When I think to myself that I’ve ‘travelled’ in certain countries, it’s a slightly false feeling. The truth is, wherever I’ve been, I’ve moved through that place along a very thin line. The same can be said for most who’ve travelled.
But some of those thin lines live in my memory, burning and crackling with a life and energy that I hope will never fade. One such time was the road from Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador to the border at La Balza in Northern Peru. My friend Curtis and me were travelling around South America, and this border crossing was to be the first of many in our 6-month trip.
We caught a late morning bus from the laidback haven of Vilcabamba, and, leaving the lush greenery behind us, we began the ascent into the mountains. Cut into the flanks of these mountains the thin strip of earth that formed the road was in places dotted with verge-side shrines topped with crosses. Shrines to the memory of those people whose vehicles had fallen off the edge and tumbled to their final resting place far, far below.
The scenery was majestic, the road appalling. The higher we drove the more the surface turned to mud. In places groups of construction workers with heavy machinery were trying to clear landslides and shore up the verges. To the right, mud, rocks, and earth had slipped from the steeply sloping land above, blocking the road. While to the left the open edge dropped sheer, hundreds of feet down into the gaping maw of the valley.
For the third time that hour we waited for a blockage to be cleared. After twenty minutes we were finally able to proceed only for our bus to wheel-spin wildly when we tried to move forward up the steep road. After several minutes of trying to coax the bus through the mud the driver came through to talk to us, and amidst a lot of sighing everybody began to file off. We were unsure as to what was going on, but followed the other passengers. The luggage store was opened and people grabbed their bags and trudged off through the mud, stopping a few hundred meters further up where there was a small pull-in.
Spotting an older couple struggling with their luggage, we helped them to ferry it up. They had a lot – many bags, boxes and sacks of various sizes and weights – which took several treks to the bus and back to deposit it all. They smiled their gratitude, shaking our hands and saying kind words that we didn’t understand.
We guessed the driver’s plan – to lighten the bus so he could try again with less weight. It didn’t work. Without further word to any of the stranded passengers he reversed a short way down the pass and somehow – incredibly – turned round and headed back down!
Some of the people hoisted their bags and began to walk further up the road, their destinations presumably close by. We were still at least an hour’s drive from the border, and so stood with the rest of the passengers – perhaps now a dozen or so – to the side of the road. Many were making calls to get help. We had neither phones nor the connections to call. The moody clouds brooded above us, threatening rain and thunder.
There was a small enclosure next to where we waited which housed stacks of bricks covered by a thick white tarp. We eyed up the crude shelter in case Pacha Mama let loose. Despite the situation, nobody seemed overly stressed. People were curious about us, and passed the time plying us with questions – where were we from, why we were here in Ecuador, where were we going. They asked about England and complained about the United States. They talked of the plight of the Amazon rainforest. We understood the sentiment of their words without fully understanding, and we contributed to the conversation as best we could.
By one’s and two’s, our group number gradually diminished as various vehicles heeded the calls of the stranded, piling people and goods into old battered vehicles before bumping and sliding off up the road. An hour passed and the initial chatter of the remaining group subsided. As darkness began to fall, a bright yellow camioneta flatbed truck appeared and pulled up. The old couple we’d helped had ordered it, and they’d put us on the passenger list!
All the bags, sacks and boxes were put in the back of the open truck. The older folk took the two passenger seats, and we jumped on top of the luggage. The road was bumpy, still littered with landslides. The scenery was staggering and without the barrier of metal and glass, the world felt more alive. And us with it.
Still at comparatively low altitudes of 4-5000ft, the Andean foothills along this stretch were nevertheless spectacular. The thickly forested flanks rose in waves, the muted colours that semi-darkness imbued adding a further layer of mystery to the journey. The thick smell of vegetation, mud and diesel filled our nostrils as we anchored ourselves more firmly into the pile of hessian sacks. An insect chorus could be heard even over the strains of the engine and in the far distance, through gaps in the mountains, the sky lit up in flashes of orange and peach as a distant storm added pyrotechnics to an already sense-laden adventure.
After a while, an old lady flagged down our ride from the side of the road where she stood with a young boy. She spoke with the driver, and room was somehow made for her in the front. The boy joined us on the back. He was chatty, full of life, his face lit with a permanent smile. Quickly realising that our Spanish was as poor as the road, he told us through gestures and simple language that there had been landslides just that day, as well as wild thunderstorms and heavy rain. I hoped that another cross-topped shrine wasn’t to be added to the verge in our memory.
After another half hour we rounded a bend to be presented with the lights of civilisation. The tiny hill-town of Zumba was as far as we would get this night. The truck pulled up outside a small guesthouse. Shaking hands with the small boy we hopped down from the back. I was glowing and felt thoroughly infused with life! When we asked how much we owed for the ride, the old couple insisted on paying our fare – $5 each. It was probably a lot for them but despite our protestations, they insisted.
The road to Zumba had been an adventure, and kindness given without thought of reward, rewarded. The old couple were as grateful to us as we were to them. Despite being far from home and not speaking the language at all well, we felt a sense of belonging which crackles and burns as strongly in my memory as that thin line of road to Zumba.
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