Our home for now is a tent in the garden of Casa Aida, a lovely hostel in the tiny village of La Esparanza, Northen Ecuador. This afternoon we were lucky enough to hear the story of where it came from- it's probably the most beautiful I've ever heard...
In the early seventies, with no money after a messy divorce, Aida was searching for somewhere to live with her three children. She came from Quito to look at house here in La Espranza, but was disappointed to find that for 75,000 sols it was barely habitable. In a very bad condition, filled with rubble and weeds, with a tiny dirty kitchen and no bathroom, it was hardly a house at all. She went away disheartened, but after struggling for another couple of months in the capital was persuaded by some friends to come back for another look. 75,000 sols was the equivalent of $3 (current US money), but a lot to save in Ecuador at the time and not an amount she owned, but nobody else had come to look at the property in the mean time and the owner was desperate to sell. Eventually they agreed upon a trade- Aida exchanged a record player, some cutlery and furniture for the house!
The children weren't impressed, but with no money to rent it was their only option. Aida did her best to clean up the house, getting rid of the rodents and rubble, but couldn't find a job in La Esperanza. Out of desperation, she started to travel to Ibarra* each night to sell burgers. For a pathetic 100 sols a night, she was having to leave her children locked alone in a room and hide her face from the other night-time lurkers ("the homeless, thieves and ladies of prostitution") in the bus station each night. With no time for sleep herself, getting the children up for school and trying to make the house habitable in the day it wasn't sustainable. Eventually she found work ironing and embroidering shirts here in La Esparaza, but was still having to work from 6pm until morning to iron enough shirts to feed her children. Life was desperate and Aida grew pale and thin from the stress and fatigue.
One night she heard talking outside in a foreign language- it wasn't Spanish, English or the local language here, but turned out to be a group of twelve Italian hippies. They had come in search of the magic mushrooms which use to grow here and asked if they could pitch their tent on her land as they looked so poor and dirty that no hotel in Ibarra would take them. Aida saw that their tent was very small for so many people and said they could stay inside if they cleaned a room to sleep in. They cleaned it well, built a fire in the middle, and each morning asked if they might be allowed to stay another night. In the end they were here for ten nights and told her it was paradise. She didn't believe them when they told her she should set up a hostel, as she had nowhere fit to invite people to stay or the money for materials. Nevertheless, the hippies spread out fliers around Ecuador and thirty-five people came the next week. When they arrived, Aida told them they couldn't stay as she had no bathroom or fit place for them to sleep, but they didn't mind. The hippies camped in her garden and built her a bathroom outside. Over time, more and more travellers came and handed around a cardboard collection box for the hostel.
It turned out that these hippies were actually the children of rich European families and Aida was soon collecting 7,000 sols a day. She bought supplies and materials and eventually built a block for people to stay in. The first guest in the rooms was a very small homeless man who couldn't speak when he arrived at her door one day. She fed and cleaned him up and says that this is why "God has shined on her so brightly".
One day some American travellers came to La Esparanza looking for a place to eat. They asked her if she made food and she said yes as she was making some for the children. When they'd finished they asked her how much it cost, but she said she didn't know- she wasn't intending to charge them and had just felt sorry that they'd come such a long way and not found anywhere for dinner. The Americans carried with them a European furniture book which Aida liked very much. I could see in her expression as she told the story how much she dreamed of having those nice wooden tables and benches for people to sit at. As the Americans left, she was very sad that the book was gone, but half an hour later they returned and gave it to her as a present.
Soon afterwards, Aida took children into Ibarra and looked for a furniture maker to show the book. She wanted four tables and eight benches, but they were too expensive for now and it would take her a couple of months to save the money. Less than a month later however, the man came to her house with all the benches and tables. She felt horribly guilty for not having the money yet, but he said they would look lovely with table cloths and flowers in what could be her dining room and that he would exchange them all for the book.
In the following months and years Aida built more and more accommodation, got better facilities and provided food for her guests who were coming in such numbers that they had begun to rent the neighbouring houses too.
Life was charmed for her family and guests until one day the local people reported her to the police. Arriving with nothing, she now had so much money that, jealous, they thought she was selling drugs. They searched the house and all the rooms but found nothing.
This was in the 70s and since then thousands of people (including Bob Dylan, members of Pink Floyd, Manu Chao and Joan Baez) have stayed here. Casa Aida is still going strong! Now Aida makes great food for her guests, there is hot water, wifi and everything a simple minded traveller could hope for along with an incredible setting and her friendliness which I don't imagine has changed over the last forty years. She says that as you age your face will become different, but your heart always stays the same. It's a magical place even without the mushrooms and I'm glad that, just sometimes, good people get what they deserve.
It now costs $8 a night for a bed or $4 to camp. For another $8 a day you can get a delicious breakfast and dinner too.
*Ibarra is the nearest town about 5km away, but at this time the road must have been very bad and busses probably less regular.