After the craziness of Carnival and a rapid repack of my backpack, I was boarding a bus at a half past midnight in Trujillo. My amazing friend G had come to see me off at the bus station, and after an emotional goodbye with him I settled into my almost fully reclining seat and prepared myself for nineteen hours aboard. The conductor was like a teddy bear, rotund and with waistcoat buttons straining he had a high voice and fussy mannerisms but luckily for me, he decided to take me under his wing and practice his not too bad English which allayed my fears about the forthcoming border crossing. The journey was OK as I had chosen a single seat downstairs, the films on the seatback set were not too bad and the chicken dinner was actually quite tasty. The border crossing between Peru and Ecuador was in a new building with the exit and entry points side by side, the officials were not overly officious and the teddy bear kept a paternal eye on me so it all went smoothly.
Once in Ecuador the bus swung away from the desert sands of the coast and the scenery almost immediately changed from khaki sand to the most emerald of greens. Banana plantations and sugar cane fields marched into the distance where lush forests took over. Dotted amongst the greenery were little houses, many on stilts and most made of bamboo and wood, with woven banana leaf walls and thatched roofs, bleached to a pale tan colour by the tropical sun. A couple of times we were stopped at road blocks and surly soldiers climbed aboard. They scowled at us and one time one took a particular interest in what was under the seat in front of me, poking and banging with a menacing looking stick, but then a little later on, another group decided that they would relieve their boredom and instructed us to identify our bags in the hold and ordered us to line up and begin to unpack them by the side of the road. Was I glad that they gave up before getting to mine – if they opened it I would NEVER have got the contents back inside. And they would have discovered my hidden stash of coco leaf tea bags. We continued to Guayaquil without further drama although I have to admit to being extremely nervous about this leg of my adventure.
Guide books and other travellers all stressed the dangers of the rogue taxi drivers in this city, with people regularly hijacked and where robberies are a fact of life. I chose the most mature looking driver that I could find in the melee outside the bus terminal and just hoped that the two spy cameras and the panic button in his cab were working and he was one of the good guys. I was extremely relieved to arrive at my hostel in a little residential street and checked in at the same time as an Italian guy who had been on my bus. We had both asked other passengers what hostel they might be staying in so that we could share a cab but had not asked each other. We set off into the back streets to find somewhere to eat and then cooled down with our feet dangling in the tiny little pool in the hostel courtyard, chatting with other travellers and drinking beer.
Peru had been hot but Guayaquil was off the scale and so very humid. I was allocated a top bunk in a dorm at the DreamKapture hostel where I lay awake for most of the night, slowly roasting, but scared to toss and turn in case I rolled to the unguarded edge and ended up on the floor.
The next day I shared a cab back to the bus terminal with a very odd Dutch guy and where I eventually located the correct bus company out of the one hundred and four windows (I am not exaggerating this time) and managing to brush off the countless ticket touts who were bothering me, with two minutes to spare, I got on my rickety looking bus to Manta.
We bowled through more of the stunning countryside for three and a half hours, stopping occasionally for more passengers and the obligatory food vendors. I bought and ate an unidentifiable pie-like thing and then, before I knew it, I had been turfed off the bus and into a deserted parking lot at Manta.
Of course, I wasn’t alone for long as my backpack attracted the usual clutch of cab drivers but this worked to my advantage as I could haggle among them for the best price to my final destination which was the beach resort of Santa Marianita – where I was deposited into paradise.
Following a communication mix up I had done no homework at all so was completely in the dark about what to expect and even unsure about what work I would be doing. I was to stay at a beachside hostel, working in exchange for my bed and breakfast, but what a hostel this one turned out to be. Over the next two and a half weeks I would meet many guests, the other volunteers and many of the local ex-pat community who all regularly gathered to chat in the shady hammocks but now, just a couple of hours after arriving I was standing on the sand outside the gate and shaving the pink hair off an Italian lady’s head whilst giggling Ecuadorians stopped to watch.
The American owner, a feisty lady from New York who had built her home from scratch and loved nothing better than to introduce and mix up friends, volunteers and guests in her big social melting pot was in her seventieth year, but you would never ever think it. She drove her large 4×4 truck competently and speedily (and the time I was sat in the open back, painfully into potholes), slept with a gun besides her bed ready to blow the brains out of any intruder and had a collection of thirteen rescue cats and four dogs which draped themselves lovingly over guests, hammocks and walls.
It was like a mini United Nations. There were Americans of course, several Canadians, my Italian friend who now sported a shaved head, a Ukranian and a German, a couple of Croatians, a Russian/Australian, an Indian, Dutch, Chinese a lovely English girl and two wonderful Ecuadorian ladies, not to mention the men in the hotel next door who ran the kite surfing school and came from goodness knows where.
Sunday morning was known as Gringo Breakfast with guest numbers swollen by local people. Sometimes up to forty would descend on the place and Maira the petite Ecuadorian cook would gallantly man the frying pans, aided by the stunningly beautiful Croatian girl who had once starred for three years in a popular Croatian soap opera, but was now travelling and volunteering like me.
The pace of life was slow. Rooms were cleaned, laundry laundered and groceries shopped for; punctuated by long walks down the beach to the lighthouse (more of a stick with a bulb on top than a house with a light), dips in the powerful surf and frequent power cuts. One evening six of us walked along to the local village where an ill-timed power cut found us sat in a dark courtyard of a local house and a light-bulb was powered by the car battery – yet a very tasty meal came out of the kitchen. Another day, I joined one of our Ecuadorian guests on a taxi ride to nearby Monticristi.
I forgot my Spanish/English dictionary but my Spanish must be improving as we got by and had a very enjoyable time looking around the hilltop mausoleum of Eloy Alfaro Delgado and shopping at the artisan market. We learned that some of the finest Ecuadorian (NOT Panama) hats are made in this region with the most expensive taking up to eight months to make, and we looked around the congress building which had been built and then occupied for only six years before the powers that be decided they should be relocated to Quito. Government officials waste money at every level and in every country.
In my short time here I met some wonderful people and all had their own special stories, some of which I was privileged to hear. Obviously I am not going to tell you these stories as they are not mine to tell, but I am never ceased to be amazed by the bravery and resilience of many people. I can only wonder how, when so many people battle adversity of every kind and win through; coming out the other side as interesting, intelligent, empathetic wonderful human beings, why others crumple and give up at far lesser challenges, becoming bitter, resentful and angry.