Slow bus to Peru

Trip Start Oct 01, 2012
Trip End Dec 24, 2012

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Leaving Banos was a relief.  Not just because I had spent two of my four days there in hospital, but because the town was merely a staging post to adventures further down the road.  The subsequent few days reminded me how much I would have preferred to spend that precious time up in the mountains, rather than in internet cafe and backpacker land.

The bus to Riobamba was uneventful, but after a walk across town to the `Guamote` bus station, it became clear that I was headed to an unconventional destination.

All the backpackers had disappeared.  It was me, my rucsac and one big empty wasteland waiting in vain for the bus to turn up.

I had decided to go to Guamote because it was an indigenous villlage in the mountains, off the beaten track, and there was an interesting educational project there I wanted to visit, called Inti Sisa, or "Sunflower" in Kichwa.

After an hour of waiting, it turned out that the bus left from a slightly different place and I managed to flag it down on the highway and climb on board.  It was 20 indigneous women in their panama hats and me.  The journey was delightful and we passed impossibly steep fields as well as stunning mountain scenery.

Arriving in the village, I was the object of some staring and cheeky children laughing but I managed to find the place and soon discovered I was the only guest.  My host was a twenty year old Belgian art school drop out volunteer called Jaro.  Very kind, he offered to give me a walking tour of the village and we duly visited the one bar, one football field (questionable skill level) and one cemetery.

It had recently been the Day of the Dead in Ecuador (hence the frenetic fireworks outside in Banos while I was on the drip inside).  It was actually quite moving and comforting to see the tremendous colour and celebration that the families left behind brought to the cemetery in the shape of flowers, cards, toys, memorabilia, trinkets and decorations.  It was truly a celebration and if the dead were watching I am sure they would be smiling and grateful.

There was an almighty storm, followed by power cut at 7.15pm which spelled the end of helping the local kids with their homework and the onset of a preemptive bedtime.  Duvet, plus four season sleeping bag, plus blankets ensured sufficient insulation against the mountain night.

A walk down from the village to the Panamericana the next morning resulted in a short wait for a passing bus, heading south.  I had to stand for a while but it was only a short journey to Alausi, my next destination.  An hour and a dollar later, I arrived in the slightly more touristy town.

I was only here to take the train, and as the next one didn't leave till 8am the next morning I had the day to kill.  There are only so many times you can walk around a small town and I did go slightly mad.

It was worth it though.  The Niariz del Diablo (Devil`s nose) section of the old Guayaquil-Quito train line was superb and up there with the Panama Canal in terms of engineering triumph.

The train from Guayaquil on the coast to Quito in the highlands was of significant economic, as well as political, importance in the nation building of Ecuador.  Alausi was chosen as the best place to make the transition from the lowlands to the Andes, but it still required an ingenious technical solution - a series of `switchbacks`or places where the train would advance up the mountain and then reverse on a changed set of tracks in the opposite direction to continue the climb.

Again, as with the Panama Canal, a humbling 2,500 men lost their lives building this railroad, the majority forced labourers form Jamaica and Barbados.  The rails were bought in and shipped from London.  The modern day locomotive was from France and, unfortunately, the six month old carriages were from Spain.  Unfortunately, because until 2009 it was possible to ride on the roof of the train which would have made the descent all the more magical.

The return journey up the mountain was slightly delayed (llamas on the line) and so I missed my bus connection to Cuenca.  

Not to be defeated, the amazing local taxi driver hit the gas, caught up with the bus (the last of the day) and after some serious honking and flashing managed to get him to stop and I gleefully jumped aboard.  Travel is surely about moments like these.

Cuenca was great but one couldn't help feeling it was yet another colonial town.  Now, controversial thought.  In terms of cities, why see a colonial town when you can see the `real thing` in Salamanca or Granada?  The point of travel is to see things different to at home, and so the highlights of Ecuador were definitely the people and the landscape.  Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, the avenue of the volcanoes, the bus journeys and the people were my abiding memories of the place, not so much the towns.

The hostel in Cuenca allowed me to catch up with my Cotopaxi climbing buddy, Tomas.  He`d lost his camera so I was able to transfer some of the pics we`d taken on the climb so he had his ascent for safekeeping.

Loja, like Cuenca, had lots of bookshops which I took as a good sign.  The journey there, however was a reminder of the value of being prepared.  

I`d left my ear plugs in the rucsac in the `hold` and so had to endure Ecuadorian rap pop for four hours.  Not interminable, you might think, were it not from the fact that the noise was emitted not from a single speaker nearby but from the entire ceiling of the bus which had been transformed into some kind of evil super woofer boom box.  

I hung out the window and developed cold ears which numbed the vibrations.  Fellow passengers might have thought I was being sick but I didn`t care.  The rush of wind outside was eminently preferable to the racket going on within.

Loja was noteworthy for two reasons.  One, me discovering that Obama had been re-elected.  I popped into an internet cafe and emailed friends in the US .  Two, me being woken up for the second night in a row by noisy neighbours.  Maybe its cultural, but when I sheepishly popped my head round the door to find an entire group of friends laughing and singing with the TV on full blast at 4am, I politely enquired as to whether it was possible to refrain for a while.  

Leaving Loja was also leaving Ecuador.  It was a direct service to Piura in Peru and I met up again with Abbie and Lorraine from Quito.  We, plus various other backpackers and locals inhabited the bus for nine hours as we descended from the Andes through stunning clouds and mountains to the plains below and the border at Macara.  The entry to Peru was quirky, a walk across a bridge and a journey through scrubland and finally desert, to the town of Piura.
Entering Piura was again like living the pages of Kerouac's "On the Road".  Perhaps it was because we had no expectations but it was hot, dusty, full of life, noisy and a sensory attack. Piura turned out to be friendly and fun, even if I did feel slightly guilty being there merely to get a flight out.
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