Something From Nothing

Creative chaos and llama dung on Ecuador's public thrill ride.

Quito, Ecuador
19th November, 2001

Ecuador, as the name suggests, is plopped right across the equator. This theorectical line runs just 10 miles north of Quito. As you can imagine, an entire industry has grown up around all of the tourists who can now travel up to an entire theme park called "El Mitad del Mundo", visit equator themed restaurants, craftshops and the equatorial post office, before going to the line itself and parking one leg in either hemisphere, with the latitude 0´ 0 0 tower and globe behind them.

And never realise that it´s all a big con.

Well, this is Latin America, after all. The true equator line is 100m north of the theme park tower and line, in an open air museum. Yvonne and I stood, wide eyed, as our guide demonstrated the famous Coriolis effect: she poured water down a drain on the equator, and then moved the drain a metre north, and a metre south. The results were that the water went straight down on the equator, anticlockwise north, clockwise south. Now, we knew very well that this was a con. If the Coriolis effect works at all on drains, it certainly will not over the space of two metres. But it was cleverly done, leaving us scratching our heads vigorously.

Jesus mi Savour

All the bus drivers in Latin America have a lot of liberty to decorate their cabs in whatever way they want, usually choosing religious themes such as "Jesus es mi Savour", "El Corazon Sacrada de Jesus", or pictures of the Virgin or a favourite saint. At first, when you see this it seems like just another old custom, an example of simple piety in a society rich in tradition. How quaint, you think. And then you´re hurtling down the side of a mountain with a 400 foot cliff at your side on a road made entirely out of potholes and gravel, with every truck and bus on the road frantically trying to pass each other out - either on left or right hand side, it doesn´t matter - and your life is entirely in the clutches of this rickety old crate and the competence of the driver, let´s hope he isn´t too drunk, who´s steering with one hand while feeling around with the other trying to change the salsa tape... suddenly you realise that your knuckles have gone white and you´ve been muttering to yourself, "Jesus mi Savour, Jesus mi Savour..."

As well as a thrill-ride, a bus trip in Ecuador is an almost continual source of entertainment. There are many competing companies, so each bus must do its best to fill up with as many passengers as possible. They do not lazily pull up to a stop and deign to give their services as in Ireland. An Ecuadorian bus on its way to Ambato and Baños will prowl all the likely streets, roundabouts and underpasses in Quito looking for custom like a shady dealer, the conductor either hanging out the open door shouting "Ambato/Baños! A Baños! A Baños", or even leaping off the bus to run beside it, physically bustling passengers, passers-by and a man who had stopped to do up his shoelaces onto the bus.

Chocolate and LLama Dung

Thebus industry goes far beyond the simple bus + passenger economy. At every stop a dozen hawkers also board for a couple of minutes, selling fruit, peanuts, shish kebabs, ice cream. A man stands at the front to recite poetry. A young travelling saleswoman gives a pitch for a revolutionary new sewing kit. A clown promises that his magical chocolate would make us smile. Of course, with everyone pushing onto the bus, it can get a little crushed, and under those circumstances, the ancient gods of Andean bus travel have long since deigned that the man shoved up next to you will be nursing a sick rooster, smelling of llama dung, and snoring. It´s one more of life´s rich experiences.

I had taken a bus to Baños, a small town famous for its thermal springs, nestling at the foot of the volcano Tungurua. Tungurua has been erupting in a fairly gentle way since August, but that hasn´t slowed the industry of this tidy little town, which exists mostly to supply the steady flow of travellers with hot baths, guided walks, and innumberable places to eat, all supplying a bewildering array of the same spaguetti dish. I thought, nice thermal bath in the open air at night, all lit up with exploding lava flows, villagers running for their lives and so on, very cultural. Unfortunately, this is the highland rainy season, so the volcano cone was lost in the clouds.

Mindos

It´s the pure creative chaos that I love most about Ecuador. The Ecuadorians have a drive that lets them make something out of the little they have. Last Friday I rejoined my old Spanish school on a trip to Mindo, a cloud forest and nature reserve on the western slopes of the Andes. Our guides didnt have an air conditioned tour bus, multilayer Goretex equipment or a multimedia interpretive centre. In fact, all they had was a small pick-up truck, wellington boots, nylon rope and the inner tubes from lorry tyres. The trip was brilliant. They packed all twenty of us into the back of the truck, and off along the rutted dirt track we went, bouncing along, laughing in the open air.

Our guides brought us along walks in the primary forest, pointing out unique trees and plants from their local knowlege, before we followed a clear stream to our first challenge. We had to ascend a series of three waterfalls, each 15m high, climbing vertically through the water in our bare feet and swimming trunks, with the assistance only of the nylon rope. Of course, the rope had to get up first. So up our guides went, climbing unaided in their tracksuit bottoms and wellington boots. The ascent was thrilling, to a hidden jungle gorge with the tropical vegetation dripping silver above, and the descent was better. As each one descended the ropes again, they dropped out of view over the edge, until the silence was broken in a moment by a scream and a loud splash. Did noone survive the descent? When my turn came it was suddenly clear: you couldn´t climb all the way past an overhang, but had to jump, yelling at the cold shock, the last seven feet.

Our guides also brought us to Orchid and butterfly farms run by other sections of their community, before our last challenge: rafting through a long series of rapids. Of course, they had neither rafts or paddles, but improvised instead again: truck inner tubes lashed together, and a little guy to run through the river after us and push when we snagged on a rock. It was one of the most fun river runs of my life. Time and again we careered into rocks that would have smashed any raft or kayak I´ve been in, only to rebound and rush on, shrieking, downstream.

Plata Tipica

Ecuador is also remarkable for the number of beautiful young women who come here to study Spanish and work for a few months as a volunteer with homeless children, or Indian communities, or rainforest projects and so on. It seems that every intelligent, multilingual and kind-hearted girl in Europe and North America is in Quito right now, and what´s more they all insist on clustering around me. I feel I may explode soon. Yvonne, Mika (formerly Marika, had to change it, marika is Spanish for lesbian), Helke and Fabienne have now been joined by Ziena, Cordula, Loma, Emmanuelle, Kimberly, oh, English Sara, Austrian Maggie, Heike... God give me strength.

And why do they hang out with me? Is it my cruel but handsome eyes? That I´m taller than any Ecuadorian man ever born? My native Irish rollicking craziness? Or that they can all point and laugh when I put on a rafting helmet? (As Ziena from Denmark said, you are the most silly looking here, thanks a bunch). Anyway, it is fun. We move in a sea of different languages, Spanish, French, German (High and Swiss), English, and even the odd snippet of Gaelic that I slip in because I´m such a Goddam character. Sessh haupssh oos hooot, ("Gsesch huebsch us huet!" ) Swiss German for "you´re looking good today", a remarkably useful phrase.

But don´t come to Ecuador for the food. We had the pleasure of living like Ecuadorians in Mindo. We were served cheese and potato soup on arrival. Quite passable. We had cheese and potato soup for lunch. We had cheese and potato soup for dinner. For the next two days. By Sunday it was getting pretty cheesey, and hard to hold down. Our host wondered who wanted vegetarian food, comida sin carne, food without meat. Excellent, some of the girls thought, a vegetarian option! No, alas, it turned out to be just... the same food, without meat. A pile of rice, a couple of beans. Mika, a committed vegetarian, has to chew through a dinner of rice and spaguetti without sauce every day.

But Ecuadorians will always find a solution, even to food problems. Ten of us went to an Afghan restaurant in Quito to find all the tables full. No problem said the waiter, and led us into the back, through the kitchen, past a confused looking cook and into his own living room. He promptly ousted his brother who had been watching the wrestling and set a table for ten complete with Hindi singing played on a portable CD. Best chicken jalferezi I´ve ever had.

Su Proximo Destino

I have to leave Ecuador soon, though I´m tempted to stay. For all the crime, intense pollution, litter, you get to like the place. It becomes homely, manageable. And with all the chaos, many things are possible here. An English girl came here at the start of her six-months in South America. So far, she´s travelled five months in Quito. Perhaps I could be a good and beautiful person and volunteer to plant trees. Sessh haupssh oos hooot. Hmmm. Next time perhaps.

 

 

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Papallacta

 

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Native Ecuadorians

 

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Mitad de Mundo

 

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Ecuador Route

 


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The Facts

Where I stayed
Quito: La Casa Sol. Wonderful guesthouse. Friendly staff, clean private rooms, inexpensive. It has a lovely courtyard and leafy social area, and serves an enormous breakfast including varied exotic fruit juices.

How I got around:
Local busses caught at the terminal Terrestre or on the road side. The thrill ride of a lifetime, or, to end your lifetime.

 

 

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