Thursday, March 16, 2006

Nick Cage!

Other than the beautiful old colonial part of Quito, and the sprawling views rewarded for climbing the valley sides, all I really saw in Quito was rain. I decided to stay in a hostel that I knew would put me back in touch with drunk British, Australian, and Israeli travellers. It did, and the night of my arrival, coincidentally, was also free Rum and Coke night! I was disappointed, however, to find that my unannounced presence was not the cause for celebration but instead R&C night is a tri-weekly event, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Sure it was a good time, as we all drank near poisonous amounts of the stuff, but as Friday came around and the afternoon rain dug in once again, I decided I had had enough of Quito and headed north.

Crossing the equator didn`t make me feel any different, but in fact winter is now becoming spring instead of summer, fall, and I am back in my native hemisphere, not too far from home now. Not that I`ll recognize the change in seasons still for a while as for now the only weather changes depend on your altitude and whether or not it is the rainy season. It is, and as I write this I can hear a big storm rumbling into town.

After a longer trip than expected, we arrived into Tùlcan, on the Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia. Just as I`ve heard countless "danger" warnings about Ecuador which at this point just annoy me, I`ve heard similarly that the border is pretty nasty. So, I found a hotel which I had read has cable TV in the rooms (which, for $3.50 is not too bad) as I have grown accustomed to searching for Sportscenter in English and The Office to fill the void in some boring places. The next morning, I got on my way...but as I was taking the van to the border I was informed by the fellow border crossers that there is no, hasn`t been any, and will not be any transport in Columbia until Monday because of the elections (today, Sunday). So ten minutes after getting my passport stamped to leave Ecuador I was just about to try to get back in to the country, ironically enough, seeking a safer place to wait out the next two days.

The useless military personnel at the Ecuadorian side, however, were pleased to tell me that I would have to go and get a stamp into, and out of Colombia first before I could get back into Ecuador...and that usually there would have to be a 24-hour period before new stamps could be issued. I knew that I would have similar issues navigating the Colombian entrance and exit within 30 seconds, but after getting my entrance stamp the "stamper" informed me that what I had heard, several times over, was untrue, and that I could still get transport to the North. This didn`t sounds like a great alternative, but neither did going back to Tùlcan to wait, and watch bad movies on in a decision that would surely anger my mother, I said I`ll give it a try.

The women who had initially told me there was no transport, also were talking about how dangerous Colombia gets around election times (more so, that is). They said they were too scared to vote and don`t know anyone who isn`t. "If I did vote, I would run to vote and run home and lock the door," one woman said. They also confirmed, to my delight that the violence against public transport also heightens around elections which is part of the reason that none is aloud on election day itself.

The Guerillas operate, or maybe it`s better to say "control" Southern Columbia, especially the Southeast. One of the most important archaeological sites on the continent is found in this area--the huge monolithic statues of the pre-Incan San Agustín people. These mysterious statues, some 2000-5000 years old, and of which about 500 have so far been excavated, show incredible signs of contact with other continents because of the subjects of their carvings--animals that were never native to South America. Would be pretty incredible to see, right? Not with my American passport--apparently Europeans can go and pass through the Guerilla check-points unscathed, but an American is different and as I was told yesterday, a "prize." (comforting)

So I did find a bus after all, the last one that would go North to Bogota (only one company was running as opposed to the many that normally take the challenge). It is highly recommended to only go through this area during the day, when a Guerilla attack is less likely, my bus was meant to leave at 1pm, but didn`t actually leave until 2...all the while I`m thinking about the impending night time driving to come. Luckily I was only going to go about 6 hours, to the colonial town of Popayàn and therefore shouldn`t have to be driving for long in the dark.

We took off and the drive through these mountains was one of the most beautiful, yet harrowing I`ve yet to experience. A long ways down, and a long ways up. Everytime the bus stopped (frequently) for whatever reason, I was just hoping Guerillas didn`t come on board. I was the only foreigner on the bus, as far as I could tell (which has become the norm as this isn`t high season in Perù or Ecuador...and there is no "high season" for Colombia as ironic as that may sound if you get what I mean), and found myself thinking about taking shelter in the bathroom or thinking of plans to outsmart or somehow fight the Guerillas. I was a bit anxious (as were my fellow passengers) which was responsible for my over-imaginative defense mechanisms.

Finally, after several stops we stopped once more. After 15 minutes the bus driver informed us that there was a (another, damn it) landslide ahead and we would wait here until news came that it had been cleared. Great! The sun set as we forlornly sat by the bus, all discussing the perils that lie ahead. The woman from whom I bought a coke actually offered for me to stay with her instead of going ahead...but I actually didn`t have enough money converted into the Colombian currency was only 3 more hours! I luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you see it) had only three hours left, while the rest had many more. But once past Popayàn the Guerilla risk was also substantially decreased.

We all got back on board and started off again, a nervous vibe in the air but mixed with Colombian laughter and joking in the face of it.

[Here begins my rant, which although not relevant, kept me entertained for hours on the bus] You know that blue disinfectant stuff that they use in bus bathrooms? I would like to meet the genius who did the cost/benefit analysis on that one. I would prefer to be left with the smell of whatever is left behind in the bathroom, rather than the overly pungent formaldehyde smell that, with a sharp turn or inevitable opening of the door, is let out for everyone else`s enjoyment. Covering up a bad smell with one much more offensive is not a good strategy. And although I think disinfectant is probably unnecessary anyway (who actually touches anything in those bathrooms? worried about the birth of airborne diseases?), why not use alcohol, it`s a disinfectant and doesn`t have a bad smell.

I think everyone was getting a good whiff and the fast corners and quick braking of a seemingly nervous driver also did not help the rising level of nauseousness. The guy sitting next to me however, seemed oblivious to these conditions, and would scare me every time we went around a sharp corner and his head would thud against the glass of the bus. It sounded like it hurt, and I actually wondered if he was alive until he answered with signs of life that came from neither a snoring nose or a wheezing mouth. I think it actually improved the smell of the bus, though.

A guy sitting in front of me and on the other side of the aisle (where, unfortunately there was a little trashcan fastened to his seat that everyone sort of kicked as they walked into the bus) was quite the character. One eye veered towards center, covered by large, scratched square frame glasses, overlooking a permanently gaping mouth and a Puma jacket that had seen better days. He was nice enough, but not the brightest of I realized when he was directing the incoming line of traffic onto the bus (incidentally, a one way bus aisle), from my seat earlier in the day.

He was not doing too well with the aforementioned smell/motion duo, and a burp unfortunately turned into something that spilled down the front of his jacket. The guy sitting next to him cleared out once he realized what was happened, and our friend sailed out of his seat, first stepping in the little trash can, then emptying what was left in his mouth, into it en route to the bathroom. As he came back to his seat (taking off the jacket now revealed a glow-in-the-dark Rosary...take from that what you will), he found that his seat buddy was now in a new seat with his girlfriend (unfortunately, much larger than he) on his lap.

The bus ride continued like this, with our little friend having a few more trips to the bathroom...the first time he again stepped into the same trash can in which he had previously relieved himself...until I safely, and with relief (not because of the Guerillas) got off the bus in Popayàn.

The relief of disembarking also came from escaping the seemingly unending chain of Nicholas Cage movies (a step up from the inevitable Stephen Segal or Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that graced the screens of buses throughout Perú and Ecuador), which up to this point consisted of "Faceoff" and "Windtalkers," probably two of his more violent movies and surely meant to calm the nerves (as the sight of automatic weapons and face transplants amidst Guerrilla Warfare normally does) of the passengers. In an ironic twist I arrived to my hotel and fell asleep to "City of Angels," starring Nicholas Cage, but a much more peaceful version.

This morning was nice, walking around the colonial city that they say is the most beautiful in Colombia. Voting was going on, oblivious to any danger and the people all seemed quite happy to be participating the democratic process. Now, however, is a bit different as the afternoon rains have commenced, I foolishly checked into a new hotel today without TV, and the feeling of travelling alone is pretty strong. My book will have to keep me company tonight, then tomorrow the buses start back up and it`s on to Cali, which is Colombia´s third largest city, and at one time it´s most dangerous and drug infested...but I hear it´s pretty nice now!


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24 March, 2006 03:59  

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