May 16, 2010 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Shel and Frank Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel is a professional travel photographer.

After breakfast at the sushi joint, we took a cab to the airport ($3 this time) and met the Avis agent, who’d learned her English in New York middle and high schools and rented us a five-speed Chevy something, smaller than an Aveo.

Still extending the Cuenca concentric circles, our first stop was at Banos, the suburb a few kilometers southwest of the city known for its resort, Hosteria Duran, which boasts four swimming pools fed by 100-degree thermal waters, along with tennis and racquetball courts, spa and fitness center, expensive restaurant, and hotel rooms, we figured, to match. Everyone in the pools wears a black bathing cap, sold at the concession counter for $3.

Construction on the main road back to the city detoured us into a signless purgatory, but we just followed the flow of Saturday-morning traffic on several sandy paths till we were heading north again and onto the Panamericana.

We continued north a ways, then cut east, following a canyon past Bulcay and into Gualaceo. Here, we stopped off at Ecuagenera — Orquideas del Ecuador, a world-class orchid operation where we met Jose “Pepe” Portilla, the company president. He, too, spoke excellent English thanks to years working at a restaurant in Manhattan; he told us that at one time, 200 fellow townspeople worked at his boss’s restaurants in New York. Pepe took us on a splendid half-hour tour of the farm ($6 for the two of us) and Shel was in flower-photo heaven; she shot so many gorgeous frames and this is such an interesting story that I’ll write it up as a separate episode. Stay tuned.

We lunched in a restaurant with a big bar and a dozen tableclothed tables and a $12 lunch tab — fancy, we felt, for such a small town, but as always, we had zero complaints about the quality and quantity of the food.

And then it was back to the Pana to continue north. Only we got a little off track and wound up on back streets, navigating a maze of construction cones, potholes, soft shoulders, and single lanes, mile after dusty mile, agonizingly slow. Wondering if we had to come back this way too, my mood began to sour. Azogues is no doubt a splendid town; I’m sure we’ll pass through there again and give it its due. But this time I was relieved to leave it, finally, behind, when we picked up the signs to Biblian and rejoined the Panamericana.

My spirits lifted at the sight of Biblian, which the Moon guide calls “more of a church with a town than a town with a church.” From the Pana we had a great view of the Sanctuario de la Virgen del Rocio, with its commanding presence at the top of the hill, houses seeming to bow at its feet.

Past Biblian, the highway started to climb. Up up and away it went, with frequent construction zones, three lanes narrowed to two. We slowed up again, one among a parade of cars following trucks and buses into the highlands.

By now I was looking at the clock and getting antsy; it had taken us all day to get this far, and at 4:30 or so, we had only a couple hours of daylight remaining, and I didn’t relish driving in the dark, especially with the construction mess below. Also, now I was really tired and as we continued to head into the heavens, my disposition went straight to hell.

That was when Shel started looking at the map, figuring out where we were and where I wanted to go, promoting the “fun” of stretching the exploring envelope, making it known that the edge of her concentric circle had yet to be reached. So up we continued to go, and I must admit it’s breathtaking country, green as Ireland and rolling as Sonoma and as full of sky as Montana. But Shel couldn’t tell how far Canar, the next town, was, or how long it would take to go from there on to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s best Incan ruins, a showcase for the Egyptian-like masonry of the 15th-century South American empire, our ultimate destination for the day.

But here it was five o’clock and we were still ascending and dodging cones and stones and with 90 minutes till dark, I got hit full force with travel fatigue. It’s happened many times in the past and I’m sure it’ll happen many times in the future, but here it was again. Damn, I sighed, one more day to complete the perfect trip, only to hit a wall — splat! — and lose my will to persevere.

At that moment, I’d not only had enough, I’d had more than enough. Bastante! After 12 days I was tired of driving on mangled roads and shifting gears and not knowing how far it was to the next town and enduring the deadline of dark. I was weary of speaking Spanish and sleeping on hard beds and throwing soiled toilet paper in the garbage and reading about churches and lugging around suitcases and being taller and grayer than everyone else and feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I was fed up with Shel pushing me onward, ever onward, while complaining she felt like she was just along for a ride. Hell, I was even exhausted of loving Ecuador so much!

Sad but true: I’d succumbed to a case of culture shock. It’d been building all day and when it hit, it was a stone-cold drag. I’d arrived at the edge of my travel wits. I’d reached a dead end, a cul-de-sac of the soul. And all I wanted to do was turn around, go home, and get a hug from my mommy.

So I did. I turned around. I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t share my feelings. I didn’t touch base. I wasn’t open or communicative. I just swung a U-turn and headed back to the world. I was the man, by God, and I had a goddamn right to be a mouse!

Well, as soon as we started descending from the uplands, my morale recovered; the more gravity pulled us down down down, the lighter I felt. It also turned out that Shel didn’t mind turning around either; in fact, she’d said so 15 minutes earlier, though I didn’t hear her, my senses smothered in emotional smoke.

It took only an hour, all the way on the Pana and no torn-up backroads, to bomb down to Cuenca. We had enough daylight to ditch the car in the Villa Nova emparqueadero a block away, freshen up a bit in the room, and go out to dinner at La Vina, a favorite Italian restaurant of the gringos, where we had a couple beers, a couple salads, eggplant parmigiana for me, vegetarian lasagna for herself, and a shared tiramisu, the whole tab coming to $23, laughably low for our most expensive meal in Ecuador.

Well-fed, slightly tipsy, and back in the travel and marital groove, we walked hand in hand through the dark to the beauty parlor where Shel kept the appointment for a haircut of her own. I sat there watching as she got even more beautiful than she already was and I wanted to marry her all over again; I also adored Ecuador again. I’d plumbed the depths in the highlands and now I was back to scaling the heights to the sound of blow dryers and the scent of conditioner and the sight of my radiant wife in the mirrors.

Back at the Villa Nova, we got naked, and horizontal, and our last night in Ecuador faded to black.


Sunday morning, we retrieved the car from the lot and went to church. Not just any church, but the bright white Church of Turi, perched on the Mirador de Turi, high on a hillside south of the city with fabulous views of the red roofs and  whitewashed walls stretching from one end of the Andean valley to the other, the spires of the cathedral gleaming from distant El Centro.

We walked the country roads and haunted the huge souvenir shop, then stopped into the church, packed with parishioners and worshippers, a high mass getting going on the chancel way up at the front of the huge room. We stood at the back, bearing a bit of brunt from the stares of a few in the crowd. But I didn’t care. We weren’t taking up someone else’s place in the nave. We weren’t even staying for the whole service. We were just savoring a peak spiritual moment in what, right then, seemed like a two-week religious experience.

I put my arm around Shel and held her close. Then I closed my eyes and prayed that we’d return to Cuenca — our affairs in the States settled, our remaining possessions moved into a condo on the river, our excellent adventure to become Ecuadorians officially under way — within a year.

Photo captions: one of thousands of orchids at Ecuagenera in Gualaceo; Sanctuario de la Virgen del Rocio in Biblian, north of Cuenca; fresh carne de cerdo along the Panamericana; climbing into the clouds on the way to Ingapirca; the view of Cuenca from Mirador de Turi



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