Saturday, September 02, 2006


Message for Martin of Colwall and his biker palls: I have discovered bliss: cruising the fells of southern Ecuador at 80 kph on a 125 Honda Pizza delivery bike. We are 11,000 feet above sea level on a broad ridge that stretches for forty Ks. The sky is a patchwork of dark and white and brilliant blue. A stiff breeze chases shadow and sunlight across the road and through the tufted grass and scrub and down the valleys either side. The road dips and rises and curves and the view is for ever in all directions. We meet a convoy of gravel trucks. The drivers see this old bearded foreign man on a small, heavily-burdened bike and they wave out the window and honk and flash their lights. That friendship of the road does for me. I weep with happiness - real tears.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Writing of Degas and ballet dancers prompted a train of thought. Our hotel displays articles of indigenous art for sale. Two small paintings are appealing. My Canadian rafters know the painter. He is amongst the most prominent painters of indigenous art
What is indigenous art?
I understand paintings painted by indigenous painters – though a genetic test might be necessary to prove the painter’s bloodline; otherwise an art gallery might be accused of fraud. As for indigenous art – surely paintings are simply paintings and are judged on their merits rather than their heritage. Perhaps I am being dumb - or difficult. However I have a nagging sense that indigenous art is a term of condescension: They are different from us. You know? The natives. Simple chaps. Isn’t this painting cute…?


Ming and I were due out of Cuenca this morning. We both feel vomity and decided to give Cuence a further day. I sat in the new cathedral awhile. The side chapels are simply altars rather than walled enclosures. The space remains intact and the eyes are drawn forward to the great gold canopy supported on four golden pillars that covers the high altar. I am an addict of early Spanish Colonial architecture. I praise a modern cathedral to prove my lack of bias. This cathedral is a space of prayer. I watch people enter, cross themselves, kneel a while, depart. An indigenous matron doffs her high-crowned Panama hat and lays it on the kneeler. She wears a knee-length pink skirt with blue edging. She rises and I glimpse her between the marble pillars, a ballet dancer waiting in the wings. Once recognised, the memory encompasses other women, their short skirts bulked-out by petticoats, hair braided in a single pigtail – Degas, of course – and admiring God’s creatures is a form of prayer.
I have my biking shoes (Churches) polished. I am short of heart medication; Ming and I take a cab to a large pharmacy in the new city. The pharmacist diagnoses our suffering as a combination of food poisoning and altitude sickness. The altitude sickness would wear off in a few weeks. A few weeks of gas? We are definitely out of here tomorrow. Loja is down five hundred meters, the beach the following day: sun, heat, mammoth prawns with chilli sauce.
Meanwhile we sit in a café, belch, pass wind, and watch the world pass. Ming sticks with soup. I risk a few mouthfuls of plain boiled white rice.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


A mosquito has bitten me. The bite is the size of a United States Treasury one-cent piece. My stomach was acting up again. I took Ming a banana yoghurt, ate one myself and went to bed at 7.30 p.m. I have lain in bed much of the night wondering whether to throw up. Throwing up would get rid of my heart medication. Should I throw up and take more pills or not throw up and listen to my belly rumble and bubble? The mosquito disturbed these wonderings. I switched on the light and entered an unsuccessful hunt. I switched off the light and dosed a while. Bang! He got me. He is silent now. Perhaps he is merely sated. Or he might have caught the bug that has laid low Ming and me – a cheering thought. Do mosquitoes throw up?


As in Quito, the main museum in Cuenca is financed by the Central Bank. The bank has kept the best for Quito. There is an archaeological park that demonstrates the strata of building. I met a German fund manager. We sat on a bench in the park and admired an elderly workman building a new ruin. Later I said to the workman, ‘Working as in the old days.’
He grinned and said, ‘Much slower now.’
The fund manger was in Quito with his girlfriend. She wanted to go to the beach, he to Cuenca. They have separated for a few days. Later we meet a family from Virginia. The parents have taken their three children out of school for a year to journey round the world. In age, the children are approximately 7, 9 and 13. The two youngest are girls. The fund manger and his girlfriend were on a short break and disagreed on where to go. Imagine the arguments in this family. The parents are magnificent in their bravery – or crazy.


Ming has the bug. He threw-up during the night. Now he lies curled up in bed, miserable and waif-like. I fetch him fresh yoghurt. I then go to early mass in Cuenca’s new cathedral. Completed in the 1890s, it is a great building. The architect was German. I am amazed always by the courage and confidence of designers of great buildings. How can they be certain of the outcome? And the arrogance of architects of the massive mediocre – to so blight the cityscape. The two young Canadians of my rafting are studying in Cuenca and live with host families. They fetch me from the hotel and take me to their favourite coffeehouse. The coffeehouse is warm. Bliss. Kay is a mixture of openness and enthusiasm and innocence. Tyler is both more watchful and thoughtful and he has that quietness that is common to many Canadians and which differentiates them from their cross-border cousins.


I am recovered. We leave Banos at 8.20 and ride across the Alto Plano. The country is green and Borderish. The hills to our right are streaked with snow. To our left, Tungurahua and its mates are blanketed in cloud. I brake to permit a family to cross the road. The mother leads a black and white Friesian cow. Two small boys herd two black pigs with fawn snouts. A daughter and shaggy donkey bring up the rear. The mother wears a dark green felt hat and a red jumper beneath a tweed coat. I raise a gloved hand in greeting and she gives me a big grin.
The land changes. The soil is grey and thin and over-farmed. Houses are small. Erosion scars the hillsides. Contour planting and contour ploughing would help – or building terraces. We ride through cloud. The women wear white festive bowler hats. Later we are back into green uplands and dairy farms and large, two story-houses. In Cuenca we find a hotel converted from a colonial house. We have rooms opening onto the rear patio and breakfast at $13 each. The water is hot. We have ridden over the Andes.


I woke at 4 a.m. and threw-up. I threw-up at 4.30 and at 5 and a 5.30 and at 6. Mostly I controlled the flow and kept the cleaning to a minimum. Ming came to wake me for breakfast at 7.30. I groaned. He brought me a bottle of water and a glass of orange juice – my request. The juice was a disaster – though it completed the purging of my belly. The bug moved to my bowels. Ming brought me antibiotics. I want to go home.


We have seen Tungurahua. We were riding back from the ranch. The top of the volcano and the lower slopes were in cloud. The evening sun struck the center section. The effect was surprising, a giant’s sponge pudding streaked in icing sugar and chocolate. The river ran black through the sluice gates at the hydroelectric station. Spray bore the stink of sulphur. Ming stopped to photograph. I yelled at him to keep going, not to inhale.


My Catholic and Spanish heritage pursues me. We rode today out to a farm that Michel owned and sold to a Swiss. Michel is resting there a week. The farm is three miles down a dirt track. The track is new. Prior to the track, transport was by foot or mule or moke.
A foreign priest owned the farm and five foreign priests established a community there. A priestly cousin invited Michel to run a pharmacy at the entrance to the farm. The Versailles branch of the Knights of Malta donated the medication. Here is the heritage: my grandfather and my father were Knights, my brother is a Knight.
Insect bites did for the community – or a shaman.
Michel’s cousin bought the farm and later sold it to Michel.
The present owner, the Swiss, has let the place go to ruin.
Ming and I walked with Michel up a steep hill and across a field of rushes to the community’s church. The church is built of wood. It is narrow and has a steep roof and a small steeple. Steps lead up the back to what was the community’s library and study room. The leader of the community lived in a house a further hundred metres or so beyond the church – until the bugs got him. Now the bugs devour his house and the church.
The church and the community leader’s house and the field have a bad feel. The field is edged by jungle. We walked in amongst the trees a little way and disturbed a wild boar. Then we walked back down the hill to what was the dispensary. Michel converted the dispensing room into a bedroom. The terrace is ample. We sat at a wood table and ate too much and shared two bottles of wine. The ex-dispensary has a good feel and Michel is a good kind man. The hill and the church and the gone-community are different. Both Ming and I were disturbed. We want to know more. Asking Michel seemed impolite and dangerously intrusive.


I return from the river to the hotel. Ming’s Monster is parked beside the Honda. Great! Ming is resting. I wake him and we recount our adventures. We eat at Marianne’s with the two Germans and the two Canadians of my rafting trip. I order the Moroccan chicken. The other five order steaks – poivre or with mushrooms. Perfect.


I have been eating again at Marianne’s, the restaurant of Provence. Tonight I ate the daube. Delicious. And I learn more of Michel. His parents had a vineyard and a hotel in Burgundy. Michel wished to be a doctor. His father had doubts as to Michel’s aptitude. His terms for supporting Michel through his studies were that Michel also study hotel management and spend his vacations working in restaurant kitchens. The father is dead. Michel qualified but never practised. Michel’s mother lives and keeps a watchful eye on the vineyard.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006



I am an old man. I have little fear of death. I fear being unable to cope. Paddling is easy. We hit the first rapid. Waves ram the blunt bow of the raft up. Spray soaks us. I have a sudden memory of wizzing down-river in Kenya on truck tires. A hydrologist, Basil Bell, was measuring the river´s water flow. The local witch doctor demanded that Basil buy a goat to sacrifice to the river. The goat belonged to the witchdoctor. This memory shoots us through the first rapid and I am having fun. More than fun – this is glorious. We high-five our paddles and whack the blades in the water. We hit the next rapid. The waves are bigger. No problem. Alex and I are the rafting virgins. We grin and smack hands. I have found a sport that old men can enjoy. The river spits us out of the canyon, jungle on both sides. We swing close to the bank, orchids on the trees, a couple of optimistic vultures overhead…Yes, this is great. More rapids, more high-fiving, shouts of exultation. Our guide orders us to paddle standing. Standing on a raft is not for old men. I have sufficient difficulty standing upright on dry land.


Our guide is in his forties, a short man with a belly. He has learnt the white-water instructor spiel in English. He can instruct: how to paddle, when to paddle, when to stop paddling, and he tells us never, never, ever to let go of our paddles. He instructs us in what to do if we fall in the water (lie on our backs); what to do if someone else falls in the water. And he shouts a good deal at the footballing German – I suspect because the German is the biggest member of our party and shouting at him reassures our small guide as to his own importance. I help lift the raft into the river. People get in the side opposite me. This forces the raft my way. My paddle is under the raft – I have hold of the handle. Our guide yells at me to board. I yell back that my paddle is under the raft. He shouts at me to get in. I repeat that my paddle is under the raft. He screeches – and I understand. He speaks the necessary English. His understanding of the language is zero. So I shout at him in Spanish that he is a c…. and that my paddle is under the raft. The message reaches his brain. He pushes the raft out from the beach and my paddle is free. I board the raft. He gets in behind me. He says, in Spanish, that he’s sorry for the misunderstanding. I say that that’s fine just so long as he doesn’t drown me. He promises not to drown me. Good. We are making progress.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


We head down a dirt track to a wooden bridge. The truck is too big to cross the bridge. The rubber boat is transferred to a pick-up. The pick up crosses the bridge and disappears into the jungle. We cross on foot. The three women take the lead. Absolved of responsibility, we men trail along in their tracks and discuss serious matters - mostly football, the World Cup. We walk and we walk – maybe a mile up hill before the pick-up catches us. The pick-up had turned down a sidetrack through trees immediately on crossing the bridge. Our fearless leader was too dumb to leave one of his assistants at the turning. And we men, of course, were merely following the women. While the women were being real men and striding on ahead. This is not a good beginning.


The Germans are male nineteen-year-olds from Leipzig, the old East Germany. The guide is unaware of the teenager-imposed curfew on European teenagers rising before 11 a.m. and fetches them from their hotel. Alex will be studying politics at University. His partner in craziness studies football and hopes to be a history teacher – however he goofed off at Gymnasium and doubts whether his grades are acceptable. He has very white legs and has been collecting mosquito bites – the ones that are wet in the middle, yellowish at the edges and give pharmacists a warming scent of imminent profit.
We drive forty-five minutes in an open-sided truck with a rubber boat on the roof. The benches are situated to cram in the maximum of small indigenous Latin Americans. We are cramped sitting sideways and springs are an extra the tour operator wouldn’t sign for – bump, thump, bump.
I talk with the ringlet Canadian, Kay. She has given up extreme sports and has lost twenty pounds in pure muscle weight. I have lost sixteen pounds of pure fat Kay has been taught the politically correct generalities of the Conquest: the Spaniards were evil; they destroyed the indigenous culture. The indigenous culture was feudal; King served by a clique of the most senior nobles. Beneath came the senior provincial nobles and a layer of lesser nobles. Nobles didn’t work. Non-nobles worked their butts off. Conquistadors came of a feudal system. In America, they married the daughters of the top nobles – advancement closed to them back home. No one weeps for the destruction of the feudal system in Europe. Few weep for the fall of Soviet feudalism. The Conquistadors should be criticised for maintaining the feudal system. Many of those with education (mostly Friars) did precisely that.


I sit on a bumpy sofa at the tour operator. Two young physios working in London arrive. Next come a Canadian couple, sociology students. The woman is fair and wears her hair in ringlets. I recognise her legs. They are of an attractive shape. However, what are recognisable are the bumps and bruises and scars. She is a suicide addict (she would blah on about extreme sports). Introduce her to my youngest son, Jed, and they would relate immediately. They would get right into the scar game:
Yea, that was this competition or that.
The track was wet. I hit this tree.
Some idiot got in my way,
I didn’t see the cliff.
They have real cool ambulances.
Meanwhile we wait for the two Germans. Our guide for the day relates that the Germans are probably7 tired; they were mountain biking yesterday and did this swing thing off a bridge. No, not bungy jumping. You wear a harness attached to a rope and dive way out from a bridge so that you swing in huge arcs.
‘Over what?’ I ask.
‘A canyon.’
‘With rocks?’
‘Of course, with rocks.’
Why would I go white-water rafting with these maniacs?


A petard is something upon which you hoist yourself. Am I hoisted – or petarded? I am also suffering from palpitations. I should keep this a secret. Real men don’t suffer palpitations. Palpitations are a woman’s complaint. Women, being more sensible than men, take heed. They face what ever it is that is giving them the palpitations and conclude, No. No, we won’t do that.
Were I a woman I would not be going white-water rafting. I am not referring here to any other woman, merely and specifically to the imaginary seventy-three-year-old woman I would be were I a woman. I would be suffering from palpitations and conclude that white-water rafting wasn’t my bag.
Uneasy with my own nervousness, I sit down to breakfast up on the hotel terrace and ask the two young women serving whether the volcano scares them.
They answer that they are scared but not very scared..
They might be offended were I to ask whether they suffer from palpitations. Anyway palpitations is absent from my Spanish vocabulary. Doing the word in sign language would certainly be offensive.
And of course there is nothing voluntary in their situation. Banos is their home. Where would they go?
While all I need say is, ‘Actually I’ve changed my mind. Keep the thirty dollars.’


A young and unreasonably beautiful blond lady approached me on Main Street, Banos. She asked if I spoke Spanish.
I said, ‘More or less’.
She asked how long had I been in Banos and how long did I intend staying and wasn’t I afraid of the volcano?
‘Not a bit,’ I said. You know – doing the masculine bit, hands spread to indicate the innocence of our surroundings. What could a little-bitty volcano do to a real man? Or to an unreasonably pretty young blond lady who was under the protection of such man?
She asked whether I would repeat all this for Latin American cable TV.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Delighted to be of help…’ both to her and to Banos.
So we did it for the camera. I added a few embellishments: the great restaurants, the mountain walks (across white-hot ashes), white-water rafting.
I had impressed her. ‘You white-water raft?’
‘Absolutely,’ I said. ‘Going tomorrow. River is in great shape.’ This is the movies. I am on camera. It is not for real. And it is for the unreasonably beautiful young blond lady. To impress her…
Half the town watches the interview. It is broadcast midday and on the 6 o’clock news. The woman tour-operator two doors up from the hotel sees it. She expresses her delight at my change of mind. She has two Canadians as well as the two Germans. With me, that makes five. Plus two girls staying in my hotel who still have to confirm…
What can I say? I try, ‘Is it safe for a man my age? You know, an old man with a heart condition? I don’t want to be a nuisance to the others.’
‘Do you take medication?’ asks the tour operator.
A ray of hope. ‘Absolutely,’ I say. ‘Four pills in the evening and one in the morning.’
‘Then that’s alright,’ says the tour operator. ‘That will be thirty dollars. Sign here.’


This morning, I chatted with a woman tour operator two doors up from the hotel. She has two German clients for a half-day of white-water rafting tomorrow. She requires six. She doubts whether there are six tourists in Banos. The town exists on tourism. The town is dying. The Iraq war, the Israeli destruction of Lebanon and the price of oil cause anxiety. Add fear of terrorism. TV coverage of Tungurahua having fun is the final whammy. A gentle rain from heaven? Fine, if you have a raincoat, an umbrella, are holding hands with you sweetheart and expect soon to be sharing his or her bed. A rain of boulders is different. Boulders aren’t romantic. Nor is great big volcano spewing lava at your hotel bedroom window. You don’t want to get in bed. You want to get in you car and get the hell out of where ever all this threatening stuff is happening. As for voluntarily visiting such a place, no thanks.
However I am in Banos and I have developed a weird loyalty to the dump. Very weird. Though not so weird as to risk my life white-water rafting. This is where being in your seventies is useful. You can refuse such offers without appearing rude.