Saturday, July 29, 2006

Crossing border between Ecuador - Peru

My Cusqueña Malta was very sweet and well deserved when I drank it at 8 PM. But before that beer, I had a long day of travel ahead of me. Let me tell you the story.

Five years ago, Peru and Ecuador where at war precisely in this crossing border zone, and the only two roads that existed between these two countries were closed for any kind of transit. Few dead later, the two countries "re-open" the coast border, and only that one. Even today, crossing the border on the other side is not recommended without a gun. So when I asked the information tourist in Cuenca (the lovely Ecuadorian colonial town of ...) how to cross the border, they were very vague and were pointing direction to many different aspects of my transfer, like buses, stamps and some cab drive as well. I should have known at that point that it would be not that easy to do it, but I was trusting and reluctant to see evil in the eye of this beautiful Ecuadorian woman, yet short. She told me that I had to take 3 buses to go where I really wanted to go, and that seems reasonable in these countries.

So, I woke up really early that morning and went to the bus terminal station at 7:30 AM to pick the next bus to Machala (Ecuador), the biggest nearest town to the border. Happy of myself and satisfied by my early woke up to take the earliest bus in my life (8 AM), I drop my guard, and ask for an empanada de queso with a coffee at the corner lady before taking the bus. I climbed in the bus and sat in what I evaluated the most comfortable seat around: stable window, in the middle of the bus and almost clean. The crown hardly filled up half the bus, but at 8 AM sharp we took off direction south. The next half hour was only dedicated to fill up the gap in the bus by stopping every time someone decided to raise his or her hand. The luck gave me a native woman for company. We were chitchatting about the price of the wood and the one of the rice in the lower land of Ecuador, when the most impressive man I saw in this trip climb in the bus, and he decided to use the seat behind me to put his self person. I use all the back seat stretch to make him fell as uncomfortable as possible. This is the costume in these countries in which you have to delimit your space, but unless dogs, I am not pissing on each corner, so I use the only method I know of, and lead back my seat. I feel his knees and he feel my back, but we were all happy.

After few minutes, we started right away to move up and down, right and left, side and side through the mountains that surround (the lovely Ecuadorian colonial town of) Cuenca. The smell that just came from the back of my seat was one of these that, with no doubt, could be recognize in millions. Somebody else breakfast was certainly lying in a nice plastic bag, and that kicked off a vague of window opening but to my surprise, no complain at all. The smell made me think of my empanada, and my coffee earlier eaten, so I decided to focus on the farest point I could. That was the time, my behind gigantic friend decided to stood up and walk to the front of the bus. I was really scared that he would as well compete with the previous person in who had the best breakfast that day, but he dove down and grabbed a black book and a plastic bag, from which he took out a box of candy. He was facing us with a red face when he announced us that we were all lost and he knew the solution.

Jesus is the answer!
During 45 minutes he went on and on about what Jesus could do to us, and how miserable our life was without Him in our heart. I could not concentrate to what he was saying because the only thing that I tried to accept was at the time the empanada that was stuck in my stomach. He shouted many times that we all going to dye and we should convert now. All evangels went through and I discover some that I forgot during this crash course on the Christian bible. He really encouraged us to lower our head and pray to the Devine and give our life to His greatest. I was praying instead that he would stop yelling. My stomach problem was suddenly replaced by a massive headache, and we were still turning up and down, and we were still climbing the gigantic mountain ahead of us.

I was not looking at him when the miracle happen. A more impressive hole and a turn in the road made his black Bible fall over to the front of the bus, closely followed by his hand wrapped around it, then his arm attached by the wrist, and finally his entire body linking all the previously mentioned part together. I though all along that he had a vision that the next turn we were going to make was the last one, but in reality the last turn was for him and he fall on his back. I was quite happy and smiled at the new divine silence, and did not care at all about the bus-priest. Life on earth was good again.

Like a devil out of his box he jumped back on his two feet and told us that he needed our help to save the world. For two soles a candy or 20 the fives, we could help us build paradise on earth and bring back peace on this planet. He was de-masked: He was a candy maker who used God to sell his merchandise and not a seller of God merchandising his candies. When he came close to me asking me how much I was willing to pay for my soul, I gave him my most evil look I could, and not even say a world. Thinking about it, right now, I might have lost paradise for only 20 soles. Anyway, the end of the valley signed the end of the bus-priest and the beginning of a well deserved silence. He took off to a new bus trip in the other direction. The end of our bus trip was enlighted by few stops and some more breakfast on the floor. I think that I did not join the group simply because my window was wide open and I was appreciating the newly scenery full of bamboo and felt more appeal by the worm and hot weather that was pouring on us.

The bus arrived in Machala with only half an hour delay on schedule, which was really good according to South American standard. That is called on time in here. I dropped off the bus and ran out to grab a cab to go to the next bus company. Oh yes, in South America you don’t have a lot of bus terminal, you have usually many bus terminals, one per company. In fact you go from one place to the other. I then, asked my cab driver to go to the place I wanted to, and we drove around. But literally around, because I recognized the building we were before leaving. My bus station was probably 100 meters away, and to make his trip worth he had to show me the area. I was in no shape to argue, and gave him his due, and ran over to the bus station counter. The lady pointed me the leaving bus when I ask her the next bus to Tumbes (Peru). I flew over and manage to put a foot in the door before the door completely close. I was really happy and satisfied of myself while sitting down, and paid at the “bus-boy” the amount for the ride.

The bus was half empty, and for once my backpack and myself enjoyed each our seats. The only Gringos present in the bus, were the Irish couple that I saw in the previous bus. They managed to be there before me and must have known that the bus station was just in front one another. Few stops help to fill the remaining seats, and gave me the opportunity to look closely at some local food: coconut milk, tamales, or other ... empanadas. Mine was still floating between the first and the second floor. The funny thing was when a guy stood up from the back and with a candy box started to talk to us about his previous life and all the problems he has at home with his wife and 8 children. He then told us that for two soles a candy or 20 the fives, we could help him build a paradise on earth and bring back the peace on his planet. Too bad for him, he was short circuit before by a priest. You can’t beat a priest, can you? Well … maybe literally, but this is out of scope of course.

When we reach the Ecuadorian immigration office, the entire bus looked in my direction and shown me the way out. I though I was having a low profile and people would take me for a local. Probably the backpack reveal the purpose of my stay in the bus. Anyway I stood out, closely followed by the Irish couple. My brief discussion with the “bus-boy” confirmed me what I was starting to realize. We were dropped off on the road, and we had to wait for the next bus later. The wind was my answer to when would that be.

The stamp line for Peru was really small compare to the one for Ecuador. I started to make conversion with the Irish couple to found out if they knew more than I was, but promptly realized that they were as lost as I was, and they though we were already in Peru. The game was on, and we had to move fast then. After being stamped, we decided to team up and find a solution. More is better than one. That what was the cab drive thought as well, and charged us 3 time the ride. The cab drive from the Peruvian immigration office to the one in Peru was really fast but left us instead in Bangkok. It was market time (like everyday, I found out later), and in this no-man’s-lands where no rule existed, we were lost in the thick of it with backpacks attach to our person and worse, all heavy loaded with some $.

You must be kidding me.

We were the only tourist, and after 5 seconds we already had 5 guys around asking us here for change, cab ride or some cleaning solution for the house. They were all pushing us and the pressure was on now. We had to move fast. Only Spanish speaker of the mission squad, I decided to reach the closest Peruvian uniform to ask any questions. My lead was followed by my close and personal Irish guard. The Peruvian uniform showed me a small house with a red and familiar flag on it. What the shoes on the desk in this house confirmed me, was that the Peruvian stamping machine was 3 Km away; and I had to go there to do my business. The shoes went back to its afternoon nap and left me alone to my thinking process. I stood in the door and wait for a happy face and friendly smile to show up to start the saving conversation.

Pedro was looking at me, and his voice was soft enough to reach my busy ears. He proposed me a ride to wherever I wanted. Smart of him, he was on. I asked him how much it was to the Peruvian Border but he proposed me a much longer ride instead. I answer back saying that we would talk about business after our passport been stamped. He agreed and took us to his friend’s car. At that point we were consider like dead meat for all the other player around us. Everybody left us, and the deal was done. Pedro lead us to the back parking lot in the busiest market I saw in my young life. The only friendly sound I could here was coming from my Irish guard that was keep saying: “We are in Bangkok!”

You must be kidding me.

We were the only tourist in the back of a parking lot between countries where official laws do no exist in a place where already rules are there to be, like time schedule, an informative guidance. I was imagining the end of our story in which Tourist being robbed at the border, but nothing happen. Instead, Pedro and his driver, Ramon, drove us to the back door of the Peruvian border. We had our passport stamped in less than 13 seconds. My stomach was not so great at that time of the day. Must have been all the self confidence that it has to generate on my face and probably the beginning of the digestion of my cheese empanada.

We were safe inside Peru, but far away from our common final destination. The next game was on, as soon as we stood out of the passport office. I tried to look around to found out if we could move out of the Pedro-Ramon trap. But they both knew that we were in a shabby situation. Out of the road, we had no way to go to. We could have waited to the side of the road, and kept playing our good faith against our lucky star, but I was more inclined, unless my Irish separatist troop, to grab the welcome cab that took us out of the tricky situation 10 minutes before. I was playing the in-between game and tried to explain the situation in their own respective language with my 2 soles each time. The end of the game saw each team losing a bit of their will. We managed a reasonable price to go to the bus #2 destination: Tumbes (Peru). I was happy to see that my strategy worked out and we, except Pedro, all climbed in the gas-cab. I manage the front seat, and I was glad to have an interesting position, seeing the road, chi-chatting with the driver, and listening to some IRA conversation.

The 1.5 hours drive turned out to be a pleasant time between all of us. We discovered, that Ramon had a fiancé in Canada, and was ready to put his winter gloves any minute, that the Irish had a not such a good time in Ecuador, and were happy to put their bathing suits on any minute, and that I was having some empanada problem, and I was ready to heat the washroom any minute. The warm beer that we all shared did not help either, my digestion mechanism. If I had to do it again, I would had refused it, but I was celebrating our victory over the infamous enemy named foreign administration land, and could not refused a bit of alcohol in my blood.

Before arriving in Tumbes (Peru), Ramon the gas-cab driver asked us to drop by his house to fill up the tank. The short conversation between all the UK speaking guys proof once again that we had enough time under our belt to know that any minute, any time, anything could happen in South America. Ramon was ashamed to see that his new friends were not that trusting after all. He was right about us. We did not trust him fully, especially so close to the goal. But we decided to go anyway to his house and took the necessary gas in case we decided to go to the final place. We reached a bank before the Tumbes bus station, the one for the last bus around 3 PM. We had plenty of time to take the Collectivo for the final beach destination. But after few talks and some giving-up, Ramon the gas-cab driver offered us what should have been the equivalent in price to finish our trip. We would never know if he was right or not but for $US 11, he took us away from the Bangkok and dropped us at the most popular beach of Peru. It was a good deal, and we were happy to settled down, and took finally or a shower, or make a shower.

We reach Mancora in Peru around 5 PM, end of our day trip. Ramon the gas-cad driver dropped us at the front beached hostel, and I was going to main office to ask for 2 rooms.

Did I mention that, that day was National day in Peru, and Mancora was the most popular destination in the whole Latin world? We were in dip trouble. We were so close to make the deal of the year, and we had to climb the last mountain: finding a room in a fully loaded place! As soon as we dropped off our bag, 5 millions of moppet-taxi driver showed up, and started once again offering all kind of service. One offer to go to the hotel we were standing in front off, one offer a oil massage, and another some good surf lesson. But no one asked the right question.

Gordito, moppet-taxi driver saw that we were in trouble, and asked if we needed some help finding a room, I answered yes, and with a big smile left us on the side road. That killed me, the offered some help, and left on the spot. I decided to finally back off and let my Green Guard to finish up the job. We were walking from door to door, refusing 20 dollars room with no water before 6 PM, when Gordito, the moppet-taxi driver ran at me to tell me the good news. He found a room for us. He put back a smile on my face, and we all climbed in his moppet-taxi to the final often dream destination. The deal seemed reasonable to me considering that we had no time for argument and the sun, him, was going to bed. The one bedroom place was seal after 15 minutes of discussion. The Irish troop was stationed close to the beach and was now in safe hands. Then my term came. We drove straight the one street village, banging literary from door to door for a bed on the floor for a poor guy with a sad face. Not to mention that I was unhappy because my empanada had decided to reach as well it final destination and was also ready to crash any minute. My face my the result of the heavy pressure from my guts, and was not that a very good selling point to my situation. We went to the end of the road, and then to the end of the sand road and then to the end of the dune. The light was in fact a hostel in which a spare room was just realized by a impulsive young lady few minutes before I showed up. This was the first time that a female impulsivity will put me to sleep, but life is strange. I bargained with the guy just to make sure he understood that I understood Spanish, but at that point after one hour of turning around in the place to find a (bath) room, I was ready to pay a lot of money. I paid the 3 night I planned to stick around, and signed the paper. The dueño gave the key, which I use on the spot to open “Heaven”.

I ran to the washroom to empanada the place.
I felt that I reached finally home.

A few time later, around 8PM, when I sat on the beach bar, listening to the "Tribute to Bob Marley" from Gilberto Gil and looked at the sky counting the stars, my Cusqueña Malta tasted very sweet and I tough that I had well deserved it.