Somehow I managed not to pee my pants.
Quito grew on us, Mindo seduced us to extend a couple of days to nearly a week, and Cuyabena filled five days with predatory beasts, nighttime boat rides, and swimming in a flooded Amazonian jungle. Then Papallacta was beautiful and shivering, Riobamba was finally Ecuador with nearly no other white people around, and strolling around Cuenca was a perfect way to celebrate my birthday. And I haven’t even talked about Cajas National Park. Oh dear.
All of those were beautiful, and all of them are in the Ecuadorian Highlands, except Cuyabena, which is the Oriente. The Highlands and the Oriente are two of the three distinct regions in this phenomenal country. The third is the coast. Sun, sand, and…do you really need a third one? After nearly two months at high altitudes in Colombia and Ecuador, wearing all of the meagerly few warmish clothes we brought, we were ready for some sultry coastal heat. We’d take the bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, then directly onward to the (appropriately named) coastal town of Playas.
Just about everything in Cuenca was closed on Sunday morning, but we found a café with pancakes, fruit salad, and large cups of coffee. All three seemed like a good idea at the time…
We checked out of our hostel, taking down my birthday streamers (Muppets no less) and saying goodbye to the handful of people we had met there, including Sparrow, the inspirational retiree whose tales of teaching in Georgia (the country) made me want to send Nepal another Thank-You Note…and go to Georgia. Then a local bus to the station to catch the 5 hour bus to Guayaquil.
The first couple hours climbed to, then descended from, the epic valleys and slopes around Cajas National Park, which I promise to tell you all about some day. (If you love the Scottish Highlands, but have visited plenty of times, come to Ecuador next year.) After that we came into the humid heat of the lowlands, where my stunned gawking out the window was replaced by admiration of the flocks of snowy egrets, and the full-body stiffness that comes with a desperate need to urinate.
As we pulled into the bus station in Guayaquil I wasn’t exaggerating when I said “I’ve seen airports smaller than that.” It’s huge. A monstrous concrete hanger with buses descending ramps from the second storey, and hundred of buses napping in the dusty parking lots that stretch into the hazy distance.
(Bus companies are to Ecuador as temples are to Thailand, sand is to Morocco, and bad haircuts are to Spain. There seems to be a different company for every possible route between two destinations. To buy a ticket in the main stations you have to check the map to see which wing of windows corresponds to your region, and Quito is not alone in having at least three bus stations, each one for a different direction of travel.)
We walked through the bustling bus-ticket business-place and found a bathroom, watching in agony as the sign “closed for cleaning” went up. We agreed to buy out tickets before finding the next closest one, which we did, only to look down and see a scheduled departure nine minutes away.
I asked the ticket-seller kid where it left from, and most of his murmured response was blocked by the plate-glass window with only mouse holes cut in it for speech, but I did hear “seventy…first floor” and see him point upwards.
Differing philosophies on how to count the floors in a building are nothing new to me. In America of course we count the floor as a floor, and if you add a second level to your one-floor house, you now have a second floor, whereas in Europe you can apparently live in a house with no floors if there’s no stairs. (It’s nice to be right about something, although it still doesn’t make up for not using the Metric System.)
This is fine, it’s an easy adjustment, but Latin America is somewhat harder since there seems to be no consistency. I remember quite clearly encountering both systems on consecutive days in Costa Rica. The ticket kid pointed up and said “first floor” so we took the escalator up, saw no apparent bus gates, and asked a guy standing there if we were on the first floor. He looked torn between wanting to help the escaped patients from the mental institution, versus looking around for the hidden cameras, before pointing down and saying, slowly, “first floor.”
We headed back down, probably blushing slightly, but could only find gates for arrivals. (Did I mention this bus station is enormous?) There, an information desk! “Excuse me, where does the bus to Playas leave from?”
“First floor. Take the escalator up, the gates are in the middle.”
Back upstairs, knowing full well “the middle” was less than supremely helpful, but seeing that our 9 minute window had shrunk to 2 minutes. The escalator ride behind three teenagers sipping their florescent sugar drinks with bovine slowness was an exercise in self-restraint.
We found the Departure gates! We walked up to the turnstiles and produced our little bar-code pre-tickets (it costs $0.20 to get to the buses…clever bastards) but luckily the kid working there pointed us to the turnstiles on the other side of the building. We ran over there, wondering where the adults in Ecuador work (I found out the answer the next day).
We found our bus lane, space 70, empty. It was running late, which was fine with me because it meant I would get to pee after all. I went looking for a bathroom.
There are no bathrooms.
All the bathrooms are on the other side of the turnstiles I no longer had a ticket for. What sadistic alien species designs a bus waiting-area without bathrooms? I considered making a run for it only to see our bus pull up, seeing immediately that there was no bathroom onboard. As I flung my backpack in the baggage area underneath I asked the grizzled driver if I had time to run to the bathroom. As he shook his head I felt my stomach sinking…or trying to, but the over inflated bladder prevented it.
“How long until Playas?” He held up two scarred and stubby fingers.
As I sat down next to K she asked “Did you get to go?” I shook my head. “Do you want me to finish the water bottle so you can go in there?” Proof #6,743 that I got a good one.
That didn’t prove necessary, as we made it to Playas without resorting to that classic Trapped-on-a-Bridge maneuver. I kept my mind off it by giving up my seat to a lady carrying a baby, then Politeness-Sparring with a kid when a seat opened up, him determined to let me sit out of respect for his elders, me determined to let him sit to avoid being an Elder. He won, then we shared a nod of congratulations when a second seat opened up a short time later.
Of course, my seat had the button for sideways adjustments stuck down, so with every racecourse turn of the highway my seat went slamming two inches one way or the other. The guy next to me slept through it all.
Eventually we got to Playas, found a hostel, and I stood in the bathroom, slightly concerned that I didn’t feel a need to go any more. But things got going, and a minute later they still were. You know that feeling? When you have to pee so bad that you can’t feel it happening when it does? Then after about 40 seconds it feels like your system switches to the back-up tank, and you get comfortable for the long haul.
Once that was completed, we set out to explore Playas…