Ecuador to Peru

It's a typical scene. I'm standing in the aisle of a bus in Quito, my head is tilted at a slight angle, and rubs against the ceiling of the bus. You have to be constantly aware for the imminent pot hole or sudden screeching halt, or else your scalp is going to end up with all sorts of indentations. Because it is uncomfortable, but inevitable, I have developed a method of self-distraction so that I don't even think of how uncomfortable, or cramped, or hot, or smelly it is in the buses. I look first at the immediate passengers, studying each face as I go. Each ear, each line and then, when one person, usually and indian, takes my attention, I usually study each and every piece of clothing. Their unique hat, the poncho, the patterns, braided hair, the colours in general. I look at their hands and feet and try to tell whether they're from the land. What have they got in their manta (manta is the large woven cloth which is folded from opposite corners around any goods they wish to carry).

But this ride I find is easy enough. We're just going back to the hotel and the aisle isn't the usually human packed sardine affair that it can be. I notice Brad standing up closer to the door. He's standing under a roof vent and has, consequently, scored an extra hundred millimetres of head space. But it's strange. The rest of the aisle is empty except for a young guy standing behind me, but Brad almost seems to be attracting his own mini crowd. I sense something is wrong and call out, suggesting that he should maybe manoeuvre himself away, or, in the least, to be aware. The bus is stopping for passengers. But the premonition is a little late. He is alarmed at something, calls out and tries to bustle his way towards the door. I see a guy scampering off into the crowded street. Brad is still trying to fight his way out of the crowded door. I wonder what they got.

Later, we figured out what happened. Three guys; one behind, one in front and the one waiting a little closer to the door ready to receive and run. The two would get in close to Brad and with the motion of the bus simulate natural bumping into him. This way they get to feel where his "stash de cash" might be. Then with the deftness of professionals, a hand would be in and out of his pocket with the goodies. They would pass the goods to the runner and then proceed to, inconspicuously, block your way so as to give the runner time to escape. Of course, you knew that it was the slimy guy within pounding distance that perpetrated the act, but also that he wouldn't have anything on him. And so, to "pound him into hamburger meat" would be silly, because there would be no evidence. No cash. No moolah, loot .... nothing to be found on this pro.

At the time, we both figured it was a cheap lesson as he had lost only a few dollars and his visa paper for Peru. We would remember this situation and try to avoid it in the future.

Back in Manglaralto, and the calm that it brought to us, it seemed that all the events of the previous days could have been a thousand years before. Time's erasing edge.

The house of the Senora de Arcos had taken on a whole new flavour this time. The old crew of backpackers had gone and been replaced by a crazy Italian named Ivano, a strange German guy who had draped a large German flag over the outside of his door, and who you could hardly get boo from. There were three young Germans, one of whom would become a long standing friend.

I was now carrying a small soccer ball with me. It measured only a hundred and fifty millimetres in diameter and we would spend hours on the beach or in the sandy central plaza playing World Cup soccer against composite sides of local kids. Of course, even at ten years old, it meant that they probably had seven good years' experience in the tricky beach sand conditions. They proceeded to win World Cup after World Cup from the slower, but more flamboyant, Gringo side.

Reinhardt was twenty-seven, a full-time physical education student and part-time asparagus farmer. He was from near the Black Forest in Germany.

He announced that afternoon that he had been given a third-hand map of someone to visit, just nearby Manglaralto. It was decided that the expedition would involve the "crazy" Italian, Reinhardt and myself ..... in search of a chicken farmer!

A short few kilometres, an hour of slushing inland through jungle like terrain, we came across Victor, a Columbian guy who had been educated in Italy and had ended up with a beautiful red-haired Irish wife farming chickens and vegetables in a remote area of the Ecuadorian coast. What a mouthful!

Their house was different to all the others we'd seen, and showed the influences of more westernised thinking, combined with the practicalities of living in remote coastal Ecuador. It was set amidst a jungle like area of vegetation with banana and mango trees abounding. The house had been made of local timbers and materials, but with an architect designed quality and feel to it. A Robinson Crusoe hideaway. We would spend that afternoon and evening exploring his extensive farm, trading stories. A day that ended in style, with a delicious meal of home cooked bread, chicken and vegetables, together with wine. All of this by candlelight, with people I felt very good with. They were free, ruling their roost, good karma at every corner.

The night was still and warm. Life was great. Through the opened windows we could hear a symphony of noises echoing in the jungle surrounding the house. The virtuoso soloist was a unique sounding bird with a mass of crickets and frogs and who knows what, providing a general underlay of chords.

"We had to hit it several times with the steel of the shovel," was how Victor described trying to kill a large tarantula spider. It was common to find a tarantula in the chicken houses, just perched there, chomping away on some unsuspecting victim; they had jaws. And then there were the giant manta ray, out in the ocean, as Victor recalls, being at the front of a boat looking out for reefs. All of a sudden this massive manta ray, flapping its fifteen foot wing span up and out of the water, just metres in front of the boat. I quickly ran my eyes from the corner of the room to a point fifteen feet away and soon decided that this was big. Real big!

Next morning it was up with the sun to catch a ride with Victor as he took his chickens into the markets at Salinas. We were leaving our new friends and the restful Manglaralto to start our long trip back down the coast to Lima, the ugly city.

From Salinas to Guayaquil to Huayaquittas, the border town with Peru, only to find ourselves fifteen minutes late for the border closing time. After ten hours of travel we were "stiff" to be fifteen minutes late for the border closing time. Should we try to bribe? ..... nah! ... time ..... who cares? "Time means nothing to me ......... at times!"

It was a bustling border town, endless stores selling endless useless items, like biscuits and cheap Asian watches. Both the foot traffic and the transport lorries caused an eternal mist of dust to hang suspended. Everyone looked slightly browner than they would normally with a wash.

For one night only, we couldn't be bothered searching far and wide for a room, so randomness it was. Never again would we let randomness be so loose. A succession of drunken shouting matches, loud salsa music and giggling women was not conducive to the resting traveller. Nor were the mosquitos who had total liberty of entry through broken windows and holes in the walls. Their party died only some hours before we planned to arise.

It didn't seem right that, with only a couple of hours' sleep, no shower or breakfast, that we should be up facing border police, money changers and bus companies' hustlers. But we arrived at the Ecuadorian office right on time. What we hadn't allowed for, though, was the inevitable difference between the displayed opening time on the office door and the time at which they decided to open. In this case, about forty minutes late. Forty minutes that could have been invested in some nice deep sleep. I could have leaped buildings, saved lives, visited the moon. But no!

We sat there in the office waiting for the policeman to finish his cigarette, conversation, coffee, another conversation, a call on the telephone and the organisation of his desk. In readiness for another "big one" - all-consuming-border-stamping- excitement!

I looked across at Brad and Ivano (the crazy Italian), who had decided to come with us, and then looked at myself in the reflection of the glass which covered pictures of past Ecuadorian Presidents. I realised that the previous days of travelling, plus last night's effort without sleep and showers had left the ex-fresh faced beachcomber to present as a gritty and somewhat tarnished character. Hippies perhaps? Druggies? The sort of look we knew we should avoid at border crossings.

It was an exit stamp that we were after and Ivano and I had no problems, but when Brad came to get his, we found that he was missing a small piece of paper that was given upon entry, the dreaded entry permit. Probably stolen that day in Quito. There was now a different air filtering through the room, a room which only moments before had been centred on slow pace and early morning sunshine. Of things superfluous.

Now it was all waving of hands, making slight body turns as if to be walking off, but never with that intention. The debate. A serious game. A bit of fun. Time for the actors and the astute. It was a time for bribes and we knew it. They knew it. I thought how funny it was that neither side was saying anything about bribes and yet we all knew it would be integral to settlement.

And so it was, in rapid Broken Hill strine, that we discussed how many Ecuadorian sucres we had left. But, alas, we had neatly run ourselves down and out of Ecuadorian currency. Although there were many coins and a couple of notes, it only came to the equivalent of forty cents. There was hesitation; how to present a bribe was one thing, but how to show that it would be just forty cents was another.

They took it. We left "rapido". We guessed that it was probably just too early for them to produce their "best" performance. Maybe they weren't really that bad at all. We didn't know and didn't really care.

From the office it was a long walk down a dusty street lined with markets, mangy dogs, industrious street sellers and waves of "tiburons" (Spanish for sharks), or money changers, swarming all around. Children would come up to us begging, we were asked to buy things, to change money, did we want our shoes shined? batteries for our walkman radios? sandwich? shirt? .... anything!

We crossed the international bridge to be greeted with almost an identical, but Peruvian, flavoured version of the same. Two days later and we were back in the thicket of Lima.