There’s an old Newfoundlander proverb (actually a few different places take credit for this one…) that says “There are no strangers in life, only friends you haven’t met yet.” And in my opinion, meeting people is the best part of travel.
Brian has always said that meeting people has been his favorite part of travel too. In the summer of 2011 Brian and his friend, Rich, were riding north on the Dalton Highway heading for Prudhoe Bay to finish every last mile of their PanAm ride, and then some. Along the way they met a couple of other riders, one of whom was from Ecuador, Julio. He and Brian stayed in touch and when we made it to Ecuador Julio invited us to stay with him and his family in central Ecuador for a few days. Back in 2011 Julio made the PanAm trip himself so he is no stranger to long-distance travel. He knows what a gift it is to meet good people and to enjoy the warm hospitality and kindness of strangers when you are a long way from home.
After a few emails, Brian and Julio have arranged a loose plan that leads to Brian and I riding into Julio’s city and finding his house on a weekday afternoon. But we haven’t confirmed a time, and Julio is, as most people are on a weekday afternoon, at work. So we pull onto the sidewalk in front of his house to avoid traffic and try to find a way to get in touch with him since no one is answering the door. About 2 minutes after we park, a 60-something man crosses the street and starts speaking to us in a fast-paced excited Spanish hurricane of words and tells us he is friends with Julio. He wants to know our names and when we give them to him he seems to have been expecting us. He says we can’t stay parked here and that Julio isn’t home but that we should follow him across the street and up a few doors to his house. And so, without having time to wonder, off we go, following this whirlwind talker up the street. He opens his gate and we ride in as he quickly shuts it behind us. I say to Brian that I feel a little caught off guard. It’s a little unnerving to be locked, bike and all, in someone’s yard in a strange city and a foreign country. We joke that we aren’t being very smart, but we also know that we can trust our instincts most of the time and those say we have already landed in good hands.
We are rushed into the house and leave our gear on the bikes, something we never do, and are assured all will be fine. This ball of fire introduces himself as Pancho as he ushers us through his front door and living room and into the kitchen. He even claps his hands to make me move faster and says “go, go!” in Spanish. We are told to sit at chairs at the kitchen counter and we are given a quick introduction to his lovely wife, Martita, as she places bowls of hot soup in front of us.
What?! Are we really in the right place? Who are these people and why are they feeding us? Shouldn’t we be quietly waiting nearby for Julio? We are given fresh juice and a plate filled with rice and a fried egg and tuna salad and told to eat up. This is so bizarre. I don’t know these people and yet it reminds me so much of something….oh yeah, my own family. This is just like something they would do.
So we quietly eat while this retirement-age couple feeds their grown sons lunch, all while two strangers eat quietly at the end of the counter. Then a couple of workers come in for lunch as well and we are moved to an elegant settee in the living room to wait. Pancho has his son call Julio and we are told he will be here soon. Pancho speaks so quickly that my mediocre Spanish is taxed and I find myself finally asking him to speak a little more slowly to which he replies – “despacio?!” and he giggles and makes fun of my request in a fun way, and then he tears off in an even faster discussion of something else. It’s surreal and hilarious and so very…Latin. And I mean that in the most complimentary way as you’ll soon see.
One of the things I’ve learned about Latin people is how loving and kind and generous they are with people. They will never let a friend or family member be in need of anything, especially food or love. Affection is open and honest, not in a showy way, but their love for each other is abundant. Family is the most important thing to people south of the USA border, and it’s a priority that I happen to agree with and wish we would learn from in my own country. Don’t get me wrong, in the States we love each other and value family….but somehow it’s different here.
Julio arrives and whisks us back down the street and sets us up in his guest quarters, a home away from home. His parents, Fernando and Martha, live upstairs and they invite us for tea later that day. They are so warm and kind, and I like them immediately. Each day Julio’s mother makes us breakfast, which we appreciate so much. She introduces us to all kinds of breads and foods of Ecuador. There are rolls made with a mix of wheat and corn flours, fresh fruits, fresh local cheese and we even joke about her serving us an “ostrich egg” (actually a peach half in fresh yogurt). One day she invites us for lunch too and we are introduced to choclo, a local variety of maize that is sweet, and chocho, which are beans/grains of a similar color.
She serves us humitas one morning, a corn bread steamed in corn husks that I love. And she makes a feast one day with a homemade soup of plantains and fish. The soup is served with a bowl of “snacks” to alternate eating between bites of soup. The mix of plantains, popcorn and puffed corn kernels would be my new favorite for movie time if we could get it in the States. She has carved pineapples beautifully for a dessert.
As casual as these people are they are still formal at times, and I like the mix. They dress well, something we have gotten lax about in the States. They greet each other with a hug and a kiss on the right cheek when coming and going. Julio teaches Salsa dance classes each evening which I enjoy watching from the sidelines. Often times mothers, aunties, and other women are watching and when each gets up to go even I, a woman they have never met, get a kiss on my cheek and hug before each leaves. Julio’s mother, Martha, cares for Brian and I when we get a touch of food poisoning and greets us with a kiss on the cheek and hug. For a girl who has been on the road for over a year and away from family for months, her kindness moves me.
People here speak honestly and openly and they support each other. Julio’s father wears smart hats, and his mother has a lovely scarf on each day. They spoil us with candies from different parts of their country, from near Banos (a taffy of sorts) and from Mindo….some coconut balls mixed with different types of sugar from sugar cane.
As an exotic treat we go to lunch one day and all share a platter of what we are told is the best cuy (guinea pig) in the country. It’s served with bowls of boiled potatoes in a peanut sauce that is wonderful with the meat. Yes…it tastes a little like chicken.
We spend several days with Julio and his family, and have appreciated their hospitality (ok, that’s an understatement…it was more like spoiling) more than I can say. We stop to see Pancho (aka. Pancho Loco) and Martita and their grandson one afternoon and thank them for the wonderful lunch earlier in the week. Pancho gets out some homemade wine and it’s all we can do to keep the party from getting out of hand…lol. We wander through town and get some chores done – mailing a package home, getting some shoes repaired, etc. And then it’s time to go. I’m going to miss them. Fernando, Martha and Julio have been the kindest people and they have been one of the best parts of all my trip. Thank you new friends, I’m so glad we met.
If you’ve heard the phrase “pay it forward”, these friends are the embodiment of that idea. I can genuinely say I sleep better at night knowing there are people like this family in our world.