If this is your first visit then you better go grab another cup of coffee and start at the beginning….take your time we’ll wait. All caught up? Good – let’s continue. (And I know it’s a long post but I didn’t want to do a cliff-hanger.)
The train ride from hell finally…FINALLY ended in the town of San Lorenzo. What can I say about San Lorenzo? Well I think the Lonely Planet says it best, “Encircled by verdant jungle, at the edge of a dank, still sea, San Lorenzo (population 14,600) is a decrepit, lively hodge-podge of blazing heat, tropical beats and crumbling storefronts. Marimba notes and salsa music flavor this mostly African-Ecuadorian outpost…” So yeah – pretty amazing.
We stumbled from the train shattered, dazed and unprepared for an intense level of local entrepreneurial spirit. Within seconds local boys had wrestled our back packs away from us to shepherd them to our hotel. Which was funny because it’s not like we had reservations anywhere but these young businessmen knew just where to take us. Unsure of how it happened we found ourselves slotted into a crumbling hostel – 6 of us now crowded into 2 rooms.
Paul and his latest gaggle of Englishmen shared 1 room and Michelle the proper English girl and I had the other. We gathered in the dim hallway and headed out in search of food. As we traveled through the narrow streets a small entourage formed around us – mostly curious kids seeking business opportunity. Disappointed to find us just sitting down and eating at a local restaurant the kids lost interest and melted back into the town. And what a town.
I had seen some impoverished areas by this point but always with a strong and vibrant community welding it together. A sense of verve and energy and welcome for travelers. Even in the remote towns on the Amazon – maybe especially there. But San Lorenzo felt different. Edgy, scary, hard. The shops and buildings were in terrible shape.
The poverty here sharper, more overt. Interestingly the population was almost entirely black. I didn’t realize how few black people I had seen on my trip so far until I reached this area. I wondered if they suffered the same prejudice that black people faced in America. And my Americaness was a source of acute interest here. For the first time on my trip I started saying I was Canadian when the local kids repeatedly asked me if I was Americano. Canadian felt…safer.
Our meal was forgettable – except for Michelle’s insistence on a vegetarian entrée. A request that won us no love from the cook. It may be different now but 20 years ago traveling in the outlying areas of South America and trying eat veggie was near impossible. Basically tortillas and fruit. Salad is a no – rinsed with questionable water. Beans are no – cooked with lard. Etc. Etc. But she was a feisty one and demanded a special dish be made just for her. Way to blend in.
We returned to our hovel I mean “hotel” and tried to get settled in for the night when disaster struck. I was getting out my toothbrush when Michelle let out a shriek. “What, what is it?” I asked. “My camera – my camera is gone!” She answered. I quickly dug through my pack and felt my stomach sink as I realized my camera was gone too. How stupid we had been to trust the locks on our doors. Luckily a quick survey showed that the cameras and a few small items were the only things missing.
Tom had given me my sweet little 35 ml camera as a gift and I was sad to have lost it. Sadder still was the almost complete roll of film it contained – shots mainly from the Amazon and Columbia – pictures I could never get back. But I had been foolish and as disappointed as I was I realized that shit happens and it could have been worse. While I was quietly coming to terms with my loss my roomie was working herself up to a full rolling boil.
“Who took my camera!!? You Better tell me right fucking now I want to know where the fuck my camera is!!” I turned to see Michelle shouting – SHOUTING at the man who had checked us in. She went in and out of Spanish and English accusing him of being culpable if not completely responsible and demanding that her property be returned immediately or…or what? What did she have in mind exactly? Ms. Proper English came unglued and more and more locals crowded into the small hostel to see what the ruckus was all about.
The sun began to set and Michelle was still steaming going from one local to the next and alternately accusing them or asking for the their help. Our fellow travelers kept a respectful distance not wanting to get pulled in. I mean yeah, it sucks but what do you expect? I always think of that scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen’s character remembers his parents arguing about the maid stealing from them.
- Mom: How can we afford it, on your pay? What if she steals more?
- Dad: She’s a colored woman from Harlem. She has no money. She has a right to steal from us. Who can she steal from if not from us?
But Michele was having none of it. Completely oblivious to how we appeared to the locals she blundered on demanding justice. I got pulled in as my camera had also been nicked. I said I didn’t care about the camera so much (there was no way we were getting that back) but I wanted the film and wouldn’t ask questions. The hotel owners and several local men and boys went into a huddle to discuss what to do. Then the oldest boy addressed Michelle and told her they would take us to the town witch doctor to learn who had stolen our cameras. Alrighty then. A small group turned out onto the dusty street and bid us to follow. Paul, another guy Chris and Michelle and I headed out at the front of the pack led by the boy who had spoken to us and who appeared to now be in charge.
How can I describe this scene? The night was coming on fast as we left the main drag and turned onto rutted dirt lanes that wound between shacks. A group of maybe 10 locals and us. As we walked past the small shelters more and more local men and a few women joined the crowd – the gossip of what was afoot travelling from man to man in a few whispered words and gestures. We would come to a hut and the boy would go inside while the crowd shuffled it’s feet and waited in the now dark night. It was quiet and humid and the air felt tense and expectant. Then the boy would come back and we would continue. Sometimes he would have to climb a ladder up through the bottom of the hut because it was on stilts. Other times he met a man on the street and they exchanged a few words and gestures and he would walk away nodding his head like he had got what he needed.
The crowed swelled to over 20 locals – the women fading out and leaving only the men and boys trailing the outsiders…us. It was full night now and pitch black. We walked by moonlight through the dusty streets and heard very little sound except the low murmur of the crowd. At this point I started to feel afraid. I mean this was pretty fucked up, right? What were we doing out here insulting these people and demanding answers? It didn’t feel remotely safe.
Finally after about an hour of this rambling we arrived at a hut that looked like all the others but it was set back away from the path. The boy entered and then came back out and gestured us in. Paul – that cowardly bastard – held back but Chris proved himself gallant by accompanying Michelle and I into the hut. The boy gestured to a low bed shrouded in mosquito netting and then left to join the crowd that waited just beyond the doorway.
The room was small – maybe 10X10 and lit by a number of candles. The shrouded mattress dominated the room with a small nightstand next to it and three low stools in the center of the space. A man was laying on the bed curled up with his back to us. We stood frozen unsure what to do…just waiting. I could hear the breath of the crowd behind me and turned to try to catch Paul’s eye and saw dozens of men staring back at me their faces implacable and stern.
The figure on the bed shifted and put his feet to the floor and righted himself – looking up and finding us there in his home. I know you want me to tell you he looked like this
but of course he didn’t. He was tiny and shriven with very black skin heavily lined with many years and probably much labor. His hands were curled and his knees knobby. His bare feet seemed too large for his thin legs with large bunions and thick yellow toenails. He wore a pair of non descript shorts and a short sleeve cotton button down shirt that was open exposing his sunken chest and prominent ribs. His eyes were rheumy and yellowed and bored into us. I was riveted.
He gestured to the stools and we sat while he regarded us with a yellow stare. The boy who had been our guide slipped back into the room and spoke to the man in low tones. Then the boy turned to us and explained that this man was the town witch doctor (his exact words) and he would be able to tell us who took the cameras. This would cost each of us 5 dollars (about 125,000 sucres – a small fortune) which we had to pay now. We discreetly dipped into our money belts – aware of the many curious eyes on our backs – and withdrew the bills and handed them over. Then the boy stepped out again and left the Dr. to his work.
The Doctor swept his hand along the small stand next to his bed and grabbed the largest candle and set it on a stump on the floor in front of us. Then he handed each of us a straight pin – like the kind you use for sewing…or voodoo.. and made a gesture of stabbing it into the candle. We stuck them near the top – one for me and one for Michelle – then he carefully touched a burning stick to a flame and lit the candle. And then we waited.
He waved his hand through the flame a couple of times and mumbled a bit. He had Michelle and I touch the sides of the candle and mumbled a bit more. What was he mumbling? Magic? Mental Grocery list? Fantasy Football Picks? Who knows. The doctor sat back down on his bed and seemed to nod off a bit. My eyes nervously scanned the room. The nightstand was covered with papers – newspapers. And the walls behind his bed also had newspaper articles cut out and pinned to the wall – a little collage of sorts. Dead center was a yellowing picture of Jackie Kennedy looking serene in her pillbox hat and Chanel jacket. The crowd continued to wait – an expectant hush hanging over us all.
We sat in a little row and watched the candle burn down. I think we were supposed to wait until it reached the pins and then all would be revealed. I looked at the far wall covered in reed mats and noticed an interesting pattern there. I gave my eyes a moment more to adjust and saw that the pattern – large twigs and round shapes – were shadows. The shadows of spiders. Living, giant – size of your fucking hand spiders. All over the walls just hanging out. I wanted to go home.
The minutes ticked by and finally the doctor seemed to startle awake and look at the candle. We three sat like children in church and made not a sound while he carefully regarded the message the candle held for him. He called out and the boy reappeared. They conferred in quiet voices and then the boy gave us the witch doctors answer. There was no way to tell who had stolen the cameras.
What?! I mean…Seriously?! I get dragged through the dark streets of a foreign town menaced by a mob of men and have to sit next to giant spiders and question all my life choices and you don’t know who stole the fucking cameras?! The doctor regarded us with a stare that said “what were we going to do about it?” And what were we going to do about it, really? Nothing, that’s what. Even Michelle realized she was beat. We nodded our thanks and rejoined Paul who ironically had felt quiet unsafe in that restless crowd and wished he had come in after all. We walked back to the center of town – the boy leading us and shepherding us home the crowd dispersing as we went.
I never got my film back and I’m pretty sure that boy who helped us was probably the one who clipped the cameras in the first place. That kid had initiative and I think in the end he deserved them. Maybe the witch doctor wasn’t up to his game. Maybe he saw us pampered tourists and knew we could stand to lose a few things. Maybe he really did know who stole the cameras but also knew they needed them more than we did. Maybe he was distracted by the dozens of spiders living in his hut and couldn’t concentrate. Either way it was the best damn 5 bucks I ever spent.