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Paul Theroux did not see much of the coastline on his trip, but I felt as though I had been in the mountains for too long and was craving a glimpse of the sea, some warmth and a respite from the altitude. It was time to head south across the border and into Peru, first though I had to survive the inevitable nail-biting road journey…
The ticket collector on my bus stumbled around as we pulled out of Guayaquil bus station at brake-neck speed, he then closed the window at the front of the bus, getting his tie caught in the process and spent a good ten minutes trying to stay upright whilst extricating his tie from the stubborn window. This I then realised had comprised the buses safety as part of his job involved being a human indicator, who hung out of the side of the bus shouting and waving whenever we needed to pull over. His shouts were often drowned out by those of other passengers who seemed a little unnerved at the human indicator teamed with the fast, erratic driving style of his crazy amigo. The fact the normally unfazed locals were concerned worried me, a lady with copious amounts of purple eye-shadow and a super-tight hot pink lycra top seemed the most upset and at regular intervals stood up and screamed at the ticket collector for the bus to slow down or stop overtaking.
The situation reached a peak when the driver decided to race another bus, they were neck and neck, passengers and drivers screaming and shouting. But much to our bus drivers jubilation the other coach had to drop back to avoid a head on collision.
I had been looking forward to reading a good chunk of my Andes book on this bus ride, but I realised that gripping my seat and breathing deeply would be the best occupation of my time on this particular journey.
After seven roller-coaster hours and a surprisingly easy border crossing I arrived in Tumbes and took an auto-rickshaw across town to pick-up a bus to the coastal town of Mancora, where I was looking forward to some sunshine.
I became bemused when boarding the bus as the ticket collector took my finger-print. I then became rather nervous when a chap got on the bus and took pictures of all the seat numbers and the people in them. My imagination started to run wild, was this so they had photos of us and our fingerprints if the bus crashed? Did they know something I didn’t? I had managed to calm myself down by focusing on reading my book (this bus was smooth and comfortable, thank God) when the bus pulled over on the side of the road and both the drivers got out and walked over to a fabulously kitsch catholic shrine. It was a picturesque moment as the shrine was on the seafront, but as the drivers lit candles, said prayers and crossed themselves my earlier fears returned; Was this normal? Do all the drivers do this? Was there some horrific problem with this road and they themselves were terrified and had to pray to keep calm?
Just as my whirring brain reached fever pitch the television on the bus flickered into life and I was saved. Well sort of, Mel Gibson’s Edge of Darkness. This was the third time this trip I had been subjected to this film, which consisted of many close-ups of Mel’s haggard face, but it managed to stop my mind from worrying and as the usual shooting and fighting, that is prerequisite on all Latin American bus films, started. I sank back into my seat and tried for the thousandth time that day not to worry.
I was wondering, did you take a plane, or rather a ‘carpeted metal tube’ from Guayaquil to Lima because of the lack of trains on this part of your trip?
I was a little flummoxed at this sudden plane ride in your journey. Why not take a bus as you so disliked flying?
I’m continuing this part of my trip overland in order to try and fill in the missing chapter from Guayaquil to Lima. I hope you’ll find it somewhat interesting. My reading companion is now Michael Jacob’s Andes. A heavy, informative tome that has been weighing me down for some weeks now. Yet an inspirational read and a great insight into the history of the Andes and their present day reality, I’ll be drawing on some of Jacobs’ insights to help guide me along the way. Starting on the coast I’ll then move into the mountains before getting to Lima and hopefully taking the train east as far as I can get.
“I don’t think it runs anymore”
“It runs on a Saturday”
“Only on a Sunday”
“I didn’t even know we had a train in this town”
“It’s run by Metropolitan touring, ask them”
“Metropolitan touring don’t run it anymore it’s run by the government”
My patience with these vague answers was wearing thin, I was also running out of people to question. The coup had kept me inside my hotel for two days so I asked the receptionist Jorge his opinion.
He told me: “I haven’t taken the train since I was a child, I’m not sure. Go and ask at the train station.”
I pointed out that he had just advised me not to leave the hotel as it was unsafe on the streets.
“Ah, yes, well perhaps wait a couple of days and then go, things will soon be okay.”
When I finally made it to the station it seemed my plans to take this train were as thwarted as Paul Theroux’s.
“Sorry the train is full for tomorrow. It runs again next week.”
How was this possible? I mused, the city had been in lockdown for the last two days, perhaps all the locals had taken the opportunity to pop out and book places on the train while the tourists were cowering in their hotels.
Paul Theroux took a flight from Quito to Guayaquil with the hope of returning by train. All the trains were full, so he went back to Quito and finally bought himself a ticket on the ‘Good and Quick’ as it was then nicknamed, only to miss the trains departure.
It seemed I was having the same luck.
Time was not on my side so I decided to head straight down to Riobamba where I would be able to pick up the only other section of the train that is currently running.
The bus took me through the famed avenue of volcanoes, a landscape unlike any I have seen before. Villages passed by the windows framed by towering volcanoes and fruit sellers lined the sides of the dusty roads.
Even Patrick Swayze’s torso on the bus’s television could not tear my eyes away from the stunning scenery. But when a local man, who had been staring at me for most of the journey, leant over and started stroking my arm I was forced to avert my attention to inside the bus.
He was dressed in local garb, the hat and poncho, and kept asking where I was from and saying ‘blanco…blanco’ as he stroked my arm. I assumed he was referring to the colour of my skin.
‘Inglaterra, Inglaterra’ I tried to explain. He looked confused. I pulled out a map of Europe and pointed to the UK. He looked even more confused, I took out a map of Ecuador and asked where he lived ‘Ambato’ he replied. We had passed his stop half an hour ago. It seemed geography was not his strong point.
I felt a moment of hope at Riobamba’s train station as I watched a video about the restoration work currently underway on the Quito to Guayaquil line. But my ‘train’ journey on this line was to be undertaken on what can only be described as a bus on rails.
This was only temporary, I was assured by the chap in the ticket office. They would be running the real steam trains next February when they had fixed the once dangerous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) section of the train line. The line had been closed after two tourists were decapitated after riding on its roof, so I was told.
Well it was to be a ride on the rails nonetheless so I retired to my hotel, La Libertador, complete with a painting of Bolivar astride his horse, for an early night before my 6.30am departure.
The train pulled out of the station with a little bump and rattled along the old railway lines as the great white peak of the famous volcano Chimborazo came into view.
Eucalyptus trees lined the hills and railway line surrounding Riobamba, introduced to Ecuador in 1861 they were now causing environmental issues as the trees upset the natural biodiversity of the area.
We bumped along with a regular running commentary from a lady tour guide who pointed out such exciting sights as a cement plant and a river. I yawned and wondered why on earth the train left at such an ungodly hour.
The city gave way to hills and countryside and we past farmers tending to their fields and locals dragging their animals to and fro.
The train stopped in Guamote, an indigenous village. As I disembarked I almost tripped over a local woman in traditional dress hacking up a pig, I gave her a wide berth and took a walk around the market, marvelling at the village which seemed stuck in the past. I couldn’t understand who was staring at who the most. At one point three generations of women in a family walked past me in garish pink traditional dress. I was staring at them and they stopped opposite and stared at me, it felt like one of those staring competitions I used to have at school. It was their village so I looked away first, much to their amusement as they tottered off on their uncomfortable looking shoes in a fit of giggles.
Back on the train I myself felt uncomfortable, like a strange sort of voyeur. I suppose this is what travel and tourism is about, I pondered, although I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I’m always keener to see local cultures rather than partake in cheap adventure sports while on my travels, but popping into an indigenous village felt rather like an invasion of privacy.
The train ride itself was beautiful, picture perfect views of stunning Ecuadorian landscapes. The hills looked like patchwork covers with their undulating fields of bright greens and browns and the locals waved and shouted as we rattled past.
I felt sad when we arrived in Palmira, the landscape had become arid desert punctuated by ferns, it looked as if the train had pulled up in the high street of an abandoned wild west town. I heartily wished the train/bus could have taken me further on my journey. But the ride on the rails was over too soon, I was quickly ushered into a waiting bus to take me on to nearby Alausi and then Guayaquil.
I’ve tried to be very meticulous and make sure my blog is written in order without missing any sections out, but recent events have forced me to abandon these scruples and write this post.
Please await a post on Colombia’s coffee region and Cali, which incidentally I thought was going to be dangerous. That is until I found myself, just yesterday, in the middle of a political coup in Ecuador.
Paul Theroux felt guilty in Quito because he went to too many parties, I on the other hand felt like it was time to take a break from my indulgent travels and do some work, so I spent the week working with Medical Missions for Children, a US based charity that works in local hospitals and operates on lips and palates. It had been an eye-opening week for someone with no medical experience and a fantastic way to get chatting to people.
The team had a laser machine coming from the US which had some issues getting through customs, so much so that we learned the president himself, Rafael Correa, had to give the machine the go-ahead to get into the country.
By Thursday he had bigger problems than a simple laser. After opting to cut police benefits he faced an uprising which led to road blockades, the burning of tires in the street, an official state of emergency and being hospitalised after the police attacked him with tear gas. (See the BBC story here).
We made it back to our hotel after swerving a few burning tires to be faced with very surreal happenings. A letter had been left in my room advising me not to leave the hotel in the light of ‘today’s events’ but to instead enjoy ‘Oktoberfest.’
I soon found myself in the bar watching locals wearing lederhosen playing in an om pah band, while scenes on the tv showed riots and shooting just two streets away.
Things were getting far too surreal for my liking.
I now await news of the coup. But according to the locals this is a very regular occurrence and there is nothing to worry about.
“It’s just the robbers that are a problem, and the looters, as now we have no police to stop them.“ A patient told me.
Still I was pleased to have a little time to write-up my blog post on the dangers of being in Cali.