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The International Writers Magazine: Latin America

Doing the Mandango
Tyrel Nelson

It was a beautiful day. The Tuesday morning sun brilliantly shined over the tiny pueblo and the T-shirt temperature couldn't have been more perfect. Not too warm, not too cool. It was also extremely peaceful. We probably could've heard a pin drop as the three of us searched for coffee in the Easter-colored town. Eventually, Andrew, Jay, and I decided on a pastel café, which sat on the northeast corner of Vilcabamba's lush central plaza.

"He's whiter than me," I said while watching Jay, who was seated on my left, apply sunscreen to his face.
"Yeah, you two almost don't look like brothers," Andrew added from across the tiny breakfast table.
Finishing our wakeup juice, we then paid the bill and were out the door.
"He's the milkman's kid," I jokingly whispered to my brown-haired friend from Loja (approximately an hour north by bus), shortly after.
Andrew cracked a smile as he focused on the rising road ahead.

Ascending worn asphalt for several minutes, the three of us came upon a large opening in a stone wall to our right. It was the entrance to Cerro Mandango; the mountain we were about to walk up.
"Do we go in there," I asked Andrew (who had made this journey once before) while nodding to a tiny wooden hut just beyond the gate.
"Yup, we have to pay," the short gringo answered.
"Really? To go on a hike? How much," I pried.
"A buck a piece," he said.
"That figures," I replied.

While my dark-featured bro and light-skinned pal counted their change, I filled out a form that not only asked for my address and passport number, but requested my blood type as well. Fearing that I'd soon be sent to a bathroom with a plastic cup, I then quickly handed over my entrance fee. And after I refused to tell the young female attendant how much money I had on me, the three of us finally hit the trail.

At the beginning, the pathway was swallowed by plants. Dark-leafed trees and bushes constantly threw their branches into our faces as we trudged uphill. Moreover, it was hot. The steep grade of the mountain was difficult for starters, but the bright rays overhead had turned ardent, which soaked our shirts even more.
"Is the whole trail going to be like this," I questioned Andrew, wiping the spider webbing off my lips.
"Just at first, but then it clears out. Do you remember Pichincha," he continued.
"Oh yeah," I answered. "How could I forget?"
"It looks like that," Andrew stated.

A short while later, the frustrating foliage disappeared, replaced by a jagged path that sharply zigzagged its way uphill. However, the snaking route surrounded by small vegetation wasn't the only thing that reminded me of that failed hike Andrew and I attempted with some TESOL classmates six months earlier. Even though my fellow English teacher and I were tiring fast, it was my ever-struggling sibling that brought me back to those days on Rucu Pichincha's mountainside.
Painfully watching my lankier little brother, I vividly remembered my first excursion in Ecuador, continuously gasping for air as I fought my way toward that unreachable summit just outside of Quito. My friends and I came nowhere close to the Rucu's peak because our lungs hadn't adapted to their new climate. Jay, who was visiting from the States for a week, was having the same problem.
"Poor guy," Andrew said. "He's not used to the altitude."
"Sorry," was all Jay could muster as he persistently battled uphill behind us.

Almost an hour had passed before our fatigued trio practically collapsed at the base of a weathered white cross that overlooked the miniature municipality from which we had come. Catching our breaths all the while, Andrew, Jay, and I took several pictures of the colorful township, neatly nestled in the junction of five verdant valleys. Despite this much needed break, however, we weren't at ease. The three of us still hadn't reached Mandango's real summit.

High over our backs loomed a moss-colored apex, which was scarred by large striations evenly spaced apart. It actually looked like someone had carved this strange rock due to the way it stood out from its neighbors. Hardly visible, Andrew, Jay, and I could also see another cross atop the peculiar peak. That distant "t" was our goal.
For the next half our, the three of us carefully tackled the bizarre bluff. Scared of falling deep into the Andean unknown, we concentrated mightily on the narrow footpath that skirted the northern side of the alien mount. Furthermore, we had to climb a very challenging skyward slope on the cliff's western edge, which was not only slick, but also densely covered with brush. Although we slipped in the mud a couple of times and uprooted many branches, Andrew, Jay, and I somehow managed to crawl up the most strenuous strip of the trail nonetheless.

Standing upright at last, the three of us breezed through the remaining part of the hike until we arrived at the tall, light brown cross that we had set our sights upon earlier. Feeling victorious and famished, Andrew, Jay, and I inhaled the chips and cookies that we bought in town prior to the trek. In addition, Andrew pointed to and named Vilcabamba's neighboring villages. It was interesting for me and Jay to know our exact location as we stood on that tranquil ledge in Ecuador's Southern Sierra.

While the light Andean breezes partially dried our drenched shirts, we gazed at the flourishing mountaintops that consumed the country's second southernmost province. Andrew, Jay, and I hardly spoke as we digitally preserved the beauty of the thriving valleys that dominated the surrounding landscape. We must have snapped dozens of photos on that sunny lookout.

With our bodies rested and water bottles empty, Andrew, Jay, and I were finally ready to make the downhill march. Plus, we couldn't relax on that crag for too long. In fact, the three of us had to return to Loja rather quickly.
Andrew had classes to teach.

  Tyrel Nelson April 2008

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