Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
“Love can inspire you to accomplish some of the most amazing feats you’ll ever undertake.” (Self)
One of the benefits of working with absent partners was to have the Wildcatter Club to myself and make my own decisions. When they did come to Quito, neither partner, Ken or Frank ever stayed more than a few days and while they were there, they generally had their other affairs to take care of and the Club was one worry they did not have. As a relative newcomer to Ecuador and to the Latin American way of doing business, I watched with fascination the ramifications as the brothers attempted to wind down their other business interests in the country.
Two years prior to my arrival on the scene they, with some other national and foreign investors, had formed an Ecuadorian company called Playas and Barrancas – Beaches and Canyons – for the development of the tourist industry. I never did get to the bottom of the whole mess, because that is what it had become by the time I became involved. Frank began to fill me in on some of the confusion. Included in the bag of worms were a hotel, a golf club, an asphalt concession and even a goldmine. Later, On numerous occasions, I had the opportunity to observe firsthand what happens when American businessmen, without prior preparation and consultation, enter into deals with dubious Ecuadorian lawyers, politicians and their fixers.
The big deal became a big problem. Frank had put his trust in the fixers and other Ecuadorians who claimed intimacy with the people who mattered during Velasco Ibarra Ibarra’s presidency. But things changed when he was booted out of the office for the fifth and final time in the 1972 military coup. Rather than taking further risks, Frank decided, apart from the Wildcatter, to wind up all his interests in Ecuador.
I had no objection when Frank called me one day from Chicago asking a favour , which meant me having to take leave of the club for a few days. I was curious and it was yet another chance to see something of the country outside of Quito. In the confusion of the liquidation of Playas and Barrancas, some of the company’s heavy construction equipment was under embargo in an encampment near Tena, in the eastern jungle area of Ecuador. I was to go to Tena and arrange to pick up a Bulldozer and sundry construction equipment. Being that I was totally inexperienced in the handling of heavy equipment and I had never been to the jungle before, Frank suggested I asked Steve Burnett, an American citizen and sometime collaborator of his to accompany me. Steve, who had spent many years in South America was in the construction business so I was only too happy to leave the hire of a truck and trailer to him. He and I were to go on ahead in his Ford picking-up truck – as he called it – and prepare the bulldozer for transport.
Tena, known also as the “cinnamon capital” of Ecuador, was founded by missionary explorers and is now an international destination for whitewater enthusiasts and for eco-tourists visiting the rainforest and rivers that surround it. Nowadays you have to travel at least twenty or more kilometres to see pristine jungle but in 1972 Tena was literally smack in the middle of it. It is also the provincial capital of Napo, and at that time could only be reached by road from Puyo and then the road abruptly ended.
Frank very briefly briefed me on the situation. It seemed that a mixed Ecuadorian/American group of which he was the main financier, had been formed with the idea of extracting asphalt from the jungle near Tena but there had been a falling out of partners. Hoping to salvage something of value from the failed operation, he wanted to bring the bulldozer back to Quito to sell. Steve would fill me in with any other minor details.
Using Steve’s picking-up wagon, he and I went ahead, leaving the flatbed driver and two assistants to follow the next day. Without any problems, we reached the Baños, which I vaguely knew from my Llanagnatis expedition. But this time we took the southwesterly road into the tropics instead of turning east for El Triunfo and the Sierra. Immediately after Baños driving became extremely difficult as we crawled along the edge of the Rio Pastaza canyon. The road, which for part of its way, clings precariously to the canyon wall with drops of up to 500 meters on the other side, was in a terrible condition. It was raining heavily and waterfalls were flooding across the road and causing landslides. In some parts, crucial meters of the road had been washed away. Fortunately, we were in a four wheel drive vehicle and the experienced Steve could slowly inch his way across the still flowing mud and rock which threatened to take us with it in the gorge.
It was hazardous to be sitting in the passenger seat, trying not to look down at the raging torrent of the river Pastaza, hundreds of meters directly below the window. This appalling leg of the journey of 40 miles, took us a nerve-wracking five hours and it was dark when we arrived in Pastaza. We were fortunate to find a room at the Hotel Turingua, a motel owned by Joe Brenner, an American ex-Pat and friend of Steve’s. It was a very pleasant place to stay, with an attractive tropical garden. Unfortunately, we stayed up most of the night drinking local rum and coke and swapping lies with Joe.
The following morning, feeling none too healthy, we were off on the seventy or so kilometres to Tena. When we reached the border; a pole across the road, separating the provinces of Pastaza and Napo, Steve had made a point of being, what I thought as unnecessarily friendly with the police at the control post. It was not until we were on our way again that he broke the news to me. The documents for the bulldozer were being held in the municipal offices in Tena and we were going to illegally move the tractor from Napo. I was not to worry, he assured me – we were not stealing it. He explained that once we had the Bulldozer across the border and into Pastazo province we would be home and dry. He spent some time convincing me that what we were doing was just “a mite illegal”. Not for the first time in my life, I found myself confusing criminal activity with adventure.
Incessant rain made it another treacherous four hours drive but we eventually made it to the encampment. It was obvious that no one had been there for some time as the jungle had encroached on the campsite. The wire fencing was overgrown and our big and yellow bulldozer was barely visible through a covering of foliage. The wooden building, which had been used as the company office and bunkhouse were securely locked and the shutters closed. Steve had the keys and on entering commenced walking around the place with a stick knocking on skirting boards, looking for snakes.
I thought he was doing this just to scare me as a newcomer to the jungle. I realized he was not taking the piss when a meter long snake slithered out from its hideaway. It was a Bushmaster, one of Ecuador’s many poisonous reptiles. Before I could jump onto the nearest chair, Steve had clobbered it with his stick and finished it off with the heel of his boot.
That was daunting enough but when I discovered that the walls of the building were crawling with tarantulas, I was prepared to head back to Quito immediately. Evidently accustomed to having a room full of bloody, big black spiders, Steve took a cane broom and started sweeping them off the walls and out through the door. Fortunately, he also found some incense-like spirals which when lit, smelled like burned fish awful but miraculously cleared the place of the spiders and other insects. Regardless of the fumigations and half a bottle of Scotch, I did not sleep well that night. If I had ever wanted to see snakes – and I do not remember ever doing so –I would have gone to the Bellevue Zoo in Manchester. No, I was not at all impressed with the jungle.
Our main preoccupation was that the flatbed truck driver would not make it because of the deteriorating road conditions. The next day while we were waiting, Steve took me further into the jungle to the area where the asphalt had been discovered. I had always believed that asphalt was a derivative of oil but I was amazed to see the stuff oozing, like black mud out of the jungle floor. I discovered something else to put me off jungle life – you cannot find anywhere safe to sit. The ground, the tree trunks and any other seating possibilities were teeming with insect life. Fortunately, we did not come across any more snakes but Steve, in giving me a crash course in jungle survival, pointed out a sail the size of an inverted bucket, which he said was edible. I tried in vain to imagine it served with butter, garlic and fennel.
The flatbed still had not arrived so we drove into Tena. Finding a bar, we had hardly gotten our first beers down before some irate citizens turned up waving machetes at us.
I did not understand one word of their aggressive uttering’s but realized how serious it was, when one of mob appeared ready to decapitate Steve. It seemed they had not been paid for their past labour. I took a neutral stance by attempting to teach the Indian girl behind the bar to speak English. Their tempers quickly cooled when Steve ordered beer for them and he managed to calm the situation by claiming the non-payment was by some over-thought. He convinced them – not completely, I thought – they would be paid the following week when work at the camp would start up again. I now understood why Frank had suggested I took Steve with me.
We got out of the bar as quickly as possible and were relieved to find the flatbed had arrived. We put the driver and his two assistants to work preparing the machine for transportation and clearing the site, in an attempt to kid the locals the company was starting up again. The three of them, being from Quito, were clearly as unhappy as me in the tropical environment. One of them on attempting to relieve himself, almost fell into a pit which was concealed by foliage. In the trench was a two-meter boa-constrictor – fast asleep. Steve had forgotten its existence but said that it had been captured by the previous workers. For entertainment, they had fed it live rats and chickens and after killing and devouring one or two, the serpent would sleep, sometimes for weeks. He suggested I put a long thick branch or tree trunk into the pit and it would crawl out when it was ready. I did – but only just before we were leaving.
It took another full day to get the tractor into shape and onto the flatbed. Our presence had alerted the locals and the police visited the site but we convinced them, with the help of the proverbial bottle of rum, that work was re-starting the following week. So as not to attract any undue attention we drove out of the compound at dawn on Sunday morning and headed along the road back to Puyo. I was getting increasingly nervous and wondering why I had allowed myself to get involved in this dubious caper. Luckily no one attempted to stop us driving out of Tena and we arrived safe and sound at the border control post. The policemen Steve had been cultivating a few days before were not on duty and the new shift asked for our documents. It was a nervous few moments but fortunately for us, one policeman was originally from Quito and was even distantly related to our driver. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when the barrier pole was lifted and we drove out of Napo into Pastaza. We had made it and we were home and dry. At least I thought we were.
The episode had taken longer than we thought and Steve claimed he had urgent business to attend to in Quito. I foolishly suggested being as I was in no rush, he should leave with the car and I would remain with the crew and bulldozer until it reached Quito. I watched his car disappear and jumped aboard the flatbed. A few hours later, before we started tackling the tough stretch of the road to Banos, we stopped at a roadside stall to get something to eat. Feeling quite chuffed with myself for a job well done, I bought the crew some beers to drink with our rice, beans and fried egg brunch.
It could have been the state of the road, which had no camber – or the three beers that the driver had drank. But some thirty minutes later, as he was negotiating a tight corner with the cliff wall to the right of us and a drop to our left, something went wrong. Two of the crew were on foot in front of us, directing the driver around a tight bend and over a narrow section of road. We were easing our way, the driver struggling with the wheel, when and in slow motion the flatbed tilted at a 45⁰ angle. There was a horrendous crunching sound before it righted itself and crashed back down on its wheels. The driver and I were slammed against each other. Thinking something had run into us or a falling rock had hit us, we jumped out to inspect. The flatbed trailer seemed to be in order but there was no bulldozer to be seen. The iron hooks to which the bulldozer had been anchored had been ripped off.
We moved cautiously moved to the edge of the road. No Bulldozer. It had disappeared. Clinging on to a tree to stop me falling into the abyss, I peered through a veil of mist and there it was, a large lump of the twisted yellow metal – resting on the bank of the Rio Pastaza, eighty meters below us. I legged it back the eight or so Km to Joe’s motel and phoned Quito to advise Steve of our mishap.
So much for doing things illegally. Amazingly – and all praise to the Caterpillar manufacturers, the machine was not a write-off and I was to return to spend five days on that God-forsaken Puyo, Bańos road, keeping an eye on a team of mechanics and labourers, dismantling and manhandling the sections of the Bulldozer out of the abyss. It was incredibly boring doing nothing all day while the workers risked death manhandling the sections to road level. Most days it rained, but with work over for the day, I would leave them at a small primitive shelter which they constructed near the crash site and drive back to Puyo, the Hotel Turingua and a bottle of rum in Joe Brenner’s amusing company. On a couple of evenings Bernd Werner, a German friend of mine joined us in our reverie.
Bernd, who I knew from the Wildcatter, was a bush pilot who worked out of the nearby Shell Mera camp. I skived off one day, leaving the recovery team to steal what they could in my absence and flew with him and Sam, a Guaraní Indian, to a settlement, deep in the jungle. We had to make a couple of passes before the Indians removed oil barrels from the airstrip. The reason for this was to keep out tourists. Not for their protection – but so Sam, being the only one of their tribe who had an American education, could extract a fee from the visitors of his own choice. Sam was also the only one of the tribe who spoke English, so any anthropologists wishing to study the Guaraní were compelled to hire him as a guide and interpreter. Knowing and relying on Bernd for supplies and transport, Sam gave us a tour of the settlement and introduced us to his family. Sam was frequently to be seen in Quito promoting his business and protecting his Guarani image. With his fluent English, long black hair, dressed in blue jeans with Indian beads around his neck and wrists, he became another exotic addition to the Wildcatter customer list.
Over the next years the years, I had a couple more occasions to be thankful to Bernd. On two occasions, I found myself wondering how I was going to get back to Quito and civilization from some unknown, jungle location. Bernd, quite by accident happened to be in the same area and would save me a long road or river journey by giving me a free flight to Shell Mera where I would take a bus to Quito. Sadly, shortly after I had left Ecuador, I learned that Bernd had died in a crash landing on the Rio Topo. The bulldozer rescue saga resolved, we eventually trundled slowly and carefully back to Quito where, if I remember correctly, the machine was sold but never paid for.
Following the Llanganate treasure hunt fracas and the risky, bulldozer recovery exploit I decided to avoid further rescue attempts regardless it being human or otherwise. I enjoyed far more pleasurable ways of seeing Ecuador. On occasion, Jose-Maria Plaza or his son Leonidas would invite friends, including Simon and me to San Augustin, their hacienda, situated a couple of kilometres off the Pan-American Highway, between Quito and Latacunga. By European standards it was a large farm, some twelve hundred hectares of paramo, reaching almost to the snow line of the five thousand meter volcano, Cotopaxi. Apart from raising cattle and cultivating maize and other crops which would grow at that altitude, Jose-Maria raised the special breed of bulls needed for the local ferias and the larger, more important corridas, where the national and international toreros would risk their lives facing animals as large as 300 kilos.
One much sought-after invitation to San Augustin was to attend the branding and proving of the young bulls, to assess their stamina and to demonstrate their courage, prior to their appearance in the country’s bullrings. I learned it is considered a loss of prestige for a breeder, should a bull prove to be an inferior specimen in the arena. The hacienda had its own small Plaza de Toros where Jose Maria, Leonidas and his sister Miñon, all competent aficionados, would themselves join in the testing of the two-year-old bulls. The animal was released into the arena, where it would launch itself at the first object it focused on. This would usually be the mayor-domo, the foreman, mounted on horseback. He would bring the bull to a halt with a sharp-ended lance in its withers before it can do damage to the horse. The other farm hands would then attract the bull away from the horse with their capes. If the animal continued to charge the horse, then it had courage. Guests would also be invited to try their skill with some of the young bulls. I tried my hand on several occasions but, despite Jose Maria’s tuition, I showed absolutely no promise as a future torero.
There was always an ample supply of liquor on hand to give one a little Dutch courage. Following this often amusing but injury-prone entertainment, an excellent lunch would be offered. Should the weather turn cold, as it does quickly at those altitudes the meal would be served inside. The dining room at San Augustin was originally an Inca temple, which had been skilfully integrated into the main farmhouse. It was in this impressive setting that Jose-Maria, a wonderful raconteur, would entertain us with some of the incredible escapades in his life.
One particular invitation I am not allowed to forget was a luncheon party given by Leonidas. The group included Simon, myself and some of Leonidas’s friends, namely a bevvy of attractive girls. In the afternoon we all drove to the nearby village of Mulalu, where a community bullfight was being held to commemorate some Saint’s day. Being a rather bleak and cold day, we had started early on the good whisky that was generously on offer. The hacienda’s, Indian employees, also enjoying the religious holiday, had started celebrating with there own brew earlier than us and were totally inebriated. They were unaccustomed to having contact with gringos and insisted that Simon and myself, being the only foreigners present, joined them downing shots of cheap cane alcohol, locally known as Pico. Simon and the girls in the party knowing the Indian customs sensibly declined the offers. I did not. Mixing drinks was bad enough but this deadly cocktail of whisky and gut rot, taken at an altitude of eleven and a half thousand feet was to prove disastrous.
Arriving at Mulalu, we were treated as VIPs, thanks to the Plaza family standing in the village. A temporary scaffolding stand had been set up and it was on this that we took our seats alongside el acalde – the mayor, his numerous family members and other village dignitaries. They were all in the same state of inebriation as was I and the bottles of Pico were constantly passed around. The streets leading to the market square had been a barricaded off with wagons and trucks to form the Plaza de Toros. These vehicles were packed with eager and mostly drunken Indians.
The bulls employed in these village capeas are rarely killed and being employed frequently during the fiesta season, have more experience than the majority of the aficionados who were attempting to show off their prowess as would-be matadors. There were plenty of these in evidence, the square was crowded with men and young boys all wanting to confront the bulls but fleeing out of harm’s way when one was set free. Leonidas made a few passes called Veronicas with a borrowed cape and had received a round of Oles from the crowd. Simon had joined him and warming to the genial atmosphere they called for me to come down into the arena and join them.
Perhaps because of that day’s inclement weather and possibly out of pure mischief I had an umbrella with me. Against the protestations of the girls, I jumped down into the sand, complete with the furled thingy. The crowd shouted their appreciation believing that I was about to perform a portagayola, in which a torero meets a charging bull on his knees. But it was my tipsy vault into the arena which brought me to my knees as though in prayer. Leonidas immediately saw the danger when a ferocious looking animal – its size and weight depending who is telling this story – with, widespread horns, skidded into the arena. Leonidas, waved his cape attempting to divert the bull in his direction and away from me. The beast had other ideas. Enjoying its newly found freedom, it already had its eager eyes on a preferred opponent – a ruddy-faced Englishman kneeling ten meters in front of him with his furled umbrella poised for the kill.
I later learned that bulls are colour-blind, so it was not my complexion that attracted its attention, but it certainly must have recognised the difference between a sword and an umbrella, for instead of cowering with fear as bulls do in Mickey Mouse films – it charged. Those vast and widespread horns were my salvation. If they had been more narrowly placed, they would have caused serious damage. Instead, it was the centre of its immense head which caught and flipped me two meters into the dust-filled air. I am told that I seemed to descend in slow motion into the sand. Thankfully the bull had moved on, looking for someone worth killing. As I appeared out of the thick cloud of white dust my heavy landing had created, with umbrella still clutched firmly in my hand, the girls, believing I had been gored, were screaming, and the locals were screaming for an encore.
I must, in all honesty, admit I didn’t recall the action I have just related. But my future wife – the prettiest of the girls present that day clearly remembers, forty years later, how embarrassed she was by the stupid gringo who was paying court to her. During the drive back to Quito later that evening I was convinced that the pain I was suffering was my broken heart, broken by her rejection. But she later relented on hearing that the pain had, in reality, was only a couple of cracked ribs. She still tells this story, forty years later; not as a tale of my bravura but as a warning to other Latin females considering marrying an Englishman.
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