One thing you should know about me is that I’m a homely girl from London. By homely I mean I accommodate a few extra pounds owed to laziness and a past addiction to coke guzzling sessions: a time when I lived to grimace at the harshness of the fizz — the burn, I called it. My fitness history is sporadic and frantic, though past dalliances with intensive fitness programmes have created fantastic muscle memory and endurance when I do decide to hit the gym. Other than that, my lifestyle is sedentary and steeped in the stodgy trappings of lazy-city-girl life.
In 2010, I made the decision to swap the smoggy London skyline for the Andean hills of Ambato in Ecuador in order to push my own boundaries. I wanted to encounter panoramic sights and revel in breath-taking nature. I had spent the previous year feverishly sifting through TEFL forums and online travel guides attempting to pinpoint a specific choice on where to teach abroad for a year. With my slightly better than conversational Spanish, South and Central America were heavy contenders. Based on my discovery that Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, the relative safety of the region and a recommendation from a girl I’d met on a weekend TEFL course, I was sold.
My first memory of Ecuador was the expansive hills which soared hundreds of feet above us on either side and followed us along the road after we left the airport. Clusters of twinkling lights from flat-roofed houses were mounted on the high terrain there against the dusky pink sky of the capital, Quito. The image both alien and beautiful impressed upon my mind.
Ambato, a small city two hours from the capital, where I lived and taught for a year was the perfect place for me to begin experiencing a wealth of novelties that I had never imagined. I took the opportunity to immerse myself in a rustic culture which was unlike anything I had experienced before and soaked it up to the max.
It began with sightseeing from my bedroom window. How many people have a crisp clear view of an active volcano (Tungurahua) from where they sleep? I mean if they did you would think they were stark raving mad, but I did. One night my senses underwent a baptism as I witnessed the swirling luminous lava and the ominous growl as it erupted against the black night. My eyes were glued to the fiery orange mass, swishing around in the volcanic cauldron. Seeing it made me feel tiny yet inspired.
After witnessing the miraculous quality of nature, it became my mission to chase the many environmental and cultural novelties associated with a small country existing on the equator. Stretching across vast arid Andean terrain and encompassing a healthy mass of the Amazon alongside a tropical Caribbean-like coastline, Ecuador is thriving with visual and sensory gems. My aim became to soak as much of this up as possible to counter my city-girl-ness.
My next thrill didn’t come long after I started work at the Universidad Católica a ten-minute walk from where we lived. One day I was in my classroom when I glanced left and saw a hummingbird hovering over the flora outside the window. I disregarded my lesson for a moment and became a child as I ran to the window to the amusement of my students. To me, it was confirmation that I had come to the right place. My reward for turning up to work? Seeing a beautiful hummingbird in action. The innocence of beauty personified before my eyes. This spurred me on to uncover more gems and so I went about my time in Ecuador like this, finding immeasurable worth in what locals found to be mundane aspects of life, like a Londoner ignoring The Shard when pulling in to a London Bridge platform.
Owed to the much slower pace of life in Ambato I found that some of my days stretched before me like an incessant ocean. The fast-paced Londoner in me found this uncomfortable at times. However, Ambateño life uncovered itself before me each day and it wasn’t long before I began to explore it.
Ambato’s city centre heaves with activity against a backdrop of pastel coloured buildings. Market life spills all around with female Indigenous vendors wearing ponchos and feathered fedoras selling their own produce in the streets. My favourite haunt became one of the indoor markets. The top floor had a food hall and it is here that I had my first plate of llapingachos — the plato típico or ‘typical dish’ of Ambato — each region in Ecuador has its own. Llapingachos are cheesy potato pancakes served with a fried egg, chorizo, chopped avocado and garnished with an onion salad. For me, it was heaven on a plate and soon became my favourite Ecuadorian dish. Food from traditional Ecuadorian outlets are generally very cheap and a plate of llapingachos set me back a mere $1.50. For an extra fifty cents, you can buy a tall glass of freshly blended fruit juice of your own concoction— gastronomic bliss when considering the eye watering juice bar prices in London. Health didn’t cost and that in itself was refreshing. My favourite was mora con coco (blackberry with coconut milk) the refreshing acidic kick of the berry was balanced out by the sweet milky coconut splashed on top — phenomenal and at a price that really told me I was a long way away from home.
Aspects of everyday life were a blessing to me and I always made sure I had my phone on me to take pictures to capture quaint images of Alpacas tied around bends or grazing in the hills whenever I travelled or the beautiful patchwork of multicoloured fields seemingly stitched together like the Farms near Auvers painting by Van Gogh. I felt like I had finally lived when I saw a live goat, legs tied and conveniently folded onto the shelf of a buseta on the way to Quito one day, quietly minding its own business. In comparison, public life back home felt so haughty and sterile.
I was invited to visit Quilotoa an old volcano crater with a lagoon in the middle of it a few months into my stay. What I didn’t know was that we were required to walk down it and hike our way 12,841 feet back up. With my level of fitness and lack of preparation, I almost didn’t make it back! For a split second, I thought about hiring a donkey to ascend but paranoia made me envision the ass slipping down the steep incline with me on it. Plus, it seemed plain cruel. I crawled back up parched and exhausted but feeling like I could conquer the world.
After the euphoria of my impromptu mountain hike I wanted to take on the full force of the elements of the natural paradise that was Ecuador. When I heard about Papallacta, I jumped at the opportunity to go. I’ve always considered water to have a healing quality and am fascinated by the idea of hot springs. I don’t think there is anything more naturally luxurious than paddling in steaming mineral pools while an ice-capped volcano looms, god-like in the distance. A sobering dip in the neighbouring icy rock pools beside a gushing river tickled my endorphins and once again fed my insatiable appetite to eat up the naturaleza of the country in a way that nowhere probably could again.
When I decided it was time to venture away from the Andean landscape, I crept towards the gateway to the Amazon, Puyo. Unfortunately, Hollywood has robbed me of any perceived enjoyment of entering the deep Amazon and seeing a cockroach the size of somebody’s pet hamster in a home ensured that I slept sweating and frozen in fear with my hands tightly by my sides. In Puyo the moist, tropical air clings to you like a second skin which surprisingly was a welcome change from the dry dusty clime in Ambato. The highlight of my time there came with an encounter with a monkey in a nature park who snatched my glasses off my face after I grabbed my tour guide book back from her!
I left Puyo relieved that I had done my bit in visiting one Amazonian part of the country. It was the dip-your-toe-in-comfortably Amazon in comparison to the shit-was-that-a-spider-or-a-black-bear? Amazon, which I point blank refused to engage with, mainly thanks to Hollywood and YouTube.
For me, Ecuador was like a massive sweet shop. I was grabbing memories that I could bag and cherish for life. Memories that had the powers to heal and replenish me when I felt depleted, memories that keep me floating amidst the advent of terror attacks ever closer to home, the uncertainty that hangs in the air after Brexit and witnessing public services struggling to thrive in an era of austerity. I have it all at my fingertips. Inerasable gems of magic. I climbed Cotopaxi for goodness sake! And almost tumbled back down it I have to admit.
Towards the end of my time in Ecuador, I visited Mindo. A village in the tropical Northern Andes two hours or so from Quito. There I ate freshly caught Tilapia. I hate fish but somehow in Ecuador it’s okay — doesn’t add up, does it? And my friend persuaded me to get on the zipline which hovers above the cloud forest. I did it. I survived it, but never again. We did twelve lines and my technique gradually got worse each time. So much so that the main operator became annoyed at me and ordered my last few lines to be accompanied by a colleague. By the end I was literally jelly on legs but have the proof in the pictures for any naysayers. Tubing down a raucous river was my highlight. The sports-shy couch potato struck again and I was loving it. I still carry those feats on my back: who you are is a choice and over there at that time I chose to become someone else. A risk-taking adrenalin junkie.
It wasn’t roses all of the time during my stay. The country found itself in the middle of a coup when president Carrera was temporarily overthrown by rebel police in a bizarre turn of events. Terrified, I was glued to the TV as the country descended into political unrest and it was declared that there were no officers on duty nationwide. Ironically my return to the UK lead me to question how structurally sound my own country was when a year later lawlessness arrived on the UK streets in the 2011 London riots. Once again, I watched the TV terrified that the police were dwarfed into inaction and their services made temporarily obsolete.
Returning to London and the hard lines of symmetry where sobering, the concrete streets looked an even deeper shade of grey. I was always looking for signs of Ecuador. And I found them. Teleportation isn’t perhaps unproven after all. Ecuador kept calling out to me: in the new chimichurri inspired dishes on Marks and Spencer shelves — had those existed before? In the Come to Ecuador banner on a black cab.
In Ecuador, each excursion made in the pursuit of nature felt like a spiritual cleansing. Each rock pool, volcano, Andean hill, sheet of mist and roaming llama uplifted me. I could feel the adrenalin and endorphins taking me to heights that I’d never felt in London or on any holiday before it. I had finally unlocked a life time of inhibitions. I took the city dweller out of the girl and it felt euphoric.