Monday, November 07, 2005

Punta Sal Bungalows, Punta Sal Balneario, Peru

Guayaquil was already getting to work when I woke. Watched CNBC news as I packed, and realized they may actually be worse than CNN in their self-promotion! More time is spent in that activity than in reporting news. I think the most common "word" spoken in their broadcast is the acronym “CNBC”.

As a final farewell, a car alarm started sounding in the neighborhood below, and continued shrieking for over and hour (when I left Guayaquil, it still had not been stopped.) I would so like to put a brick through the windshield of vehicles thus disturbing the peace.

No breakfast. $117 the total for three days at the "Rizzo", including mini-bar expenses (and, as I discovered later, two beers that I never had.)

The ride out of the city was by trial and error. It would help if I knew the suburb names, so I could choose exits and turns correctly. On the right road at last, my state was not so negative as a few days ago. Yes, there was trash everywhere, but today I actually saw a crew out picking up trash along the roadside! Perhaps there’s hope after all.

Overcast and gray, but pleasantly cool throughout the morning. I was pulled over at a police checkpoint. Again the officer just seemed curious. This one was a member of the presidential escort. He apparently rides a BMW on the job.

The plains south of Guayaquil are primarily devoted to vast banana plantations owned by “Dole”, “Del Monte” and “Bonita”.

Approaching the Peruvian border, the sun started to break through, and the land suddenly became more arid. Inexplicably, gone were the plantations and tropical foliage.

I was hungry, but thought I’d take a chance on Peruvian cuisine, since I hadn’t seen anything too interesting in Ecuador. In Huaquillas, filled up my gas tank, since I had no idea of gas prices in Peru, then pulled aside again to prepare documents. Downtown, the highway became a huge pedestrian marketplace, no signs indicating a border crossing in all of this.

I stopped at a local government building to ask directions. I found the customs office in the middle of the market and crowds, on a small bridge connecting Ecuador and Peru. Outside were a number of idle men, all looking to assist. A young man with a badly-disfigured face took the most active role in guiding me through the process.

Peruvian-Ecuador "frontier", looking (south) into Peru

The aduana officer said I needed to go back to their other office (of course!) for a document. He pointed to a flagpole about 1-1/2 blocks away, on the other side of the mercado. With two tramitadores running ahead of me, they guided me right through the market, moving barriers and waving me on.

At the aduana office, one remained outside watching the bike, while the other led me inside. A woman took copies of my documents and disappeared into her office. Again, I had entered the Ecuador bureaucratic quagmire, waiting (impatiently) for some document to be prepared. After half an hour, I asked the receptionist how long this would take.

She shouted to the other official, who then invited me into her office. She started to lecture me (it seemed) about my using tramitadores (“tramistas?”), and bringing them into this building. Something about not giving them even a dollar. She finally turned over the documents to a gentleman and he indicated I should follow him, back through the market. He walked me across the bridge to Peruvian customs, as my guides scurried along beside.

(The following conversation did not quite go as it reads, since we all barely understood one another. This gives a general idea though.)

Inside the Peruvian office, I asked “well what about Ecuadorian immigration? Don’t I need a stamp?”

The officer suddenly looked at my passport. “You don’t have an immigration stamp?”

“No. Isn’t the office here?”

“No. It’s at the entrance to Huaquillas.”

“Great! Well, I’ll go back and get a stamp.”

“But your motorcycle is in Peru. You’ll have to take a taxi,” said the Peruvian officer

“No way! I’m not leaving my motorcycle here.” (“Do I even NEED to get a stamp? Who cares?”)

“You have to.”

“I’m sorry. The motorcycle and I are inseparable.”

He then pointed to my helmet, indicating that I would need to leave it as insurance that I’d return.

No. Necessito para mi cabeza,” I said pointing to my head.

I asked how long it would take to go to the office.

“Fifteen minutes.”

“No problem, I’ll be back.”

So, I again headed out into the crowd, escorted by the Ecuadorian official and my guides. He scolded the tramitadores for being "absolutely no help." At the other end of the bridge, we came to a traffic jam of trucks, carts and pedestrians. Everything came to a halt.

“Now what?”

Suddenly the semi that I was stopped alongside, started a left turn and his trailer was cutting across where I was standing. My foot was immediately caught under his tire, and I could only wait until it had rolled over. The trailer caught my right handlebar and mirror and was dragging everything forward and left.

Without even realizing it, I was blowing the horn, and people were yelling for him to stop. Fortunately, he stopped after rolling across my foot, and not on top of it. It felt like the tips of all my right toes were crushed, the boots having provided little protection. I didn’t want to look.

The Ecuador-Peru "frontier". Looking back at Ecuador from the Peruvian side. Where the truck is standing, I had my foot run over by a semi truck trailer. I was on my motorcycle, stopped along the left side of the trailer, when the driver suddenly started to make a left turn.

I was now in the way of oncoming traffic, and had to back out of the mess. My guide led me down a path along the river, and out around the marketplace.

As I rode off to immigration, all I could think was “unbelievable. But it could have been much worse. He missed the joints and bridge of my foot.”

Hobbled into immigration, and was ushered through by a new set of guides. I had no patience for them now and rejected their help, also waving off the money changers. Filled out the required exit form and an officer stamped my passport.

Outside, I sat down and pulled off my boot. Not the bloody mess I expected to see, just a few spots seeping through my white socks.

I returned to the border, where the Ecuadorian officer awaited me. He again escorted me to Peru customs. Peru customs was pretty simple, though it still took half an hour, as they needed a copy of my passport page showing the Peru entry stamp. One of the officials demanded a dollar for the copy, then disappeared into the crowd with my passport. No copy machine at immigration!

So far, Ecuador has the worst border crossings! To celebrate this distinction, I had to get my camera out and take a photo, despite all the potential thieves.

Once I was cleared to enter, I received the usual warning: “beware of the people!”

The mode of transport changes with the country: in Peru, moto-taxis, are everywhere. Three-wheeled wagons powered by a small 125cc (mostly) Honda motorcycle, the motorcycle in place of the horse.

My first concern now was finding an ATM, but I was shocked that Peru looked even more antiquated than Ecuador! Very few signs of modern conveniences in Zarumilla, the border town. “Is each country going to be more desperate than the last?” I wondered.

The countryside looked like a bleak wasteland, parched and dead. Wind-blown trash collected along fence-lines. “My god, I don’t think I can handle things getting much worse!” The first Peruvian city along this highway is Tumbes, and indeed, the people appeared even more impoverished than in Ecuador.

The city is extremely poor. Even newer buildings look like they’re crumbling. I wandered around, looking for a bank, but it appeared that even banks didn’t want to invest in Tumbes. I finally found the cathedral, and, as in Popayan, Colombia, a square in front surrounded by financial institutions. But an ATM seemed to be a foreign concept. People I asked pointed to one bank that might have one, but when I went to investigate, found it crowded with hundreds of people.

Decided to move on, and take my chances down the road. Pulled to the curb alongside the main highway to strap up my helmet. A three wheeler pulled up, honking. The driver told me to “move on”. I glared at him. Then another walked over and repeated the command. (“they’re ganging up on me!”) After pulling away, I realized I must have been in a taxi zone.

But I was pissed at the whole atmosphere and gunned the engine as I left, which caused the front wheel to start slapping side to side (the weight had shifted to the rear wheel.) (“That was brilliant. Anything else you want to do to make a statement?”)

Despite the seemingly harsh welcome, I was very happy to be near the Pacific Ocean again. Though it was a hazy afternoon, the air was relatively fresh and cool. It felt therapeutic.

But I couldn’t understand the landscape – nearly desert. In some areas rice was being grown, but little else was being produced. Quite a contrast to the Ecuadorian plantations only a few miles behind me.

I passed through colorless towns, with dirt streets and yards, dusty houses and shelters, old buildings. No modern storefronts. No gas stations, or banks, or fast food chains. A few old cars. Very poor.

I searched in a few towns for banks, but people didn’t even understand what I was looking for.

I was beginning to worry, watching the fuel gauge. “Well, I can go 150 miles, before I have a little crisis on my hands. I have no local currency, I haven’t eaten, it doesn’t look like I’ll find anyone out here who will want dollars (since there are no banks to change them.)"

As the sun was setting, I came to Punta Sal Balneario, and some signs indicating resorts. A road led down to a small town on the beach. Many of the buildings appeared to be in some stage of construction. No stores or gas stations, just homes, bungalows and hospedejas. A gentleman came out of his building and I decided to stop.

I admitted I needed a room, but had no Solés. I asked if he would accept dollars. “Si!” He asked if I would like to see a room. I looked past him to the rough-looking structure. “I guess…”

He led me to a bungalow and unlocked it. I was surprised at the spacious and modern facility, with nice woodwork and beautiful tile. A large two-bedroom apartment with kitchen and dining area, intended for a family. “How much?”

“Ten dollars.”

Esta bien.”

“Pepe” was my host. After settling in, he asked if I’d like dinner. He would cook.

When I asked about beverages, he excused himself for a few minutes, then reappeared with some beers and a 2-liter bottle of "Coke", which he procured from another hotel down the street. Pepe whipped up a Spanish-style egg and fish tortilla for dinner.

His ten-year-old daughter, "Eva", joined us. She lives in their house a short distance away, but in the evening, comes to visit her dad at the bungalows.

She and I played chess and read a couple of her English texts ("Road-Runner" comic books!) We then all sat in the manager's bungalow, watching some Robert Redford movie.

What a contrast to the day's harsh realities! I was thankful to have found this little oasis, and kind people. Outside, I can hear the ocean, small waves washing up on the beach, a hundred yards away.

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