While lounging in the hot springs of Baños, Ecuador, a traveler encounters a stranger who attempts to predict her romantic future.
Grey nose hair is the first thing I see emerge from the steam wafting off the mineral pool, followed by a man’s voice:
“You come here a lot,” he says, standing up, bringing his belly to sit on the water like a sloth resting on a tree branch, his leathery face coming into view.
What of it? I want to demand, immediately defensive before I know what he wants to tell me. If you’ve seen me here that means you’re here all the time too, I think, but, never as brave as the version of myself in my head, I just nod.
I usually come to the hot pools at night, but now, my last day in Baños, Ecuador, I’ve come in the afternoon so I have time to catch an overnight bus. The springs seem different in the day – everything is clearer. I can see the emerald green forests blanket the mountains around us, glinting in the sun’s rays, and a handful of older Ecuadorians are lounging in the rocky sulphuric pools.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
I tell him Canada, and he grins. “I lived in Canada in a past life.”
“How many past lives have you had?” I ask.
“This is my seventh. The first in India, the next Israel, then in Canada, and the last four here in Ecuador.”
The cool mountain breeze hits my chest, so I lower into the steaming water, coming face to face with the man’s belly. I want to ask how he remembers his lives, how he knows he is the same soul reincarnated in different bodies and generations and countries, but we haven’t gotten to that week in Spanish class yet, so I nod again.
“You have a boyfriend?” he asks me.
“No,” I respond, nervous that he’s going to either try to hit on me or scold me, but I’m wrong on both counts.
“Very good. I will tell you how to find your soul mate. What year and month were you born?”
Finally. Someone who is dedicated to securing my romantic future. I tell him my birthday, and he begins calculating on his fingers.
“You must find someone born on an odd number when you add the last two digits of their birth year. It is crucial for you.”
I run through the ages of the guys I’m seeing. They both land on odd numbers, and I breathe a sigh of relief. One of them is currently travelling with me in Ecuador. While I wonder if my frequent trips to the hot springs are a thinly veiled attempt to avoid spending time with him, I’m glad the numerological forces of the universe aren’t pushing me to end things with him yet. I tell the man about my relief.
“This is excellent news,” he says. “Many people in my family have chosen wrong, not following these rules. My sister and her husband – divorced, my brother in law and his wife – separated, my parents – divorced. In both our families, my wife and I are the only couple still together, and the only couple whose numbers are a match.”
A few months earlier, I had met a man in the place where all great romances begin – a Greek island. As we ate Calamari on the cobbled streets of the old town and watched the sunset on a white-sand beach, we both lamented how fleeting a travel romance could be.
After keeping in touch via text for a couple of months, we decide to meet up again on another continent. I’d wanted to visit Ecuador ever since my roommate in university did a semester abroad in the Galapagos and came back with stories of endless blue seas and lumbering giant tortoises. The thought of exploring Ecuador, hiking through lush forests at high altitudes, and swimming with the sea turtles with my new beau was recklessly appealing.
Before this rendezvous in Ecuador, I had laid down my concerns and expectations over a choppy video call – while I was excited to see him again, I didn’t want him to uproot his life for a travel fling. He assured me he wasn’t coming just for me, that he was taking time away from work anyways, that he was excited to explore a new country.
And there is certainly no shortage of things to explore in Baños.
The small valley town where we started our adventure together was teeming with life. We cycled to waterfalls and hiked to giant swings that make you feel like you’re about to topple off the cliff with each push. Yet, when I’m busy, he’s hesitant to do anything.
Since he’s been with me in Ecuador, his main interest has been hovering over my shoulder. While I write in cozy cafes with brightly woven tablecloths surrounded by an aroma of hot cocoa, he spends most of his days waiting until I’m ready to spend time with him: a window that’s increasingly closing as I fill my days with work and solo trips to the hot pools, hidden away in the corner of town.
“One day, on those rocks up there, I saw the image of the Virgin Mary crying…next to a dollar sign,” the man in the hot pool tells me, pointing up to one of the rock faces that surround us, which is home to the skinny waterfall delivering mineral water to the springs. There is a rickety staircase leading up to a brick turret that allows visitors a closer look at the falls. I watch the small stream of people ascend to a poorer view, surely, than looking at the waterfall from a few meters away, before bringing my gaze up to the place where he’s pointing.
“Ever since that day, I have made a lot of money. Look, can you see her? She is there now.”
The only face I see is rock.
“I can’t see it,” I tell him, and he looks disappointed. I’m disappointed, too.
With nothing left to say now that I’ve missed the divine revelation and depleted my Spanish vocabulary, I leave the pool to get dressed and catch a bus with my odd-numbered romantic interest.
I walk through the town to the bus station, taking in my last mountainous view before heading to the coast. I watch the cliffs with shades of green – emerald, jade, mint – tower above me as I cross over the river, kayaks floating below me. It’s as if the whole town is offering me one giant green light.
When I arrive, I ask my date what year he was born, to be sure. It turns out I was wrong about the year – he is an even number.
Is this why, although he crossed continents to see me, the thought of spending one more day with him fills me with dread? We board the bus, him smiling, unaware that we are careening toward a messy breakup against the dark, crashing waters of the Pacific Ocean at sunset – it’s written in the stars.