Ben, Irene and I arrived in Ecuador on 14 June via several gruelling buses from the north of Peru. We were only too glad to leave the blaring Peruvian bus music behind us - only to discover that Ecuadorian bus music is even louder and Ecuadorian bus driving is definitely more erratic (Ecuadorian bus drivers having a marked tendency to hurtle along in the centre of the road and to overtake everything ahead of them as fast as possible regardless of visibility). Given these driving patterns, we were at a loss to understand how the buses we travelled on in Ecuador invariably arrived at their destination an hour or two late.
One of the first things that struck me about Ecuador (once I recovered from the bus journey) was their mania for "canguil" (popcorn). It seems to appear in all meals, no matter what you order! I was served popcorn as a starter one lunchtime and another time it appeared on my plate together with a meat and vegetable main course at dinnertime. It takes some getting used to....
First place we stayed in Ecuador was the colonial town of Cuenca in the south. Cuenca is such a quiet place (it's dead to be quite honest) that we were puzzled to find that the casas de cambio were all protected by security guards sporting pump-action shot guns. Maybe there is something about Cuenca that we missed?
After a few days in Cuenca, we parted ways with Irene who tried to make her way to Banos, about 5 hours north on the bus. Note I said "tried". The separation was obviously too traumatic for Irene - she managed to end up in Quito (4 hours north of Banos) at 2 in the morning having fallen asleep and missed her stop. The bus driver found this so amusing that he brought her straight back to Banos on the bus for free. This adventure is however nothing compared to what happened when Irene tried to leave the country a week or so later....but I am getting ahead of myself.
While Irene was getting friendly with the Ecuadorian busdrivers, Ben and I travelled on to Puerto Lopez on the coast where we met up with Yves from Quebec (who we had already met or bumped into at various points in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru). Yves and I decided to go horseriding one day - we had images of galloping along a beautiful deserted Ecuadorian stretch of beach. My horse was however so reluctant to put one hoof in front of the other that our guide ended up having to tow him (via a rope attached to my horse's bridle). So not much galloping that day.
Yves, Ben and I then travelled to Banos where we met Irene again (she was still trying to psyche herself up to get another bus). Banos is a great little town to relax and do nothing - very easy to get stuck there. We did go cycling one day (all downhill of course, that was the only reason I agreed to go) along a road riddled with potholes, the depth and variety of which beat any I have ever come across in Ireland - and that's some feat.
By now, Yves had left us for Canada via Peru and Irene had left us (again) for Quito and Sydney via Los Angeles. Unfortunately, when Irene arrived in Los Angeles for her 18 hour stopover (which she hoped to spend relaxing in a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard), she was informed that in June 1998 she had overstayed her visa in the US by 10 days and was detained by LAPD for the duration of the 18 hours. As Irene obviously posed a major security risk to the whole of the United States during those 18 hours, it was of course understandable that she was handcuffed, her shoelaces and passport taken from her, and her Bic biro confiscated when she took it out to do the Irish Times crossword (her captors not being great conversationalists). I think on balance she'll take her chances with the Ecuadorian busdrivers in future.
Ben and I moved on to Quito where we signed up for salsa lessons. During my first lesson I noticed that my teacher (Luis) perferred to adopt alternative teaching methods - he would text message his friends with one hand while salsa-ing with me with the other. During the second lesson, I decided to adopt alternative learning methods - I would stop dancing and stand with arms folded looking blackly at him if Luis reached for his mobile. By the end of the second lesson, the standard teaching and learning methods had resumed on both sides.
Just outside Quito is the line marking the middle of the world in a very interesting museum. The guide experimented with a mobile sink of water - when the sink straddled the middle of the world, the water drained out without swirling, when the sink was moved a few metres to the southern hemisphere, the water turned clockwise as it drained and when the sink was moved a few metres to the northern hemisphere, the water swirled anticlockwise as it drained out. The guide also used the opposing forces of gravity to balance an egg on a nail directly over the middle of the world line - fascinating.
It was now nearing the end of June and time to take our flight to Bogota and then on to Mexico City. Our stopover time in Bogota was 23 hours and 50 minutes (Irish passportholders need a visa if staying more than 24 hours in Colombia; the Colombian embassy in Quito assured me that I did not need a visa for 23 hours and 50 minutes as I would be in transit). Our plan was to stay overnight in Bogota and visit the Gold Museum while there. Unfortunately, I never got to see the Gold Museum....
On arrival in Bogota airport, I was whisked off to see immigration officials in a small room (I thought of Irene and looked around for handcuffs), they called Continental (the airline I had arrived with) and told them that they would be responsible for supervising me for my 23 hours and 50 minutes in Colombia and ensuring that I got my plane out of Bogota within the 24 hour limit. The Continental official called a few people.....and then put me straight on a flight back to Quito! Without Ben of course. So while Ben spent the day being chauffeured around Bogota by an ophthalmologist friend of his mother's, including (a very liquid) lunch in Bogota's exclusive country club (1,200 members - population of Bogota is 9 million....), I was unceremoniously deported to Quito (of course Continental in Quito had not been contacted by Continental Bogota and knew nothing about me) and very late that night I was rerouted to Mexico City......via Houston, Texas!!!!!! But I got a tshirt from the Gold Museum in Bogota so I suppose I can't complain.
Before I go, I should add that at about the same time as Irene was being arrested in LA airport and I was being deported from Colombia, another Irish former fellow-traveller was getting to know the officials in Havana airport - Alan arrived in Havana with a crocodile skull which he had found in the Bolivian jungle a month before, whereupon, after several hours of questioning, said skull was confiscated by the airport official and incinerated. And Alan was invited to the airport official's house that night for a drink.
Mexico to follow soon.