The fishing boats didn’t go all that far from shore, perhaps a quarter of a mile, to a line where the sea turned from light to dark. A shelf, most likely, where the sea floor dropped off to greater depths. I sat on my knees on the paddleboard, paddling for all I was worth to get through the surf break without being toppled. In my back pocket I carried the hand line I’d rigged up; to a locking carabiner I had tied a 120lb fishing line about 20 feet long. To the end of the leader I tied a heavy duty hook, and on it I attached the only bait I could find in the van: a hunk of Swiss-style sausage.
I wasn’t interested in those hipster vegan fish. No, I was interested in the man-eaters. The kind of fish that require a 120lb fishing line and a locking carabiner; one that would be interested in eating manly nuggets of mystery meat stuffed into a piece of pig intestine. Of course a fish like this, or a shark for that matter, could easily drown me and take my paddleboard with it. For this reason I would attach the carabiner to a bungee cord, which would in turn be attached to my board. I had my dive knife at the ready for the emergency cut-and-swim.
After passing through the surf break the water became more gentle. I stood up and paddled out to sea, past the line where the water turned from light to dark. I took out my hand line, unraveled the leader and dropped the bait into the water. The line unraveled through my fingers until it was taut, and then I clipped the carabiner to my bungee cord and sat back to enjoy the warm Ecuadorian morning. For a while I sat with my legs dangling off one side of the board, and then I laid down on my back and closed my eyes. As I lay there on the board, the water gently rocking me with each passing wave, I considered the depth of the water below me. I thought about the distance these waves had traveled, and the distance we, ourselves, had traveled. Twenty feet below, the Swiss-style sausage dangled at the edge of an oceanic abyss, taunting the passing fish. A quarter mile away, life in Canoa ticked by at a relaxed pace along dirt streets. Ten thousand miles away life went on at home without us. Sheena, unable to see me lying down, wondered if I’d been pulled under by a Great White.
After nearly an hour, I figured I should come back and let Sheena know I was still alive. I rolled up my hand line, threw the sausage overboard, and headed back toward the surf. As I approached the shore I was repeatedly pummeled by set waves, which, as usual, nearly drowned me. By the time I reached shore my hand line had become unraveled and I was lucky not to have been killed by my supersized man-eater fishing hook. Sheena, content that I was still alive, went back to reading her book in her lawn chair in the sand.
The following day, while descending the coastal road through a cloud forest toward Puerto Lopez, our brakes decided they’d had it. I gently depressed the brake pedal coming around a curve, and it gently traveled all the way to the floor. The ensuing panic-stomp did the trick, effectively jerking Nacho to a slower speed. I’d stumbled upon the temporary fix, allowing us to travel the rest of the way to our destination; every time I wanted to slow down, I had to do a panic-stomp on the brake pedal. Failed brake master cylinder. Damn. More of that emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance would be required.
We pulled into Puerto Lopez and drove the main road along the water until we had left downtown, jerking to an abrupt panic stop before each speed bump. A few hundred meters outside of town we found a nice spot to camp on the beach and panic-stopped into a serene location overlooking the bay. We poured rum into two glasses and topped them up with Coke that had been chilling in the freezer, and then sunk back on the couch to listen to the waves. Outside of our screen door the sailboats and fishing vessels bobbed in front of the lights from the bay while a cool sea breeze filled our small living room.
Having scored the best free beach front property in all of Ecuador, we weren’t in a hurry to move on. The following morning we ignored our Vanagon maintenance woes and opted instead to go in search of boobies. It was Sheena’s idea. “Let’s just enjoy the beach,” I’d say. “No! I want to go to the island of boobies!” She was relentless. Of course we’re talking about birds here – the elusive Blue-Footed Booby. La Isla de la Plata was only a 45 minute boat ride away and was said to be loaded with the little monsters.
At the port we found our fiberglass shell of a tour boat waiting, beached like a dead whale. Our captain played it cool and asked all of the chaps from the group to come and help him get it free. Twenty minutes and several strained backs later, we were putting Northwesterly. When, halfway to the island, the engine failed, all I could do was smile. I watched as the captain and his two helpers wrenched on it for a few minutes, and then switched to watching the panic grow in the other passengers’ eyes. I was just happy to see someone else behind the wrench for a change. We finally got on our way when I noticed another layer of ricketyness to our boat; one of the helpers’ jobs was to steer the boat by holding his foot on the outboard motor. When the captain needed to turn, he would yell at the boy, who would push the motor a little with his bare foot.
“All right everybody, there are four hikes we can do,” our guide said. We had disembarked and were gathered around the map of the hiking trails around the island. “The map, you see, is backward. You have to flip it like this. The printer made it backwards. There are four hikes, my fraings.” For some reason Latin-American guides always say “my friends”, but pronounce it “my fraings”. Every time I hear it I think of John McCain.
“This hike is very far away, so nobody likes it.” He swirled his hand over the blue line. “This one is very boring, you no see any boobies or frigates. This one boobies, but only frigates flying. This one is shortest, but has boobies and frigates, my fraings.” It was clear that our guide wanted to do the shortest hike. The island was no more than a half of a square mile, so no hike was really all that long. “So my fraings, we will do the short boobie and frigate hike?” We nodded.
The trail wound through a dry wash and up the side of a small mountain covered in palo santo trees, and punctuated by thickets of luffa bushes; yes, luffa as in “luffa sponge”. Luffa sponges grow on bushes inside of huge spiky seeds.
“These are luffa sponges, my fraings. They make your face so soft, my fraings.” Our guide mimed washing his face with one of the sponges.
Throughout the hike we dodged blue-footed boobies and red-breasted frigates perched in the trail and all over the surrounding cliffs and trees. I kept myself entertained by proclaiming “Look! Red-breasted frigate!” using my best nerdy birder lisp every time I saw one. I’m 29, but I’m not above acting like a 12 year old. Just ask Sheena.
Back on the boat it was time to head back to the mainland, but not before partaking of the second part of our tour: snorkeling at the island.
“My fraings,” our guide announced, “It is time for snorkeling.” He glanced over his shoulder at the water and the white sandy beach. “You will have one hour to snorkel. There are many fishes and corals to see. “ We all nodded in anticipation. “But as you can see the water is very cold. It may make you sick from the cold. The wind is also blowing. So you will not have any fun. Maybe today is not the day for snorkeling. Does anyone want to snorkel?” We peered around at the group, now completely turned off by the idea of snorkeling, and fearful for their health. Not wanting to be the only ones swimming in the arctic cold water with the deadly wind making us sick, we kept quiet as the boat sputtered to life and stammered out to sea.
On the way back to Puerto Lopez our boat ran out of gas. Again we were stuck, the other passengers fretted, and I couldn’t wipe the ridiculous smile off of my face. After replacing your own transmission on a high mountain Colombian farm, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching it happen to someone else. It’s like all of a sudden waking up and realizing that you’re not alone in the world.
Eventually the helpers unearthed an extra fuel bottle from the depths of the boat’s bilge, and we were on our way. A short time later, Sheena let out a joyous squeal and all at once I knew we’d be stopping again. Next to our boat a whale breached, and then her two calves followed. We spent a half an hour circling the enormous animals as they repeatedly surfaced and jumped around. I imagined one of them biting my Swiss-style sausage link and taking me into the depths of the ocean while I fidgeted for my dive knife. I really dodged a bullet there.
The following morning it was time to get down to business. By the glow of Nacho’s dome light after our boat trip I had removed our brake master cylinder. I now carried it in my sweatshirt pocket as I made my way at 6:00 in the morning toward the Puerto Lopez bus station. I would go to Guayaquil, a 5 hour trip, and not come back until I found a replacement. By 7:00 I had found the right bus and was relaxing my way Southward. Someone else drove, for a change.
As the bus passed through grasslands and canyons I listened to Radiolab and This American Life on my iPod. Ira Glass dug deep to find out what happened during the massacre at Dos Erres, Guatemala, and I thought about how long ago we had driven through that region. It seemed like an eternity. Being able to sit there and stare out the window while being entertained was a welcome luxury. By now the uncertainty of when and how our van would be fixed didn’t concern me. We’d been through this before, and everything would certainly work out. How could I complain, after all, after listening to what happened at Dos Erres?
When the bus reached Guayaquil I grabbed a sandwich and walked out to the taxis. I hopped in one and directed him to a VW parts importer. When we reached the place I stepped out and passed my old master cylinder through the barred service window to the parts guy. He disappeared for a minute and emerged holding the exact part I needed. I paid him, thumbed another taxi back to the bus station, and hopped on the next bus for Puerto Lopez. The whole day was all very non-Latin-American in its efficiency and in the way everything worked on the first try. I suppose that after you’ve traveled across continents and smuggled really heavy car parts across international borders to fix very difficult mechanical problems, everything else just seems easy.
On the bus ride home I sat in the bulkhead seat next to a pleasant Ecuadorian woman with a lot of grocery bags. On the bulkhead there was a large picture of Jesus superimposed over a backdrop of a serene Swiss mountain lake. Jesus was made in the image of a Latin-American boy, but in an effort to make him look as innocent and tranquil as possible, he had turned out looking more like a prebubescent Latin-American girl wearing a satin bed sheet. He certainly looked nothing like the Middle-Eastern man that he really was. I find it curious that every Christian society does this same kind of Jesus stylization. I stared at this innocent-looking bed sheet-wearing prebubescent Latin-American girl for five hours, while listening to episodes of Fresh Air on my iPod.
As the sun went down and the bus descended the same road where our brakes had failed, Terri Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice spoke about his impending death and the sadness he felt at having had to watch his friends pass away, while at the same time looking positively on the times he had.
“There’s something that I’m finding out as I’m aging – that I am in love with the world. And I look right now as we speak together, out the window of my studio, and I see my trees – my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, and … I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are … It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music … Live your life, live your life, live your life.”