Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Continuing Tragicomedy that is Ecuadorian Bus Travel

Unfortunately, the wind-in-your-face, death-defying novelty of the Ecuadorian bus network can sometimes wear thinner than the tread on the tyres that struggle to keep everything roadbound. And just like those tyres, when the bus gets full and heavy, unaccustomed travelers (thats us) can come dangerously close to exploding in a flurry of rubber, bad noise and Spanglish expletives. Case in point is the 300km odyssey from Pedernales to Samé.

Travel day started badly, with us buying a pair of non refundable tickets to some highland outpost nowhere in the vicinity of anywhere we needed to be. On the second take we bought tickets in the right direction, to Chamanga, a small town where we would change buses for our final destination. This leg was largely a pleasant experience; clipping through the countryside, taking in rural Ecuador's luscious palette of greens, contending with nothing more unpleasant than the odd seatmate claiming a little more real estate they they were entitled to.


The province of Pedernales has declared itself and eco-province; it is full of eco-towns, eco-tourism, and eco-people (I suppose). It seems that they got this status by taking all the rubbish from the region and just dumping it in the nearest town outside the area, Chamanga, where it lays in great plastic dunes below the stilted houses. It seems Chamanga also got the contract for all the country's less-than-show-ready dogs, and it has a healthy population of pygmy women who communicate using bewildering sing-song riddles.

Anyway, Chamanga was where the excitement really began. There was a bus waiting to go to Samé, but we were told to wait for one that looked just like it, because this one was going nowhere. Somehow they switched the busses while we were waiting, because half an hour after the original depature time, the waiting bus miraculously morphed into the departing bus. We jammed our stuff in, climbed aboard along with, apparently, half the population of this small town. So to understate things, conditions were cramped. Standing near the front of the cabin, I was held in place by a small child or two resting against my stomach, the luggage rack jammed into the side of my head, a heaving throng of humanity crushing my side, jagged metal from the seat keeping my leg nice and tense and the brim of the hat on the head of the man who had sat on a box on the floor behind me, prodding my shorts in a most disturbing manner. As the human cargo grew and the bus shrank, I steadily shed weight as I sweated out a torrent. Poor Angie, trapped at the far end of the bus, was not enjoying her time as a crash barrier, nor the feeling of bare seat metal caressing her severely sun-sizzled skin. Things were not helped when the attendant demanded she move to the front of the bus, unseat the old lady quivering in the front row and sit down in her ticket-assigned spot.

When the bus finally shuddered off, the air circulated and the temperature dropped from the brink of coma inducing. Once the crowd had thinned a little, the bus attendant decided that now was the time to remove the based-out space-case comatose in a puddle of vomit halfway down the bus. A few vicious slaps of increasing intensity brought said junky back to life, and a violent, smelly struggle towards the door ensued. Why he wasn't ejected before the bus took off, nobody knew. And God knows what happened to him once he was kicked out the door in the middle of nowhere. Certainly one of his harsher trips....

And certainly one of ours too, though in the more traditional sense of the word. But it was soon over, and we made it to the tiny village of Samé, tired, sore and not a little bit edgy. The prospect of another two laps of the country in this fashion might just drive us to plane travel.

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