Friday, March 21, 2008


Paused for a day in a little village called Canoa, little but mud streets, a few tiki bars, a fat stretch of sand and big frothy Pacific waves. Transportation out here is slow but incredibly efficient. Leaving Canoa this morning I walked to a wet corner, set my bag down and in swooped a rattling old bus – 35 cents to the town of San Vicente, there to catch an open boat across a swollen bay for another 40 cents. Barely off the boat and a guy snatched up my bag, loaded it on a pedicab and 50 cents later, deposited me in front of the bus to Guayaquil, which was $5. So that’s two buses, a boat and a pedicab, with never a wait in between, a nine-hour journey for $6. And forget bringing food; at every stop on the bus vendors supply all the fresh mineral water and little warm crunchy hollow bread things called pan tortillas you could want. Not to mention crayons, pills that make you young again – his sales pitch was a good 35 minutes and we each got to hold a bottle – and even a cell phone for $20.

This journey is not just about having an adventure. It’s also about seeing the world moving and traveling in huge numbers. Not one of my buses from Bogotá to Quito to Canoa to Guayaquil had a single Gringo traveler; they were filled with people of poor or modest incomes – the rich fly, and they do so on the best airlines – traveling for work or to see relatives.

Two recent items of note in the New York Times: on Sunday, March 9, a piece on oil mentioned that “In recent years the world’s developing countries have been growing about seven percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.”

And on March 17 a story appeared about a World Bank economist named Dilip Ratha, who is the first person to seriously study remittances – the money migrants send home. “Until the 1990s,” the piece says, “most economists saw remittances as small private sums irrelevant to development.” But Ratha’s research showed otherwise, and the numbers are staggering: over 200 million migrants worldwide sending $300 billion a year home to their families and villages – three times more than the world’s combined foreign aide. Think about it – that’s all those guys waiting for work at your neighborhood 7-Eleven, the busboys, the roofers and concrete pourers and landscapers, all earning minimum wage and sending a dollar here and there back home.

Directly, indirectly – it’s all those people who are crowding the collectivos and long distance buses and bad airlines that thread the remotest villages and biggest cities together into this growing worldwide economic tapestry. The roads of Columbia and Ecuador, bad as they are, are crowded with packed buses and minivans; the bus terminals from which they depart in places like Bogotá and Quito are massive labyrinths of restaurants and internet phone services and tamale joints that offer more options and services than Dulles airport.

The journeys are efficient, but never easy. The next time you’re steaming over sitting an extra hour or two in Dulles waiting for your delayed flight, think 25 hours on a bus with two guys slugging Tequila and FARC guerillas somewhere out there in the dark. Or today’s journey along the coast of Ecuador: hot, steamy, crawling along unpaved stretches of dirt washed out by rain and flooding, your knees jammed against the seatback in front of you. If all goes well, though, I’ll be catching the 6 am bus tomorrow for Lima, just another 25 hours down the road….