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Eggs and Esmeraldas after dark

After having risen at four in the morning in order to catch a flight which, after nothing was said or done for a very long, hot time, left at one in the afternoon; after a manic taxiride through Quito, the purchase of two large takeaway buckets of chicken fried rice at the busstation, a quick pee and assorted usherings, pushings, pullings and yells of ‘Esmeralda!’, ‘Esmeralda!’, we were finally on the bus.

Four and a half hours to the coast, to Esmeralda. Getting in just before nightfall we should be okay. Settling in for another journey, we sighed contentedly. Suddenly Paul’s face was distorted in a look of utter disgust and he yells out angrily – I jump, startled, thinking he’d realised we are on the wrong bus or that we’d forgotten one of the bags at the station or some similar disaster.

When I deciphered his wails I realised that he had opened the bucket of chicken fried rice and right there on top, staring at him with a loose yellow eye, sat a huge fried egg. Paul doesn’t eat eggs but Paul hadn’t eaten anything since early morning and now it’s around three, so after a bit of coaxing and pedantic removal of the offending item, we both tucked in. I get full quickly after wolfing down two fried eggs and some rice.

The journey started out as your usual Latin American road experience – engine roaring, radio blaring, crucifix jangling – ‘Jesus es mi conductor’ – obligatory overtakings, preferably of huge tankers filled with assorted toxic and highly flammable substances. The mountains were their usual green with cloudy mists – we stopped oohing and ahhing quite some time ago. I am aware that it’s the journey that’s the essence of a trip, not the destination, but see how many mountains you could stare at, for how many hours, until you started to give a little bit more importance to that destination.

The odd thing about this journey was how long it seemed to take.I, for no other reason than being a little bored, checked out the name of a little town we passed and looked it up on the map, and the distances just didn’t seem to fit. Maybe, I thought, when we get down from the mountains, there will be a really fast motorway and this bus will somehow turn into a sleek, Greyhound-style bus that was actually built some time in the last two decades. I failed to convince myself even remotely, but being unable to influence the situation, I sat back with resignation and stopped caring. The only nagging thought was that we had been told, over and over again, by people and by guidebooks, never, ever, to arrive or, preferably not even be outside in any capacity, in Esmeraldas after dark. Getting there before night seemed a slim chance indeed.

Several hours later we were stopped by a bunch of soldiers – travelling in Latin America you feel only slightly more comfortable, or rather, less distraught, when stopped by soldiers as opposed to highway robbers. Both are an unknown quantity and carry the same amount of guns. Highway robbers tend to be a bit older than the soldiers though, most past their teens. All the men were herded out of the bus and patted down for, supposedly, weapons. Their bags and their women, including me, were left on the bus – no wonder there are so many female Latina guerrilla fighters – they could carry bazookas with them and never get touched. I’m not complaining, mind.

That particular roadblock did, however, scratch down another point in the Positive Experiences Book. As Paul got patted down, they asked him to empty his pockets, where he had, amongst other things, a huge wad of money (with the Sucre at that time at 11,000 to the pound, you didn’t have to break the bank to walk out of it with money in a quantity it was hard to fit into your regular sports bag). The soldier who was doing the patting took the things in Paul’s pocket in his hands, looked at it, fingered the money – and gave it back. Nice one – Paul climbed back into the bus, cheered by not having had to argue with fifteen heavily armed teenagers over a couple of quid.

After dark we stopped off at some non-descript little road town with the usual stalls selling greasy, crunchy things and heavy bus-driver food (filling, cheap and easy to wolf down in 9 ½ minutes). I asked the guy who was riding shotgun how many more hours and got the usual – ‘not very long’. When I told him that they had told us at the bus station that the trip would take four and a half hours, he just laughed and laughed. ‘Nonono, never really that quick, never – nobody ever goes on this bus’ (us and the other, admittedly not very many, passengers, were obviously not counted as somebodys) ‘because it comes into Esmeraldas in the dark, and that is very, very bad’. Cheers mate – my Latino ‘si Dios quiere’, if God wants, resignation and calm was wearing thin by now, not helped by the fact that I had managed, at some stage during this interminable trip, to sit in a very wet, very large, piece of chewing gum that had somehow come to rest on my seat. I blamed the guy sitting in front of me, who had been eating junk food and throwing the debris all over the place since we left, but refrained from saying anything as he was huge and looked like an angry young thing. The kind of guy who goes to Esmeraldas on a bus that never comes in before dark because Esmeraldas in the dark is how he likes it.

Finally, at around midnight, we trundled into Esmeraldas. The town managed to look deserted in spite of quite a few people still out and about. Dusty, broken and dirty – it looked like I felt. We were dumped in a bus station and, bringing ourselves together to look untouchable and dead hard, with our backpacks like shining beacons in the night, we strode across the street to a bar. We were welcomed with much flapping of hands, a worried face asking where we were staying. When we said we didn’t know but that we needed a beer, the barman, a young mestizo, flapped his hands around some more, mumbled about crazy and killings and gringos and the absolute insanity of us being there, then. We went further into the bar, the front of which was open to the street, and were given beer to drink, decanted into plastic bags for some obscure reason to do with the hour and possibly with the fact that the barman didn’t want to lose two bottles in case we were robbed and abducted in a hurry. He solicitously sent one of the ubiquitous little boys hanging around to ask for room at the nearest hotel. The boy came back after about ten minutes and there was room and it was agreed that the boy would watch the bar while the barman and his friend walked with us the 150 metres to the hotel. And off we went, with our backpacks and our bags of beer, grateful for the bodyguards, too tired to care all that much anymore.

In a dark street our saving angels rang the bell to what looked like a prison. After much rattling of locks and pulling of metal handles, the door opened and we said our goodbyes and thankyous and they hurried back to the bar while we were let inside and upstairs by a big sullen fat man. The lobby was an orgy of ugliness and brown formica with anything and everything barred and bolted down. We were led to a room and realised, with wariness slipping through our road-dust fogged brains and out in the open, that the only thing that weren’t fortified to the max in this place were the doors to the rooms – they were equipped with sad excuses for padlocks hanging from needlethin nails. They had beds, though, and we stayed. Inside it looked no worse than many other hotel rooms in the cheaper Latin American range (which doesn’t say much) and I nodded neighbourly to the cockroaches in the loo while brushing my teeth – hey, there was even water!

Finally, finally laying down on the shabby mattress to rest my head, my nostrils were assaulted with the most sicklysweet, overpowering smell of men’s aftershave. I yanked my head up again and touched the pillow with my hand. It came away greasy, but thankfully the bloodstains all over the pillow were dry. My towel made a perfectly adequate place to rest the weary head, but the night was spent dreaming of eggs and chewing gum and bloody pillows in dirty hotel rooms in a port town on a forgotten bit of the Pacific coast of Ecuador.

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