Wandering Brooks

in South America

Month: February, 2013

Election Day Photos

I ask one of assault rifle toting soldiers if I’m allowed to take photos. He says, “ask the guy with the star on his hat.”

From the floor above, the boss of the soldiers watches over the outdoor basketball court that has been re-appropriated as a polling station for election day. He looks down on me as I approach. When I ask about photos, he responds, “What for?”

“Oh, we’re just tourists, interested in the election,” I say.

“No,” he says.

“Oh, uh, it’s for…” I look at Kinga, trying to think of the right word, “…journalism,” I say, looking back at him.

He kind of shrugs and says okay, so I say thanks and give him the thumbs up before he changes his mind.

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Improvised Fiesta of Fruit and Flowers

We are the last two to catch the bus to Baños, Ecuador, which we run to catch as it rolls out of the terminal in Ambato. Despite being late, we get the best seats up front with the driver.

As folks from South America tend to do, he asks Kinga and I about our relationship status. It’s not easy to explain our friendship to people from this culture, and not just because of language barriers. He tells us he is ordained to perform weddings, and offers to marry us as soon as we get to Baños.

He has an assistant who collects fares and opens the door to yell at people about where the bus is going. He’s a younger guy, about 26, and when he hears that Kinga and I are not married, nor are we “novios,” he starts to hit on Kinga. “Your eyes are so beautiful. Do you have facebook? Your eyes are so beautiful. Very beautiful. Where are you staying in Quito? I will come visit you. Your eyes are so beautiful. I am a lesbian. I like women.” This is supposed to be a sexy joke, I guess.

The traffic is terrifying. The driver tells us that Baños will be so busy that we won’t find a hotel room and the hot springs will be crowded festering pools of dead human skin cells. Well, he didn’t really say that, but anyway we abandon our plan to go to Baños and get off the bus in the middle of the highway. We decide to hitchhike back to Quito. We have no water. I am really hoping we get picked up…

The third car that passes us is a small pickup with a black tarp over the truck bed. We tell the driver we’re headed to Quito, and he says “¡Vamos!” We climb in the back and find a tent set up over a double mattress laid down in the truck bed. Inside the tent are two little kids who don’t seem to like us. Do they realize their dad just invited us in, or do they think we are intruders? They threaten to spray us with foam from an aerosol can.

These cans are everywhere during the fiestas, by the way. Walking around Ambato was like running a gauntlet of soapy foam.

The truck pulls over several times – at mechanic shops to fix the engine, to buy delicious Salcedo popsicles, to pee while enjoying the view of Cotopaxi Volcano, and for other mysterious reasons. The driver’s brother is following us with other family members in another car. Each time we stop, he offers me a shot of homemade aguardiente. It is so strong it makes my eye twitch and burns my teeth. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am drunk. Kinga rejoices.

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We had gone to Ambato to see the Fiesta of Fruit and Flowers, about which we initially knew nothing. The highlight of the event was the parade. There were live bands (or giant soundsystems on the back of a truck) playing salsa, traditional andean music, reggaeton, etc. Dancers in various kinds of traditional or not-so-traditional dress followed. And then there were the beauty pageant queens, about 20 of them in total (including Miss New Jersey), waving from floats made of chili peppers, bread, uchuva (groundcherries), apples, oranges, plums, corn, beans, or dozens of different kinds of food and flowers. The cops also showed up to do stunts on their motorcycles and to hang out on the landing skids of their helicopters to wave at the crowd. Our favourite part was the devils.

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Three months ago, I would not have gone on this adventure to Ambato, which involved a lot of uncertainty and improvisation. How do you find a place to stay in an unknown, ultra busy city during fiesta time? The first night, we stayed outside Ambato in another city called Salcedo, on the advice of a crazy but helpful old man in the mile-long line to get on the bus in Quito. We hitchhiked to get around Ambato, and we stayed in the city until late at night without knowing how we would get back to Salcedo. It always worked out just fine. I have learned that travelling can be very rewarding when you are kind of irresponsible.

Magic and Mistaken Identity in Medellín

Two middle-aged men offered to buy me an ice cream in Parque Berrio in Medellín. The well-coiffed, thin one in a suit was a lawyer. The fat one was an economist. The lawyer told me they have an apartment nearby. Would I like to visit? I was confused by this rushed invitation. I didn’t know what to say. He changed the subject and the conversation died down pretty quickly.

An older man in baggy dress pants and a too-big, half unbuttoned collared shirt was ranting in a deep, booming voice about his mother, who was a witch. He had constructed a sort of shrine on the ground. There was a square, green piece of cloth, bordered on two sides by a line of vials filled with green liquid. Magic potions, he explained. At the top of the square cloth was a doll’s head, with a cigarette in the doll’s mouth. He ranted more about magic and his life as a child, and lit the cigarette in the doll’s mouth.

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At first he ranted to an imaginary crowd, which gradually materialized into a real crowd, gathered in a wide circle around him. He insisted that we move a bit closer. He learned special powers from his mother, he told us. He flashed a razor blade and sliced through pieces of newspaper to show us how sharp the blade was. He took the blade to his palm and sliced. No blood appeared. He took the blade to his carotid artery in his neck and sliced. No blood appeared. I saw that only one side of the razor was sharp.

He asked for coins to perform a ritual that would give good fortune in business. I gave him 200 pesos (about 10 cents). He invited those who offered a coin to gather close to him. About 8 of us, all men, stood in a tight circle around him. He poured green potion into a cup filled with water, took a black stone out of his fanny pack and dropped it in the cup. He covered it with a cloth, and then uncovered it. The water was no longer green, but perfectly transparent. He poured more green potion into the water, which promptly lost its colour and turned transparent. He took more black stones out of his bag and put one in each of our hands. He poured green potion into our hands. It smelled like cheap liquid soap. He rubbed the coins we gave against the black stone and told us to rub our hands together. Presto, good fortune.

He offered to sell the potions, making about 25,000 pesos from four or five men. He invited the suckers to follow him if they wanted to receive an education on the ways of magic. Together, they walked out of the park.

Later that evening, my couchsurf host asked me where I was sitting when the men offered me ice-cream and invited me to their apartment. When I told him I was sitting on the stairs to the metro, he laughed. That is where the male prostitutes sit when they are working, he said.