The Rio Quijos Eco Lodge sits not far from the bank of its namesake river, a well-known and -regarded star in the constellation of meaningful places in the river kayaking world, with many miles of class four and five rapids though the stretch the lodge sits on is lazy and calm. Across the river is a wall of green, forty feet high and infinitely detailed, overwhelming in its undulous profusion. The perimeter of the well-maintained property is the same, trees stacked on bushes competing with palms and bamboo for space in the alluvial soil. Banana plants grow between the stone-lined gravel pathways that lead between newly built cabins and a large timber and stone lodge. Off to one side, a ragged net hangs on a volleyball court whose edges are growing in. The lodge is simple and rustic, made from local materials (funny how the locavore lifestyle we pay such a premium for in Seattle is just how life is in much of the world), and pleasingly authentic, the furniture made from fitted stripped logs, the interior subtly modern, the rooms walled with rough-cut planks stained a pleasing and comfortable dark walnut color.
Michael was downstairs when I woke up, stretched out on the more-aesthetic-than-functional couch watching Netflix. His color was improved, and he looked to be in good spirits, though he was still pretty weak. I met Kathy, the lady in charge, and she made me breakfast while another man — whose name I never learned but who also worked at the lodge — kept yelling ‘El Toro!’ at Michael and telling me Michael’s problem was too much masturbating. I agreed, but I agreed much more with Kathy’s opinion that it was likely some kind of food-borne parasite that had done Michael in. I was inclined to agree, both because she probably sees this kind of thing all the time and because Michael is always hungry (that he hadn’t eaten in days told me a lot about how sick he’d been) and not always picky about what or where he eats. Kathy was obviously quite taken with Michael, who has the sort of unthinking charisma that both causes and comes from things just kind of working themselves out in his favor most of the time. It gives him the sunniest outlook, and because he’s genuinely happy most of the time people respond very positively to his presence, which perpetuates the cycle (a quick f’rinstance: on his way down to Ecuador, Michael managed to get his river kayak, packed with gear, checked onto the airplane for free, just by being Michael and saying ‘aw, shucks, I didn’t know’). As super-powers go, it’s a pretty good one.
But every super-power has a downside. Intestinal parasites are immune to charisma, and because things mostly work out for Michael he hadn’t done his traveler’s due diligence before coming to Ecuador. He hadn’t gone to a travel clinic and made sure his immunizations were updated and that he got whatever vaccines might be necessary for where he was going. He didn’t have a bottle of wide-spectrum antibiotics just in case, or a stash of over-the-counter vitamins and meds to keep his body strong. He’d declined the fifty or sixty extra bucks for the catastrophic travel insurance (you know, to deal with situations exactly like this one) when he bought his plane ticket. He hadn’t even learned any Spanish.
And it had worked until the parasite. After all, here we were, in gringo paradise, because Michael, being Michael, had scored a gig as a river guide for the tour company occupying the eco lodge, who were putting him up for free in this lovely gringo bubble in paradise.
At least he picked a good spot to get sick in.
Given there was no immediate urgency, I decided for both our sakes to take the day to relax. We drank coffee and watched movies, and I played facebook and did internet research on leptospirosis, which the local docs had wanted to test Michael’s blood for but didn’t have the tech on-hand. Later that afternoon, the kayakers returned from their day on the river (one of them with a pretty good shiner), and the mood soon turned convivial. Beers were cracked, and the other guide, a friend of Michael’s named Daniel (who spoke much better Spanish than I do, and seemed like he spent a fair bit of his time down thisaway) started mixing rounds of shots, with vodka and tomato juice and random fruit that he’d picked from the trees outside. Elated and exhausted as folks will be after a day of guided adventure, the camaraderie was contagious, and I spent a couple of hours alternating between joining in and conferring with Kathy about getting a taxi back to Quito the next day. After awhile they all went off to dinner somewhere, and soon after, Michael and I did the same.
Kathy called us a taxi and sent us along to what I’m guessing was the nicest restaurant in El Chaco, the next town over. We sat in the empty, open room, while our driver waited outside, and I was heartened to see Michael eat about half a plate of roast chicken and rice. I got the signature dish, which was basically a portion of every protein on the menu piled onto a lake of refried beans lapping at the shores of a mountain of rice with a fried egg and some plaintain slices (also fried). The only other people there were a group of well-to-do local kids in the corner, playing with their phones and sipping cokes and snapping their fingers at the waiter.
We went back to Rio Quijos, and Michael went to bed. I stayed up for awhile, talking with the man who kept calling Michael ‘El Toro!’ every five minutes and Daniel, the other guide and Michael’s roommate. They told me about a dam project nearby being built by the Chinese that the locals all thought was doomed because of silt backfill, and I told them about the snafu with the tunnel in Seattle. Daniel and I turned out to have gone to the same middle school (although ten years apart) in Florida, and had traveled in a few of the same places. Daniel was also quite taken with Michael (in a dude way, obviously), who is, to his credit, hard-working and enthusiastic in addition to being of such sunny disposition.
I was up til four or five again, and took a few-hour nap before getting up to meet our driver at eight. His name was Pedro, and Pedro was the man.
I paid Kathy, who insisted I write to tell her how Michael was doing once he’d got home and recovered, and expressed her affection for him once again. My spacious room with attached bath turned out to be twenty-five dollars a night, and the good scotch was three bucks a pop.
We tossed our gear (Michael sold his kayak to the El Toro guy, making life that much easier) into the back of Pedro’s brand new smallish SUV and the two of us and Eduardo climbed inside. Off to Quito.
Pedro’s driving style was similar to my first driver’s, but more subdued, less jarring. Or maybe I just noticed it less, since I could see what I had missed driving in in the middle of the night.
Maybe you’ve driven through mountains. Young mountains, the kind with sharp edges and sudden dropoffs. There’s a river nearby, cutting its twisty channel between rises; sometimes you see waterfalls.
Maybe you’ve been somewhere tropical, somewhere so lush with life that you couldn’t walk from A to B without a machete or a bulldozer leading the way. Green everywhere, lustrous even in lackluster lighting, shades and nuance and whole regimes of verdancy competing for every scrap of arable soil, every clear patch of sunlight, every missed photon that fell through the canopy.
Superimpose the two, and that’ll give you some idea. Big mountains covered in jungle. Just absolutely gorgeous country, too big for photography to capture, at least if your camera’s a smartphone inside a moving vehicle.
Then we went over a pass, and the land on the other side was drier, the mountains more sparsely decorated. I opened my Kindle, settled back into Hild, and didn’t look up until we were climbing the ridge up to Quito, which fills a thirty-mile mountain valley up completely. It was in Quito where Pedro’s the man-ness really shone through. We’d talked for a while on the drive, made friends a bit, and Kathy had briefed him on Michael’s situation before we left. He drove us past Gringolandia to our (fancy, four-star, because why not?) hotel, where we dropped off our bags and checked in — the guy at the front desk had the smoothest, most mellifluous English I may ever have heard spoken — then drove us to a clinic nearby that could do Michael’s blood-work, went in with us and arranged a three-hour turnaround for the results, then drove us the four blocks back to the hotel so we’d know how to get back there when it was time to go get them. I paid him what I hope was generously for his time and trouble, and then Michael and I wandered around getting lost for an hour or two until we found our way to the big plaza in the middle of the Mariscal Sucre (aka Gringolandia), where we ate some barbecue and watched not much happen for an hour or so.
We went back to the clinic to get Michael’s results, only getting turned around once or twice this time. They came back negative, which was good. Even better, our room would be ready at the fancy hotel, which was only a few blocks away. We bought some big bottles of water and made our way back.
The Hotel Reina Isabel has a super-modern feel, like an idealized first class airport lounge. The decor is understated, muted colors mixed with stone and wood and sprinkled with low-slung leather couches and recessed lighting from above and below. The soundtrack has a decidedly internationalist lounge feeling, like if you made a Thievery Corporation Pandora station, the music as soothing as the rest of the vibe, with just enough of a backbeat to keep from lulling you to sleep. Our room was spacious, and nicely- if just a bit awkwardly-appointed. I was a little dismayed to find there was no air conditioning, but it turned out not to matter after I cracked a window.
Exhausted for our various reasons, Michael and I both crashed out pretty hard. I woke up a few hours later, hungry again, and went down to the bar to read and grab a bite to eat. I had some kind of Ecuadorian lamb stew and chatted with the only other person in the bar, an American woman living in Canada who was on vacation with her mother and a tour group of her mother’s contemporaries who were off to see the Galapagos the next morning. Tonight was her only chance to do anything social, though she was loth to leave the hotel’s secure confines, which I didn’t blame her for, being on her own and not speaking Spanish and, well, being a woman, which ramps up the potential for danger whatever city you’re in.
After the bar closed and we parted ways, I took Michael’s phone, which worked (mine still didn’t except as a wifi device), and called the airline. I changed my ticket to the following night (seemed like all the flights back stateside left just after midnight) and bought Michael one, too. His flight home had a connection in Houston, and Dad and I had agreed earlier that a direct flight, flying together, would probably be best; maybe Michael could turn his original return ticket into airline credit. That done, I called my girlfriend and talked for awhile, and then finally went to bed, again at four or five am, local time.
We woke up for the free breakfast, and I brought Michael up to speed on the plan. I’d been feeding him oregano oil and probiotics three or four times a day for a few days now, and he’d been sleeping something like fourteen or sixteen hours a day, so he was looking much better, though I could tell his vital spirits were still somewhat diminished. But he was eating, and cogent, almost back to his normal self. We spent a while talking about how he’d got himself into this situation (not buying traveler’s insurance, not going to a travel clinic before leaving, just generally assuming everything would work out), and I was as gentle with him as I could be, given my degree of annoyance when he said “I didn’t do anything wrong!”
We slept off most of the rest of the day, and ventured out of the hotel that night to grab dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant run by a bald, friendly Scot that Michael remembered from an earlier visit to Quito with the tour group. The pho was good, and the guy remembered Michael, and we chatted with him after dinner awhile before heading back to the Reina Isabel to shower and pack up for our 12:30 flight. We caught a ride in another brand-new midsize SUV the desk attendant called for us, and watched the lights outside the window as the driver drove us up and out of Quito and onto the brand new highway to the airport. We checked in, passed security, and ate a late dinner at the Outback Steakhouse in the terminal. Then, just after midnight, we boarded our plane back to Atlanta.
I’d been in Ecuador for about ninety-six hours. It was my forty-second birthday.