Love and Travel, and a Killer Bull

Essay #6 of the 52 Essays in 2017 Challenge: Last month, the New York Times put a call out for 500-word stories that explored "the intersection between love and travel". I decided to submit something -- faking it 'til you make it is a real thing, damn it. Here it is.

I’m peering out over a valley in Ecuador, in a small town called Isinlivi. Terraced green mountains climb into the distance, lacey fog spills out into the valley.

I’m standing here with my soon-to-be-husband, Alex. We’re watching the way the sunlight illuminates certain peaks when he proposes, semi-spontaneously. I say yes.

We’ve been backpacking through Colombia and Ecuador for nearly three months, and we’re going home in three days. We are in love with Ecuador. We are in love with its lovely greenness, its flavorful soups, the heights, the colors, the light, the people.

And so, to cap off the trip in an appropriately grand fashion, we’ve decided to do the Quilotoa Loop, a multi-day hike strung between tiny Andean mountain villages. It only makes sense that we’d end this life-changing trip newly engaged to be married, as well – one clearly delineated marker to the next.

Unfortunately, when we begin the hike, we are miserable. Alex has a virus, and I am carrying our giant pack because he’s so weak. We are toting paper instructions with storybook-like directions (“Turn right at the clump of three trees, across the river”) and we keep getting lost. The scenery is incredible, but we don’t take any pictures.

We’re making our way across a mossy-green field, carpeted with flowers and mountain streams, when I hear an ominous snuffling sound. I look, and there is a giant white bull tethered to a precarious-looking wooden stake in the earth, standing next to a river. I feel a tiny balloon of worry in my stomach but don’t say anything, even when it becomes clear that the bull is standing directly on the trail. We glance warily at each other and begin inching around the creature. Alex makes it across and I am almost there.

Suddenly, the bull snorts (an audible harbinger of death if I’ve ever heard one) and charges, knocking me to the ground. I am screaming, “HELP MEEE!”, over and over. I cannot breathe. Alex flings a water bottle against the bull’s broad back, to no avail. The animal has me pinned to the ground and is (softly, almost experimentally) butting me with his substantial horns. Luckily, I am wearing a backpack the length of my body, which helps to cushion the blows. (Though I will be aching for days afterward.)

It happens fast: one minute a mythically huge bull is crouched over me; the next, Alex has grabbed the straps of my pack and hoisted me to my feet. The bull retreats to the banks of the river. I am crying, dazed with relief. Later, when I ask what Alex did to make the bull flee, he responds, “I punched it.”

It’s this moment, the first of many, when I realize I have made the right choice by agreeing to marry Alex. Because we all need someone who will, sometimes quite literally, have our backs. We all need someone who will punch the bull that has us pinned, screaming for help, to the ground.