Choosing to volunteer, or rather having to do so in order to not become penniless while travelling through Ecuador was one of the best choices I could have made. Through seemingly random opportunities–Katarma in Galápagos, Sueños del Mar in Puerto Cayo–I somehow ended up in the place I called home: Cuenca.
So, moving onto Cuenca – here is how it happened: I left Puerto Cayo despite their wanting to hire me as manager, because I wanted to see Cuenca before I moved on to Peru for the last month of my trip. I arrived on a Wednesday night. I had made a reservation at La Cigale and, having arrived and set down my bags, I went down to eat in the restaurant. Within moments, a man (who later turned out to be king of the tiburones*) had invited me to go salsa dancing at La Mesa. Long story short–I met another man there who later introduced me to Claudio, the owner of Hostal Yakumama. I had been in Cuenca for only 24 hours by this time, but it was enough to know I needed more time here than I had originally planned, so I casually asked Claudio if he needed volunteers, to which he excitedly replied “Yes! We need one now!”
And so began my third and final volunteering stint. I spent 6 weeks bartending, working at reception, writing and reading on Yakumama’s beautiful patio, and getting to know Claudio and his sister, Isa. I fell in love with Cuenca during that time–its cobblestone streets, its river, its cathedral. I met other travellers while working the desk who I would later travel with. I salsa danced until my feet bled and my hair tangled. In short, by not having to worry about where I would stay and how I would pay for it, I was given free rein to take in all Cuenca had to offer. It was the one place, I knew, that I would truly miss once I had moved on.
A few days before I left for Máncora, Peru, Claudio and Isa decided they were tired of living in the hostal so they found a beautiful house to rent on the river… and invited me to live with them. I was very, very tempted, until they told me the rent. Then I was beyond tempted. Let’s just say I couldn’t get a parking spot in L.A. for that amount. The decision was easy: I accepted.
This is what strikes me as so crazy. Each decision you make while travelling can make all the difference in the world. Something as seemingly insignificant as where you choose to eat almuerzo can leave an indelible mark on everything that follows. Even unto the exact moment you arrive somewhere can point you down an unexpected path. Each person you meet, each landscape you admire, each new and relevant thought you have, is a result of an infinite number of tiny decisions that you made, mostly, automatically.
Most of us have grandiose ideas about how our trips will turn out but, like all expectations, they both romanticize and fall laughably short of the truth. But if I am sure of nothing else, I am sure of this: each decision, no matter how small, that I have made, whether it was to take the road more or less travelled by, I am who I am because of it. Each choice I make reverberates, like billions of infinite strings of light, into the future. Each thing I say, do, think, has changed the trajectory of my life and will continue to do so. Every second that passes in which I do this instead of that, ensures that nothing will ever be the same.
*A tiburón is what is commonly referred to in Cuenca as a man who frequents certain clubs and restaurants while “on the hunt” for foreign women.