Friday, November 04, 2005

Riobamba to Guayaquil: a day in (psychological) hell

Hotel Rizzo, Guayaquil, Ecuador

From Riobamba, I drove west on highway 60, which wanders a high plateau, 10 to 11,000 feet up. Chimborazo, nor any of the other volcanoes in the area emerged from the clouds, though there were patches of blue sky. I think since leaving Mexico, only about 10% of the days have been sunny. Jessica's words echo: "you're going in the rainy season?"

Somewhere along the way, I looked at the map and realized I was no longer on highway 60. According to the map, there had been a major junction, and I had taken the wrong fork. This supposed junction should have been out in the middle of the country, impossible to miss. But I never saw any junction! I was now following a highway that winds through towns such as Guamote, Chunchi and Zhud.

Again, just past Alauai, I was merely following the highway when, according to the map, I missed another junction. I was becoming convinced the map was unreliable. I was now on a secondary road indicated on the map. Another 10-mile deviation, this one to Guasantos on winding gravel road that dropped thousands of feet to a river crossing, only to climb back up the canyon on the opposite bank.

Child terrorists took advantage of the rough road to string "barriers": ropes made from knotted rags, which they stretched across the road in an attempt to stop vehicles and solicit hand-outs. They would raise the barrier as you approach, lowering it just as you were about to pass. (I didn't trust them to lower it, so I had to slow and very cautiously pass.)

After four of five of these, I lost patience and started gesticulating and yelling at them to "put the damn thing down" as I approached. This technique was employed over the course of about five miles of mountain road. I found numerous abandoned "stations", the rope left lying in the road.

I was already frustrated by the wrong turns, worsening roads and then these little extortionists put me over the edge. But there was a lot more to come. Unlike the highway I should have been on, this one meandered through many mountain villages, all with their speed bumps. And then it began to rain, but not just rain - rain and fog - and speed bumps and pedestrians and crazy dogs that like to chase motorcycles and on-coming vehicles in the wrong lane. It was so ridiculous, I had to laugh. This was a far cry from the "quick 150-mile run" down to Guayaquil that I had envisioned.

At Chunchi, I again connected with decent pavement and felt I was not going to lose my mind after all. The precipitous transition from 10,000-foot plateaus to tropical valleys is amazing. I looked forward to the warmer temperatures below, as the road started snaking down the edge of a cliff. Then, inexplicably, hidden around almost every bend, the pavement would end for a few hundred yards of very rough rutted gravel and rock (sometimes crossed by small ditches.) It seemed like an intentional obstacle course. Then the pavement would resume and run another half mile or so, until the next obstacle. This went on for many miles. (Someone's idea of traffic control? Was the pavement destroyed by slides? I couldn't figure it out.)

The temperature was rising, but I was also sinking into a thick "soup" of smoke and pollution, like L.A. on one of its worst days. It was getting steamy, and I was starting to see banana trees everywhere. I could feel my lungs burning slightly from the smoke.

In this atmosphere everything looked ugly to me. (My attitude was already pretty lousy before sinking into this mess.) In the lowlands, I passed fields being burned off, piles of trash smoldering along the roadside (with their overwhelming characteristic smell of burning plastics and rubber) and an unbelievably waste-strewn landscape. Passing through towns like La Troncal and El Triunfo, I could no longer see anything positive. I focused on the car and truck repair lots with their oil-soaked ground spreading out all around them, the fume-spewing cars, trucks and buses; the crowds, the trash. The final stretch of highway into Guayaquil is straight and wide, it's grassy shoulders covered with trash, most prominently, plastic bags of different colors.

Through all this, I was becoming very angry. "These imbeciles deserve what they get!" I felt at once enraged and hopeless, nauseated by the utter filth and pollution. I felt like striking out at anyone. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry.

After crossing such a landscape, it was impossible to view Guayaquil in a positive light. The smoky pall lay heavy over the city, but at least in the cities, I've come to expect it. Little problem finding hotels this time. I just headed for the waterfront downtown, stopping at one of the nicer hotels to ask where I'd find a more reasonable one. (They always seem to know!)

The "Rizzo" is pretty unexceptional, but serviceable. Old and worn, the price was $36; not bad considering its location in the financial district, a few blocks from the waterfront.

Went out for a walk later, to "chill out". I knew that, with a little time, all would not look so dismal. My psychology would adjust to the conditions. Wandered several miles around downtown, feeling completely comfortable among the many people who were out strolling. A very mild, breezy evening.

Stopped for Chinese food at "China Salon", recommended by a cabbie. Good food at a very good price.

Back at the hotel, I tried to connect to the internet via wireless. In the heart of the city, there are many networks, but during a couple of hours trying, I could only connect sporadically.

Sadly, the above is a very common sight throughout Ecuador, trash dumped at the roadside. Yesterday I saw a much larger dump site on the banks of a mountain stream. What you see is predominantly plastics. Rodrigo ("Condorman") is trying to educate his fellow citizens about the need to care for the environment. If a value were placed on this waste material, this problem would virtually disappear. It is incumbent upon plastics manufacturers, consumer products companies and governments to establish a use (and thus a value) for the waste, or discontinue use of the material. Countless times now, I have passed piles of waste that have been set afire and, smoldering, unleash clouds of toxic fumes. It's both sickening and enraging that such ignorance exists throughout undeveloped countries.


Drew Kampion said...

I was just looking at a plastic water bottle I brought home from Hawaii last week. 5¢ deposit. Explains why there ain't much plastic bottles tossed around over there. But here in Wash. State, we don't wanna bother with no deposit crap ... so the roads and byways are getting mighty littered. Ain't we just so stupid?

Dicky Neely said...

I am a friend of your brother Drew and of Guy Leroux, who sent me the link to your blog.
I have traveled extensively in Mexico and also in Britsh Columbia and wilderness areas of the US.
Trash is a big problem in all of these areas.There are no trash pick up services or landfills. Some bury it and burn it,most just pile it up as you have found.
The only real solution to this, I think, is to require bio-degradeable packaging.
I have been on ferry trips across the Sea of Cortez and down the Northwest Passage among the Queen Charlotte Islands and others from Alaska to Vancouver Islands and I have witnessed crew members throwing barrels of trash overboard!
Trash continuously washes up on our local beaches(Corpus Christi, Tx.)from Mexico, Central and south America, offshore commercial activity, and lately, from debris
from Hurricane Katrina.
There is an international treaty concerning trash dumping at sea, think it is called MARPOL, but it is largely toothless.
Good luck on your journey, have fun and keep up the interesting reports.
Que le vaya bien!
Dicky Neely