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Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Long Way to Alausi - Ecuador 3

The last couple days (thirty two hours, to be precise) has been interesting. Ma. and I got up intending to make two day-trips, one down to the hot-springs and one (the following day) down to the Nariz de Diablo, which we understood to involve a two-hour bus-drive down to Alausi and a train ticket. However, someone informed us that in order to get tickets for the train, we'd need to arrive at 3 pm the previous day, so we canceled our trip to the hot-springs and got on a bus headed for (as Ma. pronounces it) Ah-loo-ah-see. The bus-driver informed her that the trip, contrary to what we had been informed, was going to take three and a half hours, so she called ahead to the hostel to see if someone could go buy tickets when the billetario opened at 3:00. When we got on the train, it was approximately 2:00, mas o menos.

Every meaningful experience in my life, it sometimes seems, has come to me while I was lost. My closest friendships, the best stories, my most valued photographs, and (perhaps most importantly) my most potent life lessons. These are the lessons that, as Calvin's father would have said, "build character."

It is interesting, on some level, that this might be so... for is it not the case that the beaten path is the beaten path because it is the best way to go? It seems uncanny that a trail beaten down by so many men and women is, in fact, teaching them little and costing them much of the only resource they can never replace: time. But a beaten trail was once a game-trail, faint and difficult to follow. The road through middle school, high school, and college was once full of dangerous animals and scarred by plentiful conflicting trails leading off into the mists.

Over time, however, this trail has become widened. People have lain down cobblestones and even tar, added trail markers and put up street-lights to mark your way in the dark. In some places there are even moving sidewalks and, wherever it gets too steep, there's a cable car if you can afford to pay for the ticket. When people get to the end of this road, they do not, in other words, find themselves surrounded by the same filthy backpackers that arrived there in the old days, smelling of industrial bug-spray, wincing from the necessary vaccinations and gaunt from (at best) trail food and (at worst) eating whatever they could find along the way. Instead, the end of the path is full of plump, colorful tourists with cameras who turn at your arrival and say "oh, you did it the hard way? How marveous!" and then continue to enjoy the view.

It isn't the road's fault, really... it still builds character if you walk alongside it, fighting off bears and beating your way through the nearby bushes. It still builds character if you ignore the cable car and never pay heed to the walking sidewalk. It still builds character if you dig your meals out of the dirt, or out of the tree-tops, it simply does not reward character. You arrive at the end of the road, and find yourself in the same company you were in when you began your journey. What is the purpose of a journey in which you are never surrounded by new and different sorts of people?

This bus-ride to Alausi might have been that sort of trip. The path was beaten by a thousand tourists before us. But it wasn't.

It wasn't, because when Marly asked the bus driver if he was headed to "Ah-loo-ah-see" he saw my blond hair, identified us as tourists, presumed she intended to say "Eh-loo-ah-sees," a notable resort up north which is, incidentally, three and a half hours from Quito, and said "yes."

So we hopped on the bus, sat down in the back, and didn't think twice about it until Marly noticed (approximately two hours later) that we were passing through a small town which was, most definitively, north of Quito. Alausi is South of Quito, and this was a problem. Marly's suspicions were confirmed by a nice gentleman across from us, a young man from Ibarra who spoke English with a surprising degree of fluency. He invited us to spend the night at his place in Ibarra, told us he owned a flower shop and that the year had been bad for flowers. He said he wasn't really sure what Ibarra had to offer tourists, since he had only just moved there himself, but warned us that any attempt to return to Alausi that night would most likely involve an overnight bus, which did not come recommended.

After a few rounds of Marly running up to the front of the bus and questioning the bus-driver (still using the pronunciation "Ah-loo-ah-see") she came back, grabbed a tour book, opened up a map and went to him to point to it. Shortly after she returned this time, the bus drivers' assistant (each bus driver has a man or woman who goes around collecting money from passengers and otherwise taking care of business) came back to us and informed us (hurriedly) that there was another bus passing us at that moment which was headed toward Alausi and we could get on it if we were so inclined. We apologized (also hurriedly) to the nice young man for not accepting his hospitality and jumped ship, since by our (incorrect) estimation, we'd be able to make it back to Alausi by 20:00.

There followed a hurried exchange between the two drivers (standing on the road) about where, exactly, everyone was going, and when things seemed properly sorted out, Ma. and I jumped onto the bus in question (literally - buses in Ecuador expect a certain limber character from their passengers and tend to assume you'll be able to make it on as long as they're traveling under 15 kmh) and were on our way in the right direction. We soon found out that the bus was not, in fact, headed to Alausi - what the driver had intended to convey to our driver was that he was going to somewhere from where we could get a bus to Alausi.

It is a peculiar case in lost people that in our eternal scrabbling efforts to be "found" we are, nonetheless, somewhat less open towards people of the "found" category. I have a theory now as to why this might be, one which came to me while thinking about a Hostel at which Ma. and I took dinner the other night. There was abundant conversation, interesting characters from just about everywhere (at night's end I found myself in conversation with a New Zealander and his girlfriend, an Englishman, and a girl from Canada, all of whom I shall henceforth refer to by their nationality.

England had a plan. He had a budget and a job to which he would be returning after his plan was carried out. New Zealand and his girlfriend had a plan, though the details of it escape my memory.

Canada though... Canada spoke no Spanish. One day, she had decided to take a few years off school, bought a ticket to Ecuador, and up and left. Her friends barely found out in time to throw her a going-away party, and when I asked her what she was doing down here, she shrugged and replied (paraphrased) that she was going to see where fate felt like dragging her, and follow along without resistance. It was thus in Canada's palm that I left my contact information and a request that she do an article for The Report, whenever the whim struck her. It was Canada in whom I was most interested. Canada was lost and that, to me, meant (though I'm not sure I realized it at the time) that Canada was on her way to learning something worth learning.

The lost attract the lost. We know from experience the value of losing your place in the world, and so we seek not only to repeat the experience, but also to glean from other lost ones what we can of their own wanderings.

When we arrived at the bus transfer, it was quite dark, and the bus we were supposed to be taking to Ambatto (from where we could transfer to Alausi) had already "left the station" so to speak. Fortuitously it had stopped for ten minutes at a little cluster of restaurants so the drivers (and any passengers so inclined) could avail themselves of the available snacks, drinks and newspapers. We were starving, and the only store still selling food made out like a bandit, which made them four dollars and fifteen cents and made us two sodas, three candy-bars, two large sandwiches, a bag of peanuts and two packages of cookies. At least the dollar is still worth something somewhere, eh?

The second bus was very pleasant. All Ecuadorian buses that travel between cities have bathrooms that consist of a metal hole and a bucket of urine, broken in-house lights and have violent movies playing the entire trip, at high volumes, but on this bus they gave us free packages of banana chips and free juices, had curtains and kept the volume of the violent movie down to a manageable level. Considering that Ma. and I had already decided the universe thought badly of our day-trip, this bus was a godsend. The driver was also an amiable fellow, which given his job is a wonder.

Which brings us to Alausi.

The bus driver determined that we needed a hotel, and when we asked him to drop us off at the hostel, he misunderstood, and dropped us by a small hotel at the side of the road. It was foggy (the town and the surrounding hills were quite definitely inside a cloud, at this point at night), and the town itself was down the face of a cliff which we could not scale. Alausi was within sight, but not so much within reach. We began scouting for a way down, and (after rejecting jumping down into a hilltop cemetery because Ma. assured me that "the guards will be armed and they will keep dogs") eventually we settled on following the highway until we found a road down. There was not much in the way of a margin, and we kept Ma.'s phone out so that approaching traffic could see the light even if it couldn't see us. In the darkness and fog we missed the stairs down entirely (they do exist, if any of you are inclined to visit there) and ended up on a long winding road down into town. It was about one o'clock in the morning.

The town was empty.

Our hostel was closed.

The battery on my computer is running low, and this is running long, so I shall continue the story later in Ecuador 4 so that I have time to post this up today. I have not had time enough to revise it, but I have opted not to concern myself with such things until I arrive back in the states.

Signing out for the moment,
Maxwell Evans

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