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….

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bogota to Quito

Arrived in Quito, Ecuador yesterday afternoon after 30 hours on two buses. My whole body hurt. Head pounding from the altitude and little nourishment and no coffee, and the latest video: two hours of Rambo killing and blowing things up and blood spurting in slow motion, broadcast at full volume on a distorted sound system. Knees, shoulders, neck – I stumbled out into Quito’s chaotic central terminal in a cold, driving rain, somewhat in a fog. But I was better than the guy across the aisle: he and his buddy had polished off a whole bottle of Suiza gold Tequila in four hours and he couldn’t get up at all. His buddy was shaking him and slapping him and he wouldn’t open his eyes.

Regarding bus safety, the government of Colombia was progressive: since 2004 it required bus companies to post safety statistics in every ticket window. At first the stats for my bus didn’t seem too bad – only 18 accidents, eight injuries and six deaths. But that was only for the first two months of 2008. And no one seemed to have died on other lines. Oh well, I bought a ticket and settled in. My seatmate was a young woman so shy she could barely speak – she literally hid from me behind a lamppost when we made an afternoon pit stop – and she had a complicated name I couldn’t pronounce. I didn’t envy her. She’d traveled 28 hours by bus to Bogotá for two days work (what that work was, I couldn’t understand), and now was heading back – another 28 hours.

We’d rolled out of Bogotá in the morning, and just rolled and bumped and rolled on and on and on, through never ending mountains of green and clouds and rain and fog and switchbacks – straight through Colombian army patrols and checkpoints. Every once in a while soldiers boarded the bus and checked a few IDs; once I had to get off and let them go through my luggage. The dude in cammos seemed most flummoxed by my guidebook to Africa, which he studied, but then shrugged and moved on to someone else.

Avoid traveling at night, the guidebook warned. Somewhere out there were FARC guerillas, but no one seemed too worried – and it was hard to imagine anyone any one out in the dark and rain and cold doing anything but hunkering down.

I was happiest when the guy who had been masturbating across the aisle while staring at me got off the bus – that was just as dawn was breaking.

Right now rain is the big threat; it’s been raining incessantly for months. Once, early in the morning we had to detour around a landslide that covered the road. All of Ecuador has been declared a disaster area, but particularly the southern coast. Roads and bridges are out, thousands homeless. But this journey is all about plunging in so I’ve decided to take the southern coastal route to Peru.