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A Place Called Hope

Jungles in Ecuador - Photo by Trish J MacGregor

By Trish J MacGregor

Ecuador is a country that speaks to the soul. From its steaming jungles to its Andean peaks and volcanoes, from its ancient cities of narrow, cobbled streets to its seaside towns, its voice is at once sonorous, secretive, seductive. Explore me, if you dare.

And that means take the local transportation, walk the streets without a tourist guide, eat where the locals eat, bask in the endless color, drink in the exquisite sight of sunlight spilling down the Andean peaks. It means you move into all that is excessive in this country  – rather than push against it.

During our daughter’s first trip to Ecuador, for instance, she was so appalled by the poverty that she and another American kid hid in their room for the first few days, watching American videos and eating fettuccini three times a day.  During her second trip, several years later, she volunteered at an animal rescue center in the jungle and learned to explore all the wonderful and mysterious elements of the country. She ate the local foods, used the local transportation, drank beer with the locals, communed with the animal life, fell asleep to nature’s music.  She moved with the flow.

Street in Quinto - Photo by Trish J MacGregor

Regardless of where you are in Ecuador, it’s a sensory feast. Everything is excessive: the rich, textured smell of the mountain air in Quito, the scent of salt and fish in Guayaquil, the smell of the hot springs in Baños, the bold, vivid colors of cobbled streets in the small pueblos, the imposing presence of the mountains, of the Tungurahua volcano, the dark, soulful eyes of people descended from the Incas and, farther back, the Quechua. The fruits are more succulent, the coffee is thicker, stronger, richer, the markets are a carnival of noise, color, odors.

During one trip, we stayed at a beautiful hotel in Otavalo, home of the most prosperous indigenous tribe in Ecuador. The place was owned by expatriates, an American couple, aging hippies, characters out of some Graham Greene novel. When I asked the man why he lived in Otavalo, he laughed. “Are you kidding? Back home, I’m just another suspect.” I used their hotel, with its lush, beautiful grounds, in several scenes in Esperanza.

During my first trip to Ecuador in 1983, I was on my honeymoon. My husband and I spent three weeks traveling around the country on the local buses. One afternoon the bus approached a place called Esperanza and we got off because we liked the name, which means hope. Not much there. A few dirt roads, vast, open fields that end suddenly as the land rises precipitously into majestic Andean peaks. There was just one place to stay, a ramshackle “bed and breakfast” with three rooms that faced the field and the mountains.

I whipped out my Lonely Planet guide and actually found Esperanza in the index. The big draw was the field across the street from us. During the rainy season, it filled with hallucinogenic mushrooms that brought tourists from all over the world, who apparently sat out there, nibbling away on the mushrooms and listening to Grace Slick belt out White Rabbit.

I don’t know what that Esperanza is like today. But when I was searching for a name for the place in my book where the souls of the dying, of the near dead, travel, I remembered Esperanza. Many of the near-death experiences I’ve read about have a dreamy, hallucinogenic quality to them, so I expanded Esperanza, made it a city of 20,000 and relocated it to a plateau at 13,000 feet in the Andes. It became a mystical city with its own complex history and cosmology – light chasers, brujos, a River Styx, a place where the living and the dead and near dead co-exist.

If a country can be the locus of your soul, then Ecuador is certainly mine.

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From the Tor/Forge August newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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