It’s not all rainbows and unicorns that’s for damn sure. Sometimes, you just have to deal with the darkness. No doubt about it, I can be a difficult person to travel with because sometimes I am moody. The crazy thing is, I don’t usually get mad or depressed about normal every day things. Oh no, not me. What gets me riled up and angry and difficult to listen to is the big picture. I get mad about structural economics, imperialism and the ongoing war against the poor.
I’m not even sure where the bad mood came from on this 2011 trip. Maybe my biorhythms were out of whack or the stars were misaligned. I see some hints of it in the Chachapoyas stories but it doesn’t really become pronounced until Vilcabamba. Indeed, I posted a rather impassioned diatribe about that time in Vilcabamba several years ago and it proved to be one of my most popular blog posts ever. Yeah sure, my angry anti-imperialism is interesting for you the reader, it’s just not necessarily fun for my fellow travelers and I to put up with in the present tense. Anyway, if you are following the continuing saga of me and Ms. B. on our first trip together in South America, that popular post about Vilcabamba is the next episode and you can find it in the archives under the title “Paradise Lost.” The story I am posting today takes place a week later and I am even more riled up. Hold onto your hats and prepare yourself for a rant. Poor Ms. B had to listen to the whole thing over and over and over. Believe it or not, thanks mostly to her, we still managed to have a good time.
The Conquest Continues
Latacanga, Ecuador; March 7, 2011
The Devil’s Nose Train Ride in Alausi, Ecuador is probably the single worst tourist attraction in all of South America. As a matter of fact, it may be the single worst tourist attraction on the entire planet earth. How bad could it be? Real bad. It makes me want to scream. It makes me want to shout. It makes me want to line the board of tourism directors against the wall and throw rotten tomatoes at them. How could they do such a thing? How could they create such a commercial absurdity and somehow imagine that it is a beneficial enterprise? They should be ashamed of themselves. It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s almost as if they took everything that is horrible and stupid and annoying and wrong with tourism and combined it into a single un-attraction. AAAAAUUUGH! I can’t believe I actually paid for this.
Actually, my nightmare with Ecuadoran tourism began on our very last full day in Vilcabamba. We heard from several people in town about a really awesome Hostel and Restaurant called Ixchaluna (spelling? I can’t read my notebook handwriting) that is located a few kilometers outside of Vilcabamba. We have no intention to stay overnight but we decide to walk out there on a Sunday afternoon, have some lunch and a look around. The walk to get there is fairly pleasant though a little hot and dusty on the dirt road. And Ixchaluna certainly has a great location perched upon a hilltop overlooking the sacred valley. The food in the restaurant is quite delicious and the surrounding grounds are well designed with atmosphere, luxury and convenience in mind. As a matter of fact, Ixchaluna is so well organized and put together; it’s difficult to come up with an objective criticism. Nevertheless, I hate the fucking place.
I first thought of the acronym IBF when I was traveling in South Africa several years ago. Since that time, I have come across many more IBFs in many different places on the planet. The letters in the acronym stand for Institutional Backpacker Factory. It’s the imperialist corporate world’s answer for young world travelers. Put the backpacker concept in a package, exploit the local resource, follow the formula; do it over and over and over. Re-create the same reality in different places. Take the adventure out of travel. Make it easy and the same and sterile and manufactured. Trust me, the profits will be huge.
The IBFs in South Africa were always owned by whites but run by slave-like black employees who did all the work. In other words, the blacks bartended, cooked, cleaned, drove and otherwise provided services to the white travelers for a very low wage while the white owner collected the profits. In Latin America and Asia, the owners are European or American while the employees are local but the formula is basically the same. Local people are servants to traveling gringos while gringos collect the profits of the service.
IBFs generally have large numbers of dorm beds for an inexpensive price. The grounds are like playgrounds for young adults and they make available lots of rah rah tourist activities. The idea is simple. Collect a bunch of 20 something travelers into large groups and then sell them beer. Beer is the primary source of IBF profits. Everything else is just atmosphere and background so the backpackers will feel comfortable ordering more and more beer.
Ixchaluna hostel on the outskirts of Vilcabamba follows the formula fairly well. It is owned by a couple Germans who invested significantly to have it constructed several years ago. It has 60 dorm beds and a number of private rooms. It has a big swimming pool and an elaborate garden. There’s a giant chess board, ping pong and billiards. There’s a book exchange and lots of board games. It has a laundry service and the internet. It has an awesome restaurant and a complete tour guide service. In other words, it has everything a traveler could ever want. It is very easy for a traveler to come to Vilcabamba, stay at Ixchaluna; and never leave the care of the institution for the whole time they are in the area. In many respects, it resembles an all-inclusive resort. And by it’s very nature it seems to isolate it’s guests from the country and community where they are supposed to be traveling. At the risk of sounding harsh, it seems to me like 21st century colonialism disguised as tourism.
Nevertheless, Ms. B. and I have a fairly pleasant short visit. The meal in the restaurant is truly fantastic; perhaps the best meal of this entire journey. We don’t swim in the pool or play any games but we do stroll through the gardens and enjoy the nice view. On one level, it’s hard to not be impressed with a well constructed professional tourist super complex. But on another level, watching the local employees scurry around to wait on and serve the gringo guests makes me feel just a little bit dirty. Yeah, I know. Capitalism provides jobs and money. People need to work. It’s good for the economy. Why then, does it seem so wrong?
The following day, we leave Vilcabamba and travel to Cuenca. Once again, I am returning to a place for which I have a very vivid memory. Last time I was in Cuenca was in January 2000 and there was a revolution going on. Strikes, protests, riots, tear gas, burning barricades, flying rocks, tanks and soldiers in the street, angry people taking on the government in a fierce battle of wills. Ultimately, there was a negotiated settlement. The president resigned and the vice president took over. But what were the changes? What were the people angry about when I was here in 2000? They were angry about imperialist colonization. They were angry about the complete take over of their economy. They were angry about the plan for dollarization. But it happened anyway. The financial cout de tat… the takeover. The Ecuadoran government surrendered its economic independence. They abandoned their own national currency the sucre and adopted the U.S. dollar as the official legal tender.
So now what’s going on? 11 years later.
The taxi drops us off at a hostel mentioned in the guide book but it is rather over-priced at 30 U.S. dollars for a double. There are several hostels in the area, so we decide to keep looking. We go to El Cafecito where I stayed 11 years ago. But they want 25 dollars a night. Shit, maybe Cuenca is just an expensive town. By the time we look at the third place, El Cigale, we are tired of looking. The double room costs 22 bucks but that includes breakfast for both of us. The room seems okay. It’s on the second floor above an enclosed courtyard bar/restaurant; so there is the danger of it being noisy. But we are only in town for a couple days so some action and excitement in the city might be fun. So we check into the hostel and hope for the best.
Our stay in Cuenca is bizarre; objectively successful and pleasant with no problems or difficulties but subjectively annoying. Yeah, I know, perhaps I’m just an old fuddydud who wants to live in the past. But I go traveling to visit other countries and cultures. Wandering around the tourist district of Cuenca, I feel like I’m back in the U.S. It wasn’t like this at all in 2000. Back then, there were only a few locally owned places to stay, one or two bars and a scene dominated by local people. Now, however, the area around our hostel seems like a gringo ghetto. There are American style bars with big screen televisions and names in English. There are gourmet café’s and international restaurants. There are English speaking tour agents, IBFs, book stores and internet café’s. Big buses with large groups of white haired, fat Americans stop in the street. As a matter of fact, it seems as if there are more gringos walking around the area than there are Ecuadorans. It’s like a miniature version of Kao San Road in Bangkok or Mariscal in Quito. No doubt, it’s a very pleasant place with lots of tourist services. It just doesn’t seem like the Cuenca I remember anymore.
It takes me a day or so to realize that the hostel we are staying at is also an IBF. Not as bad or as stereotypical as some others but it has the basic elements. The really good international food and the overworked and apparently unhappy staff of locals scurrying about to serve the tables full of gringos should have given it away. But I don’t discover that it has absentee foreign ownership until a day or two later. There is also a mini-bus shuttle service that connects people directly with Ixchaluna in Vilcabamba. Apparently, Ecuador now has the full and complete backpacker merry-go-round just like Costa Rica, Thailand and so many other tourist colonies. A young American can arrive in Quito and travel from one European or American owned hostel to another all over Ecuador in mini-buses packed full of other similarly situated young backpackers. They don’t have to speak any Spanish, interact with locals or learn anything about the local culture. They can drink beer, eat food they are used to, speak their own language with people from the same background as them, watch videos made in their own countries, work on their computer and generally stay insulated within backpacker world. And wow! Everything is cheap and the locals will wait on you and provide all your services. Isn’t traveling great?
We don’t stay in Cuenca long. Just long enough to catch up on internet; eat some good food and drink a few beers. On our last day there, we take a taxi to the bus station. The driver is very surprised to learn I speak Spanish because he says that most American Immigrants don’t. He then proceeds to launch into an extensive and involved commentary on the influx of immigrants to Ecuador from the U.S.. No doubt about it; there sure are a lot of immigrants from the U.S. these days. Apparently, Ecuador was written up in the Retirement Magazines as the best place in the world for Americans to retire. It’s all because of the dollarization. Remember the revolution I attended eleven years ago and the fears of conquest I heard so much about. Were the people just paranoid? In the last 3 years alone, over 2000 retired Americans have moved to Cuenca, Ecuador. And that’s just Cuenca. Apparently, Americans have taken over completely a town in the north near Oltavalo and they have flooded into Quito and occupied various resort towns as well. Americans are everywhere. Buying up property; taking all the good real estate. The locals are getting squeezed out; pushed into the background. The taxi driver doesn’t blame me personally but he tells me that many people are very very upset with Americans. No doubt, the American influx is good for the economy. They come and spend money. They invest capital into a weak economy. According to the modern global definition of success, the American influx is a good thing. But what of Ecuador? What of the local culture? The taxi driver laments the loss of his heritage, the loss of his way of life. Immigrants are welcome, says the taxi driver. But the retiree’s moving here now are not coming to Ecuador. Instead, they come to change Ecuador into America….
After Cuenca, we take the bus to Alausi. From there, we plan to take the train to Riobamba. I love to travel by train. It’s nice to break up the infinite bus rides and trains are usually comfortable with nice views. Apparently, the journey between Alausi and Riobamba through the mountains is rather fantastic and if you ride on the roof of the train the views are beyond compare…
We want to take the train in the morning and we arrive in Alausi in the afternoon of the day before. The town is in shambles with intoxicated people wandering around armed with water balloons. It’s the first day of Ecuadoran Carnaval and this little tourist town partakes in the tradition rather enthusiastically. We dodge onslaughts of water from various implements as we stumble from hotel to hostel to find a cheap and good place on the main drag. After we settle into a room, we head to the train station to find info. The journey to the station is like a covert infiltration behind enemy lines wherein the enemy is teenagers and children armed with an assortment of non-lethal liquids. Unfortunately, we are discovered and a lengthy chase ensues. Ms. B. gets splashed pretty good twice by water balloons but she somehow manages to avoid the major soaking of a bucket from above. We have to take some back alley short cuts and sprint long distances to outrun the hordes of mischievous young ruffians but we do eventually make it to the train station and there we find out the shitty information.
The train service between Alausi and Riobamba is not presently running because the train system is in the process of being developed…fixed up…improved…invested in. As a matter of fact, the entire railway from Quito to Guayaquil is all being re-done… fixed up to meet U.S. and European standards of excellence. This is good right? This is positive investment in something that is good for Ecuador. A rebuilt railway; what a great idea! Unfortunately, the process of re-building has only just begun so almost the entire railway is presently closed. At this time, sir, the only train service available is the Devil’s Nose Train ride that goes from here in Alausi to the town of Sisaquil through the Devil’s Nose Canyon and then back again. The train leaves at 8:00 and 12:00 every day. The office is not open now but you can reserve a ticket on-line or buy one tomorrow morning before you get on the train.
What a drag. I wanted to take the public train to Riobamba and ride on the roof with the chickens. That Devil’s Nose thing seems like it might be touristy. It doesn’t go anywhere… just there and back. That is not what I had in mind when I came to Alausi to catch the train. We discuss not going. It’s a train ride rather than a train journey. The view will be nice anyway. We came here to take the train. How bad can it be? The worst thing that can happen is we waste a few bucks and a few hours.
Our evening in Alausi is actually quite a treat. We have a decent meal in a Chifa (Chinese restaurant) and then we stroll arm in arm along the promenade through the center of town. We wonder why everything is so quiet and docile on the first night of Carnival. Perhaps everyone is tired out from partying all day. But no, we are just in the incorrect location. Later on in the evening, we find a stage set up in a small plaza near the market a few blocks away. We are drawn there by the sound of music. Just our luck, we arrive in time for the crowning of the Carnival Queen. It’s quite an elaborate ceremony and the whole town participates. No tourists around except us. There are several speeches about the community and local concerns and then finally the Queen is crowned. The sound of the song “Hotel California” blares away on the speakers and the crowd erupts into cheers. The Queen and her court exit the stage, the band comes on and the real party begins. But we don’t hang out for long because we have an early train. We only watch for a few songs before we slip away from the crowd and head back to our room.
I swear, the next morning is like some kind of a bizarre waking nightmare. As if the gods conspired to drive me insane. First of all, when we arrive at the ticket booth, we learn that the cost is 20 U.S. dollars a person. This insane financial information is imparted to us by a young Ecuadoran guy who speaks perfect English and sounds like a marketing intern at a Madison Avenue Advertising Agency. It’s a bit like a slap in the head. Twenty Bucks a piece for a two hour train ride? There and back. You have to be kidding? This is Ecuador. That’s more expensive than a roller coaster in an amusement park in the states. That’s more than the Blues train in Milford. But no., Mr. Madison Avenue Junior tells us that yes yes yes 20 bucks is a perfectly reasonable price for a such a great cultural experience.
Honestly, I should have said no. I could have said no and walked away. But I don’t. Why? Am I dazed and confused by the early morning? I came all this way to take the train. I have the 20 bucks in my pocket. Momentum pushes me into a bad decision. I am stupid. I fumble through my pocket, find the bill and hand it over. I get my ticket and Ms. B. gets hers. We go outside the office to wait for the train.
The nightmare continues with the arrival of the mini-buses. Up until this point we have not seen another tourist in Alausi. I am still operating under the delusion that this is going to be an authentic Third World Traveling experience. Yeah sure, the price is kind of crazy, but this is still a train in Ecuador. I’m envisioning a crowded indigenous train, colorful bundles, squawking chickens, riding on the roof in the fresh mountain air….
The mini buses unload the white-haired tourists in front of the train station. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not an ageist. I value and respect the elderly. Any person of any age should be able to travel. And I definitely don’t have a prejudice against gringos. I am one after all. But somehow, an experience loses its luster when it’s an activity solely and completely designed for tourists rather than for everybody. There are only four Ecuadoran passengers on the train and they are tourists from Quito.
Of course I’m not allowed to ride on the roof. Someone got hurt a few years ago so now with their liability insurance, the lawyers will no longer permit passengers to ride on the roof. Instead, Ms. B. and I both get seats on the aisle. Great, just great. Can’t even see out the window. I might as well be on a subway in New York. 20 bucks for a two hour subway ride… how fucking ridiculous. I complain to the conductor so Ms. B. and I can at least sit together so we do manage to get one window between the two of us. But we are not allowed to open the window because the guy in the seat behind doesn’t want the wind.
Honestly, there are profound metaphorical implications to my present situation. I want to be on the roof with the chickens, but I’m stuck in the crowded aisle seat surrounded by wealthy white Caucasians. And to make matters worse, we have a tour guide… with a very loud microphone. Nothing against her in particular. She plays the part perfectly… like a script from a bad sit com. Her English is perfect as she performs a rah rah cheerleader persona and tells the history of trains in Ecuador. And then… somehow not surprisingly…she walks up and down the aisle with her microphone asking each passenger to announce their name and country. Can you believe it? It’s like some kind of twisted karmic torture. I personally have to announce to this train load of mostly American tourists that I too, am an American tourist. It’s so embarrassing. The unfair universe strikes again.
Anyway, believe or not, it does get worse. We arrive at the new developed station to see the locals, dressed in “costume”, doing some kind of dance around a maypole. Theoretically, it’s a cultural presentation. We are invited by the cheerleader tour guide to join the villagers in their native dance and buy some of the authentic local crafts. The whole scene has a kind of shopping mall/corporate ambiance. Hey Everybody… Look at the dancing Indians. Now let’s divide up into two groups… Hurray! Each group will visit a separate café where you will receive your bag lunch as part of the train services tour package.
Honestly, the boxed lunch is obscene. I mean really. Why bother feed you at all? It is exactly: one cup of luke warm water with Nescafe; two pieces of plain white like wonder bread, with a stale piece of iceberg lettuce, a single very thin piece of bologna and a piece of old tomato. This is obscene because no Ecuadoran would ever eat such a thing. Everywhere in Ecuador, you can get a really good lunch of seco de pollo (chicken with sauces and rice) for only a buck fifty. But here at this high end developed train station for tourists they give you this parody of a bologna sandwich. It’s so ridiculous it seems unreal. Like some kind of a cosmic joke. Honestly, I can’t help but wonder about the rationale. Do they somehow think that rich gringos really like to eat this shit? Are they so desperate to cut costs to increase profits? Can that be real? Maybe it’s some kind of secret coded fuck you message that the Ecuadorans are trying to send to tourists… Here you go you stupid idiot tourist, eat this shit… it’s part of the package deal.
So anyway, I do eat the bologna sandwich and it does taste like garbage. And I not only drink my Nescafe but I drink Ms. B.’s as well… blah. We get back on the train for the return journey to Alausi. For the way back, we have to switch seats for a different view and this maneuver causes some disgruntling among the passengers. Luckily, the rah rah cheerleader is a skilled negotiator and she manages to resolve the contentious dispute. The way back only takes a half hour. Apparently, going uphill is faster and easier than going down. Thankfully, the tour guide doesn’t talk so much and we are finally permitted to open the window. I’d almost describe it as an enjoyable ride.
The whole thing is over by 11:00 am. We paid 20 bucks a piece for 3 hours of miserable, shitty, tourist trap hell. Oh well, what can we do? I certainly won’t recommend it to others. Part of me wants to complain to management or the government or somehow shut the whole damn enterprise down. What is happening to Ecuador? But really, it’s not just Ecuador or the Alausi train ride. It’s happening to the whole damn modern world. Is development really a good thing? If it looks like conquest, imperialism, and colonialism, is that what it is? I try not to think about these things as I buy our bus tickets and we head to the next destination.