Monday, 1 December 2003

The grass may be greener - but so might you

We wanted to get from Ibarra to San Lorenzo.  According to the guidebook the only way was by train (for train read converted school bus that runs on railway chassis on the tracks) and you have to get there early in the day and fight for your ticket.  As it happened when we did get there the train was just pulling into the station but would not be leaving again for another 3 days at least.  Gunnar, the German I had met in Quito, had 3 months travelling but I only had 3 weeks so couldn’t afford that kind of wait.  News then arrived somehow from somewhere that a bus was about to leave.  Bus? But we thought there was no road.  A new one.  Is it finished?  A non-committal look and mention of “landslides permitting”.  Oh well, it’s supposed to be an adventure so we piled in with all the locals.
We anticipated a spectacular journey.  Ibarra is at 2210 metres on the Andes plateau in the north of Ecuador and San Lorenzo is 193 km away at sea level.  Most of the drop occurs on the first half of the route.  You move from the relatively barren landscape of the high altitude páramo through the tropical cloud and rain forests down to the mangroves swamps of the coastline.
The bus was full by the time we set off but of course that didn’t stop it filling up further as we began our descent.  Our rucksacks were jammed onto our laps and people and the occasional farm animal seemed to be pressing in from all sides.  It was going to be a long day especially as none of the locals seem to wear deodorant.   When the bus really was full, newcomers started climbing up onto the roof.  We were trundling along at a conservative speed, slowing now and then to avoid a landslip, so I started to envy them their vantagepoint – not only the fresh air and extra elbowroom but also access to the fantastic views that were now opening up on all sides.
I was lucky.  When we arrived at a bridge that was a bit shaky, we passengers were asked to get out and walk across to reduce the risk of the bus plunging into the ravine.  I took my chance and clambered up amongst the assorted cargo.  Gunnar decided to remain below.  My fellow dare devils greeted me with a smile and soon the wind was blowing through our hair, the sun shining on our faces and all was right with the world.  Of course grass is always greener and when a double mattress was hoisted onto the front of the roof, I envied those who claimed seats that were luxuriant compared to the rather harsh comfort of the roof rack at the back.
Before long though (an hour or two say – time is relative on such journeys) more people started to leave the bus than embark.  Finally I was in heaven when I was the only remaining passenger on the roof and I claimed the mattress all to myself.  Seldom can such amazing views have been enjoyed from such a unique and privileged position.
At least that’s what I thought ….
                                                                                …. until …
….. slowly but unmistakably ….
….  the driver’s foot began to descend on the accelerator. 
I hadn’t given it much thought at the start of the journey – when I was still indoors – that the driver had quickly consumed a couple of bottles of dodgy looking beer – well everything is a bit more relaxed in a place like that!  Now I began to wonder.  At slow speed the potholes had been avoided or felt as slow lurches.  Now they had the effect of launching me several inches into the air.  Luckily the mattress had been lashed on with a couple of ropes and I hung on to these for dear life while the rest of me performed what must have been a very impressive series of trampoline stunts.  I closed my eyes and prayed …
The thought that kept me going through the long ordeal was the passport control point somewhere ahead where I knew we would finally have to stop.  So it was that I lowered myself back onto terra firma.  My hair and clothes were full of dust and I’m sure I must have looked like a wide eyed ghost.  I think the driver knew exactly what he had been doing and I made sure I didn’t catch his eye as I disappeared into the bushes behind the bus.  

The trip to Ecuador was made in 1997.

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