There is a joke in Ecuador that goes something like this: A priest and a bus driver get up to the Pearly Gates and are assigned their new digs by St. Peter. The priest gets a little one-bedroom efficiency apartment, small black and white TV, microwave, compact fridge. The bus driver gets a three-bedroom apartment, wall-to-wall llama carpeting, huge flat screen HDTV, Playboy channel, Jacuzzi, the whole nine. The priest, understandably, is upset. “What the hell!” he exclaims. “How come this lowly bus driver gets such a nice place and I get such a monkish dive?”
“Well,” says St. Peter, a twinkle in his celestial eye, “while you spent your career putting thousands of people in church to sleep with your sermons, this bus driver was making thousands of people pray as if their souls were on fire.”
In Ecuador, where the vast majority travels by bus, this joke gets an instant reaction. One’s fate, even more than in the frocked and perfumed hands of the local priest, is controlled by the calloused paws gripping the steering wheel of one of the many hundreds of busses that belch and roar along the highways and dizzying mountain roads throughout this variegated and dramatic landscape. Every now and then, as if an offering to the river gods thousands of feet below, one of these behemoths pitches over the edge. No wonder the busses are adorned with religious sayings, symbols and images, as well as a some, whose tutelary images run to the secular, sporting the visage of one Ernesto Che Guevara.
If Che and Jesus died for our sins, the bus drivers live for our protection, transporting thousands of ordinary people daily all across the country for work, vacation and family matters, humble folk overwhelmingly, along with the occasional extranjero like myself.
The first thing one does getting on the bus is look at the driver, appraising such things as age, physical condition and signs of possible character defects. This initial vetting is not always so comforting. Having ridden the bus dozens of times, including many eight-hour cross-country journeys, I have seen about as wide a variety of human beings functioning as drivers, save the very old, children, blind, handicapped, and women, as I have seen functioning as passengers. I therefore draw no conclusions from appearances, though the reflexive appraisal is still unavoidable. Trusting in the ineffable, even mystical qualities the driver may possess, I sit back and try to relax.
Nor do I look very closely at the condition of the busses. Most are in relatively good repair, though those plying secondary routes are older and commensurately richer in character and color. This is also not very comforting, though with their fringed curtains, rainbow colors and smiling grills they travel at a more leisurely rate than their larger gleaming cousins. Riding in one of these busses, packed with campesinos, chugging along winding country roads, exhaust fumes seeping through the floorboards, I think of The Little Engine That Could, Scuffy the Tugboat, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, with some bolero in the background. This makes me feel better.
One’s fellow passengers are a cross section of ordinary working class Ecuadorians, including many indigenous people, and I am perfectly content to cast my lot with them, even if it means going over the side or being buried in one of the many derrumbes (mud slides) which occur during the rainy season. To meet one’s maker in the company of so many decent and humble people seems to me a good thing, though the last few seconds going down would not be so much fun. Of course one hopes for a speedy ending and not to be trapped upside down under a pile of moaning strangers. But then, what is life without its nightmares?
Food is never a problem. At each stop a clutch of hustling vendors rushes the aisle with their variety of fresh comestibles and singsong pitches, “Queso, choclo… fritada…ensalada de fruta…helado de mango, mora, coco…bizcochitos…” Getting a good meal is a question of about three dollars or less, but make up your mind quickly, because the bus is soon off and rolling and the vendedores have disappeared like quail. I have missed many a good fritada or bizcochito owing to indecision, or lack of change.
Riding the bus is cheap, about ten or twelve bucks to get across country, and half price for handicapped and tercera edad (old timers). Those who have not purchased tickets beforehand buy them from the driver’s assistant, usually a younger guy with the signature laid-back style and competence of his fraternity. They collect money and make change, holding the dollar bills in a distinctive fan-like manner with their fist. They call out the stops to those inside the bus and to those outside, waiting.
Ecuador’s roads have been greatly improved with the government’s public works program, though at the cost of environmental and cultural destruction from the oil and mineral extraction that pays for it, particularly in the Oriente (Amazon) region. One is grateful for the new roads and bridges, but at the same time grieves the loss of these precious things, knowing they are irretrievable.
There is every indication that Ecuador is about to considerably expand its oil drilling and mining efforts. Local and international (notably Chinese) wizards of industry and finance consider the country to be “underdeveloped” in this regard. In August, President Rafael Correa declared that the country will begin drilling for oil in the ITT (Ishpingo, Tiputini y Tambococha) section of Yasuní national park, one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. A new refinery near Guayaquil with the capacity to process 330,000 barrels of petroleum a day is scheduled to be completed this December. The government recently announced a joint venture with Codelco, the Chilean state-owned copper company, to begin exploration at Llurimagua, in Imbabura province, in the north, a place rich in water resources and cloud forests. IAMGOLD, a Canadian company, has been granted concessions to mine for gold at Quimsacocha, an area in southern Ecuador that the Kichwa people consider sacred. “Ecuador has great mineral potential,” says Correa. “We cannot negate the development of our country for absurd irrational beliefs. We cannot do away with education and health.”
There is opposition to the government’s extractive policies from a vocal minority but these voices have been effectively squashed. The government has taken to branding some of the environmentalists “terrorists,” has shut down a leading environmental NGO, The Fundación Pachamama, and has threatened some indigenous leaders with long prison terms. Ecuador is a charming and beautiful place, and its people are friendly, but it has struck dubious bargain in the rush to develop. It is as if the country itself is a large bus barreling along into a gleaming future, its passengers preferring not to look too closely at the changing landscape left in its wake.
Richard Ward lives in Ecuador.