Seeing the world, one country at the time

From Hell to Safe Haven - From Peru to Ecuador

It should have been an easy though long trip to the border with Ecuador. We left Chiclayo that night with a local bus service, the only one leaving in time for us to reach Guayaquil for the weekend. We had plans. Our hostess Helene had organized a beach outing and we had to be there for the three day escape to the coast. Looking back, we should have waited one day to get a ticket with the reputable bus company, with the safer option. But we didn’t, because we had a deadline. We would come to regret our choice by the next morning.

It wasn’t a comfortable ride, but it was acceptable. We sat through the 13 hours trying to keep occupied, but I was unable to write or read due to the jolting bus and my motion sickness. So I listened to my iPod and sat through the long night as Lars napped, keeping an eye on things and waiting to arrive at Tumbes, the border town, at six am. At five I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew, the bus had stopped and my iPod was dead. We were in Tumbes.

As we gathered our belongings, I reached under my seat for my backpack. It was gone. Incredulous, I reached farther, got up, looked underneath, looked behind. Nothing. Vanished into thin air. A sour looking man sat in the seat behind me and I asked him “did you see a backpack?” He ignored me, got up and elbowed past me. I started to panic. That backpack held all the notes I’d taken over the past three months of travel, what was supposed to be the backbone of my articles and web blog. All gone.

I rushed down the aisle, only to be blocked by a fat man in the door who asked if I needed a taxi. “I was robbed!” I yelled. There were policemen outside and no one had seen anything or anyone. I assumed it was an inside job, but what to do? It was still dark out and the guy could be anywhere. We had the taxi driver drive us to the police station, though he tried to change my mind and drive us to the border instead. We spent a useless half hour with the police, writing up a report for insurance reasons. Not that there was anything of monetary value. On the contrary, to me it was priceless.

We weren’t even in Ecuador, but already the country gave me negative vibes. Tumbes, Peru, however, was the worst. It gave us a bad feeling which didn’t go away, and just got worse as the taxi driver continued to cheat us of dollar after dollar. We got the distinct impression he was tied to the mob somehow. After the police were through, the driver took us to the border for way too much money, then refused to take us through to Ecuador, though he warned us of all the criminals, and indeed, the place reeked of crime. Everybody looked crooked and conniving to us. When the driver parked down a side road and suddenly demanded more money, I paid, worried that he had friends hidden down there who would grab us if I didn’t. Besides, we just wanted to get the heck out of Dodge.

During the drive he claimed to have helped another foreigner who was robbed of her camera to recover her film, and convinced me that he could, for a pittance, use his cousin’s CB radio to appeal to the robbers to return the bag for a reward. I was 90% sure he was a fraud, but on the off-chance he would do what he said, it would be worth it. I got his number, but never spoke to him again, though I called and heard from his family that there was no bag.

On the Ecuadorian side, we got into another taxi, whose driver asked for a ridiculous amount to simply take us over the border. We were getting swindled, no doubt about it. Ecuador uses American dollars as their currency and have no concept of their worth, so goods and services are almost as expensive as in the US, yet the quality is much poorer. We should have visited just five years earlier when the currency was Sucres and everything was affordable. One day, the government decided to scrap the local currency and adopt the dollar, without giving anyone time to exchange their money for dollars, leaving them gobs of useless currency. The increased poverty led to more crime as a way to survive. Another fiscally responsible move by a South American government with the constituents’ best interests at heart.

When I paid the cab driver, he gave me strange-looking bronze coins in return. “What is this?” I asked. “Dollars”. “No they’re not, I want dollars”, and I snatched my money back. But they were dollars, legitimate and odd. They were Sacagawean dollars, those coins that only post offices and vending machines give you. Still, they could be fake in this backwater. So I went to change my money while the driver looked on, annoyed, and the moneychanger rushed my meticulous check of each of his dollar bills so he could catch his bus. Everybody was out to cheat us, it seemed. I feared the worst from everybody. We finally found a bus to take us to Guayaquil, a tedious four-hour ride in a crowded, uncomfortable, hot bus filled with potential thieves. I expected to be robbed at any moment and watched everybody like a hawk. It was not an auspicious beginning to our Ecuadorian experience.

Luckily, our friend Helene was in Guayaquil to change all that. We arrived at the bus station in the center, which was a concrete block that looked only half finished and did nothing to improve our first impressions. We joined the throngs exiting the building. In front of us walked a mother and son. He held a rooster in his right hand, whose head would occasionally smack into the ground. After a few minutes I was sickened to realize that it was still alive. We found a taxi that would take us to the US Consulate, a safe haven at least for me, if anything else were to happen. Besides, Helene would be there.
The taxi ride that should have cost tops three dollars in a scrap of metal cost us seven.

We were relieved to find Helene at the Consulate. We had last seen her in DC when she was going through the Foreign Service training and here she was at her first posting. Her home was a quiet haven where we could re-group, connect with family and friends and experience a bit of the western world we had left in October. We took over her office and enjoyed her hospitality and the services of the household help, who cooked us great meals and helped us to get settled. Meanwhile, I was kicking myself for not having locked up my bag like I intended, since having my toiletry kit stolen the week before. My interest in writing or even keeping a diary sank to nonexistent and I questioned whether I wanted to continue our travels. It was that bad, I was that angry. Lars and I plotted our return to Tumbes to torch the place. It needed a good cleansing.

It was a godsend to be able to escape with Helene and her work colleagues to the beach for a long weekend. We spent the next day being lazy and packing and left after work in a convoy of three cars. Security is paramount with State Department people. It is drilled into their skulls constantly. I remember the list of security rules when working in Brussels and Lagos, and Ecuador is equally dangerous with its car-jackings, robberies and the popularity of an American visa. Better to be safe than sorry.

We drove the Ruta del Sol, or Sun Route, along the coast, stopping in Ballenita at the maritime-themed Farallon Dillon hotel on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We settled into our rooms and met on the balcony where we cracked open various bottles for a toast before dinner. It was good to chat easily in English, especially for Lars. We were tired. The next day we continued up the coast, stopping for lunch at a charming little seaside tent where we tried the sublime Ecuadorian ceviche, a distant cousin to the Peruvian version, yet strong enough to stand independently. It became a fast favorite and staple in our diet. Not only was it delicious, but affordable.

That afternoon we reached our destination, the Al-Andaluz eco-lodge, a bamboo resort in the jungle on the sea, where we lounged for two days on the beach, watching fishermen cast their nets early in the morning as their wives and children waited patiently by their catches so they wouldn’t be stolen. We read, talked, sunbathed and ate to our hearts’ content. A group of American college students were already installed at the resort, emptying the bar and we found out that they were on an environmental studies semester abroad. Not a bad study-abroad program that lets you stay at a fancy resort for a week! I was amazed that they could afford this lifestyle. It’s true, Americans are wealthy and everybody knows it.

We slept well in our tropical open-air bungalows. Our mosquito nets kept out the creepy-crawlies, though they got to my open bag of chips and into our luggage. We showered with crickets and other friendly bugs and felt like Swiss Family Robinson. One evening we came back to find a cute frog perched on the toilet seat. Not knowing whether it was poisonous or not, I hesitated to touch it, but had to get it off somehow. We scared it into jumping straight onto the rubbish bin’s swinging lid and we couldn’t help but laugh as it clutched on with its sticky toes as the lid swung back and forth, threatening to drop him into the dark depths below. Somehow, he escaped.

When the time came to leave, we were still not ready, but a few days at Helene’s was not a bad alternative. We relaxed for a few days, went out to dinner and did some sightseeing. We spent a day around the Malecon 2000, a newly completed renovation project that has transformed a run-down harbour into a bustling restaurant and social scene, with an IMAX theater, boardwalk and shopping arcade. It’s the extent of Guayaquil’s chic culture.

My favorite area was the charming hillside village of las Penas at one end of Malecon 2000, with its lovely chapel and lighthouse on top, with a great view of the freight ships in the gray port and the city of Guayaquil. There is even a pirate ship complete with bar. Las Penas used to be a crime-infested area and has been salvaged from itself, repainted and redeveloped to be a colorful tourist attraction, similar to el Caminito in Buenos Aires’ la Boca neighborhood. Only the rose-colored tint of this Pleasantville is more obvious than el Caminito’s, as you look beyond the gates that lock after dark, into dark and dingy alleys, a gray forlorn version of the pristine world you stand in.

Our next trip would be to a world so far removed from the poverty and tricks of Ecuador, that you could hardly believe it belongs to the same country. We were headed to Galapagos, the famously exclusive playground for the animal kingdom and the source of all the debate on Intelligent Design versus Evolution.