchids, berries that look like thimbleberries and taste remarkably of strawberries, a plant that stings on contact but can cure circulation problems if you whack yourself enough, an orange fungus growing out of a dead tarantula... And at the end of the path, a wall of water falling from about 60 feet, its force blowing mist and cool air so constantly that all the plants nearby grow at an angle. We stood at its base for just a few minutes and left nicely dampened and awake.
I tried a granadilla for the first time today. It's a hard, orange fruit with a little stem, about the size of a softball, that cracks open when you press it. Inside, little white anemone-like arms peel away from the seeds, each surrounded by a sweet, slimy, translucent placenta that taste infinitely better than they look. I have a feeling that scenes from Men in Black were directly based on the way this fruit acts.
Now, full of garlic-shrimp and plantains, I will go to rest. Tomorrow, I leave the cloud forest and my new friends to begin work outside Tabacundo. Maybe there I will feel less transient, sink in, and miraculously find a way for Spanish to roll from my tongue.