Monday, August 1, 2011

Hitchhiking Girls (Pt1)

Occasionally I'd let tidbits about my alter ego leak out.  "You've hitchhiked?! I've never met a girl who's done that." said the VP of Development at an after work happy hour.  An older white man with a grey afternoon shadow, he carried his effects in a red Victorinox backpack.  He'd just told his hitchhiking story, so I figured it was time for one of mine.

There was the time after college when I worked at Yosemite National Park as a room cleaner.  Out of college and feeling bigger than the granite face of Half Dome, I posted on a Camp 6 message board for a ride to Oregon, "Money for Gas."  A couple of really cute rock climbers (are there any other?) from U of O responded and let me tag along in the back seat of their Accord, all the way to Rogue Brewery in Portland.

There was the time my friend, driving a classic tank size Volvo station wagon, drove over a fatty papa deer on  some random hi-way in Massachusetts.  Saturday night, the tow truck driver took us to the only shop in town, darkened and closed till Monday.  It was November and the tow truck driver dropped us off on the highway on-ramp.  No family in the area to rescue us, we started walking in the cold with our thumbs out.  Me in a black Columbia fleece, just a lone thumb shining in the headlights.  On the way up North, we'd picked up a hitchhiker trying to reach a sick family member, and ended up taking him four hours out of our way.  I thought we might have earned some good karma.  But after a mile of walking it started to rain cold, I stuffed my frozen hand in my pocket between cars.  As if an angel heard, right at the moment my mind dipped into uncertainty and doubt, a silver Civic came to a quick halt.  The dude gave us a ride all the way back to Vermont.  He even bought us a case of beer!

Then there was the time in Ecuador when Ellen and I hitched rides on boats all the way down the Morona river to Peru.  We rode buses (one that broke down along the way) to a port town along a river shared with Peru.  We had no information on whether travel to Peru via this river was even possible.  The Lonely Planet Ecuador offered no help, only stated, "We do not have much information on this area of Ecuador, please report back to us if you travel here."  The Peruvian Lonely Planet guide didn't even attempt to mention this region.

From the map we could see the river meandered more than others, indicating old, ancient, and slow.  We hoped this made it more likely used for lay transport.
We were right.  Of course we never reported back to Lonely Planet on the gem of a region encountered in the southeast of Ecuador.  That would ruin it for the next group of travelers destined to stay off the beaten path.  Tourists travel to Ecuador for Quito, for Inca ruines, for the Galapagos, for the mountains and hot springs.  Unfortunately, in all those places we felt preyed upon, like a piece of red Yankee meat in the shape of a dollar bill.

The southeast jungle of Ecuador struck us as markedly different.  No interactions involved dollars.  People acted from genuine hospitality, curiosity, and desire to show their culture and livelihood.  We loved the shift.

Our bus arrived in Port Morena at first blush.  It stopped where the road ended; abruptly at the bank of the river.  Passengers headed to the town would need to disembark, cross by ferry (a little motor boat) and pick up taxis or walk from the other side.  It was softly raining, and the air filled with hustle and bustle of a small port in the early morning.  Day break in the jungle in the rain still feels pretty hot and I quickly found some dude who didn't look busy, walking around in his underwear: burgundy briefs.  He smiled with his whole face and listened to our idea of hoping a ride to Peru.  "Follow me." Ellen and I left our backpacks on the gravel, unattended for the first time ever in the country.  "I don't know why, I just feel I an trust people here."  Ellen said.  He walked us to a riverside shack where a Peruvian fishermen and wife fixed breakfast.

Yes, he travels between Ecuador and Peru catching a type of catfish called Zungaro and selling to villages and towns along the river.  Yes, we could ride with him.  No, we didn't have to pay him anything for the ride.  They shared their plentiful coffee and breakfast: ceviche, made from fresh caught fish and lime.  Ceviche is Peru's national dish or raw fish cooked in lime juice.  I had no idea you could eat it for breakfast, but it sure hit the spot.

When the morning rain stopped, we left in a small covered motor boat that rested just inches above the mud colored water.  We passed four border stops along the way, all men who gawked at the rare white women, and the even rarer long blond dreadlocks.  Our host, Artiso, picked up two Army hitchhikers and also stopped to steal a batch of turtle eggs, which I guess is not illegal in Ecuador since the Army men were in the boat at the time (eating turtle eggs is illegal in Brazil).
"This is not illegal?"
"No No." - they kind of chuckled.  "Not yet."

Artiso left us off at a small river town of 40 families while he went to drop off the Army men.  They house tons of domesticated jungle animals like monkeys, toucans, macaws, and also kittens, dogs, chickens, ect.  The town people were so chill and so full of questions.  A group of men, women, and wide eyed kids escorted us to a benched shack made of wood.  We sat with the group.  Almost all the men and boys wore dingy soccer shirts from various Latin American teams.  The women wore plain, solid color shirts and skirts.  We spent lunch talking politics and drinking chi-cha, wine made from the mastication of yucca root by the town woman.  Yeah, we didn't know our drink came pre-chewed until AFTER we had already tried it.
They wanted to know about American movies, about racial equality, income distribution, and about 9/11.

Artiso returns to retrieve his personal Gringa friends, and he says the Peruvian border control needs to see us.  Turns out we can't cross.  Screw that - we angrily return, worried we'll need to bribe ourselves out of the situation.  How do you bribe someone in a different language?  For that matter, how do you bribe someone in English?  Neither of us had ever practiced that kind of tact.

At the base, the Captain is a weirdo character with one of those cheesy crocked smiles that grows and shrinks almost like a nervous twitch.  When dealing with people in another language, one you do not know very well, 80% of the interchange comes via non-verbal communication.  The Captain sat accross from us at his desk, looking with scrunched eye brows and a little girl smile.  Like he was trying so hard to make us like him and appear cute, but simultaneously assert power and authority.  After a couple confusing hours with him awkwardly flirting with us, they let us leave.  First we get a lesson in the native jungle traps they've reconstructed, and get to meet his pet parrots.  He was very proud of these things.  They asked us to pose for  pictures with them, like they were the tourists and we were the experience.

We're finally released and the sun sets.  Now we're trucking down the river in the pitch dark, by way of a week flashlight.  It sure seemed bright in the humid blackness.  Everything was dark minus the occasional fireflies and glaring eyes of caymen resting on the banks.  Artiso finds a river beach for us to "camp" on (sleep on the sand).  I remember the large feline paw tracks, and feeling so frightened that one of those caymen would encroach upon us in our sleep.

And that day was just the beginning of a world of adventure.  To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...