In Transit

Saturday, April 24, 2010

At 5:30 in the morning I said goodbye to Bjorn, my Icelandic co-traveller for over three weeks as he left to catch his bus north to Quito and plane onward to Spain. I would be saying goodbye to Ecuador, a country I’ve spent the last month and a half being surprised by, six and a half hours later when I would arrive at the Peru-Ecuador border. My bus to this farewell left at 7:15 AM and I didn’t bother going back to sleep when Bjorn closed the door behind him. I got up, sorted my things, tried to make some progress on my Galapagos photos and blogs and finally headed to the bus station myself. Once again, there was no need to barter taxi prices – the driver just gave me the right price. The bus ride was just shy of 5 hours to the border, which is reputed to be the worst border crossing in all of South America. I can see how that would be the case, if you did it on your own and had to organize transport from the dodgy border towns to the immigration stations but my bus company brought me right to the Ecuador border where I did my paperwork and spent half an hour in no-man’s land before being picked up by a partner bus company, CIFA, and taken to the Peruvian one. The river you cross to enter Peru is pretty unimpressive as far as country-forming boundaries go, but soon enough I had my Peru stamp and was on my way to Piura, a crossroads town in northern Peru where I thought I’d spend the night.

Crossing to Peru was a different world. Somehow, the flooded/irrigated farm fields of southern Ecuador had morphed into dry desert that took me straight to Africa: or at least, what I thought Africa might look like. There were the occasional sparse-but-spread-out trees of the tundra and as the clock marched forward, an orange ball of fire silhouetting their shapes into my memory. If I had seen a herd of giraffes galloping by I wouldn’t have thought twice. The sun set and the clock said 6:30 when I finally pulled into Piura. Here I was to find three major differences with Ecuador that I wouldn’t necessarily like. The first is that there don’t seem to be organized bus terminals here. Instead, each bus line has its own depot which makes it very frustrating as a traveller trying to shop around and find busses leaving at more convenient times. The second is that long distance travel here tends to happen solely at night; Great for saving time (they’re too expensive to really consider them as saving money on hostels) but bad for missing scenery. And finally, for some reason, ALL the bus companies set out at the same times. There are, for example, four companies that do the route from Piura-Trujillo, the next major city on the Pan American Highway south. All of them leave at either 11 PM, getting you there at around 5 AM, or 2 PM, arriving around 8 PM. A bus at 2 PM is a waste of a full day on top of arriving at night, and a bus at 11 PM is OK if you’re trying to save time but not see scenery. And there were no other times on offer.

So I did what anybody would do in my position – I added another 6 hours to my already 11 hour bus ride. I had nothing I wanted to see or do in Piura, so I might as well get while the getting was good. That just left me with a few hours to kill in town, so I took a taxi to the centre and found one advantage that Peru has over Ecuador: food. First of all, the beer I had was a white/wheat beer of delicious proportions. And then the ceviche came and was second only to the ceviche I had in Bogota (but at 1/3 of the price and for triple the portion on top of that). While I waited for my meal I had my computer out and discovered a really fast Wifi network from which I could download a couple episodes of the latest season of Lost and things were looking up. I had something to watch while I tried to fall asleep and, well, let’s face it, the final season of Lost has been simply excellent as it reveals answers to long-held mysteries and advances the plot simultaneously. The streets of Piura were pretty busy, although I guess it was Thursday, and the streets were filled with bustling shops and shoppers not to mention diners and revellers. Maybe I had sold this place short? But then as I looked around I realized that if you weren’t shopping, there wasn’t much else to do around here. I caught a taxi back to the bus station where I waited the final bit, then got on the bus. That is, after an argument with the police in which they insisted on fingerprinting me and I eventually relented in spite of being very unimpressed. Thanks, Peru. I should have given them my middle fingerprint I guess.

The bus ride was uneventful (thanks, I can only assume, to the fact that they had all our fingerprints) and the sleep surprisingly decent but short. The guy who dubbed Clint Eastwood’s voice in Million Dollar Baby kept cutting into my attempts to drift off with “as-KEYR-dah”. I woke up at 5 AM in the dark and groggy in Trujillo. The bus company I’d come down with had no continuing busses to Huaraz, where I wanted to end up, and so I had no choice but to take a taxi to another bus line. Except that, one after the other – four in all – they were all closed. He managed to find out that there were no busses to Huaraz until that night meaning I had a day at the minimum to kill in Trujillo whether I liked it or not, not to mention time to wait for the bus stations to open. The taxi driver must have known they were closed but he protested his innocence and then asked for more money because he’d taken me to so many places. I’d had him bring me to the collectivos heading to nearby Huanchaco, a beach town that was supposed to be decent. If I was going to lose a day I might as well enjoy it properly and lose it somewhere nice. But the collectivo wouldn’t wait for me to negotitate a fairer price with the driver and I had to eventually just throw him his 10 solas (double the agreed fare) and hop on.

Thankfully, Casa Suise in Huanchaco let me check in ultra early and I napped until 9 AM in my bed. I had to take a bus back to Trujillo to book my overnight ticket for the next night to Huaraz which took longer than I would have hoped and came back for some great lunch (lomo saltado, basically stir-fried beef with onions, for 5 solas/$1.75 with rice and fries) at Restaurante Maria or something like that on Los Pinos. Finally, I got to the beach and laid there alternatively reading my Spanish notes and watching the surfers. I played with the idea of getting in the water but it was shockingly cold for this close to the equator and I just wasn’t in the mood that day. After a shower I went back out to find a place to have a beer and watch the sunset though there were no stores along the beachfront. I had to ask a couple Argentine guys where they got theirs from and then I came back and they were gone so I sat on the rocks and watched the sun drop in unison with the amount of beer in my bottle. They had apparently gone to get more beer and returned to join me and we sat there for some time, dipping into their reserves and then bought yet more, meeting a cool mix of Ecuadorians and traveling hippies on the street as we did so. I had to go back to the hostel to change for the night and made the mistake of laying down. When I woke up it was 3 AM and I had missed what probably would’ve been a great Friday out. But I guess I needed the rest to recover from the overnight bus and what’s left of this cold.

The next day was equally lazy; I sat on the beach and watched the surfers some more and the fishermen in the distance. The town is pretty much a fishing village with great surf and the fishermen paddle out in these bundles of sticks fashioned into the front half of a boat and fish beyond the surf break during the day. When they’ve caught enough, the paddle back a bit and catch a wave, surfing their catch all the way to shore. I sat in an overpriced restaurant on the shore and drank some great Peruvian beer and ate some fresh mixed ceviche. If you had to kill a day or two waiting for an overnight bus, I reflected, there are worse places to do so. Back at the hostel, I caught up on my Galapagos photos and blog (finally!) and then went out for dinner to the same place I’d had lunch the day prior. I was joined by a mixed group of cool people from all over the world not long after I sat down and I thought how cool it would’ve been to have a big group like that to hang out with again. The last time was in Nicaragua and that country is still a highlight on this trip. Still, a little alone time here and there is good and I suppose I’ll make a bigger effort when next I settle somewhere for more than a day or two. I caught a bus to Trujillo and made it with about 20 minutes to spare before my overnight bus departed. Then I was off, into the moonlight, watching The Big Lebowski (I finally realize how great this movie is!) and Transformers 2 (which, simply, is terrible) before falling asleep.

Huanchaco Photos

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