By Ali Valdez
We often times go through life catering to our fears and phobias. It is easier to avoid that surging internal conflict caused by facing things that entirely creep us out and our desire to be liberated from such worries. The Halloween factor for me besides the silly fear of rats, bad upholstery and poor lighting (too many years in the interior design trade I take it) is heights, confined places, mongrel dogs in the wild and geological cataclysm (e.g. getting caught in a mudslide or getting zipped up into a tornado while jumping around a bouncy castle).
It was my final day in Ecuador and I was with a FOMO friend of mine, Meredith, who had planted a seed that the best thing to see when in Banos, Ecuador was the famed Devil’s Cauldron, or Pailon del Diablo to the locals. She had left a day sooner and I wanted nothing more than a chill day of relaxing and writing. I had been go go go this entire trip to Ecuador and I was also very exhausting from the intense emotional work from where I took a retreat to rate a facility and spend time with a wonderful teacher and now, I really wanted to maintain the momentum with my writing. But alas, I too got a bad case of FOMO and started contemplating if maybe it’s time to combine all the things that horrify me, take a chance and test my adrenaline thresholds. After all, it is the #1, according to Trip Advisor, thing to do in Banos which had proven yet to have its charms.
Did I want an empty check box on my trip?
I didn’t love Banos as I loved Otovalo and Quito so maybe el Pailon del Diablo would be Banos’ redemption. Or perhaps my own.
The manager of the Hobbit meets Haight Asbury hotel (aka Jardines de Chamanas) was fantastically helpful and enthusiastic, arranging an early taxi so I could make the trip unhurried before returning to Quito to catch my flight. My taxi driver was an older man in casual business attire and took me on a beautiful drive through dense, lush verdant mountains, a signature experience through this part of Ecuador.
First, I am not one to do hiking in general. I have marathoners’ knees and stone pathways are no bueno. This wouldn’t have been my first choice until the FOMO called, sunk in and settled into my bones.
Let’s do this, I said. Sure, I might vomit and or get such bad vertigo I want to throw my body off the edge, but we will cross that (suspension) bridge later.
In addition to Meredith apprising me of Diablo’s mass popularity, on the way from Miami, I also read an article on the world’s most dangerous staircases where the Diablo was prominently featured. I thought when reading this was who would do THAT? Apparently two weeks later, that would be me.
What was holding me back? Treachery and verticality primarily. Second, claustrophobia (you have to cave crawl under the waterfall at one point), slippery rock and being sopping wet. This isn’t a pull up and go see tourist trap.
For the cauldron, the Devil makes you earn your keep.
Like most Latin American hot spots, the first stop is retail and jugo. You cannot enter without being bombarded with the sizzling smell of cooking meats, fresh juice bars and mongrel dogs. You have to be obliged and pay your dues to the local economy. Orange and papaya juice, one dollar US; okay, done. Toilet? Twenty-five cents US; okay done.
You eventually work your way down to the sign-in station for the falls. Admission is not free and I had actually overspent my paper money to get in. As I scrounged through my makeshift coin purse pathetically for a buck fifty, Luis, my guide handed money over and guided me on.
It started with a white dog that leapt from the bushes following, nay hounding us. He was literally nipping at my heels. I just got bit on the tit by a horse during equine therapy (more fun times at: Equine Therapy blog) and now this dog was going nuts. I was worried on the ravaged mudslide path which descended deeper into the jungle that once the distant taunting sound of roaring waters came increasingly to the fore, I would slide into the river taking perro blanco conmigo.
As the pathway narrowed further and the exuberant jumping dog was on the brink of pushing me over the edge of a precipice, thus validating my theory on the fear of heights, the tree canopy cast a shadow and a silvery mist of clouds slipped in and hypnotically, like Salome’s veil, lulled this dog into my loyal companion.
The Devil’s Cauldron is not named for the violently raging water clamoring down two separate rivers converging like the embrace of a madman or drastic descent, but rather a chiseled rock , a sharply-etched side profile an old man. The higher up you go, the more clear it becomes.
You want to come face to face with the Devil? Here you have to travel through hell and back.
Also, the higher up you climb, the greater the spray of cold water, the more narrow the chasm and the lower the trees. You proceed first by walking to crawling with each step more deeply into the mouth of the waterfall. There are points where you are literally crawling on your hands and knees on slick rock so snug, my wool skull cap kept catching on the roof of the cave. Then there are the four foot steps to confound your hip flexors as you aspire for the open air. No worries, there’s still a million more stairs. Thank God for Luis who somehow seemed unaffected and even patronizingly dry, with each ten steps carrying another layer of my wet clothing, hat and scarf, fumbling the heap to take another picture of me getting increasingly doused.
Did I mention he is dressed like someone heading to work at Xerox?
That’s what I love about doing things with locals; what seems outlandish to you is a source of beaming national pride for them. This is their playground.We made it to the top and it was so rewarding. I savored the moment: the thunderous crashing of water, the up close and personal with Senor Diablo, and grateful that Luis took me there so early we got the entire place to ourselves. I can only imagine the sheer horror of having to share those claustrophobic paths with a bandied lot of tourists.
I realized all of my fears were only experiences I held at a distance. The irrational fear of falling and heights fails to lend itself to anything in this lifetime. I realized it was my own attitude holding me back and this small gesture to visit the Pailon de Diablo was a step forward in the right direction which helped me later as I write about in this blog about The Walk. It appeared more an element of laziness, the anti-FOMO in me than phobia.
That was, of course, until we made our way to the exit and approached the long wood-clad suspension bridge. Conio.
“Luis, hay otra manera?” I asked non-chalant on the outside, but inside possibly crapping my own pants. Luis looks down at the bone-crushing rapids below and shakes his head casually no. Have I mentioned how much I loathe the canopy suspension bridges of this world? The wobbling and the shaking goes against my earth-bound Taurean ways. I feel electrical currents going berserk in my feet.
No one wants to see a Bull bobbing around on a suspension bridge.
Luis glided across the bridge making it look effortless so once he stopped dead center, I took my first several steps, holding onto the rope edges with whitened knuckles feigning a “thrilled to be here” smile. I made my way about ten feet from Luis when he smiled and started jumping up and down laughing like an excitable young boy. The rippling beneath my feet caused me immediate panic. I had to ask him to stop.
“Luis, no mas por favor,” I said with green face. He stopped like I was spoiling all his fun.
I waited until he made it to the other side taking in the abundance: the waterfall and two violent rivers clashing like cymbals below me. I waited until he was off the bridge and proceeded to walk. Then apparently the only other person at the park emerges from the shroud of trees; a construction man repairing the mudslide path, carrying what looked like an unruly bag of mortar, made his way onto the bridge in my direction. I froze in a classic slow-motion moment because yes, the bag slips from his grip and drops onto the bridge pounding like the lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach. Eventually, I made it, vowing to never FOMO again if it means contending with another unassailable floating pathway.
I am not sure how it all works but the amount of climbing up and down is relentless. I did it, and even picked up my pace when I was shamed by a small group of elderly Ecuadorean women wearing short heels and skirts practically skipping down towards us with heavy parcels on their backs.
After the Ecuadorean ladies came the maddening hoard, the tourists with their Frommers, walking sticks and fanny packs. They show up around 10:30am and their numbers although not Machu Picchu crowds, were not small. Again to fully enjoy the experience, I highly recommend traveling early. Until that moment on the bridge, we were alone and had the falls and the steep staircases, crevices and fear of uncertainty and death all to ourselves and it was worth the early wake-up and slamming breakfast at the Hobbit house (another Bano’s best).
Once again, from out of nowhere the white dog, tail and tongue wagging, greets me joyfully like an old friend. My legs feel increasingly like tree trunks with each step and I am fiercely thirsty having forgotten my water bottle in the taxi. Bring one with you.
We are back at the shops, a full spectrum of vendors now clamoring for my attention when out of nowhere, it happens. Like a dream, another slow motion one because from the top of the stairs (my God, we are so close) a big black dog flies down and starts growling at me. He has a massive collar that is connected to what looks like a broken tether of thin chain. Yes, the dog broke his chain. See, the mongrel dog phobia IS real! Luis stepped in front as the dog went nuts barking and growling.
I thought, what is up with these animals on this trip?!
I recalled my earlier Ecuadorean experience with the horses and connected back to that feeling of personal empowerment asking Luis to step aside taking this dog head-on. I stood my ground, reminding myself of all the petty phobias I had overcome in this one stop shop of dread and surging cortisol. The dog taunted a little bit longer then scurried off like he was bored; a moment of empowerment which actually was a bit anti-climactic. We arrived back at the car and I chugged a bottle of water in ten seconds flat.
I had a lovely morning doing all the things I hate doing. It allowed me to reflect on my attitude, to be open to trying new things. I loved how the relationship with the both dogs changed and for different reasons. I was proud of myself for trying scary things without friends pressuring me to do it. I would have gone if my FOMO pal had gone, but the experience wouldn’t have been the same because it would have come from a place of making someone else happy and not for creating a new understanding of what happiness could mean to me.
Earlier on the trip, I met a wonderful older woman named Miriam who helped me process some of my emotions that I was working on during the equine therapy and retreat portion of my stay. She reminded me so of someone I once loved very much. Then to bookend the trip with a wonderful man named Luis who helped me address my fears and phobias was a coincidence not lost on me. My beloved grandparents of Latin descent are both passed; my Nana Miriam and my Tata Luis. It felt that they were there in spirit to comfort and support me through these two powerful breakthroughs and I am particularly grateful. Also I was grateful for the elements of nature and the random interactions with animals to help guide me on my path and the new friends I made along the way.
In the end Banos redeemed itself, and became my number one memory from the trip. It also on some small level helped redeem a lost part of me. Gracias.