Saturday, 29 August 2009

New Neighbours

The hourly bus pulls into Malchingui, a musical carriage complete with blue lights, red tassled curtains and a sackful of chickens in the boot. A couple of gringas clamber down at Cuatras Izquinas, and amble over to the line of locals waiting by white trucks. The drivers need not ask where they are going, as they toss bags in the back and head off across the plains. Past young boys herding cows, they are chased by stray dogs towards the distant casa in the clouds.

Isolated in an internationals' haven, days pass without word or sign of any neighbour. Until the donkey feels wanderlust in the wind, and charges off towards a braying friend. With handfuls of corn people follow; apologetic smiles greeted with good humour in the neighbours' paddock - fellow farmers forever amused by the group of gringas, trying to coax their wayward animal home.

As days become weeks, a routine of dog walking, donkey fetching and egg collecting emerges; and whilst the former strains relations with a barrage of barks, the latter brings nothing but delight.

Down the dusty road they go, across a yard full of hens clucking at their feet, and tap on the open door of the little breezeblock house. The unexpected visitors are greeted more warmly than the prodigal son, insisted upon to sit while dutiful daughters run off to count eggs. Conversation flows, with gentle chatter from farm life to Ecuadorian journeys and the distant United States. The pair leave with armfuls of eggs, but will remember so much more the old man's crinkled face, smiling in the doorway. They walk home across the barren landscape, but surrounded now by familiar faces, far from the anonymous path of the tourist map.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Living by Candlelight

Slithers of mist roll across the fields and fall effortlessly into the valley. These clusters of cloud turn candyfloss-pink as the sun drifts behind them, and shadows begin to stretch their tired legs across the farm.

Feet start to shuffle cautiously in the half light, guided by familiarity towards ivory-coloured candles. With wicks alight, flames flicker on their journey through the house, adorning tablecloths and armrests and windowsills. A figure balances precariously atop a creaky chair, spinning a black chandelier and shedding pools of hot wax onto the floor. An intimate light envelopes the few, illuminating cards dealt in the darkness and words working across yellowed pages.

Through a different door, blue rings shed an eerie light upon knives upon garden greens, whilst bubbly waters glistens in the sink. Bread bakes above hot coals, causing a cool draft to clash with rising smoke.

Slowly candles burn to base, and people move towards bedrooms caught up in moonlight. Quito lights glitter in the distance, only to happily disappear when the morning sun wakes.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

'Right, you're all on shit'

It is a well-known fact that open discussion of backpackers' bowel movements fills the fresh air of South America. Travellers who back home would not dare allow another hear them pee, publically rejoice at having had a solid shit. Bus drivers plead with their passengers to do nothing more than urinate during the 20-hour journey; they plead back for road-side stops, where nature absorbs the rest. Yet whilst tummy troubles continue to pain those on the road, faeces on the farm means something quite different.

A crowd of willing workers gather just north of the equator, to be told 'You're all on shit'. But they hold none of the nervousness which plagues the Imodium-carrying tourist. For here, the hundreds of trees which litter the landscape are fuelled by their own bodies. Sawdust and shit surround deep roots, whilst bucketfulls of pee has leaves glowing green with nitrogen.

(Thankfully) upwind, the morning shift begins with sacks of chicken shit, dragged across deep beds. The chickens themselves shuffle a few meters away, chuckling as dry dung flies into the eyes of their keepers.

Next comes donkey waste, pilled high into wheelbarrows until the source dwindles. Thereafter begins the Search For More Shit - teams sent towards the horizon, to return with bucketfuls of cowpats; generous donations from the neighbours. Light as air, the new fuel is playfully tossed in the air, before being crumbled between dirty hands and fed to the earth.

As the hours pass, the workers resign themselves to the inevitable, allowing excretement dust to billow around them, and cling to sweaty skin. Casting shoes aside, people step into the beds, turning the potent mixture until arms are exausted. Finally the water flows, streaking down stained skin and deep into the soil, to ripen the recipe.

Weeks later they will return to this woven patch of poo, plant vegetables and watch them grow. Many more months will pass before they sit to eat the feast of their labour, their weary bodies replenished by a burst of fresh flavours. Meanwhile, across the valley a lone backpacker sits in a cheap Quito restaurant, stomach strained, and thinks of nothing but shit.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Life Stories for Sale

London Waterloo, moments before the 10.15pm Portsmouth Harbour train departs. Weary workers rush down the platform; others sit on red seats and stare with regret at the bleeping Blackberry. Families crowd around fancy programmes, delighting over theatrical hours spent along the South Bank. The train fills quickly during these last moments, as late-night shoppers bundle bags aplenty into overhead compartments, copies of The Evening Standard are unfurled, and the inevitable stench of McDonald's fills the carriages. And then a voice; 'Ladies and Gentlemen, can I please have your attention for a minute.'

Inquisitive eyes poke out above newspapers, glance up from electronics, and spy the scruffy stranger in jeans and worn khaki. He smiles, reveals a yellowed clutter of teeth, and begins his plea. An akward silence hangs between the passengers; quick glances of contempt are exchanged as money is mentioned, for a bed for the night, or a bottle of booze they like to believe. Every attempt is made to avoid his eye, or the rough hand which passes by in hope. A silver coin drops into the palm, the kind soul thanked profusely as the whistle marks an imminent departure. Ten pence richer, the stranger steps off the train, accompanied by a collective sigh of relief to mark a journey soon forgotten.

Avenida Arequipa, Lima, an undefined afternoon hour. Minibus drivers speed along the urban racetrack, accompanied by overenthusiastic youths hanging out of sliding doors. They scream out destinations, in a general assault against the ears of passers by. Potential passengers huddle at the roadside, hoping a bus will slow down enough for them to clamber onboard. An athletic thirtysomething takes the leap of faith, grabs hold of the open door and pulls himself inside. Where people perch on torn plastic seats, pile papers and bags onto laps, and exhale.

Outside, the traffic builds and a haze of exhaust fumes rises to meet the grey city sky. Horns blaze relentlessly. Inside, the new passenger stands at the front, eyes his audience carefully, and begins. '¡Señoras y señores!' he exclaims with cheer, taking a small cardboard box from under his arm. Eyes are raised, turned from the unappealing window scene towards a man with a story to tell. He speaks with eloquence of his childhood, of misguided years spent stealing from those who sit before him now. His eyes portray a painful past, described with a theatrical flare to turn yet more heads.

Gazing upwards, he rejoices over the moment he found God, renounced his sinful ways and found a fresh path. He pauses, perhaps for dramatic affect, but all the more to allow a gaggle of girls to squeze past. Continuing his tale, he declares himself an honest streeet seller, asking for no more than a few centavos to continue with his trade. In return, a promise of sweet indulgement, plucking shiny wrappers from the cardboard chest of treasures. His audience are captivated. There is no need for shallow smiles or sheltered eyes. And no need to know what delicate delights he clutches in his palm. For his Chaucer-esque performance prompts hands into pockets; kind thanks for a journey remembered and a story to be retold.