Mindo is known for its copious number of birds. It’s a tiny almost-touristy town in northern Ecuador. We stayed in an idyllic hostel with mosquito nets that made us feel like princesses, and during the days we hiked and swam in waterfalls and ate chocolate.
Our bus back the last day left around noon, and several of us wanted one more thing: birds. As you are probably aware, birds get up earlier than college students.
Not this day.
There were at least four of us that were willing to get up ridiculously early and wander into the cloud forrest until we found interesting birds. They have professional tours for that but $$$. One of the four, let’s call her Marie, declared that she was leaving exactly at 5:45 A.M. and would not wait one minute more. I was, as has become my disposition here, late, and Ispilled out of my hostel room with another girl I’ll call Jessie. The fourth person was not there. Marie kept to her word.
From the start I was in a bad mood. It was 5:45 in the morning. I had been late as always. We had abandoned our friend who could, for all I knew, be waiting desolately for us at that very moment, and we had absolutely no plan besides birds. Marie led us wordlessly, as if she had done it a dozen times before, down a dirt road out of town. We followed the road in the almost-dark, past stores just opening up and dogs that barked at us.
What are we doing? I thought. This can’t work. We don’t know where we’re going. We left without our friend. We’re going to get lost. We won’t find any birds. My short little legs had not woken up yet and as I straggled behind the other two, I remembered I had not put on bug spray. I bitterly resigned myself to becoming Ecuador’s first case of Malaria in years.
A scrawny black dog with a limp jumped silently into the road and padded along in front of us. I named him Sirius Black. We kept walking and it kept getting lighter and we had not seen a single bird.
A crash from the woods petrified all three of us in the middle of the road. From out of the vegetation came Sirius, bumbled up and down the edge of the forest. We growled at him and he didn’t care.
To our right was a fence and a door with no hinges. Marie intrepidly moved the door aside and we all walked through it. Behind it, the road was narrower and the trees closer, and we walked quietly, except for Sirius who seemed incapable of that. I was doing some hard internal work. On the one hand all I wanted to do was be grumpy. And on the other hand all I wanted was to see birds. Somehow I felt that I couldn’t do both, that my bad mood would release a toxin into the air, that would repulse any bird within a mile-wide radius. Well, I tried to think, I’m walking down a semi-prohibited path in the middle of the cloud forest. That’s not so bad.
The birds didn’t acknowledge my attempt. We turned around and got back on the road. After a while, we found another gate, this one padlocked and too big to climb under or over. Marie peered through it at the lush forrest and sulked. They were back there, she knew. On one side of the gate, Marie sought out a bit of slack in the barbed wire and tugged it upwards. “Should we do it?” the other girls asked and looked at me. The straight-edge student who spent her entire childhood doing homework and never stepped out of line eyed the barbed wire and said, “It doesn’t look safe to me.” So we kept walking.
Finally we found a gap in the wire. On the other side was a trail to something touristy that we were probably supposed to pay for. Marie jumped over, and then Jessie. The straight-edge thought about getting caught. The exchange student thought about birds. She thought about Judy Dench in the movie Chocolat saying, “Don’t worry so much about supposed to.” I stepped off the road.
The trail was narrow and covered in mushrooms and leaves as big as me. I tried not to think about mosquitoes and the possibility of someone finding us and to think instead about how much it felt like a rainforest.
We crested a hill and the forest thinned out. Maybe, I said, if we stopped moving for a while, the birds would come. We stood still. Sirius traipsed from one side to the other. We couldn’t see the birds, but we could hear them: strange harsh calls and self-assured chirps. A crash came from somewhere to our right. I pointed towards it, and then towards Sirius who was on our left. We took that as our signal to leave.
It was as we were walking back down that we heard loud caws and stopped to look. Marie spotted them in a tall tree some distance away: a pair of bright blue and green birds, parrots to our novice eyes. They were jumping up and down on the branches like monkeys and shouting about something exciting to birds. We watched them in quiet triumph until they flew out of sight.
We made it back to the road without anyone catching us and putting us in jail, and without any forest creatures eating us, and without being infected with malaria. We walked like treasure hunters with pockets full of gold. I’m not sure if it’s more because we had seen bright blue birds or because we had done something slightly illegal and gotten away with it. At any rate we felt good. I had swallowed the last of my grumpiness. We considered ourselves done with the adventure and let ourselves raise our voices until Marie stopped us suddenly. “Toucan! Toucan!” she rasped. Who knows if it was actually a toucan. It was definitely a fairly large bird with a long curved beak, sitting regally on a branch. We edged our way around the tree in the hopes of seeing it better from the other side, and as we got there, it flew away. It was an eery birdlike silhouette with a beak like a cat’s claw curving down underneath it.
I hesitate to say that the moral of this story is to do illegal things. What I do know is that I had to accept the situation to enjoy it. I had to learn not to worry so much about supposed to. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think grumpy people make good birders. And I for one like to think Sirius Black looked after us and led us exactly where we needed to go. When we got back to Mindo we stopped at a cafe for breakfast. He curled up under Marie’s feet, and for all the scolding and shoving we gave him, he wouldn’t move.
What do you think? Do you have a story of petty crime? Tell me. Tell me anything. Tell me the best meme you’ve seen today or what color your underwear is. Because even though I’m very far away from you and I can’t know if you’re telling the truth, I’m thinking of you. I’m telling you these stories to bring you closer.