On the bus

At the bus station, an Indian shuffled past bent forward under the weight on his tump line. Tied carefully to the leather band on his forehead was a backpack, stuffed to bursting and almost as big as himself. The shoulder and hip straps flapped freely behind him. I cinched my own a little more tightly and glanced around.

Tickets to Otavalo cost $2.50 for a two-hour ride, but there was an additional 20-cent fee to use a turnstile leading to the yard from which the buses left. Until I coaxed myself around to the idea of a departure tax, this bugged me. It also explained why the bus was less than a quarter full when we set off, though this was an early morning bus to the biggest weekly market in Ecuador. Locals prefer to wait along the highway, where there are no turnstiles.The driver’s assistant hung out the doorway as we swung out.
   ‘ ¡’taVAlo! ¡’taVAlo! ¡’taVAlo! ¡Directo!’ We picked up fifteen more passengers just outside the station. ‘¡Directo! ‘taVAlo.’

In theory, the bus went straight to Otavalo. In practice we spent an hour driving slowly through the city shouting our destination and picking up passengers. Competition on this route is fierce and requiring people to go to a designated stop would be uncompetitive. So we lurched down the highway, swinging towards the traffic island in the middle whenever a likely prospect raised an eyebrow or scratched a nose. No one hailed the bus; we hailed them.

Ecuadorian bus trips make me wish I’d packed a sports bra. Despite the jolts, they are tremendous fun, these colorful little vehicles that belch diesel and are named like pet calves. Service, even to remote areas, is remarkably regular, punctual, and cheap, and even though in every other country I’ve made myself sick reading on the bus, here the scenery is enough entertainment even for me.

There haven’t been any other gringos on my bus trips yet. I sit quietly behind rows and rows of Indian trilbies and pork pie hats and feel like I’m on my way to a remote Blues Brothers convention. Once a fight broke out between the food vendors at the Latacunga station: a donut seller with a large backside blocked the narrow aisle so that the fruit ladies couldn’t pass. They were polite at first, but when he hogged his sales advantage they shrieked and threatened to seize his trays. My bus snack of choice these days is mote con chicharron, a small paper bag filled with white corn, fava beans, tiny potatoes, pork crackling, and salsa.

As I’ve learned since Otavalo, there’s no need to buy a ticket in advance. Drivers shout their destination, you jump on and pay on the way. They are very obliging and will stop almost anywhere to let you on or off. Once we stopped to haul a screaming piglet to the roof by a rope tied around its neck. At first I was terrified he would strangle as he kicked my window with little hooves. When he still squealed in rage above, I was afraid he would eat my rucksack on the long journey.

Ecuadorian buses are the donkeys of the vehicle world. They patiently climb improbable hairpin bends and washed out surfaces high in the clouds. They bear their loads patiently, and though they may shy from crossing a landslide or a stream that has burst its banks, with encouragement they generally make it. The drivers are my heroes: implacable, kind, and not prone to the macho antics of their Mexican and Thai counterparts. That they play cumbia and salsa, not Southeast Asian pop music, is so much the better.