A Writer Writes
Throughout my service, I lived in the rural outskirts of a bustling city, and sometimes I walked to town. It was a 45-minute stroll, all downhill, which gave me a chance to wave to the shop owners setting out their brooms, their fresh-baked rolls and their publicity boards announcing a new item.
If I timed it right, I passed by Luis. His black bowler hat made him look taller than he was as he shuffled up the sidewalk with his large black cow in tow. I’d give him a nod and smile, his coffee-brown wrinkled face always emitting enough sunshine to fill my day.
While hopping over the heaved slabs of sidewalk and steering around the sections of mud and litter in the path, I took in the distant vistas, the passing cars and the groans of buses grinding up the hill. After several months of living high in the Sierras of Ecuador, these morning jaunts had become a favorite ritual of mine.
Because this hill was rather steep, it was also common to see people walking its length for exercise. One day, on my way into town to meet another Peace Corps Volunteer, I fell into step with a gentleman who was eager to chat. He told me he loved to walk, spend time with his animals (he lived alone), and work in his garden. As we pattered along, I told him all about my garden back in the United States, and asked him more about the plants and trees he cultivated. Because of my interest, he invited me to come see his garden. I exclaimed that I would love to someday, but at that moment, I was late to meet a friend at a cafe.
Just then, I heard the tell-tale squeak of bus breaks and noticed a bus barreling down toward us. I turned to the man and told him that I needed to take this bus into town so I wouldn’t be late.
Upon hearing this, he immediately jumped from the curb, flagged down the bus, led me up the steps and handed money to the driver paying for both tickets.
Ummm. My brain started ping-ponging. That’s nice, but why is he coming with me?
“Thank you, sir, but I’m happy to pay for my own ticket”.
“No, it’s no trouble,” he beamed.
He turned toward the back and with the prerequisite “permiso, permiso, permiso” he pushed between the other riders, and the plethora of backpacks and packages overflowing into the aisle. I caught-up with him in the back of the bus where we had some space to stand and sway, hanging by the one-hand grips overhead. I listened to the loud, throbbing music, and carefully planned my next words.
I shouted, “Really, sir. You are very kind. I would love to see your garden. Perhaps I can take your number and come back when I have more time another day?”
“But it won’t take long, today’s the perfect day,” he assured.
With that, he let go of his grip and started “permiso-ing” back up the aisle again. At the front, I saw his head descend and disappear down the steps. I waited. Seconds passed. The bus wasn’t pulling forward. People in the front started to swivel, craning their necks toward the back of the bus. Then a few started to gesture toward me. Like the old-fashioned telephone game, the message got passed from one passenger to the next and finally, I heard it loud and clear.
“The Gringa has to get off the bus!”
I started to shake my head, but realized that it will be futile to explain. Everybody was waiting for me to get off the bus.
I guess, I’m getting off the bus, I mumbled to myself.
So, I got off the bus and for the first time, I really looked at this man standing before me in his red track suit and expensive tennis shoes, eagerness in his smile. His thinning hair told me he was probably pushing mid-60’s and I concluded that he must be lonely after the death of his wife. I took a deep breath and tried to explain again — perhaps my Spanish was not correct — that I really didn’t have time to go to his house and see his garden today.
“But we’re already here!” he exclaimed and motioned up toward a perfectly manicured wooden English-Tudor dwarfing the block. I looked up in awe. I’ve walked this route many times and I’ve always admired this particularly large and beautiful old home, secretly wondering was behind its steel gate.
“This is your house?” I gasped, and before my brain could stop my words from tumbling out, “Ok, I have time to see your garden.”
With that, he stepped toward the gate, swiftly took a key from his pocket, turned it in the lock and ushered me into the garage.
Oh, Becky, I whispered. What have you gotten yourself into?
He slammed the gate behind us, and his turn of the key from the inside punctuated my fate.
Alarm bells raged in my head: I’m with a strange man, he lives alone, nobody knows where I am, I could definitely die.
And within that same second, my rational voice argued, in Ecuador, violence is not the norm. People are very kind. I have to trust and take risks if I’m ever going to meet people and make friends!
The rational side won. I slipped past his truck, stepped over the second threshold and entered his garden.
It was stunning. Layers of large leaves interwove with fronds and flowering vines of various colors and textures. The dense vegetation hid sweet metal and glass sculptures, made by an artisan hand. Everywhere I looked I recognized plant families from home mixed with the evocative aroma of avocado and lemon trees calling me onward. A flagstone walkway led to an open stairway of a perfect wooden tree-cabin, a little hideaway among the canopy filled with an overstuffed chair and shelves of novels waiting to be read.
Down below, another walkway led to an oval patio with rich hand-carved furniture set underneath an arbor of white twinkling lights. I wandered on. I couldn’t help myself, I’d never before stepped into such a wonderland of art and life. The man followed me around, answering my inquiries, humbly accepting my recognitions for his green-thumb and his artistry.
We eventually came full circle and he suggested that I meet his animals. First, he let a little yappy dog out of the house, and I made nice with him offering a few scratches behind the ear. Next, my host tugged at a sheet covering a large cage I hadn’t even seen. Rabbits! Around the corner, unveiling another cage revealed some lively parakeets. Then, hidden amongst the greenery was a final cage with a large green parrot.
He wanted to introduce me to the parrot, so he opened the cage. The parrot stepped out onto a tiny dowel and cooed as her owner placed his cheek next to her curved beak. The man stepped back.
Thinking the parrot was friendly, I put out my finger for it to jump to. Suddenly, with a high screech, the parrot launched herself full force into my hand, piercing it with its vicious beak and claws. I started screaming (in English) and forcefully shaking my hand to get the parrot off me. The man started screaming (in Spanish) and jumped into action, trying to grab it away. Our screams and squawks reverberated through the garden until, after several moments, the man was successful at ripping the parrot from my hand and throwing it to the ground.
Immediately, the parrot recovered, and dove at my sandals, clawing into my ankles and biting my exposed toes. I screamed. He screamed. The parrot screeched and I shook and shook my leg all the while graduating to English obscenities while the man yelled apologies into the air. Once again, the man grasped the parrot, yanked her from my foot, and put her back on her dowel. A second passed, then she splayed out her wings, pinpointed her target, and flew at my other hand with all the chaos erupting again.
Finally, the man grabbed the parrot one last time, tossed her back into the cage and slammed the door. Seconds passed with only the sound of our heavy breaths. Straightening up and pushing his hair back in place, he turned to look at me. His face grew tight with horror. I looked down. Blood was pouring from both of my hands and my foot, pooling onto the patio below.
“Oh my. I’m so sorry,” he gasped. “Victoria has never reacted that way to another person. We have to get you cleaned up. Please come into my house and I will put something on your wounds.”
He ran inside. I did not follow.
The pain was just starting to take hold in my extremities, but my brain was on full alert, listening to combat between my instincts and my reality. Was this part of his plan? He has an attacking parrot to conceal his true intentions? I’ll probably be buried in the garden! I have to get out of here, but I don’t have the key.
No, calm down, you’re in Ecuador. At the very most, you might get robbed, but you probably won’t get killed. He seems like such a sweet man. He’ll let you leave soon.
The man came rushing back with an unlabeled bottle of purple solution and started dabbing a cotton ball aggressively on my wounds.
Oh no! Remember, Peace Corps trainers taught us about the substance that robbers will put on you to make you hallucinate and give up your bank account numbers to them. I know it’s in powder form, but is it in a purple liquid? Could this be his ploy?
No, I’m in Ecuador, it’s safe here.
Oh, yes, I’m in Ecuador! Kidnappings happen here, too!
He’s dabbing. I’m backing away.
I wonder how long it takes before I start to feel dizzy. I’ve got to get out of here!
I stammered and quickly blurt out, “Sir, thank you for all of your kindness, but I’ve really got to go to the cafe now to meet my friend. Can you let me out of the gate?”
“Oh, no need. I’ll drive you!” he exclaims.
Oh great, now I’m really going to be kidnapped!
And before I knew it, he’s led me by the elbow to the front-seat of his dated pick-up truck. He rushed to open the large garage door. Once we were in the street, he quickly shifted the gears and asked me for directions to the cafe. My limbs were throbbing. I was dotted in purple dye. I looked at my body, I looked at him, and all I could do was laugh as I told him which way to go.
It was obvious by now that this man had no intention of hurting me. He was older. He was lonely and he just wanted somebody to appreciate his joys with him. I was new to town, and I needed a friend and any excuse to practice my Spanish. Maybe, this is the best of what Peace Corps can be.
When we pulled up to the cafe, I turned to him and sighed, “Sir, I don’t even know your name.”
“My name is Carlos. Maybe you can come back to my garden someday soon. I’ll buy a cake and make a cup of tea.”
“Yes, Carlos,” I nodded with a warm smile. “That would be nice. But next time, don’t let your parrot out of the cage.”