By four-thirty on my third day from Quito I’d walked twenty-seven miles. I’d been searching for a place to set my tent for an hour but nothing cropped up. There weren’t any woods or nooks to hide in. All around me were pastures, each acre marked by a cottage.
I paused at an empty lot. The lot wasn’t suitable at all for stealth camping, there were houses on either side and the road in front of it, but I needed a break. I’d just sit for a little while to gather my energy, but knew I’d probably say screw it and camp there too.
I walked to the end of the lot where the earth dropped ten feet to a farm. I pulled out my tarp then sat on it, leaning my head on the tire of my cart. Savannah sat her chin on my leg.
There were hotels for maybe fifteen a night, but hotels were out of my price range and uniformly boring.
“What do ya think?” I said to Savannah.
Her hazel eyes flicked up to mine.
“I know, we should keep going. There’ll be something ahead.”
Savannah shuffled to her side but kept her cheek on my leg.
“We’ll stay a little bit though.”
Between the trees separating the empty lot and the yard beside it I saw a woman moving about her shrubs. I’d been there five minutes and already I’d been spotted.
The woman made eye contact from afar then made her way towards me. She climbed up a small hill to the clearing I was in.
“What are you doing?” she asked, approaching.
“Just resting.” I sat up.
The woman was five-foot something, thick, wrapped in a blue wool shaw to protect against the cold. Her face was amiable. She smiled and her rich skin wrinkled and suggested a long life outdoors.
Savannah went over to the woman and sprung up on her.
“Oh!” The woman nearly fell backwards.
“She doesn’t bite!” I said quickly.
“Oh!” The woman clutched her heart in relief then rubbed both her hands over Savannah’s ears. “Where are you coming from?” she asked looking to me.
“And where are you going to sleep tonight?” The woman was looking at me but still petting Savannah.
“I don’t know. Here, maybe. You think I’ll be bothered?”
“Here? You can’t sleep here, you’ll freeze!”
“I have a sleeping bag.”
“I have an extra room, you can sleep in there. My son is in university so it’s open. Are you hungry?”
“Yea, of course. And are you sure?”
“You can’t sleep here. Come on.”
I briefly questioned the intentions of the woman, I’d heard stories of being lured into a home then being held up, but I sensed no ulterior motive in the woman and I trusted that. I learned after a few thousand miles that the first feeling I had about someone was usually the most accurate.
Savannah looked at me to see what we were doing, then jogged ahead as I grabbed my cart and followed the woman into her yard.
Ahead of me the woman touched a pea-sized fruit on a shrub. “These are blackberries. Do you know blackberries?”
“Of course, delicious.”
“And in the field it’s all potatoes, all types of potatoes; red potatoes, big potatoes, small potatoes. We own all that land out there. We have sheep, cattle, chickens and guinea pigs.”
We turned the corner of her house then followed the driveway, passed through a gate and into her micro-estate. There were three buildings, none of them that big. The building straight ahead of me had an A-frame roof and a small staircase attached to the front. It was the only two story building. The second story door opened, a shadowy figure appeared momentarily then quickly shut the door.
“Your son?” I asked.
“One of them, he’s studying to be a lawyer.”
Suddenly, four puppies burst out of nowhere, barking their heads off. Savannah’s tail shot between her legs. Then when the puppies ran at her Savannah darted in panicked circles, unable to find a way to escape the yipping puppies closing in on her. She ran into a corner and the puppies surrounded her, all of them still barking madly. Savannah cowered then sprung through the puppies to my leg. I bent down and held her side.
“It’s alright,” I said.
Three of the puppies quieted as their interest shifted to me, but one white puppy continued to bark just in front of Savannah.
I looked up to see the woman holding open a door.
“It’s alright girl, let’s go.” I stood and Savannah ran behind the open door. The woman kept the puppies outside until I was in her dining room and she could shut the door.
“Thanks,” I said.
“They’re just babies. Are you hungry? Do you want some corn?”
“Corn is perfect.”
I dropped myself into a chair around the circular wooden table.
The woman went through a doorframe to her kitchen. At the same time the door to the outside opened and a little girl paused at its entrance as she noticed me. She had her chestnut hair tied into a ponytail and wore a pink hoodie.
“Good evening,” I said.
“Good evening,” the girl returned shyly, with her head down. She shut the door then took off into the kitchen.
A minute later the mother and daughter returned to the dining table. The mother sat a plate of corn in front of me. “What was your name?”
The mother and daughter chuckled. I looked between them for some explanation.
“Tómas is my husband’s name, my son’s too.”
“Three Tómas’s,” commented the girl.
For some reason I thought that a good sign. I was safe with other Tomas’s – irrationality at its best, but I wanted to relax.
“And what’s your name?”
“I had a boss named Cecilia back in the United States. She was Ecuadorian too, owns a restaurant in Quito.”
Cecilia nodded then pointed to the corn. “Do you want anything else?”
“No, no, this is great, thank you.”
I picked up a piece of lukewarm corn and bit into it. The flavor was clean, but a plate of corn was uninspiring and not exactly what I had in mind when I was invited in for food. I imagined a plate of beef and rice, something more filling. Still, I wasn’t about to complain, food was food and I needed all I could get.
“Oh!” Cecilia burst up and went into the kitchen.
The daughter stared across the table at me with unblinking, curious eyes.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She reached behind her, then unable to reach something climbed on her chair to get to the top of a dresser. She pulled off a sheet of paper then held it up for me to see. In glitter was the name Arianna.
“A very pretty name,” I said.
The girl smiled, a front tooth missing. “Thank you.”
“I forgot your juice!” said Cecilia returning.
Arianna held up the paper with her name on it to her mother.
“Very nice,” said Cecilia. Then to me, “It’s Arianna’s last day of school tomorrow.”
“How lucky. Where’s the school?”
“In the city. We’ll take a bus in at six tomorrow so she’s there at seven. It’s very important that she’s always on time. I don’t want her to have bad habits already.”
“Certainly not, but it’s an hour bus ride? That’s tough.”
“Forty minutes on one, then in the city we’ll change to another which will take us to school.”
I gulped down the glass of orange juice, looking at Cecilia over the cup.
I finished one glass then Cecilia brought me another. After I finished the four pieces of corn Cecilia led me and Savannah to our room for the night. The room was spacious enough that I could park my cart inside it. The bed was a queen. The walls were concrete. An electrical outlet hung down from a corner over a dresser.
“There’s a shower too if you’d like.”
“Thanks, I’m okay though. I hate showering in the cold.”
“But we have hot water.”
“You do?” I said in disbelief. Maybe it was because I only showered in hotels, but my experience from Mexico to Ecuador was that hot water was a precious and rare commodity.
“Yes. Come on.”
We went around the outside of my room where the toilet and shower were in two small concrete rooms.
Cecilia opened the door of the shower then laughed as the door swung away from her grip and hung limply by a rope loop in the top corner. “It’s broken but works well enough,” she said.
I laughed along, not caring at all how the door was attached.
She demonstrated how to turn on the hot water. In moments the shower was steaming.
“I guess I will shower.”
Cecilia shut off the water and smiled to me.
I couldn’t understand why she was so friendly. I’d been brought into stranger’s homes so many times, slept on so many farms with the permission of the farmers. I always wondered if I’d do the same for a stranger. I didn’t know. I’m guarded, and bringing someone into my home? I hoped I’d be as good as Cecilia was to me, but I just didn’t know.
“Go rest,” Cecilia said. “Shower when you want.”
Cecilia went off into in her room which was next to mine. The sun had fallen now and the sky was a bruised purple. Where my skin wasn’t covered I felt the sharp mountain air working its way toward my bones. Despite the cold air I stood there for a moment, looking over the hills and doing my best to appreciate how fortunate I was.
After a minute I hurried into my room where I thought it might be warmer.
Savannah was seated on the bed, her tail beating back and forth once I entered.
I took my towel and left Savannah for the shower. The water was scorching, actually too hot to stand in, but it did away with the dirt plastered on my skin.
Back in my room I slid beneath the five blankets on the bed. All the tension in my body fell away. I should have been camping but instead I had the luxury of a bed and four walls.
As my eyelids grew heavy I was sat stark upright by a knock on the door.
“One second,” I said, swiftly leaving the bed.
I opened the door, expecting Cecilia but being greeted instead by little Arianna and her pink hoodie.
“Oh, hello,” I said.
Arianna grinned then walked past me and jumped in the end of the bed. “Were you sleeping?”
“What time do you have to get up tomorrow?” I asked.
“Five? That’s when I get up. It’s too early for you.”
Arianna shrugged. “What’s this for?” She pointed to my cart.
“To carry my clothes and food.”
“And what’s this for?” She picked up my journal.
“To write in. I write in it everyday.”
“Of course. Here.” I took the journal from her and opened it for her to see. “Do you understand any of it?”
“Not a word. What’s that?” Arianna looked away from my journal to my Nook.
“That holds my books.” I turned on the Nook and went to Harry Potter in Spanish.
Arianna glanced at Harry Potter then hopped off my bed to open the back compartment of my cart. She pulled out my camera. “What’s this?”
We went on like that for thirty minutes, her mind bouncing around like flubber in a racketball court and me doing my best to keep up and answer all her questions. After so long though my tired body reminded me it was time for sleep. It was only eight, but I wanted to take full advantage of the bed and get as long a sleep as possible.
“It’s late for me,” I said. “I have to wake up at five too. I think it’s time for bed.”
Arianna looked at me doe-eyed then hugged my waist. Before I could bend down to return the hug Arianna broke it off and ran out the door.
I went to the door after her but she was already gone, perhaps having turned into her mother’s room.
I closed the door then crawled back beneath the covers. Once I was finished writing in my journal I turned off my headlamp and Savannah jumped onto the bed to lay beside me. Outside the white dog was barking at the moonlight.