across Panama and Cuba
Monday, February 7 2005
setting: Hotel La Misión, Coca, Ecuador
After Gretchen's dismal pasta dish last night, the one whose sauce had been made from ketchup, we held out little hope that this morning's breakfast at Hotel La Misión would be any good at all. But it was free and we figured we probably shouldn't travel with empty stomachs. Amazingly, though, breakfast was unexpectedly delicious. The orange juice wasn't one of those chemical concoctions that Ecuadorians pass off juice, it was fresh-squeezed! And there was something incredibly delicious about the bread that was brought to our table. It looked like white bread hamburger buns that had been squashed flat, but it tasted like heaven. I suspect that a large amount of butter had been used in the baking process. The coffee, as usual, was of the Nescafé instant variety (as it always is in Ecuador), but even that tasted better than usual. Maybe I just had high serotonin levels this morning.
The hotel's pet monkeys were released just before we were picked up and taken to the airport, so Gretchen got a chance to play with them some more. There were a couple little boys there who also seemed to have a special fondness for the monkeys. They kept calling out the monkey's names "Pepe! Pepito!"
All the details of our flight back to Quito were handled by Coca's Sacha Lodge employee, the only woman employee from Sacha Lodge who speaks only Spanish. (For cultural reasons, the only Spanish-only-speaking employees at the lodge itself are men.) She hugged Gretchen goodbye and then she hugged me goodbye and I wasn't prepared for her to kiss me on both cheeks. (Not that anyone actually ever kisses me on the cheeks; they make a kissing noise while pressing the side of their face against either side of mine. If it must be that ersatz, why bother doing it at all?)
At one point I ducked into the men's room in the Coca airport was amazed (and even morbidly delighted) by what I saw in there. Thin electrical wire had been stapled across the wall up to an overhead light fixture, a naked bulb hanging from its wire. Other wires were coming out from behind the plate of a wall switch in a place where wet hand were likely to go, but they only went a few inches and then terminated as bare stripped wires. Everything looked like it had been this way through at least one repainting. Let me remind you: this was in a public men's room in an airport! I had to marvel at the matter-of-fact third worldness of it all.
Customs and airport security weren't much of a hassle in the Quito airport, but after I'd made it through all that, I was approached by a woman who claimed (in Spanish) that she wanted to xray my belly to see if I was transporting drugs. I couldn't really understand what it was she wanted to xray at first, but I went along with what she wanted to do, and before long an xray machine was firing a beam into my intestines. Amusingly, the process had an unexpectedly relaxed quality to it. The technician didn't care when Gretchen wanted to take pictures. And the guy whose job it was to interpret the xrays had been playing a rousing first person shooter videogame on one of the computers when we came in. Suffice it to say, my intestines proved utterly devoid of condoms stuffed with cocaine.
I picked up a bottle of some sort of lemon-flavored Ecuadorian liquor at the airport duty free store, and it only cost me $3. Gretchen thought it was such a good deal that she went got another bottle as a gift for our house sitter back in snowy Hurley. What neither she nor I knew at the time was that the shit tasted like rubbing alcohol. That didn't keep me from drinking a few heaping tablespoons of the stuff on the flight back home.
The LAN Ecuador plane that took us first to Guayaquil and then to New York was a little classier than the one that had brought us down to Ecuador. Every seat had its own video screen offering video, music, and games on demand, just like on a big plane to Europe. I tried most of the games and eventually settled on watching travel shows. Meanwhile the plane made a dramatic fly-over of a mostly cloud-free Panama. Cuba, on the other hand, was completely invisible beneath a thick bank of clouds.
One of the minor features of this vacation was that, despite the distance traveled, we'd hadn't left the Eastern time zone (except in the Galapagos, which operate under Central time). Thus time flowed with a comforting linearity all the way down to Ecuador and then back to New York City. The sun set noticeably earlier in the temperate northern latitudes than it had at the equator, but this wasn't any stranger than the many other differences we'd observed.
The flood of humanity disgorged by our plane was met by an obstruction not far inside JFK. Three or four uniformed homeland security police were interrogating each and every passenger with an attitude flavored with suspicion and a heaping spoonful of contempt. "This is our nation's first impression," I remember thinking, "and it ain't good." Yeah, yeah, what happened to us on September 11th and all of that, but how can we hope to succeed as one country in a planet full of nations when we greet our visitors with such hostility? It's not like this for us their countries, even when they feel the need to xray our intestines, so why should we act like this towards them? Gretchen thought perhaps this had something to do with the fact that our plane had come from South America, a major exporter of cocaine and a not-insignificant exporter of illegal immigrants.
For us, getting through this gauntlet was as easy as flashing our passports and saying we were married. From then on immigration and customs were nearly effortless, helped in large part by the fact that we had checked no luggage.
From JFK we caught a cab to Park Slope and then retrieved our car from the folks who'd had it for the past week. They'd used it to go to Ikea and for a drive up to Kingston. When we were briefly in their apartment, I realized as I was petting their cat that the animal I'd touched before this one had been a monkey.
There wasn't much snow remaining in New York City, but back near Kingston there seemed to be a few hard, dirty inches of the stuff. Temperatures were slightly above freezing, very reasonable for this time of year.
Doug, our house sitter, had come to our house with plans of working on his doctoral dissertation, but in the end he found it a lot easier to sleep in late and watch a lot of teevee. All our animals seemed to regard him as a good proxy for us, and continued socializing with him after enthusiastically greeting us, whom they'd assumed "would never be coming back."
Gretchen plays with a monkey at Hotel La Misión.
The distant Andes viewed from the Coca airport.
Getting my xray to see if I'm a drug mule.
The hills over Quito, viewed from the airport.
The Panama Canal, viewed from above.
Sunset over Florida.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next