Friday, August 1, 2008


Worked hard for a few hours this morning, came home hungry and made a great lunch of red beans and rice and then took a very satisfying nap. Life is good. Now I am killing some time ´til the sun gets a little less brutal, and then I´ll get a few more hours in of barely keeping the garden alive – between the lack of water and a whole host of merciless insects, not to mention the chickens – it is quite a challenge. My hosts are quite amused as I explain for the millionth time why I am not using chemicals to control the gusanos and the plagas, and they really get a kick out of my spraying hot pepper sauce on the tomatoes and broccoli to keep the chickens away. ¨These types of chickens love aji y pimientos picante, they are watching you and licking their chops¨. Well, I´m at least as stubborn as the chickens are hungry, and we will see about that.
I traveled to the south of Ecuador for the better part of 2 weeks in early July. I had not previously traveled further south than Riobamba, so I found some time to do so. I opted to fly down to Loja, or rather the airport at Catamoya, an hour away, which serves Loja and the south. A bus from Ibarra to Loja would have been 16 hours or more – the flight was less than one hour; well worth the extra cost. From Catamoya I hopped on a bus to visit a Peace Corps friend, Akul Nishawala in Catacocha. I stayed only one day and a night, I hope to go back sometime for a longer visit. Akul made a great red curry for dinner and we watched Ecuadors´ LIGA club team beat Brazils´ team for the championship. Despite being thoroughly outplayed LIGA won the game on penalty kicks – some vagary of the rules of soccer tournaments that I still do not understand. Anyway, it was pretty exciting, and after the victory most everyone who owns a car or truck in Catacocha started driving through the streets blowing their horns. Amazingly, the next morning (the game had ended around midnight) the town was awash in banners proclaiming LIGA´s prowess and hailing the new champions of South American futbol.
I left Catacocha on a 10 AM bus, having planned to meet some other PC friends in Loja that afternoon. It was 4th of July weekend and some of us were heading down to Vilcabamba, one of Ecuadors´ most popular tourist destinations, for some hiking and what-not. I traveled down to Vilca with Shawn Stokes and his wife Maria Ellis, and we stayed 2 nights at a fairly outstanding hostal called Izhcayluma. Our plans for hiking were thwarted by rain and hangovers, but we did visit with some other PC volunteers in the area and looked in on some of their projects. We ate a lot of great food as well, Izhcayluma does a great job with the vittles. Vilcabamba itself left me cold, and a little perplexed as to how it gained its reputation as a hot tourist destination. In my opinion the scenery up here in the North is just as spectacular, and the weather is a damned site better. I was also a little put off by the dreadlocked hippies wandering around or sitting on the steps of the iglesia chanting or playing wooden flutes – and even more put off by the rich Europeans and American expats who were buying up property and sending land prices soaring. I was shocked to see that Vilcabamba will soon have a gated community, populated by wealthy and paranoid gringos. That doesn´t seem right to me. I left Vilcabamba thinking it was best to keep the tourists down there in the South – don´t want too many of them fouling the nest up here in the North! I also left feeling very happy that I was not here in Ecuador as a tourist, that I was actually living here, and imbued with some vague purpose for being here, as well. How will I reconcile this concern the next time I am traveling as a tourist? Haven´t the faintest idea.
Maria, Shawn, and I headed back to Loja to pick up groceries and other supplies before heading out to their site, Fundachamba, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. Perched on the western edge of the cordillera, the climate is just right for coffee growing, and harvest was in full swing. Unfortunately, there were very few pickers, since a misguided town official had had all the Peruvian laborers arrested and thrown into jail in Loja, 4 hours away. Peruvians provide the bulk of labor in harvesting the coffee crop, and are absolutely essential in towns like Fundachamba where the younger folks are leaving for new lives in Quito, España, or Nueva York. Despite the shortage of hands, there was coffee everywhere, drying in the sun on rooftops, in the streets, on balconies - every flat surface was covered with beans. Almost all of the coffee is sold in Loja at wholesale for ridiculously low prices – Shawn is working with the local co-op to roast and package coffee to help increase incomes in the area.
The three of us spent a day building a wall made of cob – a mixture of clay soil, sand, and any type of straw that can be found locally. A labor intensive process, to be sure, but materials costs are nearly nothing. A gringo friend of Shawn´s has built a spectacular cob house outside of Matacuya, I will post a few photos at the flickr link. It´s a funny thing that so many old-style cheap and renewable technologies which are coming into vogue with us westerners are seen almost as insults by many Ecuadoreans – there are cement block fabricators on almost every corner and isn´t it so much easier and faster just to lay up block? I like the possibilities of cob building, but can´t argue with the other point of view.
I walked 45 minutes down the mountain to hit the main road where I could catch a ride back to Loja, and there I jumped on a northbound bus headed to San Felipe de Oña where I stayed the night with another PC friend. I got up early to catch the 7am bus to Cuenca, but it never showed up, nor did the 8am bus. I read some chapters of whatever book I was carrying for such eventualities, and chatted with the locals for awhile. Finally around 9 a bus rolled into town, and I was on my way to Cuenca. I have noted a time or two in this blog particular bus adventures, but this trip put all the others to shame. (A close second is the trip to Chugchilan when we all had to leave the bus while the driver and helper had to hack out the side of a mountain to gain enough roadbed to make up for the portion that had collapsed into the canyon the night before).
The fun began when our driver decided to ignore a desvio (detour) sign, and continued along the same portion of road, which was under construction. At the top of the hill we encountered roadworkers and machinery, and they told the driver he had to turn back, which meant backing downhill about 500 meters to a turn out. The road was only about 2 inches wider than the bus, and when the (pissed off) driver threw her into reverse gasps and muffled screams escaped from the lips of some of the passengers. When we hit the wide spot the driver skillfully made a 3 point turn, but not before half the passengers had left the bus, sure that it was about to plunge backwards, into the abyss. I stayed aboard, figuring there are worse ways to go. Anyway, we successfully made the turn, and headed back down the hill to the desvio, which put us out of the frying pan and into the fire. Our alternate ¨road¨ was the camino antigua which means it was essentially built to carry donkey carts and foot traffic. On this day it was carrying two way traffic detoured from the major North-South highway in Ecuador, and there was not a policeman or traffic controller anywhere in sight. Our ayudante, the drivers helper, ran several hundred feet ahead of the bus to make sure we would not run headlong into southbound traffic, and at one point, one hapless driver was forced to back up for 10 minutes, on a single track road, while our driver stayed on his front bumper and very neatly kept the 2 left wheels of the bus on the edge of the very precarious roadbed. By this time, people on the bus are freaking out, many were on cell phones calling loved ones, others were crying, some were on the verge of fainting. There were also a few diehards who simply slept through the whole thing. After a very long time, we finally hit pavement, but only after the driver negotiated an impossible turn in a small pueblo, where the right side of the bus actually scraped the full length of a stone wall while trying to avoid the overhanging eaves of the house protruding from the left. Our driver received a hearty round of applause for that maneuver, and later when we took a bathroom and lunch break I bought both the driver and the ayudante a beer, and told them ¨bien hecho, maestros¨. (Well done, experts)
It may seem that I give too much attention to bus travel – but it is such an integral part of daily life for PC volunteers and locals alike that it becomes impossible to avoid the subject. A few days ago I was on a bus with an Ecuadorian friend and we agreed that those who never travel by bus (the rich) are missing out on a great slice of life. But even on the busses life is changing – the drivers are becoming less inclined to allow large animals like goats or sheep into the passenger area, such are now stowed on top of the bus, tied by the ankles, or in the luggage compartment, stuffed into sacks and tossed around like bags of rice. Of course, chickens, cuyes, cats and small dogs still get smuggled into the ¨people part¨.
In an effort to alleviate traffic congestion, many cities in Ecuador, including Ibarra and Otavalo have introduced new laws requiring that buses stop now at designated paradas only, instead of every 20 or 30 ft. as has been the custom. Traffic inspectors now tape the doors shut, and they can only be opened at the next official stop. The more clever drivers have gotten around this inconvenience by rigging one or two of the curbside windows to open fully, enabling passengers to climb in and out wherever they please. Not all passengers can take advantage of this feature, of course, but for those who can it is worth the trouble. A driver told me it´s not against the law, because there is no law written about passengers entering and leaving the bus through the windows. Makes sense to me.


Anonymous said...

I am glad to hear what an integral part of life the "chicken bus" is. Bruce morgan called them chicken busses, i thought it was very appropo. looking to see you soon. andy

mama bear said...

i am first in line to buy your book when it is published.