Another bus ride to be entered into the "classics" section of my book, which I've now entitled "A thousand and one Death-Defying Bus Rides in South America". This driver really has lost it! An absolute maniac, and I just sit there thinking of what I'll do at that split second that we career out of control; death duties, whether a coffin or cremation would be best seem silly things to be thinking about on a bus ride to the beach!
We've come extremely close to one head-on collision and there have been a few other times when I've just had to sit and hope for the best. Can a person who doesn't believe in God be allowed to pray? Ask to be granted safety? Oh yes ..... I think I'd like a sea blue coffin with gold stars all over. Oh! my God .... oops! ..... the sea is so many different shades of blue .... which one? .... which one?
If his excessive speed and daring when overtaking aren't enough, he's just been passed by another bus and must consider this the ultimate insult. His "lead foot" becomes more like "mercury foot". I'm sure he's actually pressed the accelerator pedal right through the floor. Of course, if the tension hadn't been electric enough, we now enter into the third straight hour of the same tape being played so loud that I almost have to scream at Brad to tell him how scared I am.
There seems no logic to all this; a whole bus load of passengers petrified, no-one daring to confront the driver. Or is this a cultural difference, something I just don't understand fully. It's with great relief that I disembark from that bus. Nine hours that will only ever mean that I have some more substance for my book. Letters back home.
When I had been able to draw my attention away from the road, I would observe mile upon mile of lush green jungle, interrupted occasionally by huge banana plantations. A heavy tropical shower had just burst from the fat grey tummy above us, leaves shimmering brightly with the afternoon sun fighting its way back through the passing cloud cover.
From Esmeraldas it was a short ride south to Atacamas. A small uncrowded beach town, palm trees everywhere and plenty of fresh fish and fruits to eat. A place to hang out and relax for a few days. It was here that my diet became a mixed fruit drink for breakfast, bananas for lunch and fish with rice for dinner. Three bananas for our equivalent of two cents and whole pineapples for twenty cents. A hotel for the usual dollar a night made going really tough on my budget!
I remembered the bearded face that was coming towards me and simultaneously we showed signs of mutual recognition. He had been one of the three Germans that Gus and I had passed on our way up the side of Mt Tungarahua. We stopped and chatted and compared travel notes on where we could recommend going etc. That evening was spent with a good fish dinner, a small gathering of gringos and guitar playing. Passing us through the reddened sunset and into the evening.
Onward and southward. In search of something which met a beach bum's requirements; a beach, a very small fishing village and somewhere to stay. We travelled all day and wound up at dusk in an ugly big shipping port called Manta. We would change money and move on next morning.
Brad had been gone about half an hour and I was staying in the hotel to write a few letters. This was by far the dirtiest hotel on our travels. The walls were grimy and there was a musty smell that matched the thickness of the oppressive humidity outside. I was glad that we would only spend one night here.
The beds were concave, with mattresses that were torn and stained. The sheets were old cotton flour sacks sewn together and the blankets looked like they could harbour every sinister bacteria known to humankind. The walls were breaking down and filthy; the door was such that you could sneeze on it and it would probably fall over. And it was hard not to sneeze in this musty atmosphere! What a history a room like this must have to it, I thought to myself.
I glanced around, expecting to see Brad and a big wad of sucres as the door creaked open. Instead, there were two men walking into the room. They were big men. One was a muscle bound black "dude" with a gun stuffed down the front of his trousers and the other was a fattened Ecuadorian with some hand-cuffs hanging from his belt. They wasted no time at all with their "element of surprise" tactics, as they asked to see my passport. Even to my surprise, I asked to see their identification first. Later on, I thought this had been the best thing I could have done as it showed immediately that their strength wasn't absolute. They was dealin' with one mean sucker ..... and that was me! I was bigger, meaner .... and a dreamer!
Although their cards showed "policia" on them, I still had my suspicious reservations, and proceeded with care. Then I really became suspicious as they opened my passport and gave approving nods at my visa, which would have been okay had I not noticed that they were looking at my Peruvian Visa, not the Ecuadorian one. A sure sign their reading skills were lacking.
All this time I was wishing that Brad would come back, as he was bigger than these two put together. But no. Next, they wanted the contents of my pack emptied out onto the bed, and I was now thinking that they thought they might find some drugs or something illegal, anything illegal, so that they might demand a bribe. At least make their climbing the three flights of stairs to this third floor hovel worthwhile. Clean as a whistle Keelan couldn't even produce a smelly pair of underpants for them to groan about, and as quickly and unannounced as they had come, they left. I still had my doubts about these two!
Brad returned. I tried to explain what had just happened, but it all seemed like fiction, a bad dream. Some hours later, on the bus, I found it all too hard to comprehend. Yahooo!! Onwards!!
We town hopped southwards with Manglaralto as our general destination. The last section in a bus, together with three Germans, was twenty or so kilometres along the beach. At low tide, the beach was a football oval, wide and as smooth as glass. The real road was muddy and very rough, and so the bus companies always used the beach at low tide in preference.
Manglaralto was very small, postcard pretty little sand covered central plaza, an expansive deserted beach, rough surf, bamboo and thatched houses. The smell of fish. Large trawling nets hanging from trees, boats on the shore. Boats under repair. It was a picturesque little fishing village, and an excellent choice for recluse.
The owner of the residential, which was the only lodging available, was an old lady. The Senora de Arcos, who had lived in France for most of her life, had eventually decided to look for a quieter, simpler life. The "Lady of the Arc". Senora de Arcos.
It was obvious that she loved the company and served up equal course of attentive enthusiasm with hours of tranquility. Delicious meals were cooked, followed by hours of knitting or pottering in the garden to pass the days, a life.
There was a large hammock strung up in the middle of the room which was the main living area, a kitchen on one side of it, and then four small bedrooms towards the ocean side of the house. Our beds were the best and cleanest we'd had and, surprisingly enough, there were six foot beds which made sleeping the luxury it should be. And all this for two dollars a night.
The evening meals were good times, as the Senora, Brad and I and the three Germans, Jo, Klaus and Angelica would sit around weaving in and out of conversations involving Spanish, English, French and German. In fact, it would become humorously confusing as you remembered who could understand which language.
Over one of such conversations we discovered that the World Swimming Championships were being held in Guayaquil. It was decided that we would go and take a look. We could also spend some time getting new visas for our inevitable re-entry into Peru. We took the five hour bus ride back to Guayaquil two days later.
The first day we caught some great games of waterpolo and, in the night, some finals in the freestyle and breaststroke. Next day, it was up again to go and watch the water polo as we found out that the Australian and New Zealand teams would be clashing.
So there we are, sitting in the grandstand, perspiration running amuck. It's got to be a hundred per cent humidity and over a hundred degrees in temperature. We both have large straw hats, sitting slopped with sunscreen, shorts and thongs. We're looking down on the closing stages of the game. The main pool is directly in front of the grandstand, but separated by the barbed wire fence and guards. The warm-up pool looks inviting as my body temperature seems to be rising like that of the thermometer. I start joking to Brad of how I think I'll pop down and have a swim. He brushes all this banter aside with a laugh and points out the stack of armed and officious looking people standing around the only entrance into the pool area.
Then, almost as if changing my whole attitude from one of joking to a dire necessity to go for a swim, I recall the famous words that a friend had passed onto me some years before. "Act like you own the world and nobody will question you". This attitude had worked before, and I felt sure it would work again. I announced to Brad that I was popping down for a swim. He laughed, but recognised intent on the sneaky, but confident, look on my face.
I was a gringo. I was tanned and fit looking and my hair was bleached from the previous couple of weeks of beachcombing. I put on my shirt, picked up my carrying bag, so as to look a little more official. Stopping at a hose down behind the grandstand, I wet my head and combed my hair. A general reconstruction from the sweaty and laid-back onlooker who had been sitting upstairs only moments before. I was a water polo player and I was going to play water polo.
As I got closer, time seemed to segment itself. I could clearly remember the snippets that I saw in that short space of time. I walked smartly and confidently pasts the checkpoint area of guards and officials. First there was the frame of the young guard, with hand perched readily on his machine gun. And the others too. The moustached official, beady eyes. They all had name tags. I guessed that players should have them too. Not so much as a slight hesitation step as two officials started to speak to me as I walked past. I couldn't understand a word they were saying. I was a water polo player from another country wasn't that enough? I would only be in Ecuador for two weeks, why should I understand them? Didn't they understand that?
It was too hot and humid for them to make anymore fuss and, besides, it was sure that I was a player.
I was inside and the two teams displaying their athletic bodies to the world via TV cameras were the Russians and the West Germans. I was glad I had worn my shirt because my chest didn't even resemble the muscular and developed ones of these real players. Each player's name was introduced. He would step forward and up on to the tiled surround of the pool. I glanced upwards and focussed in on Brad's smile. His uneasy smile. His "Will I have to fish Keelan out of some jail cell tonight?" smile. You know, the sort of unnerved smile produced when you want to smile but you're uncertain whether the final point will be funny.
I wondered whether my friends and family might be watching back home, so I inconspicuously stayed in line with the direction the TV cameras were pointing and imagined someone back home casually saying, "Look, that guy, it's Peter!"
But all these thoughts and imaginary scenes aside. It wasn't getting any cooler and, besides, the warm-up pool was empty. I walked up, placed my bag in one corner, took off my shirt and thongs, and as I dived into the cool chlorinated water, felt as if I'd just completed a major coup.
It was the diving pool and almost three metres deep. I would dive down deep so as to feel the water get colder and colder against my body. I swam a couple of laps to keep the authenticity of my existence there, to any possible observers. As I dived down once more, my peaceful world was broken into by the sight of lots of bodies diving in and then up quickly. Hovering there with legs propelling them continually upwards were the Russian water polo team. I quickly swam to a neutral corner of the pool, and propped myself up. My lower half dropping restfully into the water. A ball bounced off the side bar of the practice goal and landed just in front of me. I picked it up and threw it over to Obilinskavinchsky, or whoever he was. He turned and whizzed it into the back of the net. Great pass Keelan! Mission completed comrade!
We spend another day in Quito, while deciding that we should soon start heading south into Peru. Heading for Cuzco and the real centre of the Inca civilisation. We return for a few more days of relaxation in Manglaralto before heading South into Peru and renewing that constant need for concentration. The guarded presence, the unexpected.