Notes from the World’s Worst Traveller.
Tapichalaca, somewhere in deepest, darkest Southern Ecuador. It is cold, it is wet, and I am miserable. Nothing new there then. You see, I really am the world’s worst traveller. I know, I know, I am always travelling around the world, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoy travelling. Take Tapichalaca. Just to get there, took a nine, very tedious, very tortuous, hour bus ride from Quito to Cuenca. There was a stop, but I couldn’t get off and leave my luggage, since I would likely lose it. And I couldn’t get off with all my luggage, since then I would lose my seat. Let’s just say that I have a very, very steadfast bladder. From Cuenca, I headed further south – another bus, another very windy, carsickness-inducing road to Loja. Yes, I get car sick….and sea sick…..and altitude sick…..you see, not a good traveller. And once I got to Loja, I ended up in a hotel with no hot water. Have I mentioned yet how much I hate cold showers? Another bus, another town. Vilcabamba, a small town full of ageing American hippies and unshaven, unwashed travelling youths, bongos and all. At least I could ask for a coffee with milk and sugar and actually get a decent coffee rather than a lukewarm cup of milk and a jar of Nescafé. Now for the hard part……..
I need to get to Tapichalaca, a stop on the side of the road, Middle of Nowhere, Ecuador, somewhere on the way to deepest, darkest Peru. Now, I really didn’t want to end up in Peru, so do I trust my Spanish enough to manage to get on the right bus and then explain where I need the bus to drop me off before being abandoned at the border? Have I mentioned yet that my Spanish is almost non-existent and that what Spanish I do know is butchered by my English accent? Communication with the locals is problematic, at best. So, my alternative is to hire a taxi, a much safer option, but one that my bank account is not so keen on.
Three hours later, and quite a few dollars poorer, my taxi drops me off at Casa Simpson, Tapichalaca Reserve, over 2500m above sea level. Angry clouds loom over the mountains, rain hammers down on the skulking, dripping, disconsolate forest, and the cold, wet air soaks through my many layers, chilling me to the bone. Not exactly most people’s picture of Ecuador, is it? And people laugh at me when I pack my thermal underwear, down jacket and heavy Gore-Tex raincoat when heading to the equator. This brings us right back to the original question - why do I do it? My husband always likes to tell me that it is the journey that is important and not the destination. Now, I don't agree with my husband on many things, and this is definitely one of them. Sod the journey - it is all about what I get to see once I have arrived. So..........TA DA! Let me introduce to you the Jocotoco!
This adorable little chap is the reason for making that horrendous journey all the way down the backbone of Ecuador to this isolated, almost deserted, completely off the beaten tourist track, reserve called Tapichalaca. I first heard whispers of this strange and elusive bird back in 2010, when my colleague, Dr. S., and I were first touring around Ecuador investigating all the exciting opportunities that Ecuador could offer for both students and faculty alike, for learning, teaching and research. It was one of the birds on the last colour plate of "The Birds of Ecuador", which means it was added after the book was finished .............. it was
new, it was exciting and it had rarely been seen. Who wouldn’t want to see one? Other than Dr. S? Anyone? Well, me obviously. And so, when whispers turned to a slight possibility, I was all over it. I would find that bird! And so started my journey of pain and anguish (OK, so maybe it was a journey more of discomfort, feeling vaguely sick and bursting for the loo) as I homed in on my target. And when I first caught a glimpse of this bird, my heart soared and I did my very own little rare bird dance. That is almost as elusive and rare as the bird itself, and very few people have ever witnessed it.
I didn’t notice the bird at first – my head was bowed down, under the weight of the rain beating down on my head, my peripheral vision was down to none, due to the hood of my Gore-Tex jacket. But then my guide, who had barely said a word to me for the hour it took to reach this spot (not that he wasn’t friendly, or anything, he just didn’t speak any English and just grunted and pointed a lot and physically moved me in the direction that I was supposed to be looking in). Anyhoo, this time he stopped, squeaked and I looked up. And, lo and behold, there was this delightful, gorgeous, charming bird, all nine inches of adorableness, standing right in the middle of the path. I swear she was tapping her foot, and, if she had had one, she would have been looking at her watch, scowling and sighing, all at the same time. Apparently, we were late with her breakfast, and she was not happy! I went back three times to see the Jocotoco (Grallaria ridgelyi, named after one of the authors of the bird book), I heard her singing to her young and I saw her and her fledgling hopping around, shoving as many worms as possible into their beaks in one go. I fell in love, I smiled, I laughed and I felt all warm inside for the first time in many days. And THAT is why I travel……….
The Jocotoco is just one of many amazing sights that I saw while tentatively venturing around Ecuador to places that I have never seen before. I visited rainforests and cloud forests, high altitude plains and snow capped mountains, sun-kissed beaches and dry, prickly deciduous forests alongside barren, apparently lifeless deserts. A land of contrasts, of hot, steamy jungles and cold, arid deserts, lush green forests, teeming with life and bare, rock strewn deserts where life struggles for its very existence. Ecuador, one small country with endless diversity in landscapes, flora and fauna. What a perfect place for anyone with a passion for nature, what a perfect place for a biologist.
|Imbabura Tree Frog|
The goal of my trip to Ecuador was to visit as many beautiful places as possible. No, really, this was what I was supposed to be doing as part of my sabbatical year. My goal was to visit field stations, national parks and biological reserves to investigate the logistics of carrying out student and faculty research projects at these places. Is it my fault that, generally speaking, biologists do not locate their field stations in the car park of the local Megamaxi (aka Walmart)? You really can’t blame me for the fact that biologists like pretty places, teeming with life, all green and lush, full of cuddly monkeys, adorable frogs, beautiful and colourful birds and surprisingly cute insects, can you? I also met many welcoming, kind, warm and wonderful people, most of whom knew where to find the birds or animals that I was looking for, and most of who could not speak a word of English. It was a little challenging, to say the least. But, it was also a journey of discovery and moments of pure joy. I will never forget the day when my guide and I finally managed to both identify the same bird at the same time. We had spent three days hiking up and down ant-infested trails, being pooped on by howler monkeys and eaten by ants, we had shared candy and very few words when, right at the end of my stay, we both saw a tiny little bird flitting and flirting through the undergrowth. After much pointing and shaking of heads, after much frustration and not seeing the bird, we both finally found it. We both turned to “The Book” and we both pointed to the same bird at the same time. We looked up, we smiled and we shared an International High Five. No words were needed - we had just managed to identify a Tawny-faced Gnatwren.
So, there it is. I visited over twenty sites and identified over 540 birds (I have a list, if you are interested……), met university professors and Ecuadorian students, I travelled with a retired Ecuadorian who had spent most of his life living in America and was only just discovering his own country, I discussed field schools with Americans, Canadians and Europeans who now run ecolodges in Ecuador and I was amazed and astounded at all of the young Ecuadorian guides, whose English skills may have matched my Spanish skills, but whose knowledge about the birds and other animals of Ecuador was incredible and, wait for it……..I went birding with Bob Ridgely…….. that’s right, I call him Bob now, one of the authors of “The Book” and the discoverer of my now favourite bird, the Jocotoco.