Sunday, February 04, 2018

Final: Day 4: Ecuador to Colombia

It's 3 a.m. We are in the Ecuadorean Central Highlands, somewhere north of Riobamba. We get to a toll booth, and our engine stalls again. Then, the bus starts rolling back, as if to parallel park. We are stuck again.

I start panicking. The hazard lights are not on because the electrical system is shot. What if a tractor trailer rear ends us? What if a gang of toughs comes on board and robs us all? What if?

There's not much that can be done. So all of us passengers go back to sleep while the drivers figure out what to do next.

It wasn't until the next morning, when I got out, that I realized we were safe all along. We were parked right next to a police station. There was even an ambulance with paramedics on stand-by.

But still. How are we going to get out of this jam? Am I going to have enough time with this delay to finish my journey by the end of the week? Should I selfishly call a taxi cab for myself and be driven to Quito (approximately four to six hours away)?

No. I will stay with my compatriots. Eventually, this Ferrari-liveried bus came to pick us up. It was smaller and not as nice as our original bus, but we were relieved. Handsome Dad and Joker Dad stayed with the original bus. Responsible Dad would be our chaperone and accompanied us through the rest of the trip.

The Ecuadorean Central Highlands was quite bucolic. Lots of farmland.

Quito is a strange location for a capital. It's not in just one valley. You would have to traverse a number of steep passes just to get from one neighborhood to another. Commuting is hard on the brakes, much more so than even San Francisco.

North of Quito, I knew we would be crossing the equator. So I kept an eye on my phone.

It was around here, at 8,000', that we crossed the equator.

The Northern Highlands of Ecuador has a strong German influence. At a rest area, I went to a mini mart. An older German woman ran the place. She wore a threadbare brown sweater. You could tell it was a nice sweater when it was purchased decades ago. Despite her best efforts, the grinding poverty is obvious. She had the weathered look of descendants of those utopian settlements in rural Paraguay. Anyhow, the mini mart had a bottle of water and a bottle of sports drink on display. Nothing else. I wanted the water so she opened a rusted icebox and pulled a bottle out for me. It was very depressing.

And at dusk, the green bus dropped us off at the Colombia-Ecuador border. We stood in line for a couple of hours. Vendors made a killing selling food and drinks to the travelers. The crowd leaned young. I estimate less than 3% of us were 35 and older.

Once we got the Ecuador stamp on our passports, we walked across a bridge into Colombia. A white bus would take us from the border to Cali. We were ecstatic. Not only would we get to Cali, we would get there on time. Somehow, the green and white replacement buses made up nine-plus hours of delays.

As we left the border in the middle of the night, the crowd at the back of the bus pulled out a bottle of Colombian rum and a plastic shot glass. I had two shots. The skinny Chilean insisted that I have a can of beer. Someone turned on the flashlight feature of their smartphone, flicked his hand in front of the light, and gave the back of the bus a strobe light effect. People were dancing. A woman we called Tia, a middle aged woman who was traveling with her mother (who looked like Tia 20 years from now) and her daughter (who looked like Tia 20 years ago) sang beautiful, soulful folk songs about home and love.

I looked out the window and gazed at the stars. The Big Dipper pointed at Polaris, which was barely above the horizon. My head bobbed about as the driver drove over 35 miles per hour on winding mountain roads. I felt euphoric.

As a side note, buses customarily travel in convoys at night through this portion of southern Colombia. But our chaperone insisted this was not necessary tonight because of increased military patrols. However, whenever our bus driver saw a bus parked on the side of the road, he would stop to make sure everyone was okay.

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