I am almost handicapped when it comes to sense of direction, a defect inherited from my mother. I managed to tell between left and right at a late age of about eight. About the same time, I realized that my mother had a strange habit of turning left whenever she came out of the door of a new place, as if programmed in an auto-piloting mode. As a rebellious daughter, I naturally developthe habit of turning right by default on exiting an unfamiliar place.
Finding routes, orientation and map-reading are useful skills, if not essential, for most travelers. My disability inevitably brings inconveniences, and sometimes poses small dangers, while I travel. But over time, I grow to embrace my flaw so completely that I find beauty in it. I see it as a gift for a traveler who enjoys taking in the view and feeling the texture of a new city by wandering around. Getting lost brings surprises. Detoursmean unplanned adventures.
When a map in hand brings me more frustration than fun, I ditch the map. From there, I start outlining the city by my own eyes, my ears and my feet; and these very personal city maps often leave an imprint on my memories for many years to come.
People go to Mindo, Ecuador, for its cloud forest. The forest is surrounded by mountains perpetually shrouded by wisps of formless, misty clouds. A wide range of birds find their habitat there, a paradise for birds and their watchers. A butterfly farm is not far from the village. Butterflies of numerous species showcase the unimaginable colours and patterns that nature can possibly create. Some other unexpected inhabitants are in the farm too. Hummingbirds hover in the air with their tiny wings flipping at motoring speed in the glasshouse of the farm. Closer to the village, there is a small chocolate factory where visitors can enjoy the bitter sweetness of Ecuadorian chocolateamidst the lush vegetation. Lured by such an interesting blend of activities, I jump on a bus from Quito the first instance I hear about the place, and am dropped off on the roadside just outside the village two hours later.
I have no accommodation plan. All I have is a scrap of crumpled paper. A fellow traveler in Quito scrawled on it the name of a bird guide, who runs a hostel in the village. It is not easy to find the hostel though. All houses in the village are built the same way – simple wood structures that look like huts of forest elves. The local people called them ‘cabanas’. These cabanas line neatly on the two sides of the main street. It is lucky that it does not take me too long to find the bird guide’s place.
The bird guide greets me with a bowsaw in hand, a very special way of greeting guests. He built a little secret garden on his plot of land, and is forever improving it. He puts up six identical cabanas and scatters them in different corners of his garden for guest lodging. When he is not guiding bird-watching tours, he tends his expansive nursery of exotic-looking plants and works hard in his woodwork projects. His garden is designed in a sort of a maze. The evening I come back to his place after a day out, I turn round and round in the meandering footpaths of the garden in the dark, looking for my own cabana. For many times I find the path leads me to nowhere, seeing only scrubby bushes or a wall of climbing vines ahead, until I figure out a place where the path goes on and takes me to one of the cabanas. After inspecting a few cabanas that I managed to find along the path, I become confused, undecided as to which cabana I have actually been assigned to. I get nervous when I finally settle on one. I sheepishly jab my key in the keyhole, in fear of breaking in to another guest’s cabana.
Mindo is a one-street town. As soon as I drop my bag, the bird guide gives me a hand-drawn map outlining the main street, the hostel, the butterfly farm and the chocolate factory. It is simple and clear enough. There are no other places that I need to know for now. I would have the bird guide to take me to the forest the following day.
It is late morning when I leave his hostel. I set off to the butterfly farm outside the village. After passing through some shabby huts along a muddy path on the outskirts of the village, I proceed to an asphalt road that ribbons the side of the mountain. A car or two pass by in both directions every now and then. A river runs in parallel with the road. A herd of horses and sheep dot the pasture on the other side of the river. On my side, sapphire-colored butterflies, larger than palm-sized, pirouette among the grass.
For almost an hour, it is a straight road with no forking paths. By now, it is a long time since the last car swept past me. Not a soul crosses paths with me. Nothing is mentioned on the map as to how far away the butterfly farm is from town.
Temperature soars. The heat is starting to get unbearable, but I cannot take off my jacket. As a thumb of rule in South America, my windbreaker is an armour to shield the valuables that fastens close to my skin, and I stick with the rule as far as possible. In this no man’s land, one could only be even more cautious. I am starting to feel hungry too. But I keep telling myself it is a test of my tenacity. I persevere.
Currently there is a bend of the road. A farmstead stands alone. There might be people that I could ask for direction, but the dog at the gate barks ferociously and gives me the fair warning that I am not welcomed.
Another fifteen minutes has passed. I walk on. What remains of my ever-diminishing optimism has finally extinguished. I force myself to recall how I set off in the first place. Of course, there was something not so right.
A rewind to when I first started, it was a simple this or that question: left or right. I turned right, by default, as if a training I had for myself in the subconscious since childhood. I did not even care to examine the map before I took the first step.
Indeed, not long after I first started, I realised that I might have made the careless wrong turn at the beginning. I just wanted myself to be mistaken, to be going the right way after all and continued to walk on as a happy-go-lucky. There was mounting evidence to the contrary – the lack of other travelers, the absence of road signs, the deeper quietness – but I tried distracting myself to the beautiful view around. It was my way of self-withdrawal to come face–to–face with my own limitation – my incurable disability of orienting.
At long last, I am forced to admit my own flaw. It is doomed, and it is time to turn around.
I walk all the way back for another one and a half hours to the hostel.
Back to square one, a secondchance was granted. I makethe wise choice, a no-brainer this time – listen to my mother, and I turn left.