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I was told that there is a new super highway, an engineering marvel of sorts, that runs from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, high in the Andes Mountains, down to the Pacific Ocean, that cuts the six-hour driving time to the coast nearly in half.
But the bus I was on earlier this month wasn’t taking it. We were on the older road, the one without the guardrails; the one with the precipitous cliffs and the three thousand-foot sheer drop-offs. It was the same road I remembered from fifteen years ago when within a two month’s time frame, I was involved in two separate bus collisions. Nobody, it seemed, was critically injured in either episode, but I suspected that one of the drivers would soon be looking for a new job, as just after the accident he staggered drunkenly off into the roadside underbrush, not to be seen again.
Riding in the front seat of a bus headed full-speed down some of the steepest terrain in the world is not an experience I’d recommend for my mother, but for me there was more leg room up front and the view was better. I was curious, too, as to how the countryside would look to me after being away from it for so long.
Sitting next to me was my old buddy, Jaime (pronounced Hy-May), who has lived most of his adult life in Ecuador and other obscure points around the globe. He assured me that the buses no longer raced each other up and down the mountains on the wrong side of the road in some kind of machismo-inspired demolition death wish.
"Tire prices have gone up so drastically," he said. "They take it easy now."
"This chofer is obviously an exception to your rule," I observed, as the driver suddenly swerved out to pass a gasoline tanker on a blind curve and then narrowly managed to get back into the right lane just before he would have crashed head-on into an advancing banana truck. The impassive bus driver, his eyes shielded by dark glasses never even flinched and I thought that if NASCAR can be considered a sport, riding a bus in the Andes should surly qualify as one, too.
"By the way," Jaime said, seemingly unaware of the close encounter. "Why don’t you call me ‘Mister International’ in this article you say you’re going to write?"
"How about if I call you ‘Señor International’?" I said. "Your English isn’t nearly as good as it used to be."
The lively rhythm of salsa music thumped from the speakers and outside the bus window the scenery was erupting into vibrant hues of tropical green: clumps of scrubby banana trees on one side of the road while on the other side were tall stately African palms planted in straight geometric rows. Up ahead a herd of hump-backed Cebu cattle grazed near a cluster of forsaken looking bamboo shacks on stilts. We were entering Esmeraldas, the poorest and most chaotic province in the country, and the place that I had called home for two years when I’d lived there in the mid-1980’s as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
* * *
In the weeks leading up to this long anticipated trip, I kept track of the news from Ecuador via the country’s numerous daily newspapers on the Internet. I was disturbed at what I read. A series of general strikes protesting price increases in gasoline and bus fares had paralyzed most of the country as demonstrators blocked major highways with walls of burning tires. The president responded by declaring martial law and imposed strict curfews, though that didn’t prevent several small but relatively harmless bombs from going off in various parts of Quito. A kidnapped American oil worker was murdered by unknown terrorists for non-payment of ransom. The other hostages, seven in all, were assured that the same fate awaited them if their employers, the foreign oil companies, didn’t cough up some $80 million dollars by the end of the next week.
And to top things off a family of eight had just been hacked to death by unknown machete-wielding assailants in the north of Esmeraldas near Colombia, an event likely linked to the never-ending narco-guerilla wars of Colombia which were finally spreading across the border into Ecuador.
Were things spinning so out of control in Ecuador that perhaps I should reconsider my vacation plans? I had a non-refundable airline ticket so I didn’t spend too much time entertaining the idea of canceling the trip. Still, I couldn’t help but be a bit nervous about the uncertainty of what lay ahead, though, I knew that without uncertainty there was no adventure and adventure was what life and traveling in South America was all about.
"Don’t worry about it," Jaime e-mailed me from his home in Cuenca, a city in the southern Andes of Ecuador. "The terrorists are out in the eastern jungles where we won’t be going unless you want to; and the strikes will last for a few more days and then the country will be back to normal."
Sure, whatever normal was.
Ecuador, in spite of its historic political instability—five presidents in the last five years! —still, had always managed to remain an oasis of tranquility compared to the savage wars and endless violence that had engulfed Colombia to the north for the past forty some years. The recent United States $1.3 billion-dollar action called Plan Colombia, which hoped to eradicate cocaine production in Colombia, was already having dramatic consequences upon the border areas of Ecuador. Coca growers and guerillas, as well as paramilitary death squads from Colombia were setting up their bases in Ecuador, displacing settlers and indigenous tribes and in some cases killing anybody who got in their way.
Most Ecuadorian newspapers regarded Plan Colombia as little more than a blueprint for a Vietnamization of the entire region. Ecuador’s president, Gustavo Noboa was recently quoted in Newsweek saying, "Our northern border was traditionally peaceful, without conflict, until decomposition and delinquency settled in southern Colombia and started spreading their poison."
* * *
What I remembered most vividly about the Esmeraldas coast, besides the constant scorching tropical heat, were the free-spirited people that lived there and their lusty zeal for life. Esmeraldas is where the majority of Ecuador’s black people live. As the story goes, they are the descendents of a 17th century shipwrecked slave ship, whose survivors, once safe on shore, found themselves in an environment which looked almost identical to their former African homeland. Mostly ignored by the central government in Quito for centuries, Esmeraldas has always suffered from a shortage of basic services and infrastructure and is widely regarded by the rest of the country as a decaying, dangerous and violent place, but that perception does not prevent tourists from flocking to the province’s many fine and beautiful beaches.
Jaime and I were headed for Atacames, which had been a small beach town catering to weekend tourists when I rented a house there during my last year in the Peace Corps. Friends had told me that the place had changed dramatically since then and this fact quickly became apparent as we rode the bouncing local bus into town. I marveled at the sparkling hotels, the high-rise apartment buildings and the dozens and dozens of new restaurants. The entire beachfront was lined with one palm-fronged kiosk after another, all selling identical tropical fruit drinks. And each bar had a sound system with its volume dial set on maximum, blasting out a wide variety of Latin, Rock and Reggae music into the soft sea breeze. We took a room at a newer hotel with a walkout second floor balcony overlooking the beach for $8 a piece. It was only after we had paid for two nights in advance, that the owner said, "At the moment there is no water in the hotel, but it will be