Get In. Sit Down. Hold On.
Captain and I had some reserve about using public transportation for 2 months in Ecuador. Would people be peeing in the corners of the bus? Would we be sharing seats with a woman and her flock of birds? Honestly, we had no clue what to expect. If you do nothing but take public transportation while in the country, you will have a many stories to tell about your adventure in Ecuador!
Each bus ride is an experience in itself. A dollar will buy about an hour on the bus and there surely will be entertainment. Frequently we hear sales pitches on products ranging from bootleg DVDs to ‘natural’ face creams. Occasionally there are Ecuadorians sharing their political viewpoint. Other times I think we are being preached to by passionate religious folks. Not looking to be entertained? The bus is where we do our local banking…it is the only place we have found that (almost always) has change to break a twenty.
In the busier villages, men board the bus carrying their baskets of goodies. From ten cents to fifty, we can’t help but try them all! From sweet corn tamales, cheese stuffed bread balls and creamy rice pudding to slushy ice pops, fresh watermelon and a vast array of sweet treats, it’s like we are riding in an a la carte buffet!
The other day on the bus, I had fallen into a light sleep. Captain nudged me and said, “Wake up! You have to see this!” My eyes were still a bit hazy as they focused on the tall black man standing at the front of the bus. Captain woke me for a sales pitch? A Catholic sermon? Or was this man on his political soap box?
Captain said, “C’mon. You recognize this guy, right?!” I thought to myself. “My God? That is Bernie Mac! Does Bernie speak Spanish? Didn’t he die?” When Bernie started talking, the bus load began laughing. We had no clue what Bernie was saying, but after a 2 minute act, he collected a handful of small change and hopped off-board.
That’s right folks. Bernie Mac is alive and well, doing his Spanish comedy bus tour through Ecuador. If it wasn’t considered rude to take pictures of the locals, I would have gotten you a snapshot. Bernie Mac is probably used to it though. But after taking a pay cut coming to Ecuador, he might charge us for the photo…
On a busy day, there is absolutely no personal space on the bus. Every seat is occupied and people are stacked in the aisles trying to make room for those making their way off the bus. At the main bus terminal in Esmeraldas, a ticket can be purchased which ‘guarantees’ a seat. As the bus is departing, non-ticket holders can board but they will be left in the isles until a seat opens. Occasionally ornery teens will sneak into a reserved seat but rarely is there a confrontation of the stolen spot. As the seats become available, a man will offer it to the nearest woman first. It is custom for a polite young man to give up his seat for an elder or a mother and her baby.
I often take note of the bus driver’s choice of tunes. Interestingly, the pace of the music reflects the speediness of the driver. I am a bit weary when boarding a bus bumping with a fast beat…
The most commonly heard genre is what Captain calls Tech-Blow. Often times, the song is an outdated American Pop hit with sexy Spanish words dubbed in over the techno beat. The funniest song I’ve heard thus far: The Macarena (ironically, the English version). Didn’t that come out like 10 years ago? Captain’s favorite: Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River-even sexier in Spanish.
When school lets out and teens populate the bus, the scene becomes ‘Battle of the Spanish Bands‘. Each wannabe Rico-Suave has his cell phone in hand, blasting his favorite jam.
Along the peninsula between San Francisco and Tonchique is a strip of desolate beaches we love to explore. Ecuador’s “Pacific Coast Highway” was recently constructed along this peninsula and in some portions is still a dirt road. Occasionally a bus will take this route, but on a week day you will have better luck hitching a ride. We have found ourselves: riding in the back of a flatbed work truck with 8 police officers; sitting atop 20 crates of 32 ounce beers in an old livestock truck and riding in a car while having to hold the door closed around every curve!
There are a few options…
The bus had dropped us off at the T-road. We found a place to sit and wait for someone going south along the “PCH”. There is no sense is being in a rush or you will be quick to grow impatient.
Shortly thereafter (40 minutes), a farmer driving past slowed to make the turn. Our arms went up to signal for a ride knowing this may be our only chance for another hour. Local drivers heading the same way will often offer a ride to make an easy buck.
Our ride was going to be in the bed of a 1988 rusty pickup truck adorning a large chrome roll bar. The extended cab was crammed full with at least 8 persons already. “Isn’t this illegal in the US?!” I asked as we hopped in the back.
I wasn’t quite sure how to situate myself in the truck. An elderly man was already seated; he was sitting on the edge of the truck bed, legs bracing the sides and a tight grip on the slope of the roll bar. I followed suit but choose the corner nearest the cab. Captain took the open corner on the tailgate.
With all the speed bumps along this road, I was going to need to brace myself often. As the truck rolled away, I quickly settled in. I was positioned awkwardly under the roll bar but the truck was moving. Comfort was not priority at this point. Safety first!
I figured with us in the back, especially the old man, the farmer would take it slow. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As he gained speed and I recalled how winding this road is, negative thoughts sprinted through my head.
To distract my anxious mind from thinking worst case scenarios, I watched Captain’s face morph at our high speeds. How fast could we be going to distort his face like this? I was able to catch a glimpse of the speedometer. It said 80km/hour and this is when the farmer was slowing around curves! He had easily been driving 60 mph…
In attempt to make the most of this daring ride, I faced forward and embraced the moment. The sun was shining down on my face and my long hair blowing in the wind. As I began to relax into nature’s massage, out of nowhere, I was pelted with a ginormous insect. I am not sure what it was but I would be surprised if it survived it’s collision with my face! I speak from experience when I say gigantic insects hitting you in the face at high-speed will leave a welt. So much for that relaxing moment!
Each leg of the journey, the truck bed began to fill up. First, a woman with 2 huge sacks of potatoes; she tossed the bags over and quickly found a seat low in the truck bed. Next, two bare footed boys waved the truck down as they chased it for a free ride. Then, walking his two daughters home from school a man flagged down the truck. Shortly thereafter, we stopped for an elderly man with 2 stalks of plantains and a machete.
As each person hopped in they instinctively reached for the roll bar. It didn’t matter where you were sitting or standing, you just better be hanging on!!! I was relieved to be in my ‘safe corner’ near the roll bar. Captain on the corner was hanging on for dear life to who knows what. As the truck filled and the passengers packed in tighter, the slightest wrong move and Captain could go overboard.
When I thought we could no longer (safely) fit another human being, the truck started to slow. “Does the farmer not realize how many people are back here?!” I looked ahead to see whom we might be stopping for. Two very large middle-aged women looked excited for the ride. I thought for sure when they saw how tight it was already, they would wait for the next one.
This far out in the boonies, rides must be few and far between because these women were not passing up this opportunity. The women squeezed in and we were off yet again. Concerned with Captain’s safety, I peered through the mass of passengers and found him sandwiched between the newest on-comers. He wasn’t going anywhere…
God forbid, if a collision occurred road kill would be all of our fates. I can imagine the head line: Head on Collision. One Truck Destroyed. One Cow Down and Twenty People Dead.
It being a week day, we were a bit weary of the transportation we would have to get back home. There is not much along this peninsula and we sure didn’t want to get stuck here for the night! After spending the day exploring the coastline, we returned to the bus stop and were told the evening’s last ranchero would be through in a matter of minutes. Perfect.
The Ranchero is a livestock truck that has been gutted and refurbished into public transport. It reminded me of the San Francisco trolley but on wheels and moving a lot faster!
For a cheaper fair, you can ride on the back of the truck where you will be standing on a platform much like a railcar. But for the cheapest fair, you will find yourself on top of the ranchero. A 12 inch rail lines the roof to cling to. Watch out for low-lying limbs! With the highest fair only being a dollar, I gladly found my way to the truck bed; this ‘high dollar’ seating looked like rows of church pews. “Please God. Don’t let this be my last day.” This was my least dangerous option.
At first I thought I would be safest in the middle of the long pew. As we rounded the first curve, my ass slid all the way to the edge of the seat. I was stopped by the pew’s edge just before I toppled right out of the ranchero!
A moment later a dark shadow swoops past me spooking me even more. The fair collector was climbing all over the ranchero as it drove at high speeds. He moved about the ranchero along the edge while dodging branches and careful not to lose hold. When a person would board, he swing from row to row to collect the fair. The fair collector’s seat must be on the back because he would disappear for minutes and then reappear out of nowhere. With a fellow rider’s cell phone blaring techno, watching the fair collector was like an Ecuadorian Cirque de Sole.
What do these guys put on their resumes to get this job?!
Initially we thought we would be saving money riding the bus versus buying gas for the car but check out these gas prices! An hour for us on the bus costs more than a gallon of super!!!
Our bigger reason for considering renting/buying a car for 2 months was viewing public transportation as a hassle. We didn’t want to be “waiting all the time”. Looking back, I am glad it happened as it did. If we hadn’t spent so much time on public transit, we would have experienced a much different Ecuador.
What’s the rush anyways?