Ecuador: Alto Choco

We climb through twilight,
The misty ghosts of tall trees
Greet us, point the way.

We had come many miles to Ecuador to dig and discover. We set out from Quito, a highland city in perpetual Spring. The road allowed much conversation between newly met companions. We entered upon the north country, journeying into the wilds surrounding Otavalo, where the native men wear navy ponchos and tie their hair in strong black braids.

We entered the montane fog forest, the moist jungle where the clouds rolled up the mountainside every evening and covered everything in a thick ghostly veil. Everything was mist. And inside it things grew cold and damp. Here we would live – in the clouds – in the forest. Here we would forget everything else. From outside, the mist of the rising clouds looked like a dream swallowing everything, unreal, unworldly, beautiful, frightening, almost shimmering in its grey smokiness – as impenetrable and enticing as death. Inside, you weren’t even aware of being within.

The road, growing fainter and fainter as night set in, was only a thin muddy strip of life held between the jungle and that misty nothing. We dismounted because the road could go no further. In the wild darkness we followed each other as giddy and frightened as small children. We chased each other up and up, through mud and grasses and the trickling streams. If we hadn’t worn boots, our shoes wouldn’t have survived. We held each other as we inched deeper and deeper into the unknown.

Out of the darkness
The quiet camp welcomes us
With bowls and candles.

The camp was a long walk away, made longer by our unfamiliarity, but we were greeted with a clattering dinner. We had yet to become bored with the stew that would be served every night during our stay. We all sat – a dozen of us or more – on a single bench roughly hewn. In the candlelight our faces were bright and merry, and we were all beautiful and mysterious. In the warmth of the light everything became strange and dream-like.

You are enthralling
In the night’s beauty: dark veil
And teasing flicker.

We awoke to find ourselves surrounded by mountains, subtle and sloping. Everything around us was green. Everything around us was wild. Beyond the tiny boundaries of the camp we could only see nature. We set to work. We washed at the one sink, a tap and porcelain bowl fixed into an avocado tree. We bathed in rainwater on a large stone. We ate at the same bench, curtained by vines where hummingbirds played. Everything was wooden or clay. We walked a small way to a roaring river to wash our clothes and pinned them unto a clothesline so that they could dampen in the evening mist. On the walls of the humble kitchen the paw-prints of spectacled bears could be still seen where they had left their signatures and the legends of their bold raid.

On the walls the bears
That we had come to track down
Say they beat us here.

We worked half the day or all the day. When we weren’t working, we ate. When we weren’t eating, we wrote. When we weren’t writing, we washed. Sometimes we worked through the rain. Sometimes we watched the rain from the porch of our cabin – as lazy as the rain itself – falling into each other’s arms – sharing our blankets and reading our poems. We were always falling in love with each other.

You ask me to help
You bathe; I stand awed by the
Petals of your breasts.

At night we sat around a camp fire, fighting the sting of the sprawling smoke and the fear of whatever flew at us. Sometimes we slept alone, sometimes we shared our hammocks. We sat for hours of quiet talk. The surrounding darkness made us small.

We sit in tiny rings:
In our quiet we can hear
The thunder of jaguars.

Our breakfast was pancakes and sturdy bread with caramel. We ate knowing we needed to. Our lunches were respite from the labour of digging ditches, and carrying logs, and building bricks, and planting, and tossing rocks, and grinding bamboo, and machetes chopping, chopping, chopping. In the afternoons I would sometimes find a man of my country. We would share yerba matë, snickering how no one else was familiar with it.

Somos del Sur
Y quien más pueden sentir
Nuestros recuerdos?

At dinners we were our hungriest. We ate like famished men, even the women. The men, who were few, often delighted in unfinished bowls, one after the other piled high on top of each other like bones. From the laughter of our stews, we grew more settled over plastic mugs of tea. We fell into hush and whispers thereafter. The fire would be lit and slow melodies would be played. We would wrap each other in blankets and I would sneak animal-crackers to the one I loved to nibble together discreetly. We would share hammocks and tickle toes. We would burn as quietly as the quiet fire. We would drift into sleep. I would be the last to fall asleep. I would be the first to wake and would marvel at the sky.  It was only deep into the night that the clouds lifted, and in that perfect silence the stars were everywhere.

The night is ready
To quit the masquerade when
Only few would know.

I was the only one of my faith. I would wait out the dawn, watching that blue fire encircle the mountains and leap from the horizon. It would rise like a mystical wave of glowing water. I would wash and sing the mountains. I would bow and fall to the ground. As I was likely the only one doing so for many miles, I felt sure that the Heavens took notice. Afterwards I would sometimes bathe when the air was still chilled. People would begin to stir, sometimes I would counsel them before breakfast. We were all in love, but not everyone with everyone – or at least not all the time.

Time was the river
We waded in, as constant
And as free-flowing.

We left. Two weeks had passed, it might have been two years. We had only been out of the camp a few times. Once or twice to see Otavalo and delight in her famous market. Once or twice to a smaller town where the women leaned from balconies to look below. Once to some hot spring pools. We would walk a half-hour to the dirt road to meet a truck with a carriage made out of sheet metal and a fallen log for us to stand in and trace faces in the mountains or wonder which roads had been there during the times of the Inca. But we always returned to our quiet camp. In that way every day was like every other day – except for the day we left.

The mist knew we were leaving, knew her spell was unravelling. She surprised us that day. She decided to slip away during the night. She wouldn’t cling to us. She wouldn’t watch us turn our backs. She wouldn’t chase after us as we drove away. She just left. So that morning, unlike all the other mornings, we watched the sun rise.


2 comments on “Ecuador: Alto Choco

  1. Nausheen K says:

    I enjoyed it, rich descriptions and an honesty/intimacy that I didn’t expect.
    Is this the first time you’ve used this form and is it one you favour?

  2. Rafael says:

    I’ve used something like this form before, but none of them have been posted. I started using the form (before I knew it was a developed form) in letters — mostly as a way to build on or summarize a letter, to develop a kind of creative inter-lineal commentary on some poems. Then I began to use it for certain assignments in my poetry workshops, namely responses to certain ideas or poets. My professor then told me about haibun and said I would be good at it. Luckily for me he had already chosen to put the famous haibun of all (actually the most famous Japenese poem period), Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku (trans. Keene). Anyway, although I had written some bad poems about this trip before, I wanted to revisit it for my haibun/response assignment to Basho. It’s a wonderful form with a lot of possibilities. I’ve already started on the next installment about my time in Ecuador, and I have one or two other ideas of how the form can be broadened and developed. This poem in particular I’ve quite excited about, more excited than I have been about my work for quite a while. So I’m particularly glad to read that you enjoyed it.

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