Lunch Under The Volcano
Article and photos by Ted Campbell
“You must be hungry. This is my house. Come in. Come in! I’ll give you some food,” said the old man.
“No, thank you, I really can’t,” I said.
“Of course you can! Why not?”
“Well, I want to climb the volcano.”
“Climb the volcano? Impossible!”
“Is it so far?”
“Yes it’s far! And dangerous.”
He came closer, putting his hand on my shoulder. His head barely reached above my chest. He had close-cropped black hair, dark skin with deep lines, and powerful, pitch-black eyes. His clothes were ragged but dignified: a blue, collared shirt with fraying sleeves and patches on the elbows, tucked into grey dress pants many sizes too big, with a thin leather belt tightened around his tiny waist. His calloused toes stuck out from red plastic sandals.
His small hands had scarred knuckles and broken yet closely-trimmed fingernails, and they were criss-crossed by blue veins swollen like rivers in the rainy season. His one hand squeezed my shoulder, and with the other he pointed across the broad valley to the green slopes of the mountains on the other side. Thick clouds covered the peaks and sky above.
The tree-covered slopes were crossed by long vertical lines of white ash—runoff from the volcano. Like the mountains and trees, they too disappeared into the heavy blanket of grey clouds. I’d been staring up at them all day, hoping they would clear so I could get a glimpse of my destination, the Tungurahua volcano above the small town of Baños in central Ecuador.
Baños means baths; the town is named for its hot spring bathhouses, the reason so many tourists from Ecuador and elsewhere come to the little mountain village. Tour groups take trips into the mountains for views of the active volcano, but during a conversation with friendly locals in a bar the night before, I learned that the hike up is long but straightforward. Just find the right road on the edge of town and keep going up, up, up.
Giving me a slight nudge, the old man raised his finger and pointed even higher into the clouds, where you’d expect to see the tiny speck of an airplane, not mountain peaks. “It’s there,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. It was much higher than where I’d imagined the volcano to be as I walked all morning, looking up into the clouds, waiting for them to part. I felt a mix of disbelief and disappointment. “No, that high?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s too late for you to go up there. Come in, eat with me. You can try after we eat.”
He was right, I was hungry. I’d had breakfast early in the morning at my hotel, just a plate of scrambled eggs and some toast. The snacks I’d brought were long gone. I didn’t carry a watch, but it must have been three in the afternoon by now.
But my Midwest upbringing demanded I refuse invitations, even several. Back home, when a stranger offers a meal, it may be out of nothing more than insincere courtesy—they don’t really want you in their house, eating all their food. Being indirect and dishonest (though in a well-meaning way) is actually a major part of being polite. After lunch, for instance, friends argue over who will pick up the tab. Nobody wants to, but they argue anyway.
Much later I learned that refusing an offer for food is the height of rudeness in Latin America. But also, despite how ridiculously high the volcano appeared to be, my stubborn need to continue, to not have wasted the whole morning walking nowhere, nagged at me somewhere deep, like the hunger in my stomach. I looked up at the clouds. Yes, my volcano was somewhere in there. My hunger could wait; this was my chance to see an active volcano. Maybe my last chance. I’d already spent too much time in Baños; surely it was time to move on.
His hand still on my shoulder, the old man smiled at me broadly, showing a mouth full of missing teeth. But my breeding still outpaced my hunger. “Sir, your offer is very kind, but I have to go. Thank you.”
He gave my shoulder a squeeze. “No, you can spare a few minutes. Come eat with me. The volcano can wait.”
I suddenly felt like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Was this Yoda, using the same argument on me as in the movie? Offering food is a good strategy, but for what? The old man had had plenty of time to speak to me since coming off the mountain trail to walk beside me on this dirt road, but he didn’t.
After our initial, ritual greetings of Good afternoon, How are you? in Spanish, we fell into silence. I appreciated it—my first thought, when seeing him, was that strange and awkward feeling of meeting a stranger on his own turf. Can’t I ever be alone, I thought. Solitude is hard to come by, even when traveling solo in a foreign country. People are everywhere, asking, Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you think of Ecuador? Although we walked together, the old man was truly alone—but not me.
Now, standing next to him ten minutes later, I again contemplated the blanket of clouds, feeling a pang of regret as I finally resigned to giving up. “Well, yes, ok, thank you.”
We walked into the house. It was a perfect square the size of a middle-class master bedroom. Made of concrete blocks, it had a corrugated metal roof and the floor was packed dirt. There was a blue, frayed towel in the center of the room, perhaps placed there as a too-small carpet. The unpainted walls were bare expect for a wooden shelf along one wall and a wooden cross hung from the opposite wall. On the shelf were three candles and two small cardboard boxes.
Below the shelf was a wooden table and two chairs. They’d been red once, but now most of the paint had worn off, with fading color only visible on legs and edges. On the table was a dented metal pot the size of a bathroom trashcan and a little stack of plastic bowls, with a plastic box of mismatched silverware next to it. Some of the spoons were metal, and some had white handles with religious cartoon drawings on them. A strong smell of burning wood came through the back window, evidently from a cook fire behind the house.
The only other furniture in the room was a short wooden bench covered by a thin blanket that showed scenes of Spiderman in red and blue. Without the blanket, you’d think it was a badly-worn Japanese table, low to the ground and much too short for the average person to sleep on. There was no pillow.
He must have read my thoughts because he said, “That’s my bed.”
“Don’t you get cold?” I asked. Sure, Ecuador is on the equator, and the sun blazes hot in the late afternoon, but Baños has an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, and by now I was a half-day of continuous, steep walking above Baños.
“No, I’m used to it. Maybe a little in the winter.”
When does winter come at the equator? I thought, but before I could ask he pushed a chair my way. “Sit, sit. Let’s eat.”
I took a seat and put my backpack on the floor. He took the lid off the big pot on the table. Steam flowed out, drifting to the floor like dry ice. He took a bowl from the stack and reached into the pot, pulling out a ladle full of soup. He poured it into the bowl and handed it and a spoon to me.
I held the bowl by its edge and waited. “Eat, eat!” he said, and pulled out the other chair to face me. He poured himself a bowl and sat down.
“Thank you,” I said, and I began to eat. It was mostly potatoes, with a few green bits I didn’t recognize. It tasted good.
He brought a spoon to his mouth and blew on it softly, but then put it back in the bowl without eating it. Instead he looked at me and cleared his throat. “Do you like it?”
“It’s wonderful,” I said. “I really was hungry.”
“I knew you were as soon as I saw you!”
“Well, I didn’t know until you gave me this soup. Thank you.”
“So, are you married?” he asked.
I laughed, choking on my soup. “No. If I were married I don’t think I could travel so much.”
“My son is married.”
“Really? How old is he?”
“About your age,” he said, though I hadn’t told him how old I was. “He lives in Baños with his family.”
“How often do you see him?”
“Oh, every once in a while. Now that I’m old it takes me too long to walk down there to the city.” (He called it a ciudad, a city, even though Baños is a village at best.) “So when I go, I have to leave early, and I have to spend the night. And then I have to walk all the way back up here.”
“Yes, it’s a very steep road. Do taxis come up?”
“All the way up here? Not often. Sometimes. I prefer going up than down. Going down hurts my knees.”
“What does your son do?” I asked.
“Oh, a little of everything. He’s a worker, like me. I built this house.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Since I built it. My father had a house here, but it was made of wood and it burnt down.” He said this with an enormous smile, making me smile too. Once again I marveled at his persistent cheerfulness.
We sat in silence for a moment, slurping our soups. Finally I said, “Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“No. I told you, my son lives just down the mountain.”
“No, I mean . . .” What I wanted to say was, don’t you ever get lonely living in this remote place all by yourself, with only the volcano to keep you company? Then, as if on cue, a rumbling boom filled the air.
“That’s it!” he said, excited. “That’s the volcano.”
“I’ve been hearing that sound all day, but I wasn’t sure.”
“Yes, that’s the volcano. Here, look at this.” He reached onto the shelf above the table, and from behind one of the cardboard boxes he pulled out a fading postcard. It showed the black, angry peak of a volcano spewing fire into the night. He tapped the flames with this finger. “This was, oh, ten years ago,” he said.
“This is the volcano?” I asked.
“And you were here?”
“I was right here. It usually erupts smoke and ash, but this time was the worst. I went up on the roof with my family. It was so loud. It lasted all night. We couldn’t sleep. You could see the hot lava flowing down the sides of the mountain.”
I gazed into the postcard, trying to imagine looking out of the doorway of this house to see this burning image in the sky. I handed him the postcard back. “That’s incredible.”
“It was horrible!”
“Well, Ecuador is a very beautiful country. I was in Quito last week. It was nice, but I like being here with so much nature.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“Never? But it’s just down the road.” Quito, the capital of Ecuador and a lovely colonial city, is less than half a day by bus from Baños. “Wouldn’t you like to visit there?”
“I’ve never left Baños.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I don’t know. The bus is expensive, I suppose. Or maybe I never really had a reason. And I guess it’s too late now.” He put his half-finished bowl of soup on the table. My soup was long gone.
“It’s never too late to travel,” I said.
“You’re far from home, aren’t you?” he asked.
I handed him my empty bowl. “I sure am. But that’s how I like it.”
“Would you like any more soup?”
“No, that was wonderful.” In fact, I could have eaten five more bowls, but my manners had kicked in again, and of course I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any other food in the house. And by now I’d been there for at least 20 minutes. It was time to move on. I stood up. “Thank you very much for your hospitality, but I have to go.”
“Of course! You want to walk to the volcano. But I still don’t think you should.”
“But I have time, don’t I?”
“Maybe, but going alone . . . I’m not so sure.”
“How many times have you climbed it?”
“No, why would I? It’s beautiful from down here.”
I took a deep breath. You could feel the air blowing through the open door already getting cooler. Maybe it was getting late. Maybe too late. And I was still hungry. “You know what, you’re right—I think I’ll go back to Baños.”
“Do you know the way?”
“Well, I just keep going down, right? I didn’t see other roads.”
He laughed. “That’s right! Just keep going down!” The sheer joy with which he said this made me burst out laughing, and he began laughing too. There we were, standing face to face in his little concrete home, with the sound of our laughter booming off the walls, the loudest noise I’d heard all day, other than especially loud blasts from the volcano.
I picked up my backpack and swung it over my shoulder. Then, putting my hand in my pocket, I said, “Listen, I don’t want to . . . I mean, I don’t . . . What I want to say is I can offer you . . . anything. For lunch. For your family.” I pulled all the change out of my pocket, holding it in my closed hand.
He gave me a big smile, without a hint of embarrassment. “That’s very generous.”
I put the change into his hand. He set it on the table and said, “Come back anytime. Good luck.”
We shook hands, and I said goodbye and thank you one more time. I walked down the little path from his house and, turning downhill, went down the road. When I reached the first curve, I looked back. He still stood in the doorway of his house, waving. I waved back.
A few minutes later the road took another sharp curve, going through a switchback in the mountains. Again I faced the slopes of the volcano, and I suddenly saw that a space had opened up high in the clouds, a hole just big enough to show the black peak of the volcano. It looked blacker than in the postcard and seemed even higher than where the old man had pointed to earlier.
I stood there staring until the clouds shifted, filling the hole. Then I walked a little slower—my hiking boots skidding over loose rocks in the road, kicking up tiny pebbles and a fine white sand. The pebbles skipped down the steep road with long, uneven bounces. When I came across a bigger one, a stone I could keep in sight as it bounced over holes and roots in the road, I gave it a strong second kick. It bounded down the road so fast that I lost sight of it. Poor stone, I thought, in such a hurry, oblivious to the scenery and clouds, oblivious to the towering mountains, never once realizing where it was, what it was doing.
I heard a few more rumbles, but the volcano didn’t show itself again on the hike back down. And when I left Baños the next morning, the sky was just as cloudy.