countin' the days

Monday, April 21, 2008

One, Two, Cha Cha Cha

After over 1,000km and way too many delays in buses, I needed a quick break before I continued my journey south. I stopped to spend my last few Ecuadorian days in Vilcabamba, a beautiful little town nestled into the Valley of Longevity that´s famous for its supreme mellowness. It was the perfect rest stop. Although I debated indulging myself with a massage or a horseback ride through the mountains, in the end I decided to save my money and instead spent my days hiking and seriously chilling.

It would have been easy to get stuck in this peaceful haven of good vibes and the easygoing lifestyle, but I was anxious to get to Peru. My last afternoon in Vilcabamba, I looked out over the valley to find a beautiful rainbow. I took it as a sign that my journey to Peru the next day was going to be a good one. I was right.

Feeling ambitious and confident, I opted to take the rural La Balsa border crossing from Ecuador to Peru that foreigners rarely go for. I was slightly hesitant at first, finding myself trapped in that cycle of negative thought that can make almost anything seem like a bad idea. Not wanting to submit myself to that kind of thought process -- and trusting my gut instincts -- I went for it. It was one of the best journeys I´ve had so far.

I started out with a 6am bus ride through foggy mountains that descended into incredible hills covered in jungle foliage with tiny villages emerging out of the dense vegetation. I arrived in the small town of Zumba, where I killed a couple hours sitting at a table at the bus
terminal at a local family´s very basic restaurant. They asked me plenty of questions about my traveling, including of course the normal inquiries as to my age, my marital status, and why in the world I am traveling by myself. Mostly I spent my time with 8-year-old Carol, who after drawing several beautiful pictures in my journal decided to try on both of my backpacks. Could she be a future world traveler? I hope so.

I was excited to discover that my next form of transport was the "ranchera," open-air rows of benches mounted on the flatbed of a heavy-duty truck (you can see it in the background of the first photo of Carol). It felt like an adventure ride at an amusement park, and was equally as fun as riding around in huge Land Rovers in the Masai Mara in Kenya. We bumped along for 2 hours, stopping twice to deal with some serious mud that stood in our way. I wasn´t nervous at all though... by this point, I´ve seen the crappiest of vehicles make it through the worst of situations, so I knew this huge beast of a truck wasn´t going to be a problem. Naturally, there were guys carrying several chickens seated behind me, a few people sleeping (which seems to defy the laws of existence), and an old guy with his dogs practically sitting on my backpack (which I was grateful for because at least it meant my bag wouldn´t go flying out of the truck).

The scenery was absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful, enhanced further by the perfect weather and the excitement of the ride. We made it to the rushing river that marks the Ecuador-Peru La Balsa border and seeing nothing of importance on the Ecuador side, I walked over the bridge into Peru. A few minutes later I had it pointed out to me that I had neglected to get my exit stamp from Ecuador, so back across the bridge I went. I entered the police office and found 3 immigration officers in shorts and flip-flops engaged in a riotous card game. I interrupted the game to have my passport stamped by one of the "officers," but the other two were impatient and kept prodding him to make a move all the while. It was an easy ordeal, and I promised to return soon to Ecuador on my way out... they said they´d be waiting for me.

Back over in Peru, my immigration officer was a mullet-clad, jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing young man, who was listening to salsa so loud that I had to shout at him to be heard. I filled out a piece of paper, got a stamp, and then he invited me to drink a beer with him while I waited for my shared taxi to depart. I would have done it, too, but my ride was ready to go as soon as I was, so I bid the border farewell and kept on moving.

My shared taxi was an old, white, Toyota station wagon with a cracked windshield and a friendly driver who sang along to sappy Peruvian love songs. I was joined by the two guys from the ranchera and their squawking chickens, as well as a couple bottles of pure cane alcohol they´d brewed up at home which they spent the whole ride drinking. We slowly traveled along a particularly crappy road, but somehow made it to San Ignacio right after sunset, where I took a cold but divine shower and crashed out early.

Day two of the journey involved a bit more coordination and stamina. I took a
minibus to Jáen (where the inevitable chicken rode right next to me), another minibus to Bagua Grande, and finally another piece of shit shared taxi all the way to Chachapoyas (or simply "Chacha") -- with rides in crappy Asia-esque motorbike taxis across town shoved in between, since there don´t appear to be many central bus terminals here in northern Peru.

The journey was totally nutty and at times completely illogical, but tons of fun. Truthfully, it was easier than I expected; the biggest challenge arose from possessing enough stamina, patience, and good faith to make it through the day. The scenery was some of the best and most diverse that I´ve seen, particularly in such a short time span. And there came a certain secret pleasure from knowing that I was the only gringo around for miles...

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