It is a classic traveling tale. As I read the story now in my old notebook, it reminds me of many other stories I have in many other notebooks. A strange phenomena occurs while traveling wherein coincidences crash together and ordinary events take on extraordinary meaning. Reality twists into a kind of living fantasy and it starts to seem like you are a character in a story rather than a real live person. This has been happening to me for years and I spend considerable effort attempting to capture such experiences in words. What’s special about this week’s story, however, is I’m not alone when the story unfolds. Ms. B. is right there with me when all the crazy stuff happens. That’s right, we ride the surreal travel roller coaster together until we make it to the other side. The only thing better than living the travel adventure life is sharing that adventure with another. Thanks Ms. B.
Vilcabamba, Ecuador, Feb. 14, 2011
I’ve rarely been so frightened in my entire life… Passing on blind curves, going 80 in a 40 zone; screeching tires; slamming breaks; no guard rails and steep steep cliffs. Who does this damn driver think he is… Evil Knievel? Mario Andretti? Nascar Superstar? How did we end up in the share taxi ride from hell? Ms. B. is crowded in the backseat with several ladies and a nursing baby. Here I am in the front seat. Massively hung over. Tired and exhausted from a late night out. All I want to do is make it to our next destination. But my life flashes before my eyes on another blind curve, squeaking breaks and squealing tires. I try to remain calm. Tell myself there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve been on a lot of crazy bus rides and car rides and train rides and motorcycle rides. Just let go of worry. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. Experience the thrill not the fear. The driver knows the route. He’s probably driven this road a thousand times. It’s his job. There’s nothing to worry about…. But then, I notice the driver’s face. He’s not a wizened old man with many years experience behind the wheel. He’s a fucking teenager. All pumped up on hormones and testosterone and perhaps some stimulants, over excited from too much television and video games. He thinks he’s a super driver. He’s barely gone through puberty. Screeching tires and squealing breaks. Another blind curve and another close call. Oh my God, oh my Buddha oh my Ganesh! We are going to die.
In the grand scheme of things, I’ve never really believed much in the concept of borders. Nation states are a stupid idea and the arbitrary lines drawn by humans separating one absurd political entity from another certainly cause more problems than they ever solve. But what can I do? The world is not sane. Nation states exist, borders exist and as a world traveler, I have to deal with them. Sometimes crossing frontiers is easy; a stamp, a smile a wave and bingo you are in another country. Sometimes it’s complicated… long lines, searches, and endless questions. And sometimes it’s a nightmare; harassment, bribery and deportation. As we prepare for our journey across the border from Peru into Ecuador, I consider all these possibilities with some measure of anxiety. But, like many things in life, there’s not really much I can do to control the outcome. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope for luck.
Our last night in Chachapoyas; Ms. B. and I go out on the town. The neighborhood Art Café transforms into a bar in the evening with live music on the weekends. On this particular night, there are three bands. So we drink some beer and some pisco sours and absorb the local scene. The first two bands are kind of mediocre cover bands but the last band is truly phenomenal. I’m not exaggerating when I say it is one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. All original music of the Andean rock genre. They bring the house down and both Ms. B. and I get a little drunk. What fun!
The next day, with a hangover, we go back to the art café for breakfast before our journey to the border. And that’s when the really weird thing happens. Do you believe in omens? Luck? Signs? We are sitting there eating breakfast when we hear a loud crash. We look up to the ceiling and see the glass roof break and a ten foot long metal pipe comes crashing through to land on the table ten feet away from us smashing the glass top into a million pieces. The guy sitting there jumps up and away just in time or he would have been killed. Holy shit! What a way to start the day. What a way to start a journey. I hope it’s not a warning sign of bad things to come.
After breakfast, another strange thing happens. Outside the café, we meet Levi. He’s the young American guy we did the day hike with back in Huaraz. He is now upset and angry and he proceeds to tell us the story of how his backpack was robbed in his dorm room. Someone had stolen cash, an mp3 player, a camera and his external hard drive with all his photos from his six month journey. He suspects another American guy who is staying in the dorm room but he has no proof. What a shitty thing to happen at the end of a trip. I wish I could help him. Bad luck happens; and now bad luck seems to be swirling around. Bad things happen in threes. Maybe it’s not a good time to head out on a journey across frontiers. Nevertheless, we go back to our room, pack up our stuff and head on our way.
There’s no direct, regular transportation from Chachapoyas, Peru to Vilcabamba, Ecuador by way of the Balsas border crossing. That’s because of the long history of animosity between Peru and Ecuador over who controls the territory. Indeed, a low level war was fought for many years. Many people died as the two idiotic nation states battled it out over where to draw the arbitrary line. The landscape is paradise; green mountains, rushing rivers and lush abundance. But the crazy humans have to argue about ownership.
Anyway, a peace treaty was signed in 1998. And regular people can now legally travel through the region without military escorts or special government paperwork. But there is still no regular bus service so you have to wing it. Travel is possible by share taxi and collectivo and truck, so that is what we set out to do. The first leg of the journey is a four hour trip from Chachapoyas to a place called Bagua Grande. We go to the designated street corner in Chachapoyas, find the garage and get loaded into a share taxi with three local women and a small child. Ms. B. squeezes into the back with the ladies while I am permitted the front seat because of my long legs. At first, I think that is great because I will have a good view of the passing scenery. Little do I expect the hellish nature of the ride I am about to go on.
Honestly, I am terrified. I’ve been on some crazy transport many times in my life but never anything as nerve wracking as this. It isn’t until after the second almost crash that I notice the youthful nature of our driver. His face had been partially hidden by a baseball cap before but now suddenly his immaturity becomes scarily obvious. I start to think about the strange unfortunate occurrences of the morning and the nature of bad luck to come in threes. It’s a four hour journey on a narrow road on the side of a canyon with some traffic and a fair bit of road construction. My eyes are glued straight ahead, my heart is pounding and I am constantly pressing on an imaginary brake and suggesting to the driver to slow down. What a shitty way to go. A car crash… what a drag. Pleas God or Buddha or Allah, do not let it happen to us. This guy is crazy, he will certainly die at the wheel someday. Just don’t let it happen today with us in the car.
Somewhat miraculously, we make it to our destination. This time at least, bad luck did not come in threes. Unless, of course, you consider the insane journey itself to be the bad luck. But not me; any trip we live through is a blessing. The next leg of our journey is a collectivo from Bagua Grande to the small city of Jaen. How many people can you fit in a mini-van? Lots… especially if you scrunch them up and pile them on top of each other. To make matters worse, I have to pee. But this trip only lasts two hours and at least the driver is a good one. We arrive safely in the late afternoon.
From Jaen, it’s still another two hours to San Ignacio, the tourist town in the mountains and then another hour from there to the border village of Balsas. After that, it’s two hours to Zumba and finally another six hours to Vilcabamba. We were going to go as far as San Ignacio today but we have had enough. We decide to stay the night in Jaen.
Jaen is a rather pleasant place with a great abundance of juice bars. The hostel we stay in is cheap and nice with a wonderful view. The center square is pleasant and we have a very good meal at the most expensive restaurant in town. All in all, it’s a relatively uneventful but very enjoyable last night in Peru. The following morning, we awake early and check out of the hostel by 7:30 am. The journey to San Ignacio by share taxi is an extremely uncomfortable two hours as we are both crammed into the front seat. About half way there, we are stopped at a roadblock by guys with big guns. They say they are protecting the road from bandits and ask for donations. When man with a big gun asks for a donation, I don’t argue. I smile and give him a dollar. He accepts it and waves us past.
When we arrive in San Ignacio, we are hustled into a moto taxi and then scurried across town to another share taxi garage. Thankfully, the vehicle is spacious and we have plenty of leg room on the comfortable back seat. The journey to the border, however, is somewhat precarious on a winding dirt road that zigs and zags up and down mountains, and hugs the side of a canyon. One of the other women in the car gets sick from the rough ride. But we manage to make it to the border town of Balsas with no major problems.
Balsas is hardly even a town. It’s Peruvian immigration and Ecuadoran immigration separated by a bridge that spans a river. There’s one restaurant on the Peru side but we don’t stop to eat because we want to cross over and find out about onward transport as soon as possible. Besides, we figure we can eat in Ecuador while we wait for transport. Thankfully, Immigration is easy. No questions, no hassles, no searches, no problems. They stamp us out of Peru, we walk across the bridge and get stamped into Ecuador. Unfortunately, there are no restaurants on the Ecuadoran side; just a few shops changing money and selling cookies and crackers. We will have to wait for Zumba to get some lunch. Oh well, we eat crackers and sit down and wait.
While waiting for transport at the border, we meet three other travelers. A Kiwi couple and an older American guy. The American guy immediately gives me a bad vibe as he is talking over and over about all the thieves and criminals in Latin America and about how the local people can not be trusted. He then says that a young guy in his dorm room was robbed the day before. I can not help but think that the American guy is actually the robber. Yeah, I know, it’s not fair to jump to conclusions. But his quickness to pass harsh judgment upon local people leads me to pass hesitant judgment upon him. Ms. B. and I refer to him as Mr. Shady Dodge and we keep close eye on our belongings when he is around.
After an hour or so of waiting at the border, transport arrives. It’s a big military truck with a loud engine, giant wheels, and wooden benches in the back. The two hour journey from the border to Zumba is a wild kind of crazy; a very large, loud and cumbersome truck travelling on very narrow dirt roads; zig zagging through jungle hills and alongside steep canyons. The scenery is spectacular but I am slightly fearful we might tumble and crash at any moment. The sides of the truck are open though and there are no seatbelts so Ms. B and I are prepared to make the leap should this monster truck careen out of control. But we don’t have to. We make it to Zumba with no problems. We do, however, just barely miss the 2:00pm bus to Vilcabamba. The next one doesn’t leave until 4:00pm. So we spend the next two hours in Zumba eating lunch and chatting with the Kiwi couple and Shady Dodge.
The journey from Zumba to Vilcabamba is a long six hours because we are tired of being on the move and quite ready to stop. It is, however, fairly uneventful. The road is bad but the scenery is beautiful lush green jungle hills. They are doing lots of roadwork and that slows us down. After dark, there’s nothing to see, so we doze in and out of sleep. We finally arrive at around 10:30pm. Wow. We made it. It’s been a long two days of travel but we have finally reached our destination: Vilcabamba. And if I remember correctly, this place is paradise. When I visited here in 2000 and 1993, it was just about my favorite place on the planet. I wonder how much paradise has changed in the last 11 years?