We made it to Cuenca… but it wasn’t easy.

We left Baños early with what we thought was without a hitch. To get to Cuenca, we had to go north to Ambato about an hour and then head south. It was supposed to be a seven-hour bus ride. And we were smart this time; we actually brought some food with us. So, we got to Ambato and this woman comes running up to us to sell us tickets to Cuenca. We ask her when the bus was going to leave and she said “10 minutes.” One thing I’ve learned since we’ve been down here is that to a South American, time is relative. One person’s 10 minutes is another person’s 30 minutes. We stood around waiting for the bus for at least a half an hour. Every time we asked where it was, it was always “10 minutes.” Meanwhile, we were both beginning to smell like roasting chicken. There was a little restaurant next to the bus place that had a grill going. No matter where we stood, the smoke from the cooker would follow us.

Finally the bus comes and we somehow managed to get our stuff under the bus in the carriage. It wasn’t easy. One of the passengers was transporting entire bales of I don’t know what, some sort of medicinal herb. But there was tons of it. We get on the bus and we’re feeling pretty smug; we didn’t have to wait hours in Ambato, we got good seats and we were going to make it to Cuenca to find a hotel and have a decent dinner.

That feeling lasted about two hours. Then the mayhem began.

At some point, traffic stopped and the police were telling the busses that there was no way they could continue on that road. “No passado” they said. Now, everyone on the bus is looking out the window and could see other busses waaaay over there that had obviously made the passage. Additionally, the driver’s minion (they always have a minion) told us that they would have to charge us three more dollars because the detour would add 2-3 more hours to the trip. Well, that just caused an uproar. The were all pointing to another bus that made the turn and they kept saying, “That bus is going. We can go.” They were yelling at the driver, “Vamos! Vamos!” The driver caved, backed up and took the left instead of the right. Of course, we got through a few hairpin turns and had to stop. There was a whole traffic jam of busses unable to continue. The driver sent his minion down to investigate and near as we can tell, he confirmed that no busses were able to go forward.

Now, Peter and I are thinking, “Did they think the police were pulling their legs? Do police routinely tell people they can’t do something when the reality is they can?” I’m all for a healthy skepticism when it comes to law enforcement personnel, but I kinda’ trust them when they say a road is impassible.

So, here we are in a huge, fully loaded bus on a narrow, two-way road with a cliff going up on one side and a cliff going down on the other and we’re pointing the wrong way. What does the driver do? He decides he’s going to turn the bus around. So, he sends his minion out to tell him how far he can go and he starts to back the bus up and he turns the wheel. We’re all standing up at this point, looking out the window and we all don’t realize what he’s doing until he starts to do it. We heard his minion screaming, “Stop Stop Stop!” The bus is seriously lurching and the gears are grinding and I notice that our bus’ ass end is hanging over a cliff! I, of course, start to freak out. In fact, I freak out so bad, the baby right next to me starts to scream. At that point, everybody starts to scream and starts to head for the exit. We all bolt from the bus and when I got off, I saw that the back tires of the bus are within an inch of the road’s edge, which, on these roads, is within an inch of the edge of the cliff.

So most of us are standing there watching the bus driver turn this behemoth around on this narrow road. I say most of us because about half the men on the bus decided to use this time to take a pee break. There must’ve been a good dozen of them, all lined up, peeing off the side of the cliff while this drama was going on. They were oblivious. The driver somehow gets the bus turned around and we all pile back on and he goes back up the road and heads for the detour. At this point, when his minion came around to collect the extra three dollars, there was no fuss made by anybody.

As far as the obstruction goes, that remains a mystery. But I don’t think it’s our poor Spanish that keeps us ignorant. I don’t think anybody really understood what the blockage was. As near as any of us could tell, either the road had crumbled or there was a rockslide but whatever it was, busses were just too big to get around the obstacle. I think we were lucky we didn’t get on an earlier bus or we would’ve been stuck in that traffic jam unable to get out.

So, now we’re taking the long way to Cuenca. The road we had to take to get to the other highway went through this teeny weeny town. This huge bus was making sharp turns and taking narrow streets, stopping for directions every now and then. The streets were so narrow that there was little more than an inch or two on either side of the bus, which meant we could see directly into people’s homes. It was funny to see the startled faces of the inhabitants of these buildings sort of just looking up from what they were doing with a huge “WTF” look on their faces. Everybody in town just sort of stood there and stared. They couldn’t believe what they were looking at. We got out of that town without gouging anything, an impressive feat, and we were on our way… on a dirt road. Apparently, this road wasn’t finished and though structurally, it was the same as the other highway we were on — with hairpin turns and cliffs and everything else we’ve come to know and love about bus travel on this continent — it was unpaved. We had to travel on a dirt road out of the Andes region, through the cloud cover because we were above the cloud cover, down to what seemed more like the Amazonias region with tons of plantain fields and then, eventually, back up to the Andes region to get to Cuenca. I don’t think I said too many Hail Marys. In a situation like that, there are never enough Hail Marys to be said.

Once we got down to the bottom part, it was hot. Though, for some reason, very few people were willing to open the windows. It got so bad for Peter he threatened to take off everything he could. Oh, and I think I forgot to mention that this bus had a bathroom… that didn’t work! I didn’t realize that right away or I would’ve had to pee a lot sooner. We passed gas station after gas station, the bus driver never stopped. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t stop. Didn’t he have to pee? He finally stopped at a roadside restaurant and everybody bolted out of the bus. Some grabbed toilette paper, others just ran to where they could pee. I was one of the ones who grabbed my toilette paper and made a beeline for one of the restaurants that didn’t seem too crowded.

Have you ever seen that movie “Trainspotting” where he really had to go and the only place he could find was “the worst bog in Scotland”? Well, this was the worst bog in Ecuador. And I didn’t care. I won’t go into details, I’ll just say I just did it and ran. But I did get a healthy glimpse of the back area of the restaurants we pulled up to and it was not pretty. I mean I saw big, gaping holes in the plaster in the kitchen that exposed the area to the elements, discarded trash and food, no purified water that I could see and even the dogs were just sniffing around. They weren’t eating anything. That’s when you know it’s bad; when a mangy and starving animal won’t eat what you have lying around.

I went out front and saw that almost everyone on the bus, including the driver, was eating the amuerzo! Peter and I, the only gringos on the bus did what every good gringo would do in that situation would do: we bought a couple of bottles of coca cola. We stood off to the side, sipping our coke, swatting at the flies, and we were completely bewildered. Were these people crazy? Were they really eating this stuff? Oh my gawd! I couldn’t imagine what would happen to either one of us if we ate that. They all woofed down their meals, the workers were pleased with their sudden windfall, and we piled onto the bus to resume our journey. We just hoped that when the inevitable food poisoning kicked in, the driver would be able to hold it together and not crash the bus.

Now it was beginning to get dark. We were heading back up into the Andes and the clouds were lovely. There was even a rainbow amongst the mountaintops. Really stupendous views. Both Peter and I discussed the fact that this was supposed to be a seven-hour bus ride and it was obviously going to be a lot longer and didn’t the bus need gasoline? We passed gas station after gas station and Peter and I just looked at each other and shrugged. We knew the bus was going to run out of gas, we just didn’t know when. Right at dusk, the bus slows down and stops. Then we heard the engine stop. Then we heard the driver, who shall now be known as “Kramer,” try to start the bus and it was definitely an out-of-gas sound. Both Peter and I did a facepalm. This trip was just getting comical.

Peter goes outside with all the other men on the bus to “examine the mechanical situation.” You know how men are. They all sort of hike up their pants, adjust their collar and look at an engine or some piece of equipment like they know what they’re looking at, whether or not they actually do. Peter told me that the driver sent his minion out to hitch a ride and he came back with a couple of gallons of gas and siphoned it into the bus. He said he really looked like he’d done that a few times. He also said a good portion of it went on the ground and the minion, (which I could tell because later, when he came around to collect fares, the only thing I could smell was gasoline). All the men piled back onto the bus, the bus started and we resumed the trip. Now, everybody knows a few gallons of gas isn’t going to get a bus very far. That didn’t keep Kramer from passing up a few gas stations AS WELL AS stopping to pick up passengers. When he finally stopped for gas, he didn’t even fill it up all the way. Had he done that, we would’ve been there for at least 20 minutes. As it was, weren’t there for longer than five!

So now, it’s getting really dark. The three women he picked up were wearing loads of perfume and carrying four little kids with them. Now, I think the rules on the busses are if you have a kid and they can sit on your lap, you don’t have to buy them a ticket. But there were three women and four kids. Where was the fourth kid going to sit? Nowhere, that’s where. She just stood there and sort of went back and forth talking and playing and whatever. And I forgot to mention that this entire time, the music on the bus was quite possibly the worst music I’ve ever heard. Ecuadorian music is pretty bad. I think it’s called cumbia and it’s got a sort of horses galumphing along sort of beat; three quick beats followed by a silent fourth beat – I’m not kidding, it sounds like horses galloping. Anyway, there was a lot of that, which I could almost tolerate, but there was something else, something I can’t describe. It was techno but not techno. Rap, but not rap. Pop, but not pop. Reggaeton but not reggaeton. Completely manufactured and absolutely not musical, with words ‘sung’ (with lots of electronic postproduction of course) that were absolutely brilliant, like “I’m in Miami, bitch!” and  “Blah Blah Blah”. (Seriously, one of the songs had lyrics that were mostly “Blah blah blah.”) Add to that distraction a squawking rubber chicken that one of the kids had and insisted on squeezing NONSTOP for hours, throw in a dash of low blood sugar and viola, I lost my mind.

The first stop we came to that looked like a bigger city, I tried to get off the bus, only to find out it wasn’t Cuenca. I sat back down like I’d just been told I was denied parole. We were supposed to have gotten to Cuenca at around 5 pm and we ended up getting there at nearly 9 pm. By the time we found a hotel, we were starving and cranky and tired. We ended up at a Mexican restaurant and were sucking down margaritas and tequila to make the pain go away. Once the buzz kicked in, we were fine. It just took a lot of ‘medicine’ to get us to that point. I came back to the hotel and showered. Peter stayed out for a bit, well, a while really.

Funny thing is, this hotel, or hostal rather, has the thinnest walls of any place I’ve ever stayed. As the people on either side of our room came home, I got to listen to EVERYTHING they did. At about 1:30, the lesbians in the room to our right got home and they proceeded to talk, and talk and talk and talk and talk. Ohmygawd. No offense to lesbians, but I can imagine, with the way women like to talk, that TWO women in a relationship means A LOT of talking. Thankfully, they didn’t have loud voices so I didn’t have to listen to the inane babble, but it was this constant sort of buzz that went well beyond 4 am (and started again after the church bells rang at 7 am). Then, at about 2:15 am, the other couple came in and they were loud loud loud Americans. They were smashed and she was going on and on about how drunk she got him and how impressed she was with her accomplishment and “Uh-oh. Isn’t it funny that I have holes in my panties?!” Finally, Peter comes in about 3:30 am, a full hour and half after the bars close and his explanation was that at 2 am, the bars close and if you’re in them, you can stay, but the owners shut out the lights and make like they’re closed for when the police come by to make sure they’re obeying the liquor laws. This sort of deviance, naturally, energizes Peter and thus, he was able to stay out waaaaaay beyond my curfew.

The next day, neither one of us was willing to get on a bus again so we wandered around this pretty little town. We found their mercado and got some stuff for our next bus trip. Peter also got one of his favorite green drinks and I got a morocho, which is sweetened hot milk with hominy in it, and also, maybe a little vanilla. Delicious. I guess my face got a little expressive over it and some of the folks there started to laugh a bit at my abject pleasure at something so delicious. I didn’t care.  That’s what my face does. It contorts a lot, which is one of the myriad reasons I don’t look good in photographs. My face is always twisted up and doing something weird. Whatever.

Tomorrow we make our way south to Loja and then onto Piura, Peru. Hopefully, those bus trips will not be as {ahem} eventful.

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