Another Day on the Road

Love ’em or hate ’em, travel days are a reality when you are crossing the length of a continent. Yesterday was a doozy. 

Knowing what I had ahead of me, I set my alarm and was to the Popayan bus terminal by 7 a.m. I was on my way out of town shortly after, heading due south to confront the northern tip of the Andes. As soon as we pulled out of Popayan we were climbing in elevation, our bumbling little 20-person bus throwing us any direction the road decided. 

There was no mistake as to when we entered what can be considered the real Andes – you could see it. 

Having seen quite a few mountain ranges in my life, not to mention growing up in the Rockies, I like to consider myself a connoisseur when it comes to topography. That said, the Andes have already blown my socks off. I’ve never seen such steep hillsides paired with such deep valleys. Thanks to narrow roads and high buses, I could get up close and personal with exactly how steep these mountains are – it was a little unnerving, but also beautiful.

If you want to know what most of my ride was like, imagine driving Berthod Pass back and forth for a day, except lose most of the guard rails and triple the vertical proportions of your surroundings. While I’m getting pretty used to these curvy commutes, you can’t help but be intimidated by the fact that with the right speed and trajectory, a bus could launch across one of these massive valleys and hit the other side before hitting the bottom. The Andes demand respect.

As pretty as Colombia is, no part compared to the last 100 miles, as the arid hills became lush ones. It didn’t hurt that the sun was getting nice and low around that time, a photographer’s dream scenario. Sadly, any attempts at a decent photography are quashed when shooting through dirty plastic windows in a moving vehicle on South American mountain passes. Next time around I’m buying a motorcycle and driving myself, so I can pull over whenever I want. As dangerous as that sounds (Mom) it may even be safer than my current method of transport. 

In most buses I tend to choose the back row with a window seat

This can backfire when the bus is overloaded and we have to squeeze six people into a five-person row, but most folks aren’t along for the whole ride and after a couple hours I found the back row completely to myself. This gave my poor (recently operated on) knee a much relished chance to extended and be elevated. 

When we were packed like sardines in the back, I made friends with a traveling family – husband, wife and a precocious little boy. Unlike most folks who tend to keep to themselves on the bus, these people liked to laugh a lot, their child being the major source of entertainment. Anything this kid observed was funny, and he went out of his way to confront adults and ask them silly questions. I think the others were annoyed, but I liked them. No matter the cultural standards, there are going to be people who break them.

A phenomenon I didn’t experience on my first bus (the “luxury liner”) is how foot vendors regularly step onto buses to sell things to the passengers. 

It’s less of a nuisance and more of standard practice. I have yet to see any money exchanged with the bus driver so I’m pretty sure it’s a just cultural norm that doens’t bother anyone. In many cases there is even some entertainment value to this fine shopping convenience. 

On the bus out of Popayan, a plain dressed man with a brief case stood at the front of the aisle, asked for our attention, and began a 20-minute monologue on topics ranging from god and national politics to health and the homeopathic gifts of nature. At the end of his speech he passed out herbal supplements and vitamin powders for the people to look at and sold an impressive amount of his product. I wasn’t able to soak in the intricacies of his speech, but I was impressed by the passion of his delivery. He would make a decent preacher. 

On another bus, after crossing the border into Ecuador, a gangly teenage boy at the height of his developmental awkwardness stood up holding a pink box with unicorn-themed marshmallow treats marketed (I assume) toward young girls. At first the boy hesitated, looking terribly nervous, even looking away and uncomfortably tapping his feet the music playing from the radio. Sitting in the front row, I was expecting something painfully humiliating for a kid whose mother must have forced him sell the pink marshmallow unicorns against his will. 

However, as soon he started he broke into an impressive routine I would compare to the more animated speech and debate routines performed by students from my high school. With impressions, feet-stomping and some singing, he put on quite the show for the people, and ended up selling his entire box of treats. If you can sell unicorns, you can sell it all. What a pro.

Looking tired after the border.Crossing the border was a breeze. 

Land borders always have the potential for giving tourists a hard time, but it was as easy as getting my exit stamp in Colombia, walking across the obligatory bridge in no man’s land, and receiving my entrance stamp in Ecuador. 

I can already tell you my favorite part about Ecuador: their national currency is the U.S. Dollar. It’s not a bad idea – compared to almost any third-world currency, the dollar is dependable and stable. I love it because it makes my life so easy. No rough conversions in my head, no hesitations when I negotiate taxi fares, and I can bring my own from home. And since Ecuador is so cheap, I can fully appreciate how little (and sometime how much) I’m paying for things. My five hour bus from the border to Quito was $4.50. Score! 

While Ecuador is all about the greenbacks with paper dollar amounts, they have their own change, which so far only comes in 25 cent and 50 cent denominations. Instead of using paper dollars, they use coins. Ever wonder what happened to the gold Sacagawea coins that never took off in the U.S.? They are the standard $1 coin here – I haven’t seen anything else. In some strange way it might even be appropriate given the massive indigenous population that still lives here.

Kitten at pit stopMore than the length of the day, it was the lack of food and drink that made it hard. 

While we made a 25 minute pit stop in the middle of nowhere, the food wasn’t exactly tantalizing me, and I wanted to save the last of my Colombian pesos to get across the border. Over the length of the day I ate a banana, a bag of Lays potato chips (called “Margeritas” here) and a life-saving slice of pizza bought from a bus vendor (no sales pitched needed. While this sounds gross, it tasted pretty amazing at the time and couldn’t be any worse to the shit they feed children in school cafeterias. Pizza is pizza.

We came into Quito around 11:30 p.m. and I found a nice elderly taxi driver to take me to my hotel. Strangely, he had a very firm love of Spanish-language club  music, but to each their own. While I was happy to have a old, trustworthy soul to drop me off in a neighborhood with a reputation for muggings, the old cook dropped me off on the wrong street, so I was unsuccessful in finding the hostel I was seeking. Hostels are plentiful in this area, but given the hour of my arrival every one I tried was full for the night. After being shut down at four different ones, I ended up staying at a more expensive bed and breakfast, which I took as a message from the universe, saying “You earned this comfy mattress and soft linens.” 

I slept like a log.

Sept. 28, 2013  La Mariscal, Quito, Ecuador

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