Monday, March 28, 2005

Crazy beat journeys across the dark (South) American night...

Hmm, my deadlines say I've left myself 2 days to get from Popayan in Colombia (two-three hours southwest of Cali) to Màncora in northern Peru. Got to cross all of Ecuador in one go. It's a mad nerve-fraying trip through three countries, with about fifty changes of transport, and the whole dirty underbelly of non-luxury slow lane Latin American transit, not to mention the border crossings....Here's how it happens.

Popayan, Colombia. Good breakfast at hostal. Taxi to bus station.
10 am minibus Popayan-Ipiales, seven hours. Smooth enough ride through beautiful green hills of southwest Colombia. A snatched lunch of potato chips and chocolate because the roadside restaurant we stop at is so crowded there's no chance of getting a proper meal in the 20 minutes available.

Taxi, Ipiales bus station - frontier with Ecuador. Exit stamp from Colombia. Ten minutes negotiation with money changer to get acceptable exchange rate. Then 45 minutes revision by Ecuadorean customs officials looking for drugs. Sample conversation:
Customs official "Do you consume drugs?"
Me: "No"
Official: "Have you tried drugs?"
Me: "What, like, in my life?"
Official: "Yes"
Me: "Well, yeah, I guess"
Official: "What, just experimentally, to see what it's like?"
Me: "Well, yeah"
Offical: "Ah, that's ok then"

Entrance stamp to Ecuador. Collectivo, frontier -Tulcán bus station.
Dinner of cheese sandwich and chocolate from a store by the bus station. Bus at 7:30 pm Tulcán - Quito, 5 1/2 hours. Seems to stop every couple of hundred metres to pick up or drop off passengers. Steadily worsening headache reaches epic proportions as we pull into Quito. Taxi from bus station finds first hostal full. End up staying at relatively expensive hotel in the new town ($13 USD), but allows rest and recovery in peace.

I permit myself one day in Quito with good breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course it's the start of carnaval and everyone's travelling....not a single ticket to the frontier at Huaquillas for the night. Compromise and get the last remaining ticket for Cuenca, in the south of Ecuador, for 9pm. Guy at the bus companuy advises me to get to the terminal early, but time drifts by and it's 8:35 when I collect my stuff and get a taxi. Don't think it will be a problem since I walked to the bus station in 30 minutes during the day. But taxi has to go by different route, traffic is heavy, it takes over 30 minutes, I'm panicking. Past 9:00 when I get dropped off outside the bus station, still have to negotiate roundabout entrance and three flights of stairs to Quito's crazy bus terminal.

When I submerge myself in the zoo of buses waiting to depart (no such thing as a "platform" in Quito), my bus has already left. Guy takes me (panicking) out the back gate and round the corner; all the buses leaving the terminal have to do a big loop and exit here to get onto the street. There's a long queue; possibly my bus hasn't left yet. It hasn't - I manage to jump on and look for my seat. Driver has let on about 7 additional people, woman is in my seat. She vacates it for me (I feel a bit guilty) but her, her two daughters and another guy are nested around my seat, a single spot in the very back of the bus. There's nowhere to put my legs, so I have to rest them on some plastic moulding in front of my seat,where I also dump my backpacks (no chance to stow the big one in the luggage compartment as the bus was moving when I got on).

As usual, there's a guy on the bus there to sell/beg. Starts with some jokes; sample:
"I have 100 turkeys and I vendo (sell) one, how many do I have?"
Someone on the bus: "99"
Guy: "No! I have 100 turkeys and I vendo one, how many do I have?"
Someone else on the bus: "99!"
Guy: "No! I still have 100 turkeys - one of them vendado (bandaged)! I had 100 turkeys and I vendè (bandaged) one"
Everybody: "groaaaan"
(note of explication: the first person of both vender (to sell) and vendar (to bandage) is the same: yo vendo...very groanworthy pun.) I buy a couple of his trinkets.

Nine hours to Cuenca, first very hot in the back of the bus, then cold. Woman who had my seat complains and whimpers all the way, and I lose all sympathy. She could have taken the bus in the morning, dammit.

Anyway, I'm stuck with my feet 30 degrees above my head for the whole ride - not too uncomfortable by the standards of this bus, but the novelty certainly starts to wear off.

In Cuenca, find I've missed the direct connection to Huaquillas so instead I jump on a bus headed to Machala, the self-proclaimed "banana capital of the world", 3 1/2 hours away to make the connection there. We pass fields full of *lots* of banana plants. Driver lets me off at the junction where the buses to Huaquillas pass and, as luck would have it, one passes by soon. Jump on and head all the way to Huaquillas. When I get there it turns out the Ecuador border control post where you get your exit stamp was a couple of kilometres before the town itself. Bus driver says "Hey, you should have told me you wanted to stop there". Well...he did ask me "frontera?" when I got on the bus and I said yes sir...

So I have to take a taxi back to get my exit stamp, then another one back to Huaquillas...the town is shared by Ecuador and Peru, so you walk through a crowded market, round a corner, over a bridge and voila!, you're in Peru. Unfortunately, the Peruvian immigration post is out of town, another 4km down the road...

There's no official taxis, and in the crowded market hover a menagerie of conmen and shifty money changers, all looking to connive a quick buck. I'm descended on by an entourage offering to change my money, carry my bag, give me a ride to Tumbes (first town of any size in Peru). As it happens, I do need to change $20 USD (the sole currency in Ecuador), though I also have some Peruvian soles. I say ok, maybe I'll change some money...
Shifty money changer: "How much you want to change?"
Me: "$20"
SMC: "Only $20! That won't be enough! Today's a holiday in Peru, nothing's open"
Me: "Well, that's all I've got..anyway I can get more money out from an ATM"
SMC: "There's no ATMs...you need to change more cash"
Me: "There's an ATM in Tumbes"
SMC: "Nooo...not until Chiclayo" (about 500km away down the coast). "You'll really need more"
Me (losing patience): "Look, I happen to *know* there's an ATM in Tumbes...anyway, I only *have* bloody $20 to change!

So money changer guy shrugs and whips out his calculator. "I'll give you a rate of 3.5" he says. Which is weird, because the official rate varies between 3.25 and 3.35 soles to the dollar...But he's already punching away on his calculator. "Twenty times three point five is......42!" he announces. "What!" I take the calculator from him. "I think you'll find that twenty times three point five is..." the "equals" button is not where it should be, so he helpfully leans over and presses a button. On the screen appears the number 42. "Fourty-two" he confirms.

This is where I get mad. Some kind of lack-of-sleep too-much-travelling thing snaps, and I start yelling at my entourage. "Just piss off, all of you! Yes, piss right off!" In particular to SMC guy "How stupid do you think I am? I may be a gringo, but it doesn't make me an idiot! Twenty times three point five is 42? Jesus, even twenty times *three* is sixty!" (the kind of ironic thing here is that my brain is too tired and frazzled to actually calculate 20 * 3.5)

SMC has started to shuffle off, but his face lights up when I say this and he starts back. "Sixty! I'll give you sixty then". "No! Bugger off!" I shout. I think what offends me is not so much the brazenness of the attempted rip off, as the appalling insult to my intelligence.

So I wander out the other end of the market and cross the bridge. The thing is, I still need to get to the Peruvian immigration post somehow, so I'm forced to converse with the next set of shady looking guys who come up rubbing their hands and offering me rides. But I lose patience rapidly when they offer me exorbitant deals. "All the way to Tumbes for only $20!". Look, I know I can get a collectivo from immigration to Tumbes for a couple of soles, I just want to get to the immigration post, I explain. "OK, to Tumbes for $15!" they say.

I'm about to despair when I spot a uniformed Peruvian official walking along ahead of me, a police or immigration officer. I rush to catch up and say please señor, can you help me. "Can you point out to me some kind of official taxi to get to the frontier, and tell me how much I should pay to get there, and to Tumbes?" I ask. The Peruvian policeman looks amused but kind. He points to an old guy leaning against and ancient Buick sedan. "That gentleman will take you to the immigration post, and shouldn't charge you more than one sol. Then you can get a collectivo to Tumbes, from opposite the immigration, for one sol fifty".

I feel relieved to have encountered an honest, helpful Peruvian official (no, that's not an oxymoron!), and go over to where the old guy is. We wait for a while for other people to show up, but when no one does, I say I'll pay him the full five soles ($1.50) to get to the frontier. From there it all gets easier. I pass through immigration, change my dollars with the official money changers sitting outside (suspiciously inspecting every note, to their amusement) and then jump on the collectivo headed for Tumbes.

In Tumbes people are nice, and helpful! The guy who gives me a ride to the central plaza in his moto-taxi (ubiquitous three-wheeled buggies with motorbike engines) explains where the ATMs are, where to eat, and how to find the collectivos to Mancora. I get money out, the food is great, people in the restaurant are also super nice, and the plaza in Tumbes is pretty with murals and mosaics. Having eaten my first proper meal since Quito, I'm feeling relatively sane. I find the collectivo to Mancora, which is another hour and a half down the road.

The guy who collects the money and shouts "Mancora! Mancora!" has to lean against the door of the minivan to keep to closed as we rattle along through the scrubby coastal desert. But it's all good - there's a sweet warm breeze blowing through the window, and I'm about to finally reach my destination and chill out. Mancora is a popular spot "the most beautiful beach in Peru" supposedly, and it's full with holidayers from Lima and from Ecuador. But I eventually find a little cell of a room in a hotel/restaurant one block from the beach, jump into a blissfully cold shower and think about getting some beer.

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