As the not-historian Dan Carlin says “Where do you start a story where all of human history is context?
I barely registered the sunset through the dingy bus window. It was beautiful but my mind was numbed by the hours of dense monotonous forest and a generally long day that may have began with a heroic early morning taxi chase to overtake the bus that we were still on.
It wasn’t even that far of a trip, maybe 200 miles as the crow flies, but nonetheless the twisty road continues on interminably through jungles and cloud forests stopping to exchange people and farm animals at every little village. We spent all day on the bus and aren’t even there yet. At least there was no shortage of vendors selling little plastic sleeves of fresh mangoes; seven for a dollar. I am pushed into the window by the force of the bus making a sharp turn at reckless speeds. Lucy, my girlfriend at the time gets thrown into me followed by Kada our friend from work and Lucy’s brother, Brian, who came along for the party. It is the long smooth bench seat in the back that makes this pileup not only possible, but inevitable. Based on how he drives, the bus driver might think he is in a Ferrari, but no one else is fooled, it is just a red race car-themed painted school bus of the era that was phased out when I was in grade school. At first glance it seems like there is no need for such a windy and treacherous road in a soft green country, even the tallest mountains form perfect round cones with smoothed tops. However all it is, is a thick green mat of treacherous jungle that only looks soft when you are far enough away to not be able to pick out the omnipresent thorns that hide the ragged geography. Plus, those mountains are taller than anything in North America, even the little dimples that barely reach out of the canopy are giants. We’ve been throwing ourselves at them for a month and the altitude and rainy season have beat us down, so now we were off to rest and surf on a tropical beach. The passing views dimmed, blurred, and melded with my dreams as I drifted off to an unlikely sleep.
The bus lurches to a stop and stuffs me into the space usually reserved for feet and handbags. I crawl out, groggy and disoriented to a view of the moon shimmering off the jet black Pacific Ocean. A man in a red shirt ambles down the aisle shouting and motioning at us. “Donde estamos?”, was the extent of my Spanish at this point. I was only three weeks into what has turned out to be a long career of mangling Spanish.
I could only pick out one word of his response, the name of the major tourist town on the coast. A town that is supposedly full of drugs and drunken Australians and has a reputation as dangerous and crime ridden. Maybe he is judging us based on Brian, the most boisterous one of the group, and he is drunk. I shake my head and say “no” and Lucy who is decent at Spanish explains to him that we are actually going to the sleepy little Latin surfing hamlet of Monpiche, a couple of hours down the coast. This time he shook his head and said “no”.
It turns out that the night bus goes to Monpiche on Tuesday and Thursday, but today was Wednesday, so it was heading somewhere else. We had the choice of getting off here at a hotel or being dropped off in a tiny town at the turnoff about 15 km from Monpiche. That’s not too far, and I would rather spend the night in some nowhereville than in beachvegas.
When the driver stopped at the little crossroads he took the time to give us directions. And then, in an extraordinarily kind gesture he walked us into the little police station there and explained our plight to the officer. We shook his hand, thanked him, and waved goodbye.
The police officer leaned his assault rifle on the desk and said he could help us, but he had to make a phone call or something, so he told us to come back in 20 minutes. We wandered aimlessly out of the office and took stock of the town. All told it was about a football field in length with a continuous front of buildings lining the wide gravel road that split in the end in a perfect Y. We needed to go right, the road lesser taken. There were no other lights on in town, and no sign of commercial establishments, but no doubt many of these homes ran informal restaurants or shops during the day. A revving motor made us spin on our heels just in time to watch the officer launch out of the door and off the steps of the office onto a dirt bike and rocket past us doing everything but a wheelie.
He returned a few minutes later followed by a pickup truck, he parked the bike inside and helped us load our bags in the back before hopping in the cab. We shared the back with a very large, very pregnant, and thankfully very docile sow. This was the reason for their trip, he was taking it to his sister-in-law’s house before it gave birth. She also had a room we could rent for a paltry $5 a night, not bad when split four ways. I laid my head back to stare at the stars and soak in the experience while simultaneously trying not to breath through my nose. This was my first time traveling without an itinerary of any kind and this was what it is all about: getting there, making it happen, adventure, right?
Everything always works out.
We slept in and strolled out onto the beach at an unreasonably late hour in what we’ll call morning because no one had a watch to disprove it. We were met by a perfectly warm salty breeze that can only be found on a tropical beach and a tall dark and handsome man with dreadlocks down to the small of his back, also fitting for a tropical beach. He stood behind a small folding table displaying handmade stone and seashell jewelry. He introduced himself as Javier and in English but in a deep and smooth Latin accent started explaining the stones, where they came from, what powers they were supposed to have, and why he made each one the way he did. Kada was already lost in his eyes like a puppy staring at a tennis ball. In only board shorts and flip flops he looked like a Greek statue carved from ebony, only walking, talking and charming the heck out of all of us. He picked up a necklace, held it up in front of himself for a moment, set it back down favoring a different one and stepped around the table to place it around Kada’s neck.
“It looks so good on you”, he purred, “You must have it”.
It was so smooth that despite the obvious racket I almost felt the flutters too.
“How much?”, Kada asked with a slight quiver in her voice.
Javier launched into a long description about the powers of the rare stone and how it complimented her character so well. And then he said, “that is why I can’t charge you for it. It is meant to be yours and taking money for it would be thievery”.
He smiled and waved reassuringly as we walked out onto the beach, Kada’s fingers fidgeting with the smooth blue stone.
Over the next few days we established a routine. No that’s too rigid of a word, the fact is that there were only about three places one could be: on the beach, in the water, or at the Cafe/batido stand, so our days felt orderly. We (Brian) would slip the batido maker a little bottle of rum and he would mix it with our blackberry avocado smoothies and still only charge us a dollar.
One evening after nursing a sunburn and killing the afternoon lounging in the shade and practicing Spanish with Javier over spiked batidos and endless bowls of civiche we decided to take a night swim. I took off my Chaco sandals and actually folded my clothes on top of them before sprinting into the phosphorescent waves to join Lucy. The stars shimmered overhead and the warm waves tumbled and fizzed a blue green light. We were caught up in the ecstatic romance of it all and by the time we dragged ourselves back to the pile of things, my sandals were gone. I fumbled around in the darkness, maybe they were moved, or the wind blew my clothes off them, or maybe I knew deep down that they were gone. Petty theft is a thing in poor areas the world after all.
There was a 5 foot moat of gravel around our place that reminded me that I would have to buy a pair of shoes if I ever wanted to leave this town.
The next morning, just like all the other meals, we ate breakfast at the only Cafe. After our food had arrived but before it was finished I saw a man walking down the road with my Chaco sandals on! I wasn’t looking for them, I just judge people based on their footwear and for once that quirk came in handy.
Before I could figure out what to do Lucy was chasing the man down the street. Her brother bolted after her, both because he would never miss out on a kerfuffle and for protection as obligated by being her older brother. This left me alone at the table with three half empty plates and a bill to pay.
I found them arguing boisterously on the beach. Brian and I flanked Lucy trying to look serious despite having seriously no clue what was being said. I think at first the man denied that they were mine, but it was too obvious of a lie since my name was sharpied on the strap. Caught red handed his demeanor shifted and he motioned for us to follow him so as not to make a scene in front of his wife and daughter. A block away and much calmer, he explained with Lucy translating that he just found the sandals, or maybe someone gave them to him. It didn’t matter to me how “BS” his excuse was. This was a poor town in a poor country not long after a financial crisis/scandal that abolished the Ecuadorian currency and adopted the dollar. This royally screwed over all but the rich and well connected who had access to foreign currency. I could not blame him too much for taking what he could get from comparatively rich American tourists, but my feet hurt and I just wanted my Chacos back. He did not want to walk around barefoot and said he would give them back if we followed him to his house so he could put on another pair of shoes. Despite protestations he turned and began walking down the road. What else could we do? We followed along. I was still barefoot so I immediately understood why he didn’t want to walk without shoes, but at the same time, screw him, those are my shoes that he stole!
As we ventured away from the beach and into unexplored parts of town, he picked up his cell phone and made a call. He spoke in hushed tones so that even Lucy couldn’t decipher what was being said. Safety in numbers, right? There were three of us, but this was his territory. So as he left the main street and started meandering in circles down ever sketchier alleyways and paths, the tension built until Brian got in his face.
“Ahora! Ahora!”, he shouted using one of the words we just learned.
He was probably right to confront him before we were too far away from public view.
In the heat of the situation Javier materialized. “What is the problem?”, he asked calmly.
With maybe a little too much zeal in my voice I replied, “He stole my shoes!”
Javier turned to the man and calmly, even gently said, in Spanish, what I presume to be, “Give him back his shoes.”, because the man immediately took them off and handed them to me.
I think I mumbled a stunned “Gracias” to everyone and no one in particular. The man disappeared before I even had my shoes on.
“Hey do you guys want to see the black sand beach?”, Javier asked.
We stopped by the room to pick up Kada and after an hour hike down twisting jungle paths, cushioned by my old trusty Chacos, we made it to the beach for a full day of surfing, snorkeling and mud baths.
Everything always works out.
I was immobilized by an overstuffed stomach after a long lazy dinner of fresh ceviche, but the bill was already paid and the group was moving. Lucy and I retreated while most followed Javier to wherever the party was. Kada came in sometime later saying it was getting a little too wild for her, or maybe I only dreamed that.
Much later, Brian barged in. He was definitely saying something but his words were too slurred to decipher.
“Go to bed, it’s like 5:30 in the morning.”, came Lucy saying what all of us were thinking.
He insisted, growing frustrated by our lack of attention. Lucy tried to explain to him that any problem he had would probably be easier to solve in the sober light of day.
“But there were these guys”, he blurted.
“Are they coming after you here?”, Lucy questioned.
“No, No. No one’s after me”, he admitted.
“OK, then go to bed”, Lucy said. I could picture her patiently tucking her older brother in, although she made no move to do so. Instead he accomplished this himself by flopping face down and beginning to snore.
Through the small window that overlooked the beach we could see two clusters of people bathed in the golden light of morning.
“Those look like bodies.”, Kada said. It was immediately obvious and the beauty snapped out of focus.
Brian roused himself and started to explain the situation. The story was as disjointed and foggy as his addled memory but apparently Javier is the leader of the local drug import ring. They had a shipment where a boat came ashore during the night and he and several others were recruited to carry the cocaine and stash it in a house down the beach. Several trips. Hundreds of kilos. His memory was foggy, but there was an argument between Javier and a couple of guys. One of them may or may not have been the one heavily flirting with Kada earlier in the night. Sure, not all the evidence was in but we weren’t going to stick around and ask questions. The next bus out of town left in as soon as 15 minutes and we were going to be on it.
Arriving at the bus station only five minutes early was cutting it close but pretty impressive given the circumstances, and the extent of Brian’s hangover. We double checked the sign in the window, counted our fares and checked with the driver. Yes it was going to Quito, but we would have to wait five minutes. Then he would let us on.
“Buenas dias”, a familiar voice approached from behind. We turned around. “Where are you going so early in the morning?” It was Javier, chipper as ever.
“Oh, we had a great time here, but time to move on to Quito.”, in a surprised voice, I responded.
“That’s too bad. But the bus takes so long, I can have someone drive you.”, Javier said.
“No, we’re good.”, I quickly reacted.
“No, let me get someone to drive you.”, he demanded.
We denied, he insisted, we denied, he insisted. Escalating each time and stretching the tension so tight it threatened to cause a scene.
Pause. Stop reading and take a moment to play the song below:
Now please continue reading with the song playing distractedly in the background. I think it sets a fitting ambiance.
A car pulled up in the middle of this conflict with this soundtrack already playing. It was an old cheap economy car with mismatched panels that were rusty and sun faded from too many days on a tropical beach. The driver was wire and maybe 30. He was wearing flip flops, a faded tank top, and jeans raggedly cut into shorts just above the knee.
“Go with my man here”, Javier demanded. “It’s so much faster than the bus, and cheaper too.”
“Oh no, it’s OK, we have already paid for the bus.”, I responded.
Javier laughed at the response, “You don’t pay until you get on the bus.”
Busted. He was right and we knew it.
“Take the ride”, he said, “I insist”.
The tension was beyond unbearable. And I caved under the pressure.
“Let’s just do it”, I said.
I don’t know how I justified my resignation to the situation. Knowing we were beat? Fear of a fight? Naive belief that people are mostly good and everything always works out? But everyone else went along with it, so I didn’t have to explain myself. The driver had two of the backpacks in the trunk before we could form half of a second thought.
We pulled out just behind the bus. At the end of town at a T in the road it turned left, North, towards the party town, then Emerald and then Quito. We turned right and accelerated southward towards a blank space in the lonely planet guide. The soundtrack was a CD so scratched that only two and a half songs played through. Manu Chao Radio Bremba pulsed through the car at a volume in defiance of the scratchy and blown out speakers. I fixated on making out the Spanish words and learning their meaning, finding it surprisingly hard to decipher them over the cacophony of a wannabe rally driver on a washboard road. But in this case repetition was my friend, and then it became my tormentor when an hour later he careened around another curve and accelerating into a straight section, snorted another line, lowered his sunglasses and said his first two words of English to us, “Don’t look!”
We blew through the police checkpoint without slowing down. Maybe we even sped up. All of our heads snapped around to witness the inevitable lights and sirens, obviously paying no heed to his warning. They never came. He just laughed and drove even faster. I wondered how his heart was still beating.
Two hours of twisty roads, blind corners, and near head-ons later, we entered the city limits of Quito and slowed to something resembling a speed limit. Minutes later we were deposited next to our backpacks at the hostel we specified. Visibly shaking although no longer from the hangover, Brian fumbled money at the driver for his taxi services. He refused it, saying that he was just making a delivery and then sped off.
A year or so later Lucy burned me a CD with those songs on it. It was infused with more layers of meaning than a banana split, but regardless it was the first time I ever liked music. Of course that begs the question of how I could come to believe that I didn’t like music in the first place. But that is another story altogether so I will save it for another time. I’ll give you a spoiler though: Everything always works out.