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Ecuador: Michael Laws

When political commentator Michael Laws arrived in Ecuador, he was struck by two things: the tiny size of the people and the horror of the toilets. But his 16-day journey, from high altitude colonial towns to lush Amazon jungle, soon revealed much more...

Day One: Quito
First impressions? Dusty, dirty, fading Spanish architecture and, at 3000m, my breathlessness is not provoked by the surroundings. I know I must leave the mindset of coming from a first world country and tolerate such things if I'm to survive the next 16 days. The women are darker, smaller, prettier and much thinner than their NZ counterparts -- very petite, very groomed. Much of South America is made up of mestizo -- a mix of Indian and Spanish which might account for both the size and the colouring. The men are good looking too, particularly the young men, but there are stuff all good looking middle-aged men or women. What happens, I wonder, at 40? Do they simply implode? Had my first experience with a public toilet -- I shuddered before, during and after the event. Quito is charming and cheap and that's what any tourist wants. Sure, its grimy and the people are the size of Mini-me, but there's a certain frisson about being a foot taller than everyone. I have a feeling that this is as civilised as it will get -- although I already know I'm not going to get used to the toilets. Apparently their sewage pipes are too narrow to accommodate toilet paper so you put it in a wicker basket three inches from your nose! And it stays there! All day long!!! What's THAT about???

Day Two: Quito
I wake with a tummy upset and homesick. I think they're related because I want to be back in my home, in my own bed, with Leo at my side, with the knowledge that a clean bathroom exists beyond the bedroom door. Next stop, the dirtiest, smelliest, dustiest bus station ever. All the buses are painted in different bright colours, probably to identify each to their drivers amidst the putrescence haze. The buses are probably 1960s models but belch diesel as if in joyous celebration that they actually go. After any number of false starts, I finally leave for Papallacta, famed for its hot springs. An Indian family, poor, dirty and traditionally garbed, join me and are wonderfully photogenic company. They were introduced to the word "Fuck!" when my newly-purchased Kodak camera jammed its winding mechanism, ruined the film inside and the camera itself. I tossed it from the moving bus in a rage which popped the eyes of the Indian man but made everyone else laugh. I have now lost my good jacket and the PC mouse, (in Auckland), some spare medicine (in Santiago), and now the camera. Everyone finds this amusing and decrees I should visit a traditional shaman in the jungle to ward off the forgetful curse.

Day Three: Pappallacta
The lodge itself is astounding -- modern, Lockwood-type chalets with thatched roofs that grow flowers and various grasses. The pools are all in the middle of these chalets and it's not unlike Taupo. The Spanish place names and thatched roofs aside, I could be in New Zealand. The countryside is green with a good spread of clover and tussock grasses climb steep hills. It could be Coromandel or any hill country scene which is both reassuring and disappointing, I guess.

Day Four: Tena, Amazon Jungle
I'm livid. My pack is soaked through as a result of typical Ecuadorian efficiency. The luggage goes on top of buses here and upon entering the fringe of the rain forest, guess what? It rained. Sure I was upset but the truth remains. We passed lush, fertile land but it was entirely undeveloped, peopled by peasant farmers with one pig and a subsistence crop in the field. There is rubbish everywhere -- and I mean everywhere. Once an Ecuadorian has finished with something it is heaved only as far as the arm will carry it. There is rubbish on roofs, on the street, on footpaths and all over the countryside. Where there is a human, there will be a decaying mini-rubbish dump alongside. If the world is relying upon South Americans to conserve the rain forest then we are destined for despair. This place has outstanding scenery ruined by ignorant public planners. But so much potential lies untapped, the poor live in wretched hovels, and the environment is threatened by rapacious developers. Mate, this is a systemic failure.

Day Five: Tena, Amazon Jungle
I'm fasting to reduce the number of trips to the dreaded banos but also to prepare for tonigh's drug trip. The shaman is introducing the group to a natural hallucinogen (aya-huasca) that produces visions. The effect is more powerful the less food in the stomach -- but the expected side-effects of vomiting and diarrhoea also put me off eating. I do NOT want to do this but these are the sacrifices you make for "the viewers at home". Which is why I tasted the Amazonian equivalent of a hu-hu grub, ate lemon ants and let another variety of ants bite me. All for dramatic effect. NONE of these things I would normally contemplate -- indeed, watching at home, I would think "bloody idiot". Well, I'm now a bloody idiot. There is something magic about this place. It has nothing -- no hot water, no electricity, no flush loo, no TV, no telephone, no internet, no alcohol, no sex (nor even its prospect), but anything that can cure my edgy uncertainty, anything that can permeate my western cynicism, my love of comfort and hygiene, has got to be enchanted. And something else. In the entire 48 hours in the jungle village I saw not one Indian child cry -- heard not one raised voice nor observed not one false glance. These people are content. Content with nothing and yet smart enough to know that we western tourists can provide a greater measure of material comfort. They seem to have combined the best of two worlds -- a warm welcoming tourism and a security in their culture and lifestyle.

Day Six: Banos
Banos is Ecuador's equivalent of Queenstown except it lies directly beneath the 5000m Volcan Tungurahua (sounds very Maori), an active volcano that last erupted in late 1999 and forced the town to evacuate. The locals fought a pitched battle with police and army units to regain access to the town, their homes and their livelihoods. At least one person was killed in these clashes and scores injured but, eventually, the authorities succumbed. A man can only be separated from his Spanish language TV soap opera for only so long. I experienced Banos' rather anaemic nightlife. The highlight being a visit to a funeral right next door to the noisiest bar and thence to a coffin outlet nestled amongst the town's restaurants. I shopped for a coffin in pidgin Spanish and settled on one with plastic religious icons and flashing lights. Apparently they stay on as the coffin is lowered into the grave. I want one of those. I was also introduced to Ecuador's national delicacy, cuy or guinea pig.?Head and paws on, a wooden stick is jammed up its arse.?Impaled from tail to teeth it's slowly roast over a smoking fire. $2.50 US. I gotta tell you - they look good.

Day Seven: Riobamba
Heading out of Banos on another bus, I'm feeling unwell -- whether from the onset of a cold or due to a glass of freshly pressed sugar cane juice, I don't know. Anyway I'm sitting up front and taking advantage of one of the few paved roads. Tonight we stay at Hostal de Trano. The rooms are named after the train excursion from Riobamba to El Nariz del Diablo (the nose of the Devil) where, apparently, you sit on the roof for five freezing hours and get covered with soot, steam, smoke and other such crap. I have a cold and a badly sunburned face so am not happy. Would prefer to stay IN the carriage.

Day Eight: Devil's Nose
Ah yes, the ride to El Nariz. It begins by mounting your carriage at five in the morning.? You eschew the relative comfort and warmth of the carriages and instead bundle yourself in as many thick thermals that will wrap your body and expose yourself to the elements.? I'm sorry but the scenery was no better than Central Otago. Some of the vistas are magnificent -- one sweeping valley plunged away from the train track so much that you had the feeling you were in a light plane suspended in the clouds. But seven hours to see a nob of rock??? Nah. Definitely the low-light of the Ecuadorian venture for me - a classic tourist trap. Advice: spend the extra hours in bed. Better still - avoid Riobamba (the train's departure point) altogether. They say Invercargill is the arsehole of the world. Mate, they've never been to Riobamba.

Day Nine: Cuenca
A stunning place. Quite the most beautiful city I have ever seen or will ever likely see. The architecture is Spanish colonial dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It has the oldest church in Ecuador and the cobblestone streets and shop frontages are classic Spanish medieval. There's also an ambience about Cuenca. It's cleaner, smarter and wealthier than Quito but also much more stylish. My virus has worsened and I don't want to be anywhere but bed so for Cuenca to make this impression, to push through my mood, it must be something else. I've had enough of two-star hotels so I checked out of the airless room I had been assigned and checked into a three-star model around the corner with a wonderful view of aged, tiled rooftops and church spires and even an adjoining "lounge". Great loo too -which came in handy because I have crapped no less than 18 (yes, that's 18) times. A vile yellow putrescence with no solid matter.

Day Ten: Cuenca
Like many South American countries, the police are unreliable. Most large stores, every bank, insurance company and foreign exchange employ armed guards. They flaunt their array of weapons with a disconcerting macho. I feel reassured rather than threatened, but I'm not so sure I would want to be around when shooting starts. The Latin temperament is not known for its concern for innocent bystanders. I inspected various weapons close up and can report they are very much loaded with a shell up the breach and fingers rubbing the safety catch. Go ahead punk and make my day. At no stage, not even lost in the wilds of the Quito bus station, did I ever feel danger or physical threat. The authorities have gone to a great deal of trouble to make Ecuador safe for tourists but so too do the locals. Not for nothing have Ecuadorians a reputation for being the friendliest people on the continent. Any crimes against tourists are confined to pick pocketing, the old-slash-the-bag-and-run routine, or serving Ecuadorian wine. The wine here is a crime against humanity. You can taste the anti-freeze. And not much else.

Day Eleven: Cuenca
I cannot dance -- I have no rhythm. My only passion is rugby and I hate being touched in sensitive places by strange males. Nothing, I repeat, nothing prepared me for Victor and his salsa dancing class. I am in the merciless grip of the bot and the last thing I want to do is induce the giardia by wriggling my hips. Just breathing seemed hard enough. Victor took the opportunity of a film crew to parade his dubious credentials as a dancing maestro to an international audience. He was an Amdram queen -- as camp as a Hero Parader on GBH and he laid his hands on me. Lord, I haven't felt those sort of edgy quivers since I was a prepubescent third former at boarding school. Yuk. A cute little girl was my dancing partner and she wrapped her body around me like a coil and so exposed further my rhythmic inadequacies. But she was pretty, lively, good fun and even dancing with an aged gringo didn't spoil her sense of sport.

Day Twelve: Flying back to Quito
I love Ecuadorian air travel not just because I'm not on a grimy, belching bus, but because it is a true adventure. You're, literally, taking your life in your hands. It is bourgeois travel with fares way too expensive for the poor or even working class -- you'll find no hatted Indians on these flights and no supersaver fares or similar. There are no assigned seat numbers, no window or aisle seats for Koru Club members, not even the chance for families or partners to sit together. There is one simple rule: first in, first served. The departure gong rings, the security doors open and everyone sprints, and I mean sprints, for the fuselage. It's as close to a Catholic Mass as I'll ever come. The same rush to the Communion rail repeated every day on every domestic Ecuadorian flight. But that's only half the experience. Coming into Quito is one of the most dangerous flights in the world. The problem is not simply that the airport is located at sufficient height (3000m) to be subject to vicious crosswinds but that the proximate peaks create downdrafts and turbulence patterns all of their own. In addition, Quito airport is slap-bang in the middle of downtown -- like Auckland's airport being at Eden Park. You can observe various families at either prayer, play or pastime as you descend, not so much past their homes as into them. It's an unnerving experience until you think, "When was the last time an Ecuadorian airliner got into fatal trouble?" Oh yeah, last week!

Day Thirteen: Cayambe
I'm off by lurching bus to the Hacidena Guachala, the oldest hacienda in Ecuador built at the end of the sixteenth century. Now the local equivalent of a stately home, it takes backpackers and budget travellers to make ends meet. It is both charming and rustic, alluring and run-down. There are open fires in every room and no wonder. Despite being a few kilometers from the equator, it gets very cold at night. It's also very dry. The idea that dairy cattle flourish in these parts amazes me. Hate to see the cheese! I had roast cuy and I can't say it was an enriching experience. Looking like it was retrieved from a forest fire, it was so charred and chewy that divining the taste would have been a job for Hannibal Lecter. Squeamish diners did not try the dish and didn't miss much. The roadside cuy at Banos looked infinitely more inviting and tasty. Still, been there, done that.

Day Fourteen: Otavalo
Otavalo and it's extraordinary market are justifiably world famous. Not Lemon & Paeroa famous, but global-stellar stuff. Their fame is based upon the incredible weaving skills of the local Indians, so esteemed that the best Scots weavers would come here to learn new skills and marvel at the colour, intricacy and the design work of their Indian counterparts. You instantly recognize the prosperity of the locals. They're cleaner, taller, prouder than their indigenous counterparts. The men wear white pantaloons and their hair in styled ponytails, the women brightly coloured garments with puff sleeves and gold jewellery. And, get this. They wear it everyday. It's not fancy dress. Otavalo has two markets -- the tourist market starting about 8am and the animal market that starts in the frosty dark and is strictly intended for the outlying Indian farming population. It's like an A&P Show gone bad -- a covert weirdness as if all the locals have come to gawp at each other as much as trade in animal stick. Having said that, the Otavalo animal market impressed me because of the casual cruelty to the animals. It's strange how such peaceful people can be so offhand with livestock. Many farmers still share their houses with their pigs, chickens and goats but everyone stood and watched a huge sow that had just been separated from her piglets looking ready to suicide. For the next hour she provided infinite entertainment as she squealed, foamed and raged about the place.

Day Fifteen: Otavalo
Sometimes I think I'm gay, otherwise how do you explain my absolute delight at haggling with the shopkeepers, being intrigued by the different stalls and fascinated by the range of goods on display. My mother would be proud. Got some great bargains. The wall hangings/mats are just so impressive. I bought three ranging from $US20 to $US30 and they'd retail for ten times that back home. Can already see where they will go in the lounge. But don't bring travellers cheques because they are cashed only in bigger cities. It's the same for credit cards -- no zip zaps in the wop wops. Talk about me being a creature of habit. My first day in Quito I actually produced my Eftpos card and looked for the terminal. Must have been the altitude.

Day Sixteen: Quito
I'm ill, tired, seven kilos lighter and my last roll of perfumed three-ply from home has gone. But hey, it's my last night in Ecuador, time to party. Time to cash in all those smooth skills I've learned -- the pidgin Spanish, the disrhythmic swaying, the local mating rituals. I'll head off to a nightclub [in Quito but the pretence is Otavalo -- who says the camera never lies?] and pick up some pretty young thing and dance the meringue. I might get lucky. She might have a cousin who makes three-ply.