South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1800 Words

E c u a d o r o n S t r i k e

How many days are blithely begun with us totally unaware of how badly they'll turn out? Such a day began for me in Guayaquil, Ecuador the day after I'd completed three idyllic weeks in the Galapagos, having made dozens of fleeting new friends. Without friends on this day (stretching into two and a half very long days), with Ecuador on strike, I would have croaked.

My great goal was to cross the border from Ecuador into Peru in enough time to catch the luxury Transportes Flores bus (usually half full yet served by nifty flight attendants, catered dinner and breakfast, sixteen near beds, eighteen hours overnight to Lima for twenty-two dollars) that left the border town of Tumbes, Peru at 4 p.m. I knew what a super bus this was because I'd taken it three weeks earlier from Lima to Tumbes. Catching this bus was my simple goal, presumably easily achieved, because I'd gotten north from the border to Guayaquil in four measly hours. To make sure I had a couple hours' cushion to cross the bureaucratic border, I caught a cab to the Guayaquil bus station at 8 a.m.

Things were weird at the bus depot. Something was wrong with the bus bound for the border. There can be certain benefits from speaking Spanish better than I do and likely I should have tried to learn more than ten words or substituted "bloqueado" for "cerveza." But a father and daughter, Geraldo and Maria, adopted me straight off, and I followed them upstairs to board the bus where things continued funny. The fare was only a dollar-fifty instead of the five dollars I'd paid the other direction. Strangely, the miniscule town of Puente del Inca was repeatedly mentioned. I shrugged and pulled out my current reading material, Voyage of the Beagle, anxious to find out more about the Galapagos. I was instantly diverted by a holocaust of black smoke smearing the main highway immediately ahead. Traffic narrowed to a crawl, squeezed into one lane and then detoured onto the sidewalk as we inched by a maelstrom of burning tires. The police in an armored vehicle were blading the tires into a still blazing heap on the other side of the road. Ho, hum, I returned to my potboiler.

The first hour was free-sailing bliss as we whizzed south past the hundreds of Chiquita and other banana plantations I'd seen on several occasions up and down Ecuador's main coastal highway. Whoops, the bus swung into a driveway and began backing down the big empty road at three miles per hour. Didn't the driver know we could go forward faster? What was the big idea? Everyone was craning their heads out the windows behind us, so I did too. There was nothing to see, including no traffic. After ten agonizing minutes of slow motion backwardness, the bus stopped and we were ordered off. What? Why should we get off a perfectly good bus in the middle of Nowhere, Ecuador?

Geraldo and Maria led the way, me in sandals, dressed for the hot and humid coast of Ecuador, where winter on the equator continues sweltering. I threw the daypack on my back and seized the forty-pound backpack in my arms because it was locked up with a meshed-metal Pac-safe, and I couldn't wear it without a complicated unlocking rigmarole.

Hurry up, they beckoned. I hurried as fast as I could toddle, shambling 1000 yards where we were presented with an amazing scene: fifty-three buses and eighteen-wheelers jackknifed across the highway, blocking it completely, all their tires flat and the drivers dozing on tarps underneath, in the only shade from the broiling tropical sun. We trudged by, my arms beginning to ache. But, it was just one lousy roadblock. Ahead I could see the bridge at Puente del Inca, blazing tires and billowing black smoke.

Just then a bicyclist with a cart solicited our bags, twenty-five cents for toting them somewhere down the road, and I gratefully threw mine on board. Geraldo and Maria were traveling somewhat more lightly but didn't hesitate to toss their suitcases on the cart. How would our new transport get around the burning tires, the heat of which became considerable as we approached? Simple—we took our bags and tiptoed across on the far edge, precariously balanced above the raging river. I knew my next haircut could dispense with the left side of my head, hair all singed. My feet and pants were black from traipsing through the black tire dust. We tossed our newly warmed backpacks and suitcases back on the cart (I missed how the bicyclist had managed to get across), trying to ignore the machete wielding men in front of us, trudging onward to somewhere.

Aha, there in the distance stood trucks soliciting passengers. Wow. I'd make the border easy for the 4 p.m. bus. It was only 10 a.m. We climbed in the back of a truck that would take us somewhere for a price. The truck whizzed down the highway for three miles, we got out, paid one dollar, thank you very much. Ahead were jackknifed vehicles with flats, burning tires covering the next bridge. I learned there are a lot of bridges in the tropics.

"Wait up, guys," I yelled at Geraldo and Maria. They seemed to understand, standing still for the sixty seconds it took me to unlock the Pac-safe from around the backpack (heavily stuffed with English-language books liberated from expensive Galapagos tour boats) and hoisted it onto my back, daypack on front. I was loaded and ready for whatever came.

We were favored with a few bike carts and many trucks to schlep us from roadblock to roadblock, thirteen separate times. By then I was really irritated. What right had these schmucks to prevent innocent travelers from unimpeded transit on a main public highway? Where were the police? Actually a cop had been on the long-ago bus with us, but he'd had no difficulty ignoring the blockades, and no other police were visible.

At the next roadblock, I urged my compatriots to action. "Look at us," I said in broken Spanish. "We have ten men in the back of this truck (and four women) and there're only five guys manning that roadblock, demanding tribute for us to pass. Let's rush them."

"But they have a machete," Geraldo pointed out.

"Not a problem," I said, extremely tired of being extorted for money from machete wielding youngsters. "We'll walk up casually (I actually couldn't remember the word for casual so I said "cool," surely the same in every language) and surround them. They won't know what hit them. We'll make an example out of those jerk...."

I could tell the other nine so-called men didn't think it was a good idea. But on the way across this blockade, I yelled at the machete-man, "Muchas gracias, Pandejo (I know several quite bad words in Spanish)," and he didn't blink an eyelash. But I became an instant hero to my trucking compatriots. Once we were in the back of the truck they couldn't stop retelling the story to each other, slapping me on the back and doing high-fives. I told them they were a bunch of sissies for letting a few tinhorn anarchists block the highway. None of them seemed to understand English, and my popularity only grew.

By the fifteenth back-of-the-truck ride everyone was fed up with paying twenty-five and fifty cents and one dollar for short jaunts, and we went on strike ourselves, half of us refusing to pay a cent to the truck driver who dropped us a mile from where we were supposed to catch a bus all the way (fifty miles still) to the border. Boy, did we learn a lesson fast.

All of a sudden, there were no more trucks, bike carts, or taxis. We walked and walked, my sandaled feet blistering and my stride shortening. At one point, seven of us crammed ourselves into the smallest taxi I've ever seen, sitting on each other's laps with backpacks and suitcases on top of us. Then we were discharged for the longest trek of all. It wasn't just a mile to the border bus, it was five miles and we walked, clumped, plodded, and dragged our sorry butts down that long road in the heat and humidity and thought we were going to die near the end. At least I did, because my feet were in tatters, my clothes soaked with sweat, and the bottom half of me black from burnt tire dust.

In the far distance, a bus was skidding around a curve and my friends were yelling for me to hurry up. This was the most beautiful bus I've ever seen, sparkling in its sheer wonderfulness. But it was 5 p.m. I'd missed the luxury bus to Lima. Still the marvelous bus braked to a stop, and an hour later we rolled into Ecuador's border town with Peru.

I'd lost track of Geraldo and Maria, instead ending up with Jorge and Freddie who'd done the Bataan death march with me. I was lucky because Jorge and Freddie knew the ropes of the border, taxis and buses from Tumbes to Lima. We caught a ramshackle bus from Tumbes, after a hurried first meal of the day, at 8 p.m. This bus broke down the next morning, three hours out of Lima, so we flagged down a slightly better bus (it was running) and arrived in Lima at 6 p.m., only twenty-two hours after leaving Tumbes.

Jorge and Freddie wouldn't let me out of their sight, taking me to a downtown hotel of modest persuasion and insisting on a communal dinner at 10 p.m. (a few hours after I wanted to be in bed, given the last couple of days), before which we visited their shops. Jorge was in retail clothing with an emphasis on American football and basketball teams, whereas Freddie ran a birthday shop with large purple Barnies and brown Winnie the Poohs larger than me. We wolfed down a grilled chicken feast, sprung for by my new friends, and Freddie insisted on picking me up from my hotel at 9 a.m. to take me to the bus for Argentina (he'd already phoned to make my reservations), though his wife was imminently due to deliver their third child.

Freddie appeared promptly at 9 a.m. the next morning and insisted on waiting until my bus left at 11 a.m., notwithstanding the fact he'd been up since 1:30 a.m., delivering his wife to the hospital where he'd been ever since. The next day as I scooted across the border into Chile, Peru went on strike, rendering buses to Chile and Argentina history for at least a week. Thank you, Jorge and Freddie.

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