Get Thee To A Nunnery.
A nun with ill-judged blusher opens the door and looks at us uncertainly. We are wearing our motorbike gear with Robin parked behind us, unusual visitors to a convent undoubtedly.
Erm…..do you have rooms?
I ask, trying not to stare at the rectangle of rouge on each cheek.
Of course not, this is a convent. I am a nun, do I look like I have a room for clodhoppers like you? And atheists too! Get away! Shoo!
I imagine she’ll say but Robin must be batting her eyelashes and instead, the little nun blinks and tells us to come in and bring Robin too, who can sleep in a conference room. Her tyres squeak in excitement as she is pushed over the shiny vinyl floor and we leave her crouched against a wall and follow the nun in to a courtyard full of roses.
You’re a couple?
The nun asks looking from face to face as if searching our souls for the truth.
I say self consciously and mutter to Jamie to flash the silver ring he wears while I flutter the two gold rings which look weddingy enough but are conspicuously on the wrong hand. I glance about in case God is watching from a corner, tutting at me and try to put on my purest expression to cover up for the lie I haven’t actually told.
She shows us a tiny room with a tiny bed in it and breezes away telling us we can pay the £4 later.
Is that per person? Or is that the whole cost of the room?
It’s the full cost of the room. Pleased with our exceptional tight-fistedness, we set about trying to fit our gear in to the cell like room. The walls, now I am paying attention, are pretty grubby and the room is very chilly. I pull back the covers on the bed, bit damp. So we’ll be cold, damp and not sleep properly but I’d pay £4 just to tell my Dad I have got me to a nunnery so it’s alright.
We wander quietly about the corridors peering in through open doors and curtained windows taking subtle photos. It is not unlike the hospital in the film version of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest with a bit of The Shining painted in for effect. I listen hard for gentle muzak. Medication time. Medication time. But neither Nurse Ratched nor Jack Nicholson, in any guise, appear, only the occasional nun or fellow visitor wondering how they ended up in this place.
Sanctuario Las Lajas, a bizarre church built between 1916 and 1949 after becoming the sight of a pilgrimage, is our reason for turning up here. The convent rather regally overlooks the sanctuary which sits near the bottom of a steep sided gorge and spans a small river. The site is underpinned by the rather shaky story of a small, mute child miraculously regaining her voice whilst her and her mother sheltered in a grotto during a storm.
Mummy! The Mestiza is calling me!
The little girl exclaimed, pointing at a wall. And lo and behold, there on the wall, a marvel. A painting of a woman in a crown who might be Mary holding a baby that could be Jesus. According to many venerable sources of information, the image isn’t paint, thinly applied to the surface but something other, some pigment that penetrates deep in to the rock. The conclusion? Painted by angels. Bring on the pilgrims. Let’s sell holy water in old milk bottles!
Anyway, the church is beautiful, like a slightly gaudy but professionally finished wedding cake, elegantly finished in white and blue. The convent sits just at the top of the lane lined with trinket stalls selling tatty candles and plastic prayer beads. Waterfalls spill down the steep cliffs and visitors amble up and down the many steps leading to the church and river below. We leave the convent with goodly faces and try to make respectful sounding footsteps and take the path past a multitude of thankful and very religious plaques haphazardly cemented on the rock faces to discover the museum is shut. There is bad taxidermy inside, so we hear, and I am quite disappointed to miss it. Instead we go in to the church to gawp at the near fluorescent cupid faces gazing with adoration back down at us. A nook in the wall with a religious scene tucked in to it glows purple then blue then green in succession. I am momentarily transfixed by the tackiness of the lighting display but am quickly distracted by a couple walking past with icecream and get up hastily to hunt some down for myself.
The icecream turns out to a plastic cup filled with coconut shavings, milk, sugar and raisins with a stick frozen in to it. The top layer, when the ice is pulled from the cup is a delicious, greasy layer of condensed coconut and coconut oil which I lick contentedly, extracting raisins carefully with my front teeth and chewing them while surveying the view. Jamie sits beside me slurping on a congealed lump of bright red fruits dotted with frozen blueberries and losing great gugs of crimson ice to the floor. The sun has come out and for a moment, we sit surveying the valley feeling quite lucky to be see this serene little place then I get brainfreeze from my icecream and don’t feel so lucky anymore.
Once the darkness has fallen, the church is lit up in blue, purple and green like a giant version of the little niche inside. It is fabulously tacky and we decide to join the hoards who have no doubt descended to witness the spectacle up close. The bridge spanning the river which forms the courtyard in front of the church, however, is deserted when we get down there. A couple of people mill about inside but, other than them, we are alone. I lean over the balustrade next to a smug looking angel who is, unusually some might say, paying a saxophone. The deep, graceful arch of the bridge is imprinted in shadow on the cliffs in front and a dark thread of river wiggles in to the shadows far beneath me. A few of the lights on the church start flashing through a spectrum of different colours, giving a distinctly disco atmosphere to the place. The colours reflect palely in the faces of the gigging angels lining the wall as I follow the path and am swallowed by darkness inside the shrine at the far end of the bridge. During the day, this small building, lined with soot covered steps, was filled with candles lit by daytrippers but all that remains in the fuggy heat of a hundred trapped flames and some dramatic wax spills. I breathe in the close, burnt smelling silence for a moment, gazing at a stub of candle that has been missed in the daily clean up operation. I wonder briefly about lighting a candle for Naoki who has remained at the back of our minds since we left Chachagüì but decide that , in my fairly ardent atheism, the sentiment would be misplaced here.
I turn and look out the door to find Jamie looking in at me, holding the camera. He takes a couple of photos in which I look like an M.R James story and then, with one last look at the blazing spectacle in front of us, we clamber back up the steps, past rotating guinea pigs on spits to try to find dinner. The tension of the last few days has begun to catch up with us and we find ourselves arguing in that tense, controlled manner of couples in restaurants. A man glances over at us and Jamie smiles with clenched teeth and rests his hands on the table. Everything is fine here! I huff through my nose muttering under my breath and Jamie rolls his eyes at me. The argument is a flimsy one though, an argument born of tiredness and bad moods and it cools as soon as we are presented with bowl of everything flavour soup followed by meat and rice with beans. I swallow the food dutifully, this being the latest in an awfully long line of identikit rice based dinners. We leave half an hour later, thanking the family who run the restaurant quietly and have to be let in by a new nun who nods at us and disappears immediately.
The sheets are cold and damp and the blanket does little to generate heat so Jamie scampers to the wonky bathroom to turn the shower on.
There’s hot water!
His disembodied head says as it peers round the door.
I yell and scramble in to the bathroom to take a fifteen second shower before the water runs cold and I am forced to shiver in the bathroom, trying desperately to dry off in the chilly, damp air with my horrible, scraggy travel towel that seems to repel water at moments like this. When I finally give up and hang the towel in the bathroom, I notice the undrained water in the shower tray is a curiously repulsive shade of grey brown. For a moment I am concerned that we were dustier than I realised but then it dawns on me that that’s just the colour of the water here. Perhaps they use it to douse naughty nuns as punishment? Maybe upstairs there’s a jacuzzi and long, hot, clean showers for everyone else and we are being punished for pretending we are married.
I get in to bed and sit for a while contemplating the weirdness of the situation. How did we end up in a convent in Colombia with only a filthy motorbike for company? I wonder. I look miserably at Jamie who is taking photos of me in our ridiculous room, so I put my hands together in prayer and look up angelically at the lightbulb. Jamie takes a photo and I feel immediately guilty like someone with a Prayer Veracitator 600 upstairs is attentively watching the twitching needle with an angry frown.
Our last night in Colombia passes frigidly and we wake with stiff muscles and gritty eyes to the five and a half hour old morning and quietly slip out the convent, taking Robin with us. Dozens of people are sleepily tumbling off tour buses and shambling down the road towards the church as we go and I am glad we got to see it when we did, before the undead arrived with their selfy sticks. We climb high in to the drizzly cloud before reaching the border that separates us from Ecuador. I don’t feel particularly enthused at the sight of it though it turns out to be one the easiest crossings in a long time without the confused tangle of unsigned huts and improvisational riff that has marked other borders.
We sail in to Ecuador an hour later with the obligatory,
So this is <insert new country here>!
conversation pieces and then fall quiet, only remarking now and again on the heightened organisation there seems to be here. We glide down wonderfully smooth, four lane highways, an elusive beast in Columbia, and gaze at the great, hulking and barren mountains crowding around us. Breakfast is a disorientatingly massive arrangement of meat and greasy rice, over scrambled eggs and a plate of biscuits served with little tubes of sour cream. To my dismay the biscuits, though buttery and crisp, are savoury not sweet and the white stuff I took to be sour cream are short worms of miscellaneous rubbery stuff that I can’t work out what to do with. All this, topped with juice and extremely bad coffee, totally finishes us and we give up only a third of the way through to the bewilderment of the family next to us. I gather up the pile of uneaten biscuits and cheese rubber and give them to an elderly lady I have seen staring at people’s food. She is sitting on a bench with a small bowl of donated meat stew and looks surprised to see me standing there. She takes the biscuits in her cool, wrinkled hands and murmurs some thanks in a language I don’t understand. Jamie is waiting atop Robin when I get back and we finish the last bit of our journey in a queasy funk, unhappily negotiating the traffic and sprawl of outer Quito.
Most visitors to Ecuador’s capital get mugged apparently. If not mugged, then at least pickpocketed. I decide, early on, to keep the memory as a souvenir of Quito if it happens to us but miraculously, it doesn’t. We walk the streets with nothing but a wallet and camera deep in Jamie’s zipped trouser pockets and nobody pays a moments notice. Our hostel is situated in a relatively posh bit of town but when we take the greasy bus in a cloud of stink and watch the city change in to an ugly, scarred and penniless hulk. We wade through street markets clutched in the shadow of rusted bridges, great piles of grinning pigs heads piled up and wreathed in smoke. I peer down from the bridge in to the pots of bubbling, miscellaneous food stuffs and wish we could try some but it seems wise not to stop so we flow with the crowd until we are spat out in a dirty but empty street on the other side.
There are no signs to the cable car but a taxi driver whistles and points the way so we climb the long, steep road, horribly out of breath in the 3000m thin air. The cable car, once we have found it amongst the abandoned visitor centres and rather pathetic theme park, will take us up to over 4000m. We wait in line as one of only about six cars on the cable works it’s ponderous way down to us. We climb in with a mother, her two boys and an American woman who professes to have been on many cable cars across the world.
A fellow cable car enthusiast!
I try not to shout. A shadow of confusion crosses her face.
Well, I have been on a few. I liked the one in Hong Kong.
She says quietly and I realise I have embarrassed myself with my nerdish confession and nod like a grown up before the car suddenly comes to a halt, bouncing slightly on the line at which point, everyone inside laughs. Saved by a faulty cable car. I think to myself, relieved, then join the others in looking at the door, giggling nervously, reading instructions in case of permanent residence at a height of three metres. Before I can find out though, the car chugs back in to life and we disappear in to the clouds. The mountainside almost vanishes completely in the thick fog. The brilliance of the dispersed sunlight in the cable car makes me squint and I don’t notice for a few minutes that we are nearing the top.
We jump lightly out a few minutes later and follow the small crowd out in to the open, drawing ourselves in slightly as we are met with a delicious, cold breeze. I stare out at the landscape we have ascended in to. From the knotted, grimy chaos below we have arrived suddenly in rural Scotland. Yellow green, misty mountains stretch in to the distance, cracked with peaty ravines and stoney, puddle dimpled paths. It is chilly and there is mud everywhere. The only sign we are far, far from home are the occasional bunches of tubular, red lillies pushing through the undergrowth, their insides spotted and glowing slightly as the clean, filtered light shines through the petals.
We pass an hour clambering about and disappearing down holes, staring at the view and watching the rolling clouds obscure the hilltops before heading back in to Quito. We try extremely hard but fail to get our own cable car and instead, share with three employees who talk about dinner all the way to the bottom. From there we catch another whiffy bus to the historic centre which turns out to be a world away from the city we have seen so far.
I buy a dollar bag of fresh, still warm quails eggs sprinkled with salt and eat them with a toothpick in a big square overlooked by a huge, colonial church and adjoining convent. A market clatters happily around us, piles of things I can’t imagine anyone would want next to bakery stands and drinks stands.There are piles of preserved fig and cheese sandwiches, cakes, sweet bread buns iced to look like babies and big, steaming crocks of colada morada. Today is Day Of The Dead, or Day Of The Deceased as it is known in Ecuador. There are no hipster skeletons here, the ceremony is very different, eat a gagua de pan (iced baby bread) and a cup of hot, spiced corn drink flavoured with mulberries and pineapple for brekky then head to the cemetery with a bunch of flowers for your recently deceased loved ones and hang out there for a bit cleaning things up and fondly remembering.
After racing all the way from Ipiales to get here in time for Halloween and Day Of The Dead, we are a little disappointed having seen only two zombies, a tiny spiderman and absolutely no dancing skeletons or street parties. However, town is busily thronging with people released from work by the national holiday and families stroll about clutching flowers. Later, wandering about the small but beautiful cemetery in Baños, a small spa town south of Quito, I come round to the Ecuadorian way of doing things. The graves are all above ground here, bricked in to glowing white tombs with pictures of those who have died and little plaques with the details of the occupant and a message from the family on each. The whole place is heaped with now slightly wilted but resplendent blooms pinging with colour against the white background. It suddenly seems like a nice tradition, free of fuss and tourism and straight to the point of the matter. This day is about keeping a memory alive and not turning away from the inevitable. I rather like that lack of squeamishness we seem to be missing at home. I wander the pathways slowly, reading the names and enjoying the silence, thinking briefly of Naoki and trying to imagine his name and face on one of these plaques.
Though we barely knew the man, his death has followed us here and doesn’t seem to want to release it’s grip. We are both tense and quiet in Quito, often snipping at each tetchily, sometimes arguing. The feeling pervades and follows us down to the thermal baths at Baños, to Cuenca, a beautiful city we don’t really enjoy much and over the Peruvian border. We miss Otavalo market, the biggest, most famous craft market in Ecuador because we just don’t really have the heart to stop. We don’t feel like pushing through more crowds, holding our pockets closed, covering the motorbike, locking our stuff away, haggling over small prizes. Something bright about this trip has dimmed and it becomes difficult to motivate ourselves to see any more churches and museums and stare appreciatively at any more views. Quito, though, is packed with colonial churches and we keep finding ourselves sat in creaking pews admiring the places quietly. At least in these ubiquitous five hundred year old buildings, we don’t have to engage much and no one seems to expect anything of us except a bit of quiet respect.
Those conquistadors really loved shiny things. The interiors of the great, hulking churches are touched as if by Midas. Every knob and curlicue in the places are a deep, yellow, glimmering gold. The ceilings are gold, the walls, the picture frames, the cherubs, the angels. If the decorators weren’t feeling the gilded look that day, then they painted fruit and stars and twisting vines everywhere instead, thousands of hours of work. And then they gold leafed the alter lavishly for fear of under dramatising. I sit quietly in the back pews watching tourists and worshippers alike, milling about and thinking caustically about where all those congregational donations go. My faced bathed in cynicism and an aurelian glow, I realise, it’s probably time to just cheer up and go for an icecream.
We slink quietly out and find a tiny icecream parlour in the square where I ask for two with everything. The woman looks pleased and brings us two big glasses overflowing with strawberries and melon, topped with scoops of bright yellow rum and raisin icecream and a big blog of shivering, merenguey foam. The foam is sweet and delicious and I ask her what exactly it is. She point to a fridge at a large, green fruit and says,
A big bucket of pinky red pulp sits in a bucket in the fridge and she explains that this is poured into the industrial mixer sitting in the doorway and whisked in to the quaking mound that we are currently spooning eagerly in to our faces. I am amazed. Who knew guava pulp could be turned in to meringue? I later find out that that stinky water from a tin of chickpeas can be whipped up into a frothy frenzy worthy of a lemon meringue pie as well, do miracles never cease?
We spend as much time as we can popping quails eggs and peering at beautiful buildings but ultimately, we are tired and in need of a bit of comfort so we head back early to our hostel room and spend an evening in, drinking dreadful wine and eating takeaway pizza, an activity that takes us easily right through to bedtime and then to a sleep in which I dream that Jamie has been replaced by a robot.
I am relieved when I wake up to find that Jamie seems totally human except for the early hour at which he likes to rise. He is already showered and dressed, clanking about with gear and insistently nudging me about getting ready to leave. I haul myself up and pour my tired body in to my dusty, smelly bike clothes and find myself sleepily waving off the kind hostel owner and watching Quito shrink away behind us.
We are bound for Baños, a town that seems as if it were hastily built from meccano and leftover concrete. It is filled with little shops, uncomfortably overcrowded with synthetic textiles with ‘Ecuador’ stitched across them and t shirts with crap slogans emblazoned across the front. However, there is a pleasant, bubbling atmosphere through which we stroll, halfheartedly peering in to shops until we find a backstreet restaurant with a $3 lunch menu. The customers and waitress double take us and it swiftly becomes clear that tourists don’t venture round these parts much. There is a slightly ridiculous, wooden place over the road called something like ‘Namaste’ where groups of beardy, blonde people in shorts and shades huddle over plates of falafel. The thought bubble over the customers heads here clearly says ‘why aren’t they swapping books and eating chickpea based dinners over there?’ but nonetheless we are made quite welcome and given soup with yucca chunks and plates of meat and rice followed by a little slab of brown cake which I give to Jamie on the basis that he will consume any dessert containing more sugar than all other ingredients together.
I order myself an Inca Kola, a luminous yellow fizzy drink that tastes of bubblegum and joy and immediately knocks me off my sanctimonious cake perch. It is my first bottle and I am immediately hooked. Like Irn Bru, it gives you that faint key sucking flavour and feeling in your mouth at the end of each mouthful and contains enough caffeine and sugar that you could climb to Macchu Picchu with your teeth. Assuming you have any left by that point.
The next morning sees us up bright and early, heading west out of town towards the El Salado thermal baths, one of six dotted around town. The Lonely Planet has told us that the baths are tucked precariously in to a ravine right under the local volcano, Tunguruhua and that because they are directly in the path of the eruption flow, should one occur, the place is unable to procure any public funding. It goes on to tell us to check the status of Tunguruhua and to avoid the place if things are looking dicey.
The volcano status page says ‘erupting’. I look out the window at the peak, frowning. Clouds of black smoke slow motion out of the top but no spitting lava, no pyroclastic flows.
It looks alright?
I say, accidentally phrasing it as a question.
Ah fuck it, let’s go. At least we’ll have relaxed muscles if the volcano explodes…
Jamie agrees and we find ourselves soon surrounded by the town’s octogenarian population enjoying a discussion about the finer points of travel in Ecuador and sitting in sulphurous, brown, bubbling waters. Jamie is asked how we are travelling about and is met with delighted interest when he describes Robin Rawhide to them. One man in the background looks at him with disbelief and shakes his head, refusing to believe our outlandish tales of 13,000 mile motorcycle journey.
An American family splash about with their three kids who soon crowd round exclaiming,
Mom! They speak our language!
with excitement and showing us how to head stand under water.
Have you seen any monkeys?
I ask them and they nod their heads vigorously before telling us about all the parrots they have encountered too. Once they leave, waving to us at ten metre intervals as they depart, we are alone with the locals who roll about in the hot waters and chat amongst themselves, occasionally watching us with interest as we get in to the hottest pool and outlasting us by miles once we are in.
Thoroughly overheated and pink cheeked, we climb down the ladder in to the cold pool to make funny noises and try not to scream. A large man lowers himself with dignity down the ladder and sinks, unperturbed in to the icy water and I am forced, by shame to harden up and shut up. When we are finally ready to go, I have the whole act down and am sloshing in and out of the various pools with abandon. We are waved goodbye by our new friends as if we might belong.
I buy a small bowl of what turns out to be lupin seed ceviche at the little kiosk and spoon in the unusual snack as we wander back down the hill with playdough like muscles and a sense of extreme well being. The next day will see us back for more at the more popular baths in town which lie directly under a tall waterfall which is lit up in green at night. I feel fairly certain that if I lived here, I would just live in the baths, eschewing a house for the comforts of the steaming, hot water.
The largest of the pools is refilling very slowly when we arrive so the large queue of people join us steadily in the smaller pool next door. They seemingly have no sense of when to stop getting in and we flee for our lives as people continue to stream in. Downstairs there is a small pool heated to searing temperatures by the volcanic tides lapping beneath us. We hurry down to it in the chilly night air and gasp aloud as we get in. My feet sing unpleasantly at me and my body breaks out in confused goosepimples as I wade in wincing. I last approximately 3 minutes before I am forced to get out, light headed and vision crumbling at the edges. I gratefully sink in to the cold pool, a mixture of bright relief and dreadful confusion playing in my synapses.
Just as my brain has adjusted and calmed itself down. I get back in the hot pool and this time, I do it like a pro. No squeaking, no faces, dead calm in and sit down baking quietly and watching the faces of others entering the pool for the first time. My skin feels like it is trying to solve a difficult maths problem and I burn my toes on the bubbling vents at the bottom but this time, I make it through five whole blistering minutes before I need a chilly dunk. I find Jamie in the cold pool as well sporting a fetching shade of cochineal and looking similarly synaptically challenged. I suggest we go upstairs to sit on a bench and calm ourselves which we do to find that the crowds upstairs have taken, more or less, to sitting on each other, in their haste to get more people in to the pool.
It’s a wonderfully, typically Latin American sight. Can’t fit? Can’t fit? Of course you can fit. We can all fit. We like fitting. Come on! In England, fifteen people would sit edgily distant from each other while a crowd ranged about restlessly looking in waiting for a space and sending bugger off vibes to the lucky bathers. Here, everyone is welcome even if you have to sit on your neighbour’s lap.
To our left, though, are a couple in their late sixties mediating on a bench. They are Ecuadorian and are both cross legged, hands on thighs, eyes closed, clearly in a pleasant space all of their own. I gaze at them for a while trying to work out why it feels like another long division problem. Then it comes to me. Not once in the last four months of travel in Latin America, have I seen anyone who looked even remotely concerned with head space, personal space or a bit of quiet time. The limb filled, churning, steaming pool chattering with happy conversation to our right has been the norm. Who are these two? I wonder and catch Jamie perplexed by the same thoughts.
Is it me or is that a bit unusual?
He whispers. I nod.
And we watch them quietly in the night air, the waterfall spilling down the glistening, black rock face in front of us, steam rising gently from the pools, Spanish clattering across the breeze. After a while, they each open their eyes, stretch their legs and blink for a while. The man stands up to join his wife, pulling his belly in as he does so. They sit together chatting quietly for a while, unaware they are being observed.
Aren’t we lucky to be here?
I say to Jamie and he sits up and breathes in, looking up at the green lights sizzling under the cascading water.
He murmurs in agreement and we fall quiet, enjoying the little bubble of calm we are sitting in and listening to the sounds around us as the evening draws to a close.
– a hot, spiced berry drink made for Day Of The Deceased and served with bread buns drizzled in icing. I asked our hostel owner for her recipe but never got it so here is one I have adapted for ingredients it is possible to buy in the uk
Ingredients- this will make loads. Divide the recipe as you need!
250g purple or black corn flour- you can buy this online or in specialist South American shops or, though lacking the colour, I suspect you can happily use ordinary cornflour.
400g physalis fruit, pulped – also known as cape gooseberry, they are the little, orange fruits that come in little papery lanterns. Can’t afford them? Can’t get them? Use kiwi or gooseberries instead or even 150g cherry tomatoes and make up the rest with strawberries
500g blackberries (frozen or fresh)
500g blueberries (frozen or fresh)
500g strawberries, sliced
1 pineapple, peels and core + 500g finely diced
5-6 cinnamon sticks
4-5 whole cloves
4-5 all spice berries
400g panela or brown sugar
A few lemon verbena leaves, fresh or dry- lemon balm works as a substitute or some shavings of lemon zest in a fix
A few lemongrass leaves, fresh or dry
2 pieces orange peel
2 litres plus 1 litre more water
Place the pineapple skins and core, cinnamon, spices and panela or brown sugar in a large pot with 2 litres of water. Boil for about 20-25 minutes.Add the lemon verbena, lemongrass, and orange peel.Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove and strain.In a separate pot, add 1 litre of water with the blueberries and blackberries, boil for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool down until safe to handle, blend and strain.Mix the cup of the purple corn flour with 1 cup of the spice pineapple liquid until well diluted.Add the strained berry mix, the physalis or substitutes, the spiced pineapple liquid and the diluted purple flour mix to a large pot.Cook over medium heat, stir constantly to keep it from sticking, bring to a boil.Add the pineapple chunks and reduce to simmer for about 10 minutes.Remove from the heat, add the strawberry slices. Serve warm or cold.