Tag Archives: Pucayacu

When the lights went out

My wife and I lived in a pretty remote part of Ecuador when we served as Peace Corps Volunteers a few years ago. Our town was located in the foothills of the Andes, a place called Pucayacu. To get there, you had to take a six-hour bus ride from the capital, where you’d wind up in this smallish city called La Maná. After that, you either had to find another bus, or take the more popular and faster method of travel: hopping on the back of a pickup truck and snaking up the unpaved mountain roads until there was no more road to snake along.


And that was Pucayacu. The town itself was only something like sixty years old, and all of the adults that I talked to could remember what it was like when their parents or grandparents first arrived. Back then, there wasn’t even yet a dirt road into town, so in order to gain any sort of access to modern society, they had to spend half a day hiking all the way down to La Maná, load up their mules with supplies, and then climb back up.

Also, electricity was a somewhat recent development. There were still parts of town without any access to power. “Are they planning on expanding the power lines so everybody has light?” “Yeah, ya mismo,” was the standard Ecuadorean non-answer to any question involving time, loosely translated as sometime between five minutes and five years from now.

The power lines that connected to our part of town were built sometime in the seventies, but even while we were living there, power was a sporadic luxury. It rarely went out for more than a day or two at a time, but blackouts were a constant threat. Every once in a while there’d be a really big storm, and somewhere between us and La Maná one of the wooden posts carrying the power lines would fall down, leaving us without electricity until the utility companies could manage to locate and repair the damaged areas.

Going without electricity on a semi-regular basis, at first it was kind of like a novelty, I’d romanticize the simplicity like I was on some sort of an adventure. But after a while, these brief outages would sometimes bring me to my knees, make me realize just how pampered of an upbringing I’d had, totally reliant on all of the modern technology that I’ve always known to be a constant in my life.

During the day, it didn’t really make too much of a difference. But at night, it was like living in an alternate reality. Because what are you supposed to do at six-thirty in the afternoon when the sun goes down and you’re enveloped in total darkness? Everybody else lit some candles and eventually went to sleep. But for whatever reason, I could never get my body to shut down that early.

Candles are really creepy. While they’re essential in helping you navigate your way around the house, they have the undesirable added effect of turning any room into the scene of a horror movie. The tiny beetles attracted to the only source of light would project massive monstrous shadows on the ceiling. Or every once in a while a random draft of air would either extinguish or double the size of the tiny flame, sending chills down my back, like a wandering spirit had just entered the building.

My wife and I would sit around and play cards, or if our laptop had enough a charge, we’d be able to watch one of the bootleg DVDs sold on any street corner in the country. But even that was just a temporary fix. Sooner or later we’d be right back to where we were, sitting in the void, with no choice really but to wait until the sun came back up.

It was always dark without the lights, but usually there was some sort of illumination. The moon or the stars would be out, our eyes would adjust, and if we looked out the window we’d be able to make out the square of houses that basically made up the entire town.

But I remember one night in particular, the electricity was out, and it was pouring rain, the clouds obscuring any access to the night sky. It was only like nine o’clock at night, but it felt like an endless three in the morning. The entire town was out, my wife was asleep, but for whatever reason I wasn’t tired yet. And so I just kind of lay there, underneath the mosquito net, I held my hand up in front of my face and tried to make out something, anything. It was total blackness, probably the only time in my life that I could recall experiencing an absence of any light whatsoever.

I thought about how unsettling it was, and then I started thinking about our ancestors, how human beings have been around for so long, and this age of industry, of electricity, we’re the privileged few that have ever had access to such unimaginable comfort. What would it have been like if I were living here two hundred years ago? I doubt my bed would have been as comfortable. There definitely wouldn’t have been a mosquito net.

I started to feel really small. And then I heard something fly in through the window. It was always hot and humid, so even though there were insects everywhere, we really didn’t have a choice but to leave the windows open at all times. We got used to it eventually, the giant spiders and grasshoppers that lined the outside of our protective netting when we woke up in the morning.

I’m just kidding, I never got used to it, not really. It was just a thin net, it wasn’t like a force field. If a bug got lucky, maybe it could crawl underneath, through the bottom, trapping itself inside with us. I heard this thing fly in the window, it must have been huge because the vibrations of its wings flapping were low and deep, resonant like a stealth helicopter.

I could hear it hitting the walls, hitting the net, hitting the window, each time it collided in the dark it would get frustrated, the buzzing intensifying, me curling up into the fetal position, afraid that it might cling on to one of my toes through the netting. This thing kept me awake for a while, I could tell that it felt trapped, completely unable to process how it went from being outside, flying around in the open air, to all of the sudden accidentally slipping through our open window and winding up stuck in our tiny bedroom.

It’s amazing that we’ve made it so far as a species, because that type of fear has to be universal. I think about before modern times, before electricity, it was every night, another absence of light, another opportunity to sit there curled up into a ball, hoping the noises of the dark weren’t the warning sounds of anything too serious, maybe you could fall asleep, hopefully make it to the other side somewhat comfortable. And it was like, whenever it got really dark like that, I kind of felt it too, my instinctual fear, bubbling up from I don’t even know where, unable to tell see exactly where I was, or how I might react if anything really bad were to actually happen.

New Years Day in Ecuador

Whenever I get really cold, like one of those deep chills in my bones, I think about the time when I was living in Ecuador, a couple of guys in my town asked me if I had any plans for the day after New Years. I never had any plans, not really, a big thing that I took away from my experience in the Peace Corps was that feeling of being like a little kid. My communication skills weren’t really one hundred percent, and it wasn’t exactly like I knew what I was doing down there, so I basically relied on the good nature of the people of Pucayacu for everything.


So I went from no plans to having plans, they’d take me to these natural waterfalls nearby, we’d cook, we’d swim. Great. And it was great. That morning the guys came by to pick me up. They were in the back of a large dump truck, which isn’t supposed to be some sort of a joke or creative imagery or anything like that. This was a heavy-duty dump truck, like right off of the construction site.

I guess that word of our trip had spread, one invite led to another and this casual daytrip snowballed into a community pilgrimage. Normally it would have been easy for us to take the bus, but apparently these waterfalls were pretty far off the paved roads, and besides, all of the drivers were hung over from the New Years festivities. This guy’s uncle had the truck, and he didn’t mind dumping us off at the waterfalls about an hour and a half away from town.

Seriously, he actually dumped us out. As soon as we got to where the path was no longer wide enough for the truck, he hit the dump button and the whole back of the truck tilted up. “Jajaja!” everyone laughed as we fell over each other, smashing and piling out the back door.

The day was like was any other day in Ecuador, that is, a total adventure. I learned within a few weeks in country that, regardless of what I was doing, I couldn’t rely at all on my expectations of how something was supposed to happen. Ecuador always had a way of throwing me for a loop. Like, it’s only a four-hour bus ride, right? Yeah, it’s actually an eight-hour trip, and there’s a military checkpoint, and you’re sitting next to a guy holding a chicken.

We had a great time, a lot of swimming, tons of eating and drinking. As the sun set, my neighbors had me play volleyball against unwitting opponents oblivious to my spiking ability. A few hours after that, someone said, “Well, I guess we should get going.”

“Great,” I offered. I was exhausted, and I wanted nothing more than to take a shower and get to bed. “How are we getting back, is your cousin picking us up?”

“No, my cousin only had the truck for a little while.”

“So …”

“Yeah …”

And this began what felt like an eternal quest to get home. Like I said, it was a holiday, and even if there were pickup trucks or buses traversing these sparsely paved back roads, it would have been unlikely even on a good day to find a ride capable of getting all twenty or so of us back at once.

After what had to have been two hours of waiting, somebody somehow convinced a passing cattle truck to haul us up the long mountain path. No sooner had we all piled in, standing room only, in a sawdust covered flatbed, did it start raining. Pouring. As we ascended in altitude, the nighttime chill plus the downpour made every second a test of endurance.

We were bumping along the road, I was kind of hunched over so as to try and maintain some sort of standing up balance, and my thin t-shirt and jeans combination was soaked through. And then we stopped because there was a flat time. And nobody uses jacks in Ecuador, you have to walk into the woods and find some stones big and flat enough to pile up underneath the wheel.

I eventually made it home, shivering, wondering if I’d ever get warm again. I know that the mind has a way of exaggerating pain and discomfort, but I remember even in the moment that feeling of being beaten down by the elements with absolutely nothing to provide me with even the tiniest bit of comfort.

Anyway, yeah, so whenever I get cold, whenever I’m walking to the grocery store and I get to the point where I say something to myself like, “It’s freezing out,” I just put myself back in that pickup, I can still feel the rain on my back, and I know that it’s all going to pass, no matter how bad things get, it’s all momentary, I’ll be back in bed soon enough.

Thinking about Ecuador

I’ve never once run into someone in New York, someone that I know. It never, ever happens to me, not on the subway, not when I’m walking to the deli, never. And I’m out. I go running all the time. I ride my bike everywhere. I’m taking my dog for a walk at least twice a day. I know that I know people in New York. I know that people live by me in Astoria, Queens. My brother lives live five blocks away. My uncle, my sister-in-law, all within walking distance. A lot of my coworkers are really close. Yet I’ve never just happened upon anyone just walking around. How is this possible?

I know, there are like eight million people living in this city. Which is crazy. That’s a lot of people. It’s so many people. It’s enough people so that when I’m walking around, I’m constantly surrounded by lots and lots of people, everywhere. And it’s just insane, that really weird feeling of going about my day, walking around, seeing so many other human beings, everywhere, I can’t walk fast because the sidewalks are just jam packed with bodies, and I’m looking at everybody, at their faces, at what they’re doing, and I don’t know anyone, not even one person.

That’s a feeling that, I think, it has to be antithetical to our nature, as social animals. I walk past two people, three people, four people talking to each other, talking on their cell phones, I think, why am I not talking to anybody? Why isn’t anybody talking to me? I’m having a bad day, I’m stressing out about problems at work, problems at home, imaginary problems that I’m imagining up in my head, and I look up and I just see this wall of human activity, and I don’t have anything to do with it, with any of it. And I’m just like, is it even real? Does that even make sense?

I didn’t grow up a New Yorker; I grew up a Long Islander. But it wasn’t all that different. In fact, it was worse, because instead of walking around everywhere, everybody drives, and so instead of staring out at a world of strangers, I’d just be staring out at a world of cars, all driven by people, yeah, but everybody kind of hidden behind the reflections of their windows. Which is, again, it’s worse, because it takes a special someone to cut you off walking on the sidewalk. But in car? It’s all too common.


The only time I ever walked out of the house and ran into people that I knew was when I spent two years in the Peace Corps. I lived in a really small town called Pucayacu located in the subtropics of Ecuador. It wasn’t even a town really, but I hesitate to call it anything else, because all of the other English words available to describe societies smaller than towns evoke feelings and sentiments that aren’t really appropriate to what Pucayacu is, what it was while I was there.

In Spanish, Pucayacu isn’t a town, it’s a parroquia, which, translated to English is a parish, which is misleading, because a parroquia in Ecuador doesn’t have anything to do with religion. The parroquia itself was broken down into twelve or so recintos, a word that, until now, I’ve never felt the need to translate, but Google Translate is telling me that it means “enclosure.” So imagine smaller than a town, and then even one level smaller than that.


It was the exact opposite of what it’s like here in New York; I’d step out of my house and I’d know absolutely every single person that I ran into. And they’d all say hi to me, “Buenos días Don Roberto! Como le va? Como ha pasado?” every single person, every single time. There was only one road in and out of town, and so imagine what it was like trying to make it to the end of the road to head out for a run. Or just to buy a soda from the señora who sold groceries out of her kitchen. “Hola Roberto!” every time, everybody inviting me in for some snacks, for some coffee, for a second or third lunch, to sit with their families in front of their houses for a while, to ask me questions about the United States or, when those questions got old, to tell me at length about Ecuador, about their lives, about their families, and why don’t you spend the evening over here? Have dinner with us, come on, you can help our kids with their homework, and come out to the farm with us tomorrow, we’ll show you the animals, the plantains, we’ll go swimming in the river and drink beers in the afternoon.

Sometimes it was all too much. I’d just want to be left alone. I didn’t want to have to make up words to “Hotel California,” pretending to sing a convincing American hit every time somebody brought out a guitar. Once in a while I really did just want to walk to the end of the road and go for a really long run, without stopping every time I’d pass somebody on the side of the road waiting for a pickup truck, explaining that I’m not running from anything, that I’m exercising, that I’m working out, declining rides from every car and bus that stopped along the way, “Hey Roberto, what are you doing? Hop in, we’ll take you back!”

But here I am, back in New York, I’ve been back from Ecuador now for almost as long as I was there. And I walk out of my house, and I jockey for a spot on the sidewalk, to keep my head down and shuffle along like everybody else, no eye contact, nobody saying hi, nobody knows who I am. And I think about all of this and it’s like, the grass really was greener over there. Everything was greener over there. The butterflies were neon-bluer over there. The sunsets were alive, the stars at night exactly like you’d imagine them to be. Everything was bursting with color, exploding with life; it was a world away from where I’m from yet somehow it was more intimate, intense, familiar.