At Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe, I leapt (read: was pushed) from the Metro into a sea of commuters who dashed this way and that, each trying to catch their next connection.
With backpack loaded heavy and awkward on my shoulders, I labored through the chaos toward three ticket counters that each read “Latacunga.” As I approached, attendants behind thick, glass ticket windows each yelled toward me, attempting to gain my business. I picked one at random.
I knew from more high-level planning that, to get to the entrance of Parque National Cotopaxi, I needed to take the bus route that terminated in Latacunga; but, I was somewhat concerned by the fact that, at the ticket counter, Cotopaxi was not listed as a stop.
“¡¿Cotopaxi!?” I inquired through the holes in the glass window.
“¡Latacunga!” the attendant replied.
“¡Quiero que ir a Cotopaxi!” I countered.
“¡Sí, Latacunga!” came the attendant’s retort.
Her logic was sound. There was no refuting her argument. I conceded the point and purchased a ticket to Latacunga for $1.50.
Ticket in hand, a station attendant herded me, along with hundreds of other cattle, through double turnstiles, toward the departure gates. As I approached my bus, the driver, waiting just outside the door, offered to put my absolutely-too-large-to-put-in-the-cabin backpack under the bus. Knowing from research to never, ever let anyone take my pack and put it under the bus, where it would be out of sight and unprotected, I immediately surrendered it to driver, grateful to unload the monolith from my body.
“Tranquilo,” the driver said, reading my relieved, yet always paranoid mind. “Tu maleta es seguro.”
In what I could tell was an obvious, and much appreciated, effort to put me at ease, the driver showed me to the passenger side of first row of the bus, directly over the compartment that held my pack, where I could and make sure no one was absconding with it. (I later realized, having actually read my next ticket, that when you purchase an inter-municipal bus ticket, seats are typically assigned at the ticket counter. The passenger side first row often only has one seat, as was the case here; and I was traveling solo. Ergo, the driver showed me to this particular seat because it was the one to which the ticket counter attendant assigned me.)
As I gazed out of the window, a younger man approached the driver. They exchanged pleasantries, and the younger man hopped aboard and into the driver’s seat. Come to find out, the gentleman I thought to be the driver was actually more of an attendant/herder of men and women, who saw to luggage that needed to be stowed below the bus, shuffled passengers around the cabin as they entered and exited, and, sometimes – sometimes not – collected bus fares.
Soon, we pulled away from the gate and began our departure from the terminal.
The bus crawled toward the terminal’s gates, which appeared to be wide-open for any bus, car, person, or Boeing 747 to enter. As we approached the exit, the bus picking up speed, the attendant/herder signaled to two men, whom he appeared to know, standing near a sidewalk. They scurried through the crowd of vehicles and people toward our bus and jumped aboard through the open double doors. The two men exchanged laughs and smiles with the attendant/herder and made their way to seats toward the back of the bus.
About five meters later, a man wearing a crisp uniform, a billy club, and a very serious frown jumped aboard the bus, yelling. Apparently a transportation policeman of some kind, he yelled at the attendant/herder in words I understood to roughly translate to: “They didn’t pay! Get them the hell off of the bus!”
The bus slowed again, but absolutely did not stop, and the stowaways and policeman jumped off.
Approximately 20 meters later, with the terminal gates still well within view, the stowaways, having chased the bus through the crowd, jumped back aboard. They exchanged more grins and laughter with the attendant/herder and made their way back to the seats they hadn’t purchased. I couldn’t help but grin as well, internally cheering their successful effort to buck the system.
Finally en route, the driver whipped the bus mercilessly through backstreets that were seemingly much too narrow for the bus’s girth, at speeds seemingly too rapid for human safety. At every turn, the nose of the bus appeared destined for a collision with the corner of a building or a signpost. The top of the bus leaned at precarious, top-heavy angles, passengers swaying and jerking from side-to-side, like helpless stalks of corn clutching to the ground through a windstorm.
We finally cleared the southern end of Quito, and turned onto E-35, the main highway traveling north-to-south, which more or less runs through the heart of Ecuador.
Suddenly, I found myself white-knuckling the armrests of my seat, as the numbering and bisecting nature of the highway reminded me of the damned and loathsome road that is I-35, back in Texas. I felt my face turn hot and red, as I thought about the road where I spent un-countable hours of my precious, short life wondering why the troglodytes operating the vehicles in front of me do not understand, despite the large signs every five miles, that the left lane is for passing only; how long it would be before, one day, a sleepless, cranked-out driver of an 18-wheeler would slam my car into a guardrail, or worse; and, whether the “home protection” rounds of my safely-stored (read: in the unlocked glove box) XD 9mm Sub Compact would pierce the radiator and engine blocks of the dualies spewing soot and smell into the air, as driven by rednecks and other assholes who felt the need to overcompensate for… something.
A gust of cool wind from the still-open bus doors hit me in the face, and I snapped back into the moment. “Breathe,” I thought. "In through the nose; out through the mouth... There you go... Tranquilo... Hey, look, a mountain. Hey, look another mountain... This is swell... I am happy... I am on a bus in the middle of Ecuador."
My mind back aboard the bus, I realized that, directly behind me, I was hearing a conversation in English. I turned to find a young couple, probably in their mid-twenties, chatting.
“Are y’all going to Cotopaxi?” I asked.
“We are,” they replied.
“Excellent. So am I. I’m Zac. Do you want to hire a guide with me?” I stammered, excited to not have to translate words in my head before speaking.
“I’m Nir and this is Brittany,” Nir replied. “That sounds good.”
I had made my first new traveling friends.
From Baños, with Love,