From My Notebook 48 Years Ago in Ecuador

26th February 2023 |

Four days on the road to Quito

Feb 14, 1975

We Left Guayaquil in the rain, over the bridge again and back along the same road to El Triumfo, a busy, muddy cross-roads with roadside stalls selling bananas, pineapples, small mangoes, and muddy-looking juice. Bought two pineapples for 4 sucres (7p). These stalls always look crammed with a variety of foods until you look closely – also striking how hard it is to get vegetables in the countryside.

Passed some enormous banana plantations – kilometres long. Thickest, lushest vegetation I’ve seen. Then the rapid rise into the Andes again, and soon we are up to 2,500 metres, but the hills here are smoother than in Peru, the countryside more ordered, better worked, with some large houses. Had the idea of being invited at a hacienda and chose a large white house, below the main road, to the right shortly before Riobamba.

Met in the yard by a peon (but in Western clothes) who invited us to sleep inside. Building seemed deserted. In fact it is used as a school (one room) filthy and bare, as was our room. B wanted to use the hammocks, and pulled up a gate post, under the appreciative gaze of the custodian and his family – an Indian woman and tots. The post went on the windowsill against the steel frame windows. Another post went inside the cupboard, diagonally across the room and the hammocks were slung between them. Four eggs lay in some grass in the cupboard.

The Indian woman with her tots

We asked if we could buy some food – eggs or meat. They said there was a tienda (shop) cercita (nearby) down the road. We decided to walk there and we walked forever down the hill and eventually met the custodian coming back on his horse. He pointed out a house and we asked for a chicken. They were dubious at first (three men and a woman) then tried to decide which bird to sacrifice. At first they went for a cock but it was too expensive so we settled on a mottled pullet for 50 sucres and had a fine chase all around the yard to catch it.

The walk back took me over an hour. It would have been shorter if I had been as enterprising as Bruno and caught the back of a passing bus. I tried to wring the chicken’s neck and failed. B chopped the head off with his machete. The family plucked it, I gutted it, and we boiled it. It was a stringy bird but the legs were tender. The family also gave us a plate of pork, but it was too much after all for one meal. There was still the chicken’s carcass in the pot.

Feb 15

Woken in the morning by a hen at the window, anxious to get to its nest and bewildered by the change of scenery. It stood on the windowsill observing us from every conceivable angle and clucking. At last it managed to edge its way along my hammock and with much floundering and shattering made its way to the cupboard, but failed to lay.

Before leaving I at last took the trouble to examine my rear axle. The bike had been wobbling strangely since Lima where I had aligned the wheels (i.e it was much worse than before when the wheels had been really out of line). Found to my stupefaction that both spindle nuts were loose and presumable had been for 1000 miles or so. What I get away with! Terrifying what omissions I’m capable of. Got the wheels straight and tight, and of course the wobble is no more.

Getting out was an ordeal for Bruno. His van couldn’t make the climb up the dirt path. He had to take a series of dives from off the road to get enough speed up but eventually he got out.

Riobamba was a pleasant town. People seemed more relaxed here – less aggressive. Many plazas, a few nice buildings, a nice working market, helpful shopkeepers, little attempt to sell things to us. Went on until dusk when I found an inviting field by the side of the road. Children all said we should stay there, so we went in. Then adults arrived. Owner’s wife and her sister. Sister was very inquisitive and aggressive but invited us in to talk. They were enraptured by Bruno, gasped at his exploits, plagued him with questions and took no notice of me at all. For me a very unusual evening since I have become used to being the focus of curiosity and attention. Most of all it astounded them that he insisted on sleeping out. They were sure he would freeze to death, and I thought he’d find it chilly (he did).

Bruno and his audience

Feb 16

I was up an hour before Bruno, who lay cocooned in his hammock, still as death. The sun was hot and bright. I turned the chicken into soup and saved the rest of the breast meat. Washed and shaved. Bruno was visited by his audience at about 7.30, who watched carefully as he got up, dressed, etc.

By breakfast time he was thoroughly pissed off by the young woman who insisted on examining every item in his car, opening every tin, endlessly questioning him on every detail.

The road to Quito was good and we made good time. Crossing through Ambato into the Quito valley we were both stopped by a pair of splendid cops mounted on shiny 1200cc Motoguzzis, but after a short period of mutual admiration, we went on to find ourselves on a pleasant grassy ledge above the capital.

Comforted by the chicken soup I had made that morning, we looked down on city lights which were unusually pretty – veins of gold in silver. A party of dogs serenaded us, and after dark a sound like chopsticks rattling which we thought must be frogs. I was particularly pleased with a new lighting system I had rigged up using indicator bulbs – brilliant, and allowed me to write in my tent.

Just before going to bed we watched rivers of mist flow down and engulf the city. Then came a chorus of distant shouts, sounding like a political demonstration. The P.C.M.L.E (Partida Communista Marxista Leninista de Ecuador) was busy agitating for oil nationalisation without compensation to ensure a bright future for everybody. But it turned out to be a football crowd.

Feb 17

Bruno hoped that some French volunteers in Quito would put us up, so the following morning in light rain we went down to the city. Well, I slithered down, and went over twice in the mud.

By the time I got to the bottom Bruno had disappeared. I found the central plaza and tried to find the friend of a friend who was supposed to be famous, but nobody had heard of him, and he wasn’t in the phone book.

It took me two hours to find Bruno at the French Embassy. Every other street in Quito is named after a date – incredibly difficult to tell one from another – and in South America the traditional revolutionism is reflected in an absence of signs.

Bruno did find a place for us both to stay, with Emile and Claude, who also had a gramophone, and we spent half a day just playing, again and again, at top volume, the overture to Tannhäuser. Our conversation with the two volunteers was inevitably about our experiences and frustrations. Emile had not benefited by his time in Ecuador and thought its inhabitants should be put down. “Il faut les supprimer.” After a while we realised he wasn’t joking, which made us uneasy.

Bob and Annie, from California on their Norton

The following day, riding around Quito, I came across an American couple on a Norton 850. Of course we stopped and talked. Bob and Annie were from California. They told me about a hacienda near Otavalo where we would be welcome. They were on their way to Cuzco and I told them to take the road from Huancayo. They introduced me to Lee Guzman and his garage, where I took up the play in my steering head, and changed my 140 jet for 150, 140 being too lean.

Quito would be a pretty city in better circumstances – nice buildings, plaza, etc – but rain too heavy for appreciation. Next day we leave for Otavalo.