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.
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.
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.