After two weeks of intense and busy travel through Ecuador with my fearless, ultra-efficient travel partner du jour Danielle, I spent my last few Ecuadorian days enjoying a slower pace. In one spot for a time, I surrendered to my need to wilt around in the gaps between excursions. Danielle and I had been on trains and buses, on horseback into the mountains. I had felt my spirit rehydrated when visiting my first Art gallery in months in Cuenca. We had seen animal masked hoards partying in the streets, break-dancing gangs body-popping at markets, indigenous farmers dashing up hillsides with their flocks and misty villages cuddled up in the skirts of volcanoes. Finally we came to pause in one such town, Baños.
After a particularly adventurous morning cycling, I was delighted to casually saunter to the natural hot springs in quiet, modest Baños with a young Swiss pup called Shawn. Shawn, the antithesis of Danielle, was relaxed and disorganised. He was able to enjoy travel without a plan and constant forward motion. Travel for Shawn was about being in one place for while and nonchalantly becoming acquainted with it. As he and I sat chatting at the edge of one of the pleasingly warm volcanic pools, Shawn told me that he had smuggled a raw egg (still in its shell) into the springs in his shorts. He was convinced/indulging in some very poetic wishful thinking that the egg would be perfectly soft boiled, by the volcanic power of the springs by the time we left. Shawn was so utterly sure that we would be eating boiled egg all the way home, that I began to doubt my own inner knowing/scientific understanding that ifwecould get into the water without cooking, the egg would (surely) also remain in the raw, in his pants.
Earlier in the day we and the rest of our hostel family had been on a bike ride. I had lost all but Shawn and David on the way back: Being very healthy young men with long powerful legs who were almost falling off their bicycles politely cycling at my pace, I gave them my consent to tear off back to the hostel. Then I was alone on a road somewhere in Ecuador, without a map, without my passport, feeling suddenly slightly unsure about exactly which way we had cycled to get to where I was. Glad of the $40 I had tucked into my shoe but uneasy about whether $40 was really enough to make a difference in a crisis, I kept my cool right up until I had fallen off my bike in the slimy mouth of an extraordinarily long and un-lit (pitch dark) tunnel, gouged into the waist of the mountain. Spooked and letting out little shrieks as giant lorries growled passed in the dark, I turned into the cowardly lion, pulling my own tail and convincing myself that I had invited the peril in because I had not come prepared for this situation. My fear-filter kicked in and I all but soiled myself getting through that bloody tunnel, convinced all traffic passing through was aiming to kill me for sport. Thanking my lucky stars that I had emerged into the light with my life, I saw that I had to more or less immediately get through another virtually identical tunnel.
Hanging out poolside with Shawn was like carrying around a comfort blanket or looking after someone's labrador puppy for the day. He had a gentle self assured wisdom about him and just enough of the absurd to be really enjoyable to be around. I can't think of anyone else I know who would smuggle an egg into a hot springs like it was the most natural thing in the world. His genuine disappointment at the egg not being cooked when he cracked it open outside the pool, after he had put so much faith into it cooking was uniquely touching. After a few seconds of disappointment he looked up and said 'Well, fancy pants, we will simply have to try again.' He was sure that the egg should have cooked, it was that something had failed in the experiment.
Before entering the second tunnel, I felt a little spike of petulant defiance. As if I had just caught the Universe throwing a little curve ball practical joke at me: I imagined the cosmos pedantically saying 'You wanted to be a lone woman traveller...' with folded arms and raised eyebrows. Or ' If you can't do it properly you will just have to do it again...' With what my dear mother would describe as '(extremely) bad grace', I sulkily stomped my way through the second tunnel like a bizarre one act, one woman show; half furious half terrified, I cursed the cosmos and God and whoever else was behind this trick. Afterwards, I knew that this anger infused method of travel was not the best version of myself, but when I exited the tunnel alive, with just a few scrapes and bruises and got back on my bicycle for my slow, deliberate ride home I felt freaking invincible.
Shawn and I did go back to the pools and we took eggs in and we tested them in all the pools and inspired multiple intrigued, worried, amused and lightly outraged looks from the Ecuadorian pool users and afterwards we broke the eggs carefully, expectantly into the gutter (yes, they were still raw) and laughed at our experiment. It was the play of it, the experience that had mattered, the possibility of surprise and the childish fun we had had on the way over the top into failure. The experiment only failed if you measure the very final outcome.
In the case of the lone woman travelling through two tunnels alone, the experiment only fails if you expect her to remain calm and collected as she picks her way through both of them in the dark. If you measure the outcome of that experiment however, you will find her a little more fearless than when she started out, a little closer to being the badass she is becoming...