No Trains, Planes, nor Automobiles

Here's a repost, with kind permission, from the blog brokedownpalette. It's written by Rick Lewis, who is CEO at La Casa de la Mujer de las Américas, and is living for the moment in Cotacachi, Ecuador.

No Trains, Planes, nor Automobiles

InternetThe internet connection failed at home as I joined a few new acquaintances for a day trip to nearby Ibarra, the capital of Imbabura Province.  The city is ten times the size of Cotacachi, and for those who live here a necessary occasional destination for finding a serious hardware store or a real supermarket.  And frankly, the internet had been humming for much longer than I had any reason to expect.  It’s a wire that snakes out between the curtains, across the lawn, up and over a wall and into the neighbor’s front window 100 feet away.

Five of us gathered at the bus station alongside the central market and climbed onboard for the 40-minute trip to Ibarra, with no more agenda than seeing what was there for future reference.  Once underway, a conductor collected the usurious 45-cent fare as cheerful music played on the speakers.

In Cotacachi, I have learned, the buses between cities become the local buses when they enter the city limits, and most of them pass my house.  I could catch a bus to Ibarra by flagging it down across the street, and have another one drop me at home on the way back.  Or, I can stop any bus coming into town from anywhere and take it to the central plaza or eventually the bus station for just 25 cents.

Very few people have a car of their own here.  Gas is just $2 a gallon but import duties and licensing costs will seriously inflate the price of a car when plenty of inexpensive taxis and buses are everywhere.  There are a few train tracks in the area, but they are rusty and unused.  We later saw a handful of locomotives and cars on a side track in Ibarra, faded and corroded, their windows vacant stares, going nowhere.

Bus1The road to Ibarra is a modern four-lane highway.  The buses are not the stuff of legend, whose passengers carried live chickens and lashed wicker baskets on the roof.  These are big and reasonably comfortable, and when another one slammed suddenly into ours from behind, it was a clash of sturdy titans.  A puff of dust rolled through the interior as the bus slithered to a stop on the shoulder, and everyone filed out to inspect the damage and debate culpability.  A large majority focused quickly on the driver of the other bus, who seemed to have come up behind and rammed us, for no apparent reason apart from inattention.  Our back window was broken out; half of his wide windshield and most of the entry door were crushed.  No one was hurt.

It happens—but, according to the locals, not very often.  The buses are pretty safe and reliable.

Thirty years ago, most of these vehicles came from the Bluebird Bus Company in Mt. Pleasant, IA.  Each had already seen a full workhorse life as a school bus, grinding through the lower gears of rural routes in Montana or New Hampshire before being repainted and resurrected as an intercity rocket ship, careening on bald tires and shrieking brakes around the curves and terrifying precipices of the Andes.  Now that was an adventure.  When you peered over the edges of deep canyons, you could just make out the rusting hulks of Bluebirds in the underbrush a thousand feet below.   Their original kindergarten passengers were probably retired grandparents in California by then.  Whether a Bluebird ever died a natural death is something of a Latin mystery.

Ibarra-airportIt wasn’t long before the next bus to Ibarra came along and everyone jumped aboard, leaving drivers and the police to work out whatever came next.  Just as we pulled into town, the other transportation curiosity of the day showed itself when we drove right across the runway of the Ibarra municipal airport.  I looked left from the bus in time to see the tarmac stretching away into the distance, where a control tower perched on one side.

There was a consensus among the passengers that the airport isn’t much used any more.  You would hope so.  Viewed from the other end, it’s obvious that if a pilot could manage to ascend over the passing trucks and buses, there’s still the matter of the 16,000-foot volcano to be avoided.

I’d still opt for the bus.

– Rick Lewis

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