Cloud of Water | The Andes
A Journey of Loss & Discovery
Rain pours down in sheets as our jeep slips and slides its way through a condensed Ecuadorian forest to the bottom of the collapsed volcano Pululahua, meaning “cloud of water” or fog. It mirrors a scene from the film Jurassic Park. This is exactly what I came here for. I helplessly watched my closest confidant subject herself to countless suicide attempts. She had now passed away from natural causes but the pain was no less raw. My rock was gone.
The loss left me devastated and in need of a serious wake up call. I had dropped out of my life and, after several months, couldn’t find a way back in.
My world had become empty and mundane. I tried everything from yoga to meditation and beyond to get “meaning” back into my life, without any sign that it was even possible. The dark night of the soul was “among” me and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. As Winston Churchill so eloquently put it, “when you’re going through hell, keep going.”
I finally decided if traveling to South America to trek the Andes on horseback couldn’t wake my ass up, than nothing would. I was convinced of it.
As we continued down the muddy road towards our destination, I’m sitting between two middle aged German women from Munich that have also come searching for adventure beyond the normal everyday tourist attractions Ecuador has to offer. In the front seat, Astrid, our guide as well as owner of the Green Horse Ranch, giggles at us as we gasp our way to the bottom of the crater. Other than Astrid and the German women’s limited English, I had no one to chit chat with and was constantly alone with my thoughts.
Once we arrive at the ranch, our horses are already awaiting us amongst the quickly spreading fog. We are given Wellington boots and ponchos to help keep us dry during our ride. Once dressed appropriately, I’m handed a small palomino gelding named Sméagol, named after the well-known character from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As soon as I hop on him I know exactly why he is named after such an elusive creature. The minute we head out the gate, the small horse takes off with me at a full on gallop through the dense fog. Eventually I get him to slow down so our small group can catch up, but, not before I get reprimanded for my “erratic behavior.”
After explaining to Astrid, “I swear I know what I’m doing on a horse,” (I’ve been competing on horseback since I was five years old), she finally agrees to let me continue on the voyage only after promising to never do that again, since, “the terrain is dangerous enough.” A short ride later, we arrive at Rolando Vera, home to Ecuador’s fastest man. Set in the bottom of the volcano, I don’t think one could ask for a more serene yet slightly eerie environment.
We dismount our horses and head into the house where Rolando is waiting for us in the dining room with his famous Volcancitos, a flaming hot drink made from every liquor imaginable. Or, at least it tasted that way. After burning our throats on his “famous” concoction it was time to sit down for a traditional Ecuadorian meal. Once full, we grilled Rolando about his “running days” before hitting the hay. Tomorrow was going to be a long trek to Aguacata, a small farm nestled eight hours away in the secluded mountains.
The next morning, we rode through the lava dome on route to the cloud forest. As the day went on we passed many beautiful views including mineral avalanches blooming with wild orchids and deep gorges caused by lava streams thousand of years ago. Once we entered the Valley of the Rio Blanco, the climate completely changed from chilly and foggy to warm and tropical. Fields of coffee trees, sugar cane and a variation of tropical fruit grew on quaint farms settled in the deep forest.
The clouds broke around the mountain top, exposing the pre-Inca fortress Portalanza. From there it was a short journey to our destination for the night. At the farm, Ms. Hilda and her two sons eagerly greet us with their family’s signature drink. After un-tacking our horses, we are shown to a small wooden cabana (with no electricity) where we would be sleeping.
That night, I sat alone on a grassy hill watching the electricity dance across the sky high above the crater walls. It was spectacular. Flashes of light burst over the starry heavens more magnificently than any firework show I had ever witnessed. Yet, surprisingly, my soul wasn’t touched by this experience. Tears of frustration filled my eyes. I felt like a walking corpse unable to feel the sweet gift of life and all of its wonderments.
The next morning was a bit of a challenge. Since there is no electricity in the Andes that also means hot showers don’t exist unless you’re willing to risk your bum for it. Ms. Hilda offered to have one of her sons attach their pick up truck to the showerhead to heat the water. Once we saw the electric sparks bouncing off the waterspout, the yearning for a nice hot shower quickly dissipated. A splash of cold water in my face would have to do. I thanked the family for their gracious hospitality as best I could in my broken Spanish and away we went into the vast wilderness. On the way out, Astrid hands me a machete. She informs me there is no set path through the Andes so we may have to make our own. I’m going to be honest, having my own machete made me feel badass.
Later that day the “badass” feeling vanished when I found out we had to ride across a two hundred year old donkey trail on the side of a cliff with a 3,000 foot drop. As we make our way across the trail, Sméagol trips and my camera slips out of my hand while trying to document my bravery. Watching my cheap disposable camera fall beyond eyesight left me frozen in terror. I grasped the front of the saddle as hard as I could and looked up trying to ignore the dangerous cliffs to my left.
Once safely off the trail I felt a sense of relief when I looked up and saw two small boys hanging from the tree above me. Their laughter soothed my chaotic mind.
We then followed the river Guayllabamba for several hours until the terrain became too precipitous for our horses to carry us. Astrid had us dismount and hold onto the horse’s tails so they could pull us up the steep part of the mountain. Clearly Sméagol didn’t get that memo. The moment he figured out he was leading the way while the group followed behind him, he decided to leap over my head and race down the mountain side. The small horse was also smart enough to stay at least twenty feet behind the group so he couldn’t be caught. I spent the next two hours hiking up the hill in my over sized Wellington boots secretly cursing Sméagol the entire time.
Over the next couple weeks, we rode from village to village in the Andes, stopping at different homes along the way. Each night at dinner I began to feel more and more isolated. Most conversations were either held in Spanish or German so the majority of the time I sat there smiling at what seemed to be funny or nodding my head at what appeared to be serious. I felt like a stupid American.
The last night of our journey led us to the beautiful Bellvista reserve equipped with a giant tree house as accommodations. Once checked in, we each left on our own to explore the sights.
This was the final night of my journey and I was still numb. Annoyed with myself, I decided to hike to the top of the rain forest. Along the way I passed a couple small villages with children playing outside.
I stood at the edge of the top cliff and screamed out over the forest, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ME?” My words echoed throughout the canyon. Within minutes rain dumped out from sky. The thick fog also rolled in making it difficult to see the path, as it more obscured with nightfall. Soaked and frustrated, I inched my way back down the mountain. I must have looked like a deranged wet hag to the natives who came out to stare at me walking alone in the night through the forest.
I felt beyond defeated.
The next morning we all said our goodbyes and headed for the airport. As I flew out of Quito towards Los Angeles, I recapped all of my experiences and pondered my emptiness. I feared the whole entire trip was in vain. Then, that night, as I sat down for Thanksgiving dinner with my cousins, something was happening. The warmth and love at that dinner table found me and shifted me. I felt… so grateful.
LINDSEY LABRUM is an artist, producer, writer and equestrian. Her work has been published in West Hollywood Magazine. She can be found online through her personal site at dontlookatmoi.com