I sat up in the stillness of the night, taking in a deep breath of the brisk, tonic air. The moon seeped through the clouds, sending a glow across the curtain of condensation that clung to the windows. I watched as one tiny sliver of rain lost its footing and slid down the glass like the last drop of mercury in the atmosphere.
Cautiously, quietly, I moved closer to the door, careful not to wake anyone. Silently, I pressed my finger in a tiny circle against the pane. Peering through the eyelet, I gazed onto streets pooled with water dimpled by the rings of carefully laid cobblestone. I took in the simple muddy hovels with dried grass roofs and cozy wooden benches that glowed turquoise in the moonlight.
I smiled to myself knowingly with the understanding of an artist. The vibrant, misplaced benches were a subtle hint at what lay beyond. I wondered to myself how many steps beyond the truck it would take to reach the trails of the Quilotoa Lagoon. We had arrived just after nightfall, following a tortuous but beautiful detour from the coast.
It had taken us 9 hours to reach this place, our first destination in our exploration of the Valley of the Volcanoes in Ecuador. Nearly twice as long as expected. We had wound our way through the desolate, humid back roads of nameless jungles. Beyond isolated banana and mango plantations. Through mud and muck, and downpours alternated with the unforgiving sun.
By the time we had landed here, we were exhausted and instantly bewitched by the cool, mountain air. All six of us (me and hubby, our two kids, and our two dogs) had scurried into the back without supper and collapsed. I took a moment to reflect on the 5 lumps of life squished half hazard together beneath a tossed mess of blankets and coats and muddy boots. This was our first night together in our old truck, Magma. This was the first night of forever that would begin our life on the road.
The village around us was deep in slumber beneath the high, night sky. I decided to tuck myself back in, too, eager to wake with the early morning sun. I buried my nose in the soft, caramel hair of our youngest one. Even at almost three, he still reaches out in the night to curl his toddler palm around my smallest finger. I slipped into a deep slumber, dreaming of places near and far; leaping over mountains and soaring over seas.
When daylight pushed back the covers of the long, dark night; we opened our eyes to a place where time hovers in the days of yesteryear. Little, dark haired ladies bustling about: calling after sheep ‘n roosters; and hauling big buckets of water to the front stoop. Bushy faced old men with the wrinkles of a good life, peeling open the creaky doors of ancient helms. Curly swathes of smoke rising to kiss the sky from the brick stacked chimneys of tiny restaurants and shops.
Little heads popped up from the pillows, grins smoothed over well-slept faces. Our children lifted their rosy noses, ready for the day to begin. They discussed rain boots and jackets, and traded for the other’s color of fuzzy, cotton mittens. It is incredible the delight children experience in something as simple as a different kind of weather. One thing was clear from the mouths of babes: this day MUST start with hot cocoa and toast!
So off we went in search of a friendly face who wouldn’t frown on messy hair and wet, dogs pacing behind us. It didn’t take long, only one denied our mutts. But, the second young man shrugged it off and left his cafe door ajar to let them lie at the entrance. They huddled up together just feet from the neighborhood pets, as if they had lain right there the same on any other day.
We delighted in that morning, of the rickety club house steps that led to the dining area. Dust on the window sills and air that smelled of burnt coffee. Golden, yellow napkins thoughtfully placed with crisp, white dishes atop a century wood table. It felt like a grandmother’s kitchen and we felt like the family of long ago. The best bread we’ve had in Ecuador, the best cocoa of my life, and best breakfast companions anywhere on the globe. We slurped up our offerings and felt sure we had just been served the stuff that gave mountain climbers their bravery.
Our little clan moseyed through the town, taking our sweet time to relish over the Andean sentiments of alpaca sweaters, leather dream catchers, and pretty clay pots. We were pleased to learn that the gates of Quilotoa..the lake, not the village, were just a few steps over the hill. We trotted along, expecting to find a trail and a morning jaunt that would lead us this masterpiece of nature.
After what seemed like just a few steps of hopping and humming along, we found ourselves startled to be standing on a large wood deck overlooking the scene just as it appeared on the postcards. Even the dogs stopped in awe at the sudden total invasion of the senses. We hadn’t expected such a grand reward with so little effort. Never have I seen a blue so true, a perfect replication of any imagination of what turquoise might be.
Looking over the canyon, irony settles in as we feel suspended in time between something powerful and beautiful. The air feels like thick with trickery in a perfect spell of witch craft. The lake, in its grandeur imitates the scene of an old antique mirror complete with flecks of aged imperfection. The clouds overhead look back at us in simple symmetry, only skewed by the jagged edges that spill past the lips of the crater. The darkness they cast is mysterious and alluring in contrast with the serenity of the flawless blue bliss.
We watch from our perch as several kayaks in primary colors drift to and fro next to the shore. Our youngest catches sight of them. He finds himself mesmerized by the prospect of touching them. Intoxicated by the allure, he quickly insists that we get started on our downward quest. The rest of us giggle under our breath. Even his big sister at just four years old, can sense the illusion that could easily taunt the best of us. In the moment it seems as if one could simply lean over the cliff and pick up the kayaks with the tip of a finger.
But, that is not so. The trek to the water’s edge is a steep descent of nearly 2,000 feet in right around thirty minutes. It seemed best to simply distract our over-achiever, and to playfully make our way back the other way. But, in that instant, an adventurer was born and there was no denying the intent in his soul. He was adamant as he had ever been; determined to find his way to the bottom of this volcanic crater. It felt wrong in every sense of the idea to deny him the feat, to squash the first blossoms of his wandering spirit.
We took to the trail that mimicked the ornate, curved handpiece of the heirloom mirror. It was steeper than it appeared and was slick as silver from the cleansing rains of the night before. Our little adventurer skipped and squealed, filled with bravery and endurance. I tried to hold him back, urged him to go a little slower, pleaded with him to somehow understand that the air is thinner.
He would hear none of it, he was utterly spellbound, determined to conquer the impossible.
And then all at once, the magic left his lungs and he fell to a heap right at the feet of an alpaca. His eyes filled with big dollops of disappointment and he suddenly began to wail. Quite uncharacteristic of him, I found myself startled and paralyzed for a solution. His father desperately motioned for the man with the alpaca, and cheerily asked the kids if they would like to sit on the animal for a photo. He heard none of it, and his sister only added to the misery when she too flopped down with a pout and a long list of lamentations.
One of the mutts started pacing nervously, and the other took off in the opposite direction. Each of their reactions: exactly what I was trying to keep from doing myself. At first we tried brushing off the complication, ignoring the outbursts and pretending to be fascinated by the strange, fluffy animal. But our indifference only escalated the situation. We had no choice but to scoop up our transgressions and hurry up the mountain.
We pretended that we couldn’t see the other hikers scouring our faces for an explanation. It was as good of a time as any to feign ignorance and pretend we didn’t know a lick of Spanish. My husband wound up tossing one kid over each shoulder, hauling them up the trail like sacks of rice. I scrambled to keep up, incessantly looking back to check that the dogs were following us. Thank goodness we had only made it 10 minutes down the trail, at that distance it took us at least twice the time to retrace it.
We made it to the top and plopped ourselves willy-nilly over the first painted bench. I lay back with my head against seat, exasperated and looking to the heavens for some sort of consolation. As I turned to sit up again, I saw the inscription etched in the wood “Quilotoa”. In a moment of delirium, I let out a big chuckle that echoed out far into oblivion. Eye to eye with our daughter, I asked her “Did you Kill-A-Toe—uh?!” And with that burst of laughter, we all found the gumption to get up and pace ourselves back to the caravan.
Our adventure comes with the memories of trial and tribulation. Not failure, but success. Our memories glow with the achievements of places we have seen. The prize itself is in having been there and experienced it together. We don’t need to reach the peak of every mountain, the base of every valley. Together we sing the songs of merriment, tell the stories of bewilderment, and cherish the moments that are distinctly our own. They may not be perfect, but they are ours. We own them as fiercely as any footprints that we have left on the path. We claim them as justly as our voices in the canyons.
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