A long day of several buses from Quito has landed George and me on the northern Ecuadorian coast, near the Colombian border. It's a fairly swampy little town, half built on stilts holding tin-roofed wooden shambles high above the salty mangrove marsh below.
We've witnessed a major culture change here as our geography has drastically changed. For the past 20 days we've gone up and down through the cordillera, wandering highland markets, incan ruins, and 4000 meter mountains. Now, in one days transit we find ourselves amidst delicious sea food and fruit, warm breezes, hot (scalding) sun, mud, and people who walk barefoot in nylon shorts and muscle shirts instead of wrapped in a plethora of blankets. Its and Afro-Ecuadorian coastal town, where large populations of escaped slaves from Brasil escaped to to freedom, and thus the strikingly distinctive culture.
We're watching the sun set over the mangroves as Bob Marley is cast over the town by a nearby truck nice enough to open its door and it pumps out nice music. Exodus. Perfect temperature - perfect breeze, Bob Marley playing, undershirt and shorts I bought for under US$5, and a delicious fish in spicy coconut sauce settling down in my belly. Just another one of the many breeds of paradise we've encountered here in the South (except that technically were back in the North right now).
We've got a 2nd story room awaiting us, with metal bars where the glass should be on the window to thus not turn away they illustrious breeze that blows all day and night. From the window you can see the ocean and the port, though there is nothing of a beach here. The mangrove swamps form a several kilometer thick buffer in between open ocean and dry land, creating a hot humid labyrinth of murky waterway through a thick green forest growing (literally) right out of the water.
Now... talking back some time... Two days ago in Quito, we climbed to the volcano's peak at nearly 5000 meters. I love the high you get reaching the tops of mountains - it's one of the greatest simple pleasures of life on Earth, but this climb could more-or-less be counted as just slightly unpleasant.
Even the starting altitude for the ascent - 4100 meters - is slightly head-spinning, and going up from there certainly has its price. Your ears start to hurt, you get nauseous, hopelessly out of breath, as if you wore a half ton backpack. If you walk to hard at that elevation, you start to have flashes of double vision, and things can seem to turn and spin that usually wouldn't so do. Top it all off, our up-hill trudge through mud and a fairy forest unique to the volcanic soils at high elevation in the so-called 'cloud forest' (because the landscape actually passes through the clouds, there is the constant presence of thick moisture in the air, so some very odd and fragile plants have to opportunity to grow) culminated with what had to have been a good 200 meter ascent up an old landslide of fine volcanic sand. Wet sand at a steep incline with little air about to breath makes for a trying experience.
So it was a thoroughly exhausting climb through sleet and cold wind to finally summit near 5000 meters, well into the realm of the clouds on a cold, sleety, windy, wet pile of rocks way up in the sky. Our expectations of seeing the entire world spread out below us from our perch in the heavens was crushed by the reality that cloud cover and fog made it had to even see each other if we wandered too far away.
Then, on the way down, about halfway down the volcano, the thunder broke into a light, cold, highland rain shower, effectively turning out entire route back into a path of black slimy mud, and soaking everything from my double layered pants to my llama wool sweater to my sand filled shoes, and installing a permanent trembling shiver in my spine for the long way back.
Random thought - George and I got a good kick out of the three or four others we saw headed down the mountain - well decked out with expensive hiking sticks, north face jackets, windbreakers, hiking boots and goggles, some of them even with a local guide. We went up in pajama pants over sweatpants, wool sweaters, and the same cheap sneakers we've hauled around the rest of the continent.
Our days before that in Ecuador were slightly odd at best. Coming into the country, we decided us to veer east to take the most out-of-the-way, gringo-unfriendly border crossing we could find. la Balsa, it is called. The process was long and not straight-forward. From Chiclayo, we took a short 6 hour overnight bus to a jungle town in northeast Peru, where we waited for the sun to rise before heading out to find transportation to the next in a chain of towns my lonely planet guide instructed us to pass through. We found a ride, not in a bus like in Argentina, not in a van as had become common in Bolivia and Peru, but now just in a simple sedan, jam-packed with people in the front, back, and yes, in the trunk. The driver made his route between towns in his own little car, and people payed to come along.
That marked our first passage through true jungle, so the view out the window never got old. Since we left just as the sky began to glow pink with hints of morning, we got the spectacular view of the sunrise over the highland rain forests as we made the trip. Flawlessly complacent pools of water flooding expansive fields of small square rice patties reflect the morning sun, giving the appearance of portals to a newer heaven beneath the ground. From the car, you get the idea that, jumping in, you would fall through days through clean peaceful air and the balmy warmth of the tropical sun that we felt on our skin outside.
Anyway, arrival at our never small town meant just another search for transportation farther down the line and out of Peru. We took our last little car to our border town destination - a small wooden bridge over a river with a mud street and rickety bamboo shanties on either side. Locating the immigration office on the Ecuadorian side, a small bamboo building with just three walls leaving it open to the road in front, we set out to find the actual guards who would stamp our passports and facilitate a legal entrance into the country. Sitting at a table in the mud, military uniforms unbuttoned to expose their round sweaty bellies, we found them gambling for US quarters a little ways down the streets. They told us they would come and help us cross as soon as their game was done, in about an hour.
Then, the facts get blurred in my mind, because what followed was essentially a near hourly alteration of our itinerary as we spent several nights on buses and decidedly bypassed the majority of the Ecuadorian highlands in the interest of arriving to Quito with days to spare. The final stint, however, did include being dropped off by a bus drive at god-knows-which street corner in Riobamba at around 2 in the morning, then being left on our own in the cold amidst the wandering drunken transients of the night to find the train station that was pivotal for our plans in the coming day.
We took a taxi to the train, but the driver told us he would rather leave us outside the volunteer police station, because it would be a safer place to wait. Not that the station was open or even occupied by anyone at the time...
So our plan was to wait on the benches until the station opened at 6 like my travel guide said, but after some hour or so of disturbingly shady foot traffic that tended to turn its attention in the way of the two gringos in an abandoned city center at night, we grew a bit nervous and took to walking around, at least to where the station security guard could see us. Upon our first conversation with the guard, we found that the train and station had been closed for months, and were not to open for a few more. Well, our plans were shot, and so several days off scuttle through the highlands ended with one last 3 am bus to Quito, where we arrived just in time for sunrise.
By now we've traveled to the equator (0°0') from Cordoba, Argentina (31°24'). That's about equivalent in distance with a trip by land from Central Texas, through all of Mexico, all of Central America, through Colombia and to Quito, Ecuador, all in about two weeks, and is even farther than a straight shot from Austin, Texas to Juneau, Alaska.
It certainly feels good to say that, you know.