Andre Hugo: Before Ascending into the Quilotoa Volcano
It was a cold and stormy night. No! It was just another damn boring day.
Retired, single and living in the very centre of Canada’s National Capital, I had done the family tree back to 1780, written letters to the editor of the city newspaper and generally tried to keep active. After having had successful careers as a military officer, government manager with national and international responsibilities and leader of company turn-arounds, I was bored. To be descriptive, I did the daily morning coffee shop shuffle to Starbucks; had my coffee; read the newspaper and chatted with a bunch of equally bored retired folk. It was not a pretty scenario.
I liked to travel and had been all over North America, Cuba, Bermuda, major South American capitals, most of Europe and to India to visit the Taj Mahal. Knowing my taste for adventure, a Venezuelan friend and his Chilean wife suggested that I try moving to Ecuador. In Quito, the capital, located high in the Andes Mountains, I would find the quality of Spanish was good, and people there spoke more slowly; aiding learning the language.
I had to do something. I could not see myself just sitting in front of the television waiting to grow old and die.
Almost two decades before, I had taken a TESOL course which qualified me to teach English anywhere in the world. That, I thought, could someday be useful if I chose to travel. It would now give me a leg-up on my adventure. In short order, I arranged with an Ecuador university to teach English for three months in return for three months of Spanish language training and a one-year student visa. A year in the country, I believed would be necessary for me to decide if I liked the place or not.
Once the decision was made, I opened the door to my apartment and told my neighbours to take everything that they wanted. They did, indeed, take everything. Having given it all away, I felt free. Getting rid of “stuff” was a great feeling. At the beginning of June 2009, with two suitcases and a back-pack, I boarded a plane to Quito.
As an adult, I had studied and worked in the French language and knew, therefore, that without full immersion, learning Spanish well would be difficult. To resolve that challenge, I decided not to associate with English speaking people.
For the first three months, I lived with a family in order to ease my integration into Ecuador society. At the end of June, my first month, I heard the maid screaming and rushed to the living room where I saw the elderly father lying on the floor, dead, and the family in panic, grieving around him. He had no pulse; no respiration; and, his eyes were frozen, open, toward the ceiling. Without thinking I immediately began giving CPR, as I remembered it from a first aid course 25 years before, modified by what I thought that I had read in the meantime. Success! When the ambulance arrived, he was sitting in a chair complaining of a sore chest. To everyone’s delight, he lived to enjoy another five years with his family.
While packing to move to my own apartment at the end of August, I heard the same panic and rushed out to see what was happening, fearful that the man was in crisis again. This time, I found the mother choking, eyes showing great fear and the adult children not knowing what to do. The lady had regurgitated food, and it was blocking her windpipe. I applied the Heimlich manoeuvre, stood behind and wrenched hard and upward on her abdomen, and cleared her breathing.
A lifesaving award followed.
In September, I joined the Rotary Club. Not knowing much Spanish, at the first meeting I just smiled and nodded. At the end of the evening, I discovered that I had volunteered to give a twenty minute presentation on my life, in Spanish, the next week. With the help of translation software and handouts, the group was able to understand what I was trying to say. That hurdle was passed.
Meanwhile, people would ask me, “What do you do?” to which I honestly replied “Nothing.” It finally occurred to me that they wanted to think that I was doing something, so I began to say that I was a writer and photographer. That appeared to satisfy curiosity; but, I realised that I should write something.
American Writers and Artists held a short article writing completion in October/ November, and I entered it. My article about saving the elderly man’s life won first prize. I was now an “Award winning writer.” ( A link to the article can be found below)
Christmas came and went. In February, I returned to study the subjunctive tense in Spanish. On a recess, a young lady approached me and said that a friend of hers worked for a movie studio, and they were looking for extras to fill scenes in a National Geographic production. Did I want to be in a movie? – How could I resist?
At the studio, I met two producers of a series called “Locked Up Abroad.” Had I ever acted before, they asked. No, I had not. Oh, they said, they needed an actor. Since I was there, they gave me a try and a month later; I had my first acting role; a speaking part. I played an FBI agent working out of the American Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, interviewing three Americans who had been held hostage along the border between Panama and Colombia. Two months later, the Discovery Channel came to Quito to produce a film. Knowing me, the studio called and I had another speaking role as a corporate executive; though this part was very small. Was all this fun? You bet!
When not saving lives, studying Spanish or acting in movies, I travelled around Ecuador, taking pictures and writing blog articles for a website that I created to encourage other of similar age to get out and do something. In addition, by the end of the first year, I climbed to the snow line of a volcano, almost 5 km (3 mi ) altitude; climbed down into a dormant volcano; zip lined on wires crossing from mountain tops to mountain tops and sailed off a cliff on a parachute to fly over the Pacific Ocean and coastal town of Crucita. Not too long after, I added a trip into the Amazon Jungle where I fished for piranha with raw meat, then went swimming a short distance away without being eaten by them or the cayman, crocodile-like creatures.
Five years have passed since I decided to pursue life’s adventure with vigor. I now live totally in Spanish with a unilingual Spanish speaking wife. We travel together and separately. Last year travel included Ecuador, Peru, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. The website that I try to care for www.andrehugosplace.com/ now attracts over 30,000 unique visits per month.
I encourage each and every reader to live life’s adventure to the fullest, whatever that means in one’s particular circumstance. For that, you have my best wishes.
Andre’s short, award-winning article on saving a life, can be found on his website
http://www.andrehugosplace.com/lifes-gifts.html entitled “Life’s Gifts”. He posts a photo of the day, which is promulgated via twitter and facebook under the name AndreHugosPlace.