Totally by coincidence, one of Troy’s friends from Los Angeles was staying in Quito for a week during the same time as his visit. We hung out with Josh on Troy’s first evening in Cusco, got along well, so decided that we should all take a day trip to the market town of Otavalo, and possiblly to La Mitad del Mundo (The Center of the World, on the equator) the following day. The day began at Budget Car rental. Troy, Magda and I pulled our paired down backpacks across town to meet Josh, who we found reclining in one of Budget’s many comfortable chairs. Magda and I checked in and recieved the cheap car we’d found a deal on online, something Chevy made called a “Spark”, which was code for miniscule. With three men over 6 feet tall and Magda, we stood around the little blue vehicle, dwarfing it, wondering how to fit our large packs inside as well as ourselves. With some Jenga like manipulation and a little brute force, we crammed in the packs and managed to squeeze shut the hatchback. Afterwards it was just a matter of folding legs and tucking knees under chins like an absurd gringo clown car.
With Magda giving direction and myselt at the wheel, we labored up to the edge of the Quito valley and then rolled easily on the Pan American highway through the pass beyond. The car operated fine unless it was heading uphill. We did hear a slight humming coming from one of the tires but we marked that up to the smooth black asphalt that carpeted Ecuador’s surprisingly high quality highways. On the uphill stretches the usual fleet of insane drivers passed us on blind curves or with trucks marked “Peligroso” (dangerous) barreling towards us in the oncoming lane. Sometimes it was a Peligroso truck doing the passing, and explosion on impact immenent with its oncoming twin. Once we got stuck behind a truck full of construction workers. They sat in the back, legs dangling over the edge, snickering at the little blue hatchback stuffed with blancos. One of them casually ate an apple and heaved the core over his shoulder. Right about then, one of their hats flew off, utterly demolishing their cool facades.
In the little town of Otavalo, the market was a bust. It had become such a tourist destination that the crafts were almost entirely souvenir quality items, some with ‘Ecuador’ stitched across them in case you needed help remembering where it came from. I feel if a genuine article feels the need to declare its origin so boldly, it should probably remain in that place of origin. They did however have some fine, cheap, Panama hats which I negotiated the price of far below where I’d seen it thus far. The look on the vendors face told us he’d still made a hefty profit. He even put it in a wooden box wrapped with a piece of ribbon woven with the Ecuadorian flag. We ate a large lunch and then started back to the Pan Americana. The night before, Magda and I had done some calculations. We were not going to make it to Otavalo, and then the Middle of the Earth, and then drop Josh off, and then find a place to stay south of the Quito before sunset. Like in any good horror movie, it isn’t wise to drive in South America after dark – but like a handful of buxom college students, it seemed we were going to do it anyway.
One thing we noticed about the little market town was that the Andean fashions were back, if a little subdued still. Ladies wore a sort of Eastern European style blouse, long red skirts and a lovely arrangements of golden necklaces tied tightly at their throats. We didn’t see this in person, but we saw several paintings of women wearing the same fashions along with a white dish shape hat that would have changed little from Incan times. I kept an eye our for this hat, hoping it wouldn’t have the country’s new name embroidered across it.
Back on the Pan American highway headed south again, our little democracy voted to skip the Middle of the World and stop by Ecuador’s largest pre-Incan ruin. Cochasqui should have been just off the road by our calculations, but after we turned the car up a gravel drive and bumped over bread-loaf sized rocks for a while we began to worry. The sign for the park said it closed at 4:30. The sign on the road said it closed at 4. Our guidebooks said it closed at 5. When we did finally arrive, at 4:20, the parking lot was desolate. We skidded the little blue Chevy to a stop and all spilled out. The car alarm had a habit of going off whenever things got exciting, so I stayed behind madly pressing buttons on a keychain while Magda ran ahead to sweet-talk our way in. Josh and Troy stood shoulder to shoulder doing some sort of stand-up routine, looking out at an audience of haze shrouded mountains.
The guard at the door told us the park was closed, or more precisely, nearly closed. Ok it was open, but we didn’t have time for the tour, and we had to take the tour. We asked if we couldn’t just poke our heads over the wall to see some of the fabled pyramids of the Quito people, but the guard sadly shook his head, we needed a guide. There simply wasn’t time. Magda persisted. Finally he left to ask the lone park employee if he might give a final, lightening fast tour. As we waited, a police car rolled up, lights flashing as is the norm. There remains a small, terrified part of me that actually believes these lights mean something, and I pictured ourselves hauled off for harassing the watchman. When he returned though he found us chatting and laughing with a police escort. The three officers suddenly seemed interested in taking the tour themselves. Soon we were on a rapidly given tour of the museum, where the guide rattled off facts and figures in Spanish. Troy probably understood all of it. Magda understood most of it, the look on my face told the man I was following along very well, though I was quiet lost, and Josh nodded sagely. The police officers touched things they weren’t supposed to.
When the tour ended, the museum guide mysteriously disappeared, but not before telling the guard he should let us in to the complex for a quick look. So he led the four of us, and three yellow clad police officers through the main gate, grumbling under his breath. We hiked up an unpaved path to the top of the first pyramid and gazed out over a breathtaking view. Directly below us were trapezoidal mounds of earth, the 14 other pyramids of the complex. Each was a different size, only one was larger than where we stood. All were identically shaped and all were completely unexcavated. Long lightly graded ramps, built for processions, ran down from the north side of each pile of earth. In the distance, the Andes reflected back a late afternoon light, the deep valleys between them already dark with gloom. The policemen took pictures of themselves making funny faces.
Seeing that we were fascinated with the ruins, the watchman started warming up. What at first began as an unwelcome interruption in his day became its highlight. Soon he was giving us a full blown tour, describing the various digs and the treasures they’d yielded. He’d worked at the site for 32 years and hadn’t seen a lot done to excavate or preserve the site, which we all thought was a shame. A small section of one of the larger pyramids had been cleared to reveal complex astronomical instruments, and fine stonemasonry below. The policemen got bored and stayed behind on top of one of the pyramids while we explored the rest of the site. Llamas grazed the grown over ruins. We finished by walking up a processional ramp to the top of the pyramid closest to the gate. Like later Andean cultures, Cochasqui was situated to revel in the splendor of the surrounding landscape. Low mountains surrounded the site like a pantheon.
After thanking the now cheerful and hospitable watchman, we filled up the car again with bodies and started back down the gravel road. On Josh’s GPS we tried to pinpoint the equator, which we had been jumping back and forth across all day. Because of the windy road, and lack of places to pull over, we never quite found it though we’d clearly skipped back and forth from the Southern to the Northern Hemispheres several times.
The sun was low when we pulled into Quito and prepared to deal with it’s diobolical rush-hour. Soon we were mired in a dense stack of vehicles, our powerless little car adrift in an early evening tide. We slogged through with only a few near misses, dropped Josh off in the center of town with a flurry of handshakes and quick goodbyes, and continued south, back into the exodus from the other end of the city. In darkness now, we battled baffling roadsigns and bumper-to-bumper traffic. My clutch foot was getting sore, and I felt my blood sugar dropping quickly. With Magda navigating, we broke free and drove through Quito’s suburbs until forced by sheer fatigue to pull over at a road side restaurant called “Pollo Gigante”, where not so gigante portions of pollo were being served in a room reminescnet of an ill-fucntioning hospital cafeteria. Decor aside, it was a relief and I felt the energy pouring back into every cell as we ate.
The plan was simple from that point on. We’d find a place to stay and sleep. Weariness had snuck up on me like a virus and we agreed that we should stop in the small town of Machachi that according to the guidebook had a few good sleeping options. Within minutes we were rolling through empty streets, squinting at street corners, looking for signs that didn’t exist. Next to where we thought the hotel we were looking for should be was a decrepit pile of cinder blocks that looked to be held together by mold. My heart sank a little deeper, and I started the calculation I sometimes do when deciding that a night’s miserable sleep is better than none at all. The building looked closed for the night, in not for forever, and our hopes were further dashed. We backtracked and took a left turn hoping we’d misread the directions, and there, in the middle of the same block, was a cozy looking hacienda with some lights on inside and a flickering television in one room. It was hard not to immediately imagine falling asleep in a cozy, colonial inspired room in front of that T.V. Magda got out to ring the bell and ask if there were any vacancies. No one answered. she rang again. We waited. There was no movemement in the house, no opening of doors. The light from the TV continued to flicker behind the windowshade like a cozy blue flame, but no one came.
Desperate, we returned to the neat little town square where we’d seen an internet shop with some phone booths. Magda and Troy got out to call the hotel, hoping someone would pick up and we’d all laugh about how their doorbell didn’t work. But no one answered the phone. They gave up and called the next hotel in the guidebook but that number had been disconnected. Getting desperate we returned to the hacienda, hoping something had changed, but all was the same, all was quiet. We found the location of the other hotel and rang its bell. A bizarre girl who seemed to be high on something told Troy there were no rooms with a disconcerting half-smile. We returned to the internet cafe, and I parked behind another car and waited for them to call more options in the guidebook. As they dialed, a number of sketchy characters lurked past on the steadily emptying streets. While fiddling with my key fob, trying to once again disarm the automated alarm, I notice someone in the back seat of the car in front of me. He had his head turned backwards and seemed to be involved with another activity while gazing at me with vacant eyes. I shuddered and waited for Troy and Magda. When they didn’t come out, I circled the block and parked in another spot.
Finally they’d gotten hold of another hotel, thankfully outside of this god-forsaken town. We joked that there would no longer be any actual way out of Machachi and we’d keep driving through the town center, past the trembling backseat passenger for the rest of our lives. Fortunately though we could and did leave. Down the highway some ways we found a narrow dirt track that scraped the bottom of our little Chevy as we rolled cautiously up it. Waiting at the top was another old hacienda with adobe walls and twinkling warm lights. One of the employees was waiting for us in the still crisp evening air. He showed us to exactly the sort of cozy room I’d been picturing, and after accidentally setting the car alarm off once more, we drank a large beer, recapped the day, and fell into a deep, deep sleep.