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The International Writers Magazine: Ecuador

A Very Good Day
December 25, 2007
Tyrel Nelson

During the few days leading up to our first Christmas in Ecuador, my friend from Loja (the capital of a province in southwestern corner of the country), Andrew, and I weren’t sure of what we were going to do on the 25th. Fortunately, this doubt was removed by my next-door neighbor, Juan José, on the morn of the 24th. When he asked us in his lisp-laden, Madrid-soaked accent to fish with him in El Cajas National Park, we couldn’t refuse.

Just before 9 am on Christmas Day, my neighbor, Sheik, called to let Andrew and I know that her husband was almost ready to leave. Following my fellow English teacher outside, I locked my front door and waited with Andrew for the tall, bald Spaniard to appear. We could hear Sheik and Juan Jo (as she calls him) speaking, so we remained on the terrace because we didn’t want to intrude.
"Why are they waiting out there? Weirdos…," said my Costa Rican neighbor, obviously spotting us through her window.
Suddenly, Juan José appeared on the balcony, approaching us with a map of El Cajas in hand.
"Where do you guys want to go? Which lagoon looks good to you," he said after unfolding the grid and placing it on the railing.
Andrew had never been there and I had visited the park just once (without fishing); we didn’t know what to tell him.
"I don’t know," I honestly replied.

For the next awkward minute or so, the three of us just stared at the map. Finally, the Spaniard made a decision.
"How about Laguna Larga," he asked while pointing to it on the park layout.
"Sounds good," I responded in a relieved manner.
Andrew and I subsequently followed Juan Jo back into his apartment, where he handed me a pair of fishing poles. Taking turns saying goodbye to Sheik, the three of us then walked into the chilly, overcast Cuencan morning.
"I hope we have trout for dinner," the Costa Rican said as we headed for Juan’s red Chevy Grand Vitara.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, I exchanged small talk with the aging Spaniard while Andrew listened in the back. The conversation wavered between interesting and nonexistent as Juan José raced westward on the winding highway. Forty-five minutes gradually passed before our miniature SUV rolled through a tiny village barely within El Cajas’ borders, pulling into a mucky parking spot just above a narrow river.
After watching Juan fail to convince a local woman into making lunch for us later, Andrew and I followed him to the gushing waterway. Nevertheless, the comical Spaniard made just one cast into the rapids before looking to the peaks above.
"The clouds are disappearing," Juan José pointed out. "We should fish in one of the lagoons up there. What do you think?"
"Yeah, it’ll be better to fish in a lagoon," I offered.
"Well, let’s go then," my neighbor said.
And so, we retraced our still very fresh footprints to the parking spot, threw the bags and rods into the back of the Vitara, and spun onto the main highway in search of a trout-filled lagoon.

A few minutes later, we stopped at an info center to pay our entrance fee. After showing our identification to the employee inside the building, Juan José asked the ranger for suggestions.
"What do you recommend? Where is a good place to catch trout," the Spaniard inquired.
"Laguna Toreadora," answered the man behind the desk.
"I went there last time and only caught three fish about this big," my neighbor said while holding his hands just a few inches apart from each other.
"You should try Laguna Luspa," said the park ranger. "There’s lots of trout there."

Having no problem with his advice, the three of us listened to the man’s directions and hopped into the Grand Vitara once again, bound for one of the biggest lagoons in El Cajas.
Despite overshooting our destination, we eventually found the gravel area where we were supposed to park. From there, Juan, Andrew, and I crossed the highway, individually balanced on an unstable, wooden bridge, and set forth on a muddy trail, which ascended into the green mountainside.
As we trudged along the moist path, our strides became slower and our breaths got shorter due to the altitude.
"You can already feel the difference. And look, we’ve hardly hiked," my neighbor told me, pointing to the highway behind us just a few minutes into the journey.

After taking a handful of more breaks, trekking across wet ground, and climbing over a few additional hills, the three of us arrived at the lush, northern shore of Laguna Luspa. The lagoon was massive, dominating the landscape and bulging with pristine water.
"There has to be trout in there," I told Juan José.
While late morning turned into early afternoon, Andrew took numerous pictures while Juan and I fished in the cold, windy, and sometimes rainy weather. However, I stayed in the same area, north of the lagoon, whereas the Spaniard skirted the perimeter, constantly casting his line into the water until he disappeared from my vision somewhere along the eastern shoreline. Finally, after I lost my lure and Andrew ran out of matches trying to light a fire, Juan emerged from the mist, empty-handed.
"Do you guys want to go," he asked.

Cold, wet, and without trout, Andrew and I immediately accepted the Spaniard’s proposal.
While we sped eastward through the mountains, the three of us could see the menacing clouds looming over Cuenca in the distance. Having just spoken to his worried wife (who confirmed it was pouring in the city) on his cell phone, Juan José suggested that we get lunch and wait out the storm.
"Have you eaten at El Che," my neighbor asked me.
"Yeah, just once," I replied from the same seat I had that morning.
"How is it," Juan continued.
"It’s really good," I responded.
"Well, that’s where we’re going," the Spaniard said while focusing on the slippery asphalt ahead.

Soon, we pulled up to a roadside shack in the outskirts of Cuenca. Trying to not to get drenched, Juan José, Andrew, and I sprinted to the restaurant, where we quickly found a table. Unlike its makeshift outer appearance, El Che looks like a museum inside. When I say museum, I mean that the restaurant is dedicated to the apparently immortal, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Apart from its look-alike owner, who struts around serving the tables in a beret, as well as fatigues, and wearing a holster complete with a pistol, the walls are covered with pictures of the famous rebel. Moreover, photos of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and the Che imitator standing next to the likes of Ecuador’s President Correa, are proudly displayed throughout the dining area. "Che" even served Juan, Andrew, and me, demonstrating his comical side.

"They’re killing your borrego right now. It’ll be ready soon," the rebellious waiter updated Juan José at one point.
While actually hearing a screaming porker get killed in the back (disturbing, very disturbing), Andrew and I probably stuffed ourselves with its kin as the Spaniard enjoyed his lamb. Full and sleepy from the delicious meat, we then exited the shanty and noticed that the storm had ceased. Wanting to take advantage of the clearing skies, Juan quickly motored into rain soaked Cuenca, politely saying goodbye to Andrew and me upon arrival at our apartment building.

That evening, a rested Andrew and I reunited with Liz VanDerwerker, an old friend from our TESOL course in Quito. In addition, Liz was accompanied by her visitors from the U.S., which consisted of her parents, Greg and Laura, as well as her older sister, Catherine. At Sabaneta, a bar just down the street from the VanDerwerker’s hotel, the six of us chatted over our food and drinks, each item coming to our table separately over the next couple of hours. Incredibly, there was a lone, extremely overworked man operating the packed establishment that night. Noticing that he was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, we all felt bad for him.

While I sat back and listened to Andrew and the VanDerwerker’s plans for the rest of the holidays (they were all leaving Cuenca in the morning), I couldn’t help but think about something that Juan José had mentioned earlier, as we were leaving El Che.
"Fishing in Cajas…lunch with Che Guevara…a very good day," my neighbor rated our Christmas experience, just before starting the Vitara.
Granted, he isn’t a psychic, but the one thing that Juan left out was "dinner with great people."
It was a very good day indeed.
Tyrel Nelson March 2008

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