Notes from Peru (and Ecuador): #5

[Note: I’ve heard the call for more photos, and I’ll begin posting more. But because I’m adding this from an internet shop where I can’t upload photos, this post unfortunately has none.]

I last wrote on the fourth, in the afternoon. I forgot to mention how much I missed the festivities at home that day, as I did more and more as the day progressed. By the evening, I just wanted to be home, anywhere in the country of my birth, to watch fireworks and eat barbecue. But this year I knew I’d have to do without. Instead, I had a joke of an Independence Day celebration with a friend of a friend I met that night. My new friend [sorry for the awkwardness; I’ve decided to keep names out of all my posts here, in case people I discuss prefer not to be written about online] had arrived in Lima only about a week earlier, and she’s spending the next two months here. Missing home together, we had dinner, talked about traveling and living abroad, and enjoyed enough Peruvian beer with enough American spirit to feel we had done something minimal, and all we could do, to celebrate the holiday. It wasn’t very patriotic, but it was a fun evening. I was very happily surprised to meet someone who wanted to talk about the impending FISA disgrace as much as I did.

The next day was the best of summer, even though the Limeños call this weather winter. I woke up late, walked to the coast, and read for hours. I don’t think I did anything else.

On the sixth I met up with a cousin of mine, the relative I was waiting for to make plans for the next week or two. She’s a third cousin and I had only met her once or twice before, so we don’t know each other well. But she was in the Peace Corps a few years ago near Piura, in northern Peru, and she was planning to go back to her community for a two-week vacation. I hoped I could tag along, at least for the trip up the coast. She extended a full invitation for me to join her and the two friends she’s traveling with for as long as I wanted, so that afternoon I got on a bus with them to Tumbes, at the northern tip of the country.

It was my third overnight bus in Peru, but the first eighteen-hour bus ride of my life. And it was remarkably pleasant. We left at 3:00, so for the first few hours I watched the country roll by. The Pan-American Highway runs along most of the Peruvian coast, and in places it runs on the coast. About an hour north of Lima, the highway began to divide ocean on the immediate left from desert dunes on the immediate right. A two-lane strip of asphalt was all that separated the water from the sand. Swerve left and we would have been in the drink. Swerve right and we would have hit a hill of sand. Good thing we stayed on the road. Peruvian buses, especially long-distance ones, are not shabby, and as the sun went down we were served a good, hot dinner, which I never expect to get on a bus in the U.S. I slept for most of the dark hours and woke up with only two or three hours to go, which I filled by once more looking out the window, this time at the newly green surroundings.

The coastal desert than spans much of Peru stops in the north and makes way for more stereotypically South American forest. Tumbes, which is only 30 kilometers from the Ecuadorian border, shows little sign of desert, and boasts a nearby mangrove forest. Once there, we spent the morning walking through the town center, and I tagged along to a meeting the others had arranged in the afternoon. My cousin is a nursing student at Johns Hopkins, and one of her friends was a biology major in college. The two of them had arranged to visit a Hopkins-affiliated clinic in Tumbes that researches and fights cysticercosis in nearby towns, where poor care of pigs and little care toward diet make the disease far too prevalent. Of course, I had never heard of cysticercosis, and I didn’t care much about the science, but I appreciated hearing about local health problems and seeing how some are acting to help. And I especially appreciated that I was able to follow the three-hour tour, given in Spanish, perfectly. As much as I’ve worried about it, my language skills have improved dramatically, and I guess I only see the progress at select times. It was also pretty cool to see a CT scanner, as I mentioned earlier, and to set up a trip to Ecuador by chatting with our cab driver, whom I arranged to have meet me the next day to start me on my trip.

We spent the next morning on the ocean, taking a tour of the famous mangroves near Tumbes. Puerto Pizarro, the port we left from, is supposedly where Pizarro first landed on South America. Plants growing in water are cool, as were all the birds that live in and fly around the islands of mangroves. And I always love being on water, despite or because I leave land so rarely. I love boats and spending time at sea. I don’t know why, but I’ve never needed or searched hard for an explanation. But best of all that day wasn’t the water, plants, or birds. Instead it was the crocodile zoo (or Zoocrocadilo) on a small island tucked into the mangroves. It was the simplest zoo I’ve ever seen, and as exciting as any I can remember. In maybe a dozen recessed pits were hundreds of crocodiles (over 250, they told us), divided by age. Several dozen animals filled each confinement. The first pit contained startlingly small reptiles—only about a foot or two long—which moved constantly and quietly. Each cage contained animals bigger than those in the last cage, and our guide explained each time that the crocodiles were older: two months, eight months, two years, four years, six, eight, twelve. The last pit, which was as big as a basketball court, held maybe a dozen crocodiles as big and scary as those of the movies. Unlike the little ones, these ancient giants moved rarely, but when they did they thrashed their tails and crashed into their pool or back onto land. I asked whether the zoo guards enter the pits to feed the animals and didn’t believe our guide when he said they did. At the end of our trip we enjoyed lunch of always-fresh seafood on another island, the poorly named Isla de Amor, which contained only two small “restaurants” (hut with kitchen, chairs outside) was about the size of a baseball stadium, and did not have particularly pretty beaches. Anyone who goes to the island, I was told, will fall in love with a Peruvian. I’m still confused about the legend and the name.

Once back from the water I returned to our hotel and met the cab driver from the day before, who had shown up early. I wasn’t feeling well (headache, sore throat), so I took some medicine before getting into the car. We had agreed he’d take me to Huaquillas, a town just across the Ecuadorian border, where I could get a direct bus to Quito. I had only decided to go to Ecuador the day before, as we talked in the car on the way to the cysticercosis clinic, and I planned the trip on several whims. Tumbes is only 30 kilometers from Ecuador, so I figured I should cross the border before I head south, just so I could say I visited another country. But if I was going to Ecuador, why not see a real city, like Guayaquil, about which I had heard great things, and which I learned was only five hours away? (After two eight-hour bus rides and the more recent eighteen-hour ride, five hours seemed like a puddle jump.) And, if I was going to travel well into Ecuador, why not go the extra distance and see the capital? I knew the trip wouldn’t be more than a few days, but even in that time I felt I could briefly get to know Quito and Guayaquil, the two major cities of a country I hadn’t been to. So to Quito it was, but first to Huaquillas, and to get my bus.

Duber Godines, my driver, and I drove the half-hour to Huaquillas, chatting about the usual, with a little more local banter thrown in. Like the other young guys I’ve met, he eventually turned the conversation to my country. Was there a demand for truck drivers? He had been a truck and bus driver and had driven all over Peru. I told him I didn’t know about demand for drivers, but I thought that to get a driver’s license in the U.S. it is necessary to know English. (Was I right?) I didn’t mean to dishearten him, but I wanted to give him honest advice. Once again, I was happy with how easily I got by in Spanish. I make frequent mistakes conjugating verbs, and I’ve given up on a lot of articles, but I like to think I’m mastering prepositions, and I know I’m communicating fine. Conversations in Spanish are getting to be fun.

Navigating Huaquillas, however, wasn’t so easy, and the problems weren’t due to language barriers. Before we reached the town we pulled into immigration on the Peruvian side, where I was to surrender my entry card and get my passport stamped with my exit. The building was small, dark, and shabby. Paint peeled off the walls, and signs were handwritten and hard to read. I was directed into one room, where they took my entry card, and into another, where they stamped my passport. Guiding me through the process were no officials; instead there were two fast-talking guys who pointed to rooms and shouted that they’d help me cross into Ecuador. I didn’t know the procedure, so I followed their advice and tolerated their eager hassling until I got out of the immigration building. One of the guys had said my driver couldn’t cross the border, so he would walk with me. He was Ecuadorian, he explained. But Duber stood by the car, seemingly ready to go on with me. I approached and he began to get in the car, so I followed. The guys kept shouting at me, telling me they would cross with me and help me get where I needed to go, and I looked to Duber to cut them off or tell me whether I did, in fact, need one of them to help. But he said nothing. Then the back door opened, and I saw my bags being moved. My computer, camera, and external hard drive, all in bags on the back seat, were not things to be handled by strangers, especially not these strangers. “Que haces?” I snapped as I spun around, explicitly indicating for the first time I didn’t want them following me. The guys said again they would help me cross. “Soy Ecuatoriano,” one explained, again. “No necesito su ayuda y solo voy a pagar por lo que necesito!” I dismissed them. The door shut and we began to drive. I apologized to Duber, saying I didn’t know if they were friends of his, but I didn’t need their help. He only said there would be more like them on the other side.

At some point we got to the other side, but I can’t be sure when. In the middle of Huaquillas we got out and Duber parked his car in a lot. I took my bags (though he picked up the camera bag, which I kept my eye on), and he said he’d lead me to the bus stop. I imagined that in Ecuador, like in Peru, each bus company would have its own terminal, so I relied on him not only to take me to a bus terminal, but to that of a good company. The town was small, but we walked and walked. After several minutes I saw a sign announcing that we were leaving Peru. Twenty or thirty feet behind it was a sign welcoming us to Ecuador. If the area between the signs was the international boundary, Huaquillas was a true border town. On the apparent Ecuadorian side we kept walking, and though the streets were busy I grew slightly uneasy, worried Duber may be leading me somewhere I didn’t wish to go. “Are we near?” I asked him after nearly fifteen minutes of walking. Yes, he said. It wasn’t until several more minutes had passed that I was able to see for myself where he had been leading me. The front was small, but it was a bus terminal, and I had to trust it was a good one. I asked to buy a ticket to Quito, and the woman told me a bus was just about to leave. I could see in the back that she wasn’t exaggerating, as the bus began to move. I was ready to go, I told her, and she shouted to the bus to wait. As I began to run toward the bus she asked something about “inmigración.” I said I went through already, but the woman stopped me. She began talking to Duber. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, or what either of them were saying for the next thirty seconds, but I realized I was holding up the bus, and there was obviously a problem. I told the woman to let the bus go, even though the next one wouldn’t leave for two-and-a-half hours, and I asked Duber what was going on. I needed to go through immigration to enter Ecuador, he told me. I asked the woman if I could leave my bags. She said yes. I began to ask if whether, when I returned—. “You can bathe? Yes, you can,” she interrupted. I was dripping at that point, but still able to laugh. “That wasn’t what I was going to ask, but thank you very much.” She laughed with me. Duber and I left to go through immigration.

Outside he pointed to another cab, which was apparently supposed to drive us there. I was skeptical of taking another cab, since I was still with the driver of the last one, but, more importantly, I was through arguing to do things my way, since I was lost as to what I should be doing or how. Duber had just tried to get me on a bus, apparently, without having me go through the proper border patrol. I didn’t know what he was doing; then again, he himself hadn’t gone through the border stop on the way out. The new cab drove both of us to Ecuadorian immigration, where I submitted my passport and received a new entry card. I filled out the form insufficiently, and the border official showed his displeasure. But I wasn’t worried about pissing off bureaucrats, and I let him correct my mistakes. I just needed to enter the country legally and get my bus to the capital. Duber and I took another cab back to the terminal, where I thanked and paid him. We had agreed the day before on fifteen soles (five dollars), but he had now been with me for over an hour, driving me to the border, walking me through Huaqillas, and now leading me to Ecuadorian immigration. And though he hadn’t always been clear, he had been very helpful. He got me exactly where I needed to go and led me through each step. I gave him a twenty-sol bill and several coins, still embarrassed I was only paying him about seven dollars. He seemed surprised and grateful for my minor generosity. “Call me when you get back to Tumbes,” he instructed. “I’ll be there only briefly,” I told him, “getting off the bus from Guayaquil and taking another bus to Piura.” “No matter. Call me. I’ll lead you.” I thanked him and began to wait for my bus.

It was to be a twelve-hour ride (foolish me, thinking Quito would be just beyond Guayaquil), and I would be leaving at eight, so I figured I would sleep through the night on the bus and arrive in Quito at around eight the next morning. It would be my fourth overnight bus of the trip. The first two had been painful experiences, but they were shorter rides and each overnight bus saved me a night’s payment at a hostel. The eight-dollar ticket looked even better when I saw it as transportation and lodging. Until the bus left, however, I was to wait in Huaquillas. I read for a while; then I thought about leaving the terminal to get some food and wander. But the sun was setting, and the town had looked poor and possibly rough. A man near me asked me to watch a bag of his, and I found myself accepting before thinking, so I was stuck in the terminal even had I wanted to go out. As the sun fell, mosquitoes swarmed into the terminal, drawn by the light and the small mass of people. I stopped reading to swat away insects and watched a young girl run back and forth across the room, trying in vain to escape the bugs through other means. At one point a man entered the station and tried to sell me knives—big steak knives. Eventually the hours passed, and I got on the bus, following four 80s rockers in long hair, sleeveless t-shirts, tattoos, and black jeans with chains.

I had feared that eight-dollar Ecuadorian buses would not match the surprisingly luxury of Peruvian buses, and so I was happy to see the bus looked clean and comfortable, more so than most American charter buses. My pleasure disappeared quickly.

I had been growing increasingly sick that afternoon, especially since getting to the bus terminal. I took another ibuprofen pill when I got on the bus, and I hoped to fall asleep quickly. But the bus rolled out of town and onto dirt roads, where it bounced and wobbled along slowly, up and down through potholes and around even bigger ones. My headache was quickly joined by nausea. Still I hoped for sleep to be my medicine. But the light went out and came back on repeatedly, as an attendant passed out soda and snacks in separate trips. And then the bus stopped. And a police officer got on. And we were ordered to get off. “Is this customs?” I asked a woman near me. I hadn’t gone through customs when I entered Ecuador, wherever that was, so I guessed they must be checking the bus now. She said yes, so I took the bags I carried on and figured the police would search the bags stored under the bus. I waited in line until I got to the front, where I showed my documents and opened my bags for a quick and perfunctory inspection. Then I waited to be let back on the bus. I noticed murals behind me, on the wall of the police station, that declared the successes of CEMA, an antinarcotics police force that I assumed operated there. One painting showed a skull in a helmet. I thought about taking a picture of the scene—dozens of people standing around in the dark, in front of melodramatic anti-drug murals—and began to take out my camera before I realized I could get myself into a mess I did not want to be in if I was seen taking pictures. Back on the bus I tried again to sleep, this time with the help of Pepto Bismol, too. But the dirt roads would have none of it. I figured we had to find pavement soon, and yet none came. What did come was another stop, another police officer on the bus, and another evacuation. Sicker and sicker, more and more frustrated, I became furious at this pitiful country that couldn’t pave its roads and required multiple searches of the same bus in the middle of the night. But I held in my rage as I showed my bags once more and submitted to a pat-down. I prayed I would be able to fall asleep soon, undisturbed by yet another stop-and-search. At some point I did fall asleep. But then I woke up at two. And I slept poorly until sunrise.

We got into Quito at seven. I was sicker and more tired than before, and I began to regret having not thought to collect the name of even one hostel where I could stay in Quito. I picked up my bags and walked down the street, determined to stop in the first decent-looking place. There was a cheap hotel on the corner, so I went in, got a room, and went to sleep. I remained in bed most of the day, sleeping through the early afternoon and reading until the night. I went out to get some food and check internet. I took more medicine and slept more.

Yesterday morning I finally began feeling better. I got up around 9:30 and left the hotel by 10:00. After breakfast I went out to explore the city some, but I had no idea what to look for. With a mediocre map I bought the day before, I wandered after the churches and museums centered in the old part of town. Quito is a beautiful city, by far the prettiest I’ve seen on this trip. Unlike most cities in mountains, it’s not tucked into a valley; rather, it’s built entirely into sloping peaks. Few streets, blocks, or parks are flat, and equally few are unpleasant to look at. My hotel is in the geographic center of the city, where avenues are bigger and buildings are covered by more soot, but in the Old Town, also know as the Centro Historico, the streets are small and the buildings better preserved. And the feel is pure charm. The narrow pathways and grand churches are European, the colors and sights of the street are distinctly South American, and, up on the hills just outside the recessed Centro Historico, the whitewashed houses seem out of New England, as they sit peacefully and pleasantly on hills overlooking the town. Unfortunately, light rain throughout the afternoon drove me (along with most of the city) indoors. I sat for some time in a dark gothic basilica, and I later found a bright and modern public library, where I read for an hour or two. I left my camera in my hotel room, determined to take the day off from all obligation, real or perceived, so I will have no pictures of Quito when I arrive home. My short description of the town is pitifully bad at conveying its warmth, placidity, and, as I said earlier, charm, but I hope to be back soon to give Quito its due. I need to spend more time here, and I need to come back with photos.

I was planning to head to Guayaquil, the second city of Ecuador, on an eight-hour bus ride this morning. But I’ve been very sick again since last night, with bad digestion and weird other ailments that I haven’t been able to figure out. And to make my discomfort worse, I’ve been out of money. Ecuador uses the dollar, and I had no dollars when I left Lima. I traded a few soles for dollars with my cousin, but I underestimated my costs in Ecuador. ATMs haven’t accepted my debit card, so last night I was down to forty cents after buying dinner for $1.70. Today I was able to change my soles into dollars, but at a terrible exchange rate, so I only have $43 left to get me to Guayaquil and back to Peru. Hopefully I will sleep well tonight, feel better tomorrow, and take off then. Lying in bed in Quito is no fun.

On an unrelated note, I had thought that as my Spanish has improved and I’ve become more comfortable abroad, I might convince a few more people I’m not a foreigner, at least as they see me in passing on the street. Three events recently have shaken that hope. Yesterday afternoon, as I sat in a park, a man addressed me, beginning the conversation by asking, in English, “Where are you from?” Earlier that morning, when I paid my bill at breakfast and offered my “Gracias,” I heard “Thank you” in return from the owner. And a couple nights ago, as I sat in an internet shop, a young girl and an even younger boy ran up to my computer. “Una foto con gringo?” they asked me. I could have been disappointed at being spotted so easily, but how could I not have been amused by the kids?

3 thoughts on “Notes from Peru (and Ecuador): #5

  1. I, on the other hand, wish to be written about online, and in great detail.

    I actually don’t think you need to speak English to obtain a driver’s license. So you just destroyed a guy’s dream for nothing. Hope you’re happy.

  2. Thanks for this long post! We’ll be passing through the Tumbes/Huaguillas border in the next few days. I’m going to have to track down your driver. 🙂

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