Monday, July 28, 2014

Crazy Taxi

What do you do if you return to your taxi and find the driver honking on a crack pipe?

Well I suppose the answer is you send him on his way with a firm cuff around the ear.

But what do you do if you're 3,500 metres above sea level, freezing cold, hungry, in the middle of nowhere and desperate to get warm?

That's right, you knock on the driver's window, pretend you haven't seen the drugs and smile awkwardly at the three Argentinian hippy chicks who are nervously exiting the taxi.

Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Painterly beauty in Cajas national park
We were in the Cajas national park, near Cuenca. It is easily some of the most stunning scenery in a country already packed to the point of bursting with stunning scenery. Unlike most of Ecuador, Cajas is a glacial landscape - which makes a refreshing change from the volcanic scenery. Cajas is full of lakes and crags, black peaty bogs and wildflowers in the most amazing colours. I found these red and yellow flowers that looked like lollipops and the floor is thickly carpeted by this alien-looking turquoise plant.

Wild flowers in Cajas national park, Ecuador
The lollipop flowers
Carpet plants in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
The alien carpet plant
There was also a bizarre plant called Oreja de Burro (Donkey's Ear). It grew like a ghostly weed near the abundant sources of water. It glowed white and yellow with such an eerie phosphorescence, despite the overcast day. I took a few photos but it really didn't do it any justice. The leaves were so white it looked a bit like infra-red photography.

Strange oreja de burro plants in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Donkey's ears? You need a bit of an imagination
Our taxi driver was a real Jekyll and Hyde character. On the way up to the national park he had been the perfect gentlemen. When he noticed Lucy wasn't wearing a coat he stopped at his house and borrowed a padded jacket from his wife. He also pulled over at a house in the national park he knew where they serve steaming hot cups of aguita de tipo (a sort of hot toddy, made with sugar cane liquor and a local herb called tipo). It was bloody potent and instantly warmed the cockles. I suppose alarm bells should have rung when our driver knocked one back with a curious relish.

The next warning bell came when he was explaining the supreme quality of Colombian weed. But we were in good spirits and looking forward to our hike around the lake (laguna de toreadora). The driver had kindly offered to wait in the car while we completed the tour - he said it would take two hours.

The lake is very beautiful and reminded me a lot of the Lake District... which I suppose was formed in very similar geographical conditions. However, unlike the Lake District there were very few tourists, even though it was high-season. We passed a local group of excited school children that were being herded like cats by a very brave/foolhardy teacher. To her credit she managed to lead the expedition back to the safety of the refuge with only three walking wounded and two missing in action.

I'm a fast walker and Lucy isn't too far behind, so we made good progress. Also, I'd forgotten to bring a coat and it was absolutely freezing so I needed to stride out to keep warm (even with a belly still burning with aguita de tipo). We completed the two hour walk in just under an hour and surprised our taxi driver - who clearly thought he could blast some reggae, blaze and chill with the Argentinian hippy chicks for another hour... now that I think about it, why were there three Argentinian hippies at the foot of a glacial lake in the middle of nowhere?

On the return journey our driver was transformed. Suddenly he wanted to speak in English, which he couldn't do. He also wanted to tell me how beautiful Latin women were and that my wife was "rica". This means delicious in a juicy way and is highly inappropriate... even in the company of hard-drinking rugger-buggers it would sound a bit sexist and gratuitous.

To make matters worse he wanted to tell me a filthy joke about the gringo at the Spanish language school who told his teacher he had eaten trucha (trout) at the weekend. Lucy refused to let him finish his joke but I'd already guessed the punchline... suffice to say trucha has a double-meaning in Spanish.

To make matters worse we'd booked lunch at a nearby restaurant and had already agreed to pay for our taxi driver's lunch. Guess what we were eating? That's right, trucha.

The driver continued his tedious monologue about how Latin people are warm and brilliant and Europeans are cold and dull. Lucy was squirming beside me in her discomfort. The driver insisted on making me sit next to Lucy in front of the fire - he was under the mistaken impression the situation could possibly be romantic. The wood on the fire was wet so the driver had to sit in front of us blowing at the smoldering, wet wood every 10 seconds or so. Eventually the fire roared into life, but it was still far from romantic.

Lucy by the fire in Cajas, Ecuador
Forcing a nervous smile as our driver stokes the flames
He also drank another aguita de tipo... so he slightly pissed, as well as high. On the way back his spacial awareness completely failed him and he constantly veered into the other lane before lurching back to correct himself. Lucy gripped my arm tightly. I was keeping a close eye on the road and was ready at any moment to order him to stop. I engaged him in some conversation, hoping to snap him from his drowsiness and it worked. We arrived back in Cuenca safely. He even had a fit of righteous indignation and scolded a young boy for throwing his chewed sugar cane onto the street.

A lot of people who read this will think we were crazy for getting in the taxi and I agree, looking back it seems needlessly reckless. But in our defence, it was a sticky situation. We were in a remote national park and there were very few cars passing on the quiet road, let alone taxis. We perhaps could have persuaded a driver to come up from Cuenca (45 mins away) to rescue us, but it wouldn't have been easy. There was no mobile signal and we had no taxi numbers. Also, when incidents like this are unfolding it's hard to believe they are really happening. You look through the window of your taxi and see the driver lighting a pipe and wonder if it's real or just a nightmare. I stood transfixed and only snapped from the trance when Lucy started shouting: "Act, act, act!" at me.

Also, I have no idea what he was smoking. I was expecting the cabin to stink of weed when I entered, but it didn't. It was a very different smell. I don't have the keen nose of a spaniel sniffing suitcases at Heathrow airport but I was concerned... if it wasn't weed, what the bloody hell was it? Crack?! What's it like to drive after a cheeky honk on your crack pipe? I really wasn't equipped to answer these questions.

Maybe I should add that our driver was 52 and married with children. I should probably also mention that we had an amazing time in the Cajas national park and it really is some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Ecuador.

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