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Jennie Erin Smith: The Humboldt House

Retracing Von Humboldt's footsteps, two centuries later, in a van.

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Photo taken by Maren Meinhardt.

By Jennie Erin Smith

The Andean páramo is a foggy expanse of tundra too cold and too elevated for normal plants and animals to live, but where a handful of weird ones have met improbable success. Trees can’t grow on the páramo, leaving it for mosses, ghostly flowers, and swaying clumps of long, stiff grasses whose dead shoots tinge the hills a yellowish green. Birds of prey sweep constantly overhead, profiting from the unobstructed views.

We were a week into our journey along the volcanic spine of Ecuador when we reached the páramo beneath the Cotopaxi volcano. I was with my friend Maren and her daughters; the pretense of our trip was that we were following in the footsteps of the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who’d sketched and surveyed these hills in 1802. Maren was writing a book on Humboldt, and we’d hired as our tour guide Peko, a spiky-haired journalist from Berlin who smoked little tiny cigars all day. Peko leads a Humboldt-themed tour twice annually to readers of his weekly, Die Zeit.

Humboldt was a household name throughout the Western world in his day–there’s a Humboldt street in nearly every US city—but now it’s mainly Germans who remain interested enough to want to see what he saw, feel what he felt. Peko’s Die Zeit readers arrived by the dozen, but this Humboldt trip was a private one he was making for the four of us.

The idea of attempting to follow in a 19th century explorer’s steps is preposterous, and both Maren and I knew it, but Peko had a gratifying fetish for authenticity that made us feel we were getting what we paid for.

Humboldt had traveled on horseback, taking along a special scientific passport issued by the king of Spain, his French botanist friend Aimé Bonpland, a retinue of wealthy locals, and servants who lugged his exhaustive collection of instruments: sextants and barometers and a Leyden jar to store electrical charges. We were traveling in a 1980s model Chevrolet Sportvan, driven by Ramiro, a bulky, serious man with a lavish moustache. Ramiro had worked with Peko for years; this Sportvan had hauled hundreds of Germans up Cotopaxi.

The idea of attempting to follow in a 19th century explorer’s steps is preposterous, and both Maren and I knew it, but Peko had a gratifying fetish for authenticity that made us feel we were getting what we paid for. He castigated the owners of bed and breakfasts who claimed Humboldt had slept there, when in fact–and Peko always had Humboldt’s diaries with him to prove it–Humboldt had visited for only two hours, sketched some Inca stone walls, and left. Churches, farms, and Inca ruins all over the Andes bear plaques acknowledging Humboldt visits, but Peko was constantly discovering new and unknown spots: a hacienda tucked away in a working class district of Quito; an Inca sun carving inside a cave that few seemed to have noticed since Humboldt. Ramiro helped Peko bully his way through to the owners of each suspected Humboldt stop. If they identified a latrine Humboldt had pissed in back in 1802, and a gas station now stood on top of it, Peko and Ramiro would make a deal to return the next month with twenty middle-aged Germans.

Even with just us–and with half our group being little girls only in it for the llamas—Peko stuck to his well-honed Humboldt script. Each morning over breakfast, Peko, who in his youth had been a theater actor in his hometown of Münster, would read to us from our hero’s diaries, pausing and gesticulating, priming us to smell the sulfuric vapors circling about a crater; feel the same breathless, humid cold; marvel at the endless chunky lava fields, the remnants of explosion and catastrophe that had so captivated Humboldt. And then we’d all pile into the Sportvan, wearing our matching $5 llama sweaters.

Cotopaxi is a hugely popular tourist destination. All of the guests at the lodge where we stayed, from whose porch you can see the volcano’s majestic snow-capped neck, intended to climb it at least part of the way. The difference was that they would go, like normal people, through the main entrance to the east, a fully equipped national park with paths, rest stations, and guides. Peko, always the stickler, had committed us to Humboldt’s original route, through private lands west of the volcano. This comprised the same páramo, green and vacant but for some wild horses and cattle—the ranchers who’d been here since time immemorial still enjoyed grazing rights.

We passed a field of black fighting bulls as we ascended a badly pitted dirt road, then a wide black cliff that seemed to emerge from nowhere, a burnt loaf of bread rising out of the fields. This was El Morro, a formation Humboldt had described as “an isolated, grotesque rock,” and that seemed about right. It was streaked white with the excrement of the condors that nested there year after year.

Peko and Ramiro pulled up clumps of paja grass and stuffed it around the tires, trying to fill the space, with Ramiro pausing now and then to stare at the sky and scream “Puta madre–I really fucked up!”

Humboldt and his team had reached El Morro on April 27 of 1802, but a thick carpet of snow stopped them from trying to ascend to the Cotopaxi crater.

Ramiro’s Sportvan bucked and heaved higher up the road. We stopped at an old farm known since Humboldt’s day as Pansache, a junction of two creeks where an 18th century farmhouse stood beside a sunken, ancient-looking corral. We viewed the house only from a distance, because no one knew who owned it. This was the same farm, Peko was certain, that Humboldt described in his diaries as “the most beautiful” around Cotopaxi—though I doubt there was much competition even then. Humboldt had slept there, and it looked like the other houses where Humboldt was alleged by Peko to have slept: a long single-story mud-walled building with a grass roof. There was nothing around it for miles.

We packed ourselves back into the van and continued to climb, under greying skies, as the holes in the road got bigger. The goal was to reach two lakes Humboldt had surveyed, at the highest point he and his retinue reached before the snows forced their retreat. The van was not moving much faster now than we could have walked. Ramiro tried to avoid rolling over and killing us as the girls screamed with delight.

It was probably inevitable that the Sportvan would get stuck. Ramiro blamed himself—he’d been chatting with Peko and going too slow when the left front tire sunk into a hole. Both Peko and Ramiro had been so confident in the Sportvan’s powers–they talked about it like an old friend—that they hadn’t bothered to carry emergency tools. They had failed to factor in that with their larger groups, they always had more than one van. It wasn’t yet noon, it had begun raining, and the two were forced to destroy our folding lunch table and use the legs as spades.

This hole under the wheel was huge. Peko and Ramiro pulled up clumps of paja grass and stuffed it around the tires, trying to fill the space, with Ramiro pausing now and then to stare at the sky and scream “Puta madre–I really fucked up!” They sweated and groaned as they dug, and sent us into the fields to find rocks. We’d seen nothing but rocks for days–massive flows of cubic lava and sandy pumice, boulders spat miles from ancient eruptions–and here we could find only soft mud, grass, and cow pies. The lack of rocks here was something Humboldt had made note of; whenever Cotopaxi erupted, the lava and ash sliced a southward course through the same ancient channel, sparing this part of the páramo.

By late afternoon it was obvious that we would be spending the night on the páramo. Cell phones were useless, and Ramiro figured his best bet was to reach the farmhouse at Pansache and seek help.

Peko stayed in the van with Maren and the girls. It would not be so cold that they could freeze. But it would be tense. Maren and Peko had already clashed a few times on this trip, usually over the girls. Their unscheduled llama petting and bathroom breaks messed with Peko’s rigid sense of timing. “This is why I left Germany,” Maren kept saying. Now Peko was chiding Maren for not having the girls dressed warmly enough to survive a night on a frigid volcano. The four had some bread, and a couple bottles of water, and a sausage among them. Only Peko ate meat.

I chose to run down the mountain with Ramiro, under a light drizzle and with less than two hours of daylight to go. Darkness fell softly as we cantered down the road, and a condor–so at home in its solitude and the cold–drifted over us. A hummingbird, of some highland species tough enough to survive here, plied the dusky flowers. Our way was illuminated by both a pink splotch of sun to the west and a moon just breaking through the clouds to the east, and as it grew darker tiny pairs of insect eyes began to glow on the ground.

Our descent was longer than we’d thought. Once it grew dark we were forced to lock arms, slowing us down, and my ankles were rubbed raw. We had stopped to drink water when Ramiro noticed a phantom signal on his cell phone. He dialed his son in Quito, hoping to arrange for a rescue. The son answered and was ready to help, but Ramiro, seized with emotion, suddenly could not recall where we were. Not that, nor the name of the farm we were headed to, nor any of the landmarks. He cursed himself passionately, buckling forward and grasping his head. The names came to him finally: Pansache. El Morro. Then the signal died.

Three hours after setting off, we arrived at the gate of the farmhouse. I could see no lights inside, but a pack of dogs, maybe a dozen, were barking violently and running our way.

This was good, Ramiro insisted. Where there are dogs there are people. They circled us, growling but not biting, as we advanced past the gate. I hadn’t noticed this before, but the ancient farmhouse was flanked by a newer structure, a cement room with a window. Three fat grey hogs grunted and shifted just outside it. Ramiro stood a few feet away and yelled for help.

A shadow appeared at the window. The dogs calmed immediately. I saw as we approached that it was only a boy, maybe eleven or twelve, who rubbed his eyes as though he’d been sleeping. In the same bed with him was another boy, even younger, piled under some. It was very cold, and not a dry cold either, but they had no source of heat, and only two candles for light. One burned on a shelf, sooting up the wall; the other was stuck just above the headboard of the bed, giving the sleeping boy the unsettling appearance of a body being waked.

I asked Ramiro what his plan would be if his son did not come. “Horses,” he whispered.

They were all alone, and without transportation, not even a bicycle. This was not their farm, the elder boy told Ramiro, but Ramiro wasn’t going away. He bullied the boy for blankets, something to drink, a walk to the nearest hill with a cell signal. The boy relinquished a blanket to me and disappeared in the dark with Ramiro. The next hacienda was an hour and a half by foot away, Ramiro had told me; town, another three hours.

I overturned a five-gallon bucket and sat next to the hogs, covered up to my neck in the blanket, staring at the sky, seeing my breath. The hogs shifted and squealed as the dogs fell into a cautious submission around me. The fog and mists had cleared and the night sky was bright and starry—it looked much the way Humboldt must have seen it 200 years ago, wide and deep and with meteorites flashing every few minutes. Only the airplanes streaking by offered evidence that the world had changed.

Ramiro returned a half hour later, defeated. He could not get a signal. His son would just have to find us. He forced a $10 bill on the boys and demanded they let us into the room, which was a barely warmer than it was outside. He talked to them as though he owned them, ignoring their hesitation, and they seemed used to that type of treatment. I moved my bucket and blanket and took up residence against a wall. Ramiro sat on the opposite wall, silent except to castigate himself now and then, awaiting the arrival of his son. The boys went back to sleep beneath their candles, huddled close. I told Ramiro that if he wanted to wait for his son, I’d walk on to the next hacienda, an hour and a half below. It had to be better than this one. There had to be an adult there, at any rate.

Ramiro reminded me that I would run into fields of fighting bulls. That sounded bad, I agreed. Every time the dogs barked Ramiro started hopefully–his son! But they barked at everything–birds, passing cattle. We both hallucinated headlights every few minutes, but these were the candles flaring. It was so cold we had no choice but to cuddle up, until we were all but spooning on the floor, Ramiro and me, as rain pounded intermittently against the roof.

I asked Ramiro what his plan would be if his son did not come. “Horses,” he whispered.

Some time after midnight the lights of a car appeared by the road–Ramiro’s son. Ramiro sprang up and ran frantically out to find him, waving my weak flashlight. We decided that I would stay at the farmhouse as they headed back up toward the stranded Sportvan, as the fewer passengers they had the better. He would come back for me before dawn, he said.

I fell asleep, even with my body twisted up and my legs aching. The cold was so penetrating I have no idea how these kids survived it, how or when they bathed, why they didn’t just burn the house down for warmth.

At dawn they awoke, pulled on rubber boots reflexively, and began their day’s work. The morning sky was grey and I could still see my breath. In the light of day I could see that they were brothers.

They begun to sweep the room and fold up their blankets. Ramiro had speculated the boys were enslaved, and they went about their morning ritual so exactingly that it seemed to have prescribed by someone else, someone they were afraid of. They tended the hogs, opened mysterious iron padlocks around the ancient house, made themselves something to eat while I waited in their cell. Maren’s little girls, who were about the same age, never stopped talking, imagining the strangest scenarios in their playful minds, while these practical children, who barely seemed children, just seemed to wish me away so they could work.

I asked them for tea anyway, as my head was throbbing. They brought me hot water and sugar. They wanted to be rid of me badly.

About ten cars pass by here every day, the elder said when I asked him, and that sounded promising. Ten chances. The brothers sat down on their bed of bare wire and blankets, and began to repair some fishing rods, chattering softly.

I sat at the window ready to jump and run after any vehicle. The first was a white jeep carrying a family of eight, who were headed to work on another farm, somewhere in these hills. They wished me luck.

The next arrived two hours later. A Toyota Land Cruiser with horns and a row of high-powered lamps that I bolted out of the house and ran after, waving my arms. It passed for about a quarter mile, stopped, and backed up.

It was an Ecuadoran man and a woman with a Swiss accent. They were from an agency that worked with Peko, in the capital, and they’d come for us when the lodge called in the middle of the night to report us missing. They in fact had only the vaguest idea where we might be. They stopped only because my windbreaker looked incongruous to them, something a tourist would wear. “At first we thought you were one of the kids in the house,” the driver said, and it took me a moment to realize that, in fact, everyone for miles knew about these kids.

We ascended the slick and pitted mountain road, where Ramiro and his son had also gotten stuck in the middle of the night, where snows had stopped Humboldt two centuries before, and where, a few hundred feet higher, the girls and Peko still huddled in our beached whale of a van, thirsty and cold but in remarkably decent spirits.

For more on Alexander von Humboldt, click here.



Jennie Erin Smithis a freelance journalist who writes frequently for the
Times Literary Supplement, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker and others. Stolen World, her book on reptile smugglers, was published in 2011.

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