Well, I’m two bus rides down, approximately three dozen more to go!
Our supposed 3 hour bus ride north along the coast from Moñtanita to Manta this afternoon turned out to be more like 4 1/2 hours, and was quite the experience. Kathleen, Pascal and I are the three students participating in the traveling classroom program for the month of October. On Friday, each of us were each handed a piece of paper with a printed map we could barely make out, the name of our new host family, their phone number and the phone number for Manuel, the director of the spanish school we’re studying at in Manta. Along with our illegible map came a $5 bill – our bus fare.
Silly me, I was picturing a nice private van, which would shuttle the three of us up the coast and directly to our host families houses. Once I realized we were stuck taking a bus, I imagined the nice, over air-conditioned tourist busses I took in Peru and Bolivia, similar to the one I took up to Moñtanita from Guayaquil. We’re in South America after all — I should’ve known better.
The bus we needed to take has no schedule, but between 6 AM-ish (emphasis on the ish) and 6 PM-ish, it runs every half hour, stopping for all of three seconds in the middle of the main road that runs through Moñtanita, allowing passengers to hop on and off. When the bus finally came, we shoved our packs in the back and jumped on to discover that there were no empty seats. Luckily, after standing in the aisle for 20 minutes or so, the bus stopped two more times and enough people got off that the five of us (we’d befriended a French girl and a Canadian guy also waiting at the bus stop with gigantic travel packs) were able to find seats. They were only going an hour or so north to Puerto Lopez, but they were able to get on the same bus as us. I should have seen that as a warning sign.
Instead of the direct bus I’d imagined, we ended up stopping close to two dozen times over the course of the next several hours. Our seats were barely padded, and as my ass went from sore to totally numb, my head began to pound from the ruckus around me.
For starters, there were children everywhere, of all ages, some crying, some screaming, some just talking and playing at an escalated volume. Women and men of all ages spoke Spanish loudly throughout the bus, and loose speakers, which had clearly been hand-wired into the two overhead luggage racks, blared a constant stream of static-y Spanish music. But it gets worse.
Have you ever heard the sound of metal scraping along concrete or asphalt? Imagine a gigantic metal dumpster being dragged across the ground, vibrating and scraping loudly… for hours on end. Okay, so there were pauses every few minutes or so, but I swear the engine of our bus was dragging directly along the highway with the tires. Every time our driver accelerated above 45 km, the roaring would start, slowly getting louder and louder until the scraping noises was booming. I wish I were exaggerating.
I was, ironically, thankful that I’d gone to bed ridiculously late on Friday night (I only got two hours of sleep.. oops!) and had a long day Saturday at the beach in the sun, so even though I had slept 8 hours on Saturday night, I was more than exhausted from the weekend. Eventually the noises around us because a sort of horrific lullaby that rocked me to sleep. I passed out for an hour and a half, and woke up for good as we pulled into yet another bus station to let passengers on and off.
At several points throughout the drive, the bus would stop for an instant and teenagers selling snacks — pans of stuffed breads or water and soda — would hop on, trying to make a few dollars. It was certainly the Ecuadorian experience, and we were the whitest ones on the bus by several shades.
Thankfully, once we finally got to Manta I was able to call Manuel and let him know we’d arrived in one piece (yes Dad, the cell phone and Ecuador SIM card you insisted on making me travel with did in fact come in handy — now you can say I told you so in your next email.) Thankfully, a young man from our school came to pick us up, and took us each to our host families in a taxi.
My casa for the week isn’t a single house for one family. Instead, it’s a family-run hotel and my host family — a mom, dad, two daughters and a son — lives on the first floor. I have my own private room and bathroom (with hot water!) in the hotel, which is much nicer than I was expecting. The first night was by far the most challenging, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable and my Spanish slowly improves, I’ve been able to communicate relatively well. Of course my vocabulary is far from impressive, so I often need to stop them (or slow them down) when they ask me questions, but I’m getting by.
Overall, Manta is a relatively ugly harbor city. It’s spread out and none of the buildings are higher than five or six floors. I haven’t seen a single other tourist thus far, and I have to admit as weird as it is, I’m more than happy to be out of the tourist trap and fiesta town of Moñtanita. Of course living on the beach in a crazy party town where booze costs $2 wasn’t a horrific lifestyle for a week, but I’m ready to really experience the cities of Ecuador and move on to a more authentic part of the trip.
The only complaint I have thus far is our new schedule: starting at 8:30 AM, we have four hours of Spanish, broken up only by a single twenty minute break. It’s a lot, and by the end, my brain literally starts to hurt from all the information being thrown at me. I must be retaining some of it though, because I find I’m much more capable of having conversations with strangers, even if they’re relatively basic and brief!
The rest of my week is jam packed: tomorrow we have a trip to a panama hat factory, Thursday is a national holiday and we get to go paragliding (ah I can’t wait!), Friday we have a cooking lesson, and Saturday we have an all day trip to Puerto Lopez where we will be snorkeling and whale watching. The Sunday we get on our 7 hour bus ride east and into the mountains to Quito. Thankfully, we’re booked on a tourist bus with AC and nice seats, so there will be no repeat of our last bus journey!