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Uncle Lucio and Aunt Ana’s house is a few hundred meters inland from the Amazon River, a short distance from a little village. The front of the house affords a view of a field of water buffalo with the river beyond. Behind their home, a chicken coop is nestled among fruit and nut trees. The jungle backs the orchard almost immediately, and the house is an interesting juxtaposition of civilization in wilderness. The roof is half thatched, half metal. Many of the beams are milled, but one section is made of nothing but logs. A concrete road the width of a sidewalk passes by the front door, but there is no plumbing in the area and the family cooks on a wood fire. When we arrived, Ana was cooking lunch for a road crew that was improving the riverfront path. She quickly fed us and pointed us to a little purple cabin on the riverfront with plenty of balcony space for our tents and two hammocks for us to relax in. We were home!

Somehow, we seemed to settle right into their family’s routine. Lucio took us for a little tour of the nearest town while the rest of the family did their shopping. Waiting for the canoe to take us home, Ellen and I watched river dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sunset. We rode back along the river by moonlight. Ana had a dinner of locally hunted armadillo waiting for us – “It’s endangered, but we need to eat,” Lucio explained.

The next day, we got to have our little trek into the jungle. Lucio took us wandering through dense foliage and across streams. As the path became less identifiable and split off repeatedly in all directions, it was clear we could never have explored this way on our own. We were making too much racket crashing through the bush to see any wildlife, but our guide was thoughtful enough to point out medicinal plants, edible fruits and nuts, and the local trees used for lumber. Back at the house, we munched on fresh Brazil nuts and finger painted with the seeds of the achiote fruit, under the cheerful instruction of the local children.

Sunday was the festival of San Juan, who was the namesake of a local town and the patron saint of the Amazon. Ana left just before midnight to buy special ingredients, not to return before lunchtime. While she was gone, we went fishing for piranhas with Lucio. Fishing is a much simpler affair than at home. Lucio cut three rods from a nearby tree and tied fishing line to them. We headed out in the family canoe with a can of worms from the garden. Cousin Romario turned our boat down one of those dark streams nestled amongst the trees that Ellen had been so dying to explore. We puttered up to a likely spot in the shade and watched as the fish managed to eat every worm off our hooks without being caught. Ellen had better luck than the rest of us, catching two small fish that we used for bait. My spell of bad luck continued as everyone else managed to catch something, and we got three piranhas in the end. The quiet time on the river did have one excellent reward, though: we saw two different kinds of monkeys in the trees. There was a pair of tiny monkeys no bigger than one of my fists. Their small bodies clutched the tree trunk as they ate sap from beneath the bark. Farther up, three slightly larger monkeys, black and white, swung from the branches at the tops of the trees. It was an excellent end to the morning.

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If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I wanted to go trekking in the Andes, I’d have answered “absolutely not!” I don’t particularly like walking up hills, never mind carrying all my bags up the mountains with me. However, as Ellen and I have been hitchhiking through the Sierra in Peru, everybody has been asking us whether we’re travelling on foot. When we explain that we’re hitchhiking, the locals look at us blankly. There are no cars here, they insist. We must be walking. End of story.

A stunning viewpoint that we might have missed from inside a bus or car

A stunning viewpoint that we might have missed from inside a bus or car

After a few days arguing with the locals about whether hitchhiking is possible, Ellen and I have just started walking out of town rather than searching for rides. Here in the Sierra, there really aren’t many cars. We could wait by the side of the road for hours and not have a single vehicle bigger than a motorbike or a mule pass us by. If we pass the time trekking rather than standing still, we have the chance to see the countryside and meet more people. We’re not going very quickly – neither of us is in good enough shape to be speedwalking up the Andean hillsides with all our gear – but at least we’re getting somewhere. Our progress is also slowed by stopping to chat to the locals. On the road, we get people stopping us every ten minutes. Some want photographs with us, others want to know where we’re from, and many give us food (fruit, bread, and water) or advice (most of it conflicting) about where to go from here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Peruvians are ridiculously nice!

World class hikers, right here! Stopped by locals to take our picture, yet again

World class hikers, right here! Stopped by locals to take our picture, yet again

Some days we’ll walk for several hours before a car passes us, whereas other times we won’t even make it out of town. Here in the highlands, though, almost every car that drives by stops, and even the ones going the other way pause to apologize for not stopping. In the past few days, Ellen and I haven’t had a car refuse to pick us up. The drivers and passengers are eager to be part of our journey and to give us a good impression of their country. They don’t get many travellers in these mountain villages, but that we should be here, hiking to the next town, is taken as perfectly reasonable.

A winding mountain road that the locals assume we can trek with ease

A winding mountain road that the locals assume we can trek with ease

We’ve taken to telling people that we’re walking to Bolivia, little by little. “That’s a long way to go on foot,” they’ll say. “Yes,” we say, “but we’ll take rides in cars when we can.” The locals nod seriously. “Oh yes, that’s good. But there are no cars here on Mondays.” “Then I guess we’d better start hiking,” we say, and Ellen and I smile at each other. We’d never have expected to be in Peru trekking in the Andes, but now that we’re here, we’re loving every minute of it.

After a day or two couchsurfing in Trujillo, Ellen and I were ready to leave this noisy city on the coast and go back into the mountains. Fernando, our host, convinced us to stay a few days longer so he could take us fishing on Wednesday. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.

The plan was that our host would get everything ready for the fishing expedition, while Ellen and I were only responsible for our tents. We’d ride in a little boat to an island, where we’d camp, fish, have a bonfire, cook outdoors, and drink plenty of beers. We were leaving after Fernando finished teaching on Wednesday, and getting back before his afternoon class on Thursday. Or at least, that was the plan as Fernando described it the day before.

The beach by the pier at sunset

The beach by the pier at sunset

On Wednesday afternoon, we gathered our camping gear and hopped into a taxi to the oceanside, where we were to catch a boat to the island. We arrived at the pier just as the sun was setting. The surf was rough, the pier was almost deserted, and the few locals hanging around kept trying to dissuade us from going out. The town drunk was also there, bellowing at us and at the boats in the harbour, whose captains were not going anywhere near the pier with the seas in this condition. A man in a rowboat finally pulled up to the pier, and Fernando convinced him to take us to the big port a few piers down the beach.

I was totally confused about what was going on – when Fernando told me before that we were catching a boat to an island, I had assumed there were actually boats around. Silly me. Climbing into a rowboat in rough seas in the dark with all my camping gear was not what I had pictured at all. I was getting more and more frustrated with Fernando, who isn’t the brightest bulb in the house and whose plans for the trip, it was becoming apparent, were nonexistent. As the sailor was rowing us to the port, he kept asking us if we were sure this was a good idea, because it seemed dangerous to him, and did we really trust this guy we were with? I trusted Fernando not to assault us, but had no confidence that he wouldn’t lead us into a ridiculously stupid situation, putting our gear and probably also our lives in danger.

Fernando, oblivious to the sailor’s comments and our discomfort, kept asking me and Ellen to go talk to the security guards at the port when we arrived, so we could get permission for our trip. He was completely unable to understand that since Ellen and I had no idea what our trip was, what we were doing, where we were going, or how we would get there, our ability to ask for permission to do it was severely hindered. Finally, our rowboat pulled up to the port’s pier, and we climbed the precarious ladder out of the waves. Here, we discovered that the “island” was actually the private beach in the port’s back yard, only accessible on foot by walking through their property.

We finally got to our campsite around 7:30 at night. Fernando chose a spot that was still wet from recent waves, and Ellen and I had to insist for quite some time before he acknowledged that further from the rising tide might make more sense. While I was setting up my tent, Fernando dumped his gear onto the ground and looked at Ellen expectantly. Clearly, he had never set up his own tent before, but decided that since Ellen knew stuff about camping she’d know how to set it up. Luckily, it had only three poles and wasn’t too difficult to figure out, although Ellen spent most of the time cursing at Fernando, who kept moving the tent poles that Ellen had carefully placed.

Once everyone’s tents were up, Fernando declared it too dangerous to go fishing at night, so better to start a campfire and drink instead. He had brought charcoal and paper, and asked us to search the expanse of sand for driftwood. In the ten-minute walk from the port, there hadn’t been a single twig on the ground; Trujillo is a desert, completely devoid of trees. Ellen and I declined to fetch wood, and suggested we save the charcoal for the morning’s cooking fire rather than try to start it in the high winds at night.

We got down to drinking. This was moderately more successful than fishing – Fernando had brought three beers each, plus a bottle of wine – although the conversation left something to be desired. Our host was completely incapable of carrying on a conversation in either English or Spanish. He’d ask a question and interrupt our response, or answer it himself before giving us a chance. He’d lose interest in stories after two sentences (whether he was doing the listening or the telling) and mentally wander off to some kind of no-man’s-land.

Within a few minutes of starting drinking, Fernando declared his intentions to conquer me, romantically. He was 44, I was 32, and we were both teachers. What more could we want? Clearly, we were made for each other. We could live in his apartment in Trujillo. (I hate his apartment in Trujillo – the bathroom is shared with his bar, and is everything you could expect of a bar bathroom in a third-world country. The apartment has no view in any direction thanks to billboards in front of its windows, but lets in all the sounds of traffic from the main street, in a place where every car honks at every pedestrian every two seconds. His apartment is the last thing that would tempt me.) When I said no, he turned to Ellen to ask her advice (“Forget it!”) and the already awkward and stilted conversation over not nearly enough beer became very repetitive very quickly. Fernando couldn’t imagine why anybody would turn him down. I went to bed as soon as the alcohol was finished.

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn't do any fishing

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn’t do any fishing

In the morning, I slept through Fernando’s failed attempt to catch any fish. Since he hadn’t brought any food besides buns, as soon as I woke up Fernando was too hungry to fish anymore and we needed to go back to town. In daylight, the beach was isolated and pretty, with wide expanses of open sand and several flocks of shorebirds. We hiked off the beach, walked through the port, and caught a bus back to Fernando’s apartment. Ellen and I went out for breakfast, rather than having to cook in Fernando’s kitchen with him there, and over my papaya juice and egg sandwich, I made a mental note: people who seem like idiots in the city probably won’t improve much on a fishing trip, either. At least we had an adventure out of the experience, and one more tale to tell.

Peruvian people are ridiculously generous and pleasant. From the moment we entered the country on Friday, everyone we’ve met has been unfailingly helpful and nice. Even the driver of the collectivo (a private truck or car that serves as a taxi or bus service in rural areas) that drove us to the border refused our payment. We hadn’t planned to enter Peru that day, but since we’d arrived hours ahead of schedule, we went through the almost-deserted crossing and instantly got a ride to the tiny town of Suyo, twenty minutes from the border. After an hour of watching nothing but taxis and collectivos pass by, we headed into the village to find a place to camp. Although the town policemen were more than willing to let us set up our tents in the main square (“Our town is safe!”), Ellen left me guarding our bags while she searched for a quieter place to camp. On a side street by the river was an empty lot, where a sweet neighbour insisted Ellen and I make ourselves at home. She and her friend came outside with brooms to sweep the sandy ground clean before we put our tents there. Once we were camped, they invited us into the house to watch TV with them. Honestly, we were tired and would have gone to bed right away (although it was only six) but we thought we should accept her hospitality rather than be rude, so in we went. She was clearly poor: the house had a dirt floor, the outdoor kitchen had a wood-burning stove made from bricks, the yard was fenced with twigs (decorated with laundry hanging out to dry) and her garbage was swept out the side door into the very same lot where Ellen and I had set up our tents. However, she lived well enough to have electricity and a small television, and to feed the many neighbours who dropped by. Over the course of the evening, half a dozen people came over to say hello, watch TV, and eat her homemade tamales, which she insisted on sharing with us as well. Ellen and I felt guilty for accepting food she probably couldn’t afford (especially since we weren’t able to withdraw any Peruvian money to leave for her), but we didn’t have any polite way to refuse when everybody else was also eating. We were eventually able to excuse ourselves and retire to our beds for the night, exhausted after our day of travel. I slept like a log, but Ellen was disturbed by wandering bands of pigs rooting through the scraps left over from dinner, which had been discarded a few meters away from our tents. At least the policemen were honest in their promise that the town was safe – although we had pigs, dogs, and donkeys ambling past our tents all night, we and our belongings were perfectly safe. The next morning, we headed out early to try to catch the morning traffic from Ecuador into Peru. Luck was with us again, as a beaten up old car stopped, with three men inside. They were only going a few miles up the road, they said, but could take us to the next town. Of course, their trunk wouldn’t unlock, and the key broke in the ignition, so they hotwired the car as Ellen and I sat pinned under our bags in the back seat. At last we were on the road, chatting animatedly with our driver, Nestor. When he heard we were heading south, he was delighted. “I’m driving to Chiclayo this morning, in an hour or so. I just need to return this car to my friend, pick up my jeep from the shop, and eat breakfast. Want to join me?” We accepted with pleasure. Nestor turned out to be ridiculously generous. He worked in international business and threw money around like candy at a parade. When his jeep wasn’t ready, he hired a collectivo and paid our fares for us. From the next town, he insisted on buying us lunch and continuing our journey together by bus, on his dime. He had offered us a ride to Chiclayo, damn it, and he was going to make sure we got there! (Also, he took a liking to Ellen, so he wanted to keep spending time with us as long as he could.) Ellen and I felt a mixture of gratitude and discomfort at his generosity – we got a lot of insight into local food and culture from Nestor as he and his friend showed us around, but we didn’t feel free to explore the city on our own terms.

We were sure things wouldn’t go as smoothly as we set off on our own once more, but again the Peruvian people impressed us with their kindness. Both our rides of the afternoon stopped to buy us a beer, and the second one dropped us off right at our couchsurfing host’s doorstep. Our host here, Fernando, welcomed us into his home with open arms, sharing food and beer with us. I felt grateful for his hospitality, but I can hardly say I’m surprised. In our two days in Peru, I’ve come to expect nothing less from a Peruvian.

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Peruvian beer, Cristal. Also, Ellen has a cup for a hand.

Northern Peru is a land of poverty, much more so than any other country we’ve visited in Latin America. We’ve left the Sierra in favour of the coast, and it feels like nothing could be more different from the cloud forests of Ecuador. Most of what we see from the side of the road is dry and dusty, in stark contrast to the lush green mountains and misty jungles of the last few months. A few fields of sugarcane and mango orchards stand out from the expanse of dry grasses, but the majority of the view here is still sandy brown. Houses along the roadside are the same colour, constructed from sun-dried adobe bricks. Every once in a while, we drive by a half-empty village, with partial walls and bricked-in entranceways in many of the structures. I can’t tell if the walls of the abandoned homes were cannibalized to use the earthen bricks for other buildings nearby, or if their construction was never completed as their owners moved away to more prosperous areas. Whatever the reason, we pass hundreds of shells of homes as we make our way from the mountain highlands of the Andes to the coast.

I can’t shake the thought that Peru reminds me a lot of Cambodia. Both countries have sharp contrasts between the simple lives of the bulk of the people and the glossy magazine images of the nation as presented to tourists. The two countries also share the propensity for livestock to wander freely across the dirt roads, their owners more concerned that they get enough to eat than that they stay on their own property. Both also have a reputation for being dangerous for independent travellers. In Peru’s case, Ellen and I have mixed feelings about how risky our trip really is.

Almost everyone has cautioned us about Peru. We’ve met several people who’ve been robbed here, and on our first day in the country somebody opened my bag in the back of a crowded collectivo (a station wagon serving as an alternative to a bus) and stole a couple of small items. I acknowledge that travelling here has some risk. But I also see the struggling communities on the side of the highway, surrounded by land devoid of nutrients, water, and topsoil for growing food, far from the nearest town with any sort of industry or employment to support the local population. When I look at these hopeless shantytowns, I’m hardly surprised that foreign tourists look like easy pickings and are a temptation some can’t resist.

Despite the actions of a few bad eggs, the people of Peru have been amazingly kind to us. We haven’t met a single local who hasn’t tried to feed us. While paying for rides is standard around here (and we’ve been warned time and again that hitchhiking is impossible and we’ll have no luck trying), we’ve had nothing but success finding drivers willing to take us exactly where we want to go at no cost to us. I’m sure as our trip continues, we’ll have a few unlucky days to balance out the good, but in the meantime, Peru is rapidly becoming our favourite country so far.

On Friday, Ellen and I had dealings with three different law enforcement officers in Ecuador and Peru, and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t live up to their bad reputations. Our first incident came as we were hitchhiking out of Loja, Ecuador, in the morning. We were riding in the back of someone’s pickup when we were stopped at a police roadblock. The officer barked out “carrying passengers in prohibited spaces!” and had the driver pull over and stand on the side of the road to be ticketed. Ellen and I looked guiltily at each other as our very kind driver reassured us that we really hadn’t inconvenienced him that much. While he was waiting for his ticket, another cop wandered over to the truck to chat with us. The jovial officer wanted to know all about our trip and was asking us all sorts of questions, when our driver came back to let us know that the severe cop had ordered us out of the truck. Our cheerful friend was scandalized. “Why?! For riding in the back of a truck? But it’s not like we’re in the city, or anything!” With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the other officer’s objections, cancelled the ticket, and sent us on our way. Ellen and I grinned and laughed about it for the next twenty kilometers at least.

Although we’d planned to spend the night in Ecuador, our good luck with rides continued and we ended up crossing the border to Peru in the mid-afternoon. Here we had our second run-in with the authorities, as I had to get my exit stamp despite overstaying my Ecuadorian visa by eleven days. The immigration officer wasn’t impressed with my excuse: “I was waiting for my sister. I’m very sorry.” However, he didn’t make any serious attempts to solicit a bribe. After asking me several times why I stayed a hundred and one days instead of ninety, he started mumbling things about detaining me. Luckily, Ellen and I knew that the border authorities don’t actually have the right to fine or detain people for overstaying their visa. I answered all his questions with a simple, “I’m sorry I overstayed. I guess I need to leave Ecuador now. Can you stamp my passport?” After a few minutes of grumbling and pretending he couldn’t process my papers, he finally gave me my exit stamp and we were on our way, without even a mention of a fine or bribe.

Once Ellen and I had entered Peru, it took us mere moments to get a ride to the next town, Suyo. From there, though, no cars were going onward and it was getting on for late afternoon, so we decided to ask around in the village for a place to camp for free. A couple of local women suggested the stadium, so Ellen and I thought we’d check with the town’s cops before setting up our tents in a public place. We found a pair of uniformed town security officers in the main square, and once again South American law officers surprised me. When I asked them where we could safely camp, they seemed shocked. “Of course you can camp in this town’s public spaces! It’s safe here. Nobody will bother you!” They invited us to camp right in the main square, if we so desired. That seemed a little too public for us, so Ellen found an abandoned lot next to the house of a friendly woman, and we camped there instead. As the cops assured us, nobody bothered us or paid any attention to our stuff. So far, we’re very impressed with Latin American law enforcement!

Edited to add: After I wrote this but before publishing, someone riding in the car with us tried to steal valuables from my backpack. He got my flashlight, phone charger and cord, and one of my knives, before the person sitting next to him told our companions as the thief was getting out of the car. Our friend instantly punched the thief in the face and grabbed my flashlight and phone charger back, but didn’t realize the knife and cord were mine. Consequently, I can’t upload pictures from my phone until I replace the cord. We’re not too upset, though – it was the first theft we’ve had in six months of travelling, and nothing of great value was taken.

Ellen and I have heard a lot about couchsurfing, and many broke long-term travellers recommend it highly. Until I got to Quito, though, neither of us had couchsurfed before. We’ve glanced a few times through potential hosts’ profiles, but so many of them read suspiciously like personals ads that we never bothered trying to find accommodation through the site. This week my feelings on the matter have changed after staying with a friend of Ingo’s who lives near the airport. Staying at someone’s house has some huge advantages over hostels!

Steve's garden is absolutely amazing!

Steve’s garden is absolutely amazing!

The most obvious benefit of staying with a local is the financial savings. The cheapest hostel room I found was $8 a night (although I didn’t look far). Spending a week at Steve’s house saved me at least $50. Not only that, but I have the use of Steve’s kitchen, which is much better outfitted than a hostel’s shared kitchen, as well as a bathroom that I never have to line up for, and unlimited access to a washing machine that I don’t have to pay for. When you add up those benefits, I’ve probably saved at least another $20, especially on meals that I didn’t eat out.

Another huge advantage is having a local insider to give you directions and suggestions on places to go. Here I lucked out as well – Steve first came to Ecuador 40 years ago, and has plenty of information to help me get all my errands done. He doesn’t know as much about tourist sites, but his sister-in-law Dora who lives nearby has plenty of advice to offer me. My running around town has been much more pleasant than I expected, mostly because I can pick Steve and Dora’s brains on where to go.

One of the prettier streets in Quito - nice to have someone tell you where the nice views are!

One of the prettier streets in Quito – nice to have someone tell you where the nice views are!

Another sweet building that reminds me of Cartagena (fewer flowers, though - Cartagena still wins nicest city award!)

Another sweet building that reminds me of Cartagena (fewer flowers, though – Cartagena still wins nicest city award!)

The best part of this couchsurfing experience, though, has to be feeling welcomed at somebody’s home, rather than like a tourist in a hostel. Steve has been an amazing host – when I mentioned that I was hoping to read more about natural building techniques, he brought out half a dozen books on the subject that I could browse through. His library on customizing WordPress has inspired me to play around with my blog more over the next few months, and we’ve been having animated conversations on all sorts of topics.

Steve's brother-in-law built this gorgeous natural house.

Steve’s brother-in-law built this gorgeous natural house.

The absolute highlight, though, is that Steve is a distributor for the artisan brewery in Canoa whose beer Ellen and I tasted on our trip to the beach. The brews are only available by the keg, but Steve has a fridge full of bottled samples, of which he said I could help myself to two or three of each kind. That’s exactly what I’m planning on doing this afternoon, in a hammock in Steve’s beautiful garden, with my sketchbook on my lap and a steady supply of nice cold microbrew next to me. I can’t even remember – why was I unenthusiastic about couchsurfing again?

For several weeks, Ingo has been suggesting that we visit an animal market one of these Saturdays. Finally, last week, we decided to load up the car with some of the chickens and see what price we could get for them. The hens had long since stopped laying eggs, so bright and early Saturday morning we caught about thirty of them and put them in two cages on the top of the car. While we were at it, we captured six of the geese, who had also stopped laying, taking a moment to flip them over to check what gender they were. (Girl… girl… girl… boy… boy… another girl. Ah, to heck with it, we’ll sell them as three breeding pairs, with luck nobody will notice.) We also brought two of the piglets, saving the two friendliest to raise to adulthood and reserving the perpetually nervous redheaded piglet for Sunday dinner. Ellen and I also caught the violent and aggressive ram, marched him backward toward the car, hogtied him, and threw him in the trunk. Revenge was ours! Finally, with two pigs and a ram in the back, three cages of poultry on the roof, and the car full of people, we headed out to the market in San Pedro Maldonado.

My first thought upon arriving at the market was that I should have brought my camera. In front of us was a row of trucks, checking in at the gate. On our right was a sea of cattle, horses, and mules. I was a little concerned not to see any chickens, geese, pigs, or sheep at the market, but the man handing out vendor tickets pointed us in the right direction for the small animal area. A mass of people blocked our way – women in traditional clothes with baskets of eggs and honey, families trailing calves on leashes behind them, and hundreds of salty old farmers inspecting livestock and chattering animatedly amongst themselves. Ellen hopped out of the car and cleared the way for Ingo, who isn’t the sort of person to let a crowd stop him from driving exactly where he wants to go. We found a space to park the jeep and hopped out to start selling. As the crowd swarmed around the car to see what we’d brought, I realized I was glad we hadn’t brought our cameras after all.

Farmers four deep pressed against us as we unloaded the chickens from the car. We didn’t even have the chance to get the cages off the roof before they were peppering us with questions – How old? Are they laying? Could he lift one to weigh it? What breed? What price? Would we accept four dollars each? It was impossible to answer everybody and still get the animals out of the car and on display in our market space. I decided to ignore the crowds and handle the feed bags with the two piglets inside. The pigs were on harnesses, but I wasn’t sure I could stop the mass of people from distracting me and making off with them, so I left them in the bags and let people poke and prod them from there. Within three minutes, I had buyers willing to pay Ingo’s prices, and we entered hot negotiations over whether the price included the harness. Less than ten minutes after entering the market gates, the pigs were sold – it occurred to me to hope that nobody was using the market to launder fake currency, because in this chaotic atmosphere we’d never have the chance to notice.

We sold the animals almost as fast as we could unload them from the car. The geese we sold in pairs, and Ingo held them out for the crowd to see as he sexed them. Ellen and I chuckled to ourselves – no matter what gender Ingo declared, the people nearest him confirmed and loudly proclaimed as truth to whoever wanted to buy the pair of geese. The three pairs were placed in feed bags and carried off by their new owners as fast as Ingo could count the money coming in. Next to go were the chickens – we dropped the price to $9 a pair, and the birds sold faster than we could count them. We had to turn away customers, and some people were begging to be allowed to drive to the farm to buy more. I imagined them descending on the farm like locusts, devouring everything they could find. Ingo did his best to dissuade them.

The last animal to be sold was the ram. We had dumped him unceremoniously onto the ground in front of the car, and nobody had paid attention to the bound sheep at their feet as they bought up the birds and pigs. Once the bustle had died down a bit, though, we untied him and let him stand, and the crowd came back to inspect him. Ingo’s asking price was too high, and the farmers counteroffered and mumbled amongst themselves about the ram’s true value. Ingo insisted we hold firm, and wandered off to look at bulls while Ellen and I watched the ram, and his stepdaughters fetched coffee and snacks. We got a dozen offers of a hundred dollars, but Ingo had already dropped the price from $180 to $140 and we weren’t to go any lower. The girls came back with coffee in elegant porcelain cups with saucers, and we sipped our coffee while the farmers bickered over the ram’s price. When Ingo came back, he joined in the haggling and soon sold the ram for $100. The last animal had been sold less than half an hour after we’d driven into the market.

Ingo was totally delighted with his first market experience as a vendor. Even after we’d sold everything, customers kept approaching to ask if they could place orders for the next time we came. Visions of dollar signs danced in his head as Ingo tried to figure out what he could sell next week. The buyers didn’t limit themselves to livestock, either – Ingo got an offer on his jeep, as well. A cattle farmer would gladly trade thirty young bulls for it. Lucky for us, Ingo didn’t have alternative transportation or space for thirty bulls, or we’d have been walking home. As it was, we drove off with money in our pockets, smiles on our faces, and the roof of the car stacked high with empty bird cages.

This rooster will be the next to go - he keeps eating my seedlings in the greenhouse!

This rooster will be the next to go – he keeps eating my seedlings in the greenhouse!

If Hollywood is to be believed, whenever a woman travels to a tropical destination, she becomes embroiled in a love affair with a dark, seductive local man with an exotic name and a thick accent. My mother, only half-jokingly, asked me not to fall in love with anybody on this trip, lest I set up house with him here and refuse to ever live in Canada again. I hate to disabuse anybody of the stereotype, but I am not taking on any hot young lovers here. On the contrary, I am struggling to prevent myself from strangling the local men when they make their clumsy, overly-aggressive advances.

I knew before I left home that Latin American machismo would mean I would be exposed to wolf whistles and heavy-handed pick-up attempts. I had even considered wearing a fake wedding ring to dissuade persistent unwanted attention, as I had sometimes resorted to in Asia. I decided against it, but I find myself regretting that decision. I am getting pretty tired of the local men’s dogged insistence that I should fall madly in love with them. I hate to say it, but it just isn’t going to happen.

Last week, for example, I hired a taxi to take me back to the farm after my day in town. The driver started out by regaling me with the history of the town and its tourism industry, which made for a mildly entertaining story to pass the hour-long ride. Unfortunately, my attention to the conversation backfired, when the driver decided my interest extended to the contents of his pants. Suddenly the topic veered from birdwatching to how he’d like me to spend the night with him. I politely declined, and changed the subject back to birds. He offered to take me camping in the jungle overnight to show me the local wildlife, including the wildest life I could imagine, nudge nudge, wink wink, if you know what I mean. I refused even more firmly, and asked him to stop talking about this.

This is when the conversation turned from annoying pick-up attempt to persistence bordering on the unreal. The driver started saying I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. I told him to can it, and besides there are plenty of pretty women around town. He replied that none were like me, and I told him to forget about it and find a woman who actually wanted a relationship, rather than one who clearly didn’t. He started trying to convince me that I did want a relationship. Didn’t I want a hot, romantic fling in the jungles of Ecuador? (No, and certainly not with a 45-year-old taxi driver who was almost certainly married.) Wouldn’t I like to have a good time? (No, I was having a much nicer time when I wasn’t being harassed by horny local men.) My refusal of his every advance did nothing to dissuade him from spending the entire remainder of the hour-long drive pestering me to sleep with him.

When I eventually got back to the farm and told the story, reactions and suggestions varied. Ingo, the seven-foot-tall German farmer, said I should have repeatedly told the driver to shut up, getting ruder each time, and then refused to pay him upon getting out of the vehicle. Genny, his wife, who is an Ecuadorian woman and has had similar experiences with the men here, said that there was little I could have done, but that the driver had been inappropriate and that she’d lodge a complaint against him. Ingo offered to stand over her shoulder as she confronted him, baring his new shotgun. One of the other volunteers suggested that I pretend to be a lesbian, or married, and keep up the charade the entire time I was in Latin America. I don’t imagine that would deter the offenders, though, and I don’t see why I should have to live a lie to avoid repeated unwelcome advances on a regular basis.

Overall, I have no idea whether there’s anything I can do differently to discourage the persistent attentions of random men. I carry a knife in my purse, in case any of them thinks of going further than trying to pursuade me, but pulling a weapon on someone who is more annoying than threatening would probably only escalate the situation. On the bright side, though, at least I can assure my mother that I’m unlikely to fall in love with anybody in the near future, unless men in other South American countries show a different kind of machismo than what I’ve seen in Colombia and Ecuador so far.

A couple of weeks ago, Ellen and I hitchhiked to the beach in Canoa and back to the farm. Our rides on the way home stood in stark contrast to the amiable drivers who ferried us to the beach resort town at the beginning of the weekend. If you’ve ever considered picking up a hitchhiker or two, especially a backpacker or tourist on vacation, let me pass along some advice on the topic!

On Route Planning:
Do: Ask where they’re going and offer advice or suggestions on local activities, foods, and attractions. One friendly truck driver actually pulled over to let us sample local fruits from a roadside stand. We love talking about local food and culture, so meeting someone with knowledge of the area is always a plus.
Don’t: Try to demand that the hitchhiker change their plans to accompany you instead, or insist that the road you’re planning on taking, miles out of the way, is just as good for them as the route they’ve named. One couple who drove us home from the beach took us hundreds of kilometers in the wrong direction and informed us that it would be fine for us. This kind of helpfulness is not appreciated by weary travellers hoping to get to their destination in time to get dinner and a hostel room.

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

On Conversation Topics:
Do: Start a friendly conversation about their travels or careers, and your country and culture. Pick a topic that you’ll be comfortable discussing for awhile, especially if you’re taking them a long way.
Don’t: Interrogate them about their life choices while rapidly speaking in local slang, refusing to allow them to change the subject. (Why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you like men? Aren’t you getting old? Don’t you want children? Would you object to dating an Ecuadorian man? I know a few men who might like to marry you. Can I introduce you?)

On Stopping for a Meal:
Do: Offer to buy them a meal or snack, if the mood strikes you. I’ve shared many a hot meal with travelling companions, and been able to call them a friend by the end of the meal. There’s something special about breaking bread with people that brings them closer. Ellen and I have fond memories of the awkward rides that became much more animated when we opened a box of cookies or other snacks.
Don’t: Repeatedly ask them to go out to dinner with you, date you, or justify their refusal to do so, announcing that you’ve fallen madly in love with them in the half hour you’ve spent together. Seriously. This happened.

On Keeping in Touch:
Do: Offer to exchange contact information if you’ve hit it off. You never know, the hitchhiker may be passing through town again sometime.
Don’t: Beg to know when you can see them again, repeatedly asking them for an address where you can drop in to see them unannounced. This is creepy.

On Parting Ways:
Do: Let them exit the car where they ask to be dropped, letting them off safely on the side of the road. Most hitchhikers have looked at a road map and have planned their route.
Don’t: Refuse to stop to let them out because of the weather or because you don’t know if they’ll get another ride promptly enough. This is not cool. If I want to get out, it’s probably because I have to go this way, in which case taking me elsewhere doesn’t help. The other reason I ask to be let out of the car is because you’re creeping me out or disturbing me, in which case refusing to let me get out of the car only makes it worse.

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Really, I feel as if this advice shouldn’t have to be given. Ellen and I hitchhike because we usually find it more pleasant than taking a bus. We aren’t restricted to schedules, we get to take the scenic route, we have a larger choice of destinations, including those off the beaten path, we tend to meet more people and have better conversations, and we usually have better leg room and a more comfortable ride in private cars. However, I think after our experience the other week, we won’t be accepting rides from lonely Ecuadorian truck drivers again anytime soon.